Miles to Go

Running-with-the-Night

Ryan ground his way up the incline, his compression shirt dark with perspiration. His Reeboks gripped the asphalt and the sound of his breathing was the only noise on the country road. He glanced at his wrist odometer: Twenty-five point seven. Not terrible. But he could go further. Had to.

He’d worked his ass off doing upwards of twenty miles a day for the last three years and knew he was ready to break the next big barrier. Fifty.

His body was up to it, the muscles tight and taut. They’d be going through a world of changes over the next twenty-five miles. His breathing was easy. Just the way he liked it. Easy. The strength of will was there.

There was something almost religious about all this feeling, he told himself. Maybe it was the sublime monotony of stretching every muscle and feeling it fire in response. Or it could be feeling his will propel his body forward when his mind wanted to quit. Perhaps even the humid expansion of his chest as his lungs ballooned with air.

But none of that was really the answer. It was the competing with and against himself.

Beating his own best distance. Crushing his own limits. Running was the time he felt most alive. He knew that as surely as he knew the sun would rise in the morning.

He loved the dull ache that caressed his limbs and even anticipated the moment, a few minutes into the first mile, when a dull throb would climb his body to his brain like a live wire, revitalizing him. It transported him, taking his mind to another place, very deep within.

He was almost to the summit of the hill.

Even this far, everything was feeling good. He shrugged off some tightness in his shoulders, clenching his fists and punching at the air like a boxer deep into the late rounds of a title fight. The late March chill turned to pink steam in his chest making his body tingle as if a microscopic cloud of needles were passing through, from front to back, leaving pin-prick holes.

He shivered. The crest of the hill was just ahead. And on the downward slope was a new part of his personal route: a dirt road, carpeted with leaves, which wound through a silent forest at the peak of these mountains.

As he broke the crest, he picked up speed, tilting downhill toward the dirt road. His Reeboks flexed against the gravel, sliding out beneath him a little.

It had taken so much time to prepare for this. Months of meticulous care of his body. Vitamins. Counting calories. Tracking macronutrients. The endless training and timing. Commitment to his body. It was as critical as the commitment to the goal itself.

Fifty miles.

As he picked up momentum, jogging easily downhill, the mathematical breakdown of that figure filled his head with tumbling digits. Zeroes unglued from his thought tissues and linked with cardinal numbers to form combinations which added to fifty. It was suddenly all he could think about. Twenty-five plus twenty-five. Five times ten. Forty-nine plus one. Shit. It was driving him crazy.

The dirt road.

He noticed the air cooling. The big trees that shaded the forest road were lowering the temperature. Night was close. Another hour. Thirty minutes plus thirty. This math thing was getting irritating. Ryan tried to remember some of his favorite AC/DC songs as he loped wolfishly through the dense forest.

Highway to Hell bounced in without warning. Great song. Perfect damn title for his length of run. If Bon Scott and Angus Young said they were driving the bus to Hell he would have gladly jumped on board now. He figured if anyone knew the way it was a couple of Aussies as they basically lived in Hell anyway.

Ryan continued to run at a comfortable pace over the silty soil. Every few steps he could hear a leaf or small branch crunch under his shoes. What was that old thing? Something about butterflies? Don’t ever move even a small rock when you’re at the beach or in the mountains. It disturbs the natural order of the universe. Nature can’t ever be right again if you do. The repercussions can start the end of all things if you extrapolate it out far enough.

Ryan’s foot suddenly caught on a tree root reaching up a skeletal finger from the grave and he fell forward slamming into the trail hard. On the ground, the dirt coated his face and lips and a spoonful got into his mouth. He also scraped his knee. It was one of those shitty scrapes that tears a layer of skin off and stings like it’s a lot worse. A thin trickle of blood leaked down his shin and blackened from the dust shot into the air from his fall.

He was up again in a second and heading down the road, slightly disgusted with himself. He knew better than to lose his footing. He was too good an athlete for that.

His mouth was getting dry and he worked up some saliva by rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Strange how he never got thirsty on these marathons of his. The body just seemed to live off itself for the period of time it took. Next day he usually guzzled gallons of water and juice but in running all thirst faded. The body sustained itself. It was weird.

The sun was basically gone now. Fewer and fewer animals crossed the path near him. Their sounds faded all around. Birds stopped singing. The frenetic scrambling of squirrels halted as they prepared to bed down for the night. Far below, at the foot of these hills, the city lights cast an orange phospherous tint on the few clouds drifting over the horizon. The sun was lowering and the tree canopy rose to meet it like a deep green comforter.

Ahead, Ryan could see a long, winding corner.

How long had he been moving through the forest path? A hour? More? Was it possible he’d gone the ten or so mile length of the path already?

That was one of the insane anomalies of running these marathons of his. Time got distorted in a paralax way. He’d think he was running ten miles and find he’d actually covered considerably more ground. Sometimes as much as double his estimate. He couldn’t ever figure that one out. But it always happened when his mind wandered and he always just sort of anticipated it. Like travelling through a tunnel on a train.

He checked his odometer: Twenty-nine point eight. Better than halfway there and still feeling strong.

The dirt path would be coming to an end in a few hundred yards. Then it was straight along the roadway which ran atop the ridge of this ski hill far above cityscape below. The ski hill was bordered with towering floodlights which lit the way like some forgotten runway for ancient astronauts. They stared down from fifty-foot poles and bleached the asphalt and roadside.

The path had ended now and he was on the deserted mountaintop road with its faded center line that stretched to forever. As Ryan wiped his glowing face with a sleeve, he heard someone hitting a crystal glass with thick fingers. It wasn’t a pinging sound.  More like a high-pitched thud that was chain reacting. He looked up and saw insects of the night swarming dementedly around a floodlights’s sunburst flame. Thousands of them in hypnotic suicide dive-bombed again and again at the huge bulb.

Eerie seeing that kind of thing way the hell out here. But nice country to run in just the same. Gentle sloping hills. Nothing but heavy silence. Nobody ever drove this road any more as far as he could tell. It was as deserted as any Ryan could remember. The perfect place to run.

The forests mingling smells were clean and healthy, the air sweet. Great decision building his house up here last year. This was definitely the place to live. A slice of Heaven is what his father used to call this kind of country when Ryan was growing up in Bancroft.

He laughed out loud into the silence as he thought of how glad he was to be out of that place. People never did anything with their lives. Born there, schooled there, married there and died there was the usual redneck legacy. They all missed out on life. Missed out on new ideas and ambitions. The doctor slapped their asses and from that point on their lives just curled up like a banana peel in the sun.

It was just as well.

How many of them could take the pressure being a civil litigator? Especially in a firm like Ryan’s? None of the old friends he’d gladly left behind in his home town would ever have a chance going up against a guy like himself. He was going to be the head of his law firm in a few more years. Most of those rednecks back home couldn’t even spell success much less achieve it.

But to each his own. Regardless of how pointless some lives really were, he was going to be the head of his own firm and wouldn’t even be forty by the time it happened. Maybe, they were all married and had their families worked out but what a fucking bore that must be. The last thing Ryan needed right now was that noose tightening around his neck. Maybe the family guys figured they had something valuable but for Ryan it was a complete waste of time. Only thing a wife and kids would do is drag him down. Hold him under water. Priorities. First things first. Career then everything else but put that relationship stuff off until after he could slow down his meteoric rise.

Besides, with all the inevitable success coming his way, meeting ladies would be a cinch. And hell, anyone could have a kid. Just nature. No big thing. Success? That was something else. Took a very driven beast to grab onto that brass ring and never let go. Families were just dead weight when a guy was really climbing. And he, of all the people he’d ever known, was definitely climbing.

