Authors: Brian Martinez
The clot stands, leaving behind the hands which crack and separate at the wrist, fused to the table. "The Self will not kkill your wife. The Self will do mmuch worse things to her. Thinngs in the minds of men."
Mary holds on by two fingers, the arms pulling on her feet, the wet web of fibers throbbing on her back. Then just one finger.
"You disgust me," Kevin tells The Self.
"Alwayys at fffirst," it replies.
Kevin's shoulders drop. "Ten days. Ten days, ten people."
The clot's neck-mouth smiles. A second later the whole, wretched body falls to the ground, a marionette with the strings cut, and bursts to bloody pieces on the linoleum. The caterpillar arms leave Mary alone to eat up its remains.
Chapter Four: Affairs and Confessions
At almost four in the morning, with the earliest of birds chirping at a safe distance, Kevin and Mary still haven’t closed their eyes. They lay side-by-side in bed staring at the ceiling. The house is still, and has been for hours. Nothing slithers in the living room or stomps in the basement, yet if they hold their breath and listen, really listen, they can hear things moving in the walls, sounds that shouldn't be, like an empty stomach grumbling in a library.
But that’s not the reason they can’t sleep.
“Ten,” Mary says.
“I don’t want to think about it.”
“We have to talk about it eventually.”
“Tomorrow. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
They’re both silent a while. Then: “Do we deserve to live more than they do?”
"Because we're us. Because they're them. Survival of the fittest."
"I guess, it's just...whoever we pick, they're innocent people."
"No one's completely innocent. Everyone's done something that deserves punishment."
"That's not the point. We're us, we're the ones who will live. It helps if you think of them as already dead."
She turns on her side to face him. "Kevin."
"I'm just trying to get through this, the same as you. You think I'm not having a hard time?"
"I know you are."
"Seeing those things drag you away..." His voice cuts out.
"It wasn't your fault."
"But I'm supposed to protect you, and I couldn't. I've never been so mad in my life, the way it made me feel so helpless. And what it was talking about, what it was talking about doing to you."
"Sshhh." She moves closer to him, to hold him, reassure him, but he turns away from her. "Hey," she says, pulling him by the shoulder. He looks at her through a film of tears. "It's over, it won't happen again. We'll do this...chore it wants us to do, and we'll leave here forever. We'll change our names, find a nice hotel room somewhere warm, be homeless if we have to. But we'll be alive. Together. Okay?"
"Okay. Yeah." He tries to smile. They hug each other, hold each other, embrace tightly, don't let go. It's the safest Mary has felt all day, and she wants to stay this way until she falls asleep, even if its only for an hour. Just an hour to separate the days.
But Kevin can't stop thinking about what the clot said. What it threatened to do. He can't stop thinking about the fact that he wasn't scared for Mary, he wasn't angry about her life being in danger.
He was jealous. Jealous it wanted to touch her.
The alarm screams for fifteen minutes before Butcher hears it. He surges from a deep sleep like a drowning man emerging from the river that tried to do him in, eyes thick, his arm a thousand pound bag of bricks. He wields it with unskilled strength to slap at the machine making the racket. Finally he finds it and punches its alien buttons until the screaming stops.
It takes another ten minutes before he can sit up.
He looks around the small room, trying to remember how he got there. The last thing he remembers he was sitting on his couch, flipping through channels, trying to find an old movie he could relax to with a beer in his hand, but after that it goes dark. It's not a new feeling, the darkness, but usually he has a bit more of a road map from there to his bed.
Butcher gets to his feet and almost falls over. He steadies himself on his dresser, and the small lamp on top shakes but doesn't tip over. As he regains his balance, a brief image flashes through his head, something about the woods, walking through the trees with the moon through the leaves, but when he tries to look at the picture it slips away to wherever memories go when they die.
He manages to leave the dresser behind and stand on his own. Leaving the bedroom, he shuffles into the apartment's small living room. It always seems different than he remembers it, like a gang of angry elves breaks in every night and trashes the place; dirty plates left in odd places, socks and shirts sat in piles on the floor, television still running, tuned to a channel he doesn't watch.
In the kitchen he kicks the refrigerator open and finds some bread to fill his stomach with. He rips whole chunks of it off and chews it down, hoping it will soak up some of the poison kicking in his stomach like a rough pregnancy. His mouth is dry, which makes the going difficult, but his body wants the bread bad enough. Eventually it all goes down. Then he prepares a mug of black coffee. He stares at the machine percolating, eyelids half shut.
On the couch he pulls the remote from under his ass and throws it on the table littered with books, so many he's lost count, so many they've all but replaced the cheap wood finish of the table. They have titles with words like Change and Empower and Better Yourself in bold letters over smiling, confident men. Most of them are like new, the spines clean and unbroken, the pages lacking fingerprints.
Butcher picks out one book, the thickest out of the bunch, a thirty step guide to leaving behind negative forces and starting a new life. He sets it in front of him and admires the woman on the cover. He likes women like this- strong, lively, a personality to be reckoned with.
He sets his mug on the woman's face, digs out the bottle of scotch from the couch cushions, and pours some into the steaming, black coffee.
As Butcher pulls into the officer's parking area, the private lot tucked behind the station-house where they don’t bother pruning the bushes, he notices it looks a little bare today. After he parks he takes a quick inventory. Two cars are missing from the usual Monday crew: one belongs to Agani, the other to Banks.
