Chicken Car: A Short Story

by Andy Rausch

I remember the first time I saw that damn car. It was ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. It was bad enough I had to wear the stupid Chicken Shack uniform, which was red with three yellow chickens strolling across the front with the words “Get Clucked!” on the back, but now there was this god-awful travesty on wheels.

“Ain’t she a beaut?” asked Tim, my boss, and owner of Chicken Shack. The fucker had a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye. I swear, he was as proud of that car as he was of his kids. Maybe more. But to be honest, it kind of makes sense because his kids aren’t all that great. They’re miniature reproductions of him and his equally-obnoxious wife, Tina, so that makes sense. After all, you don’t breed two jackasses and get a thoroughbred.

Tim was standing beside his chicken car with his arm stretched in a pose along its side, like a used car dealer trying to sell a Buick. Tim looked like a used car salesman, too. He was wearing the same light blue Herb Tarlick off-the-rack J.C. Penny suit he always wore. His black hair—at least what was remained above his ever-receding hairline—was slicked back with what looked like a quart of motor oil. His oddly-thin face also wore the goofy, suspicious “I’m-trying-to-pull-some-shit-over-on-you” expression of car dealers everywhere. I’ve never known Tim to do anything particularly wily other than him screwing Darlene, my crew chief, in the walk-in freezer behind his wife’s back. But if you’d ever seen or met Tim’s wife, you would totally get it. If it were me, I’d rather screw Darlene, too, which is not to say Darlene is any kind of a looker. She’s pretty damn fugly, yet she’s still better than Tina. If I’m being honest, Tim is prettier than Tina, too, and he’s both a man and ugly.

“I had her special made,” Tim said of the chicken car.

I was sure he did. I couldn’t imagine anyone other than Tim wanting to own such a grotesque monstrosity. It was a bright yellow Cadillac that was probably older than my grandpa’s grandpa. And the yellow was so bright it burned your retinas looking at it. There was writing printed on the door that read: CHICKEN SHACK. Then, below that, in cursive: GET CLUCKED! And yet none of these details are the thing that made it so… special. No, that would be the giant chicken head. Yes, there was a chicken head. A great big, smiling plastic chicken head sticking out from the top of the car’s roof.

I hated that thing the moment I laid eyes on it. As I spoke to Tim, I couldn’t help but have a slightly mocking tone. I knew it was there and could hear it when I spoke. But Tim didn’t seem to notice. He was so in love with the car that he was utterly oblivious, like he couldn’t imagine anyone not loving it or, worse, mocking him for owning it.

As if the chicken head wasn’t strange enough, I noticed it had teeth.

“This chicken’s got teeth,” I said.

“You’re damned right it does,” Tim said proudly.

“Chickens aren’t supposed to have teeth, Tim.”

“Yeah, but don’t you love it?”

“Sure,” I managed. “It’s certainly… something.”

###

That was in the summer. Now it was fall. Tim came to me asking for a favor a week before Halloween. I had just burned the hell out of my arm dumping straight-out-of-the-bag-store-bought chicken strips into the fryer. I was standing over the popping grease, inspecting the pink skin on my forearm when I felt Tim’s hand on my shoulder. I turned to look at him, and he was, of course, grinning like a damned fool.

“What’s up?” I asked, trying not to sound as annoyed as I felt anytime I had to have any sort of interaction with him.

“You do a good job here, Colin,” he said.

I nodded, knowing that was bullshit. I did the bare minimum, and yet somehow, that was more effort than any of my coworkers put in. But I was still a terrible worker in the same way that the best smelling dog turd still doesn’t smell good. It’s just less bad than the others, and that was me—a slightly-less-stinky turd.

“Next week is Halloween,” Tim said.

Who gives a fuck? I know I didn’t. But I didn’t say that. I may have only made minimum wage working at Chicken Shack, but even that meager amount was substantially more than nothing.

“I’ve got the chicken car signed up to drive in the Halloween parade,” he said, grinning. He was so proud I thought he might burst at the seams at any moment.

“Uh, cool,” I managed.

“I just got some bad news, Colin.”

I waited for the punchline.

“My wife’s Uncle Dinky is quite ill, and frankly, it looks bad.”

Uncle Dinky? Uncle fucking Dinky?! Are you kidding me?!

“Dinky lives in Oregon, so Tina and I will be gone all week,” Tim said. “Nelson’s gonna take over while I’m gone. But there’s a problem.”

This guy had more problems than a math book.

“Since I’m gonna be gone, there’s no one to drive the chicken car in the parade.”

“What about Nelson?” I asked.

“No, no,” Tim said, shaking his head. “Nelson can’t drive because he’s got two DUIs. Of course, he still drives anyway, but he’s worried someone might notice him driving in the Halloween parade in a giant chicken car.”

I tried to picture this in my head. I did, and it was horrible.

Tim met my gaze and said, “I’d like you to drive in the parade, Colin.”

I stared at him. “Me? The chicken car? In the parade?

He nodded, grinning big, mistaking my horror for enthusiasm.

“Isn’t it great?”

“I, uh… I can’t do that, Tim.”

“Sure you can,” he said, slapping his hand on my shoulder again.

I was about to concoct a story explaining why I couldn’t when Tim said, “I’ll give you a raise if you’ll do it.”

“How much?”

“A dollar.”

“A dollar an hour raise?” I asked incredulously.

Tim beamed. “Anything for the driver of my chicken car.”

So that was that. That was how I, Colin Booth, wound up driving that yellow eyesore in the Halloween parade.

###

My girlfriend Maggie broke up with me two days before the parade. We were sitting in my 1987 Camaro with the heater blasting us. It was cold, and it was dark outside. I had lost track of time but knew it had to be close to nine. We were parked in the country on a gravel road, and Angus Young was screaming from the speakers.

Maggie was rambling about something, but I didn’t know what. Something about her friend, Cheryl. I didn’t care about any of it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t care about Maggie. I did. She was the greatest. She’s got a great rack and a hell of a sense of humor. But sometimes, when she spoke, I tended to tune out. It wasn’t on purpose, mind you. It was like she spoke at a frequency that my ears couldn’t quite hear.

She was still talking when I leaned over the console to attempt a kiss. She turned, made a face of disgust, and moved away.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Don’t you wanna make out?”

“Is that all I am to you—a piece of ass?”

“No, of course not. But I’m not gonna lie, I do like having sex with you.”

She looked into my eyes. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“What was I just saying? Just now, before you tried to kiss me?”

I squinted and cocked my head, trying to find the answer, but all I knew was that it had something to do with Cheryl. So that’s what I said: “You were talking about Cheryl.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What was I saying about her? Do you know?”

I had no clue, so I just stared at her stupidly. She sucked her teeth, and her pissy expression became even pissy-er.

“This is what I’m talking about, Colin!”

I blinked. “What?” Were we fighting now? I didn’t even know. The fight just seemed to come out of nowhere. One second I’m trying to kiss her, and the next, she’s all pissed off and angry.

Maggie exhaled hard and crossed her arms. She was staring out the windshield when she said, “I don’t think we want the same things out of life.”

I stared at her. “Things out of life? What are you talking about? I was just trying to kiss you. What the hell, Mags?”

She turned to look at me again. “You have no ambition. No drive. No goals. Look at yourself, Colin. This is all the life you want, isn’t it? I think you’re actually happy with things the way they are. You’re in a holding pattern.”

“Holding pattern?” I asked. “What does that mean? Look, I like my life, sure. I think it’s great. Don’t you? Tell me what’s wrong with my life. Just one thing.”

“You’re thirty-six, and you live with your parents.”

“So what? A lot of guys I know live with their parents. Some of them are a whole lot older than me.”

“You’re a loser, Colin,” she spat. “I knew it when we met, but I tried to ignore it. I told myself you could change, but I know now that you never will.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I’m not a loser. Just look at my badass Camaro. How can a guy with a sweet ride like this be a loser?”

She shook her head angrily, so overwhelmed with frustration that she didn’t know what to do. Then she said, “I’m through.”

“Through with what?”

Her eyes locked on mine. “I can’t be with you anymore.”

I felt like I’d just been slapped. I sat there staring at her for a long moment. “What do you mean? Like what, tonight? Or forever?”

“I want to break up.”

“Really?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We’d been going out for nine months, and I’d really thought she might be the one.

“Take me home,” she demanded, turning to stare out the side window.

“Wait,” I said, unsure how to finish the sentence.

“What?”

“Could we at least have sex one last time?” I asked. “I’ll even wear a rubber this time, and I promise I won’t take it off in the middle like I did last time.”

I figured that was probably the wrong thing to say, but I wasn’t prepared for the way she reacted. She let out a loud, angry grunt that was a mixture of disgust and frustration, and she slammed both of her fists against the dash.

“Hey! Hey!” I said, holding my palm out. “I get that you’re mad, but don’t take it out on the car!”

Maggie turned and threw the door open. Before I even knew what was happening, she was out of the Camaro, slamming the door so hard the whole car shook.

I got out and stood there, staring at her over the top of the car. “Get back in, Mags. We can talk about it.”

She stood there with her back to me. “I’m not getting back in that car. I’ll walk, thank you very much.”

“It’s cold, and we’re ten miles outside of town,” I pleaded. “It’s too cold to walk. Just get back in the car.”

“I won’t!”

“Fine,” I said. I got back inside the car, backed out, and sped away. I decided if Maggie wanted to stage a dramatic escape, I’d let her. “Have fun walking,” I muttered, watching her fade into darkness in the mirror.

###

My dad lost his shit the night before the parade. He was always in a crappy mood. He’d worked in a factory making cabinets all his life, and he had always been drunk and angry anytime he was home. But now he’d lost his job, so he was even drunker and angrier than before.

I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking down at my phone. Mom was in another part of the house. I had no idea what she was doing, but Dad was here with me. He was coming in from the garage when he saw that the kitchen trash basket was overflowing.

“What the fuck, Colin!” he screamed. “What is this shit?!”

I had no idea what he was talking about or his current excuse for being angry. Not until he hurled the trash basket across the kitchen with all the strength he could muster. The flying wastebasket left a trail of trash behind as it soared, smashing hard against an overhead cabinet. When it crashed, the racket it made was loud enough to wake the dead.

Still sitting at the table, I could only stare. Stunned by the spectacle before me, my mouth was agape. In a flash, my dad was charging through the kitchen and into the dining room, rushing towards me with fire in his eyes. I felt certain he was going to punch me, but he kicked an empty chair into the table instead.

“You know what?” he screamed. “You’re a piece of shit! Do you know that? A fucking piece of trash!” I turned away from him, and he roared, “Don’t you turn your back on me, you little fuck!”

I pushed myself back from the table and stood up. I turned and found myself face to face with him. He squinted his eyes like a low-rent Clint Eastwood and puffed out his chest. “What are you gonna do?” he growled. “You think you’re tough enough—”

I punched him with everything I had, and I felt his jaw break. The old prick flopped backward, hitting his head against the wall. And that was it—he was unconscious.

I turned and left the house, vowing never to return.

###

When I showed up at work to pick up the chicken car, I was still wearing my Chicken Shack uniform despite not working in three days. When I knocked on the door frame outside the office, Nelson looked up at me. “Wearing your uniform for the parade was a great idea,” he said. “It’ll make you look more professional.”

Whatever.

I grabbed the keys without saying a word. I went outside, unlocked the car door, climbed inside, and started her up. I revved the engine a couple of times, and then I peeled out, heading for the parade.

###

It was five minutes before the parade’s start time. I was quite a ways back in the procession, right behind the high school marching band. There was a pickup truck behind me. It had a sign advertising the feed store on its side, and there was a guy wearing a hockey mask standing in the bed waving to people with a toy machete.

Up ahead, beyond the marching band, people were scrambling to find their places. I could see a homegrown, shitty excuse for a float on the other side of the band. The gray-haired mayor was standing in the middle of it, wearing khaki slacks and a windbreaker. A few guys were surrounding him on the float. Two of them were wearing hockey masks and carrying toy machetes. Real original. Another guy had a sheet pulled over his head. I assume he was supposed to be a ghost and not a Klu Klux Klansman, but this was Missouri, so who knows?

Someone in the drumline gave their drum a couple of practice whacks. There was excitement in the air, and everyone was anxious. The band members were readying themselves to begin marching. The truck behind me revved up its engine. Looking at the band again, I noticed one girl was in an electric wheelchair.

Sitting there waiting to go, I thought about Maggie accusing me of having no ambition. My mind then turned to my parents, who also thought I was a loser without purpose. I hated it when they said those things, and it made me really angry. At that moment, I realized for the first time why it made me so mad. It was because they were right.

I was a loser.

I had done nothing with my life, and I had zero plans.

I sighed, not wanting to be at the parade at that moment. I looked over the steering wheel, seeing the floats starting to move. The marching band began to march, and the chaotic cacophony of band music drowned out everything else. I dropped the chicken car into drive and began to idle forward.

I looked at the families and children who lined the street. They were smiling and happy. Seeing them happy made me angry, and I thought, who the hell were they to be happy? Why couldn’t I ever be happy? Why couldn’t I have a good life?

Maggie had been right. I had no ambition. I was a loser who lived with his parents and made minimum wage working in a greasy second-rate chicken joint. I had made nothing of my life, and it was clear I never would. Adding insult to injury, here I was driving this fucking chicken car!

The drums were pounding and tap tap tapping, and then somewhere ahead, I heard Van Halen’s “Jump” blaring from some unseen loudspeaker. All this music and chaos had brought the spectators to life. Kids were eating big globs of pink cotton candy. Others were waving neon glow sticks. Everyone was having a grand old time. Everyone but me.

As I considered the sorry state of my life and stared at the procession ahead and all its spectators, the tumblers in my head clicked into place. And I knew. I knew what I had to do, and I could feel the smile spreading across my face.

Lifting my foot off the brake, I thought about what I was about to do and the way I would make my mark on this world. The way Colin Booth would become famous, despite everyone’s lack of expectations.

This chicken’s got teeth.

You’re damned right it does.

I stomped the gas pedal. The chicken car shot forward. With the din of the band and Van Halen playing, it took a few seconds for people to realize what was happening. Some never did.

Suddenly, I was engaged in a grand game of Pac-Man, with the chicken car eating up the band members. I saw them disappearing beneath the front of the car as I kept my foot pressed down on the gas. I could hear the thwomp! sounds as the car passed over them. The tires struck some of them, and the car climbed up and over the fallen. The chicken car continued to accelerate, and I was mowing down band members three at a time. Some of them looked back and dove out of the way, but some of them looked back and saw me just in time to die. Now the girl in the wheelchair was right in front of me. And then she wasn’t.

Thwomp!

Within seconds I had made my way through the band’s ranks, and the chicken car was zipping through the school’s taut banner stretching across the band’s front row. With the banner flapping from the sides of the blood-spattered chicken car, I continued rocketing forward. And then I heard a new sound. A strange, uneven sound that I didn’t immediately recognize. I considered this for a moment and realized it was laughter. Mine. I hadn’t even known I was laughing, but I was.

I veered to the right, so I could hit the mayor’s float at an angle. This way, I wouldn’t be stopped by the collision. Just before the chicken car struck the float, I saw the mayor holding his hands out as if he could stop me. But I didn’t stop. Even at an angle, the crash was jarring, and the mayor, the ghost, and the duo of Jasons went flying willy-nilly. One of them—I don’t know which—went under the car, and I heard that satisfying thwomp! sound beneath me. The chicken car careened off the float and shot farther to the right, going up over the curb and devouring the crowd. I was laughing even harder now and found it difficult to catch my breath.

This chicken’s got teeth.

You’re damned right it does.

By God, I had done it. I was going to be famous. No one in this crummy little town would ever forget Colin Booth.

From the book Fever Dreams and Drunken Scribbles, Next Chapter, 2022.

Maybe: A Short Story

by Andy Rausch

When Jenny, my beautiful beloved, my soulmate, my everything, succumbed to cancer last year, I felt certain my life would end with hers. But, sadly, it didn’t. I could have just killed myself, but it didn’t feel right. At least not at the time, because I felt that wasn’t what Jenny would have wanted me to do. Truthfully, my depression was so heavy and constricting that I didn’t have enough energy to conceive of such an act, let alone carry it out.

The months passed slowly. I lay in bed for the first five weeks, getting up only to use the restroom, eat the most minimal sustenance, and occasionally clean myself. In the sixth week, I tried to go back to work. Unfortunately, it didn’t take, and I ended up walking away from the law firm that had once meant so much to me. The truth was, I just didn’t have it in me anymore. Not to work. Not to live. Not to do anything. So I confined myself to the bed Jenny and I had shared for so long, sleeping my poor excuse for a life away. I lost sixty pounds and wasted away. When I looked in the mirror, I no longer recognized the gaunt face that stared back. I was, it seemed, little more than flesh stretched over bones, resembling a Holocaust concentration camp survivor.

A few weeks ago, I finally decided enough was enough. I could no longer stand to remain in the house I had shared with Jenny—our dream house, where we had planned to spend a lifetime together. Additionally, I hoped a relocation would force me to leave my bed once and for all and resume some semblance of a normal life. So I packed my clothes, stuffed them into my Volvo, and drove four hundred miles to our vacation home in the mountains. The house was built to be a hunting cabin. Neither Jenny nor I hunted, but the cabin was ours, and it was the place where we’d spent our honeymoon sixteen years ago.

On my way to the cabin, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided I would “rough it.” So, I tossed my cellphone out of the window of my car and onto the highway. If I was going to rediscover myself and find some sense of purpose, I believed I would need to go back to the basics and connect with nature. I kept money, clothes, and little else. The cabin was twenty-three miles south of Janesville, which was the nearest town. This meant I would need to travel to Janesville every few weeks for supplies. Beyond that, I planned to separate myself from the rest of the world. Isolation, I believed, would help me to climb up from the depths of my depression and reclaim my life.

Well, that idea, which was great in theory, didn’t work so well in reality. I purchased groceries the day I arrived and haven’t left the cabin since. As for my new life, it has turned out to be precisely the same as the shitty life I lived before leaving the city. I stay in bed all day and sleep, attempting to escape my reality. Being here in the cabin hasn’t lessened my yearning for Jenny but has instead increased it exponentially.

This cabin feels empty without her. When I first arrived, it dawned on me that I had never been in the place without her. That thought then led to another: the last time I had been here, Jenny was still alive. Still a part of the world. A part of my world. In fact, she had been the center of my world—the sun around which everything else revolved.

It didn’t take long for me to conclude that this new life—my cabin life—would just be more of me lying in bed, buried in depression. However, it was quickly apparent that it was worse here. My mattress at home had been an expensive model with sleep numbers and all the bells and whistles. The mattress here is lumpy and hard, and, as I recall, Jenny and I bought it cheap at a used furniture store a couple of towns over.

I am kept company by an old hunting rifle that leans against the wall in the corner. The rifle isn’t mine. Well, it is, but I didn’t buy it. It came with the cabin as part of the package deal when I bought it way back then. Jenny and I had thought it quaint—a symbol of everything we were not—and we left it in the corner as a sort of joke. But now, seeing that rifle from the bed where I’m confined, it no longer seems funny.

Yesterday, I finally gave in and climbed out of bed, and went to the rifle. I then lifted it and stuck the barrel in my mouth. Well, it turns out the gun was still a joke, but now the joke was on me—when I squeezed the trigger, I heard a metallic click. There was no round in the rifle, and I had no idea where I might find one. I didn’t have the energy to search the house, so I set the gun back in its place and returned to the warm bed that is now my home.

Today will be different. I don’t know it yet, but it will.

I open my eyes and find myself blinded by daylight. I have no idea what time it is, and frankly, the days and nights now blur together to the point where time no longer has meaning for me. I blink, trying to focus my eyes. My back hurts terribly, but I’m somewhat used to this now. The pain is a byproduct of lying in bed for weeks and months on end. I’ve now started developing bedsores on my back and thighs. To ease my immediate pain, I decide to change positions. Sometimes that helps. I turn over, and when I do, I am faced with something unexpected.

Jenny is lying on the bed in front of me.

My wife.

My dead wife.

She’s asleep. I’m now turned completely over, so I lie motionless and stare at her, taking in her beauty while simultaneously trying to comprehend what I’m seeing. I blink my eyes again. This has to be a hallucination. But, to my surprise, when I’ve finished blinking, Jenny’s still here. Now that I’m aware of her presence, I hear the quiet sounds of her breathing for the first time.

My heart is so full that it feels like it could explode at any second.

My eyes fill with tears, but I don’t notice them because I’m so enraptured by the sight of my Jenny girl. Although I don’t notice, my tears are falling onto the fitted bed sheet beneath my head.

Jenny cannot be here, I think. It’s impossible. It is an objective fact. She cannot be here. But… she is. Just as I know the first thing, I also know the second. My dead wife, the love of my life, my dream girl, is lying right in front of me.

“Jenny,” I whisper.

I didn’t know I was going to speak. It just popped out of my mouth, startling me.

Jenny doesn’t stir. She continues to sleep, her eyes closed with a half-smile on her lips.

“Jenny,” I say, louder and on purpose this time.

This time is the charm, and her eyes open. She doesn’t blink but instead zeroes in on me immediately. Her smile widens.

“Hello, my love,” she says.

