Pandemic Files

The Consumers

“The command ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ was promulgated, according to our authorities, when the population of the world consisted of two people.”

– William Ralph Inge

Sitting in the back row of pews, Mr. Prado clasps his thin hands together, whispering fiercely towards the man seated to his left. “Good lord, Smith,” Prado says. “So you’re telling me you’ve never wondered for just a second if what we’re doing here is right?”

Mr. Smith places a hand on Mr. Prado’s shoulder. Sitting on either side of the men are Mr. Prado’s fiancée and Mr. Smith’s wife, both women silently staring at each other and throwing occasional glances towards the front of the church, at the couple seated by the altar.

“Prado,” Mr. Smith says, gently squeezing the younger man’s bony collar. “Everything’s wrong to somebody.”

The wooden door at the front of the church near the altar opens suddenly and Mr. Marquise steps in, the door thudding closed behind him. The idle chatter coursing through the church ceases abruptly as Mr. Marquise makes his way to the far back corner of the church, the metal soles on his shoes clicking loudly against the wooden floor. Dozens of pairs of eyes watch Mr. Marquise with a tense, collective need, none as much as Uriel and Gloria Lancaster, the couple seated with their baby at the table to the right of the altar. Uriel Lancaster sits with his arms crossed tightly beneath his sternum, a stance that would typically project strength. Yet, as he raises his chin stoically and studies the tired-looking man walking past them to his corner perch, Uriel’s elbow vibrates beneath his arm, a nervous convulsion. Uriel looks down at his shuddering elbow, frowns and squeezes his biceps tighter into his rib-cage. Gloria, Uriel’s wife, sits next to him tugging at her blue garments—standard issue—and fiddling with Uriel Jr.’s outfit.

Seated at the table with the couple and child is a man named Cassius (nobody’s ever really known Cassius’s last name, nor really cared; the last few years have made his position within the community more a formality than anything else). Cassius chews on his lip and grumbles to himself as he studies a stack of papers lying on top of an open folder on the table in front of him.

To the left of this trio is another table, where Mr. Newman sits alone with his hands folded neatly in front of him, a grin set smugly beneath his bushy gray mustache. There’s an open briefcase lying on the chair next to him. Inside the briefcase sits a carefully organized stack of legal-length papers.

A faint knock at the door behind the altar—the one Mr. Marquise just entered from—enlivens the crowd, whispers purring through the pews. Mr. Marquise slowly walks over to the center of the room, right in front of the altar, and faces the audience .

“All rise,” he bellows. Mr. Marquise’s voice has a commanding quality and most of the attendants are on their feet before they even realize what he’s said. Mr. Marquise waits until the very last person is standing before continuing.

“This court in and of Richmond County is now in session. Honorable Mr. Paul R. Swift presiding.”

Behind him, the door opens and a short, crouched old man draped in a black cloak enters. Mr. Swift climbs the steps of the altar up front and rounds a chair sitting behind a large desk that faces the crowd. Behind him, a larger-than-life crucifix hangs on the wall, depicting a bronze Christ solemnly hanging his head. A steel pole sits in a base on the ground next to the crucifix, a faded American flag mounted on it with tattered pieces of wire.

“Seated,” Mr. Swift says curtly.

There is a collective sigh as the crowd sits and Mr. Swift pulls a pair of bifocals out from a hidden pocket in his cloak, flipping through a notebook on his desk. He clears his throat loudly and Uriel Lancaster flinches, re-tightening his crossed arms over his chest. Mr. Swift reads quietly to himself for a moment before closing his notebook and slowly removing his glasses, peering at the three individuals and baby seated at the table directly in front of him: the lip-chewing Cassius next to Uriel and Gloria with Uriel Jr. in tow.

Mr. Swift glances at his watch then turns to Mr. Marquise.

“Bring them in,” he says.

At the command, Mr. Marquise saddles over to the door behind the altar, opens it and pokes his head in. There’s a faint bit of chatter, then Mr. Marquise moves quickly back to the center of the room.

“All rise,” he yells again.

The crowd rises from their seats in quick succession as the door opens and twelve people enter—five women and seven men. The men and women make their way to two rows of chairs lined up against the wall to the right of the altar. The crowd remains standing until the twelve are in front of their chairs, then Mr. Swift raises a hand and lowers it slowly. There’s another exhale of mass seating, a puff of air ruffling the edges of the judge’s cloak.

Mr. Swift focuses on the group of twelve, motioning to the seat closest to him, where an elderly gentleman named Mr. Wang sits.

“Mr. Wang,” Mr. Swift says tiredly. “Has your committee come to a decision?”

Mr. Wang nods and Mr. Swift turns back to the tables in front of him, facing Uriel and Gloria. The couple perk up at the attention, baby gurgling in Gloria’s lap.

“Alright,” Mr. swift says. “At your convenience, please relay that decision to the public.”

Mr. Wang is up out of his seat before Mr. Swift is done speaking, holding a folded sheet of paper in his hands which he opens and studies intently. Time seems to slow down in that moment for Uriel Lancaster. He feels the tension in his wife’s arm, pressed against his own, and notices other things all in the same moment: slivers of light peeking through the shattered stained glass window near the ceiling, gleaming off the drying tears dotting Gloria’s cheeks. The floor work in the church stands out too, the only part of the building that looks even slightly recovered. Uriel thinks about how nicely the new boards have held up, though a thick layer of ash makes it all seem older than it actually is. The walls aren’t as impressively redone, the cheap paint used to cover the scorch marks already beginning to fade. Uriel helped lay those boards and roll that paint, along with nearly all the men sitting in the pews behind him.

The sun shifts behind something outside and the church dims a little. Mr. Wang clears his throat and folds the sheet of paper in his hands, slipping it in his pocket and eyeing Uriel and Gloria with thinly-veiled disdain.

“We, the committee, find Uriel Lancaster Senior and Gloria Lancaster…” Mr. Wang pauses cruelly, a humorless sneer touching the corner of his lips. “…Guilty on both counts of first degree negligence and unlicensed conception.”

The church erupts with loud whispers as Mr. Wang takes his seat again. Below the clatter of voices, a soft sob lingers near the alter, where husband and wife hold each other and their baby. The bang of Mr. Swift’s gavel reverberates through the church and Uriel Junior lets out a soft whine, his mother’s desperate whispers calming him back into a cooing reverie. The chatter dies off and the judge drops the gavel, peering at the couple in front of him.

“Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster.” Mr. Swift pauses, thoughtfully. “Before I hand down sentencing, do you have any statements you would like to make?”

Uriel clutches his wife and son to his chest, his eyes displaying his fear, his regret, his sorrow. And his anger.

Uriel suddenly lets go of his family and stands quickly, straightening his gray (standard issue) garments before raising his chin defiantly.

“Yeah,” he says, puffing his chest out. “Yeah, I have a statement.” He motions towards his wife and child, raising his voice. “This is a fucking outrage.”

Another buzz sweeps through the crowd, a few people shaking their heads and staring at Uriel scornfully.

“How so, Mr. Lancaster?” the judge continues. “And may I warn you, I will not overlook such outbursts in my deliberation.”

“‘How so?’” Uriel repeats, his mouth hanging open. “‘Deliberation?’ We’re being condemned here! Banished for— for what? For loving each other? For wanting each other? For wanting to leave something behind?”

The judge stares at them with no expression, the murmurs from the pews fading to silence as Uriel draws the room’s attention.

“This is archaic,” Uriel says, slamming a fist into his palm. “There’s no other way to say it. My son—bless his soul, he didn’t ask for any of this—but our son cannot be given precedent over a pair of grown adults. Over an already established marriage, over a union under God.” Gloria throws her husband a heated stare and he holds his hands up in protest. “And—and, neither should we be given precedence over him. Rules are rules, I know. But this wasn’t a premeditated move on our part. We didn’t plan this. We didn’t plan any of this, it just happened. We’re sorry, but it happened, and it should be our responsibility to raise our child. It’s unfair, I tell you. And it’s—it’s plain fucking bullshit.

