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S. A. Cosby
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menofviolence.jpg
Art by Bryan Cicalese 2016

MEN OF VIOLENCE

S.A. COSBY

Yardley “Skunk “Mitchell lay on his back staring at the ceiling. The AC in the motel room was wheezing like an asthmatic doing jumping jacks. The girl was exhaling and cracking her toes. Despite the AC they were both slick with sweat from their exertions. Skunk felt a dull ache in his lower back. 

“I should have made her ride. I am paying for it.” he thought. He turned on his side and grabbed the cell phone he was using off the night stand. It was three o'clock in the morning. He had gotten into Richmond at midnight. He had called Ricky as soon as he hit the North Carolina / Virginia border. Ricky had answered in that lazy drawl that told Skunk he was coming down off a weekend bender at his own bar. Ricky had told him nothing was gonna happen until Monday so there was no need to press on to Gloucester tonight.

“Stop in Richmond, man. Have a drink, get laid. I'll see you tomorrow.” he had said. Skunk had heard a woman's voice in the background. A high-pitched needy whine that made him take Ricky's advice. So he had gotten a room out near the warehouse district. He had parked his black late model Crown Vic and walked down the re-gentrified streets. He passed a half-dozen bars that stank of hipster douchebagery before he found one that suited his mercurial taste.

Sam's Bar was a dark place where serious drinkers gathered to enjoy liquor that stung your throat like the devil's piss. He had picked the girl up there. She was a small waifish thing with a tough face and a tight ass. She and Skunk had talked around the thing for a little while. She never came right out and said she was working and he never really asked but somehow they made it back to his room and he had agreed that a hundred bucks for her “cab fare” was more than fair.

As he lay there on his side staring at the night stand he felt soft fingertips tracing across the INVICTICUS tattoo on his back. He heard the girl humming lightly. He almost recognized the tune. It danced just outside the grasp of his memory.

“You done time ain't ya?” the girl asked. Her voice was deep and husky. It seemed incompatible with her lithe frame. Skunk rolled over on his back. There were more tats on his arms and chest. A skull with a Mohawk on his arm and an oroporos over his heart.

“Yeah.” he said. The girl propped herself up on her elbow and looked at his other tats.

“I knew it. I can tell by your tats. I can read tats like some people read hieroglyphics. I swear it's like my useless talent.” she said. Skunk flexed his right hand and his knuckles cracked.

“Uh huh.” he said.

“What was you in for?” she asked. Skunk turned on his side again.

“Jaywalking.” he said. The girl was silent for a moment. Then she burst out laughing.  She ran her hands through his long black hair. Skunk flinched and she stopped immediately.

“Is that why they call you Skunk? That white streak looks more like Rouge to me. Like from the X-Men ya know?” she said. She noticed four tear drops on the outside of his right wrist. At first she had thought they were little flames but now laying down she could see them for what they really were.

“So you ever kill someone?” she asked. Skunk sighed. He had paid her for her time, not her conversation. It was his fault for picking a tweaker. She was so hopped up on meth she wouldn't sleep for the next two days. She hadn't lost any of her teeth yet but her face was a road map of midnight excursions to the dope man's house.

“Yeah. Someone who kept asking me if I had ever killed somebody.” he said. His voice sounded like he gargled with chunks of hot asphalt. The result of a bullet to the trachea during a bar fight many years ago. The girl shut her mouth with an audible plop. She lay back in the bed and stared at the ceiling. Skunk drifted off to sleep. He knew his father would be waiting for him in his dreams with the straight razor he had used to split his scalp open to release the demons twenty years ago.

In the morning the girl was gone and so was his hundred dollars. She had tried to ease his wallet out of his jeans. Maybe she thought she deserved a tip. He had said “No” with his back to her and she had dropped the pants and left with the hundred he had given her tucked in her bra. Skunk got up, splashed some water on his face and checked out of the motel. He went to get some breakfast at a diner down the street. He tried to block out the retro folk music playing in the diner as he ate his eggs and bacon. Ricky called around ten and told him he would be tied up till six p.m., so don't rush. Skunk didn't say anything at first.

