Lucius Returns

         Walter Whipple peeks through the small space in between the grungy boards that cover his bedroom window. He can see a bit of the garden below him. It looks like the scene of a terrorist bomb explosion, for the wind and the rain had knocked almost all of the flowers and shrubs back into the earth. Everything down there is grey and damp, but for the purple red leaves tumbling in the morning breeze. 

         He cannot see the sky, but the death pallor that sticks to most everything upon the ground suggests an overcast sky. Indeed, when he focuses on the mud puddles that are scattered about the remains of the garden, he views solitary raindrops, every now and then, splashing into the earthy, red sludge.

         Neither can he see the front gate. That is just as well; for in spite of everything that happened last night, Walter senses that a taxicab will be driving up to that gate. The driver will not need to lie on the horn, since the passenger will have his own gate key already in hand. There will be a quick exchange of greenbacks, and then a college boy will emerge from the back seat. 

         Walter will lock eyes with that college boy; even though the distance between the front gate and the bedroom window is considerable, and right now, anyway, the grungy boards are in the way. None of that will matter then.  There will be a moment of uncertainty. After all, decades will have passed, since the last time the two of them had captured each other’s soulful eyes. Notwithstanding the power of memory, details will have been lost to time or altered by imagination.

         But, in time, recognition will prevail over uncertainty. Walter will know all too well that the college boy is Lucius; and, true to form, Lucius will respond with a smart and contemptuous grin. Walter will be much too anxious to smile back.

         Lucius will not drop his dreamy gaze, when he inserts his gate key, pushes open the gate, and starts up the driveway. He will walk slowly, beautifully, like a GQ model in a wet dream. He will be confident to the point of cocky; for he knows what task he has before him and does not see anything that can stop him.

         Yes, that is what is going to happen, when that taxicab arrives. It is so clear in Walter’s mind that he does not need to see the front gate to be familiar with each and every one of the details. 

         And yet, this is not supposed to happen. There is a man in a coma upstairs, who is being fed and hydrated through intravenous tubes, and whose wrists and crotch have been sewn and bandaged. The man barely clings to life, as evidenced by the heart and respiratory monitor to which he is connected. He is what is left when the whirlwind of another man’s passions has been manifest in an act of unimaginable violence. He is the battlefield, after the winds have swept away the last traces of artillery smoke. If he is anything at all still, then he is a testament to the fact that one man indeed rose to the occasion to beat down another man. 

         Walter rose to the occasion last night, unlike his total failure when handed that axe decades ago. He did not shirk his responsibility. He did not hide under his blanket.

         And so, Lucius should have made an about face last night. Instead of going for a taxicab, he should have waited at the station with his hands in his pockets for the very next train back to college town. He should have mumbled a few potty words, perhaps loud enough for other passengers to look up in mild annoyance, when taking his seat on the train. He should have closed his eyes, and vanished back into the dark eternity from which he had come in the first place, as that old ghost train blew steam into the night.

         But that is not what happened. Walter cannot say why, but the cold ache in his heart tells him that, indeed, Lucius is coming back home with a dark objective in mind.

         Walter feels Whiskers beside his right foot. His Dragon Li has nine lives, perhaps many more, but he wonders how many lives he has. Can he survive another life or death struggle with his brother? Can he hold his own as the ghosts of his Grandma Eunice and his Brother Lucius go for his throat? Will they manage to collapse his windpipe, so that he has neither the strength nor the will to resist the flesh thrust deeply into his ass? Is he going to hear their insane laughter, when he is prostrate and bloodied before them?

         And what will Walter be when, finally, they leave him alone? Ready for a padded cell, most likely; but there is a distinct possibility that he will be a corpse floating down the Manchester River toward the sea. 

         Walter steps back from his boarded up window. He looks down at his Dragon Li. 

         He intends to kill Grandpa Henry, Walter says, while staring deeply into his cat’s hypnotic eyes. Then, he’ll butt love me, until I am mad or dead. 

         Walter is wearing his oversized, red robe. He still has cock blood sprinkled upon his face and jowls, but the robe makes him feel clean. He reaches into his pocket, and fumbles about the loose antacids and the old receipts. 

         Madness or death, Walter mutters. Either way, I am gone. Grandma Eunice and Brother Lucius can have one another without hearing my footsteps, or smelling my fat boy body odor, or seeing my fat boy face poke out from beneath soiled sheets. The two of them can close the master bedroom door, play their naughty games, and forget how all of this started. Sounds melodramatic, like something penned by a dramatist with a perpetual hangover; a trifle soap opera that only makes enough money to keep the Jew creditors at bay for a few months. But if indeed life is stranger than fiction at times, it is worse than bad fiction at others; a mildewed, pulp paperback literally breaking apart in a mud puddle. That is I. I am the pages washed clean by rain and soot, the cheap cover eaten by worms, the glue that can no longer bind anything together. I an undone, like the man upstairs, so that Grandma Eunice and Brother Lucius can rediscover what it is like to smile without contempt and to love without heartbreak. To paraphrase the Bible, I must decrease, so that they may increase. I must die, so that they may survive.

         Whiskers meows. Walter breaks free from the hypnotic spell, and chuckles.

         Do not worry, my friend, Walter continues. I won’t let them get away with it. I did a fine job with my knife last night. No, better than fine, I was exemplary; an artiste among butchers and medics. As I held the knife, so will I wield the axe, when it is time.

         Walter finds the bloodied testicle in his pocket. He tosses it onto the floor; and he watches with a strange grin upon his face, as Whiskers bats the testicle side to side with his paws. Outwardly, Walter tries to project confidence that, indeed, he can push them back; but that cold ache remains in his heart. He is afraid. He can talk about his axe from now until sundown; and yet he realizes, deep down, that his heart will skip a few beats when he and his brother lock eyes. He can relish what he did last night; and yet he fears, deep down, that that will count for nothing when again his brother drops the bloodied axe onto his hands. Yes, Walter can grin; but he cannot hold back his sigh.

*   *   *

         Walter is out of breath. He is only halfway up the spiral staircase, but his heart already feels like it is beating through his chest. He leans against the wall to his right, and he focuses on breathing in more oxygen.

         Walter is out of shape, of course; but too much fat around the midsection does not seem to be the culprit just now. As he manages slowly to get a hold of himself, he senses that this is more akin to an anxiety attack. He is afraid. He senses his life falling through his fingers like water. He cannot shake the fear that his life is like a ship sailing off course. There is an iceberg up ahead; and he will not be able to avoid the collision, no matter how early he hears the alarm bells or how aggressively he turns the steering wheel. In essence, he feels fated; and in a way, that engenders even greater fear than the prospect of Lucius’ imminent return from college. For is not the fated man a puppet on a string, or a dancer chained to a wall; the plaything of the critic up in the rafters? Is Walter really the critic anymore? Had he ever been? Is he too just another fool lifted and lowered by the subtle movement of someone else’s wrists? If so, then can he really lay claim to the triumph of last night, or was he too another bush league actor reciting lines and following stage directions that had been written out by his superior? Indeed, did he not sense all along the underlying unreality of last night; the disorienting light, the garish blood, the screaming knife, the writhing victim calling to his mind a macabre play rather than a real life event? A play that started before him, and will continue long after he has been pulled off the stage? A play in which no man has more than a bit part?

         The anxiety passes, but the questions continue to whirl in Walter’s mind. He has been beleaguered by so many questions of late. His shoulders stoop, and his arms hang loosely by his sides, because of what troubles his mind. Indeed, his fat flesh feels as fit as can be in comparison to how those questions in his mind push his jowls into his chest.

         And yet Walter presses onward. He makes it to the top of the spiral staircase. It is hard for him to see, since the light bulb up here finally died sometime last night. He nevertheless feels the door is ajar, and so he opens it without fumbling for his key.

         The hinges scream. Walter winces at the prospect of awakening the man on the hospital bed, but of course the coma is far too deep for that to happen. He takes in yet another deep breath, and he calms down. 

         The disorienting light above the hospital bed is still on. Everything else is pitch black; and as a result of the contrast, the man on the hospital bed almost looks like an illuminated angel. The clean, white sheet placed over his otherwise naked flesh up to his chin certainly helps with this illusion. Walter imagines the man suddenly sitting up, turning his head towards him, and informing him that the King of Kings will be coming out of the tomb on the third day. Early on the third morning will he come to claim what is his. What will he claim? Grandpa Henry’s blood, then Walter Whipple’s…

         No, Walter says aloud, so as to break free from this dreadful image in his mind. I shall not let that happen. I shall get the axe, or I shall die.

         Walter walks slowly to the hospital bed. When he is also under the surreal light, the man on the hospital bed does not look like an illuminated angel. Instead, he looks sick, grey, common; no more substantial than any other bit actor on life’s stage.

         And yet that is not really true, is it? After all, this is not just any man on a bed. This is Grandpa Henry. He has lapsed into a coma on account of all those cocktails and beers he had consumed over so many years. His liver is on vacation, and the grey, thin man is what is left. Still, Grandpa Henry is Grandpa Henry; and thus he deserves to be loved even unto the end. He had taught Walter how to love, and so Walter must love him in return.

         I love you, grandpa, Walter whispers, while he is looking down upon the scarred pumpkin face of the sleeping, old man below him. I am going to protect you. Brother Lucius is coming back from college. He is confident, even cocky. College will do that to a boy, I suppose. Regardless of all that, I can stop him. I can wield the axe. Did you know that, grandpa? I really can, like a big boy. And if I have to, I shall do so without flinching. Cut him down, in order to save you. Cut him into itsy bitsy pieces. So you have nothing to fear, grandpa, because I am on your side. Okay, I have to go; but I shall check in on you now and then.

         Walter bends forward and kisses the scarred pumpkin forehead. He wipes away a single tear off of his quivering, left cheek, and he turns away from the hospital bed.

         When he reaches the attic door, he looks back. Again, that man on the hospital bed looks like that illuminated angel; but Walter will never forget just how fragile he really is. Walter must protect him, for he recognizes now without any reservation that their fates are intertwined. Walter cannot survive without him. He cannot survive without Walter.

         Walter exits. He closes the door behind him. There is a cold chill in the attic; no doubt, the result of the inclement weather breaking through holes or cracks in the old, dilapidated walls. Apart from the chill, and the shallow breaths of the comatose man, though, the attic is as still as a crypt locked long ago and forgotten by time.

*   *   *

         Then, suddenly, the attic is not so still.

         A dark form shuffles several feet out from the corner opposite the attic door. It moves forward with the confidence of a husky brute, though it is in considerable pain. It moves as if to say, ‘I can’t hurt you now, but fuck with me, and I’ll fucking kill you later.’ Any conscious bystander no doubt would feel the coldest shiver down his spine.

         There is no conscious bystander, though, not since that fat fuck in the red robe went back downstairs. The comatose man senses nothing, not because he is insensate, but because he is trapped in his own hell. 

