Marry the Witch

Grab ‘em by the pussy, Blake Coors exclaims, when he lifts his shot glass of poor man’s whiskey for his fifth or sixth toast of the hour.

         The Beverly Bowling Team geezers join in with spirited ‘hear hears.’ The geezers stand apart from the rest of the bar bums with their identical ‘Old Men Rule’ bowling shirts, checkered pants, and squeaky, black shoes. They typically keep to themselves, too, but Blake is on a roll this evening. They tuned into his rant when he started carrying on about those ‘he-she’ whores in Taiwan. A man can be as straight as his wife’s dildo and still get a hard-on when those Oriental chicks get all close and personal. Is it right to label that man a bottom feeder queer, when he busts a nut on what turns out to be a shaved ass? 

         Damned straight, someone from the back had screamed out then. 

         That is when Blake offers his fifth or sixth toast of the hour. He swallows his poison with the necessary bravado. Still, his white, flabby, forty-something face already resembles an overripe peach. The dark sweat stain on the front of his stretched ‘Paradise Plumbers’ shirt tells everyone present that he is five or ten years max from cardiac arrest. It does not help his heart condition that he has a pack of Marlboros in his work shirt pocket pretty much twenty-four seven.

         Oh, come on, Drew Moffitt protests good-naturedly. You don’t grab ‘em down there, do you?

         Blake returns his shot glass to the bar. He turns to face his friend beside him. He tries his best to look Drew straight in the eye, but he is too drunk now to keep his head from flopping around like a fish. He is a puffed up bobble doll.

         Man’s got to find a bush to pee in, Blake remarks.

         The geezers roar in approval. The skinny jeans queer bartender turns his back on the conversation. The gutter talk is too much for him. Someone notices his mild disapproval and tosses a peanut at the back of his head. This too elicits roars and claps among the bar bums. 

         Trump grabs ‘em by the pussy, Abner Klein chimes in. 

         Abner is an old, rotund, diamond merchant in a green suit. Typically, the geezers ignore him, except for when they stroll passed him on the way to their bar stools. On those occasions, they clutch their wallets, and warn one another to watch out for his ‘sticky kike fingers.’ 

         Tonight, the geezers have included him in the fun. Though no one admits it, they sort of feel sorry for him. His best friend, a kike hard money guy named Charles Waxman, had been found cut in half out in the woods somewhere. That is a nasty way to go even for a Jew. Therefore, the geezers cut him some slack.

         That’s because he’s gonna make pussy great again, someone else shouts.

         Pretty much the entire Lucky 8 erupts on that one. The only holdouts are the bartender and Drew. The bartender rolls his pretty eyes, and Drew squirms.

         Though already five or six sheets to the wind, Blake notices how his good friend wants to be anywhere but here. He snaps for a martini. He drinks half of it in one gulp, and then he nods toward one of the private booths in the back of the bar. Drew follows Blake’s lead without bothering to take his beer with him.

         Okay, buddy, what’s the problem? Blake asks, when he squeezes his big, sweaty flesh into his side of the booth. You promised to have fun tonight, right?

         Yes, I suppose, Drew mutters. 

         But you can’t stop thinking about Bonnie, Blake remarks. 

         It’s only been a year; Drew sulks.

         Fucking dumb ass, Blake snarls, while he chews on the big martini olive. Your ex is doing the splits on her yoga instructor’s cock, and you’re holding out for her. It’s time for you to let loose. Be straight with me. When’s the last time you got laid, and I don’t mean dancing with Molly Five Fingers. 

         You talk too well for a drunk, Drew remarks in an attempt to change the topic. Are you sure you’ve been drinking the hard stuff?

         A man knows his whiskey, Blake says. So when’s the last time you fucked a girl, huh? Come on. Tell me the truth.

         Oh, I don’t know, Drew mutters…

         Fuck that shit; Blake interrupts. Listen to me. You’re pushing down on a pussy, or you’re pushing up roses. That’s the only choice you’ve got, my friend.

         It’s not that easy, Drew insists. I’m forty-five…

         Don’t give me that ‘washed up athlete’ shit; Blake interrupts.

         It’s true, Drew insists. I just don’t have it anymore. 

         Blake finishes his drink. He leans across the table, so that his big, sweaty face comes to within inches of Drew’s. He tries to stare down Drew; but though he can talk up a storm, he cannot focus his eyes. He finally gives up on the long stare, leans back into the booth, and cracks his knuckles. 

         Look at me, Blake orders. I am old and fat. I smell bad. I am married to a cow with thunder thighs. I have three children. None of them are ever gonna be on the goddamned Honor Roll. I drive a Buick.

         Okay, okay, I get it, Drew says. So you’re Al Bundy.

         Yep, you could say that, Blake continues with a sly grin. And just like the Great Al Bundy, I have scored four touchdowns in one game. Count ‘em on your fingers. Two eighteen year olds, a nineteen year old, and, well, let’s not speak about the age of the last one. I could only fit three on a bed at one time. They would rotate off and on the bed, like they’re kiddies playing ‘Musical Chairs.’ It was wild, man! Fucking out of control!

         That’s not me, Drew mutters.

         Yes, I know, I know, Blake says. You’re a one-chick dude. 

         Call me old fashioned, Drew says.

         And there’s nothing wrong with that, Blake remarks, while he is eyeing a hot little number in a pair of tight blue jeans. Here’s my point. If I can pick up a foursome less than half my age, you can find a cunt that’s never been licked. Don’t you get it? There are girls out there that want you. An older man; a man with experience…

         They want a father figure, Drew mutters.

         Yeah, so, what the fuck? Blake asks. There’s always a trade off. 

         Alright, so what if I’m interested? Drew asks. What do I do? Stalk girls at the local high school? 

         You think I’m a perv? Blake asks with a hint of irritation. That’s dirty old man shit. Today, the cool cat’s catching mice on the Internet. 

         Blake retrieves his cellular phone, which had been hanging on his utility belt. He checks to see if his wife has been calling for him. Apparently, Susan is still mooing with her cow friends at their weekly Mary Kay cosmetics party. She will start calling him when she is done, because she will have nothing else to do then. A bored housewife is a housewife constantly checking on her husband. He probably has another hour or so, and then he will be cursing the cellular phone.

         Satisfied that he does not need to return any calls, Blake goes online and retrieves his favorite new toy. It is a dating website. The girls are ‘barely legal’ and ‘100% real or your money back.’ It is like looking at a car auction website, except that the cars are young ladies looking to be driven by older men. All the profiles are the same: Ladies photographed too close to their embedded laptop cameras, or ladies wearing string bikinis who have photographed themselves in their bathroom mirrors. The former are fatties trying to hide their pounds, and the latter are hotties with enough online ‘winks’ from interested men to start a polyandrous civilization of their own. Most of the ladies state upfront that they are looking for a ‘helping hand,’ while they are going to college, or starting up a modeling career, or whatever. Some acknowledge that they have ‘real daddy issues,’ and Blake says that those are the ones who will go down on you before you’ve even bought them dinner. 

         It’s all so sad, isn’t it? Drew asks, when Blake returns the cellular phone to his utility belt. They’re all desperate. 

         And you’re not? Blake snaps back. Look, friend, we’ve all got our needs. Either we take care of them, or we don’t. 

         Blake eyes another hottie, and he forgets all about his conversation with Drew. This is just as well, for Drew is as uncomfortable now as he had been up at the bar. He listens to Blake talk about how his wife spends way too much on ‘all that goddamned Mary Kay shit,’ and then he finds an excuse to head home.

*   *   *

         Drew leans forward on his sofa. There is a tall stack of bluebooks on top of his coffee table, and he is correcting one of them now with a red marker. He half listens to Charlie Rose on his big screen TV interviewing someone from the Donald Trump campaign. The sedated questions and answers are as predictable as the mistakes he finds in the exam essays. Once a man is in his forties he can start to live life on autopilot, if he so chooses, and Drew feels he switched that on about a year or two before Bonnie served him with papers. Yes, he wife had been a piece of work; but he blames himself for the divorce. A woman as smart and as beautiful as Bonnie should not be saddled with a husband who has given up. That is the fundamental truth that Blake Coors simply does not understand.

         Drew finishes with the bluebook, and he tosses it into a pile. He can get mad at his old friend from time to time, but he cannot really blame him in the end. They had grown up in the same lower middle class neighborhood alongside the old abandoned railroad tracks. Their lives would have been much the same, except that Blake’s old man beat him with a strap every night, and Drew’s died on the worksite from heat exhaustion. Blake escaped to the Marines, and Drew got enough money from a legal settlement to go to college. Life is like warfare: 95% of the time there is nothing but predictable bullshit, and the other 5% is an awful shit storm that throws some guys into blue work uniforms and others into brown business suits. Now, blue or brown, are they not different shades of shit?

         Drew sighs. He should finish the rest of these bluebooks this evening, but he just does not have it in him. 

         He sees the laptop on the floor beside his right foot. The entire world of knowledge is literally at his foot, so long as the Wi-Fi is working, of course. The ancient world would have counted him among the gods for having so much now at his fingertips. 

         Nevertheless, like most middle aged men, he leans back on his sofa, and props his laptop upon his lap, for no other reason than to squirt something soft and smelly into his underwear. Blake is right. He is desperate, and so are most men who are just counting off the years to their retirement. 

         In the old days, surfing the web for Internet porn really was not all that different than wandering into the ‘adults only’ section of the video rental store downtown. Even if there was nobody else around at the time, the poor guy felt watched; and he hurried in and out of that tawdry little space like he might be exposed otherwise to an airborne disease. The problem was that the more that he frequented that space, the longer it took him to find something that kicked some life back into his nether region. One on one straight sex turned dull (Must porn stars do the same sexual positions in the same order every fucking time? Is that the law?), so then he turned to threesomes. That progressed (or, maybe, it is more honest to say ‘degenerated’) into swallowing, facials, golden showers, Bukake, gangbangs, orgies, S&M, Bi-Curious (What a crock! As if the ‘bi-curious’ man is anything else but a faggot…), and on down the line. The more that these sex scenes deviated from the old fashioned, heterosexual, missionary position, the longer he had to dance with Molly Five Fingers for anything to happen. That meant that the middle aged shmuck hanging out in the ‘adults only’ section for all intents and purposes had to camp out there to get his fix. He could not just dabble in the X rated world. He had to become and out and out pervert to have any reason to change his shorts before heading to bed. 

         Then, one night, the poor guy could not get it up at all. It did not matter what videos he streamed. Nothing online worked for him. He either had to find a real life sexual partner, even if that meant cheating on his wife, or he had to call it quits. 

         Drew called it quits. Bonnie responded by finding a man half her age. All that cloak and dagger sex on the side lasted only so long. Then, Bonnie too had to make a decision. She chose to call an attorney and to fly off to the Bahamas.

         Maybe, Drew would have called it quits for good; but the T&A constantly on display at the local college where he teaches brought him out of his monk’s cell. He has never acted improperly with a student, but he has started to check out what is on the web again…

         More of the same, actually, except that now there are more videos in HD and more porn stars pretending to be ‘MILFs’ or ‘Amateurs.’ Interestingly, Drew no longer needs to go for the really degenerate stuff to excite himself. It is like he has seasoned since when he was married. Perhaps, now he is a ‘Professional Perv’ and thus able to shoot his load (smaller every year) with no more coaxing than a relatively mild scene on a ‘mainstream’ porn website. 

         This is not a cause for celebration, though, for it is not lost on Drew that he can handle porn well precisely because he has given up on the prospect of a real relationship…

         Or even a real roll in the hay. Blake’s question haunts him. How long has it been since he was with a real woman? The answer is worse than he desires to admit even to himself. 

         Therefore, while Charlie Rose’s eyelids are sliding shut on the big screen across the room, Drew decides to bypass the usual porn for that dating website Blake had shown him. He tries to tell himself that he is just ‘looking.’ Perhaps, as a lark, he will ‘wink’ at some of the girls; but, of course, none of them ever will ‘wink’ back at him. After all, he no longer has the mojo; and he figures the girls somehow will sense that about him. 

         The dating website forces him to set up his own profile page, before he can conduct a search of the ‘100% real’ ladies. What a bunch of bullshit! This is like handing the dealer a deposit before checking out the cars on the lot. Sure, he can erase his profile page, just as a looky-loo can get his deposit back, after observing the sun bleached wrecks up for sale. Still, is it not wrong that he has to announce himself just to take a look? It does not occur to Drew that the girls should get to see who is ‘winking’ at them online. Indeed, trapped as he is now in his own fear of sexual inadequacy, there is a lot about this online experience that does not occur to him. 

         Because he is a local college professor, Drew realizes at once that he has to use a fake name. He flirts with the idea of being another ‘Carlos Danger.’ He chooses something more pedantic (‘Smart Stud’), but at least the image of that perv, Anthony Wiener, texting his manhood to the entire world plasters a goofy grin on his face. 

         For good measure, he changes his date of birth. He says that he is living in Manchester, instead of acknowledging his real address in the City of Beverly, which will suggest that he is richer than he really is. Will that be enough to get a ‘wink’ back? No, Drew thinks, because all the gold in Fort Knox really cannot make up for the fact that his sex tank is on empty. Even assuming that the girls on this website are gold diggers, they are still under twenty-five; and in Drew’s mind that means that they are horny. They want to get fucked almost as much as they want their rent paid, and they are going to know that he cannot deliver anymore. He has been on the sidelines too long. They will smell his defeat, and they will snicker when bypassing his ‘wink’ for some other prospect. 

         Then, he has to write what he wants in an ‘ideal relationship.’ This also brings a smile to his face. What guy goes to this website actually looking for an ‘ideal relationship,’ truth be told? 90% are looking for sex. They will pay for her rent, until the sex gets old, or the girl becomes a pain in the neck. Maybe, the other 10% want something more permanent, like a long term discreet mistress…

         But is that really a relationship? For all his fixation on porn, Drew indeed is old fashioned. In his mind, a man can have a relationship with a girlfriend or with a wife. Mistresses do not count; whores even less so. Perhaps, it has to do with the discretion required. Precisely because a man cannot acknowledge his mistress or his whore, they are never truly a ‘couple’ in the proper sense. Now, he may find a certain advantage in that fact; and she may as well. If so, then it is only a matter of time before the discreet sex or affair is actually more selfish than selfless; much more the occasion of sin than of love; hardly the stuff of an ‘ideal relationship,’ even with our modern and decadent sensibilities. 

         Still, Drew is a smart man. He has a good way with words. He decides to leave his misgivings aside and to type a beautiful poem about how ‘ideal’ it will be to find a younger lady. He compares himself, the older man, to a strong wall of granite. He is sturdy in his years, calcified by his past experience; a matured rock of ages. His ideal mate, the younger woman, is the vast ocean smashing up against the rock of ages. Because of her youth, she is vibrant, moving, so full of life and passion. Every one of her waves dislodges pebbles from his side, and so together they create a shoreline; a place where lovers can walk hand in hand and stare misty eyed at romantic sunsets.

         Drew is bent over with laughter by the time he finishes his poem. He has his way with words, but he cannot recall ever writing such flowery schmaltz. If only he had known he had such talent, he could have made millions writing silly Harlequin Romances or penning sentimental Hallmark cards. Of course, all such occupations require pseudonyms; and in that context, ‘Smart Stud’ likely would not have been accepted by the publisher. Drew spends some time imagining his pseudonyms in an alternative reality: ‘Riley Heart,’ ‘Lucius Love,’ ‘Rex Knight.’

         Last, he must upload a photograph. This saps the fun from the moment, for surely a local college professor cannot have his face plastered on a website of this nature? The instructions specifically say ‘no dick shots,’ because a lot of those cool cats catch mice on the Internet with up close photos of their shlong, apparently. Drew cannot imagine most ladies reacting favorably to an Internet flasher, even in our more perverse times. Moreover, although he has watched a lot of sicko shit with Molly Five Fingers, he has been conscious about separating himself from his fantasies. In his fantasies, he is filthy rotten and promiscuous. In real life, he is a ‘one-chick dude.’ He is conventional, even old fashioned. He will never be whipped by a woman in knee high leather boots. He will never be in an orgy with six Korean stewardesses. And he will never be a flasher, neither the kind in trench coats, nor the kind on dating websites, thank you very much.  

         So what does a good man do, when he must upload a photograph, but at the same time must maintain his discretion? He has a saved picture of Blake on his laptop. He could upload that one, except that he does not resemble his fat and sweaty friend at all. 

         Why should that matter? After all, he is only ‘looking,’ and no girl will be responding to his ‘winks’ anyway, right? Well, isn’t that right?

         Maybe, that is not so right; so Drew decides to look for another photo on his laptop. It takes awhile, but he finds a decent headshot of his very estranged brother. Their faces are close enough. What is different is the hair. His brother has the long, groovy hair of a chick magnet druggie. No one will think that that is the image of a responsible local college professor.

         And yet, if ever he actually meets someone off this website, then he can say that he cut his hair awhile ago. He had to do so because of his profession. If the lady rejects him because now he has short, clean hair, then that is her loss.

         Drew finishes creating his profile page. He is about to search the car lot, when he receives a message from the website admin folks (probably, a group of nerds more pathetic than him). Apparently, they have to approve of his profile, before he can start. More bullshit, but it is getting late, and Drew really should head on to bed soon. He needs to get up early to finish these bluebooks. He has his obligations, and wasting time on a stupid dating website is not one of them.

*   *   *

         Drew does not return to the dating website for another week. He is busy teaching his courses, finishing the final draft of an academic article that he will be submitting for peer review, and handling a ‘mess’ brought to his attention in a private meeting with a student.

         The ‘mess’ has to do with another professor making a crude comment in front of his students. The politically sensitive younglings naturally sniff out one of the ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, homo-ism (well, it is actually ‘homophobia,’ but the smug and self-righteous abhorrence of any utterance that does not conform with the academic left agenda amounts to the same). Privately, Drew thinks his colleague had made little more than a crude joke in an awkward attempt to be ‘hip’ with his students. Regardless, he gives the student a hearing, because she remarks that he is the only professor in this department that she and her fellow students trust to do the right thing…

         And because she has got incredible tits. Drew has a hard time in keeping his eyes on her eyes. They keep dropping down to her ‘assets.’ If she notices at all, then she does a good job at hiding her reaction. So far as Drew can tell, she never deviates from her mission to convince him that his colleague deserves an especially warm prison cell in Hell for what he said. 

         Drew promises to bring this matter to the attention of his superiors, and indeed that is what he does later that same afternoon. Nevertheless, he cannot put her tits out of his mind. Each breast is a large, round balloon with a sizzling bullet about to protrude through the rubber. He vaguely recalls Madonna in her Vogue video wearing a ridiculous, pointed bra. Madonna’s version naturally had been much more exaggerated, but he believes his reaction must have been the same way back when MTV still broadcast music videos. Daydreaming about that student inspires a fleeting adolescence in the good professor, and the result is a goofy smile that he cannot wipe off his face the rest of the day. 

         With those bazookas still on his mind, Drew picks his laptop off the floor, while watching Charlie Rose interview an older and fatter Mike Tyson. He puts the laptop on his lap, and he settles back into his comfortable sofa. He intends to surf the tried and true porn websites, but then he recalls receiving an email a few days ago to the effect that his personal profile on the dating website had been approved. It takes him awhile to recall his login and password, but finally the old memory circuits kick back into life. He grins as a mischievous boy when granted access to that online auction house, where he can check out the ‘100% real’ skank gold diggers, oops, that is ‘young ladies seeking ideal relationships.’

         Before he starts to do so, though, he sees a ‘special message’ flashing on his profile page. He clicks on the ‘special message.’ A flash graphic of a female eye (long eyelashes and pink pupil suggest the fairer sex) appears in the middle of his screen. The eye winks at him. The caption under this strangely unsettling graphic proclaims: ‘Pretty Purdy is winking at you.’ 

         There is an icon that says ‘Wink Back!’ He hesitates a moment, and then he decides to do so. Another message tells him that he needs to pay a dollar to wink back at ‘Pretty Purdy.’ It seems only the dudes have to shell out. So much for gender equality on this fucking website, and yet is that not how these ‘ideal relationships’ work out in real life? 

         Drew sighs. He grabs his wallet on the coffee table, retrieves the credit card he has set aside for porn websites, and punches in the information needed to charge one full greenback on his card. 

         After tossing his card onto the coffee table, he ‘winks back.’ He now can check out ‘Pretty Purdy.’ He is so disgusted that he has had to pay for this silly privilege that he chooses not to do so. Some lady out there will receive a wink from him tonight, but he will be damned, if he bothers to find out who she is or what she looks like. Indeed, he will be damned, if he ever again returns to this website. He could have watched an entire porn movie for free elsewhere, when instead he paid a dollar to wink back at a whore. Moreover, it is likely that that whore winked at him in the first place simply because she clicked on the wrong button. That is so easy to do on such websites, especially when you are not the one who has to shell out money for the privilege. 

         And so with a bad taste in his mouth, Drew logs off of the dating website and calls it a night. He makes a mental note not to waste his time again there. If and when he is in the mood, then he should get his jollies for free elsewhere.

*   *   *

         Less than twenty-four hours have passed. Drew is seated in his small and cluttered office. He has to remain there for another hour, in case another one of his students wants to speak with him during his posted office hours. Thus far this afternoon, there has been a steady train of coeds seeking his guidance on a research paper assignment. The worried looks on all their faces suggest that he may have assigned something too far above their ‘pay grade,’ so to speak, and he wonders if he should not amend the research paper assignment to make the work more manageable for these kids. He recalls handling a lot more work back when he had been in their shoes, but the times have changed. 

         The old work ethic has been flushed down the toilet, Drew thinks, when he finishes with a sniffling student. I wonder if ‘Pretty Purdy’ flushes her toilet.

         What a strange question to ask; and yet, deep down, Drew acknowledges to himself that he has been fantasizing about ‘Pretty Purdy’ ever since he shut off his laptop. On several occasions this afternoon, while waiting behind his old and shabby desk for another student to step into his office, he came very close to sneaking a peek at that website on his work computer. He had almost typed in the URL, when he had reminded himself that the website would appear in his search history file. He can erase that file on his laptop, but he cannot do so on this work computer. 

         Now, he has a mental image of ‘Pretty Purdy’ flushing something down a toilet. He cannot see her face in his imagination. He sees her young, firm flesh in a skimpy bikini tearing up his photograph. She is flushing him away, because he had winked back at her without bothering to check her out on that website. Somehow, she knows, just like all those girls know that he is washed up. So just who the heck does he think he is? He is a sick cad, that is what he is; a Capital-A Asshole. If he does not check her out soon, then she will forget about this old photograph, and instead flush his flesh down that toilet; one bloodied shred of his skin and body tissue at a time. 

         Drew shivers at the horrible thought. He types in the URL. He is about to press ‘Enter,’ when another student knocks on his office door. He breaks out in cold sweat, wipes the sweat on his shirt sleeve, and erases the URL as the coed steps into his office. The student does not appear to have noticed anything, but Drew’s heart still feels for quite some time as if a fast Conga drum in his chest.

*   *   *

         Later that night, Drew tries to shut ‘Pretty Purdy’ out of his mind. He is going crazy with this unseen woman. He has a mental picture of every last inch of her body, including her ‘Carol Doda’ Double Ds (Now, that is a reference the ‘young ladies’ on the website will not know). All that is missing is her face. For some reason, his imagination will not go there. It is as if his subconscious mind is telling him that he can imagine only so much without checking her out on the old auction block for real. Sexual fantasy has its limits. Only reality is limitless.

         Since he is not prepared to make this experience real, he has to shut her out of his mind. He has to find a diversion. Netflix. YouTube cute puppy videos.

         Porn. Always porn. Forever porn…

         Except that tonight the porn does not seem to work. Molly Five Fingers is not dancing so well with him. She has lost her rhythm. Moreover, when he tries to focus in on one of the sex scenes, all he sees is the fantasy body that he has constructed in his mind for ‘Pretty Purdy.’ He imagines ‘Pretty Purdy’ doing six well hung Black men in a gangbang; ‘Pretty Purdy’ screwing an enormous Kraut in a Lederhosen somewhere in idyllic Heidi Land; ‘Pretty Purdy’ making herself cum with a bubble gum pink vibrator; ‘Pretty Purdy’ peeing on a baby squirrel…

         Drew almost throws the laptop across the room. He is so damned pissed. No matter how hard he tries he cannot get that whore out of his mind…

         Or, more precisely, he cannot get his mental construct of that whore out of his mind, for he has no idea what she really looks like. She actually may be a ’10,’ but deep down he doubts it. More likely, she is a fatty with a cheeky face full of acne; a macabre blend of a chipmunk and a pizza. 

         Why not find out for sure? If indeed she is not desirable, then likely that will break her spell over him. A fortysomething man slides back into his teens, because he is enamored with a goddess, real or imagined, not because a chunk ass with a cabinet full of acne cream back home ‘winks’ at him. 

         But what if she is beautiful? Is that not his real fear? Can Drew handle an opportunity with a sexy and alluring woman? He has grown used to his quiet life on the sidelines. It is easy to live vicariously through the exploits of all the ‘big talkers’ he hears at the Lucky 8. It is easy to dance with Molly Five Fingers. The imperceptible slide into old aged is a kind of comfort. It deadens his soul to the heartbreak of having lost Bonnie; and in a life so often marked by tragedy, is it so wrong to embrace the kind of life very likely to be uneventful and forgotten?

         Drew sighs. He can tell himself all he wants that he prefers the forgotten life, but that does not change the hold that ‘Pretty Purdy’ now has on his mind. Therefore, though disgusted with himself, he logs into the dating website, and he clicks on the ‘Pretty Purdy’ hyperlink under the flash graphic of the winking eye. He holds his breath in anticipation of her profile page…

         And then exhales in relief to discover that apparently ‘Pretty Purdy’ has taken down her own profile page. There is no one by that name on the website.

         Had there ever been a ‘Pretty Purdy’ on there? Maybe, he had imagined the whole thing; and yet, when he returns to the ‘wink,’ he observes her name hyperlinked still under the graphic. The hyperlink now goes nowhere, and Drew presumes that soon enough the hyperlink will be removed as well. Still, he sees what he sees. ‘Pretty Purdy’ is gone, but the hyperlink is like a cave drawing. It proves that she had been there and, by mistake or design, had ‘winked’ at him.

*   *   *

         Several weeks pass, and Drew forgets all about the dating website. He is focused on work. The article that he had submitted for peer review apparently needs to be annotated better, and so he has spent considerable time doing the kind of library research that he has not had to do since graduate school. He has had to deal with a grade dispute also, which has meant justifying the low score he awarded one of his dumbass students on the last bluebook exam. So when it rains, it pours; and many nights Drew has collapsed onto his sofa and fallen into a sad dream without needing to switch on ‘Charlie Rose,’ his cure for insomnia.

         The sad dream is always the same. ‘Pretty Purdy,’ her head still covered in a cloud or a shadow, is walking away from him. He observes her backside in a string bikini, and it is hotter than hot. ‘10’ is an understatement. This whore is a goddamned ‘100,’ a living sex bomb with an ass that would put old Jennifer Lopez to shame. The problem is that every time he picks up his pace to get just a bit closer to her she picks up her pace. He cannot close the distance. It does not matter how hard he tries. He does not give up, and yet he cannot deny the futility of his effort. His heart bleeds sadness, and his sleeping eyes shed tears.

         He never recalls his dream the next day, but the sadness hangs heavily in his heart and on his shoulders. He thinks that this is stress from work, but deep down he senses that that is not the case. There is something terribly wrong; an important part of his life missing. It turns out ‘the uneventful life’ is a tragedy of its own. The doldrums feel the same, whether because of loss or because of a life not really lived. 

