Feed the Witch

         Whenever the wind screams beneath the eaves, the loose gutter just above the apartment window shivers like an old bone. Paul knows the sound. His science teacher back in the seventh grade hung a skeleton from a coat hook; and whenever he turned on the industrial strength fan, the collarbone rattled. It sounded like a dry log crinkling in a fire; and Paul feared that it might snap, and fly in two halves across the classroom.

         Paul had a lot of fears back then. A kind soul might have called him ‘sensitive,’ like the ‘sensitive artist’ that experiences that part of life most people consign to the fantasies of a child or the demented hallucinations of an old man. 

         Most people were not so kind. Instead of ‘sensitive,’ they preferred uglier words such as ‘faggot,’ ‘limp dick,’ or just plain old ‘weirdo.’ It would have been cruel, but unremarkable, if only his classmates hurled these insults at his soft physique and blank face. Nevertheless, pull aside the curtain on adolescent bullying, and all too often you will find adults casting wayward glances and muttering offensive comments. Teenaged bullies are seeking the approval of their fathers, after all. Sometimes, those fathers are blood relatives; but they can be just as easily high school coaches, or town politicians, or even church hierarchs. The bullies may be young canon fodder about to be sent off to Vietnam or Iraq as soon as they get their degrees, but they have figured out already whose opinions matter and whose can be silenced beneath the heels of their war boots.

         Not that Paul offered up any opinions. Most of his classmates wrote him off as a ‘tard’ without a tongue. High school counselors thought he might be a ‘mute’ suffering from low level autism. The old timers did not hide their prejudice behind the veneer of high school counselor jargon. They cut to the chase. Whenever they saw Paul clutching his backpack like an old lady her purse, they leaned into their rocking chairs, puffed on their pipes, and remarked casually that that ‘silly olive nigger’s not right in the head.’

         He had one friend in high school who knew better. Her name was Beatrice; yes, you are right, like the Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Paul made that connection, when he first met her in his seventh grade science class. For the next four years, Paul continually reaffirmed that mental association, until one day he imagined the reserved and sickly girl by his side to be a beautiful, untouchable thing. He started to recognize how all along she had been bathed in beatific light. He wanted to worship her, literally get on his knees and kiss her toes, whenever her rheumatoid arthritis kicked into high gear. At those moments, she could do nothing more than to turn her pained, teary eyed face towards his. She could not utter a word. She could offer him nothing then, but her one or five or ten minutes of excruciating paralysis. 

         Paul could not offer her anything, except his quiet devotion. He could not make her pain go away. He could not make her more popular in school. He could not even be her friend anymore, not really, now that he has realized just how much closer to heaven she exists over him. He could worship her, and so that is what he did the last six months of her life. He stayed away from her, while writing poems in her honor and sketching a few hundred hagiographic images of her somber face from memory. 

         All that devotion ended the morning she hobbled onto Keeble Street without first looking left, then right, then left again for any oncoming school buses. She had not yet reached the midpoint of her Sophomore year, but already she hunched over her cane like one of the old ladies who volunteered as crossing guards closer to campus. She had been staring down at her clunky, black shoes, when the yellow school bus had barreled into her right side. Hopefully, she had given up her tepid ghost, before the tires ground her frail flesh into grease stained chuck meat. 

         Paul did not attend her funeral. Nor did he shed a tear. In a way, Paul reasoned, Beatrice was better off. Now, she could shine as bright as the angels in heaven without an endless parade of doctors, counselors, and bullies robbing her of her divine beauty. Moreover, in time, he could forget that timid girl with whom he used to share his bird drawings; and instead, remember only the illuminated creature born of his own dreams.

         Sometimes, Paul whispered more than once, ‘death is the only win-win scenario.’

         Paul insists in his own mind that he has moved on from that period of adolescent angst. He is twenty-five years old now. He seldom sees, let alone interacts with, those pretty boy jocks who had made his life so miserable back then. After all, he works six days a week, eight hours each day, in the Redwood Public Library cataloging books; and the men who had been ‘pretty boy jocks’ are not inclined to keep library cards in their wallets. True, he has kept every poem and drawing he had made ever in her honor; but the stash has been locked away for years, like what a middle aged man might do with the porn magazines over which he had masturbated way back when. Paul can get to his stash whenever he wants, but he has not been inclined to do so since his junior year in high school. Like the recovering alcoholic who keeps a full bottle of whiskey inside his refrigerator, he is confident that he will stay the course regardless of an old temptation.

         He has reason to be confident. He is practically anonymous at the public library. His supervisors relegated him to the back room long ago, sorting and tossing paperbacks, doing endless inventories of the thousands of dog-eared, torn books no longer deemed satisfactory for the shelves. They had determined early on that he did not do very well when interacting with the public. As a result, he spends most of his time somewhere in his own mind, where frankly he much prefers to be. He is content in his own thoughts, even if not particularly challenged; and, for that reason, he is sure that he can handle whatever bumps he encounters along his long and lonely road. 

         Well, truth be told, there is another reason he is confident. He had promised his grandmother before she died that he would see his ‘Uncle George’ whenever ‘he got a little sick in the head.’ George Spanos is not a relative, but he is the only Greek with a M.D. after his name in the entire Redwood Township and had been a close friend with Paul’s long deceased parents. ‘Uncle George’ provides Paul a ‘safe place’ where he can rest his head for fifty minute sessions at a time, while Paul recounts the kind of strange dreams that would raise the eyebrow of anyone unaffiliated with psychiatric care. The sweets in ‘Uncle George’s’ candy bowl are always top notch; and whenever Paul feels the need to go there, he imagines himself to be like the little boy who waits patiently through all kinds of teeth torture for the dentist to give him a lollipop at the very end.

         So Paul has every reason to think that his life is on course and that he will remain unscathed by his past. He faces no drama. He is not particularly happy, but he learned a long time ago to distrust happiness. His will be a life of warm milk and second hand books, and he regards it as a sign of his own maturity that he has no greater aspirations.

         Except for all his bland contentedness, he cannot escape where his mind travels on windy nights like this one. He is in his bed, wide eyed in a dark and drab apartment bedroom, and the shivering gutter outside and above his window reminds him of an old bone. It is the kind of bone that sounds like a dry log crinkling in a fire. Maybe, it is the sound of Beatrice’s collarbone when she had been smashed into the wet asphalt by that yellow school bus. Paul may insist he has relegated Beatrice to his past, but he cannot ignore how, now and then, she calls out to him still from inside and outside his dreams.

         In time, the wind dies; and the gutter no longer shivers. The very stillness of the night takes over, and Paul is able to slide into sleep. Still, even while sleeping, a thin, solitary tear falls down his right cheek. He may be dead to the hours, but even then he senses how closely the past lingers. Is that past a ghost? Is it a dream? He cannot answer his own questions. He simply knows that she is closest to him when it is dark and still.

*   *   *

         Paul drops his chin into his windbreaker. Last night’s screaming wind is gone, but in its place is an Arctic chill that grabs a hold of all his bones at once. The chill shocks his bones with icy blue electricity; a kinetic force that incongruously numbs and tingles him at the same time. His ears feel swollen. As a result, the sound flowing into them is both ghostly and thick, like the specters that materialize out of nothing turn out to be spongier than airy. Yes, the cold conjures dead things out of their tombs, grey, spongy bones that are clammy to the touch, or so Paul imagines. The chill cracks open the old locks, while sweeping aside six feet of clumpy earth. The skeletons arise, if only so as to save their thin bones from crackling beneath the weight of all that grey, still coldness in the air. Much better to stagger forward on uneven steps than to be buried again by the wintry cold of an early December morning.  

         A dog barks ahead, and Paul lifts his eyes from his shoes. He recognizes the shrill sound. It is Myrtle Purdy’s Bichon, a white fluff muffin that the breeders insist is merry, but that reacts to Paul each morning like he has a jugular vein that must be torn open. His name is Happy. He has demented, doll like, pink eyes. His paws are always soiled, like he just had been digging through shit or blood before darting outside to greet him.  So far as Paul knows, his favorite pastime is to torpedo through the doggy door and to slam into the front fence at breakneck speed, while yapping hysterically at the chilled, sullen Greek in the windbreaker. 

         The same thing has been happening every morning for years, and yet Paul feels as embarrassed still as the first time Happy darted outside to give him a good morning kiss. He senses ornery oldsters pulling aside window blinds and curtains to take a look at what is causing all that ruckus. Beady eyes stare out from darkness, and they zero in on the tall, lanky, young man with the unpronounceable surname. The oldsters nod in disapproval at his ill fitting clothes, his old shoes, even the vaguely effeminate way he folds his gloved hands together. ‘Not playing with a full deck,’ the oldsters snarl, before turning their backs to the windows and returning to their Redwood Democrat crossword puzzles. The snarled words linger on the windows long after the oldsters have left; and if Paul looks closely enough, then he can make out those words in the ghoulish streaks of ice hardening into the glass. 

         Paul looks back down, while passing Myrtle Purdy’s uptight Victorian house and maple tree. The fence is going to hold this time, and so there is no more reason to pay attention to the yappy Bichon. Moreover, the last thing he wants to do is to catch even a glimpse of the stooped grand dame with the loony eyes and the chattering dentures. He is not frightened by her unhandsome features, so much as by her apparent madness; an old lady’s psychotic sputter that comes back to life whenever her Bichon goes wild.

         Paul shoves his gloved hands into his windbreaker pockets, while turning off of Deadwood Road. He is happy enough to leave the fenced Victorians and the shriveled, bare, maple trees behind him for the rest of this day. For the rest of the trip, Paul will be passing storefronts. Small town merchants will pay him no heed, as they unlock their doors and put out their doormats. They know that the ‘foreigner’ in the windbreaker is too poor to buy what they are peddling. They suspect that even if he had the cash, he would not appreciate the homespun gift baskets, fishing gear, and lumberjack jackets on their wood shelves. After all, ‘foreigners’ with more vowels than consonants in their surnames can never get enough of the good old US of A in their blood to love such items.

         A diesel engine roars to life a few feet away. Paul looks up in time to see an old, sputtering, pickup truck pulling away from the curb. He sees the faded NRA sticker on the back window that is tantamount to a ‘right of entry’ in these parts. The sticker on the other side depicts a blond, blue eyed, Teutonic Jesus stomping upon the head of a fallen Ashkenazi. In a stylized, Germanic font, the sticker screams: Jesus is not a Jew!

         Paul cups his hands, and coughs into them. He does not stop walking towards the corner of Kellogg and Main. His stomach feels like the legs of a contortionist when she is about midway through her burlesque act. He cannot imagine unraveling the tight knot inside his stomach, even though every prior morning that is exactly what happens the moment he steps into Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner and sniffs the seasoned brew in there.

         The diner is a fixture in downtown Redwood. Like just about everything else this way, it is a throwback to an idealized, lily white, late fifties that exists more in people’s imaginations than it ever did in real life. The grey heads and soiled overalls saddling up for grits and coffee at the counter suggest an older crowd; and, indeed, that is largely the case. There are cops and farmer boys, though, sitting in the banquettes or trading smokes just outside the back door. The ‘young folk,’ as the ‘old timers’ refer to pretty much anyone under seventy years of age, may retain still their boyishly handsome faces, strong frames, and quick draws. They may have more years ahead than passed. For all that, though, Paul can see how they have been chiseled already into the kind of small minded, dependable men that parochial places like Redwood Township need to survive. In essence, Millie’s is a Norman Rockwell painting come to life; and the folks who gather here regularly for greasy breakfast and old country humor would have it no other way.

         Paul eyes the small corner banquette nearest the front door. He grabs it before the competition. He does not bother to grab a menu. Like the other patrons, Paul is a creature of habit the moment he crosses the threshold. He orders the same dish every time. Sits in the same banquette. Even wrings his gloved hands together the same way, while resting his elbows on the table, and staring out the window at the old Fords and Studebakers rumbling down Main. 

         The barbershop pole across the street reminds him that it has been a little over three weeks since his last haircut. The first two weeks he nearly fits in with the clean cut country folk, at least in terms of his appearance. The third week he starts to look shaggy. He does not even want to imagine what the townsfolk mutter, after he has gone more than a month without a pair of scissors and a shampoo. It is bad enough that he catches how they squint their eyes and crinkle their noses, like his five o’clock shadow and long hair somehow smell as bad as they appear. How much worse it would be, if he could hear what slithers out from their small, pouty lips when they focus in on his hair.

         A waitress drops a plate of pancakes on his table. She does not say a word. He does not look away from the window. It does not really matter which of the two young waitresses serves him. Neither Flo nor Linda will give him the time of day, so why bother ascertaining which former high school cheerleader has been tasked with ‘waiting on the weirdo’ this morning? He knows for sure it is not Millie herself. Millie always remains at the counter to share lewd jokes and flirty winks with the old timers. So far as Paul can remember, he never once has seen Millie’s piggy pink face up close, except in a dream.

         Paul dribbles molasses onto his pancakes. Millie serves the kind of molasses that comes straight out of a tree. Old Man Farley used to sell her buckets of molasses every week. Then, according to the old timers, he ‘lost his muffins’ on account of his peculiar dedication to his ‘good for nothing’ grandson. Damned fool lost his life, and for a while Millie stopped serving molasses for lack of a local supplier. Apparently, she has found a new source, which never should have been all that hard given the maple trees all around town. Regardless, the world seems to have been tilted back into balance now that the patrons can dribble sugar onto their eggs, grits, or pancakes. Calorie count be damned!

         Paul never cared one way or another. He dribbles his molasses the same way he wrings his gloved hands. It is one of a thousand thoughtless habits. Something to do, as his mind floats aimlessly from one daydream to another. For Paul, life is about passing the time, until the skeleton man in the dark cape finally points him out from the crowd.

         The front door opens fast. Somebody wants to get in quick from the ‘nigger cold,’ as the locals are prone to call weather like this. It is ‘nigger cold,’ they elaborate, for even a white man will stuff his fingers into his pants pockets and stand around all day like a shiftless idiot, if the chill seeps deep enough into his bones. 

         Dirk Roberts’ boy swaggers into the warm diner. His name is Ricky Roberts, and he is pushing thirty, but most everyone still thinks of him as ‘Dirk Roberts’ boy.’ Maybe, it is because he has never distinguished himself from his old man. The two men live in a makeshift cabin beside the county dump way out there passed Hampstead and Keeble. So far as anyone can tell, they make their living rummaging through the junk for things that can be resold on eBay. They used to sell moonshine by the pint, until Porkin’s Beer Hall opened further down Hampstead. Porkin is the no good black sheep of the Peabody clan; but the townsfolk will choose a Peabody over a Roberts any day of the week, so long as the devil’s rum is about the same. Dirk Roberts and his boy have fallen into hard times, thus, notwithstanding how much business they do on eBay. The townsfolk almost feel sorry for the two of them. Millie even goes so far as to nod to an empty stool up at the counter, where he can put some heat back into his skin while sipping a ‘Cup of Joe.’ 

         Don’t mind if I do, Ricky Roberts hiccups, while hitching up his loose fitting jeans.

         Ricky is as thin as a scarecrow and as pickled as an Irishman. It is hard to imagine that this skinny, slow boozer had been such a hellion back in high school, but Paul sees the past as if it is the present. Paul keeps his eye on the miserable man, like he expects that the Rickster, as his fellow classmates called him back then, might turn on his boot heels at any moment, pull Paul up from his table, and give Paul a ‘queer boy’s wedgie.’

         Nothing of the sort happens. Ricky does not even see Paul sitting silently in the corner banquette. He just saddles up to the counter, leans his pockmarked face on his right fist, and gestures lazily for a ‘Cup of Joe.’ He is snoring face down on the counter before Millie serves the steamy brew, and the old timers pretend he is not even there.

         Paul cannot pretend that Ricky is not there. The past is too present for him. He keeps watching the drunk bastard’s backside, while munching on his pancakes like a rat gnawing on cheese.

*   *   *

         Paul cowers beneath the bleachers. He is a tall and lanky Freshman. The affable gym teacher with the beer belly gut and the walrus mustache says that Paul has ‘spider legs.’ He calls him ‘Zorba the Spider,’ and thinks he is pretty clever. In fact, Paul’s long legs are not that long; and yet his knees press against his chin right now in such a way as to make him look like a tightly wound Greek doll about to be sprung from a tiny box. 

         Paul sneaks a peek through the thin space between two bleachers. He observes one pleated skirt after another pass by the front of his makeshift hideout. Emblazoned on the right thigh of each skirt is a happy beaver with a mouthful of firewood. The little beast has the high cheekbones and the slant eyes of a stereotypical ‘Chinaman’ in heat. The Redwood Beavers will be hosting the Beverly Bells tomorrow, and the cheerleaders have been practicing their routine for the past half hour. 

         Finished with their practice, and full of ‘Beaver Pride,’ the girls are walking out of the basketball court in high spirits. They are being led by a fat dyke with chin hairs. The lesbo could not do a cartwheel, if her life depended upon it; but she can bark loud orders through a megaphone. Also, more importantly than her voice, the lesbo comes from an old and prominent Redwood family. Bloodline trumps sexual orientation in this forgotten town. Indeed, as Paul has learned the hard way, bloodline trumps everything.

         The last of the pleated skirts exits to the right. Paul hears a heavy door shut with a thump. The sound echoes for a few seconds, and then it is replaced with dead silence.

         Paul listens to his own heartbeat. It is like a Conga drum inside his ears. He fears that it can be heard on the basketball court. Heck, for all he knows, the Rickster may be able to hear his heartbeat from the other side of the high school. Surely, the Senior bully with the freckled, scarecrow face and the stringy, red hair seems able to hone in on ‘Zorba the Spider’ virtually any time or place. The only silver lining is that in a few months the Rickster will graduate and, presumably, move on to another hapless victim.

         Paul waits a few more minutes. There is no sound. The shadows spread over the basketball court do not seem to move. 

         Now or never, Paul braces himself for what may happen. He takes in another big breath of stale air, closes his eyes, and starts to crawl out from beneath the bleachers.

         He does not go very far, before a hand reaches down and grabs a hold of his hair. The hand yanks him out from beneath the bleachers and drags him across the court. In spite of the horrid pain reverberating out from his scalp, and the unvoiced anxiety that is squeezing now at his heart, Paul is mindful of the smell of the man’s hand. It smells sticky, sweaty, perhaps sexual. Paul is alarmed by that smell more than anything else.

         The hand releases, and Paul’s face slams into the floor. Blood gushes out of his right nostril. Much of the blood ends up on the basketball court, but some of it dribbles into his open mouth. It tastes warm and coppery, and Paul has to fight an urge to vomit.

         Paul looks up. As expected, he sees the Rickster staring down at him. There is a maniacal grin on the Rickster’s face. He could be a red headed scarecrow clown at that moment. His eyes are even more disconcerting, though. They seem dead, like a pair of eyes turning up in a slot machine; eyes pasted over blank sockets to hide the madness just beneath the surface of this strange teenaged boy. Paul wants to scream as soon as he stares into them; but like with his anxiety a moment prior, he cannot voice his fears.

         The Rickster is wearing an American Flag T-Shirt. The caption under the snapping flag reads: Proud Patriot. His jeans and his war boots are too big for his spindly legs. If the Rickster did not seem so maniacal, then his oversized jeans and boots would inspire a fit of laughter. As it is, Paul cannot utter any particular emotion at that critical time.

         Two other boys saddle up to the scene. They are identical, blond twins wearing camouflaged gear. By the sound of their footsteps, they too wear oversized army boots.

         Paul does not know the names of the two new additions. He knows that they are part of the Rickster’s clan. They are Juniors or Seniors; and, by the looks on their dead, white faces, their only lament is that Eric and Dylan did not get a few more before the end. Paul would not be surprised at all if someday these two zombies shot up the school.

         I pulled him out of a hole, the Rickster chuckles. Like Saddam Hussein…

         Zorba’s in a ‘spider hole,’ one of the two blonds interjects, then laughs.

         Fucking Arab, the other blond mutters, before he kicks Paul in the side.

         There is an unidentified sound off in the distance. It could be a door opening and shutting. It could be the wind kicking against one of the overhead windows. Regardless, the coast is not as clear as the Rickster had presumed. 

         Let’s hurry, the Rickster says agitatedly to his clan. I’ve gotta piss…

         The word ‘piss’ hangs over Paul’s head like a guillotine blade on a thinning string. There is an omen of sorts in that word. Paul feels every last drop draining out from his bladder and into his cock. He is going to pee into his underwear, if he does not manage to get a grip on his masked emotions.

         The identical, blond twins squat beside him. They each grab him by a shoulder, and start to drag him across the basketball court towards the men’s room on the other side. The whole time they laugh back and forth to one another like Beavis and Butthead.

         Paul does not resist. He swallows more blood, and fights back the urge to vomit. Otherwise, there is no fight left in him, while he stares glassy eyed at the door to the men’s room in front of him.

         The twins kick the door open, and drag the bleeding Freshman into the restroom. The Rickster slides his hands into his jean pockets. He plasters on a phony, wide smile, which is supposed to hide the anxiety surging up his own spine. He knows deep down he is as nervous now as his victim, and yet the undisputed logic of survival in the wild compels him to press forward with the plan just now forming in his mind. For one man to rise, another man must fall. The Rickster has known that fact since the first time his daddy took him out back with a spiked paddle in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other. You snap the paddle onto some other boy’s ass, or you bend over and grin.

         There is an overriding smell of disinfectant. The twins plaster bravado on their faces, but inwardly they are crying out for oxygen. Paul is not strong enough to pretend that the smell does not affect him. He coughs up some phlegm. He feels bile creeping up his throat. His shuts his eyes, so that the men’s room will stop spinning around him.

         The Rickster passes the twins, so that he can turn around and stare straight into Paul’s contorted face. Whatever he sees makes him laugh like a scarecrow hyena, and yet even Paul can hear the nervousness just beneath the surface of that crazed chuckle.

         Wash his face, boys, the Rickster commands. Zorba’s fucking disgusting.

         The twins drag Paul towards the toilet set aside for handicapped students. The whole time they glance into the stalls in between to make certain that there is no other baby faced, snot nosed Freshman sitting on a pot. Their smiles widen, as they recognize that indeed they are occupying a space beyond even God’s protective gaze. No one will see what happens in here. Zorba is the exception, of course, but who is going to trust the testimony of an ‘Arab foreigner’ when our boys are fighting over there still for truth and justice? Who gives a rat’s ass what this supposed mute says when, finally, he breaks silence? If the twins do their part right, then Paul will not be able to say anything at all to the ‘bleeding hearts’ in the front office or the head nurse’s station.

