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MILQUETOAST PSYCHO

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THAT’S FUCKED UP Matt was at home cooking lunch for himself and his eighty-four year old Noonie when Dane called. The phone was on the coffee table next to her, and Matt hurried to the living room, leaving his pot of last nights spaghetti on low heat. He smiled as he reached over her for the rotary antique that the family had used since the fifties. She beamed at him. Noonie was watching an episode of Kiddies for Christ. She had it on loud, but when Matt answered, he could still hear Dane bark, “Your fucking Jack has fucked us again.” Matt nodded reassuringly at Noonie. “Oh,” he said. “Is your Noonie in the room?” “Yes.” “I feel like throwing the phone,” Dane shouted. For years Matt had refused to get a cell phone, saying that he didn’t want to be that accessible to people. Consequently, probably eight out of ten of their conversations took place within Noonie’s hearing range so that in addition to the ridiculous ‘code’ talk they used in case they were being listened to by the man, Matt was even more hobbled by what he could say in front of her. In the background, the toddlers sang about Jesus. Dane said, “Two of the six tomatoes we got from your pal were spoiled.” “Uh, wow,” Matt said. The little kids, all of them in green jump suits were gathered around a smiling woman in her forties. Matt watched them as they sang in their angelic voices. They were so cute that watching them made him tear up.

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They were singing a song to the tune of “Frere Jacques”. “Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus? He is Lord. He is Lord. He has come to save us. He has come to save us. Worship him. Worship him.” “Fuck!” Dane’s voice exploded in Matt’s ear. “Listen to this,” he said, and Matt could head a dry, scratchy noise in the ear piece. “That,” Dane informed him, “Is the sound of fucking blight, fucking botrytis. It’s the sound of me crumbling a bit of tomato. Right under the outer green tips of the calyx and pin leaves - sawdust. Fucking shitty sawdust! I want to go with you to see Jack. This time, I’m going to kick the living dogshit out of him. He deserves it.” Talking in front of Noonie made Matt uncomfortable. “Aw, come on now. Quit trying to be so hard. No one deserves anything. I can deal with Jack myself. He, just uh, he made an unintentional mistake, and I can, uh, uh, talk to him.” Noonie looked up quizzically from the kiddies, who were praying in front of a red barn. “You’re too fucking nice with the guy, and that’s why he’s taken advantage of us twice now. Can you meet me at Hardees?” Dane said. “Sure,” Matt replied as his Noonie looked at him in delight and pointed at the little kids mewing that they loved Jesus. “Right after I get Noonie fed.” Matt rubbed his hand across his eyes in exasperation. He’d have to make up some lies to tell Noonie.

The inside of the Hardees was bright yellow with brown and pink details. Matt and Dane sat in a booth. Matt had lemonade, and Dane was chewing on Hardee’s largest multi-patty burger. With his mouth full, Dane said accusingly, “You’re not going to do anything.” Matt sipped his drink but didn’t respond. Dane was a hot-head, not that they didn’t have good reason to be angry.

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Matt said, “I wish we could just drop Jack.” In the last year, Jack had increasingly become a cokehead. Not only had he twice now tried to give them tainted bud, but his personality had become flakier, his mood swings more erratic. Jack was a pain. In addition to this being true and the way Matt felt, the remark had been a subtle reminder to Dane that practically, they couldn’t cut their supplier loose. They both knew this. Marginally calmer now, Dane said, “That cock-fuck just needs to stop with the bullshit.” He took a fierce bite of his hamburger and said as he chewed, “He needs to make things right with interest for the trouble.” Yes, if Dane had the chance, he’d set Jack straight, Matt tiredly reflected. He sighed, watching his old friend and pot-selling partner of the last thirty years choke down bite after bite of the massive burger, his face a deepening red and the veins in his neck and temple bulging as he barely chewed before swallowing and mashing the sandwich into his face for another chomp. Bringing him and Jack together so that Dane could teach Jack a lesson and make him pay them back with interest would be, in Matt’s mind, the setting for a monumental headache and certainly a possible catastrophe. Not a good way for them to get the bad pot replaced and continue doing business. Dane was large and angry. He was often angry. Angry and looking for something to focus his bad temper on. Jack was crazy when he was doing coke, and these days whenever Matt came to see him, Jack was always doing coke. Enclose the hothead and the cokehead in the same room to sort things out - no thanks. Fortunately, Dane had never even met this particular provider, their only source at present. Matt was the sole contact with the guy, and Jack had a strict rule about only dealing with him. He couldn’t bring anyone with him when he picked up.

