Sindago: Chapter One

There used to be a town out here, before it was swallowed up by the trash. At least, that’s what the old man told us when we turned off the highway. Heard the locals out this way were off. But that guy’s head looked like an actual, bald nutsack. One silver tooth. Hanging by the side of the road with no shirt on, but boy did he have suspenders. You know what, though?  I can’t really blame him. If I lived out here in the asscrack of nowhere, I’d probably be all about that long underwear and suspenders life, too.

“Paradise Hills. Is this it?” Cath said, craning her neck out the window to read the tattered, faded billboard floating over the edge of the dump.

I pulled to a stop under the sign. The words Welcome to Paradise Hills were printed in huge letters turned yellow by time, over images of redwood trees and perfect, sunsetty hills, newly-built dream condos, a golf course with a duck pond (quack quack), and a young professional couple drinking wine on their balcony overlooking the sea.

Nevermind that the sea was hours away, and redwoods don’t grow in the fucking desert. But, lying is ninety percent of selling real estate. It’s the main reason I quit my job. I wasn’t that great of a liar. Just ask my ex-girlfriend.

This was it, all right. The perfect desert suburb that never was. The last undiscovered photographer’s wet dream in these declining United States. But there’s something beautiful about decay, isn’t there? Or maybe Cath was right, and we really were just a bunch of morbid weirdos.

There was too much dust on the windshield for me to read the billboard’s fine print clearly, so I stuck my head out the window and gagged. The air was so thick with the taste of rot you could almost chew it.

“Yup. Main street is a mile that way.” I pointed in the direction indicated by the sign. “Squad. We made it.”

“Woo! We made it!” my big sister said in her Dumb American Girl voice.

I echoed her, “Woo woo!”

In the back seat, Jester yawned and rattled Shaela awake. “Smells like ass, man. Can you roll your window up?”

“I thought you were an ass-man,” Shaela said.

Jester sighed. “No wonder you wanted to come here. This place is awful.”

Shaela checked her nails. “Go fuck yourself, Chester.”

I rolled my window up and killed the engine. The camper van coughed and sputtered like a thirsting vagrant. “So, what you guys wanna do? Walk around? Take some pictures?”

“Exercise? In this heat? Hell no. Can you just leave me the keys?” Jester said.

“Come on, grandpa. Stretch your legs. Walking’s good for you. That In-N-Out burger ain’t gonna work itself off. Besides, I don’t want to leave the AC running. It’s bad for the car,” I said.

“It’s a van, not a car, Mel.”

“Seriously. If you stay here, you’re gonna roast alive.”

“Who cares? Let him,” Shaela said.

Cath reached back and put a hand on her best friend’s knee. “Shae. Stop.”

Jester washed his face through his hands. “Jesus Christ. You’re right. You’re right. I’m being a Daryl Downer. Besides, my stomach starts to revolt if I sit for too long.”

I got out of the camper van and stretched. It was eighty degrees. Thin streaks of sweat were already creeping through my shirt where it stuck to my ribs.

Paradise Hills. What a name for a city buried in trash, huh? Or was I just being an edgelord and forcing some false poetic justice where there were only mountains of rusted auto parts and the ancient corpses of Capri Suns?

Of course this place died. There was no water. Trying to bring water out here is probably what killed it. Too expensive to redistribute the already limited water supply in this state – heads would’ve rolled. Not to mention the fact that there was a long period in our state’s history where there wasn’t enough water for all the people. Seventy million is a big number, bigger than the population of most European countries.

The Big Dry fucked up a lot of people everywhere. But, I think history will remember that it fucked us Californians up the worst. Maybe we deserved it. Why were there so many of us living in inland LA? The coast is the only part of SoCal that ever should’ve been considered habitable. Or how about the San Francisco Bay Area, where they had to dam Hetch Hetchy, destroying arguably one of the most beautiful High Sierra valleys that ever existed, one that could easily rival Yosemite, just so people in the city could see something when they turned on the tap? That was in 1923. For a while there, it got so bad that we Californians had to buy our water from up north, then from out east, then Canada, until no one wanted to sell it anymore. Water drying up and leaving dead towns was a worldwide phenomenon.

There are a lot of dead towns in California. My high school English teacher, Mr. Wolfe, would whoop my ass with sarcasm for using the phrase a lot. But it’s hard to think of a better quantifier. Whether by poor design or poor fortune, our once-Golden State is littered with the tombstones of what it used to be: overcrowded, overbuilt, and over-green.

This place sure wasn’t green, though. Paradise Hills was as brown and arid as they come.

To set the scene a bit, the highway we had pulled off was more like a two-lane backroad cutting between mountains and desert that used to be fertile farmland. The ground was mostly parched earth riddled with shitty bracken and a few epic granite boulders. That landscape was what we’d been looking at for most of the drive up from the coast. The coast is where most people live these days; there are still a few holdouts who live in the interior, mountain people and lake people and river people, but they’re hard to find, and their towns are small and have little to offer, more like villages than what I imagine people used to describe as “small towns” back when times were easier.

The spot where we parked in front of the big sign was a parking lot, of sorts. You could tell other cars had been there. The flat, grassy clearing was surrounded by mountains of trash higher than I was tall, completely blocking the view of what lay beyond the little path snaking away between the junked cars.

The grass was long and grey. It was flattened where people had parked their cars or walked, wild where they hadn’t. The tips of the grass were sharp and made me glad I was wearing high-top boots and my most faithful pair of old, raw denim jeans. It bit and snapped at my legs as I took a few steps toward one trash heap, then another, trying to discern the weird old artifacts buried without a prayer in this vast sepulcher of the past: toys, game consoles, TVs, plastic, so much goddamned plastic, everything plastic, hell even some of the clothes, no wonder our parents’ generation raped this planet into submission, plastic this and plastic that, none of it destructible, all of it toxic, what the hell did they think was going to happen? Play poisoned games, win poisoned prizes.

The grass didn’t seem to mind. It didn’t discriminate between soil and trash, giving some of the masses spiky little mohawks that bristled in the wind. I’d never seen grass like that before. How did it grow here if there was never any rain?

“Hey Cath, you ever seen grass like this?” I said.

Cath was squatting with Shaela to take a picture of some old metal lunch boxes. The painted logos were still partially visible. She stopped to examine the grass and shrugged. “No. It’s really sharp. Like the grass at the beach. Weird, huh? There’s no rain out here.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” I said.

My big sister, the part-time psychic, at least where her little brother’s thoughts were concerned.

