Pandemic Files

At First

The night before a virus originating in the remote Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh starts a global pandemic that results in a zombie apocalypse that destroys 99.9% of human life on the planet, Clint steps into his apartment and is almost—before he’s even got the goddamn door fully open—smacked in the face with a bottle of Skol.

An empty bottle, to be specific.

An empty plastic bottle, if we’re just being boring.

Happens like this: Clint’s got a greasy brown paper bag from the Cuban bakery down the street in one hand and he’s fumbling his key with the other trying to unlock the front door. He steps inside and hears a whistle, turns and ducks just in time to dodge the empty plastic liter bottle of cheap ass vodka. The bottle bounces off the wall above his head and rattles to the ground. Clint looks at where it came from and Tami’s standing just outside the kitchen, going off like a fucking siren. Eyes all bleary and shit, no pause between her words so it all comes out sounding like

“WHATTHEFUCKISTHISBULLSHITCLINTYOUFUCKINGASSHOLE—”

So Clint closes the door, right?

Reaches down and picks up the empty plastic bottle and stares at it for a moment. Shakes it a little, the half-shot of vodka left at the bottom sloshing around. Then he drops it back at his feet.

Clint’s wearing jeans and a Bob Marley tee and holding that greasy brown paper bag and this just-sobered look on his face, his charcoal-black skin shiny with humidity. Tami’s got one hand in the air with the many bracelets on her arm jangling, her other hand behind her back. Clint tries to pay attention to what she’s saying but he can’t because his beautiful girlfriend—a woman who is able to make his pulse skyrocket with just a twitch of her hips—currently looks demonic: pursed lips and a glare hot enough to boil water; creases in her forehead and under her eyes casting shadows across her face that make her look like a villain in a Marvel movie; white, bubbly spittle building up at the corners of her mouth. Swimming in tears, her eyes have that dizzy look of the intoxicated.

Clint can’t listen to her when she looks like this.

Also, for some reason—and this is not the norm for Clint, he swears—he suddenly can’t stop thinking about Iliana, the cashier from the Cuban bakery down the street. Not even like he was thinking about her a moment ago when he parked his car and trudged upstairs to #207 at Mai Gardens Palace, the roach-infested apartment he’s been sharing with Tami for a year now.

Iliana, the cashier from the Cuban bakery with the nose ring and the fire-red streaks through her dark hair and the tattoo of a playing card—five of spades—right above her left tit that her work shirt was supposed to hide but didn’t because it’s too small for her (which, on further thought, may have been purposeful). Iliana the Bakery Cashier took the time to talk to Clint while he waited on his croqueta sandwich, handing the greasy bag over to him with a sly smile and a sexy wink that followed Clint

aaaaall

the waaaaay

hooome

to this shit, Tami tossing her arms around in the air like she’s caught the holy fucking ghost. She’s yelling something about something she found, and Clint can’t even give her the usual benefit of fronting like he actually gives a shit.

He’s flat-out not. Trying. To hear this.

At the bakery, Iliana told Clint about how she moved to Miami from Havana in 2010 when she was just twelve, how she’s currently studying marketing over at FIU. Clint told her he’s also a student, a grad student at that. When she asked him what he’s studying and he said psychology, Iliana clasped her hands together and smiled wide, told him how cool that was. Said it in a way that made him feel it too.

Iliana also told him she liked the name Clint, could see herself naming her son Clint, if she ever had one. She visibly caressed the roof of her mouth with her tongue when she said his name, emphasizing the cluck at the beginning.

And didn’t her fingers linger on his a second longer than necessary when she gave him back his debit card?

Could be, Clint.

Could. Be.

Tami’s losing her shit and Clint’s thinking about Iliana the Bakery cashier’s ass when she walked away, round and tight and perky as hell, like a small shelf. Clint’s thinking about Iliana the Bakery cashier’s smile, perfect except for one slightly crooked tooth on the bottom row (which, of course, makes her that much hotter, don’t it?).

Clint thinks about the way Iliana talked to him so nicely, with no animosity in her tone, no judgment in her words, nothing but curiosity and warmth.

Of course, Iliana the Bakery Cashier’s probably got as much crazy in her as anybody. We’ve all got the potential to be highly irrational, Clint knows this. Duh. He’s got a dozen clinical psychology textbooks that say as much shoved in a small brown bookcase in a corner of the living room. More under his desk at work.

But Iliana the Bakery cashier wouldn’t be crazy at first.

Nope. At first, Iliana would be fun.

Things always are. Until they’re not.

Standing not five feet in front of Clint, Tami’s got the neck swivel thing going, her legs wobbly so she has to keep pushing off the wall to stay standing straight. Her hand shoots into the air, fist closed tightly with one index finger poking out. The finger reaches eye level—her eye level, not Clint’s—and she turns it on him, a targeted missile, punctuating each word with a jab.

“You a bitch,” she says, slurring the words.

Clint can feel his heartbeat in his forehead.

Tami smacks her palm against the wall, her other arm still tucked behind her back so Clint starts to wonder what she’s got there. A tiny piece of cracked plaster near the ceiling tumbles down past the bob of her messy ponytail.

“You a little bitch,” she repeats, adding a qualifier that Clint really doesn’t think is necessary. He’s five-eight, average at the least.

Tami gets to smacking her hand against the wall again, over and over, exclaiming repetitively, “You a little bitch, Clint, you a little bitch. You a little bitch, Clint, you a little—”

A mantra. Before Clint can tell Tami to shut the fuck up, she starts to scream

“YOU A LITTLE BITCH, CLINT, YOU A LITTLE BITCH ASS MOTHERFUCK—”

And just like that Clint’s thrown back in time, his mind doing one of those things minds sometimes do under duress, balancing out the anxiety by conjuring up some old random memory that’s been lying around collecting dust at the bottom of the tattered box of miscellanea rotting in the mental storage locker we all possess. This snapshot’s from back at the old apartment Clint grew up in, off Caribbean Blvd down in The Ridge:

Clint’s stepdad’s sitting next to his mom on the brown living room couch (Clint remembers that most about the old place: brown couch, brown carpet, brown stains on the wall, everything in that damn apartment was brown). Clint’s pissed, his face shoved in the corner by the front door, on timeout.