The crowd gasps and Uriel glares at Mr. Swift defiantly.

Mr. Swift stays quiet for a moment, rubbing his temples. Finally he sighs and looks up at the couple.

“Is that all Mr. Lancaster?”

“No,” Gloria says. Uriel faces his wife as she stands slowly, her eyes puffy and bright with rage.

“How dare you,” she says softly. She turns to the crowd behind her, her voice rising. “How dare all of you. To punish us for doing what’s natural? Who are you to say what’s God’s plan? Just who the fuck do you think you are?! My husband and I have done nothing wrong here today, or any day, nothing more than what is natural to us, to you, to all mankind, to every living thing on this goddamn planet because no manmade law can take away the fact that we were built to—”

Mrs. Lancaster,” Mr. Swift roars and Gloria stops immediately, facing the altar. Mr. Swift’s face is a ghastly shade of bright pink, and he takes a moment to collect himself before speaking in a much lowered voice.

“We, the state, make laws for a reason. And we as a community have agreed to uphold these laws, also for a reason. There is a problem—we have a problem—and we have taken measures to counteract that problem. And in this case, the penalty is non-negotiable.” He shrugs, raising his gavel and elevating his voice. “For the crime of first degree negligence towards the United Cause to Re-advance the State of New York, and for Unlicensed Conception of a Child in violation of Amendment 123 of the New York State Constitution, Uriel Lancaster Sr. and Gloria Lancaster are hereby sentenced to death by consumption, ruling effective immediately.” Mr. Swift brings the gavel down, the sound echoing up to the ceiling as he motions towards Mr. Marquise. “The child is to be placed in county custody immediately. This court is adjourned.”

The gavel’s bang is superseded by a strident shriek. Gloria kicks her seat to the side and jumps up, the chair flying halfway down the center aisle between the rows of pews, where the crowd of onlookers are instantly on their feet. Clutching her child to her chest, Gloria bares her teeth, growling as Mr. Marquise comes at her from the left. Uriel jumps in front of her as Mr. Swift exits the church the same way he entered. The moment he opens the door behind the altar, a flurry of movement swallows him as over a dozen stone-faced men with batons flood the room. The men line up behind Mr. Marquise, moving in time with his approach. Gloria tilts her head back and cries out again, a guttural, primitive sound. She bends her knees, twisting her free hand into a claw as Uriel grabs one of the chairs and starts swinging it wildly in front of them.

Behind them the pews bounce with excitement, the crowd shouting and cajoling itself into a frenzy. At the table to the right of Uriel and Gloria, Mr. Newman remains seated next to his briefcase full of carefully organized legal-length papers, watching the scene unfold with the same smug grin on his face, his hands now folded on his lap as he leans back in his chair. At Uriel and Gloria’s table, the lip-chewing Cassius stands and shovels his folders into a tattered briefcase. Without even glancing at the unfolding scene, Cassius turns and walks briskly down the side aisle and out the front door of the church.

Uriel swings the chair in a wide arc, aiming to hit either Mr. Marquise or any of the other men raising their batons behind them. In the commotion though, Uriel fails to notice one of the baton-wielding men breaking off from the larger group, creeping around the altar and the giant crucifix to approach Uriel and Gloria from behind. Uriel swings the chair wide and away from the sneaking man, who uses the opportunity to toss his baton. The baton slams into the side of Uriel’s head and he lets out a gasp, dropping the chair. He touches his hand to his head and when he brings it down, shades of red streak across his palm.

Uriel stumbles, his vision blurring. He wills himself to stand and fight, but his arms suddenly feel so heavy.

In the momentary confusion, Mr. Marquise grabs Uriel and triumphantly kicks the chair from his outstretched hands. Blood runs down the side of Uriel’s head into his ear and down his neck, the coppery smell tingeing the air. Uriel struggles to escape Mr. Marquise’s grip, clawing at the ground and trying to scramble away. He kicks out of his hands and and for just a second sees the front door of the church open, freedom just beyond. When he tries to stand and run though, Uriel is promptly seized by three officers who slam him to the ground and slap something cold and metallic around his wrists, pulling it tight. The men strap cuffs around Uriel’s legs as well before lifting him above their heads, Uriel twisting and squirming, cursing and spitting violently.

Behind him, Gloria registers Uriel’s capture only peripherally, most of her attention occupied by the three men trying to take her baby from her arms. Her face painted with pain and rage, Gloria gnashes her teeth at the men, swiping her claws and gripping baby Uriel tightly to her side. She’s about to make a run for the front door when another one of the baton-wielding men manages to grab her hand, twisting it and shaking her violently until she can feel her grip on baby Uriel first loosen then falter altogether. Gloria cries out hoarsely as Uriel Jr. falls towards the church floor, her bloodshot eyes bulging in their sockets. And for a few long seconds it seems that little Uriel Lancaster Jr. will meet the floor in a brutal introduction, until Mr. Marquise jumps and slides across the wood panels, catching the infant six inches above the ground.

Mr. Marquise stands slowly, holding the baby to his chest. Uriel Jr. smiles up at him, reaching a pair of chubby hands towards Mr. Marquise’s cheeks.

Gloria hangs limp with relief at the sight of her son safe, pairs of hands binding her wrists and legs before lifting her above their heads like her husband. She stays rigid as they do, her arms stiff, her legs squeezed tightly together. Her sobs are barely audible above the excited chatter coursing through the church. Uriel continues to kick and flail as men carry him down the center aisle between the church pews, blood flowing freely from his head wound and down one of his captor’s arms. The steel-jawed man doesn’t seem to notice.

The men carry the couple towards the church entrance before disappearing out the door. Mr. Marquise follows in stride, bouncing the giggling baby in his arms. With the scene moving outside, most of the crowd clears out of the church. Some hop pews to get ahead in line; others follow at a slower pace, trying desperately to hide the ravenous glimmer in their eyes. In the back row, Mr. Smith plants a firm kiss on his wife’s cheek then turns to Mr. Prado and his fiancée.

“A good portion of thigh for the pantry?” he says, testing the waters.

Mr. Prado hangs his head, and for a second he seems at odds with himself, as if suffering through an internal argument. After a moment though, Mr. Prado looks back up at Mr. Smith, a sheepish grin on his face.

“I’ll take a breast, I guess,” Mr. Prado says, glancing at his fiancee. “For the pantry.”

Mr. Prado’s fiancée squints at him curiously but stays quiet. Mr. Smith, momentarily taken aback, recovers quickly and slings his arm around Mr. Prado’s neck.

“Breasts for the best, Prado,” he bellows, then ruffles Mr. Prado’s hair and lets out a hearty laugh. “Breasts for the best.”

A third man across the church yells that Mr. Prado will have to fight him for them, then whoops and hollers his way outside. Mr. Prado and Mr. Smith pat each other’s backs and laugh as they exit through the open church doors. In their wake, the scent of burning charcoal drifts inside, creeping up the aisle between the pews towards the altar to ruffle the faded fabric of the flag barely brushing against the crucifix’s feet.

Standard
Pandemic Files

Welcome to Paradise

The story of the creature had been passed around town in an ongoing, circular fashion ever since Sharon was in preschool, the tale itself as shifty as a four-year-old’s attention span. Once she’d been told the creature stood on its hind legs at six feet tall and ate rotten apples by the ton. Another person claimed it had cat eyes and ran faster than a gazelle. Sharon grew weary when Kate, her best friend since fifth grade, told her she’d seen the thing once; that it had bat wings and hovered over the wheat fields on the outskirts of Marsden—their tiny hometown—swooping down in the middle of the night to capture rabbits and frogs and other small unsuspecting animals roaming the territory. The only consensus Sharon ever got on the matter was the creature could usually be spotted near Wildturn Creek, a mile or so from Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse.