I stare at her, unable to speak. Jenny sees my tears, and her expression shows concern.

“What’s the matter?” she asks. “Why are you crying?”

Her words cause me to cry harder. I don’t speak because I’m afraid that if I interact with her further, I will somehow end this dream and find myself slammed back into reality. However, if this is the truth, Jenny doesn’t seem to know it because her hand raises, and she sweeps away my tears.

Her hand. Her touch.

This is the first time I’ve felt Jenny’s touch in a long, long time.

Her familiar touch triggers something inside me, and I begin to heave, crying harder. I start to close my eyes as I cry, but I resist it. I don’t know how long my Jenny girl will be here, and I don’t want to miss a second.

Her soft hand touches me again, this time caressing my cheek, and she cups my face. I relax my neck muscles and allow myself to rest against her palm. I focus on the way her hand feels, and I try to save the memory in case this ends.

“Mark, my love, what’s wrong?” she asks.

I look at her through my tears, and I can feel an uneasy smile stretch across my face, and it horrifies me. I’m scared to smile because smiling seems like an acceptance that she is real, and that, I worry, might break the bubble and cause this to end.

But, thankfully, it doesn’t. It still may, but it hasn’t yet.

“I’ve missed you so much,” I tell her, and somehow saying those words trigger another burst of tears.

Jenny wipes my eyes again, leaving the palm of her hand pressed against my cheek.

“I know, my love,” she says. “I missed you more than you’ll ever know.”

Is Jenny here? Is it possible? No. No is the correct answer to that question, and yet here she is. I can see her and feel her and smell her. It’s not perfume or soap or any of that, but her natural smell, which is wonderful. I’ve always loved the way she smelled… Smells, current tense. The absence of her scent wasn’t anything I ever considered after Jenny’s passing because it was just one of a million things that were gone. But smelling her now brings back a thousand pleasant memories, and my heart soars.

“How are you here?” I ask.

She smirks slightly and gives a knowing expression.

“Not yet,” she says. “Let’s just enjoy this moment a little longer.”

Fine, I think. I want to know how and why she’s here, but somehow in this moment, I summon the ability to push those questions away.

“I love you, Jenny.”

She smiles a radiant smile that illuminates the room, and my eyes lock in on her lips. Oh, how I’ve missed those lips, the lips I kissed so many times. The lips I kissed on her cool dead body for the last time only moments before the orderlies asked me to leave so they could take her away.

She sees me eyeing her lips, and she licks them before she moves towards me, and she kisses me gently. I’ve been in bed for nearly a month, and I haven’t brushed my teeth in almost as long. But I forget this, and Jenny doesn’t give any indication that she minds. I feel her warm, familiar tongue flick against mine, and I begin to sob once more.

Jenny pulls herself back and stares at me, smiling. It’s a complete smile, not only on her lips but also in her eyes.

“I missed you so much, my love,” she reminds me.

Her voice is as soothing as a melody, and warm happiness fills my body, my soul, my everything.

I am happy.

“Jenny,” I say.

She smiles an easy smile and stares into my eyes.

“Yes, my love?”

“Where were you?” I ask. “Where did you go?”

She gives me the same coy smirk as before.

“You and all of your questions,” she says dismissively.

I stare at her, taking her in, trying to memorize every small thing, worried she might leave again.

“Really,” I say. “Where did you go, Jenny girl?”

She tilts her head slightly, staring at me as if she’s analyzing a mathematical problem she doesn’t quite understand.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I was there with you in the hospital, and I could feel myself slipping. I was so sleepy…”

“I remember,” I tell her.

“And then, there was darkness. I was just… I was gone. I could still think and hurt, although it was no longer the sickness. Not anymore. Now my pain was you. My heart hurt because I couldn’t see you, couldn’t find you. I didn’t know where I was, but I didn’t know where you were either, and I was more concerned with where you were than I was for myself.”

Now I realize that I’m still crying.

“Oh, Jenny,” I say. I know I should say something better, something more substantial, but at this moment, it’s all I can think to say.

“Mark?”

“Yes?”

Jenny looks at me, and I see concern in her eyes.

“How long has it been?” she asks.

I stare at her, unable to find the words.

“How long has it been?” she repeats.

I think for a moment, my brain slow from having succumbed to depression for so long and now having been forcefully ripped out of it.

“Thirteen months,” I say.

She looks at me in the way that a mother might, and the focus of her concern shifts.

“You’re too skinny,” she says. “You haven’t been taking care of yourself, have you?”

I can find no good answer for this, so I tell her the truth.

“No,” I say. “I… couldn’t. I couldn’t do much of anything. With you gone, everything just seemed so… heavy.”

“So you stayed in bed?”

“I tried to go back to work, but I couldn’t do it.” I break down, sobbing as hard as ever. Looking down, I say, “Oh, how I’ve missed you, Jenny girl. I realized after you were gone that it isn’t healthy to build your entire life around another person the way I built mine around you, but by the time I realized this, it was too late. I was…” I look at her. “Lost.”

She scoots herself up into a sitting position, and I notice that she’s wearing her black Sex Pistols shirt. She wasn’t buried in the shirt, obviously, and I wonder how she has it now. It doesn’t matter, but it is a thing I consider.

“Come on,” she urges. “Sit up.”

I pull myself up and scoot beside her, leaning back against the headboard. Jenny leans in and wraps her arms around me, and this moment is everything I’ve dreamed of for so long. Everything I thought was gone.

But here she is.

“I’m here now,” she says as if she can read my mind.

“Can you read my mind, Jenny?”

She chuckles and says, “No, of course not. That’s a strange thing to ask.”

“I guess I’m strange.”

“Of course you are,” Jenny says. “And that’s why I love you.”

We remain locked in our embrace for several minutes. I cry, and Jenny holds me in silence. Finally, we both pull away so we can see each other’s faces.

Jenny’s mouth curls into a full smirk now, and she says, “You smell bad, Mark. Real bad. When was the last time you took a shower?”

I think about it. “I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve only showered twice, and I’ve been here for almost a month.”

“You reek,” she says in the playful voice I know so well. I’m not offended, either. She’s right. I do smell bad. I’ve transcended the point when I could smell myself, and I now smell nothing.

We look into each other’s eyes. “How are you here?” I ask. “Do you get to stay?”

Her face scrunches up as she considers this.

“I don’t know that either,” she says with a shrug. “Well, that’s not entirely true. I don’t know how or why I got to come back, but I know that I can stay as long as you…” She stares at me, letting the words hang there.

“As long as I what?”

“I’m a part of this house now, my love,” Jenny says. “I can only stay if you remain inside the house.”

“What about you?” I ask. “You can’t go outside?”

“No, I can’t,” she answers. “But you can’t either. I don’t know why, but if you do, the spell or whatever this is… the magic, I guess… will be broken.”

“And you’ll be gone again?”

She nods.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t know how I know. I just do. The knowledge is just there, inside my head. I don’t know how, but I know with certainty that it’s the truth.”

“How can you know that?”

“I just do,” she says. “But that’s okay, right? We don’t need to leave, do we?”

“No, we don’t.” Then I reconsider. “Well,” I say, “there isn’t much food.”

She bites her lip, thinking. “Can you have food delivered?”

“No, I can’t,” I say. “I don’t have a phone.”

“Where’s your cellphone? You never go anywhere without your cellphone.”

“That was the old me.”

“What’s different about the new you?”

I shrug. “I guess just that I don’t have a phone.” I can see she’s confused by this. “I don’t know how to explain it,” I say. “I just felt like I should get rid of it.”

“Get rid of it?”

“I chucked it out the window of the car,” I say.

Her eyes get big, and she looks at me incredulously. “What?!” She laughs like this is the funniest thing she’s ever heard.

“I don’t know,” I say. “You know me. I do stupid shit sometimes.”

She chuckles.

“Yes, yes you do,” she says. “If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be the Mark I fell in love with.”

We laugh together.

Then my mind returns to the matter at hand. “Really, though,” I say, “we’re gonna run out of food in a few days.”

“Well,” she says, “I can’t eat anymore, so that’ll help some.”

“Not really,” I say. “There isn’t much food at all.”

“That’s not what’s important right now,” she says. “What’s important is that I love you, and you love me, and we’re together again. The rest of it’s just details, my love.”

I smile. “You’re right. Jenny?”

“Yes, my love?”

“Can we snuggle?”

She lights up. “Of course we can.”

We both scoot back down and pull the blanket up over our heads.

*

A week has passed, and I’ve somewhat come to grips with the idea that I’m spending time with my deceased wife. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but I consciously try not to examine any of it too closely. The truth is, I’m still not wholly sure Jenny is actually here, physically, in the flesh. I’m fully aware that there’s a good chance I’m hallucinating. Or losing my mind. Or both. But if that’s the case, I’m okay with that so long as I’m able to continue seeing, speaking, and loving Jenny the way I have these past few days. Real or not, I have enjoyed our time together. Everything feels exactly the way it did before she… left, and, in fact, these days have been the best we’ve ever shared. I feel closer to her now than I ever have before.

Jenny convinced me to resume cleaning myself daily, and now that she’s back, hygiene is no longer an issue. My life is back on track in a way I had never expected—never could have expected—and I feel revived. I no longer sleep my days away. The unfortunate side of all this is, my renewed energy and zest for life have caused me to regain my appetite. At the rate I’m going, I’ll run out of food within the next forty-eight hours, and, in truth, forty-eight hours might be stretching it.

Our first few days together were a righteous loop of lovemaking, amazement, and me asking Jenny the same questions about her return, each time yielding the same vague, generally unhelpful responses.

I’m sitting in the old La-Z-Boy chair next to the window, staring out at the trees, the grass, the sky, and the clouds, appreciating them the same way I now appreciate Jenny. I was always aware that she was beautiful, but now she somehow seems even more attractive. As I watch a sparrow land and then walk about in the yard, I feel Jenny’s soft touch on my shoulder. I turn and look up at her, absolutely awed by her beauty.

“I love you,” she whispers.

I tell her the same, and I stand to face her. We embrace, and I hold her, squeezing her tightly. I pull back and look at the magnificent work of art that is Jenny. She looks at me with those big blue eyes that look like you could fall into them, and they mesmerize me, just as they always have.

“Jenny,” I say.

“Yes, my love?”

“I need to ask you something.”

She smiles, exposing her perfect, impossibly white teeth. “Anything.”

I search for the words, but I struggle to say them. Finally, I manage, “Are you…”

She tilts her head in that way of hers that I adore, and it makes me want to kiss that cute spot of hair on her temple. “Am I what?”

The words get caught in my throat. Then, finally, I ask, “Are you real?”

She smiles a knowing smile. “Do you see me?”

“Yes.”

“Have you felt me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve tasted me,” she says, giggling.

“I have.”

“Then what do you think?” she asks, her smile unwavering. “Am I real?”

“I’m not sure what to think,” I say. “That’s why I asked.”

She lets out a small grunt of a laugh.

I ask her what’s funny. Her eyes look deeply into mine, and I feel as if she can see through me.

“I’m real if you think I’m real,” Jenny says. “Do you believe that’s true?”

I don’t pause to consider this. “Yes, I do.” This statement aligns with my previous thoughts of accepting her presence, whether she’s real or a hallucination. Does it matter? In my mind, she’s here with me either way, laughing, smiling, embracing, and loving me the same as she always did.

“This feels like heaven,” I say. “Don’t you think?”

Her lips slide into a half-smirk. “Maybe,” she says. “I don’t know what heaven feels like… I don’t even know if there is a heaven.”

“Then perhaps this is heaven,” I suggest.

She grins a sliver of a grin and plants a kiss on the end of my nose. “I don’t believe this is heaven,” she says, “but it is lovely.”

“But maybe it’s heaven,” I say again.

She humors me. “Maybe it is, my love.”

I stare into Jenny’s inviting eyes and feel a warm sensation spread throughout my body. Suddenly, every part of me is tingling. “I love you so much, Jenny girl,” I say. “I’m incredibly happy that you’ve come back.”

Her expression transforms into something more serious, and she says, “Mark.”

I stare at her, waiting.

She says, “This can’t last, you know.”

Unsure how to respond, I say, “Maybe, if we focus really, really hard, we can keep this, whatever it is. Maybe, just maybe, we can make it last.”

Her eyes are wet now, and she says, “No, Mark. This will end.”

“It doesn’t have to.”

“It does, though. Everything comes to an end. We both know that.”

“But why?” I ask. “Why does this have to end?”

“Because you have to stay inside this cabin for me to be able to stay. You do remember that, right?”

“Of course I do.”

“You’re almost out of food, my love,” Jenny reminds me. “If you don’t leave to get food, you’re going to die.”

I consider this and lament, “But if I leave, you’ll go away again.”

She looks at me with those big, glistening blue eyes, and her pain is visible.

Still holding her, I say, “Jenny.”

“Yes, my love?”

“The result of both things are the same.”

She looks at me, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Either way, I’m dead. Before you came back, I was dead,” I say. “Maybe not physically, not yet, but I was dead. If you leave now, I’ll be dead again. Mentally first, then physically after.”

“Mark,” she says. “You’ve got to go.”

I grip her tightly and pull her closer, holding her in a long embrace.

“No,” I say. “I won’t leave. If I’m going to die, I’d rather die with you. I don’t want things to go back to the way they were after you—” I catch myself, not wanting to upset her.

But Jenny knows. “After I died,” she says, finishing the thought.

“Yes,” I say. “But that won’t happen again. We’ll be together from now on.” I pull back so I can see her. “Do you think we’ll remain together if I die, and we’re both dead?”

Jenny looks away as if she expects to find the answer across the room.

“I don’t know, my love,” Jenny says, biting her lip. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

“Maybe,” I say. It’s not enough, but it’s all that comes to mind at this moment.

She looks into my eyes and nods. “Maybe.”

“Either way,” I say, “I won’t live without you ever again.”

*

The food has been gone for a while, and now the water has run out.

Jenny and I are huddled together on the couch, and I have my arm around her. It’s too weak to remain there on its own, but it’s pinned between Jenny and the cushion.

“I think the end is near,” I say.

She pulls me close and wraps her arms around me. “It’ll be okay, my love.”

Hearing her words, I believe her. As long as I’m in her arms, everything is alright. In her arms, nothing could ever be wrong.

I feel warm inside. Happy. Comfortable.

Jenny holds me tight in her warm, comforting arms, and I close my eyes.

I drift into the darkness, and she softly sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to me like my mother did when I was a child. At this moment, it’s a beautiful, wondrous song, and I feel light, happy, and most of all content. Jenny’s voice singing that sweet, sweet melody is the last thing I’ll ever hear, and it continues to comfort me as it grows farther and farther away.

The Iceman Killeth

A short story by Andy Rausch

October 8, 1981

“We know who you are, and we know what you do,” the old man in the yarmulke said.

Richard Kuklinski, who would one day become known as “the Iceman,” stared across the cement picnic table at him.

“Oh yeah?” Kuklinski said. “Who do you think I am?”

“We don’t think, Mr. Kuklinski,” the younger man, also wearing a yarmulke and sitting next to the old man, said, “We know.”

“Okay, then tell me about it,” Kuklinski said. “Tell me what you think you know.”

Kuklinski looked absentmindedly at the children swinging on the swings and running and playing on the playground behind the two men. Then he looked back at the old man.

“You’re a killer, Mr. Kuklinski,” the old man said matter-of-factly.

“What is this? Fairy tale time?” Kuklinski said. “I’m leaving.”

As Kuklinski flattened his palms against the top of the picnic table to push himself up, the younger man said, “We gave you $10,000 to take this meeting and hear what we have to say, so at least give us that.”

Kuklinski remained tensed with his hands pressed against the tabletop, trying to read the faces of the two men across from him.

“There’s more money if you accept our offer,” the old man said.

This got Kuklinski’s attention, and he relaxed some.

“I’m not saying I’ve done the things you think I’ve done,” Kuklinski said, staring at them with a tough, no-bullshit stare, “but go ahead. You tell me what you came here to say. Then I’ll let you know what I think. But first, tell me about the money.”

The white-haired old man grinned. “Money wins out every time, doesn’t it?”

Kuklinski just stared at him.

“We’re willing to pay you $60,000,” the younger man said.

Kuklinski raised an eyebrow. They had his full attention now. “Go on,” he said, rubbing his bearded chin.

“You’re a serial killer, Mr. Kuklinski,” the old man said. “You’ve killed at least thirty people, and we’re fairly certain that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And you do what you do very well.”

Kuklinski narrowed his eyes, and the two men saw fire in them.

“What makes you think any of that is true?” Kuklinski asked.

“It’s not up for debate,” the old man said. “We know.”

“We know, and we don’t care,” the younger man added.

“Then what?” Kuklinski asked.

“We represent a group of very wealthy, very important people, Mr. Kuklinski,” the old man said. “And we know a lot of things. Not just about you, but about other people too.”

Kuklinski grinned a toothy grin. “Like what? What do you know?”

“Not only do we know that you are a serial killer who has also worked as a contract killer for the mafia, but we also know the location of two men who are hiding nearby who believe no one will ever know who and where they are,” the younger man said.

Now grinning himself, the old man said, “But we know.”

Kuklinski raised his eyebrow again as he eyeballed the old man. “Who are these guys, and what do they have to do with me?”

“You generally dispatch your victims in extremely violent ways,” the old man said. “Some of them you shoot, yes, but there have been others who were not so lucky. Others whose lives came to extremely brutal, savage ends.”

Kuklinski held his palms out. “Whoa! Whoa! I’ve never killed anybody ever, not in my whole life.”

Staring into Kuklinski’s eyes, the old man said, “We’re not here to get you into trouble. Again, we don’t care. What you do or have done is of no concern to us, Mr. Kuklinski.”

Kuklinski leaned in towards the old man. “Then what?”

“We wish to contract your services, Mr. Kuklinski,” the younger man said.

Kuklinski gazed at the children playing behind the men again for a long moment. Then he looked back at the men, first the old man and then the younger one.

“Suppose I was the man you say I am,” Kuklinski said. “I’m not saying I am, but just for shits and giggles, tell me about these services you’re looking to contract.”

The old man leveled his gaze at Kuklinski. “As you have likely surmised, Mr. Kuklinski, both my partner and I are Jewish.”

The old man raised the left sleeve of his jacket to give Kuklinski a look at his forearm. When Kuklinski saw the numbers tattooed on the old man’s paper-thin skin, he understood.

“You were in a concentration camp,” Kuklinski said.

The old man looked at him grimly. “Auschwitz.”

“I still don’t understand what that has to do with me,” Kuklinski said. “Lay it all out on the table.”

The old man stared into his eyes. “As you might guess, Mr. Kuklinski, I am no fan of the men who committed these atrocities.”

“Nazis,” Kuklinski said.

“They took everything from me,” the old man said. “They raped and murdered my wife. They shot my parents. They took away our children.” There were tears in the old man’s eyes, and he paused to compose himself. “What I am saying is, myself and many others—”

“The aforementioned wealthy individuals,” the younger man said.

“We want very badly for these men to pay for the things they’ve done,” the old man said.

Kuklinski stared at him. “I thought they hung ’em at Nuremberg.”

“Not all of them, Mr. Kuklinski,” the old man said. “Many escaped and went into hiding in different countries, using fake identities. Unlike the thousands of people they massacred, these men are still very much alive and free in the world, living their lives as if these things never happened.”

“We cannot allow that,” the younger man said.

We will not allow that,” the old man said sharply.

“Let me guess,” Kuklinski said. “You’ve located some of them here in the states.”

“We have located two of them, and they both live close by,” the old man said. “Both men held prominent positions in the Third Reich.”

“And they live here, in Jersey?” Kuklinski asked.

“No, they’re both across the bridge,” the younger man said.

“One of them lives in Queens, the other in Brooklyn,” the old man said.

Kuklinski stared at the children playing for a moment as he considered this. He made a sucking sound with his teeth as he did. Then he looked at the old man. “So, why me?”

The old man grinned. “Who else would you send to murder such monsters? We don’t just want them killed. We want them butchered the way they butchered our families. And that, Mr. Kuklinski, is your specialty.”

Kuklinski nodded. “I’ll do it. But I’ll do it for $100,000. If you can pay me that, I’ll do anything you want me to do to these fuckers, and I’ll do it slow and painful.”

“Exceedingly brutal?” asked the younger man.

Kuklinski flashed his big toothy smile again. “More brutal than your mind can comprehend. I’ll paint the walls with their blood if that’s what you want. I’ll rip them to pieces.”

The old man reached his bony hand across the table for Kuklinski to shake. Kuklinski didn’t like to shake hands, but for $100,000, he could make the exception.

“How you dispatch them is up to you, so long as you make it very brutal,” the old man said. “I cannot stress this enough. Also, we know you sometimes freeze your victims’ bodies for long periods to obscure their times of death. This time, we would like you to leave their bodies behind so they will be discovered quickly.”

“Why?” Kuklinski asked. “That’s dangerous. It increases the chances of getting caught.”

“We don’t want you to get caught,” the younger man said. “But we wish to make examples of these men.”

“Yes,” the old man said. “We want to frighten their comrades who also live in the States. We want them to know that justice—that vengeance—is coming. We want them to live in fear the way our families lived in fear.”

Kuklinski winked at him. “For the amount you’re paying, no problem.”

