Jack Moody

With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 3

“You know what your problem is? You need to lighten up.”

The man is bald with a trimmed, black goatee. His eyes are sunken and dulled. By the inflection in his voice it seems like he didn’t introduce the conversation with this point. He must be responding to something I said. 

When I fail to answer, he elaborates on his advice to fill the space. “I look at you and all I see is me when I was your age—how old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” I say.

“Jesus. You know what I was doing when I was your age? I was shooting heroin on a mattress in a foreclosed house with four other degenerates believing we were gonna be rock stars. Now, I can see you’re not as far gone as I was. You’ve still got some of that light in your eyes, though you’re doing everything you can to kill it. I’m sure you know that. But I’m gonna tell you something I wish someone had told me before I ruined it all by being a stupid fucking kid. I want you to listen to this. Really listen to me, Henry: Hating the world does nothing but make the world hate you back. I wasted my twenties being angry and sad thinking the world owed me something—thinking I’d never grow old and eventually it would all make sense once I got X, Y, or fuckin’ Z. But it doesn’t work like that. I destroyed what could have been my happiest years because I thought it made sense to feel bad. And now I’m fifty years old. Fifty. Jesus…fifty. You know what I know now? Despite everything I did in my power to destroy my life and feel sadness and hate the world, those were still the best years of my life. Because I was young. I had the whole world ahead of me. There was hope despite it all. That’s why I thought I could throw it all away. I would never have admitted that at the time, but it was true. No matter how much I destroyed my life there was this little flame inside me that said ‘don’t give up. There’s still time.’ But now I’m fifty. There’s no hope anymore. There’s no time. So lighten the fuck up. Appreciate what the fuck you have. Get your head out of your ass and smile, before you wake up one day and see a bitter, miserable old man staring at you in the mirror. And trust me, it will happen. Faster than you think. This whole depressed alcoholic shtick is a lot less charming when you’re fat, middle-aged and bald. You have hope. Do something real with it.”

I blink.

The walls are blood red. The stools are red also, and they have tears in them. My stool wobbles when I sway too far to the right. Black lights glow in phosphorescent blues and purples across the graffiti tags covering the ceiling and walls like an invasive mold. Erratic punk music explodes all around me and drowns out any voices I would otherwise hear. There are paintings of naked women hung next to framed black and white photographs of midgets standing next to slain bears hanging upside down from ropes. The bar is busy. The people look like me—they look like they’re my age—but they have spiked mohawks and facial piercings and wear black leather jackets with patches sewn into them that say things like “SUCK MY CUNT, I’M A FEMINIST” and “BORN TO PAY TAXES AND FUCKING DIE”. I feel as though I’ve stepped into what Hell looks like to a Motörhead fan. I don’t mind this place.

Rebecca must be here somewhere but I don’t care anymore. It’s become far too interesting to play time-traveler and see where this takes me.

“WHAT WAS THAT?”

My head jolts up from the wood counter. Someone is screaming at me over the music.

“CAN YOU HEAR ME? I DIDN’T HEAR WHAT YOU SAID, MAN.”

I look over. It’s a man. The man is trying to talk to me. He looks like Zakk Wylde. He looks like he sells drugs. Am I buying drugs from him?

“I FORGOT WHAT I WAS SAYING,” I scream back. “I DON’T HAVE MUCH MONEY THOUGH. I GOT FIRED TODAY.” I pull on the collar of my shirt and point to my ex-employer’s logo over the chest.

Zakk Wylde looks at me for a moment. He seems confused. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MAN?”

I point at the logo again. “I GOT FIRED TODAY SO I DON’T HAVE MUCH MONEY. CAN YOU FRONT ME? I’M GOOD FOR IT, MAN, I’M GONNA BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. YOU CAN BE MY PERSONAL DRUG DEALER. LET’S GO FUCKIN’ HOLLYWOOD TOGETHER, MAN.”

He pauses to sort through what I’m saying for anything discernable. “YEAH, NO—WAIT, WHAT? NO, I DON’T HAVE ANY DRUGS. YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT THE BOOK, MAN.”

“FUCK THE BOOK!” I scream reflexively. “THE BOOK IS SHIT. PRINT IS DYING ANYWAY, FUCK IT. BUNCHA PIECE ‘A SHIT MILLENNIALS TWEETING NUDES AND SKIMMING BUZZFEED HEADLINES INSTEAD OF READING A GODDAMN NOVEL. FUCK IT.”

“BUT YOU’RE A MILLENNIAL, AREN’T YOU?”

“THAT’S BESIDE THE POINT.”

“THEN WHAT’S THE POINT?”

“THE POINT IS…” I think about my answer. What has me so bothered? There’s this drunken little voice growling something inside my chest. He’s hiding between my lungs, nestled up against my sternum, and he’s growling words. I allow the world around to grow quiet, and when I can make out the words the little drunken man inside me is growling so intently, I mimic the words to Zakk Wylde as if I’m the magnified voice filtered through the other end of a megaphone. As the first word falls off my tongue, I can already feel the avalanche of a booze-soaked diatribe forcing its way up my throat. It’s too late now. 

“…THE POINT IS…NOTHING HAS EVER GONE RIGHT FOR ME. IT’S BEEN ONE MASSIVE FUCKING MISSTEP AFTER ANOTHER. I DESTROY…EVERYTHING I TOUCH. I’M LIKE THE SHITTY, BOTCHED, DOLLAR-STORE VERSION OF KING MIDAS. AND ALL I WANT IS TO BE BETTER. I WANNA BE NORMAL, MAN. I REMEMBER I USED TO SAY, ‘I’D RATHER BE FUCKED UP AND INTERESTING THAN NORMAL AND BORING.’ BUT THAT’S FUCKIN’ BULLSHIT, ZAKK WYLDE. I WANT A WIFE AND KIDS AND TO WAKE UP AND SMILE SOMEGODDAMNTIMES. GIVE ME THE NINE TO FIVE AND THE BEER IN FRONT OF THE TV AFTER WORK AND A YARD WITH THE WHITE MOTHERFUCKING PICKET FENCE AND THE COCKTAIL OF ANTI-DEPRESSANTS AND MOOD STABILIZERS TO KEEP ME FROM SWAN-DIVING OFF THE FUCKING ROOF. ANYTHING HAS GOTTA BE BETTER THAN THIS.

“BUT NOW THERE’S THIS BOOK. THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED TO ME—IT’S ALL I’VE EVER WANTED, ZAKK WYLDE. BUT YOU KNOW HOW I ENDED UP WITH THIS BOOK—THIS GIANT FUCKING BLESSING FROM THE HEAVENS? BY BEING A SOCIOPATHIC, MENTALLY ILL ALCOHOLIC FOR THREE YEARS. NOW, WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU EXPECT ME TO TAKE FROM THAT, ZAKK WYLDE? THAT THE ONE GOOD THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME WAS A DIRECT RESULT OF BEING THE WORST HUMAN BEING I’VE EVER ALLOWED MYSELF TO BE. IT’S LIKE THE UNIVERSE IS GIVING ME PERMISSION TO CONTINUE BEING A PIECE OF SHIT. IT’S SAYING TO ME, ‘DON’T CHANGE, HENRY. DON’T GET BETTER. IF YOU STAY MISERABLE, THEN YOU CAN FINALLY BE SOMEBODY. IF YOU JUST KEEP DESTROYING YOUR LIFE, THEN IT’LL ALL PAY OFF IN THE END.’

“AND IT’S NOT LIKE I HAVE ANY EVIDENCE THAT WOULD PROVE ANYTHING TO THE CONTRARY. THE UNIVERSE IS PATTING ME ON THE BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE FOR, ESSENTIALLY, BEING A BAD PERSON. SO I’M ASKING YOU, ZAKK WYLDE, NOW THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED, WHY THE FUCK WOULD I WANNA STOP NOW?”

The man stares at me for a long time. “JUST WRITE ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE,” he says. He drinks from his beer. “WHO THE FUCK IS ZAKK WYLDE?”

I blink.

My face is twisted into a sob. I can feel the heat on the surface of my face as the skin puffs and tightens through the tears and stress. I am curled into the fetal position on Rebecca’s couch. Rebecca is there next to me, her arm loose over my shoulder. She is uncomfortable and doesn’t know how to handle this. Neither do I. I don’t know what’s caused this.

Her image fades in and out between blinks, and once the brief blackness is traded back again for the familiarity of her apartment, Rebecca appears in different positions, sometimes standing across the room, and I call out between terrified wails for her to return by my side.

An exercise occurs to me that my therapist had once taught me to use when amidst the throes of a panic attack. He called it a grounding exercise. I’m not sure if what’s happening to me is in fact a panic attack but it seems similar enough, so I try to retrieve from my fractured memory what the actual exercise is. The most I can pull is that it has something to do with focusing on anything physical and tangible occurring in the direct world around you—the point being to take yourself out of the intangible world within your head, if at least for a moment—but I’m so drunk that the most I can glean from the concept is to call out the name of the object closest to me, so now I’m screaming TABLE TABLE TABLE TABLE over and over like a mentally handicapped person as the tears begin filling the insides of my ears and the world becomes a giant bathtub.

Rebecca is there and she squeezes my arm to stop me, and says, “Calm down. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Did you know that penguins mate for life?” I say. Sobs and chokes cascade across the words like cement poured over a wilting garden.

“What?”

“Scientists have studied them. They waddle around and find a mate in the colony. Then they fall in penguin-love and they never cheat with other, bigger-dicked penguins or get a penguin-divorce. They stay together forever.”

“Henry, what are you talking about?”

“And then they make an egg and the mom goes into the ocean to find fish to stay strong for the dad and not-yet-baby, and the dad sits there with the egg on his feet for months, Rebecca. He takes care of it. He keeps it warm and safe. And she always comes back.” My sobs are intensifying now. I’ve remembered why I am crying. “She always comes back. They love each other.”

“Henry…”

“I want the egg. I want my penguin. Everybody else gets to have the egg. Everybody else gets their penguin. I don’t wanna do this anymore. I just wanna take care of the egg. I want my own penguin.”

Rebecca says, “Henry, I don’t know what to say.” 

And she doesn’t. She doesn’t say anything else.

I close one eye and order an Uber, asking Rebecca to type in her address because I’ve forgotten what city I’m in, let alone what part of town. “I have to go,” I say. “Today is over.” This is the closest thing to a fact that I can think of so it’s what I decide to say. 

And then I blink.

She has brown hair that looks coarse and brittle. It falls flat over her back and shoulders. Her nose is large and angular like a protruding triangle. I can’t see her eyes well enough in the darkness of the car. This bothers me. It’s hard for me to trust people if I can’t see the light in their eyes. Still, I carry on with mindless chatter, excited that the change in environment has measurably improved my mood.

Aiidongowantomayva is what my words come out sounding like, but she responds with, “That sounds like a day” and “Well, you’ll be home soon”, so from an outside perspective I must be making enough sense to sustain a dialogue. My tongue feels like it’s disconnected from my mouth.

Through the passenger window I can see shades of black and orange blending and pirouetting between each other as we pass through wooded roads and well-lit streets. We drive across a bridge and in the distance the city skyline burns with yellows and reds and blues all blinking and buzzing, and below us the river is solid and black. The current doesn’t seem to exist and it looks dead. I can’t imagine that underneath the surface there is anything any more alive than the stagnant river. I imagine that blanketing the riverbed is a graveyard of motionless, decaying fish and that’s all there is. Soon the whole city of blinking and buzzing colors will be no different, and this thought doesn’t feel saddening but only inevitable and I accept this.

The car stops. We’re outside my home. She is looking at me and I say, “You have cigarette?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Do you wanna smoke one with me?”

“Sure,” I say.

We step outside and lean on the back of her car. I light the wrong end of the cigarette so she takes it out of my mouth, turns it around and lights it for me. Under the natural light of the stars her facial features become more prominent, and by the forehead wrinkles and weathered, tired expression I can tell that she is probably in her mid to late-thirties.

She stares at me through the glowing cherry hovering in front of my nose and then says, “Do you wanna keep hanging out?”

Today I have not yet been left alone. I have become lost in the tedious storm of booze, barflies, blinding white noise, lackadaisical supervision, disarmingly poor social etiquette, black humor, masochism and self-hatred to the point where I can no longer recognize myself, all under the guise of either a celebration or a Leaving Las Vegas-style suicide mission, but in truth it has all only been for the sole purpose of staving off this exact moment. For the better part of a half-decade I have driven the hollow and numbing possibilities of excess to the brink of the edge. And for whatever reason it has not been until this night, this day of all days, that I have at last reached that edge, and am now finally left with nothing but the apathetic face before me, and the endless, black abyss of a realization staring back from beneath the ends of my feet: I am alone. And I am terrified. I am very, profoundly alone.

