Monthly Archives: June 2017

Decisions

The double-wide trailer had vinyl siding that buckled and lifted away from the walls at odd points, allowing a joint of Bermuda grass to poke triumphantly out the top. Beside the trailer was the flatbed of an old ford, divorced from the cab and shored up with chicken wire to make a coop. Save for a mess of bleached feathers, the coop was empty.

James took a moment to peer beneath the coop, a space hardly big enough to squeeze a hand through. Only a few fence lizards escaping the heat.

The trailer door hung wide like a broken jaw, displaying the mess of a quick struggle. Someone had put their fist through the paneling a few times. Fixtures were missing, plundered in the time the trailer had sat vulnerable and open. Dishes in the sink grew a thick crop of mold. The trailer clearly had not been lived in for some time.

James rotated in place. The grass along one side of the trailer was flat, pointing towards the lattice that enclosed the trailer bottom elevated by cinderblocks.

James had drawn his sidearm on the walk up to the trailer, now he holstered it. He walked away, deliberately crunching gravel with his steps until he reached the sandy stretch just before the road. He doubled back through the grass, creeping so that the sound of his steps blended into the other incidental noises of the day. Crouching down by the far fender of the coop, James drew his piece again and waited.

Three minutes, not enough time to even boil an egg, there was movement. The lattice pried away from the trailer side and someone came wiggling out of the space. Leonard, his brother Leonard with a camo jacket thrown on over his work shirt, crawled out from under the trailer.

James waited until he was nearly out before rising, training his sights on Leonard’s back. “Hup.”

Leonard thrust his hands up, dropping his stomach to the dirt, before recognizing James. His face relaxed into a comfortable leer.

“Jimmy. Holy hell.”

“Leon. What’re you doing?”

Leonard squinted up at him, sweating on his belly in the dirt. He lowered his hands and pushed up to his knees.

“Sprayin’ for bugs. The hell’s it look like I’m doing?”

“Jessica’s worried.”

“Jess can goddamn well worry, I told her to sit on it until next Monday.” Leonard held out a hand, waiting to be helped up. When no help came, he stood on his own muster. “She whine to the cops?”

“No. Just me.”

“Good.” Leonard swung his hands at his sides, looking at the ground. “S’pose it didn’t take much to find me.”

“Few hours. I asked around: this trailer’s rented out to Ed Brinkley. Ed’s down at his folk’s place for the summer, so I came to poke around and found signs of habitation.”

“Ah.”

James drew in breath. “Leon, if I can find you, the cartel’s men can damn well find you.”

“This is just a stopgap, I’ve got a plan.” Leonard studied his brother’s face, attacking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Don’t s’pose I can convince you to give me a lift?”

James holstered the pistol. He ran his hand over his hair. “Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“‘Course you do. You always do.” Leonard beat him to the car, opening the passenger side door.

“No. Backseat, there’s a blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Backseat. I’m not taking chances.”

“Tou-chy,” Leonard said, but obeyed. James made sure to arrange the blanket over him, tucking it in around his ankles.

James piloted the jeep back over the gravel lane to the paved road. A car with two hispanic men, one old and one young, sat on the shoulder of the turn off. James sat, turn signal clicking, sweat plastering his shirt to his neck. He looked. The men in the car looked back. James turned onto the road and drove south. The other car grew small in his rearview mirror. It streaked off just before disappearing from his sight, peeling off in the direction he had just come from.

After a while Leonard said, “pull over.”

“We’ve got a half hour to go.”

“We’re out of the danger zone and I got a cramp. Pull over.”

James turned into a rest stop. Leonard got out and stretched his legs at leisure before getting into the passenger seat.

“Get the blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Not enough. Get the blanket.”

Leonard retrieved the blanket, folding it neatly before sitting on it with a grin. James stared at him for a good long second before starting the car.

James took the back roads, adding ten minutes on to the journey. Leonard did not even bother sitting low in his seat, pressing his face to the window and squinting.

“We’re going to the train yard, right?”

