The Restless Wrangler

         Billy Ray Blaise wants to grasp the iron posts before him. He knows that he should be leaning on his cane; but at the last moment, he had decided to go out into this night storm without it, so that he would not look so helpless when Jim Trent first observes him. Now, Billy Ray is neither a master negotiator, nor a street brawler; but he knows all about the importance of a stage actor’s first impression on the stage. If the actor walks on stage (or, in this instance, stands before the Iron Gate) with confidence, then at once he has achieved the upper hand with his audience. If not, then that same audience will smell blood in the water. They will not be an audience so much as a critic, and like all critics they will be determining from the start how they can tear him down, initially within their minds, then with their jeers and whistles. The world is a jungle, predators looking to pounce on preys, and that is especially true with the first encounter.

         And so Billy Ray has been standing tall before these iron posts, since the yellow-checkered cab dropped him off a while ago. He has retained the edifice anyway of a pillar of granite, while the cold rain has been sliding down his face and under his collar. Privately, his nerves have been twisting into painful knots, and then exploding outward like fireworks, so that it has taken every last bit of his will to try to hide the cauldron of fear and pain beneath his skin. He senses that he looks strong from a distance. He cannot tell if he will look as steady the moment Jim Trent comes out from the darkness to stand inches in front of him.

         Then, he feels his knees start to buckle; and he grasps the two iron posts to keep himself from tumbling to the mud. He wishes he had the cane. Leaning on a cane, after all, looks better than grasping on prison bars. He stands on the outside of the Iron Gate, and yet he senses that he looks like the man in prison.

         There is a flash of lightning up ahead. For the first time, he can see with some clarity the mansion with the many gables at the top of the hill. It is a sad, dark place; a house of old secrets contained in an edifice even darker than the night, a sprawling nightmare of misshapen towers and inappropriate columns. It is a brooding mansion meant to turn people away.

         So who is Jim Trent, really? Billy Ray mutters, as he leans his exhausted, sickly white face in between the spiked posts. Is this where his madness begins?

         Billy Ray thinks he hears something behind him. His very first impression is a car door shutting; but, of course, that does not make any sense. He is only a few feet up from the side of the road. If an automobile came along this dark, lonely, two-lane highway, and parked within hearing distance, then surely he’d have heard it approaching long before now. The rain is loud, and the wind does scream now and then; but the storm is not so boisterous as to be deafening. His senses are on such high alert, moreover. Nothing can sneak up on him just now.

         My imagination, Billy Ray mutters. I wonder how much of the past couple of days I dreamt and how much was real?

         Billy Ray thinks a moment, and then decides not to try to answer his own question. He is here, after all. Does it matter if he is here because Jim Trent is fucking with his mind, or he is fucking with himself? If he imagined the postcard in the mailbox, the obscene phone call, the officer staring through the window, even how the muzzle of his .44 Magnum repeatedly tapped his heart, then good old Jim Trent may not expect him now to be standing in front of his gate in the middle of a rainstorm. Nevertheless, Jim will see him out here. He’ll be picked up on one of Jim’s hidden security cameras. Likely, Jim already knows he is out here, grasping these posts like a prisoner, staring intently back up at his house.

         There is another lightning flash. This one highlights the clouds floating a few feet above the many gables. Together, the clouds look like the side view of a child’s skull. The skull is tilted upward, like it is staring into the heavens, and beholding what exists beyond the pearly gates. And what does it see? An untold number of skulls like itself; bones illuminated by lightning; wide sockets devoid of eyes that, precisely because they are blind, in truth see that the heavens far above are black, empty, and dead. Remove the last vestiges of fabric, the final scent of a cloud, the last glitter of starlight, and there is nothing, but the void.

         Billy Ray feels the cold fear coiling down his spine. The lightning flash is gone. The darkness reigns yet again. Nevertheless, that fear persists, spreading out from his spine to ignite his nerve endings, turning his wet fingers as clammy as the fingers of a corpse leaning into an iron gate. 

         Billy Ray thinks again about the blind skulls in the heavens. He trembles.

         Is that really what the dead see? Billy Ray thinks, while his clammy, right hand slowly drops from the post. Is that what Gary senses, however vaguely, as soon as his mother turns off the light and closes the bedroom door on him? How can he escape the strange lure of that dark sadness, as his innocence fades just a bit more with each passing day? 

         Billy Ray slides his right hand into his overcoat pocket. He feels the cold, wet grip of his .44 Magnum. He thinks of Gary shedding a solitary tear, so weak and desperate, as sleep finally overtakes his little boy. He grips hard on his gun and slowly extends his right index finger to the trigger. 

         There is something behind me, isn’t there? Billy Ray thinks. Probably not a parked automobile as I would have heard that coming; but surely something…

         There is another distinct sound. It is only a few feet away, probably, ten at most. Is it the sole of a shoe crunching into the loose, wet gravel at the near edge of the two-lane highway behind him? Maybe, but so much happens when a storm rages it can be anything, a fallen branch, the crunch of hail on the road…

         Bullshit, Billy Ray thinks. That’s a man!

         Billy Ray’s adrenaline rockets to the stratosphere. He turns around fast, but in so doing he nearly loses his balance. He tries to remove what is inside his overcoat pocket, but forgets what it is, and has no real ability to do so anyway. Instead, his right hand just flaps as a dying fish on something slippery, metallic, and clammy cold. Whatever is inside his overcoat pocket is dead and of no use.

         Billy Ray dances a moment on the wet mud under his shoes. Professional dancer that he is, he regains his balance soon enough. Still, his heartbeat is the loudest Conga drum he ever has heard. It deafens him to the rain and the wind.

         Billy Ray’s first impression is that he is staring at the slippery back of an enormous snake. Before he can make sense of the fact that, instead, he is now beholding a rain and wind swept two-lane highway, he senses a hulking shadow move just beyond his right peripheral vision. It is like a figment from a horrible nightmare breaking through that glass sliding door that exists between madness and sanity. Even as he begins to sense that that shadow is real, it is too elusive in shape and in motion for his mind to zero in on what it is. Is it a man, a ghost, a beast, a dark menace born whenever a man with a vivid imagination spends a bit too much time skulking along the side of a remote highway? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ to all of those possibilities at the same time. That is not at all rational, of course; but the horror that happens next is much too confused, too otherworldly in a way, for reason to be able to hang its hat in his harried mind.

         Billy Ray begins to move in the direction of that hulking shadow, when at once he feels something woolen and scratchy sliding down his head. It could be the face of a bear that has been ripped off of a carcass. Surely, it smells awful enough; a suffocating brew of wet hair, musty flatulence, and rotted meat. His mind reaches for a vision, even if ghastly, anything really to make sense of this foreign object sliding over his skin. He envisions the dead bear face that he had intimated a second or two before; but now, there is blood sliding out from the inside lining of that animal skin. The blood slides down his neck, and soon looks like a blood hand wrapped around his larynx. The blood hand squeezes so hard he hears (or imagines) his larynx pop. He gasps in vain for his last bit of breath.

         He opens his eyes to breathe, and that is when he realizes that there are holes for his eyes in this bearskin. He has the definite impression of looking out through a mask. He is about to deduce something more from that fact, when he feels strong, masculine hands grabbing at his arms from behind him. Of course, those hands are in charge right now; and yet he senses that they are unsure. He senses, moreover, that they are the hands of a young man. Jim Trent would not be clutching at him so amateurishly. Perhaps, he sent out one of his minions to do the dirty work. Or perhaps these are not the hands of a man at all. The dark and sinister nights can grab at us in many ways. Human hands are only one of a lot of options. Perhaps, something inhuman is grabbing inanely at his backside…

         Though he cannot envision what this inhuman something or other may be just then, he experiences an adrenaline fear he could not have imagined before this very moment. It is like his entire body is one, unadulterated scream of pain and horror. His limbs flail every which way. His throat seems to shrivel to about the size of a straw. His head bobs on a turbulent sea. He is teeth rattling crazy.

         And yet just as he goes mad, strangely, he recalls that gun in his pocket.

         With that one coherent thought in mind, he discovers just then that he is able to exert some control over his arms. His legs still slip and slide everywhere at once. Nevertheless, with his right hand, he reaches for the .44 Magnum; and with his left arm he swings back his elbow. Perhaps, if he calms down just a bit and gets more self-control, he can fight back against that unseen something or other behind him. He does not feel hopeful, but for the first time since he saw a hulking form sweep his peripheral sight, he feels something other than terror.

         The self-control only lasts as long as it takes for him to realize that that unseen attacker also is reaching for his .44 Magnum. Desperation kicks into high gear, and he is again the flailing rabbit trying to flee the clutches of a monster.

         The attacker gets a lot closer to his back. Billy Ray feels what may be an old dagger or a hard crotch beating against his ass. The end of violence is mad, animal lust. Murder is sodomy when the dagger inserts deep enough and twists.

         Billy Ray frantically throws his elbows back, but it is no use. The beast is attached to his backside, like some sort of malignant hump born out of his own sick flesh. Perhaps, in a way, every fight is a fight with ourselves, no matter all those others who may be throwing kicks and punches our way. Billy Ray cannot pursue that thought any further at that time, of course, but the deeper fear he is responsible for his own predicament penetrates even deeper into his soul. He will carry this fear with him long after the horror of this attack later dissipates.

         In the midst of all this confusion, Billy Ray did not notice that headlights had been shining on him for some time. He suddenly senses the light in his left peripheral vision. He turns in that direction, and as a result the attacker finally is able to grab the .44 Magnum out of his pocket and to knock him forward with one shove. Billy Ray falls face down without discovering the source of the light.

         He is trying in vain to move his face to the side, so as to take in some air through the nose holes in his bearskin (or is it a wool mask?), when he feels the sharpest imaginable pain in his ass. He imagines a hard dildo thrust deeply into his asshole. His reason tries to tell him that he is being held down with the heel of a shoe or a boot, but in his mind he sees a dildo crammed so deep that blood spurts out from in between his butt cheeks. 

         Billy Ray tries to push himself up. He writhes erratically every which way in an attempt to knock that dildo out of his ass. He wants to scream in absolute pain and agony, but his popped larynx is flaccid. 

         Dead men don’t dance, a strange, effeminate voice says nearby. 

         Billy Ray thinks that this voice belongs to someone other than that brutal attacker. He also thinks that that second man (maybe a woman, but his instinct insists otherwise) said more than those four words. Even if so, it is those words that resonate in Billy Ray’s mind, while that dildo continues to dig ever deeper.

         Dead men don’t dance, Billy Ray thinks.

         He repeats the sentence several times in his mind, like it is some sort of dark and mysterious mantra. He continues to do so until suddenly there is a bad pain in the back of his head. The pain surrounds him, and he falls into the void.

*   *   *

         Déjà vu all over again, Billy Ray thinks. 

         He cannot open his eyes, but he can sense his body being dragged like an unwieldy sack of potatoes across wet asphalt. The top of his head snaps back at times, and when it does so it slides through the road surface. He imagines globs of blood gurgling out from the top of his head and leaving a purplish blood trail on the highway. Mostly, though, he feels the deluge of rain and hail. The storm feels as if it is poking holes in his flesh as a precursor to tearing his limbs apart. The storm hurts him, to be sure; but even more so, it frightens away his sanity; so that he is left to wonder in his semi-consciousness if ever he can break away from this ‘déjà vu all over again’ loop in which he finds himself. Or has he been doomed to a life where others knock him out and drag him to this or that tomb?

         Someone is holding his hands together above and behind his head. There is enormous strength in those hands, but there is also considerable anxiety. The man does not quite know what he is doing. He is ‘winging it,’ like an actor who has forgotten his lines on stage but does not want the audience to figure it out. If Billy Ray had any strength left in his body, then he might be able still to yank his hands free and to get away; but he had not yet even recovered from his old wounds, let alone the new hole in the back of his head. Therefore, Billy Ray off and on can put a few thoughts together; but otherwise he is just a waterlogged weight for that strong man to slide across the highway. 

         Billy Ray feels his mouth full of rainwater. He cannot swallow that much, and he does not have the strength to turn his head aside so that he can spit the cold and slimy water out with the blood dripping down his chin. He senses that he is about to choke, and that pumps some warm blood back into his throbbing head. The adrenaline is more like a spurt of spent gasoline, but it is enough for him to open his right eye, to turn his head to the side, and to spit out the blood and the rainwater. He braces himself for another wallop once they see he lives.

         But nobody hits him a second time. Perhaps they do not see him spit out his blood and rainwater drink; or perhaps they do not mind that he may survive the night. ‘Dead men don’t dance.’ Is that not what one of them stated earlier?

         Before Billy Ray can answer his own question, he slides back to the void. There is the pitter-patter of rain; but it sounds distant, unreal, as if something heard barely through the static of outer space. It fades back into the static and then gives way altogether to the impenetrable darkness. 

*   *   *

         Billy Ray dreams of a hulking shadow man. The shadow man is holding up sheet metal with one hand, and repeatedly slamming the sheet metal with the dull edge of an axe blade with his other hand. It is impossible to see if there is any expression on the shadow man’s face (or, for that matter, if he has a face); and yet Billy Ray senses in his dream delirium that the man is getting his jollies from that ruckus. Moreover, the shadow man moves impossibly fast with his old axe. He is more like a machine than a man, albeit a machine that get its jollies from beating holes into the sheet metal. While the machine man remains then, and forever, shrouded in shadows, Billy Ray senses that the machine man’s old, timeless eyes are widening with every fast strike of his axe blade into those of an excited boy. If the machine man continues in this vein much longer, then he will be a baby with an axe blade; no more than a mercurial noisemaker, really, and yet precisely what the machine man fundamentally wants to be in the end.

         Then, bereft of the last traces of manhood, impervious to the pitiful cry for mercy, the mercurial noisemaker finally will break through the sheet metal. He will stare through the hole that he has made. He will have the blank eyes of a beast; and he will stare in thoughtless silence until Billy Ray, naked and alone before him, finally pushes a bit of air through his tightened larynx and screams.

         Billy Ray opens his right eye about midway. He is screaming, though he is not able to hear himself over the loud and cantankerous sound of rain slamming the top of the automobile trunk. The raindrops are beating through the trunk in the same way as the dull edge of the axe blade through the sheet metal. There is little time left, before the trunk gives way, and a waterfall of cold and slimy death pours over his weak flesh…

         Or so he imagines at that moment, though the voice of reason tries then to tell him that the deluge outside is not about to poke holes through the trunk over his head. He shakes that voice of reason aside. Reason has no place within a crisis like this one. Reason will break down his survival instinct. Yes, because of reason he will be mentally on target, but also he will be dead before the sick and twisted night is done. Better to indulge the fantasy that literally the sky is falling through the holes in the trunk above than to let down his mental guards.

         There must have been a vicious bump on the road, for Billy Ray feels his head flap a few times like the fins of a seal. He imagines yet another wound on the back of his head. Whether real or fancied, the wound feels like thick slime gurgling out from a hole, and spreading across the surface of a pungent swamp.

         My God, there is a swamp smell in here, Billy Ray thinks. A death smell…

         He tries to concentrate on what he thinks of as a ‘death smell.’ Perhaps, this is his way of keeping his mind from yet again sliding into the void. If so, his determination avails him nothing; for before he knows it, he is lost in darkness.

         And yet that is not entirely true; for even while unconscious, his swollen fingers clutch at the scratchy twine tied about his wrists. This is a small part of his mind, likely more instinct than thought; that will not be lost in the darkness no matter the injuries inflicted. Rather than be lost, something in him will snap and pull at the twine about his wrists, even if in time his struggle proves futile.

*   *   *

         Blank eyes stare at me through tiny holes, Billy Ray thinks. They stare at me, while I lie in a swamp, a death smell. They stare at me, though I fight back feebly with my fingers. They stare at me, no matter if I am dreaming or awake, dead or alive. They stare at me, because I dance like a whore in my tight jeans when I should be back with my son, helping him with his math, and tucking him into bed. They stare at me, because I love how I can make your crotch pop with the perfect bounce in my butt. They stare at me, because I am so fucking bad…

         Billy Ray opens his right eye about midway. The trunk door is open above him. It is like the door of an open coffin. He is the corpse with his hands tied to one another above his chest. There is a hulking shadow staring into that coffin, no doubt one of the grievers. The hulking shadow bends into that coffin so as to get a closer look. Probably, he wants to observe how well that aging embalmer fixed up Billy Ray’s face and hands. Like a woman asking another woman which hairdresser she uses, the hulking shadow is nosy, that is all. He figures his time will come, and he wants to look just as good as everyone else in the graveyard.

         This is my last show, Billy Ray thinks. And yet the audience wants to see if they can discern a mishap with my makeup, or a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ with my dead man’s suit, so that they can justify the scathing review that they want to write. I am never freed from the critics. Such is the price for a life on stage.