“Yeah,” I say.

She pulls out her phone. “I’ll find somewhere to take us.”

I’m not sure what this means but I want someone to take care of me so I don’t question getting back into the car.

“I’m off the clock,” she says. “Don’t worry, you’re not being charged.”

“Okay.”

She brings us to a park in the woods. I know this park. When we were little kids my best friend and I used to go deep down into the creek at the heart of the forest and catch salamanders. They would hide underneath the rocks close enough to the creek that small amounts of water would seep in underneath and provide them with comfortable homes. They were small and black and had two stripes running down their backs. Sometimes the stripes were red and sometimes they were yellow.

“This should work,” she says. “Come on.”

I get out and stumble on the uneven dirt, and she grabs my hand and leads me down the dark path towards the creek. We stop at a bench and she sits me down next to her like a toddler. It’s pitch-black and warm, and I can hear the running water of the creek just beyond the veil of the shadows. This creek is still alive. The salamanders are still alive under those rocks. I know it.

I feel her hand on my face and then her lips on mine, and I kiss her back because that is what you’re suppose to do when someone kisses you. Then she is grabbing me and groping at me, and her arms are around me and she pushes me onto the ground next to the bench. She begins taking off my belt and pulling down my pants and she takes her pants off.

“Put it in me,” she says.

“I think I’m too drunk,” I tell her.

“Kiss me then.”

I do and it hardens, and she takes my hips and pulls me in towards her.

“Condom?” I manage.

“My tubes are tied,” she says. “Put it in.”

I don’t know if I want this. I don’t know where the line is. No one ever taught me this. 

“Are you clean?” I mumble.

“Yeah, yeah, just do it.”

I don’t feel anything. She is silent as I do it. Rocks cut into my shins and knees until I know that in the morning the inside of my jeans will be stained with black, crusted blood. I don’t want this.

“I’m not gonna come,” I say.

“Alright,” she says. “Let’s go.”

We stand up and put our pants back on, and in silence we walk back up the trail I had taken a hundred times as a child. This park was my favorite place in the world. It was magical. Beautiful little creatures hid underneath rocks for us to find and the creek never stopped running and the trees swayed in the wind and protected us from the elements. Fifteen years ago this park was the most magical place I’d ever been.

We drive back to my home and she stops in the street, letting her car idle. We have not spoken.

“Do you even remember my name?” she asks me.

“Jordan?” I slur.

“It’s Jessica. Get out of my car.”

I step outside and close the door, and she drives away. I lie on the driveway and watch the stars until I feel the vomit rising in my stomach, and expel fourteen hours worth of liquor onto a bush. I walk up the steps, weave down the hallway, and collapse onto my bed, falling unconscious with every article of clothing still on me. 

I do not dream.

Two months later the psychiatrist will give me a new diagnosis and I will go back on medication. And I will crash and burn.

***

With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 1
With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 2
With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 3

Jack Moody

With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 2

The mall is one of the first places I think of when it comes to environments that reinvigorate my suicidal tendency—along with strip clubs at two in the afternoon on a weekday, classrooms with those florescent lights lining the ceiling that house masses of dead insects like state-run morgues, and the intake room in a county jail—so today of all days a particular and not unfamiliar kind of warm, prickling excitement pulses inside my chest as we pull up to the Jefferson Square Mall.

Rebecca grabs me by the arm and leads me towards the entrance as an obese couple holding overfilled tote bags lumber past us. They smell like grease, like they were standing over a deep fryer for an hour before walking out, letting their odor waft over and sting my nostrils. They are a perfect encapsulation of what I picture awaits us inside the mall, and the prickling warmth intensifies.

Rebecca says something about needing shoes and hangs a left once the doors open. The smell of heavy perfume assaults my nostrils, twisting around the lingering greasy odor of the couple we’d just passed. I don’t know what store I’m in but there are mannequins everywhere and they wear cashmere sweaters and high-waisted shorts and tank tops and I hate it here. Women are staring at me so I follow Rebecca into the aisles of women’s shoes. Hundreds of shoes. The aisles aren’t tall enough to hide between so I plop down onto the carpeted floor at Rebecca’s feet like a hound and light a cigarette.

I can see the wheels spinning in her head before she turns around to identify the smell, dropping a pair of boots onto the ground. “Henry, what the fuck are you doing?” she snaps, horrified. “Put that out.

“It smells awful in here,” I tell her. “I’m clearing my palate.”

A single puff of gray-white smoke floats up over the aisles before Rebecca snatches the cigarette out of my mouth and smashes it into the carpet.

My eyes widen and my face lights up. “That’s destruction of property! Look what you did! Oooooo the mall cops are gonna arrest you!”

“Shut up. C’mon.” She pulls me onto my feet and hurries me away to another area of the store before the old women catch on. “Please just behave yourself for twenty minutes, can you do that?”

“I can certainly try, home-wrecker.”

“Stop calling me that.”

I follow along for a few minutes before growing bored and taking off towards the exit, where the mall proper opens up and my fear of open spaces takes hold. I wander along the storefronts, wearing my sunglasses as a protective shield to combat my social anxiety, until reaching a Starbucks. I order a tall black coffee (“Whatever the small one is.”) and mention to the barista something about how I’d stick my head underneath the espresso machine and flip it on if I had to work her job. I then say something about how the urge to end one’s life is totally normal, and follow that up by asking if they’re hiring. They aren’t.

I shuffle back through the aisles of perfume and lingerie before spotting Rebecca at the checkout desk. She’s talking to a pretty, young blonde who stands straight and looks like she’s never been dirty in her life. They’re talking about the details of returning old clothes and buying new ones, and how much can she get taken off from the price of the new ones for selling the old ones? It’s painfully unriveting so I jump up and sit down on the counter between them.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

She’s taken aback and can only respond with an uncomfortable chuckle and a tap on her nametag with a polished and manicured fingernail. I lean in and close one eye until the word Alicia comes into focus.

“Do you like your job, Alicia?” She shrugs and returns her attention to the transaction with Rebecca, but I continue speaking with the drunken belief that what I have to say is more important than their capitalistic endeavors. “You should quit. Quit right now. You don’t need this job. This job needs you. Empty that register, pocket the cash, and let’s get outta here. You and me, let’s go get drunk—what do you say, Alicia?”

Now that I’m unemployed and thoroughly intoxicated, I’ve decided that the American nine to five job is slavery of the masses, and it’s now my duty as a newly enlightened radical to set free the Great Unwashed, one young, attractive working-class woman at a time.

Content with my enlistment speech, I lean back and pull out another cigarette. A look washes over Rebecca’s face like she’s watching a man gouge his own eyes out with a spoon. Nobody speaks. I try again to elicit a response after recognizing that the silence will go on indefinitely until I fill the uncomfortable space I’ve created. “So,” I continue as I light my cigarette, “you mull that over, Alicia. Decisions like this are a hard choice to make, I get it.” I drag the harsh smoke and cough up phlegm into the back of my throat. “But look at me! This is a free man you’re looking at! You’re looking at pure happiness right now, Alicia. Let’s break those shackles!”

Rebecca grabs me by the shirt, pushes me off the counter, and whispers, “Get the fuck out of here and wait for me outside. You’re gonna get us arrested!”

“Good!” I shout, walking backwards towards the exit, the cigarette hanging limp between my lips and the middle finger on my good hand pointing to the ceiling. “Let ‘em! I’ll become an icon for the free man! I’m Nelson fuckin’ Mandela, Rebecca! See these wrists? No shackles, baby, no shackles!”

With that, I walk outside and crumple over onto the sidewalk to sit underneath the dull white sunshine and wait for Rebecca. With no audience left to witness my antics, the humor drains away, and I’m left again with nothing but the desperate reality of my situation. The thoughts and memories I’m trying to suppress begin to bubble up and spin in circles like a merry-go-round behind my eyes, and the overpowering urge to drink returns. I recognize, as I sit here on the hot cement in front of a Macy’s department store in the middle of the afternoon on a Monday in the summer of 2018, that there is nothing short of suicide that will free me from this bear trap of a life I’ve stepped on.

I tell Rebecca that I’m not getting back into the car unless she drives me to a liquor store, so she does and I pick up a pint of Jim Beam. Typically I’d go for Old Crow to ensure that I’m going to be punishing my body as much as possible, but today I’m still trying to hold onto the vague notion that I’m celebrating. The image of my arm outstretched through the open car window fades in and out behind the formative stages of a blackout. The coffee splatters across the passenger door and wicks off in the wind.

“What did you just do?” Rebecca says.

“Nothing,” I mumble, refilling the half-empty coffee cup with whiskey.

I continue to sip at the bitter drink as we move at a glacial pace through rush hour traffic down the highway. Rebecca tells me a story about how she thinks a guy she’s been seeing is ghosting her because the last time they hooked up she let him fuck her in the ass and when he pulled out she accidentally shit on his dick, but I’m tuning in and out because I’ve found a bump on the inside of my lip and I’ve realized that it must be cancer. My tongue runs back and forth against the unsettling protuberance as I catch some of her monologue:

“It was everywhere. It was all over him, all over the sheets. I’d heard about that kind of thing happening but that has never happened to me before.”

I indulge her: “So, then what happened?”

“I mean—he was cool about it. He was like, ‘It’s totally fine I can change the sheets,’ and then he jumped in the shower.”

I laugh. “And then what did you do?”

“I waited until he got out and he said I could still stay but I was like, ‘I think I’m gonna go home now.’”

“And then you did?”

“Of course I did. I couldn’t even look at him after that.” She grimaces and moans, “Ohhhh my GOD, Henry! That’s so fucking embarrassing, of course he ghosted me.”

“No, see, that’s where you fucked up,” I say. “You have to stand by that shit. Literally.”

“That’s not funny.”

“No, listen to me. You should have owned that shit. Owned it. Said, ‘Yes, I shit on your dick. That’s my shit right there on your dick. You defiled my ass with that thing and this is an all too typical consequence. Now embrace this situation and accept me.’” Rebecca keeps her eyes forward and remains silent. I pull down on my bottom lip and lean over to study the bump in the rear view mirror. “Hey, Rebecca,” I say, eyes trained on my reflection. “What’s the survival rate for oral cancer?”

“Not low enough. Where do you wanna go?”

I forgo the liquor mixture in my cup and pull straight from the bottle. “Bar.”

Rebecca exhales like she’s blowing out a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Henry…”

“Look,” I snap, “either you can come with me or you can drop me off and I’ll go somewhere by myself.” I can hear the anger coming through in the words slogging off my tongue but can’t stop it, my mind too muddled by the mist growing thicker as the alcohol’s effects begin to take over.

“Alright, Henry,” she sighs. “I’ll come with you to a bar.”

“Okay then,” I say. I sit back and drain the contents of the little white cup. “Thank you.”

The bar’s walls are an unattractive shade of white tinged yellow after past decades of cigarette smoke stains. The booths are a deep forest green with black splotches in the leather where past patrons spilled their drinks or bodily fluids. The floors are carpeted. This was a terrible choice by the owners. One should take the same consideration into the choice of flooring in a neighborhood bar that a pet owner would before bringing home a dog that hasn’t yet been housebroken. If I owned a bar I would forgo carpeting entirely, and line the linoleum floors with layers of newspaper. This would cut down on the cost of custodial work and present the ambiance of a hamster cage, but the trade-off would be worth it. 

These are the only details that I can differentiate at this level of drunkenness—obtuse and abstract details, the kind of indistinct shapes and visuals that make up the world through the eyes of an infant. I don’t recognize this place.

To cut down on the cost of a heavy drinking habit I order a tall glass of soda water, situate myself in the last booth at the end of the bar, pour out half the glass underneath the table when no one is looking, and fill up the remaining space with the whiskey from the pint hiding underneath my shirt like an unregistered firearm. I must be dancing between levels of consciousness because I know my eyes have stayed open, but when I turn to the right Rebecca is there looking at me.

“How long have you been there?” I ask. I can feel my tongue swelling and struggling to form the necessary consonants to articulate the sentence.

“I’ve always been here.” Her answer is ominous and I begin to feel uncomfortable.