Running had helped get him in the right frame of mind to do it. With each mileage barrier he broke, he was able to break greater barriers in life itself, especially his career. It made him more mentally fit to compete when he ran. It strengthened his will and sharpened his mind. Everything felt right when he was running regularly. It wasn’t just the meditative effect. He knew what it gave him was an edge. An edge on his fellow attorneys at the firm and an edge on life.

It was unthinkable to him how the other guys at the firm didn’t take advantage of it. Getting ahead was what it was all about. A guy didn’t make it in the law or anywhere else in the world unless he kept one step ahead of the competition. Keep moving and never let anything stand in the way or hold you down. That was the magic of running.

He got a chill of delicious victory. Thinking this way always made him feel special. Like he had the formula for success that no one had even tried. Daydreaming of success was a very intoxicating thing and with his running now approaching the two and a half-hour mark, hyperventilation was heightening the effect.

He glanced at his odometer: Forty-three point six.

He was feeling like a machine. His calves were burning a little and his back was a bit stiff but at this rate, with his breathing effortless and body strong, he could do sixty or more but fifty was the goal. After that he had to go back and get his briefs in order for tomorrow’s depositions followed by some sleep. Keep the machine in good shape and you rise to the top. None of the drinking or drugs or thousand dollar lunches the morons at his firm were messing with.

He opened his mouth a little wider to catch more air. The night had gone to a deep sea black and all he could hear now was the adhesive squishing of his shoes. Overhead, the hanging branches of pine trees canopied the desolate road and cut the burgeoning moonlight into a million shafts of light.

His odometer: forty-six point two. Sweat was running freely down his face now but running at night always made that easier. The breezes would swathe like cool silk and dry the moisture from his feverish skin. He ran face first into a pocket of humid air and it pressed down on him like too many blankets on a winters night. He coughed and spit.

Almost there.

Ryan was suddenly hit by a stray drop of moisture, then another. The drizzle that they had been warning of all week finally arrived. It wasn’t raining hard, just that misty stuff that atomizes over you like a lawn sprinkler shifted by a light wind but it would have been nice to finish the fifty dry.

The road was going into a left hairpin now and he leaned into it, shoes gripping octopus-tight. Ahead, as the curve broke, the road went straight, as far as the eye could see. Just a two-lane highway laying in wait as far as the eye could see. Now that it was wet, the surface went mirror shiny, like a ribbon tied in a young girls hair. A dense creeping fog began to tease across the hillside, coming closer toward the road.

Ryan checked the odometer, rubbing his hands together for warmth as the temp began to drop dramatically. Forty-nine point eight. Almost there and other than being a little cold, he was feeling like a million bucks. He punched happily at the air and screamed with anticipation of victory. He felt amazing. Tomorrow, at the office, was going to be a victory from start to finish.

He could feel himself smiling, his face hot against the increasingly heavy rain. His compression suit was soaked with sweat and drizzle made him shiver as it touched his skin. He breathed in heaving gulps of the chilled air and as it left his mouth it turned white where it mingled with the fog. His eyes were burning from the cold and he closed them, continuing to run, the effect of total blackness comforting him.

Step by step. Stride by stride.

He opened his eyes and rubbed them with fingers red from the cold. All around, the fog breathed closer, snaking between the limbs of trees and creeping silently across the asphalt. The overhead lights made it glow like a wall of colorless neon.

The odometer.

Another hundred steps and he was there.

The strides came in a smooth flow, like an oiled machine. He spread his fingers wide and shook some of the excess energy that was concentrating and making him feel tingly. It took the edge off but he still felt as though he had shotgunned on a hundred cups of coffee. He ran faster, his arms like swinging pendulums, pulling him forward.

Twenty more steps.

Ten plus ten. Five times . . . Jesus, the math thing was back. He started giggling out loud as he went huffing down the road, compression pants sticking like a second skin.

The sky was suddenly ripped open by lightning and Ryan gasped. In an instant, blackness turned to hot white and there was that visual echo of the light as it trembled in the distance, then fluttered off like a dying bulb.

Ryan checked his odometer.

Five more feet! Three more steps! There it was yelling and screaming and  high fiving him and tossing streamers!

Fifty miles! Fifty fucking miles!

It was fucking incredible! To know he could really, actually do it suddenly hit him and he began laughing uncontrollably.

Now to get that incredible sensation of almost standing still while walking it off. Have to keep those muscles warm. If not he’d get a chill and cramps and feel like someone was going over his calves with fish hooks.

Hot breath gushed visibly from his mouth. The rain was coming faster in a diagonal descent, backlit by lightning and the fog bundled tighter. Ryan took three or four deep breaths and began to slow. It was incredible to have this feeling of edge. The sense of being on top of everything. It was an awareness he could surpass limitations. Make breakthroughs. It was what separated the winners from the losers when taken right down to a basic level. The winners knew how much harder they could push to go farther. Break those, patterns. Create new levels of ability and confidence.

He tried again to slow down. His legs weren’t slowing to a walk yet and he sent the message down again. He smiled. Run too far and the body just doesn’t want to stop.

His legs continued to pull him forward. Rain was drenching down from the sky and Ryan was soaked to the bone. Rain streamed into his eyes and mouth and he coughed to get out what he could as it needled coldly into his face.

“Slow down,” he told his legs. “Stop, goddammit!” But his feet continued on, splashing through puddles which pooled here and there along the foggy road.

Ryan began to breathe harder, unable to get the air he needed. It was too wet; half air, half water. Suddenly, more lightning scribbled across the thundering clouds and he reached to stop one leg.

It did no good. He kept running, even faster, pounding harder against the wet pavement. He could feel the bottoms of his shoes soaking through, starting to wear out. He’d worn the old ones; they were the most comfortable.

Jesus-fucking-God, he really couldn’t stop.

The wetness got colder on his cramping feet. He tried to fall but kept running. Terrified, he began to cough fitfully, his legs continuing forward, racing over the pavement.

His throat was raw from the cold and his muscles ached. He was starting to feel like his body had been beaten with sledgehammers.

There was no point trying to stop. He knew that, now. He’d trained too long. Too precisely.

It had been his single obsession and as he continued to pound against the fog-shrouded pavement all he could hear was a cold, lonely night.

Until the sound of his own screams began to echo through the mountains and fade across the endless road.

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Love Me, Love My Cat

Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1985)

 

“Kate, where the hell did all this blood come from?” Nate yelled as he bolted through the front door hard enough to rattle the glass in rear of the house. He had seen the first spattering of blood like an errant childs finger painting on the concrete walkway to the porch. The droplets became heavier in volume the closer they got to the smeared hand print on the wide open door handle.

Nate had heard the scream echo over the whirring buzz of the wood chipper he had been feeding brush into. An early spring thunder storm had littered the property with several large limbs torn off the maple trees in the expansive back yard. A hand shake deal sealed with a quart of moonshine distilled by an unemployed cousin had let Nate rent the wood pulverizing beast for the entire long weekend for the single day price as long as he made sure it was ready for pick up first thing Monday morning. He had just fed a particularly leafy branch into the teeth of the beast when he heard the high-pitched wail. He had left it running as he bolted for the house.

The drops became smears across the hardwood floor in the entry way as he followed the trail into the large country kitchen. Kate was slumped over on the floor clutching a bloody mess in her fists and sobbing. Her body racked with hitching cries that shook more blood from her hands giving the kitchen a crime scene appearance.

