Darkest Night

         Rachel Mudd digs her fingertips into the sides of her mattress. She slams her head back, rolls her eyes into her skull, arches her lower back, and screams out the flames of hell. There is no actual fire; and yet her ruddy, cracked face suggests a supernova about to burst outward before crumbling back into ashes. Her chest rolls up into her throat, like there is a horned beast just beneath her skin clawing out from her lungs and into her trachea. Her stomach twists into a knot and growls like a junkyard dog flailing in its own spiked chains. Her whole body spasms in and out of humanity; one moment a pretty sixteen-year-old girl in the throes of labor; the next moment a monster ravaged by its own mad sins.

         Fuck! Rachel cries out when her lower back falls back onto her mattress.

         Holy Jehovah God! Abram Mudd shouts righteously. Jezebel Potty Mouth!

         Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Rachel bellows while her torso twists to her left.

         Zachary Mudd grabs a hold of Rachel’s left arm, like she is about to sink beneath the waves of a howling sea. With his other hand he nudges her pained, battered face away from the side of the bed. Though he acts quickly to protect her from herself, the look on his handsome, bearded, thirty-three-year-old face is a cross between helplessness and madness. His eyes swim inside tears that he is careful not to shed. Indeed, for all the kinetic fire sparking through his veins, he maintains incredible self-control. Only his face reveals the witch’s cauldron.

         Abram steps back from the foot of the bed. His face is a contorted mask of fear and hatred. His thin, white hair flails every which way, like the left fist that he has curled behind his lower back is being electrocuted. He holds up his black, leather bound, King James Bible (B-I-B-L-E! Now that’s the book for me!) like he is trying to wring sweat out of it. Because of how he flaps his right hand forward and black, the Bible opens and shuts repeatedly, like a black bird over his hair trying to take flight. Everything about the tall, bearded, sixty-six-year-old is sputtering out of control. Only his stark, blue eyes remain steady, as they now stare in cold contempt at blood gushing out from between Rachel’s thighs.

         As soon as Rachel’s torso straightens, she arches her lower back, and she separates her bent knees from one another. Her threadbare granny dress slides down her thin thighs, until it is little more than a blood stained rag bunched up against her pelvis. The result is an unobscured view of her bleeding vagina that calls to mind the hole at the end of a blood dipped muzzle. Her vagina pulsates like a bloody mouth gasping for breath. The smell of death shoots out from her pussy. It stings Abram’s eyes, and his face shakes accordingly in fear and anger.

         Holy Jehovah God! Abram cries, while taking another step backward and flapping his Bible overhead. Cursed potty smell! Stink of the devil’s rapture! An angel of death now casting hellfire and brimstone on a wanton woman’s blood…

         Rachel interrupts Abram with another one of her gut wrenching screams. She lifts her head from her pillow just enough to stare into Abram’s eyes. For a moment, there is unspoken communication between them; a visceral fear that, though conceived within a hell of their own making, nevertheless binds them to one another one more time. Then, the moment passes, and there is nothing but insensate madness in her screaming eyes. Once more, Rachel’s head slams into her pillow. Her big eyes roll back into her skull like prey fending off a predator.

         Fuck! Rachel hollers before swaying side to side like a woman possessed.

         Hold on sis! Zachary urges before reaching forward to hold down both of her arms. You can do it! I know you can!

         Zachary is strong, but that beast bursting outward as the blood between Rachel’s legs is stronger. He manages to keep her arms on the mattress, but he cannot stop her torso from snapping side to side as a trapped snake. Moreover, he can do nothing more than to observe helplessly, as she slams her head upon her pillow repeatedly. He presses his chest over hers, but that too is futile. The most he can do is to restrain his tears.

         Notwithstanding how much Zachary presses down on her, Rachel pushes her feet erratically against the creaking mattress, like she is trying to get away from a hideous monster perched on the foot of her bed. As a result, she presses her head and her neck against the headboard. She cries out in pain. More thick blood gushes out from her pussy. The blood is a gurgling stream falling over the foot of the small bed and onto the white oak floor. 

         Abram steps back again. His mouth foams in the manner of a rabid mutt. He opens and shuts his jaw, like it is hanging from a loose hinge. His eyes seem on the verge of bolting from their sockets. His left fist remains clenched behind his lower back. His right hand flaps the Bible over his head with such ferocity it is a wonder the pages do not fall out from between the covers. 

         Abram is about to fall over the edge mentally. Somehow, he grasps upon what he must do next. He staggers backward into a far corner, lowers his Bible to his chest, and flips for the verse he has in mind. He mutters what appears to be a desperate prayer to an unknowable divinity, while he scans the tiny, hard to read font. He seems to be drowning beneath the pages he flips with his long, quivering index finger. His knobby knees buckle. The bedroom spins at an angle that would have knocked him down, if he did not slam his back into the corner.

         He finds the verse. He holds the Bible open with his left hand, while he points at Rachel with his right index finger. His finger shakes with the fire spirit of eternal righteousness. His voice takes on the deep and frightening tone of an ‘End Times’ preacher. His eyes dance with the flames of judgment pouring over the writhing limbs of a wanton woman. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

         Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, Abram screams out with a fierceness that cannot quite conceal his anxiety. And before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…

         Abram steps forward. He stares at Rachel over the rim of his Bible, since he knows this verse by heart. He flips his long index finger up and down as if to gesture that Rachel has been ‘a naughty, naughty, harlot of a girl.’ Drool drops from his lower lip and onto the page. 

         And I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations, Abram continues with as much righteous scorn as he can muster.

         Rachel screams again. She sways side to side with so much strength that she briefly pushes her much stronger brother off of her. It is impossible to tell if she rejects him consciously, or if she is the victim of an involuntary spasm of pain and grief. Regardless, her eyes are infernal, lost, begging for death finally to release her from this horror. 

         Zachary grabs both of her arms and holds them down. This time, he will restrain her no matter what. He braces himself to defeat the devil if necessary.

         I am with you, Zachary whispers. We can do this together.

         Your blood is prophecy! Abram screams. Baptism into sin! Sprinkled onto the heads of all men!  Verily I say unto you, your blood condemns us as much as the heathen. Clogs our noses! Stuffs our throats! Packs doo doo up our rectums!

         Rachel tenses so much that her tendons seem as if they are about to pop through her skin. She bites down on her lip. Blood drools onto her chin. Her big eyes again slide back into her skull. This paralysis lasts only a second or so, but it is long enough to shatter what remains of her adolescent beauty. When again she squirms in her brother’s arms, and snaps her head upon her pillow, she is a beast writhing in pain and in fury. There is nothing left but a trapped prey that should be put down. The monstrous transformation is so glaring that Abram and Zachary recoil in horror, though Zachary soon enough grasps a hold of her arms.

         While swinging her head side to side, Rachel starts to spit up blood now. The blood gushing out from between her thin thighs is a thick stream. Her flesh whitens considerably, while her life literally spasms out from inside her bowels.

         Fuck! Rachel tries to bellow through the blood in her mouth. Fuck! Fuck!

         Consumed with anger and grief, Abram snaps shut his Bible. He holds the book over his head like it is a brick he is about to throw. He curls his left hand again into a fist and hides it behind his lower back. Along with this posture, the scowl upon his old face suggests a one-armed bandit about to attack his target.

         Thus saith the Lord God Jehovah, I am against thee, Abram screams. And will cause many nations to come up against thee, as a wave rises from the sea…

         Father, stop it! Zachary pleads with his father.

         Oh, Prophet of Lamentation! Abram cries, while he points with the Bible in the direction of the blood gurgling over the foot of the small bed. Your blood condemns us. Drowns us in your Jezebel sins…

         While still restraining Rachel, Zachary turns to face his father. Zachary is as angry as he is frightened. He still holds back his tears, but he cannot stop his cheeks from turning beet red with emotion.

         For Christ’s sake, shut the fuck up! Zachary yells.

         Abram flinches, like he has been slapped hard. He looks incredulously at the Bible in his right hand. He looks around the room, open eyed, vulnerable to the terrible beasts he fancies beyond his peripheral vision. He does not seem to know where he is. His loose jaw opens and shuts like a fish pulled out of water.

         He looks yet again at his Bible. This time, his incredulity turns to red hot anger. He squeezes his Bible so hard his biceps clench. 

         Zachary continues to stare at his father, even as Rachel twists and turns every which way, and vomits blood into the side of his face. He is scared even more by his father’s madness just then than by his sister’s spasm. For all of his emotional outbursts, Abram remains the foundation of this family; and Zachary fears what may happen to their clan, if Abram ends up as a puddle on the floor.

         Abram tosses the Bible across the room. He raises both of his fists above his head, like he is erratically trying to hit a punching bag. His eyes dance in his sockets, for beneath his righteous anger there is a hint of triumph in his voice and demeanor. He hates his Jehovah God just then, and he relishes this hatred.

         A book of whores and lies! Abram cries out. Damn to the bowels of Hell the Jehovah God who wrote it. May the Devil’s rusted pitchfork prick His heart.

         Father, let’s leave God and Satan on the sidelines for now, Zachary pleas in exasperation. Rachel needs us.

         Abram is speechless. He stares at the convulsing girl, like he has no clue what is happening to her then. He rubs his palms down the sides of his trousers.

         Zachary rushes to the foot of the bed, when he sees something squirming out from between Rachel’s legs. Without Zachary there to hold her, Rachel has one last series of spasms that repeatedly shoots her up to a seated position and then knocks her back down to the pillow. Blood geysers out from her mouth. In a matter of seconds, the front side of her flesh is a curtain of blood and chunks of meat. Her eyes poke out from this sheet of blood, but there is no discernible life in them anymore. There is just madness etched into the face of a corpse in the making. Indeed, with her once wild hair now clinging to her skull, due to all that vomited blood sprinkling back down to her head, she looks vaguely boyish; the hot madness of male adolescence in the eyes of a girl about to die in labor.

         Zachary bends forward. He prepares himself to pull out the mushy, blood soaked baby. He is almost overwhelmed by the sulfuric smell of death that is so acute in between Rachel’s thighs. He grimaces in horrible pain, but he soldiers on with the task at hand. A single tear trickles down his crimson red left cheek.

         Rachel sits up one more time. Her arms extend to their respective sides, like when a bird spreads its wings in flight. There is a glimmer of understanding in her eyes. There also may be a subtle grin on her blood mask, as if to say that she has ‘won,’ and everyone else in this crazed family has ‘lost,’ because she is the one about to escape this loony bin for whatever comes next. If she had had a subtle grin on her face, then it is gone regardless soon enough. She falls back onto her pillow, and she gives up her ghost in one long and exasperated exhale.

         Zachary pulls Rachel’s stillborn baby out from between her legs. He sees the malformed, vaguely human lump on his outstretched hands, lowers his chin to his chest, and finally releases the rest of his tears. 

         Abram closes his eyes. He stumbles back into his corner. He slides down the corner to the floor, lifts his knees to his chin, and hides his face in between his knees. He feels the weight of judgment on his back. He smells the diseased blood of a wanton woman all around him. He hears his son sobbing like a stupid girl. Surely, Jehovah God has abandoned this small room to the Jezebel Whore.

         My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Abram mutters repeatedly.

*   *   *

         Wile E. Coyote tiptoes down the middle of the desert highway. He has a sharp knife in one hand, a fork in the other, and a red bib hanging from his long neck. Drool falls from his teeth in anticipation of the Road Runner meal several more paces in front of him. 

         The Road Runner faces away from him. He seems blissfully unaware that in seconds he will be a feathery blood splat on the hot asphalt. 

         Wile E. Coyote stops just inches behind his prey. He licks his lips, lifts his knife and fork, and opens his eyes wide.

         Beep Beep! The Road Runner exclaims with the slightest hint of a grin on his beak, before he launches forward and leaves his predator in a cloud of dust.

         The cloud clears. Wile E. Coyote now looks into the ‘fourth wall’ with an expression that is equally confused and disgusted. He cannot believe his dinner got away this time, and yet he also knows that it could not be any other way. It is enough to make the coyote drop his knife and fork, blow his nose into his red bib, and skulk away.

         Before he can do so, though, an ACME safe falls out of the clear blue sky and onto his small head. The impact is great enough to shake the whole desert.

         Beep Beep! The Road Runner repeats in the distance…

         Or maybe that is the sound of demonic laughter instead…

         The door to the family room slowly creaks open, but Sarah Mudd remains focused on the Road Runner cartoon. She sits cross-legged a few inches in front of the old black and white television. The flashing light from the television hits her thirteen-year-old face in such a manner as to make her seem ghastly white; the countenance of an old lady whose life has been leaking out from her slowly like mildewed air from a pricked balloon. She adds on even more years with the way she stoops her frail shoulders forward and nods her head back and forth. Is she nodding in sync with the cartoon music on the boob tube, or is she grasping for an old memory that fades in and out of her addled mind? Is it really possible for a girl physically so young to be spiritually so old and enfeebled? Or does she manage still to hold onto a gesture or a habit of when she had been a beautiful innocent? She sucks her right thumb ravenously, which upon its face is surely an infantile act; and yet, even then, there is something strangely mature, perhaps dirty, about the way she slides her thumb over her lower lip. She sucks in drool now and then, so that it does not slither down her chin and make a mess on the blue shawl that she has wrapped tightly around her opaque face. Except for the strangely sexual connotation of the sound she makes when sucking in drool, her blue shawl calls to mind the Blessed Virgin Mary as depicted in a medieval icon.

         Zachary steps into the family room. He remains hidden in darkness, since the boob tube cannot illuminate anything more distant than about a yard away.

         Sarah senses Zachary behind her, but she does not flinch. She continues to focus on the cartoon, while she sucks on her thumb. The thumb is like a frail lifeline flowing out from her clenched lips and into the silly Looney Tunes world on the screen. Everywhere else there is silence, stillness, monsters in the black shadows that reign just beyond the ghastly white television light. 

         Sis, it didn’t go well, Zachary says after a while.

         Sarah does not respond. She sucks in some of the drool on her lower lip, but otherwise she does not make any sound whatsoever. She simply stares into the screen, while Wile E. Coyote sets another trap for the elusive Road Runner.

         Zachary steps forward. The floor creaks in response.

         Rachel was brave, but the blood, Zachary starts to say before the horrid, raw sadness of the moment silences him. 

         Sarah removes her thumb from her mouth. She turns just enough to look back at her older brother. He remains little more than a dark form hovering by the open door, and yet she clearly deciphers him from all of the other shadows.

         Hold me, Sarah whispers.

         Walking up from behind, slowly, sadly, Zachary steps finally into the sick light cast by the old Zenith. He stands behind Sarah’s back, and she once more turns her deep, hollow eyes towards the cartoon. Together, they stare through the cartoon into a dark and empty place.

         Zachary drops to his knees. He wraps his arms around her chest.

         You can cry, sis, Zachary whispers.

         I know, Sarah whispers back to him.

         Beep Beep! The Road Runner exclaims, before leaving his predator once more in a cloud of dust. The dust vanishes. Wile E. Coyote sees that instead of capturing his dinner, he has wrapped his arms around a TNT drum. He watches in horror as the fuse hisses toward the explosive device. He is too scared to run away from it, even though he has plenty of time.

         Ka-Boom! 

         You’re all that’s left of the Mudd Women, Zachary remarks. Do you know what that means?

         I know, Sarah answers in a hollow, tired voice.

         I’ll protect you, sis, Zachary whispers. I promise.

         Wile E. Coyote floats into the clouds. He has the wings of an angel upon his back and a miniature harp in his hands. Still, there is no peace for him even then. He hears the familiar sound of the Road Runner roaring over the heavenly highways. He tosses aside his harp, sheds his wings, and returns to his old hunt.

*   *   *

         Zachary slowly turns the bedroom doorknob. It is difficult for him to grip it because of the warm blood and shriveled placenta parts still clinging onto his fingers. Sweat pours down his face. He needs to put a lot more mental focus on this task than usual. Moreover, deep down, he is sickened at the very prospect of reentering the blood strewn battlefield. He can feel his stoicism falling away from him. It is like he is lost on the surface of the sea, and his lifeline to a boat or a shoreline somewhere has been cut; and all he can do now is to watch with growing horror as the current pulls his lifeline out of reach. 

         He stops fiddling with the damned doorknob for a moment. He leans his forehead on the door and allows his arms to swing listlessly by his sides. He has no doubt in his mind that, but for the bedroom door, he would fall to the floor right now; maybe fall so hard that his face smashes into his skull. He takes in a deep breath, and the image of his own smashed face vanishes. Nevertheless, in its place, he sees something so much worse. He sees Rachel. Her death remains too fresh, too close in time and in place to where he is now, so that he actually half-expects her to sit up on her bed and to scream ‘fuck’ the moment he turns the doorknob and steps into the horror show. He imagines the insanity eternally set in her dead eyes; a madness so intense, so full of bitterness for the fact he had failed her, that he will never manage to forget it. He knows that what he is about to view inside will haunt him forever and, worse, that he cannot avoid it. 

         The door creaks open. His initial impression is that the room is flickering in and out of existence. He zeroes in on the candle beside the bed. It casts old, beaten, ghostlike light that shrouds everything beneath a dreamlike haze. The light flickers just enough to impart some life into the shadows hanging from the ceiling. As a result, the shadows take somber steps in place, up and down, like tired marchers in a macabre funeral procession. Retired battlefields are beaten and exhausted places; a pitiful grey pushed this way or that by soft candlelight and muffled sobs. Zachary may have stared blankly at the shadows forevermore but for the fact that his eyes soon enough settle in on the gut wrenching corpse at the center of everything. Then, the shadows recede, like the doleful shades that fall back into their graves when momentarily forgotten; and the last bit of mental fog dissipates to reveal the horror. 

         Rachel is a mess. Her dead arms remain outstretched, like she had been crucified to a cross. Her face tilts down and to the side. Her feet slid down the blood covered mattress sometime after the stillborn infant had been delivered, so that now her legs are straight and her ankles are together. Zachary imagines nailing a scroll onto her headboard: ‘Rachel of Nazareth, Queen of the Mudds.’

         There is an important difference, though. Crucifixions are bloodless, for the most part; but the bedroom here is a horror show of blood splatter. Toward the end, she had sprayed blood in every direction; and the blood gushing out of her gaping vagina had been enough to fill a murky pond on the floor. It is as if a bedroom sized blender without a top had shredded gobs of blood and placenta, spewing crimson Jell-O every which way and scrawling her death on everything.

         Zachary slowly, painfully, turns his eyes away from the corpse. He makes out his father sifting in and out of one of the shadows. 

Abram sits against the wall to Zachary’s right. He has his knees up to his chin. He has the stillborn in his right hand, and a white handkerchief in his left. With slow, meticulous strokes, Abram tries to wipe the blood off of the squishy sponge-like stillborn; but he manages only to smear even more baby blood onto himself and his handkerchief. Abram has a pained expression upon his face, like he is straining to remember something.

Zachary walks over to Rachel’s right side. He barely manages to restrain his tears. Instead, he sighs audibly, and then ducks his chin onto his collarbone. 

Zachary takes a hold of Rachel’s right hand. He massages her palm with his thumb. Her flesh is clammy from all that blood, but it is not yet cold. For as much as has been experienced mentally and emotionally, little time has passed since Rachel gave up her ghost. 

Father, we should have taken Rachel to the hospital, Zachary comments.

Abram looks up from his doldrums a moment. There is stark clarity again in his eyes. He drops his despondency at once in favor of a deep burning anger; the kind indicated by a low and steely voice and a repeated clenching of hands.

And hand my daughter to a bunch of heathens? Abram asks. 

Are you serious? Zachary asks incredulously.

Abram drops the stillborn and the handkerchief onto the blood smeared floor. He springs forward with unexpected speed and tenacity. He stops on the side of the bed opposite his son, reaches forward with both hands, and grasps a hold of Zachary’s shirt. He pulls Zachary’s face into his own. Rachel’s bloodied and bruised womb lies motionless beneath their chins.

Look into my eyes, boy, Abram insists. Do you see anything funny?

Zachary looks downward. Abram yanks him so close that they practically kiss one another. 

Equally startled and incensed, Zachary finally returns Abram’s ravenous stare. For a moment, the two men look as if they want to eat one another. The raw madness in Zachary’s eyes, though, soon dissipates into sadness. He allows himself a measure of vulnerability, and as a result he senses his basic humanity holding firm. He cannot see that same humanity anywhere in his father’s eyes, and that fact aggrieves him as much as the sudden horrible demise of his sister.

Speak up, boy! Abram screams. See anything here that makes you laugh? Anything that’s not one hundred percent serious?

Abram releases Zachary. The two men step back. They stare in silence at one another until the bitterness passes.

I loved Rachel since the first time I saw her, Abram remarks tearfully. So did you. I would give up my life now if there was anyway I could bring her back.

I know, Zachary whispers.

Now, you and I know Rachel brought this upon herself, Abram continues.

Father, please don’t, Zachary says with exasperation. 

She left us for a boy in town, Abram seethes. A gosh darn heathen; most likely, a mulatto jerk with his Levi’s pulled down so low you can ponder his ass crack. Let me show you something.

Abram walks over to the stillborn, which is now lying faced down on the floor. He picks up the stillborn. He clenches a bit too hard with his fingers, and as a result he imprints finger marks into the dead flesh. 

Returning to the bedside, Abram holds the stillborn over Rachel’s corpse in such a manner that Zachary cannot but look upon his nephew up close. Blood drips out from the stillborn flesh and onto Rachel’s stomach. The stillborn calls to mind a saturated sponge that should be squeezed several times over a drain.

What do you see here, boy? Abram asks, while squeezing more juice out of the stillborn, and thrusting him closer to his beleaguered son.

My nephew, Zachary mutters.

I see an abomination, Abram snarls. What happens when one of us mixes in with one of them. 

Abram steps away from the bed. He looks at his son with disdain. 

Zachary looks down again. He massages Rachel’s palm with his thumb.

Abram grunts, turns his back to his son, and then walks around the room. He holds up the stillborn with his left hand, like the corpse is a pointer that he uses to point at an imaginary chart. 

Look where we are living, Abram says, while clenching into the stillborn stomach, and shaking the stillborn feet in the general direction of the bedroom door. Not much more than a cabin miles from civilization.

Country living, Zachary scoffs.

Watch your mouth, boy! Abram insists. Remember when we used to live in the city. I had a pretty wife…

Mom, Zachary mutters, and then sheds a single tear.

A Ferrari, Abram continues without skipping a beat. A job on the floor of the stock exchange. Cable television. All the cartoon channels. Every last one…

Abram falls silent. He seems lost in a memory, although he continues to shake the stillborn in his firm hand, like he is fanning the door or swatting flies.

But you can’t live softly, when God sets you apart, Abram declares with unwavering conviction.

Goodbye, mom, Zachary mutters. Goodbye private school…

None of that shit’s going to save your ass, when the beast comes for your soul, Abram interrupts. 

Darkest Night, Zachary whispers fearfully.

Night so dark you can’t see what’s coming for you, Abram remarks as if a tape recorder has been turned on inside his mind. The darkness reaching out of the darkness. Grabbing a hold of you. Eating you alive. Shitting you out its back end. Kinda queer. Kinda like wrecking balls up an ass. ‘Bend Over Rover’ time…

Abram returns to the bedside. He slams the stillborn onto Rachel’s blood smeared stomach. He repeatedly wipes his palms on his trousers, like he wants to get rid of all that ‘baby abomination’ clinging still to his hands. 

I admit that I failed tonight, Abram whispers.

Zachary hears his father, but does not immediately respond. Instead, he strokes Rachel’s hair with his other hand. He cannot hold back his tears, though he realizes all too well that now is the time for strength. What seems to impact him the most is how her hair feels. The crimson blood in her hair is starting to coagulate; and as a result her hair feels sticky, like spent cum on a toilet bowl.

Rachel, Zachary mutters.

No, not her, Abram insists. I failed the Lord God Jehovah. I blasphemed Him and His Living Word. Called it a book of whores and lies…

Father, under the circumstances, Zachary starts to say.

No, boy, that’s where you’re wrong, Abram snaps. It’s how we act in the moment of crisis that matters.

Incensed, Zachary steps back from the corpse. He folds his hands before his crotch. He stares back at his father a while in frustrated silence. 

Okay, father, Zachary says coldly. What the fuck do you want to do now?

*   *   *

         Abram and Zachary emerge from the bedroom carrying Rachel’s corpse. Abram holds her arms above her head and so is in the forward position. Zachary holds up her legs. He stares intently into his father’s eyes. In part, he does this so as to avoid seeing his sister in between them; but also, he does this because Abram is looking forward for both of them. 

         Rachel’s midsection sags to within a few inches of the floor. Rigor mortis has yet to set in, and so her dead weight succumbs to gravity wherever it is not held up. The stillborn rests faced down upon her midsection. It looks like a grey clump of flesh trying to chew its way into her stomach. Blood squishes out from in between her midsection and the stillborn, and so it is rather easy to imagine that the blood is the result of the stillborn tearing into its mother’s stomach. It is only a short crawl then from the stomach to the womb. Pursue this dark trick of the mind a bit further, and the stillborn then returns to the dead cavity from which it had been born. It stays in there, unborn, abomination hidden from the righteous; the devil’s seed once more contained inside its fleshy, greying tomb.

         But, of course, that does not occur, except in a subtle shift of the mind. In the real world, however tenuously that may be perceived, the stillborn rests on top of the midsection. It slides across the bare stomach from side to side, as depending upon how Abram and Zachary tilt the corpse in between them; but it is not an infant incubus chewing into its mother’s core with ravenous abandon…

         Or at least that is what Zachary tries to tell himself, for indeed the dark, gut wrenching illusion is hard to set aside. 

         On the other hand, the strange look in Abram’s eyes suggests that he has no doubt in his mind that the stillborn indeed is a ‘living dead’ abomination; an ugly, little critter with sharp teeth that needs to be taken out to the woods and offered up to the beast. Abram seems to think that Rachel too is a ‘living dead’ abomination. She is Jezebel, swaying her bloodied hips side to side in sync with their heavy footsteps, and so offering up one more seductive dance to her own father. She excites him, while a good girl under the same circumstances would focus simply on remaining dead. This is the essence of a Jezebel Whore, Abram thinks; still reaching for his crotch even when her fingers are cold and clammy.

         The dead offer no support when carried or dragged across a battlefield. Ask any man who has served in the medical corps during wartime; and that man will speak of the debilitating weight on his shoulders and arms, while removing one of his fallen brethren. He will describe the dull ache in his lower back that persists even now as a result of all those times he and his partner swung a dead body into the back of a truck. Dead flesh may feel spongey before rigor mortis, but it weighs like a crate full of iron dumbbells. That is true even of a thin and pretty sixteen-year-old girl literally ripped open by the ravages of a baby birth that horribly went wrong. Rachel’s corpse looks spindly, no more than a pile of sticks being tossed back out to the woods, but it weighs upon the joints of the pallbearers as much as it does upon their conscience. 

         Abram and Zachary plod haphazardly through the living room and toward the kitchen. Zachary eyes the door to the family room at one point. It remains shut, as always, and he prays that Sarah does not emerge suddenly from within the small room to behold her older sister’s corpse. Sarah is an innocent still, or so Zachary insists in his own mind; and there is no surer way to shatter the last vestiges of childhood purity than to confront the disfigured face of death. So on this bleak night, anyway, let the dead contend with the dead, for the dead are corrupted already. The surviving child should know of nothing but her cartoons.

         The moment they step into the kitchen Abram drops Rachel’s arms. The back of her head bumps loudly upon the floor. Although dumbfounded, Zachary continues to hold up her legs. 

         Boy, get the rope, Abram barely manages to say.

         Abram is out of breath. He bends forward with his hands on his hips. His skin takes on a greenish hue, like he is going to vomit up what is left of his bile.

         Zachary lowers Rachel’s legs to the floor respectfully. He looks at Abram a moment in disgusted silence. Then, as he contemplates what Abram actually means by the rope, his disgust turns to fear. He remains outwardly stoic, but it is possible for Abram even then to see the raw fear captured in Zachary’s eyes.

         I hope you realize what you’re doing, Zachary remarks.

         Abram looks up, catches his breath, and looks deeply into his son’s eyes.

         Do I realize what I’m doing? Abram asks rhetorically.

         Zachary says nothing. Neither does he walk back or look down in shame.

         Saving our asses, Abram snarls. That’s what I’m doing. So hurry up, boy.

         Zachary continues to stare at his father, like he is daring the old man to look away from him first. Abram holds his stare, though, and so Zachary finally lowers his head and shuffles toward the kitchen cabinets. 

         Zachary returns seconds later with a long rope. One end of the rope has been tied already into a noose. He hangs the rope over his shoulders, like he is a priest wearing a stole. 

         Abram notices that the stillborn had fallen off of Rachel’s midsection. It is now a gooey blood clump faced down on the kitchen floor. Abram returns the stillborn to Rachel’s stomach. He wipes his hands upon his trousers a few times just to make certain that the last of that infernal baby goo is out of his system.

         The two men pick up Rachel’s corpse. Both feel a jolt of lower back pain but otherwise remain physically able. It is the mental strain that really distorts their faces and necks, so that they shuffle towards the front door looking like a couple of ghouls with abnormally heavy heads. Regardless of what they may say to themselves, deep down they each know that they are about to do the devil’s work. ‘Fighting darkness with darkness’ may best describe their objective then, for at this moment there is an inexorable logic to evil that they cannot discard.

*   *   *

         Zachary kicks back with his right heel. The front door swings open on its rusted hinges. The hinges, mildewed and cracked by years of direct exposure to the rain in these parts, yowls like a cat caught in a mousetrap. 

         The two men stagger across the porch, and then step onto the dirt that spreads out unimpeded for several miles in every direction. The ground is hard and cold. It is not entirely lifeless, as evidenced by the few weeds illuminated here and there by the silvery moonlight; and yet the charcoal black soil calls to mind a lunar landscape more than anything else. Even when moist, the callused earth does not offer up that mulch smell with which we identify new life. Plant and animal life out here is spent, withering away, decomposing, so that an old, mauled, flea infested carcass, or the sad remains of a dead bush, will be found more likely along the way than anything with warmth or color. 

         As much as the black earth lacks vitality, the night air swirls about them with visceral fears and occasional bursts of violence. The wind does not swoosh over the dead dirt, so much as it punches out from an imagined hole in the air, tosses about the soil and the weeds within a contained area, and then vanishes back into the void from which it came. The wind is a drive by shooter; and the moment it is gone, there is a pained silence as the soil and the weeds fall back into the earth. But for the crunching sound that is made every time that Abram and Zachary step into the earth, there is nothing but pained silence, until once more the wind offers up its obscene war cry and charges for the weakest point.

         Abram and Zachary have staggered only a few yards out from the porch, when the front door swings open again. Zachary looks up and sees Sarah in the doorway. The yellowish candlelight behind her creates a strange halo over her head, so that at first blush she looks more dreamlike than real. Sarah holds her shawl tightly around her head with one hand, so that the howling winds outside cannot steal it from her. 

         Zachary glances at Rachel’s corpse. For the first time since removing her from her death bed, he is conscious of her nakedness. Abram had removed her threadbare dress before the two of them had lifted her off of the mattress, but Zachary had not made a mental note of that fact at the time. Instead, Zachary had been trying in vain to remember the first time he had seen his sister smile, or had heard his sister giggle, or had felt her soft touch when gazing at the first star of the night. The memories had been untouchable then; but in even trying to reach out to them, he had been able to set aside Rachel’s nakedness.

         Now, seeing Rachel’s corpse in the silvery moonlight, Zachary is taken at once with just how horribly white she is. So much blood had been lost that she looks like a macabre figure fashioned out of snow and icicles. Her bloodied hair stands in stark contrast to her albino white skin, and that in turn calls to mind a painted white clown with a crimson red wig. Whether she is a snow sculpture or a clown, she barely resembles the girl she had been before bending forward in excruciating pain and then taking to her bed. Indeed, it is hard to imagine at this moment that this dead weight had been a living person with bountiful love in her heart and playful mischief in her eyes.

         Notwithstanding how hard it is to imagine that this heavy burden earlier tonight had been Zachary’s goodhearted sister, Zachary cannot escape the fact that, indeed, he is holding up Rachel’s legs right now. The spindly legs are now so cold, so clammy; nothing like they had felt before. The bloodstains covering the front of her legs from her pelvis to her toes look like garish tattoos against a starkly white backdrop. Rachel never would have disfigured herself that way. And yet, this is Rachel, his sixteen-year-old sister, and Zachary is not so mad as to forget what happened to her this horrible night. 

         Zachary looks up at Sarah again. She seems expressionless in his eyes; an icon of pious reserve, rather than unrestrained suffering; more High Medieval in look and in feeling than Luis de Morales’ Pieta. Still, for all that, he senses her innocence; and he reacts viscerally to the fact that now she sees Rachel’s nude flesh. Everything about this scene is vile, pornographic, a demonic laugh that is felt rather than heard in this obscene situation.

         Zachary waves Sarah back with one hand.

         Sis, don’t watch this, he urges. Stay inside. 

         Abram again drops Rachel’s arms. Her head thumps against the cold and unforgiving ground. Her arms fall to their respective sides, so that yet again her arms look as if they have been crucified. This time, the cross is the dead earth; and the onlookers are those ugly catcalls voiced and then masked by the winds.

         Abram turns upon his heels. He is no longer the slow and tired pallbearer barely keeping up with a man half his age. Righteous condemnation jolts every one of his veins with spitfire. His eyes glow black with piety and rage. His white hair, tussled by the high winds, seems to dance about a crown of red hot coals.

         Girl, mind your brother, Abram insists

         Abram juts out his chin, and wags his index finger. He looks like a parody of an open tent preacher, or a schoolmarm; judgment levied by forked tongue. Sarah does not react, at least not outwardly. Abram notices this at once, and in his mind the only possible explanation is insubordination. Just another Jezebel released from her asylum hell by the fire breathing dragon devil, Abram thinks.

         You cannot follow the footsteps of fair men without inviting the eternal wrath of Jehovah God, Abram snarls. You’d know that, if you obeyed the Word.

         Go to bed! Zachary yells. 

         Sarah hesitates a moment longer, and then retreats back into the cabin.

         The front door shuts, and once more the two men are guided by no light but what is reflected down to them by a cold and distant moon. The moonlight does not open their eyes, so much as it nudges at their fears and frustrations. It illuminates their despair, inspiring both madness and resignation, as they carry their abiding sorrows across a dead and drab earth. 

         In Him was life, and the life was the light of men, Abram says. 

         And the light shineth in darkness, Zachary continues the verse.

         And the darkness comprehended it not, Abram concludes.

         Abram and Zachary, father and son, repeat that refrain two more times, while plodding through the darkness toward the unseen line of trees up yonder. Rachel’s corpse swings in between them, as the stillborn kisses her dead womb. All together, they are dim and weak beneath the twinkling face of the heavens.

*   *   *

         Normally, it takes less than an hour on foot to reach the forest. Zachary strolls out this way often enough, especially when the tension inside their small and remote cabin reaches a boiling point. Deep down, he insists to himself that his father is right. The beast is out there, somewhere, and each passing night it gets closer to them; and yet, for all that, he wonders if the Word and the Cross are really the best tools for keeping the beast at bay. He can only take so much of the fire and brimstone rhetoric, the grim soul searching, the crazed sobbing, the drawn curtains; and then he has to find that peace that is possible only in a place of solitude. His first choice is to saddle his Harley and to leave the cabin behind in a cloud of smoke; but when the Harley engine scream reminds him of his father’s latest late night sermon, he will pursue peace on his feet. The stars will lead the way, and sometime before the sun returns, he will be asleep in an old cave somewhere; his clothes left in a pile outside; his dreams searching for that silent and listless void beyond the most distant star. He will fall asleep one night, and then awaken the next night, or maybe the night after that one. Few tears will fall, and yet he will know something of peace when he returns home.

         Tonight, the walk out to the forest takes much longer. Rachel appears to be getting heavier with each backward step. Zachary is strong and young, to be sure; and yet with each passing hour, the deep aches in his back, his shoulders, and his arms seem to gnaw further into his flesh. If his father is driven forward by stubborn resolve, then he staggers backward out of fear. He is afraid for his father’s mental stability. He is afraid for his surviving sister’s innocence. In his own way, he is afraid of the beast, the monster, the eschatological boogeyman out there, even if he thinks that it is much more this-worldly than heaven sent.

         Slowed down by his fear as much as his physical pain, and even lulled at times by the sway of his sister’s corpse, it is well passed midnight when he and his father finally reach the forest. The moon is well on its way towards the next dawn. The stars above appear tired, beaten, like the last act of the night when the performers clearly are going through the motions. Soon, the stars will take a bow and slip backstage to the smattering applause of some boozed stragglers.

         Periodically, Zachary looks into his father’s face. He can see the zealous intensity, the moral certainty, the mad stubbornness that pushes him forward, notwithstanding how much older and weaker he is in comparison to his son. The Word props up his back, keeps his eyes open, and lifts one callused foot before the other. The power is unmistakable, and yet Zachary cannot tell whose Word strengthens his father on this long and miserable march into the woods. Is God behind all of this? Is it the devil? Or is his father just another quirky backwoods prophet of doom? Indeed, where is the line between prophecy and madness? All night long, these questions sift in and out of Zachary’s consciousness, like small fireflies repeatedly switching their lights on and off. Rather than providing him a mental focus, the questions disorient him even more, so that for long periods of time Zachary feels as if he is walking backward in a nightmare. In his dream, the heavy weight dragging down his shoulders and arms is his own guilt; and his father is not helping him hold up his own guilt, so much as he is pursuing him in righteous indignation. His father will catch him, if he does not continue to step backward. His father will string him high, if and when he gets his hands on him.

         The winds punch through the narrow spaces in between the trees. In the forest, the winds cry much more clearly and loudly. It is as if the forest funnels the wind voices, pushing the vowels closer to the consonants, and so fashioning the long and whispery tones into defined words. The forest really does speak to them. Some nights, it whispers more words than others. Tonight, it just repeats ‘hell’ and ‘whore,’ ‘hell’ and ‘whore,’ each rendition a punch to the gut and a chill down the spine. Zachary dreads the wind words, and yet he senses greater power in his backward stride because of them. He is walking into a cauldron of fears; but he also feels much more alive, like when a runner experiences finally his ‘second wind.’ He is not about to take on the world, but he does feel better about indulging his darker and more vicious side. He lets his tears flow. He lets his rage contort his face. His eyes redden and narrow into those of an old devil.

         As the forest funnels the wind, so does it diffract the moonlight. The end result is an untold number of spotlights striking Abram and Zachary from every direction at once. The moonlight disorients more than it reveals. It shrouds the trees and the foliage with the silvery grey pallor of a corpse, so that the forest overall seems dreamlike, haunted, eternal. It is a twilight world just steps from the real one, and yet so different as to conjure up fears never before hinted. In here, where the tall trees obscure the stars, there is no time, no direction; and so reason must give way to rage, brutality, sacrifice. Like with the wind words, Zachary fears, but also relishes, this diffracted moonlight. He indulges his rage, his primordial brutality, his blood lust for a sacrifice to appease the night gods.

         Abram stops in his tracks. He drops Rachel’s arms, and again the back of her head strikes the earth. This time, there is not nearly as loud a thump, since the soil inside the forest is considerably moister. 

         Zachary continues to hold up Rachel’s legs. He looks down at her face. It is then that he first notices a thick layer of silvery blue fog. It lies over the dirt like a veil. Notwithstanding how the wind punches through the narrow spaces in between the trees and the foliage, the fog does not move. Though the winds do manage to blow ripples across the surface of the fog, the fog remains in place; or at least that is how it appears. Zachary wonders if perhaps it seems to be so sedentary because of how it is illumined by the diffracted moonlight. What now looks like a sheet of fog in fact may be a sheet of light; a spotlight beam that is strong enough not to be broken up by the wind and the moisture. Zachary tries hard to pursue that line of reasoning, for the alternative is what? An intelligent fog? A sheet of fog able and willing to defy weather? Is Zachary losing his mind?

         Rachel’s blood smeared face sifts in and out of the fog. She resembles a young woman gradually succumbing to the waves splashing over her face. When waterlogged, she will sink to the bottom of the sea, while her dead, open eyes stare back up at the surface. Her bloody hair is a fan of seaweed, spreading out from her crown, and floating listlessly upon the surface. Of course, this image is an illusion; and part of Zachary’s psyche still acknowledges the fundamental difference between a sheet of fog and a vast sea. Still, reason breaks down the more he entertains it out here; and so he is left with the macabre drowning of a corpse. A corpse? No, not a corpse, but his living, breathing sister, surely; for did he not see her eyes move? Did he not see her mouth gasping for a bit of air?

         Zachary gasps. He instinctively moves his hands to cover his open mouth; and as a result, he drops her legs as indelicately as Abram drops her arms. He is frightened, mortified, aggrieved. His emotional response now is so at odds with his normal stoicism that, for a moment, he really fears losing his mind. He does not see the illusion of a drowning corpse any longer, but neither does he feel at all empowered by the rage and the primordial brutality beneath the surface of this haunted forest. He has reclaimed his sanity, or so he insists; but the price to be paid out here for some measure of mental clarity is weakness. He feels as if a boy overwhelmed by the world around him. He has no idea if he is going to cry or to scream out an obscenity the very next moment. Regardless, until he is able to get the heck out of here, he will be rash, childish, totally dependent on his father for guidance when his sick father really cannot even fend for himself.

         Holy Jehovah God! Abram cries, while cupping his right ear, and darting his eyes every which way. 

         What the fuck? Zachary responds. 

         Abram does not seem to have heard his son. Instead, he appears intently to be listening to something in the wind. The confused look on his face slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns to disgust, like he is hearing now something filthier than the usual ‘hell’ and ‘whore.’ His mouth moves strangely; maybe, an effort to mouth what he hears. Regardless, he seems to be out of his mind, as he cups his right ear, darts from tree to tree, and searches for a prophetic sign. Like all the Prophets of Old, he is either mad, or he has tapped into the Spirit of Truth.

         Goddamn it, father, Zachary says irritably. Enough of this shit!

         Zachary’s irritation is an attempted mask of his fear. The tremble within his voice gives him away. Abram senses his son’s weakness, but he chooses then not to take advantage of it. As the Good Book teaches us, there is a time and a season for all things; and so Abram files away what he regards now as Zachary’s girly girl fears. With voices swirling about his head at breakneck speed, instead Abram zeroes in on one particular tree about fifty yards further into the forest.

         The tree seems darker than the others; an ugly, black smudge against an eerie backdrop of silvery grey mist. The fog huddles the base and the roots like a luminescent Elmer’s Glue that alone keeps the tree in the ground. Though its trunk is considerably thicker than the other trees in this portion of the haunted forest, what most distinguishes it is a charred limb that juts out from the trunk about halfway up. The limb is parallel to the earth, like it had been created by the Hands of God for no other reason than to serve as the horizontal crossbeam of a gallows. Scars from a past fire pockmark the limb, so we may presume that the men hung here long ago had had their souls snatched by a devil even before they had stopped kicking. Indeed, the thickening mist just beyond the tree very well may be the No Man’s Land between Heaven and Hell. Nothing can be seen in that mist, except for the occasional charred and twisted tree limb. Reason is going to suggest that these are the bleak remnants of a long ago forest fire; but reason is an unwelcomed stranger out in the woods. Instead, the irrational and superstitious explanation prevails; and along these lines, the twisted tree limbs out there in fact are the skeletal arms of demons and witches waiting to grasp at the soul of anyone foolish enough to wander too close. Cup your right ear to the wind, and you can hear the incessant cackling of those demons and witches up yonder. To Abram, they sound like a bunch of conniving yentas. To Zachary, the sound is less cartoonish, and yet it instills in him too the worst kind of fear.

         It is easy, therefore, to come to the conclusion that this old tree borders Hell. Beyond lurks the beast, the boogeyman, whatever monster keeps us up at night even when we have taken the precaution of drawing our curtains. Even as madness prevails out here, in this context there is a kind of cold and hard logic that almost demands that the two men do what they are about to do. Stand too close to Hell, and perversion, desecration even, is an unavoidable seduction; a coming together of dark logic and of dark passion to justify the unmentionables in life. Stand too close to Hell, and you see the beast either reflected or staring back at you in the mist. Surely, this is what Abram thinks at this moment; and, in a way, this is what Zachary thinks also, as he follows his old man to the tree.

         The beast is closer than I thought, Abram mutters.

         What do you mean? Zachary asks, while standing beside his father under the charred limb, and folding his callused hands together. 

         Look around you, boy, Abram remarks without darting his mad eyes away from the gallows crossbeam overhead. It’s like the fog of war. Confusion, chaos everywhere you turn, girls lusting after boys outside of their own homes…

         Abram steps away from his son. He wraps his arms around the trunk from the other side, and stares back at his son. He thrusts his hips ever so subtly into the trunk while speaking. It is as if he is slowly fucking the tree, although there is no sign of sexual release or relaxation on his stern face.

         Don’t you see? Abram continues, while still thrusting his hips against the black bark. The beast can hide in chaos, as much as in darkness. He lurks in the Armageddon, as much as in the endless night that follows. 

         Zachary looks down. He takes in a deep breath. He manages to hold back his tears, which allows him to feel a bit more in control of himself than earlier. He looks up again, sees his father, and speaks with a resigned, but clear, voice.

         So we string up Rachel on this tree, Zachary remarks.

         Offer the beast this hors d’oeuvres, Abram continues the thought, while moving away from the tree, and gesturing toward Rachel’s corpse behind them.

         So he doesn’t come for the main course, Zachary concludes.

         Abram walks over to Rachel’s corpse. He stands at her feet, and looks at her albino white face and crimson red hair. There is righteous indignation in his eyes; and yet he speaks now in a soft and sleepy manner, like he is reciting one last lullaby to his little girl.

         Remember the Book of Revelation, Abram states. ‘And the dragon stood before the woman ready to be delivered so as to devour her child as soon as he was born.’ 

         Abram steps back. Zachary hesitates a moment. He is torn between cold fear of the darkest night to come and disgust at what must be done to keep the beast at bay. He glances at his father for guidance, but Abram is lost in his own mind. He looks around the haunted forest, but the fog at his feet and the mist beyond the tree prove to be impenetrable. At most, he sees or imagines a dark and obscured reflection of himself, which serves only to enhance his confusion.

         Zachary takes in another deep breath, removes the noose from his wide shoulders, and steps forward. He imagines crossing the River Jordan. There will be no turning back, even if the Promised Land is actually a household of vipers.

         Zachary tightens the noose around Rachel’s neck. He drags her corpse to the tree. He looks back now and then to make sure the stillborn remains on her naked and discolored belly. 

         While searching for a place to tie the rope, Zachary feels Abram’s eyes. They are studying his shoulders and his back, presumably to ascertain if he has the strength now to do what must be done. Abram’s eyes judge; and when they judge him or anyone else to be unsuited to the task, they narrow into the very image of a steely executioner. This is how Abram expresses his commitment to morality. What is good may or may not be acknowledged; but what is bad must be tossed to the fire with the rest of the chaff. Or in this case, strung up high…

         Zachary forces that last thought from his mind. He will not think about it in any detail. Otherwise, he fears that he will not follow through with his fated task. He senses that the Nazi guards directing the Jews into the chambers gave as little thought as possible to the mechanics of what would happen, as soon as one of them unleashed the poisonous gas. Indeed, he recalls reading about how the Nazis would switch on the motor of a lorry that had been parked beside the chamber, in order then to drown out the screams and the moans of the victims.

         Imagining the sound of a lorry engine, Zachary tosses the long rope over the charcoal black tree limb. He grabs the rope on the other side, takes in one more deep breath, and pulls forward with all his might. Lifting Rachel’s corpse into the air indeed feels like lifting a petrified log, and he almost passes out as a result of the sheer severity of his exertion. Still, though he clenches his teeth together, he never groans. He does not shed a tear. He is outwardly impervious to all that dead weight he pulls over his shoulders and later ties to a thick root.

         When finished, Zachary wants to fall to his knees and to gasp for air; but he senses that an outward demonstration of weakness on his part would be just as obscene as what he has done. It would be a case of adding insult to injury in a way. He therefore forces himself to stay on his feet and to breathe normally, even when for a while he feels as if he may succumb to nausea and exhaustion.

         Zachary stands beside his father. Together, they observe Rachel’s corpse swinging in the wind. The old rope creaks every time it sways from side to side, and yet it seems to be holding firm. Rachel will slide out from the noose, when enough of her flesh decomposes, assuming that the beast does not get her first. Until then, the rope will keep her up there no matter the wind or the moisture.

         The stillborn had fallen to the earth, when Rachel’s corpse had ascended from the earth. It lies faced down on the mud beneath her white feet. It seems at first glance to be something she squeezed out from her butt before giving up her ghost; a clumpy turd resulting from her last bout of indigestion. Abram sees this as apropos. In his mind, abomination is shit. It stinks up the place, until we good folks shovel it into the fire. Zachary tries not to think along these lines. In his heart, he agrees with Abram that the beast must be kept at bay, even when his rational mind questions how and even if it exists. He nonetheless loathes all that has happened here, and fears he will never erase this scene from his mind.

*   *   *

         It is impossible to count the number of stars that pockmark an otherwise clear, black sky. Abram should know. He has tried to count them many times. It is a futile exercise, and yet he always starts with the star cluster closest to the eastern horizon. He counts aloud, so as not to forget where he is, while moving his discerning eye towards Polaris. He only counts Polaris the first time he eyes it, or so he tries to remind himself. He also makes a point of reminding himself that Polaris is really the Lord God Jehovah’s Cyclops; heaven’s resident bully in charge of executing lost sojourners. Fix your moral compass, or prepare as best you can for an ass whooping at the hands of that single eyed oaf at the very top of the night sky. Cyclops has no patience for the irresolute. For Abram, Cyclops is a reminder that a loose woman’s fate will be handed to her in due time by an oafish man’s fist, cock, or combination of the two. Her last moment on earth is going to feel like a brick to her gut. The last thing she sees will be his dark eye.

