Implicated

Implicated

Imagine me, five years old, and scared to death to open my eyes — to take even the bitsiest peep — during prayers at the dinner table, at church services, or weddings. Was it some rule set by my God-fearing mother, a warning from a Sunday school teacher, or just basic intuition? Don’t look or God can’t do His work!

Wherever the habit came from, you’d bet wisely on me gluing my eyelids shut anytime the words “bow your heads” or “let us pray” were uttered by a grownup. Once, I didn’t hear the conclusive “amen” and so sat there, waiting, head balanced on the clenched hands in my lap, until I was shaken awake at the end of a sermon.

I was seven, I think, when it dawned on me: Since I’d never taken even the slightest peek, I had no idea whether anyone else was obeying the rules so staunchly. Or if God Himself ever entered the room and folded his arms, watching everybody as he twirled his white beard of cloud and chuckled at us oblivious mortals.

Seven, and no baby anymore! Rebellion and risk called out to me now, rather than repelling me.

So at Auntie Rae’s funeral, I decided I’d take a good look around when the preacher lifted up his voice to the heavens and asked us all to stand there, like good boys and girls, with our hands wadded up and our eyes tightly squeezed. Just this once.

Continue reading “Implicated”

The Wasp & the Bugler

The Wasp & the Bugler

Ryan Everett Felton

 

            Duncan pressed a Ziploc full of ice against the crook where his neck and shoulder met. The potential hazards of being a pallbearer hadn’t occurred to him ­– his primary concern, there at his father’s procession, was that he’d slip, drop his corner and set off a chain reaction that ended with Dad, stiff as a board and in full uniform, tumbling down into some sludge-ridden ditch.

            But Dad was safely six feet under now, and Duncan, having played Atlas with the astonishing weight of one-sixth of a casket, sported his first ever war wound: what he thought to be a torn ligament or ruptured disc or, if WebMD was to be believed, shoulder cancer.

            Only he had managed to leave the service with an injury, of course. During the procession Duncan had felt like the only faulty cog in an otherwise finely-tuned machine. It had been a military funeral – in fact Duncan was the only pallbearer not in a uniform – and the formality of it, the choreography and the timing, the business-like quality of the whole event made him feel less his father’s son than he ever had.

            Peeling the freezing baggie away from his numbed skin, he winced and sat, wedging a pillow between the couch and his more tender ligaments. He dragged the television remote toward him with his bare foot and hovered a fingertip over the power button just as he heard an unnerving buzz, this faint yet hateful drone, and a repetitive tapping against the window to his left.

            A wasp had found its way in ­– and not the first, for as it banged its head against the glass it also hovered above a graveyard of its fallen brethren there on the windowsill. Duncan breathed out, glanced to his left where a bottle of bug-killer lay propped against the coffee table, wound up in its own thin, plastic hose. One of the hundred tasks he’d set aside since news of his father’s death reached him had been to handle the network of mud-daubers’ nests lining the walls of his porch. He hadn’t dared go out on that porch in weeks. It belonged to them now.

            He dropped the ice bag, wincing at an unwitting jerk of the neck, and made a delicate grab for the bug spray. This time in the evening, the colony at large would be dormant, helpless. He slid open the glass door that opened onto the porch and stood beneath the largest of several gray, lumpy nests. Pumping the plastic apparatus with one hand, gripping the hose with the other, he muttered to the sleeping insects above: “All right, you bastards. Party’s over.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            A young man’s voice came from the right, just off the concrete path that led to the door. There stood a stranger dressed in full military garb, a small leather case of odd shape and size hanging from his hands.

            Duncan froze, lowered the spray can. “Can I help you?” he said.

            “Oh,” the man said, “sorry.” He took a few strides closer. “You probably don’t— I was at the funeral this afternoon.” Cleared his throat, stuck out his hand. “Officer Brian Glasgow. I knew your dad. He was my commanding officer.”

            Duncan was aware of his scanning the officer from head to toe even as he did it, but he did nothing to play it off or hide it. He said, “Were you stationed with him over there?”

            Glasgow nodded. “There,” of course, was Afghanistan. “There” was also the site of his father’s passing.

            Duncan mimicked him with a curt nod of his own. “What can I do for you, Brian?” he said.

            Glasgow cradled the strange case in his arms and seemed to address it rather than Duncan. A nervous smile crossed his downcast face. “This might sound weird, Duncan – you are Duncan, aren’t you? This might sound weird, and I’m sure you don’t remember, but it was me who played the bugle at the service today.” He patted the case. “You know, ‘Taps?'”

            Duncan eyed the case and pictured the instrument within. “I thought that was a recording,” he said.

            “Usually is.” Glasgow squinted at imaginary sunlight. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t know if you noticed or not – I’d bet not – but I kind of botched the song. Hit a wrong note near the end.”

            “You botched ‘Taps?'” Duncan repeated.

            “Yeah,” the officer said. “Embarrassing, I know.” He stood military-style, as if addressing a superior. “I’d like to put it right. I’d like to go back to your father’s gravesite and play it again. No screw-ups this time. And I’d like you to be there.”

            Duncan said nothing. The two men faced one another, mirrored each other’s stance – straight-spined, either a bugle case or a bug-killer jug clasped in both hands. His shoulder throbbed, reminding him that the day’s grievances were far from done with him.

            Glasgow waited about thirty seconds before saying, “What do you think?”

            A moment passed before Duncan gave a slow nod. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He pointed above, at first with his injured limb and with a soft yelp, then with the other arm. “But first I’m going to ask a favor of you. See these wasps’ nests?  I’ve got to blast them with this Deet, but reaching ’em won’t be easy with this bum shoulder.”

            The army officer took one step closer. “What happened?” he said, nodding at Duncan’s neck.

            “Pallbearing hazards,” said Duncan. He attempted to spin his arm like a vertical propeller, got stuck and whimpered. The bottle, gripped in the other hand, went up in offering to Glasgow.

            The officer put down the bugle case and accepted the bottle. “You got it,” he said, and found Duncan’s ladder with no questions, scaling it without pause.

            He began pumping away, blasting forth a stream of chemical fluid with military efficiency. Each squirt hit its mark with impressive accuracy. In the dim evening light Duncan could see the gray clods go black with moisture. Here and there a curdled insect would fall from one of the nests.

            As he worked, Glasgow made commentary. “You know what?” he said. “Until today I didn’t even know the Colonel had a son? And here you are.” He pressed the pump again, nailed one of the more distant targets. “You must’ve known a completely different man than I did. Weird, huh?”

            Though perhaps no longer necessary, he continued to spray, to wipe out any semblance of these miniscule invaders. Not to simply thin their ranks, but to eradicate them in entirety.

            “That’s enough,” Duncan said. A spasm in his jaw somehow triggered the pain in his neck and shoulder. He bit his cheek and let it hit him. “Come on down, Brian. That’s enough.”

            Glasgow shrugged, descaled the ladder. He put the bottle down and locked eyes with Duncan. “I thought of your dad as a father of my own,” he said. “A lot of us did. I think you should know that.”

            Duncan put his hand to his shoulder and squeezed. “Maybe you should go,” he said.

            Glasgow’s forehead bunched up.

            “I think I’m in for the night,” Duncan said. “This shoulder. I just need to ice it, take it easy. You understand.”

            The officer lifted a foot. “But what about…?” he said, and tapped the bugle case with his booted toe.

            The Colonel’s son – his real son – shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

            Brian Glasgow sprang into that formal stance again, that straight-legged, arched-back posture engrained into his DNA by drill sergeants and training camps. “What’d I say?” he asked. He repeated the question only one time, and still receiving no answer from Duncan, bent over to pick up his bugle case and apologized before rounding the corner of the house and disappearing from view.