         That is just as well, the dark form thinks. It will deal with this ‘one nut’ in due time. For now, it prefers to be unnoticed, so that it can decide what to do next. 

         Having shuffled several feet out from that corner, the dark form can look upon ‘one nut’ more directly. It is not interested in ‘one nut.’ It just wants to see if old fat fuck left anything behind. This is not irrational, for fat fucks very often leave behind a candy bar or a cupcake. It is like cheap desserts fall out from their sleeves or pockets.

         Alas, there is no such luck this time. That is likely a blessing in disguise, though the dark form hiding and thinking in the far corner is close to starving. Sugar really is an artificial high, like murder. The highs never quite make up for the lows; and every time indulged, the high turns out to be a little more blasé, fleeting, pointless, like the hundredth time a teenaged boy has masturbated to the same centerfold.

         The dark form returns to its corner. It is best to remain there, hidden in a dark shadow, assaulted by the cold chill from outside, so that it can think a lot more about the one, big question in its life. It senses how lucky it is to be able to focus on its one, big question. Most persons are too caught up in their everyday mundane lives to think about what really matters. They are groundlings. Their little minds seldom manage to float on top of the mud puddle, let alone to ascend to the clouds. Most of them really could die tomorrow, and the world left behind would not even notice their stage exit.

         Here is the crux of the problem nagging at the dark form: It had decided, quite matter-of-factly, that murder would be the be all and end all. It is not. Indeed, truth be told, murder is the worst of the Faustian bargains. There is a moment of thrill, but it is paid for by hours of meticulous planning and work before and after the foul deed. It is not even interesting work. It is methodical, nerve wracking, like when a low level tax preparer is crossing his T’s and dotting his I’s on Tax Day. Worst of all, every item on the checklist must be checked, lest the cops find something that leads them in due time to your front door. Granted, most homicide cops are not soaring with the eagles. They are boobs with beer bellies; Detective Vannatter types, assuming you remember the O.J. Simpson trial. Nevertheless, they can screw up many times. You need only to screw up once to be handcuffed and brought before the judge. If that happens, there is a lifetime behind bars, or a trip to the hangman’s noose. So, indeed, if we put aside all the drama, murder really is a foolish man’s game, especially if indulged in more or less the same way and in the same area more than once. Yes, it is a ‘big deal,’ but in fact it is akin to a gambler playing the same dead slot machine until he loses his shirt.

         So here is the one, big question: What provides a better high than murder, but is also less risky? This is hard to answer, for most of the big highs come from activities that are downright illegal. God forbid a man has a mind-blowing experience once, let alone several times, in the course of his lifetime. The ant colony may blow outward at the seams. Ants may start to venture away from the elaborate maze of tunnels carved out of the ground for them. One or two of those ants may look up and behold the sun; a ball of fire so far beyond the grasp of reason as to inspire imagination, then religion.

         Still, murder is death for the victim; but it is a lost cause for the murderer. The dark form, therefore, must find a new and better focus for its quiet rage. It will brood a while longer. It is temperamentally predisposed to brood anyway; and here inside of this still, quiet, dark place, where the only sound is the shallow breathing of a man on a hospital bed, and the discordant buzz of the light bulb over him, it can consider and rule out projects big and small. It can lean against this dark corner, and bide its time.

         It will act, when the moment is right. There is no question in its mind as to that fact. Moreover, when it acts, the screaming and the bloodletting will rattle this house to its foundations. The dark form broods indeed, but it also covets its own black rage. 

*   *   *

         Dude, you’re like smoking hot in your red robe; the deep, adolescent voice says with a sensuous smirk from the other side of the family room.

         Walter stops in his tracks. He inhales deeply, but apparently he forgets what it means to exhale. As a result, his cherubic cheeks turn burgundy red; and his eyes look as if they are about to explode out of their sockets.

         Just before he passes out air slowly leaks through his open lips. The awful word that had been lodged in his throat escapes with the carbon dioxide. It barely rises to a whisper, and yet the word echoes inside Walter’s sick mind like a bell sounded in hell.

         Lucius, Walter whispers, as cold beads of sweat break out all over his forehead.

         He wipes away the sweat with his right sleeve. Only then does he break free of this near catatonic fright. His cheeks cool down, and his mind reaches out for another plausible explanation. He almost has the answer, when that deep male voice from the other side of the room goes ahead and tells him.

         Close but no cigar, that deep male voice teases. I am Clover Fist, not your bro.

         It is ‘brother,’ not ‘bro,’ Walter snaps. Look at yourself. You are albino white. You have no business speaking like a common street nigger.

         Yo, dude, whatever, Clover Fist scoffs.

         And I am not in the mood, Walter continues. 

         I can get you in the mood, Clover Fist says with an odd chuckle. Or if you insist on being a whiny bitch, I can saddle your ass against your will. Remember, dude, I am the real cowboy here. You’re just one of my ponies. 

         Walter almost responds, but then holds himself back. Clover Fist is a teen jock. He is used to getting his way. He knows that that is a large part of why Walter regards him so highly, and he is using that fact to try to force Walter to play with him. Walter know this too, and so he steps back from the precipice, even though he feels just now how his manhole aches for Clover Fist’s tool.

         Walter also feels severe disappointment, not just because he has turned down this romp, but because he senses that he will never again have an opportunity to play ‘Bend Over, Rover’ with his plastic boy. Already, Clover Fist is receding from him, like the sensation he had had earlier of water flowing in between his fingers. Nothing then is permanent, it seems, except for the gnawing, rat like fears escaping out of his soul. 

Are you turning square on me? Clover Fist asks. 

Again, Walter almost responds. He forces his eyes away from Clover Fist, but at the last second he catches Clover Fist’s glossy lips contort into a wide, devilish grin. It is so unsettling he nearly pees in his red robe. He grabs at his chest hair, and he sighs.

He focuses instead on what is on the flat screen television. He stares blankly at a redheaded bitch ‘anchor-ette.’ He cannot quite place her name. Not that her name really matters, he determines. Regardless, she has the pleasantly round face and soft features of a lady on the Mayflower. He is sad to see how those Mayflower ladies have fallen. Back then, not one of them would have imagined herself fit to be a town crier; but now, alas, we see one of them reading words off of a teleprompter meant only for the eyes of learned men. Does she have a clue what she is saying? Or is she a parrot, a circus trick, a freak put in front of a studio camera for no other reason than to remind Walter just how far civilization has declined? 

Walter concedes that a few women are as intelligent as men. After all, he had learned early on that his Grandma Eunice could match, and often surpassed, any man out there. Still, when it comes to this redheaded bitch and to FOX News in general, he believes that he is being subjected to an elaborate freak show. Roger Ailes is a creepy man, who wants to remind Walter at every turn how far gone we are. FOX News is the best thing on television, but even FOX News is conspiring to undermine Walter. That is the truth of it, Walter thinks, even if that sounds far too conspiratorial to be credible.

Hey, forget that FOX bitch, Clover Fist snaps. I am the dangerous one here, not that Mayflower Madam wannabe.

Buck Off, you turdie birdie, Walter snaps back. 

What is a turdie birdie? Clover Fist asks with an inane chuckle.

Figure it out yourself, Walter responds. I cannot talk with you. 

Walter waddles to the pile of newspapers on the family room floor. He starts to squat down, so that he can pick up a handful. Either the effort is too strenuous, or he is too rattled by the adolescent hunk. Regardless, he only squats about halfway down, before more sweat breaks out on his face. He stands up again, and wipes his forehead clean. He sees how his red robe takes on a blue shade in the illumination from the flat screen television. The result is a cold, purplish color that reminds him of a dead body.

Dude, why can’t you talk with me? Clover Fist asks. 

I need to tidy up, Walter says in between hard breaths. There is little time left.

Oh, I get it now, Clover Fist remarks. You are saving all your mojo for your bro.

Shut up! Walter yells. I can get the axe…

I’ve got the axe, Clover Fist chuckles. Don’t you want to lick it? I know you do.

No more! Walter yells, while covering his ears with his palms. Please, no more!

Clover Fist falls silent. Slowly, Walter lowers his hands. He looks at the pretty, life sized mannequin. It remains a work of art in his eyes, but that inner light that had grabbed a hold of his imagination so many times is gone. It is dead, no more than fine plastic molded into the image of a teenaged boy, a thing that reflects the illumination from the flat screen television. It is how Walter sees himself when Lucius returns from college; for like the mannequin, Walter is then a dead moon reflecting the sun’s light.

Walter manages in time to pick up the newspapers. He bunches them between his right arm and his torso, though carefully enough so as not to crease the newsprint.

Just before he leaves the family room, Walter looks back at his plastic boy. The mannequin is as dead as before. The television illumination flashes off of his face, but this time he does not sense a kind of mindless, jocular, adolescent life screaming out to him from behind that pretty face. In response, Walter sheds a solitary tear, before turning up the staircase, and leaving the family room to the muted, FOX News anchor.

*   *   *

         Walter spends the rest of the day hauling essentials up the staircase; so that by the time it is dark outside, his bedroom looks more like a pantry overstuffed with jugs of soda pop and boxes of candy bars. The various sweets scattered about the bedroom would be ticking time bombs for anyone, but especially so for a diabetic. It is as if the exhausted and frightened man in the red robe wants to die from a sugar overdose just before the taxicab drives up to the gate. In a way, Walter would be turning the tables on Brother Lucius, if indeed the returning college boy pranced up the muddy driveway and skipped up the staircase just to discover his fat brother forever cold to the touch.

         Though preoccupied with himself, and often mumbling Lucius’ name just under his rancid breath, Walter remembers to haul up a bag of kibble, a food bowl, a water bowl, and a spongy ball full of catnip. For the most part, Whiskers turns his tail up to these items. He instead focuses on the bloodied, charred testicle. He acts like he can smell the hunted prey on that prize from last night’s adventure. As he bats the rotted flesh side to side his elongated eyes seem to glow pitch black, like he is a cat in heat.

         Walter hardly sleeps that night. He tosses and turns, while shimmering sweat is pouring down his face. He finally kicks off the musky, thin sheet, and he opens his red robe. His chest stays hot and sweaty, though; and so he can do nothing else but to tug lamely at his dirty chest hair, while disconsolate tears flow down the sides of his face.

         At one point, he sees Rexford Muldoon staring down at him from the foot of the bed. Rexford is much more debonair than the adolescent hunk downstairs. Still, there is something terribly creepy about Rexford’s smile. 

         Rexford is about to talk to him…

         No more! Walter cries, while covering his ears with his palms. Please, no more!

         Walter slowly drops his hands to his sides. He looks at the albino mannequin.

         Rexford is no longer smiling. It is dead plastic illuminated by bluish candlelight.