         One night, Drew awakens on the sofa. Like before, he wipes the tears off of his face. He is going to make his way to bed, when he sees the laptop screen saver on the coffee table beside him. The starbursts on the screen remind him of the time he lost his virginity. He has no idea why that should come to mind, but it does. More importantly, there is a flicker of life inside his underwear; an old and familiar knock on the door. 

         Drew grabs the laptop, and he starts to surf his favorite porn websites. It does not take long before Molly Five Fingers arrives on the scene; and yet even though he had been excited by his screen saver, the sex scenes do nothing. The dance with Molly Five Fingers is a bust, and he sends her back to the bleachers.

         He is about to call it a night, when he recalls the dating website. Should he bother checking out those whores? How likely is it that one of the others has ‘winked’ at him? About as likely as finding Bo Derrick (another reference those ‘young ladies’ will not know) waiting for him in his bedroom…

         He is logging into the website, while he asks himself these questions. He is blinded momentarily by the sweat pouring down his face. His heart rattles in his ears. It is an alarm. Is he heating up? Is he about to explode out of his flesh?

         Drew gasps. There is a ‘special message’ waiting for him.

         The ‘special message’ is the winking eye. Beneath the winking eye is the caption that states: ‘Pretty Purdy is winking at you.’ 

         And for one dollar Drew now can ‘Wink Back!’

         Drew hesitates a moment. He senses that he is about to cross a line that he cannot uncross. The flicker in his underwear urges him on, though, and thus he ‘winks back’ at the unseen woman of his dreams.

         He also decides to check out her profile page. He clicks on her name and braces himself for whatever he sees there. 

         Like all men, he checks out her photograph first. ‘Pretty Purdy’ does not have a picture of her face or body. Instead, she provides the online world what amounts to a visual placeholder: A stock picture of a pretty, wet rose in bloom.

         His first reaction is anger, and he nearly switches off the laptop. 

         Then, he reconsiders. Perhaps, in a way, the ‘rose in bloom’ picture tells him more about ‘Pretty Purdy’ than a typical face or body ever could. After all, that is the stock picture that she chose to represent herself. Is she in bloom? Is she ready for the sun to wipe away the dew on her petals? Is that not true of all young ladies just freed from home and ready to embrace the larger world? Even if she is a porker (most likely the case in Drew’s mind), is it not exciting enough to know that he may be the man to sweep this ‘young lady’ into ‘womanhood,’ assuming he plays his cards right? 

         Drew checks out what she has written on her profile page. He expects a laundry list of ‘must haves’ in an ‘ideal relationship.’ Instead, he finds this one short paragraph written out for him: 

I know I’ve been a naughty girl.

I took down my old profile.

I hope you don’t mind!

I just want you to wink at me, Smart Stud.

Not all those other boys. They’re creeps!

Please, forgive me, okay?

Please, write to me. Will you?

You have such a way with words!

         Drew does not know what to think. He had been excited, and he still is, but he is also alarmed. This ‘young lady’ writes like she is in grade school. She has to be over eighteen, since the website had assured him during the setup of his profile page that it verifies the age of all participants. Still, he cannot deny that he feels dirty even in reading her words, let alone in contemplating a nice, short response. Maybe, she is just needy; but are not all the ‘young ladies’ here needy in one way or another? So why must he feel guilty about sending her a G-rated email? He can keep it professional, for Christ’s sake. He is a professor. He is quite accustomed to writing perfunctory emails to girls less than half his age.

         Drew decides to send her a private message through the dating website. This small bit of kindness on his part will cost him five fucking dollars. He can wink at her five times instead, like he has something stuck in his eye, but what the hell? She wrote a letter to him, and so he should do the same. Right? Right?

         Yeah, right, Drew mutters with some misgivings, as he proceeds to type:

Thank you for your kind words.

Love ‘Rose in Bloom.’ Nice picture.

Take care and thank you again.

         Not much of an email, but in the off chance Drew is writing to a twelve-year-old the cops will have nothing on him. He anticipates that this will put the matter to rest. Unless ‘Pretty Purdy’ is a real wacko, she will not likely observe in his polite, but perfunctory, letter much of a reason to continue.

         Probably just as well, Drew thinks, as he logs off the website, and places the laptop back on the coffee table. This has gone on long enough. 

         Still, he cannot help but to feel a bit uneasy, while he walks towards his bedroom in the dark. What if she is wacko enough to respond to him? What will he do then? Why is it that his cock flickered back to life, when he thought that he might be writing to an actual child? What the hell is wrong with him anyway?

*   *   *

         The predawn wind kicks leaves down the center of Deadwood Road. Most of the leaves crinkle into dust, for they had died days earlier on the cold, damp ground. The few leaves that survive intact will be buried in snow in less than a week. Winter is coming quite early this year, and she intends to bully the small and remote town of Redwood like an overbearing wife does her husband.

         The wind also detours down the narrow spaces in between the tired and sagging Victorians on both sides of the road. It rattles loose gutters, and moans beneath eaves. It is cold enough to freeze the droplets on the windows of these uptight homes, and the result is a crackling glass sound that stirs the old timers from their beds. 

         Pretty Purdy is not an old timer. She is nineteen, although her pale rose cheeks and wide open eyes suggest a prepubescent innocence. Still, the fashion with which she hides her Rubenesque, bosomy body beneath the many layers of an antique, Edwardian dress separates her from her own generation. Pretty is a lady younger than her years and an old soul. She is a girl who can spend several hours at a time trying on the many antique outfits to be found within her aged grandmother’s collection, but she is also a fuddy-duddy elder with a premature stoop to her shoulders. The contradiction unsettles most folks, even those who have seen her grow up on Deadwood Road and, therefore, know that she would never hurt a fly. The result has been a reserved, homeschooled life lived in the shadows. Pretty does take flight from time to time, but only in her imagination and, even then, in a manner that never poses a risk to her light pink innocence.

         Pretty has been escaping into books since her grandmother sat her down upon her arthritic left knee and taught her how to read. For all her time buried in leather bound children’s stories, Pretty still mouths every word on the page. The effort is painstaking, and yet she never feels disappointed, let alone dumb. So far as she knows the slow and meticulous mouthing of words is indeed what it means to read. Her mind embraces numbers with much more ease, although if pressed she would not be able to explain why math would have any utility. In her mind, math is a game, like playing ‘hide and go seek’ with her aged Bichon, Happy, or trying on antique vaudeville costumes.

         Like her neighbors on Deadwood Road, Pretty had been awakened by the crackling glass sound on her second floor bedroom window. She had not been at all alarmed, so much as curious, even though the early winter winds have been doing the same thing to her bedroom window for as long as she can remember. Every winter is her first winter. It is not that she forgets past years. Rather, she has an uncanny ability to see new and different details in what most folks pass off as the tried and the true. 

         Therefore, for the past twenty minutes or so, Pretty has been sitting by her bedroom window quietly observing the first touches of what will be a harsh winter. The light outside is little more than a purple haze, and yet she can see well enough the leaves stumbling down the middle of the road. She counts the second floor bedroom lights that are switched on up and down Deadwood. Each time she sees a new light she starts the count from scratch. 

         She keeps her frozen hands folded on her lap in a most ladylike manner. The old walls are mildewed and porous; and as a result, she is bombarded then by cold winds slicing through the wood frames from all directions. She realizes that she should put on her gloves, and yet there is a stubborn streak in her that keeps her right where she is. She does not want to leave from that spot by the cracked bedroom window, until she sees and hears her first chirping bird of the morning. Birdsong is the sound of love, and there is indeed love in the air to be enjoyed on this otherwise cold, purple, predawn hour. 

         Pretty hears the first tepid notes of a robin. The robin’s song will grow in volume and complexity as the sun breaks over the horizon and warms the damp earth. Others will join in, and in another ten minutes there will be a chorus of birds serenading her. She normally would wait for the chorus, but this morning is different than all the others that have come before. 

         With a warm blush in her cheeks, and the smallest hint of a smile on her lips, Pretty steps away from her window. She turns to face her room. Like all of the rooms in her grandmother’s Victorian, hers is full of antique chests, clothes on mobile racks, priceless framed paintings leaning against the mildewed walls, Oriental screens, mannequins dressed in the style of the 1890s, and collectibles as diverse as gold goblets and Ouija boards. Her draped canopy bed beside the window is her only personal space in her own room. She keeps her books under her bedframe and her ‘good girl goodies’ in a dark chest at the foot of her bed.

         She opens her chest, and retrieves her laptop. Her grandmother had not been fond of the purchase, given all of the ‘filth and fiddle-dee-doo’ that folks can access through those ‘magic boxes.’ Nonetheless, she had relented the day Pretty celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Her only insistence had been a firm promise on Pretty’s part never to look at anything that might put a warm blush on her cheeks. Pretty had agreed without any reservation, since it goes without saying that a ‘good girl’ avoids the occasions of warm blushes and tingling toes.

         Pretty spent over a year online surfing photographs of birds and flowers. The occasional stock photograph of a bee would excite her heart, since she had heard some tidbits over the years about ‘the birds and the bees.’ Whenever the temperature rose a few degrees under her skin, she would shut the laptop, and place it in its home inside that chest. Her grandmother would have been proud.

         That all changed about a month ago. For some reason, Pretty decided to check out what else is ‘natural’ beside birds and flowers. What she observed on that late, quiet afternoon made her tremble all over and pee in her underwear.

         The end result of that strange detour into Never Never Land had been a profile page of her own on a dating website. Had she wanted to meet an actual man, when she had set up that page? Had that profile page been her first tepid step into womanhood? She shied away from those questions, and then returned the laptop to its chest. She held ice against her pink cheeks to cool them down.

         And then that night, after she had heard her grandmother retire into the master bedroom, she had opened her laptop and had returned to that website…

         Just for a few minutes…

         Just for a little peek… 

*   *   *

         Pretty Purdy skips to her canopy bed with her laptop. She props herself up against her pillows, and places the laptop on her lap. She stares at the cold, inert computer for a moment. Is she absolutely sure that she wants to proceed?

         Her Bichon, Happy, pushes her bedroom door open with his snout. It had been ajar, and hangs loosely on the rusted hinges anyway, and so pushing that door open is no great feat. The dog hurries around the many items on the tired, creaky floor. He has the happy-go-lucky air of an animal that already has been fed this morning. 

         Happy jumps onto the bed, and stares quizzically at Pretty. He has cold, pink, doll like eyes. His underside is filthy and matted, and he smells either of feces, or blood, or a combination of the two. Frankly, he looks and smells like he had climbed out from beneath the wet earth at the local pet cemetery. This is not literally the case, and yet Pretty cannot help but to wonder if Happy is in fact teetering unevenly between a living dog and a matted corpse. 

         Maybe, in a way, that is true of Pretty and her grandmother also, though neither one of them looks and smells like rotted flesh. Both ladies remain very much alive, and yet they are also surrounded by dead things. Antiques are sad, faded shadows from yesteryear. They are ghosts contained in picture frames or hanging on carved mannequins. Dead things haunt as much as dead people; and when the afternoons are especially cold and overcast, and the shadows as such hang heavily over everything inside the Victorian, the Purdy ladies appear then to be indistinguishable from their cracked and dust coated wares. They too are teetering unevenly between life and death. They too sift in and out of that sad twilight that exists between time and eternity, real hopes and faded memories.

         At this very moment, though, there is no hint of death in the air, except for the foul smell that seems always to cling to the Bichon. Pretty feels as alive as she can be. Her pink cheeks glow with the warmth of a first crush. Her soft, moist lips twitch nervously between concern and pleasure. Her heart pounds on her inner chest, even as her heart also feels as if it is gurgling into her throat in order to strangle her. The result is an awkward energy that reminds every inch of her flesh that, indeed, she is alive and about to escape to Never Never Land.

         Pretty had read Smart Stud’s email to her before going to bed. That man is such a great writer; a dreamboat who just oozes romance with every click on his keyboard. She senses the deep and enduring love hidden in his prosaic prose and knows in her heart that that love had been directed towards her. That man intuits her soul. He sees her soul, as she does: A wet rose embracing the sun, in order to bathe in the light and the warmth so resplendent in nature. That man, that mysterious Smart Stud, could have walked away, when he had discovered her soul in her winks and her email. He did not, though, and that means he is a strong and heroic man. He is like the painting of her long deceased grandfather downstairs; a Rock of Gibraltar standing firm in the midst of the turbulent seas.

         Is his email still there? Or did it disappear into her pretty girl dreams? No way to know for sure than to log back into the dating website. 

         Pretty does not notice that she is holding her breath, while logging back into her profile. Happy notices. He paws at her right arm with genuine concern.

         Pretty swoons. The email is there. The words upon the screen sing in her imagination. The voice is deep, strong, masculine, like what she has fancied all her life to be the smooth and cultured sound of Commodore William Purdy. She hardly contains her pleasure as she mouths the words of the steamy love letter.

Thank you for your kind words.

Love ‘Rose in Bloom.’ Nice picture.

Take care and thank you again.

         She mouths the love letter three times. She is about to recite it a fourth time, when suddenly Happy bolts off of her bed. She observes him dart around the antiques and out the bedroom door. 

         She sets the laptop aside, and then hurries to her window. Sure enough, she sees that weirdo foreigner walking down Deadwood in front of her yard. He is a Greek or an Italian, Paul ‘Something or Other,’ probably one of those black hearted gypsies who eats children and practices black magic. She supposes she should hate him, and yet she senses in him the same separation from others she has had to endure as long as she can recall. At least, she has her grandmother, whereas this Paul fellow does not seem to have anyone in his corner. Paul does not look up, but if ever he did she senses that they would lock eyes and realize instantly a much deeper bond than would be acceptable in this world. Perhaps, it is best then that this dark foreigner keeps his eyes on his shoes and his hands in his pockets, while icy gusts continue to slap dead leaves against his trousers.

         She observes Happy storm out the doggy door and across the front yard. He is rocketing forward at breakneck speed, while barking like a rabid beast on a mission to snap that poor man’s jugular vein. She wishes Happy would not act as such every morning. The poor man deserves better than to be assaulted by a loud and angry Bichon. 

         The Peanuts’ character Charlie Brown comes to mind. Like the perpetual misfit who thinks every time that he will kick the football, Happy thinks that he will make it passed the fence. No doubt, most folks would regard Charlie Brown and Happy as a couple of losers; and yet Pretty admires their steadfastness, in spite of a mountain of evidence and experience telling them that they will not succeed. Is not love really steadfastness, when the world demands surrender? Is not love commitment to a moral code, even when the rest of the world regards that code as ridiculous as trusting Lucy to hold the football or believing a fence will just disappear? Is not love holding onto a pretty dream no matter the costs?

         Pretty watches Happy recover from his impact with the wooden fence. It always takes a few minutes, but sure enough he waddles back to his doggy door with a steely determination to fight another day. 

         Pretty is about to return to her laptop, when she hears her grandmother calling to her from downstairs. It is time for breakfast, and that means that she must log off the website and put the laptop away.

         Nevertheless, this morning is unlike all the others. This time, as she goes downstairs to share porridge and biscuits with her grandmother, there will be a warmth in her cheeks and a smile on her lips that she simply cannot hide. Love is in her heart. It had never been there before, not like this anyway. She has no idea what to do. Perhaps, she should do nothing at all, but to bask in the not so secret pleasures of this new experience. Perhaps, even if her grandmother sees the love written all over her face, she should not be ashamed to be a woman in love. Easier said than done; but that is Pretty’s decision, as she walks down the creaking old steps, braces herself, and steps into the kitchen for her breakfast.

*   *   *

         Within a sea of dust stained curtains, faded mannequins, and threadbare Oriental screens, the framed portrait of Commodore William Purdy hangs upon the living room wall as an unmovable rock on a turbulent shoreline. The strong, stoic man had tamed the seas from the time they dropped the bombs on Japan to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but his steel blue eyes, grizzled white beard, long stemmed pipe, and dark blue mariner’s coat suggest a battle hardened seafarer on the hunt for Moby Dick. He had lived his life from the start, like he had been a citizen of another generation; a ghost sifting in and out of the thick fog upon the Commodore’s deck. For this reason, he appears strangely more alive now as an old portrait on an even older wall than when he had been puffing on his rare tobacco beside the fireplace. Like old soldiers, the Commodore never died. He just faded into the fog outside one morning and never came back. 

         Myrtle Purdy stares lovingly at the portrait of her husband. She has been a stooped and shriveled shadow of her former beauty for many years. She leans heavily on her cane; and though a once graceful dancer, she shuffles more than she walks nowadays. To add insult to injury, she cannot hear worth a lukewarm bucket of spit in her left ear. She has to hold an antique ear trumpet whenever trying to talk with someone who cannot or will not yell at her. Her eyes appear to be little more than squishy egg whites with black yolks cast adrift on a pond of tears. As such, they seem ready at any moment and for no particular reason to slide down her cheeks and onto the floor. Her mouth trembles slightly at all times, and so her dentures crackle like dried sticks tossed into a bonfire. When she removes her dentures, her gums smack together like a mouth full of peanut butter. Still, for all the reminders of old age, Myrtle feels young again the very moment she rests her eyes on her husband’s eternal gaze. 

         Moreover, there are still nights when Myrtle dances with her husband in the fog. The Commodore’s deck makes for an uneven dance floor, and the wind out there on the open seas tries to grab at their bones; and yet together on the moonlit platform, they are as warm as when they used to make love beside the crackling fireplace. The dances never end, so much as Myrtle awakens into the cold stillness of another early morning and sets out to do the chores of the day.

         Myrtle danced with her husband last night. Nearly two hours have passed since she awakened. She took her bath, changed into her long, black dress, and hobbled with her cane down the staircase. She set out as always to start up the porridge and to heat the biscuits beneath a hot towel; but on a whim, she took a detour into the living room. The dream dance apparently had not yet escaped from her heart. She dusted the many antiques spread about the living room, as if she had to justify to herself this deviation from the norm; but mostly she just stared into her husband’s eyes. Did she hear him calling out to her from within the paint on the canvas? Did she smell his cologne in the iced cold draft pushing through a crack in a downstairs window? Did she feel his touch (so subtle really for such a battle scarred man), when the draft lifted the back of her long dress up to her knees?

         Love is in the air this morning, Myrtle whispers to the portrait above her.

         She smiles. In a way, her face is even more hideous then. The deepening wrinkles in her cheeks suggest a head shriveling inward, like something left out in the sun too long, and so the sudden widening of her face with a smile comes across as unnatural. The stranger would perceive her smile at best as insincere and at worst as downright sinister. He would look down, fidget with his hands a moment, and then find an excuse to exit before the chill in his spine paralyzed him altogether. That is the effect that Myrtle has when she smiles, and for that reason she counts it as a kind of perverse blessing that she seldom has a reason to be happy when in the company of strangers. 

         Her husband does not see her as hideous on those too rare occasions she smiles. She can see what he sees in his steel, blue eyes. He sees her as she had been when she was the brilliant and beautiful adolescent about to blossom into womanhood. He sees her the moment they first locked eyes on one another. So much life and hope had been shared in that initial look. It would take a lifetime for the two of them to unravel the complexity and the richness of that moment in time. How can she be anything but beautiful when looking into his eyes now?

         Myrtle snaps out of her reverie, when she hears Happy scampering down the staircase. It is interesting how she barely can hear a man talking in front of her, but can pick up the slight sound of her Bichon running down those steps at breakneck speed. Love excites the senses as much as the emotions. In the end, it is the only real tonic for old age. 

         And so with a quickness she has not exhibited in years, she turns in time to see Happy push through the doggy door. She has seen hundreds of times the drama that will unfold outside, and yet she hobbles over to the window anyway to take a look. 

         By the time she pushes aside the curtains, that strange dark boy with the unpronounceable surname is gone. Happy is leaning sideways on the fence. He is concentrating on a robin that had landed on top of that fence not too distant from him. Perhaps, his mental concentration helps to ease the pain in his head.

         Soon enough, Happy waddles back into the foyer. He walks up to Myrtle, and he stares up at her face as if to say: Pretty thinks you fed me already, but we both know that this is not the case. So how long and hard do I need to pout?

         Myrtle glances down at the Bichon. Her heart goes out to him, and yet at that moment she senses that someone is going to visit them this morning. That intuition comes to her like a chill down her cranky spine. As much as she wants to feed Happy, and also to bask in the adolescent love that she feels still in her heart, she senses that she should remain where she is. After all, duty demands that a hostess be aware of her guest from the moment that she steps into view.

         Happy waddles away in defeat. Myrtle returns her gaze to the quiet road beyond her white picket fence. 

         Just then, she observes an old lady in black step out from a flurry of wet leaves. The old lady does not bother to check for traffic, while she crosses the wind swept road. Her cold, dark eyes instead focus on Myrtle’s, like she intends to read the mind of the lady on whom she is about to call.

         Pretty, come downstairs, Myrtle says in as loud a voice as she can muster just then. Hurry, my dear child!

         Myrtle braces herself for the visitor. She walks to the front door, and she opens it just before the visitor knocks. 

         Hello, Eunice, Myrtle says. It is good to see you this morning. 

         Like Myrtle, Eunice is a blue hair with stooped shoulders and tired knees. She wears an identical dress beneath a hooded, black topcoat. She is taller and heavier, though, and her face has aged downward instead of inward. Her heavy cheeks droop into her double chin, and so her face looks like hot butter melting into her neck. Still, her eyes remain as vibrant as ever; and she tends to look at everything around her with an air of uneasy suspicion. She taps her cane on the floor when not hobbling forward, as if she is anxious to move on from that spot.

         The chill came out of her grave this morning, Eunice says disagreeably. 

         Really? I hadn’t noticed, Myrtle remarks. 

         Oh, yes, Eunice says, while she glances behind her left shoulder. The old witch has been nipping on my heels, since I stepped outside to fetch the paper. Didn’t you notice, too? 

         I no longer subscribe to The Redwood Democrat, Myrtle remarks. I would rather listen to the robins than read bad news before sunrise. 

         Eunice looks at Myrtle incredulously, and then she shakes her head with firm disapproval. Wind snaps old leaves against her backside, and she shudders.

         Sister, you can ignore the hag only so long, before she comes a knocking with her calling card, Eunice remarks coldly.

         Where are my manners? Myrtle says. Please, come in out of the weather.

         Myrtle steps aside, and Eunice enters into the foyer, like she is the royal queen returning to her castle. Myrtle helps her to remove her wet coat. Eunice looks a bit smaller and weaker without that extra layer, and Myrtle senses that her haughtiness a moment ago had been an attempt to hide her fear. So why is her sister afraid? Is it something she read in that newspaper, or something else?

         There is an awkward silence, as the two old ladies stare at one another. Eunice is here for a specific reason, and yet uncharacteristically she is at a loss for words. Myrtle senses more than she acknowledges. After all, if love is in the air, then so is danger. Cruelty, exploitation, broken hearts, even death turn out all too often to be the handmaidens of love. 

         And if the sisterhood can be said to be experts in anything at all, then it is in sniffing out danger. They can smell it in the predawn winds, and hear it in the crinkle of dead leaves; that is, unless they are occupied by adolescent love.

         Eunice breaks the awkward silence by stepping into the living room. She stares up at the portrait of Commodore Purdy. 

         My heart weeps for him, Eunice whispers.

         Myrtle hears what Eunice says crystal clear, even though at the moment she is not using her ear trumpet. There is a telepathic connection between the two old ladies that augments the spoken words.

         Myrtle hobbles up from behind Eunice, and she stands by her side. Myrtle also looks up at the portrait. Adolescent love has given way to sadness. For the moment, at least, the dance is over; and what remains are the girls left behind to try to make their way in a cold, wet world. 

         Mine does too, Myrtle whispers, while taking Eunice’s hand into her own.

         We haven’t called the sisterhood together since before he left us, Eunice whispers ominously. I suspect now it is time…

         No, Myrtle interrupts. That is the past.

         Eunice turns and faces her sister. She is hurt, angered, and frightened at once. She taps her cane upon the creaky floor.

         The sisterhood is not dead, Eunice says. The Commodore is not dead. He is out there on that open sea, that’s all, breathing in the salt and the lime. You know as well as I do that as long as he breathes, we breathe. 

         Sister, Myrtle begins to say…

         You know that is true, Eunice interjects.

         What I know is that I have a little girl upstairs, Myrtle says. Pretty needs me. She doesn’t have anyone else.

         We all took the vow, Eunice says. To come together when danger looms, and to honor the man who made us who we are. 

         I love the Commodore, Myrtle snaps, while tears start to flow down both her cheeks. I honor him with every breath I take, but I also have a commitment to my granddaughter. She cannot fend for herself. You know that. 

         I also know that something is about to happen, Eunice states. Something bad. You are the First Wife. Only you can reconvene the sisterhood…

         No, Myrtle snaps. Nothing is about to happen. Not inside these old walls. I have fashioned a kind of sanctuary in here…

         Where you can hear the little robins sing, Eunice interrupts dismissively.

         Yes, Myrtle says. And Pretty can, also.

         Both ladies hear footsteps on the staircase. The interruption temporarily eases the tension, though Eunice continues to tap her cane. 

         Pretty, come over here, and say hello to your Aunty Eunice, Myrtle says.

         Pretty steps back from the kitchen door, reverses course, and walks into the living room. She sees her Aunty Eunice, and offers her elder a polite curtsy.

         Eunice nods in response. She notices the crimson blush in Pretty’s cheeks but does not say anything to her. Instead, she looks back at Myrtle. She desires to see if Myrtle sees what is so patently obvious. 

         Show me the crystal ball, Eunice says, after she decides in her own mind that Myrtle is either a great poker player, or has her head too deep in the sand.

         Sister, that’s just a toy, Myrtle insists. 

         Eunice taps her cane three times.

         Myrtle shrugs. She glances at Pretty as if to say that there is no reason to worry, and then she leads her sister and her granddaughter to the fire stained, antique mantelpiece. There is a cold, blue, crystal ball on a stand just beneath the portrait of the Commodore. Though Myrtle earlier this morning had dusted the cluttered living room, she avoided the crystal ball as she would a rabid rat.

         Myrtle looks down and away as she grabs a hold of the crystal ball. She is quite clearly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she looks back at the two ladies and shrugs again as if to say that this is no big deal. 

         She pushes open a door that is hidden in the wall beside the fireplace. A ceiling lamp in the secret room automatically switches on to reveal an antique, round, séance table. On each of the four walls is a framed portrait of a ghastly, old lady staring with steely contempt at the table. The séance room is painted blood red. The carpet is dark black with a red pentacle stitched into the fabric beneath the table. Incense bubbles out from behind the eyes of each of the old ladies. The smoke slithers about the space as if the ghosts of long dead snakes.

         There is a stand on the table meant for the crystal ball. Before sitting on the chair in front of that stand, Myrtle looks back at her sister, waves her head, and sighs. Myrtle is trying to say that this is all pointless; and yet if that is true, then why is there unmistakable fear in her eyes? Moreover, why does Myrtle rub the ball in her hands, like she is literally trying to rub a mad curse off the glass?

         The hesitation lasts a little too long. Eunice taps her cane three times on the carpet. Pretty stands apart from Eunice, wrings her hands, and looks down.

         Myrtle takes in a deep breath. She places the ball onto the stand, waves her hands over the glass, and stares deeply into the dark center. Iced cold fear grabs a hold of her spine; and for a moment, she senses she may black out, and smash her forehead upon the crystal. 

         Instead, Myrtle slides into a self-hypnotic trance. Her head sways side to side, and she moans. The incense slithers in and out of her hair. 

         Does the table shake ever so slightly? Does Myrtle transfigure in the blink of an eye into a ghastly smoke creature only to reappear instantly as herself? Is this all a trick of the imagination? Or is there a dark spirit hiding just outside of their peripheral vision; an ominous entity just about to step into this sanctuary?

         Then, it is over. A heavy stillness descends upon that room like a shroud.

         Well, what did you see? Eunice asks. 

         Nothing, Myrtle whispers as if awakening still from a deep sleep.

