I have a short one up at Pulp Metal Magazine, called Dirty Night. It involves football, dirty tackles, and one hell of a threat. See the story here: http://pulpmetalmagazine.com/2014/11/18/dirty-night-by-jason-beech/
Shotgun Honey, the top-notch fiction site run by One Eye Press, ran my short yesterday. Thanks to editor Erik Arneson for the great advice on editing the beast.
The Thing that Looked at Me
I’m not an emotional man; my mother could tell you that. “Why don’t you show me any love, Andy,” she once shouted at me after one beast of an argument she had with my father. All I could do was stand there and wish her out of my life. But here I am crying, missing the life I know will soon end. I lay in my blood watching the thing that gave me away, one of the few things that make me lose my cool. My breath feels cold on the back of my teeth, and I’m hoping this damn thing comes close enough to freeze to death. My God I hurt, my stomach wide open to the chill coming through the open window.
I always thought religious people were nuts, but now I understand them. They have somewhere to go – at least they believe so. That’s comfort. I have none. I believe in nothing, not even myself. My mother called me an idiot. My father would take off his belt and rub the buckle between index and thumb, dulling the metal if not the incoming pain. “This is what made me a man, son, now get your heiney here and let me make you one.” If I go to hell I don’t want to see him there. Let oblivion take me rather than that.
The thing crawls towards me. “Come on you bastard, come closer.” It knows my intention and stops, rubbing its whatevers together, maybe as a job well done, maybe just cleaning itself. Nice one, you did a great job. Thank you.
I remember my first meeting with the boss’ son, Jack. “I want you to know, that if there’s anything you need, you come to me.”
I remember his confused look at my lack of recognition. I had two reasons for blanking him out. One, he’s a prick; two, one of those things landed on his mug. I snatched his coffee from him, scolding him a little – lucky that I make coffee lukewarm – and scrubbed the enamel off it. He cocked an eyebrow, half-amused, half-freaked by that reaction.
I’m afraid to move now; the blood I lay in has turned cold. Not long left. What a waste of a life. I should have taken that baseball scholarship. I could curve a ball in and out enough to bamboozle any chump with a bat. But college reeked of gimps and I made good money early in life. Why take out massive loans to end up earning less than I already did?
“How did we get together?” I asked Belinda after one close shave. Luckily the rain had made us cover up heavily, making us barely recognizable as we huddled beneath an awning in a deli’s side-alley.
“Because you’ve loved me ever since I can remember… and I wanted you.”
“Why don’t you break with Jack?”
“You know why.”
“That’s an arrangement… that’s medieval.”
She rearranged my collar so the drips didn’t invade my back. “That’s the way it is. Let’s deal with it.”
I attempt to sit, wondering why the hell I’m lying on this floor waiting to die. I don’t have to die. I can force life to stay with me. The pain shoots through my stomach and I feel bile burn my throat. It feels like death is poking me with bony fingers, but he can do one. I have scores to settle. The thing is on the window now, taunting me with its freedom, making the odd foray over my head, making my flesh sear as I try to kill it.
I leaned against the pillar in the Regal Hotel’s function room, unable to sit and watch at the same time. My mother had no idea who I am. I have emotion alright; I suppressed it that day by digging my elbow into the faux-classical stone. The best man spun some funny stories; a few cracks here and there making the room erupt. Jack held his new bride round the waist as he sat behind her at the head table, Belinda snuggling into his occasional neck-kisses. She had come to see me first thing that morning.
“How did you get away from the nest?” I asked her.
“Nobody’s due until eleven.” She put her arms around my neck and attacked my lips. I willingly surrendered, but then pushed her off.
“You’re getting married today. Why?”
“You’re my man, Andy, you always will be.”
“As I said, why are you getting married?”
“Because Jack’s my future. Whether I like it or not. He has things I need that you can’t give me. You have things I realllly need that he can’t.”
I obstructed the playful fondle and told her to get ready for her big day.
I couldn’t leave this farce. Two men, at different times, had caught us. Leaving might ignite offence, or suspicion. They had held their tongues so far.
Until now. Best man Greg had had one glass of happy sauce too many. His words rang clear, his tongue ran sloppy. “We all know Jack and Belinda have played the field a little recently.”
The warmth kindled by a thousand bodies chilled and I felt it all directed at me. I looked for Benji. The kid grinned beneath his disguising hand. Greg bumbled on to his next subject, unaware of what he’d said. Jack searched the guests’ faces, looking for guilt. That seemed a relief after the murderous looks he gave his wife. She acted well, turning on him with a brief scowl, and then looked back to the best man.