The night Sharon saw the creature though—a few weeks after her nineteenth birthday—it was much, much closer to Mr. Johnson’s farm.

Sure, it could have migrated, but the more likely reason was that only one person had ever actually seen the creature before, everybody else latching on to a story that was too good not to recycle. In which case Sharon was the first to actually glimpse the creature since the tale’s inception.

Whatever the case, up until that point, the creature’s story had gone through the usual stages of children’s folklore, the proportional relationship between growth and belief: each year that Sharon aged was another level of credibility the tale lost. By time she was twelve, it had gone the same route of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The myth lost all its momentum with her generation once Mr. Johnson’s farm became a local hangout. Mr. Johnson himself was a friendly, young corn farmer who had inherited the land from his father (Mr. Johnson Sr.) when he was in his late twenties. Senior suffered a heart while Junior was on his second tour in Afghanistan, about two years after the Twin Towers dropped. As a result, Mr. Johnson returned from war to find himself the sole proprietor of 40 green acres.

Sharon heard that the junior Mr. Johnson lived and worked alone because times were rough, and he couldn’t afford any help. This was part of the reasoning made by parents around town for why Mr. Johnson allowed nobody to go too far onto his property. Years ago, cotton and wheat had taken over as Texas’ main agricultural income, corn falling by the wayside. Mr. Johnson still brought in enough to support himself, but he otherwise seemed to live a pretty simple, secluded life.

A few of the other kid’s parents had known Mr. Johnson before he was old enough to deserve the title “Mr.” When the children asked questions about him, most of the parents in town just shrugged and said things like “he’s a private man,” and “he’s all alone up there, but it seems to suit him.” Whatever the case, Mr. Johnson didn’t seem to mind the local kids playing football and riding their bikes in his outer fields and, later on, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes with their cars parked at the head of the dirt path that led to his house. They took advantage of this freedom, at first only in the few hours after school before they had to be home. As they grew older though, Sharon and the rest of Marsden’s youth would hang out at Mr. Johnson’s farm well into the night. It was during these late night sessions that Sharon started to feel the draw of the outside world, an inclination that began as a prick of curiosity and grew into a burning need by time she graduated high school.

As the towns’ kids grew, Mr. Johnson remained a constant, smiling his smile whenever he was noticed, giving his little wave and rolling on into the cornfields behind his house. His only rule was that nobody come closer to his house—and the farmland behind it—than the peach tree that sat about a hundred feet inside the gated entrance.

“Not a foot past, or no more fun,” he’d say, with a smile and a wink.

The rule itself gained an enigmatic quality that led to all sorts of discussions about possible consequences. Most of the imagined penalties were terribly bloody and gruesome, creating this invisible line in the grass on Mr. Johnson’s property, one that Marsden’s children could see as clearly as if it were spray painted across the field. This, however, still gave them a 100 foot by half-mile square of land to work with.

Sharon spent countless hours out on that field with Kate and their other friends, night and day, especially during the balmy summer hours. They sat and gossiped with each other and flirted with the boys that ran around hooting and hollering, footballs floating through the air like kites wherever they roamed.

Over the years, because of his kindness and generosity, Mr. Johnson’s image went through an inevitable transformation. Due to the fact that he was so cool about them using his property—coupled with the big, pearly-white grin he flaunted regularly—there was bound to come a day when Sharon and the other girls in town would develop minor crushes on Mr. Johnson. As they reached ages of considerable impression, most of them noticed Mr. Johnson’s perpetual solitude and grew more vocal about their fantasies.

One day during her junior year in high school, Sharon was hanging out on the field with Kate and Ashley, a mutual friend. Sharon lay back on the hood of her car, a dusty ’98 Ford Escort, with Kate lying next to her and Ashley leaning against the front bumper. The trio was one of many iterations of their social circle over the years, having gone through half a dozen since middle school with Kate always remaining home base. Everybody knew everybody in Marsden (it was hard not to in a town where the population was just under a thousand, and fifty percent of that thousand were old people who figured they’d lived their whole lives in Marsden and might as well die there). But Sharon had figured out long ago that knowing everybody did not equal liking them.

The three girls stared longingly at Mr. Johnson’s house, the lights in the windows flickering steadily. He liked candles, they knew. They knew a lot about him by then. Like how it was lights out at eleven every night, without fail, awake at 6 am. They’d discovered this last part after one evening of drunken giggling kept them out until sunrise, at which point Mr. Johnson had come rumbling up the path in his dusty pickup truck, smiling and waving at them as usual. Heads had rolled at Sharon’s house that morning, her parents strict Baptists who believed a lady’s place at 6 am was not out in the streets.

The girls also knew that Mr. Johnson harvested his corn every three months, and on those days—when he came down the gravel driveway leading from his house with the cabin of his pickup filled to the brim—he’d always hand them a few ears. Everybody in town knew Mr. Johnson’s corn was, by far, the best sweet corn in all of West Texas. When the girls were able to keep his attention for more than a second and ask him how he did it, he’d chuckle and say, simply, that he was glad they enjoyed it.

The list of facts the girls knew about Mr. Johnson seemed nearly endless, and made him all the more endearing: how he wore red more than any other color; how he cut his hair once every two weeks (apparently himself); how the smell of fertilizer didn’t stick to him the way it did to other people’s dads who worked out on the corporate cotton farms over in Littlefield. Maybe because he didn’t use any, the girls pondered. Or maybe because he was perfect, another one would add. They’d all nod and giggle some more, then sit back and watch the house until the flickering candlelights went out.

Youthful affections are fleeting though, and as they rolled into their senior years and graduation, Sharon and Kate fell into a rhythm with the boys around town. And the boys—taking lessons from, among others, Mr. Johnson himself—tried the smiling and waving number on the girls and the girls, skeptical at first, eventually began to fall for the boys. By time Sharon donned her cap and gown, all the years she’d spent out by Wildturn Creek with lurid images of Mr. Johnson in her head seemed distant memories. She thought back on that not-too-long-ago-past as she waited for her name to be called at her graduation ceremony. The memories made her feel childish, she and her friends out there crushing on a grown man who probably saw them as nothing more than little girls. Children. Which they had been. Which they were. It was kinda gross, now that she thought about it.

Nevertheless, the day before she left for college, Sharon and a good portion of her graduating class (all seventy-five of them) made a pilgrimage to Wildturn Creek for one last big hurrah outside Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse. It was a graduation party first and foremost, but also incidentally a celebration for Sharon herself, who’d managed to be the only person in her grade to be accepted to college on a full scholarship, and to none other than Stanford University. As her high school’s valedictorian, Sharon had pushed for the opportunity.

Sitting there in Mr. Johnson’s field, Sharon thanked the various familiar faces that approached her throughout the night, clapping her on the back and offering words of congratulation. She took it all in stride, soaking in the very limited amount of time she would be seen as something special. All across the field, people she’d known all her life consumed various grades of alcohol and marijuana smuggled into town by the Brady brothers. The two mullet-headed siblings lay on the grass a few feet from her, blitzed out of their minds. Sharon partook in none of it though, choosing instead to direct her attention at Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse, at the candlelight flickering in the windows.

After midnight, most everybody had either left or lay passed out on the field, but Sharon stayed awake, watching the darkness of Mr. Johnson’s home and thinking about how glad she was to be getting out of Marsden. She hoped Stanford was a place where sitting outside of an old farmhouse owned by a lonely man would not be anybody’s idea of fun. Sharon vowed then to experience things she never could experience here, vowed to make a point of it. That night, she said a silent goodbye to the farm and the town, hoping this would be the final word on the matter.

The next day Sharon’s parents made the long drive to Lubbock and saw her off at the airport. Sharon took one long look back at them before getting on the plane. Her heart surged as the flight took off, and she smiled out the window as Texas faded beneath her feet.

