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By Joshua Kraus
When the news said that a whole bunch of people got killed at the same time in the same place by the same person, Kora’s first thought was of Wade. Her stomach coiled and she felt like she’d swallowed boiling soup. Images came unbidden, not of butchered bodies or weeping loved ones but of empty rooms, silent houses, cold nights. All this before she remembered Wade was right there, nodding off on her lap, his closed eyes like pale sea shells half-buried in the sand. She brushed his soft hair back the way they did in the movies and ached to be him in that moment. Oblivious. Small. Cherished and feared for. And there she was again, struck with the totality of how much love there was to gamble.
At first they were describing the incident as a “really extremely bad thing that happened which is really very bad,” but someone must have finally dusted off an encyclopedia and discovered the term “mass murder,” and from then on it was mass murder this and mass murder that, and Kora tried changing the channel but the same report blared on all of them. Turns out it all happened at Rusty’s Red Hot Roadhouse, Slow Zone Three’s one and only throwback diner/tax exempt house of worship. Drool smeared on Kora’s pant leg as she pulled Wade closer. Kora worked at the Roadhouse. And before the news anchor could say his name she knew who the killer was. The Ice Man. Of course it was the Ice Man.
The Ice Man came to Rusty’s Red Hot Roadhouse every few days between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. sporting a grimy denim jumpsuit and shrunken blue toque that grew on his bald head like rampant mold. He was either 35 or 60 and they called him the Ice Man because he always ordered a glass of ice right when he sat down. If the ice in the Ice Man’s glass melted before he received his Rusty’s Rock ‘n Roll Ribeye, which he always ordered well-done despite Rusty’s strong recommendation it be cooked medium-rare and served with a side of Rusty’s Red Hot Taters for just an extra $2.99, he would storm out.
The Ice Man liked to sit in the booth closest to the bathrooms because the opening and closing of the bathroom doors would squeeze out a rolling cloud of shit vapor with a soft whoof that clung to the Ice Man like an aura, and he could then complain to Kora about what a repulsive decaying whore-infested slime pit she worked in, and reprimand her for the terrible life choices she must have made in order to arrive at such a shameful interlude.
He also sat at this booth because it was situated on the side of the restaurant opposite the entrance, so that if the service was too slow, which thanks to his booby trapped criteria it often was, he could then make a great point of angrily crossing the entire length of the restaurant while shaking his head and moaning like a boy who had just walked in on his parents fucking.
The news anchor was now calling it the “Roadhouse Massacre” and seemed pleased with himself every time he described the Ice Man as “cold-blooded.” Action movie music played in the background as the anchor, trying hard not to giggle, explained that the shooter, one Joseph “the Ice Man” Galbraith, had fled the scene and was currently at large and his whereabouts were unknown and if that wasn’t clear enough, he yelled “He could be anywhere! No one is safe!”
The broadcast cut to a computer simulation of that evening’s events where a cackling red-eyed mutant was blowing patron’s heads off with something that looked like a tree trunk and slitting throats using a furry clawed appendage. A ticker at the bottom of the screen informed Kora that because this was a rendering of a verified and documented act of human on human aggression, and its sole purpose was to accurately relay vital information to the viewing public for their safety and wellbeing, it did not violate the Anti-Blood, Anti-Fluids, Anti-Visible Bone Fragments, or Anti-Incongruously Arranged Internal Organs Enforcement Acts of the NCC, but that recording and disseminating this broadcast could result in harsh penalties such as repossession of land and property, loss of all Slow Zone privileges, and even public shaming via eyebrow removal and/or other unconventional body modifications.
The anchor returned looking like he’d just won a carnival prize and proceeded to describe the Ice Man as “psychotic” and “a bad tipper” and “horribly misinformed as to what constitutes appropriate dining behavior.” The action movie music kicked back in, waking Wade, and soon he was scampering back and forth shouting “the Ice Man’s gonna ice ya!” and Kora, doing her best to calm him down, was grateful that her job paid just enough so that she could afford an UnPlugged apartment.
It occurred to Kora that she should probably call Julie, another waitress at Rusty’s, who, when she wasn’t chewing Rusty’s ear about how Kora’s tits were abnormally perky and that she, Julie, should maybe see like a small percentage of Kora’s tips due to this unfair and completely out-of-her-control disadvantage that she tried so so hard to make up for by dropping three dress sizes and giving guys extra Rusty’s Rip-Roarin Remoulade for free, was sort of Kora’s friend, and see if she was dead or not. She dialed.
“You’re alive then.”
Someone yelled on Julie’s end.
“It’s Kora…KORA! What?…Kora Rusty says you need to get down here right now OK?”
“You’re at the restaurant?”
“Just get here.”
“I took the day, Julie. I’ve got—my nephew is here.”
“C’mon Kora, I’m just the messenger.”
“I can’t, really I can’t.”
“Kora baby, it’s Rusty. What gives huh? Thought you’d have seen the news and come straight here out of concern for your comrades in arms.”
“Rusty, it’s just that I took the day. My nephew—there’s no one to watch him.”
“Baby, I need you to shut up for a minute cause it seems that you’re not quite grasping the magnitude of this evening’s entertainment, which is an odd mental whoopsie daisy for you Kora, as you’re usually On. Top. Of. It. in the brain department. But I’ll just attribute your momentary absent-mindedness to tonight’s sudden imbalance of positively and negatively charged ions and a completely illogical moon, so I’ll dice this up into bite size pieces. OK, ready? Here we go."
“First mass murder in 80 years, Kora. That’s eight decades, four-fifths of a century, the complete life-cycle of a river-dwelling hawkweed plant, and it happened in our place of business. Key word being business. So no time to daddle or diddle or water one’s geraniums because Rusty needs bodies. Got it baby?”
“But isn’t it a crime scene?”
He had hung up.
And how quickly Kora saw the future. First slamming the phone into the receiver and screaming into a pillow. Then Wade following suit, thinking it was a game. She saw the neighbors startle, then grow frightened, thinking the worst, thinking that they, in this tightly packed apartment complex, might be mistaken for the source of this Audible Aggression. Saw these neighbors calling patrol on Kora to get out in front of the whole mess. Saw the patrollers bust in and do a little digging. Saw everything fall apart.