Her lips are moving again. She starts to say something else but I blink and an abrupt fog overtakes me, and when my eyes settle back into my environment I’m at the bar with a drink in my hand. I’ve forgotten about the whiskey concealed in my clothing, or perhaps I’ve drank it all because when my hand slides down next to my balls I feel nothing in the space where a plastic bottle should be. My back is to the bartender, and as I scan through the sparse crowd for Rebecca, my line of sight is drawn back to a pair of eyes watching me from across the room. The eyes are piercing and appear yellow in the dirty glow of what little lighting this bar could afford. They belong to a large man. He stands hunched over with a hand leaning against the pool table, and he is staring. These are the facts I know. After another moment of discernment I recognize the shadowed form of another man standing beside him. His eyes must not have been trained on mine when I first scanned the room because I didn’t notice him, but now the large man is talking to the other man, and has directed his attention towards me as well. Now there are two shadowed figures, large male figures, staring at me from across the bar.

I’m not unfamiliar with these kinds of looks, whether they’re for good reason or just a false assumption funneled through my skewed, paranoid perspective. In either case, though, this moment demands action, and I vow to fulfill that demand. But whatever my response will be it, it will require a deft and diplomatic approach:

“What the fuck are you looking at?” I shout. 

A few heads turn. I’m not being clear enough. I point at the shadowed pair, who’ve still refused to break eye contact. “You! And you! What the fuck do you want?”

The larger of the two is the first to speak: “Just checking out the view.”

What kind of threat is this? Are these mind games? I can’t think of anything clever or threatening enough to say so I settle on, “Well, stop it. It’s creepy.”

I look away. Where is Rebecca? Rebecca will be able to make sense of this. My feet make contact with the sticky carpeting and I set off across the room, on a mission to leave this place for calmer waters. But as I search, all the faces begin to look the same. They meld together into one swirling soup of eyes and mouths and eyebrows and ears. The people become as inanimate as the walls and the carpeting that reminds me of walking through a shallow bog. I’ll never find her at this rate—she’s become furniture now.

Before I can communicate this realization to the man with the handlebar mustache and cowboy hat standing beside me, I feel the firm grip of a hand upon my shoulder.

“I have a question for you.”

It’s the large man from before. His eyes are no longer yellow but a light brown. He isn’t blurred like the rest of the bar. He’s larger up close and the intimidating energy he exudes demands my attention. 

“What do you want?” I say. I try to appear formidable despite our six-inch size difference and my inability to keep my center of balance.

His face softens. I can make out the shape of a strong jawline beneath his beard. “Well, more like a proposition.” His voice is light and bounces across the syllables almost like he’s singing a song.

“Where’s your friend?” I ask, ignoring his subtle invitation for me to inquire further.

“He’s waiting.” He points to a corner of the bar and waves, but all I see is a small gathering of similar-looking people all crowded together like livestock. “Brandon likes me to interact with our potential business partners; he stays behind the scenes. I’m—”

“Creepy,” I interrupt.

“The star.” He smiles at me—a subtle, crooked smile. This fucking guy is flirting with me. “Have you ever been on camera?” he asks.

“Well, I heard the government watches you jerk off through your webcam.”

“Sure, that counts.”

“Then probably.”

“What’s your price?” he asks.

“Excuse me?”

“Do you like blowjobs?”

I hesitate and squint at the large man. “…Is this a test?”

“Do you like getting blowjobs and getting paid for it?”

“That’s a loaded question. Who’s doing the blowing?”

“Let me clear this up: We’ll pay you a thousand dollars to let”—he points back over to the corner and one of the faceless livestock waves at me—“that guy Brandon over there film you getting head. That’s it. One grand to get a blowjob.”

“Yes, but—”

“Tyler. Pleased to meet you.”

“Tyler, who is doing the blowing? Who’s doing the blowing, Tyler?” I don’t know why I’m repeating myself. I already know the answer.

“I am,” he winks. “The star.”

“Right.” I look back over my shoulder: Rebecca, where the fuck are you?

Tyler takes my arm and pulls me back to focus. “Is that something you’d be open to? You’d be in and out in thirty minutes tops, dude.”

“That may be a conservative estimate.”

“You’d wear a mask; nobody would know it’s you.”

I study the man’s physique and try to gauge how difficult it would be to imagine I’m getting my dick sucked by Scarlett Johansson if I focused hard enough. Shit, I’ve always told people I’m about six percent gay anyway—thirteen if I’m drunk. I’d make out with Frank Ocean. And there was that bartender at the Blue Dolphin with the choker and that ass in those capris that elicited a certain unanticipated reaction out of me. A thousand bucks is a thousand bucks. A hole is a hole, right? “Are you gonna shave that small mammal off your face?” I ask. “I feel any stubble and I’m out, man.”

Tyler laughs and rubs his chin, and before he can answer I feel a small hand touch my waist. Rebecca’s voice twirls over the Motley Crüe song blasting across the bar: “Hey, Henry! Where the fuck have you been?”

I whip around. “Oh, hey. I’m talking to my friend Tyler. He wants to blow me on camera for a thousand dollars.”

Tyler waves.

“That’s nice,” she says. “I think we should go now.”

“Well, hang on, we’re negotiating.” I turn back around and finish the liquor in my glass, misjudge where the nearest table is and drop the glass on the floor. It hits the carpeting and remains intact. So that’s why it’s there. “Fifteen hundred plus thirty-three percent of the sales revenue…thirty-three and a third. You, me and Gomer over there.” I wave to one of the cattle. It doesn’t wave back. I must have waved at the wrong one.

Now that a fourth party has entered the equation Tyler becomes more reserved. “You know what? I don’t think this is gonna work out. You have a good night, man.”

Before I can reevaluate and renege on my counter-proposition, Rebecca’s hand pulls me across the bar towards the exit. She’s saying something but I can’t make out what she’s trying to tell me. I’m fading again. It occurs to me that I can’t recall how we got here or where we were before this.

The last thing I remember is tearing away from her and yelling, “I’m buying a shot for the road!”

***

With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 1
With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 2
With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 3

Jack Moody

With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 1

I step out of the car and recoil beneath the morning light. My eyes have difficulty adjusting through the hangover. I’m ten pounds lighter, retching from the stomach pains, and have allowed my beard to grow out for too long, giving me the appearance of a dope sick street kid. I am back to showing my discontentment on the outside for everyone to see. Forever a misery loves company kind of person. I’m not proud of it but it’s a reality. We all have weaknesses.

The bender has lasted a good ten days since she left me, and I have no intention of letting up. I’ve just started getting on a good roll here. I intend to walk into the office smelling of misery and pussy and six different kinds of liquor. This is me giving up. This is my I couldn’t care less if you fired me right now face. Look at that smile. 

Walking along the parking lot towards the door, I wave at the homeless woman screaming and banging her fists against the chain-link fence next to the sidewalk. She comes out mostly at night and screams about the government, her sweatpants dirtied from soiling herself, slapping herself in the face out of a frustration I won’t be able to understand, but today is one of those rare days when she’s out amongst the working class. Like a raccoon so sick with rabies that it’s unable or uncaring enough to return to hiding until the moon comes back.

I catch the eyes of my two bosses through the glass door. Their eyes are wide and frightened. They tear through the entrance before my hand touches the knob and line up side-by-side blocking me from coming in, as if were they not to do so, I would bust through with force. One is Kyle. He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him. He’s thirty, overweight, with a bald patch at the crown of his head that’s been eating away at the black hair but no one will tell him. It looks like a clearing in the middle of the forest. He hands me an envelope and I’m aware of what’s happening before either of them say anything. 

Tom speaks first. “You can’t come inside. Here, walk over this way with us.”

They don’t want me to be seen getting fired through the window. It would be bad for morale. Rebecca is in there working with her ex who has a micro penis, and I know this because she tells anyone who’s willing to listen. Norman is in there pinching Rebecca’s ass every time he gets into a room alone with her. Joseph is in there drinking pinot noir out of a can of La Croix. Alex is sitting at her desk eyeing Joseph in the hopes that she can catch him in the act and snitch her way up the corporate ladder. Harold is in there recovering from last night’s coke binge. Everybody hates everybody else but no one says it until someone leaves the room. But I’m bad for morale.

There’s a long pause. I hold the check in my hand. Two years wasted at this place. The best thing I got out of the experience was fucking two of my coworkers. They know this. They have no real reason to fire me, any more real than why they could fire Matt or Rebecca or Norman or Harold or Alex. They just don’t like me. I know this. They fire people when they don’t like them. They don’t like me because I don’t like them.

“Look,” Tom continues, “we all knew this was a long time coming. You haven’t been pulling your weight for months. You come in late and sulk around and you ruin the mood of the office.”

What else, Tom? What else? Tell me. Tell me you smell the pussy. Tell me you smell the liquor on my breath.

“And it’s time for you to move on. I don’t want you making a scene, and we need you off the property or we’ll call the police.”

Kyle hides behind Tom’s wide frame. Tom is one of those golden boys: Handsome, built, college-educated, played football on scholarship, got right out of school and started his own business. Fucks his girlfriend who looks like a Barbie doll until you get her face wet. I’ve suspected that he used to fuck Riley before me. We stopped getting along after he found out I was dating her. I’d fuck his girlfriend for the sake of equilibrium but she’s not my type.

“Is there anything you wanna tell us?” Kyle pipes up.

“No,” I say. “You made your decision already. I’m not begging for anything.”

I begin to turn around. 

“Oh wait,” Kyle says, “you need to sign this.” He hands me a clipboard and a pen. On the clipboard are some words about me. Underneath the words is a line for my signature. “It’s just to state that we lawfully terminated you and you got your last check.”

“Of course,” I say. I sign and hand it back with my signature: Fuck you. “Hope that works.” 

I spit on the ground—an unsatisfying dry glob of viscous white from the dehydration—and walk away back down the parking lot towards my car. I already know what I’m going to do. 

Chaos. I want chaos. Give me chaos.

“Henry, wait!” Rebecca’s voice stops me as I’m getting into the front seat. She comes running up and pauses before speaking again. “What happened?”

“Fired,” I say. “Got the boot. Terminated. Voted off the island.” The heat is getting to me. I begin to feel uncomfortable standing under the sun like this. My legs feel like soon they won’t be able to hold up my weight any longer.

“They can’t do this,” she says. She seems visibly hurt. “This is bullshit.”

“Fuck ‘em.”

“Please don’t go drink.”

“Of course I’m gonna go drink. I’ve been broken up with, blocked and fired all in the same flaming shit pile of a week and change, this is the prime example of when someone should go drink.”

“Henry, it’s ten in the morning.”

“Good, then I’m getting a head start.”

“This is just gonna make things even worse. Think about the morning.”

“You don’t get it,” I say. “I’ve got nothing. I’m fucked. I’m sure in a few days I’ll have some clarity and see that things will be fine and I’ve got something to live for but right now I’ve got nothing. And maybe things won’t be fine. Maybe this is it. If I’m ruining my life then let me enjoy it for a minute. I don’t care anymore.”

“Don’t give me that shit,” she says. She’s getting angry. Her face grows narrow. “You’ve been enjoying this the whole time. You like destroying your life. You see that, right? You’re not as big of an asshole as you think you are, but for some reason you keep trying to live up to how you see yourself. Get better. Stop doing this.”

I step back into the car and turn the ignition. “You got a cigarette?”

Rebecca ignores me. “I’m gonna call you after work, okay? Be safe. I’m serious.”

“Yeah.”

Stupid piece of shit idiot you don’t deserve her you deserved to get broken up with you deserved to be fired you deserve to hurt yourself you’re broken you’re unlovable everyone hates you everyone should hate you do it do it do it hit the car hit that car faster you pussy do it no one will ever love you you’ll destroy everything you ever touch your brain is broken drink until you’re sick then people will see you’re sorry punish yourself until people know you’re in pain I hate you.

The beauty of dive bars is that they remain dark no matter what time of day it is. I sit down in the corner beside two older women. One recognizes me. She’s the mother of a girl I slept with. She doesn’t know that though; she thinks I’m gay. I can’t remember why she thinks that but I’m not interested enough to clear it up. Telling her I fucked her daughter might do it, but again, this doesn’t seem like the time.

“Hey, it’s you…Harry!” There are lipstick stains on her teeth. She drinks the same beer I always see her drink. She comes here every day.

“Henry,” I say. “Yes.”

“We’re celebrating!” She points to the bartender, a short, balding man with discolored teeth. “Get Harry whatever he wants. I’m not dying!”

The whiskey shot lands in front of me and I drink it before speaking. “We’re all dying. Don’t fool yourself.”

“No!” she shouts. “I got the blood results back, I’m not gonna die!”

The woman next to her coughs up something onto her sleeve, wipes it underneath the bar and slams her hand down. “Well, goddamn! Margaret you dumb slut, I told you it’d be alright!”

