Pandemic Files

Predatory

Originally Published in Sex and Murder Magazine June 2010 (Vol. 1 Issue 11)

It’s drizzling outside when the yellow Crown Victoria with the unlit sign on the roof pulls to a stop at the curb, just outside the bodega on 8th and Broadway. The taxi’s engine ticks for a few seconds, raindrops pinging off the hood. The bodega’s front door flies open a moment later, Raul stepping out with his gun waving in the air. His satchel slides down his shoulder and he pushes it back up, looking first north up the street then south, towards the bridge, frowning up at the light rain. Faint footsteps approach behind him and Raul spins, catching a glimpse of closely-set Asian eyes before the bodega’s owner ducks behind a table near the display window.

“See, that’s the problem with you fucking chinks,” Raul yells. “Goddamn sneaky bastards, why nobody but your kind likes you. Come up in our backyard, take our jobs, our money, smiling like assholes the whole time you doing it. Put everybody and their grandmother to work just so you can get ahead, fucking commie bast—get the fuck back.”

Raul switches the gun to his right hand and points it at the shop’s display window as the owner’s head appears above the table again. Aiming off to the side a bit, Raul pulls the trigger, the report cracking through the air and bouncing off the surrounding buildings, sending echoes up the block. The display window spiderwebs then shatters, glass pellets falling to the sidewalk.

“I fucking told you,” Raul says, sneering. “Sneaky bastard.”

A warbled cry comes from inside and the owner’s face pops up a few feet from where the window was seconds earlier, his forehead creased with anxiety. Raul laughs and faces the street again. At that exact moment the light on the roof of the taxi idling at the curb flickers on.

Raul considers the circumstances for a moment. Typically, he would just walk away from this type of job, head to the spot over on Jackson and lay low until things cool off. Doesn’t pay to leave the scene like a madman, exactly what the cops expect.  See a guy running up Broadway waving a gun with a brown paper bag tucked under his arm, it’s like a fucking homing beacon.

No, Raul’s smarter than that.

Normal circumstances, Raul tucks his gun away in the pocket of his hoodie, brings the strap of his satchel diagonally across his chest and heads home at a brisk but comfortable pace; not rushing because he’s early, not late, ahead of the game. Like one of these hipsters on his way to Starbucks to work on some crap screenplay or novel or whatever. People in this city passing on the sidewalk are liable to believe you’re alright in nearly any damn situation long as you ain’t acting erratic, at least that’s how Raul’s seen it all play out over the years.

But today, Raul’s on top of the world about a lot of things, this current haul being one of them. So he’s feeling a little daring. And he damn sure doesn’t feel like walking in the rain. The satchel’s heavy as hell, and he’s betting most of the weight’s coming from that fucking statue he snatched from the safe under the counter. He would’ve tossed it but he figured—since it was locked up tight—chink man had to be hiding it for a reason. It looked to be made of wood when he first saw it but after holding the thing, feeling it’s weight, he’s thinking it’s some sort of dyed metal.

Whatever it is, walking home with it’s gonna be a pain in the ass. And the taxi’s already here; no sense in wasting a free ride. Raul hops over to the back door of the cab, pulls it open and throws himself inside.

“Go,” he says gruffly, taking his gun out of his pocket. He pops the clip and checks the rounds. Five. One less than he left his apartment with. A year ago there’d been ten. Raul thought about where each bullet had ended up and frowned. Raul doesn’t actually like having to use his piece, considers it nothing more than a tool of the trade really. Like a writer’s word processor, or a construction worker’s jackhammer. A writer could write with a pen, or a construction worker could grab a pickax and get to slamming that concrete. There are better tools that make their jobs easier though, so why not use them?

Most people are usually so frightened by just the sight of a gun that they shut up and follow directions. Even the hero-types never really amount to anything worthy of a rumble. Most of them are quicker to piss themselves when a bullet shatters the glass above their heads, grab their limp dicks and curl into the fetal position. Raul always laughs at this, how the universal and instant male reaction to danger is to grab your nuts, as if a hand can stop a bullet from destroying the family jewels. He understands it, despite the absurdity: balls are the only things that really matter in life. Cohones. Raul takes pride in his, walks around them when he’s on the streets, gives them room to breathe. They’re his insurance policy, the reason nobody fucks with him. It’s all about how you portray yourself that matters. Like when he was a kid and somebody (doesn’t remember who) told him that he’s not supposed to run from attacking dogs. They smell fear, get excited by it, attack harder. Humans are just big ass canines when you get down to it.

Raul looks outside the car and the bodega with the shattered display window is still there, the owner peeking at him through the front door. Raul glances at the taxi driver, a man with a baseball cap on, a full head of wavy brown hair flowing from beneath. Raul grinds his teeth and leans forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the man’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He sees nothing but more of his wavy brown hair. Raul grunts.

“Did you hear me?” he says

The driver stays quiet.

“Go,” Raul says again. “Drive.”

The car stays idling, just low enough that the peal of police sirens in the distance comes through loud and clear. Sweat breaks out on Raul’s collar and he jerks a hand up, slaps at the prickly feeling that hits him right below his hairline.

“Look, brother,” he growls, glancing out the rear windshield. “I ain’t got no time for heroes. Just get me away from here and I’ll break you off a little extra. Across the bridge, that’s all.”

The driver says nothing and the car doesn’t move. Raul cracks his neck and slides forward in his seat, trying again to get a glimpse of the man’s face. He sees the edge of a Yankees logo stitched to the front of the cap and more hair, the man’s face shrouded in shadows.

“You deaf?” Raul yells. “They hiring deaf fucks to drive cabs now?” Raul punches the back of the driver’s seat, the whole chair vibrating in its frame. “Fucking drive!”

The man doesn’t move, doesn’t shudder, doesn’t even seem to breathe. Raul glances out the window again at the owner, who’s finally gotten up the nerve to step outside. He’s looking directly at Raul and speaking inaudibly, pointing first in the direction of the sirens then back at Raul. Raul feels a moment of helplessness and immediately pushes the feeling down, letting his rage drown it out. Sliding the clip back into his gun, Raul pulls the hammer back with an echoing clack, then raises the gun and shoves it against the back of the driver’s head.

