The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

June 27, 2011

REVIEW: THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott

Thirteen-year-olds Lizzie and Evie are neighbors and best friends in the 1980s. They look like sisters, they dress alike, but they are closer than that superficiality implies. They share everything: hopes, dreams, emotions, as well as clothing, books, toys. They do everything together, from school to sports to vacations. Only one day after school, Evie disappears. Convinced that her heart would tell her if Evie were dead, Lizzie starts to live in the lap of Evie's family, begins exploring the yards and houses of her neighbors, looking for clues to Evie's whereabouts, why she left, and who she might have gone with. Lizzie is convinced that if she can bring Evie home, everything will be just as it had been.

Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING is bound to draw comparisons with Alice Sebold's LOVELY BONES, but the basic premise of these stories -- the disappearance of a young girl -- is the only thing that ties them together. Rather than relying on narration from a dead-and-gone-to-heaven victim, Abbott's Lizzie narrates a tale of wonderment, joy, dread, and dark revelations, sometimes all within the same paragraph. Young Lizzie is perspicacious and naive at once, as only girls-on-the-verge-of-becoming-women can be. Wisely innocent.

Lizzie is a magnificent narrator, wanting to be the center of attention and wanting not to be, deriving clues and evidence surrounding Evie's disappearance as much or more from how she reads a glance and interprets a sentences, as she does from facts and logic. Lizzie is imbued with a voice that mimics the child-adult so very accurately that one is left wondering how did so much about those emotions, that youthful worldview , that sexual innocence dawning on yearning, how is it that it was all forgotten? And how is it that Megan Abbott remembers it all with such perfect clarity?

The characters of Evie's family, her parents and magically beautiful sister, Dusty, are all explored by Lizzie in the manner of an Impressionist painter: from a distance they make a pretty, well-defined picture; close-up, as Lizzie longs to be to them, they seem all blurred edges and colors without definition.

The author has penned a delicious psychological thriller that never gets it wrong by going for the cheap thrill or easy answer. The reader may feel bruised but never slapped, and Lizzie is always there to offer solace to the reader as well as to Evie's family. Evie's disappearance and the events surrounding it all work to lay bare the relationships and conflicts not just within Evie's family but within Lizzie herself. As much as Lizzie is able to read emotion and motive in others, she is almost blind to what drives her from her own family's side to spend evenings with Evie's anguished father, beautiful sister, and nearly invisible mother. The one thing Lizzie is certain of is that when Evie vanished, it was indeed the end of everything -- if 'everything' is Lizzie's innocence.

The author does a stellar job of foreshadowing without being obvious, of misdirecting without misleading, of instilling dread without removing hope, and revealing without judging. Readers of Abbott's more traditional novels of noir should find this newest work fascinating, as her considerable talents tackle more mainstream subject matter here without sacrificing one jot of the style and insight that has garnered her previous books so much praise. THE END OF EVERYTHING is a haunting and moving story about losing and finding and losing again those intangibles, those nearly inexpressible things we most treasure.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


The first three chapters of THE END OF EVERYTHING are available for reading at Facebook, and I recommend you go read them right now. Following is just a brief excerpt from chapter two, for those too lazy to click a mouse button:

The next day, Evie and I are standing in front of the school, tapping our sticks against each other in time. The dream from last night is hovering in my head, and I think I might tell Evie about it, but I keep stopping myself. No one ever really wants to hear your dreams.

Anyway, we are having a day of no talking, just being, walking together, tapping our new hockey sticks and yanking our sweaty shirts from our chests.

Still, I can't keep my eyes off the violet stain flaring over Evie's temple. It looks like it could move without you, get up and go. It's like a purple butterfly, I tell her, flitting from her face.

She puts her fingers on it and I can almost feel it pulsing on my own face, a gentle throb.

"What did your dad say?" I ask, and I imagine Mr. Verver's wrinkled brow, like when I slipped on their stairs, running way too fast in my stocking feet, skidding down three steps, and making brush burns all up my calves.

"He bought me a raw steak at Ketchums to put on it," she says. "Mom said it cost more than their anniversary dinner."

It sounds like Mrs. Verver, who says everything with a yawn.

"All night," Evie says, a grin creeping, "he kept calling me Rocky."

We both roll our eyes, but we love it. When the boys tease, you don't want it to be you, but with Mr. Verver, his teases are like warm hands lifting you.

Evie thrusts her hockey stick out in front of her like Zorro. "Dusty said I looked more like a battered wife on a TV show," she says.

Then she tells me how, after dinner, her dad took her for pecan pie at Reynold's, the good kind, gritty-sweet on your teeth. The waitresses felt sorry for her and gave her an extra scoop of ice cream.

I think of sitting with Mr. Verver, gooey pie plates between us, and how the waitresses probably always give him extra scoops. Waitresses were always doing that with Mr. Verver, just like the mothers who buzzed around him at the PTA meetings, filling his plate with sugared cookies and inviting him to their book clubs.

I wish Evie would have invited me to Reynold's. Like other times, with Mr. Verver dabbing Cool Whip on my nose.

Out of the blue, my ankles feel itchy and I wish I could take off my gym socks.

I look down the street, which has that four thirty hush. The summer heat seems early, hovering above the asphalt.

"Where's your mom taking you?" Evie asks, watching a car flutter upward at the speed bump in front of the school.

"The mall," I say. "Are you going to wear your sister's old dress?" I remember the lavender Laura Ashley with the gored skirt that Dusty wore to her own middle school graduation. All those ringlets dangling down her back and her face bright with achievement—it wasn't something you forgot.

A maroon car shimmers out of nowhere and glides past us quickly.

"I don't know," Evie says, kicking her shoe toe into the pavement.

Squinting, she looks down the street. "I think I see her."

We both watch as my mom's tan Tempo floats before us on the horizon.

"We'll give you a ride," I say.

"That's okay," she says, twirling her hockey stick over her shoulder. I hear the stutter in my mom's car as she pulls up.

The moment stretches out, I'm not sure why.

Evie is looking past my mother's car, down the street.

"Someone's lost," she says.

"What—" I start, but then we both watch as the same maroon car drifts past us again soundlessly. Something in my head flickers, but I can't place it.

I turn back around and there's that Evie face, cool and orderly, the line for a mouth and her smooth, artless expression, like a soft sheet pulled fast, hiding every corner.

I twirl my stick around and clatter it against hers.

"Call me," I say, turning toward the idling car. My mother is looking at us from behind big sunglasses, smiling absently.

I open the door and lean in. "Mom, can Evie come with us?"

But when I turn around, Evie's gone, slipped behind the tall hedgerow, behind the stone columns of the old school.

Do I see it in her expression, as she looks at me, as she pulls her face into blankness? Do I hear her say, in some low register, a creeping knowingness always between us? Do I hear her say, This is the last time, this is the last time?

This face, my face, gone forever.

   Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books, Little, Brown
   Publication Date: Available now.
   ISBN-10: 0316097799
   ISBN-13: 978-0316097796
   Order on Indiebound or Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and lots of other places.

June 23, 2011

REVIEW: DUST DEVILS by Roger Smith

South African journalist Robert Dell, his wife and two children are all headed off on a holiday, when a black pickup truck runs them off the road. Dell's family is killed and he is framed for their murders.

If that sounds anything like a typical thriller, please, just hold the phone a sec. Because you haven't read anything like this book. No, you haven't. No, it's not like that book or that one or any of the thrillers you'll recall right offhand, and that's because Roger Smith isn't just any writer. In the span of just three books, his prose has gone from spare and evocative to darkly lyrical. His characterizations are masterful, his POV treatment is impeccable. And thematically, where once he was just pretty damned good, he now soars.

DUST DEVILS is a brilliant work, revolving around five major characters: Dell, a pacifist wrought by his grief and also by his sense of justice in a world that has none, into waging personal war on the men who killed his family; Inja, a corrupt, murderous cop and Zulu chief, a man dying of AIDS and looking to superstition instead of science for help, he will kill anyone who gets between him and his 16-year-old bride-to-be, Sunday, because he believes that sex with her will cure him. Sunday wants only not to have to marry Inja. She, as much as anyone, knows him for the cold killer he is. And then there is Disaster Zondi, an ex-cop as a result of having principals in a time and place where those things have no cash value. The author spins these characters and more through a space-time continuum where personal interactions go repeatedly nuclear. Oops, I said five characters, didn't I? South Africa is the fifth one. The varying cultures, the extremes of power and wealth matched again helplessness and poverty, places where AIDS harvests one out of three people thanks to neglect, superstition, and ignorance. Where news events don't begin to tell the depth of the stories.

