Songbird, fiction by Tiffany Buck

Sarah

June 1st. My favorite time of the year. The flow­ers are in bloom and it seems that all is right with the world. I’m walk­ing to church with a song in my heart only it’s not Sun­day, that’s tomor­row. Sat­ur­day is when I go see Mama. Mama will love these lilies, she’ll love my dress too; it once belonged to her.

“Morn­ing Mama. It’s so beau­ti­ful today up on this hill. I brought you some lilies I picked from the gar­den. You know the one you and me plant­ed togeth­er two years ago. You made me promise to bring a batch to you every time they bloom good. So far these have been the pret­ti­est ever. I sus­pect you’re won­der­ing about beaus. I don’t have any, but I keep pray­ing for one. There is this one man, Jesse, I am kin­da sweet on. He’s got the voice of an angel. He sings…”

Down below in the church, I hear music and it was not my imag­i­na­tion. I kiss the cross guard­ing Mama. Preach­er didn’t say there would be a con­cert today. Nor­mal­ly on a day like today, I would take the long way home pass the old div­ing bell and dip my toes in the riv­er, but the music stirred me up, like God was call­ing me. I left my shoes on the hill and walked bare­foot to the church. I opened the door and there was nobody except…

“You star­tled me.”

“I’m so sor­ry, I heard the music and it was like Jesus was call­ing me to come and lis­ten.

Jesse smiled. His smile was so warm and invit­ing. Like a hug.

“Preach­er some­times lets me come in here and prac­tice. Is your name Sarah?”

“You know my name?”

“I make it my busi­ness to know every­one in this church. You smell like lilies. You been up on the hill?”

“My mama’s up there.”

“I’m real sor­ry for that and this.”

Jesse pulls me down on the floor, real rough. My head hit the pew. He put his hand, both small and strong, on my neck. I thought for sure he would kill me. Jesus made me strong though. My head turned to scrip­ture, but I couldn’t remem­ber vers­es only sto­ries. Jesse was lift­ing my dress and shed­ding my under­gar­ments, and then… Mama taught me to be a lady, so I can’t tell you what he did. “Jesus this is my cross, help me look to You like You looked to God.” Then it was over. My body, limp from pain and bloody as he dragged me to the altar only to prop me up like a doll on dis­play.

Jesse

I was sit­ting on the choir bench hum­ming a tune I made up in my mind. I look through the hym­nal. Shame on me, I almost like the hym­nal bet­ter than the bible. I hear the door open and close. Did God send anoth­er angel for me? No. It was my old­er broth­er Jacob; he can nev­er escape that smell. I smiled. Jacob entered a church and the earth did not shake.

I thought I’d find you here.” said Jacob.

You smell like whiskey.”

“Hell, I always smell like whiskey. Even on Sun­days when I sell the most bot­tles while you’re in here singing about lovin Jesus in that pret­ty white robe.”

Harsh.”

“I ain’t got all day, so let’s go.”

“Go where, Jacob?”

“Home. You asked me to pick you up at the store, when I didn’t see you there I thought I’d try here.

Do you know what I was think­ing about today?”

No. I broke my crys­tal ball Min­er­va from out on 53, gave me.”

I was think­ing about the time when you, Camp and me got drunk off of Uncle Mount’s white light­en­ing.”

That was a time.”

You and Camp wrecked Daddy’s bug­gy and ruined Mama’s gar­den”

That gar­den looked bet­ter ruined.”

That’s because Mama had a black thumb.”

What I remem­ber Jesse, is you killing a lit­ter of kit­tens while you were try­ing to save their souls. You cried so hard you made your­self sick.”

The Lord’s work nev­er goes unpun­ished.”

Has the new preach­er in town ever killed any­body in the riv­er, on acci­dent of course?”

Preacher’s a good man.”

Just check­ing. Thought there might be a club for men who drown their vic­tims while bap­tiz­ing them.”

I only drowned the kit­tens and they don’t have any souls.”

You drowned your mama, Jesse.”

She refused to accept Christ, Jacob. I had to resort to des­per­ate mea­sures.”

I ain’t bap­tized.”

I’ve been mean­ing to talk to you about that, you and Camp both. Where is Camp?”

Par­adise.”

You mean Gehen­na?”

I mean he ain’t here, lit­tle broth­er.”

I see blood on your hands.”

I think what you see is dirt.”

That’s a cru­el way to go.”

So is drown­ing.”

You must accept Christ as your per­son­al Lord and Sav­ior today, right now, with me as your wit­ness.”

No.”

If you deny Christ, you will burn in hell. Why?”

Because it piss­es you off. I also have no desire to spend eter­ni­ty on a cloud play­ing a flute or a ban­jo with some blond angel. I’m count­ing on hell hav­ing a damn good assort­ment of whiskey. At least I know I’ll have a few drink­ing bud­dies there.”

I pity you.”

Not as much as I pity you.”

I slam the hym­nal shut. I feel my blood boil­ing. Thoughts of may­hem and mur­der enter my mind.

Who’s the cunt on the floor? The one I’ve been pre­tend­ing not to notice.”

Jesus sent her to me, sweet Jacob.”

She dead?”

Why do you ask?”

They always are. She’s got blood on her dress.”

The last one didn’t bleed.”

The last one had two lit­tle chil­dren miss­ing their mama. What am I going to have to do with this lit­tle dove?”

Noth­ing. She has no fam­i­ly”

That don’t mean peo­ple ain’t gonna miss her.”

She’s so pret­ty, all still like that.”

I hope you real­ize what a fuck­ing mon­ster you are.”

Jesus don’t like you swear­ing in his house.”

But, it’s okay to rape a woman in church.”

Jesus sent her to me. He knows my weak­ness­es.”

Per­haps if your tongue was ripped out of your mouth and hung on the church door with the word rapist writ­ten on your white angel­ic robe, God would stop send­ing the women to you.”

You love me too much to do that.”

No, I don’t.”

Remem­ber when you burned Daddy’s hym­nal because he pun­ished me for not want­i­ng to go to the church pic­nic?”

Cracked my knuck­les good.”

So you see, I was right when I said that you love me too much to hurt me.”

Sarah

It hurts to breathe. My neck feels like it’s being stabbed by a thou­sand tiny knives as I began to wake up.

How did I get in here?”

My guess is you opened the door and walked in here,” said Jacob.

Do I know you?”

Jesse, I thought you said this one was dead.”

Oops. She must have been stronger than the oth­ers. Do some­thing with her for me.”

Don’t I always.”

I guess, I will leave you two. Miss Sarah, believe me it was a plea­sure.”

Plea­sure. What does he mean plea­sure? All I feel is pain. I began to cry. My rapist is gone and left me with this man who…

Blood. There is so much blood on my dress. Oh Jesus.

There ain’t no rea­son for you to be cry­ing. This ain’t noth­ing you can’t recov­er from. I buried my best friend today. You don’t see me cry­ing.”

The man walked over to me and rough­ly put his hand on my mouth. I almost gag from the smell of whiskey and dirt.

Shut up!”

I’m bleed­ing.”

I’ll get you a dress.”

