Alex Atkinson lives with his wife and two sons in Savannah, Georgia, where he just completed his Bachelor's degree in Writing and Linguistics. You can find more of his stories in Crack the Spine’s The Year Anthology; Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 4; Volume Three of Fearsome Critters Journal; Passengers Journal; Miscellany; and The Showbear Family Circus.
A House Made of Sticks
She burst through the threshold, shut the door, and ran the deadbolt behind her. It was so much darker in her house that she could hardly see – and the shades weren’t even drawn. Such a burning, bright day. It gave her vertigo to think on it. She’d left her cell phone upstairs, in her bedroom. She had to go on all fours to make it up the steps. She crawled into her room, located her phone, and lay down beside it. At first, she couldn’t figure how to work the damn thing. What was her passcode? Did she even have one? It came to her then. Simple. She liked to keep things that way, generally. By nature, she was not a paranoid person. Also, she didn’t have that much to hide: 111111. Now, should she do an “emergency call” or just dial 911. Did it matter? Which would be easier? She thought on this for far too long, bewildered. What was she doing? Shaking, she punched in the three numbers that got you the gardaí there, in the Savannah, Georgia; and set the phone against her head. It rang once before a man answered. She didn’t wait for him to finish his spiel. “My name in Oona Hannigan. I need help.” Was it she that needed help, then? Or was that them? Were they beyond it? Again, she wondered numbly if it made a difference. She opened her mouth to go on, but the breath seemed to have been squeezed out of her. “I need police,” she managed, eventually. “And an ambulance. It happened down the street, but I can give you my address. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I’m not…” 2 The groceries were fine when Maggie Davis backed out of her parking spot. They were fine when she started moving forward. Fine when she slowed to let a pedestrian go by. But when she stopped at the end of her row, everything went wrong. “God in Heaven!” she cried. Why did she always set them on the seat? She heard canned vegetables hit the floor, and go rolling – fresh produce slopping out of the bags that were supposed to keep the dirt off. Worst, the scream of wine bottles clanging together. But they didn’t break. Not yet. Or at least, it didn’t sound like it. Maggie reached behind her, hand flopping stupidly in the detritus like the flipper of a seal. She picked up a can of creamed corn, and tossed it pointlessly back onto her backseat. Why? It would just roll off again. She touched something wet, and realized it was her lettuce, lying naked on the mat, right where people’s feet went. “Lord of Hosts,” Maggie grumbled. Behind her, someone honked their horn for her to move. Maggie’s attention flashed up to the rearview mirror. Fuck you, she thought, but did not say. She tried not to curse, anymore, if she could help it. She just smiled into the rearview – an evil, eat-my-shit smile that the man in the white truck behind her probably couldn’t see – looked both ways; and gave the asshole what he wanted. The can of creamed corn rolled off the backseat again, and landed on the lettuce, when she made her turn. She drove carefully toward the parking lot’s exit. She probably should have stopped, and regrouped – re-bagged everything, and set it on the floor, the way she ought to have done to begin with – but her house wasn’t far away, and she was ready to be home. Get inside. Sit down. Pour herself a glass of that wine, if the bottles didn’t break before she got there. It had been a long and stressful day, already. If she had to throw the lettuce out, so be it. Maggie paused at the stop sign, looked both ways, and made her right onto Penn Waller. She needed to take her immediate left, so she was already looking up the road: one car was coming her way. She would have to wait for it to pass. She put her blinker on, and rolled to the smoothest stop she could, bracing for falling fruit, or worse, the crash of wine bottles-- But all of a sudden, none of that seemed to matter. “Piss and vinegar…” This was almost a curse; but she thought she could forgive herself this one, considering the truck barreling toward her backend, on a trajectory to roll up her little Honda like an accordion, eating up the road at what must’ve been 65mph – in a 35mph zone! It never occurred to her that this might be the same truck. The one that honked at her in the parking lot. The world was full of assholes driving white Fords. And if we’re being honest here – and that is always the best policy – she had almost forgotten that truck existed, entirely. “Slow down. Jesus. Slow down.” Why wasn’t it slowing down? She hazarded a glance out of her front windshield – the direction she should’ve been looking all along – and saw she still had to wait to make her turn. But the car was almost past her. Almost past… Come on. She felt like a bug stuck in the guts of a giant clock, its gears conspiring to squash the life out of her. One if front of her, one behind, tight quarters leaving her no way to dodge. An evil machine