Get the Axe

         Claire Bruner opens the front door to her cabin just enough to poke her head outside. She had turned off her lights when she heard the automobile turn down her driveway. With the exception of a silvery moon wafting in and out of rain clouds, it is pitch black as far as Claire can see in any direction. 

         Then, suddenly, she observes headlights swerving out from behind a wall of trees. It is still some distance away, and yet Claire knows from her own past experience that these headlights belong to a detective’s automobile; probably a Ford Crown Victoria, but without the black and white police colors and decal.

         She is not surprised. She had not expected Detective Ringwood to phone her with a status report. He had been always much more of a taker than a giver and, of course, could say properly that ‘police procedures’ prohibited him from sharing with her any information about a live case. Still, even if Ringwood kept quiet, she had expected to hear something through her back channels with the Beverly PD, a sudden ‘change’ in the investigation of Billy Ray Blaise, or even a ‘person of interest’ showing up on the radar screen. 

         Outwardly, Claire Bruner is just an addled research librarian wearing too many knitted sweaters and scarves for any locale south of the Yukon. She is old enough to be an icon, a throwback to the time the City of Beverly had both the populace and the charm of a small town; but she is also assumed by most to be harmless and irrelevant. Behind the scenes, though, she has kept most of those back channel contacts with the Beverly PD that she had cultivated in a previous lifetime. She is not really ‘a mover and a shaker’ anymore, if she had been one long ago; but she knows ‘the movers and the shakers,’ frankly, better than they know one another. Like archivists and researchers the world over, she knows a heck of a lot more than her big, owl glasses and her daffy, woolen hats suggest.

         Thus, not hearing anything through her back channels, she sensed in her gut that something had gone wrong. Detective Ringwood has been kidnapped or killed. There is no doubt in her mind. When that happens to one of their own, the police investigate everyone who had anything to do with that victim in the last four to six weeks prior to the incident. They leave no stone unturned, even for a crusty, old detective near retirement age, which few could tolerate.

         So she is not surprised to see Ford Crown Victoria headlights approaching her cabin. The time is strange, except that an ambitious, young detective with a bee in his bonnet will not be able to sleep until he gets a lead. He will knock, or make phone calls, or cross-reference ‘persons of interest’ at all hours of the day or night, so long as he believes that he is getting closer to the end game. In this early stage of the investigation, that proverbial ambitious, young detective may be working only on his instinct; but good cops learn to trust their instincts.

         Realizing that she is not in danger, Claire steps out. She leans back upon her door with her arms folded before her chest. She wants him to see her in his headlights long before he arrives, so that he will surmise that he has nothing to fear here. Best to reduce tensions from the start and to cut to the chase, Claire reckons. Otherwise, God knows what may occur if the young detective stepping out of that Ford Crown Victoria is as much a rookie hothead, as he is ambitious.

         The vehicle parks about fifty yards away. The detective who steps out of the vehicle is anything but a hothead. He has a squeaky clean, boyish, pleasant but forgettable description and manner about him. 

         Office Boy Scout, Claire mutters, because she recalls what Ringwood had called him back at the Kingfish Saloon. 

         Miss Claire, the detective says when he walks up to her. That is what the detective called you.

         ‘Cause it’s my name, Claire says with a smile, while she reaches out her right hand for a handshake. I am Miss Claire Bruner, Research Librarian, World Wildlife Fund contributor, and all around pain in the butt over at city hall. I am living out here in the boonies as much to make life easy for y’all, as for myself.

         I reckon, the detective says agreeably, while he shakes her hand.

         So is this a social call, Mister…? Claire begins to ask. 

         Oh, yes, of course, the detective rambles, while he drops her hand, and goes for his wallet. 

         Claire steps back into her cabin, turns on the light inside, and waves him into her space. The detective complies, while holding out his open wallet like a little boy presenting his report card to his mommy.

         Claire barely glances at the wallet badge. She does not need to do so, as she knows already that he is legit, but she wants to put this tenderfoot at ease.

         Detective Ernest Hooper, the detective says. 

         Pleasure to see you again, Claire says with a wide grin. Would you like a cup of tea? All I have is Earl Grey…

         No, no thank you, ma’am, Detective Hooper says. I am on a time clock…

         Oh, Claire remarks, genuinely surprised. I never knew my Earl Grey to be that strong. ‘Course it depends upon what else I brew with the tea…

         There is an awkward silence. Claire gestures for Detective Hooper to sit on her old couch. She stands across from him beside the television set and VCR.

         You’ve got some friends in the police department, Detective Hooper says with a touch of envy in his voice.

         Claire does not respond. She continues to smile warmly at the detective.

         So you probably know already that Detective Ringwood has been missing, since the night you spoke with him at the Kingfish Saloon, Hooper says. No one suspects you of anything; but, for some reason, no one wants to come out here and to question you either. Do you know why that is the case?

         May I presume your trip out here is ‘off the books,’ then? Claire inquires.

         Detective Hooper looks down. He awkwardly fidgets with his hands.

         That’s okay, detective, Claire says. Ringwood was not the only gumshoe on your team to do much of his work ‘off the books.’ ‘Toeing the line’ now only gets you so far. Then, you’ve got to break some glass to get into the end game.

         Why did you speak with Detective Ringwood at the Kingfish Saloon? What did you say to him? Detective Hooper inquires when he looks up from his hands.       

         Claire considers her options. She can withhold what she knows, but that means pursuing her lead on her own and at considerable risk. Or she can inform this tenderfoot about the message on her answering machine; but since he too is working ‘off the books,’ that means that, most likely, he will meet the same fate as Ringwood. She imagines this man with a wife and a newborn waiting for him to return. The wife has prepared supper. The newborn cries until his daddy sweeps him above his head. The routines of family life mean so much to them.

         Claire glances at the answering machine. As always, it is on the floor in between her coffee table and her couch. It is just inches to the left of Hooper’s left foot. So far as she can tell, the detective does not notice it apart from the rest of the clutter; likely because its light is not flickering from a new message.

         It will be so easy now for Claire to walk over, to bend down, and to press on the ‘play’ button. Billy Ray’s message is the one item saved on her machine.

         She decides not to do that. Tenderfoot here is not up to the task, Claire thinks. She suspects she is not, either, but she has much less to lose at her age.

         Just a social call, Claire answers. Detective Ringwood and I go way back.

         I don’t know, Detective Hooper says with skepticism. Forgive me, if I am speaking out of turn, but you seemed pretty adamant at the time. 

         If you’d had as much history with him as I have, then you’d understand a social call can be pretty adamant, as you say, Claire remarks. Frankly, we have unsettled personal business going back to before you were born.

         I understand, Detective Hooper says, backing off. So you have no idea at all where he may have gone later that night. 

         I don’t have my hand on his short hairs any more, Claire says. Apparently neither does his wife, unless she knows something…

         No, Detective Hooper says. She is worried sick and clueless. 

         Well, then, I don’t know what to say, Claire says after an awkward pause between the two of them. Except, of course, that I’ll call you if I hear anything at all. I really hope you find him. Woody and I have had a tumultuous past; but we go way back; and, in a way, I love him now as much as I did when we really believed that we had the world in our hands. 

         Detective Hooper stands up. He seems embarrassed to hear such private information about a man he has idolized since he graduated from the Academy.

         Now, are you sure about the tea? Claire asks.

         Yes, ma’am, but thank you, Detective Hooper says. 

         He hands her his business card. His hand trembles ever so subtly because of nerves. He had anticipated getting some important information from this old lady. She is either holding back, or she knows nothing. Either way, for the first time, he is afraid that he may not be able to find his mentor before something terrible happens to him. 

         Claire watches Detective Hooper drive away. 

         As soon as he is gone, she steps back into her cabin, shuts the door, and removes a silver flask from between her breasts. She practically guzzles what is left of her whiskey, and then lies down on her couch.

         What the hell am I doing? Claire mutters.

         It is a good question. She managed to save Billy Ray Blaise. She provided him a hideout. She gave him the best advice she could on how to handle a sick, twisted man like Jim Trent. There was a risk in everything she did, and she had the wits and the determination to pull it off. Still, that is a far cry from walking into the lion’s den. Moreover, though she tries to be hopeful, she really cannot convince herself that Billy Ray and Woody are still alive. Yes, she knows that is possible, especially if the kidnapper had some twisted reason for keeping them alive; but with every passing day, the possibility diminishes. The kidnapper may tire of whatever game he is playing with them; or he may calculate his own risk assessment, and decide that it is time to get rid of the victims. Even the worst psychopaths eventually have a moment of sanity, and the sane thing to do from his perspective is to put a bullet into both their heads and to drop their corpses into the Manchester River. 

         So what the hell am I doing? Claire repeats.

         The tears start to fall. She cries for Billy Ray Blaise. More so, and to her surprise, she cries for Woody. She had decided after that last visit at the saloon that she would never see him again; and, knowing her own stubborn character, she likely would have kept to that decision. Still, it is a far different matter for her to contemplate his probable death, especially given her role in sending him into the lion’s den. Woody never had been a particularly good man, but he had deserved better than the kind of death she fears he suffered. 

         Also, let’s face it, old loves are never vanquished. They may take on the character of hatred or sorrow; but there is always an emotional intensity there that cannot be denied, no matter the whiskey consumed. 

         And so it is with a broken heart that Claire finally slides into sleep.

         She drops her silver flask off to the side. There is a bit of whiskey left. It dribbles out the top and across the floor. No matter, she will not need a slap of the hard stuff until dawn, for her dreams alone will protect her from the night.

*   *   *

         The automatic doors slide open, and Claire Bruner meekly steps into the lobby of the Saint John’s Rehabilitation Center. In part, she is playing a role for the administrative staff sitting stone faced at the white counter in front of her. Her stooped shoulders and downcast eyes are meant to suggest a sad and tired woman unfamiliar with her surroundings. She is sad, because this time she very nearly lost her favorite niece. She is tired, because her favorite niece happens to be a hooker, and she has had to bail her out of similar hospitals far too many times already. Her meekness also suggests that she is from somewhere else, no doubt a small town in a fly over state. That also makes sense. After all, is it not always the case that hookers come from ‘somewhere else’ and that they are on the beat, so to speak, just to make enough money to keep on walking down the highway? Are not hookers just modern day gypsies? They do not cast spells, but they do spread the clap. Ask a john, and he’ll say that they are much the same.

         Besides the act, Claire really does feel meek. She long ago put away any organized religion; but she cannot put away the instinctual dread she feels the moment she sees the Blessed Virgin Mary or a saint staring at her. Though these demigods almost always are figures in repose, men and women with their hands clasped in perpetual prayer and their eyes turned up toward the Beatific Vision above them, Claire senses judgment just behind the surface. These figures are like the calm before the storm. They disarm enough to make the actual sting of judgment that much worse. Whether this is a sick joke on God’s part, or a sick joke we conjure up in our own minds, Claire nonetheless feels before them the kind of smallness that others may regard as piety. That is just as well, for right now Claire wants to suggest ‘piety’ as much as ‘helplessness’ in her task ahead.

         Claire sees the Queen of Heaven staring back at her from behind the old, taciturn ladies at the counter. As usual, the Queen of Heaven stretches her soft hands outward and upward. She is ascending into heaven, and little cherubs are holding up the train of her wedding dress, lest God forbid something within the atmosphere stain that fabric before she crosses the pearly gates. The Queen of Heaven suffered so much, and yet there is neither a wrinkle to be found on her face nor a smudge on her dress. She has no need to cover up wrinkles and scars with knitted sweaters, oversized scarves, woolen hats, and galoshes. 

         As for a silver flask stuffed in between two large mammary glands, well, Claire is sure that that too is not one of the Queen of Heaven’s accessories. Not that she is an expert, but she would bet her restful cabin in the woods that the devil whiskey in her flask has no place up there with the angels and the saints. As such, Claire really has no choice but to feel judgment, when she looks up at the Queen of Heaven, and hears devil whiskey sloshing side to side in her silver flask. Her first and foremost reaction is meekness, for she senses the storm just passed the veneer of peaceful godliness and, frankly, does not know if she is up to the struggle. Yes, God works wonders with sinners; but will He work wonders with Claire? Or will He cast her among the long list of also-rans in life’s ordeals?

         Claire looks away from the Queen of Heaven. The old ladies staring back at her from behind the white counter are not much better. Claire picks the one that appears least heartless, wrings her hands in shame, and shuffles up to her.

         Good morning, ma’am, Claire says. I am here to visit Miss Donna Goody.

         The lady behind the counter is an old, black woman. Her face is so stern it is almost puckered, and yet there is a hint of kindness in her eyes. She really expects the worst; but she remains open to the occasional acts of goodness and kindness that, somehow, manage to cross her path now and then. Give her any reason to smile, even a small one, and her face will open into something that is almost beautiful. In those good moments, only her age robs her of total beauty.

         What is your relation? The black lady asks.

         I am her Aunt Claire; Claire replies meekly.

         Of course you are, the black lady says skeptically.

         Does my niece have an outstanding bill? Claire asks.

         Does the Virgin Mary crap roses? The black lady asks.

         Claire almost smiles. She already likes this broad. The two of them seem cut from the same branch, and yet she is careful not to be more comfortable or familiar around her. After all, ‘Aunt Claire’ is from Wisconsin or Minnesota. She probably has not seen a black person since the last time she stumbled upon The Cosby Show in syndication. It is not that ‘Aunt Claire’ has a problem with these ‘Negroes.’ It is just that their paths and her path too seldom cross one another.

         I have money, Claire says. 

         Probably not that much, sister, the black lady remarks with the first hint of kindness in her voice. The whores passed around the plate, but your niece is still about three thousand dollars short of getting out of Purgatory. 

         Claire reaches into the space between her breasts. She feels the flask as usual; but when she reaches even further down, she finds the enormous wad of greenbacks in a pocket stitched into the inner lining of her bottom sweater. All that cash has been there for God knows how long. The cash feels dirty, sweaty, like a man feels after a one-night stand that the two of them know well enough never should have happened. 

         She pulls out the wad and counts out three thousand dollars in hundreds. She returns the rest to her knitted pocket. She tries to act as casual as she can. 

         The black lady takes it all in stride. From the start, she had guessed that there was something odd about this ‘Aunt Claire’ from God knows where. She is not likely to be surprised by anything she observes, unless this ‘Aunt Claire’ all of a sudden opens up her hands and ascends into heaven like the antique statue behind her. Now, that would be something; but, in a way, she actually likes the fact that this ‘Aunt Claire’ is about as far removed from ‘Queenie’ as any white woman can be. The blessed ones can be statues, for all she cares. She will take a real gal in sweaters and galoshes over a saint any time, thank you very much.

         The black lady counts the money. She files it away, stamps ‘paid’ on the invoice in front of her, and prepares to hand back the change.

         Keep the change, Claire says. A gift for saving my niece’s life…

         The hospital saved her life, the black lady says. We just gave her enough rehab to keep her ass out of a wheelchair. She won’t be turning tricks no more.

         Then, that is a blessing, Claire remarks, while the black lady returns the change to the cubbyhole under the counter, and signs off on another long form.

         Blessing in disguise, the black lady comments agreeably enough. 

         Now, may I see her? Claire asks as much with her eyes as with her voice.

         The two look at each other for a second or two that feels like eternity. It is not a hostile look, so much as a meeting of the minds. The ladies ‘click,’ and in that moment, they acknowledge as much to one another in what they do not say. The black lady knows that this ‘Aunt Claire’ is as much a relation of Donna Goody as the man in the moon, but will say nothing. Claire knows that this lady is on to her ruse, but she also knows that this lady will let her go ahead anyway with pretty much whatever she wants to do. 

         The last room at the end of the hall, the black lady says, nodding toward the dark corridor. Just be careful not to wake the others. It is not even sunrise.

*   *   *

         Claire hesitates a moment in front of the door. It is ajar, and a lamplight is on inside. It is probably better to step in on a patient, who is not now asleep, rather than to be the person who wakes her from a restful sleep. The lamplight therefore allows Claire to feel a little better about the prospect of pushing this door open, poking her head inside, and stepping into Miss Donna Goody’s space.

         And yet Claire cannot discard the questions in her mind: Why don’t I call Detective Hooper and give him the lead? Am I not too old for this? And if I insist on this fool’s errand, then what right do I have to drag this young girl into what may turn out to be a bloodbath? Why can’t I just leave her alone? She really has it hard enough as it is what with the painful rehab exercises, not to mention all the life changes with which she must come to grips. So why don’t I just turn my heels around and leave this dreary place? 

         Because I know that I cannot do this myself, Claire thinks. Also, based on what Billy Ray told me, I realize that Miss Donna Goody would want to help her ‘boyfriend’ as much as I do. We both love the young man. Mine is the love of a doting aunt. Hers is the love of a sister. Maybe, it is that love that will allow us to succeed in rescuing him where apparently Woody had not succeeded. Maybe, I am full of shit. Regardless, this is where I must be, and this is what I must do.

         Claire pushes the door open, before she can give herself another reason not to do so. The steps into the room, and beholds Miss Donna Goody sitting up in her bed and staring out the first floor window. It remains too dark for Donna to see anything, except the occasional flash of white lightning from a storm the forecasters predict really will not be in high gear for another twelve hours. The distant look on her face suggests that she is not focusing on anything outside at any rate. She is lost in memory, or maybe in the life she never will have; and as a result, a pall of silent, grey depression drapes over her. She could be a ghost in mourning, but for the makeup she still sees fit to put on her lips and cheeks.

         Claire wants to walk up to the side of her bed and to give her a big bear hug, even though she does not know her. Her instinct is to protect her, for she knows from her own past experience how hard it can be to see your life ripped out from your hands. Donna will recover physically, but she will never smile the same way she had before that night. There will be always a hesitancy, a deeply rooted skepticism, that will rob joy of her fullness. She will not get that back in time, no matter the years spent on a psychiatrist’s couch, or the loves that will come along the way. Eden’s gate has been closed; and somewhere deep in her mind, Donna forever will hear the distinct sound of the latch setting into place.

         Notwithstanding the impulse to step forward, Claire decides to remain at the door. She wrings her old hands nervously. This time, she is not acting at all.

         Claire is about to speak up, when Donna beats her to the punch. Though speaking boldly and clearly, Donna continues to stare out the window, like she refuses to give up just yet on whatever has been occupying her conscious mind.  

         I’ve already told you everything I know, Donna insists. Leave me alone.

         Girl, you don’t understand, Claire says.

         Yes, I do, Donna says. You pigs want to frame Billy Ray for every crime in the penal code. If he owned a pet, you’d be searching for evidence of buggery. You are sick and twisted assholes, do you know that? 

         Yes, you’re right, Claire remarks.

         Ha! Let me guess, Donna sneers. You are one of the ‘good cops.’ Nothing but a perfumed pig…

         Claire walks forward. Her galoshes click loudly on the tile floor. 

         Donna gives up on whatever she had been watching inside her head. She is intrigued by this visitor, even though she is pretty sure the lady she observes within her right peripheral vision is just another detective pursuing yet another angle of inquiry. This one stands out first and foremost by her clothing. All the other lady detectives have worn muted, checkered, pantsuits. This one wears a wardrobe of knitted sweaters and scarves, like she just came down from Alaska and is not yet aware of the difference in temperature.

         Then, there is the fact that the other lady detectives are uniformly tall, fit, tomboyish, and middle aged. It is hard to tell for sure, given the number of sweaters concealing her torso, but this one seems too burly to be fit. Also, and most importantly, the last time this broad could be called ‘middle aged’ Ronald Reagan had been President and Max Headroom had been the King of Television.

         So perhaps, this eccentric, old lady is a retired detective put back in the saddle for one more crack at the whore. Donna entertains that thought, if only to be able to tell herself that she is not now letting down her guard; but a deep and persistent voice keeps telling her that that is not the case. Yes, this visitor is an eccentric, old lady; but she has nothing to do with the cops. Be on guard, since you can ill afford another sad dance with a devil, but also be open to her.

         The visitor steps out of the shadow. Donna’s eyes practically bulge from her sockets. Her memory is that instantaneous; and, for that reason, it initially frightens her. Then, as her memory really sinks in, it calms her to a degree she has not felt since before her maniacal ex-husband crashed through the window.

         Claire the Bear, Donna mutters. Oh, my God, what are you doing here?

         Claire chuckles. Apparently, years ago, Donna had been one of the many elementary school children she had taught the Dewey Decimal System. Donna is not a transient. She is a ‘girl from the neighborhood,’ so to speak, who has had to make some tough choices in her life.

         Claire observes Donna in more detail, once she is bedside. Donna’s face is scarred several places; but those scars are not deep. In a few years, they will fade away. Her hair had been shaved away, in order to treat that horrid wound on the backside of her head, but already it is growing back. Like most whores, she wore a wig anyway, so that should not be a problem. There may be a lot of scars on her body. Maybe, that is what the black lady had meant when she said that Donna would never again be able to turn tricks. Impossible now to tell, for Donna is wearing a floral pajama set that covers every bit of flesh from neck to toes. Claire senses that this is a departure from the past, for there is something about Donna that suggests that back then she had slept most nights in the buff.

         Claire eyes the cane leaning against the wall. There is also a wheelchair, but it has been folded up, and placed in a far corner. There are medicine balls, resistance bands, and other ‘torture devices’ in what looks like a toy box next to the wheelchair. The caped superwoman in the framed poster above that toy box is flexing her right bicep with a resistance band. She looks at the observer, and she smiles daringly. The words printed below read: Rehab’s Not for Sissies!

         Donna realizes what she said. Her cheeks turn beet red. She looks better now, for before her skin had been too ashen grey in the dim lamplight. The pall is not gone altogether, but it has been lifted enough for life to seep back inside the veins. Donna is now a woman, broken, sad, but far from the emptiness of a ghost staring out a dark window before sunrise.

         I am sorry, Donna states. It is just that I remember you from so long ago.

         The past has a way of catching up with us, Claire reflects. 

         The two look at each other in silence. It is not an awkward moment, but rather a coming together of souls. In their conscious minds, they are still saying ‘hello’ to one another; but where souls mingle and dance, they are old friends.

         So why are you here? Donna asks with a hint of a smile.

         I’m Billy Ray’s friend, Claire answers.

         Poor man never had enough of those, Donna reflects.

         Nonsense, Claire says. He’s always had you; and more recently, he’s had me, too. A guy’s lucky if he’s got only one gal in his corner. Billy Ray’s got two.

         A lot of good we are doing him now, Donna remarks.

         Tell me, child, Claire says delicately. I understand the police are playing out their cards. Have they told you anything about him?

         He’s wanted in an assault and battery of a security guard, Donna recalls. He’s a ‘person of interest’ in what happened to Mrs. McNutt and me, although I have told them already a hundred times that he was not there and, to the best of my knowledge, had no prior run-ins with my ex-husband.

         Anything else? Claire presses.

         He’s missing, Donna says. But I don’t believe them. They’ll say anything, if they think it will coax another tidbit out of me. The truth is I have told them everything; but because nothing I’ve said implicates Billy Ray in a crime, those pigs are not satisfied. 

         You’re right about the police, especially in this town, Claire comments. I have had my run-ins with them over the decades, so I know firsthand. Still, the police are not totally wrong to declare him ‘missing.’

         What do you mean? Donna asks with growing concern.

         Our Billy Ray has been kidnapped, Claire answers. 

         Oh, my God! Donna whispers.

         I think he’s alive, but time is short, Claire continues.

         You know where he is? Donna asks.

         I’ve got a clue, Claire explains. A message Billy Ray left on my answering machine. I think he was trying to escape. Anyway, I passed on that message to Detective Ringwood, a fellow I’ve known for years. Now, he’s missing, probably kidnapped by the same fellows who are holding Billy Ray. No doubt, as a result of Ringwood’s pursuit, the kidnappers suspect the police are not too far behind him. This is why I think that time is short. 

         So what message did he leave on your answering machine? Donna asks.

         I’ll tell you, dear, Claire says. But first, you need to be discharged. I am afraid these walls may have ears, and so I want to continue our talk somewhere else. Is that okay with you? Do you feel ready to be discharged into the custody of your favorite affable Aunt Claire? Or would you prefer that I leave you alone?

         I can’t be discharged, Donna says. My invoice…

         Has been paid in full, Claire says with a grin. ‘Aunt Claire’ has her ways.

         Oh, no, you shouldn’t, Donna says, while swaying her head side to side.

         Don’t worry about that, Claire insists. We can balance the scales later. I want us to focus now on what we can do to save Billy Ray. Time is short. I don’t know why I know that. I just do. Maybe, I’m just acting on instinct here; but if so, then you should know that my instincts have never led me wrong. Not once.

         I’m on board, Donna says. Anything for my ‘boyfriend.’

*   *   *

         Donna drags long on her cigarette, as she leans back on the park bench. The look on her face is almost orgasmic, when finally, she exhales the cigarette smoke in the direction of the Manchester River before her. Like cigarette highs for longtime smokers, the relief does not last long, before it is replaced with a look that suggests annoyed sadness. There is way too much on her mind for her to be content, notwithstanding how this is the first sunrise she has seen outside since before she moved in with Billy Ray. 

         The Manchester River is very wide this far into the City of Beverly. Just a little further upriver and it flows into Beverly Bay, an expanse of saltwater that supports about a half dozen cargo ships at any given time and that cools the big nuclear reactors operated by those mysterious hardhats at Red Horizons, Inc. In short, the tranquil mass of moving water, now silvery purple in the soft haze of a sunrise not yet finished, beside which Donna smokes her morning cigarette, is the last scenic point along the river’s edge. Soon, the water will take on a sick, brownish color on account of the sheer number of industrial leaks unpatched in the depths of the bay. Up there, it is as if that water never had been beautiful.

         I remember grandma, Donna comments. Funny sometimes what comes to mind, when there’s nothing else to see but the sunrise. 

         And, indeed, there is nothing else to see just then. The Manchester River up here is so smooth as to look like a glossy tabletop. There are no small boats, no canoes, no swimmers, not even a solitary fisherman casting his line from the banks. There is a nature preserve on the other side of the river, but it is too far away from this vantage point to offer up any details. It is just a hazy green line sifting in and out of the dew. Even most birds have taken flight already; likely to get away before the factories further upriver start to cough black smoke into the air. The result is a serenity that is almost unsettling; the calm before a bad storm; but also, a blank slate on which the mind can spread out and review old memories. Only the occasional song of an unseen whippoorwill can be heard, as those memories spread over the blank slate. The song is a kind of soundtrack to the timelessness of our own past; an audible reminder that, like the very same birdsong heard along mossy banks years on end, our memories persist in us long after our life pursuits have moved us elsewhere. In that sense, every memory is a ghost, a party guest that lingers; and with no other distractions, it takes on a brilliance in color and in sound that demands attention.

         Grandmothers often figure in times like these, Claire remarks just before taking another swig from her silver flask. 

         Claire is sitting beside Donna; but at that moment, she may as well be a million miles away. She too remembers the dead; although in her case, ‘dearly beloved’ grandma does not make a stage entrance. Instead, she remembers the first time she made love to Woody. He had not been such a jackass then. There had been just enough innocence left in his heart to compensate for his wiseass, insecure bravado. Moreover, he had had the perfect body around which a good, wholesome, preacher’s wife could wrap her arms, while the ceiling fan rotated lazily over them. The first hints of sunrise bleeding into their motor lodge room had felt so warm against her skin. She had wanted nothing, but to stay forever.

         Everyone called her Gammy, Donna continues. Gammy Goody, the little, old whore with the knobby knees. No teeth, soft lips, a slight roll to her knees…

         Poor woman, Claire mutters.

         Not poor, Donna insists. Rich. Think about it. Precisely on account of the deformities she had, she could outdo all the other girls, when cleaning a man’s knob. She turned her talent into a fortune. Bought a house along the river a bit closer to Manchester, and escaped from the world. I knew her only in a handful of brief encounters. Then, one day, it was like she’d never been there. Maybe, I just outgrew her, like a girl eventually does her imaginary friends. All I have is a memory of her smiling eyes, her gummy lips wrapped around a cigarette, just that hideous, but happy, face of hers. The world had taken so much; and yet in the end, she won. She abandoned us, but she did so on her own terms. There is something beautiful about that, is there not? Horrid, selfish, but also beautiful.

         Donna takes another drag on her cigarette. Claire screws the top back on to her silver flask and shoves it into a tight space inside her sweater. The world before them remains an endless expanse of silvery purple tranquility, but for a distant motor sound that hints that our modern world soon will creep into view.

         She’s the reason I’m a performer, Donna reflects.

         An actress? Claire inquires.

         No, a whore, which is much the same, Donna says. Like Gammy, I intend to get the last laugh. The man may get his squirt, but someday I too will escape to my own home along the river. In the grand scheme of things, I think I get the better end of the bargain in that transaction, no?

         You’re going to be a damned whore again? Claire inquires disapprovingly.  

         Donna glances at the cane. It is leaning against the park bench. Its metal surface reflects glaringly the light from the rising sun.

         I don’t know, Donna mutters. Of course, there are other ways to whore…

         Donna drags on her cigarette. There is an awkward moment of silence.

         You can get your last laugh, Claire reflects. You can escape to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. But you can’t make it back into Eden.

         Don’t you think I know that? Donna asks with a hint of hostility. I tried it. Lived like Adam and Eve before that silly business with the snake. But the devil smashed the window and turned innocence into bedlam in a matter of seconds. Oh, sure, I’ll get the last laugh; but I am not under any illusions about the cost. The fucking scars won’t ever go away, even when I’ve got all I’ve ever wanted. I’ve learned my lesson. I may dance pretty again someday, but I’ll never forget.