            Duncan remained still, nursing his shoulder and staring at the spot where Officer Glasgow had been. The thought of going back inside had just occurred to him when sharp, sudden and blinding pain shot up through the palm on his shoulder, rode his nerves up to the side of his neck that, until a millisecond before, ­hadn’t been throbbing.

            The inside of his hand felt on fire. He lifted it from the crook of his neck and looked – a red, circular mark pulsated on his palm. Something small and black propelled to the left of his cheek, went zig-zagging out of sight. A wasp, one he’d evidently cupped with his hand onto his clavicle that had decided enough was enough.

            He blew on his hand, for all the good it did. Went back inside and found his ice pack. Now it served a dual purpose, soothed his palm while numbing his shoulder. After a while, he wrapped his hand in Ace bandages and rubbed Icy Hot all over the upper left quadrant of his torso and left the house.

            On the way, he’d pretended he had no idea where he was going, lied to himself that he’d wind up wherever the night took him. But when he pulled into the cemetery parking lot, just to the side of the funeral parlor where he’d spent the day, he was not surprised.

            By putting the strain more or less on his legs, he lifted himself to the hood of his car and leaned back, closed his eyes.

            And listened.

            A few minutes of this, then the wind carried the sound to him. Somewhere out there – and the idea that he didn’t know exactly where was another lie he told himself for God-knew-what reason – a bugle played ‘Taps.’ Hit every note with perfection, as far as his untrained ears could tell.

            His hand had swollen to twice its size. It looked like a pear dipped in ketchup.

            Anyway, he put that hand up to his head, gave a salute to the sky.

Season’s Greetings

Season’s Greetings
Ryan Everett Felton 

            So, my neighbor thinks I’m the reincarnation of the Son of God.

            I’d never met the man – Randal, his name is – but he has a higher opinion of me than most people have of anyone, if his Christmas card is any indication.  I found the thing just a few inches from the crack under my door, on my way to pour myself a cup of coffee in preparation for another late night. We live in this duplex, these conjoined apartments, above a dive bar in town. Thanks to the rowdiness inherent in the arrangement, on most nights sleep isn’t an option, which is perfect for a nocturnal creature such as myself and, I imagine, my true believer Randal.

            It’s a perplexing little thing, his card. The first thing I noticed after picking it up was the gorgeous penmanship of my name on the envelope – CHELSEA – inscribed in what I immediately and ironically thought of as calligraphy more suited to a monk’s transcription of the Bible than a cordial, neighborly holiday greeting. Before opening it with a kitchen knife, I took a little peek into the hallway, as if I’d see my benefactor of Christmas cheer standing there, waiting with arms crossed for a thank you. But the hall, as always, was empty save for the vibrations of music and drunken laughter coming from downstairs, so I closed the door and took a chair to see who it was from, never dreaming it’d be Randal. He’s certainly not on my Christmas card list.

            I smiled a little at the cheesy illustration on the front of the card: a snowman with his coal-lump smile arranged into a frown, his head tilted down at the dog lifting its leg at his base, about ready to let loose. The distasteful choice of cardstock confirmed it wasn’t from my mother, or from Philip. That wouldn’t be their style.

            Inside, there’s more of that inhuman cursive, and the first time I read it I nearly fell over.

            “Dearest Chelsea,” it says.

            “Even if the world denies it I know who You are.” Yes, the pronoun’s capitalized. “‘Revelation’ says no man or woman would know the time or place, and you’ve passed among us undetected just as the Bible says you would. You are not alone, Chelsea. God loves you, and I love you. And I know you love me. That is enough.

            “Praise His holy name! And I will praise yours, my savior.

            “Your humble servant,

            RANDAL”

            After reading this I actually yelped and clasped my hands over my mouth, something I don’t think I’d ever had cause to do up to that point. I bounded for the door and fastened both locks, stared out the peephole for a good while, and went back to my bedroom, locking that door, too. The landlord, Devin who runs the bar, had warned me about Randal the day I moved in. Said he wasn’t all there, a little off-kilter. But harmless. Harmless.

            I kept telling myself, “harmless,” but even so I couldn’t concentrate on my homework, the TV, Facebook – anything. I kept feeling this presence on the other side of the wall, where Randal’s own bedroom is. This heat seeping through, searing my shoulders and neck, like the devil giving me a backrub. I was so terrified I couldn’t think of anything to do but break the promise I’d made to myself a month ago and, so far, upheld against all odds. I logged onto Skype and dialed up Phillip – almost certain he wouldn’t pick up.

            But he did. Thank God, I thought.

            “What is it, Chelse?” Not, “Hello.” Not, “How are you, babe?” Just, “What is it?”

            “Are you busy?” I fought an obscene impulse to apologize to him, rejected the feeling I got while looking into the pixilated transmission of his eyes – the one that told me I shouldn’t have bothered him, shouldn’t have interrupted his evening. It dawned on me I had no idea what time it was across the ocean, whether he’d be getting ready for bed or on his way to work. I should take the time to learn how that all works.

            The warmth I had imagined emanating from the other side of the wall and against my back rose, grew to a searing heat, as I thought about the purpose of my unwanted call. I drew my legs up, cradled my head in my knees. Philip must’ve seen that something was wrong, because I watched his pale, blue-eyed baby face contort into one of mild concern in between lagging video frames crossing thousands of miles of superhighway.

            “Is something wrong? Really wrong this time?” The view into his hotel room, adorned with the trappings accumulated only during very long stays, swirled sickly behind him while he, I guess, picked up his computer and carried it to a spot where he could get a better look at me. To me it looked like the earth in Glasgow had upended, torn free from the shackles of his reality. But he remained firmly rooted to his far corner of the world, and only I wound up with motion sickness.

            I rubbed my temples, clamped shut my eyelids. “Do you remember Randal? My neighbor here, Randal? Short, frumpy, smelly guy?”

            “I don’t know,” Phillip said. “Why? What’s going on?” I hated – I hate – the way the video chat makes his voice sound. Like it’s not him, just some simulation manufactured for my placation, while he gads about and I’m nowhere near his mind.

            “He gave me this Christmas card,” I said, and held it up before the webcam, but my shaking hands wouldn’t allow the maneuver and let go, sending it swooping under my bed. I let it fall, let it disappear.

            “And?” Philip rubbed his face. His catchall signal for “get to the point.”

            “And, well,” I said, thinking of how to put it. But “My neighbor thinks I’m the second coming of Christ” didn’t roll off the tongue, not like you’d think it would. And Philip rubbing his face ­– on a different hemisphere, no less – didn’t quite instill me with divine powers of articulation. I just sort of stopped talking, and for what must’ve been a longer amount of time than I’d perceived. One more rough swoop of the palm across his bristly cheeks and he’d had enough of me.

            “Chelse, no, I didn’t send you a Christmas card, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he said, the robotic amplification of his voice buzzing at the base of my skull. It made me want to puke. “I’m not going to, either. You agreed on distance. You shouldn’t even be calling me like this.”

            “I know,” I said, inching away from the wall, putting some air between it and me. “I’m sorry.” And there, at last, was my apology.

            “I’m going now,” he said. “Merry Christmas, I guess.”

            “Yeah. Merry Christmas.”

            And the screen went black.

            I spun around on the bed, tangling the sheets around my ankles and thighs, caught up in a web of fabric. I struggled against it, only to succeed in halfway binding myself in a reverse-Houdini. I pressed my hand against the wall. It was cold. Closing my eyes, I imagined Randal on the other side, asleep or maybe at the foot of his bed, praying. To me.

