Matthew Licht

DD7 girl

A Hard Case (Part 7)

“Camera meltdown. Break!”

The words tunneled in through a thick fog. Where and why was life going on? Who revealed its secret? Whoever I was never wanted whatever had happened to end, but it ended anyway.

Life is like that.

Other times, you get stuck in the wrong life for too long. 

Someone threw a blanket on my shoulders. That meant I had shoulders. Or maybe it was a towel. Whatever it was felt soft. Life didn’t have to be hard. Not all the time. 

The world was warm, and dark. The lights had burned so bright. Light needs a rest too. The stars close their eyes when the day starts. 

The light spoke itself alive. “Think you can give us another take in about half an hour?”

“How ‘bout half a minute?”

“Stand by.”

Life doesn’t stand by. Life moves through space and time. Life finishes, especially when you don’t want it to.

The bright lights blazed again.

“There you are.” 

The soft voice cut through the glare. A touch that meant another life was there. Everything became clear again.

“OK now do the scene where you…” the big voice was unsure. “Do whatever you want.”

Another facet of the mystery dazzled. The director knew what we were supposed to do together in the light. He just couldn’t put it into words, at the moment. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was out there in the light.

Light-years flew by in all directions and exploded in liquid heat.

“Got it. That’s a wrap.”

Whichever world this was grew darker and cooler. Time flowed. Breathe in, breathe out.  Someone said, “Listen, you can’t stay here. We need to clear the set for the maintenance crew.”

You find a place where you want to be and then you have to leave. The clothes neatly folded on a folding chair fit. I still knew how to put them on. The gun was a leftover from the wrong job. “I don’t want this anymore,” I said, and handed it over to a young woman with a clipboard at her breast. 

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

Doris had a car outside. The motor started with no fuss. She let it warm up. 

“Are you from Mexico?”

Usually I was the one who asked questions. The answers were for people who had problems in their lives that made them unhappy. My job was to change that. Or that’s what I thought the job was. “I speak English,” I said, eventually.

She put the car in gear and crawled out of Project X’s lot. The words welded onto the gate sounded familiar.

“Work makes you free,” Doris Frawley said. “At least here it does.”

A green light came on and we drove off together into the North Hollywood night.

A blue light came on, and another one, too bright, both headed in the wrong direction. A siren yawped. We stopped.

“Get outta the car,” a too-loud voice said. “With your hands up.”

A Hard Case (Part 1)

A Hard Case (Part 2)

A Hard Case (Part 3)

A Hard Case (Part 4)

A Hard Case (Part 5)

A Hard Case (Part 6)

Jan von Stille

Kids

May 1, 2012. Chance-Loeb, Texas. Day.

“Marcus and I will deal with this,” Colt nodded to the mud-filled canoe between us. His dad had built it in a fit of nostalgia two weeks after his last deployment, wore his white sailor’s hat the whole time. Colt rested the backs of his hands on his hips, scrawny arms jutting out awkward like a newborn bird’s. “And you go in and get a plastic spoon from the drawer beside the corn snake.”

The snake was six feet long, and Colt thought it was mean to leave the top of the terrarium shut. I ran. They hadn’t dumped enough mud before re-launch, and I returned to see Colt and Marcus knee-deep in the marsh behind Colt’s doublewide. They heaved the canoe just far enough into the reeds that it couldn’t float away and stripped to striped boxer briefs, algae clinging to their scant leg hairs so that it looked like they’d waded into a leechbed.

“Let’s just fish from the bank.”

Colt taught us how to make rods from downed cypress branches, and we tied off and sat on upturned ten-gallon buckets, fidgeting as the drums’ bottom rims indented our hamstrings. Marcus caught a bream, maybe three pounds, and filled his bucket with water for it. Feeling, for a moment, superior, he pulled a lighter from his pocket and grinned at us.

“Wanna see what my brother taught me?”

The first fuzzy wisps had colonized his pale face a few months prior, and he tore the safety off the top of the lighter and shot a jet of flame so that it barely licked beneath his chin. After a couple swift passes he brushed the charred curls from his neck and winked. “Never have to buy a razor.”

August 5, 2019. Interior, Nursing Home. Dawn.

“I’m gonna go do another autopsy. The nice man told me last night.” The man retains something of the aura of intelligence that defined him in his youth, but whatever that something is, it lies. Four days prior, he poured marinara over a shoelace–the twisty kind you don’t have to tie–and chewed it for an hour before a panicked nurse noticed faint choking noises.

That same nurse now places a small plastic cup of pills on his bedside table. He reaches a shaky, liver-spotted hand for it, but his fingers close several inches to the right. The nurse patiently takes the cup, afraid he’ll spill it, and stacks several pillows under his back before feeding him the pills one by one.

“That’s wonderful, Michael. Will it be Kennedy’s again? I recall you were very excited about that one last month.”

“Oh, no, Janet, this one is for a man named Jackson. No, no, it’s Jeremy. I’m sorry. The man came late at night, and I can’t seem to recall our exact conversation.”

“It’s alright, Michael.” She takes special care to emphasize his name. The heirs always hate it when the loved one forgets its name. “Take your time. Tell me, Michael, what did this man look like?”

He cackles weakly. “Well, it was dark, Janet.” Thinking that the overpronunciation of names must be an important custom of this new land, he has taken to mimicking it. “He wore a suit.”

“Did it fit him well?” Preoccupied with thoughts of the besuited man who read next to her on the subway on Wednesdays, she has forgotten that it was dark.

He waxes agitated. “You’re missing the point, Janet. A limousine will be here on Sunday to bring me to the examination. I simply wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t worry.”

She feeds him the last pill and pats his back to help him swallow. She needs to remember to call that speech pathologist. “Yes, I’m sure it will, Michael. I bet you’re very excited.”

May 1, 2012. Chance-Loeb. Day.

Colt built a small fire with the remnants of our rods. He instructed Marcus and I to wrap our single bream in tin foil. No cutting, wrap it whole. We walked to the front yard and played dodgeball with disc golf putters while the fish cooked. Marcus and I had shit aim, so Colt bounded back to retrieve the fish while we gathered ice from a cobwebby cooler in the garage to nurse our bruises.

While we sat on the back of an ancient ATV with Ziploc icepacks on our shins, Colt dashed inside and outside and laid the makings of a veritable feast on the once-white folding table under his dad’s tool rack: A paper bag of fried chicken livers from the Walmart deli, a brown jar of mustard, the unwrapped fish on its foil beside the plastic spoon, and three Dixie plates with purple and green floral rims.

We sat on our respective fishing buckets and Colt slipped into an impersonation of our hunting safety instructor. It had been his running bit for the past month. Thick Cajun golfball-gargling. “Firs’, boys, we clean de piece wi’ de proper tool.” He held the fish by its tail in one hand. In the other he displayed the plastic spoon. “You want to skim just along de surface so you don’ corrupt de riflin’. O’ de flesh, as de case may be. Get buku meat outta lil’ fish iffy clean ‘er right.”

He sloughed off a row of scales and offered the spoon to Marcus and I in turn. We’d left the bream to cook just long enough that the scales slid off with no pressure at all, and Marcus and I each removed thin chunks of filet meat on our first passes. “You wan’ get jus’ de scale, no lagniappe. Go mo’ gennle.”

We fidgeted on the buckets in our boxer briefs for about half an hour of steady scaling and then scarfed the whole spread in fifteen minutes.

August 12, 2019. Interior, Manhattan Medical Examination Facility. Mid-morning.

A long body with a long face lies on a long autopsy table. Naked, its grey body hairs sparkle in thick fluorescent light. The assembled note its egg-shaped penis: Thick at the base, it tapers to a narrow curve at the circumcised glans. The body has died by hanging, so its egg is crusted with semen, like a hard-boiled left too long in brine.

A woman in scrubs reaches for a scalpel, but an elderly man, leaning against his cane on the other side of the table, coughs conspicuously into his mask. The woman jerks her face up and glares at him. “What now, Michael?”

“It’s not time for that yet. Are you sure the rope burn has been thoroughly examined?”

She grits her teeth so hard the squeak echoes. “Five times, Michael.”

“As Chief Medical Examiner, I urge you to examine it a sixth time then check his hands for fibers. If you find matching fibers on the neck and hands, I daresay that’s incontrovertible evidence of suicide.”