“Ricky, don’t play with me. I've been driving for two days cuz you said you had something cooking. Now you pushing me off. Maybe I should just head back to Georgia.” Skunk said. He heard Ricky take a sharp breath.

“Naw man, just got some shit going on at the bar. Get at me tonight and we will get straight.  What I got cooking is worth your time, man.” Ricky said. Skunk ended the call. He left the diner and drove across town to the fine arts museum. He paid ten dollars at the door and wandered around looking at a black and white photography exhibit for a few hours.  Then he drove over to the movie theater and caught a matinee. Ricky usually came through with some good jobs, so Skunk was inclined to cut him some slack. Some slack.

Ricky owned a bar in Gloucester that he used to move a little meth and some hillbilly heroin. The Red Hook was a part biker hangout, part local watering hole. Three times in the last five years Ricky had caught a piece of something valuable and illegal moving through Virginia that could be jacked then liquidated fast. Never drugs. Drugs were too hard to move and too hot to hold on to. Last time Skunk had been up in Virginia it had been a truckload of AK's headed to a bunch of inbred, doom-prepping militia wannabes. The would-be patriots never knew what hit them. Skunk, Ricky and Choice, Ricky’s cousin, had followed them until they pulled into a rest stop north of Fishersville and jumped the drivers in the bathroom, then took possession of the rolling armory. Just a week earlier, Ricky had been serving the drivers Long Island Iced Teas and listening as they bragged about a previous run to some trailer park divas sitting at the end of the bar. If the drivers suspected Ricky, a sense of embarrassment and self-preservation made them keep their mouths shut.

“Alcohol opens legs and lips.” Ricky was fond of saying.

By the time Skunk pulled into Ricky's driveway it was around seven o’clock. The sun was setting and leaving behind streaks of burnt sienna across the sky. Skunk parked his car off to the side of the driveway. He didn't see Ricky's black ‘57 Ford but he was still giving him the benefit of the doubt. He felt his temper flare up like flames from an abandoned campfire. Truth be told, he need this, whatever it was, that Ricky was working on. He had run low on cash after a deal went bad in Knoxville a few months ago. Skunk laughed inside whenever someone called him a “professional”. He was just a crook plain and simple. He knew early on he would never be a retail drone or a grease monkey busting his knuckles fixing cars, and he would never drive like his crazy old man did before the white coats dragged him to Eastern State Hospital.  Skunk got out of his car and walked up the steps to Ricky's front door. He knocked three times. A high whiny voice said to come in.

Skunk stood in the doorway of Ricky's double wide waving away a moth and a June bug who were drawn to their deaths by the sickly yellow bulb in the porch light. Ricky wasn't here. Even though he had assured Skunk he would meet him at six. Skunk had even given him some extra time and showed at seven.  He had expected to catch Ricky and start talking about whatever was going down on Monday. Skunk had even called him when he was thirty minutes away and Ricky had promised him he would be home.

But he wasn't. Instead Skunk was standing in pissy double wide staring at Ricky's latest turned-out paramour and a little girl who looked about twelve in the face with forty-year-old eyes. She was wearing grown-woman eye shadow and shorts that were way too short and a baggy basketball jersey over a unnecessary pink sports bra. She looked like a little girl playing a deadly serious game of dress-up. Her heart-shaped face was smooth and pale. Skunk wondered about her. He wondered what she had seen that had aged her eyes so.

“Ricky had to run down to the bar. He be right back. He told me to expect you. You want a drink?” the woman asked. She had been pretty once but she had sacrificed her beauty to the gods of late nights and hard drinking.

“Naw, I’ll just go down to the bar.” Skunk said. The woman shrugged.

“I told you he be back in a minute. I was just about to get lifted. I only got a little bit but I'll share a bump if you want. Maybe we can even party a little before Ricky get back.” the woman said. She smiled and showed each one of her remaining crooked teeth.

“What about her?” Skunk said and nodded toward the little girl. The woman grinned wider. She looked like an old shark. She chuckled.

“You wanna party with her too?  That's gonna cost you, baby.” she said before cackling like a mad woman. Skunk crossed the room in two long strides. He dropped down to his haunches in front of the woman. He stroked her cheek. Then he put his mouth against her ear.