         Now, returning to the task of counting stars, whenever Abram settles his eye on Polaris he scans the night sky an inch to the left, reminds himself of the last number he counted, and then counts his way back down to the horizon. He reaches the very lowest point, scans an inch to the left, reminds himself of the last number he counted, and then counts his way back upward. He believes this is like peeling an onion from both ends. At least, it is a systematic approach; an odd holdover from when he had counted other people’s money for a living. This is his one remaining stab at reason when trying to pull back the curtain on that evil madness just beyond the stars. 

         Or, perhaps, it is just Abram’s way of focusing his mind when he has had too many brews. Counting the stars and finishing off a six-pack seem to go hand in hand; that is, until the Budweisers get the better of him. When that happens he can no longer count out his numbers, let alone differentiate the stars in that vast darkness hanging over his head. He just lies on the ground, rests the back of his head on his arms, and watches how the stars swarm through the darkness like angry bees. The stars leave light trails behind them; an eternity of squiggly lines that he can never hope to straighten. In those lines is a message no man is able to decipher, no matter his fidelity to the Good Book. In those lights a dark and menacing oracle hides. The oracle exists for no other reason than to tease him, for he cannot hope to make sense of it before the beast finishes with him.

         Tonight, Abram has a single bottle of beer, rather than a six-pack. Also, though the subtle sway of his hips suggests that he is drunk already, those stars up above are not swirling about like bees. They remain as motionless as before. Indeed, they do not even twinkle. It is as if they are all one-eyed monsters just staring back down at him.

         Or, perhaps, the heavens reflect his single minded resolve to do the will of the Lord God Jehovah. He is a monster. He is an instrument of divine justice at the end of time. This is an irony, of course, and yet it also makes total sense in this fallen world. After all, Abram reminds himself, God’s ways are horrifying and monstrous. He unleashes the beast in darkness. He hangs a girl from a tree.

         Zachary steps out of the cabin. He sees his father standing about fifty or so yards away. He sees how his father sways gently to the echo of a dream, and holds his bottle of beer by his right thigh. The bottle taps his thigh when his hip moves that direction. Zachary hear or imagines a clink sound when that occurs.

         Zachary walks up to his father. He stands by his side in silence for a long time. Together, they stare at the stars above them. In Zachary’s mind, anyway, the stars seem closer tonight. The heavens are closing in on them like a shroud.

         The night is so calm now, Abram remarks in a slow and exhausted voice.

         Like nothing ever happened, Zachary comments sadly.

         Twenty-four hours of dead silence, Abram comments.

         Like nothing ever happened, Zachary repeats under his breath.

         It’s deceiving, Abram remarks after taking a sip from his bottle.

         Zachary searches the night sky. He is not sure what he expects to find at that moment. The stars everywhere seem to be equally breathless; the colorful twinkles replaced with pinpricks. He senses life leaking out from the stars, like rotted air from a pricked balloon. He folds his arms about his chest and shivers.

         Yes, Zachary mutters under his breath. 

         So what do you see up there? Abram asks. 

         Nothing, really, Zachary says after a while. 

         That’s not true, Abram says with an encouraging half grin. Never forget. You are our Zacharias. Son of the man with the bloody apron. What do you see?

         Zachary mutters something. He drops his arms to his sides, and he sighs like a man twice his age. He feels defeated already, even as this night is young.

         It’s like the face of a sad and lonely god, Zachary finally manages to say.

         Not the God of the Bible, Abram remarks.

         No. Not your God, Zachary proceeds with a hint of bitterness beneath his sadness. It’s the god no one remembers anymore. The god that is strung up on a tree and left for maggots. In place of that god is raw, naked, brute authority.

         You blaspheme the Word of God, Abram says quietly, after drinking more beer. But who am I to point a finger? I did the same last night.

         For the first time since God knows when, Abram sounded like his old self just then. He did not preach. He did not spew righteous indignation. He simply, humanly, acknowledged his fellowship with another fallen man. Zachary places his left arm around his father’s shoulders. 

         Maybe we should set aside all this high talk, Zachary comments. We lost Rachel last night. Let us just remember her, that sweet girl, the one we loved…

         For all her faults, Abram interrupts. 

         And for all that was good about her, Zachary says. Let us not forget that.

         Abram leans his head into Zachary’s shoulder and cries aloud for a while.

         I wish I could, Abram finally remarks through his tears. Believe me, son. It’s just that every time I see her I see the face of the Jezebel Whore. I see the beast getting closer to us. How we are getting weaker. Denigrating virtue for a momentary thrill. Despising a father’s will. Fattening the womb for a slaughter.

         It’s okay, father, Zachary whispers. Let us go inside.

         I can’t see my daughter anymore, Abram continues. I can only see what she represents. Hold me, son. Do not say another word.

         Zachary holds Abram close to his heart. The two men stare at the stars a while longer. 

Abram stops crying. He tosses his beer bottle toward the sky. Out in the distance, there is a clinking sound. Then, there is silence, like the bottle never had been tossed in the first place. Both men feel exhausted, worn down, futile.

It is just the three of us now, Abram says with as much quiet authority as he can muster just then. We gotta hold it together. No matter the tears or the blood we may shed.

Zachary does not say a word. He holds his father, until he no longer can feel the man who had loved him as a child. Then, walking side by side, the two of them retreat back to their cabin.

*   *   *

         If the bitch doesn’t put out by the third date, then send her back to the pound, Charles Waxman remarks, while he reaches for his shot glass on the bar.

         Abner Klein chuckles. He is a fifty something fat man in a green suit. His comb over looks like the tail of a squirrel. He has not been laid in two decades, unless one counts the inflatable Sally Field that he keeps in his bedroom closet.

         Charles knocks over a bowl of peanuts. The skinny jeans queer manning the bar gives him a dirty look, but Charles does not give a damn. Charles is very tight with the owner. The two of them used to pull cons in the jewelry business back in the day. They made so much money passing off Cubic Zirconia as actual diamonds that they were able to slither into “respectable life” a long time ago.

         Today, Charles brokers hard money loans. The con is much the same, but it is not loansharking so long as he keeps the interest rate a hair’s length below usury. He has bailed out this bar more than once over the passed few years, so who gives a flying fuck if he knocks over a bowl of peanuts? If he had not flown in in his Thunderbird in the knick of time, the owner would have lost these nuts and his balls to that Jap bank downtown. 

         And Charles and his buddy, Abner, would be drinking Sapporo, instead of highballing whiskey and shooting vodka. Like a goddamned sushi joint on every other block is not enough of the ‘old country’ for those fucking Nips.

         Charles stops thinking about the ‘fucking Nips.’ He has bigger fish to fry. The biggest fish of them all, in fact. Charles calls them ‘cunt fish,’ because he always smells something that reminds him of bad oysters when he rubs his nose against their little sweet spots. ‘Cunt fish’ are easy to bait, especially the ones not yet out of high school. Just promise them Justin Bieber tickets. Fan tickets in front of their big, dumb eyes, if they are not sure. Buy them red snow cones, if necessary to close the deal. Then, lie back, grin, and see how they take turns wrapping their fish lips around an old man’s hook. Like starving fish in a barrel.

         The problem is when the ‘cunt fish’ does not want to get off the damned hook. Keep a ‘cunt fish’ around too long, and she stinks up everything with that rotten fish smell of hers. Sometimes, it can take up to eighteen years’ worth of child support payments to eliminate altogether that awful smell. What a crock!

         Charles grabs a hold of his shot glass. He looks back at his fat buddy, and winks. He thinks a moment about what to say next. He used to fire off his witty lines like bullets from a six shooter, but everything slows down when a man can see his sixtieth birthday in his rearview mirror. Does not stop, thank God, but it does slow down. 

         Down the hatch, and up her snatch, Charles says.

         Abner laughs so hard his fat face turns red. Charles bottoms up the shot glass. The vodka goes straight for his bowels. For a few seconds, the burn down there is even better than sex. 

         No pussy ever did me this good, Charles mutters.

         He is not ready to give up on them, though. A vodka shot may surpass his old man orgasms; but he very well cannot be the cock of the walk with a daffy, blond shot glass hooked to his arm. He needs to unhook a ‘cunt fish’ that really is starting to smell bad. Let her know that the eighteen-year child support plan is not on the table. Have her succumb to a tragic accident, if that proves to be necessary. Then, when all that nasty business is out of the way, he can go back to the pond and hook his bait to the line. There are lots of other fish to reel in, before the hemorrhoids get so bad that he finally has to hang up his fishing rod.

*   *   *

         Dirk Tweed awakens suddenly with a terrible kink in his neck. He is in his La-Z-Boy leather recliner. He vaguely remembers watching a late night Hogan’s Heroes marathon on one of those hillbilly cable channels. A big tub of buttered popcorn on one side, a six-pack on the other, and his old .44 Magnum holstered to his Sam Brown. As the brown leather belt presses deeply into his beer belly, it is a wonder that he does not awaken with stomach cramps also. The old neck injury is bad enough to make the room spin once or twice the moment he opens his eyes, though, and so perhaps God recognizes a stomach cramp at this point in his life would be gratuitous. 

         He sits up in his chair, and looks bleary eyed at the television set. A duck hunter is on the tube. He has his rifle cocked and ready. In seconds, a family of ducks will ascend en masse from a pond; and one of them will spiral downward as little more than a clump of mangled flesh and feathers. Not much left of the poor bastard to eat, but the hunter will get a nice boner in his overalls anyway.

         Except that is not what actually happens. The hunter fires his enormous rifle (Ka-Boom!), but nothing falls out from the blue sky. In seconds, the family of ducks are lost in the sunlight; and the hunter can do little more than to wipe his expectant grin off of his face. 

         Dirk half expects an ACME safe to fall onto the duck hunter’s head. That really is how this segment should end. For sure it would, if this were a cartoon.

         Billy Bob explains what he did wrong, the narrator say off camera in the kind of squeaky clean, masculine voice that had been a mainstay in 1950s Walt Disney documentaries. 

         Billy Bob is sitting in his cabin. He looks shitfaced. His eyes are bloodshot and ready frankly to roll out of their sockets. Still, with as much earnestness as he can muster, he explains that ‘beer and shootin’ are country cousins. A purdy pair, but put ‘em together and your rifle’s liable to squirt out somethin’ nasty.’

         Dirk glances at the empty beer cans on his coffee table. He cannot count them. Like the stars in the sky at night, they seem to be everywhere. He is just another fucking drunk, and he knows it. Still, the beer allows him to relax after midnight. It enables his tears to flow; and he figures he would be dead by now, if he had not found a way to shed all those sad tears in the middle of the night.

         Dirk hears someone snoring to his right. Instinctually, he nearly grabs his revolver; but then he remembers who had dropped by last night to watch a few hours of Hogan’s Heroes with him. He reaches over to the couch, and grabs his friend’s left foot. He wiggles those toes like he is shaking a demon out of them.

         Steven Kirk awakens with a jolt. He had kicked off his shoes earlier, but otherwise he is clothed in his white shirt and jeans. Young, trim, and handsome enough to qualify as a preeminent ladies’ man in these parts, Steven could pass as Dirk’s son. Dirk barely remembers when he had been in his thirties. He feels now as if he has been always a fifty something man with a beer belly and a raw pain in his neck. As much as he tries to hold onto his own past, it seems unreal, like any surreal dream that turns so cartoonish over time as to be pure fantasy.

         What’re you doing here? Dirk asks jokingly. Folks will think we’re dating.

         Steven sits up, and looks at his watch. He rubs the sleep out of his eyes.

         Let’s start a rumor, big guy! Steven says in his mock queer voice.

         Dirk stares at his friend a moment. He then shakes his head, and laughs.

         Shouldn’t you be at home with your girls? Dirk asks as the laugh fades.

         They’re with their mother and her latest boyfriend, Steven responds.

         A new one every week, huh? Dirk asks, while arising from the La-Z-Boy.

         Pretty much, Steven says. She baits them like they’re fish in a barrel.

         Dirk places his right index finger into his mouth, and then pulls back. He is mimicking an old hook pulling his inner cheek further to the right. He laughs, though the tears streaming down his face suggest the sadness beneath his glee.

         So what am I impersonating? Dirk asks his friend. Quick! Answer in three!

         What the fuck, Steven mutters, while shaking his head from side to side.

         Steven Kirk on his wedding day, Dirk answers.

         Steven thinks a moment. He decides he would rather laugh alongside his buddy than to be insulted. Dirk smiles, drops the gesture, and staggers into his filthy bathroom. He holds his head, for his world again begins to spin just then; and he would rather not vomit up all the warm beer and popcorn in his bowels.

         While the water runs in the bathroom, Steven stumbles about the family room looking for his shoes. The room is not that large a space, and yet it is now such a disheveled bachelor’s pad that it is hard to find anything in there, unless one happens to be staring straight at it. He finds one of his shoes under a pizza box. God only recalls how that happened. The other shoe is still AWOL, though.

         You need a wife; Steven says loudly enough to be heard in the bathroom.

         Are you applying? Dirk asks jokingly.

         Steven grins. He wanders over to the bookcase. Unlike everything else in here, the bookcase is in relative order. Dirk must own every John D. MacDonald ever published. There are also several framed photographs of a pretty girl with braces on her teeth. In each shot, the girl holds her teddy bear like it is a baby.

         Helen would have been seven this year, Steven remarks.

         Eight, Dirk corrects him, while stepping out of the bathroom.

         Steven looks at his friend. Dirk is drying his face with a hand towel. Dirk walks up to Steven, and together they look at one of the staged photographs of the cute princess with the teddy bear. They stay silent a while, like they are in the presence of a sacred thing. Indeed, the framed photo calls to mind an icon.

         Two years ago, Dirk sighs. It was two years ago her mother took her out to Paris. I told her she was too young for the trip, but her mother never obeyed me. They never found her kidnapper. DNA does not match anything on file. It is like a goddamned beast came from nowhere, killed my baby, and then vanished into thin air. Poof! My girl’s laughing about something one moment. Her mother looks away. Next moment, she is gone. That is how fast we lose what we love…

         Dirk allows that last thought to linger in the air above them. They finally glance away from the icon. The emotions are too raw. The silence is deafening.

         Why don’t I cook up some eggs? Steven asks.

         I’ve got to meet with a client, Dirk responds. 

         Steven reaches out to his friend’s right shoulder. He looks him straight in the eyes. Dirk returns Steven’s stare, even though Dirk continues to shed tears.

         Just call it off, Steven urges him. You are in no condition to see a client.

         I know I’m not, Dirk says with a heavy heart. 

         And yet Dirk is going to meet with his client anyway. Steven can see the resolution in his friend’s eyes. He knows Dirk well enough not to try to convince him otherwise. He removes his hand from Dirk’s right shoulder, and steps back.

         I’ll call some of the guys, Steven states. We can go out for pizza tonight.

         That’s fine, Dirk says with a slight nod of his head. 

*   *   *

         I got game for a white guy, Charles Waxman remarks, when he catches a glimpse of himself in his rearview mirror, and blows a kiss at his own grey face. 

Charles taps his leather steering wheel to the beat of the song. There is a pile of Super 8 track cassettes on his passenger seat; mostly, funk music that he plays when he wants the girl in his T-Bird ‘to get down and do the dirty.’ His ideal girl is a trained zoo animal: caged, hungry for whatever ‘mind candy’ that he may doll out from among the ‘goodies’ in his glove compartment, and prone to respond to simple musical cues, like the funk he usually refers to as his ‘dark chocolate’ music. He wants his girls to be ‘eager beavers’ when working on him in his vintage, green T-Bird. When he has the energy to work on them (less and less with each passing year), he prefers the Cosby method. After all, a drugged out chick is not so inclined to squirm, let alone be unsatisfied with his prowess.

         He is not playing a funk cassette now, though. Instead, Sinatra is belting out You Make Me Feel So Young. The car speakers are as vintage as the Super 8 track cassettes, and so the song plays out more in his memory than in his space at this moment. Regardless, he knows every note by heart. Sinatra is his choice when he wears his green suit and his white ruffled shirt; what he prefers to call his ‘Vegas Man’ look. He is the debonair man of action, the cat on the prowl, a heartthrob high roller. In this guise, he wears so much ‘Just For Men’ in his long and slicked back hair that his greasy head stands out as even darker than night. It is daytime now, and so his hair looks almost otherworldly in its stark contrast with all of the bright and natural colors everywhere else. Add to the picture his long and malformed nose, and the ‘Vegas Man’ resembles a tall gnome who has come to us from Middle Earth to do a seedy lounge act. In a way, the look does fit the persona that he has crafted over many years of hustling and womanizing the down and the out. His benefit, whether it be financial or sexual, always has come at the expense of someone else; and the result is a seedy lounge lizard of a man with white dice (feeling lucky?) swinging from his T-Bird rearview mirror.

         Charles still feels that last vodka shot he shared with his drinking buddy, Abner, back at the Lucky 8. It has been at least an hour since he left the tavern on the outskirts of the City of Beverly. A younger Charles would have forgotten that little bit of courage a while ago, but one of the prices of old age is that an indulgence sticks around a lot longer than it is welcomed. Girls, vodka, herpes, they all just stick around, even when he swallows his antacids or applies one of his many creams. In his mind, death is that disease you cannot get rid of at all. It sticks around for eternity, and it leaves you fucking wasted in a cheap coffin.

         He reaches for his cigarettes in the glove compartment. His doctor keeps telling him it is a nasty habit. Of course, the doctors said differently back when the Mad Men ruled the world. Regardless, for every high school chick who takes his hand because he hands them a snow cone, there is another one who will go down on him behind the bleachers for one of his smokes. Schools are now ‘zero tolerance zones’ when it comes to cigarettes; and the skanks who strut around campus showing off their tramp stamps really cannot be expected to wait for a whole eight hours to light up again. That is where Charles shows up as a kind of lunchtime savior. He lures them to the bleachers with his Marlboros, when they are supposed to be eating one of Michelle Obama’s sugar and fat free cafeteria lunches. There is very little small talk. Both sides know what they desire in this exchange. The bargain may be Faustian for both of them, but it sure feels good at the time. And so as much as Charles knows that these damned cancer sticks are shortening his life, he likes to believe that they play a role in hardening his manhood, so to speak. 

         He fires up his smoke with his car cigarette lighter. He does not open his window, because the high wind from outside will mess up his slicked back hair. The ventilator works about as well as the speakers, and so the smoke cloud has nowhere to escape. As a result, the tall trees and shrubs beyond his windshield appear to sift in and out of murky soot. There is something monstrous, perhaps even portentous, about them; and for a moment, he believes that this two-lane country highway on which he is driving in fact is a direct shot into Hell. He has to whistle along with Sinatra’s tune to get that foreboding fear out of his mind.

         Up ahead, Charles makes out the ‘Good Eats Café.’ Jesus, these fucking hillbillies cannot even come up with a decent name for a restaurant, he thinks, while snuffing out his cigarette. He wonders why he stoops so low as to pick up girls in a place like this, but of course the question is easy enough to answer. A chick in a hick town like this one is truly a fish in a barrel: Nowhere else for her to go, and no viable option but the bait in front of her. The shitholes that dirty up the scenery in between the big cities offer easy pickings for old fishermen in green suits and white, ruffled shirts. Charles believes wholeheartedly in taking the path of least resistance in life. Indeed, he holds this belief as if it is a kind of religion. He has no time for God, but he has plenty to whistle down his path.

         He turns into the gravel driveway. It is lunchtime, and so the parking lot is about half full of pickup trucks and motorcycles. Charles finds a space that is at least two spaces away from these other vehicles on either side. He does not want these hillbillies getting too close to his T-Bird, when it is time for them to get back to their farms or their construction sites. They will be so busy tapping their beer bellies and squeezing out farts that they very well may bump into his green machine. He would hire a hillbilly to watch his vehicle, if he could trust a grownup in this locale to be more responsible than a three-year-old with ADHD. 

         Charles steps out of his automobile. He slicks back his greasy hair several more times with his palms. He presses the folds out of his jacket. He pulls upon the tips of his wide lapels, in order to make sure they are as flat as possible. In one final act of preparation, he plasters a wide and goofy grin on his face. He is ready for ‘show time.’ This is the moment before he steps onstage to applause.

         Charles swaggers into the ‘Good Eats Café.’ A small bell rings above the front door, when he opens it. He smells a peculiar combination of rotting wood and baked ham. He hears lard and bacon sizzling on a grill beyond the counter. An unseen jukebox plays We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters; and for an eerie second or two, Charles is taken back to the seventies. Back then, his hair had been naturally dark; and he had sported mutton chops. Otherwise, with his green suit and his white, ruffled shirt, pretty much everything remains as it had been. Nothing really changes. Even the next girl is just a rehash of the last one.

         Standing beside the cash register, Charles scans the booths. He finds the man in a corner booth. He chuckles. With his two index fingers and thumbs, he playfully mimics firing off a pair of six-shooters. This is meant to disarm the big guy staring back at him from that corner booth.

         Apparently, his overdone, used car salesman bravado is not working this time, for the big guy with the .44 Magnum holstered below his beer belly seems incapable of cracking a smile. Maybe, the fatso is suffering from indigestion, as middle aged guys with beer bellies are inclined to do. 

         Finally, after an uncomfortable few seconds, the man in the booth grins, and waves Charles over to him. Charles swaggers over to the man. His thin hips move just a bit too flamboyantly for these parts, and some of the others in the old café snicker behind him. Charles has no idea he is making an ass of himself.

         You’re Dirk, Dirk Tweed, Charles says, as he sits across from the man at the corner booth. So good to see you in person. 

         Likewise, Dirk says with a fake grin, but without offering up his big hand.

         Charles notes the slight. He is careful not to show the smallest indication of displeasure, though. He keeps his smile, and even follows up with a chuckle, which in this scenario makes him appear that much more an insincere dumbass.

         Made good time from Beverly, huh? Dirk inquires with false cheerfulness.

         Charles inhales deeply. He smiles like he truly loves whatever he smells.

         Gotta love the Great American Outdoors, Charles remarks with a twinkle in his eyes. Golly, you can smell freshness out here. It’s like, oh, I don’t know…

         Lysol, Dirk interjects.

         Lemon scented Lysol, Charles says. Yes, you’re so right. Everything way out here in the country feels so disinfected.

         Well, we country bumpkins do our best, Dirk says without missing a beat.

         I know, Charles continues, while he leans forward. That’s why I trust you will do your best to find my precious, little girl. 

         Dirk reaches inside his jacket and retrieves a folded photograph. He eyes Charles a moment, like he is mentally asking Charles whether this conversation should go forward from here. Seeing no hesitation in his slick counterpart, Dirk places the photograph upon the table and then slowly unfolds it. He shoves the photograph a bit closer to Charles. He studies Charles’ reaction all of this time.

         The photograph features sixteen-year-old Rachel Mudd. She is wearing a white, ruffled blouse and a pair of denim cut-offs, while she leans back against a white picket fence. She is refined and sexy; demure and mischievous; a living contradiction that hints at the self-assured and independent minded adult that she will be in another few years. Already, the teenaged girl in that photograph has matured beyond Charles’ manipulations. One may presume that she will be outgrowing soon enough whatever controls her own family still try to impose on her. Unshackled, she will be as much a lure as a menace. She will be loved and feared; a beautiful Siren that men sense may veil the twisted face of a Gorgon.

         She is a pretty, young lady, Dirk remarks. Sixteen years old.

         Sweet sixteen, yes, Charles agrees with an odd smirk on his face.

         Of course, Dirk says, and then drops his fake grin.

         Dirk looks down at the photograph. For a moment, his eyes are wistful, perhaps on the verge of shedding a single tear. He pulls back from the emotion, stares straight into Charles’ odd smirk, and proceeds to fold up the photograph.

         Well, it’s too bad I can’t help you, Dirk remarks.

         Dirk shoves the folded photograph back into his inner jacket pocket. His eyes remain glued on Charles. The temperature of the air between them seems to have fallen twenty degrees in the last few seconds.

         Charles is notably startled, but then he plasters on his insincere grin. He even tries to chuckle, though what emerges from his throat sounds like choking instead. Aware of how he actually sounds, Charles fights back the nervous lump in the back of his dried mouth. He would give anything for one of his Marlboros.

         You’re joking, right? Charles asks. Sort of like Candid Camera back in the day. You’re Alan Funt, but prettier, and I’m the rube…

         I’m no Alan Funt, Dirk interjects. But I’m pretty certain you’re the rube.

         Charles stops laughing. He folds his hands on his placemat, and he sighs. 

         Okay, Charles remarks with evident fear. What the fuck is going on here?

         Dirk grins again, but this time it is the kind that says ‘I gotcha.’ He leans forward and speaks in a low and conspiratorial tone. Charles unconsciously sits upright, like he is being scolded by someone with power and authority to do so.

         Well, Mr. Charles Waxman, surely you must have realized that, once you hired me, the first person I would investigate is you, Dirk explains.

         Charles blinks a few times, like he is trying to assimilate mentally what it really means for Dirk to have investigated him. Otherwise, he does not react.

         Even a dumb dick always finds out first if the paycheck is going to clear, Dirk goes on to say with his insidious ‘gotcha’ grin on his face. 

         Dumb Dick? Charles mutters, after he has cleared his throat a few times.

         Slang for private investigator, Dirk explains. I take it you’ve never read a John D. MacDonald novel.

         Well, I, um, Charles stammers…

         Doesn’t matter, Dirk interjects. What I found out about you does. I hear you lost your CPA license five years ago when you pleaded no contest to fraud…

         Not the same as guilty, Charles mutters…

         You have been sued twice for selling time shares to senile ladies on fixed incomes, Dirk continues.

         Those were five star Caribbean resorts, Charles states defensively. Well, before fucking El Niño…

         And, most relevant for our purpose here, you had your tube snapped way back in your twenties, Dirk continues like a lawyer laying out his case before an impaneled jury. I still don’t know how you got the VA to pay for the vasectomy.

         Post Traumatic Stress, Charles mutters.

         And you never adopted anyone, Dirk says.

         Charles folds his arms in front of his chest. His face pinches inward, like he has sucked on a lemon. He could be ashamed or frightened, except that the look in his eyes suggests irritation more than anything else. He is a cornered rat pissed at the unforeseen turn of events but not yet sure now how to fight back.

         So what are you saying? Charles hisses.

         When you refer to Rachel Mudd as your ‘precious, little girl,’ you have a different meaning than what her real father would have, Dirk says with disgust.

         Charles almost replies with another defensive remark, but then restrains himself. He thinks about what to say next. The cold silence is so tense as to be palpable. Just then, the two men literally want to rip out each others’ bowels, like a couple of old rats with blood on their fangs and raw hunger in their eyes.

         Well, okay, I fucked her, Charles says with the slightest hint of a deviant grin. About a half dozen times. But I never violated your fucking state statutory rape law. Sixteen is the age of consent around here.

         Depends upon how old she was when you first showed her what it means to be a woman, Dirk remarks.

         Charles drops the deviant grin. Because of his anger, his mouth twitches, like he has a bad nerve. His eyes look like they may burn their own sockets. He unfolds his arms, does not know what to do with them, and then folds them yet again in front of his puny chest.

         So you’re going to go to the cops, huh? Charles growls.

         Dirk laughs uproariously. He taps the table a few times, like it is a drum.

         I’m one step ahead, Dirk says as he starts to calm down.

         Dirk reaches back into his jacket. He retrieves his wallet from the inside pocket. He opens the wallet, and flashes Charles his police detective badge. He waits until he sees the pained recognition on Charles’ face, and then returns it.

         So I’m fucked, Charles mutters.

         Over the barrel, yes, but not fucked up the ass just yet, Dirk comments.

         Do you mind explaining? Charles asks.

         Dirk folds his big hands on his placemat. He speaks now in a ‘no bullshit’ voice, like he intends for Charles to hang onto each word like the Voice of God.

         We have been watching the Mudds for a while, Dirk explains. The father is a Jesus Freak kook. Makes the Branch Davidians in Waco look like a bunch of Quakers. 

         I’m not surprised, Charles mutters.

         No? Dirk asks with a raised eyebrow.

         Charles grins like a dirty, old man. He sees an especially sordid memory play out in his mind. Dirk sees how much Charles bathes in his own perversions, and he hates him all the more. Dirk clenches his fists and thinks of striking him.

         Rachel used to scream out Bible verses during orgasms, Charles remarks.

         Well, we really don’t care about the old man, Dirk says, after he relaxes his fists beneath the table. It’s the son we are watching. Did Rachel ever speak to you about her brother, Zachary?

         No, not that I can recall, Charles says after a moment of reflection. But to be honest, conversation was never my top priority with her.

         There is a brief lull in the conversation. Dirk returns his hands to the top of the table. He folds his large hands, and he stares intently into Charles’ eyes.

         Tell me, Mr. Waxman, Dirk says. Why do you care so much to see Rachel again that you have gone through the trouble and the expense of hiring a dumb dick like me? You wear nice suits, cologne, underwear. You can pick up an easy country girl any time you want.

         I reversed my vasectomy last year, Charles says.

         Dirk is notably taken aback. He pulls his tight collar away from his neck.

         Strange, Dirk remarks. I am pretty thorough when I conduct background checks, and I never uncovered that bit of news.

         I had the procedure done in Cuba on my dime, Charles says.

         Charles looks downward. His cheeks turn red. He is ashamed, and yet he feels compelled under the circumstances to come clean with this police officer.

         A friend convinced me that reversing the vasectomy would, um, help me with my size, Charles whispers. 

         Both men are embarrassed at that point. There is a moment of silence as they each squirm in their seats.

         Okay, you’re a certified horn dog, Dirk remarks with obvious disdain. But what does this have to do with your interest in finding Rachel?

         I have reason to believe that I impregnated her, Charles says coldly. And I want to convince her to have an abortion…

         Or see to it that a ‘miscarriage’ happens, Dirk interjects.

         Necessity is the bride of resourcefulness, Charles states with a sickening grin that very nearly pushes Dirk over the edge.

         How eloquent, Dirk snickers. Well, I guess we need each other, don’t we now? You want to speak to Rachel about the joys of motherhood, and we want to get up close and personal with her fuck nuts older brother. Kinda sexy how it all comes together; don’t you think? 

*   *   *

         Abram sits on the couch in the family room. He is chewing on the last of his chicken wings. He holds up his Winnie the Pooh paper plate, so that excess barbecue sauce drips onto the Pooh Bear’s honey pot rather than his traditional Amish trousers. He smacks his lips loudly while eating, since he read years ago that ‘eating with your mouth open’ had been considered good etiquette in the ‘olden days.’ Wives wearing white bonnets and living in covered wagons would swoon whenever they heard their husbands snorting and burping during supper.

         He is wearing a grungy T shirt that features a glass on the chest. It is not filled to the rim with whole milk, though. Rather, a leather bound King James’ Bible stands upright inside the glass. Printed under this image: Got Revelation?

         The family room is dark, but for the flashing lights emanating out of the Zenith television screen. On the screen is Walt Disney’s Fantasia. In particular, it is the last sequence entitled ‘Night on Bald Mountain.’ The Devil, Chernabog, summons evils spirits out from their graves. They follow him to Bald Mountain, where they dance and fly through the air without restraint. Nothing can deter them, but the tranquil sound of an Angelus bell at the break of dawn. That will occur eventually, if tonight Fantasia concludes like every other time Abram has seen the classic film. For now, though, the macabre shape shifting spirits seem to be forever unshackled from Hell. They are free to torment the darkest night.

         Ostensibly, Abram watches the film; but in fact, he focuses his bloodshot eyes upon the back of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah. She is kneeling too close to the television screen. As always, she has her long, blue shawl wrapped tightly about her head. Folding her hands before her heart, she comes across as if the Virgin Mary praying for Gabriel to speak to her from inside the animation.

         Sarah has her back to her father. Sarah sucks so ravenously on her thumb that Abram can hear the sucking sound. Abram imagines a penis pump in a dark back room somewhere. In his mind, his daughter squeezes the pump, turns her head to face him, and smiles like a two-bit whore seducing him to come hither.

         Abram sees Chernabog’s horns appear on the television screen as if they are coming out from Sarah’s head. He is taken aback by the illusion, and drops what is left of his last chicken wing onto his plate. He lowers his plate onto his lap, and reaches for the open beer can he had lodged earlier in between two of the couch cushions. By now, the beer is warm and stale. Nonetheless, he slurps it down as fast as he can; and he cannot recall the last time he felt so relieved.

         Book of Revelation, Abram comments, after setting aside the empty can. Angels blowing their trumpets. Breaking the Seven Seals. Eating the Good Book. Unleashing the Red Dragon. One last cartoon in the stars. Fantasia in IMAX 3D…

         Abram allows that Fantasia image to linger like a XXX hardcore memory.

         He then mimics the sound of an explosion (Ka-Boom!), rolls his eyes, and chuckles. It is like he has heard in his mind the punchline of a rather lewd joke. ‘Toilet Bowl Humor,’ his mother used to remark way back when, except the old toilet bowl is in the night sky nowadays. The angels flush the old toilet bowl, as soon as they have discharged angel dust from their bowels. The angel dust then transforms into splotches and swirls on the black night canvas. Shit stains in the eyes of the angels; profound hieroglyphics in our eyes; Abram alone among men in sensing that dark divine madness at the core of those messages from on high.

         Read the stars too long, and you’ll go blind, Abram mutters with a laugh.

         Abram returns his gaze to the back of Sarah’s head. She can feel his sick eyes strolling from the top to the bottom of her head. She pretends not to feel what she feels. It is better to be lost inside that magical cartoon on the screen.

         You like cartoons, Abram declares with a wry smile. You’re like thirteen going on six. Nothin’ wrong with that. ‘Suffer the little ones,’ the Lord tells us. The children, the midgets, all the ‘little ones’ we nearly fall over in our haste…

         Abram does not bother finishing his last thought. Instead, he stares ever longingly into the back of Sarah’s head. He leans forward, grabs another can of beer off of the floor, opens the lid, and gulps down as much as he can. He used to be able to swallow more beer in one gulp than he does just now. There is no surer sign that growing old is a bitch. It is that bitch that nags you to the grave.

         Do I love you enough? Abram asks.

         Sarah does not respond. She sucks on her thumb, and watches the shape shifting spirits dancing across the screen. 

         Don’t be a goddamned Jezebel Whore! Abram screams. Mind your father!

         Abram catches himself. He places the beer can upon the floor, before he spills more on his trousers. He feels his guilt rising and falling like a wave. He is exhausted and confused, like he is unsure even if he is inhabiting his own flesh.

         Come over here, girl, Abram says softly.

         Sarah turns around and faces her father. She still sucks her moist thumb.

         Don’t worry, Abram says with remorse. I’m not going to hurt you.

         Sarah hesitates. She cannot sense if her father is going to blow up again.

         He remains outwardly calm, and so she walks over to his side. While she still sucks her thumb, she looks at her father with the kind of big eyes we might identify with a girl half her age. Though very hard to see in the darkness, there is enough peach fuzz upon her cheeks to indicate she is far passed her bedtime.

         Abram gestures for Sarah to sit on his lap. He sets his paper plate and his beer can aside. Once more, Sarah waits in silence, before she takes the plunge.

         Stop sucking your thumb, Abram says with quiet authority.

         This last command breaks Sarah’s resistance. She slinks meekly onto his left leg. She rests her feet over his right knees. At first glance, she really could be a girl half her age cuddling up to her sick father.

         Sarah looks deeply into her father’s eyes. Her eyes are only inches from his, and yet at this moment she feels as distant from him as the sun from night. Still, she wraps her right arm around the back of his neck and rests her face on his left shoulder. Slowly, inconspicuously, he draws her ever closer to his heart.

         You know that I love you, right? Abram asks.

         Yes, father, Sarah whispers.

         And that I’d never do anything to hurt you, Abram continues. 

         Yes, father, Sarah repeats.

         The world out there is the Devil’s plaything, Abram explains. Setting the stage for the coming of the beast. Breaking down our moral resolve, so that we are as defenseless as rabbits in a trap. And when he comes it’ll be like Fantasia in the sky. Fantasia produced by Larry Flynt, not Walt Disney, Abram comments in a slow and delicate story time voice. 

         There is a moment of silence. Abram hugs his daughter with his left arm.

         Do you understand me? Abram asks.

         Sarah does not say a word. 

         Abram focuses his attention on the television set. His eyes seem to take in that dark and foreboding eternity that is just beyond the animation. The silly shape shifting spirits upon the screen cannot lift a candle to that darkest night.

         Such a strong and resourceful enemy demands even greater resilience on our part, Abram explains. Harsh measures. Horrible acts not condoned by those blind people out there who have no clue as to what awaits them. The blind can afford to have a weak moral code. The beast cares little for them. 

         Abram leans into his daughter. He whispers into her ear, like he is about to draw her into a dark conspiracy. There is a demonic sparkle in both his eyes.

         Though misunderstood, our moral code is strong, Abram continues. Ours will prevail on the darkest night. Our love will keep the beast from catching us.

         Abram lifts his face from Sarah’s ear. He stares at her with hungry eyes, like Wile E. Coyote finally getting up close and personal with that Road Runner that he has been chasing since God knows when. He licks his thin, chapped lips.

         The hunger passes. Abram smiles lovingly. He hugs his beloved yet again.

         Little one, never forget that what I do for you…with you…is a sincere act of love, Abram remarks. The kind of love that will save us…

         Father, you look tired, Sarah says.

         I am, Abram responds with a sigh.

         May I prepare a warm bath for you? Sarah asks. 

         That would be nice, Abram replies with a smile.

*   *   *

         The Mudd Family bathroom is little more than a large closet with an iron bucket full of cold water for the hands, another iron bucket full of shit and piss for the bowels, and an old fashioned, freestanding bathtub. The floor under the tub had been removed sometime ago. The smoldering logs within an earth hole never really heat the bath, so much as they prevent the water from getting any colder than lukewarm. There is a broken mirror on the wall facing the tub; and as a result, a person reclining in his suds can observe a monstrous distortion of his own face and chest. Add the flickering illumination from the candlelight off to the side, and the crimson red paint on the walls, and the mirror always gives off the impression of a hideous devil at play within a tub full of blood red soap.

         Abram sits upright in the bathtub. He is naked, though the soapy bubbles cover everything up to the white hairs upon his chest. He stares at his own sick reflection. The strange grin on his face suggests drunkenness, and yet the glint in his eyes indicates otherwise. Perhaps, he is one of those men in which a buzz actually increases mental acuity. Or perhaps, that is what he tells himself so as to justify gulping yet another warm beer while sitting nude in lukewarm water. Regardless, his right arm hangs over the side of the bathtub, and taps the open beer can covetously. Like a gunfighter in an old western town, he will be ready to draw his weapon of choice when another phantom disturbs the tranquil soap bubbles in his mind. He will drown unwanted thoughts beneath a wave of cheap brew. He will be conscious of nothing else, but Sarah’s fingers on his shoulders.

         Sarah kneels behind Abram’s head. She massages soap into his shoulders.

         You seem more relaxed now, father, Sarah remarks.

         I am, Abram remarks with his sleepy grin in tow. 

         Am I behaving like a godly girl? Sarah asks.

         Yes, Abram whispers contentedly. 

         How can you tell? Sarah asks.  

         There is a moment of silence, while Abram considers the question. Sarah massages Abram’s hard neck and shoulders with her little girl hands. The flame on the candle casts disturbing shadows on both their faces, so that they appear at times to be shape shifters themselves.

         Because there’s no trace of Jezebel in your touch, Abram answers.

         Sarah grabs a handful of bubbly soap suds, and kneads her father’s white hair. Abram is in the lap of luxury right now. He grins like he has rediscovered in his old age what an orgasm is, though he cannot tell if he is stiff down there.

         Do you remember how you asked me if you loved me enough? Sarah asks.

         Yes, Abram replies. It is a question I ask myself every time I think of you.

         Zachary loves me, Sarah says with a subtle grin that is as much devious, as it is beautiful and wistful. He holds me. He promises that he will protect me.

         Abram is alarmed, but he is also too drunk to get too animated with the surge of hatred and fear that he feels then in his heart. At most, his expression suggests a two-year-old about to bawl big time over an overturned cereal bowl.

         Abram does not bawl, though. He does not even raise his voice.

         He told you that? Abram asks.

         Yes, Sarah whispers wistfully.

         And you believe him? Abram asks.

         Yes, Sarah whispers as before. 

         Do you think that he loves you enough? Abram asks.

         Sarah smiles, like she is about to let Abram in on a secret. She glances at the mirror, and sees two demons reflected back at them. Her grin hardens into something a little less girly girl. It is like Sarah ages years in a moment of time.

         I don’t know, Sarah answers.

         Do you think he loves you like I love you? Abram asks.

         Sarah bends forward, and hugs Abram’s chest from behind. She hugs him the same way Zachary had hugged her that night her sister died. She embraces him with evident warmth and affection, and Abram tilts his grey face into hers.

         No, father, Sarah answers. No one is ever going to love me like you do.

         Abram picks up the can of beer. He drinks what remains, and tosses the dead soldier into the bathtub. He smiles broadly. The hatred and the fear have subsided from his heart, at least for the moment. 

         Contented, Abram leans deeper into Sarah’s chest. Together, father and daughter, they stare at the sick ghouls reflected back to them from the mirror. The ghouls sift in and out of candlelight, while untold numbers of stars pinprick the night sky outside. Everywhere, light casts discordant ripples upon the mind.

         Confusion, moral weakness, while the beast approaches in the darkness…

*   *   *

         While Abram and Sarah look at themselves in the broken mirror, Zachary pushes aside a low hanging branch with his right hand. He holds his gas burning lantern in his other hand. He lifts the flame to the side of his face, so that he is able to observe further down the narrow path. This is where the dark trees and the thorny bushes start to clump much closer together. The path will be lost if he is not diligent in separating out one tree from another inside the illuminated mist. It takes only a few wrong steps this late at night for the sojourner to find himself lost in a twisted, greying forest; nothing but danger lurking in shadows; his inner compass no longer accurate enough to guide him back to the old path.

         Zachary steps passed the low hanging branch. He hears that same branch snapping back into place behind him. It is the sound of a whip spanking leather.

         The wind had been a steady hum since he wandered away from the dark cabin a couple of hours ago. Now, it picks up in strength at the same time that it separates into an untold number of voiced, elongated vowels swooshing upon him apparently from all directions. Something about this graveyard, this dreary maze of burnt trees and exfoliated shrubs, twists and darkens those wind tones into wolflike howls. The spirits come alive, where the flesh suffers. Like hungry wolves, the spirits scavenge off of the weak, the irresolute, the confused. With his lantern swaying beside his face, Zachary wonders if he is strong enough now to be out here. Or perhaps, like the men of old who pursued the Siren’s call, he knows damn well that he is not up to the task and is actually looking forward to that final moment. Perhaps, like an old dog, he is wandering away to die alone.

As he continues to walk deeper into the forest, he first senses, and then observes, that he is wandering through a knee high soup of moonlit fog. Except for a few ripples here and there, all that wind howling in his ears seems now to have no effect on that silvery blue fog so close to the earth. It is as if the earth has wrapped an unseen ribbon about the fog, so that the fog can be the shroud that covers over Mother Earth’s dead bosom. Indeed, the fog holds steady, as it also obscures. It preserves, as it also confuses. It has the cold and clammy feel of a corpse, and yet it is also a kind of menstrual flow seeding every inch of the earth with its own death life. Zachary cannot imagine what form that death life may assume; but he senses that it is ravenous, crazed, murderous, conceived in this peculiar fog womb, and hungry for the blood and the soul of the innocents.

Hungry for the blood and the soul of the innocents, Zachary mutters with disgust. Sounds like something my father would say after a few too many beers.

And yet the chill down his spine reminds him that he cannot disavow his father’s mindset, not totally, not when the dark night upsets his nerves just so. There is a world beyond reason, undeterred by his stoic resolve, unmoved even by his determination to do what is right when everything else is wrong. As he is wandering further into this forest, this dark, irrational, monstrous world seems to be more real than the world from which he came. His father’s mindset, mad and self-destructive as it may be, seems to fit this world beyond reason better than his approach. Out here, the only recourse is to dance naked about the fire or to string up a gift to the god on high. Out here, the only salvation is insanity.

Zachary tries not to focus his eyes on the fog. It is scary enough being in this haunted forest without observing as well how the moonlight bleeds through the silvery blue fog. The diffracted moonlight suggests to his irrational mind an evil, illuminated force sifting in and out of the trees. Reason whispers that this dark energy, or malevolent force, or boogeyman, or however Zachary identifies it in his mind at any given time, is nothing more than the chill in his spine. It is a projection of his fears, maybe even his suicidal self-loathing; the mental and emotional dreck that he brings with him into this horrible place. 

The problem is that reason whispers much too quietly for a place marked by wolf howls and disorienting moonlight. Her wise counsel is no match for how his skin crawls, how an unseen bird suddenly shrieks and takes flight, or how an anxious scream off in the distance portends the imminent death of a small and defenseless beast. There is danger in every direction. The entire forest feels as if a predator lashing out from within many shadows at once. Even the foul mud hidden beneath the fog feels more like flesh than mulch; unseen fingers in the soupy marsh clawing and pinching at Zachary’s ankles; unseen feet tripping him whenever he picks up his tired pace. Assaulted mentally and physically from all sides, it is a wonder Zachary is not now a drooling, blithering idiot cowering for the duration of this night in a hole somewhere. 

Zachary wanders into a cloud of mist that temporarily blinds him. He can hear his gas powered lantern creaking beside his left eye. The rhythmic sway of the lantern is like a devil’s metronome. The creaking handle keeps time, while all other sounds come and go randomly. It is the beat, and chaos is the melody.

The mist does not dissipate, so much as Zachary’s eyes get used to it. In that way, he manages to see the charred gallows from which Rachel now hangs, just before he passes the gruesome landmark. He senses that if he had passed it, and had wandered into that burnt forest up yonder, he would have passed a point of no return. Something out there would have grabbed a hold of him, and the final traces of light would have been ripped out from his life and devoured.

Zachary holds the lantern above his head, so that he can see how Rachel swings in the wind. Her rope creaks loudly, no doubt tearing a bit every time it sways from side to side, and yet it looks thick enough to remain up there for as long as necessary. Rachel will be devoured by the beast; or her corpse will slide through the noose; but the rope will remain up there, sturdy and defiant twine looped over a tree limb and tied to a root. The rope will remain a sign of what crazed and perverse superstition takes hold when the darkest night draws nigh.

Notwithstanding the thick fog, Zachary can see what looks like tiny baby parts scattered about the ground beneath Rachel’s bare, purple feet. The beast has torn apart the stillborn, it seems.

And that is when Zachary loses his nerve altogether. He falls to his knees and drops his lantern off to the side. His tears gush out from his eyes like water from a faucet. He wails like a maimed beast while striking the earth with a fist.

Though consumed by his sadness, he hears something that at once kicks him out of his own doldrums. It is a cry in the wind unlike any of the others. He sits up on his knees, wipes off his tears, and listens for that cry to be repeated.

He hears it again. It turns out not to be a cry in the wind, so much as an actual word. He grabs at his chilled heart, for he intuits what the word really is before he makes sense of it in his rational mind. 

The forest wind calls out to him a third time: “Zaaa-chary.”

He picks up his lantern, and returns to his feet. He turns his head every which way in search of the source. He sees nothing at all, but burnt trees with spindly limbs sifting in and out of the mist. Nothing seems to be alive out here, let alone capable of calling out his name; and yet, try as he may, he is not able to doubt what he heard. He cannot forget it, nor pretend it had been a kind of mental hiccup. Though everything about this experience defies reason, he feels all too well just how real it is. Out here, madness is real, and reason is illusory.

The forest wind calls out to him again: “Love.”

Zachary staggers backward. The lump in his throat silences him. His eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. His lips tremble, like he is trying in vain to grab one or two of the words to a desperate prayer. Even that much eludes him, and so he is totally adrift in his horrid fears; no more than prey before its predator.

The forest wind calls out to him again: “Yooou.”

Zachary finally screams. He turns on his heels, and breaks into an all out run. He swings his lantern wildly by his left side. Several times, he almost burns his shirt with the lantern flame; but he does not notice. His mind focuses in on one idea only, which he mouths over and over: Get Away! Get Away! Get Away!

The forest wind combines together the words: “Zaaa-chary Love Yooou.”      

Zachary looks over his right shoulder. Does he glimpse now a dark human form stepping out from the mist? Or is that his own madness coming to get him?

*   *   *

         Zachary cannot remember when he stopped running through the howling darkness. In a way, he is running now, even though his steps are haphazard and slow. His mind is no longer screaming at him; but if he listens carefully enough, he can hear a persistent whisper. The inner voice reminds him of a man so near to his son’s ear that he kisses it every time he speaks. The man can see how his son is frightened, and so he sings him a lullaby. The lullaby is a whimsical tune, like something out of a cartoon. The lyrics are two words sung over and over in various beautiful melodies, until the son dies: Get Away. Get Away. Get Away…

         Nor does Zachary remember when the lantern flame went out. He thinks that he stumbled face first into the mud once or twice. Maybe, the impact with the ground snuffed out the fire. Regardless, though he dangles the lantern next to his left leg, he sees only with the aid of moonlight. This moonlight casts over the world a silvery grey shroud, so that even when he walks out of the haunted forest he identifies the night sky above as the inner lining of a pricked balloon. The balloon is closing in on him, imperceptibly slowly still, and yet a bit faster with every passing second. He is trapped inside, and like anything trapped he is comforted on his journey by this one thought: Get Away. Get Away. Get Away…

         He stares at his feet a while. He does not need to look ahead. He senses deep down the direction of his home. It is that place furthest from the simple, straightforward joys he had known in his childhood; a cabin purified in its own remoteness into something harsh, dark, hidden away from all those sinners out there. It is that place where even love is strangled at an altar of righteousness. 

