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Morgan Boyd
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rivernevertells.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2016

The River Never Tells

 

Morgan Boyd

 

 

 

I was passing through town when I met a woman at Broncos Bar and Grill.  Janet wasn’t the prettiest filly in the stable, but looks aren’t everything.  What she lacked in the beauty department, she made up for with an understanding ear and an ample bosom.  By the third beer, I showed her the scar on my neck.  By the fourth beer, she invited me to her place. 

 

Janet lived by the river.  There was something magical about that waterway.  I didn’t know what it was yet, but I felt fated to that tributary.  Janet had a six-year-old son named Jimmy.  That was weird.  He was a little guy with red hair, and fully devoted to superheroes and Frosted Flakes.  He ignored me, giving a batman movie his undivided attention, which was convenient on account of what Janet and I were about to do in her bedroom.

 

This was a good deal.  I wanted to stay.  Janet was onboard, but said I had to pull my own weight.  She’d had several freeloading men in the past, and wasn’t interested in supporting another deadbeat.  I asked around town about work, and it wasn’t long before I was pointed toward the sawmill up the hill.

 

I hitched a ride early one morning, but nobody was there.  I wandered around the woodpiles, and looked down a steep and misty ravine beyond the back of the lumberyard.  A car approached, so I returned to the parking lot.  A small truck passed, carrying three men.  They parked, leaned against the side of the pickup, and scowled at me while spitting tobacco.

 

I was about to scratch this job opportunity when another truck pulled into the parking lot.  A massive man oozed out of the cab, and heaved my way.

         

Morning,” he said.  “What’s your business?”

 

Heard there might be work.”

 

You staying somewhere?  Ain’t camping out?”

 

I got a roof over head.”

 

Them’s the magic words.  We pay the minimum.  You ever worked in a mill, used a saw?

 

No.”

 

Perfect, we’re looking for somebody to pile lumber.  How’s your back?”

         

Fine,” I said, and stood up straight.

 

Welcome aboard,” he said, but didn’t shake my hand.  “My name’s Big Henry.  You’ll like it just fine around here.”

 

My name’s Jake.  Will they like me just fine around here?”  I asked, shifting my eyes toward the three men, staring at me across the parking lot.

 

That’s Karl, Jerry and Kemp.  Don’t worry.  They’re looking at you funny because they think you’re homeless.  The bums camping in the gorge behind the stacks steal our wood.  The boys are getting mighty tired of it.”

 

I set to work hauling lumber from the mill to the yard.  Most of the other workers were friendly, and when Karl, Jerry and Kemp learned I held residency, my presence was tolerated.  I wouldn’t say we were peachy-keen or anything, but they didn’t look like they wanted to kill me anymore.

         

I didn’t have gloves, and my hands blistered. I was sore from head to toe, and dog-tired by the end of my shift.  When I got to Janet’s, the pain dissipated into her smile, and her low-cut blouse.  I sat on the back porch in contemplation, watching the water, and wondering why I felt so content.  The reason eluded me, but as I stared into that hypnotic current, it hit me: with Janet, I was no longer following in my father’s shadow.  With Janet, I was my own man.  Jimmy came out back, and disrupted my thoughts.  He wanted to play superheroes, so I became The Incredible Hulk, and although my hands and back ached, I lifted him by the ankles, and swung him back and forth as he giggled with glee. 

 

Jimmy gave me the lowdown on Bruce Wayne at the dinner table while Janet served hamburgers.  I felt like I could have eaten a half-dozen, but I stopped after three when Janet gave me a look of amazement.

 

I’ve never seen somebody wolf down so many hamburgers so fast,” she said.

 

After Janet tucked Jimmy into bed, we smoked a joint and watched TV before hitting the sack.  For the next several weeks, Janet would wake me on her way out the door with Jimmy. I’d pour a bowl of Frosted Flakes, make a pot of coffee, mourn my aching limbs and then thumb a ride up to the sawmill.

 

That’s the second pallet this week,” Karl said.  “They’re building a city down there.”

 

They cut a hole in the fence,” Jerry said.  “That’s how they steal lumber.”

 

Well boys, we need to mend that fence pronto,” Karl said with his thumbs sticking through his belt loops.  “And we need to nip this situation in the bud.  Once a pony gets a lump of sugar, he keeps on coming back for more.”

 

What do you suppose?”  Kemp asked.

 

We have ourselves a problem for sure,” Karl said.  “But it’s nothing a cold brew can’t solve.”

 

Okay everybody,” Big Henry said, coming out of his office.  “Get to work.”

 

At lunchtime we sat out back at picnic benches.  Most guys ate sandwiches, but I never packed a lunch.  Karl sat down, placed a six-pack of Budweiser on the table, and removed a beer.  Jerry and Kemp each grabbed one.  The guy next to me looked like he wanted to, but thought better of it, and left the table.  Two other guys cautiously grabbed bottles.  I was the last person, so I grabbed the last beer.  We all cracked them and clinked necks.  I took a sip, but noticed everybody chugging, so I did the same.