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The first time Jack had mixed spoiled herb in with their purchase, he’d claimed that he hadn’t known, that he hadn’t examined all the weed that he’d gotten from that particular source. Neither Dane nor Matt had believed it at the time, and Matt had suggested that they cut ties with him then. Still, when you have no other supplier, you have to compromise to make things work, which Dane sometimes pretended not to understand. When they’d been in high school, they had gone from one dealer to another in order to get pot, and at a certain point, they were in a position to have quantities fronted to them, which for a small profit they distributed among their circle of friends. For a long time, sources had been plentiful, but in the last eight or nine years, they had dwindled. Connections had become hard to find, and the people were frequently shady. There were fewer big-hearted hippies and more guys who were ate up on coke, meth, or downers. Matt and Dane hated doing business with wasted idiots, but that’s what sometimes happened, as it had with Jack. Prior to him, they had run out of reliable providers, finding one person, then another, and sometimes finding no one, going dry for weeks at a time, until one night in a bar, Matt ran into Jack, whom he’d known in elementary school before Jack’s family had moved a few towns over in Tilling. When they’d first re-met, Jack hadn’t been snorting coke at all as far as Matt could tell, or at least not to the extent that it interfered with business, and he had many sources and could dependably wholesale them middling amounts of pot when they needed it. “Let me go with you,” Dane said, cramming a handful of fries into his maw. Matt rolled his eyes. He would employ his good-willed open-hearted savvy to get what they wanted from the volatile Jack. Forbearance was called for, a diplomatic touch. Jack was a ding-dong - boring stories of fights he’d had and showing off his guns. He always bragged that he was an expert marksman, gaffing on about how many hours he spent shooting at the trees around his isolated

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farm house. Poor trees, Matt always thought, but he politely listened because that was part of getting pot from Jack. Dane, who had the patience of a flea, would mess things up. So no to Dane coming along - a big no. Matt said, “I’ll take care of it.” Dane belched and glared at him. “Like last time? Please! You won’t take him to fucking task for this shit. It’s downright criminal what he fucking does.” Matt raised his eyebrows. He said, “It’s kind of criminal what we do too. Not unethical, but illegal, you know.” “I just can’t stand for that fucker to be going around thinking that he fucking got over on us. He may think that he can treat you like a retarded two year old, but he’s got to be thinking the same thing about me,” Dane blustered, madly scraping the onion bits off the bun of his second, more reasonably sized burger. “I told them to hold the fucking onions,” Dane said, his face having gone from red to dark purple. “Jack isn’t getting away with anything,” Matt said. “When you mess someone over like he has, you just mess yourself up.” Dane rolled his eyes. “You might not believe it,” Matt lectured, “but it’s the truth. I hope he changes, but when you make a pattern of doing bad stuff, it always, ALWAYS comes back to bite you in the behind.” Matt paused for a sip of lemonade. “We don’t have to do anything to him. He’s setting himself up.” Dane looked like he was going to throw-up his burgers. “Like hell he is,” he sputtered. “He’s fucking us and laughing about it.” Matt continued calmly, “You know I wanted to stop buying from him after the first time that this happened.” Grudgingly, Dane said, “We couldn’t.”

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“Well, if someone betrays you once, the best thing to do is to leave them alone after that. We should have just quit until we found someone else. This is what you have to expect when you’re dealing with cokeheads. Anyway,” Matt said, “What do you want me to do? Shoot him in the knee over four thousand dollars? Who do you think we are?” Dane’s brow folded into angry lines. “Forget Jack’s fucking selling us weed that’s so green that by the time it dries we end up losing a couple of ounces from the weight we paid for. Forget that. The problem is, Matt, that you always let Jack bullshit you. He’s going to say, ‘It’s not my fault. That’s how I bought it.’ You know that’s going to be his pussy-assed, fucked-up excuse. He’s got to make this right,” Dane insisted. “I’ll get our pot back,” Matt said chewing his ice. “Fucking-A,” Dane concurred, tearing through his second burger. From his pocket he took out a cell phone and slid it across the table. Matt looked at it. “What?” he said as if he didn’t know. “You are such a fucking old bitch about carrying a damn phone,” Dane replied, wiping his greasy fingers in a bunch of napkins. “Call me right after you talk to the fucker,” he said. “Okay,” Matt replied in a patronizing, conciliatory manner. Dane was tiresome, but he was predictable, and at least he wasn’t on coke. Whatever the reason Jack had for his increasing use of cocaine, it wasn’t a good practice that was helping him keep either business, physical health, or his sanity together. The coke made him belligerent, overly friendly, and paranoid by turns. Depending on Jack’s chemical state, haggling with him over the ruined herb, now in the trunk of Matt’s car, might either trigger a venomous tirade of denial or, just as likely, might see Jack in an expansive, creepily generous mood, giving them much more back then they’d be owed as a spun gesture of good will. Then

