acheron – robert boucheron

acheron.jpg

At five o’clock, Arthur Lothbury put on a gray felt fedora, inserted a fresh white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket, and stepped out the front door for his daily stroll.

The town was a cluster of brick and frame dwellings of the 1800s. Located in a hollow, on a railroad line that was no longer active, it had three churches, a dozen shops, a post office, a school repurposed as a senior center, and a white-columned filling station with a porte cochère. At the center, where two main streets crossed, the town hall boasted a mansard roof and a clock tower. The tallest structure in town, with a face on all four sides, the clock tower rose above the trees like a sentinel.

Arthur kept the clock tower in view, though he was unlikely to get lost in the town where he was born. He generally walked for exercise, but this afternoon he dawdled. His gaze wandered left and right. It was early spring, still bleak but mild. Buds swelled on the trees. Cold weather had delayed them. Slanting rays of the sun lit the quiet streets. No one else was about, which was odd for the end of a weekday.

He stopped to examine a flowering shrub that overhung a picket fence, as though eager to escape. The yard was unkempt, in a town that was proud of its gardens. How could such a thing happen? Who lived in this house? He knew many neighbors, but not all. In retirement, he was losing track of changes in the population.

This house must have a tenant, someone who did not care for the place. A deflated ball and a broken toy lay on the weedy lawn. Rolled newspapers littered the porch, dusty and yellowed. Maybe no one lived here.

Arthur moved on. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. Yet the day had passed in idleness—light housekeeping, some reading, an hour at his desk paying bills, a letter to a relative. What had he done to be worn out?

A single man with many friends and few responsibilities, he ought to enjoy this stage of life, an endless stretch of leisure. But contentment was elusive. He urged himself to walk faster. Chin up and eyes peeled! At any moment, a friend or stranger was likely to cross his path. He would need to say something cheerful, a word of greeting. But the town was deserted, as if Arthur had missed an order to evacuate. He looked straight ahead and spurred his flank. But his feet dragged.

Coming to an alley, he stopped to peer down its length. He seldom walked in this part of town. He knew it like the back of his hand but not this alley. It bordered the railroad track—that was the trouble. The sun trembled on the horizon. The alley was already in shade. Lined by sheds and fences, it promised things of interest—an old wagon, a gnarled tree, a forgotten bicycle like a sketch of lines and circles.

Arthur strolled down the middle, over gravel and grass. The alley was long—he could not see the end—and growing dark. He tried not to scuff his shoes. He hoped he would not step in a puddle. Not a living creature met his eye, not so much as a sparrow. Then a small shape shifted. A cat crouched a few feet ahead.

Cats lurked all over town. Some allowed him to pet them, some rolled at his feet, and some fled. This one stared coldly. Whoever said that cats were curious? Another step, and the cat disappeared, perhaps through a hole in a fence.

Dusk came on. Was it so late? Arthur looked around and did not see the clock tower. How long had he been walking? He had left his watch at home. Was this a blind alley? To turn around would be an admission of defeat. Despite fatigue, he pressed on.

The alley ended at last in a building with a passage through its ground floor. It was now night. At the far end of the unlit passage was a gate, with open space visible through the bars. Should he enter? What if the gate was locked? He was too tired to retrace his steps. Go forward and hope for the best.

The passage was empty. Beyond the gate was a street. He grasped the gate and pulled. In the hollow space of the vaulted passage, the rusty hinges groaned. Arthur flinched at what sounded like a voice, the drawn-out syllable “woe.” Arthur stepped through the arch, and the gate clicked shut. On impulse, he tried it. Locked.

The street was built up on one side. The other was open to the railroad. Arthur had not been here for years. Shops were closed or boarded up. The pavement was cracked and littered. He wanted to sit, but where? A short distance away stood the old train station, abandoned. A light burned inside, the only light in this gloomy wasteland. He trudged toward it.

A low rumble made itself known. The earth shook. The rumble grew and grew to a roar, until it was unmistakable. A train! Arthur reached the platform as the train arrived. In a stupor of exhaustion, he watched it slow. It looked like an excursion train from the century before, an antique restored to service for a single run. It screeched to a stop, a door opened, and a stair dropped at his feet. Where was the conductor? The side of the coach bore a name: “Acheron.”

Was that the destination? Arthur grasped the metal railing and climbed aboard.

hourglass

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

Photo: Adam Bixby

RATTY or the errands end – meredith counts

counts

An homage to Edward Gorey.

Their dad was running errands in town and insisted that the kids come along. They had been to the dry cleaner to drop off Wraddey’s dragon suit to see what could be done about the ink stains. They’d been to the butcher for sausage, the hardware for tacks, and the place that sold glow-in-the-dark soda. It wasn’t that their dad wanted their company, Wraddey thought, so much as that he remembered what a mess they’d made last time they’d stayed home unattended. Weeks later their father complained he still found marshmallow in crevices about the house, and he wasn’t happy that Wraddey had pasted over every reachable inch of her room with the funnies.

In the backseat of the station wagon, Wraddey felt so bored that she might disappear into the seat, that’s how sick of things she was. Her big brother Egor elbowed her to get her attention. As she reeled back to sock him for touching her she saw the stranger wading through the high piles of snow. Wraddey liked to fight her brother, but it had been a long and relentlessly dull winter. Both children were so hungry for something out of the ordinary to happen that the fight melted away.

“Do you see…?” Wraddey started to say.

“But who…?” Egor asked.

Wraddey shushed him.

Teetering through the dirty snow on the side of the road, whoever-it-was wasn’t wearing a coat or boots, but was cocooned in yards and yards of fabric. Every bit of the person was wrapped up, and except for a purplish brown velvet, most of the wrappings were clashing patterns. No nose or wrist or eyeball, no feature to be seen. As the car passed, the kids turned to keep looking.

“Huh,” Egor said.

“Wow,” Wraddey said.

“Huh?” said their father from the driver’s seat.

The person grew smaller through their wide rear window. Then they turned into a parking lot and the strange person was out of sight.

Their dad ran in to check on a watch he was having fixed. The kids waited in the car, admiring the neon line drawings of jewels in the window of the tiny shop, and listened to the radio. From her seat in the back, Wraddey put her feet up on the center console. Egor kicked Wraddey’s boot and started to scold her.

“Dad wouldn’t let you–“

“Shut up. Look!.”

“I’ll tell him you’re putting your – “

“Shut up and look, Eeg. Who is that?”

The stiff figure crossed the jeweler’s parking lot. Wraddey wondered out loud if they were walking backwards, the way she did when it was windy at the bus stop. Maybe that’s why they were going so slowly, why their knees didn’t bend.

She waved but the figure didn’t respond. It wasn’t possible for Wraddey to tell if she was unseen or being ignored. But you know how being ignored can stoke your interest.
Their dad returned, satisfied and whistling. He was old-fashioned even as far as fathers went – he wore a watch, their car didn’t drive itself, he whistled to an actual FM radio station. Then he whistled a song that wasn’t the song on the radio, then he whistled through the people asking for donations to the radio station. At one point Egor started whistling, then Wraddey tried too though she’d never quite got the knack of whistling (she was only eight) and their father told them to cut out all that racket.

They passed the strange person up ahead one last time. Even from a distance, the scraps and scarves and sheets covering the covered up person didn’t look homeless. From elsewhere, maybe, but not weathered.

Then their always steady, never-impulsive father was in such a good mood that he impulsively swerved over to the side of the road, rolled down the window, and offered that fascinating bundled-up person a lift.

The person was tall, and bent sideways to peer into the open window. The head, scarves on top and scarves on bottom sandwiching huge blue blocker sunglasses in between, seemed to nod. Their father leaned across the passenger seat, opening the door from the inside so the person could climb in.

They lived near a prison and never picked up hitchhikers, let alone wobbly mysterious persons wrapped up like fragile treasure with no single centimeter of skin to be seen.
The figure sat tall in the passenger seat, head skimming the roof, looking forward. Winter air flooded the car, for the person hadn’t closed the door after climbing in. Dad stared at the person. The person stared ahead, making no moves toward the door or otherwise.

“Um, allow me, I guess,” their father said, exiting and going around to close the door.
Wraddey giggled. Her brother belted her for it, but their father’s guest didn’t seem to notice.

The car filled up with the smell of an apple orchard past its season and also of mothballs like at their aunts’ house and wet wool and something like cheap warm cheese.
Dad asked “So where can we drop you off?” but the person only looked forward, so Dad filled the car with chit chat.

“Cold enough for ya?”

“Been a hell of a winter.”

It was a chattering sort of aimless talk, their dad was filling silence and gaining no answers. The children kept a very close eye on the stranger, but they offered no response. Not a word.

“Yes, sir-ee.”

“Where’d you say you’re headed?”

Nothing.

Their father was unsettled. He couldn’t tell if the person was stupid or deaf or dangerous, or scariest of all – silently judging him to be not worth a response.

“Are we, uh, headed in the right direction for ya?”

From the backseat, Wraddey thought she heard a faint scratching sound.

“Well, uh, say, we’re close to home. We can drop you off there, or, uh…” He paused for a moment, then finally said “Would you like to come in and warm up?”

The person’s head fell violently downward. The one harsh nod sent a puff of that rotten apple smell into the cold air of the backseat.

Impressive! Wraddey thought. By ignoring their father, the stranger had bullied him into an invitation inside. They hardly ever had a visitor. If someone did come over, it was in sensible parkas and those visitors had faces.

In the driveway the person sat stone still again, so that father told Egor to go around and open the passenger side door and let “their friend” out.

“I can do it!” Wraddey yelled.

She was closest, but moreover she wanted to be the one to do it.

While father went ahead with the dry cleaning bags to unlock the door, Wraddey opened the passenger side door to let the stranger out. Both feet swung out together like the tines of a tuning fork, then they found purchase on the snowy drive and the whole body lurched up and out. Wraddey said “follow them,” pointing to the guys, followed, watching closely. Wraddey followed the tiny footprints in the snow that looked more like a deer’s than a person’s.

In the house, the stranger clomped over to the davenport and sat, imperiously, down.

