Peanut Gets Red Nosed

Peanut Gets Red Nosed

I’m not sure if it’s technically cosplay if you dress up as your own character or not. In any case, it wasn’t long after Banjo the Clown hit the page that I was wandering around Chicago in costume creeping people out. Not sure what I enjoy more; writing Banjo or dressing up as him. In any case, here’s his first story. In all likelihood, more will follow.

 

15 min


“I need some roasted. Can you hook me up?”

Peanut looked at the sullen acrobat from his cart window. The man was beyond gaunt. His electric blue leotard hung like laundry on his skeleton and his eyes were sunken.

“You got tickets?”

“I’ve got five bucks, and some change.”

Peanut shook his head. “What the hell do you think I’m runnin’?  No tickets, no roasteds. End of story.”

“But, I really…”

“Piss off. Get away from my cart.”

The man slunk off down the street. He looked like he still had a few tricks left in him. He’d be back.

Peanut’s cart had four wheels and a hitch for a horse. He didn’t have a horse. He could drag it around himself, provided there was a downhill slant. As a consequence, day-by-day, he got deeper and deeper into Big Top. Once he got down by the elephants and giraffes, the real bottom of the barrel, he’d hire a couple of strong men to drag it back uptown and start the whole process over again.

He opened the back door, kicked out the steps, and descended. It was time to crank the winch that kept the electric going. This had to be done every few hours or else his neon “Eat Nutz” sign would flicker to death. He didn’t know if that was bad for business or not. He’d never let it happen.

When he finished he sat on his back steps and took a break. It was a nice night. It was always a nice night in Big Top. The Tent made sure of that. Suspended on massive poles affixed to the city skyscrapers it kept out the rain, the wind, and the light. During the day it was all red and blue stripes, back-lit by a sun nobody in Big Top had ever seen. At night, like now, it was just darkness. Poles and ropes formed an ominous spider web above everything. The Tent covered the entire city and nobody ever left. Peanut was fine with that. He had his cart. He had everything he needed. Why leave?

A figure rounded the corner down the street. Peanut didn’t have to wait for him to pass the lantern to know that it was Gritt. He stood and re-entered his cart. He pulled up the steps, shut the door, and locked it. He harbored no illusions that this would stop Gritt if he wanted to get in. At the same time, there was no way he was staying outside with the geek if he could help it. Peanut leaned on the counter and tried to look casual.

“Heya Nutter. Been a while.” Gritt’s voice was slow, heavy, and came from somewhere near his spine. This was on account of his face. His jaw was a massive, muscular thing, disfigured to the point of grotesque. He’d had surgery that took muscles from his arm and transplanted them to his chin and neck. His left arm was puny as a result. These muscles allowed him to detach his jaw, like a snake. On top of this, his front teeth had been replaced with molars. He could eat glass, metal, and bone. Peanut knew what that mouth could do.

“Yep, been a long time Gritt.”

“How’s the job working out?”

“You know it’s good.”

Gritt nodded. “Yeah. I do. I’m gonna need that favor.”

This was it. The day Peanut had been dreading. He hadn’t asked any questions when he’d struck the deal with Gritt that had gotten his cart. He never asked where it came from, or what happened to the previous occupant. He just took it, gratefully, at the cost of a future favor.

“Alright Gritt. Tell me what you need.”

“First, gimmie some of them nuts. Them honey ones.”

Peanut got a three paper bags full of honey roasted, LSD laced, peanuts and set them on the counter. Gritt took one and put it in his mouth, bag and all, and swallowed it. “So you know that bitch, Shayde Spider? The contortionist?”

“I think so. She’s got hair like a dyke?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. I hear she’s a regular for you.”

“Sure. She comes by.”

Another bag vanished. “Well, here’s the deal, you find her, you bring her to me all wrapped up in cotton candy, and we’re clear.”

“Cotton candy?”

Gritt licked his lips. “They taste better that way.”

“Aw, ring it man. I don’t know if I can do that.”

Gritt took the last bag, but he didn’t eat it. “You got twenty four hours Nutter, and then I eat something. You got me?”

Peanut nodded. “Yeah, I got you.”

