Posts Tagged ‘short story’

hornIt was doomed from the start, man. There had been six of us, and we were the masters of the universe, bulletproof and straight up gangster. You know the names already. What matters, what you have to understand, is that when we started that thing, we meant to do good. To be good, and to inspire others to do good, too.

We wanted what everyone else wants: respect, friends, love. We wanted to take the love to the people, to show them that there was nothing to fear, no reason to hide, that we weren’t the monsters so many of them thought we were. And for a while, it worked.

I was the face of the movement. I never bought into the whole ‘Sad Clown’ mindset; I felt that this life of mine should reflect the joy, the gleeful chaos that ensued whenever I walked into the tent. That’s what I was all about. Fucking joy, even if I wasn’t always feeling it. So there’s my mug, all happy smiles and arched eyebrows, bald cap over a bright green monk’s cowl. You know me. You’ve seen the posters and I know you watch the news.

So we would assemble, faces already in place, and we’d go in to the hospitals. Find the terminal kids and give them some laughs. That’s what most of us did, anyway. Captain Fancypants and Sparkles would slip away and find the place where they kept the good drugs, the serious narcotics, locked up. It’s not like it is now; in those days, it was just a closet, sometimes marked, sometimes not. Moe had huge pockets inside those baggy pants of his, and that son of a bitch could empty a pharmacy in seconds flat. By the time the pharmacist realized they’d been hit, we were already down the road and besides, who’d suspect a clown?

Then, and this is the important part, we’d take the drugs to the people who needed it. Not the junkies or the dealers, but the good people who were in serious pain and couldn’t afford a hospital visit or a costly prescription. Yes, we stole, but we did good with it. So much good. The problem is that the more we saw of the people in need, the angrier we got with those who held the purse strings, who kept the stuff out of the hands of the needy and in the hands of the entitled. We were like Robin Hood, but with rubber chickens instead of bow and arrow.

We eventually came to realize that the hospitals were small potatoes, that if we really wanted to make a difference, we’d have to hit the manufacturing facilities where the meds were made. So that’s what we did. I won’t bore you with the details of the plan, but it was brilliant. I thought it was, at least.

We hit the plant at midnight, figuring no one would be there. We were clowns, for Christ’s sake; what did we know about security at major pharmaceutical companies? Basic tools, nothing else, aside from the duffel bags. I had no idea that Twitch brought explosives, or why. What the fuck, why bring bangers on a night raid? I thought he’d left that behind in favor of Clown Life. Twitch always had that nervous energy about him, even when he was in makeup. Edgy, like an electrical current was running through him. So we break in through a side door, find our way to manufacturing and holy shit, there are mountains of boxes of pills, everything you could imagine, and a ton more that you couldn’t. I head straight for the antibiotics, knowing that there were folks up in the hills who needed them badly, so badly.

Working quickly, we filled our pockets and bags while Bananahead kept a lookout. The thing was, we didn’t know there was a night watchman. It wasn’t his fault. I didn’t think it was our fault either, but I know better now. These guys come through the door with flashlights in hand, maybe with guns drawn or maybe not, and the whole damn thing went sideways. Bananahead loses his shit and starts yelling about power to the people and fuck the system, like we’re the goddamn Weathermen or something, despite us all being in our goddamn clown suits. The guards didn’t know what the hell to do. They were laughing, but at the same time they knew something was wrong because it’s the middle of the damn night in a drug company warehouse and there’s five goddamn clowns screaming at him, screaming at each other, and then one of the clowns pulls a giant lighter out of his pants and sparks the fuse on a stick of dynamite and next thing you know, there’s blood all over the place and the night is wrecked, just fucking wrecked. It’s gone to shit, like Reservoir Dogs in greasepaint.