Nate crouched down beside Kate and stroked the back of her hair. The bristle short hair at the nape of her neck tickled his palm as he tried to get her to look at him. His eyes welled up with tears but he knew if she was hurt then he would need his wits about him to deal with it until help arrived. He had just reached into his pocket for his phone to call 911 when he heard Kate croak out a mumble.

“He’s dead.” Kate groaned. Nate shook his head in confusion before looking closer at what was in Kate’s cupped arms. A disjointed mess of fur and protruding bones encircled my a pink collar inset with gaudy fake diamonds. The grey tiger-striped body of Kate’s beloved cat Maxwell Smart covered in blood and the detritus of the last bird it had obviously eaten on the side of the road.

A wail ripped from Kate’s throat and Nate sat down on the floor beside her. He sighed and wiped the sweat that had stuck his shirt collar to his neck. He reached a hand out and stroked the back of Kate’s head again. Her glasses had fallen off in the stumbling trip across the kitchen. Blood had smeared the lens and Nate cleaned them off with the hem of his shirt.

“You know what we have to do now don’t you?” Kate asked as she put her glasses back on. A large droplet hung from the one arm like a dangling ruby earring. With all the blood already every where Nate didn’t see the point in worrying about it. Not with what Kate was talking about.

“No way,” Nate replied with an emphatic shake of his head “There is no way in hell we are doing that.”

“We have to. I can’t live without him!” Kate screamed afresh and jumped up from the floor spraying another swath of blood across the tile floor.

“I am not burying that cat in the pet cemetery.” Nate said gruffly with more force than he intended. He stood and took a step between Kate and the door still hanging open from where he had just burst through. Her attachment to her cat extended back long before they had started dating and had gotten worse since he had moved in. It was like she was protecting that last little piece of her life that he hadn’t been a part of.

“I need him.” Kate sobbed as she slumped back down in a heap of fur and offal. Fresh droplets of cold blood dribbled onto the floor to join the congealing puddles. Max’s fur was matted with it and the sticky mess had suctioned him to Kate’s chest. She stroked him with a fierceness that drove her fingers through the indented lines that the tire had left behind. Her breathing coming in such painful gulps of air that her face showed the purple tinge of oxygen deprivation normally reserved for children holding their breath for the candy they were just denied by a mindful parent.

Nate ran a hand over his prematurely balding scalp and wiped the cooling sweat on his palm down the front of his damp shirt. He had heard the same rumors everyone that lived around them had. That tree choked path that led behind the church cemetery was the entry way to a much more sinister place. That anything buried there came back. Anything. He laughed when Dale Wilkens said they had buried their young daughters goldfish there only to wake up the next morning to it swimming back in the same bowl she had won it in at the State Fair. He had to walk away when Dale remarked that no matter how many times they flipped it over, the fish would continue to swim belly up.

“If you won’t take him up there, I will just do it myself.” Kate huffed as she pushed herself and the mangled feline off the floor. The blood had already congealed into candle wax droplets on the floor but smeared as the incensed woman stomped towards the door.

“In flip-flops?” Nate yelled incredulously as he stepped in front of her.

“If I have to. I need him.” Kate replied with the same nose up turning tone she used when she informed him she was painting the living room gold. It was yellow despite all her assertions it wasnt and she would not back down from it.

“It’s fine.” Nate sighed as he mentally ran through the fight that would take place in the next half hour if he didn’t take the flattened animal across the river to the cemetery. Kate reverently handed him the dripping remains and clasped her hands over her heart. The echoing clap of her sodden palms spraying a fresh connect the dots pattern on the floor. Nate heard fresh wails of anguish as the door banged shut behind him and sighed at the lack of sleep he knew he was going to get over the next few nights. He looked down at the rictus face trapped in mid hairball hack and hoped whatever voodoo was running around that gloomy copse fixed the cats desire to vomit on the floor in front of the shower.

The wood chipper was still belching out exhaust where Nate had left it. Cold black blood had caked his hands despite him holding Max by the few patches of fur he had left but he didn’t care to have to pay the extra charge for them to clean the machine when it got back to the shop. He turned towards his truck and spyed an empty bucket he had for the few times a year he actually washed the worn out beast. With a flick of his wrists, he flipped the cat’s corpse end for end to a resounding clang as it fell neatly in to the bucket.

“Two points.” Nate cheered softly before he walked across the yard to shut down the foliage destroying device.

The ominous pathway cast a pale on the surrounding area deeper than the clouds threatening more rain as Nate pulled his truck to a slow creeping halt. The small rusted fence around the church property line parted just enough to glimpse the hanging branches forming an opening. He forcefully cleared his throat to free the saliva that had pooled there when he forgot to breathe announcing to whatever spirits haunted this desolate place that he was only half sure they existed.

With a groan, Nate realized he had forgotten a shovel our anything with which to dig even the shallowest of graves. He laughed slightly as he stepped from the truck and saw the now completely stiffened cat sticking up from the bucket. The idea quickly dawned on him that he could use the bucket and failing that the felines own board hard body to dig with. He whistled a tuneless note as he swung the bucket over the side of his truck in a vain attempt to bolster whatever good humor he was feeling over the cats death into courage to walk through the grim wooded area.

The dampness swallowed him the instant he moved past the edge of the tree line. Looking back over his shoulder to his truck sitting in full sunlight he felt like he had stepped into the looking-glass. The thick canopy choked out all but the thinnest of light as he picked his way down the mossy path. He seemed to be holding his breath in the deathly silence. Afraid to let out the slightest of sounds. A slight rise gave way to a small clearing dotted with grave markers. Crude crosses fashioned from sticks and painted rocks decreeing undying love. The stones had decayed but not enough to wash away the script on them. Nate’s eyes roved over them as he looked for a decent place to dig a shallow grave.

“Rex – You were our pride and joy until that oriental kid asked to wok our dog”

“Here lies the last cat that pooped in our yard”

“Snowball Number Six – It’s hard to feel sad any more”

The deeper Nate looked, the more desiccated the markers became. A chill crept through him as the sun seemed to completely disappear as he spotted a space between two loam covered stones. He swung the bucket to the top of one and cringed as the handled clanged loudly enough to wake the dead. His heart was hammering at the lump in his throat. Using his hands, he quickly clawed enough earth up to provide the most rudimentary of graves. The chill of the damp soil began to invade his bones and with shaking hands he plucked the now more than shovel worthy cat from the bucket. His breath stopped for a moment as he layed the oozing animal into the earth. He stood and using his boots kicked just enough dirt back on the animal to cover most of its body.

The first rumble of thunder broke his reverie. Fat droplets of rain began to drizzle off the bare branches around him. He knew he should likely say some sort of prayer but couldn’t find the words. Neither he nor Kate attended church outside of the spectacular brunch put on by Methodist Church around the corner from their house. All you can eat was hard to pass up even if you had to get  little Jesus on the side. A sizzle of lightning arched across the leaden sky and had him scurrying down the path without so much as a “Go fuck yourself, cat.”. His feet slid through the slick slopes and he felt the cold rain spread the chill from his bones to the rest of his body. His teeth were chattering like a wind up toy when he finally burst out of the pathway and spotted his old truck. He yanked the door open and pulled it shut behind him much like a child running across a dark room and pulling a blanket over there head to prevent the monster in the closet from seeing them.

No sound he could remember was quite as good as the engine starting up and the dash display coming up in Spanish. It was yet another thing he hadn’t bothered to fix with the truck when he bought it. There was a lot you could live with in a truck that cost less than three pay checks.He rumbled out of the grass filled parking lot and drove the short distance home listening to the radio warn of three solid days of rain. A great way to spend a long weekend, he thought, and even worse considering he had the wood chipper to finish using. He shrugged off the dark feeling he still had from burying Max and focused on the task of cleaning all the blood off the floors and doors. He might even build that porch swing he had been promising Kate for the past couple years. The box had only been sitting on the porch for twenty-nine months.