         Lightning flashes. Billy Ray observes that he is not in a coffin. Rather, he is in an automobile trunk. Moreover, the hulking shadow bending over him, and now grabbing a hold of the twine about his wrists, is surely not a mourner. That flash had illuminated the scene much too briefly for Billy Ray to get a good look at the man’s face, but Billy Ray saw the eyes. There had been no sadness inside those eyes. There had been madness, anxiety, excessive pride, but no traces of sorrow or empathy. In that second or two of illumination, Billy Ray had had the wherewithal to glimpse the eyes of a devil boy, or perhaps the eyes of an eager beaver in the SS pulling a Jew out of a train car for the first time, but certainly not the eyes of a mourner standing by an open coffin.

         Billy Ray closes his one good eye, as the hulking shadow lifts him up from the floor of the trunk. He braces himself, as the hulking shadow draws him only as far as the edge and then lets gravity do the rest. He rolls over the edge, and falls face down into a puddle behind the parked automobile. 

         Billy Ray’s chin slams into a rock hidden beneath the surface of the dirty puddle. He starts to scream out in pain, but then nearly chokes on the mud. His whole body twitches in agony, and he briefly imagines that the raindrops falling on his back in fact are small flames. The flames coalesce into a hissing bonfire, which in turn sinks into his flesh. His body writhes within this imagined hell pit.

         Thankfully, Billy Ray manages to drop that image soon enough, when the hulking shadow pulls him out of the puddle. His chin still throbs terribly, but he can deal with physical pain better than the thought of burning alive for his sins.

         Once more, Billy Ray’s wrists are far above and behind his head, as he is being dragged across a wet and rocky surface. He really is a sack of potatoes, a thing that needs to be pulled from here to there. He imagines himself just then to be an invalid, which may not be too far off the mark. He is an invalid in body and soul, because he had chosen to pop a crotch instead of helping his son with his math homework. Sounds far fetched, except that those peeping eyes know…

         Somewhere between the trunk and the porch, he hears that queer man’s unsettling voice: Slow down, you bucking habanero tit. I want my cowboy alive!

         Nice of him to care, Billy Ray thinks sarcastically. 

         I know what I am doing, a much more sinister, masculine voice responds.

         Do not give me any lip, ‘Hijo de La Chingada,’ the queer voice snaps. No barrio bum is going to get the best of me.

         The more masculine voice mutters something incomprehensible, and the conversation comes to an end. That is just as well. Billy Ray is in enough agony. He does not want to be subjected to what sounds like the ornery tit for tat of a couple that has been married much too long. Moreover, the madness suggested in their speech patterns gives him the creeps. It is bad enough to be kidnapped after hours. It is much worse to be kidnapped by a couple of certifiable crazies.

         Is Jim Trent one of these crazies? Billy Ray thinks. Or are these two loons much lower on the flow chart? Where are they taking me? Likely, a safe house…

         Before Billy Ray can pursue that thought any further, his head slams into a rock. He can feel the blood oozing out from this wound. This one is definitely not a figment of his imagination. If they do not treat him soon, then he is going to bleed to death. Part of Billy Ray almost welcomes that prospect; but then as before, he imagines his son alone in bed, and determines to survive at all costs.

         Nevertheless, although determined to survive, Billy Ray again blacks out.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray awakens. His right eye opens completely. His left eye quivers a bit, like it is unsure if it is up to the challenge, and then decides to stay closed for now. Billy Ray imagines that he is Ichabod Crane, staring wide-eyed into the dark and mysterious world in which he finds himself, and craning his weak neck a few inches to see if indeed there is anything else out there but this unsettling darkness. Man is a trembling invalid when confronted with the utter vastness of the void. His pride falls aside, as he sheds a sticky tear down one of his cheeks.

         Billy Ray carefully lowers his head to the floor. He feels the underside of an octopus back there. He is too weak to scream out in fear. Indeed, every one of his breaths is shallow and labored, like he is trying to breathe through an old straw. Instead, his fear shivers down his spine and releases his bowels. He feels warm pee slither down the left leg of his trousers, and splash into his left shoe.

         Octopus legs gently massage the back of his head, while Billy Ray tries to squirm. Of course, he does not have the strength to wiggle his body somewhere else; and even if he did, he is certain this octopus would cling to him still. Billy Ray fears and despises this alien like creature on his head; and yet, even more so, he fears the very fact that every one of his responses would be futile. Is this what it is like to be paralyzed? To will a certain action with every last ounce of energy and of focus, and yet to know ahead of time that nothing will happen? Is this the nightmare of a quadriplegic? How can a man remain sane, when his will is forever cut off from his action? Perhaps, then, the dead are all mad, frothing at the mouth insane, because their ghosts can think, hope, despair, and yet not move even a blue toe on their own corpse. Perhaps, this is why old ghosts howl in despair when the wind rattles the eaves. 

         Billy Ray feels something gooey slime out from the thin space in between his head and the underside of the octopus. It smells salty. Is it octopus cum? Do octopi ejaculate? What is an octopus anyway, a fish, a mammal, an alien model left back in that lab where Ridley Scott dreamt up dark ways to make Sigourney Weaver want to kick some extraterrestrial butt? Moreover, what if anything can Billy Ray do now that there is slime or semen sliding down the back of his neck?

         He does not have the wherewithal to answer his own questions rationally at that moment, so his instincts have free reign. As a result, he shoots his head up from the floor to get away from that strange slime. He winces from what he would describe as an ‘electrical scream’ of pain, if indeed he then had any real command of language. Since words are too jumbled in his mind, he experiences this pain as if it is some great mystery from outside of himself. He senses that a shaman could free him from this pain much better than a doctor. Since neither are available to him, except perhaps as shadowy healers conjured in his dreams after hours, he has no choice but to suffer from what he cannot put into words.

         Then, his chin and upper neck slam into something tangible; indeed, one might say something cold and brutal in how viscerally real it is in comparison to ‘electric screams’ and ‘shadowy healers.’ His conscious mind shuts out at once everything that is dark and mysterious about this experience. It focuses totally, like a weak automobile putting everything that it has into getting up and over a hill; and as a result, it does not take long for Billy Ray to know what is wrapped about his neck. He lies back on the underside of the octopus, morose, deflated.

         They’ve put an iron collar around my neck, Billy Ray thinks. 

         He slides his head side to side. Now, he can hear the chain links rattling.

         He would have heard them rattling before, except that then he had been too caught up in his dark and frightened dreamscape. His fear subsides, for now the explanation is much more mundane: He has been shackled to the wall of an old, dark, nondescript room. He has been collared like a dog, for Jim Trent has been his ‘Peeping Tom’ all along and so knows every one of his debauched sins. Jim Trent knows, as he knows everything else about the city over which he has been presiding for years like some sort of dark shadow in the sky. Jim Trent has to keep tabs, to know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, so that he can send his crazy brother out to even the score on those who need to be balanced.

         Of course, ‘crazy brother’ is no longer around to do the dirty work. Billy Ray presumes that this infuriates Jim Trent, who no doubt prides himself on his ability to stay hidden in the shadows. Is Jim Trent so furious that he wants Billy Ray dead? Yes, but like the Don of an elaborate crime family he is too far from the mean streets now to feel comfortable doing the nasty himself. He can ‘give the word’ to one of his goons, but perhaps he does not feel comfortable enough with these folks to order them to commit murder. He could trust his brother to keep the ‘family secrets’ to himself (though David Trent had been erratic in all other ways), but can he trust an hireling to do the same? Apparently not, or so Billy Ray surmises. Otherwise, rather than chain him to this wall, they would’ve put a bullet in the back of his head, and tossed his bloody corpse into the river.

         Wild speculation, Billy Ray reminds himself. 

         True, but the puzzle pieces seem to fit. Billy Ray did much more than to take the life of a man’s brother. He took that man’s sharpest instrument out of his toolshed. Without David, Jim Trent is like the lumberjack robbed of his axe.

         Like a man without his cock, Billy Ray thinks. 

         Billy Ray chuckles insanely, though he is too weak to make any noise. His chain links rattle, but otherwise the room stays as silent as when he is out cold.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray awakens. His right eye opens. His left eye does not even quiver.

         There is someone else here, Billy Ray thinks. 

         Billy Ray instinctively lifts his folded hands from his chest, in order to try to defend himself. Only then does he learn that they too are shackled together. This time, instead of using scratchy twine, his kidnappers have clamped jingling handcuffs over his wrists. He can unfold his hands, and he can maintain about a foot of space in between his open palms (or so it feels, because it is too dark in this room for Billy Ray to see for sure how much he can separate his hands from one another); but otherwise his hands are totally out of commission. He wiggles his fingers, like ‘this little pig has roast beef and this little pig has none,’ but in his gut somewhere, he doubts that his ability to act out a stupid nursery rhyme with his fingers will save his ass. He folds his hands in penitence upon his chest.

         Billy Ray wants to focus on the person he senses somewhere out there in the darkness, but he is distracted again by the octopus suctioned to the back of his head. The octopus legs squeeze and release, squeeze and release, and Billy Ray senses that they do so in rhythm with his own heartbeat. Perhaps, the sick pulse in his veins affects the octopus as much as the octopus legs affect him. If so, then the octopus is not suctioned to him so much as they are suctioned one to another. Each one cannibalizes off the other, like conjoined twins in a cruel, remorseless death grip. Only one of them will slither away when this is all over.

         More slime or semen spits out from the thin space in between Billy Ray’s head and the underside of the octopus. It smells like salt. It feels like lubricant used for sex. That combination suggests ‘semen’ more so than ‘slime,’ and yet Billy Ray tries to shut that possibility out of his mind. The last thing he wants is a mental picture of this octopus fucking an open wound in the back of his head.

         Billy Ray wants to scream, though he senses that his larynx will not make any more sounds now than it had before. Steal an actor’s voice, and you may as well steal his manhood. That cursed octopus can fuck from the witching hour to high noon, but he cannot even belt out: Who the fuck are you? Who? Who? Who?

         Instead, he searches the darkness frantically for a shadow that steps out from the darkness, or the sound of a footstep, or the smell of body sweat. He is sure someone is out there. His instinct tells him that much, but that darkness is as still and as silent as it has been from the start. He can open his one good eye wide, and focus his conscious mind, but the void is as impenetrable as ever. He can know that that someone is approaching him, narrowing the untold distance between them with every passing second, and yet never before has he been so utterly alone. It is like the darkness is a mirror reflection, his own rejected soul as seen in a funhouse mirror; so that that someone very well might kneel inches from him, even reach out to him, but he would continue to be as alone as ever.

         Invalid, voiceless, alone, Billy Ray finally shuts his one good eye. He does not fall asleep immediately. He instead squeezes tears out from behind his shut eyelids, while octopus semen slides down his neck and spreads as a pond on the floor. His tears offer him no relief; and when sleep finally grasps a hold of him, it offers him no relief either. If anything, then sleep tortures him even more, as he dreams of falling further down an abyss that has neither a top nor a bottom.

*   *   *

         The abyss shakes. This makes no sense rationally, given that the eternal void through which Billy Ray is falling is without spatial or temporal characters. There is literally nothing to be shaken, and yet he cannot discard how his teeth rattle in his gums and his tears spit out from beneath his clenched eyelids. This is violence, whatever this is. He can feel it. He is coming up from the bowels of his own madness; and as a result, his one good eye twitches. 

         It does not open. It twitches. Then, he is shaken with even more obvious intent, like something or someone wants to awaken him. This vague awareness on his part finally opens his one good eye, though he is not sure at first because the world outside is as dark as the world inside. He is not sure that he is awake until he feels a solitary tear slide down his right cheek, and concludes that that syrupy tear would have remained buried if his eyelid had been closed then just.

         Billy Ray feels himself shake again. He cannot see anything, but he feels that something or someone is shaking his left shoulder. Perhaps, if he is able to lift and to turn his head a bit, then he can make sense of this.

         Billy Ray lifts his head several inches. The octopus suctioned to the back of his head grips tighter with its legs. It does not want to be left behind on that splintery floor. Its legs grip and release, grip and release, in sync with his heart as before, so that again he senses that they are cannibalizing each other. Warm and salty octopus semen (no doubt in his mind that this is semen, rather than a slime of some sort) slithers down the back of his neck, and he wants to scream.

         He does not scream. His laryngitis is no better than before. Nonetheless, his desire to scream is enough to jolt his elbows back. He sits up on his elbows. This only lifts his head several more inches, and he knows that he cannot sit up on his elbows for very long. Nevertheless, he can face his tormentor head on, if only for a second or two; and that alone allows him to feel somewhat in control of his situation. After all, even if shackled, a man is free to the extent he faces his tormentor. Free men look eye to eye into the face of the devil before them.

         Billy Ray sees nothing. The darkness is as still and as silent as ever. Since his left shoulder is no longer shaking, he feels his tormentor must have escaped back into the darkness before he had a chance to face it head on. Now, could it be frightened of him? Or did it escape back into the darkness, so that he would question his own sanity as a result? If the second option is correct, then it must have done a fine job, for already Billy Ray is wondering if he did not imagine all this. How can he say for sure even that his left shoulder had been moving at all a moment ago? Time is listless here. Perhaps, it had been moved eons ago, and he had experienced a kind of physical memory of it. Perhaps, that whole ordeal had been nothing truly, but a bit of insanity dug up by gravediggers in his mind.

         Too many questions falling like lead in murky water, so that Billy Ray has no more in him than to sigh and to lower his head. He anticipates another thick and gooey squirt, when he rests his sore head again against that octopus belly…

         There is a retreating footstep. The splintery floor creaks angrily beneath it. There is no other footstep. Perhaps, the retreating something or someone is standing still now, breathing hard, wiping sweat from its brow, because it is all too aware how much noise it had made. 

         Like a naughty child afraid that it will be discovered, and then spanked…

         Billy Ray again sits up on his elbows. Adrenaline steams through his veins at once, and he can feel his heart about to beat through his chest. He tries now to listen for another footstep, but the deafening bass beat of his heart inside of his ears makes it impossible. He searches the darkness with his one good eye in a desperate hope to find something, anything; that stands apart from the black sameness that is everywhere. His one good eye trembles and sheds sticky tears as much from fear that he will see something, as from fear that he will not. His mouth contorts into a silent scream. 

         The initial shock subsides just enough for Billy Ray to mouth a few words in the general direction of where he thinks the single footstep had been heard. He cannot generate enough wind to be heard, and of course it is much too dark for anyone to read his lips. Nevertheless, he mouths his words anyway, because otherwise he would feel totally paralyzed and defeated.

         Who are you? Billy Ray mouths. 

         There is no answer…

         And yet, just then, did Billy Ray not hear the floor creak a bit; like what would happen if something or someone, standing still, subtly shifted the weight on its foot? Did he not hear that with his ears, notwithstanding how the heart in his ears blocks out everything else? Or must he conclude that he imagined it on the premise that it would be impossible to hear anything over his heartbeat? No way to tell for sure just now, for his senses remain so jumbled by his own fears.

         Perhaps, Billy Ray should try to put some force behind his words. He may seem to be breathing through a straw, and his laryngitis may seem this moment to be beyond repair; but he surely will fail if he does not even try. He focuses a while on his bowels. If there is any wind left in him, then it will be found down there, captured in his anxiety, and coarsened by his bruised and bloodied flesh.

         Who are you? Billy Ray whispers barely audibly.

         Again, there is no answer, except this time Billy Ray senses that that has to do more with defiance on the part of the hearer than on an inability to hear him in the first place. His whisper had not been much by any normal standards; but in comparison to the dark silence, he imagines it must have been a scream.

         Please, speak to me, Billy Ray continues in a hoarse whisper. I need you.

         I need you? Why did I say that? Billy Ray thinks. 

         And yet he knows the answer. Billy Ray needs something or someone now to be inside this dark room with him, for otherwise the loneliness alone is likely to drive him mad. Apparently, he cannot live so far off the grid, as once he had imagined. He needs something, anything, to tether him to the world, even if in truth that world is all too often characterized by loss and by sorrow. Better the world of endless graveyards in every direction, than the loneliness of this small corner of hell. Better the sadness he knows too well, than the absolute despair with which he is flirting right now. Better his marginal life, than his sure death.

         Do you hear me? Billy Ray whispers. I need you. Goddamn it, I need you.

         Billy Ray thinks he may have whispered a bit louder that time. He cannot tell for sure, since anything audible in this dark silence sounds to him like a big roar. One big roar is as loud as any other, he supposes. What matters is that he is being heard at all. He searches the darkness with his one good eye for even a slight tremble, a subtle shift from side to side, anything that may indicate that, yes, something or someone out there hears him. Both his elbows are crying out in pain from having had to hold up his head this long, and yet he still stares out into the darkness in the hope that something definitive will catch his attention.

         Oh God, please, I need you, Billy pleads. Speak to me. Just say anything!

         There is another creak in the floor. Again, it could be from something or someone shifting the weight upon one of its feet. Then again, it could be a very clear and intentional response to his plea. 