Jester kicked a rusted can off into the labyrinth of trash piles, yawned, and stretched. “Dudes, it’s blistering. Can we get where we’re going?”

Shaela stood, brushed her legs off, and gave Jester a death stare. “Hold your tighty whiteys, Chester the Molester. We came all the way out here, so we’re gonna look around. I want to explore for a while.”

That nickname was why we called him Chester the Jester. He’d almost committed suicide due to the old one back in junior high. I was the guy who he called when he cut his wrists while we were playing Counter-Strike. I was also the one who called the cops and saved his life. Shaela, who had been sleeping over in Cath’s room during the whole ordeal, still used that nickname out of spite when she got pissed off at him, almost fifteen years after the fact.

But Jester played it off like it was no big deal. “You just want to take pictures for your social media. Maybe you should find a better way to spend your life.”

Shaela folded her arms and nodded. “Yeah. I want to take pictures to post on my fucking social media. And so does Cath. Maybe you should find a better way to spend your life instead of being a used baby wipe all weekend. Some of us want to enjoy ourselves.”

“Hey, go easy,” I told her.

“Yeah, go easy, Shaela. Don’t be a bitch, Shaela,” Jester said sotto voce.

Shaela drew a deep breath through her teeth, like she was about to give him a tongue lashing, but I walked between them before she could.

“Guys. Chill. Seriously. Smoke a J or something. I don’t want to listen to any more of this, and neither does Cath. You know how many road trips we’ve been on where we wanted to kill each other?”

I hunted for eye contact, but Cath was still busy photographing her lunch boxes. She surprised me by standing up and turning her camera off. “Wanted to, little bro?” she said, a smile curling up one side of her mouth.

I chuckled. “Jester, Shae, think of it this way: our parents never had the money to take us on real vacations, so all we did was go camping. Every year. Some trips we went as far as Colorado or Wyoming. Days in the car together. Sometimes weeks. Listening to Cath complain about you, Shaela, or boys, or how my music was too loud, or whatever. Whine, whine, whine. All she did was whine. For weeks.”

“Oh shut up,” Cath said.

“Look at her trying not to smile. That’s how you know I’m right.”

Cath’s half-grin turned into a full one. “Okay, like you were always so pleasant? Give me a break, bro. Remember the time you wouldn’t plug your earphones in and made me listen to your video game music for eight hours? Oh yeah. That was, like, every time. Oh, and that time you played mom and dad off against each other not to make you turn it down because they were already in a fight? Yeah. Oh! Or how about the time you put a spider on my face. Yeah. Exactly. You’re one to talk.”

“We weren’t camping when I did the spider,” I reminded her. “You did scream pretty loud, though.”

Cath put her face in her hands and groaned.

Shaela’s voice took on an inquisitorial tone. “You’re kidding, right Cath? He didn’t actually do that.”

“Oh yes, he did,” Cath said.

Shaela walked over and smacked me on the arm. “That is the most stereotypical little brother bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life. Wow, Melvin. I’ve always thought you were a dick, but now I think you’re really a dick.”

“First of all, I never said I wasn’t. Second, we were little kids. Third, the point is, you guys, I know you’re not used to being cramped up in a tight space together, but we are, so take it from two experts, it’s only going to get worse unless you choose not to make it worse. Hug it out, be friends, and just have fun. That’s the whole point of this trip. You don’t have to have fun together, but it’s definitely better for all of us if you stop taking little pot shots at each other every five seconds. Okay?”

Shaela and Jester exchanged a look. “Okay,” they both said.

Shaela quickly added, “But I’m not hugging him. He smells like a Dutch oven.”

“I always knew you were an expert,” Jester said.

I threw my hands up in the air. “Forget it. Let’s go.”

I started down the little trail leading away from the makeshift parking lot into a sea of trash piles. My friends disappeared quickly behind that amorphous wall of dirty plastics and rusted metal. Their whispers drifted over the silent hills of garbage, soft hisses that were just too far away for me to pick out words:

…pssst pssst pssst pssst…

I thought they’d try to pay me back for my self-righteous speech about us all getting along by pretending to drive away and leave me stranded here, so I stopped at the nearest intersection and waited.

There was another trail venturing off into the dump. I wondered where it went. Probably nowhere. The sign had pointed this way. It was one mile to Main Street, and I doubted there was anything else out here but the town. Maybe if we decided to camp here tonight I could come back and check it out, but for now, better not to get sidetracked or lost.

Wait. Why were their whispers getting louder?

…pssst pssst pssst pssst…

A tingling sense of the absurd filtered from my neck down to my toes. The sound wasn’t coming from behind me. It was… ahead of me? No. Down the other path? No. Where the hell was it coming from?

Was this what it felt like to realize something fucking weird was going on, not in a story or a movie, but real life, right here, right now, and it was happening to me? I didn’t feel sick or terrified or nauseous. Nothing twisted or broke inside of me, only that curious tingling.

…pssst pssst pssst pssst…

My feet moved of their own volition. I turned down the other path and started walking, halted after a few steps when I realized I was being a dumbass. It was probably the wind, and my imagination was getting the better of me, like it always did. There was no one out here but me, my big sister, and our friends.

No. I definitely, 100% heard voices out there. Whispers drifting through the trash. Voices that didn’t belong to my friends. The voices of four or five strangers, all having a rapid, muted conversation, deciding what to do about me, about us.

No, you idiot, it was the wind, I told myself. I want to see something weird, so of course I’m going to think weird shit is going on when it’s not. If I start chasing phantoms, I’m going to wander off and get lost, then I’ll be the asshole on the elbow ruining this trip.

“Good job waiting for us, shitbrain,” Shaela said behind me. I admit that it startled me. “Whoa! Did I scare you? Did a five-foot-seven blonde girl just make Mel O’Brian flinch?”

“Oh, come on,” I said.

Cath snorted and slapped me on the shoulder. “Chill out, bro.”

Nothing in the world calmed me down faster than Cath calling me bro. She didn’t say it like a guy friend, or even an older brother would. There was nurturing in it, a deep, immutable love. Cath was five feet tall and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, with wrists so dainty I could pinch my thumb and forefinger around them if I wanted to, but I looked up to her and she knew it.

I don’t know what it’s like for anyone else who has an older sister, but mine was the best anyone could ask for. She understood me and protected me, made me laugh and feel safe, was there for me like a lighthouse in a storm, and always had been, even when we were little kids and I put spiders on her face.