* * *

Thomas Campbell, the seventy-one-year-old man once known as Colonel Werner Brinkmann, was sitting on his sofa watching the late show. It was a black-and-white picture about Martians fighting giant radioactive spiders. Campbell didn’t care for such tripe and thought it beneath him, but he hadn’t been able to sleep, and there was nothing better on.

There was no light inside Campbell’s Brooklyn home beyond the minimal light provided by the television. On the screen, a green-skinned Martian was firing a laser pistol at a cheap-looking, obviously fake spider. Campbell rolled his eyes at this and considered going back to bed, but knew he would not be able to sleep, so he would have to put up with aliens and spiders a bit longer. The television was positioned in the space between the living room and dining room, so he could see it from his sofa against the living room wall. As he was watching the movie, Campbell startled, his peripheral vision catching a movement in the darkness beyond the television. He squinted into the darkness, trying to make out whatever it was. He told himself it had just been his imagination, but, as it turned out, it had not.

He could see a human figure emerging from the darkness, slowly materializing in the dimmest of light. Campbell sat up upright but didn’t rise to his feet. He put his hand up beside his eye as if it was a shield. There was a man there, just behind the television. A formidable-sized man, but Campbell could not make out his face.

“What do you want?” Campbell asked, startled by the volume of his voice.

“I’m here to make you pay,” the intruder said.

“What do I have that I should pay for?!” Campbell asked.

The man laughed at this, simultaneously angering and frightening Campbell. He wished he had the pistol he kept beneath his pillow with him now. Then he could show this man, this… whatever. But as it was, Campbell did not have the pistol, and he knew he was neither quick enough nor steady enough to run past the man.

“Who are you, and what do you want?” Campbell asked.

His heart was pounding, and he found it difficult to breathe.

“I don’t…” Campbell stammered. “I don’t like this!”

The obscured man took a couple of steps towards him. He was now in front of the television, slightly to the left so the bright screen, which was suddenly blinding. Even though the man was closer now and Campbell could see his body, his face remained hidden.

“I’m sure people would think, ‘How do you sleep at night, knowing how many men you’ve killed?’” Kuklinski said, chuckling. “But you and I know differently. The deaths don’t bother guys like us, do they, Werner?”

“Who are you?” Campbell asked again, not knowing what else to say. Then it occurred to him to reach for the lamp on his left and switch it on. He did this with his left hand, even though he was right-handed, so he wouldn’t have to take his eyes away from the intruder. When the lamp came on, bright light flooded the room, and Campbell had to blink for a moment and then squint to see the intruder.

He was a tall, sturdy man. He was bald on top, with black hair visible on the sides of his head. He had a black beard with the tiniest bit of gray showing in it. Something was disturbing about the man, not just because he was standing in Campbell’s living room clutching a butcher’s knife. He would have been terrifying anyway. There was a coldness in his eyes and in his demeanor that gave Campbell chills.

Campbell stood, his skinny, weak legs trembling beneath him. “Please, no!” Campbell begged. Disgusted by the weakness in his voice, Campbell tried to compose himself. He stared into the man’s eyes, frightening as they were, and said, “I can get you money. Is that what you want?”

Kuklinski grinned a sick, evil grin. “I don’t want your money.” He started coming towards Campbell now, and Campbell knew there was no way out. His eyes grew large, and when Kuklinski got close—he was right in front of him now!—Campbell tried to step back, his legs hitting the front of the sofa, causing him to fall back onto it.

Campbell put his palm up between them. “No! Please!” Kuklinski swiped the blade through the air—Campbell could hear it swoosh—and pain shot through his hand. Campbell instinctively looked down at his hand. When he did, Kuklinski grabbed his throat with his free hand and gripped hard, cutting off Campbell’s air supply, and Campbell thought he was going to crush his larynx. Kuklinski raised him from the sofa by his throat. As Kuklinski pulled his hand back, Campbell found himself standing, and his eyes grew large. Before he could think or speak again, Kuklinski shoved him hard, and Campbell, trying to maintain his footing, crashed into the wall, his back and left shoulder taking the brunt of it. Campbell tried to stand erect again, but the man was on him before he could move, pressing him against the wall.

Kuklinski raised his hand and clutched Campbell’s throat again, pressing his head hard against the wall. Campbell and Kuklinski were close now, staring into one another’s eyes, and Campbell could smell garlic on the man’s hot breath.

“You aren’t so tough now, are you?” Kuklinski said.

Kuklinski then shoved the blade into Campbell’s scrotum, causing him to scream in agony. Still holding Campbell up against the wall with his other hand, Kuklinski yanked the knife hard to the left, ripping Campbell’s testicles. Campbell cried, screamed, and whimpered. Kuklinski dropped the blade so he could grab Campbell with both hands, and he flung his body down to the carpet like a rag doll. Campbell fell onto his side, his left arm pinned beneath him. Kuklinski stepped into the narrow space between the sofa and Campbell, then kicking Campbell as hard as he could, shattering several ribs as he did, onto his back.

Now that Campbell was lying on the floor, injured, weeping, and looking up at the ceiling, Kuklinski reached down and snatched up the knife from where it was lying beside Campbell’s head. When Kuklinski stood erect again, towering over Campbell, Campbell stared up at him through bleary eyes. His lips were trembling, and he tried to speak, tried to beg Kuklinski not to hurt him anymore, but nothing came out except a whimpering moan. Kuklinski squatted beside Campbell, grinning as he did.

“How are you feeling, Werner?” Kuklinski asked. As Campbell stared at the face of death, even though his thoughts were racing and jumbled, one clear thought rose to the top—the intruder was a Polak.

“You… you are a Polak,” Campbell mumbled. “I can’t be killed by… a… Polack.”

Smiling big, Kuklinski asked, “You don’t think so?”

Campbell felt Kuklinski’s blade push its way into his abdomen, just beneath his pajama top, and there was a sharp, excruciating pain unlike anything Kuklinski had ever felt before. He cried out again, calling for a god who either didn’t exist or didn’t give a shit about him. Kuklinski brought the knife up from Campbell’s abdomen slowly, sawing, tearing his flesh, as well as every organ the blade came in contact with. As this was happening, the buttons of Campbell’s pajama top popped loose one by one. He was screaming continuously now as the smiling Kuklinski was sawing his way through the thrashing Nazi’s stomach all the way up to his chest.

Campbell was lying there, screaming and screaming—he couldn’t stop—and Kuklinski pushed his hand down into Campbell’s open abdomen, wrapping his fingers around a strand of his intestines. Campbell was still screaming, although his scream was dying out.

“Look at me, Werner,” Kuklinski commanded. When Campbell didn’t open his eyes, Kuklinski screamed the command. “Open your eyes, and you look at me, goddammit!” This did the trick and, despite the overwhelming pain Campbell was experiencing, he opened his tear-filled eyes. His screaming had transformed into a pained, pathetic wail now, and he saw Kuklinski gleefully pull his intestines out and hold a strand of them up before his eyes.

“It turns out you can be killed by a Polak after all,” Kuklinski said, chuckling. He dropped the intestines now. Having murdered many people in a variety of ways, Kuklinski knew Campbell would be dead soon. The Nazi was weeping and moaning, his eyes clenched as tightly shut as he could manage, tears snaking their way down his cheeks.

“Hey Werner,” Kuklinski said.

Campbell was oblivious to this.

“Werner, old buddy, you need to open your eyes and look at me one more time.”

Campbell didn’t seem to hear him, and Kuklinski concluded he had probably gone into shock. Nevertheless, the hopeful Kuklinski—hopeful that Campbell was not beyond the point of awareness—grabbed both sides of the man’s head and plunged his thumbs deep into his eyeballs, feeling them pop beneath his nails like squished grapes. Whatever his mental state was, whether he was aware of what was happening or not, Campbell began to moan, making a sound like a dying pig, and his body began to thrash harder, and his arms flailed wildly. Still squatting over Campbell, Kuklinski wiped the blood from his thumbs on Campbell’s open pajama top. Then he picked up the knife and raised it high over his head, plunging it down hard into Campbell’s forehead with a loud crunch, and then, almost instantly, Campbell stopped moaning and thrashing. His body fell limp as if a switch had been flipped, shutting him off.

Kuklinski checked his watch. It was now three-ten. He’d have to finish up quickly if he was going to pay a visit to the second Nazi before sunrise. He would like to have waited and spaced the murders out, but it had to happen tonight because once the second Nazi learned of the first’s murder, he would flee and find a new rock to hide beneath. So it had to be tonight. But that was fine because Richard Kuklinski was a man who loved his work.

* * *

Kuklinski rolled up to the park where he’d met with the two men previously. It was seven a.m. There were no children here, and the air was considerably cooler now. There was only one other vehicle in the park’s small parking area, a Buick with the two men inside, waiting.

Kuklinski opened the car door and stepped out. Having seen him pull up, the two men had already gotten out and were making their way toward the Cadillac. Looking at them over the top of his car, Kuklinski said, “I took care of them. Did you bring the money?”

The younger man raised a briefcase over his head so Kuklinski could see it.

The younger man was ready to give him the money, but the old man was cautious. Coming around the back end of the Cadillac now, he asked, “How do we know you killed them?”

The younger man expected Kuklinski to take offense at this, so he was caught off guard when the killer smiled his big toothy smile at them. Kuklinski then leaned down into the still-open door of the Cadillac and grabbed the large duffel bag sitting in the passenger’s seat. He pulled the bag out and turned toward them, tossing it onto the pavement.

The old man looked down at the bag. “What is this?”

“Take a look,” the old man said to the younger man. From the expression on the younger man’s face, it was clear that he didn’t want to look in the bag. Still carrying the briefcase, he knelt and unzipped the bag. When he did, he remained motionless for a long moment, staring at the bag’s contents.

Unable to see what his young partner was seeing, the old man asked, “So, what do you see?”

Immediately, as if responding to the question, the younger man turned and spewed vomit onto the pavement. A moment later, embarrassed, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stood.

Kuklinski grinned proudly.

“It’s that bad?” the old man asked, a hint of glee creeping into his voice.

“Heads,” said the younger man. “Heads without eyes.”

The old man nodded. “Give him the money.”

The younger man held out the briefcase for Kuklinski. Without saying a word, Kuklinski took the briefcase, smiled at them one last time, climbed into his Cadillac, and drove away.

The Dog Creek Coven

A short story by Clark Roberts and Andy Rausch

Bishop thought he’d seen it all in his twenty-three years as a hitman, but he’d been wrong. This job was just plain nuts but the money was good so he’d taken it anyway.

Mooney, the stocky dumb-looking sheriff, slid the open case towards him.

“This is half,” he said. “Half now, half after, like we agreed.”

Bishop pulled out a tied stack of bills and fanned through them with his thumb.

“Do you wanna count it?” Mooney asked.

“No,” Bishop said as he returned the stack of bills to their proper spot in the case. “I’ve got an eye for this kinda shit. It looks square.”

The redheaded waitress, Julie, strode to their table and refilled their mugs with piping hot coffee. She met Bishop’s gaze over the rising steam.

“I just wanna say thank you,” she said. “I’ve got a son of my own. Fifth grader. He’s not in danger yet, but he ain’t gonna be a kid forever. I suspect in a few years these witch bitches mighta set their sights on him.”

Bishop cleared his throat after taking a sip of the hellishly hot coffee. “Thank you, honey, but the job ain’t done yet.” He nodded at the case Mooney was snapping shut. “And when it is, these Ben Franklins here will be all the thanks required.”

“I suppose a big city hot shot like you thinks this is all just a bunch of small town hooey,” Julie said.

Bishop smirked, tilted his head. He didn’t want to lie so he said nothing.

“Somebody’s gotta stop those bitches,” Julie said.

“Julie,” Mooney interrupted, holding up his palm. “I’m handlin’ it.”

Frowning, and with a sass Bishop believed only small town waitresses could pull off properly, she snapped, “Well, howdy-fucking-do, Sheriff. I’m glad you’re handlin’ it. Truth is, if you’d handled it in the first place we wouldn’t have needed no hitman.”

“When I ran for county seat,” Mooney said, rubbing the bridge of his nose, “I really wasn’t expecting to be taking on black magic. I’m sorry, but I didn’t go to school for this shit.”

“I’ll give you that,” Julie said with a modicum of appreciation. She turned her attention back to Bishop. “Like I said, thank ya, honey. We needed a savior before this thing gets too far outta hand. You probably think we’re off our rockers, but you’re our last resort. I’m sure you don’t even believe in black magic, but thank you just the same.”

The waitress had assessed him correctly. Bishop didn’t believe in black magic, but he did believe in money, bullets, and a strong work ethic, so he’d do what was necessary. Witches or bitches, those women were through.

“Rest assured, I’ll get the job done,” he said.

“Well, I’ll be throwing a prayer or two in your direction.” The waitress winked at him, turned, and walked away.

“Sorry about that,” Mooney said, slightly embarrassed.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bishop said. “No problem at all. It helps give me an idea of what we’re looking at.” He looked around the cafe, still half-empty this early in the morn. “I’ll say one thing, though: it feels strange talking about a hit in such a public place. I can’t believe the whole town is on this.”

“I’d imagine that’s not something you see every day,” Mooney said, raising his coffee to his lips. He winced as he swallowed, indicating to Bishop he should wait a little longer before taking a sip of his. Mooney set the mug back down on the table. “Honestly, there isn’t much money around these parts, no single wealthy benefactor to put the bounty up. Say what you will about us small town folks, but push come to shove, we stick together.”

“Everyone in town pitched in to pay?”

Mooney nodded. “The gas station and both our watering holes have had collection jars on their counters for a few months now. Even the local church has been donating ten percent of their weekly offering dish to aid in the cause.”

“They’ve been tithing me,” Bishop said, grinning.

Before Mooney could respond, Julie reappeared, balancing two breakfast plates. She placed the omelet and hash browns in front of Bishop and the pancakes in front of Mooney. Mooney reached for the plastic syrup dispenser and in a flash, he had his stack good and syrupy and had a chunk crammed into his mouth.

“If the town’s been raising money for this, I suspect these women I’m going after—”

Witches,” Mooney interrupted.

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Bishop said. “The point is, if everyone is so out in the open about this, I’m sure by now they know the town has put a bounty on their heads.”

“You bet they do. And you know what? They don’t care. Doesn’t faze ’em one bit.”

“Okay, so why haven’t you and your boys been able to handle this?” Bishop asked. He shoveled a forkful of eggs stuffed with ham and cheese into his mouth, finding it every bit as good as he’d expected from a greasy-spoon breakfast dive.

With a big mouthful of pancakes, Mooney pointed at the hitman with his fork. “I’m telling you, and you can take this as a warning, those bitches are powerful. I don’t know shit all about black magic, but since they’ve come to our town we’ve had three young men go missing. Two a few months ago and then one just this past week.”

Bishop stared at him. “And you think they’re somehow related.”

Mooney nodded. “We all do.”

“You haven’t found their bodies?”

“Not a one,” Mooney said.

“Then maybe they’re still alive.”

“I don’t think so. But listen…” Mooney paused, weighing his words. “I know this is gonna sound crazy.”

“Crazier than witches?”

Mooney shrugged an awkward shrug.

“We haven’t found any bodies, but we’ve had multiple sightings by local hunters of what they describe as dog men running around out in that forest.”

Bishop grinned, caught off guard. “Dog men?”

“That’s what they say,” Mooney answered. “Everyone here believes these witches seduce young men and cast some kinda spell on ’em. Make ’em all hairy and howl at the moon.”

“You’re fuckin’ with me.”

“I fuck with you not. If it wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be here.” Mooney smothered another heavy round of syrup over his pancakes. “I don’t know what you brought along to get the job done, but I hope you took the middle man’s advice and got yourself a handful of silver bullets. Not for the witches, but for their minions, so to speak.”

“For the dog men,” Bishop said, smirking, trying not to laugh.

“I know you think this is funny, but it’s not,” Mooney said, deathly serious.

Bishop hadn’t brought silver bullets. Of course he hadn’t taken the middle man’s advice. Who would? Bishop didn’t know what had happened to the missing men—maybe they’d run off together for all he knew—but he was certain they had not been transformed into dog men by witches wielding black magic. What he really believed was that those bodies were gonna turn up one day, long after he’d done the deed and clipped those women. He didn’t like killing innocent people—especially women—but the money spent all the same. As for dog men, Bishop thought that was a load of bullshit started by some half-drunken, half-blind hunter who had nothing better to do than make up stories.

When Julie returned with the check, Mooney looked it over and scoffed at the price.

“What, you gotta dip into the payment?” Bishop asked, patting the leather briefcase.

“Nah,” Mooney said, tossing a two dollar tip on the table. “It’s just, you’d just think the locals would give their lawman some kinda discount.”

They went to the cash register and Mooney paid. Bishop felt every eye in the place following him.

Let ‘em look, he thought. By tomorrow night I’ll be a legend in this shithole Podunk town. Silly fuckers might even erect a statue of me one day. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

Outside, before Bishop could climb into his Escalade, Mooney handed him a folded piece of paper. The hitman unfolded it and examined it. It was a crudely-drawn map. There was a star indicating the town and a line from that heading north with a couple of turn-offs here and there until it finally ended at a big “X”. There was was an arrow pointing at the X with the word WITCHES scrawled next to it.

Mooney pointed to the spot as if Bishop couldn’t have figured it out himself. “That’s where you’ll find ‘em, right there.” Mooney paused and looked over Bishop’s shiny black Escalade. “You take this thing, you’ll wanna go slow down the path. It’s not maintained, so there’s lots of ups and downs. You’ll go over a trout stream, and that’s Dog Creek. Rumor has it there’s a rickety bridge that’s got no business still standing, but I can’t speak to that as I ain’t been back there. But I can say I wouldn’t drive across it if it was.” Now the sheriff pointed to the crude drawing of a fire with a pentagram above it. “That X, that’s their place. I hear tell it ain’t nothin’ more than a camp, but again—”

“You haven’t been there,” Bishop said.

“Right,” Mooney said, nodding. “Anyhow, you come back with evidence, and you’ll get the other half of the money.”

Mooney put out his hand, but Bishop just looked at it.

“We can shake when this is all over.” Bishop climbed up behind the black Escalade’s steering wheel and tossed the briefcase into the passenger seat.

“Good luck,” Mooney said through the open side-window. “You staying at the Riverside Inn?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Top secret, huh?”

Bishop grinned. “Something like that.”

“It’s okay, I already knew you was stayin’ there.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s the only motel that’s still open for more than fifty miles,” Mooney said. “You’ll see the husks and signs of a couple others, but they’ve been tits up for more than a decade.”

Bishop nodded. “Good to know.”

“So,” Mooney said, “when can I expect to hear from you?”

“Tomorrow,” Bishop said matter-of-factly. “I’ll get the job done tonight, and it’ll be done right. Then I’ll go back and crash for a few hours, get my ass up and call. When I do, please have my money ready ’cause I plan to be a hundred miles away from here before your next order of pancakes.”

“You never know,” Mooney said. “I like pancakes.”

Bishop nodded and rolled the side window up. He then reversed the Escalade and spit gravel as he sped out of the parking lot.

A few minutes later, Bishop parked the Escalade right smack dab in front of the office of the Riverside Inn. His was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Bishop stood beside the vehicle for a moment, smoking a cigarette. Despite being a lifelong smoker, he considered the habit a nasty, smelly one and never allowed himself to smoke inside his home or vehicle lest he smell it up. As he stood there drawing on his cigarette, he studied the old faded Riverside sign, which proudly boasted AIR CONDITIONING AND FREE ICE. Well hell, he thought, grinning, who wouldn’t want to stay in a place with such luxurious amenities as those? He took one last drag from the cigarette and dropped it on the asphalt, crushing it underfoot.

He opened the backdoor of the Escalade and pulled out his faded Army rucksack. He then held up his key, hitting the electronic device that locked the Escalade with a “woo-ooh!” sound. Bishop turned and walked to the cracked glass door that said NO SHIRT NO SHOES NO SERVICE. Some would-be comedian had taken a marker and marked through the word “SHIRT” replacing it with the scrawled word “SHIT”. Real fuckin’ funny, he thought as the pushed the door open. When he did, an overhead bell announced him.

The counter was to the right, but there was no one manning it. While he waited, Bishop scanned the room, which looked as archaic and rundown as the rest of this shit-heap town. The super ugly 1970-something wallpaper with green and yellow floral designs which lined the room was peeling at every intersection. Straight ahead there was a black velvet painting depicting a bullfighter twirling his cape past an angry bull. Bishop remembered these types of paintings from his childhood some thirty-five years ago, and the dust which coated it looked to be about as old. To his right there was a large floor model television with a cracked screen that looked as old as Methusela’s great grandma. On top of that was a smaller television that looked like it had probably been used to watch brand new episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard once upon a time. Next to the televisions was a dirty old orange recliner that had been patched with silver duct tape a half dozen times.

Bishop was taking all this in when he heard a man’s voice from behind him say, “What can I do ya for?” He turned and looked at a side-door behind the desk, where a heavyset man in plaid who looked like the douche-bag neighbor who always peeked over the fence on Home Improvement had emerged.

“I’ve got a reservation,” Bishop said.

Plaid Shirt grinned the eight teeth he had left as he nodded. “I know who you are.”

