Field Fire, fiction by Paul Heatley

Bobby woke in his truck, the rim of his hat pulled low to cover his eyes. Rising sunlight hit him full in the face when he lifted it. He winced, blinked until he could handle it, then reached for the warm bottle of water in the centre console. It was half-empty. He drained off what was left, but still his throat was dry. It burned, and it wasn’t just his throat – everything else hurt, too. His right hand was swollen, the knuckles purple. He looked back at the bar behind him, the cars and trucks parked in front and around where he was near the bottom of the lot. In front of the building there was a row of motorcycles. A couple of bikers had fallen asleep in the saddle, and a couple of others were laying splayed on the ground or atop the benches on the sun-bleached grass.

Bobby got out the truck, stretched, then strolled up to the bar. It was dark inside, only a few lights on, but it was blissfully cool. The bartender looked up as he entered, raised one eyebrow. “We’re closed,” he said. He scowled. He sat on a stool behind the counter, reading a newspaper. His left eye was blackened and his lip had a split in it. He sucked on the cut.

“I can see that.” Bobby took a seat at the bar. “You got water?”

“I said we’re closed.”

“You ain’t gotta open just to give me a glass of water.”

The bartender looked at him, his eyes hard, then put the paper down and went to the sink. He came back with a glass, handed it over. Bobby gulped it down. It helped, a little. His throat stopped hurting.

“Looks like someone did a number on you,” Bobby said.

“Uh-huh. Ain’t the first time.”

“Deserve it?”

“Sometimes do, sometimes don’t.”

“In this instance?”

“You tell me, asshole.”

Bobby held up his swollen right hand. “Your face did this, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“I was wonderin.”

“Wonder no more.”

“I don’t remember.”

“No one does.”

“Guess I should apologise.”

“Save it. I don’t give a shit.”

“So what happened after?”

“Couple of the boys threw you out.”

“I appreciate not receiving a beating.”

“There’s time yet.”

“Sure. Well. Thanks for the water.” Bobby turned.

The bartender called to him. “You brought somethin in with you.”

“What’s that?”

The bartender reached under the counter, produced a gun. He put it flat on the bar. Bobby looked at it.

“You threatening me?”

“No. It’s yours. You came in here waving it round. I took it off you. That’s when you started throwing fists.”

Bobby stared at the gun. “That ain’t mine.”

“You brought it in.”

“I don’t own a gun.”

“You did last night, and you do now.”

“I don’t want it.”

“It ain’t staying here. Just take the fucking gun.”

Bobby reached out, picked it up. It was heavy. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Stick it up your ass. I don’t care. Now get the fuck outta here.”

Bobby checked the safety was on, then tucked the gun into his waistband and went back out to his truck. The night before was a blur. He’d gone out in the early afternoon with his father-in-law, to celebrate the old man’s birthday. Somewhere along the way he’d lost him, but he didn’t know when or where. He reached into the glove box, pulled out his phone. There were more than a dozen missed calls from Karen, his wife. She wasn’t going to be happy. He braced himself, rang her back.

“Where you at?”

“Hey, you.”

“Goddamn it, Bobby! You know how many times I called you? Where you at?”

“I’m on my way home.”

“Uh-huh. You know where my dad’s at?”

“Uh –”

“He’s at home, asshole. Why’d you take his gun?”

“His gun?”

“That’s what I said. Why’d you take it?”

Bobby could feel it, pressing cool against his stomach. “I – I don’t know. I mean, why’d he have it out?”

“How drunk did you get?”

“Pretty drunk.”

“And you were driving. You’re in the truck. You know how dangerous that is, Bobby? You could’ve got yourself killed! You could’ve killed someone else!”

“Yeah, okay, but I haven’t.”

“That doesn’t make it all right.”

“Tell me about the gun, Karen.”

“You don’t remember?”

“No.”

“Well. Dad said the two of you got drunk, then you went back to his place and you got this idea in your head to go out back and shoot bottles in the moonlight.”

“Bullshit. I’ve never taken a notion to play with his gun ever before, why’d I start now? I reckon he’s just blamin me, it’s him, he’d’ve wanted to do that kinda thing.”

“You remember that?”

“No.”

“Well, he said you were real insistent on it. And I believe him, because once you’ve had a drink, you get somethin in your head – I know you, Bobby. Anyway, regardless, the two of you went out there, he left you with the gun while he goes and sets up the bottles on the fence posts, then he turns back and sees you running off. Why’d you run?”

“I got no idea.”

“Have you got the gun?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Just come home, Bobby. You can apologise to dad later.”

“Sure. Yeah. Sure. I’m on my way.”

He pulled out of the parking lot and headed onto the road. In the mirror he saw a couple of the bikers begin to rouse, stretch their limbs and climb onto their bikes, or off their bikes, depending on where they had woken. One of them stood to the side and pissed into the dead grass.

Bobby drove, still thirsty. His throat burned again and swallowing just made it worse. He thought about the night before, of the story Karen had relayed to him, but he remembered none of it. The mental images it conjured, however, brought a smile to his face. He chuckled.

He passed through a thick gathering of trees that sprouted up in the fields on either side of the road. Coming out from their shade, something caught his eye. A fire. There were kids stood around it. He slowed. The fire was raging, it kicked and thrashed. He stopped. It was a horse. The kids, five of them, stood and watched.

He jumped out the truck. “Hey!”

The kids looked up, saw him. They turned and ran. Bobby hurried after them into the field, then stopped. The horse screamed. It was the most awful sound he’d ever heard. He smelled burning flesh and gasoline. He looked at the horse, the heat bringing tears to his eyes. Its own eyes were gone and its lips had burned back to reveal gnashing teeth and a lolling tongue. Its legs were broken, all four of them. They’d been smashed so it couldn’t run, probably with a hammer.

It continued to thrash, to scream. It pierced his ears, made his skin prickle and his teeth grind. He tried to block the sound with his hands but it came through. He was about to start screaming himself when he felt the gun still in his waistband. He pulled it out, shot the horse until it was dead.

Lowering the gun, he breathed heavily and watched it burn. Tears ran down his cheeks. There was movement to his right. He glanced. A kid stood beside him, red-haired and heavily freckled, wearing shorts and a grass-stained t-shirt. The kid didn’t looked back at him. He stared at the horse. His mouth was twisted.

“Were you with them what done this?” Bobby said.

The kid nodded, once, very solemn. “I was with them,” he said. “But I’m not one of them.”

Bobby nodded, then turned back to the fire. The horse was just meat now. The flames were dying across its blackened corpse.

“Why’d they do it?” Bobby said.

“Because they had gas, and matches, and a hammer, and they wanted to watch it burn. It was an old horse, anyhow.”

“That don’t make it all right.”

“I know it don’t. What you gonna do about it, mister?” the kid said. “You gonna go after them?”

Bobby realised the gun was still in his hand. “No,” he said. He wiped the tears from his face, and they stood together in silence and watched until the flames were gone, and smoke rose and curled from the charred and blackened carcass.

heatleyPaul Heatley’s stories have appeared online and in print for a variety of publications including Thuglit, Spelk, HandJob Zine, Crime Syndicate, Plots With Guns, and Shotgun Honey, among others. He has six novellas available for Kindle from Amazon. He lives in the north east of England.

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The Master Plan, by Michael Chin

Sometimes after I lift weights, my shoulders broadest, my chest thickest, my step a little slower, I picture myself as Kane.

The Big Red Machine. The Demon.

The Undertaker’s little brother.

The brother he left for dead in a childhood fire. The brother who came back to haunt him in 1997, thirsty for revenge. Thirsty for fire and damnation. Thirsty for choke slams and piledrivers.

Kane evolved before our eyes, over a decade. Starting a masked monster, hell bent on revenge. Becoming management’s hired gun. Falling in love and having his heart broken. When he was forced to unmask, he went a little crazier, setting a play-by-play aflame, clamping a jumper cables to another wrestler’s testicles.

Then, he reunited with his brother—The Brothers of Destruction—a team too big, too strong, too supernaturally insurmountable to be challenged.

In 2010, he put his brother in the hospital.

It was all a part of Kane’s plan, you see. To scout his brother. To test him. To win his trust over years and years and years only to gain the advantage. To become unbeatable when they clashed for the last time.

And though I picture myself like Kane, in biceps, in gait, in intensity, this may be what appeals most. That my every word, my every tragedy, my every pratfall, my every triumph—that it all might mean something.

That I might convince someone—not least of all myself—it was all part of a master plan.

michaelchinMichael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Oregon State University. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in over thirty journals including The Normal School, Bayou Magazine, Gravel, and Weave Magazine. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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Down By the River, fiction by Sarah Einstein

Daniel walked through the clusters of drunken college students as they stumbled out of the closing bars, his black wool cap pulled low and his face tucked down into the collar of the olive drab parka he’d picked up that afternoon at Christian Help. The clock on the bank blinked 1:27 and then 24°-the time was fine but if the temperature dropped four more degrees the police would start rounding up the river folk and forcing them into the night shelter at Bartlett House, which would ruin his whole plan. He quickened his step, pushing past a gaggle of girls teetering on high-heeled, open-toed sandals standing outside The Lazy Lizard. He supposed they were too drunk to feel the cold. He heard one say, Holy shit, did you see that? That guy almost knocked me down and then giggle, but no call-out from a boyfriend looking to chase him down, so he hurried on.

Daniel was following a girl he’d seen limping out of Bent Willies, a cast on her leg, a crutch under each arm, and no date. She was moving slow, too slow for him to follow her directly without being noticed, so he was weaving his way in and out of the crowds along High Street, guessing her path and only crossing down to Chestnut to check her position. Tracking, he thought. He liked the sound of that. It made him feel like a hunter. It made her sound like prey.

She was a fat girl with stringy blond hair and too much make-up. Daniel figured her for about twenty-four. A townie hanging out in the college bars. But he didn’t care that she wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t her face that caught his eye. It was her leg.

She hobbled into the parking garage, making things easy. Daniel had been afraid she’d parked on the street, or in one of the lots behind a busy club that would be filled with knots of boys and girls involved in the final negotiations of who would be going home with whom. But she had passed all those places and walked into the one part of downtown that stayed quiet at night. He followed her down the long concrete ramp to a deck empty except for one pick-up. Nicer than he’d expected, new with a custom paint job. There might be a bonus in this.

He stepped out of the shadows, no longer worried that she would notice him following her, and started to run. He slammed her against the side of the truck before she could get the door open, pinned her against it and grabbed her hair. With a grunt, he pulled her head back as hard as he could. “Just shut the fuck up, bitch, and give me your purse,” he said, punching her forehead against the window.

She dropped her purse and pissed her pants at the same time. This always struck him as funny and even though it happened pretty much every time he strong-armed a woman, he couldn’t keep himself from laughing. “Stupid cow,” he said. Daniel kicked her casted leg out from under her and then tossed the crutches over the railing onto the deck below so that he could get good and gone before she had any way to get to help.

He cut through the alley behind the Monongalia Arts Center and jogged toward Riverfront Park, headed for Cecil’s camp under the Westover Bridge. When it was cold like this, everyone stayed near Cecil because the cops wouldn’t bother him, the old drunk so sick his liver now hung over the top of his jeans, a flabby sack of tumor and cirrhosis. Cecil said the only good thing about dying was that the cops couldn’t keep him in jail—they had to stick him in the prison hospital instead—and it was so much damned trouble that they just left him alone.