She closed her eyes and tried not to think too hard about anything. Especially not about how she’d have to leave Wade here alone, again, and give him a Mr. Silly’s Sleepy Time Bye Bye capsule that would also monitor serotonin levels in his cerebrospinal fluid and pump in reinforcements if things got too low. A week ago she would have dropped Wade at Howie’s in 3B and promised sweet old Howie that she’d make it up to him—a promise she now made out of habit more than a persuasive tactic as Howie had grown to love Wade, and her, but then sweet old Howie found out that thing that nobody was really supposed to find out about, and he stopped answering his door. Kora slid a couple skin pics Rusty had taken of her back when she was first trying out for the Roadhouse under Howie’s door with a note that said “It’s better in person.” When that went unanswered she wrote another note saying “Wade misses you,” then another saying “I miss you,” and then finally “Wade misses you, I miss you, I did what I had to.”
The anchor had taken a break from the Roadhouse Massacre and was now happily reporting on a group of youths who were breaking into hospitals and pissing in elderly patients’ IVs. She shut it off before they could show another computer simulation, got a Sleepy Time Bye Bye from the kitchen, and mushed it into a spoonful of peanut butter. Wade scampered over and bit down on the spoon too hard and started crying and thrashing about. “Hush my love,” she whispered. “Hush now.”
The patrollers outside the Roadhouse let her through, but they wouldn’t remove any of the crime scene tape when she asked, so she had to do a lot of bending at the waist and stepping over, which, in a tie-back halter top and mini scrunch skirt, was, she guessed, the whole reason why they hadn’t bothered removing the tape in the first place. She supposed she could get Rusty to tell them off. One call to his sheriff friend and they’d be battered and deep-fried. A little lesson for little boys. But Kora pushed the thought away. A petty retribution. There would always be some other, bigger injustice to cash in that favor for.
“Kora, that you baby?”
Rusty was hanging around the front doors watching Jesse and Juan up on ladders drilling and hammering at the neon “Rusty’s Red Hot Roadhouse” sign. He waved her over.
“Apologies for telling you to shut up before, I just needed you to shut up that’s all.” He bent to kiss her forehead with sweaty lips. She didn’t flinch. “Ah there’s lot’s to do baby lot’s to do. People lose interest in these things real quick you know. I need you to go in and help Julie and Cece, they’re doing the menus. I got the family on cleanup duty, but if you catch them using any solvents on the walls you tell them to quit it and come get me.” Rusty jerked his narrow head over his shoulder as if he were trying to catch them in the act. “They know not to fuck with the walls. I want them preserved exactly ok? I woulda had Leon handle it but he got hit real bad.”
“How many dead, Rusty?”
He told her not to worry about it baby.
It was dark inside the Roadhouse but then she saw how all the floodlights were covered in blood spatter, dimming the room to the color of a dying bed of embers, and she realized she had never seen so much red, not even when she was a child living with her parents in Slow Zone Five, where at that time the NCC’s pigment restrictions of burgundy and amaranth and vermillion were poorly regulated thanks to Sheriff Duckett and his unquenchable lust for mulled wine and strawberry pie.
Here blood and ichor defaced every surface like giant popped zits while half-chewed bits of meat congealed on tablecloths. Two boys with greasy blond hair and oversized Rusty’s Red Hot Roadhouse tees ran by Kora brandishing blood-soaked mops while a big woman in dirty overalls, Rusty’s wife Naomi, skidded to and fro spraying air freshener with the random zealotry of someone trying to zap a fly.
Kora surveyed the destruction and, to her horror, found herself smiling. Not the kind of smile that follows a joke or compliment; certainly not the kind roused by joy or victory. This was the smile of someone running into a crowd of people after having been chased through a dark alley by a killer. She tried to suppress it, tried to rearrange her face into something an onlooker might deconstruct as mournful, but the smile bobbed up like a stubborn buoy. Everything here was just so enormous and new. So essential. The shock of it filled her and licked at her insides and then trying to take it all in was like using a napkin to soak up a lake and she felt dizzy and sick with the weight of it.
“Cece did the same thing when she came in,” Julie called from the bar.
“I did what?” Cece said.
“Grinned like a big idiot.”
“Where are the…” Kora didn’t have the word.
“Corpses?” Julie offered. “Patrol hauled them off. Rusty put up such a fight that they let him snap a couple photos though. Juan’s brother’s gonna frame them.”
Kora went to sit on a barstool. “I heard Leon got shot.”
“He’s dead I think,” Julie said. “So is Alphonso and Dion and most likely Gretchen.”
“And most likely Gretchen,” Cece said. “Kora, it was nuts, OK? So I’m over at 5C taking orders when I hear a bunch of glass break and I look over and the Ice Man is standing on his table and kicking everything onto the floor and people are staring at him like he’s doing a magic trick or something. See we know the Ice Man right, so we know he’s crazy, but the customers don’t, not really. So they’re all with their mouths open and waiting to see what he’ll do next and I just run behind Piggy Penny Number Three cause I just know it’s not gonna end in rainbows right. I get there and the piggies start squealing and my guy from 5C points to one of the louder ones, Bella I think, and says he wants a full slab from her cause she’s got healthy lungs, but I duck behind the fence so I’m safe. Then I see the Ice Man pull out this thing from his shorts and he’s shouting that it’s called a shotgun and it’s a homemade historical replica which means it doesn’t violate any NCC legislation—which it totally does by the way, Julie looked it up—and that means nobody can legally touch him until an actual bullet actually leaves the barrel and actually penetrates another human body with actual deadly force. Then he starts shooting. I get up later and he’s gone. A bunch of people were dead. Some still alive and making choking sounds. The guy who wanted the full slab was getting his face chewed off by Bella. Then Rusty’s here calling patrol and the newspapers at the same time. He tells us to wash up and then puts us on menu duty.”