Bishop said dryly, “I imagine you do. It doesn’t look like you get many customers.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised. Sometimes on a good huntin’ weekend I get three, maybe four people stayin’ here.”

These poor dumb inbreds, Bishop thought as he dug for his wallet.

No, no, no!” Plaid Shirt said, holding up his palms, doing jazz hands. “Your money’s no good here.”

Bishop met his gaze. “You the owner?”

“Nah, not me, I’m just the manager. Shirley’s the owner. She told me to tell you that you could stay as long as you need to, free of charge. Her daughter Sally was going out with one of them boys who…you know…”

Bishop nodded.

“So anyway, she said to tell you anything you wanted was free, on the house.”

“What does that mean? What is there I could have?”

The man looked confused. “Well… We don’t really have no food or nothin’, but we got ice. Whole lotta ice.”

“And air-conditioning,” Bishop added dryly.

“Well, it’s cold this time of year, so I don’t reckon you’ll be needin’ that.”

Plaid Shirt turned around and faced a wall of hanging keys with accompanying numbers. He reached up and snatched one down. Then he spun to face Bishop. “This one here’s the nicest room we got. It’s the Presidential Suite.”

Bishop stared at him. “Why’s it called that? Have any presidents actually stayed here?”

Plaid Shirt grinned that goofy every-other-tooth-missing grin again. “Nope. But it ain’t exactly a suite neither.”

Bishop reached out and took the key.

When Bishop opened the door to his room, he was amazed by how nasty it was. This was the fucking Presidential Suite?! Not only was it something less than “presidential”, it was the nastiest, most disgusting shithole he’d ever seen, and he’d stayed in the worst areas of St. Louis and Detroit more times than he could remember.

But fuck it, he thought. This was a job and if he got it done, he’d be on his way in no time. Hell, he might not even sleep here. He might just go out and do the job and call Mooney for his money early. Then he could put some distance between himself and this town and find some place nicer to stay. He’d certainly have the money to do it.

He dropped his ruck sack and picked up the television remote off the dresser. There was something sticky on the remote, which helped him make up his mind that he would definitely be leaving as soon as he could. He sat back on the edge of the bed and switched on the TV. When it came to life, there was static. He flipped through the channels, but they were all static.

“Good Christ,” he muttered.

He stood up and switched off the TV. Then he walked around the bed to the nightstand and picked up the telephone to call Plaid Shirt and complain. When he put the phone receiver to his ear, he found that it was dead. He pushed the buttons repeatedly, but there was nothing. He shook his head and set the phone back down on its cradle.

At this point, he wondered if there was even running water.

He laid back, hesitant to rest his head on the flat pillow. The place was the pits but he needed a few hours of rest after the long drive last night. He closed his eyes without setting his phone alarm, knowing full well his internal clock wouldn’t let him down. It never did.

Dusk had sifted through the room’s grimy window when Bishop’s eyes popped alert hours later.

His trigger finger twitched. It was witch hunting time.

*****

With his headlights off, Bishop wound around the two-track deep into the woods. Sure enough, after crossing Dog Creek over a rickety covered bridge that he suspected was older than Jesus’ ancestors, he found himself staring down at a bright, dancing bonfire centered smack dab in the middle of a clearing.

In there center of the fire he saw a giant wooden cross. The flames danced and flickered wildly around it, reaching toward the heavens. There was a man hanging from the cross, just above the flames, and that man was alive and screaming in agony. They were the piercing cries of a man who could both feel and smell the flesh on his feet cooking and was ready to die and get it over with. Maybe Mooney was right. This had to be the most recent man who’d disappeared.

Bishop could feel his stomach seize, and he had to close his eyes and turn away. He was a killer and an experienced one at that, a man who had seen the lights go out in the eyes of thirty-seven men and women, but this was too much.

Saving the poor fuck would only be a bonus. It wasn’t part of the arrangement, because the townsfolk believed the men were already beyond saving. What they wanted was for Bishop to make sure this never happened again.

The cooking man’s cries intensified.

Saving that man ain’t my job, Bishop reminded himself. My job is to kill those witch bitches once and for all.

Bishop slipped out of the Escalade. He moved stealthily around the vehicle, quietly opening the back hatch. He’d removed the lightbulbs so the dome light wouldn’t come on. His hands reached in and felt along the rifle case. He snapped the case open and withdrew the AS50 sniper rifle. He slid the cartridge into place, hearing its satisfying click.

He then dropped his hand to his side, making sure the Glock—his backup piece—was strapped in place.

It was game time, and Bishop was in his element, a panther stalking its prey.

And in that moment, a thought occurred to him, and he lifted his eyes towards the sky; sure enough, the moon was full. It was then that he had a second realization, and that realization was a combination of regret and fear.

Shoulda had those silver bullets made, Bishop.

His lips thinned as he breathed heavily through his nose.

Fuck it. Do or die time.

Cradling the semi-automatic sniper rifle, he patted his sidearm one last time. Christ, he thought, he had the power to single-handedly take down a platoon if he had to. Or a bear. Or a whole goddamn platoon of bears. This thought brought a smile to his lips.

What the hell was he scared of anyway? The local legend was dog men, not wolf men.

In the back of his mind, though, with the moon full as it was, this logic felt like a matter of splitting hairs.

I’ve got a job to do, he reminded himself, and set to task on the tripod.

Bishop had only used the AS50 twice, since he generally liked doing his dirty work up close and personal. But he was efficient with the rifle, and he was ready.

Come on out, you fucking witch bitches.

Once the rifle was balanced atop the tripod, Bishop got down on his belly. Peering down through the scope, he found the bonfire and the slowly burning man, who was whipping his head to and fro and gyrating like a man possessed by demons.

Ignoring the poor bastard as best he could, Bishop swiveled the rifle.

He scoped all three of his targets, and slightly jerked the rifle from surprise at their unexpected sex appeal.

He licked his lips.

They were lookers for sure, with tight, sleek bodies wrapped up in tight all-black goth garb. It was no wonder they’d been able to draw those men away from town. It had been their sultry sexiness that had drawn those men out here, not black magic or voodoo or any of that bullshit. It had been tits and ass, and these women had those things in spades.

All of them stopped moving, spaced out evenly around the flames. Simultaneously, they all raised their arms heavenward in what Bishop assumed was some sort of Satanic ritual.

Bishop focused the crosshairs on the one dressed heel to toe in leather, guessing she was their leader. At that moment she launched into a garbled litany he could hear even above the burning man’s cries of pain and anguish. She then began gyrating in such uneven jerks that Bishop almost believed she was possessed. Her spasms were so sudden and uneven that he couldn’t even keep his scope on her.

He swung it over to the redhead to her left.

She was in full profile. He rested the crosshairs on her temple and unconsciously held a breath.

The rifle popped, its sound somewhat masked by the cries and whooping, and the redhead’s head rocked back like she had been punched by God. She swayed like a flickering candle before dropping to her knees and falling face-first into the fire. Embers scattered wildly into the night air.

Bishop swiveled the rifle before either of the others could react, dropping the blonde beauty next.

He swung his rifle, and with the scope up to full power was able to read the paralyzing shock on the leader’s face. She looked up, staring directly at Bishop. There was no way she could actually see him there in the dark, but she’d heard the pop and had likely seen the muzzle flash.

Her followers had been snuffed out. No black magic had saved them from death.

Bishop settled the crosshairs onto her heart, but the witch turned to flee the moment he squeezed the trigger. The shot wasn’t a complete miss, though.

The witch stumbled backwards, almost falling, but held her feet. Her right hand clapped at her left shoulder and for a split second, watching her waver there, Bishop thought he’d completed the kill. But then she broke into a run, and by virtue of a mind on the brink of death or perhaps an actual plan, she zig-zagged.

Bishop fired and then fired again, both of his shots literally shots in the dark. He was fairly certain both shots missed.

The woman crossed the clearing before he could fire again. Through the scope he saw rustling brush where the witch dove into the woods’ perimeter. Hoping against hope he fired two more rounds where he thought she was. He held his breath, studying, searching.

A shadow darted back farther into the trees.

Shit!” he blurted.

Two of the witches were dead, but two wasn’t enough. The deal had been that he’d receive no pay unless he brought back evidence that all three had been killed. He would have to give chase and track down his final target.

At least there would be a blood trail.

She had a head start on him, so he had to get moving.

He chucked the rifle, knowing it would only slow his chase. But that was fine, he still had the Glock. Besides, if the job couldn’t be completed cleanly from afar, he’d enjoy finishing her up close and personal. He hustled down the hill, making his way through tree branches while trying not to lose his footing.

When he reached the bottom, he glanced up at the burning man hanging on the cross. When he did, he saw something startling.

“Well, fuck my mother and call me Charlie,” Bishop muttered.

It was true. It couldn’t be true, wasn’t fucking possible, and yet it was.

The man wasn’t just burning as Bishop had previously believed. As the flames danced around him, the man’s head continued to whip back and forth, but the flames weren’t charring him. They were changing him. Transforming him.

Bishop stood motionless, staring as the hanging man’s physical body grew muscles that continued to stretch and bulge in ways that would make a professional wrestler envious. The man’s shirt ripped apart as the muscles expanded. And now his wails changed as well, transforming from screams to growls, and the man’s jaw bone stretched in ways that jaw bones weren’t supposed to stretch. The chin and the mouth stretched outward, becoming the jaws of…a dog or a wolf. As the jaws took shape, hair began to grow and cover the man’s face, and within mere moments he had transformed almost fully into an animal, and not just an animal but an angry, snarling animal.

The rope securing the beast’s ankles popped loose and the creature kicked and convulsed angrily, trying to release itself from its bounds. Suddenly, Bishop saw the beast’s left arm break free from its constraint and the still-evolving abomination dangled. It was nearly free and Bishop knew it would be down on the ground and then on him in a matter of moments.

“Fuck that,” Bishop said, aiming his Glock at the beast’s head. Before he squeezed the trigger, he silently prayed that the bullet would be enough to stop it. He fired, the sound of the Glock loud as hell, the round blowing the creature’s head clean off. The creature’s body continued to move and shake violently, its legs and arms juddering. And then, finally, it went limp and still.

The creature dangled there, the soft wind causing it to turn towards him. When it did, Bishop could see that the creature hadn’t quite finished its transformation. Then, suddenly, the weight of the dead creature proved too much for the rope and it snapped, dropping the damn thing into the fire like a sack of rocks. In that moment, the fire came to life, and it brightened like a star in the moments before its death. The creature’s hair sizzled and the sweet, sickening aroma of burning flesh filled Bishop’s nostrils. Staring down at the burning creature, Bishop fired two more rounds into its head to make sure it was dead.

Knowing he had to move quickly, he dragged the first witch he’d killed from beneath the dead creature and out of the fire. He positioned it next to the other dead witch so both of their faces were visible. He took out his phone and snapped two photographs of their lifeless bodies as evidence they were dead.

But there was still the last remaining witch to contend with. He tucked the phone back into his pocket and broke into a sprint with his Glock up and out ahead of him. He ran into the forest where he’d seen the bitch escape.

Once he’d entered the brush line, he stopped and cocked his head, listening intently. Concentrating hard, he took a step and heard only the leaves crunching beneath his boot. On the second step, he snapped a wig.

He paused, waiting.

He heard no sound. No movement. He looked to the ground, searching for a bloody trail, but even the full moon didn’t provide enough light to aid him beneath the forest’s canopy.

He cursed, knowing what he would have to do, even if it gave away his position. He pulled out his palm flashlight.

He switched the light on, illuminating the splashed blood on the leaves.

Maybe she’ll bleed out before I find her.

He smiled at the thought.

She was obviously wounded badly, and the amount of blood splashed upon the withered leaves hinted at a potentially mortal wound. Maybe the bullet had ripped apart something vital.

He pushed the beam of light farther ahead.

More blood. On the leaves, even on the closest bush. Fifty feet up he found a swath of red on an old oak tree.

Bishop nodded confidently in the dark. He knew he had her on the ropes. The witch was losing strength and had leaned here for support.

When he had been a young man, Bishop had tracked a couple of wounded deer who hadn’t been shot cleanly through the lungs or heart. He would never forget those instances. The deer had held on for as long as possible, refusing to give up… But this was a lot of spilled blood. The witch had to be close to death. She was clinging onto her place in the physical world, but it was slipping away. Soon it would he hello darkness, my old friend.

Bishop continued on, deeper into the woods, holding his breath.

Then he heard it, not much farther ahead and to the right. The sound of a body collapsing.

He swung the light and ducked a few branches. There she was lying motionless on the ground.

He approached her, using his foot to flip her over onto her back.

She was still alive, just barely. Even now, her face was beautiful. Squinting up against the light in her face, she stared into his eyes.

“An outsider,” she gasped.

Bishop grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “One outsider hired to kill another.”

“They…paid you?”

Bishop’s grin widened, but he said nothing.

The witch’s breaths were cadenced quickly, as if her heart was desperate to replenish her emptying blood supply. She coughed from somewhere deep in her throat, spitting up blood. She then did this a second time, this one ending in a gargle.

Death was taking hold of her. Bishop had seen this many times. Her eyes were still open, staring at him, but the light within them was fading fast. Despite this, she smiled. Her tone strengthened at the end, and with a fortune teller’s confidence she said, “You’ll never spend another dollar of that money, you prick.”

That was enough. Bishop was tired of this shit. He leaned over and pressed the barrel of the Glock into her chest. “And you’ll never see another bonfire, bitch.” In that moment, he saw what little life was left in her withdraw. Her eyes turned as lifeless as stones.

He fired point blank, and the witch’s body jumped with death.

The deal was sealed.

Bishop replaced the handheld flashlight with the cell phone and snapped a photo.

He became aware that the night somehow darkened. He looked over his shoulder, expecting to see the full moon trying to hide through the canopy of trees. Instead, he saw a massive hulk looming over him.

Bishop swallowed, remembering the other two men the witches had lured away from town.

The beast above him growled a fierce growl that froze Bishop’s blood, and the creature pulled back its lips to display its glowing white fangs. Bishop felt his bladder release and warm piss snaked down his leg. This reawaken him, and he snapped back into the moment.

The creature seemed to bare its teeth a little more, its growl nearly deafening now.

“Fuck you,” Bishop said as he brought the Glock up, firing through the bottom of the creature’s jaw. The muzzle flashed and the sound rocked the forest. Most of the beast’s head was blown apart—enough so that Bishop knew without a doubt it was dead. He turned and started to run, knowing that the gunshot had given away his location.

Without his flashlight and only the minimal light from the moon, Bishop put his hands out in front of him to protect himself from injury. He knew there had to be at least one more of those creatures prowling around out here. His only chance was to get back to the Escalade and get back to town. Nobody had paid him to kill the dog men. He’d let the townsfolk deal with them.

He ran, panting hard as he did. He scraped his right arm against a tree and several branches smacked and cut his face, but he didn’t stop powering forward. He could hear nothing but the sound of his own panting. As he ran, he slipped and felt the ground disappear from beneath his feet, and suddenly his face struck the ground hard, and then he was rolling, head over heels down the hill until he hit the base of a tree with a hard thud, knocking him unconscious, and there was only blackness.

*****

When Bishop came to, blinking himself awake, there was thick blood in his eyes. He could taste its warm saltiness in his mouth. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. How long had he been lying here unconscious? He had no idea, but it was still as dark as it had been before. He felt around on the ground for his gun, but it was no use. He then reached for his palm flashlight, but it was gone as well. This led to another thought. He reached for his phone, which held the evidence of the witches’ demise, but found that it was also missing.

Christ, he thought. He would have to sit here and wait for daylight. Then, once the sun rose, he could find his phone and return to town. Bishop raised himself up and sat with his back against the tree. His entire body hurt and he was cold. He turned his neck, which was stiff and sore. He tried to pop it, but it wouldn’t give. He hadn’t tried to stand yet, but he didn’t feel like he had any broken bones. All in all, these were very minor injuries in the grand scheme of things. Cold or no cold, he would just have to settle in and wait for morning. Then he would retrieve the phone and head back.

Sitting there, he considered locating the SUV and sleeping inside where it was a little bit warmer and more comfortable, but he feared he would lose track of where he’d fallen, lessening his chances of finding his phone.

He sat there for a few minutes, trying to find some modicum of comfort and warmth, thinking about all the things he would spend the money on once the job was finished. Maybe a boat. He’d always wanted a boat. But the truth was, despite constantly considering such purchases, Bishop never bought anything other than weapons. Everything else just went into the bank, where it sat accumulating interest.

He was straightening out his left leg, which hurt like a bitch, when he heard the growl, off in the distance to his left. Fuck. No time to sit and wait. Remembering the other man the witches had lured into the woods, likely transformed into another dog man, Bishop stood and turned in the direction he’d been heading.

Fuck the phone. It was time to get out of here.

He heard a second growl. This set his feet into action. Although he was stiff, he broke into a sprint with his hands out in front again. After a few minutes of running, he popped out of the treeline and into the clearing, seeing the fire again. He looked around, but saw no one; no people, no dog men. He looked up at where he’d been perched when he’d shot those witch bitches, and he stiffly broke into a run.

He was just making his way around the dead witches and the burned corpse of the first creature when he heard the howl behind him. It sounded close, but when he turned he saw nothing. He figured it was likely the creature was just inside the treeline, so Bishop scampered up the hill as quickly as he could. He was tired, oh so tired, but kept on, trying to find traction up the rather steep hill. As he did, he heard a howl that was closer this time. When he looked back, he saw the beast—the last of them, he believed—prowling around on two legs at the far end of the clearing where he’d just been.

Bishop climbed slower than he wanted to, mustering all the energy he had, trying to move as quickly as he could. He was about halfway up when he heard the growling a ways behind him. He didn’t turn around, but just kept on climbing. If his ears served him right, the beast was just beyond the fire. Bishop dug his boots into the dirt and made his way up. He heard more growling, closer now, just as he made his way up and over the top of the hill.

Seeing the Escalade ahead, he broke into what now passed for a sprint. Frantic and out of breath, he reached the passenger side door. He opened it and stuck his head in, hearing the dog man snarl behind him. It was close and it was ferocious.

Bishop straightened himself and turned to face the beast, which was very much animal despite its standing on two legs. It was only six or seven feet away and it’s eyes, fierce and angry, were locked on him. It’s jowls were open and it snarled, its teeth bared. It was moving in on him, coming closer and closer. When it was almost within arm’s reach, Bishop raised the flare gun he’d retrieved from the glove box. The beast reached out dumbly and swiped a claw across Bishop’s face, slicing his cheek and his right eye. The pain was excruciating; something burning and tremendous and beyond words. Before the creature could move again, Bishop fired the flare at the creature’s face with a loud whooooof!. Despite his being hurried and not being able to take precise aim, the flare shot directly into the creature’s snarling mouth. Part of the flame caught the creature’s face on fire and the rest burned inside his mouth. The creature made a loud squeal and staggered back, finally toppling backwards onto the ground. As it writhed, trying to rid itself of the pain and fire, Bishop moved quickly to the flaming beast, stomping his boot down as hard as he could on its flaming face. He felt its skull crush beneath his weight.

*****

Having called Mooney from the motel to set up the meeting, Bishop strode into the diner looking as if he’d just come up on the losing end of a fight with a rabid crack-addicted grizzly bear. His face was ripped apart and what was left of his ravaged eye hung grotesquely from its socket.

Mooney was already sitting at his table—the same one from their previous encounter—gorging himself on pancakes. Mooney looked up at Bishop’s face and stopped chewing, his mouth still full. Bishop stood before him.

“Give me the fucking money.”

Mooney moved the mouthful of food into the left side of his cheek so he could speak. “You killed ’em?”

“I fucking killed ’em,” Bishop said. “Now give me the money.”

Mooney grinned an uncomfortable grin. “You look a little—”

“I know what I look like. Just give me the goddamn case.”

Mooney looked up at him. “I need to see the proof.”

Bishop’s voice was filled with defiance, anger, and exhaustion. “I took pictures, but I lost my phone up there.”

Mooney grinned a big grin, exposing a wad of chewed up pancake inside his mouth.

“Well now, how do we know you actually done what you say you done?”

Bishop came up with a .38 and stuck it in Mooney’s face.

“I’m not playing,” Bishop said. “If I say I did it, I did it. I didn’t get the reputation I’ve got by not doing my jobs. I always do my job.” He raised the pistol towards his own damaged eye. “Look what this job cost me, Mooney. It cost me plenty is what it cost me. Now if you’ll please give me my money, I’ll get the fuck out of this one stoplight pig-fucker shithole of a town.”

Mooney stared at him for a minute, working it out in his head. Then he did a half shrug and reached down and grabbed a briefcase that was identical to the one he’d already given Bishop. He raised it and stood it on the edge of the table.

“You wanna count it?”

Bishop glared at him with his one eye. “I don’t want anything but to put you and this town and those goddamn dead witches in my rearview mirror. And when I do, I don’t even wanna look back. I just wanna drive and drive and then drive some more.”

Mooney grinned a dumb hick grin. “We ain’t that bad, are we?”

Bishop took the case and turned, walking out of the diner without saying a word.

As Mooney watched the Bishop peel out of the parking lot, Julie walked over to the table. “He wasn’t nearly so friendly today.”

