Alice

Her smile.  It comes to me before the hammer falls.  It’s crooked, like a picture hung on a wall, the wire sliding around the nail.  It’s all I have time for, a memory like the flash of a bulb, leaving only the ghost of an image burned on the back of my eyes.  The hammer falls, metal on metal, the tip dinging into the end of the bullet.

This is the point where you hear nothing.  The bullet is faster than the report.  Somewhere, on the other side of the wall, a young couple is post-coital sleepy and watching TV.  The girl will jump.  The man might investigate.  Maybe she pushes him to, maybe he gets up and looks out the window, twitching the curtain to the side before returning to bed and nuzzling in.  It’s the manager’s problem, he tells himself.

            There is the sound of metal on metal, and I jump.  Nothing happens.  The pistol is suddenly heavy, and I lower it until it lies in my lap.  I look at it, small and black and mean.  I think of Alice and the way she looked in the end, skin and bones, the way her ribs would show even under her shirt, the way her cheeks had fallen in, like sails without wind.  I lift the pistol, its barrel an idiot eye staring blindly.  I close my eyes, and pull the hammer back.  Next door, someone starts the shower, the sound like heavy rain.

Summer.  Lights from the city hang in the air, dew-hazed halos of reds and whites.  She stands under the overhang where the rain drizzles down in thick ropes, the edge of the concrete apron dark and wet.  She’s looking out at the city, and I step behind her and light a cigarette.  The smoke drifts into the mist, raindrops tearing it to tatters.  I watch her for a moment, the set of her shoulders, and the curl of her hair.  She turns to me and smiles and steps backward into the rain.  It plasters her hair down and turns her clothes dark.  She raises her arms, and I throw the cigarette away and step to her.  She wraps slick warm arms around me and stands on tiptoe to kiss me.  I close my eyes and can feel my heartbeat in my lips.  I hear the rain, ticking against the metal roof.  Tick, tick,

            TICK.  The hammer falls on the bullet, and nothing happens.  For the second time, I lower the pistol.  Something itches in the back of my mind, and I frown in concentration, but nothing comes.  Next door, the shower is silent, and I think of the couple over there, in love and bliss and unaware of all the things that lurk on the threshold, threatening joy, threatening life.  I think of Alice’s eyes, rheumy before their time.  I lift the pistol and draw the hammer back.  Lights flutter on the other side of the gauzy curtain over the window, and hazy globes of light travel down the opposite wall, top to bottom.  I think of falling leaves and close my eyes.

Fall.  The air is crisp and brittle, the promise of ice in the air.  We stand on the concrete apron of the driveway, the sun creeping downward, and talk of little things.  I can see the circles under her eyes, the exhaustion in her movements, and her breath.  She’s wearing a coat, russet-colored wool, with the big wooden buttons that fit through loops, and a stocking cap of the same color.  We’re talking, but I can’t remember the words.  She smiles, her teeth white, even whiter against the backdrop of orange and red and yellow, and pulls me in.  Her kiss, like mint after heat, and then she leans her head on my shoulder and we dance to no music.  I feel my heart beat, and keep time to it.  Tick, tick,

            TICK.  For the third time, the hammer falls on a dud.  I sit, my stomach trying to do one of those loops like you see planes do at air shows, and then rage wells up, fast and hot, and I throw the pistol at the wall.  It hits the plaster and leaves a dent, then clatters to the floor.  Next door, there’s the sound of bedsprings.

He’s looking out the window now, too scared to actually bang on the wall.  What if the man next door has a gun?

            I snort at this and rub my hands over my face.  I wait another minute, to see if the tears come.  When they do not, I stand and grab the room key and a jacket.  I shut off the lights and leave the pistol laying in the dark.

*

            Winter.  She’s lying in a hospital bed, one of those impersonal gray ones with the word Stryker labeled on the side.  The thin white hospital blankets aren’t enough, so I brought a couple from home, big quilted things with sunflowers and birds.  She would look like a child if it weren’t for the wires and lines snaking from beneath the covers.  I hold her hand, and it feels like bird bones under parchment.  I’m afraid I’ll hurt her and afraid to let her go.  She sleeps, her breathing barely stirring the quilt.  I watch her eyes dart back and forth beneath lids that are almost translucent, blue veins snaking across the skin.  I choke on my tears for her sake.  Inside, I am cold.

            I shove my hands deeper into my pockets and pretend I’m not cold.  There is a tree in the park downtown, an old oak whose branches spread out like a longhouse roof.  I walk there, the sidewalk slippery where one person or another hadn’t had the time or the energy to clear it.  The city is quiet this time of night, only the occasional car whispering past in the slush.  Lights dot the houses here and there.

The park is abandoned in the winter, only the infrequent tracks of a cross-country skier or squirrel denting the snow.  The tree is in the center, and I make my way through drifts, the cold wet soaking into my jeans, numbing my ankles.  I stop at the oak and run a hand over the gnarled bark.  I look up, and see the branches bare and skeletal reaching to the sky, a hand holding the moon in winter.  My fingers touch a gouge in the bark, and I look back down, to a heart cut into the tree, CH + AE dug into the black bark.  I trace the letters.  I remember thinking how cheesy it was, how cliché.   She just smiled and punched my shoulder in that playful way, and did it anyways.

I feel the bark for a moment more, and turn away.

*

            Unlike the city, the highway is always busy.  I stand at the crosswalk, where Main becomes 96, and watch the trucks and cars and vans whistle by.  I close my eyes and lift a foot.

Winter.  She’s awake.  Just barely.  She squeezes my hand, and her strength is pitiful.  I break a little inside, thinking of the way her arms would wrap around me, hold me tight, and now the best she can do is flutter her fingers against mine.  She looks at me and takes a breath.  It’s a struggle just to speak now.

            “Do you think Dante was right?  Heaven, Hell, Purgatory?”  She asks.