“Two choices,” he says. “One: you drive, I pay, you go on your merry fucking way. Two: I blow your fucking head off and drive the cab my goddamn self. Or maybe I walk, just for the fuck of it, so I don’t have to deal with moving your body, you know?” He pushes the gun harder against the brown, wavy hair, into the driver’s skull. “What’s it going to be, brother?”

The driver’s head leans slightly to the left a bit, towards the driver’s window, as if contemplating his response. Then, suddenly, he lifts a gloved hand and flips on the meter next to the steering wheel. The car rumbles slightly as he puts it into gear, and a moment later they pull away from the curb. Raul lowers his gun and flips the safety on, a satisfied smile appearing on his face. He glances out the rear view window back at the Bodega owner on the sidewalk. Raul’s smile fades slightly when the man raises his hand and waves at him, slowly. The man’s lips part and he mouths something towards Raul, and Raul’s trying to make out what it is when the taxi turns a corner and the man disappears.

Raul sticks the gun in his pant’s waist, throwing his shirt over the grip. He stares out the window for a moment, thoughtful, then grabs his satchel.

“I knew you were a smart dude,” he says to the driver. “You don’t want to go and get involved in none of this anyways, let me tell you. It ain’t worth the stress. Sometimes I just feel like quitting. Then I remember why I started in the first place. You’ll see though, I’ll make it worth your while. Just wait.”

The man says nothing. Raul shrugs.

“Don’t mind the quiet,” he says. “Helps me count.”

Raul takes a moment to study the satchel before opening it. It’s brown, made of leather and faded from overuse. It reminds him of the cowboys, frontiersmen, the original Americans. He would have excelled back then, he knows it. He almost feels like he’s been transplanted from that time to this modern society, coming to this life of rules and limits from a life with neither.

Raul dumps everything out of the bag onto the backseat of the taxi. The statue falls out last, its shiny jeweled eyes staring up at him, capturing him. It’s an ancient-looking thing, with thick, almost African lips made out of what look to be lines of small rubies. A long, curved tongue hangs out of its wide, shark-toothed mouth, leering up at Raul. The tip of the tongue is flat, as if mashed in by a mallet, and on the flat part a tiny face is embedded. The tiny face is stained a dark gray, somber indentations where the eyes and mouth should be.

The thing is undoubtedly creepy, and Raul’s glad he won’t have to keep it for long. The boys will know people who deal with rich folks who collect shit like this. Raul figures it might have to spend a night in his apartment, two at the most, no more. Then it’ll be converted to cash and added to the rest of his treasures. If it doesn’t sell, he’ll dump it in the first trash bin he sees and be rid of it and its creepiness forever.

Raul rifles through everything else from the bag, separating a few paper clips and receipts from the rest of the treasure he got from the convenience store register. Raul began referring to the fruits of his labor as treasure a few months ago, to keep things interesting. And of course he considers himself a pirate just as much as he is a cowboy, the gun at his side not much different than a sword. They’re all the same characters to him. Raul’s the pirating cowboy of the 21st century.

“Ay, mate,” he says out loud, grinning.

The driver remains silent, hanging a left at a stop sign. Raul counts the money, straightening each bill on top of the last as if laying bricks. When he’s done, he holds up a little over five hundred dollars. He chuckles and fans himself with the cash a bit, wipes his forehead with a twenty before folding the cash and shoving both the wad and the statue back into his satchel, next to the only other item in the bag: a bottle of aspirin. He gets headaches sometimes, usually when something is out of whack in the overall scheme of a job. But not now. Now, he’s too excited to be aching. He still gets enough of the rush when he’s on the job to feed the need, his blood pulsing, everything on fire.

“Alright brother,” he says, picking up his gun again. “Round here’s—.”

Raul’s voice cuts off as he slowly takes in the scene outside, his jaw immediately dropping open. He presses his face to the window, his eyes flitting around, filled with confusion. Squeezing his eye shut tight, Raul shakes his head and tells himself he’s having some sort of hallucination. When he opens his eyes again though, the dead grassy plain outside the cab is still there, brown and devoid of any signs of life.

Raul scoots to the other side of the car, to the opposite window. Nothing but the same dead grass. He turns to the rear windshield and there is no sign of Manhattan anywhere. No buildings, no city skyline, just the two-lane road and endless dead, brown grass.

“Yo, what the fuck?” Raul yells, pulling his gun from his pants’ waist. “What the hell’re you trying to pull, man? Where the fuck are we?”

The driver’s gloved hands remain on the steering wheel at the two o’clock and ten o’clock positions.

“I ain’t playing around,” Raul says darkly, raising his arm and leveling the gun at the back of the driver’s head. “We ain’t in the city no more and that ain’t what I asked you to do. Don’t know what the fuck you’re trying to pull or how the hell we got way out here, but I’m not with it today.”

Nothing.

Raul’s heart pumps steel through his veins, a pounding starting in his head. He thinks about the bottle of aspirin in his satchel and curses the driver for making him need the pills today.

“You got three seconds brother,” Raul says, flipping the safety off and pulling the hammer back on the gun, the second time he’s had to do that in a matter of five, maybe ten minutes. He glances furtively out the window, at the dead grass. The sky’s darkened all of a sudden, the sun moving quickly away from them as if on the run. Raul closes his eyes and wills his hand steady. “Three seconds you son of a bitch. Either take me back to the city or I pull the trigger.”

The driver’s hands don’t budge.

“One.”

No movement. It doesn’t even look like he’s steering, his hands are so still.

“Two.”

Raul clenches his jaw, tightens his grip on the gun.

“Three.”

Raul pulls the trigger and a blast rocks the car, throwing him backwards. The cab’s front  windshield explodes, leaving cracked and spider-webbed shards of glass in the lining of the car’s frame as the discharged bullet practically disintegrates the back of the driver’s head. Raul lets out a short, muffled yelp that sounds a little like someone trying to breathe through collapsed lungs. His gun drops out of his hand onto the floor, under the driver’s seat. Raul stares down at it, confused. He’s pushing himself up when the car suddenly comes to a screeching halt, throwing him forward, his head bouncing off the back of the passenger seat.

“Fuck, man,” he yells.

