Thank you 121 Words for publishing my short short.
Louie had a drink waiting for me.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
He nodded. “New hat?”
I removed it and laid it on the bar. “Twelve bucks.”
Louie whistled. “Must be nice.”
“Big money in detective work. Nothing but fur coats and limousines.”
The grin died on his face. “Fat Rico was in asking about you.”
“What did you say?”
“Told him I didn’t know nothing but it looks like he figured it out on his own.”
Fat Rico stood in the doorway.
“Do me another favor, Louie,” I said, nodding at the hat. “Put that somewhere safe, will you?”
It was one of the nicer houses on its block which is to say three or four of the windows still held glass and the yard had been mowed at some point over the past year. The front door sagged from twisted hinges over a foot-wide chasm where the porch fell away from the house. There might have been a shutter still dangling that hadn’t yet fallen into the weeds. It was a nice place.
Klein was talking to reporters out front. I nodded and ducked the yellow tape.
I managed to bridge the gap between porch and house without snapping my leg off, walked inside, and retched at a stench that might have been rotting maggots fermenting in the sun.
A broad L-shaped staircase brought me up to a second-floor hallway. There were four bedrooms here, two on each side. Filthy mattresses and greasy sleeping bags were sacked around on the floors. Bottles, cans, and cigarette butts were everywhere. Drying puddles of bodily fluids added to the ambiance.
A bathroom about the size of a teacup stood at the end of the hallway with its door open. Sweeney and McGregor were inside looking at blood spatter.
Sweeney saw me and his eyes changed. He hissed something at McGregor who waddled over and pressed a meaty palm into my chest.
“Hold up, Joe.”
“Sweeney thinks you should sit this one out.”
Sweeney stepped up and laid an arm around my shoulder. “Joe! How you been?”
I looked at Sweeney. Then at McGregor. I looked at Sweeney again. “What is this?”
Sweeney paused and mumbled something to the floor and I put it together.
“You don’t want me to see her.”
Sweeney tried to guide me back towards the steps. “Let’s go down, Joe. You should be sitting for this.”
“Who is she?” I asked, trying to squirm free.
Sweeney and McGregor blocked my path. “Hold up a minute,” McGregor said.
My mouth was dry. A bead of sweat slid down my back. I didn’t like my new heart rate. “Get your mitts off me. Let me see.”
Sweeney exhaled. “Joe…” He and McGregor exchanged a look. “Listen, there’s no easy way to do this. Nothing I say is going to prepare you. Maybe I should just let you see for yourself if that’s how you want to play it.”
From far away I heard myself tell him it was. My heart triple-timed. Sweeney said more but I heard it the way you hear the television as you drift off to sleep. He and McGregor stepped aside. I floated down the hall and I was in the bathroom, kneeling by the tub. The woman was young, maybe still a girl. She was sprawled on her back, bare arms dangling over the sides of the tub, blood still dripping from a fingertip.
She was clothed which struck me as unusual. Her short shorts and sleeveless t-shirt were sopped. Blood was smeared across her face and neck, smeared across her teeth. The skin that wasn’t painted bloody was a bruised yellow turquoise. Her lips were grey. Her hair, blonde at one time, was red and black and matted. I studied her face. Then, I turned to Sweeney: “So? Who am I looking at?”
Sweeney’s eyes narrowed and he furrowed his brow. “You don’t know?”
“Never seen her before.”
Sweeney looked to McGregor.
“Look again,” McGregor said.
I turned back and the girl was sitting. She shrieked at me, wild-eyed and hysterical. I shrieked back. She lunged for me and I was on my feet with my gun out. Sweeney and McGregor threw themselves at me. They took hold of my arm as the gun fired. It sounded like an atomic bomb in that little room.
They pinned my wrist to the wall above my head and held it there. They were blocking the girl. I couldn’t see the girl! Someone was screaming and screaming. I closed my mouth and the screaming went away. Sweeney’s contorted face swam in front of me. He was insistent, barking orders, trying to reach me. My ears sang.
“…a gag,” Sweeney was saying, distant and tinny. “Not real. It isn’t real…” His face was shiny and pasty. His eyes looked insane.
We stood this way for several seconds. Finally, McGregor tilted his head, squinted at me, and released my wrist. He turned to the tub. Sweeney let go and I had my arm back.
The girl was on her side in the the tub with her hands over her ears and her knees pulled up tight. She was shivering, frantic, talking to herself. Sunlight streamed in through a fresh bullet hole in the wall. My bullet couldn’t have missed her head by more than six inches.
I stumbled to the hall, found a place to slide down the wall, and sat on the floor. I laid my gun beside me. My pants were wet. Sweeney knelt by the tub and comforted the girl.