Sharon’s first semester in college flew by in a buzz of midterms and finals, parties and all night study sessions, alcohol and pot after pot of coffee. By time she got back to Marsden for winter break, her home town seemed a myth to her.

After a few hours in her old house though, she quickly realized not much had changed and—more importantly—nothing much ever probably would. Small towns were stagnant like that sometimes, she’d realized. Prone to repetition and tradition, neither of which was exclusive of the other. Kate called her on her first night back and Sharon knew what she was going to ask before she even said anything.

“You want to hit up Johnson’s farm?” She clucked her tongue the way she always did when she was about to say something tantalizing. “Rob’s meeting me after work, bringing one of the O’Toole brothers. Ronnie, I think, you remember him. He was a year or two ahead of us, just got back from the desert.” She paused, then added “He’s, uh, filled out nicely.”

Sharon sighed and agreed to go, if only because she had to spend the next two weeks at home and Kate was still…well, Kate. It had become obvious to Sharon by that point that her and her best friend were headed in different directions. Kate had barely graduated, and during the semester that Sharon had been away, she’d managed to both move in with her boyfriend Rob and, subsequently, get herself knocked up. She told Sharon this in a matter-of-fact tone and made her promise not to tell Rob. When Sharon pointed out that Rob would eventually find out, Kate chuckled.

“Gonna be one hell of a surprise, huh?”

That evening at Mr. Johnson’s farm began as many others had throughout their childhoods. Beneath it all though, there was something oddly different about things for Sharon. With her and Kate both laid out on the hood of Kate’s rusty pickup—Sharon’s parent’s station wagon parked facing them—Sharon felt as if she’d been transported to the Twilight Zone version of her hometown, as if everything were largely the same but with minute differences that cast an eerie quality over the familiar.

Kate lit up a joint and inhaled a ghastly amount of it before passing it to Sharon. Sharon took it and held it close to her lips, pausing as a wave of sadness suddenly washed over her. The feeling was strong and surprising, mostly because it had nothing to do with herself. The deep sadness she felt was directed at her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend who was on his way to meet them, and to this whole town. And, she thought, glancing over at the farmhouse, for Mr. Johnson, a man she now realized must be the loneliest person in Marsden, one of the loneliest towns in the country. For years he’d had to sit and watch the children on his field grow from kids to teenagers to, now, that edge of adulthood where decisions can have lifelong effects.

Sharon took a small puff of the joint and handed it back to Kate. Right then, Rob pulled down the gravel path and parked next to them, grinning out of the driver’s window. Other than him the car was empty. He shut off the engine and stepped out, looking at the girl’s sheepishly.

“Ronnie couldn’t make it,” he said. “Sends his apologies.”

Kate scoffed, on the verge of a hissy fit until Sharon patted her on the back.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Just happy to see you guys.”

“Aww,” Kate said mockingly, curling a finger around Rob’s belt buckle and pulling him in close. “Isn’t she sweet?”

“You’re sweet,” Rob said hungrily, planting his lips against hers. Sharon studied them, comparing them to the memories she had of growing up with the two through the years. Rob had been in Sharon’s P.E. class in seventh grade, and his chest had been bird-like then, his ribs making his skin ripple around his nipples. Kate had the same bird chest back then too, wearing a padded training bra just to make it seem like she’d grown something. Her thighs and butt had left so much slack in her jeans that she took to wearing sweat pants to school most of the time, until around tenth grade when she’d suddenly sprouted a figure. Rob’s face had darkened with hair around the same time, gotten a little more serious, and the transformation of his body had coincided with Kate’s so perfectly that they’d locked eyes and panted their way into each other’s bedrooms by that spring.

In the year or two since, Sharon had gotten used to their public displays of affection. It was like background music, Kate and Rob lying back on the hood of Kate’s truck devouring each other. Sharon used to think it was gross. Now it was just inevitable, especially if one was away from the other for more than, say, an hour. Like mud after rain.

When they were done, Rob made light conversation with Sharon, asked her about Stanford, how it felt to be rid of Marsden. The way he described it made it sound like the town was a coat that could be shrugged off. Sharon liked the description. Every few seconds she glanced at Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse and the flickering candle light in the windows. When the tension rose to a certain level in her throat, Sharon let it out.

“Has anybody seen him lately?” she said, nodding towards the farmhouse.

Rob and Kate gave each other knowing looks and Kate shrugged.

“Same ol’,” she said. “It’s Johnson. He’s not going anywhere. When we have kids, they’ll come out here and play and grow up doing the same shit our parents yelled at us for.” She glanced at Rob, studying his expression. It was blank, as usual. Kate faced Sharon again, looking slightly pleased. Sharon raised an eyebrow.

“You think he’ll live long all alone like that?” she said.

“What do you mean?” Rob said, looking genuinely confused.

“I mean,” Sharon said, looking back at the house. “Being alone like that, for all those years. That can’t be healthy.”

Kate made a pshhh sound and waved her hand.

“He’s fine,” she said. “It’s Mr. Johnson. If he didn’t want to be alone, I know twenty women in town who’d be here in five minutes.” She smiled, the expression fading away quickly. “He chose to be like this.”

“I don’t know,” Sharon said. “All these years we spent hanging out here, nobody ever thought to ask him if he wanted to join us for like a beer? Or just to talk or something?”

“Why would he want to talk to a bunch of kids?” Rob said.

“I’m just saying,” Sharon mumbled. “We should invite him one of these days.”

“You know his rule, Shar,” Rob said. “Peach tree’s still standing right there and I ain’t taking a step past it. We got a good set up here. I bet kid’s in other towns got to hang out in like…libraries or some shit.” He spread his arms and tilted his head back, spinning in a slow circle. “We got all this, with permission.”

“I’m just saying,” Sharon repeated quietly, then dropped the subject.

They made small talk for another ten minutes, at which point Rob went back to his truck (a vehicle equally as beat up as Kate’s, as if they bought them at the same time on a two-for-one junkyard deal) and produced two six packs of Natty Light. He smiled at Sharon when he returned with the beer and told her they were in honor of her first completed semester, said he’d heard that Natty Light was the chosen beer of most college parties. Sharon laughed and told them she drank heavier than that when she partied up at Stanford: lime and tequila shots usually. She told them about the parties, about class, about studying ‘til sunrise, about the beautiful campus and her plans to go abroad to England for a summer semester. Sharon reveled in their amazement and obvious jealousy, feeling a bit like a one-woman show. When the beers were gone and everybody was swaying a little—using the car hood for support—Kate and Rob decided they were going to head out.

“It’s good to see you, Shar,” Kate said, hiccuping and smiling mischievously. “And if you really want to fuck Mr. Johnson, you should just ask him.”

“I do not want to fuck Mr. Johnson,” Kate said, slapping Kate lightly on the shoulder and glancing at the house. “I’m nineteen. He’s, like—fifty. That’s gross.”

Kate glanced at Rob who was standing near his truck, staring aimlessly at the sky. Kate came close to Sharon and whispered.

“He’s still hot,” she said, then looked down at Sharon’s body. “And in case you haven’t looked in the mirror lately, so are you.”

She winked at Sharon then hugged her and walked over to Rob. Sharon waved at them as they got in their separate trucks and followed each other down the dark street leading back to town, both cars swerving the whole way out.

Sharon walked over to her parent’s car and paused to glance again at Mr. Johnson’s farm house. What Kate had said—the idea of what Kate had said—was absurd, sure. Mr. Johnson wanted nothing to do with a freshman college student, no matter how “hot” Kate thought she was.

“But,” Sharon said out loud, trying to stop her words from slurring and failing. “But—I could still say hello. Nothing wrong with a little hello.”