Along the way, the reader gets a mini-education in the behind-the-scenes politics of South Africa as that country moved from apartheid to... whatever one calls it today, because freedom hardly seems the right word. Unless one is remembering the old song lyric from Me and Bobby McGee: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

Thematically, where other authors would simply push the characters examining their past sins toward a search for redemption or atonement, Smith takes his characters beyond and into a stark cultural landscape where the wages of sin don't include the possibility of redemption, and where careful preservation of innocence is futile because innocence was long ago the first victim of sin. Harshly violent, the book is a broken window onto the cultural indifference to massive suffering, but more pointedly -- and poignantly -- Smith highlights the effect of the neglect by those powerful enough to relieve such suffering, who make such suffering more intense and widespread through corruption and indifference. The story's end is a sorrowful angel, breathtakingly cinematic on one level, and on another so personal that the reader's heart bleeds. A brilliant work.


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

June 20, 2011

WGI: More stories

The fourth-place story in this year's WGI is Ian Ayris's HARD TIMES, which has now been posted to Ian's blog.

As other entries appear around the web, I'll be happy to post those links. If I don't post promptly, give me a kick in the shin and I'll remedy that.

Also, when I get a longer break today, I'll add a widget to the sidebar to maintain all of the links to the stories throughout the year.

June 19, 2011

WGI 3rd Place: A POCKET FULL OF HORSES by Chad Eagleton

Jack Freese turned off the highway. No Trespassing signs led him down Fairfax and onto a narrow dirt road. When the single lane dead ended, he kept driving. The truck muscled through the tall grass to the sparse wood sloping up to Empire Mill Quarry.

He parked as far away from the road as he could—close to the trees, under a weave of low branches. He was surprised to see no other vehicles. It was a summer’s Saturday, barely past midnight and still warm enough to feel uncomfortable. If nothing else, his brother’s car should be there — Scott called twenty minutes ago, told him to meet at the quarry and hung up.

Jack killed the engine and raised the windows. He let the lights linger. The beams showed nothing but dark wood.

A tangle of memories.

“Fuck.” Jack hit the lights and grabbed the cigarette pack from the dash. He hadn’t smoked in years, but there was something about tonight. Something he didn’t like.

He lit a cigarette and the cab filled with smoke and the smoke filled with ghosts.

#

Jack knew how to swim, he just never liked it. The only reason he went that first time was because Scott asked him and Scott never asked him to do anything — ever. He left the house at all hours and Jack imagined what sort of adventures he had during all those comings and goings. So many people. So many friends. So many girls.

Jack didn’t understand girls, but he knew from all the different pretty faces that came and went with Scott that even the girls must have been exciting.

He had to say yes. Had to.

Of course, this was before he knew Scott, before he knew to be afraid. Eleven years separated the two of them. A large enough span to mask Scott’s failings in Jack’s childhood inexperience and push his adoration into complete acceptance.

Once down the road, Scott warned him that it would be dangerous, he could never tell Mom anything about it. Jack nodded as Scott pushed the rear window open.

He climbed in the truck bed and bounced, rocked, slid and grinned down the back roads. During the march through the woods, he smiled and blabbered. He didn’t cry when he felt something crawling on him and Scott pulled it off, showed him the tick and burned it. He never complained climbing the discarded limestone blocks piled with all the care of spilled toys. When they reached the top and he dove in the water and climbed back out again, his teeth chattering, he didn’t whine about being cold even though he was.

The Strunk Brothers didn’t even bother him and Jack hated the Strunk brothers.

Adam was Scott’s friend. Tall and wide, thick boned and weak chinned, he was even weaker willed. Rumor was he got the name Adam not out of Biblical reverence, but because when he was born, his father, surprised at the resemblance, said, “Huh, he’s a damn Strunk.”

Jack didn’t get the story then. What he got was that when Scott got in trouble, Adam was there. So, he blamed Adam. He had to — Adam was nothing. Scott was his brother.

And Benny was Adam’s.

Adam was thoughtless and mean, but Benny was purposely and deliberately cruel. His age masked a growing penchant for terror. Benny would never do that, everyone said. He’s just a boy. Sure, Benny may eat snot and burp in your face, he is a Strunk, what do you expect? And isn’t that what boys do? He’ll grow out of it. He’d never break windows or shoot the neighbor’s cat in the face with a pellet gun.

No one could admit that Benny was a force of unstoppable fuckery birthed from a cocktail of poverty and ignorance, then garnished with a lack of oversight. No one, Jack thought, seemed to give a fuck.

That day even Jack didn’t give a fuck.

That changed when they took him up to the Rooftop with its wide cliff face looming 65 feet above the blue-green water, a legendary drop that even Jack had heard the stories about: wrists broken, legs shattered, concussions, two boys dead. He ledged it for a glance, saw the sheered rock going down, down, straight down, and he knew he couldn’t.

“Jump, Jackie boy,” Scott coaxed. “Let’s do this shit, buddy. You can rock this fucker. Kids at school will think you’re badass.”

“You’ll get lots a pussy.”

“He doesn’t know what pussy is, Adam.”

“Benny does.”

Benny, the little idiot, nodded.

No.

Scott switched tactics. “Come on, Jack, jump. We’ll go get some ice cream when we’re done if you jump.”

Nope.

“I’ll get you one of those army men you like. The whatchacallit—The GI Joe dudes.”

Nada.

“Fucking Benny will do it,” Adam said and Benny the little idiot nodded and took off running and leapt.

Splash.

“See,” Scott said.

Jack shrugged violently and sat down hard enough on his tail bone he almost cried. Only fear kept tears away. They’re gonna push me off. Gonna toss me.

Scott snatched Jack’s arm and jerked him to his feet.

Jack howled. Oh, god, he’s gonna do it.

But, he didn’t.

What he did was worse — he turned. “Pussy,” he said.

It marked him. “Bawl Baby.”

He was fair game. “Fucking fag.”

“Shoulda left your ass at home. Every time, man, every fucking time. Just fucking piss all over my good time.

#

Jack followed the old railroad grade for a half mile through the woods. Old bottles and cans littered the dirt path. Impaled on thorn bushes, hamburger wrappers shook in the wind like pithed insects as ratty shoes swung like charms from old laces on high branches.

Jack tossed cigarette butts like breadcrumbs until the woods broke into a rocky clearing with slabs of weathered limestone. By then his head buzzed with nicotine and his lungs ached. He closed his eyes. Tried listening to the quiet. Why did I ever come back here? I should have stayed away. Should have looked for another job in Indianapolis. Should have fucking left Indiana.

His thoughts would not still. He opened his eyes, breathed heavy and sat against a pitted block. He plucked at a patch of grass. The green blades were sharp. He didn’t care. This was his fault. He knew better than to come here. He could have ignored the call.

Ignoring was easier when Scott was in jail. Jack wished his brother was still in jail, an awful thought, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t understand why they never kept him. No matter what he did, they never kept him.

Someone yelled — Jack couldn’t make out the words. The echo bounced them around the quarry. Trees stripped consonants. Rocks dropped vowels. It was all just gibberish.

But the voice? That he knew. The tone he recognized — Scott.

Jack looked up at the quarry. Shadows moved. His mind gave in to their suggestions. Carried by fear, snatches of memories came back — a rib breaking, yelling in the night, gunshots, desperate women, Coke-can bongs — things his brother had done. Fear stole years. He felt six again, and the grip kept tightening on his arm.

Another voice yelled, pulling him to the present. He caught his name in Benny’s nasal lilt.

Jack looked back at his trail of Camels. They were lost in thorn and brush, hidden in grass and weed, swallowed by darkness. No choice. He stood, patted his pocket and began to climb.

#

“You should wear your shoes,” a girl’s voice said. “Keep your feet from bruising.”

Jack at 16 looked behind him at a girl with cutoffs over narrow hips and a faded STP shirt over a flat chest. “Don’t know if you’ve jumped before,” she said, “but if it’s your first time—shoes, definitely shoes.”

Jack hoped it would be his first time. He had not been back to the quarry since he was six. He thought if he didn’t acknowledge it that would be enough.

It worked for Scott.

Every time Scott was arrested, Jack sacrificed a memory. Every time he stole from them, he erased a feature. Every time he made the paper, his last name shortened. Jack Freese became Jack. Just Jack. Nothing else. Jack with no brother. No ties. No family. Scott? Scott who? He didn’t know a Scott. Couldn’t place a face.