“Make yourself at home,” father said with some sarcasm.

The stranger didn’t even look at him.

“Maybe I’ll, uh, put a snack together then?”

The figure nodded that violent nod.

Feeling he was being had, the children’s father disappeared into the kitchen, searching for some unstale crackers for their silent guest. Wraddey thought that she was going to try the stranger’s approach the next time she wanted something.

Egor stood shuffling by the door in his thick winter socks.

Wraddey sat down on the couch next to their guest.

“Hello,” she said, in her soft voice.

It was only when she reached out and laid a hand on its leg that the figure jerked around and pointed its head at her. When it raised its arm, Egor knew it was going to pull his sister’s brain out through her nose, but the arm stopped short. It didn’t strike Wraddey but hung in front of her, inviting a shake.

She accepted, taking the end of the arm in her own hand. Around where a wrist should be, she felt a tassel. She felt it between her thumb and forefinger. She couldn’t help it. She pulled.

It was the end of a scarf, which came off the stranger’s arm in a great spiral, like the curly paper wrapper of a China marker. Under the scarf was a folded blanket, which Wraddey unfolded, the stranger oddly kicking one leg out but not moving the rest of its body at all as its arm was revealed to be not an arm really but two thumb-thick sticks stabbed into a withered apple where an elbow would be. When Wraddey peeled off another layer, leading to the abdomen, the smell of rotten apple grew stronger.
Then when she pulled a hank of Pendleton plaid from under the collarbones, two shocking things happened. First, the head, still pointed at her, tipped clean off and landed on the floor with a thump. At the neck was a pair of broken sticks, and when she wrenched one out it uncovered the chest.

There sat a large rat, in a wicker sort of ribcage, concentrating hard and pulling at the levers of its failing body with all four feet and tail.

“Oh!” Egor yelled in disgust, for he was becoming adult enough to be wary of rats.

“Oh!” Wraddey repeated, in a different way, because she was a lover of animals and it wasn’t the ugliest rat ever, not really, and it was so clever.

“Oh?” Their father said, coming from the kitchen with a platter of finger foods. Then he bellowed, and dropped his cargo, dehydrated apricots and wheels of sliced summer sausage bouncing on the heirloom carpet.

“Tssss!” Shrieked the rat, pointing his ratty face this way and that.

Then it leaped out of its seat in the rib cage, neatly landing on its hind legs.
Another ancient apple fell out of the body, landing with a muffled plop in the piles of shed fabrics.

The rat looked directly into Wraddey’s eyes. It cocked its pointy head toward the door, and Wraddey nodded.

Wraddey took the rat by the paw, helping it out of its wrecked body. She slipped her feet into her boots, grabbed her coat, opened the door and vanished with him out into the cold bright day.

Her family watched from the big picture window, the girl and the large rat, running through the high snow, past the station wagon, down the driveway, down the road, never to return. Over their years together Wraddey and the Rat travelled and saw amazing things. They rebuilt it’s human body better than ever, using common kitchen implements Wraddey was able to produce a more convincing gait and her fingers could tie much sturdier knots that an animal could. What the rat lacked in terms of getting its protegee into college it made up for with adventure. With it’s keen sense of smell the two never went hungry, and after a year of trust building the rat would give up its wrappings on cold nights so that Wraddey could use the fabric as blankets and the rat would cozy up into her chest, it’s fast rodent heart beating twice for every single beat of hers.

cropped-dead-bird-clip-art.jpg

Meredith Counts has an MFA from the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Now she’s studying archives at the University of Michigan. She’s had work in Traverse, Portage Magazine and Quail Bell Magazine. Her story on poet Jim Gustafson and Detroit Tigers baseball, originally published in the Detroit Metro Times, was named notable by Best American Sports Writing 2018. She’s always loved Edward Gorey.

Artwork: also by Meredith Counts

struck horse – ron burch

Struck Horse

Coal-black mare. Solitary in the darkened field, its crooked, broad teeth grasping green strands. Gray clouds heaped upon one another, a thunder inside, one strike, two strikes, the mare on its front knees, slow-motioning as it tilted on its side, thick muscles shaking as the large body smacked the wet earth, mouth open, singed, a thin drift of smoke rising from the trembling haunches, tongue out, eyes wide.

A lone farmer ran through the field toward it, yelling its name. His green hat flew off in the rushing wind that embraced him with arms of rain.

The farmer dropped knees-down, wrapping his long arms around the mare’s head, its eyes all white. Spittle dribbled out of its agonized mouth.

“Please,” he pleaded, “don’t die.”

The horse rested in his arms, breaths like unanswered questions. The eyes returned to their normal state, the eyes of the mare meeting the eyes of the farmer, firmer breaths as the farmer’s hands stroked the dark horse head, until the mare asked, “What the hell just happened?”

The farmer, astonished, stuttering, “You, you, you were struck by lightning.”

The horse, whose name was Mare, leaned back its large head, the nostrils flaring, “Did you just talk to me?’

The farmer, more astonished, “You talked to me first.”

“Holy fuck,” replied Mare. “I guess I did.”

Once the miraculous had been accepted by the farmer, his immediate thought was, naturally, commerce. With this in mind, the farmer approached the mare who declined his offer of public performance.

“I wouldn’t like that at all,” she said.

“It’s no different than the conversation we’re having now,” the farmer protested. “You just have it with other people.”

The mare neighed in response, saying, “Other people may not be as kind as the farmer.” The farmer laughed.

“Nonsense,” he said, “I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Using his phone, the farmer recorded a short video of he and the mare discussing the weather while standing in the farmer’s north pasture. The video lasted less than 30 seconds and the mare completed three complete sentences and expounded on what she believed tomorrow’s weather was going to be like – crappy again. The uploaded video went viral, making the major social media sites, with ongoing arguments from the viewing community as to whether it was really a talking horse or not.

To confirm, the farmer and the mare were invited to one of the national televised morning shows, followed the same day by visits to two late-night shows. One of the late-night shows had on what they were calling a “Talking Horse Expert,” some guy dressed like a country rube with a straw hat and a pitchfork, a joke until Mare unmasked the man as someone knowing nothing about contemporary farming. The actor dropped his pitchfork realizing that the horse was actually talking.

Mare’s fame exploded. Her likeness was put on coffee mugs, t-shirts, plates, and hundreds of other trinkets. Even her own calendar. Crowds greeted her at the events she attended whether it be the opening of the local county fair to television shows. She was even asked to do the play-by-play for the national horse-racing derby, which she turned down, citing that she believed that humans racing horses for money was wrong. The derby representative, a stern, pasty old man who was a local politician, complained to the farmer, who apologized but felt the same way.

She didn’t understand why she had to do a dog-food commercial. “I don’t even eat dog food,” she said. “Do you?”

The farmer shook his head and said that it was just for the money. Mare complained that too many humans only cared about money. The guy holding the boom said she didn’t know any better because she was only a stupid horse. Mare cantered over to the boom operator, backing him up against the wall and said that if it wasn’t for humans and their slaughter of innocent animals to feed their overweight, smelly bodies, that this world would be a much better place.

You could hear the hum of the background lights.

They finished the shoot but the atmosphere was tense. As the farmer led out the mare, she said to him, “I’m only telling the truth.”

The farmer nodded his head. “I know.”

Later, that night, someone leaked a shaky video of Mare’s comments from the commercial. The comments were excoriating, and the farmer didn’t see the need to tell the mare about it. This was bad press and perhaps, the farmer considered, that they had made enough money to live happily for a number of years.

In the living room of the farm house, where Mare was now living, he told her it’s time to retire.

“Thank god,” she replied and nuzzled his neck as she once did when she was much smaller.

They still had one more talk show to do and decided together that it would a great way to say goodbye. The farmer would say that the mare woke up silent again, and she would merely stand there while the camera pushed in on her face.

Minutes before she was to go on live television, the farmer couldn’t find her in her assigned dressing room. He asked a couple of the people backstage if they’d seen a horse but nothing. He heard a shot – he knew it was a shot – he was a hunter, he knew. He ran toward the direction and out an emergency exit. A white car pulled away. She was on the ground behind the building, crumpled across two parking spaces, her body broken on the cement dividers, her mouth bound with white rope, her blood, from a gunshot, pooled around her mane. He held her still head in his arms and even as the grief broke across him, he refused it, so it would feed him for a long time, never letting him forget.

cropped-ghost-january.jpg

Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, New World Writing, PANK, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Photo: Erin Dolson

challenger – corwin moore

challenger

In eighth grade I became an addict. I was addicted to masturbating and porno. The addiction really wasn’t in that order, the porno came first, and jerking-off was the cherry on top. I got so good; I was able to jerk-off during my favorite television shows. One time, during an episode of Different Strokes, I beatted-off every commercial break. Before I was addicted to masturbating, I used to wonder if Arnold would get into trouble during the commercial breaks, but during my jerking-off era, I blocked everything out and got down to business.

I had control, Johnson magic, and loved my power. I didn’t need any sex material with me either. I had the ability to look at the porno days before and play back the flick in my mind.

In a porno I watched, there was one white guy that had a special move where he would count down his money shot. Like clockwork, when he got down to 3, 2, 1, 0; he would let the load loose. His move became my move. With this skill I became a master. I could blow loads anywhere at top speed, in my bedroom, in the bathroom, in the basement, even on the roof. I was a like a superhero in disguise, I had great power but I couldn’t tell anyone.

“Craig, you better not be playing with yourself. I ain’t raising no damn whore-mongers.”

“Whore-monger” was some church word my mother heard. The house of the lord told her that sex was bad and then she hit us with the craziness. She was the one with all the kids. She needed to hear the church madness more than me. My mother said the whore-mongering thing all the time but I wasn’t scared. She wasn’t going to get in between me and my superhero powers.

“I ain’t raising no ‘funny boys’! Them ‘boys’ are the only people that be playing with themselves.”

For a while I thought masturbation had something to do with being gay. If there ever was any person that confused me about sex, my mother was the one.