Quickly pushing himself up, Raul looks over to the driver, expecting him to be slumped against the steering wheel, blood and brain matter dripping from the dashboard, coating the spider webs of glass where the windshield used to be. But the driver’s head remains in the same position, turned a little away from Raul. Looking out the window, as if staring at the sky and contemplating what to do next. His hands remain locked on the steering wheel at two and ten and—as Raul moves back a little—he sees the hole in the back of the man’s head, surrounded by hair, baseball cap gone. Raul glances down again at the gun under the passenger seat and wonders how the hell a fucking nine millimeter just managed to do a shotgun’s worth of damage. He stares through the bullet hole in the man’s head at the brown grassy plain outside, the shattered windshield, the dashboard and steering wheel covered in bits and pieces of white bone and skin.

But no blood. No blood at all. And, as Raul stares wide-eyed, the driver’s head turns slowly towards him.

When Raul sees the man’s face, he screams and lunges to pick his gun up from the floor of the backseat. The scream is devoid of all masculinity, all humanity really, and in the back of his head he’s dismayed to hear such a sound coming from his own mouth. He’s always thought he was the type to maintain his testosterone level in all situations. But those electric blue dots of light where the man’s eyes should be, that wide, long-toothed, raw, pink grin, the chips of bone surrounding the hole in his forehead.

Raul screams like a little girl wearing ballerina shoes and standing on a chair, pointing at a spider on the floor.

The driver’s skin hangs off bone, revealing his skull beneath, the bullet hole in his forehead stretching wide, yawing as the man-skeleton opens its mouth, opens the permanent grin to expose a black hole where its throat should be, a mouth as tongue-less and dark as the sky that surrounds them. The thing lets out a hissing breath that carries a stench like roadkill rotting in the sun, like the man-skeleton’s held its last breath since the day it died and is now letting it out, all the decades of decay filling the car like smoke from a brush fire.

Raul struggles with the door handle, jiggling it back and forth until something cold and hard touches his shoulder and he screams again, a bloodcurdling shriek. The door handle gives and Raul throws it open, falling out with his satchel tucked into his lap, gun molded into his palm. He spins as he falls, raising the gun with one hand and using the other to pull at the rough grass, kicking his feet out to get as far away from the car as possible.

Raul stops about ten feet from the cab, his breath coming out in ragged gasps. He tries to steady the hand holding the gun, keeping it pointed at the car, the piece of metal shivering in his grip.

The cab’s headlights blaze into the night air on the road ahead, illuminating nothing. The engine idles, water dripping from the AC vent. In the darkness, the inside of the car is filled with too many shadows for Raul to see anything.

Suddenly, the back door of the cab slams closed on its own. Almost instantaneously the engine revs once then kicks into gear, the tires peeling as the car flips a u-turn and speeds back in the direction it came. Raul follows it with his gun until it’s nothing more than a speck, a star in the distance. When he can’t see the cab anymore, Raul drops the gun and begins to hyperventilate. He sits there gasping, gripping his satchel and staring at the starless sky, the only illumination coming from an unbelievably large bright red moon.

Raul’s stomach lurches a little, then a lot. He keels over and hacks a few times, heaving until his eyes are watery and red, saliva and bile dripping from his lips. His head pounding, eyes blurry, legs numb, he nevertheless feels better now that the cab is gone. He has no idea where he is and, looking around, he is able to catch nothing but the slightest hint of the road shining in the bloody moonlight.

Raul finally gathers himself enough to dust off his pants and shirt, grab his gun and satchel from the ground and stand. He manages a small chuckle that sounds more like a cough, and tells himself that he knows it was a chuckle and that’s all that matters.

In that very moment, Raul makes the conscious decision to believe that the driver was an apparition, a much-needed release of an overabundance of mental stress, coupled with a fucking hero-type masked (literally) as a ghoul. The unexplained parts of everything else Raul can ignore, for now, and when he attempts to throw the entire situation into the back of his mind, he finds the task surprisingly easy. He’s never been a mind-dweller though, and something tells him that trying to figure out what just happened will drive him insane.

Besides, Raul has other things to worry about. Like how the hell he’s going to get home. He walks back to the road and looks in both directions, searching for headlights, taillights, any sign of life whatsoever.

The growls come suddenly as he is standing there on that stretch of unidentified highway, searching the road. They are deep, guttural, and seem to come from all directions at once. Raul spins around, searching for the source with his gun raised, pointed at nothing.

“Who’s there?” he yells, his voice hoarse. He clears his throat and yells again, louder, “Don’t fuck with me. I swear to God I’m not in the mood.”

No response.

Raul thinks for a moment, then closes his eyes and curses under his breath. The growls didn’t come from a human, he’s sure of that. Which means the only thing he just accomplished was giving away his position.

Raul drops his satchel and backs up to where the grass is a little higher, ducking down in a raised patch. He waits quietly, searching the surrounding grass and the highway for any signs of movement. He hears the growl again a moment later, closer this time. Raul stays put, his hand moist and hot against the gun. His satchel sits next to the road and he wishes he didn’t drop it so far away but he doesn’t want to risk trying to get it. So he waits, forcing his breaths to come out quietly and evenly.

The next growl comes from right behind him, and as he listens the growl splits into two separate sounds. Air catches in Raul’s throat as  he slowly turns, bringing the gun up and holding it out ahead of him. He focuses his sights on four pairs of red eyes as they emerge from the darkness. The eyes get nearer and the closest pair materializes into a wolf the size of a small bear. Raul stares as the wolf lowers it’s head and raises its haunches, it’s long curved tail rising at least four feet above the ground. Fur matted around its neck and body, it looks almost like a lion with a puffed up mane around its head, its nose big and black and twitching as its lips curl back. Yellow teeth glisten with spit in the moonlight, drops of saliva floating to the grass in the wind. The wolf’s tail stands stiff, curved like a scorpion’s. Its ears stand at attention, perked straight out on either side of its head, one of them ragged, barely healed.

The wolf growls again, a low rumble that sounds like distant thunder. The rest of his equally menacing friends move up beside him. Though the others aren’t as big as the leader, they are each individually larger than Raul. Raul finds it very unlikely he could take a wolf even half their size in hand to hand combat.

Luckily, though, he’s packing more than his hands.