Julie said oh god. Cece said it’s a mad world. Kora stayed silent, her eyes lost in their cages. Julie waved her hand in front of Kora’s face and snapped her fingers.
“C’mon, Kora. This ain’t no time to daddle or diddle, we got shit to do.”
“It’s probably her kid,” Cece said to Julie. “She’s probably thinking about all the kids who died here, which makes her think about her own dead kid, which makes her sad. Because of her kid. Her dead kid.”
“He’s not dead,” Julie assured her. “I’m telling you that’s not what they do with removals. Now is he castrated? Probably. Is he—”
“I was thinking about all the steps he skipped,” Kora blurted. “The Ice Man I mean. How he went from cheaping out on bills to executing people with a homemade whatever you said, and there was no build up, you know?” The other two girls exchanged looks of mutual confusion.
“You get what I mean right? He skipped a step, or a hundred steps. A normal person can’t make that jump. It’s too far. There has to be some order to it. A progression. Cause and effect cause and effect cause and effect until boom, you fall off the edge.”
Julie sneered. “Kora, you’re not making any sense.”
“I’m just saying that’s why nothing like this ever happens. All those little points you have to hit along the way, each one a little bigger than the last—they don’t let you reach them anymore. Not in the Slow Zones at least. Only someone whose brain is inside out can skip all those steps. Can skip right to the end.”
Cece’s face was all screwed up like she was trying to look through backwards binoculars. Julie kept a wry little grin tucked into a corner of her mouth. Suddenly Kora felt like she had let slip an embarrassing secret. She jumped up and clapped her hands like a cheerleader. “So what’s next then?”
Julie cleared her throat. “Menus, baby.”
Cece seemed to brighten, then asked if anyone had a good murdery adjective to describe sausage.
“We’re Sammy’s Slaughterhouse Saloon now,” Julie explained. “Rusty says most of the menu items should start with 's.' Rusty is Sammy now actually. We’re supposed to be calling him that, I keep forgetting.”
They ended up keeping most of the original menu items but rewording the descriptions. Rusty’s Reeeeediculous Rigatoni was now Sammy’s Slayin Spaghetti. Rusty’s Radical Rabbit Stew was now Sammy’s Shoot ‘Em Dead Stewed Rabbit. They worked while glaziers and plastermolders and audiotechs scurried after Sammy as he crisscrossed the room pointing at different parts of the restaurant and saying what needed to be done and by when.
Kora looked at the time and realized that if the Sleepy Time Bye Byes hadn’t knocked Wade out already, it would be his bedtime soon, so she mumbled something about the bathroom and slipped into Sammy’s office to call home. After three rings Wade picked up sounding woozy. She told him to get into her bed if he wasn’t already and close his eyes and when he opened them again she would be there. He said he was scared of the Ice Man, and then something else about Howie that she couldn’t quite make out.
“You’re safe as a coconut my love,” she said.
“But, Momma, the Ice Man is strong.”
“Not strong enough to hurt us, no way.”
“I do. Are your eyes closed yet, my love?”
A jovial looking audiotech kicked down the office door and ripped the phone cord out of the wall while explaining to Kora that Sammy had ordered fifteen new speakers installed throughout various locations in the restaurant to sporadically play recordings of gun shots and screaming females, and unfortunately these new speakers had to be interconnected via a complex wiring system that would interfere with the landlines, which would subsequently have to be moved to the basement.
“That was my nephew I was talking to,” Kora said, more to herself than the audiotech. “He’s scared and alone.”
“I’m sorry about that miss, but hey, it’s important for kiddies to learn the relationship between different types of electrical audio signal inputs and that within our current understanding of physics, two fiber optic cables of relatively equal size cannot occupy the same space simultaneously. This sudden inconvenience may be disheartening for you, but it has provided your nephew an opportunity for positive mental advancement, that is, if you wish to perceive it in such a way.”
She wanted to wrap the phone cord around his neck and pull it till he shit himself. Instead she said thank you.
Naomi was balanced precariously atop a step stool so she could rub Sammy’s shoulders while he stood and addressed the diminished staff. The Roadhouse had been going downhill for months, he said, due to internal sabotage and a convergence of sudden misfortunes that were quite beyond the sphere of his control. Sammy touched on the loss of their prized mechanical bull Winky, and the mysterious embezzler who had never been caught but was probably Leon and too bad he was now dead and could never be questioned. Then there was the pending lawsuit of Mrs. Wilcox, who blamed Rusty’s gaggle of scantily clad vixens for her husband’s infidelity, their divorce, and his eventual suicide. At the mention of Mrs. Wilcox Cece suddenly seemed not to know where to put her hands, and eventually sat on them.
“And just when I was about ready to throw myself naked and sniffling at the big fat hand that feeds and say ‘it’s over man, it’s done, I’m yours to spend however you like,’ the Ice Man comes in here and splits the fucking earth open, and suddenly the right things are in the wrong places and the wrong things are in the right places and out we come, the holy redeemers, punished and filthy and exploding with grace. Huh hah!” Sammy looked up for a moment, his face serene, his head rocking back and forth as if he was being showered with sacramental fluids.
“I guess we should all take a moment to mourn the heinous events of this evening,” he continued, “and acknowledge the heavy losses inflicted upon us by the Ice Man, that animal. We remember Leon and Dion and Alphonso, and most likely Gretchen, plus the other twenty-seven loyal paying customers who tragically met their bloody and occasionally dismembered end in this very room.” He took a breath, then turned to his boys. “But are their deaths in vain?”
They stared dumbly, then remembered and shouted “NO!” in unison.
“Do we honor them?”
“And how do we honor them?”
“By building Sammy’s Slaughterhouse Saloon!”
“Yessirs you got it ding ding ding! This here is a tragedy, but also an opportunity. An opportunity to find our way back into the good graces of the lord and the state collection agency and the generous dining public. As of this moment, we are Sammy’s Slaughterhouse Saloon, an historic landmark providing a one-of-a-kind dining experience that’s both thrilling and educational and most-likely fantastically profitable. We open tomorrow!”
