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Vault

Aug 15

LET ME GO

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"Let Me Go"

Written by Stephanie Scissom

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 22 MINUTES

“I can’t sleep,” she whispered as she crawled into bed and spooned against my back.

“Jesus, you’re cold,” I murmured.

She only snuggled closer, throwing her leg over mine. I lay there for a few beats, caught between my alcohol-induced sleep and wakefulness, until I realized whatever this cold thing pressed against my back was, it was not Danae. She’d been in the grave three months now.

My eyes flew open, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Adrenaline surged through me, but I lay paralyzed except for my eyes and my thundering heart. The icy thing holding me never moved. Instead of it taking on my heat, I took on its chill.

I fought against it, and somehow managed to wiggle my toes. Then my whole body spasmed, pitching me out of bed and onto the floor.

The crack of my face against the hardwood dazzled me and the coppery taste of blood filled my mouth, but at least I could move. I struggled onto all fours, afraid to lift my head, terrified I’d find some dead, exsanguinated version of Danae peering over the mattress at me.

A glance at the clock on my nightstand dispelled some of my night terror. Shit! I should’ve left ten minutes ago. I couldn’t be late again. Even though I half-expected an icy hand to cover mine, I grabbed the mattress and pulled myself to my feet.

The empty bed held a tangle of sheets and pillows, but no dead, accusing wife. I didn’t dare take time to shower, or even brush my teeth. I threw on my uniform and ran out the door. This job was all I had now, and I sure as hell wasn’t in any shape to find a new one.

At the hospital, I swung my truck into the Emergency parking area, grabbed my cigarettes from the seat and ran inside. I clocked in with twenty-eight seconds to spare.

Tony, my nightshift partner, frowned when I burst into the Security office. “Dude, you look like shit,” he said.

I glanced down at my half-tucked shirt and my rumpled pants. I hadn’t even brushed my hair.

“I’m sorry, man. I haven’t been able to sleep, and when I finally did, I crashed.”

 

“Come on,” he said, and motioned me to follow him. Like a chastened toddler, I did. We ended up in the family restroom on the first floor. Tony ducked out while I washed my face with pink liquid soap and dried it with paper towels. He reappeared in a moment with a plastic tub that contained a patient welcome kit– toothbrush, toothpaste, comb and deodorant.

“I’m worried about you,” he said.

Join the club, I thought.

My mother, my brothers, and Abi all worried. Looking at my red eyes and drawn face in the mirror — hell, even I worried about me.

“I can’t sleep. And when I do, it’s these fucking nightmares.”

“Do you take anything to help you sleep? Melatonin, Ambien?” he asked.

“Does Jack Daniels count?”

He didn’t smile. Instead, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Jake, we’re all real sorry about Danae. We loved her. We love you. But you gotta pull it together, man. You did all you could do.”

 

I nodded, and he clapped his hand on my shoulder. Then he left me alone to make myself presentable. When I came out a few minutes later, Tony had already left to make his checks. I grabbed my clipboard to make mine.

Hospital security wasn’t a bad gig. On the weekend, a lot of the areas–like surgery–were empty. Of course, tonight’s full moon would probably have the psych ward hopping.

By the time I’d done my first walkthrough, I felt better. At least I’d slept some, before the incident this morning. I wandered down to the Emergency waiting. Twice a day, local churches brought in free meals for the families camped out in these waiting areas. I nodded at the volunteers I knew, fixed a styrofoam to-go plate and stepped outside.

Mack grinned when he saw me and stubbed out his cigarette. He carefully placed the half-smoked cigarette in a tin, tucked it in his pocket and reached for the plate I offered. “It’s the Baptists tonight, ain’t it?” he asked. “Those little women are the best cooks.”

I laughed. “Yeah, you’re gonna like it. Fried chicken. Want me to ask any of those little women if they’re single?”

“Shoot, no, son,” he replied. “Papa is a rolling stone.”

We shot the breeze for a few minutes, then I told him I needed to head back in. As always, he thanked me, and as always, I told him no need. Technically, we weren’t supposed to feed the homeless, but we all loved Mack. I wasn’t about to let a decorated war veteran sit out here hungry when a table creaked with food inside. I knew Abi took him breakfast before she left, and I suspected others looked out for him, too.

Walking back through Emergency, I caught a flash of Abi turning the corner and hurried to catch up. I tugged her blond ponytail and she turned to smile at me.“Hey, Favorite,” she said. “What’s up?”