Cath wasn’t merely a good big sister, either. She was a good person. That’s a lot easier to say than show (here I go with my a lots again). But that declaration comes from a lifetime of growing up in her shadow and being under her wing; it’s probably the truest thing I’ve ever said. Cath was a straight A student. An EMT in the coastal gangland of Santa Monica, who saw buckets of blood on a daily basis and somehow never lost her faith in humanity. A polite goody two-shoes who still knew how to party and hang. I had never met one of her peers who didn’t tell me upon learning we were related, “Oh, you’re Cath’s little brother? I love Cath,” or “Cath’s great,” or, “Dude, your sister’s awesome.”

In fact, the only bad thing I ever heard anyone say about her was, “Who spells Cathlynne with a C? What kind of name is Cathlynne, anyway?

I didn’t forget about the whispers I thought I’d heard, but I didn’t let them bother me, either. If it was the wind, it was the wind. If it was someone, or something else, then we’d meet them, or we wouldn’t.

I wasn’t the biggest guy around. I was six-foot-two and 200 pounds of mostly muscle, though a big portion of that muscle was covered by my tattoos and a solid two feet of beard, these days. But I felt practically invincible standing there, surrounded by my crew:

Cath, previously described;

Tall, skeletal Jester, with his bird’s nest of black hair and wardrobe of Iron Maiden t-shirts, black chinos, and Chuck Taylors, who played video games for a living and acted like a pushover to everyone because it was easier than standing up for himself, but who I knew would fight to the death for me if he ever thought I was truly in danger;

And petty, beautiful Shaela, Cath’s other half since childhood, the professional drama queen who used to be much nicer before she rose to “influencer” status after a single insult she aimed at some other social media celeb went viral;

Four mid-twenty-somethings who couldn’t have been more different, but who had grown up together anyway. We had developed some common interests, despite the odds. Each of us had a deep desire to rediscover that which was forgotten. In a state that had been vastly depopulated, in a culture that had become vastly played-out, our options were never ending, from the time Cath was old enough to drive.

“Is that a graveyard?” Jester said, forging ahead of me to the end of the little path.

“Huh? Where?” I said.

We followed him out to where the trash piles rolled away to a vast, gray glen dotted with man-made structures. Paradise Hills was big enough to cover the valley, but not much else. Ruins beyond ruins smiled at the sun like skulls made of brick and fallen roof tile. Enough of the structures were still standing to hold ten or maybe twenty thousand people. The streets they lined were as empty as the black pits of their windows, all save for the trash and the ubiquitous carpet of shivering, gray grass.

There was a tiny cemetery on the slope immediately ahead of us. It was gated with chicken wire and a few stone piles, and held only a handful of graves. There was no gate, only two stakes driven into the chalky earth. Most of the inscriptions on the headstones were too worn to read.

One of the burial plots, a miniature one with a handmade wooden cross, caught my eye, though.

The grave was too small to be that of an adult. It was the grave of a child, or perhaps, I realized with a chill, that of an infant. The name was written in black permanent marker.

Sindago

Along with the words,

I miss you

There was no date or age.

“Who names their kid Sindago?” Shaela said. She pronounced it Sinn-Dah-Go. That sounded right.

I shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me.” I didn’t like thinking about death. The stories I heard from Cath about her night shifts were enough to give me nightmares.

“That’s so sad. But I guess we all lose our loved ones at some point,” Cath said quietly, hands clasped over her heart.

I put my arm around her. “You okay, sis?”

She shook it off, eyes locked on that frail, beloved cross. “I’m fine. It’s just… no, it’s stupid.”

Shaela and I exchanged a look. We both nodded. “Okay. That’s fine,” I said.

“Cath, you mind taking a few steps that way? I want to get a picture,” Shaela said.

Cath did.

Cath hadn’t lost her ex-fiancée Ray in that way. Ray was still alive, but they hadn’t spoken, and none of us had been allowed to speak the guy’s name, for the last six months. The Long Distance Reaper had finally come calling after three years of living in different cities. Ray, Mr. Man’s Man, minor league baseball player and competitive skeet shooter, had stuck around longer than most guys in their situation would. Three years. Damn. Seems like that would drive a wedge between even the lovey-doviest of couples. I couldn’t hold it against him.

My own two-year relationship with my ex-girlfriend Laura failed for much simpler reasons. I was an asshole, and so was she. Play poisoned games, win poisoned prizes.

“Guys, this grave is fresh,” Jester said, kneeling down to touch the soil. “As in, a few days old.”

Shaela huffed behind her camera. “Can you get out of my picture please?”

“Please, just wait. I promise your ten million followers won’t shit a brick if you don’t post something for five whole minutes. But guys, I don’t think there’s a human buried here. I think grave belongs to a dog.”

Sindago.

Of course.

“There’s a very real possibility someone is still living in this area if they buried their dog here,” Jester said.

I looked around. “I don’t see anybody.”

“Maybe they grew up here. Place has only been abandoned, what, twenty years?” Cath said.

“I still hate that name,” Shaela said.

Jester rose, shook his head, and cracked his back like he’d done some strenuous workout. “Hate’s a strong word. Well, for rational people, anyway. Granted, it would be a weird name for a kid. But nobody thinks twice about naming their dog something screwed up.”

“Cath and I used to have a dog named Gurgi. She died when I was little,” I said.

Jester gave me a fist bump. “Lloyd Alexander? Fuck yeah. I read those books.”

“She was a good dog,” Cath said. “Stupid beyond words, but we loved her. She used to run through the screen door when she saw seagulls in the back yard. Never learned there was a barrier there. I wonder who this one belonged to? R.I.P. Sindago. I bet you were a good dog, too.”

“Actually, that dog was mine,” a stranger’s voice said behind us.

Cath gasped. Shaela and Jester each gave a little yelp. My hackles rose and my fists turned to rocks. All of us spun around to see who it was.

It was the old man from the highway, the one who’d given us the directions. Nutsack Head.

He was standing far enough away from us that I didn’t feel threatened, but I didn’t like the fact that he’d snuck up on us. His posture, and the look in his eye took some of the fire out of my belly. He was staring at Sindago’s grave, a foggy reminiscence playing behind his wrinkled eyes. He still hadn’t put on a shirt. His suspenders did little to cover his bowling ball belly or hairy, crane-like arms. When he spoke, he sounded drunk. There was a slur in his words, and a slow thoughtfulness. I knew it might be an act, so I kept my guard up, but it dissipated rapidly the more he spoke.

