Authors: Brian Martinez
To the station-house the Sheriff says, “Alright, listen up.” The room quiets down and heads turn his way. “You may have noticed it's been quiet around here, and smells a bit less like cheap cologne. That's because our own Officer Banks just had his third no call, no show in as many days. Now before you go celebrating that he's gone and quit, you should know that Butcher has done some informal questioning around town.” He shoots Butcher a knowing glare. “As it turns out, no one's seen him in the last few days.”
A low murmur moves through the officers.
“That's it, get it out of your systems. Gossip all you want in here, but out there if the subject comes up, and only if it comes up, the official story is Banks took some time off to visit family.”
“That sounds like horse-shit,” Officer Stroud says.
“It is horse-shit, but between this and that plumber disappearing, we don't need the whole town up in arms about some secret mass-murderer conspiracy. You know how the big city newspapers love to invent stories about us Podunk towns, painting us as backwater savages. The idea here is to buy us some time until either Banks crawls out of the hole-in-the-wall he likely found his way into, or Butcher proves he's the super-cop he thinks he is and finds our man.”
Butcher looks around the room, feeling like the ugliest girl at the dance. “Listen, I didn't-”
“I'll have a word with you after,” Sheriff Green says. “For the rest of you, help Butcher with whatever he needs when he asks for it, but otherwise it's business as usual. Got it?”
A dozen heads grumble and nod. The Sheriff turns to Butcher, already at his side.
“Don't think for a second I don't know everything that goes on in this town. If a squirrel farts, I hear it.”
“Gross. But with all due respect, sir, you made it clear that Banks was my responsibility.”
“While that's true, I still expect to be kept in the loop. If you'd come to me first I could have told you where to look, or which bartender's daughters can't keep secrets.”
Butcher nods, planning to have a word with Katie. “I'll start with the neighbors,” he says, “pretend I'm reaching out, introducing myself to the town.”
“That's fine, but the Robins' are off-limits.”
“What? Why?” Butcher looks sideways at the Sheriff. As the site of a previous disappearance, the Robins house is practically a requirement.
“Maybe you missed the part where I didn't want this turning into gossip fuel. If you haven't found anything in a few days we'll revisit the idea, but in the meantime I need your word that you won't make any visits to the Robins couple, scheduled or unscheduled.”
“Alright, fine,” Butcher says, “you have my word.”
Butcher pulls up to the Robins house, noticing one of their two cars is parked up the driveway. He stops all the way at the end of the driveway, close to where it meets the road, because he's found it makes people uneasy when a cop keeps his distance. Where some officers prefer to ask their questions in ways which don't raise suspicions, Butcher knows that, with some steaks, the only way to cook them is to burn them.
A sudden and violent thirst hits Butcher. His mouth feels packed with cotton, and when he tries to swallow he can barely manage to, his throat like the desert, dry as death and twice as hot. He takes three, long swallows from his flask without so much as a breath between.
Without Banks’ endless talking in the way, it becomes apparent just how quiet the Robins property is. Butcher hears, like Kevin before him, how the insects don’t buzz at his feet, the birds don’t chirp or warble or flap overhead, noises so ever-present in Shallow Creek they become like a soundtrack for everyday life; the undercurrent of every conversation and moment from morning to night. But here, other than the low whistle of wind, there’s nothing. No hunger. No mating calls. No signs of life.
“Seems I’m not the only one keeping their distance.”
A distant barking pierces the silent afternoon. It takes Butcher a moment to find its owner- twenty yards out, in the longer grasses leading out to the tree-line, Felix’s hairy face pokes out. His fur is dirty and matted. He has the look of a dog who’s spent some time outdoors in the leaves and the rain, his stare focused on Butcher.
“What is it, boy?”
Felix lets out a chain of staccato barks. There’s a nervous edge to his voice that concerns Butcher, the way a hunting dog sounds when it becomes cornered by its prey. The second he takes a step toward the dog, though, it bolts, disappearing into the thick grass.
Butcher watches the field, waiting for the dog to return. He can’t shake the feeling that it was in trouble or found something out in the field that doesn’t belong there.
The dog doesn’t come back. He leaves it be, returning to the issue at hand.
A thin stream of spit runs from the side of Kevin’s open mouth and down his chin. His eyes rolled back in his skull, the twitching whites look not at the computer screen but through it, into the spaces beyond, the distances between, a computer world in which he's played and worked for years but never like this, never so deeply. His bare feet soak in a fleshy pool of floating teeth from which splotched vein-wires lead beneath the floorboards, carrying the information passed to them from Kevin’s mind and through his skin, bits of data turned into DNA and chemical impulses for The Self to swallow.
Endlessly, The Self searches. It absorbs and devours information the way it does people, a newly discovered food. The longer it stays connected to Kevin, the more it enjoys the flavor.
Kevin is so deep in his digital coma he doesn't hear the doorbell ring. After a moment, The Clot appears at the doorway, all oozing scabs and ingrown hair.
“Tthere is someonnne at the door.”
The plug is pulled. Kevin's eyes swim back into place. “Ignore it,” he answers, his voice like a heroin haze.
“Tthat would not be wise. It is a mman with a baddge. Whenn they go away they come back with mmore.”
Annoyed, but knowing The Clot is right, Kevin takes his feet from the teeth and finds his shoes. He puts them on and stomps toward the front door while his slick-skinned guest slips into the kitchen.
Butcher raises his hand to ring the bell a second time, but his finger never makes it. He winces, a small cry leaving him.