 

Bring a hammer or a crowbar tomorrow an hour before work, agreed?”  Karl asked.

 

Agreed,” they all said.

 

After lunch, Karl lent me gloves.  I was worried I’d be unprepared for tomorrow’s task, so I confided in him that I didn’t have the required tools.  He glared at me like we were back in the parking lot my first day, and then he laughed.

 

          “Not to worry,” he said.  “I’ve got you covered.”

 

          I sat on Janet’s back porch, drinking a beer and watching the river at sunset.  I was worn out and hungry as hell.  The routine was growing thin.  A shadow stretched across my mind, and I wondered, is this really what I want?  To be a broke roustabout, chained to a woman and child, or would it be better to be like Old Man River, and just keep rolling along?  It’d be a damn sight easier.  I could just wade out into the water, forget about the backbreaking work at the sawmill, forget about Janet and Jimmy, and float away.  Several mosquitoes bit me on the neck and face, so I went inside.  I turned on the game, and Jimmy threw a temper tantrum.  Janet promised him a Spiderman movie if he quieted down.  I promised him an ass whopping if he didn’t.

 

          “Turn off the game, and put the Spiderman movie on, and don’t you ever threaten him again,” Janet said.

 

Fine,” I said, putting on the DVD.  “He wants to watch a guy prancing around in colorful tights instead of football, who am I to judge.”

 

Football’s full of guys prancing around in colorful tights,” Janet said.

 

Enjoy your movie,” I said to Jimmy.  “Your mom and I’ll be in the back having private time.”

 

Not tonight Jake,” she said.

 

Come on,” I told her, but she wasn’t interested.  “Fine, I’ll watch this shit with the kid.  Any beer in the fridge?”

 

What did you just say?”

 

You cooking anymore hamburgers?”  I asked.

 

You can get out,” she yelled.  “And don’t come back if you’re going to disrespect my family.  You hear me, fucker?”

 

I spent the evening wandering along the river, thinking to hell with this town, this job and this woman.  I didn’t need any of it.  In the morning, I’d follow the river to somewhere else. 

 

I found a sandy spot and lay down.

 

The cool dark water rushed by, and the stars speckled the evening sky.  My troubles faded into the river’s tranquility, and I felt light as air.  A splashing sound nearby interrupted my momentary contentment.  I looked out over the black current, but saw only moving water.  I heard another splashing sound that caused me to sit up, and train my eyes into the darkness.  Something large and sinister with glowing yellow eyes crawled out of the river under the night’s shadows.  Its long razor sharp jaws grabbed me by the neck, and dragged me into the water.  I kicked and punched and flailed, but to no avail.  As the creature held me under, crushing my windpipe, I saw my father’s face.

 

          I woke in a cold sweat.  It was first light, and I was still on the sandy bank.  My neck was stiff, but intact.  I was groggy, but made my way to the highway, and caught a ride up to the mill.  My stomach growled.  I was haggard and irritable from sleeping on the ground.

 

About time you showed,” Karl said, handing me a crowbar.  “We was about to leave your ass.  Let’s get a move on.”

 

We walked through the stacks in the back of the lumberyard.  At the rear fence, we came to a locked gate.

 

Over there’s the hole they made,” Jerry said, producing a key from his pocket.

 

          A steep dirt trail wound down through thick shrubs and thorny blackberry vines.  The sun glowed through the treetops.  I hadn’t understood what the job entailed until we left the yard for the forest.  I thought this was on the up and up, but as we entered the brush, the gravity of the situation hit me.

 

The forest was dense, and the trail grew narrow.  I thought about my father, and how he had walked out on us so many years ago.  I took a deep breath, and thought about Janet and Jimmy.  I wished I were in bed with Janet, or pouring a bowl of Frosted Flakes for Jimmy instead of descending into the mist with Karl and the boys.

 

We hit the canyon floor, and came to a stream.  Around a bend, we got our first glimpse at the homeless camp.  Several shacks built from pillaged lumber leaned against large knotty pines on the away shore.

 

We crossed the stream on dry rocks.  As we landed on the far strand, a man stuck his head out of the closest shanty.

 

Goddamn thief,” Karl shouted, raising his hammer.

 

The man hollered, and fled into the bush.  A din erupted as the occupants of the other shacks realized the danger, and scrambled into the safety of the woods.

 

Knock down these rat’s nests,” Karl said.

 

What’s the point?” Jerry asked.  “They’ll just rebuild them.”

 

Pile everything on the shore.  The lumber, all their garbage, everything,” Karl said.  “We’re having a bonfire boys.”

 

Wish we’d got our hands on those sons-of-bitches,” Jerry said as we dismantled the hovels, and piled their belongings next to the stream.

