A Penny Down the Well: A Short Story Collection of Horrifying Events

By J. A. Crook

Horror, Short stories


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23 mins


“Is that all you’re gonna need?”
I stared over the assortment of items I placed on the counter in front of the shop-keep. A coke, a mostly melted candy bar, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. It was hot in the small, deteriorating shop. The windows were glossed with a sheen of residue from long exposure to the wind and sun. Many of the windows were cracked or completely boarded up. I wondered how many customers frequented the little shop. The desperate ones, I bet.
I should have been wary. The gas pumps didn’t have a slot for a credit card and the display was analog, with flipping white numbers and small, square backgrounds in contrasting black. The pumps were rusted to hell and took a small eternity to fuel the SUV. For those desperate enough to step inside of the decaying shop, there would be an opportunity to meet the unusual old man behind the counter. The old man’s eyes were white with cataracts, but it was apparent that he wasn’t blind. His eyes followed me in the same suspicious way I’d seen the Asian attendants watch black folks in the inner city corner stores. I was an outsider. The old man’s head was bald, but wore a thick beard on his face. The beard hung down to the middle of his chest, riddled with grey and dingy black, as wild as vine. He wore suspenders that rose over a red and white checkered shirt. The frayed suspenders kept his pants up to the bottom of his sunken chest, giving the impression he had a tiny torso. It was hard to gauge his height as he sat in a splintered rocking chair that crunched the dirt under it with each restless sway.
I noticed a shotgun hanging right behind the old man’s head. The gun was conspicuously well kept in comparison to the rest of the store. It gave me an uneasy feeling, one I tried to dissipate with small talk.
“Nice gun.” I said, awkwardly.
The old man didn’t reply. Instead he looked at my pitiful selection of items on the counter top in front of him, eye-level with his rocking chair.
“Seven ninety-nine. Including the gas that’s forty-seven ninety-nine.” The old man said, in words so thickly accented, they sounded foreign.
“Service with a smile.” I mumbled as I reached for my wallet. I hoped my sarcasm was masked by my mumbling, because I immediately regretted saying anything. I placed the money on the counter with exact change and gave a smile. “Thanks for the help. Can I have a bag?”
The man stared and was unresponsive. He may not have been blind, but I couldn’t rule out deafness. I gathered my items and headed out the door. I carried food cradled in my arms like a nomadic cavewoman.
Outside, a group of pimply-faced teens stood around my vehicle. They looked into the windows and rode carelessly around the new wax-job with their cheap, hand-me-down bikes. The kids had likely never seen anything like it. Nothing in the town looked like it was made after 1950. I stopped a short distance from them, peeled open my melted candy bar wrapper and began to eat while I waited for them to notice me. The kids’ fascination kept me waiting for some time. If I was a snake.
Eventually, one of the kids noticed.
“Oh, shit. Hey Mister. Nice car.” Obscenities from a teen boy. It was cliché. I was surprised he got out the “oh” before the “shit.” When I was their age, I spoke in curse.
After I lapped up the chocolate on the metallic innards of the candy wrapper, I replied, “It’s an SUV. Sport utility vehicle.” I chewed pointlessly.
The kids stared at me in a way reminiscent of the old man from the shop. Their eyes seemed fearful and aggressive, and I could tell their hormone-riddled minds tried to size up an enemy they couldn’t understand. They seemed perplexed by my subtle correction. I waited for a response and scavenged for leftover chocolate on the film wrapper.
“What you got in the box there?” The pudgy one asked. He was a blobby, repulsive kid swallowing the bike under him.
I felt inclined to answer. “I’m a salesman.” I doubted that excuse would send them scrambling off before they asked more questions.
“Yeah?” The second kid to speak up was red-haired and freckle-faced. He seemed less timid than the fat one. “What do you sell?”
I shrugged. “Are you buying?”
Blank eyes.
“I didn’t think so. How about you kids get going, huh? I’m leaving.” I walked toward the driver’s side and popped finger after finger into my mouth to clean them. I tossed the wrapper on the ground. It didn’t make a difference in the neglected little town. The main road was littered with soda cans and beer bottles. Dust blew the trash into dried, stringy plants, barbed throughout. Hundreds of plastic bags waved like tiny white-flags that surrendered to the wind or to Humansville’s pitiful condition. The steady wind blew a fragrance of cow shit and sulfur.
The kids rode off and looked back. They chattered between one another. I heard one say, “I bet it’s a dead body!” and I laughed. It would have stunk, I thought.
I got into the car and tried to start the engine. I heard a reeling, a squeal and a pop. The SUV’s gauges rose then fell, like a dying person taking a last breath. Smoke rose from my hood. I watched the subtle stream of grey smoke wisp with the wind, dragged along its current.