An abrupt and brutal pain grips his temples, like a migraine but with sharper intent. The afternoon sun is an intolerable spotlight that bakes his eyeballs in their bowls. Any light smell in the air- wet grass, his own cologne, the unmistakable traces of leaves burning in a barrel somewhere nearby- become odors so obnoxious that his stomach tightens and his intestines curl like snakes, ready to be sick.
He shuts his eyes. All his energy focuses on his nose and mouth, rhythmically drawing in and letting out breath. He tastes bile in the back of his throat but wills it away with the control of a man experienced in hangovers of all strengths, from the barely-there to the holy-shit, except this is different. This is no hangover. It feels like an attack, the way a man might feel if he were allergic to the air.
He gathers his strength and pushes against the pain until it budges under his force, and he doesn't stop pushing until it buckles under his will. The ache in his temples recedes to a dull screech. The overbearing lights and sounds and smells dial back to a tolerable level, and as he sucks in a great lungful of air, it's only then he realizes he hasn't drawn a breath in some time.
He takes a few more breaths, savoring them, each one easier than the last.
“What the hell,” he asks himself. He has the feeling of being watched, and he turns to find Kevin looking at him from the open door.
“Good afternoon, officer.” His expression is still, unnerving. Butcher wonders how long the man has been standing there. How much he saw.
“Yes. Afternoon.” Butcher tips his hat and composes himself. He considers asking to come in so they can sit and talk, but just the thought makes the pain and the nausea bubble up again. He trusts the feeling and drops the idea.
“Is something wrong?”
“Nothing at all, I'm just making courtesy calls today. You know, introducing myself around town, making sure everyone knows my face.”
Kevin squints at him. “We've already met, if you recall.”
“I do recall.” Butcher notices a change in Kevin's behavior since the last time they spoke, a kind of cold self-confidence he’s not fond of. “I don’t see your wife’s car in the driveway, she at work today?”
Butcher smiles. “You can go ahead and relax, Mister Robins, I’m not here for anything more than a bit of friendly conversation.”
“I see.” Kevin looks over Butcher’s shoulder at the police cruiser. “She’s working at the moment, the same as me.”
“You’re a computer guy if I remember. That’s a good gig you’ve got there, real good. Get to stay home all day, have the house to yourself, do whatever you feel like without the missus under foot.”
Kevin nods, offering nothing in response.
“Anyway, sorry to disturb you like this. You know how it is- the boss says jump and I say, into which pile of shit?” He gives Kevin a second to laugh, without effect. “You might have gotten a visit from my partner, he’s out here doing the same thing.”
“Can’t say that I’ve seen him.”
“You can’t miss him, he’s a big guy with a bigger mouth. There’s not many places you can hide someone like that.” He watches Kevin's rigid face for even the slightest tell.
“Like I said, haven't seen him.”
“I'll bump into him one way or the other, I promise you that.” A deep gurgle passes through the floor under Kevin, a din of thick, bubbly movement that the man ignores. “Sounds like you have a backed-up pipe down there,” Butcher points out.
“I would have it looked at except you never found our plumber.”
“Try opening a phone book, you'll notice there’s more than one.” Butcher grits his teeth and takes a look around. “The house seems a bit different since the last time I saw it.”
“Different is good.”
“Change is always good. Change is evolution.”
“Cancer is change, too. If you ask me, some things are fine before we come along and screw them up.” The two keep eye contact for far too long, neither of them wanting to break it first. Finally, Butcher says, “Well then, I’ll let you get back to it.” As he readies to leave, he notices a small crack in the door frame, just near the bottom. “You see,” he says, crouching down, “a fresh coat of paint doesn’t mean your house isn’t falling apart.”
He runs his thumb along the crack in the door frame, feeling the gouge in the wood, making a big show of it to bust Kevin’s balls. Halfway through, his finger hits an unexpected object, like a splinter wedged inside, except it’s a material more malleable than wood. What he doesn't know, what he can't know, is he's just had his first brush with The Self.
This slight contact, this tiniest of touches, sets off an atomic bomb in Franklin Butcher.
Skeletons dance up and down Main Street, peering out the front of North Star Pharmacy with boney smiles. Great, big bats dangle from the Windmill Diner’s ceiling, and outside the gun store a scarecrow sits on a rusty folding chair, frowning at the people who go by, straw guts spilling from his waist.
When Mary sees the signs of the coming Halloween, she thinks about killing herself.
Her co-workers have started to tell her how much they’re looking forward to the party, and she has to smile back at them, tell them she’s excited, too, but don’t bring any food, there’s plenty. Remind them to wear a costume. Think about driving off a bridge. That kind of thing.
In the front window of Maycomb Associates Realty, Meredith Maycomb, wearing an outfit tighter and more expensive than she needs to be, hangs Halloween decorations on the hooks suction-cupped to the glass. As she’s about to put up a particularly hairy creepy-crawler she pauses to smile and wave at Mary. In a daze Mary waves back, thinking of the last time she spoke with the woman. It was the day she handed Kevin the keys to their brand new home, complete with shiny future and happy ending included at no extra charge.
Mary wants to spit in that smiling agent’s face.
She distracts herself with the thought of one day bringing her children to a candy store like the one here. Rows and rows of glass jars lined up behind the counter, all kinds of penny candy inside, sweets and sours, chocolates and fireballs, her and Kevin smiling as the kids run back and forth to make their breathless choices. Her favorite memory of her father is from a store just like it- his strong harms holding her up to grab the gigantic, spiraled rainbow lollipop from the top shelf. Those early years were the best years, the gentle years, when he taught her what to look for in men. She found it in Kevin, that gentleness. Even though he could be strange at times, she liked knowing she was with a man who could never do to her what her mother did- treat her like an emotionless object, devoid of choice and needs. A doll on display.