Earlier, Clint went in the fridge and ate some of the leftover corned beef out of the pot that his mom had cooked that night. Something his stepdad told him not to do, considering Clint had already eaten dinner. This had led to—as was expected— a righteous ass whooping.

And also, as usual, in retaliation for Clint’s tears, his stepdad got to playing that goddamn song again, the one by The Kingstonians with the chorus like

Whiney whineeey, yuh whiney whineeey, yuh whiney whineeey, tooo muuuch

Clint’s mom smiled at her husband’s singing and teasing. Chuckled along with him a little even. When Clint glanced back at her though she directed her smile at him and rolled her eyes, offering him a wink. Clint’s stepdad laughed until his eyes watered, clapping his hands and whooping in between breaths.

“Alright, Trev,” Clint’s mom said. “Enough now, leave the boy alone.”

Clint’s stepdad sucked his teeth, waving Clint’s mother away. “Boy need to toughen up. You make a mistake, you must pay the consequences.”

And Clint—five or six at the time—just sat there across the room in the corner with his nose to the wall, fuming. Trying and trying to ignore him, trying to suck that shit up, the way they’d always told him he needed to, had to.

But Clint’s stepdad kept on laughing, pointing and cackling like a crack fiend who’d just copped some rock; getting on him and getting on him until Clint couldn’t take it anymore and turned from the wall he’d been banished to, bunched his fists at his side and scrunched his face into a knot and screamed with tears burning down his cheek

“Stop! Making! Fun of me!”

It wasn’t the first time Clint had an outburst like that. In what seems now to have been a counterproductive approach to parenting, his mother constantly urged him to stand up for himself, which frequently translated into him snapping back at his stepdad’s abuses. Which never ended well for Clint.

Sometimes, after Clint came at him like that, his stepdad would just give him a look—kinda like the look Tami’s giving him right now, Clint notices—and tell him to watch his dutty mouth.

In this memory though—not a remarkable moment either, more like a picture on a forgotten film roll that’s finally gotten developed then promptly stuck in an album that’s itself shoved in a closet—Clint’s stepdad popped off. Hopped up from the couch and backhanded Clint across the face, knocking Clint feet over ass. Smacked the boy down to the carpet before he’d barely finished logging his complaint. A burst of light in Clint’s head turned to momentary darkness, Clint’s parents eventually swimming back into view from his vantage point on his back on the floor.

Clint’s stepdad stood over him, hands balled into fists, his face shadowy.

“Control that shit, my yute,” he said. “Stop crying like a little batty bwoy.”

Clint glanced at his mother. She remained on the couch, chin tucked in towards her chest, fingers clenched in her lap.

It’s a memory Clint hasn’t come across in years, tucked away so deep that it immediately makes him wonder what else is back there. No way to find out at the moment though—to get any time to think, really—what with Tami losing her ever-loving mind.

“You such a bitch I can’t believe you actually got a dick,” Tami spits, placing a hand on her right hip and sizing him up. “If I hadn’t seen it myself I’d say you had a pussy down there.”

“Shit don’t even make any sense,” Clint mutters.

“You shoulda been born with a pussy, Clint!” she yells. “That make sense to you?! You a fucking coward who shoulda been born with a va-gi-na!”

Clint gets a sudden, clearly-insane-yet-weirdly-rational urge to knock out one of Tami’s teeth. Nothing up front, just a quick left hook, dislodge one of those back molars and shut her shrill ass up. Maybe a second, solid blow to the chest, collapse one of her lungs so she can concentrate more on breathing and less on talking.

Let’s pause here to let Clint marinate in that thought for a moment, see what pops up.

……ah, there it is.

An image of Clint’s mother shimmers to the surface, mom cowering in a corner with tears pouring down her cheeks, stepdad standing over her yelling. Belt in hand.

Don’t worry, Ma. Clint would never actually hit Tami.

Only a bitch would even think of hitting a woman, right?

Tami stops her ranting just as suddenly as she began and steps to Clint, left hand raised up high, waving in his face.

“Fuck you looking over there for, nigga?” she yells, then points her index and middle finger at her own eyes. “I’m standing right here, Clinton. Quit staring at the wall and acting like you don’t hear me and answer my fucking question!”

Tami knows he hates when she calls him Clinton, almost as much as he hates when she uses the N-word. It’s not even his name; says so right there on his birth certificate: “Clint Norman Bennett Jr.” Not “Clinton Norman Bennett Jr.” Yet she insists. And that other word’s not even hers to use. Clint never really understood how Hispanics seem to get a pass there, like their brown-ness exempts them from racial stigmas.

“What question?” he says, staring her down menacingly. “You didn’t ask me a question,just started yelling at me soon as I walked in.”

“Are you serious right—” She groans loudly then screams, “Who the fuck is Yanerys?!”

First time Clint’s heard that question tonight, but he’s not about to point that out.

As she speaks, Tami moves in a way that brings the hand that’s been behind her back into view. There’s an iPad there, tucked against her arm. The iPad Clint’s work-study job lent him the day he got hired. The iPad he left sitting in his bag with the screen locked when he went out to go run some errands a little while ago.

“What are you doing with that?” Clint asks.

“You know exactly what I’m doing with it,” she hisses.

Clint sighs heavily, his chin dropping to his chest. On the floor next to Tami’s sandal-clad right foot, a dead cockroach lies on the linoleum. Belly up, crooked legs tucked inward, eyes and antennae pointed towards the ceiling.

“God, this place is disgusting,” Clint says.

“You’re disgusting,” Tami says, then holds the iPad up, shaking it in his face. “This—this, Clinton—this is disgusting.”

“My name’s not fucking Clinton,” Clint snaps. “And quit waving it around like that.”

“Nigga, I will wave this shit right out the fucking window!” she bursts, then quietly and deliberately declares—slapping her empty palm down on the wall in concert with her cadence—

“I’m not.” Slap.

“Fucking.” Slap.

“Playing.” Slap.

“With.” Slap.

“You.” Slap.

“Clint.” Slap.

“Who.” Slap.

“The.” Slap.

“Fuck.” Slap.

“Is.” Slap.

Yanerys, you cheating ass nigga?” Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap.

Clint watches the entire display with a sort of angry-amusement.