Raul makes a split second decision and doesn’t hesitate. He imagines the four remaining bullets in the gun, each one gleaming and ready to fulfill their purpose, then points the weapon at the lead wolf’s head and squeezes the trigger.

The gun bucks violently in his grip and he swears he hears the bullet hit the giant wolf, curving a little around its snout and impacting its neck like a meteor strike. The wolf falls to its side hard and Raul grins wildly, swiftly pointing the gun at the other three wolves. All three stand their ground, staring at him with glowing, moonlit eyes. Raul decides he probably won’t even need to use the other three bullets—maybe one more just to show them he isn’t fucking around—which is perfect because these things aren’t cheap.

Raul’s reminded then of his satchel and really wants to get it and his aspirin and throw that damn statue as far as he can into the grass, because he suddenly has this very strong feeling that it’s got something to do with everything that’s going on right now. He waits for the wolves to retreat, believes wholeheartedly that they will once they realize their leader ain’t getting up. Then he can grab his satchel, dry swallow the aspirin and figure out how the hell he’s going to get back home.

Raul waits and watches. Watches as one of the wolves walks over with an air of nonchalance and gently sniffs the giant leader, nudging him with its nose before standing up straight and staring at Raul, as if waiting. A moment later the giant wolf leader twitches a few times, shudders once, then slowly stands up. It shakes its head, as if drying off after a swim, the mane of fur around its neck rippling. The follower wolf licks the leader’s neck where the bullet impacted and the large wolf snaps at it, driving it back with the others. It stares at its pack menacingly for a moment, then slowly turns and levels its eyes at Raul.

The growl it lets out this time is less like thunder, more like a swarm of bees in Raul’s ears. An angrier sound than before, hungrier. The other wolves’ growls follow a moment later. A dark stain begins to spread across the crotch of Raul’s pants as he takes a step back, his eyes watering.

Behind Raul, his satchel starts a faint glow that intensifies until the entire bag is a ball of orange light. Raul fires his gun three more times and then there is just the click of the hammer pulling back on nothing. And eventually, that stops too.

***

Pete’s about to walk out when the double doors burst open and a gurney rolls in. He sighs and looks up at the ceiling, cursing under his breath. Pamela, the intern from Brooklyn, pushes it over to him then stops, smacking gum in her mouth.

“What’s this?” Pete asks.

She glances at the gurney, the big lump under the white blanket, then back at Pete.

“A body,” she says, smacking the gum some more.

Smart-mouthed bitch, Pete thinks, then quickly shoves the thought out of his head, replacing it with that answer that Pamela just gave me made me feel inadequate, but I’m not inadequate and she doesn’t mean it like that.

Pete’s been taking anger management courses lately and that’s what they told him to do in situations like this: replace the angry thoughts with insightful ones. He thought it was stupid at first, but he’s got the hang of it now and it’s worked wonders so far. In the past, he would have been liable to throw his clipboard at the young woman for making that snarky comment. Then tomorrow he would have had to explain the scene to Frank Kilner, the department head, and that would have been just one more little mark on the long list of “Pete’s Fuck-ups.” In the past, he wouldn’t care that all of that would happen either, because in the past he would be completely fucking plastered for most of the proceedings.

A.A. did for that what anger management’s doing now.

Instead of retaliating, Pete smiles at the girl and nods. She stares at him blankly.

“Any paperwork?” he asks.

“Under the blanket,” Pamela says, nodding at the gurney. “Frank says you gotta bag him and tag him. Prelim showed a brain aneurysm. Took a man-purse off him too.”

“Where’d they find him?” Pete asks, pulling back the blanket. The man is young, a few years younger than Pete at least, maybe thirty. Far into the throes of rigor mortis, his mouth hangs open in a silent scream, his eyes taped shut. Pete shivers.

“In a ditch couple miles past the bridge.” She smacks her gum loudly again, and Pete thinks If that bitch doesn’t stop smacking that fucking gum I’m gonna—He pauses, closes his eyes for a second, then thinks that annoys me. But she’s leaving in a second so I can deal with it for now.

Pamela doesn’t seem to notice the internal conflict. Which is good, Pete thinks.

“They found a gun on him,” she says. “A bunch of cash in the bag and some statue. Thinking he might’ve robbed somebody. Frank’s gonna hold the stuff until NYPD picks it up on their run.”

“Is that so?” Pete says distractedly, staring at the dead man’s face.

“Anyways,” Pamela says, sounding bored. “Later.”

Pete watches her leave then looks back at the body, wheeling the gurney over to the examination table.

A couple hours later Pete throws the book bag he uses over his shoulders and walks out of the morgue, this time with the paperwork for the John Doe under his arm. He stops by Frank’s office to drop the papers off but, to his dismay, nobody’s there.

Pete stands inside the office, clenching and unclenching his fists and taking deep breaths. He thinks the next time I see that motherfucker, I’m gonna take his fucking five hundred dollar gold pen and shove it up his—then he manages to suck in a deep breath and hold it, long enough to think Frank pawned that John Doe off on me when he knew I had somewhere to be, then he left. And that makes me feel betrayed.

Pete takes another deep breath and walks over to his boss’s desk, dropping the paperwork on top of a stack of envelopes. He’s about to walk out when something catches the corner of his eye. He glances at the office door to make sure nobody’s coming then steps behind the desk and picks up the item. It’s obviously from the John Doe, what Pamela had earlier deemed a “man-purse.” As he holds it, Pete thinks, I feel betrayed by my boss and therefore I’m going to actively make myself feel better by satisfying my curiosity and looking in this bag. With a nod, Pete opens the bag and discovers a wad of cash, wrapped in plastic and marked as evidence. Next to it, also separately wrapped in plastic and marked, are a bottle of aspirin and a small statue that’s surprisingly heavy when Pete pulls it out. The eyes and lips are made of jewels and the thing is ugly as hell. Yet, it captures Pete for some reason and—before he can even think about what he’s doing—he finds himself shoving the hideous statue in his own bag. He walks out of the office and down the stairs, out the front door of the hospital before he can think too much about what he’s done.

Outside it’s raining just enough for Pete to scowl at his bike, chained to the rack in front of the ER. He considers his options for a moment then makes a decision, jogging to the curb and holding up a hand to hail a taxi.