Those that had tents pitched them along side Cecil’s, those that didn’t climbed into the Big Agnes Flying Diamond Eight tent that some do-gooder had bought him. When necessary, that eight man tent would hold ten, twelve, sometimes even thirteen people easy, just so long as they were drunk enough not to mind each other’s stink. Cecil no longer cared what company he kept. Hell, most nights he was long passed out before anyone else had even started on the night’s drinking. Ever since the cancer, Cecil couldn’t hold his liquor.

Daniel followed the trail until he passed the boat ramp and then jumped the barrier. Crouched behind the concrete embankment, he dug through the purse to see what he’d gotten. He pushed the wallet aside; whatever money was in there wouldn’t do him any good till morning and it wasn’t what he wanted, anyhow. He was glad to see the cell phone—it meant she couldn’t call the cops—and set it on the concrete. He stomped on it until it was broken into a handful of pieces. He knew that if he kept it, it would lead the cops right to him. There was a big, zippered bag inside and he rooted around in it, tossing mascara and lip gloss into the snow until he found what he had been after… the plastic bottle with the childproof lid he’d known would be in there.

He held the bottle up to catch what light he could from the moon. OxyContin 80s. Damn, he muttered to himself, I hit the fucking jackpot. He rattled the bottle. It was full. He knew that cast looked fresh. Hardly any dirt, the plaster around the toes not yet starting to crumble. He counted two out into his hand and ground them between his teeth. Cursorily, he took the money out of the wallet. Almost six hundred dollars. Shit, bitch must have just gotten paid he said to himself, chuckling and sticking the bills and the pill bottle into his pocket before tossing the purse and everything else that was in it into the river. He felt clever for knowing not to carry the thing around with him; he felt like an accomplished thief.

The front flap of the tent was open and he could smell the stench of the tangle of bodies from outside; sweat and piss mixed with the sickeningly sweet odors of Cecil’s cancer and fruit-flavored MadDog. He crawled over some empty bottles and then closed the flap behind him.

The men stood in a knot along the walkway behind the Garlow Building. Friendship Room, the day shelter on the second floor, wouldn’t open until eight and Abigail, the woman who ran the place, didn’t care that it was cold, she wouldn’t open the door fifteen minutes early or let them wait in the warm hallway. But the only other place in town that would give a guy a cup of coffee and maybe some stale cookies for breakfast was the Mission down on Pleasant, and the preacher there was the hard-shell kind of Baptist. Wouldn’t let in the guys who smelled like they’d been drinking the night before, made a fellow pray over every little cup of coffee or stale donut, and didn’t allow any card playing in the place. The only people who went there were the men who’d gotten themselves sanctioned from the Friendship Room for drinking or selling drugs and the women who thought any minute now Jesus was going to find them a Section Eight apartment and a disability check.

Daniel didn’t want to be here; he wanted to be back in the tent, smoking up the pills he’d scored while everyone else was here getting warm, but he knew better than to disappear the morning after robbing a girl. The guy who wasn’t where he was supposed to be was the first guy everyone would suspect. Besides, it was Friday, the day the Hospice nurse came to check on Cecil, and she always brought a few dozen eggs and some sausage for Papa Russ to cook up so they could have a real breakfast. Since it was cold, Abigail would probably break out the commodity powdered milk and flour and make them biscuits. Better to get a full belly, he knew, because once he started to smoke he had enough to keep him going for a few days. He’d never learned to pace himself. Daniel reached into the pocket of his jeans and felt the bandana filled with pills to reassure himself they were still there.

He’d slipped the prescription bottle, six pills, and forty dollars of the girl’s money into the pocket of Cecil’s coat back at camp; a coat that looked exactly like the one he’d thrown into the dumpster behind Chico’s Fat on his way up the hill this morning. Some group had donated about forty of them to the clothing pantry. There were three other guys milling around in the exact same parka. That was the great thing about Christian Help; everything was free and they didn’t care how many times a guy came in and got new clothes. Daniel would head over after breakfast and tell them somebody took the parka and they’d give him another one. This time, he’d ask for one of the used wool overcoats hung along the back wall. When the cops came looking for a guy in a parka, he wanted to be sure he didn’t have one.

Daniel shuffled to keep warm, careful never to get too close to Cecil or the old men who stood around him. All the old men from down on the riverbank had taken to walking up with Cecil on Fridays just to make sure he kept the appointment with the nurse. Men who wouldn’t normally have anything to do with a place like Friendship Room because it made them feel claustrophobic. There was Papa Russ, an old Marine who was an alright guy until he got some whiskey in him and then he’d pace up and down the sidewalk, calling every woman who walked by a god-damned whore and trying to take a swing at any man who met his gaze. He held Cecil’s elbow like a prom date, keeping him steady on his feet. Dollar Bill leaned up against a wall, Cecil’s backpack thrown over his shoulder with his own. He was a tiny man, couldn’t have been more than five foot three, and quiet most of the time. Not even much of a drinker. But if he lost his meds—or someone took them, as Daniel had done a time or two—he started to ramble. Scary talk about loving his baby granddaughter with her clothes off and what business was that of anybody else’s? Two years ago, they’d tossed him out of the Clarksburg Mission for sneaking a can of beer in under his jacket and he’d burnt the place to the ground. Hadn’t been inside a shelter or day program since, not until word got out that Cecil was going to die. A couple of the other old-timers, men who’d spent decades living out of doors, stood around rolling cigarettes and stomping the cold out of their toes.

Daniel didn’t understand the loyalty of the old men. On any given night, with enough liquor and almost no provocation, they could be found beating each other bloody over the dregs of a bottle down by the river. In their world, there wasn’t any right, no good, only success. Getting away with something, outsmarting someone, that was the measure of a man’s worth. He couldn’t figure out what angle these old men were working, and it made him nervous.

When Friendship Room finally opened, Daniel filed in, got a cup of coffee and sat down on the threadbare brown couch in front of the television. Sesame Street was on. Kids weren’t allowed in here, but the organization that ran the place wouldn’t spring for cable and all they could pick up with rabbit ears was public television. He watched Big Bird explain sharing to some kid and tried not to squirm, but after about three minutes he couldn’t take it any longer and bolted for the bathroom. The door didn’t lock—in places like this, they never do—so he tied one end of the drawstring from his sweatshirt around the doorknob and the other around the cold-water tap to keep it shut. He pulled the bandana full of pills, his pocketknife, a square of tinfoil, a cut up piece of straw, and a lighter out of his pocket. Using the back of the toilet as a table, he cut one of the pills into quarters. One by one, Daniel placed the pill quarters onto the center of the tinfoil, held the lighter pills underneath, and sucked the smoke up through the straw. Chasing the dragon. It wasn’t as effective as a pipe, but easier to ditch if necessary and the tinfoil cooled down fast enough that he could shove it into a pocket without being burned if he was about to get caught. This morning, though, no one bothered him. He finished the first pill and broke up another. Two quarters in to the second, he felt the familiar warmth and knew he was in danger of nodding out. Shoving everything into the front pocket of his jeans, he untied the drawstring and stumbled out into the main room, falling into an old yellow armchair just as he started to drift away.

Two or three times during the next few hours, Daniel felt himself shaken awake, heard Abigail tell him to wake up because Friendship Room didn’t allow sleeping during peer support group, knew he was being threatened with a sanction. He didn’t care. He was always getting tossed out of places, and he would rather stay in this chair for now and worry about what to do later when later came. Fuck you he managed to mutter the third time a hand grabbed his shoulder and tried to force him out of the comfort of his haze. Fuck you to death.

“What did you say, boy?” A man’s deep voice penetrated the fog. He thought it sounded familiar. Daniel tried to rouse himself.

“Boy, I asked you what you said, and I told you to wake up.” The voice didn’t sound angry, just certain. “If you can’t wake up, I’m going to have to start wondering why exactly that would be.”

Officer Booth. Daniel sat up and tried to feel enough panic to keep himself from slipping back into that better place. “I’m awake, sir. Just not feeling well today. Took some Nyquil earlier, must of knocked me out. Sir.”

Daniel looked around the room. There were four officers, two of whom he didn’t recognize. One was the lady cop they only brought along when there was going to be a body search. Daniel had to struggle to keep his own hands out of his pocket. He knew that would be a dead give-away.

“Get out on the hall with everybody else. We’re bringing the dog in. If you got a coat or a backpack, just leave it be.” Officer Booth pointed toward the door. “But don’t go anywhere, we want to talk to everybody. Won’t be but a few minutes, and you can get back to your napping.”

Daniel followed the line of people out into the hallway. He saw Dollar Bill, and a few of the guys he knew were probably holding, sneak down the steps and out the High Street exit. He wanted to go with them, not because he was afraid of getting caught—he knew the cops couldn’t put the dog on them, just their stuff, and he hadn’t had a coat or pack to leave behind—but because standing in the cramped hallway was taking the edge off his buzz. But he needed to stick around to make sure the dog sniffed out the bottle in the inside pocket of Cecil’s parka, needed to know what they’d do next.

It was a fast search. In five minutes, they were all back in the room, lined up along the walls with the officers in the middle, like they were playing some children’s game. Papa Russ was angry, maybe a little drunk, and yelling at the director.

“They ain’t got no right to search us, or our stuff, without a warrant.” He puffed out his chest. “I served my country for four years and I know my rights.”

Abigail moved to the middle of the room beside Officer Booth. “They have my permission, which is all they need.”

“Why the fuck did you go and tell them it was alright?” Papa Russ punched his hand into the wall. “What are you, some kind of Nazi? Don’t think a man has any rights just because he’s down on his luck?”

Abigail just shook her head. “Cecil, the police need to speak to you. The rest of you can head down to the Red Door church for lunch. I’m closing the room for an hour while this all gets straightened out.” She ushered everyone but Cecil, his nurse, and the officers out of the room and locked the door.

Daniel wasn’t hungry—he was never hungry when he was using—but he knew better than to separate himself from the crowd, so he followed everyone up to the soup kitchen. He realized that if there had been eggs and bacon that morning, he’d missed them and so forced down a bowl of spiceless chili and a couple day-old cheesesticks from Giant Eagle. Everyone was up in arms about the search, and then again about being thrown out of the room for an hour though, truth be told, they all knew that the room emptied out for the hour the soup kitchen was open, anyway.

Proud Mary, who Daniel figured had to be at least seventy and quite possibly the person who had lived the longest on the riverbank, was waxing philosophical. “That bitch got no right. She thinks that just cause she got the keys, she’s something special. But nothing them cops found today will do them any good in court, because she don’t have the authority to tell them that they can search our things.”

“What could they want with old Cecil, anyway?” Dollar Bill tore a slice of bread into tiny pieces. “I mean, he ain’t a doper. Hell, if he was, all he’d have to do is go stay in that Hospice and they’d give him one of those morphine pumps. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Backpack Jack sat down across from Daniel and tossed a copy of the Dominion Post in front of him.

