Ax and Train
Wait in the attic till they sleep. They’ll sleep heavily from the day, a children’s day at the Presbyterian church. Smoke; there’s plenty of time, so smoke another until night falls. Lock their front door at midnight. Close the curtains. Cover the mirrors with their clothing, you must not see. It’s time to use the axe you borrowed. The sharp side for daddy so he will not have a face. The blunt side for mummy. Six more, 5 7 8 10 11 12, blunt side for all. Ascending order. Kerosene lamp at the bedfoot to watch the soul as it leaves with the skull bits. Paul and Arthur and Ina Mae and Mary and Herman: the newspaper names them later. Lena is oldest and pretty; do what you will with her. Give her head extra strokes because she fought. They have bacon in the larder. Make yourself a plate. The train will come at four.
It is a horror story. It is my story, and I have inhabited it. I did not know it was my story until I was nine and reading a book I should not have been given.
“Have you heard of Villisca?” I asked, and Grandma hissed, “What are you reading?” and howled and threw it in the fire, and I could never return to that library. But she died and I made a family tree at school two years after, and Grandma’s maiden name was Stillinger. She used to live in Villisca.
“Come to Daytona!” my roommate said, “We’ll party all break!” but I went to Villisca, the hamlet in the Iowa corn. I saw the house.
“You didn’t get too crazy on the beach there,” Father teased. “You’re not going to be in one of those wild girl videos, are you?”
“No daddy,” I said, “I won’t.” You cannot go topless in Villisca.
Graduate and live and work and read and sometimes go to places people go, until the shares rise high enough, and then I keep my money and I work on my machine for Grandma.
“I’ll help you, Grandma,” I tell her, “I’ll go back in my machine and I will find the man who murders Great Aunt Ina Mae, and I will make his skull and brains a paste before he harms her.”
James, Bill and Rachel McCarthy James. The Man from the Train. New York: Scribner, 2017.
James and James find other murders. There are always axes and lumber areas and nearby trains. They write about Paul Muller, itinerant lumberjack. Police could not find Paul Muller when his employing family was slaughtered with an axe. West Brookfield, Massachusetts, 1897, a town by a train.
I read to Grandma. “This book is almost entirely about people who lived in small towns a hundred years ago. As much about how they died as about how they lived. But the flash of death illuminated the lives the victims have lived.”
Grandma hisses, “What are you reading?”
My machine is finished and takes me to Massachusetts. It is 1897 and Paul Muller is in the field and looks just like James and James wrote.
“I know what you will do.”
“What?” Paul Muller says.
“I know what you will do in Villisca.”
“What the hell?” Paul Muller says, and then he bleeds from his head. The blunt side of the axe pounds and pounds and the cavity feels warm like summer. But when I return in my machine the book has not changed, so history and Villisca have not changed, and I know the book was wrong. I ready my axe and machine and I return to the library. There are many suspects and many books, and Grandma still hisses and howls.
Elisa in La La Land
When I was 21, I was murdered and dumped in a hotel water tank on Skid Row. It wasn’t the first time I died, but it would be the last. And I know what you’re thinking, most people only die once. Then again, most people don’t get murdered either.
What can I say, I always knew I was special.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming a writer. Of traveling to faraway places and writing about my experiences, people hanging on my every word, anxiously awaiting tales from my latest adventures like the next episode of their favorite reality TV show. The only problem was that I was the child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and all the money they made went back into the restaurant they owned. So the only adventures I was going on were the ones inside my head. And, who knows, maybe that was the beginning of it all. Because it turns out that it’s true what they say – the mind can be a dangerous place. The whole time I was alive, mine was trying to kill me.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was ten years old. And not only that, but I hit the jackpot with bipolar 1, which comes complete with all the usual bipolar symptoms – extreme mood swings from mania to depression – but with the added bonus of psychosis. We’re talking hallucinations, delusions and generally bizarre behavior as far as other functioning human beings were concerned.
As a kid, my psychosis was often triggered by seemingly run-of-the-mill events. One time I spiraled after being grounded for not doing the dishes, and my sister found me crawling around my bedroom floor like the girl from The Ring, hair in my face, arms and legs jerking like I was a puppet on a string. I don’t remember what was going through my mind during that episode, but I’m certain that whatever it was, it was terrifying, because they always were. It’s a cruel irony that while I often behaved in ways that were scary to other people, inside my mind, I was the one being terrorized.
My most frequent delusion was that I was being watched, but not just in the general paranoia sense. To the contrary, I felt I was constantly being surveilled by a specific entity I named The Watcher. If The Watcher was able to look me in the eye, that meant she’d won the game, and I could either do what she said or die. She whispered the rules to her game in my ear the very first time I saw her standing in the mirror next to me. I saw her only as a reflection, a dark shadow at my side. But when I turned to look her in the face, she was gone.
It was a few weeks before she appeared to me again. This time, I woke up to find her looking at me from the glass of my bedside window. My eyes met hers, and though it was just for a moment, it felt as if that was all it took to hold me there in place, my limbs tied to my bedposts by invisible chains.
She whispered, “I won’t kill you if you kill them.”
Just then, a car horn blared, and I saw two homeless men outside waving their arms wildly at a passing driver. “Vile, filthy things” she hissed, as we watched them together. Strangely, I too felt a feeling of disgust, even though I’d never felt anything but sorry for the homeless around the neighborhood before. It was like I was absorbing her emotions and taking them on as my own.
“Who are you talking to?” My sister yelled from the other room. Her voice startled me, awakening me from whatever trance I was in. I blinked and tried to get my bearings, while The Watcher vanished once more.
In the days that followed, I told myself that if I could just hide from The Watcher, everything would be fine; I could do this. But each time she appeared, the longer she’d stay and the harder it became to avoid her gaze. It turns out the game was rigged from the beginning anyway.
For a time, I was able to keep her at bay with the right cocktail of medications. It took a lot of tinkering, weeks on end spent in bed, unable to face the world, my parents sometimes having to come into my room to pour soup in my mouth so I didn’t starve. Other weeks were spent riding the tremendous highs of my mania, going 48 hours straight without sleep, convinced I was creating some of the best writing of my life for my adoring fans on Tumblr. I told myself I would become the next Slyvia Plath, completely ignoring the whole head in the oven thing.
But at 19, the doctors finally found the right combination of pills to make me next to normal. Wellbutrin for the depression, Lamictal for the bipolar, Seroquel for the psychosis and Effexor for the paranoia. Even though they were just four tiny pills a day, the act of taking them felt heavy. I had to scrape them off my desk, my hands like paperweights, and force them down my throat one by one. I always struggled swallowing pills, so I couldn’t just toss them all back at once, which made the whole ordeal that much worse. It’s such a strange thing to think of all the big things you swallow in your life – literal and metaphorical – and yet, you can choke on pills the size of Tic Tacs.
During this time of relative calm, The Watcher never really went away. She just became more of a subtle presence – I could feel her like a cold draft from a creaky window or catch her out of the corner of my eye for just a moment. And while this still made me uneasy, I felt bolder with her presence diminished. Sometimes I’d talk to her or taunt her, even.
“I know you’re there, pervert! You’re the dirty one!”
And eventually, she just sort of faded into the background altogether. The thing is, I felt like I did too.
What I mean is, when you’re used to living your life between dizzying highs and extreme lows, existing somewhere in the middle feels less like being alive and more like being frozen while everything else just changes around you. I felt numb. The only thing that kept me going during that time was my family – I was happy to be only an occasional source of disappointment for them as opposed to a constant one – and also Tumblr. I felt like I could be myself on the Internet, saying how I really felt without fear of any real-life repercussions. And over time, I thought that my few followers may have genuinely become invested in what I was writing, which put me one step closer to realizing the dreams I’d had for myself.
I managed to barely graduate college, much to my parents’ relief. But once that was done, I knew I had to follow through on all the posting I’d been doing about traveling to find myself. Not just for me to live a more authentic life, but for my readers too. I felt a duty to make them proud, to prove that even if you suffer from a mental illness, you can get through it and pursue your goals. So I saved every penny I’d made working at the local library until I had enough for an economy flight to California. And even though I’d felt The Watcher tugging at my arm for the first time in years, whispering something unintelligible in my ear as I chose my window seat online, I booked the trip anyway.
Everyone was counting on me.
My parents were terrified for me to fly from Vancouver to L.A.
“People there crazy. Lots of sex and drugs. Why you have to go there Lam Ho Yi?”
Years ago, I’d asked her to call me Elisa and to stop using the term “crazy” since I could very easily be labeled that way, but like most other parents of a different time and place, old habits die hard.
“Ma I need to get my own life,” I told her. Also, it didn’t much matter what she said because, ultimately, I was an adult and could do what I wanted. So, on a particularly cold and dreary January day in Canada, I set off for sunny Los Angeles to see what dreams were made of.
Too bad the only dreams I ended up having there were nightmares.
I know how illogical this sounds, but the problem for me when I got to L.A. was that I simply felt too good. I checked into the Stay on Main, which was a small, humble hostel for youth travelers. The walls were painted with a bright orange and the décor was chic and modern – large white sculptures of hands that doubled as chairs, standing lamps with fixtures that looked like glowing orbs of light. It had a general vibe of hipness, and for the low price, I couldn’t have asked for a better first-time-to-L.A. place to stay. I was sucked in by the bright and shiny newness, and I let my guard down.
I was only supposed to stay in California for two weeks, but when my checkout date came, I went to the front desk and asked to pay per night indefinitely. I’d come to find out that there were plenty of residents in the building that had been living there for decades. And though they weren’t the most upstanding people I’d ever seen – The Watcher would surely call them heathens – I didn’t mind. I convinced myself that this is what it took to live a bohemian life. To live life fully in ways that others could only dream of.
What I didn’t know then was that the fresh paint and artsy furniture were just slight-of-hand, an attempt to distract you from the demons that plagued the place. The floors above and below the hostel actually belonged to the Cecil Hotel which had dedicated low-income units and had become a known hang out for junkies, prostitutes and any and all other dregs of society. I swear that all the bad energy and dreadful history of that building began to seep into my pores the second I arrived. And soon, they’d travel to the neurons inside my brain, causing them to misfire an alarming rate.
Of course, my mother and father were devastated and confused by my decision to stay. How could I live there when I was not a U.S. citizen, when nearly all my belongings were still in Canada? I told them I’d get a work Visa and that my belongings were just that. “It’s just stuff, Ma” I yelled over her sobs. I knew I should feel something when her wailing bounced off my ear drums, but inside, I felt an overwhelming buzzing that drown out any other noise. A constant hum that shook my insides and told me I had to stay. Even a next to normal person would have realized there was something wrong with that. But at that point, I’d already been tapering off my meds and was on a quick descent into the real L.A. – into La La Land.