It was at that moment Sharon realized how starved for attention she was. Stanford had turned out to be a haven of academic integrity and advancement, sure, the halls brimming with legacy and promise. But what she hadn’t wanted to admit to Kate and Rob was that—aside from the occasional raucous party—things had turned out to be just as routine up there as they were in Marsden. The only difference was she didn’t know anybody up there, which made it even more oppressive. She had been showing off in front of Kate and Rob; the reality of it was she missed the town she had been so quick to disown. She missed the people she could rely on to be so predictably obtuse, the guys who would whistle no matter how many times she walked by the pub on Baker’s street, even if it was five times within the hour. She’d gotten annoyed with it while she was here, but the complete lack of boisterousness at Stanford had given her a different perspective. The guys up there were educated, reserved. Husband material.

Every once in a while though, Sharon just wanted to be hollered at.

She doubted saying hi to Mr. Johnson would fix that need. He definitely was not the hollering type. But, she thought, maybe it could open her back up to the town she’d so easily shut out of her mind. She was going to be home for two weeks; she might as well make the most of it. And Mr. Johnson had always had a bit of a glint in his eyes when he smiled at her on his way past the peach tree. At least, Sharon thought that’s what she saw.

Sharon walked over to the peach tree, rubbing the trunk, stray bits of bark floating to the grass. The dirt trail leading up to the farmhouse twisted down a slight gradient, stopping at the bottom where a stone path pointed towards Mr. Johnson’s front porch. Standing at a higher point of the hill, Sharon could see over the house, to the rows and rows of corn growing out back. She swayed a little, planting a hand on the tree to steady herself. Hesitating for just a moment, she took a tentative step past the forbidden peach tree. She was surprised when nothing happened, then felt stupid for the surprise.

Sharon pushed away from the peach tree and walked down the dirt path to Mr. Johnson’s house, looking up at his windows the whole time. Candlelight flickered in what she believed was his bedroom. Behind Sharon, the night seemed to follow her, swallowing the path behind her along with the field and her car. She glanced at the darkness and it shot back a melody of crickets with a few errant bird chirps tossed in.

Sharon reached the front porch and walked up to the front door, pausing with her fist raised to knock. She thought about what she was going to say when he answered the door, and realized she had no idea what to say.  Assuming he even answered at all. For all she knew, he was sleeping and had just forgotten to blow out the candle. And even if he wasn’t sleeping, he would probably be pretty miffed about Sharon breaking his only rule.

What if, by passing the peach tree, she had just ruined things for the other kids? The ones younger than her? What if, because of her, future generations of Marsden youth would be robbed of the same experiences she had out here on Mr. Johnson’s farm?

The thought made Sharon’s throat constrict. She didn’t want to be responsible for that.

Sharon looked down at her feet with disgust, as if they’d betrayed her by bringing her past the threshold. Her head was clearing a little from the alcohol, and her mouth tasted like old beer which she knew from experience only got worse and more nausea-inducing the longer she stayed awake.

Sharon turned and was about to trudge back up the path to her car when a noise caught her attention. She turned and cocked her head to the side, listening. There was nothing else for a while and she was beginning to think it had been her imagination when the sound came again, more distinct this time.

Sharon turned to the side of the house, facing the direction the sound had come from, trying to rewind and play it again in her mind. It had sounded a little like someone speaking, a kid actually.

Sharon waited and the voice came again, somehow sounding both more distinct and further away. It definitely was a child, saying something in what sounded like Spanish:

Sígame al paraíso.

Sharon couldn’t be sure. She didn’t know Spanish except for what she’d learned in high school, which hadn’t gone much past the hola/gracias/por favor stage. But the words had the feeling of the language. They’d been uttered, almost whispered, in the strangest pre-pubescent voice; an asexual sound, almost alien.

It was right then that the long forgotten childhood stories of the creature—the one some people claimed to have seen a mile away from Mr. Johnson’s farm—returned to Sharon. She chuckled in spite of the fear that suddenly sprang up in her chest. In fact, she chuckled because of it, the anxiety gripping her for all of a second before giving way to embarrassment. She looked at the shadows protruding from the side of the house and shook her head. The stories of the creature had been absurd to begin with, but in her self-induced moment of panic, she had ridiculously added to the story in a way that made her not want to take her own mind seriously.

There was no creature at Mr. Johnson’s farm. And even if there were, it most certainly did not speak Spanish.

Sharon laughed out loud at herself, almost drowning out the voice again. Almost, but not quite.

Sígame al paraíso.

This time, it had a beckoning quality to it, and Sharon found herself walking towards the shadows beside the house, captivated by the melodic quality of the voice. It reminded her of when she was about eight and her grandmother had come to stay at the house while her parents had been away for their tenth anniversary trip to Mexico. Her grandmother—a staunch, God-fearing Catholic (who spoke of her parents Baptist affiliation as if it were a malignant tumor they should look into)—had taken Sharon to a church in the next town over since the two churches in Marsden weren’t “appropriate.” At that Catholic Church, there had been a choir consisting mostly of boys Sharon’s age, young and pure. They had sung hymn after hymn that day, and though the actual sermon hadn’t interested Sharon whatsoever, those boys’ voices had. The voice she’d just heard coming from the side of Mr. Johnson’s house reminded her of the choir: sweet, captivating, innocent. She smiled a little, dazed, rounding the corner of the house.

In the darkness, she could see nothing but the corn stalks and the low-lying moon, big and yellow and half-hidden by the crops. It shined off the tops of the swaying corn, throwing around the shadows as Sharon crept forward. She stood at the edge of the cornfield and waited for the voice to return. When it came again, she snapped her head to the left, towards a row of corn just in front of her. That stab of fright tapped at her heart again. She stared at the corn stalks and stepped towards them, walking the couple of feet of grass to the row’s opening. She glanced up at Mr. Johnson’s bedroom, the candlelight still flickering. A shadow passed across the back window and Sharon paused, wondering if Mr. Johnson would choose right now to take a look outside and catch her in the act.

No sooner had the thought occurred, Sharon turned back to the row of corn and looked down to find the creature standing in front of her.

She knew right away that it was the creature, not just because it looked like a creature but because it was very obviously a compilation of the different descriptions people had ascribed to it over the years.

As Sharon stood there staring at it, the creature began to change shape, expanding and contracting, growing new appendages while absorbing others back into itself. When Sharon first faced it, the thing was much shorter than her, about half her height, and standing on two clawed feet. Small, bat-like wings twitched on its back, as if it was considering flying away but couldn’t figure out how. Then, suddenly, it started to grow, the wings sliding beneath its scaly skin as it rolled itself upward. Her eyes followed its ascent until it maxed out around seven feet then fell to the ground on all fours. It looked up at her and its eyes twinkled with the candlelight flickering in Mr. Johnson’s window. It’s spine was ribbed all the way down to a short nub of a tail, like a Doberman, if a Doberman and an alligator could mate.

Sharon stared at the creature and the creature stared back. For a solid ten seconds, a single thought repeated in Sharon’s mind, three words running like a marquee banner in a circle around her head:

So it’s true.

It had all been true. They had all been right, all the people who’d claimed and claimed and who she’d discounted over the years. The shocking reality of the statement made her wonder about a lot of things right then. About the reality of other such stories she’d relegated to myths in her mind: Santa, the Easter bunny, God.

What if it was all true?

What exactly did that mean?

The thoughts stayed with her even as the creature bared its jagged, crooked teeth, a drop of saliva forming in the corner of its mouth and dribbling down to the grass. It moved quickly, too quickly, one of its clawed feet seeming only to shudder before there was a sudden, searing pain in Sharon’s stomach. She looked down and—even as she recognized her own steaming pile of intestines rolling out of her belly and flopping onto the grass—she could still only think of the possibilities. The shift in perspective. The disproving of physics.

Should she scan the skies on Christmas Eve? Should she start to pray again?

