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Short Fiction

The good folks over at Bizarrocast have given the audio treatment to my short story, “The Night Light,” taken from my collection I Held My Breath as Long as I Could. 

If you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, stop on by and have a listen. It’s also available on iTunes.

A very big thanks to Chris Boyle and Bizarrocast! This is the first for-pay sale of a story I’ve ever made.

Acceptance. It feels nice.

First of all, for any readers of this blog in the NYC area, I’ll be going to Black and White (86 E. 10th St, btw 3rd and 4th Ave.) to participate in the readings starting at 8pm this Sunday. Who knows what I’ll read.

But who am I kidding. I think I know all my readers by name, and most of you live out of state.

More importantly, last night I compiled all the pieces of the first draft of “Seal,” which is the second short story in my 12 months, 12 stories project for 2013.

Today, I’ve been wondering how I feel about it. I think I feel good, but I can’t escape a crippling sense of depression. Maybe it’s my standard post-partum; maybe it’s something else. I feel super-critical of the piece right now (the story centers around a mom who doesn’t want to be a mom, and writing a horror story about that strikes me now as potentially terribly sexist, which was exactly the opposite of my intent), and perhaps the sadness of having fallen short of my own goals is what’s at work on me right now.

Or maybe I’m just tired. It’s been a long couple of days.

But now I’m going to let this one sit and go back to “Sprachlos” for another draft before March comes around the corner and I start work on “Special Formats Processing.”

Note: This piece was originally published on the blogs for Stuff You Should Know. It was a finalist in their 2012 Halloween Podcast Fiction Contest. This story made it to the final 16 (and a few rounds beyond, but the initial cut was the most important, for me). I’m grateful to Josh and Chuck for running the contest, without which this piece might never have been finished. I’ve changed one word back to the original text, as the contest did not allow foul language. I hope you enjoy it.

 VARIABLE

“There are people in the field,” she said from the kitchen sink, where she’d been scrubbing her hands, trying not to catch or spread the bronchitis currently filling her son’s air passages with globs of sputum. Her husband dropped his breakfast plate beneath the suds and moved around her with a low inscrutable noise, so she said, “Did ya hear me?”

“Whassat? What about Nate?” he asked, his slurred inquiry betraying his lack of interest while his smile underlined his courteous attempt to hide it. He threw his jacket around his shoulders and grabbed his keys.

“I didn’t say anything about Nate. Nate’s in his room. I said there are people in the field.”

“People? They’ll go away.”

“They’re just standing there. They look dressed for a funeral. Can you talk to them? They’re creeping me out.”

He came and looked over her shoulder. Their house, a modest sentinel in a two-acre sea of bumpy, wild grass, was hemmed in on the west by Route 9, on the east by Dead Stream Lake, and on the remaining sides by thick forest. She counted five people standing and talking, their hands crossed over their chests or stuffed in their pockets. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw at least another half dozen lurking behind the wall of fir, spruce, and cedar trees that marked the edge of the government-protected wilderness.

“I don’t see anything,” James said, giving her a peck on the cheek.

She couldn’t believe he didn’t see them. “They’re right there! Are you even looking?”

“Probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. Don’t worry about it,” James said. “I gotta go. Call the cops if they give you any trouble.” He chuckled at the suggestion.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses?” she repeated. Sure, they’d been visited from time to time when they’d lived closer to town, but never had they been proselytized to so far out on Route 9. “There’s too many of them,” she added. “Jehovah’s Witnesses always attack in pairs.”

“Don’t know what to tell ya, babe. Good luck with Nate,” he said and left.

He was probably right, she thought after a moment. She finished the dishes, set James’s plate in the rack to dry, and went to try to get some reading done.

 

*     *     *

 

Halfway through a convoluted sentence, she caught herself not paying attention. She’d started thinking about the moment a few days ago when she’d seen the man in the pink shirt in the parking lot of the A & P: leash in his hand; leash on his dog; froth in the dog’s mouth; both of them staring at her. The dog growled; the man waved and sneered.

She blinked and closed the book. She closed the awful memory, too, and wondered: Are the people still out there?

She dropped the book on her bed and went to find out.

 

*     *     *

 

And so they were.

They were also still there an hour and a half later when she went to make lunch, only now they stood in a line, all in the same pose with their arms crossed, staring toward the house. When she looked out, they waved in unison.

A small yelp escaped her, and she retreated a step back from the window.

“What’s wrong?” Nate asked, seated at the table, lazy spoon working a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

She composed herself for her eight-year-old son’s sake. It was a thing parents did automatically, it seemed to her, and she wondered why. What was the point of pretending that nothing was wrong? Regardless, she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Nothing. Everything’s okay. I’ll be right back.”

In her mind, she’d already connected the man with the dog to the people in the field. She’d wonder about that later—how she must’ve known something, even then.

She didn’t bother putting on a jacket, even though the autumn weather had grown chilly. Striding down the hill toward the trees, she called out, “Hey! You there! You can’t be here. What do you think you’re doing?”

Their heads moved as the people leaned toward each other, their faces turning, their mouths moving, lips betraying weird smiles, eyes always on her. She confronted the tallest one first—a man in the center with a halo of white hair, horrent around his head.

“This is private property,” she said. It made her feel like a jerk, like a prissy mom in a bad movie—some xenophobic mother hen soccer mom suburbanite. She couldn’t help it; she wanted them gone. By the time she spoke again, however, her tone, tempered by her momentary guilt at having exposed her schoolmarm disciplinarian side, came out softer, gentler—a polite, neighborly request: “Please, leave. I don’t know why you’re here, but you have to go.”

Such reasonability would surely elicit a reasonable response, she thought, and the way the dozen or so people grinned at her, she felt certain that all would be fine.

Just a misunderstanding, as they say. Maybe they’d lost something—a cat, perhaps, up in the trees—or perhaps they were stranded after a bus crash, waiting for a ride home.

Certainly. There were plenty of possible explanations—explanations a person like her lacked the imagination to predict. Besides, weren’t most people better than they seemed? She’d always believed so.

The white-haired man’s smile broadened, and he stared at her as someone might stare at a child who insists on something foolish yet amusing.

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” he said, leading her to expect a debate about the ownership of the field. Before she could argue the point she assumed to be in question, he added, “We’re certainly not here.

She hadn’t expected such a response, and she quickly spat, “Of course you’re here.”

“Really? Look at us—does it look like we’re here?”

“Um, it does. Because you are. I’m staring at you, and you are standing right in front of me, on my property. Where else do you think you are standing?”

“Eventually you’ll realize you’re mistaken. I suppose we’ll bear with you in the meantime.”

“Look, buster, I know where my own damned property line is, okay, so if you think you’ve got some—”

Property line?” he said, and he giggled. “Is that what you call it? Maybe it’s time you took a vacation. To the Bahamas. Clear your ignorant mind.”

“My what?

He addressed the others with a smile. “Anyone else getting sick of this cunt’s problems with reality?”

“What did you call me? Problems with reality? Well! Isn’t this just rich,” she said, angry at the game they were playing. She pointed at a woman to the man’s right. “I suppose you think you’re not here, either?”

“She isn’t,” the white-haired man said.

“I’m not talking to you! Let her answer.”

The woman said, “Let’s not say things we’ll regret later.”

The others moved in closer, forming a tightening semi-circle around Laura.

“Stay back, all of you!” she said.

“We are back,” the man said. “Back and forward. Back to basics. Back in time. Humpback whale.”

“I’m calling the police,” Laura said. “You hear me? I’m calling the police!”

She ran back up the hill. Were they actually laughing behind her? She didn’t turn around to find out.

 

*     *     *

 

One day a few years earlier, she’d caught her husband James in a lie. Even when confronted by the evidence, he’d refused to admit she’d caught him. He’d weaseled and hemmed and hawed long past the point where Laura herself would have caved and admitted everything. When she thought back on the moment, she often wondered if it had been a strategy, or if, at some point in his whole process, he’d managed to actually convince himself of something that wasn’t true.

Either way, it disturbed her. She was a high school math teacher because she took comfort in right answers. Algebraic variables were pockets of uncertainty only until the equations had been solved for x, or y, or z. But there were still rules. There were still right answers.

A few examples of Laura’s discomfort with even the smallest of life’s uncertainties:

 

  1. The day before she confronted the people in her yard, she’d gone to review a book online and found no one else had ever reviewed it. Uncomfortable with such solitude, she’d closed her Internet browser and called her mother about Nate’s cold. They’d spoken at length about how best to treat a child’s case of bronchitis, and she’d hung up an hour later, relieved and calmer than she’d been when she’d picked up the phone.
  2. In her undergraduate expository writing class, she’d won an award. She didn’t understand why; she hated writing and the nebulous nature of words. She took great pains to define her terms and felt that it made her papers frustrating to write and probably just as frustrating to read. Her professor, on the other hand, called her papers precise and praised her clarity of thought.
  3. For her eleventh birthday, someone had given her a choose-your-own-adventure book. She’d read it straight through, cover-to-cover, and been angry with the writer for being so noncommittal. A writer should make solid choices, even when crafting completely fabricated tales.

 

Waiting for the police to arrive, Laura straightened her shirt and fixed her collar in the mirror beside the front door. Earlier, her phone service had worked, and the police had picked up after only the second ring. They’d agreed to come over right away. There was none of that standard horror-movie crap (phone mysteriously dead, cackling operator on the other end of the line, etc., etc). The world was as it was; X still equaled X.

There was a right answer, and she was going to prove it to the creeps in the field. The police would take the trespassers away, and then they’d see.

She paced back through her house to the kitchen window and stared again at the strangers. She failed to notice the way her son’s eyes changed color as he sat at the kitchen table.

Blue to gold, gold to blue, blue to gold, gold to blue.

She failed to even reflect on his presence at the table. Soup slurped, bowl cleared away—Nate had little reason to be there.

She heard tires in the driveway.

X equaled X. The police had arrived.

She went to get the door.

 

*     *     *

 

Standing above them on the field, her arms crossed and her expression one of smug victory, watching the officer talk to each person in turn, noting the cop’s inquisitive and threatening stance, she felt triumphant. The cop wrote things down in a notebook. The people shook their heads. Gesticulated. Pointed up at her.

They’re trying to explain, she thought. Fools.

The cop spent the most amount of time with the white-haired man, talking to him first and then coming back to him after interviewing the others. The man looked angry during his second chat. His face turned red. She thought she heard him say, “No! Absolutely not!”

The cop shrugged off such protestations, made a final note in his notebook, and headed back up the hill.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said once he came within range.

“Crazy, right?” she said. “I told you.”

“I mean, I looked all along the perimeter, ma’am—in the trees, everywhere. There’s no one there. Are you sure you saw someone?”