“Have you ever seen a hanging victim who didn’t clutch at the rope, Michael?”

“Good point. In that case, give his penis another once-over. I assume you’ve read its psych profile: This was surely the type of loved one who jerked off before he kicked the stool. If you find fibers there, we can call our job done.”

“What if some fell, Michael? Nothing you’ve mentioned is conclusive. Have you not wondered how he found a rope and a stool in a maximum security prison? And enough me-time to rig them up?”

“It’s not our job to speculate. It’s our job to examine.”

A nondescript suited man standing beside the door bursts into vicious laughter, doubled over with his face between his knees. He looks up and finds the woman giving him the evil eye, and he straightens.

“You’re not gonna last long in this line of work, dear,” Michael croaks. “Too many scruples. You know I’ve penetrated the necrotic assholes of JFK and MLK? Marty was tighter. I suspect that Johnny had quite a vigorous priest.”

The woman picks over the loved one’s neck and hands with a magnifying monocle and a pair of tweezers.

“Nothing, Michael. Absolutely nothing. As though he were dead before he hung.”

“Oh? Well, I’d check again. And don’t forget the penis this time.”

“Dammit, Michael, there’s a time limit on this autopsy. We’re not gonna get the body open if we don’t do it now.”

“Why open the body? We’re investigating a hanging, not a poisoning.”

Another squeak. “How do we know if we don’t open the body?”

Michael points to the red marks on the loved one’s neck then folds his hands atop his cane. “This is mildly off-topic, honey, but have you ever had anal?”

The man by the door steps in front of it and crosses his hands over his crotch menacingly.

Judge Santiago Burdon

Watermelon Round-up Run

“Hey man, wake up! Dude, we’ve got a problem. Santiago, Goddamn it hear me? There’s Border Patrol up ahead and they’re searching every car!”

My overexcited companion is Andy, an acquaintance I met in Tucson. He’s a nickelbag, quarter ounce, small-time dealer that for some reason enjoys people being familiar with his activity. It gives him a sense of self-worth for others to know he’s a “dealer”.

Myself, I always made it clear that I was not a dealer. Neither did I sell nor wish to purchase any type of drug, narcotic, or controlled substance in any form. It was a rare instance when I took part in consuming such substances in public. Sure, some had their suspicions but they never voiced them to me. That was just the way I liked it — always keep them guessing.

Now Andy, he had been asking, begging, nagging, and being a downright pain in the ass to accompany me on a run. If it wasn’t for my ex-wife and her mouth of a thousand truths, he would have never even known my vocation. However, when she doesn’t get her way, which according to her is never, every bit of information that can be in anyway harmful to me, she spills. It doesn’t matter where or in front of whom, she reveals privileged and damaging information. In one case, Andy happened to be present during one of her ranting testimonials. Since then, Andy has been a fucking pest. So I allowed him to join me on this mission to Culiacan, Mexico to pick up two hundred pounds of Marijuana, then back across the border loaded down.

I don’t like these border runs myself, but every once in a while, you get chosen, asked, told by “El Jefe” (The Chief) to make one as a favor. It pays very well, and usually Border Patrol has been taken care of ahead of time, guaranteeing safe passage across the border. You’re on your own after that.

We’re crossing at Naco, about eleven miles or so south of Bisbee, Arizona. It is a small border station, manned by only three or four guards, and is less crowded than the Nogales or Douglas crossings. I’m familiar with most of the border patrol officers at this station and have been entering the United States through here for ten years. I am not going to inform Andy of any of this information, however. Figured I’d just let him sweat it out instead.

We’re driving a Ford F-250 pickup with reinforced suspension so the ass end wouldn’t be dragging from the weight of the load. There’s a false bed that has every available inch packed with kilos. Besides the marijuana, we’re carrying close to one hundred and fifty watermelons. It’s back breaking work to unload each individual watermelon to search beneath them. It’s approximately 103 degrees and the sun is brutally scorching the Sonoran Desert countryside. Can’t think of anyone that would want the task of emptying the bed in this heat.

I slide over and switch places with obnoxious Andy, slipping in behind the steering wheel. We’re five or six cars in back of the line to be inspected.

“What the fuck are we gonna do, man?” he asks with a quaver in his voice. “Do we skip out and run?”

“No, fuckstick. First, calm down! You’re so nervous, your shaking is rocking the entire truck. Just have your visa, passport, and Arizona driver’s license ready. Don’t wanna be rummaging around for that shit at the border, in front of the guards.”

I have my own documents ready at hand: the truck’s registration, insurance, and produce certification all safely packed in one envelope and ready for inspection. I am a professional, after all.

“Now, they’re gonna ask your citizenship. Answer United States, don’t say American.”

“Why not?” he asks. “I am an American.”

“And so are Canadians, Mexicans, Hondurans, Colombians, and a few million more people from any country in North, Central, or South America. Do you get it, dumbshit? Just do what I say and don’t give me any bullshit. Okay?”

“Don’t hand them any documents unless they ask for them, then comply with their request, ya got it? And for Christ’s sake, please stop shaking and looking around. You’re acting all squirrelly and drawing attention to yourself, which looks suspicious, so stop it!”

I turn off the AC, roll down the window, and instruct Andy to do the same. He’s sweating like someone who’s just run a marathon. His shirt is soaked with perspiration. The heat outside instantly pervades the inside of the cab, and soon I am sweating too.

“How are you so calm, man? You aren’t nervous or worried at all?”

“Of course I am, but I figure the worst thing that can happen is going to prison, and there’s three meals a day, a bed, television, arts and crafts, and plenty of guys for establishing new friendships. Shit, sounds so good I just might turn us in! I’m due for a vacation.”

“Don’t fuck around, we’re gonna be okay, right?”

“Only if you straighten up, get your act together, and find some fucking balls.”

We pull into the receiving area and a Border Patrol officer walks up to the window. An Arizona Highway Patrolman sits in his cruiser nearby, notices me and gives a wave. I recognize the officer, Carl Jenkins from Bisbee. I don’t wave back so as not to bring any attention to our familiar relationship.

“Well, what do ya know,” the Border Patrol officer says as he walks up to my window. “Look who decided to honor us with his presence. Are you lost, Santiago, or do have some legitimate reason for showing up in these parts?”

I’ve known Officer Rick Larson since he started as a cop back in Tucson, eight years ago. He’s always been on the take since day one, shaking down drivers for cash to let them go from a traffic citation that in most cases they didn’t deserve in the first place.

“Well, Officer Larson, figured you were missing my company, so I thought I’d stop by and see how you were getting along.”

“What you got in back there? Watermelons, huh. Sure do love me some watermelon, so do my kids.”

“Just trying to make a little extra money,” I tell him. “Gonna sell these at the Swap Meet this weekend.”

“Uh huh, I certainly imagine that’s so!” Officer Rick says with a sarcastic grin.

“Why don’t you grab a couple for your family and the other officers, as well as the State Cop as my gift from Mexico. Hey, by the way, did you get your birthday present from my cousin in Sinaloa?”

“Yes, I received the gift, quite generous. The watermelon is a nice offering, I’ll surely take you up on your offer and grab a few. And your nervous passenger there, looking like a deer in headlights — is he your partner here in this little watermelon roundup?”

“Yeah, that’s Andy. He’s been worried about the sun baking the melons, over-ripening them and ruining their flavor.”

“I’m sure that’s the reason,” Officer Rick says. “Be careful up ahead, there’s a speed trap on Highway 80 just before Tombstone. Have a safe trip.”

And with that, he waves us through.

“Thank you Officer!” I call out the window, after they have grabbed about six watermelons.

“You son of a bitch,” Andy says. “You knew it had been arranged ahead of time all along, that the cops had been paid off in advance, and you just let me freak out back there!”

“First of all,” I tell him, “my mother is not a bitch. She is a very nice lady. Secondly, I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Who paid what to whom, where, when, what? Man, you must think like this is like some TV show…”

He doesn’t have any response to that.

“Andy, best you forget all about our little watermelon run,” I continue. “These people do not fuck around. They’ll kill your dog, cat, children, wife, brothers, sisters — your whole entire fucking family, gone. They leave you alive until last, so you can live with the guilt of having caused their deaths. Then, when you least expect it, BOOM just like lightning you’re dead.”

