Tag Archives: serial killers

Such Things Don’t Happen

The Tanzler family were transplants from Germany. They lived on a respectably-sized farm in the American midwest and had a respectable amount of wealth. It was a household of seven: Friederich and Rosemary Tanzler, their grown daughter Annalise and her husband Hubert, their toddler Frederich jr. (affectionately known as Freddie), and the Tanzler’s 12-year-old son Wilbur. Their maid-of-all-work Vera had recently disappeared (absconded with a beau, the Tanzlers suspected.) The mute girl Greta whom they’d fostered as favor to a distant cousin was promoted to maid. Save for Johan, a son from Rosemary’s previous marriage who lived in the next state, and the neighbors who lived over three acres down a dirt road, the Tanzlers had no one to worry after their existence. Said neighbors did worry one day, a day the weak winter sun spilled over their farms and disclosed that no smoke poured from the Tanzler’s chimney.

Greta rose at approximately four-thirty am on the day before that. She laid the fire and boiled water for coffee and farina for young Freddie. She set the table for breakfast and poured coffee into the silver service. After this, she went to the coops to begin her day of alternating between farm and household chores.

Perhaps twenty minutes after Greta woke, Annelise was shaken awake. There was no light from the cold fireplace embers, so she had to discern her assailant by the atonal humming noise the family had become familiar with.

“Greta? What is it, girl?”

The maid kept up her urgent humming as she tugged Annelise from bed. In only her robe and slippers, Annelise followed the girl to the coop. The slatted door lay unbolted, a fully grown goose slaughtered in the middle of the January snow. Annelise stifled her horror with a hand to her mouth and ran back to the house.

“A fox, perhaps? Or someone’s wandering dog?” Friedrich had dressed quickly and accompanied his daughter to the scene. He lifted the goose’s neck with a broken slat. The head was nowhere to be seen. Friederich rose and wagged his finger at Greta, who now hid behind Annelise. “Forgetting to latch the door in such weather? Don’t think I won’t take my belt to a girl.”

“It looks like knife-cuts, papa,” Annelise said, moving between them, “as if someone hacked at the poor creature and left it.”

Friedrich blinked. “Hacked it and left it? And left the rest of the geese untouched? People don’t do such things, Anna.” He sighed and rubbed the place his spectacles sat on his nose. “We’ll have the bird for supper.”

Breakfast went as smoothly as every breakfast that came before. The peace of the house once again closed over their heads. Around noon, Annalise came to her mother with a mahogany pipe.

“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t know papa got a new pipe. Did he mean to leave it by the attic stairs?”

Rosemary took the pipe, frowning. “He hasn’t had a new pipe since christmas. Surely your husband…?”

Annelise looked at her mother with worried eyes. “He uses the one he bought in the city last July. He isn’t one for frivolous purchases.” Her fingers pet the bowl. “It’s still warm. Was papa smoking recently?”

The elder Mrs. Tanzler cocked her head like a chicken listening for the far-off whistle of a hawk.

“I think the pipe must have been left by a guest,” she said slowly, “and perhaps your brother took it to practice smoking tobacco.”

“But mama—”

“Hush, girl.”

Downstairs, her father was having an equally puzzling conversation. Wilbur had left to help his brother-in-law feed the milch cows, but came running back in no time at all. “Papa! Fresh footprints in the snow!”

Friedrich waved him away. “Probably Greta. Go away, child.”

“No, big. Like a man. They go all around the house, stopping at every window.”

Friedrich let his newspaper slide from his hands. Numbly, he followed his son outside. There was indeed a fresh line of footprints leading from the hinterlands to their farmhouse, long and deep with an impressive stride. The trail of a large man. They stopped in clusters at each window, circling the house before stopping at the back door. No tracks leading away.

Friedrich sucked at a gap in his teeth. He paused at the back door. It had been bolted since the previous night. He pressed the door. It held firm.  He pushed harder. The latch gave. Color drained from Friedrich’s face.

“Do you think he came in, papa?” Wilbur was looking innocently at his father’s face. “Perhaps he came in to get away from the cold.”

Friedrich stood and turned, scanning the surrounding hills. All around them, white smothered the land, changed it. It was if the land itself was stranger to him now. He felt watched.

Friedrich sank down until his face was level with his son’s. “Listen now. You mustn’t tell the women of this, it would worry them unnecessarily. It was probably the neighbor come to inquire about this or that. The snowfall merely covered up his tracks going away, that’s all.”

“Why would the snow only cover one kind of track, papa?”

“Hush, child. No more questions.”

After the winter farm chores had been completed, the three women sat in a circle in the parlor and did needlework. Rosemary worked on her husband’s trousers. Greta stitched a burst grain bag. Annelise alone did not have mending, she was working on a cross stitch of flowers and birds. Hubert came in, wiping his hands on an oilcloth.

“Where’s Freddie?” Being an older transplant, he mainly spoke in accented english with his wife.

“I thought he was with you.” Annelise’s needle slowed. “I thought I heard him playing with you, so I let Greta ease up a bit this afternoon.”

“I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”

“What is it?” Rosemary prodded her daughter in German. “What’s the boy saying? He speaks too fast.”

“Freddie wandered off, mama.” Annelise stabbed her needle into the canvas and rose. “He’s probably hanging around papa.”

But no, the elder Tanzler was at his workbench and hadn’t seen the young boy. Now the family paced the house and called for him with a nameless urgency. Annelise told herself it was worry that the boy had gone outside without his snow suit. When she finally heard Freddie’s happy gurgles behind the closed pantry door, in tandem with a deeper man’s voice, she sighed in relief.

“You’ve found him,” she said, pushing open the door to discover her toddler alone.

The boy sat in the middle of the store shelves and happily blew bubbles as Annelise searched for her husband or father. Nothing.

When the door creaked behind her, she jumped. Hubert looked nonplussed. “You found him?”

Annelise, hands to her heart, nodded. She almost said something about the voice, but her husband turned and left abruptly to get back to his chores.

Friedrich was carving a toy for his grandson when Hubert burst in.

“Papa,” he said, “have you seen the mattock? It’s not on its hook.”

Tanzler laid aside his chisel. “Nonsense. Why are you using the mattock? I thought you were splitting some kindling.”

“I was. Then I noticed the mattock was missing.” Hubert lead his father-in-law to the space where it should have been, in between the scythe and the splitting maul. A small hatchet was also gone.

Tanzler swallowed. “I think—Wilbur, perhaps, he took them to play. Yes.” He ignored the fact that the mattock was nearly as tall as the boy, and so heavy even he had to lift it with both hands.

Hubert was looking at him cautiously. “…perhaps it is time for him to apprentice,” he said finally, “a boy shouldn’t be so idle he gets into mischief.”

Friedrich felt the gooseflesh raised on the backs of his hands. “Yes,” he said hollowly.

Greta had dressed the goose as well she could for supper that night, hiding the damage by stuffing the bird with potatoes. The family supped well and let their fullness chase away their tension.

“Wilbur, you’re a naughty boy,” Rosemary scolded, “running behind your mama like that to slam a door! If you do it again, I’ll have papa stripe you with his belt.”

The boy furrowed his brow. “I didn’t do that mama. I was with Hubert all day.”

The table was silent. None of the adults would look at each other.

“Boyhood is a time for japes,” Hubert said, reaching across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair, “but in moderation.”