“When I catch your butt I’m going to beat the black off of you.” Then she would cut out my light and close my bedroom door. She said that every night before I went to sleep. I knew I was getting too big for a bedtime story but I didn’t want to hear threats of physical violence; I had so many nightmares of my mother beating me half to death because she caught me in the act, my mother whaling away, while I was whaling away. She worried me even more because she was talking about knocking me down a couple pegs on the color scale, “beat the black off of me,” I’m dark, so that would have been a lot of hitting; well, that was my thinking back in eighth grade.

Looking back, she had to know I was playing with myself. To tell the truth, I gave myself away sometimes. I was never caught in the act but damn I was jumpy. I would hop out of my skin when someone came into my bedroom, I would act like I drank ten cups of coffee. If I wasn’t watching TV, I was laying in bed, stiff as a board with the blanket lumpy in the middle of my body, right in the penis area. Oh, that poor blanket. I think about how many times I hid my hard-ons’ with that blanket. If that cover could talk, I think, “Get the pee-pee off of me,” would be the words. I would do this three o’clock in the afternoon sometimes. Ma had to figure that if I wasn’t jerking-off, or I was doing something I had no business doing. What kid is in the house, in the bed, before the streetlights came on? But I never got caught; I just looked guilty as all hell.

I had a crew. We formed a posse that was held together by porno.

The crew was the other three coolest dudes in my eighth grade homeroom class and me. We used the hottest slang and dared anyone to try to sound like us. We called each other “Duke, Troop, Money,” and put the word “Big” in front of our first names.

Each of us had a part to play in our porno posse. I was the brains of the operation; I thought up the schemes and stunts. In other words, I did most of the talking and didn’t do too much of anything else. Fritz was in charge of the dirty magazines. We didn’t know where he got them from but he had a private collection that was crazy. He had over a hundred and fifty magazines, and we tried to read them all too. He also looked old, real old. He always got looks when he walked with us down the street. “Why is that adult with those eighth graders?” He was damn near a hundred and sixty pounds and 5’l0 in the eighth grade. Whatever little money we got, we sent him to get the newest magazines.

We had a special spot. We went to this newsstand on the other side of the park, where white people lived, the spot was owned by some old Greek man. He was blind as a bat but a mean son of a bitch. He watched everything like a hawk but he couldn’t catch us. We had Fritz. The old fool was more concerned about blacks stealing than checking I.D. We would wait across the street for him. He was so professional and smooth about picking the dirty magazines. He skimmed through them all and took his time. Watching Big Fritz made me so jealous of size. I was four foot nothing then and seventy-pounds wet. I wanted to be big so bad.

Next was Ricardo, Big Rick to the crew. He spoke Spanish but was dark ‘like me’; well, that’s how I saw it when I was an eight-grader. People swore we were brothers, I didn’t mind when people said that we looked alike, Ricardo was cool. He was in charge of the actual porno tapes. He would get up late at night and record the porno that came on the adult channels, W.H.T, H.B.O. They were called soft porn. That’s where they cut up a real porno flick; they showed the tits, butt, and other private parts but not all at the same time. The soft porn got on our nerves, we were eighth graders, and we wanted all the smut. That was what we had mostly in our stash, soft porn. His family had a VCR and cable television. I used to think Ricardo’s family was so rich. They weren’t, they were on welfare like me but his father lived with them in secret. He worked off the books because he sneaked in the country from Panama. The mother got public assistance and took care of crazy people on the side. They were beating the system and had a little extra. Ricardo told me all this one-day at the pizza shop. It was crazy, two young kids talking about being on welfare, not girls or sports, but poverty.

Last was Maurice, Big Moe, the real leader of our crew. I had a better mouthpiece than him but he had more heart than all of us. Whatever thoughts we had in our heads, the dirty deeds were good as done by Maurice. Steal girls’ telephone numbers out of the attendance book, done. He even didn’t have a problem calling them up and talking dirty; no matter who answered the phone. He reminded me of my brother Malcolm but Maurice was a version of Malcolm that I could stand. He was fearless and didn’t doubt himself one bit. He was all the things I wasn’t. I was afraid to be free.

“You trying to tell me Troop that her cootie-cat is hairy then hers. You straight- bugging Money! You could cornrow her cootie-cat hair if you wanted to.”

“You not looking, this lady with the black hair got a lot more hair on her cootie-cat then any of these chicks, Duke.”

Fritz and Ricardo had the same argument everyday. Who had the biggest tits? Biggest butt and hairiest vaginas, the subject really didn’t matter; Fritz and Ricardo just banged heads when we started reading the dirty magazines. Fritz was usually right.

“I know about hairy cootie-cat.”

“Fritz, how you know about hairy cootie-cat, you got one, Money,” asked Ricardo.

“My mother and my sister got hairy ones.”

That was our lunch breaks at school, eating our food at top speed and then sneaking off to the bathroom and laughing at Fritz. All four of us cramming ourselves in a stall and looking at dirty magazines that Fritz would bring to school, hiding them in his science book.

I asked Fritz, “Why you looking at your moms like that. That momma-cootie-cat watching is crazy, Duke!”

“It’s just my sister, my moms and me in the house. They just be walking around the house in their underwear. I could see that they hairy through those cotton draws they be wearing. And let me tell you Troop, my moms is hairy scary.”

“Like Bush Gardens?” asked Maurice.

“My moms cootie-cat hair be like, ‘I feel like busting loose-busting loose,’ trying to jump out of my moms draws”

“And you just be looking, Troop?” asked Ricardo

“My whole house be late in the morning. My moms be rushing to work. My sister be rushing to school. They don’t even know I be in the house sometimes. They don’t know I be looking.”

Then I asked, “And that’s alright with you?”

“Hell yeah! So I know about hairy cootie-cat, Money.”

We all just shook our heads. He looked like he was telling the God’s honest truth about his mother’s vagina, but what he was saying, we knew, had to be a lie. I think that’s why he was so funny to us; he believed what was coming out his mouth more than anybody else. After laughing at Fritz, what usually happened was a whole bunch of ‘sex-with-ya-mothers’ jokes. ‘Snapping’ on one another closed out our dirty magazine reading.

“Yo bust it-yo bust it, I had sex-with-ya- mother Fritz and when I bust off on her head she tasted the bust-off and said, “I can’t believe it’s not butter.” I usually set the ‘sex-with-ya-mothers’ off.

“Yo I had sex-with-ya-mother Cee and I told her to go to the store to get me two heroes, the Bitch came back with Batman and Superman.”

“Rick’s moms, she put her pussy on her hip because she wanted to make some money on the side.”

The sex with each other’s mothers went on until the bell rang and time to go back to class. I loved spending time telling my best friends how much sex I had with their mothers. Snapping with them was so fun because they were. Where we came from, most kids would fight you if you talked about their mothers. Especially the venom we were spitting. We weren’t like most kids in the hood. We were a crew, friends.

Every once in a while we would get a half-a-day at school. This particular half-a-day was for the space shuttle Challenger. A black guy was going up to space with the NASA crew and our principal wanted to celebrate him, honor the brother’s accomplishment. The year was 1986, January, and Ronald E. McNair was his name. He came to speak to our entire school when I was in sixth grade, two years before that half-a-day. “Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them. You’re eagles! Stretch your wings and fly to the sky.” Every teacher at the school made us memorize Mr. McNair’s words. I heard my science instructor tell the gym teacher, “This is the thing these little animals need to hear, a guy like them, that’s doing something, telling them to work hard; for once. Their drug addict parents never will.” It was bad what he said about our parents, but what made what he said worse was he didn’t say ‘guy.’ The word sounded like that ‘word,’ the word us blacks say to each other with so much affection-that word that hurt so much flowing from white lips. He called us Niggers. They were white and cocky, they didn’t think I overheard, but I did. After that, I hated those two white teachers and I hated the space program.

This half-a-day I thought of a plan where we skipped the whole day all together and go somewhere and watch some porno. I kicked the idea to my boys and they loved everything I was laying down but we had one problem, ‘where?’ We couldn’t go to my house, my mother wasn’t working, and she was going to be home. Ricardo’s mom was home during the day because that’s where she took care of the crazy people. Fritz lived too damn far. Fritz was always late for school because he had to take two buses and a train to school, seemed like he lived in Queens or something like that.

That left Maurice, Big Moe, the wild child; Ricardo, Fritz and I knew he was our only shot at porno heaven but was afraid to ask. Maurice was crazy, we weren’t too sure about going to his house, alone. Maurice was the one that stole our homeroom teacher’s pocketbook. Her name was Mrs. Tate but we called her Mrs. Titty Tate. She was a black woman from the south and her breast looked like two duffel bags filled with bowling balls. Sometimes she wore these bras that pushed them up and pointed out. She looked like she had two missiles pinned to her chest. I came up with the name and every time I called her that behind her back, my boys died laughing, so I always made sure to say Mrs. Titty Tate at least twice a day. The joke never got old.

Maurice took her pocketbook one day, without her knowing. The lady was looking all over the school for her pocketbook, and we were in the third floor bathroom, ripping through the damn thing. Big Rick, Big Fritz and me were looking for the report cards and the permanent record book but Maurice was eating a bag of grapes she left in there. The grapes were next to Mrs. Titty Tate’s shoes. She always had two pairs of shoes. A pair she walked to school in and a pair she taught in. She had bad feet; she even told the class one day while she was changing them. “These bunions are on fire.” We all laughed and called her nasty. She had a deep southern accent, so she sounded like one of my mother’s relatives. Our classroom was wild like that, fights, funny routines by students, and Mrs. Titty Tate being ‘down-home’ and talking about her foot problems, we were a little school in the ghetto, nobody cared.

When Maurice started eating her grapes, which were next to the ‘Bunion Shoes’, we went crazy.

“What are you doing, Duke? Them grapes was in this smelly bag next to her fungi kicks!”

“I don’t care! I’m crazy!” If that’s what Maurice wanted us to think about him, well, that’s what we thought; one crazy eighth grader, one thing to steal your homeroom teacher’s pocketbook but a whole other thing to eat her grapes that were in her bag with her smelly shoes.

