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Jeremiah Minihan
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theybothhadguns.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2018

They Both Had Guns

By

Jeremiah Minihan


They both had guns. That was the thing. Oh, I know I should have been more careful-- the girl is always telling me that. She wants me to pack up and live with her and all, but how could I do that?

         Anyway, they were nothing alike. It would be hard if I had to tell the police to help them with a sketch. The one guy was small, and he was sniffling like crazy and his taller friend kept nudging me with his weapon.

I've faced guns before in the army.

Although they kept their faces in the shadows, I thought I could do a pretty good job sizing them up.

 You usually assume that the taller guy would be the quiet one, the fellow in charge, while the smaller one would nod and follow.

              I fact it was the other way around.

             They didn’t talk much, and I liked that. I wasn't sure where they were taking me—not to my house. That was clear. Maybe they were after money or some of my possessions.

 It was a mystery at first.

The three of us had turned the corner now. All the houses in the neighborhood looked the same—you know, the old Victorian style, now broken down and droopy. And they all smelled faintly of cat piss, even if there had been no cats in them for decades.
The guys looked at each other from time to time as they nudged me along. I was not scared, not yet.

Laurel and Hardy. That's what I would call them. The tall guy would be Laurel, of course, but he did not seem at all like the gangly goof in those old movies. That would mean that the other guy was Hardy, but that did not fit either.

We were moving now toward the end of the block—nothing suspicious, just two boys and their old dad out for a walk. I recognized the house—the King place, abandoned for years. It was built by Simon King, a distinguished young officer in the Civil War who had done some horrible things in the Philippines around 1900. He was to have been court martialed, but resigned instead.

The place had been vacant for a long time. After the auctions and estate sales, I'm sure the place had been stripped to the bone.

Why were they taking me here?  I had no choice but to follow Mutt and Jeff. I suppose that I was not really frightened—I was more confused than frightened.

  "Cici " I heard one of them say—I think the little guy. Why were they speaking my daughter's name? Did they know her? Both men were older than her, rough looking, nothing like the pretty executive my daughter had become.

           "Hurry up, old man." The tall one shoved me. I must have been slowing up. I don’t move quickly any more. We had gone around the back— it was all dark of course, but the moon gave some thin light—just the usual ghostly shadows in this neighborhood. Nothing suspicious.

 The shorter guy had gone ahead, forcing the back door. There was a faint odor in the place, the familiar kind you smell when things have been closed off. We passed through the kitchen—an undistinguished place of dull counters and peeling linoleum. There were no furnishings, of course, only the spectral images of where they had been.

 I had been in the house years ago, when the home was being dismantled. I knew there were two parlors—east and west—framing the old front door. For some reason the shades were still in place—the big guy had gone ahead and was pulling all of them down. It did not make a difference, though, since the tall trees and bushes in the front would have hidden any movement within.

Between the two rooms was a wall with a pretty stained glass window. Abbott walked past it and then murmured something to Costello. The little guy—he really wasn't as chubby as the comedian—swung back at the window and smashed it with a quick crack of the pistol. The remnants could have been repaired, but he turned back and finished the job, carefully breaking each of the little pieces of glass which must have taken someone a long time—a century ago—to put together.

Why had he done that? There was no cause to be so destructive.

"You know what is going to happen." The tall one was speaking.

"Should I?"

          "Don't be a smartass."  This time it was the little guy. He had gone before us and turned small lights on in each of the parlors flanking the hall. They were both talking intensely, muttering how surprised they were that an up-and-coming executive like my daughter had gotten herself into so much trouble. We can't do anything to her, one of them said. After all she has to stay nice and healthy so she can pay up.

They were both looking at me and about to ask me a question. But they did to need to say it. I knew I was going to die. I had known it for a while.
           They showed me two rooms then, each of the parlors’

"Holler all you like," Shorty taunted. "Not a damn soul will hear you. You know that, Dad, don't you?"

I did know, but I would not give him the satisfaction of an answer.

"Course we will have the gag, right. Don't want to have the old guy make too much noise." This was the tall guy talking. He actually sounded kind of stupid. He had an odd accent. I couldn’t place it, but it did not make any difference anyway.