She’d called me that as long as I could remember. We’d grown up next door to each other. My three brothers, at some point or another, had all competed for her attention. I was the Favorite, however, or as she liked to tease them– #1 Fults. The others would alternate being #2 and #3, except for Joe, who annoyed her so much he was always #4, or she’d tell him he was her least favorite Fults. Even as adults, Abi and I still lived next door to each other. She’d helped me get this job, and also tipped me off to the house I lived in now. Days like this made me thankful I lived only five minutes from the hospital.

“Not much,” I said. “Seems quiet so far.”

“Shh!” she admonished. “They’ll hear you.”

I’d probably opened the gates of Hell just by uttering that. To say a night was easy always seemed to curse it. We walked to the elevator and the doors opened before I could even press the button. We looked at each other. “Abracadabra!” I said, and motioned her inside.

“So, how are you?” she asked.

“I’m good.”

She frowned. “Liar.”

“Good enough, then,” I said.

I could tell by her face that she knew that, too, was a lie. “You did all you could do,” she said.

“I wish people would stop saying that!” I snapped, before I could stop myself.

She said nothing, just punched the fourth-floor button. I sighed.

“I’m sorry. It’s … I failed her, Abs. We were fighting and I just drove off.”

“There’s no way you could’ve known,” she insisted.

I wiped a hand down my face. “I told her I wanted a divorce.”

Abi’s eyes widened. “You never told me that. How come you never told me that?”

The elevator doors dinged open. I followed Abi out and she motioned for me to wait. After a brief, muffled conversation with another nurse, Abi returned and dragged me to the staff break room. She pushed me into a chair and said, “Talk.” When I didn’t speak, she said, “Halverson?”

The whole hospital had buzzed with rumors of an affair. I hadn’t told Abi when Danae finally confessed, because that would’ve destroyed any fragment of friendship they had left. I didn’t suppose it mattered now.

“Halverson was part of it. She admitted it.”

Abi shook her head, her green eyes narrowed. “Again? She cheated on you again? With Halverson?”

The ‘again’ threw me for a moment, and I wondered if there had been others. But no, Abi would’ve told me. We were too close to shield each other from bitter truths. She meant the time three years ago, before Danae and I married.

Abi’s disgust at Halverson’s name stung a little, because she didn’t know the worst of it. Not only had Danae slept with the old, gruff doctor, but she had also done it for a price.

“She confessed, said it was a mistake and begged me to forgive her. That wasn’t even our real issue. She was back on the pills again. Oxys and Somas. Halverson wrote her the script.”

Abi gasped. “You should turn him in! He knew her history. He should lose his license.”

“I can’t prove he knew. I’d just look like the bitter, cuckold husband.”

“I never really believed the rumors about them. I even asked her point-blank one day. She denied it, and I believed her. I’m so sorry, Jake.”

Abi didn’t get that it wasn’t the affair that bothered me most. Danae said that it was just sex, and I believed her. She could shut herself off in ways that I didn’t understand. She said it was because of childhood abuse, a coping mechanism. At times, I was closer to her than anyone, but there were places in her heart where even I was a stranger.

Abi and Danae had gotten along well enough, I suppose, but I never doubted where Abi’s loyalty lay. Danae had always been a little jealous of her, and she absolutely hated that Abi called me Favorite, but I’d made it clear when we started dating that my friendship with Abi was non-negotiable. I’d never been unfaithful, never given Danae a reason to doubt me. She couldn’t say the same.

“We fought again that day. I’d already thrown away all the pills I’d found, but I guess she had a stash. She kept falling asleep in her food. I fucking hated that. Still, she denied it. I told her I wouldn’t live with someone I couldn’t trust. So, I got in my truck and I left.”

I closed my eyes, remembering that awful day. Danae had chased me into the yard, crying and begging me to stay, but I’d jumped in my truck and roared off. She tried to call me a dozen times, but I kept hitting Ignore on my phone. Then I got that text. By the time I made it back home, it was almost too late. Hell, I guess it had been too late, because even though she’d lived for three days, she’d never regained consciousness. I got lost in that memory, of busting down the bathroom door. Of her pale face sinking in that swirling red water.

Abi squeezed my hand. “Stop,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. Danae had a history of depression. She tried to kill herself the first time long before she started working here. Long before she ever met you.”