Sharon looked up at the sky, at the bright moon, and slowly fell to the grass. She rolled onto her back as she did, facing Mr. Johnson’s bedroom and noticing then that his candle had gone out. Then her face was washed in light. She struggled to raise her head, squinting at the oncoming headlights of Mr. Johnson’s pickup truck. It turned and drove past her, and Sharon caught a glimpse of Mr. Johnson behind the wheel with a solemn look on his face, looking right back at her and shaking his head.

Then the view was blocked out by the creature’s face hovering over hers, its cat eyes winking as it whispered in its choir boy voice:

Bienvenido a paraíso.

Standard
Pandemic Files

Animals

Rick ran his fingers through his slick-backed hair with a sigh. Sitting across from him, Nola focused on the throbbing vein in Rick’s left temple, pulsing like a leech beneath his skin. She turned her head slightly away, her eyes remaining on his face.  A shiver ran through her and she tensed against it, rubbing her shoulders and wincing at the bruise on her right arm, hidden beneath her sweater.

Rick’s eyes settled on her again and Nola sat up straight, her feet barely touching the ground.

“Nola,” Rick said, shaking his head slowly, almost imperceptibly. “I’m not hearing any enthusiasm, Nole. You’re not acting like you want this.”

A young blonde waitress walked by and Rick followed her ass with his eyes. Nola frowned.

“We’ve hit a dozen of these spots.” Rick continued, placing his elbows on the table. “All of them, you and me. I could’ve got Briggs on the jobs, or Mr. Brown. They wanted in too, you know how enthusiastic those two get. But I stuck with you. Even when you tried to back out, I still stuck with you, taught you.”

The tension in his voice was like an elastic band stretched to its breaking point. Nola’s hands began to shake and she clasped her fingers together, dropping her arms under the table.

“I would say it’s because I loved your daddy like he was my own,” Rick said, shifting in his seat. “But I didn’t. Hated the bastard, tell the truth. Was a little too affectionate with you for my taste.” He paused, reached over and pulled a sugar packet from the small container at the corner of the table. He flicked the packet once then started twirling it between his fingers. “You know the real reason why I kept you around though, don’t you, Nole?”

A sudden squeaking sound shifted Nola’s attention to the ceiling.  The bowl-shaped lamp above their table was dimmer than the others that hung around the restaurant. It extended a couple of feet above their heads from a long, thin fixture bolted to the ceiling. The lamp swayed gently back and forth, letting out a soft eek with each backswing.

“You know why, Nola?” Rick repeated, louder. “Because I don’t trust those assholes as much as I trust you. That’s why. You and me, we got a bond I don’t share with those knuckleheads. Love’s like—”

A chuckle suddenly escaped Nola’s throat like a loosed prisoner, out her lips before she could clamp them down. Her hand shot up to her mouth and she gave Rick a fearful glance, quickly dropping her eyes to her lap.

“What the fuck are you laughing at?” Rick growled, his face slowly turning red, his eyes shrinking to a beady glare.

Nola attempted to speak, to apologize, searching for a reason to explain it to herself. Nothing came to mind though, so she just stayed quiet.

“I’m getting tired of this bullshit, Nola,” Rick whispered.

Nola closed her eyes, bracing herself for impact, every muscle in her chest and abdomen and face tensing up. Whatever he did, she just hoped it wouldn’t draw any attention.

A moment later, an untouched Nola opened her eyes to find Rick surveying the restaurant pensively. His gaze settled near the front of the restaurant and the crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes softened. Nola turned to see a young hostess staring over at their table. At Rick. Smiling at him, actually.

Nola turned back to Rick, her eyes suddenly burning.

“Do you know her?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

“No,” Rick said simply, turning back to her. “I don’t understand what your problem is right now. You’ve never complained before.”

Nola’s shoulders slouched, her eyes falling to her lap again.

“Do you have a problem with all this?” he asked, motioning around the restaurant as if it were theirs to claim. “You have a problem with the clothes on your back? The fucking life you have right now?”

“No,” she said quietly.

“No?”

She tried to face him, but her chin felt magnetically drawn downward.

“No, Rick. I love it. All of it.”

“You damn well better,” he said with an emphatic nod. “Doesn’t suit you to be ungrateful. To take all this for granted. Your daddy couldn’t give you any of this shit, that’s for goddamn sure.” He chuckled and leaned across the table towards her. “All I’m asking for is your help to keep things as good as they’ve been, Nole. That’s all.”

Nola kept her head down.

“I treat you good.” he said, almost questioningly. “Alright, at least. Right?”

Nola focused on her stomach, flat and pale beneath her Rolling Stones t-shirt.  She brushed her thumb across the half-inch of exposed skin at her waist and was suddenly lost in memories, flashes of pain and free-flowing blood piercing her mind; out of sync with no sound, like a horribly-edited film.

Nola moved her hand up until her palm was resting flatly against her stomach. Rick noticed, recognition sparking in his eyes. He lowered his chin and bared his teeth a little.

“I told you to forget about that shit,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“I told you,” he repeated, his jaw clenched. “It was for your own good.”

“I know, I—I’m sorry, Rick.”

“No!” Rick slammed his fist down on the table and Nola jumped. “You obviously don’t fucking understand. Shit like that, like, what—babies?” He shook his head. “They ain’t nothing but trouble in our line of work.”

A burning pain hit Nola right then, as suddenly as a heart attack, rising like a hunger in her soul and engulfing her chest. She hadn’t felt the emotion in some time and, as such, was unsure what it was at first. Even when she figured it out, she still didn’t know exactly what to do with it.

But it was anger alright. Red hot and fiery.

“I’m sorry, Rick,” she said through gritted teeth. “It’s just…hard. To forget.”

Rick brought his hands together, clasping them on the table. Nola kept her head down, feeling the burn of his stare in her scalp.

“Try harder,” he said darkly, cracking his knuckles. “For your own good, best try harder.”

Her anger subsided as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by the ever-present fear. She raised her head to apologize again when something caught the corner of her eye. Glancing to her left, she saw an elderly couple seated at the table next to them, less than ten feet away. The lady closest to Nola had her spoon dipped in a steaming bowl of tomato soup, and by the looks of it had paused to listen in on Nola and Rick’s conversation. Nola’s face instantly transformed from passive to enraged, eyebrows dipping, nose flaring. Her hands flew up from under the table as she turned to fully face the eavesdropping woman.

“Is there a problem?” she yelled. The old woman quickly averted her eyes and Nola fixed her defiant stare on the man. He was older as well, though not as old as the woman. Mid-fifties at the most, and oddly familiar. His face was clean-shaven, free of wrinkles with the exception of a line or two in each cheek. A shock of hair, longish and shaggy, seemed to sprout from his head, coming down just above his neck in jagged gray and white streaks, like millions of tiny electrical extensions protruding from his brain. He wore a crimson-colored shirt, buttoned nearly to the top, with an open black vest over it. His hands sat on the table clenched together and his eyes did not waver. Nola’s brief moment of courage subsided and she turned back to Rick, clasping her hands on top of the table.

Tapping his fingers together, Rick’s eyes remained on her, as if he hadn’t even noticed the outburst.

“Nola,” Rick sighed. His voice was softer now as he reached across the table to wrap his large hands around hers. She jumped at first and Rick studied her intently for a second. Anytime he had her in his grasp she immediately felt small, swallowed, minuscule. It had been a mostly pleasant feeling in the beginning years, one she only felt when she was with Rick, one that was most intense on those occasional moments when the hold was tender.

His fingers softened around hers and began to knead the flesh at the base of her palms. Nola felt all the fear and the tiny bits of remaining anger slowly leave her body. After a moment she squeezed his hand softly, studying the interlocked maze of fingers.

“I need this, Nole,” he said. “We need this, and I need to know you’re with me. One hundred percent.”

“I am, babe,” she whispered.

“Are you sure?”

Nola hesitated and Rick’s hands tensed.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “Yes. I’m just…”

“Just what, Nola?”