“No, Julie, he wasn’t,” Mooney said. “But you know how big city folks are.”

“You think he actually killed those witches?”

Mooney crammed another forkful of pancake into his mouth and looked up at her, nodding. “I do, honey, I do.”

Standing beside the table, Julie turned and looked out at the empty parking lot. “He was a good-lookin’ fella,” she said. “I woulda screwed him. You know, before he went and got his eye all messed up.”

Mooney just nodded and went on eating his pancakes.

You’re Doing Too Much

A short story by Andy Rausch

Joel stared at his laptop. So far the only words he’d written were “Untitled Novel by Joel Wise”. He’d written those six words a week ago and hadn’t been able to come up with anything to add. Nothing. He couldn’t even force words onto the page. He had no idea what his novel was even going to be about. All he knew was that he wanted desperately to write one. He’d always felt it was his destiny to write the next Great American Novel. Not just any novel—certainly not a paperback original—but something iconic. He’d dreamed of this his entire life but had never actually sat down and attempted to write it. At least not until now. But here he was, and writing was a hell of a lot harder than he’d ever imagined. He believed if he could just come up with one interesting well-drawn character the words would start flowing and eventually he’d have an actual novel. If he could just write a line or two, that would grow and the words would come from some unseen muse. He envisioned such a thing as being akin to dictation. Joel had heard many famous authors explain it that way, but he himself was not a famous author. At this rate, he might not ever be an author at all. At the moment, a single good sentence seemed unattainable.

Joel had worked as a software designer. But now he’d made his nest egg and had retired at the young-adjacent age of forty-five. This, he’d believed, would give him ample time to finally sit down and write his novel. To be honest, it was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do. He’d dreamed of doing this from an early age and had always envisioned himself writing a single masterpiece and then walking away like his hero J.D. Salinger. If he could produce one great work, his life would have meaning and he would then be able to die a happy man.

But here he was, staring a nearly-empty screen, unable to produce anything. Disgusted, he closed the laptop and drank the last bit of scotch from the bottle. He looked across the room at his sleeping collie, Lizzy, and whistled for her. The dog’s eyes popped open and her ears perked up. Her tail started wagging happily and she scrambled to her feet and trotted towards him. He stroked her head, smoothing back her ears with his hand and giving her a few obligatory “good dogs”. As he did, it dawned on him that he’d been so wrapped up in his attempt at writing that he’d forgotten to feed her.

“You want din-din?” he asked. Lizzy’s ears perked up again and she went halfway to the kitchen, stopping to look back to make sure he was behind her. Whenever she heard “din-din”, she knew it was feeding time.

Joel walked to the kitchen and grabbed the box of dog food from atop the fridge. He pulled out a pouch and walked to the far end of the room, dumping it into the dog’s bowl. Lizzy immediately went to work scarfing down the food. Joel stood there for a moment, scanning the kitchen, trying to decide what to make for his own dinner. He decided to prepare himself a salad. He opened the fridge and removed the necessary veggies. He opened the cabinet and took out the cutting board, setting it on the counter before him. He extracted a knife from the silverware drawer and started dicing carrots. Once he had an adequate amount of carrots diced, he began dicing celery. As he did this, his thoughts returned to his would-be novel.

And that’s when it happened.

FUCK!” he screamed as pain surged through his finger. He looked down and saw that he’d done the unthinkable—he’d cut off his left index finger! The sight of his finger lying there on the cutting board shocked him and he became woozy, stumbling, the knife accidentally scraping the finger off onto the floor. Horrified, he looked down just in time to see Lizzy snatch the finger up in her teeth. “Lizzy, no!” he cried, but the animal didn’t listen. Trying to protect her newfound treat, Lizzy darted towards the backdoor. The room was spinning and Joel’s mind was hazy, so he just stood and watched the dog disappear through the swinging doggie door.

Joel stumbled to the door in horror, opening it, covering its handle in blood in the process, but Lizzy was gone. His eyes scanned the yard for a moment before he remembered his injury. He looked down at the nub where his finger had been—there was about a fourth of the finger remaining—and saw intermittent spurts of blood spitting from it. He felt woozy again, as if he might faint, but he steeled himself. He would not look at the wound. If he did, he knew he would pass out. He told himself to think of something else—anything else—but found this impossible. He looked around the kitchen for a cloth to wrap around the bloody nub. He grabbed a damp red dish towel with a chicken embroidered on it and wrapped the nub tightly, careful not to look. He took a deep breath and returned to the backdoor, still standing open. He looked out for Lizzy, but she was nowhere in sight. He called for her a few times, but eventually gave up.

By the time he climbed into his station wagon, blood had soaked through the towel, which was now a bloody red mess. He drove around the neighborhood searching for the dog. After searching for a few minutes, he gave up hope. If he waited any longer, he feared he might pass out from a loss of blood. Besides, he told himself, the finger was likely chewed up and/or inside the dog.

As he headed to the ER at Maimonides, Joel’s jumbled brain suddenly cleared and an idea presented itself with all the majesty of Jesus descending from the clouds. As unlikely as it was, Joel could see the beginning of his novel with great clarity. It was a fully-formed segment complete with the most intricate of details. The words formed in his head, fully composed, and they were flawless. It was a righteous moment and he felt overjoyed in a way he’d never felt before. He recognized that it was strange to experience such bliss in the midst of calamity and chaos, but that’s what happened. Marveling at what he saw as the perfect first chapter of a novel about a secretly gay schoolmarm in the late 1800s, Joel wished he didn’t need to go to the ER. Going there was never a good time, but it was even worse now that he had the perfect chapter mapped out in his head.

Joel thought he might be able to leave the hospital that same night, but things didn’t work out that way. A young blonde doctor, who looked like she was still underage told him he would need to stay for at least a night. Joel hated this, but he saw no way around it.

Once he was situated in a room and everyone was finished with him for the night, Joel started scribbling the story longhand on a notepad the nurses had provided. He was tired, high on Vicodin, and his left hand hurt liked bloody hell, but he kept right on scribbling. He was worried he might lose the idea, so he wanted to get it down on paper as quickly as he could. The drugs and pain and weariness might cause his writing to suffer some, but that could be corrected easily enough with a rewrite. He just wanted to get a rough first draft knocked out. He ended up writing for more than three hours. Joel suffered the worst writer’s cramp ever, but he managed to finish the chapter before dozing off.

When he awoke up the next morning, he was eager to revisit what he’d written. He read it again, reaffirming that what he’d written was good. So good, in fact, that it made him want to write more. So he touched the tip of his pen to the paper. Okay, go! he thought. But nothing happened. He sat there for two hours trying to figure out where to take his schoolmarm protagonist next, but nothing came. Once again, he found that he could not produce a single sentence.

What the fuck was this? He didn’t get it. The first chapter had come so easily; in fact, it had been one of the easiest things he’d ever done in his life. And it was good. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t just good, it was fucking great.

But here he was again, unable to squeeze out a single word. Pondering this, he wondered if the pain from his severed finger had somehow sent a jolt through his nervous system, knocking the chapter loose from his brain. Maybe the idea had come from the result of his pain. Or, and he knew this was the thinking of a crazy man, but maybe it was a magical transaction in which he’d somehow traded his finger for the chapter; a sort of sacrifice to the muse. He laughed aloud at this, thinking the muse was one cold-hearted bitch.

Eventually, he gave up the ghost and watched the Cooking Channel for a few hours. Somehow all of this had worn him out. He’d heard writing could be exhausting, but he’d never imagined simply thinking about writing could be tiring.

Joel was released from the hospital after two p.m. When he went home, he begrudgingly fed Lizzy and then returned to his desk.He sat down, switched on the laptop, and propped up the bloody handwritten pages. Looking back and forth, he carefully typed the words. When he was finished, he found himself tired again and decided to wait a few hours before trying to write anything new.

It was just before seven when he returned to his desk, intent on writing his second chapter. But when he did, it was the same result—nothing. Not a single word. Even after rereading the first chapter in the hopes that that might spark something, he still had no idea where his protagonist might go next. No idea what-so-fucking-ever. After a few hours, he gave up again. Joel would experience this same awful routine every day for the next four days.

After having sat down to write each day with no results, Joel found his mind returning to the crazy notion he’d had about pain summoning the muse. He knew it was crazy, but he was desperate. After having written the first chapter so easily, Joel had become like the gambler who’d won enough money to acquire a taste for it. Joel went to the kitchen and sliced the back of his hand with the same knife. He stood there staring at the blood emerging from the slit and waiting for an idea to come, but there was nothing. Eventually he gave up. After doing so, he started giving serious consideration to his other idea—the crazier one—about sacrificing fingers for ideas.No, no, he wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t. The cost was too high. Joel needed his fingers. Besides, the idea was bugshit crazy. If he were to tell anyone what he was contemplating, they would lock him away in a padded cell and flush the key down the shitter. Saddened by the prospect of abandoning his new novel with its perfect first chapter, Joel took a couple of sleeping pills and drowned them with a slug of scotch. Then he went to bed and slipped immediately into a deep sleep.

Nine hours later, Joel thought about the novel the very moment his eyes blinked open. He remembered how good the first chapter had been and how good it had felt to write it. His heart started to sink when he remembered the struggles that had followed, and his mind returned to his nutty finger theory. What the hell, he thought. It was then he decided he would do it; he would chop off another finger. He knew it was crazy, but he didn’t care. If there was even the slightest chance this might allow him to press forward in writing his novel—not just the best thing he’d ever written, but probably the best thing he’d ever read—it would be worth it. All he’d ever wanted was to write a great, powerful novel that would live on long after he himself was dead and gone.

He told himself that slicing off the finger might not be as bad the second time. It would be no walk in the park, sure, but he was prepared now and had already done it once. Yes, he told himself, he could do it. As long as he kept Lizzy from absconding with the finger, he could simply take it to the hospital and have them reattach it. If he did that, there would be no loss—only gain. The finger might never work as well again, but he would be one step closer to completing achieving his dream.

He went to work drinking himself into the necessary mental state.

Drunk and determined, Joel put Lizzy out in the yard and attached her to her chain. Then he returned to the kitchen, where he lay his left pinky flat against the cutting board. He took the same knife—he’d considered tossing it out, but had decided it was stupid to waste a perfectly good knife—and cleanly sliced off the finger.

He screamed a shrieking scream that managed to even startle himself.

There was blood everywhere. This time there was much more blood, and it seemed to flow more quickly. It also hurt a great deal more than it had before. His idea that it might be easier the second time had been idiotic. Joel wrapped the nub tightly in a rag. Then he popped two Vicodin and sat down in front of the laptop. And just like before, Joel saw the second chapter fully formed in his mind. It didn’t feel like creating so much as it felt like excavating buried treasure. He had no idea how much time he had before he might pass out, so he typed as quickly as he could, trying his best to complete the chapter before going to the ER. Despite having to hunt and peck due to his missing fingers, Joel finished the chapter in just under eighty minutes. He clicked “save” and shut off the laptop. He then wobbled outside and hopped into his station wagon, heading to the ER.

When he arrived, the orderlies looked at him like he was insane. A plump black female nurse who’d been there on his previous visit said curtly, “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but you need to stop.” She stared at him for a long moment with a knowing look and then added, “You’re doing too much, Mr. Wise. Too damn much.” This second ER trip was awkward and filled with tough questions and judgmental stares, but the doctors reattached the finger. The hospital kept him for three days, which was fine since he’d already completed chapter two.

When he returned home, he immediately went to his laptop, opened it, and switched it on. He clicked on the file that read UNTITLED NOVEL. When the file opened, Joel was stunned to find his second chapter was gone. Feeling panicked, he felt like he might hyperventilate. He sat there with his mouth hanging open, staring at the screen through watery eyes. Then he remembered that he’d backed the file up on the cloud. Thank God, he thought. He went to the backup version of the story and opened it, finding that it was also missing the chapter. What the fuckity fuck? Had he somehow imagined writing it? Joel looked down at his reattached pinky, wrapped in blood-soaked gauze, and knew for certain he’d written it. So where was it?

A thought occurred to him—maybe it only worked if you lost the finger completely. Maybe it had to be a full sacrifice. Maybe there were no loopholes that would allow him to save the finger. He’d cut it off, the muse had given him his chapter, but then he’d undone his part, forcing her to undo hers. Maybe it was even necessary for him to allow Lizzy to carry the damned thing through the doggie door and go off somewhere to eat it. Who knew how far down this rabbit hole of exactness he needed to go?

Joel went to bed sad, depressed, and confused, his left hand throbbing in pain. Despite popping two Vicodin, he found himself unable sleep. Instead of resting, his mind focused on two things: his novel and his fingers. When he finally did fall asleep, he dreamed about sitting at his laptop, trying to write without any fingers on either hand. He then had another dream. This one was about the plump nurse telling him he was doing too much. This time she glared and said, “I told you your ass was doing too much.”

He woke up just after sunrise. He hopped out of bed, took a leak, and then went to the kitchen to slice off his newly-reattached pinky. Fuck it, he thought, he’d already lost it once. After removing the digit a second time—the third time he’d chopped off a finger this week—Joel tossed the finger onto the floor in front of Lizzy. After it bounced on the linoleum, she snatched it up in her teeth and bee-lined to the doggie door and disappeared just like before. Joel then returned to his laptop. When he put his bloody fingers on the keyboard, smearing blood on the keys, between the keys, and all over the desk, he found that the words came to him easily once again. He rewrote the lost chapter the same as he’d written it the first time. Exactly the same. The same words, same placement, maybe even the same typos.

He saved the file, closed the laptop, and headed for the ER. This time he drove across the city to Bellevue, where they didn’t know him. This way he wouldn’t have to listen to that damnable nurse telling him he was doing too much. The conversation at Bellevue was still awkward and he received similar probing questions and judgmental looks, but they released him two days later. Sure, he’d lost two fingers, but he’d also written two of what he believed were the finest chapters of any book ever written. This, in Joel Wise’s estimation, was a fair trade.

When he arrived home, he went to the kitchen and immediately sliced off his left middle finger. This one was thicker, so it was slightly more difficult to cut. It hurt like a sonofabitch and blood sprayed everywhere, even managing to splash onto the wall beside the stove this time, but Joel handled it like a champ. The fourth time was a charm. He already felt like an old pro at this finger-cutting business. He then tossed the finger to the dog, who started chowing down right there in the kitchen. Ever superstitious, Joel wanted Lizzy to follow the same routine as before, so he dragged her across the linoleum to the doggie door, soaking her fur with blood in the process, and he leaned down and shoved her thick body through the slot. He then grabbed a dish towel and wrapped his wound. After that, he walked to his desk. He sat down, bleeding like all hell, and hammered out an exquisite third chapter. He came close to losing consciousness, but he still managed to finish. Then he went to the ER, this time traveling all the way out to Montefiore Medical. The staff there made some of the same inquiries, but they didn’t pry much. The emergency room was packed, so Joel figured the reason the doctors and nurses probed less was simply because of the number of people who were there.

That night as he lay in his room, Joel thought about his book. He now had three superb, fully-detailed chapters. He started to consider potential book titles. He kicked around a few, such as Miss Annabelle and The Secret Life of Miss Annabelle, but none of them sounded right. He wondered if he would have to sacrifice a digit for the title, as well. Then his mind turned to the question of book length. How many chapters would this thing run? Since he didn’t have any idea where the story was going, he had no way to gauge. He stared down at his bandaged left hand, which had only two fingers remaining and thought, I hope there aren’t too many chapters. Then he considered something else—what if he ran out of fingers before the book was finished? He pondered this for a moment and then concluded that this would most certainly be the case. Each of the first three chapters had run roughly 4,000 words, and most novels ran longer than 40,000 words. What would he do? At that moment, a new idea occurred to him—perhaps toes could be sacrificed, as well.

He would have to try a toe sometime soon, he thought. That way he would reduce the chance of his ending up completely finger-less. He had no problem with sacrificing all his fingers if he had to, but he would rather avoid that scenario if possible. Maybe it would be a small novel. Something like Bridges of Madison County, which was only 35,000 words. Or more likely, it might be somewhere around 50,000, which meant he would only need to sacrifice twelve digits. If that were the case, and provided the muse accepted toes as payment, Joel would only have to cut off six or seven fingers and six or seven toes. This would allow him enough digits to still fully enjoy his success once the novel was published.

Joel was released the following day. When he got home, he was tired and in pain and decided it would be too much for him to cut off a fourth finger.So, he decided he would wait. When he woke up the next morning, Joel went to the kitchen and fixed himself a cup of coffee. Then he ate a bowl of Cheerios. Once breakfast was finished, he chopped off his left ring finger. When he presented the finger to Lizzy this time, a curious thing happened; she sniffed at it and then looked up at him, seemingly disinterested.

“What’s the matter, girl?” Joel asked. “You getting tired of eating fingers?”

A moment later, however, the dog picked up the finger, turned, trotted to the swinging doggie door, and disappeared through it. This time Joel wrapped the nub in an old green shirt that had long since shrunk. When Joel sat down at his desk, he raised his right hand over the dried-blood-covered keyboard and switched the laptop on. He opened the file and stared at the screen, but nothing came to him. Well fuck, he thought. Had his deal with the muse come to an end? Had he let the clock run out? Or maybe there were only so many times a person could do this.

He sat staring at the screen in terror for five long minutes, and then, finally, the words came. Joel was furiously hunting and pecking with his right hand, his left hand now having only a thumb. The pain was exruciating, and it took him longer to write this chapter than he’d expected. Each chapter was taking longer and longer. But Joel kept typing until he’d completed the fourth chapter. This time he went to Lincoln Hospital. He found that the ER process was getting easier with each trip. However, his stitches ripped open the following day and he was forced to spend another night.

After returning home, he waited another two days before chopping off his right pinky toe. That little sucker came right off and Lizzy seemed to enjoy it. Maybe toes tasted different, Joel thought, because she seemed particularly excited about this one, her tail wagging rapidly as she chewed. That fifth chapter turned out terrific and ran slightly longer than the others, coming in at 5,219 words. When he finished writing it, Joel climbed into his car and drove all the way out to the ER at North Shore.

The process was starting to take a real toll on his body, wearing him down, each time making him just a little more tired, so he started spacing out the sacrifices a little more. Repeating the process over and over, he figured out the easiest ways to chop off the digits, as well as the easiest ways to make Lizzy take them outside. Everything went smoothly until Joel sawed off the big toe on his left foot—his seventh sacrifice in all. First, he’d come closer to passing out than he ever had before, and he’d nearly wrecked his car. Because of his inability to remain alert, he’d been forced to return to Maimonides. The only saving grace was that the black nurse was off duty.

Then, when he was released two days later, he discovered that Lizzy had run away. This worried him tremendously—not because he missed the dog as much as he worried that his sacrifices would not work without her. He drove around the neighborhood all day searching for her, but to no avail. He continued his search for another four days before concluding that Lizzy was gone for good. Maybe she was dead, maybe she had simply run away because she was tired of Joel making her eat fingers and toes. No matter the reason, she was gone and Joel was faced with a dilemma. He now had seven pristine chapters, but he wasn’t sure he could continue to rouse the muse without her.

Finally Joel concluded that he would have to get a new dog and hope for the best. He scoured the local Internet buy/sale/trade site, but found nothing, so he posted an ad himself. The ad read: “I.S.O. DOG, ANY TYPE. NEED IMMEDIATELY.” To his delight, he received a response within the hour. The message read: “Got germain shepperd boy male name Hagar. Sale him 2 u 4 65 dollar ok?” Joel messaged back, accepting the offer. He then drove to meet a shirtless tattooed Mexican who looked like he had a drug problem, in the parking lot of Walgreen’s.

“My ex ran off with some dick-shit,” the guy said. “But the bitch left Hagar at my house. I don’t much like dogs, and I especially hate Hagar. Hagar’s a real prick.”

“I’ll be glad to take him off your hands,” Joel said, handing him the cash. When he did, the man looked down at the blood-stained bandage on his hand.

“What did you do to your hand?”

“Lawnmower accident,” Joel said.

“That’s fucked up, man.”

Joel then took the bony, raggedy-looking mutt by its leash and led it into the station wagon. Hagar smelled rancid, had fleas, and took a runny diarrhea shit in the passenger seat before they got home.

That evening, Joel stood over Hagar in the kitchen, watching the starved animal lapping from its water bowl.

“You’re a hungry fucker, ain’t ya?” Joel said. “You’re gonna love this.”

Joel then squatted and went to work slicing off his remaining pinky toe, accidentally cutting into the linoleum. It hurt like a bastard, but Joel was becoming somewhat used to it. He would never have believed such a thing could be true, but it was.

Still squatting, Joel picked up the bloody toe and held it out towards the dog. “Hey there, Hagar,” he said. The dog turned from the water bowl and looked at the toe, its nose sniffing. Then Hagar looked up at Joel, studying his face to make sure it was okay to take the toe. After a moment, Hagar lurched forward and snatched the toe in its mouth. Joel then dragged the dog by its collar to the back door, forcing its big bony body out the doggie door. Since the dog was unfamiliar with the environment and would likely run away, Joel had planned to chain him just outside the door. Once Hagar was outside and the doggie door ritual was complete, Joel opened the door to fasten him. However, Hagar was gone.

