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Sep 4

Dead Boats

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"Dead Boats"

Written by Jeff Hartin

I worked a shrimp boat called the Melissa on the gulf. Hot, sweaty work but all the shrimp you can eat, so there’s that. Captain Mike was my boss, a wizened old salt. Rough around the edges, but a good man and a good boss. I worked with him out on the open waters for years before we split. Here’s what happened.

So one day we were out. Early, in an attempt to beat the other boats and get a good haul. I start cranking up the nets, position them over the collecting bin and let them go. Whole shit-ton of shrimp this morning. Today is going to be a good and profitable trip at this rate. I look up at the nets and I see something caught up in it. Probably driftwood, but I gotta get it down or it’ll rip the nets. I drop them down so I can pull it off. It’s definitely not driftwood. I don’t know what it is.

It looks like a small arm. Like a child’s arm but it’s not. It’s a mottled green with brown flecks, but the texture almost seems like sharkskin. Thin, long fingers, almost five inches long. I almost can’t call them fingers. They’re webbed to one another with a thin layer of skin, almost translucent in the sun. I’ve never seen anything like it. Short pointed claws where fingernails would be in a person. I look down to the end of the arm and I see it’s been twisted and broken caught in the nets. At the end, it looks like it was sawed or gnawed off in a hurry, by something dull. Dark red blood drips off it, pooling on the deck.

I must’ve been in a trance staring at the odd thing, because the next thing I remember is Captain Mike screaming at me.



I snap and quickly work it free, tossing it in the water as fast as I can. Some of the blood stains my hands and my shirt, but I rinse it off. Not the first time something’s bled on me out here. As I clean up I realize that Mike has turned the boat around. We’re heading back to port. It’s not even 10 and he’s calling it a day? I have bills to pay, and maybe a hundred pounds of shrimp ain’t gonna cut it. I’m about to have a few words with the Captain but one look at him and I see something is clearly off. He keeps glancing at the sides of the boat as he speeds up. While I’m tidying up I see him pull out the emergency flare gun and check it, pulling out the extra flares too. I guess this isn’t the time to bother him.

We get back, and as I finish up Mike comes over to me and palms me $400. Hell of a lot more than I’d make normally. As I take the money, his hand grabs mine tightly and he pulls me in.

“Today’s a short day. The extra is for you to keep quiet about why we had a short day.”

“Alright, see you tomorrow?”

He lets my hand go, and starts looking to the water. He seems lost, uneasy. This is a man who spent his whole damn life on a boat. I feel uncomfortable just seeing how uncertain he is.

“Yeah, I guess. Go out and have a few drinks, I know I will.”

Odd morning, but with pay like this, I hope I find one of those arm-things every damn day.


That evening I find myself at the local bar. Closest one to the waterfront, where all the working stiffs congregate. We’ve been buying rounds for a few hours, bullshitting around about work and sex and general nothings. I’ve got a pretty good load on, and my curiosity gets the better of me.

I ask in a low tone, “So what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever brought up in the nets? And don’t fuckin’ say tires. I mean a whole car would be weird but a tire’s like all the time.”

I get a couple of answers: Will once found one of those inflatable sex dolls. Rick found a box with a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannicas. John found not one individual but a pair of boots. Not that that’s odd. What was odd is that they were his exact size. Hell, he was even wearing them.

I push a little further, “Yeah, but you ever see anything like unnatural? Like you couldn’t explain it?”

I get a chorus of “Nahs.” But Kirk suddenly gets real quiet, and starts staring intently at the sweat beading off his glass. I think I got all I can now, information wise. Now for a couple more beers. I’m flush today.

My alarm goes off dutifully at 7:30 the next morning, and I dutifully go off at my alarm in a swarm of profanity. My head feels like it’s going to explode. I wish it would. I dutifully crack open a club soda, swallow some ibuprofen, and turn up a hot shower. By 8:00 I’m recovering and on my way to the docks. I wander up to the Melissa, Captain Mike’s boat. He’s muttering something under his breath staring at the deck. The deck’s been all scratched to hell. Deep long rakes intently scratching all over the place. Most of them seeming to congregate where the nets release. Where the blood spilled yesterday. I stand behind Mike for a couple of minutes until he acknowledges me.

“Not going out today. Not like this. Sorry.”

“Alright, but I gotta work, you know? I’m gonna ask around see if anyone else is short a deckhand.”

“Do what you gotta do. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure.”


I luck out and find another boat short a man. I like Mike, worked with him for years. But I work for paper, not a man. If he doesn’t get his shit together I’ll have to find another ship. We have an uneventful day out on the other ship.

I’m at the docks again, 8 AM sharp. Captain’s got a whole load of bleach and cleaners. I wonder what’s up. “I’ll pay you double if you help me lathe the scrapes off, bleach down the whole thing and refinish the deck. These scrapes and stains are bad for the boat.”

Shit, that’s a lot of work. But double pay is double pay. Mike might be losing it, but I won’t stop him from paying that much. I agree. It’s a long day, much harder than our usual trips out. Still, profitable. Before I leave Mike asks me to help him pull down the nets. That request stands out to me, as they’re a bitch to move, heavy and unwieldy. You usually only do it if you’ve got a rip or something but these are perfectly good. As I leave I see Mike pile them up on the beach, pour some diesel on top, and light them up. Doesn’t make any sense, burning good nets like that. And why burning?

After working my hands and back that hard, I need a beer. I head out to the bar. I spot Kirk at the bar and fall in next to him. We talk a bit, starting with the weather. For other people that may sound like tepid conversation, but out on the water it’s vital information. Eventually, I get enough in me and we start talking about our boats; bitchin’ about the bosses. It starts off as a good-natured pressure release. But when I start bitching about all the extra work I had to do today with the deck and the nets Kirk cuts me off abruptly,

“He’s not crazy. You need to find another boat, maybe somewhere a little further up the coast.”

That’s all I get out of him. He’s like a stone wall after that. I’d assumed Mike had spent a few too many years under the sun, baking his brains. But Kirk is usually pretty good with advice. Still, the next morning I head in to talk to Mike.

We finish restoring the decks, now he’s on talking about possible residue on the sides of the propellers. Says he wants to scrape those down next. This is crazy! It’s way beyond a two-man job. You need to dry dock a boat for all he wants. It’s the start of the season, and I know he doesn’t have enough cash lying around for that. I spend the day trying to pressure wash the sides of the boat as a cheaper fix. The end of the day, Mike slips me a few hundred dollars, and looks me right in the eye.

“I don’t want to go out there. Not with the ship like this. It’s not ready.”

“Alright, but if there’s no work for me, I need to look elsewhere.”

“I understand. It’s been good.”

He gives me a firm handshake, and looks me right in the eye. Something is welling behind those eyes but he fights it back. He turns to organize up the ropes. I notice that he’s got a heavy revolver clipped to his side. It’s not unusual for a boat to have a gun on board, but a hand cannon on your person? I’m starting to really worry about Mike. This is not normal behavior. I’m not sure if I can talk about this to anyone just yet.

I flounder a bit but find a job after a few days. I still see Captain Mike cleaning off the Melissa every day when I go to the docks. He’s there scrubbing when I leave, and he’s still scrubbing when I get back. There are new scrapes all over the hull, like something was scratching its way climbing up. Mike’s become a pariah on the docks, no one wants to talk about it and when they do it’s in low hushed tones.

Eventually, Captain Mike decides Melissa is finally clean. Or he can’t afford to go on without another day’s bounty. He hires Carlos, the new guy on the docks and they go out. I make a point of breaking the silence and talk to Mike to check in after they return at the end of the day. They’ve been catching much less than usual, like half if not worse. Still, he’s getting back out on the water, and that’s gotta be good for him. Carlos says he’s been a little freaked out by the sharks that seem to tail them. I try to put him at rest, tell him sharks aren’t that big a deal, they’re really just opportunistic bastards. I lie and make him feel a little better. Is that really a lie?

One day the Melissa doesn’t come back. I wait at the docks searching the horizon. It gets dark. Mike doesn’t usually stay out this late. I go to the bar and try to drink my body weight in vodka.

Weeks later, another captain finds the Melissa floating a few miles out to sea. I wasn’t there, so the rest is hearsay and rumor. The police report is still sealed. Apparently, it was a bloodbath. Blood dried onto the decks, most of it right under the nets. Pieces of viscera scattered everywhere, at least the pieces the seagulls hadn’t eaten. The pilot room saw some of the worst of it. Just guts spread everywhere, some tufts of hair and skin too, like someone was flayed by somebody who either didn’t know what they were doing or was too enthusiastic to do it right. Mike used to sit there when we were out.

Mike’s revolver was found there too. Four shots fired, but no idea if anyone was hit. Who could even tell whose blood belonged to who?

In the deck, they found a long piece of metal embedded deep in the wood. Looked like it was a piece of an old boat anchor. It had been crudely sharpened.

The investigation wrapped up (definitely foul play was the conclusion). Maritime law says that dead boats found at sea become the property of whoever finds them. Here’s the thing: the captain who found it wanted absolutely no part of it. Refused to even set foot on it. He had it sunk over by the reefs. He even took his own ship and put it in the dry docks for the season to scrape off the wood and have it sanitized and refinished. He was talking about selling it and moving up to different places.

He said the waters weren’t as hospitable as they used to be.