         The morning sky dims considerably. Donna and Claire notice how a storm cloud temporarily has covered over the sun. This menacing cloud will pass, and the sun will continue to illuminate the world; but another cloud, even more sad and grey than this one, will obscure the sun again in due time. Each successive cloud will be darker, bulkier, until there is nothing above but an endless reach of belabored discontent. The agitation will take the form of gurgling clouds and howling winds. The world will feel the weight of humidity upon its shoulders for several more hours after that; and then, just as the afternoon feels as if it will never end, the tension will be released in a downpour. 

         And then, the storm really begins…

         Donna smokes the last of her cigarette compulsively. She can feel a kind of omen in this temporary darkness. The cigarette offers her little relief; but it is something to do, at least. She senses that if she were not sucking in the final few puffs of tobacco, then she’d be scratching at her face, or perhaps hobbling towards the river. Yes, the darkness passes; but for someone already straddling the edge, it can be enough sometimes to knock her into the clammy cold abyss.

         Claire senses the same brooding darkness. She almost reaches inside her sweater for her flask, but then decides she needs to be strong for Donna. There will be more tangible monsters later today; most likely, a couple of madmen in a hideout somewhere ready to pull their triggers at the least provocation. Fight off the mental demons now, or forget about fighting off the real ones when the storm is raging. That is easier said than done, but Claire can see no alternative.

         Donna flicks her cigarette stub away. Claire watches the ember die upon the sidewalk between them and the river’s edge. That dying ember is a kind of omen, too. Both ladies instinctively sense this fact, and so they look away from the stub with superstitious dread. Since neither woman ever has been prone to superstition, the very fact that they sense this dread unsettles them more than anything else. It is as if losing one’s mind, and sensing that it may never return.

         Let’s go get some breakfast, Claire says after a while.

         The sun is peeking through cracks in the cloud cover. There is not now as much light as before, but the worst of the darkness has passed. Time to embark for the nearest shelter, before the next dark cloud shrouds the face of the day.

         Donna brightens. She is far from the happy-go-lucky gal, who had danced the nights away at the Kingfish Saloon; but at least there is a hint of redness in her cheeks. Her lips twitch like they cannot figure out if it is okay to break into an all out smile. In the end, they decide to compromise between the extremes; and so Donna responds to Claire’s suggestion with a facial expression that calls to mind a shrug of the shoulders. 

         Rather than be putt off by this reaction, Claire sees a flicker of hope for now. Donna is a ghost of what she used to be, but she is there still. In time, she will take on more of her old persona and, more importantly, her deep strength.

         Claire stands up, and helps Donna get to her feet. Donna is still new with the cane. She leans over it a bit too much, because she is not yet certain of her balance; and as a result, she looks twice her age. Donna seems all too aware of how she must look, for that momentary brightness gives way at once to shame. Claire knows that it is no use to tell her to snap out of it. Women are as vain as men are proud, and so it is best to let Donna suffer through her shame for now.

*   *   *

         Claire’s Volkswagen Bug is parked in the lot about halfway between their park bench and the restaurant. There had been no other cars in the lot earlier. Now, there are a smattering of cars and pickup trucks. The regulars are getting their eggs and bacon, before heading upriver to the smokestacks and the cargo ships. They will be talking up the next Ronda Rousey match, while sprinkling on their runny eggs way too much Tabasco sauce.   

This is a blue collar crowd; and, therefore, the ladies feel more at ease. From their experience, workingmen do not raise their eyebrows much at all, let alone at a young woman in a “Cowgirl Up” T-shirt and jeans (the only change of clothes one of Donna’s streetwalker friends had brought to the hospital) and an old woman in multiple sweaters, scarves, woolen hat, and galoshes. These folks have their minds preoccupied with their own problems, like how they are going to pay their rent, or how they are going to fuck over the man banging their gal.

Donna leans precariously on her cane, while Claire opens the driver side door to her car, reaches behind her seat, and retrieves the answering machine. She eyes the battery in the back of the machine. Satisfied, she closes and locks her driver side door, and returns to Donna’s side. 

Come on, Claire urges. If you like grease, you’ll love the omelets here.

This comment manages to break the ice. Donna grins and nods her head.

The hospital food was so damned healthy it was killing me, Donna says.

Claire chuckles. She knows the feeling. The last time the powers that be kept her in a hospital for a week she nearly climbed the walls thinking about all those silver flasks full of whiskey back home. Yes, that is a classic definition of an alcoholic; but is it not better to indulge too much than to climb those walls?

The ladies step into Big Bertha’s Café. It is an old fashioned eatery with booths on one side and a counter on the other. ‘Big Bertha’ is a Mamie with big lips and even bigger eyes. She is a cardboard cut-out beside the cash register at the front door. The ‘do-gooders’ downtown would have shut down this café for featuring such a politically incorrect mascot long ago, except that the owner is the African American grandson of the real ‘Big Bertha.’ He keeps the mascot to remind himself and everyone else just how far his family has risen from the old days. Sure, hell exists; but in the right frame of mind, it is just the base of that staircase that leads up the mountain. 

The ladies sense this positive message as much as they sensed the omens outside. It does not play on the rational mind, so much as on the intuitive. For this reason, they feel just a bit happier as they reach the vacant booth farthest from the front door. In particular, Donna’s beautiful cheeks burn a bit brighter. 

At the same time, the fact they are so susceptible to the environment in which they find themselves, overtaken with melancholy when a dark cloud veils the sun, then relieved when inside a blue collar diner, troubles them. It is as if they are puppets whose emotional strings are controlled by something far more powerful than them. Are they really setting out to save Billy Ray? Or is there an outside force, a mercurial demon let us say, drawing them into a trap? For two ladies who so pride themselves on living life by their own rules, the notion that they are being drawn into anything at all conjures up the worst fears. They try to set this thought aside; but like a rat gnawing at the edges, its proves to be a lot more resilient than they would hope. Like it or not, they cannot discard the thought that, indeed, they are pawns moved across a chessboard.

Donna and Claire stare at the plastic laminate menus. Big Bertha’s offers virtually every omelet under the sun. Donna goes for the hot chili beans omelet with extra jalapeños. Claire sticks with her favorite Denver omelet. 

After the waiter has left, the two ladies stare at one another. Neither of them has to say what is on her mind. What is unsaid is clear enough: If either of them wants to back out, then now is the time to do so. 

Are you going to play the message for me? Donna asks after the moment has passed for both of them.

Claire places the answering machine on the table, and shoves it forward. The way she does so suggests that the machine is dirty, or perhaps radioactive. She seems almost ashamed to be exposing Donna to the short message saved on her old machine. After all, Donna has been through so much heartbreak as it is.

Donna hesitates a moment. Then, she plays the message. She keeps the volume low, so that no one else in the café can hear her ‘boyfriend’ pleading in his most calamitous hour. She does not even try to stop the tears from flowing down her cheeks, as she replays his cryptic message a half a dozen times.

Donna finally stops listening. She shoves the answering machine onto her right side, and folds her hands penitentially before her ‘Cowgirl Up’ T-shirt. A quick look at her deep and haggard breathing shows just how frightened she is. She is like a little girl hiding in a closet and praying for the horror to end. She is not sure anyone hears her prayer, and so there is a hint of sadness in her fright.

Get the Axe, Donna mutters. Do you have any idea…?

The theater critic for the Beverly Times, Claire interrupts her. He writes under a pseudonym. ‘Get the Axe’ is the name of his column. 

Do you think that Jim Trent has anything to do with this? Donna inquires.

Anything is possible with that old cat, Claire reflects. But my gut instinct more recently has been telling me ‘no.’ I have a hunch that the kidnapping will turn out to have nothing to do with the Trent Brothers.

I am not so sure that is good news, Donna states.

What do you mean? Claire asks.

Well, Donna reflects, Jim Trent is a maniac, even worse than my ex in a way; but at least we know him. We can anticipate his moves, his defenses; but what are we to make of this theater critic? 

We have the element of surprise, Claire comments.

Yes, but he has the element of mystery, Donna comments. 

So that balances the scales, Claire adds.

I’m not so sure, Donna reflects while looking downward. Forgive me, but you are not a ‘spring chicken.’

That’s true, Claire says.

And I can’t even whore anymore, let alone kick ass, Donna continues. 

Again, the two ladies look at one another in silence. Claire can read the question in Donna’s eyes. Before Donna speaks up, Claire answers her question.

No, we can’t go to the police, Claire says. The police will not be able to get a warrant based only on this message. They might set up a surveillance, but what will happen to our Billy Ray, while they are trying to collect evidence?

By the time they get their warrant, he’ll be dead, Donna reflects. 

Yes, Claire says. I’m afraid you’re right. 

If time is so damned short, then what are we doing here? Donna asks.

Eating greasy omelets, Claire answers. And waiting for the offices of the Beverly Times to open. The editor over there doesn’t know yet that we are the first item on his agenda for the day. 

Donna smiles. There is a glow in her eyes that had not been there prior.

I like you Claire Bear, Donna says. We’re two runts from the same litter.

Claire laughs. There is a similar glow in her eyes. 

Now, let’s not talk about our business for the next half hour or so, Claire says. There will be time enough for that. Our task here is to savor the grease in Big Bertha’s omelets. Fill the gut, then expand the butt!  

*   *   *

         Claire hobbles into the anteroom. She looks exhausted and confused. 

         Good morning, ma’am, Claire says, after leaning forward on the edge of the secretary’s desk. Is this where I can find Mr. Beetle?

         May I ask who wants to know? The old maid on the other side of the desk asks in her typically abrasive fashion. 

         Claire studies her adversary a moment. The old maid is a fixture straight out of central casting for the role of the irascible schoolmarm. Her white hair is in a bun pulled so tightly back as to suggest skin reeling back from her temples. Her Pince-nez dangles precariously at the edge of her hawkish nose. Her black eyes, intelligent, but also beastlike, peer over her eyeglasses, eternally judging the person who happens to be standing in front of them, and arriving at a guilty verdict. Her narrow, wrinkled face seems to sink into her high, ruffled collar in the manner of a decomposing corpse sliding into the floral dress in which it had been buried. Indeed, her clammy, greyish skin suggests that, soon enough, she will be visiting with her mortician for the last time. Rather then elicit sympathy her manner is such that most persons want to kick her bony fanny out the door.

         My name is Adele; Claire says in a quivery voice. Miss Adele Rich. 

         Are you someone? The old maid snarls.

         What? Claire asks.

         Is there a reason why I should know you? The old maid parses out each of the words as if speaking with a retarded person.

         Well, I suppose not, Claire remarks.

         Listen, Miss Adele, I do not have time; the old lady snaps…

         Oh, but you should, Claire interrupts. I need to give a certain something back to Mr. Beetle. He left it on my front lawn this morning. Poor man! I guess he can no longer control himself.

         What are you saying? The old lady inquires with a bit of fear in her voice.

         Claire reaches down the collar of her innermost sweater. Her hand slides passed her silver flask. Further down, she digs through playing cards and ribbon to find that certain something intended for Mr. Beetle.

         Claire retrieves a battered roll of toilet paper that seems to be smeared by shit. She holds it by her face, like she is savoring the smell, and then dumps it unceremoniously onto the desk.

         Oh, Lord! The old maid screams. Lord! Lord! Lord!

         The old maid jumps back from her desk. Her Pince-nez falls to the desk, and her eyes dart erratically every which way. She wrings her hands in front of her flat chest. She mutters what first sounds like gibberish, but then turns out to be Jeremiah 9:22 (‘The dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon an open field, like sheaves after a reaper, and none shall gather them’)

         Not if they smell like this, you’re right, Claire remarks with a mad smile.

         Sec! Sec! Sec! The old maid stammers…

         Security! Claire says the word for her. Yes, by all means, go get security.

         The old maid rushes out from behind her desk. She bumps into Donna, as she is storming out the anteroom; but she is much too delirious to notice.

         Donna hobbles into the anteroom. She leans heavily over her cane.

         Hurry, darling, Claire says. The old witch will be back soon enough. 

         The door to the inner office opens. A round faced man with a comb over pokes his head out the door. He seems pissed more than scared, like all of this commotion has interfered with one of his morning rituals. 

         What is the meaning of this? The round faced man explodes.

         Are you Mr. Beetle? Donna inquires, while hobbling up to him.

         Who are you? He snaps back.

         Donna is close enough now that she taps the bottom of her cane into his chest. She presses forward. Stunned, the round faced man steps back, but does not close his door. This allows Donna to follow him into the inner office without skipping a beat. Claire watches with a kind of maternal approval, while quietly, surreptitiously, gathering up the toilet paper and stuffing it inside her sweater.

         Donna steps into the inner office. She back kicks the door shut. 

         The round faced man hurries back to his desk chair. He looks relieved at first, like there is an invisible wall at the edge of his desk that prevents female loons with canes from getting any closer to him. Though he is also as pissed and as scared as ever, he has enough composure just then to snap his fingers at the floor. In response, a long haired, blond, show dog Shih Tzu jumps onto his wide lap, leans against his torso, and kisses his face profusely. It is like the Shih Tzu is trying quite literally to lick all those crazed emotions off his master’s cheeks.

         Are you Mr. Beetle? Donna repeats, when she reaches his desk.

         I am calling security, the round faced man snaps back. 

         He reaches for the telephone on his desk; but before he can pick up the receiver, Donna uses her cane to knock the device off of his desk. She proceeds to snap her cane over his desk, like a Dominatrix showcasing what she can do in a split second on a man’s bare butt. 

         The round faced man recoils in fear. His Shih Tzu looks back, gauges the situation, and then continues to kiss his master’s cheeks. Apparently, the round faced man is going to need a lot more kisses to get through this crisis. 

         Are you Mr. Beetle? Donna screams. For Christ’s sake, answer me!

         Yes! Yes! I’m Barley Beetle, the round faced man concedes.

         So you know the real name of the man who writes ‘Get the Axe’ for your newspaper, right? Donna seethes.

         What? Barley asks.

         You heard me, Donna yells, and then again snaps the cane over the desk.

         Frightened this time, the Shih Tzu tries to climb up and over his master’s right shoulder. Barley grabs his Shih Tzu in time, and lowers him to the floor by his feet. Barley looks back up at what he will remember always as that ‘crazed cunt.’ The intense fear in his eyes suggests that he expects soon to be hit hard.

         You want to know his real name? Barley asks.

         And his address, while you’re at it, Donna responds.

         Barley weighs revealing the man behind the pseudonym. Donna can read the back and forth in his eyes. Although she practically smells his fear, she also senses that he will maintain his ethics and not reveal the man’s real identity. It is good to see a man faced with imminent danger decide to do what is ethically right; and, for this reason, Donna feels a certain amount of respect for the man that she never had anticipated before launching this attack. She hates that she is on the side of the devil in this instance; and she briefly darts her eyes down, so that the man will not read her momentary flirtation with self-condemnation.

         When she looks back up, she notices something about the man that she’d not sensed prior. It is a small detail really. Something about his thin eyebrows…

         Oh, my God! Donna blurts out. I know you by another name…

         What? Barley interrupts, though the look in his eyes suggests that he has figured out already where this discussion is headed.

         Harold Fishman from Buffalo, Donna recalls. Travelling salesman…

         Get out! Barley yells. I shall not stand for this!

         Kinky, Donna remarks with a forced grin. Gerbils and butt plugs…

         Get out! Barley yells.

         I’m going to call Bobbi Chu, Donna continues. I’ve had her direct line on my cell phone ever since she did that expose on pimps and whores for the local ABC affiliate. She’ll agree that a certain editor’s fixation with kink is hard news worthy of her time.

         Barley leaps up from his chair. He holds out his hands in a ‘stop’ gesture.

         Okay, you win, Barley concedes. I can’t figure out why you care so much about a damned theater critic; but that’s your business, not mine.

         That’s right, Donna says. Now, hurry up.

         Barley sits down, turns to his Rolodex, and finds the name and address of the ‘Get the Axe’ columnist. He writes down that information on another piece of paper, and hands it over to his tormentor without looking up. He is ashamed; and, again, Donna momentarily hates herself for forcing him to act unethically.

         Donna folds the piece of paper, and shoves it into her jeans’ pocket. She turns, and hobbles out of the office without saying another word to him. She is so consumed with emotion that she has to focus on not shedding a solitary tear.

         My boyfriend needs me, she mutters. And there’s no other way.

         Donna steps into the anteroom. She observes a tall, burly, black security guard standing beside Claire. The guard has his arms crossed in front of his big chest. He sways his head side to side because he does not believe the old maid.

         I know what I saw, the old maid insists. A roll of toilet paper smeared by her dung. Do you hear me, boy? Dung! That’s D-U-N-G, in case you cannot spell.

         Let the ladies go, Barley calls out from inside his office.

         Donna winks at Claire, and proceeds out the anteroom.

         Sorry you had to be bothered, Claire says to the security guard. 

         Best be on your way, ma’am, the security guard remarks curtly.

         Yes, sir, Claire agrees, and then follows Donna out of the room.

*   *   *

         Walter opens his eyes. He gasps for his next breath, like a drowning man illogically trying to snatch one more bubble of breathable air out from the dirty water in which he finds himself. His fear is visceral, instinctual; and yet, at the same time, he is able to formulate a clear and coherent thought somewhere in the back of his mind. 

         Why does the water smell like blood? Walter thinks, while still struggling to take in air. Why does it taste so sick and coppery on my lips? What the buck?

         He moves his face to the side. Now, he senses vaguely that his left cheek is resting against a hard surface. Of course, this makes no sense, if indeed he is drowning in the Manchester; and yet the sensation is undeniable.

         He inhales deeply. This time, air fills his lungs; but the air first has to go through what feels like a blood mask hanging over his face. As a result, the air kicks some life back into his flesh, and yet also makes him feel nauseous. Blood and bile gurgle up his throat; and, at once, he fears that that vile concoction is going to get stuck in the back of his throat. He imagines suffocating to death as a result of all that gunk clogging up his trachea. He is drowning, indeed, except now he is drowning in what is inside his flesh and, he fears, also inside his soul.

         Slowly, the sick brew slides back down his throat. His fear sinks with his vomit; and so finally, he is composed enough to make sense of his predicament for what it really is. He is not drowning at the bottom of a river. Rather, he is awakening into a dimly lit attic overrun by blood.

         Walter pushes himself up from the dirty floor, until he is able to balance his considerable weight upon his knees. Even then, his knees wobble from side to side; and that in turn causes his chain to rattle against his torso. He tries to take in another deep breath; but this time, he feels restricted by the collar and the chain links wrapped too tightly about his throat. 

         He tries to pull the chain links away. They barely move; and as a result, he senses the entire attic closing in on him. He knows conceptually that this is a trick of the mind, a prelude to claustrophobia, but reason has little sway over instinct at that moment. 

         Anxious to focus his mind elsewhere, he looks about the attic. His initial impression is that he is alone. Again, he knows that this is just part of the fear induced by claustrophobia; but that knowledge does not stop him from moaning like a trapped beast. 

         Then, he senses his mind breaking through a glass wall; and suddenly, his claustrophobia vanishes…

         And so does his mistaken impression that he is alone in this room…

         What the buck? Walter whispers.

         There is a large form leaning against the wall about five feet away. It is a figment of his imagination, surely, for it is too still. Real things move. If they are alive, then they breathe. If not, then they cast shadows, or shift in and out of one’s perspective. Stare at an inanimate thing long enough, and it will be as clear one moment as it is blurred another. Yes, this is a trick of the eyes; but it is a trick that occurs, because the eyes are focusing on something that occupies space in the real world. Absolute stillness has no place in a world we can sense.

         Thunder rumbles overhead. It must be close, for the dim light that hangs over the comatose cowboy sways side to side. Walter does not look behind him, but he does see how the soft illumination from that light source swings up and down the opposite wall. 

         Walter loses his balance. He braces the floor with his right palm, so that he does not once more fall face first into the dirty blood. All the while, he still stares at that large form leaning against the wall. 

         The light slides over the dark form. Walter’s eyes almost fly out of their sockets, as the light reveals that the dark form is a blood drenched corpse. It is like the corpse is covered by a filthy sheet of blood that had been pulled up to its neck. There is a smattering of blood on the face; but, for the most part, it is clean enough to be identified as the adolescent from hell. Marcos looks back at Walter with an expression that is equally pissed off and confused. ‘I want to kill you, fat fuck,’ those eyes say. ‘But what the fuck is happening to me just now?’

         Somehow, in spite of the blood pouring out his punctured artery, Marcos had been able to pull himself out from underneath the fat fuck. The blood trail suggests that he had slithered across the floor. Losing consciousness quickly, he had had enough wherewithal to lean his flesh against the wall and to look back at the man he thought he had choked to death. Interestingly, as the life flowed out from him, he had felt no satisfaction in seeing his vanquished foe. Instead, he had hated him just as much; probably, had wanted to kill him all over again.

         Bastard, Walter whispers.

         And yet the longer he looks at the corpse, the less he can think of him as ‘the bastard.’ The corpse is Marcos, son of his former maid, slave to his darkest passions, and now blood saturated meat.

         Thunder snaps overhead. The light above the comatose cowboy sways so much now as to cast its soft illumination all the way up to the ceiling. The attic is a cauldron of lights and shadows; an asylum marked by ghoulish shadow faces appearing, then disappearing, on the walls. Nothing lives here, but madness on a level even Walter had not imagined to be possible. 

         There is little time left, Walter whispers. Lucius is dead…

         Thunder snaps overhead again. This time, the loud, piercing sound in the air rings his ears. He clenches his ears with his palms, and opens his mouth into a silent scream. He senses electric pain jumping from bone to bone deep inside his flesh. It is as if he has been electrocuted, though it is more accurate to say that he has been burnt by the emotional violence unleashed in this death room.

         Yes, Lucius is dead, Walter repeats with a hint of regret. And Grandma is coming home to avenge me. She holds the wooden spoon in her right hand, and she taps the underside against her left palm. Each tap is the sound of thunder…

         Walter does not finish the thought, but he knows what to do next. It is a dreadful task, but what choice does a little boy have in the matter? Grandma is coming home; and so he has to tidy up his place, one dead body part at a time.

         Get the axe, Walter whispers dreamily. There’s no other choice for me…

         Walter sees the axe stuck in a crack in the floor. He wobbles on his weak knees over to the axe, grabs the blood drenched handle, and pulls it out of the wood. He stares at the axe in hand. The blade appears flimsy, even toy like, in the soft illumination from the hospital bed light behind him. He imagines he is a fat boy playing ‘Lumberjack Man,’ or maybe ‘Home Builder,’ with his toy axe.

         With that thought in mind, he hobbles on his knees over to the corpse. It is even more grotesque up close. In his mind, it is a big slab of beef covered by a blood blanket. The butcher did not cut out the eyes, though; and so it stares. 

         The final chop is mine, Walter mutters. All the others have taken a turn.

         Walter braces himself; for even then, in spite of what has happened, he still hears a small voice telling him to drop that axe and to hobble down the old spiral staircase towards his bedroom. Just drop the axe, and head for his pillow and sheet. He hears the voice clearly enough, and must work hard to silence it.

         The voice of reason passes. It always does this close to hell.

         While gripping hard the axe with his right hand, Walter uses his left hand to pull the dead man’s left ankle. It is a real strain, for the dead man had been a bulky son of a bitch even when alive. As a corpse, he seems instantly to have put on another fifty pounds. The blood compounds the problem, for apparently enough time has passed for it to coagulate. The blood on the dead man’s back, therefore, acts like a glue sticking the corpse to the wall. 

         For all that, if Walter keeps yanking at that ankle, then it is a matter of time only. He knows that; and so, in spite of the strain on his face, there is just a hint of a maniacal grin on his lips the whole time. He suspects that the longer he pulls at this ankle, and the tighter he grips his axe, the wider will be his grin when, finally, he has succeeded.

         It does not take that long. Walter tugs about a dozen times, and then he hears a horrid ripping sound. He stops a moment, braces himself yet again, and then pulls with all his strength. The corpse slides down the bloody wall, leaving most of its skin back up there, and splashing the back of its head into a puddle of blood that, earlier, had spread out from the corpse’s ass. The splash calls to mind vomit hitting the surface of a bathroom sink before it sinks into the drain.

         Walter traces his left index finger up to the dead man’s left knee. There is a spongy something or other on that knee. Likely, it is a small patch of blood not yet coagulated; but, deep down, he cannot escape the possibility that it is a sea creature, or perhaps that clutching octopus. Evil lurks in water’s depths…

         Walter consciously decides not to entertain that thought much longer. It is well known that fat boys who think too much do too little, and he has quite a bit of cleaning up to do before Grandma returns to butcher his hide. Walter has no illusion about escaping the wooden spoon entirely; but, perhaps, if his place is spic and span, then she will restrain one or two of her swings with that damn thing. The possibility is remote, but he thinks she exhibited some small amount of mercy once or twice in their many years living together under the same roof.

         It is worth the effort anyway; and so Walter sizes up the knee in the dim light, raises the axe blade over his head, and slams down hard on that kneecap. The strike calls to mind an axe blade slamming hard into a watermelon. It is an ugly, meaty sound, even though kneecaps have very little flesh on their bones.

         It takes about a dozen strikes, before the lower half of that dead leg is separated out from the upper half. It is easy enough afterwards just to toss the amputated leg to the side. It is fitting too, as old body parts get in the way, no?

         Walter thinks so. He does not waste time, therefore. He quickly licks the dead man’s blood off his bluish lips, while searching for the next joint to strike.

*   *   *

         You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Donna remarks after a while.

         Claire does not flinch. She continues to look out her driver’s side window at nothing in particular. She had looked at the note no more than five seconds, before she had wrinkled it into a ball; and since then, she has been staring at a bad memory that she had attempted to bury long ago.

         Do you want to talk about it? Donna asks with a hint of fear in her voice. 

         Claire sighs. She looks down at the wrinkled paper ball on her lap. There is a strange look on her face, like she is coming back from dementia and is now discovering the world anew. Her look is one of childlike wonder. Her eyes tell a different story, though. Here, there is no childlike wonder. Rather, there is old age, experience, wisdom; the mature understanding that, no matter how much gravel we shovel over the past, it will crawl up from hell when least opportune.

         I’d prefer not, Claire answers the question after another bout of silence.

         That’s okay, Donna agrees…

         But I must, Claire interrupts. 

         There is another bout of silence. Donna fidgets on the passenger seat of the Volkswagen Bug. Normally, she would fit; but with her cane at her side, the fit is a bit too snug to be comfortable. 

         Claire takes that wrinkled paper ball, and stuffs it down her sweater. It is now a part of her collection, apparently, along with the toilet paper roll, the ribbons, the playing cards, and of course the silver flask. 

         Claire removes the silver flask. She drinks from it, until it is bone dry. No matter the glazed look in her eyes, the alcohol does little to calm her nerves at that moment. She slides her old silver flask into the crack between her breasts.

         Have you ever heard of Walter Whipple? Claire asks.

         Donna considers a moment. Like others in her profession, she knows, or has heard mentioned, a lot more men than the average woman ever will know. She knows almost as many aliases. ‘Walter Whipple’ rings a bell, but the bell is far too distant for her to be able to recall any particular insight about the man. She concedes with a shrug of her shoulders, and so sits back to listen in silence.

         Claire looks out her driver’s side window again. It is like she can see her bad memory in that direction and wants to be sure about some detail. She does not look very long this time. The memory touches a deep sadness that she does not want to recall and that, frankly, feels as raw now as it had been back then.

         I took to her like she was my little sister, Claire states.

         She turns her face away from the window and stares deeply into Donna’s eyes. It is like she is trying to find something in Donna’s old soul onto which she can hook her own. She is a woman cast adrift on a sea of memories and desires nothing else but a buoy. Her eyes well up with thick tears, but they do not fall.

         Alice Werner, Claire remarks. She worked in the hospital, but she really belonged on a stained glass window…

         A saint, Donna mutters.

         And a whore, Claire says. Not that she slept around. For all that I know, she may have been a virgin still when I first saw her. But she was promiscuous with her time, her attention, her openness to just about everyone around her. I saw so many patients fall in love with her for no other reason than the way she smiled at them. Like saints and whores everywhere, she came from somewhere else. I took her under my wing. I wanted to protect her.

         From one of the patients? Donna interjects.

         Nothing that specific, Claire says. Not at first, anyway. 

         You wanted to protect her from life, Donna comments.

         From the passage of time, Claire says. You know how innocent it is when a mother tells her little girl to take off her clothes and to get into the bathtub? Well, imagine an old lady telling a grown woman to do the same. That does not sound so innocent, right? What’s the difference, except that the two characters have grown older? It is the passage of time. Look briefly, and you are admiring. Look too long, and you are stalking. Time has a way of taking the shine off. Put away the shine, and what do we have left? Innocence that turns out in time not to have been all that innocent. Love that turns out in time to have been weak, fragile, maybe just an illusion. I could see the blush in her cheeks, but I sensed from the start that one day that blush would be gone. Oh, sure, she would hide that fact beneath layers of makeup. When the makeup no longer worked, she’d get a nip and a tuck; a pair of stretched cheeks and a plastic smile. But I would know, and I suspect many others would as well. 

         And she would know, too, Donna interjects. We ladies are our own worst enemies really. We know when we’ve got it, and we know when we’re losing it.

         True, Claire reflects. I would add that when we’re losing what we regard as so precious, our innocence, our youth, that’s when we undertake the riskiest measures to try to preserve it. Desperation blinds the best of us. Makes us think we have fallen in love when in fact we have fallen into trouble. Poor Alice! She had been susceptible from the start given her general naiveté. But toss into the mix her fear that she might not be as much a saint as she had imagined, that in fact her life might be as much a shade of grey as most everyone else’s, and she grabs onto the next ‘sob story’ that comes along her path. Stupid girl! She falls for Walter Whipple, a young man she tries to save, so that she can save herself.