We’re standing there in a daze, and the poor security guards are dead, so obviously and violently dead, and scattered all over the place, Bananahead is covered in blood and gore, and Captain Fancypants is sitting on the floor, head in hands, weeping and sobbing like a baby and next thing I know, the night is filled with the screaming of sirens. The door is kicked in and suddenly Twitch is just gone, his head explodes in a spray of pink and red, and Sparkles is thrown backward by the force of a shotgun blast and then it’s just me, all the rest are dead, and all the guns are pointed at me, and they’re all shouting and all I can do is stand there, shit-the-pants terrified, but this goddamn smile painted on my face makes them think I’m getting off on this and I’m shouting and they’re shouting, and when I try to take a step my shoe squeaks and I slip in a puddle of someone’s blood and land on my ass, which sets off the whoopee cushion and I realize then that it’s all over, that my life’s work is ended, my passion dead, because of this.This hopeless, stupid mess.

I wanted to help people. I wanted to spread laughter and hope. I’m lost. My friends are dead, and I’m going to prison for a long time, the big vacation, and for a moment, everything stops and I’m reminded what my old friend and mentor, Dingles, told me, so many years ago.

“Kid, no matter what you do,” he said, dead serious with the stink of grain alcohol on his breath. “Don’t ever do no shit that’ll end you up behind bars. Bad things happen to a clown in jail. Permanent things, awful things. Trust me, I know.” He had shivered at the recollection, and a silent tear had slid down his painted face. He didn’t think people could see when he cried, and most couldn’t. But I could, every goddamn time. No one hurts quite like a clown.

I can’t go to prison, I know I won’t survive, that no mercy is shown for Red Nosers like me. I have no choice, this is my destiny, right here, right now. I say when is when and enough is enough. Looking back, I never had a chance; this life, clown life, chose me from the very start. This is who I am, what I am. I pull my knife and slash my own throat, real fast. The spray erupts from me like seltzer from a bottle. As the life drains out of me, I hear the cops laughing.

Life is good.

happiness-07All along the boardwalk, happy people and happy families wandered, enjoying the warm late summer sunshine that carried with it the faint but unmistakable light of the approaching autumn. The air was saturated with the smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels, and children scampered around their parents, playfully shrieking with the sense of unfettered freedom that only comes with the very young, a freedom that would be lost soon enough to the vagaries of adulthood. The parents knew this, as all adults do, and quietly mourned the loss of innocence that would one day fall upon their children, as surely as it had fallen upon them.

Music rang out softly from cleverly concealed speakers; 70s pop from bands whose names few remembered, but lyrics everyone knew, their contagious catchiness declaring with anthemic earnestness that happiness was only a heartbeat away, just one more kiss away, that her magical spell was working so well, and that all would be right on a Saturday night. A slight breeze off the ocean wafted past the revelers as they took in the sights and the sounds of one last weekend before the weather turned.

The town’s autumns were its best kept secret; known locally as “Second Summer,” it was the delicate span of two to three weeks after labor day, when all the tourists had gone back home, and the town again belonged to those who lived and worked there. The pace slowed, rules relaxed a bit, and a cheerful glow enveloped the strand along the beach. This was the time in which, as if by communal agreement, nothing happened, as per the unwritten code of the tourist towns across the country. In the absence of Them, all that remained was Us.

Hands held, arms around waists, moving at a pace that spoke of neither hurry nor worry, everyone just happy and content to be here, to be sharing the quiet joy of Fall, and even if something was lightly fouling the air, a faint whiff of what, decay maybe, it would pass soon enough and be as quickly forgotten. Except that to some, the smell was growing stronger, more pungent. More wrong.

A gasp arose from somewhere in the crowd, the sound repeating as others turned to see, a susurration of shock whose echo grew louder, instead of diminishing. Children cried, their mothers and fathers drawing them close with iron-gripped hands, shielding their eyes from what they had already seen, could never un-see, their childhoods crashing down around them like milk bottles in a rigged carnival game. The throng of people parted, not unlike the Red Sea, at the sight of the woman among them.

The woman, if she could even be called that anymore.