            I shrug and try to think of something comforting to say.  She goes on without me.

            “I hope not.  And I hope so.  I mean, the bad people – maybe they need that.  But I hope there’s something more for me.  I’ve been good, right?”

            She smiles, and it’s crooked and wan.  I stroke her hair, and push the plunger on the little syringe I’d smuggled in.

            “Tell me I’ve been good.”  She says.

            She closes her eyes.

            I take a step and hear a horn.  Behind my eyelids, the world gets brighter.  The horn seems to blare for eternity, a thousand angels playing a thousand trumpets, and the world turns white behind my eyelids until it’s all I see.  I hang in the white for a minute, and the world washes out.

*

            Her smile.  It comes to me before the hammer falls.  It’s crooked, like a picture hung on a wall, the wire sliding around the nail.  It’s all I have time for, a memory like the flash of a bulb, leaving only the ghost of an image burned on the back of my eyes.  The hammer falls, metal on metal, the tip dinging into the end of the bullet.

This is the point where you hear nothing.

            Dante was right.

 

 

Study in Red

Red.  The color creeps in, at the edges of my dreams, through the windows of the studio.  Outside, I see it growing in neat rows in the park, in blossoms on the trees, and in the sunset.  Night falls, and it drips from neon signs and taillights, pools in puddles left from the rain.

I’m not usually this fixated.  Yes, I notice colors.  You don’t get to do what I do if you don’t.  I notice pattern and light, texture and color, and my brain turns them all into compositions of lines and curves and shape, and my hand interprets those things and splashes it on canvas.

For some reason, though, I am stuck – obsessed at this point, really – with red.  I think it’s her lips.  I can’t seem to find the right shade, and I’ve tried more than a few.  Crimson, carmine, red, auburn, burgundy, vermilion – they all seem wrong.  Fifty-two colors, and I can’t find a fucking match.  Some artist.

I should’ve listened to my mother.  She always said I should’ve been a surgeon.

The charcoal scratches on canvas, and her eyebrow is finished.  It’s a delicate thing, soft and feathery.  I smudge it a bit and get shadow where there was none.  I’m avoiding her lips.  Avoiding her stare, and that pout under her nose.  I set the charcoal down, and walk away.

I pass the coat rack, where my jacket hangs like a limp rag.  After a moment of indecision, I tug it on and grab my keys.  The door slams behind me, and I stomp down a dark wood hallway to stairs that creak with every step.  Afternoon light slants through the window set in the front door, and I watch dust play in it before I step through.

Outside, the world goes on.  A couple passes by on the other side of the street, arms around each other.  Cars occasionally pass, their tires whispering on the asphalt.  Sometimes I hear words in them.  I glance over my shoulder, at the front door, and feel a pang of guilt.  I usually do when I’m not working.  She’s there, waiting.  She can afford to be patient, though.

I walk to the park, the cool spring breeze ruffling my jacket, sending stray strands of hair wisping off in the wind.  The buildings to either side of me take on an almost merry look, inviting.  This close to the park is tourist ground, and I notice the occasional person passing me on the sidewalk has become people, first a few, then a stream, like a creek emptying into a river.

I turn off and cross the street to the park.  This early in the day, it’s still relatively unmolested, green trees and grass and daffodils and lilies all nodding their heads in time to the breeze that shuffles by.  I walk by a bed of tulips and suppress the urge to lash out, to kick their stupid fucking red heads off.

I decide to keep walking.

Out of the park, buildings rise up beside me again, then fall away to my left as the river begins to edge closer to the road.  The breeze is stronger here, colder, and whipping up whitecaps that break on the rocks of the bank.   Spray tickles the back of my neck, and I turn my collar up.

When I look up, I’m at a dead end.  Someone Built a warehouse here years ago, and it’s fallen into disrepair.  Apparently, the city hadn’t thought it worth the cost to just tear the damn thing down already.  I decide to take the roundabout and walk home.  On the other side of the street, something moves in the shadows of an alley, and I stop.

Probably a rat.  Just a rat.

Feeling brave, I stick my head into the narrow space between two brick buildings that smell like grease and motor oil.   Nothing moves, and I take a step, which is just enough movement to spook the rat that had been snacking.  It charges past me with a squeak, and I aim a kick and a curse at it as it flies by me.  Three more steps take me into the dark, and I stop when my shoe bumps against something soft and yielding.

I wait a beat, for my eyes to adjust.  It’s mid-afternoon outside, but in the alley, a maze of ductwork, pipes, and eaves overhead between the buildings drop the light to near night.  I prod the thing with the toe of my shoe and hear the rustle of plastic.  Just trash.  I turn to go and see a smear on the wall beside me.  It looks like someone spattered paint here, dribbled it down the wall, and into irregular puddles on the concrete.

I blink and find my fingers sifting through the sticky mess on the wall.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe artistic curiosity, maybe because unlike the rest of the alley, it doesn’t smell like refuse and shit.  I drop my hand and remember what I was doing, and turn the rest of the way around, back to the light.  It doesn’t take long to put the alley behind me.

I reach the river, and the sun is slanting in long golden rays that pierce the water and shatter into splinters of color that ripple with the waves.  I stop for a moment and watch and realize I was in that alley longer than I had thought.  I shrug to myself.  Not the first time I’ve lost track.

I watch the water for a while – green and gold and blue – and just breathe the cooling air that the breeze brings.  On the other side, people are coming home, lights going on in houses and apartments, cars drifting into drives.  I watch for a while, relatively alone.  Traffic has slowed, and only the occasional passerby even glances my way.  When the last of the light fades into the water, I turn and walk on.

I pass through the park, flowers now folded into bulbs.  Trees throw the paths and grass into dark puddles of shadow.  The colors of the tourist traps in town are muted, and the sidewalks practically dead here as well.  I push on.

In the front door, up the stairs, down the hall, and into my apartment.  I turn on the lights and dim them to a decent level.  Hang my jacket on the hook.