One night, after finishing the waitressing gig I’d snagged at The Peking Tavern a few blocks away from the hotel thanks to my previous experience and good Cantonese, I decided to take the long way home because the weather was perfect and I loved walking by The Last Bookstore at night. It’d quickly become my favorite place in L.A., with floor to ceiling shelves of used books that I’d spend hours looking through, hoping to find hidden messages written just for me within the pages of my favorite novels. But when I stopped in front of its massive windows on this particular night, I couldn’t see through and on to the walls of books. My view was blocked by a dark shadow. It was the shadow of The Watcher. After all this time, she’d returned.
“It’s time,” she said, but I ran.
And as I moved, my mind raced. What was she doing here now? I thought things had been going so well. That’s why I’d quit my meds altogether the week before. At first, I’d just started taking less of them, biting some in half or skipping a day or two or three. Then one day I looked out the window and the Sun told me that pills were for people ruled by the machine, and I was not a drone. She was right. I was a free spirit who didn’t only exist outside the construction of capitalism and government rule, I thrived in it. I wouldn’t take pills just to be kept in line by big brother because I decide my own destiny. So I thanked the Sun and her rays and tossed the bottles out the window. I also left notes for my roommates telling them they needed to move out because they were obviously soul-sucking spies. Instead, the hotel gave me a new room all to myself, which was even better. And in the days that followed I felt truly alive, coloring outside the lines of my life for the first time.
That is until this moment, until The Watcher returned.
The closer I got to The Cecil, the more crowded the streets became. Fires burning, people screaming, makeshift tents everywhere. I was running through the middle of Skid Row, my accommodations precariously located on its outskirts. I didn’t even know what Skid Row was when I first came to the U.S., but I quickly learned it was like the Wild West of L.A., only replace the cowboys with drug dealers. Basically, the city decided to try to contain all of its “problems” within a mere five city blocks, and the result was flooding of the streets with some 8,000 homeless people, making it near impossible to police. Virtually anything goes since the rest of the city just likes to pretend it doesn’t exist.
In my first few meds-free days, I’d envisioned it a perfect bohemia, the free state of La La Land. But now, as I ran along the blocks, The Watcher forced me to see the truth.
“Filth, disease, whores and drunks,” she hissed. “Destruction, chaos, rapists and murderers.”
I stopped at a red light and glanced in the window of the liquor store beside me. But instead of bottles of whiskey and neon Budweiser signs, I saw only The Watcher’s eyes, this time a glowing red. I froze in place, unable to move, all my synapses misfiring. Her shadow overlapped my own silhouette as she said, “It’s either you or them.”
I’d lingered in her stare for too long. The Watcher was me and I was The Watcher. I knew then that they had to die.
Every. Last. One.
I’m in a room that’s empty, save for a single chair with red tufted cushions that looks like it was stolen from an old movie theater. I am wearing a deliciously soft white night gown. “Hello?” I call. There is no response except my own echo. I assume I should sit, but as soon as I hit the seat, large metal shackles emerge from the recesses of the chair’s arms and legs, enclosing around my wrists and ankles so I can’t move. I’m being held captive.
“Where am I?! What is this?!” I yell and thrash, my echoes simply taunting me.
Eventually, when I exhaust myself and lay still, a large screen lowers down from the seemingly infinite white space above me. There are no strings or levers or pulleys, it just sort of emerges from the nothingness and floats down with the ease of a feather.
“First the movie theater chair, and now the movie theater screen?” I ask no one.
Just then the white light begins to slowly fade around me, replaced with a darkness so thick that I imagine you’d be unable to see your own hand waving in front of your face.
“Hello?” I call once more.
The screen comes to life, a projector whirs somewhere off in the distance.
“Welcome to P U R G A T O R Y.”
“What? What kind of stupid joke is this?”
“Please Understand Reality Gets A Tad Odd Reliving Yesterday.”
I think that I must’ve gone completely off the deep end now. Am I sitting somewhere catatonic in downtown L.A., imagining this? Why can’t I remember how I got here?
There’s more whirring behind me until an image appears on screen.
I look at myself standing on the street corner, where I swear I was just a minute ago, staring into the liquor store window, waiting for the light to turn. I see myself. I look for The Watcher, but there’s nothing on screen where her shadow should be. Only my own reflection. When the light shines green, I skip across the street like a school girl in a 50’s movie and then make a sharp right toward San Pedro. Once I reach the street, I just stand there for several minutes, shifting from one foot to the other, swaying to a tune that only I can seem to hear. An old homeless woman wearing a Twin Peaks t-shirt bumps into me. I abruptly turn and spit in her face.
What the hell is this?
Instinctively, I try to raise my hand to my mouth, but I’m met with the startling clang of the shackles and a stabbing pain in my wrists. I continue watching as the old woman begins to curse and gesticulate wildly. I watch myself reach into my coat pocket and with one swift movement, I slit the woman’s throat from ear-to-ear with pocket knife I never remember having and gleefully skip away.
“Vermin! Vermin! Vermin!” I yell with every step.
My first murder goes unnoticed and unpunished, because anything goes on Skid Row. The projector drones on and so do the killings. Whir. Whir. Whir.
I don’t know how long I sit there, watching my descent into madness from the outside. The place seemed to exist outside of time and space. I felt no hunger, no need to use the bathroom. I’m not sure I really even needed to breathe, but it was just something my body did out of habit, like a reflex.
I watched as I continued my slayings of the innocent homeless. Plagued by misfortune, addiction and mental illness, they often proved easy targets - men and women alike. I did not discriminate in what I seemed to think was my duty to “cleanse the streets of La La Land” – a desire I rambled on about incessantly in these memory movies, despite my having no recollection of it. Back in Canada, there were always a few homeless people wandering around the church grounds across the street from our house, but I don’t remember thinking much about them at the time.
For a while, I managed to keep my job at the restaurant and continued staying at The Cecil, where they easily turned a blind eye to my troubling behavior because troubling was the way you could describe nearly all of their clientele and their comings and goings. Eventually, however, as the months wore on, I became more and more dissociative and psychotic, picking fights at work and then missing shifts completely before they eventually fired me. Watching it back, I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did, but I guess it was hard to find anyone willing to work in the businesses that line Skid Row.
It turns out that I seized my firing as an opportunity to pursue what had brought me to the U.S. in the first place – travel. I booked a bus to San Diego and wrote online that I needed to get away from the filth of downtown. I quickly discovered that San Diego had its own homeless problem, though, from old bums peppering the shoreline at Pacific Beach to healthy-looking young men shaking coffee cups in front of the shops at Ocean Beach. Whatever their appearance, it didn’t seem to much matter to me. I felt the urge to kill there too. I knew I was compelled by The Watcher in every reflective surface, every shadow, even though I couldn’t see her.
One night, I encountered a man called Jon, arguing with a homeless guy in front of a store called Yogurt Haven II. Jon pushes the man into an alleyway between Yogurt Haven II and a Catholic church and I peak my head around the corner, curious as to how this will play out, when I see Jon take out a railroad spike he’d concealed within his denim jacket. I watch as he plunges it into the man’s eye socket and through his skull. I watch myself smile as if I’m watching my child do well in a school play. I take the fact that this occurred in sight of the church as a sign, convincing me of Jon’s pure and likeminded intentions. And for a little while, we “clean up” San Diego together until I feel the pull of the Cecil Hotel, calling me back where there is more work to be done. I leave him to carry on without me.
I go on killing for two more years. Word of deaths and disappearances spread among the homeless of La La Land. They call me the Skid Row Shadow. On my 24th birthday, I am killed in front of The Cecil Hotel when someone throws a brick out of their window that cracks my skull wide open. I’m the hotel’s 89th death, their third that year alone. I watch as the blood pools around my head and slowly seeps into the lobby hallway.
The lights rise, the screen fades to black and the projector whirs to a halt.
“At The Cecil Hotel, the veil is thin between this world and the next and the next. You see that your blood has been spilled at its gates. In exchange, you will be given the chance to set things on a different course.”
“You mean, I can live?” I ask.
And with that, I am sucked out of my seat with the force of the world’s fastest roller coaster pummeling from the world’s steepest hill.
I feel strange. Queasy. Like my insides have been reshuffled and stuffed back into my gut with a reckless randomness. My vision is hazy. For the first few moments, I just see light and the semblance of shapes until the scene comes slowly into focus. I find myself in my childhood bedroom.
By the sight of my teddy bear collection, I wager it’s around the year 2000. Is this what the disembodied purgatory voice meant by things getting weird? I hadn’t assumed my “second chance” would involve reliving my adolescence. I didn’t want to live through it the first time around.
I step toward my dresser with the old 90s plastic mirror mounted above it. When I look in the reflection, I don’t see myself. Only a shadow. It’s hard to describe the way it feels when you look into a mirror and don’t see anything. It’s a scenario your brain simply cannot comprehend, and if I was still flesh and blood, I’dve probably passed out. But it turns out I’m no longer flesh and blood. I’m nothing.
I look down and where I expect to see hands, I see a distortion. I can make out the outlines of my fingers, but its as if they are made of bubbles – shiny, translucent, hard to see with the naked eye depending on the lighting. The same goes for the rest of my body – I am there, but just barely. Like the dust that lingers in the air after a cartoon character makes a speedy exit from a scene.
“I thought I was supposed to do things over!” I yell. How can I do anything without a body?
I’m talking to myself. Not figuratively. Literally. But no sooner have I made this declaration do I hear footsteps and then, I see a young me, swinging my door open with such ferociousness that one has to wonder if I moved it simply by channeling the brute strength of my teenage angst.
“Hey! Hey! I’m here!” I yell.
I watch as the me in front of me turns her head, as if she maybe heard something, but isn’t sure.
“Yes! It’s me! What I mean is, I’m you! You’re me!” I should have thought this through further.
FSK me (future serial killer me) shakes her shoulders, as if she’s caught a chill. She reaches into her dresser drawer and pulls out a brush. Slowly and carefully, she begins to work through her silky black hair.
“I’m right here!” I scream. And then, I see her look in my direction in the reflection and gasp. It’s then that I realize it.
The Watcher is me. I am The Watcher.
Things start to move swiftly now. I am present only from memory to memory, which leaves little time for me to contemplate my existence as time loop. But I’ve watched enough movies to know that in order to break the loop, you have to make the ultimate sacrifice. The grand gesture that will “set things on a different course.” But what could I do to disrupt it all?