Credit: Jeff Hartin



Whoa!! This was BRILLIANT!! I have never aside from homers oddessy read of mermaids. These were brutal!! U sir may have sparked a new facination in me! Loved this...💜

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The only thing I could see was that they walked with slow, deliberate movements. And it looked like they were wearing a white mask. I heard Alicia’s footsteps behind me and motioned her over. “Alicia, look. There’s someone in our backyard.” “What? Seriously?” She joined me at the window. But by the time she did, the person had already disappeared into the forest. “I’m going up to bed,” Alicia said. “We can finish this tomorrow.” I followed her up. Minutes after my head hit the pillow, I fell into a deep sleep. Until I woke up an hour later. I looked at the clock. 1:34 AM. I pulled myself out of bed and trudged over to the bathroom, eyes blurred with sleep. The moonlight shone in from the window. I walked over to it, as if drawn by the light, and peered into the backyard below. I froze. At the edge of the backyard was a figure. Dressed in all black. Wearing a white mask. Facing our house, standing still as a statue. My heart pounded. I reached for my phone—then remembered it was still on the nightstand. I raced over and grabbed it, then looked back out the window. He was gone. * * * * * * The next day, in the flurry of getting ready for the party, I forgot about what I’d seen the night before. Around 6 PM, I headed out to the party store to pick up some last-minute things. There I received a text from Alicia. That was odd, in of itself. I knew she had an important call with a client that evening. Confused, I opened the text. What it said made no sense. I’m glad you found your mask, but can you please stop? I’m on the phone with Evelyn. I quickly texted back: Stop what? She replied: Stop tapping on the window! It’s super annoying. I stared at my phone, panic seeping in. Then my fingers raced across the keyboard, as I typed: I’m not at home. I’m at the party store. She didn’t reply. I grabbed my stuff and ran out to the car, phone pressed against my ear. I breathed a sigh of relief when she answered. “Ben? I told you, I’m on the phone—” “Alicia, I’m not home. Whoever you’re seeing out there isn’t me. You need to call the police, right now.” Memories of the figure I’d seen the night before rushed back to me, and I shuddered. “But—” “Call the police!” I yelled. When I arrived home, the police were already there. Red and blue lights, flashing in the darkness of our driveway. Alicia stood in the driveway, giving her statement, somewhat begrudgingly. “All I saw was someone in a black hoodie, black pants, and a white mask with fake blood all over it. They were over there, at the office window.” “You didn’t recognize anything about them?” the tall, lanky officer asked. “I thought it was my husband, but he was at the store, apparently. Look—I’m sure it’s just some teenager from the neighborhood playing a mischief night prank. And if it is,” she said, giving me a stern look as I walked over, “I don’t want to press charges. We were all young and dumb once.” The officer laughed at that. An annoying, high-pitched laugh that grated my eardrums. “We’ll take a look around and follow up with you, Mrs. Breslaw,” he said. “Thank you.” Alicia turned to me—arms crossed, lips pressed into a line. “Great. You just wasted twenty minutes of my time. Evelyn is so pissed that I cut the call short.” “There was some creep tapping on your window!” I shouted back. “What, you wanted to just ignore it?” “Obviously just some teenager. I mean, come on, it’s mischief night. I’m just happy it was that and not getting TP’d. That takes forever to clean up.” “Okay. Fine.” I hurried past her and set my supplies on the table. Then I set to work ripping open packs of plastic spiders and bats. They fell onto the table with loud, gross plops. “I’m going upstairs,” Alicia said curtly, leaving me to prepare for the party on my own. * * * * * * Ding! Motion detected at your doorstep. 3:17 AM. The notification came through on my phone, loud and clear. I tapped on the video feed, half-asleep. A man stood on my doorstep. He wore all black. Covering his face was the white mask I’d ordered, covered in something dark. I jumped out of bed. “Alicia,” I whispered, shaking her awake. “Alicia. He’s back.” “What?” she murmured. “The man in the mask. He’s back. He’s standing on our porch right now and—” “Is he TP’ing the trees?” “No.” “Then let me sleep,” she groaned, rolling over and throwing the covers over her head. I know lots of crazy things happen on mischief night. But this crossed a line. A big line. A man standing on my porch in the middle of the night, wearing the mask I’d ordered? Probably the same man who’d stolen the mask in the first place, right off my doorstep? This was too far. I crept out of the room and peered down into the foyer. Through the glass insert in our door, I saw him. He stood under the porch light, blurred and distorted through the glass, but I could still make out the white mask. Stained red with blood. Should I call the police? Alicia would be mad at me. But screw it. This was too far. My fingers slipped over the screen. “There’s a man standing on my porch, in a mask,” I said, my words coming out as a jumbled string of syllables. As soon as the call ended, the figure shifted. Then it receded, until all that remained was the empty porch. I clicked back to the security camera feed; it, too, showed nothing but the empty porch and the shadows of the front yard. A sharp knock on the door tore me from my thoughts. I looked down to see two figures distorted through the glass: two figures wearing blue uniforms. I let the police in and explained everything. I even showed them the security footage. They scoured the backyard—but they didn’t find anyone. When they finally left, I retreated back into the bedroom. Alicia, thankfully, somehow slept through it all. I locked the door and dragged a dresser over it for good measure. Then I collapsed into the bed. I didn’t fall asleep until the sky brightened with dawn and the birds began to sing. * * * * * * “Aren’t you excited for the party?” I stared out the window like a soulless zombie. I’d slept all of three hours, and the fatigue felt like a train driving over me, again and again. But I couldn’t nap—there was so much to do. Spider cupcakes and monster fingers to bake. Decorations to hang. Candy bowls to put out. “Will you hang these streamers in the office?” Alicia asked, handing me a tangled mess of black, orange, and purple. “But no one will be going in there.” She quirked an eyebrow at me. “You told me you wanted this to be the best party ever. That you wanted every single room decorated, just in case.” “Okay, okay,” I said, forcing myself out of the chair. I took the streamers from her and entered the office. There, on the desk, was the mask. Mouth twisted into a smile. Gaping holes for eyes. Dark red splattered across the plastic. “Alicia!” I shouted. She rushed into the room. “Where… where’d you get this mask?” I stuttered, breathless. “It was on our doorstep this morning.” Relief flooded through me. He wasn’t in the house. It was just on the doorstep. My entire body shook as I fell into the chair. “Why don’t you rest for a bit before the party starts?” Alicia said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll call you down when everyone’s here.” I nodded. Alicia thought I was overreacting. Maybe she was right; maybe I was letting a mischief night prank by some dumb teenager mess with my head. I lay down on the bed, ignoring the dings of my phone on the nightstand, and closed my eyes. It seemed like only seconds passed before Alicia was back in the room, asking me to come downstairs. “Everyone’s here,” she said. “And they want to see you.” I followed her down the stairs. And froze. Every single person in the room wore the mask. Black clothes with that white mask over their faces, covered in splatters of blood. Gaping eye holes, a twisted mouth. I felt dizzy. The room pitched before me, and I gripped the banister for balance. “Ben? Are you okay?” I swayed, trying to steady myself. “Why… why are they all wearing that?” “They said you asked them to.” “What?” “You didn’t?” “No,” I said, as the crowd blurred before me. “They said you left the masks with a note, saying they should wear them to the party. A lot of people canceled because of it. Families with kids, mostly.” She turned to me. “You really didn’t do it?” “Why would I?!” Alicia shrugged. “I don’t know. You were obsessed with this party from the beginning. And the mask. I thought maybe…” She trailed off. “If you didn’t put the masks in their mailboxes, who did?” Him. The man who had been tapping on the window. The man who had been standing on our porch last night. The man who stole my mask. As my mind swirled with questions—who he was, why he’d do this—a memory popped into my head. The promo code, and the “SELECT YOUR SCARE” message. Had I somehow chosen this? I stared into the crowd. Fifty masked faces stared back at me. All identical. Anyone could be him. Or no one. Before I could think, a hand pulled me into the crowd. “Ben, hey! How’s it going?” a familiar voice asked behind the mask. Eddie Huntley, the blond-haired man that lived three houses down the street. “It’s good,” I said, faking a smile. He continued to talk, but I only pretended I was listening. I looked across the crowd. All the masked faces were turned towards each other, bobbing and nodding in conversation. Except for one. Who was staring right at me. I broke away from the conversation. “Hey— hey!” I shouted, pushing through the crowd. His gaping eyes stared back at mine. Soulless. Empty. I grabbed the mask and ripped it off. And stared into the face of Marie Chandler. The wife of my rich, luxury-loving neighbor. “Ben! Great party. Love the masks,” she said in her elegant, soft voice. “Really adds a creepy flavor to the whole thing.” “Th-thanks,” I stuttered. “Hey, have you seen David? It seems I’ve lost him.” I shook my head. She continued staring into the crowd. Ding. My phone chimed. I slowly pulled it out of my pocket and looked at the screen. Motion detected at your doorstep. 8:32 PM. I tapped on the camera feed. There he stood. David? Who else could it be? He was missing, and there was the masked man, standing on my porch. Heart pounding, I fought my way through the kitchen, through the family room, and over to the front door. Now the porch was empty. I opened the door and stared out into the night. But beyond the halo of light the porch created, everything was a murky mess of shadow. I shut the door. The lights flickered. And then they went out. The room plunged into darkness. Shouts and murmurs sounded across the party. Masked faces whirled about in confusion. “Turn the lights back on!” a woman shouted angrily. Cell phone flashlights flicked on, twinkling among the crowd of shadows. Ding. Motion detected at your backdoor. 