         The day that follows is not much better. Walter waddles downstairs to fetch an enormous mixing bowl full of ice cream. He cannot muster up the strength to haul the ice cream upstairs; and so he eats the chocolate and vanilla mountains, while he rests on the bottom step. Whiskers remains close to his side, but he is careful never to beg.

         Finishing the last spoonful of ice cream, he tosses the bowl off to the side, and he spits up. Gooey undigested vanilla slithers down his flabby chin with his saliva. It is good he saved the vanilla for last, he thinks, for otherwise there would be dark brown streaks on his large chin. Everyone knows that dark brown is the color of nigger blood.

         I’m coming, a deep, masculine voice whispers. 

         No more! Walter cries, while covering his ears with his palms. Please, no more!

         But this time, his plea falls on deaf ears. He can hear the whispering voice even better after plugging up his own ears, and yet that voice does not seem to originate in his mind. If only this had been the case, then he could have shrugged it off as another sign of his overactive imagination. Instead, he has to contend with the fact that there is a real something or other speaking to him. It could be Lucius. It could be something even worse. Whatever it is, it is toying with him, like a Peeping Tom that fades in and out of the darkness beyond the window blinds. It will keep on toying with him, playing his sanity like the tinny keys of an out of tune piano, until all at once it stands before him, naked, grinning, drooling, with nothing, but its throbbing, white cock in its hand.

         I’m coming, bitch, the voice whispers. Tomorrow morning. The third day…

         Walter bursts into tears. He drops his face into his knees. He squeezes his fatso belly so hard that it feels like it is going to burst outward at any moment. He imagines rolls of bloodied, yellow fat exploding out from his sides. It is a disgusting image, yes, but it is also what he needs to turn his mind away from that dark and sinister voice at the edge of his sanity. He can contend with bloodied, yellow fat rolls splashed against the staircase railing on the one side and the wall on the other; but he cannot imagine striking down this demonic whispering voice, even if and when he has the axe in hand.

         And if Walter is powerless even with his axe in hand, then all is hopeless, no? It would seem so; and yet, after shedding the last of his tears, and staring into the eyes of his Dragon Li a moment, he doggedly turns around and crawls up the staircase. The staircase never seemed so steep, nor so long, and yet he sweats his way back into the sanctuary that he had created for himself in his bedroom. Like an irate mule, he back kicks the bedroom door closed, just after Whiskers crosses the threshold. He lies upon his back on the floor, arms outstretched, breathing hard, and finally surrendering to a tortured sleep. He twists side to side, while Whiskers, motionless, stares down at him.

*   *   *

         Wake up, fat fuck, the masculine voice urges from just beyond Walter’s dream.

         Walter opens his eyes, slowly, painfully; and he thinks he sees a hulking, dark, male form sifting in and out of the shadows. He wonders if this is an extension of that nightmare that is already receding quickly from his memory. Is this a shadow literally coming alive before him? Or is this a beast, or a man, shuffling in and out of a shadow just a few inches beyond his feet? At that moment, the distinction seems academic to him; for in the nightmare world in which he finds himself, the ghosts that want to rob him of the very last traces of his sanity can be found as much in a dark shadow as in a man’s disturbing laugh or a beast’s sharpened claw. There are horrors everywhere. He cannot find peace anymore in even trying to separate in his mind fantasy from reality.

         Walter starts to recede back into the darkness. He cannot find the nightmare in which he had been mired just a moment ago. Instead, there is just darkness, cold and clammy, like his eternal void is a sick thing about to vomit up itself. There are horrors everywhere, yes, but what is most horrible is also sick, nauseous, like a fat man about to die. Horror is ugly, infirm, the image of a bruised man, the sound of a death rattle.

         Suddenly, Walter feels his head jerk upward. It stays in the air a moment. Then it slams back into the hard floor. There is the distinct sound of a rusted chain rattling.

         Walter again opens his eyes. This time there is no surreal blurriness, no twilight world between awake and sleep. He sees with alarming clarity how Marcos looms over him. His adolescent partner in crime wears a camouflaged rain jacket, a black T-shirt that showcases his pronounced chest and rippled abs, and a pair of jean cut-offs. That camouflaged rain jacket looks like something he bought at an Army surplus store at an enormous discount, for it is grungy, torn several places, and blood and mud stained. It looks like something a backwoodsman in a low rate horror film would wear when he is stalking his teenaged victims. In his mind, Walter recoils in fear. In fact, he can do no more than to look up at the deranged boy, for he is too stunned even to scream.

         Removing his eyes from the camouflaged rain jacket, Walter sees a cast around each of the boy’s knees. From there, he sees that the boy is leaning on a pair of long, metallic crutches. Marcos keeps shifting his weight from foot to foot; and thus, Walter imagines a Mexican Jumping Bean skipping from side to side upon the surface of a hot skillet. The image almost puts a smile on his face, but then he sees that maniacal look on Marcos’ face. It is not an angry look, so much as the calm look a man plasters upon his face when he is about to commit murder. Only the intensity in his eyes gives away his true intention. Walter has seen that intensity before, and so he is very careful not to give the deranged boy in the blood stained camouflage any reasons to feel slighted.

         Again, Walter’s head snaps up from the floor. Again, it remains in the air a few seconds, and then slams back down. This time he feels the rusted chain rattling on his torso and legs as much as he hears it rattling on his bedroom floor. 

         He reaches for his neck; and, sure enough, he feels the same iron dog collar on his neck that had been on the neck of the Restless Wrangler. The rusted chain extends away from where that iron dog collar covers his Adam’s apple. Marcos grips the other end of the chain with his right hand. He yanks the chain, and he releases the chain, as if a seasoned puppeteer; and, of course, Walter has no choice, but to lift up or to fall back as prodded. The thin half-smile on Marcos’ face suggests that, for all his outward calmness, indeed he relishes very much this power exchange with his fat fuck mentor.

         Don’t worry, gringo, Marcos says. I’m not going to kill you. I want you to dance for me, and dead men don’t dance.

         What are you doing? Walter asks in a trembling voice. I don’t understand…

         Yes, you do, Marcos says with a wide grin. You’ve always understood. Life is an unforgiving pecking order. Stand tall and pitch, or bend over and catch. Those are the only two options. For once, you tried your hand at pitching the ball. You captured the dancer that went AWOL on you and made him dosey doe, but that did not turn out so good for you, did it? Oh, sure, you got a hold of one of his nuts; pretty gruesome for a gringo, I must say. But let’s face it, you’d much rather have that Restless Wrangler on this here chain [rattles the chain] shaking his booty at your pleasure, than a vegetable snoring on a hospital bed. So what can I say, gringo? You fucked up, and that means it is my turn now to see what I can do on the pitcher’s mound. 

         Marcos, go home, Walter pleads. You are in danger here. My brother is going to return soon from college…

         Fuck college, Marcos interrupts. I’ve got a graduate degree from the docks.

         You do not understand, Walter insists. My brother gets a little mad sometimes.

         And so do you, fat fuck, Marcos teases. But you’re on the floor now, not me.

         Please, listen to me, Walter pleads.

         Marcos yanks the chain back, and then releases. Walter’s head lifts up and falls back with a loud thud. Walter winces from the horrible pain. Blood leaks out from the back of his head. It feels quite warm and gushy back there, like a squid or an octopus attached to the back of his head has released some sort of lotion. Walter recoils from the imagined octopus digging into his skull more so than from the actual, open wound.

         Walter moans. His eyes flutter, and his cheeks turn ghostly white. 

         Okay, fat fuck, I don’t want you to die on me, Marcos says with evident alarm.

         I’ve got a boo boo, Walter says sleepily. Grandma says, bad boys get boo boos.

         Walter looks up. He thinks he sees Marcos fading in and out of the shadows, but he is not sure. Frankly, he is not sure of anything, except that he has a boo boo, since he has been a bad boy. He needs Neosporin (‘horsey medicine,’ he calls it, because of the image of the bandaged horse on the yellow and green Neosporin box). He needs a band aid, too, preferably the kind that does not stick too well. Otherwise, he will cry out in pain, when his Grandma rips the band aid off of his skin in a few days. Grandma will give him a dirty look then; or if she is really peeved, then she will grab her gnarly wooden spoon and go to town on his rawhide. Best not to tempt her with one of those band aids that tear off more skin and hair than had been wounded in the first place. It is a crying shame, indeed, whenever Grandma has a reason to get a little mad herself.

*   *   *

         Walter’s nose hovers less than an inch above the waterline in his bathtub; and, for that reason, he inhales soapsuds that sting his sinuses. His eyes shoot up, and acid tears start to fall down his flabby cheeks. He wants to cough; but he has enough sense first to kick against the other end of the bathtub, so that his mouth lifts out from that hot and bubbly stew. He then coughs uncontrollably, like he is having a bad asthmatic attack. He pounds his fists against the edges of the bathtub. Either he is frightened or angry to be coughing in this manner; but, regardless, the fist pounding seems to knock the incessant coughs out of his system, and to stir some new life into his drowsy flesh.

         When the episode passes, Walter leans back against the bathtub. It is then that he feels what seems to be a squishy, lubricated, sea creature attached to the back of his head. He bolts forward out of fear, and so splashes water onto the bathroom floor.

         Marcos laughs. It is a guttural sound, as if his throat is spitting up loosed gravel; and the look in his eyes suggests that the laughter is intended not to express any real amusement, so much as to put Walter more on edge. Indeed, everything about Marcos now suggests calculation. The adolescent is putting his plan into effect. In his opinion, his plan involves the kind of manipulation one may expect of a man twice his age and with more scalps hanging from his belt. He is not going to fuck up this first actual step into what he hopes will be a serious, smart, bad ass adulthood, even if that means he has to eliminate his real, unaffected laugh with this dark, quirky, loosed gravel sound.

         Almost lost you there, fat fuck, Marcos teases. 

         Walter feels spongy tentacles digging into his scalp. He almost screams, but the look in Marcos’ sick eyes tells him that that would not be his sharpest move just then. Still, he cannot just ignore the sea creature ejaculating lotion onto his head and down his neck. He therefore reaches for the tentacles, while he looks straight at his keeper.

         What are you doing? Marcos asks. Don’t pull off the straps.

         Perplexed, Walter rubs his fingers over what Marcos refers to as ‘straps.’ They could be straps affixing a lubricated bandage to the back of his head, but a dark voice bubbling up from somewhere in his subconscious mind tells him otherwise. That is not a bandage, that voice whispers. That is an octopus, a bucking sea creature, a monster in one of Jacques Cousteau’s wet dreams; and it is humping dead seed into the hole in the back of your head. Sow dead seed, and what do you think you reap in return, huh?

         Walter lowers his hands into the soapy water. If indeed that is an octopus back there, then there is nothing he can do about it anyway, especially given the dog collar around his neck. Walter traces the rusted chain that extends from his Adam’s apple to Marcos’ right hand. The chain is old, dingy, reddish green in color; and yet he realizes that, try as he may, he cannot break the hold that Marcos has on him now. Everything is beyond his control it seems, including this spongy something or other upon his head.