         Zachary sees a rectangular beam of light on the dead, flat earth. He has no desire to look up. Frankly, he is not sure that he has enough strength left in his neck and his shoulders to do so. He is on the verge of delirium; for as much as his exhaustion wants to slow him down to a crawl, his fear and his confusion inspire a near manic desire to escape, to get wasted on beer, to fire off several rounds. He wants to sleep, and yet he also senses that sleep will evade him this long and tortured night no matter what he does. 

         So as much as he has no desire to look up, and questions even his ability to do so, that is exactly what he does. He sees the front door to his cabin open. Light spills out from a lantern inside the kitchen. 

         Abram stands in the doorway. He staggers out to the porch, senses he is too drunk to stand on his own feet, and so turns back to the doorway. He leans upon the left doorpost; the one that the Kabbalah associates with divine anger. Whether or not Abram is aware of that association, he has the snarling face and the piercing eyes of a despot. ‘Pissed off drunk’ is not sufficiently over the top. For Abram to do justice to this occasion, he must be a crazed demon, a sadistic version of one of those dancing devils from the last reel of Fantasia.

         Abram is naked, and yet he does not now seem to be that way. He seems instead to be clothed by that reddish lantern light beaming outside from behind him. He clutches a can of beer in his right hand. In a way, that can of beer also seems to clothe him. His white hair moves restlessly within the late night wind, like the illuminated flames of a bonfire slithering out from an odd shaped head.

         What have you been up to, boy? Abram asks in a low and sinister voice.

         Nothing, father, Zachary states, while shifting on his heels like a child.

         Bullshit, Abram snaps. You’ve been out there messing around.

         With the dead? Zachary scoffs.

         Though Zachary is no longer the nervous, little boy, at best he is just an adolescent rebel talking back to his old man. He cannot seem to muster even a bit of that stoic calmness that he identifies with adulthood. Several hours ago, he had wandered out to the forest a troubled man. Now, he is an adolescent on the verge of tears or fisticuffs. He drops the lantern to his side, and he rolls his hands into fists. He sees his father’s devil face and imagines ramming into him.

         Wouldn’t put it passed you, Abram snaps. End Times bring out the worst. Sodom and Gomorrah. San Francisco.

         Child lovers, baby killers, I know, I know, Zachary scoffs. I have heard it all before. Same fucking bat time. Same fucking bat channel…

         Don’t you go there, boy! Abram screams with holy rage.

         Not going anywhere we haven’t already been, Zachary remarks, while he holds up his hands. Yours are as blood soaked as mine, father, so why don’t you get off of your high horse? For Christ’s sake…

         You’re speaking the words of a whore! Abram interjects. You’re Jezebel, but with a cock in between your legs.

         Zachary storms to the back of the cabin. Abram watches him go that way until he can no longer see him. Abram finishes off his can of beer. He tosses his empty can into the darkness beyond his porch. 

         Zachary returns a moment later. He is walking his Harley Davidson by his side. He stops in front of the porch and glares defiantly at his drunk ass father. He grips hard the motorcycle handlebars. He forces back a wanton, girlish tear.

         Neither person knows what to say to the other, as a mighty gust of wind all of a sudden comes out from nowhere and kicks up the dirt in between them. The wind blows aside some of the tension. What remains is a lingering sadness; a reminder that their stiff backs and harsh words mean nothing to the old gods.

         I’m going into town, Zachary says. Gonna drink this night away.

         Don’t go, son! Abram pleads without even a hint of mischief in his voice. 

         Zachary is taken aback. It is like his real father, the man lost to the past so many years ago, is breaking through all the intellectual and moral clutter of who he is now. His real father does not want him to leave. His real father does not want to lose his son to the madness. 

         Not tonight, Abram continues softly. The beast is getting closer…

         My real father is not afraid of a fucking boogeyman; Zachary thinks with as much sadness as disdain. About the only ‘beast’ he knows is a tax audit; and when that occurs, his witchdoctor is a Jew accountant with a matching Ferrari.

         And yet, deep down, Zachary knows that he is no better. He has no idea what really happened in the forest earlier this evening. What he knows for sure is that he responded about the same way a caveman would have responded to a devil. Scratch the surface of civilization, and you will smell superstitious dread.

         Zachary sits on the motorcycle. He revs up the engine. 

         I thought we just fed him the hors d’oeuvres, Zachary scoffs. He cannot be ready for supper this soon.

         Don’t go, son! Abram pleads.

         Zachary rides away. His Harley kicks back a cloud of dust. The screaming winds break up the cloud soon enough. Even so, Zachary is long gone when the dust clears, like that ghost rider observed, then lost again, in a blink of an eye. 

         The winds settle back into the black earth. There is a deafening silence.

         Confused and scared, Abram cannot deny that he is losing control of his family. He senses just how vulnerable they are to the beast; for in the end, the beast thrives on moral weakness more than anything else. What greater sign of moral weakness is there than a son disobeying his father, and a father allowing his son to get away with that nonsense? Does not the Good Book say, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’ or something along those lines? Perhaps, although crippled by his fear, it is time now for Abram to take his rod in hand and to be the man.

         With that thought in mind, Abram steps back inside and closes the door.

*   *   *

         Zachary roars down the two-lane highway. The dark asphalt beneath his tires snakes through a dense forest. Burnt trees stoop over the road, like crones leering at the small creatures running in between their spindly legs. There is an insidious cackle in the wind; a strange laugh intended to veil the aching hunger beneath the surface. Now and then, mist falls to the ground; but the thick spit calls to mind the drool of an old lady with one last supper on her fevered mind.

         Zachary drives as fast as he can without losing control of his motorcycle. He senses the edge, but does not cross it, or so he believes. His irrational mind tells him that the trees will snap him off of his wheels and eat him whole, if he does not rocket into the night. Thus far, he is faster than the witches; and yet, deep down, he feels that they are so near to his heels they will stumble into his back if he lets up on the acceleration. 

         Though he knows that the most recent forest fire swept over these trees years before he and the rest of the Mudds wandered into this dark country, his peripheral vision whispers something altogether different. This whisper can be heard over the roar of his Harley Davidson. The message is clear, even if totally irrational: The forest fire is happening still. Flames crackle up from the mud. If he stops his forward motion, the flames will get him before the witches; and he will be indistinguishable from the ashes swept up by the wind. Indeed, although his rational mind tries to tell him that that is only the smoke spitting out of his exhaust pipe, he senses the soot of a burning forest fire. He realizes he will not see a forest fire, if he faces the trees head on; but in his peripheral vision, that fire is very real. It is getting closer to him with every passing second. Long ago, before he had been conceived, it had judged him a sinner; and so it intends to burn him alive. 

         Zachary turns a corner. He almost smashes into the face of a red dragon, or so his imagination tells him when he swerves to the side in time. In fact, the face cannot be seen in the darkness. Only the glowing red eyes, monstrous and cartoonish, indicate that he came to within inches of being snagged by that old demon on the run. In his mind’s eye, he views the surly, winged, fire breathing beast taking his flesh and soul into itself. There is unimaginable pain, and then there is what? The peace of a ghost lost forever in a kind of starless limbo? Or a lingering despair even death cannot erase? In that split second, he senses in his adrenaline rush that death is not a gateway to a new life, so much as death is a continued awareness of being dead. It is not being able to awaken and knowing that you are not able to awaken. It is a moment of fear followed at once by an everlasting madness. It is the beast, and it is catching up to him like a starving, single minded predator on the hunt. An enemy sifting in and out of his dreams…

         Zachary glances over his right shoulder. The red dragon now is coming up from behind him. Over the roar of his own engine, he hears the dragon scream. It is a petulant wail. It is the sound an adolescent girl makes when she has been penetrated for the first time; ear piercing, breath stealing, followed at once by her fingernails digging into the man’s naked back. 

         Zachary looks forward in time to take a sharp turn in the road. Although he nearly falls off of his Harley, he does not slow down even for a moment. The red dragon is getting closer with every passing second. He can hear that wail in his head, like those fingernails are digging into his muscles and veins. There is a warm sensation suddenly on his back. It is the red dragon’s snort, surely; but in his mind just then, it is the blood sliding down his back because of those sharp, penetrating fingernails. The teenaged queen in between his legs appears intent on making him scream in pain as much as she is now. He may have smashed her pussy, but she is smashing his soul. Love, fevered rush, stabbing them both into bloodied, screaming, teary eyed beasts…

         The Harley kicks out from under him. It is a bucking bronco ready to put the cowboy’s face in the asphalt. Can an insidious chuckle be heard in the loud roar of the Harley, as the black tires go one way, and the cowboy goes another?

         Zachary tumbles head over heels down the middle of the highway. There is electrical pain spurting out from every one of his nerves, and yet he does not notice it. Instead, he grabs onto the one sensation that then manages to break through his mental defenses. It is the smell of blood, menstrual flow, a squishy, waterlogged, stillborn baby. That same blood squirts out from his own wounds.

         Before he stops tumbling down the road, Zachary loses consciousness. He sees the stars closing in on him. He feels the universe pressing down on his face and chest. The beast clamps his thighs together, holds down his shoulders, and thrusts into his ass. Zachary is about to yell, when the blackness consumes him.

*   *   *

         Zachary hears that petulant wail again. This time, as he awakens slowly from the blackness, a voice in his head tells him that indeed it is a police siren. He sways his head from side to side in disagreement. No, he thinks, that is the scream of a red dragon; a demon with glowing red eyes ready to eat me whole.

         He hears something grinding to a halt in the asphalt no more than a few feet away. Again, that rational voice in his head tries to tell him that those are tires. Does he not smell burning rubber? Is that not a combustible engine idling?

         Goddamn it, no! Zachary thinks with greater urgency. That is not a black and white. That is a red dragon; a beast that drools hot oil, while it stands over my flesh; a winged monster about to rip out my heart and throw it to the trees.

         He hears a car door open. He hears the beeping sound of a door that has been left open, while the engine is idling. Heavy heels crunch into the asphalt. Polished leather squeaks, as a man apparently steps out from behind the wheel and marches slowly, robotically, passed the hood. Is that the clinking sound of a pair of handcuffs? Is that the hollow thud of a billy club tapping the side of an iron hard thigh? Moreover, how is it that Zachary hears these sounds so acutely, when the wind screams holy hell into his ears and kicks asphalt onto his tongue?

         Are these sensations figments of his own imagination? Is this all a dream?

         Zachary forces his eyes to reopen. His eyelids feel as if glued to his skin.

         A thin, muscular, Hispanic man stands over his face. The man is clothed from chin to toes in a one-piece leather outfit straight out of a BDSM catalog. A pair of handcuffs and a billy club indeed hang from his black belt, but they are minor accessories when compared to his oversized, shiny, black codpiece. With growing trepidation, Zachary imagines black, foamy piss squirting out from that codpiece and splashing onto his face. Indeed, the codpiece appears to pulsate, like when a restless cock is about to ejaculate or to pee what is pent up inside.

         The man rests his hands on his hips. Zachary senses how quickly the man can grab for his billy club, if the man feels a need to do so. That is frightening, to be sure; but much worse is the fact that Zachary senses not even a smidgeon of moral restraint. Just look at how the man glowers at him. Look at his small, pointed beard. It is a devil’s beard; and it hangs off of a narrow, dark face that had been sculpted for villainy. As if to punctuate this hellish look, the man now bathes in the glowing red headlights of his police car (no, remember, that is no police car; that is a red dragon escaped from the bowels of hell). The red glow makes it seem as if there is fire in his veins. The wind kicks up smoldering road asphalt, but it could be just as well sparks snapping out from inside his leather.

         Hi, Zachary, the man says with a devilish grin. 

         Good evening, officer, Zachary barely whispers.

         The man drops his grin at once. His eyes seethe with mad anger. Zachary thinks he sees red hot coals in place of pupils, but what disturbs him even more just then is how the man licks his lips. 

         That’s ‘Angel’ to you, the man snaps back. Officer Angel Muerte.

         Yes, sir, Zachary manages to cough out from his clenched throat.

         Yes, sir, what? Angel asks.

         Yes, sir, Angel, Zachary whispers.

         Angel stares down at Zachary. His silence is menacing, and Zachary feels like the devil man above him is trying to figure out which of his arteries to tear out from beneath his skin first. The tension breaks when finally Angel chuckles, though the man’s guttural laughter is as insidious as everything else about him.

         I’m just messing with you, white boy, Angel snickers. 

         Zachary manages to sit up on his elbows. He clenches his eyes, when the world spins several times on a tilted axis. Still, notwithstanding a sudden punch of nausea, he does not vomit the bile in his stomach. He takes in a few deeper breaths, opens his eyes again, and sees that the black world around him is still.

         That is not much consolation, given what he senses then in Angel’s eyes.

         Angel is rubbing his codpiece. He smacks his lips; like whatever he views in his mind’s eye just then is finger licking good. None of that compares then to the demented look in his eyes, though. In his eyes is a stony cold, raw, debased hunger to do him harm. Angel desires to hurt him simply for the sake of hurting him. Nothing else accounts for this motivation but the darkest kind of madness.

         Seeing the fear in Zachary’s eyes just then, Angel bends forward, grabs a hold of Zachary’s arms, and yanks him up from the black road. Zachary’s knees wobble, and so Angel holds him up at arms’ length until the world is still again.

         Zachary feels the cobwebs literally floating out from his mind. Although he remains as frightened as earlier, he is now also aware of his intense pain. All those wounds he suffered when tumbling down the road at once scream at him.

         A clear choice appears in his mind. He can succumb to the pain by crying out, falling to the ground, and crouching into the fetal position. Or he can stay on his feet, outwardly impervious, his face a chiseled mask of hate. He thinks a moment about holding Rachel’s hand, when the blood started to gush out from her womb. He had had to be strong for her. He must be as strong for Sarah now and in the future. Choosing to be strong for her is the one moral choice that he can make so close to the end. As such, he tenses his lips, and stares passed the demon man in leather, even though he knows that that will result in more pain.

         So can I go now? Zachary asks without even a hint of fear in his voice.

         Taken aback, Angel releases Zachary, and steps back. He licks his lips as usual, but the disgusted look on his face suggests that he tastes something bad. He crosses his arms before his chest. His eyes sparkle in the fire red headlights.

         Hand me your license, registration, and passport, asshole, Angel orders.

         Passport? Zachary asks incredulously.

         Yes, passport, Angel responds. You need help with English, puta?

         What did you call me? Zachary asks, while also clenching his fists.

         A puta, Angel responds. A fucking whore.

         Zachary thinks about Rachel. He sees the frightened look on her face, as the blood gushes out from in between her legs. He feels her small hands clench into his with unexpected strength. He hears her scream from inside her bowels.

         Angel steps forward. He and Zachary are so close that they almost touch one another. Zachary senses the heat of a hissing, crackling bonfire surging out from Angel’s shiny leather. 

         And because you’re a fucking little whore, you need permission from me to ride your scooter down this road, Angel says with a vicious grin and a glow in his eyes. We call that permission a ‘passport.’ 

         Angel grabs a hold of Zachary’s lapel. He shoves his face into Zachary’s, so that the two men are practically kissing one another. Zachary seethes with a nearly uncontrollable anger, and yet he is careful to do nothing more now than to open and to shut his fists in sync with his rapid heart.

         So repeat the word after me, Angel says condescendingly. Paaas-Pooort.

         Zachary does not say a word. He continues to stare into his dark eternity with an expression that could be grim resignation or resolute defiance. There is a gust of wind suddenly that cackles like a deranged witch and kicks hot specks of filthy asphalt into his face. He does not flinch. He does not even shed a tear.

         Come on, white boy, try it, Angel continues, while widening his grin into a clownish mask. You need to learn English, if you want to remain around here.

         Passport, Zachary mutters.

         Good, Angel says. So where is it, mi puta?

         With a glint of mischief in his eyes, Zachary reaches into his front pants pocket and retrieves a one-dollar bill. Angel steps back to observe better what Zachary is doing. 

         Here is my fucking passport, Zachary says, while handing Angel his filthy, wrinkled, George Washington note. Can I go now?  

         Incensed, Angel throws the money onto the road. He then slaps Zachary with the back of his gloved, right hand. Zachary feels the intense pain but does not wince. The adversaries stare long at one other like old western gunfighters.

         Listen, white boy, Angel snarls. You and your creepy family are not from around here. Didn’t go to our school. Don’t go to our church. Just don’t belong. That makes you the fucking spic around here, not me. 

         What do you want? Zachary asks.

         I want you to know your place, Angel responds.

         Angel waves toward the red dragon behind Zachary. Following this lead, Zachary half turns, so that he can face the idling creature snorting fire from its mouth and farting fumes from its rear. The dragon crouches low to the ground. It could be a police car actually with its back arched upwards and with the rest of its iron flesh just about hugging the asphalt. The pulsing rock that it carries upon its back calls to mind a creature in Dante’s Inferno forced into eternity to haul about a burning torch; but, then again, it may be simply a siren. The long, sharp teeth jutting outward from inside its mouth may be a grille placed over a fender. The glowing, red eyes may be tinted headlights. Zachary cannot decide between ‘red dragon’ and ‘police car,’ in part because the iron flesh is nothing more than a vague, black form holding up a pair of radiant eyes. Howling winds kicking up asphalt obscure the iron flesh behind shapeless soot clouds. The way that iron flesh sifts in and out of that cloud calls to mind a shape shifter within a dark dream. Perhaps, it is both a dragon and an automobile; a kind of strange twilight between the real and the surreal. Perhaps, it is a cartoon come to life.

         A tall, bulky, Hispanic dumb ass waddles out from the passenger side. He leaves his door open, just as Angel had done before, and the beeping sound can be heard as if a whispered heartbeat in the wind. The eyes appear to glow that much more ferociously as the man crosses the headlight beams and stands next to his partner. 

         Unlike the crisp and disciplined Angel, this man appears like an unkempt heart attack waiting to happen. His wild, long, black hair seems at first to be a collection of snakes slithering out from his big skull. The snakes snap within the wind as if pythons taking bites out of unseen prey. His face is hideous, scarred, jowly. His five o’clock shadows suggest a man who has not had a date with soap in eons. Beneath his huge neck is a pudgy torso only partially clothed by a huge Woody Woodpecker T-Shirt (Woody’s beaked head over the slogan ‘Got Wood?’) and a pair of loose fitting jeans. His jeans snap in the wind like old denim sails.

         The man folds his arms before his chest, and stares stupidly at Zachary. He is very menacing in large part since his manner and his size suggest a person capable of considerable brute violence without much, if anything, in the way of moral restraint. He is clearly the follower, the instrument of war, Angel’s more demonic version of Lenny from Of Mice and Men

         The big man farts. That seems to be the cue for Angel to speak up again.

         This is my younger brother, Serafina, Angel remarks with a twisted grin.

         Serafina? Zachary asks incredulously.

         Mi madre thought she was going to have a little girl, Angel explains. You never can tell for sure what is going to pop out.

         Zachary thinks about the stillborn ‘popping out’ of Rachel’s dead womb. Though he continues to stare stoically at his two tormentors, he cannot prevent a single tear from sliding down his face and off of his chin. He clenches his fists perhaps in an unconscious effort to hide that tear from them and from himself. The thought occurs to him that life is a series of hiding maneuvers, deflections, obfuscations, until there are no more shadows remaining in which to be veiled. Life is escaping from the beast until the one time the beast devours him whole.

         Notwithstanding Zachary’s effort to deflect attention from his one tear, Angel apparently sees the sadness beneath his stoicism. Angel grins like the old Cheshire cat. Serafina follows Angel’s lead, and smiles as well, though the look in the big man’s eyes suggests he does not have a clue what is so fucking funny.

         Did I say something sweet? Angel gloats. You’re crying like a fucking girl.

         Zachary does not respond, though he can feel his prior fears bobbing up to the surface like corpses released from underwater graves. He hates this sick, trembling vulnerability more than anything else.

         Angel snaps Serafina’s chest with the back of his right hand. He gestures toward Zachary like a crazed bully pointing out the weakling on the schoolyard.

         Goddamn puta is a faggot, too, Angel teases.

         Serafina grins sinisterly. This time, there is some level of comprehension in his eyes; and so Serafina’s eyes seem more predatory than lazy. He does not know what will be next, but he does know that whatever it is he will be better prepared for the bruises and the blood than that horrified man in his crosshairs.

         Angel pats Serafina. He does so without ever looking away from Zachary.

         Come on, bro, let’s party, Angel comments cryptically then. 

         Serafina snorts like a bull about to be released from its pen.

         Now worried for his life, Zachary looks around frantically until finally he sees his motorcycle lying on the road behind the red dragon. He knows that he is in no physical condition to run. Indeed, he senses that it would not take very much at all for his knees to give out entirely. Time is short, though, for the odd look in the big man’s eyes suggests the homicidal violence beneath the surface.

         Zachary bolts for the motorcycle. He only manages to run a few steps in that general direction before he starts to limp. The throbbing pain in his knees is much worse than anticipated. Moreover, the trees in his line of vision start to spin again. It is as if his body is conspiring with nature to keep him where he is.

         Angel nods at his brother. Serafina runs into Zachary’s path, and crosses his arms before his chest. The dumb grin on his face tells Zachary that he is not going anywhere at that moment without somehow pummeling through his belly.

         Zachary stops. He steps backward, while looking fearfully at the big man in his path. He glances back at Angel and sees the maniacal Cheshire cat smile.

         You’re not going for a ride, faggot, Angel teases. Not without a passport.

         Zachary darts his eyes from Angel to Serafina. He has no idea which one will strike first. He imagines being split open and observing a stillborn baby pop out from his stomach. The stillborn falls to the filthy asphalt and looks back up at him with its big dead eyes, while blood geysers out from his opened wounds.

         Put your hands behind your head, Angel orders.

         Zachary is so consumed with the dreadful image in his mind that at first he does not hear the command. Something deep in his mind advises him that it would be best right now to put his hands behind his head. Better to be arrested for no good reason than to be ripped open by a rusted hook or devoured whole.

         Zachary puts his hands behind his head. He stands alone in the middle of the road, while wind kicks asphalt into his bruised face. He tenses his lips, and he tries to remain as stoic as ever. His knees wobble, nevertheless, either from pain or from fear. He tries then to put that fact out of his mind, but he cannot.

         Go back, and get the rope, Angel orders his brother.

         Serafina waddles back to the red dragon. Zachary catches the big man in the corner of his right eye glowing briefly in the dragon’s eyes. A whisper deep in his mind reminds him that those are headlights, but he simply cannot believe that something so normal as a police car with tinted headlights can be found so close to Hell. No, the red dragon seems much more probable, especially when a glance at the forest suggests a collage of gnarled and hideous witches only now pretending to be trees. It is like he has stepped out of his normal world. He is a man bloodied and bruised in a surreal dreamscape between reality and fantasy.

         Or maybe he is just a young man on a country highway being accosted by a bad cop. This Hispanic devil in leather may not be central casting for a ‘good ol’ boy’ country cop, and yet this leather stud and his fatso brother indeed are enforcing what amounts to law out here after dark. Even Hell maintains its own strange order, so we may expect the same when roaring down the Road to Hell.

         Serafina returns with a long rope, which he hangs over his shoulders in a way that suggests a priest’s stole. The perverse glint in the big man’s eyes now suggests a priest who has dipped into the sour sacramental wine way too often.

         Serafina looks to Angel for approval. Angel responds with a devious grin, and a nod. Serafina smiles back at him like he has never before been so elated.

         Okay, Angel says after licking his lips again. Into the woods, faggot.

         Serafina prods Zachary forward. Zachary sees the forest in front of him. It looks like a huge mouth with trees as teeth. The mouth is open wide to take him body and soul. There is a crazed chuckle in the air, as the wind strikes him hard against his macabre face. The crazed chuckle persists in his imagination a long time after that wind subsides, and so he fears he will hear it unto the end.

*   *   *

         Zachary steps off of the road and into the forest. At once, he senses that he is in a black, mystical place, a gruesome nightmare where the winds scream like adolescent girls in labor and where leafless tree limbs snap at nubile flesh. Everything about this place is mad, perverse, an ugly expression of what occurs over time to a soul unrepentant in her sins. Moonlight shines through the trees, like the many eyes of a Peeping Tom looking for something weak and blemished to exploit. There is no fog in this part of the forest. The fog appears connected somehow to the tree from which Rachel’s purplish, naked corpse still hangs for the beast to see. Still, even without that fog, the menace out here is palpable, a cold chill that squeezes Zachary’s heart tight every time blood pulses through his veins. The pain in his chest tells him that the beast watches him from just a few inches away. The beast hides behind the gnarled trees. It sings in the wind. It focuses its starving eyes on him, savoring Zachary’s bruises, tasting his blood.

         Zachary can hear Angel and Serafina close on his heels. The two men are giggling like girls at a sleepover. Now and then, one of them shoves his back, so that he will pick up his pace. Zachary senses that, though his tormentors laugh, they too want to get out of this insidious place sooner rather than later, and so they shove out of fear as much as out of bravado. He figures that whatever the two men have in mind will be done as soon as possible, so that they can escape from the wretchedness that now sifts in and out of the shadows in these woods.

         There is a particularly ugly tree in the middle of a small clearing. Before he is prodded in that direction, Zachary senses already that he has a date with that gnarled, leafless, charcoal black monstrosity. He shuts his eyes in the hope of not seeing that tree implanted in his mind. His effort in that regard turns out to be futile, for the tree exists already as a figment of his blackest nightmares.

         Hug the tree, Angel orders, when they reach the wide trunk. 

         Zachary does not respond fast enough, so Angel pushes him forward with the blunt end of his billy club. Zachary slams face first into the dark tree trunk.

         Pretend you’re wrapping your arms around a big, black dick, Angel says. Smile, and look all pretty, while you’re doing it. Pretend it’s a Kodak moment…

         Serafina interrupts Angel with a queer chuckle. Angel snaps his brother a most hateful glance, and Serafina’s cheeks turn fire red. Their exchange seems cartoonish; or maybe, what one would see in a Laurel and Hardy short, if Hardy had been the skinny one and Laurel had been the fat one. 

         Zachary does as he is told. He wraps his arms around the tree, and folds his hands together on the other end penitentially. He looks up, like he is hoping in vain for some sort of sign from the heavens. He sees nothing of the sort, and so he looks away in disgust. The pained look on his face suggests Christ Jesus at the very moment of His Cry of Dereliction, although just now he remains silent.

         Time to show this white boy his place in our good town, Angel says to his brother, while also slapping him firmly on his sweaty back. Poke him hard, bro!

         Serafina licks his lips. He waddles forward, wraps the bloodstained rope around Zachary and the tree, and then ties the rope on the other side. Serafina returns to Zachary’s back and then yanks Zachary’s ripped trousers down to his ankles. Zachary is wearing dirty underwear, but he is otherwise nude now from the waist downward. Zachary’s legs spasm briefly in the crying, twisting winds; and so he imagines Olive Oyl’s legs writhing every which way into a girl pretzel.

         Like a loyal dog, Serafina looks to Angel for approval. Angel nods ever so slightly. Angel steps back, folds his arms before his chest, and smiles devilishly.

         As much as Angel seems to enjoy what unfolds before his eyes, he seems more so to be tickled by what runs through his dark and tortured mind. Indeed, given how firmly he folds his arms, it is like he is locking himself into himself at that moment, like his Alpha and his Omega have no life outside his imagination.

         Serafina steps forward, so that his big crotch rests against Zachary’s ass. The big man laughs like Woody Woodpecker. He must have watched a lot of the old cartoons in his day, for he mimics Woody’s laugh as well as any voice artist.

         Serafina wraps his arms around Zachary and the tree trunk. As he presses his face against the back of Zachary’s head, he dry humps Zachary’s ass. All the time, the big man does the insane Woody Woodpecker laugh, like he fancies his cock to be a woodpecker beak drilling through Zachary’s ass and into the trunk.

         The whole time Zachary stares blankly off to the side. The downward tilt of his head suggests Christ Jesus dead on His cross. The odd Woody Woodpecker laugh sounds in his ears like the jeers of the crowd assembled below that cross. Even upon His death, all the crowd points up and laughs like rabid dogs in heat.

         Zachary fades in and out of consciousness while Serafina dry humps him.

         At one point, Zachary thinks he hears a wretched scream in the wind. He opens his eyes in anticipation of a beast bolting out from behind a nearby tree. Nothing of the sort happens; but at least that scream frightens Serafina enough that he steps back from the tree, and looks to his brother for further direction.

         Fuck! Angel cries out like a spoiled child. Just when it was getting good!

         Serafina continues to look back at Angel. Serafina is confused and angry, like a big dog denied his treat at the last moment. He cracks his huge knuckles.

         Bro, we got to go, Angel says with a hint of fear in his voice.

         Serafina returns to his brother’s side. Zachary remains tied to the trunk.

         Don’t talk about this to anyone, white boy, Angel snarls, while stepping away from that scene. Or you’ll be going out on a second date with my brother.

         Zachary loses his consciousness again, while he listens to their footsteps.

*   *   *

         Zachary opens his eyes. He has been struggling to stay awake for a while now. Frankly, he cannot tell where the two-lane highway beyond his headlights continues to wind toward town and where it vanishes suddenly into a very dark corner of his mind. He wonders if he is not back in that haunted forest close to home. Maybe, he is curled in a hole somewhere and allowing an especially grim nightmare to get the better of him. Or maybe, he is asleep in his room, and his sister Rachel is sitting up in his bed beside him. She would have her knees up to her chin, as she always did when quietly thumbing the pages of that Seventeenmagazine she kept hidden under her mattress.

         Zachary blinks a few times. He turns with the bend in the road, and then he finds himself roaring down the middle of Main Street, USA. The quaint, small town storefronts on both sides of the road have been shuttered for a few hours already; the sidewalk signs folded and put away, the American Flags tucked for the night into boxes or cupboards. From a distance, the storefronts seem to be irretrievably dead, cold and black facades; but up close, the CLOSED signs each have little pictures or sayings on them that suggest that, indeed, the rooster is going to crow again before too long. The CLOSED sign hung on Roscoe’s ‘Nails & Things’ hardware store: ‘Goin’ Night Fishin’ with Jesus.’ The CLOSED sign hung on Beverly’s ‘Yarn Barn’: ‘Stitch in Time, Back by Nine.’ Clara Poole’s antique bookstore does not feature a CLOSED sign. Instead, she hangs a sign written out in a weird haunted house font: ‘Read a Book at Night, Put the Ghosts to Flight.’

         The wind blows down the middle of Main Street, USA with Zachary’s loud Harley Davidson. At times, the two appear to be interchangeable, as the strong force generated by both kicks up leaves that had settled for the night upon the sidewalks. The CLOSED signs flap every which way. The glass facades shiver like old ladies who have stepped into a cold night. Only the blackness of this severe night remains still. It is impenetrable to the screaming motor, the howling wind gusts, like a dark shroud weighted down by rocks and wrapped around a corpse.

         The Bottoms Up Bar is the only life still on this side of town. It is a small, cramped, loud honkytonk nestled in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Its signature is a flashing neon image of a porky farm girl bent over at her midsection. Her red and white checkered dress slides down her back, so that we see her flabby butt ‘bottoms up.’ Beneath her piggy calves is the name of the bar, and beneath the name of the bar is the tag line: ‘Muddy Lovin’ Good!’ The bare butt, the name, and the tag line flash one after another from the top of a pole. The pole in turn calls to mind the mast of a ship sifting in and out of a fogbank when lost at sea.

         Zachary slows down. He searches for a space along the sidewalk. He sees a small space in between two old pickup trucks. A Farmer John type in overalls and shit boots leans against one of the pickups. He is holding his forehead, like he is about to be consumed by the Mother of All Handovers. Strangely, with his other hand, he grasps a buttered cob of corn. The thick, white butter drips off of his fingers and onto his boots. Farmer John keeps squeezing the cob of corn, like he means to get his jollies from it. The sick expression on his face, though, suggests that he is far from feeling anything at all, but for a splitting headache.

         Zachary slides into the space, and turns off the ignition. He sits upon his saddle a moment, wiping his sad eyes and trying to make sense of Farmer John.

         Wanna eat my corn, stranger? Farmer John snarls.

         What are you saying? Zachary inquiries groggily, like he is still not sure if now he is sitting on his Harley Davidson, or dreaming beside his pregnant sister.

         A queer look appears on Farmer John’s face. He drops his hand from his forehead. He shakes his head, like he simply cannot believe what he is hearing.

         It’s juicy, Farmer John says with an odd grin, while holding up the cob of corn and squeezing more butter onto his shit boots. 

         Zachary steps away from his motorcycle, though he keeps his tired eyes planted on Farmer John’s. He cannot tell if he should be frightened by the sick dude in the overalls, or if he should be incensed at the innuendo. Perhaps, just then, he feels both emotions clashing in his heart like ocean waves that slam at one another from opposite directions. Regardless, he cannot handle all the fear and the anger surging through his veins. The deep sadness he has had to endure since Rachel’s death has torn down his psyche to such an extent he feels unfit, frankly, for any strong emotions. He needs to hold everything in check, like the statue that conceals the red, hot blood just inches beneath its chiseled marble. 

         After an intense moment that probably lasts only seconds but that seems to go on for a minute or two, Zachary drops his eyes and shuffles away. Farmer John grins, licks butter off the end of the corncob, and returns to his hangover.

         Zachary stumbles through the cigarette smoke (or maybe it is the creepy fog he has encountered in the forest) toward the sound of honkytonk music and ribald laughter. The cowgirls smoking just outside the swivel saloon doors wear identical pink party hats, blouses, and jeans. The jeans are so tight the twenty-something girls look like they will bleed blue if they so much as take in a deep breath. The girls are spindly sticks about to catch fire from the embers floating away from their cigarettes. They are so close to self-immolation and yet, by all outward appearances anyway, blissfully clueless as to the imminent danger of a fiery end. Is that cluelessness really a blessing? Had Rachel been so clueless the first time she met the boy or the man who would go on to seed her? Did Rachel hide her innocence behind a face of cigarette smoke much like these girls here?

         Zachary considers the questions briefly, and then he feels raw pain again welling up from inside his broken heart. Those questions are simply too close to the edge. Better to set them aside, before the tears start to flow. Better to see if George will throw him a lifeline before the waves pull him under the surface.

         Zachary steps into the overcrowded and smoke filled bar. He looks down at his hands. He barely sees them. Surely, the cigarette smoke is not really this thick. He must be dreaming, and yet the burly man he bumps into feels all too real. The human forms congregating around the bar look like shadows sifting in and out of a thick, black fog, and yet consider the sounds they make when they strike the counter with the underside of their empty shot glasses. Listen to the inane chuckle, after someone tells a dirty joke and follows at once with a sharp elbow to the ribs. How can this be a dream, if they sound and appear so real to him? Or is the dream playing itself out in the real world now, like Abram thinks will happen the one night that Fantasia appears in the sky instead of on the TV.

         Zachary bumps into someone else. He looks up from his hands. He thinks he walked into a woman, since the flesh had felt so squishy, and yet the person responds with the gruff voice of a male schoolyard bully. 

         Watch yourself, Mudd, the threatening voice says.

         Sorry, Zachary mutters. 

         The ‘schoolyard bully’ steps forward. Zachary looks up in time to see the round and stupid face of Officer Cletus Luther, a drunk hillbilly whose hair had started to recede even before he finished high school. The mercurial look in his eyes says ‘I wanna fight,’ but the sweat pouring down his fat face suggests that he would have a hard time landing a punch. Still, with his blue police shirt half unbuttoned to reveal the gold chains hanging from his neck, and with his rusted handcuffs dangling just inches from his right hand, the small town cop remains a clear and present danger. 

         Zachary’s survival instinct snaps back up then from wherever it had been buried. He curls his hands into fists, and he lifts his chin up from his throat. His heart beats in his mind, and he barely contains the adrenaline rush in his veins.  

         Perhaps sensing that his buddy is in danger, Officer Zeeb Beekins shoves back his barstool and staggers over to Cletus. Zeeb is shitfaced drunk, it seems. Just to make sure no one misses that point, he wears a pin over his chest on his unbuttoned, blue police shirt. The pin reads in big red letters: Shitfaced Drunk!

         What asshole are you fingering, Mudd? Zeeb slurs.

         Yeah, Cletus agrees with a toothy grin. Sniffing shit boy. 

         Someone steps up from behind Zachary. The unseen man shoves Zachary into the two cops. Zachary does not need to look back to know who struck him. The whiskey smell slaps him so hard that his attacker simply must be the sadist moonshiner, Officer Roscoe Putzman. When Roscoe is not smacking kiddies and old ladies in the gut with his billy club for God knows what reason, he is trading homemade rotgut straight out of the trunk of his police car. He hands out pints of moonshine strong enough to rip paint off of walls, and in return his alcoholic customers sneak him baggies of marijuana. Roscoe sells the weed to the juniors and the seniors who congregate behind the high school bleachers after the bell. The kids call him ‘Sky High Roscoe.’ In part, this is an acknowledgment that he is a pusher wearing a badge; but even more so, this is in reference to his goofy eyes. ‘Sky High Roscoe’ seems incapable of looking straight at anything. It is as if his pupils have a fucked up mind of their own. 

         If it isn’t Sky High Roscoe, Zachary remarks with utter contempt.

         That’s Officer Putzman to you, Roscoe snaps back. 

         Still selling weed behind the high school bleachers? Zachary asks. 

         No takers since your sister got knocked up, Roscoe responds with a grin.

         Zachary lunges toward Roscoe without hesitation. He raises his right fist with the intention of throwing a punch into Roscoe’s defiant chin. Though he is about to be hit, Roscoe never flinches. He continues to grin like a Cheshire cat, while his whiskey fevered eyes dart every which way. He knows that he has the upper hand, if only because Zeeb and Cletus are fixing for a bare knuckle fight.

         Sure enough, Cletus reaches forward, grabs the back of Zachary’s raised arm, and turns Zachary on his heels. Cletus chuckles like a mischievous fat boy.

         In the split second that follows, Zachary decides not to pull back his fist. As such, he smashes his right knuckles into Cletus’ mouth and nose. Cletus’ hot blood squirts out from his face and onto Zachary’s sleeve.

         Cletus stops laughing like a fat fucker. He is stunned a moment. Then, as soon as he touches the blood slithering out from his nose, his face turns red hot and contorts into the very image of a demon. 

         I’m gonna fuck you up, sniffing shit queer, Cletus blubbers. 

         Still, for all of his bluster, Cletus does not approach Zachary. Instead, he glares at Zeeb with increasing incredulity, for the glassy look on Zeeb’s face at that moment suggests that he is totally clueless.

         Are you gonna stand there and let this bottom feeder get away with this? Cletus berates Zeeb, while also pointing out the hot blood falling from his nose.

         Zeeb narrows his eyes, like he is trying hard to see something in front of him. In fact, he is doing his best not to pass out. He practically hears the cheap beer sloshing through his veins. The beer sounds like ocean waves urging him to fall to the floor and to sleep off the rest of this night. Let Cletus fend with this muddy lover freak, Zeeb thinks. Let Cletus defend his own honor for a change…

         So which is it? Cletus screams into Zeeb’s face. You got a cock or a cunt?

         That passes for a motivational speech. Zeeb snaps back to attention, and glares squarely at the muddy lover freak before him. Zachary returns the stare.

         Zeeb steps back to the bar. He grabs one of his finished beer bottles and smashes it against the steel rim of the counter. Glass flies everywhere. 

         An old man sitting too near to the glass covers his head with his arms. He shrieks like when a girl sees a mouse. His buddies tease him, and yet they step away from the action at the same time. Only the barmaid nearby seems totally nonplussed by the fact that the police are about to instigate a bloody bar fight.

         I’m gonna ram this up your ass, muddy lover, Zeeb snarls, while holding up the broken bottle. Cut up all that shit inside you. Turn you into my butt boy!

         Sounds sort of queer, Cletus remarks.

         Not the way I do it, Zeeb snaps back.

         Zeeb thrusts the broken edge of the bottle toward Zachary’s face. Cletus chuckles in anticipation of the gore, but Zachary moves out of the way the very last second. Roscoe then pushes Zachary forward again, so that Zeeb can go for another stab at Zachary’s face. Zachary grabs Zeeb’s arm, though, before Zeeb can launch another attack. Cletus and Roscoe step forward, so that Zachary has no chance of escape, while Zachary and Zeeb in turn fight over the beer bottle.

         Hey, Zeeb, Cletus, that’s enough! A strong male voice says from the bar.

         The fight likely would have sputtered to an end pretty soon, even if that Voice of Authority had not called out to them from the bar. Though motivated, Zeeb cannot do much more now than to thrust his arms aimlessly in the heavy, slow manner of a drunk trying to dance. Cletus is not nearly as inebriated, but he is so frightened of another punch to the face as to stay one or two steps out of harm’s way the whole time. Roscoe has his vicious streak, but he also knows when to bide his time. There will be another occasion for Roscoe to fuck up the Mudd Boy; a time and a place more secret than this overcrowded honkytonk. At that time, he will exit with a bloodied billy club, or he is not ‘Sky High Roscoe.’

         Ricky Rum hurries around the bar counter, and steps right into the midst of all that testosterone. He is a handsome man with the swarthy features of an experienced heart stealer. More importantly, he is the law inside ‘Bottoms Up;’ and thus, even the cops come to attention when he looks into their glassy eyes.

         You boys want to dance with this mud fucker you do it outside, you hear me? Ricky demands, after pushing the cops off of Zachary, and folding his arms.

         But he’s a goddamned Mudd, Zeeb pouts.

         And look what he did to my nose, Cletus blubbers.

         I know who he is, Ricky snarls, after giving Zachary a once-over. Damned reprobate. But so long as Old George Crapp buys more of my booze than all you bozos combined, his little buddy here can stay. 

         Fucking George, Cletus mutters. When’s the last time he walked a beat?

         You take that up with the Chief, Ricky snaps. In here, the only thing that matters is that you all drink my booze until you shit your sick liver out your ass.

         Zeeb and Cletus wander back to their stools. Roscoe does not move, and so Ricky decides to give the sadist drug pusher the heave-ho. 

         No kids here to buy your weed, Ricky snarls. So sit down and get yourself a drink, or go home. I don’t wanna see your shit face just standing there, okay?

         Roscoe glares at Zachary a while. He then grins, and exits into the night.

         Listen, Ricky, thank you, Zachary mutters.

         Fuck you, Mudd, Ricky says. Don’t think for a moment that I’m your new buddy. I just don’t want to clean your guts off my floor tonight. George is in his usual booth. Stay with him, all night, even when he takes a shit, and you won’t have any problem with me. 

         Zachary nods in assent. He lowers his chin, and starts to make his way to the other side of the bar. The whole time he feels Ricky’s eyes staring into him with absolute contempt. Without George Crapp, Zachary would be out there in the dark, revving his Harley Davidson into the night, and letting his fears guide the way. He would get lost inside one of his nightmares likely and never return.

*   *   *

         The dark cigarette smoke is thinner on the other side of the bar. Zachary passes through the dance floor and imagines breaking out from a thick fog bank and returning to a welcoming shore. The cowboys and cowgirls on the floor are shape shifting waves on a turbulent sea. There is a scream from the bar, maybe a cowgirl responding to a lecherous hand grabbing at one of her breasts; but for Zachary, it is a wind howl catching up to him from the opposite shore. There is a voice hidden in that gust of wind. Like the voice he hears in the guttural roar of his Harley Davidson, the message is the same: Stay close to George, because the beast out there passed the sea horizon consists of nothing more than a pair of red eyes and an open mouth. 

         The jukebox clicks from a piss puke Garth Brooks song to that honkytonk favorite boot stomper, Charlie Daniels’ Devil Went Down to Georgia. There is a roar of approval from the dance floor. Someone from inside the fog bank tosses up his Stetson. Cowgirls in high heels stagger drunkenly toward the hat like fish in a barrel converging upon a piece of bread. 

         Zachary ignores all of this mayhem. He focuses his tired eyes on George, who is sitting alone as usual in the corner booth. There is no dark smoke around him. There is only silence; the loneliness of a black night slipping into nowhere.

         Zachary blinks his eyes, and the lonely silence is gone, or at least hidden behind a veneer of mercurial fun. George is five or six sheets to the wind. He is a large man in an old bowling shirt and stretched trousers. The Shriner’s hat on his big head had belonged to his grandfather. Way back when in these parts the Crapps had been one of ‘the finer families.’ Grandpa had been Police Chief and Parade Marshal longer than most folks could remember. Papa had been a lousy, no good, imbecile drunk. George has worn a badge since he finished high school but has taken after his father more than he cares to admit. No one regards him as lousy, or imbecilic, and yet few can down more whiskey and beer shots than he can. Hell, George can even drink a whole pint of Roscoe’s rotgut in one gulp without puking out his spleen. None of the other drunks has even tried to outdo him on that one. It is truly his one big win in a lifetime of missed opportunities.

         There are a few empty shot glasses on George’s wood table, but most of the ‘dead soldiers’ are beer bottles. Usually, George turns over his shot glasses when egged on by other cops. On those nights, his table will be an army of shot glasses standing side by side in formation. For the most part, though, he favors that slow and sad descent into unconsciousness that comes from sipping bottles of beer from sunset to closing time. He is a loud, brash, and funny fat man with an eye for the barmaids; but Zachary knows that the real George Crapp, the big man behind the cheeky smile, is as sad and as lonely as he is. Although Zachary has never been to George’s apartment, he imagines his buddy every night looks out his window at the abandoned railroad tracks beside his building. The rotted rails have been broken up by time. They no longer go anywhere; and despite all his mischief and humor, neither does George. 

         Zachary slides onto the seat opposite his friend, George. Neither of them says a word for a moment. Zachary folds his hands as if an Amish Boy at prayer.

George steps away from his own thoughts. He looks at his friend with the kind of quizzical expression that says he is not sure if he is dreaming just then. Finally, a light bulb switches on in George’s head. He leans forward and smiles.

You’re gonna need a lot of drinks, George observes ruefully.

Nice to see you, George, Zachary mutters with a slight grin.

George is distracted by a buxom, blond barmaid in skintight jeans. She is a walking stereotype with a ridiculous Dolly Parton wig on her head and a sticky wad of gum inside her mouth. She chomps her gum in a strangely sexy way that makes George’s eyes do a little Texas Two-Step in his sockets. The sour look on her face is anything but alluring, though, unless ‘pouty little bitch’ is a turn on.

Blondie, my good buddy here’s a virgin, George declares, while gesturing toward the barmaid. Why don’t you help him out?

Blondie faces George head on. She spits a mouthful of rancid air through her tense lips, like she cannot get over the fact that, somehow, the fuck nut in the corner booth can grab her attention still. She almost gives George the bird, but then she views the back of the head of the younger man sitting across from him. Time to get fresh with that good looking boy, she thinks, while pushing up her already considerable breasts.

Blondie saddles up to the booth. She focuses on the fresh meat. Though taken with Zachary’s handsome features, she is especially moved by his sad and lonely eyes. Her maternal instincts take hold, and she almost orgasms between her thighs. It takes every last bit of her strength to retain a little composure at that blissful moment. Still, her hips sway on their own to the jukebox tune; and she can feel the juices flowing down the inside of her jeans.   

What’ll it be, blue eyes? Blondie asks, while chomping hard on her gum.

I think they’re green, sweetheart, George interjects.

Blondie snaps a glance at the irritating fat man she has had to serve for God knows how long. As expected, she sees that cheeky, boyish grin and those loony tune eyes normally associated with a youngin’ who has been caught with his fingers in a cookie jar. She wants to smack that ridiculous grin off his face, and yet she can sense Ricky Rum’s eyes staring hard at her from across the bar.

She opts for a verbal smack instead. That way, her boss does not need to scrub George’s blood, and she does not need to search for work in the morning.

Viagra’s half off in the men’s room, Blondie snaps with a smirk. Just ask for Roy and grab your ankles.

Roy Boy, George remarks. Isn’t that the name of your vibrator, Blondie?

At least mine’s got batteries, Blondie says, while giving George the bird.

Just give me the House Beer, Zachary mutters.

George looks back at Zachary and laughs. George slams his fist a few too many times on the table, and one of the empty beer bottles rolls onto the floor and smashes into a million pieces.

Blondie watches that beer bottle roll over the edge and fall to the floor. She rolls her eyes in disgust at yet another mess that she needs to clean up just because George’s granddaddy had been a fucking big shot. Blondie is about to make another obscene gesture, when she sees the sadness in Zachary’s eyes. It is enough to make her wig wilt.

Sweet Spot Jesus! George says after getting some control over his inane laughter. Dude, did you just order the House Beer? I had no idea you were into swallowing an old man’s piss. How kinky!

When you’re tired helping the old man piss straight, come and find me, Blondie says with a devilish wink. 

Blondie leaves for the bar counter. She struts her stuff in the hopes that Zachary will steal a glance. She would deflate a bit if she saw how Zachary just looked down at his folded hands and sighed.

George leans forward and chuckles. He accidentally knocks another beer bottle over the side of the table. He does not even wince when this bottle also smashes into a million pieces. His loony eyes zero in on his downtrodden buddy.

I think she likes me, George remarks playfully.

She’s got your number, that’s for sure, Zachary says.

Never met a woman who didn’t, George says with a sly smile. You can’t live with ‘em, and you can’t string ‘em high.

Zachary fidgets uncomfortably in his seat. He blinks his eyes, like maybe he can force himself up from his nightmare. He rubs his tired face convulsively.

What’s wrong? George asks seriously.

Zachary thinks a moment. He leans forward and speaks conspiratorially.

Have you ever tried to hold something together, only to see it blow up in your fucking face? Zachary asks with an odd earnestness George finds troubling. 

Story of my first three marriages, George snickers.

I don’t know, Zachary continues. It’s just that, well, sometimes I feel…

Like a Lady, George interrupts with his funny Tom Jones impersonation.

Besieged, Zachary continues. Like the world’s caving in on me.