         So who is this Walter Whipple? Donna asks.

         Claire glances away. She thinks about how best to answer that question.

         Another lost cause, Claire finally answers. I knew his grandmother. She’d chop him into little pieces before she told him she loved him. Old Eunice was a lot like a tornado. Come out of nowhere, suddenly, and then leave behind ruin. Poor sicko never really had a chance; and, I suspect, neither did Alice Werner…

         You think he killed her? Donna asks.

         I don’t know what to think, Claire responds. She went missing. The cops hauled in Walter on a kidnapping charge, but it didn’t stick. Old Eunice had the pull back then. So who knows?

         You know, Donna says. 

         I know what I saw in his eyes, Claire remarks. The Beverly Times put him on the front page, and I studied that photograph for the longest time. I kept on asking myself: Is that death I see in his eyes? Is that really the end of the road? I cannot say for sure even after all these years. What I can say, though, is that I have never seen a pair of eyes like those. Not even close…

         How long ago did this happen? Donna asks.

         I do not remember exactly, Claire responds. Back in the eighties, I think. 

         And you think he is as sick now as then, Donna reflects.

         Remember what I said, Claire states. Time has a way of taking the shine off. I suspect today that there’s nothing about him that seems to be ‘innocent.’

         You know him more than you suggest, Donna remarks.

         Claire once more stares intently into Donna’s eyes. Claire’s eyes are dry, and the pinched expression on her face suggests cold fury more so than sorrow.

         I intend to carry most of my secrets into the grave, Claire reflects. 

         Donna glances away. Claire catches the hint, and she follows suit. There is a prolonged period of silence, as each woman comes to terms with this story.

         What is really most strange is that I am not all that surprised to find out that Walter Whipple is a character in this drama, Claire comments. I think that I suspected him from the start. I think that that is why I allowed Billy Ray to go out that rainy night on his own. I could have followed him, after all, like when he broke into David Trent’s house; but that would’ve meant seeing those death eyes yet again. Instead, I stayed in my cabin, and drowned my fears in whiskey.

         You can’t blame yourself, Donna says.

         Yes, I can, Claire says. And I suspect I always shall. 

         Claire abruptly turns away, and starts up the Volkswagen Bug. Donna has no idea what to make of Claire’s revelation. Donna will stick this out to the end but, at this moment anyway, cannot be sure that Claire will stay as committed. Claire has an axe to grind. That is clear enough. That may make her dangerous.

*   *   *

         Walter wipes blood from his eyes with the back of his hand. He manages only to smear it around his forehead, for his hands already are plastered by red inky blood. His face is a slushy mask of blood and tissue; so that at first glance, he looks like a misshapen, melting ghoul. His quivery, bloodstained jowls call to mind a hen’s drooping wattle. He is a perverse contortion of fears and madness focused exclusively on the tasks at hand.

         Walter is wobbling still on his knees. He presses most of his weight on his left palm, so that he can be more agile when lifting and lowering his axe blade.

         He lowers the blade. This time, the vertebrae separates with an audible, sickening snap; and the dead man’s head rolls away from the neck. It sounds as if a moistened ball of lettuce rolling across a wood floor and then smashing into debris. In this case, the debris consists of other chopped limbs and organs.

         The eyes remain open, though; and when the head ceases to roll across the floor, the eyes are positioned such that they continue to stare at that blood smeared fat fuck. The eyes are startled; but more so, they exhibit a murderous intent that nearly stops Walter’s heart when he sees them.   

         Grandma’s gonna get you, fat fuck; the dead eyes say.

         Be quiet, Walter snarls. You don’t know what you’re talking about. 

         She’s got the wooden spoon, the dead eyes chuckle. But this time, she’s gonna do more than smack you with it. She’s gonna stick it up your fat fuck ass.

         Be quiet, Walter yells. What do you know?

         Living eyes see, the eyes answer. Dead eyes see more…

         Walter breaks down into tears. He chops the torso indiscriminately with his axe blade. The torso looks like a cushion with red, meaty stuffing exploding out of the cracks in the fabric. 

         Dead eyes look through window blinds, the eyes continue. Through little cracks in boarded up windows. Through keyholes, even when the doors are shut for the night. Through your eyelids, even when you are sleeping under a sheet. Dead eyes look, and then say: ‘Take off your clothes. I want to see everything.’

         Quiet! Walter cries through his tears.

         You saw my black swan, so now I get to see yours, the eyes chuckle. Be a good sport, huh? After all, turn around is fair play. What? You don’t want to put it out there for everyone to see? Are you ashamed? Well, I can fix that. See how I unzipped your pants? Pretty groovy, huh? Now, I’m gonna pull aside your little boy underwear. Just a bit, you see? Enough so that I can view your black swan…

         Quiet! Walter cries. Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!

         Walter cuts deeply into the torso with his axe blade. Therefore, when he pulls the axe blade back up, he flings blood and organs every which way. He is a ghoul flailing inside a blood and meat geyser.

         Let’s play ‘Hide the Black Swan,’ the eyes chortle

         Walter pulls down the jean cut-offs. Marcos’ huge cock remains stiff and intact. Apparently, rigor mortis sets into a man’s ‘manhood’ before the rest of him. A man’s got his priorities, even after he has given up his ghost, it appears.

         Since the upper legs have been cut away from the torso already, there is nothing whatsoever to disparage Walter’s view of Marcos’ teenaged ‘manhood.’ The bluish color of dead flesh makes Marcos’ ‘manhood’ look suspiciously like a cucumber. Walter imagines a man sneaking a vegetable inside his jeans cut-offs and hoping that the sales clerk will be fooled. The image cracks a queer grin on his face; and with blood slithering down his cheeks, he looks like a crazy clown.

         Clover Fist, eat your heart out, Walter remarks. 

         And with that, Walter chops the shaft off at its base. He chops away the scrotum, like a butcher eliminating unwanted fat. He steadies the shaft on the floor, licks a mouthful of bloodied sweat off of his lips, and chops thin slices off of the shaft, like a chef demonstrating how fast and precise he can cut with his Ginsu knife. Those penis slices look like cucumbers marinating in a blood sauce.

         Extra Crispy! Walter chuckles. Good for dipping! 

         The mayhem continues, while the light above the hospital bed continues to buzz ever so quietly and to shed its milky luminescence over the blood work.

*   *   *

         The unmarked Ford Crown Victoria tails Claire’s Volkswagen Bug about a mile and a half before she finally notices. She would have caught it a lot earlier if she had not been sifting in and out of a mental fog. She had been driving the Volkswagen Bug on autopilot for a while, and probably would have continued in that manner, had she not been awakened from her stupor by an instinct frankly long presumed dead. 

         Claire quickly pulls over to the shoulder of the two-lane, scenic highway that parallels the interstate and that leads out of town. There is so little traffic on this highway that she surmises easily enough that the Victoria deliberately is trying to pull her off the road. Though still mentally slow, she knows damn well which rookie is behind the leather wheel of that clean cut, nondescript vehicle.

         What’s going on? Donna asks fearfully.

         Don’t worry, Claire responds, while she watches the young detective get out of the Victoria in her rearview mirror. Ernest Hooper and I are old buddies…

         That last sentence rings untrue, and yet Donna decides to embrace it. As the day progresses, she senses she will be accepting a lot of half truths and lies that, not too long ago, she would have backhanded mentally with a bit of gross sarcasm or just a simple ‘fuck you.’ The New Donna does not backhand much of anything. Heck, she barely even smiles. She just hobbles forward, accepting as ‘Gospel’ what is really necessary to believe at the moment, and focusing on her one, all important task. Right now, the one, all important task is finding and, if possible, saving her ‘boyfriend.’ Everything else simply can fall by the wayside.

         Claire rolls down her window. The boyish detective squats beside her.

         Miss Bruner, may I ask where you’re going? Detective Hooper inquires.

         Would you believe me if I said I’m taking my old friend here on a scenic drive? Claire inquires in turn with a big, wide, grandmotherly smile on her face.

         I very well might, except the clouds above are about to open their bomb bay doors, Detective Hooper proclaims. Won’t be much to see in the downpour.

         There is an awkward pause in the conversation.

         I understand you two visited the offices of The Beverly Times, Detective Hooper says sheepishly, while looking downward, and fumbling with his fingers.

         Marge and I can never get enough of the funnies, Claire remarks. So you can understand how we felt when we opened the paper this morning and found that they had cancelled ‘Rex Morgan, MD.’ 

         So your friend’s name is Marge, huh? Detective Hooper asks skeptically, while moving a bit so that he can see the woman partially obstructed by Claire.

         Margaret O’Hara, Donna pipes in. Like the actress…

         You wouldn’t happen to have any ID on you? Detective Hooper inquires. I know we live in a free country and all…

         Donna looks away. Detective Hooper looks back down at his own fingers.

         No ID, Detective Hooper mutters.

         We really best be going, Claire begins…

         No, Detective Hooper almost shouts. Look, ladies, I know why you visited the offices of The Beverly Times. 

         Donna and Claire both look at the young detective with almost identical, surprised expressions. They are amazed to hear him come out of his shell. Even more so, they are taken aback by the prospect that, notwithstanding their well conceived plan, this tenderfoot may be a step ahead of them. If indeed he is on to them, then the questions arise: Who else is on to them? How far has word of their little expedition spread? Have they lost already the element of surprise at Walter Whipple’s riverside home? If the madman has even a tenuous connection to Jim Trent, then he too may have an informant or two on the police force. If that is the case, then Billy Ray Blaise may be dead already; and the quirky man indeed may be waiting for them, like a spider waits for a fly to land on its web.

         Are you on or off book today? Claire inquires in a dead serious tone.

         Do you mean am I going to call for an official surveillance, so that in the next few days I can gather up enough evidence for a search warrant? Detective Hooper inquires with the very same dead serious tone.

         Something like that, Claire says…

         Detective Hooper looks downward again. He wrings his hands nervously. He is in over his head, and yet he knows what he has to do.

         I’m off book on this one, Detective Hooper finally remarks.

         Claire reaches into her innermost sweater. She digs around in there for a long time. She almost removes the filthy toilet paper roll and the playing cards.

         Finally, she retrieves the wrinkled paper ball. She opens it up as best she can, and then she hands it to the detective. She stares out the windshield, like a tiny girl ashamed to see her father’s reaction when he opens her report card.

         What do you know about Walter Whipple? Detective Hooper inquires just as soon as he finishes reading the note. 

         He is a wound, Claire reflects. A scar, ugly, but harmless; that is, until it has been scratched too much. Then, the scar breaks; and, well, you just try to stop the bleeding once that happens. 

         A wave of fear flies over Hooper’s face. He almost backs down, but then an unforeseen burst of courage kicks some life back into his veins. He drops his hands to his sides, and he looks squarely into Claire’s face. In that moment, the boyish detective almost looks like a man. Yes, the moment, and the courage, in time will pass; but for now anyway, Hooper’s resolve gives the women a reason to hope. Perhaps, this young guy has what it takes to put down Walter Whipple.

         I want you two ladies to go home, Detective Hooper says.

         No! Donna blurts out. 

         Detective Hooper looks at her skeptically, but he remains silent for now.

         I’m afraid we can’t, Claire explains. Billy Ray means too much. 

         Detective Hooper thinks a moment. The women wait with bated breath.

         There’s a rest stop about ten miles up this road, Detective Hooper says. Largely abandoned, since they put in that interstate extension, but the old pay phone still works. Wait for me there. I’ll call you with news one way or another no later than two hours from now.

         And what if you don’t call? Claire asks ominously.

         I’ll call you, Detective Hooper snaps uncharacteristically. I’ll ask you for a favor, though. If you are the praying types, then will you offer one up for me?

         For you and for Billy Ray, Claire answers. May the winds be at your back.

         And for Detective Ringwood, Detective Hooper remarks.

         There is an awkward silence, when Claire’s owl eyes well up with tears.

         Claire removes her glasses, and wipes away her tears. She does her best to paste on a brave smile, but she simply cannot hide the sadness and the fear.

         Yes, of course, Claire says, though the look on her face suggests that in the back of her mind anyway she does not hold out much hope for her old lover and sometime friend. You’ll have our prayers. I can assure you of that much. 

         Detective Hooper takes her at her word. He stands up, and returns to his vehicle. He walks with a strong, slow gait that tries to suggest confidence, but Claire can see otherwise in her rearview mirror. The young man may have more courage than she had realized, but he is still the underdog against the fat man with the death eyes. Still, this is what he wants to do; and she has no choice at the end of the day but to oblige a man of the law. She and Donna will give him his two hours in the hope that, somehow, he rises to the occasion.

         And what if he fails? Then, no doubt, the madman at the center of all of this drama will be that much more convinced that his time is limited. Billy Ray may be dead already; but if not, then his time will be short indeed, if Hooper is unsuccessful at his rescue attempt. 

         Donna and Claire drive to the rest stop in silence. Nevertheless, the two women share the same thought: If there is no phone call after two hours, then they will have no other choice but to move fast.  

*   *   *

         Walter drags the oversized garbage bag down the porch steps. There is a disgusting sound as the garbage bag contents strike the moist gravel in front of the steps. The sound calls to mind an armful of shit thrown into a thick swamp; a gooey kerplunk followed by belching bubbles. 

         Exhausted, Walter leans against the porch rail. He looks at the gurgling, overcast sky in time to see a vicious streak of lightning briefly slice the heavens in two. Rolling thunder follows almost immediately. There is an electrical taste to the air that is disagreeable enough to force Walter up from that rail. Though that sensation stays in his mouth, he feels as if he has been kicked in the chins.

         Walter looks back at the oversized garbage bag. Blood has been leaking out of the bag since he first tied it shut, but now there is a deluge gurgling out from the bottom. He needs to get rid of it soon. Otherwise, there is going to be a widening pond of blood at the base of his porch steps.

         And Grandma Eunice will not be pleased, if she has to step over all that gunk when approaching the porch steps…

         Whiskers prances down the porch steps. He is careful to skirt around the oversized garbage bag. 

         I don’t blame you, Walter says to his only friend. If I were in your paws, I would avoid all this nasty blood work, too.

         Walter reaches down, grabs the twisted and tied end of the garbage bag, and resumes his plodding march to the steep hill behind the house. He appears as if a beaten figure in Dante’s Inferno, a condemned ghoul forced by his sinful nature to drag a heavy, bleeding bag into eternity. His jowls sink into his chest, and his shoulders stoop down and forward. Notwithstanding his obesity, he is a smaller man now; his flesh stooping and shriveling into itself; his knobby knees, still aching from when he had sat up on them, buckling closer to the earth with each step. Indeed, if he does not get rid of this bag soon, then he will be added to what is in there already, and dropped unceremoniously into the murky river.

         The garbage bag rips, and a blue index finger pokes out. 

         Walter imagines a reanimated corpse trying to scratch its way out of this bag. He quickens his pace, and focuses his attention on the crest of that steep, uneven hill ahead of him. He remembers pushing Lucius’ corpse down the other side of that hill. Though the memory haunts him, it is an improvement over the reanimated corpse his imagination had conjured up from hell. 

         Whiskers remains by his left side the whole time. He steps back from the crest of the hill, though, as if dimly aware that only his master belongs on such hallowed ground. Indeed, the crest of the hill is a kind of altar, a place for new sacrifices to redeem the sordid memories of old sacrifices, a perch from which to watch that cascading river below drag nightmares out into the ocean depths.

         Walter recaptures his breath at the top of the hill. He manages to stand upright a brief moment; and while doing so, the dark heavens above erupt with a zigzag lightning bolt. He feels the electrical air pulse through his flesh, as the thunder rolls. He senses yet again that the time is short, for the next electrical air pulse may be the one that ignites the fat tires around his waist. He imagines blue flames bursting up from his belly, and so cries out in extreme mental pain.

         The moment passes. Walter looks down at the garbage bag. As expected, it has been torn several more times since the last time he looked. Now, he can see the bluish face of a Mexican adolescent male emerging from beneath a pool of blood. The eyes stare up at him, as they had before. The eyes are surprised, true; but even more so, they are focused and hostile. The adolescent may be a blood soaked chop suey, for the most part; but his dead eyes are as committed as ever to getting sweet revenge on that sad fat fuck staring back down at him.

         Rain starts to fall. The rain pokes even more holes in the thin bag. Hands poke out the front. Several toes poke out the back. The face continues to glare at the fat fuck responsible for all this. The face teases the fat fuck to get into the bag for a spell. The face suggests that the thick blood inside the bag is akin to warm Jacuzzi water. The face insinuates that fat fuck will have a good time.

         The Face! The Face! The Face! Walter cries out in agony. And those sick, demented eyes. Oh, my God! How they cast judgment on everything they view!

         And with that thought in mind, Walter grabs a hold of the bag. He swings it a few inches above the ground, and then he heaves it into the river foam. He watches as that face glares back at him from the surface of the river, before it too sinks into the murky depths. He wants to erase that face out of his memory but feels deep down that that is no more possible than erasing his own brother.

         No more ‘Taco Tuesday’ for you, muchacho, Walter whispers, as the last inch of the garbage bag vanishes beneath the river.

         Walter looks back. He sees Whiskers waiting for him at the bottom of the hill. He hears thunder roll yet again. Time is short. He has no doubt about that.

         Come, friend, Walter says to Whiskers. We must scrub everything away, before grandma returns with her wooden spoon. 

         Walter staggers down the hill. That chain attached to his iron dog collar rattles over the rocks behind him. He hardly hears it. Compared to the garbage bag full of greying body parts and buckets of blood, that chain is nothing at all.

*   *   *

         Detective Hooper parks his unmarked Ford Crown Victoria along the side of the two-lane, rural highway. He hesitates a moment behind the wheel. He is a churchgoing man; but, right now, he cannot recall the words of any particular prayer. Even the Lord’s Prayer, which normally flows off his tongue, remains an unsettling mystery for him. He decides to skip the ancient words and instead to focus in on what he really wants: To find his mentor, Detective Ringwood, alive and well, and to return home in time tonight to tuck in his child. 

         Hooper steps out of the vehicle, just as another lightning bolt flashes its electric tentacles across the overcast sky. He almost ducks, since the lightning seems so close to him now, but is careful outwardly to appear calm and strong.

         He walks down the side of the road. He can see the Victorian from here. It is a tall, dark, ominous house built beside the Manchester River. It is also on its last legs, apparently, for Hooper can observe roof tiles swirling into the air, and igniting into short lived flames, every time the thunder rolls. It is only time before one of those roof tiles falls back onto the house and ignites the greatest bonfire ever seen in these parts. The house will fuel this inferno, of course, but the worst part will be the thin devils with pitchforks dancing inside the bonfire.

         Actually, those little devils are child’s play compared to that something or other now watching me, Hooper thinks. 

         He has no idea why he believes himself to be watched. Every hair on his body is standing straight up, though; and he is rubbing his chest precisely so as to have his hand close to the revolver holstered there. Moreover, his eyes open and shut erratically, like they are trying to excise a pebble. This may be simply a nervous tick, or this may be his way of freeing his vision from any obstruction so that he can see whatever it is that is looking back at him. 

         Once conscious that he is rubbing his chest, he drops his hand to his side and tries to hold his head up high. He cannot do anything about how his erratic eyes open and shut. That is of little consequence, though, for from a distance he appears to be walking upright and strong. Everything hinges on the very first impression; and he wants the kidnapper to think ‘hard ass,’ when he views him.

         So what is watching me? Hooper thinks.

         ‘What’ feels like a better word than ‘who’ in this context, for he senses that he is being watched not so much by a pair of physical eyes as by an angry, jealous, maniacal force. It is as if everything that ever has happened up there, every act behind closed doors, every expression of homicidal rage, every dark, twisted turn of the knife, is focusing in on him. The insane ghosts have stopped rattling their chains, so as to turn their hollow eyes towards him. The maniacal demons have suspended their insidious laughter, so as to turn their pretty eyes towards him. Even the boarded up windows are peering through cracks, so as to trace his steps along the side of the highway. He demands their attention, even more so their envy, because he is alive, fully, viscerally; while the fat boy, the kitty cat, the comatose cowboy, all the others who have made their way inside, seem more like dust covered pieces of furniture to them. No doubt, this young, inexperienced detective will join their ranks soon enough; but until then, he is a man to be envied. Therefore, the eyes watch him, blankly, cruelly, contorted by that mindless hatred that is the end result of envy; and the young detective, in turn, continues forward with the nagging sense that he is walking into a trap.

         Hooper reaches the front gate. He sees a vintage automobile parked not too far up the dirt driveway. He thinks it is a Marmon, but is not sure. He turns his eyes away, for the old-fashioned headlights stare back at him with the same kind of blank, cruel intensity that has been gnawing at the back of his mind. He imagines an enormous, iron rat staring at him from within a cage. The rat does not move. Indeed, it does not even seem to breathe; and yet it is only a matter of time before it pounces for his jugular vein. 

         Fucking rat car, Hooper mutters, while sizing up the gate in front of him.

         Hooper is taken aback by his own profanity. He never swears; and yet he never forgets his prayers, either. What is happening to him? Is it this dark place along the side of the river? Or is he a darker man than he would like to believe?

         Unable to answer his own questions, Hooper decides that action is better than introspection at this hour. Let the chips fall, one way or another, and just hope for the best. 

         Hooper climbs over the gate. He is young and in good shape, and so that small exertion on his part should not even break a sweat. Nevertheless, as soon as he reaches the other side, stands upright, and flings the dust off of his shirt, he is exhausted. He leans against the gate so as to regain his breath. He wipes sweat from his brow, and looks at the house above him through tired, old eyes.

         What has come over me? Hooper mutters. 

         Before he can answer his own question, he feels rain falling onto the top of his head. It is little more than the same sprinkle that has been turning itself off and on for the past hour or so; and yet, in his mind anyway, it is a wild kick to his chins. ‘Time to get going,’ that rain seems to say. ‘Before it is too late…’

         Hooper starts up the dirt driveway. To his right is what appears to be the remains of a garden. There is a hole that used to be a pond. Rainwater is slowly filling in that hole again, but it will never be what it had been. Instead, when it is full of rainwater, it will be more akin to a thick, still swamp; a watery grave surrounded by dead plants and rodent carcasses. 

         Hooper turns his face away from this grave, but not nearly soon enough. For this reason, out of the corner of his right eye, he thinks he observes a black swan waddling from one dead plant to another. He is not inclined to fear birds, and yet this something or other gives him the creeps. Had it been a figment of his overactive imagination? Maybe, but if so, then that means his mind is in the process of turning against him. What if he really saw a black swan? If that is the case, then indeed demons take on every shape and size; for did he not imagine at first a long necked demon glaring back at him with black, blank eyes? Did he not sense hell waddling from one place to another? 

         Nonsense questions, even for a man who believes literally in heaven and hell; for how will the answers help him to do what he has set out to do? Maybe, his mind entertains these questions as a way of breaking down his resolve, so as to encourage him to go back home. Maybe, his mind entertains these questions because he is sick and twisted. God only knows what real impact this place has had on him already. God only knows if already he is too far inside hell to leave.

         What has come over me? Hooper repeats.

         He feels dizzy and nauseous all of a sudden. He stops and holds his head, until the queasiness passes. He removes his revolver from his holster, and clicks off the safety, just in case he needs to use it. He probably should have done so before he got this close to the house, but his mind has been dabbling in strange detours and scenic routes. It is as if he has thrown out all of his police training, indeed, all of his common sense, so as to cut significantly his own possibility of success. Is he suicidal? Is he out of his mind? For Christ’s sake, what is so wrong here that he acts as if a bumbling fool? What has come over him now? And why?

         There are so many questions, but no answers…

         Nothing on which to hook his fragile mind, but…

         Blood. Is that blood? Hooper answers his own question in the affirmative. He may be losing his sanity, and he may be little more than a rookie detective, but he knows blood when he sees it. There is a lot of it at the base of the porch steps. Furthermore, there is a blood trail that goes to the back of the house. In another half hour or so, the rain will wash that trail away; but, for now, it is as conspicuous as anything he has observed at a crime scene.

         His heart sinks. Is that Ringwood’s blood? Surely, someone is dead; and it is not very likely that one of the victims killed the kidnapper, and then dragged his corpse to the back of the house. So the blood belongs to Ringwood, or Billy Ray Blaise, or maybe some other victim. Also, it is logical to assume that if the kidnapper has seen fit to kill one of his victims, then he has seen or will see fit to kill the others. The others are either dead, or will be dead soon. He is either too late, or has arrived just in the nick of time. 

         Lightning flashes overhead. The zigzag bolt rips the dark heavens in two.

         The halves of heaven snap back together with a sound that calls to mind a bullwhip striking a slave’s back. It is a vicious, cruel, unholy sound; but, even more so, it is an omen of doom. The thunder is going to break the backs of men and angels this afternoon. The thunder is going to lay waste the world beneath its mercurial scream. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth this sad day.

         Though a churchgoing man, Hooper is not prone to apocalyptic thinking; and yet with his revolver in his hand, and the blood trail at his feet, he cannot put those doomsday images out of his mind. Can the sins of a family, the secret shame inside of a household, take on apocalyptic proportions over time? Can a horrid memory scream so loudly in a man’s mind as to match the sound and the fury of an angel’s trumpet? When the Light returns, will He deliver us from evil, or will He turn out to be our brother in sin? Hooper knows the Biblical answers to these questions; but as he follows the blood trail around the house, he is not so sure that the Biblical answers apply around here. 

         The blood trail leads to the crest of a hill that overlooks the Manchester. The kidnapper dragged the corpse up this hill, and then he threw him into that raging river. There will be nothing to observe, unless the corpse landed instead on the riverbank. In that case, the water will wash the corpse away over time; but, depending upon how long ago this happened, all or part of the corpse may be observable still. Anyway, on the off chance that he may discover something, Hooper decides that it is worthwhile to pursue the blood trail to the end, even though a voice in his head urges him to storm that house without further delay.

         Hooper reaches the crest of the hill. As expected, there is nothing to see below, but the rising surface of the Manchester River. In that cauldron of water and foam, the corpse will be torn to pieces, or pushed into a deep crevice. The prospectors and the fishermen years from now will wash away bone fragments, either from gold nuggets or from fish innards. Otherwise, someone’s corpse has been lost to time already, as departed this same hour, as he will be at the end.

         Hooper sighs. His heavy heart has fallen to his bowels. He senses that his friend and mentor, Detective Ringwood, is the corpse beneath the river’s foam. He senses furthermore that he is standing in Detective Ringwood’s spent blood. The blood from the slaughtered lamb washes away, but the final cry remains in the howling wind and the rampaging river. Even now, as the storm gathers from above and from below, he senses Ringwood’s cry for vengeance. He makes the mental connection with Abel’s blood and determines, then and there, that the asshole loser who slew his fellow detective must be punished as Cain had been.

         Hooper’s heavy heart gives way to fierce anger. He clenches his fists and decides to walk down the hill. He does not recall ever before feeling so mighty. He relishes the power, but at the same time he wishes he had experienced this surge of masculine courage under other circumstances. 

         Just as he is turning away from the river, he feels excruciating, hot pain surge out from his upper back. Every one of his nerve endings wails as if an ear crushing fire alarm. Is this a spasm? Is that blood he feels sliding down his back?

         Did someone just chop my upper back with a fucking axe? Hooper thinks.

         This question stands alone in his mind in a way none of the others had. It is in question form, but it is as close to an assertion of fact as he can muster at this moment. He tries to hold on to this question, like it is a solitary buoy upon a turbulent ocean; but then the other questions crowd into his mind. His insight gives way to confusion. His one moment of clarity gives way to gruesome panic. 

         Before he can answer his own questions, he feels something or someone push him forward. He stumbles over the edge. He sees the jagged, wet rocks of the riverbank rushing towards him; but the vision he has is so extraordinary and fast that his mind insists it is an illusion. This is a nightmare. Even the horrible, throbbing, warm pain in his upper back is a fantasy from which he will awaken.

         And then Hooper’s world collapses into darkness. There is a loud rushing sound, like rising river water streaming passed; and then, there is total silence.

*   *   *

         What choice did I have? Walter asks Whiskers.

         Walter is in his bathtub. The water is brownish red on account of all that blood he had to scrub off of his skin. Soapsuds hang heavily off his face, so that from a distance he looks like he has grown a brownish red beard. His eyes dart every which way, like he is looking for someone to leap out from a shadow. His flesh may be clean and relaxed, but his eyes toy with madness. 

         If the man had wanted to play, then he could have knocked on the front door, Walter continues. I would have said ‘no’ because of all the cleaning that I have to do, but we would have left one another amicably. Instead, he starts to snoop into my private affairs, like a colored boy just roaming off his plantation.

         Whiskers is sitting on the bathroom floor beside the door. He subtly tilts his head to one side, like he can understand Walter’s words. For the most part, though, he remains as impenetrable as ever. 

         So I get the axe, Walter continues. I do not drop it. I hold it, tightly, like I am supposed to do. Grandma would have been proud.

         Walter stops talking. He looks down at his fingers. He has been twiddling them beneath the surface of the bathwater for a while, and so he decides just then to stop that too. Maybe, if he remains silent and still, then all this will go away. Maybe, if he does nothing at all, then the fates will pick on someone else closer to their own size and strength. He is a boy, after all; and there is frankly only so much stress that a boy can handle at any given time.

         So why am I feeling so bad? Walter continues after a while. 

         Whiskers lowers his chin to his front paws. He cannot answer his master, and so prefers to stare elsewhere.

         Why? Why? Why? Walter screams, while splashing the dirty soapsuds with his fists like a spoiled child. 