         The twins drag Paul’s face into the toilet bowl. Paul moans. He sounds defeated, and the twins react to his weakness with another round of Beavis and Butthead laughter.

         One of the twins pushes the back of Paul’s head, while the other one continually yanks the chain that flushes the old, smelly toilet bowl. Each successive flush sounds a bit worse than the previous one, until pretty soon the toilet bowl sounds like a decrepit, ornery man groaning and farting at the same time. The flushing water cycles through Paul’s mouth and nose, before circling down the rancid rat hole of a drain. Each time, the water smells and tastes shittier than before, because the old pipes are kicking back excrement with each successive flush. Paul vomits more bile into this putrid shit stew.

         The Rickster leans against the opposite wall. He still has his hands in his pockets. The look on his face suggests mild agitation declining into outright boredom. ‘Washing the face’ is not that much fun to watch anymore. It used to be ‘shits and giggles,’ but now it is just ‘the shits.’ The Rickster senses that a boy becomes a man the moment he realizes that nothing is as good as it used to be. Adulthood then is one disappointment after another. No wonder so many geezers pay his old man big bucks for that fermented, slop he calls ‘moonshine.’ The slop is terrible, but it makes the world spin into darkness.

         Dude, not so hard, the Rickster says. Zorba’s gotta breathe.

         The twin who is pressing Paul’s face into the toilet bowl looks back. His lily white face turns beet red. He offers the Rickster a sheepish grin, gets a clear nod in return, and releases Paul’s head. The other twin remains oblivious, as he continues to yank on the toilet bowl chain like it is a limp cock that needs to be hardened as fast as possible.

         The Rickster walks away from the wall. He scratches the back of his stringy, red hair. He sniffs his fingers, like he is trying to breathe in every last bit of dandruff that had fallen from his hair just then. Whatever he smells puts a strange grin upon his face.

         Returning to the handicapped toilet space, the Rickster pushes his hair back from his forehead in a vaguely effeminate manner. He looks at the scene in front of him and giggles. It is no longer possible for him to mask the nervous energy behind his laughter.

         I want his ass, the Rickster mutters through the last part of his maniacal laughter.

         The twin who had been pressing Paul’s face into the toilet bowl looks relieved. The other twin remains oblivious. For him, ‘yanking the chain’ remains as fun as always.

         Fuck, Rex, I want his ass, the Rickster says with a bit more passion. 

         This time, the Rickster gets the twin’s attention. Rex drops the toilet chain, and looks back deferentially at the red headed scarecrow. Rex looks like he anticipates an imminent and severe beating.

         Now that he has their attention, the Rickster bleeds anxiety. He folds his spindly arms in front of his chest, leans against the opposite wall, and stares back at the twins like he does not have a clue what to say. He shifts unevenly from one foot to the other.

         Did you say? Rex starts to ask…

         I want to clean out his ass, the Rickster interrupts in a soft, melancholic voice.

         The twins grin, and glance at one another. They are as much relieved as excited.

         Paul coughs into the toilet bowl. Even though no one is holding him down at this time, his face continues to bob in and out of the shit water. Apparently, he favors the earthy fragrance of human waste over that sexual something or other he sensed earlier.

         Rex, you stand watch, the Rickster says.

         Rex is momentarily disappointed. He is not going to observe much from the men’s room door. He pushes that emotion aside as fast as he can. The Rickster likes his boys to be ‘happy warriors.’ The Rickster will not suffer cunts or queers with sad sack faces.

         As soon as Rex takes his position by the door, the Rickster nods at Toby, and pulls down his own loose fitting jeans. The Rickster’s cock already is long and hard. It is the sharpened knife ready to be thrust. It is the preferred instrument of war this far into the wild; for what else can disguise pleasure as pain, and vice versa, and so leave the victim horribly confused about what has happened to him? In the end, the ‘cock thrust’ is more about instilling confusion and fear than it is about experiencing sexual release.

         The Rickster manically pushes back his hair. His jeans hang loosely over his boots. He is vaguely aware that he will need to walk forward carefully, lest he trip over himself and fall to his own knees. Mostly, though, he thinks about his stringy, red hair when it falls over his forehead and eyes. In his mind, he looks like a queer whenever that occurs.

         Toby yanks down Paul’s trousers. Paul does not resist. He remains bent over the toilet bowl. His bare butt calls to mind the sallow cheeks that hang loosely on the facial bones of an emaciated dog. His fart sounds like a dog’s yelp.

         The Rickster looks down, and sees cum already sliding down his shaft. That will be all the cock lubrication he needs for himself. If Zorba squirms in pain, then so what?

         The Rickster squats over the bare butt, and thrusts himself inside without saying a word. There is a distant expression on his face, like he is reliving an incident from a long time ago. His stringy, red hair falls over his eyes, but he does not bother anymore to push it back. As a result, he looks like a red shaggy dog mounting a bony dachshund.

         Look at him! Toby teases. Fucking Arab is a fucking queer, too.

         The Rickster does not acknowledge the comment. He simply squats and thrusts, like an industrial machine, while his eyes stare blankly into graffiti etched behind the toilet bowl. He makes no sense of the graffiti. Indeed, he makes no sense of this sexual violence. The only thing he realizes for certain is that this very moment he is winning.

         Paul too does not make any sense of this violation. He just drops his face as deep as he can into the shit water. He inhales the strange concoction of shit fumes and toilet disinfectant. The fumes suggest a body in decay. The disinfectant suggests a body that is chemically cleansed and preserved. Death preserved, so it persists among the living.

*   *   *

         Do you want a doggy bag for that? The waitress asks with thinly veiled contempt.

         Paul darts his eyes away from the scarecrow man. He is confused a moment, not sure even where he is; but then he focuses his eyes on the pretty, but already hardened, former cheerleader staring down at him. It turns out Flo has been his waitress all along this morning. He is not sure that that matters one way or another, since the girls in the white pleated skirts and black dance shoes always have been interchangeable. There is Beatrice, and then there are cunts; and that is pretty much how Paul divides the world.

         Paul nods in the affirmative. Flo rolls her pretty eyes, and storms away in a huff.

         He returns his gaze to the scarecrow man. The Rickster now is sitting upright on his stool, and swatting imagined spiders off of his face. Paul imagines that they are long legged spiders; an army of Greek arachnids crawling one by one out from the Rickster’s diseased cock. Paul is ashamed of this daydream, and so shakes his head until it is gone.

         He looks down. He sees that the rest of his pancakes have been placed already in a doggy bag. He does not remember Flo doing any such thing, though clearly she had. That is how powerful the morbid daydream had been, and so Paul makes a mental note to record the incident in his journal for the next time he pays a visit to his Uncle George.

         He does not even glance at the check. Since he orders the same breakfast every time, he knows exactly how many one dollar bills to leave on the table. He always adds fifteen percent to the amount, and imagines Flo painting the town red with his big tip.

         Paul stands up, grabs a hold of the doggy bag with both gloved hands, and darts for the backdoor. He feels a clammy hand slapping his butt. Perhaps, someone opened the front door; and the winter wind beelined for his backside. On terribly cold days like this one, the weather is alive, a cruel prankster impervious to pleas for mercy. One of its favorite games is to grasp a man’s spine, while slapping his butt with its other hand.

         Paul glances back. He does not see an open door. Instead, he sees a geezer in a John Deere cap and a work shirt staring at him. The old man fears and hates the ‘silly olive nigger,’ who had bumped into him accidentally while walking toward the backdoor just now. What especially offends the old man is how Zorba here holds his doggy bag in front of his waist, like the missus back home holds her purse. 

         Ya like that, faggot? The old man snarls. Next time, I’ll grab me something.

         The old timers sitting at the counter look at the two of them and snicker. Millie stares at Paul, like he is a dead man walking. Her nose twitches in reaction to what she imagines to be his foul smell. 

         The Rickster looks at Paul. He does not seem to recognize the man he had raped about twelve years ago. He seems lost in his own sordid sadness. He slowly looks down at the counter, wrings his dirty hands, and again teeters on the edge of consciousness.

         Paul turns away from this scene without saying a word. He exits the diner through the backdoor. As soon as he is gone, the patrons return to their breakfasts as if he had never been there in the first place. 

         There is a chill that lingers in the diner long after Paul is gone. The patrons tell themselves that there is a draft, zip up their jackets or tighten their scarves, and go on as before. People generally go on as before, until it is much too late to change course.

*   *   *

         Paul squats beside one of the dumpsters by the backdoor. He grips the doggy bag tightly with both hands, like he is afraid an unforeseen wind might come out of nowhere and whisk it away. He is as quiet as a mouse, although his teeth chatter uncontrollably.

         Two thirty something men are sharing a smoke on the other side of the dumpster.

         One of them is a farmer. He seems straight out of central casting what with his straw hat and overalls. His filmy teeth are the same yellow as the corn he harvested a few months ago. His vocabulary consists of ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘yups,’ which he tosses out in no particular order. He appears to engage his mind a lot more when ‘hocking a loogie.’

         It is the other man that catches Paul’s attention. He always had been an imposing figure, even when he was hanging around the high school for no other reason apparently than to torment the ‘Fucking Arab’ with the long surname. Now, attired in his pressed police officer’s uniform, and fondling the billy club that hangs from his belt, he stands like a giant among men. His face is the same: large, ruddy, masked in part by the same kind of walrus mustache his gym teacher father had worn, and topped off with a couple of dead, blue eyes. His body is big, brash, and German, like a bouncer in a Munich bar; but his eyes are Norwegian. Like the Vikings of old, his are the icy blue eyes of an Arctic sojourner; the kind that seem to see into eternity. Paul knows better, though. He has seen those icy blue eyes up close. He can attest that they are simply stupid and cruel.

         Paul looks at the man’s midsection. He can make out the barest hint of that beer belly gut that had so characterized the gym teacher. In another five years, the son will be the mirror image of the father. Of course, he will be ‘Officer Weaver’ to everyone about town instead of ‘Coach Weaver.’ Otherwise, he will be the same ‘big man’ with a professional drinker’s red face and an ex football player’s arthritic hips. The townsfolk will love him for no other reason than that he had scored three touchdowns in a single high school football game way back when. That one, cold, starry night, he had been a small town hero, which is more than can be said about most everyone else. His heroic status persists in the imagination, and so he always will have a stool at Millie’s counter and can count on someone to give him a smoke and a match. Now, these privileges may seem small, but in a shit kicker town like Redwood they are the privileges of aristocracy.

         Back when Paul had been a Sophomore, and had started to realize that Beatrice is an angel illumined in divine light, ‘Officer Weaver’ had been ‘Wally Weaver.’ Wally was a sadist twenty something, who officially studied Physical Education at a college in Beverly, but who spent most of his time roaming the halls of his high school alma mater in search of flesh. Wally drove a black Camaro back then. He also had an eye for porn.

         Wally joined the Marines less than a month after Beatrice’s horrific death. Uncle Sam must do a pretty good job in further developing the natural talents of a bully. The Redwood Democrat reported facts and rumors interchangeably about ‘Sergeant Wally’s’ exploits in Al-Fallujah and Ramadi. The gist of all these stories was that Coach Weaver’s son had been molded into a beautiful, blond killing machine, a heartthrob for war chicks and an adopted son for gold star mothers. 

         By the time he returned to his hometown, Wally had become a legend. He always will be worthy of a counter stool and a smoke, because of those touchdowns he scored way back when. The townsfolk regard the war stories as if more touchdowns earned in that game, so that instead of scoring three it is as if he had scored five or six. Now, if that good man does not deserve a smoke and a pat on the back, then who the hell does?

         Paul has not been this close to the blond bully, since Wally returned to Redwood and became the newest addition to the Redwood Police Department. First, he sees the Rickster saddling up to the counter. Now, he sees Wally finishing a cigarette. What the hell is going on here? Is this an updated version of that old fifties show This is Your Life, which he discovered in a book about early television? Should he expect an affable Ralph Edwards to step out of nowhere now and to slap him silly with his game show notecard?

*   *   *

         Or is someone else going to slap him? 

Or more likely punch his lights out, because he forgot to clean himself last night?

Paul scoots his raw butt into the corner of the handicapped men’s stall. He drags his knees up to his chin, and wraps his arms around his lower legs. His trousers continue to hang over his shoes. Even though his butt is frozen on the cold, disinfected floor, he is reluctant to pull up his trousers, until they dry out. The Rickster missed the target a lot more than he hit it this time, because he had been piss drunk already. That means more of his spunk landed on Paul’s trousers and shoes than inside his ‘little cubby hole.’

Paul looks up. He winces, when he observes how the Rickster glares at him. The Rickster is towering over him with his flaccid cock in his hand. His cock looks like it has returned from a battlefield. It is bruised, bloodied, and shit stained. The shit drips off of the testicles in gooey, brown clumps; and Paul imagines molasses dripping out of the bottle and onto his pancakes back home. That image should provide him some comfort, but it does not. The Rickster is so obviously angry that Paul simply cannot escape into one of his daydreams, as he is prone to do whenever he goes on a ‘date’ with his bully.

Dirty shit coon, the Rickster snarls, while picking shit clumps off of his testicles.

Toby walks over to the stall. He no longer has to hold Paul down, not that Paul had ever really resisted anyway. He thus leans against the opposite wall the whole time, while his twin brother stands guard at the door. Neither can see much, but they chuckle and wink at one another anyway in reaction to those deep throated grunts and moans.

Toby looks over the Rickster’s shoulder. He sees the shit clumps on the cold floor.

Greek road apples, Toby sneers. That’s gross.

I know that, ass wipe, the Rickster snaps back. 

Rex can be heard laughing, while standing guard. 

Shut the fuck up! The Rickster yells back at Rex. 

Paul lowers his forehead to his knees in shame. He should have known that this would happen. It is not as if his bully had not warned him a thousand times to clean up before they meet for a ‘date.’ Heck, his bully even had shown him how to use an enema.

Dirty faggot, the Rickster whispers into Paul’s ear. I should split your head open. Give you a nasty skull fuck. Really tickle your tongue. Would you like that, pretty boy?

No good, Toby says, as he is close enough to overhear. Greek’s got shit for brains.

At first, the Rickster is annoyed at having been overheard. Then, in considering what Toby actually said, he grins and nods in agreement. He stands up, and steps away from Paul. He gestures for Toby to step into the stall and to make his boy presentable.

Put on your pants, faggot! Toby yells, while standing over the beleaguered boy.

Paul does not respond immediately, and so Toby kicks Paul’s left leg repeatedly.

Don’t hurt him, the Rickster says after pulling up his jeans. Wally wants him.

Are you fucking serious? Toby asks incredulously.

Never before has one of the blond twins questioned the Rickster. In spite of his considerable pain, Paul opens his eyes wide, and starts to scoot up the wall behind him. He is all ears, as he waits to find out how the Rickster will reply to this bold challenge.

The Rickster shoves his hands into his jeans pockets, and leans against the wall opposite the handicapped men’s stall. He has a thoughtful look on his face, like he truly wants to figure out how best to reply. Nevertheless, the sinister look in his eyes suggests that he is calculating more than a verbal response. The way he opens and shuts his own fingers, while resting them still in his jeans pockets, calls to mind the bruiser figuring out how best to knock out his opponent. 

Toby senses that he has crossed a line. The hot blush in his cheeks suggests that he would walk back his comment, if he sensed even a remote possibility of forgiveness.

The Rickster pounces into the stall. He shoves Toby onto the shit stained toilet seat. Paul slides along the back wall, so that he can be as distant from Toby as possible.

How would you like me to shove this down your throat? The Rickster asks, while grabbing at his own crotch. 

Toby does not reply. Instead, he winces, and looks down in shame.

I can do it! The Rickster yells. Turn you into a homo…

Rex laughs. The Rickster turns in that direction, and flips him the bird. Rex sees the profane gesture, rolls back on his feet, and prepares to shoot back a middle finger of his own. At the last second, though, he backs off. He has never seen the Rickster this angry and is afraid to discover firsthand what happens when the Rickster goes nuclear.

So what’s it gonna be? The Rickster demands. 

No, Toby whispers through his pathetic tears.

What did you say? The Rickster screams.

No homo, Toby manages to say before breaking down altogether.

Disgusted, the Rickster turns toward Paul. The Rickster folds his arms in front of his chest as if to remark that he has no more patience for all this chicken shit nonsense.

Paul stop sliding along the wall. He stares back at his bully, like a deer caught in the headlights. He almost freezes in that position, but then an inner voice urges him to pull up his wet trousers and to do whatever it is that the Rickster wants at this moment.

Satisfied that Paul will obey him, the Rickster turns around and leaves the stall.

*   *   *

         Paul stands alone. He is on the side of a dirt road that runs adjacent to the high school grounds. The road used to be a trail for loggers. If he looks to his left, and stares down the length of this unmarked path, then he can make out the smaller and greener trees that had been planted about forty years ago. The haze of a frail autumn snow just manages to veil the older trees that are further down this same path, and yet Paul can sense the giants out there. Although unseen from here, the old growth forest casts long, cold shadows over those who are trying to carve out a little life for themselves within the Redwood Township. The old trees stand as totem poles, except they keep in, rather than cast out, the grey wintry spirits of death. 

         Paul sighs, and looks to his right. He can see a black Camaro approaching him as if a bat escaped from hell. It is kicking back a cloud of muddy snow. The cloud lingers, since the autumn winds are not strong enough yet to disperse the filth we leave behind us. As a result, everything in that direction looks clammy, cold, grey, like the universe closing in on him from over there is itself a corpse. 

         It does not matter which way he looks. Left or right, there is only death. Behind him, there is a fence; and behind that, there is a schoolyard that seems to stretch back further than his imagination can take him. High school appears impossibly distant now, like a chill that almost evokes a memory, but then is lost to the slow, brooding horrors of the present time. There is no turning back. There is only the fear and the loneliness of the moment, as Paul waits in silence for the Camaro to screech to a stop beside him.

         On one level, Paul realizes that he can escape. The Rickster is passed out on the side of the road. Although out cold, the Rickster clutches what remains of his six pack, like an old lady might clutch her little, black purse. The bully seems much too frail in this pose to be the sadist who insists on having a ‘date’ with Paul at least once a week.

         Moreover, the twins are gone. Maybe, they are back in the men’s room having a go at one another. Paul hates that he can entertain such perverse thoughts, but he can no longer lay claim to any of his childhood innocence. 

         For that reason, principally, Paul realizes deep down that escape is not an option for him. An innocent boy thinks he can run home, close his bedroom door, and leave his bullies out in the cold. An innocent boy thinks his Greek Grandma can step away from her cigarettes and her oxygen tank, roll up her sleeves, and beat back the ‘Indians’ who are going for her grandson’s scalp. But Paul is not that innocent boy. He lost all of that the first time he inhaled shit water in a belching toilet. 

         The Camaro slides to a stop just inches from Paul. It is almost impossible to make out the driver through the tinted windshield. A gloved hand reaches out from inside the open driver’s side window, flicks out a cigarette butt, and waves Paul to come hither.

         Paul does not move. He stuffs his hands into his pants pockets, and looks down.

         Come over here, faggot, the unseen driver says. I’m not gonna hurt you.

         Paul looks to his side. The Rickster is pushing himself up from the snow. 

         Get in here, the unseen driver urges. I’ve got a cookie for you.

         Paul walks around the hood of the idling car. He stops a moment and catches his breath beside the passenger door. He looks up, and sees a flurry of snow swirling down from the grey heavens. The snow is dirty, like clumps of shit flicked off of a man’s balls.

*   *   *

         Paul looks down. The snowfall had been intermittent earlier, but now it is falling with a vengeance. The flakes sting his eyes and burn his cheeks. He imagines an army of spiders crawling over his face. They dig their legs into his skin and feast off his blood.

         He is crouching still behind the dumpster, even though Officer Weaver finished his conversation with the farmer and left sometime ago. The farmer continues to hang around for God knows what reason, but Paul does not feel nearly as intimidated by him.

         He hears paws scampering on top of the dumpster. He looks up, and grins for the first time this grey morning. As expected, Millie’s underfed, black cat, Shelly, can smell the content of his doggy bag from wherever she had camped out for the night. She purrs excitedly, not just in anticipation of food, but as a feline ‘hello’ for her fellow outcast.

         He opens his doggy bag, stands up, and feeds her what remains of his pancakes.

         The farmer looks back, and sees the ‘foreigner’ feeding and scratching the black cat. He grimaces in pain and in fear, like he had been punched in the gut just then. His pockmarked face and yellowed teeth could be the garish makeup on a demented clown.

         Feeling more confident with Shelly at his side, Paul returns the farmer’s intense look with a quirky smile of his own. The farmer blinks, and hightails it somewhere else.

         Shelly finishes the pancakes. Paul tosses the doggy bag, drops his cold chin into his windbreaker, and steps out from behind the dumpster. He starts to walk down the sidewalk, as he normally does after feeding Millie’s black cat the rest of his breakfast.

         This time, Shelly remains by his side. Paul stops, and indicates that he does not have any more food on him. Shelly seems not to care about food. The expression on her face says, ‘Go where you need to go, big guy, and I’ll stay by your side to the very end.’

         Paul stuffs his hands into his windbreaker pockets. He stares down Main Street. He can see the public library a block away. Already, there are cars parked in front, as people return borrowed books through the slot while on their way to work. In another fifteen or twenty minutes, the librarian will switch on the lights, and unlock the doors.

         On any other day, Paul is in the backroom already, when the librarian waves in the public. He is restacking the microfiche that had been left indiscriminately the prior night in the ‘return’ basket. Or if no one had used the rickety microfiche reader, then he is organizing the returned books for someone else to stack on the shelves out front.

         But that is not going to happen today. The wind kicks up a bit, and displaces his hair. Apparently, the day is not going to be as still as it had been earlier. There will be some drama in the weather; perhaps some drama in his own life, too, as the memories play themselves out both in and outside of his imagination. 

         Paul turns on his heels, and starts to walk away from the public library. Shelly is quick to follow, though in the back of his mind he wonders who is following whom here.

*   *   *

         Paul sits as close to the passenger door as he can. He looks apprehensively at the twenty something man with the light, blond stubble and the thinning hair. The man is only a decade his senior, and yet he may as well be an ‘old man,’ in Paul’s overtaxed imagination. The man seems totally removed from high school, even though like all the other students, Paul has seen his Camaro hanging around the school grounds for a while. Still, there is something about the strange man behind the tinted, sports car windshield that suggests that he knows things. This man has seen and experienced what even the ‘fast crowd’ can only imagination, like what a man’s guts look like after they have been blown out of his abdomen with a shotgun. 

