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88_ym_onlywaytofly_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2021

The Only Way to Fly

Tom Andes

 

 

When I got into New Orleans at three o’clock that afternoon, my brother Eddie was waiting for me at the Greyhound station. Seeing him for the first time in fifteen years, remembering what he’d done to me when we were younger, which went by the name of rape, and worse, since we were brother and sister, incest, I felt sick, rubbery in the knees, and I didn’t know if I could go through with what I’d come to do and kill him. But I told myself that by the end of the day, he’d be dead, and this would be over.

          “How the hell are ya, sis?” he asked me—like he didn’t know. Like this whole damn mess of our lives wasn’t his fault. And now he wanted me to sign over my half of our parents’ house on Louisiana Avenue Parkway, so he could sell it off to a goddamn real estate developer and pocket the dough. For my pain all I had was the memory of those windchimes Mama had hung out my back-bedroom window, sounding while Eddie climbed on top of me and shoved his little bitty dick in me. That was why I’d come back here with my plan to kill him.

          “Divorced,” I said, trying to sound cheery about it, “for one.”

          And I showed him the tan line on my finger, which hadn’t filled in yet. Not that I was a big believer in romance, since getting dicked down against her will by her own brother has a way of shattering a girl’s illusions, but the fact that marriage hadn’t worked out was still a disappointment. My ex was a former Army Ranger, and we’d shacked up for a couple years in an RV near Point Reyes in Northern California, but one thing had led to another, both of us damaged goods, with what his Army shrink called PTSD, so before too long, try as we might to figure things out, we’d had to go our separate ways.

          Eddie’s lip drooped, like maybe he’d had a stroke in the fifteen years since I’d seen him, but I guessed some things hadn’t changed because he was still a slob. He was in a Saints warmup jersey with food stains down the front—like they would’ve let him anywhere near training camp, not even if he did play linebacker back in his salad days at Brother Martin—and he was out of breath, winded walking from his car. “I didn’t even know you was married,” he said, huffing.

          “Happened so fast, I almost didn’t know it, either.” And God, it felt like it had been over just as quick. My brother’s face was pale, doughy. Did Eddie still feel possessive of me, like he had when we were teenagers, and he used to chase off my boyfriends?

          “No suitcase?” He licked his lips, like maybe he was catching on I wasn’t planning on staying that long. Sweat was running down his face, which looked like a banana Moon-Pie. My guts twisted up like a towel with a pit bull tugging on the other end of it as I remembered all the things that he’d done to me, and I hated him, but he was my brother, so for a second, God help me, though I was still planning on watching him die, it was good to see him, too.

          Nope, I told him, just that backpack, which I slung over my shoulder, and which he wasn’t going to touch. Wasn’t much in there except a change of clothes, a battered copy of The Sirens of Titan, a Kurt Vonnegut novel I’d managed to read twice on that fifty-five hour bus ride, and a Bowie knife that ex had given me, which before the end of the day I planned on driving into my brother’s brain, so as to put us both out of our misery.

“Traveling light?” He grinned. That was the name of a JJ Cale song Daddy had loved, from the Troubadour album, and which in our generation, a band called Widespread Panic had covered. In my greener days, I’d followed that band around the country, living rough, a free woman, sleeping under the stars, but as far as I’d gone, I’d had unfinished business here at home. Besides which, for some of us, as the great poet and philosopher Robert Earl Keen says, the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

“The only way to fly.” That was the next line of the song. But it was also, in my experience, true, even if sometimes the things that weighed us down weren’t things at all. Could fit my whole life in a shopping cart, and I’d spent half of it sleeping under bridges, but for years I’d struggled under a weight, so I was here to get rid of something by settling the score with my brother, and maybe to get a piece of myself back in the bargain.

          We drove his maroon Chrysler, like riding a great big humpback whale up Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

“Sure has changed around here.” I rolled my window down. Fifteen years ago, before Katrina, the last time I’d visited, this had been Crack Central. Now, judging by those swanky food courts and the bike racks along the sidewalks, it was for the tourists and the yuppies. I wasn’t sure which was worse, the way it was then or the way it was now.

          “Storm come through and blew everything away.” Eddie was still trying to catch his breath. His fingers gripped the wheel, sticking to the leather, so they made a sucking sound when he pulled them off. He was in khaki shorts, and blue veins showed in his legs. “Best damn thing ever happened to this place, if you ask me. Give us all a chance to start over.”

          And he made like he was pulling a lever, flushing everybody out of the neighborhood—like that storm hadn’t nearly washed his ass out of New Orleans, too. Before they kicked off, our parents had helped Eddie get back on his feet, buying his first rental unit. Now, he owned twenty-five of them, short- and long-term vacation stays, and he was spitting on Mama and Daddy’s graves by selling their place out from under me.