“How the fuck am I supposed to know, Tami?” he yells back, looking her up and down, fighting to hold back a sneer. “The fuck are you even asking me right now?”

Tami holds the iPad up and takes a step closer to Clint, so that she’s standing just two feet away, and jabs a finger at his chest. Clint looks past her into the kitchen, at the yellowing fridge that struggles to keep water cold, the electric stove that smells like burning wires whenever you turn it on, the 750-watt microwave sitting crusty and overly-used in the corner by the sink, hiding the patched hole in the wall that used to serve as a major causeway for the roaches until Clint filled it in with caulk.

Standing at four foot eleven, Tami can’t weigh more than ninety-five pounds (and that’s after, like, a blunt and some Cracker Barrel). Last Friday at the gym, Clint hit the bench hard. Random dude spotted him for a couple of reps, playing witness when Clint maxed out at two-fifty. That’s two fifty-pound plates and a twenty-five pound plate on each side. Tami couldn’t even lift the bar by itself if she tried.

Clint could toss her ass if he wanted to, literally.

Not saying he would. But he could. Like, it’s a physical possibility. She’s tiny.

Yet Tami still stands in front of him with her chest puffed out, nipples at attention, face contorted with anger, repeatedly poking him and making threatening gestures like she’s got some bottomless pool of strength and protection afforded her by her vagina.

Clint never understood that either, the comfort levels some females allow for themselves, like the dude they’re fucking and sharing a bed with every night isn’t a whole other person with his own crazy ass thought processes, on top of a bunch of testosterone coursing through his system. Hear it all the time, some over-trusting woman thinks she’s got her legs totally wrapped around her man’s soul and ring finger; next thing you know she’s wearing a tire iron buried in her skull, or soaking at the bottom of a well, or a lake, or a meat grinder. Murked by hubby as an alternative to divorce proceedings. Or he got sick of her voice. Or he just plain went crazy.

It’s always the ones closest, ain’t it?

Like, Tami’s actions clearly indicate that—regardless of what she thinks Clint’s done that’s instigated this assault—she still trusts him to a large degree. Enough to feel she can physically threaten him with the surety that he won’t return the favor, even as she’s in the midst of berating him. Which is, Clint thinks to himself, an assumption she can only make because she’s a woman who’s never gotten her ass whooped by somebody who was tired of listening to her shit.

Clint believes this to be one of the most fundamental differences between the genders in modern society: dudes can’t come at anybody like this, man or woman. Not unless you want to go to jail, or get your face restructured. Or both. Brothas where Clint grew up would’ve taken about five seconds of this shit from another dude before somebody’s nose got caved into the back of their head. Some call it barbarous (Clint happens to mostly agree with those who do). But there’s also a sense of peace that comes with that type of existence, like a difficult decision has already been made for you from birth.

Clint glances at the kitchen sink, Tami’s voice once again fading to background noise. He stares at the stack of dishes overflowing onto the counter. Those goddamn dishes. How long had they been there?

For some reason, the question brings a bitter chuckle out of Clint.

“What’s so funny?” Tami asks, taking a step back and raising her eyebrows.

“First of all,” Clint says, flexing his pecs a bit. “I don’t know who or what you’re talking about, but you need to come up out of my face.”

“You don’t know—”

“SECOND OF ALL,” Clint yells over her. Tami leans away, folding her arms over her chest and glaring up at him. Clint lets the silence sit for a moment. Tami squeezes her lips together so tightly they seem to disappear.

“You been home this whole time?” Clint asks.

A pause. “Yeah,” Tami says defensively. “Why?”

Clint simply nods, walks around her into the kitchen and over to the sink, placing his brown paper bag on the grimy stove and staring down at the dirty dishes. A tiny cockroach appears on a plate covered in dried, brown spaghetti sauce, then disappears back beneath the surface of the pile. It’s the perfect accent to Clint’s display, his eyes focusing back on her with obvious smugness. Tami’s face quickly turns the color of an overripe tomato.

“Are you fucking serious right now?” she whispers loudly.

“It smells like shit in here, Tami,” Clint says. “Like dog food.” Clint shakes his head. “No, like fucking rotten meat.”

“Oh, my bad,” she says. “I didn’t have time to tidy the place up for you today, honey. I was too busy finding out what a triflin’ ass coh-may fucking pinga you are!” Tami pretends to spit at his feet. “Hijo de puta!”

Tears glisten in Tami’s eyes even as she gnashes her teeth, the gleaming drops on her cheeks reflecting off the overhead fluorescent lights. The sight of her tears gives the entire situation a scripted feel; sitcom-ish, funny in the we-didn’t-mean-for-this-to-be-funny-but-hey-here-it-is sense of things. Straight out of one of those shitty novelas Tami’s mom’s always watching on Telemundo, the familiarity of it making him queasy with annoyance.

Clint thinks that—if he had been real with himself from the get-go—he could have predicted this moment the day he and Tami started hooking up, back when they both bartended at Snake Eyes over in West Kendall.

Back then, Tami had been down for whatever, whenever, wherever. Dragging him in the employee bathroom for a quickie during shifts, reaching over service bar to grab his crotch and proclaim it hers, forcing him to walk in late with a dopey smile on his face after spending thirty-five minutes fogging up the backseat of his Civic in the parking garage. Typical shenanigans of the infatuated.

But that was back in the day. Before the pregnancy and the abortion; before she quit her job and they moved in together; before her dog died and Clint had to bury it. Before the shouting and the silences and the lingering tension that had settled into his neck, like a bear hibernating on his shoulders.

Oh, and before she slept with her classmate at that party late last year. Can’t forget that little nugget of information, can we?

No, we definitely can’t, Clint.

The pure fucking audacity.

Right then, the silliness of it all—of their entire jacked-up relationship—feels so tiring it’s like a vacuum to Clint’s consciousness, sucking up all the anger and resentment, leaving him simply with a core desire to just get away.

Clint opens his mouth to tell Tami he’s done with her and everything associated with her—done, goodbye, it’s over, bounce, the lease on the apartment is up in a couple of weeks anyways and he’s definitely not renewing—just as Tami slams her palms into Clint’s abdomen. Clint stumbles backwards, grabbing onto the oven door to steady himself.

“That’s your fucking answer?!” she yells.