“I know, I know! I’m gonna be okay!” She smiles wide, revealing the receding gum line that’s turning black from age and cigarettes. “Today is gonna be a great day! Another one for Harry and Tammy!”

Hurt yourself. Drink until you hurt yourself.

Another one goes down. I order a third. The inside of my head begins to swim. I drink again and I’m reminded that I no longer have a source of income. I am unemployed. My thirty-one year-old with the fifty grand a year and the 401k and the fear of intimacy is gone. There is no rope to climb out of this.

I step outside and the contrast between the darkness of the bar and the light of the outside world strikes me behind the eyes, like looking at the reflection of the sun on a piece of metal. I sit down next to the soup can people use for an ashtray and look for her number. It stares at me for a long time before I dial *67 and call. Six rings come. They are long and painful and with each pause my breastplate dislodges itself farther away from my chest until all that exists is the heavy, fluttering heartbeat. It bounces against the inside of my body like a bullet in an empty steel room. Then the familiar robotic voice again. Leave a message after the beep.

“Hi, Riley. Yeah. It’s Henry. I know you hate me and you never wanna see me again but I just got fired and I need that money you owe me. So unblock me and call me back. Or don’t. Just send the money in some other way that doesn’t require communication. PayPal. Venmo—well I don’t have that one. Send a carrier pigeon with a check if you want. I don’t care. Anyway. I’m gonna stop talking now. Bye.”

Unsatisfied with the last message, I call once more to clear up any confusion that may get in the way of me getting my money. It doesn’t ring this time. The number you are trying to reach is unavailable, says the robot. A young couple walks past me with their child. She wears a pink dress and has a hairband with Minnie Mouse ears on it. She holds a balloon in her right hand and her father’s index finger in the other. The mother smiles at me when she sees me looking at them. I get up and go back inside the bar.

The only problem is that if I’m not going fast enough or I hit the tree at the wrong angle, I may survive and wake up as a quadriplegic. Or brain dead. Then what? You’re depressed and crippled. Or if you kill someone on accident while you’re on your way over the cliff. Then you wake up depressed, crippled, and handcuffed to a hospital bed. Then you’re really fucked. Can quadriplegics get prison time? Where do they go? Are they let loose into the general population like everyone else? Do vegetables get prison time? Or is that a free pass if you go into a coma after whatever crime you commit? Someone must know this shit.

“What’re you thinking about over there?” says Margaret.

“Nothing.” I drink down the next shot. I’ve lost count at this point. The world is blurry though. It’s easier to find the humor in dark things now. That’s always a sign. You get that warm fuzzy feeling when you think about punishing yourself. That’s another sign.

“What happened to you, man? You look too sad for someone your age. You’re not supposed to look like that for at least another…twenty years. You’ll give yourself wrinkles.”

I look at myself in the mirror. I hate you.

My phone starts vibrating inside my pocket, filling the space where a proper answer would have had to go. There you are. Right above the bottles, under the clock you can’t read any longer, all lit up in neon. Nothing’s changed. What’re you going to do about it?

“Hey! Are you gonna get that, Harry?”

Kill yourself or run away and do something with your life or go to rehab. Get another job. Do anything. As long as it’s not nothing. You can’t sit here and do nothing. You did nothing for three years and you got a book out of it and now you need to change. Nobody wants to read another book—

“It’s buzzing, man! Don’t you hear that?”

Nobody wants to read another book about a guy who never did anything with his life. You’re writing the same goddamn story over again—you see that, right? This isn’t an option any longer. You’ve lost all the ties that were keeping you here. Either kill yourself or—

“Hey, Harry!”

“YEAH FUCK, ALRIGHT.”

I answer the phone without looking at who’s calling. I don’t recognize her voice at first. Through the drunk and poor cell service her words come out garbled and masked in static. “Henry. Helloooo. Henry?”

“Yeah, Rebecca.”

“How are you?”

“I’m good. Margaret isn’t dying. We’re all good.”

“Where are you?”

“Say hi to Tom and Kyle for me.”

“Are you at a bar?”

“Tell them fuck you for me. Tell Tom I fucked Riley better. Make sure to tell him that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you know that? Tom fucked Riley and so he doesn’t like me because of her. He thinks he can fire people for being Eskimo brothers but you can’t do that, Rebecca. We live in a society. We have laws. We have laws to maintain order, Rebecca.”

“Jesus, Henry. You’re drunk.”

“Bingo.”

“I’m coming to get you in an hour.”

“Nope.”

“Yes I am. You’ve been getting drunk at the Sparrow for four hours. You’re gonna come with me and help me run errands.”

“Shit. Has it been that long?” I look up at the clock with one eye closed. The hands’ doppelgangers fall back into themselves and come back into focus. “Well, how ‘bout that? You’re right. I guess time flies when you’re having fun!” I hold up my hand over the bar until the bartender high-fives me. “Hear that? I’m making friends, Rebecca. Companionship. Don’t worry about me. I’m fuckin’ aces, baby.”

“I’m gonna be outside in one hour. Answer the phone when I call.”

“Yes ma’am.” I lean in towards Margaret, pointing at my phone with one hand over the speaker, and whisper: “She’s mad at me.”

“Bye, Henry.”

“See ya later, home-wrecker.”

“What?”

I hang up and order another drink.

Could you even find a gun? You could ask James, I’m sure he’d love to help you out with that. His was nice too. But what about those stories you hear about the guys who aim a centimeter off and blow out a chunk of the brain but survive to be disfigured freaks. Or you miss entirely and your jaw explodes. Shelve that one for now. You have Ativan. How many Ativan does it take? There’s no way they gave you enough, they’re not stupid. But what if you drank enough with what you have? Like a lot. Like a fifth. That would have to do it. I’ve heard pills is the most painful way to go though. But that’s what you’re looking for, aren’t you? If you wanna be hurt so bad. Are you a pussy now too?

“During couples therapy?” says the bartender. “That’s heartless, man.”

I clap and throw my hands out by my sides. “I FUCKING KNOW, RIGHT? It’s not just me—she’s a bitch, am I not alone in this?”

Nods from the group.

“Tell me at least you didn’t have to pay for the session,” Tammy cuts in.

I look down at my drink and smile with my teeth, embarrassed. The room erupts. “AW MAN, C’MON.”

“I think I’m the only person in history that had to pay fifty bucks to get dumped.”

“Jeeeesus, Harry,” says Margaret. “Well, we know why she left you then…you got no spine!”

The room erupts again. 

“HAHAHA!”

Tammy reaches over Margaret to place her hand on my shoulder, knocking over an empty glass on the way. “Look at it this way, kid: You got plenty more years to mess up. Best to get ‘em all outta the way while you’re young.”

“Okay, okay, I’m not done though.” I shoot down the whiskey, click my tongue to diminish the burn. “And…and! Wait for it…I got fired today!”

The group emits a long collective groan.

I’m laughing now, struggling to get out the words. “And—hahaha—and! The girl who destroyed it all is coming to get me right now! I’m friends with the home-wrecker! Hahaha. The girl who tore apart my relationship still has her dirty home-wrecking claws in me! I can’t even come while I’m fucking her unless I think about Riley! Ha!…ha.”

The laughs slow down. The bartender’s eyes raise and he bares his teeth in an awkward grimace. Tammy pats my back. Margaret drinks from her beer until it empties.

Reality washes over me and I slump forward. “Shit,” I say. “There’s a real fine line between funny and depressing.”

There’s a quiet pause, then the bartender comes over with another full shot. Some of it spills over the glass when it touches the counter. “Hey man, you’re lucky. You know why? You’re free! You can do whatever the fuck you want! My girlfriend won’t let me do anything as long as she’s around. It’s a prison. I can’t smoke, I can’t drink, we can’t fuck unless the lights are off—and even that’s once a week at the most. She’s got my balls. But you know what? Right now we’re here! We’re off the hook. I come to work and I play country music—”

Margaret interrupts: “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Bill.”

“…I play COUNTRY MUSIC”—the bartender turns up the volume. Hank Williams fills out the corners of the room until his voice echoes—“I smoke as many cigarettes as I want, and I get to talk to people like you. While we’re here, there’s no worries in the world. What’s her name?”

“Riley,” I say.

“Fuck Riley!” he shouts. “Drink that and forget about it. It’s that easy.”

I take the shot. I sit in the burn and follow the pain as it slithers down the center of my body. I try to stay with the pain for as long as it exists. The bartender is wrong. We aren’t free. We’re more trapped than most people. It’s just easier for us than most to forget that fact.

My phone is vibrating again. It’s too soon to be Rebecca already. I take it out of my pocket and on the screen reads in big, capital letters: UNKNOWN CALLER. I stare at the screen. This should be sending a stabbing panic up through my stomach. My pupils should be dilating. My palms should be sweating. My face should be going pale. Unknown caller means someone found me. It means someone wants to kill me. It means there’s a death threat on the other side of this conversation. It means my life is about to be torn apart. My paranoia and delusions should be sending my body into shock. But it doesn’t. I don’t care anymore. Come kill me. Great timing. Bring it the fuck on.

I answer the phone. “What the fuck do you want?”

A long, uncomfortable pause drowns the space where my paranoia should go.

“Um. I—uh. This is Henry Gallagher…correct?” The voice lilts to a warm chirp to disarm my aggression, then back to a weathered growl like sand paper against rock, the way a man talks to another man in a professional setting.

“How do you know that?” I say. “Look, you know where I am: The motherfucking Guilty Sparrow like always, so come down and put one right between the eyes, big guy. I fuckin’ dare you. Give it to me, baby. One-way ticket to Dead Town, population: HENRY. Let’s do this.”

“What are you talking about?”

I look around and realize everyone is staring at me, so I get up and walk outside. When the sun hits I suppress the vomit at the back of my throat. “Alright…who is this?”

“Ahem…this is David West, editor for Lighthouse Publishing. You sent us a manuscript a few months back; we apologize for the delay in getting back to you. …You’re the author of The Skipping Record Waltz, correct?”

I stare out at the row of buildings in front of me. People go in and out with bags in their hands, children on their arms. Dogs are tied up and left at streetlights while their owners buy things they don’t need. I don’t understand what’s happening. Was Lost Weekend real? Can you drink yourself into insanity? Could I reach out and touch them if I wanted, or would this all fall away into the padded white wall of an institution? 

“Yes, I wrote that,” I say. “Who did you say you were?”

“David West, editor for Lighthouse Publishing. Look, Henry—can I call you Henry?”

“Sure, Dave.”

“Great. Henry, I’m gonna cut to the chase: We’ve read your manuscript, and have decided to offer you a publishing contract.”

“You’re fucking with me.”

“No, I’m not…joking with you. We’d like to publish your book. We’ll have The Skipping Record Waltz in major bookstores across the country, in libraries, military bases; audiobook is another option, along with the opportunity for book signings if that’s something you’re open to. We’ll print, market and sell your book. You’ll get a twenty-five percent royalty rate for all books sold, which will go up to thirty percent once…”

I begin to realize that this is an important phone call. I’m wasted for one of the most important phone calls of my life. The voice on the other line drifts away behind a shrill ringing in my ears, but the ringing doesn’t hurt. It’s not alarming. It’s like violins. Thousands of violins playing inside my head. I feel a smile rising up across my face. I feel like screaming, crying, laughing, dancing, singing—anything other than melancholy numbness. I feel present again. It’s like the blood in my body has remembered that at some point it stopped flowing, and with one burst of electric life, all at once every vein has erupted with vibrancy and returned to its forgotten purpose, like watching the power come back on in a major city after a blackout.

“Hello? Henry? Does that all sound good to you?”

“Yes, yeah,” I say. “That sounds fine.”

“Great,” David says. “I’ll send you over the contract by Wednesday and once you sign we’ll get started. What kind of work do you do?”

“Nothing,” I say.

“Oh. For how long?”

“A couple hours.”

“Well. I hope this turns that around for you. Congratulations, Henry. I’ll be in touch.”

“See ya, Dave. Sorry for the murder stuff.”

The call ends. I’m shaking. I sit in the sun for a while, my mouth hanging open. This is one of the best and worst days of my life. This calls for celebration.

I burst through the door and sit back down in the corner. The reflection in the mirror is grinning a big fat stupid grin. Everyone is looking at the reflection in the mirror grinning his big fat stupid grin.

“Well,” says Margaret, “who’s coming to kill you?”

“No one, Marge,” I tell her. “No one is. I’m getting published.”

“I don’t know what that means,” she says.

“I’m getting published,” I say again. The words inflate and barely fit out my mouth as I say them. They’re the best three words I’ve ever spoken. “I’m getting my book published.”