         Marcos sees the surrender in Walter’s eyes, and he smiles in turn. He gives the chain a good yank, and nearly pulls Walter’s face into the soapy water, just to restate his power over his former mentor. Marcos had never thought that power would be this infatuating. Murder is a momentary thrill, but it is gone almost as fast as it is felt. The power he now exercises over his former mentor, though, is like a hand job that never quits. There is no orgasmic thrill, but there is the contented sensation just a moment before orgasm; and that contented sensation seems capable of continuing without an end in sight. He would rather get this ‘fix,’ than that ‘do not blink, or you will miss it’ thrill of chopping into someone else’s veins with his mentor’s dirty, old axe. He knows now what it means to be the hot cock on the walk, even if he has to walk forward still with crutches. He will not surrender this feeling, no matter what may happen in time.

         So what am I going to do with you? Marcos asks.

         Walter looks down like a child who has been reprimanded.

         Hey, fat fuck, I want you to answer me, Marcos scolds.

         You want me to dance for you, Walter whispers.

         Marcos lifts his left leg, and drops his left heel onto the edge of the bathtub. In that way, his crotch seems to stretch to twice its normal size. Marcos smiles, and then scratches his crotch. All the time his eyes remain motionless, like the sculpted eyes of a life sized mannequin, or the chiseled glare of an ageless statue. 

         You ever hang out in a cemetery late at night? Marcos asks. I guess it’s not that much different than living here, except that out there the night winds tear everything apart. It takes a while, but eventually the flowers lose their petals. A little more time passes, and the names on the tombstones fade away. A little more time, and the wind sweeps away even the tombstones. Nothing lasts, not even the places we set aside for the dead. Hell, even God passes away. The angels, the saints, the heavenly choir, the boys upstairs turn their attention to something new; and God just vanishes one day. It makes sense, really, for who is God if there is nobody left that bends a knee to Him? I figure there is only one thing that stands the test of time. He has different names, for some Lucifer, for others Beelzebub. He is the devil, the liar, the rebel, the dark angel who plays on your mind. That is why he survives. Long after he has made you do what he wants you to do, and has gone off to fuck with someone else, you have to live with the fact that he had all the power then. You can never really shake just how helpless, how powerless, you had been that dark hour. He is there in your self-loathing, all your old fears coming back to haunt you; and it does not matter how many times you wield your axe, you cannot quite cut him out of your mind. That’s the truth of it, gringo. Be the devil, or be one of the devil’s assholes. I choose to be the devil. Why? Because we both know that I can get away with it. Also, let’s face it, I am rock hard [cupping both his nuts with his right hand]; and most people out there are just lubricated assholes. I think you know damn well that that’s true. That’s why you kept me around, toiling in your garden shirtless, bending over to wash your car. You actually imagined you could take someone who’s rock hard and make him your bitch. I cannot blame you for giving it the good old college try. But like with everything else, you fucked up. You couldn’t harness me any better than you harnessed the Restless Wrangler. You failed, old man, reached for the stars but walked away with the forbidden fruit. So that means I get to yank your chain [pulls Walter’s face into the water, and then gives Walter just enough slack to lift his face out of the water]. I get to make you dance, gringo. And long after I am gone, you get to remember just how powerless you were the very night we drove out to the docks together. Oh, sure, you’ll remember the crime I made you commit on that darkest hour; but more so, you’ll be haunted by how much power I had over you. I can think of no greater legacy than to be the one devil who haunts you into eternity.

         Lucius, Walter whispers.

         The devil light, Marcos reflects, while lowering his leg from the bathtub edge. I suppose you can call me that; for when it is darkest in hell, mine will be the only face that you see. Kind of out there, I know; but I’m a Mexican, remember? You just try to keep up with us when we’re dancing with the dead on El Día de los Muertos. Go ahead and try, you fat fuck. Or do you think you can avoid all that by just standing upon the sidelines and hurling racist insults at us? Well, speak up! Answer me, gringo!

         I cannot avoid anything, Walter answers glumly. I am a puppet in your hand.

         Truer words were never spoken, Marcos says. 

         So what are we doing tonight? Walter inquires.

         Marcos pulls hard on the chain. Walter’s head falls under the waterline. Marcos pulls back the chain in such a way that Walter cannot lift his own head from the soapy water. As a result, Walter can do nothing but to splash his hands erratically in and out of the water. His naked flesh squirms as if a boar caught between two rails of a fence.

         Finally, just before Walter loses consciousness, Marcos releases some slack with his chain. Walter lifts his face from the water, gasps for air, and then coughs nonstop for what seems like an eternity. Marcos is so annoyed by the coughing fit that he very nearly wishes he had not done what he did, but then he remembers the surge of cold, raw power through his veins the moment he pulled the chain. 

         You don’t ask me questions, gringo, Marcos snarls. You just dance for me, okay?

         Sí, señor, Walter whispers. Todo lo que quiera.

*   *   *

         Walter sits behind the wheel of his 1931 Marmon Model 16. He has his cashmere scarf wrapped tightly about his jowls. His tan overcoat covers his starched, white shirt and checkered golf pants. His black loafers are so polished that they squeak each and every time he moves his sweaty feet. He keeps his walking stick and his bowler hat on the passenger seat, since of course he has no need for a walking stick, while operating a vehicle, and his bowler hat would be squished flat, if he actually tried to wear it in this tight space. All in all, he is the very image of a fine gentleman heading into town.

         That is, except for the iron dog collar about his neck…

         And the rusted chain that the dark form behind him yanks every now and then…

         Walker is careful not to ask any questions. His throat still aches from when that Mexican bastard behind him almost drowned him in the bathtub. His voice is never all that strong, but he suspects he could do little more than to whisper right now, even if he tried. He swallows saliva compulsively, but otherwise does not make a sound while driving on the dark, two-lane highway towards the flickering lights off in the distance. He figures that bastard will give him directions as required. He will do as commanded.

         Speed up through here, Marcos orders, as he pulls back upon the rusted chain. I want to get to the docks before the goddamn cock crows. 

         Walter fears whiplash every time that bastard goes ape shit with the chain, but this time he focuses on another danger. This is the stretch of the highway patrolled by that ape nigger cop. Walter cannot recall his face. After all, they all look alike to him and, no doubt, to every other white gentleman. What he recalls is how that ape came this close to taking his driver’s license from him. Surely, Walter thinks, he did so since he confused the driver’s license for one of those EBT cards coloreds trade for Colt 45. God only knows why the government now issues badges and firearms to the coloreds…

         I said speed up, fat fuck, Marcos orders with an even harder yank on the chain.

         Walter loses his stream of consciousness. His mind often descends into a racist tirade when he is anxious. He feels better when he remembers how he and his race in fact are so much better than all those other folks out there. 

         This time it does not work. He is as anxious now as before. Logically, he knows that if the ape pulls him over then Marcos’ game will come to an end. Nevertheless, if he has even an ounce of pride left after responding to Marcos earlier in his own gutter language, then he would rather be compelled to do whatever Marcos has in mind than to be pulled over by Officer Stepin Fetchit. 

         Therefore, Walter pushes down on the gas, but darts his watery eyes frantically from the windshield to the rearview mirror in search of the first sign of a patrol car. If he sees anything pulling out of a speed trap, then he will slow down, no matter if that bastard behind him chokes him with the rusted chain. Walter is the guy ‘bending over’ in this scenario; but he finds, surprisingly, that he still retains somehow a bit of pride.

         The ape cop is nowhere to be seen. Walter lets himself relax a little, when the highway merges into the interstate, though as is the norm he remains in the slow lane until that bastard behind him yanks on his chain and orders him into a ‘grownup lane.’

         Walter does as told. The anxiety returns, for he cannot recall the prior time he had driven in one of the ‘grownup lanes.’ He pushes down on the gas principally so as to appease his backseat driver; but, as subtly as possible, he also taps the break every now and then. As a result, he does not break any speed records while going into town.

         Walter wonders if Marcos wants him to go to ‘Dream Boys.’ After all, that is the place where they first committed a crime together. Perhaps, Marcos already views his first crime scene through a nostalgic lens. 

         Either Marcos has no nostalgic sensibility, or ‘Dream Boys’ is not in fact his first crime scene; for with little prior warning, Marcos prods Walter to take an exit several miles outside of town. Walter does as ordered without a sigh; and so, within minutes, the two of them are driving down a two-lane frontal road towards a dark, somber fog.

         Fate resides in fog, Walter thinks. 

         He is terrified at the thought, and yet he has no other choice, but to steer into the billowy sound of the foghorn up ahead. He grips tightly at the steering wheel, but he is careful not to show the slightest fear to the bastard tugging at his Adam’s apple.

*   *   *

         Pull over here, fat fuck, Marcos whispers just inches behind Walter’s right ear.

         Walter pulls over to the right shoulder. He idles his automobile beside an old, wood fence that looks like it had been kicked outward one too many times by an irate horse. On the other side of the fence is a field that had been abandoned years before to the weeds and the shrubs that congregate along the banks of the Manchester River. The field slopes downward at a steep angle; and judging by the ribbons tied to one of the rails of the fence, several persons have slid down that way to meet their Maker in the icy blue depths of the water below. The endless stretch of black, gurgling clouds, the haziness of the wilderness on the other side of the foamy water, the deep, surreal foghorn off in the distance, all these sights and sounds combine to suggest that death prevails just beyond the fence line. Slide down that slope and you will find yourself in a free fall in death’s abyss long before your open lips strike the cascading river water.

         The frontal road is dark and quiet. Tall oak trees on the other side of the road block the interstate and the downtown lights. Apart from the idling car engine, there is an owl hooting somewhere in the near distance. Otherwise, thick, deafening silence prevails, such that it is easy for a man to believe that he is untold miles from the first hints of civilization. A man can get away with anything this far out from the flickering lights, or so the branches whisper when the night wind rustles their leaves. For all the outward peace and beauty, in fact this spot alongside the frontal road tempts the sick and troubled mind more than anything else. No doubt, the drivers who ended up dead beneath the river foam heard how the oak leaves rustled before stepping on the gas a final time. What did the unheralded whores and drifters hear just before sliding down this field or succumbing to another man’s knife? What did they view out of the corners of their eyes before surrendering their ghosts to the howling abyss beyond that fence?

         Walter shudders at the thought, while he waits for further instruction from that bastard yanking on his chain. He holds his steering wheel hard, like it is the buoy that is keeping him afloat on a treacherous sea. His eyes stare straight into the fog ahead, perhaps looking in vain for that iceberg that will send him to his underwater grave, or perhaps staring into his own madness and desperation. Either way, he perceives what he cannot control, let alone avoid, notwithstanding all that he has done of late finally to try to turn the tides in his favor. Color drains from his cheeks, and tears drip off of his jowls, in reaction to the maudlin helplessness cannibalizing what is left of his soul.