“You know everything, don’t you?” Leonard dug in a pocket of his camo jacket, peeling the foil off a strip of nicotine gum.

“That’s where you put the money.”

“I can spring for gas, if that’s pressin’ on your bladder.”

James said nothing, clicking on his turn signal.

“S’pose I ask why you needed to scratch a cartel man for cash,” he said at length. “You could have come to me if you had money troubles.”

Leonard laughed. “You, baby brother? I make two more decimals than you, and I’m supposed to drop by, hat in hand?” He stretched out. “It’s not about ‘need’ anyway. You’ll understand someday. I grew that money. That money’s going to keep paying dividends—”

“While the cartel’s shaking down your family?”

Silence in the car.

“They’ll leave Jess alone. She had nothing to do with anything.”

“They won’t care. The wives never know anything. But they’ll do things to her, Leon. They’ll do things to her and Janey.”

Leonard laughed again. “What, you her new daddy or somethin’? You have my blessing, if that’s what you’re angling for.”

James navigated a stretch of broken pavement, wheeling out to the opposite lane and pulling back in just as a truck came by. Leonard didn’t bother to turn his face away from the other driver.

“S’pose you might want to visit Jess after I’m gone. Don’t blame you. You got my blessing. I could never make her happy, she wanted some nine-to-five goon. It ain’t me, babe.” Leonard rooted around in the glove box. James pretended to adjust a mirror and watched him slip a registration card into his pocket. He would probably call in the plates to the cops to create a diversion.

“Train yard’s coming up,” James said, “you’ll have to tell me where to go.”

Leonard peered at him from half-lidded eyes. “Just hit the end of the lane and keep going. I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The asphalt ended suddenly, turning into rutted clay and jimpson grass. James guided the jeep over the ruts, worn shocks screeching in protest at every new bump.

“There.” Leonard pointed suddenly to a gap between disused boxcars. James braked, too late.

“Go back around.”

James engaged the parking brake and got out, matching stares with Leonard. He got out of the passenger’s side, breaking into a brisk walk and shooting a glance behind him every other step. James followed at a distance.

“I can pay for your troubles, don’t worry.”

“Not worried. How you getting out of here?”

“You need to run the bills by Benny, he’ll swap ‘em out for you.”

“I got a plan. How you getting out of here?”

Leonard chewed his bottom lip a bit. “…I got a boat down at the marina. Got a little place south of Mazatlán to go to.”

“Fleeing south o’ the border to escape a cartel? Must be the dumbest gringo around.” James smiled at Leonard. The uneasy laugh they shared was like a breeze in a stagnant room, gone altogether too quickly to be true relief.

A square hole had been dug between the rotted slats of a bit of old railway, into this space had been flung a canvas bag. Nothing, not even a branch to disguise the shape. Leonard jumped into the hole, deliberately keeping the bag beneath him as he counted out bills.

“You know it’s not too late.” James mopped at the sweat on his neck. The gun hung heavy at his belt.

Leonard did not react, coming up with a small wad of bills and pressing it forward. James pushed it back, shaking his head. Leonard smiled sickly. He did not press it, but stashed the bills in a front pocket.

“Can’t thank you enough, lI’l bro.” Leonard turned back to the hole.

“Don’t thank me, we ain’t got out yet.” James paused to listen. Was that the sound of an idling engine? “It’s not too late,” he said again.

This time Leonard really did laugh, a nice deep chortle that was infectious as an itch.

“I can’t worry about that right now.” Leonard rummaged around in a bag. “I got shit on my mind. You can drop me behind the feed store, I’ll leg it from there.”

“You’ll be seen.” James wiped his cheek on his sleeve. “What about pops?”

“Look, just drop me a quarter mile from there, then. Pops is old, they won’t press an old gummer like that.”

“They will after they run through Jess. They won’t stop until they get a body. You have a choice, Leon.”

Leonard was scooping something into the bag. “No anymore, Jimmy. I made it already.”

James sighed. He unholstered the pistol, wiping his hands before doing so. He sighted his brother’s back.

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.”