8:35 PM. I stared at my phone in horror as I heard the back door creak open. Followed by heavy footsteps. I ran through the family room, and into the kitchen. The back door hung open, but he was gone. Blended into the crowd. Stay calm, I told myself. Get the power back on. Then you can deal with finding the culprit. My head pulsed with pain as I considered the two options. Either someone flipped the master breaker… or someone cut the power lines. I decided to check the master breaker first. “Alicia,” I said, fumbling my way in the darkness towards her. Thank goodness she wasn’t wearing a mask like the rest of them. “Keep everyone calm, okay? I’m going to check the breakers in the basement.” “Okay,” she said, biting her lip. “You think maybe the fog machine was drawing too much power?” “Uh… yeah.” No need to get her worried. Using my cell phone as a flashlight, I stumbled to the basement door. I opened it. The stairs loomed before me, stretching into the pitch black below. A shudder ran through me. “Maybe it was just the fog machine,” I muttered to myself, descending the steps one-by-one. We had a menagerie of Halloween decorations out on the lawn, and it was possible that they blew a fuse. Then why would the whole house be without power? I forced the question out of my head and continued down the stairs. I made my way to the breaker box, my footsteps clicking against the cement. The master breaker was flipped. Someone intentionally walked into the basement and flipped the switch. My heart pounded in my chest; my hand shook as I reached out and flipped the switch back. The lights flickered to life, including the lightbulb above my head. For a second, silence. Then someone grabbed me roughly from behind. I whipped around, thrashing against strong arms. A white mask stared back at me, smeared with blood. Gaping, empty eye sockets. I tore away and jumped back. My body collided with my workbench. My eyes scanned it—there was my hammer, lying on the wood. I grabbed it. The figure jumped forward. Laughter echoed from beneath the mask, along with a voice. “I got you this ti—” I lifted the hammer. And smashed it into his skull. The man immediately crumpled. He fell onto the floor, head smacking against the tile. I crouched over him. Then I reached over and pulled the mask off. It was David. Footsteps sounded behind me. Then shouts, then screams. “Call 911!” someone cried. But David was perfectly still. * * * * * * The police carried him out in a body bag. The guests were gone. The masks were strewn across the floor, the couch, every room of the house. A few were completely crushed, stepped on in the chaos. The back door still hung open, letting in gusts of cold October air. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. The image of David’s face burned into my mind. I’d heard his wife explain to the police, in broken sobs, that he’d been planning some sort of prank on me at the party. He hadn’t visited the house, or stalked Alicia; he’d only planned a scare at the party. She didn’t know what it was until the lights went out. He was innocent. I spent half the day sleeping, the other half drunk. When night rolled around, Alicia pulled me off the couch. “Sit out on the porch with me,” she said. “Why?” “It isn’t good for you to be inside all day, like this.” I followed her out, beer in hand. We sat on the back porch, facing the forest. “Ben, you can’t… you didn’t mean to,” she forced out, glancing in my direction. “No. I didn’t mean to.” “The funeral’s in three days. Maybe we should go.” She reached out and squeezed my hand. “I don’t know if I can face Marie,” I said, stumbling over my words. “Or any of them. I—” My words caught in my throat. There, on the edge of the treeline, stood a familiar figure. Dressed in all black. Wearing a white mask splattered with blood. I stood up. Alicia grabbed my hand, but I yanked it away. “Get the hell off my property!” I screamed. The figure didn’t budge. Fueled by alcohol and anger, I leapt off the porch and strode across the backyard. “Ben—please don’t—” Alicia called after me. “Take off your fucking mask!” I screamed, closing in on the figure. He still didn’t move. “A man is dead because of you and your fucking games!” Alicia jogged after me, turning on her cell’s flashlight. “Ben, please, stop!” But I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop until I was inches from his face, until I could smell his sordid breath in the air. “Take off your fucking mask,” I growled. “I want to see who you are, before I smash your stupid little head.” He just stared at me with those gaping eye sockets, plastic mouth twisted into a smile. “Oh, you don’t believe me? You should. I killed someone last night. Smashed his head right in. I’m a murderer now. You hear that?” I leaned in, my face inches from his. “I killed someone because of you! And I’ll kill you, too, if you don’t take that fucking mask off!” He didn’t move. “Fine!” I shouted, spittle flying from my mouth. “I’ll take it off myself, then.” I reached up. Grabbed at his jawline. Pulled. It didn’t come off. I stumbled forward. Grabbed harder. Pulled harder. “No. No, no, no…” I took a step back, my heart pounding. It wasn’t a mask. I watched in horror as his mirthful grin contorted into an angry scowl. “Run!” I screamed, taking off across the grass. Alicia followed, screaming her lungs out. I whipped around to see the figure chasing us full speed across the lawn. I ran as fast as I could. I didn’t stop until I was inside the house, closing the door. That’s when I realized. Alicia had stopped screaming. The backyard was empty—both of them were gone without a trace. Except for Alicia’s phone in the grass. The flashlight shined up towards the sky, shimmering and sparkling in the shadows. * * * * * * I haven’t seen Alicia since that night. It’s been a week. I didn’t attend David’s funeral, though I suppose I am now in the same boat as Marie Chandler. Her husband is gone; so is my wife. The police suspect that I killed David on purpose. After all, our playful little rivalry was well-known among neighbors. They also believe I had something to do with Alicia’s disappearance, and to fill in a motive for me, rumors are flying that Alicia and David were having an affair. I’ve been advised not to leave town. So, as much as I would love to leave this all behind, I’m stuck here. With my guilt. With the past. I leave you with a warning. The masked man—whatever he is—is still out there. And so, I beg you: don’t trust anyone who wears a mask. Who hides their face behind a grotesque facade of plastic. Because it might not be a mask, after all. Credit: Craig Groshek and Blair Daniels
  • "The Promise" Written by Stephanie Scissom The anniversary of Layne’s death wasn’t for another three days, but when “Cochise” came on the radio as I approached that curve, I took it as a sign. Layne’s favorite song. I pressed the gas and shifted gears as Chris Cornell began to wail. The needle on the odometer crept up. 40. 45. 50. The yellow posted warning sign screamed at me, but still I accelerated. The night Layne died, the cops estimated that his friend Jimmy had tried to take this curve doing 65. Fucking Jimmy, the weird little stoner kid from down the street. I hated him, hated his faux hippie parents who changed the flowers around the roadside crosses with the seasons, like Jimmy and Layne and those other kids gave a damn if it was Christmas or Easter anymore. But the Hendricks did it anyway. Now the crosses were decorated with bright orange leaves, for fall. I saw them appear just as I entered the curve, doing 67 mph. The rear of my beat-up Civic began to slip, but I gripped the wheel and held onto it, taking the outside. I kept my gaze focused ahead of the slide, knowing better than to fix on stationary objects. Too late to hit the brakes. Instead, I eased off the gas and turned into the spin at the apex of the turn. My car gave a shimmy and a weird bobble. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought this would be the one that got me. But the Civic held on, even on tires that desperately needed replacing. When I accelerated at the end of the turn and whipped onto the straightaway again, I released the breath I was holding and pulled to the side of the road. I walked back to the place where the four white crosses waited and stared at the name on the first one. Then I ripped the leaves from it. Jimmy Hendricks. They hadn’t even spelled his name right. They hadn’t taught him how to spell his name and they hadn’t taught him how to take a curve. I walked behind the crosses and lay on the ground beside a scarred oak tree, in the same spot that had once soaked up my brother’s blood. I stared up at the September sky and said, “You left me all alone.” The night of the accident, my mother had called to say she’d be working late. Although I was only fourteen months older than Layne, my mother had always left me in charge. As soon as I’d told Layne, he’d started pestering me to go to the movies with Jimmy. I usually let him do what he wanted because Layne could talk the birds from the skies. But my mother’s new boyfriend made me uncomfortable. He stood too close, stared too long. I’d cast a nervous glance at the living room. “Hey,” Layne said. “Go to Sherry’s till nine. I swear I’ll be home by then. I won’t leave you alone with him.” I had nodded, and he’d grinned. I hadn’t smiled back. He’d made me look at him. “I promised Dad and I promise you–I’ll always protect you. I swear on my soul, I’ll never leave you and I’ll always have your back. So, nine o’clock … okay?” But that was a promise he hadn’t been able to keep. When I’d rounded that curve a quarter after nine that night, the EMTs were frantically working to save Layne and one of the other boys. I’d thought maybe they’d known Layne wouldn’t make it to the hospital, because they’d let me have a few precious seconds by his side. His green eyes had been dazed, unfocused. I’d clutched his bloody hand and screamed his name. He’d made a gurgling sound and turned his face toward me. “Hold on, hold on,” I’d begged. “Don’t you leave me! You promised you’d never leave me!” He’d squeezed my hand and then they’d pulled me away. He’d died before they reached the hospital. If Layne had been driving, would he have made the curve? I thought the handling on the Hendricks’ Accord and my Civic probably wouldn’t have been that much different, and Layne had even more experience than I had on the dirt bike track. Unlike me, he hadn’t quit when our father died. But that was just one more ‘what if’ in a towering pile of ‘what ifs’ that loomed high in the sky and meant nothing at all. I pulled into my childhood driveway a few minutes later and sighed. Visits with my mother, never pleasant, grew excruciating around the anniversary of Layne’s death. It hurt to see what this place had become, what my mother had become. Flower beds so meticulously tended when my father was alive were strangled out by weeds, framing a sagging, peeling white house with missing shingles. A rusted swing set still lingered beside the house, unused for over a decade. And the outside of this place wasn’t half as desperate as the inside. I put the car in park, stepped out and adjusted the short skirt that was part of my work uniform before kicking a beer can and scowling at the tall grass. I barged in without knocking and followed the sound of the blaring television to the living room, where my mother’s boyfriend predictably occupied my father’s old recliner. I kicked a pizza box and flinched when a cockroach skittered away from my gleaming black heels. “Where’s Mom?” I asked, and Darius turned his bloodshot eyes on me. He leered, his eyes traveling slowly up my body then down again. “Is that any way to greet me?” “Oh, my bad. Hey, Darius, you fucking pervert. Where is my mother?” He laughed and stood, lurching on his feet. For a moment, I felt the same panic I had at fifteen, but my fingers fumbled in my pocket and closed around the knife I kept there. I forced myself to remain calm. I wasn’t a helpless teenager anymore. “She’s at the cemetery,” Darius said, then licked his lips. “We’ve got time to have a nice little visit. Come say hi to Daddy.” “Stay away from me,” I said. “You got all this time, why don’t you go mow the fucking yard?  