“Book?” says the bartender. “I didn’t know you wrote.”

“I’M GETTING…MY FUCKING BOOK PUBLISHED.” I can’t contain the weight and size of the words any longer. They crawl out of me like a great beast. “FUCK THAT JOB! FUCK RILEY! I’M A PUBLISHED FUCKING AUTHOR.”

“Wow, that’s something,” says Tammy. “Y’know, I just love that Stephen King fella. Now that’s a writer, I’ll tell ya.”

I ignore her. My body is on fire. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m twenty-four and this is the happiest moment of my life.

“ROUND OF DRINKS ON ME,” I shout. “YOU’RE MY BEST GODDAMN FRIENDS, WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER NOW. BILL, YOU DRINK TOO. C’MON, MAN!”

We spend the next half hour drinking and laughing and slapping each other on the back because we’re drunk and I’m getting published and we’re friends now. Even Bill sneaks a Jell-O shot once he’s out of view of the camera.

Then it happens. Like a black wave of sewage water it strikes the back of my muddled head and pierces through the flash of contentment. The elated lightness floating up through my chest is pushed down, and cobwebs are rebuilt in the darkness that replaces it. The universe gave me thirty minutes. And now I am back. While the people around me laugh and spill their drinks, my attention is brought back to the face in the mirror. 

Look at you. This won’t work out. This won’t change a thing. You will still find something to hate yourself for. You are still you. No matter what you accomplish, no matter whom you trick into loving you, you know who are you. None of it changes who you are. You are still broken.

I am sinking further now—no—spinning, as if I’m attached to the end of a great big drill, and I’m relentlessly being ground into the hard earth until the sunlight is barely peaking behind the dirt and soil and worms, and there holding the drill, looming above me, is God, and at that moment I become completely submerged, until I can no longer draw breath, until it’s all I see. And I am left there, a corroded nail serving no purpose but to infect the roots of the plants above me with my rust.

The one thing that I have wanted my entire life, the single accomplishment that I had always told myself would save me from the pit I’ve nothing else but to dig deeper, what I told myself would finally make me happy, has happened. And I am still miserable. The greatest thing I have ever done in my entire life made me happy for thirty goddamn minutes.

My head sinks back into the drink in front of me. The smile fades. The world once more turns eight shades darker. I no longer have something to celebrate. I have yet another tragedy to drown in liquor.

My phone rings. Rebecca is here.

I close my tab, stumble out across the sun-glinted street and collapse into the passenger seat. Rebecca is there staring at me, trying to gauge at what level of inebriation I currently reside.

“You have fun?”

“Yes,” I say. “I made friends.”

“You told me.”

“Good, I’m glad. Let’s get a bottle.”

Rebecca turns off the corner, heading for the freeway. “No. Not until we go to the mall so I can return some clothes. Today you get to practice self-restraint.”

“Clothes?” I shout. “CLOTHES? This is no time to return CLOTHES!”

“It is for me,” she says. “And obviously I can’t leave you alone.”

“I’m not a child,” I mutter, picking at some lint stuck to the collar of my shirt. It’s not until this moment that I realize I’m still wearing my uniform.

“I didn’t say you were.” She slaps my shoulder. “Now put on your seatbelt.”

***

With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 1
With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 2
With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 3

Anthony Dirk Ray

Here’s to New Friends

Harold was planning on making homemade bread, which he loved to do, but was about a cup short of flour. He used a recipe that he found online with 298 reviews, with an average of 4.9 stars. The loaves had always turned out well for him, so there was no need to deviate from this tried, tested and true recipe.

Harold would normally ask his neighbor Molly, but he knew that she was out of town at her mother’s for the weekend. His only other option was the new neighbor Gary. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that Gary was on the sex offender’s list, because they were notified when he moved in, but no one knew exactly why he was on said list. 

Harold wasn’t one to judge, and believed that everyone needed a second chance. He wasn’t going to pass judgment on someone that made a mistake in the past. Harold thought to himself that it was more than likely a huge misunderstanding between an old girlfriend or something, with only their word of events taken into account. 

Harold locked the door behind him and walked over to Gary’s. As he approached the porch, he recognized the colorful day lilies and camellias in the front flower bed. Harold thought to himself that Gary had extremely good taste and was a master of color coordination. The swing on the porch, beside an elephant ear plant in a large pot, gave it a homey feel. Harold thought that Gary just might be his new friend. 

He opened the screen door and knocked. 

“Just a second. I’m coming,” Harold heard from inside. 

He then heard footsteps approaching, and the door opened. 

“Well, Hello. Can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m your neighbor Harold. I live in the blue ranch style house right next door.”

“Oh, yes. I’ve seen you out in your front yard weeding your flower beds. My name is Gary, but you probably already know that.”

“Nice to meet you Gary. I see you have some beautiful flowers yourself there.”

“Thank you very much. I have a young Latino man at the market that has been a total godsend. He has taught me so much.”

“Well, the way you have them arranged is just brilliant. I may get your assistance someday if that’s okay.”

“Of course. I’ll do what I can. Lord knows, I need all the friends I can get. It’s been really trying lately, but thankfully, all of that legal stuff is behind me.”

“Well, that’s good. I can’t imagine how hard it must be.”

“Believe me, you just don’t know. What brings you over?”

“Goodness, my apologies. I am about to make some bread, and unfortunately, I am a hair short on flour. Would you happen to have a little to spare?”

“Of course. I believe I can scrounge some up. Come on in.”

Harold followed Gary into his living room. It was so pristine and organized. The tidiness almost made Harold jealous. There was absolutely no clutter, with seemingly everything in its place.

“Wow, you keep a spotless home,” Harold said, as he marveled at the immaculate neatness that surrounded him. 

“Thanks. It’s mainly just me in here for the most part. I’ll have guests in here on occasion, but it’s extremely rare. Let me get that flour. Make yourself at home. Would you like something to drink?”

“That would be nice. What do you have?”

“I have water and a few sodas, but I also have some imported beer and a great wine selection.”

“Well, if you’ll have a glass too, I’d love some wine.”

“I couldn’t think of a better time to open a bottle than right now with my new friend. Which do you prefer, red or white? I have a luxurious Malbec from Argentina that’s a must if you like reds.”

“That sounds tremendous. I love reds.”

“Excellent. I’ll be right back. I keep the wine in my basement.”

Gary took out a set of keys and unlocked a padlock on a door near the hallway. Harold thought that it was a little strange to have the door locked with a padlock, but he just assumed that he had an expensive wine collection, and possibly other valuables down there. Harold just sat on the couch and looked around, still in awe of the uniformity of everything. 

Gary was gone for about 5 minutes when Harold stood and walked near the door. He thought he heard Gary talking, mixed with other muffled noises. He couldn’t make out the sounds clearly, but they closely resembled a rustling mixed with whispers. This sparked his curiosity.

Harold took a few steps down and called for Gary. There was no answer, and the mysterious sounds suddenly stopped. He descended a few more steps down and noticed what looked like cage material. Only the bottom portion of the cage-like structure could be seen, but Harold swore that he saw what appeared to be feet. 

“Gary. Are you okay?” Harold inquired in a slightly cracked tone.

“Yes, I’m here. I decided to grab two bottles instead. I have them right here.” Gary said, as he came around the corner and swiftly up the stairs, as if to usher Harold back up. 

Once both were out of the stairwell, Gary shut the door and went to the kitchen to open the wine. Harold could hear Gary opening the bottles and getting down glasses. He was confused, yet intrigued by the previous events. Harold wondered what the strange sounds were, why Gary was talking, and what exactly that was that he had seen. 

“You are going to absolutely love this Malbec,” Gary said, as he entered the room and handed Harold a glass.

Harold swirled, sniffed, and sipped the red.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding. This is spectacular.”

Gary put on some light jazz, and the two sat enjoying their drinks. They made small talk about the neighbors that lived close by, the local farmer’s market, and the different cafes in town. Both realized that each were vegans, and the conversation flowed effortlessly between the two. 

Halfway through the second bottle, Harold got up the nerve to ask about what he had heard and seen earlier. 

“Gary, what were those sounds that I heard from your basement? I swore that I saw what looked to be feet behind cages. What was that?”

Gary shrugged, shook his head from side to side, grinned, and in a nonchalant tone said,

“Oh, don’t mind them. That’s just my suffering suckboy stash.”

Harold took a long pull from his wine glass, placed it on the table, and casually made his way down the stairs to the basement. 

Otto Burnwell

Accidentally Shot for a Deer

You stare at your fiancé kneeling between your legs. She looks up at you, your crank in her hand, her lips wet, her lipstick not quite rubbed away.

You’d asked her a question you meant for a compliment. The kind of nonsense question you might blurt out when a woman has you so close to a climax that unruly words fly out of your mouth.

Now you wish you hadn’t. You were not prepared for her answer that would make you an accessory-after-the-fact to murder.

You were tense. She asked if it was pre-wedding jitters. You let her think that was it. So, she led you to the bathroom, sat you on her mom’s vanity stool, and went to work making magic with her mouth.

It didn’t take long to melt the tension, because she is spectacular. Her head bobbing, coming down left, lifting, coming down right, taking you all the way in. Her nose brushes against the skin of your belly. It’s somehow more intimate and immediate than her tongue on your balls. She had you breathing harder, making that long, elastic moan that let her know how fine a time you were having, and what a great job she was doing.

Loosened up like that, the question popped out of you.

“How did you get to be so good at this?”

It was unintended, but it was not a totally random question. You did mean it to be a compliment. For as long as you two have been together, you often wondered how she acquired such a delightful skill.

But last night you had all the more reason to wonder how she achieved such oral artistry.

Some guys from her graduating class got together and hauled you off to the Horseman out on Division Road for a pre-wedding boozer. It didn’t take many drinks before they got around to celebrating your fiancé’s magnificent mouth. They all had opinions on what you could expect if you lived long enough to reach your honeymoon, but they denied any personal experience to back it up.

You played the good sport, went along with the joking. She’s allowed to have a past. As long as it stays in the past.

But one thing you did notice was the way they denied any first-hand knowledge of her talent seemed less about saving your feelings and more about convincing each other.

The question remained at the forefront of your mind this morning. It kept you keyed up, which you tried passing off as those pre-wedding jitters. Which led your fiancé to prevent you getting cold feet by hauling you aside and sucking you off. The question, percolating in your head, popped free when your brain was otherwise engaged.

You didn’t really want an answer. You figured she would hum an appreciative “mm-hmm” that would buzz you through her lips.

But she didn’t. She sat back on her heels, still holding your pecker, rubbing her thumb over the tip.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked, and you said, “what?” because your brain wasn’t taking messages at the time as you savored how your entire nervous system melted into a hot, liquid state.

“Do you really want to know?” she repeated, and now you floated up through the fog of fellatio to focus on what she was saying.

“How I got to be so good,” she said. “At this,” she added, waggling your pecker like a sock.

“Sure,” you said. Because you did. Even before the guys last night, you would let yourself drift into fantasies about how she mastered the mechanics of oral sex. You would imagine her studying the geography of the penis in a Biology class full of girls. Or practicing on toys and vegetables with her girlfriends at slumber parties. Or fumbling with the real thing on one or more of those guys from last night.

“Did somebody say something?”

“When?”

“Last night?”

“Last night? No. Nothing special.”

“What did they say?”

“They talked about a lot of things.” You told her you couldn’t recall all that much, there was so much to drink, but you were deflating in her grip, an inverse Pinocchio, shrinking the more you lied.

She leaned forward, mouthing you a little bit more, as you tried to conjure some great distractor to put her back on track.

“All I meant,” you said, “was how good you are. Like you studied.” You don’t know when to shut up when you’re nervous, or embarrassed, or lying. With your dick between the teeth of a woman you know can get really angry. Whose years of orthodontia would ensure a clean bite-through if she decides to take your balls off.

“I’ll tell you,” she says, “since you asked. But you promise not to freak out?”

“Freak out?”

“I just don’t want you freaking out.”

So you prepared yourself to hear her tell you it was every one of those guys. Like a lending library of dicks checked out to take home and practice.

“Sure.”

You held your breath.

Instead—

Instead, she starts off by telling you her nickname from back then. Two-by-four. It made her insecure having a younger sister already wearing a full bra, and herself still flatter than a baloney sandwich. It frustrated her, making her feel insecure. She mentioned it to Doc who lived next door. A friend of the family. Not a doctor doctor, but an assistant professor at the community college. A teacher tutoring her in math. He was way older, not someone she thought twice about. She felt safe mentioning it to him, treating it like a joke. After a few times, he told her a trick he knew that was guaranteed to help girls fill out. Very scientific, he said. Kind of like a jump-start to wake up the reproductive system. Guaranteed safe, he told her. One hundred percent natural ingredients. You might not like the taste at first, he told her, but it only works if you swallow.

