Rayanna Christian is a 22 year old philosophy and creative writing major at Appstate. She is a Boone local, eager to leave small town life. In her limited free time she loves singing and DND.
Positions of Power
It was between lunch and dinner so the diner was quiet, just the sizzling and clanking from the kitchen. Some kids had put Kung Fu Fighting on the jukebox, a song that had been giving me a six month long headache since it came out. I was in the most expensive suit I owned, hair so gelled it looked nearly blue-black, finished off with superman curl. I spotted Danny from across the room. He sat in the far corner booth, big blue eyes bloodshot, ringed with dark circles, greasy blonde hair. We’d seem like such a strange pair. Danny was terrible at faking it. His elbows we’re propped up on the table, hands tightly clasped, staring at nothing. It had been a month and I’d healed up okay but walking towards him, I felt like I had a limp.
My sister had tried everything to keep me from meeting him: begging, bargaining, threats. I’d even considered lying to her about it but I’d never been good at that. I told her the truth, that she couldn’t possibly understand my need to see him, to settle into the familiar groove of our conversations, tumultuous as they may be. Her and her husband’s biggest struggles were who would pick up the girls from soccer practice, whose fault it was that the turkey burned. Their relationship was uneventful, boring even at times, as she often lamented. She couldn’t possibly know what it was like to carry five years of constant drama, not that she ever had the chance to. She was too strong to tolerate conflict and too mature to engage in drama. Growing up, it left her plenty of time to clean up the messes I created because I lacked that strength.
“You didn’t try to find me at Kimmy’s graduation.”
Danny jumped as I sat down across from him, sitting back with his hands in his lap, licking chapped lips and staring studiously at the table.
“Wasn’t invited.” There were two mugs on the table and he pushed one towards me.
“Like that matters to you.” I sipped the coffee. Two sugars, three creams, like I liked.
Danny’s shoulders rose up to his ears and he ducked his head like he could hide his size in the tiny booth. “Kimmy, she’s… she’s important to you so… so I didn’t want to… you know?”
“I’m sure she’d appreciates that.” I watched my coffee swirl.
Danny clicked his tongue and huffed. “That girl always hated me.”
“Because she knew.” He snapped his head up to meet my eyes and I turned my gaze out the window, taking another sip. “Well, everyone knew but she seemed to be the only person who took issue with it. I tried to hide it from her…” But you made it impossible.
4 years ago, after we moved to that suburban hell, I knelt before the fence and the neighborhood. The sun had set. The summer of 1972 was brutal and heat radiated off the sidewalk underneath me. A flock of little kids flew by on their bikes, rushing to get inside before the streetlights came on. I began slathering white paint onto the graffiti.
Get out fagotts!!
Danny hadn’t wanted to call the police, had lashed out at my suggestion of it. He’d been throwing bricks at cops a year ago at Stonewall so it had been a stupid question. Compounded with the stress of the move, it was no wonder he lost his temper. Keeping stupid questions to myself was an easy way to avoid getting slapped again. Still, the throbbing, burning pain on my cheek was spreading to my eyes and throat.
The red paint wasn’t disappearing, just smearing and turning the fence pink. I could wait for the paint to dry but that would be minutes longer I’d have to stare at it and even then the red would still be there, under layers and layers of white paint. What if it faded? What if it chipped?
I looked up to see my new neighbor. At the time, she wasn’t a willowy, charming young woman. She was a knobby kneed, gap toothed, awkward little girl, shyly rocking from foot to foot with her arms behind her back, red curls pressed against her head with a flowered headband. Her eyes widened in shock and she politely looked away while I scrambled to wipe tears from my eyes.
“Hey! Um… Kimmy, right? Kimmy. What, uh… what can I do for you?”
She bit her lip, letting her hand fall from behind her back, a paint brush bouncing against her thigh. “I saw you painting and thought I could help. Some of the boys tagged our mailbox last week and it was a real pain. But I don’t want to bother you.”
Tears threatened again. “I would absolutely love your company, young lady.”
She grinned and plopped down next to me, dipping her brush in the white paint and taking slow, deliberate strokes. The words were now indecipherable but even if they weren’t, she probably wouldn’t understand. Still, I’d spared her the wondering. We worked in silence for a while.
“Why do you live with that guy? Cause you guys are old so why don’t you have wives and kids and stuff?”
I scoffed, snickering incredulously. “Well for one, I am a spry twenty seven, missy.” I nudged her with my shoulder and she let out a flurry of giggles but still stared up at me, expecting an answer. Danny had made me promise no more closets before we moved. I wanted to ask her parents first, get a read on their beliefs, but I’d promised.
“Danny is my partner. My boyfriend.” I cleared my throat, focusing on the painting, watching Kimmy’s nose scrunch up in thought from the corner of my eye. She pursed her lips and nodded, continuing her work.
“That makes sense.”
Danny dragged his menu across the table under his finger. “I… assumed most of the straights wouldn’t, uh… wouldn’t concern themselves with what happened between us.”
“So you did it because you knew you’d get away with it.”
That wasn’t the answer I wanted and I knew the explanation that would come next. I set my coffee down as he started.
“I can’t help it, Leo. You know that. It was never anything premeditated or anything like that. I’m just fucked in the head.” He knocked his fist against his temple unnecessarily hard, his restrained hissing bordering on pleading.
“That doesn’t make it ok.” My voice cracked and I bit down on my tongue. I shifted in my seat, pulling my back up straight, trying to acquire the posture of someone righteously angry.
“I know.” Danny deflated. “It’s not an excuse, I know.” He picked up his coffee and drank deeply, watching me over the rim of his mug, expecting me to fill the silence. Even when our relationship status was unquestionable he’d never laid a hand on me in public. I stayed defiantly silent.
I was supposed to have stopped smoking when we moved from New York city upstate. But Danny was supposed to have stopped drinking and considering his broken promise had lead to my throbbing black eye, I felt somewhat justified in escaping out into the yard with my stash of menthols while he passed out, sprawled across our bed.
The sky was cloudless, a smattering of stars you never saw in the city above, a cool breeze spreading goosebumps across my skin, signaling summer would be over soon. I propped myself up against the fence, lit a cigarette and groaned as it filled my lungs.
“You smoking in secret too, huh?”
I jumped, turning towards the source of the gravelly, Boston tinted voice. On the other side of the fence, approaching me with a half burned cigarette between his teeth, a stout man, bald with a neat red beard wearing a wife beater and khakis.
“Makes me feel like I’m in highschool,” he chuckled. He leaned against the other side of the fence, staring off into the street.
“I, uh…” I cleared my throat. My good eye was facing him and I turned my head just a bit to make sure it stayed that way. “I never smoked in high school. Picked it up in college. I was trying to quit but…” I chuckled, tapping some of the ash onto the ground and taking another long drag.
“My little girl just started highschool and I told her ‘I ever catch you smoking, you’re living in a shoebox.” He shook his head.
“Your little girl? Kimmy, right? I met her a couple days ago. Sweet girl.”
“Mm.” He nodded, pulling the cigarette from between his teeth. “Yeah, she told me. You’re uh… Leroy?”
“Yeah. Told me you were queer, moved in her with your uh, your buddy, right?”
I closed my eyes and lips around the cigarette, taking a deep pull and realizing I’d burned all the way through it. I sighed, tucked the butt into my pocket and pulled another cigarette and lighter from the other. “Yes, that’s right. I apologize if telling her was-”
“Nah, I don’t give a shit.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Kimmy’s mom and I, we ended up shacked up with some real hippy, free love types when we was broke and Kimmy was real little. Got no problem with it, especially one’s like you. Now those crazies down in Grenich, that’s a different story. But you’re alright, despite the fact you must have rocks in your head to move here.”
I made a sputtering noise, a mix of a cough, a laugh and general shock. “We wanted to get out of the city,” I started once I regained my composure. “We picked here because I got a job with the paper. I thought that by this time in my life I’d be teaching but for obvious reason, that didn’t happen.”
The man clicked his tongue and turned to face me. “You went to school to teach?”
“Yeah.” I snorted. “I know.”
“Think you could tutor my Kimmy?”
“P-pardon?” I turned towards him, brow knotted up on my forehead.
He pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, my Kimmy’s just like her mother was. Dumb as rocks and beautiful. Last tutor I got her tried grabbing her breasts but that’s not an issue with you.”
There was no need to correct his misconception if it would open me up to pedophilic acusations. My chest was suddenly light, like when I first assisted in 5th grade class, the exact opposite of how it felt when my advisor begged my to pick a “man’s major”.
“O-of course. I’d love to!”
He smiled and offered me a hand over the fence which I shook vigorously.
“It’s a deal, uh… Leo.”
“Call me, Julian, ok? Don’t make me feel old.” His tight grin faltered as his gaze shifted and I realized it was focused on my swollen eye. I pulled my arm back, turning my face away from him as I face flushed. A snorting laugh knocked me from my shame.
“I lived with a couple of guys when I was young. We were always getting into fights, beating the shit out of each other. None of us even wanted to screw each other! Can’t imagine the kind of mess you people get into.” He shook his head, shoulders bouncing with his laughter. He took one last drag of his cigarette and put it out on his side of the fence. “Come talk to me tomorrow. We’ll set up a schedule. Sleep, well, ok?”
He was already halfway across his yard before the cold, naked feeling subsided enough for me to chirp out “Goodnight!” at his back.
The night’s stillness was oppressive and significantly colder. Tomorrow, I’d throw away all the cigarettes I’d squirreled away. Tonight though, quitting could wait.
Danny scowled into his mug, setting it down and reaching for the sugar.“So um… have you been… you look good. You always look good.” His head lolled to the side as he stared sleepily at me and the exact type of warmth that I didn’t want welled up in my stomach. “Your hair, looks good. I like the uh…” He waved his hand in front of his forehead. I looked away and Danny cleared his throat. “But, uh, have you been alright?”
Everything I wanted to say pooled up in my throat as bruises that had just faded began to ache again. He was dumping sugar into his coffee and stopped when he saw me watching, putting the sugar back like he’d been caught.
“I’ve been staying with Summer. Been good to see my nieces.”
“That’s good. Good.” The cup trembled in his hands. His skin was dry.
“You don’t mean that. If you meant it, you would’ve let me go see her once in a while.”
“I never stopped you from seeing her,” Danny said, lip twitching in a lopsided scowl.
“Everytime I brought it up you’d tell me how controlling and bitchy she is or how her ‘perfect heterosexual lifestyle would mess up my worldview.” The words ached coming out but without the looming inevitability of being behind closed doors with Danny, I couldn’t stop the flow of resentment.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want you to have a relationship with your sister,” Danny sighed.
“You just… you depended on her. You even told me. You asked her if you thought you should be dating me!”
“She’s my big sister,” I said. “Of course I ask her for advice!”
Danny rolled his eyes and massaged his forehead. “Is it so wrong that I wanted you to depend on me?”
“Depend on you? And only you?” I had to whisper to keep from yelling.
“Yes! I-” He spoke quickly and fell silent when he realized the trap he’d walked into. He turned red as he scrambled to recover. “Leo, I didn’t mean-”
“How dare you?”
Two years ago Danny went on his first college speaking tour, signing books, debating preachers, inspiring young LGBT kids at colleges and receiving daily death threats. Days after he returned, while he was out running errands, I went to the doctor. When I came back I destroyed a path from the door to our bedroom. I tore down paintings, capsized the bookshelf, smashed his favorite beers onto the kitchen floor, knocked everything off of his side of the sink. He found me in the bedroom, illuminated by what little afternoon light pierced through the drawn curtains, lying in a pile of his clothes.
“What the hell?” Danny said, too shocked to be angry yet.
“Who was he?” My throat was cracked from wailing.
“Leo, what the hell are you-”
“Was it one of the other authors or just someone in a bar or what? That why you didn’t call me every night like you said you would?” I’d cried every tear I had and was now dry on the inside, crumbling. For a long time Danny was silent, ruling out the possibility that the doctor had made a mistake.
“How did you know?”
“You gave me gonorrhea! You dirty piece of shit!” I threw the first thing my hands landed on but it was only a shirt. “Tell me who he is!”
“Kitten...” He had his arms crossed, staring at the floor.
“Tell me!” I swore my throat was bleeding.
Danny took a deep breath, pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. “At one of the talks… he was, uh… he was a student.”
“A student?” I could feel my body bulging against my clothing. My smile lines tore down to the bone.
Danny swallowed loudly. His fingers dug into his forearm. I hoped they would leave a bruise. “He was… a fan of my stuff… he was maybe, like… 18? 19?”
“So you wanted a fucking child over me?” All those nights in New York’s gay bars I had fawned at the impact Danny had on kids, the way closeted teenagers with their first mesh shirt and a pierced ear flocked around him, shyly offering him copies of his articles and a pen, tearfully asking for advice which he would happily give them while the club danced around them. In the beginning, during these night, I would usually go home alone. I thought he did too.
He chose then to look at me. “It wasn’t about you, Leo. You weren’t there and-”
“I didn’t go because I already asked off work for two weeks straight to celebrate your birthday! Your fucking 31st birthday, you pig!” I stumbled to my feet, my body trembling as I walked over to him.
Danny threw his arms down at his sides. “Leo, listen! He was a fan, he followed everything I did and I was by myself-”
I stormed up to him, jamming a finger into the exposed flesh of his chest. “I’ve worshipped the ground you walked on from the moment we fucking met and this-”
“Well you fucking shouldn’t!” I knew the type of yelling that was built to rattle me and this wasn’t it. It was the 3rd, maybe 4th time I’d ever seen him cry. There was a pink mark where my finger had been. “I’m a shitty, horrible person and for some reason you decided to stay and I don’t know why!” He pressed the heels of his hands into his temples, pacing away from me, crimson crawling up the back of his neck. “You just… you can’t fucking leave Leo. What would...Fuck!” He wrapped his arms around himself, digging his nails into his forearms, leaving long red scrapes. I closed my eyes, swallowed.
“Make up the couch and leave me alone.”
Danny dropped his gaze to his lap, leaning back in his seat. A thick silence fell over us. The waitress came over, filled our coffees, nodded politely as I handed her the unopened menus.
Danny finally spoke once she had left. “It was just sex. That’s it.”
“And that makes it better?”
Danny shook his head. “No. No it doesn’t. It was wrong but… I thought it was one of those things…” He crossed his arms tightly over his chest. “...I thought you knew.”
I grimaced. A second later, my face fell slack. I tried to cover the surely weak expression behind my mug, sipping the bitter, nearly black fresh coffee.
“How many times?”
Danny took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, his cheeks puffing out as he did so, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. “None before we moved and nothing in the house.” He looked up at me and I scowled back, lest he think I was satisfied. “Eight different guys. Always while I was out of town for work. Usually only once.”
There was no need to ask ‘who’. I had a clear picture in my head of Danny’s type along with a detailed list of how that picture differed from me that I’d been building for three years.
“You really didn’t know…” Danny’s voice trailed off to a whisper as his hand fell from the back of his neck.
I jerkily shook my head, swallowed and cleared my throat. “I trusted you. It’s what you do when you love someone.”
“For the record,” Danny said. “...I never actually thought you cheated. It was just something that would come out of my mouth when I wasn’t being rational. It only ever seriously crossed my mind once.”
I looked up, fixing my mouth to ask ‘when’ but the flush on his cheek and his pinched mouth confirmed that his embarrassment was fresh.
“Oh God! Danny, come on!”
“I know you didn’t!” He held up his hands, eyes darting around, looking at anything but my eyes.