The blond boys clapped and whistled and Naomi got down from the ladder and passed out sheets of paper with the headline “Sammy’s Slaughterhouse Saloon’s New 100% Mandatory Codes of Conduct.” Soon Kora learned that by tomorrow she needed to be able to violently weep on command, recite the profound final words of at least four dying customers, and eloquently describe in vivid detail the sound the Ice Man’s bullets made as they ripped through flesh, the smell of expiring bodies, and what it felt like when the Ice Man groped her and exposed himself to her and finally decided to spare her life before shooting her lover, Leon, in the face and running out the back door.
When Kora got into bed Wade’s eyelids flickered and she hugged him close until dawn. He woke smiling with drool on his chin and asked, as he had done every morning for the past three months, if he was going to school today.
“Not just yet,” she answered. “You’re still on vacation!”
He pulled away from her. “I don’t like vacation anymore. Why can’t I go to school?”
Ask Howie, she thought. He knows.
Kora always drank when she went to thank Howie for taking care of Wade. He was a sweet man but old and sad and his body had an unsettling texture that she associated with the former inhabitants of the Roadhouse’s Piggy Pennies. Well one night, after Wade fell asleep, she went to Howie just completely flying on white wine and when it was over she staggered to the bathroom and noticed for the first time a small painting of a child hung above the sink. It was his, Howie said. Howard Jr. This was a long time ago, back when they didn’t begin inspections until later, when kids were usually around eight years old.
“Still,” Howie said. “I thought I’d have more time with him. To get him ready.”
“What happened?” She asked even though she knew.
He said Howard Jr. was beautiful, shy, a real honest-to-goodness up-and-comer. But he’d have fits, usually once every few weeks. He’d writhe on the floor and scratch at Howie and sometimes draw blood. It wasn’t a medical issue, just the way he was. Howie thought he could get lucky though, that the inspections would take place on one of the twenty-nine odd days out of the month when Howard Jr. was the poster child for mental stability. Obviously that didn’t happen, he said. They came in the morning and Howard Jr. had a fit right as they were walking out the door. Patrol came the next day and removed him. Worrisome Aggressive Activity, he believed was their official reasoning.
Then he asked Kora what she was going to do with Wade, the boy he’d grown to love. Wade’s inspection was nearing and Wade could be...excitable. Howie looked so frightened just then, so helpless, remembering his own son, fearing for her’s. Kora thought if Wade ever got taken away she wouldn’t be the only person it would kill. And at that moment she wanted nothing more than to make Howie understand that it was going to be alright. Because he’d been good to her and Wade. He’d been good when no one else had.
“You don’t have to worry,” she told him. “I fixed it.”
“What do you mean?”
“They came early,” Kora said. “A few months ago. Hush Howie, hush, it’s alright it’s alright. They came and they won’t be coming back. I fixed it. And I was smart about it. Careful.”
“He passed then? No outbursts? Kora they’re not so easy to fool! They’ll come back, maybe when you’re not even home. They’ll come back and remove him!”
She could still taste the wine on her tongue, could still feel Howie’s hand clutching hers as he accepted the gift of her body with his customary disbelief. She wasn’t threatened with the idea of him knowing. Actually, she felt freed by it. It was like showing someone a scar that made you ugly, but that was won during a noble battle.
“I told you I fixed it Howie. Wade’s excitable, yes, especially around new people, and when they came he...got a bit carried away, but—”
“No Howie it’s alright it’s alright. Listen. They marked him for removal, and I knew they’d come the next day, so I took a trip to the Gutters. I found this—this boy. He looked right. I asked if he had family. Of course not. I asked if he was hungry. Of course he was. I brought him to the apartment and hid Wade in the crawl space behind the dresser. And they came the next morning. And that was that.”
Howie sat motionless, his jaw tight, his eyes daring hers to look away.
“You did not,” he said as if he were correcting her.
“I had to Howie, and now you see don’t you? You see that everything’s been taken care of right? That Wade is safe. We’ll never lose him.”
“No Kora. No. What you did, I can’t, it isn’t—”
“Wade is all that matters my sweet Howie. Don’t you see -”
“Monster,” he barked. “Monster. Monster! MONSTER!”
His words drove her from the room.
Wade was looking out the window as Kora got dressed. He told her he’d had bad dreams where the Ice Man killed Howie. He told her he missed Howie and he missed school. He told her he didn’t like peanut butter anymore. She put a Sleepy Time Bye Bye in a spoonful of applesauce this time, and on her way out she knocked on Howie’s door again. She didn’t have a note this time so she pressed the side of her face next to the peephole and pretended he was on the other side, listening.
She said she loved him, not in the way he wanted, but because of how he was with Wade, and that she was sorry it wasn’t the other way, but she’d marry him if he asked. She said again how much Wade missed him, and pleaded that he consider returning to their lives, or Wade’s life if not hers, and if he could try hard to remember how things were before he learned what he learned, and how things hadn’t changed, not really.
When she was done she saw that tears had wet her cheek and left a smudge twinkling on the wood. She went to work.
As expected, the Roadhouse Massacre had made all the papers, so the ads Sammy had smartly purchased the night before (Grand Opening of Sammy’s Slaughterhouse Saloon: Home of the Infamous Ice Man Murders - A Dining Experience That Cuts To The Heart!) were printed next to photos of sobbing children and sprawled corpses blanketed with dirty napkins.
By lunch the Saloon had a line out the door. People walked in and flushed at the devastating red, overcome by its deep velvety intimacy. Some tittered excitedly. Others fell to their knees and cursed the dark forces at work while Cece sold tissues for a quarter a piece. But most just smiled, as Kora had. They traced the lines of blood spatter along the walls with nubile fingers, stared unblinking at the blown up photographs of last night’s carnage that Juan’s brother had hung, leaned over the rails enclosing the Ice Man’s Bathroom Adjacent Booth and sniffed the air like someone receiving a bouquet.