         Yes, the man who has pulled another smoke from his shirt pocket, and is striking a match against his Levi’s, this very same man is rumored to be a murderer. Or if he is not a murderer, then he likes to dip his pecker into dead flesh. After all, people show up dead in the woods, now and then, and almost always their partially decayed corpses look like they have been worked over by someone. Another rumor is that he shoots porn with that black sheep in the Peabody clan. ‘Casting’ apparently consists of driving about the outskirts of town after dark and grabbing runaways. 

         So far as Paul knows, these are just stories; and yet stories are very real for this shy, awkward, Greek boy. Sometimes, when he opens the pages of a book, or draws the birds he can see from his bedroom window, he forgets the poker hand that life has dealt him. Depending upon the story or the vision tantalizing his imagination, Paul is either a hero soaring the heavens alongside his winged friend, or he is a serial killer monster lurching in the shadows. Either way, he is not a ‘Fucking Arab’ with a cock up his butt.

         If the stories are so real for him, then he presumes that they are as real for this ‘old man’ dragging deep on the Marlboro. What will this ‘old man’ do to make his stories come true? That is the real question, is it not? To what lengths and depths will this man go right now to feed the witch?

         The man presses down on the accelerator. His tires kick up enough dirty snow to knock the Rickster back onto his ass. 

         Paul catches a glimpse of the Rickster in the rearview mirror. The bully with the pockmarked face and the stringy, red hair looks so small and powerless in the reflection. Notwithstanding how frightened he remains, Paul manages to twitch a half smile onto his face, as the bully in the mirror recedes further back into that dismal, greying snow.

         Here’s your cookie, the man says, while reaching into the same shirt pocket that stores his Marlboros. Man’s only as good as his word, right?

         Paul does not answer. He forgets all about the image in the rearview mirror. His teeth chatter; and though he is ashamed, there is nothing he can do to make them stop.

         The man digs out an Oreo, and tosses it into Paul’s lap. 

         Paul looks down at the Oreo, like someone had hocked a loogie into his lap. Still, though his stomach churns, he senses that it is bad enough not to speak. If he refuses the man’s kind gesture, then there will be serious trouble ahead for him.

         Paul chews on the Oreo, like a small mouse gnawing on cheese. Flakes fall upon his shirt. He imagines his emphysemic grandmother tying a bib around his chicken neck.

         The Camaro churns up the old logger’s trail, showering snow onto both sides of the unmarked road, and screaming holy hell into an otherwise quiet forest. The trees, small and frail at first, then towering giants further down the path, seem to move away from the oncoming steel monster. The grey sheet of snowfall and sleet that had veiled the older trees earlier now breaks apart like white rose petals tossed to the wind. There is a momentary splash of precipitation against the windshield. Then, it is as if the sheet never had been anything more than a play in the observer’s imagination; a boogeyman revealed to be nothing more substantial than dust mites in moonlight one wintry night.

         At one point, the Camaro slides into a hairpin turn. The speedster kicks up a lot of snow on the passenger side; and for a moment, Paul can see nothing out his window, but a sheet of grimy snow. Paul almost screams in fear, but his typical muteness proves stronger than his anxiety even at that precarious time.

         The trail twists and turns several more times, before dipping down a steep slope towards what seems to be an abandoned dump. The newer dump is way out passed the intersection of Hampstead and Keeble. This one, so close to town, must have been used when lumberjacks, moonshiners, and outlaws were the core inhabitants of the Redwood Township. If the town had had any women other than barmaids and hookers, then there would have been an outcry against burning waste every evening so close to civilization.

         There is no more sign of debris. The only indications of the former dump are an assortment of fire scarred boulders and hillsides that pockmark an otherwise flat, snow covered plain. The trail is lost somewhere beneath the snow, and yet the Camaro pushes forward as if guided by an invisible hand. 

         The cloud cover thickens. The snowfall increases in intensity. Although the sun will not set for another couple of hours, the greyness darkens with every passing minute into a murky, purplish stew. The sky seems to be a witch’s cauldron of dark, grumbling passions. It is hell descending from the heavens, so that even the snowfall beating upon the windshield seems vaguely sinister. The snowflakes twist in the headlights, like the droplets of steamy phlegm that fall out from the devil’s mouth onto those who get too close to him. Indeed, as the world darkens, the plain seems to look more like a hell pit.

         The Camaro passes a shack that the snowfall had caved in sometime ago. There is a dead dog lying in the snow in front of this shack. The dog is nothing more a skeleton with traces of grey, matted fur still clinging to the bones. Still, even at a glimpse, Paul can see that it used to be a German Shepard; perhaps, the very same German Shepard he had seen scrounging for food by the high school dumpsters. For the beasts out this way, life is brutally hard and mercifully short. More than anything else, this poor beast tells Paul that this close to hell the line between death and life is so thin as to be lost.

         The man presses hard on the brakes. The Camaro kicks up a lot of snow, before it finally stops about a hundred yards passed the dilapidated shack. Snowfall blankets the windshield; and until the man opens his door, Paul feels as if trapped inside a cave.

         Come on, Big Mouth, the man calls back to Paul. I’m going to show ya something.

         Paul gets out of the Camaro without hesitation. He stuffs his hands into his pants pockets, and looks downward, like he is a shamefaced boy about to go to the woodshed.

         Don’t be such a limp dick, the man orders with a disconcerting grin. Follow me.

         Paul catches up to the man, though he fastens his eyes on his snow covered shoes the whole time. There is something in the man’s eyes the boy just does not want to see right now. After all, the man knows things. Paul can tell that from the glint in his eyes.

         The man passes by the dead dog without notice. He steps into the shack, while Paul stays outside in the blistery snowfall. The whole time he is waiting Paul can hear the dead dog yelping from starvation. The wind boomerangs that cry out and back long after the dog gives up its ghost, just in case someone like Paul comes along who is able to hear it. The dead cannot do much more than to cry into the wind, but that is enough.

         The man steps out of the shack. He has an old, wood sign in his hand. It is nearly impossible to read what had been carved into the wood long ago. The message fades in time, like just about everything else, and yet the sign obviously still means something to the man. He holds it as if it is a sacred item passed from one generation to the next.

         The man pushes the sign through the snow and into the earth. He takes care to straighten it, so that theoretically it can be read by anyone who drives by this old shack.

         Paul is curious enough to look up from his shoes. He stands close to the sign, so as to make out the letters carved awkwardly into the wood. The sign reads: Coon Town.

         Perplexed, Paul looks questioningly into the man’s face, even though part of him still wants to avoid what the man knows. The man returns Paul’s look with a smile that is almost human.

         Up yonder’s where the darkies live, the man explains. Old timers used to call the flats ‘Niggers’ Folly,’ but nowadays it’s just ‘Coon Town.’ Out in this snow you can see a spook a mile away. Stands out like buck’s antlers. Easy pickings for a man with a rifle.

         Paul feels his heart sink into his bowels. He imagines or hears the crack of an old rifle followed by a black man’s yelp. In his mind, the yelp sounds the same whether it is a man or a dog. The death scream is what it is for anyone or anything that wants still to survive for another day. It boomerangs out and back for those who have ears to hear.

         Come on, boy, the man orders after a short silence. You’re gonna do me a favor.

         The man heads back toward the Camaro. Paul hesitates a moment. Is it possible to run away? Or will the man run him down no matter how fast he moves his long legs?

         Paul answers his own questions easily enough. He catches up to the man, before the man has any reason to reissue his order. He sits on his seat without uttering a sound.

*   *   *

         Paul keeps his head down, while walking down the hill that leads from the forest to the snow covered flatland. He wraps his arms tightly around his chest, and buries his chin into his windbreaker as much as possible. Notwithstanding his effort to stay warm, the wind chills his bones. He imagines or hears his bones crinkling like dried sticks in a bonfire. He is the skeleton that had freaked him out so much back in the seventh grade; dead skull and bones upon a hook that, nonetheless, rattles and kicks like a living thing.

         What is his hook? Is it the past? No, Paul thinks, it is not the past, so much as the countless ways that the past manages to linger into the present. His hook is the box he keeps close at hand that contains the poems and the hagiographic drawings he had put on paper as a way of worshipping Beatrice from afar. His hook is his grandmother’s old oxygen tank, her loose dentures, even some of her white hair, which he keeps beneath his bed. Grandma is in a grave, and yet he has enough of her items close at hand in case somehow she returns one day to the small apartment they had kept together. His hook is his silence, the way he keeps his resentments to himself, lest they crawl out from his pores like an army of spiders. Paul knows what his hook is, and yet recognizing what it is does not lessen its hold on him. The dead know they are dead, and yet that awareness does not free them from their eternal predicament. 

         Paul walks across the flatland. It is snow covered, but the snow is fresh and less than an inch deep. His heels sink into the mud beneath the snow, so that he must kick back the wet earth like an ornery mule in order to press forward. 

         He looks down to his left side. Shelly continues to heel, like a well trained dog. Is it really possible for a cat to remain this disciplined? Even if possible, then how did Shelly learn anything of the sort? He has had an affinity for Shelly for a while, and yet he always thought of her as more feral than domestic. Surely, Millie did not train her, since she seldom remembers even to put water in her outside bowl. So what is going on here? Why does Shelly stay by his side? Or does he stay by her side, while she leads him back to a dark and terrible place he had hoped never again to see with his naked eyes?

         Consumed with his own thoughts, Paul does not notice until the last moment the shack with the caved in roof. The shack has been beaten down considerably by the cold winters, since the time Wally Weaver stopped at this very spot and restored that ‘Coon Town’ sign. Only two of the four walls stand. The door had been ripped off its hinges a long time ago, though surprisingly the howling winds over the years have not pushed it more than a few feet from the doorway. In time, the old shack will be gone altogether.

         And yet that ‘Coon Town’ sign stands as defiant as ever. The carved letters are even harder to read than before. Someone would need to stand no more than an inch or so in front of the sign to make out the racist word. Nevertheless, like so much from the past, the fading sign lingers.

         Paul reads the sign. It demands to be fed. Like everything else from the past, it stays around, until he does what he is told to do. 

*   *   *

         The man drives much more cautiously now. He cannot help grinding his tires into the snow; but, otherwise, he keeps his sports car engine at a low purr. He is doing his best not to call attention to his black Camaro; even though, like buck’s antlers, it must stick out against the backdrop of flat, white snow. 

         The flatland ends abruptly at the edge of a high cliff. The man parks his Camaro several yards away from the edge, so that someone looking up from the narrow base of the ravine will not see his vehicle. In case there is any question as to the man’s intent, he turns toward Paul and puts his index finger to his lips before unlatching the driver’s side door. The look in his eyes says that he is dead serious about not being heard here.

         Paul follows the man to the edge. The snow covered rocks and boulders down in the ravine had been smoothed by centuries of rushing water. A dam about two hundred miles upstream brought an end to that at the turn of the twentieth century; and within a few decades, a group of wealthy loggers built a makeshift town where a narrow slice of Eden used to exist. They envisioned a remote playground for the loggers; a place for burly men with hard won greenbacks to squander their fortune on hookers and whiskey. The girls were cleaner, and the whiskey sharper, in the cheap dens closer to Redwood Township. Moreover, the squalid huts down in the ravine reminded the loggers too much of the tents in which they slept deep in the woods. A playground should be an escape from, not a reminder of, the hardscrabble life most of these itinerant lumberjacks face.

         So the loggers’ oasis failed. In the decades that followed, the huts went to seed. For a while, the Redwood Township maintained a prison down in the ravine. Old timers still recall hearing the all black chain gangs singing their antiphonal slave songs, while chiseling precious minerals out of the ground. Their ghostlike voices reverberated out from the ravine and spread in every direction for miles. The whites in town envisioned condemned souls in hell moaning through their endless tears. Rather than inspiring pity, the songs reminded the whites just how much higher they existed in God’s estimation over their darker counterparts. This is probably around the time the ravine came to be known as ‘Niggers’ Folly,’ though no man in town can say for sure after so many years.

         Eventually, the town fathers do away with the chain gang. The lifers are chained to their huts, like a dog might be chained to its doghouse, and left to fend with the ice and the wind by themselves. Most of them die off before a few months. A precious few construct traps that they position just outside their open doorways. They catch rodents and raccoons mostly. They skin the critters with their teeth and their hands, and then they cook the flesh over small fires. These lifers live untold years in the ravine, earning the nickname ‘Coon Town,’ and fathering children with the black whores who wandered down that way for God knows what reason. Some of the children are living down there still. They have menial jobs in town, but prefer the remote and quiet living conditions. Moreover, down here, they are unencumbered by the racism still on display above the cliffs. Like Indians on a squalid reservation, they live poor and simple lives; but what is theirs is theirs. No one forces them to have ‘dates’ in a restroom stall. No one compels them to do ‘favors.’ In essence, when they burn out their candles, and close their eyes, they realize that the butts on which they sleep do not belong to anyone but themselves.

         Paul keeps his head down, while he follows the man down a steep trail. He wraps his arms around his frail chest, because the wind blowing up from the base of the ravine feels like a series of darts stabbing his heart. The air feels like ice crystallizing deep in his throat. He has a daydream in which he is choking literally on air. The man turns to him in time, and performs the Heimlich. He coughs up ice. The ice falls onto his shoes as if shards of broken glass. He is able to breathe again, which should relieve him; and yet he is overwhelmed by guilt. He has been broken so many times; but this time he is going to be the hammer, while someone even lower than him on the totem pole is going to be the ice smashed to smithereens. The victim is the bully, the bully the victim; and so what is beauty, chastity, angelic light, but something later to be broken and buried?

         Get down here, before he sees you, the man orders.

         Paul looks up from his shoes. He sees the man crouch behind a boulder. They are on the side of what used to be a deep riverbed. 

         Hurry up, the man insists. I’ve got a cookie for you.

         Paul stumbles out of his daydream then. He looks beyond the boulder, and views the remains of a prison barracks. One half of the dilapidated, A-frame roof caved some years ago. The logs holding up the rest of the structure sag down and outward, so that the façade looks like an angry, old coot with a protruding chin. The windows are dark, mysterious, except for a solitary propane lamp glowing in what appears to be the first floor kitchen window. The lamp generates a sickly, yellowish light, like the muted light left on in a morgue after hours. Indeed, the first impression is that the A-frame is dead. Only a fast radio voice heard in the distance suggests that someone may be living inside.

         Come on. Here’s the cookie, the man whispers, while holding out another Oreo.

         Paul crouches beside the man. He takes the Oreo, gnaws on the edges like a rat, and turns his attention again to the dark A-frame about a hundred years ahead of them.

         The man stares intently at the A-frame façade. He mouths something in silence.

         Paul avoids the man’s profile. Instead, he tires to make out the show broadcast over the radio. It sounds like a college football game announced by a man with an old fashioned radio voice. Perhaps, it is a vintage game rebroadcast; the kind of show that is meant to rekindle old memories of a better time. The alternative is to listen to that cold, howling wind outside that kicks up fallen snow and beats against the sagging logs.

         Coon has a nerve; the man whispers after a while.

         Paul looks at the man a moment with wide-open, questioning eyes. He truly has no idea what the man means by that remark. He continues to chew on his Oreo like an innocent, little boy, even though the raw, throbbing pain in his butt reminds him he is far from his grandma’s smoldering cigarettes and oxygen tank. 

         They’ve got basketball, the man explains. College football is for whites.

         Paul again faces the A-frame façade. He does not see anyone moving inside, and he once more imagines a dead place. Perhaps, like all dead things, the radio broadcast itself is the past lingering into the present; the voice of a ghost forever trapped inside of a football game and repeated ad nauseam within the walls of this abandoned prison.

         Coon’s name is Lester, the man continues. His daddy borrowed a hundred bucks from my grandfather. Never paid him back. 

         The man searches the area with his eagle eyes. Paul follows the man’s unblinking gaze. Paul does not see anything in particular, but a raccoon trap, a garbage can, and a few dead bushes. Perhaps, there is something inside the garbage can. He almost can make out something, when the howling wind lifts and lowers the rusted top of the can.

         There’s gas in the can, the man confides. Enough to send Old Lester back to Hell.

         Paul feels his heart freeze in between beats. He struggles to take in a breath. In that one horrid moment, he actually contemplates screaming out to the man inside the prison barracks and running down the ravine. The man crouching beside him will not be able to run him down in his black Camaro, if he stays down here. He may try to chase him on foot, but Paul senses that he can outrun the twenty something smoker. Indeed, this is probably Paul’s last and best chance to do what he recognizes deep down is right.

         But Paul does not move. Nor does he open his mouth. Instead, he looks up at the darkening sky. It seems to be closing in on him. Moreover, when he breathes deeply, he senses a sickening blend of shit and disinfectant. He lowers his face, but sheds no tears.

         Do me square, the man whispers, while nudging Paul’s shoulder and handing him a match. I’ve got another cookie for you, as soon as Old Lester is an overcooked nigger.

         Paul takes the match, but continues to look away. He is especially frightened to see the strange smile on the man’s face at that moment, though in his imagination he can see it all too clearly as the smile of the Cheshire cat. 

         Paul stumbles forward across the slippery snow. He almost falls flat on his face at one point. His shoulders stoop down, because of the weight of the darkening sky on the back of his head and neck. He is a perversion of Christ carrying his cross to the end.

         Rather than walk directly to the garbage can, Paul pokes his face into the open doorway. He can hear the man screaming in his head to get the hell away from there, but his curiosity overwhelms even his fear. He just has to see for himself the dark man, who resides even lower than him upon the totem pole.

         The inside is a long, narrow room. Paul envisions one simple bed after another going all the way down both sides. The prisoners would have been handcuffed to their beds. A watchman with a flickering lantern would have spent the night strolling up and down the center of the hall. The moon would sneak through the windows and illuminate everything in a cold, blue shade, so that the sleeping prisoners already appeared dead.

         All of the beds are gone now, except for the one nearest the front door. Indeed, as expected, there is a makeshift kitchen by the window to the right of the door; and a solitary lantern on the counter there provides the only light. The radio is on the floor beside the bed, so that the elderly man on the bed can switch it off when he awakens.

         Paul focuses on the elderly man. He is asleep beneath a threadbare blanket. His left hand still clings to a jug of moonshine. He has a beach ball for a belly that lifts and lowers the blanket with each breath.

         Paul observes the blanket lifting and lowering, and he thinks about how the top of the garbage can lifts and lowers in the howling wind. It is as if the world breathes in and out the dead spirit that hangs over this place. Like everything ever started down in this ravine, the place is doomed; cursed to end in a spurt of violence, followed by long, still nights. There is the last cannonball blast, and then there is the silence that lingers.

         Paul steps away from the open doorway. The wind screams a profane curse under the eaves. He cannot make out the actual word, but his heart tells him his grandmother would put soap in his mouth if he uttered anything close. He glances at the wet, rancid logs holding up the façade. They look and smell sickly, like the flesh of an old sinner in his death throes. It is as if the abandoned building knows that it is about to be torched.

         But does the old man know? Paul stops a moment by the kitchen window. He sees now that the window is cracked. The window glass rattles, and Paul thinks of chattering teeth in a skull. How is it that the old man sleeps through all this ruckus? Is the old man so oblivious to the sound of death beating through his rotten logs and cracked window?

         Paul places his left ear close to the window glass. He barely hears the snoring. It does not seem to have been interrupted by the fact that he is crunching the snow with every step he takes. Paul imagines that a man like Old Lester must have survived on his sixth sense over the years. After all, in a white man’s world, coons are like jackrabbits hiding in the marsh. Predators do not get too close, before they leap much deeper into the murky shadows. Nevertheless, this old man seems ill served by his sixth sense now. Perhaps, in a way, he welcomes death. Perhaps, his survival instinct is not as strong in his advanced years as his desire to be relieved finally from this dark, oppressive world.

         Good try, Paul thinks. But I cannot escape the fact that the very moment I throw a match into the gasoline, I am a murderer. I am stuffing my wiener into his asshole so as to ride his defeated, black butt into eternity. Perhaps, I’ll learn to like it. Perhaps, like just about everyone else, who squeezes a cock with one hand and offers an amiable handshake with the other, I too shall learn to grin like one of the boys. Perhaps, when I put down this sick dog, I shall be initiated into the brotherhood of assholes. No doubt, there is a glee club for the assholes; even our own special cheer during football games.

         Paul hears his own voice whispering in his head. It sounds sarcastic enough, and yet is there not an underlying seriousness? In a way, which he cannot really understand, does he not welcome actually the chance to burn this old nigger into dark, damp ashes?

         Nigger. The word stands out in his mind. It feels good to say it, does it not? There is someone under his heel for once; someone else grabbing his own ankles, and inhaling shit and disinfectant. Perhaps, this is what it means to be a man: Looking at the pathetic man beneath his heel, and recognizing that inside his own head he can call him a nigger.

         Paul removes the top of the garbage can. There is a gas container inside. It looks like it is about half full; more than enough fuel to send this rotted building to the moon.

         Hurry up! The man insists from behind the boulder. Or I’ll eat your cookie.

         Paul glances back at the boulder. He sees the man staring back at him. If looks could kill, then Paul would have dropped dead that very moment. Apparently, he is not moving as fast as the man wants. The longer Paul takes to perform his ‘favor,’ the more likely it is that Old Lester stirs from his heavy sleep in time to get the heck out of there.

         Paul removes the gas container. It is heavier than he had anticipated. He braces his heels into the snow and bends his knees, so as to stop himself from falling forward. He holds the gas container with both hands in front. He imagines an old lady holding up an oversized purse. His cheeks blister red with shame, until he erases that sorry image.

         He removes the cap. The gasoline smell reminds him of the handicapped men’s stall back at school. He wonders if everything that disinfects and everything that burns invariably smell the same. Perhaps, we men are not seventy percent water. Perhaps, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are seventy percent gasoline. Noxious fumes sift out from beneath our pores. Fuel drips from our soaked organs. It takes very little to rocket our heads from our necks and to leave behind smoldering, broken bones.

         Paul staggers to the open front door. Again, he glances inside. Old Lester’s sixth sense surely has abandoned him. His beach ball belly lifts and lowers like an accordion.

         Paul tilts the gas container onto its side. He rubs his frozen hands together, while gasoline spreads across and down the narrow hall. He listens for the profanity that the wind sings beneath the eaves. It appears now to be an echo in his own mind. Even the excruciating chill appears to be coming from within his own flesh, as much as from the elements outside. He looks down at his own hands. It is too dark to make out the color of his skin, but he imagines that he has taken on the cold, reptilian hue of a dead man.