The world swayed to starboard. She felt like she was going to faint or throw up, she couldn’t tell which. She’d seen him talking to them!

“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you okay?” The policeman reached out for her.

“But I … I saw … you … and … ”

Her mind a Tilt-a-Whirl, bobbing for apples, swooping like a plummeting kite when the wind drops, searching for an explanation, about to crash. Her knees buckled. And—hey, look at that—she really had thrown up: right on the policeman’s trousers and all over his shoes.

No, I didn’t, she thought defiantly, knowing it wasn’t true, knowing—yes, the puke was real, the puke was really hers, she’d done it, guilty as charged—knowing what was real but defying it anyway, because, well—everyone else was doing it, right? It would have made her laugh, but by the time she reached the end of the thought, she’d passed out.

 

*     *     *

 

By the time James arrived home—leaving work early and unsurprisingly taking the cop’s side—the people in the field had moved closer. They stood directly outside the windows, grinning in at Laura, as her husband asked her questions about her mental health.

She pretended they weren’t there. She pretended to be as ridiculously blind as everyone else.

“You sure you don’t want to see someone?” James asked. “I mean, you did have that incident at the grocery store.”

Yes. She knew. She wasn’t the one who couldn’t keep track.

They think I’m crazy. But I’m not. I’m really not. I’m thinking clearly. Look. Clear thoughts! X = X. 2 + 2 = 4. Minus B plus or minus the square root of B-squared minus four A C all over two A. My name is Laura Greenlaw. Today is Friday. I took the day off from work because my son is sick. If everyone loves my baby but my baby loves no one but me, the logical implication is that I am my own baby. THAT’S not insanity, THAT’S logic, and I know the difference because I AM NOT CRAZY!

Her husband was staring at her, knife and fork hovering over his plate. “Laura?”

“What? Look, I saw them … they must have run off when they saw the cop. I don’t know. I guess I just had a simple panic attack, all right?”

“A simple panic attack? A panic attack doesn’t sound simple to me.”

She rolled her eyes. The interrogation continued. She gave few responses. It continued longer. She gave fewer responses.

Eventually, he relented. He accepted what she said, even though her eyes kept darting to the windows, where the white-haired man looked in and drummed his fingers on the glass.

Every time he drummed on the window, her son coughed.

“Sorry,” Nate said, and sipped at a spoonful of tomato soup.

“Don’t forget to drink your water, buddy,” James said.

All Laura could do was stare at the man in the window. Another stranger came to stand beside him, first the one then the other drumming their fingers as her son choked on soup.

How long could anyone put up with such a thing? She abruptly stood up from her chair and glared at the glass.

“Honey,” James said. “What is it? You see someone out there, don’t you?”

The man with the dog looked at me. He looked at me and told me that the cereal I wanted to buy was going to be on sale but that I shouldn’t buy it because it was full of bugs. He told me I would know because the box would be cut. Along the top, he said. I should look for it. And I ran. I ran from him, and I went and I got my cereal and it WAS on sale and the box WAS cut … but there were no bugs after all and I was relieved and scared all at once. I bought it anyway, just to spite him. I could still hear the dog barking while I was in the store, but when I got back out he was gone, the man in the pink shirt was gone, and now there are people outside the house. I am not crazy. SOMETHING WEIRD IS HAPPENING IN THIS TOWN! It was Nate’s cereal. Two days after he started eating it, he got sick, and I had to tell someone. I had to tell James. I’m not crazy. There is something outside and it’s trying to kill my son. It put the bugs in his lungs and now he can’t breathe. It’s a DEMON and it wants my son. Or maybe it already has him and it’s coming for me. It’s trying to make me—

“Excuse me,” she said, her tone flat and unconvincing. “I have to go to the bathroom. Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.”  

“Honey?”

She ignored her husband, turned, and walked out the front door.

 

*     *     *

 

She ran. Down the porch, cutting across the driveway to the woodshed, she reached a stack of wood and ducked behind it, out of sight. The front door opened. James called out for her. She stayed quiet. The front door closed.

The yellow handle of a maul beside the entrance to the shed caught her eye. She went to it. She picked it up. She hefted it. It was a pleasing weight.

Now they won’t show themselves, she thought. Now I won’t be able to find them. Poof! Vanished, as soon as she finds a weapon. You’ll see. It always works that way.

She exited the shed. The white-haired man stood before her, in front of the others, picking lint from his cuff.

“You,” she said.

“You,” he replied.

“You made my son sick!”

“You know you don’t really have a son.”

“Stop lying! I know I have a son! I know you’re here. I know what I can see, and I know I have a son!”

“You know a lot concerning this phrase ‘I know,’ don’t you?” he said. The others chuckled behind him. One of them even blew a raspberry for no discernable reason. There were more of them now. It had become a gathering; at least fifty strange people stood in her driveway, and more were walking up the road.

“Get away from my house,” she said. “All of you.”

“Get away from my house,” he replied. “Just the one of you.”

“I’m going to kill you, I swear it!”

“THAT PRAISE YOU, I HEAL FROM COMING YOU’LL!”

She screamed.

He laughed.

She raised the maul. “So you’re not here, huh? Yeah? Well, then maybe we’ll just find out what happens if I swing this axe. What would you think about that?”

He bent his head. Said, “Magnificent. I accept your offer.”

It was enough to make her do it. She swung. And swung. And swung.

He fell. And bled. And laughed—like a man being tickled. If she could have done anything, she would have stopped his ridiculous laughing. In lieu of that, she bashed his brains in.

“Mommy!” her son screamed from the front door. Light spilled out around both him and her husband. (Funny—she hadn’t heard it open again.) “What are you doing? Mommy, stop it!”

“I don’t­—,” she started, and then she stopped. She didn’t … what?

Or maybe I do … ?

She watched her husband put a hand over their son’s eyes and pull him back inside.

Laura let the maul fall to the ground beside the laughing man, who was still laughing even as the blood oozed from his ruined skull. The others had disappeared and left him. It was just the two of them now, and, somehow, the man looked different. Fatter, maybe? With all the blood, she couldn’t be certain, but … was his hair even white? Who was he?

Who was the corpse on her lawn?

She put a hand over her mouth.

What if he’s not … what if … ? Oh no … it’s all slipping, my mind is slippery, my mind is slippy, she thought.

What had she done? What had she done really? And why had Nate’s eyes been gold?

She didn’t know, and, as time passed and her son continued to shriek somewhere beyond the still open but now empty doorway, she knew less and less. The walls of the world expanded, dissolved, and left her wondering: was she anywhere near the place she thought she was?

And if not there, then where, exactly, was she? What couldn’t she see?

Everything was variable. X didn’t equal X; X was X. It represented everything that wasn’t anything—everything unnamable and indescribable, that was X.

The abyss bloomed inside her, a shadow of a flower that had never been planted, never had a seed, yet grew infinite and unstoppable.

She reached up, pressed the tips of her fingers into her eyes, and started to claw them out. All she wanted

(claw, claw, claw)

—all she wanted was to see. 

This summer, I submitted a new short story, “Variable,” for the How Stuff Works writing contest. Of the 104 valid submissions, “Variable” was selected as one of the sixteen stories to go head-to-head in a bracket-style competition. It’s naturally my hope that you’ll all go and vote for “Variable,” but really — you should just go and check out the stories and vote for whichever you feel is best.

Here’s the link: http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2012/09/09/read-the-sweet-16-horror-fiction-contest-entries-here-2/

Many thanks for those who take the time to vote!

3x6 Cover

3x6: A Collection of Three Stories

To say thank you to everyone who bought and read my collection, I Held My Breath as Long as I Could, I’m pleased to offer a very short bonus collection of three 600-words-or-less short stories, 3×6. Included are:

“A Life of Their Own”: Satan’s latest attempt to get a child hits a snag.

“Embrace the Ground”: A vicious alien allows a man a last glimpse at the home in which he grew up.

“The Art of the Dead”: A man attends the funeral of a good friend.

These were all written as entries in Lulu.com’s recent short story contest. Since Amazon.com refuses to allow me to sell anything for free, I’ve chosen to publish this through Lulu, and to simply give away copies of the ebook (in .mobi format for Kindle and Kindle Fire and .epub for iPad, iPhone, and Nook) from my own website.

Hope you enjoy these!

Got another one in the rejected-by-McSweeney’s and the 600-words-or-less department. There really shouldn’t have been room for overlap there, since McSweeneys.net does not do short stories, as I was told this morning when the piece was rejected.

Oh well. This one is funny.

Available on Lulu.com now, assuming, once again, that it will eventually make its way to Amazon and others.

 

Embrace the Ground

Looks like I’m going to bail on NaNoWriMo plans this year. Sorry to say it, but the ideas just weren’t there this year. Rather than force a half-baked idea, I’ve decided to focus on some short story goals and editing Ed at Eleven.

As far as the short stories go, I’ve set my sights on publication in Cemetery Dance and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And then there’s my McSweeneys.net project, where every week I send them a new submission as soon as they reject the previous one (in my head, I call this “Andy Dufresne-ing” the editors).

Last night, I noticed there’s a contest on Lulu.com for the month of November. Publish a 600-words-or-less story through Lulu, and you can enter their short story contest. Prize is a Nook and $500. I figured I might as well, since I Held My Breath as Long as I Could featured a lot of stories around that length, and I’ve sort of gotten used to the format. Last night, I submitted my first entry, “Embrace the Ground,” available now for free on Lulu. Presumably it will eventually find its way to Amazon and iTunes. In the meantime, keep checking back here for news on additional free stories. I’m aiming to write somewhere around five of these pieces this month. Little snacks for the faithful (e)readers out there.

Drunken nightWe had to go in Uncle Joe’s beat-to-shit wagon be­cause the alternator went in my dad’s Chevy. I didn’t like it. It meant we’d be riding with Uncle Joe the whole way, listening to him bullshit about his life. Knew I’d get stuck in the back with his damned husky. The mangy thing smelled and was too eager to be loved. I’d shove it away, but it would always come back, the same dumb grin on its face every time.

We were going to Connecticut because my grandfather died. We got off to a late start, which put Uncle Joe in a bad mood. He yelled at other drivers, yelled at his car, yelled at my dad. My dad tried to smile and brush it off, looked for some way to make it pleasant—but all he got from Uncle Joe for that were these suspi­cious stares.

Then there was the light from the sun, all faint and nostalgic, with golden rays of late evening lighting up every damned leaf in the woods. People in school always get im­pressed when I know words like “nos­talgic.” They say, “Oh, he’s so smart. Wouldn’t think it, would you?” These little brats from their big houses com­ing up to me all the time, wearing their fucking clothes they just bought yesterday. I’m wearing dirty jeans and a secondhand tee-shirt passed down from whatever scumbag in my fam­ily got tired of Aerosmith. The rich shits tell me I could be all smart like them, and it’s supposed to feel good.