Jacob

I leave the room and walk into a clos­et filled with choir robes and a few dress­es as well as one or two men’s suits. My hands search through the dress­es. I pull out three: a pink one, a green one, and final­ly a blue one. Why do I give a fuck? I picked the blue one because I knew it would match her eyes. I walk back into the sanc­tu­ary. She hadn’t moved

and her eyes were blood­shot from cry­ing. I took the dress off the hang­er and threw it at her.

Wash your face and put this on.”

I watch her strug­gle to stand up. A gen­tle­man would have offered assis­tance. I ain’t a gen­tle­man. She limps to the wash­room and clos­es the door. I heard the water run­ning.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

Jacob.”

From Gen­e­sis?”

If you say so.”

You don’t come to church?”

No.”

She walks back into the sanc­tu­ary wear­ing the blue dress. Jesus, she looked beau­ti­ful.

Why don’t you come to church?”

You about done ask­ing me ques­tions?”

Sor­ry.”

Dove, I don’t go to church because Sun­day is when I make my mon­ey. You ever sit in here on Sun­days and notice a lot of hus­bands miss­ing? The men are in the back woods behind my house buy­ing what you call the devil’s brew. I make the best white light­en­ing in three coun­ties.”

I pull a bot­tle of whiskey out of my pock­et and chug about half of it. She glared at me, but she didn’t protest.

You want a taste; might make you feel bet­ter.”

I offer her the bot­tle. She turns her head away.

Do I look okay, accord­ing to your opin­ion?”

Wait.”

I grab her by the wrist and look into her eyes. A tiny eye­lash had fall­en on her cheek. I remove it.

Bet­ter. We got to go.”

It‘s twi­light, and the two of us sit at a train sta­tion. I stare cold­ly at the train. Look­ing over at Sarah I see her fid­get with her dress. If she doesn’t stop, she’ll pull a but­ton loose. Her eyes look as if she’s being sent to the slaugh­ter­house. She turns her eyes to meet mine.

I could cook and clean for you. Share your bed. Any­thing.”

I chuck­le at this pro­pos­al.

I don’t pic­ture you as a fall­en woman.”

Mar­ry me. I’ll even for­give Jesse because he’s your broth­er.”

Dove, you ain’t nev­er gonna for­give Jesse. That’s des­per­a­tion talk­ing. And anoth­er thing, if I plan on get­ting mar­ried to some woman, it’s gonna be me that does the propos­ing.”

Please.”

I already told you. You’re gonna get on that train and get off at Way­cross, and you ain’t nev­er com­ing back here. If I see you or smell you with­in forty miles of this town, I will per­son­al­ly put a bul­let in your head.”

She starts cry­ing again. God­damn it why can’t she stop the cry­ing?

I’m still bleed­ing.”

As a woman, you should know how to han­dle that.”

How did your best friend die?”

What?”

Ear­li­er, when I came to, you told me that your best friend died. How did that hap­pen?”

He stole mon­ey from me. Stu­pid son of a bitch put it in the car box. Oth­er than me, he’s the only one that had a key to it. He was sup­posed to make the run tonight, so he didn’t think I would see it. I found him drunk in his house. I drug him kick­ing and scream­ing to a shal­low grave and cov­ered him with dirt.”

Oh.”

The con­duc­tor makes an announce­ment let­ting every­one in the sta­tion know that the train to Way­cross has arrived.

What if I’m preg­nant?”

I lead Sarah to the train. The word preg­nant stings in my head and tiny heart. I lean down and kiss her on the fore­head. A baby in her bel­ly would be my blood. I take her hand and gen­tly mas­sage her fin­gers.

If it was mine, I’d like to see his face, if it’s Jesse’s I’d kill it. There’s an old man, Mur­ray, in Way­cross. He buys a bar­rel a month from me. His hob­by, aside from drink­ing and hunt­ing with arrows, is watch­ing trains. Find him and tell him I sent you. He’ll be good to you.

Will I ever see you again?”

I bend down and kiss her. Next, I pulled an old stop­watch out of my pock­et and put it in her hand.

Some­day I’ll want this back.”

She smiles at me and gets on the train. I don’t stay to wave good­bye.

Tiffany Buck lives in north Geor­gia on the edge of Appalachia. She is mar­ried and has a three-year old daugh­ter. Her inter­ests include writ­ing grit and mak­ing her own cos­met­ics.

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Hem, poetry by Michael K. Gause

(for William Gay)

Days lit flat and splayed, as if to under­stand a life is to log its con­tents. Take down work. Dis­sect the nights you don’t sleep. Mean­while, life hangs with death in the woods.  Tin cups of wait­ing. Long hours of drink. But go ahead. Open it all up. Take min­utes and leave them on desks come morn­ing. Walk in the sun and sleep in the bed.  For­get there are lines no one can map. The Great Divide. That mile mark­er where cities halt their sprawl. Springs that run dry at the hem of the Har­rikin.

Michael K. Gause was born in Ten­nessee and raised on for­est soli­tude and the writ­ten word. Lat­er there were explo­sions. Now, after 21 years in Min­neso­ta, he's hap­py to say he's nev­er felt more south­ern. His spo­radic blog is http://​the​day​on​fire​.blogspot​.com.

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PALE LEMON FIRE IN A PARTLY CLOUDY AUTUMN, poem by Dennis Mahagin

Near­ly noon, on Thurs­day
late Octo­ber, and I see the trees
sway­ing with­in a wind that means
only busi­ness,
no fra­grant breeze
here, no idle
bur­lesque:
mere­ly rote
screams, blue note egress from boughs
with fore­sight and worse, they bite back the bark
in street light pos­es, they feel so much
bet­ter, much bet­ter come
the dark.
This time of year, this time
of life it breaks
down the anger, ache by ache, cold moan
in the heart attack
eaves, but maybe you know it
by now, too? by God
we must not feel so sor­ry
for those leaves, in free
fall, going to a place that gets

umber, then full
on, naked in a month: Win­ter
is the rud­dy face of a poet
at six­ty…
Or the tick­ing
of radi­a­tors
in my youth, they run on
steam,
sticky sheets left
oblit­er­at­ed in the mid­dle of the poster bed
of those wel­fare hotels, I’d check in
for kicks only, sucked off
dry by the usu­al specters, too many raven-haired sins
to enu­mer­ate them
now,
down the block, some bloke fires up his chain saw,
and back in my brain, the fat Irish bard
in green felt der­by hat: … Let it go, boyo … But oh
to antic­i­pate the wood smoke, arriv­ing soon
in a kind of uni­son, dou­bles as an astral
sob; now it’s about half
past noon.

mahagin3Den­nis Maha­gin is the author of two poet­ry col­lec­tions: “Grand Mal” from Rebel Satori Press (https://​www​.ama​zon​.com/​G​r​a​n​d​-​M​a​l​-​D​e​n​n​i​s​-​M​a​h​a​g​i​n​/​d​p​/​1​6​0​8​6​4​0​515) and “Long­shot & Ghazal”from Mojave Riv­er Press: http://​pre​mi​um​read​ing​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​n​b​e​l​i​e​v​a​b​l​e​-​l​o​n​g​s​h​o​t​-​g​h​a​z​a​l​-​d​e​n​n​i​s​-​m​a​h​a​g​i​n​-​o​n​l​i​n​e​-​get. Den­nis is also the poet­ry edi­tor for the online mag­a­zine, FRiGG. He lives in south­west­ern Mon­tana.