“That’s why I should’ve been more careful. I saw one attempt, remember? I knew how fragile she was.”

“You were not responsible for her happiness.You didn’t know she’d do that. You are not God.”

My pager buzzed and for once, I was grateful. I looked down at the screen and said, “I gotta go. I have a transport.”

“Okay,” she said. “But swing back around “ later.” When we stood, she hugged me. “I love you, Favorite. We’re gonna get you through this.”

“Love you, too, Abs.”

The worst part of my job was definitely the transports. Carla, the nursing supervisor, waited for me in the ER.

“Hey, good lookin’,” she said. “Ready to take a ride?”

“Anytime.”

I liked Carla. She was good at her job and strong as an ox. If I had to do a transport with anyone, I’d just as soon it be her. But I grimaced when she led me to exam room #3–the same room they’d wheeled Danae to when we first arrived.

Thankfully, a sheet already covered the body on the bed. “Is it a child?” I asked.

“Naw, she’s in her twenties, but she’s a little thing. You could probably just throw her over your shoulder.”

She didn’t mean any disrespect. That’s the way things were in hospitals. Gallows humor to deal with all the horror.

We transferred the body from the bed to the gurney, then took the staff elevators to the basement. Carla and I made small talk, then she asked how I was holding up. Sometimes it was nice to work with people who knew what I was going through, and who treated me and supported me like family, but sometimes I wished I was just another guy in another place, where no one knew anything about me.

Carla left, her job completed. I pulled up the computer screen, opened the morgue book, and moved the sheet to look at the dead girl’s toe tag. The tattoo on her foot stopped me cold.

A daisy.

Danae had one in the same spot. She’d gotten it on our first date. I’d taken her to a little hole-in-the-wall bar in Nashville to see one of my favorite bands, Goodbye June. She’d fallen in love with their song “Daisy” and I’d fallen in love with her. She’d gotten the tattoo that night, on 10th Avenue. I’d taken to singing “You drive me crazy, Daisy,” to her, and it evolved into my pet name for her.

Though I knew the girl on the slab wasn’t her, that the tattoo wasn’t even the same, it spooked me. Tendrils of this afternoon’s nightmare brushed me, threatened to wrap around me again. I could almost hear her say, “I can’t sleep.”

I forced it from my mind and hurried to get the girl’s information down so I could get out of there. I completed the computer work, then looked back at the tag to double-check the spelling of her last name.

Her cell phone blared to life with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” and I jumped backwards, banging my head on a shelf. It would’ve been gruesomely funny if Carla had still been in here with me, but in my current state, it scared the shit out of me. The song blasted on and on as I scribbled my entry in the morgue notebook. I didn’t know how her phone even had a signal down here. I had to carry a pager. With the thick concrete walls of this place, I was lucky to get a signal even outside the basement.

Only when the morgue door closed behind me did I feel like I could breathe again. But my relief was short-lived. When I approached the elevators, the doors opened without me getting anywhere near the button. I knew it was nothing to freak out about, probably some kid messing with buttons, but I was extra jumpy today. I almost didn’t have the nerve to get in it. Things had been happening around me for a while now. Creepy things. Objects moved around the house, phone calls with no caller information, her songs on the radio–even the old, obscure ones. I didn’t know whether to attribute it to too much alcohol, too little sleep or losing my damn mind. But any of those things were better than the alternative that maybe Danae was haunting me.

Thankfully, the next few hours passed uneventfully. I went to find Abi again around midnight for lunch. She looked up when the elevator doors opened. I waved and headed down the hall toward her. As I walked past one of the rooms, a sound from inside distracted me. Beep, beep, beep in a frantic rhythm, like someone’s heart thumping about 170 beats per minute. It sounded so odd that I stopped to listen. It slowed until it was more like beep… beep… beep. Then it stopped altogether.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Someone’s coding.”

Abi gave me a confused look, but didn’t move.

“Hurry!” I shouted, and threw open the door.

An old man sitting up in his hospital bed glowered at me, then turned his attention back to The Price is Right. The noise–the beeps–someone had just spun the fucking wheel.

Abi appeared at my shoulder. She snickered in my ear, then she burst out laughing. She laughed until her eyes shone bright with tears.

Feeling really stupid and trying not to smile, I shut the door and muttered, “Asshole.”

Abi laughed even harder, until she was hugging herself and leaning against the wall. Tasha, another nurse, came out of one of the rooms and said, “What’s so funny?”