What the fuck? George says with a playful chuckle. You Mudds live miles from your nearest neighbor. About the only thing besieging you way out there is the occasional raccoon. 

I need to let off some steam, Zachary says with a pitiful sigh. Why don’t we skip the drinks and go to the range?

I say we drink up and then go to the range, George says. Beer and booze helps with the aim.

Is that what they taught you in the Police Academy? Zachary asks with a sly grin that says he is finally coming out of his shell just a wee bit this evening.

Fuck the Police Academy, George remarks with a smile that cannot quite hide the pain. It’s what I learned walking my beat the last thirty fucking years…

Zachary does not hear the rest of George’s remark. Instead, Zachary just focuses on his folded fingers, and waits for the barmaid to return with his beer.

*   *   *

         George yanks down on the padlock. The rusted device almost falls apart in his big hand. Like most oversized men, George is a much stronger beast than he realizes; and this is especially true when he is piss drunk. Not known for his restraint even when sober, he is a volatile force of nature when his cheeks turn ruby red and the sweat off his man boobs bleeds through his shirt. His silly grin may suggest mirth, but his awkward stride and flailing arms instills instant fear in anyone who happens to stand in his path. 

         George pulls open the corrugated iron sliding door. The busted wheels at the base of the door squeak loud enough to raise the dead, but George appears not to care. The police firing range is a nondescript warehouse on the edge of a gravel parking lot far from the center of town. The two-lane highway that runs passed is dead for the night, except for an occasional eighteen wheeler hauling logs from nowhere to nowhere else. The truckers are out of towners. So what if one of them catches a glimpse of a drunk cop escorting his civilian buddy into a ‘police only’ firing range? How likely is he going to fumble for his cell phone to dial 411 for the local yokel authorities? Since when does a workingman with too many unpaid tickets under his seat poke his big nose into another man’s affairs?

         True, there is a donut shop across the street. The ‘d’ and the ‘o’ within the neon sign burnt out years ago, so the word reflected off of the corrugated iron façade of the firing range is ‘nut.’ 

         There is also a crematorium a bit further down the road. Acknowledging the two other buildings nearby, a sign in front of the crematorium reads: ‘If the cops don’t take ya down, them donuts will! So get your urn, before your keister blows. Discount Price, if the urn’s for burning your mother-in-law back to hell!’

         The donut shop is closed for the night. The crematorium owner as usual is spending the night alone with the corpses slated to be burnt at dawn, but he keeps to himself. He could see a murder take place on the road right in front of his business, and he would not bother to call the cops. Instead, he would set an urn aside for when the victim’s family sends someone over to bargain with him.

         Thus, for all intents and purposes, George knows that no one hears those squeaky wheels at the base of the sliding door. He stumbles into the warehouse without once losing his smile, and he flips on the light. He almost falls over, as he turns back suddenly to take a look at his friend still standing in the doorway.

         Welcome back to the Inner Sanctum, George says in his best rendition of a ‘Vincent Price’ voice. Come in out of the dark and see what evil spirits await.

         George laughs like the ghoulish narrator for Disneyland’s Haunted House.

         Apparently, George’s act works as intended, for it elicits a hint of a grin on Zachary’s otherwise somber face. Zachary steps into the warehouse, and he closes the sliding door behind him. Zachary moves about the space with all the calm assuredness of someone who has spent many nights firing off rounds here.

         George waits for Zachary to say something. When Zachary does not take the bait, George staggers over to a locker. It takes him a while to do the locker combination, not because he has forgotten the code (the numerical date when he lost his virginity), but because he is much too slobbery now to turn the dial with any finesse. He fiddles with the dial a while, spits out a few expletives for good measure, and finally kicks the side of the locker. The door pops open on a pair of weak hinges, and George stumbles for the .44 Magnum hidden behind an assortment of whiskey bottles and vintage Playboy magazines. 

         Zachary rubs his eyes. He cannot tell where the dream ends and reality starts, or even if the dream has ended. He senses a subtle fragrance wafting in and out of the stale air. Isn’t that the smell he always identified with his sister, Rachel? Isn’t that a blend of roses and bubble gum; a cheap perfume smell that suggests a sixteen-year-old girl just on the cusp of womanhood? A more mature woman would wear a more sophisticated fragrance, a girl none at all, but what about a girl just on the cusp? Zachary entertains these questions without trying to answer them. It is good enough that these questions seem relevant to him on some level, because that means that Rachel remains by his side, no matter the naked abomination hanging from a noose. 

         The cheap perfume vanishes as fast as it came, and Zachary wonders yet again if he had imagined it. Now, he smells stale air and gun smoke residue left over from the last time someone fired off rounds in here. The smell is not now intense enough to burn the back of his throat, though it will be after he fires a few dozen rounds. Nevertheless, the smell sickens him in a manner it never has before, like when a soldier realizes that those corpses with whom he has been sharing a foxhole since God knows when are not his battle buddies, so much as dead and decrepit things that stink. Where he had been standing beside Rachel just a moment ago, now he is utterly alone. Rachel is yet another one of his old hopes and loves swallowed whole by the darkest night; no more than a youthful wanderlust transformed by circumstance into a ghoul; a thing that hangs heavy from his heart, as Rachel hangs from her tree, and so kindles the deepest rage.

         Zachary must look as tense as he feels, because George walks up to him at once and puts his hand on Zachary’s right shoulder. This small gesture yanks Zachary back from the edge, even if only a few inches, and so George offers up another one of his mischievous smiles. He stares deeply into Zachary’s mad and frightened eyes, until Zachary looks back at him and sighs. George accepts that that is about as calm as Zachary is going to be tonight; and although he knows that Zachary is not nearly relaxed enough to be handling a firearm, he decides at that moment to hand him his .44 Magnum anyway. George reasons that when all has been said and done nothing good will have come from restraint and that that specific insight about life applies as much to this situation as to any other.

         Watch yourself, George says with a grin. Or you’ll drop one of your nuts into your underwear. 

         George hands Zachary the .44 Magnum. He walks down the range to the paper targets. He sets up a target, while Zachary squeezes the Magnum grip, as if it is some sort of therapy ball. The vacant look on Zachary’s face suggests he would not give a damn just then if he accidentally fired one round into his foot.

         George returns with a pair of ear protectors and goggles. He places them upon Zachary’s head, and then takes his usual spot on a stool by the locker. He puts on his own ear protectors and goggles, turns toward the locker, and grabs a half finished bottle of Jack Daniels. From his experience, liquid gold protects him from the sound and the fury better than all the plastic bullshit covering up his ears and his eyes. 

         George turns away from the locker, so that he can see Zachary in action. He is always impressed with his younger friend’s marksmanship. There is a hint of envy in how easily Zachary handles any firearm; and, of course, it is not lost on George that his legendary granddaddy probably had been just as good with a weapon and a target. The envy does not last long, though, for the friendship he feels toward Zachary outweighs everything else. He hopes Zachary is as fond of him, for in the end booze and barmaids only intermittently mask his loneliness.

         Zachary lets loose on the target. He is holding up a laser guided Magnum with only one hand, which is remarkable given the recoil. Not once does he fall back or flinch. The effortless manner with which he unloads so much anger and frustration upon that paper target is a thing of beauty. With a firearm in hand, Zachary is a genuine artist; the revolver his brush; the paper targets his canvas.

         George takes a gulp of whiskey, and stands up. He has known for a while that Zachary is an expert marksman, but the mastery on display just now grabs him by his collar and forces him back to his feet. He drops his bottle of whiskey in the process. He leans against the locker until he regains some of his balance.

         Zachary fires off the last round. There is so much gun smoke just then he looks like an angry and rigid ghost with an outstretched firing arm sifting in and out of a cloud. George is taken aback a moment, but then he steps forward and offers his friend a round of applause. 

         Fucking Eh! George exclaims. You can come over and fuck my sister any time. 

         Zachary drops his hand to his side, although he continues to squeeze the grip hard. He stares a moment at the paper target, which is riddled with bullet holes circumnavigating where the target man’s heart would be. It is like he had wanted to push that target man’s heart out his back and into the opposite wall.

         I didn’t know you had a sister, Zachary responds with a sly grin.

         I don’t, George says. But if I did, you’d be the first in line.

         George staggers down the range. He replaces the used paper target with a new one. Zachary stares at his friend with a strangely serene look on his face.

         George walks up to his friend, and he takes the revolver out of his hand. Zachary remains passive, while George proceeds to remove the laser guidance system from the revolver. Cleary, he wants to see if his friend can replicate the performance without the aid of a laser. George anticipates that Zachary will do so, since Zachary did not seem to pay attention to the laser point the last time.

         Sometimes, I wish I’d applied for the police, Zachary states thoughtfully.

         To serve and to protect, George states mockingly.

         To put bullets into the heads of scumbags, Zachary continues.

         George stops what he is doing. He stares directly into Zachary’s eyes, in order to see if there is at least a flicker of sanity in them. What he sees instead is absolute sincerity. Zachary may have fallen over the edge, but he speaks his heart with conviction. In a way this trait is even scarier than his marksmanship.

         Oh, man, you still give a shit, George exclaims with a fake grin meant to hide his considerable fear. Let me tell you how it really works out there. So you go into the police wanting to save the good folks from the bad. Then, sometime after you’ve responded to your hundredth domestic disturbance, it truly dawns on you that the good and the bad are just lighter or darker versions of the same creepy bastard. Beelzebub, The Beast, Doctor 666, not fun to hear, but so true.

         Sounds paranoid to me, Zachary responds with a grin.

         Paranoid or dead, George remarks, while handing Zachary the very same revolver, but without a laser guidance system. You pick which pill you swallow.

         George returns to his stool. He sees that the whiskey bottle had fallen to the floor. He kicks the bottle; and as a result, it rolls across the floor and slams against the opposite wall. He plasters a smirk on his sweaty face, but he cannot deny the horrid fear in his heart that his friend has passed a point of no return.

         Again, holding out the revolver with just one hand, Zachary pumps bullet after bullet around the target man’s heart. He screams in triumph as all of that fury explodes out from inside the revolver. Apart from that Rebel Yell, and the red burn in his eyes from all that gun smoke, Zachary remains his old stoic self; a mysterious man with an outstretched shooting arm and a thousand-yard stare into the darkness beyond the paper target. George views all this, and shudders.

*   *   *

         Charles Waxman compulsively slides his hands through his hair. He knows just how much more debonair he is when he has his hair pulled back. There are no bitches in this room, but if there were they would be squirming happy juices inside their skirts just about now. He cannot help it that the cock starved start to salivate when he approaches them. He cannot help how much they need him inside their panties. When he has his shit together, he is damned irresistible, or so he reminds himself when, in fact, he has to do something he loathes…

         Like going to the DMV, and having to wait his turn behind a peasant in a sweaty farm shirt who cannot speak English…

         Like applying gobs of ‘growth cream’ to his cock, while squeezing hard a nasty bit of fish out from his asshole and into his throne…

         And like right now, when he has to sit within a room full of hillbilly cops. 

         And just to add insult to injury, he has to sit on a stool with his starched shirt unbuttoned, so that a cretin cop can tape a small microphone to his chest hairs. To make matters worse, if that is even possible, the cretin cop doing the honors is the same guy (Dirt? Dirk? What’s his name?) who had tricked him into thinking he was his private investigator. Now, cunts pull tricks, not cops, or so Charles had believed until he met this blowhard at the diner. Is nothing sacred?

         The blowhard yanks hard on the microphone. He wants to make sure the microphone is going to stay where it is. 

         Charles winces. He never approves when one of his bitches gets a bit too frisky with his chest hairs. It is even worse that the blowhard makes him suffer so. At least, when he winces beside one of his bitches, and gives her that ‘hurt little boy’ look, she will attempt to make his boo boo go bye bye by going down on him. The blowhard, on the other hand, will do no such thing to balance the scales. Indeed, the blowhard does not seem to respond at all, when in his own petulant fashion Charles makes clear his displeasure at this pull or at that prod.

         Dirk Tweed steps back. He taps an earpiece attached to his left ear. The expression on his face suggests that he is not satisfied. Likely, there continues to be too much static on his end; or maybe, he hears the kind of high tone that will burst his eardrum, if he does not watch out. 

         Charles hopes that that is exactly what happens. Serves the hillbilly right for lying to him. As pissy as Charles feels this very moment, he is pretty sure he would laugh like a hyena if he saw blood bursting out from that blowhard’s ear.

         There is no such luck, though. Dirk noticeably relaxes a bit after tapping his earpiece a few more times. He folds his arms before his chest; and he looks down at Charles, like he is observing for the first time the bug he squished back to Jesus with his right boot heel. He has the slightest hint of a smirk on his face at that moment, because finally he has Charles right where he has wanted him.

         Say something, Dirk says with no nonsense authority.

         As I said for the umpteenth time, I am not going through with this stupid idea of yours, Charles snaps back. 

         Dirk turns to face the older man sitting on a stool beside him. The older man has the long, but kind, face of a Sunday School teacher. Put a sweater on him, and he could be Mister Rogers. Still, there is a glint in the older man’s eye that says, ‘Watch out. I’ll turn mean on a dime, if you push the wrong buttons.’

         Well, Chief, the radio checks this time, Dirk says.

         So the geezer in the cop suit is Chief Blake Kramer, Charles thinks. What a loser! Surely, he doesn’t have what it takes to spit shine shoes in the big city.

         Blake leans forward, so that his folded hands hang in beneath his knees. He has an ‘aww shucks’ expression on his face, but his eyes tell the story of an older man unwilling to tolerate bullshit from a city slicker. 

         I’ve had your number for a lot longer than you realize, Blake comments.

         What are you talking about? Charles asks.

         I believe that, as the elected chief of police in this town, I have a duty to check upon guests who overstay their welcome, Blake explains.

         What the Hell! Charles snaps back incredulously. The last I heard, this is America.

         We like to think of ourselves as first and foremost the citizens of Happy Days Township, Blake says with a sly grin. We are Americans on July 4th and on Veterans’ Day.

         Blake glances at Steven Kirk. The much younger cop has his arms folded before his chest just like his friend and mentor Dirk. Steven is leaning against a wall poster that features an Alpha Male white cop with a military cut tossing an indigent black man with big eyes into the back of his cop car. The words above this picture scream in dark boldface: ‘Sambo fought the law, and the law won.’

         Is today July 4th? Blake asks Steven.

         No, sir, Steven responds.

         Is today Veterans’ Day? Blake asks Steven.

         No, sir, Steven responds.

         Blake turns his attention back to Charles.

         I guess you’re out of luck, Blake comments with a shrug of his shoulders.

         Listen, if you want me to exit your one-horse town and never return, I’ll gladly do that, Charles states irritably, while again slicking back his greasy hair.

         You’re not interested in picking up one of our teenaged girls? Blake asks.

         Charles looks around the small room in exasperation. He views the same hillbilly dumb stare in each of their eyes. Apparently, no one will be dishing out any sympathy to the city slicker in the disheveled, green, leisure suit this time.

         Please, let me go, Charles pleads with nervous sweat dripping off his lip. I’ll never touch another girl in this town again. 

         I don’t suppose you will, Blake says with a knowing grin. But you’re still going to be our wire tonight.

         For Christ’s sake, Charles blurts out. 

         Not quite, Blake says without humor. Better to say, ‘For the sake of the town.’ As much as we good country folk don’t really tolerate ‘city slickers,’ we tolerate even less ‘city slickers’ who consistently take the Lord’s Name in vain.

         Goddamn, Charles mutters under his breath.

         Officer Tweed, hand me the file over there, Blake nods toward a basket of plastic binders and loose leaf papers.

         Dirk steps over to the counter. He fingers through a plastic binder, while walking back to hand it to his boss. He then glances at Charles. The mad hatred in Dirk’s eyes just then inspires in Charles a feeling of despair which he has not felt before that moment. It is like Charles suddenly finds himself at the edge of hell and, much to his surprise, senses that it is a cold and dark place. No doubt, Dirk will be waiting for him in that eternal trap of the mind; and Charles shakes at the thought of what Dirk will do to him, when again they are alone together.

         Dirk steps back, and again folds his arms before his chest. He sets aside his undying anger for a smug grin that says, ‘I’ve got your ass now, city slicker.’        

         Blake reads from the binder. He keeps that peculiar ‘Mister Rogers’ grin upon his face which, given what he is about to say, is even more disturbing in a way than Dirk’s expression. Charles feels a chill roll up and down his spine, and the despair he had felt a moment ago now feels more like the vulnerability of a child first encountering the boogeyman in his closet. Charles is small, weak, no more capable of fighting his private beast than of comprehending it. He feels a lone limp tear slide down his grey face. He does not even try to wipe it off him.

         We first photographed you with Rachel Mudd about two years ago, Blake reads from the report. That would have made her what? Fourteen?

         Blake removes a photograph from the binder. He gives it to Charles then without even glancing at him. The grainy photograph shows Charles and Rachel in the local Baskin Robbins. Rachel is bending over the counter to check out the different flavors in the buckets. Charles stands beside her, holding her hand in a fatherly manner while also stealing a glance of what lies beneath her hitched up skirt. The look upon Charles’ face suggests that he really likes what he sees.

         Somehow, Charles manages to snap out of his childish fear. Maybe, he is enraged by the fact that the local police have been watching him all this time. Now, talk about no respect for civil liberties, Charles thinks. What is this? 1984?

         Buying a girl ice cream is not statutory rape, Charles says with contempt while handing back the photograph. Not even in hick towns like yours.

         Blake hands Charles another photograph. This one shows Charles leading Rachel into a motel room, while she continues to lick upon her ice cream cone. He has a lecherous look on his face. She looks like a little girl about to step on a kiddie ride in Disneyland. Talk about a spider leading a butterfly into its web.

         So why did you take Rachel to the Happy Moon Motel within ten minutes of leaving the ice cream shop? Blake asks. 

         Charles gives up then. He will not be able to talk himself out of this one.

         Starched bed sheets, Charles states, while handing back the photograph.

         Excuse me? Blake asks incredulously. 

         The other motels around here don’t even wash their sheets everyday, let alone starch them, Charles says with a shrug.

         Blake drops his ‘Mister Rogers’ grin. He looks at Charles without trying to hide his disgust. He snaps the binder shut, like it is a sick book fit for a bonfire. 

         Dirk drops his hands unto his sides. He clenches his hands into fists a few times, like he is bruising for a fight. He inhales deeply, and that feeling passes.

         We also have audio tape of you and Rachel together, Dirk says coldly. 

         Dirk steps over to the counter. He finds an old fashioned audio reel next to the basket of binders and loose papers. He inserts the reel into one of those vintage players that bigger and better funded police departments tossed to the junk heap many years ago. Charles glimpses that machine in his left peripheral vision. He is reminded of the Watergate tapes. He wishes somehow that a hick town version of Rose Mary Woods has erased eighteen and a half minutes of the ‘smoking gun’ material. He wants to see how Dirk reacts when they discover an incredible gap in the audio recording. 

         But of course that is not going to happen. There is no Rose May Woods in this hick town. There is no eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap. Charles really does not have any option, but to hang his head low and to hope all of this ends soon.

         Dirk turns on the player. There is static for a few seconds. Then, Charles can be heard. He sounds like he is speaking from the bottom of a deep well. His voice is so ghostly that even Charles is put off by what he hears. 

         Well, little girl, you can lick it all you want, Charles says in a voice and a manner that calls to mind a perverse Kindergarten teacher reading a fairy tale. It’s like a fuzzy-wuzzy ice cream cone, only it gets bigger and bigger for all the good girls. Are you a good girl? Why not show me just how good you are?

         Rachel speaks next. Her voice is very small; fourteen going on six. There is a hint of fear in how she responds.

         I don’t know, Rachel says. It looks like a hairy toad.

         Dirk turns off the player. He folds his arms and stares angrily at Charles.

         Blake bends forward. He stares intently into Charles’ eyes. 

         So the choice is yours, little man, Blake says with his ‘Mister Rogers’ grin in tow. We either book you, or we wire you. So what’ll it be, huh? 

*   *   *

         Zachary stares at the top of his open beer bottle. It is nighttime, and the only light is the flickering candle on the kitchen counter to his immediate right.

         The candlelight reflects off of the beer bubbles sliding down the outside of the bottle. The result is a series of sickly, yellowish bubbles that pop on the kitchen counter like spent cum. 

         Zachary grasps the edge of the kitchen counter with both hands. He is as drunk as he can be without passing out, and yet he understands still that he has to hold on for dear life. Otherwise, by now, his ruddy face would have smashed into the bottle top, and there would be about as much blood spatter within the kitchen as there is still in Rachel’s bedroom. 

         Notwithstanding his grasp of the counter, Zachary sways side to side like a railroad sign warning drivers to stay off the tracks. His head hangs heavily, so that his chin practically appears glued to his upper chest. His eyes blink slowly, like a child fighting off sleep for fear of the monsters hiding in the night. He is at once frenetic with fear and dazed almost to the point of sleep. The line that exists between high energy and exhausted resignation has never been so thin; a precarious edge between survival and death that Zachary cannot walk just now without all that beer in his veins. Zachary hates that he has to use a crutch. His stoic resolve for years had been his means of standing tall amidst so much dark madness; and yet he seems unable to tap into any private reservoir of courage, let alone of moral absolutes, since hanging his sister’s corpse from the old tree.

         Abram steps silently into the kitchen. He stops a moment, and wrings his hands. He mutters something under his breath while looking down at his hands.

         Abram walks up to his son from behind him. He stares briefly at the back of his son’s head. Zachary appears oblivious to his father, even though Abram is near enough now to unsettle Zachary’s filthy hair slightly whenever he exhales.

         Abram reaches forward and starts to massage Zachary’s shoulders. There is a vacant look in Abram’s eyes, like he is stuck in a surreal dream that teeters on the edge of the darkest of nightmares. Abram’s lips twitch strangely, and so at any given time Abram either is lost inside his prayer or going for the jugular.

         You stayed out late last night, Abram says in a soft, but menacing, tone.

         Fired a few rounds, that’s all, Zachary responds sleepily.

         Sure, you went to the range, Abram says with a strange grin on his face.

         Yes, the range, Zachary mutters, like he is awakening from a deep sleep.

         But I don’t think that’s the whole story, Abram continues.

         Zachary lifts the beer bottle from the counter. He studies it in his hand a moment, like a doctor might eye something odd in a Petri dish. He swirls it two or three times for good measure. He drinks from the bottle, and winces. Either he is getting sick from so much beer, or he is wising up to Abram’s insinuation. Regardless, this momentary discomfort kicks some life back into Zachary’s body and soul. He returns the bottle to the counter, but now stands just a bit taller than before. He stares straight through the kitchen window, almost like he can see something sifting in and out of the darkness.

         So what do you think is the whole story, father? Zachary inquires without once turning away from the kitchen window in front of him. 

         Abram drops that strange grin from his face. He thinks about something, and then digs deeper into Zachary’s shoulders.

         I think you love Sarah, Abram whispers.

         Of course, I do, Zachary says. She is my sister. Last one I’ll ever have.

         She must be pretty special to you, Abram whispers.

         I’d do anything to keep her safe, Zachary remarks.

         So would I, Abram whispers closer to Zachary’s right ear. Guess that puts us on the same page. 

         Guess it does, Zachary remarks.

         We are of one mind when it comes to Sarah, Abram says.

         Because we both want to keep her safe, Zachary remarks.

         Yes, that’s right, Abram says with a strange glint in his eyes. 

         Zachary reaches for the bottle while still staring straight out the kitchen window. He swallows another mouthful of beer. He returns the bottle, but this time knocks it on its side. Beer slithers onto the counter and into the dirty sink.

         Safe from the beast, Zachary says. 

         Yes, Abram whispers while digging even deeper into Zachary’s shoulders.

         And safe from each other, Zachary says.

         Of course, Abram whispers with a strange grin. We have no choice but to protect her from one another. Sure, the beast is out there; but I have seen him in your eyes, and you have seen him in mine.

         Zachary feels a single tear slide down his left cheek. He can feel his face contort into a grimace of fear and pain. He hates how weak he is, and yet he is unable to patch the crack in the dam. The most he can do is to grip the edge of the counter even harder. Does he grip so hard that he punctures his fingers? He is not sure, and yet in his imagination he sees his blood dripping onto the floor.

         So what does that mean, father? Zachary asks.

         I think you know what that means, Abram says.

         Tell me, Zachary mutters while wiping away his tear with his right hand.

         Abram digs deeper still into Zachary’s shoulders. He feels all that meaty flesh rolling in between his fingers. He feels a tinge of sensual pleasure, yet he pushes that away at once. Instead, he experiences only guilt and shame. Horror clutches at Abram’s old throat, and he has to struggle to say what he says next.

         You don’t question how I love her, Abram whispers. I don’t question how you love her.

         Zachary pushes back from the kitchen counter. Abram releases his son at once, and he staggers back a few steps in total surprise. The yellow candlelight casts both of their faces in the color and the texture of sickly demons; so when Zachary turns abruptly on his heels, and stares into his father’s eyes, Zachary is a crazed devil about to succumb to his own madness. For once, Abram, startled and silenced a moment, is the sane one here. 

         I’m not going to let you touch her, Zachary snarls.

         Abram leans against the opposite counter. He feels his weakness in being the sane one here, and he determines to get the upper hand as fast as possible. To that end, he stares intently into Zachary’s glaring eyes, and speaks with the assured tone of a father knocking his son down a few pegs. 

         Son, you know as well as I do that we need to keep our bloodline intact, Abram remarks. Holy Jehovah God called us. Only us. 

         Abram steps forward. He speaks in a calm and steady voice.

         And so only our blood is sacred, Abram continues.

         In seconds, Zachary deflates from a larger than life demon to a pathetic, frightened child. As fear builds up, so does it tear down; and so Zachary has no more in him than to stare downward like a boy about to be disciplined by a fist.

         I know, Zachary whispers.

         And if we mix our bloodline with an outsider, a commoner, then we shall be defiled, like the Sons of Ham in ancient times, Abram continues.

         I know, Zachary whispers.

         Abram steps forward again, while Zachary stands still. Abram stops when his face is no more than a few inches from his son’s. He nudges Zachary’s chin up, so that Zachary has no choice, but to look at his father straight in the eyes.

         Abram resumes massaging his son’s fleshy shoulders, though now he does so face to face and with much less pressure. Indeed, Abram’s fingers press into the muscles so daintily as to seem more like kisses than anything else.

         And then the beast will devour us on the darkest night, Abram concludes with the tone of a righteous pastor allowing his sermon to linger in the fears of his congregation. 

         Like when you were fired from the stock exchange, and the IRS sent one of their Jews out to carry away everything you’d ever owned, Zachary remarks.

         Abram is stung by the memory. He drops his arms to his sides. 

         Yes, it is like that, except so much more, Abram concedes.

         There is the sound of tires grinding through sand. The headlights from an approaching vehicle shine through the kitchen window. For a moment, the light suffocates everything in the kitchen, but then it retreats just enough to reveal how tiny Abram and Zachary are in comparison to that trouble brewing outside.

         Abram and Zachary turn toward the window. They see the headlights but otherwise cannot identify the approaching car. 

         Or is it a car? Both men entertain the possibility that there is something much more sinister out there; something alive; a beast with radiant eyes that is not rolling across the sand, so much as clawing through it…

         A bird with a thunderous roar clawing through the sand…

         A Ford Thunderbird come out from the darkness for them…

         The world won’t leave us alone, Abram mutters under his breath.

         Zachary manages to tap into a reservoir of courage after all. Or, maybe, he is tapping into his fear, but in a way that springs him to action, rather than stops him cold. He leaves his father at the kitchen window, and bolts without a word for the pantry off to the side. He holds his head high, for he cannot recall frankly the last time he had felt this much raw anger rattling his bones. All this hatred intoxicates him, so that for the moment he struggles to recall why he is willing to fight to the death. 

         Zachary returns with two rifles. He tosses one to his father, and he grips the other one with so much intensity it is a wonder the rifle does not break into two halves.

         Holy Jehovah God! Abram cries out in fear. Where did you get these? 

         Doesn’t matter, Zachary responds.

         Yes, it does, Abram insists. Faith alone can save us.

         If you rely on faith alone, then why is my dead sister now hanging from a tree? Zachary asks with cold contempt, while continuing toward the front door.

         Don’t speak to me that way, Abram snaps back.

         Face it, father, you want insurance like everyone else, Zachary explains. Hanging Rachel from a tree is insurance…

         Zachary holds up the rifle, so that he draws Abram’s attention toward it.

         And so is this, Zachary concludes, before opening the door, and stepping boldly into the night.

*   *   *

         The headlights envelope Zachary, so that for a moment anyway he is one of those radiated ghouls that dances up a storm in the last reel of Fantasia. He walks too stiffly to be a dancer, and yet the manner in which the light plays off of his seething anger conjures up a kinetic life of its own. There is Zachary, the stoic, younger man with a rifle in his hands and a sister to protect; and there is Zachary, the cartoonish ghoul brought to life when a spotlight shines on his raw anger and fear. Is he principled, or is he reckless? Is he a righteous soldier, or is he a madman? The two versions of Zachary Mudd seem to sift in and out of one another, as those approaching headlights disorient, as much as they illuminate.

         Abram remains several paces behind his son. He senses the two versions of Zachary Mudd. He knows that the beast divides his son in two, as much as it empowers. Confusion is its weapon. Power is its seduction. Abram tells himself that he must stay strong in his righteousness, and delight in his separation from the world. Otherwise, the judgment that befell his daughter, and that drags all others into dark and lonely graves, will catch up with him in time. It will finish off what is left of his family, and then it will finish him. Oh, yes, on that night, the darkest night, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. He will be blind, the darkness seeing nothing in the darkness; and yet he will hear the wailing by his ears, the gnashing of teeth that have penetrated his flesh and his soul. It is going to be an infernal, guttural sound, vaguely menstrual; a sound that he now thinks will be like the T-Bird tires grinding through the sand in front of his small hideout. It will be the sound of invasion, of uncleanliness, of unpardoned guilt…

         Abram stops his stream of consciousness in midsentence, for Zachary has taken his stand about a hundred feet or so in front of the cabin. Abram is about halfway between his son and the cabin. Following Zachary’s example just then, Abram holds his rifle in port arms. He cannot tell if the rifle is loaded, or if it is capable of firing off one round, and so he will put his faith in his righteousness.

         Zachary eyes the T-Bird with contempt, as it comes to an abrupt stop in front of his steely gaze. He is facing the driver side door. He sees the dark form behind the steering wheel, and he smells the Marlboro cloud slithering out from the dark form’s mouth. The dark form glances at him with burning ember eyes.

         The dark form does not switch off the engine. Instead, he lets the T-Bird idle, like he wants to be able to escape quickly if necessary. Zachary can smell the dark form’s fear. In Zachary’s imagination, it is the smell of a wet rat; and so he feels that much more contempt. He grips his rifle so hard his palms seem to be fleshy extensions of the iron and the gunpowder. 

         The dark form opens the driver side door. Zachary realizes the dark form is an older man with stooped shoulders and nervous hands. The man is wearing a green suit with wide lapels. Beneath the jacket is the ruffled, white shirt of a Las Vegas lizard lounge singer. The man attempts to smile, and yet the slicked back hair and the anxious eyes suggest a poser incapable frankly of any sincere affection. Everything about this joker is fake, gaudy, like a greasy Pied Piper or tent show barker whose only joy is pulling the wool over the eyes of the person standing before him. For all his showmanship, though, the man cannot set aside how his hands tremble; and so he goes through ridiculous lengths to try to hide his trembling, soft hands behind his back or at one point even inside his jacket.

         Sorry to disturb you, the man says with feigned humility.  

         Then best be on your way, Abram responds with unforeseen vigilance. 

         Yes, sir, in a moment, the man pleads. My name is Charles Waxman…

         What do you want? Zachary snarls.

         Charles hesitates. He looks down at his hands, like he has blood on them but cannot remember how that happened. He shifts the weight on his feet from side to side. He is silent only seconds, but those seconds feel like an eternity of fear and shame rolled into this awkward encounter between strangers at night.

         I knew Rachel Mudd in town, Charles confesses.

         What the fuck? Zachary snaps, while stepping forward to get into the old man’s greying face. 

         Charles holds up his hands in a defensive posture. He steps back, until he is leaning against the side of his T-Bird.

         It’s not what you think, Charles pleads. You see, um, I was like a mentor for her…

         I bet, Zachary interrupts with a vicious snarl. 

         The only mentor a girl needs is her father’s firm hand, Abram remarks.

         Yes, I agree, Charles says with an anxious nod.

         If you agree, then why did you have anything to do with her? Abram asks in the prosecutorial vein of a righteous preacher. 

         That’s a question I ask myself every day, Charles says.

         Overcome with his seething anger, Zachary steps forward. He lifts his old rifle, so that the muzzle bumps up against Charles’ twitchy nose. Zachary’s arm muscles flex. He is prepped to fight this poser to the death. He tries to think he is doing so in order to protect Sarah, or to avenge Rachel, or to keep his family intact; but the raw anger surging through his veins right now prevents him from entertaining any particular conscious thought. He is not acting in response to a higher principle, nor from a reservoir of courage, so much as he is frightened in his heart that, somehow, this piece of shit in a green leisure suit is going to rob him of his last vestige of humanity. The irony is that he aims to protect his own humanity by freeing a beast he has kept caged in his soul for this very moment.

         I don’t like you, Zachary snarls.

         Oh, no, please! Charles cries like a frightened girl.

         Get on your knees, Zachary orders.

         What do you mean? Charles asks through his tears.

         Get on your fucking knees, Zachary yells, while bumping the rifle so hard against Charles’ nose that blood squirts out from the right nostril. 

         Oh, please! Charles cries, while falling to his knees.

         You fucked my sister, didn’t you? Zachary yells, while repeatedly hitting Charles’ forehead with his muzzle. Fucked her! Fucked her! Fucked her!    

         What? What? Charles whimpers.

         Didn’t you? Zachary screams.  

         An automobile rockets towards them. It appears to jet out from nowhere at once, like a cartoon beast that just pops out from a shadow to scare the kids who are munching cereal on a Saturday morning. 

         There is a whelp. Perhaps, that is the scream of a wolf; but upon further inspection, it seems to be a pulsing siren. The red tactical lights are very stark in contrast to the impenetrable darkness of the night this far out from town. It is as if the town has punched a hole through the shroud behind which the Mudd Family has been hiding for some time. The town police are as much invaders to the Mudds, as the Mudds are strangers to the town; and the result is an enmity that can be felt, inhaled; a phantom that plays on their minds and also clutches at their throats. Notwithstanding the raw violence on display just seconds ago, the imminent arrival of the police car seems to darken the scene even more so.

         Zachary steps back from Charles. He still points his rifle towards the old, bruised forehead; but now, he focuses upon the new stranger. He cannot tell if he is going to be able to control this situation, like he had taken control of this leisure suit loser, or if everything is about to fall apart. His face is a grimace of pain, but a solitary tear falling down his face suggests the dread just under the surface. He has been able to withstand so much pain over the years, but dread is a beast with many claws that seem to snap out at him from everywhere all at once. He cannot knock away all those claws, and so his tears start to flow; first just one, then the deluge that gives him the appearance of a scared, little boy.

         Ironically, on this occasion, Abram is much more outwardly stoic. He can see the hand of judgment behind all of this. He senses that this time the beast is coming for his son. Assuming that is the case, Abram will live to fight another night; and Zachary will not be here to interfere with his show of love for Sarah.

         The police car roars up to the T-Bird. It idles in a cloud of sand and soot.

         Officers Dirk Tweed and Steven Kirk leap out with their revolvers already pulled out from their holsters. 

         Drop your weapons! Steven Kirk screams.

         Get on the ground! Dirk Tweed screams.

         Zachary does not hesitate to do as told. He is an anguished soul, but this night anyway he is not suicidal. He lies with his face in the sand, and he pushes his rifle just out of reach. Still, though outwardly compliant, he is a cauldron of fear and anger under the surface. His silent tears burn dark lines into the sand.

         Abram follows his son’s example. He does not shed any tears, though. In his mind, he sees Sarah waiting for him at the foot of Rachel’s bed. He sees all that unclean, feminine blood on the bed, floor, and walls; and he sees how his one remaining daughter reaches out to him. Her eyes beg him to save her from all that darkness outside; but the way her lips almost smirk, that peculiar way a girl on the cusp of womanhood can wink with her mouth, does that not send a different message? Is it not the case that while the eyes say ‘save me,’ the lips say ‘take me,’ or something along those lines? Is it not the obligation of a girl, a rose about to bloom, to delight in her uncleanliness, so that divine judgment may fall as coals upon her soft head? As a man serves God, so must a girl serve man; a little girl, an innocent blush, a blood temptress staring up at her father.

         Charles remains on his knees. He looks every which way frantically, and he holds up his hands in a ‘do not shoot’ posture. He whimpers like a mutt with an injured paw. 

         The two police officers look at Charles with unmitigated disgust. Neither one of them frankly would mind if a bullet somehow ended up in the disgusting man’s head. They turn away from him, and focus on the Mudds, in part to stop themselves from doing something stupid to the puny dirt bag in the leisure suit.

         We have a right to defend our land, Abram calls out to the officers after momentarily lifting his face up from the dark sand. 

         No one doubts that, Abram, Dirk responds to him in a respectful manner. But your son here crossed the line.

         Steven Kirk forcibly handcuffs Zachary, while Dirk Tweed watches from a few feet away. Steven manages a few kicks to the left ribs while bending down to handcuff the young man. Dirk looks away so as not to see the vicious assault.

         In spite of the kicks to his ribcage, Zachary manages to lift his face from the dark sand and to speak very clearly to the assembled police officers. There is absolute hatred etched into the lines of Zachary’s face; and though Dirk has seen his share of psychos over the years, he is taken aback by the raw anger on display. Dirk holsters his firearm, and crosses his big arms, so as not to seem as taken aback as he really is at that moment. 

         That son of a bitch fucked my sister! Zachary cries.

         Stand up asshole! Steven yells while pulling Zachary up from the ground.

         I’ll kill him! Zachary cries, when finally he is standing upright. 

         Steven yanks back on the handcuffs, so as to remind Zachary who now is in charge. Zachary winces in pain, and momentarily relents. Charles looks up at Zachary, like he does not have a clue what is happening just now. This reaction only enhances Zachary’s anger toward him, and yet Zachary holds himself back.

         The only thing you’ll be killing around here is time, Dirk says with a grin.

         While you wait to talk to the judge, Steven scoffs.

         Steven pushes Zachary toward the police car. Zachary takes another look at the man who fucked his sister, and then he drops all resistance. He hangs his head low, while stumbling through the sand towards the flashing tactical lights.

         Dirk helps Charles to his feet. Charles still looks around bewildered. 

         Best you be on your way, Pee Wee, Dirk says to Charles.

         There is a flicker of recognition in Charles’ eyes. His face turns red, and he starts to grope his own crotch. Dirk glances down. It is hard to see anything, but he can smell the pungent urine of a sick, old man spreading out from there.

         May want to change your underwear, too, Dirk teases with a grin.

         Charles cups his crotch. He continues to look downward, like this will all end somehow if he just closes his eyes and ears to what is happening. His right foot twitches spastically, probably as a fear reflex, and he kicks up loose sand. He seems altogether mortified by the prospect of bringing even more attention to himself, and so he folds his left foot over his right like a too timid, little girl.

         Dirk shoves Charles toward his T-Bird. That seems to do the trick for the moment. Though still frightened, Charles composes himself enough to open the driver side door, slump behind the wheel of his idling car, and floor the gas. He leaves this nightmare in a cloud of sand and soot. 

         Dirk walks over to Abram. He looks down at the Jesus Freak. He realizes that he should loathe this man as much as he does this man’s son. Nonetheless, his gut has told him all along that Abram is not a villain, so much as a lost soul, like so many others turned dark and morbid by their own madness. No, the real crook here is Zachary, the handsome, hotheaded, smart bastard who rides into town now and then like he belongs there. Zachary has the looks and the smarts to lure, like no doubt that sick fuck who had lured his daughter away from her mother. The devil is not a raving lunatic. He is a charismatic pussy snatcher, an outlaw who attracts the ladies with his dopey, tear stained eyes, like he is one of those fucking heartthrobs in a soap opera or something…

         The kind of poser who lured his little girl…

         And, before that, lured his wife away from him…

         A dangerous man. Yes, that is what Zachary is. He is danger in the flesh; and like all such men he needs to turn state’s evidence, as Charles has done to some degree anyway, or he needs to rot in a jail cell until the devil claims him.

         You can stand up, Abram, Dirk says after a while. We’ll let you know, as soon as you can see your child. ‘Till then, I recommend you stay out of trouble.

         Abram slowly gets back to his feet. He leaves his rifle on the sand before him. He did not need it before, and he surely does not need it now. He will rely on the Lord God Jehovah to protect him…

         And to open Sarah’s heart to him, as a girl should be open to her father…

         Except that deep down he questions his faith. After all, did he not cringe a little, when his own son, his own flesh and blood, denounced him as faithless?

         Face it, father, you want insurance like everyone else… 

Hanging Rachel from a tree is insurance…

Dirk stares a moment at the old man. He almost reads Abram’s thoughts, for in his own way he too is lost. He has been lost since the moment his pretty, innocent girl disappeared. He senses that it would not take much of a push for him too to renounce civilization and to end up in a dark cabin so far from town.

Dirk snaps out of it. He nods sheepishly to Abram, and then walks away.

Abram watches Dirk and Steven get into the police car. He views his son alone in the backseat. His mind does not bother to record Zachary’s departure, though. Whatever mind he has left is consumed with that love he has for Sarah.

*   *   *

         Indeed, Abram does not remember much of anything, as that dark night continues unabated into two, then three, then seven nights without Zachary at his father’s side. He knows that he sleeps during the daytime. He has not been familiar to the sun for a long time, and there has been no reason since Zachary left to change course. After all, it is the night that demands vigilance, for even a cursory read of the Good Book makes clear that the beast will come out from the darkness. Does not the Master forsake the virgins who sleep away the night?

         And yet for all his vigilance, his frantic pacing from wall to wall inside of the cabin, his anxious wringing of hands, his incessant muttering of Bible verses and Fantasia dialogue, his mind seems to have remained asleep during the dark hours as well. Maybe, no man can stay awake this close to the end. If even the Disciples slept just hours before Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss, then why should Abram be any different? 

         Because the Lord God Jehovah ordained me, Abram answers himself. He set me apart to be the patriarch in a foreign land. He never chose the Disciples from among men. His Son did, and we all know how our sons can be in choosing their own friends. Let us face it. Sons do not have a clue, until they are fathers too; and even then we oldsters have to hold their hands from time to time. But the Father chose me. The Lord God Jehovah plucked me out from my past life, and dropped me into this endless night. 

         So why is it that I remember next to nothing since Zachary left me alone with Sarah? Is it because I am asleep twenty-four seven? Or is it because, deep down, I am ashamed, overwhelmed by my guilt, afraid to love the innocent girl when, finally, there is no one else within miles? What do I fear? That I may not, in fact, have what it takes to love her as the Lord God Jehovah so demands? Or do I fear that, like her counterpart in the Good Book, she will laugh, when I tell her that she can and must be with child before it is too late? And why do I fear her laugh? After all, she is simply a girl; and a man can turn a girl’s laughter to tears with the back of his hand. Do I fear her laugh because I know in my heart that that means she can see my faithlessness? Is that what this is? Unzipping my trousers and showing me just how dead my seeds are? Showing me, then smiling like a smarty pants girls? Smiling like a smarty pants girl that wants it deep and wants it hard? Smiling since she also knows I can’t get it up? Is that what this is?

         Abram feels his chin drop to his chest. His back aches because of his bad posture. He feels a heavy stone pushing down on his upper back, except that it is not a stone really. It is the sheer accumulation of all those fucking questions, those fears whispering to him from behind his ears; each question calcified into something like granite, impenetrable, hard edged, and interlocking with all the other questions to fashion that heavy stone on his upper back. He feels like one of those fuckers in Dante’s Inferno, already damned to a hell pit fashioned out from the darkest depths of his own imagination. He cannot escape anymore. No unclean corpse hanging from a tree can keep the beast at bay, not when in fact that beast is in here as out there. There is just weeping and gnashing of teeth…

         No, Abram insists, though it pains him to do so. There is also love.

         No, Abram rebuts himself. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. 

         No, Abram insists. With the Lord God Jehovah all things are possible, no doubt about it. Can He not bring life to my seed one more time? Moreover, can He not stiffen my resolve, so to speak? Of course, yes, absolutely, easy enough.

         Except that what is easy enough for the Lord God Jehovah is not so easy for Abram. Indeed, nothing is easy right now, not even staggering with a bottle of beer in hand from the living room into the blood smeared bedroom. All that sick menstrual blood is everywhere. Abram thinks of it as ‘cunt graffiti.’ He will not scrub it clean, and he has forbidden Sarah to do so, for in the end is not all this ‘cunt graffiti’ a good reminder of what happens when a pussy roams about the town like a cock on the walk? 

         And Sarah needs to be reminded. Just look at her face. Look deep inside her eyes. See how she grins with her eyes. Oh, yes, she is on the cusp; ready to open her cunt spigot any day now. She had better be turned to the straight and narrow now, or she will bleed out like her sister. Just like the Good Book says…

         Or is that something Abram learned from Fantasia? He cannot recall just now. He is not sure that the distinction matters. If God can speak to Moses in a burning bush, then He can speak to Abram in a cartoon as much as in the Bible.

         Abram sits on the edge of the bed. He faces the open doorway. There is a flickering candle behind him on the nightstand. There is no candle within the living room, so he faces into impenetrable darkness. Weeping and gnashing of…

         Abram drops his open bottle of beer by his right foot. He had tried to put it on the floor, but he tipped it over instead. Beer dribbles away from the open bottle, slowly, weakly, like something that might come out from his manhood if and when he tries to love one more time. Just one more time. God, just once…

         He bends forward, while sitting on the edge of the bed, so that his heavy head starts to fall to a point below his knees. He senses that if that happens he will be somersaulting across the bedroom floor and back into the living room. If he had been twenty years younger, then he might have done just that. A young drunk is a bruised drunk, because he starts off without much in the way of self-restraint. An old drunk may be lulled by liquor into a certain amount of foolish, even disreputable, behavior, but he starts off a little wiser. Something in him is going to stop him from somersaulting across a hardwood floor; and so old, limp geezer that he is, he uses his hands to hold up his head just in the nick of time.

         He rests his elbows on his thighs, while holding up his heavy head. He is a beaten man, not teary eyed, not yet anyway, but beaten down to his soul. He thinks that perhaps he will remain that way, until his old heart gives up on him.

         Just sit there with his face in his hands…

         Just sit there, while the candlelight interacts with the ‘cunt graffiti’ all around him to fashion so many ghoulish, purple red, death masks on the walls…

         Just sit there, while he imagines or smells all that dead menstrual flow…

         Sarah steps out from the living room darkness. She waits for a moment in the open doorway. The candlelight flickers off of her flush cheeks in such a way as to accentuate her youth, her innocence, like she is a juicy, sweet peach still to be plucked off the vine. She sucks her thumb so hard it is possible to hear an annoying ‘squeak, squeak, squeak’ every time she sucks the saliva off her small thumbnail. It is the sound of a four-year-old girl turning her small tongue into a lollipop vacuum; a sound that pleases or that grates depending upon the extent to which a man can ‘suffer the little children,’ as the Good Book commands us.

         And yet for all that innocence, there is also a knowing look in her eyes; a maturity born of years of suffering. There is also calculation frankly beyond her thirteen years. ‘Conniving Jezebel Whore,’ Abram would think, if then he lifted his face from his hands and stared into her penetrating eyes. No doubt, Jezebel had the same look in her eyes on more than one occasion, and yet it is also the look of a survivor. Though she wears her shawl like the Virgin Mary, and indeed has only the foggiest sense of what it means to be a whore, Sarah senses that a girl’s survival hinges on her ability to hook a man’s heart. The whore survives in this harsh world of ours, not so much because of the dollar bills left on her old nightstand, but because of what she whispers when her john relaxes beside her after the deed. She hooks him in those small moments, because the alternative is for the beast man to take a bite out of her. It is one or the other in the game of love, assuming for a moment that this madness really is love. Sarah is not so sure that it is, and yet she has no idea what else love possibly can be.

         Sarah removes her thumb from her mouth. She looks thoughtfully at her father with big and expressive eyes. To be sure, there is still calculation in her eyes; but there is also fear, not just for herself, but even more so for the weak and confused man sitting on the edge of the bed. 

         Father, what is wrong? Sarah asks.

         Everything, Abram says, after lifting his face from his hands.

         Is Zachary coming home soon? Sarah asks.

         There is a flash of indignation on Abram’s face. When it passes, Abram is left with nothing but his sorrow and confusion. Part of him wishes that he could hold onto his competitive hostility toward his son, for he has learned over many years that raw anger focuses his mind better than anything else. Instead of raw anger there is only heaviness, greyness; the distinct sensation of being pushed, slowly, irreversibly, into the ground beneath the hardwood floor. 

         I don’t know, Abram replies in a slow and sleepy tone. Maybe sometime, maybe never. 

         May I sit on your lap? Sarah asks.

         Abram looks at Sarah with a baffled expression. He rubs his cheeks with his open palms, like he is trying to massage some sense back up to his brain. He blinks wildly a moment, like he is putting her back into focus. 

         Then, the light bulb in his head goes on. Abram wraps his arms about his chest, like he is too cold all of a sudden. He looks both ways. The coast is clear apparently, at least inside this bedroom. Even the Lord God Jehovah appears to have left the two of them alone in this small room full of ghoulish blood masks. Does the beast watch them? Yes. He does, but Abram cannot stop that anymore than he can exhale his life into Rachel’s nostrils and carry her alive back home.

         What do you mean he does? The beast is an it, not a he, a goddamned it.