There’s over 95 kilos (200 pounds) of some high-grade Mexican weed in the false bed of the pickup. It’s got dual gas tanks, so I’m sure one of them is packed with pot as well as the spare tire. No vacant area or empty cavity has been left unpacked with contraband. Now, a rookie working the run would expect payment for only the original 95 kilos. However, the seasoned veteran knows the “trucos” (tricks) that these traficantes employ. There’s probably an extra 35 to 50 kilos hidden away that they assume you’re not aware of and will not have to pay you for. That is somewhere around another 100 pounds of salable product, give or take.

When I am hired on for an undertaking such as this, I always prefer to get compensated per package instead of the entire load. It always works in the wheelman’s favor to request that type of compensation. Otherwise, they may throw some cocaine in with the load, maybe some speed, ice, crack, or any variety of prescription drugs as well. Some knock-off watches, clothing, shoes, purses, and all types of extra shit that you are basically transporting for free. I name my terms of the contract, and because of my sterling reputation, seldom is there any protest.

They’d originally offered me the run at $30.00 per pound. Over the border runs are much more risky than a standard one, however. There are so many other factors that could come into play and contribute to a tragic outcome. “Nunca” (never) accept the first offer if you’ve been employed by the organization for a reasonable length of time or have a strong, righteous relationship. My price was $50.00 per pound or a discount at $100 per kilo, which El Jefe readily accepted, and we drank a shot of Mescal to the agreement. Roughly calculated, it came out to around $15,000 in profit, including the hidden stuff. Most of the produce would be donated to the Tucson Community Food Bank and Salvation Army.

“Hey Santi,” Andy says, “I don’t need to get paid for coming along with you. And as I told ya before the trip, I won’t say anything to anybody, I promise.”

“I don’t remember offering any kind of payment,” I reply. “Tell ya what, I’ll throw a couple pounds your way as a gift for your company and towards hoping I never have to spend this much time with you ever again! You drive me out of my fucking mind. You’re like a child with all your dumb questions and stupid comments!”

“Sorry,” Andy says, “didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe we could stop in Tombstone for something to eat and a couple of beers. What do ya say?”

“Maybe I should just drop your ass of in Tombstone and be done with you. We’re an hour and a half from Tucson, seventy miles or so, and you wanna stop for food and beer? Best keep to selling nickelbags, Andy. No, I am not going to stop for lunch and especially not for fucking beer! I’m working, understand? We’ll need to stop for gas soon, and when we do, you can grab something from the station.”

“Jesus Christ, ya don’t have to holler…”

“Don’t use the name of other people’s deities in vain. And how many times have I told you, no drinking or drugs while on the clock?”

“Your clock is always runnin’, man. It sucks!”

I pretend to slap at him in anger but end up laughing instead. He starts yucking it up as well.

We reach Tucson and I drop him off at 1st and Prince, near his house. No way I was taking him to the drop house with me. The Mexicans there would cut my balls off and use them in albondigas soup. I was going to have to backtrack to Pueblo Gardens at 36th and Campbell. Thought it would be best not to drive immediately to my destination, just in case I had been tailed. Also, this kept Andy from putting together any clues himself.

“Hey Andy,” I say as he gets out of the truck. “Grab a couple of watermelons for your girlfriend and her kids. I’ll give ya a call tomorrow, concerning your compensation that we talked about. Okay?”

“Yeah, but what about the pot you said you’d lay on me?”

“Really? I will call ya tomorrow.”

He walks off with a watermelon under each arm.

As I drive away, I notice his ID and other items still sitting on the dash. I shake my head in disbelief and throw it all into the glove box.

He got busted three days later with the kilo I gave him, selling half a pound to an undercover cop.

Who didn’t see that one coming?

Jesse Rawlins

The Girl Next Door

Seven heists in seven days—in seven different cities. And Danny O’Day felt amped as he wheeled the clacking Samsonite up the brownstone steps. Twenty-five rigorous years in business, and he’d just stolen his last paintings. Fuck, yeah, hallelujah. Only forty-three—and officially retired.

He entered the marbled foyer: where his eyes embraced a series of extraordinary curves ….

“Hey—look who’s back.”

She’d lived across the hall for six months now. Only twenty-six. And he didn’t see her often. But Danny had a type. And knew that he was smitten.

“Indeed I am. So how ’bout dinner? My place? Eight o’clock?”

“Yes, yes, and yes—but right now I need to run.”

Danny didn’t believe in kismet. But he couldn’t combat the notion that the two shared something cosmic. While both Chicago natives, here they were in Boston. And beyond that he discovered, they read the same authors. Enjoyed the same movies. Even hated the same foods.

But sometimes he felt eerie: some strange sense of deja vu. And oddly, Danny noticed … she never spoke his name.

***

Danny read the New York Times: where he’d made the news again. Back in ’95 the FBI dubbed him Houdini—he made paintings disappear—then disappeared himself. The press loved the moniker. And the silly name had stuck. But just like he suspected, the piece proved short on facts.

Since he’d been out-of-town for weeks, Danny knew the fridge stood empty. Deciding to cook a pot roast (along with all the fixin’s), he snagged a cab to Muldoon’s Market. Besides selecting a prime roast, he grinned wickedly at the high school clerk, and asked for a box of lambskins.

“And what dish would you cook with lambskins” she asked, her cheeks still burning crimson.

“The kind you heat with your eyes—and eat on the kitchen floor.”

Though Danny felt confident with women … he knew nothing about relationships. There’d only been one girl he’d slept with more than once. They’d dated for two years. But that day when she discovered her boyfriend was a thief? She dropped his sorry ass like a bloody hot TV.

Jilted over ethics, rather than see her every day, Danny ditched school as well. He would’ve rather wanked his carrot then spend prom night with some floozy … like Donna “Wanna” Johnson—better known as Carrot Top (not just for her orange hair). So before the year was over, he boosted a car and drove to Boston—where he hooked up with a crew.

He’d never returned to the Windy City. But inevitably (so it seemed) every woman he’d ever bedded bore a semblance to her.

***

Danny answered her firm knock at eight o’clock sharp—

Goodbye, girl next door. Hello, slinky minx. No dull flannels or denim blues tonight. A spaghetti-strap blouse of silky cherry red perfectly matched her lipstick, and enlivened her brown eyes. Danny leaned in … and kissed one rouged cheek. Which afforded a tourist’s view of yawning blue-veined cleavage—a canyon that surely put Arizona’s grand to shame. Right hand tucked below the waistband of her taut black pencil skirt, he guided her to the dining room: her modest four-inch pumps tapping a sultry rhythm on his oak hardwood floors.

Seating her at the table, he laid a hand on her shoulder. Ultra-sensitive touch was one of Danny’s many skills. And letting his fingers graze the hollow (at the conclave of her throat) he detected the slightest flinch; a sudden flutter in her pulse …. Though she garnered her composure: caught his gaze and smiled.

He’d encountered this before—in women that men had battered. Perhaps a secret reason why she’d left Chicago.

They went easy on the wine, but remained relaxed through dinner. Though just as he intended, she couldn’t stop glancing at the boxes he’d arranged on the table to her left.

They’d played this game before.

And she quite enjoyed the ritual.

Meanwhile he tried his damndest to stop glancing at her tits.

***

As Danny made and served espresso, she opened each white box; and smiling … but almost teary-eyed—lined each snow globe on the table.

Brattleboro, Vermont.

Rochester, New York.

Gary, Indiana.

Biloxi, Mississippi.

Hartford, Connecticut.

Baltimore, Maryland.

Buffalo, New York.

Mementos from seven cities. In the order he’d pulled the heists.

“Thinking of snow, I’ve leased a suite in Amsterdam overlooking the Amstel River. I’m flying there for Christmas. And I won’t be coming back. I know it’s rather sudden—but I’m hoping you might join me. And at the very least, perhaps, stay thru New Year’s Day.”

She briefly touched his hand; he marveled at its heat.

“I think if you’ll excuse me … I need to use your bathroom.”

He pondered her response; watched her navigate the hallway.

Just his imagination? Or was the poor girl reeling? He fingered the lambskins in his pocket. And wished he could steal her heart as easily as a painting. He heard the toilet flush. But then five minutes passed … his hopes slipping with them.

“O’Day!”

Startled he stared down the hall.

Propped in his bedroom doorway—

She wagged a beckoning finger … and twirled her lacy black bra.