Seems like the least you could do, since my mother pays all your bills.” His eyes hardened. “Don’t talk like that to me, you little whore.” Moving faster than I anticipated he could, he lunged at me. My head cracked against the drywall and he seized my chin, forcing me to look up at him. His breath smelled like beer and garlic and I gagged. “I hear you put out for everybody that comes through that bar where you work. I’m getting jealous.” He pressed his filthy, stinking body against mine and tried to push up my skirt, but the knife was already in my hand. His eyes widened when he heard the click of the switchblade. I was sure Darius had been in enough barroom brawls to know what that sound meant. I pressed it against his crotch. “That’s not big enough to kill me,” he hissed. “And if you ever cut me, you’d better fucking kill me.” I smiled. “It’s big enough to get rid of some unsightly bulges. I keep her sharp.” He released my chin and held up his hands. I let him back away. “Tell your mother if she ain’t back by dark, I’m locking her out.” “This isn’t your house,” I snapped. He shot me a baleful look, then slumped back to the recliner. I gulped a breath of fresh air when I stepped outside. I’d left this place as soon as I’d graduated high school and if not for the obligation I felt for my mother, I would never come back at all. The cemetery was visible from the driveway, just over the hillside, but I chose to drive. I could guess what shape my mother was in. I found Mama sprawled on the ground between my father’s and Layne’s graves, a half-empty bottle of Jack in her hands. Once Bella had been beautiful, as her name suggested, but those days were long gone. Her face was ravaged by alcohol, drugs and grief. She looked up with bleary red eyes. “It’s time to go, Mama,” I said, and reached for her arm. She jerked away. “I’m not ready to go yet.” “It’s getting dark and I need to get to work.” “Go then,” she muttered. “I need to make sure you’re home, and that you have your medicine. You want it, right?” Of course, she did. Mama liked her medicine almost as much as her alcohol. After a near overdose last month, I had taken her pills and dispensed them to her on a weekly basis. It really needed to be on a daily basis, but I couldn’t stand the thought of making this trip every day. I suspected Mama went through a week’s supply in a couple of days, but was also pretty sure it would take more than that to kill her. Mama allowed me to help her up. She kissed her fingertips and placed them first on my father’s tombstone, then on Layne’s. “It was your fault,” she told me. I wrapped my arm around my mother’s waist, taking on most of the small woman’s weight. I’d heard comments like that so many times they barely stung anymore. I figured Layne was better off wherever he was, because surely this was hell. I was almost jealous of him. I didn’t put much stock in the afterlife, and the thought of just nothingness sounded pretty damn good to me. We didn’t talk on the way back to my mother’s house. No use telling her about Darius. Mama hadn’t cared when I told her about him seven years ago, and she wouldn’t care now. Another wound that barely stung anymore. I helped her to the front door, gave her the little box labeled with the days of the week, and left. All this crap had taken longer than anticipated and I was nearly ten minutes late when I pulled up to Charlie’s Bar. Half the sign had shorted out, so it simply read Char Bar, which was an apt name for anything that came out of that kitchen. That’s what the locals called it. Charlie hated it, so I called it that, too. I straightened my skirt, flipped and tousled my hair, then undid an extra couple of buttons on my shirt. I was a damn good waitress, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that’s why I got the best tips. When you leave home at seventeen, you learn to play the game to survive. Brody looked up from the bar when I walked in and gave me one of his perfect, dazzling smiles. He was a college kid making a little extra cash while he finished up the school year. Maybe not as spoiled as most of the ones who came through–he actually worked–but a rich boy just the same. He’d be gone before the ink dried on his diploma. The bar was a weird mix of college kids, locals and stragglers off Interstate 24. They segregated themselves in odd little clumps. I edged past a rowdy group of bikers and headed toward the bar. Brody placed a bag of lemons on the bar and said loudly, “Thanks for picking these up. Sorry I made you late.” “No problem,” I said, taking his cue. Charlie came around the corner. He looked at me, the bag of lemons and finally Brody. “Tell Jacobs if he can’t get the order right, I’ll take my business elsewhere.” Brody tapped a salute off his forehead and Charlie frowned, but he disappeared back to the kitchen without another word. “Thanks,” I said, and he smiled again. He really was handsome. I liked the way his blue eyes crinkled in the corners when he grinned. But we were so different I wasn’t even sure if we’d count as the same species. “You’ve got even tables. I already did their drinks. Two and eight have ordered. Six was still looking at the menu.” He was always helping me. Every shift, he stayed late to help me roll silverware and refill ketchup bottles, though that was not part of his duties. I’d never admit it, but sometimes the most fun I had all day was when we were cleaning up. He’d put some stupid song on the jukebox and sing to me. Sometimes we’d dance. Even though he probably just wanted what every other guy who tried to talk to me wanted, at least he was nice about it. Unlike the biker at table three, who was yelling to get my attention. “Hey, Blondie!” he shouted. “Get that sweet ass over here and take my order. I’m thirsty.” Kristy, the other waitress on shift that night, stood helplessly by, trying to take his order, but the biker would have none of it. I motioned her forward. “Take my six,” I said. “I’ll handle it.” Looking relieved, Kristy scurried away. I pasted on a smile and sauntered over to the table. I spoke to the one making all the noise, a muscular dark-haired man with a snake tattoo that started at his neck and ended with rattles down his middle finger. “What can I get you?” He leaned back in his chair and gave me an appreciative smile. Fishing his wallet from his pocket by the chain attached to his belt loop, he withdrew two one hundred dollar bills and placed them beneath the salt shaker. “Two buckets of Bud to start. One of these is for the tab, one is for you if you don’t let us run dry till that hundred is gone. Understand, sweet thing?” “Sure thing, honey,” I drawled, and his grin widened. As I walked away, I heard him tell his buddies, “Tell me that ain’t the best ass in Tennessee.” I rolled my eyes and made a face at Brody, who stood tense at the bar, watching the exchange. “Two buckets of Budweiser,” I said. “Avery, that’s not your table. You don’t have to serve those guys.” “I can take care of myself, Brody.” He frowned, but turned to fix the buckets without another word. Sweet of him to worry, but unnecessary. Plus, that tip would be great, considering rent was due this week. I might actually be able to eat something that didn’t come from the Char Bar. When I returned to the table, I noticed a cell number scrawled on one of the bills. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again and instead, engaged in some banter with them. When I walked away, Rattlesnake slapped my ass. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Brody start to come around the bar and I hurried to head him off. “I said, I can take care of myself,” I hissed. “Do not go over there.” His blue eyes flashed. “Avery, you’re not a piece of meat. He has no right to touch you.” “I don’t mind.” He scowled and threw a dish towel behind the bar. “Maybe you should.” Yeah, maybe I should. Maybe I should do a lot of things. But these days, it was hard to feel much of anything. Finally, the bikers left and the crowd thinned. After I took table four their check, I stepped outside to smoke. When I heard the back door creak open a moment later, I flicked my ashes and said, “If I just fuck you, will you stop following me around like some little damn dog?” Brody sighed, leaned back against the wall, and squinted at me. * * * * * * I clutched the shoulders of the man who labored over me. His snake tattoo looked even more sinister covered in a fine sheen of sweat. But I wasn’t thinking about that, wasn’t even thinking about him. Sex was just a release for me. There were never any feelings attached. Maybe that was why Brody’s words troubled me so much. I closed my eyes, remembering what he’d said. “Jeez, Avery. Why are you such a hardass?  Maybe I just care about you.” I snorted. “You don’t know anything about me.” “I want to,” he said. “One chance. Let me take you out on a date.” A date. I nearly snorted again. I hadn’t been on a real date since high school. One night stands with strangers hardly counted. Brody had no idea. “Why would you want to date me?’ I demanded. He gave me that crooked grin and shrugged. “I dunno… because sometimes you forget to be an asshole?” I laughed in spite of myself. “I think you’re afraid of me,” he said. “I think you know I’d be good to you, and you don’t know how to handle that.” “I’m not relationship material,” I said, and took another drag of my cigarette. “You could be. With me.” I stubbed my cigarette out and gave him a patient smile. “You think we’re alike. We’re not.”  