My face ached with a scowl. He was gonna give me wrinkles far too soon. I wanted to speak but all I had on my tongue were sharp demands of why he thought so little of me, why he would consider such an awful thing. But I already knew the answer to those questions. Asking would only cause a spark of pain and shame that would ignite Danny’s anger.
“You’ve got a fucked up sense of morals.” I picked up my coffee, swirling it back and forth. “And don’t even say it. I get it, ok? I know why but it doesn’t make how you act ok.”
Danny had returned from a tour for his newest book, When The Gays Rose Up: Looking Back on 1969, to a very successful spring cleaning and for the past week, his mood reflected my success. He’d only gone through one twelve pack, spent the evening snuggled up with me and our attention starved golden retriever, Bodie, on the couch, catching up on Charlie’s Angels. For the first time in along time, my body was clear of bruises I hadn’t asked for. I was in the bedroom, scanning over Danny’s newest manuscript with a red pen when Bodie skittered through the door, yipping and whimpering as he nosed at my thigh.
“What’s up with you?” I scratched behind his ear but he continued to jump nervously back and forth. I tried to hold him still to examine for injuries when a sound caught my ear. When it finally registered, my body went cold. It was yelling.
I rushed down the stairs, Bodie following behind me until right before I got to the door, tucking himself in the corner. Danny was out on the porch, roaring in the face of a middle aged man, tall, blonde and broad and red with rage as he yelled back at Danny.
“What is going on?” I stepped between the two men, pressing a hand to Danny’s chest, trying and failing to push him back. The blonde man’s eyes narrowed on me and he brought a finger to my face.
“You’re the one. You sick son of a bitch!” His voice was low and thunderous.
I reeled back, mouth falling open, racking my brain to find out how I’d offended this stranger. Danny grabbed my attention with a tight hand on my shoulder.
“This man says you molested his son,” Danny said with the cool matter-of-factness he used in front of others to communicate a threat to only me. I looked up at him, his eyes locked firmly ahead at the man, nose held high in defiance.
“Sir, I - I’ve never- I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“My son is not a liar!” he spat. “He told me you lured him in without him knowing you’re a faggot, giving him gifts and favors and touching on him. You sick bastard!” He made a move to push me and Danny shoved me back.
“You try that one more time.”
“Stop! Stop! Stop! Let’s calm down!” I cried, once again stepping between the two men. “Sir, your son’s name is Kyle, right?”
His scowl deepened and he nodded stiffly.
“Ok. Look,I’m sorry if I made him uncomfortable but I had no ill intentions with your son. It seems we just had a terrible misunderstanding.” Maybe it was the light but I thought I saw some tension ease from his forehead. “Now, if you’d like, we can sit down and discuss-”
“Don’t grovel to this homophobic piece of shit.”
“You shut your fucking mouth you degenerate!” The man advanced but Danny stayed solid, a twisted grin on his face.
“You wanna get your ass beat by a fairy? Get the fuck off my property.”
The man blanched in the face of the behemoth of a faggot in front of him and turned with his tail between his legs, flipping us off as he did.
“God damnit.” I stormed back into the house, Bodie colliding my legs as soon as I did so, whining and jumping up on me. I knelt down, holding him tight against my chest. “I know, Bodie, I know. You hate the fighting, don’t you? Poor thing, it’s ok.” I pressed my face into his back and groaned. “Danny, we could’ve resolved that like adults if-” I looked up. Danny was staring down at me, arms crossed, eyebrows cocked. It took me a moment to recognize the face and when I did, it struck me hard enough to draw tears.
He relaxed and turned to walk away.
“What the fuck Dany?” I shrieked to his back. He stopped. “A fucking kid? You would even consider…” Bodie whimpered. I was squeezing him too hard. It had been a good week and I’d hoped it would last a little longer.
“I don’t like kids, Danny! I’m not like you!”
Danny closed his eyes and swallowed,nodding stiffly. “I have… no right…” He took deep breaths in between rehearsed words. “...to be...rough with you… like I have been.”
At first, I was stupid enough to fix my mouth to accept his apology. Then he looked up, showing me those eyes, dumb and desperate.
“Rough with...Why do you think I left? What do you think happened that night?”
He put on a childlike pout, hardened by messy stubble. “I don’t remember,ok? I was wasted! I know I woke up and you were gone and there was... some blood. Look, I know it’s not right, Kitten.”
I put my coffee down, afraid to spill it. The absurdity sitting in front of me seemed entirely alien and simultaneously like my life began and ended with his. He stared at me, the lines in his face growing ever deeper. Silently giving him dirty looks always ended poorly and I dared to test his resolve.
“What?” he finally hissed.
“You’ve been rough with me for five years. And you think that’s the reason Ieft?”
“I don’t know Leo!” He leaned forward across the table. “I’ve been trying to figure out what changed that you’d disappear out of nowhere and I don’t get it. So if you got something to say to me, say it!’
I reeled back in my seat. My jaw was clamped shut. I folded my hands in my lap and considered keeping my thoughts to myself. He was lucky to have been drunk enough not to remember so why should both of us suffer with the memory? And if I said nothing he wouldn’t agonize over the details anymore. He’d simply chalk it up to me being over dramatic and trying to make him feel bad.
But I hadn't told anyone yet. Summer and the doctor has both made assumptions of varying accuracy.The truth still resided in my lungs, pressed up against my chest and had been choking me for a month.
“Summer made me go to the doctor.” I twiddled my thumbs, dragging over torn nail beds. “I had to get stitches.” Danny was seething at my inability to get to the point. He could wait. “There were these med students. I heard the doctor outside my room, showing them my file. He said ‘we can’t forget the severe health risk associated with homosexuality. This is the kind of damage they do to each other co-” I caught the broken word and a sob with a hand clamped over my mouth. If I waited to compose myself, I’d never say it so I sniffed and roughly slapped a tear from my cheek.
After it happened I packed six changes of clothes along with Bodie’s collar and went to the CVS, the drugstore we always went to because of its balance between convenient location and hateful cashiers. Sometimes, when we bought alcohol together, Danny would sidle up behind me and whisper in my ear.
“Think the cashier knows what this’ll do to my little lightweight? Wanna tell him how it'll loosen you up, Kitten?” The whole thing was scandalous. I’d swat him away. People stared. We laughed.
That night I bought a bottle of rose, ibuprofen, isopropyl alcohol, two ice packs, cotton swabs and feminine napkins. The cashier rang me up quickly in order to get the battered fag out of his face.
I got a hotel and constructed a story before I called Summer.
There had been a fight about money. I fell down the stairs. I was lonely.
I knew she didn’t believe me when she said she’d be up the next morning but I knew she wouldn’t dare call me out on it without proof.
She got there earlier than expected. I answered her at the door in a tank top and shorts so most of the damage was visible. She glowed like a goddess, neat and painted with wolfish eyes. I went numb with the strike of seeing her but before I could collect my senses, she shoved past me.
“Summer! Wait!” I tried to scramble in front of her but her eyes were already on the floor. She moved the pair of ruined boxers around with the toe of her shoe. I held my breath.
“I’m going to get your things.” She turned to walk out, already digging in her purse. She’d use pepper spray first, then improvise with whatever she could find in the house. Even when the boys my age began to dwarf her, she was there to defend me.
“Why shouldn’t I kill that bastard? What else am I supposed to do? Why didn’t you tell me?” Summer never cried but her eyes were as red as her lips as she stood shaking before me.
“Because I…” I let out a shaky huff, wrapping my arms around my middle. “Because I needed to deal with it myself a-and… You wouldn’t get it!” My throat ached as he cried out at her. “You wouldn’t understand that h-he… he just...things are complicated and I love him Sissy and I’m so stupid.” I pressed the heels of my hands into my burning eyes. “I’m sorry, Sissy, I’m sorry! I just need you now and I don’t know what to do so please!”
She looked me up and down, weighing her options. In the end, she wrapped her arms around me and my wailing buckled my knees. She sat on the bed and I clung to her, feeling small in her arms but horrified to find I was not as safe as I’d once felt. Summer’s arms weren’t big enough for much more than skinned knees.
I looked up. Danny had gone deathly pale, a white knuckle grip on the table, eyes just barely focused on me. “What are you saying?” he breathed.
I knew it would push him over the edge but I was so close to feeling relief and maybe I deserved to be selfish just this once.
“I never thought that you, of all people… you should know better than anyone how damaging that is. And you did it anyway because you only care about yourself!”
All at once, Danny tore out of the booth, hands clutched over his mouth as he bolted to the bathroom. I bowed my head and tried not to think about him hunched over a toilet, blood vessels bursting across his face, tears streaming down his cheeks. I tried not to imagine my hands in his hair, holding it back when it was long, petting it when it was short. I sat in the booth, staring ahead, sipping my now tasteless coffee.
I’d just started putting my nieces’ artwork on the fridge after a week long trip to see Summer when I heard a hard knock on my apartment door, surely the only person I’d called once I got off the plane.
I threw open the door and barely had the time to crack a smile before Danny lip’s were on mine, grinning and hungry. I threw my arms around his neck and Danny grabbed my thighs, lifting me off the ground and kicking the door closed behind me.
“I missed you,” he snarled against my lips as he stumbled the short distance from the door to the bedroom.
“I was only gone a week,” I giggled. He tossed me onto my bed, the old springs whining as I landed. “You could’ve got plenty of ass in that time.”
It took effort to let the accidentally loving statement pass without acknowledgement but I was too excited to risk ruining the moment. Danny straddled my legs and leaned forward, tugging at my belt. “Whatya want?”
Dizzy with arousal, I reached my hand down, stroking the apple of his cheek and sliding my hand to the top of the head, insisting with a nudge. “You could suck me-”
All at once, Danny was off the bed, his excited grin now a deep, fiery scowl, arms shaking at his sides, muscles bulging in his neck as red creeped up his face.
“No! What the fuck, no!” He stumbled back towards the door. “I’m not your fucking whore!” His voice broke as he screamed, spit flying from his mouth.
“You want some soft faggot to-” He turned from me, rocking foot to foot, grasping wildly at his head and chest. “-to fucking suck your dick and serve you, get someone else but not- Fuck!” He grit his teeth, breaths coming out in harsh, shallow pants.
I sat up, swinging my legs off the side of the bed and waddling towards him, holding my pants up with one hand, reaching towards him with the other.
“Danny, baby, calm down. Let’s-” I placed my hand on his forearm.
With an ugly, animal growl, Danny swung around, shoving his arm into my chest. I flew back, colliding with a gasp against the bed frame. Pain radiated through my back and the breath was knocked from my lungs as I crumpled onto the ground and Danny escaped into the living room.
Nothing was broken, not even sprained. I’d only be a little sore in the morning. Danny was hurting far worse than me, worse than I’d ever seen him. I tilted my head back to keep tears from running and took slow, purposeful breaths until the banging and slamming from the other room subsided. I crept in as silently as possible across the hardwood floor.
Danny was sitting on the couch, back to me, a glass in his hand half filled with what I assumed was my good whiskey, the liquid inside splashing back and forth with his violent tremors. The wood creaked under my feet and Danny sighed.
“You’re not gonna-”
“I don’t want to talk you into it,” I said as I rounded the couch. Danny’s eyes were red, jaw clenched, refusing to look at me. “Not at all. You don’t even have to tell me if you’re uncomfortable about it but-”
“But what?” He finally looked at me, tilting his head back and flaring his nostrils.
I knelt down, placing my hands on his knees. “You’re not just a fuck buddy, Danny. You’re my friend. So I care when something’s wrong.”
His legs tensed but he didn’t push me away, his eyes narrow, searching my face for an eternity until he tilted his head back and exhaled.
“Had to hook for five years when I got kicked out. Sometimes the Johns didn’t think I was worth the money so they took it for free.” His voice was artificially casual, accompanied by a stiff shrug. “I don’t bottom and I don’t suck dick because I don’t have to anymore.”
My heart climbed into my throat to choke me. Danny hated being treated softly but I could help but reach forward to hold his face in my hands. “Danny…”
“Happened to plenty other queer kids…” he grumbled, tilting his head back down but still avoiding my eyes.
“Doesn’t make it any less awful. I’m so, so sorry, Danny.” I searched his face and for all his soft, curved features I couldn’t imagine him young. Maybe that was the worst tragedy of it.
Danny’s nostrils flared. He peeked at me, then back at the ceiling. “Thanks,” he hissed.
I sighed and crawled forward into his lap, snickering at his half hearted protests as he scrambled to set his glass down before I knocked it out of his hand.
“Always crawling up in my space. You’re like a goddamn cat,” he mumbled, resting his chin on the top of my head as I settled against his chest.
“I’m an affectionate man.” I pressed my face into him, breathing in his familiar scent, now somehow lacking it’s usual erotic flavor but no less comforting. “And...it’s good to feel you relax.” I waited for him to push me away. He didn’t.
Danny slid back into the booth, his mouth still damp, pale and shivering. He ran his hands across his thighs, staring at the ground. “I don’t deserve you. I don’t deserve anyone but… especially you.” He rocked back and forth, sucking air between clenched teeth. “I love you, Leo. God I-”
“Stop,” I pressed my palm into my face. “Please stop, Danny. It’s not about that.”
“Then what is it about?” He leaned across the table. “If it’s not about me loving you and you loving me then what’s the point?”
I grit my teeth and closed my eyes. “Even if you love me...” I didn’t want him to see me cry. He’d seen it enough. “You were so cruel Danny. That’s the point.”
“Then why stay?” He snarled, the muscles in his jaw flexing, arms tightening around his chest. “Why be with me in the first place?”
“Because things weren’t always bad!” It came out too easily but he didn’t seem convinced. “You were my best friend! We had fun, so much fun.” I propped my head on my hand, caught his eyes and watched as his tight expression faltered and his arms began to relax.
“I can’t believe they can actually legally evict you for that!”
I thwapped a duvet onto the couch and took to fluffing the pillows unnecessarily. I’d cleaned and cleaned and cleaned the apartment but something was still telling me that everything was wrong.
“Is it stuffy in here?” I turned to him. “I can open a window.”
Danny leaned against the wall, the smallest smile on his lips. He looked me up and down, bit his lip and nodded. “That’d be nice.”
Tearing my burning face away from his vision, I scurried to the living room window, prying the old rusty thing open. I wasn’t exactly humble. When I turned 15, I lost my baby fat, a girl said I looked like Elvis, and my head never fully deflated. But this was the first time since college a man had looked at me this hard and suddenly I was flustered. “I really respect what you did out there at Stonewall. It’s a shame that it had such awful consequences but I really admire you for that, Danny.”
Suddenly, Danny was behind me, hands latched onto my hips, freezing me in place.
“So is respect for my work the only reason you let me crash here?” His scalding hot breath poured over the back of my neck. The women I’d dated had always been coy, never initiating sex or even hinting at it until I did and I was beginning to understand why. I swallowed, still fiddling with the window.
“You’re..” I cleared my throat, took a quivering breath. “...awfully bold.” His fingers crept under the hem of my shirt. “That’s usually my job.”
“Well that’s awkward.” Danny twirled me around, slotting his knee between me legs. He was burning and I hoped he didn’t notice how I was melting. “It’s mine too.”
I’d never imagined I’d be able to touch him and yet here he was, broad and intimidating. I slipped my hands behind my back to hide the shaking and ducked my head in hopes of hiding my assuredly dopey smile.
“What made you so sure…”
“Straight men don’t let gay men crash on their couches. You also haven’t punched me yet so…”
I buried a giggle in my shoulder, bit my lip in attempts to compose myself. Slowly, I brought my hand from behind my back, sliding my fingertips across the veins in his forearms, up his shoulder. “In defense of my innocence, I really did just want to help you out. I didn’t plan for this.” I draped my arm around the back of his neck, pulling myself towards him. His tongue darted out to wet his lips and I held myself back. I may not have had the upper hand but I could still maintain a little control if I made him come to me.