Dear sweet wonderful Jesus. She’d finally said his name.

Yeah, she’d used his last name. But, hey, it was a start.

Springing from his chair, he tripped on the maple table leg … mother fucker… and fought the urge to run.

Finally scooping her by the ass, Daniel O’ Happy Day ran his tongue across her neck, and set her on the bed. What a way to start retirement.

Clawing at his shirt … Danielle shoved him on his back. Zing—she whipped off his belt, and lashed him to the headboard. Panting, she straddled his waist. And hiked that pencil skirt. Eyes tracing those milky-white legs, Danny’s eye popped. Enviously nestled on her glorious right thigh perched a black lace bulldog holster.

And rather than flashing her top, she slid a sleek Beretta artfully from that holster—and flashed a badge instead.

“Tell me Houdini,” she gulped—swiping her wet neck with a Kleenex.

“Was that any way to treat your daughter?”

Austin James

Flare-Up

There’s blood in the spider ivy by the bay window when Dale gets home. Blood splotches on the jamb, blots on the carpet. Boisterous blood drowning out the mechanical drone of television from another room.

“Charlie?!”

“Dad?” an adolescent voice calls from the bathroom.

Dale drops his hardhat and lunchbox, hurrying to the bathroom. His son’s sitting on the edge of the tub, naked, back to his father, ankle deep in lukewarm bathwater. It smells like raw porkchops turning seasick green. “Charlie? What’s wrong?”

“The armpit rash,” Charlie says, speaking towards the pale tiled shower wall.

“From that new deodorant?”

Charlie twists towards his father, his torso warped with blood and abscesses. A deep hole stretches from chest to shoulder, exposing muscle and sinew.

“Oh my God, son!”

“It started burning so I tried to open a window to air it out, but it’s getting worse.”

Dale flips on the shower. “Rinse it off, we’ve got to get you to the hospital!” He reaches for his phone, but it’s not in his pocket. Fuck. The lunchbox, it’s still in the lunchbox. “I’m calling an ambulance.” He scrambles to his lunchbox, fumbling with the piece-of-shit latch that hasn’t worked right since he dropped a hammer on it a few years back.

Come on, open! You fucking thing.

He crushes it open, lunch wrappers spilling out onto the matted carpet. He snags his cell phone, slams the 9-1-1 emergency call button.

Beep—beep—beep.

Fucking busy signal?!

Charlie screams—a hideous squeal. Dale crashes back into the bathroom, finding his son squatting and whimpering in the tub. The armpit rot’s spreading, revealing bare shoulder bone, flesh turning putrid and flaking away, muscles withering and peeling from tendons like carved meat.

“We’ve got to get you to the ER,” Dale says, grabbing a nearby towel. “Come on.” He pulls Charlie to his feet, fetid skin shifting when touched like it’s a sheet draped over muscles, and helps him pass the barrier of the tub, cold shower ricocheting everywhere, fleshy pulp spattering all over the walls, floor, ceiling—morsels of his little boy dripping from Dale’s face.

Portions of ribcage start to show, seeping pus and muscle mucous. Chunks of Charlie flopping into the water below.

Dale’s stomach whips as he covers Charlie in the towel, wrapping tightly to keep his body from crumbling. The rot has already crept up his neck, part of his jawbone now visible. They hustle past the spilt lunchbox towards the door, towards the old Chevy work truck, towards help—Charlie slowing with each step.

“Dad?” Charlie’s voice sizzles, his breath like vocal cord decay.

“It’ll be okay son, you’ll be okay!”

Slices of Charlie’s scalp shed from his skull, bloody crumbs of cartilage from his nose and ears stick to the towel. His legs stop responding as the rot rips towards his feet. Dale drags his son towards the door. “Come on, Charlie. Stay with me!” Charlie doesn’t respond. Teeth tumble from his mouth, flesh drizzles off his fingers.

Dale’s dragging a corpse by the time they get to the entryway.

“Charlie?” he yelps, eyes gushing with grief. He coils into a fetal crouch near Charlie’s body as the world twists and compresses, strangling the breath from his lungs. Bile and stomach acid surge up his throat, rupturing from his mouth.

Dale pleads to his God.

Wrapped in tears, blood, and vomit.

Until the tingling on his palms start to burn. Carnage and boils consume his hands, skin-rot sinkholes slashing through intrinsic muscles and tendons. He sways to his feet, towards his Chevy, towards the hospital—ignorant to the newscaster’s warning from the TV in another room.

…pheromone-induced chemical reaction to a new deodorant product…flesh-eating fungus…highly contagious…hospitals overwhelmed…stay inside…keep away from others…

Charles Austin Muir

THE TIME I ROLLED WITH THE PRINCE OF DENMARK AND WE TOOK IT RIGHT INTO THE DANGER ZONE

The best thing about immortality is knowing you’ll never lose your edge when you ride into the danger zone.

Not that Princess Ardala, commander of the flagship Draconia, knows this fact. I never told her I’m immortal. Nor did I expose Her Highness—given her contempt for ancient entertainment—to any of my favorite old-school jams. In particular, the Kenny Loggins hit single off the Top Gun movie soundtrack released in 1986, “Danger Zone.”

The princess won’t watch Top Gun, either, one of the greatest cinematic events in Earth’s history. She’s pretty snooty for a glorified space pirate.

And to think I called her my boo. Not only does Princess Ardala dump me in front of Tigerman, her bodyguard, she wants to kill my main man and me by ejecting us into the void.

While we wait for her to send us off—as if space can harm two straight up superhumans—I squeeze the clutch and turn on my Kawasaki Hyperspace Ninja. The newly upgraded, superluminal motorcycle hums to life.

“You and that silly conveyance.” The princess gets one last dig in over the airlock speaker. “Well, we’ll always have New Paris. Farewell, Pete Mitchell. Kane—you may open the outer hatch.”

It’s time. Behind me, my main man, Ham Dogg, the Prince of Denmark, wraps his arms around my waist.

“To what dreams may come,” he says.

“For shizzle, Ham-Dizzle. And in case I never told you before… I love you.”

I throttle the hyper drive engine and shift into first gear. Kane releases us to the blackness of space.

Like Kenny Loggins, we take ourselves right into the danger zone.

***

Speaking of Kenny Loggins, here is how I ended up on a pirate spaceship in the year 2491.

My journey to the stars began in the year 2019. I, Pete Mitchell, was riding my newly restored Kawasaki Ninja GPz900R on I-5, through Portland, Oregon, when I saw a minivan driver flip off a pickup truck driver who had cut her off. Eager to bust a cap in misogyny’s ass, I told myself, “Pete, here is someone who needs to know not all the men in the world are hyper-aggressive scumbags.”

I switched from the fast to slow lane and pulled up alongside the fuming, middle-aged woman. I meant to tell her: “Ma’am, that man is a disgrace to the International Pickup Truck Consortium for Human Decency. I’m going to place him under citizen’s arrest and report him to the consortium.”

Unfortunately, to my eternal shame, I flipped the driver off instead. I gave her the bird for several seconds, too, like actor Tom Cruise as Maverick flying inverted above the MiG fighter pilot in the opening dogfight scene in Top Gun.

“Here ya go, pig-face,” I shouted, through the woman’s passenger-side window. “LET’S SEE HOW YOU LIKE IT!!!” A total dick move. And decidedly not a win for Bros Against Misogyny (a campaign I supported on behalf of the International Bros Consortium for Human Decency).

I couldn’t help myself, though. I felt as if I’d been possessed by a demon that sounded like Kenny Loggins barking orders inside my head. Which humbled me for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, and disturbed me because I enjoyed Kenny Loggins’s music.

As you might imagine, my gesture did not sit well with either the International Motorcycle Consortium for Human Decency or the International Bros Consortium for Human Decency. After their investigations, I lost my IMCHD and IBCHD voting privileges, my access to IMCHD and IBCHD events and activities, and my IMCHD and IBCHD real-estate holdings. My fellow riders and even many of my fellow bros ceased to acknowledge me.

My grandfather—who was also banished for harassing a motorist, albeit before the founding of the IBCHD—used to call the highway “The Great Lonesome.” Now, I understood why.