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A Case of Grey

While standing on a shore of the lake near my home, I caught the grey. It blew in on the night breeze like a fog, curling its tendrils into my hair and fingers, sinking down into the fibers of my coat. I could have run. I didn’t. Perhaps that was why it came for me.

I thought nothing of it at first. If you are walking at night, in the solitude of your own thoughts, there is nothing that can tell you what state you’re really in. It took the dawn breaking in like an irate lover to show the color had drained out of me. The grey had sunk in and I was insubstantial as a piece of smoke.

At first I panicked. As much panic was allowed me, at least. It was a terrible thought that I might go through life like this. My priorities were still very much skewed. I imagined going to parties, attempting to shake people’s hands with my insubstantial self. How would I avoid social embarrassment? Perhaps a wide-brimmed hat and a scarf to muffle my grey face?

Too long it took me to realize: there would be no parties, no shaking hands. I was already halfway nothing. Not invisible, but not “there” enough to be bothered with. Friends did not avoid me, they simply did not see me.

Food had no taste. All the things I took joy in were now bland as chewed paper. I thought idly of suicide, but ruled it too much effort. My body was done trying. My grey shoulders and chest could lift nothing heavier than a match. My grey eyes were so dulled that I no longer braved full daylight, choosing instead to lurk in the times when the sun hovered just above the horizon.

For a while I took a sort of perverse pleasure in it. I would act in a way that would get me noticed in any other state, pushing as much as I dared. A fruit seller didn’t look up from his paper as I took a lime in my hand and let the grey chase away its green. Cars did not stop for me, so I began jaywalking. I ignored hours of business, coming and going as I pleased. Well, wished. It brought me no pleasure. Nothing did anymore.

It became effort to simply exist. I would find myself in a chair, wondering how long I had been conscious, trying to piece together a simple chain of events. It was as monumental as scaling a mountain, too often I gave up and sank back into oblivion.

What would be the end of my state? I could not see myself dying, not from such a strange condition. Would I dissipate like smoke? Perhaps I would flatten into a wall and become an ownerless shadow, or a patch of dust to be swept away.

I must have taken up walking, for I would find myself sometimes on that lake shore where I had first fallen grey. Now the fog really did creep in, embracing me like a long-lost child. My footsteps made no sound nor shape.

I found an unexpected sight in my perambulations, a man sitting on a rotten cypress log. He had a hand-rolled cigarette pinched in his lips, though I could not tell whether it was lit or not. With a jolt almost pleasurable, I noticed that he too was grey. I opened my mouth and made effort to speak.

“Salutations, brother,” I managed.

He spared me no glance. “Why call me brother? Do I know you?”

I gestured at us, our ash clothing, our smoke pallor. “We are afflicted with the same malady. Surely that makes us something.

He looked at me with filmed eyes. Taking the cigarette from his lips, he shrugged.

“I see nothing in common between us.”

“We are grey, my friend. Can you not see this with your own eyes?”

He rolled his gaze over me, shallowly ticking it up and down across my body. “Friend, everything is grey out here.”

He was not wrong. The fog silvered the sand, bleached the wood a dark charcoal. I felt irritation at this rejection of kinship. If I was not grey, I was not anything.

“Well, if everything is grey here, perhaps I should remove myself and shed this condition.”

The man shrugged with barely a whisper of his shoulders. He put the cigarette back. “As you will. I can’t force you one way or the other.”

My steps were short and agitated as I retreated from the shore. I had just one thing left to me and to have it passed over—

My hand in the yellow streetlight as I grasped the rail of the stairs that led away from the shore was a pale peach. I stepped further into that light and found my color returned. I was not grey now, merely numb. A condition curable by a hot drink and a footbath.

I spared one glance back the way I came, where the fog walled off the sight, the smell, even the sound of the lake water teething on the sand. Too timid to look a gift miracle in the mouth, I fled homeward.

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The Stone Knife

The chip had come from a large rock, smooth and slightly pitted on one side, rough on the other. It was quartz or limestone or some other light mineral. Grandpa would have known what kind. David only knew enough to recognize that the yellow sparkle on the chipped side was pyrite, not real gold.