Wilbur was indignant. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”

“Would you like me to mend your pants, papa?” Annelise said, trying to steer the conversation away. “Or would you just like Greta to wash them?”

Friedrich scowled thoughtfully. “What pants?”

“The muddy ones. They were flung over the woodpile, so I thought—”

“Dear, they must have been muddied a while ago,” Rosemary said hurriedly, “and you forgot about them. Greta must have found them and put them there, didn’t you girl?”

Greta, in the middle of feeding Freddie, nodded. Her mute lips pressed together.

Frederich could hear the snow falling again as he ascended the stairs to bed. It was like a series of interminable footsteps by countless little kobolds dancing up and down the shingles. He stopped and looked out the picture window at the white falling on the house, mummifying it. The cover of snow had once brought comfort. Now…

Rosemary was already undressed and in bed. She was frowning as her husband struggled from his britches. “The bed’s cold. And I had to build the fire myself.”

Friedrich gestured to the serving bell as he removed his spectacles.

“She won’t answer.” Rosemary pulled the cord to show her husband. “What do you think she could be doing?”

Friedrich undid his shirt slowly. “Perhaps—perhaps we are too hard on her. Maybe that is why Vera left.”

“Vera said she was going to visit Nellie at the next farm,” Rosemary said, “she always came back from visits.”

“Nellie said she never arrived.”

Rosemary did not reply.

Frederich set the candle on a side table while he retrieved his nightshirt from the oak wardrobe. He trotted quickly over the chilly floorboards and dove into bed next to his wife.

“The candle.” Rosemary pointed to where he’d abandoned it.

“Leave it. It’s too damned dark in the winter.” Friedrich struggled to get comfortable. “Too dark and too cold. The house settles.”

As if to prove his point, there was a creak not too far from their room.

Friedrich spoke quickly: “Wilbur found some footprints this morning. Said they lead to but not away from the house.”

“And did they?”

Friedrich squinted, straining to make anything out even in the light from the fireplace and candle. “…yes.”

“Ah.” Rosemary was silent for a moment. “It’s probably some drifter, half mad. Killed the goose but didn’t know how to cook it. If he’d come to the door like a civilized man, we could have fed him.”

Frederich’s spoke to cover the creak of the hallway, which was probably their son getting up to use the privy. “Perhaps he wasn’t after food. The mattock and hatchet were missing. Perhaps he stole them to sell.”

Ah.” Rosemary snuggled deeper in the down quilt, satisfied with this version of events. “Well, I hope he’s found somewhere warm to sleep tonight, as we have.”

Friedrich smiled, watching the shadows dance familiarly along the bedroom wall. The creak he heard was not the door, it was his house that he had built with his own two hands settling. He and his family were snug in their beds, and there was no one up at such an unchristian hour. There was no stranger in his house, with his mattock and his hatchet. Such things just didn’t happen.

On the table, far from any possible winter draft, the candle was snuffed out

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The End of the Hunt

The painting hung in his supervisor’s office above the desk. Milo would toe up to the edge of the carpet and stare at it when he was being reprimanded. A lot was crammed into the canvas. Medieval hounds, painted with little care given to proper anatomy, dominated the scene. Snarls distorted their snouts. They had the eyes of men. The unlucky goose hung like an afterthought from the muzzle of the lead dog. The artist hadn’t even bothered to fill in detail on the bird’s head, leaving only a thin cyan oval to suggest a skull. The meaning of the name had escaped him until the day he spied the hunters, dressed in the same earthen tones as the surrounding vegetation. Two of them held up a theater backdrop, a painted sky that had presumably lured the bird to its doom.

“Do you see what I’m saying?” Nealy looked over the rims of his glasses.

“Yes, sir.” Milo had long ago memorized a stock set of phrases designed to appease. “I hope I can live up to your expectations.”

Nealy sighed through his nose. “Well, I guess I do too, Milo.”

Milo nodded. There was a tension in him that did not ease until he closed the door behind him. He disliked scrutiny, even in the most harmless of forms. The secretary Janet’s once-over of his body rankled, her unfocused eyes woke a nameless hunger in him. The weekend could not come soon enough.

Milo wedged his body in an aisle of the warehouse. Nearby, the guys were huddled in a rough circle, talking over styofoam coffee cups and vending machine snacks.

“…Moscone county killer.”

Milo had developed a trick wherein he appeared very absorbed in a meaningless task, but was really focused intently on something nearby. He sorted order envelopes and listened.

“I mean, really? This guy broke into five houses?”

“Always comes from the place you suspect the least, am I right?”

“Yeah. I mean, the unabomber was literally the most unassuming guy in the world.”

“The guy in the sketch was.”

“I’m just saying, Caramina’s a rich county. Nothing but rent-a-cops. I wouldn’t trust ’em to arrest the Hamburglar.”

Janet walked up, pink receipt pages in her hand.

“They’re really treating you today, aren’t they?” she said, fanning herself. Her perfume was too sweet and sat like a blanket long after she left a room.

Milo mumbled a reply. The weather was hot and damp, neither condition was relieved by the swamp cooler running behind him. He actually preferred this weather, it made his skin feel tight. It was a secret kind of excitement, kept him going despite the people around him. They looked past him, unsuspecting. He had an urge, deep and pathological, to tell them what he really did when he wasn’t at work, to watch their faces change.

“We should really do something about it,” Janet said, tucking the paper into a folder on the top of a box. Milo did not reply. He had learned that people mostly talked at him and not to him. Replies broke the rhythym of office talk. Replies brought him to their attention. He didn’t want that.

Nealy walked up, arm around a younger, shorter man. “Milo, this is Bill.”

Milo gave him a damp handshake.

The three of them stood awkwardly.

“…you know, that thing I was talking about?” Nealy prompted.

Milo assumed a look of recognition. “Of course, sir. It’s just this heat…”

Nealy nodded. “I get ya. We really need a proper AC unit.” He turned and pushed the young man forward. “Just show Bill the ins and outs. Whip him if you need to.”

Bill stumbled in mock horror. Milo donned noncommital work smile #4 and gestured out to the warehouse floor. The quicker he accomplished the task, the sooner he could be left to his own devices.

Bill was good. Too good. He asked too many questions. About the office. About Milo.

Milo began to wonder. Was he training a replacement? He didn’t mind being fired, he had been fired from many jobs, but being replaced rankled.

“So what do you do for the big weekend?” Bill was never less than a step behind, always full of bright energy.

“Erm, biking.” Milo tossed an answer off the top of his brain.

“No shit. You train for the M.E.C.? Because I’ve been looking for a partner—”

“Not professionally.” Damn. He’d gone on autopilot and dropped an order form behind a shelf. Milo scrambled to retrieve it before Bill could see the other files he’d “lost” over the course of a few months.

“Whoa, nervous there big guy?” Bill smiled. Milo hated how white it was.

“No, I’m just—I’m off my routine.”

The radio in the loading dock was on as Milo showed Bill how to fill out order reports. Blue went to the supervisor, pink was logged in the order, white—

“—was captured earlier this morning. Martin David Howe was living in a secluded shelter just off the West Jefferson trail. He had a history of stalking behavior and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. Police say he was the main suspect in the Moscone county killings for some time, it was the nature of the terrain that made the investigation drag on so long.