An outcast, I rode across America for the next six years. Desperately, I sought an expert to cure the neurological disorder that made me flip people off and taunt them in response to an inner voice that sounded like Kenny Loggins. I had always known the condition prevailed on my dad’s side of the family. But, being told I looked like Tom Cruise all my life, I figured I was too slick to inherit such a weird, self-sabotaging disorder. Talk about a lesson in making assumptions.

My vagabond lifestyle proved a grim one-eighty from the hellraising, high-fiving life I had once led. Thankfully, my fortune shifted when I met my main man, Ham Dogg, the Prince of Denmark. I had outrun a biker gang that didn’t appreciate being taunted by me when I ducked into a bar and saw Hamlet at the counter, staring into his beer. We were in a dusty little burg called Higgledy Piggledy, South Dakota.

Blue-eyed, bearded, and brooding, the handsome patron looked like movie star Mel Gibson with a Caesar-like haircut. I took his presence there as a sign we were meant to become the closest of homeboys. I ordered two cold ones and sat beside him.

“Thanks for the replenishment,” he said, in an English accent. “But… do I know you?”

“Nah. I know you, though. You’re Mel Gibson, right? I’m a big, big fan. I’ve seen I Never Promised You a Rose Garden one-hundred-and-twenty-nine times.”

“Hmm, I’m sorry to disappoint you, sir, but I am not Mel Gibson. My name is Hamlet.”

“As in, ‘To be or not to be’ Hamlet?”

“That is the obvious quote, but yes. And you are?”

“Pete Mitchell. My parents named me after Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun.”

Intrigued by the title, Hamlet admitted he had never seen the movie that inspired me to become a ruggedly individualistic motorcycle studmuffin. He had seen Tom Cruise’s earlier movie though, Losin’ It, one-hundred-and-twenty-nine times.

With his eager permission—and over the noise of locals discussing the upcoming International Tractor Consortium for Human Decency rally—I gave the prince a thorough plot synopsis of director Tony Scott’s turbo-charged, aviation thriller. He teared up when I told him about Maverick’s main man, Goose, losing his life in a training engagement. “Alas, poor Goose,” he said, squeezing my leg.

Hamlet excused himself to hit the head. When he came back, he looked extra brooding, like Mel Gibson giving the famous “To be or not to be” speech in director Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about him (which I had seen, but had to watch again later to compare with the real deal). We toasted our luck meeting each other in a bar in Higgledy Piggledy, South Dakota.

“Pete, you’re my new main man,” my new main man said, leaning in. “So I feel there is something I should tell you.”

“Anything, Ham Doggy Dogg.”

“I am immortal.”

I almost spit my beer up. “Come on, homes, I’ve read the play. You spend all your time pondering your mortality.”

Hamlet shrugged. “I know. Stupid, right? Now I spend all my time pondering my immortality. But the reason I’m coming out to you like this is because pondering my immortality nonstop can become unbearably lonely. For centuries, I’ve been searching for someone companionable and—well, mobile enough, to join me as I wander the earth thinking about what it means to not die. On my father’s grave, Pete, I swear I would give you immortality for your company on my peregrinations. Would you accept this?”

“Hells yeah!”

“Then drink this.” The prince pulled a vial of pinkish liquid from his fanny pack. “It’s an experimental elixir I concocted to distract myself when my uncle forced me to consider killing him for poisoning my father. I thought it would help me speak with a Danish accent when thinking aloud in English… but instead, it made it impossible for me to not be. One sip of this potion, and you will not be able to not be, either.”

And that is the start of how I ended up on a pirate spaceship in the year 2491. Because life moves on a different time scale when you’re eternally youthful and roll with an over-analytical Hamlet who unintentionally arranged it so he can’t not be.

Unfortunately, my immortality did not eliminate my neurological disorder, but at least I had forever to find a cure for it, and, more importantly—with Hamlet’s support after fifty years of considering the matter—to fulfill my dream of jockeying jet fighters and graduating from TOPGUN.

It took us a hundred years, but once the prince and I got the hang of flying ultra-sophisticated military investments, we gained a reputation for being hell in the air and eventually in space. I just wished we’d gotten better call signs than “Bird Spasm” (for my compulsive hand gestures) and “Weird Caesar” (for Hamlet’s haircut).

For two centuries, on this world and beyond, we flew combat missions, macked on fly honeys, and whizzed around on my newly upgraded Kawasaki Sky Ninja. But finally, after the Darnivian Insurrection in the year 2390, we retired to Hamlet’s underground bunker outside Chicago.

Every summer, we traveled the country on my self-repairing, fuel-recycling, flightworthy motorcycle. Other than a “bird spasm” that struck me in a biker bar in Zip-A-Dee-Ay, Nebraska, nothing much happened on these trips, although we did manage to see the Kenny Loggins Museum. I still appreciated the man’s music, despite my inner voice.

Our road trips ended shortly after the biker bar incident. My main man and I spent the next fifty-five years hangin’ in the bowels of the underground bunker.

Hamlet converted the garage into a science laboratory. His experiments saved him from the gloomy meditations he had cherished before he became sharp-witted radar intercept officer, “Weird Caesar.” As for me, I felt sad that I no longer had anyone to subject to my “bird spasms” except my main man and the walls of our domicile.

I got to thinking about this, because being sad about not bullying people is messed up.

After months of researching my family history, while Hamlet tinkered with a Losin’ It-themed lunchbox that took pictures, I came to this conclusion:

I don’t have a neurological disorder that afflicts men on my dad’s side of the family. I have a rogue element inside me that randomly takes over and acts like a dick. From what I can tell, all the Mitchell men carry this rogue element inside them.

It shows up shortly before middle age. Something about this stage of life triggers feelings of inadequacy that cause us to lash out at others. To take the blame off ourselves, we turn these feelings into a sort of evil spirit that commands us in the voice of someone famous. My great-grandfather, Dr. Atticus Mitchell, took our frontin’ a step further by attributing his John-Wayne-prompted outbursts to a hereditary neurological disorder. And so we’ve been framing our bad behavior ever since.

When I told Hamlet my theory, he took my picture with his lunchbox and showed me how enlightened I looked.

“Look, Pete,” he said. “Not to sound harsh, because you’re my main man and all, but I’ve always known you’re kind of a dick. That’s great you’ve finally realized it yourself, though. It looks like being cooped up in this place has been good for you. For me, too, actually. It’s funny… since we stopped our adventures, you’ve become more reflective while I’ve become more active. And now you’ve learned what you needed to and I’ve had my fill of inventing crap inspired by movies no one’s heard of. Maybe this means our work is done here.”

“So what? We join the Space Marines and—”

“Come on, Pete, we’ve seen enough war, haven’t we? I feel we should take on a creative project. And I have just the idea for it. If done well, we could fatten our bank account and help you get over your ambivalence toward Kenny Loggins… given your behavioral problem.”

“All right. Hit me, Ham Deezy.”

“We form a Kenny Loggins cover band.”

“Oh snap, homes. Right on!”

It took us thirty-five years to arrange our Kenny Loggins routine. But once we got the hang of harmonizing, we became hell at paying tribute to the singer-songwriter behind some of the most iconic movie songs of the 1980s. When the “Kenny Log Clones” hit the big time, all of civilized Earth would cut loose like in Kenny Loggins’s hit single, “Footloose.”

That was our dream, anyway. We found out the universe had different plans when we headed for Chicago.

For one thing, there was no Chicago anymore, only an urban ruins. For another, the streets teemed with badly burned, subhuman creatures that pelted us with rubble. They didn’t do much damage, seeing as my motorcycle repaired itself and my main man and I couldn’t shuffle off this mortal coil. Still, this was not how the Kenny Log Clones wanted to kick off its open mic tour.

Hamlet pointed at a city shining in the distance. Switching the bike to aerial mode, I got us to the city limits lickety-split. Outside the dome, a guard in a sky car escorted us inside.

“Perchance to dream,” Hamlet said, while we gawked at the towering spires, serpentine monorails and fountains of dancing light all around us. The city looked the way twentieth-century special effects artists imagined future cities would look.

Our escort led us to a building shaped like one end of a half-pipe. On the rooftop, we were met by Dr. Elias Huer, Colonel Wilma Deering, and Twiki, a child-sized robot. They welcomed us on behalf of the Earth Defense Directorate. They were shocked to discover we’d had no idea a nuclear war had ravaged the entire planet while we were down in the bunker honing our Kenny Loggins routine. Our magnificent surroundings, “New Chicago,” numbered among a handful of domed cites that had been constructed after the holocaust.