“Code Bob!” Abi squeaked, and I couldn’t help it. I laughed too.

“It’s Code Drew now,” I said. “Come on, jerk, and I’ll buy you lunch.”

“Give me, like, two minutes.” She swiped at her eyes. “God, I needed that.”

It took her more like five, but then she grabbed her purse and we headed to the cafeteria. I remembered what she’d said about needing the laugh and asked, “Rough night?”

‘No,” she said. “Not bad. You?”

I told her about the girl in the morgue, thinking I’d get another laugh but she squeezed my forearm and said, “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t want to talk about bad things with her. She had heard enough, been there for me enough. She’d been working Emergency the night I’d carried Danae’s dripping, almost lifeless body through the double doors, screaming for someone to help me. I’d driven Danae to the hospital myself. After trying to tourniquet the mangled wrist she’d slashed so deep and vertically, I’d panicked and thrown her in my truck. We lived so close to the hospital I thought it would be faster than waiting for an ambulance. Abi told me that had been the right reaction, although it hadn’t made much difference.

The cafeteria, as usual, didn’t have much selection. I grabbed a pre-wrapped cheeseburger and Abi got a plastic-wrapped salad. When she reached for it, her sleeve pulled up and I noticed the ugly purple bruises on her wrist.

“Hey!” I said. “What the hell?” I grabbed her arm before she could stop me, and turned her wrist to inspect it. Those were definitely fingerprints. “Did Connor–”

“What? No!” She looked around. “No,” she said again. “It was a patient. One of the psych admits.”

She answered quickly enough, and her answer made sense, but something flashed in her eyes before she pulled away to grab a juice from the cooler. I waited until I’d paid for our stuff and sat to say, “Look, if Connor hurt you–”

“Shh, no. I told you what happened, so drop it. Please.”

No chance of that. Abi meant way too much to me. The thought of someone hurting her made my gut clench. And it felt good, to feel something besides pain and grief. I wasn’t going to drop it, but next time I mentioned it, I’d be taking it up with him. I’d despised Connor since the day I met him. The arrogant, overbearing doctor was totally wrong for her. She’d told me the same about Danae–the totally wrong for me part–but maybe she should’ve warned Danae instead.

“Hey,” Abi said. “Beep beep.”

“I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

“Oh, God, no!” she said, and I flipped my Coke lid at her. She grinned at me, then said, “So, your Mom called me today. She wanted to know what I thought about having a surprise birthday party for you next week.”

“What? Please tell me you shut that down.”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course I did. I got your back, loser.”

I thanked her and toyed with the salt shaker. “My mom calls you more than she calls me. I don’t think she’s ever given up on the idea of us together.”

Abi made a face. “Uh, excuse me. You should be so lucky.”

“There’s a problem with my eyes,” I said. “I can’t get them off you!”

She grinned, then made an ‘ohhhh’ sound. “I’m having a problem with mine, too, because I can’t see you getting anywhere with me.”

We laughed at our inside joke. I’d had the distinct pleasure of sitting beside her at a bar one night when some guy tried that on her, and been shot down in flames.

It felt good to laugh again, and to hang out with Abi. But it also made me feel guilty. How could I laugh about anything, when my wife was dead?

After lunch, I did my next round of walkthroughs, then went back to the security office to watch the waiting room monitors for the homeless who sometimes slipped in, or for gang activity.

Everything seemed calm. I scanned all ten waiting areas. Most everyone seemed to have bedded down for the night, though a few cell phones glowed in the dim light. The TV still played on the third floor, but the people inside didn’t seem to mind. Three of them slept while a fourth scrolled on his phone. As I watched, he laid his cell down and pulled the blanket over his head.

I don’t know why it caught my eye. I almost missed it. Opposite the recliners, in one of the chairs, something white and smoky rose. For a moment, I panicked, thinking ‘fire.’ But it didn’t look like a fire. It looked like … someone standing. I gaped at the screen, and the thing seemed to take on a shape. It almost had a face, which it turned toward the guy with the cell. The TV winked off, pitching the room in darkness. The televisions here were old. No remotes, no timers. To shut it off, a person had to physically touch it.

The guy’s cell phone lit up. He held it over his head like a flashlight and scanned the room. Then he lay back down.

At that moment, Tony walked in, giving me my next jump of the night.

“Dude, you have to see this,” I said. “Tell me what this is.”