The quarry was just as easy until he made the mistake of walking the vocational hall where Benny Strunk loitered and flunked. Jack spotted him first, thought about turning back, heading down one floor and then over but there wasn’t time—he’d be late.

He tried moving quickly. He knew if Benny saw him, he’d be — “Holy hell, it’s Bawl Baby” — fucked.

The girl looked down at the water. “What do you think?” She asked.

Jack blanked.

“What do you think?”

He looked at her. He knew her — of her. Her name was Annalee. Her last name began with an R. Something short and not very pretty like Ruf or Rupp or Rudd — Rudd, her last name was Rudd.

Rudd? Ah Fuck!

The Rudds lived in a rusty trailer down the same overgrown back road as the Strunks, only further out. Out where the poor people said the poor people lived.

“Whaddya think?”

“Huh?”

“What do you think? Not about my face,” she said. “The jump?”

“I don’t know,” he said, still looking at her face. She had impossibly long and delicate eye lashes.

She laughed. “I’ve done this a bunch. Million times. Know what? It still scares me.”

Jack thought, Say something—something witty and insightful. His mind blanked. I need to say something. It doesn’t matter. Anything. By then it had been too long since she had spoken. So, he said nothing. Said nothing and shrugged.

“Well,” she said, “I have done this a lot. But I’ve never jumped with anyone. We could jump together. My brothers would never do it.” She held out her hand. “Unless you think I’d fuck you up? On the way down? Like your landing or whatever.”

“No,” he said.

Her hand was small. All bones.

“Ready?”

Jack nodded.

They leapt and he spent years trying to remember exactly how it felt. The drop. Cliff just inches from his back. Her hand. The water’s sting. Gravity pulling them apart. Sudden temperature change.

He never could. Never could remember it all in a way that felt right. When he reached out for that day, the only thing he remembered was her face. Her small round face when they came up for air and she said, “You didn’t cry.”

#

Benny pulled him up to The Rooftop.

“Wondering when the fuck you was gonna get here,” Scott said.

Benny belched in Jack’s face. “Hey, man.”

Jack wiped his hands on his jeans. “I didn’t see your car.”

“We parked at the church.”

“You’ll get towed,” he said.

“Fuck it.” Scott chucked a beer can over the edge “Behind on payments anyway. Let the fucking bank take it. They will eventually, one way or the other.”

Of course, loan wasn’t in your name.

“He’ll just buy a new fucking car,” Benny said. “No problem. Tell him, Scotty.”

“Shut the fuck up, Benny.”

Benny shut the fuck up and handed each of them a beer.

“So,” Scott said, “got some news for ya.”

Jack sipped.

“Benny and I were at the gas station — .“

“The one on 37 south.”

“With the stupid fifties theme and the dumb name spelled funny.”

Jack nodded.

“We saw your woman.”

“What?”

“You know,” Scott said.

“Annalee, dumbass,” Benny said. “What other woman you ever had?”

“She works there, man. I know you still think about her.”

“I don’t get it, Bawl Baby,” Benny said. “I mean, I’ve had her, everybody has.” Benny curled his lip. “Wasn’t nothing to write home about.”

Jack threw his can. Benny batted it and laughed. “What the fuck you gonna do?”

Jack thought for a moment, stood up and swung.

#

They were drinking then too.

Scott had been out for four days. All but one, he spent with Adam on the front porch drinking. For that one, they traded beer for roach clips of Indiana ditch weed.

“Where ya heading?” Scott asked.

“Out,” Jack said.

Scott emptied his can and passed it to his brother. “Throw that away first. Mom was bitching about the porch.”

Jack stacked the beer can on the wicker table with the others.

Scott smirked. “Got a date, huh?”

“No shit?” Adam asked.

“Yeah,” Scott said. “He’s got a girlfriend.”

“Shut up,” Jack said.

“Rosie Palmer and her five sisters?” Adam asked.

“Oh, better’n that.”

“Who?” Adam held up his other hand. “Her friend Jill?”

Jack didn’t know why he didn’t get in the car and leave. Even as Scott laughed and said, “Nope — Annalee Rudd,” he still didn’t know.

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

“You had that yet? Of course you’ve had that. Everybody’s had that. ‘Cept for me. I can’t believe I ain’t had that yet. You’ve had it and I ain’t.” Adam looked at Scott. “Can you believe it?”

Scott shook his head and belched.

“Damn, son. I heard she’s still real tight. Is she tight?”

Jack wanted to hit him.

“Take some condoms,” Adam said.

Scott laughed. “He don’t need any. She’s got a pocket full of horses.”

“Fuck, that’s right. That’s her. Who told us that?”

“Her brother.”

“Shit, yeah. Damn! You know he’s had that too.”

Scott nodded. “He’d put his dick in anything.”

Jack felt sick.

“You okay there, Jackie?” Adam stood and slapped him on the back. “Huh? You thinking about that little pussy? Huh? Maybe if you’re real nice,” he said, wrapping his arm around Jack and mock humping his thigh, “she’ll leave the horses in her pocket and let you do her bareback.”

A week later Scott and Adam were both in jail, again. It didn’t make him feel any better.

#

Jack knew it was wrong.

He could feel it as soon as he let his fist fly. His feet were flat. Shoulders too tense. Wrist bent. Swing too wide. It wasn’t going to land right. It wasn’t going to do anything. It wasn’t even going to hurt.

But it did.

Jack’s wrist buckled on Benny’s sharp cheekbone. Two of his knuckles popped. He staggered at the sudden stop of momentum.

Benny was fine.

His narrow, hooded eyes were clear as he stood. He snatched the collar of Jack’s shirt and slammed an uppercut under the arch of his ribs. Jack doubled over.

Benny punched him again. The blow cut gag reflex as Jack’s muscles seized. Lungs froze. Stomach locked tight and tense. He felt like he was choking. Choking on nothing.

“That’s enough,” Scott said.

Benny punched him again.

Jack thought he must have hit something. Something inside. An organ. Jack didn’t know. He had never felt anything like this. He dropped to his knees and rock shards slit jeans.

“Fucking stop.” Scott grabbed Benny, spun him and punched in the face.

Jack watched from the rocks. His vision rimmed and awkward angled like one of those frustrating movie fights—Scott’s fist, Benny’s stringy hair, pushing face into the punch, wet sound, somebody crying.

Was it Benny?

Or was it him? Jack didn’t know.

Scott pulled him to his feet. “Damn, brother, you need to learn to punch.”

Jack nodded. Scott sat him down on Benny’s rock. The six-pack fell over. A can popped and hissed. Beer shot out and pooled on the limestone, clear and yellow and cheap as piss.

Scott grabbed the sixer, tore the punctured can free, wiped it off and sucked it dry.

Somewhere below, Benny yelled for them to go fuck themselves.

Scott wiped his mouth, crushed the can and offered Jack another. “He’ll be back,” he said. “He’s fine.”

“No thanks.”

Scott sat next to Jack. “More for me.”

Neither of them spoke for a long time. They sat there in silence, for a moment or two like brothers.

“You know, man, she looks good.”

“Who?”

Scott elbowed him. “You’re fucking stupid for a college kid, you know it?”

Jack didn’t laugh. He looked at the spot where he stood the day she showed him the VW bug rusting at the quarry bottom. You could only see it from a certain angle, at a certain time, in a certain light.

Not tonight.

“She wasn’t wearing a ring or nothing,” Scott offered. “And she does look good. Still thin. Fit. I don’t think she’s shat out any kids or nothing. Her hair looks really nice too. Still dark.”

“What do you want?”

“Huh?”

“What do you want from me, Scott?”

“Nothing, man. I wanted to tell you about seeing her. I know you’re still sweet on her.” Scott stood and walked to the ledge. “Never understood why you quit seeing her.”

“That’s fine and you wouldn’t, but whatever.” Jack breathed deep. His gut ached. He spat and said, “But what do you want—from me?”

Scott up at the sky. Jack didn’t think it was the moon. “Why do you do that?” Scott asked.

“What?”

“Assume I want something?”

Because there’s always a return, he thought, but instead, quietly, “What do you want?”

Scott toed the edge.

“She works at a gas station,” Jack said.

“Yeah, the one —.“

“I know which one you said. Are you planning on robbing it?”

“A gas station? For what? A hundred bucks and some cigs?”