         Lifting the gas container, Paul steps back from the open door. He has a little bit of fuel left. He splashes it across the façade. The rancid logs soak in the pungent poison, like they have been starved a long time for anything that will blow them to smithereens.

         What the fuck? Someone says in a groggy voice.

         Paul looks back at the man behind the boulder. He is staring back at him like an eagle eyed statue. He does not look like someone who has just spoken, but Paul cannot tell for sure. Perhaps, Paul imagined the voice, since he dreads suddenly the prospect of putting down the empty gas container and taking the match out of his pants pocket.

         Who the fuck are you? Someone calls out from the front door.

         Paul turns back. A knob of air in his throat drops to his stomach. The world starts to spin, as he is overtaken by a sudden burst of anxiety that squeezes his bowels tight. He throws the gas container off to the side, like the handle is red hot. 

         Paul focuses on the overweight black man standing in the open doorway. He can make out the details quite well, since the man is holding a lantern beside his dark face.

         Old Lester has the kind of bloated cheeks and watery eyes that comes from years of advanced alcoholism. He inhales with difficulty. His enormous belly rolls up and down in such a way as to make his stained, ripped wife beater look like a ragged sail opening and collapsing in a temperamental sea wind. His oversized pajama bottoms and slippers splashed through the gasoline, though Old Lester does not appear anyway to be aware.

         The man behind the boulder whistles. If the intended effect is to break Paul free from his frozen anxiety, like the imaginary Heimlich had broken the imaginary ice stuck deep in Paul’s throat, then the whistle works as planned. Something snaps inside Paul’s mind; and for a moment, anyway, he feels his anxiety float away with the howling wind.

         Old Lester turns toward the boulder. He holds out his lantern, in order to get a better look at what he senses now is a hostile intruder. His chest quivers erratically, as if he is on the verge of hyperventilating. Old Lester very well may suffer a heart attack.

         But he will be dead before that happens.

         Paul reaches into his pants pocket, grabs a hold of the match, snaps it very hard against his thigh, and holds the flame before his wide open eyes. He is mesmerized by all the destructive power encased in that small and fragile flame. A man’s life will end in seconds, because of a fire on a darkened stick that is not much mightier than a spark.

         Oh, God! Old Lester blurts out, when he sees the flame flickering in the darkness.

         Paul smiles. He really is the ‘God’ in this equation, is he not? A man’s life hangs in the balance, and Paul alone holds up the scales. Paul alone matters at this moment.

         Paul tosses the match forward. It lands in a puddle of gasoline on the snow before the open doorway. The fire explodes upward, like kinetic hands reaching up for the sky.

         Old Lester clutches at his heart, while dropping the lantern. He stumbles back. The lantern smashes open, and the flame inside ignites the gasoline beside his slippers.

A screaming wall of fire swooshes up Old Lester’s legs and torso. The fire stops a moment beneath his chin, so that Old Lester looks like he is wearing a kinetic fire suit over his wife beater and pajama bottoms. The look on Old Lester’s face is as much real surprise as excruciating pain. His mouth opens into an unvoiced scream. His gums flap, and his tongue lashes out, in the convulsive manner of a man suffering electrocution in Old Sparky. His eyes bulge so much from his sockets that he seems at that very moment to have the face of a space alien. In appearance, anyway, he has lost his humanity, and instead resembles the kind of discombobulated beast that sifts in and out of nightmares.

In seconds, the A-frame erupts into discordant, howling flames. Dirty snow swirls through the fire, but it has no more impact than tumbleweed in a tornado. Logs crackle into red hot ashes, and the snappy wind carries the debris into a gurgling smoke cloud.

Old Lester lunges out of this inferno. He no longer retains even that hideous alien face. He is just a wall of fire with arms. He flaps his arms like a bird attempting to fly.

And then he falls forward. There is a terrible hissing sound, when what is left of his flesh sinks into the snow. Paul’s first instinct is to believe that the hissing sound is the result of rapid cooling, but then he hears the snapping and the crackling of human organs. The organs explode, and then shrivel, like when a balloon bursts. The hiss is all that bloated gas escaping the charred remains, and floating away with the ashen debris.

Paul’s demonic smile is long gone. Instead, he revisits in his mind how those two flapping arms resembled a pair of wings. He thinks about the birds he can see from his apartment window. He thinks about Beatrice. He has been drawing her of late as if she is a heavenly bird creature; a beautiful angel with bird’s wings about to fly to the sun.

Paul knows that he will never again draw Beatrice that way. He stumbles back, and starts to cry like a little boy. He forgets all about the man behind the boulder. He is alone in his guilt, his fright, his loss of innocence, while the fire caresses the heavens.

*   *   *

         Paul rubs his hands together. He is cold; but, even more so, he is frightened. He has not been this close to the ravine since that one evening a decade earlier. He recalls the fear he had as an adolescent when first approaching the edge of the cliff with Wally.

         Now, Paul can refer to him in his own mind as ‘Wally,’ or ‘Officer Weaver,’ but that evening he was ‘the man.’ Paul had known his name, of course, but back then he could not conceive of him as a man with a typical, benign, small town identity. Instead, ‘the man’ loomed much larger than the run of the mill crackers and bullies with which Paul had had to contend all his life. Part of that had to do with the fact that ‘the man’ roamed the halls of the high school like one of the upperclassmen; and yet he smoked, drove a black Camaro, and knew things. In a way, ‘the man’ was in Paul’s world, while also way beyond that world. He was an open door between adolescence and manhood. As the man drew Paul closer to him, Paul peered through that open door and saw what it meant to be a man. What he saw simultaneously disgusted and titillated him, like the kind of sexual high some people get when sneaking into the freak show tent at a circus.

         The man gave Paul that promised cookie, when they ran back up to the Camaro. They sat inside the Camaro, and watched the smoke rising out from the ravine, like two friends at a drive-in movie. Paul never really relaxed that night, but he realized finally that the man did not intend to rape or to kill him. On the contrary, he was taking Paul under his wing. Paul would do him ‘favors.’ In return, he would reveal to Paul bits and pieces of his world. The two of them came to that understanding without saying a word, while the dark and menacing sky above swallowed up the last vestiges of fire and smoke.

         Paul shivers. The snow is falling steadily now. The sky has darkened prematurely, like it did that one evening. The snow is not as deep yet, as it had been then, but this moment is otherwise all too similar to the moment Wally and Paul first approached the edge of the cliff. Paul feels a wave of déjà vu wash over him. He expects to look over the edge and to see the prison barracks intact. He will see the raccoon trap, the rickety garbage can, even the dead bushes. He will need to descend into the ravine to see how the lantern flame flickers weakly in the kitchen window, or to hear the college football game on the radio. He will need to walk up to the front door to see Old Lester sleeping in his bed. However much the thought frightens him, he will need to get that close and personal to see how Old Lester’s belly lifts and lowers the threadbare blanket, how he clutches still the jug of moonshine, and how he remains oblivious to the danger outside.

         Paul walks to the edge. He stops, looks down, and sighs. The prison barracks are long gone. The raccoon trap and the dead bushes had been near enough to the A-frame to be swept into the fire. With no gas container holding it down the rickety garbage can had been swept away by the wind. It rolled down the ravine. If Paul goes down there, and searches thoroughly enough, he may find it one of these days. He can keep what is left of it as a memento of the time he murdered a man for the sins of that man’s father.

         But Paul is not going to search for that garbage can. If he wants a memento, then there is one much closer at hand. Paul blinks his eyes several times to make sure he is not daydreaming again. He is not, and yet he still cannot believe what he is seeing now.

         Down there on what used to be a riverbed, just beyond the smooth boulder, is a bed. The winds had carried the blanket and the sheet away sometime ago, but the snow covered mattress still clings to the wood bed frame. There are four bedposts. They are so sturdy as to seem cemented into the earth. The headboard is another matter. Winds apparently tore it off sometime ago. Remnants are buried in the snow a few years away.

         Paul focuses on a pair of handcuffs dangling from a bedpost. If a man rests upon the bed, then the handcuffs clasp his right wrist to the post. His left hand is free then to reach for the jug of moonshine and the radio that are on the ground beside the bed.

         What? Does Paul really see a jug of moonshine and a radio down there? He cannot believe his own eyes, and yet he does not feel the way he does when he gets ‘lost’ in a daydream. Indeed, there is nothing about this experience that suggests a recurrence of one of his mind numbing hallucinations. He does not feel sleepy. He does not feel like he is walking underwater. He recalls feeling that way earlier this morning, but now he is as awake as he possibly can be. If anything, then his mind and his senses just now are too alert, rather than dreamy or numb. So he cannot be losing his mind, right? He must see those items for real.Somehow, the bed, the jug, and the radio survived the inferno and have remained in place for a decade. Somehow, they have remained there for him.

         Paul feels wet fur rub against his left ankle. He looks down and sees Shelly. The black cat returns his wide open stare with a thoughtful gaze. There is something in the cat’s eyes that suggests she knows things

         Shelly starts to walk down the trail that leads to the base of the ravine. She does not look back. She does not need to do so. She knows she has Paul wrapped around her paw. Paul knows this as well, and so he follows Shelly down the trail in absolute silence.

         Paul watches his steps, while walking down the trail, and yet he remains aware of the sky above him. The cloud cover is heavy, dark, menacing, like a thick shroud that is placed over the snow white face of a corpse. Snow swirls about him every which way. As a result, he feels as if he is strolling into the bowels of a tornado composed of slush. He is compressed inward and tossed about. He is under the world’s heel, but he is also as free as a snowflake. The conflicting sensations disorient him; and he wonders again if perhaps he is dabbling with craziness, even though this bout still seems very different than all those previous ‘daydreams.’ If this is madness, then can he pull back from the edge? Moreover, does he want to do so? Or does he want to be so ‘lost’ he cannot return?

*   *   *

         Paul cannot remember ever being so cold. Even when he followed the man into that ravine, and imagined ice crystallizing deep in his throat, he did not feel as beaten by the snappy, moist wind. Ice swirling through the air latches onto his skin. It digs into his pores, and swims through his veins. He trembles, and imagines ice dust inside of his bloodstream spreading out to his organs and bones. The result is a somnolent chill that grabs a hold of his throat. He struggles to inhale through what feels like a plastic straw.

         He squats behind the bush, and wraps his arms around his chest. It does not really matter how small he makes himself. He cannot generate any heat in his frozen bowels.

         Still, it is best to remain as small as possible. The lamp post on the other side of Dead River Road switched off about ten minutes ago, even though the overcast sky has obscured much of the sunrise. The sick, purplish haze that passes for sunlight this early in the morning barely illuminates Al’s Auto Repair across the street, let alone the brick, square buildings further down the block. Nevertheless, pickups and sedans have been barreling down Dead River for about an hour already. What had been a trickle of traffic is now a heavy stream, as moms drive their kiddies to school, and roughnecks head out for their chainsaws or their jackhammers on the outskirts of town. It is simply a matter of time before someone sees a tall, lanky, high school student loitering by the gate to the Redwood Unified Transportation Authority. As one of the few ethnics in town, Paul knows he will stand out in people’s minds, especially when the prank hits the headlines.

         He hears a familiar roar. He pokes his head out from behind the bush, and sees the black Camaro come to a stop in front of the gate. He wonders why he had bothered to hide himself, since the Camaro stands out from the rusted gate and the grey building. It will be a miracle if no one notices the sports car idling where it is. Perhaps, the man does not care if he is caught. The man has been altogether reckless, since the night he and Paul sat side by side like old friends, and watched all that smoke escape the ravine.

         The man steps out of the sports car without cutting the roar of the engine. Since he does not bother to close his door, there is a persistent beeping sound as well. Surely, someone is going to notice something. Indeed, is that not Al Crappy glaring back at the Camaro from his repair shop across the street? Does a mom in a Volvo see the Camaro, while roaring passed the Transportation Authority on her way to the elementary school?

         The man does not notice any of this. He walks up to the gate, while gripping his half finished bottle of whiskey in his right hand. He appears to have removed his bottle from the middle console. Whiskey drips from the driver’s seat to the gate, and at once Paul remembers that gasoline trail that began at his shoes and ended at the front door.

         The man leans forward on the gate. He mouths the identification number painted on the back of each of the school buses parked in the lot. No doubt because he is drunk, he looks like a dyslexic trying to mouth hieroglyphics. It would be funny, except that in the matter at hand there is nothing humorous. The weight of the moment presses down on everyone involved, and Paul recalls Dante’s insight that a sin is its own punishment.

         The man takes a swig of whiskey. He turns to his left, and sees his ‘little buddy’ hiding behind the bush. His bleary eyes roll in their sockets, and yet he recognizes Paul. 

         I’ve got a cookie for you, the man slurs.

         He reaches into his shirt pocket. There is a pack of Marlboros in the pocket. The squished remnants of an Oreo are behind the smokes. The man digs out the crumbs and tosses them towards Paul, like a bored zookeeper may toss food scraps at a caged beast.

         Paul does not really want the cookie, but he is careful to reach for whatever he can grab out of the air. He does not want to appear ungrateful. There is no telling what the man will do to him, if the man thinks his ‘little buddy’ is just another damned cunt.

         Ya know who works here? The man asks, while gesturing toward the grey building.

         Paul steps away from the bush, and looks at the grey building. He winces when he hears a vehicle passing by them. Otherwise, he tries his best to act unfazed. He has spent considerable time with the man the past few months. He knows all too well that the man favors courage almost as much as obedience. Anything else is ‘cunt behavior,’ and ‘cunt behavior’ warrants a punch or a choke, depending then upon the man’s mood.

         Faggots, the man answers his own question. Government workers are limp wrists.

         Paul looks down. He kicks the wet gravel with the front of his right shoe. There is so much ice settled already on the ground that the gravel does not go very far. Paul imagines ice covering over his shoes, and pasting him to this very spot. Then, when all those ‘limp wrists’ show up, they will see Paul’s sin etched into his ethnic face. Those guys will know that ‘something is up,’ because there is always trouble when an ethnic hangs around where he has no business. Paul knows the man will be long gone by then.

         Can’t keep track of their inventory, the man continues. ‘Cause they’re too busy flicking shit off their dicks. 

         The man eyes Paul suspiciously. Paul looks away in shame. Then, the man tosses back his head, and laughs. He finishes off his hyena laugh with another swig of whiskey.

         Don’t worry, little buddy, the man says. You’re gonna do me a favor, and make sure one of them ‘shit flickers’ loses his job. They’ll pink slip his raw ass, and you’ll get the last laugh.

         The man finishes off his whiskey. He tosses the bottle off to the side, like he is a basketball player going for three points. In his mind, the basketball swooshes through the net without touching the rim, for he holds his hands up in victory the moment that he hears his bottle break into small pieces. He turns back and faces Paul with wild eyes and flushed cheeks. He opens his mouth to say something, reconsiders, and falls silent.

         Paul wraps his arms around his chest again. He wants to crouch into the smallest ball possible and to roll away. He cannot do anything of the sort, though, and so he has no choice but to lean against the rusted gate and to watch whatever the man does next.

         The man returns to his Camaro, and retrieves a bloodstained hammer. He flicks it a few times, so as to make sure that the blood is no longer liquid. So what did he kill with his hammer, anyway? Does Paul really desire to know the answer to that question?

         The man walks passed Paul. The intense look on the man’s face suggests that, in his mind anyway, the only two persons left in our universe are himself and the ‘asshole licker’ about to lose his government job. Like that crazy Bichon back in town, the man goes for the jugular without hesitation. He lifts his hammer above his head, focuses his bloodshot eyes on the target, and smashes the lock in two. 

         Paul winces. Breaking the lock sounds like setting off an explosion, at least in his anxious mind. He wants to look unfazed, but the man’s loud and erratic behavior makes it increasingly difficult for him to do so. 

         The man kicks the broken lock aside. He slides the battered and bruised hammer into his back pocket, pulls open the rusted gate, and grabs a smoke from the Marlboro carton in his shirt pocket. Smokers seem to have matches everywhere. True to his tribe, the man flings out a match, like a magician an Ace of Spades, and lights his cancer stick before Paul even knows what is happening.

         Get in there, the man orders. Find the school bus with ‘13’ painted on the back. While you’re waiting for me, think about what kind of dumbass faggot puts the number ‘13’ on the back of a bus carrying school kids. Fucking diseased asshole, if you ask me.

Paul feels a throbbing pain in his butt. It has to be a psychosomatic response to the ‘fucking diseased asshole’ comment, for Paul has not had a ‘date’ with the Rickster since accompanying the man out to the ravine. The Rickster stares at his former ‘butt buddy,’ whenever the two of them pass by one another in the hall or the cafeteria. He knows better, nonetheless, than to grab a hold of a boy shielded under the man’s wing.

         Well, get in there! The man insists. I’ll give you two cookies when you’re done.

         Paul lowers his head, stuffs his hands into his pants pockets, and strolls onto the lot. He tries to look as nonchalant as possible, so that if someone sees him he will look as if he simply made a wrong turn somewhere. Deep down, he knows that that is a case of wishful thinking. Whether or not the worker bees in that grey building are diseased, morally compromised faggots, they will call the cops the moment they catch a glimpse of an unauthorized intruder on their lot. The cops will not care how relaxed he appears.      Paul hears the gate roll shut behind him. He then hears the Camaro roar to life. Still, he keeps his head down. He does not need to see the man pull away. He knows in his heart that, when needed, the man will be there to take a hold of his trembling hand.

         Paul looks up at one point. He observes an old vulture with abnormally long wings circling over the lot. Does the vulture eye him? Or is there something else dead around here? The questions are impossible to answer, when the whole wide world seems to be grey and cold. Better to focus on finding that thirteenth bus, and then to wait in silence.

*   *   *

         Paul waits a moment at the boulder. He tries to visualize the vibrant river that had passed by the boulder for so many centuries, before the great men of industry had dammed the natural water flow. Notwithstanding his typically overactive imagination, he cannot really see how clean the river must have been. Instead, he envisions a slow, belching stream of ash. Burnt body parts here and there flow downriver. Flesh stripped index fingers pop out of the ashen mulch and point at him. Decapitated, charcoal black skulls stare back at him through eyeless sockets. Still burning organs hiss like snakes as steam escapes through punctured membranes. Indeed, the ashen stream curves groggily down the riverbed, like a serpent drugged by the multitude of sins and violence that it carries in its scales. Like everything else, the serpent is brought down by its own excess.

         There is a deafening snap of cold wind, and suddenly the image is gone. Instead of a dead river, there is now a bed, a jug of moonshine, and a radio. Handcuffs clasped to the bedpost rattle in the wind. Muddy snow swirls around that bed like tumbleweed.

         Paul swats the tumbleweed aside, while approaching the snow covered mattress.

         He stops beside the mattress. Even though quite a bit of snow covers the mattress just now, he can make out how much the mattress sags downward, like Old Lester had been sleeping on this very surface only minutes ago. He senses that if he now pressed his nose against the thinning fabric, then he would smell the fat man’s pungent sweat.

         Moreover, does he hear the same college football game that he had heard about a decade ago? Paul squats down to take a closer look at the radio. It is cold to the touch and not plugged into an outlet. Still, if he focuses, then he barely hears the announcer calling a familiar play. The running back fumbles the football at the line of scrimmage. The other team does not get possession, though, because of a foul. This gives the first team a chance at redemption, but then the quarterback drops the football on the snap…

         Cannot score, Paul thinks. Goose egg for both teams, when the game finally ends.

         Is that true? Paul had heard only a few minutes of coverage the last time, but all he has to do is to look at the grey, cold landscape in every direction to realize that life awards everyone a goose egg. Rich or poor, white or ethnic, we are all black bones on an ashen stream in the end. Everyone of us glares at the world through eyeless sockets. Everyone of us is a flesh stripped skeleton on parade. We bob and twirl on the stream, until finally the night overtakes us. Then we are all equally nothing, but blackened ice.

         That may be true, but does Paul really hear a football game over an unplugged radio? Or does that traditional radio voice begin and end somewhere in his imagination?

         Paul sits on the side of the mattress. He rests his right elbow on his knee and his right fist beneath his chin, like he is Rodin’s Thinking Man. Wind snaps his arched back, like it is trying to break his spine in two. He does not wince, though. He slides into dark, brooding thoughts; the kind that sometimes makes him wish he could be lost in eternity.

         So lost is he that he does not notice that Shelly is gone. 

*   *   *

         Is everyone gone? Paul thinks, while hiding behind the thirteenth school bus. Am I really alone out here on this cold, wind swept asphalt? I cannot hear traffic anymore on Dead River Road. Is that because I am so far from the front gate? Or is the traffic all gone? Swept away by wind that smells like shit and disinfectant? Here one moment and then gone the next, like in an episode of The Twilight Zone or maybe The Outer Limits…

         Paul lifts his head from his fist. He is sitting Indian style in front of the elongated exhaust pipe. He senses that sitting on his butt is the best way not to be seen, and yet he hears something now that tells him that he is about to be discovered anyway. A part of him is relieved. He is not sure what this prank is, but he senses that nothing good is going to come of it. Perhaps, a stint in juvenile hall from trespassing will not be so bad.

         A stooped shadow jumps out from in between the thirteenth and the fourteenth yellow school buses. Paul looks up and sees an angry, old, mustached face leering down at him. The man with the mustache is wearing a blue security officer uniform. The snow on his stooped shoulders looks like dandruff, which in turn highlights just how unclean this old badger really is. He is an unwashed mess of bloodshot eyes and cracked lips; a dirty devil in blue, who has been aching for a chance to use his cold baton on someone.

         Ya looking for a beating, boy? The old man asks, while tapping his baton into his left palm. Stand up before the man, or I am gonna smear your Kraut face on my baton.

         Paul has never heard of a ‘Kraut.’ Is that shorthand for ‘olive nigger,’ or has he been mistaken for another race? Seems folks lump together all the races other than the Anglos, at least around these parts. So far as Paul knows, maybe the whole dark world out there consists in essence of the Anglos on one side and ‘everyone else’ on the other.

         Paul does not want to be beaten to an inch of death. He starts to stand up when suddenly the man appears behind the security officer. The man wraps his arms around the security officer’s chest and pulls him backward. The security officer drops his baton upon the asphalt. In Paul’s ears, anyway, the baton striking the asphalt sounds like an earth shattering gunshot. Paul is amazed that others are not now running to the scene.

         The man tosses Paul a key, while he is dragging the angry security officer away. Paul catches the key in the air. He looks at it, like he has never seen such a weird thing.