“Don't talk about your daughter like that. Somebody might think you being serious. They might think you mean to sell her. Then they might cut you from your navel to your neck cuz that's some fucked up shit.” he said softly so the little girl wouldn't hear.

“Maybe you should go see Ricky at the bar.” she said. Skunk stood. Her mean, black eyes glinted like a rat's caught in the beam of a flashlight. Skunk grunted. The little girl glanced at him for a moment with her hard green eyes then turned her attention back to a reality show on the television. Skunk headed to the bar. He recognized that hardness in her eyes. It was the same hardness he saw when he looked in a mirror.

It was a hot Sunday night in Gloucester and the Red Hook had a smattering of customers sprinkled throughout the bar. Skunk had expected a break from the heat when he hit the door, but Rick's AC must have been on the fritz because it was hotter inside than it was outside. Skunk was wearing a black t-shirt, jeans and black work boots. His longish black hair stuck to the back of his neck. He straddled a stool and waited for Ricky Callipher to appear. An elderly man sitting at the end of the bar nodded at Skunk. Skunk did not reciprocate the nod. A female bartender approached him.

“What ya drinking, sugar?” she asked.

“Whiskey straight up on the rocks. Tell Ricky Skunk is looking for him.” he said. The bartender laughed.

“You don't look like a Skunk. More like a Wolf.” she said. Skunk held out his hands palms up.

“Wolf was already taken at the nickname office.” he said. The bartender shook her head and poured his drink. She was pretty in that small town way. Here she was probably a superstar. In LA she wouldn't garner a second glance. She placed his drink in front of him and then went through a door at the end of the rack of liquor bottles that Skunk knew led to Ricky's office.

A few seconds later Ricky came out and greeted him. Ricky was a big broad man with a florid face and wide shoulders that looked like chunks of concrete. His head sat on his short neck like a bowling ball. Some people mistook Ricky's girth for fat. Many an unruly patron had felt the folly of that mistake when he laid his soup bones on them. Ricky had run with some MC's back in the day, some real heavy hitters. until he got hit by a drunk lawyer driving a Lexus out on I-64. Ricky had gotten $248,000 and a nice limp. He had used the settlement to open the Red Hook. He still liked to dip his foot in some dark waters from time to time. Hence his association with Skunk.

“Hey man, sorry I wasn't at home. Had some shit going on up here I had to handle. They ran out of change, can you believe that?” Ricky said. His voice had a deep country twang that gave everything he said a sing-song quality. He could tell you he was going to stomp your face into pulp and you might smirk before you realized he was serious.

“I met your lady friend.” Skunk said.

“Yeah, Gina. She ain't much to look at but she suck a hell of a dick.” he said. He grinned and Skunk was struck, not for the first time, how much he looked like the guy from Hee-Haw. Not Buck Owens, but the other guy.

“She ain't much at all.” Skunk said. Ricky held out his hands in a “what are you gonna do?” gesture.

“Sit tight for a few. Choice be up here in a minute and we can go in the back and talk.” Ricky said. Then he went back to the office and Skunk sipped his drink. The television behind the bar showed some type of military operation going on in some far flung country that hated America but loved Levi's and I-Pods.  The old man at the end of the bar raised his beer.

“We men of peace sleep safe because men of violence are ready to visit pain upon our enemies.” he said in a dramatic voice. 

“Shut up, Willie. Don't nobody wanna here yo Tea Party shit.” a voice said from Skunk's right. He turned his head slightly and saw Ricky's cousin Choice walking toward the bar. Choice was Ricky's cousin but they were as close as brothers. Choice's mother had run off when he was five. Ricky's mother had raised him right alongside Ricky and his natural brother Thomas.  Choice was wearing baggy jeans, Nike's and a basketball jersey. He had what Skunk would call a doo-rag tied around his head under a baseball cap sitting at a gravity-defying angle. Choice liked to tell anyone who would listen that he was a “gangsta”. Most of the crowd at the Red Hook gave him and his trailer park tattoos a wide berth. He walked with the swagger of a man looking for a fist fight when he knows he is carrying a gun.

“That ain't no Tea Party shit, Choice. That's from George Orwell.” the old man said. Choice leaned on the bar and like magic a drink appeared in front of him.