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Lady Smith, fiction by Jim Wilsky

The third day on the run, they ditched a stolen pick­up truck in the sprawl­ing park­ing lot and then wait­ed out­side the doors of Nordstrom’s. Less than an hour lat­er, they were turn­ing out of Spring­town Mall in a black Escalade.

He had picked out a well-dressed woman that was alone and it had paid off in spades. Mid-thir­ties at the most, looked twen­ty five, and she was from mon­ey.

It was a clear blue sky, sun­ny day but Mered­ith Brown­ing turned on the wind­shield wipers when she used her turn sig­nal.

What’re you doin’ woman?” Arlen Wat­son was hold­ing the gun low, rest­ing it on the con­sole between them. “Easy.”

Sorry…I — I’m scared.” She fum­bled with the con­trol. The wipers went faster and the wash­er flu­id mist­ed before she final­ly got every­thing stopped.

In the back­seat, Geor­gia was paw­ing through two shop­ping bags. “Oh, baby,” she said soft­ly pulling out a scarf.

Arlen looked back at her, caught a look down Georgia’s loose fit­ting top and then drug his eyes back over to the dri­ver. “There ain’t noth­in’ to be scared about ma’am. Just need the car. We get out of town a ways and we’ll drop you off. Do what I tell you and everything’ll be fine.”

Okay. Okay. Don’t hurt me.”

Get over. Left lane, jump onto 20 west.” He looked into the side rear view, then straight ahead. “It’s comin’ up here now, 20 west.”

Please. I’ll do what­ev­er you say, take what­ev­er you want,” Meredith’s voice was shak­ing as she took the inter­state ramp. She start­ed to cry. “Just let me go.”

I will, I swear. Just keep dri­ving.”

Arlen, how far we goin’ before we drop her whiny ass off?” Geor­gia asked as she pulled out a sweater next and held it up. “Oh my, I do love this col­or.”

Hush up back there girl” Arlen said while look­ing at the woman dri­ving. His eyes trav­eled slow. Up and down, then up again. The sun dress, which was short to begin and had got­ten his atten­tion in the park­ing lot, was rid­ing even high­er now. A lot to look at there. Long, tanned legs.

Feel­ing his stare, Mered­ith glanced across the con­sole to him. “She’s so young. What­ev­er has hap­pened, or what­ev­er you two have done, it's not too late.”

You’re doing like eighty. Take her down a notch.” Arlen's look was straight ahead now.

Oh, I’m old enough dar­lin’ and lis­ten up, don’t you go talkin’ about me like I’m not even here.” Georgia’s voice from the back was now close, almost in Meredith’s ear.

Let me help you both. I’ve been in trou­ble before myself.” Meredith's eyes in the rear view mir­ror went cold and blank, but for only a moment.

Trou­ble?” A wild lit­tle gig­gle came from the rear as Geor­gia leaned back and shoved her feet into the dri­ver seat. “Real­ly? Like what hon’, stay­ing up past your bed­time? Drank too much beer on prom night?” Anoth­er laugh. “You’re just a lit­tle princess. Have been all your life.”

Hush girl.”

Don’t you go hush­ing me again Arlen Wat­son. Fair warnin’.”

He turned in his seat again and stared at his girl­friend. His jaw mus­cles were work­ing over­time now. He'd had just about enough of this mouthy lit­tle whore.

Geor­gia went right back at it though, meet­ing Meredith’s eyes that were now big and soft again, in the mir­ror. “I bet your dad­dy had mon­ey and then you mar­ried into even more. Bet your hus­band is twen­ty years older’n you too. Ain’t that right, princess?”

Geor­gia got no answer, so she began to rifle through the expen­sive purse lying next to the shop­ping bags.

Hey now…I just found cash mon­ey Arlen. Cou­ple two, three hundred…wait now. Shit, close to four.”

And then, just like some­body threw a switch, the car fell into silence. Like it does some­times when the mind takes over and the words stop com­ing. It was like that until for about forty five min­utes.

After pass­ing an old Dodge Ram pulling a flatbed full of every­thing that fam­i­ly owned, Arlen final­ly broke that silence. He point­ed up ahead, “Comin' up here, about two miles more or so, take exit 18. There’s a closed Denny’s but pull in the lot any­way.”

Mered­ith did as she was told and start­ed slow­ing to a stop in front of the desert­ed restau­rant. Across the way, on the east­bound side, there was only a gas sta­tion and rest area. Noth­ing else.

No, no, go on around back.”

Please…don’t.”

It’s gonna be fine ma’am. Pull around back, I just can’t let you out right here. Go on now.”

She cir­cled around the build­ing. Her hand was shak­ing as she put the car in park. “I have two young daugh­ters.”

Arlen leaned over and pulled the keys out of the igni­tion. His hand brushed Meredith’s leg and stopped. He rubbed her knee and then slid slow­ly upward. “It's gonna be okay.” There was no time and he knew it, but damn.

Instead of giv­ing in to it, he reached in his jack­et pock­et and pulled out a roll of gray tape. Same tape he’d used on the stolen truck’s own­er, but it was all for show this time. “Now, all I’m gonna do is tape you up.” He held the tape up to her as proof. “So, get out real slow and walk to the load­ing door over there.”

Arlen, let me do her up. Nice and tight.” Georgia’s voice had gone hard and wicked. “Let me cinch that princess up good.”

Hush, dammit. Stay put back there.”

Mered­ith got out slow, walked to the build­ing and turned. Arlen had already stopped, about ten feet away with the gun raised.

On your knees dar­lin'.” He motioned at the ground with the bar­rel.

She melt­ed down, cov­ered her mouth with one hand, the oth­er held out to him.

Please,” She said. “Oh please…don’t.” Her voice was just a whis­per now.

Two quick shots cracked. Then a third. First one hit him square in the back and he barked a yell out. The next, hit him in the side as he turned. He stag­gered a step, his open mouth show­ing sur­prise. The gun slipped out of his hand and he went down hard. His body only jerked after the third shot hit him.

I told that son of a bitch not to hush me again. Gave him fair warn­ing.” Geor­gia said, walk­ing past the body.

Mered­ith looked at the motion­less Arlen and couldn't believe she was still alive. The shock was short lived though, her eyes that had been big and round with pan­ic, nar­rowed. A hard look. She didn’t speak.

Sides, he was fix­in’ to kill you, not tape you. I ain’t no mur­der­er like him. Least not some dang exe­cu­tion like that.” Geor­gia looked at the Lady Smith .38 spe­cial in her hand. “Lucky for you, I found this pret­ty lit­tle gun in your purse. Didn't even know they made a girls gun like this. My last name is Smith too. Guess it was just meant to be.”

Behind Geor­gia, the sky in the west had start­ed to dark­en up and a low, far off rum­ble of thun­der rolled over them. Not a spit of wind. Calm. She turned and then looked back at Mered­ith. “I do like a good storm. I like that tense kin­da feel­ing you know. Some­thing badass com­ing. All that.”

They stared at each oth­er for a moment more and then Geor­gia Smith put her hands on her hips. She grinned big and said, “Well hell, ain’t you gonna thank me or noth­in’?”

Mered­ith stood up slow, her eyes clicked over to where Arlen was lay­ing in a small but grow­ing pool of dark blood. She still didn’t speak but her mind was work­ing.