 

Mostly cardboard and blankets lined the floors, but there were also stoves and clothing.  I also found some stuffed animals and children’s books.  We heaped it on the shore, and Kemp lit a fire.

 

Hey,” Jerry yelled when he entered the last shack.  “We got one.  He’s piss drunk.”

 

Bring him over here,” Karl said.

 

They dragged the guy by his ankles to the bonfire.

 

You stealing our wood boy?”  Karl asked.

 

          The man’s head swayed on his neck.  He was dirty and in need of a shave and a haircut.  Like me, the poor fellow was late in comprehending his predicament.  Karl slugged him in the gut.  He gave out a bellowing yowl of pain mixed with fear.  The others fell on the inebriated guy, cursing and working him over with angry fists.

 

I stood back, watching them beat the transient.  That could have been me: some poor bastard, down and out, and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

Come on,” Karl yelled.  “Don’t just stand there.”

 

Yeah, you fucking idiot,” Jerry yelled.  “We’re all doing this.”

 

I hesitated for a moment, and then walked over to the luckless man, and clocked him in the head with my crowbar.  I’ll never forget that hollow sound.

 

Jesus Christ,” Karl said.  “What did you do that for?  I wanted to rough him up.  Teach him a lesson, not bash in his brains.”

 

Hey guys,” Kemp said.  “The fire.”

 

Holy shit,” Karl said.  “It’s catching the brush.”

 

Let’s go,” Jerry said.

 

We crossed back over the stream.  Sweat poured down my face as we hustled up the narrow trail to the fence at the back of the lumberyard.  Jerry’s hand trembled as he locked the gate behind us.

 

What the hell you boys doing?”  Big Henry asked.

 

We was fixing that hole in the fence when we saw the fire,” Karl said.

 

Henry frowned, but didn’t ask any more questions.  He told us to evacuate the area.  Dark smoke clouds rose from beneath us into the sky.  It wasn’t long before sirens approached.

 

I went straight to Janet’s and apologized for last night’s behavior.  I wanted to make it up by taking her and Jimmy out to eat.  Janet liked that idea.  She dressed pretty, slicked down Jimmy’s hair, and we went to Broncos.

 

For dinner I had a double cheeseburger with bacon and a dark beer.  Janet had the fish and chips and a glass of white wine.  Jimmy had the macaroni and cheese with bacon and a root beer.  It was a nice meal, but we sat near the television in the bar, and everybody around us watched the news, and talked about the fire.

 

          “Those bums started it,” the bartender said.  “A couple of firefighters almost lost their lives.  Almost lost the sawmill.”

 

A homeless guy burned to death,” our waitress said.

 

Good,” A man at the bar said.  “Serves his freeloading ass right.”

 

We went back to Janet’s.  I tucked Jimmy into bed, and read him a Curious George story.  He fell asleep, and I went into the living room and cuddled with Janet.

 

After a few days, the mill reopened.  None of the guys would talk to me.  Karl asked for his gloves back, but that was it.  They treated me like a ghost, like a wood piling specter.  Before the weekend, a detective arrived.

 

Where were you when the fire started?”

 

          His name was Detective Banks.  He was old and wrinkled with a purple nose, but he had a severe stare that worried me.

 

I just arrived when I saw the smoke,” I said.

 

Can others attest to that?”  He asked.

 

Yes,” I said.

 

          I finished my shift at the mill, but I couldn’t catch a ride so I walked.  As the sun went down behind heavy cloud cover, the shadows from the trees grew into the road, and enveloped me in growing darkness.  With each step, my mood blackened.  There had better be some hot food waiting for me on the table, I thought, and Jimmy had better be on his best behavior.  I wasn’t going to put up with his shit tonight.  As I made my way down the road, I had the strange sensation that something was following me.  I peered into the gloom beyond the edge of the trees.

 

I stepped off the side of the road into the duff.  A chill wind cut through me.  In the shadows, a set of yellow eyes appeared, staring at me from within the forest.  I took another step toward the trees as a drop of rain hit my forehead.  I looked up at the sky.  Storm clouds ran overhead like the river’s current.  I stepped back onto the road, and quickened my pace.

 

I was soaked by the time I reached Janet’s front door.  Detective Banks stood in the living room.  Janet sat on the couch.  Jimmy was on her lap.  Tears flowed from her eyes.  The detective squinted at me.  My pulse quickened, and my face reddened, and the scar on my neck burned.  I clenched my teeth and fists as dread filled my chest.

 

It’s Sean,” Janet said.

 

Who?”  I asked.

 

Jimmy’s dad,” she said.

 

What about him?”

 

He’s dead,” she sobbed.

 

They identified him as the victim of the fire,” Detective Banks said.  “We suspect he was high, and trying to cook another dose when he passed out and started the blaze.”