“Fuck me.” I reached beneath the dash and popped the hood. I left the SUV and stepped to the front of the car. I lifted the hood and looked inside. The hair on my neck rose as I observed the maze of wiring and tubing, all of which meant nothing to me. An uncomfortable feeling drew me to turn around. I looked through the cracked windows of the shop and saw the old, white-eyed man watching me from inside with a smile on his face.
“Yeah, real funny, asshole.” I turned back to the SUV and investigated the source of the smoke. The grey washed over the entire surface of the SUV’s innards like a graveyard mist. I didn’t know a thing about fixing SUV’s. I peered toward the old man and shook my head. Round two.
I went back into the shop where the old man rocked and smiled at my misfortune. I remained polite. “May I please borrow your phone? No service out here.” I could have said a thousand other things.
The old man stared. Awkward eyeballing matches seemed common to this place. I imagined it took a minute for my language to filter through the brains of the inbred morons that called Humansville home.
“We ain’t got no phone.”
“What?” Certain I didn’t hear him right.
“We ain’t gone none of them phones, son.” He said again.
I did hear right. “So, what am I supposed to do? Rot?”
The old man’s smile faded with the question. A gruff, guttural sound coughed from his mouth. His eyes turned back outside as rocks and asphalt shot out from spinning tires. I followed the old man’s gaze and noticed a police cruiser. Lucky me, I thought. I left the store without another word for the old man. An officer stepped out of the cruiser as I moved through the threshold of the shop’s door, a door that hung by the top hinge and threatened collapse. The police officer was tall, at least six and a half feet so, and his large, wide-brimmed hat and mirrored aviator shades made him more imposing. He wore a pressed, tan and brown uniform. The sun high at this hour reflected from his sheriff’s badge perfectly.
“Afternoon, Sheriff. Hey, listen, I’m having some tro—“ The officer lifted a finger to cut me off—a proverbial shut-the-fuck-up—to which I obliged.
The officer continued to the front of the SUV, long legs moving him forward in unnatural strides, like a circus performer on stilts. A blue pinstripe ran down the side of his pant legs in a clear contrast to the rest of his earthy uniform. He bent down over the engine and took a quick whiff. The officer pendulum-bobbed back and forth for a minute while he inspected the guts of the vehicle, then rose. His thin, cracked lips parted with all the trouble of someone who hadn’t spoken in ages.
“You got a radiator leak. You blew a gasket, I’ll bet. That’ll cost you a bit to fix, Mister.” A dark brow rose and he tilted his head my way. He peered at me from over the crest of those mirrored glasses. I saw my pitiful stance in the reflection. I saw my inadequacy.
My jaw dropped from being cut off and kept slack with the bad news. The SUV was in trouble and I was stuck in this Podunk town. I knew the repair costs would be horrendous because I was stuck without the repair, there likely wasn’t another repair shop within a hundred miles, and I didn’t know a thing about repairing vehicles. I took in an agonized breath. I watched myself fold in dismay through the mirror of the officer’s glasses.
“I can give you a ride over to Miss Judith’s place. Her husband, Mortimer, knows a thing or two about fixin’ cars. Maybe he can do something.” His dried lips went thinner and his broad arms crossed. He waited for my decision, but showed no sign of impatience. He had all the time in the world. I didn’t have a choice.
“I suppose there isn’t a Meineke or a Ford dealership around here?” I barely got the question out before the sheriff started to laugh, a loud, booming laugh, primed by the mile-long abyss inside of him.
“How about you get in the cruiser? I’ll take you out to Judith’s.” The officer went back toward the driver’s side of the cruiser. He didn’t wait for an answer because he knew what my answer was. “Ford dealership. Oh, that’s a good one,” the sheriff said and he laughed on as he rounded the cruiser.
I looked toward the backseat of the broken SUV. I couldn’t leave without my trunk. I ran over to the SUV, opened the back door and dove in. I tried to get my arms around the broad container. My fingers tucked painfully beneath the leather bands that kept the trunk together and searched for leverage.
“Sheriff—“ I shouted from near the SUV, “I need to take this trunk with me. It has valuables in it. I’d rather not leave it here. Heat sensitive, you know?” I offered the Sheriff a crooked smile. I pulled out the bulky storage trunk and was nearly thrown to the ground. My trouble was made worse by next question the sheriff asked.
“Think someone in my town is gonna steal your stuff, Mister?” The sheriff’s face was stone sober.
I thought to drop the chest and start running down the road. Maybe it was time to escape—to surrender myself. I didn’t need the SUV, did I? I held onto the trunk firmly, bent my knees and tried awkwardly to rest it on something, or gain an advantage in a situation that was becoming increasingly desperate.