They brought me carefully into each of the two rooms. The wallpaper was early twentieth century at best, and there were swirling plaster patterns on the ceilings and traces of the old woodwork.
             The rooms had no furniture, making the hardwood floors creak in an odd, uneasy way.

Each room had a single wooden chair in the center and one or two chairs near the back for the audience.

They took me slowly into each room. In one of them—the east parlor if I had my direction right—there was nothing, no implements. In the other was a short table with knives, pliers, saws and ropes. I looked quickly. There might have been more tools, but I was too tired and too anxious to notice.

When they brought me again out to the hall, the little one turned me from room to room, asking which one I was going to choose.

The taller, stupider one kept saying "door number one or door number two" in a swooping voice like the announcer on a silly game show.

I also knew that I would suffer before the end.

"Well, which one is it?" Shorty asked.

I hesitated. I guessed that one of them would be the key person in each of the parlors.

"Hurry up old man."

I pointed to the bare room, thinking that there would be less pain there than in the torture room.

They both smiled and led me in, taking their time tying me down.

I thought again about my choice.

It was not long before I realized that I had chosen wrongly.







The Ghost in the Factory

By

Jeremiah Minihan

 

 What will I do once the old place is gone?  I wish I still had a sense of touch so that I could put my palms, my soft palms, on the rough bricks. I can see, of course, and I am not happy with what has happened to the neighborhood since my accident.

I still call it my accident.

But it was not an accident.

The early mornings are best, just before the sun rises. After all, isn’t this when ghosts are supposed to be at their most potent—frightening the hell out of folks? As it is I wander the floors, wondering what it would sound like if I could hear my feet slapping against the wood strips. The place is completely empty now. All the furniture and machines have been taken out. The walls are naked, waiting to be destroyed.

The furniture factory went out during the Depression, and the place was snapped up after the war and cut into smaller shops. Those people really tried to make a success out of it, and some did. But they all failed, just like the Smythe furniture factory.

Each time I climb or descend the stairs, I think that it will be my last time to do so. You might thing that after all of these decades, such pacing would be tedious. But that is not true. Each time I look, I see something new--perhaps a bit of metal or a hole in the plaster— that I would not have noticed before.

Each day is an adventure, I suppose.

Any yet I am tied here, as though with some invisible chain. I think of those fat businessmen in A Christmas Carol, all bound with chains and iron ledgers. It is like that, I suppose. I have never tried to leave the factory, but I do not believe that I could – something would hold me back, some presence. Not God either, but I do not want to discuss that.

You would think after all of these years that the view from the dingy windows would have changed. And yet, as I look beyond the glass, there are empty fields and ragged lots. Nothing has changed; the area has never been developed.

As I turned away, I could not resist looking at myself in the mirror—a slight, youngish man dressed in clothes which would seem strange and antique today. My thinning hair was brushed back as it had always been. My necktie – a gift from my sister – was as bright and pretty as it was when I first received it. And why wouldn’t it be – that is the thing about us: ghosts do not change.

Then I listened to the silence. At one time things were only quiet at night, but now the rooms are soundless all the time.

The fall. What was the rhyme from the old readers – in Adam’s fall, we sinned all? I did fall, down those winding steps which led you from the glass-walled office to the shop floor. I did not know what was happening at first. I just felt my feet collapsing beneath me as I tumbled painfully to the bottom.

I did not black out all at once, nor did I feel any sharp or sudden pain. When it was over, when I was still, I could feel my arms and feet twisted beneath me.

As I looked up, I saw Peter Smythe. He seemed to take a step down and then stopped as if by some invisible hand. I could barely make out his expression, but it was complicated—shock, hate, grief, resignation. I tried to call out, but I was unable to move my mouth. I thought that he would say something or shout something – after all, we were the only ones in the factory at this time.

But there was only the silence, broken only by the heavy slicing of the industrial clock near the doorway. Peter leaned forward again from the top of the stairs, but said and did nothing.

I did not know whether to keep looking at him or turn away, resigned to what would happen next. As I am describing this to you, you would think that that all of this took some time, but this all happened in a matter of seconds. I suddenly realized that Peter was looking at me, looking carefully and waiting until I died. But that made me even more determined to live. I tried moving, but the best I could manage was to flutter my fingers like some palsied fish.