Kora greeted every table by telling them that she was indeed present during the massacre and had witnessed this veritable holocaust while nibbling on a Sammy’s Shrieking Steak Skewer with a side of Sharpened Snap Peas for only an extra one ninety nine. Bolder customers would barely sit down before rattling off their questions with a greedy, predatory urgency. The more ingratiating ones tried veiling their prurient queries in teary-eyed eulogies (“those poor, beautiful, saintly souls who just came for a pleasant dinner and wound up on the floor with their guts hanging out or a hole in their head or, well, how did they look exactly miss?”)
The majority, however, would scan the menu with great concentration so as not to make eye contact, talk of small things, and then, inevitably, toward the end of the meal when their breath was hot and they were well into their drinks, they would beckon Kora in close and inquire in low, trembling tones about the blood and the sounds and the people begging for their lives. They wanted to see what the Ice Man saw and feel what he felt. They wanted to know what it was like to kill and to die and to be reborn in blood. And when Kora could help them achieve this, they loved her.
An hour before her shift was over it was Kora’s turn to play the Ice Man. Sammy followed her into the bathroom and watched her change, volunteering to help tighten the chest compression shirt, and then tossed her the plastic shotgun and the bald cap with the blue patch in the middle. “You always hated this guy,” he said. “Probably because he had so much hate inside himself - he didn’t vibe with the eternal that’s for sure. But now you get to be him, and be hated, and hate everyone!”
“Every little girl’s dream,” Kora said, but Sammy nodded earnestly and kissed her forehead. Then her nose. Then her mouth. She pulled back.
“Kora baby, it’s just that after last night, how can I go on living my life as it once was? How can Naomi and I see the world through the same eyes when it was you and I who were immersed in yesterday’s bloodshed while she and the boys were safe at home rearranging the upstairs closet? What that man did Kora, what he made us see. We know things now. We exist apart from this world and together in our own. Oh Kora baby. Comfort me baby. Comfort me.”
She stretched the bald cap over her skull and reminded Sammy that, no, she actually was not immersed in yesterday’s bloodshed, she was at home taking the day, remember? But perhaps Julie or Cece, who were absolutely there, could join him on this lonely higher plain. She left him weeping and praising her hard-nosed pragmatism in the bathroom.
In the past few minutes a curtain had been strung up around the Bathroom Adjacent Booth with a sign that said “scheduled maintenance.” She slid behind it and under the railing and came to the table she had so often set glasses of ice and burnt ribeyes on. Crushed glass still littered the floor and the seats sagged with dull iron shells that bejeweled the cheap leather like mouse droppings.
She remembered how once she had thought to chill the Ice Man’s glass in the walk-in before filling it with ice, prolonging its melting and giving Leon an extra minute or two to color the Ice Man’s ribeye his favorite shade of muddy brown. The Ice Man, however, was as attuned to trickery as a wizened old carney, and as soon as Kora set down the glass, his hand shot out to snatch it. He looked Kora right in the eye, his grip tightening, his grin maniacal, and shrieked with calculated pain. His ribeye was free that night. The evil bastard.
The curtain was thick and hundreds of voices smeared together, lacking rhythm or sense. Kora was reminded of popcorn popping. She climbed the table and then, with no discernable cue, the curtain snapped open and Sammy’s boys shouted “oh no it’s the Ice Man!” and everyone gasped. Kora grappled with the plastic shotgun but it slipped from her hands and clattered onto the floor. Everyone watched as she tried to retrieve it by getting down on her stomach and dangling her arms over the table. She felt her scrunch-skirt do some more scrunching and heard customers start to laugh. Then Sammy flew by shouting something about technical trouble and the curtains swung shut.
When she got home Wade was gone. There was a note attached to one of the skin pics she had given Howie.
Kora, your sin cannot be forgiven, nor put right, but it can be prevented from recurring. I have taken Wade away. We are going somewhere new and bright, where he can perhaps attend school and enrich his mind. I will honor your memory for his sake, and make sure you stay in his heart. But you will not see him again.
You are thinking I am evil. You are thinking, how can I take a child from a loving mother? What heart can survive such a poisoning? And yet Kora, you took a child. Does it matter his mother was gone? Does it matter his life was doomed? You say Wade is safe. I say he is imprisoned. A hostage. He cannot leave the house for fear of discovery. How long were you planning on keeping him from the world? And if he were ever found out, how many sons would you sacrifice to save him?
This is not the world it once was Kora. Once you may have been granted pity, sympathy even. Some might have thought you justified, and respected your fierce maternal instincts. But we have evolved. Now our instincts are put on trial, and rightly so, for they make us wicked. They divide us. They make us distribute value unequally, as you have done when put your child’s life above another’s. I will love and care for Wade as if he is my own, and if he is ever taken from me I will know only pain, but I will not kill to save him, and I will not allow you to do the same.
She strained to untranslate what she had just read, to reduce the words to meaningless bits of data. As calmly as could be managed, she began calling Wade’s name and making her way around the small apartment, all while dread slowly burned through her. She looked under the bed, in the closet, under the sink, in the crawl space behind the dresser. Soon she was opening small drawers in her dresser, ignoring the absurdity. And when every hiding place was excavated, when, in the process of checking the closet for a third time and realizing Wade’s backpack was missing along with some of his toys and clothes, crushing nausea doubled her over and the force of her dry-heaves cut scorched channels in the meat of her throat. She wreathed herself in her hatred, and this time she saw the future and embraced it.
There was a lamp—she brought it down on the dresser again and again, watching the top splinter and breathing in the sawdust sting of naked wood. She hurled a lopsided clay box Wade had made for her in art class, back when he still went to art class, at the wall where it broke in two and cheap jewelry spilled out like a gutted pig. She heaved herself into anything solid, bellowing nonsense, driven by the screams of nerve endings, and ended in a quivering heap, muttering Wade’s name over and over, waiting for patrol to kick down her door.
A neighbor, Mrs. Delancey probably, had no doubt called in the disturbance by now. Patrol would come and see the broken furniture, the lacerations on her arms and forehead, the puckered bits of skin peeled onto the sharp corners of the dresser, and not even have to consult the NCC’s Official Criteria for Removal. They would take her away immediately, just like they did to that boy from the Gutters.