         Except that Abram does not really believe that anymore. Perhaps, deep down, he never did. Oh, sure, there is a monster out there in the forest, a sick, perverse thing that cannot be captured by the imagination, let alone defined as a he or a she. But what about the beast inside this very bedroom? Is he not real and incarnate, grappling with his self-destructive fears, and yet thinking about the opportune moment to deflower the innocence handed to him? 

         Sure, Abram says finally. That’s harmless enough. No one’s going to see us way out here.

         That’s right, father, Sarah says with a trace of a smile. No one.

         Sarah steps forward. She sits on Abram’s left thigh. She wraps her arms about his torso, and rests her right cheek against his shoulder.

         Abram does not seem to react at all to Sarah’s nearness. Instead, he just stares into the darkness beyond the open doorway. He has been beaten down in so many ways by his own madness. He fears now that his depression has turned a dark corner, that it is irreversible, and that even having Sarah sit on his lap is not going to change the direction of his life. There is nothing, but wailing and…

         What will happen if Zachary never comes home? Sarah whispers.

         Then, it’ll just be the two of us, Abram answers with resignation.

         I’d miss him, Sarah whispers, while a tear slides down her face.

         I know, Abram whispers back.

         I’d cry for him, Sarah whispers, after wiping the tear off her face.

         Abram thinks a moment. There is a flush of color behind his cheeks. He is not angry, so much as awake. Still, there is a hint of indignation in the words that follow; a sense he has been wronged and has a right to balance the scales.

         What if I went away? Abram asks, while he squeezes his daughter closer to him. Would you cry for me? Think about me like you do him? 

         I don’t know, Sarah whispers, while she wipes away a second tear. 

         Remember when you were soaking me in the bathtub? Abram asks with a peculiar expression in his eyes. You told me that no one could ever love you, as I love you. Are you sure you would not cry for me? Miss what we share together?

         I don’t know, Sarah whispers.

         You’re confused, Abram explains, while staring into the darkness beyond the bedroom doorway. Your feelings of love, your loyalty, your commitment to our special family, all of that remains so unsettled in your mind.

         I don’t know, Sarah whispers.

         Let me settle things for you, Abram continues. Let me show you what love is. We need to be a united front, or the beast will tear us down one by one on a night like this one.

         I don’t know, Sarah whispers.

         Abram turns away from the darkness beyond his open doorway. He looks deeply into Sarah’s eyes. He can see the devil in them, and yet there remains a hint of her childhood innocence as well.

         The beast is very close now, Abram whispers conspiratorially. Maybe, no further away than the jail cell, where they are keeping my son. 

         Sarah stares intently into Abram’s eyes. The intensity of her look offsets him a bit, that is until she sheds a troubled tear. She showcases enough private vulnerability to elicit a twitchy half-smile upon Abram’s otherwise serious face.

         Father, why do you scare me? Sarah asks. 

         Abram does not say anything at first. Instead, he slowly and deliberately uncoils Sarah’s shawl. He lets the shawl drop to the bloodstained floor. He does not so much as glance at the shawl when doing so. 

         Sarah fidgets nervously, but otherwise does not resist her much stronger father. Whatever calculation she may have exhibited before seems long gone at this moment. Her eyes scream out in fright.

         Abram slowly moves his right hand through Sarah’s hair. Sarah does not respond at all. Her eyes look blank, like something inside of her mind had been switched off just a moment before; and yet for all her outward passivity, there is something about Sarah’s behavior that suggests a penchant for manipulation.

         Because I love you, Abram answers after a while. I want you to be strong at the very end. As the Good Book tells us: ‘Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walks about seeking whom he may devour.’

         I guess I can’t tell, if you are here to protect me, or if you are that lion, Sarah whispers with her downtrodden voice. 

         Abram turns red in the cheeks. He does not remember the last time he had been so insulted. Still, he has enough self-restraint to stay just where he is on the edge of Rachel’s bloodied bed.

         If anyone in our family is a lion, then it is your brother, Abram comments with clear irritation. 

         Suddenly overwhelmed by the fear and the anger bubbling hot just under his skin, Abram takes one more look into Sarah’s eyes, and then drops her most unceremoniously to the floor. He staggers out of the bedroom, a drunken fool, a man on a mission, perhaps a bit of both. Surely, he could not be stopped then from fleeing this bedroom and embracing whatever madness he has in his mind.

*   *   *

         Zachary staggers from one side of the jail cell to the other. His awkward steps and flushed face suggest drunkenness, although he has not had a stiff one since being tossed into this dark and damp corner of Hell. Crooks awaiting their court dates can smuggle in all sorts of goodies; and, frankly, if he had not been so closely watched, his friend George would have kicked under his jail cell door several of those tiny whiskey bottles found in hotel refrigerators. Those bottles can be crushed into tiny pieces and flushed down the toilet; or if Zachary hears the distinct steps of the fascist brown shirt inspector, he can hide his bottles in his asshole. The inspector makes him take off all his clothes three times a day, just to make sure ‘there ain’t no funny business;’ but he never uses his stick to pull open the sides of Zachary’s tight ass. The inspector is a ‘Christ Man,’ as he reminds the crooks under his supervision, and is pretty certain that inspecting a man’s dark asshole is about as queer as The Village People feeding one another steamed hotdogs. Instead, he just sort of bends his mustached face closer to the naked ass, and sniffs. He can smell contraband, he insists, ‘like a Jew can smell money.’ Zachary has never tested the inspector’s claim, since George has not been able to get close enough to give him anything he should not have.

         Still, though he perspired away the last of his liquor a long time ago, the young man in the Amish clothing looks like he is shitfaced drunk. He opens and shuts his fists compulsively. He mutters something indecipherable. He clenches his eyes shut to keep the tears from flowing. His stoic face looks like a chiseled rock about to burst out from the inside. The real jail cell is not this small room, but rather his flesh and blood. His mind is the warden. His spirit is the criminal pushing against the limits and trying to figure out a means of escape. Like most criminals who have been incarcerated too long, his spirit has evolved over time into a dark and demented creature not all that different from his father. There is a light still, buried beneath all that rage, contorted by madness, and dimmed almost to the point of submission. That light is his moral compass, his capacity to love, his yearning to protect what little actual innocence may remain in this condemned world of ours. In that light, he sees Sarah; the last girl who has any openness at all to the love he desires to focus on her. In that sense, she then is as much his salvation, as he intends to be for her; two beaten souls surviving on the edge for no other reason than to hold one another when the beast pounces.

         There is always a correctional officer on watch. Though the men change every eight hours, they are all substantially the same: pudgy, balding, boozing, good ol’ boys who sit at a desk at the other end of the hall, ostensibly keeping tabs on the newest addition to the club, but actually snoozing, guzzling rot gut, or flipping the pages of Guns & Ammo

         There are a few derelict boozers in the other cells, but for the most part this wing is empty and set apart from the rest of the jail. A flickering light bulb hanging from the ceiling about midway down the hall provides Zachary his only light. Given that his small, rectangular window to the outside world (nothing to see out there anyway but a rat infested dumpster) had been boarded up before they threw him in there, Zachary has been mired in flickering grey shadows the whole time he has been waiting for his court date. 

         Zachary hears a distinctive footstep coming down the hallway. At first, it sounds to him like the footsteps of the inspector, though he has been inspected already three times today. Moreover, though Zachary is not sure of time inside of here, he is pretty sure that it is after hours. The inspector leaves the facility for his favorite bar stool every day promptly at five. The inspector protests too much that he only frequents a ‘Christian owned bar’ where the King of Beers is tailor made for the King of Kings. 

         So that is not likely the inspector. It could be the watchman, but they do not walk with the strong and rhythmic goosestep of a SS Terminator. Indeed, to the extent that they get off of their fat asses at all, they waddle and fart their way from point A to point B. No, that is definitely not the watchman. Whoever it is is much more menacing, calculating; a horror stepping out of the shadows.

         Zachary stops pacing in the middle of his jail cell. He listens to the slow, rhythmic footsteps. He knows that he could walk up to the bars and look down the hallway, but he is too frightened just then to do so. Adding cold fear to his raw anger proves so disorienting that, for a moment, he wonders if he is inside one of his stranger nightmares. The line between reality and fantasy, between what the world is and how he shapes the world with his anger and despair, is so thin now as to be gone. Without that line, there is no escape from his own dark fantasy; and there is no escape back into reality. He is stuck in a twilight world between the two; a world where the beast sifts in and out of the endless night.

         And so as frightened as he is just then, he is not surprised when he views the demonic face of Angel Muerte suddenly materialize out from the darkness. His squeaky, black, leather clothing stays hidden in the darkness, even when on occasion the flickering light bulb tosses a bit of illumination in this direction. It is as if his demonic face is floating. A hood hanging over the top half of Angel’s forehead suggests a wizard experienced in the art of black magic. Indeed, even as Zachary slaps himself to make sure that he is awake, everything about Angel Muerte seems to exist in fantasy. He could be that Devil in Fantasia, or worse…

         Hey, puta, not too ballsy in there, are you? Angel inquires with a smirk.

         Zachary does not respond at first. Instead, he fixates on the hulking form that stands slightly behind Angel. The form is more monster than man, and yet Zachary makes him out to be that mute man-child, Serafina. Zachary hears how Serafina chomps on an ice cream cone. Though Serafina remains largely hidden in shadows, strawberry ice cream can be seen sputtering out from his huge lips and splashing on the floor. 

         You’re still tied up, Angel comments. No better off than when I left you in the forest. 

         Zachary darts his eyes away from Serafina. He sees the smug expression on Angel’s face. His first reaction is one of raw anger. The fear that might hold him in check is gone. He clenches his hands into tight fists, and practically spits out his words. Still, though emoting his hot anger, Zachary holds back his tears.

         So are you going to ask me for my passport? Zachary asks.

         Sure, Angel chuckles. Show me. 

         Here it is, Zachary says, while rubbing his crotch as an obscene gesture. This gives me the right to go wherever the fuck I want to go. 

         I don’t think so, puta, Angel responds.

         Fuck you, Zachary snaps back, and then releases his crotch. 

         You wish, Angel responds with an insidious grin. No, the way I see it once a butt boy always a butt boy. You’ve spent your whole life bending over for the man. Don’t you know it?

         I don’t have to listen to this, Zachary mutters.

         Taking it deep, taking it hard, Angel continues. So that you can buy time for the ones you love. Isn’t that true?

         That’s bullshit, Zachary mutters with increased agitation.

         Most of the time you went numb, Angel continues with a knowing smirk. But sometimes you liked it…

         That never happened! Zachary screams.

         Zachary releases his tears. The waterfall down his cheeks should provide him some relief, and yet he feels even more agitated now. It is like the granite dam behind which he has been hiding for so long is crackling into pieces. Tears flow out from his bowels and mark up his face with the wounds of his own past.

         Or are these the tears of his dark and sordid imagination? Is he haunted really by his past? Or is he haunted instead by past and present dreams that he never should have entertained? Dark creatures in his mind that are coming alive now, because he did not bury them with the rest of his morbid childhood fears?

         Where exactly does the dark road turn sharply away from reality and dip into fantasy? For that matter, does it ever? 

         This is what happens when the dam breaks. The questions pour through, one, then another, then too many ever to answer. There is either stoic resolve, or there is moral and intellectual confusion, madness, despair; nothing but one extreme or the other in a life lived so close to the edge for so goddamned long.

         You know why we hate the whore? Angel asks. Not because she gets paid but because she fucking likes it. Likes it deep, and likes it hard…

         Get the fuck out of here! Zachary screams.

         And where did your whoring get you? Angel asks. Huh? Tell me, butt boy.

         Zachary wipes away his tears with the back of his hand, and he drops his head in shame. He hates how weak and pathetic he must look at this moment, especially in front of this dark menace, and yet he cannot put on a strong face anymore. The lies that had kept him sane before no longer work for him. There is only the truth now; and with the truth comes darkness, confusion, the beast. Yes, always that fucking beast, the smile coming out from the shadows because Zachary cannot hack it. Zachary cannot save himself, let alone his pretty sister.

         Tell me, butt boy, Angel repeats himself.

         This breaks Zachary’s stream of consciousness. He continues to hang his head low, but at least he has found his voice once more.

         Nowhere, Zachary answers with resignation.

         Tied to a tree; behind bars; trapped inside your own head, Angel laughs.

         Go away, please, Zachary pleads.

         I’d make you my bitch, but you’re not packing enough heat, Angel says.

         Just go away, Zachary pleads. Leave me alone.

         Zachary resumes pacing back and forth inside his jail cell. He opens and shuts his fists compulsively. He taps his chin repeatedly against the very top of his chest. He resembles a cartoon character about to blow steam from his ears.

         You’re good enough for scraps, Angel snarls, before fading back into the darkness. Food for a fucking dog. That’s about it. 

         Serafina giggles and farts in response to this last comment. Zachary does hear that much, but then he is so consumed by his own emotions that he blocks out any other sounds. For that reason, he never hears them walk away. He does not even sense how much time passes. 

         Until he is jolted back to his senses by a familiar voice…

         What’s with the ants in the pants, dude? George Crapp says with a laugh.

         Zachary opens his eyes. He sees that he is standing upright in the center of the jail cell. He has been swaying his fists beside his thighs, like his fists are dumbbells that he is about to hoist up to his chest. His butt also feels raw, like maybe he had been rubbing his butt cheeks together. None of that makes sense unless he had snapped into madness for a while and is just now coming up from below water. 

         Seeing George in the light cast by the flickering light bulb, and recalling where he is and what has happened, Zachary runs up to the cell bars. He holds onto them, like they are iron spikes floating on top of a turbulent sea. There is no doubt in his mind that he will sink beneath the surface again, if he lets go of these cell bars. The anxious look on his face makes clear how close he is now to total despair, so that George senses something is wrong before Zachary speaks.

         I’ve got to get out of here, Zachary pleads. 

         Yeah, and I’ve got to get laid, so what else is new? George responds with humor in an attempt to deflate the horrid tension. 

         I almost killed the bastard who put his seed in my sister, Zachary states. I looked at his face up close, and I saw death.

         Listen, buddy, I wouldn’t talk that way around here, George states after looking down the hall to make sure that the watchman is still on his piss break. Not if I were in your shoes.

         I don’t give a fuck who hears me, Zachary screams. Do you understand?

         George glances down the hall again anxiously. He looks back at Zachary, and holds up his hands as if to urge ‘be quiet’ or ‘shut the fuck up, loudmouth.’

         I loved her, Zachary still screams. I saved her chastity I forget how many times. I taught her by my example how to survive the darkness.

         Shit, man, you’re starting to sound like your old man, George comments.

         And she goes off and lets some other man take her pussy, Zachary cries.

         Whoa! George says, as he steps back. You’re talking about your sister.

         Zachary flinches. He steps back from the bars. Wringing his hands now in confused silence, Zachary looks back at George as if to ask his friend, ‘So what do I do now?’ Without an answer soon, Zachary is liable to lose his mind totally.

         So this Charles Waxman fellow truly left your sister hanging, George says in a somber tone.

         So that’s his real name, huh? Zachary asks.

         That’s what I hear, George responds.

         Zachary thinks a moment. He then walks up to the bars. He grips two of the bars, and stares intently through the space between them. His expression is much more relaxed now, almost too calm, like the peace before the storm. The glint in his eyes is the only giveaway that he remains as consumed by raw anger as earlier. His voice now is as cold and as smooth as blue ice. 

         I am going to hurt him, Zachary says.

         I can see that, George says.

         Will you help me? Zachary asks.

         George hesitates only for a moment. 

         Yes, George says. Anything for you.

         Thank you, Zachary whispers.

         There is a moment of uneasy silence between the two friends.

         Zachary then steps back from the bars. He wrings his hands together, as if all of a sudden he realizes that he is cold in this dark and damp cell. He does not remove his eyes from George, for he senses that George is his one and only living lifeline in an ‘End Times’ world of insidious shadows and moral confusion.

         So when am I getting out of here? Zachary asks.

         George relaxes. He leans on the bars, and smiles with real affection.

         Now, George answers.

         You’re not fucking with me, right? Zachary asks.

         Judge Moose is a ‘Stand Your Ground’ kind of guy, George answers with a sly twinkle in his eye. He granted bail, and I posted it. 

         How can I thank you? Zachary asks with a sigh of relief.

         That’s for another time, George answers with a smile.

         George unlocks and opens the jail cell door. Zachary steps out from the dark space. Zachary’s skin looks almost snow white in the illumination from the flickering light bulb. He has been out of the sun for so long he is turning into an old and colorless ghost of his former self. George wonders if his friend is going to pass death and just fade into the graveyard set aside for all of us at the end.

         Zachary hugs George. The hug is warm, passionate; and for a moment at least George erases that dark image in his head of Zachary as the walking dead.

         Now, go home, and take a bath, George says lightly, after they both hug.

         You’ll help me, right? Zachary asks in all earnestness. 

         George pauses a moment. Then he looks at his friend straight in the eye.

         Listen, I have no personal beef with Charles Waxman, George comments. But if you want to close the book on him, I can make things happen.

*   *   *

         Abram paces back and forth in the living room. He is a madman inside of a jail cell, except that the bars are no more substantial than the shadows cast by several flickering candles. He had lit as many candles as he could find, when he staggered out from the bedroom. There is just enough light for him to read verses aloud from his leather bound Bible; but, for the most part, he is walking back and forth as if a blind man captured in a menagerie of menacing shadows.

         He tries not to notice how the shadows leap out for him, when several of the candle flames at once surge upward or to the side. Instead, he focuses only on the open Bible several inches beneath his nose. He twitches his nose quite a bit, like the tired pages inside the leather bound book stink to high heaven. His lips move compulsively. He may be whispering gibberish, or he may be straining for the words of a prayer. Regardless, he seems unhinged and so capable at the slightest pretext of hurting himself or his daughter, while the flickering candles and the leaping shadows make sport with his dismal condition. 

         He flips through the pages beneath his heaving nostrils. He is not certain what he wants; but whenever the Spirit moves him so, he thrusts his right index finger into the page, like he is stabbing the verse back into the parchment from which it originally came. He will mutter something about ‘Jezebel’ or ‘Hosea’s Wife,’ and then continue flipping through the pages with the anxiety of a rabid dog. This pattern continues unabated for some time, until at once a light turns on in his deranged mind. He sees clearly those monsters inside his imagination, which scare him so; but he also sees the Biblical verse that he must read aloud.

         The Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, Verse 11, Abram states in a loud, sermon like manner, when he finds the right page. And Holy God Jehovah says: If two men are fighting, and then the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from the other, and she reaches out and seizes him by his own private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity. 

         Abram hears a footstep. He stops in his track, and looks toward the open bedroom door. He sees Sarah there, though at first he thinks that she is just an image cast by candlelight; an image come to life in virtue of his dark madness…

         But then he sees her wide open eyes…

         Her pouty, seductive lips…

         The calculating mind of an old whore, and yet the heart of a little girl…

         Abram is not sure what to say to her, if anything. He trembles a moment and then manages to get some control over his flesh. All the while he continues to hold his Bible open beneath his nose, like a judge calling out his verdict from the pages of an old book. 

         Sarah resumes sucking her thumb. 

         Incensed, Abram wags his right index finger at the Jezebel Whore.

         You are toying with me, Abram seethes. First, you say that no one else could love you as I do. Then, you say that I am a lion on the prowl. A devil lion!

         Abram waits a moment to see if there is any reaction.

         Sarah offers him nothing, but a blank stare through a pair of big, round, lifeless eyes. The utter silence between them hardens into an unvoiced scream.

         Girl, don’t you realize that I have a God given right to cut off your hand? Abram asks in a slow and steady tone. To show you no pity? To make you sleep with the dogs? 

         To hang me from a tree? Sarah asks in a small, but defiant, voice. 

         Abram slams his Bible shut. His face erupts into a vicious snarl. He waves his Bible in her direction like it is a leather bound extension of his index finger.

         Cursed Jezebel! Abram screams. What do you know of that?

         You should speak with Zachary about what I do and do not know, Sarah responds. Ask him who loves me. Ask him who protects me. Ask him which one of you is the man and which one of you is the beast.

         Abram wants to pummel Sarah to the floor. He restrains himself until the moment passes.

         He places his Bible on a living room table. He looks around anxiously for a few seconds, like he had forgotten everything when he had set his Bible upon the table. He then staggers toward the kitchen, while Sarah eyes him carefully.

         Just before stepping into the kitchen, Abram turns around, so that he is staring straight into Sarah’s blank face. He wags his right index finger at her for awhile, before he finally finds the words that best express his fears. 

         I know what you are doing, Abram remarks in a defeated voice. Turning father against son, and son against father. 

         Sarah does not respond. She just resumes sucking her thumb. 

         Abram does his best to seem outwardly calm and collected, but the fear in his eyes is palpable. He grins uneasily at her, opens the front door, and then escapes into the night.

*   *   *

         Except that Abram cannot escape…

         He pushes low hanging branches from his bloodshot eyes. He kicks slime covered rocks away from his path. He shoots his old knees up as high as he can, so that he can extend his stride from a tired stagger to an all out run. Although the dark forest now is much thicker than it had been earlier, he senses that he is picking up speed nevertheless. 

         That does not seem to matter, though, for his raw survival instinct keeps screaming like a banshee inside his head. The inner voice does not articulate a word or a phrase that makes sense rationally, but the siren’s wail of terror now echoing from one of his inner ears to the other conveys a clear enough message to his heartbeat and to his legs. 

         The message may be translated as follows: The beast is getting closer by the second; so you had better pick up your pace, old man, unless of course you have a death wish. 

         Abram does not have a death wish, although he cannot explain rationally why that should be the case. If anything, then what is left of his hard reason is telling him to pull the plug on this horror. The beast cannot be stopped, not for long anyway, since there are only so many corpses he can hang from a tree. He is a fool, if he thinks that anything he does now will make a difference when he has to account for the life that he has lived.

         At least, that is what his conscious mind insists. In his anxious heart, his twisted bowels, he realizes that if he looks over his shoulders just then he will come face to face with death. Indeed, he practically smells the rancid odors of dead flesh breathing down the back of his neck. He practically tastes the beast sweat dribbling onto the top of his head and down his cheeks. 

         And regardless of what his conscious mind may insist, his animal instinct pushes his feet forward. In his heart, his bowels, his innermost fears, he wants to live. Like a rabbit running toward its hole, he simply wants the air that flows in and out from his lungs to be his own. He does not want answers. Nor does he want assurances. Just the knowledge that the air in his lungs is his will suffice…

         And while his inner voice does not speak in words, he can hear the deep, guttural voice of the beast echoing real words from fantasy to reality and back again. ‘Judgment is nigh,’ the beast says. ‘And I’m your judge and executioner, little man. I’m the cock tease about to bend you over my barrel into eternity…’

         That is more than enough to foster yet another beat of his anxious heart, and yet another twist of his bowels, no matter that his conscious mind finds no reason any longer to try to outrun the inevitable. Without reason propelling his feet forward, he is no more substantial than a frightened rabbit leaping further into the forest to escape the clutches of its predator. There is no courage in his struggle, no higher principle behind his effort, nothing, really, but the mindless instinct to take in one more breath after the previous one. Mindless not only to the extent that it is instinct driven, but also mindless because it is futile. There will be a moment he tires, or falls to the ground, or cannot push aside the thick branches; and when that happens, the beast will devour him, as much as it tore the flesh from the bone off that Jezebel Whore swinging from the gallows tree.

         Abram looks up from his feet at one point. He sees that somehow the old forest seems thousands of years older than he remembers. The abundant trees are stooped, spindly, ready to crack into several pieces like dried Paper Mache. The low hanging branches do not dance in the wind, so much as they heave big, shallow breaths, like an old man does when confined to his death bed. Though the trees and the foliage are much less substantial individually, there are many more of them than he remembers. He imagines too many tombstones in an old, dilapidated graveyard. The tombstones are crumbling back into the earth, but there are so many of them that it is impossible for him to sense the life beyond all this death and decay. For Abram, the whole of the universe exists inside this haunted forest; the mask taken off of the face of eternity to reveal nothing but death in all directions. Disorienting moonlit gloom everywhere with just a hint of the thickening, hissing fog that will smother Abram’s mad soul before dawn…

         Abram stumbles to his knees. He shoves his hands forward so that his old and weathered face does not also slam into the ground. As a result, he cuts his wrists on jagged tree roots. 

         Abram sits up on his knees. He holds his hands up. He cannot believe the sheer amount of thick blood gurgling out from the cuts in his wrists. The blood is so abundant and thick as to be almost cartoonish. 

         Blood slides down both of his forearms. His eyes open wide with stunned horror. His mouth opens, and then falls to one side, like he has suffered a mild stroke. Whether or not that is literally true, his mind just switches off for some period of time, while his big eyes stare blankly at all that gurgling blood. 

         Wind howls around his face. It is a cold, misty wind; but what scares him the most, even as his conscious mind remains oblivious, is that ghostly wail that sifts back and forth from the forest wind to his imagination. It is the wail of the damned; a voice from beneath the grave that demands vengeance for his gross failures as a father and as a prophet. 

         He tries to shut out that incessant wail by slamming both of his bloodied palms against his ears. That accomplishes nothing, since the wail can survive as much in his crazed mind as anywhere else. 

         He lowers his hands from his ears. He does not see the blood smears left on each cheek. At first glance, his face looks like that of a demented and aged clown. The strange tremble in his lips certainly suggests that he is a clown well on his way to madness. 

         There is a vicious snap not too far behind him. It is a boot heel crushing a tree root. It is followed almost at once by another hard step in his direction. He imagines one of those Terminator androids he remembers from the days he used to watch Hollywood films. There is just a hint of a grin on the face of that android, though admittedly that grin may be as imaginary as everything else he sees and hears so far from his sanity. 

         Abram staggers back to his feet. Though terrified he cannot help himself just then from looking behind his left shoulder.

         He sees one of the low hanging branches pull to one side. It moves like a tattered curtain. He senses that if he stares a second or two more, then he will see a pair of radiant red eyes staring back at him. 

         The hungry eyes of a flesh eating rat…

         Or perhaps the eyes of a fire breathing dragon…

         The wind slaps at his face. It is colder now, like the air blown into an old and inefficient meat locker, and yet for that reason it snaps blood back into his cheeks and reason into his mind. He is stunned a brief moment by the clarity of thought now circulating through his conscious mind. He knows where he is, how he got there, and what he needs to do next. 

         And what he needs to do next is to run…

         Because the low hanging branch is out of the way, and the footsteps are getting closer…

         Closer…

         Abram rushes forward, even though both his knees are now screaming in his mind like crazed banshees. His inner voice is in there somewhere, too, and the result is a splash of mental pain and confusion that nearly knocks him back to the ground. 

         Still, for all his erratic running through the haunted forest, he senses the beast even closer than before. It is as if the beast has inserted its bloody claws into his back. It is being dragged as much as it is staggering to keep up with his breakneck pace into madness. It drools its hot saliva down the back of his neck.

         And it chuckles in his right ear.

         Judgment is nigh, the beast chides. About to bend you over my barrel.

         Abram swings his arms erratically, like somehow that is going to release the beast from his back. He deliberately runs through a wall of gnarly branches and dead rose bushes like a horse trying to knock the rider off its back. Nothing works, though, for his laughing beast continues to spit grease into his right ear.

         Then, all at once, Abram again falls to his knees. He thrusts his bloodied right palm forward to keep his face from hitting the ground. With his left hand, drenched in thick blood, shaking uncontrollably, he points up at the corpse that is swinging from a gallows tree. He points with his index finger in the fashion of the accusatory judge; and for a brief moment, he is again the Righteous Man of an Angry God. He feels his power, and then he feels it slide away like dry sand.

         He falls onto his right side. He feels the life gurgling out from his wrists.

         Is that the beast ripping open his upper back? 

         Burrowing into his flesh like a rabid rat searching for food?

         Squeezing his heart with one of its claws?

         Abram opens his eyes, while still mumbling that last question. He is on a cold cement floor. There is a flickering light bulb in the hallway. It is too far to illuminate this dark room. At most, the light bulb causes the shadows to dance like ghouls around a bonfire; and yet he senses that that has more to do with a demented chuckle in his own imagination than with the actual interplay of light and dark. For all he knows this room may be totally dark; a corner tucked away in Hell for damned prophets and permissive fathers.

         And, yes, for all his Bible talk, he had been too permissive. How else can he explain the antics of the Jezebel Whore now hanging from a gnarly old tree? What can he say when the Jezebel Whore gets knocked up outside of the family and bleeds divine judgment over her sheets and onto her floor? Is he not guilty?

         A thick and disorienting fog starts to ascend from beneath the floor. It is a cold and clammy veil that grabs and gnaws at his skin, even as it also spreads across what appears now to be a jail cell. 

         Strangely, the fog does not appear to move beyond the bars and into the hallway. It is contained by something. A force field? An unseen wall? Perhaps in a way that defies reason the light bulb flickering over the hall also pushes back the fog. Regardless, the light bulb now appears as if an unattainable beacon; a shoreline pulling away from the man in the cell.

         And the result is that Abram is desperately alone…

         Stuck inside this cell with nothing but his own fears…

         He pushes himself up, so that he is sitting on his knees. He wipes what at that moment feels like sticky sleepiness from his eyes. He focuses on a glowing, human form standing in the fog where the jail cell bed should be. His bloodied, gooey lips tremble as if scared that they can no longer utter a simple prayer so close to Hell. His bloodied hands quiver so much he cannot fold them in prayer.

         The glowing form across the cell turns out to be the decomposing corpse of Rachel Mudd. She is standing on the floor. A tight noose hangs from her blue, twisted neck. It drapes the front of her torso like the long hair of the mythical Ciguapa. In keeping with the folklore surrounding the Ciguapa, Rachel’s rotting feet are twisted backwards, so that along with her contorted neck she seems to be twisting at the end of her rope even while standing still. 

         Rachel is wearing the same blood drenched, threadbare granny dress she had worn the night she died. Her skin is blue, cracked open several places, and peeling away from her wounds like discolored rose petals opening outward from their floral ovary. Her left eye is gone. She is Blind Horus; her feminine energy, her charm, her seductive smile, all dead now and forever shrouded by the dark nothingness that is life without sight. In place of that eye is dead brain matter, gurgling out from inside the empty eye socket, and slithering down her cracked cheeks. The brain matter resembles clumpy grey mush turned rancid over time.

         Rachel holds decomposing baby parts in her outstretched arms. The baby parts do not look recognizably human. They glisten from a coat of bluish blood mixed in with placenta refuse. A greasy, half peeled, baby face stares with one eye back at Abram. Though the nose and the mouth on the baby face are much too small to be expressive, the one eye seems to glower back at Abram with all the intensity of a bitter, aged Preacher Man. Rachel carries Judgment upon her outstretched long arms; guilt manifest in the eye of a stillborn soaked in blood.

         Look, father, the animals got to my baby boy, Rachel says with the wide eyes and the cheerful voice of a little girl trying to please her daddy. I hope he tasted yum yum good.

         Abram bursts into tears. He swings the back of his right hand toward her, like he is attempting to get rid of a fly that is buzzing way too close to his face.

         Rachel, please, do not tempt me! Abram cries.

         Rachel abruptly drops her arms to her sides. In the process, she drops all of the baby parts onto the concrete floor.

         Oh Oh! Baby all gone! Rachel exclaims in a little girl voice.

         Stop! Stop! Do not tempt me! Abram screams.

         You want my pussy, Rachel remarks with a saucy grin that appears out of place with her little girl voice.

         No! Abram screams, while pounding his bloodied fists upon the concrete.

         Are you sure? Rachel asks, while hiking up her skirt to reveal her spindly thin, bluish, decomposed thighs. Dead pussy tastes yum yum good. Like babies.

         No! Abram screams, while clamping his bloodied palms against his ears in an unsuccessful attempt to block out her little girl voice.

         And dead pussy makes the beast go bye bye, Rachel finishes with a wink.

         Abram wails in absolute horror. He staggers on his knees over to the jail cell bars. He clamps the bars and screams incoherently down the dark hallway. He senses Rachel grinning at him from where she had materialized out from the fog, but he is much too terrified to look. Instead, he fixates his eyes on the old light bulb that hangs from a string about midway down the hallway.

         Suddenly, two hooks fly out from the thick fog; one from the left side of his face, the other from the right side. They are antique fisherman’s hooks with more rust than iron. The speed with which they fly through the air generates a slight swoosh sound, which would have provided Abram a last second warning if only he had been aware of anything outside of his own fear and grief. Caught as he is in his own mind, he is oblivious, until the hooks have grabbed a hold of his inner mouth on each side.

         Judgment is nigh, the beast chuckles from inside Abram’s imagination. It is time to shut up and to take your verdict like a man.

         Abram screams from his bowels. It is more like a frightened moan that is pulled out from his stomach by an invisible hand. The moan increases in volume and in pitch as it progresses out from his mouth and toward the jail cell ceiling.

         I told you to shut up! The beast yells irritably.

         The hooks dig into the inner mouth. Blood squirts onto Abram’s tongue. 

         Last chance, big mouth! The beast yells irritably.

         Abram cannot stop screaming. His eyes open even wider, as warm blood drools out from his mouth and down his chin. The blood should distract him just enough to bring that gut wrenching scream to an end, but it does not. Abram is not going to shut up, indeed likely cannot shut up, so long as he has a mouth on his blood smeared face. 

         And so the hooks get rid of his mouth. They each yank outward with high speed and intensity. Blood and flesh splatter out his open cheeks on both sides. His lips collapse just as a roof will fall onto a floor when the opposite walls fly outward. The rest of his face follows, so that within seconds Abram’s face is no more than a scrunched up melon of blood and flesh dangling from a brain stem.

         Abram collapses to the floor. He lies on his side in the fetal position and lets out a final, haggard breath. The fog floats over his body as a death shroud.

*   *   *

         Abram opens his eyes. There is not enough light to see anything, but his left cheek definitely is resting on a bed of dark sand. 

         He pushes himself up to a seated position. He wipes sand out of his eyes.

         Zachary is standing above him. Zachary’s crotch is just inches in front of his face. Abram blows sand off of his lips. He sees how the sand clings onto his son’s zipper. He imagines licking the sand off of the zipper, since otherwise the crotch will remain so untidy, if not vaguely sinister, in his memory of this night.

         He does not lick off the sand, though. Instead, he looks directly upward, and sees Zachary staring down at him. Zachary smiles, but there is a mad glint in his eyes that suggests the smile of a demon ready to inflict harm. Zachary is holding a lantern by his face, and the way that the flame lights his eyes and his upper cheekbones suggests a maniacal rage. 

         Happy to see me? Zachary asks.

         There is something about Zachary’s voice that is just not right. His tone calls to mind Jack Nicholson in The Shining asking his wife if she likes what she sees upon discovering his typed manuscript; just a bit overacted in the intimate space of the characters, which makes the tone that much more unsettling in its underlying creepiness. Zachary is trying to intimidate his father, or he has gone a little mad. Either way, Abram has ample reason to wonder if this is not a dark sex dream; the kind that Satan instigates to tempt the faith of the Chosen One.

         Is that you, son? Abram asks confusedly. How are you out of jail so soon?

         Do I hear regret in your voice, old man? Zachary asks.

         No, no, of course not, Abram stammers. 

         That’s good, Zachary says, while also nodding his head. Because a father should be glad to see his son. 

         There’s nothing better, Abram remarks.

         There is a brief moment of silence. Zachary slowly swings the lantern by the right side of his face. As a result, the shadow cast by his nose extends, then retracts; and yet the whole time his eyes remain still. There is a beast in those eyes, a thinking malevolence, a monster just waiting for the designated time to strike. Abram feels those eyes searching over him; and he knows that when the end comes those eyes will devour him. 

         There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, Zachary thinks, as he darts his eyes away from Zachary’s and back to the sand clinging to Zachary’s crotch.

         You know, old man, we are a lot alike, Zachary reflects.

         Same flesh and blood, Abram says, while still looking at his son’s crotch.

         Yes, Zachary agrees with a maniacal grin. Same soul. Same spirit. Same madness…

         Zachary allows the word ‘madness’ to linger a moment, while he swings the lantern hard enough to make the hinge squeak.

         Abram looks up. The squeaky hinge unhinges him, and so he attempts to focus his mind on something else. To that end, he looks around, and makes out the family cabin not too far in the distance. Though he has no memory of what he did after leaving Sarah back in the cabin, it appears that he walked out this far and fell asleep on the sand; a small man lost in a nightmare under the stars.

         Listen, son, I think we should get inside, Abram says with trepidation.

         Why? It is such a peaceful night, Zachary says.

         The calm before the storm, I fear, Abram says with a tremble.

         Abram wraps his arms around his chest, like he is cold suddenly. He looks all about him. He ends his search by looking at his son with the pleading eyes of a beaten dog. 

         The beast, the beast, he’s close, Abram mutters.

         You’re right, father, Zachary says. But that’s because the beast is sitting on the ground in front of me.

         Don’t speak nonsense, Abram pleads.

         The beast hides, Zachary continues. But he hides behind the pages of his Bible.

         No, no, nonsense, Abram pleads.

         The beast lurks, Zachary continues. But he lurks through the halls of our cabin.

         No, no, no, Abram whispers.

         The beast attacks, Zachary continues. But he attacks his daughter under the sheets.

         You don’t understand, Abram pleads. We men are misled by a whore, a Jezebel, a smarty pants. She wants to rip us apart from one another.

         And I’ve returned from jail to stop the beast, Zachary finishes. 

         You don’t understand! Abram screams with all that is left in him. 

         Zachary lowers the lantern to his right thigh. He swings it back and forth a few more times, and then he drops it onto the sand. The candlelight inside of the lantern now illuminates the entire top half of Zachary’s flesh with the devil red glow that had veiled his face a moment ago. He looks like a snarling demon ready to explode out from his own skin.

         Abram covers his head in anticipation of what will happen next, but he is powerless before the full impact of his son’s wrath. He is a cowering dog that is all too aware that the pain will linger long after the sting of a son assaulting his father. The pain will linger in his humiliation. So much weeping and gnashing of teeth like the earth has parted and the Devil already has yanked down his soul. 

         Zachary lifts his left hand to his right cheek. His eyes sparkle in the light as he lowers the back of his hand to his father’s face. 

         The impact is even greater than Abram had foreseen. Abram falls to his right side. He kicks the lantern away, so that the madman now going for his old chicken neck is no more substantial than a dark shadow. 

         A beast born in the blackness…

         And coming to life in the imagination…

         Abram manages to push his growling son off his neck, but in doing so he exposes his weathered face. Zachary sees the opportunity then to throw punch after punch into the face of righteousness; the open lips that render judgment.

         Abram bites and scratches his son’s flesh. It is the best that a dog can do when so overpowered. Nonetheless, he draws enough fiery blood that Zachary at one point growls; and as the two men roll over one another on the dark and wind swept sand, it is impossible to tell one cur from another in the moonlight.

         Stronger and faster, Zachary invariably pins his father. He crouches upon his father’s heaving stomach, and snaps one jab after another into Abram’s red face. Blood squirts out from a broken nose or a punctured lip. 

         Abram passes out. 

         Zachary continues to land jab after jab, until finally tears start to slither down his cheeks. He tastes his own tears, warm and salty, and that is enough in that moment to pull him back from patricide. 

         Zachary rises to his feet. He stares at his father’s helpless, heaving flesh with soulless eyes. Zachary had lost something down there in the sand. It might have been his humanity, his sanity, his moral restraint, or some combination of the three. He thinks of his surviving sister, and the love in his heart just then is enough of a flame to add warmth to his blood and life back to his eyes. Without sanity or moral restraint, this love is mercurial, as much a destroyer as a savior of what remains precious in this dark and confused world. 

         Zachary senses just how dangerous he is. He does not dare return to the cabin to check in on his sister, for he is as likely to smother one last breath out of her as he is to protect her. In the dark, the line between love and murder is invisible; and the man who approaches the girl wrapped in a shawl is the beast.

         Zachary turns his back to his father. He sees nothing but blackness ahead of him for miles upon miles. He staggers away without hope for his redemption.

*   *   *

         Charles Waxman is beside himself. He had wanted to drive his T-Bird out of this little hillbilly hell town the night Zachary nearly killed him. Leave every last one of these hicks in a cloud of dust, and beeline for his stool at the Lucky 8. Trade locker room humor over drinks with his buddy, Abner, and maybe pick up a preteen in an ‘Angry Birds’ T-Shirt. The girls roaming the malls are getting younger every year it seems, and Charles always keeps a few Justin Bieber CDs inside his green leisure suit jacket to dangle in their direction. Those silly cunts will flock to a Bieber CD like fish to a loaf of bread. Charles hates to think how he could be bedding a My Little Pony Princess right now, if he had had the balls to say ‘fuck you’ when Chief Kramer ordered him to remain in town a few days more. Come to think of it he’d have scored so much more over the years if he’d been more of a ‘fuck you’ guy than the ‘weepy wuss’ he has been around here.

         Still, for all his irritability, Charles did as he had been told. He stayed in his room at the Red Moon Inn. He dined on the old bologna sandwiches he could shake out of the vending machine by the parking lot. He called phone sex lines for hours at a time to make up for the fact that the country freaks who own the Red Moon Inn do not offer porn channels. One night, he even got his hands on a high school student directory, and tried to lure a cream cunt to his motel room by insisting that he had Eminem sitting right beside him. None of the girls took the bait. Not one stupid cunt! Must be a directory of high school beaver eaters.

         Charles finds the holey underwear beside an empty packet of Marlboros. He sniffs the underwear. It smells like cum, since he has been using this fabric to wipe himself off every time he calls Rhonda on the 976 line. It is a fine smell in his mind, for it reminds him that he still has the mojo even in this shit town.

         He stuffs the underwear into his briefcase. Besides those Bieber CDs and candy bars he offers ‘the little ones’ when he is frisky, his briefcase contains a mad assortment of old socks, aftershave, used condoms (multi-use for the cost conscious), and even a glazed donut that is now hard enough to survive Nuclear Armageddon. Just before clicking the briefcase shut, he sees the Gideon’s Bible that some well meaning soul had placed beside the television set. He grabs the leather bound Bible, holds it in both hands for a moment, and then slips it into his briefcase. He grins, for he realizes that with the Bible in there his briefcase qualifies as his own private ‘Ark of the Covenant.’ Bible and used condoms, law and order, there has to be a joke in there that he can tell Abner later tonight…

         There is an abrupt knock on his door.

         The lights are out in his motel room, and the sun outside dipped beneath the horizon a couple of hours ago. He had dressed and had packed in darkness, since Chief Kramer has yet to give him the green light to leave. In his mind, he had been as silent as a broad smothered in duct tape. 

         And so he is surprised enough to shit in his pants, when he hears a knock on his door. The turd inside his underwear is the mushy kind; and so he rolls his eyes in disgust, while straightening the oversized lapels on his green jacket and pushing back his greasy hair. 

         He imagines bolting for the bathroom and pretending not to be here, but of course that is not going to work. Whoever made that loud knock on his door knows very well that he is in this room with his dick in his hand. There is simply no point in trying to run; and so like an exhausted bunny, he just stops running.

         He sighs in defeat. What a fucking mess that Rachel Mudd whore caused!

         Charles opens his door. The old hinges squeak like a rat caught in a trap.

         There is a huge man in the doorway. He is just a dark form at this point; but the smell of his breath, and the haggard way that he breathes, tells Charles that his visitor is a sick alcoholic perhaps even closer to the grave than Charles is. Regardless, Charles can feel the big man’s menace; and so he tries to brace himself for a punch to the gut, or a slap to the face, or whatever happens next.

         Going somewhere? George Crapp asks his victim with a mischievous grin.

*   *   *

         Sarah kneels beside her older sister’s blood smeared bed. She looks like a little girl in prayer. The reality is far different, though. She is staring intently at the goriest spot on the bed; a dried puddle of blood, placenta, and tiny baby parts pressed into the mattress by a pair of bony butt cheeks. She sees the gore as a work of art, in a way, and allows her mind to float through the canvas to a deeper awareness. In that twilight world between reality and imagination, she sees her sister’s final moments. The grimace on Rachel’s face is so intense then as to be almost cartoonish. The pain in Rachel’s womb is palpable; a monster in its own right that is literally kicking the stillborn out of the womb. That ‘sweet sixteen’ body had been ravaged by sin; but even at the end, it is rebellious to a fault. Sarah does not imagine her sister settling into peace upon her death, but rather escaping the chains of this life for a new hell. 

         That is the cycle, is it not? From one hell into another, we float along in the darkness until one night, the darkest night, we are defeated by our despair and cast aside. This is hard for a thirteen-year-old girl to accept, and yet Sarah has the maturity of a woman at least twice her age. Her words are small; and, even now, she continues to suck compulsively on her thumb. Nevertheless, her mind reaches far beyond her years to that darkness normally encountered by an old woman contemplating her imminent death. 

Rachel is inside that darkness at this very moment.

So is her father…

And so is the beast…

         The front door slams shut, and Sarah awakens at once from her perverse daydream. She feels heat rush up her cheeks, like she has been discovered just now doing something naughty; something like reaching into herself, and feeling the first droplets of her first period. Is it not wrong to bleed? Should she not be ashamed? Is it not true that Eve wore a fig leaf to veil the very same indecency from the prying eyes of her husband?

         Actually, the prying eyes of her father, since she had been born out from Adam’s rib. The first wife is really the first daughter; the first consummation of marital love is really the first act of incest; the first bride’s blush at the altar is really the first girl’s sob, when her daddy carries her to his bed one dark night.

         But that never happened, a voice whispers deep inside Sarah’s mind. He looked at you, funny, creepy, but then he wiped his hands on his pants, like his hands had been soiled by the devil himself. Then, he turned and walked away…

         With me in his arms, Sarah insists in her own voice.

         No, the other voice whispers. He left you in your bed. He always leaves you in your bed. He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks…

         So should she not be ashamed, when Abram’s hungry eyes take in every inch of her flesh? Takes in everything there is to see; then, licks his lips just so?

         A kitchen drawer opens. 

         Kitchen knives rattle against one another, like when a man is looking for one particular knife among too many others and is more than a little pissed off.

         A kitchen drawer closes.

         At once, the heat drops from Sarah’s cheeks. She is practically frozen in her fear, like when a bunny rabbit cannot move the second before her predator catches up to her. She sees the rabbit hole just feet away, but cannot push off of the cold marsh and into the relative safety of her mud home. Is she suicidal? Is she frozen in fear because deep down she wants that predator to release her finally from this brutal world? 

         There are heavy footsteps on a hardwood floor.

         Slow, tired, awkward steps on creaking floorboards…

         Sarah stirs from her frozen fear, because she literally feels a scream now gurgling up from her bowels. It is a slow moving scream, much like how a thick clump of bile will take its time to climb up from a queasy stomach. If and when voiced, then the slow moving scream will sound more like a prolonged moan; a loud, unctuous tone that grates more than it surprises. No doubt, the man with the knife will be even more pissed, if he has to hear the kind of infernal cry the helpless animals make when bleeding to death in their iron traps.

         Sarah clamps her mouth shut. She looks toward the bedroom door; for at that moment she cannot recall if she shut and closed the door, when her father staggered into the night.  

         The door is shut, but is it locked? Sarah tries to remember. She can rush over and lock it now, but what if that man with the knife gets there before she does? What if he stabs her hand with the knife, just as she grabs that doorknob?

         Sarah slides under the bed instead. 

         The heavy footsteps stop on the other side of the bedroom door.

         The door creaks, because the man with the knife leans upon it. 

         Daddy’s home, Abram says from the other side of the door. 

         Sarah stifles that unwanted scream. Though she hears the familiar voice of her father, she also senses the madness sifting in and out of the words. He is a beast now; a murderer of souls speaking in the manner of a pedophile luring a child to her grave. His enunciation is crystal clear; surely, too crystal clear, like a demon whispering to her from the darkness just inches beyond the bedframe.

         Come out, come out, wherever you are, and let’s play, Abram singsongs.

*   *   *

         Zachary staggers down the middle of the two-lane highway. Apart from a distant and lonely beacon of moonlight, which is mostly eaten alive by all those old, stooped trees on both sides of the road, he has been lost in total darkness since fleeing from his father and his home. He looks at the starry sky from time to time; perhaps, just to make sure that it is still there and that the beast from under the grave has yet to consume the universe. The stars offer no more light than the moon. Indeed, if anything, then they seem to join with the trees here in absorbing the moonlight. It is as if the universe conspires to keep Zachary in the dark, confused, bitter; a man at the edge of sanity on a forgotten highway.

         An automobile roars up the highway. Though drunk with his own peculiar thoughts, Zachary hears the approaching engine in time to bolt out from his old stream of consciousness. He turns around, sees that he is standing smack in the middle of the headlights, and waves the automobile to a stop. He does not try to run for the edge of the road, but rather watches the front bumper come to a screeching stop just inches from his front lower legs.

         Zachary does not even bother to shield his eyes from the intense glare of the headlights. He knows that even if the driver turns off his or her headlights, the windshield will be too dark for him to see much of anything. For all that he knows, this bug eyed Volkswagen may be a steel beast roaming the highways on its own; mauling down misfits, picking up ghosts, anything to clean up the dark and lonely highways that otherwise would be ignored altogether. 

         The engine idles for a while. No doubt, the driver is attempting to figure out what, if anything, to do with this bloodied weirdo in the Amish clothes. The safe choice, of course, is to put the gear into drive and to go around the man in distress. Leave him coughing up bile in a cloud of German exhaust, so that this temperamental, fire stained, black forest can finish him off just before sunrise.  

         If that choice really had been in the cards, though, then the Volkswagen would have left him in the middle of the road sometime ago. Something about this confused man in the Amish clothes intrigues the driver. It is like they have seen each other before this star crossed moment. 

         Zachary does not sense anything of the sort. He is normally perceptive in such matters; but now, with his mental and physical health ravaged, he is lucky just to be able to stand up straight. He has no concern to figure out this driver.