         Billy Ray sits up another inch or two. He is so excited he moves forward; and as a result, the neck collar digs into the space beneath his chin. He pushes back then to release the pressure. The chain links rattle loudly in the darkness.

         Still, for all that commotion, Billy Ray continues to stare where he thinks he had heard that creak. He is sure he saw something. Well, he is kind of sure…

         There is the sound of a door opening on rusted hinges. A thin line of light slices across the floor and up the opposite wall. The light widens to take on the shape and the size of a doorway. 

         A dark, featureless, shadow man almost fills the doorway. He just stands there straight as a board, except for his deep breaths. His arms end in fists that are as large as dumbbells. The bottom half of his legs resemble thick rain boots normally worn by firemen. Indeed, the first impression is of a strong man come to rescue whoever has been ensnared in this darkness. 

         Within seconds, that first impression dies away. There is nothing good in this shadow man. Perhaps, Billy Ray intuits as such; or perhaps, there are much more sensual reasons why he interprets evil intent in this man. There is a smell that suggests a dead animal floating along the top of a murky, flatulent swamp. There is that repetitive breathing sound, like a work machine that had long ago traded in its soul for its increased power and longevity. These are the deep and regular breaths of a work machine that will crush a man without experiencing a brief moment of empathy or reservation. Finally, as Billy Ray stares closely into the reflection against the opposite wall (for he cannot yet turn his body around to see the doorway straight on), he sees how that shadow man’s huge dumbbell fists flex open and close, open and close, in readiness for nasty work, no doubt.

         Billy Ray inches backward on his elbows. The pain is too much, and so his elbows give way altogether. The back of his head smashes into the underside of that octopus. He hears more octopus sperm squishing down his neck, but that is the least of his worries at that moment.

         For the shadow man in the rain boots steps into the room, and closes the creaky door behind him. This is not the same something or other that had been shaking Billy Ray’s left shoulder minutes ago. Billy Ray is as sure of that fact as he can be sure of anything in his present mind. Other than that, though, he has no bearing. It is as if the world has turned upside down, and his compass dial is spinning wildly in every direction. There is just confusion, unimaginable fright…

         And the terrible sound of hard footsteps plodding across the wood floor…

         Billy Ray wants to squirm as far as his chain will let him. There is no way he can get back up on his elbows, and so he tries to push himself back upon his butt cheeks. That does not get him very far, before his exhaustion and fear just overwhelm him. He fights to breathe, while he lies motionless upon his bruised and beaten back, and stares up at the suffocating darkness above him. He does hear the rhythmic click of the approaching rain boots; but otherwise, he cannot focus in on any one sensation. Everything is the void; and with that truism now echoing through his mind, like a dark mantra repeated in hell, Billy Ray lets go.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray is falling through the void still, when he feels a large masculine hand cup the back of his head. The hand compresses the octopus even more so into his wound. He feels octopus semen squish out from that compressed space between his wound and the underside of that sex addicted beast. The lubricant slimes down the back of his neck. He thinks he hears it dripping onto that wood floor beneath his head, though his reason tells him that that distinct sound very well must be his imagination in overdrive. 

         That is about all his reason can say to him. For the most part, his reason has been silenced by his irrational fears and mental disorientation. His is a soul set adrift on a turbulent sea. Indeed, he first imagines the big hand cupping his head to be the crest of a wave pushing his head, neck, and upper torso up from the ocean surface. The waves are carrying him on their heads and shoulders for an end he cannot yet fathom. He senses only that that endpoint will turn out to be the occasion of his last breath, as the waves crash over him and pull what is left of his corpse into an underwater grave. Death is too good for him. He must be blotted out, forgotten, so that the world, his guardian angel, his best friend in the intensive care unit, even his son tossing and turning in his bed (assuming that it is as much night outside as it is in here) go on as if he had never existed.

         He opens his one good eye. He expects to see the ocean spreading out in all directions. Instead, a flashlight beam momentarily blinds him. His head falls back involuntarily; and that hand cupping the back of his head presses forward, squishing out more semen, but keeping his head in place in spite of the piercing light. His one good eye slams shut. It trembles irritably, and sheds tears, but is not going to open of its own accord so long as that flashlight beam is out there.

         So there are two people, one holding up his head, another pointing a big flashlight at his face. Perhaps, these are the same men who had kidnapped him in front of Jim Trent’s Iron Gate. Perhaps, they are others employed by the Big Shot who lives in that dismal mansion. Perhaps, one of these two guys is the Big Shot himself, condescending to do some of the ‘nasty work’ with his own hands simply for ‘old time’s sake,’ or cherishing every moment of this ‘nasty work’ so as to avenge the death of his brother. Not knowing his tormentors is, in a way, even worse than the torment itself; for the layers upon layers of mystery serve to remind him that he is as much lost as he is alone. There is no home for him, not here anyway, perhaps nowhere ever again, no place where he can take off his clothes and watch 1980s DVDs in the buff without wondering if some pervert is watching him through the window blinds. They can shackle him, leave him in the dark, beat him until he is near dead; but they really manage to torture him only when they remind him that, indeed, he is a man eternally without a home.

         Billy Ray thinks that the man cupping the back of his head is squatting to his left. He can hear the man’s rain boots creaking, as the man shifts his weight from one foot to another. He can smell rainwater on the man’s jeans. Although it is a bit of a stretch, he thinks he can smell salted lubricant on or inside those jeans. Of course, he may be picking up the scent of all that octopus semen; but he does not think so. The young man holding up his head smells anyway as if he is enjoying this dark and perverse brutality too much. 

         The young man uses his free hand to force open Billy Ray’s mouth. Panic sets in, and Billy Ray struggles as best he can. The young man remains unfazed, as he proceeds to pop what feels like a pill into Billy Ray’s mouth and to follow up with a glass of water. Billy Ray nearly chokes on the pill, because of his very real phobia about downing pills that have not been chewed, but the frightening moment passes. Indeed, his fright soon gives way to pleasure; because it is only then that he recognizes how water deprived he has been while in captivity. The pleasure transitions into a strange kind of gratitude; and though Billy Ray is too weak and disoriented to pursue the thought any further, he senses how it is the captive can come to identify with his captor.

         I love a cowboy who swallows, the man with the flashlight states. Ta-Ta!

         That’s gross, the young man beside Billy Ray snickers. 

         You should know, Dirty Sanchez, the man with the flashlight snaps back.

         Billy Ray hears the exchange, but he cannot make sense of the words on account of the speed with which the two throw lines back and forth. He senses, perhaps, that these are the same two guys who dragged him into this corner of hell God knows how long ago. What if they are? It is not as if he can know them any better now than he did that night. For all intents and purposes, he remains an object to his tormentors, as they are ephemeral shadows to him. Billy Ray is alone, dead to the world he knew once, and unable to sense any definite future for himself apart from this dark place, his tight shackles, and these two queers.

         They leave him alone, finally. He rests his head on the underside of that damned octopus. He is so tired suddenly he could care less that octopus semen is slithering down the back of his neck. 

         So they gave me a sleeping pill, Billy Ray thinks. 

         Except deep down he does not believe that that is the case. It is not as if he has had any difficulty sleeping for hours on end. Moreover, though Billy Ray cannot say why, he senses that that wisecrack about ‘a cowboy who swallows,’ well, let us just say that it meant something. There is a strange plan being put into effect here, and that pill is an integral part of it. Billy Ray has no doubt in his mind about that much, and with that certainty in mind he soon falls asleep.

*   *   *

         One Bayou Bottoms Up for the lady, Miss Donna Goody remarks suddenly with a sultry look in her eyes. No salt, no sugar, just a handful of ‘nuts’ will do!

         Billy Ray pretends not to notice how the naked woman by his right side is acting more like a hooker on the take than a younger sister ready to put on her ‘Winnie the Pooh’ pajamas and to call it a night. Not that she has a pair, for his ‘younger sister’ will be as naked after she climbs into bed as she is now in front of the television set. Nevertheless, when she sleeps, and her restful face seems to take on the soft, pinkish, fuzz of a babe in a crib, he imagines her nakedness veiled head to toe by ‘Winnie the Pooh’ pajamas. In his dreamy eyes, flickering open and closed just moments before succumbing to sleep, only her big, blond, Dolly Parton hair remains adult-like. There is no way to strip the overt sexiness from those Goldilocks. In a way, though, the contrast with the rest of her flesh makes her seem that much more pure in his eyes. Hers is not the innocence the girl knows, so much as the innocence the woman earns by overcoming anything and everything that may be wrong about her character. Hers may be defined as ‘innocence triumphant.’ The race is won, and the victor gets to wear the same crown of gold she had worn the first time she dressed as a queen for Halloween way back when. The fact that that crown looks like Dolly Parton’s hair in 9 to 5 tonight does not distract from what it had been that fair evening she first stood on tiptoes to ring a doorbell, grinned in earnest, and whispered ‘trick or treat.’

         And so Billy Ray truly wants to forget what Donna just said and, more so, how she said it. He stares at the television screen before him as if Stripes has a very sophisticated plot that requires every bit of concentration to follow. Right now, Bill Murray is persuading John Candy to mud wrestle a couple of beauties. The MPs will raid the joint in a few minutes. Billy Ray already knows this, since he has seen this film about a million times; but he zeroes in on every small plot detail. The alternative is to acknowledge that Donna has crossed a line tonight.

         How about it, babe? Donna whispers seductively in his left ear, while she reaches down to fondle the tip of his hard, erect cock. 

         Donna, don’t, Billy Ray whines, as sweat pours down his red, hot cheeks.

         Why not? Donna purrs. I didn’t hear the ‘closing bell.’ 

         Donna, please, Billy Ray whines.

         Donna smiles. She slides her chin down the front of his torso, thus filling his face a moment with her big hair. All the while she squeezes his shaft, like it is a Bayou Bottoms Up dispenser back at the Kingfish Saloon. He shoots his first wad for the evening before her hand cups his huge nuts. It does not take much.

         Billy Ray nearly relents. She is so very good at what she does for a living.

         Then, his eyes wander toward the closed window blinds across the room.

         In fact, they are not closed as tightly as they should be, for he can see a pair of eyes peeping through the space between two window blinds. Those eyes never blink. Those eyes show no mercy. They watch, and they judge. That is all that they do; and for that very reason, Billy Ray senses that they care not at all about this silly sex act. Instead, they look through the antics of the flesh to see the darkness of the souls beneath the flushed skin. They see, and so they know when the not so innocent ones will be ripe for the plucking. They know when to break through the window and when to wield the wrench, the gun, or the axe…

         Now, what is this about the axe? Billy Ray thinks. I do not remember that asshole, David Trent, brandishing an axe; and yet I should beware the Axe Man?

         Stop thinking so much, Donna teases. You’re liable to bust a nut…

         Billy Ray looks down. He cannot see Donna’s face on account of all that Dolly Parton hair in the way. He looks back at the window blinds. Those cursed eyes are still there. He can feel them penetrating his chest cavity for that sick, accursed soul he hides in his heart. They are getting close now, way too close…

         No, Donna, Billy Ray says sternly. That’s enough.

         She does not quit. He can feel her wrap her lips about the tip of his cock and slide her tongue down his shaft. He can feel how the warm wetness of that long tongue of hers simultaneously excites and relaxes his shaft. She really can play his manhood, like a musician her flute. Who is servicing whom down there?

         I said that’s enough, Billy Ray screams, and then pushes her back.

         Donna sits upright. She rocks a moment on her bare butt. Now, rejection is a brand new one for her; and she is not sure if she should laugh or cry at this turn of events. She neither laughs nor cries. Instead, she looks back at him with bewilderment, while blowing a strand of her moist hair away from her frowning lips. Her big breasts heave, and she folds her arms in front of them defensively.

         Billy Ray cannot explain himself. Instead, he looks down at his throbbing cock, ashamed, disoriented, realizing that the problem is with him and not her.

         He looks up to say as much. He stares into her eyes…

         And sees that they are the same as the eyes peeping through the blinds…

         He desires to scream, but his throat constricts on him. He points instead.

         What’s the problem? Donna asks with a playful grin. Cat got your tongue?

         Billy Ray grabs at his throat. He cannot breathe.

         Or maybe a rat, huh? Donna says with a chuckle.

         Then, in a flash, Donna’s beautiful face transfigures into the ugly face of a ravenous, hairy, whiskered, old rat. Hair grows from out from her pores. Lips elongate. Teeth grow long and pointed, like daggers protruding out from bloody gums. Perhaps worst of all, because they are the gateways to her soul, her eyes turn dark and beady. Hers are the eyes of a starving beast glaring at living flesh that it intends to devour in short order. Hers are the eyes of judgment when so handed to the executioner for justice to be performed. The law may be written in pretty prose; but when executed, it is an axe blade slicing through an artery.

         Billy Ray finally finds his voice. He scoots away from her, as he screams.

         Donna wiggles her whiskers, like she can smell his distress. She elongates her lips even more so; and as a result, she exposes her front dagger teeth. Dark purplish blood and yellowish semen drip from the pointed ends of her teeth. All that lubricated love flows over her lower lip and down her chin, like melted ice cream in hell. She raises the claws that have replaced her once beautiful hands into what looks at first to be a defensive posture. The glare in her eyes implies otherwise, though. In fact, she is not defending herself. Rather, she is readying her claws for when she decides to pounce forward and to chew Billy Ray’s face.

         Billy Ray cannot scoot further away from her. It is like there is an unseen collar wrapped about his throat, and because he has scooted as far as the chain will let him that collar is now digging into his windpipe. He writhes in absolute, red-faced despair. It is all too clear this moment. Either he relents, or he dies…

         Billy Ray opens his one good eye. His other eye trembles, but stays shut. It takes a while for the dream to be lost in the darkness that is everywhere, but finally that ravenous, ratty face vanishes along with everything else in this hell.

         Billy Ray scoots several feet along the floor, so that he releases the hard pressure against his windpipe. He hears the chain links rattling on the splintery floor, as he gets closer to that wall to which he is chained. This sound comforts him, for now he has come to identify loose chains with unobstructed breathing.

         Billy Ray stops moving across the floor. He feels that damned octopus on the back of his head, but does not care. Let that deep sea fucker ejaculate hot and oily semen into this or that wound, so long as he can breathe steadily for a while and stare into the endless darkness above his face. The devil’s prisoner in time has to figure out which of the tortures are worse. Otherwise, he invariably loses his mind as well as his soul. 

         Billy Ray slides his legs together…

         And feels just how long and hard his cock is. 

         Billy Ray almost screams, even though he barely speaks above a whisper, because, of course, the erection reminds him of that ravenous rat in his dream. He decides that it is best to lie in silence, until the erection dies in a minute or so. He is not sure why he got an erection, since that ravenous rat hardly counts as a nubile girl in a wet dream. Then again, he is not sure of much of anything; for confusion, and periodic surprise, seem to be the norm in this dark chamber.

         Billy Ray falls asleep within seconds, but his cock remains hard for a few more hours. That is what happens when his tormentors give him too high a dose of what the black market refers to as ‘Viagra on Steroids.’ Soon, they will need to recalibrate their dose, unless they want him to stand tall twenty-four seven.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray awakens. His right eye opens wide. His left eye remains closed, although the way that his left eyelid trembles suggests that that has more to do with fear than with injury. It is as if his soul will permit his flesh to remain only partially open to this dark and timeless place. His invalidism then is as much an instinctual defensive mechanism as an indication of weakness. This is not much consolation, though, when he realizes that even if his shackles came undone he would not have it in him just now to escape. 

         Something or someone shakes his left shoulder. He senses that this is the second or the third time within the last minute or so and that this is the reason he just awakened. He sits up on his elbows, rattling the chain, and pressing the collar into his windpipe. He does not panic. He simply moves his head backward a few inches and recovers his haggard and warm breaths. All the time he stares at his left shoulder to see if he can see a phantom hand or a retreating wiseass.

         He does not see anything at all. There is only that darkness that appears to spread out from his soul in every direction as far as he can imagine. It is still and silent; loneliness and defeat revealed to be nothing at all, but the absence of light and of form. He wants to sink his head back into the gooey underside of that damned octopus and to sleep until his sick tormentors return. He wants to check out, until they shove another pill into his mouth, and maybe follow it up with a glass of water. That is the only course of action that makes any sense to him in this sad world. Any other consideration, like contemplating how he may be able to escape this corner of hell, or what the hour may be out there, is just madness worthy of a straitjacket, or so he tells himself whenever his mind goes off the reservation. Better to check out from this total darkness and to swallow whatever they put onto his lips than to allow his mind to roam with the Indians.

         He is about to close his right eye, when he hears the floor creak. He sits up in alarm on his elbows. His right eye nearly bursts from his socket. That had not been a figment of his imagination. Something or someone else is inside this room, standing still in the darkness, and waiting for his attention to wane a bit. Bidding its time, until it can retreat unheard and unrecognized from this room…

         Who are you? Billy Ray asks with more force than he had anticipated.