Gritt smiled. “Good, glad you do. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He popped the last bag into his cavernous mouth and turned away leaving Peanut sick to his stomach.

line break

Peanut didn’t wait until morning to get started. He left his cart locked up in the dark corner of a parking lot and headed toward Blemish, the part of town where the Freaks lived. Shayde had been a regular for years. She got mostly salted painkillers, but would splurge on candied pecans every once in a while. He didn’t know her well, but he knew she lived on Ferris Way, somewhere near a reptile shop. She’d mentioned how much she enjoyed seeing the snakes everyday when she went by. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t have any choice.

He didn’t pay any attention to Blemish. The sights were nothing new. He’d seen the bearded hookers and dog-faced-girls turning tricks for years. The obese man who could hide not one, but two, people in the folds of his fat was old news. It was only when he turned on Ferris Way and saw the flashing blue lights of security that he was surprised. There were three tiny cars parked in front of a garish five-story building. A crowd had gathered.

He approached a carnie. “What happened?”

The man didn’t look at him. “Somebody got red nosed.”

“Red nosed? Are they sure?”

“Oh yeah. Dead guy was a knife thrower, some big shot bodyguard. It had to be a clown.”

Peanut didn’t like the sound of that. “So, if he’s a bodyguard, who was the clown trying to kill?”

The man shrugged. “I dunno for sure. They found him in some contortionist chick’s apartment. No sign of her though.”

Peanut rubbed his face. He couldn’t conceive of worse news. The man continued.

“They’re saying it was a yo-yo.” He looked at Peanut for the first time and smiled. “You know what that means!”

There it was; worse news, ready to fill the gaps of his imagination.

“Yeah, I do.” It meant he was going to need help. A lot of help with no questions asked. There was only one place to find that.

line break

It had taken him the rest of the night to find a gang of mimes and communicate what he needed. It wasn’t hard to tell a mime what you wanted. The tricky part was figuring out what they wanted in return. They didn’t deal in tickets. They used a barter system Peanut was convinced was only there to provide an excuse to act out ridiculous requests. It was annoying and cost him almost his entire supply of roasted peanuts, half now, half later. Expensive stuff, but worth it if he live to see the end of the week.

The mimes left with the dawn, silently, leaving Peanut to wait. They’d taken up residence in an abandoned fabric mill and painted everything white. Rather than making it look clean, the flaking paint only illustrated every little bit of dirt. What passed for daylight streamed in through grungy skylights. Peanut wandered around, yawning. He’d been up all night and felt it. He discovered a room with a dozen mattresses on the floor and a topless woman, wearing only skimpy panties, in the corner. At the sight of him she sprung up, bounced off something invisible, and fell back. Her hands reached out and grabbed hold of the unseen bars of her cage. She shook them and gave him a pleading look.

“Oh, fuck this…” Muttered Peanut. He wasn’t in the mood for mime sex games. “There’s no cage you dumb bitch! Just walk out the door if you don’t want to be here.”

She pointed across the room, twisting her wrist to indicate there was a key over there. Peanut ignored her and lay down on one of the beds. She flopped back to the floor, feigning tears. Of course, Peanut couldn’t hear them. In minutes he was asleep.

line break

He was awoken by a shake. Upon opening his eyes he discovered a dozen white-faced mimes looking down at him.

“Did you find her?”

The group all smiled, jumped up and down, and clapped their hands. Peanut got to his feet. “Excellent! Where is she?”

The mimes gave him a reproachful look. Their leader shook his finger back and forth. He reached his hand out flat, displaying nothing. His other hand unfolded an invisible item. He picked up some tiny imaginary thing from it between two fingers and held it above his mouth. He licked his lips and popped the non-existent nut onto his tongue. Instantly, the entire group of mimes began careening around as if drunk. Peanut got the point.

“You want the rest. Fine, here you go.” He pulled off his pack, opened it, and removed a metal box. It opened after he keyed in the combination. Peanut counted their due into a bag and handed it over. The man tucked the package into his belt and clapped his hands. Immediately, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, each of them pointing to a small chest. A very small chest.

“What the hell is this?” Nobody spoke.

“I paid you to bring me Shayde Spider! Not a box!” The mimes kept pointing. Peanut walked over. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than a foot and a half square. He opened it.

Shayde Spider’s head was inside, lying face up on a pile of limbs. They’d killed her. Killed her and brought him the peices. Peanut was pretty sure Gritt would not be pleased.