“Well lucky you because I did,” he snarled as he pulled me flush against his body and descended upon me with a wicked grin.
“Yeah, you really fucked my life up.” His lips twitched up at the edges and the warmness of his voice flooded my head. There was little I could do to stop my adolescent grinning.
Danny shrugged and motioned with his chin out the windows. “You think I’d ever consider this kind of life without you? House in suburbia, white picket fence, dog…” His smile fell and he cleared his throat. My dizziness subsided and I was oppressively sober. I lifted my head from my hand.
“I’m sorry about what I said back then. What happened wasn’t your fault.”
Danny shook his head. “No, it was.”
I wasn’t allowed to shower before leaving the gym. Danny was convinced (not incorrectly) that the local gym was filled with closeted men and if I’d been unfaithful, he would know. So I drove home, crusted with dry sweat, dreading the three-times-a-week ritual of stripping naked and maneuvering into various position while Danny examined me for foul play.
When I parked in the driveway Bodie wasn’t immediately at the car door whimpering for me. I opened it, peeking around for him as I stepped out. It was only 8, early for Danny to bring Bodie into the house. I shut the door and started towards the door. The street lights illuminated something in the corner of my eye, shimmering gold.
Bodie was lying on his side, motionless, a puddle of vomit around his head, an empty bottle of antifreeze next to him.
I through myself forward onto the ground, gathering him up into my arms. He didn’t wriggle for more attention or lap at my face. He wasn’t warm and pulsing with energy. My throat suddenly ached. I must’ve screamed because soon Danny was standing over me and several porch lights down the street had turned on.
“Holy shit, Kitten. I’m so sorry.” Danny’s voice grew closer and closer.
“Get away from us!” I shouted, jerking away from his voice, squeezing Bodie’s body to my chest. “This is all your fault!” I’d just wanted to be kind, to make friends in a new town with the man I loved, to be a good influence and a safe place for kids like I needed so badly when I was young. “I hate you! It’s all your fault!”
“No! No! No! Daddy!” From past the fence, Kimmy’s voice rung out. “Daddy! Give me the keys! It was Kyle or his Dad or his brothers or someone! I know it was! I’m gonna go kill him! Give me the keys!”
“It ain’t our business, Kim.” Julian’s voice was low but forceful. “People are gonna believe what they believe! Those are grown men over there. They know that.”
I pulled my face from the pillow of Bodie’s fur and looked over the fence, catching Kimmy and her dad’s eyes. Kimmy’s eyes were red, tears streaming down her face, shiny under the streetlights and I hoped those tears were only due to the drama of the situation and had nothing to do with me, that she would run off to her room to sob the night away, that she wouldn’t throw away a highschool sweetheart because of the choices of her tutor.
She turned to her father, pulled her shoulders back, transforming from a girl to a woman for a brief and beautiful instant. “I hate you.” She tore away from him, running onto the sidewalk and through our fence, barreling through the yard to throw herself across my back, arms tight around my neck.
We both sobbed “I’m so sorry.”
“If I wasn’t an asshole, it would've never escalated like that.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Hell, if we’d never gotten together you would’ve stayed with that girl, popped out a few babies and never experienced any of this shit.” He huffed a humorless laugh as he ran his fingers over his eyes.
“We weren’t ever gonna work out.” My coffee was hot and full again. I took a long sip. My ex was a sweet girl, a girl I probably would’ve stayed friends with. But her breakdown after she found out I was dating a man had ruined her for Danny and thus for me. “You finally admit I’m not just a tratorious, self hating gay man?”
“I just didn’t want you to leave me for a woman!” He ran a hand through his hair. The few greys there were hidden by the bright blonde. “Do you see how humiliating that would be for me?”
“Well you’re welcome for being a good prop for you activism,” I spat and felt immediately guilty. Then guilty for feeling guilty.
The day before, a hulking blonde man with an earing had collided with me on the way out of my office. He had been fresh from a screaming match with my boss and now he was coming over to my apartment. I was beginning to see why everyone said I was “too nice” for New York City and had warned me against moving. I leaned back on my hideous green futon, holding up the manuscript he’d given me. Queer America: A Collection by Daniel Mathers. I had promised him I’d read the first couple stories and give general feedback but that quickly turned into me devouring the thing over night. I was heavy with sleep deprivation but still buzzed with energy awaiting his arrival. When I heard a hard knock at the door I bolted to the door.
“Daniel! You made it. Come in, come in!”
“If you’re gonna call me Daniel, I’m gonna call you Leonardo.”
“Danny. Come in.”
He mosied in, eyeing my apartment that was impressive for New York, garbage anywhere else, hands shoved in his pockets. I didn’t own a TV, only the futon, 6 overflowing bookshelves and a stack of records nearly touching the ceiling. I waited for him to say something, cleared my throat when he didn't.
“I’ve been really excited to meet with you today!” I gingerly lifted the manuscript off of the futon, running my hand over the cover page. “I have a few questions but-”
“Whose this?” Danny picked up a framed picture of Summer and I from a beach trip a year ago. “Doesn’t look like that girlfriend of yours.” He set the picture back down, scanning slowly over the rest of my photos. “Got a lot of her here.”
“She’s my older sister,” I chuckled, walking up next to him, admiring the pictures I usually overlooked. It was the only proof I had that Summer did anything but sunbathe at the beach. We were both dripping wet, her blonder hair slicked against her head. I was grinning, squeezing her around the waist and gazing at her while she stared through the camera. “Girlfriends tend to be pretty… transient for me so I don’t put up many pictures of them. No offense to my Shelby! Shelby’s great.” She had countless polaroids of the two of us at her place so why would I need any?
“Hmm.” Danny nodded to himself, playing idly with a long blonde curl by his ear. “I’ve got 7 siblings, all older. Don’t really talk to them though.”
“So. My manuscript?” Danny turned towards me, pulling his shoulders back so he towered over me.
I grinned, squeezing the stack of papers to my chest. “Before I say anything else, this is… incredible. But as far as your struggles to get it published… I hope you don’t take this the wrong way-”
“Only if you mean it the wrong way.”
“What’s your highest level of education?” I asked slowly, shrinking into my shoulders as I kept his eye, gnawing my lip. “Only because some of the grammatical issues would suggest… again, let me say you are a talented writer but-”
“I never finished high school.” He said it cooly, though his eyes drifted from mine. “Got kicked out when I was 15.”
My heart shuttered. The manuscript felt heavier. “Incredible.” He looked at me with a furrowed brow and I cleared my throat, shaking myself back into composure. “Anyway, I can help. This type of editing is right up my alley.”
“Oh yeah?” Danny crossed his arms over his chest, the muscles in his forearms bulging and veiny. “And how much is that gonna cost me?”
“Consider it a passion project.”
“I know you think I’m just some pandering, mainstream conformist…” My face and chest burned, my hands quivered. “...who doesn’t care about the gay community or being progressive…” I wasn't a particularly strong man but I wondered if the mug in my hand might shatter under my grip as I struggled to suppress my pride and get out what I actually wanted to say.
“I never regretted coming out of the closet for you,” I said through my teeth. “Never.”
“Even after everything?” Danny scoffed. “You’re soft, Kitten. You’re not built for hate.”
I opened the door to find Kimmy on the porch with a splitting grin, flanked by an entourage of 5 high schoolers, 3 girls, 2 boys, shyly peeking at me over her shoulders.
“What is this?” I asked, crossing my arms.
“They didn’t believe me that my tutor makes the best lemon meringue,” she said with an innocent pout. “Really, I was helping your reputation so you’re welcome.”
I snorted, pinching the bridge of my nose. “What am I gonna do with you? Alright, let’s see it!” I extended my hand. “Lemon meringue is for A students only.”
Kimmy thrust a piece of paper into my hand, bouncing on her toes as she watched me look over it as torturously slow as possible.
“Kimmy… how do you get a C in gym?”
Her smile fell and one of the girls leaned over her shoulder. “Because she’d rather look cute then wear gym clothes!”
I folded the sheet back up. “Fair enough. You all-”
“You have a dog!” One of the girl squealed, lurching forward past Kimmy.
Bodie let out a yelp from behind me as the girl approached, forcing his way between my legs, tail between his. The girl reeled back with a guilty frown.
“It’s ok. He’s just so skittish.” I knelt down, burying my hand in the golden fur around his neck. “It’s ok Bodie. They’re nice.”
Kimmy smiled, making her way towards the door with the others in tow. I stuck my arm out to block them. “Hey, hey, hey! I’m doing spring cleaning and I don’t want any grubby fingerprints. Stay out here.”
Twenty minutes later, the kids has taken up the porch steps, watching one of the boys stumble through a magic trick. Kimmy sat next to me in a rocking chair, inhaling her large slice of lemon meringue while I sorted through a box of records, intent to have the task done by the end of the day. Out in the yard, one of the boys, a tall, broad blonde, was sprawled out playing with Bodie who had decided the boy was the least threatening of the bunch.
“That blonde boy, is that the one you’ve been talking about?”
“Shut up! Yes…” Kimmy pursed her lips together and flushed pink. “His name is Kyle.” The name dripped off her tongue like she couldn’t bear to part with it.
“Graduating is a good time for a love confession.”
She wrinkled her nose, hiding her red face in her shoulders. She took a deep breath to regain her composure, looking around. “Where’s Danny? I’m sure he wouldn’t let you have a bunch of kids on his property?” She picked up her coke and took a deep swig, probably to wash the acid from her mouth.
“Book tour.” No need in arguing and riling her up or making the mistake of telling her not to bother with adult business.
“Mr. Leo, sir.” Kyle trotted up the stairs, Bodie at his heels. “Your dog is so nice!” His eyes narrowed on the stack of records collecting at my sides and suddenly widened. “Whoah! Is that Grateful Dead?”
I lifted the record up. “You like them? I’m culling my record collection. Want it?” I offered it out to him and he pulled his hand back, shaking his head.
“Oh no sir! I-I mean, I love them but I don’t have any money-”
“Then just take it.” I thrust it towards him. “I don’t have the patience for yard sales.”
His hands fell to his side and he licked his lips. “That’s...I don’t even know you, man!” He flashed an awkward, lopsided smile and looked to Kimmy.
“He’s not going to take no for an answer,” she teased.
I stood, thrusting the record into the boy’s chest. “I’ve got 6 more inside, come on.” I waved for him to follow and headed inside. After a moment a set of quick footsteps followed behind me. I lead him to the record shelf, locating the other records in my alphabetically organized collection, running my fingers against them.
“They’re all yours.” I stepped back next to him. He stared nervously ahead and I finally gave him a small push on the back towards the shelf. He took the records as if they were made of glass, holding them to his chest and grinning in awe.
“How can I repay you, sir?”
I snorted, placing my hand on his shoulder and walking him back towards the door. “First, you can stop calling me sir like I’m an old man. And if something else comes up, I’ll let you know.”
“That’s why-” I looked up. His eyes were big and blue and sparkling in that particular light. I looked down at my lap. “That’s why I admired you so much. Even before things got bad, even before we were together, you were always so strong. I looked up to you.”
Danny snorted and I snapped my head up. A harsh smirk that didn’t reach his eyes sat on his lips. “You don’t mean that.”
“Yes I do.” I held his gaze until the smirk fell.
Danny picked up his coffee. “I only did what I did for you.,” he said, barely audible as he muffled it into his coffee.
“For me?” I shifted in my seat, a hand slipping over my tumultuous stomach. Now wasn’t the time to feel light and young and silly.
“Anarchist rebellion is way more fun....” He set the mug down and ran his finger over the rim. “But then you came along and you wanted all that classic American dream type shit. So I thought if I could help be a part of normalizing gay life you could, ya know… you could have that. That wasn’t always my goal, you know that.”
Danny cleaned the mess I made the night before, slept on the couch and left before I woke up. On the kitchen counter was a sticky note.
Picking up the anti-biotics. Be back around noon. I love you.
I tried to get dressed. Most of my clothes were old man clothes though and the others looked like a poor attempt to look hip. I sat on the couch in my pajamas, put a splash of whiskey in my coffee and sat in front of the TV until I heard a commotion outside.
Out in the yard, Danny was facing away from the house, towards a jumping, giddy Kimmy.
“Leo’ll probably wanna keep him in the house. Depends on how big he gets.” Danny’s voice was tight and awkward but kind and Kimmy had forgotten her distrust in him. She looked over his shoulder and beamed, waving me over.
Danny turned around as I made my way down the porch steps, shyly offering me a bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket. I tried to keep my hopes down as I approached. Surely it couldn't be what I thought it was. Danny never wanted to care for anything.
“Hey, Kitten.” Danny held the bundle out to my expectant arms. A tiny, golden, almost white retriever puppy gazed up at me, latching its tiny teeth into my hand and nibbling excitedly. I stared in disbelief between the puppy and Danny as I delicately held him to my chest.
“Danny….Danny, you… Oh my God.”
He stepped towards me, wrapped his hand around the back of my neck. Instead of trying to shove his tongue down my throat however, he pecked me on the forehead, and walked past me inside.
I pressed my hand tighter against my stomach. Danny’s thick blonde lashes fluttered against his cheek as he took a slow breath. He pulled his hand from the coffee, his tongue darting out between his lips to lick some of the wetness of his index finger. “My best work, I did for you. Everything in the last 5 years, I never planned for, never imagined. It’s all been you, Kitten. All you.”
My throat went dry. I brought my hand up to massage my tight chest. “And all the bullshit? That was me too?”
“My...issues...aren’t your fault.”
“Then why did you always blame me?” My voice cracked and I leaned back from the table, crossing my arms and looking out the window, biting down on my tongue.
“You always told me how I nag you and push your buttons or start drama-”
“Yo-” Danny lurched as he cut off the start of a yell, eyeing the other tables out of the corner of his eyes as he forced his anger into a whisper. “You knew I couldn’t help how I am when we got together.” He bit his bottom lip, screwing his eyes shut and shaking his head, the red in his face beginning to slowly subside. “You got me, you know? That’s why I love you. But you knew from the start.”
Only a few weeks ago, right after we buried Bodie, I sat in the window sill, wrapped in a musty cotton robe, matted with snot around the sleeves. Outside, Kimmy was talking to a boy on a motorcycle with a leather jacket. I could see butterflies in her stomach as she rocked back and forth on her toes. Her Dad would be home any minute and her curfew was in two hours so as long as she was back before then, I didn’t need to tell him.
“So my agent fucking calls and another god damn conservative, bullshit, ignorant publisher rejected my pitch!” Danny stumbled through the bedroom door, flopping himself against the wall next to me.
“Quiet down, Danny.” I felt like I’d had a hangover for a week now. He growled, dropping an empty beer bottle. It hit the carpet with a soft clink.
“You don’t fucking care?” he snarled into my ear.
I shivered, pulling my robe tighter around my chest and stood up, shuffling past him towards the door. “My dog was just murdered so forgive me if I don’t want to join in on your pity party.” Maybe if I didn’t show him any weakness he might retreat, at least until he sobered up.
It didn’t work and the first blow was to my head. The rest was fuzzy.
He left me on the kitchen floor and passed out on the couch, leaving me, I thought, to lick my wounds alone. I went through a few exercises in the shower to confirm nothing was broken or sprained. I fell asleep in our too big bed, numbed by a handful of ibuprofen. I woke up to the stink of beer, hands tugging at my pajama pants.