She staggered along the promenade, this ruined wreck of a human being, oblivious to the multitude staring at her. Barefoot, shambling toward an unknown destination, each step leaving a bloody smear on the ground, gangrenous toes the dark purple-green of putrefaction, the hem of her tattered sweatpants as filthy as the feet beneath them, the knees torn through and crusted with dried blood, suggesting a lifetime spent on her knees; a torn, sleeveless cardigan hung open, making no secret of the nakedness behind it, the awful, shameless bruising and open sores weeping sickly yellow pus and blood, and the arms, the terrible arms with countless scratches and scars, suggesting that she might have been a cutter, but even worse, much worse than that, were the blackened track marks that flowed down from the crooks of each arm, the wounds that had never closed, homemade tattoos unidentifiable now but staining the flesh for ever more.

But the left arm, it must have been a trick of the light, certainly that if nothing else, because the left forearm…the skin was rotting away, the radius and ulna brownish-white and exposed like a dirty secret for all the world to see, ragged flaps of desiccated skin and tendons hanging loosely, hardly any meat to cling to, just empty air, the hand, if indeed it was a hand, flopping limply at her side and wrapped in a towel soiled and dripping, no tissue to give it life, to give it motion. As the horror of the arm attempted to lodge itself in the minds of those who saw it, they were powerless as their eyes went to her face, which was perhaps the worst of all.

Her hair, which may once have been strawberry blond, was a dirty, matted mess, hanging in her face, but not enough to cover it, not nearly enough, for her face was a tattered roadmap of self-hatred and abuse of many types. Blood vessels had bust like fireworks in one eye, leaving the sclera red and angry, while the other eye, its pupil dilated, wandered about, searching everything, focusing on nothing, blood leaking like awful tears from the depths of a hell beyond comprehension, her nose partially eaten away, scarcely more than a diseased crater in the middle of her face, yellow-green snot hanging in thick ropes, her occasional sniffles doing nothing to stem the tide of mucus running into and out of the hole where once had been a mouth, where once had been strong, white teeth, but now was home to rotting, ragged stumps of black and brown, lips chewed to shreds as though incredible pain had been sustained.

Her shoulders slumped, betraying any sense of height, and such was her appearance that her own mother, had she been there that day, would have failed to recognize her. The woman’s ruination was so complete, so absolute, that nothing of her humanity remained. Dragging a leprous foot behind her, she slouched onward, humming a song to herself, a discordant but familiar tune, so quietly that none of those nearest her, who cleared a broad path, could have heard it. Had they chanced approaching this malignant, walking nightmare, they might have learned something about her, but none there on that awful day were willing to cross the line between caution and foolishness which, as it turned out, made no difference whatsoever.

The sniffling got louder and she stopped in her tracks, body shuddering and trembling as though current was passing through it. Suddenly, explosively, she sneezed, the force of it doubling her over and as phlegm spattered the horrified faces around her, the sneeze caused her to violently void her bowels, a vile torrent of toxic shit staining her pants and cascading down her leg.

Screams erupted as those covered in her mess caught the smell, as though all they had seen had been abstract until they were spattered in her filth, that they were shocked back into reality. As the people scattered and ran, frantically clutching their children, the woman coughed slightly and pitched forward, her swollen, distended abdomen disgorging an impossible amount of black bile onto the ground, her face landing in the puddle of vomit. With death, the last of her muscles gave way, and a reeking lake of dark waste soon surrounded her, her wretched destruction complete.

In the distance, a siren wailed. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, the woman’s purpose had been served; the poison that had exploded from her orifices and leaked from her pores, had reached nearly every soul on the boardwalk with absolute efficiency.

It had begun.

Cellar LightWe had to put Gramma in the cellar. We told ourselves it was for her safety, which was easier than admitting it was for our own.

Her ‘spells’ had been coming on more often, and with greater…passion. I guess that’s the word for it. There was no talking to her then, once she got it in her head that she was, well, once she got it in her head, is all.