“You see this?” Jack asked, pointing to a story on the front page about the mugging. “You do this?”

Daniel feigned ignorance and picked up the paper. It said the girl, Kimberly Atkins, was in guarded condition at Ruby Memorial with frostbite and a concussion, that she’d been stuck in the garage until someone found her at six that morning. There was a description; a man, medium build, in a black stocking cap and an olive drab parka. Could have been anyone.

“Me?” He tossed the paper back toward Jack. “No, man, that wasn’t me. I don’t do that shit any more.”

“Since when?” Jack pulled a bottle of hot sauce out of his backpack and doused the chili, then offered it to Daniel. “I thought this was your thing.”

“Not any more. I got my thirty day chip. Working the program. One day at a time.” Daniel had learned the hard way not to brag. Used to be, he’d lay claim even when he wasn’t the one who’d roughed up some local late at night. Thought it made him look tough. But everyone was out for himself and people traded what they knew about his business for ways to get out of their own troubles.

“Well, better hope it don’t fall on you.” Jack pointed his spoon at Daniel. “Lot of people going to be real pissed off if you brought the cops down on us today with something stupid like this.”

Daniel felt his stomach turn. “Why you want to go and say something like that? I told you it wasn’t me.”

Jack shook his head. “I’m just saying. Description in the paper could be anyone. Hell, half the guys in here are wearing those parkas from Christian Help today.” He looked at Daniel’s jacket. “Didn’t you get one?”

“No. Meant to, but didn’t make it over before they were all gone.”

“Not smart, man. You gotta keep warm and take care of your feet. That’s the secret to making it out of doors in the winter. A good coat and warm socks.”

Daniel just nodded and let Jack ramble on about gear. Jack was one of those guys who got a healthy disability check every month and could live indoors if he wanted to, but preferred the road. He probably had four, five thousand dollars worth of camping equipment in that pack of his; a good tent, a four season bag, Gore-tex socks. He had too much stuff to sleep down by the river with everyone else—it wasn’t done, this having and not sharing—so he slept up behind the Giant Eagle on Greenbag Road. Made him an outsider. Daniel figured if it came to it, his word was better than Jack’s. After all, he didn’t hold himself above anybody. He was down there in it with them.

“Well, be cool,” Jack said, getting up. “Don’t matter to me, I’m most likely headed out of town in the morning.”

Daniel just smiled and nodded. Jack said this every day. Sometimes he really went, other times he just said he was going and then hung around for months. He watched Jack hitch his pack over his shoulder and, when he was sure the man was good and gone, gathered his own things and headed outside.

Daniel fingered the money in his pocket.. He had over five hundred dollars. If Jack hadn’t of spooked him, he’d have gotten himself a room for the week at the Airport Motel, stayed someplace warm and dry while he smoked up the pills. But if people were looking at him for this, it was too risky. Still, surely he’d earned himself some sort of reward for all his hard work. He thought about Jack’s bag—about how nice it would be to sleep warm for a change—and walked down to Adventure’s Edge.

The woman in the store smiled and pretended to believe him when he said he was looking to do some winter camping, but it was clear she knew from the get-go that he was really living out. She steered him away from the three hundred dollar Sierra Designs bag he was fingering and showed him a Kelty that was just under seventy.

“Both are rated to zero degrees, and the Sierra won’t hold up any better under regular use than the Kelty,” she said. “The only real benefit is that it’s lighter. If you’re not planning on doing a lot of hiking, that’s not worth the more than two hundred dollars extra you’ll have to pay.”

He liked being talked to like this, like a regular person. He liked that the woman was upfront about things and wasn’t trying to sell him on something he didn’t need. He thought of himself as the sort of person who told it straight and admired that trait in others. In fact, he felt so damned good he asked her out for a beer. She laughed and pointed to a man arranging ski jackets on a rack at the back of the store.

“I don’t think my husband would like it,” she said. But then she’d whispered. “He won’t like this, either, but I’ll give you ten percent off on the bag.” Daniel didn’t know why, but the discount pissed him off, though he didn’t mind that she’d turned down his offer for a beer. A married woman should.

“Fuck that. I got money. I’ll pay what anybody else would pay,” he said and pulled the fat roll of twenties out his pocket. The woman gave him a deflated, confused look, but took four of the twenties and gave him back his change.

“Well, stay warm,” she said and then walked back to stand beside her husband, her eyes on Daniel till he was out the door.

Daniel carried his bag up to Christian Help, where the lady gave him an old pea coat and a child’s book bag. He stuffed the sleeping bag down into it—it wouldn’t do to show up with a new sleeping bag on the day after some girl got mugged—and headed back to Friendship Room.

The place was full, which meant trouble. Usually only a few folk would straggle back after lunch. The afternoons were full of craft classes and self-advocacy groups, and the people who didn’t attend had to sit silently on the couches—reading or napping—while the meetings went on. Today was Wednesday, when the crazy bead lady came and tried to get them to make necklaces to sell at the United Way garage sale to raise money for the place. Some of the women did it, and once in a while one of the new guys who didn’t yet know it would get him called “pussy” by the regulars. But, today, she was sitting alone with her bags of beads while everyone was milling around, talking all at once.

Dollar Bill was sitting on the arm of the couch, just taking it all in. Daniel sidled over to him.

“What’s going on?”

“You ain’t heard? The cops found a pill bottle belonging to that girl that got mugged last night in the pocket of Cecil’s jacket.” Bill looked at Daniel through narrowed eyes. “Took him away.”

“The cops took Cecil to jail?” Daniel was shocked. He was sure the cops would leave Cecil alone even after they found the pill bottle. They had to know that Cecil hadn’t, couldn’t have, done it.

“No. Told him that he had two choices. He could go to jail, or he could go stay at the Hospice.” Bill shook his head. “Either one’ll kill the old boy. He can’t abide staying indoors, and they won’t let him have his beer even though the nurse said he was too weak to stand up to the DTs.”

“How could the cops force him into Hospice?” This didn’t sound right to Daniel.

“Didn’t so much force him as tell him that if he was there, they’d consider him arrested and put a policeman outside his room and he wouldn’t have to go Doddridge. Said they knew it wasn’t him, but until they figured out who did do it, they had to hold him.”

Daniel looked for some sign that Dollar Bill was asking a question, but the old man seemed to just be sharing the news. He looked quickly around the room, relieved that Jack wasn’t there.

“That fucking sucks, man.” Daniel worked on building up some righteous indignation, told himself the cops had no right until he’d almost forgotten that he was the one that put the pills in Cecil’s pocket. “God damned man got no rights at all in this country if he’s poor.”

Dollar Bill just nodded, then pointed to where Papa Russ stood, red-faced. “Now, there’s a man about to get himself in trouble. Russ done got himself a bottle at lunch and has been sneaking sips on it ever since. Any minute now, he’s going to start swinging. You mark my words.”

Daniel watched, hopeful. If Russ did hit someone, then the cops would have no choice but take him down to the regional jail in Doddridge County. And Russ was a canny old man. If anyone was going to sniff out that this was all Daniel’s doing, he figured that’s who it would be. He’d rest a lot easier tonight if Papa Russ was sleeping off a drunk and disorderly more than an hour’s drive away.

Everywhere, people were standing around in clumps arguing about what the police had done, whether or not it was legal, making guesses as to how the pills had gotten in Cecil’s pocket, and insisting they knew who really strong-armed that girl. Here and there, Daniel heard his name mentioned, but he heard five or six others at least as often. The clock on the wall said it was just after three… half an hour more and the room would close down. Daniel decided he had learned everything he could and asked the director for a bus token. Told her he had an appointment out at Valley with his drug counselor in the morning. He didn’t, of course, and he sure as hell didn’t need to save the seventy-five cents a token would have cost him, not today… but he liked that she knew he was lying and had to give him the token anyway because she had no way to check. It made him feel smarter than she was, powerful in some small way.

Morgantown used to be full of places where a guy could hole up for a few hours, catch a buzz, not get noticed. But the last three or four years, it seemed all the old houses were either getting torn down or slapped back together for student apartments. Daniel decided to treat himself to a movie and took the Westover bus out to the mall. He stood for a while in front of the movie posters, trying to decide what to go see even though he knew he’d probably sleep through at least two showings of whatever it was. He was torn between Zombieland and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. In the end, he decided on the zombie film because the movie poster for the other had Based on the Best-Selling Book of the Same Name by Tucker Max along the bottom, which Daniel ranked up there with subtitles for being proof that a movie was going to be dull as hell.

He bought his ticket and then wandered into the theater’s bathroom. It was still a half an hour till the first matinee, and the place was pretty much empty except for the kid selling tickets and another making popcorn. Daniel pulled out the tinfoil, lighter, straw, and two quarters of a pill he had left from that morning and smoked them. Then, before the buzz had time to really settle in, he took another three pills out of the bandana, cut them up, and wrapped them in toilet paper before sticking them into his other pocket. If he was lucky, no one else would be in the theater at all, but even if they were, as long as he sat in the back, he knew he could get away with smoking during the film. The pills didn’t smell when they burned, and the sound system would drown out the flick of his lighter as long as he made sure he only fired up when something noisy was going on, like gunshots or an explosion.

Daniel found a seat in the back row and watched the trivia game that ran before the movie previews. What actor won his first Academy Award for his portrayal of Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects? _ev_n S_a_e_ Hell, even stoned, Daniel knew that one. What sort of idiots were these questions written for? He smoked up three more chunks of pill and settled in.

When Daniel woke up, Woody Harrelson and some kid were shooting up what looked like the county fair while zombies tried to climb up one of those free-fall rides to get at two girls with what he assumed were empty guns. Daniel had worked a few carnivals in his time, and he thought the zombies looked pretty much like the regular crowd on a Saturday night.

The theater was empty except for a knot of teenagers making out in the middle rows, and he had no idea if this was the first or the fourth time he’d sat through the movie. His legs were stiff and his mouth so dry it hurt to breathe, so he figured he’d been there a while. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the rest of the cut up pills, smoking them as quickly as he could in case this was the last showing and he’d have to start the long walk back to town.

Up on the screen, Woody Harrelson held the zombies at bay while the nerdy looking kid rescued the girls. Maybe it was funny, but Daniel hadn’t seen enough of the movie to know. To him, it just didn’t make sense. That wimpy kid would never make it on the riverbank, much less in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. He knew, because that was the sort of kid he’d been, a long time ago. He gathered his new coat and knapsack and headed out the door.

The parking lot was empty and the air bitter. He must have slept straight through to the end of the nine-fifty showing. That would make it around midnight. Daniel wrapped his coat around him and walked toward downtown, stopping every five minutes or so to fire up again. By the time he got over the bridge and down the embankment, he was so stoned that at first he thought he was lost. There were no tents, no fires. Only some burnt up steel garbage cans and a lot of broken bottles glimmering in the moonlight. For a moment, he thought maybe the zombies had gotten everyone, and then he laughed at himself for being that fucked up. He kicked around the rubble trying to piece together what was going on.