The more I try to connect with myself, the worse things seem to get. When I see her watching two homeless men in front of her local church, I speak softly and with tenderness.
“Everyone deserves to have a safe place to rest their head.”
“Vile, filthy things!” She says in response, and I realize I’ve heard this once before. I remember this time I had with The Watcher. But if The Watcher is me, then what can this mean? That FSK me had these thoughts all on her own? Is my presence alone responsible for her/my bipolar episodes worsening? I was a fool to think I could just appear before her without repercussion.
Once FSK enters into the fully medicated years, it of course becomes harder to set things right. Each time I try to show myself to her or speak, it is as if I am floating underwater or buried underground, my movements stifled, my sounds dampened. Until the day she books her flight to La La Land.
At that point, I knew time was running out. Once she arrived, it would only be a matter of weeks before she ditched the meds completely and ventured down the path of no return. But I just couldn’t think of any way to stop her, especially not in my weakened state. As she scrolled through Expedia looking for flights, I screamed. I tried to break and throw things to get her attention. But I could do little more than shift a pencil an inch and muster the sound of a whistling wind. When she searched for her seat on the flight, I laid across her arms and the keyboard, crying with fear, exhaustion and hopelessness. For just a brief moment, she paused before clicking Confirm.
Once FSK arrived in La La Land, time seemed to march forward faster than ever before, but I felt stronger too. Being at The Cecil was like finding solid ground after being tossed around by an ocean wave. I gained surer footing with every passing minute, and on February 2, the final day, I swear my lungs filled with air or something close to it.
Just the week before, I watched FSK toss the last of her pills out her fourth-floor window. She sang to the sun and we shared transcendant feelings of joy that transformed the gray concrete of downtown into a beautiful silver. The world suddenly shone before us in HD technicolor. And on her final day, I nudged her toward the little things – the rhythm of the moving traffic, the light reflecting off the metal street signs, creating tiny rainbows. We both savored the moments. A bittersweet first for her and second chance for me.
And as she headed toward the corner liquor store, I knew our time had come. I used all of the energy I had gained from The Cecil’s haunted bones to appear before her once more.
“Hello Elisa,” I said, waiting for her to turn and see me there, lit by the neon glow of the signs inside.
“It’s you.” The fear in her voice pained me.
“It’s me. And it’s time.” I said, as she took off running.
That night I steered her back to the hotel lobby. Once she failed to turn on San Pedro like I had those years ago, I knew that my job was nearly done. She raced toward the elevator to try to escape me, but it was no use. With the loop broken, all the momentum of the shift in time was behind me now. I willed the doors to stay open. When the platform failed to move, she stepped outside to find me waiting.
“We need to go now,” I told her calmly.
She tried to lunge for me, her hands poised for my neck, but I forced her fingers backward. She screamed as they cracked and popped, and then, in her last desperate attempt to escape me, she turned for the stairs. When she reached the top floor, the only place left to go was the roof. She pushed open the fire exit door, and I quickly silenced the alarm so as not to alert hotel security. Outside, in the night air, we faced each other.
“Why won’t you leave me alone?!” she shouted.
Slowly and unwittingly, she backed away from me but toward one of the hotel’s water tanks. Back then, they weren’t well-regulated. There were no locks, no other safety measures to stop someone from tampering with them.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. You’re dangerous.”
“Dangerous? You’re the one chasing me!” She turned around and scrambled up the tank’s rusty ladder. I watched her from afar for the last time.
“I know this doesn’t make much sense now, but I’m hoping – for the both of us – that isn’t the end. It’s just the start of another journey. You want to travel the world, right?”
“But nothing. This world was never meant for us. So how about the next?”
I felt my legs leave the ground and within an instant, I was there with her at the ladder’s precipice – maybe I ran, maybe I flew. I’ll never know. But as soon as I reached her I pushed her off the ladder’s top rung and into the icy water of tank. As she flailed in the darkness below, I turned away, unable to watch her – me – in those final moments.
I eased myself in too, closing the lid behind us.
On February 19, 2013, a body was discovered in a water tank on top of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. It was later identified as that of Elisa Lam, also known by her Cantonese name, Lam Ho Yi. Her death was the subject of much scutiny and intrigue, particularly with the release of bizarre elevator footage recorded shortly before her death. Three years later, a man named Jon David Guerrero would go on a killing spree, hunting homeless men with railroad spikes, setting two victims on fire and assaulting several others. In January 2020, he plead guilty 15 felonies, including four counts of murder. He was called the San Diego Homeless Killer. This work was inspired by their true stories.
In a nut shell
Some call it neat. Some call it straight. Like his daddy before him, Samuel Cowell didn’t call it but it called him, straight out of the bottle. The cheap stuff, Old Crow bourbon with the strangulated black bird looking to fly away each time he released his dirty palm off the label. He liked to save the empties, laying them flat, stacking them up into a glass fortress behind the shed with a foolish sense of accomplishment, half expecting a letter of appreciation for his abject depravity. It was his wife’s job to clean up after him, but she knew better than to cross the line. It was drawn around the extended perimeter of the shed behind the house where Samuel engaged in rituals unfit for neighboring civil eyes.
It was just the four of them rehearsing their unique family daily song and dance routine. Samuel, his wife Eleanor, and their offspring, Louise and Ted all ate the lies, all lived the nightmare as one flawed fractured nucleus. Neighborhood woody station wagons passed to and fro right by their front door clueless, traveling safely under the speed limit carrying well rested happy children. Ordinary unsuspecting people walked up and down the sidewalk arm in arm right outside their curtained windows missing every crack. Once a week, their front door would open to the paperboy and as he waited for his fifty cents he would peek inside, all the way through to the back storm door with a clear view of the shed in the background. How could he know? He took his money. He smiled. He said “thank you″ and left to collect the next coin.
On a Saturday afternoon, pointing towards the detached structure out back, eight year old Ted said to the man known as his father, “Hey Daddy, whatcha doin out there all that time in the shed?”
In reality, Ted knew exactly what his father was doing in the shed out back, intentionally poking the bear with his question. He’d been beaten before for less provocation and he wasn’t about to hold his breath waiting on the first blow. Upright as Douglas MacArthur, he stood in stoic defiance before his abuser, ready. He not only expected an onslaught, he craved an onslaught the way Jason next door craved vanilla ice cream. If given a choice, he preferred a belt to the back versus a punch in the face. Black eyes messed up his pretty face. Either way he was looking forward to the fight.
“Boy we’ve been over this already. If I told you once I told you a thousand times. None of your goddamn business! When I’m out there just busy yourself in here with the women. Be more like them. Your mother and sister know better than to ask me what I’m doing in there. This is my house, god damn it and as the man of the house I’m entitled to my own personal space. The shed is off limits to you is all. The sooner you learn up to mind your tongue the better.”
Surprised that his father kept speaking instead of making use of his demonic fists, Ted continued poking, enjoying enacting his version of Russian roulette. For Ted making others feel uncomfortable was becoming an art form. As a problem child and as a source of pain for the detached family from day one, he exercised his skill relentlessly. His much older sister spent most of her time away from the house and his mother spent all of her time either doing household chores or lying down somewhat unresponsive after taking her nerve medication.
As his father walked away stepping outside of the house, Ted followed
stalking his prey speaking antagonistically to the back of his head. “Why do I see Jason and his Gramps next door going in and out, in and out of their shed all the time with tools. What are you doing in there that I can’t see? I see them next door with tools. Big ones and little ones. They look cool. Screwdrivers. Hammers. And saws too. I think it would be really cool to learn how to fix stuff and build stuff with tools. Isn’t that what sheds are for? To store tools and work on stuff? Are you working with tools out there? I don’t recall hearing any hammering or sawing coming from the shed. Don’t we have some branches out back that need cutting? We got a saw in there I could learn to use?”
Ted’s father was getting older. Tired. He stopped walking and turned abruptly to face his maddening son. He knew there would come a point in time when his son would fight back. He needed to start distancing himself from perpetrating the physical abuse.
“Listen up boy. Keep out. Ya hear me. Case closed. If I see you messing around out here or even asking me about the shed again I’m gonna give it to you. What for. You know I mean it. So just shut your nosy ass pie hole boy and go back inside. Don’t you got some books need reading up there in your room? Or why don’t you go and find some friends to play with in the street. Stick ball. Kick the can. Whatever. Just keep away from me and my shed and stop asking so many damn questions.”
Ted felt deflated when his father uncharacteristically turned away from retaliation and continued to walk away. Failure was not an option. Life was just too boring without the familiar feel of a leather belt against his back, knuckles against his flesh. As he watched his father enter the shed, before he could lock the door, Ted staged a breach he was sure would get him over the finish line.
“I know what you do out here. Sometimes you forget to lock the window when you go to work and I’ve climbed in through the window. Most people don’t keep pictures of naked women wearing ropes and chains in tool boxes meant for tools, do they? Don’t worry. I won’t tell. I like the pictures too.” Ted did not admit just how many times he had snuck in the shed. He had been living on a steady diet of pornographic bondage and erotic mutilation from the time he was three or four, while little Jason next door was being read mother goose nursery rhymes rocked on their porch by his mother.
“Officer. It was an accident. I told the boy to never touch my guns. I keep my guns locked up all the time. Honest. I was just cleaning this here one out back and when I went to take a piss, I guess Ted got curious and wandered in the shed and picked up my gun. He’s always been a mischievous little fellow. When I walked in on him I guess he got scared he was gonna get in trouble and I was just trying to wrestle the gun away from him and that’s when it went off.”
After the cops left, believing every word, Samuel Cowell put the murder weapon away in the gun case, locked it, and got to thinking on the events of the day and how he was satisfied that what never should have happened in the first place was now a problem solved. He was finally off the hook. Deciding it was best to destroy the history of what no one living in his house wanted to remember anyway he reached into his safe and pulled out Ted’s birth certificate. Before he lit a match to it, his wormy eye caught the word unknown written inside the box marked “Father’s name”.
Ted’s father wasn’t the only one in the house glad that it was over. No. He was sure of it. His wife and daughter were just as relieved. They would not question Ted’s demise, since Samuel was not just Ted’s father, he was also his grandfather, having raped his own daughter one night when he was black out drunk.
When Louise, the young woman known as Ted’s sister, who was really his mother finally got up the courage to leave the house for good the following year to marry Johnny Culpepper Bundy, she rarely thought about Ted.
She thought about him as much as she thought about the stray dog that once bit her on the leg, ultimately euthanized by the pound, and only when and if she noticed the fading scar.