I knew that I was going to die. I’m not sure, now, whether it is better to die suddenly, as if with a swift slash of a knife or slowly, knowingly. What you have read is correct: if the body knows it is going to die – and it does, believe me – it tries everything it can to stop the process.

Then I did not sense a blinding or even soft light – or darkness for that matter. I felt something else entirely, both peacefulness and terror. I cannot describe this any more carefully now—maybe I can later.

How long I stayed in that “in between” state, I do not know, but then I started to feel more of myself. In this new version of myself, I had all my strength back and none of the pain.

                                                #

Abby was pretty. I suppose that is why I was attracted to her, but she was also the boss’s sister. And that attracted me, too. When I first started at the factory, she was not there very much. I learned later that she was at home caring for her father after his stroke. She described Mr. Smythe’s mute anger, twisting his lips to speak the words he no longer could speak. She had felt powerful and helpless at the same time. Abby said that she and her brother had spoken about nurses or other sorts of care for their father, but Peter, especially, feared the wrath of the old man’s quick-moving eyes.

In the end Abby stayed with her father until his gentle death.

When we first talked it was innocent enough. We chatted about the factory—she teased her brother often about his long hours. Still, she seemed to have a curious disinterest in the place although it provided her with the large house and pretty furnishings and the slatternly girls from the village who served her.

“And where do you see yourself going?” Suddenly her round face seemed firmer, harder. She swung back long hair and seemed to move her feet apart, in sort of a boxer’s stance.

“Going?” I remember asking quietly.

“Yes. Of course that is what I mean.” Abby reached across quickly with an open hand. I thought at first (in terror) that she was going to touch my face. But she brought the hand slowly to the point of my chest.

I laughed. “Where do you think I am going? I have to work.”

She stood back from me and looked carefully at my hands and clothes. “Are you one of those impoverished boys off the farm? Are you avoiding a strict father or the pile of heavy field work?”

I laughed again, and she grinned in reply. “No, as a matter of fact, my father is a preacher, one of the kindest men I have ever seen.”

After a short silence, I added “But it is time for me to do my own work now.”

“Not the Lord’s?”

“What are you doing, bothering the help?” We both looked up, across the room.

Peter was strongly built, but his voice was odd, tinny and weak. As he approached, arms pumping, you had the sense that he was mad at one of us. Still, his face was impassive.

“Just talking, Peter, just talking to the young man.”

“Well, why don’t you let the young man go back to his tasks?” He looked up quickly at me – not harshly or rudely – but I knew enough to draw back and let the two of them have at it. As I left the room, I turned since their voices were loud. Suddenly, she turned and walked away from him, her skirts in a swirl.

Peter’s strength allowed him to fill in at any point in the process—repairing the machine belts, hauling bags or boxes of supplies. He had merely to look at a man, and he was obeyed. I suppose I envied him like that. I suppose that I have always felt uncomfortable around people.

Abby liked me, and that was enough. I guess that I taunted Peter, at times making sure that he saw me drawing my fingers across her cheeks. And once I squeezed Abby’s bottom as we passed by him. I expected him to pull me aside or fire me or something like that, but none of those things happened.

At this distance, years later, I am not sure how long we were together. It might have been a few months. You see, there was no arc to our relationship. We simply met each other and talked and separated. Sometimes it would be weeks before we saw each other again.

“Do you like working here, Samuel?”

“Yes, I do, Peter.”

He scowled at me. “Then keep your nose clean”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You know goddamn well what I mean.” Then he turned abruptly, flapping the large papers in his hand, and walked upstairs to office with the frosted glass. I only smiled at him—when he wasn’t looking, of course. If Abby had been there she would have covered her giggling mouth like a schoolgirl.

We kept our distance. I expected that Abby would advise us to hold back, to keep things quiet, since it would have been harder for her at home.

But she was always pushing us on.

We had gone walking that Sunday afternoon. To avoid Peter, we walked toward Norrington, along the river. The path was narrow and hard to find, but the woods, in the early summer, were overgrown, giving us some privacy for our talks.

                                                #

“What will happen to us?”

Either one of us could have said that, but it was me who spoke. Abby looked up at me, suddenly arranging her dress to cover her nakedness. I rolled toward her, not willing yet to pull on my clothes. The early afternoon sun, now unobstructed by the trees, seemed hot and unyielding. We spoke quietly to each other.