that didn’t care if it gummed up its works with blood, or oil, or anything. It just went on and on, no matter what. She checked the rearview; and the truck was so much bigger, so much closer, she actually shrieked. “Let me go! Let me move!” she begged the car coming her way, realizing intuitively that the man driving the truck behind her was not the one to ask. Only maybe he was. Because at exactly that instant, he slammed on the brakes. Maggie braced herself for impact, just the same. He’d waited too long! She was sure of it. Squinting, and idiotically ducking her head closer to the steering wheel, she waited for the inevitable crash. Would the airbag have deployed, and broken her face, if he had hit her in from behind? She didn’t know. And she didn’t find out. Smoke from the white Ford’s tires overtook her like a fast-moving fog, filling her little Honda with a smell like burning teeth. She was very aware of the sound of her blinker, clicking on and on, no matter what. The shriek of her breath as it escaped her frightened lungs. The man in the white truck laid on his horn. “FUCK YOU, YOU PUNK FUCKER!” Maggie bellowed nonsensically, hoping he could hear her, knowing that he probably couldn’t. She flicked him off – first in her rearview – then turning around, so she could show him both fingers. She took hold of the wheel, and lurched forward, breaking her own rule again, as she made her turn. “FUCK-SHIT! GODDAMN IT!” Halfway down Concord, and let out a breath. A little shaky, at first; but the more oxygen she sucked in and blew out, the better she seemed to feel. Soon, other thoughts crowded in. What had happened at work. The falling groceries. What she was going to cook for dinner. Fred was out of town, visiting his grandson, so she was on her own. She left the truck, and the asshole who’d been driving it, behind her. She didn’t check to see if it was following. By the time she turned onto her road, she had almost forgotten it existed. 3 “I’m sorry you had to see that,” the detective said. “Lucky then that I didn’t see it,” Oona told him again. He had just finished telling her their theory of the case, such as it was. What they thought had happened to Mrs. Davis, which was too horrible to think on. “I only came on after. Although I might’ve picked it up, based on…” Oona glanced in that direction. “Context clues,” the detective suggested. A bit glib considering the circumstances; but Oona supposed he must see this sort of thing all the time. Perhaps he’d been desensitized to it. “Aye,” she said, not wanting to look over there anymore. “She wasn’t shot, you say?” Oona almost hoped she had been, considering. “Nope. But he was...” The detective nodded at the neighbor’s porch. “Say, where are you from, anyway?” She could hear the smile in his voice, even though she couldn’t see it. They both were wearing face coverings, because of COVID-19. “Alabama,” Oona said. An old joke; but it earned her a little chuckle. She was originally from County Meath; although her dad had moved their family across the country to Dingle, after her mother died. She told him all this, as he scribbled on his little notepad, but she was fairly sure he just wrote down: Ireland. “What brought you here?” “School.” “Really?” Oona tried to judge by his eyes what he was after, and read a dark hilarity there. “How come? I thought school was free on the other side of the pond.” She couldn’t tell if he was taking the piss out of free college, or trying to punch a hole in her story. She supposed it had to be the former – they were in Georgia, after all – and why would he want to discredit her? “I had a specific one in mind, right here in Savannah.” “SCAD?” Oona nodded. “Expensive,” the detective said with something resembling respect. She had come here on a scholarship, but she didn’t bother to tell him about that. It didn’t matter, either way. She’d dropped out before she earned her degree. “And your husband’s in the military,” he went on, confirming for perhaps the fourth time something Oona had already told him. “He’s in the Army,” Oona said, to put a finer point on it. “We thank him for his service,” the detective said with the same amount of energy as when people said and also with you in Catholic mass. He had a bit more feeling, though, when he looked up from his notepad and said: “Now, I wanna talk about the man…” 4 She didn’t see him. That was the hell of it. She didn’t get a good look. His face was obscured by the glare on his windshield. Had he seen her, though? That was the question. Oona was folding laundry upstairs, as it seemed she did almost constantly. Who the hell was dirtying all these clothes? That was what she wanted to know. Of course they all belonged to her, and she was the only one living there at the moment, so the answer was self-evident; but it still seemed a bit much. She folded yet another towel – could she not just hang them up after she showered – set it on the stack with the rest on them, and reached for one of her favorite skirts. Maybe I should put this on, she thought, as her fingers brushed the material-- But then she heard something that made her ears prick up. She dropped the skirt, and stepped over to the window. The curtains were already