Kate was waiting for him on the steps as he pulled up the gravel drive. The stones popping under his tires the same way Max’s vertebrae likely had. She had washed the blood off her hands and was wiping the rain from her glasses as he rain the damp distance between the truck and the porch.

“Is he okay up there?” Kate asked in a tremulous voice as she placed her glasses back on to see they had already been spotted with rain. Her hands slid to the hem of her shirt and reflexively clenched. Nate’s eyes rolled involuntarily rolled when he noticed it was her ridiculous off white sweat shirt she bought from the State Fair in Oakwood. “Love me, Love my cat” was emblazoned across the chest in a NASCAR rainbow of airbrushed redneckery.

“As alright as all the other animals up there.” Nate replied as he turned Kate towards the door. His boot heel caught the corner of the porch swing box and he realized that with all the rain they were calling for that it might be best to wait till next weekend to do it. Or the one after. It was always hard to plan for the weather.

The morning dawned bright despite a few lingering rumbles of thunder in the distance. Nate had left the warm confines of bed and Kate’s snoring form lightly drooling on her pillow to get an early start on what seemed like the never-ending pile of brush. He had lightly kissed her troubled forehead before slipping out to the kitchen. They had spent over an hour cleaning the cold remains of Max’s blood off all the surfaces it had splashed on. The air still held the chemical tang of bleach and Pinesol but was soon joined by the rich earthy coffee aroma. The first sip of normalcy shook the remnants of the day before from Nate like a snakes skin. He sat on the small bench beside the door from the kitchen to the backyard and had just slid his foot in to his boots when he heard it.

A rasping scratch he had heard a hundred times over.The same thing every time Max had wanted either in or out. Claws lightly raked over the fading paint on the lower half of the door. His heart froze in his chest. The scratching became much more insistent with every passing second. Its cadence now matched by the thumping of Kate’s feet down the hallway towards the door. Her eyes were as wild as the hair plastered and flattened to her skull. She flew across the room and grabbed the door only to have Nate grab her wrist as it turned on the handle.

“What are you doing ?” Kate almost laughed with an incredulous gaze at him. She was tugging at the door but Nate held it firm.

“Are you sure this is the best thing for him?” Nate answered the question with one of his own.

“Of course it is.” Kate replied with an aloof flipping of her free hand at him “He just needs to be with me. We belong together.”

Nate sighed and released her before taking his seat on the bench again. He had slipped his foot into the other boot as Kate flung the door open. The shuffling pad of paws on the floor echoed in the frozen moment as Max slunk into the silent room. Kate’s hands flew to her mouth and she sobbed with a hitching whisper. Nate sat up straight and felt the skin on his arms instantly prickle. His own voice unable to articulate what he was seeing.

With a warbling gargle, the cat shuffled towards it bowls  beside the sink and looked back over its shoulder. The fact it only had one eye not stopping it from fixing Nate with a cold stare. Its bones still twisted and mangled in the exact same fashion they had been when he had been laid to rest in that awful place. It fur ripped down its side exposing the shattered bones and shredded muscles. It sniffed at the empty and cleaned dishes before looking to Kate. It meowed with a sound so low and gravelly it caused her to instantly pale.

“This isn’t how it was supposed to be.” Kate breathed as Max turned in a half circle towards her “We can’t let him suffer like this.”

“Suffer?” Nate choked out as he shot to his feet.

“Yes, suffer. We should just do the humane thing and put him in a normal grave. Maybe in a nice spot down by the creek.” Kate said wistfully.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.” Nate barked as the cat sat on its haunches and began to lick the black blood and darker dirt from its fur.

“No,” Kate replied to his implied question “Max is already dead. I just need to let him go.”

“How exactly do you want me to kill an already dead cat?” Nate snipped at her as she began pouring herself a cup of coffee from the pot as if it were a normal weekend and not one started with a zombie feline prowling around the kitchen.

“I don’t think he will feel any pain so just hit him over the head or something.” Kate answered from behind her coffee mug. She hadn’t noticed or chose not to notice the swipe Max took at her as she stepped around him to get the creamer from the fridge. His teeth bared in a menace that promised pain for anyone he turned his remaining milky eye towards. Max growled a predatory noise at Nate that had the man bolting out the door to the garden shed in an instant. He covered the distance between the doors in a half a heart beat as he pulled the doors open and found what he had needed the day before.

Kate sat at the table lazily thumbing through the latest in a stack of paperbacks she had purchased from the book sale at the library as Nate burst through the door. Max had ascended the fridge and was coiled like a snake. He pounced with a snarl and was aimed directly for the soft flesh of Kate’s neck when Nate swung. The blade of the shovel hit the animal flat in the face. Bone shattered with a sickening crunch. The remainder of its dead blood arched across the floor in a rainbow of cold. Kate’s scream reverberated off the ceiling as she pushed herself out of the range of the shovel. No sooner had its body careened off the silver ware drawer did Nate swing again and smash the still agile corpse into the floor.

Over and over Nate pulverized the reanimated animal. Each swing punctuated by a fresh scream from Kate. The hammering blows had turned the zombie cat into a mass of gelatinous bones and fur-lined organs. The stench that wafted up from the oozing viscera was that of an open grave that someone had dumped moldy diapers in. Nate was gasping large swallows of air as he dropped the shovel with a clatter.

“Why? Why would you do that?” Kate screamed as she wheeled at him. Her eyes blazing with her anger as she looked from Nate to the ooze on the floor.

“It was going to attack you!” Nate shot back as he tried to wipe the scent of death from his nostrils.

“There is no way he would ever attack me,” Kate screamed as she stepped towards the now rotting offal “And now we have to fix this.”

“You can’t be serious.” Nate was dumbfounded.

“I most certainly am. You must have screwed it up the first time you buried him up there so you will just have to try it again.” Kate said matter of factly as she combed her fingers through her hair trying to pull it into some semblance of control.

“There is no fucking way I am ever going back up there again.” Nate Said as he began to back away from both the woman and the feline Jell-o on the floor.

“Fine,’ Kate huffed “I will just go myself.”

Her first step towards Max stepped around an eyeball that had popped loose but landed squarely in the remains of what must have been a liver. Her feet slipped out from underneath her in an almost clownish prat fall manner but did nothing to take away the shock Nate felt crash through him as her head hit the tiles with a stomach flipping crunch. Her cry was cut off in mid shriek and her eyes snapped open in a glazed over sheen. Nate shot across the room on his knees and reached under her to lift her head up to his lap. He could feel the flattened dent in the back of her skull and felt her life running out on to his fingers.

“Kate! My God, Kate!” Nate screamed as he held her cooling form to him. He looked up and saw the remainder of Max still glistening in the early morning sun. He knew immediately what he had to do.

He didn’t have much time.

The wood chipper had to be back in the morning.

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One More Day

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” I didn’t hear you come in,” John said as he entered the kitchen ” When did you get here?”

It had been over a week since he had seen Allison and to find her standing in his kitchen was a pleasant shock. The late afternoon sunlight shone through the small window over the sink and highlighted the slight reddish tint in her hair as she turned to him with a slight smile on her face. It was all he could do to hold himself back from rushing over to her but he held back. His need to be constantly touching her was one of the reasons she disappeared the first few times she had shown up and if their encounters since then were any indication it was the quickest way to get her to leave.