Cat got your tongue, sug­ar? I'll admit, that was a close call.”

I…thank…” The words just weren't com­ing out right and all Mered­ith could do was shake her head. Her eyes teared up.

All right then, its okay. Let’s go sis, we got­ta put some miles in between us and ol’ Arlen here. We’ll head south now instead of west. Hell, maybe even Mex­i­co huh? You and me. We can have us some girl talk as we go, plus I can’t dri­ve with­out insur­ance right?” Georgia's smile looked forced now and her eyes were just a lit­tle too bright, too jumpy.

Mered­ith stared at that young face and saw mad­ness. She grinned weak­ly and nod­ded back at the girl.

Geor­gia motioned to fol­low and turned. “C’mon now, we’ll be like Tam­my and Louise…or what­ev­er the fuck that movie was called.”

Light­ning zigzagged in the dis­tance. A breeze picked up out of nowhere with the scent of rain strong. Much cool­er air, cold almost, sig­naled the oncom­ing storm. Mered­ith hadn’t felt like this for a long time. Not since Riley Lloyd, not since that moon­less night, on a bank of the Big Sandy. It seemed a long, long time ago but it real­ly wasn't. Not long at all.

As they walked back to the car with Geor­gia lead­ing the way, Mered­ith smooth­ly reached down and swept up Arlen's gun with a prac­ticed hand. She closed the space between them and two steps from the car she stopped and aimed.

Geor­gia sensed some­thing then, firm­ing her grip on the Lady Smith. She start­ed to turn but it was far too late. There was only a split sec­ond to real­ize her final and fatal mis­take, in a short bit­ter life that had been full of them.

Mered­ith Brown­ing was no princess.

 

wilskypicJim Wilsky is a crime fic­tion writer. He is the co-author of a three book series; Blood on Blood, Queen of Dia­monds and Clos­ing the Cir­cle. He’s fin­ish­ing up a new book that will be com­ing out soon, as well as search­ing for a pub­lish­er for a col­lec­tion of his short sto­ries.

His short sto­ry work has appeared in some of the most respect­ed online mag­a­zines such as: Shot­gun Hon­ey, Beat To A Pulp, All Due Respect, Yel­low Mama, The Big Adiós, A Twist of Noir, Rose & Thorn Jour­nal, Pulp Met­al, Thrillers Killers & Chillers, Plots With Guns, Flash Bang Mys­ter­ies, A Twist of Noir and oth­ers. He has con­tributed sto­ries in sev­er­al pub­lished antholo­gies, includ­ing All Due Respect, Kwik Krimes and Both Bar­rels. He resides in Texas, sup­port­ed and strength­ened by a won­der­ful wife and two beau­ti­ful daugh­ters.

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The Property of Bug-Eyed Motherfucker, story by Wynne Hungerford

Apache Springs the cross­roads was known as, and for miles around the land was called Apache Springs also. There was a sin­gle saloon at the cross­roads next to a board­ing house with its roof rot­ted from the night­ly urine of pros­ti­tutes that climbed up there and pissed beneath the moon. It nev­er rained in Apache Springs. There was nev­er a cloud in the sky. Because of this the pros­ti­tutes climbed onto the roof every night. Vis­i­tors began to take an inter­est. Eng­lish or French peo­ple they usu­al­ly were, spring or sum­mer­time cow­boys who always stopped at the saloon first to get prop­er­ly wast­ed.

Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er was one of these French­men. He spent a whole after­noon sip­ping rye whiskey and when he final­ly slipped into a good, moist stu­por he head­ed over to the board­ing house for some good, moist com­pa­ny. The woman only cost a sil­ver dol­lar because she had a shriv­eled leg, but Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er didn’t mind. He said, “Bon­jour sexy,” and then used her cane, a piece of desert wood, to beat her across the ass. When they had fin­ished and the pros­ti­tute was already climb­ing out of the win­dow and pulling her­self onto the roof with strong arms, Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er real­ized that his pis­tol was gone. It had been a gift from his late men­tor. They had been like father and son.

Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er ran back to the saloon and swung open the doors.

Some­one said, “Look at the bug eyes on that moth­er­fuck­er.”

Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er thought he saw the flash of his pis­tol’s moth­er-of-pearl han­dle at a table in the back of the saloon. He had excel­lent vision. The fel­low sit­ting at that table was an Eng­lish­man. Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er swag­gered back there and said, “Mon pis­to­let!”

My good man,” said the Eng­lish­man. “I beg to dif­fer.”

Then the Eng­lish­man picked up the gun and shot Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er through the eye. He fell dead to the floor. “I apol­o­gise for the dis­tur­bance, every­one,” the Eng­lish­man said. “Car­ry on.”

Mean­while, the crip­pled pros­ti­tute of Apache Springs stood like a flamin­go on the roof of the board­ing house. She had been the one to take Bug-Eyed Moth­er­fuck­er’s pis­tol, even though he had not sus­pect­ed her because of the shriv­eled leg, and now she was point­ing the pis­tol at the moon. She’d heard the oth­er girls call the moon beau­ti­ful but, to her, it looked like a pus­tule that need­ed to be popped.

hungerfordWynne Hunger­ford has pub­lished work in Epoch, Talk­ing Riv­er Review, The White­fish Review, The South Car­oli­na Review, and The Week­ly Rum­pus, among oth­er places. She is an MFA can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da.

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Three-Man-Operation, poem by Mathews Wade

Papaw’s ranch ain’t so much a ranch
but a two man oper­a­tion with his neigh­bor
Ter­ry, whose wife is also named Ter­ry,
just two men rub­bin pen­nies, joined
by fences mend­ed with zip-ties, where
strung-out race horse res­cues pop­u­late
junked-fields & hunt­ing dogs are kept
hun­gry for the let-out in cages inten­tion­al­ly
hid­den behind the barn for fear of PETA or
a stand-in mail­man who might be canine
sym­pa­thet­ic, where frog ponds ain’t real
ponds but bro­ken field tiles filled-in
with cof­fee-col­ored water as to not be a haz­ard,
though the two’s per­cep­tion of what a haz­ard
is, or isn’t, is one of the many things you’ll
soon learn not to trust, like when Ter­ry
tells you to point your tal­ly-whack­er at
that third-wire, you don’t lis­ten & if you do
you won’t again, or if Papaw tells you
to drink the Kool-Aid from his spit­toon,
you don’t lis­ten, & if you do you’ll spend
the rest of your life try­ing to for­get the taste
of anoth­er man’s stains.

//

Before he hands over the cat­tle-prod, he zaps it twice to remind
you of the pow­er you’re about to hold, mul­ber­ry pie lingers
in his den­tures from your annu­al blood­mouth break­fast, a fun
tra­di­tion as you recall—press it to hide, he says, get it to move.

//

After Papaw’s sec­ond heart attack, after
Ter­ry took up drink­ing when female-Ter­ry
left him for a man they both called a word
Meemaw wouldn’t allow spo­ken inside
the house, you spend your sum­mers
mow­ing, shov­el­ing, lis­ten­ing to the radio
spill racism & spit­ty fear, clop­pin about
in mid-high muck boots past your knees, proud
of the trac­tor keys in your pock­et, the camel
on the key­chain is smok­ing a cig­a­rette,
but you con­sid­er him a friend, looks friend­ly
enough, you learn a lot in these sum­mers,
the taste of Old Mil­waukie, about shanks
& jig­gers, why shot­gun shells are red,
that drink­ing cold chick­en broth from a ther­mos
will keep you hydrat­ed while you search
for castel­lat­ed nuts with a met­al-find­er, the ranch
becomes a three-man-oper­a­tion, as they start
to call it, even let you sit on the porch as the two
of them croak at the moon like frogs
in a whiskey-lin­go you pre­tend to under­stand.