open, letting in a ton of light; now she ran up the slats, as well. Probably it had been nothing. One of her neighbors beating on a board with a hammer, two quick raps. A hammer could make a sound like that, when you factored in the echo. Or perhaps more likely, that persistent, air-punching sensation which had accompanied it – a thing Oona had felt more than she had actually heard – had come out of a nail-gun. Was someone getting their roof worked on then? If so, she couldn’t see it from where she was, looking from her 2D perspective at the 3D world. Stupid to have even come to the window. She turned to step away from it; but then another sound stopped her. This one was an evil screech that could only be someone burning tires. Peeling out, was what her husband called it. He had tried it once with her in the car, the bollocks, early in their relationship, she guessed in an attempt to impress her. Oona hadn’t been impressed. “Enter the Antagonist, Stage… I don’t know what.” Oona’s house stood directly across from the intersection of her street, Concord, and Morningview Road. It was why she’d purchased such thick curtains: so their bedroom wasn’t flooded with headlights each time someone stopped at the stop sign after dark. There was this one lad who liked to sit there almost every morning around 3am, playing his radio, and revving his engine – headlights on the whole time, as if he were the only person left on the planet. One time he’d sat there for forty minutes. Oona had kept track. God knew what he was up to, Oona did not (although she could guess). Looking from her second story window now, she could see about halfway down Morningview, and that was where the truck appeared from. So, Backstage, was it? That sounded wrong. But he was plainly the one who had peeled out. The truck burned up the block, travelling at perhaps 60 mph, yawing crazily from one side on the road to the other. He almost rammed into a parked car, overcorrected, and almost creamed someone else’s mailbox. “Jesus, ya fuckin gobshite, be careful…” She thanked God there weren’t any children playing in the road. “A bit early to be shit-hammered, isn’t it?” It was half-noon, for fuck’s sakes. Although she supposed for some people it was never too early. He made it to the stop sign, somehow – and, for a wonder, he stopped. Oona had been sure he was going to blow right through it. Time ticked by, as she could hear the ticking of the man’s engine through the slender pane of glass that separated her from the world. She took note of the make and model of the vehicle. A Ford Explorer, she thought. The hybrid kind that still ran entirely on petrol, but had a bit of a truck bed in back. It was white, and a bit dirty, and the tires looked bald from where she stood. Not all details she would need if he killed someone up the block, and drove away; but they couldn’t hurt. The man, himself appeared to be flopping around in there, as if he were looking for something. The truck or SUV or whatever you wanted to call it was fairly rocking on it shocks. Oona’s guess was that maybe he had dropped his cell, while he was driving like an idiot. But she supposed it might have been anything. He might have had spilt his drink. She couldn’t get a good look at him because of the glare. Trying to look into his face was like trying to stare dead into the sun. She could tell it was a man, though, by his size, and by his shirt sleeves, and by the style of his hair. Also, by the way he drove. She was willing to admit she could be wrong; but she didn’t think she was. Suddenly, he stopped. Stopped moving. Stopped everything. The car sat so still that Oona wondered briefly if it had shut off. A thought swung back at her-- If he killed someone up the block —what if he’d already done something horrible? Hurt someone, or stole something, and this was the getaway? She felt very exposed, all of a sudden, and reached for the curtain. Stupid. It was movement that would catch his eye, if anything. She wondered if she had already. She hadn’t even been trying to keep still, until just now. Had he already noticed her? A slender Irish woman, inching into her mid-thirties, standing in her window, no more than forty meters away as the bullet flies, watching him. Prying into his business. A gossip. Does he see me? As if in response this, as if hearing her thought, the truck started rocking on its shocks again, and the man laid on his horn. 5 “You didn’t take your husband’s name,” the detective said. The comment was so far off topic, all Oona could reply right away was “What?” “When you got married…” She understood perfectly what he was after now; but it still took her a moment to process. She’d just been describing the most terrifying moment of her life, up to that point. A moment which grew more terrifying by the instant, considering what she’d stumbled onto when she took a walk down Morningview. So, you couldn’t blame her for taking a second to shift gears. He must’ve thought she needed more clarification, though, because he added: “His name is Ryan Speck. Your last name is Hannigan.” “Yes…” “Is that normal back in the Old Country?” the detective asked, almost offensively. “No.” In fact, in some circles there – as here – it was frowned