The wedding cake stood ten yards from me. What landed on it may have saved me. Shit-stained paws took a stroll on its creamy surface, halting for a luxurious moment to slurp on an exposed strawberry. The cold sweat from Greg’s words turned from trickle to tumble. I fumbled in my pockets and unwrapped the rubber band from around my cash and credit cards. The pen I always carried for quick notes worked as a catapult. I rested the band on its end and stretched it. I let go before I started looking weird. The band smacked into the thing, undoubtedly killing it. The cake was soft enough for the band to slice into it without leaving a significant mark, not so soft that it splashed gunk everywhere. The mark looked like a baking quirk.
The next time I glanced at the head table, Greg had raised his glass to the happy couple. Jack never looked my way. My preoccupation with the thing kept me from breaking for it. His glare put a red mark on Greg.
I refused a slice of cake, later hearing somebody choke on rubber.
The grey sky outside darkened. The time… 6pm. A cold fall day. The thing stood at the edge of my blood pool, examining its nutrient worth I guess. One more step and you’re dead. Do it. I shivered. At death. At the thing. I no longer know.
I didn’t want Greg to catch me. I wanted this cold and efficient. I sneaked into his home. He had left his front door unlocked, a careless bastard always. His cookie-cutter neighborhood might not pose any danger to him, but outsiders like me knew where he lived. Greg came into the living room rubbing his hair with a towel. Another hung off his hips, hiding his modesty. He let his arm hang at the sight of me holding a Beretta pistol, a silencer screwed to its end.
“By order, Greg, it isn’t personal.”
One shot did him, smashing him into the wall, a red streak showing his slide into death. I arranged the fallen towel on his lap. No man wants finding dead like that.
Bloody hand-prints surround me like bad 80s home decorating. The thing didn’t take to my blood. And now another has joined it.
I told her, “I want you, all or nothing. Leave Jack, let’s leave this hole for good, and live it up. We both have money for the good life.”
Belinda seemed to consider it, staring at her drink like it contained something I couldn’t see. The right side of her lip moved up, too wry for my current feelings. Belinda had become more than just comfort. I now felt a cord between us. It hurt to separate too far, too long. It always pulled me back.
She stroked my back with her right palm, “I want you too, but this is not the time. I just got married. Think about Jack’s feelings.”
“I don’t give a rat’s sewery bumhole for his feelings. If he finds out about us, he won’t care for mine. Look at Greg, his best man for crying out loud.”
She put her arm through mine and leaned in, squeezing my bicep and making me weak. The breeze coming in from the Atlantic failed to cool my thinking. I wanted out.
“Belinda, I’ve never loved a single living thing in my life. Nothing. Not even the pet dog I took everywhere with me as a child. When it died I buried it in the middle of the woods, walked away, and never looked back.”
“You had a dog?”
What kind of question was that? The dog didn’t matter. My analogy was about love. The dog was an example.
“I had so many dogs; I can’t remember one I didn’t love. Andy, you’re so cold.”
“You’ve warmed me up. I’ve never been so alive.”
The boardwalk’s emptiness made his words clear, yet she remained silent, eyes down as if counting its every plank. What did she need to contemplate? Yes or no. Let me know now, he thought. I can’t sleep at night when I’m without you. Which is always, now you’re married.
“I need to know by the end of the week. I can’t carry on like this, knowing you’re sharing a bed with that prick.”
“You always knew I did.”
“It’s different now you’re married.”
“How is it?”
“Because it’s official. You chose him.”
“I had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.”
I drove back to her car. As she opened her car door I leaned over the passenger seat and called through the window, “You have to make the choice, sweetheart; I can’t stand this any longer.”
She drove away without response.
I knew I’d been set up when I found the one-bedroom apartment empty. Benji had clocked me holding Belinda’s hand behind Jack’s nightclub, Easy, months ago. We didn’t see each other for a couple of weeks after, bracing ourselves for the consequences. Nothing happened except Benji giving us a cocky eye, knowing he had something over us. I eventually had a polite word, inviting him to Brick’s Bar. Over a beer I told him who I knew and how respected I had become. Jack used me because he trusted me. “That trust came from serving his father, all the way to his unfortunate death.”
Benji said nothing, just nodded and smiled carelessly. The kid had a death wish. Now he had something on me. I knew he knew about me coming for him now. I entered his apartment in the afternoon, knowing the boy tramped the earth at all hours of the night. Catch him asleep, he would never know.