I took the news with due seriousness. Secretly though, I couldn’t help but laugh… because what a way for humanity to produce a dystopia. With a few nukes, it had recreated the premise of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a film and television show I had watched in the ancient times via endlessly syndicated reruns. It was as though my ten-year-old self were writing this story.

With that said, please don’t think I failed to see the enormity of the most devastating war in human history. I just wanted to direct my energy toward happier thoughts.

Because there we were, a Danish prince and a Tom Cruise look-alike with a futuristic Top Gun motorcycle, in a Buck Rogers future with an opportunity to introduce the Kenny Log Clones to a post-apocalyptic population. If there was one good thing about our time in the bunker, it was that we had strengthened and composed ourselves for just this sort of scenario. My main man and I wanted only one thing, now: To make New Chicago cut footloose.

Unfortunately, my inner voice still took control sometimes. It was on a luxury sky liner, popping out from behind Hamlet to serenade Wilma Deering with “That Lovin’ Feelin’”—like Maverick does to Charlie in Top Gun—that I told the colonel she looked like she wore a fat suit painted to look like a metallic, purple jump suit. As a result, Colonel Deering schooled me in the art of face-planting with her metallic, purple stiletto boots.

Needless to say, my action did not sit well with either the Earth Luxury Sky Liner Consortium for Human Decency or the Earth Defense Directorate. Captain Buck Rogers ordered us to return to the mutant-haunted, radioactive wastes beyond the dome. Rather than head back to the bunker, however, Hamlet and I decided to visit the lunar colonies. Using parts he salvaged from bombed-out “Old Chicago,” he upgraded my Sky Ninja into a Space Ninja.

Halfway to Luna, the Draconian space pirates seized us during a stop on a gentlemen’s star liner. Kane took Hamlet in as his drinking partner, and Princess Ardala made me her boy toy. She adored my obscene outbursts against her.

Around this time, I discovered something else about myself: I have a contrary, rebellious streak. Go figure. At the height of our romance, my Kenny Loggins voice told me to do a one-eighty with the princess. The moment I massaged her royal shoulders and said, “I love you, boo,” I knew Hamlet and I were going to get kicked to the space curb.

“Sorry about that, Ham-my-man,” I said, moments before the princess got her dig in about my motorcycle.

“That’s all right, Pete Mizzle Dizzle.”

And now we’re caught up with my story, living in the present moment again.

Taking it right into the danger zone.

***

Whizzing around in hyperspace—AKA the danger zone—presents hazards unique to the adventurous interstellar motorcyclist. Good thing I’m hell with a sport bike, even a Space Ninja that has been upgraded to a Hyperspace Ninja, thanks to Hamlet’s appropriation of Draconian hyper drive tech while Kane slept off his hangovers.

A spill in hyperspace won’t seriously harm us, considering our unable-to-not-be status, but a mistake could kill the Faster-Than-Light-Speed buzz.

The prince and I are racing through fields of pulsating, multi-colored light. The bike’s hyper drive engine sends vibrations that shoot up my thighs to the top of my skull. I am simultaneously at war and in harmony with the upholstery, handlebars, and foot pegs shaking against me with superluminal acceleration. And why wouldn’t we speed up? We’re riding the ultimate crotch rocket, not some dingy old space tug. With my main man, Ham Dogg, the Prince of Denmark, hugging me tight, I shift up to sixth gear and see just how close we can get to the walls of the throbbing light vortex.

God, this feels good.

For extra dopeness, I hold a wheelie on the final stretch. One click of the Normal 3-D Space button and we jump into… wherever we are.

And what do we have here? Looks like Earth.

Must be an alternate version. And what will we find on the surface? Armies of talking apes? Biker gangs roaming a desert wasteland? Hardened criminals in a maximum-security prison formerly known as Manhattan Island? Some other recreation of a Seventies or Eighties science-fiction movie? Whatever awaits us, the Kenny Log Clones are going to make the world a nicer place. Because no matter what Earth you inhabit, you can always use more of Kenny Loggins’s music in your life.

We are descending into the planet’s atmosphere, now. Thanks for listening to me, homeboys and homegirls and other homepeople. You’re the best.

And in case I never told you before… I love you.

Otis Fuqua

Dish by Dish

The entire point of dishwashing is to do so in peace. Being a good dishwasher means focusing on the dishes, and nothing else. I was good at it. So dish by dish, I forgot to hate her. By the time of the Christmas roasting trays, I was thinking of moving out of our old place. By the time of the Valentine’s Day champagne glasses, I’d moved.

I’d moved into my co-worker Jeff’s closet. It was yellow and smelled like bugs. If I wanted to sleep, I had to lay diagonally. It was hell. I never said anything about it to Jeff, but looking back, it’s amazing I put up with it.

Jeff was my dishwashing partner at the restaurant. He put the dishes away after I cleaned them. We were supposed to switch jobs every once in a while but we didn’t. On my first day, Jeff told me he preferred to put dishes away. Not really thinking, I told him I preferred to clean. So that was that.

Sometimes, when there were no dishes, we leaned against the dishwasher, me on the dirty side, Jeff on the clean side. We chatted politics. Jeff was an anarchist. I was a socialist. We found this delightful to talk about.

When there were dishes, which was usually the case, we didn’t talk. We became one with the machine. We meditated to the mantra of dirty dishes in, clean dishes out. It was nice, thinking about just the one thing. Hours slipped by in what felt like minutes.

That’s how I forgot to hate her. I was halfway through washing a stand mixer caked in cookie dough. The sprayer wasn’t doing much. A chocolate chip came unwedged, and I remembered her. There was no good reason for it. She just popped into mind.

She was kneeling in the grass in front of the Washington Monument. I was sick. There were geese all around. They wanted to eat my vomit. She was rubbing my back, humming a song. Fly me to the moon. It was an important song for us. We danced to it often. Or maybe we only danced to it once. Either way, it felt like we were dancing to it all the time.

We were drinking a lot those days. That’s why I was sick. We’d filled travel mugs with rum and coke. I’d made up a drinking game based on the tourists. They were all taking the same photo, where they positioned the camera so it looked like they were touching the top of the monument. The game was, every time you saw one, you drank. She was cheating. I know because I looked in her mug when she went to the bathroom. It was full.

While I was thinking about this, the bowl of the stand mixer had filled up with water. I stuck both arms in. It came up to my elbows. Most people would’ve found the water scalding. They would’ve cried like little girls. To me, it felt like a warm bath. The image of her melted away.

“I hate that stupid bitch,” I said to Jeff.

Jeff raised the lever that opened the dishwasher. My glasses fogged with steam. I pushed the rack out the other side.

“Did you hear me?” I said. “I hate her.”

On our way home, we saw a homeless woman in the subway station. She was playing a kazoo. It sounded like she was speaking into it. It seemed like she was talking about the people in the station. Her hat was empty. I put a dollar in it. Jeff laughed when I did it.

“God bless you,” the woman said.

“He doesn’t believe in god,” Jeff said. “He believes in himself.”

The woman spat on Jeff’s shoes. They were shiny black work shoes.

Jeff laughed. “Free shoe shine,” he said.

When his back was turned I spat on the woman’s shoes. I felt bad about it though, so I gave her an extra quarter.

When we were on the street level, Jeff accused me of assuming the best of people.

“You don’t know that,” I said.

“You know she’s just gonna spend it on drugs,” he said.

We went to the weed store. Jeff bought a strain of indica. One hit of indica knocks me out. He bought it to shut me up. I’d been talking a lot. Ever since the stand mixer I’d been sort of stuck on her. Jeff liked to do back-handed things like that. Like he’d compliment my hair, even though we both knew it’s my worst attribute. Or he’d give you gum as a way of saying your breath smelled bad.

On a blackboard behind the counter, they’d written the specials. There was a sale on a strain of sativa called Bruce Banner. Next to it, someone had drawn an angry man tearing his shirt off. There were flames behind him. I bought a little.

“Will this make me mad?” I asked the budtender.

She squinted at me. She had a tattoo on her forehead of a lotus flower.

“Super,” she said. Her voice sounded stupid and far away. “Suuuuper.”

I wanted to kiss her stupid mouth.

Jeff and I smoked on the fire escape. I was always a little stressed smoking on the fire escape. We had to be careful not to drop anything.