 

I breathed a sigh of relief, releasing the bad thoughts inside.  I tried to ease Janet and Jimmy’s grieving.  I did the dishes, swept the floor, and made hamburgers.  They didn’t turn out good like Janet’s, but they were edible.  I put on Spiderman, and let Jimmy tell me about Peter Parker.  After he went to bed, I stayed up consoling Janet.

 

          The next morning after making breakfast for Janet and Jimmy, I thumbed it up to the sawmill.  The rain had stopped in the night, and the ground was wet and fresh smelling.  My ride let me off in the back of the parking lot.  I walked toward the main building as Karl’s truck passed me.

 

Good morning,” I said as I reached the front of the parking lot.

 

They leaned against the automobile, spitting tobacco.

 

          “For some,” Karl said, wiping spit from his chin.  “For others not so much.”

 

I’d hate to be you right now,” Jerry said.  “In a world of shit.”

 

What are you saying?”  I asked.

 

What you done to that homeless guy,” Kemp said.  “I wouldn’t want to be wearing your shoes.”

 

Hold on a second,” I said, looking at my sneakers.  “We’re all to blame for what happened.”

 

Not according to us,” Kemp said.

 

Who started the fire?”  I asked.

 

Depends,” Karl said.

 

On?”

 

Payday.”

 

I smell where you’re stepping,” I said.

 

Knew you would,” Karl said.

 

I went about piling lumber.  At the end of my shift, Big Henry paid me in cash.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough to show Janet that I could pull my own weight.  I tried to hitch it down the hill, but I couldn’t catch a ride, so I walked.

 

Jake, where you been?” Karl asked, pulling along side me.  “Thought we were squaring up.”

 

That’s right.  I almost forgot,” I said, and kept walking.  “I tell you what.  Now’s not a good time.  What say we square up later?”

 

Hop in the back of the pickup, and we’ll discuss,” Karl said, leveling a handgun at me.

 

All right,” I said, and climbed in the bed of the truck.

 

Karl turned onto a bumpy dirt road.  We went down the gnarled path for several miles.  Scanning the bed for a weapon, I saw only old beer cans, empty bullet shells and fast food wrappers until I found a tire iron under a ripped up tarp.

 

The sun ducked beneath a row of pine as Karl pulled over.

 

Give me your money,” Karl said, pointing the gun at my chest.

 

You’ll have pissed your pants when we get done with you,” Jerry said.

 

Doesn’t seem like a square deal,” I said.  “Giving you my money, and getting the piss beat out of me.”

 

Sure it does,” Karl said.

 

How do you figure?”  I asked.

 

The money buys our silence.  The beating lets you know that you should move on.”

 

What if I keep my money, and beat the shit out of you instead?”  I asked.

 

They laughed, closing in around me.  I picked up the tire iron, and flung it at Karl.  Diving out of the truck, I tackled Jerry, and knocked him to the ground.  He instantly went limp, so I got to my feet, and went for Karl, but he was already in the truck, turning over the engine.  He sped off as Kemp tried to open the passenger side door, but was dragged to the ground, and flipped onto his head.

 

          I went for the tire iron, but noticed the gun beside it.  Kemp picked himself up out of the road.  He was covered in mud, and blood dripped out of his ear.  He limped over to Jerry.

 

What was the play?”  I asked.

 

Neither man said anything, so I cocked back the hammer, and repeated myself.

 

Take your dough.  Leave you for dead,” Jerry whispered with his eyes closed.

 

What if instead,” I asked.  “I take your dough, and leave you for dead?”

 

Kemp reached into his pocket, and tossed me his money.  I noticed a dark pool forming around Jerry’s head.  When I knocked him to the ground, he must have cracked his skull on a rock.

 

You sure the second part of your plan was to leave me for dead?”  I asked.  “Sure it wasn’t to leave me dead?”

 

Don’t matter,” Jerry whispered.  “Karl’s heading straight to the police to tell them what you did.”

 

What I did?  What we all did.  You’re both as guilty as me.  Karl too.  I never wanted to hurt anybody.”

 

That’s your story,” Jerry said in a low tone.  “I don’t remember it that way.”

 

How do you remember it?”

 

You smashing that guy’s head in with a crowbar.”

 

Is that how you remember it too, Kemp?” I asked.  “Do you remember starting the fire?”

 

          “I can’t remember nothing,” he said.

 

But back in town, your memory returns, right?”

 

Don’t matter the way I feel right now,” he said, touching his bloody ear.

 

Then let’s have the truth,” I said.

 

Take your dough.  Make it so nobody finds your body,” he said.

 

I thought about pulling the trigger, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t do it.

 

I left Jerry and Kemp on the side of the road, and walked at a quick clip.  I wished Karl hadn’t gotten away.  Soon he’d tell the police I murdered Jimmy’s dad, and set the fire.  It was only a matter of time before Janet found out what they were accusing me of, and for that, she’d never forgive me.  Time would have bought an engagement ring, a wedding, and a proper upbringing for Jimmy, but now time was the enemy.