Of course, she wanted to believe him. He taught college. Read books and stuff. He was way smart. It made a kind of sense. She thought it worth a try.

“You can learn a lot, she said, from a horny guy who lives alone.”

“Shit.” The thought of your fiancé’s mouth wrapped around some old guy’s donk was creepy. That seemed worse than a bunch of kids her own age experimenting on each other.

“Yes.” She flicked you with her fingernail, but it was siesta time for Mr. Pony.

Shit.

“Is he going to be at the wedding,” you asked, because you already hate the smirk on his face as you two face each other in the receiving line after the ceremony.

“No,” she said.

“Good.”

“He’s dead.”

“Good.”

“Out hunting with Daddy and Uncle Peck. Accidentally shot for a deer.”

You were relieved. You won’t have to look the guy in the eye and see a merry little twinkle of mischief, seeing himself as some kind of old stud, in her mouth long before you were. You said out loud, “Sorry to hear,” but not really. Then it registered.

“Shot? Hunting with your Dad and your uncle?”

“Yes.”

“An accident?”

“Everybody says so. I wasn’t the first one he ‘helped,’” she air-quotes with her free hand.

Shit.

“You should count yourself lucky,” she says.

“Why?”

“I couldn’t get near anyone else after that.” She gives you a long lick.

“But an accident?” you repeat, like you may have to get out a dictionary and read the definition to her to be certain you both mean the same thing.

“Says it on the coroner’s report. Accidentally shot for a deer. You can go look it up if you want. Just—”

“What?”

“Don’t mention it to Mom. And do not go hunting with Daddy and Uncle Peck until after we’re married.”

You tense up all over again, because her father’s mentioned to you how it might be a good time to get some shooting in.

You’ve gone soft. You’re worse than soft. A penis made of cotton. If a negative erection is possible that’s what you’ve got. You may never be hard ever again. She keeps thumbing your dick like there might yet be life in it. She nips at you with her lips tucked over her teeth, sucking as she pulls it out, making that popping sound.

She stretches your pecker like a chew toy. “You know I’m kidding, right?”

You push out a chuff that you hope passes for a chuckle. You try to focus on your fiancé, the way she’s swallowing you, and massaging the taut cords of your thighs as you spread to give her room.

You tense up again and lift your head to look her in the eye. “Which part were you kidding about?”

She doesn’t say, her mouth full. She just gives a shrug and a throaty chirp dismissing your question.

Then, just as you’re hoping to ease back into a world-class blow job to take your mind off your future father- and uncle-in-law maybe killing the guy who taught your fiancé such stellar tricks with that tongue of hers, she adds—

“Hey? You think when they got Doc out there, it was like that scene? From that movie? You know? Like in Deliverance?”

Fuck.

Benjamin Welton

The Horror of the High Wind House

Officers McCabe and Smythe sat in their patrol car. They were familiar enough with each other to be comfortable with silence. McCabe, a wannabe foodie, enjoyed the last of his wife’s ravioli. Smythe, a self-styled intellectual, looked out across the windshield. He focused on a random spot in the inky black horizon. He stared at nothing in particular, just like he had been trained to do so many years ago in boot camp. 

The radio call interrupted both men. 

“You boys win the prize call of the night. Possible break-in at 415 North Shore Drive. Don’t keep the little lady waiting.” 

Sergeant Hetzel never bothered with formalities when making radio calls. Everyone knew he was close to retirement, so they gave up trying to correct him. 

“10-4. We are en-route. ETA in six minutes.” 

McCabe snickered at the unnecessary professionalism of his older colleague. 

“Hey, someone has to do it right around here,” Smythe said. 

“Nobody has done a damn thing right on this island for hundreds of years,” McCabe said with finality. 

The black and white patrol car made a series of small turns before finding the flat dirt road that led to 415 North Shore Drive. The house stood alone, flanked by a parking lot.

The caller stood outside of the house in her all-white pajamas. Her disheveled hair and lack of footwear made both officers understand that this was a serious call—a call made during a panic. 

“Please, help. I think somebody is in my house.” 

“Where are they?” McCabe asked with a sense of urgency. 

“I think down in the basement.” 

“You ‘think’ or do you know for sure?” 

“I don’t know. I hear weird stuff every night, but this time it was so loud and scary. Please! I really think there’s a prowler down there.” 

“Okay, just calm down. We’ll go take a look. You can stay here or sit in the car if you prefer.” 

The woman just stood there and continued to shake. Smythe, the senior man, took point. He and McCabe moved through the house slowly, making sure to clear every room they saw. Given that the house was a massive edifice and full of rooms, closets, and off-kilter alcoves, this took quite a long time. When they were finally done, both men were damp with perspiration. 

“I don’t think anyone is in here,” McCabe said. 

“We still gotta check the basement,” Smythe added. 

McCabe moaned and complained about the size of the house – four stories tall with several apartments on each floor. He also noted how dark it was inside, the overhead lighting failing to illuminate the many deep patches of gloom. 

“You know what this place was, right?” 

McCabe shook his head. 

“Used to be an insane asylum at the turn of the last century. Back then they thought lobotomies and icepicks worked to unscramble sick brains. From what I heard, they turned out a lot of vegetables in the years the place was open. Also abused kids and female patients. One guy, I don’t remember what his name was, was known all across the island as Dr. Satan. Crazy, right?” 

“So how did a home for lunatics come to be the home of some mainlander?”

McCabe, a lifelong islander, used the derogative term for those from outside of the island. It was obvious that the frightened tenant wasn’t a pure local given her lack of the distinctive island brogue. 

“Well, first they tried to turn it into a regular hospital. Then, when I was growing up, it was a home for unwed mothers. Back in those days it was shameful to have a baby out-of-wedlock, so wealthy families from Prince Frederick or Leonardtown would hole up their wayward daughters here until they gave birth. Then the unwanted baby would be put up for adoption in Baltimore or D.C. When that fizzled out, I guess they turned it into apartments.” 

“And she lives here all alone? Pretty nuts.” 

“Yeah, I agree. Maybe it was her cheapest option. I wouldn’t live here, that’s for sure. The guy that trained me, the late, great Captain Brock, hated this place with a passion. Called it the ‘High Wind House’ because of all the false alarm calls they used to get out here. Nurses and others would call about prowlers or burglars, but Captain Brock always said the true culprit was the high winds coming off the Chesapeake.” 

“Any other spooky tales you want to tell me before we finally go down into the basement?” 

“The only other thing I ever heard about this place was so ridiculous that Mrs. Lewis gave me a D- on a class project for repeating it. The guy who built the first home on the island lived right here. His name was Lord Insoll. An English Catholic and a friend of the Calvert family. Came to the island and built a plantation in the 1660s. He got rich fast, then just as suddenly the locals burned down his house and drove him back to England.” 

“What did ye ole Lord Insoll do?” 

“Stories say he was a tyrannical master to his slaves. Kept them chained up in his cellar. Starved and tortured them for his own sadistic pleasure. May have even been a local rapist, ravaging black and white women alike. Sixth grade me did not focus on that though, but rather on the legend that Lord Insoll was a psychotic war vet who had laid waste to most of Bohemia and Germany during some religious war. His best friend and partner-in-crime was a fallen Catholic priest who cursed him after some double dealing involving property, a castle along the Rhine. Supposedly turned Lord Insoll into a werewolf. Would go a long way toward explaining why we have so many damn dog attacks here.” 

Smythe laughed at the absurdity, but McCabe didn’t. The island did suffer from particularly vicious dogs, after all. Just last week, he’d responded to a call concerning an elderly woman who’d nearly had her leg torn off by a pack of feral hounds in the woods. 

“Alright. Enough campfire stories. Let’s clear the basement and go home. We’ve earn our money tonight, partner.” 

Smythe took point again and led McCabe down to the first floor, past the entrance, and past the tiled kitchen. In a tight hallway, on the right-hand side, stood a black door. It had not been painted black, but had rather turned black over time due to mold, rust, and peeling white paint. It smelled dank like an ancient root cellar. Both officers scrunched up their noses in disgust. 

“God,” McCabe said, “I hope the rest of the basement doesn’t smell like this.”

“It probably does,” Smythe chuckled, slowly prying open the door. 

Cautiously they descended into the cavernous space on steps that were nearly rotted through. The immense size of the basement bothered both men. Each corner turned at a sharp angle. There were many empty rooms, small, forgotten cells all covered in dust. Without speaking to each other, both men realized that some of the more dangerous inmates must have served time down here in solitary confinement.

Following the beams of their flashlights, McCabe and Smythe finally came to the end of the basement. Another blackened door. This one opened up into an expansive room with high brick walls. For some inexplicable reason, the concrete floor was colder here than anywhere else.

“Check out the walls. They’re leaking.” 

Smythe pointed his flashlight at the rivulets of liquid coming from the crevices in the masonry. At first it appeared to be simple water, but after smelling a sample which made him gag, he feared that it was some kind of sewage. 

“Remember to wash your hands before we leave, you sicko,” McCabe said. 

“The crap is in my nose now. God, it smells so awful. What does that lady eat?” 

“That is powerful stuff, man. I can smell it too.” 

Both officers erupted into coughing fits. McCabe used his forearm to shove Smythe away. He warned him to keep that rotten water all to himself, but the stench only grew stronger all around them. 

Through wet eyes, Smythe noticed the odd patch darkness in the far corner of the room. Somehow it appeared even blacker than the unlit room itself, and even darker than the starless night outside. 

“Hey McCabe. Look right there.” 

McCabe followed his partner’s finger. 

“You see that, right?” 

Rather than reply, McCabe raised his pistol and shouted “This is the police!” in the direction of the black mass. Smythe raised his own gun as well, but there was no response. 

Then, without warning, all ambient noise ceased. The silence was the opposite of calming. At the same time, the intensity of the awful stench grew inside their noses, forcing Smythe to double over and retch. McCabe steadied himself by leaning against the nearest wall.

As they tried to compose themselves, the strange black mass seemed to draw nearer. It moved as if animated by some elemental force — neither animal nor human. When McCabe and Smythe looked up, they watched in horror as the mass began to expand and swallow up everything before them, the spreading darkness threatening to envelope both men. 

Bright flecks of crimson light appeared within the black mass, serving as a backlight to the deep darkness of its indefinable shape. Both men saw different things within it.

Smythe saw a series of endless gateways – large, hoary arches framing cyclopean scenes that reminded him of ancient churchyards. He remained transfixed as they projected toward him, replaying the same scenes over over and again. The more he focused on the images, the more he felt convinced that the infinite sea of arches was as real as anything he’d seen. 

What McCabe saw was far more personal – a mass of festering black worms and maggots feasting on a woman’s corpse. It looked like his wife, although Miranda McCabe’s perpetual smile had been replaced by a ragged gash of yellowed teeth and putrid flesh. With each bite, the vermin grew bigger and blacker.

He tried to kill the awful image from his mind by unloading his magazine into it. Smythe swiftly followed suit. The crack and boom of their .40-caliber rounds sounded like an artillery barrage within the cloying space. 

Their shots had no effect, and the mass continued its advance. The atrocious stench worsened as well, prompting McCabe’s typically iron stomach to empty out its contents in a hemorrhagic flood. Both officers were forced to their knees in semi supplication. Their sweat, tears, vomit, and noseblood commingled on the cold concrete in a palette of sheer horror.

Without thinking, Smythe reached into his uniform and down past his white undershirt. He grabbed hold of his small golden crucifix, tore off the entire necklace, and desperately flung it at the unholy black mass.

And with that, the oppression suddenly ceased. The room remained as dark as before, but the mass of vast blackness had evaporated instantly.

“What the hell was that?” McCabe asked. 

“I think exactly what you just said. Hell.” 

“What was that you threw at it?” 

Rather than answer, Smythe stood up, balanced himself, and slowly staggered out of the room. McCabe followed after him. The men kept quiet as they doubled back through the basement and up the rotten stairs. The first to break the silence, Smythe, only spoke after theyd made it outside of the house entirely. 

“A crucifix. I threw my cross at it.” 

“It was…evil?” McCabe asked. 

“Who knows? But the trick seemed to work.”

The younger man drank in the cool night air, while Smythe took a seat on the porch steps, slowly pulling himself together. The joy of making it out of the basement alive was written on both of their faces. But McCabe’s face turned sour just as quickly when he realized something else.

“Wait, where’s the tenant?” 

“What?”