         Something happened, Eunice insists.

         Nothing, Myrtle says adamantly. I told you that this is a toy. Look at this.

         Myrtle pulls out a switch that is hidden under the table surface. She sees that Eunice is watching her closely, and then she flips the switch. Sure enough, the table shakes.

         I’m not convinced, Eunice snarls.

         Myrtle pushes back on her chair, so that her sister can observe the wood pedal otherwise hidden from view. Myrtle presses the pedal with her right foot, and enough incense hisses out from under the table to transform her for a brief moment into a ghoulish smoke creature. 

         A touch of Hollywood on Deadwood Road, Myrtle remarks. 

         I am certain something happened, Eunice snarls.

         The ‘old ways’ are cold, like that wind outside that had been nipping at your heels, Myrtle continues. You can feel her scratching your old skin, tingling your earlobes; but the moment you look behind your left shoulder you see that there is nothing there. Nothing at all, but dead leaves crinkling back into dust…

         What are you saying? Eunice asks.

         I’m saying that the magic is gone, Myrtle replies. She’s been replaced by cheap tricks; a bit of smoke, a vibrating table, simply harmless entertainment…

         Nonsense, Eunice interrupts. You’d tapped into something, or someone. I could feel it. 

         Just smoke and mirrors, Myrtle continues, while she steps away from the table and towards the living room. 

         Pretty steps out of the way, so that Myrtle can return the crystal ball to its stand on the mantelpiece. Eunice looks incredulously at her sister a moment longer, and then follows her out of the séance room. 

         Eunice wants to state, ‘If the magic is gone, then so is the Commodore.’ Nevertheless, she holds her tongue, when she sees Pretty. The girl is so clearly in love. All of that adolescent bliss breaks through even Eunice’s hard exterior, and yet Eunice knows that she must address this issue with Myrtle soon enough. Something is about to happen, something terribly wrong, and Eunice cannot let her sister just toss aside her vow willy-nilly. The robin singing on her fence out there will be no defense, when the hag comes a knocking with her calling card.

         Will you stay for breakfast? Myrtle asks, when they leave the living room.

         Another time, Eunice answers, as she puts on her topcoat. I’m off to the farmer’s market. Can I get you something there? 

         No, thank you, Myrtle says. We are well stocked. 

         Like an impenetrable fortress, right? Eunice asks. 

         Myrtle responds with a smile. Eunice taps her cane once more, and then grunts in anticipation of the cold weather outside. She nods politely at her two hostesses, and steps out into a whirlpool of dead leaves. 

*   *   *

         Myrtle and Pretty sit at the kitchen table. Like all the other rooms inside the cold, drab Victorian the kitchen is a mess of antiques, boxes, and peculiar knickknacks. Indeed, the only indication that it is a kitchen is the stove and the sink. Otherwise, it really could be a walk in storage closet just off of the foyer.

         The kitchen table is as sturdy as a rock, and yet there is neither a wood nail nor a spit of glue keeping it together. The surface is a thick door somehow transferred from an abandoned castle in the Black Forest to this small kitchen. The base is a large witch’s cauldron. Legend has it that the cauldron had been part of an old gypsy caravan. The Commodore acquired it in one of his travels, and he then gave it to his ‘First Wife’ on the occasion of their first anniversary.

         The two ladies share their kitchen table with a portable, black and white television set. Bobbi Chu is reporting live from the local ABC affiliate. Bobbi is a lantern-jawed, pimple faced, Chinese-American newswoman out of sync with the very old fashioned, lily white culture that prevails in these parts. Her glassy stare suggests she just finished a night of carousing with booze and cocaine. On the whole, the women despise her as a ‘bad influence,’ while the men secretly wish they could experience with her a night of ‘Asian passion.’ 

         Myrtle and Pretty sense that she is as much an outsider as they are. They sense nothing else in common; but that one trait is enough to persuade the two of them each morning to tune into her silly human interest news stories, while finishing up their biscuits and porridge. 

         Today, Bobbi Chu is reporting about a four or five-year-old boy who rides on the back of his family goat. The boy wears a Lone Ranger outfit, and he uses his index and thumb to shoot silver bullets at imagined Indians and outlaws. He is the new sheriff in town, and he means business.

         Somebody needs to keep law and order, Bobbi Chu says, while she stands in front of a white picket fence, and rests the heel of her left, knee high, black Dominatrix boot upon the middle rail. 

         Myrtle and Pretty have said very little, since Eunice left for the farmer’s market. Pretty’s downcast eyes and warm blush, though, have said plenty; and Myrtle decides finally to broach the topic.

         It has been a long time since we have been in the playroom, Myrtle says out of the blue.

         Yes, grandmamma, Pretty says. I was a little girl the last time.

         Do you remember how long ago that was? Myrtle asks.

         Like a whole year, Pretty says. That’s twelve months.

         That’s right, Myrtle says. How many days is that? 

         Three, Six, Five, Pretty answers with a big smile. 

         Very good, Myrtle says. You are a very smart girl. 

         Grandmamma, why so many days and nights? Pretty asks.  

         So long as I can keep the lights on selling these tchotchkes, I do not see any reason to entertain strangers in the playroom, Myrtle responds. We need to keep out the riffraff, remember?

         Yes, grandmamma, Pretty says. 

         And, anyway, there’s no magic in that playroom, Myrtle continues. It is a make believe show, like what you see on television. 

         Yes, grandmamma, Pretty says. 

         There’s more magic in that box you have upstairs, Myrtle remarks. 

         Pretty looks down. Her warm pink cheeks turn hot red all at once. 

         Do you want to tell me about him? Myrtle asks. 

         Pretty remains silent. She does not move at all. 

         It is natural for a girl to like a boy, Myrtle says.

         Pretty folds her hands on the table, like she is praying. She continues to look down and away. She had thought that she could be open and honest about her feelings, but she had underestimated just how embarrassed she would feel. She loves her grandmamma, but she wants to be as far from here as possible at this moment. She tries to distract her mind with thoughts of Smart Stud and his beautifully poetic words, but even her dreamboat cannot save her from all this.

         But we have to be sure he is not one of the riffraff, Myrtle continues. Do you know what he does for a living? Come on, Pretty. If you know, tell me now. 

         Writes pretty words, Pretty whispers.

         What kind of pretty words? Myrtle asks.

         Like words inside my birthday card, Pretty replies. They make me happy.

         Well, you should invite him to come here, Myrtle says.

         Really? Pretty says with an incredulous grin on her face. Invite him here?

         Oh, yes, Myrtle answers. I need to make sure he is a good boy.

         Maybe, he can write pretty words for you, too, Pretty says.

         I would like that, Myrtle says. That would make me happy. 

*   *   *

         Through the remainder of the day, the winds gather together from all of the ends of the earth. This ever expanding army of cold chills and howling gusts pushes through the mostly vacant streets of the Redwood Township, like when the Goths finally pierced the gates of Rome. The wind savages stomp on the old windows and mildewed walls scattered about the town. They knock over a tired power line that frankly should have been replaced years before, and the result is a blackout that affects half the town just before sunset. 

         Myrtle is in the blackout area. She lights candles throughout the kitchen and the living room. The flickering candles cast long shadows on the walls that dance much too lasciviously. If love had been in the air this morning, then lust prevails in the early evening.

         Myrtle hobbles around the antiques in the living room. The burgundy red curtains beside the main living room window have been fluttering for hours in a cold draft. She wants to tie them down. 

         As she approaches the curtains, she sees that the dancing shadow ghouls cast upon the dust stained fabric suggest a bordello coming back to life. There is passion in the candlelit darkness, and so the trembling windows and creaking outer walls remind Myrtle of the bedsprings beneath young lovers. 

         She does not want her mind to go in this direction, but she simply cannot help it. She gave her granddaughter a license to love a boy today, and until she recognized that telltale blush in Pretty’s soft cheeks over breakfast she had not imagined ever doing so. She had seen the flower starting to blossom and at that critical moment had decided not to fight it. Had her sound judgment and moral temperament been weakened by her own flirtation with adolescent love earlier that same morning? Or, deep down, had she sensed that releasing her tight grip on Pretty just a bit would turn out to be the right decision? 

         Myrtle knew the moment she allowed Pretty to buy that ‘magic box’ that indeed her soft granddaughter would start to slide down the proverbial slippery slope. Had she been reckless then? Or had she tried to avoid the kind of selfish love that keeps a grandmamma from recognizing that their little girl is just not so little anymore? 

         Am I losing it? Myrtle mutters to herself, when she ties down the curtains and looks out at the wind scarred street beyond her fence. And am I losing her?

         The storm outside does not provide any clear answer. Nevertheless, with the window trembling on her fingertips, Myrtle cannot deny the same sense of foreboding doom that had inspired her sister’s visit today. Indeed, something is going to happen. There is love in the air, but there is also that undercurrent of lust in the howling wind, and the combination all too often overwhelms the soft and fragile hearts in little girls. Myrtle imagines rushing upstairs and embracing her granddaughter before the wind and the rain sweep her away from her love.

         But she does not move from the window. Instead, she feels how the glass shakes, and she stares out into the gathering storm for any indication of what is to come. 

*   *   *

         Pretty looks out her bedroom window at the gathering storm. All day she has been thinking about what to write to the mysterious Smart Stud. She is not so sure what a ‘stud’ is, and so in her own mind she refers to him either as ‘my dreamboat’ or as ‘my birthday card writer.’ Regardless of the name, he is very clearly a warm and beautiful man with a keen wit; and he has chosen her from among all those thousands of ‘lovely ladies’ who, no doubt, ‘winked’ at him on that dating website. He has chosen her, since he is the kind of man who deeply loves and respects good, little girls like Pretty Purdy. He is a real catch, that is for sure; and so he deserves the very best words that she can type back to him.

         But what are those words? What words are ‘the very best’ among all the words Pretty has encountered in her books? 

         Pretty remembers seeing the words beneath her favorite online pictures of birds and flowers. Those words always made her happy, and so maybe all she has to do is to find those online pictures and to copy out those words. Just spell them out one by one. That will take time, but she is patient. Moreover, she has no doubt in her mind that those same words will make ‘my dreamboat’ and ‘my birthday card writer’ just as happy. After all, Pretty cannot deny that the deep connection she has already with that mysterious man is palpable, even scary at times. It is the kind of connection that happens only when two people view the world around them through the same set of eyes.

         The problem is that the words are online, and her Internet connection is down as a result of the power outage. Will Smart Stud forget her, if she takes a bit too long to write back to him? Will he pursue one of those other ‘winks’ still trying to get his attention on the website? She wants to say ‘no,’ because he is such a kind and loving man, after all. Still, how can she be certain? Is it not the case that time loses as much as it finds? If that is the case, and she senses that it is, then is it not a near certainty she will lose him, if too many hours pass on the grandfather clock downstairs between his last note and her next one? What else can she conclude from this blackout than that the whole of the universe is conspired against love? 

         And so Pretty looks out of her window with as much foreboding doom as Myrtle feels downstairs. Myrtle fears deep down that the boy may come and try to take Pretty away. Pretty fears deep down that the boy may not come to her.

         The common thread between them is the fear of loss…

         And the growing certainty that something is about to happen…

*   *   *

         Lick my pussy, Bonnie Bitch snarls.

         There is a naked, white, middle aged man hogtied to a chair. His name is Herb, and he pays Bonnie Bitch two crisp one-hundred dollar bills on the first of each month for the privilege of being tied to this chair and blindfolded for fifty minutes. That is all that Bonnie knows about him, and she is not absolutely sure about his first name. Her clients often use aliases.

         Bonnie Bitch snaps Herb’s milquetoast thighs with her cat o’ nine tails. It is a bit too cruel on her part to do so. After all, she knows from experience how low his pain threshold is, and his legs look like lobster claws about to be thrown into boiling water. 

Nevertheless, he has annoyed her the entire session. He is not supposed to speak to her except to say his ‘safe word.’ Nor is he supposed to cry like the little slut boy he is. He has broken both of these cardinal rules too many times to count. Apparently, his wife left him for some Polack who plays minor league hockey. Bonnie never knew that he had a wife. She wishes she had not learned that tidbit today, because it is easier to imagine her clients truly are ‘little slut boys’ when she knows next to nothing about them. Men with wives, kiddies, old unpaid debts, and aimless office jobs are sniveling losers like her ex. They exist much lower on the food chain than her imagined ‘little slut boys,’ since they do not have it in them even to be decent and conscientious slaves. They are really no better than worms, and she hates to think that she has to include those kind among her clientele in order to pay her bills. 

Herb winces in pain. He shoots out his tongue. He is licking the air in the hope of finding pussy hair. That last snap must have hit him hard, because he is cooperating much better now than before. 

Bonnie steps forward. She straddles both sides of the steel chair with her long legs. Her black, leather, knee high boots rub against Herb’s sweaty thighs. The sweat smears her boots. The worst part about pussy licking is that she has to wipe the sweat off of her own boots, after the client has returned to his sad life. She would not need to do that (or anything else menial and disgusting, for that matter), if she had a twenty-four seven slave living under her roof. A quiet and unassuming ‘lifestyle submissive,’ as they are called in the trade, would be a most welcomed addition to her life.

But that is not going to happen anytime soon, because she and her loser ex conceived a son one lazy night, and that boy lives most of the time with her. She could let her loser ex have full custody of their son, but her lawyer told her that that would mean forsaking what meager spousal support she gets from the piece of shit limp dick she married. 

So the boy stays, and the ‘lifestyle submissive’ remains an elusive dream that she entertains whenever she has to wipe down her own boots. Bonnie just hates the fact that life is a series of compromises. In her mind, she deserves so much more. After all, she is a gorgeous, long legged blonde. She is way smarter than anyone she knows. She would have been a model, if she had not made the decision one whimsical night to pursue the kind of storybook romance that silly girls and mentally handicapped women find so alluring. 

Bonnie pulls aside her G-string, so that Herb’s tongue can find that black bush she refuses on principle to wash or to shave. Pussy licking, frankly, should be as uncomfortable for her clients as it is underwhelming for her. It is not that she dislikes oral sex. What woman does? The problem is that so few men have a clue what they are doing down there. Most of them are like white men in cargo shorts and slippers wandering into the Amazon without Indian guides. They are lost from the start, and they never manage to go deep enough into the bush to make any impact on the harsh terrain.

Herb is the worst of her clients, for he is much more teeth than slobber. Bonnie wishes she had to pee right now. She looks up at the ceiling, and makes a mental note not to go to the bathroom before her next session with him. If he thinks the cat o’ nine tails is a little hard to handle, then how will he deal with all that golden vinegar sliding down his throat? Will he choke on her pee like he has choked on life? Does Bonnie Bitch even give a rat’s ass one way or another? Deep down, does she hope that annoying worm chokes to death in her dungeon?

The alarm goes off, and Bonnie steps back from the chair. 

Herb continues to lick aimlessly at the air in front of him, like he has not heard the alarm. Perhaps, he has not. Like all of Bonnie’s clients, he has a few more screws loose in his noggin than the average man does. He should be doing fifty minute sessions with a shrink, instead of getting his mind fucked by a tall, blonde dominatrix he never sees. Why is it so many men would rather drown in the sea than grab for a life preserver? Do they choose a lifetime of slow suicide for no other reason than they are not brave enough to blow off their heads? Or do they actually prefer the deep existential pain of knowing how pathetic their lives are? Perhaps, the red lobster thighs that remain for awhile after a session with a hardcore sadist like Bonnie Bitch are nothing. Perhaps, the real soul pain is knowing how cruel and senseless life is. If that is the case, then the old mind fuck may be more therapeutic, or at least more honest, than the soft nonsense peddled by psychiatrists. 

Bonnie does not care, so long as her clients at least have enough screws left to follow her instructions. This time, Herb did not, and so she punished him with the cat o’ nine tails harder than ever. For his sake, she hopes that he does not remove his blindfold until after he hears her door close. He knows that that is the number one rule; and given how ornery she feels at the moment, Bonnie easily could shove his willy up and out his ass if he goes that far. The doofus in the iced cold, steel chair does not realize how close he is to meeting his Maker.

Bonnie unties the rope. She turns her back on him, while he continues to lick at that black bush in his warped mind. Her boot heels tap on the floor like fresh bullets fired from a pistol. This is her favorite part of the session, for she imagines firing rounds into her loser ex from the underside of her boots. She is a James Bond villainess; a beautiful, blonde, hard ass man eater on a rampage.

She is also a mother with a yoga instructor boyfriend, a BMW she cannot really afford, and a pile of unopened bills on her sofa. As much as she relishes the raw power that comes from belittling and beating someone, she knows too well that the moment Herb leaves she will have to set aside her ‘Bonnie Bitch’ alter ego for ‘Bonnie Moffitt.’ Her son will be back from school; and like all the little shits around the world, he will want to munch on a sandwich before going upstairs to do his homework. 

Bonnie steps into the small bathroom beside her dungeon. She shuts the door. That is Herb’s cue to remove his blindfold and to take a goddamned hike.

Herb is gone, when she reemerges. Without a naked, middle aged man in her chair, the basement looks like a home gym with weighted chains and straps hanging from steel bars. Everything seems so innocuous without that one touch of evil that spices up the scene. In this space, the ‘touch of evil’ is a nude man in a chair taking a beating. Upstairs, the ‘touches of evil’ include the unopened bills on the sofa, the neglected boy eating a sandwich, the booze bottle hidden beneath the mattress; so many reminders that the devil lurks as much in moral laziness and selfishness as in an occasional terrorist bomb or hijacked airplane. Some folks try to keep out the devil. Bonnie is happy to oblige him. Indeed, she cannot think of anything else that makes her grin than what the devil works up.

After all, the world has done her wrong; saddled her with a boy, tied her down with debt, taken away her chance to be a fashion model. It has squeezed every last bit of motivation from her soul. Why should she care if the devil then wants to fuck up the world? Or if a mad old witch wants to take back the night?

*   *   *

         Jeremy Moffitt sneaks down the dark staircase. The flickering light bulb in the basement below him casts more shadow than illumination, but this is not a problem. He knows these steps by heart, since most nights he plays with the pulleys and the spiked chains down there, after his mom passes out on the sofa from too much alcohol. 

         When he plays, he can make as much noise as he wants, for his knows his mom would not be awakened by a bomb then. His inclination is to be very quiet and careful with his play, though. Jeremy is only ten years old, and yet already he knows that the way to survive is to make certain that things never get out of hand. Life is about taking a small step forward, and then crouching low to take the punishment that inevitably follows. 

         And yet for all of his reticence, Jeremy has an almost insatiable curiosity about the secret life of adults. From his experience, most doors are never shut completely, let alone locked. They are actually swinging more loosely on their hinges than they first appear, and all he has to do is to push those doors gently to catch glimpses of the real world beyond his imagination. 

         This is why Jeremy already knows about the birds and the bees, although he has yet to figure out why it is adults want to do such things with each other. What is most striking is that the adults do not seem at all embarrassed to be so naked and vulnerable in front of each other. It is like mom and her friends have gone a little mad. Or maybe they have been replaced by crazy robot facsimiles; an idea that he has come across more than once in his comic books. There is an old gnome in a lab somewhere who builds these robot facsimiles, and Jeremy is convinced that every adult has one hidden in a closet or under the bed. Maybe, we each get our own robot when we join up with the ‘big kids’ in junior high. If that is the case, then Jeremy hopes his robot will not be the quiet dweeb he is.

         One of the steps creaks beneath Jeremy’s right foot. He freezes in place and listens to his heart beating fast and furious inside his ears. He expects mom to storm up the staircase and to slap him in the face. He knows that he should crouch low, because that is the better way to take the punishment; but he can feel his own fear turning into crystal ice in his veins. There is simply no way he can bend down, or even cover his head, and so he has no choice but to take the slap like a deer in the crosshairs will take the bullet.  

         Mom does not storm up the staircase. Instead, she proceeds with her odd ‘playtime,’ like she never even heard the step creak.

         Jeremy hears what sounds like the snap of leather against flesh. He can breathe again. One of mom’s robots is down there in the basement, beating up a naked, old dude, and walking around in a Cat Woman costume. It is like Adult Halloween, when mom’s robot hogties a stranger to a steel chair, and punishes him for no apparent reason. ‘Adult Halloween’ is even creepier than Tales from the Crypt, and more than once what he has observed has inspired a nightmare. On the plus side, though, whenever mom’s robot immerses herself in her ‘Adult Halloween,’ she has no mind at all for whatever he may be doing. Indeed, he is pretty sure that when he is in her Cat Woman costume he could sneak up from behind and pinch her skin, and she would not even flinch. ‘Adult Halloween,’ in a way, is like when she is passed out on the sofa from too much whiskey. She is dead to him, maybe dead to the world; and he may as well be an orphan. 

         Jeremy proceeds down the steps, though he walks with more trepidation than before. Even though he can picture mom’s robot prowling around the long straps and the spiked chains, licking her lips like she has a mouse in her mouth, he cannot be totally certain that she is indeed blocking out his footsteps. A cat can be oblivious one moment, and then brandish her claws the next. Maybe, in spite of his fantasies, there is a reason he has never tried to pinch mom’s robot when she is so occupied. Cats can and do draw blood all the time without really any rhyme or reason. 

         Jeremy stops five steps up from the basement floor. Here, he can see all of the equipment, including the steel chair front and center, while he is hidden in a shadow. Sometimes the blindfolded guys in the steel chair stare directly at him; and he wonders if somehow they can sense him, like some people are able to sense ghosts. He thinks that ghosts are the orphans of the afterlife; sad and lonely spirits abandoned on the doorsteps of old houses and lost ships. Perhaps, Jeremy is not peeking, so much as he is haunting, while the old light bulb casts shadows on his long, tired face. 

         The naked man in the steel chair bawls like a baby. He keeps blubbering on and on about a Polack who plays minor league hockey. 

         Jeremy is not sure if he has seen this ‘playmate’ before. To him, they all look the same. The difference is that the ‘playmates’ are always quiet, like the corpse Jeremy saw inside an open casket the one time his mom took him to the mortuary, whereas this one is a wet noodle strapped to a chair. This time, he is able to understand why mom’s robot is punishing him with her cat o’ nine tails. What else do moms do really, but beat the hell out of boys (and apparently old dudes) who speak out of line? Are they not life’s rulers, snapping the thin wrists of boys and measuring out how far boys can go before they end up in the chair?

         The naked man in the steel chair sticks out his tongue. He appears to be starving. Or maybe he is thirsty for the water that drips from the ceiling of the basement. His flesh is sweaty and bruised. Someday, perhaps when tied to this chair, his flesh is going to fall from his bones, like when meat has been cooked too long in the oven. 

Jeremy senses that this man would not mind that fate. On a deep level, Jeremy can relate to that, for there are times the beatings get so bad he wants his own flesh to crackle into flames. 

Jeremy turns away, just as mom’s robot lands another hard blow on the naked man’s thighs. He hears the naked man wince in pain; and he winces, too.

Returning to the kitchen upstairs, Jeremy thinks about waiting there for his mom to make him a sandwich. He decides not to do so. What if she does not return her ‘Cat Woman’ robot to wherever she keeps it hidden for days such as this one? If that is the case, then what is to stop her from snapping off some of his flesh with her cat o’ nine tails? Better to go upstairs and to wait until she is snoring on the sofa. Then, he can pour himself a heaping bowl of Cap’n Crunch, return to his bedroom, and try to mouth out the words to his latest issue of The Astonishing X-Men.

Jeremy grabs his ‘Eeyore’ backpack off of the kitchen table. The old bag is falling apart, for he has had it since the first grade. Maybe, next year he can get an X-Men backpack for his eleventh birthday. Maybe, the other kids will see him as one of the ‘big kids’ then, and leave him alone. Probably not, for school is a lot like living with mom. He can take one step forward, but then he has no choice but to crouch down and to wait for the beating. 

Jeremy walks upstairs, enters into his bedroom, and closes the bedroom door behind him. His room looks and feels like a crypt full of shadows. The grey sadness that prevails up here is not helped by the fact that the weather outside is windy and wet. There is a rainstorm brewing, and Jeremy feels as vulnerable to the raindrops striking his window as that naked man downstairs is to the mad whims of ‘Cat Woman.’ The madness can break through at any moment, just as an otherwise sane cat can brandish her claws and go for his flesh for no reason.

*   *   *

         Several days have passed since Drew sent his short and perfunctory reply to Pretty Purdy. He has had to contend with a nasty cold, a complaint from one of his students, and a malware infection of his work computer. The adage is so true: When it rains, it pours, and this seems to be especially the case when the actual weather outside his office window is a maelstrom of wind and hail. This year, autumn will last no more than a few weeks, before an early winter claws into the earth and refuses to go anywhere for at least six months. 

         He does not recall being particularly affected one way or another by the seasons in his twenties and thirties; but since losing Bonnie and settling into his no frills middle aged life, he finds himself slipping each year into a kind of lazy depression as the days get shorter and darker. He hunches his old shoulders and glances up at the black clouds, like a caveman centuries ago would have beheld a comet in the night sky. The clouds are mysterious, menacing, fateful; a dark, portentous indication that his fragile life is nothing in comparison to the weight of time. Nothing is permanent, not his wife, not his good looks, surely not that naïve optimism that had given him the green light to approach a blond goddess like Bonnie in the first place. He is losing whatever he had had back then. He is going to have nothing when he goes to his grave. 

         How dreary! No wonder Drew keeps returning to his favorite porn sites in the dead of night. Losing an hour or two with Molly Five Fingers does not make life any more meaningful, but it does make life a bit more palatable. Drew has little tolerance for drinks, and none for drugs, but he can understand why there are so many men his age boozing away their livers. 

         Porn is his alcohol of choice, or at least it had been. The problem is that he cannot get it up anymore. He thinks this is like the drunk who can no longer even get a buzz from a steady stream of cocktails. For some men, it may take a few years, for others a few decades; but in time, the mind and the flesh adjust to the intoxicating elements. The roller coaster ride loses its thrill. Indeed, the ride even ceases to be a mild diversion. When that happens, the hapless man in the dismal autumn of his years has two choices: Either find a better escape, or stoop his shoulders lower and take up gin rummy or stamp collecting. 

         Drew believes that he would be eyeing a mint condition Harriet Tubman stamp just about now, if he had not taken the plunge into that dating website. As much as he keeps telling himself that it is a waste of his time, and that that Pretty Purdy chick is either underage or deranged, he cannot put those ‘winks’ out of his mind. He is convinced that she is a fatso. What else explains the rose in bloom photograph on her profile page? Still, she is real, unless those damned Ukrainian hackers have created much more sophisticated bots; and she appears to be available. 

         That is the key point, is it not? He is surrounded almost every day by hot chicks, but they are all young college girls with whom he cannot fraternize. For all intents and purposes, they are unavailable to him. The same is true of those porn stars he watches online. Most of them are pricey hookers, and he knows of two websites that can arrange for ‘dates’ with these girls. These websites sure enough promise anonymity, though the Ashley Madison debacle a few years ago proves that there is really no such guarantee. Moreover, what if he does go out with a porn star? Does he want to meet up someday with her real life boyfriend if and when she feels he has not been ‘generous’ enough for her time? Does he want to be interviewed by the cops about his relationship with her, if and when she is booked for extortion, or drugs, or God knows what? So really those chicks are just as unavailable to him. 