         The driver honks the peppy Volkswagen horn. Zachary stirs from his own doldrums just enough to see the driver’s left arm emerge from inside the idling automobile and wave him towards the passenger side door. Zachary grabs at his forehead, since the horn seems to have inspired a bucking bronco kick inside of his achy head, but otherwise does not hesitate to stagger over to the side door.

         Zachary collapses onto the passenger seat, and the driver slams down on the gas. The Volkswagen bucks forward like an overly enthused teenaged girl in the throes of passion for the first time. Zachary imagines Rachel leaping like an adolescent gymnast over the foot of a blood stained bed inside a cheap motel. She sports a smile from ear to ear. She lifts her dress while in the air, and gives the man beneath her a lascivious wink. Her pussy lands on top of the man’s big, hard cock, and then slides down his pole. She clutches his legs with her thighs, which incidentally are much thicker than the bony sticks she had had when she died. She humps the man’s cock, while arching her milky breasts up and out of her dress. She looks upward, licks her lips, and grins, like she is trying just then to seduce Jehovah God Himself off of his throne and down to this dirty old bed.

         Come on, Lord God of Hosts, Rachel’s sparkling eyes appear to say at the moment of her first real climax. You’re game for a threesome, and I’m so wet…

         Zachary shakes his head violently. He wants nothing more just then than to get that sick image out of his head. He feels like he is going to vomit the bile and the blood still in his bowels and to call it a life. Just release his soul to the devil right here inside of this Volkswagen…

         Except that he will do no such thing. His surviving sister is at home still. Someone needs to protect her from the beast. Wrap his loving arms around her. 

         After all, she is so soft, so virginal…

         So pink, so moist, so strawberry flavored…

         Zachary moans. He holds up his forehead. Otherwise, his face would fall into his lap. His tears then would burn holes in his trousers and tear up his skin.

         You’ve seen better nights; the driver remarks in a pretty feminine voice.

         Zachary slowly lifts his head. He glances at the driver with a frightened, left eye. His eye calls to mind the puppy that has been beaten too many times.

         The driver lights her cigarette at that moment. Due to the flare from the match, Zachary observes that she is a buxom, blond bimbo type in the skintight jeans of a barmaid or a whore. She wears a trampy Dolly Parton wig that is set a bit too low over her forehead. She has on way too much red lipstick; like she is restoring her lips with cheap ass cosmetics, rather than with Botox injections she cannot afford. There is a knowing look in her eyes, which makes Zachary at once feel totally uncomfortable. 

         Don’t you remember me? The driver says with a playful grin after taking a drag on her cigarette and filling the inside of her Volkswagen with hot smoke.

         Zachary does not. Neither does he respond. He just leans the back of his head against the passenger seat and stares blankly at the highway before them.

         I’m Blondie from Bottoms Up, the driver remarks. Real name is Marge, if that matters. 

         Nice to meet you, Marge, Zachary mutters.

         Marge takes another drag on her cigarette. She then places the smoke on her Volkswagen ashtray. Smoke coils up from the cigarette like dancing snakes.

         We’ve already met, Marge remarks with a chuckle. Don’t you remember? I asked you to look me up when you were done with Old Fatso. You didn’t, you little cock squirm. 

         Uh, sorry, Zachary mutters.

         Don’t worry, Marge says with a big smile. I didn’t smell any faggot on ya, so I figured you were just too nice for these parts. 

         If you only knew, Zachary says.

         Yep, Marge remarks. Too good to be tearing up bed sheets with a witch…

         Is that what you are? Zachary asks with sudden interest. 

         Marge takes the cigarette from the ashtray, while she ponders his honest question. She drags deep, and blows a dragon like smoke cloud in his direction.

         Aren’t we all? Marge responds with her seductive Kathleen Turner voice.

         I hope not, Zachary mutters. 

         Zachary closes his eyes. He clenches his fist. He imagines himself to be a wall of granite holding back the wickedness. The tears fall, though, as they too often have in the past few days; and he is consumed by the kind of shame that, deep down, makes him question his own masculinity. 

         He is tied to that tree in the forest, and Serafina is pumping his ass hard.

         Serafina is grabbing at his left thigh. Serafina’s fingers feel so very soft, like those of a virgin; and yet, his breath calls to mind a rotted corpse in heat…

         Zachary swings his right fist over the dashboard and into Serafina’s face.

         He connects with something that feels too soft to be the face of a beast, though. The Serafina image vanishes from his mind. He thinks he hears the sick laugh of Angel Muerte off in the distance, but that too vanishes. He is then left alone with the queer sensation of someone else’s blood on his right knuckles; a feeling that calls to mind holding Rachel’s hand while she discharged her blood.

         Opening his eyes, Zachary sees Marge staring back at him. She no longer has a hand on the steering wheel, and yet the monstrous trees zipping by in the background indicate a lead foot still pressing down on the gas. There is no light in the Volkswagen, and so her expression cannot be seen. Nonetheless, just the fact that she is looking at her attacker without any apparent care for the windy road ahead suggests that she is stunned, if not altogether out of her mind then.

         I went for your balls; Marge slurs through the blood on her lips. I missed. 

         I didn’t, Zachary responds. 

         The Volkswagen soars over the edge of the two-lane highway and down a steep bank of trees and bushes. Spindly branches scraping against the windows call to mind clutching fingers; old hands searching for a hole or a crack, so that they can penetrate the relative safety inside the cabin. The engine lets out the kind of high pitched scream a frightened child makes when the worst nightmare turns out to be true. The metal exterior creaks and cracks like nubile flesh just about to shatter before a force much stronger than innocence. The sheer terror is its own molestation, its own assault, its own rape; everything ripped off that last moment to reveal the naked weakness of the two strangers rattling down a hill towards an inescapable wall.

         In this case, the wall turns out to be one unremarkable tree among many others. It is the tree that just happens to be in the path of the car. The driver’s side hits the tree, which is why Marge dies on impact. Her flesh is so entangled with the steering wheel as to be inseparable, when the authorities find Marge’s charred remains the next morning. 

         The windshield smashes inward, and the glass shards cut up Zachary very badly. He almost falls unconscious, but then he smells how Marge’s smoldering cigarette mixes with the leaking gasoline. That is enough to kick some life back into him, and so he manages to climb out from the rattling heap just before the the sparks flying out from the rear let loose a screaming inferno. 

         Zachary stumbles several paces away from the burning car. He attempts to crawl up the hill, but he is too weak just then to make any headway. He has no choice but to lean upon his left side and to watch the crackling flames chew apart the entangled metal and flesh. The flames take on the form and the tone of screaming demons and hissing dragons; childhood nightmares come to life in a vicious cacophony of dancing fire spirits.

*   *   *

         Sarah cannot stand the constant pounding in her ears. She winces in pain and sheds a tear every time she hears her heart beat. It is as if each successive beat is a mallet wielded against the inside of her forehead. Eventually, her skin will split open, and all that fear will gush out from inside her skull; more blood spreading across the hardwood floor in this horror show bedroom for all men to see. Her considerable fear turns to shame when she imagines all that cold, hard fear instead slithering down her spine and into the wet area between her legs…

         Daddy carries her to his bed one dark night…

         No, her other self again insists. He left you in your bed. He always leaves you in your bed. He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks…

         And when enough fear accumulates in the wet area between her legs, it will burst out from her shell. Stinky, lumpy, menstrual juice, what a big fucking whore mess; for girls shed tears, but women shed blood, blood and baby parts…

         And this big fucking whore mess will coagulate in seconds in between her shell and this hardwood. She will be stuck to the floor, unable to slither away if and when her daddy finds her here; nothing but a pair of big eyes and quivering lips when he rips her thighs from the floor and carries her to his bed…

         No, her other self again insists. He left you in your bed…

         The doorknob turns clockwise, slowly, meticulously, like when a burglar turns the knob of a safe. It clicks against the lock with a hard thud that knocks the teary eyed girl under the bed out from her stream of consciousness.

         The doorknob reverses counterclockwise about halfway. 

         Sarah holds her breath, when the doorknob stops moving in reverse. She dares not exhale, as the doorknob again slowly turns clockwise toward the lock.

         This time, when the doorknob strikes the lock, the man with the knife on the other side of the door responds more aggressively. He rattles the doorknob, like perhaps he can dislodge the damned thing from the door. He pushes and he pulls upon the doorknob; a repetitive motion that calls to mind a man trying in desperation to choke something out from his pathetic manhood one more time.

*   *   *

         Zachary does not remember crawling up the hill. He remembers leaving the crash scene, because the smoke from the gasoline fire had become way too intense. He remembers staring into the cauldron one last time to try to observe Marge. Maybe, she had survived somehow. Maybe, hers is one of those horrible, high pitched screams he can hear in that twilight zone between his imagination and the burning Volkswagen. If so, then by the sound of it she is more a vicious demon clothed in red scales than a blond barmaid. 

         After that moment of awareness, everything pretty much turns black for Zachary, until he looks up from his feet at one point and sees that he is a crazy man staggering down the middle of Main Street, USA. The storefronts are gated and dark. In the distance, he makes out the twinkling lights of the Bottoms Up; but that is hardly a refuge. He is self-aware enough to know that he must look and smell like baked shit that has been tarred and feathered. Ricky Rum will be certain to toss his ass back onto the street, unless George Crapp happens to be there at the time; and Zachary senses George is not now nursing a dozen beers.

         He may have continued indefinitely staggering down the street, but then he hears a shuffling sound on his right side that grabs his attention. He stops on the median strip, and looks up and down the sidewalk. It is hard to see much of anything, since the only illumination is an old fashioned, flickering, light pole a half a block further down the road. Thick fog caresses the cracked glass mantle of the light pole; and as a result, the flickering light veils the street in haunted gloom more than it actually illuminates. In this light, it is hard frankly to figure out where the nightmare ends and the real world begins, if that really matters.

         The shuffling sound seems real enough, though, and so Zachary staggers over to the sidewalk to intercept it. He has no idea why he wants to come face to face with the source of that sound, let alone what he will do in response. His instincts feel predatory at that moment; perhaps, like what a crook feels just a moment before he breaks into a house or knocks open a skull; and that may be what explains best his decision to go in that direction. 

         Zachary stumbles over the curb and falls to one knee. The fall is not that bad really, and yet it is enough to push the glass shards poking out of that knee further into his flesh. His mind switches off a moment in response to the horrid jolts of pain. Better to black out than to endure what feels like dragon’s teeth.

         By the time Zachary returns to his feet, the shuffling sound is in retreat. 

         Zachary hobbles down the sidewalk in pursuit. He is awkward and slow, but it does not take long for him to catch up to an old, hunched lady waddling with the aid of a walker. She glances back at him with suspicious eyes, and she holds her oversized purse even closer to her saggy chest. She tries in vain then to pick up her pace; but, of course, cannot outrun a man less than half her age.

         Phone. Phone. Zachary mutters like a madman. Got to make a call right now. Got to take care of business.

         Zachary grabs the purse off of the old lady’s shoulder. 

         The old lady loses her balance, and falls off to the side. 

         Zachary digs through the purse (lots of Kleenex and, strangely, a stained Maxi Pad), until he finds the one item in there that designates this old lady as a fellow citizen of the twenty-first century. It is an old model cellular phone, not one of the ‘smart’ varieties, but it will do well enough. 

         Zachary drops the purse and staggers on with the cellular phone in hand.

         The old lady returns to her feet, gathers up her purse, and observes that the weirdo in the Amish clothes is now retreating from her. She gives him what he deserves in her book for being a cad: The back of her hand and the evil eye.

         What a turd bird! The old lady grumbles before resuming her path home.

*   *   *

         Zachary blacks out again. Still, he remains afoot, and staggers down the sidewalk with apparent purpose. He even skips over the outstretched leg of the bum that sleeps on the curb at Main and Farmer, like an internal GPS continues to operate in spite of the dead stare in his eyes. Perhaps, that GPS is fate; and if that is the case, then fate intends to punish Zachary yet more before putting him face to face with the beast. 

         Zachary awakens from his dead stare just in time to view Officer Roscoe Putzman directly in his path. He tries to put a brake on his forward momentum, but he cannot stop himself from plowing into the degenerate police officer at a brisk pace. Roscoe staggers to his right side. Zachary staggers backward several paces, and then falls onto his rear end. The reactions of both men call to mind a pair of animated tornadoes stumbling into one another in a cartoon. It would be comical, except for the sickly yellow glow from the light pole overhead that causes both men at that moment to look like unearthed corpses.

         Slowly, awkwardly, Zachary returns to his feet. He stands upright in time to see Roscoe approach him with a maniacal grin on his face. As usual, Roscoe’s eyes seem to be darting everywhere at once, so that it is impossible to sense if he is looking over his shoulders before doing what he knows will be wrong, or if he is just fucked up in the head. With ‘Sky High Roscoe,’ cautious and crazy are oftentimes synonymous. How else may we explain the fact that he goes fucking stir crazy when he is least likely to be caught, like somehow he is switching on and off his madness at the most opportune times? The logical answer is that he is not really mad, so much as sadistic and cruel; and yet the waywardness of his eyes and the strange grin on his lips at the very moment he commits his wanton act of violence suggest the insanity of a rabid beast. The man consumed by his own evil is as mad as he is culpable; an irony that makes sense really the closer he and his victims approach hellfire. 

         Right now, both men must be very close to hellfire; for the mad look on Roscoe’s face the very moment he swings out his billy club and smashes it into Zachary’s midsection is downright inhuman. Zachary’s bloodied face surely is as monstrous, though he is the victim in this exchange. It is as if the assault brings to life the beasts lurking beneath the skin of both men; beasts subdued by dark fears, ravaged by despair, only to be resurrected in spurts of hot running blood.

*   *   *

         Zachary blacks out again. This time, he does so, while recoiling in horrid pain from that billy club. He does not recall the back of his head smashing into the sidewalk, so he must have lost consciousness just before then. He thinks he hears a loud thud, but that may be his imagination trying to explain the sudden explosion of spastic pain rippling out from his lower back skull. Otherwise, that pain is entirely random and inexplicable; and there is no way that he can retain even a semblance of sanity, if that is indeed the case.

         Then, there is nothing. Nothing at all, but the depths without form, the blackness without shade, the despair without hope, the sin without restoration.

         And so a subconscious reminder that the darkest night is near…

         Zachary hears the sick rattle of an idling engine. He thinks at first this is just his mind playing games with him; but then he coughs from what smells like automobile exhaust, and his eyes flutter open to behold what seems then to be the bottom side of an old, stained, exhaust pipe. The pipe suggests the charred throat of an experienced smoker quivering from the sheer exhaust of breathing out gunk. Any moment it may explode; and then, like all experienced smokers, the flesh of the beaten down automobile will succumb to its own charred ashes and wait in resigned silence for the junkyard. 

         When that happens, Zachary wants to be as far from this smoky claptrap as possible. He cannot imagine a worse death than to be crushed by a smoking car. He thinks of the blond barmaid; the whore who had tried to touch his balls this same evening; the corpse even now offering up her ashes to the wind. She had played with fire, and lost. He will also, if he does not escape at once from under this fucking hell on wheels. He does not care how bad he feels just then. Either he scoots out from here, and makes one last run for freedom, or he is as beaten as that whore. Burnt in a car, hung from a tree, the whore, the whore…

         Zachary plants his heels in the greasy asphalt and scoots his ass forward.

         He stops abruptly after only a few inches. Only then does he realize his hands are lifted above and behind his head. He rattles his hands, and then feels the handcuffs pinching into his wrists. The handcuffs seem to be latched to the base of the exhaust pipe. 

         Anxiety shoots a jolt of adrenaline into his veins, and his groggy eyes sit up and pay attention. He is not leaving without struggle, and the soot that falls onto his face makes it clear to him that he has little time before this screaming claptrap smashes his face into the back of his skull. Cold sweat pours out of his forehead; and the result is a kind of self-induced Chinese water torture that, if unchecked, will push his mind over the edge. 

         He scoots outward with even more ferocity, but he does not get further away from the automobile than the last time. 

         He yanks down on the handcuffs. Besides puncturing hot blood out from his wrists, and shaking more soot out from the underside of the automobile, he accomplishes nothing. He grimaces in pain, but manages to stifle that agonized scream that almost follows upon the footsteps of that horrible look on his face.

         Feet shuffle not too far from him. The noise catches Zachary’s attention so that he starts to focus on the man stepping away from the open trunk. From this vantage point, when he looks up, Zachary can see only the man’s backside. He senses from the odd stench at once that he is looking up at Sky High Roscoe.

         An old man staggers up the alleyway. Zachary can see only his blistered, bare feet and the bottom half of what seems to be a flea infested poncho. The poncho hangs loosely from a skeletal, diseased body. Based on the way that the old man swings his gangly hands Zachary deduces that his shoulders must stoop forward in an apelike fashion. The old man is more creature than human, so far as Zachary can see through the space in between Roscoe’s legs. 

         Though he observes him from his backside, Zachary deduces that Roscoe reaches down and then rubs his own crotch. Zachary almost vomits in response.

         The old man stops several paces away. He rubs his hands against his old, filthy poncho. He shifts back and forth on his bruised feet in a nervous manner.

         Need a tonic for the soul, the old man says. Snuffs out the old darkness… 

         Come on up, old man, Roscoe says with a wily grin. I’ve got a pint of my best moonshine with your name on it. 

         Burn me back to hell, the old man says.

         Firewater took care of the Red Man, Roscoe says. It’ll take care of you.

         The old man steps forward, while fumbling for a baggie inside the lining of his ragged poncho. He almost rips the baggie apart, as he removes it from its hiding place. He grumbles a few salty expletives under his breath, for of course the baggie is of no use to Roscoe if its contents are carried off by the wind. His rapid fire breathing suggests he is about to hyperventilate himself into a grave; no doubt, one of the unmarked varieties given his dirty poncho and foul stench.

         The old man manages to keep his baggie in one piece, though; and so he sighs in relief after his trembling hands hand over the goods. Yet again, he rubs his hands against his poncho. He seems intent on wiping something off of them.

         Roscoe eyes the baggie suspiciously. He unseals the baggie, gives the old man a long, hard stare, and smells the brownish green content. He lifts his ugly nose into the air like a condescending elitist, and thinks about what to do next.

         He decides not to do anything, though the snarl in his eyes suggests that he had wanted to pummel the old man into the asphalt. Instead, he reseals the baggie, and stuffs it into his shirt pocket. 

         Looks like a poor man’s weed to me, Roscoe says.

         Not so poor you won’t take it, the old man mutters.

         Fuck you, old man, Roscoe snarls, as he grabs a hold of his polished billy club handle. One more smart word, and I’ll beat you into rat food. 

         The old man staggers backward a step. He wipes his hands with so much nervous energy now his fingers look like they may unsnap and fall to the ground as gnarled and bloodied twigs. He does not want to be hit with that shiny black billy club, of course, but even more so he is afraid he may not be given his pint of moonshine. Though Zachary cannot see the old man’s lips, he can hear them smacking loudly, like what Wily E. Coyote does whenever it gets near enough to the Roadrunner to stab its backside with its knife and fork.

         Nothing’s poor about it, the old man whines. I’ve got my doctor’s note.

         The old man fumbles through the inner lining of his poncho in search of a doctor’s note. Soiled tissue paper and wrappers fall to the ground between the old man’s filthy feet, but that elusive doctor’s note cannot be found anywhere. 

         My doctor prescribes it, the old man mutters. Helps with my achy knees. Best weed the law allows this side of the Mississippi. 

         Listen, old man, Roscoe snarls, while stepping forward with his hand still gripping his billy club handle. You know my side of the business. I sell this shit to the high school jocks who are too fit to get a fucking doctor’s note. They’re just a bunch of kids, but they’re smart enough to know when I’m hustling them ditch weed.

         The old man knows very well that he may be pummeled, but his craving gets the better of him. Though he continues nervously to scratch his old poncho into rags, he speaks in a stronger and more agitated tone that surprises Roscoe.

         I’m trading fair and square, the old man insists. So give me the juice.

         Get lost, or I’ll split your ribs, Roscoe snaps back.

         The old man shifts on his bare feet, like he is building up the nerve to do something. This moment of hesitation will cost him dearly, because by the time he staggers forward to grab at a pint of moonshine in the open trunk of the car Roscoe already has removed his billy club from its holster. The old man may be thinking about the juice, but he is staggering right into his swansong. 

         The attack is fast and brutal. Zachary hears what sounds like a bundle of sticks crackling in a bonfire the moment the billy club meets the old man’s thin and ragged stomach. He sees the old man cough up blood, and fall back at once to the asphalt. He cannot look away, though the image disgusts him, as the old man’s unconscious flesh twitches violently into a filthy corpse. 

         Roscoe walks forward, so that he can stand over the corpse. He seems as if an artist eyeing his own work before releasing it to the public. He is proud of himself, but even more so he is contemplating what impact this latest work will have on his ‘friends,’ which is to say those people with downcast eyes who are prone to shuffle away whenever he gets too close to them. 

         Zachary sees his opportunity. He starts to yank down on his handcuffs as hard and as fast as possible, even though he cuts deeper into his injured wrists every time. He bites his lip to keep himself from screaming outright in pain. His sweat blinds him temporarily, and soot from the shaking car turns his face dark and greasy, and yet he continues to yank on that chain without hesitation. This is the moment of escape. Either he gets away now, or he is as dead as that old man in rags several paces away from him. 

         The handcuffs snap into two halves. Though the cuffs remain very tightly wound about his wrists, puncturing deeper into his flesh whenever he moves his hands, he is no longer bound to the exhaust pipe. 

         He slides out from beneath the automobile. He grimaces in horrible pain as he pushes himself up from the ground. 

         Glancing backward, he sees the light bulb in the inside lining of the open trunk door. The light allows him to see the pints of moonshine piled upon each other like bars of gold. Zachary recalls his father back when he was a child. His father had a different name then. He wore pinstripe suits to and from work and rattled gold coins in his deep pockets. He recalls how his father looked at him…

         He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves…

         Never touches; never touches; no, he never touches…

         His father always smiled then. He would tell his only son that, someday, Zachary would have all the gold bars in Fort Knox just like Old Scrooge McDuck.

         The world gives, but the taxman taketh away…

         The Lord gives, but the beast taketh away…

         Zachary looks away from the gold bars piled neatly in the trunk. There is just enough light for him to identify the automobile as Roscoe’s police car. The siren lies dormant on the roof; and Zachary imagines a dragon sleeping deep in an alleyway, while a devil lures the dead with what it hides in the dragon’s ass.

         But the beast taketh away, Zachary whispers to himself. 

         Zachary realizes that he no longer has the cellular phone. Frankly, he is unsure just then why he had wanted it in the first place; but he does not doubt the importance of retrieving it. Everything about this cruel night tells him that there is no way that he can survive it, if he does not have that cellular phone in his hand. He will be here one moment, then swallowed up the next, just gone…

         And if he is gone, then Sarah is gone, too…

         Zachary eyes a garbage can several paces away. He can hear the hungry, diseased rats squealing inside. He smells, even before he sees, the dried blood and vomit on the side of the can. 

         Tomb for the wicked, Zachary thinks. First, hung on a tree. Then, cut up into pieces and stuffed into something so gross no one will ever remove the lid. That is how we hide secrets. We hide them in remote places, where everything has been marked with disease, and we shut the lids so that not even a trace of light can penetrate. In there, inside of that garbage can, it is the darkest night.

         Zachary is about to stagger over to the garbage can when something odd catches his right peripheral vision. Though he can feel the adrenaline trying to focus his mind on the can, he stops a moment to watch Roscoe. 

         Roscoe is on his knees beside the corpse. He looks from side to side, like he is about to do something naughty. He lifts his right knee over the corpse and places it beside the dead man’s left hip. He looks like he is straddling the dead man so as to thrust his crotch in between the dead man’s thighs. 

         Roscoe does not fuck the dead man. Instead, he does something that for him is even more sexual. He lifts his billy club over his head, pauses a moment to determine his target, and smashes the middle of the dead man’s face. There is blood at once. Because the heart is no longer pumping blood, the blood does not spray out, so much as it splatters every which way. The blood already looks old and dingy, like that man who had been pleading for booze moments earlier.

         Roscoe repeatedly smashes the dead face. Every time, his arm shoots up over his head and back down to the target, as if the mechanical arm of a robot programmed to destroy what is in its crosshairs. Zachary cannot really observe Roscoe’s face; but if he did, then he would behold a blankness that totally robs Roscoe of the last vestiges of his humanity. Roscoe is as dead as the old man on the asphalt before him; both caught up in a madness that erases the old man’s human form and that manifests Roscoe to be a beast with vacant, ghostly eyes.

         Zachary forces himself to look away, for Roscoe’s madness hits too close to home. He hears those rats squealing once more. He consciously sets aside his considerable fright and staggers over to the lid as fast as his feet will take him.

         Although it takes nearly all of his strength, Zachary yanks the cruddy lid off of the garbage can. He tosses it aside without caring just then if the noise is going to snap Roscoe back into sanity. The adrenaline rush clouds his judgment so much he almost forgets that Roscoe is smashing a dead face open just a few paces behind him. 

         The rats squeal ravenously. They must sense that with the lid gone there is the prospect at least of fresh meat. 

         Zachary stares into the bowels. There are rats everywhere; a cauldron of mauled, bloodied, shit stained fur on famished bodies. Their heads are huge in comparison to their emasculated flesh; their eyes almost bulging out from their sockets, their mouths contorted into vicious snarls punctuated by filthy daggers that may be called ‘teeth’ only in the most formal sense. A sticky slime, maybe blood mixed with engine oil, compresses their torn fur close to their bodies, so that these rapid beasts look like they have stepped out from a shower of filthy, unctuous goo. They bite and claw at one another like cannibals attending their final dinner party. It is eat or be eaten when the darkest night falls upon them.

         Though the light bulb inside the open trunk door barely reaches this far, Zachary makes out the cellular phone he had stolen from the old lady. It is near the top of the pile of rats. He reaches for the phone without thinking about the beasts eyeing the fresh blood on his hand. 

         He grabs the phone…

         And a rat clutches his hand…

         More incensed than frightened at that moment, Zachary lets the cellular phone fall to the space in between his feet. He focuses entirely on the starving rat that is about to bite into his palm. 

         Without hesitation, Zachary curls his fingers around the rat’s throat, and squeezes as hard as he can. The rat stares at him with mad venom. It squirms, and at one point almost manages to slide its greasy head through the clutching fingers; but Zachary is much too strong for a creature already so near to death.

         Zachary tosses the rat aside, while it is still in its death spasm. He picks up the cellular phone.

         Roscoe had seen Zachary squeeze the life out of that rat. Though he has the blood stained billy club in his hand, he is frightened of the rat killer several paces away from him. He stands up, and points at the mutilated corpse by him.

         Fucking Mudd! Roscoe screams in an attempt to veil his fear. Look what you did to this fine geezer. You’ll fry like Colonel Sander’s extra crispy chicken.

         Shut the fuck up, Putzman, Zachary responds.

         Old Sparky up your ass, Roscoe teases.

         Zachary entertains the thought of charging that SOB, but the throbbing pain in his abdomen tells him he simply cannot withstand another assault from that billy club. He must focus on the tasks at hand, and then get back to Sarah.

         Zachary starts to stagger down the alleyway. He realizes that Roscoe will look at his backside with contempt. He feels his face turn beet red with shame.

         Nevertheless, he continues without looking back. There is no more time to waste. The beast is coming; and if Zachary returns home too late, the beast will have swallowed up his surviving sister and left nothing behind but a greasy blood splatter in the bedroom. 

         Cannot run forever Mudd, Roscoe yells out, while he pumps his free hand with the fat end of his billy club. Law’s gonna catch up to you. Do you hear me, Mudd? Law’s gonna put you down like a filthy rat. 

*   *   *

         Sarah cannot tell how long it has been since the man with the knife went away. Or did he go away? She does not recall hearing his footsteps retreat back to the kitchen; no heavy heel sliding across the creaky floorboards on the way, no drawer opening, no knives rattling, no front door hinges screaming like rats. Nothing, nothing at all, but her heart echoing mercilessly inside of her cranium and an inner voice repeating: He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. He looks… 

         Sarah forces herself to disregard that mantra, but she is no match for an anxious heartbeat. The thuds repeat themselves, one after another, like an old billy club to an older face. She imagines that her heartbeat can be heard some distance beyond her head. Perhaps, out there, her heartbeat sounds like a hard and persistent knock on the door; a kind of Morse Code that tells the man with the knife to leave her alone. 

         Please, leave me alone. Go back into the darkness from which you came.

         Sarah’s chin has been planted in a hole in the floorboard underneath the bed the whole time she has been hiding here. The hole is jagged on the edges, full of splinters, and so puncturing her chin every time her face moves. She can only imagine what her chin must look like; probably a bunch of open sores with blood trickling out every which way. 

         Much worse, though, is the fact that she cannot see. The sweat that has slithered into her eyes seems determined to stay there. The result is a world of claustrophobic darkness; a cramped space under a blood stained bed, but also a narrow alleyway in hell, a road with no name, where she must press her torso into the surface like all the other rats and hope that the beast passes over her.

         Then, without warning, the doorknob rattles again. It shakes with all the viciousness of a man unhinged…

         Like this door will be unhinged…

         Sarah tries not to scream, but there is too much raw fear in the back of her throat. Either she screams aloud, or that fear slides down into her windpipe and chokes her. 

         She imagines her death spasm beneath this bed. Hers no doubt will be as violent as she imagines Rachel’s had been. 

         But there is no death spasm, not now anyway; for she releases all of that fear as if a teapot releasing steam. Her loud wail punches back at the darkness.

         And for a moment anyway, the darkness retreats. 

         Sarah still cannot see anything at all. Her space beneath the bed remains as cramped as ever. Nevertheless, the doorknob at once stops rattling; and she can hear the loud and persistent thuds of her heartbeat. 

*   *   *

         Zachary does not remember falling to the ground. He loses altogether his consciousness, and the next thing he knows he hears rats squeal just outside of the darkness in which he is contained. The darkness is a protective cocoon, and with those vicious beasts so near he decides then and there that he prefers this cramped place inside his own mind to the living world. He would have stayed in there forever, except that the rats start to break through the outer shell. He is doomed either way, it seems, and so he chooses to go down with his eyes open.

         Opening his eyes, Zachary sees that he has been lying face down within a dark and dingy alleyway. Rats are staring back at him from behind several paint buckets. Blood is trickling down the alleyway from a cut in his forehead. One of the rats waddles out from behind the debris and starts to lick up the hot blood.

         Zachary looks up. He sees a dragon crouched at the end of the alleyway. There is a flickering red light poking up from in between its shoulder blades. It is humming, like when an engine is idling; and for a moment, Zachary wonders if it is a police vehicle instead, idling perpendicularly to the alleyway entrance, and effectively blocking traffic in and out of this dirty corridor. He decides that it is much more likely to be a dragon this close to hell; or maybe in these parts, a police vehicle and a mythical creature are one and the same. 

         Starving rats bolt out from behind the paint cans. These beasts are little more than torn clumps of matted fur. One of the rats is even missing an eye. It zeroes in on Zachary’s bleeding forehead with its one remaining eye like a laser beam. The rats squeal with the orgasmic fervor that the near dead reserve for a last chance at survival. Their mouths open and shut like mailbox doors caught in a wind storm. Their bulging, torn eyes are impenetrably black and merciless.

         Zachary pushes himself up, and staggers away from the rats. He glances back and sees that there had been dozens in fact just waiting for the best time to pounce on his dying flesh. He sees the rats now pummeling into one another.

         He faces forward just in time to see that he is about to run into the side of the police vehicle. He stops at once, but his forward momentum is such that he slams against the passenger side window. He steps back, and he watches the passenger side window open with the kind of wide eyed astonishment we might expect of Wile E. Coyote. Squealing rats nip at his heels, and yet he does not at all move off from this spot, while the horror before him comes into plain view. It is as if the fates have drawn him to that place and time; that unseen, but all powerful, cartoonist sketching his life on this particular spot on the white artist paper. He cannot move now, since the artist does not want him anywhere else.

         Angel Muerte is sitting behind the steering wheel. He turns his head so as to face Zachary head on. His tight, leather outfit squeaks even when he moves that much. A hood pulled over his head veils much of his face behind a shadow, and yet his eyes bleed through that darkness to pierce Zachary’s soul. His cold, resolute eyes seem to speak more than his lips; and, at times, Zachary wonders if Angel’s voice is not a dark whisper conceived in his imagination.

         Serafina sits in the passenger seat. He looks up from his lap to reveal the gaudy face of a clown. There is murder in his eyes, just as there is a red, cheek to cheek grin upon his face. This contrast of death and mirth shoots adrenaline down Zachary’s spine, and it takes every last bit of his will not to flee back into the embrace of those squealing rats behind him.

         Zachary blinks his eyes several times, and he sees that in fact Serafina is licking gobs of ketchup off of a juicy hot dogs. Serafina smacks his lips together like a contented boy. He releases a gurgling old fart that lingers much too long.

         You can run, but you can’t escape, Angel Martinez says with a grin.

         That old anger kicks in, and Zachary feels warmth flow through his veins. He cannot tell if it is his instinct for survival or for suicide. Regardless, the red, hot coals in his face spit fire into his own eyes. 

         Move the fucking car, Zachary spits out in agitation. 

         Where’s your passport? Angel asks with a chuckle.

         I don’t have time for this shit, Zachary snaps back. 

         Bro, help our buddy here find his passport, Angel says to Serafina. 

         Serafina grins. He makes a strange guttural sound that chills Zachary. It is like in his quirky mute way Serafina is calling up dead demons from their cold and wet graves. 

         Zachary almost steps back, but then Serafina reaches out, grabs his shirt collar, and pulls his face into his own. Serafina does not kiss Zachary, so much as he smears him with his ketchup. 

         Zachary pushes himself away finally. He too has a clownish face now. He wipes the ketchup off of his face, while Serafina looks down at his thick lap and refocuses with childlike amazement upon the uneaten portion of his hot dog. In that contented moment, Serafina cannot imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

         Bloody face, bloody ass, Angel grins. You’re not gonna make it, butt boy.

         Go away! Zachary screams, while he flails his arms every which way like a man caught up in a spider’s web. 

         Angel laughs. He puts his police car into drive, and he roars off. 

*   *   *

         Sarah feels the box springs digging into her back. The sharp coils are like fingernails stabbing into her bloodstream. She feels or imagines blood slithering out like snakes from those wounds. Rather than fall harmlessly off of her torso and onto the floor, the snakes wrap themselves around those same coils in such a way as to bind her to them. 

         Sarah squirms, but that only seems to draw the box spring more into her back. Even her shallow breaths, so timid and silent, seem to compress the tight space that much more. It is like she is literally breathing the last bits of life out from the space between the box springs and the floor. 

         Is there someone on the bed? Does that account for the tighter space? It does not make sense to think so, since the man with the knife has yet to break through the bedroom door. Still, she cannot deny what she feels; the tightness, the dark intimacy, the fingernails probing and pushing…

         No, her other self again insists. He left you in your bed. He always leaves you in your bed. He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks…

         Perhaps, Rachel is on the bed still; her dead body weight pushing the old bloodstained mattress into the box springs, because that is about the only thing a corpse can do. Perhaps, she has come down from that noose, so that she can press down on everything still clinging to life in this damned house. The rope is strong, but it can only hold so long; and then gravity prevails over everything it touches. Gravity descends like a beast from shadows to push us into our graves.

*   *   *

         Zachary’s face seems to be melting into the sidewalk. He does not recall falling face first into the concrete. He has no idea if he lost consciousness; and, if so, then for how long. He senses only that his face is melting into the straight lines between two concrete slabs on the side of the road. Somewhere in the far distance, Woody Woodpecker is laughing at him now; for indeed it is laughable to imagine a man giving up his flesh to the slabs meant to prop up his own feet.

         Zachary recalls clutching the cellular phone. He does not feel it in either one of his hands now. That scares some life back into him, and so he pushes up from the sidewalk with the awkward tenacity of a drunk scrambling for his next pint of moonshine. The moonlight shining off that pint pulls him up to his knees before another bout of nausea would have dug his face even more into the slab of concrete. Either kneel before the pint, or die; that is his only choice tonight.

         Except that it is not a pint of moonshine. It is a cellular phone a few feet in front of him on the sidewalk. Moreover, the moonlight glow is actually a dim light telling him that there is very little battery left. 

         Zachary picks up the cellular phone. He dials quickly the one number he knows from memory. His heart beats loudly inside his ears, and sweat pours out from his forehead in cold clumps, as he waits for his phone call to be answered finally on the other end.

         While the phone rings, he manages to return to his feet. He shifts weight from foot to foot, like he is a kid who needs desperately to go to the bathroom.

         Someone answers on the other end. Zachary does not wait to speak. 

         George, can you help me tonight? Zachary asks frantically. 

         Go to the Flats, George Crapp responds without his usual gusto. I’ll see you there in fifteen minutes.

         Yes, Zachary mutters. 

         And get rid of the phone, George continues with just a hint of annoyance in his voice. You can be traced. 

         George hangs up. Zachary looks at the cellular phone, like he is just now aware that he has contraband in his hand. 

         Eyeing another rat infested can several paces away, Zachary staggers up to the can to discard his contraband. He feels confused, alone, like the world is crashing down on him. 

*   *   *

         Sarah trembles erratically from fear. The bed spring above her is so near she smashes the top of her head open. A warm blood tear slides down the right side of her head. 

         Is this what it feels like to be a woman? Is it the same, except way down there? Rachel had whispered once that a woman feels in her heart, but thinks in between her legs. ‘Baby on the mind,’ Rachel had said with a knowing smile.

         Sarah does not know what it is like to have ‘baby on the mind;’ but deep down, where fantasy and reality are indistinguishable, she knows about prying…

         Fingernails probing and pushing…

         No, her other self again insists. He left you in your bed. He always leaves you in your bed. He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks…

         Tears burst out from her sad eyes. They splatter onto the hardwood floor just inches in front of her chin. Still, like her brother, she tries so hard to be as silent as one of the innocents. Rachel may push her back into her ribs. The man with the knife may burst into the bedroom and grab her. But she will remain all silent, stoic, pure; the survivor once the madness passes over them.

         Or will she? Maybe, women cannot stop themselves from screaming when the pain and the blood are intense enough. Maybe, women cannot hide in dark shadows, but rather must burst into adulthood with all the fanfare of a sudden rip in the night sky and a shouting trumpet from on high. 

         The coming of the beast…

         Is that what it means to become a woman?

         There is a loud bang against the bedroom door. It seems too powerful to be a grown man’s fist; more like a battering ram from medieval times. The old door rattles on its hinges. Wood chips fly off the door and land on the mattress.

         There is a moment of silence, followed then by the soft door knocks that a friend might make when dropping by her room to play. So hot, then cold; foe, then friend; madness lurks in the cauldron of emotions as much as in dead eyes staring out from blank faces. The beast is here, rattling a door with a battering ram, as much as the beast is out there, somewhere, whistling Dixie in shadows.

         Sweetie, are you in there? Abram asks with a fake kindness that sends an electrical serpent down Sarah’s spine. Why don’t you let me in so we can play? ‘Play Time’ is ‘Fun Time.’ Like something in old cartoons. Don’t you remember?

         Sarah does not answer. She shuts her eyes, but the madness is that much worse inside her inner darkness. She opens her eyes, but her tears blind her, so that that inner darkness continues to weigh down on her…

         To hold her down…

         Fingernails probing and pushing…

         I see, Abram states with mock sadness. So sweetie is playing hard to get.

         There is a long moment of silence. Sarah hears nothing whatsoever, not even her fast heartbeat, and she wonders if this is what it is like to be a corpse in a tiny tomb. Silence, stillness, darkness, nothing to distract her from death…

         The battering ram again strikes against the door, then again, then again.

         How is it possible that that door remains hinged?  

         The doorknob rattles like the top of a boiling tea kettle. Surely, the lock is going to give way to all that power and brutality. There is only so much that a door can handle, before the wood and the iron fall aside like shreds of paper. There is only so much resistance before the beast stomps on whatever it wants.

         And then there is silence; an even worse menace, since Sarah cannot tell if the beast has retreated, or lurks still just inches passed a damaged, old door. There is no peace this close to hell. There is only heightened tension, as a little girl’s mind grapples with what it means to be a woman; hated, feared, stained.

*   *   *

         Zachary staggers across the Flats like a madman fleeing from his captors. He looks back every now and then at something more imagined than observed, a dark human form materializing out of wind swept sand, or a naked, bleeding, adolescent girl slithering seductively through a patch of weeds. He hears a high scream at one point which stops him in his tracks. It is the horrid cry of a girl in labor. It is the ecstatic cry of a girl in heat. Either way, the cry stabs at his sad and lonely heart; and it takes every bit of effort to continue his erratic run into the night. He runs, clawing at his lungs, and coughing out sand, because there is nothing for him to grasp onto just then but the depravity of his own madness.

         He falls to his knees. He grabs at his throat, which feels too clogged just then to take in the hot air that he needs. Somehow, just before passing out, he coughs up a handful of sand, and takes in the breath that had been teasing him beyond his reach. He holds himself up on his right fist, while he breathes in the dry air and sand that have kept him on his feet this long. 

         Looking side to side, he observes that the town lights have retreated out of view. He should be able to see the forest at the opposite end of the flatland, and yet his tear stained eyes cannot sense anything more than a few feet away. For him, the Flats extend every which way into eternity; and the pinprick stars look down on him as an exterminator would a solitary bug. There is no empathy in the night sky, not even curiosity, just hard fate willing to squish what it will.

         What’s the fucking point? Zachary mutters.

         He drops his other fist into the sand. He is about to fall to his right side, when he hears an engine idling not too far in front of him. It had been there all along; and yet only now, just as he is about to pass out for the final time, does he pick up what amounts to an audible lifeline. He even reaches out with both hands, like he is grabbing at a ragged rope just passed his vision; and the effort is enough to kick some life back into his veins for the final push of this evening.

         Zachary pushes forward. He almost falls a few times, but he is much too tenacious to give up. He brushes the sand out of his face just in time to see the backend of an idling police car. He stops in his tracks when he observes George Crapp in his disheveled and dirty police uniform resting his butt upon the trunk.

         George has his arms crossed before his chest. He has that drunk Cheshire cat grin plastered upon his face that suggests merriment as much as danger. He is a damned, pickled hooligan just then; a friend to no man outside of his pack.

         Nice to see you buddy, George says with a knowing nod.

         Did you get him? Zachary asks.

         George nods toward the backseat behind him. Zachary passes his friend without offering him another glance. Zachary knows what he must do, and he is afraid that a direct look into George’s eyes might pull him back from the brink. As much as he loves George as a brother, Zachary must be alone now with all of the fear and violence eating away his soul. He must be alone, just as all men in fact are alone at the end; angry, tired, delirious from the very nearness of hell.

         Zachary opens the back door to the police car. As expected, there is the man who is responsible for the death of his sister; the man who actually should be hanging from that tree. 

         Charles Waxman sits with his knees by his chin. He hands and his ankles are handcuffed. His mouth has been gagged. His horrified, open eyes suggest a creature about to be eaten alive in a macabre cartoon. 

         Zachary yanks Charles out of the police car. The pathetic man in the old, cigarette stained, green leisure suit falls onto his right side without resistance. He moans helplessly; but as a result of the gag in his mouth, his muffled scream is flaccid, puny, too insipid to inspire sympathy. Indeed, Charles is so lame just then that kicking him out cold appears like the only moral thing to do with him.

         Zachary proceeds to kick Charles repeatedly in the side and the back, as the seconds tick further into the night. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

*   *   *

         And the seconds tick into minutes. There is no sound, not even the beat of Sarah’s heart, which seems to have stopped sometime ago. The fear is much too palpable, like the pressure building inside of a cooker; and Sarah senses she will pass out, if something does not happen soon. 

         She will pass out, and she will die. Hers will not be the bloodied death of her older sister, but it will lead to the same end nonetheless. Darkness, eternal darkness, the darkest night where there is just weeping and gnashing of teeth…

         There is a rapid drum roll of feet running across creaky floorboards. It is an almost cartoonish sound; the sloppy pitter-patter of Wile E. Coyote’s feet as it attempts to run through an obstacle and to nab the Roadrunner on the other side. In the cartoon, the Roadrunner opens the door that is in the way, and his old nemesis runs through the doorway and over the edge of a cliff. 

         This is not a cartoon, though. This is real, or at least real enough that no one will be opening the door in the nick of time. No one will be falling over the side of a cliff. Instead, the door will smash into pieces and fall off of the loose, squeaking hinges. 

Then, the beast will come out from the darkness, wielding a knife stolen from the kitchen, and practically seeing through the blood soaked mattress the little girl too frightened to scream. The beast will come, for it is hungry; and as soon as it does, Sarah’s life will be in imminent danger. There is no ‘time out,’ no redo, when the beast grabs at her hair…

No, her other self again insists. He left you in your bed. He always leaves you in your bed. He looks; he wipes his hands on his pants; and he leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks, wipes his hands, and leaves. Same old, same old, just looks…

Yes, but under the bed is different…

The bedroom door smashes open, before Sarah can finish that thought. It all happens so fast, like perhaps how people experience a suicide bomber blast himself to smithereens when they are too near to him to get away. One second there is the pitter-patter of running feet, maybe even an inchoate shout way in the distance; the next second there is nothing else in the universe but nails and wood pieces propelling like darts into bones. The skin and the flesh melt away in the next few seconds, but the skeletal bones linger. Like ghosts, the bones in one form or another remain where they had been ripped out from their fleshly homes. They are the markers of death; the rattling wind chimes in hell; the old broken bones stained by the putrid blood of a woman until Thy Kingdom Come…

The mental image breaks away, because now there is something so much worse. Cold, clammy, dead fingers grab a hold of Sarah’s hair and start to pull her out from under the bed. Those fingers pull relentlessly, and yet they fondle also. They grope. They caress. They search for a way down her shirt, since the darkest night means that no one can see. No one can know. Indeed, even she is not sure what is happening to her, versus what she is playing out in her sick and perverse imagination. In the darkest night, there is no line between reality and fantasy; no way to tell if the old death dance happens or is a scene in Fantasia.

The fingers curl into a fist, and completely pull her out from underneath the bed. There is an electrical spasm of pain, as a fistful of hair rips out of her scalp. That pain is enough to rip her out of her cartoon nightmare, even if only for a moment; and so she is able to scream with a ferocity she has never heard before then. It is the ferocity of a woman; the vicious roars of a tigress in heat.

Sarah opens her eyes. She sees that her own father has her pinned to the floor. He has his knees against her outer thighs. He rubs his crotch against hers.

Even worse, there is total madness in his eyes now. The last hints of his humanity are gone. What remains is a tiny death dance in his eyes; the dancers no larger than the discomforting sparkles in his pupils. Those ‘dancers’ frighten the hell out of her; but they please him apparently, as evidenced by that queer grin that slowly replaces the ugly snarl upon his lips. The grin of a decadent but deadly fool, it is the grin on Herod’s face, as he watches Salome dance for him.

Screaming now as much from fear as from pain, Sarah writhes spastically on the floor in between his legs. The way she tries to squirm her butt away is a kind of sex dance, is it not? Abram thinks so, and so his grin erupts into a wide, vicious smile; the smile of a judge about to send the whore to the gallows tree.

Abram bends forward, and clutches her neck. She punches his bloodied, scarred face, which appears altogether inhuman in the glow of a candle that is apparently still burning off to the side. She knows that she will not outlive that candle if she does not somehow manage to push this madman off of her throat.

Stop! Stop! Abram pleads with Sarah, while still compressing the life out from her throat. Now is the time for us to play!

Sarah responds with an especially strong punch to his nose. Blood squirts out from his nose and onto her face. 

I told you to stop it! Abram yells angrily, though without wiping that mad smile off of his lips. Mind your elder, you intemperate whore!

Sarah lands more punches upon his nose. Abram blinks wildly, and recoils from the taste of his own unclean blood. His fingers start to slide off her throat and down her chest. Is he now having second thoughts about choking her? Or is he coping a feel before he feeds her to the beast? Or is he confused, not at all sure where his fingers may roam, because of the taste of his own horrid blood? Blood set apart by God, and yet now revealed as unclean, putrid, fit for the rat demons that squeal in the sewers…

No better than the blood of an unclean whore convulsing in her own sin…

No better than the blood of the damned…

For God saith, Abram mutters in confusion. Suffer the little children.

Abram stirs a moment from his confusion, and manages to wrap his old, arthritic fingers around Sarah’s throat before she can escape. He presses down on her larynx, while also pleading with her to cooperate with him in this effort.

I don’t want to kill you, Abram pleads. I need your womb. Our bloodline must live to keep the beast away.

Sarah manages one more punch. It is much weaker than the others, since she is on the verge of falling into blackness one last time. Nonetheless, she hits squarely the mangled wound that used to be a nose. Her Bull’s Eye punch works better than she could have anticipated. He releases his grip on her throat, rolls his eyes into his forehead, and scampers back a few paces on his wobbly knees.

Sarah sits up on her elbows. She struggles to recapture her breaths while watching her father slap at his own horrid face. He looks like a madman flailing his hands against flies that are not really there. His despair would be absolutely cartoonish, especially in the surreal candlelight, except that it is much too real in a bedroom otherwise consumed by shadows and silence. 

Blood splashes off of Abram’s face, as he continues to assault what little remains of his human appearance. He looks about the bedroom like a rabid, old beast begging the universe to put it out of its own misery. This is as close as he can get to a prayer just then: A monstrous cry of dereliction; an innate sense of his own gross wretchedness before those dark and fevered eyes that judge him.

God’s dark and fevered eyes…

The eyes of a woman in heat…

Holy God Jehovah! Abram screams. No! No! No!

Overwhelmed with fear and anger, Sarah manages to find her voice just before it falls silent for the rest of the night. She sits up, wipes her hair out of her eyes, and points an accusatory finger at the writhing beast man before her.

Get lost, you beast! Sarah screams.