She’s still there, staring out of the canvas.  I pull up a chair and sit in front of her, meeting her gaze.   Nothing comes.  There is a bottle of red (hah!) wine on the counter.  I get up and grab it, and take my seat again once I’ve wrestled the cork from the mouth.

Time and wine pass, and I find myself in the same spot, the only difference being that I’m bleary and melancholy.  My eyes burn, and I set the wine down and close them.

I remember her, Madeline, a redhead from college.  She had pale skin and pink lips and nipples.  She loved the rain, and cheap beer, and talking about Monet and Seurat.  She loved to argue nearly as much, as well, though that was always followed by a sweetness you couldn’t match with candy. 

                In my dream, she is pale and bloodless.  Her eyes are clear, but they seem to see nothing.  I reach out, and touch her, and her skin smears like paint on a canvas.  I try to scoop it back into place, but every stroke just scatters more, until I’m standing in a field of orchids painted from her flesh.  I watch, and the flowers turn red, then the sky, a deep red, and beneath it all, weeping, a low keening like a bird caught in a thorn bush.

                I wake in cool morning light, an empty bottle on the floor, and my face wet.  My head beats in time to my heart, and I raise a hand to my skull to try to keep it in one piece.  Something sticky comes away on my forehead, and I curse softly, remembering that I hadn’t cleaned up after my walk the night before.

I trudge to the bathroom, and flip on the taps, waiting for the water to warm.  I look in the mirror and see blue eyes carrying dark bags, and a streak of red above that, smeared on my forehead.  I forget looking at myself, and instead, take in the color.  Almost maroon, nearly crimson, it’s both and neither, and I’ll be damned if it’s not the color I need.

I raise my still-unwashed hand to my face and stare at the smudges of red on it.  It’s dry and crusted and all wrong now, the exception being where my fingers had crossed my face.  I stick my tongue out and touch the tip to the sticky red.  It tastes sharp and coppery.

Blood, then.  My stomach almost drops out, wondering where I’ll get what I need and how to mix it and how much to use.  In the back of my mind, a very tiny voice wonders about AIDS and Hepatitis and God knows what.  I ignore it.

Reluctantly, I wash the blood from my hand and face, and jump in the shower, hoping the steam and fresh water will ease my headache.  It doesn’t.  I walk to the studio and stare at her.  She smiles back.  My brain is pounding, and I walk by, to my bed, where I shut the curtains, and fall into a deep sleep.

*

                Knives in the dark.  They glitter like stars, and where they touch, they part the sky.  Beneath, it’s red.  It’s all red.

*

                I wake in the night, cool sheets and cool dark surrounding me.  I sit up in bed and look around.  Dresser, chair, sheet that divides the bedroom from the studio – all sit in mute observance.  I stare at the sheet, swaying in a breeze either kicked up by the building’s AC, or a window I’ve left cracked.  Beyond it, she still sits, waiting.

I get out of bed and pad to the kitchenette opposite my makeshift bedroom.  I fish a glass from the cupboard and get a drink, not looking at her face on the canvas.  I know what she wants.  I find my hand toying with the knob on the silverware drawer.

Only a little.  I only need a little.

I pull the drawer open and pull out a paring knife with a ceramic blade.  I test the edge against the ball of my thumb, feel it rasp against my fingerprint.  Good and sharp.  I set the glass down and carry the knife over to the chair in front of the canvas.  It only takes me a minute to select a brush, a couple of tubes of red, and some thinner.  I need the smallest amount of paint to thicken the blood, but not dilute the paint – the thinner is to keep it fresh.

I set the palette in my lap, and with a quick jab, pierce my thumb.  A sharp pain lances into my hand – no more than you’d feel from a splinter, though, and blood wells up almost instantly.  I hold my hand over the palette and squeeze my thumb, watching fat beads drip into one of the empty depressions there.  When it is half-full, I stop and suck on the wound to stop the bleeding. I can taste copper.

Next comes a dot of paint, to thicken the stuff so I can paint with it.  I watch it slide into the warm redness, and stir it with the end of my brush.  It takes a minute to spread evenly, like wasabi in soy sauce.  When it does, I add a touch of thinner and mix that in as well.

I dip my brush in, and press it to her lips, soft as a kiss for the first coat.  It goes on smooth and even, and I can see contours taking shape, making them plump and lush.  I watch the paint soak in, and my heart drops.  It’s wrong.

I let the brush fall away, back to its resting place on the palette, and think.  Too much paint?  Not enough thinner?  Not enough blood?  Not enough blood.  I can do this.  If I’m careful, I can do this.

*

                An hour later, I have the things I need.  An old cord from a broken lamp for a tourniquet.  A mason jar.  Some alcohol, to sterilize the blade, bandages cut from a sheet, and masking tape.  Best I could do on short notice.

I sit and tie the cord below my bicep.  The mason jar sits on the ground, under my outstretched hand.  My hand is still shaking.  I take a breath and make a fist.  The cut is easy, almost too easy.  Hurts a bit, but it’s a sharp knife.  I relax my fist, pull the cord free, and the blood flows down my arm, over my fingertips, and into the jar.  Drops on the floor, but that’s okay.

Half-full.  I make a fist again, and cover the wound with the sheet scraps.  Two twists with the tape, and I keep my arm bent.  Could take a bit to stop bleeding.

I dip the brush in the jar and set to work.  The blood is thin, runs down her chin.  She’s smiling.  It soaks into the canvas, refuses to darken.  I keep painting.

Not enough.  Before long, the brush clicks against the bottom of the jar, and I realize I need more.  She looks better.  Her lips, I could kiss them.

I pull the sheets off, open the cut with the tip of the knife.  Hurt like hell, that time.  I fill the jar.  More red covers her lips; soaks in.  It’s not enough.  I fill the jar again.  I think she’s smiling at me.  Outside, a car passes, I think, and I can hear its tires whispering words to the night air.