Milo stopped, forgetting what he was doing. His eardrums grew taught, his whole body stiffening like a receiving antenna.

Earl, at his station, nudged the radio dial. Through static, the speaker changed to a twangy country ballad. Milo stood up, perspiration cascading from his face and neck. He felt like he was peeling, like his skin was coming off in layers. He had seen it happen to a frog he’d touched against the neighbor’s electric fence in third grade. He’d savored the animal’s tense flailing at the time. Now he was afraid he might do that, lose control of himself. And he must never, ever do that where people could see.

“You okay, big guy?” Bill had his hands in his pockets, still crisp and dry, still smiling. He probably was there to replace Milo. Why not? Nothing he did mattered.

Milo bent, hands to his knees. “Sorry, I think I need to go.”

The bathroom smelled like swamp. Everywhere smelled like swamp. Milo spit in the toilet and examined the whites of his eyes. It wasn’t fair. He knew he wasn’t the smartest or best looking. But a man had to have something.

When he came out, Bill was over at the office door. He was facing out at the windows, hands in his pockets as he spoke to Nealy. So casual after a single day. Milo wished for one savage second that he could quit. Throw the coffee pot in Nealy’s face, see the glass shatter and watch red mix in with the dark brown of the coffee.

Instead, he slithered over like a slug. Bill turned around before he got to them, smile flawless as always.

“There he is! Feel better?”

“Actually, sir,” Milo made a point of adressing Nealy, “I think I have food poisoning. You think I can go home?”

“Again? It’s been two days—” Nealy began, but Bill interrupted him.

“I saw him earlier, Ken, he was pretty white. I’d hate to get chunked on, my first day.”

First name basis already? Milo decided not to bother coming back after he went home. There were other jobs like this. There were always other jobs.

Nealy gave his weary nod. Bill grinned.

“Hey, it’s nearly lunch. I’ll take you.”

“Oh it’s really—”

“Milo, you can’t get on the bus with food poisoning, just let him take you,” Nealy snapped, taking a shop towel to his perspiring neck. He would not look at Milo. Milo gave a one-shoulder shrug.

“I really appreciate you showing me around like this,” Bill said as Milo buckled in, “real stand-up of you. Ken says you’ve been sick a lot lately.”

Milo sank into his seat and grunted. Bill made no motion to start the car.

“Boy, I tell you, it has to be this weather. Food won’t stay good a single minute in this air. I had a hoagie, turned around to grab the salt, I swear it was moldy when I turned back.”

Milo nodded, closing his eyes and leaning his forehead against the cool window glass. The AC wasn’t on. The air in the car was still and hot.

“Lemme, guess, you got sick around the 4th, am I right?”

Milo nodded again.

“Knew it, knew it. No one cooks their meat all the way that day, too busy looking at fireworks. Then you were sick on the 14th, right? Coming back from Caramina?”

Milo nodded, drifting away. If he only had to nod, this was a good conversation.

“Must’ve had the crawfish. I hate those things, but I love ’em, y’know? More than five and my guts come up. You must’ve puked on the way back, right? They said someone cleaned the truck bed with caustics.”

Milo nodded dreamily. The car still wasn’t moving. Maybe the guy was just delaying going back to work. He hadn’t asked where Milo lived yet.

“So that was you? Whew, must’ve been some big job. Stayed out three days. Slip said you were scheduled two. You see the promenade?”

Milo nodded.

“Stuck around, see the sights? Do a little tourism? Don’t blame you, the way you’ve been working. They say they can never figure out what you’ve been doing. Making yourself indispensable, smart move. This is a good job, flexible hours. Not a lot of questions.

Milo was descending into a blissful mire. The shock of loss was beginning to wear off, and he was already planning for the future. He could find another job, another low-effort slog where they looked past him.

“I can see you’re tired, big guy. Just one thing I have to tell you.”

A metallic click. Something cold on Milo’s wrist.

“You’re under arrest.”

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Alligator Man

“You know what they call this stretch of the interstate? Alligator alley. Doesn’t that just bounce? Alligator alley. That’s like the name of a weather girl. ‘Alligator Allie and News Copter 5!’” he joked.

She shook her head and tucked her shoulder into the gap between the passenger seat and the door.

“Me and my friends used to drive this way in high school,” he said, “it’s fucking scary, right? We loved scaring each other. Here—”

He flicked the headlights off.

She let out a noise and hit his arm.

“That’s not funny,” she said, laughing.

He grinned and turned the lights back on. “You see what I mean?”

She rolled her eyes. He hit the window switch and rolled the rear passenger window down, letting a warm, humid breeze roll into the car. She pressed her forehead to the cool glass of the window.

“So what’s out there?”

“Right now? Nothing.” He rolled the window up again because the windshield was getting cloudy with moisture. “Just everglades. Swamps.”

They drove on in silence for a few miles. No cars passed them, coming or going.

He chuckled a little. “Hey, when I was in high school, there was—”

The headlights illuminated a heap next to the highway. As the car drew closer, they were able to pick details out in the headlights. A tan Datsun, stopped without emergency lights.

“What the…” he muttered under his breath. He put on the signal.

“What are you doing?”

“Just seeing. Don’t worry.” He put the car in park, unbuckled himself, and got out. He left the door open behind him.

Her eyes followed him to the car, saw him peer into the driver’s window with his hands cupped around his face.

There was the sound of a branch breaking.

She turned and looked out the open driver’s side door. It seemed like she should have been able to see a few details of the opposite side of the road, of the trees and the swamp beyond, but all that was there to see was a wall of black. By the time she looked back at the Datsun, he had gone around the far side. The car rocked as he hunched by the passenger door. Once, twice.

She almost called for him, but the sound backed up in her throat like phlegm.

He walked back to their car. Only, instead of going around the front, cutting through the headlights, he went around the back of the car. She tracked him through the mirrors.

“What was it?” she asked as he got back in.

He kept his face turned away from her as he buckled, waiting until the car was rolling to pull his leg in and finally close the door.

“Oh,” he said, “nothing.”

The silence was thick in the car. There was something she felt she needed to ask, but couldn’t put it into words. He was humming aimlessly, something that rumbled low in his throat.

“Anyway—what was I saying?”

She grabbed at this invitation to return to normality. “When you were growing up?”

“Oh yeah.” He kept his face at a three-quarter turn away from her, but even so she could see his cheek stretch as he smiled wide.

“When I was growing up, there was something they called the Alligator Man. He used to hunt people along this here highway. Stalk people nice and slow. Nobody’s really sure he was a man anyway. Nobody saw him and lived.” He cackled a little.

She folded her arms. “Nevermind. I don’t care anymore.”

He went on regardless. His voice had become creaky and pitched low in his throat, like he was putting on a voice to scare her.

“They called him the Alligator Man ‘cause of what he’d do. He’d take you, and he’d stash you somewhere underwater. To soften you up. Just like a ‘gator. They would find people with chunks missing, all swollen with swampwater.”

She sank down further in her seat. “Stop it. You’re not funny.”

He went on, cadence of his voice smooth and even. “He was never caught, like I say. Just trawled up and down this stretch of highway, up and down. But do you know why they really called him the Alligator Man?”

She didn’t answer.

He drove on, rolling down all the windows so the wet, warm air invaded every corner of the car.

“Why?” she whispered.

Because,” he said, teasing the word out nice and long, “because he acted like an alligator. You ever seen an alligator hunt?”