“I don't give a fuck. Don't nobody wanna hear that wack-ass shit bout some motherfuckers who won't smart enough to stay out the military. Shit, I wish a motherfucker would try yelling in my face talking bout drop and give me fifty. Nigga please!” Choice said loud enough for each and every one of the few customers in the bar to hear.  Skunk thought Choice looked like a redneck's idea of what a gangsta was supposed to look like. Skunk thought he looked like a forty-year-old low-rent Eminem.

“That's not the quote anyway.” Skunk said. People in the bar looked down at their drinks or out the window. The old man tipped his glass of beer toward Skunk.

“Well, I was just paraphrasing.” the old man said.

“Whatever. Who gives a fuck?” Choice asked. He moved closer to Skunk. The aroma of some noxious body spray filled Skunk's nostrils.

“You trying to educate me, fool?  You trying to drop some science?” Choice asked. Skunk killed his drink. He turned toward Choice so the man could see his whole face. Choice took a subconscious step backwards.

“Skunk ! I didn't even recognize you, motherfucker! Ricky said you was coming up.” Choice said. He embraced Skunk in a modified bro hug and clapped him on the back a few times. The hug was as about as sincere as a crocodile’s tears. Skunk didn't like Choice and Choice knew it. It wasn't his attire. It wasn't his choice in music, which drove Ricky crazy and had caused him to call Choice a “wigger” more than once. It was his single-minded obsession with trying to be  hard. It made him reckless and stupid and it rubbed Skunk the wrong way. The last time they had worked together he had just tried to ignore it. But now it seemed that Choice had gotten even more obnoxious and insecure. If that was even possible. He came off as phony and desperate and he left a bad taste in Skunk's mouth like cheap vodka.

 Ricky poked his head out the door of his office.

“Come on back.”

Skunk got up and followed Choice as they walked behind the bar. He made a pit stop near the old man and put his hand on his shoulder.

“We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm. George Orwell.” he said to the old man.

“Like I said, men of violence.” the old man said before downing the rest of his beer.

Ricky's desk looked like it had been engulfed in a tornado of scrap paper and cigarette butts. A bowl of wax fruit sat behind Ricky on a shelf. Skunk wondered where the hell Ricky had found wax fruit. Did they still make that shit or had Ricky been perusing local thrift stores?  Choice leaned against the wall while Skunk sat on the wooden chair to the right of the desk and tried not to stare at the wax fruit. Ricky got right into it.

“So Charlie West done got himself in deep with some boys and he owe them more money than WestTruck can pay him.” Ricky said.

“What the fuck did he do?” Choice asked. Ricky shot him a tired glance.

“It don't matter, Choice, he just need some quick money and he came to me with a deal. Tomorrow night he gonna be coming up Rt. 17 driving a covered flat-bed with a shit load of copper grounding rods on it. Twenty tons according to Charlie. They headed up north to some construction project. We take the truck, drop off ole Charlie and then we sell the copper for scrap to a boy I know who'll give us eighty cents on the dollar. We split it four ways and that comes out to twenty grand for everybody. I can't go on the run. My knee is jacked the hell up and it's getting worse. That's why I called you, Skunk. You and Choice just need to drop off Charlie and then drive it over to my boy's yard in Lancaster. Charlie will wait a few hours before he report it stolen. By that time the copper be long gone and the truck be a paper weight.” Ricky said. He pulled out a small brown pill bottle and shook a tiny white tablet into his hand. He pressed the tablet onto the table with his meat hook of a hand and crushed it like he was squishing a bug. He bent forward and snorted the powder off his desk. No dollar bill, no straw, no nothing.

“Dam nigga, you ain't even offer us none!” Choice exclaimed. Ricky pulled the bottle out and began to shake out another pill.

“I wish you would stop saying that.” Skunk said.  Choice laughed.

“What ? Nigga? Man, my boy Taiwan say I'm good. I get a pass from the brothers.” he said as he picked the tablet out of Ricky's hand. Skunk crossed his legs.

“I know some brothers in Durham at the Federal pen might disagree with you.” Skunk said. He didn’t look at Choice. He just kept his eyes on the wax fruit above Ricky's left shoulder. It looked like the kind his grandma had kept in the house she had shared with him and his daddy.