The man wasn’t going to hurt us. He looked like he was going to cry. “Yee-up. Sindago was mine. Good dog. From Japan. They breed good dogs there. I’m a single guy living out here on my own. Never got married or had any kids.”

I was surprised he used any rather than no.

I cleared my throat, drawing his eyes up from the little wooden cross. The fog evaporated, and he studied the four of us as if seeing us for the first time. “We saw you sitting by the side of the road. Did you move that armchair out there by yourself, or was it already there?” I said.

“Armchair? Oh. Shit. Yeah, I sit out there sometimes. It’s my favorite place to read. Not too many cars. Always an unexpected pleasure when one goes by. Sindago there used to run after ‘em. Not anymore.”

He gave the saddest chuckle I’d ever heard. “Anyway, I’m Budd. I live around here. Not down there.” Budd pointed at the matrix of ruined houses at the bottom of the valley. “I live up the road. Didn’t want to scare you folks, or make you uncomfortable here, but I thought I’d come introduce myself in case you need anything. Food, water. Mostly water. I never ask for money or anything like that when folks come through here. I try not to be a bother. But weed is always appreciated.” The old man grinned. There was that silver tooth again. He had a few others, but I didn’t stare.

“We don’t smoke,” Shaela said.

“‘Course you don’t. Well, no worries,” Budd said. “Listen, there’s one subject in particular I feel inclined to mention before I head back to my chair. You have a moment?”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

Budd straightened his posture, taking on a professorial tone. “If you guys are planning to camp here, I’d strongly ask you to reconsider. It’s pretty unsafe, not to mention unsanitary. You don’t want to knick your knee or something on a rusty edge when you get up to use the bathroom at night. Know what I mean? All kinds of diseases lurking in a place like this. Tetanus. Hepatitis. Something worse. Like I said, I’m not trying to freak you out. We’re all grownups here, you can do what you want. Just take it from a local, there are way nicer spots ten minutes up the road. I don’t want you folks to have your camping trip ruined by something disappointing.”

“Like what?” Shaela said.

Budd smiled, tooth glinting in the high sun. “I’ve seen my fair share of injuries among campers out here. Not to mention, the facilities are somewhat lacking.”

“I work in an ambulance. I can handle it if one of us gets injured. But, to be honest, I don’t think we’re going to camp here,” Cath said.

Budd shrugged. “Sun sets faster than you think. Especially if you’re down there exploring. Might be be risky after dark. Wouldn’t want you to get lost.”

“Um, excuse you?” Shaela said. “We’ll be fine.”

Budd chuckled. “I’m excused. Sorry, look. I try not to be some weird hippy out here scaring away young people who just want to have a good time. But, experience is the great teacher. How can I repay you for my great offense?”

“You can fuck off?” Shaela muttered.

Cath glared at her. “You’ve been very kind, Budd. We appreciate it. You don’t need to worry about us, though. We’re only going to hike for an hour or two and take pictures.”

Budd shrugged, turned and wandered back into the trash heaps, stopping before he disappeared from sight. “Don’t hesitate to ask if you want a tour. I’m one turn up the road. Oh yeah, and follow me on the Link. Budd234, with two D’s.”

***

Go on to Chapter Two >

Flash Fiction: I Miss You

There is a click, click, click coming down the hall. The eaves that echo with every footfall, the ladder creaks as she begins to climb. Hands parting the cobwebs of this old attic. She hasn’t been up here in years.

The picture fills her hands and she cries. “I miss you, Mom. I love you so much. I miss the way you used to sing. I miss you making me soup when I was sick. I miss you just sitting there, watching me sleep. I miss you. I miss you.”

But she can’t hear me when I whisper, “I still do.”

***

First published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

LURK is on sale for 99 cents

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Fiction: Gene Catcher

 

TINDER was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.

Sorry… you don’t look tall in ur pics, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

I’m 5’7, Paul replied.

Must be 6’4 to ride, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

Paul rolled over onto his side, careful to keep his feet off the bed so his freshly polished brogue shoes wouldn’t get dirt on his comforter. It was 10:24 PM.

What happened? I used to get new ass all the time, Paul thought. I might not be the tallest or richest guy in San Francisco, but so what? Tell a girl here you’re co-founder of a science fiction-themed indie rock record label, and their pants practically grow tentacles and climb off on their own.

Everyone has dry spells. I just need to get out of the studio more, and back in the game.

He was walking out the door of his building to go to the bars solo when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a new match: a cute brunette with wide eyes and a seashell smile named Linda, 24, less than a mile away.

You look like trouble, Linda, 24, less than a mile away said.

LOL that’s my line, Paul replied.

Haha really?

That’s my usual opener.

Figures, Linda said.

So, gorgeous, are you just on this for an ego boost, or can we grab a drink tonight?

Linda took a whole ten minutes to respond. While he was waiting, Paul looked at his own pictures. He liked the one where he was drinking beer on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand the best. In the picture, he was tan and sporting an eight-week beard. His chin looked great. Paul thought it was his best physical feature, like a young William Shatner in the first season of Star Trek. His dad had a great chin, too.

Paul was about to un-match Linda when her message bubble appeared. I’m with my friend. We’re at Costarella’s. Come meet up!

On my way, Paul replied.

Linda sent him a smiling poop emoji, and Paul knew he was in.

He hailed a Lyft and was at Costarella’s in exactly twelve minutes. It should’ve been eight, but there was deadlocked traffic a few blocks from the restaurant, a line of cars rubbernecking an ambulance where a pair of EMTs was loading a pale, gasping man onto a stretcher.

Paul caught a glimpse of the man just as they were closing the door. His eyes were parched and bloodshot. His pupils looked like tiny barbed raisins. He looked excruciatingly thin, like he was dried out. His pants were covered in vomit and something else Paul didn’t want to think about. There were dozens of tiny puncture wounds covering the man’s face and arms.

Junkies, Paul thought.

As if reading his mind, the Lyft driver, an Indian man named Patel, said, “San Francisco… beautiful city, but it has a bad homeless problem. This is the third overdose I’ve seen tonight.”

Paul shook his head in disgust. “I know. I hate it. Why can’t they do that shit somewhere where people don’t have to see them?”

The Lyft driver shrugged.

It didn’t occur to Paul until later that night, that the man he’d seen being loaded into the ambulance was dying.

Costarella’s was a trendy seafood joint turned after-hours bar in the Marina. Paul didn’t see Linda and her friend when he walked in, so he pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered himself a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. It was eighteen dollars. Paul promised himself he’d take it easy tonight. That was when he saw the chubby brunette girl sitting alone at a table in the back corner of the bar.