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again, if he was at the end of a binge, he might not answer the door at all. Jack, with his unpredictable behavior and his macho obsession with guns - Matt was sick of him. He took Dane’s phone and slipped it into his pocket. “I’ll call,” he said, and they left the Hardee’s, Dane to his job, and Matt to see Jack. Matt didn’t enjoy the drive to Jack’s remote farm house. In addition to his fear of transporting a bracing felony’s worth of herb, he also hated taking his Noonie’s Taurus through the steep hills on the narrow, pot-hole ridden, country roads. Jack lived a good forty minutes away, and Matt drove through two small towns before turning down the woodland road to Jack’s. The drastically steep hills were covered with leafy trees. The engine of the Taurus strained to make its way up the inclines, constantly making Matt afraid that the taxed motor would sputter and quit, forcing him to roll backwards, out of control, possibly off the road. At the top of each ridge, Matt felt his heart in his stomach as he prepared himself for the dizzying decline, the sensation of driving down the side of a cliff. Finally, Matt pulled onto Jack’s twisty driveway and maneuvered deeper into the woods. On either side were huge gullies, though if a car were driven over the edge, the trees would stop it from rolling very far. Avoiding the ruts in the driveway and steering gingerly, Matt carefully made his way back, further into the shadowy green and grey forest until he came to Jack’s farm house. The place was built on the side of a tall hill. It was the only clearing for miles, and from here you could see tree tops rippling down the valley. Matt parked in the driveway next to the white, vinyl sided, ranch style house. Jack’s Doberman Trixie wagged her stumpy tail and sauntered up to Matt as he got out. The guard dog’s friendliness constantly irritated Jack, who had bought her in hopes that she

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would be ferocious. Matt believed that were Jack threatened, Trixie would attack, but Jack wanted her to bark and growl at anybody who came. She nuzzled Matt’s hand in greeting. He could see Jack peek at him from the closed blinds of one of the front windows. He knocked at the door. The length of time that it took for Jack to answer was a good predictor of how messed up he was. Matt stood at the heavy wooden door for nearly five minutes. Is he afraid? Will he not even answer? He knows who it is, Matt thought ruefully, imagining Jack on the other side of the door, daubing cocaine at his raw, inflamed nostrils. “Great”, Jack muttered as he waited. When the door opened, Jack was predictably gakked. Pale and shirtless, he was sweating, bug-eyed, and expressionless. “Matty Matt,” Jack said, trying to sound snappy but sounding haunted and anxious instead. Matt greeted his wired provider with what he hoped was a disarming smile as he stepped inside. The heavenly musk of marijuana, loud even from right outside the front door, was overwhelming in Jack’s house. Jack, wearing dark sweats without shoes or socks, indicated that Matt have a seat on the old leather sofa in his living room. He sat close to the door in a straight back wicker chair, and between them was Jack’s huge coffee table which held his many treasures. “Man, you already go through the six pounds you got yesterday?” Jack asked jerkily. Matt tried to read him. He didn’t seem to be acting in a guilty manner, didn’t appear to know what the visit was about. Both of them smiled uncertainly at each other. “Well...no,” Matt began carefully. “We - uh - were looking at it and...um.” “Was something wrong?” Jack asked. “Uh, did you, um...by any chance notice any botrytis in that batch? Because, uh, the reason I ask is that, well, there were two pounds of bud that were, uh, rotten. I’ve got them in the