         Damned fool slipped on the ice and hit his head, the man explains, when he later returns to Paul. Out cold for eternity, ‘cause the limp wrist drinks on the job. Problem is the other faggots are gonna look for him, so we gotta go to ‘Plan B,’ understand me?

         Paul remains silent. He does not even know ‘Plan A’ as of yet, let alone ‘Plan B.’

         The man pushes the school bus door open, and gestures for Paul to step on up to the driver’s seat. Paul does what he is ordered without hesitation. He grips the key like a small child grips his ice cream cone. He even imagines the iron from the key dripping like melted vanilla down his fist. He wants to wipe away the liquid iron and to cry aloud.

         But he remains silent. He just smells the shit and disinfectant, and shuts his eyes.

         Hurry up! The man urges. Or I’ll eat your two cookies.

         Paul turns around, and looks back at the man. Apparently, the man is not going on the school bus. Instead, he is pulling another smoke out from his shirt pocket, while staring down his ‘little buddy’ with a look that could crack cement. 

         Drive this butt boy to City Hall, the man orders, while lighting his smoke. 

         Paul barely hears the words. He focuses instead on the man’s eyes. Earlier, they had been inebriated, bloodshot, practically rolling in his sockets. Now, they are as firm and steadfast, as he ever has seen them. Before, the man had caressed the throat of a bottle. Just now, he twisted the throat of a man. The man can turn on a dime. That is because he knows things. The victim is the bully, the bully the victim, forever and ever.

         Leave it by the front steps, and run like hell, the man continues, while retaining his thousand-yard stare into Paul’s trembling soul. Town’s gotta learn that faggots can’t be trusted with securing government property. Gonna pink slip their assholes, everyone!

         The man takes a deep drag on his smoke, and steps back. Just then, Paul is able to see the madness behind the thousand-yard stare. The man must control Paul in every way, because he cannot control himself. You are either climbing up the totem pole, or you are falling down it. You are on the top of the ravine looking down, or you are down there burning back to ashes. Those are the two moral choices in this world.

         And regardless of what choice you make, you need to feed the witch.

         Paul sits on the driver’s seat. He does not have a clue what to do. He has started Driver’s Ed, and may be competent enough at this point to drive his grandmother’s old and rusted Edsel around a residential block; but that is a far cry from driving a damned school bus. He looks at the man with the kind of pleading eyes that normally gets him punched or choked. But what choice does he have? He cannot figure this out on his own.

*   *   *

         Paul recoils from the vicious slap to his face. He falls back onto his elbows. The snow covered mattress provides so little support that he can feel the frame beneath it.

         Paul knows that the slap had been a sudden gust of wind. Much more important is that the wind had felt like a strong hand. He would have guessed the hand of a man, except that his nostrils tingled ever so slightly from a woman’s perfume.

         No, that is not quite right. It had not been the sophisticated perfume used by a grown woman. Rather, it had been the kind of girly girl scent adolescents wear. Just a bit too strong and cheap to meet the requirements of a lady on the town, the perfume would have been found in the boudoir of a freshman or a sophomore high school girl; a peaches and crème beauty with a tall boy in her heart and with homework on her mind.

         The problem with this mental picture is that Beatrice never had been a peaches and crème anything. She had been a shy, beaten girl roaming the halls in silence; one of life’s oddities in the kind of black mourning dress and veil that called to mind either a Goth witch or a Victorian widow. She did not wear perfume, because of her allergies. Neither did she smile, because of her arthritis. She knew things, perhaps even more so in her own instinctual, feminine way than the man, and so Paul over time had learned to fear her as much as he worshipped her. For all that she had known, she remained all her life ignorant of adolescent mirth, slumber parties, pretty boys, and cheap perfume.

         Who else could it be? Paul has loved two females only in his lifetime: His winged angel and his dying grandmother. Neither can account for the subtle caress from cheap perfume that follows immediately upon the sharp slap. 

         There is a third option. Paul remembers Beatrice in life, though he has tried to put her memory out of his mind the passed few years. He knows nothing yet of Beatrice in death. Perhaps, even the shy and beaten souls out there can find a reason for mirth, when they pass on to the other side. Perhaps, death entices us at the very end, like an avuncular carnival barker sweet talking us into the tent; and the freak show inside turns out to be worthier than the price of admission. If sin is its own punishment, then maybe death is its own reward. 

         Paul hears a loud flutter directly above him. He looks up and sees an old vulture with abnormally large wings circling over the bed. The bird is hungry. It demands to be feed, and yet is there not something beautiful in its graceful flight through the heavens?

*   *   *

         Paul recoils from the vicious slap to his face, even though he had anticipated it. The man had made it clear in the course of their ‘friendship’ that he would not tolerate weakness or stupidity on the part of his ‘little buddy.’ This morning, the man clearly is more on edge than usual; and so Paul had expected a proverbial ‘trip to the woodshed’ for not knowing what to do behind the steering wheel of a bus. He had braced himself mentally and physically for the blitzkrieg to be inflicted upon his flesh. Still, the man’s palm had seemed to come from nowhere and from everywhere at the same time, like the universe itself had slapped him. Moreover, he had smelled something in the man’s palm; something like cheap perfume, which frankly makes no sense coming from a man.

         The man mumbles something or other about ‘slapping the lazy nigger out of his little buddy.’ He commandeers the steering wheel, and starts up the engine. Although he does not address Paul directly, his behavior makes it clear that Paul better had pay attention. The man will not be showing his ‘little buddy’ a second time what to do here.

         Starting up the bus, and releasing the emergency brake, turns out to be the hard part. The rest is like driving grandma’s Edsel, except that the steering wheel is larger. Paul is not sure how he is going to stop the damned thing when he gets to City Hall. He knows better than to ask, though. If he cannot figure it out on his way, then he will put the front of the bus into a tree and hope that that is enough to stop the forward motion.

         The man drives the bus through the front gate. The impact startles Paul so much he pees in his pants. His cheeks turn beet red. He is careful to stay silent, nonetheless.

         The man idles the bus, and steps through the swivel doors. When the doors open, Paul can hear the shrieking scream from an alarm. The cops will arrive any moment in response to the destruction of the front gate. They will find the security officer’s dead body on the asphalt. No doubt, because the man knows what he is doing, they will think that the drunk geezer had slipped on the ice and had cracked his head open on his own.

         Actually, deep down, Paul entertains serious doubt that the cops will determine as such. He tries to bury that doubt. After all, the man knows things, is that not correct?

         Paul returns to the driver’s seat. He glances back at the man, who is holding the swivel doors open so as to say one more thing to his ‘little buddy’ before hightailing it out of there. There is an insane glint in the man’s eyes, and yet he speaks very clearly.

         Just so ya know, I’m eating one of your cookies, ‘cause I had to teach ya how to drive a freaking bus, the man berates him. Don’t be stupid, boy. It’ll cost ya every time.

         And with that said, the man lets the swivel doors slam shut. He flees the scene.

         After a few harrowing seconds, which feel like minutes, Paul manages to put the bus back into drive. He pushes down on the gas, and turns onto Dead River Road. He is fortunate, for less than thirty seconds later a police car drives up to the smashed gate.

         Paul focuses on the road ahead of him, even though it is pretty much a straight shoot into town. Still, in spite of his focus, he glimpses an old vulture flapping its large wings through the air. Is that the same old vulture he had seen earlier circling the lot? Or is there an army of vultures flying over the town? The questions are academic, Paul decides, for either way death has set its sights upon him this cold and dismal morning. 

*   *   *

         Paul watches the old vulture circling the bed. He is so lost in its graceful flight he does not notice how the wind momentarily stops. Snow still falls lazily to the ground, but otherwise nothing in the ravine moves. There is nothing to be heard, either, and so he cannot tell where his observation ends and his imagination begins. For all he knows, everything that occurs next may be a detour in his own mind, like that strange perfume he had picked up from an adolescent dream just seconds ago. 

         Something happens in the distance. A tree overburdened by snow may have fallen suddenly. Perhaps, a ball of ice and slush rolled over the edge of the towering cliff and into the riverbed. Whatever it is, it first generates a sound, and then a real or imagined force that strikes his chest. Is this what it feels like for a man to have his heart broken?

         Before Paul can answer his own question, he looks down the narrow riverbed and sees a beautiful, adolescent girl shrouded by starlight. She is naked, but for this bright death veil. He smells that girly girl perfume sifting in and out of the distinct fragrance of human decomposition. He is taken by the beauty of the angel approaching him, and yet he cannot ignore the deep and brooding sadness creeping out from his broken heart. 

*   *   *

         Paul does not remember turning off of Dead River Road. He is following the flight of the old vulture. When the vulture turns suddenly down Keeble Street, and stretches its wings to pick up speed, he does the same with the yellow school bus. 

         He is frightened; but, even more so, he is exhilarated with the sheer amount of power at his fingertips. He can taste manhood in the cold sweat sliding down his cheeks and onto his open lips. It is a sweet and sour taste, like life and death mixed together in a witch’s cauldron. There is a smell, too, something like sweet perfume mixed with sour human remains. He is not sure how he can make that mental association, since he has had no exposure to perfume and only a brief, though horrific, exposure to burning, black flesh. Nevertheless, the mental association seems as if branded into his mind. He senses even then that he will never again walk this earth without knowing life and death to be intimately bound to one another. Like fire and ice dancing together in the ravine…

         Something happens in the distance. A tree overburdened by snow may have fallen suddenly in front of his bus. Perhaps, a ball of ice and slush rolled off the sidewalk and onto his path. If either of the two scenarios is correct, though, then something happens, but that something is not nearly so distant as he had felt (or hoped) just a moment ago.

         Whatever it is, it first generates a sound, and then a real or imagined force that strikes his chest. He grips the steering wheel hard, and floors the accelerator, because he senses somehow that that something is being butt rammed by his tires into the cold, wet street. Is this what it feels like for a boy to have his asshole broken the first time?

         Before Paul can answer his own question, he looks toward the sky, and sees that the old vulture is gone. He searches in vain for any trace of the winged giant. He remains so focused on that task that he does not notice the bus veering towards a dead tree off the side of the road, notwithstanding the distinctive roar of tires shredding loose gravel.

         He looks back in time to see what he imagines is an angel shrouded by starlight. She is approaching him from a distance with outstretched arms. In fact, it is that dead tree with open, naked limbs; and when he comes into contact with it his life turns dark.

*   *   *

         Paul never sees the blood and the body parts dripping down the front of the bus. The reason is that he is unconscious, when the cops and the paramedics arrive in force. By the time he opens his eyes, he is handcuffed to a hospital bed in a still, quiet room.

         Nor does he go to the funeral. Instead, on that dreary day, he sits alone in a cell in juvenile hall. He is in considerable pain still, because his ethnic face had smashed a hole into the windshield upon contact with the dead tree. His lawyer has informed him that most likely he will be tried as a juvenile. That is supposed to be good news. He is unfazed by the legal machinations on his behalf, for all that matters is that Beatrice is up there with the angels. She is now where he had imagined her to be. Her reality and his daydreams are one and the same. Is that love? He is not sure. All he knows for sure is that he cannot shed any tears for her. His eyes well up with tears, but then he smells that witch’s brew of shit and disinfectant; and that sadness falls aside as a dead thing.

         The day that the juvenile court judge passes sentence on Paul, and the fat bailiff with the walrus mustache takes him back to his cell, the man signs papers with the U.S. Marine Corps. Ooh Rah! Paul first hears about his heroic exploits, while he is languishing in a cell. The butt boys in the cell next to his talk a lot, and the Great Wally Weaver is a frequent subject matter of their conversations. The butt boys know nothing of Paul’s past ‘friendship’ with the Great Wally Weaver, which is just as well. Paul does not want to make any new ‘friends’ in here. He just wants to do his time in dark, lonely silence.

*   *   *

         The beautiful girl is close enough now that Paul can make out her face. Yes, that is definitely Beatrice; and yet she is so much more angelic than he had imagined even back then. Her face is a blinding, white spotlight piercing his heart. She seems to float above the snow covered earth, though her delicate, bare feet also seem to be stepping forward one after another. Gone are the dark, maudlin fabrics with which she used to clothe herself. Gone also are the stooped shoulders, the gnarled fingers, the downcast eyes. Instead, she is draped by her own white skin, which seems to sift in and out of an overwhelming field of starlight. Moreover, she is the very image of youthful health, as she looks forward with the confidence and the inner peace that before had eluded her.

         Most enchanting is her smile. It is beautiful, yes, but even more so it is a knowing smile. She is playfully holding back something. She intends to dangle it just passed his understanding, so that he can sense that there is something more, and yet never grasp it with his intellect. He can feel all the angst of never getting what is close enough to kiss. She can laugh at him in that disarming manner common to little girls, even as she molds him as the putty in her hands. 

         Paul again senses the decomposition mixed in with girly girl perfume. This time, the death smell is more pungent. It reaches the back of his throat, and makes him gag.

         How can he be so enchanted, and yet want to vomit at the same time? How can he feel so close to his redemption, and yet sense that a witch is about to claim his soul? Shit and disinfectant, is that what this is? Even now, must he be reminded that there is a sickness, indeed a death curse, veiled beneath the surface of something so beautiful?

         The beautiful girl stops at the foot of the bed. She is so close that Paul is inside her starlight. The rest of the world fades away, and it is just the two of them cocooned in a brilliant bubble. The white light around them increasingly smells like rotting meat.

         Together again, the beautiful girl says without moving her lips.

         So why do I feel lost? Paul asks, while a tear falls down his face.

         You are not lost, the girl answers, while taking his hands into hers. Not anymore.

*   *   *

         What did you say? A deep, masculine voice asks from outside the brilliant bubble.

         Paul opens his eyes. He is surprised, for he had not been aware that his eyes had closed. Perhaps, that blinding, white light had been way too much to handle. Perhaps, he had clenched his eyes shut just before vomiting, which he is inclined to do on such stomach churning occasions. Something happened, for one moment he is staring deeply into Beatrice’s starry eyes, and now he is staring blankly at a nondescript, white ceiling.

         Paul lifts his head from the pillow just enough to observe his own hands. He has his hands folded penitentially on his chest. He does not recall doing so, and yet prayer seems to enter into the picture whenever he opens his mind to the past. Paul worships the past, as much as he tries to tell himself that he can let go; and, more often than is healthy, he gets lost in that past. Frankly, his ‘Uncle George’ has had to find him more often than the ‘Good Shepard’ should. More than seventy times seven times, Paul feels.

         Paul sinks his head back into the pillow. It feels like it came out of the dryer just before he showed up for his appointment. Does he smell disinfectant in the pillowcase? Or is that just the past lingering into the present, like an unwanted guest we are much too polite to show the front door? For that matter, is it not the case that what we may call politeness, or shyness, or even silence is just another indication of moral weakness?

         What did you say? The deep, masculine voice repeats from across the quiet room.

         So why do I feel lost? Paul repeats barely above a whisper, while he wipes away that tear that has been clinging stubbornly for sometime to the very bottom of his chin.

         Paul hears the man across the quiet room close his notebook. The man gets out of his chair in the slow and awkward way peculiar to overweight men approaching sixty. The man walks over to the wet bar that exists between his chair and his patient’s couch.

         Paul closes his eyes again, but he does not return to that brilliant bubble. There are no angelic eyes staring back at him, no rotted meat smell, nothing from that surreal moment in time (or in his imagination, he cannot tell which) that can close the distance between himself and her. He sees nothing, but blackness. He hears nothing, but clean ice cubes jingling inside of a cocktail glass. 

         The man splashes 7 Up into a glass of vodka, lime juice, and grenadine. Paul does not need to open his eyes to be sure. ‘Uncle George’ is a consistent man, a living Rock of Gibraltar, where everyone else seems to fly in and then out like leaves gathered up by the wind. He drinks his Candy Apples before dusk, his Cognacs after hours, and one Muscat before bed. He smokes one cigar in his den before supper. Most importantly, he neither drinks, eats, nor smokes anything ‘Greek.’ At most, he comes across as vaguely Mediterranean, a foreigner, yes, but presumably without that trace of Infidel blood in his veins too often associated with people from the isles. If the locals had to venture a guess, then likely they would call him ‘Northern Italian,’ or maybe even ‘Austrian.’ This confusion seems to sit well with good, old, ‘Uncle George;’ for he is cloaked in enough mystery to be interesting, but not so much as to be hated. He will stand apart forever from the rank and file in the Redwood Township, but will never wince in fear when he has to step into a public restroom. This alone is one reason why Paul so loves his ‘uncle.’

         Paul feels his ‘Uncle George’ standing over him. He hears his ‘Uncle George’ sip from his cocktail glass, and then roll the ice cubes. Even without opening his eyes, Paul sees the peculiar mix of empathy and condescension on his face. ‘Uncle George’ loves Paul like a nephew, and yet he cannot help but view Paul through the detached eyes of a learned psychiatrist. He wants to save his patient, as much as he wants to study him.

         Open your eyes, the deep, masculine voice says from beyond his closed eyelids.

         Paul does as he is told. That is always his first inclination. 

         Sure enough, ‘Uncle George’ looks down at Paul, as Paul had expected. ‘Uncle George’ is a much more distant figure, as a result. He is instead ‘Dr. George Spanos,’ a professional in a tan camel hair jacket and trousers, who treats patients out of his home office when he is not teaching psychiatric medicine at a college in Beverly. This doctor is austere, calculating, even mean when it is necessary to break through a logjam in a patient’s story. There is a coldness behind the doctor’s spectacles that penetrates the patient better than any lie detector. Thankfully, the coldness passes, but it is much too discomforting when there. For this reason, as much as Paul so loves his ‘Uncle George,’ he is guarded, if not frightened, when reclined beneath the severe ‘Dr. George Spanos.’

         Do you remember describing to me what happened after you crashed the school bus into that tree? The doctor asks, while still rolling the ice cubes in his cocktail glass.

         Yes, Paul whispers.

         What did you see? The doctor persists.

         The blinding, white light over my hospital bed, Paul answers.

         No, the doctor interrupts. Before that.

         Blood, Paul whispers, while shedding a new tear. Body parts. Her face torn from her skull and dripping down the front bumper. Her cheeks steamy egg yolks on hot steel.

         And what do we say about that? The doctor asks. 

         I could not have seen that, Paul whispers.

         Why not? The doctor asks, after sipping his drink.

         Because I was unconscious, when they removed me from the bus, Paul answers.

         Clinically dead, the doctor reminds him. The paramedics revived you en route.

         Yes, Paul agrees. Dead. Lost. 

         No, the doctor counters. You are never lost, remember? At any moment, you are where you need to be then. You may not be where you think you should be, and so you may manufacture memories to try to convince yourself that you had wandered off the right path. But that is just your moral voice urging you down this or that path, when in fact every path is as good as the others. On any path you choose, you are found, never lost. Now, admittedly, some choices, like commandeering a school bus and crashing it into a tree, may put you on the wrong side of the law. But even then, you are not lost…

         So I never actually saw Beatrice’s remains that morning, Paul whispers in sorrow.

         Imaginary friends do not leave their faces on front bumpers, the doctor remarks.

         The doctor steps back to the wet bar. Paul follows him with his bloodshot eyes. 

         You commandeered a school bus, the doctor explains, while splashing more 7 UP into his Candy Apple. A security guard tried to stop you, but he slipped on the ice, and cracked his head open. The old bastard had been drinking, and so the District Attorney later concluded that you were less liable for his unfortunate demise than Jim Bean. You drove down Dead River, turned onto Keeble, and hydroplaned on black ice. Adolescent ‘shits and giggles’ turned tragic. You are not the first, and will not be the last, to take a sudden turn down that path. But that does not make you a murderer, you understand?

         I hit something, Paul insists. Something happened…

         You hit a deer, the doctor interrupts. A doe crossing the road…

         An innocent, Paul whispers, and then closes his eyes. 

         If you had used a rifle instead of a school bus, you’d have its head mounted over your bed, the doctor reasons, then sips. One weapon is not more tragic than the other.

         How do I know I hit anything at all, if I had been clinically dead, when they pulled me from the wreckage? Paul asks after a moment of silence. 

         Because The Redwood Democrat is no better than a tabloid, the doctor responds. They plastered the blood and guts on the front page for weeks. You must have seen it.

         Paul falls into a deep silence. He wants to accept that Beatrice had been always an ‘imaginary friend,’ a mental construct to help him get through the first two years of high school. He knows that his imagination can be overactive enough to do as such. He recalls how the doctor had proven to him that no student named ‘Beatrice’ had been enrolled in his high school when he went there. He remembers crying when the doctor had shown him all of the obituary notices printed in The Redwood Democrat for a month after the bus accident. None of the notices referenced a high school student, let alone one named ‘Beatrice.’ So far as the official record, ‘Beatrice’ never existed, except as a phantom devised by a troubled adolescent. ‘Beatrice’ lived and died in his sick mind.

         Yes, Paul wants to accept all that; and yet there is something deep in his psyche that will not let go. Perhaps, guilt keeps her ghost alive. Guilt crackling like fire on ice. Guilt reaching up to the heavens, like dark smoke billowing out from a ravine one night. Guilt sweeping through the heavens even now; a bird made of flesh and fire, flapping its wings through the iced cold air, and hissing vitriol out from punctured organs. Guilt transfixed forever in that hideous twilight between life and death, while the dead calm of solitude drapes over everything else as a shroud.

*   *   *

         Paul awakens from a restless dream. He still hears oversized wings flapping inside what he presumes then is his dreamscape. Notwithstanding his overactive imagination, and the number of times he has been lost in there, he is surprised still at the extent to which dreams linger into reality. Perhaps, as with life and death, wakefulness and sleep are not really separable from one another. Perhaps, they are like warring spouses, who will fight unto the end over where that line should be drawn between their territories.

         Paul sits up on his elbows. He looks out his bedroom window as he normally does.

         There is an enormous, old vulture out there. It is flapping its wings in such a way as to remain in place. It turns its ugly face towards his window, and looks into his room.

         Paul opens his mouth, but cannot scream. He wants so much to look away; and yet he cannot even shut his eyes, let along focus them elsewhere. He is under the bird’s spell. There is no doubt about it. He cannot even inhale, until that fucker releases him.

         Feed me, the old vulture seems to say to him in a ghostlike wail.

         Paul cannot tell if the voice originates in his own mind or out there. He senses, and fears, that it does not really matter. Like with life and death, and wakefulness and sleep, there is no fine line between the horrors in his mind and the horrors in the world. Everywhere is madness, confusion, guilt. There is no respite, even in his own fantasies.

         Feed me the pretty boys, the old vulture seems to say to him, before flying away.