            The card peered out from the edge of the bed skirt, just visible enough to expose the upper half of its front image, a pattern of falling snowflakes. I bent over, still entwined with my bed dress, and hung upside down longer than necessary to pick it back up. When I started to see spots in my eyes, almost identical to the card’s falling snow, I jerked back up and fell onto my side. At arm’s length, held out before me, the card seemed so insignificant and unthreatening. A poor, lone snowman and the dog about to piss all over him.

            “I know how you feel, buddy,” I said. Once the bar slowed and quieted downstairs, there were only a few more hours left of tossing, turning, and shallow breathing until I was asleep.

            Next morning – or rather, afternoon – I woke up with Randal’s Christmas card still clutched in my hand, placed over my heart. Once I was awake enough to remember what it was, I sort-of tossed it to the side, where it landed on my bedside dresser among a stack of untouched magazines.

            Starving, I took a quick shower and went out to find something for breakfast – or rather, lunch. As an afterthought I took my tiny mailbox key with me, stopping by the locked mail receptacle at the bottom of the stairwell, just outside the entrance door to the bar. Inside I found the same old bills, past due notices, and yet another magazine to add to my unread collection. But at the very bottom of the stack, a square envelope. For the briefest of moments my teeth clamped down on my tongue, me thinking somehow this was another devotional from Randal. It wasn’t. It was a Christmas card, yes, but this time from my mother.

            I ripped it open, dreaming up all the delicious meals I could possibly treat myself to with the Christmas check that was sure to be inside. Prying the card open like I did, I’m sure there was a slight manic glint in my eye that would’ve put some passersby at unease, but that mad look quickly dimmed. The card was empty, for the first time in a string of lonely holidays.

            The only thing the inner parchment of the card bore was a handwritten message from Mom, in script that was – no offense to my mother intended – far less graceful and artsy than my bipolar neighbor’s. The message contained within was far from the statement of unconditional love and respect in my earlier card, too. All it said was:

            Chelsea,

            Sorry no check this year. Hope to have something for you when you come visit!

            -Mom

            Which, of course, was her way of saying that unless I hitched a plane back to her and Dad’s neck of the woods, no handouts would be given. Where she thinks I’ll scrape up the cash for a plane ticket, I have no idea. After her card came up empty, I wasn’t even sure what I was going to use to pay for lunch.

            I squeezed the partition in my winter coat tight with one hand and bunched my shoulders up, stepping outside despite having no idea what I was doing, or if leaving the apartment at all would do me any good. And it was at this moment, when I was hardly one foot out the door, that Randal came puttering along on his rusted jalopy of a moped. He parked it and put up the kickstand, removed his helmet to reveal his chapped, scruffy face and lizard-like eyes. He took a deep breath of cold winter air before going to work taking off his gloves.

            There was no way I could speak to him, even say “hello.” The only thing I could picture was him, all four-feet-eleven-inches of him, somehow overpowering me so I could find myself waking up nailed to an inverted cross in a Satanic shrine in his apartment.

            But all he did was smile, nod, and wave at me. I did not return the gesture, opting instead to shuffle my winter boots as fast as they could carry me to the nearest diner, where – like a queen – I feasted on the finest tap water and buttered toast the county has to offer. I chose the diner for the pair of police officers kicking back in the corner, chugging on coffee. Once inside I sat away from the window, every so often glancing over my shoulder to make sure Randal hadn’t followed me. He already worshiped me, having freely admitted that, so was it very hard to believe he was stalking me, too?

            “Hon, will that be all?” The waitress had crept up behind me when my back was turned. She even put her hand on my shoulder. I jumped, squealed, made a general fool of myself in public. My waitress, who could’ve been cast in a film as “the waitress,” with her bunned-up red hair and throaty voice, looked at me like I was a box of abandoned puppies. Was I wearing my troubles that plainly?

“You sure I can’t get you some coffee or something?” she asked. I held up my hand, shook my head.

            “It’d be on the house,” she said, sighing so hard the hair on her upper lip fluttered.

            “Oh,” I said, tapping my chin. I gave another nervous look over my shoulder, breathed, and said, “Would a plate of onion rings be on the house, too?”

            She smiled, my fairy-godwaitress, and nodded, off to whatever wonders her kitchen held to prepare for me the latest in a long line of pity giveaways.

            A few minutes later, no less miserable save for my palate’s satisfaction, so focused was I on munching my free onion rings that I didn’t instinctively whip my head around at the sound of the bell above the door jingling. My own salacious hunger distracted me from my surroundings long enough for Randal to enter, approach me, and take a seat opposite me in my booth.

            “H-hello,” he said, “Chelsea.” His voice, a low mumble, hardly registered beyond the pulsating thumps of adrenaline in my head. He repeated himself, the “Chelsea” part of it anyway, a few more times, like a chant. Like a mantra: “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.” Each repetition screwed up his mouth, his whole face, like it was physical work getting it out. Once finished, he grinned at me – put his hands on the table palms-up, and just grinned.

            “Did you get my card?” he asked and wiggled his fingers. All I could focus on, between deep gasping breaths, were those nubby digits, dancing around with expectation. I thought for a second about accepting that invitation, taking his hands in mine, and in the process scared myself more than he had done on his own.

            “Uh, officers?” I said. The cops enjoying their break at the far table either ignored me or didn’t hear me. I said it again, this time louder: “Officers!”

            One of them heaved a sigh as the other pointed at him, as if saying, “This one’s all yours.” The sighing officer pushed his chair back and stood, stomping over to me and Randal, but focusing his dirty look squarely on me, the interruption to his placid coffee break. There came a surreal feeling that no one else in the diner could even see little, haggard Randal. A feeling that I was in a bad episode of The Outer Limits or something, and all of this was in my head. But when the cop finally spoke, he said, “Is this guy bothering you, ma’am?” My hands found a nice spot on either side of my head to rest, pulling my face back into a twisted smile I wouldn’t have cared to see for myself.

            But Randal wasn’t smiling. Instead, he sat there in the booth, pulled his hands away from me and hugged himself, looking mortified – back and forth, from me to the officer, in utter confusion. The idea that maybe I’m a horrible bitch did, for a second, cross my mind when it hit me that I thought his face looked sort of funny, all puffed up and red with his eyes bugging out. “I-I just needed to ask her something,” he said. “Chelsea,” he locked his eyes at last on me, “can I please just ask you something?”

            Part of me wanted to say “yes,” because telling him “no” felt like denying Oliver Twist his second bowl of gruel, but I didn’t need to say anything. The policeman put a hand around Randal’s chunky arm and pulled him from the booth.

            “Sir,” he said, “I need to ask you to leave.”

            I thought Randal might cry. Certainly he was on the verge. Having no desire to see a grown, albeit damaged man break down into tears – and having even less desire to stick around and see what lengths my new stalker might go to in order to ask me whatever he wanted to ask, I stood up instead. I shook my head, little bobs that made me feel my brain rattle, and sucked on my lip.

            “No, no,” I said. “That’s— that’s okay, that’s fine. I was just leaving anyway.” And I did leave, abandoning a half-eaten plate of complimentary snacks and the lone member of the Cult of Chelsea to whatever fate might find them.

            Once outside, my coat unbuttoned, the chill of the winter air struck me and set something loose inside of me. Devin might’ve said Randal was harmless – and hell, he could have every reason to believe that – but the matter remained that this guy had a clear obsession with me. Like, a try-to-assassinate-the-president-in-my-honor obsession. How could I stay safe with this very lunatic sleeping on the other side of my own bedroom wall?