“I bet it’s a knife,” he said, feeling its weight rest in his palm, “maybe a ritual knife, it’s so pretty.”

Drew scoffed. “That’s no injun knife. It’s not obsidian.”

David put up token resistance. “Naw, look at how it’s chipped—”

Drew dismissed it without even looking. “My dad said the injuns made obsidian knives. Said they could slice slice a man right clean down to the bone.”

Rory did an impression of a man being gutted, making wet sounds with his mouth and clutching his chest. Cheeks burning, David pocketed the rock chip. The three of them spread out over a dry creek bed, sifting through silt and rocks for pieces to graft on report boards. Rory already had three slender tule reeds in one sweaty hand. Drew (Andrew but not Andy, never Andy) claimed to have a bit of scalp he refused to show either of them. Only David was left wanting.

“Man I wish we were doing a report on someone interesting, like the Az-tecs.” Drew tossed a pebble at a bird, frightening it away. “What kind of crappy tribes did we have around here again?”

David had known the two of them long enough to know the question was not really a question, supplying information would be met with ridicule.

“Basket weavers,” Rory said, kicking a branch in their path. “That’s what my paper has to be. Also they made reed boats.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “My dad said the Az-tecs were real nutbusters. Killed people on top of huge pyramids. I’d pay to see that.”

The air around them was so hot David felt like he was wading through it, not walking. Far away, the river growled as if to remind them that they were in someone else’s territory. The boys ascended heaps of slag rock, leftovers from strip mining. Drew, the product of divorce and used to ruling two households, naturally fell to the front of their arrowhead formation. They passed no one out on these paths, everyone with a brain had stayed home or gone to the water to cool off.

“Hang on, I got an itch.” Grinning, Rory snagged some leaves off a nearby bush and shoved them down the back of his pants, making a wiping motion.

“Rory, that was probably poison oak.”

Rory’s grin disappeared.

“Naw,” Drew said with casual authority, “poison oak’s on the other coast. It’s poison ivy.”

“I thought it was the other way around.”

“Guys? Am I gonna die?”

“Actually it’s poison oak. Remember, ‘leaves of three, let it be—’”

“Lots of things have three leaves, are you telling me they’re all poison oak? Anyway, my dad says—”

“Seriously, am I gonna die? I don’t wanna die of a poisoned ass.”

“You’re not gonna die, shipdit,” Drew snapped at Rory, “just get some menthol shaving cream and put that on it. You’ll be fine.”

David was pretty sure that wouldn’t work, but knew he’d be automatically shot down. Maybe he could wait until he and Rory were alone. Rory wasn’t a bad sort when on his own. He just tended to take on the disposition of whoever he was with. David wished he could be like that. Just blend in and make friends in the little time he was here.

They climbed over a felled tree, lizards scattering in their wake. Rory made like he was going to step on one, but they were too fast. Good. David didn’t know what he’d do if they caught a lizard and did something cruel to it.

“You know, the Az-tecs weren’t that great,” Drew contemplated. He was leading them down a meandering route that took them away from the places marked on their xeroxed map and deeper into the slag piles. He claimed to know exactly where they were going, but remained vague when pressed. “Yeah, they were pretty bad-ass, but in the end they got their ass kicked by us.”

“Spain,” David said before he could catch himself.

“Yeah, but people from Spain are almost white. My dad said so. So it counts.” Drew flung his arms out, as if conducting the surrounding wildlife. “He said they cut out people’s hearts and painted pyramids with blood so the sun wouldn’t die. Isn’t that fucking stupid? Like the sun’s gonna go away. And what the hell made them think hearts would work? Why not the brain? That’s where all the good stuff happens.”

“Actually, it makes sense.” David withered internally from Drew’s apathetic gaze. “You want to give something to a god, you give it your most valuable thing. People used to think the heart did everything, not the brain. It makes sense,” he insisted.

Drew let out a noncommittal “hmm” and it fell like the weight of a hammer. Rory squinted, his blonde lashes glowing white in the afternoon light.