         And then Paul is alone in his bedroom. He drops his head back into his pillow and cries. The tears sting his cheeks, like when he first inhaled all that shit and disinfectant.

*   *   *

         Paul pulls the woolen cap over his ears. He stuffs his hands into the windbreaker pockets. He continues down Kellogg with his bones chilled and his eyes cast downward.

         He is startled out of his doldrums by the sudden roar of an engine. He glances up in time to see an old Ford pulling away from the curb. There is a faded bumper sticker on the rear window that reads: Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.

         Paul takes in the robust activity around him. City workers on ladders are hanging red, white, and blue bunting from the tops of the storefronts. Others are affixing a big, white banner across the intersection that reads: Welcome Back Our Heroes. Semper Fi.

         Across the street, a handful of Boy Scouts raise an oversized American Flag on a pole. Their clean chins tilt upwards in sync with the flag, so that they never lose sight of Old Glory. Their salutes are imperfect, but sincere, and Paul imagines the small and clean cut boys returning from Afghanistan, or Iraq, or maybe just ‘Coon Town’ in wood, flag draped caskets. The very same flag flutters over their dead bodies in state. Every one of the little boy corpses clutches a teddy bear, because the cramped space inside of a wood casket can get very dark and scary when the town elders shovel dirt over it.

         And that is what the ‘in crowd’ does. They shovel dirt over the stomach churning stink, or bury ethnic faces in toilet bowls, or imprison niggers at the bottom of ravines; whatever it takes to keep the snow white and the flag snappy. Someone must be lost, eventually forgotten altogether, so that the majority can rest easily in their beds, and can enjoy festive occasions like this one. Someone must be fed to the witch, when she so demands, lest the darker past be given free reign to linger over everyone else’s head.

         Paul spits onto the curb, and looks further down the street. He observes an old timer in a work shirt and faded trousers stepping out from Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner. The old man straightens the John Deere cap on his head. Is that the same geezer, who had called him a faggot the other day? Paul is not sure, and frankly does not care. They are all the same anyway. They pick on the runts in the litter to make up for their own pitiful shortcomings. Viagra only does so much. Apparently, ass-whooping does the rest.

         Someone bumps into Paul, while Paul continues to watch the diner. That fucker, whoever he or she is, never bothers to slow down, let alone to apologize. Paul makes a mental note of his legitimate grievance, and once more spits warm bile onto the curb.

         Beatrice is right, Paul thinks. I am not lost anymore.

         Except that ‘Beatrice’ always has been and shall be a figment of my imagination, Paul thinks. That is what ‘Uncle George’ says. If I can’t believe him, whom can I believe?

         Myself, Paul thinks. I can believe myself for a change. Wanna know why? ‘Cause Wally Weaver’s not the only cool cat that knows things. I too know things, lots of things. Like what a nigger smells like when he’s burning. Like how he flaps his arms like a bird…

         Paul walks slowly down the sidewalk. He blocks out the festive activity all around him. He focuses his eagle eyes on the country bumpkins coming in and out of the diner. The diner is busier than usual this morning. Millie’s hotcakes are good, but Paul senses something else is afoot. Maybe, the folks are coming out of the woodwork, because of whatever the town fathers intend to celebrate later this afternoon. Most everyone loves a good party, especially when there are heroes to be welcomed home and plastic cups of hard cider to be slurped. The Jesus Freaks will be out and about as well, although of course they will substitute grape juice for hard cider. A few ruffians will end up inside the slammer for public intoxication, but most of the criminals and deviants will enjoy the festivities like everyone else. Only two kinds of people will be excluded from all of this fucking hoopla: Paul and the dead. Perhaps, because in the town’s estimation, the two are one and the same. Of that fact Paul is convinced without any doubt; as he walks slowly, methodically, down the sidewalk, and sets aflame a murderous rage in his heart.

         He stops in his tracks the moment he sees the Rickster stumbling into the diner. The perpetual drunk is spacey eyed, unbalanced, no doubt reeking of the moonshine he and his father used to sell at exorbitant prices to the other drunks in town. Even more disturbing, the bully in the ripped T-shirt and the loose jeans continually scratches snow out of his red hair. The snow sprinkles away like spent stardust; and, in a moment that feels like eternity, Paul remembers the starlight emanating out from Beatrice. All that cold, pristine starlight smells like rotted meat. The Rickster’s snow dandruff no doubt smells the same. The Rickster may be a lost, disheveled mess of a man; but he still can stink up what would have remained otherwise a beautifully clean vision of his Beatrice.

         Paul continues to walk down the sidewalk. He stands before the front window of the diner. It is difficult to see inside the warm and cozy restaurant because of the snow snapping against the window. The figures inside look like foggy apparitions, saddling up to the counter for another ‘Cup of Joe,’ or digging into hotcakes at the banquettes. No one in there appears aware of the dark, homicidal flame spreading through Paul’s veins.

         But they will be, Paul whispers. Because I know things.

         Paul presses his face against the window. He wipes some of the snow away from his line of vision. Here, he can view the Rickster, sitting at what has become the ‘Ricky Roberts’ stool at the counter, and dropping his twitchy, pockmarked face into his arms.

         Hotcakes taste a lot better inside, boy, someone says up close to Paul’s left ear.

         Startled, Paul pushes away from the glass, and turns around to face the person who had teased him. Turns out to be another ‘Farmer John’ in a straw hat and overalls.

         Fucking Zorba, the man mutters under his breath, when he observes Paul’s face.

         Paul wants to pummel the old man. He clenches his fists, and almost steps up to the wrinkled face staring contemptuously back at him. The wave of violence dissipates as fast as it had arisen from the depths. Paul feels exhausted by all that internal angst, and so he slinks around the corner, like a man beaten silly and stupid in a street fight.

         The old man watches Paul walk away with his Greek tail between his legs. When Paul is out of sight, the old man nods in contempt as if to state, ‘I’ve got your number.’

         The old man steps into the diner. Paul squats behind the dumpster, and waits in silence for his favorite feral cat to greet him. He manages to calm down just enough to collect his thoughts. He needs to make sense of what is happening and what to do next.

*   *   *

         Shelly leaps off of the dumpster. She lands in the snow beside her favorite man. She looks up at him with her big eyes as if to say, ‘So, big fella, where’s my daily ration?’

         Paul returns her stare. He knows what she wants, and feels guilty for being empty handed this time. The guilt does not last long, though. He has to focus upon that drunk bastard. What is he going to do? Watch him leave the diner? Perhaps, follow him to his tiny cabin way out there by the county dump? Anythingcould happen so far out of town.

         Especially when most folks are here welcoming back all those fucking war heroes.

         There is a roar of laughter on the other side of the dumpster. Paul squats down that much more. He listens for the voices, but cannot identify them. The conversation is inane enough; something about how Obama intends to paint the White House ‘nigger black’ before he leaves office with his ‘monkey wife.’ They share their chuckles, inquire about each other’s wife (‘Maggie just ain’t the same, since she flattened her toe with a bowling ball’), let off steam about the weather (‘cold as an Eskimo’s cunt’) and leave.

         Paul stands upright, so as to stretch his legs. Shelly purrs next to his right ankle.

         Just then, the Rickster staggers out of the diner. He spits phlegm onto the street, while passing by the dumpster. He seems oblivious to everything around him, including the intense coldness. He does not even bother anymore to scratch snow out of his hair.

         Paul is frozen solid. His rational mind tells him to squat down again. The Rickster is much too close for comfort, and what will he do if he observes his former ‘butt boy’ staring back at him? The Rickster seems pretty spacey right now, but that means little. Even a certified ‘zombie’ can turn rabid, when there is enough agitation in the cold air.

         And, no doubt, there is enough agitation in the cold air just then. Paul can feel first his fear, then his anger, pulsing out from his heart like repeated waves rippling out from a radioactive blast. He is immovable in his viciousness, like fire and ice coalesced into a living statue, and so able to withstand his own rational mind urging him to hide. 

This is what it feels like when a man knows things…

         Or so Paul tries to tell himself. The truth of the matter is that Paul really cannot tell if all this agitation means that he is the master of his own universe or yet again the pawn in someone else’s game. Perhaps, like all those other dualities, master and slave are one and the same. If so, then even victory is defeat, when death invariably staggers too close for comfort, and robs a man of the beautiful memory of his one great triumph. 

         Paul tries to silence his thoughts. There is nothing to be gained in standing beside this dumpster and in letting the snowflakes fall harmlessly onto his head and shoulders.

         Though still consumed by his stream of consciousness, Paul steps out from behind his hideout. He follows the Rickster down the sidewalk, and Shelly heels on his left side.

         The Rickster staggers down Main Street. He is heading away from the town square at an uneven pace. Sometimes, Paul has to trot forward upon the slippery snow to keep up with him. Most of the time, though, Paul stays about a half a block behind him, even when Paul walks in the slow and controlled manner of a man unfamiliar with snowfall. Of course, Paul is quite familiar with the harsh winters here; but he is not at all familiar with the passions rippling out from his heart. He had managed until this morning to live a subdued and a quiet life, locking the worst of his emotions into a coffin, and shoveling a mound of dirt into the grave. Now, all of that conscious self-composure seems to have been thrown aside. He is on the move; an exhilarating experience, in a way, but also a detour off of his accustomed path that seems fraught with danger. He is not sure if he is frightened or empowered, foolhardy or steadfast; and the result is an awkward gait that would be noticed but for the fact that everyone else on the street seems focused on the impending festivities. It is like Ricky Roberts and Paul have vanished into a world all their own. The town celebration does not faze them, and they do not faze the town.

         Main Street continues in a straight line for about three miles, before it intersects with the Old Redwood Highway. By then, the small town has been replaced by a great, cold, whispering forest. The Old Redwood Highway meanders through this forest, like a snake cutting through a marsh. It is almost lost in the endless expanse of trees even on the clearest of days. With all this snow blanketing the earth, the highway is impossible to notice, until the occasional motorists or hikers just happen to stumble onto its path.

         The Rickster walks to the center of the highway. He stops and turns around. The startled look on his face suggests that, for the first time since Paul and Shelly began to follow him, he senses that he is not alone out here. He looks down Main Street, while rubbing his hands nervously together in front of his thin chest. He mumbles something or other, spits his phlegm into the snow, and continues down the snow covered highway toward Wild Indian Creek. 

         Paul steps out from behind a fallen tree. That had been a close call.

         Paul once more drags his woolen cap over his ears, and stuffs his iced cold hands into his windbreaker pockets. He hears the ghostly cry of a whippoorwill, followed by a splash of water. The bird must be flapping its wings just above the creek surface, as it moves from one slippery rock to another. Paul cannot see any of this on account of the trees, but he can hear clearly enough what little there is to hear on this quiet afternoon.

         Paul reaches the Old Redwood Highway. He turns to the left. He sees the Rickster staggering down the middle of the highway. His first inclination is to hide again, since it would be easy enough for the Rickster to turn around and to see him. Nevertheless, the Rickster seems too far gone now to take any such precaution. Whatever had startled him before seems as far removed from his restless mind as the big celebration in town.

         Paul notes how the Rickster’s jeans hang so low he seems already to have taken a shit in them. Moreover, his tattered T-shirt flaps up and down in the wind like a loose sail. No doubt, whatever mental focus the Rickster had had before is gone. Instead, he is a small boat that has lost its bearings. The small boat is taking on a lot of seawater. Soon, it will disintegrate altogether; and the remnants will be scattered into the wind.

         Not unless I get to you first, Paul mutters, before he picks up his pace. 

         What am I talking about? Paul thinks. 

         He almost turns back at that moment. Reason has reared her pretty face; and as a result, he nearly gives up the hunt. 

Then, he sees Shelly passing him. The black cat is fearless; especially given how she stands out against the pristine snow. In case her courage is not persuasive enough, she looks back once, and eyes her favorite human, as if to remark, ‘Follow me, big guy.’

Paul picks up his pace. He looks ahead in time to see the Rickster sliding down a snowbank off the right side of the highway.

The Rickster has enough sense to extend his arms for balance. He flaps both his arms erratically; and as a result, Paul recalls in vivid detail Old Lester’s final moment. Is Paul following yet another condemned man into a ravine? That seems to be the case. Paul is not sure if he should be frightened or exhilarated at the prospect of joining him down there. Still, for all that, Paul presses forward, until he stands atop the snowbank.

*   *   *

         There is an old jalopy parked along the banks of the creek. Much of the charcoal black paint is gone due to years of adverse weather exposure. The burgundy red rust is spreading across the truck like scars from chicken pox. Even the tarp covering the bed is so wet and muddy as to resemble a thin sheet of dirt over the top of a grave. Indeed, Paul’s first impression is that the Rickster removed an entire gravesite, dirt and coffin, and dumped it into the back of his old man’s truck. There is no logical reason to do as such, and yet it seems apropos that the Rickster would engage in vandalism of that sort.

         Then, the Rickster pulls back part of the tarp; and Paul observes what is actually hidden there. Paul is no expert in the matter, but the makeshift chemistry set suggests a poor man’s methamphetamine lab. There is also a cashbox. The lock on the cashbox is loose; and as a result, the top of the cashbox lifts and falls repeatedly in the breeze.

         Paul and Shelly lock eyes with one another. This time, Paul cannot decipher the message in those feral eyes. He is on his own. He recalls that Shelly had disappeared, when he approached the snow covered bed in the ravine. Moreover, Wally Weaver had receded into the shadows, when he burned a black man alive, and drove a yellow school bus into a tree. Must he be alone when compelled by fate or circumstance to feed the witch? God had given Moses Aaron, and yet he has no one by his side. No one with whom to share his guilt; no one to hold him, when the wind chills the life out from his bones…

         Nothing to say, Paul mutters. 

         He is not sure if he is speaking about himself or his feline friend. Regardless, he is alone. The wind snapping against the back of his neck reminds him that he is totally vulnerable as well. If he is the master of his own universe, then he is also a weak, sick man susceptible to the bitter chill; a beaten man prone to the passions of the moment.

         Paul slides down the snowbank. Shelly remains at the top, but she observes him with knowing eyes. The feral cat knows things, and so she remains back in the shadows.

         Paul reaches the bottom of the snowbank. He crouches down. 

         The Rickster does not seem to have heard anything. He lowers the tailgate, and jiggles the cashbox. He seems to like what he hears in there, for a slight grin forms on his pockmarked face. He scratches snow out of his red hair. No doubt, he is becoming more aware of his surroundings, like a sleepwalker awakening in spurts into the world.

         There is work to be done, before the day’s customers stagger out from the woods as emaciated scarecrows. These customers do not have as much life in their bloodshot eyes as those drunks who used to buy his father’s moonshine. Nonetheless, these folks are much more addicted and will pay top dollar for the poison he spoon-feeds to them.

         So far as the Rickster is concerned, the only bad part of the job is how their gums bleed profusely, when they are nearing the end of their love affair with meth. The thick blood splatters all over his tailgate, when they bend forward to grovel for one last high.

         Paul stands up, and walks forward. He fastens his eyes on the back of his former bully. This close, he can see what is on the Rickster’s tattered T-shirt: Old Glory, dirty and faded, flying high even now. Beneath that American Flag: These colors don’t run!

         Paul is only a few feet away from his target, when he recognizes that he has not formulated a plan of attack. He does not have a weapon in hand. He has no experience in street fighting. Worst of all, as he gets close enough to see the Rickster’s butt crack, his fear surpasses his anger. He is debilitated by cold fright, like a handicapped person unsure how to walk upright. His fingers are so cold he cannot curl them into fists without excruciating pain. He wipes his hands on his snow covered windbreaker, but that does not seem to accomplish much of anything just then.

Paul stops dead in his tracks. He looks at his bluish hands. He looks up and around anxiously, like he has forgotten where he is and why he is there. He tries to muffle his cough, but in his mind anyway it sounds like a firecracker exploding in close proximity.

The Rickster staggers away from the tailgate, turns around, and faces Paul. The confused look on his face suggests that he is not nearly as awakened as Paul had thought a moment ago. Either that, or the Rickster really has no memory of his former butt boy.

Or, perhaps, the Rickster and Paul never ‘dated’ one another, except somewhere deep in Paul’s imagination. Paul considers that possibility briefly, and then shuts it out.

Not open for business, asshole, the Rickster mutters, while scratching more snow out of his red hair.

Paul does not know what to say. He falls back into that silence with which he is more accustomed. His big eyes make it clear, though, that he is peeing in his trousers.

Get lost, the Rickster orders. Or I’ll rip you a new asshole.        

Something happens, and Paul feels unleashed from any moral restraint. It is like a rope is cut inside his moral consciousness. He is now floating free from anything that might grab a hold of his passions and bring him down to earth. He feels simultaneously weightless and bogged down; freed from restraint and pressed down by so much fright.

Paul pushes the Rickster onto the tailgate. He pummels the confused meth fiend with repeated, open-handed blows. The Rickster tries to hold up his hands in a posture of self-defense, but he is much too uncoordinated to do so for long. Instead, he scoots onto the bed of the truck to try to get away; and in so doing, he knocks aside much of his illicit chemistry set and pulls his jeans down to his ankles.

Paul climbs onto the bed of the truck. He compresses the Rickster’s naked thighs in between his legs. He bends forward, and again pummels the Rickster’s face. He does not let up, until the Rickster’s face has been veiled by a sheet of snow speckled blood.

Paul stands up. He grabs his sides, until he manages in time to catch his breath.

The Rickster uses this break in the ass-whooping to roll onto his stomach. He has a hard time breathing. Putting so much weight on his stomach only makes it that much more difficult, and yet the Rickster is too weak at that point to return to his backside.

Paul eyes what looks like a flare gun. He kicks aside the broken glass from what used to be a makeshift meth lab, picks up the flare gun, and handles it like the valuable treasure that it is. The sick grin on his face suggests that he is too far gone to turn back.

You’re the butt boy now, you sick fuck, Paul snarls. 

Paul squats over the exposed, pockmarked butt. He smells shit and disinfectant.

Paul stuffs the muzzle of the flare gun into the Rickster’s asshole. He pulls hard on the trigger, and falls back on his own heels in anticipation of the explosion to come.

For a second that seems to stretch into eternity, nothing happens. Paul wonders if the damned thing had malfunctioned. Then, before he can answer his own question, the Rickster’s sides and buttocks seem to expand to twice their size. The Rickster down there is a flesh and blood balloon expanded to the breaking point with gurgling helium.

Paul jumps off the bed of the truck. He turns back in time to observe the Rickster twisting and rolling in a fit of agony. He cannot turn his eyes away, even though at this point the spectacle sickens Paul to the point that he wants to vomit out his own bowels.

The Rickster’s sides and buttocks explode outward. Flesh and blood splatter out in all directions. Fire geysers upward from what little remains of his midsection. It is a reddish brown fire on account of the burning flesh and blood carried up by that geyser.

The Rickster continues to scream. In Paul’s imagination, he sounds like a pitiful, little boy whose penis has been caught inside of a mouse trap. Mercifully, the screaming does not last very long. The geyser falls back down to his flesh, and ignites the rest of his body. The Rickster twists and turns spastically a moment, and then finally succumbs.

Paul staggers away from the truck, for the fire continues even after the Rickster has given up his ghost. The remainder of the meth lab goes up in flames. Burning glass shards leap outward in every direction. The inferno is a brief, but visually spectacular, fireworks display, which ends in a plume of hissing, noxious gas reaching up to the trees.

It is a wonder that the jalopy does not explode. There is a flurry of snowfall that suppresses the fire, before it can spread to the gas tank. Moreover, a sudden gust kicks the burning tarp off of the bed and into the nearby creek. The steam gurgling up from the creek would have been seen for miles, except that it is swallowed up by the huge trees along the banks. Only the whippoorwill reacts to the sudden onslaught of noxious steam. It breaks into flight. Its ghostly cry ripples outward several miles, and then stops.

The fiery cauldron stops as suddenly as the cry of the whippoorwill. Hissing smoke ascends for a while, but the inferno is no more. The jalopy is even more rickety than it had been before, and yet from the outside anyway it looks like something that can be driven. The Rickster’s charcoaled human remains are spread about the bed of the truck.

*   *   *

         Paul drives the jalopy passed the dilapidated shack. The ‘Coon Town’ sign stands defiant against an overcast sky above and a snow white earth below. The scrawl on the wooden surface is unreadable, and yet the sign continues to scream vitriol at any man who happens to pass through this desolate no-man’s land. Way out here, the past lingers as an ugly sign by a broken down structure; a scar on an otherwise nondescript surface.

         Like an ethnic face that stands out from the crowd…

         Paul wonders if Shelly made it back into town. He looked for her before starting up the jalopy; but like before, she had vanished into the shadows. He decides that she will return to his left side, when the witch desires to be fed; and she will lead the way.

         Paul awakens from his thoughts in time to slam on the brakes. The jalopy coughs forward a few more yards, and then dies. He is not sure he will get it started again; but for now, he is happy not to have fallen over the edge of the ravine. 

         He steps out of the truck, and searches the sky. As expected, he hears the slow, heavy wings of the oversized vulture, before he observes the beast sifting in and out of the low hanging clouds. The vulture circles over the bed. 

         Paul walks to the back of the truck, and opens the tailgate. He had rescued part of the tarp from the creek before starting up the engine. He spreads open the tarp and steps onto the old truck bed. Most of the charcoaled body parts had been burnt beyond recognition. He cannot tell an arm from a leg, or an organ from a hand. Only the burnt, decapitated head can be identified readily as what it is. Still, he is confident that every last piece is here; and so he sets out to place the Rickster’s remains on the wet plastic.

         Several of the body parts break into formless ashes, when he picks them up from the bed. He is careful to sweep those ashes onto the plastic as well. Like any sacrificial offering meant for a god, or in this case a beautiful witch, nothing may be left behind.

         Paul closes the tarp over the burnt body parts and the formless ashes. He ties it all together with string. He holds it in front of him, like a little, old lady will clutch her purse in front of her flat chest. He breathes heavily, as he staggers away from the truck.

*   *   *

         Feed me, the wind howls. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Paul places the tarp on the snow covered mattress. He looks up from the foot of the bed, and observes the vulture circling overhead. As the beast sifts in and out of the twirling snow above him, so does the continually repeated refrain shift back and forth from a ghostly scream to a menacing whisper. He cannot tell if he hears the refrain out there somewhere or in his head. He senses that it does not really matter either way. In this dead ravine, the horrors out there amplify the horrors in his head, and vice versa.