 

I ditched the gun, and walked for hours in the dark until I came to the main road.  I heard an automobile approaching, so I hid behind a large tree.  A sheriff’s truck drove passed.  I stayed put, and another went by.

 

In a short time the sheriffs would find Jerry and Kemp, and they’d corroborate Karl’s story.  I was a wanted man.  Heading to Janet’s on the main road was no longer an option, so I started up the hill along the side of the road, skirting the edge of the forest.

 

The parking lot at the sawmill was empty except for a truck near the front.  I walked around back through the stacks, and was just about to reach the fence when somebody lurched in front of me with a shotgun.

 

Hold up, Jake,” Big Henry said.  “Police radio says you’re wanted in connection with arson and homicide.”

 

I didn’t do it,” I said.

 

That might be so, but you’re staying put until the cops arrive,” he said.

 

I can’t,” I said, and ducked behind a stack of lumber.

 

I reached the back gate, but it was locked, so I felt my way down the side until I came to the hole in the fence.  As I crawled through, buckshot ripped into my thigh.  I fell onto the other side as another blast stung my shoulder, neck and face. I tumbled down the ravine and over an embankment.  Fortunately, a tangle of vines and reeds broke my fall.  I thrashed around, and when my shoes touched the ground, they filled with water. 

 

I limped downstream.  With every step the current grew deeper and stronger.  I waded in the cold water until the stream became a river, and I swam with my head bobbing out of the runnel.

 

The river’s gradient steepened, and I struggled to stay afloat in the turbulent white water. The rapids pushed me through several narrow sieves, and over submerged boulders until I was caught in a powerful eddy, and an undercurrent pinned me beneath the water.  After a short time, my struggles for oxygen evaporated into peaceful blackness.  I thought about Janet as my limbs relaxed.  Just before I lost consciousness, the undertow relented, and I rose to the surface, gasping and choking.

 

The river calmed as the waterway widened.  Stars shone bright overhead, and every so often a meteor flashed across the sky.  I was cold and tired as I reached my destination, and swam to the shore.  My body shivered as I staggered to my feet.  Tiny blood rivulets trickled down my face, arms and legs, mingling with my wet garments.

 

I threw myself into the backdoor, and it burst open.

 

Don’t move.  Stay where you are,” Detective Banks shouted.

 

I stumbled through the kitchen, and barreled into the living room as he opened fire.  It felt like a mule kicked me in the chest, and I fell backwards.  The detective stood over me, pointing his weapon.  I closed my eyes, and was about to quit when I heard screams coming from the bedroom.

 

I said don’t move,” Detective Banks ordered as I turned onto my belly, dragging myself through the hall.

 

He fired several shots into my back, but I was able to reach the knob and open the door. 

 

Janet huddled in the corner holding Jimmy.  I took a deep and labored breath. 

 

I made it. 

 

I was home.






deadmeatokeefe.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2017

Dead Meat

 

By Morgan Boyd

 

Dave and I worked the bar at the Green House downtown. The UCSC drinking scene huddled around us like ants on a lump of sugar. I poured libations methodically without discrimination, but Dave employed a different technique. He helped the pretty ladies first, followed by his friends, and lastly, the not-so-pretty ladies before neglecting everybody else, and repeating the process.  

 

As I made my way down the line of thirsty patrons, two toughs forced their way to the bar. We’d known them since elementary school: the Rex brothers, Hal and Vince. A couple of East Side surf bullies. At some point in the last decade, they’d discovered methamphetamines, which greatly amplified their shitty dispositions. The Rex brothers wore flat-brimmed O’Neil ball caps, black Santa Cruz hoodies with red dots, and across their necks, written in old English, they sported matching ‘Eastside’ tattoos.

 

“Two IPA,” Hal said to Dave. “Or I kick your ass like back in school.”

 

Dave ignored Hal, and poured a beer for a college girl. Hal grabbed Dave by the collar.

 

“Knock it off,” I yelled as Vince reached over the bar, and sucker punched me in the jaw.

 

The college scene scattered. I grabbed the baseball bat from behind the counter, and started swinging. When the cops arrived, we assessed the carnage. Dave’s eyes were swollen, and he had several lumps on his forehead, but his real concern was the shank to his ribs. Dave got it bad, but not as bad as Hal. Vince fled when the cops arrived, but Hal lay face down in a puddle of blood.

 

          The police looked into the incident, and Ralph, the owner of The Green Room, placed us on leave, pending the outcome of the investigation.  Dave didn’t mind the time off. He still lived with his parents, and didn’t have any real bills, so he didn’t have to worry about the financial burden while his wounds healed. I wasn’t so fortunate in fiscal matters. I had rent to make on an overpriced one-bedroom apartment, and Elizabeth, my live-in girlfriend, was six months pregnant.