upon. “How come then?” She had an uncle who thought that her not taking Ryan’s last name meant they wouldn’t be together long. Meant she didn’t love him properly, or wasn’t devoted enough to make the marriage stick. He’d said as much to them at their reception. A lovely man, her uncle, if you were into that sort of thing. She wondered if this man thought that way. And if so, why he felt the issue warranted attention right now, with everything going on. For most men, excluding her uncle she dearly hoped, the reason was the same. “Oona Speck? No thanks. Bit much,” she told the detective. He gave her another of those wan chuckles; but she wondered if he believed her. Fuck him if he didn’t, she decided. It happened to be true. And as simple as that. “You said that he’s deployed right now. When does he get back?” “Six months,” she guessed. That was all she could really do was guess. “Long time to be by yourself,” the detective said. Oona tried to hide her annoyance. Tried not to feel it, actually. It was probably nothing. The PTSD of a former bartender who had been hit on so many times, by so many men, in so many different ways, under so many circumstances – many of them inappropriate – messing with her mind. Probably it was only that. Likely, she told herself. “So, anyway—” “You came down here to investigate, and found this,” the cop said, interrupting her. He waved a hand to indicate the bodies. Oona nodded. That was the Reader’s Digest version of it. The detective smiled, or seemed to smile under his face covering; handed her his business card; and disappeared into the investigation. A moment later, another man stepped up – this one not wearing a mask, the bollocks – and handed her his card, as well. Oona stuffed them both into her pocket, without even a passing glance to tell her who was who. It didn’t matter, she’d think later. Like so many things. They were both detectives, after all. Like little fish, they ought to all be swimming the same way. Ought to be. 6 Chris Kennedy ought to have had the world to himself for another hour, or so; but there was his next-door neighbor, turning onto their road. It fucking figured. Chris hit the bowl one more time – she would probably smell the weed when she got of her car, but fuck it, she never said anything – and hid the pipe in the potted plant beside his seat. He flipped his Costas down, the tinted frames hiding his eyes the way he hoped to hide his whole body. He shifted, and got comfortable. If he was comfortable enough, he could sit still. If he sat still, she might not see him. It would be like he was invisible. Camouflaged. Or just really, really stoned. Chris allowed himself the slightest hitch of his chest, a minor curling of the left side of his mouth. She would probably see him, anyway, no matter what he tried. Ever heard someone described as having Roman hands and Russian fingers? Mrs. Maggie was like that, only it was her eyes that were always roaming – and her mouth that was always rushing. She would pop out of her car, the way she always did, head on a swivel, looking for someone to talk to, powerful eyes darting around like a bald eagle searching for prey, and she would see him. See him sitting there on his parent’s porch, minding his own business; and she would wave; and she would probably walk over. With Mr. Fred out of town, it was almost guaranteed. Chris hated talking to people when he was stoned, and they weren’t. It occurred to Chris that he could slip inside; but it was too late. She was turning into her driveway, already. If he got up now, it would look like he was running from her – and he wouldn’t put it past Mrs. Maggie to ask his parents why, when they got home. He didn’t care all that much. It wasn’t like they were going to put him on restriction. He was twenty-six years old; he had a job; and he was in school, so he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. But it would have led to more talk, and that was exactly what he was trying to avoid. Chris sat still and waited. And look here, there was hope! Another car, pulling in behind her. A truck, actually, or whatever you called those things that were sort of like an El Camino had had a baby with an SUV. He didn’t spend much time thinking about the make and model of truck, though. She had company! That was the fucking point. She would be too busy to mess with him. Chris almost stood up, and waved, because why not? But something stopped him. Probably just all the THC in his system; but an instant later, he had reason to believe it might have saved his life. The man who had been driving the truck leapt out as soon as he threw it into park; and stormed toward Mrs. Maggie’s driver’s side door, his pace familiar to Chris of old. It was the pace of an angry dad whose idiot son had just tossed another baseball through the living room window. Her door popped opened when the guy was about halfway there, and Chris heard Mrs. Maggie squawk, “Yes?” in a tone that made it perfectly clear that she had no idea who the man was. He didn’t answer. Instead, he rushed forward, and grabbed her by the hair. That brought Chris to his feet. “HEY!” The man snatched her out of the car, ignoring Chris’s shout; and the two of them spun, like