McGregor came out and sat beside me. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He picked lint off his pants. Finally, he said: “I tried to warn him, Joe, but you know how he is. I told him it was too much.” He turned, appraised me frankly, shook his head, and returned to the lint. “Great gag.”
My voice was hoarse and thin. “What happened?”
McGregor sighed at his pants. “The girl is his niece. She’s taking some acting courses at the community college. This whole thing came about when she told Sweeney her acting could fool a cop.”
I considered this for a while. “Makeup?”
McGregor nodded once. “Everybody was in on it. The reporters are actors. Sweeney wanted to get back at you for that stunt you pulled with the pizza delivery guy.”
I smiled ruefully. “Mission accomplished.”
The girl bet him $10 she could convince you she was dead,” McGregor said. “Looks like she won.”
I shook my head. “The blood didn’t smell. There was too much of it not to smell. I knew it felt wrong, I just couldn’t – I couldn’t quite…”
McGregor shook his head again. “Sweeney.”
“Let’s hope the girl isn’t in shock.”
“She’ll come around. Listen, Joe, you’re not gonna…you know…report this, are you? Sweeney and me and Klein, we could lose our badges.”
I shook my head. “What is this trash heap anyway?”
“Crack house, maybe? Smack? I dunno, ask Sweeney. I’m just here because he told me to be.”
I nodded and climbed unsteadily to my feet. I felt ninety years old.
“What are you gonna do?” McGregor asked.
“Going home for dry skivvies.”
McGregor nodded and returned his attention to the the lint on his pants. “Sweeney,” he said.
The woman sat at the bar and stared into her drink and Harvey stood behind her. He laid a hand on her back and leaned in so his mouth was in her ear. “Did you get it?”
She nodded at her drink.
Harvey sat down. “Beautiful.”
The bartender walked over. “What can I get you?”
“Whiskey,” Harvey said. “Neat.”
“How about you, ma’am? Ready for a refill?”
The woman covered her glass with her palm. The bartender left and came back with a whiskey.
“You don’t seem too enthused,” Harvey said.
The woman didn’t say anything. She pushed an ice cube down into her drink with a straw. It bobbed back to the surface.
“You got the signature,” Harvey said. “The hard part is over. Here, let’s see.”
The woman turned and dug in her purse and handed him a piece of paper. He looked at it and gave it back to her. She put it in her purse.
“Don’t lose that,” he said. “How did you manage it?”
“Just slipped it in the stack. He never reads anything.”
“They won’t suspect a thing,” Harvey said. “That explains everything nice and clean. There won’t be a reason for anyone to poke around.”
“He’s not the type. Everyone knows it.”
“Wasn’t,” Harvey said. “He wasn’t the type. He’s been down since he retired. You said so yourself.”
“Not that down.”
Harvey pointed at her purse. “That letter says otherwise.” He brought out a pack of Camels, shook two out, and offered one to the woman.
“No, thank you.”
He lit one. “What do you want to do?”
“I just wish there was some way to know for sure that we will get away clean. I wish there was some guarantee.”
“Life isn’t like that.”
“No,” she said. “On second thought, I guess I do want one.”
Harvey fished out a Camel and lit it for her.
She exhaled. “But you think it’s safe?”
“I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t.”
“What do I tell them, you know, if they do poke around?”
Harvey shrugged. “The truth. He seemed a little down but you didn’t think he was the type. They’ll believe you. Melancholy makes people do crazy things.”
“How long until we can be together?”
“After? I’d say a year just to be safe.”
The woman nodded. “Okay.”
“You’re sure? We shouldn’t go through with it if you’re not sure.”
“I’m tired of waiting,” she said. “I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“Me neither,” Harvey said.
“He’s not a monster you know. He doesn’t treat me poorly.”
“I wish there was some other way.”
“I know but there isn’t. This is the only way to swing the money side of it.” He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Everything will go off without a hitch, you’ll see. We just need a little faith and before you know it, we’ll be together. Did you buy the sleeping pills?”
“Good. Have you eaten yet?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“No? I’m starving,” Harvey said. “Lucky for me, they have great food here.” He stubbed out his cigarette and waved to the bartender. “Can I get a menu when you get a second?”
“Just grab it and toss it out.”
“You do it!”
“Seriously? This is why you yelled at me to come in here?”
“Please, will you?” she pleaded. “Can you kill it, Josh?”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because I can’t.”
Her brother grinned. “Can you imagine if it had babies and they were all crawling on your face when you woke up?”
She shrieked high and shrill and long and he added squeaking baritone wails and they laughed and laughed until nothing was funny anymore.
He wiped his eyes and sniffed. “It can’t hurt you.”