“Tami, don’t fucking push me,” Clint says, leveling his eyes at her. “I’m serious, do not—”

“Fuck you!” Tami screams, pushing Clint again, harder. Clint’s head spins with vertigo as he jerks one hand up to catch his balance, swinging the other around to smack away Tami’s re-approaching hands. At the last second he realizes he’s going to actually hit her in the face if he follows through and stops himself, grabbing onto the counter next to the sink with his left hand and simultaneously dodging Tami’s advancing palms. She stumbles across the kitchen, catching herself just before running into the wall.

When she spins around to face him again, Clint stands to his full height and clenches his trembling fists at his sides, breathing heavily. A glint of fear streaks through Tami’s eyes as she re-assesses him. She sees his fists, and the fear is replaced by something wolfish, hungry, rabid. It’s enough to send a chill through Clint’s spine, a cemented feeling of finality dropping like a rock in the pit of his stomach.

“What’s that for?” she asks, pointing at his fists. “Huh? What ya gonna do with that?”

“Tami, quit testing me,” Clint says, releasing his grip slowly. He brushes his thumbs across the indentations left in his palms, warmth rushing to his fingers. “It ain’t gotta be like this. We can end this amicably. Go on about our business. Just live and let live.”

“End this amicably,” she echoes, nodding thoughtfully and pointing at his hands again. “You gonna hit me?” She juts her chin out, like a taunting boxer. “Hit me then.” She leans in towards him. “You little bitch.”

Clint grinds his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut. “Stop,” he says firmly.

“Stop what?” she asks innocently, then steps up to him, puts both hands on his chest and pushes lightly.

Clint braces, barely budges. The feeling of her hands lingers unpleasantly.

“You gonna hit me now?” she says. “You gonna fuck somebody else and hit me?” Tami laughs again—a maddening sound—though her expression looks pained. Then, suddenly, her hand shoots out like a tethered ball, catching Clint’s left cheek with a resonating smack before promptly returning to her side on some borderline Kung-Fu-ninja-warrior type shit. Clint’s head rocks back, his vision bursting with white dots that slowly re-materialize into the image of her face, staring back at him defiantly.

“You ain’t gonna do shit,” she says. “Lying ass little bitch.”

Clint raises a hand to his cheek, closes his eyes and breathes in slowly.

“Tami,” he says quietly. “I’m gonna be clear as shit with you right now.” He opens his eyes. “If you ever hit me like that again—”

“What?” she says. “If I hit you like that again what, Clint? Huh?” Suddenly, Tami loudly slaps herself in the face, the sound vibrating through her voice and somehow sounding even louder to Clint than when she just smacked him seconds ago. “Hit me then! That’s what you wanna do, right?”

“I don’t want to hit you,” Clint lies. “I just need you to calm the fuck down.”

Tami holds up Clint’s iPad again, waving it in his face. “Who the fuck is Yanerys?!”

I don’t know,” Clint screams.

Bullshit!” she screams back.

“It is not bullshit,” he says. “And why you going through my shit anyways, Tami?”

“That’s not the fucking question, Clint!” she yells, her eyes watering more.

“Look,” Clint says, leaning away. “Why don’t we just calm—”

Fuck you, calm down!”

Her voice cracks then, her bottom lip trembling real faint, just enough so Clint notices. He sees it and gets that same goddamn twinge in his chest that always pops up when she looks vulnerable in any way—like actually vulnerable, the way females look when they want you to just hold them, kiss them, maybe take them in the bedroom for a little when they ain’t so upset anymore. Same twinge in his chest he got that day last year when she came stumbling into their apartment after going missing for a whole night, blubbering and begging Clint to forgive her hours after drunkenly allowing Gary the Biology Classmate to lay her in the backseat of his Altima outside of Bougies in South Miami.

She was drunk, she said. And she and Clint had been fighting, both facts hardly unusual. Sure, Clint had been giving her the cold shoulder and silent treatment for days at the time. Sure he had a habit of exaggerating small things into large things. She couldn’t even tell him what they’d been fighting about if he asked, she said. She was lonely, and hurt.

Of course, there’s always an excuse.

Clint sighs and takes a step towards Tami, thinking he can hug her, comfort her then talk this out rationally.

But there’s some things Clint still hasn’t figured out after all these years of dating Tami Flores, the primary example on that long list of shortcomings being a simple fact of her personality: just because Tami’s crying—just because her lips are trembling and she’s got forehead-twitching tears streaming down her cheeks—doesn’t mean she’s not mad anymore.

Oh no no no no no, Clint. Tami is 100% still pissed.

As fuck.

Clint gets a hand on just one of her hips (those hips, those goddamn Puerto Rican hips) before she’s whipping around like a shock of lightning.

As she turns, Tami swings the hand holding Clint’s work-study iPad and—with a sharp crack that Clint hears before he feels—slams the device into the side of his head. The iPad’s screen shatters into a spider-web of psychedelic colors, small shards of glass piercing the skin right above Clint’s left ear and embedding there painfully.

The blow itself isn’t as loud as when she smacked him moments ago, but it sends shock-waves of pain through his jaw and down his neck. A few drops of blood leap off Clint’s face before he’s able to cover the wound with his palm, landing in dime-sized red blobs that seem to spontaneously appear on Tami’s ratty yellow tank top, right above her belly button. Clint screams out, raises his hand to his face, the pain wrongly convincing him (and her) that Tami’s just gouged out his left eye. He reflexively and rapidly blinks, peering through flickering tears at Tami’s silhouette.

When his vision clears, the first thing Clint notices is that the fire demon in Tami’s eyes has been extinguished and replaced with those of a small child, sitting in a deep pit of fear. The drastic shift out of her drunk-incensed-bitch persona has the contrary effect of making Clint want to protect her from whatever’s scaring her even as his own rage grows exponentially by the second. Clint’s compounding anger is visible in the electricity of his stare—his eyes are damn near crackling. It’s a fury so pure it acts as a painkiller, his injured eye quickly forgotten. He lowers his palm, spotted with blood. Tami raises both her hands defensively.

“Shit, Babe,” she says. “Shit, shit—I’m so sorry. I don’t know what—”

“What the fuck, Tami,” Clint says, eerily calm.