Well fuck, Joel thought. He scanned the area for a moment, finally giving up. If the ritual worked and Hagar didn’t return, he’d get another dog. He’d buy another every day if he had to. Anything to finish his book.

Joel wrapped a kitchen towel around his toe and went to the laptop. He sat and stared at the screen, placing his hands on the keys. He kept staring, and his hands set motionless. Nothing came. Joel sat for as long as he felt he could without passing out, just staring at the blank screen. Nothing. Well, hell, he thought. He might never finish his book. Then what would he do? This thought made him sad, but right now he had to focus on getting himself to the ER. Having cut it too close to go anywhere else, Joel had no choice but to go back to Maimonides for the fourth time.

The doctor—the same skinny blonde who’d seen him all four times—looked at him with no shortage of irritation. With her hands on her hips, she said, “Either you’re just coming here for the Vicodin or something’s wrong with you mentally.” She sighed. “I’m going to give you the meds. If you’re doing all this crap just for meds, I guess you’ve earned them.”

Joel considered telling her his secret, but decided against it. Who cared what she thought? He told her he was fine and that all the lost fingers and toes were just random accidents. The doctor rolled her eyes, huffed, and then stalked away. After that, the heavyset black nurse came in and looked at him with a scowl.

“Why are you here again?” she asked. “I don’t know what the hell it is you’re doing, but it’s getting tired, Mr. Wise. Real tired.”

Joel nodded at her and said, “Duly noted.” She gave him the stink eye and left the room.

The hospital released him the following afternoon. This was a real problem, Joel thought. If different dogs wouldn’t summon the muse, what could he do? Maybe he would have to hire a ghost writer to finish. Maybe the seven solid chapters he already had would be enough to make it a good book. Not as good as it would have been if he were allowed to finish it the way he’d been working, but “almost as good” might have to be good enough.

Joel considered this for the next two days. Hagar, thankfully, never came back. Good riddance, Joel thought. He considered purchasing a new fingers- and toes-eating canine, but he knew it wouldn’t work.

Even if he figured out a way to complete the book at the same quality he’d been writing, he’d now completely wasted the toe Hagar had run away with. The thought of this made him irrationally angry and he decided he would track down Hagar and shoot him with the Luger his grandfather had given him. Joel still had enough fingers to pull the trigger. Besides, now that Joel’s writing had stalled, he had nothing else to do.

Joel went upstairs and rooted around in his closet, locating the old shoe box buried beneath a stack of nudie mags. He took the box down and set it on his bed, opening it and looking at the pistol. He took it out and felt the weight of it. The World War II relic still looked as nice and shiny as it had when his grandfather had given it to him decades before. And it was still loaded. Joel’s reasoning for leaving it loaded was that if he ever had a need for it, it would likely be an emergency situation, so keeping it loaded made sense.

With the Luger in the passenger seat beside him, Joel drove around the neighborhood searching for the stinky flea-ridden bastard. He searched for several hours, but did not find him. Instead he found something else—Lizzy! Seeing his collie standing between two houses, Joel parked the station wagon on the street and climbed out to get her. When he approached her, Lizzy looked at him hesitantly. Perhaps these past few days of freedom had given her a new outlook on life—a life that no longer included Joel. However, when he squatted down with his hand out, whistling, her ears perked up and she bolted towards him.

He patted her head and called her a good girl. “You wanna go home and get some din-din?” Hearing the familiar phrase, Lizzy allowed him to pick her up and carry her back to the station wagon.

After the six days he’d spent Lizzy-less and unable to write, Joel decided he would not waste anymore time. What if, God forbid, Lizzy died? Then where would he be? Within five minutes of having her back home, Joel had already chopped off another finger and tossed it her way. Hungry after her trip, Lizzy immediately snatched it up. She tried to eat it right there on the linoleum, but Joel dragged her to the backdoor and pushed her through the doggie door once again. Then he opened the door, went outside, and fastened Lizzy to the chain. He then ran to his desk and sat before his laptop, which was already on with the document open and waiting.

Joel started typing chapter eight. The blood was pouring through the dish towel he had wrapped around his hand, and there was blood all over the keys—somehow more than before. Nevertheless, Joel kept right on typing the chapter, which he believed to be his best so far. As he wrote this latest installment, he learned that Miss Annabelle, his lesbian schoolmarm protagonist was hiding a dark secret; as a young girl, she had stabbed her father in the neck when he’d attempted to molest her. As Joel wrote, he found himself feeling rather bad for this character, despite the fact that she was a figment of his imagination. But that wasn’t quite right, was it? Even though Joel would be credited as such, he knew he wasn’t the author. But then, who was? The idea of where the story was coming from fascinated him.

Once Joel was finished with the night’s work, he hopped into the station wagon and sped to the ER at Mount Sinai. The routine was pretty much the same as it had been at all the other emergency rooms and the doctors advised him to seek psychiatric help, despite Joel’s insistence that this been just another in a string of freak accidents.

This gruesome routine continued for another two months until Joel was left with a single digit—his right index finger. Cutting this one off would be tricky since he’d have no other fingers to cut with. Before going about this task, Joel had opened “voice recorder” on his laptop. With the function, he could speak the words into the computer mic. Then, afterwards, he would hire someone to type up the chapter. This would be chapter nineteen, which he believed would, thankfully, conclude the novel. All the pieces of the story were in place—Miss Annabelle had found her one true love in Sister Dorothy and the two had decided to run away to Mexico. As Joel saw it, this concluding chapter would likely be about them happily living out their days on sunny beaches.

And then, even though he would have no fingers or toes remaining, Joel would have the novel. A really, really great novel. Perhaps the greatest American novel ever written. Then he could purchase some prosthetic fingers and live out his own days on a beach somewhere.

But first he had to get this last chapter completed. Joel walked into the kitchen. Lizzy was already there, sitting and waiting, as if she understood how important the day was. Joel stood in front of the cutting board where he had cut off all those fingers and stared at it. Instead of his usual knife, this time Joel had a cigar cutter he’d purchased specifically for the occasion, ready and waiting. Prior to his needing it, Joel had never even heard of a cigar cutter. He’d never smoked a cigar before, and when he saw guys on television smoking them they were just biting off the tips. The cigar cutter was a small metal device with a hole in its center and two handles on the sides that obscured a blade. When the two handles were pushed inward, the blade emerged, slicing the cigar or anything else pushed through the hole.

Joel looked down at Lizzy, and the dog stared back at him as if she understood. But hell, she was just as much a veteran of the finger-chopping ritual as he was.

“Lizzy, old girl, this is gonna be one hell of a day,” Joel said, sighing. “A rough one, I’m afraid. But after this, we’re done.”

Joel pushed the tip of his index finger into the cigar cutter’s hole and slid the device to the edge of the counter. Once it was just beyond the counter’s edge, he was able to push his finger all the way down through the hole. Once the finger was inside, he was able to use it to lift the cutter. He then leaned in and turned the cutter on its side. This would allow him to press his left arm down hard against the handle, chopping off this Last of the Mohicans.

Joel felt sweat beads popping up on his forehead. This severing was more frightening than the previous ones had been. Despite having done this nineteen times before—nineteen times, could you believe it?!—he was scared shitless. He stood there, hunkered down over the cutter for a few minutes, trying to muster up the courage to go through with it. He didn’t really want to do it, but if he didn’t, all of this would have been for nothing. So, he concluded, there was no choice. He had to do it.

“Here goes nothing.”

He clamped his teeth hard—so hard he thought he might break them or injure his jaw—and he pushed his left arm down hard against the handle. The blade emerged, swiftly slicing off the finger. Joel howled, momentarily fixating on the blood spurting from the nub.

Good Jesus fuck!”

The pain hurt tremendously. Joel was breathing hard and his face felt hot. Suddenly he was woozy. But he had to press forward. He had to do this or, again, all of this would have been for nothing.

Joel took a deep breath to help him regain his composure. He used his left arm to sweep the severed finger off the counter and onto the floor. This time Lizzy just sat there staring at it. She looked up at Joel with big dopey eyes.

“Eat the finger,” Joel said. “Please… Eat the fuckin’ finger!”

Lizzy watched him for a few seconds. Then she leaned down, as if she were a worker performing a tediously routine function and picked up the finger. She looked up at Joel with eyes that seemed to say “fuck you for making me do this shit”, and she trotted to the doggie door, disappearing through it.

Unable to pick up a dish towel without fingers, Joel pressed the open wound against the leg of his jeans. He went to his laptop and took a seat. The screen was in rest mode. Joel used his left hand to tap the keyboard and the screen came alive. The voice recorder was already up on the screen. The cursor was in the center of the record button just as he’d left it.

Joel used his fingerless hand to tap the touch pad. When he did, voice recorder began to record. As the words formed in Joel’s head, he said them aloud. It took him seventy minutes to talk out the chapter. But, to Joel’s horror, the story wasn’t finished. What he’d written led right up to what he presumed to be the story’s ending, but there was still another chapter to go.

Cursing with words no human had ever spoken before, Joel used his left hand to shut off voice recorder. He rose and stumbled towards the front door. He’d left the door standing open, so his only obstacle would be the storm door. He used the back of his profusely-bleeding right hand to press down against the latch and open the door. He had no way to shut the door and lock it behind him. He hoped his laptop would be safe, but there was nothing he could do about it. He stumbled down the porch steps, almost falling as he did. He approached the parked station wagon. When he went for the keys in his pocket, he realized his mistake. Without fingers he couldn’t retrieve the keys. Then, even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to get the car door open, insert the keys into the ignition, start the car, or steer. Joel was royally fucked.

And he was losing blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Maybe he could pay someone to drive him to the ER. He looked around the neighborhood, but saw no one. He stood there for a long moment, his eyes going from the empty street to the station wagon to his neighbors’ houses and then back through all of it again. He took a deep breath and started to say a prayer. He was halfway through the prayer when he blacked out and fell onto the grass.

**********

When Joel awoke, he was in a bed inside a hospital room. There was no one in the room with him. Looking around at the walls and the layout of the room, he knew he was back at Maimonides, which was the closest hospital to his home.

Joel’s hand was hurting terribly. He tilted his head forward and looked for the controller that called the nurse. It was lying beside his leg. However, without fingers he couldn’t use it. He tried to use his bandaged hands to press against it, but had no luck. He then screamed and screamed until a nurse came to assist him.

After the chapter nineteen incident, Joel’s mother came to stay with him and assist with his day-to-day living. Joel waited nine days after his release to write his novel’s twentieth and final chapter. His mother had gone to the grocery store, and the Food Way she liked was thirty minutes away, so Joel knew he had time. He set up the computer so that voice recorder would be ready and waiting. Setting it up without fingers took a while, but eventually he managed.

Joel went to the bathroom. Standing in the doorway, he called for Lizzy. It took a moment, but the collie eventually came to him. He then led her into the bathroom and pushed the door shut. Since the removal of his last finger, Joel had worn pajama pants to make it easier for him to pull his pants down to use the restroom.

Joel used his fingerless hands to push the sides of his pajama pants down around his ankles. He opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. When he did, he found the cigar cutter inside where he’d left it. He used his fingerless hand to knock it down into the sink.

This was going to suck, but there was still one last chapter to write, and Joel had come too far to turn back now.

He had a difficult time getting the head of his penis into the cutter, but he did it. His dick became hardened as he attempted to push it further through the hole, its expanded width making it even more difficult. But finally he managed to scrape the length of his dick through the cutter. He then placed his nubs on the handles.

He looked down at Lizzy staring up at him.

“You want some din-din?”

Joel clamped the handles closed and the blade flashed out, cutting off his dick.

* * * * * * * *

Three years had passed since Joel cut off his dick. It had hurt like a sonofabitch, but he’d been able to write his twentieth and final chapter. It had been a hell of a price to pay, but Joel had completed his novel, The Schoolmarm’s Secret.

Joel now had state-of-the-art metal fingers, but he hadn’t been able to replace his dick, so now he pissed through a catheter.

But he’d survived.

He was sitting on the couch watching Days of Our Lives when Lizzy started barking, letting him know that the mailman had come. Joel leaped to his feet and made his way to the door. He stepped out onto the porch and went to the mailbox, where he plucked out a thick stack of envelopes. There were eight medical bills, a grocery advertisement, and the letter he’d been waiting for—a response from Beaumont House Publishing. Joel turned and went back inside, staring down at the envelope.

He set the rest of the mail down on top of a pile of books on his desk. The stack of mail immediately toppled over, but Joel paid it no mind. He went to work tearing the envelope open. He had received seventy-three rejection letters so far and had been turned down by almost as many literary agents. But Joel knew what he had; he knew The Schoolmarm’s Secret was destined for greatness. Sometimes, he reasoned, a work of art could be so far ahead of its time that very few people recognized its potential. But it would only take one editor to see it for the masterpiece it was. And that editor, Joel believed, would be this one.

Once he’d removed the letter from the envelope, he raised it to his mouth and kissed it for luck. Then he began to read:

Dear Mr. Wise,

I regret to inform you that your novel is not right for Beaumont Publishing. I considered sending you a form rejection, but I felt this novel demanded something more. I have been an editor for three decades, Mr. Wise, and I must tell you that The Schoolmarm’s Secret is by far and away the single worst manuscript I have ever had the displeasure of reading. I know this sounds harsh, but believe me, I am doing you a favor by letting you know in no uncertain terms that you are a terrible writer. Not just terrible, but something far, far worse. Read these words and let them really sink in, Mr. Wise: writing is not your forte. I am telling you this so you don’t waste your time and efforts (as well as the time and efforts of other editors) repeating the painful process of writing things that will never be published.

You possess no talent, Mr. Wise. None whatsoever. I have read thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, and you are, by far, the worst, most untalented hack whose work I have ever encountered. I recommend you go and find something else that you are better suited to. Maybe something with your hands. But please, Mr. Wise, do the world a favor and stop writing now.

Yours truly,

Samuel H. Janakowski

Joel crumpled up the letter and let it drop to the carpet. He stood there for a moment, wobbling and woozy, feeling like he might pass out. When he felt stable enough, he lowered himself to the floor and lay face-down, sobbing.

As he did, he remembered the nurse’s words: you’re doing too much. And she’d been right, he had done too much. Even worse, he’d done it all for nothing.

The Interrogation Room – Dead-End Jobs Special – Andy Rausch, Daniel Vlasaty and Matt Phillips

Dirty Books

Continuing my series of interviews to celebrate the release of the brand new All Due Respect anthology Dead-End Jobs: A Hitman Anthology, here are editor Andy Rausch (‘The Silver Lining’), Daniel Vlasaty (‘Cookie’) and Matt Phillips (‘Trade For The Working Man’) discussing their respective contributions!

Firstly, how would you pitch your story to potential readers?

AR: This is a very personal story about a troubled hitman going to confession for the first time to confess his sins. This is a character (Orlando Williams) that I’ve already written about in two novels, The Suicide Game and Layla’s Score.

DV: A powerful drug dealer enlists a kid named Cookie to do a shooting on Chicago’s far north side.

MP: A man needs a job, right? Well, being a hitman pays pretty damn well. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. And sometimes… what you gotta do is use a…

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Drinks at the Arkadia: An Orlando Williams Story

by Andy Rausch

This story is a prequel to my novels The Suicide Game and Layla’s Score (and more to follow) featuring the character Orlando Williams.

Orlando Williams made his way into the Hotel Arkadia, walking through the light rain, so light as to be just enough to annoy. As he did, he remembered a song he’d once heard saying that it never rained in Southern California, which was bullshit. The night air was muggier than usual, but Orlando enjoyed it for its rarity. Despite the life he lived and the things he saw, he remained a glass-half-full kind of guy.

As he strode through the lobby of the rundown hotel, he saw a dark-skinned desk clerk and was happy to find he wasn’t the only black man in the place. The Hotel Arkadia was a dingy relic from days gone by, and it looked like it hadn’t been renovated since it was opened in the 1920s. It looked (and smelled) like shit now, but he figured it had probably been nice once, maybe even swanky. As he made his way to the bar, he heard the sounds of his Bruno Maglis clicking against the cracked tile floor.

Once he was inside the bar, he ordered a Diet Coke from a pretty blonde bartender in her twenties, thinking she wore too much make-up. She wasn’t one of those girls who applied the stuff with a paintbrush, but it was still a tad too much. From a distance you couldn’t tell; it was one of those upon closer inspection type things. The bar was mostly empty, a few customers sprinkled about. When the bartender gave him his drink, she flashed a seductive smile to show him she was interested. He smiled, taking it in stride, just as he had a thousand times before when his students had done the same. “The shaved head suits you,” she said. “White guys can’t really pull it off. Why do you think it is that black guys can?”

“I guess it’s a trade off,” he said dryly. “White people get to live in peace outside the ghetto and don’t have to worry about getting killed by cops for running a stop sign. But, we get to look nice with bald heads. Fair trade?”

She blinked, not knowing what to say, so she said nothing. Instead she told him the Diet Coke cost $3.50, which he thought was too much, but he handed her a five without protest, telling her to keep the change.

Orlando turned away from the bar, his eyes scanning the room for a suitable table, landing on one across the room by the wall. He went to it and sat down, sipping the Diet Coke. Some would have found his having a soft drink in a bar humorous, but he didn’t. Orlando’s father had been a drunk, and he’d done all he could to avoid following his example. He drank occasionally, but not often. Looking across the room now, he saw a face he recognized. The man, entering the bar, was an older white man in his mid-seventies. He was gaunt and pale, and had seen better days. He wore a golf cap and had a thin, neatly-kept mustache that might have been in fashion when Burt Reynolds was young. His clothes were average, certainly less stylish than was the norm for LA, and there was no way anyone would have guessed that he’d written a dozen highly-respected books about the mob. He wasn’t as big a success as the big shot movie stars who roamed the city, but his success was undeniable. He wasn’t a household name who’d penned bestsellers for one of the big five publishers, but the work he’d done was exceptional. In the city of angels, the man would be seen as a nobody, a less than, which troubled Orlando, who not only knew who he was, but respected him greatly. Were Orlando to acknowledge that he had personal heroes, Charlie Bly would have been high on the list.

Orlando watched Bly order and pay for his drink. When he saw him sit alone at a table near the bar, Orlando decided to approach him. He stood and walked across the room. Bly saw him approaching when he was still a couple tables away, and watched with curiosity rather than reluctance.

Orlando spoke first. He was carrying his glass, hoping Bly would invite him to sit. Orlando pointed at him casually. “I know you,” he said.

“You do, huh?”

“I do.”

“Tell me then, who am I?” Bly asked, grinning.

“Don’t you know who you are?”

Bly chuckled. “I’m the only one who does.”

“Well, I know who you are. I’ve long enjoyed and admired your work, especially your book on Frank Nitti and the Chicago outfit.”

Bly looked surprised. “You really do know me.”

“I’ve read every book you’ve written.”

“Really?” asked the flattered Bly. “Not many people read every book a nonfiction writer writes. Those big name people like Dan Brown, sure, but not me.”

“Dan Brown sucks,” said Orlando. “You’re a better writer than he is.”

Bly’s grin grew wider. “Tell that to my bank account.”

Orlando nodded towards an empty chair. “Mind if I sit?”

“Oh, please do,” said Bly, sounding genuine.

Orlando sat, setting his drink on the table.

Bly looked at it. “You a tea totaller?”

“I guess so,” said Orlando. “I don’t drink much.”

Bly nodded. “Wise path, my friend. I know a lot of guys who drink too much, it becomes their primary focus.”

Orlando shifted the conversation. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Bly.”

“I appreciate that. I don’t get that much. Not even my kids wanna see me these days. I have to pretty much take them by force and keep them captive to make them see me.”

“That’s too bad,” said Orlando.

Bly shrugged. “That’s kids. You got any?”

“Just one, a girl. Keisha. She’s three.”

“Oh, they’re fun when they’re that age. They get less fun when they become teenagers.”

“So I’ve heard. Luckily I’ve got a little time before I get there. But sometimes I do wonder what she’ll be like when she’s that age.”

“A handful,” said Bly. “They all are, especially girls.”

“She’s a pretty well-behaved kid.”

“That’s good,” Bly said, taking a drink of his Scotch. “So you know me. Now tell me about you.”

Orlando reached across the table, and the old man shook his hand. “My name’s Orlando.”

“Are you familiar with As You Like It? There’s an Orlando in that.”

“Of course.”

“You like Shakespeare?” Bly asked, sounding surprised.

“What? You thought I wouldn’t because I’m black?”

The old man looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

“It’s okay. Yeah, I know Shakespeare.”

Bly grinned. “Let me ask you, am I a better writer than him, too?”

Orlando smiled. “Do you want me to lie to you?”

“I was joking. But I rank somewhere between Dan Brown and William Shakespeare. Hmm. I wouldn’t wanna know where exactly I fit in there. Closer to Brown, I think.”

“I’m closer to him, too,” said Orlando.

Bly’s face brightened. “You’re a writer?”

“I dabble. I write nonfiction, like you.”

“Published?”

Orlando nodded. “I’ve written a couple books.”

“About what?”

“Fydor Dostoevsky.”

Bly was impressed. “Dostoevsky, huh?”

“You surprised?”

“Yeah, but not for the reason you think. It’s because I don’t know shit about Dostoevsky either, so it’s not a race thing. Frankly I’m surprised when anyone knows about that shit.”