Kiss her kiss her feed her kiss her.

                I do.  My arm aches.  Seems like I forgot something, something red…forgot to close the vein…forgot to feed her…I look down, and see her lips have slipped the canvas, are surrounding my chair.  Blackness opens at the center of them, and I smell her breath, like copper.

Not enough.  I open the vein in my arm, and the pain fades.  The red opens wider.

She smiles.

Bones and Gold

 

In the hills, gold. In the city, bones. Hammers on iron build the veins; bodies crushed to dust to make the streets. Under those streets, men and women gather, the dispossessed, the lost, and vagrant. They smell of sweat and garbage, of halitosis and illness, alcohol and antiseptic. They wear raggedy clothes on raggedy frames, and shuffle sore feet in tattered shoes in front of glowing barrels that warm calloused hands, the nails caked with filth. They talk in low tones, about things that had been and things that might be, and more, unlikely things.

Thomas talks about his wife and her breasts. Mostly he talks about her breasts. If you ask him about it, he waxes on about how time has rubbed her features out like sand blowing on stone, and her chest is all he has left. Carter goes on about how he’d had a 401k and a house on Sunset, between the palm trees and the yucca. He talks about his Porsche, but pronounces it Por-SHA, as if he’s speaking French. Tucker talks about men. Men who will pay you in booze or cash or a cheap meal in exchange for your lips wrapped around a cock, or a delivery, or a fight. Sometimes he talks about men in the sewers, who take you away to a government agency and stick needles in your brain until you’re either psychic or dead.

There are undercurrents, of mental illness, of deviance. You think that’s harsh. You think it’s hard that I describe it as deviance. Surely, there are better words. Surely, there are more understanding words. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean deviance like the preachers and the politicians categorize it. No one here gives a shit. I mean like Frank, who likes to pull the teeth from rats and use them to comb his pubes.  Or Shawn, who stares a little too long at the baby dolls in the tattered catalogs he carries around, the front of his pants tented. Deviance.

Under it all, though, is those eight words: In the hills, gold. In the city, bones.

I asked Tucker about it once. It was summer, and we were sweating by the tracks. Someone had scored a case of Bud, and we drank them warm while sitting in broken lawn chairs under the moon. Beside us, the rails of the Santa Fe stretched into the dark, the metal gleaming dully in the lunar light. Weeds crept between cracks in the ties, their heads poking up like sleepers waking. Moths fluttered by a patch of fiddleheads, their wings winking moonlight. Tucker belched.

“You ever hear about bones and gold?” He was looking over with a slight tilt to his head. His eyes were on my stomach, the skin still taut despite time and beer. I shook mine to break the silence.

He took a swig. A streamer escaped his mouth into his beard. “They say the city was founded by four brothers. Tough bastards, to the last. They made their fortune in the hills, digging for gold. You know how it was back then – money was yours if you put in the work. None of this credit, nine to five, two point five kids, taxes, and mortgage bullshit. You worked, you got paid. A man could live back then.

“Anyway, one of the brothers has it out with the other three. He owned the titles to the mines and wanted a bigger cut. So, they went in to inspect the place, and only three come out. No one knows what happened in there – the brothers claim the tunnel collapsed, and crushed him.

But, and here’s the but – a big ol’ Kardashian mound of butt – when I was growing up, my grandpap swore there was a procession the next night – horses pulling a carriage, all black. It went down to the cemetery, and then up High Street after. They found it the next morning all burnt out, and the driver’s throat slashed. Never did find the fourth brother’s body.”

“They got rich, though. Real rich. Built the city, built the roads, made the railroad come out this way. When they passed, there were no heirs, and they found the mines had been tapped years ago, but the city stayed rich.”

He paused for a moment, looking up at the stars. He belched again. “Know what I think? I think they made a deal down there, with the Devil. I think they traded a life, and their souls, for a bit of wealth.”

He threw his beer can into the weeds and cracked another. “Where else did they get the money? Mine was tapped. Where’d it come from? Ain’t normal.”

He finished talking, and we drank in silence for a bit. Something occurred to me.

“You ever go down there?”

“Shit, no.”

“Why?”

“Got to be under the stars. Small spaces make me nervous. Was why I could never own a Volkswagen.”

I sat for a moment, thinking. When you live the way I do, you have time for several things, thinking chief among them. When you think too much, strange things creep in. Superstition, mainly. You start to think if you do this thing, then maybe you get a fiver, or if you do that thing, maybe you find a good piece of food in the trash. Now, I’m not saying I thought I could meet the Devil and enrich my life, but I did think that maybe I could find a vein someone missed in that mine, and get a little rich. Fuck magic, I’m practical. I turned to Tucker.

“What if I get you some Valium?”

“What if what?”

“If I get you some Valium, would you go into the mine with me?”

He mulled it over, chewing his beard. Every now and then, he glanced at my chest and stomach, at the little V of muscle over my hips. I hoped he’d settle for the Valium. He belched again, and after a moment where I was sure I’d hear the words ‘for a blowjob’, he just nodded. Maybe he was weighing the possibility of being bit. Maybe he’d had the same thought I did – just one vein, that’s all a man needed. I hoped he was right.

I stood and staggered over to the shack beside the tracks and pissed on its wall, then raised a hand.

“See you tomorrow, Tuck.”

“Yeah yeah. Just make sure you get those pills.”

I shuffled off to my pallet under the trestle and laid down, visions of lucre dancing in my head.

*

The Valium came cheap – two tablets for a scrap of toast and some bacon. It was dear – I got it once a week from a short order cook downtown who didn’t mind sharing occasionally. I waited until Fergus finished chewing the meat, the still-warm scent making my stomach grumble, and held out my hand. He shook two little yellow pills into my palm and patted me on the back.