Abram recoils from her judgment. He blinks rapidly, like he is trying very hard to awaken from a nightmare. He looks down at his bloodied hands, and he looks at the girl with the trembling index finger pointed at him. He is not sure what he did, if anything; but he is sure that he is damned. That is too apparent now for him to ignore. He can drag her down with him, or he can release her to the world outside of these walls…

Or he can hold her. Plant his seed in her as Holy God Jehovah hath said…

What am I doing? Abram mutters. No! No! No! Oh God, please, no!

Abram crawls out of the bedroom like a frightened dog. He does not look back at his daughter. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then there is the worst kind of silence. It is the silence after the storm has passed; the quiet despair of an abandoned graveyard; the stillness of a death resigned to its fate. 

*   *   *

         George simply cannot take this any longer. He has been leaning against the trunk of his police vehicle with his arms folded before his huge chest, while his friend has been ‘balancing the scales’ with that Waxman fellow. Maybe half a minute has passed since he heard the first kick behind his back; certainly not a full minute, certainly it has not been that long. 

         And yet how long does it take to kill a man? Or to turn him into a retard, or a vegetable? George mutters these questions, while anxiously rubbing at the back of his neck. 

         What makes it worse is that the victim hardly makes any noise. There is no plea for mercy; no erratic screams that might suggest that he is struggling in his own way against his attacker. Of course, it does not help Waxman’s cause in this situation that he is gagged. Still, can he not muster something more than a pitiful, flaccid moan? Must the victim be so pathetic while the beating goes on?

         George drops his arms to his sides, and steps away from the trunk. He is not sure what to do, but he knows that standing there with his back turned to a one-sided fight to the death is not an option. There is something dreadfully bad about this, even if that Waxman fellow is a dirty Jew with an eye for teenaged girls. Even those kikes deserve their day in court, isn’t that right? Well, isn’t it?

         George turns around and sees Zachary leveling one kick after another at what appears to be a corpse. If indeed Waxman is dead, then this is even worse in George’s estimation. Death should be a release from the pain and the sorrow we experience all too often. There may be no afterlife, nothing but ‘lights out’ at the end of the longest night of drinking and carousing, but at the very least, if there is anything moral in this world, then the dead should be freed from the ass-whooping that they may deserve. The living should be satisfied that indeed they are still alive to go to the Bottoms Up for another night of music and beer.

         What the fuck? George blurts out.

         George rushes forward, and pulls Zachary away from his victim. Zachary continues to kick at the air. He is a wild beast with no other objective just then but to separate bone from flesh with the pointed end of his boots. 

         Let me go, Zachary pleads. I am not done with him. 

         Charles moans. He still sounds pitiful, but at least he is among the living.

         Yes, you are, George insists. I cannot let you kill him, even if he is a city slicker.

         But he killed my sister, Zachary screams, while still twisting and turning in George’s strong arms. 

         Then, give him to the animals, George says. But don’t have his blood on your hands. 

         Zachary stops struggling, and George releases him. Zachary walks over to the moaning, bleeding flesh. He squats down and stares a long while at what he has done.

         Help me carry this bastard out to the trees, Zachary says without darting his eyes away from Charles. And grab a hold of the rope in your trunk. We’ll let the night eat what’s left of him. 

         George hesitates. He rubs at the back of his neck.

         Zachary looks back at his friend. His eyes continue to snarl with madness just then, and yet he is also pleading with his eyes at the same time. Zachary is pleading to his friend: ‘I need you.’ That is all George needs to go for the rope.

*   *   *

         The stars glare at the little man staggering out of his cabin. They watch in smug silence as the little man, bloodied, confused, beaten down to that ugly beast that resides just beneath the surface, rushes a hundred yards or so across the dead, black sand. They glance at one another, and take odds as to when he will fall to the ground. The North Star predicts he will stumble onto his wobbly, old knees just where he does. Winning the bet, the North Star grins like the old Cheshire cat in heat, while the other stars recede a moment into the night sky.

         From the surface of the earth, it is as if the night sky has swallowed up all those other stars. Only the North Star captures the little man’s gaze. Its grin comes across as a cold and distant pinprick in a sea of inky black sky; a lifeline on the surface of the sea now too far to be reached. Its laughter is the sound of the wind rustling up the dead sand. It is a soft, but grating, sound; more like an annoying whisper, really, than a mad chuckle. If the little man listens carefully enough, then he can make out the words, distant, fleeting, tormenting his soul.

         You can go back inside, the wind whispers. 

         No! No! No! Abram cries, while taking a fistful of sand and tossing it into the wind. 

         She’s waiting for you with her legs open, the wind whispers.

         No! No! No! Abram cries, while looking down at his other hand, and then noticing that he is clutching his leather bound Bible. 

         She’s hot and horny, the wind whispers.

         No! No! No! Abram cries, while returning to his feet and continuing down the dead, black sand in the general direction of the forest. 

         So what about the bloodline? The wind asks. Are you gonna fuck that one up, too? Compel Holy God Jehovah to hand you over to the Jew debt collectors?

         Abram does not respond to the whispering wind this time. Instead, when he stops to catch his breath, he looks again at the leather bound Bible. Now, in his left hand, the Bible looks and feels like a squishy rat; a testy scavenger that eats up whatever is left over when the storm has passed. If he listens carefully enough, then he can hear how the rat squeals.

         Abram looks up at the night sky one more time. He cannot see the North Star any longer. There is nothing up there now; nothing at all, but that darkest night that forever feeds off of anguished souls. 

I know the words, Abram laments, when again he looks at the Bible in his hand. But I have no faith, no understanding, nothing, but contempt and fear.

Abram tosses the Bible into the night. He staggers forward. He breathes hard, and clutches at his heart with the hand that had been holding the Bible. 

No more! Abram screams. No more! This has to end!

Abram continues his long and lonely trek into the blackness. 

*   *   *

         Charles Waxman opens his eyes. He wants to close them tight again, like he did when Zachary Mudd and Zachary’s Fat Cop Friend carried him across the flatlands. He had caught a glimpse of the rope hanging over the Fat Cop’s neck like a fringed tallit. That had been enough religion for him, and so he had done his best to shut out the fear and the pain pulsing his flesh like an electric wave.

         He wants to slide back into the darkness again, for the fear and the pain are as unrelenting now as then. Nevertheless, he cannot ignore the freaky little girl voice he hears in his head. It could be the voice of any one of the teenaged girls he has deflowered over the years. Manipulative whores all sound the same the moment they squeeze his balls tight: High pitched, soft, strangely cheerful, while the devil appears in their eyes to make mirth of the fact that, no matter the blue pills and the lotions, he just cannot keep up his manhood all that long.

         You’re tied to a tall tree; the freaky little girl voice says. Isn’t that sexy?

         A tall tree, Charles thinks. Fucking cunts always resort to phallic imagery around me. They think they’re so sophisticated; but, really, what do they know about anything? They’ll go down on me for pirated Bieber CDs for Christ’s sake.

         You’re tied tight; the freaky little girl voice laughs. Like my virgin pussy.

         Fuck you and your virgin pussy, Charles thinks.

         I don’t think so; the freaky little girl voice observes. You’re the only one about to be fucked out here. 

         Charles opens his eyes a little more. Though very little moonlight is able to penetrate this deeply into the haunted forest, he can see that his bare feet are a couple of feet above the ground. His ankles are handcuffed together. His hands are handcuffed and in front of his balls. He is naked, but for the old rope that is tied tightly around his flesh from his knees to his neck. He would scream like a girl, except that Zachary and his Fat Cop Friend did not see fit to remove the gag from his mouth. 

         He wants to writhe out of this goddamned rope, but he is too weak to do much of anything. Instead, he just opens his eyes wide, and looks around like a scared rabbit caught in a trap. He can see the tall trees around him; every one a kind of headstone, dark, charred, weathered by time. He smells the wet dirt, swept up by the cold winds to reveal roots that look a lot like decaying corpses. 

         Worst of all, he sees the fog. It is a thick stew slithering out from behind the trees and forming a cloudy pond over the ground. The fog reaches up to his waist, so that when he looks straight down he imagines himself descending into a witch’s cauldron. Though it must be his imagination, he sees bubbles popping up from beneath the surface of the stew. 

         And he hears what sounds to him like when a cunt clears her throat after she swallows up his manhood. Smacking lips, gurgling, hard swallowing; what a ‘My Little Pony’ cunt frankly deserves for seducing his seed out from his crotch, or so Charles thinks as a way of diverting his attention from his own horrid fear.

         He hears the wind wail like a beleaguered ghost. His wounded flesh turns white as snow, for he is sure that the wind says ‘love.’ The vowel has been very much elongated, but still he can hear the word for what it is. He cringes in fear and loathing. ‘Love’ is a tease word in Charles’ lexicon, and so that means that there is someone, or something, out there in the darkness toying with him now.

         He struggles against the rope with a little more ferocity, but again there is nothing he can do. He is just way too weak to wiggle out from this deathtrap.

         The wailing wind picks up again. This time, it says ‘yooou,’ although the end of the word sounds suspiciously like ‘pee-ew.’ Charles imagines flies having a field day with a piece of shit on the ground that looks too much like his penis.

         As if unleashing a repeated refrain in hell, the wind then puts those two words together as a kind of sick epitaph: ‘love yooou, love yooou, love yooou…’

         Charles moves his head erratically from side to side in search of whom or whatever is singing that contemptible refrain. He sees nothing but the same old ‘tall trees.’ Headstones where every corpse is the same naked Charles Waxman tied and gagged for all posterity; tied and gagged so cunts can chuckle at him…

         A twig snaps beneath the heel of a boot. The sound is unmistakable, and immediately grabs Charles’ attention. 

         Charles looks toward the sound. His eyes practically bulge out from their sockets. His face shivers cold and clammy, like something hung inside of a meat locker for way too long. Notwithstanding the tightness of the rope around him, his handcuffs shake in front of his balls. In a way, he acts even more cartoonish than when he had been strutting about that small town in his green leisure suit.

         Then, there is silence. The longest silence, the moment before the end…

         A dark human form steps out from the fog. Charles makes out a very thin person in a black ski mask and black bodysuit. Like those prepubescent girls he has indulged in the past, he cannot quite tell the sex. Even the black boots are the kind worn by women and men. In a way, the hermaphroditic nature of this dark human form terrifies Charles more than anything else. He feels warm piss slither down his thighs. He senses he will never feel anything down there again.

         The dark human form walks slowly and methodically, until it is standing just inches in front of his face. Its eyes stare coldly at him from holes in the ski mask. There is no humanity in those eyes. They may as well be the dark eyes of a killer shark just moments before it sinks its teeth into the bones of its victim.

         Charles watches helplessly, as the dark human form raises its right hand. He sees in the dim moonlight that the hand in fact is an antique, blood stained, fisherman’s hook. He tries to moan, but he is too frightened to emit any sound.

         The dark human form punctures the center of the forehead, like it wants first and foremost to put out the victim’s third eye. Then, without hesitation or empathy, the dark human form slides the hook down the middle of the victim’s face. Blood and brain chunks squirt out every which way, as the hook slices the nose in two and stabs into the writhing tongue. 

         The dark human form has to yank downward several times to cut through the jawbone. It never loses its poise, though, as it methodically cuts the jaw in half, and then proceeds to slice down the throat vertically as far as the larynx. It probably would have continued along this vein, but for the fact that the rope gets in the way at this point. 

         So instead of slicing Charles into two halves completely, the dark human form goes for his penis. It is not easy to find in the moonlight, because there is so much blood now gushing down the torso and legs. Charles’ death spasms also get in the way, since now and then a muscle twitch kicks blood up and into the eyes of the killer. Still, the dark human form never loses its poise; and so much like a patient surgeon, it bids its time until finally it cuts off the victim’s small, flaccid manhood. The penis falls aside unceremoniously with the rest of the old man goo. The dark human form is careful not to step into the mess it has made with its rotted hook, which is a real feat given the abundance of blood splatter.

*   *   *

         By the time George had returned from that nasty business in the forest, Bottoms Up had been closed for some time. He glared stupidly for awhile at the ‘CLOSED’ sign on the door, and then he returned to his idling police car so as to make his way to the shooting range. Even with that purpose clearly in his mind, he sat in the idling vehicle along the side of the road for God knows how long in a futile effort to make sense of everything. 

         George probably would have remained in that police car until the break of dawn. An approaching police car flashing its high beams awakened him from his stupor. He flipped off the other cop for good measure, and went on his way.

         Firing off a few hundred rounds did not help him near as much as the old whiskey bottle he remembered in his locker. He shot off his last two magazines stone cold drunk. He almost shot off his own bloated face once or twice; and in view of the dark, menacing thoughts swimming through his mind that night, he probably would not have been all that upset if he had. A gunshot to a forehead works wonders in distracting the mind from the broken record on its turntable. In small towns after the bars close, that is oftentimes the only sure distraction.

         George drove drunk to the police station. Along the way, his bumper hit a garbage can. Hopefully, his tire did not run over the bum sleeping by the can.

         So now he finds himself staggering through the front door and up to the counter. He is surprised to see the Police Chief himself on watch. The station is empty otherwise; and there is no sound, except for a hunting show on a fuzzy, old television set hanging from the ceiling. The show features a ‘Grizzly Adams’ type explaining to the camera the ideal ways to set up a surveillance for ducks.

         Chief Blake Kramer is busy at the counter. He has disassembled his pistol and is now meticulously cleaning the iron parts. He whistles ‘Camp Two Races.’

         George could care less about any of this. He wants to hand in his badge, sign out for the night, and retreat to his apartment. Or maybe he will pass out in his police car. That then may be as far as he can go before the curtain drops.

         George leans his heavy bulk on the counter. He unloads his badge and his revolver like a gladiator his shield and buckler. 

         Blake shoves his clipboard across the counter without skipping a beat of ‘Camp Town Races.’ He puts the badge and the revolver into a marked box just under the counter, and then patiently waits for the starry eyed George to find the pen that is right in front of him. He studies George’s eyes intently. It takes no time for him to see that George is drunk; but what is more interesting in his view is that George seems to be hiding a horrible secret, perhaps even a crime.

         George sees that he is being watched. His defenses go up at once in the form of sarcasm. Still, he cannot erase the nervousness in his eyes at that time.

         Since when does the Chief of Police man the night watch? George smirks.

         All my boys are out tonight; Blake responds good naturedly.

         What? George asks with mock incredulity. Is there a crime wave in Happy Days Township?

         George finishes off his question with mock laughter. Blake bristles at the sarcasm, but he does a good job at hiding his emotions. Instead of snapping out a sarcastic comment of his own, he just folds his old hands penitentially on the counter beside his disassembled pistol. 

         Some nights are darker than others, Blake finally says. You should know that, George.

         I don’t know anything anymore, George says honestly.

         George finds the pen, but then seems unsure what to do with it. He is so exhausted he can hardly put two and two together, though he thinks that he is holding his own with Kramer. 

         Your shift doesn’t end, until you’ve signed on the dotted line, Blake says with a condescending smile.

         This time, George bristles; but he has much less success in hiding how he feels. He looks down at the clipboard, and he crinkles his nose.

         I know what to do, George mutters, before signing on the dotted line. 

         George looks at his boss with utter disdain. Blake returns the look with a wide smile. The two face each other across the counter this way for a few long seconds, while ‘Grizzly Adams’ advises against using a 20-gauge, ‘unless you’re light in your loafers or some kind of woman.’ 

         Looks like you’ve had a tough night out there, Blake states with the kind of sly grin that suggests that he knows something more. 

         Nothing I can’t handle, George states defensively.

         I’m not so sure, Blake continues with his sly grin. I don’t think that a half dozen beers at Bottoms Up will do the trick this time.

         Now, with all due respect, Chief, fuck you and the horse you rode in on, George growls.

         Knock it off, George, Blake growls back. Your granddad may have been the best police chief our little town will ever know, but I’m the top badge now.

         George lunges forward. He grabs Blake by the collar and pulls his face up to his own. The two men eye one another with cold contempt, while up on the boob tube ‘Grizzly Adams’ quietly aims his 12-gauge and then fires off a round.

         Listen up, Chief, George growls. I don’t know whose dick you sucked to get the top badge; but in my mind, you’re about as much the Chief around here as my ex’s big black dildo is a cock. All hard on the outside, nothing but hot air inside. You’re a ball sack about to be popped.

         Blake pulls back from George’s grip. Blake plasters that sly grin again on his face. He straightens his torn collar while speaking to George with contempt.

         I’m not the one about to be popped, Blake says. I’m sure you know that.

         What are you saying? George asks with obvious fear.

         We all have our secrets, right? Blake says.

         Go on, George says.

         But some of us are better at hiding ours than others, Blake states with a grin on his lips and a devil in his eyes.

         George does not know what to say. He shifts his weight from foot to foot like a child about to be disciplined by a particularly cruel adult. Blake sees this and smiles even more widely. The devil is his eyes is almost orgasmic just then.

         Blake leans over the counter. He folds his hands penitentially, so that he looks like a Preacher Man bending over his pulpit to cast judgment on his flock.

         Listen to me, George, Blake says in a low and steady voice. I know you. I know what you’re all about. You can’t hide your darker secrets anymore behind your bad boy image.

         What secrets? George asks.

         I know you, Blake whispers.

         You’re full of shit, George remarks with an insincere grin plastered upon his lips. You don’t know anything.

         Blake steps back. He picks up a rag, and resumes cleaning his pistol. The whole time he smiles widely at his subordinate.

         George takes one long and disgusted look at his Chief. He then turns his back to his boss, presses his chin into his chest, and escapes into the late night.

*   *   *

         Dirk Tweed did not sleep much last night. He bolted up from his horrible nightmare almost every hour. He would stare blankly at the television set for a few minutes. He could not forget his dream. Neither could he distract himself, even briefly, with whatever happened to be on the boob tube. Once, he had a vague feeling that ‘Grizzly Adams’ was teaching him how to shoot ducks out of the blue sky, but that feeling never evolved into mental certainty. It simply did not matter how much he tried. He could not frame his mind around anything or anyone that might set that nightmare aside. It was like he was being haunted in the middle of the night by a ghost that would not let him go, even when he had to get out of his La-Z-Boy to take a piss in the adjoining bathroom. Nothing that whole night gave him relief but the first sign of dawn. 

         He dreamt of Helen. He always does. Time does not relieve the pain, no matter what anybody says. It just makes the nightmares more surreal, because the imagination has to fill in the gaps where the memory fails. 

         Dirk stands in front of his bookcase. He stares at the framed photographs of his six-year-old daughter, Helen. She would have been eight this year, but in his mind she is six. She is an angel with braces on her teeth. Premature braces, in his view; but her mother always thinks differently, and she always wins when it comes to the care of their child. 

         He removes one of the photographs, and he holds it up close to his tired, failing eyes. Did she look like this little girl in his nightmare last night? He does not recall, because finally the nightmare is starting to recede from his memory. He doubts it, though, because he loses her a bit more in each successive dream no matter his desire to hold onto her smile, her hair, even the way she giggled. Every time she is kidnapped in his dreams a part of her is removed from his old, dying memory banks and discarded. Pretty soon, nothing of the real Helen will appear in his dreams. The dream character kidnapped and found dead will be a hideous beast, an expression of his anger and sadness at that irretrievable loss.

         Dirk returns the photograph. He places it at the same angle relative the bookcase edge it had been before he had removed it. Deep down, he knows he treats this bookcase too much like a shrine. Is he actually celebrating her brief, beautiful life? Or is he prolonging his sadness? He wants to tell himself that this is all about her, but deep down he senses that his almost Victorian compulsion to prolong his dark mourning is really about himself. Finding her, avenging her, saving other little girls from the same fate, everything that has happened since Helen disappeared has given his life a cause. He is no longer a small town cop living out an unremarkable life. Instead, he is a man on a mission; and although he acknowledges the burden of never letting go, of sleepless nights like the last one, he also knows that his life is so much fuller now. Handcuffing assholes now is so much more than a job with a pension plan. After all, putting away the real baddies may save another little girl from Helen’s fate. His mission in life really matters. It beats him down most nights, but it also wakes him up every sunrise.

         Dirk eyes the time. He needs to get dressed and to head out pretty soon.

         He has a plan. This morning, he puts that plan into effect…

         And if all goes well, he will find justice, not for Helen, but for someone else who had disappeared. Unless and until he finds the bastard that kidnapped and murdered Helen, the best he can do is to provide justice for other girls like her. Let the theologians decide if any of this truly matters in the grand scheme of things. For Dirk, it is good enough to see the fear in the bastard’s eyes when he cuffs him, takes him out to the flatlands, and wraps his big hands around his neck. Justice is clammy, cold to the touch, and tossed into an unmarked grave.

*   *   *

         George Crapp did not sleep much last night. Even after waddling into his apartment, and undressing down to his underwear, he stared out his window at nothing in particular for the longest time. He saw how the moonlight reflected off of the abandoned railroad tracks. There are ghosts shimmering in and out of that light; lost souls wandering down the rusted rails, like live souls wandering down their years. The night wind picks up just before dawn, and he listens very carefully for the sound of his name. He hears nothing personal to him. It is as if even nature has forgotten him. He is alone with his thoughts, his fears, his mad sense of humor…

         And he is alone with what happened earlier tonight…

         And with the distinct possibility that his secrets cannot be hidden away. They cannot be tied to a tree and left to rot. People see. They may not see all or even most, but they see enough to know that something is wrong. Something about George is just a little queer…

         George had been sitting in one of his bedroom corners, and shedding the tears of a frightened girl, when finally sleep had overtaken him. Sleep actually did not lull him into the darkness, so much as it punched him in his tear stained face. He nearly died as the first hint of dawn shed light on his bloated, snoring, shivering flesh. If the old ticker had not restarted on its own, then the coroner would have pronounced him dead of a heart attack. 

         Instead, George is driving his police car down the two-lane highway that meanders through the forest just outside of town. He passes by a parked police car and an idling fire engine. He turns up the dispatch and learns that local fire and police are responding to the charred remains of a Volkswagen that had run off the road. The decedent at the scene seems to be a white female in her late forties or early fifties. She has not yet been identified by authorities otherwise.

         George glances toward the wreck, but he cannot see much. The car had crashed into a tree about halfway down the hill; too far down for him to see all that much from the other side of the highway. It is just as well. He really does not need to see anything this morning that is burnt or mangled. The destruction no doubt will call to mind what he and Zachary did last night: How they carried the moaning, bruised man across the flatlands; aided by nothing but a strangely hypnotic moon and a superstitious impulse to hide their sins in the great ‘Terra Incognita’ beyond civilization; how they laid him down and ripped off his green leisure suit; removing whatever dignity the man may have had at the end of his life; and how he held him up against the tree, while Zachary wrapped the rope around his white, wrinkled torso and neck. George and Zachary had had to stop a moment, after they tied the man to the tree, in order to catch their breaths. They used the opportunity to behold what they had done, like an artist beholds his finished work; and it is in that moment that George sensed the last trace of humanity seep out from him. It felt like air escaping a tired balloon. The horrid violence that preceded that moment did not impact George’s suffering soul like the act of watching a naked, dying man roped to a tree. So cold, so banal, not a word spoken between George and Zachary, while that man’s haggard breaths, rhythmic still, but coarse, played on both their minds like a metronome in Hell. 

         George continues down the highway. He tries to put that wreck, and the previous night, out of his mind. He drinks a couple of beers that he has stashed under his driver’s side seat. At one point, he even tries squeezing his balls; but nothing diverts his attention from the despair that is now creeping in to replace the vacuum left by his soul. Nothing relieves him from the utter sadness, which he imagines as a veil or a smoke cloud draped over the sun. The entire world is grey; the color of a corpse prior to the dark purple of advanced decomposition.

         He probably would have continued driving until he ran out of gas, but at the last moment he sees the sign for the ‘Good Eats Café.’ He swerves into the gravel parking lot in the nick of time. Ironically, he parks in the very same spot that Charles Waxman had used. He feels a strange chill down his spine; but the sensation does not mean anything to him. He shrugs it off as sleep deprivation, and tries to create a silly half grin on his face, but deep down he knows better.

         The silly half grin is gone by the time he staggers into the diner. He now looks like a big guy suffering the pangs of severe indigestion. He wipes some of the sweat off his forehead, catches Dirk Tweed already sitting in a corner table by himself, sighs audibly, and starts to waddle half drunk and pissy toward him.

         Dirk plasters a plastic smile on his face, as George approaches his booth.

         George nods. He sits heavily across from Dirk. He wipes even more sweat off of his brow. Surely, he had not been in any condition to drive here; and the beers he drank while driving did not help. He half expects Dirk to arrest him on the spot, especially since the two officers have never been particularly cordial. 

         Of course, Dirk does no such thing. He has another purpose in mind.

         You should order a cup of coffee, Dirk says with his pleasant grin in tow, while he cups his own cup of coffee with his hands. You look like shit. 

         This better be goddamn good. You woke me from a dream that included Heather Locklear and a barrel of whipped cream, George lies. 

         Dirty Old Man dreams aside, you should try to wake up before noon, Dirk says affably enough. Good for the soul. 

         Fuck the soul, George says irritably. What do you want with me, asshole?

         Dirk thinks in silence for a moment. He takes a sip from his cup.

         I want to know what happened to Charles Waxman after you and Zachary carried him away from your vehicle, Dirk says without dropping his affable tone one iota.

         George’s jaw drops open. He is flabbergasted. He wrings his hands upon the table in front of him, but he cannot muster a verbal reply. In his mind, that grey world outside is closing in on him. It is going for his heart.

         Don’t worry, Dirk continues. The Chief doesn’t know anything yet. 

         I don’t understand, George mutters in disbelief. 

         How I know? Dirk asks with a devious grin. 

         Yeah, George mutters while also nodding his head.

         I’m the techie in our little dipshit police force, Dirk continues. I wire the folks, tap their phones, install video cameras in squad cars. Anything, really, so long as I retrieve useful information. 

         George looks down in shame. He wipes more sweat off of his brow.

         We tied him to a tree, George whispers.

         Left him for the rodents, Dirk comments without dropping his weird grin.

         Left him alive, George snaps back, while he looks up from his shoes and gives Dirk the dirtiest of looks.

         I’m sure you did, Dirk remarks. Behind all of the bluster, there is indeed a conscientious streak in you, George. 

         So what are you going to do? George asks. 

         About Charles Waxman? Dirk asks. 

         Yes, George answers 

         Dirk takes another sip from his cup. George leans forward nervously.

         Nothing, Dirk finally answers. No judge around here is going to send you to the slammer for tying a city slicker pedophile to a tree. Heck, you and your buddy are more likely to be designated town heroes. 

         Why are you telling me this? George asks. 

         I just want you to know that I can see and hear pretty much everything you do, Dirk responds with that same odd smile.    

         I hope you can conceal your boners, whenever I’m taking a shit, George snaps back in an unsuccessful attempt to cover just how frightened he really is.

         Dirk bursts into laughter. He had expected George’s locker room humor, and yet the mental image of George sitting on his throne is funny nevertheless.

         You’re a sick son of a bitch, Dirk remarks. You would be the Police Chief by now, if only you’d out of the cookie jar. 

         What do you mean? George asks defensively.

         I mean the assault weapons you’ve been selling to the public straight out of our armory, Dirk continues with a knowing smirk. I mean those two rifles you gave Zachary Mudd last Christmas. Oh, and let us not forget how you allow that Mudd Fucker to shoot in our police firing range after hours. Using civilians so as to beta test new firearms. Naughty, Naughty, I say.

         Fucking snoop, George mutters.

         Guilty as charged, Dirk remarks. My punishment is that I’m off your next Christmas card list. Yours is a term of twenty to twenty-five in our state prison.

         So why don’t you arrest me? George asks.

         Because I don’t care about putting you in the slammer, Dirk says, while sitting back in his booth and folding his arms before his chest. I want Zachary. I want to clean out the Mudd in this town.

         Then, pick him up, George remarks.

         The rifles you gave him are not on the list of banned firearms, Dirk says. I can take you down for giving them to him, but never him for receiving them. I checked with the D.A. about the shooting range. Since you gave him permission to be there, the D.A. doesn’t think that there’s much of a case against Zachary on that one. That smug, little fucker won’t even indict him. 

         George thinks for awhile in silence. He leans back in his booth and grins.

         Well, then, it appears you are out of luck, George concludes. 

         You are absolutely right, unless we put together a sting operation. Now, if Zachary tries to purchase from you a banned assault weapon, then we’ve got him cold. 

         Sounds like entrapment, George mutters.

         Since when do the good ‘ol boy judges around here give a rat’s ass about the United States Constitution? Dirk asks.

         Fair enough, George comments. But why would I help you put the kibosh on my friend?

         Because I’ve got the goods on you, Dirk responds.

         Okay, George mutters…

         And because you don’t want me or anyone else to wonder aloud why you are so generous with him, Dirk continues. It’s like you’ve got the sweet on him.

         George looks down in shame. Dirk views this as an admission of his guilt.

         Why do you care so much about the kid? George asks after some time has passed. It’s not like you really think he’s a threat to our community. 

         George looks up. There is nothing now but despair in his bloodshot eyes. 

         Dirk thinks a moment about his daughter. He sees the braces fastened to her teeth; premature braces, in his opinion, but her mother gets the last word. Even when he objects to their trip, and argues that Helen should not miss even one day of school, he only has to look into her eyes to know that she damn well will do as she pleases with their daughter. He can stay back in this hick town as long as the Good Lord keeps his old ticker running, but come hell or high water Helen is going to see Paris, London, and St. Petersburg, while her peers are in a classroom reading about the exploits of Dick and Jane. Helen is going to grow a lot faster than her peers; and if her mother succeeds, then she is going to grow apart from her loser dad also. There one day, then gone the next…

         Dirk literally shakes this stream of consciousness out of his head. He is so subtle in this regard that George does not notice anything has occurred, though George probably would not have noticed even if Dirk had shaken his big head as if in the throes of a seizure. George is too consumed with his own fear to give a rat’s ass what Dirk does or does not do at that moment. 

         Dirk leans forward on the table. He stares intently into George’s morose, defeated eyes. He does not find any glee in his triumph. Remembering Helen is enough to wipe away the joy of having cornered his opponent; and though he is going to proceed with the task at hand, Dirk wants nothing more than to finish this banter, to return home, and to let Helen cry out to him in the grey silence.

         Dirk retrieves a folded photograph from his inner jacket pocket. It is his photograph of Rachel Mudd. He does not look at the picture, for deep down he fears that he might see Helen instead smiling back at him. He simply passes the photograph across the table. 

         Actually, I do believe he is a threat, Dirk says finally. A clear and present danger, if my hunch proves correct. 

         George glances at the photograph. He wipes more sweat from his brow.

         Okay, what’s with the girl? George asks.

         Her name is Rachel Mudd, Dirk responds. She is Zachary’s sister.

         Go on, George says impatiently. 

         Charles Waxman gave me this photo, when he hired me to find her, Dirk explains. I had a hunch the moment I saw her smile. Something I recalled from about ten years ago. So I scanned this photo. Used age modification software to create a composite of how Rachel looked back then…

         Dirk stops midsentence, like he cannot quite grasp what to say next. His emotions are getting the better of him, though he is pretty certain that his old poker face remains as impenetrable as ever. George seems not to notice all the sadness and anger spitting through his veins. 

         Or if George notices, then he is keeping his insight to himself. Dirk does not think much of him, but he knows that the drunk cop can keep a poker face as well as he can. So it is impossible then for either to get a sense of the other.

         Dirk retrieves two folded papers from his inner jacket pocket. He hands one of them to George.

         Here is the composite, Dirk says.

         George barely looks at the composite. He has figured out where this talk is headed, and he does not approve one bit. At the same time, given what Dirk has on him, he is in no position to try to refute anything. 

         Dirk hands George the other folded paper. 

         Again, George barely looks at the paper.

         And here is a ‘Missing Person’ sheet dated December 2006, Dirk says.

         Reluctantly, George looks at both of the papers side by side. The images are not exact replicas. Nevertheless, they are similar enough that George feels a cold chill quivering down his spine.

         The missing girl is Chelsea Reed, aged six, Dirk explains. Today, she’d be sixteen. The kidnapper took her younger side, aged three, also. 

         Two girls, huh? George mutters.

         Mary Reed is the younger one, Dirk explains. I have not been able to find her picture on our database. All I know is she’d be thirteen today.

         You have anything on the kidnapper? George asks.

         Dirk retrieves the two papers and the photograph. He folds them neatly, and returns them to his inner jacket pocket. 

         White male, early twenties, dark blond, thin, handsome, not enough for a composite, Dirk explains. Eyewitness said it happened much too fast. A white van screeches to a halt. Perp jumps out, grabs the two girls off a sidewalk, one in each arm, and throws them into the backseat. Van is gone in a flash, almost like it had never been there in the first place. Like the two girls just vanished…

         Make, model, license plate number? George asks.

         Dumb fuck eyewitness forgot all that by the time the cops arrived, Dirk says with disgust. 

         So you think Zachary’s the perp, George says.

         Just a hunch, Dirk admits. I can’t even prove Rachel Mudd is the former Chelsea Reed, let alone that Zachary had anything to do with anything. 

         So you can’t get an arrest warrant, George says.

         Not for the kidnapping, no, Dirk admits.

         But if you book Zachary on a trumped up weapon’s charge, George says…

         I’ll get the kid to talk under interrogation, Dirk interrupts George with a forced smile on his lips. I came this close to interrogating him when we brought him in the last time, but you got him out before I could arrange for a chitchat. That’s not going to happen the next time. I’ll get him to talk. As you damn well know, George, I can be a total motherfucker when I need to be. Isn’t that true?    

*   *   *

         Except for a flickering candle beside the sink, there is no light anywhere as far as Zachary’s eyes can see or imagination can roam. There is no moon out there beyond the kitchen window. Like every other living thing, the silent, cold moon has been swallowed by the darkness. Swallowed whole and switched off, so that there is nothing but the faintest trace of her path across the heavens. A less superstitious man would call this a ‘new moon;’ and there remains a small, though feisty, voice inside of Zachary’s mind that insists that this phenomenon be regarded as such. The dominant voice nevertheless insists that the darkness out there, the moonless blackness that has fallen over everything as a scratchy, old death shroud, belongs more to the primitive than the scientific mind. It is a sign of the beast; a call that makes little sense to the twenty-first century man observing the sky above him, but is profound to the first century man cowering beside his bonfire. The darkest night is near enough now to see, to smell, even to touch. It is no wonder the primitive man kicks his heels so near to the flame.

         Zachary does not have a bonfire. He has a candle off to the side, and an opened bottle of beer in front of him. He remains much too exhausted from all that mayhem the night before to kick up his heels. Nonetheless, in his mind, he is paying homage to the demons and the gods on high, not because he hopes he can delay their attack, but because this close to the end he senses that there is nothing more natural for a man to do. Man is never more than a moonless night from his pagan ancestors. Take away the light, the discernment, the steady eye that pierces the veil, and reason gives way quickly enough to dread. Man turns out to be more beast than angel, more animal than spirit; and so he reverts to that superstitious mind that he had scorned before the darkest night consumes what scant remains of his humanity. 

         Zachary leans heavily on the kitchen counter. He stares out the window awhile, like he expects to see something emerge from out of all that blackness.

         He looks down at his opened bottle of beer. He drinks what is left. It is a warm brew at this point. The suds slither down his throat like spent, thick cum.

         Sarah stands behind him in the kitchen. She has her shawl wrapped very tightly around her head. Her eyes flicker dangerously in the yellow candlelight.

         Are you certain he didn’t get inside of you? Zachary asks, while fingering the suds on the side of the beer bottle. Be honest with me, sister. 

         He didn’t, Sarah answers, embarrassed and scared. 

         And then he ran away, Zachary says.

         Yes, Sarah answers. Like he’d never been here.

         Zachary lifts the beer bottle to his mouth. He licks the suds off the side. 

         He tries to return the bottle to the counter, but in his drunkenness he is not able to set it upright. The bottle tips over, rolls over the edge, and crashes onto the kitchen floor. It breaks it many pieces. No one moves to pick them up.

         Goddamn fool, Zachary remarks, while leaning heavily upon the counter. Thinks the beast is some sort of phantom. The End Times Boogeyman. 

         Zachary turns on his heels to face Sarah. He is too drunk to stand upright without support, so he leans his butt against the counter. 

         Oh, sure, there’s a beast alright, Zachary goes on. But it’s a government worker with a badge and a Glock 19. The beast is the law. The kind of law that says you can’t take things that don’t belong to you. That what goes around will come around. Shit, motherfucker, beast…

         Zachary turns back to face the kitchen window. He looks out again like it is only a matter of time before someone or something shows up. 

         So what am I going to do now? Zachary asks.

         Zachary pounds both fists against the counter. He winces in pain.

         Tie myself to a tree? Zachary mutters. Let the critters devour me?

         Zachary again turns to face Sarah. This time, he moves more slowly, like he is a wounded, older man unsure how much his body can take. The blood that is smeared all over his face and arms combines with this awkward movement to make him seem like a demon; a macabre beast from a B horror about to expire.

         No, Zachary remarks. No easy way out for me. I promised you I’d protect you. Keep you close. Love you, yes, love you.

         Zachary drops his chin to his neck. He turns around once more, painfully, slowly, so as to face whatever may be outside his kitchen window. His hips now sway from side to side, as if presently he is shifting in and out of consciousness.

         But what the fuck is love anyway? Zachary mutters. 

         There is the distant sound of tires grinding through sand. As the sound is growing in volume, headlights beam through the kitchen window. The darkness out there had been so intense that the headlights seem to be breaking through a tall, unseen wall. This feels more like a last ditch rescue attempt than a visit.

         Zachary snaps out of his doldrums. Rescue or not, he needs to be ready. His sister is vulnerable, and she has no one else in the world to safeguard what remains of her little girl innocence.

         He rushes into the pantry, retrieves his rifle, and storms outside to face whoever or whatever is out there. 

Sarah fingers her shawl and watches in silence. There is both calculation and fear in her little girl eyes. Hers are the eyes of the hunted, as much as hers are the eyes of the huntress. Her strength in weakness, weakness in strength; a mystery she ponders in her heart, as the terror outside unfolds before her eyes.

*   *   *

         Zachary stands at attention exactly fifty yards beyond the front door. He holds his rifle diagonally before his chest. He is a brave, strong, one-man army.

         He watches what turns out to be a police car come to a halt before him. 

         The driver’s side window rolls down. George gestures toward his friend.

         What are you doing way out here? Zachary asks, while he lowers his rifle.

         Taking in the sights, George says with a cherubic grin. 

         Not much to see out here, especially on a moonless night, Zachary says.

         The darkest of the nights, George mutters. Cold, black, empty…

         George, what’s going on? Zachary asks.

         George snaps out of his doldrums. He plasters on that fake smile. 

         Nothing I can’t handle with a glass of bourbon and a bong, George says. Come on in here. Sit next to me. 

         Zachary hesitates. Something is horribly wrong, and yet he cannot think of a valid reason not to sit next to his one good friend. 

         Zachary drops his old rifle on the sand. He walks through the headlights, opens the passenger side door, and sits beside his friend. He tries to relax, but he cannot set aside how much sadness and pain seems then to be reverberating out from his friend’s heart. It is as if George already is in hell, and Zachary has to sit too close to hell himself to talk to him. 

         Zachary observes that George is cradling on his lap now a high-powered, semi-automatic firearm. It is the very same gun that Zachary had fired back at the police shooting range. Back then, it had been a weapon of war; but now, in George’s trembling fingers, the gun seems vaguely obscene. It could be a black cock or a dildo that George will thrust when he manages to shake out his fears.

         Except that it is not a cock or a dildo. 

         It is a loaded firearm; and given George’s apparent state of mind, which seems to border on madness, Zachary cannot help but to be afraid for them all.

         Zachary and George sit side by side awhile in silence.

         Tonight’s a good night for staring up at the night sky, George comments. No moon, no city lights, nothing to get in between you and the stars.

         Yeah, sure, Zachary says.

         Stars millions of miles away, George continues.

         Yeah, Zachary says.

         And yet it’s like they’re close enough to touch, George continues.

         Sure, Zachary says.

         Depends on how we look at them, George reflects.

         I don’t understand, Zachary says. 

         Sure you do, George says with his strange grin, while he turns to face his friend beside him. When you’re sweet on them, those stars seem unreachable. When you’re afraid of them, they’re close enough to touch. Much too close for comfort, like they’re coming down on you from every direction at once. Live in fear, and the darkest night will bury you over. Push you into your grave, friend.

         Are you afraid? Zachary asks. 

         Have been all my life, George replies. Running scared. Tonight, no more.

         George lifts the firearm from his lap. He holds it up for Zachary to view.

         I came here on a mission, George says. A clear purpose. A firm resolve…

         George twirls the firearm through his fingers, like he is mischievous boy with a forbidden toy. Zachary wants to take it from him, but just cannot move.

         Entrap you, George continues. Get you to ask for this here weapon, so a distinguished officer of the law can take you downtown. 

         George considers the firearm up close. He smiles, and then returns it to his lap. He stares wistfully out the windshield. 

         But I am not going to do that, George continues. You understand, friend, I am not running scared anymore. I am not afraid. When I look up there at that night sky, for the first time I see the stars flying away from me. The universe is getting bigger; giving me now just enough space to say one honest thing before I have to cash in my chips.

         George turns to face Zachary. Tears fall from his eyes. The fright deep in his eyes cannot be disregarded; and yet, on the whole, he is calm, courageous, finally at peace with himself with what he next says. This is the one moment in which the world is big enough for him to be who he really is, and so he decides to embrace this moment for all that it is worth. He owns his one great triumph.

         I’m sweet on you, buddy, George confesses. You understand me? Most of the time as a big brother, but other times in a way that’s not right in the head.

         Zachary looks away. He is frightened and ashamed.

         I don’t know what you’re afraid of, George says. Maybe, it’s something you did a long time ago. Maybe, something you didn’t do. All I can say is let go of the fear. Let go, so your world too can get a little bigger, and you can think straight. Figure out what you need to do to make things right. Promise me you will do that much before you too call it a night. 

         I’ve got to go inside, Zachary insists.

         I’m wired, George says. They’re listening to everything. Once they hear how this ends they will fall on you without mercy. Don’t be afraid. Promise me.

         Zachary does not say a word. He steps out of the police car without once looking back at his friend. He passes through the headlights, retrieves his rifle, and continues toward the front door. 

         Zachary hears the gunshot before he reaches the door. He stops cold and looks down at his feet. The tears want to flow out from his eyes, but he cannot let that happen. He must be strong, vigilant, ready to do battle; for the beast, as a black lion, approaches, sifting through sand, seeking whom he may devour.

*   *   *

         Zachary staggers through the open doorway. He had not closed the front door when he went out before, which means that his sister saw everything that happened. She heard the gunshot; and almost immediately afterward, she saw the blood and the brain bits splatter against the driver’s side window. Perhaps, some of this had been obscured by the headlights; but Zachary does not think so. He fears that she saw everything, even without the aid of moonlight; and if that is the case, then she lost some of that innocence that he is endeavoring to preserve. Perhaps, she lost every last bit of her innocence. Perhaps, she is now as hardened as a corpse. Zachary thinks George may have taken Sarah with him into that black place where the dead go; his death literal, her death figurative.

         He places his rifle upon the kitchen counter, walks over to his sister, and drops to one knee. The flickering candle beside the sink hardly illuminates this side of the kitchen, and yet Zachary is sure that he can see deeply into Sarah’s eyes. He stares as intently into her soul as he can, and in his unspoken gestures he urges her to do the same with him. They are the last two standing against a dark, cold world; and at this moment, there must be total trust between them.

         There’s going to be trouble, Zachary says after a prolonged silence. I am going to protect you, as I promised. Do you believe me? Do you know I love you? 

         Sarah starts to cry. Zachary wants to cry too, but he holds back his tears one last time. She needs to know that he can be strong for her. She needs to be able to trust in him, or there is nothing else but the despair of a childhood lost.

         Zachary wipes away her tears with his thumbs. He speaks in a slow, soft voice meant to eliminate the tension as much as possible. She sucks her thumb.

         And when this is over I am going to take you home, Zachary says.

         Sarah removes her thumb slowly, gently, and opens her eyes wide. 

         Mommy? Sarah whispers.

         Yes, Zachary whispers. Back to your real mommy.

         There is the sound of approaching vehicles. Headlights beam through the kitchen window. The oncoming cavalry is so intense that the house walls shake.

         Zachary stares longingly into Sarah’s eyes. He leaves her, grabs the rifle off of the counter, and steps out into the menagerie of approaching headlights.

         When Zachary is fifty yard out, he stops, holds his rifle diagonally before his chest, and turns back one more time to look at his little sister. He wants to kick himself for keeping the front door open yet again. Whatever happens next almost surely will rob Sarah of whatever innocence she may have left. Perhaps, he kept the front door open, because he knows deep down that he needs to be able to see her. As much as he is there for her, he realizes that she is there for him. He is her protector, but she is his lifeline. In truth, Zachary tells himself, they are both adrift on the same turbulent sea, and need to sustain each other.

         Zachary sees his sister staring back at him from inside the kitchen. She is trying to call out to him. He cups his left ear to block out the sound of the cars.

         Don’t let them take me from you, Sarah cries out. 

         Zachary nods. He grins, and turns back to face the onslaught. He has his mission now; and even if he dies, he does so as an act of love for his last sister.

         Sarah returns her thumb to her mouth. She is confident that Zachary will do what he must do. There is a hint of a smile forming on her tear stained face.

*   *   *

         Although reluctant to observe the blood splatter on his friend’s driver’s side window, Zachary senses at once that he cannot push back the approaching onslaught with only his antique rifle in hand. There are several police vehicles roaring through the sand from wherever they had been hiding. At this time, the headlights converge in such a way as to make it impossible for him to count the number of adversaries. All he knows is that there are a lot more of them now than he has had to handle before, which means he must change his game plan…

         And he has precious little time to do so…

         Zachary drops his rife to the ground. He runs forward, hesitates just one moment further, and then opens the driver’s side door. He steps back, because as expected George’s blood drenched, lifeless body had been leaning upon the door. George’s corpse falls out of the police car, and lands on the dark sand on its let side. There is a strange squish sound when that happens, like the impact causes blood to erupt out from a hidden packet. 

         Zachary wants to vomit. He forces it back down. Now is not the time for him to buckle, for those vultures will descend on Sarah as soon as they put him down. They will tear her apart. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in the refuge fifty yards behind his back…

         And he is damned, if he lets that happen…

         Zachary squats down. He searches for George’s semi-automatic, while an impenetrable field of headlights illuminates George’s police car. The light aids him in his search, for the firearm had fallen into the tight space in between the accelerator pedal and the floor mat.   

         He dislodges the firearm. It is drenched in blood that is still warm to the touch. He again fights back an urge to vomit. This time, he is able to do so, not because of his stoicism, but because of his abject fear that he will be put down right next to his friend, if he gives himself the time to be sick. Therefore, while forcing his bile to slither back into his stomach, he crawls onto the driver’s seat and scrambles for the magazines he suspects George would have kept within his reach. Wiping blood sweat off his brow, he reaches for the glove compartment.

         A single bullet penetrates the passenger side window. The window blasts inward as a sheet of broken glass shards. The bullet swooshes passed Zachary’s right ear, and lodges into the open driver’s side door. 

         Zachary grabs the glove compartment, opens it, and retrieves a handful of magazines. He feels the bullets stacked inside each of them. He does not try to grab at anything else, since it is only a matter of seconds before a deafening barrage of bullets slam the interior of this police car. His flesh literally will be torn from his bones, and scattered to the wind, if he is in this car at that time.

         Zachary slides out of the car, and crawls over his friend’s corpse. Just as he cowers behind the back door, and snaps a full magazine into the firearm, an enormous artillery onslaught commences. 

         It takes only a few seconds of sustained fire to reduce the interior of the police car into a dump heap. In spite of the mayhem, the dispatch officer still can be heard over George’s speakers directing all available officers to the Mudd residence. Apparently, there is an altercation taking place right now in which a Mudd is firing off rounds at the arriving cops…

         Zachary does not listen to the rest. He listens instead for the last of the police cars to screech to a stop. He hears the sand that the tires kicked up now raining back down on them. He wipes away that red hot sweat clawing his eyes.

         And then he counts down from five…

         Zachary switches on the laser guidance system. He stands, pops his head over George’s police car, and then uses the laser to highlight briefly the closest target. He does not care which one is first. He cares simply that it is a kill shot.

*   *   *

         Blake Kramer has been on edge all day. Ever since he spoke with George the night before, he has had the feeling that his small town is about to fall over the edge. He woke up to the first major car accident in five years. The woman in the Volkswagen turned out to be a barmaid from Bottoms Up. Blake spent his day in his office filing a report for the state highway patrol and handling phone calls from the coroner’s office. 

         Really, just a bunch of ‘busy work,’ the kind that is supposed to dull the senses; and yet he could not distract himself from that voice in the back of his head telling him that the town is about to fall apart. He eyed the digital clock on his desk, like a condemned man counting down the hours to his first and last date with a noose. He looked out his window, saw the first indication of sunset, and literally felt his heart sink into his bowels. Usually, being in the business of law enforcement, he dreaded the full moons; the lunar clarion calls for wackos and hippies to be more reckless than normal. This time, for some weird reason, he dreaded the prospect of the new moon. He had figured out by that late hour that no amount of ‘busy work’ would save himself or his small town from all of that darkness out there. None of that made any sense, of course. Since when is a rational, modern man afraid of the dark? And yet that is exactly how that old, dependable, police chief felt as he left his desk to share in this sting operation.

         Afraid of the dark, Blake mutters, when Dirk Tweed and Steven Kirk stop firing rounds into George Crapp’s police car. What in the hell is wrong with me?

         Blake releases his sidearm from its holster. He grabs for the door handle.