            I thought I should call someone, maybe see if I could find somewhere to shack up for a night or two, or until things cooled down. But as I scrolled through the contacts list on my phone, I saw what my options were: precisely zero. My mother, halfway across the country. Philip, halfway across the world. Some erstwhile co-workers from my last job, who I hadn’t bothered to delete since I was let go. A strong desire to chuck my phone into the street reared its head, and even though I fought against that, I still had this new realization to contend with. I hadn’t a single disciple to watch over me. No one would even know, not for days, if Randal crept into my room in the dead of night and strangled me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

I ran.

But not far.

I made it back to the bar, only half-intending to go up to my room and lock the door, maybe lean a chair against it, but instead ended up in the tavern proper. I took a seat at the front counter, where Devin – all shoulders and shiny bald spot – stood wiping a glass and emptying ashtrays. Except for the two of us, the bar was empty.

Loose strands of hair stuck to my mouth, threatened to tickle my eyeballs, and in pulling back my locks I must’ve exposed the distress broadcast by my face. I don’t know if I was crying, but I imagine I must’ve looked a lot like Randal had back in the diner, that cop yanking him up by the arm, and me – his savior, turning him away, throwing him like a lamb to the wolves, and running off.

“Somethin’ the matter, sweetheart?” Devin asked me. But I knew it wasn’t real concern for me that sparked the question. No, I was his tenant, and at the moment a potential barfly to boot, so tips and rent were at stake. And if Devin was lucky, something would be the matter. Nothing cures an addled mind quite like a few rounds of drinks. And for him, that means dollar signs.

“Just get me a whiskey sour,” I said. No thought went into the order. I’d never even had a whiskey sour. “Start a tab.”

He said, “You got it, babe,” and in seconds my hand had seemingly produced a glass full of amber liquid, as if I’d made a wish and Devin were my gin djinn.

So I drank, alone, what must have been six or seven whiskey sours. Toward the end there I think I dropped the “sour” and just started ordering whiskey straight, which I’m aware isn’t very ladylike. With each order, there came an increasing pang of guilt as I wondered what Philip might think of me, had he been there. But Philip wasn’t there; he was in damn Glasgow, in damn Scotland, where there was no Chelsea and that was the appeal. So I kept the drinks coming, knowing full well they’d be added to next month’s rent, which I had no idea how I was going to pay without Mom’s annual Christmas check.

Almost every new thought in my stream of consciousness made another drink sound really good.

“Is Randal really harmless?” I said. Devin didn’t hear me. I shouted the question back to him, and he turned around, washrag in hand, leaning on the bar.

“Randal?” he said. “Yeah, I don’t think he’d hurt a fly.”

I made my cheeks and lips into Silly Putty, tugging their muscles up and down. The whiskeys made it feel funny, almost entertaining. A deep breath, and I said, “Tell me about him.”

Devin scratched his goatee, gave me a weird look. “Well,” he said, emphasizing the ell, “he’s divorced. Had a wife and a boy, I think. Got into a motorcycle accident a few years back that left him sort of brain damaged. He walked away from the wreck with his body intact, but not his mind, as you can see.” He started to wipe down the countertop, though it was already pristine from what I could tell. “I don’t think he sees much of his boy, or the ex, not these days. He’s lived here since I started subletting the duplex upstairs. I haven’t talked to him much, always felt like maybe I should. I see ‘im walkin’ the halls, talkin’ to himself a lot. Don’t guess he’s got much more company than that. The voices in his head.”

I nodded, pretended my face was a Stretch Armstrong some more.

“Why?” Devin asked. “He botherin’ you, Chelsea?”

I thought about it over the last sip of my drink and decided now was the worst time to stir the pot. “No,” I said. “No. Just wondering.”

That was all either of us said until Devin politely asked me to leave when he started to close up. Normally, the place would be hopping and stay open until the wee hours, but with the holidays, nobody was really around to fill seats. I left without argument, fiddled with my keys and stumbled off the barstool. Home was as close as I could’ve prayed for; I took the stairs one step at a time, each one its own mini-challenge, until I reached my apartment door and let myself in.

While I hummed a carol, I flipped the light switch and threw my coat on the floor, waddled to my bedroom and the impending embrace of my bedsheets.

And there, sitting on my own bed, was Randal, alert and in waiting. With only my knock-off Tiffany lamp to light the room, he looked sinister, nefarious – the whole thing was like the cover art to a terrible serial killer movie.

“Hi,” he said.

My response was, “Shit!” or something like it, followed immediately by a clumsy maneuver to tear off one of my snow boots. Randal simply sat there and watched, observing like a museum patron as I fell over myself, drunk and stupid, struggling to pull myself up with a hefty shoe in one hand.

For his part, Randal didn’t struggle, not even when I flung myself at him, raising the boot above my head and bearing it down on his squat, vulnerable body. I wailed on him, striking him wherever the boot in my furious hand landed. Over and over, I whacked him across the ribs, the face, the back, with the sole of my boot. Screaming, crying out for help, I grew bloodthirsty in my drunken fervor. No matter how many times I felt the impact resound from his person to the shoe to my arm, it wasn’t enough. For a moment there, it wouldn’t be enough until I saw his lifeless little pervert body sprawled out on the hardwood floor.

All he did was cower, crumple, melt into my bed, slide off, and fall to the floor, whimpering. The poor bastard didn’t raise a hand against me, didn’t even lift an arm to shield himself from my rage. It felt like hours, but it was probably only seconds later that I did finally let up, let myself follow his lead and concede an upright position. I, too, hit the floor, thumping my knees against wood, the world swirling around me like the backdrop in Philip’s roving webcam.

The two of us were probably a sight, holding ourselves up by the palms, panting and coughing at the foot of my bed. At some point I heard Randal, through struggling breaths, murmuring an apology. “Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, stinging my ears with some acid, disgusting twinge in his reedy, addled voice. I slapped him, and he broke down, sobbing and curling up in a fetal position.

“I’m sorry, Chelsea,” he said. “Oh, God forgive me, I’m so sorry.”

I dropped the boot, kicked it away. Its temptation was too great. “What the hell are you doing in here, Randal?” I said. The anger in my voice shocked even me. I must have put the fear of God in that man.

“I have to ask you something.” I couldn’t tell, looking at him, what was tears, snot, or sweat dripping off in beads from his face. I looked away.

“What?” I said to the floor. “What do you want?”

“I prayed,” said Randal, taking sharp breaths, choosing his words carefully. “I prayed for God to show me a sign. I begged and pleaded with the Almighty to show me the way, to point me in the right direction. And he showed me you, Chelsea.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I let him. “I know nobody else can see it. I know you might not even see it. But I know who you are. I know what you are, and what it means. Do you know how that feels?”

I shook my head. “What do you want to ask me, Randal?”

“Can you—” he stopped, only for a second, and found whatever it was inside himself he needed to trudge on. “Can you fix me?”

I pried my eyes from the easy view of the hardwood to face him again. He was leaning against the side of the bed, hands folded in his lap. Bleeding from the nose, hair sticking out on all sides. A wreck of a man. “Can you fix me?” he asked.

In my mind’s eye, I wiped the sweat, the blood, the tears away, smoothed his hair back. Really got a good look at him, a nice long glimpse at who he had been in a previous life. What his wife must’ve seen at one time. Or his ex-wife. I wondered what he would think if he found out his own personal Jesus was just as much of an aimless mess. Would he be here now if he’d had a chat about me with Philip? With my mother, or even with Devin, who knew I was four weeks behind on the rent?

I didn’t lie to him. The room seemed to swallow me whole, my perception distorted by the drink. I fell and fell as I answered him, quite honestly, “No. I can’t. No.”

He nodded. “I understand,” he said. “And I’m sorry. I just had to know for sure.”