” You should see your gardens,” John beamed as he stripped off the too small gloves he was wearing. He tossed them on the floor beside the rear door ha had just entered and watched with amusement as the beginnings of a thunderstorm passed over the furrowed brows of the tall girl standing at his sink. His thick fingers barely squeezed into them but he stuffed them in any way. Allison always wore them when she had pruned the rose bushes that lined the small back yard and he saw no reason to change that. Catching himself, he reached down and picked up the dirty gloves and stuffed them into the pocket of the grilling apron hung off the back of the door.

The corners of Allison’s mouth turned up into a bemused smile as she turned back to the mountain of dishes John had left in the sink. She tossed her hands in the air and sighed deeply. He had become a bit of a slob in her absence and the look on her face voicelessly showed her displeasure.

” I can get those,” John sighed resignedly as he headed toward the fridge. With a flicking of her hand over her shoulder, Allison shooed him off down the short hallway to the bathroom to clean up. He smiled hard enough at that point that it crinkled the corners of his eyes and he laughed as he opened the fridge. Not much in it other than cans of beer and some left over take out Chinese that he couldn’t even remember buying. Grabbing a cold can from the top shelf, he popped the top and drank deeply. Two hard swallows downed the better part of the can and he stood letting it chill his core. Indian summer had showed up for one last glorious reminder that soon the first snows of winter would arrive and John had made the most of it by pruning back all the flowers and cutting the grass one last time.

” Guess I will be heading back out to get us some food,” John yelled back down the hall as he entered the bathroom and stripped off the grey t-shirt that clung to his sweaty frame. His hands had pruned under the gloves and looked like he had spent too long in the bath tub. He rubbed them quickly over the stubble growing out over his scalp. He snorted as he realized he hadn’t shaved his normally bald scalp or face in long enough that he was starting to look like a high school science teacher.

Washing his hands and his face briskly with the last of the lavender smelling soap Allison had bought months ago, he grabbed a towel from the rack and dried himself before catching his reflection in the large mirror. Dark hollows surrounded his eyes and gave him a pallor he hadn’t noticed. He had lost enough weight that his normally snug fitting jeans hung loose on his hips and were constantly needing to be hitched up. He looked away quickly. He had no desire to see what her absence had done to his appearance anymore than she likely did.

He grabbed a shirt from the top of the pile of clothes he had let accumulate on the floor in front of the vanity and held it to his face. He took in the sunny sweat smell and reached for a spray bottle of cologne to mist it with. He was careful not to disturb the neat arrangement of lotions and perfumes Allison had left on her corner of the sink.  Her favorite was a mango scented cream that he swore she coated her entire body in. He couldn’t remember the last time it had even been opened. She only seemed to hang around the kitchen when she visited.

” Al , I was thinking I could cook for dinner,” John called ahead of himself as he pulled the cologne dusted shirt over his head ” Maybe some chicken and that seven grain salad you likes so much. I know you said it gave you gas…..”

He rounded the corner and saw her standing with her hand on the door handle and it stopped him in his tracks. Her eyes were down turned but her posture told him every thing. She wanted to leave. His heart pounded in his chest so powerfully he could feel it catch in the lump developing in his throat. Tears welled up in his eyes but he forced himself to blink them away. If he was going to keep her around it was going to take all his resolve.

” Okay,” John continued with a lift in his tone he did not feel ” We can get a pizza.”

Allison lifted her eyes to him then and he could see a rage there he hadn’t seen since the night she moved out. Her chest rose and fell in rapid succession. She brushed a dangling lock of hair that had slipped over her eyes away and he could see the mix of pain, frustration and anger washing over her in rippling waves. She turned her long, lithe frame towards the door and tried to open the door only to have John smash his hand against the door. It rattled in its frame hard enough to echo through the small kitchen.

” Stay,” John growled out his pain. It was exactly like the night she had told him she was leaving him. That she couldn’t do this anymore. The two of them screaming at each other as she did dishes and he paced around the small space. His feet following the same pattern they did when he was telling her stories of his day or worrying about how they were going to pay the water and electricity bill on the same day. The final straw coming when she told him she just needed some space to sort her feelings for him out. They had been together for what felt like forever but a distance had been growing between them. She had stormed off that night into a burgeoning thunderstorm that matched the darkness he now saw on her normally soft features.

When pushed to its limits, the body reverts to old comforts to prevent further harm to the soul and John found himself reaching to run his hands over Allison’s hip bones only to watch his hands touch the door behind her. It was his favorite spot to touch her and now even that was beyond him. The same as every other time he had reached for her over the last few weeks when she appeared in his kitchen. His fingers splayed out on the door and he stared her in the eyes. What he saw was a mix of sympathy and anger.

He never knew when to expect her. She was almost always there. Just out the edge of his vision. Seen in the corner of his eye. Wearing the same thing she was that night. Her cream-colored sweater. Low slung jeans that left that spot he couldn’t leave alone exposed. Knee high socks she knew drove him crazy. Even now he had no idea what provoked the conversation. She simply told him things needed to be over. She tidied the kitchen as he raged and begged. She washed the dinner dishes as he cried and rationalized. Her own tears doing nothing to change her stance on the fact she needed a change in her life. One he couldn’t be a part of. She stood with her hand on the door handle for ten minutes watching him cry and then cried even harder herself when she walked out the door and drove off as the first clap of thunder shook the house behind him that would never be home again.

He sat on the small concrete step for over an hour as cold rain he scarcely felt soaked through his clothes. The phone began to ring behind him and he bolted toward the door and flung it open praying it was Allison. Wishing with all his hopes that she was calling to tell him that it was a mistake. That everything would be good again. His heart was in his throat as he reached for the phone.

” John Chambers ?”, a dry male voice inquired.

” Yes,” John replied. His mouth had gone so dry his tongue stuck to the top of his mouth and prevented any further words from escaping. Darkness began to creep into the fringes of his vision and began blocking out the details of his surroundings. His gaze became tunnel like and focused on the number shown on his call display. The County Sheriff’s department. He slumped to the floor then before another word was uttered from the other end. His legs involuntarily began to curl up around him in a seated fetal position. A buzzing droned in the back of his head and behind his eyes. It took him almost five minutes to realize it was the echo of him screaming.

The deputy on the other end remained as calm as he could until John’s hitching sobs slowed enough for him to listen again. The storm had come in very quickly and torrential rains had flooded some of the side streets. Allison had been driving way too fast for the conditions and was half blind from crying to begin with as she missed a stop sign she almost never stopped at. The truck that hit her completely broad side was sliding through the intersection at an angle that put the front corner of it directly in line with her driver’s door. The firemen that had been the first to arrive had done everything they could to extricate her from the mangled hell of twisted steel and razor glass but she had died before they even had her seat belt off.

It was three days after her funeral that she showed up in the kitchen. John had just finished taking the last of the roses he had clipped from her favorite bush to her grave when he walked in the back door and saw her standing looking at the sink full of dirty dishes with mild disgust on her flawless face. With a half shake of her lustrous auburn locks she turned to look at him with a half-smile he knew from experience she was only feigning anger. In a haze of unreality and shock, John ran to her only to crash into the counter top and watch her disappear in a Cheshire cat-like fashion leaving only her pursed lips and flashing eyes behind.

Since that first time, Allison had shown up every few days to make her presence known. Always in a fading afternoon beam of sunlight streaming in through the small kitchen window before walking over to the door and trying in vain to open the door. John had learned quickly that while she never said anything, if he tried to touch her she almost immediately disappeared but this time as he stood there with his hands thrust through her midsection she stood her ground. Her jaw was set in a firm line and her gaze was fierce.