She had wide eyes and a seashell smile, a deep tan like she’d just gotten back from vacation. It was Linda, alright, but she was twenty pounds heavier than in her pictures. Paul felt his heart drop and thought, Great, another catfish. Oh, well. She’s kind of pretty. I guess I could be into it.

Paul approached her and said, “Linda?”

She half-stood and smoothed her skirt awkwardly with one hand while extending the other for Paul to shake. “Omigod, Paul. Hi.”

“Hey, Linda. So formal. What are you drinking?”

“Oh, omigod, I’m not. This is water,” Linda said.

“And… this is a bar.”

“I was waiting for you. Sit down!” She patted the chair. “I’ll get us a round.”

He hesitantly took a seat, deciding whether or not he was going to pull a runner on her. She’s chubby, and has really hairy arms, but I’ve settled for worse, especially off of Tinder. At least, she has a cute smile. But she’s so bloated. Did she eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before meeting up with me?

Still, it had been a three-month-long dry spell. Paul decided to stay.

A moment later, Linda returned with two glasses of whiskey. She handed one to Paul.

“So, where’s your friend?” Paul said.

“She went home.”

Linda sat down. “So, what do you think? Do I look like my pictures?”

“Sure,” Paul said.

Linda flashed him her seashell grin. “You’re a lot hotter in person. I really like your chin.”

Paul stroked his beard dramatically. “So. This fine patch of German-Irish face forest is the reason you matched me, huh?”

“I’m a sucker for beards.”

“It wasn’t my big muscles or my towering height?” Paul said, immediately regretting it. I sure hope she takes that as a joke. He pretended to flex his right bicep just to drive home that he was kidding.

Linda smirked. “Uh, no. I’ve met a lot of tall, buff guys on Tinder. I wanted to meet a guy with a nice chin. And you have one, so…”

Paul grinned. “So.”

Linda winked. “So, Paul, what do you do?”

“I’m co-founder of a science fiction and fantasy-themed indie rock label.”

“Oh, how cool! I love science fiction.”

“I’m recording an EP for a band called The Body Snatchers, actually.”

“Far out! That totally sounds like my jam.”

“And you?”

“I work in molecular biology.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Uh, mostly gene blotting, but not really the traditional kind. It’s complicated, and honestly, it would bore you.”

“You’re talking to a guy who has the RNA tree of life tattooed on his back.”

“Shut up!”

“I do. Check it out.” Paul stood, turned around, and pulled up his shirt, revealing the faded black ink. Linda oooh’d.

“How about you? You have any tattoos?” Paul asked, sitting down.

Blushing slightly, Linda turned over her wrist, where the words Gene Catcher were written in blue ink.

“Gene Catcher? That’s a little weird,” Paul said, running his fingers over the ink.

Linda rolled her eyes. “It’s an inside joke. My parents were weird. Whenever my mother tried to talk to me about sex, she’d couch it in these huge, life-or-death terms, like, Remember, sweetie, whoever you sleep with will be giving your children a whole chromosome, better make it good. For the way she talked about it, you’d think my mom was trying to breed the fucking chosen one or something–Paul Atredes, since you like science fiction. But it isn’t that big of a deal. Sex is fun.”

Paul snapped his fingers, smiling. “Dune. I got that reference.”

Linda stared into the bottom of her empty glass. “Anyway.”

An hour and six rounds later, Paul was drunk. They were sitting closer together now, her knees in between his. Linda was talking about how she ran away from home at sixteen and hadn’t seen or heard from her parents since. But Paul wasn’t listening.

She’s so cute. And she’s staring at me like she wants me. If I don’t kiss her soon, I’m gonna blow it. I can’t believe I thought she was fat earlier. That body is a ten.

Paul cupped Linda’s face in his hands. Linda stroked his chin, closed her eyes and said, “Kiss me.”

Paul kissed her. Her tongue flickered inside his mouth and he felt something sting the tip of his nose. Paul opened his eyes. Hers were still closed.

Did she just bite my nose? How could she bite my nose with her tongue in my mouth?

Paul suddenly felt hot. Queasy.

Linda looked skinnier than she had a second ago. When they’d met up, she had a beer belly and a double chin, hadn’t she? That was only an hour ago. The tan girl sitting in front of him was petite and thin, just like her profile pictures showed.

Paul felt another gas bubble rise in his belly. He rubbed his nose. It hurt. But he was drunk and horny, and she was stroking his hand.

His stomach rumbled louder. Paul sat back and clutched his abdomen with both hands.

“Hey, are you alright?” Linda said.

“Just (hic) drunk,” Paul said with a burp.

A sudden, sharp pain cut through his stomach like he was giving Cesarean birth to a xenomorph.

“Hey. Seriously. You look pale,” Linda said. Her hands were on his forehead. The black coils of hair on her arms seemed to rise, reaching for his eyes.

Food poisoning. Shit. What the hell did I eat?

Paul brushed her hands away. “I’m fine. Come here.” He kissed her even deeper than before.

In five minutes, the stomach pain had advanced to full-blown nausea. Paul stopped thinking about the dull ache that nipped the tip of his nose or the strange, wire brush texture of her hair. Paul’s only thought was getting through the next hour without diarrhea.

But she’s so hot. This girl could be a model. She’s way out of my league.

He lost his train of thought when he noticed Linda nuzzling his neck. “I’m pretty drunk, too,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes were balmy and bloodshot. “You wanna go back to my place? I know a funny YouTube video you’ll like…”

Hey! That’s my line.

A wave of nausea hit Paul, crashing down from the dryness of his mouth to the shaking depths of his bowels. No. Not here. Not yet.

“I’m down,” Paul said. “Let’s go.”

A block away, her hand slipped down the front of his pants. “I want you,” Linda said in his ear. “I don’t want to wait, Mr. Hot Shot Sci-Fi Rock Star. Why don’t you engineer somewhere for us to fuck?”

I need to lie down. I need a shower. No. I haven’t had sex in months. I need to do it.

“Wait until we get home,” Paul said.

“No. When I want something, I get it,” Linda said. She pulled him by the hand towards an old Victorian house with a huge wrap-around porch nearby. All the lights were off.

Pain separated his thoughts into staccato bullets.

“We’re in public.”

“So? Never stopped me before.”

Halfway across the front yard, his legs wilted under him. Just need… to lie down…

“Alright. But we need to be fast,” Paul said. He climbed the stairs to the porch, lay down and unbuttoned his jeans.

