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Ambrose McJunkin
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Heads or Tails


Ambrose McJunkin



I joust the freshly cut wood into the stove and nudge the hatch closed with the tip of my boot. My hands are ice from hefting the axe, and I let them linger over the hot iron. The flurry that’s been going on for the last several days has shown no sign of letting up, and I’m starting to doubt the ability of the beater truck that got me here to get me back out.

Dat’s right, Pretty Boy, can’t run from fate. I oughta know. But don't worry—you ain’t gonna be bored much longer.

His face manifests in the blackening wood, the hatch of the stove now magically open again, the flames licking out menacingly. I see the face of my conscience flickering before me. Those piercing blue eyes attempting to steal my compliance. His words—words I haven’t heard outside my head, surely—are words that isolation has lent amplification, granted a voice.

Let him stay there in that fire then. Let him burn some more. Let me, pray God, find a way to sear him from my thoughts, cauterize the wound rent from guilt’s blade.

Solitude, it seems, has made me a poet. It’s also made me batshit insane. I settle onto the moth-eaten couch I’d taken the liberty of moving in front of the stove, and soothe the remainder of my chill with warm beer. Getting out my lucky quarter, I while away the time by flipping it into the air, my mind pondering the trajectory of things. I’d been leaving the cabin only at night, making the same fifty-or-so-mile trip into White Sulphur Springs with only my headlights for company, and only to resupply on canned goods or nab a quick bite to eat at the truck stop. To say I’ve gone a little stir-crazy would be the understatement of the century. But stir-crazy doesn’t put faces in the fire or voices in your head. No, for that, I’ve ventured into a whole ‘nother ballpark of headfucked. I catch the tiny piece of metal in my hand and run my thumb over the familiar ridges along its edge. Then I send it up again, watching it wink back firelight.


Each time the quarter goes up, the same question is answered—with conflicting results.

          My mind darts back in time, to that first call from Audrey. The excitement in her voice was contagious. Freezing my ass off on the payphone outside the Town Pump in White Sulphur, I knew we’d done it.

Two weeks later, we spoke again. How was I holding up at her family’s old cabin? I told her it could be better, but at least I was still contemplating chopping only firewood. At this, she laughed, and the sound of it was medicine for us both. But then when I turned the tables, she started crying. Said the conversations with her mother and sister had gotten her legitimately choked up for reasons she couldn’t explain. Perhaps the stress of carrying on the ruse, even though she wasn’t that close to either of them. Said the cops and the insurance people had stopped calling, that if there was suspicion of wrongdoing she wasn’t privy to it. I told her to relax, that our one-way trip out of here was in sight. But it was actually me that needed to relax. Being in the dark so long can make a person batty.

          And then, some time later, I picked up the handset that was fast becoming my mistress, cradled the frigid plastic against my cheek, and got the message that flipped the hourglass on my sanity.

          The next time we spoke, she knew right away something was wrong. I guess I couldn’t keep the tremble out of my voice. I blamed paranoia; if only she knew. At the end of the call, I caught myself about to tell her to watch out for him. Be careful, is what I said. The Devil’s not done with us, is what I thought.

 Yesterday, after over four months in this awful, frozen backwoods of America, I finally got the call I’d been waiting for. Said she was headed up to Montana that evening, had gotten studs put on and everything. Expected to be there by tomorrow evening. Said the money was in the bank and all we had to do was get on a one-way flight to Mexico. Or Costa Rica. Or Aruba. Point being, we were in the clear, and there was nothing that could stop us.

Nothing except her hitting a patch of ice and somersaulting off the highway.

Oh, she’ll hit a patch of ol’ blackie, all right. Get her neck twisted up real good. But not ‘fore I have my way with you, Pretty Boy. Dat money’s gonna rot in your savings account, same way you’re gonna rot up here in dis cabin. Till spring comes, and some good Samaritan finally catches your scent and calls the sheriff.

Shut. The. Hell. Up.

The quarter goes up again, spinning and spinning.

To reclaim my mood, I replay the weeks leading up to the fire, hearing again the newfound excitement in our voices as we whispered in bed after the lights went out, and recalling that feeling we shared, a feeling neither of us was brave enough at the time to call hope, more like hope’s little brother.

As with most things, the final course was plotted years in advance, me with my night school gigs an hour and a half away in Boulder, her with her double shifts at the hospital. After the ovarian cancer and the bankruptcy, work proved the best distraction from the black cloud that lingered above us. With the prospect of kids gone, our sex life waned. Intimacy became a language we’d lost all fluency in. I never blamed her for any of it, but that didn’t stop her from blaming herself.