“N-No! No, I don’t think that. I would just hate for something to be ruined, you know?” I moved toward the cruiser and swayed back and forth sightlessly. The officer was kind enough to open the back door. I shoved the trunk inside. The trunk’s brass corner dug into the sun-bleached leather of the backseat. With a few adjustments of the chest, I covered the scratches from view. I had enough financial problems.
The officer returned to the front seat. As the officer sat, the cruiser leaned to the left as the suspension gave toward his side. I heard the sizzle of the warm leather seats against the officer’s sweaty back. He didn’t flinch or readjust. I reconsidered going along with him. I watched his wet, hairy neck through the flaking, black, chicken wire grate separating the front seat from the backseat. I watched the infinite reflection of the officer’s mirrored sunglasses through the rearview mirror, vaguely reminding me of a funhouse. I observed the officer’s unusual stillness as he waited for me to sit beside him. I didn’t have a choice. I did, however, have my belongings.
I opened the front door and sat down beside the sheriff. There wasn’t as much radio equipment in the front seat as I’d expected there to be. I’d been in a few cruisers when I was younger, for ride-alongs and never for deviance. The interior leather stung me with its heat, which I imagined had gathered for years. My skin nearly fused to the leather and was saved only by instinct. I tossed and turned in the seat until the heat dissipated enough to allow me to relax. My relaxation, however, was relative only to the seat. The situation was still painfully uncomfortable. I closed the door and the officer pressed on the gas. We rode out of the parking area in front of the store and onto the surrendering highway. In the passenger side mirror, my SUV was swallowed by the brown dust that pervaded the place like a biblical plague. The consumption that played out above the “objects are closer than they appear” warning made me nervous.
The drive along the highway was mostly silent. I tried to start a conversation.
“So, nice town, huh? Good people.” I waited for something. Anything. I watched the sweat run down the sheriff’s forehead. I saw the salty droplets weave in and around his wrinkles. I saw him sneer without looking at me. His voice churned from deep down within him, like stone on sandpaper.
“Humansville’s a nice enough town. Don’t always take too kindly to outsiders.” The sheriff admitted.
“Really? I didn’t notice.” Sarcasm is one of my greatest attributes.
The sheriff looked my way, over the frame of the mirrored aviators. He didn’t say anything, and we swept back into a painful, ear-ringing silence. Ten minutes later, he turned onto an unpaved country road. C.R. something. It didn’t make a difference. If something terrible happened out this far, there was no chance for salvation.
A mailbox was staked into the dry dirt right at the intersection with block letters stuck to the aluminum siding that read “Orson.” I assumed it was the last name of Mortimer, the mechanic, and Judith, his pleasant wife that was worth mentioning before her husband. The country road was less forgiving than the pot-holed highway leading to it. With the bumps in the dirt road, eating the melted candy bar became a bad idea.
A mile or two into the road, we pulled out in front of a plantation-style home, with a pillared doorway and windows displayed across the second floor that gave the blue and white-trimmed home facial-type characteristics. I stared up at the house at it stared back at me, each of us assessing one another. The house, like everything in Humansville, was outdated and ill-maintained. Vines grew from the ground and wrapped around the house, each slithering fingers from the earth subtly gripping the structure, waiting for the right time to pull it down.
The cruiser turned and parked. The sheriff shut off the engine and asked, “Have I seen you before, Mister?”
I shook my head, caught off guard by the question. Seen me before, he asked? In this place? I knew that if I’d come this way once, I’d never come again.
“I’ve never been here before, no.” I confessed.
Unconvinced, the officer stared at me. I felt at a disadvantage as he stared into my eyes and watched the sweat bead uncomfortably at my forehead, leaving me only the image of myself and my pitifulness in his reflective lenses. He opened the car door, rendering a hellish screech of metal on metal from an under-oiled hinge. The sound sent me back. I was surprised there was anywhere left to go. The door slammed and I sat there in the relentless heat, with the looming stench of my own body, the officer’s cheap cologne, what could have been vomit from old arrests, and an air-freshener shaped like a tree that read, “Have a nice day!” long overdue for a changing.
I was a mess. The unsettling atmosphere grew worse when I noticed a teenage girl in a blue dress swinging outside on the broad, wooden porch. The girl’s blonde hair curled brazenly at her forehead. Her eyes were as blue as the dress she wore. The girl stood, either out of excitement, respect, or fear, as the sheriff approached. I carefully opened the passenger door of the cruiser to let in the Missouri heat and humidity, which felt temperate and comfortable in comparison to the cruiser. I waved awkwardly, which caught the girl’s attention, and caused her to step to the peak of the four stairs that led to the entrance of the house.