“There’s an angle somewhere.”

“Maybe,” he said. “You’ll see.”

Jack shook his head.

“Better you don’t know. You will, but for now —,” Scott tossed the can. “‘Sides, I’m trying to help you.”

“No, you’re not.” Jack stood and faced Scott’s back. “Do you remember what you told me that day?”

“Which day?” Scott turned. The night ate his face.

“The thing about a pocket full of horses?”

Silence from the black hood.

“You know where that came from? Where it really came from?”

“Heard it somewhere. Someone told me.”

“No. I’m not talking about the line from the fucking Prince song. Or some shit Adam told you. Or some shit you think her brother said or maybe he did say. He was always a cock too. Fuck him. What I mean is where it started. Where it really started.”

Jack stepped closer. The moonlight shifted. Cut shadows. He still couldn’t see Scott’s face. Only small, uneven teeth.

“Her father died. You know that, right?”

Something hit the water. A faint splash. From Scott—nothing.

“Her father died and one of the last things he gave her, he bought at the dollar store. A plastic bag about like this. It was full of little horses. This big or so. Little plastic horses. All different colors.”

Jack closed. He could see the graying stubble on his brother’s muscular neck. Sharp like the thorns below. “She carried them around in her pocket after he was gone. All bunched up. Big bulge. Some of them broke. Their heads. Their tails. She just kept refilling them. Shoving more in. And she’d tell everyone where she went, she was still real little then, that she had a pocket full of horses. What else could it mean? A pocket full of horses.”

Jack faced his brother—Scott was empty. “I know she works at the gas station. I found her on Facebook. Her name’s not Rudd anymore.”

Jack reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and held it tight in his hand. He talked to his fist, “I drove down there. She smiled when she saw me and for a moment —.” Jack shrugged. “We went around back on her break. You know that back parking lot where no one ever parks except during the car shows, the cruise-ins? We went back there and we talked and she told me about her life and she’s good. Real good and happy.”

Jack raised his fist to dead eyes. “Before I left, she gave me something.” He opened his hand. A little, plastic gray horse rested on his palm.

Scott worked his jaw. Muscles bunched at the hinge.

The horse toppled. “Her pockets are empty now,” Jack said. “Empty just like mine.”

Scott took it and watched his brother leave.

Once alone, he looked at the horse. It was sculpted mid-gallop—frozen. He held it with two fingers and examined it closer. Plastic. He took the lighter from his front pocket and burned it. He watched it melt until the heat stung his thumb, then he flicked it over the side. When it hit the water, it didn’t splash.

It sank without a sound.

WGI 2nd Place: FINGERPRINTS by Eric Beetner


The doorknob turned an inch to the right, then slipped back in place. The thin metal scraping of keys around, above and against the lock ended with the sound of a key ring falling to the floor, then muffled voices in the hall.

“Can you hurry the fuck up? I’m dying here.”

“Sorry.”

The door opened. Darren led the way in, rubbing his hands and moving fast with nervous energy, the keys left dangling in the front door lock. Brian followed, his right hand clutching his left and squeezing hard as he tried to stop the bleeding. He angled against the wall and flicked a light switch with his elbow, grimacing in pain as he did.

“Seriously,” Brian said. “Were you trying to kill me?”

“I said I was sorry.” Darren paced. His lips moved quickly as he dictated the visions in his head back to himself, trying to make sense of what he’d just been through.

“You gonna fucking help me or what?” Brian held up his left hand, palm out like he was waving to a neighbor – after his hand had been caught in a lawnmower. Blood stained his palm an even red with streaks running down into his sleeve and under his jacket as if they were hiding from the light that shone through a conspicuous gap where his ring finger should have been.

Darren rocked back and forth on his heels, staring at the wound on his partner and friend, confused and slightly nauseous.

“What am I . . . what do you want me to do?”

Brian clenched his teeth, biting back another wave of pain like a woman in labor. Each pump of his heart sent new messages of pain in morse code, blasting tiny electric shocks to the open nerves in his hand. The wave crested and he spat out his words, “I don’t fucking know!”

Brian turned his hand gently to examine the damage. Darren watched as the ruined digit swung from a thin strip of skin, dangling down the back of Brian’s hand like a broken antenna on an old TV set. The bone had been obliterated by the bullet. The skin that held the finger on was no wider or sturdier than a strip of scotch tape.

The idea of reattaching the finger was long gone. Neither Brian nor Darren held any illusions about that.

“Should I . . . ?” Darren pointed at the swinging finger.

Brian forced himself to look at it, but quickly shut his eyes and turned away, choking down a heave in his gut.

“Yeah. Do it. Just do it.”

Darren reached out, but drew his hand back, reached again, drew back again, acting like he was being asked to grab a tarantula bare-handed.

“You shot me, man. Now fucking help me!”

Darren pinched the finger between his index and thumb and, same as drawing a cigarette out of the pack, pulled on it until it came off in his hand.

Brian screamed through his closed mouth. Darren dropped the completely severed finger to the carpet and started shaking out his hands trying to get the tarantula feeling off of them.

Brian dropped to his knees and screamed until his lungs were empty. As if that were all the indulgence he was going to give himself, he stood again and went to the kitchen of their two bedroom flat and picked a dishtowel off the counter.

A few new bloodstains on the carpet would go largely unnoticed. Screams in this building, especially muffled screams, would go unreported.

Brian wrapped the dishtowel around the open wound and the bacteria immediately settled on the warm gore, exchanging microbes with Brian’s bloodstream. He leaned over the sink and closed his eyes, questioning whether he needed to throw up.

“I can’t believe you fucking shot me, man.”

“You know I didn’t mean it. The whole thing went to shit.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. I just can’t believe you hit that small of a target. You couldn’t do that again if you tried a hundred times.”

“I wasn’t trying to do it.”

“Great. I get the fruits of your one-in-a-million shot.”

“I hit, like, three guys in there.”

Brian slitted his eyes and gave Darren a menacing look. “I shot four guys in there. You shot my hand, that’s it.”

“Okay, whatever you say.”

Brian exhaled, closed his eyes again. “God damn, I wish we’d taken some of that heroin and not just the money. I could use a little numbing up about now.”

“I didn’t think you used.”

“I don’t, I’m just saying. Jesus Christ, Darren. Give me a minute here, I’m in a lot of pain. Why don’t you start counting the money?”

Darren stopped his shuffling. He looked around the kitchen.

Brian noticed the blankness on his face. He watched Darren’s eyes scanning the room, busy, but not focusing on anything as if trying to recall a lost phone number.

“You have the money, right?”

Darren’s stillness said it all.

---------------

“This partnership is over, man.”

“Brian, come on. It was really confusing in there.”

“I’ve had it. We’ve had a good run. Not great, but decent. But now? Fuck it. I’m out.”

Brian fumbled in his pocket for car keys with his right hand, the bloody dish rag clinging to his left only by the viscosity of the half-coagulated blood.

Darren held up the keys. “You can’t drive like that.”

Brian stared down his friend, his thick eyebrows lifting and betraying the soft spot inside. Plus, he really couldn’t drive in his condition.

“It better still fucking be there.”

Darren retraced the escape route, wishing he’d replaced that burned out headlight. Twice he had to pull a U-turn to get back in the right direction. Nothing looked familiar, but then again he hadn’t been paying close attention the first time through. On their flight from the mayhem of Queen Lupe’s pad self-preservation took precedence over lefts or rights.

“It’s a minor set back, that’s all,” Darren said.

“Minor for you. You can still count to ten.”

Brian’s pain had leveled off to a dull throb. He had the odd sensation of the finger still being attached. He felt the wet of the dishtowel on the skin, felt shocks of pain run up the length to the tip of a finger that was no longer there.

“You know what they say, man. You fall off that horse you gotta get right back on.”

“Yeah? Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in on, okay?”

----------------

The cops weren’t there yet. A good sign.

The door stood open and the porch light still burned but no light penetrated beyond the threshold. Darren parked his mid-90s Impala across the street and reached under the seat for the pistol he’d stashed there as they left this exact spot less than a half hour ago.

Queen Lupe’s house was unassuming to look at but had a reputation in the neighborhood like any good haunted house. It’s where the Heroin Queen did her business. A distribution center, shooting gallery and manufacturing plant all framed by a brown lawn on a generic slice of urban sprawl.

Rusty chain link did little to keep anyone out. Rumors of what happened inside kept everyone well away, unless the pull of a needle full of H brought you bravely to the door.