         The soapsuds do not answer him any better than Whiskers did. Walter is overwhelmed by fear and anger; and yet, somehow, he heeds the small voice in the back of his head that is telling him to stop with this temper tantrum. There is little time. Grandma Eunice will be marching up that driveway any time now.

         Walter stares a moment at the chain attached to his iron dog collar. It is a brownish red snake hanging from the back of his huge neck and down his right shoulder. It disappears beneath the soapsuds. 

         Yes, Grandma Eunice will be marching up that driveway any time now. In that hour, his very sanity teetering on the edge of the precipice, she will grab a hold of this damned chain, and yank him down the abyss. He will fall, while the chain snaps against his backside. He will hear nothing, but iron rattling against flesh. He will feel nothing, but throbbing, hot pain somewhere deep in his butt. 

         Walter pushes himself up and out of the bathtub. It is a long and arduous task. He ends up splashing about half the water out of the tub by the time he is standing naked on the bathroom floor. Still, the fact that he can do that much, notwithstanding the great mental stress pressing down on him from every side, is in itself a kind of victory. He therefore allows himself a twitchy half-smile, as he wraps a threadbare towel around his belly, and exits finally for his bedroom.   

*   *   *

         Walter cradles the bucket of Rocky Road ice cream, like it is the baby he never had. The bucket is dead cold, as it has been sitting in his freezer a while. He is nevertheless able to cradle the bucket, as he is wearing his oversized, red robe, and the fabric absorbs much of the coldness. He senses that this is what death is like: layers upon layers between a man and his own demise, so that he no longer feels the sting of death; a man so cut off from himself that he ceases to remember or to feel anything at all. Is this a blessing? Or is this slow descent into annihilation the devil’s manner of laughing at us for our former pretention?

         Walter hears the questions. Inside his mind they sound like the incessant prattle of an undersexed schoolmarm. He is the boy standing at attention next to his desk, while the other students are giggling and throwing paper airplanes. He decides finally not to answer them, even though this angers the schoolmarm considerably. Although he has given himself license to rest, he realizes that he must get back to work soon. Open ended questions, especially if even remotely theological, keep dirt and blood upon the hardwood floors for Grandma to find.

         Outside his mind there is nothing to hear, but the downpour that started in earnest about twenty minutes ago. Walter imagines that the garden is going to flood sometime tonight. By tomorrow, it will be wiped clean from the world.

         Good riddance, Walter mutters. There’s still more to be done…

         Before he completes his thought, he hears a car horn outside. It startles him, and he almost drops the bucket of ice cream onto the foyer floor. Surely, that is not Grandma Eunice, right? She hated car horns, and would not be likely to change her mind in the afterlife. If her driver did not know any better, then a stern whack to the back of his head would guarantee no encore performance.

         There is an encore performance. Okay, so that proves that someone else has driven up to the front gate, right? Who could it be? Hopefully, not another ‘colored boy’ with a nose for blood trails; and yet who else is going to show up during a downpour of this magnitude? An Amway salesman? A couple of Mormon boys in white shirts and black pants? A Hare Krishna giving out ‘special cookies’ to anyone who will listen to his spiel? None of these are at all plausible, and so Walter has to reconcile himself to the fact that, soon enough, he will be talking to a nosy son of a bitch. 

         Walter returns his bucket of Rocky Road ice cream to the freezer. A tear drops down his right cheek, when he closes the freezer door; for just then, the thought occurs to him that he will never again be removing ice cream from that place. It is as if that freezer door has been bolted shut, and a Cherubim with a flaming sword is on guard to make sure that he never manages to open it again.

         Walter tightens as much as possible the band around his waist. He walks back to the foyer, slips his bare feet into a pair of loafers, and grabs one of his umbrellas. He hesitates a moment at the front door. He senses vaguely that the way he handles that man out there will determine how much time he has to do what he has to do in here.

         He is then cognizant again of the chain hanging down his back and sliding away from the back of his robe. He imagines that, from a distance anyway, he must look like an oversized beast with a lazy, long, brownish red tail. He has all the pretentions of a gentleman, the umbrella, the loafers, the red robe, but he cannot escape how strangely nightmarish he must appear to the outside world. Perhaps, for a while, he had fooled everyone out there. Perhaps, his beautiful speech and manners had hidden the monster just under the robe; but that time is passed. This near to the end we see everything as it is, like scales have fallen from our mad eyes just in time for us to see how damned we always have been.   

         Whiskers runs up to his right heel, and meows. He looks up at his master with his inscrutable eyes. 

         I’ll hold off whoever’s out there, Walter says to Whiskers. I’ll make sure we have time to finish cleaning…

         And yet Walter cannot say that last sentence with much conviction. The truth is that he just does not know. Although he is pretty sure that his grandma is not out there now, she could show up at any time. 

         Walter opens the front door, and he braves the downpour. He waddles to the front gate as fast as he can. The umbrella protects him only partially, since the howling winds kick up much of the mud that had settled into small puddles.

         By the time he reaches the front gate, his oversized red robe looks like a waterlogged carcass hanging over his flabby flesh. His face and hands are caked with mud. His big eyes poke out from this mud mask in such a way that he looks like a grotesquely obese version of Little Black Sambo. It is probably good that he does not know how he looks, as otherwise he literally might die from shame.

         Walter presses his flesh against the front gate, so that he can see who is in the nondescript Ford Crown Victoria on the other side. He sees a tall, large, bullheaded man with a crew cut behind the wheel. He is obviously a detective, or a police officer. No doubt, he is just another cog in the public bureaucracy, a living, breathing baton for the proverbial powers that be whose notion of law and order is simply keeping the little people from thinking or acting too far out the box. In his mind, the one moral virtue is maintaining the status quo, even if the status quo happens to be tyrannical. Even worse, by the looks of him, he is probably a regular at the Knights of Columbus, and owns his own bowling shoes.

         Walter recognizes the woman in the passenger seat. She is ‘Imelda’ (still not certain that is her real name, or if she is just another ‘Lupe’ or ‘Maria,’ but neither she nor her son ever corrected him), the mousey, thin, subservient lady who had served as his maid for God knows how long. As always, she clutches an old fashioned purse in front of her stomach. She stares straight ahead; and as a result, she avoids eye contact with her former employer.

         The bullheaded crew cut rolls down his window. He says something in an abrasive, booming voice; but Walter cannot hear much of anything from this far away through the downpour. Walter simply holds his ground and remains silent.

         Walter hears the bullheaded crew cut scream out a few ‘naughty words,’ and that brings a slight grin to Walter’s otherwise stoic face. It is always good to see law enforcement types inconvenienced, even if only for a brief moment.

         The bullheaded crew cut climbs out of his vehicle. Apparently, he forgot his umbrella, so that is another reason for Walter to grin.

         The bullheaded crew cut walks up to the front gate. He flashes a wallet badge, like he is an FBI Agent instead of a local yokel police officer. He returns the wallet to his pants’ pocket without once removing his gaze from Walter. He has condemned Walter already, it appears, based on the cold anger in his eyes.

         Name’s Hammerschmidt, the bullheaded crew cut snarls. Vice Chief with the Beverly Police Department.

         Walter nods, but does not say a word. He feels no need to say his name, since the Vice Chief and the maid know who he is and why they are here today.

         Recognize the woman in my car? Hammerschmidt asks.

         Of course, Walter answers. 

         Any idea why she insisted I drive her out here? Hammerschmidt asks.

         Her burro’s afraid of the rain, Walter wisecracks.

         Her boy is missing, Hammerschmidt says. Claims her boy pretended to be at his friend’s house studying French, but really spent a lot of his free time out here doing chores for you. 

         What makes her think that? Walter asks with genuine surprise and fear.

         So you don’t deny it, Hammerschmidt remarks. 

         Of course, I do, Walter responds without skipping a beat. I have no need for a manservant. If I did, I would not hire a Beaner. Everyone knows they shed head lice pretty much all the time. 

         When is the last time you saw him? Hammerschmidt continues.

         The day he delivered his mother’s letter of resignation, Walter responds.

         Do you recall anything about your conversation? Hammerschmidt asks.

         He was in a hurry, Walter reflects. Said he needed to get to the docks. I did not pry; but when I saw how anxious he was to finish reading the letter that his mother had written, I advised him to slow down. I told him that if you try to do too much too fast, you’re liable to fall to pieces. 

         And that was it? Hammerschmidt asks skeptically.

         Yes, Walter says. As I intimated, I can do without head lice.

         So you are certain if I talk to your neighbors, or to anyone else who may have dropped by, no one is going to say that they saw an adolescent boy doing chores on your property, Hammerschmidt remarks.

         I have no idea what somebody else might say, Walter states. People can be mistaken, or they can outright lie. 

         Any idea why somebody would want to lie? Hammerschmidt asks.

         We both know I’m not the most beloved man along the river, Walter says with a slight chuckle. The police and the press judged me ‘guilty’ in that ‘Alice Werner’ business years ago. Some of those old timers still think I belong behind bars. Others are just plain envious.

         Envious? Of what? Hammerschmidt asks.

         My charm, my sophistication, Walter answers, while rolling his eyes, like he cannot believe that this doofus cop cannot see what is so patently obvious in front of his face. 

         I see, Hammerschmidt mutters.

         Do you know of anyone even half as civilized as me? Walter snarls. 

         No, actually, come to think of it, Hammerschmidt lies.

         The groundlings hate the man who washes his hands, Walter comments. 

         Any idea why the boy wanted to go to the docks? Hammerschmidt asks.

         How would I know? Walter seethes. Perhaps, he likes to take a dip in the river now and then. 

         Do you know a Detective Ringwood? Hammerschmidt asks.

         Yes, I met him, Walter answers. He came here not too long ago. He had a bee in his bonnet about something or other, but frankly did not make himself all that clear. He wanted to know if I’d kept in touch with my arresting officer.

         And who was that? Hammerschmidt asks.

         You’re old enough to know damned well, Walter answers with contempt.

         So he’s asking you about Jim Trent, Hammerschmidt continues.

         If I’d kept in touch with him, Walters says.

         Have you? Hammerschmidt asks.

         No, Walter replies emphatically.

         And what did he do when the conversation ended? Hammerschmidt asks.

         He left, of course, Walter says in anger. I did not ask him to stay for tea.

         You seem angry, Hammerschmidt says. Is there a reason?

         Oh, I don’t know, Walter seethes. Maybe, the fact that I’m standing in a downpour in a wet robe, while answering inane questions from a bucking cop. If you don’t mind, I’d like to return to my chores before I drown in this rainstorm.

         One more question, Hammerschmidt insists.

         Why am I not surprised? Walter snaps. 

         Any idea why I found Detective Hooper’s car parked along the side of the road about a quarter of a mile away? Hammerschmidt asks.

         So the guy snooping into my private affairs earlier today had been a cop, Walter thinks with distress. Here I am minding my own business, and a bucking cop practically throws his upper back into my axe blade. 

         Can’t talk all of a sudden? Hammerschmidt asks.

         I’m just thinking about the extent you guys will go to harass me, Walter says. So should I expect you to call on me every time one of your boys is late in returning from lunch? 

         Did you talk with Detective Hooper today? Hammerschmidt asks.

         Until you arrived, I’d been alone all day housecleaning, Walter responds.

         Of course, nothing ever happens here, Hammerschmidt remarks.

         Nothing that pertains to you, Walter comments. 

         Hammerschmidt stares deeply into Walter’s eyes. He wants to intimidate him, of course; but even more so, he wants to see if the man is lying. Walter is able to give as well as he gets in this regard; and therefore, in the end, each of them remains inscrutable to the other. Both men are unsettled by the fact that this exchange has ended in a stalemate that will demand later a follow up visit.

         Walter watches, as Hammerschmidt returns to his vehicle. Imelda never looks in Walter’s direction, as Hammerschmidt starts up the car, and drives off.

         Walter senses that that Vice Chief will be back here with his posse much too soon. Next time, he may have a warrant; so indeed there is little time left.

*   *   *

         The downpour has subsided. Instead, rain intermittently smashes against the boarded up windows. The sound calls to mind a person angrily knocking on a door; and more than once, Walter wonders if indeed that is his grandma, mad as usual, letting him know in no uncertain terms that she is back and wants her grandson to give her the honors she deserves. When that happens, he hovers at the top of the staircase that leads down to the foyer, debating with himself as to whether he should go ahead and open the door, and deciding each time that it is best for him to return to his bedroom. If indeed Grandma Eunice is making that racket, then she will find her way into his sanctuary regardless of what he does. If it is the rainstorm, then truly he can count his blessings one more time.

         Walters steps back into his bedroom. The candlelight flickers on account of a draft flowing in through cracks in the window and the wall. It turns out his sanctuary is not as boarded up as he had intended. Maybe, it had been at first; but like everything else, the bulwark had eroded in time. The outer wall falls in due course, and the Goths make their way into the city to tear down every last vestige of civilization. Those eyes watch only so long, before they smash inside.

         He sees Whiskers curled on his bed. Whiskers looks back at him. Though his eyes remain black holes in a feline face, this time they are not inscrutable. The darkness turns out to be something that Walter can read and comprehend. He is not so sure that this is a blessing, for the man who can read his omen in a pair of black holes has the perspective and the temperament of a beast in hell. The saved see nothing in darkness. The condemned see themselves in darkness.

         Nothing will appease her, Walter says, while staring into Whisker’s dark, timeless eyes. No amount of scrubbing will make a difference. She will see the dirt beneath the soap, the sin beneath the shine, the secret beneath the smile.

         Walter breaks away from this hypnotic stare. He sits upon the side of his bed, and he stares at his reflection in the dresser mirror. As always, the subtle, white light from the candle causes his mirror reflection to look ghostly, like he is caught in a surreal twilight between life and death. He smiles briefly, but his smile looks so ghoulish that he abandons it. Instead, he rubs his quivery cheeks.

         There is no alternative, is there? Walter remarks to his reflection. Past is future, unless it is burnt to the ground. You can get the axe; but you cannot do what needs to be done, until you strike the match.

         Walter looks away from his own reflection. Instead, he stares deeply into the flickering candlelight. He is hypnotized at once. He speaks as if in a trance.

         Lucius is the Light, Walter says. And the Light is passion, fire in the eyes, and, finally, that dark flame that cannot be doused. 

         Walter turns away from the candle. He sees Whiskers beside him. 

         When grandma returns, she will discover then that there is nothing left, Walter reflects. Lucius has returned to the river; Grandpa Henry has been burnt back to the earth; and we are gone. What will she do? How will she cope, when there is no one to terrorize? What is a grand dame, when there is no one left to pour her tea? What is civilization, when there is no one left who remembers its noblest moments? What is class when every last man is Cain, an outcast nigger?

         Walter slowly, painfully, rises from the side of the bed. He drops his big, threadbare towel to the floor. He sees himself naked in his dresser mirror, and he looks away. Shame fires up his cheeks; but within seconds the fire gives way to his normal, greyish pallor. There is practically no life left in him by the time he dresses in his Mulberry plaid bowtie, white dress shirt, and checkered pants.

         His chain slips out the back of his white dress shirt. It hangs over his big, checkered pants. It rattles against the floor, as he walks this or that direction; but, otherwise, he is a dead man clad once more in his fine gentleman’s attire. 

*   *   *

         Thunder screams overhead, and the light bulbs swinging loosely over the spiral staircase conk out. The narrow passage up the Queen Anne tower at once is dark enough to feel nightmarish. It is not as if an observer sees shadows from which beasts may pounce, so much as the entire space is one, big shadow that, at any time, can wrap itself around him. There is no place to hide in this severe darkness, no place to run, no bedroom to which a boy may flee when defeated.

         Walter knows this darkness all too well. Therefore, he continues to plod up the spiral staircase without skipping a beat. He senses that Whiskers is a few steps behind him. That small amount of friendship is enough to keep his spirits and his sanity from betraying him at this horrible moment. 

         The door at the top of the spiral staircase is slightly ajar. Of course, that makes sense. The last time he had passed through this doorway he had been all aflutter, hauling a garbage bag full of blood and body parts, and wondering just how much blood would remain on the steps after he had finished his grisly task.

         The door hinges scream, and Walter pokes his head into the attic. There is nothing to see, but the buzzing, flickering light over the hospital bed, and an unconscious man under a single, hard, creaseless sheet. There is an assortment of medical equipment off to the side, including a heart and respiratory monitor closer to the hospital bed, and yet none of these items stand out. For all intent and purposes, the scene in here is the flickering light and the unconscious man.

         Walter waddles to the side of the hospital bed. Whiskers remains beside him the whole time. 

         Walter looks down at the unconscious man. Grandpa Henry is as white as a corpse. Even his lips have taken on a bluish hue. It is as if Grandpa Henry has started to decompose, even though he is taking in shallow breaths still. It begs the question: How long ago did Grandpa Henry start to die? When he opened his pants one day and allowed his grandson to hug his black swan? When he looked into Eunice’s eyes, and declared ‘I do’? When he and his mates back home first drank so much beer that they chucked up their bowels? No doubt, in their own way, each of these milestones sped up his decomposition; but Walter thinks he started to die the moment he took in his first breath. He inhaled decomposition when a nurse swaddled him in a cloth and handed him to his mother. He cried, as all babies do at that moment, because on a deep level he sensed already the death flowing through his infant veins. 

         You never had a chance, did you? Walter whispers to his Grandpa Henry. None of us do. We can drink our cocktails, board up our windows, hide beneath our sheets, but time labors on. It is the ghost that cannot be exorcised. People forget how to eat, how to dress, the distinctions of race and of class. Time lulls them, seduces them into embracing that queer dream they call ‘progress;’ and, somewhere along the way, they lose their souls. They give up their family for a chance to go to the big city, or to go to college, or to fancy a silly girl from out of town. They forsake even the person who taught them how to love. And why? Because they are proud, foolish, heartless? I used to think so; but now, perhaps like Paul on the Road to Damascus, I see where once I had been blind. I am the man staring through window blinds, the Peeping Tom seeing the world through a crack in his boarded up window, and what do I see? I shall tell you, terrible as it is; for the end is near, and you deserve the truth. I see people of all races, of all classes, of all pedigrees, taking off their clothes, and in their most intimate moments revealing themselves to be dark outcasts, niggers, sons and daughters of Cain. Take off your clothes, look at yourself in a dresser mirror, and you will see how hideous you are. Unsaved, kindling meant for the flame, chaff already separated from wheat. Grandma Eunice had it right. She was an irascible bitch, long before age wrinkled her brow. She sensed all along that this hell world on which we play out our set directions and our scripted lines is a tawdry stage, an ugly, burlesque theater fit only for groundlings, not worthy of her fairness. The old hag gave this dreary world what it deserved: The back of her wooden spoon and, in your case, the sharp edge of her axe. We were meant to be a family, all four of us, a family of outcasts, a tribe unto ourselves, forever off the grid and beyond reproach. But in our own passive way, you and I insisted on bringing our love into the mix. We insisted that there could be lasting love among outcasts, like Cain could bring a bit of Eden along with him. We were wrong; and for that reason, we are to blame for the loss of our family. 

         Walter steps away from the hospital bed. He turns toward the attic door and prepares to leave. Then, he thinks of something else to say, and turns back one more time toward his Grandpa Henry.

         You will burn tonight, Walter states. You and your black swan. There will be no further need for the Cherubim with the flaming sword, for Eden will be a charred ruin. As for me, I shall wander the highways as an outcast; no friend by my side, but a cat, and a host of memories. I am not sure which of us will have the better fate. Perhaps, in hell, the question is moot. I shall say no prayer for you, and none for myself; for out there, beyond the front gate, there is no one to hear us cry. Goodbye, grandpa, and know always that our love condemns us.

*   *   *

         Donna and Claire have not said a word, since leaving the rest stop about ten minutes ago. Neither had expected the old, weather beaten and vandalized payphone to ring. In that respect, they had felt those two hours like the sisters of a man condemned to die. They would be overjoyed, of course, if at the final moment the phone in the execution chamber rang; but they never held out any hope that that would happen. Instead, they counted down the minutes, looking out the windshield at a payphone shrouded by rain, and speaking to each other in hushed tones. When the time came, Claire started up her Volkswagen Bug at once without even saying a word; and Donna settled into her seat for the drive.

         A Ford Crown Victoria passes them in the opposite direction. Claire darts her eyes in that direction just enough to see that it is one of those nondescript law enforcement vehicles. She also sees that it is not Detective Hooper’s Crown Victoria. So there is another detective beside Hooper way out here. That is too strange to be coincidental. Are there cops beside Hooper, who are on to Walter Whipple? Are they marshalling their forces to attack him? Does Walter now feel besieged? If so, then what is his likely next move in this murderous chess game?

         There are too many questions, and Claire is in no position to answer any of them. Therefore, she tries to push them out of her mind and, instead, to put all her focus on the rain soaked, curvy, two-lane highway in front of her. She is not able to do so as well as she would like; and so, after a few more minutes of fighting back the questions in her mind, she grabs the full silver flask under her seat. She takes a swig of whiskey, and settles back to wait for the hard poison to go into effect; all the while maneuvering the curvy highway like an old hand.

         We have very little time, Donna mutters.

         Apparently, Donna also identified the Crown Victoria as belonging to law enforcement. Something is brewing. The women practically can smell it in that clammy, cold air flowing through the vent. It is the smell of death, the scent of mulch breaking down; a hint of that decay that must occur when death, finally, settles in for the long season. Neither can decide if this death is past or future, if they are too late for Billy Ray, or if there is time; but both women, if pressed on this point, will admit that this death is hovering much too close for comfort.

         Claire responds by pressing down even harder on her accelerator. She is going about as fast as she can on such a wet and curvy road. The last thing they need now is for her Volkswagen Bug to barrel into a tree or to slide down a hill.

         For Claire, the memories come fast and furious along this portion of the old highway. She remembers the last time she saw Miss Alice Werner. The naïve girl wandered down the side of this very road. Blood slithered down her pretty face from an open wound on the top of her forehead. Her eyes, sad and dazed, stared downward, perhaps ashamed, more likely focusing on the gravel so that she would not lose her balance. Claire had wanted to drive passed her. ‘Serves you right,’ Claire had said. But she did not abandon her friend, even though she knew then that, once recovered, she would return to the bastard who had hurt her. Claire drove Miss Alice Werner back to her apartment and told her that she would check in on her the following day. Claire returned, but by then Miss Alice Werner had vanished from history; and she is gone still even unto this grey day.

         Claire swerves around a tight corner. She sees a magnificent oak swaying in the wind. Its branches cover half the highway; and as a result, the road stays dry over there regardless of the weather. Claire barely notices the dry stretch, for her inner voice speaks up again: Is that not the same tree where the police had found an old, bloodstained axe sticking out of the trunk? What exactly had been written in blood at the base of that same tree? 

         Claire cannot remember most details, which is just as well. There is now more than enough pain and fear to trouble her heart. Grappling with the ghosts from a distant past will accomplish nothing else, but to push her over the edge.

         And yet, for all her determination to focus on the straight and narrow, it is impossible to discard entirely the memories and the illusions found along the side of the road. She feels as if she is driving into the past. She remains an old, addled woman; and yet everything outside is as it had been decades ago. Time does not keep up around these parts. 

         Further down the highway, time stops altogether…

         Actually, that is not time stopped along the side of the highway, but the Ford Crown Victoria driven by Detective Hooper…

         Claire presses down on the brakes. Donna awakens from a near slumber. The women watch in horror as the Volkswagen Bug slides along a wet patch and comes to within inches of smashing into the rear bumper of the Crown Victoria. 

         Donna and Claire look at one another with big, expressive eyes. The two women need not exchange a word. Indeed, since starting on this trip together, they have found themselves increasingly in tune with each other mentally and, in an odd way, even spiritually. It is as if they now are focusing their collective mind and energy to maximize their effectiveness against that darkness waiting for them at the end. Their battle has been set, and so they march into position with the unspoken focus of soldiers hardened by war. 

         Claire breaks away from Donna’s eyes. She opens her door, and ventures into the rain. She curls her fingers into fists, like she is prepared now to punch the lights out of any person who might emerge from the rain. This close to the Whipple Residence, everything is ‘enemy territory,’ including even the rain and the wind. In order to make that clear enough, the wind howls what sounds like obscenities into her ears; and every one of the tiny raindrops pinches her flesh.

         As expected, when Claire reaches the driver side window, she sees that there is nothing inside. She cups her right hand over her eyes to look even more closely. The drab interior calls to mind an empty tomb sealed off from all time. It is very hard to imagine any person sitting and driving in there just hours ago; but then, Claire reasons that a minute after death is the same as a millennium.

         Does that mean that Detective Hooper is dead? Claire thinks. Maybe; but then again, how can I be so sure? Down this far there is no real line dividing life from death. The ghosts commune with the living, and the living sleep in tombs.

         While Claire ponders what to do next, Donna hobbles up to her. She has to lean heavily on her cane; and yet, primarily because of the fierce tenacity in her eyes, Donna seems capable just then of climbing Mount Everest.

         I think we’ve driven as close as we can, Donna remarks. 

         The detective thought the same, Claire agrees. Even in all this damn rain Walter’s going to notice us if we drive any closer to his place. 

         There is a lightning streak above. It is followed at once by a loud cymbal clash of thunder. The violence draws their eyes upward, and the women behold an endless stretch of gurgling, purplish clouds. Many of these clouds have taken on the shape and the temperament of irascible ghouls. They stare back down at the women, and snarl. It is as if the heavens have been overrun by the horde of devils that prevail when the darkest passions fall in on themselves. Indeed, the queer image of all those devils reigning in the heavens is a prelude to madness.

         The women look down, lest they be overwhelmed by the insatiable, dark energy up there. They have more than enough fear now with which to contend.

         Donna and Claire start to walk down the side of the road. They walk very slowly; for notwithstanding Donna’s tenacity, she finds it difficult to maneuver down this muddy road, while balancing upon a cane.

         Claire wonders if it had been a mistake to take Donna along with her. No doubt, they are losing valuable time due to Donna’s condition. 

         Claire knocks that thought away. They are meant to perform this rescue mission together even if most everything about their plan defies commonsense. The fates are using them, or they are laughing at their expense. Either way, as the heavens flare and scream above them, the women proceed with a stronger sense of duty than they had felt ever beforehand about anything else. There is no alternative, really, but to take the battlefield and to storm the enemy lines.

*   *   *

         Claire leans into the space in between two gate posts. She grips the iron posts as if hanging on for dear life. The rusted iron is cold and slippery; and yet notwithstanding her exhaustion, her grip is strong enough that her hands do not slide downward. She feels like she could stay wedded to that iron into eternity.

         She can be seen easily from the front of that creepy house at the top of the driveway; and yet, at that moment, she does not care. She just needs to be where she is, leaning in between two gate posts, and staring up at a dark house she had hoped never again to see in this lifetime. 

         The memories snap against her face even stronger than the winds. There is so much to remember, so much more to forget; and yet, for all that, there is an impenetrable mystery about everything here that makes even the very worst of those memories seem small and insignificant in comparison. No one stands a chance this close to the high river. Poor Alice Werner had been marked for ruin the moment she first walked up this driveway with a younger, awkward Walter Whipple at her side. Claire realizes that now in a way that had been intimated only in the past; and, for that reason, she finds it all but impossible to set aside the thought that she and Donna in fact are on a suicide mission. Rescue may be the motive; but it is not in the cards, or so the brooding house at the top of the driveway, the mad clouds gurgling just above the roof, and the intense flares of lightning insist somewhere deep in her trembling fears. Forget about this pitiful rescue business, the darkness out here cackles; and just take your place in hell.

         Donna hobbles up to her back. She pats Claire’s upper back with her free hand, while leaning heavily upon her cane. The walk had been hard for Donna; and yet she offers up considerable strength and support to her friend just then.

         It’s going to be alright, Donna whispers into Claire’s left ear. We made it this far. We can see this through to the end. 

         I know, Claire responds without removing her eyes from that dark house above them. I am just afraid of what the end may be.

         Donna allows that last line to linger a moment. Then, she pulls gently on Claire’s left arm, while trying her best not to be caught up in the hypnotic spell cast by that dark house. This is not easy to do, for Donna also senses the death kicking up mud and screaming holy hell all around her. 

         Claire relents, finally, and the two women stand behind a tall bush a few feet away from the front gate. The rain is intermittent now, but the winds are fiercer than ever. As such there is very little relief in standing behind this bush.

         How are we going to get inside? Donna asks.

         It is a good question. The front gate is taller than Claire had recalled. It is the same gate she had climbed way back when; but, of course, she is not the young, mysterious widow she had been when first she befriended Alice Werner. There had been no knitted sweaters back then; no silver flasks, either. Instead, there had been the raw passions of a pretty woman with a mean streak in love.

         I don’t know, Claire replies. Neither one of us can climb the damn thing.

         We can press the button there, and pretend to be a couple of Mary Kay girls, Donna says in jest. 

         The stab at humor works, if only for a moment. Claire grins, and glances back at her new friend with sparkling eyes. 

         May not be a bad idea, Claire remarks.

         And yet Claire knows it is a terrible idea. Walter will remember her, just as she remembers him. Sure, Claire can hide behind this bush; and allow Donna alone to be the bait; but, of course, Walter may know Donna’s identity as well. He can be a stark, raving loon, but that does not make him stupid. If he is going to keep a man in chains, then he is going to do his homework about that man’s life, including keeping up with the press about the horrible crime that occurred in that man’s apartment. 

         Apparently, Donna too figures out that that is a bad idea, for she makes no move towards the call button. Instead, she just looks back at Claire with the same goofy grin that had accompanied her recent stab at humor. 

         Both women drop their grins at once. Someone is watching them…

         You feel that too? Claire whispers.

         You think he sees us? Donna asks.

         Someone does, Claire comments. 