“By the Ringleader…”

Her eyes popped open. “Peanut? Peanut is that you?”

Peanut jumped back, startled. “Holy shit, Shayde! I thought…”

“Peanut! You’ve gotta help me! I’m in big trouble! The Freaks found out I was in with the Clowns and want me dead. Please help me hide!”

“How on earth did you fit in there?”

“Peanut, stop being stupid! You’ve got to get me someplace safe!”

Peanut shook his head. “If you were in with the Clowns why are they after you?”

Shayde shrugged, a strange box-stuffed convulsion. “I dunno. I don’t care. I’ve got to disappear!”

Peanut hated this. His stomach churned. He wished he could make this whole thing disappear. He didn’t want to be a part of killing anyone.

The thrumming of a banjo drifted into the factory from outside. Peanut froze. Shayde’s eyes went wide. “Oh fuck! He’s here! We’ve got to get out of here!”

“Stay there.” Peanut slammed the box shut. The mimes were cupping their ears, listening to the strange music. Peanut ran over to their leader and grabbed his arm.

“You hear that? That’s a Clown! That’s fucking Banjo the Clown! I will give you everything, everything, in my box if you can stop him while I get out of here!”

The mime slumped. His face went serious. He spoke. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not suicidal.”

Peanut dug out the box, opened it, and shoved the contents in his face. “Look at this! Look! It’s a fortune! All you’ve got to do is slow him down!”

The mime looked uncertain. “Are those cashews?”

“Those are your cashews.”

The mime closed his mouth and nodded.

“Thank you.”

Peanut left everything but Shayde’s box. It was surprisingly light. The mimes sprung to action, picking up painted white pipes and painted white two-by-fours. It was clear this wasn’t the first time they’d used non-imaginary weapons. Peanut headed for the back door.

He’d almost made it when there was an explosion of glass. A skylight shattered beneath steel-toed red shoes. Shards rained on the pavement and ricocheted. Peanut shielded his eyes. When he looked back, Banjo was there. The clown. He had a pair of yo-yo’s in each hand, over-sized. There was a black tear at the corner of his right eye. Peanut didn’t bother looking more than he had to. He ran. There was a zinging sound and something warm and sticky splashed his back. Several severed fingers flew overhead and landed on the floor in front of him. He nearly slipped on them but didn’t stop. He hit the door running, bolted down the street, and into an alley. Behind him, the mimes started screaming. They didn’t stop until he was out of earshot.

line break

Peanut had never been to Gritt’s place before, but he knew where it was. Everyone did, from the smell. He bred chickens, rats, and dogs, and never cleaned the cages. It was a maze of fur, feathers, and filth encrusted kennels. The geek had a healthy appetite to support. Peanut had spent an hour out front, sitting on the box that contained Shayde, thinking. Up until the last minute he’d racked his brain for another solution. He couldn’t do it. He was just the peanut guy. He brought the box to the geek.

“That better not be a box of chocolates, Nutter.”

Peanut shook his head. “You know it’s not.”

“She wrapped in cotton candy like I asked?”

“No.”

“I wanted her wrapped.”

“I did the hard part. You can get the damn cotton candy yourself!”

Gritt stood up and loomed over him. “You got some balls on you, Nutter.”

“This isn’t my type of thing. You know that. Are we done here?”

Gritt considered. He folded his arms across his chest, one scrawny the other muscular. “Yeah, I guess so. I might need a little something in the future, since you didn’t do what I asked.”

Peanut stepped around a rat cage. “Sure, a little something. Nothing like this though.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Gritt bent down and opened up the box.

“Peanut? Oh… no. No! Peanut, no!” Gritt reached in and grabbed Shayde by the neck. Without regard for how she was folded in on herself he began to jerk her out of the box. Peanut heard something crack.

She screamed, hysterical. She wailed his name, over and over.

He walked out. There was nothing he could do. He was done.

line break

Peanut’s cart didn’t look the same as he returned to the dark parking lot. It had been one thing when Gritt’s means of obtaining it had been an abstraction. It was an entirely different matter now. Now he knew. He tried not to think about what Gritt was doing to poor Shayde at this very moment. He failed. He wondered if he’d ever get the image out of his head.

“Where is she Mr.Peanut?”