“Well, fuck them niggas. I'm legit as shit. I'm go hard for mines.” he said as he bent down toward the table to crush up his the Oxycontin. Skunk didn't say anything else. He was afraid if he did Ch,oice would say something else smart and he would have to cut his throat for him. It wasn't that he was particularly racially sensitive. Choice just came off like a bad character in a bad movie. A movie that Skunk was getting really tired of watching.

                          *************************

Choice and Skunk sat in an old Buick that belonged to Ricky but was registered to his dead mother. The AC was broken so they sat in the dark with the windows down. Choice had turned the radio to a hip-hop station and when Skunk hadn't objected he cranked the volume to eight. They were parked on an abandoned logging road off of Rt. 17 waiting for Charlie to show up with the copper. Choice glanced at Skunk then dropped his eyes.

“What?” Skunk said.

“Man, I was just thinking why are we splitting this four ways? Ricky is nice and cool at home and Charlie is just gonna get out the damn truck. We the ones gotta drive over to Lancaster with some stolen shit. I mean we taking all the risk.” he said. He didn't mean for all of that to come out even though he had been thinking it since yesterday in Ricky's office. It just spilled out on its own.

“We splitting it four ways cuz that's how it's done. Ricky set it up and Charlie is risking his job and jail. So we splitting it four ways.” he said. He was staring straight ahead.

“I know man, I’m just saying we doing all the work and-”

“Stop talking, Choice.” Skunk said. His voice was low and even, but Choice stopped talking immediately.

Bright lights lit up the night and the wheeze of air brakes filled their ears. A medium-sized covered flat bed was pulling up in front of them. Skunk reached for the door handle.

“Hey, what if it ain't them. Let's wait.” Choice said. Skunk looked over his shoulder.

“You expecting someone else?” he said. Choice shook his head. He reached for his door handle as well. The driver side door opened and a thin sallow faced man hopped out of the cab. He was tall and raw-boned with a lean face that seemed to come to a point like a fox. He wore a weathered baseball cap with an “R” above the bill.

“What up, Charlie Brown!” Choice exclaimed as he extended his hand. The trucker grabbed it and the two executed a series of complex gesticulations. The trucker nodded toward Skunk. Skunk nodded back.

The passenger door opened. All three men turned and watched as an older man climbed down out the cab. He ambled over to the three men and extended his hand. Choice and Skunk glanced at each other.

“Charlie, who da fuck is this?” Choice asked. His voice sounded ragged.

“Hey, he's cool, man. He just a friend. He know what's up.” Charlie said. He sounded like he was tired enough to stretch out on the gravel road and take a nap.

“This wasn't part of the deal.” Skunk said. The three other men looked at him. Choice swallowed hard and squared his shoulders.

“Fuck it. We all know what time it is. Give me the keys, Charlie.” he said.

“Wait a minute. I've been thinking. We gotta make it look legit. You need to smack me or something.” Charlie said in his sleepy voice. Choice laughed.

“You for real ain't ya?” he said. The other man who had not introduced himself chuckled too.

“I told him I'd do it but he stuck on one of you fellas doing it.” he said in a deep southern drawl that made Ricky sound like a Bostonian. Skunk sucked at his teeth. He didn't call himself a professional but this shit was amateur hour. Choice was grinning. Skunk could see his platinum grill glistening in the moonlight.

“Alright. Let's do it. Stand over here, Charlie.” The trucker moved in front of the truck. He braced himself against the steel grill. Choice made a show of cracking his knuckles and rolling his fists.

“Hurry up.” Skunk said.

“He'll probably have to do it twice. I bet he punch like a bitch.” Charlie said. The other man chuckled. Choice shot him a look and the chuckle died in his throat.

“I got ya bitch.” he said. Choice jumped forward and punched Charlie in the neck. The taller man put his hands to his throat and stumbled sideways before sliding to the ground.

“What up now ?! I told ya I got your bitch, motherfucker!” Choice said. He hopped into the air and then squatted down near Charlie' s face bobbing his head side to side like a rooster strutting across the yard. He jumped back up and flexed his right hand. Wet gurgling sounds began to emanate from where Charlie was laying on the ground. Skunk grabbed him by the arm and turned him on his side. Blood flowed from his mouth and ran down his cheeks like war paint. It looked black in the moonlight. Charlie stopped gurgling. His body went slack. Skunk stepped back from where he lay. Choice looked at Charlie then looked at Skunk.

