(Warning: violence, profanity, and sexual content)
I gave my laptop the finger this morning. Usually when I do that it’s because the damned thing crashes on me, but not this time. I just couldn’t find that damned story I read last night.
I was on call the night before as the usual loser guy who covers Sundays, wasting time in my small apartment and browsing the internet. I came across what I thought was another hopeful writer’s piss into the world of horror. It wasn’t even a website, just a long, curious link full of random characters that led to a single white page. Then my job called me in for another stupid maintenance run, which really bit because I thought I was scot-free for the rest of Sunday night. I cursed, spat, put on my work clothes and threaded my pony-tail through my work hat.
Driving fifteen miles out north to DeSoto in the hot dusk was bad enough, but then seeing the two ugly things that dwelled in the hoarding mess they called their home made me want to vomit. I suppose even the sick things that live in the world need their central air as well as anybody, but it just drives me nuts at how ugly some people are inside and out.
“I’m not paying for this,” said the ugly male.
“That’s right,” said the ugly female. “It’s still under warranty.”
It was the usual for me. People hold on to their free-forever HVAC maintenance contracts like gold. I personally don’t care if you pay the idiots I work for or not. I just needed the damn signature so I could leave and prove I was there and fixed the damned unit.
I got home late after that run and called in for the night. I then drank probably seven beers in an hour’s time and was ready for the sack. Only my friend stirred below and demanded porn. So began my ritual in my bedroom that my ex-girlfriend used to share with me before her departure last year. Not even a leftover pet to remind me of her, not that I could ever forget her. It’s just me, my laptop and hand lotion.
I do some writing from time to time. I’m one of those that say there’s a novel in there somewhere. I never went to college, but so what. Clemens, Dickens… all those guys didn’t have degrees and wrote masterpieces. That’s inspiring, but even that only goes so far. So, before working on my friend below, I decided to browse through the horror markets, hop-scotching from search link to search link, looking at the stuff published writers busted their asses for.
I’m envious for the most part.
A lot of those unknown writers are pretty good, but I get the feeling maybe I can get that good. Seriously. There’s some awful messes out there, too, much like my own stuff.
I was happy to find that particular webpage still onscreen, that strange story I glanced at before trekking out to Mr. and Mrs. Ugly’s place. I read the first few paragraphs and the magic of holding my attention began.
Okay, so it didn’t catch my full attention right away. You scan every other line and mostly pay attention to the dialogue. Right? The thing was, I found myself going back over the first few lines again and again. It wasn’t exactly dialogue. It was all written in the second person and felt accusatory. One of those ‘I-know-what-you-did’ type of styles.
You walk toward their house at night. You masturbate in the dark, spilling yourself onto their front porch.
I mean that was just sick. And it made me think about Mr. and Mrs. Ugly again. They weren’t so much as old as much as they were just feeble and ugly. I certainly didn’t want to jerk off on their dirty-ass porch.
I got to admit, though, I was aroused after reading that part. Just the thought of doing that — picking a random house, going at it full-handed in the middle of the night and getting away with it. Has that ever been done before? I stopped this line of thinking and made the decision to take care of my friend down there, sleep, and then venture back into this weird little gem later on.
This morning I woke up feeling terrible. I don’t usually get hangovers, but I felt miserable — sore all over. Calling in to work to say I was going to be late would be difficult because it was a Monday, start of a new week, but I figured I’d get points for having been on call the previous Sunday. If anything, I planned on checking in later in the day.
I took a shower and decided the morning would be spent on the couch. No breakfast. No coffee. Just couch time. Then I remembered that story again and it was like the hangover-switch turned off and I perked up.
I ran back into the bedroom and frowned. The laptop was dead, fully depleted. I scrambled for the power cord and juiced it back up again. Instead of turning back on to the previous state I left it at last night, my laptop rebooted. I blew out a frustrated breath because that meant having to restore my lost browser sessions again. No matter — thank the maker for browsing history.
That didn’t work, either. I mean, I was able to restore my sessions after I was back online and could see all the web pages listed from yesterday, but I swear I could not find that one page where that crazy story came from. So I started jogging my memory about the author’s name. Hell, I couldn’t even remember that. I don’t usually take the time to remember names or story titles when I read this stuff. Do you know how many piles of stories are out there? It’s crazy.
I started putting in obscure references from what I could remember last night into the search engine, but nothing remotely came up close to that story.