” I don’t want you to go,” John cried as his chin dropped to his chest and he backed up until his back hit the opposite wall. Her anger softened then in the face of his misery but her position did not move from the doorway. He knew with every certainty that if he opened that door for her , she would be gone forever. He knew there would never be another day spent hiking in the ravine and taking pictures of her hanging precariously off a rock ledge. No more lazy summer drives to the vineyard to dazzle her with his vast knowledge of wine while he had been secretly reading the descriptions off the menu card. No more making love on the couch and feeling the world just stop for a few moments. He knew those days were never to return but if he kept that door closed he was almost certain to see her at least once more.

Allison looked at him then and he saw his own agony reflected in the vestiges of tears that clouded her eyes. He was trapping both of them in this kitchen. She would keep appearing and he would keep pretending. He would fade as she would. She had loved the sun so much and had died likely listening to echoing booms of thunder. He had watched her run off into the rain without telling her the last thing he had to say.

” I will love you the rest of my life, ya know,” John said as he sniffed back the tears that had run down the slope of his nose. Allison took her hand off the door handle then and reached her both her hands to him. He laughed at the instinctiveness of the gesture knowing full well that she would pass through him just as easily as he had her. Her heart froze in his chest as the whisper of a fingertip grazed over his lips. Allison’s smile was just as wide as the gape of his mouth.

” Love you, baby,” Allison mouthed wordlessly as John smiled and reached for the door handle. He slowly pulled it open and watched her walk past him into the light. She turned and looked back over her shoulder at him as she faded from sight and wiggled her fingers at him for the last time. He turned and looked at the sink full of dishes and sighed deeply.

” You could have at least finished the silverware,” John called out into the ether.

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Worth a Thousand Words

Sometimes as writers, we use evocative words and scenarios that flow together to paint a picture in the mind of how we want things to be perceived. Sometimes those thousands of words can’t compare to a few simple passages coupled with the perfect visual companion.

Photo (4)

Photo (5)

Photo (6)

Photo (7)

 

No thousand words could match the story painted here.

 

 

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Fighting Paradoxes

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Fighting of any kind is a paradox.

A completely unnatural act. It forces you to think of things in the exact opposite manner. If you want your opponent to move left, you move right. If you want to punch with your left hand, you push off your right foot. It’s completely opposite to anything you will ever learn. Yet, we still do it. In every manner possible.

We fight for more time, more touch and more love knowing that there is only a finite number of minutes, only so often that the person you want can hold you and only rare occurrences that the person we love will ever love us back. We fight for these things every way we can knowing we can never have exactly what we want.

It got me to thinking of how the idea fit with all the patterns of my life and I stumbled upon something that has been around since 1968. These ideals speak to me in a way that I never thought possible.

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

I look at this list of things and realize how many of them apply to me. To the last year of my life. To everything I am going through as I write this.

I have built relationships that have disappeared in the blink of an eye. I have loved people who could never love me back. I have opened myself to things that have shunned me. I have held my dream come true in my bare hands and watched it disappear. I have taken literal punches in the face and stood standing.

I have lost every reason to dream or hope and yet I still go to sleep every night praying for one more glimpse of something amazing.

I do these things because I am a fighter at heart.

I might be sitting on a stool in my corner with a heavy heart and a beaten body knowing what is waiting for me when I stand up but I assure you that when the bell rings I will come out swinging.

Maybe that’s unnatural to you. A mystery. A paradox. Something you would never do.

I’m a fighter. It’s the only thing I know how to be.

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Addicted

The last few rays of sunlight filtered through the trees casting wavering shadows across the streets as Blake pulled his truck into the parking lot. Much like himself, the old truck had seen better days. It’s once red paint had faded to a sun bleached pink and the wheel wells above the tires had almost completely rusted out. He had been planning for a few months to get rid of the battered old relic but it was the one constant thing in his life. Beaten down as it was, it never failed him.

Quickly scanning the half empty parking lot, Blake found a space near the back of the lot that he could wedge the truck into. The engine coughed once as he shut down the engine and almost laughed at the sound. It sounded somewhere between a shotgun blast and a wet sneeze reminiscent of his late Uncle Walt forever blowing his nose into an overly used handkerchief that was then promptly stuffed into a pocket for later use. He ran a hand up his jaw line to the bristle short hair cut he had recently given himself. The stubble on his face was nearly the same length as the hair on his head so they made an equally sandpaper like sound under his calloused hands. He roughly dug his fingers into the knots of tension settled at the base of his neck and closed his eyes hoping to stem off the headache he knew was waiting to blossom.

With a sigh the echoed in the groan of his truck door, he pushed his way out and glanced around. The early fall leaves had yet to begun falling and gave the small red brick church in front of him an almost camouflaged effect. The reddish haze seemed to fit with the dancing spots behind his eyes. He shut the truck door behind him and dusted his hands down the sides of his well-worn jeans before tucking in the back of his black button down shirt.

” Why does it always have to be a church?,’ Blake breathed out as he solemnly crossed the street and mounted the concrete steps. His fingers trembled slightly as reached for the door. His mind was racing and it gave him pause. He questioned if he had really sunk this low. The thought hung on him like an ill-fitting suit until he realized he had nowhere else to go.

The scent of coffee too long in the pot hit him as soon as Blake entered the building. He saw more than a handful of coats hanging in the closet just in front of him and muffled conversation that got louder as he walked down the hallway. He hated the first looks he always got at new meetings. It was like walking into a high school class room in a new town three weeks after classes had started for the year. The uncertainty if his voice would crack the first time he tried to speak. He knew he didn’t have many options though. The urge for a fix was too strong to fight for much longer. He could feel it like a barely contained scream tickling the back of his throat.

Blake rounded the corner through an open doorway to see the requisite semi-circle of chairs and people wandering around them like a silent game of musical chairs that no one was ever going to be eliminated from. An exceptionally tall woman caught his eye immediately as did her blazing red fingernails. They were at least three inches longer than what could have been comfortable. Her hair was piled in a loose bun atop her head and could have only been one or two shades darker than her nail polish. She was standing near a coffee dispenser that likely was installed the day after the last block was laid in the church steeple talking to a man who had to have been the pastor of the church. They both turned as he entered and smiled that knowing smile of a secret shared.

The rest of the assemblage was clustered in small knots around the room that must have been an auditorium for church pageants and bake sales. To Blake, they looked like people in life rafts after a boat sinking. That feeling of being in water way too deep and far from shore was not a new one to him. A momentary pang of envy passed through him for the camaraderie they shared before he felt a hand clasp his shoulder.

” We don’t usually get new faces very often,” a warm rolling voice said from his right.

Blake turned to see the wide smiling face of a man accustomed to his voice carrying weight. His crisp white button down shirt was covered by what could have only been a hand-made sweater vest likely knitted by some local sewing circle. The wool was a deep purple that managed to look regal and clownish at the same time.

” Pastor Tom Wilkins,” the man said reaching his soft white fingers toward Blake,” But most people around here call me Papa.”

” Blake Heatherton,” Blake responded as he slipped his calloused palm into the pastor’s hand. ” If I may as , why do the call you ” Papa”?”

” It started as a joke when I played Father Time in the Christmas parade a long time ago and as I am not a Catholic priest some of the folks took umbrage to me being Father anything, so we switched it to Papa Time and it just sort of stuck,” Papa explained with a wry smile that crossed his ruddy features.

” We will be starting soon so if you wouldn’t mind taking a seat,” Papa said with practiced ease as he guided Blake’s elbow toward a folding plastic chair.