He knew who it was, without looking, he knew. The idea to lie never crossed his mind. “I brought her to Gritt, the geek. He forced me. He would have killed me.”

Banjo stepped out from behind the cart. His instrument was slung across his back. His hair was pulled into a topknot. The makeup on his face was white, blue mouth, and that tear at the edge of his eye. Nobody ever saw the face beneath a clown. Some people believed they’d evolved. That it was their faces. Looking at Banjo’s perfection, Peanut could believe it.

“I… I owed him. He got my cart. He was gonna kill me. Eat me!”

Banjo pulled a trio of juggling balls from his pocket and began tossing them absent-mindedly in his left hand.

“Gritt got you this cart?”

“Yeah, years ago. I took it, of course I took it, even though he’s a Freak.”

Banjo stepped in and slid his right arm around Peanut’s shoulders. His other hand continued to juggle. He led him back across the parking lot.

“So, here’s what’s going to happen, Mr.Peanut. You and I are going over to Mr.Gritt’s house. Thereupon, with any luck, we will find most of Ms.Shayde and recover what’s left. While we are there, we will explain to Mr.Gritt that you have never owed him anything.”

“But… he got me my cart.”

Banjo tossed the one of the juggling balls over his shoulder. It hit the cart and there was a massive explosion, blowing it to splinters in a blast of fire.

Banjo smiled. “What cart?”

line break

As instructed, Peanut knocked on the door of Gritt’s place. He was holding a large garbage bag. The door opened and Gritt was standing there. There was blood dripping off his chin. He looked confused at the sight of Peanut.

Peanut spoke. “I didn’t want to be in your debt any more. I brought your cotton candy. Blue and pink, I didn’t know which one you liked more.”

“Blue. I’m not gay.”

“You want me to wrap her?” Peanut shook the bag.

Gritt nodded. “In here.”

He led Peanut through a series of hallways and down a flight of stairs to a basement room with iron rafters. Gritt didn’t notice the trail of sunflower seeds Peanut left behind him.

Shayde was still dressed, chained to the ceiling, unconscious. A tourniquet below her knee ended her leg. It was missing the foot from the shin down, clothes and all. Peanut retched at the sight of her.

“Get to it, Nutter. I don’t like interruptions.”

Peanut pulled out a handful of blue cotton candy from the garbage bag and draped it across her shoulders. Gritt watched, streaks of saliva washing the blood from his chin.

“You want a napkin buddy?” Gritt turned just in time to see one of Banjo’s razor wire yo-yo’s streaking toward his face. With the reflexes of a pit bull he snapped it out of the air with his teeth, crunching the metal toy to shards. He spit it onto the floor.

“I thought you might show up for this bitch.”

“That’s hardly polite way to talk about your meal.”

Gritt bared his molars, the muscles in his jaw like rigid steel cables.

“She just became desert. You made a real mistake coming here, Clown.” Banjo pulled his instrument from his back. With a click he extended the blades that ringed the circular end and held it from the haft like an axe.

“Oh, you don’t want to eat me, geek. I taste funny.”

Banjo swung. The geek ducked and rammed his shoulder into the clown. Banjo did a backwards somersault with the impact and swung an oversized steel shoe at Gritt’s groin. The brute was fast and caught it with his strong arm. In a flash, the foot was in his mouth. There was a crunching of metal and half the shoe vanished, exposing Banjo’s bare toes. The clown brought his banjo down in an overhead swing, sinking the blade into the geeks shoulder. Gritt locked his teeth onto the weapon. Again, there was another grinding noise and a chunk of Banjo’s namesake vanished. He retaliated with another razor sharp yo-yo but Gritt ignored the cuts on his face and grabbed a hold of Banjo’s arm. Pulling, his molars got closer and closer to the clowns shoulder. One bite there and his arm would come right off.

A gunshot rang out and a piece of Gritt’s face splattered onto the floor. He didn’t seem to notice, teeth reaching, tongue stretching. Peanut fired until there were no more bullets, the cotton candy melting onto the muzzle. Banjo pushed the corpse off.

“You certainly took your time Mr.Peanut.”

“I’m sorry. It had moved to the bottom of the bag. I couldn’t find it.”

“Untie her.”

Peanut did, letting Shayde down to the ground. “You think she’ll be okay?”