My cell phone rang in the kitchen and I ignored it, letting it hit my voicemail. It was too early for my employers to wonder where the hell I was.
I was pretty bummed at this point. Then, like a blooming flower, a passage came to mind from what I remembered reading.
You place your palms on the skin of her back for a long time. You want to tell someone how amazing this feels, the way the body cools itself in death.
That’s not quite the way it went, but close enough. I mean some weird stuff that transcended the regular form is where I’m getting at. It was pretty strange all around, and, as a fellow writer myself, I should have finished reading the damn thing to find out how brave this particular writer was trying to be.
My phone rang again and, of course, I ignored it again. I live alone, don’t have any friends and sure as hell wasn’t expecting anybody outside of work to check up on me.
Nature called and I made my way to go sit on my favorite chair. I heard rain tick outside, which meant a cooler July day in Mississippi.
I detoured from the bathroom down the hall and went into the kitchen where my cell phone was charging. At least I remembered to charge my phone last night. Big win for me.
The cell phone was a company-issued Nokia. Very old by today’s standard (only dialing keys and a puke-green LCD screen). Twenty-four missed calls and the voice-mail icon appeared in crappy graphics. Definitely the most missed calls I’ve ever had.
I grabbed the cell phone, unplugged it and walked out of the kitchen. Fighting the urge to take a dump in my boxers as I made my way back to the bathroom down the hallway, I listened to one of the Stepford wives on my cell phone tell me I had new messages. Then I remembered another passage from that story. Something almost like this:
You dial your dead mother’s phone number. You let it ring and ring until someone picks up. She sounds nothing like your mother but you talk anyway.
I had to smile while I listened to the messages, because I don’t even remember my mom’s last phone number. She is dead, though. She’s been dead for two years now. Pancreatic cancer. Still, kind of a creepy thought of calling recycled numbers that used to belong to people now departed and seeing if someone picks up. I wonder how many of us are unwise to the fact that we share a phone number with someone rotting below.
There were four voicemail messages in all. All of them consisting of a few seconds of silence and then a disconnecting click. The call log listed the caller ID on all twenty-four missed calls as “Unavailable.” As I finished my business in the bathroom, I cleaned up and made my way back out into the hallway.
I was conflicted. I wanted to get back to finding that neat story but the responsibilities of my day-job loomed over me. I checked the time on the cell. About 9 AM. Prudence won me over so I decided to give my boss a call to tell him I was going to be late.
“Mister Ready Services. This is Amy. How can I help you?”
“Hey Amy,” I said, “It’s Beasley.”
“Listen, is Jake around there?”
There was a pause and then Amy said, “No, he never came in this morning.”
The prick. I smiled and said, “Must be something going around because I’m feeling bad myself.”
“So I’m calling out sick today.” Last minute decision, but I just went with it.
“Okay,” Amy said again. She was so damn useless.
“So that’s what I was calling about.”
The cell phone buzzed hard against my ear and I jumped right there in the middle of the living room, nearly dropping the damn thing on the floor. I hate cell phones that do that while you’re right in the middle of a call.
I yanked the phone away from my ear and looked down and saw that stupid “Unavailable” caller ID come up onscreen again. I hit the red button to ignore the incoming call and went back to talking to Amy, the useless front desk person. Only I had somehow disconnected from her as well. I hit redial and waited.
I stared into the cramped space of my living room while waiting for Amy to pick up. I gazed at the small coffee table perched off-center next to my dusty couch. At one time the small table was an inviting piece of furniture, an effort of décor my ex-fiancé had done to round out the openness of the small area. Staring at it now bugged the hell out of me. The useless crap there and something else on it that reminded me of that story again, only I couldn’t understand why.
The phone had probably reached thirty rings while I pondered about that crappy little table. I then heard a click and felt the line go alive in my ear.
Before giving Amy another chance to greet me with her flinty voice I said, “Sorry about that Amy. I had another call come in and I guess I hung up on you by mistake.”
“Finish the words,” said the man. His voice was low. Guttural. There was background noise that sounded like little children screaming and gagging.
“Who’s this?” I said.
Silence and then, “Finish the words.”
I should have spent a long time trying to figure out what the hell that demonic voice at the other end was talking about, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. That story.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t find it.”
“Then more death.”
I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, just a doughy guy standing there in a ‘Rush’ t-shirt and gray boxers. You have to take your time when you respond to stuff like this. Death threats are so few and far between.
“Did you try to call me earlier?” I said.