         Drew is pretty sure he has no desire for a relationship. Nevertheless, it is becoming abundantly clear to him that the ‘availability’ of the ‘hot chick’ with whom he exchanges ‘winks’ is an important feature of the escapism he seeks to fight off the blues. He tells himself that it does not matter if he never actually sees her. What matter is that he could see her, that she is ‘available,’ and that the fantasy sex in his head could be real sex under the right circumstances. He knows that this is a crude way of thinking about Pretty Purdy. Nevertheless, he also knows that he is being honest. Strip away all that romance about guiding a blossoming girl into womanhood, and it comes down in the end to a crazy night of sex in a motel room somewhere. Moreover, is Pretty Purdy not asking for it? What makes her any better than all those other ‘whores’ on the dating website scheming for sugar daddies? Especially on dreary afternoons like this one, Drew cannot help but to ask himself if his friend, Blake Coors, is right. Maybe, when we set aside our rose colored glasses, and see the world for what it is truly, we realize that we are all just ‘whores’ and ‘johns,’ using one another for our own advantage, and sugarcoating escapism with romantic affection. 

         So much for shutting Pretty Purdy and the dating website out of his mind and instead ‘focusing on what matters.’ Indeed, ever since he decided to leave the website ‘for good,’ he has thought about little else. The cold, the annoying student complaint, the malware invasion, all of these problems have tormented his conscious mind; but they have not penetrated any deeper than that. Pretty Purdy occupies the deeper mind, the pit in the stomach, the sinking heart; and so the moment the nerd certifies that his work computer has been freed of the malware, Drew grins for the first time in days. He waits for the nerd to shuffle out of his office, checks to make sure he has no other meetings scheduled, and then returns to the dating website. 

         His heart skips several beats the moment he reads that Pretty Purdy left him another message. More importantly, he feels something stir in his trousers. It is not much down there, but it is a start. He has a reason to widen his smile, and even to whistle a melody, as the wind and the hail pound upon his window.

         He mouths her short message, like he is reading something profound. His conscious mind tells him that she has written out captions. The short sentences certainly read like the words one would find beneath online pictures. But really how likely is that? What would be the point? Is it not much more likely that she has written out a poem? A poem that just reads like several unrelated captions? Maybe, Pretty Purdy has attempted to do in a poem what Andy Warhol did with Campbell Soup cans on canvas. Did he not sense her poetic sensibility, when he saw the ‘rose in bloom’ image she uses as a visual placeholder on her profile? If his first impression had been right, then perhaps she is not an underage weirdo, but rather a would be poet. Perhaps, unlike the ‘whores’ on the dating website who are just looking for fast cash, Pretty Purdy really wants the guidance of an older hand in developing this talent… 


         Or perhaps she just typed out some captions she had found online for no other reason than that she really is a fucking weirdo. Though Drew tries to hold onto his ‘budding poet’ theory, his middle aged cynicism eventually prevails, as he rereads her brief message a few more times. All the while Drew taps his left foot, like when he is grading a shitty paper written by a below average student.

You deserve pretty words, Smart Stud.

Here are some pretty words for you.

Watch out! Some have lots of letters!

Raindrops on Roses, International Peace Garden.

Miss Anna Burns with Winning Floral Arrangement.

Oh, I almost forgot! Pretty bird words, too!

Canada Geese Take Flight, Beulah Wetlands.

Please, write to me again! Pretty Please!

*   *   *

         Don’t tell me you wrote her again, Blake Coors sneers, before he drops a third or fourth shot of whiskey down his flabby throat. 

         Drew folds his hands sheepishly on the bar counter. He stares at his glass of beer. He has been here a good half hour already and has yet to finish half of it. Still, he feels queasy already, though clearly more from shame than alcohol, and is starting to contemplate how he can excuse himself for the night. 

         Blake slaps the empty shot glass upon the counter. He nods at the queer bartender, because he has several more shots to go before the top of the hour. He turns toward his friend, and he sizes him up like a used car salesman does a clueless woman on his lot. He shakes his head in disapproval, and sighs audibly.

         So how many times have you written her since then? Blake asks. 

         I don’t know, Drew mutters. About a half dozen. 

         Oh, boy, what a limp dick thing to do, Blake says. You’ve forgotten ‘Rule Number Thirteen’ of how to get pussy, but not pussy whipped. 

         Yeah, what’s that? Drew mutters. 

         Blake pats Drew on the back, and leans into Drew’s left ear. Blake grins too conspiratorially, like he is about to impart some great wisdom for the ages. Drew already regrets opening himself up to this exchange, but he does not even try to resist his red faced, fatso friend.

         A man should never allow himself to be manipulated by a bitch he’s not balling, Blake whispers. You may as well pluck your own hairs off your scrotum.

         Come on, Blake, Drew whines. She’s not manipulative. 

         Is she a woman? Blake asks.

         Of course, Drew responds.

         Then, she’s trying to pussy whip you, Blake sneers. 

         Drew shakes his head. This time, he is not buying Blake’s ‘insight’ about the fairer sex, though deep down he knows that his friend has had more time in the saddle with them than he has. 

         Sensing that he has not yet persuaded his buddy that Pretty Purdy is bad news, Blake lifts his left hand and curls his fingers and thumb into an ‘OK’ sign. He struggles to keep his hand in place, because the whiskey is really starting to kick at him now like a bucking bronco. He taps Drew with his right hand, so his friend will stop staring at his tall glass of beer and instead look at his ‘OK’ sign.

         Drew looks at Blake’s left hand. Drew blinks, like he is not sure where he is right now or what he is supposed to make of this gesture.

         Ever wonder why a cunt’s cunt is shaped like this? Blake asks. 

         Blake pauses for a moment. Drew does not respond.

         When a man pokes it, it’ll curl up like this, Blake answers himself, while he slowly curls his fingers and his thumb into a fist.

         Well, I’m not poking her, Drew mutters.

         But you will be, if you don’t watch out, Blake says, while again gesturing for the bartender to pour him another shot of courage. 

         I don’t understand, Drew remarks. Last time, you’re practically ordering me to get laid. Now, you’re telling me to drop the one girl who ‘winked’ at me.

         Blake does not respond immediately. Instead, he watches the bartender pour more whiskey into his shot glass. He wants to make sure that he gets a full shot, since he would bet his wife’s life that ‘Mr. Light in his Loafers’ here is the kind who pours out less for ‘real men’ than for fellow hose suckers. He licks his lips hungrily, while observing the liquid gold drop from the bottle into his glass.

         When the swishy bartender walks away, Blake picks up his shot glass and sniffs the whiskey. He likes how his nose tingles. He drops another shot of hard liquor down his throat, grabs at the counter, and waits for the spinning to stop.

         Listen, buddy, screwing chicks is like hunting deer, Blake observes. Your job is to tag ‘em, then bag ‘em. That’s it. Not sit down in the forest and talk to the fucking animal…

         I’m feeling sick, Drew whines. 

         You should, Blake snarls. Your balls are shrinking every time you respond to one of her goofy emails. Roses, and birds, and Hallmark cards, what the hell is all that pussy stuff anyway? For that matter, why are you talking to her at all when you haven’t even seen her picture yet? You know she’s never sent you her picture ‘cause she’s a heifer, right? You know that, right?

         Yeah, I know, Drew sighs. But there’s something special about her…

         They’re all special, until you get their clothes off, Blake interrupts. Then they’re all the same. Moaning, clawing, squeezing; a wild beast you’re trying to hold down long enough to shoot your load into. It’s a wonder we men get out of them alive and in one piece. Listen, all I’m saying is that you got to stop all the pussy shit and get down to business. Your next email to her should be your last one, and you should ask her only these three questions: What date? What time? Your place or mine? 

         Drew drinks from his glass of beer. He wipes nervous sweat off his brow.

         I’ve already done that, Drew admits.

         What the fuck? Blake sneers.

         I wasn’t as blunt as you, but I did bite the bullet, Drew continues, while folding his hands again on the bar counter.

         So you’re going to see her, huh? Blake asks.

         Yes, Drew says. And I’ve got a favor to ask of you. 

         Sorry, bro, but you can’t have my balls, Blake snickers. 

         Pretty’s hometown is putting on some sort of party, Drew starts to say…

         Whoa! Blake interrupts. What’s her hometown? 

         Drew takes another sip of his beer. He looks and feels very embarrassed.

         Redwood, Drew mutters. 

         Fucking Redwood, huh? Blake chastises. They’re a bunch of inbred hicks.

         I know, I know, Drew sighs. But I think she’s different…

         So what kind of party is she dragging you to? Blake asks. Let me guess. It is a church casserole bake. Or even better, it is a fucking square dance. You go there in your overalls and just hope the old timers with the pitchforks pay more attention to the sheep than they do to you. 

         They’re celebrating a local war hero, Drew mutters. Iraq War veteran…

         Well, there’s one bright side, Blake says with a mischievous grin. If your girl turns out to be a ‘2’ instead of a ’10,’ you can dump her right there for one or two of those Gold Star Moms. I hear they’re horny as hell. 

         Anyway, about the favor, Drew starts to say…

         Blake interrupts Drew by grabbing a hold of his beer and finishing off the brew himself. Drew watches his friend drink all that beer within a few seconds. Drew is flabbergasted, even though many times he has seen Blake demonstrate a high proficiency with alcohol. He momentarily loses his train of thought then.

         So, you see, I promised Pretty I’d go to the celebration with her, before I remembered that I would have Jeremy that night, Drew laments. 

         Well, just tell Bonnie you’ll take him another night, Blake suggests after releasing the King of All Burps, and receiving for this effort scattered applause from others at the bar counter. 

         Not going to happen, Drew moans. Bonnie’s a stickler with her calendar.

         You can hide him in your trunk, Blake jokes.

         Or I could ask you to watch him for the night, Drew says. He plays pretty well with your three boys.

         No offense, Blake says, but my boys think yours is a retard. 

         So will you watch him for me? Drew asks. 

         Yeah, sure, what the hell, Blake answers. 

         I appreciate it, Drew says with a relieved grin. 

         And you’ll do something for me, right? Blake asks with a mischievous grin forming on his sweat stained, red face. Something that will balance the scales…

         What do you want? Drew asks then with a hint of trepidation in his voice.

         The names and numbers of three Gold Star Moms, Blake responds. Bonus points if they lost their sons this year. They’ll be begging for my bacon, believe me. You should try one of them, when your done with that wacko Pretty Purdy.

*   *   *

         Drew turns into the driveway of his ex-wife’s home. From the outside, it is an unremarkable tract home on the outskirts of the City of Beverly. Drew can only imagine what the inside must be like, given what he recalls about Bonnie’s eccentricities. He had never been all that comfortable with her darker side. An occasional paddle to his bum was about as far as he would go way back when to satisfy her deviant sexuality. Therefore, much of her hidden life remains today just as hidden to him as to the rest of the world. He prefers to keep it that way indefinitely, since he would much rather remember the beautiful blonde would be model he had married. He does not want to remember the Dominatrix in the knee high leather boots who would occasionally get a mad look in her eyes and order his sorry naked butt to the floor. 

         Drew idles his Chevy. He toots his horn, and waits for Bonnie to step out of the front door. Usually, she just glares at him, while Jeremy finishes stuffing comic books into his backpack or tying his sneakers. Sometimes, for no reason, she will give Drew the bird. 

         Drew always looks away. Just as he does not want to picture her in that Cat Woman outfit she had kept for years in the back of their closet, so he does not want to come face to face with the angry bitch who had replaced the perky would be model over the years. He wants to preserve her, not as she had been, but as he had imagined her to be when he had fallen head over heels. Real life has a nasty way of breaking that illusion apart; and so he has practiced the arts of putting something else into his mind, or tapping his wristwatch, or looking at nothing in particular off, whenever she lets him know just how much she cares.

         Strangely, a few seconds click away in Drew’s mind, but Bonnie does not make her grand appearance in the doorway. It is customary for her to open the door the moment he toots his horn. Apparently, she does not want him there in her driveway any longer than he has to be. That mutual discomfort may be now the one thing that they still have in common with one another…

         Well, that is, beside their son…

         The front door opens, and Jeremy steps out on his own. The little boy is clutching at his backpack, like a child about to jump into a turbulent sea might be clutching at his life preserver. His shoelaces are untied, although Drew sees that at least he had tried to tie a bow. Jeremy’s belt missed a couple of loops. Clearly, the little boy in the Winnie the Pooh T-shirt and jeans had had to dress himself this time. 

         Drew watches as Jeremy turns back to shut the front door. His son seems so young, and yet he must be in the fifth or the sixth grade by now. Drew is not sure. He has never been to one of those ‘Open Houses,’ where parents paste on plastic smiles, go to their child’s school after hours, and pretend to be amazed that junior can create a log cabin out of popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue. Drew likes to think that he may be interested about the time Jeremy goes to college, assuming his misfit of a son goes in that direction. Frankly, he would not be all that surprised if Jeremy skipped out on college altogether to pursue a career in collecting comic books or in doodling on white paper. There is no way around it in Drew’s mind. The boy is a loser, and more likely to end up on the minus side of life’s ledger sheet. 

         Hurry up, champ! Drew calls out to his son. 

         Jeremy quickens his pace. Sure enough, he stumbles upon his long laces. 

         Where’s your mom? Drew asks, when Jeremy sits down on the passenger seat beside him. 

         She left with her friend, Jeremy answers, as he massages his hurt knees.

         Sven? Drew asks with disdain, as he quickly reverses out of the driveway.

         Yes, Jeremy says. Mom said on the phone they were going to a swingers’ party. Does mom play tennis?

         Not exactly, Drew answers. But I’ll say this much. Your mom knows what to do with a racket and a pair of balls.

         Jeremy does not press for more details. That suits Drew just fine. He has no desire to say anything more to his son about this touchy subject. He wonders just how much his son knows about his mom’s double life. 

         Drew does not ponder that point for too long, before he is thinking about Sven the Swedish Yoga Master, or Yoga Guru, or whatever the fuck that fucking douchebag’s title is. Drew hates him for breaking up his marriage, even though deep down he knows that it had ended years before. He envies him for sleeping with his ex-wife. Drew cannot seem to get it up anymore, but he hates the idea that his ex-wife can and does get what she wants from some other man. To add insult to injury, this ‘other man’ has a perfect body, a vapid grin, and a relaxed Zen look in his eyes that has convinced Bonnie (and likely scores of other ladies in his yoga studio) that he is ‘profound.’ In Drew’s mind, there is no real justice in this world until Sven is raped by niggers in a dark alleyway somewhere.

         What a nasty thought! Drew has scared himself with the extent to which he wandered down that dark mental path. He glances at his son, so as to see if the little boy noticed anything odd about him. 

         Sure enough, Jeremy is looking back at him with the kind of big eyes the little ones reserve for either Santa Claus or the Boogeyman. Drew wonders if he had muttered something unseemly under his breath. Maybe, he had been silent the whole time, but Jeremy had noticed how tightly he is grasping the steering wheel. Regardless, Jeremy had noticed something; and so Drew decides to drop the matter by asking Jeremy about school. 

         Jeremy is happy to answer Drew’s question, for he too is uncomfortable and wants to change the subject. He talks about school, while he looks out the window at the passing houses. Drew pretends to listen, but hears nothing at all.

         Drew is on autopilot for awhile. He awakens from his own thoughts when he turns his Chevy into the blue collar neighborhood where Blake Coors lives. It occurs to him that he has not yet informed Jeremy that plans have changed for this evening. He clears his throat, which is the cue for Jeremy to pay attention.

         How would you like to do a sleepover tonight? Drew asks.

         Do I have to? Jeremy asks with both disappointment and fear in his tone.

         Yes, you have to, Drew says. 

         Where am I going? Jeremy sighs. 

         You’ll be spending the night with ‘Uncle Blake’ and his boys, Drew says.

         Jeremy remains silent. He clearly does not like the idea, but he knows it is useless to protest. He stares down at that stuffed backpack between his legs.

         You’ll enjoy it, Drew says. And if the boys push you around, you have my permission to push them back. 

         Jeremy remains silent. He knows as well as his dad that there is no way he can stand up to those hooligans. He does not mind getting a pair of raccoon eyes, so long as he hides his comic books. The last time those gorillas found the comic books he had in his backpack they fed them page by page into their loud and cranky garbage disposal. They would have put his right hand down there as well, except that Mrs. Coors came home and stopped them in the nick of time. Mrs. Coors asked Jeremy not to say anything to his parents. He had agreed, and had kept his promise. His own parents never would have done anything about it anyway, and the gorillas would have called him a tattletale and kicked his butt.

         Drew turns into the driveway. He sees Blake’s work truck, but otherwise no one seems to be home. This is strange. Normally, the Coors residence is very much alive with radio music, sports television, and rambunctious boys. Frankly, with so much commotion in and around that small tract home, Drew would not be surprised to hear someday that the Coors residence has been shut down as a health hazard and a nuisance. 

         Drew idles the vehicle. He gestures for his son to remain there, while he walks up to the front door to find out if anyone is home. 

         He is about to ring the doorbell, when the door opens. Blake is as drunk as an Irishman at his mom’s funeral. He has nothing on his sweaty, fat flesh but a pair of shit stained underwear. There seem to be Valentine hearts on the old underwear. Drew would need to get on his knees and to press his face up close and personal with Blake’s cock to tell for sure. Drew decides it does not matter all that much if his friend is wearing Valentine heart underwear. 

         What is much more interesting is the light on in the living room. Looking over Blake’s right shoulder, Drew can see a naked girl no more than eighteen or nineteen sitting on a rug on the floor. The girl is pleasuring herself with a black dildo, though the vacant look on her cheeky face suggests that the dildo means much less to her than whatever downer Blake gave her. If she keeps fading like this, then no doubt Blake will be doing a ‘Bill Cosby’ on her before she staggers back to her home. Drew glances away before that vacant girl can catch his eye.

         What the fuck! Blake blurts out. You’re not Tori. 

         Where are Susan and the boys? Drew asks.

         That chick back there called her sister to join us, Blake whispers. Damn cunt said her name was Tori or Lori. I’ve never fucked a Tori. Never ever ever…

         Where is Susan? Drew asks with irritation. 

         Susan? Blake asks. You mean my lawfully wedded wife?

         Blake breaks into insane laughter. Sensing he is about to fall onto his big ass, he holds himself up by grabbing the top of his door. He stops laughing, and then he looks around his doorway for a moment like he has no clue where he is.

         Yes, Drew answers. Where is she?

         Spending the night with her mom, Blake replies. Took the boys with her.

         Is everything okay? Drew asks. 

         Is everything okay? Blake asks incredulously. I’ve got Tammy back there ready to go, Tori or Lori on the way, and you’re asking me if everything is just hunky-dory? Fuck, man, I’m living the fucking dream. I mean this is the shit! So what if Susan’s left me? What do I care? She doesn’t blow me anymore anyway.

         I’m sorry, man, Drew mutters. 

         Have you seen Tori? Blake asks. She should be here by now. 

         Listen, you were going to watch Jeremy tonight, Drew says. Remember?

         Where the fuck is Tori? Blake asks. I mean, really, where the fuck is she?

         This isn’t going to work, Drew mutters.

         I let that sick cunt back there use my cell phone to call her sister, Blake sneers. Bitch likely called the wrong number. That’s public education for you. I swear we should deport the teachers along with the wetbacks…

         I’ve got to go, Drew interrupts. 

         Hold on, Blake urges. Wait a minute.

         Blake steps back into his home. Drew sees the naked girl with the dildo. She is no longer pleasuring herself with it. Instead, she is chewing it, like when a teething baby crunches on a pacifier.

         Blake returns with a piece a paper. He hands it to Drew conspiratorially, like when a gangster hands another gangster illicit cash. He feels the earth spin again, and so he holds himself up on the open door as before. He wipes a lot of sweat off his brow, while Drew tries to read the scribble on the piece of paper.

         Jessica’s my boss’s daughter, Blake says.

         She lives in Redwood? Drew asks. 

         Fell in love with a lumberjack, Blake says.

         I don’t know, Drew mutters.

         It’s okay, Blake says. They split up. She’s babysitting on her own now to make ends meet. She’ll put Jeremy to bed, and watch him like a fucking hawk.

         That’ll work, Drew mutters. 

         Now go bone that chick, Blake urges. 

         Are you sure everything’s alright with you? Drew asks. 

         Couldn’t be better, Blake says. I’m a free man. I’ve got a Wi-Fi, and I’ve got a cock. This means I can get as much pussy as Genghis Khan! Think about it.

         I’ll think about it, Drew mutters, as he makes his way back to his Chevy.

         Where the fuck is Tori? Blake asks, as he steps inside and shuts the door.

*   *   *

         Drew hardly speaks to his son, while he drives the windy back roads from the City of Beverly to Redwood Township. He is adding at least an hour of drive time by taking the back roads, but the news on the radio had suggested a much longer wait on the freeway. Apparently, an eighteen wheeler unaccustomed to the fresh snow lost control and swerved into two smaller vehicles. Fatalities on the scene mean more highway patrolmen taking longer to do their crime scene investigation. Everyone else on that freeway can sit back and dance with Molly Five Fingers for all they care. 

         Drew probably would have stayed in the freeway traffic, if he had been alone in his car. His dance with Molly likely would not have amounted to much; but he could have turned up the rock station, closed his eyes, and tried at least to recall one or two times he really knocked Bonnie’s socks off. It seems like so long ago, but he had been a man once. If rekindling a few old memories meant shaving several hours off of his date with Pretty, then he would have done just that without hesitation. 

         Also, deep down, Drew is not so certain anymore he wants to go through with this date. There is just something wrong about it. He tells himself that he is nervous because he has not been with a woman for so long, and that is true. Nevertheless, there is something else going on here. Perhaps, if Drew had been able to drop off his son with Blake as planned, and if therefore he had allowed himself to daydream in the long traffic jam, then he would have chickened out. Perhaps, he would have headed back home, and spent the night trying to get a rise out of porn again, while Jeremy slept his tears away on Blake’s couch. The long night would have passed quietly, while new snow knocked on the windows.

         But that option had been denied to him, when Blake reneged. Jeremy is sitting now on his passenger seat. He is staring out the window, lost somewhere in the thoughts of a strange child, or maybe just counting every one of the old, snow covered trees that pass by him. Drew cannot tell. What Drew does realize is that Jeremy is conscious, sentient, alive, and that means he cannot very well pull out his cock and listen to rock music on the freeway. 

         Moreover, if he takes his son home with him, then he cannot venture off to the Land of Porn, even after his son is asleep. For some reason, since he lost his marriage, he has determined that that is a line he will not cross. Now, does it make any sense to drop Jeremy off with a total stranger tonight, because he will not indulge in his favorite porn websites if his son stays the night with him? No, it makes no sense, but Drew gave up sometime ago trying to make sense of all this. Adolescents do not try to make sense of their sexual indiscretions; and so, in a way, maybe Drew is dipping into that pool again simply by tossing aside his own reason and maturity. Maybe, the cost of one more night of adolescence is leaving his son with a stranger and ignoring an inner voice that says go home.

         It is late afternoon by the time Drew drives into the Redwood Township. The snow is falling fast and furious right now, and the wind sounds like an open palm slapping against the car windows. Still, the local yokels seem hell bent on going forward with their celebration. Though the snowfall obstructs much of his view, Drew makes out the stark white banners fluttering over the intersections:

Welcome Back Our Heroes.

Semper Fi.

         A quirky, old man on the side of the road wears a sandwich board. There is the same poster on both sides. The writing could be a child’s crayon scribble:

Show Your Pride!

Come See Mr. Touchdown!

Jesus Time for the Family!

Main and Kellogg

         Drew hears a Souza March in the distance. The band is hearty enough for the occasion, but it is also off key. Most likely, it is from the local high school. It occurs to Drew that small towns are invariably amateurish when putting on a celebration or a parade. The smart ones go to the ‘big city,’ after all, and they leave behind the folks who picked banjos in Deliverance

         Drew recalls Ned Beatty bent over a log and oinking like a pig. That ugly scene finally brings a smile to his face. He looks over at his son to see if Jeremy noticed. Apparently not, for Jeremy continues to stare out of his car window at God knows what. It is just as well. Drew would not want to explain to his son at this moment why he is smiling like a goddamned fool. 

         There is a shabby apartment building off to the side. Drew slows down to a crawl, so that he can read the numbers nailed over the front door. The snow is a real bitch, but he manages finally to see that indeed he has arrived at 1692 Salem Road. He pulls over to the curb. He almost shuts the engine, but then he decides instead to let the car idle, until the babysitter emerges from her place.

         Do I have to stay here tonight? Jeremy asks with resignation. 

         You’ll like it, Drew answers without much conviction. 

         Jeremy does not pursue the conversation any further. He just lifts his old backpack to his lap, and stares out the window. 

         Drew taps his steering wheel impatiently. When the trip started, he had wanted to be stuck in that traffic jam. Now that he is here in this damned hick town he wants to get the show on the road. He is like the convict on death row who wants to delay his day of reckoning until that day actually arrives. Then, if there is a God in the heavens, he just hopes God will be merciful enough to end this drama sooner rather than later. Drew does not recall being this antsy when he first had gone out with his wife. So what the hell is wrong with him anyway?

         He removes Blake’s scribble from his pocket. He is about to call Jessica again on his cellular phone, when he sees a solitary woman step out of the drab building. The woman seems to be the right age. She is flat chested and pimply. He thinks she resembles the adolescent Mackenzie Phillips in American Graffiti.

         Drew opens his window, and he waves her over to him. Jessica sees him, but she does not quicken her lackadaisical pace. This pisses Drew off big time, and he squeezes his steering wheel to let off some of his steam.

         He toots his horn. She still walks at a snail’s pace. So are they all cunts?

         Before Drew answers his own question, Jessica arrives. She stands a few paces back from his open window. She folds her arms over her chest, and looks back at Drew with the haunted eyes of a young woman who has had to contend with more than her fair share of abusive men. 

         There is an awkward silence. Snow flutters through the open car window and onto Drew’s face. He wipes the snow away like he would an irritating fly. It takes every last bit of his will to force a fake grin onto his face. 

         You must be Jessica, Drew says. 

         And you must be Blake’s friend, right? Jessica asks. 

         Yes, Drew says. My son here is Jeremy, and, uh, he won’t be any trouble tonight. He doesn’t have much to say, and he’ll go straight to bed…

         Can you give me half the money now? Jessica asks. 

         Drew is taken aback. Jessica had been so lackadaisical, but the question of when and how to pay her kicks some color into her cheeks. Drew remembers all those whores on that dating website. They too seemed to have nothing else on their minds but the bottom line. What is it with these cunts nowadays? Now, surely, Pretty Purdy will not be the same, right? She will be an exception to the rule, yes? Can Drew at least have confidence in that much about his blind date?

         Drew feels his heart sink into his bowels. Apparently, he cannot have any confidence whatsoever. Pretty may be different; or she may be another twenty something con cunt toying with an older man’s emotions to get him to help her with her poetry, or to get her hand on his wallet, or who knows? 

         Sure, Drew mutters after awhile. 

         Drew reaches into his wallet. He finds enough cash to pay Jessica half of her babysitting fee. He will need to find an ATM before he returns tomorrow to pick up his son, but what if there is no such machine to be found in this remote hick town? What if this date turns out to be a series of fuck ups? Should he not turn his car around and head back to that safe and mundane life he knows well?

         Though he hears the questions in his head, Drew does not hesitate to put a filthy wad of cash into Jessica’s cold, white hands. He will not turn back now.

         Jessica steps back to count the cash. Drew leans back and shuts his eyes.

         Jeremy slips out of the car then without making a peep. He clutches his backpack like an old witch does her purse, while he walks over to his babysitter for the night. He needs to pee big time, but he does not say anything to anyone for fear of breaking out of his shell. He senses he will need his shell when later the night grows much too long and cold.

*   *   *

         Is the flower pretty? Pretty asks, while gazing at her reflection in a Louis XV, full length mirror in the living room. 

         Myrtle finishes lacing Pretty’s corset. It takes so much longer now to pull her granddaughter’s waist into an hourglass figure. Myrtle blames her arthritis, and to some extent she is correct to do so. The wintry draft hissing through the cracks in the living room wall flare up her joints like gas to a bonfire. Her bony fingers curl into themselves, and her hunched flesh crackles, like tree bark in a screaming flame. It is a wonder she does not lean forward too much, crack her cane in two, and smash her face open on the Oriental rug, let alone lace up her granddaughter’s vintage corset.