A few people from very differing walks of life had already found seats as Blake found a spot as far away from the coffee pot as possible. He had switched to drinking tea years before and even the smell of it nauseated him a little now but the minor inconvenience of the odor was worth it if it brought him some peace of mind. Fingernails had taken a seat directly across from him and turned her knees demurely to the side to hide the fact that her skirt was short enough to make sure the dimples on her behind left suction marks on the cold vinyl. Her smile was warm and Blake responded with one of his own. They were here for the same reason after all.

” Welcome everyone,” Papa boomed in the echoing space. His voice raised to the level reserved for outdoor church services and being heard in the next city down the highway. A thin trickle of sweat had worked its way down Blake’s collar and he was shocked at being actually nervous. It had been a while since he had been to a meeting and this was the first time he had even needed to since moving into the area. Every eye in the room was on him now and he shined in that way most preachers do when they have commanded attention.

” We usually start our meeting with a prayer but as we have some new faces in our group today we will save it for the end so we can have them ready for the next meeting,” Papa intoned as he looked over both Blake and Fingernails ” Who would like to start?”

” I will,” a mousey looking woman replied with a wave of her hand that was part resignation and part asking for permission. Papa smiled again with a practiced nod of his head that did nothing to disturb the very poorly combed over locks of his hair.

” Hi, I’m Amy,” the woman said as she stood and smoothed her hands over her abdomen.

” Hi Amy,” the group chimed back at differing octaves each rising around each other.

” Hi Amy,” a voice called out just as everyone else finished like it had waited simply to stand on its own. It had jumped from a very overweight young man who couldn’t have been more than a teenager. Blake shook his head at the injustice of it. “Addicted so young any more” he thought as the echo calmed down.

” It’s been four months since my last fix,” Amy started and was met with a smattering of applause only to be drowned out by the slapping of Late Voice’s meaty hands that sounded like someone pounding an uncooked slab of beef of a concrete floor. All the eyes turned to him and he grinned in that brief second it took before he met Papa’s stern glare. He stopped instantly and stuffed his hands in his pockets of his stretched sweat pants.

” I still get the urge constantly,” Amy continued in a wavering tone ” I just know that once I start, I won’t be able to stop. The last time, I ended up naked in a police cell covered in body glitter with the word ” JUICY” tattooed on my lower back with an arrow pointing towards my butt.”

Blake nodded his head solemnly. He had woken up on the wrong end of a bender in far worse shape. He shook off the memories that were beginning to creep into his thoughts. He looked over at Fingernails and saw she had a similar look on her face. They caught each others eyes again briefly and immediately turned away like high school kids caught staring at each other. Blake watched out of the corner of his eye as her fingernails drifted down her neck and tugged briefly at the collar of her sleeveless black blouse whose buttons were strained against her barely contained breasts.

” Those days are long past,” Papa soothed her and looked to her right and motioned with his hand that the man sitting there should go next as Amy retook her seat.

” I’m Max,” the man said as he stood from his chair. His chocolate-brown skin shone with a light film of perspiration made only more noticeable by the fact he did not have a single hair on his head. He had shaved his head but had not stopped there. He had shaved his eyebrows and from the look of his bare arms sticking out of his ebony t-shirt had shaved every hair off his body.

” Hi, Max,” the group called back.

” Hi,Max,” Late Voice called out just as they finished again. A muttering among the group now caused him to look down at his battered running shoes. A slight smile played across his face for a half a heartbeat before disappearing.

” It’s been nine weeks since my last incident,” Max said with a heavy sigh but the look of a man used to being scrutinized. The applause was much more hearty this time. Each slap seeming to echo of the next with Late Voice’s own hammer fists drowning out even that level of sound. The group now looking at each to see who had been the loudest.

” The meetings I have been to almost daily since have helped,” Max continued to further knowing looks and oddly sad glances ” The last thing I really want is to end up like last time when I was found giving head to the entire starting line up of the college basketball team in the alley behind the greek diner while the cheer leading squad performed their routine from the half time show in the street to distract the police. I mean I did promise them if they won the district championship after all….”

Max trailed off with a wistful, far away look on his face. Blake shook his head to drive the image from his rapidly twisting thoughts. Too many evenings in his past could have taken a similar tone had he swung that way. The headache flared briefly behind his eyes and he closed them to stop his vision from swimming. His stomach clenched responsively and he felt saliva flood his mouth in preparation for the vomit he knew would follow in moments. His eyes flared open and he looked directly into the flushed gaze of Fingernails.

Her hand had trailed down the side of her neck and was running the crimson tips along the fringe of her shirt. They caught briefly and tugged down the collar exposing the cherry red strap of her bra. The corner of her mouth turned up slightly before she looked back to Max who had sat back down beside the wildly clapping Late Voice. Blake’s mouth dried up instantly. His eyes focused on the visible pulse he could see beating in her neck and felt his pulse slow to match it as he gulped down several lungfuls of air.

” Who would like to go next ?” Papa droned with an almost stifled yawn.

” I will, ” Late Voice said with a crack in his voice usually reserved for high school freshman and old men propositioning prostitutes. He pulled the hem of his sweat pants up over the protruding mound of his belly. As his shirt pillowed out around him, Blake noticed the long faded grease stains from where he had clearly wiped his hands many times over.

” Hi, I’m Patrick,” Late Voice hurriedly blurted out. His eager face seeking each persons in turn quickly to make sure they had heard him.

” Hi, Patrick,” The group droned back much to the dismay of Patrick.

” It’s been five weeks since my last fix,” Patrick said in the earnest way puppies look when they learn how to pee on the newspaper left beside the door to train them. His fleshy jowls jiggled as he nodded in congratulations to himself. He dipped his chin to his chest at that point and drew a ragged breath that rattled in his chest. Blake thought he had actually fallen asleep standing as the pause dragged on but as Patrick lifted his head his eyes shone with a maniacal look.

” I can’t remember how my last bender started but I remember how it ended very vividly. I had gotten it in my head to try to eat the ten pound cheeseburger they offer at that dive bar around the corner from the hospital. I got about half way through it before the reporters from the college television station showed up. They turned the cameras on and I just attacked the pile of food that was left. I passed out with less than a pound left,” Patrick paused and sighed at this point ” No ones ever done it before and I really wanted to be the first.”

Patrick flopped heavily enough in his chair at that point to spread the metal legs slightly beyond what could have only been the stress fracture point as one of them cracked and sent him tumbling to the floor. His girth slapped the floor like a garbage bag full of ground beef. Blake jumped up out of his chair and reached for the younger man only to have Patrick bounce back up to his feet and make a comically oafish bow to the crowd. His smile beamed like the noon day sun as he pulled another chair under his ample back side.

” Are you alright, Patrick,” Papa asked as he moved beside the now flush faced young man and put a hand on his shoulder.

” Fine and dandy,” Patrick giggled as he ran his hands through his hair and wiped them on the front of his shirt.

Blake turned to take his own seat and his eyes grazed over Fingernails who had unbuttoned her blouse down to the point her more than abundant cleavage was available for anyone to see. As she caught Blake’s eyes again, she stood and reflexively pushed her chest out straining the remaining buttons to the point that they would embed themselves in the block walls if they shot free. Her exposed skin beckoned his gaze and his headache pulsed once in his skull before shifting to a throb in his groin. Her hand rubbed smoothly over her flat stomach and raised them hem of her shirt just enough to flash the lines of a flowery tribal tattoo that traced over her tanned hip bone.

” Hi,” Fingernails began with a lilt in her voice that matched her single arched eyebrow ,” I’m Vanessa and this is my first meeting.”

Applause exploded from the group and caught Blake off guard. He found himself clapping along as Vanessa demurely lowered her eyes and turned her hips until her knees were touching. She raised her head then and shook out her blazing red hair before taking a deep breath and speaking again.