“The tenant? Where’d she go?” 

The woman was nowhere in sight. 

“C’mon, she couldn’t have gone far. We have to go and find her.” 

The officers piled in their cruiser and hit the gas.

Neither bothered to ask where they were going. Smythe drove down the dirt road and back out onto High Street, the main thoroughfare on the island. They paid no mind to the low fog that had presently begun to accumulate on the road before them. They were far too concerned with finding the missing tenant, wherever she’d run off to. 

They found the night strangely empty. Even High Street, home to several townie bars with their own booze king regulars, was devoid of all life. Even the streetlights glowed dimmer than usual. It was so unsettling that McCabe pulled up the cruiser’s shotgun from the center console and cradled it in his arms like the world’s most dangerous toddler. Smythe busied himself with the radio. He called several times for Sergeant Hetzel, receiving no reply. 

Again, just as in the basement of the High Wind House, a deep, despairing silence suddenly filled the cruiser. Smythe tried the radio again but found only static. As the car slowly crawled to a halt, the two men observed their increasingly darkening surroundings. Mere moments passed before the jittery McCabe couldn’t take it anymore, stepping right out into the thick of it.

“Hello! Is there anyone out there? We’re searching for a missing woman!” 

Nobody answered McCabe. Smythe stayed put in the car, giving him an eye-level view of the fog all around them. It grew in height and density as McCabe continued his pointless calls for help. Smythe watched in horror as the grayness slowly faded into black. The old familiar fog, a daily presence on the island, now seemed a menacing miasma.

Meanwhile, Smythe had lost McCabe up ahead, but he could still hear him calling out for help. He exited the cruiser with his pistol raised and a fresh magazine in place. Using McCabe’s voice as a guide, he began moving parallel with his partner, following him into the darkness as well.

“Phil?”

McCabe’s use of Smythe’s first name came as an obvious warning that something was very wrong. 

“Yeah?”

“I think there’s something out there, but I can’t quite see what it is.” 

“What do you think it is?” 

“I don’t know. Maybe a person. Maybe it’s the tenant.” 

“Or maybe it’s that thing from the basement.” 

“I was just thinking that. You got another cross?” 

“No. You?” 

“Nope.”

“So what do we do?” McCabe asked. 

“We move onward,” Smythe replied. “It’s really all we can do.” 

“Okay. Slow and steady now, alright?” 

“Yeah.”

Gingerly they began to walk forward, as if the ground beneath them were as fragile as ice. Occasionally, one or the other would catch something familiar deep within the fog. The light of the Sunoco station sign. The faint rattle of the ice machine outside of the Island Getaway Motel. The two of them walked for what felt like hours, seeking what it was they could not find. 

Then came the sound of the wind. An ominous, dull roar that stopped them both dead in their tracks. McCabe racked his shotgun and gulped.

“What was that?” he whispered.

“Listen!” Smythe hissed in response. 

The sound of the wind grew stronger and stronger until it resembled a pack of howling dogs. And yet, the cool night air remained just as calm as could be. Somehow, the noise seemed to be coming from within the fog itself.

Strange shapes began to materialize in the darkness, canine forms melting into existence before their very eyes. Both men lost their last strands of sanity before the first fangs were even bared.

Daniel S. Irwin

Holmes Again

“Mister Holmes, I’m glad you’re here.”
“Always warming to be appreciated, constable. Fortunately, Doctor Watson and I were in the neighborhood sampling gutter whores. What have we here?”
“Seems this man, what was lodging here, has met his untimely end, head removed and all.”
“Good Lord, Holmes, what a ghastly mess!”
“Indeed, Watson.  Let’s see….hmm, quite a bit of blood loss, no sign of struggle. Do you notice anything unusual, Doctor?”
“Head’s gone, just as the constable said.”
“Watson! The man’s head is gone! I believe this to be…murder.”
“Great huge knockers! How do you do it, Holmes?”
“Years of training, Watson. We must examine the clues. Look, there’s a brown substance on the floor.  Doctor Watson, what do you make of it?”
“Well, let me peruse a small sample. It’s still warm…interesting texture…pungent aroma…can’t quite place it. Taste always tells more…yuck! That’s horrible tasting stuff! Holmes! It’s horse shit!”
“Just as I suspected. It’s all over the streets of London. We’ve got it on our shoes. The killer came from outside of this building!”
“Amazing, Holmes.”
“Of course. Now for the weapon…the fiend! He used a P.T. Barnum fat lady!”
“But, Mister Holmes, how can that be?”
“I propose, constable, that the killer, in his cunningly crafty plan, drugged a very bulky, huge P.T. Barnum fat lady, brought her here, placed the victim’s head between her massive thighs, and in tickling her with a feather, caused her to contract her fleshy legs, thus snapping the victim’s head clean away from the torso.”
“Egad, Holmes! Not the dreaded fat lady cunt snatch!”
“Watson, must you continually utter those ridiculous remarks of astonishment? There should be a great deal of gold or jewels missing from this flat,”
“But, Holmes, look about you. This man obviously was a pauper.”
“A clever ruse to throw us off, Watson.”
“The killer redecorated?”
“The working of an insane mind, Watson. But, he missed one thing. Do you see the opened book across the room?”
“What about it?”
 “A clue, man, a clue. After the attack, the victim must have desperately struggled to reach the book to leave a clue as to the identity of his assailant.”
“Holmes, the wanker’s head was removed. Wouldn’t that be difficult for him?”
“Yes, Watson. Such determination is to be admired. Aha! Nothing is marked on the pages to which the book is opened. So, the book, itself, being opened is the clue. Opened? Opened? I’ve got it! Watson, what else is opened?”
“The door to your room at the asylum, I hope.”
“Yes, Doctor Watson. And ‘door’ rhymes with ‘stevedore’. Stevedores load trunks onto ships. Trunks are also found on elephants. Elephants live in Africa. Africa has jungles. Jungles have pygmies. Watson, do you see?”
“No, but I haven’t been smoking the same thing you have.”
“He’s telling us that the killer was a small man.”

Knock, knock

“Hello, what’s all this?”
“Mister Holmes, this is Mister Angus, he collects the rent in this building.”
“Thank you, constable. Mister Angus, you appear to be a small, putrid, cream puff of a man. What’s your business here?”
“What? You can’t hear? I collect the rent. My uncle owns this boarding house. Inherited it, he did, before I was born.”
“There, constable, that’s your man!”
“How’s that, Mister Holmes?”
“It’s all clear as a cow pie in Hereford. Gentlemen we have uncovered a diabolical plan for murder.  Mister Angus arranged for his uncle to inherit this building before his birth, which allowed him to secure the position of rent collector avoiding undue notice, knowing that, one day, his intended victim would be hauling treasure into this very room. What say you to that, Mister Angus?”
“Go stuff yourself! It’s all lies! Lies!”
“Proof positive! The first sign of guilt within a sick mind is denial! Your denial has sealed your doom, Mister Angus. Justice will be served. Constable, take him away!”
“Thank you, Mister Holmes. With evidence as strong as what you’ve given us, he’ll be hanged, without need of a trial, within the hour.”
“Another crime solved, eh Holmes?”
“It feels good, doesn’t it, Watson? It’s starting to rain. We forgot an umbrella.”
“Maybe there’s one in the closet. What? Holmes! There’s a rather large man, covered with blood, in the closet. He has a meat cleaver in one hand and a head, recently severed at the neck in the other. My good man, what are you doing in there?”
“I chopped the bloke’s ‘ead off. I like killing, I do. Kills them where I finds them.”
“Holmes!  Here is the murderer, not Mister Angus!”
“Nonsense, Watson. The poor fellow probably just wandered into that closet by mistake.”
“Holmes, you egotistical fruitcake! They’re going to hang an innocent man. We must tell the police that we were wrong!”
“Steady on, old thing. We could NEVER do that.”
“And, pray tell why not, Holmes?”
“Elementary my dear Watson. To admit we were wrong would be….damned un-British.”
“I say, Holmes! I hadn’t thought of that. You’re right, again.”
“Rue Britannia, Watson.”
“Rue Britannia, Holmes.”
“Now, let’s go do those tarts.”

Anthony Dirk Ray

Road Dog

John was an over the road truck driver. He had a wife of 15 years named Kim. He would be at home one week out of the month on average. Kim worked part time as a receptionist at the Douglas Firm, and as a server on weekend nights at The Starry Eye Saloon. When they first got married, it was difficult for John to leave out on a run; but now, it’s as if he couldn’t wait to get back on the road. That’s when Kim decided to take a job waitressing on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at the town’s most popular strip club. 

Kim was getting ready to go into work at the club on a Friday night when she called John. 

He answered in an annoyed tone, as if he was being bothered, “Hello?” 

“Wow, you answered.” 

“Yeah, I’m about to lay down. What’s up?”

“Just wanted to talk to you for a minute before I go in. Where are you at now?”

“Huh? Yeah, umm, I’m outside of Dallas. I have a few stops out here and a few in the city, then I’ll be headed west.”

“Well, okay. The club job is paying well, but Jim is still flirting with me.”

There was silence, and Kim swore that she heard a female’s voice and giggling.

“Hello?” Kim said, in an agitated yet concerned tone.

“Umm, yeah, I’m here. Sorry. What did you say?”

“Jim keeps saying I’m wasting my talents waitressing. That I should be stripping. He said I have too good of a body not to. It’s making me feel uncomfortable.”

“Look, if he thinks you have what it takes, I say go for it. We could use the extra money. But don’t do anything to jeopardize the job you have now. Jesus, Kim. Do I have to hold your goddamn hand through this too?”

“It’s just that I don’t….”

“I need to get some sleep. I’ll call you in a day or two,” he interrupted.

John hung up the phone, laid back on the pillows in his sleeper, and continued getting what was said would be, ‘the best head outside of Dallas’. At that moment, John could not argue with such pristine logic. She was good. Hell, she ought to be, John thought. She’s had enough practice. Plus, the missing teeth never hurt. He worked one up, and blew it right to the back of her throat. John gave her the twenty dollars she requested, and a beer for the road to cleanse her palate. 

Kim was having a rough night. There was a feature dancer in town from Dallas, and the club was packed with horny guys with big cowboy hats and even bigger belt buckles. She was running from the bar to the stage, back to the bar, and to the private rooms all night. A fella named Jimbo in one of the private rooms offered her $1000 to go home with him, which she kindly declined. Kim knew that her relationship was probably past mending, but she wasn’t going to be the villain in this movie. 

She was out back on her only break of the night smoking a cigarette, when the feature dancer came out and asked her for a light. The two chatted while they smoked. Kim envied her confidence, and the dancer’s curvaceous body made her slightly jealous. The subject of home life and men came up. The dancer told Kim that she traveled so much, that having a normal relationship was out of the question. Kim spoke of John, and how he was hardly ever home. She opened up about his infidelity as well, and the two verbally crucified the trucker. Kim returned to the grind, and the dancer to grinding.

John woke and made the few pickups outside the city and headed to bustling Dallas. He had been there before, and absolutely detested the traffic. John inched and weaved through a web of highways and exits, and made all of his pickups by 6 p.m. He was ready for a shower and a six pack. He had a long haul ahead of him to California. John liked the girls at the truck stops in California. He thought about all the good times he had with the Mexican girls out there. He hoped that he could find his favorite though. She was a stacked black girl, with big tits and a huge ass, that he had seen a couple of times in the past. John loved her enormous ass, and how it completely engulfed his cock in the reverse cowgirl position. He was getting hard just thinking about it.

John pulled into the truck stop around 7 p.m. It was packed, but he finally found a spot near the back. He got his change of clothes, wallet, and toiletries, and headed to the showers. After his shower, he got dressed and went into the main store area to get him some beer. John wanted nothing more than to down a few brews and pass out watching his Gunsmoke DVD.

As he headed to pay for the beer, a sexy blonde in a summer dress caught his eye. She was looking at the roadmap section near the register. While he was in line, they made eye contact a few times and John made his way toward her.

“Well, hey there cutie. You’re looking for a map I see. Are you and your husband lost?”

“Oh, no. I’m not lost. I have GPS on my phone, I’m just looking at these brochures of attractions and places to see nearby. I’m just casually making my way to my sister’s place in Arizona. I haven’t had the problem of a husband in quite some time. Thank God.”

They both laugh and continue small talk about the weather, how terrible fast food is, and the huge statue of a weiner out by the road. John wanted to make a dick joke then, but thought it would be inappropriate, so he put a kibosh on that. She surprised him, when she said, “If you have even half of that, then I’m going with you.”

John gave her a devilishly carnal grin, and said, “You might just have to find out. Hell, what’s your name?”