“Aw fuck no, man. Get up, Charlie! Stop fucking with me!” he yelled. The older man dropped to his knees and put his fingers to Charlie's neck. He turned and looked at Skunk and Choice.

“You killed him.” he said. His voice was listless. The night seemed to get darker, the sounds seemed to be dulled by his statement. Choice put his hands on his head and began to pace back and forth.

“Naw man, don't say that shit! It was his idea. You heard him! Aw no man. No, no, no, no, no!” he yammered. The older man looked back at Charlie.

“He was my-”

A shot rang out through the dark woods. The older man's body fell forward and covered Charlie's. Choice's eyes widened as he stared at Skunk. A .45 caliber semi-automatic with smoke still trailing from the barrel was clutched tightly in his hand.  Choice couldn't breathe. He felt like a fat girl was trying to ride him. He backed away from Skunk. He was going to be sick.

“Why do you have a gun, man?” he asked. Skunk didn't look at him. He put the gun back in the waist band of his jeans.

“For shit like this.” he said. Somewhere in the darkness a Whippoorwill whistled a jolly tune.

Ricky showed up twenty minutes later. Skunk had called him and told him in somewhat coded language that the deal had gone tits up.

“Jesus Christ! What the hell happened?” he asked.  Choice was sitting on the hood of the Buick. Skunk was leaning against the passenger door. Choice didn't say a word.

“Charlie brought a friend. Then he wanted Choice to punch him to make it look good for the police. Choice hit him in the throat and he must have got him good cuz he drowned in his own blood. Then I capped his buddy cuz how were we gonna let him go walking around after what happened?” Skunk said. Ricky licked his lips. He went over to the Buick. He put his arm around Choice.

“You alright boy?” he said. Choice shook his head.

“Did you bring the shovels?” Skunk asked.

Two hours later Charlie and his friend were buried in a shallow grave a hundred yards off the old logging road. Choice put on his shirt and wiped his hands on some moss growing on the trunk of an oak tree. Skunk was still shirtless as he tamped the grave down and kicked some dead leaves and branches over it.

“Shouldn't somebody say...something?” Ricky asked. Skunk stuck the blade of his shovel in the ground and twisted back into his t-shirt.

“Here lies Charlie and some other guy who died because Charlie wanted it to look good when the cops questioned him. Amen” he said.  Ricky sighed.

“Well, that's something I guess.” he said. He got up from the stump he was sitting on and licked his lips again.

“Let's get out of here. We can't take the truck to Lancaster tonight. Skunk, can you drive it? We'll take it to my garage and wash it off and change the license plates and take it over tomorrow night. I'll drive behind you and Choice will drive in front of you.” he said. His wide face had aged five years.

“Yeah.” Skunk replied. Choice didn't say anything. He started walking back through the woods.

“Hey.” Skunk said. Choice stopped and looked over his shoulder.

“You can't tell nobody about this. Not some homeboys you trying to impress or some hoes you trying to fuck. Nobody. Because you tell somebody then they go and tell somebody then somebody talk to the cops and then they come looking for us. And if that happens somebody is gonna end up in another hole out here in the woods, ya hear me?” he asked. Choice tried to look hard. He tried to stare him down like a no-fucks given gangster. But his heart wasn't in it. He gave up and just nodded his head. His face felt hot and he was afraid he was gonna cry. He continued walking.

“You ain't gotta talk like that, Skunk. Nobody is gonna say anything.” Ricky said. Skunk heard the hard edge in his voice and ignored it. Ricky had a blind spot when it came to Choice. Nothing Skunk could say was going to change that.

“I just need to know he knows how serious this is.” he said. He followed Choice out of the woods.