Truth was, that day, I was feeling good—really good—and what I hated most about that trip with my father and uncle, right from the start, was that all I wanted to do was call Helen Plum, who told me I was sweet the afternoon before we left. Sweet and smart, she said. I only nod­ded, but an hour later, I was in love with her. Hell yeah. Helen Plum. I looked up her number while my dad was in the kitchen putting half-emp­ty bottles of booze into a backpack. I was going through the Plums in the book, trying to figure out the one for Helen’s family. Mom was on the couch, smoking cigarettes and watching me. She didn’t usually take much notice of things. Just sat there all day on the couch. She was sick. Sick of perpetual shame is what I think, but I’d never say that to her.

She said, “Whatcha doing, Jasper?”

I said, “Nothing, Mom. Just looking up someone’s number.”

“Whose number?”

“Helen Plum’s.”

“Who’s that?”

“You remember her. She came by last week­end. Short hair, dyed purple.” The girl I was talking about was named Ariel something. She’d just moved to our nasty little part of Nashua. My mother nodded. I knew she wouldn’t know the name. Also knew she’d like the thought of a purple-haired girl whose last name was Plum.

She took another drag. There were only three Plums listed, and only one was local. I wrote the number on a piece of foil torn from a pack of GPCs. My heart got light because the phone on the coffee table was right there in front of me. The challenger’s stare.

“You ready, Jasper?”

Obviously not.

But it was just my father, ready to go, not the phone taunting me, and I knew that. But I thought it was funny, all the same–the timing, you know? Through the living room window, I could see Uncle Joe’s car idling in the driveway. Uncle Joe smoked a ciga­rette and slapped his dog in the face. The dog looked like it was grinning, en­joying getting smacked like that.

Finally I said, “Yeah.” Flipped the phone book closed. I tucked the number in the breast pocket of my flannel, and that was that.

*     *     *

Stifled in the dark car, cigarette smoke curling under my nose, I felt dry. My dad and uncle were filling me with their own nastiness. Uncle Joe talked about my Aunt Nora. He’d renamed the dog Nora after my aunt divorced him a year ago. Even though she’d been living in Tennessee for a good six months, he still had stories to tell about how she was an awful bitch who was ruining his life. Thank God he’d broken free. Uncle Joe pounded the top of his car with his fist in triumph, and my father laughed. Smiled. Told Uncle Joe how he hated the sight of my mother’s na­ked body.

“Man, I can’t help but laugh. She puts on these cheap little numbers and tries to dance around like she was some kind of sexy bitch working at Guenevere’s. Then she gets all upset when I tell her to get her fucking clothes back on, but whatever, man. She ain’t no fucking Julia Rob­erts. She ain’t nothing but a tired, old fat-body with bad teeth that I have to keep feeding.”

The dog was beside me, and it pissed me off. It was lapping my face and whin­ing. Then it looked at me with that sad face dogs get, as though I could do some­thing for it. I tried to get it to lie down, but it wouldn’t. It paced about, climbed around—never comfortable.

“Having fun back there, Jasper?” my uncle said. He smiled at me in the mirror. “Dog’s a bitch, ain’t she? I love it. C’mere, Nora.”

The dog jumped up be­tween the front seats. It tried to climb over Uncle Joe’s shoulder. It nudged his arm, and the car swerved. Uncle Joe shoved Nora into the back again. The dog fell into the narrow space between my knees and the back of my father’s seat. It managed to climb out with a little work. Then it stared at me again. It shifted its weight back and forth between its two front legs and resumed its whimpering.

*     *     *

We made it to the motel in Connecticut by seven o’clock. The funeral was set for two o’clock the next day. A plan formed. They’d drink in the room until eleven and then head out to the bars. They’d get me in, of course. I was sixteen, but in my fam­ily, that was just a number—a part of someone else’s law.

We threw our bags in a small closet in the motel, and Uncle Joe sent me and my father out for liquor. He said he wanted to make a telephone call. One guess as to who it was he wanted to call and why he wanted us gone.

Out in the hallway, I asked my dad, “You think I could maybe make a call later?”

“Who to?”

“Someone from school.”

“We’ll see.”

He didn’t need to say more. No money of my own. I’d done the forms for a few job places, but no one had called me back yet. Dad blamed that on me, too. It was typical. So I was still dependent on handouts, and I’d heard all my dad’s long-distance speeches enough times to know I wouldn’t be making the call to Helen Plum from the motel room.

But wait until we were back in Nashua? Hell with that. There was this silly sense in me that I had to do it as soon as possible—some­thing my dad and Uncle Joe would’ve called lust. Sure, whatever. I really didn’t care what it was. Just wanted to call Helen, and wanting something like that made me feel bet­ter, like there was a shield protecting me from all their shit making me less there somehow.

My dad made me carry the booze so he could smoke. I was pretty well pissed off by the time we got back to the For­tunate Rest Motel. The ‘U’ in ‘For­tunate’ was blinking on and off, and that helped me out a bit. It seemed funny—though not enough for me to explain it all to Dad when he asked what I was grinning about.

Uncle Joe looked out at the road as he smoked a cigarette and paced back and forth in front of the window in Room 63.

“You get us something good, Freddy? Hope you didn’t listen to your son and get those wine coolers.” He grinned at that.

“That’s right, Uncle Joe,” I said. “But I’m still waiting for you to re­turn the ones I shoved up your ass two months ago. Still getting off on them, or what?”

Uncle Joe made a face of mocked shock. “What a naughty boy you got there, Freddy. He’s getting better with the comebacks.”

“Yeah, he’s a wiseass,” my dad said. “Want a beer there, Joe?”

Uncle Joe left his eyes on me for another second and a half.

*     *     *

Sometimes, that first beer still seems like a choice. By the time we left Room 63, I’d had three. Generosity abounds when they’re trying to turn you into an alcoholic. Phone calls, forget it. Want beer? Hell, sure—and then they’ll even take you out to a bar.

We left Nora and set off. When the bouncer at the first bar refused my entrance, we went to another place, which wouldn’t let Uncle Joe in because he was wearing sneakers. My dad had to hold Uncle Joe back from the bouncer.

“That faggot would’ve loved Dad,” Uncle Joe said, itching to go back to the no-sneakers bar. “Fucking asshole never wore nothing but those damned shit-kickers.”

By which he meant Grandpa Bel­don’s cowboy boots. You see, “dead” never implied “respectable” to my family. Some people had to die, and more than a few were better off that way. I never really knew my grandfather. Just knew that he screwed up Dad and Uncle Joe to the point where they never talked. Well, they never talked to him. They always talked about him. I knew the whole story. How my grandfather used to have a constant supply of younger women. How he’d spend all his time and money on the other women and their kids instead of his own. In one of my father’s wiser drunken moments, he said my grandfather had never managed to fully become a man. My father’s reason was that Grandpa Beldon would see a young girl on the street and think of her as a sex object rather than a daughter-type figure.

“The man was all fuck and no nur­ture,” my dad had said. “A cowboy, maybe, but not a father.”

Uncle Joe spat on the sidewalk and moaned. “I can’t believe the asshole’s finally dead. You know how long it’s been since he offered to send me any mon­ey? Fourteen goddamned years!”

The fourth bar let us all in. It’s im­pressive to see the swift change from a drunk, father-hating man into a drunk, chauvinist pig. Uncle Joe walked through the doorway, and a glow washed over his angry face, the doorframe siphoning off his former venom.

“Look at all the sexy babies in here, Freddy,” Uncle Joe said, taking his place at the bar. “Jasper, get up here beside me. I need your opinion on something. Barman, three pints of Bud, por fa­vor.”

I did as I was told. We sat around the side of the bar, as near as possible to the end. A pay phone beckoned from the wall on Uncle Joe’s right. I sat on his left. He lit a cigarette. Nodded his head to the Black Sabbath song playing from the jukebox across the room.

“Fucking good music. I don’t un­derstand the shit they come out with now. This is where it’s at,” he said.

“Bunch of whiny brats singing today,” Dad said. “Staring at their shoes.”

“Amen,” said Uncle Joe. “You like this music, Jasper?”

“Sure.”

He slapped me on the back. “You’re an all right kid. I’m glad you’re here. So listen, I have to ask you: You think a woman on the face of the earth ever made a guy happy?”

I thought of Helen and didn’t say anything. Raised my eyebrows and drew my coat tighter around me. Beers came. I caught the look the bar­tender gave me, but I kept focused on Uncle Joe.

“No,” Uncle Joe said. “And I’ll tell you why. It’s because they don’t want to make any of us happy. They just want to run us into the ground. I don’t expect you to understand this yet, but the secret is to beat them to the punch. Sooner or later, it comes down to who goes for the jugular first. Know what I mean?”

I nodded but didn’t agree. Kept trying to hang on to the image of Helen in the bleachers in the school gym. Just the two of us, talking be­cause she’d wanted to. Such a sur­prise. I imagined her now reading a book in a well-made bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, listening to quiet music on a small radio beside her. Uncle Joe punched me in the shoulder.

“Take my ex-wife for exam­ple,” Uncle Joe said, like it was some great shock he’d bring her up. “She had me convinced, yeah? I was all in love, doing all the right shit. Wasn’t I, Freddy?”

“You were,” my dad said.

“And what happened? She fucking divorces me! Breaks it off, steals my money, heads off to Tennessee with some goddamned lawyer.”

He was leaning in really close to my face. My natural reflex was to back away, but I knew that Uncle Joe just would’ve come closer. He was trying to read me. Trying to make sure I was listening and buying his shit. A part of me didn’t want to make him feel stupid, so I made my face stay where it was. Even if I knew he was about as dense as they come, there was still no point in piss­ing him off.

“I don’t know,” he continued, backing away slightly to take a drag on his cigarette. “Point is, you have to be cruel to be kind, because the only one you can look after and take care of is you. You reading me here? Because I’m only gonna say this once.”

I was full of hope that I’d only hear this sermon preached once. Knew I’d probably get at least one encore.

“So we’ve got a mission tonight, Jasper. Know what that mission is?”

I shook my head. Braced myself.

“Tell him, Freddy.”

My father leaned in across the bar. “The three of us are all going to get a nice, round, juicy piece of ass. All of us.”

Uncle Joe smiled and blew smoke out at the bar. He punched me again in the shoulder, this time a little hard­er. “How’s that sound? Pretty god­damned good, yeah? You been laid, Jasper?”

“Yeah,” I said, surprising myself with the defensive tone of my voice.

“How many times?”

I faltered in my lie. Just for a sec­ond. “Three times.”

“Three times, huh? Not bad. Fred­dy, you know your kid was screw­ing?”