I found Tucker curled up in an old Army blanket on the lee side of the tracks, his beard matted with drool and leaves. I nudged him with my foot, and he roused slowly, grumbling, and sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes and the foliage from his whiskers. He held out his hand and I passed him the pills, which he squirreled away in his vest. He sat up and dug out a water bottle, pulling from it for a long moment. He swished and spat, then stood and wandered over to the shed and pissed on the wall. He walked back to me, washing his face with his palms.

“When we going?”

I looked up. The sun was still low in the sky. “Pretty soon. We need to hike those hills, and I want to do it before it gets hot.”

He grunted and pulled a bag of jerky from his pack. He passed me a strip and chewed one himself. It was sweet, salty, and chewy. My mouth watered as I ate it, and I went to my own pack, grabbing the surplus canteen. I drank long and deep, the cool water clearing my throat, washing the sting of salt from my lips.

I took a couple of minutes to grab things I thought I’d need – the canteen, a couple Twinkies, a ball-peen hammer I’d stolen from a construction site (you never know when you need protection), and a hank of rope. I didn’t think I’d need everything, but better safe than sorry. Tucker appeared at my elbow a moment later, a small bag under his arm as well. His eyes were a bit glassy.

“Took the Valium already?”

He shrugged. “Just one. I get carsick.”

“You know we’re not driving.”

“Sure.”

I shook my head, and we headed out of the camp. No one really watched us leave, since it was normal for people to come and go. We trudged from the bridge and the rails to the east end of town. It didn’t take long for the sidewalks, already broken and grassy, to disappear, and the buildings to thin out. Eventually, those too disappeared, and we found ourselves in the hills. The grass was sere and brown, drought having grabbed the county by the balls and refusing to let go. For its part, the ground was uneven; the short blades of grass obscuring holes that threatened to turn an ankle or twist a knee. We followed the highway for a while but eventually had to cut across, into open country.

The sun had begun to climb, and the day was getting hot. Sweat rolled in rivulets down my back, staining my already dirty tee, and making Tucker smell like a kennel in a rainstorm. My throat itched, and I took a sip from the canteen, the water trickling down my throat and easing the dull ache there. Our feet kicked up dust, and the wind blew patches of it in small whirlwinds that played among the scrub brush and stunted weeds. We came to a rise in the earth, the hill sloping up, a scree of pebbles and sand underfoot, sliding away like eels beneath out heels.

At the top of the hill was another, the beginnings of the mountains, and cut into it was a small entrance, the sides and top shored up with thick beams. A sign on a post nearby warned us off.

PROPERTY OF MCLEOD INDUSTRIES

NO TRESPASSING

KEEP OUT

Tucker walked past it, spitting a big glob of phlegm at the metal square. It stuck then slid down, leaving a snail trail. I watched it for a moment, and then followed him in. Inside, the tunnel yawned like a ravenous throat, the light fading, and the dark speeding to the deep like a shadow locomotive. We pulled out glow sticks, snapping and shaking them until they glowed with an eerie green.

“How do we know what to look for?” Tucker was peering at the walls as if they would heave up nuggets at the right touch.

“It’s gold. You know. Shiny. Probably be harder to see, though, since there’s all this dirt.”

We walked a little apart, one on each wall as we went, eyes close to the stone and soil. Every now and then, I would stop and brush at the wall, dust sifting to my feet, hoping to uncover something. We’d pause while I did, Tucker following suit, then move on when it was just more dirt under that first layer. We walked like that for a while, our steps making small echoes in the dark and the silence.

The tunnel went deeper, and we came to a crossroads in the path. Tucker looked around, then back at me. His eyes were glassier. He’d taken the second Valium. He scratched his crotch and spit again.

“Which way?”

I looked around, kicked at the dust on the ground. It shifted, and I could make out a line cut into the earth. I stepped past Tucker and kicked at another spot, unearthing another line. I guessed they intersected somewhere further on. I imagined that under all that grime was a five-pointed star and a muddy brown stain that had once been red. I had an idea and pulled the hammer from my pack.

“Tuck. Come here.”

He wandered over, docile as a cow. The Valium was full-bore in his system now, and his eyes were half-lidded.

“Stand here.” I guided him to the center of the room. His feet kicked up more dust, and I could see an eye etched into the ground. He looked down.

“What’s that?”

“Not sure. See if you can clear it off.”

He scuffed his feet, his head hung. I raised the hammer.

“Think it’s some sort of fucki-”

The hammer came down hard. He finished the sentence with a guttural, choking sound, and his legs kicked once, dumping him on his ass. I slammed the hammer down again, and the room filled with a short crack and the smell of copper. Blood had begun to fountain from the hole I’d made with the hammer, and I stepped back to keep it off my shoes. Tucker just lay on the floor and twitched.

“Okay,” I addressed the dark. “Gimme what you got.”

I waited, for ten minutes, then fifteen. Nothing came, no hot wind from the throat, no susurration of voices. After twenty, I packed the hammer away and made my way out of the mine. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed I’d know if it worked. We don’t live in an age of signs and wonders unless that sign is Free Donuts. I passed the entrance and stepped into the sun. The tunnel was dark behind me, and still. I thought maybe I should have done something with the body, dug a little hole, or stuffed it in a mine cart. Then I thought no one is going to miss another bum. They’d probably say a little prayer in thanks of his suffering being over and then go to brunch, matter of fact.

I stretched and took a deep breath. I didn’t feel any luckier, or any richer, but I did feel better. Like someone had knocked the cobwebs from my brain for a bit. I walked back to the highway, my step light. A car passed, and something flew out the window, a bit of paper that fluttered in the wind. I snatched it from the ground as it circled around my shoe, and held it up to my face. It was a five, green and fresh, a simple crease through the center. I held it to my nose and smelled the paper. It smelled like perfume. It smelled as if my luck was changing.

Old Wounds

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

The thought rolled around in his head and came to a rest in the forefront of his brain.  He wondered for a minute why he would even have to remind himself of a fact he knew was as solid as the ground beneath his feet.  Then it came again, a sound from the broom closet at the end of the hall, like one of the mops being bumped in its bucket.