//

You awake to a flash­light in your face, predawn shad­ows mov­ing,
by this time you know the drill, the pie for break­fast, the zap, zap,
get the beasts to move while they’re still sleepy—wait for the Semi.

//

It’s Labor Day week­end, your last week
on the ranch before start­ing sixth grade,
you’ve been prac­tic­ing your lock­er com­bi­na­tion,
the sat­is­fy­ing click-pop like dri­ving
a nail into new-cut wood, Ter­ry wants to ship
the cat­tle ear­ly this year, says he needs the mon­ey,
& by this time you’ve made enough mis­trust-
mis­takes that you’ve start­ed ask­ing ques­tions,
you want to know where the cat­tle go after
the round-up but Papaw refus­es to say, so you ask
Ter­ry, & Ter­ry says to hop in the pick-up
when he goes to get the mon­ey, so you ride along,
fol­low­ing the 16-wheel­er car­ry­ing all forty
of the fur­ry Here­fords you’ve named,
you can see their eyes through the per­fo­rat­ed
met­al, same eyes watched you work all sum­mer,
dumb as inbred retriev­ers, but always smil­ing,
& when you arrive, you real­ize real quick
some things are bet­ter left unknown.

//

You’ve seen enough sun­ris­es to know a good one & you pray
that that morn­ing it would be good, but it came blunt as ham­mer
to skull, just a sneeze of light, not a smear of color—see that boy
lean­ing against the fence ask­ing for for­give­ness? that’s you.

mathewswadeMath­ews Wade was raised in Hilliard, Ohio, and is cur­rent­ly work­ing towards his MFA at Colum­bia Uni­veristy. He is the win­ner of the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets Ben­nett Prize, 2016.

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Francis Alexander Finch, poem by Carl Boon

Fran­cis Alexan­der Finch
tilts his plas­tic din­ner plate
against the hard light
of Hazel­ton Prison,
rea­son­ing the details
of his rape case and lim­it­ing
the move­ment of a sin­gle
black ant. His moth­er,

JoAnne Daphne Finch,
has exit­ed the grounds
and leans on the hood
of her blue Toy­ota, smok­ing
Kent men­thols. The dis­tant hills
are dis­as­ters for her,
the dusk wrings her thoughts
then spits them out.
What's the rea­son for this need?

It's a giv­en he'll grow gray
inside the walls, the gray walls
touched here and there
with graf­fi­ti. He'll mean­der
back to his cell for pro­to­col,
Wheel of For­tune on a tiny screen,
the man in C‑212 scream­ing
obscene­ly all night.

There are demons,
there are fuck­ing wolves
in the con­crete. There are rea­sons
why Fran­cis Alexan­der Finch
shouldn't be here, but he is,
as he sep­a­rates the corn
and car­rots and cel­ery
on his plas­tic din­ner plate.

boonA native Ohioan, Carl Boon lives and works in Izmir, Turkey. His poems appear in dozens of mag­a­zines, most recent­ly Two Peach, Jet Fuel Review, Blast Fur­nace, and Poet­ry Quar­ter­ly.

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Pavement, poem by Heather Sullivan

We walked to the bak­ery on the cor­ner, you
and I hand in hand. I’d promised you a cook­ie,

and myself a chance to clear my head from the
work­day strife. My longer com­mute used to

give me time to rage against the dying of the
light long before I walked through the front

door, enough time to morph back into mama,
the woman who draws bats with you and

the­o­rizes when is too late for Play-Doh. Less
a tran­si­tion time now, I am soon­er home to you

and to the encom­pass­ing sense that all is right
with the world when your hair falls in front of

your eyes and you spin in front of me on the
side­walk. We heard nois­es in the trees and made

up a Hal­loween song, and I told you not to be
scared of the dark, but to love it the way I used

to before I came to antic­i­pate evil and the way it
tastes in the back of your throat. I want you to

own your free­dom for all time, pause the hour
hand and not look back behind you. Leave that

to me for now, let them bite at my heels and nose
my flesh. You run ahead, and spin again for mama.

sullivanHeather A. Sul­li­van's work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Chiron Review, Open Let­ters Month­ly, Free State Review, Yel­low Chair Review and Ygdrasil. She is an edi­tor at Live Nude Poems and main­tains a blog at http://​www​.lady​janead​ven​tures​.blogspot​.com. She lives with her fam­i­ly, includ­ing the FCAC Pro­pri­etor, in Revere, MA.

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Sorry for the Delay in Your Programming

back-soon-signIn the mean­time, please amuse your­selves with this essay by David Wong, from Cracked​.com. It reminds me of Jim Goad in his book The Red­neck Man­i­festo, which you should read if you haven't.

Fried Chick­en will resume reg­u­lar updates on Novem­ber 1st.

Just think, pret­ty soon this elec­tion will be over and we can think of some oth­er fuck­ing thing.

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Joy Ride, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

 

The year Max­ine turned four­teen she found her true call­ing, at the cost of two lives.

Max­ine spent her child­hood morn­ings at the front win­dow of the crum­bling farm­house where she lived with her broth­er Brad and moth­er Joan and her mother’s big bas­tard of a syn­thet­ic-hero­in mon­key, watch­ing for cars on the road. When­ev­er one passed, she imag­ined her­self behind its wheel, zoom­ing out of her life with glo­ri­ous speed, and her heart ached with need.

Max­ine knew that, with­out her, life in the house would fall apart. She need­ed to feed and clean Brad, kill as many cock­roach­es and rats as pos­si­ble, keep the phones pow­ered, stop her moth­er from chok­ing on her own vom­it dur­ing the bad highs, and throw rocks at the junkies who lurked in the weedy dri­ve­way. That was a typ­i­cal list of tasks before she left for school. Every two weeks or so, her uncle Preach­er came down from the hills and, liv­ing his nick­name to the fullest, spent hours yelling at her moth­er to clean up her act. Her moth­er would groan and shake her head and agree to go straight, only to break that promise once he dis­ap­peared back into hid­ing.

Max­ine liked to play the No Cry­ing Game, which goes like this: you run into a wall so hard it knocks you back­ward, leav­ing your nerves hum­ming like gui­tar strings and your mouth salty with blood, but you nev­er cry. If you slam your­self hard enough to chip a tooth or bruise your face, and not a sin­gle tear rolls down your cheek, you can stop doing it for a week.

On the fifth of every month their ben­e­fits came, and Maxine’s moth­er would pile them into the family’s rat­tling wreck of a van for the fif­teen-minute trip to Red Junc­tion, where the big gro­cery store glad­ly accept­ed EBT. Max­ine loved the store’s bright lights, the aisles lined with shiny pack­ag­ing, the sleek­ness and col­or that remind­ed her of the cars zip­ping down the road: signs that some­one out there cared enough to do a good job, to make some­thing per­fect. Max­ine chose not to see how some of the shop­pers looked at them with hor­ri­fied pity, as if they were road­kill.