 

It wasn’t the paychecks I missed. It was the nightly tips that paid the bills. With my income on hiatus, I tightened my belt. I cut out buying weed and eating at restaurants. I stayed home and cooked, which wasn’t so bad. I considered myself a decent chef.

 

“Breakfast for dinner again?” Elizabeth said, brushing her long red hair.

 

“Soft boiled eggs are no easy feat,” I said.

 

“You said the same thing about omelets last night.”

 

The time spent at home, and the lack of income, created stress on our relationship. I could no longer drop a wad of cash on Elizabeth, and she could no longer drop a wad of my cash on the bun in her oven. She was upset. I was hopeful our unfortunate circumstances were temporary.

 

A few days after the brawl, a detective named Marks knocked on the door. He was as bald as a cue ball with a gut that hinted that he too was pregnant. I invited him in, and offered him coffee. He looked around, and determined the place was clean enough to trust a cup.

 

“You say Hal Rex reached over the bar and grabbed Dave?” He asked and took a sip.

 

          “That’s right. I tried to intervene, and that’s when Vince punched me.”

 

“What happened next?”

 

“I grabbed a bat, and jumped over the counter.”

 

“What did you do with the bat?”

 

“Defended myself.”

 

“Do you remember any specifics?”

 

“They worked Dave over pretty bad. I tagged Hal, and he went down.”

 

“You’re familiar with the Rex brothers, correct?” Detective Marks asked.

 

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve known them since elementary school.”

 

“Have you had issues with them before?”

 

“They jumped me a few times when we were kids. They’re known for kicking ass,” I said. “Once, Hal and Vince surfed The Hook, and got into a confrontation with a kayaker. They followed him onto land, beat the shit out of the guy, stuffed him back in his canoe, and pushed him over a cliff into the water. Guy broke his neck, and lost the use of his legs. Both Rex brothers ended up doing time. When they got out, they were even meaner.  Do you think I need a lawyer?”

 

“I doubt it’ll go to trial,” Detective Marks said. “Seems a pretty clear case of self-defense, but I’d steer clear of Vince.”

 

Detective Marks finished his coffee, gave me his card and left. I was glad no charges were filed against The Green House or me. That meant I’d be tending bar again soon.

 

After I was cleared of any wrongdoing, Ralph gave me my shifts back, and life returned to normal. The UCSC drinkers forgot about the incident, and returned to the bar to consume massive quantities of overpriced booze. Dave was on the mend, and he was expected to return to The Green House in a few days.

 

I was covering a Monday afternoon for Nancy. I generally don’t work dayshifts or Mondays because business is slow, and the tips aren’t there, but Nancy had a family crisis, and needed a shift covered. She covered for me when I was on leave, so I owed her. 

 

Besides me, a barfly was the only other person in The Green House.  He sat hunched over his beer nursing it like Florence Nightingale.

 

“Starting to rain,” he said, looking out the window as the front door opened, and Vince entered the bar, taking a seat at the counter.

 

“Sorry about your brother, but you can’t be in here,” I said.

 

“I bet you’re real sorry about Hal aren’t you Joe,” Vince said.  “Where’s your boyfriend Dave?”

 

“I’m not joking,” I said, and put my hand on the bat under the counter.  “Get out.”

 

“Or what? You’ll crack my skull too?” He said, rising from the stool.

 

“I feel bad about what happened, but you guys started that shit,” I said.

 

“Elizabeth still a good piece of ass?” Vince asked.

 

“I’m calling the cops,” I said.

 

“Go ahead,” Vince said, and exited the bar, but before he left, he turned, and looked me in the eyes. “You’re dead meat.”

 

When my shift ended, I hung around The Green House for a while, and drank a couple of beers before heading home. Elizabeth was already asleep, so I quietly undressed and crawled into bed, drifting into slumber with my arms wrapped around her swollen belly.

 

A loud sound woke us late at night. I climbed out of bed, grabbed the Mag Light by the nightstand, and walked into the front room. I flicked on the lamp, and looked around. Nothing was out of place except the blinds were slightly askew. I went to fix them, and a small stream of cool air blew against my knuckle. I opened the shades, and saw a small hole in the windowpane surrounded by tiny cracks.

 

“Fuck,” I said.

 

“What is it?” Elizabeth asked from the bedroom.

 

I ran my finger along the hole in the glass, stepped back, followed the trajectory, and found another hole in the stucco wall by the bedroom.  

 

I called Detective Marks, but he wasn’t available, so I dialed 911. It took a while for a police officer to arrive, so I made a pot of coffee, and we sat at the kitchen table. When an officer finally knocked, he introduced himself as Officer Bailey. I let him in, showed him the bullet hole, and explained the situation. He took a report.

 

“You think Vince Rex did this?” He asked.

 

“Yeah,” I answered.

 

“Can you arrest him?” Elizabeth asked.