 

Probably rats.  Persistent little bastards.

 

It didn’t seem to matter how much bait he put out for them, there was always one more, or maybe, two more.  It took two to tango, after all.

 

He finished mopping the last section of hallway and placed the mop back into the bucket with a wet plop.  He started to roll the bucket down the hall, his knee only protesting a little as he walked past rows of lockers and classroom doors.  On his way to the broom closet, he would stop once in a while to wipe a smudge of marker from a locker door or fingerprints from a classroom window.

 

He had been a janitor at the school for twenty-six years, and though the kids didn’t always respect him, and sometimes the teachers less, he felt no shame in what he did.  His father had always believed that if you took pride in what you did, no matter what it was, it was easier to love what you did in the long run.  He supposed some of that had rubbed off on him as well.

 

A memory flared up in the back of his head like they sometimes did when he was alone, and he squashed it.  He reached the broom closet, and opened the door, flicking the switch on the inside.  The light sputtered, then sparked to life, and he was looking in on the past.

 

Lush jungle, green on green with touches of brown was laid before him.  He could see the trail ahead, that same thin strip of packed earth in the underbrush that they had walked several times before, trailing away into the preternatural darkness.  Overhead, birds and primates called from the canopy.  He stared off into it, the M-16 already growing heavy in his hands. 

 

            “You gonna start moving, Brooklyn, or we gonna have to push you?” 

 

            He looked over his shoulder, and shot the speaker an annoyed look, then turned back.

 

            “Hold yer horses, Bingo.  Don’t want to walk into a fuckin’ punji stick, do ya?”

 

            He looked for a minute more, took a deep breath, and then a step forward, and –

 

            He was in the broom closet, cradling the mop.  He set it back in the bucket with a sigh and looked around.  Mops and brooms, tile floor, fluorescents overhead, and a utility sink and drain against the wall.  For a moment, he thought he could still smell jungle – a moist, earthy smell – then it passed, and all he could detect were the smells of disinfectant and pine.

 

He rolled the bucket to the drain, wrung the mop out and set it in its corner, and tipped the bucket.  He watched the muddy water swirl down the holes, and when it was done, he put the bucket in its place as well.  He turned, and walked out, flicking the light switch off behind him.  Something in the dark bumped a bucket, and it clattered in its place.  He didn’t turn around, and instead, shut the door and locked it with his key.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

*

 

The return walk down the hall and to the parking lot was always the longest.  After a day full of bending and lifting and twisting and walking, his bad knee was throbbing at best, screaming on the worst days.  Tonight it was halfway between, a persistent dull ache that refused to go away.  He was looking forward to going home and taking a couple of Advil with a whiskey chaser.

 

As he walked down the hall, turning each row of lights off behind him, there was a bang, of metal on metal, like someone slamming a locker door closed.  It echoed in the hall and set the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck on end.  He turned back and squinted into the dark, and

 

Harley was lying in the path, bleeding.  Brooklyn’s ears rung from the explosion, a dull bang like metal on metal, and he had his rifle up, looking for the source.  Bingo ran to the body and knelt, shaking it.  He looked up and was yelling something at Brooklyn, who moved closer, the ringing in his ears giving way to the shouting.

 

            “…fucked!  He’s completely fucked!  Leg’s blown clean off, man!”

 

            Brooklyn reached down and grabbed him, and shouted back.

 

            “Get your ass in the brush – someone’s gonna hear that, and come runnin’.”

 

            He turned back to the remaining members of the squad – Austin and Red, who were still standing in the path – guns ready, but half-gaping as well.  They looked at him.

 

            “Move it, shitheads!”  He shouted.

 

            They started and double-timed it into the bush ahead of him.  He made his way over to Harley, who was no longer breathing, grabbed the spare ammo off the body, and after one last look around, followed the others into the brush.

 

            Once in, he signaled to the others to keep low and fan out.  They were going to wait out whatever might be on its way, and if he had his way, shoot the ever lovin’ shit out of them.  They waited in silence, once in a while one of them shifting to get the pins and needles out of a foot or leg.  Brooklyn stared out of the brush and across the path, but all he saw was more

 

            Black.  That’s all he saw at the end of the hall.  After a minute, he shrugged and turned, and continued his slow walk down the hall.  At the end, he flipped the last set of switches, and stood there for a moment, listening.  Not a sound aside from a low hum from the boiler room below.  He shrugged to himself, zipped his coat, and opened the glass door to the entryway.  Another door and two locks later, and he was done, standing in a cool October night.  He looked back one more time, and the thought came to him again.

 

            There are no such things as ghosts.

 

*

 

He stood at the side door of the school, beside a small patch of grass from which a tall elm grew, its last few leaves clinging in hues of red and orange desperation.  The parking lot stretched out before him, tall lights on poles shedding yellow light in fuzzy halos around them.  A cool breeze had sprung up, and he zipped his coat up a bit tighter before fishing out his cigarettes and lighting one.  He eyed the sign warning him about smoke-free facilities and ignored it.  It wasn’t like he just flicked his butts wherever he felt, and it wasn’t like there was anyone around to catch him out anyway.

 

He took a couple of puffs, letting the smoke make him light-headed, then lifted his shoe and stubbed it out on his heel.  Once it was out, he slipped the rest of the cigarette back in his pocket, and started across the lot, grimacing a bit as he did so.  His knee was threatening to become a raging pain, and he was looking more and more forward to that whiskey.

 

The walk across the lot was quiet, aside from the soft sigh of the breeze and his footsteps occasionally crunching on loose asphalt.  The breeze was starting to chill the tip of his nose, so he kept his head down and his hands in his pockets, and walked at a steady pace.  He had had the same parking spot for a long time now, and he was more than capable of walking the distance without looking up once.