they were going to swing dance. But when she tried to catch her balance – an act that looked more instinctual than intentional to Chris – the man kicked her feet out from under her, and spiked her into the driveway. Chris heard Mrs. Maggie say something that sounded to him like, “Cheese on a cracker,” as the man grabbed her roughly by the collar, and the seat of her pants, and repositioned her like he was getting ready to saw a board. He put Mrs. Maggie’s head in her car door, and slammed it shut. Every Captain America curl in Chris’ DNA was telling him to get over there. To stop it. Telling him that he had to do something. Anything. Had to help. And he was, he was moving – just too slowly. He’d only made it to the top of his porch steps by the time it was all over. Maybe it was the weed. Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it was the fact that he had no experience dealing with situations like this; or the further fact that it had only been going on for about six seconds. So fast. Even if he had started sprinting over there the second the man had leapt out of his truck, given the distance, Chris wasn’t sure he would’ve made it in time. Maybe it was the sickening crunch he heard each time the man slammed the car door. Again and again. Not taking any time to revel in it. Like the piston of an engine. Merciless. Four times. Ten. Chris couldn’t keep count. He had stopped moving, knowing instinctually that Mrs. Maggie was gone. Gone or changed forever. There was nothing he could do. The attack ended as abruptly as it had begun. The man let Mrs. Maggie’s ruined head slop to the ground, turned on his heels, and started walking back to his truck. He took long strides, but he didn’t appear to be in much of a hurry. He even let his hands drift into in his pockets of his khakis. Next, he would start to whistle. Khakis. That was what Chris could do. What he should have been doing all along. Rushing over there might have been a bad idea. He could have gotten himself killed, too. He wasn’t an MMA fighter, or even a cop. He was a big guy, but hadn’t been in a physical altercation since he was twelve years old, and that time he had lost. But he could get the man’s description, the make and model of his truck, maybe even his tag number, and tell it to the cops. He would record every detail in his memory. Or better yet: My phone! How could he have forgotten it? He gave himself a little credit, though, considering it had only been like twenty seconds since the man had thrown his truck into park. His hand dipped into the pocket of his basketball shorts, faster than you would have believed – like a gunslinger’s – but no joy. It wasn’t there. Chris looked around and found it. Of course. It was on the lip of the potted plant he’d stashed his pipe in, right beside his seat. Chris went for it – almost dove for it. Trying not to make any noise. Trying not to attract the killer’s attention. It would be better if he never knew Chris had been there, at all. He had forgotten that he shouted. But the killer hadn’t. Chris grabbed his phone, and started trying to open the camera. Stupid fingers. Goddamn passcode! He was pointing it vaguely in the killer’s direction, so you could say Chris beat him to the draw, but not to the shot. Just before he got to his truck, the killer drew a pistol from a hidden holster near his right pocket, spun like a duelist, aiming as he went, and fired twice. They locked eyes as Chris fell backwards through his parents’ living room window, breaking it for the third and final time of his life. His Costas flew off his face; and his phone dropped uselessly onto the porch. Both shots had connected: the first one collapsed his left lung, the second hit him in the heart. Of course, Chris knew none of this. He only knew that he was falling. Falling… Back and back. There was something odd about the killer’s eyes, but he couldn’t figure out what. Something about the way the sun had reflected off them. Something off. Something usual. To him, at least. Not brown. Not blue… What were the other options? Green, he decided he would tell the cops. They must’ve been green. The kind of green that was almost yellow. Green, Chris thought, and died. 7 Oona mooned over the email for what might have been twenty minutes – but was probably more like forty-five. She wanted to get everything right. Not accurate; but right – used here as a synonym for correct. She needed to strike the right tone, use all the right words, right turns of phrase to express that she was okay. Perhaps not thriving, at the moment, but certainly getting by. It was a grisly thing that happened, sure; also extremely horrifying. But it was over. It was over... She saved the message to Drafts, went to the kitchen, and poured herself a drink. Woodford Reserve on the rocks. She usually saved this for Derby Weekend; but that was weeks away, and it might not even happen this year. Her friends used to think it strange for her, an artsy Irish girl, to be so into the Kentucky Derby – but Oona loved it all: the horses, the hats. Even the gambling. She thought on it all now, and how stupid it all was. Folded nets of straw, tied with flowy cloth, set on skulls that might just as easily have been