“What you got there, Sheriff?” She laughed while looking my way and pointing. No one taught the girl that pointing was bad manners. I looked off as I was singled-out and blushed. I noticed a vehicle graveyard, with cars and trucks ranging from several decades old to others more recent. The newer cars bore polished gleam subdued only by the tickling of high grass around their tires and the dust from the wind. Maybe they were vehicles Mr. Mortimer Orson was working on. None of the hoods were opened and there were weeds nearly as high as I was growing around each of the vehicles. Mr. Mortimer could have been a collector. He collected cars. I imagined he collected bodies out in the woods. People graveyards. I thought about my trunk and what the kids said as they rode off.
“Lacy, run inside and get your Pa. Tell him there’s a gentleman out here that’d like to have him look over his car.” The officer instructed.
The girl nodded and rushed into the house, shouting with a voice that died like an echo in a canyon, “Pa! Someone’s here for—“
“It’s an SUV. Sport Utility Vehicle.” It didn’t occur to me that correcting him, as opposed to the children at the old man’s shop, was a bad idea until after I did it. The sheriff looked back my way and I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. The heat didn’t subside until he looked away and lost interest.
I took time to notice the gun in his holster. The gun was larger than those I’d seen police officers with in the past. The barrel seemed roughly eight inches in length. My attention was drawn away from the weapon when I heard the creak of old hinges and worn springs from the door of the house. A short, round man stepped out and allowed the screen door, with its grey matting torn and pockmarked, slam behind him. He wore an under shirt that was stained with blotches of brown and red, too short to keep from exposing the underside of his enormous belly. His pants, unable to properly reach his waist, fumbled loosely around him, held only by the pinch of his stomach against his groin. The man used a soiled, red cloth to wipe at his hands as he approached me and the officer. The man’s lips were buried behind a grossly neglected mustache, but the twitching and turning of the antenna-like wiry hairs suggested he was preparing to speak.
“I heard this fella needs some help, eh?” He laughed before breaking into a smoker’s cough. He hacked away, which made a response impossible. The officer and I waited for the man to collect himself. I assumed it was over when he forced the air from his lungs into his swampy throat and launched a mucus wad the size of an infant’s hand into an unsuspecting blade of tall grass. He continued before we could intervene, while his voice was still laced with the thick obstruction in his throat. “So bad you couldn’t even bring it out, eh? That’s rough.” He extended a crusted, dirty hand my way. “I’m Mortimer Orson.”
Mortimer’s hands were bronzed, as if dipped into a molten furnace. His fingernails were outlined with a deeper red, speckled and jagged on the tips from biting or hard work. Every crease in his stubby hands and short fingers was a bit darker than the rest of his skin, but none of it was natural.
By then I knew I had hesitated for an awkward length of time. The hesitation caused Mortimer to look queerly toward the sheriff and bob his hand up and down, as he struggled with the weight of his own appendage and the embarrassment of not having it met. The sheriff watched me with skepticism and silently judged me. I hated the appraisal. I was breaking a moral convention by not shaking a man’s hand when it was offered. In a place like this, the convention seemed to have no boundary based on hygiene.
Mortimer spoke, encouragingly, “Oh, com’on. Ain’t seen a little blood before? I was skinning a deer in the back. It won’t hurt you. All dried up anyway.”
Skinning a deer, I thought. My imagination was flooded with images of a diabolical Mortimer chopping up the drivers of the vehicles littering his front lawn. I considered the possibility of being next.
I shook Mortimer’s hand despite my instinct to avoid it. My mind, pummeled with scenes of screaming city-folk and dismembered body parts, couldn’t develop a clever lie in time to get out of the handshake. As my hand shook his, I felt the bloody crust on his palm balling up and flaking away between our palms, sending a plague snow down to the ground between us. I liked things clean.
"I’m Porter Jennings. Porter is fine.” The handshake went on too long. I tried to pull back, naturally, but Mortimer held firm to my hand. The conversation continued with my hand in his. I felt the heat rising between our palms and the blood on our hands returning to life.
“Good to meet you, Port!”
Porter, I thought.
“So, where’s your car at now?”
Sport Utility Vehicle, I thought.
I felt Mortimer clutch my hand more tightly. I felt like his hand was around my neck.
“Back at the gas station in town.” I said.
“Alright. Let me get my tools and I’ll head out that way. Com’on inside the house, Port. We ain’t the type here to keep people standing outside.”
You probably keep them hanging from hooks inside, I thought.
“My wife Judith makes some of the best damn sweet tea you ever drank! A Southern specialty. She’s cooking up soup now, too.” Mortimer rambled. “By the looks of you, Port, you ain’t from the country. A city boy, through and through. Can tell by your hairdo. You won’t see a hairdo like that around here, no.”
I couldn’t contemplate what Mortimer could have meant by my “city boy hairdo.” My hair was long, well-kept, and not a mullet—it was therefore not “country.” Finally, Mortimer released my hand to retreat toward the house. I could breathe again. I didn’t want to look at my hand or what Mortimer had exposed it to. I made a note to get a shot once back in civilization.