         He feels a slight tingle in the middle of his forehead. Before he is able to register that it is a laser beam, a single bullet smashes through the windshield, and blasts the top half of his head away from the bottom half. Everything north of his nose splatters into blood and brain bits, and lands on that same backseat where he and his since deceased wife conceived their first child. As for the rest of his face, it is little more than an open mouth attached perilously to a wobbly brainstem. The smashed windshield sprinkles onto his torso and his lap like the old and worn out confetti of a party that should have closed shop hours earlier.

         Dispatch crackles over his radio: Mudd reportedly armed and dangerous…

*   *   *

         Dirk Tweed is squatting behind his open driver’s side door. He glances at his younger partner, Steven Kirk, who is squatting behind his open passenger’s side. Both men had unleashed hell upon George’s police car just seconds prior, and have taken their defensive positions in the event there is anyone still alive over there that can return fire. The seconds pass like minutes. The tension has become so palpable as to feel like a pair of hands wrapped around their necks. The gun smoke from the artillery barrage that they had unleashed is so intense as to make it almost impossible to breathe. Combine the difficulty of breathing with the dark, dead surface on which they are standing, and it is easy for both men to imagine that they are waging war on the surface of an alien planet. Or, if not an alien planet, then this could be the outer reach of hell; the gun smoke in fact the fumes from a hell pit; the choking hands in fact a devilish mind fuck meant to scare them back to their small town. 

         Indeed, ‘mind fuck’ is a good phrase, because the horror out here feels a lot more psychological than anything else. First and foremost, it is just so damn dark. Dirk imagines that they have driven into a thick, black, syrupy goo. There is a candle flickering in that small house up yonder. It stands out in its contrast with the darkest night, and yet it is way too feeble to offer much comfort from the impending sense of dread. Of course, the headlights illuminate much more than that candle up yonder; and yet the headlights reflect off of a sheet of fog in such a way as to blind the officers. This adds to their confusion, that tension at the moment that is squeezing the air out of their throats, and the result just now is the kind of fear and disorientation that old soldiers call ‘the fog of war.’

         Dirk slides another magazine into his gun. He sees in his peripheral vision that Steven does the same. Both men act quickly, quietly, even while suffering the horror of this alien landscape.

         Another round, Dirk whispers. On my count.

         A single gunshot smashes through the windshield of the police car to the immediate left of Dirk Tweed. There is a horrible splatter sound; and in his left peripheral vision, Dirk sees a laser beam switch off. He imagines much of what used to be Blake’s head is now goo in the backseat of his police car. The trigger man with that kind of a laser guidance system would have gone for the clearest kill shot. That means ripping Blake’s forehead into two halves in a split second.

         Incensed at the loss of his friend, Dirk unleashes hellfire on George’s car before him. Steven follows his lead. The gun smoke soon sifts in and out of the headlights in such a way as to suggest the fire coming out from the mouth of an angry dragon. It is as if those two angry and frightened police officers are firing artillery into the forked tongue of a beast, which in turn is giving back to them more than it gets. This is an uphill battle for the two men; and though they are releasing just now all that they have, they can feel in their bosoms what those soldiers must have felt seconds before commencing Pickett’s Charge. There is a great honor in the undertaking; but more so, there is anger, fear, dread, those base human emotions augmented by the sickly odor of death in the charred air.

*   *   *

         Zachary slips out from behind George’s police car. He is running towards the trunk of Blake’s vehicle, when Dirk and Steven unleash a second barrage of hell upon what scant remains of the dump heap in front of them. They are way too blinded and deafened by their artillery fire to notice that Zachary is taking position behind and to the left of them. 

         Crouching next to the exhaust pipe of Blake’s vehicle, Zachary soon gets the lay of the land. He switches on his laser guidance system, and points a laser beam at the back of Dirk’s big head. He exhales, then pulls back on the trigger.

*   *   *

         Daddy, help me! The little girl cries out from within the dragon’s mouth.

         Dirk passes off that voice as just a figment of his imagination. He is in an ugly battle, and the mind will play tricks on a man so close to death. The mind wants him to survive, and that means dropping his weapon and running for dear life away from here. If it takes this little girl voice to knock him out of his fight mode, and to replace that with an impulse that is frankly much less courageous and stoic, then that is what his mind will do. 

         Dirk’s imagination is playing dirty, though, for that little girl voice really does sound a lot like Helen’s. Dirk has not heard Helen since the day she left to go to France with her mother. Still, even in the midst of battle, Helen’s unique voice is as recognizable as it had been then. Her image may be fleeting; but at this moment, anyway, her voice is clear, alluring, drawing Dirk out of this fight and into his abiding sadness. He knows that this sadness is his personal ball and chain. He knows that this is the distraction that will render him impotent when he needs to remain most focused to have any chance at survival. 

         He knows that this is really a devil’s trick…

         And yet, and yet, is that not Helen’s voice? 

         Daddy, help me! The little girl cries out from within the dragon’s mouth.

         Helen? Dirk asks, while lowering his firearm to his side.

         Steven continues to fire rounds into George’s car, while Dirk searches in his despair for any further sign that his little girl is in that dragon’s mouth. The voice he hears indeed is Helen’s. He is sure of it. He will wager his life on that fact. Somehow, Helen is in that dragon’s mouth, now crying out for her daddy…

         The bullet knocks Dirk’s head off of his brainstem. Dirk’s blood drenched torso slumps over the driver’s side door. His head rolls into the dragon’s mouth and is lost altogether in the maelstrom of smoke and fire. 

*   *   *

         Steven Kirk has been worried about his friend, Dirk, ever since he passed out in Dirk’s living room. He does not remember the particulars all that well, as he had been nursing an especially bad hangover when he wandered over to one of those framed photographs of Helen beside Dirk’s crime novels. Whatever had happened then had had a lot more to do with mood than with what was said. In that moment, while looking at Helen’s pretty smile, Steven had felt a cold chill slither down his spine. 

         Dirk’s not going to make it, Steven had thought at the time, although he had been careful to sound more positive. Somehow, Helen will drag my partner and friend into her nightmare. He will roam where the dead roam; a dark place off the beaten track much like where the Mudds live. 

         Sure enough, over the next few days, Dirk turned inward. He responded to Steven’s practical jokes or inquiries with little more than halfhearted grunts and eye rolls. He would stare off into the distance like a man suffering from an irremediable despair. He only appeared animated when testing his surveillance equipment or when preparing for his interviews. 

         Steven had tried to penetrate Dirk’s emotional defenses with his humor; but when that proved unsuccessful, he had kept his distance. Ever since he lost his real father in a terrible car accident, he had been looking for a replacement at church, on the football field, and more recently in the police department in which he serves. Dirk accepted the role without any particular conversations to that effect. It is like the two work partners were meant to be joined at the hip in this manner. Therefore, as Dirk had retreated emotionally into his own small cocoon, Steven had kept his distance; for Steven had not wanted to upset at all the precious, if unspoken, arrangement they had together. That would prove to be a mistake, because if Steven had penetrated Dirk’s thoughts, and somehow had pulled his older partner back from the brink, then it is unlikely that Dirk at this moment would have heard Helen calling out to him from inside the dragon.

         Of course, hindsight is always twenty-twenty; and so the real measure of a man is not what he would do if he could have a do over, but what he actually does when faced with a crisis. Steven’s test happens when he finishes firing his magazine into what remains of George’s police vehicle. He allows the magazine to fall to the ground, while he grabs a new one from his pants pocket. He slips the new one into his firearm. Just before he resumes, he glances at his friend…

         And observes that Dirk is just a headless, blood drenched corpse slumped over the driver’s side door. He is no longer his father figure. He is no longer the man who will advise him on the ways of the world. He is no longer the man who can outdrink everyone but George on the police force. He is just a bloody mess slumped over a car window…

         And that pisses off Steven in a way he had not thought possible. Perhaps, this is the raw rage a man feels when confronted with the sudden demise of his battle buddy. Steven is no soldier, but at that moment he feels like he can take on an entire army. He clicks his magazine in place. He can tell from how Dirk’s corpse hangs over the window that indeed Dirk had been shot from behind, and so it is logical to presume that the asshole is back there still. 

         Steven turns on his heels, and ducks. He does this just in time, for only a second later the bullet intended for the back of his head smashes apart the car window behind him. The window shards fall onto his back like shrapnel from an enormous bomb blast. His back is a mangled mess of sharp glass wounds, but he decides to ignore all that pain. Like the man who shot at him, he is a man on a mission now. He has his firearm ready for battle, although the look in Steven’s eyes just then suggests he is more likely to gouge out the asshole’s eyes than to put him down with a fine kill shot. This battle is personal, visceral, animalistic.

*   *   *

         Zachary ducks behind Blake’s vehicle. He did not hit the younger cop, as he had anticipated. He expects the return fire to be as targeted and as intense as what had been unleashed against George’s vehicle. Surely, those cops in the third car off to the side will join with the younger cop in the middle car now in trying to finish him off. Most likely, this spot will be his last stand; and then the beast will roam unrestrained through the darkest night.

         There is return fire, but apparently only from the younger cop. The third car off to the side does not seem yet to have entered this war for some reason. Rather than trying to figure out their intentions, Zachary takes advantage of his good luck by firing back at that younger cop. If there had been more incoming, then he would have been forced to remain behind the trunk of Blake’s vehicle, holding back his fire until the coast is clear, and hoping they do not manage to hit him in the meantime. 

         The firefight is intense for what seems like an eternity. Most likely, only a few minutes pass; but the adrenaline rush in that time is enough to knock the wind out from Zachary’s sails. He kneels before the trunk now, like it is a scrap metal, bullet scarred altar. He holds himself up by leaning one of his hands on the trunk. With his other hand he fires off rounds in the general direction of his adversary. It takes every last bit of energy for him to drop one magazine and to replace it with another. He is too tired to notice that that younger cop has not returned fire for awhile. Perhaps, Zachary hit him. Perhaps, that younger cop, whomever he may be, ran out of bullets and is waiting for the coast to clear on his end. Perhaps, he is circling around to attack Zachary from another angle. If Zachary is not more careful, then he may suffer the same fate he had inflicted. 

*   *   *

         Steven ran out of bullets sometime ago. Since then, he has been staying as low as possible behind Dirk’s police vehicle, while incoming artillery smashes pretty much everything around him. 

         The smoke from George’s car is getting more intense with every passing minute. There must be an actual fire somewhere, since gun smoke alone simply cannot explain the greasy, black cloud sliming in between the parked cars. This gunfight needs to end soon, or Steven will pass out from asphyxiation.

         There is a lull in the incoming artillery. The Mudd fellow may be simply exchanging magazines; but minutes earlier, he had been a lot swifter to reload. Why should he have any difficulty now with a task he surely has mastered? Does this mean that his firearm has jammed? Or is he out of ammunition?

         Something is wrong with that Mudd fellow, Steven thinks. And so, now is the time to change course.

         Without any more hesitation, Steven climbs to the roof of Dirk’s car and jumps over to the roof of Blake’s car. He is shielded as much by the darkness of this night as by the intense smoke. The headlights reflecting back into the thick smoke disorient Steven a moment, and he imagines himself leaping from cloud to cloud in a hellish vision of night. 

         He runs down the back window and across the trunk. He thinks he sees a glimpse of the Mudd fellow sifting in and out of that cloud. If that is the case at this moment, then the Mudd fellow has no idea that he is about to be attacked, for he is squatting behind Blake’s trunk, like he expects rounds from Dirk’s car.

*   *   *

         Zachary is struggling with his firearm. It seems to have jammed, and no amount of exertion on his part seems to be making a difference. Even worse, a thick cloud of soot from George’s car stings his throat and his eyes horribly. He is barely able to stay conscious, and that makes it hard for him to think clearly about what to do next with his weapon. Part of him now just wants to toss the damned thing and to fight off the rest of the beasts with his blood stained fists.

         He hears rapid footsteps directly above him…

         Is there someone running on the trunk to his immediate left?

         Before Zachary can answer his own question, he looks up and to his left in time to see the silhouette of a man leaping off of the trunk. The man has his arms outstretched, like he is attempting to fly off of the trunk. 

         Zachary drops his firearm off to the side. He lifts his hands instinctually to protect his face, just as the man lands on top of him. He cannot see the face of the man, because of the darkness and the soot, but he can feel the absolute hatred bubbling through the man’s veins. He also feels the man’s fingers on his own face and senses that, if given the chance, this man will gouge out his eyes.

         Incensed and frightened, Zachary knows that he has to kill this man first. There will be no middle ground, no clean kill shots, no opportunity for either of them to walk away from this place with his humanity intact. 

         Somehow, Zachary manages to free his hands out from beneath the man. He squeezes his palms against the man’s forehead, and twists both thumbs into the man’s eyes. The man tries to do the same to him, but Zachary’s thumbs are in too deep too fast. The man cannot do anything else, but try to yank his head away from Zachary’s penetrating thumbs. Sensing that the man might get away from him, Zachary squeezes his thighs against the man’s hips, thus trapping his adversary in this death grip. 

         The man writhes every which way; but Zachary is so pumped up with his murderous adrenaline that he manages to keep the man where he needs him. It does not take long, thankfully, for Zachary to twist his grimy thumbs into brain matter. The man lets out a final, horrid, ear shattering wail, as a stream of hot blood and brain goo pours out from both sockets. The man falls forward, like he wants to kiss Zachary before relinquishing his mad ghost, but dies before there is any lip locking between the two of them. 

*   *   *

         Disgusted at the hot blood and brain parts pouring onto his face, Zachary slithers out from beneath the man’s corpse. He turns onto his stomach, so as to push himself up from the ground. 

         There is a gunshot that ricochets off of the hard sand just several inches from his face. If he had frozen in terror at that moment, then the officer would have been able to aim properly the second time. 

         Instead, still excited from the adrenaline rush he had experienced when fighting for his life with the man, Zachary jumps to his feet, and rushes toward the last police car. He does not have a weapon on him. He only has his scream, which sounds like a one-man Rebel Yell, and the sheer madness in his once kind and humane eyes. The Zachary that had held Rachel’s hand, while she suffered from the pain of labor, is gone. The Zachary that just promised to take Sarah to her mother is gone, too. He does not now fight for anything or anyone. He is in a mad cauldron, the belly of the beast, and driven by nothing else at that time, but raw, inchoate anger. In the heat of battle, there is no thought for what will be won or lost after the smoke clears. There is only rage, hunger, the beast let free to exact hard pain for its own sake, while the greasy smoke covers all sins.

         Zachary sees Cletus Luther in the smoke. The hillbilly cop is trying to get his revolver to fire another round. The soot dancing through the heavy smoke is apparently hard on firearms. It does not help that Cletus is already four or five sheets to the wind, given how much he imbibed at Bottoms Up earlier tonight. It is a wonder how that fat faced, flustered fuck can stand still on his own feet.

         Zachary barrels into Cletus just as the latter manages to fire off another round. The bullet lodges into Zachary’s left ribcage. The burning pain is almost unbearable, and yet Zachary has enough forward momentum already that he is able to lock Cletus’ neck inside his right, inner elbow. Cletus squeals like a pig, and tries to squirm out of the choke hold. Zachary breaks his neck with a twist of his right arm, and the fat fuck falls to the sand like a sack of Idaho potatoes.

         There is another gunshot. This one grazes Zachary’s right shoulder. Even worse than the superficial flesh wound is the ringing in Zachary’s right ear that results. In Zachary’s eyes, this dark and smoky world in which he is waging war now has tilted to one side. He wobbles several feet to his right, and falls down.

         Zeeb Beekins staggers over to his fallen victim. He wants to get closer to that Mudd Fucker, so that he can finish him off and get back to his bar stool. In his haste, he fails to see Cletus’ corpse in the way. He stumbles over his friend, falls hard on his knees, and loses his revolver somewhere within that dark sand that appears to be everywhere. He groans in pain and cries out like a little girl.

         Although disoriented, Zachary staggers up to Zeeb, and kicks his cock as hard as he can. Zeeb doubles over in pain, and so Zachary lands another kick at his face. Zeeb falls back, and Zachary proceeds to kick his face repeatedly until the little girl crying finally stops.

         Zachary staggers to the driver’s side door of the police car. He is so tired that he has to lean much of his weight against the closed window. Up close and personal, he sees Roscoe Putzman staring back at him from behind the steering wheel of his police car. 

         Roscoe is trembling from fear. His palms continually slide off the wheel from too much sweat. His eyes appear big enough to pop out of their sockets at any moment. He squirms in his leather seat, as if he just now peed in his pants. His erratic behavior is almost cartoonish; and yet there is no trace of humor, as the horror of this night consumes both the attacker and the victim in its drama. 

         Zachary sees the trapped bunny rabbit, and decides to go for the kill. He starts to pound on the driver’s side window with the intent of breaking through the glass with the palm of his hand. 

         Roscoe releases the brake of his idling police car, switches into reverse, and roars off. He runs over Zachary’s left foot in the process; but at that time, Zachary is too pumped with adrenaline to notice how his foot has been injured.

         Zachary watches Roscoe drive away. He seems unsure what is happening and what to do next. He may have stayed there indefinitely, captured by a kind of brain freeze, but for the eruption of pain all over his body. The adrenaline is subsiding now, and that means that the horrid pain cannot be ignored anymore.

         Zachary staggers in the general direction of his home. He cannot tell for sure, since there is nothing to see in any direction but smoke. He thinks that he may have passed George’s car to his left, since he feels the heat of an intense, crackling fire in that direction. It is hard for Zachary to think coherently at that bleak time. Still, he reasons that if George’s car explodes, and if that explosion sets off the other two police cars, then he and Sarah will be joining everyone in Hell. There will be fire everywhere; and the beast, as a lion, will take them all.

*   *   *

         Zachary does not remember falling face first into the dirt. He recalls the burning sensation in his lungs from all that smoke. He recalls gasping for breath in what increasingly looks and feels like the landscape of an alien planet. Earth and Heaven have passed away, it seems. Hell is what remains then; the darkest night an abode for beasts living off of the flesh of the elect and of the damned.

         Then, everything is black. Zachary has no idea for how long, although it must not have been for very long, since the smoke and the fire remain as prior. Indeed, he does not just open his eyes, so much as a coughing fit slaps him out from his unconsciousness. 

         He tries to push himself up from the ground. He cannot do so. He is way too weak. The manner in which everything spins around him suggests that he is also losing too much blood from that gunshot wound. His life is leaking out of a hole in his side. If he does not mend the wound within minutes, then that leak will be a stream spreading out in the shape of a red fan. He will never stand up when that is the case. His face will fall back into the sand, and he will breathe in the dead ground until he slides into unconsciousness one more time. 

         But he cannot let that happen. He had made a promise to his last sister. He must take her out of here, and bring her to her real mother. He must do one good deed, before the darkness rips his flesh from his bone. He is not so certain it will matter, but he has to try. He lost his humanity in that cauldron of sweat and rage. He does not want to die as the same beast that pressed in those eyes and twisted that neck…

         And, more importantly, he does not want Sarah to die at all…

         Because if Sarah lives, then there is still light and innocence in this dark, desolate world. There is still hope, even if it is cradled in naivety and nurtured in ignorance. There is still, somewhere, the reserved smile and laughter of the perpetual virgin; a girl forever wrapped in her shawl with soulful, adoring eyes.

         He hears tires grinding through the sand. Although he cannot stand up as of yet, he is able to roll onto his right side, which allows him to face the visitor directly. His heart sinks even before he sees the approaching police car, for he has no doubt in his mind who is behind the steering wheel.

         Zachary blinks several times. He sees then what is actually creeping out from that cauldron of smoke and of soot. It is not a police car, at least not like the others. It is a dragon with red eyes. There is a flashing light on its hump; an unsettling, silent pulse that casts a hypnotic spell. 

         The ugly dragon stops not too far from Zachary. It glares hungrily at him.

         Angel Muerte steps out from inside the dragon’s mouth. He takes his firm stand only three paces in front of his beast. He folds his arms before his chest, and stares at Zachary from beneath a dark hood. Dressed all in black, his eyes, penetrating, timeless, dead, sometimes seem to be floating in the air. There is a hint of a grin on his thin lips, though the grin seems devoid of genuine mirth. Instead, the grin looks like something shaped on a dead man’s face. In keeping with that theme, Angel’s facial skin has a slightly bluish tint to it, like it is the face of a corpse before the mortician has had a chance to color it for the show.

         Serafina steps out from inside the dragon’s mouth also. He stands beside his brother. As always, he looks clueless, even retarded, though there is a look in his eyes that suggests that he is ready to kill at the smallest provocation. He grinds his right fist into his left hand, while he stares at Zachary as a dumb dog.

         My brother wants to go out on another date with you, Angel states. Isn’t he romantic?

         Serafina grunts. He pounds his fist into his hand much harder and faster, like he is emulating the thrust of his cock. Nevertheless, his eyes remain dumb.

         Zachary reaches behind him. There is hot iron back there. It is long and smooth; perhaps, the muzzle of the rifle he had left behind. Is it really possible he fainted beside his rifle? Seems too unlikely, unless he had allowed himself a dip back into unconsciousness precisely because he recognized then he had his weapon in close proximity. Perhaps, he never has been as confused as he thinks he has been. Or perhaps, the fates are toying with him; keeping him alive so as to see just how bruised and bloodied a man can be before he gives up his ghost to the nearest devil. 

         Regardless, Zachary finds an untapped reserve of energy somewhere. He grabs a hold of his rifle, sits upright, aims at Angel’s face, pulls on the trigger…

         And nothing happens. 

         Angel chuckles, although his eyes suggest anger at Zachary’s willfulness. What the hell? When will this young buck know that he is way out of his league?

         Your rifle doesn’t fire, Angel gloats. I always knew you that you were an insufferable limp wrist. Just be glad my bro wants a second date with you now, or I’d waste your faggot ass. Put you down like the little cock warmer you are. Tap you so deep I’m actually pissing up your throat from your ass. 

         Angel turns to Serafina. He gestures toward the loser with the dead rifle.

         You are a hungry man, Angel remarks with a grin. Go eat his pussy.

         Serafina licks his lips, and rubs his tummy. 

         Then, like a horse let loose from the starting gate, he gallops on his two thick legs towards his prey. He snorts the whole time he is running, no doubt as a result of his extreme obesity. Mucus flails off his nose as water from a faucet.

         Serafina tackles Zachary. They both roll across the sand, jabbing at each other’s faces, and at one point even biting at each other’s open wounds. There is virtually no sound, though, except for when Serafina licks his lips and tries to rip out with his teeth a chunk of Zachary’s flesh. Whenever that happens, there is a big look on Serafina’s face that resembles the oversized, toothy smile of an African American in a racist cartoon from yesteryear. 

         Notwithstanding Zachary’s loss of blood, he is still in much better shape than his opponent. Eventually, he pushes Serafina onto his back, and he stands up. He looks down on his vanquished opponent, who in turn seems to be trying to wipe the blood and the sand out of his dopey eyes. 

         Zachary eyes his rifle. He picks it up, and kicks Serafina until the big guy is on his stomach. He pulls down Serafina’s trousers and undershorts, and rams the end of the muzzle into Serafina’s anus. 

         Zachary keeps ramming the muzzle into the anus, while Serafina wiggles aimlessly and releases one fart after another. Blood gurgles out from inside the anus. This grotesque mayhem continues, until finally Zachary pulls back on the trigger and discharges a single round into the gaping, bleeding asshole. Serafina trembles erratically in response to the gunshot. He bangs his forehead one too many times into the hard sand, and that is what finally releases his black ghost.

         Zachary turns to face Angel Muerte, but the hooded demon man is gone. His dragon (or perhaps it had been a police car, after all) is gone, too. There is nothing in that direction but George’s burning wreckage, which may explode at any moment. Its proximity to the two other police cars is a real danger; and so, tired and beaten as he is, Zachary knows that he has to move fast now to have any chance at all in escaping with Sarah before everything explodes. 

*   *   *

         Zachary staggers through the open front door. There is a steady stream of blood flowing out from the gunshot to his ribs. The blood slides down his leg and under his feet, notwithstanding his attempt with his free hand to keep that wound closed. He slips on his own blood several times. 

         Leaving his rifle momentarily on the kitchen counter, he walks through a thick cloud of smoke to where he barely sees his little sister. She is in the exact same spot as before. She is sucking ravenously on her thumb. Her eyes are still, perhaps even dead, like she had been hypnotized by the violence outside of her front door. Her skin is albino white now, perhaps from inhaling so much smoke.

         Zachary takes a knee in front of Sarah. He takes her face into his hands. He speaks up close and carefully, as if he is trying to break through her mental and emotional defenses. Though he tries to sound as calm as possible, there is anxiety in his voice, for deep down he fears he may have lost his sister already.

         Sis, we got to go, Zachary says. The state police will be here very soon.

         Zachary glances back at the fire outside. George’s car is now a thick wall of screaming flames. He cannot see the other police cars behind that wall, but he presumes that the fire is reaching out to those vehicles as well. If and when they catch fire, then it is only a matter of time before…

         Zachary shakes the thought out of his mind. He needs to remain stoic for his sister at this moment. The poor, innocent girl is traumatized enough as it is.

         Sarah continues to suck upon her thumb. She appears not to react at all, notwithstanding how evident it is that they are in immediate danger.

         We must go now! Zachary urges.

         Sarah slowly awakens from her stupor. She lowers her moist thumb from her mouth. She stares up at her brother as if to ask him: ‘What do we do now?’

         Relieved to see life back in Sarah’s eyes, Zachary retrieves his rifle.

         Zachary stands by the open door, and gestures for Sarah to follow him. 

         Sarah walks up to her brother, and takes his hand into hers. She looks up at him, and speaks in a calm and reasoned manner. At that moment, she seems to be the older one of the two. Zachary regrets her apparent maturity, though he recognizes that that fact likely increases their chance of surviving this night.

         We cannot go into town, Sarah says. The state police will find us there.

         I suppose you’re right, Zachary says.

         Sarah leads Zachary outside. She takes in the wall of fire. There is a soft look on her face, a kind of eternal serenity, that suggests she is not frightened by the maelstrom of fire and smoke. Perhaps, this firestorm is inconsequential when compared to the fury living in Abram’s veins. Perhaps, she is able to view the distant stars through all that smoke; and in her mind, anyway, the stars are moving away from her finally. Perhaps, the world is big enough out here for the little girl in a shawl to be herself; a rose about to blossom on the darkest night.

         Holding her brother’s hand, Sarah leads Zachary towards the forest away from town. The state police likely will not find them out there anytime soon. It is possible that the state police will think that they have been consumed by the flames and never bother to look. They may just vanish into the night, after all…

         Except that the beast is out there still…

         And he is not done with either of them.

*   *   *

         Zachary staggers through the forest with Sarah at his side. He is doubled over in pain. There is an incredible amount of warm blood flowing out from his wound. Sweat pouring down from his forehead stings his eyes and largely blinds him. The ringing in his right ear is so intense that his skull feels like a vibrating bell about to break apart. 

         Still, somehow, Zachary remains on his feet, though Sarah is doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of pushing aside low hanging branches and slithery vines. He is running entirely on determination at this point. The energy reserve that had allowed him to defeat the local police is long gone. Even that stoicism with which he had tried to orient his life is a thing of the past. What passes for strength now is his resolve to get his little sister from Point A to Point B, before the state police find them, or he falls unconscious. Take away that last resolve, and Zachary is a dead man. 

         The fog is higher and thicker than ever. It is so pervasive that the trees, once imposing figures in their own right, appear as little more than malformed shadows, until Zachary and Sarah stumble into a branch draped over their path. The forest is a haunted graveyard, where the trees are ghosts sifting in and out of clammy fog. The air scratches the back of their throats. It is dead, macabre, like that still air that fills out the chest of a corpse. 

         At the same time, without the moon shining through the spaces between the trees and the foliage, the fog seems to contain its own illumination. This is the only explanation that makes sense, even if it is irrational; for how else does one malformed shadow appear differently from another? It is as if the darkness itself is a kind of energy that demarcates one beast from another and highlights the path deeper into the forest. 

         Though the fog is still, there is a wind closer to the soil that snaps leaves and twigs every which way. The wind is restless, hungry; and it speaks the soft, but passionate, words now that have inspired the deepest cravings among men.

         ‘Looove Yooou,’ the wind howls repeatedly. The tone is morose, like an unfortunate ghost in chains expressing his eternal damnation. The contrast that exists between the tone and the words is the most jarring of all, for the tone is as hellish as the words are heavenly. Is this a sick joke? Or is there invariably a dark undercurrent of hell even in the expression of love? Is death life’s shadow?

         Long before he sees the tree, Zachary hears the rope creaking from side to side. It is a frightening sound that sends a chill down his back. Although near to passing out and falling onto his knees, Zachary imagines the rope scratching into the purple, bloated, dead neck of his sister every time the wind pushes the wet twine. At some point, the neck will snap free from the chin; and a headless corpse will crack open on the jagged tree roots. Only her decaying head will be in that noose; and if the wind blows the back of that noose over her head, then she will appear as if a head with a halo swinging over ripped skin and bones. So macabre; and yet, for the beasts that scamper and squeal across the wet forest earth, a real feast until the last bit of edible meat has been torn off her bones.

         ‘Looove Yooou,’ the wind howls more clearly now, though with the same sense of foreboding as before. 

         Zachary falls to his knees. There is just too much blood loss. The world is narrowing, turning dark, collapsing in on his shoulders and the back of his neck.

         The fog clears just enough for Zachary to see his sister, Rachel, and also his father, Abram, swinging dead on the gallows tree in front of him. Of course, Rachel’s corpse is much further along than her father’s. Hers is so dark purple as to call to mind a person drenched in red wine. Worse, both her face and her midsection are bloated, like she is an expectant mother carrying an enormous, monstrous fetus that she cannot possibly push through her canal. 

         Abram’s corpse is not yet discolored; and yet it is even more monstrous. His neck seems to have been stretched six inches by the noose, so that he looks inhuman and cartoonish. He had hung himself so as to face in the opposite way of his daughter, so that while Zachary sees the back of Rachel’s head, he stares straight into his father’s grotesque face. Abram’s face would have been pretty grotesque just in virtue of the upward pull of the noose, which makes him look like the recent recipient of a particularly bad facelift. Nevertheless, his face is especially horrid because Abram apparently yanked out his eyes with a serrated knife before taking the plunge. The pain must have been intense, for his mouth remains forever open in a scream. Abram yanked out his eyes, and hung himself with his back to the inner forest, no doubt as precautions against ‘seeing’ that beast even in death. He could not face his sin, his faithlessness, his defeat in a world he imagined conspired against him; and so he died a frightened man with no legacy but the dark madness all about him. 

         Zachary is bent over in pain, and yet he reaches out with his left hand in a last attempt to touch them. His bloodied, trembling fingers come to within a few inches of Rachel’s rotted ankles. 

         Zachary glances up. He sees the night sky above him. The stars are much too close. There is no more space for him in this world, no matter how hard he is trying now to reclaim that humanity he lost somewhere behind him. He never could measure up to the darkest night, and his final defeat hangs heavily on his dying heart. His tears flow. His mouth opens into an unvoiced scream that looks like his father’s expression the moment the noose had broken his chicken neck.

         He reaches out with both hands. After all, there is no point at this stage in trying to push back the blood. He may as well be the bloody sacrifice before Hell’s Altar; a filthy and malformed animal shivering before death’s old scythe.

         Looove Yooou, Zachary screams, while focusing on Abram and on Rachel.

         Zachary falls to his side. He breaths are haggard. 

         Angel Muerte steps out from the fog. He walks to Zachary in such a slow and controlled manner as to look like he is floating above the ground. He drops to one knee, and stares up close into Zachary’s bloodshot eyes. 

         I told you you wouldn’t get away, Angel states with just a hint of a grin.

         Zachary lifts his left hand toward Abram and Rachel. He is much weaker and cannot do more than to shake his hand several inches above the wet earth.

         Looove Yooou, Zachary whispers in pain. Looove Yooou. Looove Yooou…

         Angel Muerte tries not to show any expression, and yet his eyes are now visibly disgusted. His lips look tense enough to crinkle away with the loud wind.

         Defiant, even at the end, Angel snaps. Well, so be it. You may die a man tonight, loyal, strong, protecting the one you love; but dead is dead.

         Looove Yooou, Zachary mouths unvoiced. Looove Yooou. Looove Yooou…

         Oh, fuck you and your love, Angel snarls, while standing upright. Do you think that is going to keep the maggots away from your corpse?

         Zachary drops his left hand. He continues to stare at Abram and Rachel, even as the light of conscious recognition dims in his sad eyes.

         Looove Yooou, Zachary mouths unvoiced. Looove Yooou. Looove Yooou…

         Angel turns his back on Zachary. He walks back into that fog from which he had emerged. There is a dark stain in the fog one moment; then, he is gone.

         I’m free, Zachary mouths unvoiced. I’m free. I’m free…

         Zachary takes in one last breath, and then dies. His face relaxes, maybe for the first time. A thin tear slides out from his left eye and is lost in the mud.

*   *   *

         Sarah is frozen in fear and in awe. She sees her father and her sister as a pair of shadows hanging from a limb. Most of the tree remains hidden behind a tall wall of fog; and so for her, the illusion is that they are suspended in midair. They are two twisted stains sifting in and out of a bluish white cloud. The way that they swing from side to side, slowly, heavily, calls to mind a creaking, old metronome. They are keeping time and, as such, holding together a dark world that otherwise would burst at the seams…

         Or so Sarah thinks, as she sucks on her thumb, and entertains the kind of superstitious reasoning that slides invariably into paganism. She senses the dark witchery in all of this, and that fascinates her more so than it repulses her. She feels at home by this peculiar gallows tree; frightened yes, but also comforted, like when a girl is first embraced by a boy beneath the kind face of many stars.

         She sees her brother die. She exhibits no emotion, and she is not sure in fact that she feels much of anything. Perhaps, after so much madness, she does not have it in her anymore to remove her emotional shields. Perhaps, the stark coldness now causing her hands to tremble is not weather, so much as it is the outward expression of the cold and contained life with which she is accustomed in her thirteenth year. She bites on her thumb; and for a moment at least, the warm blood she feels slithering out from her thumb and onto her tongue offers some relief from the coldness. 

         She slowly drops to her knees. There is something truly sacred about this place. The wind speaks. The fog caresses. The shadows insinuate a ghostly life just beyond the touch of her imagination. Somewhere, out there, the darkness is so thick, and the night so long, the beast roams unrestrained. It devours love and heartache, tramples underfoot any weakness, and replaces all that with an old black magic. She is starting to taste that magic. The Good Book calls it lust. The preachers warn of the Jezebel Whores. For Sarah, that ‘old black magic’ is womanhood, mercurial, sexual, but also perceptive and wise. She wants now to embrace it. She is alone, finally, and though her heart breaks for her loss, even more so her heart swoons for the quiet and solitary life of a woman. 

         Captured as she is by her vague intimations of womanhood and witchery, Sarah does not hear the sound of hard footsteps approaching her. Leaves crack beneath boot heels, twigs snap in two before being kicked back into that thick fog, and yet she hears nothing. Perhaps, to some degree, Sarah has been lulled into hypnosis by the twisted shadows swinging side to side. Regardless, she has no sense whatsoever that a dark human form, a person in a ski mask and a one-piece, will grab a hold of her, while she ponders the beast in the darkest night.

*   *   *

         Sarah remains apprehensive, and yet her curiosity finally gets the better of her. She recalls being startled unconscious by a dark human form standing at her side suddenly in the haunted forest. She fell into the deepest sleep, though incongruously she also felt herself being carried through the forest like a dainty Princess in the arms of Prince Charming. She did not go back to the Mudd home that night. She is pretty sure she slept in a sleeping bag tucked beneath a hole in the ground, although all of that may have been an elaborate dream intended to comfort her. Is it not better, after all, to be secured in a cocoon than to be kidnapped by a dark figure? It is not better to imagine maternal love beating in the bosom of the person who holds your life in his or her hands? 

         And so she kept her eyes closed, even after she could have opened them again. She did not squirm or cry, as the dark human form periodically put his or her hands on her forehead, or force fed her food and water, or scratched away those itches that came from her open wounds. The dark human form used what felt anyway like a hook.

         Now, Sarah is lying in Rachel’s bed. She knows this, for she can hear how the wood boards creak whenever the dark human form walks from her bedside to the kitchen. She also smells the blood and the pussy that had been shed the last time a woman rested on these same unwashed sheets. Or maybe she thinks she smells the blood and the pussy. After all, the smell cannot linger that long, can it? Maybe, maybe not; but surely the horror lingers long after the screams…

         And the horror has a texture, a fragrance, even a sound when that wind outside picks up at night. Sarah senses that, if she opens her eyes, she will see that horror as well. It may be something she views on that dark human form; a tick, a nod, a look in that person’s eyes that brings that past horror back to the present. It may be something unrelated to the dark human form, like a shadow, or a splash of dried blood on one of the walls. 

         The horror can spook her in so many ways; and so, even though she has more curiosity than fear at this moment, she opens her eyes very carefully. She will shut them at once, if she does not like what she sees. 

         The bedroom is dark, except for a single candle on the table beside her. This is a blessing, for she cannot see the dried blood on the walls. Nor can she see the damage inflicted by her father the night he lost his humanity and came close to raping her. The horror is there. She can smell and feel how that horror looms over everything; but, at least, she does not have to see it in front of her.

         Instead, her eyes fasten on a beautiful, middle aged, redheaded woman sitting beside her. The woman wears a black one-piece and high, black boots; a combination that would suggest a Dominatrix, if Sarah knew anything about the world of bondage and sadomasochism. Indeed, as Sarah had felt earlier, one of the woman’s hands has been replaced with a hook. The hook is filthy and blood stained. It rests now upon her lap and is partially covered by the dark ski mask.

         Don’t try to wake up too fast, the woman urges. You have been through too much horror for such a little girl. 

         Sarah’s eyes open wide. She continues to rest the back of her head upon her pillow, but the excited look on her face suggests she may try to get up. She has to clear her throat, before she can speak.

         Mommy, Sarah whispers in a childlike manner. 

         You remember, the woman says with a smile.

         I’ve seen your face in my dreams, Sarah whispers. 

         And I’ve seen yours in mine, the woman remarks with teary eyed joy. We hold onto the one we love, however we can.

         But why? Sarah whispers.

         You asking me why we were separated? The woman asks uncomfortably.

         Yes, mommy, Sarah whispers with a subtle nod. 

         The woman fidgets on her chair, though she is careful always to keep her wide smile on her face. She unconsciously wipes her hook with her ski mask; an utterly futile gesture given how those blood stains seem baked into the iron. In that moment of discomfort, the woman appears twenty or thirty years old; the Dominatrix replaced by this older, redheaded witch with strangely long fingers.

         I had you and your sister out of wedlock, the woman says. Do you know what that means?

         Yes, mommy, Sarah whispers with a subtle nod.

         I tried the best I could, but I had problems, the woman continues with a fearful quiver in her voice. My older brother is the man you have called ‘father’ for ten years. In fact, he is your uncle. When I had my problems, and the state put me away, my brother took Rachel and you into his home. Back then, he was ‘Jerry.’ He had a wife, a job in finance, a son whom he spoiled…

         The woman smiles broadly, and now finishes her sentence in the voice of a Kindergarten teacher introducing someone to the wonders of Storybook Land. This sudden change from trembling confessor to Kindergarten teacher unsettles Sarah, since often Abram exhibited the same sudden and erratic mood changes.

         …And then, one morning, he had two precious daughters!

         Like the stork delivering two girls in the middle of the night, Sarah says.

         You two were a blessing for him, the woman continues. I know, because back then Jerry spoke with me at least once a week on the phone. What he did not yet understand is that there is a curse hidden inside every blessing. It does not matter what they say in Sunday school. Believe me when I say that ‘God’ is just the mask that ‘Satan’ wears. He had Rachel and you, but he soon lost his wife, his job, everyone of his worldly possessions. He changed his first name to ‘Abram.’ He no longer spoke with me after that. I suppose a troubled sister in a padded room did not fit with his new self-image. 

         The woman cannot hide her bitterness when she speaks of Abram’s ‘new self-image.’ She had been pruned from the tree. She recalls waiting in darkness for days on end beside a phone that would never ring again. She attempts right now to shut that image out of her mind, but of course she does not succeed. All her joy in reconnecting with Sarah cannot erase that past sadness, for indeed a curse is hidden in every blessing…

         And ‘God’ is just the mask that ‘Satan’ wears…

         You never heard anything? Sarah asks.

         Years later, I heard that his boy had been mistaken for a kidnapper, the woman continues. The police detained him. Tried to get him under pressure to confess to something he did not do. That’s what happens to strange birds, who live apart from most everyone else. Anyway, all their neighbors started to treat them as if they were beasts. They forced them out of town one horrible night. No one saw what the others were doing that night, because there was no moon. 

         The darkest night, Sarah mutters.

         The night folks will do the worst things, because they think no one else can see them, the woman continues. Anyway, when the state saw fit to release me, it took me all this time to find you two girls. I really wanted to walk up to the front door and to knock three times, just like the demons do. I could not do that, of course, for the ‘Jerry’ I once knew and loved had been gone too long. I would’ve been hauled back to the hospital. And so I decided to stay near, like a night phantom in the forest, and to put the hook on anyone who harmed either one of you. Every girl needs a protector, after all; a mama beast in her corner…

         Sarah stares at the woman. There is a mad glint in Sarah’s eyes, and the woman feels uncomfortable as a result. The tension can be cut with a knife, or a hook, for that matter. The woman waits for Sarah to say what is on her mind.

         You abandoned me, Sarah says.

         Yes, I did, the woman says, while wiping away a tear.

         You abandoned Rachel, Sarah says.

         Yes, I did, the woman says, while wiping away another tear.

         And the beast has been chasing us down ever since, Sarah says.

         Yes, the woman whispers in abject shame. But that is all over now. I am taking you home. 

         But what if I don’t want to leave? Sarah asks.

         The state police will be back soon, the woman says. I kept you hidden in the forest, until they hauled everything away. But they will come back. They’ll want to find you. 

         But what if I don’t ever want to leave? Sarah asks.

         Don’t say that, the woman pleads.

         What if I’m all grown up now, and this is the home I choose? Sarah asks.

         Please, the woman begs.

         And this is the life I choose? Sarah concludes.

         Sarah, is there anything I can do? The woman asks, while she fiddles very nervously with that ski mask on her lap. Anything to make the sadness go away?

         Sarah thinks for a moment. A smile creeps onto her face at last. 

         You can brew my favorite hot tea, Sarah says.

         Of course, the woman says with relief. Where are the teabags?

         Inside the kitchen cabinet behind the Virgin Mary statue, Sarah responds.

         The woman stands up at once. She smiles down at her daughter.

         Sarah smiles back. She watches the woman leave the bedroom.

*   *   *

         The woman stands before the stove. The tea kettle whistles.

         There are two tea cups on the counter beside the stone. There is a large teabag already in each one. The woman pours a cup full of hot water into each of the cups. Her hand trembles slightly, as she pours the hot water, because in her mind this is the first task among many in winning the heart of her daughter.

         The woman returns the tea kettle to the stove. She will wait a minute or so for the teabags to steep. 

         One of the floorboards behind her creaks. She turns around and observes Sarah stepping into the kitchen. Her little girl remains so pale, and yet there is a strange life in her eyes that she had not seen earlier. Clearly, her little girl is able to be manipulative, when she feels the need to do so. This should not be a surprise, really. Sarah would have had to develop that kind of mind to survive a decade in her older brother’s crazy world. Still, the woman cannot but be a bit unnerved by so much raw and calculating intelligence on display here. Frankly, it begs the question of who will be mothering whom in the years ahead.

         Shouldn’t you be in bed? The woman asks.

         I like to drink tea in here, Sarah comments.

         Oh, I see, the woman says. I guess there’s a lot for me to learn.

         There sure is, Sarah comments. 

         But from now on, you can teach me, right? The woman says with a smile.

         Sarah pauses a moment. Then, she offers back a warm smile of her own.

         Sure, mommy, Sarah remarks with just a hint of mischief in her voice. 

         The two look at each other in silence. The woman once more feels much too uneasy. There is something wrong here, and yet can she really blame Sarah for acting a little strangely? Her little girl has been languishing in hell for years.

         By the way, what’s your name? Sarah asks out of the blue.

         The woman laughs nervously. What a sane question that is, given all that they have disclosed to one another already. Indeed, the women thinks that this is the sanest thing she has heard anyone ask her since she lost a few marbles so many years ago. Perhaps, what she views as manipulation is just her daughter’s basic sanity; a mental compass that still points due north in spite of everything.

         Carol Mudd, the woman answers.

         Jerry and Carol, Sarah says with a slight chuckle.

         Yes, Carol says. They used to call us the ‘Bobbsey Twins,’ in spite of our age difference. Birds of a feather…

         Flock together, Sarah finishes the saying. I know that one!

         Carol and Sarah laugh together. Carol feels a bit more relaxed, although she still cannot shake that queer look in her daughter’s eyes. What is so wrong?

         Carol hands Sarah one of the two cups of tea. Sarah cradles her cup with both of her hands. Carol lifts her cup to her lips. 

         How fun! Carol says with a smile. Our first tea time together!

         Sarah smiles. Carol drinks half of her cup of tea…

         And almost immediately senses something terribly wrong. There is a kick in her stomach that knocks her to her knees at once. She drops the cup, which smashes into many pieces. She grabs at the edge of the sink with her hook in an effort to keep herself from falling face first onto the floor. She catches Sarah’s eyes, and sees that her own daughter has the coldest eyes imaginable. It is as if Sarah is looking through her into the eternal darkness reserved for the damned.

         What is this? Carol whispers in pain, before she vomits up blood and bile.

         The same thing I gave to my sister before she had her baby, Sarah says.

         Carol spasms horribly. Her hook slides off the edge of the sink. Without anything to hold her up, her knees slip on her own blood and bile; and she falls face first onto the hard kitchen floor. She convulses up and down like a fish out of water. More blood shoots out of her mouth. Since she cannot move her face away from what she has vomited, she inhales and chokes on her own hot blood. The result is a sick wheezing sound that makes her convulsions seem that much more pitiable, like she is a defenseless animal shaking apart in an electric trap.

         She didn’t like it, either, Sarah comments. 

         Sarah drops to her knees. She takes a hold of Carol’s bruised head just as the spasms are starting to fall away. She cradles Carol’s head in her lap. She is rubbing the back of Carol’s shoulders, just as she used to do for Abram when he took his warm baths, when Carol finally releases her ghost to the darkest night.

*   *   *

         The one remaining candle in the cabin flickers out.

         There is no moonlight outside. There are no stars in the sky. The night is the deepest black in every direction. If there is light somewhere else, whether electrical or natural, then it cannot be imagined anymore from this small point on the earth. Here, in this small cabin, on this patch of dead, dark soil, beyond the reach even of small town civilization, the darkness has settled in for a long, still, silent season. This is the world that the dead see through their dead eyes.

         The front door opens slowly on rusted hinges. Against a backdrop of total silence, the squealing hinges sound as loud as a woman’s screams in labor. The screams end only when the door bumps against the inner wall. 

         Outside, a strangely iridescent fog slithers over the dead sand. It has the thick and soupy texture of spent cum. It kicks up the sand with a lazy bravado. It moves across the earth in the petulant, masculine manner of a teenaged boy mocking the unseen gods. 

         Like any mischievous devil, the fog swoops into the dark cabin and flows around Carol’s corpse. It seems to be caressing her wounds, kissing her puddles of dried blood, even fluttering the dark leather wrapped tightly around her legs and her ass. It shakes her hook hand, so that her hook resembles an instrument tapping Morse code into the kitchen floor. Perhaps, even in cold death, Carol is trying to tap out an S.O.S. message to whomever has ears to hear. Perhaps, her hook taps out gibberish that invites nothing but a demonic chuckle. Regardless, at this time, her cold corpse is being defiled by an iridescent fog that seems as mindful as an adolescent on the scent of wet pussy. 

         More fog slithers into the cabin, until everything in the kitchen and living room lies beneath the surface of this slimy sea. The night lays claim now to this dark cabin in the middle of nowhere, and so the fog moves about with the free rein of a boorish, young conqueror on trampled and bloodied land. It sniffs out its next conquest now with a mind for rape. After all, as the victor, it does not need to acknowledge anymore the restraints of law and of morality. It can and will ravage; and in so doing, it will reveal itself to be a rabid, snorting dog with a toothy grin. It will paw. It will shed blood. It will lick up the blood, and spit it back. At that time, the fog will be the beast; and the woman will beg for more.

         Because the beast always delivers…

         And can stay up until the crack of dawn…

         The fog pushes open the bedroom door. Rusted hinges scream in ecstasy.

         Sarah has been laying on the blood stained bed for sometime. She is very much ready. The pussy blood slithering down the middle of her bed is the sign. She is no longer a girl. She is a woman. She has passed the point of no return in this lifetime or the next. ‘Jezebel Whore’ is now forever the stamp on her soul.

         Sarah rests with her head on the same pillow Rachel had used. She looks up at the dark ceiling with blank, soulless eyes. She has her arms extended out and her palms open. She has her knees up and apart, so that the beast can sniff out her moist pussy and enter in as he may please. This is her honeymoon night indeed, and yet this is also the night of her dark and sordid affair. It can be no other way for a ‘Jezebel Whore;’ for when the night is dark enough, love is lust and fidelity is adultery. This is the morality of the damned; and in the end, the damned only can survive long enough to carry the beast in her small womb. The damned only can be the matriarch of those chosen to spread wickedness to the four corners of the earth. The damned only can know that her legacy will be as numerous as the stars in Heaven but will master the dark arts of the one beast. 

         The fog flows around her flesh like supple hands. It blows her old granny dress down her upper thighs and up her midsection, until her bleeding pussy is exposed as well from the top. It swoops into her lush womanhood without even a hint of foreplay. It startles her, but it also paints a wicked grin upon her face.

         Fuck, Sarah whispers when she settles into the groove. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.    

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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