Banjo nodded. “Of course. Without the foot she’ll probably be able to fit into an even tinier box.”

The clown looked at him. “Give me the gun back.”

Peanut hesitated, then handed the clown his gun. If he wanted to kill him the weapon wouldn’t matter. There was nothing he could do to stop it.

“You make deals with Freaks. Not smart, Mr.Peanut. You should know to stay away from people like that.”

Peanut’s stomach sank. “Please… please don’t red nose me.”

“On your knees.” He complied. Banjo aimed the gun at his head. Peanut closed his eyes.

The hammer went back, the trigger clicked, and a flower emerged from the barrel. Peanut flinched. He peeked open one eye, saw a daisy where he’d expected a bullet. Banjo put the gun away.

The clown wiped his hand onto Gritt’s oozing neck stump and rubbed the blood all over Peanut’s nose.

“Bang! One dead Peanut. How does it feel?”

Peanut didn’t understand. “What?”

“Being dead. No more cart. No more peanuts. No more deals. You’re out.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Okay. I’m done. Never again.”

“Good, now get the hell out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again.”

Peanut did and Banjo didn’t.

end

 

Jude W. Mire is an author from Chicago specializing in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and surreal writing. He writes for Griot Enterprises, has been published in several online magazines, and ran a live horror reading series called Cult Fiction. In 2009 and 2010, he was a finalist in the DeathScribe Horror Radio Play competition by WildClaw theater. He’s married to the extremely talented painter Jill Cooper, and has three daughters, and a bearded dog.

 

Image Flash #21

Image Flash #21

There are things in the wind that we sometimes feel and can sometimes catch. I thought this image was great because that windmill looks like some sort of filter, pulling all the energy out of the wind and gathering it. But for what purpose?

5 min


The old green truck that Flanner King drove over the hill rattled loudly enough that Miss Mollie heard it long before the old man had a chance to honk. She stood out in yard and watched him drive slowly through the tall meadow, bending stalks as he came. There was no road that led to the windmill. He drove straight for her, slowing, slowing, slowing, until the ancient vehicle creaked to a stop, emitted a metallic groan, and went silent. The bumper almost touched her knee.

Flanner King did not get out. He didn’t speak. He didn’t even look at Miss Mollie. She was a young thing, hair pulled back, high chin, the type of figure that usually made old men like him sad. Not Flanner. His eyes were dead flint, focused on the wind-shield dust and bug smears. Miss Mollie didn’t give him a glance either. She lifted her skirt a bit, to ease her passing in the high grass, and walked around the back of the pickup.

It was loaded with junk. She began to rummage.

Over the course of the next hour she managed to drag two old tube televisions into the lighthouse. She also gathered a refrigerator door, a cordless hair crimper, a bundle of barbed wire, and a stack of Playboy magazines (that somebody had cut all the nudie pictures out of). Flanner didn’t help. Even when she was cursing and sweating and dragging the TV across the ground, he stayed put.

When she’d picked out everything she wanted Mollie opened up the passenger door and got in. Despite her lady-like appearance Flanner noticed that she smelled like burnt paper. He’d never been this close to her. She rolled down the squeaky window and caught her breath. After a while she reached into her pocket and removed a small package, the size of a match box, wrapped in red, orange, and purple yarn. She set it on the seat between them.

Flanner didn’t say nothing, but this time Mollie did. “Don’t come back next month. Don’t ever come back.”

The wrinkles on the man’s face deepened. His confusion was evident and he opened his mouth to speak. Mollie swung open the car door, got out, and slammed it shut. “Not my problem,” she said through the open window. “I’m done. It’s finished. I don’t need you anymore.”

He got as far as putting his hand on the door handle but couldn’t bring himself to pull it. Mollie walked into the windmill and left him there. She kept the mill door ajar, confident that he would never follow her. She wasn’t wrong. He just sat there, an old man in an older truck, and and didn’t move his hand. He couldn’t, didn’t dare, step out, let alone go into the windmill. But it couldn’t be over, could it? Just like that?

The moon rose and the wind kicked up. The sails began to turn on the mill. At they picked up speed rotating, they began dripping with strange colors. It was the Aurora Borealis come down to play spin games with the wind on blades of cloth. He heard the spur wheel grinding. There was a rumble in the ground. She was serious.