Linda seemed oblivious to his distress. She was too busy unbuttoning his shirt, stroking his face, kissing him. The dull ache he’d felt on the tip of his nose spread to his eyes and arms. He was too weak to do anything but lie still.

When he opened his eyes, their eyelids were attached.

Paul felt Linda get on top of him. Something ticklish and wet wrapped around his scalp. He felt a sudden, violent stinging all over his skin, like alcohol poured over a scratched-open wound. With great effort, he managed to push her off him and break free.

Linda’s eyelashes had grown long enough to entangle his entire face. They protruded from her eyes in long, black filigrees as thin and supple as the hair on her head, swaying like little antennae as they searched for him.

Paul screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. The little clasps of her eyelashes snapped and went with him. They wriggled and curled on the driveway next to him, still searching for a grip.

“The fuck…?” Paul said, stumbling to his feet. His fingertips grazed the blood seeping out through the dozens of tiny cheesecloth holes puncturing his skin.

In the darkness of the porch, Linda giggled.

He scrambled to pull up his pants.

“I’m sorry,” someone on the porch said. “You’re so nice. It’s just… when I want something, I get it.” The voice wasn’t Linda’s.

He didn’t look back until he was three blocks away. The street was empty, a rolling sine curve of quaint San Francisco houses and bars falling away to a sea of diamond lights sparkling over the Bay like stars. He knew she was chasing him. She hadn’t been able to quite get everything she wanted – she’d taken some, but there was hunger in the voice that had called down to him from the porch.

What’s happening to me? He thought. I’m going to die. Oh, God. I’m going to die. What did she do to me?

Paul searched his body for wounds. He had dozens of tiny pinpricks on his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and his forearms. There wasn’t much blood, but his clothes were ruined.

She took something from me. What? I’m bleeding a little. I’ve still got my wallet. I’ve still got my…

Somewhere up the street, he heard her giggle. As with the voice on the porch, it wasn’t entirely female. There was more bass, more gravel, like ten voices recorded on separate audio tracks and played back simultaneously.

Paul ran. He crashed through the door of the nearest business. It was a Chinese restaurant. Tables of gasping people dropped their soup dumplings to cover their mouths with their hands. He pushed his way into the kitchen, bowling over a waiter carrying a steaming plate of General’s Chicken. A fry cook cursed loudly at him in Chinese.

She’s going to come back for me. She’s going to find me. This is really happening.

He lurched for the kitchen’s back door. Two wild-eyed Chinese chefs blocked his path. One was wielding a cast iron frying pan. Paul found what he was looking for and snatched the biggest butcher knife he could see off the magnetic hanging rack.

They think I’m crazy, Paul realized.

The chef slashed at him with the frying pan, hitting Paul in the arm. Paul gasped, but didn’t drop the knife. He circled crab-wise until his back was to the door, then tripped and stumbled backward into an alleyway, where he expelled everything in his bowels from both ends all until there was nothing more to expel.

Sirens bellowed on the adjacent streets. He tried to stand and run, but his legs felt disconnected from his body, the misfiring signals in his brain trying to control a multitude of scattered pieces. Everything burned. The strength drained from his body with every stumbling step.

A girl in a blue dress walking towards him on the street saw him and lurched backward in disgust.

Paul grabbed her desperately. “Please, help me. Help me.”

The girl kicked him and ran the opposite direction, stopping halfway down the block to yell, “Go die under a bridge, ya stupid bum!”

Paul couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. His shoulder and guts were distant satellites, the pain growing number with every second.

I’m going to lose consciousness soon. And I don’t think I’m going to wake up.

Paul got up and stumbled aimlessly toward anything, anywhere that could save him, past families, businessmen, bachelorette parties all whispering and covering their noses when they caught his foul waft. A group of frat boys on a bar crawl threw a beer bottle at Paul’s head.

He didn’t recognize the person gazing mad-eyed back at him in the glass of the shop window where he stopped to hold himself upright. His reflection looked haggard and deranged. Jesus. I look just like that guy they were putting in the ambulance. Same hair. Same poked-up skin. Jesus, it’s hot. This fever I’ve got must be a hundred and five.

The word “death” lingered in every errant, feverish thought, despite his conscious effort not to think it. The sweltering heat of his body only drove it deeper into his mind. I’ll never get the label off the ground. I’ll never get big arms in the gym. I’ll never get-

Paul leaned against the shop window and vomited blood, bright red streaks showering down the glass. It reminded him of a science fiction movie he’d seen once, where the victims of a zombie virus vomited blood during the first stages of infection. The blood in that movie had looked as fake as the zombies’ latex flesh. Paul’s blood looked wrong, too; it was thin, and runny, like dried egg whites; only, he hadn’t been infected. Linda – or whoever she was – hadn’t given him anything, but rather taken something away. Like she’d done it to the man who Paul had seen die.

It had to be her. He looked exactly like the dying junkie, right down to the bodily fluids covering his pants. It’s what she does. She takes what she takes, and we die, like in that one movie, Species. But that was about an alien who was trying to destroy the human race by breeding us out of existence. No, this Linda – or whatever her real name is –  is more like a Body Snatcher, except she isn’t trying to infiltrate us. She does this for fun.

I still have time to stop her.

Two blocks up and around the corner, Paul saw the man sitting in the window of a Starbucks.

Paul recognized him instantly. He was tall and handsome, with big, muscular arms, a good tan, and a seashell smile. He was bloated, like he’d just eaten an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. He was using the free Wi-Fi to swipe Tinder profiles on his iPhone. And he had Paul’s chin.

Paul hid the knife as best he could against the side of his leg and slid nonchalantly into the coffee shop. He approached the man, lifted the knife, and stabbed him in the shoulder. He meant to stab him through the heart, but weak as he was, Paul had to sort of slump over into the man with the blade outstretched.

The man with Paul’s chin saw the attack coming and slid easily to the side. He looked down at the knife, then back up at Paul. His eyes narrowed and he set his iPhone gently down on the table. His grip closed around Paul’s wrist. It felt like a thousand-ton vice, burning hot and inhuman.

Slowly, the man with Paul’s chin pulled the knife out of his shoulder. As soon as the blade left skin, the flesh knitted and the wound closed. In an instant, there was nothing but a minuscule dribble of blood to show it was ever there.

Paul recognized the man’s voice when he spoke. It was like Linda’s, only deeper, broader, the kind of voice a starship captain would have, or the singer of a band.