          “You should wash your ass, Eddie,” I said, “because it probably smells.”

          He’d always been so easy to mess with that I hardly took any pleasure in it.

          “You don’t need to be mean.” He raised an arm, gave his pit a sniff. Probably would’ve tried to smell his own balls, if he could’ve bent far enough. He was pouting. A briefcase was next to him on the seat, like he thought he was all that and a bag of donuts.

          “I’m joshing you.” I cuffed his shoulder, so he jerked the wheel. “Don’t take it so hard.”

I lit a Parliament, same brand Daddy used to smoke after he hung up his spurs as a session guitarist and drove a United cab, but Eddie made a face, fanning a hand under his nose.

“Jesus, sis, do you mind? I been off them cancer sticks six months now, doctor’s orders, and Christ, but it’s hard to be around.”

“When did you turn into such a big, wet pussy?”

But I didn’t want a fight, not yet, so I took another drag and threw the butt out. I reached over and gave his knee a squeeze. I’d only been smoking to screw with him, anyway.

          Almost four by the time we got to our childhood home, the place where we’d grown up on Louisiana Avenue Parkway. Inside, those rooms were the same as when we were kids, only now they seemed smaller, and it rocked me to be there after a decade and a half. In the living room, that orange couch was sagging into the floor, and it looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the walls. Standing by the back window in my old bedroom, I tried to psych myself up for what I had to do, which was murder, by any other name. Had a ticket on the next bus home to San Francisco, which was scheduled for six, and I was going to disappear back into the streets of that city, like I’d never been to New Orleans.

          “You all right staying alone?” Eddie was in the doorway. I’d been so lost in my reminiscing that I hadn’t heard him come in. In that overgrown backyard, the windchimes Mama had hung all those years ago tinkled, bringing back tortured memories of those nights Eddie had come to my room, shoving his pointy little pecker in me, and I shivered. The room was empty, gutted. It smelled like garbage, mold, piss, and Eddie: man-scent, meaty and unwashed.

          “Where’re you planning on sleeping?” I couldn’t believe he thought he was going to make me stay here. The place probably didn’t even have electricity, and I couldn’t see a mattress anywhere. But that was typical Eddie: he’d lock me in the basement, feed me dogfood, and make me crap in a bucket—worse—if he could get away with it. “Don’t tell me you got yourself a little girlfriend.”

I was teasing him, like when we were kids. Not that Eddie ever had a damn girlfriend. Not unless he cornered the poor thing and forced her.

          “Got a place Uptown.” He looked pleased with himself, a regular cock-o-the-walk, like he’d just been made King of the Krewe of Rex. Like those lily-livered bluebloods that passed for royalty in that city would ever have the likes of him.

          “Uptown?” I’d spent half my life grubbing in the dirt with scum like my brother, living in dumps that made this place look like a palace. After that divorce, I’d slept in a friend’s car. Since then, I’d been laying my head in a tent near the Yang Sing Chinese restaurant on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and I had no work, nothing coming in except a cash grant from the city for less than a hundred bucks a month, so yeah, Uptown, that hacked me off. “Aren’t you hoity-toity. Guess you’ve come up in the world, haven’t you, Eddie?”

          Eddie put his finger to his lips and leaned closer, like he was about to whisper a secret.

“We’re gonna have to tear this place down, anyway. Been five years since Mama and Daddy went, so you know there’s no sense sitting on it any longer. Sooner we unload it, especially with the housing market the way it is now, the better.”

          And he opened that briefcase and handed me the paperwork, which would make my share of the house his. Gave me the ballpoint and turned his back, so I could use his shoulder to sign.

          “That ex of mine was an Army Ranger.” I clicked the pen, and I might’ve shoved it into the back of his neck, jamming it into his occipital lobe and swirling it around like stirring a cocktail. “Special ops.”

“You don’t have to do this, but I’m sitting pretty, and you’re the one taking a Greyhound and probably selling your ass for a hit of crack, so if you want any dough, sign, and when this place sells, maybe I’ll kick down a couple grand. You can jerk me around, hold out as long as you want, but then it’s a waiting game, and I guarantee you, baby girl, that I can hold out a hell of a lot longer than you can.”

I spread that paper out on his shoulder, let the backpack with the knife fall down my arm, catching it in the crook of my elbow. Always knew he was out to screw me, but still, it stung. The son of a bitch.

“A couple grand? This place’ll sell for three or four hundred thousand, easy.”

He hitched his shorts up, sniffed. “You know what they say about beggars and choosers.”

That hit close to home, but what could I say? “Guess you’ve got me, Eddie.”