His voice had dropped lower with each passing phrase. She tried leaning forward to see his face, but he shut off the dashboard lights.

“No,” she admitted.

“An alligator likes to lie nice and still on the water. That way it looks like a log or something harmless. Right up until it’s ready, it’s still as a stick. Alligator Man’s like that. Only, he don’t look like a log or a stick.”

His accent, which had been nearly extinct when they met, was oozing full and thick from his throat.

“He look like somethin’ harmless. Somethin’ folk reco’nize. So they let him get nice and close.”

He put on the signal. The car slowed as it bumped onto the red dirt of the shoulder. She looked around.

“Why are you stopping?”

“This is where we stop.”

He shut off the car, the headlights, everything, and turned around in the seat to face her. She couldn’t make out his face or any features, the night was so dark.

She held her phone up, finger hovering over the flashlight app.

“Are you sure you wanna do that?” he asked. His voice was a low rumble in his chest now, like scales dragging across something as they slipped into the water.

She turned on the light.

It was the last thing she ever did.

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Small Fish to Fry

I know Antony Vargas is innocent, and I know this because I was pulled in on the same charges.

47 murders. 49 by the time they snagged him for riding without a helmet. They’re good at that: pull you in for a little thing, tack on the big thing later.

I won’t pretend I’m 100% innocent. I was driving back from a wedding when I saw a derelict building too good to miss, and I just so happened to have my cans in the back. I was spraying the last layer on my tag when the gun cocked behind me. A friend of mine got capped by an overenthusiastic rent-a-cop back in ‘95, and as I have no desire to end up dead or wheelchair-bound, I put my hands up.

At no point in time did the officer arresting me mention murder. I was twenty minutes in that interrogation room, sweating and looking at my dumb face in the mirror. When the officer came in with a book and started talking casually about where I’d been that night, I instantly dropped the magic word: lawyer. He just went on about how I was a stranger around these parts, probably not a tourist seeing as it was past 10 at night and gee, I sure had a lot of equipment in the back of my jeep.

While he’s talking, he opens the book and shows me…Jesus, how to describe it? I’ve seen wartime photos, buddy of mine was in Afghanistan a few years back. These matched his snaps for the senseless level of violence. Think I threw up in my mouth a little. All the time this cop is talking, watching my reaction. Guess I blinked wrong because he slammed the book shut and left the room. The guy playing bad cop came in and that’s when I shot myself in the foot. In my sputtering about tagging, somehow they found enough to book me on suspicion of murder. A case made out of paper bricks, it wouldn’t hold up in any sane court. But this was Hogg county, and the judge they got looked a little too much like the sheriff for comfort. I’m only free to tell you this today because my lawyer, a beautiful, beautiful man, descended like an angry Santa Claus and delivered a legal smackdown that left their ears ringing. I didn’t understand most of the legalese, but he threatened to have the judge disbarred if this farce of a trial went forward.

Antony Vargas didn’t have all that. He had a mealy-mouthed public defender who told him to take a plea deal or they’d cut his mother’s benefits.

After I was acquitted, or exonerated or whatever the proper term is, the cops acted all self-righteous, told me to never come back. I said I had no problem missing a shit-splat town like theirs in the future. The sheriff actually leapt across the table after me, can you believe it? I guess even Splatsville, U.S.A. has some measure of civic pride.

Anyway, I disobeyed almost immediately. Came back disguised as a photographer enamored by their collection of dilapidated barns. It worked because I’m a 43-year-old white guy with the ability to get a haircut. The camera was originally just cover, but it wound up being handy when I saw what was on the barns.

Above the first barn’s door was what looked like an eye in what was probably blood. Flies didn’t swarm over paint like that. All the barns had ‘em. Old, new, abandoned, inhabited, it was just out in the open for anyone to see.

Now, in a situation like this you’d expect the townsfolk to be a little on the taciturn side. And they were—right up until I told them I worked for Fortean Times. It’s amazing the things people will tell you if they think they’ll be bigfoot-famous. Like how they all knew that everyone the sheriff nabbed was innocent, they just couldn’t speak up. Or the fact that there were probably more than just the 49 murders, but those were the only bodies found. Or the fact that all the plants died at the crime scenes and never grew back.

It goes on.

The blood on the barns came from the biggest animal, be it bull or dog or horse, that they had. They’d bleed it every few weeks, never more than it could stand to lose, mix the blood with a little vinegar to keep it from coagulating and slop it on the barn. Presto. I couldn’t gather how they came up with these particular rules, just that it was how their grandaddy’s daddy did things.

Another thing I couldn’t get was a physical description. Normally, there’ll be at least an outline: ‘it looked like a shadow twice the height of a man,’ etc. Nothing. What I did get was that this sort of thing had happened before, when the town had been nothing but a collection of tarpaper shacks.

This latest rash of murders happened because a place they called the Water Shack burned down. I never got more detail than that. What kind of building, who owned it, why it would have an effect on the murders? Zilch.

I noticed a squad car circling like a shark on the horizon, so I beat feet at that point. Went to the next town over to use their library. Apparently what the townspeople had been unwittingly painting was the evil eye.

The next two murders were in bigger papers, so the cops were aching to have a suspect. Antony Vargas was tailor-made for the verdict: out-of-towner, young, ethnic, and defiant. It didn’t matter that he would’ve been thirteen when the murders started, or that he had clear alibis for nine of them. Once he confessed, no one was interested in looking closer.

I saw the photos of the murder scene in the Tribune, taken by a much better photographer. It was fucking grizzly. What was left of the poor bastard was threaded through a treetop. Which, to me, should’ve been an instant exoneration. How can I say this without getting hyperbolic? No human did that. They’d have to have a catapult to launch it that far.

The newspeople had better luck tracking details down. Of the 49 murders, all had been conducted in the dead of night. The victim had been snatched from somewhere else and brought to the murder scene, sometimes over ten miles. The murders were unusually savage, and the papers used those words they love to use in a time like this: “barbaric” “senseless,” “inhuman.”

I especially love that last one. It comes so close to the truth but shies away at the last moment. Because I don’t believe a human did that. I don’t believe Antony Vargas did it and I don’t believe any of the other poor schmoes they dragged in before him did it. But they need an answer, just like the town needs a scapegoat. I learned the town wasn’t just desperate, they were scared. They all dealt with it differently. The cops dealt by dragging in anyone who so much as dropped a gum wrapper within town limits. The townsfolk painted their buildings in blood. They both came to the same end, and they were both equally ineffective.

I visit Tony in jail. Nice guy, all things considered. His mom has been lobbying for his release since he got thrown in there, but I don’t like her chances. The only thing the justice system hates more than a wrongful conviction is overturning it.

There have been more murders. It’s not in the paper, but I visit town a lot. They like me, I’m the Fort guy. They’ve found maybe two more sites, two more murders that could set Antony Vargas free. So I stuck around to take pictures. They can’t keep it under wraps forever. They can’t continue with this false peace indefinitely.

I know this because when they pointed me to the site of the last murder, I watched the trees beyond it part. I saw them rock back and forth in the wake of something massive. And I realized that we all have much bigger things to worry about.

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Obligifts

I guess we all had to deal with them one way or another in childhood. Mine were so frequent I came up with a term: obligifts. You don’t want them, don’t need them, but you can’t throw them away because it’d be rude.