I replayed the video for him. He frowned, then watched it again. “That’s just some distortion in the tape.”

“And the TV?”

He shrugged. “Maybe the power blinked.”

Tony was one of the most practical people I’d ever known. If a leprechaun came through the door riding a unicorn, I’m sure he’d logic the hell out of it until he had a reasonable explanation. But he wasn’t the one I really wanted to show this to. I wanted to show Abi.

“I’m going to walk around,” I said.

When I stood, he grabbed my arm. “Hey, I have something for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small square of wrapped up paper towel. “Ambien. It helps me sleep. I thought you might want to try a couple of mine and if you like it, get someone to write you a script.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said, and took it from him. I’d actually been thinking about it. Anything to chase away the nightmares.

I got in the elevator, and after some hesitation, I hit the button to the third floor. I had to check that waiting room.

The people inside slept–all four of them–and the TV remained off. I moved over to the chair, expecting something white and spectral rise from it at any moment, but nothing did. No ghostie. But the chair was not empty. A single daisy lay on the seat.

Unnerved, I stalked back to the elevator and went to Abi’s floor. On my way to the nurses’ desk, someone called to me from one of the rooms. I peeked inside and the elderly woman on the bed motioned me closer.

“Ma’am? Can I help you with something?”

“I’m cold,” she said. “Can you get me an extra blanket?”

I got her one out of the closet and covered her.

“Thank you, dear. But what about her?”

“Who?” I asked, looking at the unoccupied bed on the other side.

She pointed behind me, at an empty corner.

“The girl in the pink gown says she’s cold, too.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. Turning on my heel, I ran from the room. I forgot about Abi, forgot everything except what it felt like to drag a beautiful, pale girl from a tub filled with hot water and blood, and how it had stained her white gown pink.

Somehow, I made it through the rest of the shift. I didn’t care about the ghost in the waiting room, or the ghost in the old woman’s room. I only worried about the ghost waiting for me at home. That’s one reason I stopped by the gas station near home and picked up a six-pack of Bud Lite.

My house didn’t feel like a ghost lived here. It didn’t feel like anyone did, myself included. I still didn’t have a door on the bathroom, though I’d thrown the splintered one in back of my truck and hauled it to the dump. I took the Ambien, drained three of the beers and climbed in the shower.

I ran the water hot–as hot as Danae had in this same tub. I closed my eyes under the spray but I had to open them again because all I saw was her face. The pink, steaming water. Her gored wrist, and the one that wasn’t, because she’d done such a great job on the first one she hadn’t been able to finish the other.

Shit, I did not need to be thinking of this before I tried to sleep. I considered trying to stay up, but there had been too much of that lately. I desperately craved sleep. Yawning, I cut off the shower and grabbed a towel. After drying my face, I glanced at the mirror.

The words LET ME GO stood out on the mirror, scrawled on steamed glass.

It hit me like a punch. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how long it had been there, or if it was even real. I wandered to the kitchen in my boxers and peered out the window at Abi’s house. Connor’s Mustang sat in her drive. Glancing at my bedroom door, I couldn’t go in there. Instead, I sat on the couch, finished the six-pack and passed out.

* * * * * *

I woke in my own bed after more dreams of my dead wife snuggling next to me, trying to escape the chill of her grave. Thankfully, the bedroom light was on. The clock on the nightstand read 9:43. Panic froze me before I realized this was Monday, my day off. I took a deep breath and rolled onto my back. The space beside me was empty.

When I threw back the blanket, my heart stalled. Mud stained the bottom of my white sheets, and my feet. Grimy footprints covered my bedroom floor. My heart thumped painfully when I realized there were two sets. Mine leading into the room, and a smaller set going in both directions.

I used to dream sometimes of chasing a poisonous snake through my house. I was scared to go after it, but even more terrified to let it get away, because then I wouldn’t know where it was. That was how I felt looking at those footprints. I didn’t want to follow them because of what they might lead to, but I couldn’t stand not knowing either. I tracked them through the living room into the kitchen.

Food wrappers littered the counter, like a starving person had raided the cabinets. A half-empty peach Nehi sat on the marbled surface. Danae’s favorite drink. I hated those things. After she’d died, I hadn’t been able to throw them out.

The footsteps led out the door. I hesitated, my hand on the knob, childishly afraid to step outside into the darkness.