“Clint, don’t—”

“You just hit me in the head,” Clint says, then stares down dazedly at the droplets of blood on his palm. “That’s not even my fucking iPad. This crazy fucking bitch just broke my goddamn work iPad over my head.”

The fading fire in Tami’s eyes lets out a few sparks.

“I should’ve broke it over your dick.”

Clint brings his head up slowly, stares at Tami with an expression of pure exhaustion. Tears brim in his eyes, threatening to spill.

“What the fuck did you say?” he asks, his voice choked.

Tami pauses for just a moment, and Clint can see it in her eyes—she’s contemplating the risk/reward ratio of her next statement. Then she says,

“Quit crying like a little bitch.”

Which is just enough to utterly flip Clint over the edge of sanity.

Taking a step towards her, Clint uses one hand to grab Tami by the throat—easily pushing her arms away when she raises them in protest—clenching his other hand into a fist that he raises above his head then drives down into her face with all the force of his muscle and gravity behind it. It connects with a loud crack that sends a rising tremor up Clint’s arm that is absolutely delicious in its intensity, its resonance, its conclusiveness. Tami’s head snaps back, her lower jaw shifting two inches to the left. She goes limp, held up briefly by Clint’s fist still gripping her throat until he tosses her aside like a rag doll.

Or, at least, that’s what Clint imagines himself doing.

In reality, Clint grabs Tami’s shirt and shakes her—just enough so her eyes get big and white—then raises his fist in the air, tensing every muscle in his arm and preparing for impact but never actually releasing. Clint stands there with his arm raised, breathing heavily, looking down at Tami staring up at him, her eyes frozen in shock, fixated on his fist.

Things stay like this for a moment—a brief moment, but one that would be hard to explain if immortalized by photograph—before Clint gets the sudden impression that he is no longer holding Tami but rather a slab of meat, heavy and cold. The realization of the impact tonight’s events will have on his life hits Clint right then and a wave of revulsion sweeps through his arms and legs. He puts his face close to Tami’s, looking her directly in the eye.

“We’re done,” he says.

Then, with a shudder, Clint tosses her, propelling her across the kitchen.

Drunk, disoriented, and still tense with shock, Tami twirls away from Clint, tripping over her own feet and falling hard, face first.

Clint sees what’s going to happen before it happens and reaches a hand out to grab at air as Tami’s right temple slams against the corner of the grimy stove where Clint’s greasy brown bag is sitting. The sound of her head hitting that corner—ear-shattering, a hollow thonk, like a bag of canned goods slamming to the ground—echoes through Clint’s mind like a ricocheting bullet. The impact spins her body, so that Clint catches a glimpse of her face as she falls, her right eye rolling back into her head, her left staring at him accusingly. She lets out a gurgle that sounds like water going down a drain.

With dreaded conviction, Clint knows Tami’s dead before her body even hits the ground.

***

Ironically, one year ago—to the day—Clint and Tami were also dealing with death, albeit of the pet variety.

Macchi (short for Macchiato, a name Tami had chosen, obviously) was a medium-sized pit/lab mix that Clint and Tami had picked up from a Miami-Dade Animal Services center the day after the dog’s neutering appointment. Three days prior to that, they’d chosen Macchi from a pool of over a dozen animal shelter rescues. They’d held hands as they pointed out the panting, tail-wagging puppy—brown with a white streak of fur across his chest—kissing each other long and hard after completing the paperwork.

When they brought Macchi back home after his surgery, the dog had seemed a bit lethargic, though Clint chalked that up to the mutt having just gotten his balls snipped (shit, I’d be tired too, Clint quipped; the joke was not well received). Tami seemed worried but Clint remained so nonchalant about it all that his attitude eventually rubbed off on her.

For two days, the dog’s condition deteriorated, Tami and Clint watching with growing dread. Clint made phone calls to the animal shelter, but their offices were closed on the weekend. So on that Sunday night, exactly one year ago, Tami and Clint sat in the living room with Macchi and tried to make the best of the situation.

Tami peppered the listless dog with compliments, bringing him to the foot of the couch and placing a pillow under the dog’s head, a blanket over his thin body. Clint and Tami then retired to the couch to watch a movie and keep an eye on the puppy, who seemed at least vaguely alert those first couple of hours.

Around ten pm, Macchi started shivering uncontrollably. Tami’s worry swiftly intensified and she immediately forgot about the movie, curling up next to the dog while Clint frowned and tried to offer excuses.

Maybe the apartment was too cold. He turned off the AC and the dog shivered more.

Maybe he needed some water. Clint brought a bowl and the dog just stared at it miserably.

Maybe this was normal, Clint offered. Maybe this happened to all dogs post-op. Tomorrow they’d wake up and he’d be panting and tail-wagging by their bedside. Tami banished this theory with a glare.

“My mom has dogs, Clint,” she said, sniffling and swiping tears from the corner of her eye. “We’ve gotten them fixed before. This isn’t normal.”

Around then the dog’s shivering turned to wheezing, its bony chest rising and falling rapidly. The dog’s face looked strained, his eyeballs rolling around behind tightly shut eyelids.

Eventually, Macchi started whimpering.

Even then Clint was able to stay in denial about what was happening, straight up until the stench of shit filled the living room. When they moved the blanket aside, they saw that Macchi had released his bowels all over the linoleum floor, the liquid stool spotted with red dots.

The dog hyperventilated for another half hour before it rattled through its last breath, letting out one long, quiet exhale and deflating like a neglected balloon after a birthday party.

By that point, Tami was a sobbing mess, hair matted to her face as she clutched Macchi’s head to her chest, wailing and cursing the universe for its cruelty.

Clint just sat there on the couch opposite his girlfriend and the now-dead Macchi, wondering how the fuck his night had turned out like this.

Clint used two entire paper rolls and half a bottle of bleach to clean up the bloody diarrhea, while Tami wrapped the dog in the blanket it had died on. Clint carried the dog in both arms to the car, Tami clinging to his side, nose red, tissues clutched in her fist. He loaded the dog’s body into the back seat, helped Tami into the front, then climbed in and drove to the nearest Wal-Mart to buy a medium-sized shovel.

They drove out to the Everglades with a full moon following them, heading down Kendall Drive to Chrome and beyond, where the paved road turned to dirt. They went down a path through the mangroves for a while and parked near a thicket of tall grass.