Another problem with going to Maurice’s house was, we didn’t know where he lived. Everyday after school we would play basketball and when we started to go home, Big Moe would make this mad dash around the corner. “Don’t try to follow me.” Maurice sounded like a bad guy in an action flick. The first couple of times we tried to chase him but he was quick. He could run all day; he loved when people chased him. After a while we just all agreed, “That boy is crazy.”

“Meet me in the school yard at 8:15, we going to my house y’all.” We didn’t even ask him, he just told us.

I guess he knew that he was our only and last chance. He had this crazy look in his eyes too. The three of us was nervous. We didn’t know what to expect. Maurice always had scratches and marks on his arms. That scared us. Maurice had us believing there was a wild beast in his house. I didn’t want whatever got him to get me.
Maurice met us right on time in the schoolyard. He was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” Soon as we saw the t-shirt we laughed. It was January and all he had under his coat was that t-shirt.

“Ain’t you cold Money?”

He didn’t answer me; Big Moe just started walking. We followed him up Franklin Ave. I thought he was taking us to that crazy block next to the Shuttle train. That was the block ma always told me not to walk down. There were abandoned buildings on that block. She told me that there were junkies that took kids off the street from those buildings. I didn’t want to be taken. I was hoping Big Moe didn’t live in one. I couldn’t enjoy my porno in an abandoned building with junkies all around. I looked over to Ricardo and he seemed like he was nervous too. I had asked him to bring his VCR. The machine was in his book bag, he just held on tight; he was scared that someone was going to rob him in Maurice’s crazy house. Getting the VCR out of his house wasn’t any big deal. His parents didn’t speak English, at all. They only knew America through their children’s eyes, so if he told them that ‘that’s what they did here’, they took his word.

We wanted to ask where we were going but as soon as we could think to ask the nut, he stopped in front of Tiffany Towers. The Tiffany Towers was probably the closet thing to Central Park West in the hood. The towers were like skyscrapers, the tallest in the borough. Tiffany Towers had a tiny city surrounding two tall buildings; well, that’s what I thought. They had a dry cleaners and grocery store in there. All this was closed in with giant concrete walls, to keep us out, the poor people; I guessed. We went into building A and there was a security guard. I never saw that before, someone to protect your building while you were gone.

“I don’t want to see you running in the garage today Mr. North.”

That was Maurice’s last name but I never heard his name like that, with mister in front.
“I be having all the security guards in Tiffany Towers chasing me.”

Fritz asked, “What you be doing, Troop?”

He just gave us a devilish grin and said, “I be doing stuff.” We didn’t ask any more than that because ‘I be doing stuff’ could have meant anything with Maurice.

His house was on the fourteenth floor. I never rode up an elevator that high before. “The elevator has a two person bench;” I never saw anything like that, taking a seat while you go up. Tiffany Towers was the richest place in the world to me. When we walked in his house the place had orange and black carpet everywhere. His house didn’t have carpet that was hard and made noise when you dragged your feet. They had soft carpet, like you were walking on a mattress.

The three of us walked in his house hesitantly, we were looking for the dog, the dog that scratched Maurice, giving him the bruises on his arms, the bruises that we saw everyday.

“Yo, you put that dog away, Money?” asked Fritz.

“No, it’s right behind you!”

As soon as Maurice yelled ‘you’, the three of us jumped out of our clothes. We turned around and nothing was there.

“Yo, you ain’t got no dog, Troop!”

“I never told you I did, dummy!” And Maurice was right when said that; he never did tell us he did. We just assumed.

There were framed pictures of Maurice everywhere, pictures at church, at school, when he was a baby. Maurice was the only child, so all the walls were dedicated to him. All the furniture was leather, no plastic, like the couch at my house. Big Moe’s couch was soft and brown.

“If y’all want something to eat, just go for yours, Money.”

I never heard that when I went to somebody’s house. They usually made you a plate or gave you something to drink. They didn’t want you to take all that they had, so they gave you how much they could afford to give.

“Where we watching this Duke?”

“In my room.”

“You got a TV in your room?”

“Yeah,” he said, ‘but of course’ was more how the words came off.

“Word! That’s where mines is in my house.” I was lying.

“Ricardo, why you got a VCR?” asked Maurice.

“To watch the tapes.” Ricardo replied.

“I got a VCR and better tapes, Money.”

I thought to myself, ‘luxury building, sweet elevator, and a badass crib. Who in the hell is Maurice North?’

We got to his room and his area was spotless. The bed was made up and every thing was put in perfect place. My mother would have loved Maurice.

“Wait here y’all.”

“Where you going, Troop?” I asked Maurice.

“To my moms and pops room.”When he went to his parent’s room Fritz, Ricardo and me just looked at each other. We didn’t say anything but if we did, ‘Damn’ would have been the word. Maurice came back to the room with a bottle of Absolute Vodka, some cigarettes and six VHS tapes.

“What’s on the tapes?” asked Ricardo.

“Porno, stupid!”

Fritz said, “In your moms and pops room?”

“Yeah, she don’t think I be knowing but I be knowing.”

We all laughed.

“Where they keep’em at?” I said to him.

“Under the bed, the vodka be out. Fritz go to the kitchen and get some cups.”

Then I asked, “Your pops gonna kill you if he find out.”

“He ain’t here, well, he don’t stay here. He ain’t stay with me and my moms in a long while. The crazy illness be, my moms still be acting like he here or like he coming back.”

I wanted to say how sometimes my mother did the same thing with my father but Fritz came back with the cups. And like that, we were smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka and watching porno owned by the mother of a wild child. My chest was burning from the vodka and my nose was stuffy from the smoke but I was having the greatest time of my life. Maurice’s mother had the hot stuff. She had movies with Black people in them. The Black women had big dark nipples; one lady’s nipples were so long, they looked like Tootsie Rolls. Every time a hairy, nappy, vagina hit the screen Fritz would yell out, “That’s how my moms and my sister be looking, Troop!” he really was funny that day. Taking puffs on Newports and watching hardcore money shots, that was our dream and we were living it.

After every movie we rewound each tape to exactly where Maurice’s mother left off. While rewinding, Fritz wanted to turn to cable TV, he wanted to see if “Back to the Future” was on H.B.O. Fritz and me didn’t have cable; our families couldn’t afford that luxury. So getting to watch cable television and porno was a double treat. He couldn’t find the movie. Something was wrong with Maurice’s channels. Every station had the same thing on.

“What wrong with your TV, Duke? Every channel got weather.”

Each station showed the sky with long white clouds but we didn’t care, we had porno to get to.

“How many movies we got left?” I said.

Maurice answered, “Two more Troop.”

He had his cigarette cocked to the right side of his mouth with his right eye closed, to avoid the smoke. He looked cool. Then he looked at me and gave that devilish Maurice grin. When he did that, I pushed him in the head. Not hard, just a slight push.

“You crazy, Money.”

What I really wanted to say was, “I love you Maurice, you’re my friend” but that would have been too much for us in eighth grade.

Ricardo grabbed his bookbag and said, “You heard that?”

Fritz turned the TV down and we all put up our antennas.

“Yo! That’s your front door, Money!”

“My moms came home early, damn!”

If any people in this world panicked, we were them. As soon as Maurice said “early” all four of us did a mad dash nowhere. All we did was run around in circles. Fritz and Ricardo ran right into each other they were so nervous. Ricardo bumped his forehead into Fritz’s chin. They fell right on their backs. I wanted to laugh but we had to hide. Maurice was running around looking for the cap for the vodka. I passed him the tapes, along with the cap that was under my foot. I helped Ricardo off the floor and Fritz got up on his own. As soon as Fritz got up, he stepped on Ricardo’s bookbag and fell again.

“My VCR Fritz! Got to be broke now, aaah!”

“Be quiet!” said Maurice. “Hide! Don’t come out no matter what.”

Ricardo grabbed his bookbag and hid under the bed. Fritz and me went into the closet. That sweatbox was so tight because Fritz was so big and Maurice had so many clothes.

“Maurice got some nice clothes. I wonder why he don’t wear this.”

“Be quiet Fritz.”

He did have some nice stuff but I didn’t want Fritz talking too loud and getting us caught. Maurice had that kind of closet with two doors with blinds. We watched Maurice run around and open his bedroom window to let all the smoke out. Still holding the tapes he ran out of the room.

“What you doing home! And in my Goddamn room!”

We heard Maurice’s mom from the hallway of the apartment. I was so scared I wanted to pee. I wanted to pee in that closet in front of Fritz and Maurice’s nice Polo shirts. Then we heard a loud smack and what sounded like the tapes falling on the floor.

“Oh God!” said Fritz.

“Come on man! Be quiet.”

I saw Ricardo under the bed, stiff as hell. He looked like a dead body. Then he started to mumble something out of his mouth and shook his head. At first I thought, “Who in the hell Ricardo is talking to.” Then I realized he was praying.

Maurice came back peddling into his room, with his mother walking in front of him.

“You was looking at my tapes! You’s a nasty little boy, ain’t you? Take off all your clothes.”
Fritz looked at me. I didn’t turn to him but I just knew he was looking at me.

“No ma, please. I’m sorry.”

“You going to be sorry in a minute. You’re touching things that don’t belong to you. I got to do this to you all the time, for your Black ass to learn.”

She started taking off Maurice’s belt.

“Take off those damn clothes.”

He did what he was told. As he took off his shirt and pulled of his pants she would let the belt fly and hit his body. By the time he got completely naked she already hit him about five or six times. When he got naked we saw that he already had a bunch of black and blue marks on his chest.

“Everyday I got to whoop you. Everyday-with you!”

I felt bad for Maurice. He was naked in front of his friends and was getting beat by his mother. She didn’t’ stop, she kept on hitting him with that belt. Then she but the belt down and beat him with her fists. I never saw a mother punch like a man, but she did. I kind of wanted her to go back to the belt; the belt seemed less ruthless compared to the fists. She beat him for over an hour. Well, that’s how long his beating felt like. She really beat him for fifteen minutes. I would look over at the clock on the VCR. I didn’t think fifteen minutes could be so long. I think that’s what made the beating so long to me; every hit-every swing hurt just so much. You could just see that blows were hurting Maurice inside and out. She was so ruthless to me. The blows did so much to him and nothing to her. Well, that’s what the sight seemed like to me, in the closet, scared.