 

“No,” Officer Bailey said. “There’s no proof.  It could have been a group of kids firing shots from a moving vehicle.”

 

“Seriously?” I asked.

 

“Sorry, there’s just not much we can do at this time. If you come up with anything else please let us know.”

 

After Officer Bailey left, we crawled back into bed, but I had a hard time sleeping. Somebody randomly firing a shot through our front window was absurd. I knew it was Vince, and I knew I needed to protect my family.  Eventually, I drifted off to sleep. Early the next morning, the phone rang.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Hey Joey, this is Ralph.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I got bad news. Some guy walking his dog this morning found Dave.”

 

“What?”

 

“He’s dead.”

 

“What?”

 

“He was walking home drunk last night on the tracks. He tripped and hit his head on the rail. At least that’s what the initial reports indicate. I’m sorry to tell you, Joey. I know you guys were close.”

 

I hung up the phone, and told Elizabeth what happened. After our initial grieving period, my mind went to work. I thought about Vince Rex telling me I was dead meat, then the bullet hole through the window, and now Dave’s death. I didn’t know how to proceed, so I called Corey Anderson. He was a buddy of Dave’s and mine from school, and now a local defense attorney.

 

Corey was pretty broken up when I told him about Dave’s passing, and then I told him about the situation involving the Rex brothers. He said he was busy, but he’d move stuff around on his calendar, and make time to meet me for lunch. I met him downtown at a pizzeria. We ordered slices, and sat in a back booth. I told him the long version of the unfortunate recent chain of events as we ate our meal.

 

“I’ve dealt with the Rex brothers before,” Corey said, wiping a smudge of marinara off his chin with a napkin. “And I’m not talking about when they used to beat us up in school. They intimidated one my clients in a smuggling case. After that, my client refused to testify, and the charges against the Rex’s were dropped.” 

 

“What should I do?” I asked. “I called the police, but they don’t give a shit.”

 

“Cops won’t do dick until it’s too late,” Corey said with a mouthful of cheese. “Do you own a gun?”

 

“No.”

 

“My advice is get one. I’ve got a snub-nose .38 you can borrow,” he said, and threw his wadded napkin onto his paper plate. “I’m due in court in half-an-hour. I have to run. Stop by this evening, and I’ll set you up.”

 

I spent the remainder of the day wandering downtown. After sunset, I went home, made French toast for dinner, and then drove to Corey’s house.  He led me into a walk-in closet at the end of the hall, and opened a box containing multiple pistols.

 

“Wow, Anderson,” I said. “I didn’t know you were a gun nut.”

 

“This is nothing. Here we go,” Corey said, handing me the .38. “And here’s a box of shells.”

 

I thanked him, and went home. Elizabeth sat on the couch watching a sitcom. I didn’t want her to see the gun, so I slipped into the bedroom, and put it and the ammunition in my nightstand drawer. I joined Elizabeth on the couch for some television, and then went to bed. I had trouble sleeping that night. I kept thinking about the gun. I wasn’t sure if it gave me a sense of protection or a sense of vulnerability. One thing was for certain though, every creak in the apartment or grumble from the refrigerator gave me an itchy trigger finger.

 

The next day Elizabeth wanted a Polish dog with sauerkraut and a coconut snow cone from a hotdog stand up Highway 9. Ben Lomond was a long drive for a hotdog and some shaved ice, but I had learned early in the pregnancy to appease my girlfriend’s bizarre food cravings. I went out to the car while Elizabeth was in the bathroom, and stashed the gun in the glove compartment. When she finished with her toiletries, we drove through the redwoods up Highway 9.  

 

After lunch it rained on the way home. A truck tailed us down the winding road. An inch or two separated our bumpers. I got heated, and cussed under my breath when the son-of-a-bitch tapped me. I pulled over at a turnout. The truck pulled over too, and Vince exited the vehicle. He had a pistol in his hand, so I peeled out, flinging gravel, and sped off. In the rearview mirror, I saw him get back into his truck.

 

Elizabeth was pale as a ghost. I told her not to worry. She tried calling 911, but there was no reception in the woods. We came to a series of sharp curves, and Vince’s truck got back on my bumper. We skidded around a corner, and he rammed us. I lost control, and careened off a steep embankment. We flipped over, and came to a violent halt against a large redwood. I was knocked unconscious by the impact. When I came to, Elizabeth wasn’t in the car.

 

“Elizabeth?” I yelled. “Elizabeth? Elizabeth? Honey?”

 

I got out, and fell over in excruciating pain. My left shin burned like hell. I dragged myself through the duff and mud until I found Elizabeth. Her breathing was shallow, and her pulse was light. I performed CPR, but stopped when a gunshot sounded through the rain. Vince Rex was coming for revenge. I was dead meat.  

 

“You fucked up bad, Joey,” Vince yelled from somewhere above.  “Now it’s time to pay.”