I never got that last part. Aunt Myra never really seemed to care what I did with her gifts, never asked after them. She just came back every visit with more crap that looked like she picked it up from the side of the road. She’d smile with nicotine-yellow teeth, arching her penciled eyebrows as she handed me a battered watch that didn’t even work or one half of a BFF necklace.

It was only ever me, too. Not my younger brother. Maybe it was because I was a girl, or maybe it was because I was older. My mom said that Myra and and her husband Eddy had always wanted kids but could never have them. I never got that impression. Myra’s concern began and ended when she handed me the newest present, she never asked about school or what books I was reading. Eddy didn’t come over as often as Myra, and when he did he would ask me to sit on his lap. Always came off as skeevy to me.

Anyway, Myra wasn’t really my aunt. She was like a second cousin twice removed or something weird like that, but mom said I had to call her aunt just like she said I had to accept all her gifts like they were gold. They were crap. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it looked like they were road litter. They were all used kid’s stuff, just random crap like a yo-yo or a scrunchie she probably picked up for ten cents at a thrift store. Half the time it was boy stuff I wanted to pawn off on my younger brother but my mom wouldn’t let me.

When I was ten she brought me the headband. Purple with tinsel threading through the chunky plastic. It smelled like the kind of perfume they sold with fashion dolls. The plastic was scuffed, and it had just a little bit of hair grease on the underside.

I hung it from the end of my finger and stared at it.

“Say ‘thank you,’” my mom prodded.

I mumbled something that sounded like thanks and took it back to my room. Myra stayed through casserole and cigarettes at the dinner table while my brother and I had to go to bed early. The headband sat necklacing my Garfield lamp until the day I saw the news.

The weather had just ended and they were getting to local events; you know, where they announce rummage sales or animal rescues. That kind of thing. But this one was different. This one had the girl with my headband in her hair.

She was Jobeth Nichols, age 8, and she’d gone missing a week after they’d taken her school photo. That was the one they used in the story. She’d gone missing on a walk home from school. My mom would never let us walk home from school. I took out the headband and hid it in a drawer. I didn’t know what I was afraid of.

The next time Myra came over, she brought Eddy with her. He had too many beers and leered that I was never too big to sit on his lap. I was too distracted by the headband to react. It had to mean something.

My brother finished early and went to the den. Eddy followed soon after and the sound changed from cartoon noises to the roar of a football game. I picked at my potatoes. Myra lit a cigarette.

Mom prompted me to finish my dinner so I could go to bed. That gave me a little push. I set down my fork and said, “I was thinking of going to the police station, to ask them something.”

Myra’s hand tensed. Smoke steamed away from the end of her cigarette, forgotten. She was looking at my mom washing dishes, but she wasn’t really watching her.

“Why, sweetheart?” My mom asked from the sink.

“Did you see that news story that was just on, the missing girl? I think I might know something.”

Myra’s mouth pursed like it had drawstrings. From the den, I heard the sound of a can of beer being set down.

My mom flicked her hands and dried them on the towel pinned at her waist. “Don’t waste the police’s time, sweetie. That’s finished enough. I want your teeth brushed and you in bed.”

I left the kitchen but I didn’t go far. I paused in the little piece of hallway outside the door and listened.

Aunt Myra asked if I could spend the night at her house.

My breathing stopped for a second. My mom said no, it was a school night. Myra pleaded: I was such a good girl, mom knew her and Eddy didn’t have kids of their own, couldn’t she spare me one night? Miraculously, my mom only got more firm the more Myra pushed, finally snapping at Myra that they had survived all these years without a child, one more night wouldn’t kill them. Myra went silent. Out in the den, only the TV sounded.

Dad came back from the bathroom and told me to get to bed. I lay on my side on top of my pony quilt, unable to sleep.

The stairs creaked. One by one, steadily, like someone was sneaking up. My dad called Eddy’s name. The steps paused. Eddy called back that he just wanted to wish me goodnight. Dad said I was a light sleeper, he shouldn’t give me any cause to miss the alarm in the morning. I held my breath until I heard the steps downstairs again.

Myra and Eddy didn’t visit anymore after that. Mom didn’t seem too put out by it, I guess there were some limits to even her patience. I got rid of everything but the headband, still have it today. Sometimes I take it out and stare at it, like I’m doing right now. Guilt is the ultimate family gift. You don’t need it, don’t want it, but it’s yours.

Forever.

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A Special Case

Griselda puffed into being in a cloud that smelled vaguely of baked goods. Years of experience had taught her that children were more inclined to trust people who smelled of wholesome things. She fanned her butterfly wings, a recent addition to the costume. She could fly very well without them, but in this post-Disney world, well, certain terms just brought certain expectations.

Jacob Fremont lived in a brightly painted house on a cul-de-sac teeming with other children. Yet he was friendless and alone. Griselda looked over a yard abnormally neat and empty of toys.

Jacob, like any other child, had his share of sadness. She’d read it. At three, Jacob had fallen and hit his head so severely they thought he’d have learning disabilities. He’d recovered from it, but then at six his baby brother had died. Fallen into the lake where their family had been staying.

Griselda sighed. She often saw it. Children didn’t need magic so much as positive reenforcement. The other godmothers had rolled their eyes at all the pop psychology books, but Griselda could see the change coming over the children of this generation from a mile away. The woes of today were less forced labor by your family and more societal ennui.

What she would do, Griselda thought idly as she hovered over the house, is implement a regimen of activity. Get the endorphins flowing before addressing the deep-seated issues.

A boy that had to be Jacob was standing in the side-yard, next to an air conditioning unit. He did not seem to be hiding from anyone, yet he was concealed by the structure. He stood stock still and looked off into the middle distance. Griselda pasted a bright smile on her face. She’d mastered appearing so much that she could make it seem like a sunbeam spontaneously split into a rainbow, lighting up her dress and hair with color.

“Hello Jacob,” she said, bearing a look of wistful gentleness.

The boy did not react like any child ever had. He didn’t react. He simply looked up as if she were a low-flying bird that had hit the roof.

“Hello,” he said. His lower lids were droopy and showed an unusual amount of white beneath his iris.

“I’m Griselda, your fairy godmother,” she breathed, trying to channel maternal goodness. That term was such a gross oversimplification, but it worked for what she needed.

Jacob cocked his head.

“Fairy. From ‘fair folk’?”

Griselda gave a rewarding little laugh. “Yes! What a clever little boy you are.”

“I read it in a book,” Jacob said noncommittally.

He had not once changed his demeanor since the conversation started. Griselda’s heart went out to him. He was too young to be so jaded. He needed to believe in magic as a child, because if he didn’t he wouldn’t believe in hope as an adult.

Griselda risked coming a little closer and rested her hand on his shoulder.

“Jake, I’m here to—”

“Jacob,” the boy insisted, “not Jake.”

Griselda smiled again. “Of course. I’m here to help you, Jacob. Can you think of something you need help with?”

This was most important. Most godmothers blasted in, granting wishes left and right without any thought to the big picture. If you let children talk, they would be able to tell you exactly what they needed.

Jacob looked at her hand. He didn’t blink much.

“I have English homework. One topic sentence and three supporting sentences.”

She’d been hoping for a bigger psychological revelation. Help with a bully, a parent, a pet. But it was a start.