He picked up the tiny box she’d left, pressed it to his mouth, and put it back. That’s it then. This was the last of it and he’d better make it count.

The truck started up with a cough and a puff. He clicked on the headlights (actually only one headlight on account of the left one being shattered), swung a u-turn, and headed back across the roadless field.

Flanner King angled his rear view mirror up to the point of uselessness and kept his eyes, eyes he refused to wipe, locked straight ahead.

Image Flash #20

Image Flash #20

We all have different sides to ourselves. Sometimes, the people around you can see sides of you that you never even knew existed.

5 min


The studio was not what Oliva Anne was expecting.

There were tables with lumps of clay, dirty tools, and half finished sculptures. There were easels with colorful smears, jars of brushes filled with dark liquid, and palette boards with dried gobs of paint. There was a blanket hung on a clothesline concealing a corner of the room. There was yellow newspaper layering the floor. There were curtains on all the windows, and it was gloomy. There was a wooden tripod with brass fittings.

It was to this, and the large collapsing camera, that Mr. Julian Guillaire led her. He kicked rags and empty boxes out of the way as he did so, clearing a path. He did not explain the mess and made no attempt to apologize. She’d heard a great deal about his photography, but was genuinely surprised at the other art mediums in the space. But then, what did she know about artists? They were a strange, unpredictable sort, and she’d intentionally limited her contact with their type. He was the first one she’d ever had dealings with and, since she’d explained what she wanted, he’d barely said two words to her.

She was out of her world.

He pointed to a stool in front of a gray wall. She sat on it. He took off his jacket and his tie and rolled up his sleeves. She waited. He fidgeted with the camera, pulling plates in and out of it, adjusting dials. He dragged over some strange lanterns on poles, with what looked like stick-less umbrellas behind them, and angled the light at her. After a while he stopped, stepped back, and stared at her.

It went on for far too long to be appropriate. She felt uncomfortable, the way he was watching her. She doubted any man had ever looked at her so thoughtfully in her life. Not even her husband. He clicked his tongue and rubbed his chin. She rubbed her palm with her thumb, waiting.

“You know that everything is beautiful, if you can see it the right way.” He said.

“No.” She responded. “I’ve never heard that.”

He continued to look at her. She sat, agonizing in the attention. He walked over, moved a bit of fabric on her collar, and stepped back. After a while, he came back and returned it to its original position.

“Your make up and powders. You did them yourself?”

“Mr. Guillaire…”

He waved his hands, brushing off her protest. “I am sorry, ma’am, but there is no room for vanity here. I can do what you ask, but you must understand, the things that work for the eye of man do not have the same effect in the eye of machine. The machine is a fool and cannot see subtlety, nuance, or particular detail. While the face you present is undoubtedly suitable, and masterfully applied, for general purposes, for us, today, it will not work.”

Her heart sank. She should have known better than to get her hopes up.

“So it is hopeless.”

He shook his head. “Oh, no. That is not what I meant. This is a problem I can fix. Quite easily in fact. It is just a simple matter of you closing your eyes and allowing me to touch you.”

Her breath caught in her chest. Could she really let this strange man, this artist, touch her? To run his hands on her face? Did she really want what he offered so badly? She knew she did.

“If you must.”

He watched her face, as if he didn’t trust her decision, or was considering denying her assent. To show him she was serious, she closed her eyes.

There was no audible response for nearly a minute. Then she heard shuffling, a clatter, and footsteps approaching. He gave her no warning as he touched her forehead. There was some sort of cream on his fingertips, an oily residue. He rubbed it in, working around her temples, across her cheekbones, along the ridge of her nose. He grew more aggressive as he continued, pushing and prodding the skin of her face, working the slippery substance in. He tugged her eyebrows, pulled her lips into odd shapes, and cupped her jaw.

Then he stopped. “Don’t move.” he said. “Don’t move a muscle.”

She heard him back away. There were clicking noises from the camera. It was happening. Just like she’d always hoped. It was an effort not to smile, but she didn’t want to anger him. He’d said not to move.

“Wonderful.” He muttered. “Absolutely wonderful.”

Most of her believed him.

Image Flash #15

Image Flash #15

“He’s sleeping with my wife, Tom, I know it.”