         Before Donna can respond, Claire turns abruptly to her left side, so that she is looking across the two-lane highway at the foliage on the other side. She catches someone ducking down behind a bush over there. 

         What the hell? Claire whispers. 

         Donna turns to look as well. It takes her so long to move, though, that by the time she does so Claire already is yanking the small, mousey woman in the poncho out from behind her hiding place. For a second, it looks as if there will be a fight between the two of them; but then, for no reason Donna can surmise just then, the small, mousey woman gives up. Indeed, she practically hangs on Claire like a wet rag, while the two women walk across the road toward Donna.

         What’s going on? Donna asks.

         What do you have to say for yourself? Claire asks. 

         The mousey woman trembles between the two of them. She looks down, and fidgets with imaginary Rosary beads in her small fingers. She is certainly no threat to anyone, and so Donna and Claire let down their guard simultaneously.

         Claire is about to speak again when, finally, the mousey woman does so.

         My name is María Francesca, the woman whispers. I used to be the maid.

         Donna and Claire look at her in stunned silence. This woman is small and shy; but from what they can tell thus far, she seems to be eminently normal. It is hard to imagine anyone working up there for very long without losing all their marbles, and yet they do not question the woman’s sincerity. Perhaps, the hell this close to the high river is not nearly as insurmountable, as it feels just then.

         What are you doing out here? Claire asks.

         My son, María starts to say, and then breaks down in tears.

         Donna hobbles over to her. She hugs her with her free arm.

         María slowly regains her composure. She looks at her new friends with an expression that is equally morose and fierce, like somehow her inner strength is actually augmented by her grief. Outwardly, she is weak, flimsy, barely able to stand on her own feet; but the look in her eyes says that she can and will move mountains to find out what happened to her son. In this respect, she and Donna sense an immediate kinship with one another; for Donna’s eyes too intimate an inner strength not at all reflected in her hunched shoulders and quivering cane.

         He never knew my real name, María continues. He called me ‘Imelda,’ a lady with many shoes; and in a sense, he was right. I had walked so far over the years, like a lady burning the soles on thousands of shoes, hoping to leave all of that darkness and death behind me; but I never went far enough. The dead sing to me, like I am still home, holding my mama’s hand, and waiting for the ghost screams to cease. ‘El día de los muertos’ is everyday, everywhere, that is what the dead sing. It does not matter how much I protest. The dead just laugh, like I am a simple woman. Walter hears them, but he does not say ‘no.’ He holds on to them tight, and then he wonders why he is miserable. Oh, my son, my lovely Marcos, he hears them sing, too; and so I know that he is here, somewhere; my own son crying out for his mama.

         How did you get all the way out here? Claire asks.

         The Vice Chief, the German, he said that I could stay behind, María says. I can watch from across the road; and if I see anything odd, then I can call him.

         María lifts her poncho enough to reveal a small cellular phone hidden in an inside pocket. The flickering light on top of the phone implies a low battery.

         Did you call him just now? Claire asks.

         No, María replies after a brief hesitation. I wanted to find out first what you are doing here. I did not think that you were out here enjoying all this rain.

         As if on cue, there is a bright flash of bluish light above followed at once by a horrid scream of thunder. It is as if the dark sky is raping itself; the zigzag lightning calling to mind virginal flesh ripped in two; the loud thunder calling to mind the howl of a frightened, defeated woman. The wind kicks up the steamy, polluted ground, like diseased cum squirted every which way in the midst of an angry sex thrust. There is no love here. There is only mad viciousness, the sick, electrical smell of violence, and three women about to walk into that cauldron.

         The women huddle closer together. They feel stronger in their proximity to one another, even though rationally they know that they are no match really for all that fury. At the same time, paradoxically, they feel momentarily lost in the fears that they share with one another; three women clinging to each other while cast adrift on a turbulent sea. 

         That moment passes. Claire slowly, unevenly, steps out from her addled mind. For Claire, the turbulent sea had transformed into an endless limbo; dark and dreary nothingness expanding out from her own heart. She had wanted just to scream; for in that eternal moment of time she had sensed that, in fact, she contributed as much to the death here as Walter Whipple. The scream failed to push through her clenched throat; but the negative self-assessment lingered on the dark edges of her conscious mind, even as she escaped, finally, from limbo.

         Donna and María sense that there is something wrong with Claire, and so they hold onto each other that much more. Still, as Claire’s eyes seem to float in and out of sanity, they never once question her leadership. 

         Claire reaches beneath her innermost sweater. She finds the silver flask, while still trying to forget out who exactly are these ladies in front of her and, more importantly, why they are standing together in this rainstorm. She grasps her sanity, finally, as if grabbing a hold of a cloud several feet above her head. This happens just before she downs her whiskey. As such, the whiskey turns out to be unnecessary; and yet she guzzles that poison anyway for the sake of luck.

         Donna and María see the light return to Claire’s eyes. They are relieved.

         Okay, ladies, Claire says. We are all here for the same reason. We need to get inside, to save our loved ones, and to bring an end to the terror that has reigned up there for God knows how long. 

         This last point strikes the ladies’ hearts. Indeed, it is apparent now that they have been called out here to do more than to save their loved ones. There is an evil here that needs to be buried beneath the river; an evil that will strike back at each of them, unless they manage to send it out to sea and, in time, to forget it. The darkness here has been disrobed. They can see it now for what it is. They have no alternative but to act, now that the truth is bare before them.

         But how do we climb over this gate? Claire asks, while sizing up the high and slippery obstacle beside them. 

         We do not, María replies in a voice that is uncharacteristically confident.

         Donna and Claire look at their new lady friend like she has a screw loose.

         María looks away from their penetrating gaze. Again, she is the mousey, awkward maid. Nevertheless, she reaches into her dress pocket and retrieves a large, rusted, old fashioned gate key. The key seems like something that would be found in a medieval dungeon; and yet, given the strangeness of the Whipple Residence, it seems appropriate. 

         His Grandma Eunice gave me this key, María explains. He never knew. In all the years I worked for him, I waited for him to come down to the gate, even though I could have let myself in. I knew he would not have approved, if he had known. No le gustan las sorpresas…

         You’re right, Claire remarks. Walter does not like surprises; and for that reason, what we do next must be done without error. If he is startled out of his routine, whatever that may be, then he is likely to do something horrible. 

         Yes, María agrees. He will have a temper tantrum like a rotten devil boy.

         The three women stare at one another. There is fear and determination etched on each of their faces. They are soldiers about to storm the enemy line.

         Let’s go, Donna says. Our boys need us.

         María looks down, and sheds a single tear. Deep down, she senses as only a mother can that her son is dead. Of course, she will be overjoyed to discover otherwise, if the fates should turn out that way; but at this moment, her actual motivation is to find out how he died and, if possible, to retrieve his corpse for a proper burial. She harbors no desire for revenge; for, in a way, she senses her former employer is as much a victim as a perpetrator here. 

         Donna and Claire see how María responds. They look away, so as to give their new friend some space. 

         The moment passes, and Claire takes the key. She walks to the gatepost to see if Walter Whipple is in sight, while the other two ladies huddle together.

*   *   *

         Claire is startled the very moment she pokes her head out from behind the tall bush. She clasps her mouth with her left hand, while clenching the key with her right; and for that reason, she manages to stifle a scream that almost certainly would have eliminated their cover. Without releasing her intense fear in a scream, though, she freezes at that very spot for several agonizing seconds of time. The fates must have been on her side then, for Walter could have seen her if only he had glanced to his left while pulling on his Radio Flyer red wagon.

         He does no such thing. Instead, he stares down at his loafers, mumbling something or other under his breath, and straining to pull wet air into his lungs.

         Walter is dressed in his gentlemanly attire, and yet the intermittent rain already has drenched the fabric into his flabby skin. The long chain hanging out from the bottom of his shirt, and rattling over the wet rocks along his pathway, is a brownish red tail swaying side to side in the wind. His huge, quivery jowls hang from his chin as if a hen’s wattle; and as a result, his flabby face seems at first glance to be much longer than it is. His bloodshot eyes poke out from thick skin folds. They are deranged; but, even more so, they are lost. Although those eyes stare downward, Claire is pretty sure that if she were to look straight into them she would observe two black holes trapped inside a lifetime of memories.

         Walter staggers slowly up the driveway. He is pulling his red wagon, like he has done since he first started to play in the garden alongside this path. The cargo used to be his imagination. Now, it is a tank of gas he removed moments earlier from the shed behind his parked automobile. 

         Raindrops beat against the rusted exterior of that gas tank. The sound is a low bass drum hit repeatedly by a deranged drummer. 

         As a result of all this ruckus, Claire stirs finally from her stupor. She eyes her friends, who are huddled together behind the bush still. She desires to join them, but knows that there is no more time.

         Therefore, with nothing else to console her then than a deep breath and a memory of the aged whiskey remaining inside her silver flask, she turns away from her friends. She inserts the medieval key into the hole, unlatches the gate with a sharp twist to the right, and pushes open the doors. She half expects the doors to scream, like they have been resting all this time on rusted hinges; but there is no such disturbance. 

         Still, Claire watches Walter stagger up the driveway from the open gate. She wants to make sure that he is not on to them. His slow, laborious steps, his hunched shoulders, his heavy breaths, tell her that Walter has no awareness of the larger world beyond his hardship. He probably would not observe her, even if he were walking down the muddy driveway and staring straight into her eyes.

         Claire expects him to stagger up the porch steps. Presumably he intends to finish off this horrid storm by burning down his own house. In the process, he will kill off whichever person or persons he still has in captivity; and, perhaps, he will kill himself off as well. Regardless, so far as Claire knows, arsonists as a rule start off their fires inside; and so she expects him to haul that gas tank up the porch steps and into the first floor foyer. 

         Walter defies expectation. He instead pulls the red wagon to the side of the house. She can no longer see him, but she has a vague memory that that is the way that leads to the Manchester River.

         He is hauling a gas tank to the back of his house, Claire says to the other two ladies huddled behind her. Arson is on his sick mind. ‘Fire and brimstone…’

         Claire stops speaking midsentence. She lets that last thought linger as if the voice of an oracle slowly returning to the darkness from which it came. She removes her silver flask this time, takes a swig, and waits for the poison to hit a nerve in the back of her head. It does not take long for Courage once more to show her face, and the result is a determination at once captivating and horrid.

         I shall contend with him, Claire says. Keep him outside…

         No, Donna blurts out. You cannot face him alone.

         I survived him once, Claire remarks. I can do so again. Anyway, you two need to work together inside the house. Our boys are in there, somewhere, and there will be little time when he ignites all that gasoline. 

         Donna and María look at one another. They know that Claire is right. The pack must be broken in two for there to be any chance at success in this rescue attempt. The very fact that they must separate hits them harder than even the prospect of venturing into that horror house above them…

         For the pack will never again be united, as it is this very moment…

         Donna and María hobble with heavy hearts passed Claire. They look down the whole time, so as to watch for the obstacles in the path before them. They start up the driveway like two old women forced to march into their own open graves. The flash of lightning above them only augments the sense of despair at this terrible moment, for what are two old women against the fury of the gods?

         Claire follows them from several paces behind. She focuses her eyes the whole time on the side of the house. If Walter returns from there, then she will order the two ladies to hide behind one of the scraggly bushes along the side of the road, while she rushes forward to get his attention. He will be surprised, if that happens; and God forbid that he is in a position just then to do something really bad. Still, what choice do they have if Walter comes early to their party?

*   *   *

         Walter does not return early to their party. God only knows what he may be doing behind the house with that gas tank. Presumably, the fat man intends to burn down the house; but exactly how and when? Do the ladies have enough time to rescue their loved ones, or do they only have enough time to find out in no uncertain terms that their loved ones are dead already? Or do they not even have that much time? The questions taunt the ladies; and as a result, they each feel less confident of the chance of success with every labored step they make up the driveway. Moreover, they each sense that courage has rather little to do with their persistence in comparison to raw madness. Walter may be long gone mentally, but so are the ladies walking up to his house, or so they start to fear.

         Donna and María stop a moment before the front porch. Donna tries very slowly to turn back, so that she can face Claire one more time before venturing inside. María holds Donna’s side like an experienced physical therapist assisting a patient in taking some of her first feeble steps. María seems grateful for this challenge, if only because her focus on Donna helps to take her mind off of her son. Notwithstanding her determination to find out what happened to her son, she senses she would not have made it this far without Donna close by her side.

         No time for goodbyes, Claire says, while waving off Donna’s attempt one more time to look into her eyes. 

         As if to underline that very point, there is another flash of blue lightning followed at once by a scream of thunder. The roof rattles above them. One old shingle flies off the roof. It ignites into a crackling flame, before the wet winds sweep it out towards the Manchester River. That had been a very close call; for if that shingle had fallen back onto the roof, that crackling flame in short order would have become a consuming bonfire. As it stands, the horror house appears as ‘long gone’ as its owner; and so the ladies presume that one way or another there will be no more luck left for this sad house before this dreadful day ends.

         Donna and María start up the porch steps. 

         Claire passes them without saying a word.

         Walter had left the front door unlocked. Therefore, María does not need to bend down to retrieve the second door key she had hidden beneath the worn doormat years earlier. She just pushes the door open, and helps Donna to walk across the threshold. She shuts the front door behind her without looking back.

         Claire walks to the corner of the house. Since the ladies are gone, she is not able to distract her mind from the fear breathing hard beneath the surface. She struggles with the hard lump in her throat, and then determines that there is no way for her to relax enough to eliminate that crippling sensation. She has no practical option but to do what she must do with all that fear still squeezing and twisting her flesh. Even her silver flask of whiskey cannot help her. 

         Trembling, she pokes her head around the corner. 

         Walter is nowhere to be seen. Instead, she views wind swept weeds and mud puddles; ugly, dying land that looks like it had been bombed back into the Stone Age just a few days prior. Everything back this way is a dispirited, lonely grey; the bleak color of despair when scrawled on an uneven landscape.

         Claire sees how the land slopes upward further back. She recalls how the hilltop stands precariously over the jagged rocks on the other side. Those rocks descend into the river. White foam crashes over the tops of those rocks; and on high wind days like this one, some of that foam manages to spray the hilltop. It is not a comforting spray, she recalls. It stings the eyes, and clings to the flesh.

         Claire could remain where she is, but an inner voice (not quite sure if it is the voice of reason or of suicide, but it is ornery enough to get her attention, regardless) urges her to find out where Walter is. After all, if he is now behind the house, spraying that exterior wall back there with gas, and also rummaging through his pockets for matches, then she needs to know that fact. If he threw himself over the edge, then she needs to know that fact. Waiting right here for something or nothing to occur is not an option, no matter that her memories of the last time she confronted that fat fuck now frighten her beyond all measure.

         Claire starts to walk down the side of the house. The wind chuckles deep in her ear. Notwithstanding her many sweaters, she feels a shiver go down her spine, and so crosses her arms tightly over her chest. She wants desperately to drop her eyes to her feet, but she forces herself to look forward. There is truly no point in venturing down this way if she is going to miss what is in plain sight.

         Her shins flare, and so she senses that her path is starting to slop upward just then. She glances upward and views foam spraying up and over the hilltop.

         She looks to her left while continuing to walk up the hill. From here, she should be able to see the back of the house. Her eyelids tremble from the fear that, indeed, she may see Walter doing something or other back there. Though her inner voice reiterates that it is better to know, she acknowledges just then that there is real merit to the idea that ‘ignorance is bliss.’ She does not think that she ever craved a mouthful of whiskey, like she does at that very moment.

         Walter is not back there, or at least she cannot see him. There is a back door that leads into a basement, she vaguely recalls. Perhaps, he is down there right now, spraying gas everywhere, and getting ready to turn his house into an enormous cauldron of fire and brimstone. Perhaps, he dragged his red wagon to the other side. Perhaps, he is a corpse down there where the foam crashes into the jagged rocks. The possibilities seem endless, though rationally Claire knows that that cannot be the case. Regardless, she does not feel any better than she did before observing the back of the house. Perhaps, Claire thinks, ignorance is not bliss, so much as it is a bitch; a chatty bitch that keeps on reminding you in her typically annoying manner what it is you do not know at any given moment.

         Claire continues to walk up the hill. She may as well look over the edge. If Walter’s corpse is down there, then she should be able to see it, even though her vision no doubt will be impaired by the river spray. If she perceives nothing of the sort, then she can cross that possibility off of her mental list. 

         Nonsense, Claire thinks. I know damn well he did not jump off the edge. I am walking up this hill because I am afraid to go into that basement. Walter is in there putting his plan into effect. Walter needs to be stopped, now, not ten minutes from now, not when I have crossed off all the other options on my list, but right now! I am not doing that, though; and I know why. It is because once, just once, I saw the real depths of despair in a man’s eyes; and I never want to see that darkness ever again. There is no cabin remote enough to save me from that darkness, if I should happen to see it again. That is the truth of the matter and explains why I am walking up this hill, rather than into that dark basement.

         Consumed by her stream of consciousness, Claire barely notices how the hill steepens nearer the top. Her shins scream out in agony, but she walks on as if impervious to pain and weakness. Years ago, she would have attributed such persistence to the temerity of youth. Now, if asked, then she would write it off as madness. Perhaps, the line between temerity and madness has more to do in the end with whether or not we feel a need to draw that line in the first place.

         Must fiery, creative, rebellious souls be one step removed from insanity?

         Claire is about to entertain that philosophical question. After all, asking an unanswerable question is a heck of lot easier than acknowledging that she is out here on this hill when she should be down there in that basement. There is no guilt in entertaining arcane questions. Indeed, philosophy is almost as useful as whiskey in putting a tortured mind on autopilot. 

         Claire stops dead in her tracks. Did she just hear someone?

         Someone crying out in horrid pain for anyone, anyone at all, to help him?

         This could be her imagination; or perhaps, it is the wind yet again toying with her. The storm, the blackness, this damned place, are they not conspiring to push her over the edge? Are they not tempting her with the strange allure of insanity? If so, then more likely she is ‘hearing things,’ than picking up the cries of an injured fellow. More likely, she hears what scant remains of her own sane mind crying out for help rather than the cries of a man dying on the riverbanks.

         Help me! The voice cries out again.

         This time, it is much clearer. It is unmistakably male. It is weakening, as a result of severe blood loss. It will fall silent when the blood loss causes shock.

         And it is sifting up from those jagged rocks on the other side of this hill…      

         Claire now feels the hot pain in her shins, and yet she practically climbs up the rest of the hill on overdrive. She must see for herself who is down there. 

         Oh God! Claire blurts out, before she clenches her mouth with her hand.

         Claire stands precariously on the top of the hill. River foam sprays onto her face. Wind blows back her woolen cap; and as a result, her scraggly, white, witchlike hair blows every which way. From a distance, her hair very well could be mistaken for white snakes; but up close, the expression on her face is about as far removed from Medusa as possible. There is not a hint of witchy anger on that face. Instead, there is fear still; and, even more so, there is real empathy.

         Claire falls to her knees. She does not know what to do. It very well may be too late for that man down there, given how blood seems to be everywhere.

         Nevertheless, even if the situation is hopeless for him, she is going to be careful never to let her eyes stray from his. If that man should die, then at the very least he should last see a pair of old, but empathetic, eyes staring back at him. That is the least that she can do for him, as heavy thunder rolls overhead.

*   *   *

         Donna and María huddle close together in the foyer. They had seen from the outside that the windows are boarded up; but they had not anticipated just how dark it could be inside the house when the front door is shut behind them. Even more disconcerting, the house feels clammy and cold, like a corpse left to fester in a dark place. It is as if they are huddling together inside an artery or a vein of that corpse. The inner flesh does not really feel all that fleshy anymore. If anything, then the dark space in which they are huddling together feels (and smells) dank, mildewed, like something about to crackle apart and decompose.

         María feels especially awkward. She has been in this same spot an untold number of times over the years. Moreover, she has been in this same spot when for one reason or another the curtains have been drawn. At times, it has been so dark that she has had to do her cleaning by candlelight; and more than once, out of the corner of her eye, she has seen an apparition creeping out from one of the shadows. She has been aware of the death in this house for about as long as she has been employed here. Nevertheless, never before has she felt death, even more so despair, so acutely as at this very moment. Dig a bit deeper, and it turns out that death is madness, that beneath the calm, cold, greying surface death is a lunatic crying out for vengeance. Every corpse is Abel’s blood; every corpse feels betrayed by the life that has left it behind. If the corpse must fall back into the dust from which it sprang, then it is going to take with it as much life as it can. Death spares no one; not even the tiny woman who had swept its arteries and scrubbed its organs for so long. Death spares no one; not even that tiny woman’s son. For the first time, María senses that she had doomed her son to his fate the moment she started to work in this house. 

         There is bluish light flashing into the foyer from the family room to their right. María knows the source, of course, but Donna is curious. Too distraught, María does not bother to stop Donna from hobbling on her cane into that room, though a small voice in the back of her head urges her to do just that. 

         Donna stops behind Walter’s leather chair. She stares at the flat screen on the opposite wall. For a moment, she does not quite know what to make of it, like she is an indigenous person suddenly introduced to the letters of a new language written in magic on a radiant screen. Then, the dark fog lifts from her mind just enough for her to mouth the words: Your Cable has been Suspended. Please Call Customer Service, or Pay Your Bill by Dialing *666 on Your Cellular.

         There is nothing to see in here, María urges. Come on. Let’s go.

         Nevertheless, there is something to see in here; and María knows as such the moment she says otherwise. Neither woman can put her finger on it, but it is impossible to deny it. There is something to see in here, something horrible…

         Donna shrieks. María clenches her open mouth, and abruptly looks away.

         There is a nude body on the floor between the leather chair and the flat screen. Clearly, the body is dead, for there is not the slightest indication of any life in it; and yet the body also seems unreal. Perhaps, this is an illusion caused by the radiant flat screen light, but the skin seems too white even for a corpse.

         Donna hobbles forward for a better look. María stays behind.

         Jesus Fucking Christ, Donna whispers. What a sick mother…

         It is not a corpse. It is a beautiful, life-sized, albino white mannequin; a teenaged boy with rippled abs carved out of plastic. Its enormous, erect cock is no longer poking out from between its muscular thighs. Instead, someone with a sharp axe in hand cut that cock off, and smashed it head first into the middle of the mannequin’s deviant smirk. It appears as if that pretty boy mannequin is ‘sword swallowing’ its own oversized ‘manhood’ and relishing the plastic taste.

         Donna looks back at her new friend. She observes the flashing flat screen light reflecting off of María’s mousey face.

         I don’t understand, Donna mutters.

         Debemos salir de aquí, María urges. Date prisa, por favor. 

         Donna does not know the Spanish words, but she senses well enough the urgency. Indeed, they need to get out of here as soon as possible; for if they do not, then somehow the madness will break them down as assuredly as it did the purported master of the house. 

         Donna rejoins with María in the foyer. Thunder rolls so closely overhead that for a moment the two ladies anticipate the ceiling crashing down on them. That does not happen, but the house as a whole does shake like a ship lost on a turbulent sea. The intermittent rain splashing against the boarded up windows, and the howling winds rattling the porch steps outside like loose piano keys, on the whole contribute to the illusion of a ship tossed any which way over waves.

         Where should we look first? Donna asks.

         The attic, María responds without pause. 

         Are you sure? Donna asks.

         There is too much stuff in the basement, María explains.

         María holds Donna’s side, and helps her to walk up the staircase. The old steps creak beneath their feet. It is the sound of an old, cranky woman getting up from her chair one last time. The woman is coming for them, as assuredly as they are trying to rescue whomever may be alive still up in that attic. The issue is who will manage to strike first, as the storm outside beats against the house.

*   *   *

         Help me! The man cries out yet again.

         The man’s face calls to mind a ghoulish clown mask: swollen lips; craggy nose; right eye drooping so low it looks as if it is going to slither down his right cheek any moment; blood globules spread indiscriminately about his face, so as to suggest from a distance a bad case of chicken pox. His forehead is an open, purplish wound. It is a wonder his face does not simply melt away to reveal his battered skull just beneath the surface. 

         And yet, for all that, there is visceral life still in his left eye. He is stuck in between two jagged boulders about ten feet up from the river. He has pulled his left arm free, and with that arm he is reaching out to the old woman on top of the hill. He flexes his fingers as if he almost can reach the woman, although she is a good fifty yards above him. His flexing fingers, his focused left eye, his weakening voice, these are the only means left to him now to communicate his predicament. The rest of him is torn flesh and blood, life slithering out of open wounds, and throbbing pain rapidly giving way to delirium. There is visceral life in him now, especially in the one eagle eye, but it will be gone within minutes.

         Notwithstanding his hideous appearance, Claire recognizes him to be the young family man, Detective Ernest Hooper. She imagines how his young bride would scream this very moment if she stumbled upon him in this condition. The innocence of their young love would be lost in that piercing, wretched cry; and no matter if he recovered physically, that particular flame anyway would have been extinguished forever. Claire feels a gut wrenching wave of raw horror and guilt blast through her old, weathered flesh. She is sickened immediately, and her first inclination is to reach inside her innermost sweater for the silver flask.

         But she stops herself. Now is not the time for a drink. Now is the time to get off her knees and to get down there. Perhaps, with her help, the detective can wiggle himself out from those rocks. Perhaps, he can make it back home to his loved ones after all. She is here on a rescue mission. Does he not deserve to be rescued as much as the person or persons who may be inside that old house behind her? Or must he be left behind, so that the river can claim his flesh and his soul like so many others? 

         Claire starts to climb down the other side of the hill. The whole time she fastens her eyes on his. The descent is slow, the path treacherous, and yet she does not question her decision to try to save him from almost certain death. So is this courage, or is this madness? The question floats in her mind unanswered.

         Nonsense, Claire thinks. Neither courage nor madness has anything to do with my decision. I am climbing down this muddy slope, risking my life to try to save a man who likely will be dead by the time I get down there, because doing this is better than seeing the darkness in that fat man’s eyes. Fear explains my decision; nothing else. I am afraid, not so much for my life, but for the chance, however remote, that indeed there is an afterlife and in that afterlife I shall be haunted forevermore by that fat fuck’s darkness. Ghosts cannot set aside their memories. They carry them around like Jacob Marley’s chains…

         The stream of consciousness breaks midstream, when Claire slips upon a rock and falls flat onto her back. The slope is steep enough here that she starts to slide down the wet gravel and mud towards the jagged rocks. 

*   *   *

         Donna and María stop at the top of the spiral staircase. The attic door is ajar, and there is a flickering light on the other side. Apart from the light, the two women are wrapped in total suffocating darkness. Up here, there is a very intense, almost physical, feeling of hopelessness, like the whole world has been inverted and now hell is the highest room. 

         As if with one mind, they let out a collective sigh. Though they have yet to check out the basement, their guts tell them that this is the end of their trip into the house. If there is anyone able to be rescued, then that person is sitting or lying on the other side of this old door. 

         Donna pushes open the door. The hinges scream in pain. 

         On the other side of what feels like a dark, shapeless morgue, there is a flickering, buzzing light hanging over an ordinary hospital bed. The light strains for electricity. It will be dead within minutes, and then this death chamber will be totally dark until, finally, it is raptured in flames. 

         As the two women approach the hospital bed, their eyes adjust gradually to the darkness. They are able then to see the monitors, the feeding tube, the crate of liquid food that can keep this patient alive for weeks. In essence, they have discovered a makeshift intensive care unit, rather than a morgue; and the man sleeping beneath the single bed sheet clings precariously to his dismal life.

         María knows that that is not her son. She stays back, and cries in silence.

         Donna hobbles to the side of the bed. She looks at the scarred face. She knows at once that this is her ‘boyfriend,’ even though his face in fact is nearly unrecognizable. She sets her cane aside, grips the side rail tightly with both her hands, closes her eyes, and cries loudly. She teeters back and forth, clenching her eyes, twisting her once pretty lips into a vicious snarl, while the tears flow.

         The moment passes, slowly, unevenly, when, finally, the very last of her tears have been spent. She is exhausted, but also relieved and clearheaded. As she opens her eyes, and takes in the ugly face beneath her, she remembers the last time they sat together. They had been naked, contented, watching one of Billy Ray’s many DVDs, fighting off sleep like a couple of kids. There had been a bottle of wine between them, three-quarters done. Open bottles of wine seem always to be three-quarters done. Billy Ray would light a joint sometime later; but, for now, they would get high on their giggles. That night had been the last slumber party for the two of them. That night, while John Candy did something funny on the television screen, innocence had been fondled, maybe even kissed lightly, one last time. Neither had had an inkling of what would pass away soon thereafter. Neither could have imagined how fast it would pass away, here one moment, gone the next. Like children, they had had no idea the real gift still in their possession. They would not even begin to realize what they had lost until they had lost it. That is the cruelest irony, is it not? Innocence, love, they exist most clearly in our memories. They are most visceral when we experience that deep, abiding pain from having lost them. Are they curses? Yes. Are we better off for having been so cursed? Are we better off when haunted into eternity by the loss of innocence and love? Are these chains we want to hang off our necks?

         Donna takes Billy Ray’s right hand into hers. She bends down, so that her face is only inches from his. Her eyes well up with even more tears. She replies to each of these questions in her head by nodding in the affirmative.

         I heard you that night, Donna whispers. My first night in intensive care. I could not open my eyes, but I could hear you talking to me. You promised to be there for me. I am here for you. Together, boyfriend, always together, just you and me. They can hurt us, but they can never separate us. We cannot hold onto the past, but we can hold onto each other. You hear me, boyfriend? So be sure to open your eyes, okay? Whatever else you do just be sure you open your eyes.

         Billy Ray does not open his eyes. He does not move, except for the slight but steady rise and fall of his chest. Still, Donna senses that he can hear her, as she had heard him. She smiles, for deep down she feels that he will come back.