He would, he knew, have to head out of town in the morning. Not being caught in the round up would make everyone suspicious. And while the police didn’t worry Daniel—a little jail time didn’t bother him any more, and in the dead of winter a few weeks in Dodderidge might even be pleasant—being called out by Dollar Bill, Papa Russ and the rest did. There were laws down here on the riverbank, too, and retribution was swifter and more brutal than anything the courts would do to him. He thought he might head down south to his mother’s place in Alabama. He’d need a six month chip before she’d let him back in the house, but those were easy to come by. Daniel knew he could trade two, at most four, of the remaining pills for one at any Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

Chunks of ice floated in the Mon, and Daniel knew it was too cold to sleep out. Either the cops would get him or he’d get frostbit. He figured it to be around 12:30, just the right time to hit the hippy bar, 123 Pleasant Street. The place had had a lot of names over the years—The Underground Railroad, the Nyabinghi Dance Hall—and retired into the infamy of its own address. It wasn’t as lively as it used to be, but with money and drugs he was pretty sure he could find some drunken hippy chick to take him home for the night. That was, Daniel thought, the great thing about hippy chicks… they thought raggedy old clothes and dirty hair were badges of honor. He would bed down with one for the night.

He had to stash the sleeping bag, though. It was a dead give away that he was dirty for reasons that went beyond being hip. There was a concrete traffic barrier wedged up against the wall of the bridge, and Daniel tried to tuck his new sleeping bag behind it. There was something already back there, though. He got out his lighter and flicked on the flame. There, crammed in the tight crack between bridge and barrier, was the rainfly from Cecil’s giant, orange tent. Daniel grabbed it and shook it out to its full length. It snapped in the wind like a kite. He took it down to the very edge of the bank, where the wind was strongest, and let it go. It hung for a minute in the air and then fell into the current. Only after it was gone did Daniel stop and think what a very good ground cloth it would have made. He watched until the current had carried it around the bend, toward the Ohio, and then headed up to town.

Sarah Einstein is an Asst. Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks 2014). Her work has appeared in PANK, The Sun, Ninth Letter, and other journals, and been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity.

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Pluck Pluck, fiction by Catfish McDaris

After making friends with Maya on Facebook I figured she wouldn’t mind a visit. I found out where she lived and jumped on a southbound Greyhound. The worst part was avoiding peeing on myself in the skinny bathroom while hitting potholes. When the dog arrived, I stopped at Popeye’s and got us a bucket of crispy chicken and the fixings. I rang her doorbell and a man that resembled a black Adolf Hitler answered, he wouldn’t let me enter until I gave him a thigh and neck bone from the fowl. When I saw the queen of poetry I smiled and gave her some fried okra with a packet of hot sauce. She looked me over from head to toe, her eyes seemed magnetic. Finally she spoke. “I’ll bet you’re pure hell on the ladies.” I said, “I do alright.” She removed her drawers and said, “Let’s see what you can do you silver-tongued devil.” I plunged in all the way to my ears, she started moaning and groaning and carrying on. I got a bit frightened, I thought I was going to fucking kill her. She started whistling and pulling my hair out by the roots. I figured she had enough. “Goddamn. You sure got a lot of pluck for a naked neck rooster scalawag.” I put my crotch in her face and asked, “Do you fetch bone?” “I’m too old to be your bitch, now give me the rest of that chicken and get the hell out of here.” I hit the bricks back to the bus station.

mcdarisCatfish McDaris has been active in the small press world for 25 years. He shot howitzers 3 years in the army and used to fish and hunt as a boy in New Mexico. Sometimes he goes down to Lake Michigan and feeds seagulls and dreams of mountain horses. He’s working in a wig shop in a high crime area of Milwaukee.

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New Year’s Day, poem by CL Bledsoe

One of the junkies in the backseat spoke
up to ask, “Should there be so much smoke

behind us?” A wall of gray poured from the car.
I took the first exit, wondering how far

I could make it before the explosion, no flames
yet. I found a Wal Mart, parked and tried to wake

my ex who just wanted to stay in her seat. I gave
up, went in, and asked them for help before the blaze

took out somebody else’s car. They wouldn’t even call
the fire department. Meanwhile, my passengers had all

been kicked out of the store for trying to make a pallet
in an aisle, pulling pillows and blankets out. Now that

I’d stopped driving, flames poured from my hood. I stood
and watched it burn. My ex took my hand, asked if I would

go inside and buy her some cigarettes, since she was banned.
It’s kind of funny, she said. I came back to find a man

spraying out the fire. I went out to him and he warned me
to be careful if I drove the car, since the battery

had melted from the flames. Do you think it would turn
over? I asked. Well, no, just be careful. That acid burns

pretty bad, he said. It can melt through most things.
I waited out the night on the hard lobby seats,

while the junkies slept, wondering when it was going
to get funny.

bledsoeCL Bledsoe is the author of a dozen books, most recently the poetry collection Riceland and the novel Man of Clay. He lives in northern Virginia with his daughter.

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The Hammer Not the Hog, fiction by David Jaggers

The Hammer Not the Hog

“So, Mr. Brogan, it says here that you were deemed fully rehabilitated by the state.” The fat man behind the desk looks over his wire rimmed glasses at me. Scanning my scarred exterior for cracks, looking for a peek under the armor, looking for a hint of the fire that once raged there. I show him nothing. “Do you think you’re ready?” he says.

I sit erect, shoulders back and chest out, just like they taught me in basic training a thousand years ago. I look the fat weasel in the eyes and resist the urge to reach over the desk and pull his throat out. I remind myself that I’ve waited a long time for this. I remind myself that prison was just a pause, like a breath held in the bottom of my lungs. Now I’m out and I’m breathing, and I ain’t never going back.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Good, I think I’ve got just the thing for your particular…skill set. Tell me Mr. Brogan, how do you feel about working outside with your hands?”

***

The thermometer in the barn reads just north of ninety and I’m shirtless and covered in sweat and blood. It’s not my blood, but the overspray from the sledge hammer. I’m standing over a livestock shoot with a twenty pound hammer raised over my head. As the hogs come down the line I bring the hard steel down between their eyes, sending bone fragments into their tiny brains. It’s funny, this job’s not much different from what I did for my old boss; what I did that put me in prison.

Two rangy looking Hispanics with blue green prison ink pull the carcasses over to a hoist where they’re hauled up and bled out. We do this eight hours a day six days a week. At the end of my shift I wash the blood and brains off with a water hose and put my shirt back on. I walk out to the back lot and wait for my ride because I can’t afford a car on what they pay me.  Being broke don’t bother me none though, I’m honestly just glad to be working. Keeping busy is the key to staying out of trouble.

“Damn Reed, you smell like a goddamned death sandwich. You’re gonna have to ride in the back today. I can’t be comin’ home with that stink on me, Trina won’t let me sit down at the dinner table.” Ricky Basham’s my neighbor and a real standup guy. He catches hell from his old lady for giving me a ride to and from work, but he does it anyway. I can hear them fighting about it at night from over the fence. She screams at him for being stupid and getting mixed up with a convicted murderer. He just drinks his beer and tells her to fuck off, saying he can’t just drive by every morning and watch me walk the six miles to the slaughter house. Like I said, Ricky’s a standup guy.

“Trina’s makin’ pot roast tonight. She won’t let me invite you over Reed, but I’ll slip out later and bring you a plate if you like,” Ricky shouts through the open window between the cab and the bed of the truck. I give him a thumbs up so I don’t have to try and yell over the rushing air and the rumble of the engine. Truth is I’m not the talker I used to be. Put a man in solitary confinement long enough, and some parts start to wither.

Ricky drops me off at the curb in front my shitty little garage apartment so Trina won’t see me get out of the truck. If she catches sight of me, he won’t hear the end of it until he passes out drunk on the couch. As I walk up the rotted staircase that leads to my place, I see something move and look over into Ricky’s backyard. I see a man in a deputy’s uniform leaving out with his belt undone and his boots cradled under one arm. He looks around before jumping the back fence and disappearing into the thicket on the other side.

***

“You ever think about getting a divorce?” I say looking out the passenger window of Ricky’s truck. The sun is coming up over the kudzu covered tree line, painting the broad leaves a red that reminds me of splattered blood.

“Leave Trina? Shit man, she drives me fucking crazy, but I couldn’t leave her. Hell, I doubt she could get along without me.” Ricky hands me the thermos of steaming coffee and I pour another cup.

“It’s none of my business, it just seems you two fight all the time.”

“Aw hell, she fusses and scratches like a wet hen, but she knows she’s got it good. I make enough at the garage to let her stay at home all day. She ain’t gonna fuck that up.” Ricky knocks back his coffee and lights a smoke. “Your stinky ass is my biggest problem right now.”

“About that,” I say. “Why don’t you stop picking me up. It might make things easier on you.”

Ricky squints at me through the smoke from his Camel. “That ain’t gonna happen brother. Every damn one of us has made a mistake or three in our lives and after a man has done his time and paid what he owes, he deserves a break. So until your ass can afford a car, you’re stuck with me.”

After Ricky drops me off at the slaughter house, I go to the tool shed, like I do every morning, and get the twenty pound hammer from the rack. The cold weight gives me comfort, like it’s the only steady thing in the world. I grip the smooth ash handle and a curious feeling runs over me. I think about what Ricky said, about how every man deserves a break and it dawns on me that I can’t go to the barn, not today, not ever again. It slowly becomes clear in my mind what I have to do.

***

It only takes me an hour and a half to walk back to Ricky’s house. I slip around the back and push open the mold stained gate. I notice a pair of brown boots, a couple of sizes bigger than Ricky’s feet, sitting at the back door. I grip the sledge a little tighter and take a moment to think about my life. I’ve never been good for nothing but breaking bones. I’ve bloodied and buried more bodies than I can count, and I know exactly what’s gonna happen if I open that door and step inside.

To be clear, I don’t want to go back to jail. But it’s like I’ve been holding my breath all these years, waiting for something to happen. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is my chance to set things right. I think about Ricky and how he’s helped me out. How if anybody in this world deserves a break, it’s that man. Anger starts building up in my chest, burning my throat as I reach out for the door handle. For once in my miserable life I’m going to do something that makes a difference. I’m not going to be a loser anymore. For once I’m gonna be the hammer and not the hog.

jaggersDavid Jaggers lives and writes just outside of Nashville Tennessee. His stories have been published in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and Flash Fiction Offensive among others. His work can be found in various anthologies including Last Word, a project to raise awareness for prison reform and Paladins for Myeloma Cancer awareness. His collection of interconnected short stories Down in the Devil Hole is available on Amazon from Near to the Knuckle press. A full list of credits can be found at www.Straightrazorfiction.com

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Chief Whitefeather Arriving Unprepared, fiction by Stefanie Freele

On the day Clive returns, four months after his last turbulent visit, Olive opens the door and can smell him, a thick mixture of burned sage and fermentation. This scent is not good, but better than the dead-body stench coming from the vent in her hatchback parked out front, the one she just drove home with the windows open despite the February weather. Clive is in her bed, face down, green underweared butt sticking up like a toddler, snoring. A scarlet patch of dark skin covers his tattoos, his shoulders, his upper arms. His face is the purple of strangulation.