I pointed through the window at a group of roughnecks. “I’m like them. White trash, going nowhere.” Then I pointed at a group of giggling college girls waiting around the bar for Brody’s return. “You’re one of them. You’ll leave here after you graduate, marry a girl like that, named Mallory or Ashley or Tiffany and forget about this little dive bar you worked in during college. You’ll forget about me. I don’t mean anything to anyone.” “You’re wrong,” he said. “You mean something to me.” * * * * * * The biker collapsed on top of me and I sighed, glad he was finally finished. I’d hoped he could take my mind off things, but now I regretted even coming to his motel room. He rolled onto his back, and I lay there, thinking. Waiting until I thought he’d dozed off. Then I eased away from him and fumbled for my clothes in the dark. His hand shot out and grabbed me, pulling me back. “Where you think you’re going?” he asked, slurring. “I need to get home,” I said, and tried to pull away. “Aw, no,” he said. “We ain’t finished yet, darlin. Just taking a breather.” “I’m finished,” I said. “Let me up.” In the dark, I didn’t see the fist swinging around at me. He clocked me in the side of the face and I fell back, stunned. His hands closed around my throat and I kicked and flailed at him, but he was so strong. My last thought before I lost consciousness wasn’t of Layne, but of Brody. Of how disappointed he’d be when they found my naked, battered body in some cheap motel tomorrow. I’d tried to tell him. I was no good. Guess he’d finally see that. * * * * * * I woke up on my stomach, my cheek pressed against stiff white sheets. It took me a moment to remember where I was, but I was smart enough not to move until I got my bearings. I hurt. I hurt all over, especially my throat. What had he done to me? I needed to cough. My throat burned, tickled. My eyes watered and I didn’t know how long I’d be able to suppress it. I heard his labored breathing beside me. Sounded like he was out, but I didn’t dare turn my head. Instead, I strained to see in the dim room, looking for a weapon. He’d left the bathroom light on. I saw the contents of my purse strewn across the worn carpet. My wallet gaped open. Empty. Motherfucker. I gritted my teeth and made a push toward the edge of the bed. I paused, but detected no change in his breathing. I forced myself up on shaky legs and fumbled on my clothes. Stuffing my things back into my purse, I realized my money wasn’t the only thing missing. So was my knife. The smart thing would’ve been to slip out the door and run. But I needed my money. Not just the $100 tip, but the other $170 he’d taken from my wallet. I crept to his side of the bed and unplugged the lamp. When I tried to lift it, I found it was bolted to the table, so I unplugged the phone instead. Then I searched until I found his wallet. I thought about just taking my part of the money, but I thought, fuck it, and took it all–my money, plus two hundred or so. He began to stir. I gripped the phone and crashed it down on his head. He cursed, and I hit him again. Then I ran. The morning sunlight nearly blinded me, and for one terrifying moment, I couldn’t find my keys. “Please, please, please,” I gasped, fumbling in my purse. There they were. I jumped in my car, still watching the motel door, but it never opened. I didn’t kill him, I thought. Surely I didn’t kill him. I was nearly a mile away when I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror. Blood spattered my face. I hadn’t even felt it. “Oh, God!” I said, and fumbled in my glove compartment for napkins. Twenty minutes later, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, trying to figure out what to do. Ugly red bruises stood out against the pale skin of my throat. Even the whites of my eyes were red. Maybe I should go to the police. It was self-defense, right? I decided to drive back to the motel. To my relief, his bike was gone when I got there. For two days, I never left my apartment. The next night, however, I had to work. I almost called in. This was the anniversary of Layne’s death. I might not make it until tomorrow anyway. But with my luck, I’d probably survive. Again. I tried to cover up the bruises with makeup, but that somehow made them look worse. I washed it off, then tied a scarf around my neck. It looked dumb, but I couldn’t think of anything else. At least my red eyes had cleared up. Brody gave me a long look when I walked into the bar. Change of shift was busy and I managed to avoid him until my first smoke break. He followed me outside. “That biker guy’s been looking for you,” he said. “Oh?” I said, and he frowned at the rasp in my voice. “I told him you’d quit. When he came back the next night, I told him you’d still quit. Charlie backed me up. He looked pretty rough. Not as rough as you, though.” Before I knew it, he pushed me against the wall and reached for the scarf. “What are you doing?” I asked, trying to force his hands away. “I haven’t seen anyone wear an ascot since Fred on Scooby-Doo.” The scarf came free in his hands. “Jesus, Avery!” he said, and I felt absurdly near tears at the horror in his eyes. When I didn’t speak, he said, “That guy said you took his money. What are you into, Avery?  Is it drugs?” He looked away. “Prostitution?” A tear slid down my cheek. “Is that what you think of me?” I shook my head and pushed past him. He tried to grab my arm, but I jerked away. I walked through that back door, through that restaurant, and out the front. I heard Brody call my name, but I never slowed down. Maybe fate would be kind tonight. * * * * * * I wanted to die. More than anything. I kept picturing the look on Brody’s face. He was the only one who’d believed in me, the closest thing I had to a friend. Now he thought I was some sort of crack whore. By the time I hit the curve, I was doing 70. When the rear end came around and I started to spin, I closed my eyes and pictured Layne’s face. Suddenly, his voice filled my head, shouting instructions, as clear as if he were in the seat beside me. When I opened my eyes again, my car was sitting neatly on the side of the road, just past the white crosses. I opened my door and nearly fell out onto the shoulder. I half-stumbled, half-crawled over to the memorial and collapsed in front of Layne’s cross, sobbing. “Avery!  Avery, are you okay?” I rolled onto my back and tried to scramble away. Brody fell to his knees beside me and reached for me. “Hey, it’s me!” I slapped his hands. “What are you doing here? Why are you following me?” “What just happened?” He looked at the crosses. His gaze lingered on Layne’s. “What is this place?” “My brother died here.” I never talked about my personal life. Ever. But once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told Brody everything, about Layne, about Darius, my mother … even about rattlesnake guy. When I finally stopped, I was afraid to look at him. Now he would know I was trash, just like I’d tried to tell him. He wrapped his arms around me. I froze for a moment, then sagged against him. His arms tightened around me. “What happened to Layne was not your fault. Why would you think that?” “I was the oldest. I was in charge. We were supposed to stay home.” “You were kids, Avery. This wasn’t anyone’s fault.”  He paused. “What I just saw, with the curve … you do that every year?” I didn’t answer. He kissed the top of my head. “You are the strongest person I’ve ever known.” I gave a strangled laugh. “I’m weak. When I went into that curve tonight, I wanted to die. I’m so alone, Brody.” He gave me a fierce hug. “You are not alone. Not anymore. Let’s get out of here, okay?  We’re going back to my place.” I wasn’t sure what showed on my face, but he shook his head. “Not for that. I’m not letting you stay alone tonight.” He stood and reached to help me up. I took his hand. He smiled and hauled me to my feet. I brushed a kiss on my fingertips and pressed it to Layne’s cross, then slid under the arm Brody offered. His place wasn’t much bigger than mine, though his furniture was better. I’d muddied my clothes, so he found me one of his shirts and a pair of drawstring shorts to put on. We talked for hours, about my family, about his. I learned that money didn’t necessarily buy a happy childhood. Even when there was nothing left to say, I felt comfortable. Safe. I hadn’t felt that in years. I fell asleep with my head on his shoulder. I woke sometime later, lying on the couch. Brody lay beside me, spooning my back, his arms around me. When I stirred, he mumbled, “Don’t go.” Lying there, wrapped in the heat of his body, breathing in his scent, I didn’t want to go. I twisted around and kissed him. He kissed me back, rolling on top of me. But when I reached to tug his shirt over his head, he stopped me. “Avery-” “Please,” I said. “I want this.” He led me to his bedroom. That night, I broke one of my rules–I didn’t leave. I woke the next morning and reached for him. His side of the bed was empty. I snagged a t-shirt off the floor and went to search for him. I found him in front of the stove, singing and dancing in his boxers, making breakfast. I pressed my fingertips to my lips, but failed to suppress my smile. Apparently, he didn’t hear my approach. I witnessed a rather inspired performance of Prince’s song, “Kiss.” I laughed, feeling happy for the first time in a long time. He whirled, but didn’t seem embarrassed. He placed a plate of pancakes on the table and seized me, dancing me around his tiny kitchen. “Good morning, beautiful,” he said. “Good morning.” I glanced at the plates of food covering the kitchen table and raised an eyebrow. “You having company over?” “Ha. Ha.” Sunlight streaming through his kitchen window made his eyes look blue and bright as a June sky. “Baby, I am hungry!” He winked at me and said, “And maybe I wanted to impress you a little.” I grinned and draped my arms around his neck. “Oh, I’m impressed. Mostly that you have this much food in your house, considering we both work at the same place.” I winced. “Well, maybe we used to. I guess maybe we’re fired.” “I took care of it. I talked to Charlie, told him you had an emergency and it’s all good. We have tonight off, too.” “What?” I gasped. “Charlie hates me.” “No, he doesn’t. You never miss work. Besides, how would he replace both of us?” “You’re amazing.” He smiled. “So… since we have tonight off, how about that date?” “Date?” “You know … dinner, dancing? Something besides burned corn dogs and dancing around the jukebox at Char Bar.” ‘’But that’s my favorite.” “I know. I may have set the bar too high, but I’ll do my best to impress you.” “You already impress me.” And he did. Brody was a nice guy. A good man. When I found out I was pregnant six weeks later, he didn’t say, “Are you going to keep it?” or “Is it mine?” He said, “Marry me.” “Brody, I don’t know if it’s yours. I won’t put this on you if it’s not yours.” “I don’t care if it is. It will be. We will never know any differently, and the baby won’t either. I love you, Avery. We can be the parents we always needed. Marry me.” But I couldn’t. Not without knowing. I talked to my