Tom scratched his blonde hair and scrunched up his face. “Oh… I dunno, Mikey. I don’t think Rick would do that to ya.”

Mikey pulled on one of his galoshes. “Oh yeah? Why’s that? It’s not like we’re best pals or something. We just work on the same slice is all. Doesn’t exactly make us brothers.”

Tom picked up his pickaxe and passed Mikey his pry-bar. “Sure, but that don’t mean he’s gettin’ with your lady.”

Mikey stood up. “Well, she’s getting with someone. I can tell. All these errands, visits to friends I never met, more perfume than usual. It’s happening. And that bastard Rick is rubbing it in my face.”

“How so?”

The two men headed up to the plate, tools on their shoulders. “You’ve heard him, going on about his ‘hammer’. How nothing can resist it. He gives me looks when he says it, does this thing with his eyebrows.”

They climbed the ladder, slipped down the rim, and splashed into the juice. “He’s got a power tool and we don’t. He’s just showing off.”

“No.” said Mikey, “It’s more than that. I swear, one time I could smell his cologne on my pillow. Not the case, but in the pillow. And Sue had just changed the sheets the day before, but there they were, changed again. You know what that means!”

“She likes laundry?”

Mikey stopped at the rind and looked at his friend. “I don’t even know why I talk to you sometimes.”

Tom shrugged. Sinking his feet into the soft side of the slice he climbed up to his work station. Mikey followed, using the same hand and footholds. They got to the top and walked along the ridge. Rick was there waiting, leaning on his yellow jackhammer.

“Mornin’ fellas!”

Tom smiled. “Mornin’ Rick.”

Mikey didn’t say anything.

“You guys ready for some hot and heavy pounding today? Get ourselves a little pro-duck-tivity bonus?” Mikey grit his teeth and climbed up past him. Tom pulled on gloves, hefted his pickaxe.

“You just break it up, we’ll pull em out.”

“Good, good. I really need the cash. I’ve got something special planned. I already loosened those three so you can start there.” He pointed at three of the big dark oval shapes. Mikey didn’t say anything, just kept climbing toward the top one and got to work.

One good thing about the job; it was great for getting out frustrations. Mikey smashed and poked the red pulpy ground with all the anger he could manage. Over and over, he drove his long metal bar along the edge of the seed, until it was deep enough for him to pull on, leveraging it out, where it would topple down the slice to the recovery crews. It was hard work, laborers work, but there was good money in seeding.

He’d almost managed to forget about his problems by early afternoon, caught up in the task, when he heard the sound of a jackhammer almost directly below him. Peering around the smooth seed, he could see Rick, not paying attention to where he was. He should know better. Anyone beneath one of these babies when they went would be crushed instantly. He opened his mouth to call out, to warn him, and stopped.

The memory of cologne on his pillow blotted out the overwhelming watermelon stink. He knew that chances like this didn’t come often.  He dug the pry-bar in, his mind made up.  He heard Tom call his name.

Mikey ignored it and pulled hard.

Image Flash #13

Image Flash #13

“Steph.  Wake up.  I think I hear something.”

Stephanie didn’t open her eyes and let out a long sigh.  “Of course you hear things.”

Eric sat up, letting a rush of cool air into the sleeping bag.  Steph shuddered.  “Will you cut it out?  You’re giving me goosebumps.”

“No, really.  I heard something.”  Steph sunk deeper into the bag, seeking warmth.

“Yep, that happens.”

Eric lowered his voice.  “I think it’s outside the tent.”

Stephanie didn’t attempt to conceal her annoyance.  “Well where else would all the nature be?  Unless it’s inside the tent, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I saw this show on cable about teenagers who would sneak around the woods, looking for campers.  When they found a tent they’d sneak up and circle it and then just beat the shit out of it with bats and sticks.  I heard some noises like that, lots of things around us.”

Stephanie laughed.  “So you think we’re surrounded by maladjusted youth?”

“Don’t joke, Steph.  People die that way.”

She shifted to her side, turning away from him.  “No, no they don’t.”

“I saw it on…”

“Doesn’t happen.  Now let me sleep already.”

He didn’t speak.  He flopped back next to her, clearly dissatisfied.  Outside the wind blew through the trees, slowly rustled the tent as if it were breathing.  The crickets and cicadas buzzed in waves, rising and falling with a rhythm louder than a city.  Stephanie started to drift off when Eric sat up again.