“Should. Goddamned whores make so much damned noise it’s hard to sleep nights.” My dad winked at me then. Uncle Joe noticed and gave me a nudge.

“Well, then, you’re going to get laid again tonight. Sound good?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Jesus fuck, Freddy,” Uncle Joe said. “He don’t look all that excited, does he?”

“Think he’s a skeptic, Joe. Doesn’t believe you.”

“Guess I’d better get to work con­vincing him.”

“Guess you’d better.”

Uncle Joe slipped from the bar­stool. “Allow me,” he said and went toward the other end of the room.

I looked at the exposed pay phone. I turned to my dad. He smiled at me.

“Going to be a good night, kid­do.”

“Could I make a phone call, do you think?”

“Why?”

It was such a desperate move. I wasn’t even thinking about how Helen’s family would’ve reacted to a phone call from a lovesick, boozed-up sixteen-year-old kid at midnight, who just couldn’t wait until normal business hours to proclaim his slurred passion.

“Just want to call a girl,” I said.

“Ah, so that’s it. Well, I don’t think you need to waste any money on that. We’ll have all the ass you could want in just a little while. Relax, have a beer. You don’t look drunk enough yet.”

He put his arm around my shoul­ders.

“You’re my son, Jasper,” he said. “I love you like a brother. Whatever you want, just say the word. Your Uncle Joe and I got you covered. Want a smoke?”

I hesitated for a second, but then I thought better and took one. He lit it. I coughed. My dad grinned. I waited. Stared at the burning tip.

*     *     *

Eventually, Uncle Joe flagged us over to where he stood be­tween three women. Pale faces and gray eyes, the mascara making them look even more disfigured and uninteresting. They looked shrunken, despite a general heftiness—like par­tially deflated balloons.

“Jasper, Freddy, I want you to meet Vicky, Gina, and Diane,” Uncle Joe said. “They’re out for the night be­cause their old men don’t know what they got. Isn’t that right, girls?”

“That’s right,” Vicky said. The oth­er two smiled at me and my dad.

“So this must be Jasper, huh?” Gina said. At about thirty, she seemed the youngest. I stared at her navel. It rode a wave of flesh that curled around the waistband of her cutoffs. A smiley-face patch, smeared with mustard, had been stitched above the right-hand pocket. “Your Uncle Joe here’s been telling us all about you. Good student, he says.”

“That’s right,” my dad said. “Smart­er than all of us combined. Just ap­plied to Harvard.”

“No shit,” Vicky said. She shook her head. “That’s fantastic. Glad to know someone’s doing something good with their life.”

It goes without saying that I’d ap­plied nowhere fancier than the local pizza place. But I smirked. It was somewhat fun to play the part of the genius that I wasn’t.

After that, a motion was made and passed to head back to the mo­tel where the liquor was cheaper. During the long walk, Gina, tummy rolling, stuck beside me. Uncle Joe waltzed up the sidewalk, his hand on Vicky’s ass. My father had his arm around draped around Diane.

When we got back to the motel, my dad told me to take Nora for a walk. Would’ve been okay if Gina hadn’t followed me out. She smoked a cigarette against the wall of the motel while Nora took her sweet old time.

“Pretty dog,” she said. “Could use a bath, though, huh?”

True. But then, Nora had needed a bath ever since Uncle Joe brought her home. I couldn’t remember Nora clean. Always dirty. Always reeking of Uncle Joe’s apartment.

“Pretty cool to get in a bar at your age, huh?” Gina said. “How old are you? Eighteen? I remember being eighteen. Christ, we all went every­where.”

“Sixteen.”

“Sixteen, Jesus!” Gina whistled. “Your dad and uncle are pretty cool guys, huh?”

“Guess so.”

“Your dad’s a sexy man. Looks like you boys were cut from good stock, huh?” She took a step toward me, smiling in sync with the patch on her shorts. I held Nora’s leash and tried to focus all my attention on the dog. Then Gina took another step, and I saw her hand move toward me.

“Just shut up, would you?” I said. She was worse than the fucking dog. Nora took a piss and I pulled her back up the stairs to the room. Gina followed, graciously not saying another igno­rant word and keeping her distance.

Back inside, Uncle Joe cuddled with Vicky, and my father stretched out beside Diane. Any chance of a halfway decent night’s sleep dissolved.

“Gina, come sit,” Uncle Joe said. He moved over. She sat on his right, Vicky on his left. The TV was on. They were watching late-night HBO. I didn’t know the movie. Two people were having sex—that much was clear. I took a seat on the floor in front of my father’s bed. He tapped my head with his dirty toes.

“Get up here, Jasper. Stop being so grumpy.”

They made space for me beside Diane. We were all on top of the cov­ers to begin with. It didn’t last. Diane said she was cold, and my dad worked his blankets out to allow her to crawl beneath.

“Jasper, go get us some ice,” my father said.

I got off the bed, crossed the room, and headed for the door. Trying not to look. On my way out, I caught a glimpse of my uncle between the two other women. Vicky already had her shirt off, and Uncle Joe’s hands were working on unhook­ing her bra. I left the room, out of breath by the time the door closed again.

I realized I hadn’t grabbed the ice bucket. Fuck it, though. They hadn’t wanted ice, and even if they had, I certainly wasn’t going to be their errand boy. I walked down the carpeted stairwell, through the lobby, and out the front door. On my way to Cal­ifornia, I guess. I craved so much distance between myself and what was behind me. Couldn’t even think about it. Just had to go.

I came up on another pay phone. I took a seat on the grass beside it and looked across the road. There was a train station up a ways. I tried to think about other places. I’d never been to another place long enough to get a sense of it, so I thought about Nashua, once ranked one of the best towns in the United States, one of my teachers had said. I wonder if whatever magazine had said that had met us.

My arms were shaking. My legs stiffened as the cold air seeped through the fabric of my jeans and my thin shirt. I wanted to be in bed back home.

I stood up and leaned against the pay phone. I rested my head against the cold metal. Looked at the silver numbers, the black receiver. Looked at the little blurb that had that big 35-cents-for-a-local-call thing. Too bad I wanted long distance. I couldn’t even call a cab. I stared at the eye-level text and felt like I was drowning.

But I couldn’t let myself think like that, so I said fuck it and walked back to the motel. When I crept through the door, I closed my eyes but couldn’t close my ears. Heard my father moan­ing “Aw, Gina, yeah. Uh-huh, just like that,” sounding like the asshole from the movie they’d been watching earlier. I went in the bathroom, closed the door, and crept into the corner beside the toilet. I heard a whimper. Finally noticed Nora in the dark corner beside the tub. She raised her head for a mo­ment and then went to sleep. I tucked my jacket behind my head and tried to do the same.

I waited for morning—awake, aware, and bored of my racing heart.

*     *     *

The light brightened in the window above my head. I really hate the sun. It never makes me feel good. And that fuck­ing bathroom! Out of all the hotels and motels I’ve ever stayed in, that was the only one that ever had a win­dow in the bathroom. What ridicu­lous bad luck. It was a gray morning, and those are the worst for me. I feel the price tag of everything. I look at my clothes, my skin, and I think of what it all cost and how the dream my mother had had a long time ago must have been so different. In that motel, it was all gray, cold light—light that would come from a corpse’s hide. I didn’t even have a watch to check the time and chart my progress toward the end of it all.

It was this curiosity that finally got the better of me. I opened the door to the bathroom and went out into the room. Didn’t see a clock, so I went around the bed to see if my dad had taken off his watch and left it on the nightstand.

Gina was gone. One down. Thank God it was her. I didn’t want to see her face with our recent history crusted on her eyes. Uncle Joe slept with Vicky, who drooled on the pil­low. Uncle Joe had his mouth hang­ing open like he was singing a song.

My dad’s watch was where I thought it would be. I checked the time. It was 10:09. My dad was snor­ing on Diane’s naked breasts.

His wallet was beside his watch. When I set the Timex down, I picked up the worn billfold. He had a ten, a five, and three ones. I took the five, put the wallet back, and walked out into the hall.

There were phones in the lobby, but I didn’t have any coins. The kid behind the desk looked at me funny when I asked for change, so I told him to forget it. I walked until I found a convenience store. The world moved around me. Other people seemed translucent and unreal, distortions of an unrested head.

I bought a thing of orange juice and asked for all quarters back, no bills please and thank you. The big man behind the counter didn’t want to do it. I could tell. He made the change, though. I like to think of him as a saint for that.

The pay phone was on the side of the building. I took out Helen’s number. Opened the orange juice and drank some. It tasted good, like sunshine from a better place. I sat down. Took the change out of my pocket and looked it over. Old and new coins, all silver. I finished the or­ange juice and set the bottle on the ground beside me, then stood up and faced the phone. I took the receiver from the cradle and dialed the num­ber.

“This call requires a minimum de­posit of two dollars and seventy-five cents.”

I deposited all the coins and closed my eyes, turned away from the phone, and fell against the concrete wall of the store. The phone on the other end rang. She would be getting out of bed, I thought, the light in her bedroom clear and bright—not from the fickle sun, but from the inner exuberance of every object around her. The top of my head lifted off its hinges.

“Hell–”

I hung up. Replaced the receiver in the cradle, the black plastic slipping against my moist palm.

It’s not what you think. You think I was a coward—that that was why I couldn’t do it. But it’s not like that. I hung up because I couldn’t bear the thought of talking to Helen Plum. I couldn’t handle liking her anymore. Didn’t want her eyes on me. Didn’t want her ears to be polluted by the wretched whine of my voice. Hated the thought of hearing myself talk to her.

I left the rest of the coins and the orange juice bottle on top of the phone and went back to the motel.

*     *     *

Nora was waiting behind the door when I got back. I took her outside again, and when she finished, we went back up­stairs to the room. She was hungry. I could tell. The way she looked at me. Nuzzled me. Just like always. But I had no food. I cursed myself for leav­ing the money. I could have bought her something if I’d been thinking of anything except myself, but now I was too tired to steal more money and walk back to the conve­nience store.

I went into the bathroom. The dog followed me. I turned on the light to get rid of all the gray. I saw the un­used motel soap and shampoo, and I remembered what Gina had said the night before about the dog. I remem­bered how cold I’d been to Gina. She’d smiled at me. She’d thought there’d been something possible. But what? I was sixteen. It dawned on me then that perhaps she’d wanted to be the instructive older woman in my life. A saucy little adventure on my way to manhood. But I’d denied her. For a moment, I felt really awful about my earlier angst. But whatever. She’d had her fun, hadn’t she? I put it behind me.

I poured Nora a bath, not knowing if dogs preferred hot or cold. I made it hot. That’s what I’d been taught to do, and if it was good enough for me, it was good enough for Nora.