Tami stayed in the car while Clint heaved the dead dog out of the backseat. He walked with Macchi over his shoulder, heading about ten feet into the brush before dropping the body in a small clearing.

Returning to the car, Clint popped the trunk and pulled out the shovel. He glanced through the rear windshield at Tami in the passenger seat, leaning against the door, her shoulders shuddering. Clint pursed his lips sadly then returned to where he’d dropped the dog. The soil in the clearing was moist and soft; the hole Clint dug was shallow. He rolled the dog into it, blanket and all, then covered the body with dirt, patting it down with the back of the shovel when he was done.

Clint returned to the car and dropped the shovel in the open trunk, slamming it closed. Back in his seat behind the wheel, he glanced over at Tami. She looked up at him, her face puffy with tears.

“You did it?” she asked meekly.

Clint nodded. Tami returned the gesture, her expression crumbling. She leaned across the car with her arms outstretched. Clint embraced her and she clung to him, letting out one final sob. Eventually she tilted her head up and Clint kissed her softly, slowly, letting it linger, tasting the salt of her tears on his tongue.

“I’m sorry, babe,” he whispered, pressing his forehead against hers.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, rubbing her wet nose against his.

“We’ll go to the shelter tomorrow,” he said. “Let them know what happened, find out what the fuck that was all about.”

The flashing red and blue lights were in the rear-view mirror when Clint leaned away from Tami. He turned to the driver’s side window as a shadow swept past, jumping when someone knocked sharply. At the same moment a bright beam of light invaded the inside of the car. Clint squinted through it, staring at a uniformed state trooper staring back at him through the window tints. The trooper took a step back, holding the flashlight on them. He said something that was too muffled to hear.

“What the hell?” Tami whispered, her sniffles subsiding.

Clint waved her off and rolled the car window down slowly. The trooper visibly tensed as he did. The window was halfway down when the trooper shined the flashlight in Clint’s face, leaning in to get a better look inside the car. He switched the light to Tami, lingering on her face for a moment.

“You alright, Ma’am?” he asked.

Tami nodded, staying quiet. The trooper switched his focus back to Clint.

“Any particular reason you two way out here at this time of night?”

Clint opened his mouth to respond but Tami beat him to the punch. “Just looking at stars, officer,” she said. “Is there a problem?”

The officer flashed the light at her again, just for a moment before focusing back on Clint.

“License, registration,” the cop said.

Clint nodded and reached towards the glove compartment. The officer’s flashlight beam jumped to Clint’s hand.

“Slow,” he said.

Clint froze, then inched his hand forward slowly. He popped the glove compartment and pulled his registration from the pile of papers shoved in the space, turned and handed it to the officer. He reached for his wallet in his back pocket and the trooper’s hand moved quick, hovering near the butt of his gun.

“Careful!” he barked. “I said slow!”

Clint’s stomach sank to his balls for a second. He was suddenly acutely aware of how far they were from the city. The two cars—his Honda Civic and the black Camaro with State Trooper insignia splashed across the side, lights flashing—were the only two vehicles in sight. The realization of their isolation made the hairs on the back of Clint’s neck prickle. He raised his left hand to the officer, wiggled his fingers a little.

“Just reaching for my wallet,” he said.

“Slow,” the officer repeated, hand still near his gun.

Clint slowly pulled his wallet out and handed his license to the officer. The officer looked at the documents, then at Clint again. The cop’s face was rugged, dotted with red acne scars, his forehead divided by three prominent horizontal wrinkles. He had a state trooper hat on, pushed back so Clint could see his receding hairline, his badge shining in his vehicle’s headlights.

The trooper studied Clint’s license for a moment longer then reached for the car door, opening it. Clint felt the door moving under his arm and his heart started racing.

“Step out of the vehicle, please,” the officer said.

“Why?” Clint asked, reflexively, the word jumping from his mouth.

Instead of responding, the officer gave him a withering look and took a step back.

“Step out of the vehicle,” he repeated.

“Why does he have to get out?” Tami said, loudly.

Clint looked at her, silently pleading for her to shut up, but Tami wasn’t paying attention to him. Her eyes had gotten that fire in them, and she was directing the entire blaze at this cop.

“We didn’t do anything,” she yelled. “What the hell’s your problem?”

“Tami, stop,” Clint hissed.

“Step out!” the cop barked. “Of! The vehicle! Now!”

Clint raised his hands, putting first his left then right leg out of the car. They were wobbly as he stood. Before Clint could get them properly settled on the ground, the officer grabbed him, locked one of his arms behind his back and spun him around, jamming him up against the side of his car. Clint struggled reflexively and was met with a sharp forearm to the middle of his back, slamming him against the car window again. His right temple smacked the car’s roof and he cried out.

“Can it,” the officer muttered, kicking the inside sole of each of Clint’s feet, forcing him to spread his legs. Clint stood there in shock as the trooper frisked him thoroughly.

When he was done he spun Clint around and held him up against the car with one hand, looking back down at his license and registration. Vaguely, Clint could hear Tami in the car saying something, but the blood rushing in his ears drowned her out. It did not, however, drown out the cop.

“You and your girl out here joyriding?” the officer asked. “Little backseat loving?”

“No,” Clint said. “It’s like she said, we just wanted to see the stars.”

The officer leveled his eyes at Clint and Clint’s fear heightened. His mom’s face and voice suddenly popped into his head, all the times she had badgered him about doing nothing but complying in situations like this. Told him nothing was worth getting on a cop’s bad side.

The officer leaned in closer to Clint.

“You both need to watch yourselves,” he said, his voice low. “Way out here, middle of nowhere. Never know what could happen. Technically you’re trespassing, could get you for that but I’m not.” He looked down at the license then back up at Clint. “Not everybody’s going to be as lenient as me, you know?” Suddenly, the trooper smiled, taking a step back. The expression did little to brighten his features, instead making him look a bit insane. He tapped the registration and license against his palm. “However, I will be issuing you both tickets for not wearing your seat belts.”