         Donna slowly turns away from the hospital bed. She sees the despair that is etched on the face of her new friend. She so much wants to console her, and yet she knows that there is nothing that she can say or do that will matter just now. For María, nothing short of finding her beloved son, dead or alive, matters at this time. Donna respects that fact, though it pains her to do nothing.

         We must call the police, Donna says. We cannot remove him from here.

         María does not respond. She seems unaware of what is happening here.

         María, please, we must call the police, Donna repeats.

         Slowly, María awakens from her own deep sorrow. She looks back at her new friend, and nods. 

         I shall use the phone the Vice Chief gave me, María says, while reaching into her poncho to retrieve the small cellular phone.

         She fiddles with the buttons a moment, though it is all too clear that her mind remains elsewhere. Finally, she turns the face of the phone toward Donna so that her new friend can see that the battery is dead.

         Oh shit! Donna says.

         There is a telephone downstairs, María says. I shall go down…

         No, Donna interrupts. It is not safe for us to go anywhere alone.

         Stay here with your friend, María insists. I shall be back soon.

         Before Donna can try to stop her, María is gone. Donna hears her mousey footsteps going down the spiral staircase. Then, she hears nothing, but a splash of rain now and then beating against the roof of the house.

*   *   *

         Claire is lost in a limbo that is at once claustrophobic and boundless.

         This contradiction defies reason. Indeed, nothing is rational in this black and featureless void. Claire’s mind feels as if it is trapped under an anesthetic drug. It wants to awaken from this endless sleep. It squirms rebelliously against the shut eyelids. It even tries to break through the restraint, like a wild stallion kicking back against a fence. Nothing works, though; and as a result, the mind is distressed, but cannot understand where it is now and what it will be able to know if and when the barrier falls away. In essence, Claire’s mind understands that the scales should fall from the eyes; but it cannot understand how or why.

         Claire opens her mouth, and inhales deeply. Since she is lying face down on the side of a muddy hill, she breathes in more mud and pebbles than actual life sustaining air. She coughs out most of this debris, and involuntarily pushes up from the damp ground. As a result, she starts to slide down the slope again; but, more importantly, she awakens abruptly from her endless sleep. The thick scales slide away, and the rational mind speaks to her again in a timid whisper.

         Grab something, Claire’s rational mind says. 

         Claire reaches out with her right hand in time to grab a rock jutting out from the hill. She grips the rock hard, even though the jagged edges cut her up pretty badly. The pain electrifies life back into her nerves, and her eyes finally open all the way. She is still much more addled than she would have been years ago; but she knows why she is there on that hill, and what she must do next for her rescue mission to have any chance of success. The smaller details about the mission will come later, or they will remain hidden to her even into eternity. In the end, she suspects, what we lose always surpasses what we manage to keep.

         While still holding that rock, Claire looks further down the hill. She is no more than five or ten yards away from the dying man. His one eagle eye stares into hers. There is a glimmer of hope remaining in that eye, but frankly there is much more madness. Claire senses that the dying man cannot remember much about why he is here. He is as addled as she is. He longs for her help, but does not recall her name. She longs to help him, but cannot recall his name. Talk of the blind leading the blind, and yet the alternative is death without even trying to grasp at the last vague possibility of life.

         Claire lets go of the rock, and voluntarily slides down to that dying man. She sits up and stares deeply into the man’s bloodied clown face. She is not so sure as to why. Perhaps, she is trying to remember his name, like she senses he is going to die and fears it is sacrilegious for a man to give up his ghost without someone nearby knowing his name. No man should die anonymous on a field of battle. Somebody should be able to see his face and to mark his name on a list.

         He killed him, the dying man whispers. 

         I don’t understand, Claire says.

         My mentor, the dying man explains. My friend…

         The dying man coughs up a mouthful of blood. His eyes roll upward, like he is about to faint. His one free arm shakes violently, like there is an electric charge surging up from that portion of his body that remains squeezed between the two boulders. He hits his own face involuntarily with the back of that hand.

         The moment passes. The dying man breathes erratically, but otherwise his flesh remains still. His one eagle eye calms down a bit; and though the stark madness persists, there is also a glimmer of reason along with hope. The dying man seems capable now of devising a plan of action. It is not much of a plan, in fact, but it is enough for him to realize he is in control of his life one last time.

         My revolver, the dying man whispers. Standard issue. Hand it to me…

         Claire does not argue to the contrary, though privately she fears what he may do to himself or to someone else with a loaded revolver. She stands on her feet, looks into the space in between the two boulders, and finds the revolver. It had fallen away from him during the fall. It could have landed anywhere on this hill; but the fates had determined that the man, no matter his condition, is never going to be too far from his weapon. As such, Claire finds the revolver on the man’s butt. It is coated in his blood, yet it stands in contrast to his wounds.

         Claire retrieves the revolver. She steps back, considers her options, and then places the weapon in the dying man’s one free hand. She wraps his fingers around the grip, and then folds her hands around his in an unsuccessful attempt at steadying his hand. Whatever he decides to do with his firearm, she at least wants to make certain that he does so with a steady finger on the loose trigger.

         What are you going to do? Claire asks, when she steps away from him.

         Just one shot, the dying man whispers. All I need…

         He coughs up more blood. This time, instead of his bloodied eyes rolling upward, his one eagle eye steadies on something or someone on top of the hill. Claire follows his gaze, slowly, cautiously, afraid of what she will see up there, and yet determined to see what he sees if only as an act of final solidarity with him. The dying should not see the Reaper on their own, if such may be avoided.

         Claire observes Walter walking up the other side of the hill. He seems to be pulling a hose attached to a spray gun. His eyes are looking downward, most likely to watch for any obstacles on the way. His breaths are heavy and uneven.

         When he reaches the top of the hill, he will look down the other side. At that time, if Claire remains where she is, his eyes will lock onto hers. Then, she will bathe in that darkness that she had seen once before. It will mark her soul, like a tattoo inked in hell; and the nightmares will return from old, abandoned, almost forgotten graves. Walter will play a role in those nightmares, surely, as will Jim Trent; but the star ghost will be Miss Alice Werner, the woman she had loved as the younger sister she never had. In those nightmares, she will realize what it means to have a family of her own, a sister by day, a lover after hours; and, as in real life, she will endure the pain of losing that family to the strange whims of an insane, jealous man. She will have it all, and she will lose it all, as if joy serves no other end in this lifetime but to draw her into her final despair.

         And so just before Walter reaches the top of the hill, Claire hides behind a boulder off to the side. From here, she can see the dying man. About a third of his flesh extends beyond the miniscule space in between the boulders. This is that portion that clings to life still. The remainder is macabre blood splatter. 

         His name is Hooper, Claire’s rational mind whispers to her.

         Detective Hooper extends his one free arm, like he is doing some sort of a yoga exercise. He points his revolver towards the top of the hill. He is totally mad, mumbling vitriol under his breath, and apparently too far gone even now to realize that he cannot get off a clean shot with how his freed hand trembles.

         I told you I could not play today, Walter whines from the top of the hill…

         Damn you! Hooper snaps back. Just one shot…

         Claire cannot see Walter from here, but she can imagine the quirky, mad grin on his face. His eyes will be practically bulging out from his sockets, since lording over another man is about as close to an orgasm as he can get. His nose will flare open; like he can smell already the imminent death of the tiny mouse in his iron cage. He will rest one fist on his hips, like he is a general overseeing the victory in his grasp; and with his other hand, he will trigger his spray gun. It is a cartoonish image, in a way; and yet the darkness in his bulging eyes is such that she cannot shrug it off. That man up there is dangerous. His madness turns out to be much more infectious than anticipated. 

         Walter repeatedly triggers his spray gun. Gasoline rains down on Hooper.

         You’ll have to play by yourself, Walter reprimands him. 

         Just one shot, Hooper barely manages to whisper, while starting to pull back upon his trigger. Goddamned fat fuck…

         May I suggest you do not play with your own weapon? Walter teases. You are liable to go blind. 

         Hooper pulls back on that trigger. There is a clicking sound, but nothing happens. He pulls back a second time; and again, he has nothing to show for it. Clearly, something in the revolver had been dislodged during the fall; or maybe he just forgot to unclick the safety catch. 

         I must go now, Walter says, when he stops spraying gasoline on Hooper. I am late already. Be sure to visit in hell, though, and I shall do the same. Ta-Ta!

         Hooper pulls back on the trigger a third time. This time, there is enough of a spark released inside of the revolver to ignite the gasoline.

         A fireball erupts from the hammer of the revolver. It takes less than one second for that fire and brimstone to swallow whole the dying man. There is an anguished scream; a sound that calls to mind a dog yelping from the horrid pain it experiences when tossed into a bonfire. The scream is cut off, when the hot, crackling innards of the burning man burst outward. Instead of a scream, there is now the overriding smell of burnt flesh. 

         That blast pushes Claire onto her back and further down the steep slope.

         She chokes on the burnt flesh, while sliding towards the jagged boulders.

         Somewhere, the thunder rolls, and Claire falls back into her oblivion one more time. She has no idea if she will return yet again to the land of the living. She only knows that limbo erases the pain, in exchange for the light in her soul.

*   *   *

         I know, Walter laments, when he drops the hose, and leans wearily upon the side of the old house. I can burn that detective back into dust, but I cannot stop my grandmother’s ghost from paying a visit. We think we wield power, but at those times we realize just how powerless we really are. What else can I do?

         Walter looks down at Whiskers. The Dragon Li looks back up at him with his dark and mysterious eyes. They are no longer inscrutable, though. Walter is able to read them, like a faithful man can read God’s Revelation in the Bible. It is amazing what a man can see, when he opens his eyes. He can read heaven as much as he can read hell. Walter has chosen the latter, for surely hell makes a lot more sense in a world where ordered civilization falls before the Goths and living men succumb to the dead.

         Do you mean that old carpet muncher down there? Walter asks. So what if she is alive still among those jagged rocks? She is a pale imitation of what she had been way back when. Back then, Miss Bruner would have felt my eyes. She would have sensed how I watched her from the shadows, while she went up and over the hill. Today, she barely can tell her right foot from her left. Oh, sure, I shall deal with her if, somehow, she manages to climb back up the hill; but, for now, I have more pressing matters. Grandma’s coming home this evening, and I have more housecleaning yet to do. 

         Walter pushes himself away from the old house. He starts to walk in the direction of his gas tank. He then stops, suddenly, and turns around to face the Dragon Li. The look on Walter’s face suggests that he is not at all happy now to have had this revelation. Still, what choice does he have really, but to play out this revelation to its logical conclusion? 

         So you think it is unlikely she came alone, Walter says to Whiskers. 

         Walter waddles away from the gas tank. He searches the area a moment and then eyes his sharp, bloodstained axe. He had stuck it into the side of a log earlier, so that it would not get in the way while he hauled that heavy gas tank up from the shed. Now, he must get the axe yet again. 

         You think someone may be inside, Walter continues. Maybe, another one of those carpet munchers. After all, they are known to stick together, rub each other’s backs, so to speak, like the shylocks and the niggers.

         Whiskers does not respond verbally, but Walter senses anyway that that mysterious Dragon Li affirms where his mind is headed. One of those subhuman ‘bean flickers’ indeed may be inside his house even as he speaks. She may be in his bedroom, or on the spiral staircase, unearthing what should remain buried. That damned bitch, whoever she is, may use his telephone to call in the police.

         Walter pulls his axe out of the log. He holds his axe by his right thigh, as he waddles back toward the side of his house. He has a distant look on his face.

         The telephone wire is easy enough to observe, for it is coated by several layers of thick, black rubber. It contrasts with the exterior wall, like a horrible scar does with a beautiful, feminine face. 

         Walter does not hesitate to chop the wire in two with his axe. He stares a while at that cut wire, like he is waiting to see if it will regenerate magically.

         It does not regenerate; and so, satisfied, Walter turns to the front of the house. There is more housecleaning to be done with his handy axe, it turns out.

*   *   *

         María hesitates at the top of the staircase overlooking the foyer. She has stood at this same spot tens of thousands of times over the years, an old broom in one hand, a dustpan in the other. This time, she feels as if she has no idea as to where she is. 

         It is not so much the thick darkness that stops her. She has had to work in this house when all the curtains had been drawn, stepping across the creaky floors with only the light cast by a candle, avoiding this or that obstacle in the way on account of her intuition rather than her actual vision. Nor does the cold and clammy air stop her. She has imagined the house to be a mausoleum often, especially in the winter months, and has shivered as much from blue iciness as from inchoate fear. Even the evil that hangs over everything here like a shroud from hell does not stop her. She has been on intimate terms with the darkness for about as long as she can remember. This house is darker than anything else in the States in which she has worked, but there are darker pathways still down passed the Rio Grande. Never had she thought herself incapable of handling the darkness in this place. Even when she left, she did so on account of Walter, not on account of this creepy Victorian alongside the Manchester River. 

         But now, somehow, everything is different. She does not know this place anymore. It is like the walls, the floors, the ceilings, and the steps are illusions devised by her imagination for no other purpose than to mask the fact that she is actually falling into an abyss. She is falling deeper into hell, the sick mind of the first monster ever to creep out from the shadows; and her growing anxiety is that there is no ground level. The abyss is endless, like a claustrophobic loop circling in on itself, or like a phonograph needle that forever skips at the same spot on a vinyl record. This endlessness is the hopelessness of hell; the despair in knowing that there is not going to be any resolution, no corpse to drag home for a burial, no answers for her many questions, nothing on which she can grab and say ‘this is what happened to my son.’ If she cannot stand beside her son in a pit in hell, and endure the same punishment inflicted upon him, then indeed she is nowhere. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, but to fall into eternity.

         María considers fleeing down the steps and out the door. She knows that she may stumble into Walter outside, or that she may fall face first into a mud puddle, or that the storm winds may carry her away, like she is a Mexican Mary Poppins. Any fate is better than standing here, squeezing her chest, shedding a thick tear, and knowing that, indeed, she and her son will never be together in this or any other lifetime. Any fate is better than falling down that abyss alone.

         Still, for all that, she will not flee. She will be true to her word.

         Does that make María a principled woman? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps it indicates only that she is suicidal. Certainly, she has no desire to live without her son; and something in the back of her mind tells her that if she remains too long in this place, she will be a corpse, a little dead Mexican forgotten by time. The madness in this place intends to take her. She understands that much, and so how else can she explain the fact that she remains here? Is it not a desire to commit suicide? Does she not demand to lose her flesh, as she has lost her soul?

         María takes the steps one by one. Every step creaks, like bones smashed beneath the weight of an anvil. She is embarrassed to be making such a ruckus, especially given how out of character it is for a small framed lady to make any kind of loud noise. She is a woman in a foreign place, or so her imagination now insists; and therefore, her inclination is to make as little impact as possible on her surroundings. Oh, God, is there any way for the torment to come to an end?

         Yes, María thinks. Death is the way out. It is down there waiting for me…

         María reaches the foyer. She cannot see anything at all, except the faint illumination from the flat screen in the family room to her left. Still, even if all of this is an illusion, this fantasy seems to be playing itself out as it always has. The number of steps had been the same as always. The flat screen television is on as always. Presumably, the antique telephone will be on the small table just under the coat hook as always. 

         Thus, she reaches forward, pushes a coat aside, and wraps her tiny hand around the long neck of the candlestick telephone. She lifts the earpiece off of the hook. She tries to bring the earpiece to her ear, but she is overwhelmed all of a sudden by the most visceral fear. 

         Someone is watching her. Someone is very close…

         Like eyes staring through window blinds…

         Trembling, María returns the earpiece to its hook, lowers the telephone to the small table, and turns to her left. She feels like a little girl caught with a hand in the cookie jar. Sweat bleeds into her big eyes, then slides down both of her mousey cheeks. She starts to hyperventilate; and as a result, she feels for a moment as if she is floating outside of her little body.

         For a moment, she does not observe anything out of the ordinary. There is the leather chair facing the opposite wall. A bluish light from the flat screen flashes off its waxed surface. In front of the chair, lying face up on the floor, is that creepy, albino, life-sized mannequin…

         Then, as if stepping out from inside the light, Walter appears suddenly in the family room just behind his leather chair. He stands there, staring at María with dead, black eyes, and grinning ear to ear like a boy about to commit some mischief. He has his hands clasped behind his back, which makes his enormous, flabby belly seem that much larger. His jowls quiver the whole time, like they are trying to dislodge from the rest of his cheeky face. It is very unnerving how he seems to be calm and falling apart at the same time. 

         The bluish light flashes off of his white flesh. As a result, he looks like a corpse temporarily reanimated. He will be returning soon to his personal grave, but first he has some business to finish.

         Hello, Imelda, Walter says in a voice that is too affable to be sane. I am housecleaning this afternoon. I must say that I am pleased beyond words to see that you have returned. I’ve grown tired of doing all this woman’s work myself.

         María wants to scream, but she is too frightened to do so. She does clasp shut her open mouth, but otherwise she does not react to her former employer.

         Perhaps, you would like to start with the grandfather clock, Walter says. Time needs a good scrubbing now and then, does it not?

         What? María squeals. 

         Walter frowns. Her voice clearly has irritated him. He looks like a whiny, fat boy about to have a fit.

         Okay, Beaner Bitch, Walter snarls. It is time for you to get back to work.

         And with that, Walter steps forward, while swinging his right arm up and over his head. His frown hardens, as he plants the sharp edge of his bloody axe blade into María’s forehead. Blood squirts out from the top of her forehead, as he pulls the axe blade out from the open wound. 

         María collapses to the floor like an accordion closing in on itself. Walter steps over her, squats like he is about to take a shit (not easy to do on account of his excess weight), grabs a hold of her dark hair, and starts to drag her dying flesh into the living room. He grips the axe still in his other hand. Her hot blood drips onto the floor. It leaves behind what would have looked like a trail of red rat droppings, if only there had been enough light to observe much of anything.

         Walter stands in front of the grandfather clock, which years ago his own grandfather had christened La Lune. Its most prominent feature is that famous moon face from Le Voyage dans la Lune. Walter cannot see the moon face now, but he has seen it so many times he has the picture etched already in his mind.

         You don’t scare me, Walter whispers into La Lune’s moon face. 

         Walter drops María and the axe at the same time. With both of his hands freed, he opens the grandfather clock door, and pulls out the chimes. He tosses the chimes off to the side. 

         Remarkably, María is able to squirm still. She moans something or other, like she is enduring a horrible nightmare from which she can no longer awaken.

         Stop whining, Walter snarls. I am reuniting you with your son. What else do you want this far removed from Mother’s Day?

         The bottom third of the inside of the grandfather clock consists of dead organs and broken bones that once had belonged to her beloved son. Though he had given the task the good old college try, Walter had been unable to stuff all of Marcos’ innards into the bag that later he had tossed into the river. Thus, he had stuffed the rest of Marcos inside La Lune. He had been extra careful not to dirty those golden chimes with the greying man meat from South of the Border.

         Now, with civilization going to hell in a hand basket anyway, Walter does not care about preserving the chimes. Indeed, he does not act with any higher sense of propriety at this point. He moves slowly, because of his weight; but he also moves with the subtlety of a gorilla inside of a china shop. He has no care in the world for what he may knock over or crush under his feet, especially in a house about to be torched anyway. Let the devils separate the wheat from the chaff in hell. Walter will focus simply on his ‘housecleaning’ until the very end.

         Walter moans, as she squats down low to pick up his former maid. She is squirming still, but not enough to pose any problem. He holds her like a dashing groom about to carry his bride over the threshold. He feels her blood slithering down her flesh and onto his outstretched arms. He recoils from all that unclean Indian blood. No doubt he will need to take a long bath after all of this is done.

         Walter stuffs her still breathing body into the grandfather clock. María’s little feet squish down Marcos’ dead organs. She literally is sinking into her son.

         Walter shuts the grandfather clock door. He cannot latch it, because his former maid takes up too much space in that cramped makeshift tomb. He is a bit peeved about not being able to latch the door, until he reminds himself the fire and brimstone will wipe out everything before this horrid afternoon ceases.

         Walter retrieves the axe. He stares a while at the grandfather clock face without being able to see it. His eyes simply cannot get used to the penetrating darkness. He finally breaks out of this queer hypnotic spell, and starts to leave. 

         María moans inconsolably, while Walter slowly returns to the foyer. It is as if, somehow, she knows deep in her gut on whom she stands. She had hoped for nothing else than to be beside her son in death. Her wish has been granted.

         Though anxious to continue with his housecleaning, Walter decides then that he had better make sure that there is not another conspirator upstairs. He needs to be meticulous, even if his mannerisms more closely resemble those of an ape over a gentleman at this point. 

         Walter slowly walks up the staircase. He holds the axe by his right thigh. Blood drips onto the steps, while another barrage of rain strikes that old house.

*   *   *

         Donna reaches the bottom of the spiral staircase. She steps into the hall, leans against the wall, and almost passes out. She is exhausted beyond measure just then, for going down the staircase turns out to be even more difficult than climbing up. It takes every last bit of her will to get control over her breathing.

         Why is she down here in the first place? Because María is totally foolish, or suicidal, to go for the telephone on her own. Either way, María is acting as a result of her intense grief, rather than from a reasoned assessment of the facts of their situation. Yes, the ladies need help; but there is no reason for them to have separated from one another at this time. Donna, therefore, needs to find her new friend, before something terrible happens to her. 

         The old steps that lead down to the foyer are creaking. Maybe, María has come to her senses; or maybe, she already has made the telephone call. Either way, this is a blessing for them both…

         Unless, there is someone else now walking up those steps…

         Donna listens carefully. The steps are very heavy, like bricks dropped off of a table and onto a concrete floor. Donna does not know María that well, but the slow and cumbersome steps do not sound like something a small lady would make. Then, there is the heavy breathing, asthmatic, vaguely obscene; surely, María does not make that much noise with her lungs even when afflicted with a terrible cold. 

         Donna makes a quick decision to bolt for the room across the hall. If that is María, then fine. If not, then she surely does not want to be discovered here.

         Donna steps into a cluttered bedroom. There is a lit candle on a dresser across the way, so she can see the contents of the room. Everything is cast in a sickly, yellowish glow, the color of a dying candlestick less than an hour or two from melting away altogether. Even more ghastly are the reflections in the old, warped, dresser mirror. In the mirror, everything seems to be sifting in and out of a dreamy fog, like distant memories of items that had existed in this room a long time ago, but that are now long since gone. Stepping into this room is akin to stepping into a past that will not be buried, a past that lingers. The result is hopelessness colored by the same tepid candlelight no matter the hour outside.

         Donna hears those heavy footsteps in the hall just outside the bedroom. She needs to hide in case he decides to step into here. She has no time to seek out a better location.

         Donna turns to her left and almost bumps into a handsome, nude, albino man. She is about to scream, but catches herself in time. Instead, she clenches her mouth shut, and allows her bulging eyes to offer up a silent scream of their own. She slowly steps back, still covering her mouth, and hearing her crazy fast heartbeat inside her ears. She focuses on controlling her breaths, so that in the next few seconds she does not begin to hyperventilate. This mental focus does the trick; for not only does she manage to control her breathing, she also views the albino male for what it really is.

         In fact, the albino male is a life-sized mannequin, much like the one she had seen downstairs in the family room. This one is standing upright at the foot of the bed. It is staring at itself in the dresser mirror. Its face seems more high class and debonair than the hot bod adolescent she saw earlier. In essence, this one is Cary Grant, while the prior one is a Chippendale really hungry for action.

         She again hears a footstep just beyond the bedroom door. Thus, without further consideration, she hides behind the handsome mannequin. It is hard for her to squat on account of her disability, so the best that she can do is to squat about halfway. As a result, she faces the handsome mannequin’s hard rear end.

         She had not noticed that the mannequin’s well endowed cock had been cut off of its front side. If she had, then she might not have been so startled to see that same cock shoved head first into the rear end. 

         Blood slithers down from the makeshift anus. Is that real blood smeared onto the wound for dramatic effect? Or is that a special effect instead? Donna cannot tell, since fake blood looks so authentic nowadays. She is nauseated by what she views here, regardless. As a result, while the blood drips on her feet, she holds in her stomach, closes her eyes, and waits for that fat man to step in.

*   *   *

         Cold river water splashes against Claire’s back. She awakens with a start and howls invective against the storm. She pushes herself up from the clammy, muddy slope, and observes a trail of blood that stops where her face had been planted into the ground. Her face throbs with pain; and though not normally all that vain about her looks, she is grateful now not to be near a handheld mirror.

         More cold river water splashes over the jagged boulders below her feet. The water smells rancid, like decaying flesh; and Claire wonders just how much death the river manages to conceal on days like this one. No doubt, there are a lot of carcasses floating just beneath the foam; but she suspects there are one or two human corpses as well. There is the bum never again observed beneath a bridge after a particularly nasty storm has washed away his cardboard home. There is the prostitute waiting for riverboat workers on the edge of one of the piers closer to the City of Beverly. She is parading her merchandise one minute and then floating downriver the next. The river does not just claim lost souls. It also captures the innocent children climbing the wet rocks along the banks, the family enjoying an afternoon on their motorboat when they should be avoiding the inclement weather, even the occasional river patrol officer responding to a distress call. The river conceals much beneath its foam, except for the smell of death. That smell splashes over the wet rocks as much as the churning foam. It sticks to whatever it touches long after the river water recedes from the banks.

         Claire feels like she is being marked for death. First, the old lady leaves a part of her face on the hill. Then, the old lady smells like a corpse starting to turn. It is like she is going to be well enough along before the fat man up there chops her open with his axe or burns her alive. Is life the process of preparing a person to die; beating her down, shedding her blood, splashing her with rancid river water, until her life is no longer distinguishable from death? Or is that just indicative of this particular corner of hell? Claire senses that how she responds to those questions will determine whether she even bothers trying to climb this slippery hill. If life is just slow dying, then why not give up her ghost right now?

         That’s enough of that, Claire mutters. 

         And with those four words, Claire kills off that fear and depression which had been eating away at her ever since she started up the driveway. She is very tired, weak, and unbalanced. She doubts that she will make it up this hill; and even if she does so, she cannot envision actually stopping that crazy fat man up there. It all seems so hopeless way down here where the river splashes against her back, and yet the fear and the depression are gone. If indeed she must fall before those dark, penetrating eyes, then at least she will fall, while shouting defiance before her victorious enemy. 

         Claire is much too weak to return to her feet. Therefore, she is forced to crawl upward on her elbows and her knees. The path is slow and treacherous in large part because the rain has dislodged so much mud above her. She fears an avalanche of dirt and pebbles at any moment slamming her into an early grave.

         She follows her own blood trail. Jagged rocks sticking out from the mud show where and how she had been punctured while sliding downward. She very clearly recalls that she had started to slide down this hill on her back. She had turned around somewhere along the way; and the result had been the horrible, repeated blows to her face. The fates saved her once or twice on this hill. The same fates turned her around, so that her face would be beaten into something that resembles a carved pumpkin about two weeks after Halloween. No doubt, the fates are laughing like a couple of stoned hyenas; and Claire should be too disillusioned to continue climbing up this hill. 

         Nevertheless, she is not going to be disillusioned; for in the end, what is disillusionment, but fear that it cannot be any other way, and depression to the point of total inaction? Yes, she has put victory out of her mind; but that alone does not mean that she will die ingloriously on this damned hill. She will get to the top, confront her past, and stare into those dark, penetrating eyes just one more time. Likely, that will be the end for her, if not physically, then certainly mentally. So be it, but at least she dies today while standing tall one last time.

         Claire reaches the spot where Detective Hooper had exploded. There are smoldering body parts and steaming splotches of blood just about everywhere. It is a horror show of a crime scene; one that will be wiped totally clean by the wind and the rain long before any crime scene investigators venture down here to dot their I’s and to cross their T’s. Even now, as she hauls her weak flesh up this charred portion of the hill, she can see how all of that evidence is starting to dismantle beneath the sheer force of the weather. She sheds a solitary tear, for Detective Hooper’s imprint upon this earth had turned out to be so brief as to be inconsequential. 

         Claire does not stop while shedding that tear. Her arms and her legs are screaming at her; and yet she knows that if she stops, she dies out here on this hill. It is really that simple; for even now, while she still struggles, she can feel the world closing in on her. She knows that this is just her addled mind; her old age catching up with her as she climbs a hill that would be hard for a lady even half her age. Knowing what is wrong is no comfort, though, for she is in no real position to prevent the world from closing in on her if the world starts to do so.

         Keeping her head down, and focusing on the next jagged rock or thorny weed on her path, she almost does not see the bluish grey hand that is sticking out from inside a rose bush further up the hill. She glimpses the hand, because it is so motionless in contrast with how everything else moves with the rain and the wind. Moreover, though everything else presses into the earth, this hand is reaching up for the heavens. Its fingers are opened wide, pitifully, like a small, weak, starving man straining for food that will remain forever passed his grasp.

         She knows that she should press onward. Nevertheless, an inner voice is urging her to take a look. It is the pretty voice of a serpent with ravenous eyes.

         She crawls over to the rose bush. The bush juts out from the hill beneath an overhanging rock formation. For that reason, the bush cannot be seen at all from the overlook at the top of the hill. 

         But it can be seen from where Detective Hooper had given up his ghost. The young officer only had seen the hand, but that had been enough for him to identify the corpse ensnared in the bush. Given how many times he had handed a hot cup of coffee to that same hand, this is not surprising. 