I’m dreaming about a one-armed man when the call comes through. I suffer with night terrors now and then, so in my panicked and dreamlike state I lash out, punching my pillow with force. It’s a good job I sleep alone. The ringing, direct in my eardrum, finally coaxes me out of my REM cycle and wakes me from my much-needed sleep. I hate it when they override my ear implant like that. It’s only for emergencies they say but what exactly constitutes an emergency? The fine print in my employment contract doesn’t say. Being awake is jarring and takes me a while to adjust to the state of forced consciousness. Not for the first time, I regret having the biotech upgrades in my body.
I tap my inner ear and answer the call uttering a groaned “Sir?” by way of greeting, my voice still husky from slumber.
“Mike. We need you in. Now.”
It’s a struggle to leave the warm cocoon of my bed but I emerge victorious, aching and yawning, and get changed. My whole body screams go back to bed, not only because my sleep was rudely interrupted but also my recent case has been so physically taxing. I need a break, a nice long vacation to somewhere warm with beaches and alcohol. I’m 32 and I’m honestly getting too old for this.
But, thankfully I don’t have to commute; work meetings are usually conducted virtually from a secure server set up at home, so on sleep-deprived auto-pilot I log in to my work terminal , open up my work database and enter a video conference with my boss within 10 minutes, wielding a strong cup of coffee at my side like a firearm. It’s 4am and the sun is just starting to rise over the hilly landscape of Northern California, casting an eerie amber tinge to my apartment. The ominous golden glow sets the tone for the virtual meeting, where there are two other government officials waiting. Internal Affairs, I assume although I’ve never seen these guys before. They both don dull grey suits and serious authoritative expressions. The mood is sombre and I know my usual wisecracks about dragging me out of bed wouldn’t be well received right now.
“Morning Mr Knokes,” One of the government officials begins by introducing himself in a monotone voice and immediately takes charge of proceedings. My boss is nowhere to be seen; his camera is turned off, so it appears I’m left fending for myself. “We are the Internal Affairs Committee of Behaviours and Affairs to the Precrime Department. My name is Officer Carlo.”
It’s a mouthful of a job title which I didn’t really listen to, but I know it indicates that they mean business. Officer Carlo, is dark-haired, possibly of Italian descent but in our video meeting his features appear even darker, the screen emits a strange grey-coloured miasma and his shadowy eyes peer into the screen like inky pits. Intimidation tactics still working well in a virtual setting, I note.
“How can I help you Officer Carlo?” I offer. In my nervous state ,my tone is smug and slightly unctuous, so I take a deep breath and silently tell myself to act normal.
“We are opening an investigation into your current time-centric assignment in California.” Officer Carlo replies, reading from a script verbatim. “And it would be in your best interests to answer a few questions pertinent to our investigation. In accord with your departmental policies you can request a union representative to sit in with you during this discussion.”
He has the cold, rigid, emotionally detached manner of an interrogator down to a tee. The condescending, somewhat nasal tone of voice; the passive-aggressive nuances where he says one thing but means another, the pen poised to write notes just to unnerve me. It’s all part of the dance. I know full well I have the right for my union rep, but we both know he’d be making a black mark in my file somewhere if I use one.
“It’s okay, I’m fine.” I say confidently which is a lie. I’m not fine and I’m not okay. This case has been the bane of my life for the last few months; an operational nightmare and sooner or later it was going to come back and bite me. Well today’s the day.
“Let the record reflect, union representation was declined. Can you confirm your name and job title, for the record?”
“My name is Mike Knokes ,Time Protection Officer of the 24th Precrime Division based in California.”
“And could you briefly summarize the nature of your work as Time Protection Officer?.”
“Of course.” I speak clearly and concisely.
“ As a Time Protection Officer , we use Precrime databases to look for and detect possible serious and major crimes . Using newly-developed Time Travel technologies we can eliminate these threats before they occur, by eliminating the potential suspect. Our division currently operate on a 99% efficiency rating.”
I know, through video capture tools I’m also being analyzed in real time for facial tics, speech patterns, anything that could give away liars and cheaters of the system. I am neither but is still disarming to be under the microscope like this; especially first thing in the morning and without breakfast.
Officer Carlo pauses to take notes. “Thank you. Now moving on to your current case. The Precrime suspect is a potential serial killer, is that correct?”
“That’s correct. Our Precrime database spotted a potential serial killer in serious 1 category, who could potentially go on to kill over 50 innocent people.”
“According to the file your first suspect for this serial killer was one: Michael Renard?”
“Yes. Our data analysis led us to this suspect with a 97% match.”
“And you jumped to his timeline -to the date July 4 2010 to perform the first assassination of the case, as authorized by your superior Jerry West correct?”
“Yes . We wanted to eliminate the suspect before he committed his first crime: a house robbery, from which his crimes would escalate.”
“And he was killed in a drive-by shooting?”
“Those were my parameters. We pinpointed a date and time he would be alone. I used a BTT dated weapon, a 9mm, to ensure the authorities in that timeline would conclude the crime was OTT.”
“For the record. BTT means Before Time Travel and OTT means Of That Timeline.” Officer Carlo turns slightly to the side at this point, speaking to someone off-camera . It’s apparent that other members of the committee are listening in on this call. I’m being interrogated, analyzed and broadcast in one fell swoop as if they’ve already got their guy and I wonder if it’s too late for my union rep, or perhaps even a lawyer. “And if I can ask you Mr Knokes to refrain from using acronyms here on out and be as clear as possible with your terminology.”
“No problem.” I reply taking a sip of coffee that turns into a gulp. I’m starting to perspire and I come to the sobering realization that my job and future career is on the line at this moment. Where the hell was my boss Jerry? Did he just feed me to the proverbial wolves and run?
“Now after that first authorized assassination- that should have been the end to your assignment, isn’t that right?”
“Yes once a potential suspect is eliminated, it’s usually case closed and we then focus on watching potential victims as a precaution.”
“But in this case, could you please explain to the committee what occurred next?”
My throat is dry and my hands are damp. I take another sip of coffee, clear my throat and try to keep my response clear and concise. “Approximately 30 days later we discovered an anomaly with the data sets. Another suspect for the same future crimes was named , a Mr Brian Hart, again with a 90% match. It’s never happened before I believe, so my team and I convened an emergency meeting and formulated a risk assessment.”
“What did that risk assessment show?”
“That if we performed a second assassination we would still be in the positive for the danger -to -life ratio and would still be performing a service to the public. In other words, the collateral damage of the mistaken identity was deemed acceptable against the protection of lives metric. A second assassination would be within our parameters.”
“So the second assassination was authorized. How was this performed Mr Knokes?”
“The assassination occurred on 27 September 2010. My team and I decided we didn’t want any link to the first assassination to be made, so we altered our weapon of choice and used a knife OTT: Of That Timeline.”
“Okay moving on.” Officer Carlo continues taking copious notes. It’s all part of the choreography, the intentionally slow turning of the page, the wielding of the pen- God only knows what he’s writing: the whole conversation is being monitored and recorded and an automatic transcript would be available and printed out on thick-reamed paper two seconds after this call. “ It is also our understanding another anomaly occurred soon after which prompted you to log these issues with the investigative complaints team of Department of Precrime Technology.”
“Yes that’s correct. Another suspect was named, a Mr Peter Steadman, again with a high match percentage of 97%. These anomalies were very unusual and we had to raise the question with the complaints team.”
“ So what did you and your team decide?”
“We performed another risk assessment. As this serial killer was predicted to be highly dangerous and according to psychological profiles and precrime projections, would go on to kill over 50 innocent people, the assassination of another suspect still fell within our positive parameters as the benefits outweighed the risks.”
“Did you store and save these risk assessments?”
“Yes Officer Carlo. I can give you access if required.”
“What happened next?”
“We didn’t have much planning behind this one as it was again time-critical, so we performed another assassination. It wasn’t our best work I admit, but my team and I were under considerable stress at this point and we were showing symptoms of TCS: Time Crossing Syndrome. ”
“What sort of symptoms?”
“Memory loss, disorientation. It caused some mistakes to be made at the scene; someone else got hurt. But my guys are good, they are the best at what they do.” I say this adamantly cos I’d be damned if any of this blowback goes back on them. It’s a typical field officer reaction, where all our geese are swans but this isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve seen how Internal Affairs operate; I’ve seen their investigations turn savage, or devolve into government-sanctioned witch hunts , where regardless of the mistake someone is to blame and lessons will be learned. Yes, there are moral ambiguities to our work, we work in the ethical grey but that’s why we have processes and calculated assessments- we act on the data and I won’t have them scapegoated for doing their job. Not today.
“And did you make any attempt to jump back and fix these mistakes?” Officer Carlo asks gravely. “or undo the assassinations?”
“The data didn’t allow for that sir. According to the analysis, they were all a match. If we undid the assassinations we’d run the risk of saving the real serial killer- people would have died. It also creates complex ripples in the timelines, I understand.”
There is a pause in proceedings now as Officer Carlo confers with his colleagues. I hear whispers and a low rumble of voices. My eyes narrow and my ears prick up, I raise my head, alert to my surroundings. This meeting is strange but something in the minutiae of their communication signals something more serious is going on; it’s the furrowing of brows, the deepening of tones, even through a screen, seeing nothing but disembodied heads, I can read the room and sense the urgency and stress behind their chatter. It makes me nervous and my eyes flitter subconsciously to my uniform and holster on the other side of the room.
Abruptly and unceremoniously, they leave the meeting. The chat room is empty and I’m left, baffled, facing a blank monitor.
Out of nowhere, my boss Jerry flashes onto screen. His camera is now on and he’s visibly stressed; he’s eyes are shadowed with dark crescents and there’s uncharacteristic stubble smattered on his chin.
“What the hell Jerry!” I bark.
“Don’t worry too much Mike. We played it by the book.” He says in an unconvincing attempt to reassure me. His eyes are darting everywhere and he’s fidgeting with his hair, tell-tale signs of a liar. A bad one at that.
“Cut the bull Jerry, what’s going on?” I ask. “Is there a problem with the tech?”
“Can of worms. No one is admitting anything.” More fidgeting, no eye contact. “But the problem is the assassinations.”
“What do you mean? We followed the risk-assessments- they were authorized.”
Jerry pauses, he takes a deep breath and lowers his head -looking directly into his camera- and adopts a conspiratorial tone. “These IA guys are not from our time line Mike.”
I begin to speak but no words come out.
“I can’t say anymore.” Jerry whispers, he looked stressed before but now he looks fearful. His eyes won’t meet mine and his frown deepens from conflict. He shakes his head.
“Jerry come on, you owe me.” I plead.
“I can’t say on this open line.” He snaps and his camera switches off again.