The rain pelts down on his head and Pete thinks when I get home I’m going to shower and head to Anne’s house and have a good evening, and the fact that I’m standing out in the rain after working four hours past the end of my shift won’t even matter. As he’s thinking this, a taxi pulls to a stop in front of him. Pete looks down at it and smiles, opening the door. In the cab he swipes water from his face and pulls off his book bag, pulling out the statue and examining it. Truly creepy, those double faces and jeweled eyes. You’ll have to show it to Anne, he thinks. She’ll get a kick out of this.

The taxi doesn’t move and Raul looks up at the driver, a long haired man wearing a baseball cap and black, leather gloves.

“Sorry,” Pete says. “Lexington and 53rd. As quickly as possible, please. I’m in a hurry.”

The gloved hands tighten their grip on the steering wheel and the car edges away from the curb.

Standard
Pandemic Files

Ace of Spades

Originally Published in The Washington Pastime in 2011

The watches NASA gave us for the trek up here are all set to the UTC time standard. Mine beeps suddenly, drawing my mind away from the view out the main cabin. It’s 0900, which means I have about five minutes before Hektor floats by and fucks up my day.

I unbuckle from the captain’s chair and float back to my cubicle, give Hektor some time to do his rounds. At 0910 I make my way back to the control panel and reset the alarm on my watch for three hours and fifty minutes. That’s pretty much the center of my daily routine: three hours and fifty minutes at the helm, ten minute break, reset.

No matter what’s going on around me (and there ain’t much these days, let me tell you), no matter how fucked up my head is, I cannot forget to reset the watch.

I don’t sleep more than an hour here or there anyways, most I can get without waking up in fits. Been the case ever since the last time I overslept, the day I didn’t hear the alarm go off. Must’ve been weeks ago now. Alarm beeped and I wasn’t conscious to hear it, forgot to take my ten minute break and come back to reset the damn thing. Ended up spending an extra ten minutes in that sort of deep sleep that’s like time travel, leaves you waking up all disoriented. That’s when I looked out the window in the main cabin and saw Hektor.

His eyes are open, that’s the worst part. Open and icy blue and cold, staring at me in that way portrait paintings do that give the vast majority of them a haunting quality.

The only thing worse than seeing the dead body of your best friend floating in space is seeing the dead body of your best friend floating in front of the dead body of your planet.

It occurs to me that I’m the only human who’s ever been able to say that.

I’m not proud of that fact.

But I’m absolutely sure. There is nothing worse.

* * *

I wake to Hektor smacking me in the face, hard.

“Get up, asshole,” he says.

I open my eyes and look around my cubicle, dots of sweat floating off my forehead. My chest feels like there’s a twenty pound weight on it and of course the first thought to enter my mind is It’s happened, the airlock’s breached, this is it.

Hektor pinches me below my jawline and it hurts like hell. I struggle to pull my hand out of my sleeping bag and touch my neck, feeling the spot where Hektor’s nails left a small welt. I glare at him.

“What the fuck’d you do that for?”

“You were screaming,” he says.

I shake my head and look around my cubicle at the blinking green lights and netted straps holding everything in place.

Hektor rubs his face, and when he lowers his hands I notice the bags under his eyes, the way his cheeks are starting to show the imprints of his gum-line. I remember very distinctly what Hektor looked like before we came up here, wasn’t that long ago that he still had those boyish features. Sitting in his living room the night before deployment, eating the dinner his wife cooked for us, Hektor had looked positively radiant, laughing and clapping me on my back and spreading hugs and high-fives around the room.

Now though, floating in front of my cubicle and eyeing me like I’m the one who needs help, Hektor simply looks lost. His hands have a perpetual tremble, and I want to grab them and hold them so they’ll stop.

Ahead of me, across from my sleeping bag, is a small mirror bolted to the wall. For a second I don’t recognize the man staring back at me, his sunken cheeks and dark-ringed eyes.

“We might have to ration a little more,” he says quietly. “Need to make it last.”

I open my mouth and the words are in the back of my throat, right there, just need a little boost from my tongue to enter the artificial atmosphere of The Box, never able to be taken back. I can feel the individual syllables:

What’s the point?

I snap my jaw shut and shake my head, struggling out of my sleeping bag.

“Is that a no?” Hektor says tiredly.

“No,” I say. “I mean, yes. That’s fine.”

Hektor stares at me for a long time, seeming to study every inch of my face. For a second I wonder if he could somehow sense my un-uttered response. After a moment Hektor nods and turns away, floating back towards the control room.

I stare at myself in the mirror until the reflection starts to blur, then I turn away.

* * *

I had my earphones in when the beeping first started, so I don’t know how long Hektor was dealing with it before he notified me. Breaks aren’t very long up here. In the ISS, there’s two work components that pretty much need constant attention, one being the research (consisting mostly of waiting for lab results) and the other keeping in contact with control (mostly to assuage the endless supply of bureaucratic bullshit coming our way on a daily basis). Either way though, there’s an agreement between the crew that break time is break time, and unless something is in critical need of a specific breaking crew member’s attention, that specific breaking crew member should be left the fuck to their own devices.

So yeah, I was a little pissed when Hektor floated over and bumped into me, hard, pulling me away from the game of Spades I was playing on my laptop. I’m sitting there with Nirvana’s “Aneurysm” blasting in my ears, trying hard to drown out the constant hums and clicks and whams coming from the various mechanical parts of The Box. Understand, at the time I was coming off ten hour’s worth of research gathering statistical evidence for the fourth (and final, hooray) leg of our DECLIC-HTI experiment—studying water near its critical point of transition from liquid to vapor, something that is extremely interesting to conduct here because there’s 1) no gravity and 2) no atmosphere outside of our artificial one. Now, if Hektor had been coming to me with something pertaining to any of that, I would have been pleased, grateful even. But I’d finished up the report before I checked out, so I knew it had nothing to do with that.

So, when Hektor slammed into me, I turned and justifiably looked at him like he’d just pissed on my shoes. There I am knee deep in a dime bid with both Jokers in my hand, both high ranking deuce’s and the Ace of Spades. That’s five guaranteed books, not to mention my A.I. partner’s five bid, so I had that round in the bag. Between the game and Cobain crooning in my ears, I felt in that moment as balanced as I could ever feel up here, floating around in an air bubble for a six-month stint.