The phone chirped; the hiss of the open line went dead. I pulled the Nokia away and stared at it. I navigated to the call-back and heard the touch-tones beep away. I didn’t put the phone back to my ear but listened to the ringing from far off. I began to steel myself, waiting for the demon caller to pick up.
“Mister Ready Services. This is Amy. How can I help you?”
I turned the cell phone off and tossed it on the couch. I started thinking about the demon caller and then about that story and how they fit perfectly together. A scary, unseen voice calling me from the pits of Hell or some netherworld demanding I finish reading that story — perhaps to damn me or claim my soul after reading it. That sick story about jerking off, killing, eating body parts and all that fun stuff. And I didn’t even get past the first hundred words. It could’ve been excerpts from a brick of a novel for all I knew, like many of those horror mags like to put up as teasers to show their best and brightest with their own versions of regurgitated Lovecraft.
Then I got a different idea about what the demon caller meant.
He told me to ‘finish the words.’ How he even knew I was reading the ‘words’ in the first place should have frightened me, letting paranoia come visit for a while. Someone was watching me and knew what I was doing. But I was too pleased by this new idea.
The demon caller could have meant ‘finish writing the words.’ Some dark force had somehow come into contact with me last night, breaking the boundaries of reality to reveal itself on my laptop and then contact me today to proffer a task of completing something so vile within the human condition that only I could conceive. It was really quite flattering. And to submit that story to a publisher? Oh hell, screw that. I’d self-publish the crap out of that damn thing. Jerry Beasley: Speaker for the Demons.
I ran into the kitchen, inspired, and grabbed two beers for breakfast and headed to the bedroom where my insane future awaited. Oh the things I can imagine that will blow Demon-Caller away. There I was with a direct phone line to Hell. I was delighted, waiting to fill the white page. I swear we writers are strange people.
When I got to the bedroom, I jump on the unmade bed where my laptop waited. We bounced on the mattress together for a few seconds and then I hunkered down to do some real work. It’s not as comfortable as you think, writing in bed. Actually, my back started hurting after a few minutes as I hunched down leering at the empty page. I opted for another position, getting off the bed and kneeling, using the mattress like a padded table for my laptop. Only then my knees started hurting against the hard carpet.
You lick the dead animal’s carcass on the road. It stinks in your mouth.
I mean that was the best I could come up with after fifteen minutes of fidgeting. I really hated it. So I tried again. Something so profound and hideous, but still have the shape of a story.
You walk to the grocery store and see the dead ghosts everywhere. They follow you, because they can only see you.
Okay first of all, the phrase dead ghosts is redundant. The rest of it was so trite I backspaced the damn thing into oblivion. I slammed the laptop shut and sat back on the floor. It was dark in the bedroom.
Outside the rain increased, thunder echoed from far away. From where I sat, I looked across the bed to the window. The blinds were pulled down but I could see the gray light of day. No sun this morning.
I turned back to stare at the empty bed with old sheets in dire need of washing. I brought back images of my ex-girlfriend. Sally Jane. So Southern and delicate. I imagined her lying there on the bed. Naked.
I transplanted from Jersey to Louisiana after my mom died and used what little insurance money she left me to bury her next to my dad in New Orleans. He was from NOLA, my mom a Jersey girl. After taking care of that business, I drove north aimlessly in my mom’s beater, a Caprice station wagon that handled like a small boat on shallow water. I wound up giving in to fatigue and stopped somewhere in northern Mississippi and booked a cheap motel room to mourn privately in.
I met Sally Jane in some hick bar three days after I buried my mom. Okay, her first name was just Sally, but I added the ‘Jane’ part and it just stuck. She was a real beauty. Full-figured, but she wore her clothes loose, a baggy Ole-Miss shirt and rippled jeans. Something tighter than that and she would have any sane guy salivating over how busty and sexy she really was. She also had a smile so addictive to look at, her teeth so straight and white that you looked for where each tooth separated from each other. She had long, wavy brown hair that flowed out and shined, making sure you knew you were looking at a beautiful woman even if you couldn’t see her face.
“You’ve got sad eyes,” she had said to me. Her voice was feminine melody through and through with only a hint of southern drawl. No honk to it like I’m used to hearing from the southerners I’ve encountered. Just a sweet lilt.