         Go outside, and take a closer look, Marcos urges.

         Marcos drops the chain, so that Walter can wiggle out from behind the steering wheel. Marcos also squeezes out of the automobile. He takes up the chain again while Walter leans upon the hood and breathes heavily. He yanks the chain, when he figures that old fat fuck has spent too much time already at rest. He is anxious to go forward, as time marches too fast for a man intent upon the commission of a crime after hours.

         Walter waddles to the fence. He is reluctant to lean on it. Fortunately, he does not need to do so to view that ramshackle pier about an eighth of a mile further down the river. The pier stands out from the gloom, for on each end there is an overhanging light that sways side to side in the brisk river winds. 

         Walter strains just enough to see that there are more piers, each one about an eighth of a mile further down the river. Some are more ramshackle than others; but in each case, there is a pair of overhanging lights swaying side to side. Somewhere down that line is the pier on which silly perverts like Walter watch dancers bare their butts. So much sin takes place there, and yet its lights cannot be differentiated from any of the others. Stand far enough away, and sin and grace look much the same.

         At least, that is what Walter senses, as he wrings his hands together. Seen from afar, Lucius is just another twinkling light along the river, or in the night sky; and it is almost possible for Walter to imagine that indeed their brotherly love for one another can and will overpower the past. He has a fleeting memory of holding Lucius’ soft and nubile flesh beneath the sheets. This is before Lucius goes off to college. This is when the two brothers protect one another from that black swan staggering about the halls.

         The memory passes, as it is only a matter of time before Lucius’ twinkling light separates out from all the others. Lucius is coming home; and so his light increases in brilliance and in size, while the others remain the same. Eventually, his light takes on a distinct, human form, a contemptuous smile, a steady gaze, a hand wielding an axe.

         And when that happens, as invariably it does, brotherly love descends into butt rape. Love transitions into lust. Hope gives way to despair. There is nothing left to do, but to cut the heart in two with the sharp edge of the blade. No other choice, then or later, but to bathe in all that blood spraying out from your brother’s open wound. The barest hint of a grin suggests that this is murder, though it will be remembered for all time as an ‘accidental’ thrust of the axe while wrestling on the ground. What starts as sin ends as self-deception; an insistence that, truly, depravity and propriety, progress and tradition, sin and grace may be forever set apart from one another. Set aside any and all moral wrinkles, the greyness when opposites in fact overlap, and an ‘accident’ ceases to have even the slightest tinge of murder in it. The door is closed; the window is boarded up; the past remains outside; and the self-deception takes on the form and the texture of a cold, dead, ageless mausoleum inside. 

         Walter has spent a lifetime trying to believe just that; but way out here, on the edge of death’s abyss, he cannot but see how sin and grace look much the same from a considerable distance. Unable to separate the one from the other, he senses that he is as unclean as he purports to be clean, as powerless as he tries to be powerful. He is no more a critic than the puppet on the string. He must dance for his keep like all the others. He must carry around his rusted chain, just as everyone else must carry theirs.

         Do you see the whore? Marcos asks. 

         Walter barely sees the woman in the strapless top and jean cut-offs standing at the end of the pier. She is looking outward, as if she is waiting for a riverboat captain to pick her off the pier for the night. Perhaps, she is herself a kind of dock for the big and burly men who make their living or do their carousing on the river. Still, the way that she tilts her butt upwards, and places her hands on her hips, implies that she will be just as happy to provide a temporary hearth and home for those folks who come up to her from behind. Seamen and land lovers are all fair game; for when her time is no longer theirs, and she grins just so, they each pony up the same crumpled greenbacks.

         You know what you must do, Marcos whispers. 

         Walter nods, and shuffles away from the fence.

*   *   *

         Walter waddles down the middle of the frontal road. He should be on the right shoulder for safety; but since he has not seen one automobile on this road, he feels as safe in walking down the center line as anywhere else. 

         Marcos holds the chain several paces behind him. He grasps one of his crutches with his other arm. Although unable to bend his swollen knees on account of the rigid casts, he has perfected a kind of ‘lean to the side and push forward’ that looks from a distance like a drunk man’s stagger. Up close, his mannerisms do not look reckless, so much as strained, but systematic, like an exhausted robot. He walks with a husky gait    that calls to mind a predator that knows quite well it need not hurry to find its supper waiting for it inside the trap. Everything is going as planned, and Marcos has no other desire than to enjoy his power trip to the fullest. Still, for all that excitement rushing through his veins, he maintains a subdued look on his face that suggests either severe boredom or contempt. Though he sees himself as stepping into manhood tonight, he is as pretentious in his plodding pace and in his somber expression as any number of jerk ‘know it all’ teenagers. A teacher might tell him to wipe that serious look off his face.

         Walter had been given permission to put on his bowler hat, but he had to leave behind the walking stick. The reason is obvious enough: When he finishes the last part of this journey, he will do so while holding the chains in his arms. Marcos will be close enough to watch every move, but he will not have his hand on the chain. What Walter does or does not do will be entirely his move at that point, which means that when he does exactly what Marcos commands, then Marcos’ power over him will be everlasting and complete. Walter can see the outcome clearly enough. He detests falling so much under the spell of his former protégé. Nevertheless, he moves forward, one awkward, fat fuck waddle at a time, for he reckons himself unable to resist this horrid madness.

         There is a gravel lot off the side of the road. Marcos pulls the chain to the right so that, like any trained horse, Walter understands that he must walk toward the right side of that lot. Marcos lazily kicks up gravel, while his beast several times nearly falls onto his butt on account of the loose dirt and rocks.

         Mildewed wooden steps descend from the right side of that lot to the pier. It is a steep slope without a rail, obviously exempted from modern day safety codes due to the fact that it had been built when Indians still were scalping white men. The hearts and the cocks chiseled into the steps since those early days attest to the high number of babies conceived here. Either the hill had been less steep in the past, or girls with a predilection for kink had discovered just how much more intense an orgasm is when experienced while blood is rushing to the brain. No doubt, some of these girls finished off their orgasms by sliding down the steps head forward and splattering the best part of themselves on the rickety pier. Afraid a new generation may try ‘to ride the steps,’ the county has a bullet riddled sign by the top step that orders: ‘No Monkey Business.’

         Walter stops by the sign. He is breathing heavily, but mostly he wants to see if his handler has any further instructions for him.

         This is as far as I am going, Marcos states. 

         Walter does not respond. He just looks down at his scuffed loafers, and frowns.

         Marcos drops his chain. He crosses his arms defiantly and stares down his beast, while leaning precariously on his crutch. He looks like a giant about to fall to the side.

         Pick up your chain, fat fuck, Marcos orders.

         Walter pulls the chain into his arms. He cradles the chain like it is his newborn.

         Marcos steps forward, while pulling something out from inside his camouflaged, Army surplus jacket. Because the gurgling clouds above have obscured virtually all of the moonlight, Walter cannot see what it is that Marcos intends to put in his hand. He can guess what it is, though, and so he is not surprised to feel the blood stained blade and the splintery handle from yesteryear.

         Lucius, Walter mumbles, while still looking down at his scuffed loafers. 

         Call me what you will, Marcos says. Just do it!

         Walter nods resignedly to his former protégé. He grips the axe handle as tightly as possible, turns toward the howling river, and takes his first of many awkward steps down the slope. He keeps his head down, lest the angry winds snap his tearful cheeks.

         Surely, Marcos is in no condition to follow Walter down these rickety steps; and yet that is exactly what Walter presumes. Indeed, he practically hears how the crutch cracks through a mildewed step just seconds before heavy feet slide down to the next step. The crutch pops out of its hole, and then makes a new one. ‘Crack, slide, pop’ is the repeated pattern. It is not quite ‘snap, crackle, pop,’ and yet in his near delirium Walter digs up an image of the Rice Krispy boys. Those boys seem as playful as ever in his imagination, until he looks more closely into their eyes. There is madness in there; the kind that stews in its own crazed loneliness until just the right moment to pounce. 

         Even if Marcos remains no more than a half a dozen steps behind him, Walter is alone. He cradles the rusted chain in his left arm, while he grips the axe with his right hand beside his thigh. The axe blade sways up and down like a swing in a lazy breeze, and several times the sharp edge nearly cuts into his leg. Outwardly, Walter remains oblivious to the axe blade cutting the air so close to his own flesh; but there is a part of his psyche that deep down does not mind the prospect of chopping into a large vein and spraying blood into the night. Surely, in that scenario, the bastard could not force him to continue down this slope; for there is practically no chance that he could walk up from behind that whore unnoticed, if he sprayed blood into the howling river wind.

         The wind picks up, when he is about halfway down the steps. His overcoat flaps busily behind him, like the sails of a boat caught inside a wind tunnel. His ruddy face contorts into the very image of madness, for he is unable to do what he normally does in such situations. With a long chain cradled in one arm, and an old axe swaying in the other, he has no hands with which to pull up his overcoat collar. Neither does he have hands that he can stuff deeply into his overcoat pockets. He imagines himself to be an armless puppet waddling on wooden legs into a dark hell pit. Though there are no real strings attached to him at this moment, he feels as controlled by his puppet master as ever. He hears his puppet master walking down the same steps, but he fancies him to be up there in those dark, gurgling clouds somewhere. Like an angel with his harp, his puppet master grins when looking over the edge of his cloud and, every now and then, tugs at the strings dangling from his wrists just to remind the fat boy who is in charge.

         Walter stumbles the final few steps. He almost falls to his left knee. He doubts he could have picked himself up, and then picked up his chain and his axe, if his worn and chapped lips had kissed the pier. He sees himself prostrate on the wooden planks. The overhead light bulb sways unevenly above his back. It casts dim shadows upon his upper back and neck that look like scales. He is a ‘fish out of water’ when faced down on that rickety pier; a man so lost in his weakness and his misery that he may as well be stranded on Mars. Howling river winds tease him, as raw fear eats away what little remains of his sanity. The winds tell him that he is lost, truly lost, in his own sadness…

         Except that that does not happen, for he does not fall to his left knee. He stays on his path, perilous as it may be, while thinning planks crackle beneath his old shoes.

         About halfway across the pier Walter glances back over his left shoulder. As he had expected, Marcos is gone. It is as if the bastard has been swept back into the dark night by the river winds, and yet Walter knows all too well that it is not so simple. His former protégé is close, unseen in the faint illumination cast by the swaying light bulb at the entrance to the pier, but so close as to inspire a shiver down Walter’s spine. No doubt, wherever he is, he watches Walter with the same perverse intensity as a queer hiding behind window blinds. He is a pair of eyes in between window blinds, a Peeping Tom with one hand on his crotch just in case he sees something that really excites his dark passions. He breathes heavily, but also silently, like an obscene ghost man sifting in and out of the turbulent winds. 