crushed in a car door. “Oh Jesus…” She drank her drink, and finished her prayer; poured another, and drank that one, as well. She slept okay that night; but she didn’t finish her email. Three weeks later, she hit send on a call she’d been putting off, and got a voicemail. “Hello, detective,” she said dutifully, after the beep. “This is Oona Hannigan. We spoke not long ago. I witnessed, or… discovered rather, the murder of Mrs. Davis. Margaret Davis, I believe it was,” she knew full well, “as well as Christopher Kennedy. Erm… Look, so I was wondering if, by chance, there’s been any developments? I haven’t heard anything…” She couldn’t think what else to say, so she left her number, and ended: “Okay, bye.” She hung up, and sat quietly for a while, before returning to the window. At night, she kept the curtains drawn, and only looked out from rooms where she had the light off. Even then, she only peeked between the slats. She’d tried everything to distract herself from this, from the world outside, so peaceful, so still at this hour of the evening – good, quiet, suburban neighborhood that hers was supposed to be – but nothing worked. Art, books, movies, TV shows. She’d even tried masturbating; but sooner or later – usually sooner – her mind wandered back to the windows, and dragged her body with it. When her phone rang the following week, it gave her a bit of a start. She couldn’t remember the man’s name without his card in her hand, so she lead with: “Hello, detective. How are you?” A bit deeper than her normal voice, still. A bit punched, a bit weary; but passible as still alive. She hurried back to her living room window, and looked out. She kept the slats run up all day, everyday now. Oona squinted, trying to see farther down Morningview than was strictly possible from her current vantage. She had been sitting on the couch, and her phone had rung at exactly the same instant that something flashed across her field of vision. That was what had startled her: the coincidence of it. She hadn’t been looking straight at it, but from her spot on the couch she could triangulate, using the reflections off of both of her living room windows – which stood at a 90⁰ angle from one another, and dominated the far corner – to see the intersection of her road and Morningview, without being observed, herself. Something had moved, but she couldn’t figure out what. “Mrs. Hannigan.” Immediately, she knew that something was wrong. “Or is it Ms Hannigan, since you didn’t take your husband’s name? I wasn’t sure.” “Erm... Oona will be fine.” “Oona then.” She almost asked him: What is it? What’s the matter? But he spoke again before she could get it out. “What can I help you with… Oona?” The slightest pause before he said her name, as if he’d had to belch it up, and it burned his throat. Oona moved to her doorway. She had become a bit obsessed by how thin her walls were. She measured the distance with her grip. A bare margin of inches between herself and the outside; and yet, the conditions were so different. It was like being inside of a pressurized tent on another planet, only built out of sticks instead of tin foil and spacey plastics. A bubble of breathable air inside a poison vacuum, no part of which would stand up to any sort of determined assault. Less comfort even than a feidín wall. At least those you could duck behind. The mere pretense of security, with the potential to be as effective as none at all. “You still there?” “Sure, look, I was just wonderin—” He cut her off. “You know, I hoped when I saw your message that you were calling because you wanted to go get a drink,” the detective said. “Pretty little Irish girl. Cute accent. Husband’s out of town. I dunno… Maybe you were feeling lonely? Turns out you were just calling to bitch about me to my boss.” “What?” She had no idea what he was talking about. She ran over her message in her mind. “I called you,” she insisted. But had she? She’d been given two cards, and she hadn’t paid enough attention to whose was whose. And hadn’t she picked the one with the higher rank, assuming it was the one she’d spoken to? “I didn’t say anything wrong!” “You said enough,” the detective said. “So,” he went on flatly, “I understand you wanna know where we are with the file?” “Aye.” He barked a laugh that was simultaneously lecherous – Oona’s Irish accent was more fetishized in Savannah than any other place she’d ever visited, perhaps because everyone here fancied themselves to be a bit Irish, even those, like her husband, who plainly were not – and yet it also seemed to say: Don’t try that shit with me, lady. “Here’s where we are then: You say the man you saw was driving what looked, to you, like a white Ford Explorer, with a truck bed in the back. Is that correct?” “Right…” “Could it have been a 2009 Sport Trac?” “I don’t know.” “I only ask because your husband owns one of those, and that model looks exactly like the vehicle you’re describing.” “What?” He husband drove a Ford Ranger. “It’s registered in Arizona; and the taxes haven’t been paid in a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Did you once live in Arizona with Mr. Speck?” “No.” “Registration says the vehicle is blue, but that’s easy enough to change.” “What