Clint sat in the driver’s seat a moment later, knees shaking as the cop leaned in the passenger window and asked Tami for her license. The trooper walked back to his vehicle and was gone for what seemed like forever. Clint and Tami didn’t say a word the entire time. The trooper eventually returned with the licenses and the tickets. Clint and Tami signed the yellow papers then waited until the trooper returned to his car and reversed off the dirt path, the flashing lights fading away slowly.

When he was gone, Clint tossed the two traffic tickets into the glove compartment along with his registration. He turned the engine on then sat there, hands on the steering wheel, staring out the windshield. A minute or two passed before Tami spoke.

“You shouldn’t have let him treat you like that,” she said absently, shaking her head. “He doesn’t have the right to treat you like that.”

Clint clenched his teeth, looking over at Tami and studying her face, turned towards the window. When she finally looked in his direction, he squinted at her and gave an exaggerated shrug.

“Because I had a choice, huh?”

“You always have a choice,” she said.

Clint opened his mouth to respond but thought better of it, reversing back up the path instead.

***

The bathroom is the smallest part of their apartment, which is saying a lot. Clint barely makes it to the toilet before losing the bare contents of his stomach, twisting his feet beneath him to fit fully in the small space between the toilet and the bathroom wall. What comes out of him is brown and smells like coffee, though there are small chunks in it that Clint thinks might be what’s left of the tuna sandwich he ate for lunch.

Twenty minutes later, Clint’s trudging to his car with the night sky above him, a single streetlight flickering on the opposite side of the parking lot. He’s hefting Tami’s body over his shoulder, wrapped in an old comforter from a set they bought together at IKEA. He’s reminded of his thoughts just half an hour ago—about how he could toss Tami’s ass if he wanted to—and his stomach flips again. He barely gets her down in the backseat of his Civic before he turns and dry heaves onto the parking curb.

When he finishes Clint wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and looks around the parking lot, searching for any movement: window blinds being quickly drawn, somebody walking a dog, anything. The night is still, humid, smelling faintly of trash and exhaust fumes. There’s nobody around. Clint gets in the car before the smell makes him puke again. He adjusts his rear-view mirror so he can see the lump beneath the comforter, laid out in the backseat.

“This is so fucked up,” Clint says to himself, shaking his head.

Which is to say, Clint acknowledges the absurdity of what he’s doing right now. But, in his current frame of mind, action is required.

Clint’s first inclination was to call 911, but the notion of police showing up to that particular scene—Clint in the kitchen bleeding from a head wound near his dead girlfriend who somehow managed to “fall” and crack her temple hard enough to die—is what had initially sent him retching to the toilet in the first place.

So. 911 was a no-go.

Which gave Clint only one other option: taking care of this himself. Same as Macchi.

Clint sets his jaw and starts the car engine, pulling out of his complex onto US-1. Moments later he’s on Kendall Drive headed east. Driving down Kendall during the regular nine-to-five, the street is typically packed to the brim, traffic moving at a snail’s pace no matter which direction you’re headed. Now though, late evening, after all the rush hour workers and parents and Ubers have cleared the streets, Clint has some room to maneuver, flying in between the sparse number of cars as he sails towards Krome Ave.

Clint’s cell phone vibrates a number of times against his butt before he notices. When he pulls it out he sees that he’s missed three calls: two from his mother, and one from Tami’s. Clint stares at Tami’s mother’s number then tosses his phone in the passenger seat, concentrating on the road ahead of him.

The phone buzzes in the seat again and, on a whim, Clint pulls off into the Wal-Mart lot, parking in the back far away from the few other cars. He sits with his hands on each thigh for a few long seconds then grabs his phone. It registers one bar of service. When he punches in his mother’s number, the phone takes a moment before it finally starts dialing. Clint’s mom answers on the third ring.

“Hi, honey.”

Clint hears his mother’s voice, registers the sound, but no response readily comes to mind. So he just sits there, breathing quietly.

“Clint?” his mom says.

“I fucked up,” Clint says, the words tasting as bitter as the puke residue in his mouth.

“Excuse me?” his mother says, her Caribbean accent instantly becoming more distinct. “Is so you talk to your mother? What kind of language is that?”

“You never stuck up for me,” Clint says suddenly, and the words are like the key to a door in his mind he didn’t even know was locked, a door with so much shit behind it that the very act of unlocking said door is tantamount to opening it, as that little release of restraint yields a quiet burst of emotion in Clint. His eyes water and he finds himself looking down at his fingers, rapidly picking at his index nail with his thumb nail on his free hand, a nervous tic he hasn’t displayed since he was a teenager.

“You never stuck up for me,” Clint repeats. “Every time he came at me, every time he smacked me or made fun of me or treated me like shit I—” Clint’s voice cracks here, and he looks out of the window at the surrounding darkness. “—I was being a kid. I was a kid. He never let me be a kid. You let him take that away.” Clint lowers his chin to his chest and is surprised when tears start dripping in a steady stream from his nose to his shirt. “I was just a kid.”

The phrase repeats in his mind, and it isn’t until he hears his mother’s voice faintly on the other line that he realizes he’s been drowning her out by repeating the phrase over and over again out loud.

I’m just a kid.

The other end of the phone line fills with static suddenly, cutting in and out: “Hello? Hello?” His mother’s voice sounds strained and adamant. “What is—saying Clint? You—worry me—hear a thing, your voice keep—in and out and—say ‘bout a kid?—get Tami preg—Clint, please don’t tell me—”

Clint moves the phone away from his ear and stares at the screen, at the small thumbnail image of his smiling mother staring back at him. The screen blinks once then the display changes to CALL DROPPED. Clint tosses the phone back in the passenger seat and plants his chin on the steering wheel, staring outside at a group of teenagers walking out of Wal-Mart towards their car.

Looking in the rear-view mirror at the backseat, it’s almost possible to believe that this is all made up. The lumpy comforter wrapped around Tami’s body seems so ordinary that it’s adopted an eerie-calm quality, so that Clint has a moment of doubt, like maybe he imagined all of this and there’s nothing actually under the blanket. Tami’s back at the apartment being her usual Tami self and Clint is out here at the mouth of the Everglades for no reason whatsoever.

Then Clint catches a glimpse of Tami’s hand, pale, poking out from beneath the blanket. Bracelets bunched at her wrist.