         Kill the whore, those eyes whisper. Then, take off your clothes…

         Walter can feel his heart sinking into his bowels. He drops his chin. He resumes his slow and heavy steps down the middle of the pier, like he is a condemned man on his way to the gallows. Really, who is he killing at the end of this path? Himself or the whore? He has not forgotten the plan, and yet he senses with each new step that he is the one dying here. The river is like dark molasses shaking the posts beneath his shoes and clamoring for his defeated soul; and with each new step, Walter is that much less able to ignore what the river is saying to him. Indeed, he wonders if he is not already a corpse and if the river’s dark words in fact gurgle up from his own private little hell.

         He is lost in thought, when suddenly he hears the soft buzz of an overhead light bulb. It sounds like a trapped wasp too far gone to offer up much of a fight. In several seconds, it will be silent. Its last little scream will be swallowed whole by the river, as if it had been from the start buried and unheard. It must be as if it never had existed.  

         He looks up, and he sees the overhead light bulb swaying just inches in front of his mad gaze. One more step, and he would have tumbled into the dark molasses. The chain and the axe, both still clutched by his hands, would have pulled his waterlogged flesh into the darkest crevice. Yes, like many before him, he would have died beneath the surface of the Manchester River; but even worse, he would have been rendered by the weights in his hands essentially undiscoverable. Even time does not comb that far below the river’s surface. It would have been as if he never had existed. 

         He stares blankly into the dark molasses. Part of him wishes he had stumbled to his death. Still, for all his anguish, he does not commit suicide, even though it would be easy enough for him to do so just then. He slumps forward, because of the weights on both of his arms, but also he is careful to maintain his balance. Death may turn out to be his salvation, but he has enough survival instinct in him not to fly over the edge.

         Where is she? Walter mutters. 

         He should have bumped into the whore before getting this far.

         Perhaps, that is exactly what he did…

         And the whore fell to her death, like a wasp when pushed beyond the reach of the light. A little, trapped thing snuffed out, and then invisible in the rushing waters…

         No, that didn’t happen, Walter mutters.

         But how can he be sure? He looks around. There is no one else upon this pier. If she had walked by him in the opposite direction, then surely he would have noticed as such, even though he had been lost in thought. He may be defeated, even insane, but he is not oblivious.

         But how can he be sure? He looks around again. He sees everything clearly now, but he knows just how lost he has been. Does it not make sense that part of that time he had blanked out? A mind can take only so much stress. Then, it filters more than it captures. It forgets more than it retains. Ignorance sometimes is bliss, but more often it is simply survival; for the horrors that sweep in and out of the night can turn even a strong man into a mindless fool. 

         Walter holds his axe blade beneath the overhead light bulb. He can observe the bloodstains with which he is familiar, but he does not see anything new. Moreover, his hand is as clean as before. Surely, if he had chopped the whore with his axe, then her dirty pussy blood would have squirted onto him; but he sees nothing along those lines.

         Okay, so he did not use the axe on her. That means he may have pushed her, or just stumbled absently into her. In either case, he did not do what Marcos wanted him to do. Though never articulated in so many words, it had been clear all along that the bastard had wanted him to chop her with the axe.

         The axe had been placed into his hands, and once more he had failed to do the task. He may be out here on this pier, but in essence he is trembling under his sheets.

         The frustration and the sorrow surge up from his bowels. The emotions feel like liquid heat bubbling up his throat. This concoction burns his larynx, at least for a brief moment, and so he cannot scream out any identifiable words. Instead, he releases an inhuman, guttural moan, a cry of dereliction that contorts his fat, red face into a sick grimace. His eyes almost bulge out of their sockets. His lips pull back into the snarl of a rabid hound dog. His jowls flutter as if folds of fat hanging precariously off of hooks.

         He stares into the overhead light bulb, and so his eyes are turned elsewhere as he swings his bloodstained axe blade into his right thigh. Indeed, he so filters out this self-mutilation that, at first, he thinks that the excruciating spasm of pain in his right thigh is the result of someone else throwing something against his leg. Marcos may be punishing him, because he failed so miserably with the axe. Or, perhaps, the whore is alive still. She may have thrown something at him, so that she can get away. Or, upon further thought, the culprit may be the river wind itself indiscriminately catapulting a hard edge of some sort into his flesh. Nature does not play favorites, for the person in the wrong place and at the wrong time will block what the wind cradles in her bosom.

         These possibilities flash through his mind; but before he can consider any or all of them in more detail, the throbbing pain from deep inside his right thigh overcomes whatever is left of his conscious mind. His guttural moan changes into something more like a conventional scream. His eyes dart every which way; so that though he does not zero in on any one thing, he catches a glimpse of everything able to be seen under the overhead light bulb. It turns out that indeed there is not much to see at the moment…

         Except for the dark molasses gurgling passed the pier…

         And the axe blade inserted about an inch into his right thigh.

         Walter drops his chain. Since that chain is connected still to his iron dog collar, his head thrusts forward as he does so. He loses his balance. He extends his arms in a last ditch effort to stay on his feet. He senses that, indeed, he will regain his balance.

         Then, the next thing he knows, he is falling through the screaming, foamy river towards a murky place, a den of underwater tombs, a graveyard for lost souls. His big eyes take in this horrifying underworld, until the darkness wraps her arms around him.

         There is nothing down there, except for a dark whisper sifting in and out of the roar of the river. The whisper can be heard more clearly when there is nothing to see.

         Take off your clothes, the dark voice insists. I want to see everything.

         Walter screams. He feels water flowing into his lungs. He feels life flowing out of his soul. There should be a kind of peace at the very end, except that he senses the dark voice not too far from him. He knows hell is gnawing at the edges of his eternity. 

*   *   *

         Walter opens his eyes. He almost believes that he dreamt his trip to the pier. It is all so unreal, like fragments of memory and imagination blended into a mental stew on which he feasts when he descends into sleep. Indeed, the last part of this quixotic ‘dream,’ the segment where he falls ever deeper into the Manchester River while also clutching his chain and his axe, seems at first glance to be a metaphor about sleep, or perhaps death. The world is endless in every direction, and yet so claustrophobic as to fill up his lungs. The world is dark, dead, and yet speaks to him from behind his ear. It would seem that death, like sleep, is simply the occasion of falling further and further into the abyss, except that in the case of death there is a sinister voice that coaxes a growing sense of despair out of what should be a peaceful transition into the afterlife.

         Walter sits up on his elbows. He looks down at the bandage over his upper right thigh. Lubricant oozes out from beneath the bandage. It smells a bit like sea salt; and for a moment, Walter actually imagines an octopus or a squid suctioned to his bruised skin down there. He gasps audibly; but before he succumbs to panic, the image passes from his mind. He practically feels the tension break; and as a result, he is capable of concentrating on the here and the now. That may not be much, but it is sufficient for him to remain sane, more or less.

         He reaches into his undershorts. His flabby, small cock feels as cold and as wet as when the bastard had pulled him out of the river. 

         Missed you by four inches, Walter says with actual regret. 

         He thinks that he would be much happier if he shared the fate of the comatose dancing cowboy upstairs, for he cannot remember the last time his balls had anything to do with ‘feeling good’ or ‘triumphing over adversity.’ On the contrary, he imagines his own scrotum hanging from the chain of an old witch doctor. The balls chime as the old witch doctor magically sets into motion the ruin of the obese man under his spell. For a moment, the chime calls to mind Christmas bells; but then the enormity of that harm about to be inflicted erases any such quaint or childish connotations. There is no way to pretend otherwise. The chime is evil, like rats squealing inside of an iron cage.

         He removes his right hand from his undershorts. His fingers are wet and sticky. Is that cum? His rational mind says that it cannot be, for his cock is as flabby as a thin noodle left in a bowl of water. Nevertheless, who is to say that he did not have a wet dream earlier? Perhaps, the trip to the pier had been a kind of wet dream, albeit one experienced in the real world while fully awake. Perhaps, the climax of his real world wet dream had been his utter failure to wield the axe in accordance with his master’s wish. Surely, it seems odd to identify sexual climax with failure; and yet, deep down, Walter wonders if indeed this is not the case with him. At the very least, his failure to wield the axe at the critical hour has been thus far his most poignant moment. He has been defined by that failure, and so is it really all that strange that he should be able to satisfy himself when reliving that moment? Does not a slave grin when he relives in his mind the sting of the whip? Does not a man grin when his woman squeezes his cock just so? Walter thinks so; and so as much as he fears the implication of his failure with the axe, he revels in it. He fears Lucius’ return, and yet he also relishes the prospect. He boards up his windows, and yet his mind sweeps down to the front gate to scan the horizon for the very first sign of an oncoming taxicab. 

         Whiskers leaps onto the foot of the bed. It is only then that Walter remembers that, indeed, he is lying on his bed in his second story bedroom. He is there, safe, but not altogether sound, because the bastard had grabbed a hold of his chain just before the last few links had been swallowed by the river. He can view Rexford Muldoon, still as handsome as ever, but silent, dead, no longer able to come alive somewhere in the depths of his imagination. He can turn his face, and view his sickly white reflection in the dresser mirror. In a way, his reflection is as dead as his well endowed mannequin; just another ghost added to his collection. Indeed, but for the cat strolling up his left leg, and staring deeply into his soul, he is in a dead place, a crypt set aside for losers.

         Whiskers settles on Walter’s huge belly. He stands up there like a feline god on top of a mountain. His eyes are as compelling, but also inscrutable, as any medium by which the gods on high offer omens and decrees to their feeble subjects. There is real love somewhere in those eyes, but there is also deep, unsettling mystery and touches of darkness. Walter looks up at his only friend and wonders if someday he will awaken in haste only to discover that Whiskers has ripped his throat wide open with his claws.

         So what do you think? Walter whispers. Did I push a whore into the sink?

         Notwithstanding how unreal the trip to the pier seems, Walter recognizes deep down that most of it really happened. The bastard forced him to drive out to the river docks. He directed him up to the fence, where he saw (or thought he saw) a whore on the lookout for a job. He made him walk down the road to those steep steps that lead to the pier. He gave him the axe, and he gave him instructions. Finally, as Walter fell further into the abyss, he had grabbed his chain, and pulled him ashore. 

         But had the whore been there? Walter cannot say for sure. She appears way too ghostlike in his imagination, like something conjured up from his fears and fantasies in order to make sure that he felt the sting of failure that night. The fact that there has been no news story the passed few days about a missing hooker reaffirms his suspicion that, indeed, he had imagined that part of the excursion. 

         But then why would the bastard make him go down the steep steps to the pier, if there never had been a whore? Walter cannot say for sure, except that the bastard all along may have been playing on Walter’s madness. If the bastard can convince the man in chains that, indeed, he is a murderer, when nothing of the sort occurred, then the bastard has about as much power as any man can have over any other man. There is power in holding onto the chain, but there is far greater power in fashioning reality.

         So what do you think? Walter repeats.