He enters through the back way and hits the locker room to change. All the while he waits for the sound of Agani coming in late, as he often is, or Banks' voice bellowing from the station, bitching about how his truck crapped out on him again and he's got half a mind to take it out back and shoot it like a rabid dog.
None of it comes, and Butcher finishes changing into his uniform in silence. He looks at the pictures taped to the inside of his locker. Six photos of his son and none of his wife- the standard divorcee configuration.
His first day on the job is still sharp as diamonds in his mind. He'd worked some long hours down at the mill while Elaine got her degree, before she turned around and returned the favor so he could attend the academy. It was what husbands and wives were supposed to do, or at least it appeared that way from the outside, because the truth was it also enabled them to spend most of their time apart while seeming like a functional couple. That day, though, the morning Butcher was told to report to his new station after graduating two weeks earlier, Elaine had uncharacteristically called out from work to see him off. She did more than that- first in the shower, then in the bedroom- and nine months later, almost to the day, Jake was born. A bi-product of law enforcement, they liked to joke.
Butcher shuts his locker a little too hard. The clang of its metal reverberates through his unhappy skull.
Everything seems normal on the station floor, a typical Monday morning full of yawning cops, some at the end of their shifts and some just starting. Up at the front desk, wearing a scowl, Monton hangs up the dispatch line.
"Problem," Butcher asks, grabbing the cleanest Styrofoam cup he can find.
"Banks didn't show for his shift. He's two hours late and he’s not answering his goddamn phone. My guess is he got loaded last night and over-slept. Again."
"Maybe he got lucky," Officer Smith offers, his boyish face looped into a grin.
"Maybe we all got lucky and he left town for good."
“No one in Shallow Creek has ever been that lucky.”
Butcher finishes preparing his coffee. "What about Agani, he no-showed, too?"
"Took the week off to visit family in Canada. He's been blabbing about it for weeks, don't you pay attention?” In that tone that says, What kind of cop are you?
“Guess I tuned it out.”
“Maybe you should cut down on the coffee.” Monton points to his cup. A few of the officers chuckle and exchange looks. They know exactly what the man means, and it has nothing to do with caffeine.
Butcher sits at his desk, cup in hand. He watches Banks' chair. In a small town everyone knows everyone, Butcher thinks to himself. That includes their demons.
Mary peeks out into the waiting room, what the employees call The Most Boring Room on Earth: white walls, gray chairs, bland artwork, and the saddest play area this side of an abandoned amusement park. A man in the corner lifts his head, a man she's seen around town with his signature goatee and blue puffy vest, always hitting on the women at free concerts in the park or getting into arguments about parking tickets. Mary knows the type- a smooth talker and a high school sports star, he carved his niche at seventeen and stayed in it until it became a rut.
He smiles at Mary in a way no one smiles at the dentist's office, then stands and approaches her in the doorway. He's way too close to her when he says, "That's me."
"Hi, I'm Mary. Right this way."
She leads him down the hallway, past two booths, one empty and one with a woman recovering from surgery, before she brings him to the third chair and asks him to lie down.
He sits and says, "I always listen when a pretty girl asks me that." He smiles again and it makes Mary queasy. He talks exactly how she expects someone who's named for two words that mean ‘dick’.
"I was warned you were a ladies man."
"There’s nothing ‘were’ about me."
"Haven't lost your game, is that it?"
"That's it. Never have and never will." He pauses, looks her up and down. "You're new in town.”
“Subtle.” Mary opens up a new packet of sterilized tools. "Somewhat new, about two months. You know how it is in these towns, you know everyone in a month but it takes ten years before they stop thinking of you as an outsider." She spreads the tools out on the tray- the mouth mirror, the probes, the scaler.
"With a smile like yours, it won't take more than two," he grins. Mary turns on the light over his head, blinding him. He puts a hand up in front of his eyes. "Jeez, a little warning next time, huh?"
"Sorry, I must have gotten distracted."
He shifts on the leather seat and adjusts his crotch. "I do have that effect on women.”
She forces a giggle and hates herself for it.
“So,” he whispers, “what time do you get off?”
Before she can answer, Doctor Dion enters the room, white hair bobbing, wiping his freshly washed hands. He introduces himself as if he's never met Mister Johnson, even though he has, repeatedly, a habit that annoys Mary and more than a few patients. Mary moves around to the other side of the tray and pulls her surgical mask up over her mouth as the doctor explains what they'll be doing today.
Johnson says, “Anything is better than that cleaning woman.”
“You mean Doctor Palamara, the hygienist?”
“Whatever you call her. She’s got the bedside manner of a pit-bull on its period.”
As much as Mary finds the man disgusting, she can’t help but agree with him on that point.
The doctor clears his throat. “Yes, well, that aside she is a very capable doctor. Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable before we start?"
"You can tell that pretty nurse to take her mask off."
The doctor looks to Mary, surprised by the man's words. She says, "I think Mister Johnson is comfortable enough." All three of them laugh, but inside Mary burns up.
"Alright then, let’s get started." The doctor moves to the surgical tray but stops, his hand hovered over it. "Is there no scalpel?"
Mary looks at the tools spread out on the strip of white paper. “That’s funny,” she says, “I thought I put it out.”