         But knobby joints are only a part of the problem. A far greater culprit is the weight of guilt pressing down on the old lady’s shoulders. Myrtle cannot put aside the fact that she allowed her innocent one to get her hands on the ‘magic box’ that has afflicted so many others. When sin is only a few search words and a click away is it any wonder that even the purest soul falls for the same charm that had turned Eve’s cheeks red? Myrtle had spent years protecting her special one only to toss all that safety to the wind when she had seen that ‘look’ in her granddaughter’s eyes. She had seen the flower start to bloom and had decided to let the petals open. She had done so for no other reason than that her heart, old and tired as it is, still skips a beat whenever she observes the Commodore’s face over her mantle. Myrtle has yet to bury the last traces of that adolescent, romantic fool who had fallen for the Commodore way back when; and that fact more than anything else explains why she is helping Pretty to dress for her first date. Myrtle senses that the person who knocks on their door will be more wolf than man; and yet, ever since Pretty finished her bath, she has helped her find and squeeze into the right dress and shoes from among the hundreds scattered about the Victorian. 

         Myrtle hobbles out from behind her Rubenesque charge, so that she too can see Pretty’s reflection in the mirror. She remembers staring into the same mirror so many years ago. She had been in this same corset, no more than a red blush of a rose herself, and her nanny had done the honors. Her nanny had had so much more strength in her hands. Myrtle remembers thinking that she might never breathe again, as her nanny seemed to pull her waist into her spine. The rituals of first love; so much pain and discomfort paradoxically to entice a man and to retain a woman’s chastity as long as possible.

         Myrtle shakes the memory out of her head. In her case, her first love had been her last. She does not think that her little one will be so lucky. If Myrtle is not going to scuttle this date before it starts, then at the very least she should set aside her own reverie for the sake of her granddaughter’s pressing needs. It is hard enough for any girl to prepare for her first date. Surely, it is that much harder for a girl who in many ways still has the mind and the heart of a child on Santa’s lap. How does Pretty make sense of the butterflies in her stomach? How does she wrap her mind around the burn in her heart? Probably not well, Myrtle decides. Pretty’s emotions now must be as inexplicable to her as a comet to an indigenous man. Is there anything more horrifying? How is it Pretty copes at all?

         It is pretty, Myrtle says, when she sees the rose woven into Pretty’s hair.

         But is it pretty enough? Pretty asks.

         Yes, Myrtle responds. Everything about you is beautiful. Your new friend is very lucky to be able to escort you to the park. 

         Pretty turns away from the mirror. She faces Myrtle. She wrings her soft hands, while trying to come up with the correct words. 

         Smart Stud speaks like a Hallmark card, Pretty remarks.

         Pretty gazes into Myrtle’s eyes to see if her grandmamma understands as she does. She sees raw terror in the old lady’s eyes, but does she also see some other emotion? Does she see in her grandmamma’s eyes the same longing she is feeling right now in her own bosom? 

         Pretty closes her eyes. Her cheeks blush crimson red. She does not want to pull aside the curtain any more than she has already. She needs Myrtle to be her grandmamma, not a woman whose mind diverts down dark alleyways every now and then. 

Not a woman, like herself, who longs for the touch of a man…

Myrtle feels Pretty’s awkwardness. The poor girl is so unsure, so lost in a moment that seems like it could stretch into eternity. Myrtle sighs, and almost calls off the date just then. 

Myrtle is distracted. It turns out to be nothing, but the sudden burst of a patriotic march heard in the distance. The high school band has resumed at the park. Soon, the town fathers will take their turns on stage singing the praises of God, motherhood, and apple pie. Myrtle is glad to be too infirm to hobble down to the square across from Millie’s Old Fashioned Diner. The flags, the band, the saccharine speeches, do they not call to mind the same patriotic cat screeches that used to kick start those pogroms in the old days? Myrtle senses sometimes that she had been a Jewess or a Gypsy in a previous lifetime; a cunning, earthy lady who had managed until the end to stay one step ahead of those old devils.

Myrtle sets aside that thought, but the brief distraction had been enough to dissuade her from calling off the date. Pretty, no doubt, is in over her head, and her ‘new friend’ is bad news, but maybe her little flower has a bit more of the Jewess or the Gypsy in her than either one of them realizes. Long ago, the Commodore had plucked her out of her comfortable cocoon; so maybe, she has a moral obligation to do the same for her granddaughter now.  

You can speak pretty words, too, Myrtle says. 

Pretty opens her eyes wide, like she cannot believe her ears. 

And your words are powerful, Myrtle continues. Like the incantations the earth women used to sing in the old days. 

In…can…ta…that’s a lot of syllables. I do not understand, Pretty remarks.

You will someday, Myrtle says. I suspect sooner than either of us desires. 

Pretty tries to make sense of Myrtle’s cryptic comments. She reaches out mentally as best she can, but comes back empty handed. She wrings her hands.

Myrtle inhales deeply. She senses something in the air, not quite a smell, more like an intuited grasp that time all too quickly is ticking away from them. Pretty needs to put on her dress, because her ‘new friend’ will be knocking on their front door in a few minutes.

*   *   *

         Drew turns his Chevy onto Deadwood Road. He reaches into his trousers’ pocket for the piece of paper on which he wrote down Pretty’s address. Before he reads it, though, he eyes an old, uptight, Victorian house that appears to be shivering in the snow flurries. The house is partially veiled behind a ramshackle fence and a bare maple tree. It is as near to the sidewalk as all the others; and yet it seems remote, cut off, a relic from the past that guards her many secrets behind her drab walls and dust stained curtains. Surely, that is where Pretty is. 

         Drew parks along the street across from the house. He stares a moment at the house, while rubbing his hands together nervously. Does he truly want to go through with this? Should he not turn back at the very last moment, retrieve his son from that weird babysitter, and go back to his normal life? And what the fuck brought him out here in the first place? A desire to get laid? A desire to be a mentor for a ‘promising’ writer? Or is this really about Bonnie? Does he desire to convince himself that, indeed, he can be excited again about a woman other than his ex-wife? He does not ask himself if he is looking for love, because love seems totally out of the question. After all, surely, love cannot be found on the kind of dating website that matches whores with sugar daddies. Does not love, true love, demand a more fertile soil than a website that includes scantily clad co-eds and horny, married men? Moreover, has he not swept love off the table? Has he not decided that if he cannot love Bonnie, then he will not love anyone?

         He steps out of his car. He hears ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ mangled by a high school band in the near distance. The music is not very good, but the intermittent applause suggests a town celebration about to kick into high gear. Several of the houses further down Deadwood Road feature prominently the big and gaudy American Flags we normally associate with used car dealerships. The flags snap like galleon sails on the high seas. Drew imagines Spanish pirates on the hunt for outsiders and weirdoes, and the shivering Victorian across the way seems that much more vulnerable in contrast. 

         The music drowns out the questions in Drew’s mind, and so he is able to drop his hands to his side and to walk across the street. Snow flurries strike his face like irate flies. The winds moan like disconsolate mourners huddled around an open grave. There is the faint smell of death; perhaps, what remains now of a small beast that had succumbed to the early onset of winter. What is dead is dead, whether it be a nobleman in a grave mourned by his wives and mistresses or a squirrel torn apart by a ravenous dog.

         Drew glances at the overcast sky. There is a vulture circling overhead. It appears to have marked him, although that does not make any sense rationally.

         Drew shudders. He stuffs his hands into his pants pockets, and he hurries to front door. The house has a strange vibe, but it seems altogether hospitable in comparison to the gathering menace outside. 

         Drew knocks on the door. He waits for what feels like an eternity, while more snow flurries slap against his backside. 

         The door opens. It screams on its rusted hinges. 

         Drew looks down to observe an ancient, hideous, stooped woman almost falling over her cane. She stares back up at him with suspicious, pleading eyes; and though she tries to plaster a welcoming smile on her weathered face, those eyes set the mood at once. 

         You must be Mr. Smart Stud; the old lady says.

         Drew is taken aback. Did he not tell Pretty his real name? He tries really hard to think, but his mind cannot grasp much of anything just then. Far worse, he sees that the sordid game he played with Pretty on that website apparently did not remain there. It has bled into real life. He senses that he would be just as ashamed, if a porn star featured in too many of his masturbatory daydreams instead had opened the door and told him where, when, and how often he had danced with Molly Five Fingers. What is on the computer screen, or in his mind, is supposed to remain there. 

         Uh, Drew Moffitt, Drew responds, while reaching out with his right hand.

         The old lady does not shake his hand. Instead, she nudges the door open a bit more, so that Drew views a candlelit foyer full of tagged antique furniture and framed portraits of long dead Anglican clerics. There is a musty smell that suggests a warehouse seldom opened to the public. 

         My name is Mrs. Purdy; the old lady says. My friends call me ‘Myrtle,’ but you can call me ‘Ma’am.’

         Uh, yes, Drew stammers. Nice to meet you, ma’am. 

         Drew drops his hand to his side. He shifts his weight from foot to foot.

         Well, come on inside before the frostbite gets you, Myrtle says. 

         Drew steps out from the snow and into a storm of dust mites. He feels a sneeze about to happen, and he bites his lip to set it aside. He senses correctly that he already looks way too uncomfortable. He does not want to make this so much worse by succumbing to his allergies.

         The moment he steps into the foyer he hears a vicious dog growling. It is too dark at first to see the little beast; but then his eyes adjust suddenly to the flickering candlelight, and he beholds a pair of dead, pink eyes glaring back at him from inside the living room. The eyes look like huge buttons on the face of a mangy teddy bear. That frightens him more than the imminent possibility of a dog attack. Drew tries to stand tall, but he feels cold sweat dribbling down the back of his neck and into his collar. 

         Now, that is enough, Happy, Myrtle scolds. Mr. Moffitt here is our guest.

         The growling continues a few more seconds, and then stops. Those dead, pink eyes retreat behind an Oriental screen. 

         Do not mind our Bichon, Myrtle says. He just has a good knack of sensing a man’s moral character. 

         The wind slams the door shut, and Drew jumps forward. He looks over at Myrtle. She still has that insipid grin on her face, while her eyes pierce his soul.

         Drew turns away from the strange, old bird. He scans the dimly lit living room ahead for any sign of his date. He wants to see her, to offer up a handful of pleasantries, and to escape to the jingoistic party outside as fast as possible. The house may have seemed more hospitable than the snow and the wind, but Myrtle Purdy is giving him the creeps. 

         His eyes are drawn to Commodore Purdy’s portrait above the mantle. His heart stops a moment in his chest, for the old man’s stare is even more intense than Myrtle’s. He knows consciously that it is a painting, but deep down he also knows that it is alive. The officer with the grizzled, white beard, long stemmed pipe, and dark, blue, mariner’s coat does not want him to stay here any longer than is necessary. 

         A bosomy blossom of a girl in a white, Victorian hoop skirt steps out from behind a drawn curtain. She walks through a maze of antique chairs and chests, while holding her impractical skirt in so as to avoid knocking over a hodgepodge of long necked vases and hat boxes. The whole time she stares down at her old lady shoes and attempts to stifle what she considers to be an impertinent grin. Her bubble cheeks glow with the pink innocence of a girl trying to find her first awkward steps of womanhood. She is a toddler trying to stand up from a crawl.

         The girl steps out from a shadow, and Drew is able to see her clearly in a flicker of candlelight. She sees him, stops by the mantle, and blushes beet red.

         Oh, shit, Drew thinks. She’s a fat pig.

         Good day, Mr. Smart Stud, the girl says nervously. 

         Oh, yes, my name is Drew, Drew says. 

         His name is Mr. Moffitt; Myrtle says from behind Drew. It seems that ‘Mr. Smart Stud’ is an alias. 

         Actually, more of a pseudonym, Drew mutters.

         Drew, the girl remarks. That is a pretty name.

         The girl searches then for something in her mind. She sighs and gives up. 

         Grandmamma, what is an alias? The girl asks. 

         It is a ‘special name’ that spies or con men have, Myrtle explains. 

         Oh, the girl says, although her expression says that she remains clueless.

         So you are Pretty, Drew says with a forced smile.

         Pretty responds with a crimson red blush and a slight curtsy. 

         Well, it’s so good to see all of you, Drew remarks awkwardly. 

         Pretty folds her hands in front of her waist, and she looks off to her right side. She does not want Drew to see her big smile. She swoons, and then turns back to face Drew.

         You can’t see all of me, can you? Pretty asks. 

         No, of course not, Drew stammers. Uh, I’m just being funny. 

         Yes, like a clown, Myrtle suggests unhelpfully. 

         No, not a clown; Pretty says. Clowns cannot say pretty words. 

         Oh, I forgot, Myrtle sneers. Mr. Moffitt can say pretty words.

         Can you say a pretty word for grandmamma? Pretty asks. Pretty please?

         Drew has no clue what to say or to do. He feels like he is trapped inside of an episode of The Twilight Zone. He wonders if there is any way he just can leave without making a total ass of himself in front of these two strange ladies and the Bichon. He senses he has passed the point of no return, and surrenders.

         Well, don’t you have anything pretty to say? Myrtle asks with a sick grin.

         Drew grabs at the first thing that pops into his mind.

         There’s nothing plain about ladies in Spain, Drew remarks. 

         I suppose you’d know that, Myrtle sneers.

         Those were pretty words, Pretty swoons.

         Pretty as a peach, Myrtle mutters. 

         I suppose we should be going, Drew says.

         Just one thing first, Pretty says.

         Pretty removes a small flower from the mantle. It is a miniature version of the flower in her hair. She cups the flower with both hands, and walks up to Drew with the care of a deacon bringing the bread and the wine up to the altar for the sacrifice. She places the small flower in his shirt pocket without looking at his face. Her red hot cheeks look as if they are about to explode into flames.

         This way we have the same flower, Pretty whispers.

         Yes, Drew mutters sheepishly. The same flower.

*   *   *

         Drew holds Pretty’s left hand, as the two of them walk across the street to his Chevy. He can feel Myrtle’s eyes stabbing into the back of his head. He is certain that he would see her staring out at them from the living room window, if he looked back in that direction. Like Lot’s wife, he is certain he would turn then into a pillar of salt; a monument to his own foolishness buried beneath the snow and trampled underfoot by the hicks who call this town home.

         Better now to look forward, and to see this misadventure through to the end. If there is any mercy left in the universe, then he will return Pretty to the old bag she calls ‘grandmamma’ before too long. He could return her now, but something in the back of his mind tells him that at the very least he has to take her to the ‘Hillbilly Hero of the Year’ celebration (or whatever the fuck the big party in the park is called). He tries to tell himself that she deserves that much given the extent of their email exchanges, but deep down he realizes that he is not really all that magnanimous. He is going to go through with the date, not to be kind to her, but to be able to drive home with his son the next morning with the assurance in his own mind that he had not chickened out. 

         The next morning? Is he really going to spend the night with this woman?

         No, Drew thinks. I’ll get her back home long before then. Then, I’ll find myself a motel somewhere; preferably, one with a pay-per-view porn channel…

         You hold my hand so nice, Pretty says, when they reach the Chevy.

         Drew turns to face Pretty. The band has started up again, and he barely can hear himself think. Nevertheless, he plasters a warm grin onto his face and squeezes her hand ever so gently. 

         That’s because your hand is so nice, Drew says lamely.

         Pretty looks down and away. Her cheeks flash into flames. 

         Drew drops her hand, and looks in the direction of the music. Though he cannot observe the park, he senses that if he were to turn left off of Deadwood and onto Kellogg he would be only a few blocks away. 

         He looks at Pretty. He is about to suggest that they walk there, when he notices her old lady shoes. Those vintage shoes are not meant for the outdoors, let alone for the snow. She will be slipping and sliding everywhere if they try to go on foot to the festivities. 

         Drew then escorts Pretty to the passenger seat, holds her hand until she manages to pull all of her skirt fabric into the car, and shuts the door. He folds his arms before his chest, looks up at the twirling snow flurries, and sighs. This date is a disaster already. He cannot say why precisely, except for the fact that she is fat, and her grandmamma is a real piece of work. Still, the disaster here is palpable. He practically can smell it every time he breathes in the cold snow all around him. The disaster smells like the charcoaled ruins of a burnt house; a smell that is sadder than it is horrifying. 

         Drew almost sheds a cold tear, but he stifles that like he does his heart. Instead, he strolls back to the driver’s side of the car. He smiles awkwardly at Pretty, while grabbing for his car key, but otherwise does not acknowledge her during the short drive from her home to the park. 

*   *   *

         Drew does not really acknowledge just how out of place Pretty’s outfit is until they step onto the town square. Maybe, he had presumed that a patriotic celebration would double as a costume party. The townsfolk show up dressed in outfits from America’s Glorious Past: Men in Revolutionary War uniforms, ladies dressed as Betsy Ross; Antebellum Southern Gentlemen and their Miss Scarletts; Cowboys, and Rough Riders, and perhaps even a Rosie the Riveter just for good measure. Drew had seen television clips of Tea Party rallies over the years. Did they not all include men and women in tricorn hats carrying around muskets, or something along those lines? Did he not expect much the same here? 

         But that is not at all the case. Except for Pretty, the townsfolk standing on the snow covered lawn are inconspicuous Middle Americans; probable Trump voters in floral dresses, work trousers, or overalls. They stare at the high school band now playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on an elevated stage. A local Boy Scout Honor Guard does its duty in front of the stage. The theatrics are all low grade by city standards, but the people assembled respond as if they are seeing the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Apart from the National Anthem, and the sound of wind kicking up snow, there is a respectful silence that, for Drew anyway, calls attention to the strangeness of any woman dressed like a High Victorian Lady. 

         Drew picks a spot near the back of the crowd. He sees how Pretty stops, puts her hand over her heart, and sings along with the anthem. The suddenness with which she transitions from a gawky girl on her first date to a lady patriot, indeed the almost robotic method by which she places her hand over her heart, calls to mind a malfunctioning Stepford Wife. Drew half expects Pretty then to freeze in place.

         She does not; and when the anthem is finished, Pretty joins in with most everyone else in offering up a rapturous applause. 

         Drew applauds as well, though his heart is not in it. He had noticed two country bumpkins during the anthem glaring at him with murderous eyes. They know he is not from around here; but, more importantly, they sense he will not treat Pretty with the respect she deserves. Maybe, if he claps for the American Flag and for Jesus, then they will leave him the hell alone, notwithstanding the High Victorian Lady by his side. 

         The applause ends, and a soundman repairs the microphone attached to a podium on the stage. This is the cue for the assembled patriots to whisper to one another. 

         Drew looks up. He notes that there is a temporary break in the snowfall; even a brief glimpse of the sun. The snow has been replaced by falling confetti apparently. God only knows how these yo-yos are shooting confetti into the air, since there does not appear to be any technology here but outdated sound and video equipment. Even a hotdog stand is just a Bar B Q grill upon four old tires.

         Drew sees a weird foreigner out of the corner of his eye. The young man could be an Italian or a Greek, and he is very clearly agitated about something.

         Pretty follows Drew’s gaze. She leans in a bit closer, so as to speak with ‘Mr. Smart Stud’ without anyone else hearing her. Her eyelids flutter anxiously.

         His name is Paul, Pretty explains. Happy does not like him. 

         It takes Drew a moment to recall that ‘Happy’ is the name of their dead eyed Bichon. He almost feels sorry for the weirdo skulking around like a would be assassin, especially when an Old Farmer John type tells ‘Zorba’ to screw off.

         I guess I’m in good company, Drew comments.

         Pretty does not understand what he means. She looks down with shame, and she folds her soft hands in front of her waist. 

         A short, sweaty, pig faced VIP in an all white suit walks up to the podium after a few minutes. There is extended applause, as the little fat man removes his straw hat to dab his forehead with his handkerchief. Drew figures that he is the mayor of this fine town; a Boss Hogg for all the hogs in overalls around him.

         An elderly, stooped woman who looks like a quintessential schoolmarm is the next one on the stage. Her hair is in a granny bun, and her pince-nez teeter precariously on the tip of her nose. For all Drew knows, she indeed may be the schoolmarm by day and Norman Bates’ Mother by night, especially given a hard snarl that seems to be etched permanently onto her face. The old witch stands beside Boss Hogg and holds up a picture of a fallen soldier. 

         A man walks up to the stage. He looks a bit like Howard Hughes, except that his eyes are much more cold and sinister than insane. He positions himself on the opposite side of Boss Hogg, which means that visually he is supposed to be of equal stature with the schoolmarm. Nevertheless, the arrogant fashion by which he holds up his chin, and the subtle smirk on his face, suggest a man who is trying anyway to stand over and above everyone else. Drew does not like the man at once, but he feels that the man is ‘going places’ in this one horse town.

         ‘Howard Hughes’ holds up a picture of a fallen soldier. This one is almost identical to the one held up by the schoolmarm. Apparently, Redwood recently lost a pair of twins to the ‘Ay-Rabs’ somewhere out there in ‘Camel Land.’ As if on cue, many of the patriots assembled before the stage start to cry. Drew has no feelings for those fallen soldiers one way or another, but the theatrical grief on display gives him the creeps. How is this different from the staged mourning we observe in North Korea whenever they lose one of their ‘Great Leaders’ to a nasty bout of syphilis? 

         Then, the band launches into yet another rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ The Boy Scouts redo the flag ceremony in front of the elevated stage. Most everyone places their hands on their hearts, like Stepford Wives who have no choice but to react to a primordial software code. 

         Drew cannot get himself to follow suit, no matter the inbred hicks once more glaring at him. It is rather obvious that the band and the scouts had done their dog and pony show too soon the last time. The fact that they are doing so again without any acknowledgement of their prior mishap is much too hilarious.

         Drew has to try hard to stifle an impish grin. He glances at Pretty by his side. He expects her to be dutifully singing along with the national anthem too.

         And so he is pleasantly surprised to see her looking back at him with the same impish grin. He places his arm around her shoulder. She trembles briefly, but then allows herself to enjoy the intimacy of the moment. She even tilts her head into his shoulder, while the falling confetti partially veils them from view.

*   *   *

         Drew does not let go of Pretty for the rest of the town celebration. They do not say much, since the homespun patriotic speeches and the upbeat Souza marches make it impossible for them to hear one another. Nevertheless, every now and then they exchange mischievous glances with one another, and at one point Pretty even pats Drew’s lower back. 

         It is dark when the festivities finally end. Drew escorts Pretty back to his Chevy, which is parked in a landfill not too far from the town square. There are dozens of other cars and pickup trucks spread indiscriminately across the snow covered grounds. People hurry to their vehicles to escape the howling wind and nonstop snowfall. They pay no attention to those two lovebirds strolling hand in hand across the snow without any apparent care in the world. 

         Drew opens the passenger door for Pretty. He helps her to stuff her huge and unwieldy skirt into the vehicle. She looks back at him with the endless gaze of a girl struck hard by Cupid’s bow. 

         Drew sits behind the steering wheel. He is about to start up the ignition, when he sees the disorderly way that the vehicles around him are trying to exit the parking lot. In a normal parking lot with a marked path in and out, the last vehicle would be gone within five minutes. The mess of automobiles here is not going to untangle itself for at least another half hour. 

         Rather than join the crowd, Drew leans back into his seat, and stretches out his right arm. He starts to caress the back of Pretty’s neck. He figures that he has the green light to do so, given how long the two of them have had their arms around each other. 

         Thus, Drew is a bit surprised, when he feels Pretty’s neck tense up. She leans forward just enough to remove her neck from his fingers. Drew lowers his right hand back to his lap. 

         There is an awkward silence, while Pretty tries to think of the right word to say at that moment. Drew feels just how cold it is inside the Chevy. He rubs his hands together to keep warm. 

         Say pretty words to me, Pretty pleads. 

         What do you want to hear? Drew asks with a hint of impatience. 

         Pretty looks down at her own lap. She can feel his impatience, and she is ashamed as a result. 

         A flower word, Pretty mutters. Pretty Please with a cherry on top? 

         A cherry on top, Drew whispers under his breath. 

         Pretty faces Drew. She wipes a tear off her face. 

         Okay, Drew says after a moment. Roses in bloom…

         Pretty swoons. She hears how she sounds, and she covers her mouth. Her shame, though considerable, does not deter the wave of sexual feeling rippling out now from deep inside her heart. 

         …Grow out of the tomb, Drew continues.

         Pretty is so excited she taps her feet. She shrieks like a little girl getting a Valentine’s Day card from her favorite boy. 

         …Only to be swept away by the witch’s broom, Drew concludes. 

         Pretty leaps forward and plasters her lips onto his. Her attempt at a kiss is not all that successful, since she nervously bites down on his lower lip. Aware of the mishap she is about to retreat to her seat and to call it a lifetime, when Drew cups the back of her head with his right hand. Her kisses her back with a bit more expertise, and she surrenders like a trembling flower before the wind.

         Wow! Pretty blurts out, when those two lovebirds come up for some air.

         Drew leans back into his seat. He observes that they have fogged up the windshield. He smiles, since that is something he has not done since God knows when. At the same time, he cannot deny the undercurrent of sadness that tugs at his heart. After all, this girl is not Bonnie. Her lips do not taste the same, no matter how hard he tries to imagine that he is fogging up the windows with his ex-wife. His mind can indulge all sorts of fantasies, but his broken heart knows.

         Drew and Pretty sit back in silence. They watch the moisture on the old windshield slowly evaporate. Apparently, they had been kissing for a lot longer than they had thought, for most of the vehicles are gone. The coast is clear for them to leave, if they want to call it a night. 

         Before they decide what to do, they each hear footsteps on the snow not too far away. A man passes the hood of the Chevy. He never once looks over at them. Indeed, he seems oblivious to the world around him. He is lost in his own thoughts. Drew studies the man’s profile. Is that not Officer Weaver? Is that not the town hero who had stood center stage before the rapturous applause of his peers? If so, then how fitting it is that he is alone now. Like the rest of us, this town hero mingles with the gods only briefly. What lingers is not the applause, neither the speeches nor the Souza marches, but the cold, snow covered earth, and a lonely trail of footsteps that ends abruptly somewhere. 

         I know what that man feels, Pretty remarks. 

         I do, too, Drew whispers, while taking a hold of Pretty’s left hand. 

         Pretty looks at Drew’s profile. She licks her lips in anticipation. 

         This time Drew leaps forward. The kisses they share are fast and furious. Neither wants to come up for a breath of air, lest the passion be shattered, and yet there is a trembling undercurrent of fear that presses Pretty’s back against the passenger door. 

         Drew stops a moment. He lifts himself back, and observes Pretty leaning against the passenger window like a cornered hare. Her breaths are erratic, her eyes glued shut, her face a mask of absolute fright; as much as she wants all of this, she simply cannot handle it. He sees that she is teetering on the precipice and that he has the total power now either to pull her back or to push her over that edge. He senses what it is like to smash a woman under the heel of a boot.

         So Drew presses forward. He cups the back of Pretty’s head with his left hand, and he shoves his right hand under her voluminous skirt and up her thigh. He kisses her lips, as if he is trying to chew them off of her soft and moist face.

         Pretty moans, when Drew first touches her panties, but that moment of sexual ecstasy almost immediately gives way to a cold spasm of horror. Drew is a devil lost in his own rage, and Pretty is a rose twirling down an endless abyss.

         Pretty manages to move her face to the side. Oblivious, Drew continues to chew her left cheek and earlobe, while repeatedly snapping her pink panties against her pussy. 

         Pretty screams. Drew closes his eyes. He sees Bonnie leaning against the passenger window and begging for more.

         No, Pretty cries out. Pretty Please! Pretty Please!

         Drew grunts. He pulls back on the panties. He twists the front side of the undergarment into his right fist. Drew is about to smash open her pussy with his fist, when he hears the roar of a vehicle. 