She, of course, called me a Yankee after hearing me talk, which was a little surprising because I really don’t feel like I’m true to the ‘not-for-nothing’ and ‘alls-you-gotta-do’ Joisey talk. While I was mulling that useless crap over, she sat her sweet self right next to me. Other than the old lady tending bar, there was just some crusty regular sitting at the other end of the place. It really was a dive.
I found out Sally Jane worked at that hick bar to earn money for veterinary school, which also played a dual role of helping out the old thing tending the bar who I later found out was her Aunt Florine. I told Sally Jane that night about my mom’s last days and listened to her talk about her dreams of wanting to be a horse vet. Being a horse doctor sounded weird, but it’s actually pretty impressive from what she told me about it. She was really smart.
I bought (and drank) most of the drinks all night until closing time and we wound up later at her apartment – the apartment I’m in now — making the kind of love I only saw in movies, our long hair entwining, burning up the heat of our faces together. It was with so much intensity, like we were trying to consume each other, and in a way I suppose we were.
Even now, as I pretend she’s lying there naked on our bed, I knew her time with me was all too good to be true. So when she told me the week after I proposed to her that she couldn’t see herself with a guy like Jerry Beasley (teller of dark stories and fixer of air conditioners) for the rest of her life, having children, retiring together and longing for each other at the final stretch of life, I wasn’t surprised. After all, I mostly held her hostage in that apartment, making her listen to my endless rant about all the stories I was working on, all of them incomplete and dispelled of any magic. It was an incessant work of torture that I just couldn’t stop putting her through. I’m sure it drove her crazy, especially during our pillow talks. I kept mentally pounding her with my “what-if” scenarios and flowery verbiage until her love for me slowly died.
She let me stay in the apartment after she moved out. She even paid out the rest of the lease; I guess this was her payment for dumping me. I think our failed relationship put a burning fire back into her to finish vet school because instead of getting another place of her own, she moved in with her Uncle Jake – my current boss — and doubled her class-load.
I still owe her a lot. Even the money I earn from my Mister Ready job was because of her. I got hired there only because she put in a good word about her then-unemployed-boyfriend to her uncle. I didn’t know a damn thing about being an HVAC technician, but her Uncle Jake took me in and showed me the shortcuts to get the job done.
The image of her naked body on my bed finally faded away. I looked past the bed and saw my work clothes and the red Mister Ready cap bundled in the corner of the room. Something sparked inside me and I felt the urge to write again. It was like a tickle in the back of my mind when I studied the work clothes all balled up like they were. Isn’t it strange what triggers inspiration?
You keep the eye.
I wrote it down mentally. It made no sense, and certainly wasn’t in the land of the macabre, but it felt right. I looked back at my work clothes and then at other random things in the bedroom for more muses. Nothing hit me directly, but I felt I was getting somewhere. Something else. I felt like I needed to leave fast. I don’t know why, but there was a feeling I had somewhere urgent to be.
I knew what the problem was. What do some writers do when they get writer’s block? They get out. Take walks or long drives. Scribble down things while they’re out there trying to break through the mental block.
I grabbed some jeans and sneakers and then killed the second can of beer that made me go off with a flurry of spitting belches. I strode back into the living room and grabbed my cell phone from the couch along with my keys and headed out.
The downpour made it impossible for any type of walking, but I planned on driving anyway. I just felt like I needed to drive somewhere.
I still had my mom’s beater, but it really was on its way out. I didn’t trust the transmission to last through bouts of writer’s block — that was for sure. I opted for the work van with the happy man’s face on the side next to the Mister Ready logo. The face was a black-and-white outline of something from the days of Norman Rockwell; it was a large drawing of a jovial, fatherly face with crow’s feet etched into those happy eyes perched under a large baseball cap with the MR logo centered on the front. It was a little unsettling if you stared too long at that face. His smile seemed too wide, his eyes too big. He could be that part-time clown that fondles kids on the weekends in a low-rate carnival and no one would be the wiser.
The rain kept on coming as I left the apartment complex and headed toward US 51. People think Mississippi is just sliced by two or three interstates and you’re pretty much stranded otherwise, but there are endless back roads that trickle out eventually to main roads. Not seeing the Atlantic coast was probably the biggest change for me. Seeing all those southern trees and miles of farmland during my daily commute took some getting used to. Only now, I could barely make out anything through the sloshing rain while my windshield wipers put up the good fight.
I was thinking maybe this wasn’t a good idea as I turned up US 51 heading north, but the rain started to soften, making it easier to travel faster than twenty-five miles per hour. I thought about that part about the eye again.