I stare in disbelief once more at an empty meeting room. I’m trying to work it out, I’m doing the math but I just can’t solve the sums. Internal Affairs from a different time line? In all my years working in Precrime, after jumping to 16 different timelines, working at the apex of modern technology - yet this has never happened before.
I reach for my coffee, but wish for something stronger and not for the first time, my eyes gravitate over to my uniform and firearm.
A faint buzz in my head breaks the hiatus. I tap my inner ear to accept the call coming through my implant and Jerry’s gravelly voice hisses straight into my cochlear. “Mike. Can you hear me? They are Internal Affairs from ten years ahead. Your name has come up on their database as a suspect.”
The sound crackles a little as the interference corrects itself, but Jerry’s voice still transmits in an undertone.
“The people you eliminated were innocent and now they want to clean up the whole thing. This investigative meeting is your risk assessment Mike. Do you hear me? They’re checking the parameters and comparing metrics as we speak.”
The line crackles again and I tap my inner ear furiously trying to keep the fading voice online.
“Jerry?” I’m talking to the air, as the connection cuts off and all of a sudden the silence of my apartment is deafening.
Until I hear a knock at my door and the unmistakable click of a weapon- Of This Timeline.
Fuck. There I was, in a dangerous situation, as per usual. Hedonism and responsibilities do not go hand in hand, as was being proven to me for the millionth time.
Tipsy, and a flat tire. 2 flat tires actually, with only one available spare, which of course, as the prissy suburban girl that I am, I had no idea how to put on. I had seemingly managed to run over someone’s nail collection that was left on the side of the road. I hope they didn’t want it back.
I took in the situation. It was dusk, on an empty highway, because no one else parties at 5 o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday. I had to be home soon or my dad would know I wasn’t at work, at the job I quit months ago but kept the outfit for a convenient excuse to leave the house for hours a day. It was a nice job really, but what is a teenage alcoholic supposed to do? Continue being a waitress? I don’t think so, and you don’t think so either. So I quit, and rationalized it by repeating the words “I’m only young once” and “I got to live life.”
You see where that got me.
No money for a tow, the clock was ticking for the time left of my “shift”.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
This is a classic, right? Skinny blonde bitch stranded helplessly on the road. I knew, however, that this wasn’t going to end in a classic romantic kiss. The only thing this would lead to was a shitload of trouble. My dad was going to find out all the lies, search my room, put me in jail, oh my god oh my god. I was thinking about how terrible the showers in juvie will be when the hairs on my neck stood up at full attention.
A small, brownish tan Volkswagen vehicle was pulled up next to me. Like, right next to me. I instinctively pressed the lock down on my door. I groped the pocket knife in my, well, pocket. You know, the obligatory going-to-a-rave pocket knife. I squinted my eyes to see who was driving, expecting to see some ogre slightly resembling a man (mossy bald head, 2 teeth, hot breath) but, to my surprise, I saw a tan Ken doll staring back at me. Taken aback, I stared at him for a second or two, before flashing him my freshly whitened teeth. He flashed his back.
At this point I’m conflicted. Part of me is thinking, Emily, your being so stupid, this is how people get turned into coats, but then the teenage girl side of me was thinking that pretty people dont do evil things, they are always nice and friendly. Spread a little gossip and talk a little trash, maybe, but not full on kill anyone, let alone abduct people.
So, for the thrill of it (like always), I crank my window down.
“Hey, what are ya doing parked all sideways on the side of the road?”
“Well, to be honest with you, I’m in a bit of a predicament.”
“Predicament, huh? Big word for a pretty girl like you.”
A feeling split between “roll up your window” and “he thinks I’m pretty.”
“I like to think I’m pretty intelligent.”
“But stuck on the side of the road?”
He was witty too. Cute, and therefore, dangerous.
“You got me there. Some asshole left a bunch of nails in the middle of the damn road, and now I’m gonna be late home.”
“Too dainty to change a flat?”
“Two flats, one spare.”
He put his hand on his scruff and stroked his sculpted chin accordingly.
“Yup, that’s quite the predicament.”
The clouds had hung low all day, threatening to fuck up my evening, and they weren’t bluffing. It started pouring, as if on cue. I started to crank my window up, but, as you could guess, the damn thing wouldn’t go up. I tried lifting it with my hands and everything, but the thing wouldn’t move. The rain started pouring in, onto my sweater and prop work pants, and I let out a shout of frustration and smacked my hand on the dash. “Dammit!”
“There’s a seat over here you know”
I had almost forgotten he was there; he felt like a fever dream. I was trying to decide if this moment was serendipitous or the opposite thereof.
“I don’t know.. This is how all horror shows start, ya know.”
“I understand, I hope you find a ride back, miss. Have a good day.”
He put his hand on the shifter.
He put the car back in park and smiled at me inquisitively.
“Miss me already?”
He was good. Mid 20’s and bookish, but smug in an attractive way. I considered my options. Stay here in my car that was slowly becoming a rain collection bucket, or get in the warm Volkswagen with a handsome stranger, who could then drive me home. I could get there on time, and avoid so much trouble. And, the ultimate deciding factor; he was very, very pretty.
So what did I do? You already know.
He slid back into the drivers side to make room for me, and the leather was warm. I slammed the door shut and tried to pretend he was an ugly old man. I couldn’t let this guy woo me, as he was clearly used to. I just had to get home, and get there safely.
Things didn’t go as planned, or I wouldn’t be writing this, of course.
“It’s about 10 minutes away.”
“Yes, thank you, by the way.”
“Do you live by yourself?”
Red flag? No, my mind reasoned, just small talk.
“No actually, with my dad and my little sister.”
“Staying at home for college or what?”
“No, I’m actually not in college.”
“I am, just after I get through highschool.”
“Highschool. You’re still a schoolgirl? I’ll be damned, I would have bet you were 20, with a body like that.”
I shouldn’t have come here. I shouldn’t have got in.
“Thanks. It’s a right at the next stop.”
I kept the words short and cold, uninviting. Charismatic as he seemed at first, he was getting way too creepy, way too fast. I hunched forward and kept my head perfectly straight.
“I mean, really. You’re gorgeous. I love your hair. It’s so long.”
“What’s your name anyways, school girl?”
He had a smile on that once seemed inviting, that now seemed greedy.
“Emily Hankfeld. What’s yours?”
I thought maybe I could steer this conversation in a better direction.
“Theodore Bundy. But everyone calls me Ted.”
At this point, he was looking at me more than seemed safe for driving in the rain. I didn’t look back, but I could feel his eyes moving up and down, up and down, up and down.
“It’s this right up here”
He didn’t turn..
“Ted, that was the turn. You missed it.”
He pretended not to hear me.
“You know, most of the time when a handsome man picks up a stupid cunt off the side of the road, he gets more than a thanks.”
My stomach dropped. My heart stopped. He took a left onto a long gravel driveway. The only sounds that escaped my mouth were the sharp inhales and exhales I was trying to control.
“So beautiful; such a shame you’re so young.”
A glimmer of hope. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he had morals. Maybe.
“Too bad this is where it ends.”
As the car rolled to a stop, the adrenaline took full control. My mind stayed frozen while arms tried to open the door. Locked from the inside. He planned it. Hands smacking on the glass, my mouth screaming words I couldn’t hear.
“I would say I’m sorry, Emily, but I’m trying to work on my compulsive lying.”
I remember the pain in my skull as he pulled my head back by my hair. My fingers remembered the knife in my pocket.
“Don’t pull any funny business, Emily."
I screamed against his calloused hand, and he smiled. My legs kicked the air and his car.
“Careful bitch, yout gonna break the glass.”
I was running out of air, out of energy, and out of hope. All I could do was look into his eyes and hope there was some empathy in there.
I was suffocating, and he enjoyed it.
“This is your own fault you know. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to get into cars with strangers?”
As I was giving up, fate decided not to. Someone was driving down the driveway. This caused a high level of anger from Ted, which was demonstrated by a slap in the face.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
He sighed and pushed me to the side. He put the car in reverse and pressed on the gas.
Now, I’d never hurt anyone if I didn’t have to. I cried when I accidentally stepped on our cat. I need you to understand this isnt in my nature.
He grabbed the steering wheel and I grabbed the knife.
A 3 inch blade in the jugular isn’t good news for anyone. I still remember the look in his eyes. It was clear what he was thinking:
I sat there, killer’s blood spurting onto me, and his body slumped forward unto the steering wheel. I was in shock. I still am. You can imagine the old man’s face whose driveway I’d just killed someone in when he finally made his way to us. He turned right back around. I would too.
The police were impressed by me, but to this day I wonder if he would’ve actually gone through with it. The savage look in his eyes and the tightness of his fist said yes, but who knows, maybe he was a good person. Or maybe he was going to become a world renown serial killer.
That’s giving myself too much credit, I think.
“John Wayne Gacy,” You say flatly, dropping his photo onto the desk in front of me. I don’t look at it, because I don’t need to. I’ve studied his face a thousand times. “Lived in Waterloo, Iowa,” you continue. “Beloved by his community. Good with kids. Married.”
“To Marlynn Myers,” I say. “Managed a KFC. Threw parties for his employees in his basement. Had two children, a son and a daughter. The daughter was born just four--no--six months ago.”
You lace your fingers together, leaning forward in your chair. “So why’d you kill him?”
I gaze into your eyes. They might as well be stone.
“Why did you do it?” Your voice is low, threatening. I flex my hands against the handcuffs, absentmindedly pulling the chain tight against the spot where they’re attached to the table. “August 1st, 1967, neighbors heard a gunshot and saw you flee the scene. Why did you murder him?”
“I did you a favor,” I say.
“A favor?” Your eyes turn to lava, your gaze sears me. “As far as we can tell the man never did anything wrong in his life!”
“Trust me. He would have been arrested by the Iowa police for something horrible very soon if I hadn't done anything.”
“What did he do?”
I tap my foot on the concrete floor.
“What did he do to you?”
“He didn’t do anything to me. He was never going to do anything to me. I did it to protect other people; thirty three--no, thirty four other people. Possibly thirty six.”
You study my face carefully.
“Two of them were never confirmed,” I clarify.
You look in one of your folders. You flip through the pages for a while. I tap my foot on the concrete floor to the tune of the Mario theme song. You close your folder. “Gacy has no criminal record.”
“So who are the thirty-three people you’re referring to?”
“Timothy McCoy, Unidentified, John Butkovitch, Darrell Samson, Randall Reffett--”
“Wait,” you say, hastily scribbling their names down.
“You don’t need to do that,” I say. “You’ll find all the boys alive and well and some of them won’t even know Gacy.”