I picked her up and put her in the tub. She resisted for a while, but I told her to calm down. “Everything will be fine,” I said. “Everything is great.” A noisy eighteen-wheeler rolled by out­side, and it freaked her out. I spoke as soothingly as I knew how.

She settled down, and I did the best I could with what was there. I rubbed the soap into her fur, getting a thin lather. Then the shampoo. Then the soap again. Then the rest of the shampoo.

I used every towel on the rack to dry her. I wanted her to shine. She seemed happy while I dried her off. She kept licking my face. I put up with it.

After throwing the last hand towel into the pile of dirty, wet towels, I bent close to Nora’s neck and smelled her.

Under the layer of new soapy-smell, all the old filth was still there. She seemed happy enough, but I could still smell it. All of it. Close to the skin, ground into the pores.

I stood up and looked into the tub. The soap seemed to have never exist­ed. The water was a gray murk with bits of dirt floating on the surface. Transfixed for a moment, I tracked the path of a tiny, busted twig.

Other stories have better endings, but not mine. Some people probably end up standing up to their fathers. Not me. I wasn’t built for confrontation, and that morning wasn’t the day that things magically changed. That was the morning I didn’t call Helen Plum.

Instead, I looked down at my Aerosmith shirt, which had originally been my cousin Ray’s, and I took it off. I kicked my nine-dollar sneakers into the cor­ner. I took off my dirty, torn jeans, my socks with the holes in the heels, and my cheap boxer shorts with the crotch falling out from too much wear and tear. I shed it all.

Then I stepped into the bathtub still filled with the filth of the dog, sat down, laid back, plugged my nose and closed my eyes, and I went under. I held my breath as long as I could.

The FieldLike most towns in the area, Enoch bred adultery.

For Clyde Eastman, such miserable spawn was born late in August of 1980, when he worked for Mannings Market far out in the swamps of Route 9. On the way home from visiting both local bars that Wednesday night (a little early in the week for him, but he made exceptions on nights he discovered his wife was cheating on him), Clyde’s course changed unexpectedly.

Beyond the Daveneau farmhouse, two-thirds the distance down the access road toward the Interstate, he drove his ‘73 Chrysler into the middle of a large, untended field. Only that much was an accident. As soon as he lost the road, he decided to agree with the direction his car was heading in. He pumped the gas pedal and ground the vehicle through bristly weeds and a generous peppering of granite rocks. Dirt spun up from the tires and speckled the window beside his head. The car’s prow tipped right over the top of a small hill, and the tires lost their grip. The large automobile slid sideways on a slick carpet of mud and came to rest in the mutt child of more serious ponds. A crooning boulder pinned the passenger door shut. Clyde watched the trees fifty yards in front of him shake fists at each other, and he decided to stay a while.

He spent ten minutes switching between radio stations; all the songs sounded wrong. He scanned the airwaves until he found a voice he liked: a deep baritone, light on its toes. He didn’t catch the sense of the words, but he nodded his head to the gentle words vibrating through the old speakers.

He pulled the tab off a can of Pabst and guzzled, thinking it was a damned lucky thing he’d stopped for the beer before all this happened.

Most of his other thoughts were spent on Audrey and her preschool teacher: what positions they liked; how she might’ve sighed with him on top of her. He pictured the man’s shoulders and the back of his neck, saw beads of sweat at the hairline—he couldn’t help it. He figured there was no way his mind was coming off the subject that night, so he ran with it, revving the engine, digging the tires deeper into the muck. He saw his wife dominated and loving every second of it. Moaning, groaning, grinding the gas—goddamn, but he heard it under the radio’s mumbling voices—all the words of the throaty language of fulfillment. It only got worse as more cans wound up empty at his feet.

The voice on the radio gave way to a noisy rock song, and Clyde turned the knob to shut it up. He bowed his head and hummed with the Chrysler’s running engine. Then he saw Audrey’s trampled copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions in the neighboring foot well. They’d been really into that a while back. Magic, souls, and messiahs—Clyde laughed, and because his laugh defined the empty space even as it filled it, Clyde made a sound in his throat that was angry and sad—the cry of a creature with no way out of the clamped teeth of its snapped trap.

Lifting his head back up, he saw the field. The glow of his headlights held the darker shadows of the forest at bay. He knew Audrey would worry. But let her, he told himself. Let her be riddled with guilt. Her anxieties might keep the preschool teacher away from his spoils for a day or two. He watched a cloud approach the moon.

In less than an hour, a shovel, plunged into the back of his neck, would divide his head from his body. Such an event was far from his mind as he sat and tracked movement in the night sky.

*     *     *

On the other side of the field three men stood under the trees and watched Clyde’s chugging car. One of them, Bub Jendreau, had witnessed Clyde’s arrival in the field and brought the others.

The leader of the trio said nothing. Jimmy Beetle was an aging man somewhere between sixty and eighty years old, hollowing out under thick, flannel clothes. The headlights’ reach ended inches from the tips of his black boots. He slowly pulled down the last two inches of his cigar. He hadn’t shaved in a week or been home in a month. The last time he’d gone in his front door, his wife Mabel had groaned, thrown down her book, and locked herself in the bathroom until he left.

He now spent his days in a one-room hunting cabin jammed into a rising hill twenty feet behind where he stood. Beetle owned the cabin, which he’d inherited from his grandfather, the field, and a four-hundred-fifty-acre trapezoidal wedge of forest and swamp between the Interstate Access Road and the Penobscot River.

The two men behind Beetle waited for a plan.

“What is this guy, do you think?” he finally said. He pressed the last of the cigar into the grass.

“How do you know it’s a guy?” Bub Jendreau asked. He pointed at the slanting front of the Chrysler. “Could be anything.”

“Anything?” Beetle looked back and scowled. He waited for Bub to avert his eyes, but the fool never did. He’d been coming to the cabin for years. It didn’t matter that no one liked him. Joe Beldon plucked the blaze orange cap from Bub’s head and threw it into the woods.

“Hey!” Bub said, and before he could go back to get it, Beetle motioned the men forward.

“Well, come on,” he said.

The Chrysler’s door opened as Beetle made it to the fender. Clyde came out, already half unzipped. Beetle clicked on a flashlight, and steam from Clyde’s hot urine rose in the beam. Clyde swatted at the air.

“Aw, Christ!” he said. “Get that out of my face!”

Beetle kept it on him. “My name’s Jimmy Beetle. This is private property. What’s your name, kid?”

“First off—what are you, a cop? Anyway, I’m thirty-two years old, so I don’t want to hear no more of that kid shit. Secondly…”

Clyde turned and pissed on Beetle’s boots.

“Ha!” he said and wagged his prick.

There were many things that drew people to Jimmy Beetle’s cabin: Some came for the booze, others for the aging pornography piled under the eaves, but most came for the drugs. Beetle had grown marijuana on his land for years, which created a symbiotic, encouraging relationship between land, company, and money. Beetle didn’t worry about much, and it was this self-possessed calm that held the greatest attraction for others as they spent more time with him. The drugs were only drugs; it was Beetle’s lifestyle that enticed the most repeat business. Though an entrepreneur of sorts, he was not an ambitious man. He spent his money sparingly and lived on the ragged edge of Enoch with as little as possible. His choice to live in apparent squalor made those who couldn’t help living in actual squalor feel less forsaken. Beetle laced his drugs with the righteous vindication of poverty, and those who followed him said he defied the System. Capital letters plagued their descriptions of him. He was a Wizard, a Leader, a Prophet; the pollen of cheap spirituality and mysticism clung to him. Beetle knew what he was and what he wasn’t, but he recognized what he had to be for the people who came to him in need of a Wise Man on the Mountain.

The downside was that they then expected great things from him when strangers pissed on his boots. He glanced back at Joe’s hard face in the shadows behind Bub—both of them acting like audience members before a puppet show.

Beetle sized Clyde up. Thirty-two, he’d said. Maybe if he was lucky, thought Beetle. The baby cheeks, rising and yeasty under the thick, brown hair, made Beetle think of a man half-finished. Beetle frowned at his wet boot.

“You’re a young one, Thirty-Two,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

Clyde waved to his car. “Getting drunk. What’s it look like?”

“You ought to do that somewhere else. This is my field. Legally, I could shoot you.”

“Yeah?” Clyde said. He seemed to be trying to figure out if Beetle was joking. “Go ahead. Shoot me. What do I care? My damned wife—she’s probably getting schooled right now. That preschool teacher. So I get drunk. What’s the problem, man?” Clyde said, lapsing into a friendlier tone. “You got a nice field for it, actually. Where’s your house?”

Beetle thought a moment. He grabbed Clyde by the shoulder. “I’ll show you. Come on. Take you on a walk. It’ll be good. You’ll see.”

“Hell, yeah, that’s a good idea!” Clyde said. “Fuck it. Let’s get lost!”

“Well,” Beetle said, as though speaking to a child at a carnival, “we’ll see.”

Beetle led the group back, but he did not go in the direction of his cabin. If anyone had asked him what he thought he was doing taking Clyde into the woods that night, Beetle would’ve told them he thought it was expected of him. For lack of something better, Beetle would make a practical joke out of Clyde. Why not? They’d been terrorizing Mabel for years, and nothing too awful had ever happened.

*     *     *

Later, with Clyde Eastman’s corpse stuck in a steamer trunk, his head and legs hacked off, Beetle eased himself down onto a large rock. The pot he’d smoked earlier had worn off, but so much less was clear to him now. His pants were soaked, he was lost in a four-hundred-acre swamp, and Thirty-Two was dead but not yet buried.

Four hundred and fifty acres he owned—barely ten of them were good for logging. He’d thought—and now it looked like he’d been wrong—that in the middle of the waterlogged part there was a bunch of drier land where they could’ve buried Clyde without risking him being uprooted up by a logging crew. Beetle’s watch had stopped working an hour ago. Joe sucked tobacco. Only Bub seemed happy.

“I had this friend,” Bub said, frowning down at the trunk. “Had a terrible wife. A real horror. Used to dump his booze down the drain when he wasn’t looking, sell his guns for sewing machines—I think she had about ten—and all she ever cooked for dinner was this rubbery fish, tasted like salted sneakers.”

He chuckled. Beetle stared at his wet boots.

“Come on, that’s funny!” Bub said. “Well, all right. So we’re lost. We’ll find a way out.”

Joe prodded the steamer trunk with a short twig. “I ain’t carrying that prick no more. He stays here, I say fine. Who comes out here but us?”

“We need to find the dry part,” Beetle said, but he knew he was losing his sway over the others. Going into the swamp had been his idea. Bub and Joe had wanted to bury the corpse behind Mabel’s house. Joe felt it would be fine, especially if the pieces were cut small enough. But Beetle knew how many of his neighbors let their dogs run wild. Covering up a murder was not a job he thought should be done half-assed.