You kept the eye.
Something like that. I was pretty wound up still with that sense of urgency. I needed to settle back now that the rain was dying away. I blew out a long, relaxing breath, keeping my eyes open so I wouldn’t hydroplane into the wall of trees surrounding the highway.
My cell phone rang and vibrated in my jean pocket and I fished it out, darting my eyes between the cell and the road. I recognized my boss’s cell number right away.
“Hello,” I said. The voice on the other end was distorted, but nothing like the Demon-Caller. This was just that usual warble caused by a weak signal. That happens a lot when you’re out in the sticks during a job run. The wet road made for a noisy drive, so I slowed down to hear better. No other cars were around to share the road with me, anyway.
“Jerry,” Sally Jane’s uncle said.
“Where are you? And know I aim to find out sooner or later.”
I looked up and saw the approaching green street sign. PARKER BRANCH ROAD. I instinctively turned off there. It was a small country road, both cozy and quiet.
“I’m out driving about. Look Jake, I’m sorry about calling out today. Actually, I’m feeling a bit better so maybe you can put me down for on-call tonight and — ”
“Turn around, Jerry,” he said.
I usually give in to orders. Blame my mom for being such a bossy Jersey girl. Plus I’m just subservient by nature, so I almost did turn around.
“Why?” I asked. “You need me on a run now?”
“Go back to Sally’s old place. I’ll meet you there.”
I knew he meant to meet at my place, but I hated that he kept referring my apartment as Sally Jane’s old place.
“I’m kind of out of the way right now. What’s going on with — ”
“I’m heading there now,” Uncle Jake yelled. “Get your ass back there.”
He had a strong, deep voice and his speech was always slippery like a cattle auctioneer. I probably would be more scared of the guy if I understood half of his gibberish, but unlike the normal hostility in his voice that I’m used to, there was something less militant there. He almost sounded frightened.
“Jerry? You hear me?”
“Yeah Jake,” I said. “Sure.”
“We got some talking to do, you and me. Sally’s right upset with you. She’s been up my house since the crack of dawn crying and fussing and messing with my sleep, Jerry. On top of all that, she wants to see you. Back at her old place. I want her stay put, but she’s already aiming to talk to you face to face.”
My heart nearly pushed through my sternum and I had to steady my hands from steering into a web of oak trees. I haven’t seen nor heard from Sally Jane in almost a year now.
“Sally Jane?” I said. “What’s wrong with her?”
Jake said. “You know damn well what, you drunk-calling dumbass.”
“What’s wrong with Sally Jane?” I asked again.
There was squabble and then nothing. I looked at the phone and saw the three-minute call had ended.
The fatigued rain started to wane. By now, I was approaching the 24-hour diner Sally Jane and I had frequented a few times. Jay’s Supper Club was the name. Why someone put an all-night diner in the middle of nowhere is a question I’m sure a lot of us ask whenever we see these places that stand almost hidden on back roads. They are out there, usually deserted, and often a few steps toward condemnation. The surprise is when you go in, you’re usually treated friendly and the food is okay. Forget that some of these places are havens for the occasional meth-addicts and drug dealers and you pretty much have found a place of honest Southern hospitality.
I wanted to stop there at the Supper Club, get off the road and give Jake a call back.
Then in a flood the following came to mind:
You dig in deep at the hole where the eye used to be, Your fingernail scrapes the brain, breaking its outer layer like a virgin’s hymen. You get excited. You put two fingers in now, stretching the eye socket, reaching into the hole and going back and forth.
The sun began to dry the remnant of rain on the ground. I stopped the van at the outer rim of Jay’s four-spot parking lot. I grabbed my work clipboard and began writing frenetically. My handwriting is terrible, but I got most of the passage I could remember down onto a blank voucher.
Then I saw Mr. Ugly’s signature. No, not his actual signature, but an imprint on the wood of the clipboard. And that’s when I realized I was actually headed that way, toward the Ugly’s home. But why? To do what? I certainly wasn’t going there to kill them, although the thought did cross my mind to punch Mr. Ugly in the face last night when he scrawled his signature so hard on my work voucher that it tore through into the wood of the clipboard.
I put the van back into drive and started out again, not rereading the passage I wrote down on the voucher. I thought about what killers do, whether premeditative or spontaneous. Then I laughed. I thought of myself trying to end another person’s life. Definitely not a physical type of killer. I’ve never won a fight in high school; my arms are skinny things and my gut looks like I’m approaching my second trimester after being impregnated by so much beer. I’m no killer. Still I had to replay last night over again in my mind and the more I did that, the more I found it harder to simplify. I had come straight home after fixing the AC compressor, drank beer, pleasured myself and went to bed. There was nothing else.