I quietly followed Mortimer and left the sheriff standing in the Orson’s overgrown front lawn.
Mortimer shouted suddenly, which caused my heart to feel like it was rubbed against a cheese grater. “Judith! Judith, pour some of that sweet tea, will you?” He looked back at me with a hand on the open screen door. “You want ice?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “And pour it over some ice! The good ice!” Mortimer went inside. I wondered about the kind of people that had good ice and bad ice. The tight springs of the screen door, likely the only thing new in the house, pulled the door shut with a clap—a meager applause for a pitiful show.
I stepped onto the first step leading to the patio with all the indignation of a guiltless man heading to the electric chair. I turned back to the sheriff in a hopeful plea that he’d stay. Despite the sheriff’s presence being uncomfortable, he was a sentinel, theoretically designed to abide by the law. Without him, I was on my own and things could turn out any number of ways. I thought about meat hooks and shallow forest graves. I thought about my trunk.
The sheriff opened his cruiser’s car door and closed it once his massive frame adjusted into it. The engine started with a grumble. As I prepared to enter the house behind Mortimer and subject myself to any other horrors associated with the Orson residence, I realized I’d forgotten my trunk in the cruiser. I leapt from the step and rushed toward the cruiser while waving my hands frantically. I saw the officer adjust at his right, which looked an awful lot like he was reaching for his weapon. My franticness subdued with the alarm of potentially being shot and I shook my hands in front of my face as a cautionary measure. I imagined how I looked, sweating, confused, hand bloodied, and entirely out of place with my “city boy hairdo.” While at the side of the cruiser, I pointed to the trunk in the backseat. The sheriff nodded once and turned away. I opened the back door and struggled to get my arms around the bulky wooden trunk again.
“Almost forgot my trunk!” I gave the officer a crooked smile as I pulled the trunk from the backseat, exposing again the scratched leather. The trunk crashed down on the ground and rolled over, flattening a forest of tall grass. Fortunately, the trunk remained closed. I placed the toe of my shoe against the trunk and instantly felt better.
All the while the officer observed my desperate behavior. His nose twitched and he sniffed out my fear and hopelessness. Those wide, reflective lenses, something I’d now imagined as alien eyes, peering into my darkest recesses to uncover weakness, stared and stared. With a sharp cock of his neck to the left and a subsequent pop, the officer looked away.
“Close the door.” He said while staring out of the cruiser’s clouded windshield. I was certain I could hear the bob and sway of the little tree air freshener as the wind blew into the cruiser through the open back door. Have a nice day!
I obliged and closed the door. The tires of the cruiser dug into the earth and spit dirt to its rear. Soon after, the car drove back down the long dirt road leading to the Orson’s. I watched the officer in the rearview, watched those alien eyes, and knew they were watching me back, waiting for me to make a last-minute wrong move so he could stick that eight-inch barrel in my face and blow my city boy brains out the back of my head.
“Thanks, asshole.” I whispered. I saw brake lights and instantly regretted whispering. The cruiser never stopped, however.
I stared at my toppled, leather-bound trunk for some time, and tried to devise a means of getting it off of the ground and into the house. I rolled the broad trunk over and upright. My fingers slipped into the leather belts that encompassed the container. I clumsily hoisted the trunk up against my chest.
“Don’t lift with your back.” I told myself with a tightened throat. I’d heard it more than once. I fumbled through the high grass like a cartoon character, while trying to get to the house. When I reached the stairs, I pushed my toe out in front of me, feeling for the vertical rise of each step, trying, to no avail, to look around the bulky object in my arms. One step. Two steps. Three steps. I hadn’t killed myself yet. Four steps. A foul smell crept from the house as I neared.
I kicked the bottom of the screen door in a desperate knock and it was opened by a small child, no older than four years. The little boy wore a striped shirt and shorts. He was barefoot on the wooden floor and the ends of his toes were coal-miner black. He had a blonde bowl cut that hung to his wide blue eyes. There was a brown mess of food around his lips. The boy didn’t say anything, but I smiled at him and whispered, “Thanks, bud.”
I stepped past him and placed the trunk next to one of the two florally upholstered couches in the living room. There was a broad fireplace in the living area with porcelain clowns on the mantle. On shelves near one of the walls, paintings of sad-faced clowns were crowded together. On the coffee table were salt and pepper shakers topped with clown heads, with their painted porcelain red hair. In the corner of the room, near a large window was a rocking chair with a terry clown, with long knitted gloved fingers and uncomfortably happy eyes.
“What in the fu—“ I paused as the young boy tugged on the leg of my black slacks.
“What do you got in the box?” He asked.
I paused, caught off-guard. “It’s a surprise, little man. Don’t you worry one bit about it, alright?” I ruffled his hair and tried my best to imitate the dreadful smile of the rocking chair clown.