“You surprise me,” the man who had Paul’s chin said. “You of all people should know my flesh is fast-knitting. That was the first one I ever got. I have all the variants, too. Y’know how many thousands of years that took? Lemme put it this way, Paul: there’s a reason I’m the only one around who still has it.”

Paul stared at his hand where it was locked in the man’s grip, the skin quickly turning from white to oily purple. He was too hot and sick to do anything. All around him, people were screaming. The man with his chin didn’t seem bothered. He let go of Paul’s hand. The knife clattered to the floor, and so did Paul.

“Y-y-you t-took m-m-my ch-chin,” Paul said.

The Man With Paul’s Chin casually picked up his phone, returning to the message he’d been typing to Janice, 24, two miles away, which said: You look like trouble.

Someone was sitting on Paul’s back. A different man, an onlooker. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. Locking both of Paul’s wrists behind his back in a bouncer hold, the onlooker asked the Man With Paul’s Chin, “Hey pal, you alright? Looks like this asshole cut you. There’s blood on your shirt.”

“Just fine, thanks. Lots of crazy junkies in this city,” the Man With Paul’s Chin said.

“Well, the cops will be here any minute.” The onlooker nudged Paul in the ribs with his knee. “You hear that? Have fun trying to get high in the joint, you sick bastard.”

The Man With Paul’s Chin gave the onlooker a seashell smile. “Honestly, I think what he needs is an ambulance.”

You stole my chin, Paul thought as the coffee shop ceiling faded to black.

*

A small crowd gathered outside to watch as the paramedics loaded Paul’s body onto a stretcher under flashing blue lights.

“Another one,” one of the paramedics sighed.

“You still don’t think it could be ricin?” the other said.

“Y’know, I thought about your little theory, while we were loading that D.O.A. a few hours ago, and you know what conclusion I came to?” Paramedic A said.

“What?”

“You need to cut your TV time to one hour a night.”

Paramedic B zipped the body bag closed. Beneath it, Paul’s face looked like a pale, dried-out sponge.

The paramedic wagged his finger. “Then how do you explain those other cases in China? Russia? Johannesburg? Mexico City? All the D.N.A. in their bodies, simultaneously destroyed. Gone. Poof. Like it was never there. Dead in a matter of hours.”

“That’s just bullshit you read on the Internet. Wait until the autopsies come back. It’s dope. Something we haven’t seen before. Ricin? Sure. And this is Walter Fuckin’ White.”

“Nah. I’m tellin ya, it’s a cult, and they use ricin to poison their victims. It’s the only logical explanation. Unless it’s aliens….”

Paramedic A grunted, and nodded for the other to help him lift Paul’s stiffening corpse into the ambulance.

*

Somewhere else in the city, Janice, 24, two miles away, waited outside her apartment building for her Lyft to arrive. She hoped the new guy she was meeting up with for drinks liked her shoes. Costarella’s was a nice place, so she’d worn her best Jimmy Choos, the black strappy ones with the rhinestones that showed off her calves.

She stuck her feet out and pointed her toes to admire them. Her calves were smooth and strong from twenty-one years of competitive dancing. Her mother was a dancer, too. Janice thought they were her best feature.

 

Did you like this story? Be sure to leave an honest review! And if you want more, be sure to check out other works by Adam Vine.

New Interview about Lurk – A Book and a Latte

How did you come up with the title?

Lurk began as a short novella titled “The Pictures Under Sunny Hill,” about a depressed college student who finds a box of Polaroids buried under his house that change to let him spy on his friends. I realized as I was writing that the story worked better as a novel, so I used the old name for Part One, and started calling my early drafts of the full-length story Lurk. I liked it, so it stuck. At one point an agent tried to get me to change the name to The Lurker… I didn’t end up working with her.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

My fiction tends to be about fringe characters, because they interest me. Lurk is a study of madness told from the point of view of an unreliable (and sometimes unlikable) narrator; you are seeing his psychological downward spiral through his own eyes. I knew when I was writing certain scenes that they would make many readers uncomfortable. That was deliberate. This book is an examination of a type of mentality that I see becoming exceedingly common in the age of internet and social media oversaturation, which can lead to us having unhealthy ideas about the lives of others. My primary goal in this story is to scare and entertain, but I also wanted to say something about one of the more dangerous pitfalls of modern life.

What books have most influenced your life?

My top three are The Shining, Blood Meridian, and Book of the New Sun.

***

Read the rest of the interview here.

Fiction: Russian Roulette

If you intend to be more than a one or two-time player, Russian roulette is a game with only one winning strategy: you must learn to secretly palm the round. This was the best advice I could give her. She did ask for it… in those exact words.

Her name is Gina, but she goes by G. She’s eighteen and has green eyes and a good tan. We’re driving in my car, top down, seats back, Beach Boys blaring. It’s just before dusk and LA is coming alive as the lights flicker on through its steel veins. The freeway is conspicuously thin of traffic.

G says she’s going to “Chicaco”. She has a hundred thousand dollars cash and her daddy’s gun. She says she got it off of her dead boyfriend, who died in a shootout after a drug deal gone wrong. The piece is a Colt 1911, all chrome.

“So, why Russian roulette?” She says, considering my advice aloud as she thoughtfully plays with one curly lock of blue-brown hair. “Why not Hold ‘Em? Only a idiot tries to kill hisself.”

“Because,” I say, “it’s a game you can play with city people. All sorts. And if you’re good, that is, if you know the necessary deceits, you’ll never be without a place to stay or a meal to eat in this whole wide world.”

“You do that?” She asks me. “F’real? Just play other people so you can stay at they place and shit? Sounds like one helluva gamble.”

“Maybe you’ve just never done it.”

“And maybe you not a woman.”

“No. You’re right, actually. But it’s usually the friends who put you up, not the people you beat at the game. The ones you’ve just impressed by scaring their buddies out of a few bucks are usually more willing to help. People aren’t so inclined to show you much hospitality after you’ve just won all their money. I learned that in Iraq. Among other things.”

“You was in Iraq? F’real?”

“Real as the Reaper.”

“Is that how you lost yo’ leg?”

I know she’s been trying to avoid looking at it since she got in the car. I nod. “I lost my leg to an IED outside Baghdad. I was the only one in the truck who survived.” Then after a long pause I add, “There were six of us.”

“And you and yo’ buddies used to put pieces to yo’ heads at lunch time, or what?”

It is a bittersweet recollection to remember the games we used to play.

“We always knew we were playing with blanks,” I say, “until one night, in the shit, when we played for real. If I hadn’t hid the bullet in my sleeve I’d be less some gray matter. And I never forgot it, not over one foot of this great country, from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Monica.”