You put your pen down angrily. You pick it up again and scribble something else down. You take a small, clear bag out of your briefcase and place it on the table. Inside is a bullet. “Do you recognize this?”
“Well, obviously I don’t recognize this specific bullet. I’m assuming it’s the one I used to kill Gacy.”
“It doesn’t match any known gun.”
“Oh, ha, yeah. I usually try to buy a gun en locale, but I just didn’t have enough time this time around. It’s not an exact science, you know? A lot of guesstimating, uh, involved with it-- Can I ask you a question?”
“If you’re trying to get the insanity plea, it’s not going to work. I’ve been watching you. You’re perfectly capable of being lucid.”
I droop a little bit--I didn’t even know you’d been watching me. I must be losing my edge. I continue with my question anyway: “Do you...specialize, in this sort of stuff?”
“I’m a homicide detective.”
“No--yes--but like, do you--you must know a lot about serial killers then, right?”
Your eyes widen. “Serial killers?”
“Yes--no--I mean, I’m not a serial killer. Gacy was. Would be. I’m not. Gah!” I put my hands to my temples. The pain’s begun again. “Please not now. Anytime but now.”
“You’re not insane,” you assert again, a little less confidently.
“No, no you’re right, I’m fine. Listen to me, listen. Do you know who Jack the Ripper is?”
You shake your head.
“Or Ted Bundy?”
You shake your head again.
“What about Clementine Barnabet? Ed Gein? Harold Shipman, otherwise known as ‘Doctor Death?’ Any of those ring a bell?”
“Ed Gein is a famous cold case from about a decade ago. They never found his murderer.”
“Well, uh, that’s not the point I was trying to make. The point I was trying to make is that, where I’m from, all of those people are infamous serial killers. Some of them also have upwards of thirty victims. Like Clementine Barnabet. And Ed Gein was notoriously brutal. He would make furniture out of his victims. Furniture!”
“He didn’t do that.”
“No, you’re right, no, not here he didn’t.” The pain’s growing stronger. “Listen to me. You should be thanking me. I’ve done so much good for the world. So much. I didn’t even--” I swallow. “I didn’t even tell you all the things that I did. I did a lot of things. I saved a lot of people. But--” I close my eyes as the ringing in my ears begins. “Listen. I only have one jump left before I go completely nuts, I think. It takes--it takes a toll on my body, it takes a lot out of me, to do this. I’ve sacrificed a lot to do all this. I’ve only got one left. I can’t afford to guesstimate on this one, but I think--” I’ve reached a fever pitch, and so has the ringing in my ears. “Ever since the first time, ever since the first I’ve been having more and more trouble controlling it. These past times I’ve been getting sloppier, being off my target by days or weeks or months and--and I’m scared. That’s it. For the first time in an indeterminate amount of time I’m scared. That’s why I waited so long, to time travel again, that’s why instead of just warping away on the spot like I usually do I left, and I travelled around a bit. Came here to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to see California. Actually see it, not just be there, you know? I knew I might get arrested. But I’m scared. I’m so scared. Even though I knew it would happen eventually, I don’t want to lose myself. But it’s happening. It’s going to happen very soon.”
You don’t believe me. I can tell just by looking at your face. “Do you need a doctor?” you ask.
“No. No please, listen. I’m going to travel somewhere close. As close as I can. I’m going to try to control it as much as I can. And I want you to find me. I want you to find me and arrest me again, please. Please. I’m counting on you. I need you to find me! Okay? I need you to do this!”
Your voice sounds muffled, distant. “You’re insane.”
“I’M NOT INSANE!” I scream, but you’re already gone.
I’m standing by the ocean. The sound of the waves usually calms me, but today it doesn’t. The wind rustles the green grass that comes up close to the beach. There’s a quaint little town in the distance. I walk up the hill and find a sign welcoming me to Benicia, California. Something about that town name seems familiar, but I can’t put my finger on what.
A car comes trundling down the road. I wave at it. The driver pulls over and rolls his window down.
“Excuse me sir, what year is it?” I ask.
He looks at me over his glasses. “1968.”
I smile and thank him, then go back down to the beach.
I miss the work already. I’ve been doing it for so long. There’s nobody here to kill, and that makes me feel directionless. The only thing to do is wait for you to find me.
I don’t want it to take long. I’m already restless, and I’m already wishing I hadn’t said anything to you. I should make it easy for you to find me. I should leave you a few hints.
I go into town and buy a gun.
One For Many
My name is Malcolm Reynolds, and I am a bouncer. No, not that kind. I don’t stand outside popular Night Clubs admitting only the attractive ladies while denying entry to teenage boys who’s faked ID’s introduce them as Giuseppe Cordova: age 43. Especially when one can see the spirit gum holding on their fake mustachios.
I’m what they call a Body Bouncer. I can see that you’re confused, so please allow me to elaborate.
I have a special ability. I can’t tell you how I got it, that’s a secret, but it allows my consciousness access to my mitochondrial DNA at the molecular level. This particular portion of your genetic code gets transferred only from Mother to child; unlike Nuclear DNA which you get from both parents. It’s a complex process and I won’t bore you with the science of it. Essentially, it allows me to transfer my consciousness backwards in time to any ancestor on my Mother’s side. So far, the distance I can travel, and by distance I mean the number of years into the past, appears to unlimited. And it’s a damned good thing too, as you are about to find out.
“H.H. Holmes. Ever heard of him?” My handler, Lita tossed the red manila folder into my lap.
“Sounds like the name of a department store.” I grabbed the file and opened it, scanning over the details and the small photograph paper-clipped to the upper corner. I know what your thinking. They can travel back in time, but they still use paper office products. It’s a dichotomy. What can I tell you.
If you need something ‘undone’ my agency is the one you call. Well, not you so much, I doubt you’re all that important, or wealthy. And you’re also not likely a Government Office, or a Law Enforcement agency either. Those places, they call us pretty often. Think of us as a kind of ‘preventive medicine’. Our motto at the Bureau of Temporal Reclamation is: “We building a BetTeR world, one step through time.”
“Not even close.” Rosalita Vasquez rolled her eyes at me; She does that quite a bit. But don’t you call her Rosalita, She says it makes her sound too ‘ethnic’. Never mind her dark curls, even darker brown eyes and caramel-colored skin. That’s not a giveaway at all.
She continued on.
“Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, a.k.a. Herman Mudgett, Born in New Hampshire in 1861.”
“I can read you know.” I smiled at her, continuing to read the document. “This guy is a real piece of work, isn’t he? Suspected of over 200 murders...builds a house of horrors in which to murder and then dispose of his victims...Jesus Christ.”
“So, you know what you need to do on this one.” She pulled the aforementioned dark curls into a scrunchied, bushy ponytail and rolled up her shirt sleeves. “Let’s get to work, shall we?”
I was barely able to control the horses despite having a firm grip on the reins; the moment of transfer is always pretty dicey. One minute you’re on a table wearing a wire harness around your head, and the next you’re in the middle of a bustling city street in control of 2600lbs of horse-and-carriage careening down a muddy street. It’s a bit jolting; every time. But, once I gain control of my faculties and get oriented to my surroundings, I’m usually alright. This time I was not so lucky.
I must have hit a bump or a rock or something, because next thing I knew I was head over heals over the front rail, face down in what had to be 3 inches of mud and horse shit. Luckily, I landed right behind the horse and between the wheels, because the carriage rolled on without crushing me.
“Dear God! Are you alright Madame?” The voice came from behind and to my left. A moment later and strong arm was pulling me up from the mire. “You went right up and over, saw the whole thing I did. Thought for sure you were a goner.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine, thank you.” I was wiping the mud away from my face and neck when It dawned on me. He called me Madame. “Ugh...not again” I muttered under my breath, but he must have heard me.
“Do you often land face first in the mud in the middle of a street?” He looked at me quizzically.
“No, no, I’m sorry, I was referring to having to chase down that horse. Again. Third time this week.”
This was one of the unfortunate side effects of accessing the Mitochondrial DNA. As it predominantly traces the mother’s lineage, my consciousness often ends up in a female host. It’s not as bad as you might think. And, after all, I am a modern man; I’m secure in my masculinity. I’m sure that would sound more convincing if I weren’t wiping the muck off of my bosom and ankle-length skirt.
Where was a paper-boy when you needed him? I looked around trying to get a lay of the land, so to speak. There was a crossroad just up ahead of where I took my spill. I figured heading in that direction was my best bet. As I continued to shake the mud from my clothes I made my way towards the street ahead, the subject of more than one sideways glance. Making eye contact with a shopkeeper that was sweeping the dust from his porch, I approached.
“Sir, could you tell me the date?” I asked him, trying not to sound as crazy as I must have looked.
“Beg pardon? The date? It’s erm...uh...” he stammered for a moment before finally spitting it out. “Why, it’s Thursday, 16th of May.”
“The year sir, what year is is it?” That always made them look at me like I was a bit of a loon.
“Are you alright miss? Do you need a Doctor?” He asked me, genuinely concerned.
“I’m quite alright, sir. The year. What year is it?” This part was always a bit frustrating.
“1861, Miss... It’s 1861.” He looked a bit confused, and even more so when I simply nodded, thanked him, and walked away.
I walked another block or so before reaching an intersection, Providence Rd. and High St. according to the sign. Now I knew I was in the right town and in the right time. All I needed to do was find the Hospital. You see, the plan was simple. Find the pregnant mother if the birth hadn’t occurred yet, and the infant if it had. Either way, this was not something I looked forward to. In either case, the local Hospital was my best bet.
I asked a few more passers-by for directions, each time met with the same strange look I got from the shopkeeper. But also received fingers pointing in the general direction I needed to go, and at this point, that’s all that mattered.
Oh, one thing I forgot to mention about all this time-travel business, is that you only have about three hours to complete whatever it is you intend to do before irreparably altering the timeline. All the Sci-Fi stories about time-travel got one thing right at least. I had about ninety minutes remaining, so I had to move faster.
By the time I arrived at the Hospital, I had dried out. I’m sure I still looked a bit like a crazy woman, disheveled and covered in dried filth. The look I received from the Nurse in the maternity ward confirmed my suspicions.
“Can I help you Miss?” She cleared her throat and looked me up and down, trying to make sense of what she was looking at. “Do you need to see a Doctor? If you do, you’ll have to go down that hall and make a right. This is maternity, not the the general...”
I cut her off with a wave of my hand. “No, no. I’m quite alright. Bit of a spill on the road is all. Nothing broken besides my ego, I can assure you. I’m actually here to see my Sister. She should be here. Her water broke early this morning and I was told she is here?”
“Name?” She still looked at me with suspicion, but I think she bought it.