“Hey, Beetle,” Bub said. “What you think this guy’s wife was like?”

“How should I know what his goddamned wife was like? You damned prick. Fuck’s next? Want me speculate on how fucking cute his kids were? Christ’s sake …”

“Well, all right, only asking. It’s not like ignoring him is going to change the fact he’s dead. Had this other friend, lived in New York City—died in his apartment one day, right? Just fell over dead. But the neighbors, they hated this guy so much, they didn’t bother knocking or asking around even when no one had seen him for weeks. Even when he started to smell, no one wanted to go near that door. They only found him when he failed to pay his rent on time and they went to throw him out. By then, he was just this dried out stiff. Still, you can’t ignore things, y’know. They catch up to you.”

“How is it you have so many damned friends?” Joe asked.

Bub shrugged. “Who can explain these things? Friendship is a many-splendid thing. People get together, that’s all. Just random luck and happenstance.”

“Are you still fucking high?” Joe asked.

“Enough,” Beetle said. “Pick up that damned trunk, you two. I don’t want to be here when the sun comes up.”

*     *     *

This is how Clyde wound up dead:

After shepherding him a few feet into the forest, Joe held him back and pointed out barbed wire running between the trees in front of them.

“Careful going over, kid,” Joe said. “Tear your sack off, you don’t watch yourself.”

“I’m thirty-two,” Clyde said and tipped his chin up.

Ten feet farther, his feet slid into the wheel-rut of an overgrown road. Beetle led them over a stream on the other side and up a stony slope that ended in a long pile of firewood. When Clyde reached the top, he saw a second field on the other end of a narrow hallway of trees. Clyde howled at the moon, sneaking away from the clouds as if from a tryst.

They came to a stop where the field poured into a long downward slope. A wide brook divided it from its mate rising on the other side. A wooden bridge led over the water, and from there a worn path stretched up to a two-story farmhouse.

“You see that, Thirty-Two?” Beetle asked, coming back at Clyde with an energy and ferocity that seemed channeled from a source that was more than Beetle could ever have been alone. His eyes alight, his arms electric wire as he gestured at the building. “You see that there? What do you think that is?”

He’d filled out within his flannel clothes, and he looked like an ancient general wearing an old uniform, remembering how to move, how to command—all the while knowing that the skill and grace he was capable of would be an easy sell on this crowd, which insulted all earnest effort in its effusiveness. But Beetle rolled over for them and played it for the groundlings, because it was the only audience he’d had.

”A house,” Clyde said, rolling up his sleeves despite the chill in the air. “Yours?”

“But whose house is it now?” He stared at Clyde, and in his peripheral vision he saw Bub and Joe grinning. They knew it was Mabel’s house—once Mabel and Beetle’s house.

Clyde pondered the question. Beetle’s voice—the conviction of it—made him feel like he’d already been told about this place—or should have been told.

“Whose house?” he repeated. “You mean it’s not yours?”

“Mine? No!” Beetle said. “That house there—that’s your house, Thirty-Two. Your new house. You know who lives there now? Mabel. Mabel lives there. Do you know Mabel?”

The name Mabel coming from Beetle’s mouth made her sound like a goddess or a witch: Mabel the Almighty; Mabel the Wicked—titles in capital letters.

“Mabel,” Clyde said somberly, nodding, thinking that was a good way to fake comprehension.

“You don’t know who Mabel is,” Beetle said. “But why should you? Why should you care about Mabel? She care about you?”

“No, I guess she—”

“That’s right! She doesn’t care about you,” Beetle said. “Now all you’ve got to do is go in there and take that house from Mabel.”

Clyde said, “What?”

Beetle, undaunted, ignored him. “Can you do that, Thirty-Two? Can you take that house from Mabel?”

“Ah, I guess,” Clyde said.

Beetle smiled. “And can Mabel stop you? Do you want to let Mabel stop you?”

“Ah, no.”

“That’s right, my friend!” Beetle said. Once again, he put a hand on Clyde’s shoulder. “So. What do you think?”

Clyde hesitated, watched Beetle’s eyes for a moment, and tried to figure out the right answer. “Well, I guess I could—”

“Damn right, you could. So go do it! The door’s wide open! Do it!” Beetle shouted. “Charge, Thirty-Two!”

Clyde stood still. He looked back at them. Was it a joke? What the hell were they talking about?

“Wait. I—”

Joe shoved him, and Clyde stumbled three feet down the hill. There was laughter from above, and, still unbalanced, Clyde told himself he understood. Laughed right back and took the hint gravity gave him. Soon he was running for the bridge and the brook, the wind sounding like a cheering crowd. His intoxicated mind turned Beetle’s cryptic lessons on the hill into crystalline logic, and Clyde absorbed it like information in a dream.

His? Yeah, that house was his. Who the hell was Mabel? The lights were dark in the white farmhouse, and a loose board clamored as he pounded over the bridge between the hills, the roar of the water in his ears. He saw the house—his house—all the lights dark, all of it so small he could crush it in his hand. Yeah. His. He ran faster. His confidence grew. His house. Definitely. He was thinking again of Audrey, Audrey the Wicked, Audrey the Almighty. He thought of her and the other man, and he saw them together, upstairs in Mabel’s house, and, oh Jesus, but they were doing it, just doing it doing it doing it all the time in Mabel’s house, and, oh Jesus, how could that happen? How could Mabel just sit downstairs and let them do that? And, oh fuck, oh fucking Jesus, it never stopped. Just went on-on-on, and oh-oh-oh.

He would kill the preschool teacher. That was all there was to it. He’d take back all the pretty red apples and smash them—smash all his goddamned pretty fucking apples and then smear them on Audrey. Let her see what she’d done.

Clyde put more fire in his feet, dug his toes into the hill, and pushed himself up. Clawed his way to the top. Flung the storm door open with a great racket. There were boots inside the entryway. Gum rubbers. He’d gone wading in his father’s gum rubbers once, stuffed them full of sand because he’d wanted his father, not his father’s boots. But his father hated that. Wanted his boots, not boots full of sand. Those gum rubbers in Mabel’s entryway brought back the shame of staring at his father’s back, muscles working beneath his shirt as he shook out the boots, emptying them on the ground. Then a light came on and there was Mabel—Mabel who he didn’t know; Mabel with a shotgun.

It was quiet then. Just the wind, scaring slithering drafts through the cracks in the walls. Mabel was as big as she wanted to be as she stood there in her nightgown with a head lost in tangled black and gray hair. Her mouth was an upside-down V of anger. He forgot about Audrey, forgot about the preschool teacher, and opened his mouth. Something occurred to him to say, and he pointed at his feet.

But before he spoke, she mumbled something Clyde was too drunk to understand but sounded a lot like, “My, my. Oatmeal.” Then she fired the shotgun.

Clyde Eastman died seconds before lying about everything.

*     *     *

“I could tell you a story,” Bub said the next time they stopped. “It’d knock your socks off, but I could still tell it. It’s about these woods here, and about how this friend of mine got rid of his wife.”

Beetle pulled his right boot off his water-pruned foot. Knocked the heel to get out a collection of small pebbles.

Joe said, “We ought to go back.”

“This guy’s wife was a real Arctic princess, if you catch my meaning. Had a vault that opened every few years when Halley’s Comet swung by, y’know?”

He laughed. Joe kicked the edge of the steamer trunk, perched on a large root above a leaf-covered pool of black water. It tipped, threatened to go over, but then fell back into place. Something—probably Clyde’s head—rolled around inside.

Thinking they hadn’t understood him, Bub said, “Vault as in a cold pussy, see? Vault, pussy. Get it?”

“We get it, you ignorant shit,” Beetle said. “Now shut up.”

“But I haven’t told you how he got rid of her so as no one ever knew what he’d done.”

“You don’t cut it out, I’m gonna get rid of you,” Beetle said. “Now shut your mouth.”

“All right, all right,” Bub said. “Just a good story is all. Wanted to share it. Jesus Christ.”

In the quiet that followed, they heard an owl and the more distant sound of the paper mill spewing fumes miles away. It was getting close to dawn. Joe rocked the corpse’s makeshift cradle. Beetle waited.

It was time to go back, but which way was that? Beetle prepared himself for the moment when he would stand back up and assure them he suddenly knew where they were. Then they’d head off again, the others still believing him for no good reason.

*     *     *

Watching Clyde go into the house, Beetle thought he’d pulled the joke off. That was before the blast of the shotgun extinguished their laughter, and Beetle’s gut sank to the ground by way of his cold toes. But Mabel’s subsequent screaming—screaming so excessive and shrill it could not be taken seriously—undid any momentary sobriety the murder might have caused.

“She shot him!” Bub shrieked. “Jesus Christ!”

They ran down the hill, forged up the next, stumbled into the house, and nearly tripped over Clyde’s corpse.

“Jesus, Thirty-Two,” lamented Beetle.

Joe looked through the kitchen doorway to the closed bathroom door. “Beetle. Your woman’s holed up again.”

“Goddamn that nutbag!” Beetle said. He went into the house and started pounding on the bathroom door. “Mabel! Get out here now! I want you to see what you’ve done!”

She screamed. Beetle pounded harder.

“Now, you stop that racket, you fat bitch, or I swear to God, I’ll get the axe,” he said. But it was an empty threat; the handle of the axe was broken. Could she even remember? Hands on his hips, he looked back at the dead man. “Aw, what the hell are we going to do with that?”

Awkward silence. Beetle wondered why he always had to come up with the plans.

*     *     *

It had taken them until dawn to find enough rocks to weigh the trunk down. The horizon brightened, and they sent the corpse to its underwater grave.

“Good riddance,” Beetle said as it sank, and that was all the burial Clyde got. Even Bub had quit talking two miles ago.

Air bubbles escaped around the edges of the trunk and through the keyhole in the front. Beetle thought he heard the head, knocking on the lid. He wondered: Do corpses float? He recalled dead fish beating the shore of some lake he’d been to, its name forgotten. Curious gaps in knowledge betrayed any attempt to pin down the specifics of his history. His memory was filled with odd fragments, framed by empty waste.

“I don’t know as we should leave him in that thing,” Bub said. “People’ll think it’s sunken treasure and drag it up, crack the sucker open.”

Beetle and Joe saw the trunk, in the middle of a swirling cloud of dead muck, four feet down in one of the deeper pools.

“Lucky them,” said Beetle.

*     *     *

Mabel wailed upstairs, shouting unintelligible, monosyllabic curses at them. Downstairs, in a room of corkboard, nails, sawhorses, and splintery workbenches, the three men circled Clyde’s dead body.

Beetle plugged in his table saw. “I don’t know if this is going to work,” he said.

Bub came around the corner, emerging from a smaller backroom with a steamer trunk. “I didn’t find any good tarps—they all look rotted out—but what do you think of this?”