“Ah, this is bullshit,” I said and drove faster. I was going to see Mr. or Mrs. Ugly. Then after seeing them and proving I could stand there and ignore the desire to kill them, I planned on heading directly to the apartment. The thought of seeing Sally Jane again got my heart pumping faster. So, faster I drove.
Back roads like these can be dangerous if you don’t know the curves, but I’ve been on this road a lot. Done several bullshit runs for a lot of these houses. Many of the homes here were built far away from the road, with long gravel driveways, leading away into large yards. The houses themselves were small in proportion to the land, many of them several years old and rotting. The Ugly family was no exception. Their house was small and their long driveway was nearly hidden within the woods.
Last night I had to rely on the reflection of the bright numbers on the mailbox, but today, in the storm’s wake, I could see both the painted last name and the large reflective numbers.
1201 Parker Branch Rd
I nosed the van with the jolly face into their driveway, slowing down and hearing the crunching gravel falter underneath. The Bakers’ house was your typical half-siding, half-wood structure, tiny in the midst of all that land. I rolled down the window, smelling wet dog (how strange this countryside reeks like a wet, flea-infested mutt after a spell of rain). I inhaled it all anyway. I had no idea what I was doing here, or what I needed to do here to prove to myself that I was not crazy.
I pushed my way out of the van, my motions quick. I had the clipboard tucked under my left arm while I held my cell phone in my right. I walked toward the home, trailing up the gravel path to their front porch. I recalled last night’s job as I walked. It was simple. A clogged point in their line leading to the compressor. Mister Ready did it all the time. A simple fix, but one that leads to greater damage, and ultimately the need for a replacement unit. It’s highway robbery in the purest sense.
When I got to the two-step incline, I took a moment to study the open area. I thought back to that story about spewing baby-gravy on the front porch. I had to laugh at that. If someone had done that like in the story, the rain made sure to wash that away, and judging from the unkempt welcome area of their porch, the Bakers made it quite difficult to find human specimen of any kind on top of all that mess: pots filled with dead plants, two dirt-ridden rockers and lawn debris.
The cell phone buzzed in my hand. Before I put it to my ear, I studied the front door. It was ajar. I clicked the cell phone alive and listened.
“Hello?” said the voice on the other end.
I felt my chest go electric. It was her. My Sally Jane.
Her voice was slow, trembling. I took a deep breath, waiting for my mind to give in and accept that Sally Jane was really talking to me after all this time.
“Hi Sally Jane,” I said.
“Oh my God, Jerry.”
She fell apart, nearly screaming her sobs back at me.
“Sally Jane?” It’s all I could say back because while I stood there bewildered, I pushed the front door open a few more inches, figuring my voice would do fine for a doorbell.
“We’re here, Jerry,” she said. “We’re at your place.” Then a few more seconds of sobbing. “The head. Jerry. It’s not real. Right? Tell me please that it’s not real, Jerry.”
I pushed the front door further and saw flies escape from inside.
“Sally Jane, what’s wrong?” I said.
“Uncle Jake’s calling the police,” she said. “He says they’re tracking your van.” There was a long pause, and I could tell Sally Jane was pulled away from the phone, Jake’s low voice barking in the distance as she argued to get back to me. She gave a roar from far away and then I hear her yell back at me, “The head Jerry! It’s on the table. And your work clothes in the bedroom. In the corner just like you told me last night.”
She swallowed with a throaty click and said, “They’re soaked in blood, Jerry. And the eyeball. Oh Christ, Jerry. It rolled out on the floor when Jake got your clothes. There’s blood everywhere Jerry.”
I looked instinctively at my hand clutching the clipboard and saw it spotless. Blood-free. Washed clean earlier this morning. I pushed Mr. and Mrs. Ugly’s front door all the way open and saw the woman without a head lying on the dark hardwood floor. The shredded stump of her neck gleamed back at me; the bone of her cut spine protruded out at me like an accusing finger.
“You’re sick, Jerry,” Sally Jane said. “I thought you were just drunk last night when you called. But you really did it. You killed those people you were telling me about. That woman’s head on the table. I thought it was one of your stories. But it’s real!”