are you suggesting?” She knew what he was suggesting, but she found she hardly cared anymore. She was staring down the street, still trying to figure out what hade moved, and startled her. Probably it had been a car that had turned the other direction – taken a left – which was harder for Oona to track from downstairs. Probably it was only that. “Helluva coincidence, don’t you think?” Detective Whatever the Fuck went on. “Say, can you lay hands on your husband’s pistol?” “Beg your pardon?” “The Glock .40. Do you know where it is, by chance? Does he still have it? I only ask because I have a victim – Chris Kennedy, you might remember the name –and he was killed with a .40 caliber pistol. Good kid, it seems like. A bit of a pothead, apparently, but I don’t hold that against him. The white ones usually grow out of it.” “Do they now?” “In my experience…” “Why are you doing this?” It was all she could think to ask. “I’m not doing anything,” Detective Whatever the Fuck said. She could hear the smile in his voice, even though she couldn’t see it. “Just following the evidence.” Someone interrupted on his end of the line; and they spoke, briefly. Oona couldn’t hear what was said. When he came back his voice was different. “Just let me know if you’re planning a trip. Especially if you want to hop on a plane. They’re very dangerous these days,” he chided. Again, as if he were speaking to a child. “All those people, the closed environment…” He laughed. “And hey, lemme me know if you wanna get that beer,” he said, and hung up. 8 The last few months had been like a circle-jerk held at an ass-kissing contest. That was what he had decided he would tell he wife. He would phrase it just like that; and she would laugh – probably through the tears she was already crying – and she would slap him on the chest, and she would say, “Stop,” like it was all that she could manage. Ryan grinned, just thinking about it. “Home,” he whispered. A kind of prayer. He wanted to scream it. Wanted to wake the whole neighborhood, as he looked around, taking in their quiet street. He looked up at the stars, so different, and drew in a breathe. It had taken so much work to get him here, just three weeks early. It was truly unbelievable. His lips really would have fallen off, if the ass-kissing had been literal. That was part of the reason he was getting out. Twelve years in the Army was enough. He just couldn’t feature putting off his real life, anymore. His life with Oona. Hell, risking it! Having no control over where he went, and when. When he saw his wife… Home. He could have sung it. He shut the door of his rental, trying to not to make any noise. He left his luggage in the backseat. Too clunky. He would get it tomorrow. Visions of a thousand homecoming videos ran through his mind, the situations different, but the reactions all the same. He looked up, suddenly concerned that she might be watching from their bedroom window. Worried that if she saw him standing in their driveway – a man in uniform – would she assume he was a Casualty Assistance Officer, there to tell her that her husband had been killed in combat. Ryan was already in the backyard, having double-timed around the house, when he remembered that somebody had told him that CAOs never came after 9pm; and it was almost 3am, as he finally jammed his key into the door. My door. My house. I’m home. “Wife lovely wife…” Should I wake her? Or just lie down beside her? He was sure he could slip into bed without waking her noticing. Once Oona fell asleep she was like a rock in the shape of a woman. So, he could, technically, have let her sleep; but these weren’t questions that he seriously entertained. He had to wake her up. He desperately needed to talk to her. Right away. As soon as possible. Her emails had been really short for the last few months. More like his emails, in other words, than the ones she usually sent. Hi there! I’m alive! I love you! And that was pretty much it. That was all she wanted. She didn’t want to know anything about his job. Not since Martinez had run off at the mouth, that one time. It’s too horrible, she’d told him. Ryan supposed that was fair enough. And it had made it easier for him to lie to her, by omission, Not telling her that they had left Syria – in full retreat, thanks to Donald Trump – and he had been kissing ass in Germany for the better part of four months. He snapped his cover off, kicked his boots off in the garage, and snuck in through the kitchen. It was dark in the house, all the shades were drawn, but his eyes were already adjusted. Ryan climbed the stairs on all fours, the way he always had when he was younger, relishing the smells as he ascended – so clean, so her, so them – trying to remember which step it was that creaked. That one, he thought when he finally found it. One of these days, I’m gonna have to get that damn thing fixed. 