So, yeah, I kinda flipped on Hektor.

Then I saw his face.

Hektor’s a stocky guy, over six feet, pure Russian heritage. American-born but he’s got the look, you know? Like he could run over your best D-lineman and dunk the football over the goal post before doing a back flip into the stands, that type of look. Like a jock, though he was nowhere near matching that stereotype, not in the traditional sense at least. Hektor was one of those guys who played sports and was good at them and got straight A’s and actually earned them. Did his Marine training at Camp Pendleton then hit UCLA, got his Bachelor’s in Aeronautical engineering while breaking his own school rushing record three years in a row. Took a break to go to Iraq and complete a couple dozen combat missions before coming back to get his Master’s.

All this to say, Hektor wasn’t the type of guy to scare easily.

I swear, on our way up here, we’re sitting on two SRB’s with Mach 23 capability, 37 million horsepower, essentially twenty nukes strapped to our backs.

And Hektor laughed.

The whole way up, cackled and whooped and hollered like a frat guy at a keg party.

So when I turned on him, spitting curses, and saw the look of terror on his face, I couldn’t help feeling the same level of terror myself, instantly, without knowing yet what was going on. Hektor and I were up there by ourselves at that point, a ship having carried off two of our teammates a few days earlier. They weren’t scheduled to be replaced for another forty-eight, a ship with three astronauts shooting off from Kennedy at 0800 EST Friday morning. I thought the lack of bodies up here would have been a welcome respite, more space to move around. Judging by Hektor’s face though, this wasn’t the case.

“What is it?” I asked, removing my headphones. The influx of noises was like water rushing into an empty room, the frantic beeping drawing my attention to the blinking red lights flashing on the intercom to my left. Accompanying the flashing red lights were two faint tones, close together, barely audible over the cacophony of machinery.

“You want to see this,” Hektor said.

I opened my mouth to respond but Hektor had already done a 180 and pushed his way back to the control panel. I unstrapped myself from the wall and secured my laptop, following him.

Pushing into the control room, the first thing I noticed were the blips on the radar screen, the source of the faint beeping. The screen showed a map of Earth overlaid with a digital detection system connected to dozens of satellites orbiting the planet. The system’s main job was to scan the planetary surface for irregularities in anything from heat signature to abnormal cloud structures.

Hektor stopped in front of the map and looked at me solemnly as I floated up beside him.  On the map were over a dozen blinking red lights, scattered across the entire globe. Four of them floated above the United States, and as I drew in closer I could see the exact locations of the blips: L.A., New York, D.C., Chicago. Other major countries slowly started to come into focus as well: Japan, England, Russia, both North and South Korea.

“What’s the readout?” I asked.

“There is none,” Hektor said.

I slowly looked over at him, raising my eyebrows.

“There has to be a readout,” I said.

“There isn’t.”

“Ok,” I said, nodding, though I didn’t know why. “Ok. Get Control on the li-”

“There’s more,” he said, and the tone of his voice made my stomach jerk, like a lump of ice had just been dropped in my small intestine.

“What is it?” I asked.

Instead of answering, Hektor floated past me towards the window at the other end of the control panel looking out onto the planet we called home. The ISS travels at roughly 5 miles per second around the planet, which means we orbit earth once every hour and a half or so. Right then, the ISS found itself positioned right over the Americas. And as soon as I floated over and looked out the window, I could see why Hektor had looked the way he had when he came to get me.

From our vantage point, it seemed almost like we were staring at a drawing, one that had been set on fire so that the corners burned first, moving inwards towards the center. A cloud of flames spread slowly across the eastern and western coasts towards the midwest. Everything on either side of the country—New York, the Carolinas, California, Utah—were all gone. Florida—and Kennedy Space Center—engulfed.

And in the middle of the country, down near the bottom, all of Texas burned brightly.

More specifically, the city of Houston, and Johnson Space Center.

AKA Control.

I turned to Hektor, and I guess my face mirrored his then, because all he did was look back at me and nod.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

* * *

There’s no atmosphere way out here, therefore there is no wind. No conditions to change velocity or fluctuate body mass depending on its proximity to strong gravitational fields. That’s why Hektor’s peek-a-boos into the control panel are so regular.

Every four hours, give or take a few seconds.

It’s the reason I can set my watch for three hours and fifty-five minutes and get away from the window in time to avoid his eyes. I wish he hadn’t died with them open. The first time I saw him cross the plain of the control panel window, it seemed he was accusing me. As if this was all my fault. And, of course, I know it can’t be. Not all of it.

The Box had an effect on me almost immediately when I first got up here. The moment that air lock snapped shut and the pressure hit me, my perspective shifted. At first, it wasn’t a very good shift. I mean, I trained, fine. Five years to be exact, no problem. Five years to prepare for six months, sounds like overkill doesn’t it?

It isn’t.

No amount of training can prepare anybody for being up here.

Nothing could prepare me for being resigned to what basically amounts to an air bubble sitting in the middle of an endless vacuum, for the ever-present threat of that air bubble bursting and releasing me to the vast emptiness of a space that nobody understands. Sure, we hypothesize. We study. We grab samples.

But nobody really knows what’s out there, the details within the void.

I grab a bag of raisins from the dwindling box of rations strapped to the wall near the main airlock. I stare at the airlock for a moment, picturing what’s on the other side.

Part of me wants to cut the rope that keeps Hektor tethered to the station, so I don’t have to follow this routine anymore. I see the rope now, through the tiny porthole in the airlock. When I come back to the control panel, I can see it out of the main cabin window too, looped on itself and floating in front of the glowing planet. I can even hear it sometimes, scraping against the outside of The Box, making this long scree-ing sound, like nails on a chalkboard.

I want to cut the rope and push Hektor towards the sun. Make him the first human to be cremated in such a manner. I want to do it out of spite, because I know that’s not what he wanted. It was pretty clear what Hektor wanted, even before he did what he did. He wanted to go back home. He wanted his body laid to rest there, in the ashes of our planet. He did not want his body floating aimlessly through space. It’s why he tied himself to the station. He wanted me to figure it out for him.