There was a gentle breeze. The sky was pink. There was a group of kids playing basketball down in the courtyard.

We smoked out of Jeff’s bong. He tried to get me to smoke some of his indica.

“Not today,” I said.

Jeff went into his phone. It was his way of telling me to stop talking. I guess I’d been talking a lot about her. He smoked. When he was done he went inside.

I loaded my bowl and sat. I thought about the person living on the floor below. It smelled like garlic down there. Who was cooking for who, I wondered, and were they about to split up.

Bruce Banner burned all at once. It made my eyes water. I got paranoid. The kids playing basketball laughed. A police siren in the distance got louder. These were the things I was paranoid about. My hands were shaking. I felt cold. This happens to me when I’m paranoid.

The day she left me was the day before my birthday. I was sleeping on the couch. She shook me awake and there she was, suitcases all packed. The TV was flashing behind her. There was a nature documentary on. All these baby sea turtles were racing across the sand. A big yellow crab was trying to get them. They had to get to the ocean before it gobbled them up or something. She put her key on the coffee table. She said something at the door. It was important. She stopped and turned around to say it.

It blind-sided me, her leaving. I had tickets for us to go to the circus the next day. She’d said she was excited.

Jeff put on some music. The bass made the fire escape rattle a little. The vibrations shook the water in the bong. It was a big nasty thing. The glass was coated in brown slime. Little flecks of ash stuck to the stuff. Jeff said it was impossible to clean, but a little salt and rubbing alcohol would’ve taken care of it. Maybe I’ll clean it, I thought. Then I threw it off the fire escape.

Matthew Licht

yellogirl 2

A Hard Case (Part 6)

The scene was macabre. A beautiful woman held prisoner by the book in her lap.

“This some new kind of torture?”

The guy who’d led me into Project X HQ hadn’t taken my gun. No security goons had appeared. No cameras whirred, no hot lights shone, no microphones listened in, or at least it didn’t feel that way.

“Are you kidding? She barged in here and offered us a cool grand if we’d take her on,” he said. “We don’t usually go for mercenaries, but we gave her a chance. We want performers with souls. The other outfits extrude more than enough feed for the masses. We go deeper.”

Doris Frawley looked up, annoyed. “This was supposed to be a break. If you’re going to talk, I’ll go read in the commissary.”

“Sorry, toots.” The man herded me through a door off to the side, into a small soundproofed room. “Take a seat,” he said. The director’s chair in the corner had a stack of books beside it. “Get ready for your scene.”

“What’m I supposed to do?”

“You’re the detective. Take all the time you need.” He closed the door, quietly.

At the top of the book-pile was Daniel Fuchs’ The Golden West, a love song to Los Angeles. Happiness radiated from solid blocks of print that looked like home.

A woman with bright red hair stuck her head in the door, winked, and left me alone. That might’ve been some sort of movie-set signal. I ignored it, picked up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby Stories. Time passed seamlessly.

The light in the room dimmed a shade or two. Fresh air came in from an invisible window somewhere.

The crew had lost patience. The producer, or director, whatever he was, came back in. He tossed Jim Thompson’s Savage Night somewhat painfully. “Here. Give this the once-over, and then let’s go.”

Not a long story, but a hard one.

The light went all the way out.

Music oozed from under the wooden door, heavy on the vibraphones and drums. Doris Frawley knocked, entered, shimmied to where I was. She took my hand. We went out of the reading room into the light.

‘This is a dream,’ I thought, and then, ‘This isn’t a dream.’

Whatever we did on that blindingly lit set had purpose. It was up to us to find out what the action meant. We went deep, and then we went deeper. There was no bottom.

Someone yelled, “Cut!”

Doris didn’t even open her eyes. “We don’t want to cut,” she said. “We want to bring everything together.”

Whoever had the megaphone said, “Roll on!”

A Hard Case (Part 1)

A Hard Case (Part 2)

A Hard Case (Part 3)

A Hard Case (Part 4)

A Hard Case (Part 5)

James Babbs

Blue Silo

The blue silo looks like a rocket ship and, someday, I’m going to use it to fly myself to the moon. I want to go all the way to the moon so I can run across its surface and leap high into the air. I know it’s easy to do this since there isn’t as much gravity on the moon as there is here on Earth. I don’t think I’ll have any problem getting to the moon and I want to see all the abandoned equipment they’ve left up there. And I want to see the footprints from all the astronauts that have come before me. I want to put my feet in the same places where they walked and see how it feels. Maybe, I’ll stay there for a few weeks but, eventually, I want to go to Mars and start my own colony. I want to fuck a hundred different women and have babies with them all.

I have dreams about the blue silo. In the first dream the blue silo becomes a giant robot, suddenly, rising up from its moorings and moving across the earth. The robot lumbers across the land destroying some of the houses in its path by crushing them under its feet. The robot goes wherever it wants to go and even the military can’t stop it with all their powerful weapons. Throughout the course of the dream I chase after the robot trying to get its attention. I run alongside of it screaming and waving my arms. When I, finally, get the robot to notice me I plead with it to take me along and the robot reaches down for me but the dream always ends before the robot can pick me up.

In the second dream I can see the blue silo in the distance, rising up against the sky and I start walking toward it but no matter how far I go the blue silo never gets any closer. I walk across a barren field and feel the wind blowing cold against my face. Sometimes, I start walking through a corn field and it’s hot and the leaves of the corn scratch the skin on my arms. Sometimes, I come to a town and the people ask me what I’m doing. When I tell them I’m heading to the blue silo they shake their heads and laugh. I ask them what’s so funny about going to see the blue silo but they never answer me. They just keep laughing, some of them, throwing their heads back and roaring, their mouths looking like big gaping holes. It makes me angry and I storm off, while all the time seeing the blue silo in the distance, rising up against the sky.

In the last dream there is only darkness and I‘m stuck inside some kind of enclosed space. I’m buried inside some tiny little space and I can‘t move and it‘s hard for me to breathe. All the time I’m inside this small space I keep hearing voices but they’re only sounds and I don’t understand any of the words they‘re saying. But I try to answer them and my own voice comes out sounding muffled and strange. But then somebody calls my name and I’m, suddenly, able to move but the dream ends and I wake up.

***

I was sitting by the window when she came into the room. I was sitting there alone inside that dimly-lit room and I was laughing about nothing at all. She probably thought I was joking when she asked me what I was doing and I told her I was losing my mind. But my laughing had stopped without any kind of a warning and I stared into her face until she turned away. Suddenly, I felt like the connection between us was broken. I stood up and told her goodbye and that I didn‘t want to talk to her anymore. The words hung in the air between us before crashing to the floor. I thanked her and told her she was free to go.

But I didn’t leave the room. I just stood there not moving while she did the same. Finally, I laughed and started telling her about the blue silo again. I told her how I’d seen it rising up into the air. The way it looked against the wide open sky. The blue silo was a darker blue than the sky. I told her the sky only looked blue when it was empty. At other times the sky appeared white or looked kind of gray. The blue silo had probably been there for years I told her and I just hadn’t noticed it before. You know what silos are for, don’t you? I asked her, wondering what she would say. She was holding something in her hand and she glanced down at it then looked up at me again. Don’t you store grain in them? she said. Well, I told her, you’re probably thinking more of a grain bin. That’s something different. Most grain bins are round and kind of squat-looking and are usually made of corrugated metal. Silos are tall and sleek and have sides that are smooth.

I see, she said. Whether or not she really did I wasn’t certain. So, what goes into a silo?she asked me. She seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. Well, I said, a silo is made for storing silage. That’s something you harvest before it’s ripe. You put it in the silo and let it ferment and then you use it to feed your cattle. Like grass or something. Maybe corn stalks when they’re still green. I’m not sure.

Okay, she said. But, I told her, there are missile silos too and immediately I felt like I had revealed too much. But I didn’t stop, I kept going. I said, I think missile silos are usually under the ground. Then I stopped and looked out the window. She didn’t say anything and I didn’t know if she was waiting for me to continue or just thinking about the things I had already told her. Finally, I blurted out, I think the blue silo is full of memories.

I had turned from the window and was looking at her again. I saw a light in her eyes and it reminded me of a candle, its flame flickering in the breeze. Memories? she said. I watched her hand reach up and touch her chin. Why do you say that? she asked me and I tried to laugh again but the sound came out all wrong. I don’t know, I whispered.