         Feed me, the wind howls. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the jug beside the bed whistles. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the radio beside the bed broadcasts. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the handcuffs on the bedpost rattle. Feed me the pretty boys…

         The vulture shrieks, and swoops down. Paul follows its dive. The vulture vanishes somewhere along the way; but his eyes continue to fall, until they settle upon the image of the beautiful girl bathed in starlight about fifty yards beyond the snow covered bed.

         The beautiful girl is sitting naked on the snow; and yet, strangely, she seems also to float above it. She has her arms wrapped about her knees. She rests her chin on her knees. She is staring into eternity. The contented look on her brilliant face slowly fades to confusion, and then to concern. The wind settles down. Everything is still and silent. 

Something happened, and so she turns her head ever so gracefully to face Paul.

Your doctor denies me; the beautiful girl says without moving her lips. He calls me an ‘imaginary friend.’ Do you also deny me, little boy?

No, of course not, Paul responds. 

Except that he is not so sure he believes what he just said. He wants to believe, but is that the same as actually believing? Can we know God is there, because we insist?

Prove it to me, the beautiful girl insists with just a hint of adolescent poutiness.

Paul smells the girly girl perfume. It underlies the much more pungent smell of rotted meat. He licks his lips rapaciously. He cannot tell now if he feels sick or sexual.

Feed me, the beautiful girl teases. For surely you do not feed ‘imaginary friends.’

Yes, Paul mutters, as the sick or sexual feeling dissipates. 

Feed me, the wind howls. Feed me the pretty boys…

Paul looks where the beautiful girl used to be. Instead of the beautiful girl bathed in starlight, there is a witch’s pot above a small fire. Yellowish green steam billows out from inside the pot. It smells like shit and disinfectant in the otherwise crisp, clean air.

Paul carries the tarp over to the cauldron. Although the steam obscures much of his vision, he thinks he sees disinfected toilet water inside the pot. The shit had been burned away long before, and yet its horrid odor lingers. Like a scar left over from the past it discolors what is meant to be pure. He wants to vomit his soul out from his flesh.

And almost does so.

Before that happens, though, he manages to untie the tarp. He tosses the burnt body parts and the formless ashes into the cauldron. The pot responds with what sounds like a satisfied burp. The small fire beneath the pot flares, and Paul stumbles backward.

Paul grabs the tarp, and hurries back to the bed. 

He turns back to face the cauldron, but it is gone. Snow falls to the ground where it had been a moment before. The spot is so serene he briefly doubts that anything had been ever there. After all, he has not forgotten how overactive his imagination can be.

But his guilt is real. 

And because he is guilty, he knows that he must feed the witch…

The real question is: To what lengths and depths will a man go to feed the witch?

The real question repeats itself ad infinitum, as Paul staggers out of the ravine. 

Paul tries not to answer his own question, as he puts the jalopy into neutral, and pushes the claptrap over the edge. He fears the honest answer more than anything else.

*   *   *

         Paul listens to the John Philip Sousa march echoing through the forest. There are sporadic cheers up ahead as well. This far out from the center of town the celebration sounds like a strange warble in the wind; something that reverberates out from the tall trees and then is lost in the distance. Is patriotism so ingrained into the land here that nature herself sings in praise of Old Glory? Or is something more insidious going on here? Does nature herself want to remind Paul that he is an outsider? Do the ancient redwoods on both sides of the logger’s trail reject him? Is the whippoorwill cry his warning to get the heck out of Dodge? Do the snow flurries beating down on his shoulders and his back intend to bury him beneath the late afternoon slush? 

         Paul shivers more from the answers to these questions than from the bitter cold. He buries his tingling hands into his windbreaker pockets. The windbreaker provides too little protection from the snow snapping against his flesh. Even the woolen cap pulled low over his ears accomplishes little. He feels naked, alone, scorned by the grey world.

         He looks up from his doldrums a moment. He sees his high school way off in the distance. The wind rattles the old fence that separates the logger’s trail from the yard. Like the shack further back, this old fence will fall back into the earth someday. Even the school, the basketball court, the disinfected restroom, everything will be reclaimed by nature. Civilization falls away, but the past lingers in the cold winds sweeping over a dead earth. He sees that dead earth stretching out from his heart in every direction further than his mind imagines. Even the universe cannot contain so much dead earth.

         Is this where he first stepped into the black Camaro? And is that spot over there where the Rickster had been lying in the snow, while Paul waited for the man with the Marlboros to approach from the distance? Paul would not say under oath that this is the spot on the map, but it feels right to him. Perhaps, what feels right is all that matters.

         Paul continues down the logger’s trail, until it slopes into Main Street. He looks every which way before stepping onto the sidewalk that will lead to the town square. Already, he feels like a fugitive, even though it may take a while before anyone notices or cares that Dirk Roberts’ boy is missing. Sure, the meth addicts in town will note the chink in the supply chain; but will any one of them stagger up to the police department to file a missing person’s report? As for Dirk Roberts himself, well, some think the old moonshiner is dead. Others just hope so. Regardless, even if alive, he is less likely than the emaciated scarecrows to notify the cops that the ‘Ricky Roberts’ stool at Millie’s is vacant. For all these reasons, Paul’s rational mind (no more than a weak whisper at this point) tells him that he has no reason to duck if and when someone may glance his way.

         No one does, so far as Paul can tell. The Sousa marches are in full swing just two blocks away. Intermittent cheers signify that Redwood’s veterans are taking turns going up to the outdoor stage and waving to their neighbors. If indeed someone is calling out their names one by one, that announcer cannot be heard over the high school band. In a bigger city, that would be a cause for concern and embarrassment; but everyone here knows everyone. The veterans need no introduction, as they skip or hobble up the three steps to the stage (skipping or hobbling depending upon the war in which they served), smile sheepishly at the confetti throwers, and take their assigned places behind the old podium. The winds swirl the confetti into the snow flurries, so that even nature praises the fine men who had taken a bullet at Iwo Jima or lost a leg to an IED outside of Mosul.

         Paul stops at the corner of Kellogg and Main. He can see the stage from here. His eyes focus in on individual pieces of confetti sifting in and out of the grey weather. The confetti alternates from brilliant, little stars to dead, wet paper depending upon where they are relative the sun and the clouds. They are alive, then dead, then alive again by the chance movement of the winds below and the clouds above.

         Paul crosses the street, and enters the town square. Even though he keeps both his eyes fixed on the confetti, he is careful not to bump into anyone. His instincts clear a path through the crowd. For their part, the confetti throwers instinctively step away from the ‘foreigner’ in their midst. There is no confrontation, likely because the party is young and the hard cider has yet to be served. Just toss a few drunk assholes into the mix, and the ‘Zorba’ in the windbreaker would not have made it this far into the park.

         At some point, Paul stops in his tracks, and looks straight up. He sees the confetti swirling in the snow flurries above him. He sees the grey clouds above that. He catches a single streak of sunlight breaking through the cloud cover. It dies before it can reach the earth. The result is a muted grey earth that swallows the color out from the party.

         Something happens, and Paul no longer hears the Sousa march. The intermittent cheers fade into the distance, and then fall silent. The winds settle back into the earth. The confetti and the snowflakes start to fall toward his open eyes. He realizes that he will need to turn his face away soon. He has only a moment to observe what is up there.

         All at once the confetti and the snowflakes appear as if smoldering ashes. There is a burnt index finger here, what looks like a burnt nose over there, but for the most part the confetti and the snowflakes falling towards his eyes are formless ashes. Though there is virtually no flesh remaining, the rotted meat smell remains much too pungent. 

Paul feels a tear sliding down his face. He cannot tell if he is sad or sick. Either way, he is guilty. If he remains there much longer, then he will be burnt by the red hot ashes into the very image of a guilty man. He will not be able to hide even from himself.

Paul lowers his face, and moves away from that spot. The Sousa march, the big hurrahs, everything that had fallen silent a moment ago returns with such ferocity that he nearly falls to the ground. This time, overwhelmed by the deafening sounds in every direction, Paul bumps into several confetti throwers. They shove him off with their slurs as much as their hands. Paul barely makes it off the crowded town square in one piece.

Crossing the street, and catching his breath, he observes a payphone about half a block away. Because of cellular phones, most payphones have been removed; but the few relics remaining still can place a call. Thank God for that, for never before has Paul felt such an urgent need to dig a few quarters out of his trousers and to phone someone.

Paul has a hard time retrieving his quarters, because his hands are so shaky. He senses millions of eyes upon him. Even worse, he can feel red hot ashes singing his soul.

He dials his ‘Uncle George,’ as he looks around to see who may be watching him. He does not see anyone, and yet that does not stifle the awful feeling of being watched.

The call goes to the answering machine. Paul waits an eternity for that damned beep. What he says next feels to him like a geyser unleashed from inside his black heart.

I killed Old Lester, Paul confesses. An old drunk living in Coon Town. I killed him. 

Paul pauses a moment. He tries to collect his thoughts, but when he speaks again he remains just as anxious as before. He cannot tell if he is saying anything intelligible.

Sprayed gas into the barracks, Paul continues. Threw a match. Old coon flapped his arms like a bird. Oh God, like an old vulture. Got to feed the witch. Feed the witch…

Paul glances down at his feet. He sees Shelly looking back up at him. Her hungry eyes are no longer inscrutable. Her message is obvious enough: ‘Time to hunt, big fella.’

Paul hangs up the phone. He watches Shelly sprint across Kellogg, stop upon the sidewalk, and face him. She is impatient. The hour is late, indeed, and it is time to go.

Paul hesitates, and then crosses the street. He starts to walk up Kellogg towards the town square. Shelly stays dutifully by his left side, for the hunt finally has resumed.

*   *   *

         Though anxious to go forward with the hunt, Paul is careful to stay near the back when he returns to the park this time. He does not need to call attention to himself. If there is another altercation, then he knows all too well that he will be the man hauled off to the slammer. Indeed, he sees how one of the cops eyes him, when he approaches.

         The band is playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ The Boy Scout Honor Guard does its duty in front of the stage. Everyone watches the Honor Guard in respectful silence.

         Mayor Douglas Kirk stands behind the podium. Redwood’s First Citizen is a sweat hog with a pudgy pig face. He barely stands five feet tall in a dapper, white suit, white gloves, and straw hat. The handkerchief in his shirt pocket is soiled from perspiration; and though unseen, thankfully, the smell from up there suggests soiled underwear also.

         Standing to the right of the mayor is his personal secretary, Mrs. Gurley, a thin, stooped, old woman with her hair in a bun and pince-nez on her nose. She glares back at the audience, while holding up a framed portrait of a young Marine in formal attire.

         Paul stares at the official portrait. It is one of the twins who had hung out with the Rickster back in high school. Paul thinks this one may be Rex, the look out when he and the Rickster had their ‘dates’ with one another. He stares into Rex’s eyes. The fine, upstanding Marine does not chuckle anymore; but is there not something queer about those eyes? Are those not the eyes that will undress you? Maybe, check out your crotch?

         Standing to the left of the mayor is his son, Deputy Rickard, a handsome police officer sporting a Howard Hughes mustache. The facial hair is Deputy Rickard’s attempt to be considered a ‘real man,’ rather than just the mayor’s spoiled son. Regardless, he stares back at the audience like he wants to squash them. He holds up a framed portrait of another young Marine in formal attire. 

         Paul recognizes the other twin who had hung out with the Rickster. Paul recalls that his name had been Toby, the fucker who pushed his face into the toilet bowl more often than he cares to recall. Toby the Decorated Marine does not look so much queer as cruel. Maybe, the difference is immaterial at this point; but Paul makes the mental note anyway. In a way, separating the twins makes them seem that much more real in Paul’s mind. Like the ‘dates’ in the restroom really happened. Like the sexual abuse is not just something he conjured up in his own warped head to make himself the victim.

         Does Paul really believe that the ‘dates’ in the restroom had been imagined? His ‘Uncle George’ surely thinks so. ‘Uncle George’ lumps the ‘dates’ in the restroom into the same cubbyhole as he does ‘Beatrice.’ But what does Paul think? This very moment, as the band plays the national anthem, what does he think happened to him back then?

         He cannot say. Perhaps, those twins are heroes, who gave up their lives recently in the service of their country. Perhaps, they are a couple of queers, who bullied a kid in high school. Perhaps, they are both. Paul wonders if he can say anything definite in this lifetime about anyone, or if he has to see moral ambiguity in every damned person?

         The band stops playing. There is a moment of silence. The only sound to be heard is the wind twirling confetti and snow above the stage. The confetti rustle so softly as to sound like bed sheets moving after sex. For Paul, this is not an alluring image at all. Rather, in response, he asks himself: Are we all being fucked here? Do we all bend over?

         Not me, Paul answers his own question. Not anymore.

         Paul glares at the police officer standing apart from the other veterans. He is a cocksure son of a bitch. Most people in town know him either as ‘Officer Weaver’ or as ‘Mister Touchdown,’ depending upon how much they salivate over high school juniors and seniors in padded football uniforms. ‘Mister Touchdown’ scored four times within a single game. Many folks double that number in their minds, and ‘Officer Weaver’ has never felt any reason whatsoever to correct any one of them. 

         Mayor Douglas Kirk strings a series of clichés together. The overall point appears to be that ‘some gave all.’ Paul thinks there is a sappy country music song out there in ‘fly over country’ that includes the same refrain. Regardless, he senses his IQ drop one point for every minute he hears this drivel. He shifts his weight from one foot to another while staring down the cocksure son of a bitch on the stage.

         The mayor finishes, thankfully, and Officer Weaver stands up. The war hero with the insipid grin receives his rapturous applause. He holds out his hands like he is blessing the faithful, while he slowly makes his way to the podium to deliver prepared remarks.

         Paul replies with a pair of middle fingers, even as he is careful to keep them in his windbreaker pockets the whole time. The look in Paul’s eyes, though, says all that needs to be said. He is a man on the hunt, and he intends to snatch his prey very soon.

         Paul walks away from the town square, before Officer Weaver begins his speech.

         Shelly stays loyally by Paul’s side. The two friends head out toward the parking lot. No one notices them. They may as well be ghosts sifting in and out of the snowfall.

*   *   *

         The parking lot is an abandoned field several blocks away. En route, Paul passes a hardware store. He sees that the storefront is open (most of the others along his path are temporarily closed, so that the owners and the salespeople can cheer their favorite hometown heroes), and decides immediately what he is going to do. He steps into the hardware store without any hesitation whatsoever. Shelly waits for him on the sidewalk.

         Paul opens the door. The little bell tinkles above him. The store is no more than two aisles of assorted tools, an old fashioned cash register to his immediate right, and an oversized American Flag on the opposite wall. A banner hanging from the rafter says: America Made. America Strong. An Old Glory poster behind the cash register screams: Burn her. Burn in Hell. Got it? Another poster features John Lennon in rifle cross hairs: Imagine there’s no John Lennon. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

         It turns out the owner is not manning his store. He is out there cheering on ‘Mister Touchdown.’ Instead, his mentally slow grandson has been left at the cash register. The pockmarked teenager goes by the name of Bippy, or Bipple, or something anyway that makes it abundantly clear that he is not running on all cylinders. Grandpa handcuffed him to the cash register before putting on his coat and heading out to the town square. In this way, Bippy or Bipple can operate the cash register, but cannot get close enough to the aisles to chew on nails or bolts.

         Paul goes to the back of the store. He finds a miscellaneous box full of broken, rusted gadgets. Near the bottom is a hook. It looks like what Captain Hook used instead of a hand. It is heavy and hard to handle, but very sharp, and so Paul decides to buy it.

         Goin’ fishing? Bippy or Bipple asks good-naturedly, while he is ringing up the sale.

         Paul senses that the clerk asks the same question of everyone, regardless of what they may be purchasing. It is such a simple question; and yet, in its own way, it is very profound. We either are casting the bait, or we are being baited. We pitch, or we catch.

         Yes, Paul says. Goin’ fishing. 

         Paul refuses the bag. He can hide the hook inside his windbreaker. He drops the woolen cap over his ears, opens the door, and steps at once into a howling snow flurry.

*   *   *

         Paul steps out of the snow flurry. He finds himself on the abandoned field that serves as a makeshift parking lot whenever the town fathers put on a celebration. There are hundreds of vehicles parked every which way on the snow covered earth, but Paul intuits where he will find the black Camaro. After all, ‘Mister Touchdown’ stands apart from the riffraff, even when he basks in their adulation. Surely, he will make sure that his iconic speedster remains unsullied by the Ford and the Oldsmobile trucks on the lot.

         Iced cold wind whistles in between the parked vehicles. The result is a cacophony of screams that sounds like the inside of an insane asylum. The snow swirling up from the earth pounds against the windshields and the hoods, so that the lot feels more like a battlefield featuring nature on one side and mechanized beasts on the other. The old man charged with securing the lot snores noisily at his post. His haggard breathing joins with the furious ensemble of sounds and images to create the illusion (or, maybe, it is the reality) of a living, thinking parking lot. Paul senses that he is walking into a living soul, more so than walking on a snow covered field. This living soul intends to swallow him whole, unless he does what he is setting out to do. That is the rub of it. There can be no turning back, no retreating into silence. Either he feeds the witch, or he is eaten.

         Paul finds the black Camaro parked beneath a giant redwood tree. It is partially shielded by several low hanging branches. The nearest vehicle is about fifty yards away.

         He stands in front of the hood. Even though there is a blanket of snow covering the windshield, he can see the passenger seat. He remembers sitting on that very same seat, while ‘the man’ taught him the ways of the world. He feels the same way that he would feel if he happened to stand before the desk he had used back in the first grade.

         He looks down. Shelly is gone, as he had anticipated. Once more, he must feed the witch alone, and so stand guilty for all that he must do today to satisfy her hunger.

*   *   *

         Paul trembles in the dark. He is terribly cold; but, even more so, he is frightened. Does it really make sense to wait for Officer Weaver inside the black Camaro? For that matter, does he really need to kill him? When he left that message for ‘Uncle George,’ had that been a cry for help before descending further into madness, or had that been a misstep on his part, a moment of moral and intellectual weakness, that may allow for the authorities to catch him before he can feed the witch? Is he out of his fucking mind?

         No, Paul mutters. I am not crazy. I know things…

         The problem is that he does not totally believe what he says to himself. He knows that he has a great capacity for self-deception. That is just part and parcel of a creative imagination. He also knows that he has been lost before. Perhaps, he is lost again now…

         There is the distinct sound of footsteps crunching through the snow. Most of the vehicles that had been parked on the abandoned field left over an hour ago. There are a few vehicles still parked in the distance, so perhaps the footsteps belong to someone else who had used the lot. Or perhaps the security guard finally awakened from his long snooze. Without further evidence, he should not conclude that he hears Officer Weaver.

         Then again, maybe he should. The footsteps seem to be getting louder. The other vehicles are parked far from here, so if the footsteps belong to someone else then they should be getting softer over time. Does that not make sense? 

Paul leans into the passenger side door. He lifts his knees to his chin, so that he looks like a Greek doll on a spring stuffed back into its box. He grips the hook hard with his right hand. In his mind, he repeatedly replays springing forward the moment Officer Weaver opens his door, swinging the hook, and inserting the sharp end of the hook into his throat. He even imagines the smell and the taste of blood squirting from the wound.

He turns his face toward the driver side window. There is too much snow to see anything. Still, he stares manically in that direction, like somehow his mental will alone can break through the blanket of snow. He hears his heartbeat booming inside his ears…

And he hears the footsteps getting closer…

Oh God, Paul whispers in despair. What am I doing? 

He drops the hook onto his lap. He looks around the inside of the black Camaro, as if he is awakening from a deep coma. Does he know where he is? Is he mad or sane?

Feed me, the wind howls outside. Feed me the pretty boys…

Paul grabs the hook, as the driver side door opens. He is disoriented a moment by the light switching on inside the automobile and by the open car door beeping sound.

Paul hesitates. Fortunately for him, though, the police officer who slumps onto the driver’s seat is too wasted on whiskey to notice that there is an intruder in his car.

Fucking keys, Officer Weaver slurs, while digging through his blue pants pockets.

Something happens, and the wind outside falls silent. Everything is still, pristine; the dark and frozen world waiting with bated breath for Paul to do what he must. Paul feels a toxic blend of fear and anger shooting out from his heart. He grins in the insidious manner of a madman, or a beast, while seconds tick slowly into a dark, unholy eternity.

I have a cookie for you, Paul remarks.

Officer Weaver slowly turns toward the voice. He sees that someone is sitting by him, but then the open car door light switches off. Perhaps, he is so fucking drunk that he imagines a weirdo with a hook on his passenger seat. He is getting too old for booze, it seems. Too old for cigarettes. Too old for whores. But what if he is not hallucinating?

The thought springs into his head, like a doll on a spring released from inside its box: What the fuck? There is someone beside me! Holy Shit! There is someone beside…

Before Officer Weaver can finish his thought, the sharp end of a hook penetrates his larynx. Blood geysers out from his wound. He instinctively grabs his throat. As such, blood gurgles down his hands and his arms as well. He tries to breathe, but generates nothing more than an eerie whistle sound through his bleeding wound. He feels his eyes bulging out from their sockets, though he cannot see anything inside his black Camaro.

Losing consciousness, he slumps onto the steering wheel. The wheel presses upon the hook. The hook digs deeper inside his throat, and the sharp end pops out the back.

Officer Weaver sets off the horn, as his dead weight presses against the steering wheel. Paul reaches forward at once and pulls the corpse back. The corpse settles into the leather seat, like it is a man with a hook in his throat getting ready for a long drive.

The wind picks up outside. Paul listens to the sound of snow hitting the windows.

*   *   *

         It is well passed midnight by the time Paul drags the corpse to the snow covered bed. He sits on the foot of the bed a moment to collect his breath. It is so desperately cold down here in the ravine, and yet Paul is more relaxed now than he can remember.

         Paul looks up. He observes the headlights from the black Camaro illuminating all those snow flurries that fall within their reach. He hears the hum from the idling engine sifting in and out of the loud snowstorm. He smells girly girl perfume and rotted meat.

         Feed me, the wind howls. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the jug beside the bed whistles. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the radio beside the bed broadcasts. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the handcuffs on the bedpost rattle. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Paul hears the old vulture circling over the bed. It swooshes down; and although he cannot see the beast, he follows the sound as best as he can. His eyes settle upon a beautiful girl bathed in starlight. This time, she stands on the snow, though her naked feet also seem to float over the spot. Everything about her is so still, serene, effortless; and yet the impatient look in her eyes makes it all too clear she remains a petulant girl.

         Are you not going to cut my food for me? The beautiful girl asks without moving her lips. After all, I am just an innocent, little, girly girl. I cannot bite anything so big.