The beating got to a point that he didn’t even cry, or yell. Maurice was on the floor, on his side, and he took the beating, and he took the pain. I seen beatings before, I been beat but this was different, this one was more than a whipping, this was more like hate. My mother got on my case and gave me hell but she never seemed like she didn’t like me. The way she was hitting him I thought she didn’t like Maurice. While I was in the closet there was several times I just wanted to step out and say, “Stop hitting him like that.”

Fear was what kept me in that closet. I think that was the same thing that kept Ricardo and Fritz still but what was Maurice’s excuse? Was fear the thing Maurice was scared of, making him the way he was, a bad eighth grader that would steal his homeroom teacher’s pocketbook? For fifteen minutes she punched and whipped, and his closest friends hid and watched.

After she finished she made him take a bath and do his homework. We knew he didn’t have any homework but Maurice sure looked like he had some. He opened up every schoolbook we had. He was flipping through every page.

“My stomach hurt.”

“Be quiet Fritz.”

“We ain’t going to ever get out of this closet!”

“Be quiet Fritz.”

“We been in here for hours!”

“It’s only been forty minutes.”

Then Fritz burped and his breath smelt like that vodka we were drinking.

“I think I’m sick.”

Before I could turn around, Fritz started to throw-up. We both flew out the closet, but way too late. Fritz threw-up all over my back and Maurice’s floor. Then he grabbed one of Maurice’s nice Polo shirts and tried to clean off my neck.

“What you doing Fritz? That’s my shirt,” said Maurice.

“I’m sorry; I needed something to clean this up. You got a sponge or something?”

“Come on, man. You killing me Fritz!”

Then from the other room we heard Maurice’s mom, “Who in the hell are these kids?”

Fritz was so loud Maurice’s mother came back into his room. With a back and neck soaked with vomit, she looked at me. She poked her head under the bed and saw Ricardo sleeping.

“This Nigga is in here sleep! Get the hell from under that bed, boy!”

Once Ricardo saw us he said, “Oh god, that’s nasty. Is that vomit?”

“Anybody else in this damn house,” Maurice shook his head no.

“You got two minutes to get the hell on out of my house before I give you some of the whipping I’m going to give Maurice.”

Then she punched him in his neck. He went down to his knees. His eyes were about to pop out of his head. He looked like he couldn’t see. She hit him really hard that time. The three of us rushed out of the bedroom but I stopped for a second to see his mother cock back her fist again. Before I could see her land the punch, Fritz grabbed me and dragged me to the door. “Let’s go, Craig!” I didn’t see the second punch, but I heard the damage the blow did.

We got outside and everyone was pointing and staring at me. I smelt bad. I smelt like vodka, cigarettes and everything Fritz ate for breakfast. I had too much vomit on me to put on my coat. So I carried my coat in my hand and had Maurice’s nice shirt around my neck. I smelt like vomit and I was freezing, I thought I was going to die. Ricardo started crying, his mother didn’t know English but she knew what broke VCR meant.

When I got home ma wanted to yell but she didn’t. I had vomit all over me and she didn’t believe my story of a wild dog jumping on my back and throwing-up all over me. My story was weak but the smell of Fritz’s vomit was so strong my mother went along with my lie. She cleaned me up and gave me my dinner. I just stretched out in my bed and tried to understand how a person could not like Maurice, I liked Maurice, and I thought he was funny. I couldn’t understand why his mother couldn’t see that too. Then I thought about if my father liked me or if my mother liked me. I didn’t want to not be liked by them, like how Maurice’s mother didn’t seem to like him.

“Watch them crazy dogs and them crazy people in the street. You hear me.” ma said.

“Yes.” I replied.

“ ‘Cause this world is going to end, wild dogs throwing-up on people. Them people dying in that spaceship today.”

“Huh.”

“Child! Where you been. That space…”

“…Space Shuttle Challenger.”

“Yeah, blew up in the sky. Been on the news all day.”

What we thought was the weather report was the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding in the sky seconds after blast off. Seven people died while my friends and I cut school and watched porno.

“You got to watch yourself out in these streets. You got people dying in the sky.”
Then she kissed me, turned out my bedroom light and closed the door. That was the first time in a while that she kissed me good night. Felt good when she did that. For a second I thought if Maurice mother ever kissed him goodnight, she gave him everything else, why not a kiss good night. I didn’t think on Maurice too long. I thought more about my kiss good night, then those people in the sky. Then I fell asleep.

 

When I woke up in the morning Maurice’s shirt was cleaned, ironed, and folded, neatly on top of my book bag.

“Ma, Maurice’s shirt?”

“I washed the thing in the tub. Didn’t take me long either, I put the shirt right on that broken-down fan, dried a couple of hours ago.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was happy.

“Now, you could give that nice shirt back to that boy. Boy, you got a good friend to give you a nice shirt like that when you got dog throw-up all over you.”

I wasn’t surprised that my mother cleaned the shirt. I was glad she did. I felt like Maurice needed something and I wanted to be the one that gave him that something. I owed him that. I felt guilty.

I couldn’t wait until Maurice came to class. I had his shirt, Mrs. Titty Tate and ‘sex-with-ya-mother’ jokes all ready for him when he walked through the door. While we waited, Ricardo talked our heads off.

“Yo, my moms and pops yelled all night. I can’t look at TV or cable for a while. They was cussing so fast in Spanish; I didn’t know what they was saying.”

“You just knew your butt was done.” Fritz added.

“I thought you speak Spanish?” I asked.

“Not the Spanish my moms was saying. Even my father didn’t know what she was saying and he from Panama too. That VCR was what I recorded all her Spanish Soap operas on; she was pissed-off, Duke.”

I laughed as Ricardo talked about his parents but from time to time I would look over at the clock-then at Maurice’s chair-and then at the door. My laughter was with Fritz and Ricardo but my mind was on Maurice. After a while we started to repeat ourselves. The stories were already told and the laughs were all belted out, still no Maurice. School had started and the teachers demanded our attention, so we had to start the day without him. Maurice didn’t come to school that day or the next. He missed ten straight days of school and his empty chair killed us. Nothing was the same. By the third day we gave up our ‘sex-with-ya-mother’ routines. By the fourth day we gave up dirty magazines in the bathroom. We were too afraid to call or go by his house. We knew how his mother could be. He was gone and there was nothing our porno crew could do.

On the fifth day Mrs. Titty Tate started to walk by our table. She knew we were bothered by him being gone, so she would put her hand on our shoulders like we were her children,

“I’m going to call his mother tonight. He’ll be in school soon.”

Then she would smile, but her great grin didn’t help, we still felt bad without him. I guess we felt that way because we saw how he lived and what he had to live with. I carried his shirt with me everyday to school while he was gone. Each day I tried really hard to not let the shirt get dirty or messed up. I wanted what was his to be perfect, for when he did finally come to class.

The tenth day, Maurice still didn’t show but his mother did. She walked in the classroom looking like a robot. She had her hair perfectly pinned back in a bun. She was wearing a business suit, so she was either going to work or coming from work. She had no wrinkles in her suit. Seemed like she didn’t sit down all day. From the back my boys and I watched, as she spoke with Mrs. Titty Tate.

Ricardo pointed and said, “Yo, Duke ain’t that Maurice’s moms.”

“Yeah, you think she came to beat us too, Troop?”

“I don’t know Fritz,” I really didn’t know.

“Crazy nut, I hate that lady.” Fritz started to get mad.

“Yo Money, I think she came to get us in trouble because we messed up her house and watched her porno,” Ricardo looked like he wanted to run under the table and hide when he said that.

“Oh my god, why did I throw-up everywhere?”

Fritz started to get nervous as well. Things got intense when Maurice’s mom and Mrs. Titty Tate started walking towards us, in the back.

“Just be cool y’all,” I damn sure didn’t mean what I said. I was scared too. I couldn’t take my eyes off Mrs. North.

“Boys, this is Maurice’s mother, Mrs. North. Mrs. North, these are the boys your son spends most of his time with, while he’s here at school.”

“Hi boys it’s so nice to meet you.”

“She wanted to know if Maurice left anything back here?”

We all three looked at each other. We were confused. She did meet us. At her house, while she beat the hell out of her son.

We all said, “no.” Mrs. North looked inside his desk anyway.

“And Mrs. Tate you said I can get his transcript through the mail.”

“I believe so, yes.”

I thought, ‘transcript’? What’s that?

“You want me to give you the homework Maurice missed, Mrs. North?” I asked.

“No, that’s alright. Maurice is going to go to a new school. We’re moving.”

My heart just sank when she said that.

“I’m surprised that my son never brought you over to the house. You boys are so well-behaved.”

She was getting on my nerves with the not remembering who we were stuff. Then she patted me on my head. Her smile was big but fake, like grinning was her job. Then I recognized a smell coming from Mrs. North. The funk that came out of her was the same smell when Fritz burped in the closet, the vodka without the throw-up. She was drunk; I just knew that she was; one Christmas I remember my Aunt Sallie being drunk, acting all nice and polite. Mrs. North reminded me of my Aunt Sallie that day, drunk with a smile. That was probably why she couldn’t remember who we were.

“Thank you.”

She was taking away our best boy and I hated her for that. Just like before we ever went to his house, we went back to wondering where he lived and how he lived. I was more in the dark at that moment than I was before. As she walked out of the classroom, I looked and remembered that I had Maurice’s shirt in my bag. I grabbed the shirt quick and said nothing, I stood-up holding the shirt, the last of Maurice for me. For some odd reason, Mrs. North turned and looked my way. Then she walked back to us.

“Did I forget something?” she asked me, looking at Maurice’s shirt in my hand. “Is that my Baby’s shirt.”

“I was in the closet.”

“Excuse me, Darling?”

“Fritz and me was in that closet.”

“I don’t know what you talking about, Boy. What are you talking about?”