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car.” Jack twitched as he regarded Matt. His eyes looked crazy, but when he spoke his tone was conciliatory. “Oh my gosh,” he said, opening a drawer on his side of the coffee table and taking out a black plastic bong and a dish with several lines of coke cut on it. Jack slid the bong across the table to Matt, who noticed that Jack’s hands were trembling. “Go ahead,” Jack said, offering him a lighter. Matt accepted and smoked from the large bowl of fresh pot as his host indulged in several long lines. The cocaine made Jack start violently coughing and hacking, and when he looked up from the plate, his face was red. With his heavy breathing, red face, and sweaty visage, Jack looked as if he’d just swum from the bottom of a very deep pool. When he was able to catch his breath, he spoke, and Matt noted uneasily the change in Jack’s voice. “I can’t personally inspect every bud,” Jack spat irritably, opening another drawer and pulling out two large bags of weed. “Here. Is this cool?” he asked, bitterness dripping from his voice. Now his labored breathing seemed more from the rage dancing behind his glassy, bloodshot eyes. “Be sure and look through it so that this time you know I’m not trying to rip you off,” he snarled. Matt said,”Oh, no. I apologize if I gave you that impression. No. We didn’t think that. Me and my pal figured it was just like you said.” Matt opened one of the freezer bags, put his face in the opening, and smelled. It was good weed. Dane wouldn’t be able to bitch, not that he wouldn’t anyway. As Matt examined the buds, Jack huffed, “Thank you for the benefit of a doubt. I just have so much on my mind. It’s not like this fucking weed is all I’ve got to worry about. Shit.” Jack reached into the open drawer. “See,” he hissed venomously.

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Matt looked up to see Jack shakily putting baggies of pills, coke, more weed, and three pistols all on the table. “See, fucker,” Jack said loudly, startling Matt. Jack was standing, leaning across the table, hovering over him. “Uh,” Matt said. He was cut off by Jack, who in a millisecond had picked up the largest of the pistols and aimed it right in Matt’s face. “Just shut the fuck up. Don’t say anything. If I hear one more fucking complaint, one more word, I swear I’m gonna fucking kill both of us.” Quick as a flash, Jack pointed the gun to the ceiling and fired a round. The blast made a deafening report, and the air was filled with the smell or cordite. Plaster dropped from the hole the bullet had made. Matt was terrified. He thought that Jack was going to murder him. Outside, Trixie was barking in alarm. Grinding his teeth, Jack rolled his eyes. “Every fucking day, it’s something new,” he moaned. Affecting a mocking nasal tone, mimicking all the unreasonable customers who constantly bugged him, he said, “The pills aren’t right, Jack. Jack, you didn’t give us enough blow. The weed’s fucked up, Jack. This is wrong. That’s not right. Make it right, Jack. What the fuck. I’ve fucking had it!” Again, Matt was looking down the wavering barrel of the big, grey gun. The hole in the ceiling was well over a foot in diameter. Matt imagined what it would do to his head at point blank range. Again - at the last instant, Jack pointed away from Matt and shot, this bullet smashing into the wall. To Matt, Trixie’s barking sounded as if it were coming from far away. Time was slowed down. Matt looked at Jack, who was waving the gun at the ceiling and the walls. Drying white spit webbed the corners of his mouth as he raged, “I am just so fucking sick of you people - always never satisfied. Nobody even cares about me. Nobody even remembered my fucking birthday last week!” As Jack went on in this vein, Matt focused on the pistols right in front of

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him. Gnashing his teeth, Jack said, “I just want you people - to all fucking die,” and saying this, he closed his eyes. Matt shot him. Quick as that. When Jack shut his eyes, Matt grabbled the nearest gun, pointed it at Jack’s chest, and squeezed the trigger. The gun was smaller than the one Jack was holding, larger than the one still on the table, and the noise and concussion weren’t grandiose. Still, it killed Jack, knocking him backward before he dropped to the floor near the back wall. The next few seconds seemed to last minutes. Trixie’s barking was now anguished. Inside, the smell of gun smoke cut through the musk of weed. Everything was still. Matt put the gun on the table. Quickly he went to Jack to see if he were still breathing. He wasn’t. He really was dead. Matt knew he had to get out of there. He thought of his Noonie, knowing that his arrest would kill her. There was no bringing Jack back. Matt had to think. His mind went to the innumerable CSI shows that he and Noonie had watched throughout the years. He took a cloth and wiped the gun he’d used as well as the bong, then decided that he’d better take that with him in case there was his DNA on it. He quickly pocketed the lighter he’d used as well. Except for the bong and lighter, the only other things he’d touched in the house had been the bags of weed. Using the rag, Matt hurriedly went through the drawer that everything had come from, and he found a small book with all Jack’s customer’s, their names in code, and information regarding what they’d bought. Matt put this in his pocket, and with the two big bags of weed, he stepped over the dead man and started to leave. Trixie’s barking stopped him. Feeling hysterical himself, Matt tried to sooth the dog. “It’s okay Trixie,” Matt said over and over, but the dog continued braying. Reluctantly, Matt turned to Jack and took the big gun out of the dead man’s hands. “It’s okay, Trixie,” Matt said, wanting to scream as he slowly