Maxine’s moth­er always act­ed hap­py in the store. She whis­tled and told knock-knock jokes as she filled their cart with cere­al and the cheap­est kelp-meat, which Max­ine could stretch far if she mixed it with herbs and roots pulled from the small yard behind the house. When she was sober, her moth­er was very good at cal­cu­lat­ing every­thing down to the cent, in order to pre­vent the embar­rass­ment of hav­ing to leave food on the cashier’s con­vey­or belt. That hap­pened once, and Maxine’s moth­er had yelled, and some­one called secu­ri­ty, and it was only because Max­ine act­ed so cute with the man­ag­er that they were ever allowed to come back.

Maxine’s father was in prison for­ev­er, thanks to a drug deal gone wrong, and all their rel­a­tives were dead except for Preach­er, who need­ed to stay in the hills because the police want­ed him in a cell or a cof­fin, prefer­ably the lat­ter.

Max­ine hat­ed the police, espe­cial­ly the two who came around to stand in the weedy yard and call her a waste of life, dan­gling can­dy bars as they asked where her uncle was hid­ing, as if she were stu­pid enough to give up a blood rel­a­tive for a sug­ar rush. Max­ine would hiss at them and bare her teeth, but knew to go no fur­ther. A friend of hers, Mon­i­ca Miller from down the road, once bit a cop on the ankle dur­ing a scuf­fle and they hit her in the head hard enough to put her in a coma. Some­times stuff just hap­pens. It’s a mean world.

The cops called her fam­i­ly red­necks and trash and hill­bil­lies. “You gonna be just like your mama,” one of them liked to tell Max­ine, “and your kids gonna be just like you. How you feel about that?”

Max­ine always stuck out her tongue at that cop, whose name was Dwight, and who rocked a blonde cater­pil­lar of a mus­tache. Dwight liked to take out his club and run at Max­ine as if he intend­ed bash her brains all over the porch, but she knew to hold her ground.

You nev­er get­ting out of here,” Dwight usu­al­ly said. “You’re just anoth­er waste of breath, you ask me.”

Max­ine thought of Dwight as an angry pos­sum in a tent, anx­ious to bite any­thing trapped in there with it. But deep in her heart, she feared the cop was right. She had no idea of a life oth­er than this one. On the cracked screen of her cheap-ass phone she watched shows where beau­ti­ful peo­ple in sleek dress­es and suits marched through gleam­ing spires of steel and glass, scenes from New York City that might as well have tak­en place on a plan­et far from this one. Her own eyes had nev­er seen any­one in clothes so shiny, or build­ings so mag­i­cal.

When the cops came by, Max­ine imag­ined Preach­er watch­ing them from the black trees along the top of the ridge. When the roof col­lapsed, or some man in a suit threat­ened to kick them out of the farm­house, or mother’s EBT card no longer worked at the store, Max­ine sent up a silent cry for Preach­er to save them, know­ing that he would nev­er appear, not until the dan­ger had passed. So she learned to do every­thing her­self.

Max­ine was very good around cops until she turned four­teen, and then every­thing went to hell.

II.

To cel­e­brate her birth­day, Max­ine took a lit­tle joyride.

She had skipped school that morn­ing, choos­ing instead to hang out on the porch of The Tony Eight with her best friend, Michelle. The Tony Eight was a hard bar but its own­er, Tony the Third, kept a counter by the front door stocked with good­ies such as can­dy and burn­er phones. He let kids use his porch as a chill-out zone (“Bet­ter they stay here than go in the woods. They don’t all come back from the woods,” is how he defend­ed that choice) from eight in the morn­ing until five in the evening, when the num­ber of drunks inside reached crit­i­cal mass, and he only had two rules: no curs­ing with­in his earshot, and none of that boy-band crap on the throw­back juke­box he kept in one cor­ner.

That Tues­day, Max­ine and Michelle had already spent two hours on the wood­en steps, smok­ing cheap Bei­jing Blue cig­a­rettes and talk­ing boys, when a red Mus­tang screeched into the bar’s grav­el lot. They both tensed, know­ing it was Ricky, a local weed deal­er who liked his girls a lit­tle too young.

Ricky lurched from the car, creepy smile in place, and paused to check his phone before saun­ter­ing toward them. Max­ine reached into the left pock­et of her jeans jack­et, palm­ing the small knife she kept there. Even with­out look­ing up, she could feel Ricky’s gaze slith­er­ing over her legs, and shud­dered. Please God, she thought, just make him go away.

God declined to answer, but some­one else did. Ricky made it ten yards across the lot when a big black car slith­ered into view behind him, its lithi­um-ion motor silent but its tires squeal­ing on the slick road, its pas­sen­ger win­dow zip­ping down to reveal a hand with a pistol—pop, pop, pop—and Ricky col­lapsed, his pur­ple jump­suit puff­ing as the bul­lets punched through his flesh. The black car zipped past the bar before dis­ap­pear­ing around the far curve.

Through the open door behind her, Max­ine heard Tony the Third curse. Michelle clutched her knees and rocked back and forth, tears rolling down her cheeks. Max­ine felt curi­ous­ly numb, her breath­ing nice and reg­u­lar as she stood and walked over to Ricky just as he man­aged, with a loud grunt, to roll onto his back, his front stained black from moist grav­el and prob­a­bly a quart of spilled blood.

Max­ine pulled out her phone and dialed 911. Those calls were free, which was good, because she was run­ning low on min­utes this month and didn’t like the idea of burn­ing a few on a piece of crap like Ricky. As she held the phone to her ear, she knelt and began rifling through the pock­ets of the jump­suit, remov­ing a wad of pleas­ing­ly retro twen­ty-dol­lar bills in a gaudy mon­ey-clip (bloody), a key-fob attached to a sil­ver dog’s head (ugly), and a brand-new phone (bonus!) with one of those cool bend­able screens.

Some of your deal­er friends tracked you down, huh?” she asked Ricky.

Help…” The sides of Ricky’s mouth bub­bled with pink froth. “Help…”

Nine-one-one’s on hold,” she said, pop­ping open the mon­ey clip and flick­ing through the stained mon­ey. “Like, what else is new, right?”

The sight of Max­ine rifling the cash shocked a bit of life back into Ricky. His cold hand gripped her wrist and squeezed, as he rasped: “Don’t… take… bitch…”

She smacked him on the fore­head with the mon­ey clip. “Hold on, the phone’s ring­ing.” A moment lat­er, the oper­a­tor clicked to life, ask­ing about her dis­tress, and Max­ine cheer­ful­ly told her all the gory details about a dri­ve-by shoot­ing at The Tony Eight. That task com­plete, she called over her shoul­der: “Michelle, go inside. Tony got a med-kit.”

Michelle obeyed with­out back­talk. She was one of those types: prick­ly as a por­cu­pine on a mega-dose of Heisen­berg Blue most days, but a total lamb in a cri­sis. Max­ine knew that Tony kept a ful­ly loaded med-kit behind the bar, next to the shot­gun. While she wait­ed for Michelle to return, she helped her­self to Ricky’s car keys.