I glanced out the window at Abi’s house. Connor’s Mustang still sat in the drive, parked next to her Camaro. But as I turned away, something caught my eye. A cigarette glowing in the darkness. A flash of blond hair in the driver’s seat of her car. I watched for a moment, but she simply sat there. I’d never known Abi to smoke. My curiosity and need to talk to her superseded my fear of the dark. I walked outside in my bare feet.

I rapped on the window and she jumped. Then she looked back at the house and rolled the window down. She’d been crying, though she ducked her head and tried to hide her swollen eyes from me. All the crazy thoughts in my head dissipated like the smoke from her cigarette, replaced by concern for her.

“Abi, what’s wrong?”

She opened her mouth, then she began to cry again. I jerked open the door and took her in my arms. She clung to me for a moment, then we heard Connor yell from inside.

“Go!” she said. “Go, please. I’ll–I’ll be over in a little bit. I’ve got to end this my own way. If you’re here, it’ll be worse.”

“What? You’re breaking up with him?”

“Abigail!” Connor yelled.

I hated how he called her that, Abigail, like Abi wasn’t good enough for him. Abi was too good for all of us. She shut the car door, dropped her cigarette in the drive and ground it with her heel.

Then she did something that stunned me. She grabbed me and kissed me.

When she broke away, I stood there, paralyzed. She started walking toward her house. Then, over her shoulder, she shot me a tremulous smile and said, “I have wanted to do that my entire life. I’ll talk to you later, Favorite.”

I didn’t know what to do. I listened for a moment, but didn’t hear yelling, so I walked back to my house to wait.

I stopped in the middle of my yard, staring at Danae’s flower bed. All of the daisies had been dug up. Daisies and clumps of mud covered my lawn.

Had I done that?

Periodically, I stole glances at Abi’s house through the kitchen window as I cleaned up the mess, then showered. I didn’t know what to think. Abi and I had never been like that, though. Not that I hadn’t thought about it over the years. I mean, who wouldn’t? Even though it felt like a betrayal, that kiss had felt right.

“Let me go.”

Danae’s voice startled me, clear as a bell in that empty living room. I jumped, then turned around, half-expecting to see her behind me. Nothing.

I grabbed an 8×10 wedding photo off the wall and slammed it on the floor. Glass flew everywhere.

You let me go!” I shouted. “You left me. You left me, Danae.”

My cell rang. I grabbed it up, expecting Abi, but it was the hospital. Lanny, one of the night shift nurses, said, “Man, I hate to bother you on your night off, but it’s Mack. I think it’s a stroke. He’s pretty bad. And he’s asking for you.”

I didn’t know what to do about Abi, so I sent her a text that read, “Mack’s in intensive care. I’m headed to the hospital.”

I guess I was a mile down the road when I realized my CD was playing the same song, over and over. “Let Me Go,” by 3 Doors Down.

At the hospital, Lanny met me at the desk. “Glad you made it. I don’t think he has long. He keeps saying your name. I thought–”

“Thank you,” I interrupted. “Where is he?”

Of course. Exam room #3.

Mack’s eyes were closed when I stepped around the curtain and I thought he was already gone, but then he opened them and beckoned me.

I think I read his lips more than anything, but he said, “Danae.”

“Danae?”

He said something else, but I couldn’t hear, so I leaned down. He said, “Contract.”

Then he died.

The word mystified me. What contract?

“Goodbye, Mack,” I said, and walked outside.

Numb. I felt so numb, and I couldn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t know what Danae wanted from me, and I sure as hell didn’t know about any contract. If only I could talk to her … then I realized maybe I could.

I caught the elevator to the fourth floor and found myself standing outside the old lady’s door, the one who’d mentioned the girl in the pink gown. If she’d talked to Danae once, maybe she could talk to her again. I knocked.

“Come in,” she called.

Thankfully, she still didn’t have a roommate.

“Ma’am, I don’t know if you remember me–”

“You brought me a blanket,” she said. “I’m not senile yet.” I gave her a polite laugh, but my smile faded when she added, “The girl in the pink gown talks about you. She says your name is Jake.”

“Yes,” I said. “My name is Jake. Did she say anything else?”

The old woman reached for my hand, and I gave it to her. She squeezed it with her frail fingers. “She said you have to let her go. She can’t move on until you let her go.”

“What does that mean?”

“She says there’s a contract she can’t break.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about a contract. I don’t know what she means.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

I thanked her and left. Halfway to the parking lot, my cell phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and froze when I saw the incoming caller ID.