She thinks – in the time it takes to shake him – that this time he’s done it. When she asks what medications he’s taken, he responds with a blurry list, using that baffled yet honest tone a person uses when they know they’ve blown it and have nothing to lose, Vicodin, migraine medicine, Vodka, Advil, other stuff. The purple-red mottled appearance of his skin seems to be already darker and spreading as if it is taking over his body. I’m good, he slurs with eyes closed, headache gone.

She takes a picture of his skin and tries to show the camera to his squinty eyes. I’m calling the VA or the Clinic or someone.

The President, he mumbles.

The nurse, a woman with merely a modicum of enthusiasm in her voice, needs to talk to him directly, privacy and all that. Olive hands him the phone, thinking he’ll hang up. Instead, with eyes closed and a loud voice, he tells her how fine he is and how Olive is paranoid. From across the bed Olive can hear the tinny voice of the nurse state she may be paranoid but our physician says you need to be seen in the Emergency Room.

Noooo, he says like a child who has been told to get off the swing set much too early, noooo! I’m fine here.

As instructed, Olive calls 911 and waits outside for the ambulance. While she’s gazing down the dirt road, the medic on the phone asks if Clive took this combination of pills on purpose. I don’t know, she says, even though she’s thinking, of course he did.

They arrive quickly but park far down toward the creek. Olive waves them up, thinking it is obvious where the call is from, but they don’t move.

In a moment two Sheriff cars also arrive, sirens off, parking in the middle of the road, like officers can. She pictures herself at an interview for the police academy, why do I want to join law enforcement? So I can park in the middle of the road.

The deputy, John Shribble, one of those tall, bullet-proof, semi-burly type who have an aura of confidence a valley-wide sashays into the yard, right up to Olive as if she’s caused trouble, points to the ambulance, What’s going on with Clive? He needs medical attention but doesn’t want it?

She explains, invites him in, and John Shribble squarely stands at the foot of the bed looking as out of place as a skyscraper in the middle of a small town. Clive, what did you do? He says this as if he’s talking to a hard-of-hearing frail elderly person, not an over-dosing well-muscled potentially-armed man.

As paramedics and other uniformed guests enter, Clive’s butt remains in the air and for a moment she hopes that he passes gas just to make this scene more whimsical than it is. Their serious presences, hands on guns, walkie-talkie chortles, and grim faces make the farmhouse seem small, weak, disorganized.

After one of the kittens runs up an officer’s leg, clinging with needle-sharp nails on his pants, she shoos them into the bathroom and shuts the door, loving how the animals aren’t taking any of this emergency business seriously. When she returns to the scene of Clive, the older one-eyed cat has settled on his back, giving herself a bath, as if this is an average day, having seven people stand around the small bedroom while the warm body beneath languishes in a drugged stupor and a peculiar woman wraps a pulse-taker around his arm.

Clive, the deputy tries again in a flat tone, Clive, can you hear me.

Grunts, moans and an adjustment to his side. His hair is long enough now to cover up most of the scars on the back of his head, although a patch or two of whiteish skin is visible if you try to find one. The woman with the cuff says this is good that he’s on his side in case he needs to throw up.

Don’t you dare throw up Clivey, this is a new mattress Olive says, as one of those ha-ha crisis-jokes. It comes out sounding uncaring and superficial as no one laughs.

Can you try to jostle him a bit to wake him up? The deputy asks and she realizes Shribble doesn’t want to touch him.

Clive, she says, visitors! The deputy is here, John Shribble, you know him, wake up.

A slow flicker of eyelids and Clive turns his purple head toward the deputy, Shrib! What are you doing here? Clive says this in a how-wonderful-fancy-meeting-you-here type of voice that makes Olive giggle from the absurdity of it. I was sleeping and here you are!

What did you take Clive? We got a call from the doctor that you wouldn’t come in to the Emergency. It is clearer than clear; the deputies enforce the medical care of the belligerent.

Nothing, he says, medicine for my headache. I need air. He maneuvers his almost-nude grotesquely half-purple body out of the bed and staggers to the door, falling forward through the living room and catching the next door just before he collapses.

Olive lets go of her frozen state and helps John help Clive outside to the picnic table where Clive howls and studies the sky. Who are all these people? Where is my nap? Why are they inside my beautiful nap?

She gets the feeling that the professionals want to talk to the patient alone, and so she calls in the dogs who sniff the guests with friendliness; one dog tries fearlessly to thrust a ball into the leg of an armed deputy who ignores him. The two geese however side-eye the strangers, refusing any sort of rounding up or waving away.

Clive disregards the attention of the officers and the paramedics as they ask questions. His only response is to sing with his eyes closed in a bad Irish-pub accent, I’m Irish, Cherokee and I shouldn’t drink!

John tells him not to take all these medications without doctor’s orders, as if this is a genius idea Clive must have never considered. Next time you have one of those headaches Clive, don’t mix these. Okay? This plea seems about as convincing as telling a horse to go ahead and now be a cow.

When Clive finally focuses on them, he declines to go to the emergency room – actually his skin does look better, almost normal now that he’s outside and awake – and they hand him forms declaring he is rejecting treatment. He signs them with a flourish, singing, I’m refusing treatment, I refuse! I refuse! I object! As he slumps back into a crumpled pile of himself with his chin on his chest, he mutters, everyone should sing with me.

The vomiting begins shortly after their parade of colorful vehicles leave, and she is grateful he is puking in the yard, rather than in the house. He is one of those loud melodramatic thrower-uppers: on his knees, alternately heaving and moaning, stop, stop.

From the steps she watches him until he says quit, go away. She thinks about when the other deputy asked what her relationship with Clive was and she responded, friends. Friends since we were kids. She didn’t tell him they used to be step-brother and step-sister. She left out details, mounds of details.

That night she is in her own bed, he is on the other side and it is a wide king, they are not lovers, but they’re on the same mattress. He has just given out a load of garbled nonsense about how dumb it was to call the cops on him.

You are a Grade-A idiot. She tells him as the kittens wrestle on his chest. I didn’t call the cops. The clinic did.

He is breathing heavy, yet shallowly and falling in and out of sleep. My soul is sitting next to me. I think I’m going to die tonight.

As they lay there in the dark while the wind whips along the windows and the shadowy smell of storm flows in, she has a vision.

She’s not expecting one and hasn’t had one in a long time. A man, in jeans and a gray t-shirt sits where she can see his profile. He has long shiny black hair and she comprehends that this man is gravely concerned about Clive and maybe disappointed, but that part could be her own interpretation. He sits between two paths, to the left is green grass and mountains, clear streams, the right is a trembling and decomposing city, with harsh pollution. The city is dead. The man taps with his left hand, a long white feather waiting for Clive to get it. Perhaps the man is impatient, but that might be Olive’s impatience.

You need to get the white feather, she tells Clive.

He agrees before she even has a chance to tell him about the vision. I do! I need the white feather before I die. I might die tonight if I don’t sleep.

She gets up and finds her green and red unakite stone, used for grounding. Hold this, she says, and you’ll fall asleep. He does and his snoring shakes the bed.

When she gets out of the shower in the morning, she finds him sitting up in bed, with the phone book, the phone, the computer, a notebook spread around him. He is on the phone, saying, I need the white feather or I’m going to die. Do you have a white feather? How can you have an American Indian Store when you’re British? You’re a Limey! Can’t you get the white feather?

He makes many phone calls looking to various organizations, churches, stores, for the white feather while I make breakfast. I can hear him say, Let me talk to the pro-pro-priator. Are you the boss? I need the boss. Tell him I’m going to die.

As she eats and he ignores his eggs she explains that she had a vision and she thinks the man in the vision is a symbol, you’re not supposed to just buy a feather, you need to go on a journey and earn it.

The white feather means bravery. I looked it up. I’m not brave.

She studies him, scarred, disoriented, ungrounded, cracked and thinks he is the bravest person she knows when the phone rings and it is someone returning his call, they have a white turkey feather.

No! An eagle feather. I AM NOT A TURKEY. He shouts as if he’s explained this a thousand times and no one is listening. After tossing the phone, he leans back on the pillow, looking exhausted, wretched. I don’t want to earn it.

After an hour’s climb in the drizzle, she is halfway up the mountain at her rock. Here is where she always stops to either have a snack or a moment. Every time she’s here, even in the winter, she thinks a rattlesnake might be under the rock and to make sure she doesn’t offer herself as bait, she crosses her legs to keep them from dangling. Okay, so maybe she is paranoid, but when this latest bout is over, Clive will be making her a steak with mushrooms and vowing never to behave like that again.

While she rests the vision returns. This time, the man, who is stern and unhumored has a piece of his skull cut in a circle at the top of his head. A silver river rushes out of the top of his head, projectile-vomit like. The silver has chunks of black. He is vomiting out from the top of his head everything that builds up, thoughts, memories, realities, particulars, everything that makes a migraine.

When she returns home, waters and feeds all the foster animals, drops a load into the washer, cleans the litter boxes and pens, bottle-feeds the two baby squirrels, she saves looking in on Clive for last.

He is still in the bed, smallish, sallow. He asks to check in with that vision, tell me please, he begs, what do I need to do to get the white feather?

What should she say to a man who has been offered a thousand versions of help and ignored most of them?

Chief Whitefeather, she laughs, you need to keep watch for guides. The words sound humorous, yet right. You’ll have many guides along the way. Who could argue with having many guides along the way of life?

He hides his head under a pillow while the kittens try to paw their way to him.

On the next squirrel feeding she asks him to help. They scramble over that bottle and if I had another set of hands it would be easier.

He showers and makes himself ready for feeding even though she tells him he’ll get messy and might as well wait until after. He says that the wildlife people called while she was out to ask if she’d take in a red-tailed hawk with an eye injury.

She nods, I’ll take as many as I can and then I can’t take any more.

The squirrels are sleeping when she opens the cage, hidden in the corner under pillowcases, but she soon hears small grunts. When she puts her hand in, they peek out with sharp black eyes and gray whiskery faces to climb up an arm, looking for the bottle. She has forgotten to put her hair up and one of them quickly nests itself above her neck. She shows Clive how to hold the bottle and hands him the squirrel on her leg while she carefully un-nests the other. The little rodent face stares up at him while sucking on the bottle, like a baby with a father. He seems relatively clear-eyed this morning and sings to the squirrel a song about growing up to escape the cage, the page, the knees and go climb trees.

He marvels, they don’t bite me.

After they feed, they always want to sit quietly on a shoulder, often pooping or peeing, but Olive remembered her squirrel shirt. One of them sits on Clive’s shoulder, still, the statue-like way squirrels do. Clive removes him gently and presses the squirrel’s cheek to his own. He’s crying and Olive lets him without interruption.

In the morning Clive is almost back to himself which is a contradiction because how many shades of Clive are there and which one is normal? He is out of bed on the couch and in that I’m-sorry-Its-never-going-happen-again mood, as soon as I’m better, I’ll dig in that engine and find your dead mouse.

Don’t waste words on me, she tells him pinching her fingers in the air. Every word is a precious gem. Plus, she is in no hurry to have her car torn apart in the driveway with Clive cussing and throwing wrenches across the yard.

He looks at the photos of his purplish skin and admits she was correct in calling the VA. I know I was right, she says, pleased that he understands. In comparison, now he looks pale, bloated, scared. There was a time he found a doctor for Olive when she didn’t want one and they both know that.