“So why did they think the sun would go away?”

“Eclipses. Night.” David realized he knew more about this than he realized, and despaired that it did him no good. Drew was looking the other way, intentionally bored of the conversation. “Think about it: you live when the only light you have is fire or the sun. Night is fucking scary, especially when you live with Jaguars and shit.”

Rory fell into an awed silence.

“My dad saw a puma once when they were hunting in Florida,” Drew said, apropos of nothing. He still wouldn’t look at David. “They scream like a woman. Imagine that.”

“Whoa.” Now Rory looked at Drew, eyes shining with awe. David bit his tongue, mashing the soft muscle with his incisors.

Rocks clattered as they wandered without path or bearing. The river was a quiet hush now, the loudest sound was birdsong.

“Whoa, look at this.” Drew threw his hand out, halting the other two.

A snake lay right in their path. David’s eyes wandered from the diamond head down the fat, sandy middle of it, to the tail crowned with hollow spheres.

“A rattler,” he breathed.

Drew smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Wanna see something? Dave, where’s that knife?”

David felt the sharp weight of it in his back pocket. “Tossed it away. Sorry.”

“Ah.” Drew was already rooting in the slag beside them. He came up with a sharp rock the size of his head. Drew looked them in the eye as he hefted it. David tried to tamp down his horror. He wouldn’t—

In what was either a calculated death blow or an extremely lucky shot, the rock landed on the snake’s head as it tried to escape. The body writhed as if being electrocuted, in its death throws it formed a series of angry loops, tail buzzing dryly.

David felt poisoned. “You killed it.”

“Yup.” Drew nodded. He rolled the rock off the head, leaving the body to flip and twist in a bizarre pantomime.

David flushed. “He wasn’t doing anything.”

“Snakes’re assholes, everyone knows that.” Drew nudged the body with his foot. Already it was running out of steam, its acrobatics coming slower and slower.

Drew laughed, turned on his heel, and started walking. Rory trotted after, casting a glance at the snake. David followed eventually.

The afternoon turned hotter, turned stifling. It was too hot to think. Rory took off his shirt, then put it back on once Drew started laughing about ticks. David could feel the stone digging into skin through the denim of his jeans, as if thirsty for something. He wanted to ask about going back, but knew that it would forever be a black mark in his social ledger even though they all clearly wanted to leave.

“Ah, I’m tired.” Drew flung himself over a large, flat boulder and rested a forearm over his eyes. Rory went limp as an unstrung marionette, perching on a nearby log.

David stood, the heat beating in his veins. Times like these, he felt like he could understand people who came before. People who couldn’t protect themselves with electric lights and air conditioning and automatic rifles. No one could hear them or see them, no one was around to care. Far above their heads, a hawk traveled on an invisible corkscrew of air until it was just a thin shadow on the unforgivingly blue sky.

“Drew? It’s hot. Man, I wanna go home.” Rory wiped his forehead, squinting miserably. Drew said nothing. David suspected he had never known the way, now silence was the only way he could keep up the illusion of confidence.

David felt a tickle in his throat. The air now felt too thick to breathe properly, he swam through it like a fish to Rory.

“We’re lost,” he whispered. “I don’t how we’ll get out of here.”

Rory let out a whimper. His face was beet red and none of them had brought along water.

“Man, my ass itches. It hurts, actually. I think it was poison oak. Am I gonna die Dave? I don’t wanna die here.” Rory cast a paranoid glance at their leader.

Drew was still silent, asleep or pretending to be. He sprawled on the rock like a lazy calf on an altar. What did you do when your leader refused to lead? What did you do when you had no human answers?

“I don’t care if you laugh at me man, I want my mom,” Rory whimpered. “How the hell are we getting out of here?”

David took the knife out of his back pocket and gripped it. His hand throbbed where the rough edges pressed into his skin. Drew’s head was thrown back, David saw or imagined he could see the artery in his neck pulse with rich blood.

“I have an idea,” David said.

And, as if on cue, the sun rolled behind a cloud.

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