doctor and he scheduled an amniocentesis when I was far enough along. The day we met the doctor to discuss the results, I was a wreck. I’d given up cigarettes the day I learned I was pregnant, and my nerves were shot. I’d been unable to sleep that night and, while staring into Brody’s face in the moonlight, I’d made a decision. If the baby was his, I’d marry him, and I’d do my damnedest to be a good wife and mother. If it wasn’t, I’d leave in the middle of the night and never look back. I was not going to tie him to another man’s child. Brody tried to make small talk while we waited, but I couldn’t hold up my end. Both me and my baby had so much to lose. I wanted Brody to be the father so badly. Not for his money, or even his support. One day, this child would want to know about its father. I did not want to have to tell it that I didn’t even know his name. The doctor looked at Brody and held out his hand. “Congratulations, Dad.” Brody’s grin lit up that office. He pumped the doctor’s hand and then turned to hug me. So, I agreed to marry him. On our wedding day, Brody punched his best friend in the face for telling him he couldn’t turn a whore into a housewife. Maybe he was right. I didn’t know. All I knew was that I would do my best not to let him down. Not to let either of them down. I didn’t know if I was capable of love, but the day I looked into Brody’s shining eyes over that surgical mask when he held our son for the first time, I knew I loved them both. I couldn’t say it, however, but I hoped he knew. He stood by my side when I cut ties with my mother. My son was my priority now. I could no longer try to help someone who wasn’t interested in helping herself. I also would never have my child around Darius. Lucas was a difficult baby. Brody and I learned how to live on little sleep. A colicky infant stage progressed to night terrors by age three. That was the age he began to talk a lot more, and also when I started to suspect there was something terribly wrong with my son. One night, as he played with one of his toy cars, he looked at Brody and said, “His name is Dale.” Brody glanced at the black car with the number three on the door and looked at Lucas in surprise. “Yeah, that’s Dale Earnhardt’s car. How did you know that?” Lucas shrugged and said, “My other dad told me.” Brody stared at me. “Other dad?” I shrugged, but I saw the tension in his face. “Who’s your other dad, Lucas?”  he asked. Lucas wouldn’t answer. “Can I see you in the kitchen?” I asked. “You can’t turn a whore into a housewife, right?” I said, when we were out of Lucas’ earshot. He reached for me and I jerked away. “I’ve never cheated on you. I’ve never even considered it. I … care about you.” Brody sighed. “I know you do. I’m sorry. It just … caught me off-guard, I guess.” He pulled me to him and this time I didn’t fight it. “I love you, Avery. And I know you love me, too. I only wish you could say it.” I did, too. There was this feeling that, if I did, something horrible would happen. One night, while Brody lay across my lap, I traced the words on his back with my fingertips. I thought he was sleeping, but he kissed my thigh and said, “I love you, too.” My mother called me a week before the tenth anniversary of Layne’s death, begging to see Lucas. She told me she’d been clean for two years, and that she’d kicked Darius out the same day I had told her goodbye. I told her I’d think about it and disconnected the call. That night, I pulled down an old photo album from the closet.  I’d stolen it from my mother’s house before I moved out. Lucas climbed into my lap and Brody looked over my shoulder while I flipped through it. Lucas pointed at a picture of a 10-year-old Layne and said, “That’s me.” “No … honey, that’s your Uncle Layne. He’s in heaven now.” Lucas ignored me, poring over the pictures with an intensity rarely seen in the rambunctious toddler. He pointed at another picture. “That’s my old dad.” “That’s my dad,” I said. He looked at me with his bright blue eyes and said, “I know, Mommy.” That week, Brody called me from a restaurant parking lot. I heard Lucas in the background, having a meltdown. They’d been fishing and stopped to get lunch. “Hey, honey,” Brody said. “Do you want us to bring you something?” “I’m good. Why’s he crying?” “You’ll never believe it. He’s crying because the waitress took away his corn cob.” “His… what?” “A corn cob. He started screaming that he wanted me to make him a pizza pie or something, like his old dad did.” Lucas screamed in the background. “Piece pie! Piece pie!” “Do you have any idea what he’s talking about, babe?” “No, none.” But something was there. Some memory tugged at the back of my mind. Brody sighed. “Okay, well … we’ll be home in about an hour. I love you.” He hung up instead of waiting on the reply he knew wasn’t coming. I stared at my phone, then impulsively called my mother. “Mom, I have a weird question. About Layne.” “Okay,” my mother said slowly. “Did Dad ever make something for him, out of corn cobs?” “Yeah. He made these pipes, out of dried out corn cobs and sticks. Layne thought he was big stuff, clamping it between his teeth and walking around like Popeye.” “I don’t remember that.” “Well, you were a girl. Your father didn’t believe in little girls even pretend smoking.” “Did he call them something?” “He called them peace pipes. He’d grab his cigarettes, hand Layne his pipe and say, ‘Come on, son, let’s go smoke our peace pipes.’ Why do you ask?” This was not something I wanted to run by my mother. “An old memory, I guess.” They made small talk. My mother told me about the latest sobriety coin she’d earned and said, “Avery, I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you about Darius. I–” “Mom, I have to go,” I said. “I’ll call you later.” Some things I wasn’t ready to forgive, or even talk about. Rummaging through the freezer, I took an ear of corn from a freezer bag and boiled it. Then I shaved the corn from it with a knife and placed the cob on the back porch to dry. I made a pipe and sat it on the entertainment center. Lucas didn’t notice it until that afternoon, after supper. He yelled, “Piece pie! Piece pie!” until Brody followed his gaze and got it down. He shot me a questioning look, then handed it to Lucas. Lucas stuck the end of it in his mouth and beamed at them. That night after I put him to bed, Brody and I discussed it. “What are you saying?”  he asked. “I know it’s odd, but you don’t really think–” “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But he says such strange things sometimes.” Even Brody had no explanation for what happened later that week. They were talking, laughing, on the way to the zoo. I was driving. In the backseat, Lucas said, “Mama!” Brody was in the middle of the story he was telling, so I glanced in the rearview mirror at Lucas, but didn’t reply. “Mama!” he cried again, then, “Dammit, Timmy, I said stop!” I slammed on the brakes, and was nearly rear-ended by the car behind us. It swerved around us. Brody and I looked at each other, then at Lucas. The blare of a horn jerked my attention back to the front. I looked up just in time to see the car that passed us sail through a green light and get T-boned by a semi. Metal screamed. The semi carried the little red car through the stoplight and crashed into a pickup on the other side. “Call 911!” Brody shouted and bailed out of the car. Shaking, I did as instructed. When I disconnected the call, I twisted to look at Lucas and said, “What did you call me?” He looked out the window. “Lucas, answer me! Why did you call me Timmy?” “That’s your name.” Nearly an hour passed before they could leave the scene. Brody climbed back in the car, shaken. I asked him about the people in the car and he shook his head. Lucas lay slumped in his car seat, asleep. “What just happened, Avery?”  he asked. “Do you realize if you hadn’t stopped–if Lucas hadn’t screamed–that would’ve been us. That light was green.” I burst into tears, and he grabbed me. I buried my face against his neck and sobbed. I waited until we were home, until Lucas was watching cartoons in another room, to pour myself a drink and sit at the kitchen table with Brody. “Did you hear what he called me?” I asked. Brody gave a puzzled laugh. “Uh, Timmy? Jimmy?  To be honest, I was more concerned about the other word he said.” “I asked him why he called me Timmy and he said that was my name. Brody, no one’s called me that since my dad died.” He reached for my glass and took a long swallow. “Your dad called you Timmy?” Tears stung my eyes. “I was that kid, you know … the kid who was always getting into trouble, always getting hurt, or stuck, or something. Layne would always run for help. My dad would look at my mom, sigh, and say, ‘Look, honey, here comes Lassie. Guess Timmy’s fallen into the well again.’  How would Lucas know that?” Brody looked at me for a long moment, then at his lookalike son playing in the living room. He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe he said something else. Maybe we misunderstood.” “He said Timmy. I know he said Timmy. But even if he didn’t, why was he screaming at me to stop?  He couldn’t have seen that truck.” “Did you ask him?” “I did, but he wouldn’t answer me.” Brody called their son into the kitchen. “Lucas, why did you call your mom that name in the car?” The boy dropped his head. “It’s her name.” “Who said that was her name?” “My old dad.” I felt Brody’s eyes on me, but I was watching Lucas. “Why did you yell at me to stop?” Lucas looked at his shoes. “Cause I’m supposed to protect you.” I closed my eyes. In my head, I heard Layne say, “I’ll always protect you.” I began to cry. “Mommy, don’t,” Lucas pleaded, tugging at my sleeve. I found I was afraid to look at him. “Why don’t you go play, Bud?” Brody said. I opened my eyes and stared at my husband. He looked as scared and confused as I felt. After that day, Lucas didn’t speak of his old dad, and after a couple of months, I almost forgot. He was just Lucas again, a handsome little boy with eyes as blue as a June sky and a cowlick in the crown of his head, like his father. That fall, I decided I wanted to visit my mother and put flowers on Layne’s grave. Brody wanted to go with me, but I told him it was something I needed to do alone–at least the first time. Lucas was asleep when we passed the curve going in. Yellow leaves decorated the white crosses. This time, I didn’t mind. When I pulled up at my childhood home, I was surprised to see the yard neatly kept and the flowerbeds exploding with color. my mother sat in a chair on the front porch. She walked out to greet us and stood by the car while I roused my sleeping son. “Oh, my!” my mother said, placing a trembling hand to his cheek. “Avery, he’s beautiful.” Lucas blinked at the older woman and his small face creased in a frown. “You look … different.” “Different from what?” my mother asked with a laugh. “Did you show him pictures?” I looked at Lucas and thought of Layne. Of how different he’d think our mother looked. The past eleven years had not been kind. “Come in,” my mother said. “I made lunch.” “Mommy, no,” Lucas whispered. “The bad man–” My blood ran cold, but I patted my son’s back and whispered, “The bad man is gone.” The rest of the visit passed uneventfully, though Lucas was unusually quiet and clung to my side. At least until we walked to the cemetery. He ran ahead of us, chasing a butterfly. But he stopped and ran his fingers over the etching of one tombstone. I realized it belonged to Jimmy Hendricks. He paused and gave it a thoughtful look, then he ran ahead. He stopped at Layne’s grave. My mother shot me a surprised look, but I ignored her. Lucas played around the tombstones for a while, but he grew increasingly agitated and whiny. “Mom, I need to go,” I said finally. On the way out, Lucas began to cry as they approached the curve. “Timmy, stop!” he said softly. Without hesitation, I pulled over. I unbuckled my seatbelt, then extracted Lucas from his car seat. Hand in hand, we walked over to the row of crosses. Lucas sat on the ground, in the spot where I had watched my brother take his last breath. my son looked up at me tearfully. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I fell asleep and I couldn’t find you when I woke up. I got lost.” “It’s okay,” I whispered, feeling the tears slip down my cheeks. “It’s not,” he insisted. “I promised to protect you.” I folded the small boy in my arms. “You did more than that. You saved me.” “You forgive me?” “Of course,” I said, squeezing him tight. “You saved me.” And he wasn’t the only one. Brody worked late that night. Lucas had been in bed for hours when I saw his headlights turn into the drive. I ran out to meet him. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “I love you!” I blurted. He stared at me for a long moment, then he gave me one of those dazzling smiles. “Say it again.” I did, then I kissed him. Lucas’s night terrors stopped after that night, and he never mentioned his old life again. I hoped Layne had somehow found peace, because at last I had. Credit: Stephanie Scissom ( Facebook • Reddit ) � � MORE STORIES FROM AUTHOR : STEPHANIE SCISSO M
  • "An Amateur" Written by Lucretia Vastea When it comes to my car, I have one rule and one rule only: no hitchhikers. My car is everybody’s car. Really. If the good Samaritan had a car, I’d be in the bible. I had friends and family do everything to that tin can on wheels, including popping tires, busting radios, opening windows on rainy days, but hey! It’s just a car. It is my baby, a deep blue Range Rover I bought for myself with my self-earned money, but, at the end of the day… it’s just a car, right? It’s a useful thing to have when you want to go from point “x” to point “y”, but there are numerous cars out there. People, on the other hand, come in one edition each. If something bad happens to my car, yes, I’d be pissed and I’d have to invest a lot of money into fixing it or buy a new one, but if something bad happens to a person I care about… that cannot be fixed. Whether it’s mental or physical damage, I don’t care – if there are people in the mix, I’d much rather have my car minced to dust right before my eyes, than put someone in harm’s way. And this is exactly why I came up with this rule, when people ask me if they can borrow my car: no hitchhikers. I don’t care how harmless they look, just drive away! There are some sick fucks out there and the worst thing is, they are masters of disguise. Why take the risk in the first place? What happens to strangers is none of your business. You can make random acts of kindness on your way out of the supermarket, by giving the local homeless person an apple or something. Why confine yourself in a 2-square-meter-box with a total stranger, when you could just give him or her some coins or food? For Pete’s sake, give them money for a subway ticket, if there really is a place they need to get to. This way, you are both safe and you can get home with a clean conscience. Do whatever, just… please. No hitchhikers. Not my beloved ones, not in my car. It was late November: first snow of the year. It wasn’t supposed to get dark until about 6:30 p.m., but it was merely 5 p.m. and the sky was getting more depressed by the minute. ‘Winter is coming’. I laughed at my wannabe Jon Snow impression and ceased laughing as soon as I remembered that I used to watch Game of Thrones with my ex. That woman ruined so many shows for me… Julia dumped me half a year ago. She and I haven’t slept together in over 7 months before our relationship ended. I was not the one to blame here, I really gave it my all, got myself a premium membership at the gym and everything. And whenever I tried to wine and dine her, she played the ‘tired’ card, just to hide the fact that the other man she was seeing, had already wined and dined her that day, along with other stuff I would have liked to do to her. I was thinking about my ex when I caught movement far ahead. Just a figure in the distance, imitating a half-working windmill, to get a driver’s – any driver’s – attention. It was definitely not the first time I saw someone YMCA-ing me to pull over, but I never budged. No hitchhikers. People are monstrous creatures and I am not taking risks. I never even look in their direction, I don’t need to know what their faces look like. Why would I do that? To see their mugs later on the national news, alongside a cringe-worthy title like “roadkill with intent”? No, thank you, not me. I have enough shit going on as it is, I… I looked. She was young. If not a teenager, in her early 20s, or so I thought. She had long, beautiful legs, her black skinny jeans outlining that perfectly. She was wearing sneakers and, by the looks of her, she had walked quite a bit that day. ‘Her feet must be freezing’, I thought. The jacket she had on, was also made of denim and I own two of those, so I know that they’re way too thin for a snowy day. Funny enough, even though her outfit exclaimed ‘chilly summer night’ from all angles, she had a fur cap and gloves on. I couldn’t see her face, but her long, light brown hair was falling on her shoulders from underneath the cap beautifully, and her gloves… Jesus, those gloves looked like oven mitts. Oven mitts! Like, how can anybody resist a beautiful girl wearing oven mitts? Before realizing that I was slowing the car down, her face was close enough for me to catch green eyes and a smile of relief. Was I about to pick up a hitchhiker?! Scared for my life, I stepped on the gas like my life depended on it. Before she vanished from my rear-view mirror, I caught the sight of something else… thinking that I was going to give her a ride, she took her backpack off and, bewildered, let it fall to her feet. That was one big-ass backpack. It looked twice her size and just as heavy. I could still see her mouth was agape, before her outline blended in with the rest of the view I was leaving behind. ‘You are such a paranoid idiot!’ Julie’s words slammed against the inner side of my eardrums. It was her favourite thing to say. ‘Yes, my dad likes you! Yes, I locked the door! No, I’m not cheating on you!’. Even though my paranoia regarding that last one was right on the money, I am aware that I’m… overly-aware. The road was deserted and it was damn cold outside. Frostbite would start chewing at that girl’s toes, long before a car would pull over and, let’s be honest here, the hitchhikers aren’t the only ones who might be monsters in disguise… Law and behold, even paranoid people have a conscience. I’m no exception. The road was so empty, I risked driving in reverse. I could see she stopped walking the second she saw me coming back. She took a couple steps away from the car when I stopped next to her, lowering the passenger’s side window. “Need a ride?” She frowned at me, her oven mitts on the straps of her backpack. “Not sure.” “Come on, get in, it’s freezing cold out here.” “I don’t mean the ride, I mean you.” “Yes, well, your pallet of choice isn’t exactly abundant, now is it?” Her green eyes were piercing needles into my own. “Why did you run off on me like that?” “Let’s just say, I’m not a fan of hitchhikers.” She chuckled. “That makes two of us. Where are you going?” “Chapville.” “Are you taking the highway, or are you passing through Brightwood?” “You need to get to Brightwood?” “Yeah.” “Good, then that’s the road I’m taking. Put your luggage in the back.” I opened the trunk for her and heard a loud thud, as she let her bag drop. She closed the trunk and hurried to the seat next to me. She shuddered violently as soon as she entered my car. “Take your shoes off and bring your feet up to the heater.” She gave me a wide-eyed stare. ”Isn’t that… illegal or something?” “I’m quite certain, amputation bills are more expensive than police tickets. Put your seatbelt on. Should I turn the heat up?” “Yes, please.” I drove off as she fastened her seatbelt and brought her blue and purple socks on the air vent. She sighed in contempt and relaxed into the seat. “Thanks for changing your mind.” “Don’t mention it.” “I don’t look like a serial killer on second glance, do I?” “Good serial killers usually don’t.” She laughed. “Touché.” “Please don’t mind me asking, but what in the world are you doing on weather like this, in the middle of nowhere, with a sack of bricks weighing you down?” “Living la vida loca.” “Good thing I came back for you, ‘cause you’d be living la muerte loca about now.” She laughed so hard, I heard the seat shaking under her. “Did somebody watch Spanish soap operas with mommy when they were little?” Busted. “I won’t admit to anything… It was my aunt and there was just one TV in the house, all right?” She laughed even harder. Not gonna lie, it felt damn good to hear a woman laugh at my jokes again. “What’s your name?” My head shot in her direction so fast, my neck was an inch away from snapping. She had taken the hat off and her beautiful face was resting on her knees, smiling at me. When it came to women, I was always the one asking for names… I asked Julie for hers when we first met, and the girlfriend before her, and the girlfriend before her… but I was never the one asked. “Felix.” “I’m Mackenzie.” “Nice to meet you.” “Likewise. You going home from work?” I sighed my answer. “Yeah… “ “That’s the saddest ‘yeah’ I’ve ever heard from a man who’s gotten off work.” “Then, I guess you only asked men whose days weren’t as shitty as mine.” “Why, what happened?” “I think I lost a deal today…” “Ah crap, you in sales?” “Worse… real estate.” Very few people know this about me: I hate my job, but I love talking about it. My type of woman lets me complain about work – my ideal woman, however, asks questions. “How is that worse?” “If you were to choose between a mean mother-in-law and a violent husband, who would you choose?” “The monster-in-law.” “That’s sales. You have to confront the mother-in-law when she visits and, yes, the house needs to be spotless and