“I can’t do anything for you,” I said. “Nothing that’ll matter. I’m sorry.” The walls continued to shrink around me. In all likelihood I would be on the floor in the bathroom, hurling up my profuse drink orders in just about ten minutes. I honed everything on Randal, every sense I had. Used him as an anchor to keep my head from swimming. “This is all I can do,” I said.

And I put my arms around him, drew him tight. Cradled his head, gently and with my boot’s bruises in mind. We sat on the floor, rocking in synch. He said, “Thank you,” only once, and then shook me with outbursts that felt as though they’d been struggling to break free for a long, long time.

I shushed him, told him it would be okay. We rocked, we swayed, and the room slowly fell still. And all I could think was: all over the world, there are people praying to their God, but tonight, only Randal gets to be held by his.

Baker & the Bowman Monk

I’ve never been all that comfortable standing in a blockade of yellow police tape, and judging from the way I felt, surrounded by an uneven square of the stuff on the vacant lot outside Benny Hascomb’s place, I suppose I never will. There’s something about that command –DO NOT CROSS– that’s so stern it makes me feel a little guilty for disobeying.

The name’s Walden Baker: Private Eye.

Please, tell your friends.

Trina Hascomb, only my third client since I started a two-bit investigation agency over a year ago, tiptoed down the concrete steps that led out of her father’s run-down home. I lit a cigar. I’m not really one for stogies; give me a good old-fashioned cigarette any day. But if I want to be taken seriously as a detective, it’s better if I’m seen biting off the end of a Swisher Sweet and spitting it into the grass before lighting up. It’s part of the job.

She was adorable, no doubt, with those curly brown locks and her novelty nineties  cartoon t-shirt. She lifted the police tape over her head and crossed into the crime scene. “You’re late, Mr. Baker,” she said.

I licked a bit of tobacco off on my arm and hoped to God it looked sexy, or vaguely mysterious.

“Yeah, well…” I started.

“Well, what?”

Well, I had to visit the men’s room and couldn’t get the toilet to flush. “Other obligations,” I said. “My apologies.”

She flashed my own business card between those two perfect fingers. “Your card says you charge by the hour. We had an appointment. I’m not paying for the time we’ve lost.”

I nodded. Can’t say no to a pretty girl. Or anyone, for that matter–especially if they’re willing to pay me for my services, trivial as they are.

Her eyes were bloodshot, moist. Of course. Her father was found murdered that morning, or so she believed. The police wrote it off as a heart attack, so she called me. If I was lucky, it would be a homicide. That would be something.

“How’d you hear about me?” I asked. The last ad I could afford to put in the paper was eight months ago, and they misspelled my name.

“You were on the news,” she said. “On the ‘Lighter Side’ segment.”

“Really? How about that?”

“They kind of poked fun at you.” She smiled.

Was she poking fun, too?

“So how does this work?” she asked. “You just draw the crime scene?”

I shook my head, opening my satchel to remove a sketchpad and a No. 7 pencil. “No, there’s more to it than that. I’ll start by drawing the crime scene, yeah. After that, I’m sorry, but I’ll need to question you for a while about your dad. His old haunts, his friends… his enemies, if he had any. When I’ve got all the pertinent information I’ll work up a composite sketch and hopefully something will stand out to me as I’m drawing. The devil is in the details, Ms. Hascomb. I just tend to see that devil a little more clearly in my own artwork. Does that make sense?”

She nodded. “I guess,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Do you need me to stay close by?”

“I’ll come get you when I’m done out here, and we can start your part in this,” I said, wheezing a little on cigar smoke. “You go relax.”

“Okay,” she said. “And it’s Trina.”

“Okay, Trina. Go relax.” I smiled, as best I could without flashing my teeth. I’m self-conscious about my teeth.

Trina went inside and I squatted on the cracked pavement, soaking in the surroundings: the chalk outline, the tufts of grass pushing through the cracks in the concrete, a cigarette butt right where Benny’s head would have hit the pavement. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go into a virgin crime scene, one the cops haven’t picked clean yet. As things were, I had to make do with table scraps, hope the police had overlooked something helpful. For instance, maybe the discarded can of RC Cola on the ground was a clue–just maybe.

I clicked my pencil and put it to the page.

An hour later, Trina let me inside the house. “There’s lemonade if you want any,” she said. I declined.

“How about an RC Cola? Any left?” I asked.

“No one in this house drinks that stuff,” she said. Her face pulled back in half-insulted protest. I took note of this.

We crossed the kitchen into the den, where an older, overweight woman in a bathrobe sat back in a hideous burgundy armchair, grinding a cigarette butt into a plastic ashtray. She lifted her head at the sound of our footsteps.

“Is this the detective?” she said, drawing out the last word in mock admiration.

Trina nodded.

“What are you, eighteen?” She looked at me, obvious disdain on her wrinkled face. The light emphasized an unfortunate mole on her upper lip.

“Twenty-five,” I said. “Are you Mrs. Hascomb?”

She puttered her lips and stood up, then walked past us into the kitchen, bumping into my shoulder on her way.

Trina’s face flushed, assuming the burden of shame on her mother’s behalf. “Sorry,” she said. “Mom’s upset, as I’m sure you can understand.”

“I understand,” I said, although I took note of her behavior. The devil is in the details.

Trina sat on the couch, gesturing for me to take a spot beside her. I hesitated–it was a small couch, with little room for two people unless they were going to be canoodling–then I sat.

“You know,” she said, “Dad was an artist, too. Like you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“You can take a look at some of his work,” she said. “In the attic, in some boxes. It’s pretty amazing. Can I see what you’ve drawn here?”

I shook my head. “Not yet,” I said. She looked disappointed, so I apologized.

“No, I get it,” she said. “Mr. Baker, are you a comic book fan?”

“Do I fit the bill that much?” I asked, smiling. “No, never really got into them. Why?”

She rubbed her arm in nervous strokes. “There’s something I noticed. Something I haven’t told the cops or Mom yet,” she said. “See, Dad was a big collector, and…” She inhaled. “When all this happened, I went to his room and pulled a longbox out from under his bed. I wanted to leaf through some of his comics just to feel…I dunno…connected, I guess.”

“Of course,” I said. I have a friend who can vouch for the healing powers of reading a lost loved one’s comic book collection.

“One of them was missing, Mr. Baker,” she said, her eyes widening. “A rare piece, the debut issue of a series called The Bowman Monk. Have you heard of it?”

Again, I shook my head.

“It was Dad’s prized piece. If nothing else, do you –do you think you could find it?” Her eyes somehow grew even wider, and again they welled up with grief.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”

Her head dropped, becoming entangled in a mess of curly locks. “All right,” she said. “Let’s get started. Ask me whatever you need to know.”

I obliged, and we talked for hours about her father.

***

Later that night, I envisioned what my final portrait of the crime would wind up looking like. I was surprised to find that, of all the information she’d divulged, the one detail I kept coming back to as most crucial was the inexplicable disappearance of The Bowman Monk #1.

The next morning I Googled the nearest comic book shop and headed straight there. A kindly woman in a wheelchair sat behind the register and looked up with great enthusiasm when the bell above the door rang.

“Well, hi there! What can I help you with today?” came her sing-song, twangy voice.

I introduced myself, flashed my card, and tried hard not to feel so damn cool doing it. I couldn’t help myself; when she took the card I flipped up the collar of my pea coat and pushed my fedora down so the brim cast a shadow over my eyes.

“Well, wow, mister,” she said, eyeing the card with genuine awe. “What can I do to help?”

“I’m looking for a copy of The Bowman Monk #1,” I said.

Her smile faded, her lips pursing and sucking in air. “Ooh,” she said. “I’m afraid that’s gonna be a tough one. That’s an extremely rare collector’s piece. I read somewhere about one bein’ auctioned off for half a million last week. I’d kill to get my hands on one, but…” She shrugged: c’est la vie.