The next two days passed like baby shit. They delivered the truck and Ricky's buddy told them it would take a day to get the cash. Skunk crashed in Ricky's office and Choice made himself scarce. Skunk borrowed Ricky's fishing pole and spent the next day on the pier near the Coleman Bridge fishing and drinking beer. As the sun began to set, Ricky called him and told him to come by the house, he had something for him. Skunk packed his cheap Styrofoam cooler and Ricky's fishing pole in the trunk of his LTD and left the pier. He hadn't caught a single fish but the ice in the cooler wouldn't go to waste. He would pick up his money then pick up some more beers on his way out of town.

He stood outside of Ricky's double wide preparing to knock on the door when it was pulled open and he found himself staring into Gina's ratty eyes once again.

“Hey,” she said. He could tell she wanted to say “fuck you”. Skunk didn't respond. He slipped past her and headed for the den. Gina's daughter was sitting on the couch. She glanced up at him. Recognition barely registered in her dead green eyes as he walked past her. Ricky was sitting in his recliner in front of a sixty-inch wide television. A brown bottle of beer was glued to his right hand.

“Hey.” he said.

“Hey.” Skunk responded. There was none of his usual jocularity. He simply grabbed a brown paper bag from somewhere and handed it to Skunk.

“I think we should all lay low for awhile.” Ricky said. He didn't look at Skunk. Instead he focused on a baseball game that seemed to be his sole reason for living at this moment.

“Alright.” Skunk said. He had been thinking the same thing but wasn't going to tell anyone. Gina's daughter appeared at the door.

“Mama say she can't take me to the mall to get my school clothes tomorrow. Can you drop me off, Mr. Ricky?” she asked. Her voice was more in line with her age than her appearance.

“Ah shit, Kara, I gotta be there for the beer delivery. I'll get Choice to drop you off.” Ricky said. 

The girl flinched. Her shoulders trembled and her head swiveled hard on her shoulders. Ricky didn't seem to notice.

But Skunk did. He recognized that flinch, that tremor. He used to flinch like that whenever someone mentioned his dad. Skunk bit down hard on the inside of his lip.

“Never mind.” Kara said.

“Hey girlie, don't be like that. Choice won't mind taking you. We gotta get you looking right for school. Can't have you going back looking like a ten-pound bag of shit in an eight-pound bag now!” Ricky said. Skunk could see he was trying to make her laugh. Skunk saw her shoulders slump.

“Okay.” she said. Her voice was barely audible. She turned and left the room. 

“I gotta go. See ya, Ricky.” Skunk said.

“Later on, brother.” Ricky said.

Kara was sitting on the hood of Skunk's car when he got outside. She was chewing a wad of gum that was big enough to give her instant diabetes.

“Move.” Skunk said.

“You like boys?” Kara said. The question rocked Skunk like a punch to the solar plexus.

“What? No. Why would you ask me that?” he said. His usual gravelly voice had gone up half and octave.

“Mama says you must like boys cuz you didn't want to party with her.” she said. Skunk moved closer to the car.

“Your mama don't need to talk to you about shit like that.” he said. The girl shrugged.

“I didn't think you did. Mama always says that if somebody don't wanna party with her. She says the hole controls the pole. If a man don't want the hole he must love the pole.” Kara said. Her voice was even but her face was twisted into a Gordian knot of expressions. Skunk was standing very close to her now.

“Your mama is a sick bitch. You don't need to be worrying about holes or poles or none of that shit. You need to be doing little girl things.” Skunk said. Kara smiled. It was a weary, sad smile.

“That's nice, mister. You know you could take me with you. I could be your little girl. You could take care of me.” she said. Skunk grabbed her roughly by the arm and pulled her off the hood of his car.

“You go back in that house and watch some fucking cartoons or something. And I better not ever hear about you talking like that again.” he said. Kara began to twist and thrash like a wild animal. He let her slip out of his grasp. She stomped up to Ricky's trailer without saying a word.

 

The sound of someone knocking on his door woke Choice from his nightmare. He dreamed of Charlie and the other guy. They filled his waking hours, too. He thought he caught glimpses of them out the corner of his eye.

“I'm coming. Shit, who is it?” he yelled as he walked to the door.

“Skunk.” a muffled voice said. Choice froze in his tracks.

“Skunk? Uh, what you want man?” Choice asked.

“I'm leaving town. Just wanna holler at you for minute.” he said. Choice snorted. His nostrils burned. He had hit the oxy pretty hard the last couple of nights.