         Whiskers reveals nothing. Walter drops his head back into his pillow. He stares at the ceiling, while Whiskers curls on his belly. It turns out there is nothing to see up there either, and so it is not long before Walter once more sinks into the river depths.

*   *   *

         Walter’s head snaps forward, and he awakens with a horrible shriek. He grasps at the chain that is connected to his iron dog collar. The chain is taut, for the bastard in the camouflage jacket, black T-shirt, and jean cut-offs is pulling back on his side of the chain. The bastard is leaning heavily on a pair of crutches. His face is a grimace of pain, and yet the madness in his eyes says that he is not about to let up on his former master. He intends to see this through to the end, no matter his debilitated condition physically and psychologically. 

         The bastard sings out to the tune of Reveille: ‘It’s time to wake up. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to wake up this evening.’ He pauses a while, apparently forgetting the rest of the wakeup tune, and then breaks into a mad laugh. His eyes do not laugh, though. They remain all too serious; the intense, dark eyes of a man about to commit murder. His eyes seem to have no other objective but to penetrate Walter’s soul; and so to that end, they sift in and out of the candlelight like those of a Peeping Tom or a predator beast. They inspire dread, to be sure; but more so they suggest the grinning, dead mannequins; that fear in the peripheral vision that is at once brought into focus.

         The bastard yanks the chain again, so that Walter has no choice but to stare at his dresser. The mirror is as ghostly as before. The candle melting into the dresser has not moved from where he had last seen it. There does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary, and so Walter very nearly darts his old bloodshot eyes elsewhere when…

         Oh, my God, Walter whispers. Lucius!

         He blinks his eyes several times to make sure he is not hallucinating. He senses well enough that this is a particularly cartoonish gesture, and yet he is way too scared to find humor in the fact that that bastard apparently left his bloodstained axe inside of an inch deep crevice in the dresser surface. The handle juts upward, like a wooden middle finger. There is a note taped to the handle. Walter observes the red crayon at a glance and so sees that this is the same note he had found on the Restless Wrangler.

Roses are Red

Violets are Blue

I left him for dead

But the last chop’s on you

         Inspired, the bastard remarks. Like a haiku, except it isn’t. 

         On that note, the bastard unleashes another round of mad laughter. He pulls at the chain a few times, until Walter’s pudgy face turns red from the constant snap and release. Whiskers, still curled on Walter’s huge belly, turns his head back once just to glare at the madman making all this ruckus. He appears unimpressed; for soon enough he drops his chin onto his paws and falls asleep, like there is nothing going on in here.

         Your little pussy isn’t going to protect you, the bastard remarks. 

         Is he referring to the Dragon Li curled upon Walter’s belly, or is he referring to a woman’s genitalia? Walter is not sure, though he has a distinct memory just then of his Grandma Eunice belittling his ‘bleeding cunt,’ or words to that effect. Regardless, the intent is to menace him out of his bed and into another murderous plot. Walter is going to have innocent blood on his hands tonight, or he is going to be mad tomorrow.

         Please, don’t, Walter responds helplessly.

         Don’t do what? The bastard states mockingly. Yank on what’s left of your cock?

         The bastard pulls back faster and harder than before. Walter hears what to him anyway sounds like a snap in his upper vertebrae. He suffers an excruciating headache and blurred vision. The sensation passes, thankfully, but not before he wonders in the back of his head if he is having a stroke. Part of him wishes he would pass out from an aneurism. The world would turn black; he would slump onto his pillow; and, voila, the pain would be gone forever. Let the ghosts keep this house. He just wants to sign out.

         Except that it is never that easy, is it? Moreover, someone needs him right now.

         You’re not going to hurt Grandpa Henry, are you? Walter asks haltingly.

         Is that what you call him? The bastard asks with a devilish grin. 

         Are you? Walter asks with a little more power in his weak voice. 

         You read the note, the bastard remarks. I’m not going to do anything at all. 

         Walter braces himself for another yank on the chain, but nothing happens along those lines. Instead, sweat pours from his forehead, and he wipes it off with the back of his hand. For a second, his sweat smells coppery, like blood gurgling from a wound.

         If you think my mom’s going to show up and spoil our little party, don’t worry, the bastard says with a smirk. She thinks I’m studying for a French exam all night with my friend. Stupid cunt wants me to see the world. Go to college in Europe. Maybe, go on to join the Foreign Service. She doesn’t get it. I’ve seen what the world really is. It is the sound of an axe cutting into flesh. It is the smell of blood squirting from a vein. It is what you see, when everything goes dark, and the bitch in your hands is just one more shadow among many. It is a dream; that’s what it is; a restless nightmare where you never get to wake up. El dia de los muertos, except you can’t satisfy the dead by leaving tortillas and cheap liquor on their tombstones. You can’t do anything at all, in fact, but make sure you shed more blood than they do. Make them afraid of you. Turn the tables, because the Prince of this world deals all the cards. And guess what he has dealt you. Come on, you can answer me, fat man. What cards did that devil hand you?

         Just one, Walter answers. The Ace of Spades. The Death Card.

         The highest card in the deck, the bastard reflects. But also a death omen. Odd, little fucker, isn’t it? The winning card in a hand, but having no value when by itself. I can see how true that is. What would you have done, if you didn’t have me beside you the whole time? Would you have made that man dance for you? Would you have taken his manhood, if I had not been lurking in the shadows? Would you have taken a hold of that axe over there and gone down to the pier the other night? 

         But now, I’ve got to act on my own, Walter says.

         That’s right, the bastard smiles. Time to take off the training wheels. 

         Defeated, Walter starts to lower his head to his pillow. The bastard snaps back the chain, before Walter can find even a moment of rest. This time, the force is such that Whiskers pounces off the belly. He lands on the bedroom floor, shoots up his tail, and gives the bastard the dirtiest look a cat can muster. Interestingly, though, the cat does not hiss at the bastard. He can see into the bastard’s eyes. He knows like anyone else when he has met his match. He looks at the bastard, and then he scampers away.

         Walter looks down. He sees how his friend runs off. He is alone to an extent he cannot remember feeling before. It is not just that his cat has left him. His imaginary friends are gone, or unreachable. Even the ghosts appear to have faded back into the crackling walls or the antique furnishings. 

         He tries to think about his Grandma Eunice, not that she would side with him at this or any other time against Lucius. Nevertheless, her very presence would mean he is not entirely alone with his brother. He gladly now would feel the sting of her gnarly wooden spoon, if only he could be freed from those menacing, dark eyes staring back at him from the other side of the bedroom. 

         But Grandma Eunice is not here, not yet anyway; and so Lucius has him now all to himself. Walter can resist, but Lucius will overpower him. Walter can refuse, as he did the last time; but he suspects that this time the end result will be something a lot worse than butt rape. The rapist drops his seed in dead ground, and then he leaves to menace someone else. What if the rapist never leaves? What if the punishment is that he stays beside his victim from now unto eternity? What if Walter falls down that dark abyss, that endlessly deep river, and yet still hears that sinister voice whispering only an inch behind his ears? What if he never finds any peace even in his own annihilation?

         So I shall not refuse him, Walter thinks. I shall betray the one man, who taught me how to love, so that I may not be beaten down by my brother tonight. Is this how a gentleman would act? Probably not, but look at how I lie here, naked but for my old undershorts, bandaged in the back of my head and four inches from my manhood. Do I look like a gentleman? Do I speak as one? Or do I look and speak more like a pig that is caught between two rails of a fence, a squealing oink flinging sweat every which way?

         The bastard yanks impatiently at the chain. 

         It is time to come to Jesus, the bastard chuckles.

         Walter braces himself. Then, he rolls to his side, and pushes himself up, so that he is sitting on the side of the bed and facing into his dresser mirror. He coughs up an unctuous string of phlegm, when he takes a whiff of that melted candle wax spreading across the surface of his antique dresser. The coughing fit passes; and he feels better, or at least more alive. He is in no condition to take on the angels and the saints, truth be told; but he manages to stand on his naked feet and to waddle over to his slippers.

         The bastard watches him with some amusement, as if Walter is an overfed ape mimicking the mannerisms of a man. The bastard rattles the chain now and then just to remind Walter who is boss; but, for the most part, he permits him to dress without further fanfare. 

         Walter feels better in his starched, white shirt and checkered pants. He is way too tired already to bend over any more, and so he dispenses with his loafers in favor of the slippers he has on his feet now. He splashes Jeanne Arthes on his face, and puts a folded handkerchief in his shirt pocket. He remains a pig, of course. He is not under any illusions to the contrary; but the smaller, daintier details, the refined appearance of a gentleman, help him to cope with the absolute despair now washing over his soul.

         Do not forget the axe, the bastard snarls, when Walter is finished.

         Yes, of course, Walter mutters in the manner of a servile manservant.

         Walter waddles over to the dresser, and pulls the axe blade out of the crevice. He removes the note, and places it upon the dresser. He holds the axe upside down by his right thigh. The blade sways perilously close to his knee but never slices his pants.

         The bastard yanks on the chain. Walter steps forward, so that his neck does not take the brunt of the force. He continues to walk passed the bastard, keeping his eyes down the whole time, and tightening his grip upon the wooden handle of his dirty axe.

*   *   *

         Walter plods up the spiral staircase, slowly, sometimes painfully, but with a far and distant look in his eyes that suggests that he is somewhere else. A man might see madness in his eyes, and he would not be entirely off the mark; but, upon reflection, he would see that there is considerably more there. Is it determination? Calculation? A commitment to excellence even in doing something detestable? Perhaps, but if a man looked even deeper into those eyes, then he would sense that the fat pig trundling up the steps in slippers is not the sole owner of those dreamy eyelids and blank pupils. In those eyes may be found the mind of ages, the untold horrors of this house coalescing into a dead calm, the old devils putting on the airs of refined gentlemen when about to commit the unpardonable sin. Everything about this horrid death house now comes together in those eyes to say that this is Walter’s moment, his chance at redemption, his stage on which to shine. He can take ownership of this house, indeed of his life, if only he slams that blade into the flesh of the man he loves. Love is defeated, yes, but in its place will be the power, the self-assurance, the refined manners of a devil given reign, finally, over the ghosts that have haunted him for so long. 

         Walter stops at the top step. It is dark, dreary, for the dead light bulb swinging side to side a few inches above his head has yet to be replaced. No matter, for Walter knows that the attic door is unlocked. He needs only to push the door open. How easy it is at the end. Did not Jesus Himself say that His yoke is easy and His burden is light?

         He shoves the door open. As expected, the hinges scream. The darkness inside has the taste and the texture of an abandoned crypt. The darkness settles on Walter’s face like a death mask. Walter does not recoil from the sensation. Indeed, at least so far as a man might be able to tell from looking into his eyes, Walter seems to accept, if not to embrace, everything about this experience. He is calm, in his element, a tool of someone far more powerful, yes, but also a master in the making. Surely, with that at stake, the sting of death is a small price; no more than a trifle that will be ignored.