“Sorry, I’m Liza,” she said, as she extended her hand toward John.

He took her hand in his and said, “Liza. That’s a beautiful name.”

John held her delicate hand and could not get over how soft it was. He looked down at her perfectly painted nails and back up at her flawless smiling face and said, “Hell, Liza. I have all this beer to drink, and no one to drink it with. Would you like to have a few with me and continue this?”

Liza looked around as if she was contemplating saying no, but with a burst of exuberance, she said, “Get that pint of Jack Daniel’s there, and you have yourself a drinking buddy.”

John got a fifth of Jack and they headed to his truck. John walked behind Liza and watched her ass sway with every stride she took. He stared at her sexy golden legs. Her sun-kissed skin shimmered in the brightness of the store’s large overhead lights on poles. John was used to the company of average to below average women, but Liza was leaps and bounds above them all, and most of all, she wasn’t a lot lizard.

They arrived at the truck and John unlocked it and got in. He grabbed her hand to help her up, and couldn’t help but notice the absence of a bra. Her sundress scrunched up in the front, exposing her exquisite, bronzed breasts. Once inside, John showed her around his tiny, traveling apartment. She told him it was quaint and homey. John opened them both a beer and poured some whiskey in his coffee mug. They drank and talked about John’s job, his life on the road, and his failing marriage. John found it easy to talk to Liza. He thought, she’s a beautiful woman, and she actually listens to me.

With the fifth about half empty, Liza turned to John and said, “This whiskey is making me hot.”

“You want me to turn down the a.c. a little?”

“No, that’s alright. I know what I’ll do.”

Liza stood as best as she could in the tiny space, pulled her sundress up over her head and tossed it at John.

“There. That’s better. You don’t mind do you?”

John looked up and down the sexy, bronzed female form in front of him and said, “Hell no. Not at all. Mind if I join you?”

“I was kinda hoping you would. Here let me help.”

Liza moved close to John on the tiny twin bed and began undressing him. As she unbuttoned each button on his shirt, she would kiss from his neck and down his chest. She pulled his pants down and continued her kisses downward. John laid back and Liza bobbed and licked. She crawled up toward him and mounted. Liza’s warm wetness enveloped him completely as she took him all in.

Afterwards they laid there, sweaty and exhausted. He told her to stay with him for the night, and in the morning, he would get her contact info so he could keep in touch with her.

When John woke the next morning Liza was gone. He figured she’d just gone inside to get some coffee. He noticed a piece of paper with some writing on it, and hoped she left her number for him. John wiped the sleep from his eyes, picked up the paper and read it.

John, I had a blast last night. Thanks for the drinks. Jack makes me a little wild, so sorry if I hurt you. I have to confess that our meeting wasn’t as random as you may have thought. My dancer friend told me about you. She let me know where you would be, and said that I should show you a good time. I sure hope you enjoyed yourself.

P.S. Your wife wants a divorce. Also, you should never judge a book by its cover. You might want to go get tested. Liza

Hank Kirton

Lydia and the Cluttered Yard

Lydia and I secretly dropped acid on the way to Paragon Park which was an amusement park in Hull, Massachusetts. It’s long gone now. Lydia and I were in the marching band together. She played the flute, beautifully, and I beat the bass drum like a caveman. The whole band got excused from regular classes to spend the day at the park, so in that sense it was a field trip. Lydia and I had already tried acid and we both found it fun. It was a fun trip, exploring our minds in a dazzling new way. Our hallucinations matched; watching things soften and melt, shooting moondrops from our fingernails, etc. The idea was to merge two fun things into one BIG FUN. It seemed like a sensible plan. But when we got to the park and the acid lit up our brains we grew nervous and the two funs conflicted with each other. We were afraid to go on the rides. The crowds grew monstrous. The funs cancelled each other out and we were anxious to go home and let things wear off. The bus ride back felt like a slow-motion emergency.

Lydia’s family moved away the next year and I never heard from her again. I don’t even remember her last name.

There was a long circuitous road in my hometown called Ichabod Lane (yes, really). 27 Ichabod Lane was an old dump of a house that was rotting apart. It had peeling tar paper on the sides and windows with broken, patched-up panes. I always wanted to take a picture of that house because of the stuff in front of it. There was so much furniture in the yard. Enough for three houses. Bureaus and tables. A bed with a sodden, ruptured mattress. A tipped-over stove. A bathtub filled with rusted car parts. A rusted car. That yard went on and on in its strange way.  Crowded and loud and teeming with chaos and confusion.

I never did get around to taking a picture of it and eventually the yard was cleared and cleaned up and the house was torn down. By then it was too late. Today it’s a vacant lot.

Nowadays people take pictures all the time but I never did and still don’t. I’m keeping my yard clean.

***

From: Everything Dissolves

Ralph Benton

Spring Cleaning

He woke to the stench of vomit. The stink made him sick all over again. He barely managed to get his head over the side of the sofa before his guts churned and heaved and twisted. His stomach was empty, of course, so all he could do was spasm uselessly and bring up clear yellow bile and spit. This went on for several minutes.

He wiped his mouth on the cushion, then lay back and breathed. His whole torso ached with the effort. He blinked at the ceiling. How could his gut burn so badly? Ulcers were for middle-aged suits, not dudes like him.

This has to stop. It has to.

He rolled over, sat up on the sofa, and took a deep breath. His nose filled with the smell from the pail on the floor. The deep, musty funk of the sofa, his sheetless bed for the last nine months. There was something rancid in the sink he hadn’t wanted to look at for at least three days. And his own self. His own bitter, acrid stink. He didn’t move for a long time. At least he wasn’t spinning. That was the worst. He opened his eyes and looked at the coffee table.

Sometime last night Billy’s dip cup had spilled, and foul black saliva was drying on the cracked glass. Empty cans of Bud Light, an empty fifth of Fireball, and two empty plastic bottles of Popov vodka, the cheapest stuff they could find. When did Billy leave? Two? Four? No idea. He had a vague memory of the two of them on the sofa, staring at some titty flick on mute, drinking vodka out of coffee mugs.

He found the remote between the sticky pillows of the sofa, but the TV wouldn’t come on. What the fuck. No TV? It was Sunday, at least let him watch some football. The little blue light stubbornly refused to illuminate. He tossed the remote across the sofa.

He decided to risk standing up. If he stood too fast he might black out. Or throw up. He put his hands on his knees and levered himself upright. Slowly. Not so bad. He had to empty the pail or he’d lose it again. He picked it up with one hand and held it as far from his face as he could. Head turned, he made for the bathroom. Just dump it down the drain, wash it out, you’re good to go. You got this.

He put his bare foot in a puddle of Bud Light or piss or something, and sprawled. The bucket bounced and spilled. Fuck me. Fuck. Me. He lay there. When did this become his life, lying on the floor of a filthy bathroom, watching a yellow puddle spread across the floor? He stood up, careful to avoid the now-mingled fluids, and closed the door. He went to the kitchen and pissed in the sink. Maybe this will kill whatever’s living in there.

He looked down at his bare torso, the sparse hairs, the scabs and pimples. So white. Like those cave animals in that video. Eighth grade? When he sat next to Monica Tullerio, and tried to peek down her shirt when he stood up. “Jesus, Todd, how about just one day without you eyeballing me, huh, can you go one fucking day?” He laughed it off, but didn’t look again all semester.

From eighth grade to now, and still a nasty little piece of shit. Self-loathing and rage swirled into the hangover headache and made his brain shriek. He grabbed his head with both hands and tried to squeeze his skull into a little ball, because somehow that made it feel better.

He let go to pound his fist on the sticky kitchen counter. He had to change. Make his life different. Please. He looked around his apartment.

The garbage can was filled to overflowing, because of course it was. He found trash bags in the pantry. Cleo had bought those months ago, but she didn’t come over anymore. He jammed everything he could find into the bags. Beer cans, cups, the dishes in the sink. He got an old t-shirt and wiped up the vomit and threw that away. He made three trips to the dumpster. The work gradually burned through the headache. Damn it felt good. 

After hours of work the place didn’t smell as bad, especially since he had opened the window. The TV flickered with football once he figured out that the remote’s signal had been blocked by a beer can. Like a goddamned rocket scientist.

But most of all, the booze was gone. Right? That was the important part. Some nagging part of him that didn’t trust him – Cleo? his mother? – told him to look again and make sure.

He opened the freezer door. A Popov bottle lay on its side. What was it doing in the freezer? He rewound the clip in his mind from when he cleared the coffee table. All the bottles were empty, weren’t they? No, not all. This one still had a couple of fingers left. He couldn’t remember what happened next, but he must have put the bottle in the freezer. He turned the bottle to the light. The clear liquid, now icy cold, oozed and flowed, more like oil than water. Why had he kept it?

It didn’t matter what he thought an hour ago, now he was cleaning! Spring cleaning his life. Unscrew the top, tilt it over the sink. No, scratch that. Start the water running first, so he wouldn’t smell the booze when he emptied the bottle. The smell might make him throw up. Or want one. Just one. To take the edge off.

He stood there with the bottle poised over the sink. Christ, he had heard of this. Alcoholics, real alcoholics, with a bottle of vodka stashed by their bed. Yes, vodka, probably Popov. For when the withdrawal kicked in and woke them up in the middle of the night.

When was the last time he was sober? Not buzzed, not drunk, not hungover, just… sober? Three weeks? No, longer than that. One of his dates with Cleo. Yeah, about a month ago, right? Yeah.

No.

He always had a couple before he saw her. Steady his nerves. Settle him down. He didn’t want her to think he was weird.

So how long had it been? Months? This year? Had he been sober just one day this whole goddamn year?

The bottle trembled in his grip. He knew what would fix that. Just one. The last one, for a while. Just have one, then dry out for a bit. Lots of guys did that. Billy, even Billy went sober for three months, last year, right? Court-ordered, maybe, but still.

Just one.

And then he was pouring it down the sink. Like it was nothing! His hand still shook, but now with relief. He breathed into his hand and sniffed it, just to make sure he hadn’t accidentally taken a drink without knowing it. Clean. He was clean. Sober. And hungry!

He knew the fridge was empty. He went through the pockets of his jeans. He found a twenty and some ones. He walked over to the Perfect Market. It wasn’t cheap, none of these Whole Foods knock-offs were, but they made good sandwiches and hipster mac-and-cheese.

He walked inside and grabbed a basket. A pyramid of yellow-green apples greeted him. “Why, hello there apples, I believe I will.” He made a show of selecting one and placed it in his basket. Yoga Pants Girl smiled at his silliness as she stacked tomatoes with a practiced hand. He smiled back, then became intensely aware of his mouth. How long since he had brushed his teeth? He found the Personal Care aisle and dropped a toothbrush and some toothpaste made by a farmer in Maine in the basket.

He didn’t look as he passed the Liquor and Wine aisle. He made an extra turn to avoid the Cold Beer! cooler. Not today, not today, not today. Maybe not ever.

Beard-Net Deli Guy made him a Reuben, an honest-to-god Reuben. Just like his dad used to make on Sunday afternoons. How long ago had that been?

It all starts fresh today.

He dropped his basket on the conveyor belt.

“Hey, Todd, isn’t it? How you doing?”

John, the checker, gave him a smile. An older guy, but friendly, always friendly. 

“Yeah man, I’m good, I’m good. Kinda, starting fresh today, you know what I mean?”

“Fresh, that’s always good.” John flicked open a paper bag. “Maybe you’ll get laid, huh?”

“Aw man, one thing at a time. But thanks!” It felt good to talk to someone. Someone sober.

“Let’s see, comes to $24.81.”

He dug into his jeans and pulled up his cash.

“Twenty-four, huh, I didn’t think I had spent that much.” He was counting out the ones.

“Yeah, adds up quick, that’s for sure. Even with my discount I can’t shop here. How much you got?”

“Uh, twenty-three.” Jesus, what the fuck was this? A sandwich, an apple, and some toothpaste? “What can I put back?”

“Well, that apple would do it. Or the booze.”

“The what?” His vision flickered. He hadn’t picked up any booze.

John reached into the bag and pulled out the pint of Popov. “Four bucks, with the tax.”

His tongue had gone dry so fast it was hard to speak.

“I didn’t put that in my basket! I didn’t! I’m, I’m sober. Yeah, I’m sober!”

John looked at him and shrugged. “Suits me, man, you do you.” He stuck the bottle in the returns bin.

“Wait.” His apartment, empty. Football tonight. Maybe he’d text Cleo. Cleo. He didn’t want to act weird around Cleo.

He pulled the apple out of the bag. “Put this back instead.”