G says, “Is that how far you got to drive?”

And I say, “That’s how far I already drove. Now I’m goin’a turn around and do it again.”

“So tell me more about this game,” she says. “Shit, maybe someday I’ll find myself in a situation where I got to play it, too. Might come in real handy to know the tricks.”

“Well if it’s tricks you want, I got ‘em,” I tell her. “First thing’s first, never play it with your friends. You won’t win as much but the risk is the same. People always risk more around those they think they’ll never see again.”

“What happens if you get caught cheatin’?” she asks.

“On the rare chance you do get caught, you simply make a show of good faith and put the round in the cylinder where it belongs – in everyone’s sight – then put the gun to your temple and pull the trigger for real. Worst case scenario is nothing goes through your mind at all, because the lead’s already been there and you’re dead.”

She raises an eyebrow in what I think is approval, but remains silent.

I chuckle. “Sister, you get your leg blown off in the desert, then wake up and spend a month getting dosed with combinations of every painkiller under the sun because the morphine and oxy ain’t enough… you’ll consider hanging yourself from the edge of the hospital bed with your own IV. And c’mon, don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. A girl like you from a neighborhood like the one I picked you up in?”

“Whatchu tryinna say about my neighborhood?”

“Nothing, sweetheart. Just that it looks a little rough.”

She nods in agreement.

We spend a little while talking about nothing important. The conversation is nice. Usually I’m alone on these long drives. Now that I’ve hit LA, I was planning on heading up to Washington – lots of open country up there – but Chicago works just as well.

She asks where I’m from, how old I am, why I’ve spent the last three years on the road. I tell her Texas, twenty five, and I’m traveling across the United States because I made a promise to a musician buddy of mine who died that I would play a song on his guitar at a famous street corner of every major city in these United States. My mission brought me here to Los Angeles, where I met G in the parking lot behind a Von’s in Torrance trying to hitch a ride, a golden sun child with a gun… a real California girl.

“I could have been a serial killer, y’know,” I remind her at one point. “What would you do if I was? Did you have a plan?”

“That’s why I have the gun,” she says, defensive. “I don’t need no plan, bruh. Girl carry a heata when she don’t wanna make a plan.”

I laugh. “But do you think you could use it? Do you think you could actually shoot someone?”

“Psh. I will actually put a bullet in yo’ ass faster than a pig spots a donut shop if you so much as try to lay a hand on me, bruh.”

I shrug. “What if I pinned you down?”

“Man, you axe some stupid ass questions.”

“What if I was strong? Let’s say I had both my legs and I overpowered you.”

“Shit, you may have lost yo’ leg but it doesn’t seem to have set you back none. I ain’t tryin’ to bump and grind wit you, dude, I’m just sayin’. You look like you work out.”

“Thank you. But what if I took the gun and drove you somewhere secluded, so I could pull you off the side of the road and kill you? To eat you, or somethin’?”

“Well, you betta not be plannin’ on it,” G says, eyes still fixed on the sunset. “You really creepin’ me out. I thought we was talkin’ about a game. Tell me how to win.”

“Alright, fair enough,” I say. “I want you to do something for me. It’s better if you get it over with now. Take the gun out,” I instruct her.

She looks at me oddly. I repeat myself. “Take the gun out and put it against my temple. Do it.”

She reaches under the glove box for the gun case and when she comes back up a beautiful Colt 1911 is filling her fist, barrel high polished and grips clean as a cheater’s lie. I see in her eyes the hint of an old look I once knew well, that fear that comes before one does it, puts their finger inside the trigger housing. I suddenly wonder if she’s ever handled a piece before. She looks nervous.

She goes to check the chamber, proving my previous assessment about her experience with the steel to be wrong, but I tell her: “Don’t open it.” She complies. We both know her daddy was the kind of man who kept it loaded. The question is: was the road paved recently? “Put it against my head,” I say. I feel the ring of frigid steel touch me there, light. “More.” It presses and bites into the skin. I sigh. “Gina.”

Her eyes dart wildly to and from the road, but her mouth is a rigid line. “What do you want me to do?” I can barely hear her over the whip of the wind and Barbara Ann bellowing through the speakers, but you learn to read lips and gestures like a sixth sense when your hearing gets blown out of your head by an IED and you spend the next three weeks terrified that it may never come back.

“You see, if you shoot me, we crash and you die too. Nothing goes through your mind but the lead. But if we survive what I’m about to do next… well, then you pass.”

A long beat. “Pass what, you crazy bastard?” G says.

I glare at her from the corner of my right eye. “I’m going to take my hands off the wheel now. You’re going to count to six, and if you take the gun away from my head or your finger off that trigger before I reach six, then I’m going to crash us and we’re going to die.”

“This is bullshit,” G says. “This is some bullshit.”

Then, after an eternity of waiting I hear that old, familiar click. I pull my hands away from the wheel. Then I lift my one good foot off the gas and curl my leg up so it rests on the dash. She gasps and shuts her eyes. The traffic around us is moving steadily but she sees a curve coming and reaches for the wheel. I tell her no.

“You should be counting,” I say.

“One!”

I feel the wind in my hair.

“Two!”

Barbara Ann.

“Three!”

Bar Barbara Ann.

“Four!”

The curve is close.

“Five!”

We’re on the shoulder.

“Damn – six!”

I grab the wheel and correct our path, barely making it back into the lane. The blaring of horns creates a cacophony everywhere. An old man in a Dodge pickup flips me the bird. I smile at him and shrug.

When I look, G is sweating, washing her hair with dry hands. The gun is tucked under the seat again, far from sight. “What the hell was the point of all dat?” she says. She sounds furious, terrified. But a part of her voice sounds triumphant, too.

“We almost died,” I say with a grin.

“No shit!” G yells at me. “You are one crazy ass fool. I never seen such a crazy ass fool in all the days of my life. You coulda got us kilt.”

I say, “Remember what I said about palming the round?”

G recoils. “Man, you are rollin’ on me right now. This ain’t even a revolver!”

“But you believed I was ready to die. Whether or not I really was willing to let us crash or to have my brain eat a bullet if we hit a bump, you believed I was.”

“Yeah, ‘cuz you were,” G says. “Crazy ass bastard. How ‘bout you let me drive from now on?”

“You asked how to win at Russian roulette,” I tell her. “Now you know.”

 
(First published in the Bumps in the Road anthology from Black Bedsheet Books)