“I teach Russian lit at UCLA,” said Orlando, not mentioning his second job.

“You do?”

Orlando nodded, taking a drink.

“Have you read my newest book?”

“I have,” said Orlando. “Lesser Kings.”

“What did you think?”

“It was very well-written, meticulously researched, as usual. But also very ballsy, writing about present day mobsters. It was truthful in a way I can’t imagine them appreciating. Doesn’t that frighten you?”

Bly spoke, his tone serious. “I’m an old man, Orlando. My days of being scared are behind. I’m seventy-seven, but my body is a hundred. I’m tired, and I’ve lived a hard life.” He looked at him. “You don’t even wanna know. So what I’m saying is, if they were to kill me now, they’d be doing me a favor.”

“You think that could really happen?”

Bly shook his head. “It’s unlikely. Since the RICO act tore the mob apart in the Eighties, the organization is just a shell of what it once was. Now it’s a clusterfuck, just thugs and drugs, a disjointed mess, nobody knowing what they’re doing. They probably couldn’t orchestrate a gas station robbery at this point. They’re pretty worthless now.”

“I was kind of shocked by some of the things you wrote.”

The old man smiled proudly.

“The publisher wasn’t sure about it. But I insisted. I told them it was well-researched, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it legally.”

Orlando pointed at him again. “That’s the key word, isn’t it? Legally.”

“I think the only person who could really be angry about anything I wrote was Angelo Vitelli, the boss here in LA, but he’s one of the weakest of all. The guy has zero power. He couldn’t do anything if he wanted to.”

“You think those guys read this stuff?”

“Honestly, I doubt any of them know how to read. I suspect all those guys read are racing forms and obituaries.”

“Where do you live? Since you’re staying here, I’m assuming you don’t live in LA.”

“The Big Apple. I live on Hudson street, across from a place where Jack Kerouac used to live.”

“That’s cool,” said Orlando. “Two great writers on one block.”

The old man smiled. “I wish I was in his league. But if I’m being honest, I moved there hoping some of Kerouac’s mojo might rub off.”

“It appears it worked.”

“Maybe,” said Bly, rubbing his chin. “I don’t know if I agree with that, but I like hearing it, so feel free to repeat it.”

They both laughed. Orlando asked Bly if he wanted a second drink, to which he said yes. Orlando said the drinks were his treat and he went to the bar and got them. When he returned, he observed, “The part in Lesser Kings where you suggested that Vitelli might have been molested by his dad was kind of shocking. That was the part that stood out. I think if you were gonna have problems, that would be the reason.”

The old man nodded. “I do too, but I feel safe.” This time he put a spin on his previous joke, saying “I don’t think these guys could orchestrate a robbery at Burger King.” He smiled, proud of himself. They both sat in silence for a moment, comfortable, neither feeling the need to speak for the sake of speaking. Finally Bly asked, “What do you do for fun?”

Orlando smiled, sighing as he did. “Teaching.”

Teaching? Your job is the thing you do for fun?”

“It is,” said Orlando, nodding, not wanting to tell him that teaching was his side job.

They sat for another hour, making chit-chat about their lives and their kids. The old man told Orlando about his three divorces, and Orlando told him about his wife, Maralys. They discussed literature and the obstacles of writing, each of them having a good time.

Finally, after having talked for nearly two hours, Bly said, “As fun as this has been, I need to go to bed. I’m an old man and I need to get up early.”

“Oh yeah?” asked Orlando. “What’s going on?”

“I’m speaking at a symposium tomorrow. You know, I still can’t believe people actually pay to hear me talk. As I know you know, the funny thing about being a nonfiction writer is that people look to you for answers, expecting you to know everything. They don’t realize that writers write about the things they themselves want to know more about.”

“Right,” said Orlando, nodding.

“That feeling of being a fraud never goes away. God knows I’ve tried to shake it, been trying to shake it for almost eighty years, but it’s still there. But tomorrow I’ll get up there and put on a straight face and bullshit those people, convincing them I know all there is to know about the Mafia.”

“I don’t think you’re a fraud at all. You know your stuff, and it shows.”

“Research,” said the old man. “Lots and lots of research.”

They both stood, leaving their drinks on the table.

“You leaving, too?” asked Bly.

“I was only gonna stay for a few minutes, but then I ran into you.”

“I’m glad you did.”

“So am I.”

The two men left the bar and made their way across the lobby to the elevator.

“What floor you on?” asked the man.

“I’m on three.”

Bly’s face brightened. “So am I.”

They boarded the elevator and the doors closed, the elevator coming to life. Orlando said, “What made you wanna write in the first place?”

“I always knew I was gonna be a writer, I just didn’t know what it was gonna be. I thought I was gonna be a novelist, write the next great American novel.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I didn’t have the necessary talent.”

The elevator opened and the two men stepped out into the hall. The old man looked to the left and said, “Well, my room is this way.”

“So is mine.”

“Oh, okay.”

They started down the narrow hall, Bly leading the way. Bly stopped in front of a door, pulling a key out of his pocket. “This is me,” he said. As he unlocked the door, a thought occurred to him. “If you teach at UCLA, why are you staying here?” He turned to face Orlando, finding himself looking at a silenced .45. He sighed. “You got me,” Bly said. “I really believed you were a professor and an author.”

“I am,” said Orlando. “That was true. I’m both of those things, and also this. I multi-task.”

“I wish I was better at that.” Bly paused for a moment before adding, “I guess it doesn’t matter now.”

Orlando looked at him with sad eyes. Clarlie Bly was the only man Orlando had ever been asked to kill that he’d felt bad about. “I really am a fan,” said Orlando. “You’ve been a huge influence. I’m sorry about all this.”

“Did Angelo Vitelli send you?”

Orlando nodded. “He did.”

“I figured,” said Bly. “I guess I was wrong. I guess he can read after all.”

“He can, but his lips move when he does it,” said Orlando.

Bly chuckled. “Since when does the mob hire black guys?”

“They don’t do it often. I’m only the second one ever.”

“You must be good at what you do.”

“I’m a better hitter than I am a writer.”

Bly smiled, looking tired now. “It was nice meeting you, Orlando. Good luck with the writing.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bly. It was nice meeting you, too.”

Bly closed his eyes, and Orlando squeezed the trigger. The old man’s head shot back before he toppled to the floor, falling into the door. Orlando stuck the .45 back inside his jacket. He looked down at Bly, whose work had meant so much to him, and he whispered, “I’m sorry, Charlie.” He dragged Bly’s body into the room and closed the door. He pulled out his cell phone, hit a button, and raised the phone to his ear. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said. “Send Teddy and his boys to clean up. Room 222 at the Arkadia.”

Later, after Teddy’s crew had come to relieve him, Orlando was walking through the lobby, considering Bly’s death. He felt happy to have met an idol whose work had inspired him, but also sad because he’d had to kill him. As he stepped out into the rain, Orlando thought of the old maxim that a writer should kill his darlings. He smiled, thinking Bly would have appreciated this.

Short Fiction: “The Day Henry Came Calling”

by Andy Rausch

Goddamn you, Henry. This was Tom’s first thought upon seeing his brother for the first time in 43 years. He watched his brother get out of the yellow Buick and approach the house. Tom had been sitting in a chair on the porch, reading a Harlan Coben book. He set the book down and stood, steeling himself for confrontation.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked. “Do I need to go get my gun?”

Tom looked at him with tired eyes and held his palms up. “No, brother. I came to bury the hatchet.”

Tom wasn’t convinced. “Where you gonna bury it? In my head?” He squinted at Henry. “You better not try anything.”

“Or what?” asked Henry, almost to the steps now. “You gonna fall down and break a hip?”

Tom muttered to himself and sat down. Henry made his way up the steps and onto the porch. He looked around at the house. “I see you’ve kept her up in good pretty good shape.”

“I done what I could.”

Henry nodded towards the empty chair. “Mind if I sit?”

Tom shrugged. “Last I knew, it was a free country.”

Henry sat and looked his brother over. “You’ve turned into an old man.”

“Well, shit. What the hell do you think you are?”

Henry chuckled. “You’re older than me.”

“By one goddamn year. I might be 82, but you’re still 81, and 81 ain’t no spring chicken.”

“Don’t I know it,” said Henry, nodding.

Tom looked him square in the eyes. He’d waited for decades to see his brother again, but now that he was here, he just wanted it to be over. In his mind, the window for reconciliation had long since closed.

“What do you want?”

Henry sighed. “I just want to make peace.”

“Why now? It’s been a long time.”

“It’s been too long,” Henry said. “I figure 40 years is enough.”

“43, actually.”

“You haven’t changed a bit, have you?” Henry asked, chuckling. “Here I am coming to you with my hat in hand, trying to say I’m sorry, and you’ve gotta be hard about it.”

“I don’t see no hat in your hand.”

“I don’t wear hats. But maybe I should. The docs say I got skin cancer.”

“That’s it?” Tom asked. “You just came to talk about hats?”

“There you go again, being hard.”

“As I recall, you were pretty hard yourself,” Tom said. “Last time I saw you, you swore you’d get revenge against me if it was the last thing you ever did.”

Henry just chuckled.

“So what then?” Tom asked. “You don’t want revenge now?”

“I changed, brother. Don’t a man have the right to change?”

Tom gave him a hard look. “You ain’t changed. You’re older is all.”

“How do you know I haven’t changed?”

“Don’t nothin’ change but the weather.”

“And you had the nerve to call me hard,” Henry said. “I’ll be straight with you. I lost my wife Lottie a couple summers back. That was hard. Real hard. And my kids never come to see me. I’m not even sure they know I’m still alive.”

“Well,” said Tom, “I didn’t know you was alive either. And now that I’m looking at you, I still can’t tell.”

“You think I look that bad?”

“You look worse. You look like a hundred pounds of monkey shit.”

“What does monkey shit even look like?

“Look in the mirror,” Tom said.

Henry ignored this and continued. “Anyway, Lottie dying put things into perspective for me and I got to thinking about the things that are important.”

“And what do you figure those things are?”

“Family and loved ones,” Henry said. “You and my kids.”

“When did you say Lottie died?”

“Two years ago.”

Tom said, “Her death made you think about those things, but it still took you two years to come here? You’re a stubborn old bastard. You’ll never change.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Henry said. “I have changed. I’m offering you an olive branch here.”

Tom stared at him for a long time, trying to decide what he should say. Then he said, “I never did understand why you were so upset in the first place.”

“After Mom and Pop died, you took everything. This house, their belongings, their savings. You took it all.”

“I took what they left me,” Tom said. “I didn’t ask for any of it. That was what they decided.”

Henry glared at him. “You should have shared it with me, Tom! You should have done what was right!”

“No. Maybe it was right to you. Maybe it was even right to me. But it wasn’t right to them or they wouldn’t have drawn up the will the way they did. It would have been disrespectful to them for me to cut you in after they specifically said they didn’t want you to have any of it.”

Henry stared at him in silence.

Tom continued. “You might not have thought it was all that big a thing, but when you stole all their money to run off and get married to that Mexican gal…”

“Estrellita,” Henry said.

“I don’t give a damn what her name was. That ain’t the point. The point is you hurt them. Hurt ’em bad. Even after y’all made up and you came back, they never did get over that. It still hurt. You were their son, Henry. You disrespected them and you hurt them. Don’t you understand that?”

Henry looked at him with wet eyes. “They didn’t approve of Estrellita, and it was just because she was Mexican. What the hell did you expect me to do?”

“Maybe they screwed that up, sure, but that’s how it was back then. You know that. I’m not saying it was right, but Mom and Pop were good people doing the best they could. Besides, it turned out they were right anyway, didn’t it? How long were you and that gal married?”

“Almost a year,” Henry said.

“Almost a year. And you screwed over your own blood, your parents, for a relationship that went to shit almost immediately.”

“But it could have worked,” Henry said. “There was no way to know it wouldn’t.”

“You’re right, there wasn’t. And I wouldn’t begrudge you that. She was a pretty gal and she was sweet. If you were in love with her, which I think you were, you shoulda been able to marry her.”

“But you still think I did wrong?”

“Hell yes, I do. You were wrong because you took the easy way, Henry. Instead of working and saving your money like decent people do, you took Mom and Pop’s money and ran off without saying a word. They were worried sick about you. I was worried sick. And after you left, money was tight. Things were hard.”

“But they made it,” Henry said.

“They made it, but it was no thanks to you.”

Henry stared at him and there was a long pause. Finally he said, “Look, I was wrong to do that. I’m sorry.”

“It ain’t me you owe the apology to.”

“That’s true, but they ain’t here for me to say it to, so you’re gonna have to do.”

“You didn’t even come back for the funeral.”

“What the hell was I supposed to do? Everybody was mad at me.”

“But you still came back for the reading of the will.”

Henry looked down with shame.

“What the hell do you want?” Tom asked. “The money’s gone and there ain’t nothing left to give you. And I live here in the house, so you’re not getting that.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“You must want something,” Tom said. “You’re here.”

“All I wanted was to make peace with you, brother. I don’t want nothing else.”

Tom just sat there for a few minutes, staring out at the passing traffic. Then he turned back to his brother. “You said you were gonna get revenge against me. That was the last thing you said to me. I still remember it like it was yesterday.”

Henry said, “But it wasn’t.”

“No, it wasn’t. It was 43 years ago, and you ruined any chance of us ever having a good relationship. You wasted those years, Henry.”

“I know.”

“You shouldn’t have come.”

Henry said, “I just wanted to try to make things right.”

“It can never be right.”

Henry nodded. “Okay then, at least as good as possible.”

Tom just sat there staring off, thinking. As he did, tears welled up in his eyes. He looked at his brother. “Why should I trust you now?”

“I don’t know what to tell you, brother. I don’t know how to prove it to you, but I’ve changed. I want to try to get to know you before it’s too late. Like you said, we ain’t young no more.”

Tom stared into his brother’s eyes. “Okay, I forgive you, Henry. I don’t know if you’ve changed, but…”

“Let me prove it to you.”

“How? How you gonna do that?”

“Get to know me, big brother,” Henry said. “Do that and you’ll see. I’m not the same man I was when we were younger.”

Tom stared into his eyes again. “That’s good because you were an awful, horrible, mean sonofabitch when you were younger.”

Henry nodded, giving him a sad look. “I can’t deny that.”

“What now?”

“Well, I figure we get together soon, sometime when I’m in town longer, and we can spend some time together. We can catch up.”

Tom considered it. It sounded good, but he didn’t want to get hurt again. Finally he said, “That sounds good, Henry. I’d like that.”

“Good.”

“You’re just in town for today?”

Henry nodded. “Yes, but I’m free in July.”

“July? That’s two months away.”

Henry shrugged. “July 23rd.”

“That’s a very random, specific day.”

“Do you want to get together or not?”

“I do, little brother. And I don’t have anything scheduled beyond the next piss I take. I don’t make plans.”

“Well, plan for this. It’ll be a special day. A day to remember. That’s when you’ll see me.”

“Okay,” Tom said, nodding. “I look forward to it.”

Henry stood and held his boney hand out for Tom to shake. Tom took it in his own boney hand and pumped it. “I’m sure glad I got to see you today. I’ve missed you.”

“Likewise.” Henry turned toward the steps. “Mark it on your calendar, brother.”

“Are you sure? You’ve always been flakey.”

“I guarantee it. No matter what, we’ll be together on July 23rd.”

“You promise?”

Henry winked at him. “You couldn’t stop it if you tried.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’ll see you soon, brother,” Henry said, making his way back to the old yellow Buick. Tom watched him climb into the car, start the engine, and drive away.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Tom said. Miracles really did happen.

He thought about Henry for the rest of the day. He was glad he’d changed. Henry had always been a terrible person, so the fact that he’d changed made Tom happy. And despite it all, he really did love him. Thinking about the two of them getting together in July excited him.

A few hours passed and Tom was sitting in his recliner watching Jeopardy when the phone rang. Tom muted the television and then reached over and grabbed the phone. He raised it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Tom?” asked a woman on the other end.

“This is Tom.”

“This is your cousin, Evelyn.”

“Oh, hey, Evelyn. I didn’t recognize your voice.”

She laughed. “Well, that’s understandable. It’s probably been 20 years since the last time we spoke.”

“I suspect that’s right,” Tom said. “What can I do for you?”

“The reason I’m calling is…Well, it’s your brother.”

“Henry?”

“Do you have any other brothers?”

Tom chuckled. “No, just the one. And that’s plenty. What about him?”

“This is hard for me to say, but he’s dead, Tom.”

This startled Tom. “I can assure you he’s not.”

“He is, Tom. He was killed in a car accident last night on 400.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is, Tom.”

He was confused. “It’s not possible.”

“I’m afraid it is,” Evelyn said. “I was the one who went to the morgue and ID’d his body.”

Tom started getting angry. “What the hell is this, Evelyn?”

“I understand you being upset, Tom, but…at least he died quickly. He was in that old Buick LeSabre of his.” She paused. “I don’t think you two had spoken since he’d gotten it, but it was a pretty old thing.”

“Was it yellow?” Tom asked.

“Yeah, it was. How’d you know?”

“I must have seen a picture.”

“Well, another car tried to pass,” Evelyn said, starting to sob. “They were in the other lane… But they…they ended up pulling out right in front of Henry’s car, and…they…collided head-on.”

“You’re sure it was Henry you saw?”

Evelyn started sobbing harder. “Oh, it was awful, Tom. Just awful. But it was definitely him. The service is gonna be next Wednesday if you can make it. It’s in Lackley, over at the Donovan Funeral Parlor on Seventh.”

“Maybe it wasn’t him.”

“It was definitely him, Tom” she said. “He had a tattoo… I didn’t know he had a tattoo.”

“He had a couple,” Tom said.

“This one was a half naked woman.”

“He got that when he was in the Navy.”

Evelyn said, “That was the one I saw.”

Tom sat there, trying to work it all out in his head. Evelyn could have been lying, but he knew she wasn’t. She was crying and he could hear the earnestness in her voice. She was still talking when he hung up in a daze.

He didn’t understand it. How could it be?

Then he thought, what if Henry was a ghost? But that was nonsense. There was no such thing as ghosts, right? But…what if there was? And as he thought about it, he figured it out. Yes, Henry was a ghost. A piece of shit ghost.

Henry had been a piece of shit in life, and now he was a piece of shit in death. Henry had come for revenge, letting Tom know exactly what day he was going to die. It could have been something else, but he was certain this was the purpose of his brother’s visit. Henry was finally getting his revenge. He’d vowed that he’d get it if it was the last thing he ever did. Tom had obviously believed that meant before Henry’s death, but that hadn’t been the case.

“No matter what, we’ll be together on July 23rd,” Henry had said. And that other line… What was it? Oh, yes, “You couldn’t stop it if you tried.”

He heard the oven timer buzzing now to let him know his TV dinner was done cooking, but Tom had lost his appetite. He was going to die on July 23rd, and thanks to his dead brother, he wouldn’t be able to think of anything else until that day. By telling him the date on which he’d die, Henry had made sure Tom could not enjoy the last months of his life.

Goddamn you, Henry.

Short Fiction: “A Snowy Night in Brooklyn”

by Andy Rausch

DISCLAIMER: This is one of those “inside baseball” stories where a knowledge of hip-hop music and/or Biggie Smalls is required for the story to make sense. If you don’t know anything about them, you’re gonna be lost.


Big and Cease were in Big’s Suburban, making their way down Fulton Street. It was dark now, a light snow falling against the windshield.

“Crack that window,” said Big, choking on the smoke from Cease’s blunt. “You ’bout to kill me with that shit.”

Cease protested. “But it’s cold, man.”

Big looked over at him. “And?”

“I’ll be fucking cold.”

Big gave him an exaggerated look like he was stupid. “There’s two other solutions.”

“What’s the first?”

“You could put that thing out and stop smoking in my shit.”

“And the second?”

Big grinned as he said, “I could pull over and let your ass walk the rest of the way. Then you’ll really be cold.”

Cease slumped. He rolled the window down a little, tossing the half-finished blunt out. “You happy now?”

“I’m as happy as Shaq makin’ free throws.”

“Where we goin’?”

“There’s someone I gotta see.”

“Who’s that?”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll know when we get there.”

Big slowed the Suburban, staring up at a shop window on the right. Cease couldn’t make out what the words on the window said, but there was a light on inside. “You see anyone in there?” asked Big.

“In where?

Frustrated, Big said, “In the window, man.”

Cease stared at the shop, squinting, but couldn’t make out anything inside.

Big pulled the Suburban over next to the curb. Other businesses on the street, like the Jewelry Exchange and the Metro King, had big signs and/or canopies hanging over their entrances, but this one didn’t. As Big turned off the motor, Cease was still squinting at the window, trying to figure out what this place was. He had been down this way a million and one times, but had never paid any mind to the place.

Big opened his door carefully, trying to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic. Cease climbed out the passenger side.

“Make sure you lock it,” said Big.

“I did.”

“You sure?”

“Damn, Big, I’m sure.”

Big walked around the vehicle, his Tims stepping up onto the sidewalk. He and Cease stood there for a brief moment in the falling snow, staring at the window. Now Cease could see it for the first time: “Madame Sylvia, Psychic and Medium.”

Cease looked over at Big, now walking towards the business. “Fuck we doin’ here, Big?”

“Don’t worry, man. I got this.”