We’d considered the attic, but there were too many chances for problems. She could have fallen or jumped out a window. Neighbors (not that there were many left) could have seen her up there and called the authorities, in some noble but misguided effort to help a crazy old lady they didn’t understand. And honestly, the noise wasn’t as bad when she was in the cellar. Call it callous, call it selfish, but you don’t understand. You can’t understand.

So yes, we decided, as a family, to put her down there. Because we couldn’t control her anymore. Because we love her. Because we deserve some goddamn peace. How the hell were we supposed to know what would happen? I built a bed, a solid pine bed, just for her. I sank the posts two feet deep into the earth of the cellar, so she couldn’t move it around. We put down a nice rug and made sure no drafts could get in.

She wanted her candles, but we knew better. Pa ran some basic electric down there, so she could have light to read her Reader’s Digest and bible stories, and we made sure to take her meals down every day. A hefty lock on the door helped us sleep at night. Routine settled in.

Days turned to weeks, then months and seasons rolled by, and we almost began to believe we were a normal family again. Except when Gramma had one of her spells. During those times, Pa and I dutifully took the van for the four-hour round trip up to the city, to fetch a playmate for Gramma. A playmate, for God’s sake. There wasn’t enough craziness in our heads to call it what it really was, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. Because it was the crazy that kept us afloat, kept us from coming completely unglued, kept us from calling the authorities, kept us from admitting that we were doing bad things. Really bad things.

That’s the power of family: It kept you doing things you knew were wrong, knew were bad, because there’s this bond that says family is more important than anything else. So you abide, and God only knows the depths to which you’ll sink to preserve that goddamn bond, even if it drives you to do the Devil’s work. Damn our souls.

So yeah, we took the van to town, and cruised skid row, looking for some poor drunk with one foot already in the grave. It’s a public service, we’d tell ourselves in the quiet, dark parts of the night. We’re helping those poor souls on the road to salvation. Because what they had to endure, we desperately hoped God would show them mercy, just as we knew He would have no mercy on us. We deserved no mercy, no salvation; we’d damned ourselves from the outset, booked our passage to hell because of family.

Gramma had come from the old country, making the passage across the ocean in the windowless hold of a wooden ship, with hundreds of others, all piled atop one another, with not enough room for all to sleep at the same time, taking shifts standing while others lay on raised planks, the floor covered in vomit, piss, and shit, all for the sake of escaping to the Promised Land, enduring Hell on earth as shipmates died from exposure, pneumonia, infection, beatings, and God knows what else, while those that lived choked on the stench of death and sewage in the hot, rolling chaos of the ship’s steerage hold. Food was scarce, causing some to shatter long-held taboos out of desperation.

Occasionally, a mate would open a hatch in the deck, allowing sunlight to stream in, fresh sea air mingling with the unspeakable reek emanating from below deck. When land was finally sighted, the dead were gathered up and unceremoniously dumped overboard, their tattered clothing and meager possessions long gone to the wretched horde, half-insane in the darkness of the hold.

Out of this waking nightmare came Gramma, not knowing that even then she was carrying the sickness in her gut like a despised parasite. Even at her tender young age, she came out of the darkness and brought with her a viciousness that few would ever live to see, and fewer still would ever believe.

Gramma, in her better days, would tell us her story, over and over, like a record stuck in a groove, as though we’d never heard it before, wanting us to understand the sacrifices she’d made, the things she’d had to do, to provide for us, to give us a chance in this place. To make us understand that we were beholden to her, forevermore.

So Pa and I would find a lost soul and bring it home. Send it down the cellar stairs, where we assured it that there would be food and drink, and a warm, safe bed. Our challenge was to get the door closed and bolted before the screaming started. Before the wet, tearing sounds found their way to our ears and burrowed into our souls, an ironclad guarantee of a sleepless night, fraught with images best left to a slaughterhouse.

Later, after Gramma’s hunger was sated and she was asleep, we would descend the stairs with the buckets and clean up what remained, thankful for the earthen floor of the cellar, into which the blood and other fluids had seeped, which fed an army of beetles and worms that kept Gramma fed and satisfied until the next time she had one of her spells.