“Danny, no. Come on...” The negotiating was always the worst parts of these nights, though usually I could get away in less then 10 minutes without removing a single item of my own clothing. But for my own pride, I would make him paw and tug for a few minutes before I rewarded his patience.
Without warning he got a hold of my waistband and yanked it down, scratching me as his did so.
“Ouch! Danny, seriously, no. Not tonight.” I tried to wriggle out of his grip. In a flurry of motion, I was pressed onto my stomach, Danny straddling my back, the whole of his body weight pressing into me.
“What the fuck?” I cried, muffled as I pulled my face out of the pillows. “Why are you being such an ass? Stop!”
Danny leaned down and slurred into my ear. “...gonna show you what you’d miss if you left. Ain’t nobody better than me. Gotta remind you.”
For a moment, my body was numb, my head empty. Then I heard the rumple of fabric above me and the numbness gave way to panic. I couldn’t fight Danny but I knew him and knowing him had to be enough.
“Just get off of me we can do something else, ok?” When we’d first gotten together, it had been like this. He’d pinned me down by the small of my back with an almost violent passion.
“I’m sorry, ok! I’m not leaving. Just slow down, ok? Stop!” Sex with Danny had never been gentle but there was something something loving about his roughness, the excited reverence with which he groped and bit and scratched, attentiveness in the way he demanded full control, never wanting to receive, only to give.
“Danny, I love you. Please don’t do this.”
That night, though, there was none of that.
“So that’s just how it is then?” I sat back in the seat and shrugged. “You’re just never going to change?”
“No, Leo! That’s now what I’m saying!” He leaned forward, his hand creeping across the table. We watched as it shyly approached my hand, the tips of our fingertips brushing. “You’ve made me better, Leo!” He grabbed my hand, his jaw quivering.
“No I didn’t. And I can’t.” His grip wasn’t tight. I could pull away if I wanted to. “You have to be better on your own.”
“And I will!” He held onto my hand with both of his. “I’ll do it for you, ok? I’ll stop all this and it’ll never happen again so just please give me a chance, Kitten.” Slowly, as if it might burn, he brought my hands up to his face, pressing his cheek into my palm. Danny hated his soft, pink, chubby cheeks that obscured his cheekbones and jawline. The diner was busier now. Surely people were staring, though that wasn’t what was embarrassing him.
“You’re probably happier without me now but that doesn’t mean…” Danny’s voice trickled off. He scrunches up his nose, gulping. With a hard sigh he pulled my hand back, depositing it back onto the table.
Danny sat up, legs on either side of my waist, wrenching his belt off, grinning down at me like sex with him was a threat and not a promise. The words came out of my mouth thoughtlessly.
“Would you be my boyfriend?”
Danny’s brow furrowed. He tossed his belt and leaned down into the crook of my neck, peppering pink bruises that would be purple tomorrow. “Why?”
“Well we’ve been having sex for nearly two months now.” I ran my hands under his shirt, across that wide muscular expanse, over long stripes of scars. “It would make sense to- Ah!” He always went after the same spot between my ear and my jaw when he wanted to shut me up.
“That’s hardly a reason.”
“God, you’re dense,” I giggled into his shoulder, trying to wriggle away from his tongue. “Mm… Danny… I wanna keep you... really like you... Might even love you.”
Danny froze, leaning up with his hands on either side of my head, unamused by my joke.
“There’s no pressure to say it back or even feel it,” I cooed, draping a hand over the back of his neck. “I just wanted to be honest.”
He blinked once. Twice. “I’ve never... dated like that before.”
“You’re a fast learner.”
We stayed there, silent, sizing each other, waiting for the other to break. He finally laid his weight upon me, mumbling into my shoulder.
We began our dance again, too eager to get under the covers. Danny was a clumsy, juvenile kisser, all clicking teeth and bumping noses. He loved to tease me for my lack of experience with men, loved to praise me for my willingness to try and enjoy. Then though, he said nothing.
“Have you ever made love before, Danny?”
“What?” he laughed, half blowing a raspberry onto my bare stomach.
“Not sex or fucking.” I reached down, turning his head up to face me. “Making love?”
His lips pursed and he frowned, flushing pink as he shook his head and rested his chin on my chest. I ran my thumb over his lips, his soft, stubbly cheeks, grinning like a teenager.
“That’s ok. I’ll teach you.”
“Why did you agree to meet me here if you thought I was better off?”
Danny pursed his lips. He reached up, scratching the back of his neck “I, um… I haven’t been sleeping. Nothing helps. Nothing.” He sniffed and thumbed his nose. “Before you, you know, I’d never slept in bed with someone else and now…” He tipped his head back, scrubbing his hands over his face. His adam’s apple bobbed. I examined his neck for bites, bruised, scratches and found nothing. He cleared his throat and shook his head. “I uh... found some of your stuff.”
“No, you didn’t. You kept it instead of mailing it to me like Summer asked.”
He bowed his head. “Ok. Yeah. Leo, you… you don’t owe me anything but please… please Kitten… just so I can sleep… just give me one night.”
I’d borrowed Summer’s concealer so Danny wouldn't know I hadn’t been sleeping either.
A Fine Day Inside My Hole In The Wall
Dave Wickenden has spent time in the Canadian Armed Forces before the Fire Service, so is as comfortable with a rocket launcher as a fire hose. He has brought six people back from the dead using CPR and a defibrillator and has help rescue people in crisis. He has learned to lead men and women in extreme environments. He loves to cook, read and draw. Dave ran his own home based custom art business creating highly detailed wood and paper burnings called pyrography. One of his pictures of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien graces the walls of Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
At home in Sudbury, Dave and his wife Gina are parents to three boys and three grandsons. His two youngest boys are busy with minor hockey and fishing, so you can guess where you'll find Dave when he's not writing.
After 31 years in the Fire Service and attaining the rank of Deputy Fire Chief, Dave retired to write thriller novels full time. He has been a member of the Sudbury Writer’s Guild since 2014 and the Canadian Union of Writers. His first novel, IN DEFENSE OF INNOCENCE was released April 2018 and his second, HOMEGROWN released June 2018. He also has a couple short stories published.
I felt a sudden urge to vomit and had to swallow hard to keep my stomach where it should stay. After twelve years of speed traps, domestics and the odd drug shake down; this was my first gun call.
Slapping the gearshift into drive, the cruiser jumped like a racehorse given his head as I depressed the transmit button. “Eleven Bravo acknowledge. Three minutes out.”
Splattering slush arced towards the sidewalk as I sped down Oat St and passed the corner of Jethro Road. I locked the rear wheels into a slide that stopped before the rail tracks, facing the laneway that ran behind several older tenement buildings. As I pounded over the ruts in the gravel alley, my head bounced like a bubble head. A man in a blinding hunter orange jacket stepped between two vehicles and raised his arm to flag me down.
As I slowed to a halt, I dropped the window and felt immense relief at hearing approaching sirens approaching in the distance. I wouldn’t be alone.
“Little bastards took off that way,” said the man pointing towards the bridge that ran over the train tracks one street over. I could see foot prints cutting through the fresh snow angling across a back yard, headed for the opposite street. Pulling the cruiser off the main part of the roadway, I radioed the incoming units the direction the suspects had headed off in and stepped out into the damp fall air.
“I had just loaded my shotgun into the truck for the morning hunt and went back inside for the rest of my gear, when I saw these two smash the window of my driver’s door and grab my gun and my packsack.”
“Was the gun loaded,” I asked knowing the damage a 12 gauge could do to a person.
“No, but the shells were in my bag and the keys for the trigger lock.” He gave me the specifics of the gun and the contents of the bag.
“Eleven Bravo to all units, suspects are armed with a shotgun.”
“Sir, please go inside. Someone will come see you for more information.” Not waiting for him to acknowledge, I jogged through a rear yard following the tracks. I kept to one side so not to mix up the prints or the scent.
I scanned the neighborhood ahead of the trail, but nothing was moving. The double line of footprints, running shoes by the tread marks, crossed the bridge before turning in between another two buildings. There was a spot on the edge of the bridge where the foot prints had trampled two circles in the wet slush from last night’s snowfall. From that spot, I could see into the back yard where the hunter stood watching my progress. The perps had watched him pack his weapon into the vehicle and took advantage of the opportunity. They hadn’t expected such a fast response.
I crossed the bridge as one of the other responders slowed at the intersection and I pointed the direction the suspects had taken. The cruiser sped up down the main avenue to the next cross street while I continued on foot, slipping on the wet snow that sat over the still unfrozen grass. I could feel the cold moisture seeping into the leather boots even though I must have used half a jar of water proofer on them. I knew I would end up sick as a dog before this was over.
Running between the two buildings, I slowed as I came to the corner and peeked around the vinyl siding in the direction the visible prints went. Braced for a blast from that shotgun they were lugging. I knew my vest would absorb the blast, but would do nothing for my head or lower extremities.
No explosion of pain or noise met me and I let out a shuttering breath of relief. The trail crossed another back yard and met another laneway. There was a patch of slush that looked like one suspect had slipped and fallen. A shock of wet grass spread in a gash, breaking the dirty white layer of snow. I took extra care as I closed on the track. The last thing I needed was to fall in the drenching mire. That, on top of the wet shoes would be the death of me. Sick time would take a kicking.
At the alley, deep fresh mud tracks gave clear prints. We could cast them as evidence if we captured them. I stepped wide around them and found snow mixed with mud foot prints cross the next yard and up a set of steps to a second-story apartment. Trash piled high beneath the stairs and there was little upkeep in this older building.
Keeping a close eye on the windows, I ran past the stairs and out to the front of the house. At the street, I keyed my mic and said, “Eleven Bravo to dispatch. Suspects have entered a two story dwelling at 19 Willard Avenue.”
Within seconds, the whine of tires spinning for traction on the slick pavements came from both ends of the street and closed on my position. I pointed to the upper floor and while one officer, shotgun to his shoulder covering the building, the other ran bent over to where I was standing between the two rundown buildings.
“Suspects grabbed a Lakefield Mossberg pump action in a green carrying case and a bag containing a variety of items including 12 gauge shells,” I said to Griffith, my new best friend. I felt a less nervous having backup. He nodded and together we mounted the staircase.
At the top, the covered landing opened to two entrances. Beer cases and more garbage bags covered all but a trail to the doors. It was obvious we were dealing with a pair of high class perps. The one thing that stopped me cold was the empty diaper boxes among the refuse. It can get dicey when kids involved.
Keeping out of the direct line of the first door, I hammered at the door with a gloved fist. When there was no response, I rapped again. “Police, Open up!”
Somewhere deep in the apartment, came a startled cry of a child. It rose in volume as the door cracked open and the face of a woman, her eyes squinting at the early morning light, hair falling across her face in a disheveled mess.
“What’s wrong,” she croaked blinking at my uniform.
“We believe two men armed with a weapon entered this building. Are you alone, Miss?”
Her eyes opened in fright as she shook her head. “Just me and my little girl.”
“Do you know who lives next door?”
She nodded but refused to elaborate and I could read the fear in her expression as her eyes darted back and forth from me to the sound of her child’s cries.
“Why don’t you grab your girl and come with me?” I said giving her a chance to get to safety.
She nodded and turned back towards the bedrooms and the wailing child. I kept my foot in the threshold so the door would not close behind her. My hand was on the butt of my service pistol just in case she was lying about being alone. The cries died out, and she came out of the bedroom with the tear stained little girl wrapped in her blanket. Without ceremony she pressed the toddler into my arms which drew a scared whimper, pulled on a pair of boots and a large hoodie before retrieving the girl.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she squeezed past me to descend the stairs.
With Griffith guarding the entrance, I entered the woman’s apartment and did a quick sweep to ensure there were no other occupants. Retracing my steps to the landing, we positioned ourselves on either side of the door which was no easy feat because of the accumulative trash. Much of it was rank, and I prayed it would not adhere to my clothes. I was leaning deep into it to clear the doorway.
With a nod to Griffith, I pounded on the door and repeated my call to open the door. There was a crash of glass within the apartment and we froze, both wondering what was happening on the other side of the wall.
“Suspect has rabbited,” said a voice that expressed amazement. “He jumped from the second story. 10-43 in pursuit. No sign of a weapon.”
Griffith and I exchanged glances. There was still one unaccounted for. He had to be in the unit. There had been two sets of tracks going up the stairs. I raised a single finger up to my partner and then pointed at the door with my thumb. He nodded.
“The building is surrounded,” I yelled. “Let’s end this with no one getting hurt.”
My imagination was in high gear and I could picture some scared punk, the shotgun getting heavier and swaying as he pointed it toward the door. He would be desperate and there was no way of estimating what he might do at this point.
The seconds dragged by as we posed there, both waiting to see what the guy might do. My nerves were dancing on a live wire and I had to force myself to take long, deep breaths to calm myself. A trickle of sweat dripped from Griffith’s hairline and I realized that he was just as scared. That knowledge helped to steady me. We were feeling normal reactions to a high-stress situation.
As if reading each other’s minds, Griffith pointed at the door and then to himself and I drew my pistol. Seeing me, he did the same. There was no Sergeant to write us up for drawing our weapons, but we would at least be ready if the guy was waiting for us with a loaded shotgun.
Griffith wormed his body forward so only his legs were before the door. He drew back one of his thick-soled boots and like a piston, rammed it under the doorknob. There was a cracking sound as the old wood splintered and the door swung open to slam into the wall. Griffin’s pistol aimed into the apartment from his position on the floor as I curled around the frame, my weapon scanning for threats. There was no sign of the perp. With my gun arm extended, I reached down and helped Griffith to his feet.
The unit held a kitchen-living room with two open doors; one leading to a bath and the other to a bedroom. The first thing I noticed was the green gun case on the table. Keeping my firearm aimed towards the two other rooms, I sidestepped an overflowing garbage can and stepped towards the table. It took a second to confirm that the gun was still secure within the case. I felt a ton of relief but also felt my knees sag and I had to force myself to keep standing. Together, we cleared the two other rooms but there was no sign of the second suspect.
After we both holstered our weapons, we radioed an update. Seconds later, there was a pounding of feet on the stairs and the Staff Sergeant poked his head into the unit.
“Are you sure there were two?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” I said. “The gun owner saw two suspects boost the gun, and I followed two sets of tracks from the scene to this building.”
“There were two sets of fresh prints on the stairs,” said Griffith backing up what I had said.
“Only one went through the window and they have him squirreled away in an attic two houses down the street,” said the supervisor. “So the guy must be here somewhere. Double check everything.”
Griffith and I split up with him going through the kitchen cupboards while I went through the bedroom. I checked under the bed but there was nothing but dirty clothes and an army of dust bunnies. The closet held a pile of clothes in one corner which I pushed around to insure he hadn’t burrowed himself under and two suitcases in the other. Neither room had an attic access, so he hadn’t copied his partner’s genius strategy of hiding in a dead end hole.
When I left the room, I could hear Griffith in the bath. Remembering the stink of the garbage on the landing, I stepped out of the unit and tossed garbage bags down the staircase, thankful of the leather, puncture resistant gloves I was wearing. Still there was no sign of him.
The door of the first unit which held the woman and child was still open, so I went through her apartment once again. The difference in the two units was remarkable. The young mother took pride in her home. It was clean and bright with crayon and marker pictures posted throughout. Although careful not to miss any hiding space, I was mindful not to just toss the place. A single parent didn’t need the extra grief.
I finished up, not finding anything suspicious and walked back out to the landing to find Griffith shaking his head.
“I can’t figure it out, Mark,” he said frustration written in his expression.