Danae calling …

Her cell phone lay in a kitchen drawer, disconnected and dead for weeks now. I hit the Accept button and said, “Hello?”

The crackle of static filled my ear, but the pounding of my pulse nearly drowned it out. I tried to say hello again, but my mouth went dry.

A voice broke through, gritty and shrieking, but undeniably Danae.

“Hurry!” she screamed. “Hurry!”

Then she shouted something that knocked the breath from me.

“Abi!”

I jumped in my truck and tore out of the parking lot.

Connor’s car still sat in her driveway, but I didn’t care. I took her front steps two at a time, then banged on her door. Something crashed. Fueled by adrenaline, I jerked the knob and barreled my way inside.

Connor straddled her on the living room floor, choking her. Abi’s small hands beat ineffectively at him, her face an ugly mottled red.

I grabbed him in a headlock and yanked him backwards. He let her go to defend himself, and Abi scuttled backwards like a crab, gasping for air.

We tumbled around her living room, trading blows and knocking over furniture. I finally found my feet and hauled him to his, jerking him out the front door. I tried to push him down the front steps, but he grabbed a fistful of my shirt and we both went.

Sirens screamed in the distance and soon strobing blue lights lit Abi’s yard. Rough hands jerked us apart and they hauled both of us to the station.

Nearly three hours later, I sat with Abi on her front steps, holding an ice bag to my eye and drinking a Jack and Coke.

“What happened?” I asked her.

She didn’t speak, and it took some prodding to get it out of her. They’d been fighting about me.

Abi had come home from the grocery store and found me passed out in Danae’s flower bed. She’d helped me inside, inciting Connor’s jealousy and rage. The second set of muddy footprints had belonged to her.

“I meant to come back over and help clean up,” she said. “But things got a little crazy.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I simply squeezed her hand.

“I’ve known he was wrong for me for a long time, but I didn’t want to admit it. I thought I could change him, but all I did was harm myself.”

Harm myself …

Suddenly, I realized what contract Danae meant. I jumped up and said, “Abi, I’ll explain everything in a little while, but I need to go find something.”

“Can I help?”she asked, as I started across the lawn to my place.

“I think I have to do this alone. Can I come over to talk later?”

“You better,” she said.

It took me nearly an hour, but I finally found it, tucked in a drawer of Danae’s jewelry box. I lay across our bed to read it.

Danae’s first suicide attempt had been in her teens, but her second had been about a year after we’d started dating. She’d told me about her battle with depression, but I’d never seen it coming, never had a clue how bad it was until I’d walked into that apartment that day and found her sprawled on the floor, empty prescription bottle in her hand. It’d been a close call that day, too.

A few days later, we’d been lying in her hospital bed together and I’d begged her to never do that again. She’d promised, then made a joke about shaking on it, or drawing up a contract.

“I like that,” I’d said, and she’d taken it more seriously than I’d thought. The next day, she’d presented me with this.

I, Danae Roberts, make a commitment to living. I will not harm myself or anyone else in any way. I will not attempt suicide, or any other self-injury. If I begin to have thoughts of harming myself:

1) I will try to identify specifically what is upsetting me.

2) I will review alternatives to self-harm, such as thinking about my friends, family and my hot, supportive boyfriend, Jake.

3) I will seek out a responsible, caring and supportive person if thoughts of self- harm continue.

4) If at this time I do not feel I can control my behavior, I will contact 911 or the nearest emergency room.

She’d signed it with a flourish, then made me witness and date it.

* * * * * *

“I’m sorry you couldn’t keep this promise,” I said. “But you are no longer bound by it. I hope you find peace, Daisy.”

I burned the contract over the bathroom sink and washed the ashes down the drain.

Credit: Stephanie Scissom (Facebook Reddit)