I heard a loud and obnoxious woman’s voice surging into the room from behind me. She wafted the miserable scent from the kitchen in with her.
“Oh! Hello!” The woman’s voice rang out in painful dissonance. Her voice reminded me of an old recording. Suddenly I was enveloped in a hug. The woman’s large body and bosom pressed against my thin chest. Somewhere in the abyss of tacky pink floral fabric, I was restrained and in shock. I felt a small wooden spoon tapping my back as she held me like a husband returning from war. When she pulled from the embrace, she kept hold of my upper arms with her thick fingers.
Judith, I assumed, had thin lips with thick red lipstick. Her hair was fire truck red and wound in spirals on her head. She wore a yellow flower apron over her bulbous pink flower dress. The woman was a walking field of floral species fighting for dominance over her turf. The cacophony of color was distracting, even in a room full of clowns.
“Well, aren’t you just precious? I’m Judith Mortimer, but you just call me Judy.” She began making her way back toward the kitchen. “I got you some sweet tea just over here in the other room, now. You com’on over and get—“ Before she could finish, she tripped over my wooden trunk.
Judith observed the trunk perplexedly, “My, my, what’ve we got here? This yours, handsome? You should take this on upstairs while I make you something to eat. Don’t want anyone tripping on this here and breaking their neck! Us here, we’re having the finest soup! The finest! Momma’s recipe, in fact.” Judith waved the wooden spoon around as she stepped back into the kitchen. Her rambling faded into incoherent warbles in the other room.
A terrible stench filled the house from what I imagined was a witch’s cauldron in the kitchen. I started thinking of ways to get out of eating. The smell was distinctly animal and was unclean. I wanted to see into the pot, to see if eyeballs or goat testicles floated and bobbed in the fluid. Meekly, I peered into the kitchen, only to see Judith bobbing to and fro—a windy field of flowers that all smelled like cow shit.
I heard an engine start outside. I scrambled toward the window, still under the innocent observation of the young boy.
“Don’t you have cartoons or something to watch?” I asked the boy as I pulled the floral curtains to the side to look for the source of the engine growl. Flowers. Clowns. Flowers. Clowns.
Mortimer was outside of a running, dented old truck. He tossed a small toolbox into the bed of the pickup and wobbled back toward the driver’s seat. I noticed he had to jump to get into the front seat of the vehicle. What a pitiful man, I thought.
Judith was singing in the kitchen.
“Are you washed in the blood? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” She sang. A tapping lanyard of an unbalanced ceiling fan in the living room played a subtle beat behind the tune. “Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”
I examined my hands. I observed the smeared red mess on them. Afraid of a little blood, he said. I looked at my clean white shirt. I grit my teeth and closed the curtain as Mortimer started down the road. I lifted my trunk from the ground and stumbled around the small child, the coffee table, and the couches until I stood at the bottom of the stairs. I shifted my body and pressed the trunk between me and the wall for support while I surveyed the stairs. Behind me, in step like a soldier in training, the little boy followed, observing the stairs as well.
“Any ideas?” I asked.
The boy turned from the stairs to look at me, his whole head turning with each glance. The little boy’s lips smacked and his tongue wagged around his mouth to wipe away the food on his face.
“Didn’t think so.”
I pulled the trunk from the wall and stepped up the first step. I went on to the next, one foot carefully in front of another.
“So this is how I die.” I muttered, half-muted as the box pressed firmly against my cheek.
The boy took each step behind me. I was aware that if I fell the boy wouldn’t have a chance. It wouldn’t be the best way to make new friends. Thanks for fixing my car. I killed your kid.
There were more clowns upstairs on shelves and walls.
“It’s a fucking circus in here.” I was sweating again. I remembered the boy was behind me then. I looked back his way.
He covered his mouth.
“That’s right. You didn’t hear anything.” I reminded him.
Directly at the top of the stairs was a small bathroom. To the right was the boy’s room. Boyish toys, plastic and pewter in action poses, were scattered in the wake of some great war of the boy’s imagination. I wondered which of the muscular heroes won the fight. There was a racecar bed against one of the walls. It seemed an ideal place to put down the trunk—my ball and chain. My terrible responsibility.
I set the box down and leaned backward as far as I could to stretch. “Oh, finally!” I shouted.
The boy watched the box with curiosity. I noticed his attention and it made me uneasy.
“Listen. I’m going to wash up, alright? I want to be nice and clean for your mom’s shitty meal.” Cleanliness was important. I grinned and rubbed my bloody hand in his blonde hair, leaving it matted and discolored. “How about you keep an eye on the box for me?” It didn’t seem necessary to tell him. “Just stay out of it. Very important things in there I wouldn’t want you messing up with your grubby little hands, alright?”