But I haven’t. And I don’t want to. But, inevitably, if he stays attached to the space station, he and it and me will stop orbiting and get sucked right back into Earth’s gravitational field anyways. Then Hektor will get his wish.

I don’t want him to. I want to cut the rope. But I can’t get rid of him. I need the routine.

Three hours and fifty five minutes, ten minute break, reset.

Besides, I don’t have the energy to cut him loose.

It isn’t just a weariness thing either, though I am weary. Weary from staring at what used to be Earth, the gray clouds covering the barren land, glimpses of burning red funnels every couple of hours, fiery tornado-like super-storms that started appearing not too long after everything was destroyed. The planet glows a bright orange, glimpses of the ocean still occasionally visible, no longer blue, but a muddy gray.

It unnerves me almost as much as Hektor dying that I haven’t shed a tear since this all began. Not for the planet I’ve lost or the few people I’ve known throughout the years who are all almost surely now dead. The childhood friends, my estranged parents, my ex-girlfriends, old teachers, passing acquaintances. They all sit around a large table in my head, but my face is stone, emotionless, cold. I think about how different Hektor and I were, how the faces he saw in his head were much closer than mine, his wife, his daughter, his dad with the bad hip and obsessive love of golf.

Yeah, it’s partly weariness and spite why I won’t cut Hektor’s rope. But it’s also an actual lack of energy.

Resources are running low. I think Hektor knew that. I think it’s part of the reason why he did what he did. For himself and for me. Release himself, give me more time to figure out what I want to do. Both honorable and cowardly if you ask me. And for that, I have spite.

Just not enough to matter.

* * *

I can’t find Hektor, which should be impossible. There’s not much to The Box, just a big network of tunnels that all basically lead into each other. So he has to be around somewhere.

I float around a corner and there he is, staring at the main airlock chamber near the control room. He’s floating there with his legs crossed and his hands lying flat in his lap, looking like Doctor Strange from those Avengers movies. I want to approach him but I’m suddenly afraid to. So I just say his name. He looks over and his face is more haggard than ever.

“There’s nothing down there anymore, is there?” he asks.

I try to pretend I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I can’t. His eyes are haunted, tearless. He looks worse than sad. He looks like a man that used to be sad and has now lost even that emotional capability.

“We don’t know what happened,” I offer. “There could be—something could be in the works.”

He nods and looks back at the airlock. I rack my brain for something else to say.

“Right,” he says, the word hanging in the air, oppressive. “We don’t know.”

* * *

I sat in my cubicle with my earphones on the way I always used to do on break. Only this wasn’t a break—not in the traditional sense, at least.

Now I was simply trying to drown out Hektor, with little success.

At some point it started to sound like a wild animal had infiltrated the control room, gnashing at the microphone as if the device were a taunting hand poking through his cage. He wouldn’t put it down. I’d stopped trying to take it from him an hour earlier when he’d taken a swing at me, unsuccessful in our current zero-gravity environment. Hektor’s voice mimicked the ISS’s mechanics, grinding monotonously. Every few seconds he would burst into another shouting frenzy:

Control?” A deep breath, then “Control, fucking answer me!

It had been twenty four hours since the first beeps pierced the artificial air—since the first blips sprang up on the radar screen and exploded across the map like measles—and Hektor hadn’t slowed. He hadn’t even slept, as far as I knew. I knew I hadn’t. I didn’t think I ever would again. I didn’t know much of anything actually, which was the worst part of it all.

Hektor suddenly came flying around the corner, gripping onto my sleeping bag to keep himself from crashing into the panel of lights behind him. His eyes were wide, mouth set in a strained expression, something between a smile and a grimace. It was painful to look at, and I averted my eyes as I removed my earphones.

“I think I got Control,” he said, breathing hard.

My heart immediately pounding in my forehead, I unstrapped myself and pushed after Hektor towards the control panel. Hektor pressed a few buttons and screamed into the microphone again.

Control! You still there?”

He released the button and a burst of static came through the speakers. I pushed up close to the panel, straining my ears to hear anything beneath the rush of white noise. Faintly, in between waves of hissing, I recognized a human voice. I put my ear right up to the speaker.

“Things a(inaudible) political tur(inaudible) cadets somebo(inaudible) abort mission fo(inaudible)”

Hektor and I glanced at each other and Hektor quickly grabbed the mic.

“Control, I’m not getting you clearly,” he yelled. “Abort what?”

There was nothing but more static for a minute. The tension in the control panel was thick, stifling. Then somebody finally spoke again, a string of unintelligible noise ending with one word that made me wish Hektor hadn’t tried to contact Control in the first place:

“-Help.”

Then the line broke, and there was no more.

* * *

I wake up to the alarm on my watch beeping and my heart jumps into my throat. I click it off, turn slowly to face the main cabin window, and there he is. Staring at me, his eyes ice blue, his mouth gaping. His hand is frozen in a claw, as if he scratched his way out of this life. The metal rope is tied around his waist, triple-knotted next to his left hip.

I haven’t seen him in weeks. I wish I hadn’t fallen asleep.

I turn away and close my eyes at the same time, and within the darkness behind my lids I come to the realization that I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.

Floating back to my cubicle, I look at my stuff: my laptop, my iPad, my earphones. I stare at them until my eyes blur, then I grab my IPad, leave my computer behind and make my way past the control panel.

And I can’t help it: I glance in and see Hektor just as he’s moving out of sight. His eyes are on me right then, but they somehow look less accusing. As if he knows what I’m about to do. I watch him until he’s gone, then continue on to the airlock.

* * *

I’m sitting in the control room in a half-conscious daze when the airlock alarm starts blaring, louder than any other alarms on the ISS. This one wails through The Box, jolting me from dark thoughts. I would jump if I could, but as it is I just float painfully into the machinery behind me. In the top corner of the control panel in the helm, a digital image of the ISS is displayed, with a thick red outline around the main Airlock and the word “BREACH” blinking bright above it.

I quickly turn to the keyboard on my left and disengage the alarm. The sound cuts off, but the sensor keeps blinking. I click on the map of the ISS and it tells me that the airlock disengage controls have been manually activated. My blood thickens, my skin prickling as I grab the sides of the control panel and push myself towards the tunnel to the main airlock.