“Get in and get out. That’s it,” Brian said.

“What’s that they say? Second time’s a charmer.”

“Third time, jackass. And if I have to come back here a third time, one of us is leaving in a body bag.”

Brian leveled a serious eye at Darren and held it as the engine knocked and clicked on the otherwise soundless street.

“Yeah well, finger’s crossed anyway.”

Darren shrank as soon as he realized what he said. Brian tried to ignore him.

Robbing the Queen had been an act of pure brass balls. Brian and Darren had planned for the worst, but their imagination hadn’t been up to the reality of what lay inside. Escaping minus only one finger? A miracle.

Brian gripped his gun with his right hand, keeping his left elevated so it looked like he was waving a red flag overhead.

The house still smelled of spent shells and broken butane lighters. Darren spotted a short blue flame from a torch lighter on a low coffee table as it overcooked a spoon of heroin. The flame had been charring the spoon since the boys had been there last and all that remained was a black stain that smelled like an open grave. Mix that with the smell of fresh blood strong enough to make a vampire weak in the knees.

The two moved slowly, imitating extras in a horror film waiting for the boogeyman to leap from a dark corner. Two crumpled bodies lay to the left of the couch, empty sawed-off shotguns by their sides. Brian felt a touch of pride at having taken out such formidable foes. He hadn’t been able to appreciate it during the gunfight.

Darren’s eyes followed a blood trail out the door. The junkie squatter who’d been waiting for his spoon to cook. Guess he got away, although he left missing more than just a place to put a wedding ring.

Brian whispered, “Where’d you leave the bag?”

“I’m not sure. I guess I must have left it in the back.”

The Queen’s lair. A master bedroom to you and me. It’s where Darren was when the shooting started.

Two more bodies blocked the hallway in frozen face-down contortions like a break dancing accident caught in a photographer’s flash. Brian led the way and stepped over the crumpled men listening for movement in the far away rooms but hearing only the soft squish of his All Stars on the bloodstained carpet.

How had he escaped this and the only bullet he took was from his partner?

The Queen was still in her bed. All three hundred and eighty pounds of her resting comfortably while her brain was allowed to air out through the two holes in her skull.

Darren had shot someone. The main one. He remained a little too preoccupied to take credit for it at the moment. Brian regarded the twin head shots and nodded his approval.

And then, among the thick death, was life.

Brian jolted and raised his gun. He hadn’t seen the person at first since the man was sitting so still. He sat perched atop an olive green army duffle bag and slumped down so his chin nearly touched his chest. A duffle bag lumpy and bulging with the hard fought earnings of the night, though the junkie didn’t seem to know that.

When the junkie looked up, Darren raised his gun too. Like an old pro, the man continued the action he was engaged in before he nodded out. He removed the empty syringe and needle from the back of his hand.

“Get up partner,” Brian said.

The junkie tilted his head up but the gears only lifted him so far. A fog hung thick between him and understanding.

“I said get up.”

“Free hits, man. Free junk.” A sleepy smile played over his chapped lips. Must have needed a fix pretty bad to wander through the battlefield to make it this far. When he realized no one was around to take his payment, or to stop him filling as many needles as he could, it must have been like watching Christmas morning fucking the lottery while a unicorn craps a rainbow in your skull.

“That’s the bag,” Darren said.

“I know that,” Brian said. “Move him.”

Darren stepped around Brian and tucked his pistol in the waistband of his pants. He put his hand under the armpits of the junkie and lifted. The guy was light. A longtime user. He moved with Darren easily, a marionette being put away after a performance.

Darren guided the smack-head onto the bed and lay him next to the Queen and her open skull. The junkie’s long stringy hair soaked up some of the blood and gray matter. The smile never left his lips.

Darren lifted the bag and hefted the weight. If that smack-head had any idea what he was sitting on it could have kept him on the horse for years. They still had to count it, but over a million was the best guess from the pre-score planning.

“Okay let’s–”

The cheap bed frame gave way and the two legs at the foot of the bed collapsed. The junkie slid off the bed like butter off a hot roll and the Queen came rolling after like a bowling ball off a rooftop. The dead weight of the Queen flattened out on top of the junkie until he was obliterated from sight. The dark plum color of the exit wounds in the back of the Queen’s head stared out the same as two sunken eyes on a scared child.

Darren looked at Brian. Brian stared back. It would take both of them to lift her off and even then it was no guarantee. The junkie must have been passed out under there. From the angle and spread of her body he most likely had a mouth full of her neck fat and undoubtedly a few cracked ribs and some seriously flattened lungs that were incapable of refilling.

“Go. Just go,” Brian said.

------------------

Brian shut off the porch light and they waited in the shadows for a minute while they scanned the street outside. After dark, life stopped around Queen Lupe’s house so she could open up for business. No children playing, no dogs barking. The house was a meeting place for the walking dead and, now, the laying-on-the-floor type.

Back at the Impala Darren took three attempts to fit the key into the trunk lock. He swung the duffle bag inside and let loose a smile of relief.

Brian leaned against the car, putting a hand down on the open trunk to brace himself from a lightheaded feeling. Blood loss. He needed to lie down, stop his heart pumping so damn fast. Maybe eat a steak. Something to fortify his iron.

“There you go, man. No worse for the wear,” Darren said.

Brian gave him a tired look from between severely pinched eyebrows.

Darren tossed the keys on top of the duffle bag and went for the zipper.

“Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Brian’s words came out slightly slurred like a teenage girl after a beer and two shots of peach schnapps.

“Counting the money.” Darren seemed to think it was quite obvious and didn’t know what the problem was.

“Not here you jackass.”

“Oh.”

“God, you really are the fucking stupidest, aren’t you?”

Darren couldn’t help but show his feelings had been hurt. He pouted worse than a kid picked last for dodgeball. Brian was too busy slowing his heart rate to notice. Plus, he didn’t care.

“We got the money anyway,” Darren said, making the best of it, and pushed hard on the trunk lid.

Brian bit down on his teeth so hard he cracked a molar with a filling he’d had since he was sixteen. The trunk latch caught, but Brian’s formerly good hand was pinched between the frame and the lid, his index and middle finger caught between sheets of metal.

Darren backed up a few steps when he realized what he had done.

“Jesus, Brian, I’m sorry.”

“Unlock the fucking lid!”

Darren froze again. The same lost phone number look from the kitchen. The keys were inside the trunk.

Brian watched his partner’s eyes and did the math. “You idiot.”

Darren faced his fight or flight moment. He was an animal of prey on the Serengeti facing down a hungry mother lion.

“Help me, you bitch,” growled Brian.

Darren turned and ran.

“You fuck!”

For the first time, a dog barked in the distance.

Brian remembered stories of coyotes in traps chewing off their own legs. He tried to shut it out of his mind but every thought that replaced it was equally as bloody.

He pulled on his hand. He could feel blood ooze between his fingers and he knew there wasn’t much more he could spare. The trunk lid had a grip on the flesh of his fingers, but they weren’t severed. He could even wiggle them a tiny bit.

He tugged. Nothing. He pulled with a slow and sustained pressure. Yelling through gritted teeth wasn’t cutting it anymore. He put a foot on the bumper and pulled back, howling at the moon loud as a mid-transformation werewolf.

Brian remembered his gun. He slid the dishrag off his four-fingered left hand and let it flop on the trunk with the wet smack of a used beach towel on a hot summer’s day. It took considerable effort to lift the gun from his waistband and not continually violate the open wound.

The gun felt awkward in his left hand. He couldn’t fully wrap his palm around the grip without sending alarm calls of pain running up his arm to an already fatigued brain stem.

Shaky and slippery from the plasma, he slid his finger into the trigger and fired at the lock. A neat hole opened up an inch to the left of the mechanism.

Brian adjusted his aim, squinted one eye and squeezed the trigger again. Nothing. Out of bullets. The melee from earlier had left him spent.

A long way away came a sound. Like an alarm clock when you’re still asleep.

A siren.

He didn’t have much time.

He took three deep breaths, braced his foot on the bumper again and pulled. He pulled down sharply and felt something give.

His hand tore free, a light splash of blood greased the Impala nameplate. His index finger was nearly stripped of skin, a shredded fleshy mess. His middle finger was gone.

Brian stood and stared down at his hand in disbelief. He’d torn off his own finger. No geysers of blood spat to the pavement. There wasn’t that much blood pressure left in his body.