“It’ll do,” Beetle said, wanting something to carry the pieces in other than a plastic garbage bag. He picked the dead man up by the arms, took the body to the bench.

Joe struck a third match. “I don’t think the head’ll come off that way.”

It didn’t. For the decapitation, they had to spread the corpse out on the floor again, face down.

Joe stepped down on the back of the shovel, as though breaking into tough ground. The crack of divided vertebrae. Bub told a brief anecdote about a friend who accidentally backed over his own kid in the driveway.

“Back tire going over the kid’s head,” Bub said and pointed down, “sounded just like that.”

“And how the hell would you know that?” Beetle spat, angry that someone would invent such horrible details.

*     *     *

Even after dumping the chest, they waded for hours. Instead of getting to any remotely stable ground, they found themselves surrounded by reed-ridden water.

“Anyone ever been in the Army?” Bub asked.

Neither Joe nor Beetle answered him.

“I think that was about the best place we could’ve buried him, y’know? Who’s gonna come through this?” Bub said.

“That’s what I said hours ago,” Joe replied. “You parrot.”

Thirty minutes later, they found a broken circle of trees jutting out of the water. One wrapped upward like a J, and it held Beetle when he sat on it. He poured the water from his boots but didn’t know why; as soon as they left, he’d be right back with waterlogged socks again.

“Ah!” said Bub triumphantly. “Dry ground! This’ll be a good spot to take a break, huh?”

“Hey, Beetle,” Joe said, winking without joy. “That water—fucking wet, no?”

“Really wet,” nodded Beetle. They laughed together. Eyed Bub with his earnest face.

Bub, confused, complained he didn’t get it.

*     *     *

The ground firmed up beneath them, but that didn’t dry them off. Nor did it produce any solid food, which was what Beetle wanted most of all. He thought of a ham sandwich, mustard, lettuce, melted Swiss cheese, and a hidden slice of warm tomato. It undid him. He sat down on another rock.

“You giving up?” Bub said. “Where’s your stamina? Daylight’s burning! We’ve found the land. We’re almost there.”

“Almost,” said Beetle. “Shit on your almost.”

Bub was annoyed, walked away, moaned about the refusal of some to let their spirits be lifted.

He was vindicated when they got to their feet forty minutes later, walked another fifty feet, and saw a bridge, green and rusty, stretched over running water.

Beetle watched Bub take the lead and knew that somewhere down the line, Bub would say, “One time, this friend of mine got this guy shot, then got lost burying him. Would’ve given up—only inches from a road—if I hadn’t pushed him to go on.” Bub would dig a morsel of a moral out of the whole thing. Rather than feeling good about such incorporation into the Bub Jendreau canon, Beetle felt hatred, spite, and impotence. Jealousy too. But why should he be jealous of a fool’s ability to reduce the world to gory anecdotes?

*     *     *

Beetle’s grandfather had raised him after the deaths of his parents when he was four. They’d been lost when their car slipped off a bridge and dived through the ice of Big Soren Pond. His grandfather always said that the cold water killed them immediately, which Beetle believed until he tried to kill his dog in the lake four winters later. He spent three hours chiseling out a hole with the dog right there beside him. When he dumped the mutt into the freezing water, she panicked, but only for a second. She scrambled out, using her sharp toenails in the jagged ice. He tried to shove her back down, but she was slippery and quicker than his eight-year-old limbs. Some part of him was shamed, blaming himself for not being enough of a killer. The dog ran back to shore and got a long stick from the woods. She waited for him. Seeing he wasn’t coming immediately, the dog took a moment to shake water off her back. Then she waited some more. Still friends.

As Beetle climbed onto the road with Bub and Joe that morning in front of the Dead Stream Dam, he remembered how cold he’d felt walking back across the ice to his dog on the shore.

Joe’s exhausted face pointed down the road toward the cabin; Bub, happy, just wanted Beetle to admit his optimism had been sensible all along.

“Well, now,” Bub said. “That’s what I call an adventure. One for the books!”

Joe clapped Beetle on the shoulder. “We’re out of it.”

Beetle turned on Joe with Bub beside him. “This whole thing,” he said, “means fuck all. You two—just a damned mess, is what this shit is. Now, for the last time, shut your damned mouths, and you,” he said to Bub, “you can burn your goddamned book!”

He hiked back to his cabin. The two behind him bickered and followed at a distance.

What bothered Beetle was that he couldn’t recall if he’d played fetch with the dog after she escaped. He remembered only that he hadn’t been able to kill her, let alone trade her life for the dead he wanted back.

She, and now they, continued on—alive, despicable, and with friends only because murder and death hadn’t quite broken their way.

HallwayAfter the Thai food I ordered from Seamless showed up, my boss Liz realized we needed more napkins, so she had me go out to the Starbucks on the corner and steal some from the milk and sugar counter. It irritated her to send me out of the office for any length of time, but I savored every breath of cold city air afforded me by even such a brief trip.

I sucked down a cigarette in a handful of long drags before going into Starbucks. The streets were already dark; other people were on their way home in buses and taxis, and I glared at them jealously. I hadn’t slept more than three hours the night before, two the night before that, and I would be lucky if I made it home at all before the sun rose the next day. But what can anyone do? That’s life working for Biglaw. I try not to complain, because as worn down as I felt, Liz had to feel worse; she was just shy of nine months pregnant, fit to burst any second, and she never said anything about being too tired to work. Her work ethic was inspiring, as was her position as junior partner in Coleridge & Roache. As one of only five women in the firm, I tried my best to follow her example.

The law offices were on the 21st floor of a green-glassed monolith on 51st and Lex. I dropped the napkins off in the conference room, grabbed some food on one of the small paper plates, and then it was straight back to my office to scan through more emails. I’d been spending days poring through twelve thousand emails, looking for any references to the First Singularist Church of Dutton, PA. Why it mattered so much wasn’t entirely clear; I was just looking for the references. The First Singularist Church had done something torrid, apparently; the company we were representing had some ill-defined connection to the church. Whatever. Didn’t matter. Mine was not to reason why. Mine was to find references to the church.

Born and bred a city girl, I find the quiet disturbing, so I usually listen to my iPod while I work. That night, I hit the shuffle button and worked my way through my Glee cover songs. People who don’t work in law always make jokes about my life in courtrooms, but I’m pretty far removed from that whole scene. I saw more of the inside of a courtroom when I had jury duty the summer before I went into law school than I do now. And another thing: the walls of my office are not lined with law books. I work in a small room surrounded by large stacks of paper and old coffee cups. I don’t think it’s intimidating so much as it is soul-crushing.

So glamorous, I know. I pride myself–seriously, I do!–on my ability to stay awake and focused during my working hours. I’m incredibly good at paying attention to boring things.

But even my legendary focus has its limits. Two hours of scanning emails later, I allowed myself a quick break to see if there was anything new on Above the Law to make fun of. I was just about to say something derisive about the site editor’s grammar when Liz came in and made me jump in my seat. But I’m good with keyboard shortcuts, and I had ATL closed well before my boss even opened her mouth.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Liz had her hand on her stomach. “Jessica, I think–”

And then I noticed how damp her black pants were.

I said, “Fuck!”

She stumbled, and I ran to catch her. “I don’t feel so great,” she said. “I think he’s coming out.”

My boss was going into labor. Right there. In my boring office. I took her to the couch in the middle of the room. “I’m going for help,” I said. “We’ll get you to the hospital.”

“Fuck the hospital,” Liz said. “We’ve got work to do tonight … gaaaaah!”

She clenched her teeth and started breathing in and out. She started working on unbuckling her pants.

“Jesus, Liz, wait!” I said. “You shouldn’t rush these kinds of–”

“Oh, what the fuck do you know, you bitch?! Help me get these pants off!”

I was about to protest, but she already had her pants and underwear down to mid-thigh. It was more of Elizabeth von Trier than I’d ever intended on seeing. I pulled on the legs of her pants to remove them the rest of the way, and that was when Jared Green, our 1L intern, entered.

“What the … ?”

“Get the hell out of here!” Liz screamed. “Private meeting!”

He backed out, slamming the door in an almost instinctual horror. I thought I heard a little shriek, but it’s tough to know what was Liz and what was not Liz. She was gritting her teeth and making so many different and terrible sounds, it seemed like there had to be at least three of her in there. She sounded like a woman possessed by demons.

“Push!” I said, my hand on her knee, my eyes on her crotch, my mind reeling and grasping at cliches and scenes from a dozen movies. I’d never witnessed a live birth before. I was fascinated.

That, and my boss had never seemed more powerful to me than she did right then, forcing her son into the world.

“Push!” I screamed again, begging her to complete what she’d started and knowing, somewhere, that, strictly speaking, one couldn’t force a birth and that these things usually took time.

My boss wailed, and it redoubled and echoed through her throat like thunder through a canyon. A few drops of rain tapped against the window, and Liz groaned. As the rain escalated and erupted into a downpour, I saw the baby emerge and slip free from Liz. I caught it as it came out, helping it, and then I saw Liz fumble for a pair of scissors on the desk beside her head, and she reached between her legs and cut the umbilical cord herself. Another minute, and she had the afterbirth in her hands and threw it into a wastebasket.

I held the slimy baby and stared in wonder at the screaming form. “I can’t believe it!” I said. “That was so fast!”

“I don’t have time for any of this shit. And look at me now. I’m a mess. Fucking hell. Give me that.”

“What?”

“The fucking baby,” she said.

“Hey,” I said. “That’s no way to talk about your child.”

Liz closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “Jessica, give me my son.”

I smiled and handed the boy over. “Say hello to your mommy,” I said to him. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“He doesn’t get a name,” she said softly. She looked upon him for one moment with sweetness, and it was a sweetness I rarely saw in her at all. “You see it, little guy? You see the world?” she cooed at him. “Enjoy it.”

“Maybe you should take a night off,” I said. “You sound …” I really didn’t know how to finish.

“That’s not going to happen. There are contracts, and then there are contracts,” she said. She prodded her son’s fingers with her index finger. The baby responded weakly and with trepidation. “There are things I need to do. Isn’t that right, my little wiggly worm?”

My boss was scaring me. She shouldn’t have been able to think straight after giving birth, let alone stand where she was, pantsless and sweaty, in the middle of the office.

She held the baby out to me. “Want to hold him again?” she said. There was a sly lilt to her voice. It would not be the last time I was offered poison that night.

“Sure,” I said, because who wouldn’t want to try and please the new mother and hold the new baby. I oohed and awwed and cooed at the little man while Liz eyed me rather lecherously.

“That’s good,” she said, grinning. “He likes you. I can tell.”

I tried my best to smile.

Then, abruptly dropping her sneer, Liz said, “Take him to adoption on 23.”