         Claire does not touch the bush, because of the thorns, but she can make out the bluish grey face staring eternally into the heavens. This face had been cut by the sharp edge of an axe so many times, and in so many directions, as to render it almost unidentifiable. The open mouth calls to mind a petulant boy in a highchair crying for his mother’s milk. Instead of milk, the open mouth feasts on hundreds of slimy, wet worms that are burrowing new houses for themselves in what remains of his larynx. Only the eyes remain identifiable. There is a very fierce, penetrating, even diabolical character to those eyes that calls to mind a certain detective near his retirement who had mastered the art of bureaucratic infighting. The essence of the successful bureaucratic infighter is the man with the uncanny discernment of his opponents’ next moves. He trades in his purity, his innocence, for the knowledge that will give him an edge over the other sad schmucks out there. The end result is a pair of eyes as consumed with fright, as they are viciously intelligent. These are the eyes of a demon at his ignoble end.

         Oh, Woody, Claire whispers. You were so handsome when I first saw you.

         But that handsomeness had been fleeting. On the contrary, this horrible face will endure long after the worms have devoured everything else. It will be imprinted in the heavens, surely, like all those other clouds imagined as ghouls.

         There is a zigzag flash of lightning above. Thunder snaps, like a bullwhip on leather, almost simultaneously with that lightning. The earth recoils; and as a result, there is a brief, but jarring, earthquake that throws rocks over the top of the hill and down this side.

*   *   *

         Donna crouches as low as she can, when all of a sudden she hears the old bedroom door open with a screech. She clenches her mouth shut, and she feels tears streaming down her cheeks and over her fingers. Her heart is a rapid fire machinegun in her inner ears. The sound is so fast and loud that she nearly falls back, which naturally would have ruined her cover at a most inopportune time.

         Walter steps into the bedroom. Donna did not get a good look at him on the driveway, and so this is in essence her introduction to the man behind all of this mayhem. She is repulsed by his fat face, squinty eyes, and loose jowls. She thinks his skin has a yellowish, buttery color and texture, though that may be a result of the candlelight in this cluttered room. Her repulsion gives way to fear when she sees just how huge he is. His belly wobbles like a water pillow meant for a waterbed. He wears what had been nice clothes, but are now little more than drenched, faded fabrics sinking into his white skin. Only his Mulberry plaid bowtie actually looks like a bowtie. Perhaps, his big jowls had served as a kind of flesh umbrella for his bowtie. Regardless, it seems unmarked by the rainfall.

         Unexpectedly, Donna hears metal sliding across the wood floor. It is then that she sees the iron dog collar wrapped snugly about the thick neck. That dog collar had been hidden partially by the bowtie; but now that she observes it, it is impossible to ignore. It looks like something out of a kinky S&M dungeon; and as a result, Donna is more amazed than scared. She feels like a Peeping Tom at a S&M club (not her thing, but given her profession not something she can claim about which to be wholly innocent). She is now the pervert staring into a room through window blinds. She feels unclean in a way sex for money had not made her feel; and so the tears fall harder now, like she is trying to wash out herself.

         Walter passes within inches of the mannequin behind which she is hiding just now. Surely, he saw her in his peripheral vision, or at least felt her; but if so, then he hides convincingly his knowledge. He seems oblivious to her, as he waddles over to the dresser mirror.

         As Walter passes, Donna sees the long chain hanging down from the back of Walter’s shirt. The chain drags along the floor. It snaps into this or that, like it is a serpent with a particularly ornery disposition. For this reason, Donna lets go of the S&M fantasy and instead imagines Walter to be a flabby, sallow beast.

         She watches intently, as he stops before the dresser mirror and gazes at his own ghastly appearance. He does not seem vain, for the expression upon his face is much too blank to suggest self-love. Instead, he seems lost, like he is an elderly man trying to recall his own identity. Even more so, he is like a walking corpse, a monstrosity recently escaped from his grave, trying to figure out if in fact he is really alive. Is there real blood flowing through the veins beneath his sickly skin? Do his lungs actually process the stale air in this room? The quixotic look on his face says that he cannot tell one way or another…

         Or is that a ruse? Perhaps, he is not as far gone as he seems. Perhaps, he is not looking at himself in the mirror, but rather assessing the mannequin in its reflection. Perhaps, when he looks very closely at the mannequin in the mirror, he can make out a woman hiding behind the plastic albino butt…

         Then again, perhaps not. It is hard to tell, for Walter never flinches. Nor does he dart his eyes. He just stares into the surreal fog captured in the mirror.

         Something clicks inside of Walter’s head. He abruptly turns away, though the expression upon his face does not noticeably change. He walks out with an added sense of urgency that had not been apparent when he first entered into this bedroom. He still does not appear to have noticed the buxom lady with the cane hiding behind the mannequin. 

         Donna listens, as Walter shuts the bedroom door and proceeds down the staircase. His steps are as heavy as before, but they are faster. Clearly, there is little time left in his mind anyway for whatever it is he intends to do. If Walter thinks as such, then that means there is little time left for Donna to find María and to get help. 

         Nevertheless, Donna does not move immediately from her hiding position behind the mannequin. Walter could be playing a trick on her, after all. Though he seems mentally slow, that could be a ruse to get her to disarm her defenses.

         There is a loud clash of thunder. It calls to mind a bullwhip against thick leather, and again Donna visualizes a S&M dungeon. 

         So who is trapped in this dungeon? Walter appears to be the actor in one sense, and yet he has to wear the dog collar and to drag the chains. Donna also is an actor in one sense, and yet she is hiding in this cluttered bedroom behind a mannequin with a plastic cock up its ass. Then, there is Billy Ray upstairs. He also is an actor in one sense. After all, Donna suspects that Walter is now doing what he is doing, because of the fact that Billy Ray is in a coma in his attic. All of us, really, are here in response to him; and yet, at the same time, he is very clearly trapped in a dungeon as well. 

As for Claire and María, God alone knows if they too are as much actors, as they are prisoners. For all Donna knows, they may be dead, which is perhaps the one and only way of being freed finally from the quandary of being both an actor and a prisoner simultaneously. Her gut insists that they are alive, though she cannot begin to guess in what condition and for how long. 

Why am I thinking about this? Donna thinks. Who cares who is the actor, and who is the prisoner? Or am I thinking about this, so that I have an excuse to remain just where I am in this bedroom? Fuck this! I am out of here right now…

Except that she is not ‘out of here.’ She remains right where she is for a while longer. There is a demon unleashed in this house. It may be a memory of a particularly gruesome incident. It may be a passion unquenched. Or it may be nothing more mysterious than mental illness. Regardless, there is a demon; and it wants to put an axe into her face, as much as it wants to do the same to the others. Therefore, Donna is afraid. She hates her own cowardice, but she is not strong enough to deny it. She will stay a while longer, thus, while the hard rain beats upon the boarded up windows, and the wind cries out beneath the eaves.

*   *   *

         Claire covers her head, but one of the rocks manages to strike her hard anyway. She curls into a ball to wait out the rest of the avalanche. Though she does not suffer a second impact, the one that got her had been hard enough to split the top of her head open and to unleash even more purple blood down her gruesome face. She will die on this hill from blood loss, if she does not manage somehow to reach the top. Even then, her chance of survival is next to nothing.

         Claire returns to her path, and crawls upward on her elbows. She senses the edges of the world falling in on her; her mind becoming more addled, more listless, like a boat without a skipper set adrift. The waves knock the boat this or that way, punching holes into the hull, twisting the sail off of its mast, until, finally, the mayhem manages to override the stability. Then, within seconds, it is all over: the boat capsizes, the floorboards separate, the mast shoots off like a missile, and the sail flies off into the night. The destruction is magnificent in a manner; but then it is over; and she is over. The last sensation is the vastness of that sea turned dark, claustrophobic, suffocating. The last insight is that the old, the defeated, literally drown in their dementia when the light flickers out.

         No, Claire whispers. Not today. Not when Billy Ray is alive up there…

         She tries to believe her own words, but she is too exhausted. It turns out that faith takes energy. She may have enough energy to get to the top, but she does not have enough energy to believe. God only knows what keeps her trying.

         Claire reaches the top of the hill. She is not even aware at first. Indeed, she is not aware of anything at all, except that she needs to lower her bloodied face into the wet earth and to shut her eyes. She must sleep; perhaps the sleep that lingers into eternity. Even Billy Ray briefly falls away from her mind’s eye.

         So you came back for the end, an effeminate voice says from above her.

         Goddamn, she knows that voice. It is older, but not more distinguished. Indeed, in a way, it is even more childish than when she last heard it. Also, the madness just under the surface of that voice is undeniable. Frankly, it is wrong to say that the man is not playing with a full deck. Better to say that he left his deck of cards at home and yet still believes that he has the winning hand.

         I am not surprised; the effeminate voice continues. Our last engagement had been, shall we say, inconclusive. 

         Walter, Claire mutters, while trying to lift her face from the ground.

         I know my name; the effeminate voice snaps back with real disdain. And I know yours, too. ‘Carpet Muncher,’ as I recall. 

         Walter, stop this, Claire mutters, as she pushes herself up to her knees.

         The world spins a moment. Claire almost vomits up the greasy breakfast she had this morning. Still, she manages to focus her attention on the crazy fat man standing in front of her. She observes his Cheshire cat smile. It is the smile of a man lost completely in his own passions. It is also a condescending smirk; a look that says, ‘this will hurt you a lot more than this will hurt me, you whore.’ 

         She feels herself drawn toward his eyes. She really tries not to see them, at least not straight on, and yet there is a strange temptation to spread the old window blinds apart and to look directly into his soul. The temptation feels like an intense hunger in her bowels, an almost sexual desire for darkness and evil. Her spine quivers from fear as much as longing. She must focus in on something else, anything at this point, lest she falls for those hypnotic eyes one last time.

         Claire darts her eyes down to his pudgy hands. He is holding the end of a chain that hangs down from a neck collar. She had seen this same chain earlier, but now she beholds it as if for the first time. Perhaps, this is just another sign of how addled her mind can be. Or, perhaps, she senses that there is something else about this chain that had not been evident back at the driveway. 

         Something about how he holds the chain in his right hand, and snaps the end of it into his left palm, over and over, like he is reacting to a beat he hears repeated inside his mind ad infinitum

         An old phonograph needle stuck at the same spot on the record forever…

         A cock thrust into his bleeding asshole repeated over and over and over…

         I am stopping this, Walter states. I am stopping that. I am stopping every        cat that ever hungered for a rat.

         Walter, please, Claire mutters.

         No more pleading, Walter snaps. No more time.

         I don’t understand, Claire mutters.

         Of course, not, Walter remarks. Pity the fecal matter wasted, when God saw fit to create a woman’s brain. For old time’s sake, I shall explain myself to you on your level. You see I am about to finish my housecleaning. Just in time, I dare say, since grandma’s picking up her pace around the last bend. When she comes, she will see that all is ended. I have stopped this. I have stopped that. I have stopped every cat that ever hungered for a rat. Grandpa will be gone, his black swans packed away with him. My cat and I shall be vagabonds, outlaws on the edge, like niggers and pirates, I suppose. No more civilization, no more soft tastes and elegant remarks; but, you see, the end is the end of everything, not only of what we want to see ended, but also of what we want to see preserved. The old fire spreads out, and the wheat and the chaff together go up in flames. Not a Cecil B. DeMille ending. More like something Stanley Kubrick would have dreamt up. Regardless, that fat lady will sing tonight, and I shall be on my way.

         And what about us? Claire asks.

         This time, we end our business together much more conclusively, Walter remarks. You will not like the outcome, sadly, but as the frogs say, c’est la via.

*   *   *

         Donna opens the bedroom door. The hinges screech; and as a result, she feels her heart surge at once into her tight throat. In that moment of fear, she almost slams the door shut, and hobbles to that hideout behind the mannequin.

         She stops herself, though, since she is certain that she heard something just before she opened the door. Something that stood out amidst the rain and the wind beating against the boarded up windows…

         Something that very well may have been a real woman moaning in pain…

         Donna pokes her head into the dark hallway. She listens carefully for the sound. Did she imagine it? She does not think so at first; but with every passing second that she hears nothing but the storm outside, she moves mentally in the direction of self-doubt. Perhaps, the house is toying with her. Perhaps, she has succumbed to her own exhaustion. Who knows? Perhaps this is all a nightmare; and she is going to wake up any moment now back at the rehabilitation facility.

         There is a moan, a real woman moaning in pain…

         And the sound is coming from downstairs…

         And did she just hear a word? Something like ‘mee-ho,’ or perhaps ‘nee-ho’? She may have imagined that part. Her mind is spinning on overdrive, after all. Nevertheless, the moan, the real woman moaning in pain, now that is not a figment of her imagination. She will bet her life on that; and if indeed she goes downstairs, then she very well may be betting her life on that determination. If the fat man is down there, if he has an axe in hand, well, anything can happen.

         Donna hobbles over to the top of the straight staircase that leads to the foyer. The darkness is so intense as to be almost suffocating. She cannot really see the top step. She simply has to guess how far down it goes, and hope she is not too far off of the mark. She leans heavily on her cane, as she drops her foot over the edge. She holds her breath like somehow oxygen deprivation will help.

         She finds the next step. It creaks angrily beneath her shoe. She finishes the step with her other foot, exhales in relief, and continues all the way down. God only knows how long it takes her. It feels like an hour, though it could not have been that long. Regardless, she is exhausted, and so leans against the wall beside the coat hook until her heartbeat returns to normal.

         Only then does she see the small, lit candle standing upright on the floor by the front door. It does not illuminate much more than the old doorknob, but the old doorknob seems to be the intended focus anyway. Hanging from a loop of pink ribbon off of that doorknob is a folded notecard. Printed on the cover in stylized pink cursive typically used for a girl’s birthday card is this word: Ta-Ta!

         Donna removes the card from the doorknob. She picks up the candle and holds it close to the text, so that she can read the words clearly meant for her.

Roses are Red

Violets are Blue

I saw you by my bed

So the joke’s on you!

The doors are bolted

The phone line cut

So make yourself cozy

And enjoy the fire show!

         Donna panics. She drops the candle and the notecard. With her one free hand, she tries compulsively to rotate the doorknob. It does not move. She hits the door repeatedly with her fist. She does not even manage to dent the damn thing. She screams holy hell. She hears rain beating upon that door in response.

         There is a moan, a real woman moaning in pain…

         And the sound is coming from the living room to her right…

         Focusing on the woman in jeopardy, Donna breaks free from her panic at least for the moment. She bends down, picks up the candle, and hobbles on her cane toward the sound. She moves slowly, for the candle offers so little light it is all but impossible to see the obstacles in her path. She must feel for any such obstacles with her cane, like what she imagines blind people do all of the time.

         There is another hard moan. It is followed by what sounds like ‘mee-ho.’

         It is coming from the inside of what appears to be the grandfather clock.

         Donna stands in front of the clock. She holds up her candle. 

         There seems to be a bloodied animal inside where the chimes should be.

         Donna recoils, but then she reminds herself that no beast can moan like a woman in jeopardy. Claire cannot fit inside there, especially with all her knit sweaters, but come to think of it María is small enough. Is this María? Can it be?

         Donna sets her cane aside. Holding the candle up with one hand, Donna uses her other hand to open the old door that leads to the interior of the clock.

         She sees a small woman standing knee deep in human body parts. There is a river of blood spitting out from an open head wound. Her face is covered in all this blood. Only her horrified eyes poke out from this gruesome blood mask; eyes so scared as to be scarred by madness. 

         The small woman holds in her right hand what appears to be a liver, or a heart. The organ is greying. It already smells like rotted meat. Her own blood is pouring down her arm and over the organ. Coated by her own blood, the organ almost looks alive, like something about to be transplanted into a dying person.

         The small woman holds out her right hand. She squishes the organ, and a handful of blood sprinkles onto the same living room floor she had cleaned over the years. She looks into Donna’s eyes; and for a second, there is a connection.

         Mi hijo, María repeats in her native tongue. Mi hijo. Mi hijo. Mi hijo.

         Donna screams, and stumbles backward. She almost falls to the floor.

         María loses consciousness. She drops the organ onto the living room floor and leans against the back of the grandfather clock. Her dead, black eyes stare out in desperation. Surely, for María, ‘mi hijo’ remains eternally beyond reach. 

*   *   *

         Walter steps forward. He holds up the end of the chain in a provocative manner, and Claire anticipates that he will whip her along the side of her head.

         Instead, he loops the chain around her chest a few times. He fastens the chain with a stick. He is pleasantly surprised with his dexterity. Violence is able to focus his actions like nothing else, especially when grandma is coming home.

         Time to settle our old score, Walter remarks with his Cheshire cat smile.

         Walter turns away, and starts to walk down the hill. He lowers his head and shoulders, so that he is better able to haul that ‘carpet muncher’ wrapped in his chains. He kicks back mud, like a horse pulling a plow. Whiskers walks by his right side, and periodically glares back at the prisoner with the bloody face.

         Claire is delirious with exhaustion and fear. She cannot think straight at all. Would it really matter if she could? Would she be in a better position to get out of these chains if she had her wits? Would it not be better for a condemned man if he should sink into frothing madness while being dragged to the gallows?

         And yet her survival instinct remains as strong as ever. God alone knows why, but the fact of the matter is clear enough. Without that instinct operating at a fever’s pitch, she would have died on the side of the steep hill awhile ago.

         Thus, while her mind seems as addled as ever, part of her psyche is now working on ‘research librarian’ mode, parsing out unnecessary details, finding a path out of the confusion that most persons in similar circumstances would not even notice. Like with most of the research projects that she has done over too many years to remember, the solution turns out to be obvious enough when the discerning eye finally focuses in on it. 

         Walter stops at a tree stump along the side of the house. He strains for a moment to catch his breath, and Claire wonders if he is going to pass out. He is a tough, old bugger in his own peculiar way; and so he manages, finally, to get the upper hand over his asthma. He turns around, faces his prisoner, and starts to pull the chain. Claire in turn slides through the mud towards the tree stump.

         Walter grabs a hold of her witchy white hair. He yanks her head onto the stump. He uncoils her scarves and tosses them. Her neck is exposed as a result.

         Walter looks down on her, and grins. He chuckles like a mischievous boy.

         Now, do not try to squirm like a chicken, Walter teases her. Cluck-Cluck!

         Walter squats down, slowly, painfully, and picks up his axe. He observes what may be blood on his blade. He lifts the blade to his mouth, and he licks it off. He smiles cheek to cheek, like he never before has tasted anything so fine.

         Oh, do not worry, Walter chuckles. I am sure you will taste just as good.

         Claire sees and hears everything, but she fights off her fright. Now is the time to keep her wits. She will have only one chance, before he chops into her carotid artery and propels her into her last nightmare.

         Walter grasps that axe in his right hand, while he taps his left palm with the dull side of the blade. Claire expects him to do this, for this is how he had held the end of the chain while trying to figure out what to do with her. He has crossed the line into madness, no doubt, but he retains even now some part of his quiet, deliberative mind. He will not act rashly. He will measure just when, where, and how to strike her throat with the blade.

         When he is most consumed with his thoughts, she will have her one best chance to escape. Her attack must be perfect. She must hit him hard; but even more so, she must hit him with the utmost precision.

         Hit the fat bastard where it hurts…

         Claire sees his eyes glaze over. She lifts her right knee almost up to her chest, eyes the target one final time, and kicks her boot heel into his manhood.

         Walter throws up his arms, like he is a Parisian surrendering to the Huns. He throws his axe into the air. He staggers backward. His face looks like an air balloon about to pop what with his bulging eyes and red hot cheeks. His tongue seems to have slid to the back of his mouth, for once again he struggles to take in a breath. He does not scream, not yet anyway, but his whole body looks like an unvoiced scream about to detonate.

         Claire slides off the tree stump, as Walter continue to stagger backward. The back of her head thumps hard against the ground, but she barely feels the impact. She focuses instead on grabbing the bottom of the stick, and pulling it out from the chain. This is not an easy task, for the chain constrains her upper arms as much as her chest. 

         Nevertheless, her survival instinct kicks into its highest gear yet; and she manages to pull the stick out from the chain. Claire sits up. She almost passes out because of the sudden movement, and yet she is careful not to lose time in unwrapping herself from the chain. Walter is down; but the moment he catches his breath, and cries holy hell, he will return to her old neck with a vengeance.

         Claire starts to crawl away. She almost collides with Whiskers. She stops just inches from the Dragon Li with the hypnotic eyes. They stare at each other in silence for a moment, and then the Dragon Li hisses and claws at her eyes. It is a miracle that the angry cat barely misses her eyes and so does not blind her.

         Claire scampers on her hands and knees in another direction. She hears Walter catch his breath and let out an unholy howl. He will be on her wet heels soon enough, if she does not manage to hide in the dense forest off to the side.

*   *   *

         Donna pushes the door open, and staggers breathlessly into the attic. As exhausted as she is from the physical exertion of getting up here, even more so she is consumed by fear. Her mind keeps replaying that dreadful image of poor María holding up her son’s liver or heart, and repeating ‘mi hijo’ over and over again, like a stuck phonograph needle. It is not just the gruesomeness that now affects her. It is the fact that María, like everything else in this house, appears stuck in a nightmare that keeps looping in on itself into eternity. 

         Is her ‘boyfriend’ similarly afflicted? She knows that when she had been in her coma, she had been much more aware than her immobility suggested. Is Billy Ray also aware? Does he know that he is another helpless fixture inside of this house of horrors? Or if he stuck in his own nightmare, which may be worse?

         Donna reaches the side of the hospital bed. She looks at his scarred face and sighs. She sets aside the small candle, for the flickering, dying light above still provides more illumination than the candle that Walter had left beside the front door. She is at a total loss as to what to do, especially if indeed all of the exits have been blocked. Surely, she cannot drag Billy Ray downstairs; and even if she could, what does it matter if they are going to be burnt alive down there in that suffocating darkness? Does anything actually matter so close to the end?

         Yes, Donna answers her own question. Love matters.

         She calms down. Love matters. It really does. Sounds like a cliché, but it works at the time to reorient her mind away from the seeming hopelessness of the situation. Perhaps, with love foremost on her mind, she can find a spark of hope where before she had seen nothing but dark madness. Perhaps, there is a way out of this hell, after all.

         Boyfriend, listen to me, Donna says. We are getting out of here. I am not sure yet how; but I know that we are not destined to die today, and surely not in this fucking madhouse. So give me all you’ve got, and I’ll do the same, okay?

         Donna squeezes Billy Ray’s right hand. So far as she can tell, he does not squeeze back. Still, she continues to hold his hand with the hope that somehow he will find her as she finds him; both survivors even now inside this nightmare.

*   *   *

         Claire awakens with a start. She sits up, opens her eyes, and looks every which way in an attempt to make sense of where and when she is. There is one small part of her mind that remains convinced that this is all a nightmare. Even though everything feels and sounds so real, she is in her own bed still, probably in the throes of a nasty hangover, that small part of her mind insists. Wake up, drink some more whiskey to stave off the worst effects of the hangover, and be happy you are alive and safe in your own remote cabin…

         Except that the greater part of her mind realizes all too well that this is not a nightmare. Her face really is a bloody mess. Her body really is screaming out in pain. Her mind really is at once addled and finely tuned. Moreover, there is madness in the wind now whistling through the branches; a dark whisper that prickles her flesh; a demonic chuckle that reminds just how close she is to hell.

         Lightning flashes overhead. In the brief illumination, she sees that she is sitting in the middle of a dense forest. Tall oaks stoop over her like the ghastly, arthritic shoulders of old men. Their branches are thin, apelike arms sweeping the mud and the fallen leaves below them. For the most part, the tall trees are near enough together to keep out the rain. Instead, a clammy mist floats a few inches above the earth. Ghosts sift in and out of this mist depending upon how the moon strikes the moisture now and then. Even when unseen, though, these ghosts can be heard. They chatter with one another in how the leaves rustle in the wind. They howl sadly in how the wind funnels through an opening between trees. They belt out profanities in how the wind snaps a dying tree limb in two.

         Thunder follows upon the heels of the lightning. It is a loud cymbal clash that electrifies the air and rocks the earth. For a terrifying second, the world is a missile rocketing through space and then, at once, slamming into a high wall.

         As the thunder fades, Claire realizes just how dark it is. Of course, part of this can be attributed to the overabundance of branches over her; but she is pretty sure that it is night as well. She recalls crawling into the forest, stopping a moment to rest by this tree, and falling into the darkest sleep she has known.

         How much time has passed? Has it been hours? Is everything over? When she staggers out from this forest, will she observe the burnt remains of a house glistening in silvery moonlight? Will she find her friends’ charred corpses amidst the rubble? Or will their ashes be indistinguishable forever from the sawdust on the site? And what about the man who tried to kill her? Is he waiting for her to walk out of this forest, so that he can chop her with the axe and call it a night?

         These questions terrify her; and yet, notwithstanding her great physical pain and near delirium, she knows that she cannot sit in this forest indefinitely. Even if there is a small chance that her friends remain alive, she must walk out of her to see what she can do.

         Claire climbs to her feet. She is about to stagger forward, when she feels the world closing in on her. This time, it is even worse than when she had been on the side of the hill that slopes into the river. The claustrophobia is intense, even palpable, like a plastic sheet wrapping around her flesh. When she inhales through her nose, it feels as if she is dragging that plastic sheet deeper into her nostrils. Air somehow still flows through her mouth, but otherwise she is cut off from the world beyond her own anxiety.

         Claire leans against a tree, grabs the silver flask out from her under her innermost sweater, and guzzles what is left. The poison spins the world once or twice, but it also enlarges it. The edges of the world recede, if only for now, so that she can breathe again through her nose and calm down. 

         The devil gives, but the devil also taketh away. Claire knows that the old whiskey flowing through her veins just now will wear away. The claustrophobia will return to her then with a vengeance, unless she and her friends (assuming that they are alive still somehow) are far from here by the time that liquor has dissipated. Therefore, while the claustrophobia recedes, it is replaced at once by the horrible fear that she must move faster than she feels capable.

         She moves away from the relative safety of the tree. She pushes aside as many low branches as get in the way of the path she either sees or imagines. In the course of all this struggle, she is punctured and scraped repeatedly, so that by the time she emerges finally from the bramble she is a grotesque figure. Her witchy white hair flails every which way. Her sweaters are little more than torn fabric hanging from her stooped shoulders. Her boots are covered in blood and mud, like they have been stomping from some time through the grisly remains of a battlefield yet to be cleared away. In essence, she emerges from that side forest as a monster. Only the love in her eyes, her desire to save her friends, if there is still a chance, makes clear that she is not a crazy old hag to be feared.

         The house is still standing. It glistens eerily in the moonlight, like a ghost sifting in and out of the night. The dark, gurgling clouds hang so low that much of the attic remains obscured. Wind howls beneath the eaves, and snaps loose shingles off of the roof. The beams holding up the porch shake testily whenever the wind picks up. They call to mind the thin bones of old men shaking from an arthritic condition. Indeed, the entire house is a man falling into his own grave.

         The items along the side of the house have been moved. The red wagon, the gas tank, the long hose, everything is gone. Claire searches the terrain very closely, while the silvery moonlight continues to penetrate a break in the storm clouds. She realizes that when the clouds again obscure the moonlight, much of what she sees now will be overtaken by darkness. She sees, and then she does not see; much as her mind is finely tuned, and then addled. This constant shift between awareness and cluelessness disorients her more than anything else. On the whole, she would rather face Walter with his bloody axe than suffer from a mind that flickers tenuously between life and death. At least, with Walter, she knows what she is up against in the end. She is not so sure what she faces when she considers that, eventually, her mind is going to switch off, but not back on.

         Claire is startled back a few steps by a sudden punch of music. It seems to be coming from what remains of the garden in front of the house. She knows at once that she is hearing the beginning of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The music blasts into the air as an act of defiance against the night, the storm, the ghosts howling with the wind and laughing in the thunder. The music propels artillery against the enemy line. The final battle has begun on a field marked already by death; a place known as Armageddon by those persons who have been afflicted in one way or another by the existential blackness that broods and breeds here.

*   *   *

         Donna pulls as hard as she can on the rope. The rope is tied to the long, thin, hospital bed mattress, which after much struggle she managed, finally, to dislodge from the rest of the bed. Billy Ray rests upon the mattress, freed from the feeding tube, and removed from under his hospital bed sheet. He is naked, save for a discolored bandage around his groin. His skin is greyish white, almost plastic in appearance when illuminated by that dying light flickering above the hospital bed. He resembles one of those creepy, albino mannequins, except his body is not nearly so well toned. So far as Donna can tell, he remains very deep in his coma; dead weight she pulls across the attic towards the spiral staircase.

         Donna has the rope harnessed around her chest. She braces herself upon her cane, digs the tip into the hardwood floor, and pushes down. She then pulls the rope with her torso. The cane allows her to use the floor in pulling all that dead weight. It is a slow and tenuous job, but it would be impossible if she did not have a cane or a hard stick to push against the floor.

         The light above the hospital bed fizzles out, when she reaches the top of the spiral staircase. She smells carbon. It is slight, but growing in intensity with every passing second. She does not recall a burnt light bulb having such an odor in the past. Maybe older light bulbs like this one are more pungent at the end…

         Or maybe she is not smelling a burnt light bulb above the hospital bed…

         She stops in her tracks, and listens intently. There is a crackling sound; a sound that calls to mind logs snapping in a burning fireplace. There is also a bit of smoke. She cannot see anything on account of the darkness, but she feels at once how smoke burns her nostril hairs and clings uncomfortably to her skin. So there is something else going on here…

         Oh, shit! Donna exclaims, when she puts two and two together. 

         She has no time to be afraid. She has no time to try to make this journey as comfortable as possible for her comatose ‘boyfriend,’ either. 

         Donna hurries down the spiral staircase. She is working entirely upon her instinct, since she cannot see the steps. She barely uses her cane, since at this point that would only slow her down. She hears Billy Ray’s flesh striking each of the steps with a loud thump. The poor man already has suffered so much. Now is not the time to feel sorry for him, though. Now is the time to move down the spiral staircase as quickly as possible. 