         The light over the hospital bed is on. It buzzes feebly. 

         Walter wants to step forward, but he waits for his master to catch up. The trek up the spiral staircase has been hard for Walter, given what he carries about his waist and hips; but it has been that much harder for the bastard. The steps are narrow. The staircase as a whole is dimly lit in some places and completely dark in other places. In the best of circumstances, it is treacherous. For a man in crutches, a man also flirting with madness, it is nearly impossible. 

         Still, for all that, the bastard is even more determined than he is mad; and so, within a few minutes, he catches up to the fat man at the other end of the chain. The bastard rattles the rusted old chain to let him know that he is a few steps behind him.

         Walter steps into the attic. He shivers from the chill. Clearly, the old walls are no match for the elements outside; for the draft pushing through the cracks is intense enough now to be uncomfortable. Too cold to be a hospital room, but just fine to be a morgue; and so Walter decides, then and there, not to repair the walls any time soon.

         He stops at the side of the hospital bed. He stares down at the face of the man who loves him. The man who once said to him…

*   *   *

         Yes, you may hug the swan, but do not squeeze it too hard now, Walter, my boy. You will understand when you are an old man like me. Believe me, when I say so.

         Grandpa Henry speaks in his normal, jocular manner, while leaning lazily on his outdoor, wooden, chaise lounge and slurping his fourth or fifth Scotch and soda. He is a happy man, especially when too many sheets to the wind; a man others might say is ‘not too deep,’ or even ‘too Aussie and not enough Brit.’ 

         Of course, none of that matters to Walter Whipple, a lad barely out of his cloth diapers. Walter has the kind of round face and big eyes that suggest a boy discovering anew most everything he sees. The summer blue sky above is endless, mysterious, the reach of his imagination. The foliage closer to earth, the pond in which he splashes as if one of the black swans, the meandering trails through the enchanted garden, this is the world with which he is more familiar. Even here, though, he can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of talking trees and singing swans. Then, there are the strange ‘little people’ who hide behind the low hanging branches. They seem friendly enough, but of course they are quite mysterious, too, even more so than the occasional Negro he sees on the Zenith. He does not think that they are black; more likely, green. After all, life is green, until it gets too much sunlight; and these people stay out of the sun.

         So the world is as exciting as it is unnerving. Thankfully, there is a kind of buoy to which Walter can return, lest he ever be swept too far and wide by the currents of his own imagination. That buoy had been his Grandma Eunice, until about the time he stopped crapping in his cloth diapers. Apparently, she came to the conclusion one day that he was too much of a boy for her; and so she handed him off to her Happy Aussie husband. ‘Keep him on the straight and the narrow’ is about all she had said to Henry.

         And so Grandpa Henry is his buoy now. Grandpa sits and watches, while Walter discovers brand new worlds beneath rocks or behind shrubs. Grandpa plays silly ‘race records’ on his outdoor phonograph. Grandpa prefers his drinks over ice, when he has no beer within reach. Give him Aussie beer, and he is in white man’s heaven, he says.

         Oh, and Grandpa Henry also loves to pull down his pants’ zipper and to pull out what he calls his ‘black swan.’ His ‘black swan’ is not really black, except for the tiny hairs on top; but Grandpa Henry often says that he is as hung as a ‘Black Irishman,’ so maybe that’s why he calls it a ‘black swan.’ Regardless, he pets his ‘black swan’ until he gets red in the face. He teaches Walter to keep a lookout for Grandma Eunice, for the old lady can get a little pissy when she sees the ‘black swan.’ He also lets Walter pet his ‘black swan,’ but only if Walter has been a good boy.

         Yes, you may hug the swan, but do not squeeze it too hard now, Walter, my boy. You will understand when you are an old man like me. Believe me, when I say so.

         Walter usually hugs the swan with his little boy fingers. Sometimes, he hugs the swan with his lips, because that makes the swan happy even faster. Swans like kisses, it seems, just like little boys before lights out. 

         But, boy, do not squeeze a swan too hard. However happy the swan might have been beforehand, he will be as pissy afterwards. That’s the only time Walter sees his happy-go-lucky Grandpa Henry get upset. Walter is careful not to make that mistake, because he loves his grandpa, and knows his grandpa loves him. Moreover, his grandpa teaches him how to love, which is something the talking trees and the laughing leaves have never disclosed to him. That lesson alone sets grandpa apart from all the others.

         For learning how to love is everything. Even a little boy knows that much.

*   *   *

         Walter lifts the axe, slowly, methodically, while staring down at the face of the man who had taught him how to love. The face is scarred, hideous, like something put through a meat grinder. Moreover, the eyes are shut tight, so the love trapped behind those eyelids remains unreachable. Like the mannequins, Grandpa Henry is so near to him still, and yet the life has gone out of his face, leaving behind a dead thing that, in this case, just happens to breathe. Best to relegate this breathing carcass to the ever expanding ash heap. Grandpa Henry can be burnt out back alongside Rexford Muldoon and Clover Fist. Throw in some other ‘oldies, but no longer goodies,’ and that bonfire will be seen for miles. It will be the one light in a land overtaken by the endless night.

         So why does Walter hold the axe blade beside his right ear for so long? Why not slam the blade into that breathing carcass? Why not bathe in Grandpa Henry’s creepy, old man blood, when it squirts up and away from punctured arteries? Why not scatter Grandpa Henry’s diseased organs all over the place every time he shakes meat residue off of the blade? Why not shed the blood with which Walter may be redeemed for that failure that so scarred his life decades ago? Why not take a hold of his second chance?

         Because all that means killing the man who loved him, and Walter simply does not have it in him to do that. He cannot cross that last line even with the axe in hand.

         Walter almost drops the axe, but something tells him that this time he will not be able to run down to his bedroom and to hide beneath his sheets. After all, there is a burly bastard leaning on crutches, who can yank him this or that way with the chain attached to the iron dog collar around his neck. The bastard has seen better days, but he is strong enough surely to prevent Walter from waddling down that spiral staircase.

         And so dropping the axe is not really an option. 

         Indeed, there is only one thing Walter can do. The fact that he has no choice to make comforts him. The dead calm that he had felt on the spiral staircase returns. He will do what he must do, and the fates will determine if he sleeps in his bed this night or if he sinks to the bottom of the river. 

         With a queer grin forming on his lips, Walter abruptly turns on his heels. He can be dexterous when the circumstance demands, though he will end up paying for it the next day with severe exhaustion and muscle pain. Fortunately for Walter, he gives no thought to how he will suffer. Otherwise, he might have hesitated just enough to lose the advantage that comes from the element of surprise. God alone knows what would have happened if he had hesitated. Likely, the outcome would have been bad for him.

         As Walter turns on his heels, the old chain attached to his iron dog collar wraps once around his neck. The choking sensation is immediate and overwhelming. But for his adrenaline rush, he probably would have fallen to his knees just then. 

         Instead, he rushes forward, while his lips contort in a vain effort to grab the air in front of him. His eyes bulge in his sockets. His nose twitches, like a big bull in heat.

         He closes the distance between himself and the bastard in seconds. He makes a conscious effort to slam the axe blade into the bastard’s heart. 

         Though everything happens so fast, the bastard sees Walter’s eyes dart towards his own heart. The bastard lifts his left crutch, and holds it parallel to the floor inches in front of his chest. He instinctively leans more on his right crutch to balance himself for the oncoming attack. 

         Walter slams the axe blade into the side of the crutch. The recoil is so much he nearly drops his axe onto the floor. He steps back to take another shot, but that gives the bastard just enough space to swing the crutch into Walter’s left side. 

         Walter wants to scream out in pain. He does not have enough wind in his lungs to do so. Instead, his face turns dark red, almost purple, and sweat pours like an open faucet down his quivering cheeks. He is frightened a moment, but then the look deep in his eyes says that he is pissed off more than anything else. He wants to kill this sick bastard as much as he wants to save his Grandpa Henry. It is that strong motivation at that moment that keeps him from falling to the floor, in spite of the egregious pain in his left ribs. He senses that the bastard will squish him like a bug with his crutches, if he ends up on the floor with no defense but that axe he swings at the bastard’s heels.

         Walter stumbles back a few feet. The bastard limps forward to strike him again with the crutch. Walter kicks the bastard’s bandaged right knee with his left foot. The impact would have so much more, if he had been wearing shoes instead of slippers. As it is, though, because his knees are in such bad shape, the bastard screams out in real pain, and puts too much of his weight on his right crutch. The bastard hobbles back in an awkward manner. He leans even more on his right crutch to try to compensate. His crutch slips out from under him, and he falls onto his right side. There is a horrid thud as the burly adolescent drops his considerable weight at once onto the wood floor. An eerie crackling sound just afterwards calls to mind a big tree falling through branches.

         The bastard feebly holds up his left crutch like a shield. With his other hand he pulls back frantically on the chain. He wants to tighten that pressure around Walter’s neck. His immediate problem is that there is too much slack given how close they are to one another in this death struggle. 

         Walter is in no condition to squat down to take another shot. Therefore, though he is vaguely aware that he will feel it the next day, Walter slams his enormous flesh onto the crutch that is being held up as a shield. The crutch cracks in two with a loud snap. Walter’s torso continues to fall into the bastard’s, so that they soon resemble a pair of fat fuck lovers trying awkwardly to have missionary style sex with one another.

         The bastard grabs at the chain just inches in front of the iron dog collar. There is no slack problem this close and personal. He pulls back with all of his strength in an attempt to tighten the noose so much that Walter’s neck breaks. 

         Walter feels his life leaking out of him, like air from a punctured balloon. He is not breathing at all now, and the dimly lit world in which he is fighting to stay alive is going to turn pitch black within seconds. Sound seems to be receding, so that the odd grunts and moans voiced by his opponent are as if heard from miles away. Only his old and overworked heart seems close at hand. It beats as if a Conga drum inside his ears.

         With no time left, Walter slams the axe blade into the left side of the bastard’s neck. It is a perfect shot. The blade sinks a few inches into the flesh. The left carotid artery ruptures, and warm blood geysers into Walter’s fat face. The blood splatters so fast and furiously that Walter cannot see anything through his soaked eyes. He tries to land another shot with his axe blade, but he instead slams it harmlessly into the floor.

         Notwithstanding the ruptured carotid artery, the bastard pulls hard on that old chain. He is fading fast, but in the dim light he can see Walter’s sick eyes roll upward. 

The fat fuck has lost too much oxygen. He has no more fight left in him. He is passing out; and if the bastard can continue to pull back on his chain just a bit longer, then he will die. In the heat of the battle, the bastard does not think about what will happen to him if he has a gargantuan corpse on his torso, while his blood continues to spray out the left side of his neck. He only wants to kill the fat fuck while he still can. 

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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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