Gradually, we said littler and littler to each other. When we were together, we’d be passed out on the couch letting the TV do the talking. Her body next to mine, yet miles away. A stranger’s body. My marriage on life support, I did the only thing I could think of and took out a two-million-dollar policy with Transamerica Life Insurance.

The quarter goes higher than before, disappearing momentarily in the gloom of the arched ceiling. When the cabin creaks again, and my eyes are diverted to each shadowy corner, it finds its way through my outstretched fingers to the floor.

The frosted windows hide any and all surreptitious spectators, and the uncaring buck head mounted above the stove stares back at me conspiratorially. It’s just a fucking voice in your head, I tell myself for the hundredth time. And voices don’t have teeth. I wait for another one of his cheeky repartees, but he seems to be all out. After a moment, the silence stops being comforting.

I retrieve the quarter from its premature grave beside the stove.

We needed a body, so while Audrey lured him with a cloying smile, offering him a beer he’d never taste, I snuck up behind and brought a bag down over his head. I can still feel my heart pounding, every line I ever drew in the sand about to be forgotten. I can still hear Audrey’s involuntary gasp as I wrestled him to the ground and stayed on top of him until the bag had stilled. I can still see his stark blue eyes blotted red with blood where the capillaries had burst. Eyes as hungry for light as his mouth had been for breath. His frail form squirming fiercely beneath mine, holding fast to the one thing that remained, until his muscles finally quit.


I couldn’t bring myself to ask his name. That he called home the underside of the Grayson Memorial Bridge by the park was enough. When I’d finally walked up to him, he was squatting on his haunches next to a grocery cart full of recyclables, flipping a quarter with grubby fingers that poked from a ratty cut-off wool glove. I remember him whistling, saying, “Look at dis here pretty boy,” more I believe in response to my sports coat and watch than any perceived advantage in attracting the opposite sex.

When I asked about the quarter, he said it was his life’s fortune and laughed—a low, emphysemic cackle. The McDonald’s wrappers littering the ground suggested otherwise. I asked for his story and he told me there was none. No friends, no relatives, just him and his lucky quarter. I asked why he thought it was lucky and he said he’d been using it to tell the future. Said he’d ask a yes or no question to himself, then let the quarter answer, and taking that approach over the years had kept him out of trouble. I wanted to ask, if living under a bridge wasn’t trouble, what was? Instead, I invited him back to the house, told him I was a Christian and wanted to do the Christianly thing and treat him to a hot meal. I pointed out Audrey smiling from the passenger seat, lest he got to thinking I actually wanted him to blow me for twenty bucks.

I remember him saying, “Jus you hang on der, Pretty Boy,” and then he told me in his own peculiar vernacular that he’d have to consult the quarter. He closed his eyes and flipped it into the air, deftly catching it blind from years of practice. At that moment, before he’d removed his hand, my mind went blank, and I was certain that it was going to be that stupid quarter—and not the police, the insurance company, or the nosey neighbors—that was going to thwart our year of careful planning and scheming. In my head, I could already hear his animated denial. It would be, what some might have called, poetic justice. But, of course it landed favorably, and he came along, and that’s when I knew it was not his lucky charm but mine.

We worried the fire would take too long to grab hold, but per Audrey’s account, it had consumed three-quarters of the house before the firefighters arrived. When she put on the waterworks for the fire marshal hours later, the house was still smoldering, baking the neighborhood in tropical heat. When she told me, it was amid hysterical laughter. Said the heat and the soot aided her thoughts of our late Pomeranian in making her eyes and voice cooperate.

I sometimes worry the woman I knew perished in that fire, but a job done is a job done. Besides, who am I to talk?


Preeeeetty Boy.

My role was easier. I simply had to move the body into position and then skip town. Wearing my jacket and wedding ring, the resemblance was enough. Audrey had looked into it, and the fact that he was a black wasn’t gonna mean much when the coroner was standing over him. I set a can of beer by the car. The rest of the expired six-pack was crumpled up on the kitchen table. The story was simple: hubby’s loaded, but a truck won’t fix itself. Then, would you look at my luck? Dang jack slips off the underbelly, pinning me underneath. As my legs kick out wildly, they manage to kick the lamp off the workbench, knocking down the neighboring shelf in the process. The same shelf balancing, among other things, a rusted can of kerosene.  