“You won’t do it?”
“You only have to look at it a few more hours.”
She frowned. “It will still be here even if I can’t see it.”
They sat quiet. “Will you bring your stuffed animals?” she asked.
“All of them?”
“I’m going to bring all mine. And my dolls. And the toys from when I was little.”
“Dad said we’re supposed to leave the stuff we don’t need.”
“I don’t care what he said!”
He blinked at her. He turned and looked out the window. “I should go pack,” he said.
“Do you think mom will be sad when we’re gone?”
He leaned forward and rested his forehead against the glass. “Probably.”
“Do you remember that fight they had when I spilled my juice?”
She nodded. “I wished I didn’t spill it.”
“I know,” he sighed. “It’s ok though.” He turned from the window. “I’m going to pack.”
She stepped in his path with her doll. “Do you want to play army men or something? You can use Barbie for the monster. I won’t get mad.”
“I have to pack. I’m sure Mom will be up soon to help you.”
She tossed the doll on the bed. “I’m going to ask her to kill it.”
“It’s only a few more hours you have to think about it.”
“No,” she shook her head. “It will still be here. Even when I can’t see it.”
He stood in a large hole, perhaps four feet deep and five or six in diameter. The digging was strenuous, the ground comprised of gravel and sand. With each thrust, the shovel stopped dead, sending a jolt through his arms, his shoulders, his back. Every few minutes, he dropped to his hands and knees to dig by hand. With his fingers, he unearthed heavy rocks, straining to wrestle them from the hole and heave them aside. The rocks dented and dulled his shovel, slowing his progress.
The air was crisp and the moon full; his body steamed through his shirt. He lifted the shovel from the hole, flat to the ground and perhaps a quarter full, and tossed its contents over his right shoulder. The sand made a brushing sound as it fell on dry leaves. He plunged the shovel into the earth again.
She stood behind him and said, “Why are you doing this?”
He stopped and let the shovel stand by its blade as he removed his cap and drew his arm across his forehead. The shovel stood upright for a moment then fell. “I have to find it,” he said.
She shook her head. “I don’t need it.”
Bending over, he grasped the shovel. “If I don’t find it now, We’ll have to wait until Spring.” He shook his head. “I can’t dig through the frost.”
She wrinkled her forehead and said, “Leonard, you’ve been out here for days! Weeks!” She moved close and he pulled away. She stopped and said softly, “Perhaps it’s not God’s will that it be found.”
“I don’t believe that. If He wants me to leave it out here in the wild, He needs to tell me plain. I ain’t interested in deciphering hints from The Almighty.”
She raised her eyebrows. “He is telling you. I’m telling you. Take the shovel home and draw yourself a warm bath. Put on dry clothes. Make a fire! Do the things you need to do to move on.”
He shook his head.
She smiled with sad eyes and said, “The landslide was not your fault. You don’t need to find my body.” She smiled. “It’s already buried.”
He fell to his knees in the dirt and covered his face with his hands. “No, no, no…” he cried.
“I have to go now, Leonard,” she said softly. “It’s time for us both to go home.”
She drifted away into the trees…
Leonard awoke with a start, his eyes wet and the television still on. Beside him, she lay sleeping, breathing deeply. He spooned her, and buried his face between her shoulder blades, pulling her close.
She faced the wall, smiling. “These dream pills were worth every penny,” she thought. “I am SO going shopping today.”
Now try this: The Predator
Maddie thinks she can change me. She puts her hand on my shoulder and spouts tripe. “The past is gone,” she says. “You can be whatever you choose to be.” Vapid life preservers that junkies toss about in twelve-step meetings or disillusioned young mothers post on Pinterest boards so they don’t slit their wrists in the tub.
I don’t resent her for it: she still thinks there’s some reason. It makes me smile but, when I do, nobody smiles with me. They avert their eyes and scatter.
The fact is, people don’t want to face reality, not really. They say they resent fakers and posers and frauds but they are, every one of them, a faker, a poser, a fraud. None of them considers that we’re nothing more than teeming insects on a spinning ball in space, a faint glowing coal that will soon smolder out and go cold.
Ashes to ashes and dust mites to dust.
“I was put on this Earth to write,” Maddie says, “and, by God, I’m going to do it!” She doesn’t regard the millions dead from starvation or disease or being blown to pieces by war.
“Weren’t they put on this Earth to do something?” I want to ask. “Is this what they chose to be?”
Maddie thinks she can change me and I let her live the lie. As for me, I’ve given up trying to change. In the end, only the full moon can make me into something I’m not and tonight, when it rises over the trees, I’ll become the wolf again.
And I’ll feast on her innocence.
Now try this: Ward’s Worthless Ward