His slowing brain skidded over the facts. The money was inside the trunk. So was his finger. The police were on the way. As vaguely satisfying as it would have been to have him be long gone and only his middle finger left as a souvenir for the cops, that finger carried his ID attached to it. One dip in the inkwell and they’d have him.

Two busted paws and no way out.

He could run like that pussy Darren. He’d have to run regardless, but his mind struggled to come up with some solution. Some way to keep the cops at bay so he could run far enough and hope that he didn’t bleed out in the process.

Brian hit on an idea and didn’t have time for plan B.

----------------

Getting the gas cap off was hard enough. Packing the dishrag into the hole wasn’t easy either. Flicking the wheel on a Bic he’d rescued from the Queen house was hardest of all. Tiny sparks flew in the dark and reminded him of fireflies when he was a kid. Always right there when they blink, teasing, but by the time you close your hand around the spot, the little fuckers have already moved on.

Sirens grew louder, undeniable now that they were headed for him.

A tiny flame. The same fire that burned a hundred heroin highs. Brian held the orange glow against the rag but nothing caught. Too wet. Too bloody.

He could hear the diverging sounds of two separate sirens coming.

He tore the wet rag out of the gas line. He pinched the tail of his shirt with his left index and thumb and brought it to his mouth. He bit down and tore at the fabric, ripping a strip below the last button all the way to the seam. He pulled hard and swooned from the pain in his hand.

He leaned against the car and took three deep breaths.

He forced the cloth down as deep as he could push into the pipe that ran to the gas tank. He sparked the lighter again and this time the cotton caught fire.

Brian began backing away, watching the flame, seeing it grow.

As he turned and started running across dead lawns and past rusty fences he didn’t even think of the money. All he could think of was that finger. At least it was his middle. It said it all for him.
Fuck you, world. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.

WGI 1st Place: RUN FOR THE ROSES by Chris La Tray

Now: Monday Morning

Steam swirled around Roger Moody as he stepped from the bathroom into the hallway. His face tingled from the razor and splash of aftershave; water trickled down the middle of his back and disappeared under the elastic band of his boxer shorts.

His feet stuck slightly to the scuffed hardwood floor, leaving damp, shapeless prints in his wake. He approached the closet door facing his bedroom, hesitated, his hand on the brass knob. He’d passed the door every day for almost four decades, but had not opened it in over a year.

Until now.

The smell, which Gina had never been able to banish no matter how many extra-strength detergents she’d tried, shocked him with memories. Over the years of working the paper mill he’d gotten accustomed to it, absorbed it, made it a part of him. Now, fourteen months removed from the last time he’d exited the hulking gray building, crossed the road, and crunched over the gravel of the parking lot, the odor was as fresh to him as the first day he’d breathed its humid, rotten-egg scent.

“Oh, that will take some getting used to,” Gina had said when he came home that first day. And it had. For nearly forty years, one child raised, and lots of love – certainly their share of heartbreaks as well – Roger and Gina had built a life on what he’d brought home after toiling in the heat and steam of the mill for three different owners.

It had all ended. They knew sooner of later he’d quit working, but hoped it would be on his terms. When the mill shut down abruptly just before Christmas of ’09, they weren’t really prepared, but figured to make do. They had actually looked forward to a life of retirement together. Road trips. Camping.

Then Gina got sick. Her illness drained what savings they’d had. The last time she’d washed, folded, and hung his work clothes in this closet had indeed been the last.

Roger’s gaze moved from the hard hat on the top shelf, across the half-dozen work shirts on hangars, over the neat pile of jeans on the bench against the back wall, and stopped on the worn Redwings still flecked with dried spots of wood pulp and starch. He began to dress.


Three Days Ago: Friday

“Jesus, would you look at that.”

Roger looked away from the TV over the bar to where the man on the stool to his left, Henry, nodded. The bartender was several feet away opposite the bar, bent over, placing clean glasses into the cooler that would keep them icily chilled. Her faded Wranglers barely contained the swell of her behind, and a hot pink thong was visible to the point where it disappeared deep into her ass crack.

“Oh, the things I’d do to that,” Henry said, shaking his head, tipping a half-empty glass of beer to his lips.

“Like what?” the man to Henry’s left said. “Repeat stories over and over about the good old days?”

“Yeah, you’re old enough to be her goddamn grandfather,” Roger said.

“Fuck you, Roger,” Henry said. “And fuck you too, Perry. Just because you guys decided to get old and let everything dry up don’t mean the rest of us have.” He raised his voice, aiming it at the bartender’s backside. “I got needs,” he said.

The bartender stood up, thumping the small cooler door closed, and faced him. Drying her hands on a towel, she smirked. “Henry, please. You probably haven’t had a hard-on since 1985.”

Roger and Perry guffawed. “Shit, you heard about that,” Henry said, his eyes twinkling. “I didn’t even know my wife came into this dump.”

“Twice a week,” Cherie, the bartender, said. “Usually leaves with one of those college boys.” She nodded her head down to the far end of the bar. “Or two.”

The men all laughed. Henry raised his beer glass to her.

They returned to their beers.

“So I see in the paper the fuckin’ mayor says there might not be enough money in the budget to fix all the goddamn potholes this spring,” Perry said.

“That asshole,” Henry said. “He’s just playing for a little – ”

“The Derby’s tomorrow?” Roger said. He had resumed watching the television. He looked at his watch then back to the TV where a commentator was standing in front of a white barn. “Jesus, it is May already, isn’t it.”

“Yeah, the race is tomorrow,” Perry said. “Where’s your brain been all week? We just talked about it yesterday. Fuckin’ Sam Senior’s kid is meeting us here to take our bets.”

“That sonofabitch,” Roger said. “I remember now. He’s worse than his old man was. If I’m betting, I’d rather drive it up to the ‘rez myself.”

“You’re not gonna bet shit anyway,” Henry said. “You’re too fuckin’ tight.”

“Too fuckin’ broke,” Roger said. He polished off his beer, then stood up. “Which reminds me. I got a grand for selling that snowmobile trailer I need to go deposit so the mortgage don’t bounce.”

“I thought all you retirees where rich,” Cherie said, dropping three fresh beers on the bar in front of them. “You mean to tell me I’ve been wasting my time being nice to you in hopes of one of you wealthy guys dropping dead on our wedding night?”

“Sheeeit,” said Perry.

“Some of us are rich in other ways, darlin’,” Henry said, winking.

Roger sat back down. He picked up the fresh beer; condensation dripped off the bottom of the glass onto the bar’s surface. “Don’t get old, Cherie,” he said. “It doesn’t pay shit.”

The front door to the bar opened, spilling bright sunlight across the floor and over the rows of dusty old black and white portraits lining the walls. A thickly built man in a Montana tuxedo – jeans and a sport coat – took three steps into the room, blinking in the dim light, then approached the three men.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “We doing some business today?”

“Some of us are,” Henry said with a glance at Roger. “Those of us with the cajones anyway.”

“Hey, how’s your mom doing these days, Billy?” Perry asked the newcomer. “Still ornery as hell?”

“Oh, Christ,” Billy said. “That woman busts my balls. I can’t believe the old man lived as long as he did.”

The men chuckled. Billy called Cherie over and asked for a Budweiser. After he took a long drink, he said, “So, fellas, who are we talking about here?”

“Heard the favorite scratched this morning,” Perry said.

“Yep,” Billy said. “Could be anyone’s race; it’s a wide open field.”

“It’s a shit field,” Henry said.

“Like I said, wide open.”

“Well, I’m gonna make a bet,” Perry said, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. “But it won’t be much more than a token gesture.”

“Yeah, same here,” Henry said.

Billy looked at Roger. “What about you, Moody. You in?”

Roger held his hands up. “Not this year, Billy, not me.”

“You don’t like the ‘Sport of Kings’ no more, eh?”

“Hey, you guys talking about the Derby?” A pair of young men were passing by on their way to the front door. The wobble in their steps proved they were well into their cups already in the middle afternoon.

Billy turned, scowled, then looked back at his companions and said, “Who are these guys?”

“Shouldn’t you boys be at work?” Perry said.

“We’re students,” one of them said.

“Of course,” Henry muttered into his beer glass, rolling his eyes.

“I’m a student of said ‘Sport of Kings’,” the other youth said. “And I’ve got a sure bet for you for the Derby tomorrow.”

“A sure bet,” Perry said.

“Sure as you get up to piss ten times a night.”