The boy’s name was Oni, she remembered, although at the time she hadn’t wanted to learn his name. He told her anyway though, on their way back to Slow Zone Three. He talked about the little shipping container that he lived in with some other boys, and how he used to cry a lot at night but then one of the bigger boys stuffed a dirty rag in his mouth and beat him with a piece of driftwood till he shut up, and that he hadn’t cried once since. Oni said this last part as if he were boasting. He spoke of his sister, Mara, who had drowned while trying to teach Oni how to clam, how Slow Zone Three had forgotten to warn the Gutters that they were lifting the city dam for the first time in fifty years, or that maybe they hadn’t forgotten, that maybe they didn't tell on purpose, at least according to some other kids. He smiled widely at the sentry posted at the terminus and pronounced the name Wade Benjamin DeCostas perfectly when questioned by the gate guard. In Slow Zone Three he pointed at things and asked Kora what they were called and what people used them for. He told her he was allergic to sunflower seeds, in case she was planning to feed him some. And when patrol came to her apartment and took him away Oni held her gaze, his large eyes dulled with foreknowledge, and Kora saw in them an old pain, an accustomed disappointment, and watched the last clean light leak out of him and leave him eviscerated, obscenely mortal, sagging under the patroller’s grip.
The sharp yelp of a small dog brought her back. It was the blonde terrier—4A, first floor—who barked whenever someone opened and closed the heavy stairwell door. Patrollers. Two of them, because there were always two, would soon reach the fifth floor. They would pass Ms. Delancy’s apartment with her welcome mat telling guests to “be nice, wipe twice” and arrive at Kora’s, a mere two doors down from the stairwell.
And something stirred inside her, something cool, stately, unburdened. It kicked up a current which worked its way through her, putting out fires, switching off certain circuits, and Kora was reminded of a mother brushing a child’s hair and speaking gently, in a sing-songy cadence, that she would take care of everything, take care of everything, and all this child had to do was close their eyes and go to sleep, and then this thought was swept up in the current as it quickened to a surge, carving through the fat and loam of Kora’s consciousness and exposing something long-buried that gnashed its teeth and sucked in new air.
The dresser looked big enough so she dragged it from next to the bed, taking small pleasure in the shallow ache her shoulders made as they met unfamiliar resistance, and fit it flush against the front door. She stood back and studied her handiwork with the casualness of someone trying to rearrange their book collection, then shook her head, took hold of the dresser, and pulled it backward, leaving a foot of space.
The stairwell door banged. Then the sound of boots meeting hardwood. A man’s voice. Kora walked back toward the bed and bent to pick up a shard of wood that had been felled from the dresser. It was as long as her forearm and thick, with a sharp pointy end.
Her apartment was a standard efficiency, the front door being flanked by the main wall to its right, and the kitchen alcove to its left. The partition dividing the doorway from the kitchen alcove barely protruded more than two feet, but with her back pressed tight up against the side facing the kitchen, it was enough to obscure Kora from the immediate view of any visitors.
There were a few rough knocks - the kind made with the fleshy part of the fist. Then: "This is patrol, we've been notified of a disturbance. We are entering the property." The knob turned and the door swung open, only to halt abruptly as it struck the dresser. A hand drew back.
“Probably ditched the place,” the one closest to the door said.
“Or that’s a body.”
The first patroller made a sound halfway between a chuckle and a whimper, a sound she’d heard earlier that day from some customers at the Saloon. They made sounds like that whenever Kora described what happened during the massacre, or what Kora thought happened, having only Sammy’s ramblings and Julie’s half-remembered guesses and Kora’s own presumptions on the whole “immediate and inevitable death” scenario to go off of.
“Everyone was really brave.” Kora had said. “You know they really had some lovely things to say, the people who weren’t killed right away that is. Let me top off that soda ma’am. Yes it was very moving. Most told him about their children of course, and how they’d be orphaned, or if they didn’t have children then their wife or husband or mother or someone like that, and how they couldn’t leave them behind. When it was a whole family they discussed little so and so’s upcoming kickball championship, or the dance little so and so was supposed to attend with the handsome so and so on the rowing team - another steak skewer hun? Now I did see a few customers spit in the Ice Man’s face and vow vengeance from beyond the grave. He didn’t like that too much. One woman sobbed that her cat would starve without her there to feed it and offered to run home, take the cat to a friend’s house, and then return to the restaurant so the Ice Man could dispatch of her.”
“They died heroes then?” one customer said. The others all looked at Kora, awaiting her verdict.
“Heroes, all of them,” Kora replied.
The first patroller pushed his head through the gap. He was young but already balding, with little clumps of virescent wax caked to the ear canal. He craned his head awkwardly around the door to find out what was obstructing it. He didn’t see a slim, dark-haired girl with a torn halter-top and blood under her fingernails turn out from behind the wall. Didn’t see her raise a wooden shard and drive it toward him.
It plunged through his neck with such force that bits of wood poked out the other side like blond whiskers. The patroller's eyes bulged as he gulped blood and made sounds like a vacuum sucking up water. She wrenched the shard from his neck and watched him keel forward to lie sloped on the dresser. The second patroller screamed and wrapped his arms around his partner, trying to pull him back into the hall. For a moment the second patroller’s legs were trapped between the first patroller’s thighs as they spasmed from multiple hemorrhages, and Kora leapt to the opposite side of the dresser. The second patroller gaped at her wordlessly, his expression one of a bewildered animal who had swum too far out to sea, and made no protest as Kora pistoned her arm and put the shard into his left eye. Blood poured like it couldn’t wait to get out.
When all was still she climbed over their quieting bodies and flung herself into the hallway, then the stairwell and out of the building, that cool current already drying up inside her. A couple blocks over there was a gas station with a phone, and as she fled toward it she marveled at her speed, her strength. She felt closer to Wade, closer to finding him, and even more so, she felt she deserved to find him, like she’d earned his liberation.