 

Behind him, a sound like leaves skittering on pavement, or something being dragged, echoed in the night, and made him stop his step.  He threw a glance over his shoulder but saw nothing.  The sound came again, muffled this time, and he turned his eyes toward it, finding the elm and the shadow it threw over the school walk.  He stared into it and saw

 

Nothing.  They had been sitting in the bush for twenty minutes and hadn’t heard or seen a damn thing.  Nothing moved in the spaces around them, nothing made a sound.  Brooklyn gave it a thought for a minute and then sat back on his haunches.  Bingo looked over at him, and Brooklyn shook his head.  Another five minutes couldn’t hurt.

 

            When it passed, he gave the signal, and they all began to creep out towards the path again.  Brooklyn and Bingo looked at each other, and Brooklyn shrugged, and then stood.  He held his breath, waiting for the shot, for a shout from the enemy.  Nothing came, and he waited.  A minute ticked by, and he could feel each second like a grain of sand in an hourglass dripping through.  Finally, he let out the breath he was holding, and signaled the all-clear.

 

            The squad crept out of the brush one by one, each waiting as well, waiting to see if the enemy would wait for them all to be visible before attacking, or if the enemy were there at all.  When no attack came, they all stood and walked over to Harley’s body.  Bingo looked over at Brooklyn.

 

            “Fucked up, man.  Next time you want to tempt fate, take point don’t just fuckin’ stand up outta nowhere and wait for Charlie to shoot yer ass.”

 

            Brooklyn just nodded and looked back down at Harley.  The flies had started to settle on his skin.  He reached down and shooed them away, then closed the young man’s eyes.  When that was done, he stood back up and re-shouldered his weapon.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a map, unfolding it in front of the others.

 

            “We’re here.”  He pointed to a spot on the map.  “There’s a village about 2 klicks from here.  We’ll head up there, check it out, and pick up Harley on the way back.  Austin, Red, bag him and slide him into the bush over there.  Let’s keep the bugs and fuck-knows-what-else offa him.”

 

            They moved to do as he said while he and Bingo kept a lookout.  When it was done, they started down the path again, Brooklyn taking point.  Overhead, the sun was reaching noon, and he could feel sweat sliding down every part of him, though the path ahead was nearly as dark as night.

 

            A fly buzzed by, and he swatted at his neck-

 

            The stinging sensation brought him out of the memory.  Goddamn, but they were thick tonight.  He turned away from the tree and its shadow and finished the walk to his car.  Inside, with the door closed, he started it, and turned the heater up while he let the engine warm.  He fiddled with the radio before he found a station he liked, and then settled back in his seat.

 

  ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad.  Take a sad song, and make it better…’

 

            They heard the Beatles before they saw the clearing at the end of the path.  Brooklyn signaled a halt, and they stopped short, crouching low and bringing weapons up.  One by one, they moved to fan out, until they were covering all angles.  When they were in position, Brooklyn motioned them forward.

 

            They moved quick and silent, hand signals flashing between them, steering them in different formations and directions.  Before long, they were at the edge of the village, and Brooklyn could see where the music was coming from.  Someone had set up a battery-powered radio on a log and had tuned it into AFVN.

 

            Bingo was nudging him in the ribs, short sharp jabs with his elbow, and he turned to look.  One of the village women was walking across the open area between huts, her rear switching back in forth in a kind of rhythmic sway under her long dress.  He grinned at Bingo and turned back to his inspection of the area.

 

            He was just considering popping up for a second to peek in the window of the hut they were hiding behind when he heard Red yell ‘Shit!’, and all Hell broke loose.  From that side of the village, someone started shouting in Vietnamese – “Anh là ai? Anh là ai?” – and Austin replied with “Shut the fuck up!”

 

            To his right, Bingo was rounding the side of the hut, rising up, rifle at the ready.  He came face to face with a short man who froze, then began screaming the same phrase as the other – “Anh là ai?”  Brooklyn followed, flowing around the hut, thinking to defuse the situation, and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the woman who he and Bingo had been eyeballing earlier. 

 

            She was coming out of one of the bigger huts on the other side of the village and halted when she heard the yelling and saw the soldiers.  Her eyes went wide, and she lifted her hands.  Brooklyn saw something in one, small, round, and green.  He reacted, the rifle coming up and sighting in almost of its own accord, and he shouted over his shoulder.

 

            “Grenade!”

 

            The Beatles were still singing into the silence, “na na na na na ,na na na, hey Jude…

 

            The woman was backing up, eyes still wide, and he was trying to figure out what to do when the man Bingo was holding broke free and began to run to her, shouting in Vietnamese, and waving his arms.

 

            “Stop that fucker, somebody stop that fucker!” 

 

Bingo was shouting, and Brooklyn could see the whites of his eyes, just beginning to bulge in fear.  He tracked a single drop of sweat as it rolled down the man’s face, and then a rifle coughed, and he turned back to the running man.

 

            The shot caught the old man in the back, just right of his spine, and though he couldn’t see the exit wound, he saw the mist that exploded out toward the girl, just before a red spot bloomed on her chest.  She started to sag and then everything went full-speed again.  The top of her head exploded in a red mist, and Brooklyn could hear the ‘pop-pop-pop’ of rifles on semi-auto.  Around him, villagers were running and screaming. 

 

            He turned, just in time to see another woman run at him, a keening sound like a high wind in November coming from her mouth.  Fear instinct took over, and he pulled the trigger on the M-16.  His shot was low, and her knee was vaporized in an instant, the leg disconnecting, and her momentum sending her ass over teakettle.  Blood fountained in an arc from her tumble, and some hit him in the fatigues.  He looked down, at the red, at the woman still screaming in the dirt, and pulled the trigger again, and again, then again, until the only sound in his ears was the click of an empty chamber, and his own ragged breathing.