         There is no answer, but there is another soft creak. The visitor no doubt has shifted its weight. Perhaps, that is a nervous gesture. Perhaps, like any boy caught in mischief, it shifts its weight from side to side, and folds its hands like a penitent in prayer, because it knows that it is not as innocent as it should be. It has stared into the darkness, and it has viewed what that man lurking behind the window blinds has viewed. It knows, and for that one awful sin, it is guilty…

         That is a lot of conjecture; but Billy Ray knows that the twists and turns of his stream of consciousness are the only actual frames of reference he has in this shapeless and timeless void. That something or other out there is not just a figment of his imagination; and yet, for now at least, he has no other means by which to determine what it is, and what it intends to do with him, than his own imagination. But for his own dreamscape, this visitor is impenetrable, a ghostly mystery that inspires mindless dread, and a nightmare from which to recoil. He either encounters the visitor through his imagination, or he screams out in fear.

         Like a man who grasps darkness and so dances with his shaman in there…

         What is your name? Billy Ray asks with more anger than fear in his voice.

         There is no answer, but there is a footstep. Billy Ray cannot tell if this is an advancing or a retreating step. Perhaps, the visitor stepped in its place, like one of the Queen’s Guards, since it could not decide whether to come or to go.

         Gary, son, come here at once, Billy Ray says in a softer voice tinged with enough madness to put him away for good. 

         He slips back into sanity. Did he just say what he thinks he said? 

         Sweat pours down his cheeks. His right eye temporarily clamps shut so as to avoid the sting from sweat comingling with tears. His heartbeat bursts out of his chest and into the darkness above him. He folds his hands together, as if he is trying to cover up that imagined hole in his chest. Because his hands tremble uncontrollably, his handcuffs rattle. That sound calls to mind a babe in his crib.

         Did he just say what he thinks he said?

         Yes, he did; and has he not known all along that in the depths of his own despair he would reunite with his son? Has he not known that as they sat on the bed side by side in innocence, so they must sit in this room side by side in guilt?

         Gary, mind your father, Billy Ray yells. 

         Billy Ray is taken aback. He had not anticipated enough lung strength to scream outright. He recoils in fear that his tormentors may storm in as a result.

         Seconds pass into minutes, or so Billy Ray surmises. He is not sure, since time is incalculable in here. Regardless, he determines finally that they are not about to storm into the darkness. He is able to calm down. 

         Gary, mind your father, Billy Ray says in a stern but quiet voice. 

         But Gary is no longer there. Billy Ray neither saw nor heard him exit, but he can sense that emptiness where once Gary had been shifting his weight from side to side. As darkness reveals, so does darkness veil. That is the way in here.

         Billy Ray leans his head into the underside of the octopus. He feels sticky semen squishing down the back of his neck, but he does not care at all. Indeed, in a way, he relishes the warm goo sliding down his flesh as one of the very few predictable occurrences in this place. When he rests his head, he feels the love goo. When he closes his eyes, he sleeps. Everything else comes out of left field.

*   *   *

         No matter how long Billy Ray has been sleeping, he opens wide his right eye, and sits up on his elbows, whenever he hears the distinctive creak of rusty hinges. He watches a thin line of light escape from the base of that door, move across the dark floor, and expand upon an opposite wall into the size and shape of a doorway. He braces himself for the stocky figure with the dumbbell fists in the center of this doorway. It does not matter how many times he sees the very same image, for he always responds with the same spasm of visceral, mindless, clammy cold fear. It is like he is being electrocuted by ice. He has to clench his fingers together in a prayerful posture, and to bite down on his tongue, to stop himself from screaming out like a girl. He is not sure that he catches himself in time every time, for though he does not hear himself scream he feels in his gut like he just let out a big one. God forbid the guy with the dumbbell fists senses how frightened he is, lest that asshole be inspired to do something really nasty.

         Nevertheless, the big guy never deviates from the norm. Indeed, he acts in such a mechanical way that Billy Ray imagines he is a cyborg clothed in dark, wet jeans and rain boots. Incidentally, is it perpetually raining out there in the world that every day seems more dreamlike than real? Or does this cyborg have a childlike fascination with showers and sprinklers? Billy Ray can sense the cold brutality beneath the mechanical veneer, but he cannot sense much in the way of reason. He does not imagine his tormentor to be a dumb brute, so much as a brute who has decided that his intelligence should be secondary to his cold and homicidal instinct. In essence, he imagines a murderer in the making, a sinister man who has decided for his own peculiar reasons to be less human precisely so as to be more powerful. This tormentor will murder soon; and when he does he will have shed that very moment the last vestiges of his humanity. He will be a vicious animal, willfully stupid, his eyes as blank as those of any predator devil.

         And maybe, like a willfully stupid child, this cyborg does run through the showers and the sprinklers. Maybe, for all his sinister intent, there is a trace of playful irreverence beneath his mechanical attention to detail. ‘Still water runs deep,’ but maybe that sin buried in the depths is malicious, chuckling madness.

         Billy Ray cannot say one way or another; but he entertains these ideas in the back of his head somewhere, while impassively swallowing a pill with water and sucking a horrid nutrition drink through a thin straw. All this happens in the dark, for the tormentor with the flashlight does not accompany the cyborg like before. Maybe, that other tormentor has another victim on whom to focus that flashlight beam of his; but, deep down, Billy Ray does not think so. Billy Ray is pretty sure that he is the only prisoner. The tormentors come and go, the awful memories come and go, even time marches onward (although Billy Ray does not have a reference with which to measure it); but only Billy Ray is shackled here.

         After the dumb brute leaves, clipping the heels of his rain boots against the wood floor like a wound up, mechanized, SS guard, and slamming hard that rusted, old door behind him, Billy Ray leans the back of his head into the gooey underside of the octopus. He lets the semen drip down the back of his neck, for he cannot do anything to stop that damned sex fiend anyway. He just stares up at the endless darkness, and waits for his cock to grow hard and erect. It really does not matter if he imagines anything. The old fashioned wet dream has been replaced by science, as blood rushes around his balls and up his throbbing shaft for no other purpose than to turn his manhood into the sturdy handle of an axe.

         What a mind fuck, Billy Ray invariably mutters. 

         Indeed, he is not far from the mark. His cock is erect, and yet it feels as if something from the toolshed crammed into the space between his thighs. His cock frightens him more than anything. It surely does not conjure up feelings or images of romance. The real fuck is in his head, as he wonders why on earth his tormentors want to keep his penis hard. He is like cattle being fattened for the butcher, or maybe the lamb for the high priest; but if so, then why would they fatten his manhood, while giving him so little food and water that he figures he looks like an Auschwitz prisoner by now? Are they just a couple of perverts with too much time on their hands? Or is there something much more sinister at play in how they are able to control his manhood, as much as his mind and his flesh?

*   *   *

         The door creaks open. Billy Ray awakens at once. His right eye feels like it is going to burst out from his socket. It is beating in sync with his rapid heart.

         He sits up on his elbows so fast he bangs both his ‘funny bones.’ It takes every last bit of his will not to scream out in pain and agony. Instead, he has to endure a waterfall of hot sweat pouring down his face. The sweat clings to him like warm and gooey syrup; and for a moment, he fears that it is about to cook into his skin. He tries to shake that horrible sensation away; and as a result, he rattles his chains like a forlorn ghost. 

         The man in the doorway must sense his fear, because he chuckles. So far as Billy Ray can collect his thoughts at all, he does not recall ever hearing that big guy with the dumbbell fists chuckle. In Billy Ray’s mind, anyway, the sound is totally inhuman, like something he might hear, if he pressed his ear against a crack in the earth. It could be a demon laughing, or it could be a rock crackling into dust. Regardless, the sound suggests something or someone out to do harm this time. That old ‘pill, water, and nutrition shake’ routine has been set aside.

         Billy Ray stares at the light reflected off the wall opposite the door. The bulky man stands in the doorway, as always. This time, though, he carries what looks like a body at first glance. The body is clothed, and the fabric hangs over the bulky man’s arms. This may be a dead matron dressed in an oversized robe.

         The man steps inside. He kicks the door shut behind him. His heels click, robotically, deafeningly, as he walks across the floor to the shackled prey. That chuckle is gone, but in its place is the kind of heavy breathing one usually hears in an obscene telephone call. There is a sick and twisted soul behind all of this.

         Don’t do this, Billy Ray pleads. 

         Billy Ray knows that he should not speak, but he cannot help himself. His fear has overtaken what little had been left of his composure. He writhes in his shackles, even though rationally he knows that there is nowhere he can go. The man with the dead body is coming for him next. There is no way that he will be able to fight him off, no matter if he pleads for mercy and writhes on the floor. It is the very certainty of that fact that pushes adrenaline through his veins just now; and for several harrowing seconds, Billy Ray is a bucking bronco in chains.

         Knock it off, the bulky man says irritably while kneeling beside Billy Ray.

         Don’t do this, Billy Ray repeats.

         I’m not going to hurt you, gringo, the bulky man says. Like the boss says, ‘dead men don’t dance.’ 

         What? Billy Ray mutters, while he searches his mind for where and when he had heard that same sentence before.

         The bulky man throws his bundle on Billy Ray’s stomach. Billy Ray winces in fear, for he expects to feel a clammy corpse pressing into his skin. He almost vomits up what little bile he has left in his stinky bowels. 

         The nausea subsides, and Billy Ray calms down, for somehow his rational mind is able to speak through the screaming fear in his psyche. ‘There is fabric on your stomach, but there is no corpse inside the fabric,’ his reasons whispers.

         So he has come to bring me clothes, Billy Ray thinks. Like my costumer…

         Billy Ray imagines a theater costumer bringing him his outfit for the ‘big show’ about to start onstage. As usual, there is little time to change, let alone for the actor and the costumer to exchange pleasantries, and so the grumpy old costumer dumps the outfit on the actor’s lap and turns away. That is backstage etiquette on the burlesque circuit. This night is different, though, for the actor has been shackled to his dressing station. Try as he may he cannot budge. Even if somehow he manages to slip on the outfit, he will not make it onstage for his cue. The ‘fat lady’ will sing, everyone will go home, and he will be yanking still at his chains. Maybe, this time, a bit of conversation would have been in order; or if not really conversation per se, then at least ‘Help me out of these chains!’

         Billy Ray laughs maniacally at the fantasy. Rather than calming down his nerves, his laughter now enhances his fright; for his hardy har har sounds just a bit too insane even to his own ears. How much madder can he get, before he is so far down that dark and windy path that he cannot return to the predictable, sane world he had known once upon a time? Who and what will he lose, if soon enough he turns so mad as to require both a straightjacket and a padded cell to save him from himself? Besides insanity what other monsters lurk in his despair?

         So you think this is a joke, gringo, the bulky man says with real irritation while grabbing a hold of Billy Ray’s wrists. 

         Billy Ray barely understands what the man says. He is busy enough trying to stifle his insane laughter. Vaguely, he senses that if he does not do so rather soon, this brute asshole will wipe clean his giggles in a far more draconian way.

         The bulky man pulls Billy Ray up from the floor. He is strong, though the prisoner weighs much less than he did when he first came here. He manages to hold the prisoner up by his shoulders, until the prisoner gets some strength and balance back in his legs. 

         Billy Ray is flabbergasted to be standing upright. His knees wobble every which way, but he is confident that the bulky man in front of him will hold him up. Billy Ray tries to focus his eyes on the bulky man’s face. It is much too dark for him to make out anything in particular, except that the bulky man seems to be foreign. Perhaps, he is Asian or Mexican. It is impossible to tell for sure now.

         Don’t try anything with your hands, the bulky man snarls. 

         Billy Ray is trying to figure out what this means, when he hears a double click. His handcuffs fall to the floor. His hands remain close together, though, as if they are afraid to be free. He trembles in fear, for being even temporarily and partially unshackled is too different from the prison life with which he has become accustomed. The plantation gate may open wide, but he is not sure he will have it in him to run for the wilderness out yonder. He senses instead that, like most others, he will stay where he is and watch the gate open and close in the wind. That is what his darkness does. It robs him from his desire to be free.

         The bulky man pulls a wool mask over Billy Ray’s face. 

         Billy Ray vaguely recalls the sensations: the scratchy wool, the smell of a dead thing floating on top of a swamp, his one good eye peering through a hole into nothingness. He imagines there is a hole for his other eye; but because the left eyelid refuses to budge, he can only guess. 

         Somewhere in the back of his mind he has a disjointed memory of a dead bear’s skin pulled over his own. The dead bear’s blood squishes out from under that skin. It drips down his neck and his chest like some sort of horror show. He tries to shake the image out of his mind, but the blood streaks on his torso stay in his mind’s eye long after the dead bear’s face has faded. Blood is the last to go. Indeed, blood traces remain long after the corpse has been removed, which is why every crime scene looks like a blood show at the end. Since his heart is a crime scene, it is appropriate that he should see the blood streaks on his torso, no? Or may he be denied that ghoulish impression that death leaves upon us all?

         No, Billy Ray thinks. Forever, I am forced to see it all, just as I am seen…

         Then Billy Ray recognizes that he is naked. Sometime ago (God alone can determine how much time has passed since), likely when he had been out cold, one or both of his tormentors had removed what he had worn that night. So he has been naked in the dark a while; but now, he recognizes that he is truly and existentially naked. Those eyes can see everything. Those eyes know even what he keeps from himself, and so the darkness is like a spotlight shined on his soul.

         Billy Ray moans, but the woolen mask muffles his sound. He slowly drops his chin to his chest. It is a tired gesture, an expression of his defeat; and if the bulky man had not held him up just then, he would have fallen face forward to the floor. Perhaps, the collar would have severed his windpipe on impact. That would have brought an end to this horror show before he realized what hit him.

         But dead men don’t dance, and so the bulky man holds him up, until the moment passes. Then, the bulky man dresses his shackled prisoner in a cowboy shirt, a pair of pressed Wrangler jeans, and a Bolo tie.

         The bulky man compels Billy Ray to sit on the floor and to put on his own dress socks and dance shoes. There is only so much that bulky man will do, and getting up close and personal with the shackled prisoner’s feet crosses the line.

         Billy Ray is sitting on the floor still, trembling, exhausted, when his dark and brooding costumer handcuffs him. In a way, Billy Ray is relieved to be once more in those shackles; for this means that the man is about to leave him alone to his own madness. It is hard enough for Billy Ray to contend with his own sick and twisted thoughts (especially those really nasty ones in which he thinks how he may escape), let alone to be dressed like an invalid by that brute. He senses that he is now a marionette. That chain leading up to the wall from his collar is the puppet string leading up to the rafters. He has no idea about his attire; but he senses that it is childish, maybe even cartoonish, like the cowboy outfit that Howdy Doody had worn back when one family in the neighborhood had a brand new, black and white, Zenith television set. Whatever the costume, he is now a prop on a stage, or a monkey on a string, a trifle something or other allowed to live for no other purpose than to provide entertainment. He is a damned clown.

         The bulky man stuffs something on Billy Ray’s head. It is a tight hat, and because there is no room to spare the fuck fiend octopus virtually squishes into Billy Ray’s skull. Semen slides down the back of his neck in thick, gooey chunks that smell and feel like overly salted oatmeal. 

         The bulky man chuckles, turns without saying a word, and clicks his worn heels out of the room. His abrasive death stench remains long after he has left.

         Billy Ray lifts his handcuffed hands to the front rim of the hat. He hopes not to be punished for having removed the damn thing, but he has no choice. If he does not remove it, then he will pass out. 

         He drops the hat to his lap. He slides his fingers over it, like he is a blind man reading Braille. Indeed, as he had half expected, it is a stupid cowboy hat.

         And so he is Howdy ‘Fucking’ Doody, a blue eyed, freckled, silly puppet…

         Or, perhaps, come to think of it, he is the ‘Restless Wrangler,’ his career resurrected by popular demand, his fine ass there to break open lonely hearts…

         Except that Billy Ray does not think his ass is all that fine anymore. Most likely, his ass is a flimsy flat board; something meant to rattle in a winter wind.

         He leans back. The octopus ejects more semen, but for the most part his head settles nicely into the underside of that sex fiend. 

         He stares upward through the hole in his woolen mask. As usual, there is nothing to observe up there. The darkness ascends into eternity, where eyeless skulls see the void that is at the end of all things. If he looks long enough, then who knows? Maybe, he will see one of those skulls. Maybe, he will see what the blank eyes staring through his filthy window blinds had seen in him. Maybe, like that first cock snatcher, Eve, he will know, and then he will be certifiably mad.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray dreams off and on that he is a marionette. Someone up there in the darkness lifts and lowers the chain attached to his neck collar. Although he cannot see them, he senses chains attached to his wrists and knees too, so that the puppet master up there can kick up his heels into a clown dance whenever so inclined. Sometimes, Billy Ray wears the bloodied bear face. Other times, he looks like Howdy Doody. Once, while doing his routine, he catches a glimpse of himself in a lighted mirror. He sees his own face. His eyes are blank, like those of a man who has been lobotomized. Except that his mind has not been cut, so much as his soul. He grins maniacally at himself in that lighted mirror. He grins, because he knows, even while the puppet master makes him dance like a fool…

         Billy Ray awakens. Normally, he does so on cue just a second before that bulky man in rain boots steps into the opened doorway. This time, though, that creepy man with the dumbbell fists already is kneeling beside him. 