Ricky hissed: “Don’t… take…”

Look,” she said. “You got shot, but you’re gonna make it.” That was prob­a­bly a lie, giv­en the amount of blood pump­ing out Ricky’s holes. “Tony got a good kit. Ambu­lance be here in a minute. We going through all this trou­ble for you, means you owe us a favor. So I’m tak­ing a spin in your sweet car over there. Don’t wor­ry, you’ll get it back.”

Ricky tried to spit blood at her and missed.

She slid behind the Mustang’s wheel, unsur­prised at Ricky’s choic­es in trick­ing out the inte­ri­or: a blue glow from LEDs beneath the front seats, over-sized speak­ers that prob­a­bly cost three times more than the engine, and a steer­ing wheel wrapped in the finest imi­ta­tion leather. Max­ine wrin­kled her nose at the near-over­pow­er­ing stench of cheap cologne and spilled beer as she popped the key-fob into the slot on the dash­board, the gas engine awak­en­ing with a roar, the stereo boom­ing vin­tage rap-rock (classy, Ricky, classy) loud enough to rat­tle the sub­stan­dard fill­ings in her teeth.

Max­ine smacked dash­board but­tons until the music went qui­et, spun the wheel, and gunned the Mus­tang out of the lot. In the rear-view mir­ror, she saw the Tony rip Ricky’s jump­suit open and squirt some­thing from a can into the wounds, but not before giv­ing Max­ine a big thumbs-up. What more pseu­do-parental approval did she need?

Her first joyride almost went wrong ten sec­onds in, as she tried to mus­cle the Mustang’s fat ass into the first sharp turn and almost skid­ded out, near­ly ram­ming head-on into a truck in the oncom­ing lane, spin­ning the wheel to cor­rect and over­com­pen­sat­ing, clip­ping a rusty Stop sign, shriek­ing in fear and joy as she final­ly point­ed the car’s nose in the right direc­tion and slammed the gas ped­al to the floor. The Mus­tang growled in response and began to eat the miles. It was her first time dri­ving and she was a nat­ur­al, pow­er­ing into each curve, feath­er­ing the brake at every inter­sec­tion.

The black car appeared just ahead, and her jubi­la­tion cur­dled into unease. From Preach­er she’d learned the first rule of doing crime: you hide after the crime’s been done. So why were they still on the road? She need­ed to get out of here before they noticed Ricky’s car in their rear view mir­ror, but they were on a straight­away: no turnoffs, no side-roads.

The black car tapped its brakes. She slowed to keep dis­tance, her dread ignit­ing into out­right fear as the car’s front-pas­sen­ger win­dow buzzed down and the hand with the pis­tol emerged. She veered the Mus­tang left just as the gun spat fire, a bul­let snap­ping off her roof.

If she stayed back, the next bul­let might smash through the wind­shield and her fore­head. If she stopped, they would turn around and hunt her down. That left her with one choice.

Punch­ing the gas, she rammed her fend­er into the oth­er car’s trunk, bump­ing it for­ward and to the right. The shooter’s head and shoul­ders appeared above the car roof, sil­hou­et­ted by the sun, the gun wav­ing as he tried to aim, and she accel­er­at­ed again until her front tires came par­al­lel with the oth­er car’s rear door and she swung the wheel hard right. With a crunch of met­al the oth­er car left the road—a faint scream from the shoot­er above the boom of two tons of met­al rolling into a deep ditch. The wheel slith­ered hot in Maxine’s hands as she fought for con­trol, final­ly skew­ing to a stop in her own lane.

You need to dri­ve away, she thought. Get out of here. No, can’t do that. I need to see if any­body sur­vived. They might come after me.

She eased the Mus­tang onto the shoul­der and climbed out, after wip­ing her shirt­tail on the steer­ing wheel and any­thing else she might have touched. Her hands shook, her knees weak as she tip-toed into the weeds.

The black car had entered the ditch on its side, land­ing in three feet of oily water. A bro­ken tree-stump jut­ted through the crum­pled steel of the hood. The wind­shield had cracked but not shat­tered, and through the webbed glass (Max­ine snuck close now, breath­ing hard, ready for the bul­let) she could see the body hunched in the driver’s seat, limp hand on the steer­ing wheel.

She leapt onto the far side of the ditch, and saw the top of the shooter’s head in the water, blonde hair stream­ing like kelp. No bub­bles meant no breath­ing meant it was safe to come clos­er, which she did, rec­og­niz­ing the face just beneath the sur­face:

Her good friend Offi­cer Dwight, his tor­so pinned beneath the car’s frame.

Maxine’s fear deep­ened into nau­sea. She sank to her knees on the wet grass and vom­it­ed a neon spray of half-digest­ed junk food.

Get out of here.

Yes, that was the best idea. Wip­ing her mouth, she stood and walked across the field beyond the ditch, toward the dis­tant band of for­est that would give her cov­er from any­one dri­ving past on the road. Her boots sank into the muck, slow­ing her progress. Max­ine pulled out her phone and made anoth­er call.

III.

The inside of the din­er was a time cap­sule, from the fad­ing Trump for Pres­i­dent poster on the wall above the old-fash­ioned cash reg­is­ter, to the deep-fat fry­er siz­zling away in com­plete defi­ance of all state health laws. Behind the reg­is­ter leaned John­ny Oates, whose burn­ing hatred of every­thing polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect had led him to cre­ate this tem­ple to a fan­ta­sy Amer­i­ca where every­body enjoyed a God-giv­en right to clogged arter­ies and black­ened lungs.

Max­ine entered, check­ing out the three reg­u­lars sit­ting at the counter, all work­ing dogged­ly on their eggs and but­ter-soaked car­bo­hy­drates: red­dened men, their mid­dle-aged mus­cles dis­solv­ing into fat, their knuck­les beat­en into scar tis­sue.

Hunting’s for wimps,” Oates was telling them, engag­ing in his favorite pas­time of goad­ing cus­tomers into an argu­ment. “You’re just killing some­thing can’t shoot back. If I’m going to head out into the woods after some­thing, it’s gonna be a human being.”

At the far end of the counter, Oates’ biggest cus­tomer at two hun­dred nine­ty pounds, the one and only Per­ry Parks, trem­bled and pur­pled and seemed primed to explode in a fury of grease-fried rage. “You got no idea how dif­fi­cult it is. The skill it takes. Even for deer.”

Why don’t you wire a machine gun to a deer’s horns? I mean, that’s a fair fight. Give it the chance to take a few of you with it,” Oates smacked a few but­tons on the reg­is­ter. “Jane, you agree with that?”

The wait­ress in the far booth, eigh­teen going on forty, e‑cigarette clenched between pil­low-puff lips the shade of a ripe plum, low­ered her phone and said, in the flat­test pos­si­ble tone: “What­ev­er.”

Max­ine took a seat in the booth fur­thest away from the action, won­der­ing if Oates and the rest of them could see her sweat. It was an hour after the crash and her hands still shook, so she placed them under­neath the table where nobody could see. Oates wan­dered over, a smile unzip­ping his face. For all his attempts to sink barbs into his cus­tomers’ psy­chic meat, he was a decent human being. “How’s it going?” he asked her.

Okay,” she said.