“Could he have pulled a Davy Crockett and backtracked, stepping in the prints he made going up?
His eyebrow rose as he considered this and shrugged.
Both of us began making our notes as we waited for the Criminal Investigation (CID) people with their cameras and other evidence gathering equipment. When the radio announced that the other suspect had been captured, we both let out a breath of relief. He might enlighten us on his partner’s disappearing act.
CID went over the apartment and the recovered stolen items, photographing and entering anything that might be evidence. It was a painstaking and slow procedure but we were all aware of how a case could be lost by the smallest omission. Everything was in the details.
After a full hour and a half, they packed their gear and left us to contend with the apartment. The landlord was on the scene and we would turn the unit over to him to secure. We walked him through the unit so he could see the state of his property.
“I would suggest you get rid of the garbage in the landing and under the stairs as I’m sure our friends at Fire Services would consider it a fire hazard and might give you some grief,” I said thinking it might also make it a better place for the other tenants.
He nodded his head with a bored expression and from the facial exchange with Griffith, I knew we would have to follow up with the Fire Inspection Department to get any action from this slumlord.
While he fitted a lock hasp to the door frame, I looked over the unit one last time as if it would reveal where the second suspect had gone. But there was nothing but trash and a tired, worn out sense of lost hope.
I stepped towards the door when I heard it. I’ve heard people say their blood went cold and until then, it was just a phrase. At that moment, I knew what they meant.
The sound was low and animalistic. A groan—of pain or despair—I could not discern, but it sounded desperate.
I spun in place, raising my hand to silence the landlord. I heard Griffith re-enter the unit and move to one side. I stood there rooted in place, my senses reaching out to determine where the noise had originated. Long minutes later, another low moan followed by a strained whimper. I looked back and Griffith nodded. He’d heard it. It was coming from the bedroom.
I entered the room, allowing my eyes to scan the interior, but saw nothing. Moving aside, I allowed enough room for my partner to enter and we stood in silence. Minutes passed with nothing but the pounding of my pulse in my ears.
It came again, louder because of the closed area. It originated from the closet. I closed on the recess, seeing the pile of clothes and the suitcases. The bar that hung for jackets and shirts was almost empty. Other than that, it was empty.
Subtle movement made me jump like oil on a hot skillet. It was a tremor rather than actual movement. One suitcase, a large, soft-shell with ‘Delsey’ stenciled across the fabric shuddered as if the building was feeling the aftershock of an earthquake. Its sides bowed outward and seemed to squat on its caster wheels.
With my foot, I tapped the side of the case. This brought forth an agonizing grunt, and I looked back at Griffith. His eyes were wide, and I noticed he had his pistol half drawn out of its holster. He swallowed hard and nodded to continue.
I reached for one of the leather buckles and undid the closest. The further one followed, causing the zipper to take the full weight of whatever was inside. I grasped the pull tabs on both sliders and pulled them apart. As they opened, the contents shifted and the teeth of the zipper pulled apart and the body of our missing suspect slid out of the case into a tangled heap on the floor. I fell back onto the pile of clothing in the far end of the closet to avoid the mess of bent arms and legs.
The suspect lay panting like a dog left in a vehicle on a hot day. He was pale, yet slick with perspiration. His limbs looked were locked in place with his knees pressed to his chest and his arms and hands squeezed together as if in prayer. He looked like a mummified child found in the Andes from some ancient civilization.
Behind me, Griffith says, “A regular Jack-in-the-box, with a broken spring.” The comment release more tension than he knew.
When I reached out to roll him over, he groaned as his entire body moved as a unit.
“I think his arms and legs are frozen in place from being cramped in the suitcase for so long,” Griffith said in an amazed tone. “I’ll radio for an ambulance. This boy is not walking out of here soon.”
A half hour later, Emergency Medical Services carted our suspect down the back stairs on a stretcher as he moaned and groaned as blood began to reach the lower extremities. The Staff Sergeant had returned and after looking at us in disbelief as we explained how we found him, he half-heartedly chastised us for doing an improper search of the unit. We could tell that there was no way in hell he would have found the suspect if the roles were reversed.
“I’ll stop and pick us up two coffees before I head back to the station to fill out our report,” Griffith said as we descended the stairs.
“I’ll be right behind you,” I told him. “I have to go back and inform our happy hunter he won’t be getting his shotgun back soon.”
He moved to the street. I stopped and listened to the water dripping off the trees as the morning sun melted last night’s snow. The sun felt good on my face and although I had been up all night on the graveyard shift, the fact that no one was hurt in this dangerous incident pushed the weariness away. It was a good feeling.
- Matthew 12:43-45
Our own St. Edward, son of that king who bears the mournfully mordant epithet of Aethelred the Unready, is remembered as Edward the Confessor. The nickname is a noble one, evoking as it does the penitence of man and the pardon of the merciful God; and certainly a king will not object if he is better known for hearing others’ faults than for seeing his own kingdom slide into the chasm of 1066. But like the king his father, we were all of us unready for the onward-marching cataclysm that united Angle and Norman in 1914. And I for my part was unprepared for the malevolent genius that turned the very Sacrament of Confession against us.
Let me at once answer to the name of that notorious individual who so disgraces the legacy of Falstaff by the occasional stumbling foray into respectability: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, at your service. I dare to hope that you (gentle reader) may share my fondness for the art of the detective story; but I regret that in the present case, I can offer no better hero than myself. My only defence is that the role was thrust upon me by those most annoying interruptions of murder and war.
My friend Fr. O’Connor and I had accepted an invitation to dine with Professor Wright, philologist, at Exeter College, Oxford. It was April of ’14, and the shades of winter were in full retreat; but other shadows were lengthening over Christendom.
“We owe much to the Germans,” the tiny Professor was saying as I refilled my wine glass once again. “It was their Grimms who rescued the art of fairy stories from the domain of old maids and children, allowing us to take them as seriously as they should be taken. I only grieve that England has no true mythology of her own.”
I waved my glass in protest, deftly catching the overslosh in that selfsame glass. “You forget, sir, the ancient legend of the once and future king!”
Wright smiled sadly. “I fear, Mr. Chesterton, that our own King Arthur is in fact a mishmash of French tales, left over from the Norman Conquest.”
I opened my mouth and found nothing to say. It was like discovering that Santa Claus was not real. (A discovery which, happily, I have yet to make.)
Fr. O’Connor sipped his brandy and remarked in his kind, shrewd voice, “I will cheerfully grant Germany sole custody of any tale they like, if only they will refrain from trying to reenact the Conquest this year.”
An ill-fated observation. Just as he was setting down his brandy, a tall, thin lad burst into the room in evident frenzy. “Professor, it’s horrible! Horrible!”
“John Ronald!” snapped Wright. “Pray compose yourself, sir.”
The young man took a breath. “I’m sorry, but—Professor, it’s Fr. Grey. He’s been murdered!”
We leapt to our feet, and I snatched up my sword-stick. “Young man,” said Fr. O’Connor, “take us to the scene at once, if you please.”
That sharp-eyed lad led us to the chapel at the northern end of campus. Though not at that time a Catholic myself, I instinctively dipped my fingers in the holy water font as we passed through the vestibule to the candlelit sanctuary. There we beheld a gruesome sight: a corpse in clerical black, half-dragged from the confessional and sprawling in a splash of vivid red. Three or four students had gathered nearby, staring like dawn-caught trolls.
“Step back, please, everyone step back,” said Fr. O’Connor. He strode down the aisle and knelt by the twisted body, making the Sign of the Cross. I heard him mutter, “As I feared.”
Now, as you may know, I have been responsible for rather a large number of corpses in my career. My murders, however, transpire on the printed page. Before that night, I had never stood over the remnants of a brutal martyrdom. Between spiritual horror and visceral shock, I found nothing at all to say—a rarity.
Our host, however, kept his wits and tongue. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just like Fr. Damascus. Quickly and efficiently stabbed to death, and then this.” He jabbed his finger at the dead man’s torso. “Carved into the body, just over the heart.”
Through the tatters of Fr. Grey’s vestments, I could see a five-point star slashed into his cooling flesh: a star with the apex pointing downwards. To his feet, to the earth, to the ones beneath the earth. Beneath our feet.
“The seal of Satan,” whispered Wright.
“Do not say that name.”
I have often thanked God for the gift of the telephone. It was mere minutes before the police arrived, summoned by some panicked or solicitous young scholar. Once they had taken charge of the scene, my companions and I returned to Professor Wright’s now somber chambers.
My voice had reawakened, and with it my thirst. I poured myself a tumbler of dark wine and drank it off, then rounded on my friend. “Father, what in mercy’s name is happening? Who is Fr. Damascus?”
He slumped into his dinner chair, retrieving his prandial brandy. “A priest was killed last night in Sussex. The details were kept out of the news, but he was dragged from the confessional and marked with the Pentagram, just like Fr. Grey.”
“That is monstrous.”
“For once, my friend, there is no debate between us.”
Sussex, I thought disconnectedly. Not so far from here. Three hours by train.
“But forgive me, gentlemen,” Fr. O’Connor continued. “I must read my breviary before bed. You’ll pardon me if I retire?”
“Of course, Father,” said our host, and we stood.
The estimable professor and myself chatted for a few more minutes, in a desultory manner, but soon concurred that there was little more to be said on so dire an occasion as this. I withdrew to my chambers and maneuvered my bulk into night-clothes. Then I sat on the bed to ruminate.
An old Anglo-Saxon saying has it that “A man does as he is.” I think perhaps what I am is an old fool who believes too many fairy tales; but in the course of a restless night, my inmost self decided on my course. The next morning, I took leave of my friends and boarded a train to Sussex.
“Fr. Damascus, ’ee say?” grumbled the old gaffer at the bar. (The rigors of my journey had impelled me to begin my investigation at the cheerfully named Wyvern’s Watering-hole.) “Sure’n I ’member ’im. Good fella.”
“Best confessor in the county, they say,” added the barkeep, toweling off a tankard.
“Ayup. Sin’n shame, what ’appened t’im.”
“Devil’s work,” grunted the barkeep.
Agreed. Hastily finishing my drink, I paid my tab and the gaffer’s and headed for Our Lady of Sorrows. There, I had the fortune to encounter the grizzled, gregarious Mrs. O’Feeny, who was in the very act of mopping the confessional.
“Oh, the father was a good father, that he was, the best of fathers. Read a man like a book, he could, read the conscience of a man just like it was an open book right in front of him on the page there, it was. Best confessor since St. John Vianney, best confessor since Fr. Grey! Why, he could just look at a man--”
“Madam!” I inexcusably interrupted. “Did you say Fr. Grey? The priest from--”
“Eh? Oh aye, Fr. Grey, ’nother man of God. Had the sight, they said, best confessor since St. John Vianney himself, him and that other feller, what’s his name now, anyway, best confessor since--”
“Madam. The third priest you mention. This may be a matter of indescribable significance. Can you not recall his name? I beg you to search your memory with the utmost--”
“McKinney, that was it, Fr. McKinney, lovely man by all accounts. Could read a man, he could, just like St.--”
“Many thanks, madam!” I called, already bustling for the distant egress. “May the Lord bless and keep you, and make His face to shine upon--”
“Oh aye, and to you as well, I’m sure!” she called after me as I escaped into the burning light of day. The final word was hers; she had earned it.
Once I reached London, I called Fr. O’Connor from every telephone I could find. It was, of course, entirely possible--nay, overwhelmingly probable--that whatever tenuous connection might exist among the three priests was of no conceivable relevance to the case. It could even be imagined that, per impossible, the venerable cleric had no need or desire for my help. But these were mad fancies. Failing to find the man himself, I left importunate messages with his increasingly courteous secretary.
It took a stop by the offices of my friends at the Illustrated London News and a visit to Westminster Cathedral to track down the parish of Fr. Joseph Meriwether McKinney. I remembered (eventually) to send a telegram to my beloved Frances, explaining my absence in terse but eloquent terms: “Am investigating foul play. Have promising lead.” She cabled back with eerie promptitude: “Request update on case of missing husband.” But it was too late: minutes were now at a premium. I partook swiftly of three courses at the nearest restaurant, lit a cigar, and caught the first omnibus I saw.
The mystic heraldry of dusk was opening from the west when I arrived at Sacred Heart Church. I took a seat near the back, flinging my hat recklessly into a distant pew, and settled down to observe the penitents.
A fair number of people came and went over the next hour or so, but at last the confessional stood open. Quaintly, the church had no electric lights, and soon only a few candles kept the full dark at bay. I rose as quietly as a man of my stature can, and drew closer to the booth. As I did so, a narrow-shouldered man in a shabby coat entered the church. He was glancing about him in sharp, birdlike motions; I happened to be just entering the shadow of a pillar, and a curious notion bade me pause there. The newcomer, apparently satisfied of his solitude, proceeded to the booth of Reconciliation.
Slowly, I paced closer. No gentleman would eavesdrop on a Sacrament, but I could not help overhearing a raised voice, which grew rapidly to a series of anguished moans. I quickened my step, but paused again upon realizing that the anguish was proceeding not from the priest but the penitent.
“Such horrors I have done!” cried the voice, now fully audible in the sanctuary. “Shrive me, Father, you must shrive me of these sins!” A pause, and a lowered voice. Then: “Yes, yes, I swear. I shall go to the police at once and turn myself in, but I beg you to send me forth with my conscience clear!”
I knew that voice, I realized. And something about those darting eyes, glimpsed in the flicker of flame, stirred memories. Who was this raving--wait--could it be--
“Yes, yes!” he suddenly screamed. “The devils within me have once again come out. And when they return, their powers will have grown sevenfold! Thank you for my apotheosis, Father. Thank you for my ascension!”
At that, I lunged forward and ripped the door off the confessional. The man within had drawn a chipped and dirty dagger, and was punching through the wicker screen to seize Fr. McKinney by the cassock. He turned and saw me, and his face twisted in a snarling grin. “Why, Chesterton, of all people! The Dark Ones are funny indeed.”
“Crowley,” I said. “I thought you were in Paris.”
“I am everywhere. And you will finish the mightiest ritual of my career!”
With a ring and clatter, I drew the sword from my cane and tossed the scabbard aside. “I hope you have a keener blade than that one, man of Satan.”
“Satan is nothing! A ladder to be climbed and kicked away. Like this whimpering man of God!”
He made another effort to grab Fr. McKinney. With my free hand, I caught him by the back of the coat and dragged him into the aisle; and with the strength and celerity of a madman, he spun and back-kicked like a mule, catching me just above the solar plexus. I stumbled backwards, tripped over a rug-wrinkle, and smashed the pew behind me as I sprawled. Crowley sprang at me, raising his dagger, and I stomped both feet into his midsection, launching him into the side wall, where he crushed a plaster statue of Our Lord standing before Pilate. I struggled back to my feet as he vaulted the Communion rail to stand on the holy altar, bellowing dark invocations. But as I mounted the marble steps and raised my blade once more, he turned and bashed the tabernacle with both fists, hurling it from its place of sanctity—and some reflex of reverence in my body, wiser than my half-agnostic intellect, made me drop my sword and fumble to catch that plummeting golden Ark. As I did so, Aleister Crowley escaped.
“The wickedest man in the world,” said Fr. McKinney.
I nodded. “So they say.”
Ten years before that night, I had written a review of Mr. Crowley’s brilliantly sinister poem, “The Sword of Song.” I need hardly say that I was not favorable in my views; and Mr. Crowley thereafter challenged me to a public debate. He was, and remains, the one and only man whom I refused to meet in such a battle. Call it pusillanimous if you will; but no good, I knew, would come of soiling the minds of myself and every listener by giving him a forum in which to utter his vileness. King St. Louis IX once said there is a type of man with whom you cannot argue, but must simply “thrust a sword through his body as far as it will go.”