“Guess so. Guess it’s your tough titty, so sign.”

          I signed my name, Cassie Urbanski, next to his, giving up all legal claim to our parents’ property. But my name meant nothing. I had no bank account, no address, and except for once a month when I went to pick up my assistance check at the CAAP office on Mission Street in San Francisco, there was no way to find me, so I was like dandelion seed floating in the wind.

          “You remember those things we did when we were younger?” I blew on the back of his neck, so the little white hairs stood on end. Sure, he remembered, I bet, just like I did. We’d done them in this room.

          “What’re you talking about?” Eddie breathed harder. Lord knew he wasn’t in shape for any kind of excitement, so if I got him all hot and bothered, maybe he’d stroke out and save me the trouble of stabbing him. Those chimes Mama had hung in the backyard tinkled, like on those nights Eddie’d come to my bed with his pinching fingers, begging me to let him cop a feel, squeezing my titties, until he’d pinned me down and taken what he come for, shoving it in both holes. “You wanted that, too.”

          Took all the self-control I had, but my voice was steady. “You really believe that?”

Over his shoulder, he gave me a crooked smile. “Why else would you have done it? You were plenty into it. Yeah, you had a good time.”

But he stammered, like now that he had to think about it, he wasn’t so sure.

          “You hear those windchimes, those ones Mama hung in that tree?”

          Eddie’s back stiffened, like he was starting to get it, the reason I’d come here. But he laughed, like I was just a strung-out old crack whore. “What the hell are you talking about? Jesus, sis, you might want to get your head examined if you’re hearing those chimes because they’re long gone. Shit, I took that tree down, too.”

          But no, they were ringing, clear as day, and a breeze was coming through the window like it had on those nights. Under the smell of piss and body odor, under the stink of rot, mold, and mildew, that house still smelled like home. Sad part was that I’d never had the heart to tell Mama and Daddy about Eddie, so they’d never understood why I’d left, and they’d probably gone to their graves blaming themselves for their wayward daughter. “Sometimes I think I still hear those chimes every night.”

“You know what they say about California.” He chuckled, still Mister Cool, Calm, and Collected. “What ain’t fruits and nuts is cereal.”

Jesus. Up to then, I’d still been wondering if I could actually kill him, my own brother. But for whatever reason, that was what sealed the deal and made me mad enough I knew I could do it. He couldn’t even get the joke right.

          “It’s flakes, Eddie. That’s the punchline: California is like cereal because it’s full of fruits, nuts, and flakes.”

He started to turn, his fists balled, an angry look that sent shockwaves down to my knees because of how many times I’d seen it when we were younger. “You always did think you were smarter than everybody. Maybe it’s time somebody taught you better than that.”

I was still holding that pen, and I dropped it. Dropped that piece of paper I’d just signed, too. I unzipped that backpack, stuck my hand in.

“Eddie, I think you got gumbo on your shirt.”

That ex hadn’t given me much, but he’d taught me a few things about human anatomy, and he’d showed me how to use that knife.

When Eddie looked down the front of his jersey, I drove the blade into the side of his neck, slicing between his C6 and C7 vertebrae, cutting the spinal connection to his brain—lights out—and putting him down like an animal. It was over in seconds. He jumped like I’d given him an electric shock, and he dropped like a puppet getting its strings snipped.

My ex had warned me about the blood, and it was a regular Old Faithful. That was why I’d brought that change of clothes. As it turned out, the water hadn’t been shut off, and the power hadn’t been cut, either. That was nice. Been a while since I’d taken a hot shower.

After, the house was quiet. Took me a minute to realize it, but those chimes were gone. Was I crazy, like he’d said? Had I been imagining them? No, sure enough, I’d been hearing them all those years, and they were finally done.

I washed the knife and my old clothes in the sink, dropped them in that backpack, and threw it over my shoulder. Later, I’d get rid of it, stuff it in a garbage bin when the bus stopped in West Texas, but even now, my load felt lighter. In the mirror, blue eyes glared out of a stranger’s face. She was that person you try not to see on the neutral ground shaking a plastic cup, holding a cardboard sign. You look at her all asquint, and you’d just as soon forget her, drive past, and never know her story.

I found a last hundred bucks in his wallet. That would get me as far as I needed to go, or anyway, as far as the next thing, back home to San Francisco.


Tom Andes’s writing has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2012, Witness, Great Jones Street, and many other places. He won the 2019 Gold Medal for Best Novel-in-Progress from the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society. He lives in New Orleans, where he makes a living as a freelance writer and editor. He has taught writing at a number of institutions, including San Francisco State University, Northwest Arkansas Community College, and the New Orleans Writers Workshop, which he co-founded. He moonlights as a country singer.


Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/



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