         Billy Ray is taken aback. The bulky man chuckles. 

         Opening Night, the bulky man says. Are you ready to dance?

         Billy Ray sits up on his elbows, but otherwise he has no control over how his body trembles and his sweat pours down his cheeks. He thinks that he must be imagining the man’s sinister voice, for the deafening roar of his heartbeat in his ears presumably blocks everything. 

         The bulky man grabs a hold of Billy Ray’s erect cock. The cock is pushing up Billy Ray’s crotch like a tent pole. It has been doing so pretty much nonstop for the longest time now, because of those pills they keep on feeding Billy Ray.

         Billy Ray feels the man’s fingers squeezing his manhood, but he does not flinch. His cock no longer seems to be his anyway. It is more like an axe handle his tormentors have shoved into the space where his manhood used to be. It is a quirky addition to his marionette flesh. He imagines that there is an invisible chain attached to the end of this axe handle. The chain ascends into the lonely darkness, like a lifeless vein hanging from a skull. Usually, the skull is still, like dead things are prone to be; and the axe handle is dormant. 

         But, sometimes, dead things stir, for reasons we cannot understand if we insist on clinging to our sanity. When that happens, the arms and the legs move into a macabre death dance, and the wooden axe handle thrusts up and down…

         Seems hard enough, the bulky man snickers. Be careful to look away the whole time, like when you were dancing back at that faggot place. The big guy is sentimental about the ‘old ways.’ 

         What do you mean? Billy Ray whispers. 

         The bulky man ignores him. He releases his grip on Billy Ray’s cock, finds the cowboy hat on the floor nearby, and shoves it back onto Billy Ray’s head. It squeezes the octopus like before, and so Billy Ray feels semen sliding down the inside of his black, wool, ski mask. Billy Ray feels more violated now than when the bulky man had had his big hand wrapped around his manhood; for that tall, hard axe handle is a dead thing, but that semen smells and feels as if alien life.

         The bulky man grabs a hold of Billy Ray’s handcuffed wrists, and quickly, violently, pulls him into a standing position. He then holds him in a kind of bear hug, until the designated dancer manages to get some balance in his legs. As he is holding him up, he feels the lubricant slither out from beneath that ski mask and drip down the back of Billy Ray’s cowboy shirt. For some reason, he thinks that that is hilarious; and so he lets go of that prisoner, steps back, and laughs.

         Billy Ray wobbles from side to side, but he manages to stay on his feet in the end. He is like a prize fighter so afraid of splitting his head wide open upon the canvas that he finds the inner power, somehow, to keep from falling down. 

         I almost forgot, the bulky man says after a while. 

         Almost forgot what? Billy Ray thinks with alarm.

         The bulky man steps back, pulls out a key from somewhere, and unlocks the handcuffs. He snatches them, before they fall to the floor. 

         Break a leg, gringo, the bulky man snickers. 

         What? Billy Ray blurts out, as he starts to put the puzzle pieces together.

         But the bulky man does not answer. Billy Ray senses that he has escaped back into the darkness. There is nothing in here now, but a shackled man with a tall axe handle in between his unsure legs, and a growing sense of dread that seems to have taken on a life of its own. The man breathes in and out this cold dread. It is the anticipation, before the axe blade falls, and the blood spits out.

*   *   *

         The floor creaks irritably. This time, though, Billy Ray is the cause, as he shifts his weight compulsively from one foot to another. The alternative then is to bend his knees; but if he lowers his height only inches, the neck collar slides into his upper neck. It presses his mouth shut, and obstructs his windpipe. This must be what it is like for the condemned man on the gallows seconds before a hooded executioner slides open the door beneath his feet. 

         Billy Ray tries to shut that thought out of his mind, and so he is cautious never to bend his knees. His legs feel like stumps holding up an elephant, even though he is skin and bones. It takes every last bit of his will and his strength to keep himself from asphyxiating on that damned collar. He is not certain that he can stay this way indefinitely. The ‘show of shows’ better start soon, or he will not be able to perform, no matter the demands of the critic sitting in the dark.

         The door hinges scream. Billy Ray almost fell asleep while standing up in his neck collar. He is startled awake, and he opens his one good eye toward the reflection of the doorway against the opposite wall. 

         As usual, a large form fills in the doorway; but this man is very different. He seems considerably softer, or maybe airier, like a balloon man who is about to float into the dark room. His hands are not dumbbells, so much as enormous globs of cotton candy. The only attribute that is obviously menacing is the long handle axe that the obese man in the doorway holds up with his right hand and leans against his right shoulder. Otherwise, that large form in the doorway very well could be the Pillsbury Doughboy come from Fantasy Land to play with him.

         The obese man steps into the dark room. Billy Ray winces in anticipation of the hard heels clicking into the wood floor. Instead, the obese man’s loafers squish across the surface. Billy Ray imagines a sex fiend octopus suctioned onto the underside of each of the obese man’s shoes. With every step semen squirts out in all directions. Soon enough, every inch of this wood floor will be stained, or so Billy Ray thinks in his delirium. All that semen splattered everywhere will turn this dark room into a crime scene; an ugly recap of the sins indulged here.

         Because in hell ejaculate is blood squished out from dead bodies…

         After the man behind the window blinds breaks through the glass…

         The obese man stops somewhere. Billy Ray has no idea how far this man is from him, for everything beyond the reach of his hands is the ‘fourth wall’ so important to actors. He is about to perform. He is onstage, and the world is the tiny amount of space and time a jester has to win over his contemptuous critic.

         Face your chains, cowboy, a strangely effeminate voice calls out to him.

         Billy Ray is disoriented. His body trembles spastically, and his feet nearly slide out from under him. He imagines a devilish grin on the critic’s face, for he is screwing up even before the very first step in his routine.

         What? Is English your second language? The critic snaps. So let me guess. Your new name is the Retarded Wrangler. Is that about right? No, even better, your new name is the Special Needs Cowpoke. You are Tonto in whiteface, yes?

         Billy Ray pees in his jeans; and yet, strangely, his penis remains as erect as ever. He must be so medicated his manhood is petrified wood. He then has a flash memory of Senator Robert Dole doing one of his sad ‘erectile dysfunction’ television commercials. Oh, how Mrs. Dole would love Billy Ray Blaise just now!

         As a result of that quirky, little daydream, Billy Ray breaks free from his delirium. He is trembling still, but he will not fall to the floor, let alone lose his tenuous grip on consciousness. He is going to do whatever this madman desires, so that when this madman leaves, he can once more sleep away the dark hours.

         Okay, I shall repeat myself slowly, the critic snarls. Enunciating each and every syllable, like I am the white man here, and you are a red faced Injun boy vomiting up firewater. Here goes: Face your golly darn bucking chains, cowboy!

         The critic tries to scream ‘cowboy’ at the end, presumably for emphasis, but his scream consists of an atonal, scratchy, incomprehensible whisper. He is so animated his would be scream transitions into a fit of wheezing coughs; and, for a moment, Billy Ray fears that the critic may fall over and give up his ghost.

         And, indeed, fear is the appropriate emotion here; for how will Billy Ray explain the fat man’s corpse, when the big guy with the dumbbell fists returns? Will the big guy keep him alive, when there is no more need to appease the fat man’s strange obsession? Or will the big guy bury him with all the other secrets hidden beneath the foam of the Manchester River? Billy Ray knows the answers. If the fat man croaks, then Billy Ray will be the second corpse taken from here.

         Thankfully, the fat man recaptures his breath. It is deep and slow, more like a ventilator than a man, but it is repeated in regular intervals. Who knows how long this fat man may last? So long as he does not die while Billy Ray plays the role of the jester, then Billy Ray will count himself luckier than a sissy fool.

         Billy Ray turns one hundred and eighty degrees. He cannot see the wall. He cannot see the chain links ascending from his collar to a rusted hook on that same wall. The ‘fourth wall’ surrounds him on all sides. Regardless, he believes that he has turned his back to his critic, which is what his critic has wanted him to do from the start. As surreal as this is, he senses that he will survive if he is quick to comply and slow to ask questions.

         There is silence for the longest time. Billy Ray hears himself breathe, yet at the same time his breaths seem strangely dissociated from himself. It is as if the darkness is inhaling and exhaling darkness; the void living off of itself, dead nothingness having no reference but itself as it breathes in and breathes out an eternity conjured by its own imagination. So death is inwardness when taken to its logical extreme, and when the dead breathe they suffer the asphyxiation of a man whose universe no longer extends beyond his own face. 

         This is what Billy Ray thinks, anyway, as he shifts his weight side to side.

         Finally, Billy Ray hears what sounds like a large man settling into a chair that is a bit too small for him. There are grunts, moans, the crack of a seat, or perhaps of some bones. Billy Ray thinks he may have heard an expletive, but he is not sure. For some reason, he recalls listening to the Watergate tapes posted on the Internet. He must have been flying high on something a bit groovier than marijuana, as he cannot imagine any other reason why he would want to spend some hours of his life with the voices of Tricky Dick and his Merry Men. Anyway, on one of those tapes, Richard Nixon grumbles ‘Now let me make myself clear.’ What follows then is totally incomprehensible. Billy Ray falls off his seat in a fit of laughter. He rolls across the floor, and humps a pillow he thinks is Pat Nixon.

         Well, the fat man’s expletive is the same. It is there, but then again it is not. ‘Expletive Deleted,’ the transcript of the Watergate tapes would have said just then. It is like the fat man deletes his own naughtiness just before he does it, if not for real, then at least in his mind. The man who is able to master that bit of magic is never wrong. He will bypass Purgatory. Indeed, he is already one of God’s most blessed advisors. Here on earth, he is known as a ‘theater critic.’

         Let there be light! The fat man squeals.

         All of the lights in the room are turned on at once. The intense surge of brightness and energy knocks back Billy Ray’s knees. The collar shoots up to his chin. He flails his arms like a drowning man. His butt shoots back and up, like it is ready to take a big one deep and dirty. Now, if his butt had been more of an old loveseat cushion, let us say, than a flat board, then perhaps this ‘backward butt thrust,’ as it is called in the business, would have been good enough for an old nut squeeze at least. Instead, the flat board butt inspires disgust, then mild frustration, and finally contempt.

         Light my fire, bitch! The fat man snarls irritably. 

         Billy Ray slowly, painfully, opens his one good eye. It is like he is ripping paper that had been glued to a wall. Indeed, the tears slithering down from the inner lining of his eyelid resemble yellow lines of glue over his pupils. He wants so much to shut his eye, to fall to the floor, and to slip back into that darkness; but he knows that the madman with the axe on his right shoulder will not have any patience for that. He may be fat and slow; but if inspired enough, then the madman can waddle up to his dancer, while tapping the smooth side of his axe blade into his pudgy, left palm. He can waddle up to his dancer, look a moment at the shackled mess of a man beneath his double chin, and pick the weak joint to cut off first with his blade. And he can take his time doing all of that; for his dancer will be ensnared in chains, convulsing in tears, and spitting up madness.

         Why should I worry about that? Billy Ray thinks, as his eyelid is trembling about midway between sleep and awake, death and hope, despair and love. His axe will hurt, no doubt; but the pain will pass. It always does. Then, there is an endless sleep. No more pain, no more love, no reason for the silly heart to beat inside my chest. Now, isn’t there a kind of comfort in that? Isn’t that my finale? The credits roll. The theater lights up. The audience leaves. The actor is alone.

         Yes, alone, forever off the grid; but that means that Gary is alone, also…

         Billy Ray shoots up his eyelid. He feels nauseous from the sudden vicious attack of visual stimuli. It is too much, too soon, what the man feels when he is standing, trembling, before the totality of the one life he has made for himself.

         And what does Billy Ray see? A backdrop built and painted to look like an upper room in an old western saloon. There is the cheap fringe hanging in loose strands from the ceiling, like every night is New Year’s Eve or Mardi Gras in this bordello. There is the mirror that allows the dancer to see his rube at an angle but that does not allow the rube to see the face of the dancer. There is even a framed portrait of Clint Eastwood from one of the Spaghetti Westerns; because of course every pervert busted his first nut to a pic of ‘Dirty Harry.’ Now, ‘Dirty Harry’ does not belong in an Old West saloon, but ‘The Man with No Name’ will do just fine. Billy Ray knows better than to turn around to find out for sure; but if the rest of the room is as authentic as this backdrop, then there should be an ugly and incongruous BDSM contraption hanging off of a black chain behind him.

         ‘Dream Boys,’ Billy Ray thinks. But how does Jim Trent know about that?

         Billy Ray is too weak to try to answer his own question. The bright lights, the fat man’s whining, wheezing voice, the visual overload; all of this is getting to him. Soon, the fingers will snap inside his head; and his mind will shut down.

         There is static overhead. Billy Ray looks up, and for the first time he can see the hook from which his neck chain hangs. The hook calls to mind a middle finger curling up and away from a palm. ‘Go fuck yourself,’ that hook tells him.

         Well, fuck you back, Billy Ray thinks with just enough self-righteous piss and vinegar to bring him back from the edge.

         He is still much too slow and weak to put on a proper dance show, but at least the fingers are not about to snap in his head. He cannot dance with pride, not with his physical limitations, and surely not in this nightmare place; but he may be able to satisfy the madman behind him. Perhaps get him to bust a nut…

         Come on, Wetback Wussy, the fat man whines. Start the golly darn song!

         Billy Ray searches for the speaker. It has been built into the wall several feet above the hook. The speaker is a moon face with a lot of tiny holes. Given where it is relative the hook, Billy Ray imagines Old Moon Face flipping him off.

         Billy Ray is about to flip off Old Moon Face, when finally the music kicks in. It is Paula Cole’s ‘Where have all the cowboys gone?’ Billy Ray rolls his eyes. Of course, this is the choice. Does not every pervert wish he could share a dark saddle with John Wayne, while the two naked muscle men ride into the sunset?

         Billy Ray steps into his dance routine. He is surprised to see how well he remembers every one of his moves. He should not be, though, for dance resides in his soul; and those eyes have yet to crack into his innermost chamber. There is a secret life still in his bosom; a treasure off the grid; a gift unseen by those prying eyes; and though even Billy Ray does not quite know what it is in totality he knows that dance is a key part of how it expresses itself. So, yes, in spite of his injuries, his exhaustion, his trembling fear, Billy Ray can do that ‘freestyle’ dance that is not really freestyle. He can seduce, and he can withhold, offering just a hint with how he moves, tempting with what he does not move. Billy Ray is free, though his neck is chained to a wall, and a creepy fat man watches him with sick and demented eyes. In spite of all that, Billy Ray rides the devil under his crotch; and as the devil kicks up its hooves, he grins like a man on the hunt.

         That is how that dance routine plays itself out in Billy Ray’s imagination. In fact, he swings his hips and flutters his arms like a sick old man taking a shit.

         Mercifully, Billy Ray is so caught up in his daydream that he does not see the reflection in his mirror. He does not observe how the fat man’s snarl seems to drop into his double chin. He does not catch how the fat man, obviously sick with impatience and dissatisfaction, starts to tap into his left palm the smooth side of his axe edge. He does not see how the fat man’s forehead clenches, like it is caught up in a terrible headache, since the fat man is imagining how every chop of his axe will result in a squirting geyser of hot blood. The fat man surely does not want his own fine clothes to be drenched by all that blood; hence, the consternation twitching his brow, and the sweat sliding down his face, when he tries to indulge this dark and sordid fantasy. Billy Ray misses every one of those quirky antics, which is just as well; for instead of seeing how quickly his captor deflates he sees himself in his imagination as a free man with a life still to live.

         Then, the music stops midway. There is more static, while the ‘Wetback Wussy’ offstage tries to fix the technical problem. The static sounds like a sick, perverted cry of dereliction. The CD apparently has been crucified in its player.

         Buck! Buck! Buck! The fat man screams in his weak and atonal voice.

         Billy Ray stops cold. Is that fat man going to take out his frustration with his axe? Is he going to waddle up from behind and to slam that axe into his ribs?

         Billy Ray cannot hear the noise that the fat man makes while getting out of his chair. If he had, then he might have been relieved; for surely the fat man had no murder left in him after using up all his strength to get up from his seat.

         Instead, Billy Ray hears nothing, but his heartbeat. It is a Conga drum hit hard and fast in distress. It is the rabbit’s fear just before it is devoured whole.