“Mudgett, Paige Mudgett. Mr. Mudgett is out of town on business, so I’m the only family she has in town at the moment.” I embellished a bit, hoping to speed this process along.
The nurse shuffled through a few charts and then pointed down the hall. “Third room on the left. You’re in luck, she’s still in the early phases of labor. She’s resting while we wait for active labor to begin.”
“Thank you. Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. I never would have forgiven myself.” I tried to sound as convincing as possible. Judging from the softening look on her face, It seemed my ruse worked.
“I’m sure she will be happy to see you” She motioned in the direction of the room, no doubt glad to be rid of me.
I wasn’t so sure she would be happy to see me. In fact, I was quite certain that she would not be. But, one life to save hundreds as the cliché goes. Fortunately, this type of mission wasn’t the norm. I’m not sure I could do it if it were.
I approached the doorway, looking around to make sure that there wasn’t anyone within earshot, and stepped into the room. Mrs. Mudgett was on the bed, resting with her eyes closed, and clearly still very pregnant. I quietly shut the door behind me and made my way to her bedside. She must have been exhausted, because she never noticed me come in. She didn’t struggle when I held the pillow over her face either. With a sudden jerk of her body she went limp. It was finished. I stood for a moment in silence, reflecting on the gravity of it all. One life for many. It was never an easy thing to take a life, and that was a good thing. The scales are balanced once again.
Monday, November 10, 4004 BC
Today is eviction day.
I sit crouched just outside the burning hedgerow. Within its perimeter is warm and the air effervescent; without, it is cold but clammy like a cardiac creation suffering ischemia. I can only imagine strolling like a god into this encircled life of privilege, contentment, and scintillation: the ground moving me to where I need to be, the sky agreeing in variegated approval, and the aether sparkling with the flavor of ambrosia. To breathe into my chest, to feel the overhead cosmic embrace, to join my feet in a contract of partnership with the world underfoot! To feel the blood returning and agonal angina allayed.
My infernal machine is whirring, its irony--for being--to undo infernality.
Ussher was right. A portion of the hedgerow flickers out, ashes replacing its stamina and pistils that wax blacker than eclipsing suns at totality. Out of the charred discontinuity blows an ill wind; no, it is drawn in from where I sit. I feel the putrescent rush that will defile Eden.
They emerge, naked and ashamed. And quite surprised.
And so very angry, their explanations and excuses ignored and unheard.
And so very guilty--not for what they did, but for all the machinations of death and cruelty their progeny will engender.
Time to start over, begin again, anthropomorphize anew. Homo 2.0. This time, should there be three genders--no stalemates, no struggles to persuade, no refusals? Only a tie-breaker?
S’s work, so sibilantly I invite the naive them-made-Man into my time machine and they accept, lured by a promised gateway to before their fall--before serpents and temptation and falsely persuasive arguments for knowing everything. Instead--and heroically--I send them back to early in the Fifth Day, Thursday, October 27, 4004 BC, to witness the new-spawn creatures that live in the sea and the new-hatched creatures that fly. By the next day, it will be written somewhere, our protoparents will be gone, having confronted the new-forged animals that live on the land, before the decreed protection from the Garden’s covenant to harm them not.
I know that I have a day at my disposal. Perhaps a stroll through the ashen hedge. Perhaps shedding my clothing and letting the ground move me to meet this Tree myself. Skillfully spurning the succulent and sidestepping the Knowledge of Good and Evil, sibilants and fricatives are no match for me, so I can laugh aloud at the serpent. To spend a final night under that Tree, leaves of startling realizations falling upon me!
I breathe Man’s final sigh of relief for the next day--for them, in my past, but in their future--when they are torn apart by the beasts of the land, the devouring continuing to their very bones, leaving no trace they ever were Made. The branches of the family tree are umbilical cords, so I must join the oblivion I orchestrated, rescuing my fellow billions with the embrace of that oblivion. Lives prevented and lives never lost--lost via instructions of bonds of serial homicidal amino acids that is a double helix of death.
It will be a day of rest.
A Bitter Pill
Herman Mudgett was my target. If anyone knew I was using the time capsule to eliminate this scrooge from history, I’m certain I would be put to death as quickly as he was once, when he was finally arrested. His history was long and bloody, as both a con artist and murderer. The world would be better off without him.
What mattered more to me, was he had eliminated several members of my family, children at that. He profited from his penchant for getting rid of people by selling the bodies to the medical school in Chicago.
But I digress, I wanted to know what turned him to this macabre life. And so, I climbed into the capsule setting the date and location to his known haunts in 1886. I’m sure he’d killed a few before then, but what was key, was stopping him before he got into the meat of his career, so to speak.
Wandering the streets, I made note to thank the research staff who’d found me the appropriate gown and supplied me with a few coins, as well as the poison I would use once I located him. Well, actually, I concocted the poison myself. If you want it done right, you do it yourself.
And there he was, the pharmacy where he worked was open, advertising the name of Dr. H.H. Holmes as their druggist in attendance that day.
I approached him at the rear of the musty store, weird scents emanating from herbs, chemicals and other apothecary supplies assailing my nose as I wandered through the bins and boxes stacked on either side of the main aisle leading back.
I needed to flirt with the man, I wanted time to talk to him and assess the necessity of ridding the world of his evil presence.
“Sir, I have a script for laudanum.”
His eyes sparkled with intelligence. I was clearly speaking to man of acumen.
“My dear, I would be happy to help you. Your name?”
“I’m Peggy Pullman.”
“Is that your birth name or a nick name?” I could see the wheels turning.
“My apologies sir, Margret Elise Pullman. My uncle is the rail tycoon, you might have heard of him.” I was setting him up, I knew of three rich young ladies who had disappeared after becoming engaged to this monster.
“I like Peggy better, Peggy is a sturdy name for a woman who knows what she wants from life,” he smiled, his eyes telling me I was the most beautiful thing to come into his store.
I batted my eyes at him raising my hand to cover my face. “You flatter me, thank you.”
“It will take me some time to have this tincture compiled to the correct proportions. Your doctor has prescribed a very strong dosage.”
“My uncle is old and suffers from great pain. The doctor says he won’t live much longer. I’m his only living relative, and once he dies, he’ll leave it all to me.”
“It will be ready in an hour; I’ll instruct the druggist who mixes the tinctures. If you will wait a moment.”
He disappeared through a door, and I glimpsed long counters with many beakers, mortars, pestles, and other paraphernalia of a compounding pharmacy.
I heard his deepened voice calling me to the back of the store.
“Yes, doctor,” I wanted to stroke his ego and make myself into a pliable demure, young woman.
“Would you do me the honor of taking tea? I have an hour free, and there is an amazing tearoom down the street. The Chicago Hotel is famous for their selection of teas and pastries.”
“I would be honored, doctor. I’m not acquainted with the amenities of the city. I arrived very recently to be with my uncle at his request.”
“Then let us hurry, the tearoom will be busy if we don’t arrive early in the afternoon.”
I couldn’t believe the charm of the man. His manners were flawless, and he treated me like a fragile piece of china.
“I hope you like Oolong?” he said as he pulled a chair out for me.
“I love all teas, particularly English Breakfast, but the bergamot of Earl Grey is delicious as well.”
“Then we shall have both Oolong and Earl Grey.” He turned to the young lady waiting patiently for our choice.
“Very well, doctor.” Her glance placed daggers in me. I wondered if he was a regular patron.
“What do you recommend for pastry?”
“Anything from the cart.” He studied my face as if he were trying to memorize it and reached over to pat my hand.
I withdrew it quickly, the ring was specially constructed, and if he was as clever as the history books attested, he would recognize the design. The secret compartment contained a fatal dose of ricin.
“Tell me about yourself? Where did you go to school? I detect a hint of France in your voice?”
“My parents sent me to finish my schooling in Paris, I suspect I’ll lose the accent soon, I always do.” He was far too observant.
“Are they still alive? You said you were your uncle’s only living relative.”
“No, they perished in a fire, my dearest uncle invited me to stay.” Dear God don’t let him know that George Pullman was only a young man in his twenties at this time, my fictional uncle was in the wrong time period.
“You seem nervous, there’s no need to be frightened. I only want you to feel at home and there is someone who would care for you if you would allow,” his voice conveyed concern.
I needed a distraction I thought as the teapots arrived on the top of an elegant wooden cart. On the lower shelf a lovely group of scones were displayed on a silver platter and small sandwiches filled with jams and jellies tempted me.
I leaned forward and asked, “Did you grow up in Chicago?”
My foot slipped between the angry waitress’s feet and she crashed into the cart, hot water sprayed from a broken teapot, and the good doctor jumped to his feet avoiding most of the steaming brew.
“Of all the clumsy misbegotten idiotic things to do,” his anger spilled over as he bent down to yank the poor girl to her feet.
His face red, acutely embarrassed by her apparent inability to serve us, he continued. “I’ll have you fired, if Miss Peggy is injured at all!”
I took that moment to lift the cups and saucers from the cart, dumping my dose of ricin into his, and rescuing the other teetering pot from the edge of the cart before it spilled as well.
“Dear sir, I’m perfectly fine, and our Earl Grey has survived. I assure you, there is no damage.” I poured the deep brown liquid into his cup and added honey and milk.
“I hope you like it like this, if not, and please try it first, I’ll pour you another cup.”
He settled into his chair once more saying, “Bring us scones and perhaps a piece of blueberry pie.” His color returning to a more normal tone.
He picked up his cup and drank a deep draught.
“Tis unique, this flavor. I wonder whether the bergamot is fresher than usual,” he emptied the teacup, and placed it carefully back on its saucer.
“It would be a bitter pill if it weren’t,” I quipped.
“My dear, you are as clever as you are beautiful,” his eyes drank as deeply of mine as he had the tea.
“I find you fascinating, doctor, but I must return home, the staff at the mansion, I was to be home. This errand has taken far longer than I expected.” I rose gracefully after stumbling over my excuse.
“Your laudanum?” his hand went to his throat.
“I shall return to you for more,” I knew I’d delivered a fatal dose of highly refined poison. “I gave you my address, could you please have the laudanum delivered? I would welcome your visit.”
I left him there, knowing there was no way for him to find the mysterious Peggy Pullman.
You did a good thing, Jonas
You did a good thing, Jonas. It came to him as if he were under water.
He didn’t think he had done something good.
Certainly not at that moment.
Jonas felt like an outsider in his own body, a bystander in his own life. As they drove home Jonas sat in the passenger seat trying to not look over at his mother as he replayed the events in his head yet again while looking at his reflection in the mirror each time they drove under a streetlight.