         Her starlight illuminates an axe on the ground. It is partially covered up by snow.

         Paul drops to his knees, retrieves the axe, and chops the corpse into little pieces.

         Paul drops the last piece into the cauldron just before the break of dawn. He is delirious with exhaustion, muttering inane comments under his breath, and yet he has the wherewithal even then to return to the top of the ravine. He is not surprised to find that the car battery died a long time ago. No matter as he has no plans to leave anyway.

         Paul puts the black Camaro into neutral. He shoves the speedster over the edge. 

         He feels the first hint of sunrise beating against his cold face. He cannot see any light in the sky, but presumes that that will change within a few minutes. Much of the storm has died, and so he anticipates a still and silent day to come down in the ravine.

*   *   *

         Although by age considered one of the ‘old timers,’ Miss Peggy Compton remains a beautiful woman inside and out. She is radiant, even when she folds her long, white hair into a bun and dons an old lady’s floral dress. There is just something lively about her, so that even the most casual of acquaintances senses that she will outlive every one of the officers still strutting around the police station in their crisp, blue uniforms.

         Peggy is the personal secretary for the Redwood Chief of Police. She worked for the current chief’s predecessor for more years than anyone remembers, and likely she will work for the current chief’s successor. She minds the store, so to speak, and warns her boss of whatever conspiracies may be brewing among the rank and file. That alone makes her indispensable. The fact that she keeps the coffee warm is icing on the cake.

         Doctor George Spanos has been privately smitten with Peggy for years. He would love to ask her out on a date someday. For all his learned pomposity and worldly flair, which has earned him around town the reputation of a ladies’ man, he lacks the same confidence he urges in his patients. Deep down, he knows that his public persona is an act and that the real George Spanos hides behind that act more than anything else. This is not the case with Peggy. She is quintessentially herself, natural, comfortable in her own white hair and grandma dresses. Sometimes, the good doctor wonders if the polite and charming personal secretary here should not replace him as the small town shrink.

         I didn’t see you at the party last night, Peggy says, after filing something away.

         Peggy looks straight in the good doctor’s eyes. For all her pleasantness, her eyes are remarkable lie detectors. She would have made a great cop herself, if she had been a young woman in a different era. George does not even try to dissimulate before those beautiful, but strong, eyes. He fidgets with the hat on his lap and then responds to her.

         Well, a little too much red, white, and blue, I guess, George remarks sheepishly.

         Oh, that! Peggy says with a hearty laugh. I can assure you we didn’t toss any tea into the creek. Even if we did, I think you would’ve made a fine Indian, don’t you agree?

         George imagines himself in Indian garb, and smiles. He imagines Peggy as his own squaw, and decides that he had better let that little fantasy end right there. She really would be something with a feather in her hair. 

         George touches the answering machine by his side. He is here because of a scary message that his ‘nephew’ had left on his machine late yesterday afternoon. He can be professionally cordial with Peggy, but he must be ‘all business’ when the chief is ready.

         I drove into Beverly yesterday, George explains. Followed up on some old cases.

         So the Harville Asylum is still open? Peggy asks.

         Like with Guantanamo Bay, the talk of its imminent closure has been premature, George remarks with a grin. Nobody else wants to absorb the hard cases that are there.

         Poor souls, Peggy comments, before returning to the paperwork upon her desk.

         Her phone buzzes. Peggy picks up the phone and listens in silence for a moment.

         The Chief will see you now, Peggy says with a smile, after hanging up the phone.

         George smiles back, picks up his answering machine, and steps into the office to his left. He forgets his hat on the chair. Peggy hangs it on the coat hook, after he leaves.

         Chief William Borden, Jr. receives the good doctor amicably. The chief is a husky 6’5” man whom just about everyone presumes had been a football bruiser back in the day. He is built like a retired tackle, to be sure. Everything about him is big, hefty, and slow. He is not a stupid man, but the fact that he has almost always a punch drunk look on his face does not help with his intellectual reputation. The heels of his cowboy boots click loudly on the floor, and George briefly imagines a bull with a rifle in a china shop.

         The chief gestures for George to sit down. The chief squeezes into his desk chair.

         George places his answering machine on the desk. The chief holds it up like it is some sort of newfangled technology. 

         So which message is his? The chief asks.

         The last one, George answers.

         When did you first hear it? The chief asks.

         Last night, when I went to bed, George says. He had left it several hours before. 

         The two men had spoken briefly on the phone this morning. As soon as the chief had figured out where the conversation was headed, he had asked the good doctor to see him in his office. Some matters should not be discussed over phone lines, especially in small towns. Moreover, the chief wants to look straight into George’s eyes. He does not think that the shrink is pulling his leg. He just wants to make sure the man who had left the disturbing message on the answering machine is not pulling the shrink’s leg. In the chief’s opinion, even well meaning shrinks can be gullible at times to party pranks.

         And there had been enough drinking and carousing yesterday to inspire a host of bad behavior. Weirdoes leaving strange messages on answering machines ranks up there with teens throwing toilet paper onto an old man’s tree, at least in the estimation of a small town police chief like ‘Little Bill’ Borden. Still, if there is anything real going on here, then it is best to discuss the issue behind closed doors, man to man, as they say.

         The chief replays the message. The color vanishes from his face when he hears the caller reference ‘Old Lester’ and ‘sprayed gas into the barracks.’ The caller knows details he should not know, unless he had been in on the police investigation back then.

         Or maybe one of the cops from that time fed the caller those details, so that in due time it would get back to ‘Little Bill.’ That prospect is even worse, in a way, for it means that there is yet another conspiracy afloat within the police department to force the chief to resign his post. Men sharpen their daggers, when dark secrets start to leak.

         Very interesting, ‘Little Bill’ says after switching off the machine. You have any idea who may have left this message on your machine?

         I know who it is, George replies.         

         There is an uneasy silence. ‘Little Bill’ shoves the answering machine across his desk, so that George can retrieve it. George ignores the machine. He looks at his hands instead. He imagines they are covered in blood, and so wishes the chief had a wet bar.

         Care to share? ‘Little Bill’ asks. 

         He is a patient of mine, George says reluctantly. I am not inclined…

         Oh, I know, I know, ‘Little Bill’ interrupts, while also dismissively waving George down. Doctor-Patient privilege. The sacred confidence between a shrink and a weirdo.

         George is irate. He stands up from his chair. 

         I didn’t come here to be insulted, George says.

         Sit down, doctor, ‘Little Bill’ orders.

         George hesitates a moment, but then complies.

         Okay, ‘Little Bill’ sighs. So why are you here?

         At first, I thought that my patient was hallucinating again, George explains. He is prone to believe his own guilt, when the facts would prove otherwise. Most of us try to deny the wrong we have done. He embraces wrongs he never did, and then lives out his life as if a condemned man. Imprisoned, silenced, by a very deep seated self-hatred.

         Sounds like another ‘Stuart Smalley’ in the making, ‘Little Bill’ scoffs. 

         George pauses. He knows that the chief is being an ass, but he agrees that Paul’s biggest psychological problem is that he never learned how to love himself. He is here, though, since he fears now that Paul’s biggest problem may not be psychological at all.

         George decides not to acknowledge the remark. He fidgets, and then continues.

         Early this morning, I woke up in a cold sweat, George says. I remembered a story I had read in The Redwood Democrat almost ten years ago. Something about a fire down in the ravine…

         The Coon Town Fire, ‘Little Bill’ interrupts.

         Some people would call it that, George snaps. I don’t.

         Oh, forgive my insensitivity, ‘Little Bill’ sneers.

         I went online, and found the original article, George remarks coldly. An indigent by the name of Parks burned to death when the former barracks went up in flames. The poor drunk knocked over his lantern. He escaped, but burned to death out in the snow.

         Accidental inflammation, ‘Little Bill’ remarks. Happens all the time.

         True, George says. But I suspect it didn’t happen this time.

         Actually, George has no idea; but he wants to see how the chief responds to his bold assertion. ‘Little Bill’ blinks, and that is all George needs to see to know that the police mischaracterized the investigation from the start. Now, it is possible that, in the grip of one of his hallucinations, Paul just happened to stumble upon the idea that the so-called ‘Coon Town Fire’ had been something other than reported. That is not at all likely, though. A madman lost inside his own head may finger ‘the second gunman’ who fired from the Grassy Knoll, but much more probably he will dine with a pink elephant.

         Well, chief, it seems you’re the man who needs to disclose some secrets, George insists. Unless, of course, you want me to talk to Anna Burns at The Redwood Democrat.

         George stands up. ‘Little Bill’ waves him down.

         What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this room, ‘Little Bill’ snarls.

         George hesitates a moment, and then sits down.

         I knew it was a crime scene the moment I saw the remains, ‘Little Bill’ explains. I may be a country bumpkin, but I’ve seen my share of fires. This one didn’t smell like an ‘accidental inflammation,’ so I called for a special unit arson team from the Beverly PD to assist us. The mayor personally put the skids on my request. He informed one of his buddies on the Beverly City Council that we had no money in our coffers to reimburse them for their services. Still, you can imagine the shit hitting the fan. The other cops, the press, they were irate that I wanted to invite a bunch of ‘outsiders’ to help us with our own investigation. My daddy had to pull a lot of strings to get the mayor off my ass. 

         Your daddy, George remarks. The police chief at the time…

         More importantly, an honest man, ‘Little Bill’ interrupts. We both insisted on an arson investigation, but the politicians overruled us. They dummied up the name of the victim, and sold the press on the idea that a lantern in a snowstorm could do so much damage. No one wanted to pry, not even that busybody reporter, Miss Burns. Daddy and I gave up. Like so much of our town history, we hid the truth, and celebrated the lies.

         I don’t understand, George says. Why?

         Ever hear of Lester ‘Scat’ Crothers? ‘Little Bill’ inquires after an awkward pause.

         Jesus, George moans. Do you mean…?

         Yes, ‘Little Bill’ responds. For decades, we suspected him of being the notorious ‘Bird Man Killer.’ Asshole wore some sort of bird suit whenever he got the urge. Snuck into people’s homes in the dead of night. Usually strangled them, though towards the end he used a knife. Scrawled birds in flight on the corpses of his victims. He committed his murders before DNA evidence. Otherwise, we probably would’ve been able to strap his black ass to the electric chair. They got him on a child molestation charge. Put his name on the ‘pervert list.’ Had to stay so many feet away from the urchins. Of course, nobody wanted that scumbag in their community, so finally the state sent him back to his hometown. Our town fathers didn’t raise a fuss. Probably money under the table to keep them quiet. Anyway, no one is the wiser, so long as he stays down in Coon Town.

         Okay, so that explains the name change, George remarks. But why deny that he had been the victim of an arson? 

         Because arson investigators from somewhere else are going to find out the truth, ‘Little Bill’ responds. Small towns can keep the lid on, so long as big city foreigners stay the hell away. There’s no greater threat than the outsider. Surely, you understand that.

         George looks down, and sighs. Notwithstanding his success in carving out a place for himself in this small and remote town, he has felt the sting of being an ‘outsider.’ George knows of only one other individual who has felt the sting more deeply than him.

         And that same individual used to tell him about a persistent dream. Paul is that sad and lonely individual on the outskirts of life. George knows that now as well as the very first time he laid eyes on the scared, little, Greek boy. Paul always has been lost.

         George remembers the first time Paul described the dream to him. It had been the day after Paul drove the school bus off the road. He had a hard time staying awake; most likely because of the painkillers the nurses had given him. Nevertheless, the thin teen clinging to sanity told his only friend how a boy, no older than five, snuck into his parents’ closet one snowy night. He had opened the louvers just enough to view them…  

*   *   *

         Paul is not sure what his parents are doing. He has seen them naked before, and he is not old enough to regard that as ‘yucky.’ Still, in a very simple and direct way, he senses that this is something he should not be observing. 

Mommy and Daddy are acting like animals. Mommy is lying on her stomach, and one of her wrists has been handcuffed to a bedpost. Daddy is sitting upright on top of her bottom. That is the gross part. Pooh comes out of the bottom, and yet he is on top of it. Perhaps, daddy is out of his mind. He gets that way, when he drinks from his jug.

And that is what he is doing now. He holds the jug in his right hand, while he is going up and down on mommy’s bottom. Sometimes, he takes a swig from the jug; but even then, he never lets up on her bottom. It is like daddy is riding the mechanical pony in front of the supermarket, and he put in so many quarters the ride is not ending any time soon. Mommy even whinnies like a horsey, when she taps daddy’s lower back with her ankles. Whenever that happens, daddy grunts, like he is a monster lost in his cave.

There is a radio on beside the bed. A grownup with a deep and pleasant voice is announcing a college football game. Paul understands only a few of the words, but he is comforted by the relaxed tone. He thinks that the radio will put him to sleep, like it does most nights, even though he is on edge with what mommy and daddy are doing to one another. His left cheek leans against the louvers. His eyelids open and shut sleepily.

Something happens. Everything is still, silent, like when the world seems to stop.

What happens next is a whirlwind of brutal violence and fear. It is like the whole bedroom has been caught up in a tornado. Paul’s eyes open wide, but he cannot move from his spot. He cannot even cry out. All he can do is to observe the mayhem in silence.

A big, black man steps out from a shadow. He has feathers on his arms and chest. He wears a birdie mask with a long, pointed beak. He does not wear his pants, not even his underwear, which is why Paul can tell that he is as black as the charcoal inside his daddy’s barbecue. The black man’s pee pee is as long and as pointed as his yellow beak.

The Bird Man grabs daddy’s neck, and yanks him back. Daddy drops his jug beside the bed. Daddy cannot scream, because of the pressure on his throat, but he tries hard to push the Bird Man off of his naked flesh. The Bird Man is undeterred. He squeezes as hard as he can, while also stabbing daddy’s forehead repeatedly with his pointed beak.

The whole time mommy screams. She kicks back like an angry horsey, but she is not able to make contact with the Bird Man. She also tries to squirm out of her handcuffs but only succeeds in tearing open her wrist. Her blood slides down her arm and into the bed sheets. Paul recalls wetting his bed, and knows how hard it is to get it clean again.

When the Bird Man is done with daddy, he picks up the jug, sniffs it, and tosses the liquor all over mommy’s naked flesh. She squirms every which way, but nothing she does makes any difference. Perhaps, it would have been better if she had been silent…

Silent and still, like when the world comes to a complete stop…

The Bird Man finds a match on the bed stand. He lights the match. 

Mommy looks back at him, and pleads like a cry baby. 

Chirp! Chirp! The Bird Man says, and then throws the match onto mommy’s back.

Mommy screams, while the flames overtake her flesh. She flaps her arms like a trapped birdie trying to back into the sky. She arches her head back, like she can view the heavens opening up for her through the ceiling. She spasms into an uncontrollable fury of pain, and then she is lost forevermore inside an inferno of fire and smoke. Even though he does not have the words to say, Paul senses she has been swallowed by hell.

And within seconds, the flames spread, until daddy has been swallowed as well.

And the flames are coming for him. There is a witch inside the fire, and she will want to eat him as much as his mommy and his daddy. The witch hungers for his flesh.

*   *   *

         Paul closes his eyes, when the Bird Man opens the closet door. He feels the Bird Man’s feathers, when he is being carried into the bathroom. He feels the Bird Man’s big beak scratch his face several times. Blood dribbles over his lips, but he does not make a sound. Mommy and Daddy are no longer there to save him, and so he senses that cry baby antics will only make it worse for him. He has never had a thought like that one. Deep down, he senses that that is a grown up way to think. He holds onto that insight, like it is his favorite doll. Silence will be his friend, when the fire witch comes for him.

         Paul keeps his eyes closed, when the Bird Man bends him over the bathroom sink, pulls down his Spiderman underwear, and thrusts his pee pee into his bottom. He smells his own pooh. He also smells mommy’s disinfectant. The combination makes him want to vomit, but he restrains that as much as he does his tears. He must be still and silent.

         Chirp! Chirp! The Bird Man says every time he thrusts his pee pee into the child. 

         Paul outwardly is a statue. In his mind, though, he ascends like a bird unto God. 

*   *   *

         Paul keeps his eyes closed, when he is thrown onto the passenger seat of the old station wagon. He figures he is in a car, since he hears the open car door beeping sound.

         The Bird Man circles around the station wagon to the driver’s side. He gets into the car, and pulls away from the curb. In the distance, he can hear approaching sirens.

         Pretend this is your school bus, the Bird Man remarks after a while. Gonna go to school. Gonna learn how to please me. That’s called love, boy. Taking it up the ass raw.

         The Bird Man sneezes. He clears his throat. He mutters ‘goddamned sinuses,’ or something like that. Paul thinks that maybe he is sneezing because of all those feathers.

         I’m gonna teach you, the Bird Man says. You’re gonna know things…

         The Bird Man does not elaborate, but Paul figures he means grown up things. He is frightened by that prospect, just as he had been frightened observing his parents do animal stuff with one another. He feels that he is losing something, like air leaking out from a pricked balloon (or pooh from a punctured bottom). He does not know yet that the word that best defines what he is losing is innocence, but the truth is just the same.

         For some time, there is no sound, but the car engine. Normally, the hum from a car engine lulls Paul to sleep. It is like a motorized lullaby. Tonight, though, he cannot sleep. He keeps his eyes closed, but he cannot shut away the screaming inferno stuck inside of his head. He remains a statue, but he cannot shut away how his bottom burns.

         Open your eyes, boy, the Bird Man says suddenly.

         Paul does as he is told. From that moment forward, he senses that is always best.

         The Bird Man is cradling an opened bottle of whiskey in one arm, while steering the wheel with the other. He stares at the boy. The birdie mask covers most of his face, but the insatiable hunger can be seen in his maniacal eyes. The witch is hungry, again.

         Time to feed me, pretty boy, the Bird Man says with a smile.

         That is when the Bird Man drunkenly swerves off of the road. Paul looks forward in time to see the hood smash into a tree. The branches on that tree look like the arms of an angel ready to hug him. He smells branches mixed with gasoline. Then, all is dark.

*   *   *

         The Bird Man flies away, before the police arrive on the scene. 

         The police take Paul to the hospital, where his grandma waits for him. 

         And life goes on, but the still and silent moments from the past linger.

*   *   *

         Feed me, the wind howls. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the jug beside the bed whistles. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the radio beside the bed broadcasts. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Feed me, the handcuffs on the bedpost rattle. Feed me the pretty boys…

         Paul sits up on the bed. He had handcuffed himself to the bedpost earlier, so he will not be going anywhere. He stares down the snow covered riverbed. There is nothing to see, but trees bent down by last night’s snowfall, and fallen tree branches sticking up out of the snow like antlers. 

         Actually, there is more to see than that. Is that not a rusted garbage can poking out from beneath a snowdrift? Look further down the riverbed, then over to the right. Is that not a gas container? Look up at the sky. Is that not a match twirling in the wind?

         Something happens. The world comes to a stop. Paul is lost. Paul will not return.

         Paul looks down from the sky. 

         The beautiful girl stands at the foot of the bed. She is naked, but for the starlight that surrounds her like a protective bubble. Her eyes glisten as stars. She smiles wide.

         Then, suddenly, she is not so beautiful anymore…

         Beatrice, Paul whispers.

         Beatrice does not respond. Instead, she simply smiles, while the right side of her illuminated flesh contorts into a fleshy, bleeding wound. Beatrice had been smashed by the school bus on her right side, while shuffling across the street, and so her right side now crinkles into her left side. Half of her head flattens into a vertical board. All that brain matter squished over to the left hand side bursts out through her eyes and nostrils. The right side of her smile disappears, but the left side persists. Her half smile reaches back to her left ear, because that side of her face has been stretched that far to make up for everything squished over there.

         Time to feed me, pretty boy, Beatrice says without moving her half smile.

         Paul does as he is told. He grabs that jug beside the bed with his free hand. He pours the liquor over his head, onto his chest, and down his lap. He smells like branches and gasoline, shit and disinfectant, earth and fire. He feels sick, but also free. Paul has no doubt finally in his soul that this is what love is. This is what it means to know things.

         Paul watches the match fall from the sky. It lands on his lap. He has to strike it against the side of the bed right now. Otherwise, it will soak up too much of the liquor.

         Paul strikes the match. The flame glistens in his thin fingers. 

         I love you, Paul whispers to Beatrice. 

         Then, feed me, pretty boy, Beatrice insists. Feed me before it is too late.

         Paul smiles. He cannot remember feeling so contented. He is lost, but also home.

*   *   *

         Doctor George Spanos had not been surprised, when he had knocked upon Paul’s apartment door, and no one had answered. Nor had he been surprised when the elderly librarian had informed him that Paul had been AWOL from his job for a while. Although a rationalist, he will listen to his intuitive inner voice, when all the other options lead to the same dead end. His intuition had told him that he would find Paul in the ravine.

         He had hoped to find him alive, though, and so his heart sank when he first saw smoke in the distance. This happened the moment he had passed the ‘Coon Town’ sign.

         The good doctor parks his car at the edge of the cliff. He finds the natural trail that leads down to the dried riverbed. He staggers down there as fast as he can, even though the fire had been extinguished by the wind and the snow sometime before. He cannot account rationally for his sense of urgency. He simply needs to get down there.

         He stands beside the burnt remains of the young man he had failed. The corpse is on a patch of snow just beyond a large boulder. The good doctor has no doubt in his mind that the barracks had stood at this very spot before the fire had devoured it whole.

         Something catches his eye, and he walks around the burnt wreckage of his friend to see what it is. He walks cautiously across the snow, until he makes sense of what he sees. Then, no matter his precautions, he almost stumbles over his own feet; for what awaits him is tantamount to a vicious punch in the gut. He clasps his mouth closed with his right hand, until the nausea passes through him, and the tears escape from his eyes.

         He stands beside a pile of burnt body parts. Most of the remains are little more than charcoal stubs, but there are pieces, here and there, that are identifiably human. What really clobbers him, though, is the decapitated head of a young war hero that the doctor recognizes from the pages of The Redwood Democrat. The head is still connected to its neck. There is a hook going through the larynx. The hook glistens in the sunlight.

         He returns to the remains of his friend. Is Paul responsible for this carnage? The police will make their conclusions, when they get here. Regardless of what they report, though, he will never forget that his friend had been as much a victim as a perpetrator.  

         He feels a sudden chill in the air. He cannot say how he feels just then, except that it is as if the wind and the snow are hungry for his soul. That is irrational nonsense, of course, and so he puts it out of his mind. He turns his back to the corpse, and leaves.

*   *   *

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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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