“I’d never dream of buying an original,” I said. “Haven’t you got a reprint or anything like that?”

She frowned. “Ka-Pow comics, the publisher, can’t do reprints of that origin issue. There’s a problem with the copyright. I’m sorry,” she said. She reached down beneath the counter. “I know it’s a small consolation, but can I interest you in a complimentary issue of Thor vs. Zombies vs. Werewolves?”

“No, thanks,” I said.

“I can’t interest anyone in an issue of Thor vs. Zombies vs. Werewolves,” she said. She set it down like a smelly discarded piece of meat.

“May I ask what this investigation of yours pertains to?” she said.

“The murder of Benny Hascomb,” I said.

“Benny Hascomb was murdered?” she said, leaning back. “I heard it was his heart did him in.”

The Bowman Monk begs to differ.”

***

My next stop was the obvious one. The drummer for my buddy’s hack band works at the Legion of Nerds booth at the local Bargain Buy electronics store, fixing up computers and burning bootleg DVDs on the sly. He’s a nerd, all right, and loves comic books like a normal man might love his wife or child. If anyone could help me out here, it would be The Drummer. I swear that’s his name. I think it’s on his birth certificate.

The Bowman Monk?” he asked, spraying me with bits of chewed-up beef jerky. “But Walden, that’s out of print. Everyone knows that!” He seemed rueful of this, his bearded, puffy cheeks sagging. “You wanna read about the B.M., you can buy the new stuff. Or, heck, go see the movie coming out next year! But the first issue… no.” I almost expected him to make the sign of the cross against his chest, he spoke with such reverence.

“What’s this I hear about a rights dispute?” I asked, noting how his aura darkened at the mention of it.

“The creator of the book, Russell George? He caused a stink about them reprinting the old number one issue when some guy’s family slandered him by saying George didn’t create it or draw it. That George stole this guy’s work. Which is ridiculous.”

I felt my stomach lurch. “What was the family’s name?” I asked.

“Um… Hasbro— No, Hascomb,” he said, nodding. “The guy’s name was Ben Hascomb. But I never once read anything about Ben himself claiming ownership of the Bowman Monk. Just his wife and daughter. Leeches,” he said, and he spat on the pristine tech room floor.

“Benny Hascomb’s dead,” I said.

“Hm,” the Drummer said. He crossed his arms. “Convenient.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “For whom?”

“The family,” he said, tapping out a beat on the counter with his fingers. “It always looked funny to Bowman Monk fans that while they were blabbing on and on about how Hascomb’s work was stolen, he never complained once himself. Convenient for them.”

“Or,” I said, “convenient for Russell George, if what the Hascombs are saying is true.” Though, I admit, I did wonder why Trina hadn’t mentioned this giant detail.

“So, yeah, I think you’re up a creek on that copy of issue one,” he said. “Unless you want to beg George for one in person. He’s appearing at the New York Comic Con this weekend, you know.”

“Drummer,” I said, leaning over the counter and dropping my voice, “I know you have ways around these things. Isn’t there a torrent of the issue that you can rip or something?”

He beamed. “Sure, I can get it on a flash drive for you, but it’s gonna cost ya.”

I straightened up, lifted my head, and sighed. “What, Drummer?” I asked.

“Hire me as your tech guy at the agency,” he said.

“Drums, my ‘agency’ is run out of my apartment. I’ve made less than four hundred dollars this year doing what I do. Trust me, you do not want to work for me.”

“Say you’ll think about it, and I’ll do it,” he said, then tore into another stick of jerky.

“It’s thought about,” I said, twirling my hand in a “go on, go on” gesture.

Less than thirty seconds later, he held out a flash drive, burping stinky jerky fumes into my face.

“Thanks,” I said and pocketed it.

“You and me,” he said as I turned and headed for the store exit, “the dynamic duo.”

***

When I got home, I read through the debut edition of the Bowman Monk’s adventures. After a power nap and a case of Red Bulls, I went to work, filling up pages of my sketchbook with renderings of all the important pieces to the puzzle: Trina and her mother, the Drummer’s sallow expression at the mention of the Hascombs, the friendly comic store proprietor, and an empty RC Cola can.

After that, I redrew The Bowman Monk #1 in its entirety.

And in those pages, I finally found something. The devil in the details.

***

Trina sprang for two tickets to the New York Comic Con. I hoped to God she wouldn’t dock that off my pay.

During the plane ride, as I explained myself, she held my hand. I tried not to take too much stock in that, but I’m sure she noticed how sweaty my palms were, and how my heart was practically throbbing in my throat.

We stood in line for four hours to get a signature from Russell George, creator of the Bowman Monk. Only we weren’t there for an autograph like all those backpack-wearing, costume-clad fan boys. We had bigger fish to fry.

Once we approached him, I slapped my sketchbook down in front of him.

“Who do I make it out to?” he asked without looking up. He was old, sporting an Einstein hairdo, and had a thick New Yorker’s accent. He smelled like baby powder.

“That’s my original artwork,” I said. “Please don’t sign your name to it, too.”

At this, George looked up. He smiled. “What?” he said, taking a sip of soda from his glass.

“I’ve been doing some reading,” I said. “Catching up on the origin of the Bowman Monk. Great character,” I said. “And I loved his debut.”

“And how’d you get hold of one of those?” he said.

Trina simply watched me (fascinated, I hoped) as I spoke. “Well, we know I didn’t pay half a million for it in an auction, because that was you, wasn’t it? Or one of your employees.”

George shook his head. “I—” he began.

But I was on a roll. God, I love it when I’m on a roll. “Let’s just say I read it, and I redrew every panel in painstaking detail. And something rather interesting caught my eye.”

I flipped to a particular page in my recreation, then pulled out from the sketchbook the printed copy of the original, placing them side-by-side. I pointed to a woman the Bowman Monk happened to be rescuing in a certain frame. The woman was young, beautiful, but a little thick around the waist and had a distinctive mole on her upper lip. She was the spitting image of what Mrs. Hascomb, that crotchety old hag, must have looked like back in her glory days.

“It’s interesting that you drew Benny Hascomb’s wife into this issue,” I said. “If you actually drew this issue.”

George’s leg twitched involuntarily, knocking into the table and spilling his soda in the process.

“What a waste of a perfectly good RC Cola,” I said, cocking my head. If only I could have been smoking a cigar in the convention center, it would have been perfect.

I turned to Trina, drawing the attention of the surrounding mob. “Ms. Hascomb, meet your father’s killer.”

The crowd gasped–just like in the best courtroom dramas.

I jumped as George grabbed my arm, squeezing it. “Young man,” he said, his eyes intense, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I promise you it’s a mistake. Did it ever occur to you that I may have known my good friend Benny Hascomb’s wife back then? Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, Henrietta Hascomb could have meant something to somebody other than Ben?”

My jaw dropped. Trina let out an odd, sad yelp and escaped into the throng of gawking geeks.

“You mean, you…?” I said. “You and Mrs. Hascomb were…? I mean…?”

In my mind I drew a picture, one of a man trying to hide an ancient mistake from the world, a man betrayed by an old flame who was publicly calling him a fraud and a thief, sullying his good name over sour grapes.

George pointed at me. “Get this man out of my sight,” he said, and I didn’t put up a fight when a security guard ushered me by my arm toward the nearest exit. I could only hope this wouldn’t wind up as a viral online video clip.

“And get me another Diet Pepsi!” George roared behind me.

***

I insisted that Trina and I take separate planes home. I’d like to say it was an act of chivalry for having humiliated her in such a public forum, but honestly it could be chalked up more to my own embarrassment. I couldn’t bear to sit next to her for three hours.