Roger and Henry laughed out loud. Even Billy cracked a smile. Perry’s face flushed. “Okay, wiseass, who’s this ‘sure bet’ of yours?”

The college guy was wearing tight black slacks, a rumpled white shirt, and a thin black tie. He adjusted the knot on the tie dramatically, then re-positioned the Panama hat perched rakishly on his head. “Animal. Kingdom.”

“Fuck off,” Perry said, waving the youth away.

“That plug?” Henry said. “Get out of here. Go spend your daddy’s money.”

The student laughed. “You’ll see!” he said. “Watch and see, gentlemen!”

Something stirred in Roger’s gut. The kid was halfway to the door when Roger called out, “What makes you so sure?”

The college kid turned around. “It’s his name.”

“His name?”

“Yeah. It’s the same as a great movie.”

“A movie?” Perry said. “Called Animal Kingdom?”

“Never fuckin’ heard of it,” Henry said.

“That’s probably because John Wayne isn’t in it, Gramps,” the kid said. “Animal Kingdom. Australian crime movie.” He pointed at Roger and winked. “A sure thing.”

Roger left the bar shortly after. He had grown tired of the bickering over horses; all the bullshit. He’d been getting more and more weary of the constant griping as the friends met in the same bar, sat on the same stools, and drank the same beer. Day in, day out.

Besides, he truly was down to his last funds. He’d call the ten crisp hundreds in his pocket the last of his savings except they wouldn’t be in his account long enough to even qualify. He hadn’t been kidding about the mortgage.

Still, when he reached the credit union he found himself driving past it. He was thinking about that college kid and his horse, Animal Kingdom. It was crazy, but he had half a mind to bet on it.

“Maybe one of these hundreds,” he said out loud. He drove a little farther, then suddenly flipped a u-turn. “Why the hell not.”


Now: Monday Morning

Roger, dressed for work and wearing his hard hat, stood over the small round table in the tiny kitchen. Its scarred wooden surface was bare except for a long, narrow pink box and a battered old plastic lunchbox. A white ribbon held the box lid closed; rather than undo the bow, Roger reached into his pocket and retrieved a small pocket knife. Prying the blade open with his thumb, he carefully cut the ribbon and pulled it free. He closed the knife with slow, deliberate movements, then removed the lid from the box.

A dozen red roses were nestled in a bed of pale yellow tissue. He leaned over the box and breathed deeply; the roses infused the room with their scent. A slight smile curled the edge of his mouth, and almost lovingly Roger removed two long, single stems from the box.

In the living room was a tall, stressed-wood pie safe. Roger carried the roses to it. Holding them in his left hand, he picked up a Bic barbecue lighter from the top of the pie safe and flicked a flame to life. He lit two tall candles flanking a pair of 8x10 photos in ornate metal frames. One was a woman; Gina, smiling and happy in middle age, her blue eyes bright, her blond hair retaining its original color. Next to Gina’s picture was that of a young man in the uniform of the US Marine Corps. Roger Moody, Jr. looked the pinnacle of health in the photo, his father thought, so much like his mother.

Roger stared at the two photos for several long moments, then let his eyes drift to the wall surrounding the safe. It was crowded with photographs of the family’s life together. Happy times. More than a lifetime’s worth it seemed, Roger often thought.

Carefully Roger arranged the two flowers in front of the pictures of his dead wife and son. He took the Bic lighter with him to the kitchen and put it on the table. He picked up the lunchbox, turned out the kitchen light. He went around the house turning out all the lights; the bathroom, the hallway.

In the living room he paused at the front door, then opened it. He stood in the doorway and looked back at the pie safe. The candles made shadows play across the photographs. When Roger flipped the switch to kill the overhead lamp, the shadows deepened, barely held at bay by the tiny flames.

He lingered only a moment longer, then Roger exited the house and pulled the door to behind him.



Three Days Ago: Friday Evening

When Roger returned to the bar, the others were gone. Cherie told him no one had said where they were going, though Henry had muttered something about “Lowe’s” and “a fucking lawnmower.” That was fine, Roger didn’t care where his friends had gone, and had a good idea where to find Sammy.

Fifteen minutes later Roger guided his pickup into the parking lot of Gary’s Auto. It was a combination repair shop/used car lot, established almost fifty years ago by Sam Gary, Sr. His son now ran the operation; Roger parked next to Sammy’s black Mustang, then went inside. It was after hours, but the door was open.

A small bell jingled as Roger stepped into the shop. “I’m in the office,” Sammy called from the back. Roger walked down a short hallway then rapped his knuckles on the open door frame. Sammy looked up from his computer screen, then his eyebrows raised as he recognized Roger. “Hey Roger, what brings you out here?”

“I decided maybe we can do some business after all.”

“You need a new ride or something? It can’t wait until tomorrow?”

“No, Sammy, I’m talking about the race.”

“The race?” Sammy sat back in his chair. “You know, I don’t like to do that kind of business out of the shop, Rog. I like to keep them separate.”

“Yeah, I know,” Roger said, taking the envelope containing the hundreds out of his back pocket. “But with the race tomorrow, I didn’t want to risk missing you. Your shop was on my way.”

“You can’t call?”

“Like I said,” Roger said. He had the money out, counting the hundreds. “You were on my way.”

Sammy’s eyes watched Roger’s hands, counting the bills along with him. “So what did you have in mind? I already made the bets from earlier.”

“Well, I want to bet too, if you can work it in.”

“Which horse?”

“The number eleven. Animal Kingdom.”

“You sure about that, Rog? That horse never ran on the dirt before.”

“I’m sure, Sammy. I’m sure.”

Sammy shrugged. “Okay, it’s your bet. What’s your play?”

“I want to bet him to win.” Roger peeled a single hundred off the sheaf of bills. “A hundred bucks.” He started to hand it to Sammy, then paused, thought a moment, and said, “No, fuck it. Make it a grand.” He handed all the money to Sammy.

“Wow, that’s a hell of a lot on a long shot!” Sammy laughed. “That’s ballsy. You sure you aren’t drunk?”

“Sober as a Catholic funeral.”

“Okay, Roger, I’ll make your bet. I’ll be in the bar with those other guys on Sunday if any of you win anything. But like I said, I don’t do business here so I don’t have any of my paperwork. We can meet somewhere later and I’ll get you a receipt, or you can trust me.”

“I trust you, Sammy,” Roger said, turning to leave. “Me and your dad went way back.”


Two Days Ago: Saturday Afternoon

Sammy sat on the edge of his bed, watching the small television on the top of his dresser. He held a High Life halfway to his open mouth, his hand shaking as the field of nineteen horses thundered into the final turn at the head of the stretch of storied Churchill Downs. . . .


Yesterday: Sunday Afternoon

“I sure wish that kid was here, I’d buy him a fuckin’ beer,” Roger said.

“Yeah, you’ve said that a couple times already,” Henry said.

“I still can’t believe you put a thousand bucks on that sonofabitch,” Perry said. “How much did you say you’ll get again?”

“Should be around twenty thousand bucks or so,” Roger said, his eyes red-rimmed and wide. He slapped Perry on the back, laughing. He was ecstatic and more than a little drunk. “Another round for my friends!” he called to Cherie.

“Here he comes now,” Henry said, gesturing to the back of the bar. “Sneaking in the back to make us rich.”

Sammy was approaching. He smiled. “You old fucks didn’t win that much.” He handed an envelope to Henry and one to Perry. “Show bets on about every horse isn’t going to get anyone rich, fellas.”

“What about me, Sam?” You’re making me rich, aren’t you?” Roger said, beaming, putting his hand on Sammy’s shoulder. “You got something for me?”

Sammy looked at Roger, a puzzled expression on his face. He shrugged out from under Roger’s hand. “What do you mean, Rog?” he said.

Roger’s enthusiasm dimmed. “Stop fucking with me, Sammy. You’re making me nervous. My grand. On Animal Kingdom. Remember?”

“Yeah, right,” Sammy said, and snorted. “You wish. You and me both.” He looked at Perry and Henry and laughed. Their faces were clouded with confusion, looking from Sammy to Roger.

Roger put his hand back on Sammy’s shoulder, this time more firmly. “You took my thousand dollars to win on Animal Kingdom,” he said.

Sammy pushed the hand away and stepped back. “You better watch it,” he said, pointing at Roger, then the other two. “You guys were here, did you see this senile old fuck place a bet?” When they just stared, nervous, he repeated, almost shouting, “Did you?”