She hears him in The Wild-Room as he calls it, the nursery, singing and talking to the squirrels, telling them how they will be released in the woods soon, after they eat as much avocado and broccoli as their tummies can handle. You’re going to love these sweet potatoes, he says. You’re going to love the forest.

Chief Whitefeather, she says when he comes out, pointing at a few brown rice-size poops on his shirt, take a walk?

I should have got things in order he says. I needed to work, not to be stupid.

She doesn’t want to hear remorse. Walk? She says insistently, irritably.

They hike into the woods where he searches for the perfect tree to release the squirrels, one where their squirrel box can be placed with a view of the river. We’ll release them early in the morning he says, right at sunrise.

She notes that he is talking about the future, as if he’ll be alive in four weeks. You’re not dying then between then and now?

He’s trudges in untied boots. I want to see them run along that tree, their first freedom.

Four weeks from now they’ll be ready. Can you make it? What she means is, can you keep focused, keep on it, keep yourself together? Chief?

He doesn’t look confident whatsoever. Hoping.

I’m not saying thank you, he shouts while taking off his shoes and pants to wade in the cold wintry river, because you really didn’t save my life this time. Halfway across, he ducks soundlessly beneath the surface.

I merely made you breakfast, she says to the shimmering water, while he is under, down deep longer than you’d would think a man like Clive could hold his breath.

freeleStefanie Freele’s published and forthcoming work can be found in Five Points, Witness, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, Wigleaf, Western Humanities Review, Sou’wester, Chattahoochee Review, The Florida Review, Quarterly West, and American Literary Review. Stefanie is the author of two short story collections, Feeding Strayswith Lost Horse Press and Surrounded by Water, with Press 53. www.stefaniefreele.com

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The Silence of January, fiction by Frank Reardon

Before Arnie Sandlin could drop a fistful of ice melt outside the doorway of The Ranger Lounge, his stomach exploded and he was thrown five feet across the room into a poker table. Dutchie Selby stepped into the lounge, ice crunching under his feet, a Benelli M-4 in his hands.

Dutchie walked over to Arnie’s corpse and eyeballed the intestines hanging from his gut. Dutchie’s head cocked to the right when he noticed Arnie’s blood-splattered face smiling back at him, his hand still gripping the ice melt.

“Cold out this mornin’, ain’t it, Arnie?” he asked the corpse with a laugh. “I know you’re not open, but you don’t mind If I get a drink?”

Dutchie leaned the Benelli against a table and walked around the bar. Where’s the good stuff? he asked himself. Ahhhh, there it is he thought, grabbing the Jameson. He poured a double and took a seat in the empty lounge.

“Business isn’t too good this mornin’, Arnie.”

He took off his brown cattleman’s hat and placed it on the table. He took a swig and looked at the badge on the hat that said Ward County Sheriff’s Department, the state symbol for North Dakota in the middle. The Ranger Lounge was dark and empty. One TV in the corner had a crumpled up looking weatherman on the screen. Dutchie listened as the weatherman went on about it being minus twenty degrees in north central North Dakota.

“What an asshole,” he said after the weatherman mentioned the temperature would be the same and a storm was coming. “No relief in sight? What a jack-off,” he said downing the rest of his drink.

Dutchie grabbed the Benelli, walked back over to Arnie, and crouched down.

“Where’s Jimmy Red Bear?” he asked. “You don’t know?”

He smacked his lips when the open door welcomed in the Dakota winter wind. It felt like tiny pins stabbing him in the back.

“No matter,” he said. “When Red Bear finds you, let him know I was looking for him.”

He stood up and stepped over Arnie’s body. Before he walked out into the parking lot, he snatched up the shell casing.

“Wouldn’t want to forget that.”

The Ranger Lounge was five miles outside the city limits, out in the prairie where the wind was fierce. Dutchie jumped into his patrol car, shivering. He looked in his rear view. The open door of the lounge was swallowed by the silence of January, vanishing from his sight once he turned the corner onto 83.

***

Jimmy Red Bear grew up on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, but after he took control of the Rez drug trade he eventually made enough to buy a house and a few businesses in Minot, leaving his cousin Harrison in charge of the business back home. One of the businesses Jimmy bought was a pizza joint called Chief’s Pizza. He also owned a few warehouses and The Ranger Lounge. It was midday when Larry the Pigeon knocked on Jimmy Red Bear’s door.

“What the hell do you want?” he asked the Pigeon.

“Someone shot up your place.”

“What place?” Jimmy asked without emotion.

“The Ranger…fuckin’ Arnie Sandlin’s dead.”

Jimmy Red Bear opened his front door wider, letting the Pigeon inside.

“Thanks, Jimmy. It’s damn cold out there.” The Pigeon started to walk up the stairs, but Jimmy blocked his way.

“My damn kids are home. Just tell me here.”

“Got any coffee? It’s real cold, Jimmy.”

“No. No, I don’t have any coffee, you mutt. Tell me.”

Larry’s face straightened up. “Yeah, okay, Jimmy. Minot PD is all over The Ranger. Someone opened the door and blasted Arnie.”

“How do you know about Minot PD?”

“Merry went in for her shift and found Arnie. She’s the one that called the cops.”

“Jesus, how’s she doing?”

“Pretty shaken up. Cops took her statement and sent her home.”

“Go to her house and bring her to my warehouse office over on North Broadway.”

“You ain’t gonna hurt her, are ya, Jimmy?”

Jimmy snapped his hand back and punk-slapped the Pigeon across the face. Jimmy showed no emotion when the Pigeon grabbed his cheek.

“No, I’m not going to hurt her. Are you stupid? I need to know what she knows. I don’t need any heat coming down on me or my family. Christ, Larry, you dumb son-of-a-bitch. I have no idea how you even walk on two legs. You must be at least three-quarters retarded.”

“Sorry, Jimmy…”

“Why are you still here?”

***

Dutchie sat inside Lilly’s Diner on the north end of town waiting on his third cup of coffee and the check. Butch Carson walked over to Dutchie, who was gazing into a street light watching the snow fall out from the dark of the sky.

“Coming down hard today. The weatherman said we could wake up with six inches.”

“So I hear,” Dutchie replied, watching Butch fill his cup.

“Same as usual, Sheriff Selby,” Butch said slapping the check face down.

“Butch, let me ask you something.”

“Anything,” he replied.

“Is there a Lilly Carson?” he asked, still watching the snow fall.

“Sure ain’t,” he said.

“Not a Mrs. Lilly Carson?” Dutchie asked, taking his head away from the snow.

“Nope, divorced. The former Mrs…or, should I say the many former Mrs. Carsons have all moved on.”

“How many Mrs. Carsons have there been?”

“Five. Six, if you count that one-night marriage to the show girl in Vegas.”

“Six times,” Dutchie replied shaking his head in amazement. “How come none of them ever stuck around?”

“I dunno, Sheriff. I guess they couldn’t take the cold. The seclusion does something to a person’s mind if you’re not used to it. Never bothered me much. I couldn’t really say. They always get up and leave.”

“Any kids?”

“Three daughters and one son. They’ve all moved out.”

“Local?”

“Nah. The closest one is in Fargo, but she’s getting ready to move down to Nashville.”

“The isolation get to them, too?”

“If I knew, Sheriff, I’d tell ya, but I haven’t got the slightest idea. One minute you’re their everything. The next minute, they hate you. Then moments later they get married, move to Tampa, and want to love you from a distance. They call and all but only once every few weeks.”

“Why not move yourself, Butch?”

“What? And leave this Shangri-La?” he said looking around the empty diner.

Dutchie reached into his coat and pulled out a bottle of Oxy he had taken from a drunk he arrested the day before.

“You okay, Sheriff?”

“Huh?” Dutchie replied, looking at the name on the bottle of Oxy.

“The pills. Are you sick?”

Dutchie swallowed two with a swill of coffee.

“Nah, just a sinus thing. The damn cold, it gets to you. Ya know?”

“You betcha, Sheriff. My sciatica acts up every day before it snows. It’s like a warning or something,” Butch said, filling up Dutchie’s mug again, “I meant to tell you…”

“What?”

“Officer Belichick from Minot PD was in here this afternoon. You know him?”

“Yeah, decent enough guy.”

“He said Arnie Sandlin was gunned down in the front door of The Ranger. You hear anything about that?”

“Minot PD mentioned it to us.”

“Who would do such a thing? Arnie was a good old guy. Never bothered anyone. He said that whoever popped Arnie didn’t take nothin’. No money, no liquor, nothing. It’s strange to me.”

“What’s strange?” Dutchie asked.

“Never mind me, Sheriff. I talk too much. I’ll leave the policing to you guys.”

“No, go ahead. What’s strange?”

Butch sat down in the booth across from Dutchie.

“Well, back when he sold the bar to Jimmy Red Bear, you know, after his wife died and he didn’t want to take care of the place because he was always over at the cemetery, grief stricken and all…”

“Go on…”

“Well, he became very strange. Out there, really. He wasn’t himself anymore. He let the place go to pot. It used to be us good old boys always over there. You know. The shop owners. The farmers. The firemen. You know, Sheriff. You’ve been in there.”

“He was married for 40 years. That would drive any man over the edge.”

“Not if you knew Arnie like I did. He was always up for a laugh and a drink. I tell ya. Sheriff, as soon as Jimmy Red Bear was involved Ol’ Arnie turned recluse. Quiet. He wasn’t the same.”

“Well, you know as well as I do that Jimmy Red Bear is, and always has been, on the wrong side of the bar. If you know what I mean.”

“You betcha, Sheriff. I know. It was that fuckin’ prairie nigger that did it to him is what I’m getting at. I have no proof, but I’d bet my life on it. I don’t know why. I don’t wanna know. But I wouldn’t blink an eye if something happened to Jimmy Red Bear. Asshole, if you ask me.”

The Oxy started to take hold of Dutchie. He felt the perfect stillness seep into his bones.

“Hold on, Butch. Don’t go talking crazy.”

“I ain’t gonna do nuthin’, Sheriff. I was just sayin’ that it’s sad is all. Minot PD has no idea who did it either. Might be they never find out. And you know why? Because Red Bear has half of Minot PD in his pocket.”

“Now you’re talking crazy, Butch.”

Butch looked at Dutchie–his sidearm resting in its holster, the gold badge on his jacket.

“Well, maybe someone ought to do something about Jimmy Red Bear.”

“What you just said to me, Butch. Don’t ever say that to another person. You hear me?”

Butch waved his hand, “Don’t mind me, Sheriff. I was jus’ thinking out loud. You know me. Anyhow, I got to get ready to shut down,” Butch said.

“Hey, Butch.”

“Yeah, Sheriff?”

“You never mentioned why.”

“Why what?”

“Why Lilly’s?”

Butch put down the coffee pot and looked around at the crusty old diner, and all the photographs hanging on the wall that reminded him of a better time. He noticed how they had faded and hadn’t been dusted by him or his employees in years. He looked at the snow and mud mix melting into the rug he left at the front door, and the once fresh coat of yellow paint now brown and black. Butch sighed, maybe for his dilapidated diner. Maybe for his kids. Maybe for Arnie Sandlin.

“I guess to give the place a little class,” he replied.