“I can’t do your homework for you,” she teased.

The joke didn’t make a hit. “Then what can you do?”

Griselda dithered. “Oh…lots of things. I can make it rain, or make it sunny. I can make things grow, or shrink them. I can make clothes and food and—”

“Can you kill things?”

Griselda stopped. “I…can’t…” No child had ever asked her that. Even the ones being beaten by their parents hadn’t.

Jacob shrugged. “Well…”

Griselda followed him back to his room and tried to help him with the assignment. His biggest problem in English was that he didn’t quite get correlation and causation. He could write that a mouse would eat a piece of cheese, but he couldn’t tell why or what might happen after.

Griselda hung back and observed for the rest of the evening. Maybe his brother’s death had induced a streak of morbidity in him. While his parents were busy cleaning up after dinner, Jacob turned on a horror movie in the living room and watched without a trace of fear. Afterwards, Jacob took himself up to bed without asking for a goodnight kiss from either parent.

Griselda went over her notes. Perhaps the death had been so frightening it dulled his ability to feel afraid of other things? She had a sneaking suspicion he had witnessed more than was on the file.

The next day Jacob rose at six am and prepared for school. He fixed his own lunch, dressed, ate breakfast, and sat on the couch reading until his parents rose. Griselda followed him to school. Jacob was like many children, in that he only did enough work to complete assignments but did not excel. The other children tended to avoid him on the playground. Odd. He didn’t seem like a bully. She watched as he paced to the far corner of the schoolyard and pulled out a book. He liked reading. Maybe he found life so disappointing he was trying to escape it?

After school he walked himself home, paying attention to all signs and traffic lights. He was very cautious for an eight-year-old.

Once home, he shrugged off his backpack and dove straight into homework. He gave a lingering look to the English packet and set it aside.

At dinner he ate the center from his toast and only half his peas. Then he brushed his teeth for three minutes, told his parents five, and went to bed.

Griselda was left scratching her head.

Usually, fairy grandmothers were summoned for times of extreme duress. True, not all damage was external, but it seemed as if Jacob had a fairly normal life.

Grizelda decided on an observation period of a week. Just to be sure.

After three days she was ready to pack it in.

The  parent’s actions when no other adult was around were usually the most telling of their parenting style. Jacob’s parents behaved more or less the same whether they were being observed by other people. Jacob’s father might make some halfhearted attempts to joke with his son, or Jacob’s mother might tease him, but either action brought the same indifference from the boy.

The only notable event  didn’t look anything close to mistreatment. Jacob’s mother was in the livingroom, standing watchfully near the boy. It was something the parents did often. Suddenly, she gathered Jacob into a hug. The look on her face was expectant. Jacob didn’t move, neither to reach forward and return the hug nor to withdraw. After a moment, Jacob’s mother eased away and took his face in her hands, searching it for something. Whatever her goal, she came away disappointed.

Griselda appeared before him late one Thursday afternoon. Jacob was in the yard looking at bugs with a magnifying glass.

“Jacob,” she said.

“Griselda,” he said, as if she had just rounded the corner instead of appearing in a shower of sparkles.

Griselda watched him angle the magnifying glass. Such careful hands. Such detachment. Like a miniature scientist.

“Are you finding some good bugs?” She ventured.

Jacob grunted and nodded, finding her no more interesting a sight than anything else in the yard.

“Jacob, I had some questions for you…” she said, drifting closer. This let her see the white-hot beam emanating from the lens, let her hear the microscopic screams and pops.

Griselda gasped and knocked the glass from his hands. Jacob stared at the ant trail below him, hand open, face darkening.

“That was mine,” he said, emotion finally tinting his voice.

“Jacob, that’s horrid! Imagine those poor little ants, just rushing around on business, suddenly burnt to a crisp.”

Jacob said, “I do.”

Griselda shook her head.

“Jake, I’ve been watching you,” she said, “and I think I’ve figured out what I must do with you. I think I’m going to have to teach you empathy.”

Jacob slowly raised his head, those strange eyes with their large whites settling hot and still on her face.

“My name,” he said distinctly, “is Jacob. Not Jake.”

“I’m sorry. But you really must learn empathy.” Griselda fanned herself. “This must be the first time I’ve been called to save a child from himself. Do forgive me if I err.”

“You mean you’ll be hanging around?”

“I’ll be staying, Jacob, until I see fit to leave. We may have a lot of work ahead of us—I can only imagine what your brother’s death did to you—”

“He didn’t do anything to me,” Jacob said slowly, “not after that. Before, he put my trucks in the water. I told him no, but he did anyway. That’s why I pushed him.”

Griselda momentarily lost altitude. Her toes grazed the tips of the grass.

“Wh-what?” she asked weakly.

Jacob beckoned her over. “Want to see another secret?”

Griselda bent forward, head spinning.

Jacob had something in his front pocket, wrapped in an old handkerchief. He peeled away the layers and then suddenly lunged and pressed it against her cheek. It burned.

“Iron is deadly to fair folk,” Jacob said over the sound of Griselda’s screams, “I read that in my book.”

She tried to pull away, but it stuck to her skin and it burned and it burned and it burned

 

After a while Jacob’s mother came out of the house and saw the bright mess on the lawn. She spoke in a tone dismayed but not surprised.

“Oh, Jacob. Another butterfly?”

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Down By The Crick

Even before the dementia, aunt Denise was not fun to be around. I was her least favorite nephew(for multiple reasons) yet somehow the job of overseeing her care fell to me. Good. Great. Not like I didn’t have other things to see to.

Give my family some credit, they did try to chip in as much as they could. She never had kids, and her only husband had died in 1968, so it was pretty much me or nothing.

I remember her house as the “touch-me-not” museum from when I was a kid. Endless shelves of those cheap little knicknacks you find at thrifts stores, not a single bare surface to set something. And if you so much as looked at something the wrong way, she’d fly at you screeching like a harpy. Fun.

In her mind, I guess, the house is still like it was, full of neatly ordered rows of figurines and samplers and other tchotchkes. But I can tell you what it was really like. Heaps of old junk she’d find sifting through neighbor’s trash. She’d even collect bits of broken glass like they were gems. To cap it all off, she kept sneaking in dead animals and placing them like they were stuffed toys. Oh boy, did she throw a fit when found her ‘pet’ mouse.

If I don’t seem very fond of the old bat, the feeling was very much mutual. I could never bring my boyfriend over or I was going to hell. I couldn’t use the microwave or TV because the rays would make her sterile(yes, really.) I had to stop wandering off or she would tell my mother.

That was what she called it. She couldn’t stand having me in the house, but the second I left her sight I was abandoning her to some horrible fate. Even though I was juggling a job and school with her home care, she seemed to think all I did all day was sneak down to ‘the crick,’ which was this muddy old drainage ditch I hadn’t been near since I was a teenager. I tried locking her in when I had to leave for long periods of time and couldn’t get someone to watch her, but she still found ways to escape.

That was where she died. Not in the house, by the old ditch.

She’d had a cardiac arrest, they’d said. She had a really shocked look on her face and died with her hands clenched into fists. Of course there were rumblings about elder abuse, but my family really backed me up on this. I should have known it wasn’t for free, because then they expected me to sort out the old house by myself. Dicks.