I went out of the room. The boy seemed unaffected by my language or demands. I stepped into the bathroom. Wallpaper walls and carpet floors. The bathroom reeked of cheap potpourri. The bottom of the shower curtain was dingy and brown, the same rusty color that stained the inside of the sink.
I closed the door and locked it.
I stared at myself in the mirror. I looked dismal. I examined the crusted blood on my hands which accentuated every crease and crack on them. I used the fingers of one hand to roll the blood on the other hand into small balls that dropped to the bathroom floor. Thin pieces of the boy’s blonde hair were knit into the gore. Life and death in the palm of my hand. My breathing slowed. There was something satisfying about the manipulation of the blood. My eyes snapped back to the mirror to catch a smile that my reflection quickly hid—only it hid it a little too late.
I turned on the water in the stained sink. The water smelled like cracked boiled eggs. What was cleaner, I wondered, the water or the blood? I scraped a sliver of soap from the porcelain sink. It was either exfoliating soap or melded with contaminants. I rubbed the soap between my hands as they sat beneath the brown-tinted water and watched as the dried blood swirled down the drain. I dried my hands on a crusted terrycloth that read Home Sweet Home with a little white and brown house sewn into it. I couldn’t stand it. I pulled the towel from the hook and took it with me.
I stepped out of the bathroom and expected the boy to be outside waiting for me—my shadow. He wasn’t there. Downstairs I heard the humming and caterwauling coming from Judith. In an effort to stay away from her for as long as possible, I went back into the boy’s room. I paused as I noticed the boy standing in front of my open trunk. I dropped the terrycloth to the ground. Home Sweet Home. I crushed the towel beneath my foot like Godzilla and watched the boy. He hadn’t noticed me yet.
The boy rummaged through his newfound treasure. Metal clinks and clanks echoed through the room as he searched. Satisfied with something he’d found, the boy rose.
“What do you have there, little guy?” I sounded friendly and okay with the incursion. I wasn’t. The primal fear in the boy’s eyes showed that he understood my anger and disappointment.
In the boy’s hand was my machete, one of the many tools of the trade. The sharpened blade extended half of the boy’s length, but it was light weight and easy for him to lift. The blade bobbed back and forth unsteadily. I took another step toward him.
“Didn’t I ask you to stay out of the box? Don’t you know it’s impolite to dig through people’s things without permission?” I took another step. Home Sweet Home was in ruins somewhere behind me—somewhere in front of me, too.
The boy said nothing. He hid behind the machete best he could.
“What should I expect? You’re dad’s an idiot and your mom is…” I looked back toward the open door and fell silent enough to hear the song.
Are you washed in the blood? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?
My fingers wrapped around the boy’s fingers and around the hilt of the blade.
“We don’t want you hurting yourself now, do we?” I crouched to make myself eyelevel with the boy. I carefully pulled the blade from the boy’s hand, like a successful negotiator. “That’s right. See? This isn’t a toy, little man.”
I thought about the fat kid on the bike. I thought about his foul-mouthed friend. I thought about the old man in the dusty shop. I thought about the skeptic cop. I thought about merry Mortimer and jubilant Judith. I thought about the little girl in the blue dress. I thought about the poor boy.
“You know, curiosity killed the cat.” I felt cliché. I felt excited and sick with myself. I knew the expression was lost on the boy. My eyes followed the blade, from the hilt to the tip and admired it. So simple, like the boy.
“I ain’t got a cat.” The boy said.
I nodded. “I know.”
Cleanliness was important. I swung countless times. It became increasingly difficult to remain clean. Blood stained the walls. Blood stained the old carpets. I stood speckled like modern art in front of what was left of the boy when I was done. I wiped the edge of the blade on the racecar bed.
“Vroom.” I said as the blood smeared across the blade and blankets.
I stepped toward the door of the boy’s room, but stopped in front of the bathroom towel I dropped. Home Sweet Home. I looked back at the boy.
“I wish she would have taught you some manners, little man.”
I started down the steps. They were easier to traverse without a trunk in tow. Judith’s voice, a hollow murmur from inside of the boy’s room, became clearer as I descended the stairs. Blood tracks marked my path from the room upstairs.
Judith, with a near-psychic intuition shouted, “Com’on down, honeypot! You’re going to love what I’m cooking up. Yes, you are!” Judith continued singing after the announcement. I assumed she was on verse fifty-three.
“I’m coming!” I left another bloody stamp in the carpet as I neared the bottom step. “I have something for you too!” I shouted.
Judith didn’t hear me. The clowns in the living room watched me in disgust.
“Oh, we’re judgmental now? Like you all wouldn’t have done it!” I scolded. The clowns seemed sadder than before.
I wiped a hand across my wet face. I held my hand in front of me for examination. The wet, warm blood dripped to the ground in front of me, tapping on the toe of my shoes. Tap. Tap. My eyes shot to the rocking ceiling fan. Tap. Tap. I closed my hand into a fist and stepped toward the kitchen.