I didn’t answer her. I stood strong. I was scared but I didn’t care. She could have hit me if she wanted. I wanted to fight. I was ready to go. If she slapped me, I just would have taken the blow. I told myself that I wouldn’t let her see me tear. Fear was what kept me in that closet for such a long time. And it was love for my friend that made me stand. I wanted to be like Maurice, free and not afraid.

“That shirt looks like my son’s.”

She reached for the shirt. I squeezed the shirt tighter and pulled away. She wasn’t getting that shirt. She took enough from me. She did a lot of hurt. She was getting nothing that day.

“That’s not my boy’s shirt,” she said

“This is mines,” I said.

I could feel Fritz and Ricardo looking at me. They must have thought I lost my mind but I didn’t. I just had enough. I wished I could have seen my own face. So if I ever saw Maurice again. I could do the face for him on cue, like the Mrs. Titty Tate jokes. Her smile got musty, stiff and old; she lost our standoff. That day in class, she got beat.

I let her leave without her having what I had; what was really his. I didn’t think she deserved a son like Maurice or a shirt that would be worn by him. Nobody ever wore that shirt. I took the shirt home and put it in a milk crate, in the bottom of my closet. And that’s where Maurice stayed, for a long time.

ghost january

Corwin Moore was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.  Being the youngest of five, Corwin quickly realized that comedy was his best way to receive attention in his large family.  Corwin first got his taste of the stage by enrolling in a stand-up comedy class in High School.  The top five students were elected to perform at a real comedy club; Corwin was not one of those students.  Still wanting to support his fellow classmates, he went to the comedy club anyway.  Once a real paid comedian failed to show up, Corwin got a chance to perform and shine, which he did, receiving a standing ovation.  Corwin got a manager and agent the very next week.  Corwin later honed his stand-up skills at comedy clubs such as Comic Strip, Improv and Stand-up New York.

He has been featured on “Showtime at the Apollo (Guest performer),” “Family Matters” and a cast member of the sketch variety show, “Uptown Comedy Club.”  Corwin also has film work consisting of “Race,” starring Paul Rodriguez and “Juice,” starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur.

But what makes Corwin a true triple threat is his writing.  Corwin is an Emmy nominated writer, working for such shows as Saturday Night Live, The Tracy Morgan Show (pilot) and VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors.

Corwin currently is an Assistant Professor of English as well as, shooting his project, ‘Brothers on The Phone.’

Photo: Ajeet Mestry

a wink may be the same as a nod to a blind man, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to lend you his credit cards to get a bunch of new spongebob squarepants tattoos unless you’ve got some pretty serious collateral – david s atkinson

raw pixel

“The world ended today,” Carl told me as he sat down to watch TV.

“What?! How?”

“Dunno.” He cracked a beer. “Everybody was talking about it after the staff meeting, but I didn’t listen too close. Didn’t seem important.”

I sat up on the couch. “How could it not be important? It’s the end of the world!”

“Well,” he said, considering, “it doesn’t seem to change anything, does it? We’re still here. Plenty of stuff happens that doesn’t affect my life. Why would I care more about this than any of that?”

“I understand,” I replied, “but particularly in view of that, how are we still here? We couldn’t be if the world ended, right? Maybe it didn’t.”

“Nah, it did. Everyone was pretty sure.” He took a drink. “I’m betting they’d know. They aren’t the sort to get that kind of thing wrong.”

“Hmm.”

So that was that, the world was gone. There was nothing else for it but to watch Will & Grace.

SBGS December

David S. Atkinson is the author of books such as “Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from my Pockets While I Sleep,” “Apocalypse All the Time,” and the Nebraska book award winning “Not Quite so Stories.” He is a Staff Reader for “Digging Through The Fat” and his writing appears in “Spelk,” “Jellyfish Review,” “Thrice Fiction,” “Literary Orphans,” and more. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.

submit to sout

silence – annette freeman

silence

I was criticised by any number of people for what I did to the old piano. When my sculpture was exhibited at the gallery — all dismantled frames and twisted strings and bereft keys — I was criticised. Oh, yes. People at the Opening drew in shocked breaths and waggled their champagne glasses. The word desecration was used; also destructive and obscene. Obscene? I’ll tell you what’s obscene — having to put up with someone who is supposed to have moved on. My sculpture was large and it used most of the innards of the piano in a constructivist-style thing intended to reference a mound or hill. Like a burial mound. I even included an ironic plastic rose on the top, a dirty pink thing, to reference a wreath, but I don’t think the art lovers at the opening got that. They certainly mourned the piano, though.

“What did you have against that poor piano?” a tipsy art-type in an old-fashioned bow-tie asked me. He’d gone for whisky.

“How long have you got?” I replied, and sipped my champagne, leaving lipstick on the glass, blood red, which is ironic also, since the death of the piano was under discussion. In all truth, it wasn’t the piano itself that had earned my ire, but its former owner. I’ll tell you what happened and you can judge for yourself if I was justified in dismantling the thing.

When I moved in with Simon I kept my studio in the inner city. His place wasn’t far away but it was an upscale building, one of those new apartment blocks. They had CCTV cameras everywhere: didn’t want any undesirables, deplorables, muddying the terrazzo floors or shooting up in the shrubbery. You wouldn’t have thought that such a new build, where a year or so earlier there had been only a depthless mud-hole gouged into the land, could harbour any wraiths from the past. But my theory is — and I have reason to know — that the wraiths preserve their longevity by attaching their icy tendrils to objects, and objects can be moved around, as was this blighted piano. Simon told me that it had been a family piano for decades. In fact, it was an old wooden-framed thing, out of date and untuneable. Were you imagining an elegant baby grand with a rosewood cabinet? No, this was an old upright, scratched from many moves, barely playable. It had candle sconces screwed to its front. Candles! How long ago did people play the piano by candlelight? The dark ages?

I shouldn’t make flippant remarks about the dark. That piano and I were to share some sombre times. Simon and I had been together for about a year when I moved in with him. I was sure he was my soul-mate. I still am, and if he ever forgives me — or, as I prefer to think of it, understands me — I think we could be happy. If you notice an edge to my voice while I’m telling what happened, it’s because of Simon. When he found the piano gone, and I told him what I’d done with it, he went into a funk. He refused to come to the Opening at the gallery and so he hasn’t seen what a far, far better thing it has become. Those critics who could stomach the dismemberment have been raving about it. My agent is fielding offers. I have hopes that it’ll go to Abu Dhabi.

Simon goes away on business trips often, mostly to the US, for a week or two at a time. He packs a couple of his sharp suits into a folding suit bag and jets off to do whatever international-finance-types do. As for me, I’m a night owl and often come home late from my studio to the empty terrazzo-floored lobby of the apartment block. I rarely run across anyone from the other apartments. It’s an echoey lobby; there’s not much in it except a couple of Eames-replica chairs that I’ve never seen anyone sit on. There are security cameras with red cyclonic eyes staring down from the corners of the ceiling.

The old piano was an incongruous piece of furniture in Simon’s place, interior-decoration-wise, so naturally I asked him about it.

“It was Eliza’s,” he said, as if admitting something he’d rather I didn’t know.

Eliza was his ex. They hadn’t been married, exactly, unless you count that hybrid Buddhist-Hindu-hippy ceremony they went through in Kathmandu. Then Eliza was lost on the trail while they were hiking to Tengboche. Lost, as in never found. Almost certainly she went over the edge of a ravine into the Dudh Kosi and her body swept away downstream, though it was never recovered. Simon spent a long time hoping. That whole incident was years ago. He’d had two or three girlfriends between Eliza and me. But still he’d dragged the piano on at least two moves that I knew of. It sat against the wall of the living room, looking across at the Léger print on the opposite wall. It seemed to me to be constantly watching us as we lounged in front of the TV, or drank cocktails on the balcony, or slow-danced on the rug, listening to jazz. It appeared to me to disapprove of jazz.

Simon told me, when I pressed him, that the piano had first belonged to Eliza’s great-aunt, a spinster who’d lived in Melbourne and had gone to India as a missionary. Apparently she was revered in Eliza’s family. That was in the days when proselytizing was applauded. The great-aunt was musical. She played not only the piano but also the violin. That was all that Simon knew about this ephemeral person from the past, the musical missionary, Eliza’s relative. The piano was then bequeathed though Eliza’s relations — aunt, cousin, father — until, as each of them died, it eventually settled on her. She played, quite well. I’ve heard her. She favours eerie things, like Messiaen — at least that’s what I thought it was when I heard her. Yes, I’ve heard that piano play on many nights when I was alone in the apartment. Did I mention that we were on the thirty-fifth floor? An aerie. It was as if angels were malevolently plucking harp strings where they had no right.

All of this sounds fanciful, I know, and to start with I thought so too. The first time I heard the playing it was about 2 AM. I got up and marched out of the bedroom switching on all the lights. But the notes merely faded at my approach and so I assumed that I was imagining the whole thing. But the playing in the wee hours went on, only when Simon wasn’t there, of course. Obviously it was meant for me alone. I was targeted. I took to leaving all the lamps on in the living room but it made no difference. The music still woke me — and the lamps went out.

Naturally I told Simon what was going on. I tried to convince him to get rid of the piano, maybe pass it on to another of Eliza’s relatives. He actually said that he wanted to keep it in case Eliza came back! She has come back, I said grimly. Then he went all solicitous on me. He said I was just having some residual delusions. I wasn’t long out of rehab. When I met Simon I was doing far too much junk for my own good, and it was he, bless him, who’d got me into a program. Now I was clean, off the stuff, and my work was blossoming. I owe Simon so much. He’s the love of my life.

The night-time playing continued sporadically, always when I was alone in the apartment.

“Get rid of it, please!” I was begging him now.

“Sweetheart, it’s in your head. I can’t let it go. It’s my only reminder of Eliza.”

“Can’t you just keep her photo or something?” He laughed.

“Sure, but what if she comes back and I don’t have her piano? It was her most precious possession.”