The quarter falls into my palm, and I let it rest there.

In the end, everything had fallen perfectly into place, just as the coin had. Only we couldn’t see all the pieces. Couldn’t see . . . that I was one of them.

During that year of planning, we devised a system, Audrey and I. With her dad in the nursing home, and stubbornly resisting selling the family one, we found opportunity. When I got up to Montana, I placed a call to a phone that hadn’t been used in over two years and left a message on the machine. The message was me whispering seven digits. She’d then been leaving messages back to indicate when she’d call the payphone in White Sulphur, keeping the same kind of brevity for plausible deniability. We were probably being overly paranoid, but you only get one shot at a thing like this.

And then one day, I checked her father’s answering machine and got a different kind of message, one left in a raspy voice flame had failed to snuff out. It said two words: Preeeeetty Boy. And coughed, as though with lungs still full of smoke. And then it said four more: I’m coming fo you. And then I hung up, overtaken by a wave of lightheadedness. I caught my knees before going ass over tea kettle, regurgitating a short stack and two cups of coffee into the snowbank.

I stand up, pocketing the quarter, and move to my jacket hung by the door. When I return to the couch, I’m gripping the Colt Cobra. The gun I bought from a pawn shop back home in Denver. Call it a contingency plan I hope never to tell Audrey about. After a moment sitting there, tense as a fly line after a bite, I take a deep breath and get my lucky quarter out again.

Around and around it goes.

If that filthy fucking tramp should come strolling through that door, I’ll send him to the grave twice over.

You hear that, you tramp fuck? I’ll fucking kill you again. And again. And I’ll keep killing you and you’ll keep dying, cause you were never meant for anything else.


I repeat the diatribe over and over in my head, barely noticing the tears streaming down my cheeks. I’d survived weeks of torment, only to be undone by some aptly timed reticence. Even company I didn’t want was company I couldn’t do without.

Time crawls forward as the fire burns down. Afternoon creeps into dusk and dusk creeps into dark. The relentless rattle of the wind now pinch-hitting for that horrible, heckling voice.

Being alert for so long, the fatigue hits me, and I feel my eyelids start to droop. In my dream, I’m standing at a window in the cabin, looking out at the snow-crested trees. As my eyes survey the tranquil scenery—a multitude of dark trees, tilting slowly in the breeze—they suddenly come to a halt. There’s one tree that’s not a tree. It’s him. Standing there naked in the snow like some gruesome sentinel, his ruined body black as a nightmare. Like a man tarred and feathered, bits of burnt clothing hang from his mutilated skin, and his body is gaunt and skeletal, his penis eerily diminutive like a shrunken head, and his face, if you can still call it a face, is a melting wax work, nose and lips and ears erased, and the only semblance of humanity are those piercing blue eyes, somehow spared the voracious appetite of the fire. And those piercing blue eyes are gleaming their dying wish.

Shiiit, Pretty Boy. You didn’t think I’d jus forget ‘bout you, did’ja?

He whispers the words into my ear even as he’s standing there some fifty feet out, having executed some cunning sleight of hand known only to the damned. He whispers the words without moving the gash where his lips used to be. Then he curls that gash into a deranged smile, revealing teeth no living man could possess, born anew as crooked fangs. Now holding my attention captive, he starts gnashing those horror teeth together, drawing blood that runs down his chin.

Death’s made me awful hungry, Pretty Boy. And I don’t see no McDonald’s around to eat.

He raises one skeletal arm and holds it out in front of him. The item in his hand catches light, Washington’s face now tarnished with ash, like his own. The quarter I stole from him, only to have stolen back.

It’s dejŠ vu as he flips it into the air and catches it in his charred hand, those icy blue eyes never leaving mine.


The noise of a branch snapping jerks me awake. Short of a deer happening by, the meaning is unmistakable. No other cabins around, no other places to go.

Quiet. Except for the wind.

Then, someone or something crunching through stale snow. Audrey?

My stomach disappears into oblivion, my heart screaming to follow. My mind explodes: run, hide! But my body won’t move.

You can’t hide from me, Pretty Boy.

Audrey, help me!

Now the visitor is right outside. The doorknob squirms. Old wood scraping against old wood.

I raise the gun with one clenched hand, the muzzle veering like a weather vane.

The quarter frozen in my palm.

Heads or tails.

Ambrose McJunkin’s short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey. He writes from Bozeman, Montana, where he lives with his wife of two-and-a-half years and dreams of retiring from software development.

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