 

            He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned.  His eyes felt too wide, too full of the world, and he saw

 

            Something dragging itself across the concrete.  The radio had moved on from the Beatles and was playing ads, something about storm windows and doors, and he turned it down.  He was staring the rear-view, and saw it plain as day – something was dragging itself across the asphalt under the warm yellow light of the sodium arcs.

 

He watched as it moved in slow deliberate motions, stretching out, then pulling itself forward, stretching out and pulling itself forward, and behind it, it left a slick red trail.  For a minute, he tried to figure it out.  Was it a cat?  Nah, too big.  Dog then?  Hit by a car, and left to bleed out?  It passed under a light, and he saw white cloth and white skin.

 

Oh, fuck.

 

            It stretched out again and moved just a bit closer, and he heard it.  It was a sound like a keening wind in November, and it was coming from the thing grinding its way across the parking lot foot by foot.  His stomach clenched, and his bowels tried to loosen.  Instead, he clamped down, put the car in drive, and pulled away.  Slow at first, and faster, until he was doing fifty through the lot, and when he reached the spot where it met the road, he didn’t slow or look, and instead just hauled ass onto the blacktop.

 

A mile from the school, his heart was hammering in his chest, and sweat had begun to drip from his hair into his eyes.  He pressed shaking hands into the steering wheel and blinked back stinging tears.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

*

 

A few miles down the road, with the radio turned back up, and the sound of the tires whispering on blacktop in the background, he started to believe it again.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

            He was breathing easier, and the sweating had stopped, leaving him with a bit of a chill despite the car’s heater blowing away.  He was getting close to home, and he began to slow a bit, making the left turn that would take him onto his street.  A wrench on the floor, loose from some odd job he had done a while back, slid and clinked, and he jumped a little.  He turned the radio up, and hummed along, forcing everything else out his mind.

 

Another minute and he was in front of his drive, turning in, and watching the lawn roll by as the headlights lit it like rolling spotlights.  In the backseat, the wrench clinked again, and he reached back to grab it and bring it forward so he could put it away.

 

His hand met something cold and wet and smooth, and he looked back.  Dark Asian eyes met his own, and he screamed and snatched his hand back from where it had been resting on the bare flesh of the woman’s leg.  Beneath those eyes, a delicate nose ended just above a red ruin of a hole that was once a mouth, the top row of teeth suspended in bone and gore.  The bottom half of her jaw was missing and a long tongue lolled from the wound.  Red-tinged drool stained the front of her white blouse, and as his hand scrambled to slam the vehicle in park and grab the door latch, those dead eyes rolled towards him and a sound came burbling from her throat.

 

He didn’t wait to hear what she was saying.  His hand finally found the door latch, and he popped it, and slammed the door open and spilled himself onto the rough dirt of the drive.  His knee screamed in protest and

 

He looked down and saw the wound, a neat hole in his leg where the kneecap had been.  Across the village, Austin had emptied his rifle, and had drawn his sidearm, and was still firing.  Rage filled Brooklyn – that was his knee, a perfectly good fucking knee – and he flipped his rifle at the other man. 

 

Pop-pop.

 

  A look of surprise crossed the other man’s face, and then he crumpled.

 

            Bingo was shouting, and Red was screaming, and then Brooklyn was down, but still moving, crawling across the dirt toward

 

            The house.  It was a dirty white in the dark, looming over lawn and drive like judge and jury, and right now, it looked like Fort Knox to him.  He knew if he could just get inside, it would all be okay, all this would go away, and he could drink and forget, and maybe call in sick tomorrow, and it might even be a good idea to call Dr. Mitchell and get some of those little blue pills that made you happy.

 

From behind him, he could hear the sound of dragging, of something moving slow but deliberate, and he lurched to his feet, ignoring the pain in his knee.  It almost brought tears to his eyes, but at this point he didn’t give a good goddamn.  He shoved a hand into his pocket, and his heart almost stopped.  His keys were in the ignition still.  He looked back, and saw the half-human slobbering mess shambling towards him, and made up his mind.  He wasn’t going back that way.

 

He started towards the house, limping and listing a bit to the right, but the knowledge that he was moving faster than the thing behind him gave him a little boost of speed.  In no time, he was on the porch, holding onto one of the posts that supported the little roof above it.  He tried to stand on tiptoe to reach the small box he hid under the eave, and pain shot through his knee again.  He fought it down, and stretched again, his fingertips first brushing, and then gaining purchase on the box.  He brought it down with a small cry of triumph and snatched the key out.

 

He risked a glance behind him and saw the crawling thing had only made it half the distance he had.  Still shaking, he turned toward the door and managed to get the key in on the third try.  Behind him, that gurgling sound had started again, and he risked one more glance back, to where the thing had been.

 

The lawn was empty.  He stopped trying to open the door and turned to look.  No body, no marks on the grass, and no marks in the drive.  He stood for a minute, listening to the sounds of his own breathing, and his heart thudding against his ribs.  Nothing moved in the light thrown by his headlights.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

            The thought came again, defiant.  He shot back at it.  Yeah, well, fuck you.

 

            One more look around, and he took a deep breath and turned back to the door.  He grabbed the knob, and turned it, pushing the door open.  It opened easy, on quiet hinges, and he stepped over the threshold and flipped the light.  Something small and round and green rolled from down the hall and bounced against his shoe.

 

He bent down and picked it up, a frown forming on his face.  It was soft and had a distinct smell.  He squeezed it, and

 

He had made it to the woman in the dirt, the one with the grenade.  He crawled beside her and looked for it.  It had rolled a little ways and was lying in the dirt, undisturbed by the chaos around it.  He reached over, and picked it up, a strong smell wafting from the soft green skin.  His stomach dropped.

 

            “Oh fuck.”  The words were quiet.

 

Overhead, the light flickered once and went out with a dull ‘tink’.  Something moved in the dark.  Something wet, and cold.

 

There are no such things as ghosts,  he thought, and knew it for a lie.