After ascertaining that I was not seriously injured, the good padre had gone at once to ring the police; and upon his return to the sanctuary, he had manfully brought along a drop of spirits to fortify me. Wishing to do full justice to his hospitality, I availed myself heavily of the bottle’s contents before continuing:
“Of course you can’t speak of what was said in a confession, Father, but I may as well say that I heard his remarks about the devils inside of him. What do you suppose that meant?”
He glared up at the domed ceiling, rubbing his chin. “I fear that he has used the Sacrament of Penance as a form of exorcism, expelling demons with the express intent of re-summoning them. Our Lord once said that if a cast-out demon should return, it will bring with it seven more.”
“Then if he’s already done this twice before—”
“Indeed. His name is Legion.”
Ruminatively, I further perused the brandy. “And what do you make of his saying that I would complete his ritual?”
“I have no earthly idea, Mr. Chesterton. Inane babble, perhaps.”
“. . .Perhaps.”
“Mr. Chesterton! Mr. G.K. Chesterton!”
I whirled at the strange new voice: that of a Cockney urchin, incongruous in the extreme. In the vestibule behind us was a lad of some ten summers in a newsboy’s cap, waving a telegram.
“Here, young master. And for the love of decency, lower your voice. This isn’t Fleet Street, you know.”
“Sorry, sir. In a hurry, sir. Oughtta be off ’ome to me mum, but gennelman said this was urgent, like.”
“Off you go, then,” I said, handing him half a crown. “Nothing’s more urgent than one’s mum.”
He beamed. “Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” And scampered off to keep the keep the memory of Dickens alive.
The cable read: “Corner of Edge and Thornton. AC.”
Ah, reader, I know. I know now, and I knew then, that I should await the coming constabulary. But the call to single combat—the challenge of a dark paladin, to one who wished all his life to be a Knight of the Round—the chance to accept a gauntlet unanswered ten years ago--
“I seem to have affairs to which I must attend,” I said. “Be so good, Father, as to mention me to the Almighty when next you speak with Him.”
He offered his hand. “Now and always, Mr. Chesterton. God be with you.”
The heavy mist was becoming a light rain as I strode through the empty streets with my sword-stick in hand. A boil of emotion swirled in my chest, but my head was clear and light. A man waits a lifetime for such a trial as this, and prays to be worthy of the challenge when it comes. I only hoped that Crowley had found himself a sword.
But when Edge Street intersected Thornton, I saw no sign of my foe. Instead, a moment’s surveillance revealed a bound figure in a nearby doorway, writhing frantically. I ran to its side and recognized, with a horrid shock, the face of Fr. O’Connor. He was turning blue, and his windpipe was weirdly distended. Something had been shoved down his throat.
Freeing my sword from its sheath, I cut the cords about his arms and legs, but he was already losing consciousness. A wild surmise came into my panicked and befuddled mind: perhaps I could save my friend from asphyxiation by risking his exsanguination.
One hears stories—desperate surgeons improvising with rude tools on ship decks or street corners. I had a corncob pipe, its stem easily snapped. I had a keen-tipped blade. And I had the ultimate power of sanity: to do, when necessary, the insane.
With a whispered prayer and a delicate slice, I opened the father’s trachea. Blood spurted out, but he hardly reacted in his stupor. Inserting the hollow pipe-tube, I waited a fretful infinity before hearing the whistle of sucked-in air.
“Great God, he lives!” I muttered.
And from behind me: “Greater gods than yours are watching, Chesterton.”
I sprang to my feet, brandishing my weapon. Crowley was twenty paces away, leering in the moonlit drizzle. “Your depredations end tonight.”
“Oh, I’m the least of your worries now. You see, the spell requires a unique component: forcing a good man to cut an innocent throat. The better the man, the more powerful the magick—but a truly good man would die before doing such a thing. Unless, of course, he had a suffocating friend.”
“You’re a lunatic. What do you think you’ve accomplished?”
“We have accomplished the bursting of the dam. All Europe, all Christendom, will be swallowed in war. The filthy church of that pale Nazarene shall fall at last!”
“Enough talk, Crowley. Draw your blade, and let’s settle this.”
“If you can catch me, fat man!” And he dashed away like a cat.
I had no chance of outrunning that nimble maniac. Besides, Fr. O’Connor needed medical attention at once. Our reckoning would come when the good Lord willed it. On Earth, in Purgatory—even if I had to follow Crowley into Hell.
“Pour the tea, young master Tolkien,” said Professor Wright.
It was late June, and Fr. O’Connor and I had returned to Oxford to fulfill our interrupted dinner invitation. The good father was still speaking in a bit of a whisper, but the prospects looked good for a full recovery. As for me, I fear my only speaking voice remains a moderate stentorian.
“I understand Crowley’s stooges provided him an alibi,” the professor remarked.
“Sadly so,” I said. “Now, why anyone would take the word of self-proclaimed nihilists is a pressing but entirely separate issue.”
“If only McKinney or I had seen his face,” Fr. O’Connor murmured. “As it is, there’s little to be done.”
“Well,” Wright said with an effort at cheer, “if, as you say, he believes he accomplished his aim, then perhaps he’ll let the matter rest.”
“Let us hope.” I partook of some tea and, upon reflection, of some wine as well. “I don’t suppose we believe him.”
“War is coming,” the old priest said gravely. “It needs no work of thaumaturgy.”
“Yet the universe hangs on the tiniest things. What if, in some strange and secret way, Crowley provided the spark that explodes the West? What if I failed to stop it?”
“Nations crest and crash, my friend. Let small minds concern themselves with wars and dynasties that last a few paltry turns about the sun. Now, the soul of the man across from you at the bus stop: that is the business of Eternity.”
A few days later, an Archduke was murdered in Sarajevo.
New York actor, director, and emerging fiction writer, Judson Blake, has been published internationally in many journals, and his full-length play, Perversion, ran for five weeks in the West Village.
Two of his stories were selected for the 2019 American Emerging Writers Series.
Two others have appeared in Don Webb’s Bewildering Stories.
His work has also appeared in:
The Literary Yard
Freedom Fiction Literary Periodical
The Loch Raven Review
Adelaide Literary Magazine. No. 27 August Issue
Whistling Shade Fall/Winter 2019 issue
His stories have been showcased at Fiction On The Web, a British website.
The Cantalino Bus Ride
Cici was tired of searching. She decided to wait for a bus. The Cantalino Bus Company ran up and down Yuletide Avenue, where there were many shops, parks and restaurants. At the next stop Cici met Ms. Gollifol, a friendly woman with a broad gregarious laugh.
“Do you know the way to Wayting Square?”
Ms. Gollifol thought a moment, then flicked her finger in the air.
“Don’t know that place. But the driver will know. Oh, you can find it all on Yuletide. Garden tools, party dresses, electronic doodads and cheeses from the Adirondacks to the Antipodes... my, I can’t name them all. Psychedelic wines, real estate option funds, oh...”
“And apatosaurus videos,” said Kid Soffer, spreading his hand at the end of a tattooed arm. Although adult with a creased and well tanned face, he had the air of a boy who had just learned to pronounce apatosaurus.
“And fishing tackle,” chimed in Wade Ames. He was a lanky angular man with a large grin that seemed to take in everyone. He affirmed that if anyone would know how to find Wayting Square it would be the bus driver, John Sockett.
“Johnny’s always on time,” said Wade, as he checked his watch and leaned to see up the road.
“Cantalino Bus has always been reliable and fair,” Ms. Gollifol affirmed. “They get you where you’re going.”
“I need some burlap for my smoker,” Wade confided, spitting out a seed shell. “Can’t do better for bees than burlap.”
Ms. Sedgell stood back and smiled at the sky.
“I gotta see a lawyer about a house. My daughter. I’m happy for her but I swear, you can’t expect much business sense from newlyweds.”
“Too busy cooking up the future,” chuckled Ms. Gollifol.
The bus came and they filed in. The inside was very modern. Cici admired the plush bucket seats, clean pillows with lace linings and even special movie screens like in airplanes.
“Do you know the way to Wayting Square?” Cici asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Johnny Sockett returned without even a glance. He moved the bus into traffic and turned red eye focus on the driving. “We go there.” His bony arms manipulated the controls with practiced reach.
“Well, I...” Cici began but the man was so intent that she felt shy troubling him with more questions. She joined the others along the aisle of the bus.
Before long the driver switched on the videos, which showed a crime drama with ritual murders.
“That’s so good,” Ms. Sedgell pointed, leaning forward with a prompting finger. “I like the way they do that inward glance when they know something and you have to guess what it is. So intriguing.”
“It’s really good acting,” said another.
“And the scripts... my....”
All watched contentedly till the ad came, proffering “Happy Duck IQ Insurance --- for Professionals who really want their pet to excel. We make sure.”
Kid Soffer announced out loud that what he was after was boat parts.
“And I know just the chandler. It’s a ways, but it’s worth it to get what you really need.”
“Amen that,” said Will Click. He explained that he was after planting seeds for his yard. “What the cat dug up,” he allowed with resigned smile. He turned to Mary Toombs with a glance of acquaintance over many years.
“Oh, yes,” she granted and her curious regard came over to Cici.
“And where are you going?” Cici asked, since it appeared they all knew each other and were uncommonly open to conversation.
“Sheet music,” Mary Toombs said. “You can’t find it everywhere and I want to work on a sonata. I heard it and I just can’t get it out of my head.” She airily pointed at her temple.
While they went on talking Cici observed that there were other people who were probably going to work or coming home, who had little interest in idle chat. She wondered about their lives, what each one could be like and if it was possible to see in their faces any of what they went through day by day. Probably yes, she decided, although she felt she could tell more from a person’s walk or gestures in conversation if she got a chance to see that.
The bus stopped and people got off. When new passengers were on and had paid their fares, the door remained open. Johnny stared out and waited, a hand on his thigh. Finally, with an air of exasperation he got up and went down the steps to help the last person on. When he reappeared, he was holding the arm of a large simian with auburn fur. Near the end of its long tail was a broad strip of red ribbon tied in an elaborate bow. Johnny let the animal stare at the other passengers and then as if it was only expected, the creature dropped coins in the cashbox and made a lip-folded screech at the rest of the bus. Some people chuckled and joked with one another over this cute trick.
“That’s some monkey,” said Will Click.
“Oh, no,” said Wade Ames. “That’s no monkey. That’s a chimp.”
Several others corrected Mary Toombs who declared the animal must be a baboon.
“A baboon is a very different species,” Ms. Sedgell confirmed and others agreed.
The creature stood by the cashbox and fingered the sheaf of maps. Johnny moved his knee to nudge the animal aside so he could drive.
At this point the chimp leaped up with an athletic grip on a steel bar and swung heavily into the driver’s seat. Wild laughter rippled through the car. Johnny Sockett tore at the animal’s arm but the bus had already started to move into traffic. With wild unconcern the beast wheeled across two lanes and with a sudden jerk extracted the steering wheel from its housing. There was a screech of tires outside. Johnny yanked the animal by the neck and with one motion hurled it and the steering wheel against the door. There was a loud squeal. Johnny kicked the animal several times and the creature did what it could to kick back. Finally with a yank of the steering wheel Johnny maneuvered the door open and with one muscular slap drove the animal to fall on the pavement. The driver resumed his seat and fitted the steering wheel just as the bus was about to crowd a palm tree on the center island. All through the bus there were gasps of relief.
“Can’t let this bus be guided by a dumb monkey,” Johnny Sockett growled.
“Amen,” and “True that,” several echoed.
“I’m the one who’s responsible,” he went on with an expert whirl at the wheel to get it back into its accustomed lane.
“I think it’s really better,” said Ms. Gollifol with a deep sigh, “if the bus isn’t guided by some creature with a long tail.”
Out the window Cici saw the furry creature high-tailing on knuckles and knees across several lanes of traffic. The bright color of the ribbon tied to its tail flapped high in the air. Astonished drivers braked to let it pass.
The bus veered off onto Denverton Street and Cici looked around.
“Oh, that’s the usual way,” said Wade. “Don’t you worry. That’s not....”
“But that beast,” exclaimed Mary Toombs. “Didn’t that monkey,... I mean...”
“The chimp didn’t make no difference,” said Kid Soffer. “No difference no way no how.”
“Did too,” said Will Click. “Disoriented. I knew he was on the wrong track. Almost got us wrecked.”
“We’re going where we ought to go.”
Mary Toombs turned an expectant look at Ms. Gollifol who nodded back with a knowing smile.
“Johnny, he knows what he’s doing,” said Wade. “That critter, whatever it was, I tell ya, that critter was only a stand-in. Didn’t belong here at all. Now he’s gone, we’re all better off. You’ll see.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Ms. Gollifol. “Everything’s better with a person at the controls.”
Cici noticed they all relaxed back in gratitude when Ms. Gollifol said that and Cici herself felt vaguely reassured. Ms. Gollifol with her flowing sense of certitude had resolved the tension everyone felt after the strange event.
“He’ll take us where we want to go,” she went on. “He’s the driver.”
She smiled and there were understanding winks exchanged. Once again congenial calm felt its way over the faces down the aisle.
Out the window Cici watched the caravan of scenery file past. Long streams of trees and houses trailed in pastel tableaus for miles. Soon traffic grew sparse and the bus seemed to have the road to itself. With a gentle swerve it turned and went up another street. Cici saw a sign:
“Lyle Avenue to Little Gringer.”
Mary Toombs looked worried.
“I don’t think we’re on Yuletide anymore.”
“He doesn’t usually go this way,” Wade Ames mused, half in a haze.
“Must be some construction,” said Kid Soffer.
“Johnny knows what he’s doing,” said Ms. Gollifol. She settled back as if the detour, if that was what it was, was more reassuring than the scheduled route.
Soon the passengers began to notice the streets weren’t the ones they knew.
Cici said: “Where do you think we’re really going?”
“Oh,” said Ms. Gollifol, “we’ll all get to the right place. Meantime you have to feel the journey. Feel it. See there?”
She pointed at the video, which had stopped for another commercial. A cherub figure clothed in pink and blue floated over the image.
“Now that, that’s Meedia Baby. The real. See? What a smile she has. And that little sparkle in her eye. You have to feel it, feel the journey she makes you want to see. And she can tell you, tell it all to you, without her saying a word. Meedia Baby knows all our feelings, even feelings we can’t imagine yet, things you didn’t know you’d ever feel.”
“I don’t know,” said Kid Soffer. He nervously squirmed in his seat. “I don’t think we pass Dunster Cycle Shop going this way.” But his eyes flicked back and forth with fascination at parts of town he’d never seen.
“Where are you taking us?” Cici asked. She went forward and leaned next to Johnny Sockett and made her presence so persistent that he could not ignore her as he had the others. His face was smooth with sweat and the collar of his uniform was perfectly pressed to a sharp point. He looked around and smiled as if she was a piece of window glass he had not seen before. He made no answer and turned back to his driving. The circles around his eyes spread, hungry to press forward. Cici noticed he didn’t stop to pick up passengers any more. It began to get dark and the trip felt like it was going on longer than before. The orange of evening shown through paper-seeming trees cast now in silhouette. The bus passed up stops that Cici watched trailing away, looking forlorn under each pale cone of light.
“Are you taking us on a new route?”
Still Johnny didn’t answer. He only pressed on.
The bus passed Finnoaken Enclave and Willibas Street. From there they turned up Simulant Way and the florid stretch of Demise Boulevard.