I tried not to look at Gramma; we’d given up on trying to keep her clothed ages ago. Anything we tried to put on her would end up stained and shredded, as though the fabric on her skin was a sacrilege she couldn’t abide. The sight of her, covered in sores and filth, made my heart ache, despite the monstrous things she did. Her skin sagged, a testament to her years, its elasticity long since lost to the brutality of gravity and time. She stank of a dangerous musk that ran deeper than simply an aversion to bathing; though alive, a pervasiveness of decay floated about her like a dark and awful cloud. Stray teeth, blackened and jagged, glistened when she licked them with the remains of her tongue, chewed upon so much and so often that it had given up any hope of regrowth.

The madness of Gramma had forced Ma to flee while I was still a child, her teary eyes beseeching us to run with her, far from the grasp of Gramma, all the while knowing we would never, could never, leave her, not until the old woman died, which wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She’d already passed her one hundredth birthday, and seemed hell-bent on outliving all of us, despite the sickness that had ravaged her brain.

Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop her, short of a silver bullet,” Ma had wept, her breath hitching in her chest on that last night, rain coursing down her face as she stood in the doorway, taxi idling a few yards away. I remember her eyes then, soft and pleading, heartbroken and miserable, hating herself for the abandonment, but determined not to fall under the wheels of this inherited madness.

Those words resonated in my mind down the years that followed, as I scoured the land around our property for metals, slowly finding bits and pieces of what I sought, knowing that I could simply steal what I needed, but knowing too that, despite all the wrong I had done for the sake of Gramma, I couldn’t do the one wrong that might deliver us from her. By and by, I’d put together enough to melt down, the last of it coming from a small crucifix I’d found on the roadside, its tiny Christ shedding tears of pain and joy in his last torturous hours on this earth. I shaped the blob of metal carefully, burning my fingers time and again as I bled to make it absolutely perfect, leaving part of myself in it, as if a sacrifice was demanded as a means to this particular end. I carefully tapped the slug into a brass casing, already set with gunpowder and primer in place.

While Pa slept fitfully upstairs, I retrieved his rifle from the hiding place he didn’t know I knew about, and made for the cellar. Before opening the door, I racked my bullet into the chamber. I descended the stairs carefully and quietly, so as not to disturb Gramma.

Who is that?” she grunted, her words slurred, as if she weren’t accustomed to using the language, instead recalling it from distant memory.

It’s me, Gramma,” I said quietly, keeping myself in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see the rifle or, at the very least, not know what it was. “Just come down to tell you we’re making dinner. It’ll be here soon.”

You’re a good boy, Henry,” she said, her voice taking on a timbre and tone that I’d not heard in ages, sounding much like it did before she got so bad. Through my tears, I knew it was a trick of my mind, not to be taken seriously or given any semblance of meaning. Because while I knew I was doing the right thing, there was a still, small voice inside of me that thought I was doing bad, committing evil, despite the evil I sought to put down.

You abide by family no matter what, the voice said. At the end of it, family’s all you have. This was Gramma’s voice, echoing down the years. I knew its refrain by heart, and yet it caused tears to well up in my eyes as I shouldered the rifle.

I love you, Gramma,” I said quietly, my teary eyes sighting down the barrel, my finger on the trigger. I gently squeezed the trigger, just as I’d been taught.

The shot rang huge in my ears as the rifle’s recoil slammed it into my shoulder, instantly numb and deaf. Gramma slumped against the wall of the cellar, legs askew with no inclination toward modesty, the right side of her head blown to vapor, and I watched the last dim light leave her cataract-clouded eyes. A voice from the doorway above broke the silence.

You did good, son,” Pa said, his voice calm, without a trace of judgment or sorrow.

I watched our house burn from the rear window of the van as we drove away, into the cold light of a new day, the road stretched out in front of us.

Somewhere out there, I knew, Ma waited for us.