Clint starts the engine and pulls back onto Kendall, headed past Krome towards the dirt paths leading into the wild. The streets out here are beyond dark at night; the lack of illumination makes Clint’s headlights the only source on this cloudy evening. Clint hits a long, mostly smooth dirt path with four-foot wide ditches on either side for water runoff. He gets the car up to thirty before pressing the window button to roll both the driver and passenger-side windows down. Wind fills the car, rushing around his head and creating a sound tunnel that focuses him. Clint suddenly feels the weight of the evening lifting, as if he’s simply doing maintenance, as if he’ll finish this and be able to go back home and simply go on with his life as normal.

Clint passes into a clearing about thirty feet wide and decides this is as good a place as any to leave Tami—not too far from the main road and with enough cover so she’ll be found quickly, before any animals can get to her. He’ll even call it in, anonymously, Clint thinks.

Clint is just about to tap the brakes when there’s movement in the rear-view mirror. At first Clint thinks that, somehow, there’s another car behind him; for a moment his throat constricts with panic at the thought of the same state trooper from a year ago showing up again. But a quick glance in the back seat dispels that theory, and also shows him the exact moment that the comforter slides off Tami’s head, revealing her open, hollow, suddenly ocean-blue eyes and leering grin, her teeth yellow, lips purple and grotesquely swollen. Black blood trickles from her nose and a patch of rot’s already appeared on her forehead, like a blister.

Clint’s own eyes expand until the redness of his sockets is visible, and he tries to scream but nothing comes out. Instead, he watches silently as Tami opens her mouth and the car fills with the stench of death, so pungent it automatically raises his gag reflex again.

Clint’s rolling at 35 mph when Tami makes her undead debut. As she lunges for him, Clint takes his eyes off the road for only a second—two, at most—just enough time for the front right tire to hit a pretty sizable rock in the middle of the path and careen to the right. Clint slams his foot against the floor of the car, searching for and failing to find the brakes as Tami latches her teeth on to his shoulder. He screams out and, too late, his foot catches the brake pedal. The car’s back tires lock up, sending the vehicle skidding directly into one of the ditches. The front bumper clips the inside edge of the ditch and the car starts spinning, the momentum flipping it out of the ditch almost as suddenly as it went in. The car spins twice more as it flies back across the other side of the path, both left-side tires hitting the opposite ditch at an angle that sets the car airborne. The car flips once in mid-air then t-bones a tree, staying smashed on its side for a moment before falling to its tires with a crash and squeal of the suspension.

The settling dust and noise from the crash is followed by an oppressive, immense silence that lasts for a few minutes before one bird chirps in the distance. That chirp is followed by another, then another, until soon it seems like nothing actually happened at all.

***

It’s nearly 5 AM when Detective Frank Wright knocks back the last of his coffee and crushes the 7-Eleven cup in his hand, staring at the twisted tire track scars in the dirt and the wreckage on the other side of the path. The ambulance pulls off lazily, lights flashing as it makes its way back towards Krome. The tow truck at the end of the road waits for the ambulance to move into a wider section of the path before passing it on the way to the detectives’ location.

The driver lines the truck up in front of the wreckage and a man jumps out of the tow cab, tossing Frank a quick salute. Frank nods and the man gets to work hauling the wrecked Civic onto the tow truck’s bed. Frank glances in his car at his partner, Mills.

“Something feels off,” he says.

Mills is flicking through his cellphone in the passenger seat with the door open and one leg up, aggressively chewing some nicotine gum. He glances up at Frank. “Off?” he echoes.

“Yeah,” Frank says, looking around at the pre-dawn mist. “The fuck was he doing all the way out here?”

“Gettin’ high,” Mills says matter-of-factly. “Bet. These kids nowadays, autopsy’s coming back positive for some type of shit.” He pauses to look out at the grass aimlessly. “My guess is ‘shrooms.”

Frank scratches his chin, staring at the ambulance as it moves further into the distance. “You think there might’ve been somebody else in the car?” he asks.

“Another person?” Mills says.

“Yeah,” Frank says. “That blanket in the backseat. Almost makes me think of like…a picnic, or something. And the hole in the windshield. Kind of small, but could’ve been a body. A small woman, girl maybe.”

Mills glances over at the wreckage, then up at Frank. “Then where is she?”

Frank clears his throat, spits on the grass. “I don’t know. Just something off about all of this.”

“If there was somebody alive we’d have seen them coming in,” Mills says, shrugging and motioning towards the brush. “Either that or they’re stomping around in the swamp right now.”

“Not implausible.”

“In which case the gators got ’em,” Mills adds, chuckling.

At the end of the path, the ambulance suddenly stops, idling at the turn onto paved road. Frank watches it for a while, until the tow truck driver nearly has the wreck up on the bed. Frank places his crushed coffee cup in the holder in his car.

“Fuck is this now?” he says.

Mills follows Frank’s stare to the idling ambulance, then looks back at his phone.

“Vic woke up, maybe?” Mills says.

“Right,” Frank says, smiling and shaking his head. He leans down and looks in the car at Mills. “Man was deader than your career.”

“Ouch,” Mills says, grimacing. “Think you may be referring to yourself there, Mr. I-can’t-wait-to-retire-next-year.”

“Goddamn right I can’t fucking wait,” Frank grumbles.

The ambulance remains idling. Frank’s curiosity heightens. Something rustles in the brush to his left and Frank looks over quickly, his skin suddenly prickling. He stares at the grass for a few seconds but there’s no more movement. He slaps a mosquito on the back of his neck, looking down at the spot of blood on his palm.

“I fucking hate it out here,” Frank says, wiping his hand on his pants.

“Really?” Mills says. “Thought you liked nature.”

“Yeah, up in the mountains,” Frank says. “Where there’s deer and shit. And a breeze.” Frank shakes his head. “This swamp, this city. It’s like we’re all sinking into the fucking ocean, doing it with a smile.”

“Cheery,” Mills says, glancing over at the bushes as another rustling sound makes its way over to them.

The ambulance’s flashing lights suddenly cut off, though the vehicle remains idling. Frank sighs.

“They’re still not moving,” he says. “Gonna go check it out.”

“Hurry up,” Mills says. “I’m ready for lunch.”

“You’re always ready for lunch,” Frank says, ignoring the continued rustling in the bushes and walking briskly towards the stalled ambulance.

Standard

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