When I turn the corner, the shield door is down, already locked tightly into place. I float over to the small window near the top and peer in at Hektor, without a suit on, holding a length of metal wire in his hand. He’s tying one end of it to a metal bar next to the airlock control panel. I bang on the door and Hektor looks up tiredly.

“Heck,” I yell, then chuckle, make sure he can see me smiling. “Buddy, what are you doing?”

He keeps looking at me, silent, eyes droopy. My chuckle turns to a full-blown laugh, a cackle actually, and I try unsuccessfully to remove the hint of insanity from it.

“Come on, Heck,” I  say. “This isn’t funny. Not even a little funny, man.”

Instead of answering, Hektor continues securing the wire around the metal bar. I bang on the door some more, look around for a way to open it. The only way, though, is to head back to the control panel and do a manual override of the security system. But I don’t want to leave Hektor alone over here. And, I think with dismay, if he opens the airlock before I get to the control panel and then I open the shield door, the entire space station will be depressurized in under 15 seconds.

I’d be dead in a minute, maybe less.

So I float there and watch helplessly as Hektor finishes securing the wire around his waist then looks up at me again.

“Hektor,” I say, no longer laughing but sputtering. My face feels swollen, my eyes bulging in their sockets. “Come on buddy. You don’t have to do this.”

“Do me a favor,” he mouths at me. I reach over and flick on the radio transmitter, his voice filling the speakers of the space station. It’s so faint beneath the whirring and clacking of machinery that I have to move closer to the speaker above my head, near the shield door where I can still see his face. When I do, I hear Hektor perfectly, watching his mouth form the words half a second before they reach my ears.

“Make sure I make it back,” he says, then pauses and adds “Good luck, friend.”

My eyes widen as Hektor turns away and ties the rope tighter around his waist, a triple knot. I slam my hands on the glass, scream, yell, curse. I grab at the door handles and plant my feet on either side and yank as hard as I can, beads of sweat floating off my forehead. Hektor keeps his back turned to me, and I watch fearfully as he presses a few buttons on the airlock controls. His finger hovers over the large red button that will disengage the outer door, and I turn away, grabbing the walls and pushing myself as hard as I can towards the control panel again.

He won’t open it if I get the shield door open, I think. He wouldn’t kill us both.

I reach the control panel and the computer screen. The map of the ISS has a bright red blinking spot where the airlock is and I stare at it until I hear the first scree against the outside of the station. When I look out the window, Hektor’s floating there, hands already frozen in the clawing grip, mouth already gaping.

Eyes already an accusing, icy blue.

* * *

I don one of the EMU  suits hanging next to the shield door, glancing through the window at the open airlock, the taut wire tied to the metal bar. I slip my earphones in, open the music app on my iPad and press shuffle, shoving the contraption in a pocket before securing the suit. U2’s “One” blasts into my ears as I grab an oxygen tank and face mask, pulling it over my head. Checking the gauges, I turn the valve and pure oxygen pours into my lungs, flushing the nitrogen from my blood so I can put on the rest of the suit and not get the bends. After a moment my head is light and I feel a bit giddy. I take a deep breath and pull off the oxygen mask, immediately putting on the EMU helmet and locking it in place. I press the bright red button on the control panel near my wrist and there’s another cool burst against my cheeks, my ears popping as the suit pressurizes.

Bono’s voice fades out and the iPad switches to Radiohead’s “Creep”.

Shoving myself and the bulky EMU suit down to the helm, I grab hold of the handle above the control panel to secure myself with a strap that I lock into the wall. I bring up the atmosphere controls and it takes me a moment to remember how to override the safety protocols and backup security, shut off the ventilation and recycling systems. I pull up the airlock chamber controls and type in the disengage code and flinch when the alarm goes off above my head, my hands flying across the keyboard.

When I’m done, I grab onto the captain’s seat, bolted to the flooring, and hold myself steady. On the control panel’s main screen, the word “CONFIRM” sits in bright red letters. I take a deep breath then press enter on the keyboard. There’s a heavy clicking sound that seems to echo throughout the ISS, then a loud whoosh blasts its way into the control panel as the airlock’s shield door opens. The rush of atmosphere expelling itself into the void of space nearly tosses me out too, and I have to wrap my arms around the captain’s seat to keep myself from being taken. There’s a moment when I think I won’t be able to hold on much longer, when it feels as if my helmet is going to fly off and take my head with it. Then, in an instant, everything settles.

The iPad switches to Alice in Chains “Man in the Box” and I’d laugh if irony was still something I found amusing.

I let go of the handle and float back towards the airlock.

In the chamber, I fumble with the wire that keeps Hektor tethered to the space station, finally getting it untied and bracing myself against the outer door frame to keep Hektor from pulling me out of the ship. I pull him in slowly, like a trophy catch in the ocean, foot by foot, grabbing the wire with each hand and grunting with the effort. When he appears, his outfit seems lumpy on him. I avoid looking in his eyes, get to within grabbing distance of him and hold him around his waist, back facing me, moving us carefully towards the open airlock and peeking out into the deep beyond. The darkness below the ship is complete. Straight ahead, the burning earth stares directly at me.

Thankfully, the airlock is facing the planet. Which will make this easier. If such a word can be applied to this situation.

I spread my feet and shove them into the little cubby holes on either side of the airlock doorway. Turning Hektor so he’s facing earth, I gather as much strength as I can, pool it into my arms and legs and let out a wail of exertion and despair, using every last ounce of energy left in me to push Hektor towards our home planet.

As I do, my iPad switches tracks again to Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” and I curse at it.

My concentration falters as Hektor moves rapidly away, and before I can reset myself and regain my grip on the airlock chamber my feet slip and I bounce off the side of the door frame, floating out of the ISS. I spin slowly as I sail away, so I’m able to see Hektor’s lifeless, space-suited body floating back towards Earth. The space station is visible in my peripheral, lights blinking. Waiting to follow Hektor, in time.

My trajectory moves me in the opposite direction, away from earth, towards the unknown. And as I spin slowly, Hektor fades in the distance, getting smaller and smaller until his body bursts into a tiny spark of flame and then he and Earth are gone, replaced by an endless expanse of darkness dotted with distant stars.

Standard
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.

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