” I’ve been an addict for as long as I can remember. I don’t known when it started but I know it got worse when I ran away from home at sixteen,” Vanessa said, her voice almost a whisper as something near personal judgement passed over her features. ” I decided I needed help after I woke up yesterday morning in bed with three men and another woman. I was covered from head to toe in every type of bodily fluid you can imagine and I realized I didn’t want to live like this anymore.”

The applause was short-lived as Blake took his feet. Vanessa smiled shyly at the intrusion of her unburdening but quickly sat down when she saw what Blake was holding. Much like the every present handkerchief, Uncle Walt carried something else with him at all times. The charcoal grey pistol gleamed dully as he pointed it at her and motioned for her to take her seat. He rolled his head once and felt the tension in his neck pop free with the fluid moving in his joints released.

” Hi, my name is Blake,” Blake grinned at them all with a smile that never touched his eyes. Not a single voice responded in answer so he shrugged his shoulders and began pacing around the small ring of chairs. His arm ramrod straight in front of him allowing the eye of the gun to look each of them in the face before moving on to the next person in line.

” Much like yourselves, I am an addict,” Blake continued in a voice that boomed like early May thunder in the small space. ” This isn’t the first meeting I have gone to but it took me a long time to realize what I was really addicted too.”

Blake had stopped pacing directly in front of Max and pressed the tip of the gun against his forehead. Large droplets of sweat cascaded down the bald mans skull and rain over his face to match the tears that were now freely falling. Blake could hear the slight scuffling of chairs behind him and before anyone could run for the door he swung back around and locked them all in place with the glare that now darkened his features.

” What you eventually realize is that all you are addicted to is the attention,” Blake growled at them, ” Why else would you let people debase you and degrade you in the ways you do?”

” I am certainly not judging you, I am really no better,” Blake explained as he now made his way around the outside of the ring of chairs and rubbed the gun off the metal back of each folding chair causing an echoing gong not unlike church bells at a funeral. He stopped directly behind Vanessa and ran the gun up the back of her neck before pointing it directly at Papa.

” On the contrary,” Blake said with a half laugh bubbling madly in the back of his throat ” I plan on making sure all the attention is focused directly on all of you. That’s why I called the police and local news right before I got here to tell them that I was going to kill everybody at this meeting before turning the gun on myself. You will be the poor victims that get your true fifteen minutes of fame before being replaced by the next celebrity divorce or political scandal. I have been to meetings all over and it’s always the same. The poor me. The pay attention to me. Think of me as the person who will make sure you get the attention you have always wanted.”

There were unchecked cries and whimpers at this point that made the moment somehow more fulfilling to Blake. He laughed out loud as he noticed the dark stain in the crotch of Patrick’s pants that was steadily creeping down his leg.

In the now fading light the revolving blue and red police lights could be seen reflecting off the outside windows as several car doors slammed all at once. With a sigh, Blake pointed the gun at Patrick and watched the man’s jowls shake in terror as he raised his hands to wave off the thought of the bullets flying towards him. Blake clicked the safety off with a snap that brought everything in the room into complete focus.

” The truth is, I have no intention of killing myself,” Blake explained as he fed a hand into Vanessa’s hair and pulled back hard enough to make her scream. A sound that brought the sound of dozens of stomping combat style boots to the base of the church walls. He once again pointed the gun at Patrick who was now visibly shaking hard enough to cause his loose skin to jiggle.

” After I shoot all of you and give myself up, I will leave here in handcuffs. I will get all the attention I can possibly ever dream of for the rest of my life. News reports. Television specials. Book deals. The possibilities are endless really.” Blake sighed in obvious pleasure. After a life of being a nobody, he was finally going to make an impact in all their lives. He could almost hear the news reporters droning in the monotone way all of them did despite the atrocities they saw daily and it brought a smile to his face. It was his name that would be on their lips soon enough.

Time seemed to freeze briefly then and he heard his own heart pounding in his chest. Blake watched a large tear dribble down Vanessa’s cheek as she mouthed something at him than as he tightened his finger on the trigger. Right before the first bullet shredded  Patrick’s throat and before he could turn the gun toward anyone else, he realized she had been trying to say ” Please, do it.”

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Undying Urges

The sound of fingers wiped across damp glass woke caused Jake’s head to snap up from the glass counter. He had fallen asleep staring at the glass panels in the door again. The skin on his left cheek had taken on the imprints of the buttons of his black long sleeved shirt. He rubbed a hand over a chin that once had been stylishly stubbly but now was lengthening to a level normally reserved for Louisiana fishermen.

He could hear them shuffling outside. The slow and steady amble of the undead punctuated by one of them shaking handle of the door periodically. Every rattle echoing through the room and causing the tendons in Jake’s neck to tense as tight as piano wires.  His entire body ached from having slept sitting on a stool in the same clothes he hadn’t changed out of in days.

There really was no reason to go home. The shuffling horde was everywhere it seemed. Great roving bands of them on every street cover and alley way. Their hands reaching out like supplicants. He could hear their whispered moans and the hems of their clothing sliding over the frosted glass store front no matter how deep he tried to bury himself in the recessed alcoves.

A chill had wormed into Jake’s bones and he made his way around the assortment of display cases and tables to the electrical panel. He tried to avoid looking at the shadows passing back and forth over the white filmed panes as the thought of the assemblage out there caused shudders that had nothing to do with the damp morning air. His lank hair felt plastered to his skull and he ran a hand through it to push it away from his forehead.  He snapped the first switches to turn the lights on before cranking the heat to level just below volcanic. All around him thrumming hums began to drone out as heaters and machines began to warm up from the fresh feeding of electrical life blood.

The lights and noise from inside the store caused a fresh and loud series of groans from outside as the masses pressed even harder against the glass. Their grey hand prints now a mosaic of want on the glass. It was really only a matter of time before the sheer weight of them shattered the windows and allowed them entry.

Jakes shoulders slumped and a sigh escaped him like a whispered prayer. He hadn’t left the store in days, hadn’t slept properly in weeks. The roving bands outside never seemed to disperse. The mornings were the worst when they knew he was moving around inside the small space and their need overcame them. He had fought the urge for so long to let them rush inside and overwhelm him that it now seemed like it was the only escape left to him.

The smells from the machines blazing behind him wafted forward and drifted under the doors causing the pressed hands to begin to pound on the door with murderous intent. The sound of them becomes roaring din. The early morning sunlight frosting their silhouettes on every surface it touched. It really was inevitable that they would pry their way in.

Jake walked slowly forward at a pace reserved for the long last walk to the electric chair and placed his hand on the lock of the door. He had resigned himself to the fact he would die in here. Cool beads of sweat pooled at the back of his neck and slid with glacier slowness down his spine. If this was to be his fate then he would meet it on his own terms. With a simple twist of his wrist, Jake unlocked the door.

As soon as the click was heard, hands reached forward from outside and yanked the door open bathing Jake in the glow of amber sunlight. His eyes met the gaze of the gathering and knew he would never leave this place. His sweat stiffened clothes almost creaked as he stepped back as they hurriedly filtered forward. The great bulk of them were pushing the first few forward to pop into the room like a hastily opened champagne bottle. They surrounded him with expectant glares and gritted teeth, like wolves running down an injured deer.

Jake had prepared himself for this moment and faced it with a calm resolve. He smiled as he looked out over them. Their palpable need was almost pathetic. Turning his back on them he walked back to the counter and stepped behind it. His fate sealed, he spun on his heel and addressed them en mass.

“Welcome to Starbucks, what can I get for you today?”

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