Sometimes, I remembered a photograph of my father standing in front of the blue silo. An old photograph when he was a young man, probably, long before I was born. He wore a dark brown shirt and blue jeans with a green cap pulled down low on his head so I could barely see his eyes.

I had never told her about the photograph but I thought about it a lot. Especially, when I was by myself. I wondered if I had ever gone there, to that place in the photograph, where the blue silo existed. Had I ever been there when I was a boy? Had I ever touched the smooth side of the blue silo with my hands? Or did I ever lean against it and feel the warmth of the metal on my back after it had been heated by the sun?

I asked my mother a few times about the blue silo and I mentioned the photograph to her. But she always acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about. It could’ve been all the medication they had given to her or, maybe, she just didn’t remember. Or, there was the third possibility, the one I didn’t want to think about. That there wasn’t any photograph and there was never a blue silo and it was all something I had imagined. But I kept searching through the photo albums my mother kept stored in the spare bedroom. I kept looking at all those tired faces on all those people. Back then everyone looked so old even when they were young. I knew some of the people were supposed to be my family but I didn’t remember most of them.

In some of the photographs I saw someone who was supposed to be me but I felt like I didn’t have any connection to that blonde-haired boy in the pictures. I think they were just trying to fool me into believing something that wasn’t real. And the worst thing about it was not having any way to prove it one way or another. You just had to take everyone’s word for it and believe in all the things they were telling you. You could drive yourself crazy thinking about it all.

***

The blue silo is haunted. I hear terrible sounds when I’m walking around outside. I told her, when I was young, I saw a man fall into the blue silo but I never saw him come out again. It was a warm day in the middle of summer and children were laughing and playing in the orchard. I don’t know what happened but the man was just gone and no one talked about him after that. Everybody acted like he never even existed and when I asked my mother about the man she hushed me and told me to get ready for bed. I heard my mother crying in the next room as I took off my clothes and put on my Scooby Doo pajamas. What did your mother tell you? she asked me. Did she ever say anything to you about the man? I looked down at my hands. I don’t know, I said.

One day, when we were talking about the man again, I told her the man didn’t have a face. Are you sure? she asked me. What do you mean? I said. I think you saw the man’s face, she said. I looked at her and shook my head. No, I said. There was nothing there. She cupped her chin with one of her hands the way she did, sometimes, when she was thinking of something. But didn’t you look at the man’s face? she asked me. Yes, I said, but it was just a smooth surface like something made out of plastic. Maybe it wasn’t real. She looked at me. Are you saying a man didn’t really die? I felt tired. I said, I don’t know what I’m trying to say.

I told her I thought, maybe, somebody else died inside the blue silo. I told her it was a long time ago or, maybe, it was only yesterday or, it hadn‘t happened, yet. Then, I realized how strange that sounded and I just laughed. One day when I was tired of all her questions I told her I killed someone and stuffed them into the blue silo. I told her there were countless bodies in the blue silo and that I’d been doing terrible things for many years and I wouldn’t be caught until I was ready. She didn’t say anything but just looked at a spot somewhere above my head for the longest time.

***

When I was around ten years old I remember some older boys found me and asked me what I was doing. I was sitting on the front porch playing with my cars and waiting for my Mom to get home. But I didn’t tell the boys any of that. I just looked up at them. There were three of them. Denny was the leader and he was the one who asked me what I was doing. I told them nothing and then tried to act like I wasn‘t interested in them and went back to playing with my cars. I remember one of the cars was yellow and had flames painted on the side of it.

Well, Denny said, you’re gonna do something now and one of the other boys whose name was JJ, I think, stepped forward and said, yeah and when he did he shook his fist at me. Denny stood there while the other two boys came up on the porch and grabbed me by the arms. They pulled me down until I was standing in front of Denny. It was a hot day and I felt the sun hitting me in the face. Denny brought his face down close to mine and then he just laughed. I felt the sweat running down my back and into my underwear. I tried to get away but they dragged me to the blue silo and forced me to go inside. The boys shut me up in there and I heard them outside laughing. It was dark in there and the air was warm. Every time I breathed I smelled something sweet.

I knew they were waiting for me to scream. I knew they wanted me to beg them to let me out but I just stayed quiet with my eyes shut tight. It seemed like hours passed before they opened the door and asked me if I was okay. I almost laughed hearing the panic in their voices and it gave me a sense of power knowing how scared they were. I’d never felt anything like that before. I was curled up into a ball when they dragged me back out and let me go. I fell into the dirt near the blue silo and just laid there.

Hey, I heard Denny saying. Hey, shit, come on. You’re alright. Denny turned to the others. He’s alright, Denny said. Suddenly I leaped up and screamed and ran right at Denny. All three boys jumped back and started running away. I chased after them for a little while but they were older and they soon left me behind. When they were a safe distance away Denny stopped and shouted, I knew you were alright. I heard him laughing but it was a nervous laugh. You fucking little freak, he screamed before they all ran off and left me alone again.

***

Sometimes I close my eyes and find myself back inside the blue silo again. I like the way it feels in there. It’s always warm and I like the way the darkness seems to wrap itself around me. The darkness like a thick blanket and I can use it to prevent things from getting through. I feel safe when I’m in the blue silo. I don’t feel frightened like I thought I would.

Some days I tell her exactly what I’m thinking and other days I tell her what I think she wants to hear. Some days I tell her I don’t feel like seeing her at all and I just stay in my room with the curtains drawn. Or, sometimes, I get drunk and try to write down everything I can about the blue silo no matter how strange it sounds. I’m not sure what’s real or not real anymore and, maybe, it doesn’t even matter.

The other day when I was just out driving around I saw the blue silo all by itself out in the middle of nowhere. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years. There were rusted spots all over the sides where the blue paint had peeled off and part of the top was missing. The grass was grown up around it and there was a thick green vine winding its way up the sides of the blue silo. The vine had managed to climb several feet above the ground. I thought about stopping and going to look it over but, from the road, I didn’t see any way to reach the blue silo with the car. I pulled over and used my phone to take a picture of the blue silo. I haven’t decided, yet, if I’m going to show it to her the next time we meet.

Red Focks

Back to School

Bullet-proof bookbags; what a fucked-up time to be alive. The six o’clock news tells me they are resistant enough to stop a barrage of bullets from an AK-47, and are now available at Walmart for just ninety-nine-ninety-nine; pink or black, in a variety of little sizes.

I think to myself, the kids do start school next week. It’s not entirely unreasonable to think this product may find itself useful. I love my kids, just like everybody else. What’s a few hundred dollars for a potential lifesaver?

I drive my American automobile down to the only superstore in town. The radio DJ coming from my speaker makes ten-cent social commentary about concentration camps and unisex bathrooms in between “Let it Be” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. I drive the speed limit, and I use my blinker like a responsible motorist.

In the parking lot a sunburned tweeker in his late teens offers to wash my windows for a quarter. His washcloth is dirty, and his shoes are ripped. I hand him four bucks and tell him my windows are fine, but he looks dehydrated and should get inside for at least little while.

A discount rack in the men’s clothing aisle contains red hats with the president’s name on them. The florescent lighting leads to screeching migraines and plus-sized women walk kids on leashes.

Before I can obtain any of those coveted bulletproof backpacks for my children to wear to school, a white man, wearing black boots, a camouflage shirt, and one of those red hats on his bald head walks through the front door and shoots the elderly greeter in his wrinkled face.

That proud American makes his way through that capitalist’s wet dream of an establishment shooting everybody moving. He shoots me right in the dick and he laughs about it. Nihilistic millennials live stream the massacre on Facebook; #massmurder #howoriginal. A fifty-two-year-old democrat hides in the dairy cooler and tweets about how if this coward wanted a machinegun, he should have joined the police force, or the military. I agree.

If he wanted to kill people with an assault rifle, he should have done what every other white-trash-nationalist with a micropenis does, and became a cop, or enlisted in the army. What a fucked-up time to be alive, when the murdering of innocent people just going about their business is no longer restricted to the cops shooting an unarmed black teenager in the back fifty-five times for pulling a cell phone out of his pocket; or to an American soldier invading a country on the other side of the planet and mowing down brown folks for their oil.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a perfect person. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life; but I tried my best, and I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t deserve to get shot in the dick at a Walmart.