Dutchie left the money on the table and pinned it down with a salt shaker. He put his hat on and headed out into the dark snow. What a bastard, he thought, his shoes slopping through the snow and muck. Before getting into his cruiser, he took one last look at the snow falling through the glow of the streetlamp. He liked that it was something falling from nothing. He smiled an Oxy-smile and climbed into his cruiser. He looked at the clock. 8:55. Butch had turned off the lights to the front of Lilly’s by the time Dutchie turned over the engine and drove off. He hit a side street about a hundred yards away from Lilly’s, parked next to a bunch of old storage facilities, and opened his cellphone.

***

The Pigeon and Merry opened the door to Jimmy Red Bear’s warehouse. It was empty and cold. In the far corner was a giant throw-rug where a few standing lamps stood along with a few chairs and a couch. Jimmy stood on the rug, smoking a cigar.

“Finally, Larry. All day, you mutt,” Jimmy said.

“Sorry, Jimmy. I had trouble finding her place.”

“In this tiny city? With GPS and all that junk?”

“Jimmy, it wasn’t…”

“Never mind,” Jimmy said, rolling his eyes.

Merry, in her usual dark jeans and blonde hair done up in one large braid, walked by Jimmy without saying a word. She took her puffy winter coat off and took a seat.

“How are you doing, dear?” Jimmy asked.

She sized Jimmy up but didn’t say anything to him.

“It must’ve been traumatic. I’m sorry you had to find Arnie like that.”

“Tell Jimmy what you told me, Merry. Tell him.”

“Will you shut the fuck up,” Jimmy said. “In fact, go stand over there.”

The Pigeon, all six feet, two inches, and one hundred and fifty pounds of him, walked twenty feet away. With each step he took his head bobbed like a pigeon’s.

“No, you dumb mutt! Go stand in the corner of the building. Far away!” Jimmy yelled.

The Pigeon bobbed to the far corner. When he got there, he looked back at Jimmy like a puppy who just got whacked across the ass with a newspaper after it had pissed all over the new rug.

“Great! Now you look like a creep standing over there.”

“What’s that? I didn’t hear you!” the Pigeon yelled.

“Go shit in a hat, Larry.”

“What? I didn’t catch all of that! All I heard was you look great, Larry.”

“Oh yeah, that’s it, Larry.”

“What?”

“SHUT UP!” Jimmy shouted across the warehouse. The Pigeon dropped his head.

“Sorry about that,” Jimmy said.

“It’s your place. You can say and do what you want.” Merry replied.

“This bother you?” he asked, holding up the cigar.

“Nope.”

Jimmy tightened his lips and shook his head. He was trying to see if she was nervous, but she seemed more aggravated than bothered, like she could’ve been home watching her shows. Or out on a date. Or drunk. Anywhere but the cold warehouse.

“All right then, how about I cut to the chase?” Jimmy said.

“That would be fantastic.”

“What did you tell the cops?”

“Just what happened,” she said, crossing her legs.

“And that was…?”

“That I went to work. Got out of my car. The front door was open. And Arnie was dead with a fuckin’ poker table on top of his head.”

“Did the cops look around?”

“Sure, everywhere.”

“Did they ask you anything else?”

“Like what?”

“About me or my family? Maybe about some of the people who drink there?”

“Just about you hardly ever being there. A few questions about Arnie.”

“What did they want to know about Arnie?”

“Just typical kinda stuff, ya know?

“No. What’s typical?”

“If he always opened the lounge. If he had any enemies. If he ever mentioned anyone suspicious. You know, jus’ crap like that,” Merry said, stuffing a piece of peppermint gum into her mouth.

Jimmy stood up from the edge of the couch that was next to the chair Merry was sitting in. He stamped out his cigar in an ashtray and folded his arms. He looked up at the ceiling and rocked back and forth on his feet. He looked to be in deep thought for a few minutes, then let out a breath.

“Now this is very important. I want you to really think when I ask you this one.”

“Okay.”

“What did you say about me when they asked about me?”

“Like I said, Jimmy. I just told them you’re hardly around.”

“They didn’t ask anything about Fort Peck, or maybe my cousin Harrison?”

“No. What the fuck does Fort Peck have to do with Arnie? Wait, did someone from the Rez kill Arnie?”

“Highly unlikely,” Jimmy said, unfolding his arms.

“I only met your cousin Harrison once or twice. He only came in when you were there. I don’t think Minot PD has any idea who he even is. He’s a handsome man, always polite.”

“Oh, yeah. Harrison is a good kid. But no, he didn’t have anything to do with Arnie.”

Jimmy was another local business man to those who never met him, another guy sitting on a stool in the Ranger Lounge counting money. Some of the locals knew who he was, and knew what he was capable of doing to them if they crossed him. But he tried to fit in with the community, tried as hard as he could to come off as an upstanding citizen. He sponsored a Little League team. He even gave both time and money to The Saint Vincent DePaul. To those who didn’t know him, he was a saint, but up close, underneath the skin, most saints are capable of atrocities. Merry knew it.

“We almost done here?” Merry asked.

“Almost. Your dad, Matt, used to own the farm out towards Max. The Shaw place?”

“Yeah. What of it?” she said.

“He died not long ago?”

“Been two years now,” she replied.

“That’s too bad. He used to come into The Ranger a lot.”

“He was a fuckin’ no-good drunk. Drove my mother to an early grave.”

“Never knew Vanessa. She was gone before I moved here.”

“I was twelve.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. The asshole drank away all the profits. All of his time at the bar, rather than spending time with his only child. And if he did make his way out into the fields, it was because the whiskey with breakfast straightened him out. He put us in the poor house. My mother died because she couldn’t stand her own thoughts anymore.”

“How did she go, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Pills.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, “Jimmy said. “And your father?”

“Liver disease,” Merry said. “I’m sorry, but what does this have to do with anything?”

“You’re tough as nails, Merry. You’ve been through a lot. It’s no wonder why seeing Arnie dead didn’t bother you much.”

“I’m not without a heart. I liked Arnie. Of course it bothered me.”

Jimmy refolded his arms. He knew he wasn’t getting anywhere with her. He was pissing her off.

“You got a cigarette?” she asked.

He walked over to a desk, pulled out an old pack of Winstons, and tossed them on her lap.

“They’re a bit stale. I don’t smoke cigarettes. Someone left them here.”

“You got a light?”

Jimmy lit the cigarette for her with a Zippo. Merry noticed the Sioux Tribal decoration on the old silver lighter.

“Smoking will kill you,” he said.

“Yeah, I’ll try not to make a habit out of it.”

Jimmy was about to ask her more questions when the phones rang. He had several phones throughout the warehouse. One was on a table where he was standing. One was over by the Pigeon, and a few others were scattered throughout the building. They all had different and distinct rings. Merry kept smoking. Jimmy looked at the phone on his desk then lifted his head towards the Pigeon.

“Want me to get that, Jimmy?” the Pigeon shouted.

Jimmy nodded his head yes. The Pigeon picked it up. In the distance Merry and Jimmy could hear the Pigeon saying, “Hello.” “Hello?” “Hello?” The Pigeon listened and then hung up.

“Who was it?” Jimmy asked.

“I dunno. No one said a thing.”

“What?”

“No one said anything!”

“Jesus Christ, get your ass over here and tell me!” Jimmy shouted.

“Yeah. Right,” the Pigeon said, running over.

Merry put out the cigarette on her hiking boot and dropped the butt on the floor. She felt the cold steel of the straight razor hidden in her bra. Months back, a drunk man at the lounge got rough with her when she went out to her car. He would’ve raped her in the backseat if it wasn’t for Arnie pressing some steel up against his head. A Minot police officer had to try and restrain the man, but when the man began waving around a pistol, the cop called in for back-up. A Ward County Sheriff zipped into the parking lot after he heard the call. Merry watched the no-nonsense dark-haired Sheriff drop the guy with a single shot.

She listened to Jimmy and the Pigeon discuss the ringing phones, and when they gave up and figured whoever it was must’ve had the wrong number, the phone started to ring again. This time Jimmy picked it up.

“Hello,” he said. “Hello?”

“Who was it?” the Pigeon asked.

“No one said anything.”

The phone rang again. Merry couldn’t help but crack a smile when the two men kept answering and then bashing the phones down.

“Something funny, bitch?” the Pigeon said.

“Watch your damn mouth,” Jimmy said.

“I didn’t mean…the damn phones.”

“One more word out of your mouth, and I swear,” Jimmy said massaging his hip. The Pigeon knew under Jimmy’s shirt was a .38 Special. He kept quiet.

The phone started to ring. Jimmy ripped the cord out of the wall, but it didn’t stop the other phones from ringing throughout the warehouse. He leaned into the desk on his fists. Merry could see his white bones push through brown skin.

“Larry, go have a look outside,” Jimmy said.

“I don’t have no piece, Jimmy,” the Pigeon replied.

“Here, take mine,” Jimmy said, reaching under his shirt and handing the Pigeon his .38 Special.

***

The Pigeon stepped out into the cold. The snow was coming down hard, and the wind that carried it made it hard to see. He walked out into the small parking lot with the broken streetlamp and tried to look around, but the force of the wind pushed his head down. He gripped the pistol and made his way into the middle of the parking lot.

“Is anyone out here?” he asked with a cold tremble.

He stepped out into the darkness a little further, his hand over his eyes in a salute, attempting to see into the silent dark. When he looked to the left, a streetlamp glowed at a dead end. The soft beer color illuminating from the pole pissed all over the snow.

“Fuck this,” the Pigeon mumbled. “I’m going back inside. Jimmy can handle this shit.”

The sound of feet crunching in the snow sounded off in the distance. The Pigeon turned to look and tried to make out the dark figure moving towards him. The snow crunched louder. He moved towards the sound, his finger on the trigger.

“Who the fuck is out there?” he asked.

The dark figure stepped onto the edge of the lot and stopped.

“The hell” The Pigeon raised his pistol. “Whoever you are, I got a gun.”

“Keep flappin’ those wings, little birdie,” the figure replied.

The Pigeon gripped the .38 and walked toward the figure.

“This is your last…Fuck, Dutchie, is that you?” he asked.

Dutchie, half running, moved right up to the Pigeon with an empty 2-liter soda bottle, put his Glock 22 inside, and pulled the trigger. The bullet popped the bottle and hit the Pigeon in the neck, knocking him to the ground. Blood flowed in raw streaks from his shredded neck and emptied into a tiny pool inches from his head. Dutchie stood over his body. The black center of his eyes studied the miniature red river. The Pigeon’s dead face held a look of confusion as Dutchie dipped his index finger into the bloody snow.

Akita mani yo, mother fucker,” Dutchie said, painting his cheeks with the Pigeon’s blood.

***

“What’s taking that asshole so long?” Jimmy said.

“He probably took off. Left you here all alone with me. You gonna kill me now?”

“Keep your mouth shut.”

Merry stood up and started to walk for the door. “I’ve had enough of this shit.” Jimmy grabbed her by the arm as she passed.

“Sit your ass down,” he said, forcing her back into the chair.

“Screw you, Jimmy.”