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  • The Halloween Mask Written by Craig Groshek and Blair Daniels Ding! I jolted awake. My phone lit up on the nightstand. It showed one new notification: Motion detected at your doorstep. 3:17 AM. My heart pounded as my fingers slipped across the screen. I clicked on the security camera video feed. A man stood on my doorstep. He stayed so still, I would’ve thought it was a photograph, if not for the bugs fluttering by every few seconds. His body melted into the shadows around him, but his face shone brightly. Or—not his face. A white mask. It was covered in blood. He stared straight at the camera, completely still, mouth twisted in a grin. * * * * * * It all started when I ordered the Halloween mask. Alicia and I decided to host the neighborhood Halloween party this year. I’d shelled out hundreds of dollars on plastic skulls, purple streamers, and even one of those candy bowls with the animatronic hand in the middle. “We still need to decide what to dress up as,” my wife said, as she neatly stacked the boxes in the corner. “I was thinking maybe Morticia and Gomez—” “No. That’s cliché.” Alicia rolled her eyes. “So what if it’s cliché? It’s just a neighborhood party.” “It has to be perfect.” “Well, whatever it is, you better decide soon. The party’s next weekend.” I scrolled through costumes online, looking for something terrifying. Something our neighbors would remember for years to come. Last year, the party was hosted by my rival neighbor, David Chandler. Ugh. Perfectly handsome, BMW-driving David. My very own Ned Flanders, one-upping me on everything from lawn care to job promotions. Last year he threw an incredible party, dressed as the clown from It . He even jump-scared half the guests at various points throughout the evening. People were still talking about how awesome it was. I had to do better. “What about that?” Alicia asked, pointing to a plain white mask. It looked similar to a Michael Myers mask. White plastic, forming the shape of a man’s face, with cut-outs for the eyes and the mouth. “You could make it your own. Add blood, or stitches, or something.” “True.” I clicked it, and Google took me to some costume website I’d never heard of before. I added it to my cart, and after scouring the web for some promo codes—I didn’t have much money left after all I’d spent on decorations—found a sketchy-looking website with what appeared to be a legitimate promo URL displayed, with the offer code worked into it. Without thinking, I clicked it. As soon as I did so, I was redirected somewhere that was definitely not the website displayed in the URL. Damn it , I thought, I should have copied and pasted the link instead of clicking it directly. As I pondered how many viruses I’d just been infected with, and before I could do anything else, a strange message popped up, taking up my entire screen. CODE INPUT SUCCESSFULLY SELECT YOUR SCARE 1. #$@ 2. &+? 3. *&# “What the hell is this?” I muttered. I tried to just click away from the dialog box, but it wouldn’t disappear. Finally, against my better judgment, I clicked the first option, just to make it go away. I was happy to see I was back on the website I’d originally intended to order from, with my item still in my shopping cart, and the promo code successfully applied. I can’t believe it, I thought. It actually worked. With that important Halloween-related task checked off my list, but many things left to take care of, I went on with my day, and quickly forgot all about the strange pop-up, and eagerly awaited my new mask. * * * * * * A few days later, I got an email telling me the package had arrived—October 29, two days before the party. But when I got home, I found an empty doorstep. “You didn’t see a package?” I asked Alicia. “Didn’t you get the notification?” she asked, pinning up purple and orange streamers. “We were the victim of a porch pirate. ” She pulled out her phone and handed it to me. “Check it out.” We have one of those security cameras by the door—mostly to avoid Bob, our resident traveling salesman, who seems to be selling something new every week. Whenever motion is detected, it pings our phones; today I’d been swamped at work, though, and hadn’t had a chance to look at it. I pressed play. I saw our doorstep—and the brown cardboard box sitting on the doorstep. Behind it, on the sidewalk, was a figure in black. I watched as the man approached. He walked up my sidewalk with confidence, as if he lived here. As soon as he got close—close enough for me to see his face—he tilted his pale head down. Then he stepped onto my porch, and, face still hidden, grabbed the package. He walked back down the sidewalk and disappeared. “Why would he steal a package of Halloween costumes?” “Because your costume was just so amazing, he wanted it for himself,” Alicia joked, as she lined up bags of candy. “It wasn’t amazing yet. It’s just the mask.” I walked over to the table and helped her set up the candy. “So we have two days, right? What else needs to be done?” “Well, we need to get new costumes, and I was thinking—” “Morticia and Gomez?” I sighed. “Fine. We’ll do it.” I thought that would be the end of it—some guy stole the package, and that was it. We’d never see the mask again. I was sorely mistaken. As I sat at the table a few hours later, dumping candy into decorative bowls, a flash of motion caught my eye. I looked up—and saw someone walking in our backyard. At the edge of the woods. They were dressed entirely in black, walking along the perimeter of the forest. In the dusk light, it was hard to pick out any details about them—like their gender, or their face. 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
  • "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. “GET THAT FUCKING THING OFF THE BOAT RIGHT NOW!” 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 � � MORE STORIES FROM AUTHOR : JEFF HARTI N