“But Big—”

I got this,” growled Big, ending the conversation.


As they approached the door, they saw the closed sign facing outward. They could also see a figure moving around inside. Big stepped up to the door, made a fist, and banged hard. A moment later an elderly white woman—likely Madame Sylvia—came to the door. She peered out nervously, pointing at the closed sign. Big then pulled out a roll of hundreds and held it up to the window. The old woman’s face brightened, relaxing a bit. She shrugged, opening the door. As she did, an overhead bell clanged to life.

“Are you open now?” asked Big, enjoying the power of his newfound money.

The old woman looked nervously at the cash in his hand, clearly afraid it would disappear back into his pocket. “I could be persuaded to make an exception,” she said with a thick accent Big thought was Russian.

“I thought you might,” said Big, peeling several bills from the roll.

The old woman reached up and plucked the bills from his hand. She stood there, holding the door open and allowing them entrance. Once Big and Cease were inside, she closed the door and locked it.

The place smelled as if approximately 234 incense sticks had been burned simultaneously.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“You’re a medium?” asked Big. “That means you can talk to dead people, right? Like Whoopi Goldberg in that movie with the Dirty Dancing guy?”

The old woman nodded. “My body is a vessel through which the dead can speak.”

Big glanced at Cease uncomfortably. “Yeah, that’s what I need. I wanna talk to a, uh… a spirit.”

The old woman smiled nonchalantly. Such a statement would have startled most people—it certainly startled Cease—but this was an everyday occurrence for her. After all, she was Madame Sylvia, Psychic and Medium.

“You can really do that?” asked Big. “It’s for real?”

The old woman nodded. “I can do it,” she said, her voice sounding tired.

She led them past a bevy of weird shit that included a jar with a human embryo inside, an inverted cross hanging on the wall, and a collection of painted skulls. She led them through hanging beads and into a second dimly-lit room, which also smelled of incense, but this time combined with the faint odor of cat shit. Big looked around the room, but saw no cat. The old woman led them to a round wooden table, motioning for them to sit. They did. She sat down on the other side of the table, facing them.

“What is the name of the deceased you wish to talk to, Christopher?”

This startled Big, who paused for a second, looking at Cease. He turned back towards Madame Sylvia. “How you know my name?”

The old woman grinned, exposing one black rotten tooth sitting among what looked like a mouthful of yellowish-brown Chiclets. “This is what I do.”

Big composed himself, staring at her. “Okay, the person I wanna talk to…”

She stared at him, that big creepy grin still plastered across her boney face.

“His name is Tupac,” said Big. “Tupac Shakur.”

The old woman’s head fell back slowly, her cataract-obscured gaze lifting to the ceiling.

Cease stared at Big, looking at him as if he’d lost his mind.

“I don’t like this shit,” said Cease. “I don’t believe in this stuff, but if it’s true, we don’t need to be fucking around with it. It ain’t right, Big.”

Big said nothing, paying his cousin no mind.

The old woman’s frail voice no longer sounded so frail and tired as it came screeching from her mouth. Her head was still tilted all the way back as she said, “I’m calling for Tupac Shakur… Tupac, can you speak with us?” She paused for a long moment, neither Big nor Cease saying anything. Then, finally, she called out again. “Are you there, Tupac?”

Almost the second she completed the question, the old woman started to shake violently. Big tilted his head, staring at her, wondering if she was having a seizure. He was trying to remember what you’re supposed to do if a person has a seizure; do you put a pencil in their mouth so they don’t bite off their tongue? Or was that an old wives’ tale? Big wasn’t sure. Cease looked over at Big again, but neither of them said a word. The old woman’s shaking slowed and she started to cackle now. Her head lowered, her cataract-covered eyes now filled with the shimmering glow of sunlight on gold.

She looked directly at Big. She smirked, but said nothing. She just kept staring at him awkwardly.

Big didn’t know what to say, but the creepy bitch was making him nervous.

Finally the old white woman said, “Nigga, is that you?” Her voice was upbeat now, and she spoke clear English, the accent now gone.

Big was stunned, unsure what was happening. He sat back in his chair, trying to make sense of it.

The old woman spoke up again. “What’s up, Big?”

Now Big knew.

“I’m chillin’, Pac,” he said. “How about you?”

“Nigga, I’m dead. That’s how I am.”

Cease was sitting on the edge of his chair, watching this exchange with his mouth hanging open. He said nothing.

“I can’t believe you’re coming to see me,” said Tupac. Big couldn’t read the tone; he couldn’t properly assess whether or not his old friend was angry.

“I just wanted you to know that I didn’t have shit to do with your death,” explained Big. “God as my witness I didn’t. I know people were trying to put it in your head that I was your enemy, but the truth is that I never had nothin’ but love for you, man.”

The old woman stared at him in silence for a long moment, unblinking. “I know that, nigga,” said Tupac. “You’re right though. I didn’t know it then. I was in a bad place after the Quad Studios shooting. I had a lotta people getting in my ear, tryin’ to tell me shit, tryin’ to tell me it was you and Puff did it.”

“It wasn’t me,” insisted Big. “We had nothin’ to do with that.”

The old woman nodded. “I know.”

They sat there staring at each other for a beat.

“I hated that we became enemies,” said Big. “I never wanted that. I didn’t like it at all. I told my crew to just back down and leave it alone, even though you were saying all kinds of wild shit…”

“Yeah,” Tupac said, grinning, the old woman’s hand rubbing her chin. “I did say some shit, didn’t I?”

“You had cats in the street thinking maybe I was soft because I wasn’t going in on you, wasn’t throwing darts.” Big paused. “Can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask me anything, nigga,” said Tupac.

“You said you slept with my wife.” He paused for a moment. “Tell me, was that true?”

Now the old woman’s face stared at him very seriously. “Nah,” said Tupac. “That wasn’t true. I shouldn’t have said that shit.”

Big nodded. “You’re right, you shouldn’t have said that shit.”

“What can I do about it now? I’m dead, Big.”

“And Faith and I are separated, mostly because of what you said.”

“That’s fucked up. What do you want me to say? I’m sorry.”

Big nodded, looking over at Cease. “You got another blunt? If not, there’s a couple out in the glove box.”

Cease felt around in the pocket of his Girbauds, finally producing a crinkled, slightly bent but intact blunt. He held it up to Big, who took a moment to locate his Zippo. As the two men worked out the blunt situation, Tupac smiled and said, “Hell yeah, that’s what the fuck I’m talking about. You know how long it’s been since I smoked?”

Cease asked, “How long, Pac?”

“Well, how long have I been dead now?”

“About three months.”

“Then that’s how long it’s been. Three months. That’s too long.”

Big now had the blunt in his mouth, lighting it. He removed it from his mouth and held it out to his dead comrade. Tupac reached out with the old woman’s frail hand and took it. He put it to his lips and sucked at it, filling his lungs with thick smoke. He exhaled slowly, starting to laugh as he did.

“Goddamn,” he said. He looked at the blunt for a moment, and then up at Big and Cease. “You mind if I have another hit?”

“Whatever you want, Pac,” said Big.

Tupac took another deep drag, letting the smoke float from his lips. He held the blunt out to Cease, who then took his turn.

“So what’s it like?” asked Big. “Is there, you know…is there a heaven?”

“Not that I’ve seen,” said Tupac. “There’s nothing, and yet I continue to exist. It’s crazy, nigga. It’s nothing but blackness, but somehow I’m aware of everything going on in the universe as it happens. I even know the future.”

Big looked at him. “Like what? What kinda shit you know?”

“I know you didn’t have anything to do with the Quad Studios shooting or my death,” said Tupac. “I know everything.”

Big bit his lip, considering this. He looked up. “So you know who’s responsible for your death?”

The old woman’s body sat back, her facial features lighting up almost as bright as her eyes. “Oh yeah,” said Tupac. “I know who did that shit. It’s someone I knew real well. And believe me, I’m gonna take care of it.”

“Who was it?”

Tupac grinned, revealing that nasty black tooth again. “I’m not gonna say, but believe me, I’m gonna get that nigga. He ain’t gonna die—not yet—but his life and career are about to end.”

“Do I know the cat?”

“You’ve met him,” said Tupac. “But let’s not worry about it.”

It was Tupac’s turn to hit the blunt again. Big passed it to him, and Tupac smoked it, eventually handing it to Cease.

“So you know everything?” asked Big.

“Pretty much,” said Tupac.

“Can you tell me who’s gonna win the NBA championship this year?”

Tupac stared at him through Madame Sylvia’s eyes, grinning. “You’re funny, nigga. I shouldn’t say anything about it. But I think I owe you for all the shit we’ve been through.”

“So what you saying?”

“The Bulls,” said Tupac. “The Bulls gonna win again.”

Big nodded. “Who do they play?”

“Utah.”

“What kinda series is Jordan gonna have?”

“Jordan gets hurt in the playoffs,” said Tupac. “He’s not gonna play in the series.”

Big looked at him, his disappointment visible. “Really?”

“It gets worse, too.”

“How’s that?”

“The injury is gonna end his career.”

“Word?”

Tupac stared at him, grinning, just letting it sit there for a moment. Finally he said, “Nah, nigga, I’m just fuckin’ with you. Jordan’s gonna have a great series. In game five he’s gonna score 38 points. But get this… He does it with the flu!”

“What?” asked Big. “You’re fuckin’ with me.”

“Nah, I’m serious. He ends up being series MVP.”

Big nods. “That’s cool.”

“It’s been good catching up with you fellas,” said Tupac. “But I gotta go back.”

“Back where?”

“Good question. I dunno. Wherever the fuck I came from.”

“But you and me, we’re good?”

Tupac smiled, extending the old woman’s tiny hand. The two friends bumped fists. “We’re good,” said Tupac. “We’re real good.”

“I’ll see you soon,” said Big. He paused before adding, “But not too soon.”

Tupac stared at him, knowing Big’s future but saying nothing. Tupac knew Big would never see Jordan perform in the Flu Game, as he would be dead by then.

Big watched as Madame Sylvia’s body started to convulse again, Tupac’s spirit exiting. The old woman slumped over, her face hanging down towards the table. After a moment she sat up and looked at Big, visibly exhausted.

“You okay?” he asked, genuinely concerned.

The old woman stared at him with her yellowed eyes, but said nothing. She just nodded, possibly too tired to speak. Big stood, and Cease followed suit. Big reached into his pocket and produced the roll of cash again. He tossed the whole roll onto the table in front of the old woman and turned to leave.

When they stepped out into the light snow, Cease remarked, “That shit was crazy, Big.”

Big nodded, looking up at the falling snow. He felt the burden of guilt regarding Tupac’s death and their unresolved issues now lifted. He felt alive and rejuvenated. “Things are gonna be good from here on, man. We’re gonna keep working on this music and really doing the damn thing, you know? We’re gonna live our lives to the max and live the long life that Pac didn’t get to.”

Cease nodded, “Can’t nothin’ stop us.”

The two men climbed back into the Suburban. Big turned up the stereo, playing a song he’d recently recorded with Easy Mo Bee called “Going Back to Cali.” As the music thumped from the Kenwood speakers, the two men nodded their heads rhythmically. Big pulled away from the curb, and they drove off into the Brooklyn night.

Short fiction: “Santa’s Little Helper”

by Andy Rausch



This was Carl’s third house of the night, and he still had two more he wanted to hit before morning. As he’d gotten older, he’d become a much better robber, but the downside was that he’d come to loathe his work with a fiery passion. Maybe it was the two falls he’d already taken for B&E, or maybe it was because he felt like the Last of the Mohicans now that all his old road dogs were behind bars. But mostly Carl believed it was just a part of getting older. Even as he’d become wiser and had learned to take less chances, he still had to take some. Chances came part and parcel with this line of work. And topping it off, Carl’s body was showing signs of fatigue. He became tired much more quickly these days, and the treasures he carried out of the houses were getting getting heavier and heavier.

Carl hadn’t wanted to go out robbing tonight, but he had no choice. He’d been dating Porcupine Tina for a couple weeks now, but she refused to put out. She said she’d only screw him if he agreed to take her to this new highfalutin’ expensive-ass restaurant in Manhattan. She’d read about it in the Times, and had told him it was all the rage. “Movie stars go there,” she said. “There was a picture of Nicole Kidman eating there!” She thought going there might somehow give her class, but Carl doubted it, just as he doubted that all the women in the place combined had seen as many dicks as Tina had. When Carl was growing up, his dad had a saying about girls like her—if she had as many dicks sticking out of her as she’d had stuck in her she’d be a porcupine. Hence the name Porcupine Tina.

Carl was in the dark house, shining his flashlight down on a laptop. It was an older model, probably five or six years old. That wasn’t old for most things—Carl had underwear that were older by a mile—but it was literally a lifetime for a laptop. “Fuck it,” he muttered, sticking the laptop in his bag. He turned around and was shocked to find himself face to face with a little boy.

“Who are you?” asked the boy, squinting into the light. “Are you Santa Claus?”

Seeing his way out, Carl jumped on this. “Yeah, I am,” he said. “I’m Santa Claus.”

The boy tilted his head. He looked unsure, like he was trying to work out a mathematical equation in his head. “Are you sure?”

“What? You don’t think I know who I am?”

“Why are you here?”

Carl paused. “Well, I’m here, you know, doing Santa stuff.”

“But Christmas is eighteen days away,” said the boy.

“Eighteen days, huh?”

“Yeah, I count ’em off every day. I got a Santa Claus face calendar with cotton balls on his beard over each day. I remove a piece of cotton every morning until Christmas, and right now there are eighteen cotton balls left.”

Carl nodded. “That’s a good system.”

“But my Daddy told me you didn’t exist,” said the boy.

“He did?”

“He sure did. But I knew he was wrong. I knew it!

“Why do you think he did that?”

The boy scrunched up his face, looking perplexed. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I know,” said Carl.

“You do?”

“He did it because he was naughty.”

The boy’s eyes got big. “Daddy’s naughty?”

“He lied about me not being real. You know what that is? Naughty with a capital N.”

“Maybe he just didn’t know,” offered the boy.

“No, he knew. He just did that to be naughty. He was lying to you, trying to hurt your feelings. So that’s why I’m here. Normally I only come to houses and leave presents on Christmas. But this is something different. This is a special occasion. Your Daddy’s been naughty, so I had to come to teach him a lesson.”

“Good,” said the boy. “Daddy needs to be good and stop lying. It was shitty that he did that.” The little boy looked at him. “Can I say that? ‘Shitty,’ I mean?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Carl. “It’ll be our secret.”

The boy’s eyes dropped to the bag in Carl’s hand. Next his eyes moved to the spot where the laptop had been. Then he looked at Carl.

“You lookin’ for the laptop?” asked Carl.

“Yeah. Where is it?”

“I gotta take it for a while, to teach Daddy a lesson.”

The kid’s face brightened. “But the laptop’s Mommy’s.”

“Oh,” said Carl. “Well, she let him lie, so she’s in trouble, too. I’m gonna take some of their stuff for a few weeks. Then I’ll bring it back on Christmas after they’ve learned their lesson.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

This confused the boy. “Don’t you know?”

Carl knew he’d said the wrong thing. “I’m not gonna lie to you, kid, it’s hard to keep everybody’s names straight. Sometimes I forget.”

The boy nodded. “I forget stuff, too. I got an aunt that’s got a big mustache like a cowboy. Sometimes I forget her name. My sister Tammy and me call her Chewbacca, so then when I see her I wanna call her Chewbacca, but I know that’s not the right name.”

“What is her name?” asked Carl.

“I still don’t know.”

“Fuck it,” said Carl. “Call that bitch Chewbacca.”

The boy started to laugh and then caught himself. He looked at Carl. “You said a bad word.”

“Actually I said two. So, what was your name?”

“Billy,” said the boy.

“Oh, now I remember,” said Carl. “Well, I gotta get back to work. I’ve got other houses I gotta go to tonight.”

Carl turned to take a second look at the TV he’d passed in the dark living room. It was a decent set, probably middle-of-the-pack in terms of price and quality, but he wasn’t sure he could get it out of the house without making a lot of noise.

“If you really wanna teach my Daddy a lesson, you should take his baseball card collection,” said Billy.

This caught Carl’s attention, and he turned back to Billy, shining the flashlight on him. “Your Daddy collects baseball cards?”

“Oh yeah. It’s his favorite thing in the world. He’s always bragging about how much they’re worth. He says the Hank Aaron card he bought this summer cost about the same as a ski boat.”

Carl’s eyes got big. “Really?”

“Yeah,” said Billy. “And he’s got a whole bunch of Mickey Mantle cards, too. Mickey’s his favorite player, even though he retired before Daddy was even born.”

“He’s got a bunch of Mickey Mantle cards?”

“He’s probably got about twenty, all expensive and locked in a glass case in the study. Well, most of ’em anyway.”

Carl felt his heart drop. “They’re locked away?”

“Yeah,” said Billy. “But I know where the key is.”

“Lead the way, kid.”

As they walked through the house, Billy turned and asked, “Do you need another bag? I can get a trash bag. There’s a whole bunch of cards. Daddy says there’s probably enough to pay my way through college.”

Carl said, “Sure, I’ll take a trash bag.”

Billy went into the kitchen and switched on the light. He grabbed a trash bag from beneath the sink, and then turned and led Carl to the study. There was a big glass case full of cards along the wall. Carl could have broken the glass easy, but it would have made a helluva racket. Billy walked across the room and grabbed the key out of a desk drawer. He unlocked the case, and the two of them cleaned it out, putting all the cards in the trash bag.

When they were done, Billy asked, “Do you think that’s enough to teach Daddy a lesson? Or do you need more stuff?”

“I should probably go, kid.”

Billy nodded. “Are you sure?”

Carl almost laughed. “I think we’re good.”

He started towards the door when he heard Billy ask, “What about the safe?” Carl stopped and turned around. “What safe?”

“Daddy’s got a safe in the study.”

“What’s in it?” asked Carl.

“Stacks of money and some papers.” He looked at Carl for a moment, still thinking, and then said, “Oh, I forgot! And Daddy’s favorite thing.”

“What is it?”

“Daddy’s got a baseball card he spent $60,000 on. It’s a Mickey Mantle rookie card. Daddy says it’s mint.” Billy stopped for a minute, his face twisting into a confused expression. “If it’s mint, does that mean I can eat it?”

“No,” said Carl. “It’s a different kind of mint.” He paused for a beat before saying, “Let’s go to the safe. I really need to get going.”

Billy led him back to the study. They walked past the empty card case and Billy approached a framed painting of Babe Ruth, pointing towards the outfield. “It’s behind there,” said Billy.

Carl approached the painting, sitting down his bags. He pulled back the picture, finding that it was on hinges. When he did, he saw the face of a gray safe staring out at him. He looked at Billy. “Do you know the combination?”

“Yeah, it’s my birthday.”

“When’s that?”

Billy studied him. “Don’t you know?”

Carl sighed. “I forget stuff. Cut me some slack, kid.”

“My birthday is May 4, 2010.”

Carl turned back to the safe, twisting the nob to five, then four, and then ten. He turned the handle, and he heard the bolt unlock. He opened the safe and saw two fat stacks of hundreds, which would be more than enough to take Porcupine Tina to that rich la-di-da burger joint. He pulled out the cash and tossed the stacks into the bag. Peering into the safe, he moved a stack of documents and found the Mickey Mantle card lying there inside a hard plastic sleeve. He pulled it out and stared at it for a moment, admiring it. “She’s a beaut,” he said, sticking it in his back pocket.

He picked up the bags and looked at Billy. “I gotta go, kid. Santa’s got shit to do.”

Carl walked out of the study and through the dark living room, moving towards the door. When he reached it, he realized Billy was standing behind him. Carl turned and looked at the kid, slightly illuminated by the light from the kitchen. Carl turned back towards the door, pulling it open. He opened the storm door and stepped out into the cold night.

“Goodbye, Santa.” And for a moment Carl felt bad about all this. He stopped and turned towards Billy. “I got something for you, kid.” He reached into the bag and pulled three hundred dollar bills out, handing them to Billy. “Go get yourself some candy,” he said. Billy’s eyes were as big as silver dollars. “But whatever you do, don’t tell your Mommy and Daddy about this. No matter what happens, this is our secret and the money is yours. Deal?”

Billy looked at him, smiling big, a gleam in his eye. “You bet, Santa!”

Carl turned and walked towards the stolen Chevy pickup parked at the curb.

Billy watched him climb into the truck, hoping he’d look back so they could wave at one another, but he didn’t. But Billy didn’t care, because he knew he’d definitely be on the nice list now. He’d helped Santa, which was a thing none of the other kids at school had done, and this made him special. Billy smiled, closing the door. He looked down at the bills in his hand.

“Thank you, Santa,” he whispered.

And he went to bed, dreaming sweet, innocent dreams about he and his new friend Santa Claus.

PLEASE SUPPORT ANDY RAUSCH BY PURCHASING ANY OF HIS NONFICTION BOOKS OR NOVELS ON AMAZON. HIS NOVELS INCLUDE MAD WORLD, RIDING SHOTGUN AND OTHER AMERICAN CRUELTIES, ELVIS PRESLEY: CIA ASSASSIN, M-COMPANY IN THE AXIS OF EVIL, AND MANY OTHERS.