The whole first day I just started shoveling stuff into the dumpster. Anything of value had long been encrusted with the filth of that house, so I had no qualms about getting rid of it. Towards evening I decided to knock off and look through the the books and see if there were any photo albums I should save. On a shelf in between endless issues of national geographic and one of those crockpot recipe books was the journal.

It looked like a primer from an old elementary school. Flipping through it, I could watch my aunt’s handwriting deteriorate with her mind. The fact that she’d kept a journal secret from me, even when she couldn’t wipe herself anymore, was just a little disturbing. I tucked it away for later perusal and worked until sundown.

It was weird being in the house by myself. It didn’t feel like she’d left at all, you know? I didn’t really feel alone in the house, every creak sounded like a footstep. I watched some of the forbidden TV for a while before I remembered the journal.

Maybe I had just never understood my aunt enough to like her. Maybe if I knew her thoughts, she’d become a little more sympathetic.

I cracked the book.

July 15

that boy is back again. Josh. They chose the right name for him. Never a serious moment in his life. Always joshing me about my things. Switching doors around on me. I don’t know how he moved the bathroom down the hall, but when I went in the hall closet by mistake he rolled his eyes at me.

He doesn’t know I know. How he sneaks down by the crick. I can see him from the upstairs window after he leaves for ‘work.’ work, ha. I’m onto his tricks.

July 15 18

I did it. I used some old twine to mark the trees so I wouldn’t get lost on my way back. He was there all right. Cut his hair different and dyed it another color, but I know that lazy boy when I see him. He was washing blood off his hands! What did that delinquent do now? I bet he killed another animal and left it for me to find! I’ll let him have it, you mark my words.

June July 02 20

He was there again. He wasn’t just bloody this time, he had some old rags he was burning. Probably smokes out here, too. Well, I popped right out and gave him a piece of my mind.

He straightened up in a hurry. He really tried to disguise himself, even pulled a face so he looked like a different boy. I told him off, first for lying about where he went during the day, then for trying to fool me. He squinted at me like it was all very funny, so I told him off for that. I said I would tell his mother if he didn’t start acting right. That wiped the smirk from his face. He took my hand and assured me he’d do better. Well, he damn well better, otherwise I would come down on him.

July

that boy. I never know what mood he’s going to be in. when he’s at home, he’s all p’s and q’s, treating me like a little child. When he creeps out for the day, he’s so polite and quiet. As long as I let him burn things and wash off in the crick, he brings me more stuffies! He brought me a mouse and two cats last time! He’s so different now, so quiet and agreeable. He told me he wasn’t really a fairy, that he loved women like me. My heart melted from it. He even reminds me to start home before dark, just in case I forget. When he comes home he pretends to be so grumpy and doesn’t know about the crick, so I play along. Tee hee! It makes me feel like a schoolgirl again.

My entire body was cold. I flipped ahead a few pages in the book, where her writing started getting really bad.

May

my heart is may and the whole world is spring josh loves me he loves me and says I am the girl for him

he talked about the last girl he had, she let him in her house and shared her pension with him but it wasn’t enough and he had to make sure she didn’t starve to death

I told him I would always be able to feed us and I had a whole house of treasure big enough for two and he didn’t have to worry because I hadn’t had a man since Elliott and I was still clean

he was so happy i’m so happy so happy

I flipped to the last entry

josh

is going

to take me away

he says he’ll take me away from all this no more bad food no more locked in the house he will take me away and I won’t have to worry ever

i brought him a key like he asked i’m bringing him a key and meet him down by the crick and he says he will show me something pretty and I will give him the key to the house

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Why Did They Leave You Alone?

C’mon kid. Spill.

You’ll have to say something sooner or later, those are my buddies over there, dredging that hole.

Where did your parents go? Did they run off and ditch you? Are they catching a plane or train or just hoofing it to Canada? Did they just step out for a smoke? Maybe they’re in the bathroom.

You gatta tell us sooner or later, we’ll know anyway. We got ways. We got computers. We’ll scan everything you ever touched. Find the blood that’s been washed away, the spit, the semen. You think a few bars of motel soap and some bleach will hide your identity? We’ll ask your DNA. And DNA don’t lie to us.

Was it Shelly? Surely it was her or Daisy or Mary or Carrie or Jill. One of these girls. Look kid, look. You can’t keep those eyes closed forever.

A lot of girls won’t stop for some stranger on the street. Too smart. They’ll stop for a kid though. They’ll stop to play tag or kiss booboos or say hi to a couple with a kid.

Were they really your parents? Pssh. Why am I even asking? Like I could trust your answer.

You ever been in there? It’s a long, cold drop. Used to service a mine, now it’s just for dopers. No respectable girl would be within a mile of this place.

Oh hey! You hear that? That’s Phil. Phil just found something.

Great guy, Phil. Sharp eyes.

Your knee hurt? I can get a bandaid. But we gotta get to the station for that, and to get to the station you have to talk.

Were they nice to you? That don’t mean a whole lot. Nice people don’t do this. Nice people don’t break up families and leave mothers up crying all night. Did they buy you pop and let you stay up? Lemme tell you kid, that may seem like love but it ain’t.

They’ve got the chain going. That means something’s big. Something down there.

Did you move around a lot? Hell, I did that when I was a kid too. I used to look up to my pops. When I grew up I realized he was a no-good shit. Drank. Fought. Got kicked out of places too many times. But I still loved the shit out of him until he hit my ma. Isn’t that funny? They’ve got you until that one thing, the one thing they do turns the tide, makes all the love into hate.

Well kid? What’s in there? The one thing?

It’s stuck. Looks like they can’t winch it up. Makes you sick to think about it.

Did they tell you it was all your fault? That’s a lie. That’s the god-damndest lie I ever—

Huh. Too heavy for the truck? That’s gotta be a first.

Look, kid, you aren’t helping nobody. You aren’t helping your folks, you aren’t helping those girls, and you aren’t helping your case any, I can tell you.

Randy, keep it down! I’m talking to the kid here!

Yeah, just a second.

NO, DON’T CALL FOR BACKUP. IT’S A TEENAGE GIRL FOR CHRISSAKES, HOW COULD IT—

Times running out. You hear that? That’s the hammer coming down.

Just open up.

Open up. Open—

…kid.

What the hell did they do to your tongue?

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The Man Who Was A Family

There once was a man who was a family.

It was a wonder so mundane that he never bothered sharing it with anyone. The miracle encapsulated within him was that he had all the makings of a family; at any time, anywhere on earth he could stop and cultivate a seed. He could take a woman to wife, whelp new brats from her womb, kindle fire with a steady and firm hand.

His own father had not been a family. His own father had not been a father but an inconsistent drunk who laid his belt on like a broken sprinkler. His own father had been a pugilist and a pontificator and a lover of women who weren’t his wife. The man who grew up to be a family had several-odd castoffs that shared half of his genetic material, but no siblings. The man who was a family grew from the boy who had none. He spent most of his adolescence and early manhood building himself. His body became a fort, his mind like a siege gate. A family could reside within him a thousand years, safe from attack.

The family he cultivated was sadly insufficient to the level of his devotion.