I’m sor­ry, dar­ling, but I got­ta ask before you order: you got cash?” Oates dropped his voice a few deci­bels, even though every­body in the din­er could still hear him. As Max­ine reached into her pock­et and tugged out a few bills from Ricky’s wad, she felt her face flush with famil­iar shame.

From the way his eye­brows arched, she knew Oates want­ed to ask where she’d earned that mon­ey, before decid­ing any answer would only lead to grief on someone’s part. “Okay,” he said. “Good. Sor­ry about that. What can I get you?”

Cof­fee,” she said. “Toast is awe­some, too.” More than any­thing else, she want­ed to step into a show­er and crouch under its hot drool and stare at the drain-cov­er as if she could some­how shrink and slide down that rab­bit-hole into a bet­ter life. Bar­ring that, she need­ed some food in her bel­ly, for the ener­gy to deal with what­ev­er was com­ing next. After vom­it­ing her stom­ach into a ditch, all she could han­dle was some­thing plain.

Oates nod­ded and head­ed for the kitchen, return­ing a few min­utes lat­er with cof­fee. She dumped rough­ly half the sug­ar dis­penser into the steam­ing liq­uid, not car­ing whether the sweet­en­er was the real deal (unlike­ly in a place as cheap as this) or one of those syn­thet­ics that pro­vid­ed half the taste and all the dia­betes and can­cer. She drank it boil­ing-hot, bare­ly notic­ing how it scorched her tongue, eyes focused on the screen above the counter, where a talk-show host cracked bleak jokes about the lat­est round of sui­cide bomb­ings in Seat­tle.

The food arrived, and Max­ine found her­self sur­pris­ing­ly hun­gry. She was chew­ing the last bit of crust when the bells above the front door tin­kled. Preach­er walked in like John Wayne in those old movies that Oates loved—only Preach­er was more John Wayne than John Wayne, who had been a mirage, a Hol­ly­wood actor named Mar­i­on Mor­ri­son who dis­cov­ered that, if he held his hips right and aimed a rifle, peo­ple would start call­ing him “sir.” Preach­er came through the door look­ing sol­id as stone, bring­ing his own weath­er with him. Every­body in the place fell silent.

First Preach­er flicked the thumb-lock behind him and flipped the old-fash­ioned sign on the door so it read ‘Closed.’ Next he pulled a plas­tic bag out of his pock­et and walked along the counter and back into the kitchen, col­lect­ing phones from every­body. After he tossed the phone bag to Max­ine in the booth, he reached into his pock­et and pulled out a thick wad of bills and dis­trib­uted them to all cus­tomers and Oates and Jane and the short-order chef.

With those tasks com­plet­ed, he helped him­self to a cup from the ancient cof­feemak­er behind the reg­is­ter and sat across from Max­ine, tak­ing his first sip with a hand­ful of pills from his jack­et pock­et. His love of med­ica­tion stemmed from his three years in the mil­i­tary: red painkillers to ease the burn­ing pain in his shoul­ders, from the shrap­nel embed­ded in the mus­cle, always fol­lowed by two or three blue gel­caps that kept his mind crack­ling. The Army fed you a steady diet of chem­i­cals that helped you deal with cog­ni­tive load, think your way light­ning-quick through fire­fights. The down­side came after they dis­charged you, when you missed that sharp­ness to your thoughts, even if it came with side effects like sweaty ner­vous­ness, para­noia, and the occa­sion­al burst of epic flat­u­lence. Preach­er kept his pre­scrip­tion filled through a back-chan­nel to the local VA.

Max­ine fin­ished chew­ing, admir­ing Preacher’s gun­slinger gait, smil­ing at how every­body in the din­er resumed their con­ver­sa­tions a lit­tle too loud­ly, anx­ious to show their new guest how they could play it as cool as him.

You mak­ing some trou­ble on your birth­day, kid­do?” Preach­er asked.

I didn’t start noth­ing,” she said.

It’s okay. I’m not mad. Just tell me every­thing.”

So I’m down at The Tony Eight…”

Wait, why weren’t you in school?” His cheeks red­den­ing.

Max­ine rolled her eyes. “Thought you said you weren’t mad.”

You need to be in school.”

Max­ine sighed. “You know how that place sucks. I learn more read­ing on my own.”

You’re not think­ing like a gang­ster, dar­ling.” Preach­er cooled down, his lips break­ing into a slab-toothed grin. “You don’t show up to school, the so-called author­i­ties notice, they start get­ting up in your busi­ness. You go to school—even if you just sit there and read—it gives you lee­way to do what­ev­er else you want in your life. Make sense?”

Max­ine didn’t like peo­ple cor­rect­ing her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” Preach­er leaned for­ward and gen­tly pinched her chin, know­ing how much she hat­ed lec­tures like this. “So tell me what hap­pened.”

I took a joyride, ran into a cou­ple of cops. They’re dead.”

So my guy said, when you called him. How’d you get his phone num­ber?”

You gave it to me, remem­ber? Told me use it in an emer­gency. If you actu­al­ly owned a phone, I would have called you direct.”

Yeah, well, he’s got one of those spe­cial phones, it’s hard­er to trace. I can’t fig­ure out how those work.” In Preacher’s world, nobody car­ried hard­ware con­nect­ed to the Inter­net, or went online with­out hid­ing behind lots of elec­tron­ic voodoo. “My guy, he said it was Ricky’s Mus­tang ran those dirty boys off the road?”

Yeah, it was Ricky’s car.”

Preach­er looked con­cerned. “You shoot Ricky?”

No, the cops did that. I was just hang­ing out. You ask me, he had a deal with them that went bad, or some­thing.”

Who knows? Ricky bled out before they made the hos­pi­tal.” Preach­er washed down anoth­er pill with his cof­fee, his eyes hum­ming elec­tric. “I’m going to clear this up. You don’t need to do any­thing. Hang tight, don’t say any­thing to any­one, okay?”

She sighed. “I’m sor­ry. It’s trou­ble you don’t need.”

Preach­er reached for­ward, his giant paw set­tling on her small one. “When I was your age, I got in scrapes like this a lot. It’s part of grow­ing up.”

So this’ll sound kin­da psy­cho.” She smiled a lit­tle. “But I liked the dri­ving part.”

See? Sil­ver lin­ing,” he said. “And here’s the oth­er good thing: no more cop to sniff his lit­tle pig-snout around your house. Five-oh knows one of their own was crooked, they’ll be glad to see him dis­ap­pear. In exchange for all this, though, you owe me a favor.”

She nod­ded. “Name it.”

Fin­ish high school, try to go to col­lege, the whole run. You can read your books there. You keep a low pro­file, you grad­u­ate, and if you still want, you can come work for me. We’ll have some fun togeth­er. Deal?”

I go to col­lege, who’ll watch Brad? Or my mom?”

I will.” Preach­er held up a hand, antic­i­pat­ing her argu­ment. “I know I haven’t been great about stick­ing around. But I’ve start­ed pay­ing the right peo­ple, and I got some good folks on my side. I’ll be around more, I swear. So, do we have a deal? Low pro­file?”

Max­ine laughed. “Okay,” she said. “You got a deal.”

Preach­er depart­ed, after hand­ing the bag of phones to Oates behind the counter. Max­ine fin­ished her cof­fee and left. Nobody ever found the wreck­age of the black car, or Dwight and his part­ner in crime. No cop ever swung by her family’s lit­tle house again.

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