         Then, the door slams shut; and the lights go out. The darkness returns as an old friend. Billy Ray breathes in that darkness, lies down, and closes his eye.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray has escaped. He is not sure how, but his shackles have fallen to the side. Moreover, the door is wide open, practically taunting him to run for it before this short and unexpected window of opportunity is lost, maybe forever.

         He steps through the doorway, and stops at once. Though it is dark, he is able to see that his only escape path is a narrow staircase spiraling down to the darkest and deepest hole in hell. He can get the heck out of here, that is true; but the price to be paid is a pitchfork poking up his ass and an effeminate, fat, balloon like man staring at him from within the shadows. Talk about a Hobson’s choice. He can take hell, or he can leave it; and the time is ticking to respond…

         Before he has really affirmed his decision in his mind, he is already going down the staircase at breakneck speed. In this case, the devil you do not know is better to the devil you do. He already knows what death is like behind him in that dark room. At least, down there, he may encounter something new, a slow twist of the dagger with which he is unfamiliar, perhaps a medieval torture the leather hunks back at ‘Dream Boys’ had never imagined. Surprise blocks pain, if only for a moment; and he is tired of wallowing in nothing, but his severe pain.

         Not just physical pain, but the emotional and spiritual pain of knowing in his gut that his son is gone forever…

         For without Gary there is no choice but hell, one step at a time down an old, dark, spiral staircase…

         The step above him falls away the moment he takes the next one. There really is no turning back. Unexpectedly, the very finality of this situation erases the last trace of fear in his dead heart. There is despair, of course, which is the air the dead breathe down there in hell. There is a kind of mindless anguish, all the sadness without the memory of why. There is even confusion, like when the slow and steady acid trip goes south rocket fast. At times, these mental states, and the emotions that accompany them, remain separate from one another in a dead man’s mind. The dead man knows despair but not the mindless anguish or the confusion. Other times, these mental states are all jumbled together, sick, confused, demented, like ghoulish forms sifting in and out of smoke in Disney’s Fantasia. And yet there is no fear, for that dead man cannot be killed a second time. He will suffer, but since he will not die his survival instinct never kicks in a fear response. The one grace in hell is that it is final. It is actually ‘The End.’

         So then why is the staircase shaking? 

         Should not the earthquake happen sometime before the last frame? 

         Billy Ray tries not to answer that question. He has made his choice. He is on his way to the darkest and the deepest hole. There is a pitchfork somewhere down there with his name on it. He does not want to keep that demon, even if he is pretty low on the Totem pole of demons, waiting too long for him. God or Satan only knows how much harder he will poke his ass if forced to wait a while with nothing else to do. So by all means forget about how the staircase shakes, and about how Billy Ray almost falls to his knees, and about the strange voice…

         Like the voice of a child awakening him from his worst nightmare…

         For no matter this nightmare, it is high time to pour Wheaties and milk…

         Five more minutes, Billy Ray mutters. Go watch Barney on the TV. 

         Billy Ray is shaken again. This time, it is not an earthquake, so much as a playful nudge of his left shoulder. It is slight enough that he can ignore it, if he is so inclined. Nevertheless, he gets his son only once in a blue moon, or so the schedule seems to him; and so he is determined to make every minute count. If he needs to catch up on his sleep, then he can do so the night his son goes back to that wicked witch across town. Yes, he can smoke a joint, watch Porky’s for the seven millionth time, and catch up on his sleep when he is alone in his bed.

         And so Billy Ray opens his one good eye and sees nothing, nothing at all…

         Now, that makes no sense, Billy Ray thinks.

         He should see the clothes scattered about his small apartment, the grey, sordid remnants of pizzas long ago dispatched to pizza heaven, the Barney DVD paused on his television set (typically, a freeze frame of Barney dancing like a ‘Dream Boys’ wannabe), and then the smiling, innocent face of his son. As soon as he looks to his left, he should see Gary looking back at him. Gary still will be wearing his pajamas, if Billy Ray had told him the night before to put on his big boy pajamas. If not, then Gary will be wearing a T shirt, underwear, maybe the knee high socks his mother insists he wears when it is one degree below eighty somewhere out there. Billy Ray hardly notices the outfit, though. Neither does he care if his son has clear fingernails. Let the wicked witch worry over details. Billy Ray wants to see in his son’s eyes if indeed his son got that mint condition Orel Hershiser card. He wants to see if there is victory in those eyes. If so, then he wants to give him a high five. If not, then he wants to goad a juvenile laugh out of him, perhaps by doing one of his many impersonations, or perhaps with a pun and a twist of his son’s nose.  

         But he does not see anything of the sort. Instead, he has opened his one good eye into an endlessly dark room. Moreover, his bed feels like a hard floor. Now, it is true that he needs a new mattress, but this is way worse than normal for his lower back. It is like he has no support at all now for his aching muscles.

         Billy Ray sits up on his elbows. They also have seen better days; and yet, like old troopers, they rise to the occasion. He is able to lift his head from that flat wood surface that should be his pillow. He blinks his one good eye groggily.

         Something or someone shakes his left shoulder. He senses that the shake is as soft as before, but as he is now awake it feels much more insistent. He has to choose whether to acknowledge, or not. ‘Take it, or leave it’ the shake says.

         He decides to take it. He slowly moves his face towards his left shoulder.

         Hello, daddy, Gary says with a wide smile. Happy to see me?

         Billy Ray slinks back in fear. He may not have had any fear in his dream, but now that he is awake and back in his chains his survival instinct takes over. This boy beside his left shoulder glows with the kind of buzzing, inner light that calls to mind a phantom stepping out from a television show. This boy is real in contrast to the darkness everywhere else, and yet it is two-dimensional and off color, like a character in an old television show that has not yet quite mastered Technicolor. Worse, though, is the maniacal smile. It is too wide, like the sick, twisted grin of a Jack O’ Lantern that is about to fall apart from the great heat of the fire inside its shell. The boy is there, viscerally, mischievously, and yet it is also dying fast. ‘Take it, or leave it,’ the smile says, for the time is very late.

         You’re a dream, Billy Ray mutters.

         But there is no time to consider what the sane mind has to say about this situation. Moreover, if Billy Ray turns off his reason, and allows his dreamscape complete reign, then maybe, just maybe, that is not an illusion. Maybe, this is his real son here to save him. Maybe, because everything about this situation is so out of left field, he just imagines his son to be a bit of Technicolor dust. This is very possible, especially when he considers that in this dark place what turns out to be real often at first seems to be something conjured up in his mind. For all he knows there is no clear-cut line between reality and dreamscape in here.

         Can I ask you a big boy question, daddy? Gary asks.

         Billy Ray tries to answer, but nothing comes out of his mouth. He sits up on his elbows again, and stares back at Gary with one, big, bulging eye; but he is unable otherwise to communicate any real response to that strange question.

         Daddy, pretty please with a cherry on top? Gary whines like a little brat, although without once dropping that Jack O’ Lantern grin off of his boyish face.

         Yes, Billy Ray whispers.

         Why did you come this close to throwing me away? Gary asks, as he holds up his right index finger and his right thumb to within a millimeter of physically touching one another. 

         What do you mean? Billy Ray whispers.

         Your manuscript, Gary says with a laugh. 

         Now, ‘manuscript’ is not a word that his son would use; and yet Billy Ray still clings to the hope that this is his real boy beside his left shoulder. Perhaps, because she is such a Nazi, the wicked witch spends an hour each night drilling ‘big boy words’ into his impressionable mind. Perhaps, she scolds him when he screws up one of the words. Perhaps, she gets wet down there when she has to scold him. After all, how better to educate than a bit of crime and punishment?

         Billy Ray stares blankly at the little boy without a clue as to what to say.

         ‘The Detective and the Dame,’ Gary continues. The play you almost sent to the theater producers in Emerald City. If just one of those filthy Jews called you back, then you would’ve taken that yellow brick road out of my life forever and ever. Forget ‘off the grid.’ You would’ve been ‘off the map.’ Picking up an occasional tramp off Broadway, smoking weed with Puerto Ricans, writing plays in cafes alongside queers and trannies, where would I have fit in your life then?

         The boy no longer looks or sounds all that boyish, when it is done finally with its diatribe about filthy Jews and pot smoking Puerto Ricans. The boy now has the voice of an old, fat, quirky man; a tone that could be mistaken for that of an elderly effeminate queer way passed his ability to attract young studs. As for the face, it is now obese, whiskered, jowly, that Jack O’ Lantern grin giving way to a pompous and perverse sneer. The eyes are watery and narrow, even a bit punch drunk. The eyes undress him, like what a chicken hawk does to a boy when everyone else is gone. ‘Take it, or leave it,’ the eyes snicker, then laugh.

         Billy Ray tries to scream out, but he just cannot push enough air through his larynx. Instead, he makes a kind of sick choking sound that amuses the boy to no end. Billy Ray tries to wobble backward upon his elbows, even though the rattling chain attached to his neck collar reminds him that he cannot get away.

         You tried to get rid of me, the fat man sneers. Even now, wallowing here in this scary dark place, you are trying to get rid of me. Handing me over to the wicked witch, so that you can thrust your butt and squeeze a nut far from me…

         Billy Ray moans in total horror. He wants to close his one good eye, even if only for a second; but it is petrified open. His elbows slip out from under him just then. He hits his head into the underside of that octopus. Semen spits out every which way. He pays no attention to this, though, for he is fixated on that Technicolor fat face yet again transforming into something much more hideous.

         The fat man’s whiskers extend, the nose turns dark and hairy, the mouth elongates into a ratty snarl, so that within seconds there is a drooling, rabid rat looking down on him from just inches away. The rat’s rolling eyes say that they are as hungry for flesh as they are insane with fury. This rat will pounce on the slightest pretext, for its little rat brain savors nothing, but the taste of a man’s blood squirting from a vein. ‘Take it, or leave it,’ the rat remarks with its eyes.

         Billy Ray’s horrified moan finally matures into an outright scream. He is able to scream only a few seconds, before he is coughing up phlegm; but that is all that is necessary for that ratty face to dematerialize back into the darkness.

         Then, he is alone. His cough subsides, his heartbeat lowers, and there is total silence. He sheds an exhausted tear, but there is not enough life inside of that solitary tear for the silence to be undone. He is like a ghost who still has a lot to state, but whose sheer exhaustion and dead tongue render him impotent.

         Exhausted, dead, impotent, Billy Ray mutters, while staring up into dark nothingness. But what if I choose otherwise? Put it on the line for my son? Save him, before he is as lost in the darkness, as I am now. Oh, God, is that possible?

         Billy Ray does not answer his own questions. Instead, he falls asleep. For the first time since God knows when he sleeps without suffering any nightmare.

*   *   *

         Apparently, management has decided to fatten up the talent. When that big brute with the dumbbell fists returns, he squats beside his charge until Billy Ray has devoured two nutrition shakes. Also, he doubles the pill dosage, so that Billy Ray is erect twenty-four seven. Billy Ray’s heart beats most of the time as if a Conga drum performed by a man on speed. No doubt, it must work like this to pump enough blood to his cock. Otherwise, God forbid, that cock might lean several inches to the side, like a solitary rose that is punch drunk from the sun.

         As sturdy as his cock remains, not once does he feel even a slight sexual release. He imagines a Cold War era missile in a silo that has been forgotten by the Pentagon. It is theoretically potent, but the propulsion rocket is long dead; and dust has settled over the mushroom head. For all intents and purposes, it is an artifact, an amusement, really, an attraction for which they can sell tickets.

         Except that this main attraction remains forever hidden behind a zipped zipper, not to mention the fact that the dancer keeps his back to the audience. Why is it that we hide God in the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy of Holies, or the denim crotch that has been turned away from sweating brows? Oh, yes, we tell ourselves that God Himself orders as such; but truth be told, is it not much more alluring to approach, but neither to see nor to touch? Is it not much more satisfying for someone to pull our hand away, before we can know for sure how it feels? Perhaps, we do not want to be disappointed, when finally we are able to see and to touch the real thing. Perhaps, we realize already that our strange imagination, when unleashed into the darkest torrents, and allowed free reign to indulge the basest passions, trumps whatever that real thing turns out to be.

         Billy Ray has plenty of time to consider these questions; but for the most part, he does not. Instead, he spends his hours alone thinking about his real son and trying in vain to set aside the phantom son that still creaks the floorboards now and then. The conflict between the two images in his mind stresses him to no end. He has no physical discomfort whatsoever in comparison to this mental and emotional distress. Still, even when tears stream down the inside of his ski mask, he does not wish the image of his son away. He rather would endure this distress than to lose forever his son’s bright and infectious smile the day his son found two Twinkies in his backpack for that Orel Hershiser baseball card trade. That smile is everything when the darkness is so still he can hear his soul weep.

         The only diversion is when the big brute pulls him up from the floor, and stuffs the cowboy hat on his masked head, so that he can put on another dance for his critic. Billy Ray is invigorated every time by his dance routine, though he is careful not to glance at that fat man reflected in the mirror by his right foot. Perhaps, deep down, he senses that if he looked, then he would see a man not yet satisfied with the ‘freestyle’ dance that is not really freestyle. Perhaps, he is afraid that he will glimpse again that axe. He does not want to see how fatso taps the smooth edge of his axe blade into his left palm, like his axe handle is a metronome. Nor does he want to observe how the fat man’s grip tightens just a bit more with every tap. The fat man is going to explode; and when he does so, that axe blade will fly end over end through the dark air into eternity. There is not enough gravity in the universe to bring down that projectile, before it cuts through every exposed joint out there. Transforming us all into bloody stumps…

         Billy Ray snaps that thought out of his head. He is about to perform, and he does not need that creepy mental image taking the beat out of his swagger. Indeed, given the stakes, he does not need any distraction. 

         And why are the stakes so much greater this time? Because this time, for the first time, Billy Ray will be turning around to face the back of the room. He needs to see the door with his own eyes. He may see it only for a few seconds, before his critic orders him to turn around, but in that time he has to figure out what kind of lock it has. He must find out if escape is even a remote possibility.

         Come on, Beaner Butthole, the fat man whines. Is La Cucaracha the only CD you can start on time? Or is your excuse that you farted out the only portion of your beaner brain that works? Hurry! Pretend you are a white man and think!

         Perhaps, today is not the best day to throw a curve ball into the routine, Billy Ray thinks, as he stares up at that speaker above the ‘middle finger’ hook.

         He shakes his head in an effort to knock that doubt out of his system. He rattles his neck chain as a result. 

         Don’t dance until you hear the bucking music, cowboy, the fat man says.

         Billy Ray stops at once. His cheeks burn red. His spine trembles. The fat man is pissed off today. It will be best certainly to wait until the next time, no?

         Except that Billy Ray had made up his mind, and he is not sure he can do so again. The darkness is comfortable. It is real to him, while the world outside of these four walls very likely is a mishmash of fading memories and lost hopes. God only knows how much of that world is real, tangible, something with which he can work to try to make life better for himself and the boy he so truly loves, versus how much is a dream meant to remind him that he is a failed, hopeless, even disgusting man. As much as he wants to save his son, he is not certain that he has it in him to make up his mind yet again to do what he plans to do today.

         Take it, or leave it, Billy Ray thinks, when he again looks at the speaker.

         The static keeps cutting on and off. Presumably, the big brute (could be Mexican or Asian, Billy Ray recalls, but most likely Mexican given the fat man’s insults) is in a back room somewhere near. He is sitting in a chair way too small for him, just like his boss has to squeeze into a chair in this room. He is tapping his right rain boot impatiently, while he tries to get that damned, outdated CD player to work. The big brute lets the racist insults slide off his back, for he has the advantage of youth and so can bide his time. He will turn the tables, thrust the old knife from behind a curtain, or maybe just crack the fat man’s fat neck with his big hands. Regardless, he will strut around here like the red rooster he imagines himself already to be, while the fat man’s corpse turns cold and blue.

         Billy Ray will be killed that day, if he has not escaped already. One way or another certainly his will be the second corpse dumped into the endless river that day. Yes, this is all conjecture, the overactive imagination of an actor and a playwright; but whenever he allows his mind to meander down this path, the puzzle pieces seem to come together. Perhaps, this is what faith is. Perhaps, as the darkness creeps into the soul, there is nothing but faith with which we can assemble those puzzle pieces. This is hell, though, and so faith leads not to the contemplation of God, but to the certainty of death at the hands of a madman.

         The music starts. It is not the Paula Cole single, which has been crucified by the CD player about midway the last three times they have tried to use it. In the end, running into the same brick wall multiple times is a bit of a pisser, no? Apparently, the fat man and his protégé think so, which is why Billy Ray begins his sexy dance routine this time to the tune of Johnny Lee’s ‘Looking for Love.’

         Light my fire, bitch! The fat man wheezes, before coughing up a storm.