She paused for breath and yelled again. “You’re sick, Jerry!”
I wanted to tell her to be quiet, that I would come over and hold her again and make those tears go away. I wanted to tell her someone is clearly setting me up and I needed her on my side to help me find out who is behind this. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ can come later. Then I realized I was here at the crime scene, the dead Mrs. Baker on the floor. No Mr. Baker around. Perhaps it was him, the real perpetrator with a hatred for HVAC techs, and finding an opportunity to kill his wife. One thing was clear: I didn’t want to hear Sally Jane crying anymore. I didn’t kill anybody. She had to believe me.
I let out a long breath and said, “Sally Jane, I didn’t kill anyone. Someone else is doing this.”
She ignored this and said, “The story, Jerry. The one on your computer.”
This threw me a bit because how in the hell would Sally Jane know about the story?
“I’m reading it now, Jerry,” she said. She drew a shaky breath and read, “’You put the eyeball in your mouth and suck it like you suckled your mother’s breast.’
“You and your damn stories! You are sick, Jerry! You’re so fucking sick! Don’t you… don’t ever call me again! Just stay away from me you sick bastard!”
The phone vibrated hard in my ear, signaling another incoming call. I slowly pulled the phone away and look to the wooden chair to my left. Mr. Baker sat there, his head slumped forward. He wasn’t there before. I was sure of that. Those chairs were empty.
I walked slowly toward him. He looked like an old man sitting with his head lowered, deep in thought. His peppered hair was matted with blood, and his farmer-plaid shirt showed a long streak of blood stained from his chest to his left sleeve. I didn’t offer a greeting. Instead, I knelt down to see his sun-dried face, hoping to see an old man feigning sleep. I lifted his head up and saw the black hole where his left eye used to be. I started running back to the van. When the cell phone buzzed again I chucked it hard into the trees that surrounded the Bakers’ driveway. I got inside the van, cranked it to life and twirled in lopsided circles, digging into the tendered lawn. I screamed and gunned the van forward, spitting gravel everywhere.
Jake was right. There are trackers in these vans through GPS. No way to steal these things. So when I got back to Jay’s Supper Club, I was sure Jake had a pretty good bead on where I was. What did that matter now? I thought back to what Sally Jane had said. You and your damn stories.
I slowed in to Jay’s and pulled the van into the space right by the front door. I grabbed the clipboard and got out. I pushed through the glass door into Jay’s, smelling cigarettes, beer and grease. It was dark, all the windows tinted. I saw Gary, the old guy that helmed Jay’s Supper Club behind the counter during the day. He smiled and made his way from around the counter. Too quick and too friendly.
“Hey friend,” he said and waved a meaty forearm at me. He gestured to a table that consisted of plastic lawn chairs and a Wal-Mart specially-priced picnic table. I sat down and smile back. I ordered the porterhouse and a beer. I needed a lot of beer right now. Before he left I asked, “What do you know about hysterical blindness?”
Gary smiled, his stained teeth big and wide.
He said, “Hysterical what?”
“Maybe that isn’t want I’m suffering from,” I said. “Maybe there are two sides to every story. You only know about the one you write about. Or maybe sometimes you get a peek at what the other guy is writing about. Anyway. Nevermind.”
I waved Gary off. He gave me a cautious nod and then went back behind the bar counter into the kitchen to make my usual. What I would order with Sally Jane.
I looked at the clipboard in my arm and placed it down gently on the table. I gave out a long sigh and shook my head. For a moment I could see myself sitting at another table, Sally Jane across from me. Both of us smiling. Me gesticulating through my latest and greatest story idea or plot back at her. Her just shaking her head back at my foolishness.
I put my clipboard on the table and stared at it. The clipboard consisted of a pen tied to the metal clip and a Mister Ready voucher, which was nothing more than flimsy paper with blue lines across yellow paper.
I started writing. Okay, I didn’t just start writing. I started unbottling.
When Gary came back with my porterhouse steak in less than seven minutes, I knew I still had time to enjoy my meal before they would all be here. I watched Gary smile long and pleasant, waiting for me to start in on my meal. I went back to reread the words I wrote on the voucher.
You see the steak knife he leaves out of habit. The steak knife is dull but you cut through the gristle of his neck. You sit down and use the unclean knife. You taste his meat and blood with the steak. You wait for them to come. You wait for her to come. When she does, you hope you can show her how happy you are. Because you are done. You have finally finished the words.
©Jack Lee Taylor 2014