“One more fuckin’ word out of your mouth, and I swear to god…”

“What, Jimmy? What? You gonna kill me? Bury my body somewhere out in the Badlands like you do with everyone else? It’s why you brought me here, isn’t it?”

“One more word,” Jimmy said, with his backhand raised to her.

The door to the warehouse flew open. Jimmy stood up straight, looking in the direction of the door. Merry stood up behind him. Dutchie tossed Jimmy’s .38, and it slid close enough for Jimmy to see the blood-caked grip.

“What the hell did you do to Larry, you crooked son-of-a-bitch?”

“He’s waiting for you in the parking lot,” Dutchie replied.

Jimmy was too far to snatch up the .38, and he could see Dutchie’s finger tapping on the trigger of his Glock.

“What the hell is that on your face, you damn lunatic?” Jimmy asked.

“War paint.”

“You’re bent sideways, Sheriff. A branch scraping a window from different directions.”

“Come again? I don’t speak in Indian riddles.”

“You’re no different than me, Sheriff. Fuckin’ crooked bastard.”

Dutchie nodded and smiled. Jimmy looked down at the pistol. He weighed his options. He wondered if he’d have enough time to leap to the pistol and put one in Dutchie’s stomach.

“Don’t think you’ll make it, Jimmy,” Dutchie said, as he watched Jimmy calculate. “But here, let me help you.” He kicked the .38 a little closer to Jimmy. Jimmy looked but didn’t make a move.

“You kill me, Selby, and you’ll have all of fuckin’ Fort Peck crawling all over this goddamned town. They’ll scalp every crooked asshole in this town until they get to you. I’m the mother fucker in this town. I’m the one everyone goes through. I own you. I own her. I own the shit you flush down the toilet in the morning.”

Merry leaped forward, grabbing Jimmy by his salt and pepper hair, and moved her razor across his throat with ease. Blood poured down his chest and all over Merry’s forearms. She dropped Jimmy to the floor, choking. Blood shot out and painted her shirt, face, and the tips of her blonde braid.

Jimmy, choking hard breaths, looked up from the ground, watching Dutchie and Merry stand over him.

“That’s one fucked Injun,” Dutchie said, pulling Merry’s thin frame into his body. Jimmy watched them kiss while he choked on his blood.

“Did you talk to Harrison?” Merry asked, kissing Dutchie again.

“Yup,” he replied, kissing her back. The blood on her shirt soaked into his uniform.

“Everything’s good then?” she asked, moving her blood-crusted arms over his chest.

“My guy Billy Printz will be taking over control of the shipments and sales as soon as Harrison can start sending the goods in.”

“Baby,” Merry said, “you’re gonna own this town. No one is going to be able to touch you.” She kissed him again.

Jimmy kicked his feet when he heard that his own family had betrayed him. He lifted his hands to his neck and tried to stop the bleeding, but the breath was leaving his body. His eyes went in and out as he watched them stand above him.

“There’s no loyalty among tribes,” Dutchie said, watching Jimmy cling on the last seconds of his life. “You hear me, Jimmy?”

He looked at Dutchie and flinched and kicked when Dutchie raised his Glock. Jimmy narrowed his eyes into the barrel’s dark hole. The wind from the storm slammed against the metal siding of the warehouse. Merry leaned her body into Dutchie’s. He wrapped his arm around her blood soaked jeans and pulled the trigger.

reardonFRANK REARDON was born in 1974 in Boston, Massachusetts, currently lives in Minot, North Dakota. Frank has been published poetry and short stories in many reviews, journals and online zines. His first poetry collection, Interstate Chokehold, was published by NeoPoiesis Press in 2009 as well as his second poetry collection Nirvana Haymaker 2012. His third poetry collection Blood Music was published by Punk Hostage Press late 2013. In 2014 Reardon published a chapbook with Dog On A Chain Press titled The Broken Halo Blues. Frank is currently working on more short fiction, with a novel in mind.

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Earlene and the Witch, fiction by Misty Skaggs

Ivy swaddled the sapling oak in the tattered remains of a patchwork quilt that got washed one too many times. The stuffing seeped out and clung to the young branches in worn white puffs, like tired clouds. She was careful not to tuck it in too tight around the roots. Dank dirt clods and frayed, stray threads littered the kitchen table. She rubbed her grubby hands over the faded fabric and let her calluses catch and snag tight, resilient stitches finally worked loose. Her thoughts grazed across the needlework, too tiny and delicate for a scrap quilt. And then they wandered back to the patient woman who must’ve made those stitches. Ivy had given fifty cents for the thing at a yard sale, talked ‘em right down from three bucks. Somebody’s sweet little Mamaw had been so careful, made such nimble moves with arthritic fingers. That woman had to have been the kind of Mamaw who made drop doughnuts while you slept in late and filled the kitchen with the smells of sugar and lard and coffee brewing. The kind of Mamaw with a puff of white hair pulled back in a bun, a woman who preferred to be called Nana. Nana, who gave hugs freely and touched and loved on her grand-babies who grew up to be inappreciative assholes who sold her quilt at a goddamned yard sale.

Ivy’s Mamaw had raised her and she preferred to be called Earlene. By all. There were no concessions for the grand-babies, no cute nicknames or handmade quilts. No getting spoilt. They were expected to pull their weight and help make the ends meet and to pay extra for the mistakes of their father. The biggest one of all being running away and leaving Earlene and her tattered twenty acres behind him. Daddy disappeared from the homestead and slunk off into some big city and six months later they sent his body back to the holler, cold as a wedge and stiff as a board and riddled with needle marks and bruises. Mommy killed herself six months on after that. Sloppy, with a shotgun in the cellar of Earlene’s house. In the cellar right below Ivy’s feet. Ivy didn’t remember the double dose of death that had been her birth right, but people talked.

Earlene made damned good deer jerky. That was as close as she got to baking treats. If you won her approval, you were rewarded with a wayward tousling of the hair and a mumble. Something akin to “You done good, kid”. Earlene had a coarse, gray head of hair, stained with nicotine and nappy, slapped back in a permanent pony tail. She was tall and broad, even in her old age when her spine humped up and she slumped over ever so slightly. The boys, Ivy’s little brothers, they didn’t stick around to watch Earlene get old and die. They broke loose as soon as they were old enough and she never heard from either of them again. Ivy missed them. The way they had laughed often and easy and kept things around the house all riled up. Earlene blamed Ivy’s Papaw. Said he had bad blood, the kind that wandered. Said he passed it down. Papaw went to work in Detroit when Earlene was a young woman and never sent for her and never come back. Never sent her a nickel towards raising her son, neither. That’s what Earlene said. In this house, by herself, Ivy could almost hear that familiar gravel voice, gritty in her ear.

Ivy watched her grandmother age, the two of them alone in the middle of all those acres. They planted a garden by the stars and the almanac and ate what they grew and barely used the electric. Towards the end, Earlene took to the outhouse. Walking through the cold night air to squat over a plywood hole instead of using her own, warm, toilet down the hall. Together, they were clinging to the past, holding on so hard they might rip a hole in the right now. So tight they might tear through the fabric of time with their dirty fingernails and bring back the dead. Earlene got superstitious. She sprinkled salt water around her bed and tacked up horse shoes above all the doors. She refused to clip her toenails on Sunday and slept with a pocket Bible in her pillow case, even though Ivy never remembered her setting foot in a church.

Earlene was still stout and sturdy and she tromped around in boots that her granddaughter could still hear, haunting a huffy path over loose floorboards at night. One time, the only time Ivy ever saw Earlene scared, a bird got into the house. She cried. Ivy’s Mamaw, the woman who would kill a copperhead with one swift strike of her hoe and then hang it on the fence for all the other snakes to see, hunkered down on a stool in the corner of the kitchen and stared at the little wren and wept and trembled. A bird in the house is bad luck of the worst kind. A bird in the house brings death. Earlene said she learned to look for omens.

Ivy went to the grocery store and bought packs of pork chops and bacon and packs of ground hamburger meat, but Earlene still went hunting. Said she preferred the taste of something wild. Ivy stood at the kitchen window one foggy October morning and waited up into the bright afternoon and then until the dusky evening mist rose up again. Earlene never came back. Ivy expected to discover that well water and outdoor toilets and Virginia Slims were the secret to eternal life. She never expected her Mamaw to die at all. Ivy had expected to make squirrel dumplings or maybe rabbit stew for supper. She never expected to discover her Mamaw having a heart attack under an oak tree, clutching her chest with one hand and her shotgun with the other. Earlene had a horrified look on her face and her tough voice cracked into whispers and she blamed the witch for the way her hard heart burst. Said she saw her, standing there at the edge of the clearing. A pale woman, fuzzy around the edges, calling to her from somewhere else, somewhere far away. Earlene’s last breath was a curse against a curse. A damnation of some female power only she had witnessed, the vision of a beautiful beast who took away her boys, her men. Earlene’s last breath was a whirlwind – a hex and a damnation and an extrication of a promise from the only person who stuck around to hear it.

Ever since that bird got in the house, Earlene wanted to trek out to the cemetery after every thunderstorm, any time she thought she saw a stab of lightning cut through the air and land on the ridge. She was scared of the omens. Ivy followed her through the wet woods to the most haunted place. On many a morning when the raindrops were still caught in the trees, Ivy watched her tired Mamaw lean against the trunk of a tree, reassured to find it still standing. Ivy shook her head and shook off a shiver and took up her bundle. Determined to find the old graveyard on the furthest corner of the property, she headed out into the sunrise light of day. She remembered the way.

Today, there was no mist seeping down off the foothills, just pink and orange light chasing the night away. No, Ivy thought, Earlene wasn’t the kind of woman who made quilts. She was the kind of woman who knew when to slaughter a hog, according to how the planets aligned. The kind of woman who didn’t want to be called Mamaw, the kind of woman who’s final wishes involved planting a brand new tree on an old witch’s grave.

skaggsMisty Skaggs, full time writer and part time hermit, was born and raised in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky where she still lives. Her poetry and prose are rooted firmly in Appalachia and have been published in literary journals such as New Madrid, Inscape, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Kudzu and The Pikeville Review. Her interests include junk shopping, porch swinging, and cats. You can find more of her writing and photography at her blog – http://lipstickhick.tumblr.com

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Down by The River, poem by Charles Swanson

(A poetic comment on Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “A Room Forever”)

Between cold buildings, out to the slate gray river
a view as flat as old year’s end. A room,
a room forever, not because of heaven—
instead because of death. Rose blood blooms
at her small wrists. The man waits at the river,
his tug a means down further, down with dumped
waste to the Delta. But his frozen vision
sees the foggy river, the drizzle as the same.
These pages!—why do I feel this man’s heart?
Everything is cold, the town, the river,
the foggy rain, the woman, not much more
than a child, yet a prostitute. He takes her
nonetheless. An ache beats against the river.
She tries to end it, he just stares some more.

View More: http://andrealeephotos.pass.us/swansonsCharles A. Swanson teaches dual enrollment English in a new Academy for Engineering and Technology, serving the Southside region of Virginia. Frequently published in Appalachian magazines, he also pastors a small church, Melville Avenue Baptist in Danville. He has two books of poems: After the Garden, published by MotesBooks, and Farm Life and Legend, from Finishing Line Press.

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