         Billy Ray pretends not to hear the fat man’s coughing fit. He must dance away any doubt left in his mind. He really must be the ‘Restless Wrangler’ for a few minutes away, so that he can have the gumption to face the man who now presumes to critique his performance like some sort of asthmatic potentate. He must be restless, fearless, practically taunting the man to butcher him with his axe, because he senses that that is the only way the man with the axe will back off. The fat man is a bully, after all; and like every child eventually learns on a schoolyard somewhere, bullies attack when they sense vulnerability. Be strong, or at least pretend well enough, and the bullies have second thoughts. Perhaps that is a foolish hope, but Billy Ray is not going to turn back from the plan now.

         Do it for me, baby! The fat man cries in a voice barely above a whisper.

         Billy Ray sticks his thumbs inside his waistband. He sways his flat ass side to side. He is not much fatter than before, but in his imagination he has a cute bubble butt; the kind that is ready for action long after the last bell. His crotch is ridiculous, of course. His cock is much too long and erect to be believable, at least for a skinny white guy. Nevertheless, since time immemorial, the jester is the one man who gives the king what he wants with nothing asked in return but his head remaining on his neck. If this cock keeps him alive, then may God love the fine Senator from Kansas for putting ‘erectile dysfunction’ pills on the map.

         Take off your clothes! The fat man cries out in a louder voice than prior.

         The fat man is getting his voice, which is good, because if he can find his voice then maybe he can bust a nut as well. Billy Ray is pretty sure the fat man will forget all about that damned axe, if he feels a warm squirt down his pants. From his experience, all these sicko perverts are the same when hot and heavy.

         Then, why does Billy Ray feel clammy, cold fear shivering down his spine when he should feel the power in this room moving in his direction? The answer is simple enough: The man who takes off his clothes stands naked before those knowing eyes. His secrets are no longer his. He has nothing that he can call his, except for that judgment that hangs over his head like a silver guillotine blade.

         Take off your clothes! The fat man cries out in an even louder voice.

         Sweat breaks out on Billy Ray’s forehead. He manages to wipe it away in such a way that looks convincingly like part of the dance. Nevertheless, he has lost some measure of control. The real power is moving back towards his critic. 

         The plan had been to face his critic, and also to eye that door behind his critic, one or two verses before the end of the song. Hopefully, the critic would be so close to climaxing then that he would overlook this change from the norm this one time. If even then the critic exploded out of his chair with his big axe, then Billy Ray would stare him down and hope for the best. 

         Billy Ray no longer has that much time. He must act now, or else give up on rescuing his son. He can take it, or he can leave it. That is the only choice in hell; and though frightened and weak, he decides that he is able still to take it.

         What happens next is a blur; for violence marks a soul permanently, but leaves at best a partial and faded imprint on a mind. Moreover, passions are all spent fast and furiously, when unleashed without restraints; and the conclusion is that haziness that descends upon all wretched battlefields after the final cry.

         Billy Ray turns on his heels. He thrusts his tent pole crotch, while his one good eye almost bulges through the hole in his ski mask. He has no idea why his eye bulges outward, unless perhaps it is an odd effect from his adrenaline rush.

         Actually, that is not true. He knows very well why his eye opens so wide.

         The fat man is not sitting in his chair. Instead, he is standing behind him.

         Just a few feet away, it turns out. Close enough to hit him with his axe…

         Billy Ray sees the total madness in the fat man’s eyes. There is no spark left in them, nothing to differentiate that fat man from a predator beast in the jungle. Civilization has given way to homicidal rage, propriety to raw butchery. 

         There is a strange grin on the fat man’s pudgy face. It is not demonic joy so much as a failed attempt at masking fear. This man has unleashed something he cannot control. He is as frightened of the bucking bronco on which he rides, as Billy Ray is of losing his life. In a way, they are both victims then, like a pair of diseased rats doomed to the same hellhole by a fate neither can understand.         

         The fat man swings his axe into Billy Ray’s left side. By happenstance, it turns out that the axe blade is backward, so it is the smooth edge that smashes into the emaciated ribcage. There is that terrible cracking sound, but no blood.

         Billy Ray falls to the floor like a marionette whose strings have been cut.

         The fat man looms over his victim. His flushed face is consumed with hot sweat. He very nearly hyperventilates. He taps the smooth side of his axe blade compulsively into his left palm, like what a habited nun might do with the ruler that she had used just seconds earlier to punish one of her charges. As if aware of the habited nun reference, the fat man tries to express self-righteousness on his moon face. He is not successful, though, in stamping out his own dark fears.

         Do you think I am a pervert? The fat man screams out, like he is trying to release a sick demon through his harsh words. A fudge packer? A lollipop licker? A Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater? A registered Democrat? I do not want to see that thing. I am happy enough to know that it is there. I am a cultured gentleman, a cat owner, a man about town in a vintage car; in other words, a man who lives by the motto that ‘restraint is the hallmark of civilization.’ It is bad enough you went AWOL on me, but now this? You have no right! You are the bleeding pussy in this dance of ours. Not me! Do you understand me? Not me! Not me! Not me!

         Billy Ray fades out. He does not hear the rest of the diatribe. It is just as well. The pain from broken ribs is bad enough for him to wish that he had died.

         Perhaps, he would have given up his ghost just then. After all, he barely can breathe on account of the broken ribs; and his heart is still that mad Conga drum. The combination of shallow breaths and overactive heart should tear him down, one vital sign at a time, until finally he wheezes one more time and then falls into eternal silence. He should stink up this room when they come for him.

         Except that somewhere in the darkness one boy cries out for his daddy…

         I am coming, Billy Ray answers, before sliding back into his terrible pain.

*   *   *

         I am coming, Billy Ray repeats, when later he opens his one good eye.

         For no more than a second, he thinks he sees his son’s face looking down at him. Gary is smiling, because his daddy is coming back for him. There is very little time left; but Gary is confident, because his daddy never lets him down in the end. Whether it is getting a second Twinkie for the Orel Hershiser trade, or watching another five minutes of Barney and Friends, his daddy comes through for him in a way no one else ever does. 

         Then, Gary’s face dematerializes, leaving nothing but that innocent grin, like when the Cheshire cat had vanished. The grin falls away too, and then that infernal darkness takes over. It is a shroud pressing down on Billy Ray’s injured, exhausted flesh. It suffocates him, for tonight (or, perhaps, today, for God only knows what time it is out there) he is supposed to exhale his last small cry and to be done with this drama. The fat man did not kill him, but the darkness will.

         Billy Ray is leaning on his right side like a slab of rotten meat left on the butcher shop floor. Every breath is a terrible struggle against his own enfeebled flesh. His body wants to stop breathing altogether, so that several of those ribs on the left side of his ribcage can stop screaming out in pain every time his flat chest heaves upward. Most of his soul wants to die, also, if only to save what is left of his conscious mind from knowing hell on such intimate terms. Better for a man to die than to have knowledge of good and evil to this extent. Only a bit part of his soul holds onto his survival instinct. That is the part that really loves his son more than himself; and though tiny in comparison to his despair and his creeping madness that love is enough to open his eyes and to loosen his tongue.

         I am coming, Billy Ray repeats yet again, while sitting up on his elbows.

         The pain is unbearable, and so he drops his head at once into the squishy underside of the octopus. How that octopus can survive when pressed between the inner lining of his ski mask and his wounded skull is beyond him. It is alive, though, for its legs squeeze in and out in sync with every one of his heartbeats.

         He remembers how those octopus legs had terrified him. Now, he all but ignores them. Even the octopus semen squishing down the inner lining of his ski mask is no more than a minor inconvenience. He would prefer his pillow not to be alive, true, but the fact that it is hardly matters. It is not that he has grown more courageous. Rather, he has acclimated better with the darkness. In time, sooner rather than later he suspects, his body, mind, and soul will be part and parcel of this darkness. They will be integrated into one another, and then hell will be as integral to him as breathing in stale air and defecating into his jeans.

         There is little time left, Billy Ray thinks. Either I am going to be dead, or I am going to be mad, when the brute in the rain boots returns with my ‘Robert Dole’ pill, my glass of water, and my two nutrition shakes. 

         Billy Ray sits up on his elbows again. The pain is as unbearable as before, but he forces himself to endure it. He knows from past experience that the ribs will be much worse in twenty-four to thirty-six hours. The swelling will make it even harder for him to breathe, though it is hard for him to imagine what could be worse than this. Already, he feels and sounds like he is wheezing air through a straw. Even the smallest movement on his part will make him cry out in pain.

         Therefore, now is the time to act, if ever he is going to do so. 

         Billy Ray never saw the door at the back of the room. He will need to do something else, if and when he gets freed from this wall. His pain makes it very hard for him to think; and yet, even so, the plan of action is obvious enough. It will be much more daunting to execute than what he had had in mind before. It is much less likely to succeed as well. But what other choice does he have? Is it not better to go down while shouting defiance before your victorious enemy? In the end, is not a ‘principled death’ how we separate ourselves from beasts and critters? Even if there is no real God waiting for us, is it not better to die while trying to protect our own than to live in fear and weakness? Billy Ray nods ‘yes’ in response to each of these thought questions. He has never viewed himself as particularly principled, let alone heroic, and he senses that this sudden exalted self-perception may be nothing more than the mind’s way to motivate him into acting sooner rather than later. Regardless, like any actor, he decides that this is his ‘character motivation,’ and so he will use that overwhelming purpose as a motivator to endure the pain unto whatever end is in store for him.

         Billy Ray slides across the floor, until the chain attached to his dog collar is in front of his face. He then scoots down the floor, until the heels of his silly, cheap, dancing shoes (the one item provided by his captors that does not fit at all with the cowboy theme, for the glossy shoes look like they had been owned once by Liberace) come up against the wall. 

         Since his wrists are handcuffed together, Billy Ray cannot grab the chain at two different spots. Given his broken ribs, though, this is a moot issue; for if he tries to reach out more with one hand than with the other, he might stretch and, maybe, break further his left ribcage. Instead, he folds his hands together and around the chain, like he is in deep prayer, and tugs back as fast as he can.

         His broken ribs still scream out in pain; but since he is able to endure it, he gets a bit more confident with each new tug on the chain. He does not grin, but he does look much more tenacious, which is as close as he can get just now to seeing a light at the end of a tunnel. 

         From this angle, he is yanking the ‘middle finger’ hook to its left. Likely, the hook is more vulnerable when being pulled to one side or another. Until he hears something crack up there in the darkness, he will not know for sure if the angle of attack matters all that much. Nevertheless, good old fashioned reason says that it will matter; and now that he is actually putting his plan into effect, he finds that he can think more reasonably than when he had been reaching up and out for a phantom boy. Reason is like an old friend come back from a long, dangerous trip abroad. He does not know how long his friend will stay; but, for now, he relishes very much the mental focus and purpose his reason offers him.

         I am coming, Billy Ray repeats several times with grim determination. 

         He continues to yank on that long chain, even though his body is literally heaving with pain. His ribs feel as if they are stabbing into his lungs; and, for as much as he knows, perhaps that is what they are doing. His heart feels like it is dislodged from his chest and now pushing up into his throat. This is the moment before his flesh explodes, and bloody chunks of organs and intestines fall to the floor like meat locker confetti. 

         He pulls again, and the chain snaps back into his face. Something falls to the floor. In this eerie silence, that something or other seems much louder than it possibly could have been. Billy Ray braces himself in anticipation of someone bursting through that door at the back of the room. There is nothing he can do, of course, if that should happen; but his body stiffens up anyway into petrified, breathless fear. Billy Ray endures the darkness everywhere stumbling onto him.

         Then, at once, the fear is gone. Each breath is incredibly painful, but he is breathing. The chain lies as a dead snake beside his heaving, trembling flesh.

         Billy Ray fights off sleep. He desperately wants to close his eyes, even if only for a few minutes, but he also knows that if that happens most likely he is going to be awakened by one of his tormentors. What will that man do when he sees that Billy Ray has yanked the chain off of the wall? Reward him with a new nutrition shake for his demonstration of strength and tenacity? Maybe, give that alien tent pole in his crotch a blowjob? Actually, the second option is not at all inconceivable in this quirky corner of hell; and the thought of a pudgy, smiling, insane rat face going down on the axe handle in between his thighs sickens him to no end. He leans to the right side in anticipation of vomiting up his stomach.

         He does not vomit anything, though tears stream down his face. How can he possibly put his plan into effect? Yes, it is remarkable that the chain is little more than a dead snake beside him; but after all that exertion, does he have it in him to get to his feet, let alone to drag that long chain across the dark room?

         The spirit is willing, even if the flesh is weak. That is not quite how that verse appears in the Bible, but it is enough to give Billy Ray the wherewithal to roll onto his stomach. His ribs scream, but he is able to sit up on his knees, and to gather up the chain. He breathes hard while holding the chain like an infant.

         Billy Ray walks upon his knees like a penitent nearing the end of the long and difficult Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. Electrical pain shoots up both his thighs every time he takes short and tentative steps with his knees. His hips tremble erratically, so that at any given moment he looks like he may fall down to the floor for a final ten count. He bends his face down, perhaps instinctually sensing that it will be easier to keep his balance if he makes himself as small as possible. Every time he trembles forward, his chain rattles like Marley’s beaten ghost; and he wonders if in fact he is not knee walking into his own open grave.

         He has no sense of direction. For all he knows, he may be walking about in a circle, or moving in a straight line towards the wrong wall. The darkness is an eternal sea with no isles to break the currents and no stars to point the way.

         If indeed he has been imprisoned in hell, then he will never knee walk to that door. Like an asymptote, he will approach the door, but never actually get there. In this case, the room may be a finite space, but the darkness is infinite.

         Such is the darkness that creeps into the man’s soul, and remains there…

         Except that Billy Ray has not been imprisoned in hell, because there is a thin, horizontal, white line ahead of him. It is a distant beacon, perhaps a kind of mirage, but it is enough to draw him away from his near delirium. He moves as fast as he can in that direction. That beacon is the future in his mind, and so for the moment anyway the intense physical pain recedes into a kind of dream.

         Billy Ray knee walks to the beacon. It is in fact white light bleeding into the room through the tiny space between the bottom of the door and the floor.

         Billy Ray drops the chain to his knees. He eyes the doorknob, which he barely manages to see in the illumination from the bottom of the door. It is the kind of unremarkable, old-fashioned doorknob he has seen and turned a million times; but just now it is a hazy Cyclops eye bulging out from behind a ski mask.

         Billy Ray recoils in fear and in pain. He trembles and hunches down, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

         The dark fright passes, and so he grabs the doorknob with his handcuffed hands. He closes his eyes, so as to prepare mentally for the pain, and then with all his strength he hoists himself up to his feet.

         His head snaps down because of the weight of the chain still attached to his dog collar. He has to lift some of the chain with his handcuffed hands, so as to raise his head. Even then, the excruciating, throbbing pain in his ribs and his knees pulls down his torso. He is the hunchbacked beast again, except this time he is wobbling uncertainly on his feet. 

         He steps a few feet back from the door, and measures out approximately a yard of chain from the end opposite his dog collar. He grips the chain as hard as he can, and he swings the yard of chain back and forth like a batter stepping up to the plate. The chain rattles loosely at first; but as he improves his swing, it swooshes and snaps through the air. If he had his normal strength and speed, then that chain would be a deadly weapon. As it is, it is hopefully good enough to knock a man out cold for a minute or so. That is not much of a head start in his condition, and so he will need to find a better weapon out there. Yes, he is going to need a better weapon and a lot of luck. 

         And he will need the element of surprise. Do not forget that. Both of his tormentors are bigger and stronger than he is now, though the brute that feeds and waters him like he is some sort of deranged dog clearly is deadlier than the fat man with the axe. He hopes that surprise evens the deck this one time. If it does, then he has a remote chance at survival. If not, then he is a dead man on his way to his grave already. The snap of the chain at the end will tell the tale.

*   *   *

         Ultimately, what matters is that Billy Ray does not hesitate. 

         He does not hear the plodding footsteps coming up the staircase; likely a result of how loud his heart beats in his ears. He does not even hear those door hinges a few feet away squealing like rats. What grabs a hold of his attention is how the thin, white light at the bottom of the door expands suddenly into a big triangle of white light. This light is almost dreamlike; and yet he responds to it at once as if it is real, because somewhere in the back of his mind he realizes it is. His survival instinct kicks into high gear. He sees he must take it, or leave it.

         The big brute with the dumbbell fists fills the doorway. For the first time Billy Ray faces him directly, rather than seeing his reflection upon the opposite wall. He has a flash memory of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Thankfully, for his sake, he knows not to ponder that memory just then. He sets it aside, and goes for the knock out swing with all the strength and the speed that he can muster.

         The big brute sees something snap out from the darkness at the very last moment. His eyes open wide, and he reflexively holds out his hands as a means of protecting his face and his upper torso. It is very interesting that we tend to shield our faces in those situations. The rest of our body can go to the dogs, so long as we can look into our mirrors and see our old selves after the bloodshed.