It started out promising: he met his wife at a bible study meeting. Hers was a ground untrod by other men, he valued that. To build a house properly, one must have level foundations. She had deferred to him in all things, had borne him first a daughter and then a son to make up for it. The children had been apple-cheeked, hale, and his wife had kept them at a tolerable distance. In return, he had gotten a steady job that paid well enough that they could afford nice things. Occasionally one of his children would become too attached to a toy, and he would have to remind them of his love. The day after he brought the television home, no one greeted him at the door. He unplugged the set and explained to the kids that it would live in the attic until such time as he deemed it proper to return it. With every gesture, he sought to impress awe in his small family; not to tyrannize, but to love.

He did love. When the children were born he felt it: a hot, sick clench inside of him. His eyes had watered, but he hadn’t cried. The children cried more than enough for anyone, eventually it became bad pressure behind his eyes. But for those first few years, they were so new and pink that everything was a miracle. Every tear, every wail, each drop of waste was a tiny off-shoot of the miracle stored inside him.

But something happened as he grew older. The family began to turn away from him, diverting their tongues so that they spoke to him not with respect but indifference. The children complained about how other households had a dog, other households didn’t make their children do their homework without erasing, other fathers laughed and played with their kids. He tried, he tried so hard to coach them, but they were just so much weaker than he. They couldn’t catch the balls he threw, he outran them too easily, he tagged so hard he knocked them over. He tried to make more money, hoping it would sate their sudden hunger, but now they expected more from him. They expected him from him, to own his body as well as his sweat.

He never resorted to beating his family. He congratulated himself on that front; he was a head above his father. But they still flinched from him sometimes, as if he raised his hand to them regularly. He’d admonish them for retreating from him, but that only made it more severe. He still loved them, loved them despite their transgressions.

The first open transgression was his daughter’s defection into the ranks of the drama club at school. She’d come home past eight stinking of clove cigarettes. All she would talk about were midnight shows and Rocky Horrors and other oddities. She dyed her hair a deep red and started singing in the mornings, even when he’d pinch her bicep with his nails.

The second was small: his son. The boy no longer looked at him with son’s eyes, didn’t defer to his father in all things. The rebellion was not yet apparent in his voice, as it was in his sister’s, but it would come some day. The boy spoke a different language than his father now, full of mock words from popular cartoons, new words that the school instilled in his head, like “racist” and “bully” that he applied liberally to his father’s speech.

The final insurrection came over the barbeque, whispered as steak and vegan hotdogs spat at him.

His wife, reticent: “You understand?”

He felt the weight of her betrayal, a knife behind his left eye.

“No,” he said, “I don’t.”

“I suppose I can’t expect you to.”

His eye felt hot, threatened to drip. “Who is he?”

She sighed. “There isn’t anyone else. That’s…I feel like I don’t know you anymore. And what I do know I’m not sure of.”

“Never lied to you.” That was a lie, but a forgivable one. He only lied when it was absolutely necessary. Her untruths drifted from her in a constant, perfumed wave. The susurrus of her voice was like tide on a gravel beach.

“It’s not that. It’s not anything I could tell you.”

A blister of fat popped.

“I just don’t feel right with you anymore.”

As if he was a dress from a thinner year. As if he hadn’t expended every effort to make the family work.

“I see,” he said. His eye throbbed. The steaks wound up scorched.

His family no longer worked. The machine he made was broken, and he had no way to fix it. They did not want to be fixed. He could no longer sleep at night; he lay dry-eyed next to his wife, watching her snore, watching her puffy, compromising face shift in the light of the television screen. He agreed to go to the optometrist appointment she’d arranged to appease her, and then sat in his car at the train depot for an hour and a half.

“Doctor says it’s nothin’,” he told her, and then watched the white cliff of her back, daring her to deny it, to call him a liar.

When his children asked him for help on their homework, he gave them the wrong answers and waited for them to correct him, to blame him for getting them in trouble. They barely even looked at him.

Pressure built like a thunderhead behind his eye. His job was no longer satisfied with the work he did, as ravenous for his labor as his family. They laid restrictions upon him, expecting effort where he could give none, and with every demand he felt his body grow more reluctant to respond. Someone tried to hand him a sheaf of papers and didn’t see that he left his arms hanging dead at his sides. The papers fanned out beneath his feet in a cool, white river. When they called him into the office, they made all the necessary excuses: downsizing, automation, apologies, etc. Throughout it all his gaze remained on the clock on the far wall.

3:15. His son would be home from school.

3:15. His daughter would just be doing warm-up exorcizes with the theater folk.

3:15. His wife might be starting dinner, or pretending she was away shopping for dinner when really she was out with friends.

3:15. He was cut off from the last thing that gave definition to his life. He was not enough.

3:15. It was 3:15 and it would always be 3:15. He was never enough.

He thanked his former boss and shook his hand. He refused a reference.

3:15. The air in his house was stifling, even the dust motes did not move.

That night he tucked his family in for the last time and left.

He did not act according to the miracle in his body right away, that would have drawn attention. He wanted to start anew, therefore no one could know how special he was, the man who had already been one family and would be another. He examined women for their qualities. What he had found so readily in his wife were growing scarce with the moving times. Women he found were frivolous things, thinking only of themselves and what he could do for them. They were not proper soil, a tree from them would grow crooked as a juniper.

He found one, once, who seemed as if she might be a good match. Shy, obsequious, completely without friends. It was only the day she said she had someone she wanted him to meet, when he saw another man’s child come skipping out of a car to wrap around the waist that he himself had just grasped, that he realized. The child had another man’s blunt features. The difference was hateful.

He didn’t look back.

The man who was a family could afford to be picky now. The family was taking shape within him, losing and borrowing features with each successive potential conquest. The family would be worth the endless tide of scraped knees, snapped kite strings and broken promises, because there would be none.

Summer deepened and he threw his back out for other men’s families, laboring in hot fields and dust and wind and sun. He picked tomatoes, watermelons, and oranges. He baled hay. The fake tan he’d slathered on faded to a real one. His hair recovered from the buzzcut he’d imposed upon it, showing grey for the first time in his life.

He found another. The town was smaller than the suburb he’d left. The woman seemed smaller. Her smile was a crimp in her mouth, as if she was apologizing for life. He lifted things for her, opened jars, worked on her car. On Sundays they went to church. She was devout, she was obedient as to have no opinion, and she was just pretty enough to think she wasn’t.

Then one day, one horrible day, he stepped into her house and found a nightmare. He could almost smell that something was wrong, a sickly acid smell a reptile would put out when scared. She was in the kitchen red-eyed. Her brother, driven up from Menomonie, had a guarding arm around her. Before he could turn to run, he was on the floor and the cuffs bit into his wrists.

They had to drive him to the next county to get a holding cell.

“I don’t understand,” he told the detectives, “I don’t understand any of this.”

The detective was younger than him and about twenty pounds lighter. The sharp tang of his cologne was like a knife in the eye. The detective leaned across the table, hands clasped as if beseeching.

“Know what we don’t understand?”

A Polaroid hit the table in front of him.

“This.”

Two more joined it.

“And these.”

His eyes swamped over. It was disgusting. It was a disgrace. After he’d taken such care to protect them so they weren’t smeared across the evening news along with the junkies and gang bangers and celebrity meltdowns.

“How dare you?” he whispered, “How dare you.”

The detective shook his head and sighed. “We’re done. Get him out of here.”

His family cried out as one as they took his shoulders. It had not been enough. He was not enough. He cried out as they made to drag him away.

“Wait—God, wait! I have a family!”

Tragically, they did not listen.

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