That was the second time he’d said that about her coming back. If she came back, where would that leave me? This point didn’t seem to concern him as he stared across the room at the piano, and I saw in his gaze some past in which I had no part. My first impulse was to remind him that Eliza was pretty certainly dead, and so not coming back for her piano, but I stopped. Of course she was back, as I’d told him the first time we had this conversation. I couldn’t get through to him.

The playing went on. It was creeping me out. One night I changed tactics and tried spying unseen on the piano. I put my eye up to the gap in the bedroom door, which I’d left ajar. But when I looked the playing stopped abruptly. I thought I saw something slip out the front door. I definitely heard a click as the door closed. This wraith came in the front door? It didn’t happen like that in stories.

After the next night of ghostly playing, I went down to the security booth in the basement carpark. I knew the guys there; I often spoke to them when I parked my VW Beetle — they liked my car. I asked if we could take a look at the CCTV footage of the lobby from the night before. I told them I thought I’d heard noises around 2 AM, which was true. We had to go backwards and forwards a bit, but we found it. It was eerie to watch: a long stretch of silent emptiness, the cameras watching creepily, pointed at the lobby doors, the lift, the fire stairs. Twice, figures of other residents crossed the floor, silent footsteps, silent arrival of the lift, silent opening and closing of the lift doors. Then, finally, a figure emerged just as silently from the fire stairs door. The guys were amazed — “that thing’s alarmed,” they said. But no alarm sounded, there was just the CCTV silent soundtrack. The figure was frustratingly indistinct. I was sure it was female, but the security boys argued about that for a while.

“It’s wearing a cap.”

“That’s a skirt, for sure.”

“Or trousers — can’t tell. It’s not clear enough.”

The footage had been clear enough earlier to recognise the legitimate residents. We stopped and started it but we couldn’t get a better picture. The figure disappeared as silently as it had come. We didn’t see the lift arrive, but we could see the illuminated floor numbers marking its ascent from the lobby, then stopping at Level 35.

After that I dismantled the piano. I took out its guts and moved strings, hammers, felts surreptitiously to my car bit by bit. I prised off all its keys with pliers and took them away, keeping the lid on my work so Simon wouldn’t notice what was going on. It took a while, I can tell you. Of course the playing had to stop then. I thought about leaving the empty thing there, just a carcass with its ridiculous candle sconces. But two things changed my mind. The first was the imperative of the work — as I brought these infused and laden objects together in my studio I saw that they needed more bulk, the bulk of the piano cabinet, the wood, the structure. And more detail: the pedal, the hinges, and those sconces. The second thing that prompted me to completely dismantle the piano was the final occurrence of that eerie Messiaen, playing in the silence of 2 AM, despite the keys and strings being entwined in my studio two suburbs away.

At the Opening, an art agent came over and asked me about the piece. He was wearing a dishdasha and a keffiyeh. I smiled winningly.

“What is the piece entitled?” he asked.

“I call it ’Silence.’

“And what is that strange smell it emits?”

SBGS December

Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. She was born and raised in Tasmania, which she suspects is reflected in her writing in ways too mysterious to analyse. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney, the support of a terrific writing group, and boundless respect for a fine sentence.

hopper house – james h duncan

steeple

Down the hill stood a house beside a set of railroad tracks, a house I always called the Hopper House because it reminded me of those Edward Hopper small town scenes he would paint, quiet and windswept, forlorn. Shades of chipped emerald and hunter green paint, scalloped awnings, spire staircase, slanted chimneys. This house stood on Orient Avenue with dirt for macadam and a green-striped folding chair on the front porch, a radio playing in the window and a dog barking somewhere deep inside, but no one ever sat in the chair or came out when I walked by every day.

I was in a bad way, unemployed aside from some very fortunate writing jobs or some small checks coming in for poetry, $10.00, $5.00, even a few for $2.00. I would walk to the bank and cash them and then take Orient Avenue and a short-cut through the grounds of a dilapidated trolley station to a small tavern by a rock-strewn river where I’d eat an inexpensive meal or just blow the whole shot on two-dollar bottles of beer.

I often stopped at the Hopper House and looked up, wondering what it must have been like to live there during its heyday. All three stories were gorgeous and ornate, though falling apart from years of neglect and agoraphobic hibernation. Save for the dog and the radio I would have called it abandoned. Even haunted maybe, and that green folding chair always gave me an odd feeling like someone I couldn’t see watched from within, waiting for me to leave.

All that summer I wrote letters to a woman in Germany about the house. She wrote back and told me of a similar manse near her father’s summer home outside Bremen. Her haunted mansion was not green but yellow, bleached by the sun and empty, and stood back from the road on a small rise, its black hollow eyes watching their car drive by whenever they went back into town from their seaside cottage. She asked if I named my green house, and I said yes. I told her of Edward Hopper. She knew him and adored his work, most especially Automat.

One afternoon someone at the end of the bar said a car went off the road and had rammed into the house and some of us got up and half-walked, half-ran up the street to the Hopper House. A white Subaru had crumpled into the front porch and paramedics, police officers, and firemen surrounded the car and were climbing onto the porch. We watched for a while but no one came outside, no one sat on the curb with head in hand, not even the driver, who apparently ran off. The dog didn’t even bark.

Soon we all walked back to the bar, but for weeks afterward blue tarpaulins covered the broken portions of the porch and stairs, with no dog, no radio, no green folding chair. I wrote a letter to Germany and told her what happened at the house, and two weeks later her reply said I should avoid it. My story gave her a bad dream, a bad feeling. It was haunted, she said, and a magnet for bad luck. I believed her. I always believed her. She signed her letters Yours, so I did too.

I avoided the house after that, as she specified, but I had dreams of the house as well. I had them then and long after I moved away. In the dream I walked up those porch steps and put my hand on the doorknob. A fear filled my chest about what waited inside, about going up the stairs to the second floor, the third floor, the attic, and then I was there, in that attic space. I heard the radio far below me, the dog barking somewhere. I closed my eyes and a claustrophobic warning in my heart told me that what if I opened my eyes again I’d discover something unbearable. In the dream I would run, painfully slow, and leave the front door open behind me, the green folding chair sideways, the dirt driveway littered with bottle caps and gravel as I raced for the horizon, for that wildfire sky.

And then I’d wake up—somewhere else, far away. But the dream was hard to shake and I wrote to Germany about it, but after three letters with no reply, I stopped writing. Now there is only the dream, wherever I go.

sbgs cowskull

James H Duncan is the editor of Hobo Camp Review and author of such books as Nights Without Rain, What Lies In Wait, and Dead City Jazz, among other collections of fiction and poetry. For more, visit www.jameshduncan.com.

submit to south broadway ghost society.

put me on a dog leash and make me eat taco bell off the floor – nathaniel kennon perkins

taco bell

You keep thinking you will grow accustomed to a feeling of worthlessness, but you never do.

Your goal was to pay off your debt by the end of the year. Your credit card. Your overdrafted checking account. The last three thousand or so dollars of your student loans. The payments on the van you bought but that your ex-wife sold to get the money to buy herself a truck.

You are just making payments on her truck, basically.

You’ve been working, but you realize it isn’t going to happen. This is not the year that you pay off your debt. Even on days you have off from your regular job, you go to work for your friend Gruber to make extra money.

He owns a landscaping company. You meet at his house in the morning and go together in his truck to a client’s yard, where you pull weeds.

After a while, Gruber says, “That’s good enough.”

He says, “That’s the good thing about trying to go for a quote-unquote natural look. When I’m sick of pulling weeds, I just stop pulling weeds. It’s natural.”

Time for a break. You go with him to the coffee shop where he used to work before he started his own company. The baristas there are cute. They are excited to see him. When he realizes that he has forgotten his wallet, they make jokes about scanning his retinas. He giggles and puts his face over the cash register, as if it might be accepting a payment from an account linked to his eyeballs.

One of the baristas grabs the back of his head and slams his face into the cash register and laughs.

It looks like it hurt.

“Sorry,” says the other barista, addressing you. “I know that seemed violent, but we all love each other. We love Gruber so much.”

You can’t think of anything clever to say.

You are thinking about all the times that you have wanted to grab your friend by the hair and smash his face into something, but you feel like you probably shouldn’t mention that.

You pull some crumpled bills out of the pocket of your work pants and pay for the espresso.

You wish someone would grab you by the hair and smash your face into something.

You don’t think you deserve it, but you’ve been wrong before. You probably do deserve it.

It’s a safe bet.

Maybe that’s how you could make some money.

Frustrated service industry workers could take out their rage and frustration by paying you to let them smash your face into something.

It could be donation-based.

You don’t want to be classist.

You could print up flyers and pass them out:

“Smash my face into something! Suggested donation: $5 – $10. No one will be turned away!”

Back to work, sort of. You drive with Gruber to a plant nursery almost an hour away.

On the way there, you listen to the college radio station and think about how you recently got laid.

You certainly didn’t see it coming. Why would you?

So, even though you knew that you were going out on a date, you did nothing to prepare.

She came back to your house, and when you opened the door to your bedroom you said, “Sorry. It looks like a depressed person lives here.”

You thought about saying something similar about your neglected, untrimmed pubic hair, but you didn’t want to call any more attention to the complex ecosystem of chaos in which you seem to live.

Does any of this make you an asshole?

Probably not.

If anyone ever calls themselves an asshole, you should probably believe them.

You make a resolution to believe every self-declared asshole.

And then let them smash your face into something.

But you’re not an asshole.

You’re just a loser in a mountain town populated with extremely rich people.

They know some secret that you don’t.

This is because you are dumb.

You and your best friends are a bunch of dumb drunks who will never pay their debts.

Like Paul, who lives out of his car.

And Jimbo, who pours shitty whiskey into a Maker’s Mark bottle that he carries around in his backpack.

And Avagyan, who is dating a 21-year old.

Though, when you think about it, dating a 21-year old actually doesn’t seem like such a loser thing to do.

Seems pretty cool.

This creepy guy at some hot springs once told you, “You’re only as old as the woman you’re holding.”

You imagine dating a 97-year old woman.

About letting her smash your face into the hood of a Lincoln Continental.

About fading into the sweet peaceful caress of the universal void together.