She wondered if she could do to Howie what she just did to those men, could figure out how to break into his body and make it fail. He wouldn’t fight her. No, he would spend his last seconds trying to figure out the why and the how, trying to be holistic about the whole fucking thing. Deliberating on the sins of Kora DeCostas instead of keeping himself alive. Silent, uncomprehending, blubbering at the edge of eternity. Just like that patroller had been. The second one. He didn’t struggle or beg or run. It was like her simply challenging his right to live had undone everything he’d ever understood. As if he had died before she even struck.
Something about it offended her. Disgusted her. Made her want to kill him all over again. For Kora, in that instant, that second patroller seemed to represent all men and their inflated pride, their ultimate complacency. How at their most basic, they stood for nothing, fought for nothing, experienced nothing except maybe a slapstick effrontery at the idea of anyone actually opposing them. Like they couldn’t start saving their own life without first understanding why someone would end it. “No time to daddle or diddle or water one’s geraniums,” Sammy might have said.
She stumbled into the gas station and balked at the fluorescents. The attendant rushed to her side, asking if she was hurt, if that was blood. Kora said she’d been attacked, that she needed to call someone. Her husband. And could she use the phone? The attended nodded furiously and left the store to pace nervously outside, obviously unsure whether to call patrol or flee the scene. She called Sammy.
“You want me to what, baby? Organize and label your thoughts.”
She spoke in short bursts, afraid that if she opened her mouth for too long it would all spill out in one sludgy mess. “A roadblock. A stop n’ check. On both Slow Zone Three’s exits. Looking for a little boy. Brown hair. And an old man. Howie.”
“And you want Sammy to make that little dream come true? That’s a big ask Kora. Lots of players, moving parts, questions that would need answering.”
“No questions. Just one call. One call to your sheriff friend.”
Sammy paused. Then: “Which friend would that be baby?”
“Not stupid Sammy! He was in the Roadhouse. All the time. Sheriff Barrow, or Barlow. You give him those pills. That hard, deep end shit. For his moods, his outbursts. So he doesn’t get canned. And he looks the other way on things like the Piggy Pennies. The crime scene photos. Tax breaks. Labor standards. The not-so-legal stuff.”
“Huh hah! Well fuck me naked, Kora is On. Top. Of. It. Ding ding ding!”
“Can you do it Sammy?”
“Can I do it? You mean should I do it. Should, Kora. So, should I? For Julie, not a chance. For Cici or Juan or Jesse, no please and thank you. But for Kora though. For the lovely Kora I might consider it. Might.”
Kora was breathing slower now. She knew all about this famous might. There were going to be a whole lot of sacrifices coming her way for that might. But she was ready to cash in. Eager even. As long as she got Wade back.
“Sammy? If you do this for me, I won’t say no to you again. Understand?”
“You better elaborate for old Sammy, his powers of deduction just ain’t what they used to be.”
“I’m not pretending this was a long time coming Sammy. But I’m betting you don’t quite care as long as you get what you want. So you do good on this and I’m yours. I’ll comfort you. I can be whatever to you. OK, Sammy?”
He whistled as if he were taken aback, then chuckled softly.
“Roadblocks on both exits, huh?”
“Little boy with brown hair and an old man named Howie?”
“Sammy’s comin', baby.”
Patrol found Wade in the trunk of Howie’s hatchback during a stop-n-check near Slow Zone Three’s southern exit. The hatchback had been third in line when they erected the stop-n-check. A minute later and Wade would have been lost to the world.
Howie had given Wade three times the recommended dose of Sleepy Time Bye Byes, and he was released snoring into Kora’s custody. Her hands shook as she took him. She kissed his forehead and touched his stomach, feeling its rise and fall—each subtle breath filling her up again. He seemed clean. Unhurt. Howie had taken good care of him. Not that she doubted he would. Now Howie was handcuffed to the sheriff’s car door and being spat on by patrollers as they sermonized on the evils of old pedos like him. He stood hunched, shoulders withdrawn, every so often stumbling in place under his own weight, watching her with an expression of weakening dignity.
A patroller came over and asked if Kora wouldn’t mind providing identification for her and her boy so he could fill out his report. Just routine procedure, no big deal. Her chest got hot and she looked at Sammy. His face grew dark and for a moment Kora thought he was going to hit the man.
“Oy Officer Hollace,” said someone from near the sheriff’s car. The patroller startled at the appearance of a squat little man with two fat silver stars sown onto each of his breast pockets. “Oy Hollace give this woman some goddamn room! What she’s been through, what this boy has been through. You must think critically Hollace. Be present Hollace!”
“Yes sir. Sorry sir.” The patroller picked a direction and swiftly walked in it.
“Things square Sheriff?” Sammy murmured.
“As tile,” the sheriff said.
Kora hoisted Wade further up onto her shoulder. “Thank you Mr. Barrow.”
“Borlow,” he corrected.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sheriff Borlow. You saved two lives today.”
“And caught a potential child murdering rapist in the process. The NCC’s gonna be real happy about that. Not that they’ll get any details of course! I saw that flash of fear in your eyes just now when I said that miss. No no no. You and your boy are safe as coconuts, don’t you fret. Sammy’s good at explaining without really explaining. And when Sammy asks a favor he gets it twice.”
“Thank you,” Kora said again. “For your discretion too. But Sheriff, there’s something else. I don’t know if anyone has called it in yet, but there are two patrollers in my apartment. They’re dead I think. He—Howie—he killed them. It was horrible.”
The sheriff looked at Sammy as if awaiting orders. Sammy nodded.
“It’s true, Sheriff. He had Kora and her boy hostage, but a neighbor heard the ruckus and called patrol. They came and he stabbed 'em dead, then took the boy.”
“Two patrol.” the sheriff muttered, his voice shaky. “Two patrol dead. And one day after the Roadhouse Massacre. What’s happening around here Sammy!” He made a fist and began conking his head, then stopped and fished in his pocket for a small yellow pill. Sammy put both hands on the sheriff’s shoulders and leaned his head inward so their foreheads touched.