I stepped over coffee mugs all over the living room floor, knocking unread newspapers off the arm of a chair, wincing that I might have woken him. Benji had pushed all the furniture tightly against the walls to maximize what little space he had. I readied my Beretta. Not in the kitchen. The bathroom was empty. Only the bedroom remained. I pushed its door open with the silencer. Empty.
I sat on his Laz-Y-Boy, placed my gun on the side table and checked his address book. He had nothing written in it. The luxurious leather that bound it showed its display-only purpose.
I stared through the window feeling my eyes droop. Belinda had me sleepless at night.
That thing walked across the window. Inside? Outside? I hoped outside, where it belonged. It stopped, possibly looking at me. I started shivering, a grown man scared of the little bastards.
As a kid my parents took me to the countryside for a picnic, the nicest thing they ever did for me. I’m not sure if the undercooked chicken slices from the corner deli had done it, but I needed to shit. I knew if I didn’t shift then it would, and my father would laugh at me all the way home. Then belt me for getting upset with his teasing.
I took off to the furthest bush from my parents I could risk without embarrassment, and did my business. Those things must have come off a fast. Maybe they existed on a frugal diet of squirrel shit, but they came at me hard. Before I knew it, those things smothered me, at least a hundred buzzing round my backside, my face, in my mouth, everywhere.
My father rescued me, batting them all away. I may have been freaking out, but I had enough of my wits to note that he stood and watched for an age before he had his fill of entertainment and took action. I sulked in the back of the car all the way home as my parents sat in the front, both bursting into sporadic laughter every few miles.
I considered shooting the damn thing. Instead, I dragged myself up and decided to face it. “Why do you call it a ‘thing?’” my mother would ask. “It’s a fly. Call it by its name and stop acting like some circus freak every time one comes near.”
Sweat beads grew in proportion to the closing distance between us. Its twitching front legs rippled my esophagus. I looked for tiny fly footprints. There… I called it a fly. Progress. Belinda had helped, or tried to. She always dealt with what my stomach couldn’t. She gave up trying to make me face my fear when I ran to the bathroom during The Fly. To turn into one? How would that feel? Would I need to eat shit?
Distraction… Why had I come here? I found out with my back to the door. I hadn’t heard the handle turn. I only discovered Benji’s presence when I turned and he put two bullets through my stomach, piercing me and the window.
My strength is fading fast. I don’t have enough to wave these things, these flies, off my head, both sensing a new freedom to roam on me. My breathing rasps, gurgles. I can feel blood seeping from my nose. Footsteps… outside. Two sets…
Voice sounds familiar. “Thank you, Benji. We’ll make sure Jack never finds out right?”
“Oh yeah, as long as you keep your side of the agreement.”
“You’ll get some Benji, I promise you that.”
I look up, seeing only blurred figures walking around me. My gun, where is it?
I hear it lifted from the tiled floor. I hear three thuds and a slump. Only one set of footsteps now.
I try to focus. I feel nothing but the patter of tiny feet walk my brow, my convulsion leaving them undisturbed.
“You got too needy, Andy. I don’t need needy hanging off my neck like a millstone. You ruined a perfect thing.”
I had enough consciousness to note how she avoided touching me, and my blood. “You got…”
“I’m not kidding, babes. I told you Jack is my future. For now, anyway. Your emotions got in the way. Endangered me. I’m sorry, sweetness.”
A final thud sent me on my way.
“Your leg is shaking really bad,” Alison noted. An eyebrow reached for the awning, asking what’s up with that?
John wondered how long for. He looked at his date intently enough to see if he could read her thoughts, not enough to make her skin crawl. The leg troubled her; that sardonic eyebrow told him as much. But she remained engaged. Alison had not given off any of the so-called signals which hinted at attraction. She did not play with her hair and refused to face her body towards him. Maybe she liked him and refused to give out those signals for fear of rejection. He wasn’t sure. He had been out of the game for years. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He felt his now former-married life had crushed his sexuality to a pair of pips.
He had tried to do the right thing, asking Alison about herself, and never bringing the conversation back to him, just letting her know that her experience was on a par with his.
“What about you?” she would keep saying.
She wanted him to do the talking. Sometimes she made it feel like a job interview. If you want me, you need to impress me – about your job, your values, your experience. Nevertheless, he liked her, despite himself. He enjoyed how her long neck fell into her V-neck top. He resisted the urge to stick his head forward.
They had met at a mutual friend’s party the week before. John could not believe his luck at her presence, and that she had initiated the conversation. She thought she had seen him before, but couldn’t work out where. She told him about her work. She loooved being a lawyer – couldn’t think of anything more fascinating. He got her number before she got pulled away by other social obligations.