9 Oona snapped out of bed as soon as she heard the car, and rolled into her closet. She kept the Glock .40 Detective Whatever the Fuck had been on about all those weeks ago in a little cubby where she had once kept her boots. Case unzipped, ready to go. If she was being honest, she had forgotten it existed until he brought it up. Now, she hardly did anything without it nearby. She didn’t pick it up until she heard the car door shut. It’s really happening, she thought, amazed. Oona hurried over to the window, and peeked through the slats just in time to see a man hurrying around into her backyard. “Oh Jesus…” She didn’t recognize the car – but what did that mean? It was probably a rental. Oona knew that she would’ve sprung for a rental if she planned to murder somebody. It might just as well have been that detective’s personal. She thought it was unlikely that he would come after her like this. Come after her at all, as a matter of fact – Officer Jason G. Puhkala, hereafter and forever known to Oona as Detective Whatever the Fuck. As the weeks had gone by with no word from him, Oona had come to believe his insinuations had just been a shot across her bow. Meant to get her to back off. Shut up. She didn’t know why he didn’t want to solve the case – whether he had some stake in it, or just thought it would be too difficult – but that didn’t really matter. Like so many things, it just was what it was. She had to deal with it. In any case, she doubted he’d come after her like this: in secret, in the night. Maybe; but if the last few months had taught her anything it was that the cops in America were accountable for nothing. Why not come after her on duty, then? Deal with her through official channels: arrest her, charge her with a crime she didn’t commit, and let her worry about proving her innocence, after a few years in prison awaiting trial, with her face plastered all over social media as the Morningview Killer? Or just show up in full battle gear, and shoot her in the face fifteen times. Say she had a knife on her, and be done with it. Easier. Safer for him. What’s the worst that could happen? Suspension with pay? Desk duty for a week? No, she thought it was far more likely that the real Morningview Killer had come. He’d seen her, after all, and he’d just been biding his time. Waiting until she became complacent; until the cops had backed off, and forgotten all about it. One more cold file in their basement. One last loose end. She supposed the two men might be one and the same – had not the Golden State Killer turned out to be a police officer all along – but she highly doubted it. Too much of a coincidence for the real world. And again, it hardly mattered either way. She knew what she had to do. Oona crept over to master bathroom, and took a knee beside the sink. This was part of the plan. A simple plan; but she liked to keep things that way, generally. Her room was a bit of a P shape, with the bathroom springing off behind the bedroom door. Out of the line of fire if the killer decided to shoot through it; obscured from view when the door opened. She wouldn’t be able to see him, either; but like every other part of her home, the door was only hollow wood. Sticks that might spare her from the lusts of an afternoon thunderstorm; but not from any man that happened by. She was alone, and the wolves were circling – but she was no little pig. She was Oona Hannigan, daughter of Romy and Diane, sister of Jaime, wife of Ryan. It didn’t matter what her goddamn house was made of. She heard the kitchen door open, and shut, so softly it might’ve been her imagination. It felt like a dream – and maybe it was. But maybe it always felt like that. Facing death. Dying. We are trained since earliest childhood to believe it can’t be happening to us. But it was this time. But it is, Oona insisted. She forced herself to breathe. It was really happening. She was in the best position in the room, as far as she could figure – so that gave her a fighting chance. Ryan might’ve told her differently; might’ve known some trick she couldn’t think of. He knew tons of tricks like that: how to enter a room, and how to defend one. He did kill people for a living, after all, as his friend Michael had so gruesomely pointed out. But Ryan wasn’t there, and frankly, even if he had been, Oona doubted she would’ve been able to wake him up. Her husband slept like a stone, the bollocks. It made her smile to think on it. On him. She shut her eyes, and listened. He was coming up the steps. She heard him touch the squeaky one, which was fourth from the top. She held the gun with both hands, like Ryan taught her. Left arm at roughly a ninety-degree angle; right arm straight, but not locked. She moved her finger from the trigger guard to the trigger proper, as her bedroom door began to open slowly, praying she didn’t freeze up. Kneeling as she was, she aimed straight ahead of her, at what she hoped would be the killer’s torso. Center mass was what her husband called it. She would fire through the door, empty the goddamn clip if she had to – oh God, is this really happening – and hopefully drop the fucker before he ever saw her. Maybe she would look into his eyes as he lay dying, bleeding COVID blood down into her carpet. Maybe he would see her then, and he would know: He’d picked the wrong little piggy to try and fuck with. Goodbye Ryan, Oona thought, realizing all of a sudden that she would never see him again, whichever way this shook out – not alive, not in the free world, not on this side of sanity – and she squeezed the trigger.