When they shook their heads, Roger’s mouth fell open. “I went to your place later!” he said. “I swear,” he said, grabbing Perry’s forearm. “I went back to his place later!”

The room was quiet. Cherie edged closer, the bar’s cordless phone in her hand. Sammy was straightening his sport coat. “You got a receipt, Rog?” he asked. When Roger blinked, Sammy shrugged. “If there’s no receipt, then I guess there’s no bet.”

“You sonofabitch,” Roger said. He swung wildly at Sammy with a right, catching the younger, stockier man in the shoulder. Sammy took the blow and stepped in, driving a fist into Roger’s ample belly.

Roger’s breath whoofed from his lungs. He fell to the floor, his arms around his middle, wheezing for air. Shoes and boots scuffed the floor around him, voices shouted angrily. He grinded his teeth and squeezed his eyes closed. A single tear trickled out the corner of his right eye.


Now

Roger sat in his truck across the street from Gary’s Auto waiting for Sammy to arrive. The sun was up, and other employees had gotten the shop running. When Sammy’s Mustang pulled into the lot, Roger waited ten minutes, then picked up the lunchbox and hard hat from the seat beside him and crossed the street.

None of the workers acknowledged him when he went through the front door. He moved purposefully down the hallway to Sammy’s office, kicking the door closed behind him. Sammy looked up and frowned. “Roger? The fuck you doing here?”

Roger set his lunch box on Sammy’s desk and undid the clasps on the front. “You’re a fuckin’ no good thief, Sammy. Just like your old man.”

Sammy leaned forward. “You got this one chance to get the fuck out of my shop, Moody,” he said. “Or this time you’ll get more than just a poke in your fat belly.”

“I know about guys like you. A few years ago, at the mill, there was this asshole who kept taking stuff from other people’s lunches. I used to eat a lot of jerky, and this sonofabitch kept taking it. So I had Gina buy some dog treats that looked like jerky. I put some of it in a baggy in my lunchbox and the rest of the package in my pocket. About halfway through the shift I checked, and sure as shit my jerky was gone.”

“So what’s your fuckin’ point?”

Roger held up a finger. “At the end of the shift we had a safety meeting. When everyone was gathered in the lunch room for it, I stood up and said, ‘I just want to know which a you’s been eating my goddamn jerky.’ I walked over to the guy – we all knew who was doing it – and took that open pack of dog treats out of my pocket. ‘Because,’ I said, ‘I thought you might like to have the rest of it.’ His faced turned all red and everyone laughed. Thing is, that asshole never stole from anyone again.”

“Phhft,” Sammy said. “I guess you showed him. Now get the fuck out of my shop.”

“I did show him, Sammy. And now I’m going to show you.” Roger opened his lunchbox, reached inside, drew out a .38 revolver and pointed it at Sammy. “Except this isn’t a dog treat.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Rog,” Sammy said. “You don’t want to do this over a thousand bucks, brother.”

“Actually, I do.”

“C’mon, man. I have your money. I admit, I fucked up. I didn’t think that horse would win, so I just kept it. I’ll give it back to you, no hard feelings. I’ll even tell your friends.”

Roger shook his head. “It isn’t really the money, Sammy. It’s just because you’re an asshole.” Roger fired the pistol point blank into Sammy’s face. The recoil made Roger flinch; he heard a loud thump that he realized was the sound of Sammy’s feet hitting the underside of the desk as he was thrown over backwards.

Stepping halfway around the desk, Roger fired two more shots into Sammy’s chest. He said, “And if my life is such that I got to deal with fucks like you, spending my days on a bar stool, then it just isn’t worth it. Gina wouldn’t like it, and my boy deserves better.”

Roger put the nose of the pistol up under his chin.

Watery Grave III: And the award goes to...

"These are the times that try men's souls."

Thomas Paine might have been talking about judging the WGI this year. He wasn't, of course, he had something a tad more significant to the American population as a whole in mind. But his famous declaration may give readers some clue as to the difficulty the judges encountered in determining the top five stories in this year's Watery Grave Invitational.

I'll drop another clue and say that the judges reached consensus on only two of the top five stories, with all three of us slotting those two stories in exactly the same position in our respective top-five lists. Identifying three more stories involved hair-pulling and face-punching -- or would have if we all had been in the same room together. As it was, we simply engaged in name-calling behind each others' backs. (Okay, I did; the other two are above that sort of thing, no doubt.)

What I'm trying to say, in my usual foot-in-mouth style, is that any of the participating authors who does not find his or her story in the top five, please don't think that we didn't find your story worthy or enjoyable. Indeed, the quality and variety of the stories made reading the entries a great pleasure, and arriving at only a top five (six this year!) induced a strong measure of angst. Many, probably all, of the entries will find homes at webzines and print publications later this year, and deservedly so. To borrow from a Frank Sinatra song, "It was a very good year."

And now I'm pleased to announce the winners of the Third Annual Watery Grave Invitational:

1st Prize: RUN FOR THE ROSES by Chris La Tray ($50)

2nd Prize: FINGERPRINTS by Eric Beetner ($35)

3rd Prize: A POCKET FULL OF HORSES by Chad Eagleton ($20)

4th Place: HARD TIMES by Ian Ayris (A bye into the next WGI)

5th Place: A tie:
                A GAME OF HIDE AND SEEK by Patricia Abbott
                TOO MUCH TOO YOUNG by Nigel Bird
                (Byes into the next WGI)
I hope to publish the top three stories shortly.

Congratulations to ALL of the authors, who collectively turned in a calibre of work that would not lead one to believe that they had only two weeks to prepare these stories.

I would like to thank the judges: Aldo Calcagno, editor and publisher of Powder Burn Flash and Darkest Before the Dawn webzines; and Chad Rohrbacher, who has published stories in magazines like Crime Factory, Needle Magazine, Big Pulp, Dark Valentine, and others. He has fiction forthcoming in Yellow Mama, Pulp Engine, and in the anthology CHIVALRY IS DEAD by May/December Press.

Here is a complete list of the stories entered in the contest. Look for them to be published around the web and in print later this year:

Hard Times by Ian Ayris
Kentucky Runners by Matthew C. Funk
A Game of Hide and Seek by Patricia Abbott
Dust Clouds by Jane Hammons
When the Heart Bleeds Green by Sandra Seamans
Not Dark Yet by John Kenyon
Too Much Too Young by Nigel Bird
A Pocket Full of Horses by Chad Eagleton
Fingerprints by Eric Beetner
A Can Short of a Six-Pack by Paul D. Brazill
Renegades of Pain by Sean Patrick Reardon
My Little Angel by Rosemary Keenan
Jumping the Fence by Joseph Hartlaub
Knight Errant by Brian S. Roe
Blind Crime by Sigmund Werndorf
You Cut, I Choose by Liam Jose
Run for the Roses by Chris LaTray
A Game of Horse by Todd Mason

June 15, 2011

...to see what condition my condition was in...

A flying visit to the blog. I might finish this post before the wee one learns of my absence, if luck is with me. But if I suddenly abandon you for the world's youngest Abba fan*, who shall blame me?

The workaholics at Spinetingler are expanding their duties from zine to e-publisher with the launch of Snubnose Press. According to the good folks at Spinetingler:

"Spinetingler Magazine has been publishing new and emerging writers since 2005. Building from that foundation Snubnose Press will seek to publish only the best in short crime fiction. With the traditional publishing market contracting, Snubnose Press will fill this gap by publishing original anthologies, novellas and short novels.

Visit Snubnose Press at http://snubnosepress.wordpress.com/

The debut title of Snubnose Press is an anthology of six original short stories called Speedloader. Upcoming releases will include short story collections by Patti Abbott and Sandra Seamans."
**

The Watery Grave Invitational proceeds apace. The judges have 18 original stories in their hands even as I type this. The winner will be announced this Sunday, the 19th. I'm very pleased with the quality and variety of the submissions, and I can assure you that the judges are not having an easy time of it.

**

The only athletes for whom I have less sympathy than Lebron James are the cheaters at my alma mater, Ohio State. Do I detect a note of sincerity in Terrelle Pryor's apology to fans, teammates, coaches and the university? I do not. I detect the fine hand of his agent, pointing him toward the things that have to be done to begin to rehabilitate his image. Smoke and mirrors, they never go out of style, do they?. The NCAA cannot come down hard enough on the school, as far as this fan is concerned. It's going to take a lot to root out a deeply entrenched culture of cheating.

**

Woops, I hear the wee one garbling my name!