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cracked open the door. As soon as he’d opened it, Trixie thrust her muzzle in the open space, trying to push her way in. “Oh, God,” Matt groaned, pointing the gun at the dog’s face. He thought of the ugly shame that would put his Noonie in her grave. How he’d be in jail, unable to attend her funeral - the funeral for which he’d be responsible. He’d never even been arrested. He couldn’t shoot Trixie. He loved dogs. Dogs and kitties, animals in general - maybe more than people. Definitely more than people, he thought, glancing at Jack’s prone body. At the last second, Matt aimed over the dog’s head and fired. The shot blew bits of the front door away and sent Trixie running. With the weed, the bong, and the big gun in case Trixie came at him, Matt left the house and shut the broken door behind him. He was soaking with sweat, but before he’d gotten to the old Taurus, his heart sunk at the sound of another vehicle coming up Jack’s driveway. It was a blue Ford SUV. From under the house somewhere, Trixie growled. The car parked, and Matt could see the driver, a big blonde man with thinning hair pulled into a pony tail. He looked warily at Matt, who instinctively held the pistol behind his back, though he made no effort to hide the bags of pot and the bong. Matt forced himself to smile. He hoped his expression didn’t look as queasy as he felt. Probably because Matt was so diminutive and unthreatening, the man got out of his car. “Hi,” Matt said. “Hey, man,” the blonde said warily. “Where’s Jack?” Matt felt his heart hammering in his chest. He was trapped. His skin felt hot. He said, “Uh, he’s, uh, inside.” Helplessly, Matt watched as the man started toward the house. He was looking hard at

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Matt, and at the entrance, he noticed the splintered wood around the door knob. The blonde stopped. He turned to Matt and said, “What the fuck’s going on? What are you hiding?” The pistol made an explosion that Matt felt everyone in the world must have heard. The bullet knocked the big man down, and he lay in the dirt gasping, a pulsing blossom of red furiously expanding over his shirt front. Matt’s ears were ringing and he could barely feel his legs under him as he walked up to the severely injured man and, looking him directly in the eye, shot him again, another bullet in the chest. Matt watched the body jerk from the impact of the shell bursting through the vital organs, destroying the stranger’s life. There was a final shudder. Now, like Jack, this guy was dead too. Think, Matt numbly ordered himself. He wiped the gun, reentered the house, and put it back in Jack’s hands. From the table he took the gun he’d used to shoot Jack and put it in the blonde’s hand, positioning him in the doorway so that it looked as if he and Jack had shot each other. He stayed long enough to see if the first bullet had lodged in the front of the house, but he didn’t find it. Matt guessed - prayed that it had gone in the surrounding woods. Then, throwing the bags of pot and the bong in his trunk, he slowly drove away. On the highway coming back to his town, he heard the ringtone of the phone Dane had lent him. Forcing himself to hide the shakiness he felt, he measured his words so that he spoke as naturally as he could, saying, “Is this you, Dane?” “Who else in the fuck would it be? Did you take care of that thing with the tomatoes?” “I did,” Matt said unsteadily. “It’s okay.” Dane laughed derisively. Matt decided that his partner could never know - no one could. “Are the tomatoes good? Or did he give you some fucked up bullshit again?” Dane demanded.

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Get a grip. Not impossible. Have to behave regularly, he commanded himself. Though he was alive - breathing, driving, heading back to his life, Matt felt as if he was now merely pretending to be himself when, in fact, his identity was as dead as the men he’d slain. Trying to put normalcy back into his voice, he said, “It’s as good if not better.” “That’s great,” Dane said pleased. “The Dennings are going to need two to three ounces of tomatoes this week. They told me they’re going to bake some tomato brownies for their 70's party. They said that would be a hoot.” Dane chuckled. “So,” he said, “Did you have to shoot that fucking bowl of fuck in the knee like we talked about?” Control. Matt couldn’t sound suspicious in what he said. That Jack had been murdered by someone would come to light in time. From now on, Matt would have to act as if he were ignorant of what had transpired just twenty minutes and two lives ago. Sickness about what he’d done filled his bones, threatened to suck the breath out of him. He couldn’t let that happen. Tonight is Noonie’s favorite show, Laurence Welk - on PBS, he thought emptily. Answer Dane. Matt steeled himself. He could do this. Had to. Just let the broken parts of himself drift off in the undertow of his secret to some frozen horizon where unbearable guilt and shame would cease to matter. Did he shoot Jack in the knee? Matt forced a small, unconvincing laugh. “Uh, not exactly,” he said. THE VOODOO JUICE Looking like a tall, gentle, dead man in vestments, Father Manfredini began the mass by addressing the congregation. “Let us begin by asking God for the forgiveness of our sins,” he invited everyone. Since Matt’s transgression a few months back, he’d thought much about what he’d done. Done and gotten away with. Forgive me Lord, Matt thought. As his eyes settled on the stained glass windows depicting armored saints and sword-wielding, half-smirking angels, he