you have to play perfect, but no matter how much crap she gives you, the visits always end and you get a chance to bitch about her to your girlfriends. The violent husband, on the other hand, is always there, and no matter how bad things get, unless you decide to finally leave the son of a bitch, not even your girlfriends will be of any help, ‘cause it’s not like you’d tell them anything, right?” “Have you ever been in sales?” Busted again. “Not exactly, but I have friends who are and, by the sound of it, things are going really good for them.” “Of course they are. If you’re the one with the ‘violent husband’ but keep quiet about it, your friends will think you have an amazing marriage, which is why they’ll want you to think that they’re doing amazing as well, so that they don’t feel inferior to you.” “That’s stupid. They’re my friends, why would they do that?!” “They’re in sales. It’s all about the competition.” “Have you ever been in sales?” “Yes, I have.” I turned my head her way. “It didn’t last long, though. Three months or so… I got fired for not reaching my target.” “Bummer.” “Not exactly. I was relieved, actually, I hated it. I just needed the money…” “Yeah… don’t we all.” “If you hate it so much, why don’t you just quit and do something you really like?” “That’s a great idea. You know what? I’ll brush the dust off my guitar tonight and quit my job first thing in the morning.” “Awesome! Go for it!” I laughed at her promptness. When I looked at her and saw earnest excitement on her face, I couldn’t help but remember how it was like, to be her age and dream big… “I can’t do that, kiddo… rent doesn’t pay itself, you know. Besides, this is the real world we live in. You can be the best there is – unless a good producer spots you, you’re doomed.” “Then, you’ll just have to place yourself in the eyesight of a good producer.” “Hah! Easier said than done. Besides, looks matter way more than talent nowadays.” “Which is exactly why should go for it!” My neck started to hurt from the times I twisted it to look at her. She was dead-serious. I hadn’t been so intrigued by someone in ages. “You’re mocking me.” “Why would you think that? Don’t you own a mirror? You got three in this car alone. Four, if you count the sun visor. You could put them to good use.” She winked at me. “Aha. So you are a serial killer.” She laughed again. “Either that, or I’m just somebody who listened to her heart and advises others to do the same.” “Fine, you win. I’m curious, what’s your story?” She put her feet down. “I don’t have one yet, but I’m getting there… I’d rather hear what yours is.” “You seem like a smart girl, and I’m sure you’ve already painted a picture.” “Oh, come on, play along.” Not wanting to risk a stiff neck the next day, I looked at her from the corner of my eye. She looked like an alert kitten, who was witnessing a can of her favourite food being opened right in front of her… grinning. “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” I did mind. Just looking at her made me feel old. “29…” “Pff… 29?! You talk like you’re 50. Do you have kids with a woman you hate?” “Uhm… no?” “Then, you shouldn’t be this lifeless.” “Let me know if you’ll be any different by the time you reach 29.” “That’s actually not too far ahead for me.” “You’re kidding! How old are you?” “26.” “Really? I would have said you’re 20… 22, tops.” “When I was 22, somebody said I look like I’m 27.” “Get out!” “I shit you not! But, back then, I did look like I was aging a year a day…” “How’s that?” “Med school.” I whistled. “Dr. Mackenzie?” “Sorry to disappoint, but I dropped out after 3 semesters.” “Why, what happened? No, wait, let me guess…” Amused expectation had her raise her eyebrows a little. I knew her for less than 15 minutes and could tell by the richness of her facial expressions, that she had a thing for performing arts. “Theatre?” Mackenzie gasped and applauded my answer. “Very good!” “I haven’t been to the theatre in ages. Which do you work in? I’d like to see you perform sometime.” “I’m still in acting school, but I plan on auditioning for Krestovski’s Faustus in January.” “As Margaret?” She paused for a couple of seconds, taking in the fact, that I was decently cultured. “Either her, or Mephisto.” “You’re kidding. You as Mephisto?” “What? You think I couldn’t pull it off?” She gave me a somehow seductive smirk. “Yup… I was right about you.” “What do you mean?” “You really are a serial killer.” She laughed again and I couldn’t help but notice that we were halfway to Brightwood. “Why are you slowing down?” I looked at the speedometer. She was right, I was slowing down. “I, uh… I don’t have my winter tires on… the weather is ruthless and I know some violent turns are coming up, so I don’t want to–” “Liar.” I looked at her and, this time, really looked at her… she was stunningly beautiful. Really… and I don’t mean that cover-girl/makeup commercial beauty. I mean that fierce beauty, the one that’s witty and clever and likes to snap at the most trivial things, just to get into a fight to make the sex better. “You’re slowing down because you want to make this ride last longer.” Busted. Again. “Can you blame me? I never picked up a hitchhiker before. My rides are never this interesting.” “I’m not complaining.” I had goosebumps run up and down my arms. Last time I felt like this, was when Julie finally decided to come in for wine after we had dinner at a fancy restaurant. It was our fifth date or so and she was a little drunk. We didn’t have sex, because she fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. We had sex the following morning, but… how can I put this nicely? I was never a morning person… “I think you’re really cool, Felix. I really appreciate you giving me a lift.” “Don’t mention it, Mackenzie. I’m happy I came back for you.” Her hand crept on my knee. Her face was composed, not throwing me glances to witness my reactions or anything. It was composed, as if she had done this to me numerous times before… she looked as if we were having dinner with two of her girlfriends, and her hand on my knee was her claiming ownership of me in front of everybody. I liked her hand there. I didn’t want it retrieved. “Can I ask you something?” Her answer was as silent, as the turn of her head towards me. “Why are you carrying that bag of bricks in weather like this?” She removed her hand from my leg. “I didn’t know it was going to get this cold. I was planning on walking home.” “Where were you?” Her head snapped so suddenly in my direction, I heard her hair whip against the headrest. “That’s none of your business.” She was right. “You’re right. It isn’t.” Mackenzie sighed and I drove for a couple of minutes in silence. I wanted to apologize, so that I could get her to talk again, but I didn’t know what I had to apologize for… was I too intrusive? So was she, why would I have to apologize for a feature we both had? “Have you ever been cheated on?” Her voice sounded like the welcome bell of a candy shop. Big, angry snowflakes were trying to get through to us, but the windshield was ruthless. I loosened the pressure on the acceleration pedal. Julie popped into my head. Even though we had so many good memories together, I always went back to her wearing that horrible mustard-colored sweatshirt – the one she wore when she dumped me for her trainer. “Yeah.” “How did it make you feel?” “That’s a stupid question.” Thirty seconds passed before I managed to get out of my head. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me…” “Don’t be. You’re right, it was a stupid question.” This time, whether I liked it or not, I had to slow down, because the fog in front of me was turning from water to milk. “I wanted to rip her head off.” My hand was squeezing the gear shift so tightly, I thought it would crack. “I was angry with Julie. I was angry with her lover. But, most of all, I was angry with myself… I was angry with everyone.” I heard a crescendo sigh coming from my right. Mackenzie’s beautiful face from the side was outlined by a wet trail, cutting from her cheek to her chin. “Me too.” She looked at me… and the world stopped. “I too wanted to rip his head off.” We drove in silence the rest of the way. As we saw the shield welcoming us to Brightwood, my traveling companion asked me to pull over and just leave her anywhere. I wanted to drive her home, I insisted. First road to the right, then left, then the second building on the right and I stopped the car. “I knew picking up strangers is not for me… look what happens: first time I do this and I made you cry.” She laughed. “It’s good to cry. And I can’t afford a therapist, so…” Her pretty face met mine with the most genuine smile she had given me yet. “Thank you.” I nodded. She reached for the handle. “How did you deal with it?” There was no need for her to ask what I was talking about – she knew. “Well, you know what they say about urges…” I was all ears. “I can’t say I’m a big fan of Nike, but they do have this one slogan that is really inspiring.” “‘Just do it’?” “Aha.” She reached for the handle again, but I just had to press further. “And? Did you?” Her smile was a sad one, but there was a very strong hint of satisfaction within it. “My name is not really Mackenzie. I wasn’t supposed to go on this trip I just returned from… Nobody saw you, but in case anybody asks, you’ve never seen me in your life. All right?” I froze. She was waiting for a better reaction, so I nodded and muttered ‘I see’. “Just so you know, I memorized your license plate number. Please don’t do anything I wouldn’t want you to.” On closer look, her eyes were too green. No eyes were ever that green. “Wasn’t planning on it,” I told her. My heart was pounding in my throat. “Thank you for the ride. Really.” “Don’t mention it.” She got out of my car and as soon as she entered her building, the wig and the contacts came off, before the gatekeeper got a chance to spot her. Lucky for me, my head was still clear enough for me to remember that I had to make another stop before going home. I went directly to the deep forest river on the opposite side of town. I popped the trunk open and, as expected, Mackenzie, or whatever her name was, was a terrible amateur: her backpack was bleeding from all angles. Fuck it, I was planning on washing the car anyway. I put on the oven mitts she had left behind and dragged the bloody mess on the brim of the precipice, where I let it roll down into the river. Good thing the water didn’t freeze. As a matter of fact, its surface was quite clear. I could still make out the margins of my own backpack – the one I dropped in there six months prior. I guess I could have told Mackenzie that Felix isn’t my real name either. She and I have so much in common. Now that I know where she lives, I’ll make sure to meet her again. If I had known that picking up hitchhikers would be so entertaining, I would have started doing it years ago. Credit: Lucretia Vastea  ( Official Website •  Facebook • Twitter • Reddit )