I waited outside the threshold to the kitchen with my back to the wall and painted the wallpaper flowers red to match everything else. I noticed the girl in the blue dress swinging on the porch swing just outside the window. Sounds intensified. The swing’s chains creaked and groaned as they tugged at the house’s foundation. The floors creaked at Judith’s body leaned from one side to the other in the kitchen. Her singing…
Are you washed in the blood? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?
I stepped into the kitchen as Judith bobbed back and forth like a buoy on water. Her form jiggled and swayed under the blasphemous floral dress. She faced away and tended to the stove.
I joined in. “Are you washed in the blood? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” I followed her lead. I tapped the flat edge of the machete against my thigh to the beat. Tap. Tap.
Judith’s hands went into the air as she heard me behind her. We had all the talent of a freshmen chorus. She waved her hands back and forth with the wooden sauce spoon in one of them. Soup this way. Soup that way. I wondered if she felt Jesus in that room. I wondered if I could help her if she didn’t.
“Are you washed in the blood—“ She turned around with a painted smile. When she saw me covered from head to toe in blood, she dropped the sauce spoon and covered her mouth. She wailed in a scream.
I lifted the machete high into the air and swung.
I swung.
I swung.
The machete was stuck. I rotated around Judith’s heap trying to dislodge it.
“Not now. Com’on! I’m not done yet.”
The machete wouldn’t give. Judith had the last laugh, with her wide open mouth, lipstick double or triple coated around it. Clowns.
“You think you’re so funny.”
I picked up the wooden sauce spoon from the ground and waved it in front of Judith’s stone cold, smiling face.
“Then I’m taking this, huh! Keep the thing. My gift to you, you old hag. For the—“ I spun around and looked at the stove. A pot full of red, greasy soup bubbled. “—soup.”
I stood over the pot and took in a deep breath. There were no rolling eyeballs or bobbing goat testicles. The oily slick surface migrated like amoeba in water.
“All that work.” I dipped the sauce spoon into the soup, stirred it, and brought it to my mouth. “It’s the least I can do, Judy.” I took it in. The soup was salty. An aftertaste hugged my tongue and reminded me of potent cough medicine. I spit what little remained in my mouth on the ground next to Judith.
“Not so good, Judith.” I grabbed a hold of the machete hilt again and pulled. Judith’s dead body rose and fell with each tug and release. Sloppy, wet sounds came from below her. “Just give me my—“ The weapon finally gave and sent me back against the stove.
“Ah, sh—“ The heat, the smell, the blood, it all caught up with me. I turned my eyes up and noticed the girl in the blue dress. She stood at the threshold of the kitchen with a hand over her mouth. Like mother like daughter. Her eyes were screaming, but her mouth could not.
I stepped with one long stride over Judith’s body and closer to the girl. “Calm down. I know this seems bad.” I said in an incredible understatement.
The girl turned around and ran from the kitchen screaming. She burst through the screen door. The tight springs of the door fought back, but gave to her momentum. I chased her swiftly at first, but slowed as I slid toward the carpeted living room.
“Whoa!” I steadied and grabbed the wooden trim around the opening to the kitchen. Dark green paint crusted and flaked from the surface. “Com’on back now! It’s fine!”
My stomach groaned. The soup. The chocolate from earlier. I followed the girl’s path out the door. The clowns were more skittish on the way out. They might have known they could have been next. I stepped out on to the patio. The girl was running out toward Mortimer’s truck with her hands in the air.
“Back already?” I said to myself. There was no way Mortimer could have fixed the SUV already. I looked down and was embarrassed by myself. I was bloodied from head to toe. I didn’t know what blood was mine and what blood wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I had a sauce spoon in one hand and a machete in the other as I descended the few steps from the patio. I continued toward the truck. The truck stopped suddenly and Mortimer leapt from the seat and ran toward his screaming daughter.
“He killed mom! He killed mom! I saw it! Oh Lord, I saw it!” The girl screamed and cried.
Mortimer was confused. He took his daughter into his arms and watched me. He was speechless. I whistled Judith’s song as I stepped through the high grass. Each blade of grass leaned with the wind in an attempt to dodge me as I approached. As I neared, the girl squeezed tighter against her chubby father. With each step Mortimer’s face reddened. When I arrived, I paused in front of both of them and left my arms slack at my sides.
“W-What have you done?” Tears welled in Mortimer’s eyes as he looked me over—as he looked over the blood and the gore that hung from me like tinsel on a tree.
“I know, I know. I didn’t want it to be this way, but he opened the box.” I shrugged and half-smiled.
“W-What?” Mortimer shook his head.
“Com’on Mortimer!” My hands lifted and gestured over myself. “Ain’t seen a little blood before?”



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