No, you’re not a loser, you decide.

And neither are any of your friends.

How could you think such horrible things about your best friends?

You dumb dick.

You asshole.

You really do deserve to have your face smashed into something.

And you’ll get rich from it.

You’ll finally pay off your ex-wife’s truck.

sbgs cowskull

Nathaniel Kennon Perkins is the author of Cactus. He lives in Boulder, CO, where he works as a bookseller and publisher at Trident Press. His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, The Philadelphia Secret Admirer, Keep This Bag Away From Children, decomP magazinE, Maudlin House, Timber Journal, and others. He is the recipient of the High Country News’s 2014 Bell Prize. 

submit to south broadway ghost society.

four hybrids – howie good

_DSC0295 (2)

Miss Plum in the Bedroom with the Candlestick

Crime was common back then, and the law itself often criminal. Nobody was safe from the thugs prowling the city. It took a constant and wearying vigilance to survive. If I happened to fall asleep, I’d wake up afraid. I think I was afraid she wouldn’t be there, peering out through a crack in the curtains. Why you here? I asked the first time she appeared. She just gave a fuzzy, fragile smile. The ambiguity was intentional. When you leave details out, it opens up possibilities for what can be – an ancient tree whose entwined branches support 34 brilliant candles.

Shredded

Private lives are now lived in public. That’s the problem with putting Velveeta on enchiladas. It’s only a matter of time before the celebrity chefs start to show up. I pedal away as if I have to actually get somewhere. Everyone I owe an explanation tries following me – sons, daughters, parents, co-workers, etc. We’re a wandering soap opera. “You can’t paint them trees,” protesters yell from the sidewalk. I just want some semblance of normality back in my life, some sort of quiet, and my heart to stop agonizing like a flock of gulls being sucked into a jet engine.

Shadowlands

When you look back over your shoulder, you see yourself looking quizzically back at you. You always assumed that you’d been given up for adoption. Now, more than 35 years later, you know. It’s night, and everything is also nothing, the dark howls and whimpers of women in search of their shadows.

The Later Years

Given a choice, I would want to be the sort of shrewd, goatish old man it’s said Rodin was, strolling about the boulevards and back alleys of Paris, while the work in marble went on nevertheless in his head and a young Russian-born French lady leaned lightly on his arm, and if her eyes were a little too wide apart, or if she didn’t actually read any of the books he recommended, he wouldn’t care, because it had just turned spring, and the air was like a mix of wine and brandy, and they were always at least somewhat drunk.

sbgs cowskull

Howie Good, Ph.D., a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of The Loser’s Guide to Street Fighting, winner of the 2017 Lorien Prize from Thoughtcrime Press, and Dangerous Acts Starring Unstable Elements, winner of the 2015 Press Americana Prize for Poetry, among other books. He co-edits the literary journals UnLost and Unbroken with Dale Wisely.

Photo: @sweetdangerzack

submit to south broadway ghost society.

eyes – dave owens

x9apT

Two sour faced guards escorted teenager Daniel Warren into the interview cell, shackled him to the metal grommets bolted to the table, and pushed him down into a chair. The boy’s orange prisoner suit did not fit, but someone, perhaps one of the guards, rolled the cuffs and sleeves up so he wouldn’t trip and fall. The lock clattered after the door slammed shut.

To the state appointed psychologist Raoul Hadras, the young man who sat in silence across from him at the table appeared not unlike many of the other troubled youths of this generation – thin, only a few weeks past his fifteenth birthday, a dozen pimples on his face, and expressive brown eyes. A shock of blond hair completed the image.
Daniel murdered his father and mother if the police report proved true. After his arrest, he demanded the death penalty from the court appointed attorney, and created quite a scene in the courtroom when the attorney plead not guilty on his behalf. The judge also thought the demand strange and questioned the boy’s sanity.

Most other youths Raoul evaluated often claimed insanity, and enacted performances that would make movie stars jealous – anything to avoid justice.

Daniel sat with yes turned down, and did not speak.

“May I call you Dan?” The doctor made a note in the evaluation folder.

“Sure. Why not? You wanna find out why I killed my old man.” The boy fidgeted in the chair, but did not try to escape the restraints. “I wanna die.”

“I must determine if you are fit to stand trial.”

“Yeah.” The voice came slow and sullen.

“So. May I call you Dan?” Raoul’s question, fashioned to create a familiar, less formal atmosphere, dated back to the time of Freud. The ploy worked sometimes, but sometimes it did not.

No answer. Raoul tried again with a gentle tone in his voice. “May I call you Dan?”

“I don’t care what you call me. Send me back to my cell,” he snapped back.

“Sometimes circumstances cause us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Would you please tell me about what happened?”

“He deserved it. Am I done?”

“Not quite. Why do you say he deserved it?” His question probed for anything to free the boy from his defensive shell.

“He beat me and my mother up all the time. When I was a little kid, he’d jerk me up by my arm and whip me with that leather belt of his. I hated the belt. I got whipped even if I didn’t do nothin’.”

“Your mother too?” Situations like the boy described usually meant the abuse affected other family members. Raoul understood the answer.

“Yeah, she got it bad. If she tried to protect me, he’d beat her with his fists. She didn’t tell people what he did, but behind her back everyone talked about her black eyes and the bruises all over her arms, and face. I got into fights with kids who said things about her.”

“Many fights?” The question sought to let deep emotions rise. He made another note in the folder.

Dan avoided the question. “My mother. I loved her. I didn’t kill her like the police said. I didn’t do it.”

“But you did kill your father?”

“Yeah.” His head rolled back and he stared at the ceiling. “Like I said. He had it comin’.”
Trigger point. The father. Raoul wondered what other triggers might provoke Dan to continue his story. “So you blame your father for your crime?”

Dan kept his gaze focused on the ceiling. “Everyone hated him.”

“Everyone?”

His head fell forward and his eyes locked onto Raoul’s face. “Everyone.”

“Please explain.”

The face softened for a moment. “His eyes frightened everyone. One of my friends, Jimmy, came to the house one night after school.” Dad screamed at him to get out.”

“That’s all your father said?”

“Uh, huh. He stared at Jimmy with those cold blue eyes – they could see right through you. When I try to sleep I see them. They’re always in my dreams. I didn’t like to sleep. Neighbors avoided him. They’d go to the other side of the street when they saw him comin’.”

“It’s called post traumatic stress, Dan. He frightened you the night you killed him?”

“I came home from school late. I heard him telling from the street. When I went inside the house everything was broken. Smashed chairs, curtains ripped off the windows. I went into the kitchen. Dad grabbed the refrigerator and threw it on the floor. He swung at Mom and missed, but his second punch hit her in the stomach. She fell down. I went over to her and tried to help, but he grabbed me by the shirt and threw me into the counter by the sink. Then he turned back to Mom. I knew he was gonna hurt her more.”

His eyes smoldered with tears and his head dropped to his chest.

“Relax for a minute, Dan. I understand why you are frightened. I want to help.”

Dan disregarded Raoul’s comment and continued. “I got up and took one of the broken chair’s legs and swung it as hard as I could. I hit him on the back of his head. He turned and started to get up, but I hit him again. I hit him two more times before he fell. I went to Mom. She said ‘Run Danny, run. He’ll kill you for sure if he catches you. Please run. I love you.’ Last time I heard Mom’s voice.” He jerked his head to the side and shook it. His wet cheeks glistened in the light of the single bulb that swung from a wire above his head.

Raoul took a handkerchief from his pocket and went to the other side of the table to wipe the boy’s tears. “Calm, calm. Nobody will hurt you while you’re with me.” Genuine sadness gripped the doctor and he felt his own eyes water. He thought to leave the handkerchief with Dan, but remembered the restraints and realized the pointlessness of such an act. He returned to his seat, sat in silence, while he made a few more notes in the folder.

Dan’s chin fell back onto his chest. His voice lowered and he mumbled, “Found the gun – Dad’s nine millimeter, in the stand by the bed where he kept it, made sure it was loaded, tucked it into my pants, and ran. I went across the street to Mrs. Thompson’s house. Her lights were off. She wasn’t home, so I ran around to the back, jumped the fence and hid under some cucumber vines. I tried to hold my breath, but was breathing too hard.” He swallowed, and waited a moment before he continued. “I thought he might hear my breathing so I crawled over the back fence and ran down the alley. There’s an old wooden shed there. I went in and hid behind some boxes.”

“And . . .” Raoul’s voice faded into a whisper.

“I heard his crazy screams. He was trying to find me. I kept as quiet as I could because I was scared more than ever before. I heard his shoes crunchin’ in the alley gravel. When I peeked through a crack in the wall I saw him standin’ outside the shed, I held my breath and hoped he wouldn’t hear me. I hoped he’d go away. He didn’t. He pushed through the broken door and came into the shed yelling ‘little bastard! I’ll break your neck and piss on you. Come on out coward!’”

The doctor’s voice became sympathetic for the first time since the interview began. “Now I understand.”

“After I made sure a round was in the chamber.” The boy continued as if he could not hold back the story. Tormented words gushed from his lips at a frantic pace. “I crawled out from behind the crates and held the gun where he couldn’t see it. He moved, and I shot him in the chest, but he wasn’t dead.” His voice quieted when he remembered the moment. “I shot him in the head two times, but he’s here with me. I have to die to get rid of him. I want to die! It’s the only way I can escape.”

The softness of the boy’s voice surprised Raoul. “You’ve no need to fear your father. I think you acted in self-defense and I’ll inform the authorities. I see a full life in front of you.” Raoul wrote another note in the folder. “Your father’s gone and he can’t hurt you anymore.” He raised his head and noticed the change in Dan’s eyes.

Cold, ice blue eyes glared at the doctor. “I’m not dead.”

sbgs cowskull

David Alan Owens’ stories and non-fiction works have been published internationally. From Alien Dimensions magazine, the High Strange Horror Anthology, and other periodicals, his audiences are as varied as his stories. He prefers to write science fiction, but sometimes a story of a different genre asks to be written. He lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Ann and his Boston Terrier, Mayla.

Photo: @sweetdangerzack