“I see you pal, and you see me.” Sammy said it like a mantra.
“The world may turn black but we are navigators.”
“We harvest the light and swallow the darkness.”
“This kind of shit makes you want to find something heavy and make the world hurt, but you’re not going to do that are you, Sheriff?”
“What are you going to do then, Sheriff?”
“Breathe in what the world breathes out and remain indestructible.”
“Say it again.”
“Breathe in what the world breathes out and remain indestructible!”
“Fucking right you are.”
“Fucking right I am!”
The sheriff let out a long, slow sigh, then turned to Kora. “That old slimesucker will be dealt with, you can count on it miss.” Kora nodded. Over the sheriff’s shoulder she could see Howie, and she realized it wasn’t her he was looking at, it was Wade. It had been Wade the whole time.
Wade was still sleeping when they got into Sammy’s car, and on the drive back she comforted Sammy as best she could.
Wade had just finished zipping up Kora’s strapless peplum - a recent gift from Sammy - when the buzzer rang. Wade yelped and jerked the zipper hard enough to cut into her back, making her wince.
“Hush hush. That’s the sitter my love. And you’re going to be extra nice and quiet for her, aren’t you?” Wade tried on a dopey smile.
That morning Sammy had recruited his family for another cleanup job, this time in Kora’s apartment. Naomi and the boys had cheerily dealt with all the leftover carnage that patrol had left after corpse confiscation, and the result was that everything looked pristine but smelled like ammonia. When the sitter came in she shriveled her nose and began blinking her eyes much more than was normal. Her name was Sally, or Sandra. Kora was in a rush to get to work and wasn’t quite listening.
“I’ll be back around midnight,” Kora said as she gathered her things. “He takes a Sleepy Time Bye Bye with dinner, but if he gets rowdy give him more, just use your best judgment. We’re UnPlugged here but the walls are paper thin. There was an incident last week, probably wasn’t in the papers, but it was bad. My neighbors are on edge because of it so please, just make sure he stays quiet.” The babysitter kept looking around the room, perhaps trying to find the source of the smell. “Sound good?”
“What? Oh, yes, absolutely,” the sitter said. She bent down to Wade’s level. “Wade and I are going to have a nice quiet evening aren’t we?” Wade sneezed on the sitter’s shirt. Kora gave him a quick kiss and hurried out the door.
She was only working dinner that night so the Saloon was already buzzing when she arrived. She saw the Piggie Pennies were back and had to edge around a long line of customers waiting to choose which piggies they wanted for dinner, and then an even longer line waiting to watch Dion slit the piggies’ throats through a peephole to the slaughter room. A mother dressed in all black shouldered Kora out of the way as she dragged her daughter from table to table, explaining to customers how her husband had been one of the many casualties in the Roadhouse Massacre, and how he had had a terrible gambling problem that only came to light after he died and the people he owed money to started coming out of the woodwork, and how they had gone from relatively well-to-do to penniless and starving within days. Then the daughter would hold out a big glass jar and people would stuff it with bills while sobbing into their napkins and ordering more wine. After closing Sammy would collect sixty percent.
Kora had barely started taking orders when Julie grabbed her arm and pulled her into the bathroom. “I’m not doing it tonight,” Julie said, shoving the Ice Man costume into Kora’s arms. “I’ve been making even less tips than usual since we started that shit. I’m better on the floor, taking bullets and playing the damsel.”
“Shit Julie, I’m in the middle of taking orders.”
“I don’t want to hear it Kora. I was here that day and you weren’t. I almost died and you didn’t. So it’s traumatic for me, or whatever.” She made a hasty exit and Kora was left looking at the chest compression shirt with concern, wondering when it was last washed.
When Kora looked as much like the Ice Man as she was ever going to, she crept behind the curtain and climbed the table, the shotgun tucked tightly under one arm. The booth seemed quieter than before, and suddenly she realized that the last thing she wanted to do was open this curtain. Panic drilled its vulgar head into every pore and she felt as if she had woken up in the middle of falling from a great height. And then, with a shuddering finality, she remembered a dream from the night before.
She was here, in the Saloon, but she was older, her skin loose and swimming beneath her clothes. She walked slow and her neck crooked to one side. Customers were yelling at her to come take their orders, but that wasn’t why she was here. No, she was looking for somebody. Wade. He was at the Saloon because Sammy had asked him to come run the place. But Kora had to stop it. She was there to take him somewhere safe. She stumbled from table to table calling Wade’s name, her voice grinding against her throat like a drawer coming off its hinges. And then everyone began to scream. Chair legs scraped the floor as customers fled from their tables. Some fell down and were trampled by loved ones. Anything untethered was sucked up into the turmoil, the whole world kicking up dust, and through the horizon of maddening bodies a giant rose up. The entire room seemed to expand and pull apart as its sickening pale skull and bunched up blue toque emerged from the chaos and came toward her like a monstrous ship through the fog.
Before she could remember how the dream ended the curtain snapped open and Sammy’s boy’s shouted “oh no it’s the Ice Man!” and Kora started spraying. All fifteen speakers blared their disaster mix while squibs filled with easy-wipe stage blood burst beneath Julie and Cece’s shirts as they flailed wildly and fell on older men. Customers squealed and clapped and some ran in terror and slipped on spilled drinks.
With each fake shotgun blast the world ended and Kora was embarrassed for it. Her mouth strained to open wider as noises she had never made tore forth, a furious heat spilled from her and corrupted all it touched, and then there were no thoughts of Howie or Wade or the Ice Man or the many dead, only a magnificent weightlessness as her body was emptied and clean light tore her apart and the imprint she left behind was subatomic, a waypoint for some other, better beings as they receded into the stars. When it was over the entire room stood applauding and she left that night with enough money in tips to hire Wade a sitter for an entire week.
Joshua is a writer living in Philadelphia, and recently self-published an adult humor graphic novel called Is This Acid In My Applesauce?
#ShortStory #Fiction #CreativeWriting #TheGutters