*   *   *

         Walter steps backward to protect himself, though his eyes remain madly transfixed on the ballooning flames in front of him. What had been his porch is now a wall of screaming, crackling fire. The fire kicks open the front door so as to spread into the foyer. It sets ablaze overhanging shingles as if dried kindling.

         Walter sees the fire; but he imagines a petulant, little, rotund boy, now growing in kinetic spurts of aggression, and forcing the night world to hear that horrid scream he never before had been able to voice. The boy is fully alive for once in his temper tantrum from hell. He is not a victim anymore. He can leave behind the safety of his bedroom, for even ghosts burn when they get too near.

         Go ahead, and try to pork me, the fire cackles. Poke my gas powered ass and try to tell me in between your vapid screams how my little boy pussy feels.

         Walter lifts the hose, and shoots gasoline onto the roof above the porch. The fire screams in orgasmic thrill, as the porch flames reach higher to grasp at that gasoline. Wood shingles explode up and outward, like shotgun shells fired into the air in rapid succession. The little, rotund boy is growing pretty fast, for he has discovered the thrill of sex and the power of shotgun shells, apparently. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that a young man in the throes of passion, whether of the sexual or the military variety, is not far removed from the little boy having the temper tantrum. Whatever the age or the circumstance, he has a voice, and he will force it upon the rest of the world until the last flame dies.

         Contented with the power of the fire for now, Walter reclines upon that same chaise lounge that his grandfather had used so many years ago. He sits by the same phonograph on which his grandfather had played those ‘race records,’ while sipping cocktails beside the garden. The garden is largely gone due to the wind and the rain. The chaise lounge sits in the middle of what used to be a big pond set aside for grandpa’s black swans. Now, the old pond is a lifeless puddle alongside the driveway. It is just another ugly thing in a large world of ugliness.

         The phonograph sound is amplified through an enormous horn. At a first glance, in the moonlight, the horn looks as if a silvery rose blossoming at night. It is opening to the lure of the night sun, the dark light that plays on our fears and that excites our obsessions. It is opening to the very same power that once upon a time had driven Lucius into the river. No doubt, if he looked then into a mirror, Walter would see that same insane power in his own eyes that moment.

         But he is not looking at a reflection. He is looking into his imagination. It is writ large on the landscape for once. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is its beautiful, theatrical soundtrack. The horror house is the stage on which it plays itself out.

         Beautiful, is it not? Walter says to Whiskers.

         Walter looks to his right side to see how his friend responds. The Dragon Li remains silent, as always. His elongated eyes glisten like coals in the flashing light cast by the flames. His eyes say nothing to Walter’s conscious mind; but in that subconscious mind, where the ancient fears and the childhood anxieties all flirt with one another, his eyes urge Walter to continue with this beautiful and powerful violence. Reap what you sow, his eyes insist. And burn it back to God!

         Yes, Walter agrees with a devilish grin. Let Him know He cannot beat us.

         Walter settles into the chaise lounge. He lets his soul fly with the music.

*   *   *

         Claire approaches the front of the house. Even against the backdrop of a dark and stormy sky, she can see the black smoke billowing up from there. The smoke is a malformed ghoul taking shape above the rooftop just long enough to hiss vitriol at the night. Then, almost as soon as it takes shape, it disintegrates in the wind flowing out towards the river. Like every dead thing in these parts, that malformed ghoul descends into the river foam as no more consequential in the end than black soot. What had reigned so gloriously over the horror house, even if no longer than several seconds, settles beneath the river surface as if it never had been. It is replaced by another malformed ghoul, of course, as black smoke surges up from the flames and takes on a strange shape in the night sky; but the next ghoul turns out to be no more consequential than the prior one. It seems the monsters reign only for a time before howling winds sweep them off.

         So there is precious little time even for the monsters. Whatever Claire is going to do, she had better do quickly. The house likely will collapse before the flames die off. If her friends are still alive in there, then they will die from too much lethal smoke, or from the walls falling onto them, long before they catch on fire. The corpses will burn; and for that reason, they will be charred; left at the crime scene for the wind and the rain to disperse. Like the clouds of smoke billowing over the rooftop, they too will be lost to the river like ashes on foam.

         Wood shingles shoot away from the roof overhanging the porch. Each is a blazing rocket for a few seconds, an artillery shell shot into the night. Claire is not hit by any one of these flaming projectiles, but she decides anyway to seek another route into the house. Best not to test the demons twirling in the storm.

*   *   *

         Donna hobbles down the spiral staircase as fast as she can. She can feel Billy Ray’s naked feet creeping upon her heels, for gravity is pushing him down, as much as she is pulling him. Her concern is that his dead weight will plow into her from behind. Her only solution is to move faster still, even though it is dark in this narrow staircase, and her strength and balance are woefully inadequate.

         As feared, Billy Ray slides into her feet. Donna loses her balance, falls to her butt, and tumbles down the remainder of the spiral staircase. Somewhere, she loses her cane and her consciousness. 

         Donna rolls through the opened doorway that leads into the second story hall. She slams her head hard upon the opposite wall besides Walter’s bedroom door. Billy Ray slides feet first into the hall, and he comes to a stop beside her.

         The two friends lay beside one another in the second story hall. Both are unconscious. Both inhale the deadly smoke wafting up the steps from the foyer.

*   *   *

         Claire remembers seeing the backdoor. Since the remainder of the house seems to be boarded up, she thinks that this may be her one way inside without first taking the time to remove an obstruction. She is very much afraid to go in through the door that leads to the basement, but she has no choice. She either goes inside, or she sits out here and watches the house falling onto her friends.

         She stumbles through the silvery moonlight to the back of the house. As she vaguely recalls, there are three steps cut into the earth. The door is at the bottom of these steps. This makes sense, of course, since the basement is going to be below the surface level. 

         She stands at the top of the steps a moment, peering into the darkness, and gathering up the courage to venture down there. Zigzag lightning flashes in the sky behind her. Thunder screams out from everywhere at once, and there is a brief, but vicious, earthquake that almost sends her tumbling down the steps.

         Claire descends into the basement. The door is partially open. She feels her damp boots stumbling over the hose that extends all the way to the garden out front. Inside, the hose connected to a gas tank, which is resting still on top of the Red Ryder Red Wagon. Beside the gas tank is a humming generator. This generator powers the gas tank. It will do so until the flames reach the gas tank.

         And then, the explosion will split the heavens in two, and catapult devils up to the face of God.

         Claire shudders at the thought. She presses on, though, for there is little time before the end. It takes all of her will not to be consumed by her own fear at this dreaded hour. She would prefer to augment that will with a mouthful of whiskey, but the silver flask rattles empty beneath her innermost sweater now.

         She passes into another room. An overhanging light bulb flickers enough illumination for her to see hundreds of small iron cages stacked on one another in long rows. Inside each of the iron cages is a ravenous, squealing rat. The rats can feel the flames getting closer to them. They are trying literally to eat their way through the iron. They would flee, if they got out, but not before literally tearing Claire into pieces with their bloodstained teeth. That is the intensity of their hunger and the focus of their madness, as Claire passes in between them.

*   *   *

         Donna and Billy Ray lay unconscious beside one another. The smoke is so intense now that they are coughing. The heat from the fire downstairs caresses sweat out from their foreheads. Their faces are starting to crack and to blister.

*   *   *

         Claire runs up the steps from the basement. She prays that the door that goes into the kitchen is unlocked. It is not, and so she has to spend critical time smashing the side of her body against an old, rusted padlock. 

         She is about to smash into the padlock yet another time when she hears a loud clamor downstairs. She looks down that way, but cannot see anything at all. The light in the ‘rat room,’ as she calls it, has gone out.

         And yet that is not entirely true. There is something to see. It is vague, a figment of her frightened imagination, probably; and yet she would swear that the basement floor beneath her moves

         The basement floor does not go anywhere, so much as it breaks apart on occasion and then swirls back into itself. It is as if the floor comprises hundreds of puzzle pieces and an unseen hand moves the puzzle pieces over the concrete surface. Surely, that is not the case; and yet she feels alert enough now not to be entirely tricked by her eyes. If so, then that means something moves there…

         Something squeals down there, too…

         Claire almost hyperventilates in fear. She faces the door again, and puts even more effort into slamming her side against the rotted padlock. She is very careful not to look down, especially when she starts to hear hundreds of small, mammalian feet scurrying up the staircase. 

         Still, though she remains focused, the incessant squealing inspires a cold shiver down her spine. She is about to lose her breath, when finally the padlock breaks. She pushes the door, which proceeds to fall off its hinges and onto the kitchen floor. She stumbles momentarily to the floor herself, while an ocean of rats scurries around her hands and her knees. 

         Claire pushes herself up from the floor, though for a second or two she is unaware of her surroundings. Rats scurry around her feet, while she leans upon the refrigerator to try to organize what little remains of her conscious thought.

         Her thoughts return, but slowly, even painfully. She reconnects enough puzzle pieces to realize the urgency of finding her friends; and so, with simply this insight in mind, she pushes off from the refrigerator and heads for the dark living room. She feels rat fur sliding against her feet, but that is nothing really when compared to the high shrieks and squeals from overexcited, red eyed rats in every direction. The screams kick around the brain matter inside her skull to suggest all sorts of weird configurations. The one common denominator with all these configurations is madness; anxiety unable to be voiced, then disoriented, rushed behavior, and, finally, slow, soft decline. If these screams continue, she will be a blithering idiot curled in a corner somewhere just waiting to be burnt.

         Claire turns into the living room. She passes the grandfather clock on her left without noticing the dead maid. Her left boot heel squishes the liver or the heart that had been dropped, but that mess makes no impact on her, either. It is just as well. The image of the dead maid or the body part may have been the last straw for the old woman in the tattered sweaters.

         Claire feels the intense heat, and so looks up in time to see the crackling flames in the foyer. She stops in her tracks, and then arches her right arm over her eyes as if blocking out the sun. Indeed, after rushing through the darkness for so long, the fire punches her like an unanticipated sight of the noonday sun.

         The smoke disorients her vision even more so than the flames. It takes a while for her to make sense of anything, but she finally sees that the staircase leading up from the foyer to the second floor is intact. 

         Claire’s instincts tell her that her friends are upstairs. It is not probable that Walter would have kept his prisoners anywhere else than the basement or the attic. Apparently, he kept his rat prisoners in the basement, so that leaves the attic for the human variety. 

         She removes her outermost sweater, which is little more than shredded, soiled wool at this point, and uses it to cover her nose and her mouth. She does not have any more liquor in her silver flask, but she recalls how the old whiskey tastes and feels going down her throat. That is enough for now to relax her just a bit, before she ventures into a slight opening in between the howling inferno.

*   *   *

         Honey, wake up! The old lady insists from the other side of the universe.

         At least, that is how far away the voice seems to be. Donna is not really sure. Indeed, she is not really sure about much of anything, except that she has been floating for an indeterminate amount of time in some sort of thick, black ooze. She is not floating in outer space; more like underwater, though this is an ocean comprised of murky liquefied smoke. There is no life in this ocean. Nor is there any sense of depth. She is as deep in smoke when approaching the ocean surface, as when falling slowly to the bottom. As such, everything seems as far from her as everything else. The old lady speaking to her may be floating next to her, or she may be floating billions of light years away. It does not matter in the end, for that old lady will drown in this ocean as assuredly as Donna is now.

         Goddamn it, wake up! The old lady insists once more from the other side of the universe. 

         This time, the old lady finishes her line with a slap to the face. Donna is freed from that indeterminate ocean. The slap against her blistered face really hurt like hell. It also smashed that ocean in pieces, like all along she has been trapped inside a thick sheet of glass. Now, with that sheet shattered, she is in a fragment of glass; a jagged shard of what used to be a smoky, tinted window.

         No one will touch me, Donna thinks. The shard is much too jagged.

         But that is exactly what the old lady does. She not only touches her. She slaps her even harder than the last time. Donna’s blistered face feels like it is a cauldron of steamy mist. The steam floats away while carrying her face with it.

         Donna opens her eyes. She wants to close them, for the smoke stings her eyes like needlepoints. More so, though, she wants to behold the grotesque old lady kneeling next to her. She thinks she knows this woman. She cannot be sure since the woman is holding a tattered wool sweater over half her face, and yet has she not seen those piercing eyes before this moment? There is love deep in those eyes, but there is also an intense urgency that seems altogether familiar.

         You need to get up, the old lady insists. There is little time.

         There is never enough time, Donna thinks. Eden is about to close its big gate. The man watching from the other side of the window blinds will put them out, if they insist on staying behind. 

         Billy Ray, Donna whispers, as her mind starts to return to her.

         We need to get him out of here, the old lady insists.

         Miss Bruner? Donna asks, while sitting up on her elbows. 

         For a moment, Donna sees nothing but murky smoke. She thinks she has fallen again into that dead ocean. She is about to cry out, when Claire grasps a hold of her hand, and pulls her up to her knees. 

         Help me to pull him, Claire demands. We must get downstairs before the staircase collapses. 

         Downstairs? Donna thinks. Is that not where the fire is? Goddamn it! Who in their right mind actually walks into a fire? 

         Donna hesitates. Claire reaches out from inside the smoke, and slaps her again across her blistered face. This time, Donna gets angry, which actually has the effect of focusing her mind on the situation at hand. Donna determines just then that it is better to get the hell out of this dark place than to stay upstairs.

         Donna slowly returns to her feet. She balances herself upon the wall the whole time. The wall has absorbed much of the heat from the fires below. It is only a matter of time before the wall bursts into flame. For now, the wall does not inflict any more injury than to scald the palms of her hands. This is painful, of course, but it is not much compared to everything else that has happened to Donna since Claire stepped into her life before dawn. It turns out that Donna is able to suffer a lot more than she had presumed earlier today. Put a gal in hell, Donna thinks, and pretty soon she is as comfortable there as at Neiman Marcus.

         Well, okay, maybe not that comfortable, Donna thinks, while grabbing a hold of that rope she had tied earlier to the edge of the hospital bed mattress. What am I thinking anyway? I guess inane thoughts are a heck of a lot better for me now than actually acknowledging that I am about to step into a fucking fire!

*   *   *

         Walter waves his arms over his head, like he is doing a pantomime of an overeager orchestra conductor or theater director. He plasters a wide smile on his cherubic, red face; but the blankness in his eyes, and the fact that his smile never changes, suggest that he is not particularly happy at all. This is a kind of forced joy that calls to mind this old saw: ‘If she can’t prevent it, then she may as well open her legs, and enjoy it.’ 

         He should be overjoyed to see the horror house burning down. He should laugh with glee when he hears the ghosts crackling and hissing inside those tall, rambunctious flames. Most of all, he should find some solace in the fact that he set all this mayhem into motion. He is the chief actor in this drama, not just an ornery critic or a would be player who drops the axe in rehearsal.

         Nevertheless, he cannot ignore that subtle voice in the back of his head that insists he is about to be fucked, fucked hard from behind, and there is no way to avoid this outcome. He can be as theatrical as he wants. When the end comes, he will be forced to bend over and to take it. No one else can spare him the snap of the wooden spoon or the thrust of his brother’s cock.   

         So why the change in his disposition? The music soars. The flames spread into the house. Those interlopers have fallen, or they have scurried away, like rats from a sinking ship. For once in his life, he has a valid reason to stand tall, to grin like the Cheshire cat, and to believe that, indeed, his will be done, now on earth, as it will be in heaven. 

         And yet none of that really rings true, for Grandma Eunice is still on her way. She is coming for him. She holds all the cards. She will not be impressed, notwithstanding all that he has done to clean up the place before she arrives in her carriage. Yes, he will grin for the bucking cameras, but he will not fool her.

         Much of the roof collapses into the second floor. This includes the attic, which topples over like a top heavy spire. The deafening crash, the enveloping flames, the eruption of smoke, all of this fury in one instance kicks Walter out of his own mind. He feels like he is awakening from a deep sleep, even though he had been conscious while thinking about Grandma Eunice’s imminent return.

         Time to spice up the embers, Walter says to Whiskers, while he struggles to get up from his grandfather’s chaise lounge. We are not done housecleaning.

         Walter stands up. He grasps at his heart, while straining to take in more air. Getting up from the sagging chair had been harder than he had anticipated it would be. He wobbles precariously a moment, while trying to recall where he had dropped the hose prior. He thinks he recalls where when a spotlight beams against the left side of his cherubic face.

         He turns fast on his heels, so as to look down the driveway. He observes a police vehicle idling on the other side of his gate. It points its spotlight at the burning house. He is captured in that spotlight, and at once feels the same way he did that day Jim Trent paraded him before the news photographers lined up outside the police station. 

         Then, in the wink of an eye, Walter no longer sees a police vehicle idling on the other side of his gate. Instead, he sees his grandma’s carriage. The light is the torch that allows the chauffer to see when driving at night. Inside of that carriage still, fiddling with the wooden spoon in her lap, Grandma Eunice stares with disapproving eyes at the burning house. She squints her eyes and sees that fat grandson of hers staring back at her from the pond. She thinks he looks like a stupid cow. She nods as if to say: ‘I’m gonna get you, fat boy. I promise you.’

         There is no doubt in Walter’s mind that she will do just that. He drops at once his fake smile. He looks down at Whiskers for advice or for moral support, but all he gets in return is a pair of inscrutable eyes. These eyes no longer burn like coal. Nor do they whisper to his subconscious mind. Though that Dragon Li lives, his eyes are dead, like the eyes of a silent stalker peeping through blinds.

*   *   *

         Donna and Claire are pulling the mattress down the staircase. They each pull on the rope with one hand, while covering their faces with the other. They cannot see much of anything on account of the intense smoke. The screaming, hot flames below manage now and then to snap through the smoke. When they do so, they singe their eyes, and imprint on their minds the images of ghouls or devils. For the most part, though, those flames stay hidden from view. Instead, the two women hear the wretched, orgasmic howls of gasoline infused fury and feel the blistering heat on their skin. This is what it is like as the blind lead the blind into hell: Inchoate screams, raw heat, and confusion turning into despair.

         They are about midway down the staircase, when the roof collapses into the second floor. Though the roof does not fall onto them, the deafening force from above causes the staircase to collapse on itself. At the same time, the fire in the foyer reaches higher to grasp at gasoline coated shingles spread out over where the hallway and the bedroom used to be. 

         Donna, Claire, and Billy Ray fall into the space beneath the staircase. It is very hot and claustrophobic down there, like the inside of a coffin contained in an incinerator. It is also a temporary protection from the flames now starting to spread out in all directions from the foyer. The question is whether any one of those three persons will return to consciousness in time to escape before the temporary protection falls away. There is precious little time left in this house.

*   *   *

         Walter is alone. Even Whiskers has abandoned him. He must get the axe.

         The spotlight actually helps him in this regard. He readily views the axe sticking out from a thick log off to the side. He waddles over to the log, grasps the handle with both of his hands, and pulls back with all the strength and the will that he has left. He manages to get the axe. Nonetheless, he is so taxed by the herculean effort that he loses what tenuous grasp he had had on his sanity.

         Perhaps, that is why he sees what he sees next. After all, madness opens bloodshot eyes to realities never acknowledged in the light of reason. Madness is the key to the twilight zone that exists between what is real and what is not.

         Like a child, Walter lifts the axe blade up to his mouth. He licks off the real or imagined blood clinging still to that blade. It takes like chocolate candy.

         He looks up at the horror house. Smoke gurgles up as high as the heavens above. Lightning flashes through the smoke; and as a result, the smoke looks as if it is being animated from inside itself by electrical Furies. It is Frankenstein’s monster, spastic, electrical life rejuvenating out from dead ashes. It is alive for no other reason than to ram him in the ass, and then to drown him in the river.

         The thunder rolls, but in Walter’s ears the bass drumbeat reverberating through the heavens in fact is Grandma Eunice’s deep and solemn voice. It is a voice few persons outside of the household ever heard. Robbed of any feminine grace, it is the tone of a cold tyrant just before she dishes out her punishment.

         I’m gonna get you, fat boy, Grandma Eunice says. I promise you. 

         The spotlight shines on the smoke above the house. The light blends with the smoke to create the distinct, animated form of a stooped, old lady clothed neck to toes in a black mourning dress. The lady holds the wooden spoon in her right hand. Embers sparkle where her eyes should be. The result is a pair of hot red eyes, like the eyes of a rabid rat. Her eyes glare down at the fat boy with a ravenous hatred. Whatever mercy Grandma Eunice had had in her heart before is long gone. With moral restraint out of the way, she can unleash, finally, that madness that had been the core of her soul from the start. As a result, she is a psychotic witch bathed in luminous smoke, and so lost in her own personal hell.

         Winds swirl over the top of the burning house. The smoke witch starts to break apart. Then, suddenly, something keeps it together. That something may be the electrical Furies animating this monstrosity, or that something may be a dark shade in Walter’s own imagination. Regardless, rather than break into tiny clumps of smoke, the smoke witch descends from above the burning roof to get closer to the fat boy she so despises. Her ember eyes burn into his fat boy soul.

         Walter screams out in agony. He waddles backwards toward that side of the house where the overlook exists. He does not want to remove his bloodshot eyes from his Grandma Eunice, lest she strikes him with her spoon from behind.

         And then rams it into my ass, Walter thinks.

         The smoke witch swirls down from the top of the house. She follows him alongside the house toward the overlook. Her ember eyes never stray from his. Her brittle arms reach out toward him. Her mourning dress flutters in the wind.

         Walter swings his axe at the smoke witch. The blade sweeps through the smoke without managing to change its outward form, let alone actually slow its resolve. He swings the axe without hesitation, finally, but in this death struggle the axe turns out to be useless. It can chop flesh, but not ghosts or nightmares.

         Nevertheless, Walter continues to swing wildly at the smoke witch. He is alone; and at this darkest hour, he has nothing but his bloody axe with which to fight his past. He has nothing but his sharpened blade with which to cut into his abuse. He has nothing but his wild axe swings with which to escape his sorrows.

         He waddles backward up the hill. The smoke witch pursues him. She is a lot closer now than before. Her long fingers almost wrap themselves around his neck. Her ember eyes scorch his chubby face. He unleashes a waterfall of cold, clammy sweat in reaction to the intense heat radiating out from her eyes. He is delirious, and so mumbles incoherent, guttural sounds back at his grandmother.

         Walter imagines that he is inside a small, iron cage. The rat is outside of the cage. It is swinging its claws at him. It wants to puncture him, squeeze into the cage, and then devour his carcass. That is what a rat will do to us when we are the ones trapped inside one of those cages. Their red eyes will pounce into ours, like when a man smashes through a window and cuts away our innocence.

         I’m gonna get you, fat boy, Grandma Eunice says. I promise you. 

         No, bitch! Walter manages to yell in a clear voice. Not this time!

         The smoke witch lunges for him. He swings his axe at her ember eyes, as he also takes a long step backwards. He slashes those ember eyes out from her smoke face, or so he thinks, as he falls backwards off the edge of the high cliff.

*   *   *

         There is something wrong with that pimply kid in the Fed Ex uniform. He looks innocent enough with his red hair and freckled cheeks. He is just another bored teen with dreams of making it big with his heavy metal garage band. The cruelest fates have consigned him to a lifetime of stuffing and stamping Fed Ex packages in a nondescript mall park. He is trapped already, and the sad look in his eyes suggests that, notwithstanding his dreams, he already understands that fact too well. Eventually, his dreams will fade; but the emptiness will be there.

         An empty stomach craves food, but what does an empty soul crave? The wrong answer is sex, or entertainment, or fame. These are superficial goals, on the whole; but they also presume a certain confidence, a capacity still for joie de vivre. Empty souls are not confident. They are resigned, sad, even prone to despair. The man with an empty soul sits at the edge of the bar by himself. He covets his glass of whiskey. He snaps at anyone who tries to converse with him.

         There is no life in that man’s eyes, except when he allows his grey mind to wander into blackness. He indulges sick fantasies. He smirks, when imagining how a spine sounds when snapped, or how a neck feels when squeezed, or how colorless a man can be when all of his blood has been squirted out from his old, beaten flesh. The empty soul does not crave murder, so much as torture, pain, and defeat. He will inflict this sordid mayhem on others for a while; but, in the end, he will inflict it on himself. The empty soul is self-cannibalizing, wretched blood thirst turned on itself, like a squealing, rabid rat clawing at its own belly.

         So that pimply kid is hungry. That is what is wrong with him. He appears impassive standing behind the counter in the Fed Ex store; but look deeper into his eyes, and his hunger is apparent enough. He is hungry for some other man’s pain. No, that is not quite right. It is better to say that he is happy for another man’s defeat. His squinty eyes glow red, like rat’s eyes, when he contemplates how the bum actor on the other side of the counter is never going to amount to a hill of beans. Oh, yes, his squinty eyes glow; and his voice squeals, like when a rat leaps out, or when a man has his manhood sliced off by an electric knife…

         And his red hair and freckled cheeks glow red, like when a fire consumes a boyish face, and replaces it with hideous, ratty fur…

         The bum actor tries to turn away. He does not want to see how that soft face hardens into ratty fur and whiskers. He does not want to hear an innocent, teenaged boy squeal like an insane rat that goes straight for the carotid artery.

         Take off your clothes, the rat boy insists, while the bum actor tries hard to walk away from the counter. I want to see your old soul, before I gnaw on it.

         Try as he may, the bum actor feels as if he is under that rat boy’s horrid spell. He must stop, turn around, and look straight into that rat boy’s red eyes.

         The bum actor does so just in time to see the rat boy jump over the Fed Ex counter and lunge for his throat. Rat Boy’s mouth opens wide to reveal long, pointy, blood soaked teeth. Rat Boy’s eyes dance with mercurial delight, when his teeth first puncture the bum actor’s skin and dig deeply for his warm blood.

         The bum actor drops his manuscript. He forgets that he had ventured in here in the first place to mail a play that he had written to an important fellow in New York City. He loses sight of the fact that if his manuscript gets any real traction, he will move away from here, and hand his son over to his ex-wife. He lets go of the possibility of living life larger than the world he has known all his life. He will stay where he is safe, and maybe this sick rat will leave him alone.

         Except Rat Boy does not let him go. He gnaws deeper into his larynx, so that the bum actor never again can scream out. He chews ravenously, for he is damn sure that there must be a soul somewhere amidst all this flesh and blood.

         Rat Boy pushes the bum actor onto the floor, while still gnawing for soul inside an open wound. The bum actor flails his arms every which way, but he is not able to connect with the rat on top of him. The bum actor screams, even as his larynx collapses inside his throat cavity. This will be his last scream, before he is no longer able to do so. This will be his last feeble attempt to live, though it is clear that the cards on the tablecloth have been stacked in favor of death.

         And this will be his last feeble attempt to wake up, before the rabid rat gnawing at his bloodied neck burrows into the hole where his larynx used to be.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray squirms, as rats pounce out from the burning woodwork and fall on his torso and face. For the most part, the rats ignore him, as they endeavor to find a path out of this inferno. Nevertheless, one of them, rabid with hunger and crazed by fear, stands on his upper chest and claws at his neck. It squeals, while it opens its mouth into a toothy grin. It is searching for the right place on the neck on which to pounce, for it has no other objective just then but to sink its madness beneath a sea of warm, human blood. 

         The rat pounces. Billy Ray opens his eyes, and screams. He does not see anything. The smoke is so thick and dark here he cannot even see the crackling flames that are inches away. Nevertheless, he does hear his own scream, which tells him that, indeed, he has awakened from his coma, if only for the moment.

         Billy Ray’s bloodcurdling scream awakens Donna and Claire at once. The disoriented women look upon Billy Ray with identically bewildered expressions.

         Donna bursts into tears. She is not sure she now believes her eyes. She is overjoyed anyway, even as she feels the fire snapping at her injured flesh from within the smoke. If they are going to die, then at least she can die knowing at this moment that she saw or imagined Billy Ray’s beautiful eyes one more time.

         Claire crawls through the debris, knocks the ravenous rat off to the side, and lifts Billy Ray’s head. She stares at her friend’s scarred face and also cries.

         But she does not cry too long. She wipes away the tears. Though the fire blocks out most every other sound, Claire can hear the house buckling, like it is about to collapse. Now is not the time to indulge in such emotions. Rather now is the time to climb out from this debris and to escape from this horrid hell pit.

         Claire gets to her feet, and starts to pull Billy Ray out from the debris. It is an almost impossible task, and yet the prospect of being burned alive in here is enough motivation for her to do what is necessary. Donna sees her example, wipes away her tears, and joins with her in pulling Billy Ray from the wreckage.

         Billy Ray slides in and out of consciousness. He certainly cannot stand on his own feet. Therefore, Donna and Claire prop him up on their weak shoulders just long enough to drag him into the foyer. They drop him to his knees, when they determine that they are surrounded on all sides by a crying wall of flames.

         The women can hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy reaching its crescendo just beyond the flames in front of them. Presumably, the front portion of the house has burnt away. There is no longer a barrier to their escape but the fire itself.

         Donna and Claire eye one another. They both nod in the affirmative, for of course there really is no alternative in this situation. They either run as fast as possible through the wall of flames, or they die from smoke inhalation here.

         Let’s go home, Claire says to Donna while they gather up Billy Ray again.

         Yes, Donna agrees. We have overstayed our welcome here.

         Claire manages a half smile. She looks back at the wall of flames in front of her. The fire is thick, hot, suffocating; and yet she glimpses the night world breaking through the flames. The allure of that world is stronger than her fear.

         Love matters, Donna whispers, when she glances once more at Billy Ray.

         And so the women drag Billy Ray through the flames and into the night.          

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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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