“What if it’s a bear?”

Her temper flared.  “Godamn it, Eric. Enough!”

“I heard a bunch of them.  It could more than one.”

“There aren’t any bears!”

“How do you know that?”

“Because we’re in central Illinois!  There are no bears!  No mountain lions!  No wolves!  Nothing!”

“But…” Stephanie cut his protest off before he could voice it.

“No! No more! There is nothing to be afraid of! The biggest things in this forest are deer! Big-assed, grass-munching, stupid herd animal, fucking harmless deer!”

Image Flash #10

Image Flash #10

Robert Loting held his coffee cupped in shaking hands. They were big hands, washed clean, but they looked bloody. They had no skin on the knuckles. The coffee was heavily sugared, dark, with no cream. Officer Brighton entered the room followed by another man.

“Hey Bob, sorry about the wait. How you doing?” Robert managed a smile for a moment before the absurdity of ever being happy again slapped it from his face.

“I’m here.”

“Good, good Bob. This is the sketch artist I was telling you about, Neal. You think you’re up to talking to him?”

Robert nodded. Neal reached out his hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Robert released his coffee long enough to shake. “So how does this work?”

“Well, I give you and Neal some privacy. He asks you some questions, you watch what he draws, give him input, and you go from there. Don’t worry about rushing this. You just do your best; take your time. If you need anything, you remember where my desk is right? Just down the hall.”

Robert nodded. “He’s going to think I’m crazy.”

“Now, Bob…”

Neal interrupted. “Mr.Loting, I’m not here to judge. I’m just here to draw.”

Officer Brighton nodded. “You just describe what you saw, we’ll worry about the rest later. Deal?”

Robert mumbled around his coffee. “Deal.”

The door to the small room shut and left the two men alone. Neal opened up a case, set out several pens and a large notepad. He sat down.

“So tell me about her.”

Robert flinched. “I thought I was going to describe… to describe… him… it.”

Neal picked up a charcoal pencil. “Not yet. Lets loosen you up a little. How long were you together?”

Robert clung to his coffee. “Four years.”

“Married?”

“No. She was divorced. Said that being married ruined everything. She didn’t want to do it again.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“She was too reasonable sometimes. Practical, you know? Had her feet grounded in reality. She never would have believed…”

Neal started sketching. “She was attractive?”

“What… well, yeah, I thought so. She was a health nut, ridiculously thin. Not everybody was into how she looked, so brittle. I loved it. I liked thinking she was fragile.”

“Her hair?”

“Short. You know, modern girl.”

Neither man looked at one another. Neal sketched quickly and Robert watched a bubble skirt the lip of his coffee like a child clinging to the edge of a pool.

“How did you meet her?”

“A party.”

“Did you two go to a lot of parties?”

“Yeah, we did. She went to more. She’s more, what’s the other –verted? Not introverted, like inside, the other one.”

“Extroverted.”

“Yeah, extroverted. I always forget that one. It reminds me of a bug. Like exoskeleton.”

“So she was out a lot.”

“Yeah. I used to think she was a social butterfly, but after a while, I just couldn’t see her that way. She was just a fly, going from one shit party to another.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“Fuck man, how do you think? I just wanted to be with her and she was never in the right spot.”

“That must have been difficult.”

Robert shook his head. Took a long drink of coffee. “No, not really. I loved her, you know. Her head was all fucked up. Like there was a tangle of crossed phone lines, nothing really making sense. You can love someone even if they’re messed up you know.”

“I know.”

“You can love people through just about anything.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“What can’t you love them through?”

Robert set down the empty coffee cup. He leaned over and rubbed his eyes with a thumb. “When they crush your spirit. When they do that, then you’ve got nothing left to love with. You can’t help anybody when they’ve broken your soul’s bones and it can’t fly anymore, let alone carry them. When that happens, it’s over. Then you’re both gone.”

Neal put down his pencil, pushed his chair back from the table.

“I’ve heard enough. I think we’re done here.”

“But I haven’t described it yet! The thing that killed her! We were just talking about Alice. What the hell were you drawing?”

Neal closed the notepad and stood. “Don’t worry about it Bob. I think I’ve got a good enough sketch.”