Nola basked in the warmth of his hands and stared into his eyes. She tried to remove any hostility from her voice as she spoke, pleading with herself not to break the pleasant lull of the moment by saying anything in the wrong way.

“I just—” she said. Her voice was too deep. She cleared her throat and spoke in a higher pitch. “It’s just that you can’t work, I know, with your record and all. But…I can, babe. Just let me get a job, baby. I’ll take c—”

“No woman of mine’s gonna be working in no goddamn bullshit slave job!” Rick exploded, yanking his hands away. Nola flinched and brought her arms to her chest. “You take care of us,” Rick yelled. “Take care of me goddammit.” Bits of spittle flew from his mouth and landed on the table.

A multitude of eyes turned in their direction and Nola’s face reddened. Rick paused with his eyes closed, breathing slowly, evenly, running his fingers through his shining hair once again.

“You and I, we don’t need jobs.” He opened his eyes and poked his finger at the table. “These are our jobs. Right here. This is our livelihood, but it can only be that way if we are both on the same page.”

“Rick—”

“Quick and easy,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “Like taking cand—like trick or treating.”

Nola followed Rick’s gaze upwards, to the Halloween decorations strewn across the restaurant like monstrous spider webs. She shivered once again as the streamers swung in unison with the still swaying lamp. At the front of the restaurant, in the window facing the back of Rick’s head, a flickering jack-o-lantern leered in at them.

“I hate trick or treating,” she said, closing her eyes. “And Halloween.”

“Me too. It’ll be like taking candy from them though, so.” Rick shrugged, readjusting himself in the seat. “I need to know you’re with me, Nola. This next one’s big. Bigger than the others.”

Nola nodded slowly.

“I told you to be ready tonight,” he said. He paused and Nola waited. “I did, right?”

Nola nodded again.

“Are you ready?”

Nola felt it a rhetorical question. Rick obviously thought otherwise, tapping his finger against the table impatiently.

“Yes,” she said finally. “But ready for what?”

“Your test, Nole.” A devilish grin crossed Rick’s face. “Right here. Right now.”

“I’m sorry,” Nola said, shaking her head in confusion. “I don’t under-”

“I’ve been casing the place all week,” he said gleefully. “These bastards won’t know what hit ‘em. Especially with you? A chick looks like you? They ain’t expecting it. All you gotta do is stand up.” He held his arms out, looked around the room “And do it.”

Nola’s eyes widened and she started to shake her head.

“Rick—”

“I don’t want to hear it, Nola.”

Nola closed her mouth and felt the burn in her chest return with added ferocity. It set a precedent, multiple bouts of anger in the same night. She couldn’t remember the last time she had experienced even one so intense.

Nola swallowed thickly, her teeth grinding together.

“Stand up and make the announcement,” Rick said, squinting towards the front checkout counter.

“Rick,” Nola said softly, clenching her fists.

“Watch the doors,” Rick said. “Grab wallets and jewelry, I’ll get the register first, the safe in the back after then we can—”

“Rick!”

The word exploded from her.

Rick jumped, startled.

“What the fuck, Nola?” he barked.

Nola felt the old woman’s eyes again to her left and was about to look over when a voice suddenly whispered in her ear, distant at first.

Go ahead, Nola.

Instantly disoriented, Nola spun around looking for the source. Nobody was behind her so she faced Rick again, confused. The voice had seemed to come from inside her head and, at the same time, not. In fact, it had sounded like the voice that she always heard in there, the voice she associated with her thoughts, the voice that had the same inflections and tones as the one she directed at Rick and any of the few other people she spoke to regularly. The intimate voice of familiarity.

But, at the same time, the voice hadn’t been hers. There had been a certain air to it, a masked depth, as if a man had been using a voice filter to make his sound like hers. The thought had no basis in logical reasoning. And the words themselves had been so ominous that Nola could do nothing but sit still for a moment, waiting for it to return and imagining this is what it feels like to know you’re going insane and not be able to do anything about it. Rick was saying something in front of her, and she was trying to focus on him and forget about the voice when it came again.

Nobody will ever know.

This time Nola simply frowned at the sound, cocking her head to the side a bit.

Rick gaped at her. “Are you listening to me?”

Nola turned and searched the room once again for the source of the voice. The old woman to her left kept her eyes on her soup. The man across from her, however, still sat there looking directly at Nola. Returning the stare, Nola felt a gradual tightening in her chest. It grew like a tumorous breath in her lung, exacerbated by the sight of the man’s eyes. Blue and gray melted together near his dark pupils, flickering with a heat that seemed to have no source in the dim atmosphere of the restaurant, as if the man’s soul itself were on fire.

As Nola watched him, his lips curled back in a sinister sneer, revealing a set of unnaturally white teeth. He winked at her, a quick, nonchalant expression, and the voice in her head spoke for a third time.

Nobody.

Nola looked away quickly, back to Rick, his face still displaying shock. Her heart pounded in her chest and ears, her sweaty palms planted on the edge of the table.

Nola glanced to her left again and was met with a side-eyed stare from the old, gray-haired woman.

The old man, however, was gone, nothing but an empty seat in his place.

“Nola?” Rick said.

Nola looked at Rick and everything wavered for a moment, his face, the restaurant, the jack-o-lantern behind his head all shimmering and becoming almost cloudy. Putting a hand to her forehead, Nola stood slowly, pushing her chair back and stepping away from the table. Rick watched her rise as if she were a fish inexplicably walking out of the ocean.

“You gonna do it?” he said.

“I have to pee.”

“You can do that after.”

“I really need to go,” she said, putting a hand just below her belly for added effect.

Rick groaned and sat back in his chair, visibly pouting.

“Hurry up,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. “And don’t think we’re not going to talk about this bullshit later.”

Nola swallowed thickly, feeling queasy. She turned to face the back of the restaurant and suddenly froze in place.

Behind her and Rick’s table sat a family at a round booth. Two young boys kicked at each other as they smeared spaghetti across their faces. The mother and father—oblivious to their children’s lack of table manners—were engaged in what was very obviously an undercover argument. The entire family seemed to be paying no attention to Nola or her escalating situation with Rick. As if for emphasis, the father rolled his eyes in Nola’s direction as his wife chastised him.

Nola stood staring at the family in awe, not of the mother or the father but of the messy children, more particularly the fifth guest sitting with them.

Dark red, glistening sauce covered the bottom halves of the kids’ faces, giving their open mouths and teeth an eerie shine, like twin pit bulls feeding on bloody scraps. And right in between them sat the blue-eyed old man who had just been at the table with the old lady. He sat with his hands still clasped together, a leering grin pasted on his face. The voice came in louder now, sounding much less like her own.

Now, Nola.

“Nola?” Rick hissed.

Nola jumped and faced him. He shot her a threatening glare and nodded his head towards the bathroom.

“Get on with it,” he said.

Nola glanced back at the family in the booth and when she saw that the two children were now sitting without a companion—eating rather daintily now, with no spaghetti sauce on their faces—she wondered what it all meant for her.

“Forget it,” Rick said suddenly. “Fuck the bathroom, Nola, sit the fuck down.”

Nola tried to speak through a closed throat, plopping down in the chair instead. Rick shook his head.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I—” she said, pausing and staring at her hands. “I don’t know.”

“Get over it, whatever it is. Now. We need to do this shit before anybody else leaves.” He glanced back at the front of the restaurant as two men dressed in business attire opened the double-door entrance and left. “That’s our money walking out right there.”

Nola’s breathing accelerated, her hands swimming around her lap, touching her knee, her thigh, the top of her jeans and the small bulge beneath the waist. It was right then she felt a shift in her equilibrium, a nominal adjustment to the tide of her psyche. In no way was it a feeling she could articulate, and in that initial moment Nola wanted nothing more than to desperately ask Rick what she should do. The voice began singing in her brain then, repeating a mantra of words that sounded unintelligible after awhile.