The next day I knocked sheepishly on her door, letting my fist slide down the wooden surface after the third rap. I heard her shout something to her mother from inside. She answered and looked at me without saying anything.

“Sorry,” I said and put a cigar to my mouth. Before I could light it, she snatched it and put it between her own lips. I lit it and watched her take a puff.

We sat there–on a bench in the empty lot where her father had suffered a heart attack and died–and smoked. The next words said aloud were hers.

“The plane ticket was your pay,” she said. “Hope you liked Comic Con.”

I nodded. “It was all right,” I said, pleased to see her smile in response. I opened my satchel and removed a pile of stapled papers, offering it to her.

“What’s this?” she said.

“I promised you I’d find your dad’s copy of The Bowman Monk #1,” I said, “but I’m afraid the best I can do is offer my recreation of it.”

She smiled, leafing through the pages. “No, this is nice,” she said. “I actually know the guy who drew this one.”

I looked down and handed her the cigar again. “I’m pretty sure your dad auctioned his original off a week before…all this.”

“That would explain how Mom’s affording all these attorney consultations. She’s planning on suing George and Ka-Pow Comics around the time the Bowman Monk movie comes out,” she said. “I told her I won’t testify, but she’s hell-bent anyway.”

“Your mom is an odd bird, if you don’t mind my saying,” I said.

She puffed on her cigar, the smoke billowing out of her nose in cloudy tufts.

“You don’t think he was murdered anymore, do you?” I asked. I had to, because if nothing else, perhaps I could soothe her with what I thought was a certainty now: Benny Hascomb did not die in cold blood.

She said nothing. She didn’t have to. If she needed further proof, other, better detectives – real detectives ­– could provide it. Or, if she was feeling especially careless… Well, she still had my card. She still had my number.

***

But for the record, I haven’t seen her since.

Right After These Words

Right After These Words
 Ryan Everett Felton

The sun wouldn’t be up for another good hour, but against all natural order the population was already wide-awake through the assistance of coffee, dietary supplements, a well-trained biological clock, or else some miracle. They’d have all been much better off just going back to bed, at least until daylight broke.

It was strictly nerves, though, that kept Tim awake. Of all these people, lined up in their vehicles from here to the horizon, perhaps he was the only one who was up this early without needing to be. He hadn’t slept for a while, though it wasn’t as if the world demanded too much from him to spare a few hours for some shut-eye. He just couldn’t.

One hand gripped the steering wheel while Tim pressed his phone to his ear. He’d been on hold for so long now, circling the block, that the old piece of junk felt like a hot iron held against the side of his face. Traffic moved at such a pace that his ankle felt raw, switching from gas to brake so much, and his battered windshield wipers weren’t doing much about the morning mist.

The FM radio crackled over the course of the Stewart Hawkes morning show, but Tim could make out Hawkes’s familiar timbre just fine. He’d been listening for an hour already – had been waiting to get on the air twice as long.

“We’re gonna take a quick break,” said Hawkes as he amped up some outro music, “and when we return we’ll take a few calls. I think we’ve got Lisping Tim on the line, so everyone hold onto your seats for that!”

Tim dialed down the volume. He didn’t care to hear the same advertisements for the thousandth time, and besides – soon enough he’d have to turn it off anyway. The feedback.

He and the rest of the morning commuters had come to a complete stop. Phone still sizzling on his cheek, his bald head made a slow swivel about his padded, hairy neck. All these people, he thought, headed to work.

I bet every single one of them wanted to be an actor or an artist or a rock star. But the world needs accountants and realtors and baristas, too.

The voice in the back of his head – which wasn’t a voice so much as his own less-filtered stream of consciousness – asked Tim what the world needed out of him.

There wasn’t enough time to answer. The droning, jazzy hold music clicked off on the other end of the line and now Jerry, Hawkes’s producer, was talking to him.

“Hey, Tim,” he said. Even Jerry sounded exhausted.

“Hi, Jerry,” said Tim. His phone, slimy with his own facial oil, slid across his cratered face.

“When we get back from commercial we’re gonna put you right on, okay? Stewart’s looking for something funny after that news report about the fire.”

“I heard it,” said Tim.

“I’m sure you did,” said Jerry. “When have you ever missed a show?”

Tim didn’t know if Jerry was making fun of him, but it was safe to assume, at this point, that he was.

“Okay,” Jerry said, “you’re on. Have fun with it.”

And like that, Lisping Tim – everyone’s favorite dopey Hawkes Show caller was on the air for – what? The hundredth time? The hundred-and-fiftieth?
Either way, it was his last.

“And we’re back,” Tim heard Hawkes say over the phone, “and joining us once again is Lith-ping Tim. Thay, Timmy, how’th trickth?”

“Okay,” he said. At least, he thought he did. He barely heard his own voice.

“What’s goin’ on in your world, Tim? C’mon, make us all feel better about ourselves!”

Tim wondered, looking from car to car on the highway, how many people were listening to him right now. And out of them, how many were already laughing at him.

“Still livin’ with Mom?” asked Hawkes, reaching, hoping to get something going. “Or did you kill her and stuff her in a closet yet? Are you wearing your mother’s nightie right now?”
Tim could hear the others in Hawkes’s radio troupe laughing in the background. He could swear the guy in the car next to him had just thrown his head back in laughter.

“Well?” said Hawkes. The calm cool of his voice rose, in that one syllable, to an impatient jab.

“Well,” said Tim. He stopped. Deep breath. The veins in the hand that gripped the steering wheel bulged as he squeezed the vinyl.
There was a long pause during which Tim thought, honestly believed, that his no-good voice had left him once and for all.

“Look, man,” said Hawkes, “I got a show to do. Gimme somethin’.”

Tim spat out a puff of air and ran the tip of his tongue across his palate. “Well,” he said at last – with some effort, “I’m going to kill myself this morning.”

Silence. Hawkes might have hung up. There was no way to be sure, with the radio down and his pulse pounding in his ears.

“I just wanted you and your listeners to know,” said Tim, into the phone and possibly to no one.

Then he took a sharp left, veered onto the sidewalk, and sped up his maroon pick-up to sixty. He drove it head-on into the brick wall of the Sbarro’s on Briarcliff and Franklin.

There was only a moment of pain before, finally, he went to sleep.

Two days of self-imposed silence later, after turning away another nosy reporter, Tim the local radio celebrity sat upright in a lumpy hospital bed stirring a cup of pudding with a gnawed plastic spoon. Propped up in a nylon sling, his plaster-encased leg looked to him like it stretched on for miles. Since he wasn’t using his mouth to eat or (under any circumstances) to talk, Tim let it hang open, breathing through it in a futile effort to keep the smell of ammonia from assaulting his olfactories. That’s when this Axe-soaked frat boy of a nurse moseyed in to empty his piss jar, grinning from ear to ear.

“You really him?” the nurse asked, his reedy Bostonian dialect the furthest thing from a suitable bedside manner. Bent over, snatching the plastic jug at the foot of the bed, he clarified: “Are you really Lisping Tim?”

Tim pulled the sheets tight around his waist, their scratchy texture like Brillo rubbing against his considerable belly. Screwing up his hairless face, riddled with adult acne, he poured as much concentration into his first words in two days as he could. “Yeah,” he said.

He wouldn’t say, “Yes.”

“I am.”

He wouldn’t say, “That’s me.”

“Man,” the nurse said, straightening up with that foul container clasped between two gloved hands, “I freakin’ love you on show.”
Tim nodded.

“Makes my day every time you call in.” The nurse seemed genuinely star-struck, a phenomenon Tim might have reveled in at one point. He loomed over the bedridden schlub, violating several health codes with an open biohazard in his grip. “Cracks me up,” he said through a mouthful of perfect teeth.