“Adoption?” I said. “What adoption?”

“Please, Jessica,” she said. “I’ve been through too much already tonight to argue. Please just do as I say and take him to adoption on 23.”

“But only the senior partners are on 23.”

“Please, Jessica! No more questions. There’s a door at the end of the hall. Take the little shit to the door at the end of the hall on 23 and hand him to the first person you see on the other side of that door. Is that too difficult a task to ask of you? If it is, please say so. I’ll adjust my expectations of you.”

“There’s an adoption agency up there? I never knew.” Thinking back on it, the moment I decided to tell myself I believed in that adoption agency (which the better portion of me knew was a lie) was the moment I lost the battle to the firm.

“Of course there’s an adoption agency here,” she said. “Where do you think I grew up?”

We shared a good laugh at that.

“You sure about this, Liz?” I asked.

“Yes. I signed all the papers months ago. Everything has been pre-planned, pre-approved. Like a mortgage, ha,” she said, and laughed. “They’re expecting it. Maybe not tonight–that little guy is a week early–but in a general sense.”

“I see. In a general sense,” I said, staring at the blue marble eyes of the baby. “You want to say goodbye?”

“No,” she said, looking down at the floor. Later, I’d wonder if this expression of sadness was genuine, or merely another manipulation. “It’s better for me if you take him away.”

I nodded. Then, because I couldn’t help it, I grabbed the chubster’s little arm and waved it at his mother. “Bye-bye, Mommy,” I said in my lamest baby-voice. And then I crossed to the door, opened it, and went to the elevator just outside.

*     *     *

The baby was quiet until the doors opened on 23, and then he started wailing. Twin reception desks flanked the area where the elevator opened at the mouth of the long corridor, and when the baby cried, the half dozen smartly-dressed assistants and lawyers stopped talking and turned to stare. Even the air seemed to stop moving, until the only things that seemed to continue in time were the newborn and the rain still hammering the green windows.

Nothing about it seemed right, but I believed that if others could confirm the existence of the adoption agency–and, really, why would my boss send me upstairs if it didn’t exist?–then it wasn’t up to me to change anyone’s decision. A telephone rang on the desk to my right, and one of the two women there answered it, nodded a few times, said, “Ok. Yes. Right away,” and set the phone back down and stood up.

“Jessica?” she said. “Right this way, please. I’ll show you to Adoptions.”

She led me between the desks down the hall while the others stood still and silent, watching us go. At the end of the hallway was a plain door with nothing on it. I arrived and stood behind the receptionist as she made a fist. She seemed about to knock, but she hesitated a second too long–long enough to betray the fear she was hiding just beneath her professional nonchalance.

Then she cleared her throat and rapped once on the door. She smoothed her skirt.

“It’s better if you close your eyes,” she said quietly, “but I’m not going to tell you what to do. You have about three seconds to make your choice.”

“What?”

“Too late,” she said, and the door was opened.

I didn’t close my eyes. I looked. Greedily. My curiosity could not be denied. It was no different from the illogical reaction of a child touching a stove her parent warned her was hot.

The room was dark. There were no windows or lights on, and the only light came from the hallway. On the other side of the door stood two men, both wearing expensive suits. One of them–the one closest to the door and least consumed by darkness–was young. The other was old, white, and bald. The light hit most on the old man’s left hand, dangling like a claw in front of a flabby waist. The eyes were shiny pinpricks farther back in the dark.

The young man had movie-star good looks and an affable smile. “Ah, the adoption. Fantastic. You must be Jessica. So nice to finally make your acquaintance. I am Luther Coleridge, and this old creep behind me is Klaus Roache.”

The senior partners, I thought. This isn’t an adoption agency!

“You can hand over the package now,” the receptionist said to me.

“This is a baby, not a package,” I said.

“I’ll take it from here,” Coleridge said, and he grabbed the baby from my arms. I remember his fingers were cold between my arm and the warm bundle I carried. He took an almost theatrical step backward and passed the baby back to Roache, who wrapped his claws around the soft parcel with chilling alacrity.

“Goodnight, ladies,” Coleridge said, and he faded back into the black shadows of the unlit room, closing the door.

But before the door closed all the way, I saw something which I wish I could erase from my mind: in that thin instance which lasted only so long as it took for the door to swing shut, I saw Roache, his face pale and his lips fat and red, bend his mouth to the child’s stomach, open his maw wide, revealing sharp yellowed fangs, and take a gluttonous bite.

I think I screamed. But by then there was a hood over my head and I was being dragged away from the door.

“Should’ve closed your eyes,” said a male voice, directly into the cloth beside my ear, and then I smelled strong fumes and my mind went dark for a moment.

*     *     *

“Wake up, Jessica. Open your eyes.”

“They’re open,” I said.

The man laughed. “Pretty sure they’re not.”

I realized he was telling the truth. I opened my eyes. I was in a corner office, sitting in front of a large black desk behind which sat a rather ordinary-looking, clean-cut middle-aged white male. “I’m John Cole, Vice President of the firm. It’s a pleasure to meet you. We have a lot to talk about.”

“The baby,” I said. “I saw …”

“So you remember.”

I started crying.

“Aw, come on, it’s in a better place,” Cole said. “And so are you. You’re in a unique position, having seen what you’ve seen. Of course, you’re not alone. This happens from time to time. But not everyone keeps their eyes open.”

“I have to call the police. Someone has to … to …”

“Now, Jessica, what is that going to help? The matter is over, is it not? There’s no life to be saved here. Not now. So maybe you want justice? Okay, but remember that the mother asked you to do this, so she is not grieving. Your so-called ‘justice’ wouldn’t serve her. The … well, you know. Let’s just say the thing itself is beyond the point of caring about anything. So if you believe in God, you must believe the thing is in a better place, and if it’s not, then you have to admit ‘justice’ matters not at all to the thing itself. But maybe you want justice for yourself. A little selfish, perhaps, to want to destroy the entire firm and send everyone here to the breadlines for the sake of a personal issue, which, let’s face it, you would have an absolutely impossible time proving in a court of law since absolutely no one on 23 is going to corroborate your version of events, but let’s ignore all of that for the time being. Let’s assume we’re serving your selfish needs for a moment. Now, there are all manner of ways in which to serve yourself, don’t you think? Vengeance against the firm is only one of them. Using the firm might be another. Let me put this in specific terms for you.”

He opened a drawer on the underside of the desk and pulled out an envelope. He slid it across the desk with two fingers. In the center of the envelope, my name had been printed in thick, dark capital letters.

“As an example,” John Cole said, “of which the firm could provide many.

I wasn’t crying anymore. I reached out and took the envelope. I looked inside at the number on the check.

“Work hard, keep your head down,” he said, “and there’s always a reward.”

“Bonuses out early this year?” I asked. “This is a ridiculous amount of money.”

“You’re worth it,” he said. “I’ve heard about your skills at staying focused. Liz speaks highly of you.”

“She does?”

He nodded. “Tireless, she said. Dedicated.”

‘Why?” I asked suddenly. “Why would she do this?”

John Cole frowned. “You lose a lot in this world going on maternity leave.”

“Couldn’t she have just had an abortion?”

“There’s more money in bringing it to term. The senior partners really appreciate the newborns.”

I felt dizzy. “But won’t someone–family, a doctor, anyone? Won’t someone know when she’s suddenly not pregnant with no kid to show for it?”

“Let me ask you something, Jessica: In the last few months, have you ever not seen Liz in the office? Has she ever not been here? Do you have any idea exactly what she’s been billing?”

“I’m sure–”

Think about it. Name me one time you’ve been here and she hasn’t. Hell, name me the last time she even went out for lunch.

Suddenly, I realized it was true. All the dinners had been ordered, and if anything went wrong, she’d sent me.

“Oh my god,” I said. “She’s been living here?”

“It was all rather organic. Nights got longer and longer. Things happened. She made a choice. She’s dedicated. Simple as that. And I’ll tell you–that kind of dedication? It means a lot to us.”

“I suppose you had to sacrifice something, too, eh?”

“Me?” Cole said. He looked up a the ceiling as if trying to remember something. “No, I don’t think so. Nothing I can recall, anyway. Nothing like that, certainly. But I think that I would, you know, if I had to. Not that I could, you know, do what Liz did.” He snickered. “No vagina here.”

I really, truly hated him, but still I looked at the envelope in my lap. I thought of all the calls from the student loan office I’d been dodging. I thought of the apartment I dreamt of in a building with an actual doorman and quality pest control. I thought of how much I hated to cook my own food and clean my own apartment. Yes, I thought of my needs, but my needs were only the key my greed used to get in the door.

“So what’s it going to be, then?” John Cole asked.

I thought about the amount again, and already the horror had started to seem like a dream–like something I could, if I tried, erase from my mind. Chalk it all up to sleep-deprived delirium.

Then I cackled. There was no other word for it. Babies were cute, but no baby was that cute. Nor was any human life worth that much money, especially not these days.

I folded the envelope in half and slipped it in my pocket. “I should get going,” I said. “I have work to do.”

John Cole smiled. “So you do,” he said. “And so you will.”

*     *     *

When I returned to the office, Liz was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, her face clean, her hair washed and dry–all of it like nothing had happened. The only thing seeming to signify any of the change was an open bottle of Macallan on the desk and two glasses. She indicated the one on my side of her desk.

“For you,” she said.

I crossed to the desk and took a seat in the leather-backed chair in front of her. I looked at the year on the bottle. “1949?” I said. “Jesus, Liz.”

She swept her glass to her mouth and took a loving sip. “My present to myself,” she said. She pointed at the glass in front of me. “Don’t be shy. It’s not exactly Kool-Aid, but it’s the same thing in spirit.”

I picked it up and tasted it. I’d never been into whiskey, but that night things were different. “It’s really good,” I said.

“Damn right,” Liz replied. “You know, Jessica, it wasn’t consensual.”

“What wasn’t?”

“I want you to understand.”

“Oh,” I said. I set my tumbler down. “You mean you were …. Who was it?”

“Only thing that matters now,” she said and tipped her glass, “is the whiskey in my hand.”

“Does your husband … I mean, did you tell him?”

She considered her wedding ring. “This hasn’t been much more than a Cracker Jack prize for a while now. No, this happened well after David left me. I kept this trinket on to ward of the lechers. Haha. World of good it did me! More?”

“I think I’m good,” I told her. “You probably appreciate it more than I would, and I should get back to work.”

“Company girl,” Liz said and winked.

I left her to her bottle. I went back to my desk. The rain had stopped. Through the glass, I saw the other buildings, and I thought how much they looked like a row of glittering, jagged teeth, sinking into the meat of the night.

I sat down and resumed pouring through emails, looking for references to a criminal’s church, and listening to songs from Glee.