         Drew sits upright. The windshield is fogged up again, but he wipes away the moisture with his left palm in time to observe a black Camaro pass in front of them. The Camaro moves slowly, like the driver is unsure of himself, and its headlights have not been turned on. In the haze of wind and snow outside, the Camaro looks like a ghost vehicle that just came out from nowhere and is about to escape back into the darkness. 

         Drew hears Pretty sobbing beside him. He does not look at her. He never wants to see her again. He senses that, like that black ghost vehicle out there, whatever they had shared with one another has passed. 

         Drew switches on the ignition, and drives his Chevy off of the lot. Pretty sobs the whole time, while convulsively shoving her skirt in between her thighs.

*   *   *

         Drew screeches to a halt in front of the Victorian on Deadwood Road. He had been so consumed with his own cauldron of emotions that he nearly passed it. He wipes cold sweat off of his brow with the back of his hand; and he blinks way too aggressively, like he is trying to force tears out from a pair of dry eyes. He feels like a balloon filled with poison, and he is trying to force it out of him through every pore in his rubbery skin.

         Pretty rubs her thighs against the skirt fabric in between her legs. She is trying to close off her pussy from the rest of the world apparently. She lets out an ear shattering cry. 

         Leave, Drew says coldly. I didn’t rape you for Christ’s sake. 

         Except deep down he knows that he would have done so, if that Camaro had not grabbed his attention. He had unleashed the beast, a cold, raw, sweaty animal; and until he had been distracted, he had not thought once about trying to haul the beast back into its small cave.

         Pretty does not leave. She leans her head back. She seems too tired then to hold her head up, let alone to hurry back into the arms of her grandmamma.

         Drew leans across her lap and opens the passenger door. 

         Leave, Drew repeats. Please, just go.

         Aren’t you going to escort my granddaughter to her door? Myrtle screams from just outside the driver’s side window.

         Drew shrieks in surprise. He had not seen Myrtle hobbling up to his Chevy just now. Her hideous face and stooped shoulders loom large in his car window.

         Grandmamma! Pretty cries out, while pushing herself out of the vehicle.

         Get inside and out of the cold, Pretty, Myrtle says. I have several ‘pretty words’ to share with your new friend that you ought not to hear. 

         Pretty gathers up her skirt, and hobbles across the snow covered road in her impractical shoes. She glances back once, while pushing open the gate, and her tears start to flow again. The howling wind snaps the flower out of her hair just before she opens the front door. 

         Myrtle taps the driver’s side window with the handle of her cane. Drew, still surprised by her sudden appearance, does not even appear to know where he is. He wipes off more of his pungent sweat, while staring vacantly at Myrtle.

         Roll down your window! Myrtle screams.

         Drew does as he is told. As soon as he lowers his car window, snow twirls onto his face and his hair. He does not even try to swat it away this time.

         So what happened out there? Myrtle asks. You’d better tell me the truth, young man. I’ve yet to find a gypsy that can snatch a nickel from me unawares.

         Nothing, Drew mutters.

         Nothing, huh? Myrtle snarls. So my granddaughter’s a crying ninny for no damned reason at all. 

         Pretty got cold, Drew says lamely.

         I don’t think so, Myrtle snaps back. I think she got a little too hot. 

         I didn’t do anything, Drew whines.

         But you tried, Myrtle seethes. You tried to be a husband for a girl who is not your wife. 

         I got to go, Drew mutters.

         Myrtle smacks the left side of Drew’s face with the handle of her cane. 

         So long as I’ve got this cane there’s justice left in this world, Myrtle says in a calm whisper that actually scares Drew more than when she had screamed.

         What do you want? Drew whines. 

         To protect my granddaughter, Myrtle responds. And that means not only her safety, but also her dignity. 

         I got to go, Drew repeats, while grabbing for the gear shift. 

         Not until you’re square with me, Myrtle seethes. 

         Drew pushes the gear shift into ‘drive,’ but before he can press down on the accelerator Myrtle again hits the side of his face with her cane. Drew grabs at his injured face like a frightened boy trying to knock a big spider off his skin.

         What the fuck! Drew blurts out in pain.

         Myrtle hits him a third time. Blood pours down his left cheek. 

         That’s for speaking like a Mongrel, Myrtle snaps. If I had you inside you’d be sucking right now on a big bar of soap.

         Drew floors the accelerator. The Chevy kicks up snow and staggers down the road. Myrtle stares at the retreating vehicle with cold contempt.

         Mark my words, young man, Myrtle screams out, while leaning heavily on her cane. I’ll have justice for my granddaughter one way or another. 

*   *   *

         Jeremy sits upon the edge of an army green cot. The cigarette and blood stains spread across the stretched fabric suggest that this old beauty had been salvaged from the dumpster behind a military surplus store. Though Jeremy has never been in that kind of place, he imagines the musty smell of men with beer bellies trying on vintage helmets and holsters. Most everyone plays dress up, it seems; and when they get tired of the old gear they throw it out to make room for the new. 

         Maybe, that is why Jeremy does not feel like he belongs in this world. He is surrounded by disposable people and things; whatever comes into view does not stay around for long. Even his parents seem like they are always packing up their things with the intent of dashing for the next train. 

         By contrast, Jeremy is a pack rat. Mostly, he collects comics. He cannot really describe it in words, but he loves how sometimes an entire life seems to be captured in a single comic book panel. The expression on a character’s face, the armor he wears in battle, the death ray that is about to zap him into a kind of comic book eternity; these drawings tell us what really matters. If real life is pointless, then at least there is something to hold onto in these pages. 

         Sometimes, Jeremy imagines himself as a grown up. He lives alone inside his own Bat Cave, or maybe his own Fortress of Solitude, and everywhere there are boxes full of illustrated books. The gods above have chosen him to be life’s archivist. Time stands still inside that special place; and he wanders in and out of the rooms trying on comic book lives, like those fatsos with crew cuts try on helmets and holsters. 

         Except that he never throws his books away. For the sake of prying folks, he may call himself a ‘comic book dealer,’ but he will make sure that he never actually sells anything. That will be his dog and pony show. He figures everyone else has a show like that, so is he really out of line? 

         Jeremy pulls his backpack out from under his cot. It is really too dark in here for him to read tonight. His ‘bedroom’ is more like a closet with a cot and a flickering light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There is also what seems to be a toilet paper rod on the wall behind his cot. There is no toilet paper inside the ‘bedroom,’ but there is a shit smell coming from somewhere. 

         Jeremy remembers the miniature flashlight in his backpack. It is as weak as the light bulb overhead, but he can press it up close to the pages. Readers in olden times had to hold candles close to their pages. At least, his flashlight will not start a fire.

         As soon as he retrieves the flashlight, he pulls out three of his comics. It can be a big deal for him sometimes to decide which one to read, but for some reason tonight the choice seems obvious. He has a vintage issue of ‘Eerie’ from the early 1950s. The story is called ‘Ghost of the Gorgon.’ He is not sure what a Gorgon is, but he likes how the word sounds like something alien and creepy. It is far from here, whatever it is, and far from here is where he wants to be now.

         Whatcha looking at? Jessica asks from the doorway. 

         Jeremy shrieks. He had not heard Jessica opening the door.

         Nothing, Jeremy mutters.

         Hand it to me, Jessica orders, while walking over to her charge. 

         Jeremy presses the comic book against his chest, but he is powerless to stop the woman with the pimply skin and the bloodshot eyes from grabbing the book out of his hands. He thinks about reaching for the book, but he realizes he may rip it in the process. Unable to do anything, the tears start to flow. 

         You’ve got others, Jessica mutters. 

         Jessica lifts the backpack from the floor. She turns it upside down, so all the content falls onto the cot. She zeroes in on the other comics and on several wrinkled dollar bills. 

         You shouldn’t have this stuff, Jessica remarks. It could be stolen. 

         Jessica takes the comics and the money, drops the backpack, and stares at the crying boy as if to say, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’

         Jeremy does not answer, except with his tears, but apparently the tears are defiant enough in Jessica’s mind. The babysitter squints her eyes, and bites her lower lip. She is fucking pissed, and she cannot think of anything else then, but of how to make this twerp with this gay ass backpack just shut the fuck up.

         Jessica storms out of the bedroom with the comics and the cash in hand.

         Jeremy does not have enough time to put the rest of his stuff back inside his backpack, before Jessica returns with a filthy gag and a pair of handcuffs. It is then that Jeremy figures out why there is an old toilet paper rod on the wall.

         He does not resist, as Jessica gags his mouth, and handcuffs his wrists to the old toilet paper rod behind him. He lies on the cot with his arms above and behind his head. He stares at the flickering light bulb, until Jessica turns it off and storms out the room. 

         Then, there is silence broken occasionally by Jeremy’s sniffles. 

*   *   *

         Drew is not sure how he ended up on Keeble. He has been driving down a number of quaint residential roads the passed few minutes without paying very much attention. He is barely able to focus on his bleeding cheek, let alone on a quiet, snow covered, redneck town, where the roads and the homes seem to be indistinguishable from one another. 

         Still, even if not by design, he finds himself now driving through howling snow flurries on one of Redwood’s busier streets. A flickering light up ahead all but pulls his eyes out of his sockets. He pulls over to the side of the street, and he looks at what appears to be a large Texas Star over a pair of saloon doors. A pathway leads from the parking lot to the doors, and there are tall mannequins on both sides of the path. The mannequins at first look like monsters frozen in snow, and Drew almost cries out in fear. His eyes adjust, and then he sees that they are Cowboys and Indians with Polaroid pictures hanging from their outfits. A neon sign nearby says that this Boom Town saloon is the ‘Western Star.’ The neon cursive beneath the ‘Western Star’ reads: ‘Are you feeling lucky tonight?’

         Drew is not much of a drinking man, but he needs something to get that Pretty girl out of his mind. That sex crazed cow practically ripped his shirt and his pants off. How can she blame him for getting a little frisky in response? The bitch was asking for it. Hell, she demanded it; that’s right, fucking ordered his hand under her skirt. What was he supposed to do? Simply sit there and twiddle his thumbs like a limp dick? Would that have made her happier? Of course not. The spoiled bitch is crying for no good reason. She is just looking for attention.

         Drew gets out of his Chevy, and he follows a couple of Cowgirls wearing identical, pink, ‘Cowgirl Up’ T-shirts, skin tight jeans, and pink boots. They are talking about boys. Is every cunt sex crazed? No wonder we males have to tame them with a firm hand…

         Or a fist to the pussy…

         Staggering into the dark, loud, pickup joint, Drew eyes a lonely barstool, and he claims her for himself. He observes a wall off to the side. Near the top is a sign that reads, ‘We Ain’t Gonna Forget Ya.’ Apparently, the framed photos beneath that sign are of the patrons who have gone on up to the ‘Western Star’ in the sky. Most of them are old farts, but one catches Drew’s attention. She is a young, pretty, ethnic girl named Lola Lipinski. The girl looks like someone out of central casting for the ‘drunk whore’ who goes down on dudes just for kicks in the men’s room, and yet that is not what grabs a hold of Drew right now. He has had enough of whores for one lifetime, thank you very much. 

         No, what grabs him is the haunted look in her eyes. Lola had been a very sad woman; perhaps, even tragic in her own way; and Drew wonders if that had not been her karma for all that drinking and whoring she had done. Maybe, God does balance the scales. Maybe, the sex crazed cow who attacked him tonight, and who is no doubt playing on her grandmamma’s sympathies, will suffer hard for what she did to him. 

         Drew thinks about how Pretty should suffer. What is the punishment that would really hit home to her? She is a fat pig, so maybe the best punishment is a disease where she can never eat pie and ice cream again. Drew smiles, when he imagines Pretty sitting at a kitchen table and staring ravenously at the huge chocolate mousse pie she can never eat. A lifetime of boring vegetables; serves her right for entrapping him like she did tonight. 

         So what’ll it be, city slicker? The cheap blond bartender asks him.

         Am I that obvious? Drew asks with a sheepish grin. 

         You’re not from around here, the bartender says. 

         I suppose that makes me a ‘Stranger in a Strange Land,’ Drew says. 

         The bartender does not get the literary reference. 

         Just the house beer, Drew says. 

         The bartender wiggles off, and the overly loud George Jones song on the jukebox gives way to ‘Sail Away Tiny Sparrow.’ Drew tries to remember where he has heard the tune prior. He associates it with one of those old slasher films from the 1970s or the 1980s, but he cannot say for sure. His mind is a mess. He counts himself lucky that he can sit upright just now and order the house beer.

*   *   *

         Myrtle is not surprised by what she sees, when she hobbles back into the foyer and shuts the door behind her. Nevertheless, she feels as heartbroken as the day the Commodore left. The loss is palpable; a punch to the gut, followed by the slow and heavy sinking of her heart into her bowels. 

         Pretty! Myrtle cries out. Oh, Pretty!

         Pretty had fainted on the living room floor in front of the fireplace just a minute or so earlier. From the foyer she looks like a pile of Victorian fabric and lace dropped unceremoniously before the eternal gaze of the Commodore. The only sign of life is the steady, but shallow, breaths that push some of the fabric up and down. There is also a hand poking out from a ruffled sleeve. Happy, the Bichon sitting beside the hand, has assumed the posture of her loyal watch dog.

         Myrtle hurries over to her granddaughter. Pretty continues to shed those heavy tears that, no doubt, had dropped her to the floor in the first place. Her face has not relaxed, either. She looks troubled, but even more so she looks as if she is guilty as charged. The deepest sadness of this whole experience is that Pretty believes that she has done wrong. 

         Myrtle sees the misplaced guilt written on her granddaughter’s face, and she slowly drops to her knees to hold Pretty’s head in her lap. Myrtle senses her own tears about to fall, but she stifles them. Now is not the time for her to be so indulgent. As far as Myrtle is concerned, she had erred in allowing herself to slip back into her own adolescent wanderlust, when she should have been stoic in protecting Pretty from the savagery just outside these walls. She is not going to make matters worse now by giving herself license to cry like a teenaged girl.

         So Myrtle stifles her emotions as much as possible, while she strokes her granddaughter’s hair. She listens to the cold wind moaning beneath the eaves, and she begins to think about what must be done to right the wrong done here.

*   *   *

         Todd Ringler had warned his brother about hooking up with Jessica. That tramp had been taking the bus down from Beverly since she was thirteen to do tricks. She had started out with a cop, then migrated over to a roadwork crew, and finally settled on the lumberjacks who still work the forests just outside of the Redwood Township. Todd’s brother had been knocking down trees way out near ‘Coon Town’ for years, and so he had known all about the abandoned, old, nigger shacks there. He would organize orgies in those shacks whenever he got too much kink in his head, and he would pawn off Jessica’s pussy to the Latinos in his crew like a dealer does cheap marijuana to children. Todd would join in a few times. He knew Jessica was bad news, because she never paid attention to the money. Her pimp could keep all of it for all she cared. It is like she fucked for the sake of fucking, and Todd saw then that that is not straight in the head.

         So when Todd’s brother died Todd had had no intention of ever speaking to that skank again. Ignore her, and maybe the bitch will go back to Beverly for good. After all, there’s got to be some standards in a small town like Redwood.

         Indeed, Todd would have left Jessica in his rearview mirror, except that like all men he has his own demon. His is not a kink in the head, so much as an insatiable taste for the painkillers his many doctors will no longer prescribe for him. Todd’s high school football injuries have subsided, except for a limp in his left foot that will never go away, but not his taste for morphine. 

         Porkin’s Beer Hall off Hampstead Road is a cheap ass, redneck juke joint on one side of the bar and a virtual pharmacy on the other. Porkin Peabody is a dealer’s dealer. He has got everything back there from heroin to baseball cards and prefers to barter over cash transactions. Marked bills have been putting his kind into state prisons for years; and though Porkin does not look like much, he has the street smarts to stay out of the pen. 

         Todd’s problem is that Porkin does not like him. It does not matter why. What matters is that Porkin Peabody is reluctant to do business with the former high school tackle, and Todd cannot find better morphine anywhere else within earshot of his hometown. 

         This is where Jessica is useful. For some reason, Porkin likes the whore, even though Todd is pretty sure the fat man with the beady eyes could not get it up if his miserable life depended on it. Porkin will deal with Todd, if Jessica somehow is part of the picture. 

         And why would the bitch want to help Todd? Who the fuck knows? Todd’s not interested in figuring out bitches, anyway. Maybe, the bitch is just looking for something to do. Regardless, whenever she gets her hands on something she calls Todd over to her apartment. 

         They’re fucking comic books, Todd snarls.

         Todd tosses the comic books back at Jessica. His instinct had told him to ignore her repeated phone calls this evening. He had had far too much to drink at that ‘God and County’ celebration earlier, and he had wanted to pluck down in front of his computer for an endless night of football locker room sex videos.  

         Well, they’re something, Jessica whines. 

         How much of a hit are they gonna buy me? Todd screams. Well, tell me!

         I don’t know, Jessica whines. 

         Fucking bitch, Todd mutters. 

         Jessica reaches into her pocket, and retrieves the rumpled wad of dollar bills she had stolen from Jeremy’s backpack. She hands it over to Todd without directly looking at him. 

         This won’t even fill up my gas tank, Todd snaps, before he hurls the wad of cash back at Jessica. 

         There is an awkward silence. Jessica does not know what to do next. She had thought those picture books had value, especially for collectors like Porkin, but what the fuck does she know about anything?

         Then, suddenly, she hears Jeremy sniffling back tears. She looks straight into Todd’s eyes to see if he too heard it. He seems oblivious. 

         What about the boy? Jessica asks. 

         What fucking boy? Todd asks. 

         Jessica nods in the general direction of the closet where she keeps those sniffling shits she gets paid to watch. Todd glances over there, but he does not seem all that interested. 

         Well, I mean, Porkin’s still making movies, isn’t he? Jessica mutters. The boy’s not that bad…

         Is the boy a nigger? Todd interrupts. 

         No, Jessica answers. 

         Come on, bitch, Todd snarls. Porkin’s only shooting dark meat nowadays. Cops will bust him down otherwise. You know that. 

         Well, I was just thinking, Jessica whines.

         Todd storms forward and pokes Jessica’s face with his right index finger.

         That’s your problem, Todd screams. Thinking you’ve got something good to trade when you don’t. 

         Still, Todd has not had a hit for awhile. He is much more desperate than he wants to admit. He would welcome even a couple of pills tonight, but Satan can ram his ass with a pitchfork if he allows this bitch to realize just how much he really values what she has to trade. A man’s got to keep his bitches on their toes, after all, or everything in his life is going to fall apart one of these nights.

         Alright, Jess, we’ll try your plan, Todd says. 

         Jessica catches her breath. Apparently, Todd is not going to beat her up.

         Give me the comics and the cash, Todd orders. And go fetch the boy. He had better have a nice ass or something.

*   *   *

         Pretty is awake, finally, but she seems hardly aware of her surroundings.

         Myrtle returns to the living room with several pillows. She cannot get her granddaughter to stand up on her own, so the most that she can do right now is to prop up her head and to lay a blanket over her. She moves as fast as she can at this task. Regrettably, that is not much more than a snail’s pace. Myrtle had not been outside that long, but it had been long enough to inflame her arthritis to what a firefighter might call a ‘three alarm’ stage. 

         Myrtle winces in pain, when she kneels down to place the pillows under Pretty’s head. Old Age is a bitch that needs to be strung up on a tree, and that is especially true when there is an emergency at hand. 

         Pushing herself back up from the living room floor, Myrtle grabs a hold of the afghan in which she had been swaddled as an infant. She opens the blanket and snaps it in the air to flick off any dirt or bugs that may be caught inside the weave. She drops the blanket over Pretty’s flesh. Happy hurries out of the way.

         Can you hear me, Pretty? Myrtle asks, while staring down at Pretty’s tear stained face. Please, answer me, little one.

         Pretty does not respond. Instead, more tears flow out from her eyes and down her cheeks; and her lips move like she is sucking on an imaginary pacifier.

         I am going to be outside for a moment, Myrtle says. 

         Myrtle waits to see if perhaps Pretty will respond. Pretty does not seem to acknowledge her grandmamma at all. 

         Myrtle grabs her cane and waddles over to the front door. She looks back to see if there is any change. There is none so far as she can tell, and so with a deep sigh she opens the door and steps into the cauldron of iced cold wind and snow outside. She does not close the door behind her, even though snow whirls into the foyer as a result, because she is not so certain in her present condition that she will be able to reopen the door. 

         It is too dark to see much of anything. There are no headlights travelling up or down Deadwood just now, and the mostly elderly inhabitants of the other houses on this block seem to have called it a night already. The moon is hidden behind a thick sheet of dark clouds, though Myrtle can feel the lunar goddess in her veins. This small patch of the world may be cast in utter darkness, but the ancients on high are available and ready to be called back into service.

         But does Myrtle really want to do this? She had left this old path long ago and deep down had hoped her granddaughter might be spared. She loathes and fears the power once more soaring through her veins. 

         But what choice does she have? Oh, sure, she can go back inside and call for the cops and the paramedics. The cops will pick up the bastard and haul his ass into a slammer, and either an emergency room doctor or a psychiatrist will restore some measure of life to her granddaughter. Nonetheless, Myrtle cannot deny what has happened here. Pretty had been attacked physically, no doubt, but more so she had been robbed of her moral dignity and twisted into the kind of harlot beast that revels in darkness. Pretty is stunned now, but what will be her fate when that dark harlot beast over time robs her eyes of their youth and her cheeks of their blush? What will be her fate when, one night, she decides in her heart that she actually desires whatever the bastard had tried to do to her?

         The cops and the medical doctors know nothing of the ancient darkness. They may treat the symptoms for awhile, but they are useless in fending off all that black magic that leaves souls dismembered along the wayside. There is no choice but what man had devised when he first set his eyes upon those stars far above. This ancient solution has assumed many forms over the centuries, but it has and will always start off with a dance. 

         Myrtle cannot view more than a timid step in front of her, but she knows by heart the path to the maple tree in her front yard. She reaches out with her right hand and pats the trunk of the tree, like she is greeting an old friend. She pats the trunk repeatedly, until she senses that the tree is agreeable. She then leans her cane against the trunk, and steps back with her hands together in the universal gesture of prayerful thanksgiving. 

         She watches how the wind rattles her cane. It does not tip over, and she surmises that it will not so long as the tree remains agreeable. That should last for as long as the dance, but Myrtle does not want to press her luck just now by taking any longer than is necessary. After all, she has not greeted the tree in a long time, and so she should not expect the tree to be liberal in her hospitality.

         Fortunately, like riding a bicycle, the dance steps come back pretty fast. Myrtle lifts her hands into the air, kicks back her heels, and dances around the maple tree with all the carefree abandon of a child wrapped in nature’s bosom.

         Myrtle does not even notice how her arthritis just vanishes. Nor does she have any sense of the time it takes for her to complete the steps. It has been a while, but she has taken a dip into eternity once more and is lost in its charms.

*   *   *

         Eunice trundles passed the shivering maple tree. She glances at the spot where Myrtle had been dancing around the tree trunk about a half hour prior. It is a small space mostly hidden behind low hanging, snow covered branches, and Myrtle’s footsteps have been long since blown away by the wind; and yet, even now, Eunice can feel the magic that had come back to life there. It rattles her bones and tingles her skin; a euphoric sensation that very nearly kicks an extra step into her otherwise controlled and heavy walk. Eunice had expected all this to unfold. She has had always a good knack for seeing just how the wind blows the leaves in the morning. Nevertheless, the enormity of what is about to occur still frightens her. She knows that only Myrtle can do what needs to be done. Is her sister truly up to the task, though? Will Myrtle be able to control the magic, or will the magic control her, and what can Eunice do if things get out of hand?

         Eunice reaches the front door. She is about to knock, when the creaking door opens before her. She taps the foyer three times with the tip of her cane. There is no immediate response, except for an inner voice that tells her that it is safe to step inside. Magic has a mind of her own, even when we imagine that we are her master. Eunice has learned that she can be domesticated in the end about as much as a tigress, and so even in as hospitable a place as her beloved sister’s home Eunice is careful to keep up her guard. 

         The foyer and the living room are dark, except for a candle on the living room floor beside what appears at first to be a pile of vintage clothes. The soft light casts eerie shadows on the antiques nearby. The Commodore’s eyes seem to flicker to life in the candlelight glow, and Eunice nods in his direction as if in fact he is there. No doubt, part of him is up there in that framed painting. The master is never entirely gone from his wives, even when taken away by the fog to distant seas. 

         Eunice notices the pile of vintage clothes take in a deep breath. So that is where Pretty had fallen. Eunice had felt Pretty faint. That had been the sign that Eunice should get out of her bed and begin the arduous process of putting on her many layers of clothing. The arthritic had tried to keep her beneath her blanket, but Pretty’s fall had been much too palpable for Eunice then to pass it off as a figment of her imagination. Eunice was about to step out her front door when she sensed Myrtle’s euphoric dance around the maple tree. She could not downplay the urgency because the sheer volatility of magic demands attention. It is the very nature of a wild and hungry cat unleashed from her cage. She may show gratitude, or she may try to rip off your face to feast upon your hot flesh.

         Eunice walks up to Pretty’s left side. She looks down and beholds a child trembling in sadness. Pretty’s eyes are open, but her stare is lost in thoughts of innocent love trampled underfoot. She cannot really comprehend the depravity of what she sees, and so she seems to have reverted back to when she was just a little girl first staring incomprehensibly into the unknown darkness of her new bedroom. The trip from a crib to a bed is terribly sad and frightening, and right now Pretty seems to be experiencing much the same in reaction to her own trip from girlhood to womanhood. 

         Eunice wants to offer Pretty a comforting phrase or gesture, but the old lady is at a loss. The best she can do is to nod at Pretty, like she acknowledges Pretty’s dutiful presence before her. It is times like this that Eunice wishes she did not feel the need to protect herself with such a stiff upper lip. In a way she envies that spark in Myrtle’s soul that allows her to kick up her heels or to show real affection and warmth for the ones she loves. 

         Having been so preoccupied with Pretty’s sad condition, Eunice had not noticed until now that the hidden door to the séance room is open. The light in the séance room does not flicker like a candle, so much as it ripples like waves from the center of a pond. Eunice does not see the light, so much as she senses it washing up against her intuition. 

         Eunice steps into the séance room. She sees Myrtle sitting in front of the crystal ball. The ball alternates in color from red to blue, and there is a kind of electrical scent emanating out from it. An unknowing observer may regard that as a clue that the ball is plugged into an outlet, but Eunice knows better. Magic does not include the subtle carbon fragrance of a burnt out electrical socket or light bulb, unless the magic is dark in origin. Rather, the smell is clean, even in a way invigorating. There is no hint that something is being burnt back into the dust from which it came. It is that clean fire odor that Eunice smells right now.

         So then if the magic here is good, why does Myrtle twitch and moan like a demon in heat, while stooped over the crystal ball? Why do her fingers shake, and alternate from purple to charcoal black, when she moves her hands inches above the surface of the ball? Why does Myrtle drool her blood onto the crystal?

         Eunice is frightened for her sister, but she knows better than to say or to do anything that may disrupt this psychic reading. Myrtle needs to see all of the different paths before her, and she needs to make a definite choice about what to do. The end of a psychic reading is not information, so much as a choice that when made cannot be reversed without devastating consequences. Eunice feels that the burden of choosing what to do, which path to go down in seeking some measure of justice for Pretty, is what is now so troubling her sister. Though the magic is good, the burden of choosing weighs heavily on Myrtle, most especially given the extent to which Myrtle had built walls, psychic and physical, to try to keep away this very moment. 