“I know this part,” said Kid Soffer. “That’s Gallows Hill. It’s been in a lot of movies.”
Slowed by rude bumps, progress down the broad street turned onto a country road that led through hilly woods. The bus wound up a steep incline and came at last to a ridge of ragged sedge. From this high point the passengers could look out over a quiet village where the lights of nighttime were just going out. The downy fleece of lost light stretched out over the town.
“My,” said Ms. Gollifol looking down. “It looks so peaceful.”
“Bed early,” said Wade Ames.
In the front of the bus there was a loud yelp of the hydraulic brake. The door wheezed open to the loud trample of the driver’s feet.
“Everybody out,” Johnny Sockett called.
“Well, I guess we should,” said Ms. Gollifol with some diffidence. She gathered her shawl and pushed it into her purse.
“Yeah, must be a good reason,” said Wade.
“Rest stop,” said Will Click quickly collecting his things.
Down the aisle and overhead blue lights came on to guide their way out. Soon all the party stood out beside the bus near the top of the bluff. Mary Toombs wondered up at the stars, which glowed like dust beyond furtive clouds.
“It’s all so calm,” she breathed in a voice like a song. With a hopeful smile upwards her eyes grew dewy and she wiped them with a little embroidered handkerchief. “I wonder why we’re here.”
“Must be a reason,” said Wade again. “Johnny wouldn’t lead us on a side track.”
Now Cici saw they were waiting around in a state of mild disorientation with no particular complaint or aim. Their mild wonderment had become a mode of seeing all that was around them, even themselves. The driver strode easily to a lever on the baggage compartment and snapped open the lid. Out poured a gaggle of half open crates which shown in the automatic light of the door. Johnny kicked the crates and their contents broke out on the ground: shiny assault weapons, grenades and grenade launchers, long snakes of belted ammunition and ammunition in compact clips lined in opulent rows.
“My, that’s strange,” said Mary Toombs. “I didn’t know they carried all that on a bus.”
“Oh, you need it,” said Kid Soffer. “Never know what you’re gonna come up against.” With a greedy eye of new found treasure his fingers pawed the shining metal. Cici could see that for him these machines glowed with a sense of power held in steel to the point of bursting. His hands played over the milled surfaces and armored casings with reverent envy.
“Something you wouldn’t expect,” said a ponderous man who had not spoken till now. With idle curiosity he hefted an assault rifle and jammed in the clip. Johnny Sockett cut the bus lights and the faces of everyone arose in shadow, illumined by unreal light from below where the cavern of the luggage compartment spilt forth its strange wares.
Mary Toombs cast a look of sad longing on the rounded forms of the hamlet below.
“My. They’re all asleep.”
With a loud clatter Johnny threw a gaggle of weapons out on the grass.
“They’ll wake up soon enough,” said the bus driver.
Kid Soffer picked up an assault rifle with a telescopic scope, admiring the intricate complexity that bespoke so much facility. He snapped off the safety.
“That’s it,” said Johnny. He passed out flyers with the company logo which some could barely see: a smiling bus with wry headlights and the name “Cantalino” at the top. In the half light some made out the word God repeated several places in bold letters. Wade struck a match and showed the others how below were careful paragraphs confirming some legal order. Cici backed away, seeing in their faces a meaning she did not want to read. Each piece of paper was signed by Johnny and other important men in the company, signatures that looked quite official.
“Burn ‘em,” Johnny said gesturing down at the little town. “Waste ‘em. God told us, clear enough.”
“Yeah, getcha metal down,” said Will Click. He hefted up his own, a grenade launcher with a satchel of RPGs.
“Set the town on fire?” called Ms. Gollifol. “You really think we should?”
“He’s the bus driver,” said Wade. “He oughta know.”
Down the line spotty fire began.
“No. No. No. No!” Cici backed away screaming. The shooting rose up and they might have shot her but in the din they could not hear.
Now in a league they crowded the edge of the bluff with houses in easy view. Along the rough grass Cici saw men and women who were only silent passengers moments before, stolid and indifferent to any conversation. Now these like the others took up the offered ordnance with willingness and even zeal. Those who knew showed the others how to snap in their clips and load the breach. With the first burst cold flashes illumined their faces. After an experimental volley Wade aimed phosphorus grenades through the windows down below. Bright colors blossomed in the carbon black. Soon from the sleeping houses human figures raced in shadow. Even through the racket of fire distant screaming could be heard.
As their homes were set alight, more villagers scrambled from their beds. Some were naked but many were in bedclothes as they ran out the doors.
“Couldn’t even get dressed,” Wade spat as he reloaded. “Shows the kinda people they are.”
He sprayed into darkened windows, set inner walls aflame.
“That’s where they hide,” said Kid Soffer with admiration at Wade’s aim.
“Nothing better than nine millimeter explosive round,” said Wade between bursts. He spat on the barrel and watched it sizzle. “Fire and forget. Betcha. Launch once, God’ll do the rest.”
Ms. Sedgell looked in amazement at the effect of her weapon, an especially late model.
“Why this is so easy,” she said. “No recoil at all.”
“It ain’t real without ‘coil,” said Will Click after a spray of incendiaries. “Recoil makes the weapon. You get a ‘47, feel the kick, makes you know you accomplished something.”
He grimaced over the flashes that lit his face. After several tries he chose the heaviest of Johnny’s weapons and he aimed carefully as the targets fled out of doors and became more elusive. Ms. Gollifol reached in the canister of ammunition.
“Like you say, better load with incendiaries to make sure.”
When she aimed again, she fired with more confidence. Her eyes glowed as bedding, rugs, pictures and people burst out the walls in blossoming flame. People with their clothes on fire ran and tried to hide.
“Yah,” said Will Click as he shoved in a round of white phosphorus. “White pete, you can’t beat. Takes the oxygen, but you still see ‘em trying to breathe.”
“Get the running ones first,” Wade called to make sure others knew. “Ones on their knees can wait.”
Johnny Sockett with RPGs tucked under his arm passed out more clips. Sagely he advised them:
“Get ‘em all, ever’ one. Then no one can take revenge, see? Can’t talk about it either. Simple enough.”
“Oh,” said Ms. Gollifol, “that makes sense, now that you explain it.”
Paroxysms of flame erupted from the ridge and fell everywhere there was a person or building standing.
Soon the town was only blackened ruin. Smoldering humps lay shadowed by remaining fires. No survivors moved. The bus riders relaxed back. They dropped their weapons and some withdrew back to where the bus was parked. Ms. Gollifol stood looking through the smoke. She surveyed with some uncertainty the dark remains of the town.
“Well,” she said, “I guess it’s all right. Since God told us to do it.”
Johnny spoke over his shoulder as he was sealing a crate.
“Um,… did I say God? I think you misunderstood. I said Todd told you to do it. Todd.”
“Todd? Oh, works at the filling station down Vardaman Street. Yeah we go way back, Todd and me. He’ll be glad to know you took care of it. Did a helluva job.”
“Oh, I’m sure the paper said God,” Ms. Gollifol called above the others.
“Hey,” Johnny corrected. “Hey. Get it straight: I didn’t pull the trigger. You did.”
Ms. Gollifol urged everyone to find the signed papers. In the confusion many had cast them aside and the wind had taken others. In the dark no one knew where they were. Will Click struck a match and searched among the weeds but not a one could be found. Cici watched from a secret distance as they circled without clear aim.
“I know it said God,” cried Ms. Gollifol. “Johnny’ll get us a new copy.”
But Johnny had disappeared.
“Where’s the bus?” called Kid Soffer.
The bus was gone. There was some consternation and indecision about what to do and if they should leave the guns just laying in the grass. Finally, since some of them started walking, the others followed in knotty groups. They walked along the rutted road till they got to the place where the paved streets began. Strange words were forgotten in the befuddlement of dark and the gloom of a profitless night. Eventually they dispersed, each ignoring the others. Some stopped in all night cafes to eat pound cake and wait for dawn.
Cici heard later that Johnny had given up his job at the Cantalino Bus Company. He retired to his ranch. There he proclaimed that bus driving was but dreary work. He devoted himself to bass and sturgeon cultivation in especially constructed ponds for the benefit of guests when he threw parties. Grenade fishing, he granted with a twinkle, had been all his passion from boyhood.
On her long walk back, Cici felt impoverished and weakened by what she had seen. She felt she might never find Wayting Square. Her anguish came eventually to a twinge of question about the peculiar man who had guided the atrocity. She had the strange intimation that, unlike most bus drivers, Johnny had entered the field to avoid some other problem he could never define.
The Aftermath of Giving Up
“Is Daddy home yet?” her daughter Violet asked.
“No, sweetie, he isn’t home yet.” Lilah replied. “I told you yesterday that he’d have to spend at least another week at the clinic.” Lilah looked down at her daughter and saw her brow furrowing between her bright blue eyes. Violet had always been daddy’s little girl, and Lilah knew there was no good way to explain how important Jeff thought recovering from his alcoholism would be for the whole family. Heartford Rehabilitation Clinic was the best and most expensive choice, and even though they’d never had much in terms of finances, Jeff had said he was willing to empty his savings account for a chance at getting control of his problems.
The phone rang, but Lilah ignored it. She’d been ignoring it a lot lately after maxing out her credit card on a new radiator for her Neon. “Aren’t you going to answer it, Mommy? What if it’s Daddy?”
“No, I don’t think he’s allowed a phone right now.” Lilah wasn’t entirely sure if this was true, but she imagined it was likely enough. Jeff had skipped over a lot of the details when he left. They had spent the first seven years of wedded bliss without him asking for her opinion, and he wasn’t about to start now. Lilah rubbed her neck. Her muscles were aching this morning.
“Your bruises are almost gone again, Mommy.”
“Yes, they are.” Lilah rubbed the tender skin around her left clavicle. “That’s the thing about bruises. They fade fast and then you can forget they ever happened.” Lilah gave her daughter a half-hearted smile. She knew she was going to miss the bruises if Jeff managed to recover. She hated feeling like she had to hide them, and she hated her growing wardrobe of bulky turtlenecks and assorted scarves, but the bruises were little reminders of the moments when she felt most alive.
Lilah didn’t think Jeff was a bad person at all, though he was a little boring sober. She forgave his form of self-expression and sometimes even encouraged it. He only hit her when he was drunk, and even then she knew she had to provoke him a bit to get a response. She didn’t consider herself a masochist, but at least when he hit her, she could see the same passion in his eyes that she had fallen in love with when they were young and foolish. At least in those moments, she could feel something.
Lilah grabbed a spatula and flipped over the eggs. The grease popped and a few drops splattered onto her arm. She stared at her arm and smiled as the skin sizzled for a second. “The eggs are almost done, Violet. Get us two plates and two mugs.”
Violet was only six, but she had always seemed older to Lilah. She rarely smiled or got angry. Lilah wasn’t sure if Violet had any friends. She often wished she hadn’t moved in to Jeff’s family farmhouse after getting married. Here, in the middle of nowhere, their nearest neighbors were a Pennsylvania Dutch family a fifteen minute walk away. They were friendly enough, but they were only one step above being Amish, and Lilah didn’t really want to work so hard to find something in common with them.
Violet placed two porcelain plates and two mugs on the counter. Lilah thanked her and plopped a fried egg on each plate. She took two pieces of toast out of the toaster oven and buttered them. “Do you want jam on your toast, Violet?”
“Yes, please. Strawberry.”
Lilah scraped the bottom of the Mason jar with Reverend Allan’s wife’s homemade strawberry jam. She smoothed the jam over the toast and set the toast on the porcelain plate adorned with a painted green ring. She handed the plate to Violet who carefully walked the plate over to her spot at the kitchen table.
Lilah tossed her plain buttered toast on the plate decorated with a pink ring and silver flowers around the edge. There had once been a time when Lilah dreamed of owning matching China, but those days were long over. She no longer tortured herself by buying and browsing department store catalogues. After years of leafing through the glossy pages and looking at pictures of happy families enjoying dinners at perfectly coordinated kitchen sets, Lilah had decided it would be best to stop looking at things she knew she could never have.
Lilah rinsed the empty jam jar and left it in the sink. She knew she should wash it thoroughly and return it to Reverend Allan’s wife Georgette, but she just didn’t want to deal with that woman. Georgette thought that marrying a reverend gave her a golden pass through the pearly gates. Georgette never hesitated to spread gossip by calling it a prayer request, and she felt that God had ordained her to lovingly share constant criticism to help shear her husband’s flock. The last time Lilah and Violet had gone to church at Lancaster Methodist was three months ago. After greeting the clergy, Lilah had overheard Georgette whispering to the head deacon’s wife, “I wonder if that’s really their Sunday best. That poor little girl’s dress is so wrinkled in the back, and her left sleeve is fraying. You know, Barb, we ought to be praying for those folks. I hear they haven’t tithed in over a year. Her worthless husband’s probably been drinking again.”
Lilah and Violet had left quickly after the service. The next day, Lilah had found the jar of jam on her porch with a note reading, “Praying for you. Love in Christ, Mrs. Reverend Allan.” Lilah had crumpled the note and thrown it away, but she kept the jar of jam.
Lilah looked back at the empty jar in the sink. She picked it back up and threw it in the trash can.
She put her own plate on the table and grabbed the two mugs. She filled one with milk for Violet and put black coffee in her own. Once they were both seated and ready to eat, Violet asked, “Should we say grace, Mommy?”
“No, that’s not necessary. Let’s just eat.” Lilah rubbed her left shoulder and the side of her neck. She pressed her fingers firmly against the bruises.
“But Daddy always makes us say grace before meals.”
“Well, your father isn’t here right now, is he?” Lilah picked up her fork and stabbed her fried egg in the middle of its yolk. Yellow liquid oozed from the egg and pooled around the edge of the toast’s crust. She cut up a piece of egg white and shoved it in her mouth. Across from her, Violet silently did the same.
After breakfast, Violet asked if she could go read in her room. “I’m almost half finished with my book, Mommy.”
As much as Lilah would have preferred for Violet to spend her Saturday mornings playing with other little girls, she was extremely proud of her daughter’s fondness for reading. Maybe someday, if she worked hard enough, she would be able to venture out on her own and make something of herself. “That’s great, sweetie. Yes, you can go read.”
Violet smiled and whirled around in the direction of her room. Lilah grabbed her arm a little more firmly than she intended. “Did you put your dish in the sink?”
She turned around with a small wince and Lilah dropped her arm. “Sorry, Mommy. I forgot.” Violet walked back to the table and picked up the porcelain plate and her mug and carried them over to the sink before heading to her room.
Lilah turned back to the sink to wash the breakfast dishes. The kitchen was far too small for a dishwasher, not that they could really afford one with all of Jeff’s savings going toward his rehab, so she had to wash all the dishes by hand. She plugged the drain and turned on the faucet. She placed her hand under the running water and waited for it to get warm. The pipes below rattled as the water heater sluggishly increased the temperature. The water pulsed through the faucet’s opening and soon steam rose as the water collided with the metal sink. Lilah watched her hand turn pink and then red. Her fingers began to tingle as if covered with tiny pricking needles. She closed her eyes.
The sound of a vehicle navigating her rocky driveway drew her away from her reverie. She opened her eyes and looked out the kitchen window. A chocolate colored sedan pulled up to the house and parked. The driver’s door opened and Georgette Allan exited the vehicle. Clutching her white quilted purse in one hand and a garment bag in the other, Georgette teetered across the uneven driveway in her delicate kitten heels. Her beige pantsuit seemed perfectly starched and extended down just past her knee to be met by opaque tights with no visible snags. Lilah turned off the faucet and wiped her hands on a dish towel and ran to her bedroom. She opened her top dresser drawer and grabbed a green scarf which she wrapped around her neck to hide the bruises. She didn’t want that gossipy old biddy to have any more ammunition.