Last week’s eagerness had turned a little frosty.
“First dates are always a mess.” She had honesty. The hurt surprised him. “This one has been the messiest I’ve ever been on.”
He kept his emotions next to the ice-pack. She was rejecting him. His bones told him so. The awkward moment allowed him to look elsewhere. They sat outdoors at a restaurant that charged wallet-emptying prices for food that did not rent all his stomach’s available space. Some couples talked, some people-watched – making it obvious they were making fun of somebody by the way words escaped the corner of their mouths. A couple three tables away were on a date worse than his. It warmed him up.
A wry smile sprung, an unexpected bonus in this situation. “It’s the second messiest I’ve ever been on. The worst was when I was twenty-four years old. She was also called Alison – wanted to eat in McDonald’s and then told me all night about her dream honeymoon.”
Alison’s eyebrow asked him if he hadn’t known this in advance. He wondered if she exercised that eyebrow in a mirror.
“Blind date,” he explained.
“Do you have children?”
He felt his leg go again, spasm-ing like a piston in a past-it motor. “I had a daughter…”
She had the grace to look away and not show him pity, letting the moment wear itself out. The date mattered again.
Those men… they had all escaped punishment.
A scream – a woman in her mid-twenties – pulled him back. The pitch was not over a dropped ice-cream. It reached into his ears and played the Psycho screech on his heart-strings. A toddler had broken free of his mother, looking to play with those big fast cars on the road. John jumped the barrier between the sidewalk and the restaurant and pulled the boy from a certain impression on the road. Returning him to a grateful mother, he happily took her grateful kisses, accepted a hug, and jumped the barrier again to a standing ovation.
Not quite what he wanted. He did not want people to remember him.
Alison welcomed him back to the table warmer than the start of their date, pushing her chair closer. She faced him and played with her hair. Once congratulations from staff and other customers subsided, they started quaffing the free bottle of champagne the restaurant gave him for his heroic act. He dreaded the idea of a news crew from the cheesy local TV station.
“This date has become interesting. What more have you got?”
“What do you mean?” What did she mean?
“Who are you, John? Where are you from? What do you do?”
“It’s a question I could ask you. You keep batting away questions as if I was a journalist.”
“I try to keep a sense of mystery. I like to reveal a layer at a time. All at once and I’ve lost you.”
“You ought to feel the same about a man.”
“I do. And now I want to know you, layer by layer.”
He scratched the back of his head, squeezed his shaking leg, and tried to pull the strings of his nerves into obedience. “I’m from Colorado, just like you.”
“How do you know that?” she frowned.
She digested his response with food. “Which part?”
“You’re good”, she commended. “You ought to be a lawyer.”
Damn, she now touched his leg after every question. As she leaned in he avoided peering down her top. He sensed that he would get an uninhibited view eventually.
“The ambiguity would get to me.”
She smiled at that. “When did you come here?” she asked.
“Two months ago.”
Her foot brushed his leg, so nonchalantly it could be mistaken for an accident.
“Such short answers, John. What are you hiding?”
He flinched. He couldn’t hide it. She clocked it. It brought her in deeper. The woman liked danger.
She played with her glass and examined a couple of ants by her feet. “You don’t need to tell me. I understand.”
“You lost your daughter. I’m guessing you lost your wife too.”
He ignored the comment. Her former grace had dripped. She didn’t understand anything.
“I was in the army.”
He blinked. At twenty he would have shown her everything. In her twenties she could have asked. In their thirties she should have known better.
She wanted to see. Every dilation and expansion of her pupils showed her desire.
“I killed people. A lot of them.”
She was his. For all her sophistication, she was primal underneath. Her work in law lent her a sheen of respectability, but she took that route because of the grime. She took her wealth from human misery, enjoying its detail while proving her intellect in closing cases.
Her toes lifted his trouser leg, looking for bare flesh. A smile told her he was receptive. “I have boutique coffee at my place, unopened. I’d love to share it.”
Anything with boutique in its name was enough to put him right off going any further, but he nodded. “That’s an offer I can’t refuse.”
They paid the bill and left for hers, John glad she did not question him about his kills. None had been while he was in the army.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/eole/5056183269/”>Éole</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photo pin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>
The fabulous Shotgun Honey publishes blasts of short fiction a couple of times per week, and I have one of my shorts published there today: Getting Home Late – http://shotgunhoney.net/fiction/getting-home-late-by-jason-beech.html
People ask if what I write is autobiographical: No. I make that stuff up.
Hope you enjoy it.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/pdxdj/22236537/”>PDXdj</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>