Rewind 31 hours.
“I’m finding a way to that show one way or another,” Jonas said to his younger brother Tommy as he riffled through his backpack looking for his wallet.
Tommy would always tag along. But not tonight.
“Are you going with Stevie or that girl you like?” Tommy asked, teasing his brother.
“Girl I Like is her confirmation name,” Jonas laughed, playfully slapping his brother, “I just call her Sue…and no its just me and Stevie but not if we can’t find a ride and definitely not if I can’t find my fuckin-” Jonas stopped searching and took a deep breath and looked at Tommy.
“Look,“ Jonas got quiet and serious, “I wont be mad if you hid it to play,” Jonas said, sitting on his bed and leaning back on his elbows.
“Not mad like two days ago when I borrowed your Bauers?”
“Ok first those shoes don’t even fit. And they’re mine. And they’re expensive. And I wasn’t mad."
“You were mad,” Tommy laughed.
There was a pause. Jonas squinted his eyes, raised his right brow and puckered his lips which meant he was thinking and about to render a judgment or a decision.
“Okay yeah I was mad but I’m not now. Yer gunna be lost at Conventry without me and Stevie.”
Tommy rolled over on his bed and put his back to Jonas.
“We’d take you but-
Jonas really did feel bad about not having enough tickets to take Tommy but right then the phone rang in the hallway and Jonas’s mother called out to him.
“Its Stevie honey,” his mother appeared in their doorway with the phone in her hand and covered the receiver with her palm, “Look Jonas your wallet is on the sink in the bathroom….”
Jonas sprang to his feet in one motion and tried to grab the phone but his mother gently stepped back.
“Uh ah I don’t think so mister not so fast, before you think another thought I need to say two things.”
Jonas was becoming inpatient and stood with his arms crossed waiting.
“Okay well for starters I’m sorry I need the car tonight. Secondly Stevie hitchhikes and his parents don’t like it. And I don’t like it either so you have to promise me you won’t thumb it.”
Jonas nodded at his mother. Clearly to placate her. And for her part his mother smiled and handed Jonas the phone.
Her posture and his said it all to Tommy who lay on his bed watching: mom had to say it to say it and Jonas won’t listen but he’ll ignore her respectfully. Same routine since forever only now that Jonas is a high school graduate, he’s decidedly closer to adulthood and felt the need to show some flex.
Jonas took the phone.
“Nope,” Stevie could be heard on the other end. “We’re gunna have to hitch.”
It was a hot afternoon but seemed to be cooling off nicely as the two recent graduates walked down the street figuring ride or no ride they were attending this show.
“Do me a favor and let me flag people down,” Stevie said to Jonas
“Well I mean I hate to bring it up but I mean, like, we both know I’m the better looking and more innocent looking,” Stevie ran his hand through his hair and smiled, mockingly, as they walked.
“Oh so yer gunna play that card huh,” Jonas said, smiling but somewhat hurt.
In the distance a baby blue pickup track began to take shape on the horizon. The boys looked up to see with some hope.
On the inside of the truck the driver fiddled with the station. Hot Child in the City came on and while Jeff wasn’t crazy about it he figured it would do. He had the house all to himself. He had bourbon and he had grass and he also no friends to share it with.
As he settled into City Nights Jeff noticed two boys about his age standing on the roadside. The taller boy with the long dark hair, bellbottom jeans and leather jacket struck Jeff instantly.
“Aye how about that he’s pulling over,” Stevie winked at Jonas.
“Yeah great well see that? It’s a dude.”
“I don’t care if it’s a fuckin octopus so long as it saves us some time.”
They both laughed as they truck pulled to the side of the road slowly. Its tires grinding against the gravel and dirt.
Jeff felt an exhilaration as he pulled the car over. In his stomach, between his legs, in his throat. Don’t fuck this up.
Jeff pulled off the side of the road convincing himself to just do as practiced and all would be just fine. Just play it cool he told himself.
“Oh don’t worry Dotty,” Jonas’s mother lit a cigarette as she spoke with Stevie's mother,
“I gave my mase to Jonas plus they’re both strong boys.”
“Jonas sure,” Dotty could be heard on the other end and Tommy listened. “but Stevie, well he’s just a free spirit and believes the best about everyone. I’ve tried to get him to stop hitching forever.”
“Well Dot if that’s your concern Jonas trusts nobody so they’re together. Don’t worry.
Jonas gave Stevie a disapproving look as they both approached the passenger side window, Jeff leaning over to roll it down.
“Hey, you guys need a ride,” Jeff asked. His voice shaky and awkward.
“Yeah man for sure if you’re headed our way,” Stevie said.
“Where are you headed?” Jeff recognized both boys from Coventry High and they had all graduated together, yet neither Jonas nor Stevie recognized him.
“Chippewa Lake Park,” Jonas said, nudging Stevie to the side a bit to assess.
“I can get you there,” Jeff opened the door and to his disappointment Stevie climbed into the cab and Jonas sat up front.
“Well we have some time to kill now once we get there. What’re you getting into tonight man?,” Stevie asked Jeff.
“Oh not much. Actually its just me at my house. We can go roll a couple joints and have a drink they I can run you to the lake or you can walk from my place, its like right there,” Jeff was trying not to sound desperate.
“Then why were you driving the other direction?” Jonas asked. Jeff was agitated. He saw the suspicious look in Jonas’s expression in his peripheral vision.
“Look man I, I mean I’m just out fer a drive,” Jeff started to defend himself.
“Jonas man lay off,” Stevie tapped Jonas’s should and leaned forward “yeah man we’re in we have a couple joints too. House all to yourself?”
“And almost two hours to kill,” Jeff smiled.
Jeff’s smile caught Jonas off guard. It seemed forced and fake but that wasn’t the problem.
Tommy crept closer to his bedroom door, still ajar, to listen to his mother talk to Stevie’s mom. Tommy could hear Dotty say “mase never stopped anyone.”
“Well if it makes you feel any better Jonas has a knife too.”
“Oh yes much better.”
Both women laughed some.
“Dotty-they’re going to be just fine.”
The driveway was like an S and on an incline. Jonas eyed the surroundings as the truck ground to a slow stop at the top of the driveway where a two-story, modest home was situated in a grove of tall pines and Red Maples in full bloom.
Car doors shut without words. Stevie followed Jeff and Jonas looked around.
“So,” Jonas sprinted a bit to catch up with them, “do you go to Conventry?”
“I did,” Jeff said flatly.
The three boys set up in the living room which was overlooking a hill and the venue at the Lakes not far in the distance. The family room, where the three imbibed while listening to the Rolling Stones, had floor to ceiling windows that gave way to a spectacular view in the waning daylight. A fireplace with several family pictures on the mantel caught Jonas’s attention. He began to feel like he knew this Jeff.
“So I suppose we should get going,” Jonas said to Stevie as he looked at him, then at Jeff who looked tense and twitchy.
“Oh yeah yeah we do. Hey man,” Stevie stumbled to his feet, almost losing his footing, “thank you fer the ah, umm-
“You know you guys should stay,” Jeff said, standing up with a start-a sense of disproportionate urgency. Fervent moves and sweaty cheeks set off Jonas. He could hear his mother’s voice in his head about hitchhiking.
About the mase.
About the knife.
Jonas stood and steadied Stevie by grabbing hold of his friends arm as he reached for his backpack.
“This dude here,” Jonas laughed, “always been a lightweight.”
Jeff wasn’t laughing.
“Stay it’ll be a better time here. My parents have a full bar,” Jeff, nearly pleading now, was having a tough time with their departure and felt hurt that despite his hospitality they hadn’t even asked him to come along.
Jeff was on one side of Stevie.
Jonas on the other.
“I need to fuckin piss before we go Jonas,” Stevie said laughing.
“I’ll show you the bathroom,” Jeff said.
For a moment Jonas stood in the rustic family room as he waited for Stevie to use the restroom so they could go. Jonas kept looking around him and eventually reached into his bag and grabbed his knife, opened it, and carefully placed it in his pocket as he casually put his backpack on. Jonas called out for Stevie who rounded the corner.
“Where’s Jeff,” Jonas asked, nearly panicked.
Jonas looked at Stevie’s eyes grow wide with fear and sensed Jeff's presence behind him, he felt the heat right behind him just before he went down. Jonas tried to pull his hand from his pocket and the knife cut through his jeans.
“Stevie fuckin run man run go get help,” Jonas yelled.
Jeff attempted to go after Stevie but Jonas grabbed Jeff by his jeans and he fell to the ground. They struggled and this wasn't real Jonas thought. As Jeff climbed on top of him and pinned Jonas to the ground Jonas thought of Tommy and felt bad about the shoes.
He looked up at Jeff's beatred face and called out for Stevie.
His hand felt warm and the weight of Jeff was crushing, not to mention the open eyes.
“That’s the last thing I remember,” Jonas told the officer, “his open eyes.”
“Welp,” the officer looked at Jonas and his mother, “based on what we found in the boy’s home he had some plans for you both.
“What was found?”
“Rope, hatchet, tape, few other things,” the officer said as he made notes in the file without looking up at Jonas or his mother.
“So how much trouble is Jonas in here?” his mother placed her hand on Jonas’s knee.
Jonas felt like he could lose his mind right then. None of this was real. This wasn’t happening. All he and Stevie had planned was a night of music, some good weed and maybe a shot at getting laid and now he had just killed someone. Not only that but he had gone to high school with the boy and hadn’t even met him before.
The officer held the file vertical and shuffled the papers inside all neat before setting it down and placing his palms calmly on his desk, to either side of the file.
“Jonas you’ve been bailed out for manslaughter and it looks like a clear-cut case of self-defense. Otherwise the judge wouldn’t have set ya free so dang fast but there’s still lots of questions so don’t go anywhere.”
For a moment the officer looked heavy with guilt.
“Unofficially, and Stevie’s family agrees as does, well, Stevie, you saved his life and yours Jonas. We’ve got reason to believe Jeff was adamant about doing something to Stevie and having you in the way put a stop to that.”
“What kinda something?”
“The worst kind,” the officer stood up, “you’re free to go for now and hey, off the record, you may have done something good for the world here.”
Jonas and his mother walked to the car in silence. He heard his mother talking to him. It echoed as if she were miles away. As they drove Jonas looked his himself in the mirror outside of car.
“Call Stevie when you get in Jonas.”
“Jonas we’re gunna get through this. I don’t know how but we will.”
Stopped at a red light in the darkness she turned and looked at Jonas and he looked back.
“You did a good thing, Jonas.”
The light seemed to stay red forever. Jonas looked at his mother and then back out the open window.