         Myrtle coughs up a mouthful of blood, which coats the ball in a phlegmy, purplish red goo. The thick blood slides off of the ball and over the edge of the table. Myrtle almost slams her nose into the ball during this convulsion, but she manages to lift her face back from the glowing crystal in time. She turns to her right to face her sister directly. Her eyes are red. Her mouth is a twisted, blood smeared grimace of total hate and fear. More blood dribbles over her lower lip. 

         Sister! Myrtle groans.

         See it through to the end, Eunice says.

         Myrtle reaches out toward Eunice with her right hand, while her left ear continues to hover less than an inch over the glowing crystal. Myrtle’s hand has been burnt, or so it appears; and her trembling, charcoal black fingers look like they are about to crackle into dust and to fall from her bones. 

         Sister! Myrtle groans. 

         You cannot go back, Eunice says. For Pretty’s sake…

         The pain! Myrtle screams in anguish. The pain! The…

         Pretty will die tonight, if you do not see this through to the end, Eunice interrupts, while tapping the carpeted floor with her cane. Listen to me, sister!

         Myrtle faces the crystal ball. Her body shakes as if clasped to an Electric Chair. Her head tilts backward, and she lets out an ear shattering cry that can be felt as much as heard. 

         There is a flash of light and smoke. A demon sits before the crystal ball…

         And then, in a blink of an eye, the light, the smoke, and the demon are gone. Perhaps, that hellish transfiguration had never happened. Even Eunice is not sure now where magic bleeds into imagination. 

         Regardless, the crystal ball is dormant. The room is eerily quiet. Myrtle, now lost in the darkness of a room no longer lit by the crystal ball, slides off of her chair and onto the floor. Myrtle moans in pain upon the floor, but then she is as quiet and still as a lifeless statue left on the floor of a crypt.

         Eunice waddles out of the séance room to retrieve the candle. It takes a long time for her to pick up the candle from the living room floor on account of her debilitating arthritis and weight. She almost faints herself in the process. It takes every last bit of her energy to turn back toward the séance room with the flickering candle in her hand. 

         The howling wind beneath the eaves moans like a woman in labor. Snow flurries beat against the windows like snowballs tossed from the street outside. It is as if the storm desires to break through the walls of this unstable Victorian and to stop what is about to happen. 

         In response, Eunice quickens her pace; and she nearly stumbles upon the carpet in the séance room. Still, she perseveres. She stops, catches her breath, and holds up the candle to shine some light upon her sister. 

         Eunice gasps. She had expected to find Myrtle on the floor. Instead, her sister is standing beside the séance table. 

         Though her shoulders remain as stooped as before, and her hands shake, Myrtle no longer seems to need her cane to stand upright. Her eyes are strong, radiant red, the eyes of a killer about to strike. Blood drools down her chin and onto her old lady shoes. There seems now to be an unlimited quantity of blood behind her lower lip, like she could bleed into eternity and never lose any color in her cheeks. 

         I did not want this, Myrtle laments. 

         Myrtle’s lamentation is incongruent with the demented killer look in her eyes. She is still conflicted, and yet Eunice can sense the killer taking over with every passing second. There is no turning back now.

         You have made your choice, Eunice remarks.  

         Yes, I know, Myrtle agrees with a hint of sadness.

         But you will save Pretty tonight, Eunice continues. 

         Yes, Myrtle agrees with a devilish grin. 

         Avenge what has been done to her, Eunice remarks. 

         Not vengeance, Myrtle counters. But justice. The Old Testament kind.

         Fire and Brimstone, Eunice mutters.

         I have seen the wrongdoer, Myrtle snarls. And I have seen his enablers.  

         What are you going to do? Eunice asks. 

         Myrtle lifts her right hand in the pose of an episcopal blessing. She steps forward. Her eyes glow with the delicious glee of a devil impaling a condemned man with a flaming pitchfork. Her devilish grin widens into a cheeky mad smile.

         A man dragged Pretty to the honeymoon bed tonight without first taking her to the altar, Myrtle answers. He put the cart before the horse. Maybe a sign of the times, but not in this house, and not with my granddaughter.

         You cannot change what has happened, Eunice says. 

         No, but I’ll see to it that he puts a ring on her finger, Myrtle snaps back. Makes my granddaughter an honorable woman. If Pretty cannot be an innocent, then she’ll be a wife. 

         Better than a whore, Eunice says.

         And that husband of hers will learn that his hands belong on his back and his lips belong on her feet, Myrtle concludes. 

The house shakes, when a particularly strong gust of wind smacks against the front door. Eunice glances up to see if the roof is about to cave in on them.

Myrtle pays no attention to the weather, though she does drop her right hand to her side. She steps forward, and takes the candle away from her sister.

Stay with Pretty tonight, Myrtle says. I’ll be back before sunrise. 

Yes, of course, Eunice mutters. 

And follow me to my closet, Myrtle says. Help me dress the part. 

*   *   *

         Myrtle walks over to the maple tree. Eunice stays back at the front door.

         Myrtle is dressed in black: A hooded robe cinctured by an old hangman’s rope; a pair of black gloves; and a pair of knee high boots snapped up the sides by blood red buttons. Her eyes glow as red as her buttons. Her lower lip drools blood still. There is a trail of bloodspots on the snow leading back to the house.

         Myrtle carries her cane in her right hand. She no longer needs to use her cane to walk. Indeed, though she looks older than Methuselah, she feels now as young and as vibrant as when she first met the Commodore. Deep down, Myrtle still realizes that this vitality is as much a curse as a blessing. After all, it is not true that power is the handmaiden of pride? Nonetheless, an inner voice urging restraint is too weak in comparison to the vigor of all this magic literally in her veins, especially as she harbors no doubts about the righteousness of her cause.

         Call for me, if Pretty worsens, Myrtle says. 

         I’m not sure I can dance around the tree, Eunice says. 

         A little hop and a skip is all you’ll need to do, Myrtle remarks. 

         Fly with the wind, Eunice says, while striking the doorway with her cane.

         And howl at the moon, Myrtle shouts with a mischievous smile.

         Myrtle places the cane in between her legs. She sits back on the tip, and wraps her hands around the handle. She looks back at Eunice one more time for good luck, leans forward on the cane, and soars into the dark and stormy night.

*   *   *

         Dude, shut the fuck up, Todd screams. 

         Todd almost reaches back and punches the dumb kid as well, but he has enough sense to keep his eyes on the road. Hampstead is pretty slippery now as a result of the snowfall, and the last thing he needs to do is to dump his pickup into a ditch. 

         Jeremy tries hard to stop his sniffles. The crazy guy behind the steering wheel has hit him twice already, and Jessica is unable or unwilling to intervene on his behalf. It is hard to keep quiet, though, because he has been stuffed into the tight space between the back of the bench seat and the rear window. He is not able to move, and that means he cannot avoid the rusty toolbox back there slamming into his knees every time the crazy guy swerves to the left. He wants to scream, but the gag in his mouth effectively stops that. The gag cannot stop the tears, though, and the annoying sniffles come with the tears. 

         Jessica has Jeremy’s backpack upon her lap. She paws lazily through the odds and ends. At first, she had been a prospector mining for one more speckle of gold in a basin of sand; but by now she has given up finding anything of value apart from the comics. Pawing is just something to do, and it relaxes her when Todd’s acting like he just drank a glass of piss and vinegar. Deep down, Jessica hopes that Todd actually dumps the pickup into a ditch and ends her shitty life.

         What’ll you think will happen to the boy? Jessica asks. 

         You mean when Porkin’s done turning him into a fucking porn star? Todd responds with a mischievous grin and a chuckle.  

         Yeah, Jessica mutters. 

         Break him and bury him with all them nigger kids he’s filmed, Todd says.

         Bury him in Coon Town? Jessica asks.     

         Down there in that ditch where that dumb nigger got all drunk one night and burned down the barracks, Todd says. There’s lots of ‘em dead down there under the snow. 

         Doesn’t seem right, Jessica mutters. The boy’s white…

         Don’t you get all ‘Rosa Parks’ on me, you fucking bitch! Todd screams at the top of his lungs. What do you wanna do? Hand him back to his daddy, so he can tell the other kids in ‘Show and Tell’ how he got fucked hard in the ass one night? How we all made him a porn star? Yeah, bitch, that makes a lot of sense.

         Todd faces Jessica and punches her in her left shoulder. He turns back to the road in time to see a hooded, old lady in his headlights. He brakes hard and swerves to the right. He lands in a ditch beside what used to be the Old Farley Ranch. Everything turns black and silent, except for Jeremy’s annoying sniffles.

*   *   *

         There is a loud creak coming from the hood of the pickup truck. It is the kind of grating sound that could stir the dead. Todd hears it before Jessica, and he pushes his face up from the steering wheel. 

         Todd can feel the blood gushing out from his nose. He tastes it as it falls into his mouth and down his throat. A bad hit never hit him this hard. He wants to vomit up his guts. Much worse is that throbbing headache that feels like it is about to push his eyes out of his sockets. 

         Todd’s head leans against the back of his seat. It is as cold as a damned meat locker inside his pickup. It is totally dark, too, and for a while he wonders if he has really awakened, or if he is stuck in a nightmare. 

         He hears muffled wind. Perhaps, the wind sounds that way now because he is in a hole in the ground. Or, perhaps, his ears are as fucked up as his nose. Makes no difference either way. There is a vague notion developing somewhere in what is left of his mind that he should get the hell out of here before all that snow above buries him. How’s he gonna get a hit if he’s buried down here with a bitch and a porn star?

         There is another loud creak coming from outside his cracked windshield. Is the snow really beating that hard against his hood? 

         Jessica opens her eyes. Her face is a clownish mask of open wounds and blood smears. She wants to vomit up her guts, but her nausea recedes far back as soon as she focuses her attention on that loud creak. What is that? Is it a rat?

         She reaches into the backpack, which is still on her lap, and searches for the flashlight. It has got to be in there somewhere. She felt it a little while ago along with all that other junk the boy has in his bag. 

         Todd sits forward in an attempt to see what the hell is making that noise out there. He taps the cracked windshield with the back of his right hand. He is not sure if he is trying to break through the glass. Hell, he is not totally sure he is awake.

         Jessica finds the flashlight. She fumbles for the switch. She is afraid she will see a pair of rat’s eyes staring back at her. The eyes will be red. There will be no soul behind those eyes, no empathy, nothing, but a cold, raw viciousness that rips one last scream out of her throat. So if this is what she is going to find when she turns on her flashlight, then why is she fumbling for the switch? Is she fucking mad? Or does she simply want to bring this nightmare to an end sooner rather than later?

         Jessica directs the flashlight at the hood beyond the windshield. There is no rat out there. Instead, there are two old legs clothed in what appears to be a pair of black boots and a black robe. The robe flutters in the wind that is now swooshing down into the ditch and rattling the remains of Todd’s pickup truck. The robe snaps upon the windshield. Large glass shards fall onto the dashboard.

         What the fuck? Todd mutters.

         The old lady on the hood bends down. She presses her hideous, wrinkled face up against the windshield. Her eyes glow red, like the mad rat’s eyes that Jessica had foreseen, and her blood drools out from behind her lower lip. Much more frightening is the color of her face peering out from within her dark hood. The skin is snow white with bluish lines on the forehead and cheeks. It looks as if it could crackle into dust at any moment. Indeed, already the skull seems to be poking through the bluish cracks; a face of death barely concealed by a veil.

         The old lady smiles. She smashes the windshield inward with a cane that she had had concealed in the fabric of her robe. 

         Did your mothers not tell you to wash your hands? The old lady asks. 

         Todd and Jessica are too frightened to respond. They simply stare at her with their stupid mouths open. 

         You two dirty birdies have sticky fingers, the old lady says. 

         Sticky what? Todd mutters. 

         Sticky fingers! The old lady screeches. It means you’re always picking up what doesn’t belong to you. Like that backpack over there…

         The old lady crawls onto the dashboard. She points a bony, white, index finger toward the boy gagged behind the bench seat. 

         And like that boy back there, the old lady continues.

         Boy? What? Todd mutters. 

         Forgotten already, huh? The old lady snarls. Easy come, easy goes.

         The old lady reaches forward and grabs Todd’s right hand. Todd starts to resist. The old lady flicks her other wrist, and Todd is immediately immobilized from further resistance. All he can do now is to watch her in paralyzed horror, while more hot blood gurgles out of his mouth and off of his chin. 

         The old lady digs her long fingernails into his right wrist. She scrapes the skin down and off of his hand. 

         Washing the stickiness off your fingers, the old lady says, when she holds up the skin from his paralyzed right hand like it is a dirty, bloodied latex glove.

         Blood gurgles down Todd’s right arm. The old lady ignores the blood just now, and Todd is powerless to stop it.

         She digs her long fingernails into his left wrist. She is about to rip it off, too, when she views Jessica squirming in absolute horror on the passenger seat.

         The old lady flicks her other wrist once more. Jessica too is immobilized.

         Do not worry, girl, the old lady says. I shall wash off your fingers as well.

*   *   *

         Bonnie is pissed. Swingers’ parties are not what they used to be. Most of the boys are limp dicks, who just want to watch their wives or their girlfriends get it on with the other chicks. That would have been fine, in Bonnie’s mind, if there had been just one girl who had known what to do with her pussy. Do girls not play with themselves any more? How can they be as clueless as the average guy, when they too are on ‘safari’ in her bush country? Why is this world fucked up beyond recognition? 

         Bonnie fumbles for her front door key. She is as drunk, as she is pissed at the moment. That bothers her even more so than the bad sex she endured. She prides herself on holding her liquor as well as the boys, so why in the hell does she feel like a college coed about to pass out on some dude’s couch? Is this the beginning of old age? Would she feel any better right now, if she had some guy strapped to her chair with open wounds all over his trembling flesh? What if he looked up at her with the dumb eyes of a lamb about to have its neck cut open?

         But there is no guy waiting for her in her dungeon. Her house is as still as it is dark. The only sound is the wind moaning like a ghost in chains underneath her eaves. 

         She steps into her home, drops her key to her side, and bends forward as if her asshole is about to be rammed hard by a BBC. Since has never opened up that door, and never intends to do so, the very thought makes her nauseous. As soon as she sees the floor spinning in front of her, she hurls. Fucking shit vomit smells like the bottom of an unwashed beer barrel. She would sell Jeremy to an old gypsy, if she could have a 24/7 slave available to clean up her mess.  

         But she does not have a slave, just like she does not have a middle aged, balding client waiting for her in her dungeon. She almost calls for Jeremy to be a good boy and to clean up her mess, but then she vaguely recalls that ‘shit for brains’ has him tonight. 

         Well, she is not going to do the honors. That means her chunky puke gets to stay on the foyer floor all night. Jeremy can clean it tomorrow when he gets back. Serves the little shit right for being, well, a little shit. 

         Bonnie stands upright. She does not feel any better than before. There is only one cure. She needs to make her way to the couch, sip on a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey (or whatever the hell has been opened already and is stuck in between two couch cushions), and sink into one of those nightmares that recur when she is this drunk. She never remembers those nightmares when she comes back from the dead. She only knows that she had been scared shitless and that, therefore, she has to work that out of her system with a naked man in her chair and a caning rod in her hand.

         Shutting the door behind her, Bonnie grabs at her forehead, and tries to step over the puddle of vomit. Instead of stepping over the puddle, she slips on the chunky stew, falls backward, and slams her head on the hard floor. There is a moment of intense pain, and then her own world is as dark and as still as the inside of a coffin six feet under the snow.

*   *   *

         So this is your playroom, huh? The old lady snickers.

         Bonnie hears the voice leaping out for her from within the still darkness. It is as if the voice can grab a hold of her throat and squeeze. The voice is near to her, but even more so it is dangerous, violent, merciless. In a way, the voice captures her ‘Bonnie Bitch’ persona even better than she does when all decked out in her cat woman leather. Bonnie is frightened by the voice, of course, but strangely under the circumstances she is also envious. No one is supposed to be kicking ass around here but herself. 

         Bonnie slowly opens her eyes. There is still incredible pain in the back of her head, but much worse is the nausea. She wishes she could vomit. Coughing up even a little bile at this point would give her some relief. Apparently, there is nothing left in her bowels, and so there is no relief to be had. In her delirium just now Bonnie imagines she is still in labor even after squeezing out her baby.

         In my day, the hussy had a tent and a straw mat, the old lady continues. Not all these straps and chains…

         Bonnie turns her head from side to side. She can see where she is due to the flickering light bulb overhead, but more so she can smell the leather polish and the blood splatter from her previous session. 

         In spite of her nausea, she attempts to stand up, but she is held back by leather straps wrapped tightly around her wrists and ankles. It is only then that she fully realizes that she is tied to the steel torture chair in her own dungeon. That fact hits her like a punch to the stomach. Never before had she sat in this chair, not even when there was no one else around, since she had determined from the start that this chair would be a symbol of the degraded status of those limp dicks who pay to be dominated by her. This chair is not a tool of her dark trade, let alone a sex toy, so much as a kind of altar upon which she sacrifices to her pride the basic humanity of her clients. She is sacrificing her beasts over the course of tens of thousands of slaps and rod strikes; and though her beasts may not die for decades to come, they will die, no doubt, because of the many marks she has left on their flesh and their souls. This altar chair then is as close to a sacred place as Bonnie can devise; and so, though still weakened from pain and nausea, she is quite mindful of the fact that sitting on this chair is a kind of sacrilege. Strapped to this chair, she feels small, beaten, like she is the victim of a horrifying soul rape. She cannot stop the tears from sliding down her face, nor the sad way her lower lip shakes, like she is a little girl afraid of a monster.

         A stooped, old lady in a hooded robe steps forward from behind a veil of straps and chains. Bonnie has never seen such a horrifying face. Though hard to tell in the dim light, her face seems to be albino white. Her eyes are deranged; the beady, red eyes of a rabid rat. Her lower lip is a gurgling blood spout. This might be a Halloween costume, except that Bonnie can feel the dark, merciless energy reverberating out from the lady’s heart. Bonnie senses a kindred soul in a way, and that awareness more than anything else clenches her throat in fear.

         You probably wonder why I’m here tonight, the old lady snarls, while she stares hypnotically into Bonnie’s frightened eyes. 

         Bonnie cannot respond. She opens her mouth a little, and she drools spit onto her chest. She wants to look away from the old lady, but she cannot do so no matter how hard she tries. 

         Earlier tonight, your ex-husband tried to be a man to my granddaughter, the old lady explains. 

         Bonnie cannot make sense of the old lady’s words now. ‘Shit for Brains’ is such a fucking loser she cannot fathom how he figures into this situation. She blocks him out of her mind, and as a result the old lady’s words sound to her at that moment like gibberish. 

         The old lady grabs one of the chains that is hanging from the ceiling. She rattles the chain fiercely. Her white face contorts into a devilish snarl, and her haggard breaths start to smell like dead rodents and onions. All of this time she stares into Bonnie’s soul, like she is searching for the weakest link in her chain.

         The old lady stops rattling the chain. Bonnie pees on her own thighs. The pee dribbles over the front edge of the steel chair. 

         The old lady points at Bonnie. There is hellish condemnation in her stare now that cuts deeply into her victim. 

         You are to blame for his behavior, the old lady snarls. You were his wife. You had the obligation to tutor him. Look at all these straps and chains. You’ve got enough here to train an old gypsy to toe the line, but you did nothing at all to whip the Irish Devil out of your charge.

         The old lady reaches Bonnie. She bends forward so that her hideous face comes to within inches of Bonnie’s. Her eyes glow red now with her hellish fire.

         Bonnie smells the old lady’s breath. It is almost unbearable this close. As a result, Bonnie forgets all about the pain and the nausea. The intense fear and loathing beneath the surface come to the forefront, and Bonnie senses vaguely that these emotions indeed have much more to do with keeping her strapped to this chair than the leather straps. That is no relief, though, for she can no more set aside her fear and loathing than find love in her heart for any person other than herself. 

         And you are a terrible mother to boot, the old lady snarls. 

         The old lady steps back. She stares a moment longer into Bonnie’s eyes, while a mischievous smile creeps upon her face. She retrieves a dark cane that she seems to have had hidden the whole time deep inside the folds of her robe.

         You didn’t train your husband; the old lady says. So I’ll train you instead.

         The old lady taps her cane in the air like a magic wand. The many straps and chains hanging from the ceiling start to come alive. 

         Time for your first day of school, bitch! The old lady says with a demonic chuckle. Do not be surprised now if it is also your last…

         That last sentence hangs over Bonnie’s head like a guillotine. She finally breaks away from the old lady’s stare. She looks down and observes that she is nude; no different, really, from all those limp dicks she has beaten in this spot.

         Bonnie’s awareness of her own nudity breaks the hypnotic spell. She has no chance of escaping the leather straps, but she squirms and screams anyway.

         Tired of the commotion, the old lady nods at one of the weighed chains. The chain lifts into the air, wraps itself tightly around Bonnie’s neck, and starts to squeeze warm blood out from her compressed throat. 

         The old lady nods at a pair of straps. The straps lift over Bonnie’s thighs.

         Bonnie’s eyes open wide one last time. Though losing consciousness, she is able to observe what is about to happen to her legs. Her dying flesh braces in anticipation of the attack. 

         The straps take turns slapping down hard on Bonnie’s thighs. It does not take long for her legs to look like a pair of lobster claws. Blood squirts out from her open wounds, and spreads across the dungeon floor like an expanding pond.

*   *   *

         Grandmamma! Pretty screams. 

         Pretty opens her eyes and sits up on her elbows, like she is trying hard to escape the snares of a nightmare. She looks around the candlelit living room. It makes no sense to her why she is down here. 

         Eunice hobbles over to Pretty’s left side. She leans heavily on her cane, while looking down at her grandniece. Eunice is surprised, because she had not expected Pretty to rouse so soon; but even more so, she is frightened. Pretty is more aware than Eunice had expected or hoped.

         Settle down, Eunice says with as much command as she can muster. It is not ladylike to be so excited. 

         Pretty stares up at her Aunt Eunice without comprehension. Pretty feels cold horror rippling out from her own heart. It sickens her; but even more so, it controls her like a master controls his marionette. She feels like the marionette master is pulling her in and pushing her out of a thick mental fog. Worse, she is sure that grandmamma is in danger and that, as a result of her mental slowness and overall disorientation, she cannot do what she must to help her. 

         Grandmamma, Pretty mutters.

         Eunice studies Pretty’s eyes carefully. The elderly lady sighs and frowns.

         You can feel her, Eunice says. 

         Is she dying? Pretty whispers. 

         Eunice looks up, like she is sensing something in the air, and then offers up a subtle nod in affirmation of whatever she had discerned. She looks back at Pretty and chooses her words carefully. 

         Not physically, not yet, though the ride takes a lot more out of her now than in the past, Eunice answers. But we are losing the lady we love. 

         She’s different now, Pretty mutters, while staring off into eternal space.

         She’s more of herself in some ways, less of herself in others, Eunice says after a brief pause. More discerning, more powerful, but without the mercy we have come to expect in her.

         Eunice pauses to see if Pretty is able to comprehend her. Pretty remains a blank slate, but deep down Eunice senses that Pretty understands much more than she can express right now. Eunice decides to press forward. 

         Do you know what a witch is? Eunice asks.

         The scary woman in The Wizard of Oz; Pretty says slowly.

         There is a sisterhood, Eunice says. Your grandmamma, myself, others, an ancient line of sister wives who’ve taken a vow to fight back the real life ‘scary women’ out there. Your grandmamma tried to leave, because she decided that the witch hunters and the witches played with the same devil fire. 

         Is that fire burning her up? Pretty asks. 

         Burning away what’s good in her soul, Eunice answers. Leaving behind an ugly, old crow in a hooded robe. I had urged her to do one more ride, because I had felt the danger in the first wind of the season. But tonight is different. It is so much worse than before, so much darker, and I honestly cannot tell if she’ll come back to us this time a witch hunter or a witch. 

         Why do I feel my grandmamma? Pretty asks. 

         It is in our bloodline, Eunice answers. You will understand later; but, for now, just know that, in a way, you’re on the ride with your grandmamma even now. You’re steadying her grip, keeping her focused, and holding her back from that eternal darkness that is so near and dear to her heart right now. That is an awful lot of baggage on the shoulders of a girl…

         Eunice taps the dark floor three times with her cane. Pretty looks at her.

         So stay vigilant, little one, Eunice continues. Keep the candle inside your heart aflame for her. Shed no more tears, and pray that she ends her ride soon.

*   *   *

         Tori never showed up…

         And Tammy is dead.

         What the fuck? Blake mutters. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I mean what the fuck?

         Blake is naked and on his knees. He had passed out with a vibrating dildo in his ass, and it is still there. The batteries died sometime ago, so at least it is not shaking the loose shit out of his asshole anymore. 

         But that is the least of his concerns. Tammy, the barely legal hookup for the night, is lying face down in her own vomit. Her lifeless flesh is as cold as an ice cube. She has a tramp stamp above her rear end. Blake thinks that he never would have hooked up with her if he had seen that ugly thing. The tattoo looks like a black vulture, and it gives him the creeps. Worse than the creeps, we’re talking the fucking heebie-jeebies. 

         Blake drops Tammy’s left wrist. What the fuck was he thinking, when he tried to find a hint of a pulse in the first place? What is he? Fucking Dr. Kildare? 

         I’m a plumber, not a doctor, Blake thinks in the voice of Dr. McCoy from ‘Star Trek.’ I plug leaks, and I overbill. That’s what I do, Jim, and nothing else.

         ‘Plugging leaks’ calls to mind the dildo sticking out of his ass. Blake tries in vain to reach back and to pull it out. He flaps his hands back there for a few seconds like a deranged seal, and then he gives up on what is left of his broken pride. He is cautious not to sit back, though, lest he stuff it even further where ‘the sun don’t shine.’ He thinks about what it must be like to be a gay blade. It makes him sick whenever his mind goes in that direction. 

         Blake wipes cold sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. He needs to focus. He has got a dead whore on his living room floor…

         And what if she turns out not to have been ‘barely legal’ when all is said and done? He thinks she may be eighteen, but what if she is, well, maybe a tiny bit younger than eighteen? Does that matter when something like this happens? 

         But what if nothing happened? What if she never came here tonight, but instead fell off the side of a pier and drowned in the Manchester River? The old piers out that way are full of street walkers and dope fiends. Tammy would be right at home with those folks, right? Of course, she would be. Hell, most likely she has tag teamed tricks with some of those street walkers already. Probably, every week she goes down on homeless geezers out there just to snort a line of coke. Dumb fucks cannot pay rent if their shitty lives depended on it, but they have enough weed and coke to barter with sick bitches like Tammy What’s Her Name. Anyway, that’s beside the point. What matters right now is that Tammy never came here. She never got a hold of her sister, so Tori or Lori will be none the wiser. Drew saw her, but Drew ain’t talking, not if he values his pitiful life.

         Blake needs to find something with which to wrap up her body. Norman Bates used a shower curtain, when he found that fucking cock tease. Maybe, he should do the same. 

         Blake is about to crawl toward the bathroom, when the motion detector light in his backyard suddenly switches on. The reddish light shines through the sliding glass door and into the living room.   

Surprised, he falls back onto his ass, and he shoves the dildo as far inside as it can go. Did he just ram it into his prostate? Is that possible? What the fuck did he do to himself? Why does his shit machine feel like it is about to explode?

Blake cries out in pain. He glimpses a dark hooded figure standing in the snow in the backyard, but the butt pain is too intense for him to observe him or her in any detail. Anyway, the details do not matter. Whoever is out there is no friend, and so Blake scrambles back to his knees to crawl toward the bathroom.

He does not manage to waddle very far, before he hears the sliding glass door smash into pieces behind him. He screams in fear. His heartbeat starts to sprint toward the finish line. He is in no damned condition to sprint toward any finish line, and so he manages to crawl only a few more feet before falling onto his face. He does not pass out, notwithstanding his erratic breathing. Given the death in store for him, he would have been luckier if he had lost consciousness.