 

“You and your brother caused this,” I said, crawling back to the car and removing the .38 from the glove compartment. “And for what? Hal’s dead, Dave’s dead, and Elizabeth needs medical attention.”

 

“You started this mess when you killed Hal,” he yelled and fired another shot. “But it ends here.”

 

Propping myself against the overturned car, I saw Vince descending the embankment in the rain. I took aim and fired. I couldn’t tell if I hit him, but the shot halted his forward progress. I fired another shot for safe measure, and waited. I wasn’t sure if he’d try to come at us from another angle. I didn’t know anything except that Elizabeth needed help.

 

I waited for Vince, but he never materialized. I looked down at my feet, and saw the bone sticking out of my leg. I felt woozy, so I crawled to Elizabeth, and held her tight until darkness enveloped me.

 

I woke in a hospital bed. Corey sat near me, reading a magazine.

 

“Elizabeth?”   

 

“She didn’t make it,” Corey said. “They couldn’t save the baby.”

 

His words hurt more than my broken leg. Helplessness and rage flooded every pore of my being. I felt hot and cold at the same time. My eyes shut tight and my teeth clenched. I tried climbing out of bed, but Corey held me down while a nurse injected me with something, and I slipped back into the void.

 

The day before the funeral, Detective Marks questioned me about the accident, but I didn’t mention Vince. Maybe he suspected something, but I doubted it. Detective Marks couldn’t find a bee if it stung him in the eye.  Besides, whatever punishment the police might have for Vince would be a fucking vacation compared to what I had in store for him. 

 

Rain fell during the funeral. As they lowered Elizabeth and my unborn child six feet under, I stood on crutches, thinking about what little time it takes to have your entire world shattered, burned and shat upon. I buried my hopes and ambitions with Elizabeth. Only one thing mattered: the same thing that mattered to Vince Rex: revenge. Now it was just a matter of who would serve the dish first. 

 

We walked to Corey’s Mazda MX-5—Corey walked—I gimped on crutches. ‘Dead Meat’ was spray-painted across the windshield in red letters.

 

“Son-of-a-bitch,” Corey said, and pulled out his gun. “That prick is here somewhere.”

 

“Good,” I said.

 

“You armed?” Corey asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then we draw him out. Take a stand,” Corey said.

 

We drove along Soquel Avenue. I kept looking back, but I didn’t see a tail.  We passed through Capitola, and down into Soquel. Corey took a left on Old San Jose Road, and we ascended the curvy thruway. After several minutes of winding turns, I looked back, and saw Vince’s truck.

 

“Bingo,” I said. “Now what?”

 

“Up the road it winds along a steep cliff,” Corey said. “We get a little distance from this prick, park around a sharp turn, and as he comes into view, we end this shit.”

 

Vince was a dog on the hunt, but we were wolves, leading the hunter astray. As far as I was concerned, Vince was the dead meat. We climbed a steep grade through redwood groves. Corey mashed the gas. Vince tried to keep pace, but Corey’s sports car out performed Vince’s truck. As we rounded a bend, the trees ended, and a sheer cliff loomed. Giant floating gray warship clouds filled an angry sky. Hundreds of feet below, dark green treetops blurred together.

 

Corey pulled onto a small muddy turnout, and positioned the car sideways. We exited the vehicle, and drew our guns. Corey used the roof to steady his aim. I leaned against the hood, using it as a crutch. Through the rain, Vince’s truck approached. I took a deep breath, and as the enemy came into view, we opened fire. Bullet holes riddled the windshield. The truck veered and crashed into Corey’s car. I lunged out of harm’s way into the mud just before the thunderous impact.

 

“Corey?”  I yelled as I picked myself up.

 

I hopped on one foot to the cab of the truck with my gun in hand.  Vince was hunched over the wheel. I hopped to the other side of the wreck, and found Corey’s head smashed under the rear wheel in pooling blood. I hopped back to Vince’s truck, and opened the driver’s side door.

 

“Die,” he said and shot me in the neck.

 

I fell in the mud holding my throat. Large raindrops carpet-bombed the area. I staggered to my feet, blood pouring down my shirt. Another shot rang out, hitting me in the chest. I felt a horrible burning pain, but stayed upright. I raised my gun, and shot Vince in the side. He violently flailed into the passenger seat. I climbed in. Vince gasped for air. I turned over the engine several times until the ignition caught, and the truck roared to life.

 

Revenge ground us both into bloody sausage. My chest heaved as I backed away from Corey’s wrecked sport’s car. Through the pain, a warming peaceful feeling enveloped me. The gray warship clouds thundered overhead. I mashed down on the gas pedal, and hurled our dead meat off the cliff toward the dark green blur of trees below. 


Morgan Boyd lives in Santa Cruz California with his wife, cat and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama, and Fried Chicken and Coffee. He also has a story forthcoming at Tough.

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