Tim shifted in his ninety-degree position, his elbows pinned down so that the tight comforter dug deeper into his flesh. A burst of fresh pain erupted in his abdomen, his ribs. The curly-haired kid in the scrubs set the jug down on the rollaway tray and, making a beeline for a nearby AM/FM radio, said, “They’ve been talking about you all morning on Hawkes.” He flipped the switch and fiddled with the dial. “Here, listen.”

Two days, from the moment his truck collided with the front of the pizzeria to this instant – it was the longest Tim had gone without hearing a second of Stewart Hawkes’ morning radio broadcast. The longest he had gone without a phoned-in appearance as the show’s resident goofball caller. Now that was all out the window, as Hawkes’s rumbling jester voice filled the room, condensed to a melody through a series of expensive audio equipment.

“But they say Lisping Tim’s gonna be okay, really,” came Hawkes’ voice. “And from what I’ve seen of his vehicle, that’s a miracle.”
Tim swallowed, closing his mouth.

The nurse scooped up the plastic container full of Tim’s refuse and carried it into the bathroom, taking careful steps to better hear Hawkes and his sidekick Kerri dish it out over the airwaves.

“But this wasn’t an accident,” came Kerri’s rumbling purr. “That much is obvious. So what’s going on with Tim?”

“Maybe he finally listened to a tape of the show and heard the sound of his own voice,” Hawkes said. Next came laughter from the staff in the studio.
In the adjoining bathroom, the toilet flushed.

The smarmy male nurse reappeared, peeling the rubber gloves off his hands, just in time for his blood-curdling smirk to couple with Hawkes’s next witticism: “You think there’s any chance he bit off a chunk of his tongue in the crash and now he can talk like a normal person?”

More laughter. Kerri said, “Oh, stop it!” But she was laughing, too. Tim loved the sound of her laugh, even now. All at once a dozen imagined replies came to him. In his head he was bantering with Hawkes, snapping at Kerri, and they were eating it up. He had only to pick up the telephone.

But no. He was done with all that. No more putting himself out there, broadcasting himself to countless thousands, just to be mocked and maligned. For some reason the universe had seen fit to let him walk away from the wreck with his life, and now was no time to pick up old, masochistic habits.

Leaning against the closed bathroom door, the nurse forced out a false cough and folded his arms. Tim looked anywhere but toward his unwelcome spectator, settling on picking his spoon back up and swirling it around in the pudding again.

Hawkes said, “Listen, I gotta take a break. We’ll be back right after these words,” and played himself out to his hard-rock theme music.
In his periphery he could still make out the nurse, observing from his roost just outside the lavatory. Why wouldn’t he leave?

“Can I ask you something?” the nurse said.

Tim ran his eyes from his hip to the tips of his toes on the wounded leg. His little piggies peeked out of the fuzz-riddled edge of the cast, purple and pruny. He gave no answer.

Taking his silence as a “yes,” the nurse took a step forward, stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Why’d ya’ do it?” he asked.

Tim looked up at the young man, incensed by his mere appearance. Smug, good-looking, young – and well aware of all of the above. Tim chose his words with caution, avoiding the more troublesome consonants. He said, “I’m done. With calling in, with getting mocked. With everything.”

The nurse took two more steps, grabbed the pudding cup from Tim’s hand. Tim went still. “Not what I meant,” the nurse said. “I mean, why call and announce it?”
Tim’s chapped lips inverted, creating a ventriloquist dummy’s cracks at the jowls. He said nothing.

“Y’know what I think?” the nurse said. He shoveled some pudding into his mouth with his tongue and swallowed. “I think it was a bit. Like when you streaked at the Falcons game with ‘Stewart Hawkes’ painted across your back.”

Tim scoffed. His beet-colored toes curled at the base of their plaster prison.

“You can tell me,” the nurse said, tossing the pudding cup into a nearby trashcan. “I think it’s funny.”

On the radio, a well-spoken woman announced an impending sale at Penney’s. Tim snorted and touched his chin to his chest, closing his eyes. After enough time and silence had passed that he thought the nurse must have taken the hint and slithered off to bother someone else, he opened them again.

That’s when a telephone creeped into Tim’s vision as if it was alive, hovering around his head. He looked up and to his right, where the nurse extended his arm, offering him the generic-looking, tan landline.

“You should call in,” said the nurse, unable to suppress a fit of giggles.

“I don’t do that anymore,” Tim answered without pause.

“Since when?”

“Since —” Tim stopped. He’d caught himself too late, and with one misspoken word he’d brought down the house. The nurse clutched his own chest, belly-laughing.

“You gotta call in,” he said. He held the phone less than an inch from Tim’s face.

The pasty-faced patient pushed himself upright and away from the receiver threatening to climb down his throat. The pain in his ribs, dulled by a steady dosing of morphine, arrived a few seconds late. He sighed, breathing in through his nose and catching a whiff of hospital stench, expelling it with a forceful cough.
There must have been about a hundred ways he could have ended it. Of all of them, he chose the one method that landed him here, alive, with this kid shoving a phone in his face. Why?

He pondered the nurse’s theory – that the whole thing had been a stunt, a gag to draw attention to himself. The very idea that Hawkes’s listeners might be thinking the same thing sped up his heart rate. With just one quick call he could explain himself, really drive home his point, make his stand.

At last, he nodded. He tore the receiver from the nurse’s calloused hands and said, “Yeah, okay. Yeah.”

The nurse brushed a set of Neanderthal’s knuckles across Tim’s shoulder. “Hell. Yes. Lisping Tim!” he said. He took one step before asking, “You need a phone book or something?”

Tim shook his head. “No. I know the number,” he said, and before the last word left his mouth he was already hunched over, dialing.

The nurse looked on, shaking his own head in disbelieving amusement, no doubt capturing this moment for one hell of a story to tell his buddies later on. An operator answered as Tim stretched himself across the bedside table to turn the radio down.

The Stewart Hawkes Show,” came the tinny intern’s voice. “Thanks for calling. Who’s this?”

“This is Lisping Tim,” Tim said. “Can I get through? I need to talk to Stewart.”

Just a moment’s silence, then, “One moment, please.”

The familiar hold music followed. Soon he’d be back on the air, too nervous to concentrate hard enough to not come off sounding like a fool. Which, of course, was just how Stewart and his audience liked him. The mimicry, the taunting, the other listeners that called in to tell him what a piece of shit he was – two days ago, these things had crossed some threshold, become too great a burden. Just two days ago Tim had been certain he wanted to die.

But now, with the phone in his hand, he felt different. Some feeling in his gut, one he recognized but must have grown numb to at one point, returned with a surge. He felt empowered, somehow. If he could just hear Kerri’s signature chuckle over the landline or get a “thanks” from Stewart for another killer segment during the ads, it would be enough. It would be enough to go on, until it wasn’t, and when that time came ­– well, there would always be tomorrow morning’s rush hour and the switchboard at station ninety-six-point-five.

The muzak clicked off, and Jerry’s breathless voice took its place. “Tim?” he said. “Is that you? For real?”

Tim gave the receiver a little dominant squeeze. “Yes,” he said, “it’s me. I’d like to speak with Stewart on-air about my little accident.”

Having visited the studio, Tim could imagine Jerry in the control room, wiping his forehead and tucking in his top lip. “Sure,” he said, “sure, we’ll get you right on.” Then more hold music. The usual runaround.

Remembering that he wasn’t alone, Tim pointed at the room’s open door and stared down the nurse until he took the message and clambered out. The kid could listen to Tim on the radio out in the hall.

He could hear him the same way everybody else did.