         Ironically, if Billy Ray had had the strength to stand upright, then likely he would have swung his chain towards the face and the upper torso. The brute would have deflected most of the impact with his big hands; and though his big hands would have looked like ground chuck meat a few hours later, he probably would not have fallen backwards. 

         Instead, Billy Ray swings for the knees. There is a terrible cracking sound as the knees snap backward and shatter into pieces. 

         The top-heavy brute stumbles backward. He lifts his arms in a vain effort to regain his balance. In the process, the sack that he carries in one hand opens up. Three nutrition shakes, a glass of water, and a single pill tumble and splash down the staircase steps. The brute turns his head backward, as if he desires to see the mess with his own eyes. This head turn is all that is needed for the top-heavy brute to roll head over heels down the same steps. The brute cries out in pain once, but otherwise he is silent as his bulky frame bangs into the staircase walls and down the windy steps. 

         Billy Ray leans against the open doorway. He is trying to catch his breath while also listening for one final crash somewhere down there in that darkness. Everything about the moment is so surreal he wonders if this might be a dream.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray does not hear one, final, momentous crash. He hears a big man tumbling down the steps a short while; and then, suddenly, he hears nothing at all but the electrical buzz of the dying light bulb hanging above the top step. In his imagination, the electrical buzz is a fly circling a dead body full of open and grotesque sores. The corpse is still too fresh for the fly, but later it will fly into one of the open wounds to lay its eggs. Other flies will follow, dropping fly eggs into this or that crevice, until even the dead eyes tremble from the force of all those flies looking for rooms to rent inside the skull. 

         Billy Ray is so sickened by the image that he bends forward and vomits a handful of bile and blood. In the soft luminescence from the light bulb, his bile and blood concoction looks like orange oatmeal. 

         Holding his chains close to his chest, he starts down the steps. He cannot bear to think about what he will see down there, since any contemplation soon brings back the mental image of the fly infested, trembling corpse. Part of him wants to stay right where he is; but, of course, that will lead to his death, once the fat man finds that corpse down there. 

         Therefore, he focuses on his wobbly steps; as buzzing light bulbs hanging from the ceiling lead him down what he presumes is a Queen Anne tower. He is a thin, stooped, beaten man; and yet his shoulders bang into the walls, and his chains rattle on the steps. He cannot fathom how the bigger man made it down these same steps a few minutes ago without at some point getting stuck like an intemperate hog between two fence rails. 

         Maybe, he is not dead. Maybe, he is just stuck. Maybe, as Billy Ray turns a corner he will stumble into the backside of his tormentor; and like an old hog trying to squirm and to kick its way out of the fence, the brute will remain very much alive. 

         Billy Ray hears his heartbeat kicking up into higher gear, as he considers that very real possibility. It is no consolation for him to state that he will cross that bridge when he comes to it, for that bridge may be a couple of steps away at any given time. Without anything to temper that fear, he leans a moment on his right side, for he senses that he is about to hyperventilate and, maybe, lose consciousness. How awful if he should be found dead midway down these steps, and yet no man is guaranteed a cinema worthy exit from this world.

         Somehow, the sickness passes; and though the flickering light bulb a few feet ahead of him ignites a brief, but powerful, surge of pain in his forehead he presses onward with grim determination more so than hope. He imagines every step down this spiral staircase to be his last, like a condemned man on the way to the gallows who has lost track of how far he is from the platform. 

         Notwithstanding the apparent hopelessness of his situation, he manages to reach the bottom of the staircase. He looks up from his chains as if surprised to be alive still this far from where the fates surely had condemned him to die.

         There is a door at the bottom of the staircase. It is wide open.

         He is alive, Billy Ray mutters, for otherwise he would have come across a corpse by now, and just as dead men don’t dance, so also dead man don’t open doors at the bottom of spiral staircases. 

         Of course, the brute may have crawled passed this point, and then given up his ghost somewhere; but Billy Ray is not so sure anymore. He holds onto his chains more tightly in case he must use them again as a whip.

         Billy Ray steps into a dark and creepy hallway. The door across from him is ajar. It is the only source of light in an area otherwise characterized by black on black shadows. For that reason, he pokes his head inside even while knowing that he should focus instead on finding the steps that lead down to his personal freedom. Light has been such a rarity for him since God knows when they put a ski mask over his head and brought him here that he is literally drawn to it. His better judgment cannot override his visceral need for the source of that power.

         In this case, the source is candlelight on an antique dresser. He sees that this is a bedroom, but beyond that he can make out only a few details. There is a window opposite the doorway, but it seems to have been boarded by stained, mildewed planks. Only a bit of sunlight passes through cracks in the planks; and this sunlight mixes with the candlelight to cast everything in a dismal, haunted, soft pink hue; the color of an old woman whose life has departed from her flat, wrinkled cheeks. This is a witch’s boudoir, a place for the congregation of sick, twisted memories in the dresser mirror, a horror chamber for a man or a boy in the clutches of madness. Billy Ray thinks it strange that there is any masculine connotation about this place, until he recalls how the true vocation of witches the world over is to emasculate and then to devour the men or the boys around them. No doubt, the witch in this room had had her boy, just as Stacey now has his son, Gary. Indeed, is there not the scent of a man’s pussy in the air in here?

         Billy Ray is about to retreat from the doorway, when his left eye catches what it presumes at first to be a tall, beautiful, albino male standing amidst all the clutter. He shrieks in horror, for no doubt this is the end of his wild escape.

         Then, he blinks, and observes that this is a human sized mannequin with movie star good looks and an erect penis as large as his own. The mannequin is staring at its own reflection in the dresser mirror, while standing near the foot of the bed. Candlelight reflects off its blank eyes in such a way as to suggest an old doll about to transform into a man. Billy Ray imagines Pinocchio, except as an adult with a Chippendale physique and without any of the boyish innocence.

         For in this place, the non-living transform in time into a kind of macabre life, virile, beautiful, but still statues; while the living transform in time into a kind of macabre death, sickly, obese, but still breathing. Oh, sure, this is all an old trick of the mind, a play with candlelight reflected off of old mirrors; but a mind exposed to this dark magic long enough eventually turns in on itself. That mind is then a mad thing; perhaps, a cry of despair veiled by too much food, or drink, or debased sex; or, perhaps, a homicidal passion. 

         Again, Billy Ray is about to retreat, when something moves on the top of the bed across from the dresser mirror. His throat clenches shut. He readies his old, rattling chains to swing back at whomever or whatever may pounce at him.

         He views a pair of yellowish cat’s eyes, glaring back at him from the foot of the bed, and clawing into his soul. Those eyes are timeless, demonic; and in the span of a few harrowing seconds, turning blood red with a ferocious passion to claw open one of the carotid arteries in his throat. It is as if already that cat can taste his human blood; and to that end, that cat seems to grin, for is it not true that human blood is much tastier when seasoned with adrenaline and fear?

         The cat lets out a long and vicious growl, while mesmerizing him with his eyes. There is a keen intelligence in those eyes, though it is a calculating mind born not from reason so much as untold centuries of instinct. After all, the low beasts have had to scratch their survival out of the dead sands as much as men, ever since Adam and Eve were shown the back door that leads out of Eden. The prolonged hardship leaves its telltale marks, one of which is a kind of orgasmic, debauched joy for the kill. The beast has murder in his heart when his jaws are able finally to penetrate the flesh of the prey. Man’s homicidal rage is what he shares with the beasts he keeps in his home or hunts in the wild. This is not the Disney version of ‘a boy and his dog,’ but it is the truth revealed by these eyes.

         Somehow, Billy Ray breaks free from the cat’s hypnotic spell, just as the cat pounces from the foot of the bed. Billy Ray snaps back, and shuts the door. He hears the cat slam into the door and let out a frustrated yowl. The cat then starts to scratch manically at the door, as if it can claw its way to the stooped, disheveled intruder on the other side of this barrier. Billy Ray should be able to feel a moment of relief, except that part of him believes that cat really will be able to claw through the door and up his weak flesh. 

         Billy Ray turns away from the door in a quick and careless manner. He is unaware of the staircase that leads down to the front door. For that reason, he stumbles down the first few steps, before he drops the chains, and grabs a hold of the rail with his handcuffed hands. The steps creak irritably, like his are the feet that have awakened them from their timeless slumber; and though all that chatter settles down when finally he steadies himself upon the rail, he assumes one or both of his tormentors has heard him and so will come soon for his neck.

         Minutes pass, and nothing happens. There is no sound, but for the crazed cat still scratching at the door. Billy Ray lets out a sigh, picks up his chains, and continues carefully down the steps. 

         As anticipated, there is a special lock on the door, so that no one is able to open it from the inside or the outside without a key. Maybe, if Billy Ray finds a sharp edge, then he can pick the lock. He is no expert in that craft, although once he played a burglar on stage and so learned the rudiments of breaking and entering. A cursory look around the place tells him that there is no other viable option, for all the windows have been boarded up. Sunlight breaks through the cracks in the planks and illuminates the dust mites. Otherwise, all the rooms on this level are as consumed by endless darkness as his prison upstairs. If it is the case that his tormentors live in this house, too, then for whatever reasons they have imprisoned themselves as much as they are imprisoning him. Yes, they are able to leave with their key in hand; but Billy Ray suspects that the darkness of this place leaves with them. The cat and the mouse are much the same in here.

         Billy Ray shudders from the thought. He steps back from the door. There is a coat hook beside the door, but no coat. Does that mean that the fat man is out and about in his dapper fat man clothes? Maybe, maybe not. Surely, he is in no position to presume as such. He must be prepared for any one of those two, or a third man with whom he is yet unfamiliar, coming out of the dark shadows.

         There is a flicker of light in his left peripheral vision. Billy Ray turns very slowly. The adrenaline rush has passed, and now his pain is returning with a full vengeance. Indeed, as he turns his head, he thinks he hears his muscles crackle like paper. Moreover, his chains now seem impossibly heavy in his spindly arms.

         Still, he is curious; and he needs to find a sharp edge before too long. He may or may not have incapacitated the brute; but regardless, the fat man, or a third man, will return in due course.

         He steps into the room to his left. The flickering light is a flat screen TV. It is incongruent with the antiques that are everywhere else. FOX News is on. It is on mute, so Billy Ray cannot hear the question that an anchorman just posed to a young, blond, giggling ‘news correspondent.’ The caption below informs us that they are talking about Donald Trump. Maybe, the gal is giggling because of The Donald’s hair. Billy Ray cannot imagine any other reasons she is so amused.

         There is another human sized mannequin beside the flat screen TV. It is a hunky monkey like the one upstairs, except that this one’s facial expression is vaguely more adolescent. Also, someone put lipstick on its lips, so it looks like a teen with a hangover that another wiseass teen had painted, when it had had the misfortune to be out cold. As seems to be the theme with these pretty, tall mannequins, its penis is long enough to make a BBC feel inadequate. Moreover, is there lubricant dripping from the head of that penis? Drip, drip, drip, like the old faucet over a man’s forehead, when his torturers want to drive him insane…

         Billy Ray shakes his head. Surely, that is a trick of his imagination, for he could not see something so tiny as a drip in a room illuminated only by that TV.

         Anyway, something else catches his attention. On the floor between the Lazy Boy and the TV is a neat pile of what appears to be old newspapers. There is no rational reason why he should care about this, so far as he can tell; but an odd voice in the back of his head tells him that he should pay attention. Maybe, he is too tired to debate with his inner voices; or maybe, he is really convinced just then. Regardless, he hobbles over to the newspapers to take a closer look, even while his pain is getting worse by the second, and his fear of being caught is becoming palpable. Something about those newspapers matters, goddamn it!

         They look like old issues of the Beverly Times. The newspaper on the top of the pile looks like it has been turned to the second to the last page. It is too dark this far from the TV for Billy Ray to be able to tell for sure, and so he very carefully removes that top issue from the pile and holds it closer to the screen.

         Indeed, it is the second to the last page. The column on that page is the infamous theater review, ‘Get the Axe.’ The columnist goes by the pseudonym of ‘Whiskers.’ Beneath his Nom de plume is the byline, ‘critic of thespian arts,’ which over the years Billy Ray has regarded as laughably pretentious. Someone higher up the chain at the Beverly Times should have put an axe to this byline…

         Billy Ray stops reading at once. He imagines the same axe that had been used to break his ribs flying out from the darkness and slicing through the page, so that that pretentious byline has been separated from the rest of the column.

         This is scrawled in red ink above the title: Clover Fist’s Favorite Column!

         Billy Ray cannot make any sense of ‘Clover Fist,’ but that axe image still resonates in his mind. He also remembers how, until the last show, the fat man always sat in a chair in the middle of the room, like he was some sort of ornery burlesque critic. Moreover, now that he thinks on it, Billy Ray is certain that on several occasions, while doing his dance routine, he thought that he would ‘get the axe’ based on how frustrated his critic looked when he saw him in his small mirror. He did not think he would ‘get the hook,’ which is a similar phrase from stage lore. No, instead he feared that he would ‘get the axe,’ as indeed he did.

         Billy Ray returns to the pile of newspapers. He brings the second one up to the TV, so that he can read it with the aid of the screen illumination. This is also an issue of ‘Get the Axe.’ The red scrawl boasts: Clover Fist’s 2nd Favorite!

         The next one boasts: Clover Fist’s 3rd Favorite!

         The next one boasts: Clover Fist’s 4th Favorite!

         The next one boasts: Clover Fist’s 5th Favorite!

         Billy Ray does not bother with the rest of the newspapers in the pile. He returns the papers that he had taken, and he hobbles out of the room in awful, debilitating pain. He drops his chains by the front door; and though he looks at them, he cannot imagine bending down to gather them up. He accepts the fact that wherever he goes from here he is going to have to drag the chains from his dog collar. He sees that that will slow him down and that there is an increased chance that he will trip, but he is in too much pain to bend all the way down to the floor regardless. The pain is getting the upper hand, which means that even if the brute is dead, and the fat man is gone, he has little time to escape from this place before he is too weak to do anything. Perhaps, already it is too late…

         Billy Ray starts to panic. He needs to find a sharp edge ASAP. He thinks a pen or a pencil will work. For the sake of God, if the fat man is indeed what he now thinks he is, then he should have pens and pencils all over the place. Sure, he does his final work on a typewriter, likely a vintage Royal in keeping with all the other oldies but goodies around here, but a writer is never far from his first dagger. After all, every writer realizes that his pen is mightier than your sword.

         There is a small table beneath the coat hook. Perhaps, there is a pen, or a pencil, or goddamn it something that he can fit into the key hole and twist. It is normal for men (even insane fucks) to leave such items by the front door, no?

         Instead, Billy Ray stumbles on an antique candlestick telephone. Because he is handcuffed, he has to pick up the earpiece with both of his hands. This is not easy to do; and twice, he almost drops the goddamned thing onto the floor.

         There is a dial tone. He cannot believe his luck. 

         He places the earpiece on the table. He has to bend forward to dial with his right index finger. It is much too dark to see the numbers on the rotary, and so he has to feel each of the circles with the tip of his index finger as he counts to the correct circle. He inserts his quivery finger, and he dials. If he takes too long in between numbers, then he loses the dial tone, and has to start from the beginning. This is too maddening. How is it that twice he screws up dialing 911?

         Why am I dialing 911? Billy Ray asks himself after the second fuck up. Do I really want another round in the interrogation room with Detective Ringwood?

         He hangs up the earpiece and thinks. 

         What is Claire’s phone number? Goddamn it, she told me before I left. It is an unlisted number, so I cannot call information. God, it is on the tip of my…

         Then, he has it. God only knows how he preserved that bit of trivia in his mind, while languishing in hell for so long. Nonetheless, he is confident that he recalls the number correctly. He cannot say why. He simply senses it in his gut.

         He removes the earpiece from the hook, and he bends forward yet again to dial. This time, his ribs react with the worst pushback he has encountered as of yet. He is delirious in pain. His body trembles erratically, which considerably slows down his dialing. He coughs up a splat of blood that lands on the earpiece and causes him to lose count. He has to start dialing the numbers from scratch.

         Oh, God, help me, Billy Ray whispers, while tears stream down his face.

         In his extreme focus, Billy Ray does not hear that staircase creaking one step at a time behind him. Neither does his survival instinct, usually so acute in spite of his pain, pick up the fact that a pissed off bully with smashed kneecaps is hobbling down the steps towards him. He has no clue how close that beast is.

         Billy Ray rings Claire’s number. He holds the earpiece by his ear. In spite of his pain, he has to bend forward even more so to speak into the old receiver.

         He gets an answering machine. He clears his throat. His ribs scream out.

         Claire, it’s Billy Ray, he groans. My captor…the critic…Get the Axe…Get…

         Someone wraps his chain around his neck, and yanks backward. Billy Ray drops the earpiece. He sees white stars pulsing above him. Then, he blacks out.  

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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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