Nobody…go…Nola… knows…

Go…Nola…knows…Nobody…

Knows…nobody..Nola…go…

Now.

“Nola!” Rick hissed.

“Rick, I—I still have to pee.”

“Goddammit!” Rick yelled, a glistening drop of spit appearing at the corner of his mouth. A shadow crossed his face and Nola knew then that she would remember this particular moment forever. It hit her much as the fear always hit her, as the anger had hit her that day, as every other realization and emotion and thought and even Rick himself usually hit her: hard, fast, and painful. She knew that she’d forever remember the darkness in Rick’s eyes, the feel of the air as it grew heavier and colder in her lungs, the sound of the restaurant’s background chatter. She knew she would remember it all, knew this even as her still shaky hand reached under her sweater, under the waist of her jeans to grip the bulge of a slightly aged .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda, tucked tight against her warm skin.

The gun had been her father’s, his bow and six arrows as he’d called it.

Take from the rich and give to the poor.

Nola gripped it firmly in her right hand, fingering the trigger hidden under the table.

Rick leaned in, reaching over and grabbing Nola’s free hand, startling her.

“Nola,” Rick said, squeezing painfully. “Nole. Babe.”

“Yes, Rick,” she said softly.

“I’m going to do this,” Rick said. He lowered his voice more. “We’re going to do this. I’m going to get up, you’re going to follow me, and you’re going to help. I swear by God you’ll help me…” He tightened his grip even more. “…if it kills you.”

A heavy tear fell down her cheek and Nola was frozen by its presence. She hadn’t cried in front of Rick in years. He didn’t like the display, he said. She braced herself as another tear followed the first, but he remained oblivious. Even as she brought her right arm out into the open, clutching the warmed steel of the revolver, his expression still took a moment to register the development.

Nola pointed the gun directly at Rick’s face, the barrel less than an inch from his forehead. A steadiness took over her hand and arm, one that didn’t match up with the rest of her body. Her chest convulsed with small, quick heaves, her vision blurring with more tears. Her legs shook under the table and her bottom lip quivered.

But her hand remained steady, like a robotic extension detached from her nervous system.

The light above their heads glinted off the dull steel of the handgun, reflecting in Rick’s wide eyes, sweat springing up on his forehead. He leaned back in his chair slowly, raising his hands in front of him and wiggling his fingers before placing his palms flat on the table. A strange silence fell over the restaurant.

Rick snickered suddenly, as if the gun were a toy, a bad joke that Nola had made with good intentions.

“Really, Nole?”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice shook, cracking at the end like brittle paper.

Rick chuckled again, his eyes wilder than ever, flitting from the gun to her and back. Nola couldn’t handle the sight for too long. She’d seen it before in him, that same feral emotion, right before he pushed her face first down that flight of stairs last year. Rick guardedly surveyed the restaurant. “Put that thing away before somebody sees it and I might just forget this ever happened.”

Now, Nola.

“I can’t,” she whispered. Above her head the tempo of the swinging lamp quickened, almost matching the beat of her racing heart. “I can’t do—”Animals

“What?” Rick snapped. “Can’t do what, Nola? Can’t not be fucking dramatic for once in your shitty goddamn life?”

Nola slowly raised her head, the tears on her cheeks drying. The lamp above her let out one last eeeek then stopped. Nola felt her heart slow down, her palm no longer damp against the butt of the gun.

“I just can’t,” she said. The words came out crisper and clearer than she’d ever heard herself say anything.

Rick paused, looking from the gun to Nola and back, indecisive. Nola blinked just long enough for him to jerk towards her. With her gun arm braced against the table, the barrel seemed much longer to her than it had before. As he approached, her eyes opened and met his for just a second. Rick’s were light brown, almost hazel, with soft specks of green. There were faint lines on the puffy, aged skin around them, lines she could remember tracing tenderly with her fingers so many nights ago. Time froze on that memory and his face. Nola’s own eyes softened at the sight.

The gun bucked violently in her hand, and a high-pitched ring sprang immediately into her ears like a siren. A fine red mist gently covered her face as Rick’s outstretched hand exploded and his head snapped first back then forward again. His chin fell to his chest and she watched the light in his eyes quickly fade, the green specks withering away like a dying flashlight. She held his gaze until there was nothing there and gravity brought his body down into a slump, his forehead coming to rest on the table with a soft, wet thud.

It was only then that Nola shook herself and turned to face the restaurant.

Silent screams crowded her vision. The old lady next to her had received a generous piece of Rick’s middle finger in her bowl of tomato soup, standing straight up with the finger nail pointed in her direction. She stood on rickety knees and backed into a wall behind her, one blood-stained hand held up to her wide open mouth.

Nola stood slowly.

The family of four behind her was in a panic. The mother grabbed both her crying children and crushed them to her bosom, dragging them away. The father stood between them and Nola like a well-paid bodyguard, a mixture of fear and protective anger transforming his face into a nightmare as they followed the wall around the room to the front of the restaurant. The other customers started quickly migrating to the front door, opposite Nola. Within moments she found herself alone, casting deep, swaying shadows across the scuffed linoleum floor beneath the dim lamp, which had resumed its steady squeak.

Nola’s right arm felt suddenly, impossibly heavy.

When she looked down, her gun was dripping, the steel darkened with Rick’s blood. Nola turned to look back at his body, staring at the ragged hole in the back of his head, the size of a baseball. Facing the front of the restaurant again, she watched everybody huddled together like hostages. No sooner had the thought occurred to her, red and blue lights flashed in the windows.

Nola wiped the gun across the sleeve of her sweater, leaving glistening streaks of red across the tan cotton fabric.

The nosy elderly lady who had sat next to Nola now cowered behind a young man, wiping her tears with the hem of her dress. The family of four stood hugging in a corner, the father enfolding his wife and two sons like a bird protecting its young. Everybody stared at Nola with a mixture of hate and fear.

All except one.

In the corner, in front of the window that overlooked the street, those fiery blue-gray eyes and open mouth faced her, silently laughing in her direction with arms crossed. Nola knew now where she’d seen them before. Her father’s eyes had been blue as well, powerfully so. She remembered saying something about them once, asking him why his eyes looked like the daytime sky in winter. And like a piece of ice floating up from the bottom of a deep cup, she suddenly remembered what her father had said, lying in bed next to her with a hand on her bare leg.

Nobody knows, Nola. Nobody will ever know. Because—

Because what? Nola couldn’t quite remember the last part.

The old man’s smile grew wider.

Nola’s chest tightened again and she looked down at the table where Rick lay face down. A stream of blood had made its way to the edge and—as she watched—it broke the threshold and dripped to the floor. A crimson waterfall, majestic and full of purpose, like a migrating herd.

Like the answer to the question.

Because what?

Nobody will ever know because

…we’re all just animals, following the pack.

Nola raised her gun without looking at it.

The restaurant door burst open and a stream of police officers swarmed in, guns drawn. Her eyes flashed to the old man, whose sneer had nearly consumed the bottom half of his face. He nodded and Nola turned to an approaching officer, raising the gun to her right temple. Her lips parted and she smiled, the first genuine smile she’d felt in what seemed like forever.

Nola coughed softly as the young police officer lowered his gun and held up a hand, opening his mouth to speak. Nola cut him off.

“I know,” she said. The officer cocked his head to the side and she nodded. “I know.”

When Nola pulled the trigger, she felt her thoughts fly away, escaping her mind with a rush of displaced air and gunpowder, like a bird loosed from a cage. She fell back on top of the table, coming to rest by Rick’s side, one of her hands falling on top of his, and for just a split second she the undamaged part of her brain registered the fading warmth of his skin. Nola smiled up at the ceiling as her body settled into a permanent stillness, and the light in her eyes faded very, very slowly.

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