“Okay. Alright.” Choice said. He opened his door. Skunk stepped inside the trailer. Choice plopped down on his couch. He pulled out a pack of smokes and lit up.

“So what up?” he said between puffs. Skunk sat in Choice's recliner and leaned forward resting his hands on his knees. Through the haze that surrounded his brain Choice noticed Skunk was wearing gloves.

“I just wanted to stop by and check on ya. I was kind of hard on you the other night but shit is real now.” he said. Choice inhaled deeply on his cigarette.

“Shit man, you ain't  gotta tell me that.” he said. Skunk leaned back in the chair.

“I'm just saying you gotta push this down. Push it down till you can pretend it didn't even happen.” Skunk said. Choice blew out a plume of smoke.

“How the hell you do that, man? I mean I ain't gonna talk to nobody but I can't pretend that shit didn't happen, man.” Choice said. Skunk tapped his fingers on his knee.

“You know why people call me Skunk. Cuz of this white streak. My daddy gave that to me. He was a crazy old bastard. He used to beat on me and my mom then when my mom ran out he started doing stuff to me that a daddy ain't supposed to do to his son.” Skunk swallowed hard. “and then he would beat me for making him do them things. My grandma, she act like she didn't know what was going on. I used to lay in bed and pray to God for somebody to come and help me. Then I started praying for my daddy to die. And you know what? God did reach out and touch him. He had himself a religious conversion. He decided that there was a devil in me that made him want to do them things to me. So he tied me to a chair and split my head open from eyebrow to the back of my neck. He threw rubbing alcohol on me and threatened to set me on fire. All night he did this shit till my grandma woke up and she finally called the police. “

“Jesus.” Choice said. His tone had lost all urban affectation.

“I push that shit down, Choice. I pushed it deep. Deep down into a place that can't nobody ever touch. I just don't think you can push it that deep, Choice.” Skunk said. Choice's cigarette slipped out of his mouth, hung on his lip for a second then landed in his lap. He slapped at his lap furiously to put out the cigarette. When Choice raised his head Skunk was pointing the .45 at his face.

“What the fuck, Skunk? Don't point that thing at me!”

“You say you'll keep it to yourself. And you will for a month or two, but then you will be around some of your homies and you'll want to show them how much of a badass you are. And you'll tell, Choice. Guys like you always tell.” Skunk said calmly. He could have been discussing his interest in a new cell phone plan.

“Wait a minute, man. Just wait. What you think Ricky gonna say he found out you pulled a gun on me? He gonna go ham on your ass.” Choice said. His voice was ragged like his vocal chords were coated with cement dust. He had his hands up but he abruptly put them down.

“Who says he gonna find out?” Skunk asked. Choice started to say something else but Skunk shot him right below his right eye. A red splash of blood appeared on the backrest of the couch like a magic trick. Choice went limp and his body listed to the right. Skunk shot him again in the chest and again in the groin and one more time in the head.

As he drove out of town with the engine of the LTD growling like a lion, he told himself it had to be done. Choice was a weak link. Ricky might suspect him but he wouldn't have the stomach to try and prove it. Skunk knew Ricky would never admit it, but it was for the best. Choice was a weak link and weak links always snap. He reiterated that to himself as he hit the Interstate and stomped the pedal through the floor. He told himself that same story when he pulled into the trailer park he called home eight hours later.

But for a few weeks after Choice's demise it was Kara's face that greeted him in his nightmares, not his father's. He would still find himself tied to the chair. He could still feel the blood running down his face and smell the rubbing alcohol. However instead of Kenneth Mitchell it was Kara standing before him holding the red-stained straight razor. She was wearing heavy make-up and harsh black lipstick. She would dance and twirl in front of him like a marionette. Then she would lean in close and whisper:

“You can’t save me. You can’t even save yourself.”

Skunk would wake with a start before letting out a long sigh.






S.A. Cosby lives in Virginia with a pug named Pugsley and a cantankerous squirrel named Solomon. He has been published in ThugLit twice, in Issues # 10 and #14. He has also been published in anthologies from WriterPunk Press and Roaring Lion productions. His fantasy novel Brotherhood of the Blade was published by HCS Publishing. 

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