The doorbell rang. Lilah took a deep breath and walked to the door. For a moment, she considered hiding but decided instead that it was just about time for Georgette Allan to receive a piece of her mind. She opened the door and forced a smile. “Hello, Mrs. Allan. It’s lovely to see you. What brings you here this morning?”
Georgette smiled back. “Well, I haven’t seen you folks around lately, and I thought I’d just stop by and pay a friendly visit.” With that, she walked up to the opened door and brushed past Lilah into the small foyer.
“Lilah, dear, do you have any coffee?” Lilah turned around and saw Georgette was halfway to the kitchen already, her brown hair pinned into a loose bun bouncing after her.
“Umm, I’ll have to heat it up. It’s been sitting a while.” She followed the woman into the kitchen where Georgette promptly stopped to stand near the side of the sink next to the trash can. Lilah’s stomach churned at the realization that the empty jam jar had been the last thing she had thrown away that morning. As Georgette’s critical eyes scanned the rest of the kitchen with distaste, she hoped that her gaze would not reach down to the receptacle by her feet. As Georgette’s attention shifted from the peeling cabinets to the dirty dishes in the sink, Lilah quickly asked, “Won’t you have a seat Mrs. Allan?”
Georgette looked at her and smiled. “Please, call me Georgette. Mrs. Allan is my frightful mother-in-law. I’d rather not claim that title just yet.” She walked over to the small table in the center of the room and placed her purse and the garment bag on the table before sitting down. She delicately crossed her ankles and folded her hands. Lilah thought she’d never seen someone look quite so similar to the Queen of England in rural Pennsylvania. She turned to the cabinet above the microwave and looked for two clean mugs and was disheartened when she couldn’t find two that matched. She didn’t want to impress Georgette or meet her approval with fine China. She just didn’t want Georgette to be right about her state of life. She wanted to prove her wrong and put the old woman in her place. Begrudgingly she grabbed the two nearest mugs, poured coffee in them, and shoved them into the microwave.
She turned around and looked at Georgette. She contemplated whether or not she should be more direct. So, far, pleasantries had not fared well. “We’re not going back to church, Georgette.”
Georgette smiled. “I don’t recall asking you to, dear.”
The microwave beeped. Lilah pulled out the mugs of coffee and walked them over to the table. “Do you want cream or sugar?”
“No, I like my coffee black.”
Lilah sat down. “So, why are you here?”
Georgette patted the garment bag. “I found a dress I thought Violet might like.”
Lilah’s eyes narrowed. “We don’t need your charity. We are just fine. I know you think I can’t raise a decent child because sometimes her dresses crease and I can’t get her hair not to look messy, but I’m a damn fine mother and I don’t appreciate you just showing up at my door to insult me.”
Georgette’s eyes widened with curiosity. Her expression showed no signs of the shock Lilah had been hoping to see. “I don’t think you’re a bad mother, sweetie.”
“Oh,” she said, feeling suddenly deflated. “Well, we still don’t need you buying things for us. We’re just fine.”
“I’m sure you are, dear. I just thought it looked like something Violet might like when I saw it on sale at the store, so I went ahead and got it. You don’t need to go reading so much into this.” She unzipped the garment bag and revealed a cream-colored tea-length dress adorned with tiny violets stitched flawlessly into the fabric. Lilah knew her daughter would love it just as much as she knew that, even on sale, there was no way she ever could have afforded this dress. She tried to say thank you, but the words wouldn’t form on her lips, so she sat in silence running her hand over the delicate fabric wishing she could feel more ungrateful.
“It’s a little warm for a scarf in here, isn’t it, dear?”
Lilah inhaled sharply and unconsciously moved her hand up to her neck. “It matches my outfit.” She pressed her fingers against the scarf until she could feel the tender bruises. She poked them a few times with her index finger.
Georgette’s smile faded. “No, it does not match at all.” She took a deep breath and looked at Lilah sternly. “Jeff has always had a temper problem when drinking. You know, his mother Bitsy and I were best friends before she died. You never got to meet Bitsy, did you? She died a few years before you and Jeff met. She was a lovely woman, but Jeff’s father didn’t handle alcohol very well either.”
Lilah pressed harder against the scarf until it felt like she could barely suppress wincing. “You have no idea what goes on within these walls. My marriage is fine, and I love my husband. He doesn’t even need to be at….to be…he’s not…”
“I know he’s at the Heartford, dear. The grapevines here are very small.” Georgette took a sip of her coffee. “I just wanted you to know that I’m here for you just like I was here for his mother.”
Lilah opened her mouth to protest again, but Georgette interrupted before she could speak. “My cousin Doris has a barn cat that just had kittens. They’ll be weaned within the month. Do you think Violet would like one of them?”
“No, she’s too young for a pet. I’d just end up taking care of it.”
“Well, maybe it would do you both good. You don’t seem to leave the house much, Lilah. Have you ever thought about looking for a job?”
“How the hell is that any of your business?”
Georgette smiled primly. “There’s no need to shout, dear. I just thought it might be nice for you to make some extra money on your own. Not that you need it, of course, but it might be nice to have if you ever found yourself in the position of wanting to be…more independent.” Lilah’s mouth hung open without response, so Georgette continued. “Bitsy never wanted to have a job either. She thought her place was in the home raising her son, but I think she would have been happier if she had a job. You know, that woman could quilt better than the Amish. I always told her she needed to go into business somewhere.”
Lilah stood up and grabbed both coffee mugs. “I think it’s time for you to leave. My patience for this shit is running pretty low. My life is fine. My marriage is fine. I don’t need a nosy bitch like you coming into my house and telling me how to live.”
Georgette stood and tried to grab the coffee cup she had been using away from Lilah’s hand. “Oh, sit down, Lilah. I’m not the one being the bitch here.” Lilah gasped, and Georgette smiled again. “What? You think because I married a pastor that I’ve forgotten how to swear. My father was in the Navy. Now, let’s sit down and talk like civilized adults.” She tugged on the coffee cup again, and it fell out of Lilah’s hand onto the floor. The cup shattered into sharp fragments. “Oh, dear. I’m so sorry. Let me get a dish towel to help clean this up.”
Lilah, in a rage, ignored Georgette’s words and fell to her knees. She reached out and began picking up the pieces of the broken cup with her hands, feeling each tiny shard slice into her fingers. Her heartbeat began to race. With each beat she felt more and more alive. The cuts were shallow, but the pain was intense. Tiny droplets of blood dripped from her hands and mixed with the puddle of black coffee on the floor.
She felt hands on her shoulders lift her up from the ground. Georgette walked Lilah over to the trash can and forced her to let go of the shards of broken porcelain. She showed no indication of seeing her mason jar at the top of the pile of trash even after the porcelain clinked against the glass. She forced Lilah’s hands under the sink and turned on the faucet. After a few seconds, she turned it off and grabbed the nearest dish towel which she gingerly wrapped around Lilah’s hands.
“I’m fine,” Lilah said. “You need to leave.”
“You’re not fine. Now, sit down.”
Lilah sat in silence and watched the woman lean down and clean up the rest of the mess with another dish towel. After a few moments, Georgette stood and washed her hands. She walked back over to the table and picked up her purse. “I’ll let myself out.” She turned to leave the kitchen but stopped to look back at Lilah one last time. “I will be back tomorrow to check up on you and Violet, especially Violet. I can be every bit as stubborn as you, dear. Like it or not, you do need help.”
Lilah took a few minutes to breathe as she heard the front door close and the sound of Georgette’s brown sedan leave the driveway. She unwrapped her hands from the dish towel. The tiny cuts were already beginning to scab over. She wondered how many people Georgette was going to tell about their little incident. She felt sure that everyone in the county would know by the evening, and she felt another surge of rage at the thought of the gossipy old woman trying to manufacture problems and drama where there wasn’t any. She knew she didn’t have a problem. Everything was being blown way out of proportion.
She walked through the narrow hallway and went straight to Violet’s room. Violet was sitting in a child-sized wooden rocking chair reading a worn copy of Sarah, Plain and Tall. As Lilah entered the room, Violet glanced up briefly and then immediately returned to her book. Lilah sat on Violet’s twin bed and ran her fingers over the light pink comforter. “Are you enjoying your book?”
“Yes. Who was at the door?”
“No one important. What’s your book about, sweetie?”
Violet smiled and began to rock gently in her chair. “It’s about a woman who makes a new family.”
Lilah smiled and reached out her arm to weave her fingers between strands of her daughter’s soft hair. “That’s what I did when I married your Daddy. I moved here and made you, and we became a family.” As she said the words, she wished they weren’t true. She wished to be free of everything that held her back: the farmhouse, her recovering husband, the gossiping old women, everything.
“Was it hard for the woman to move and start over?” she asked Violet.
“Yes, at first, but now she loves them, so it’s okay.”
Lilah smiled. “You know, you have more family up north. You have three cousins.”
Violet frowned. “I know. I saw them on their Christmas card last year. I bet they smell.”
Lilah laughed. “Why would you say that?”
“The girl in my book says that little boys always smell.” Lilah hoped her daughter would hold on to that sentiment well through her teen years. She looked at Violet and thought about what was most important in life. The worth of her whole life belonged to another person that she had created, and she wasn’t about to risk having her daughter taken away from her. Georgette’s tone might have been intended as concern, but Lilah took it as a threat. No one was ever going to separate her from the only thing in the world that mattered.
“Sweetie, I have a surprise for you. I think it’s time we go north for a while and meet your cousins.” Lilah stood up and opened Violet’s dresser drawers and began pulling out some clothes and placing them on her bed. She found a red sweater with only one tiny hole. “Here, Violet. Why don’t you put this on? It might be a bit cooler up north.”
Violet obediently left her chair and put her book down. She walked over to grab the sweater and slowly pulled off the t-shirt she was wearing. Lilah looked down at her and noticed the faint outline of a healing bruise on her left shoulder. She inhaled sharply at the sight and kneeled down to examine it more closely. “That son of a bitch! He was never supposed to hurt you too.” She gently traced the bruise with her finger as a few tears welled at the corners of her eyes. “He is never going to hurt you again.” She wrapped her arms around her daughter.
“Daddy didn’t do that.”
Lilah released Violet. “What?”
“Daddy didn’t cause those bruises. You did.”
“No, no, I would never do that. I have never hurt you. You’re my little girl.” Quickly, she grabbed the red sweater and started helping Violet dress. She didn’t want to look at the bruise any more. “I have never hurt you.”
“You didn’t mean to. It was last week though when you grabbed my shoulder to tell me not to get too close to the pond. You didn’t mean to. You just didn’t want me to fall in.”
Lilah sat on the floor and looked at her lap. She couldn’t look back up at her daughter. How could she have done such a thing and not even have known? Was she the real monster in this family? Suddenly, Georgette’s words came flooding back to her, and for the first time in a long time, Lilah knew she wasn’t alright.
Kyrie Dunphy is an up and coming writer. She particularly enjoys screenwriting for science fiction, fantasy, and horror for television, web series and film.
She has been published in Scarlet Leaf Review twice and published her first e-book anthology, Fear the Lightning, in October 2018.
She lives in Orlando, and is currently attending Full Sail University’s Creative Writing for Entertainment BFA degree program. After graduation, Kyrie hopes to create new worlds and entertain people with her writing.
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That Weird Girl
He wasn’t very popular compared to the idiot jocks who constantly had football and crashing college parties on the brain, but he was very pure-hearted and handsome with his dark brown hair, shiny glasses, and charming smile.
“Well, I can’t put this off for long…” Penelope said, putting the phone away.
She ripped a piece of paper out of her notebook and began to write out a note to her crush.
“Meet me outside after school, I need to ask you something. This is perfect,” she said to herself as she ran over to Edward’s locker. “Oh, I hope he likes it…”
Penelope slipped the note through one of the locker’s slits. Once it was in, she decided to run to class, but noticed a girl she seen around the school and never talked to watching her nearby.
The girl’s eyes and expression were completely lifeless, making Penelope cringe as she clutched onto her backpack and ran for her classroom. Once she was inside, she let out a sigh and plopped into her seat.
Class soon began and Penelope went through her schoolwork and gave occasional stares to Edward, who was sitting at the other side of the classroom near the door. Suddenly, she saw that girl through the door. The girl was staring at Edward while her face turned red.
Penelope elbowed her best friend, Caroline, and asked, “Carrie, did you see that girl near the door?”
“What girl? I don’t see anyone,” Caroline said as she looked back at where her friend was pointing. “This isn’t a prank, right?”
“No, Carrie. I saw that weird girl. You know, the one that looks completely dead inside? She was looking at Edward through the door, it’s so weird!”
“Whatever you say, Penny…”
Penelope sighed in frustration and kept working until the bell rang, signaling the end of classes for the day. She made her way to her locker, but noticed that the girl was watching her as she walked along the usual cliques and other people. Penelope moved faster to get away from her and began stuffing her books into her locker.
She closed it, taking a deep breath. In the corner of her eye, she could see Edward opening his locker and looking at the note she had left him.
“Yes,” she said as Edward shrugged and walked out of the school.
Putting her backpack over her shoulder, Penelope began her journey to meet with her crush and ask him out.
Unfortunately, she noticed that the girl from earlier was following her. She immediately went towards the back exit of the school and ran out into the parking lot, looking to see if she was following her.
“At least she’s gone for now,” Penelope said before running up to Edward, who was standing near his car. “Hey, Ed.”
Edward turned upon seeing her and asked, “You’re Penelope, right? We’re in the same class together.”
Penelope nodded and said, “Yup, that’s me.”
“I got your note that said you wanted to meet me. What did you want to talk about?”
“Well…I was wondering if maybe you wanted to…go out with me?”
Edward was silent for a few seconds before he smiled at this.
“Of course I would! Maybe we can go to the movies this weekend? I’ll buy tickets,” he said.
“That’s amazing! I’m so—” Penelope began to say as she hugged Edward.
Suddenly, someone nearby said, “STOP!”
The two looked in the direction where it was coming from and saw the girl shaking in rage.
“Oh no, it’s her…” Penelope said.
“Do you know this girl?” Edward asked her.
“She’s been following me around all day. I don’t know what her problem is,” she said to him.
“You took him from me…” the girl said.
Her voice was a mix of sadness and anger as she pulled out a screwdriver and charged at Penelope.
“Penelope, look out!” Edward said, standing in the way of the girl.
He tried to fight her off, but she pushed him aside and tackled Penelope.
“NO!” he said when he hit his back against his car.
Immediately, the girl savagely began stabbing Penelope over and over again. Edward could only stare in horror as she kept driving the screwdriver into Penelope’s body, completely powerless to stop it.
After what felt like forever, the girl stopped as Edward got up, his body shaking from what he had witnessed. He backed up against his car as the girl walked up to him with a maniacal smile on her face and her clothes and screwdriver stained with blood.
“No, please! Stay away from me,” he said. “You MURDERED her!”
The girl chuckled at his reaction and leaned in close, gripping onto his shirt and getting blood on it while saying, “Don’t tell anyone about this, not even the teachers or the police…”
With that, she kissed him and placed the screwdriver in her pocket before picking up Penelope’s corpse and running off to dispose of it as Edward shielded his face in his hands and collapsed near where Penelope used to be.
BRUCE J. BERGER
JANICE R. TORRES
J. B. TONER
J. DAVID THAYER
MAX WILLI FISCHER
THOMAS M. MCDADE
TIFFANY RENEE HARMON