The dark hooded figure steps into the living room. The heels of her boots crush the broken glass on the floor. It is a terribly grating sound that inspires so much dread in Blake’s mind that he tries to block his ears with his hands. He is not able to do so, though. With so much adrenaline pumping through his veins, his hands simply flap like dying fish by his sides. 

The dark hooded figure rests the heel of her left boot on Tammy’s back. She removes the cane that she had hidden inside the folds of her robe, and she taps the corpse several times with the tip of her cane. 

Not the life of the party this one, the old lady sighs. When will we ladies learn: When you live by the cock, you die by the cock. 

The dark hooded figure turns her attention to the man of the house. She pulls back her hood slightly. In the motion detector light, her eyes are bleeding now as well as her lower lip. The gurgling blood falling down her face is in stark contrast with her albino white skin. Her gums are receding to reveal the jagged teeth of a ravenous rat ready to devour whatever prey may crawl into her path.

From the look of it you’ve taught my granddaughter’s future husband all he knows about the birds and the bees, the old lady snarls. 

The dark hooded figure walks up to Blake. She observes how all his limbs flutter. She hears his haggard breathing. She taps his naked flesh with her cane and sighs in disapproval.

I bet you wish right now you hadn’t smoked that first Marlboro, she says.

Blake tries one last time to get some control over his flesh. Maybe, if he knocks this old lady away, he can crawl or slither to the bathroom. He can view the bathroom door from here. How many times has he walked to and from that bathroom without even thinking about the distance? How often has he taken his life for granted? Also, what if he had smoked less and had lost a few pounds? If he had lived just a bit more disciplined, would he not be in that bathroom now?

The mental questions come and go without answers. Blake does try once more to crawl away. The old lady just waves her cane, and ends that nonsense.

But I am not the Surgeon General, so your smoking habit does not matter to me, the old lady continues. I am concerned with the fact that you misled my granddaughter’s future husband into thinking that he can paw her like a stupid animal. You taught him how to be a ‘big man,’ but you never taught him moral restraint and decency. That does not make you much of a teacher, now does it?

The old lady slides the tip of her cane down the middle of Blake’s back, until it rests on the base of the dildo. She taps the dildo. Blake squirms in pain.

Seems to me that, as a failed teacher, you now need a remedial class in the birds and the bees, the old lady chuckles. 

The old lady uses her cane to push the dildo further into Blake’s asshole. Blake screams and squirms, but of course he cannot move away from her. He is still alive, when the tip of the dildo punctures his upper abdomen. He can smell his blood gurgling out from that wound and fanning across the living room floor.

*   *   *

         Jeremy is asleep in the cramped space between the bench seat and the back of the pickup truck. The corpses sitting upright on the bench seat are blue already because of the sub frozen temperature inside of the wreck. The streaks of blood on their arms and thighs are dark purple. Both of the corpses are open eyed with unvoiced screams chiseled onto their eternal faces. The snow should cover their frightened expressions before daybreak, but for now anyone shining a flashlight into the ditch alongside the Old Farley Ranch would see a horror he most likely would never forget.

         Fortunately, Jeremy will never see the corpses. The old lady had put him to sleep with a subtle wave of her hand, when she had smashed the windshield. 

         After finishing off the kidnappers, the old lady had looked into the space behind the bench seat. Seeing the boy sound asleep, she had tapped his bruised forehead three times gently with the handle of her cane. She determined that that would be enough to keep him warm inside, until she came back to retrieve him. Not one snowflake would fall onto him while she went about her business.

         The old lady is back now. She crawls into the cabin from the hood of the pickup truck. Her glowing red rat’s eyes see perfectly well in the darkness, but she pays no attention to the macabre figures on either side of her. Instead, she moves with the stealthy dexterity of a tigress toward her sleeping cub, though outwardly she looks right now to be even more stooped and arthritic than ever.

         Peeking over the back of the bench seat, the old lady smiles. The boy is healthy still, though the pained expression on his face tells her that he remains traumatized by whatever the two kidnappers had done to him. She thinks about Pretty. She senses that Pretty is awake now; but she fears that her little one is going to be traumatized as well for some time, if not forever, because of what that man had done to her. 

         Pretty deserves justice, the old lady thinks. But so does this boy. I shall see fit that that happens before the old cock crows.

*   *   *

         Pretty stands before the living room window. She clutches the curtain to make sure that she does not fall back to the floor. She remains unbalanced and teary eyed in part because of her broken heart, but more so frankly because of her nagging fear that grandmamma is about to be lost forever. She almost sees that black hooded gnome replacing her grandmamma, the rabid rat’s eyes, the blood streaked albino face, the protruding teeth; and she struggles to see how and where Myrtle Purdy survives in this hideous creature of pride and mayhem.

         The howling wind outside rattles the window, and Pretty suddenly views the pained and frightened looks scrawled like blood graffiti onto the dead faces of the black hooded gnome’s victims. They each look like scary clowns forever suspended in place; a horror show of violence captured into that black eternity that has been set aside for them. 

         Pretty feels her own throat tightening in fear. She wants to scream, but she hardly can breathe. She grips the curtain tighter and looks back at her Aunt Eunice with wide open pleading eyes. 

         Eunice knows what Pretty is thinking. She hobbles over to her. She wants to put her left hand on Pretty’s shoulder, but her stiff upper lip gets the better of her. Instead, Eunice leans heavily on her cane, and stares into Pretty’s eyes.

         The witch hunter will eliminate the enablers as well as the witch, Eunice states. The logic is unavoidable. You must clean the pus around a pulled tooth, or the disease spreads.

         Pretty does not understand all the big words, but she senses the deeper truth. The witch hunter is as cursed as the witch; the two creatures forever at each other’s throats in a spiritual drama that knows neither beginning nor end. Is there any room for love in that drama? Is there any place for a grandmamma and her innocent granddaughter? 

         Pretty sheds a tear, and looks back out the window. She presses her nose up against the glass. She feels the glass rattling her skin, and tries to remember how innocent joy had felt. 

*   *   *

         Drew staggers out of the Western Star. The door slams shut behind him. He had refused to leave when the owner told him that they were closed for the night. The owner had to threaten to call the police, before he surrendered the stool he had been occupying the last few hours. 

         Now, he is walking passed the Cowboys and Indians statues. He thinks his Chevy is somewhere around here. He stuffs his hands in and out of his pockets searching for his car key. Although he stumbles upon his car key several times, while walking in the general direction of his parked car, he is simply too drunk to feel it. His only consolation is that tonight, for the first time, he would have been able to outdrink his buddy, Blake Coors, so at least he has bragging rights.

         Drew leans against the driver’s side of his car. He finally finds his car key and stabs the lock with the wrong end of the key a few times. He turns the key around, unlocks the door, and stumbles onto his seat. 

         Drew leans his head back. He is out cold, before he even closes his door.

*   *   *

         Drew shoots up from his sleep. His face is drenched with cold sweat. His heart is beating so fast it feels like it is about to blast through his chest. He has no idea where he is parked, nor why he is sitting in his Chevy, and not knowing scares the hell out of him for a moment that seems to drag into eternity. 

         Drew clutches at his heart, and stares out the snow covered windshield. Is there someone standing in front of his hood? He could be just imagining that black hooded figure out there. The snow is an almost impenetrable veil, and he is out of his fucking mind with which to begin. 

         Maybe, that is a cop. Oh, fuck, what if it is? He never turned on the car, so he cannot be arrested for drunk driving. He could be hauled away for public drunkenness, though. Hillbilly towns like this one take shit like that seriously. If Bubba tosses him into a slammer, and this incident ends up on his record, then how the hell does he explain this to the university? 

         The questions come and go so fast Drew swats them away like flies. The net effect is a lot of confused fear without any sense of what to do, except like any trapped animal to try in vain to escape. Reason tells him that that will not be possible, especially if that really is a small town cop outside, but reason can suck his dick right now. 

         Drew slams his door shut, and shoves his key into the ignition. As soon as he turns on the engine, the windshield wipers start up. The blades knock away the snow, and he sees that the black hooded figure is not a cop after all. It is a stooped and shriveled beast. The beast has an albino face that is in the process of peeling away to reveal a bloodied, deformed skull…

         A bloodied skull with glowing rat’s eyes…

         And jagged, blood soaked, rat’s teeth…

         Drew hears a cackling witch’s voice inside his head. The voice feels like it has been dropped into his head from somewhere else. This is not his drunken imagination on overdrive. Rather, that strange beast out there is speaking with him telepathically. That does not make any sense, of course, but that is what is happening right here on this dark and silent street in front of the Western Star.

         Wake Up, Sleepy Head! The witch’s voice commands him. Time to go to the altar and make my granddaughter an honest woman.

         What the fuck? Drew mutters, when he puts the Chevy into drive, slams on the accelerator, and pulls away from the curb. 

         Did he hit that beast? He looks into his rearview mirror, while hauling ass down Keeble. He does not see anything, but it is hard to tell. The street lamps are out, and so it is too dark to see much of anything. 

         You’re going to wrong way, Dumb Ass! The witch’s voice berates him. 

         The voice surprises him so much he nearly swerves off the road. He just manages to regain control, when he sees something in the corner of his left eye that simply should not be there.

         Drew looks to his left, even though he knows better. He sees that black hooded beast flying on a cane several feet off the pavement. 

         The wind blows the hood back to reveal a deformed skull that is spitting out blood and brain goo from many different cracks. This does not seem now to bother the beast, though, for she makes a point of facing Drew to her right and offering him a demented smile. 

         The car radio then switches on at top volume. It blasts out the classic hit ‘Chapel of Love’ by The Dixie Cups. The happy singers remind Drew that ‘we’re goin’ to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married…’ Now, how romantic is that!

         Drew fumbles with the radio, but he cannot turn off the loud music. The Chevy once more almost serves off the road, and he turns back at the very last moment. He sees an old country road that he hopes will lead out of this fucking hillbilly town, and he decides to make a sharp turn to the right to hit that road.

         But his steering wheel will not turn to the right…

         He pulls the wheel as hard as he can, but nothing…

         I told you you’re going the wrong way, the witch’s voice screams at him. Must I do everything for you?

         The steering wheel on its own makes a sharp turn to the left instead. As a result, the Chevy slips on the ice and rotates counterclockwise several times, before the trunk of the car smashes into a thick tree along the side of the road.

         Drew bangs his head against the driver’s side window during the crash. It is not enough to knock him out. Nevertheless, the pain is excruciating. He leans his head back and watches impassively, as the Chevy on its own screeches away from the tree and down Keeble towards town. 

         Out of the corner of his left eye Drew sees a black hooded witch flying in the air on her cane. The witch remains consistently fifty yards ahead and to the left of the car. Every now and then, she looks down at her charge, and cackles.

         And The Dixie Cups’ rendition of ‘Chapel of Love’ continues to blast out from the speakers. The song is repeated twice before the trip comes to an end.

*   *   *

         Drew passed out before his Chevy turned onto Deadwood Road and came to a sudden halt across from the old Victorian. It is just as well, since a hapless groom usually is not much help with wedding preparations. True, by snoring off the rest of the night, Drew lost his last chance at a bachelor’s party; but really how good of a party would it have been with Blake dead in his own living room?

         Time for the show, Lazy Dog! The witch’s voice calls out from the black.

         Drew bolts up. He has a terrible strain in his neck from how he had been sleeping. Worse, he has the kind of hammering nails hangover that would make a Russian give up his Vodka. He does not even try to stop himself from vomiting all over his steering wheel and his legs. He does not feel any better afterwards.

         Hurry Up! The witch’s voice demands. I promised justice before sunrise.

         The driver’s side door creaks open on its own. Drew looks to his left, and sees the old Victorian illuminated by the first hints of sunrise. The light casts a somber bluish grey pall over the house façade. The storm battered picket fence and the leafless maple tree further suggest a dead place that is slowly drooping back into the snow from which it came. The snowfall is over for now, but there is a terribly cold chill in the air that rattles fear into his bones. Drew feels that the moment he leaves his Chevy he will be stepping into an abandoned crypt of sorts that stretches from his car door to the horrid beast waiting for him inside.

         He wants to flee, but he knows that that is not a choice. Resigned to his fate, he slumbers out of the car, and he crosses the quiet residential road with his chin hanging heavily on his chest. 

         The front door opens with a loud creak before he arrives. He hesitates a long moment. Is there any way he can escape from here? Can he beg for mercy?

         He hears wedding bells pounding in his head. The loud jolt pushes him to his knees. He instinctively covers his ears. Of course, that accomplishes nothing at all, since the horrid sound has been telepathically mailed to his grey matter.

         Drew crawls into the foyer, and falls to his right side. At least, he is now inside, and that stops the wedding bells. 

         Stand Up, Sniffle Nose! The witch’s voice demands. You’ll have plenty of time to get on your knees in the honeymoon bed. 

         Fearing for his life, Drew manages somehow to push himself up from the floor. He stands before the living room and beholds dozens of candles lighting a path from the foyer to the mantle. The Commodore hangs over the mantle, like his portrait somehow will be officiating the ceremony. Pretty stands where the groom traditionally would stand. She is wearing the same overdone dress as the previous night. The only difference is that she is now holding a bridal bouquet, and her bashful smiles have been replaced by frightened tears. 

         Drew hears a dog growling. He sees a heavyset, elderly woman standing to the left of Pretty. The woman is leaning on her cane, while holding the mad Bichon, Happy, with her other hand. Drew senses correctly that that Bichon by now would be tearing out his throat, if that old woman was not restraining him.

         One step after another! The witch’s voice demands. 

         Drew feels the tip of a cane poking against his back. He senses the witch is behind him. He is much too frightened to look back at her. 

         Drew drops his chin to his chest. He stares down at his shoes, which have chunky vomit all over them, and walks down the pathway laid out for him. The whole time he hears in his mind ‘Here Comes the Bride.’ The music is much too loud for him, especially given how sick he is, but he knows it is useless to resist whatever the witch drops into his head. 

         Drew stands beside Pretty beneath the glare of The Commodore. Neither wants to look at the other. Pretty starts to cry yet again, and Drew senses that he is about to vomit more liquor and bile onto his loafers. 

         Take each other’s hands, the witch orders.

         This time, the witch speaks with her own physical voice. Drew looks over his right shoulder and sees Myrtle Purdy hunched over a cane. Myrtle looks the same as the day before, though clearly exhausted. 

         To the right of Myrtle is Drew’s son. Jeremy is noticeably frightened and confused, but he appears to be healthy otherwise.  

         How the fuck did he get here? Drew thinks, while slowly coming to terms with the fact that, indeed, his quirky boy has been dragged into this nightmare.

         Drew and Pretty take each other’s hands. The candles flutter. The house trembles ever so slightly. For all the theatrics, though, Drew and Pretty do not look at one another. Each one is alone is his or her own fears. 

         Okay, Mr. Smart Stud, time for the vows, Myrtle snarls. Repeat after me.

         No! Pretty screams, while pushing away from her groom. 

         What are you doing, little one? Myrtle asks. 

         I’m not marrying Mr. Smart Stud! Pretty says. And no more tears for him!

         Better married than a whore, Eunice chimes in. 

         No! Pretty screams. I don’t want him! I want my grandmamma back now!

         Won’t you miss his pretty words? Myrtle asks.

         I can make up my own pretty words, Pretty answers. 

         So what would you have me do with this animal? Myrtle asks Pretty while poking Drew’s side with the tip of her cane. 

         Pretty steps aside a moment to collect her thoughts. All eyes are on her, as she blossoms into a woman with her own mind. 

         Send him home, grandmamma, Pretty says. We’ll keep his son. Jeremy is a good boy. He needs a family that loves him. 

         Myrtle pokes Drew’s right shoulder hard with her cane. 

         You heard my granddaughter, Myrtle screeches. Scram!

         Drew glances at his son. Jeremy does not look back at him. 

         Tucking his chin down, Drew leaves without a word. He starts up his car, and roars down the street less than thirty seconds later. He wants nothing else but to drive far away, before that loony crone with the cane changes her mind.

         Back at the Victorian, the ladies and Jeremy remain totally silent, while they blow out the candles. Eunice breaks the mood, when she puts on her best rendition of a pleasant smile and asks Jeremy what he would like for breakfast.

*   *   *

         Drew drives directly back to his home. He staggers into his bedroom, and he is asleep as soon as his face hits the pillow. He probably would have slept in that position for another twenty-four hours unimpeded, but for the loud knocks on his front door. He hears the police radio outside just as he is opening up his door. He lets the officers inside without a fuss, since he presumes that this has to do with what happened last night during his date from hell. 

         It turns out that one of Bonnie’s clients had stumbled upon her corpse in her dungeon a couple of hours ago. As the ex-husband, Drew is a suspect. A few weeks will pass before he is finally cleared. Not trusting the local police to do a thorough enough interview, the City of Beverly homicide unit will send a police officer to the Western Star to corroborate Drew’s alibi. Both the owner and the bartender sign affidavits saying that Drew had occupied one of their bar stools, when Bonnie had been killed. 

         They never find a suspect. Whoever strapped Bonnie to her torture chair and beat her to death left behind no DNA, no fingerprints, nothing whatsoever. The presumption is that one of her clients turned against her, but none of them say anything self-incriminating under interrogation. Vice Chief Hammerschmidt sends the file to the cold case bureau.

         The press holds onto the story for awhile. After all, even in the big city, it is not everyday that a Dominatrix has the tables turned on her. The fact that her ex is a mild and meek university professor adds fuel to the fire. Drew has to deny knowing anything about his ex-wife’s sexual tastes. No one really believes him, of course, and his university peers never look at him the same again. Drew can feel their stares, while he goes about the business of molding those young, impressionable minds assigned to his classes. 

         The police never interview Drew about Blake’s death, though it is a little coincidental that Drew’s best friend and ex-wife are butchered the same night. Drew’s alibi is what it is, and he has no motive to eliminate Blake anyway. As in the prior case, the police find no DNA, no fingerprints, nothing to tie anyone in particular to Blake’s death. Given the dead girl by his side, and the dildo up his ass, the police presume some sort of sex crime; maybe, a jealous girlfriend, or a hooker who wanted more than he had been able to pay. Homicide interviews the usual suspects down by the docks, but turn up nothing. Thus, yet again, the Vice Chief sends another file down to the cold case bureau. 

         Though Drew does not play a role in the investigation of Blake’s murder, he is affected much more so by his friend’s demise. Drew has been able, more or less, to convince himself that he had done nothing wrong with Pretty Purdy, that indeed he had been the victim of an aggressive woman. Nonetheless, deep down he has not been able to deny that, ever since that night, he has a kind of dark kinship with his friend he had never had prior. He might have suffered the same fate as his friend, if he had persisted with screwed up whores like Pretty. Drew thinks that a part of himself died too, when the murderer shoved the sex toy through Blake’s flesh and out his upper abdomen. 

         Drew never learns about how his son had been kidnapped by Jessica and Todd. Because of the snow cover, the local authorities do not find the pickup in the ditch for a few days. Even though all the skin around their hands had been ripped off, the Redwood Police do not bother with a homicide investigation. No one in town ever really liked the Ringlers, and Jessica had been born in the big city. The authorities write it off as an automobile accident during a snowstorm.

         Anyway, who cares about those two deadbeats, when a local weirdo put a hook into the neck of Redwood’s very beloved football star and war hero? The scumbag, who is an ethnic with an unpronounceable surname to boot, added an insult to the injury by decapitating and burning the Great Officer Weaver. If he had not immolated himself, then that oily scumbag would have been hung and cut to pieces by a vigilante mob. 

         So Jessica and Todd get only a few obligatory lines on the back pages of The Redwood Democrat. Even if there had been more press attention, though, Drew most likely would not have picked up the story. Ever since driving back at breakneck speed to his home, Drew has put Redwood out of his mind. He knows his son is still back there, of course, and he tells himself every now and then he will go back for him…

         But he also tells himself that Jeremy is just as well living with those odd folks. After all, the old witch clearly went the extra mile to protect her strange granddaughter. Should he not presume she will do the same for his strange son? Maybe, misfits are better off raised by other misfits; and, anyway, with Bonnie out of the picture, he is in no position to raise Jeremy all by himself. Sure, like most other guys, he can handle the occasional father-son weekend; but, really, fulltime, non-stop, twenty-four seven custody? Isn’t that going way too far? He is a man, after all, and, well, let’s face it, weird boys like Jeremy need a mom more than a dad…

         Even a mom who rides the moonlight some nights…

         And murders folks with the grisly hand of a sadist…

         Drew cannot prove anything, of course, and he ain’t ever talking; but he senses that that old witch murdered Bonnie and Blake before coming for him. It is not rational. After all, what in the hell did they ever do to Pretty? Still, he is not able to shake the thought that that beast murdered them; and she will kill him, too, if he interferes ever again. He is sure of that, and so that is one more reason to wait a little longer (okay, more like a lot longer) before driving back to that fucking hillbilly town to retrieve his precious son. 

         Really, Drew wants nothing more than to put the entire Purdy Family out of his mind. He cannot sleep without seeing in his nightmares that dark hooded beast on a cane swooping down from the storm clouds. She is always just about to catch him, when he forces himself awake. He can hear her demented cackle still, as he switches on his lamp and wipes away his cold sweat. 

         For the most part, the fucking old bitch will not leave him alone. Even in the middle of the day, when ostensibly going about his academic work, way too often he will jump and scream like a crazy fool, when he sees something weird out of the corner of his eye. His life now is a series of jump scares, followed by awkward apologies, which makes him seem that much more suspicious in front of his peers. The dean has asked him a few times, if he desires to take a break. Drew suspects it is only a matter of days before he is forced on a sabbatical for his own good. He is not sure how he will respond, when the dean enters into his office, closes the door behind him, clears his dry throat, and tells him to leave.

         Dancing with Molly Five Fingers is his one respite. The old gal cannot do a turn on the dance floor like in the old days, but she is still game. Most nights, therefore, Drew stays home. He puts Charlie Rose on the big screen, leans back on his sofa, puts the laptop on his bare stomach, and fingers his manhood. Porn does not thrill him much anymore. He blames that on having been assaulted by a deranged whore. Nonetheless, he cannot think of another way of taking Molly by the hand and escorting her to the dance floor. 

         Drew is thinking about which porn sites to check out later tonight, while he is driving back to his place. In the old days, he used to spend his time on the road listening to his car radio; but he has not switched it on since that dark and stormy night. What if he turns it on and hears The Dixie Cups reminding him he is goin’ to the chapel? Even worse, what if he cannot turn that fucking song off?

         And so Drew thinks about his favorite porn sites, while returning home to a long night of masturbation and nightmares. He tries not to look too far ahead and above him, lest he see that old witch leading him to his grave, but he feels an absolute need to do so this time. 

         In the distance, he sees that the sun is about to set. That is not strange.

         He is about to turn his eyes back to the road, when he sees a huge black vulture flying overhead. It is as far up and to the left of his vehicle as the witch had been that night. It does not matter where he turns. The vulture stays right there. So far as he can tell, the vulture never looks at him. It does not need to do so, since it is clear that he is not going anywhere without this fucking bird in the corner of his left eye. 

         Drew returns home. He gets out of his car, and looks straight up. Though it is dark now, he can see the black form of that vulture blocking out the stars, as it circles overhead. He hears the great wings flapping slowly in the cold air. Most of all he feels the menace. The vulture wants him dead. It intends tonight to scavenge what remains of his corpse after his murderer is done with his soul.

         Drew hurries into his place. He bolts the door behind him. Afraid of how dark it is in his place, he switches on his television as fast as possible. Someone on PBS is asking for a donation, because PBS provides fine quality programming ‘for people like you.’ Drew does not really think of himself as a part of the PBS ‘community,’ but he is thankful now for the diversion from the creepy shadows all around him. 

         He sits upon his sofa, picks up his cell phone, and for the first time ever dials into the pledge drive. Speaking to the Asian do-gooder on the phone gives him another ten minutes of diversion.

         The problem is that he is still frightened out of his mind, when he finally finishes with his phone call. He grabs the laptop off his coffee table, leans back on a pillow, and decides to start up with Molly Five Fingers earlier this evening.

         He hears Charlie Rose in the background. Rose is interviewing some fatso whore with a PhD about the date rape crisis on college campuses. Drew has no stomach for this shit. After all, is he not the victim of a date rape? 

         Drew grabs for the remote control on his coffee table. He is about to hit the button, when he sees Charlie Rose’s sleepy eyed face transform into that of the hideous witch. The host remains Charlie Rose from the pink starched collar down, but the face is unmistakable. The witch turns from the guest, looks into the camera, and waves.

         Drew screams. He pushes down repeatedly on the remote control button in the hopes of getting that ugly face off the screen, but the new and improved Charlie Rose Show ain’t going anywhere this evening. 

         Drew shoots up from the sofa. He knocks over his laptop, but the screen remains open. 

         Knocking his left knee against the coffee table, Drew stumbles in pain to the floor. He sees the porn video playing itself out on his computer screen, but the German chick with the strap-on has been replaced by the witch. The witch is clothed in her robe, but she has pushed aside the fabric enough to be able to fuck the poor man’s ass with her oversized dildo. She looks at Drew and waves.

         Drew is about to push himself off the floor, when an old, knobby, albino white hand reaches out from beneath the sofa. It grabs a hold of his penis, and it twists counterclockwise. 

         Drew screams. He falls to his butt, and he glimpses glowing rat’s eyes in the small space between the bottom of the sofa and the floor. He hears crazed laughter. He smells death pulsing out from that small space. The smell grabs at his neck, as much as the hand his cock, and it chokes one last breath from him.

         Drew hears his cock being ripped off his flesh as the blackness takes him.

         Then, all is silent, except for Charlie Rose interviewing the female guest about the date rape crisis on college campuses. 

*   *   *

         For the most part, life has returned to normal in the Purdy household in the past several months, though Pretty suspects her grandmamma has gone out to ride once or twice since that night. Pretty keeps her suspicions to herself, so as not to upset the pleasant routine that prevails most days. She just prays that someday the witch will be retired for good. The burden of riding is too hard on her grandmamma. It is only a matter of time before her grandmamma goes out for a ride and never returns. 

         Perhaps, the family member least capable of returning to her normal life has been Happy. The strange boy who used to walk down Deadwood Road every morning has not returned since that night, and so the Bichon has had no one to attack. Happy stared out Pretty’s bedroom window every morning for over two weeks, hoping to see the stranger from a distance, and dreaming of the chance for one more run at breakneck speed toward that stranger on the other side of the fence. Happy finally gave up the hunt, and he has not been the same since.

         Jeremy has taken to his new family with relative ease. The old witch had not grabbed his backpack, when she had carried him out of the wrecked truck. As a result, the police found it days later with the two corpses. Since there was no identifying information within the backpack, they had presumed it belonged to one of the decedents. The policy is to store it for a year, so as to give one of the relatives a chance to claim it; and then if no one did so, they would destroy it. The police did not have the backpack even a week, before the witch took it back from them one dark and snowy night. No one working in the claims bureau seems to have noticed. 

         The fact that the witch had gone out and retrieved the backpack meant more for Jeremy than the backpack itself. Jeremy hardly thinks of his mom and dad. He mostly keeps to himself, but that is his nature; and his new family does not try to force him to be someone he is not. It is for that reason most of all he feels comfortable in this Victorian full of antiques and with these strange ladies from another time and place. 

         Pretty really likes Jeremy. He does not say ‘pretty words’ like his father, but she senses that he is sincerer and wiser. She sees how he sits by himself for hours on end reading his comics. He mouths out the words like she does. He is a kindred soul.

         Pretty looks out her bedroom window. It is still cold and desolate outside right now, but she can smell the first hint of spring. The winter had been much too long this year, and so she welcomes the change. 

         She thinks of her new brother. Maybe, like the seasons, their friendship will change, and he will mature into her husband someday. That would be nice.  

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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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