“Samuel, what are we going to do about Peter?”

I replied that I did not know. Then I was sorry that I had said that since she turned away from me, her mouth set.

We began to talk again, slowly at first. I kept asking her, kept pressing her about her own plans.

“I don’t know myself, Samuel.” Then she laughed. “I suppose that I will be an old woman decades from now trailing after my brother the factory owner, clearing up all of his disorder.”

I held her for a long time then, and we did not speak again until we both decided to gather our things and head back to town. I told Abby when to leave—we did not want to be seen either walking together or leaving the village together

                                                #

“You didn’t expect that, did you?” His laugh was sharp, ugly. And he stood before me, hands on hips, shaking his head and smiling. “No, my boy, you did not expect that.”

As I stood up, brushing the ashes from my clothes, I wondered how the ash bucket had gotten there, right under my feet.

Of course I thought of a thousand things to say, but I held off. It was not just a question of how he would react, but of what Abby would think. After all, even though we met and talked and played, Peter was still her brother. I supposed that Peter would have wanted me to swing at him. Then he could have fired me. But of course, he did not want to fire me—he wanted to keep me around on a leash so that he could torment me all the more.

I even thought of a sarcastic word or two, but I remained silent.

Abby and I continued to meet, of course, but now we were fierce and quick with our lovemaking. I feared the worst – for her – but she seemed to enjoy the adventure. Once, as we sweated and panted afterward, she rubbed my hot cheek, looking as though she had gone a few rounds with the world’s champion.

Peter knew this, of course, but he had no attempt to find us or disturb us. It was as thought he enjoyed knowing that we were being watched, terrified that he might pounce at any time.

I don’t remember how long this went on – I should, but I must have put it all out of my mind.

                                                #

And then the fall, the last few minutes of life, the grinning expression of the man who had killed me.  I cannot describe what happened next, the passage from one type of life to the next. I am not sure I could tell you even if I remembered. Sometimes you hear that the next life gives you freedom. I can tell you that it is not like that at all—in fact, I feel more fettered than ever at times.

And there was no floating above my still body, nothing like that.

And now I have to leave. They have brought the equipment here to finish the old place at last

I suppose I should have some last thoughts, but I don’t. I don’t think about the others—some of them are still alive.

I was with Peter at the end, in his office, as he gasped out his last, clutching his throat and chest frantically. He did not know I was there, of course, and when it was over I did not see him again. People fancy that ghosts have this charming afterlife club where we swirl around on clouds in flowing toga-like robes, but it is not like that at all.

I am outside now, watching the events, watching the destruction. When it ends, I will have to wander away to someplace else. Someday, I suppose, this will end and I will stop walking and sleep or silence will take over. Perhaps someone will tell me what to do.

I don’t know.

Poor Abby. If there was justice, I would be seeing her now. I know what happened to her, but I was not there during her last, terrible illness. Unlike Peter, she never grew old.

                                                #

I must have closed my eyes. I supposed that I slept, but that would be a strange thing since ghosts do not sleep. When I looked around again, the building was gone. The workers had left a pile of good bricks, but the rest of the walls and plaster and shingles lay in piles of rubble. Someone – a supervisor from the look of him – poked at the heaps with a stick. I heard nothing, only a strange quietness.

The old expression says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I wish that I knew how long I would be out here before I come to the next stage of my existence. I suppose that I must have committed some sins in the past, and that this is the reason I must wander between both worlds – if in fact there is a world after this. I guess I don’t believe in it anyway.

Maybe I will see Abby.

Maybe not.

Beyond the leveled lot is a small road that works its way over the hill. The town of Andrews is beyond, at the end of that road.

I will go in that direction.

After all, it is a beautiful morning, and I can just hear a flutter or two of birds in the distance.

 

Jeremiah Minihan lives in Rochester, New Hampshire. He has taught school and worked as a software developer and project manager in the insurance and banking industries.

He writes short stories and essays, and he has published stories in Pif MagazineDark Dossier, Yellow Mama, Blood Moon Rising, Theme of Absence, Bewildering Stories, Literally Stories, Literary Yard and CommuterLit. 

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