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reflected on how most of the anguish he’d felt for the first weeks after the murders had been from his fear of being caught rather than remorse for what he’d actually done. Which made him feel bad, but not very. He’d obsessed that he’d be arrested and that the shame would kill Noonie. Matt thanked God that he hadn’t gotten caught. The priest said, “Now we will share in the gospel, and may the words of our Lord fill your minds and pierce your hearts.” That phrase ‘pierce your hearts’ triggered images of the hearts that Matt had, in fact, pierced, Jack and the other fellow, whom the news had identified as Gerald something or other. Matt looked over at his Noonie, shrunken, frail, and earnest, sitting next to him in the pew. Though he went along with the idea that church is good for the soul, he had to admit that the only reason he went to mass every week was for Noonie. She was reading the missel, keeping up with the liturgy, happy as she could be. Hurting her would have been the worst, but as things had played out, when the police finally found the bodies after nearly a month, the local news had reported that although they hadn’t believed Jack and Gerald had shot each other - the blood patterns being inconsistent, there weren’t any other leads. Matt had gotten away with homicide. Not that he’d wanted to kill them. That crazy Jack. The only thing to do had been to shoot the big goof. And poor Gerald, him too. Killing Jack was too bad, but the Gerald thing had been, maybe, too, too bad. There had been no other choice. What else could I have done? Matt wondered. He saw his having gotten away with it as being divine intervention. Maybe God had saved him from being caught for Noonie’s sake. Matt looked at his wizened Noonie as she joined in the hymn “O Sacred Heart O Love Divine”. He thanked God that he had her. Once he realized no one would blame him, Matt pretty much stopped feeling bad. Even here - with the priest gassing on about sin, and with Matt’s big old school-mate, Sheriff Timmy,

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sitting with his wife in the same pew - Matt felt what he guessed was peace in his soul. God’s will was merciful. Matt and Timmy locked eyes, slightly nodded to each other, and looked away. Surprising. He knew killing was wrong - extraordinarily wrong. Until recently, Matt had always been nonviolent, thinking himself incapable of such acts, but now, with Father Manfredini blathering - forever with God and being good and things like that - Matt wondered why he hadn’t felt eaten up with anxiety every second of the day. He believed in the Lord, in right and wrong, in decency too. He was a good liberal, a peacenik if anything . Matt couldn’t even watch the gory scenes on the CSI shows to which he and Noonie were devoted. But, oddly, he didn’t feel badly about what he’d done, not much. Forgive me for killing them, and forgive me for not feeling bad, Matt prayed. In addition to a troubling lack of concern, he felt no need to unburden himself of his awful secret. Even his partner Dane hadn’t had a clue. When they’d needed more herb, Matt had said that he hadn’t been able to reach Jack. Later, when Dane had heard what had happened, it had never entered his mind that Matt could have done it. All that he’d said was that they’d have to find someone else now. In the wake of relief that Matt had felt when he realized that he wouldn’t pay for his crime, Dane had come up with their next contact. Andrew Rainey was a lifelong Pilsen boy, and just like Matt and Dane, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had also lived there all their lives. Dane had gone to school with Andrew’s mom, Kathy, the two of them being two years behind Matt. She’d married a fellow whose dad had put them in a successful carpet business. She was a nice woman. Everyone knew about Andrew. As a child he’d been hard to teach, usually opting to dismiss his teachers’ directions in order to forge his own loud, disruptive, and wrong way through lessons, which might explain why, when he’d become a teen and had decided to embark

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on an exciting life of crime, he’d been so easily caught by the law. He’d been picked up for having broken into an elderly couple’s home as well as trying to burglarize The Pilsen pharmacy. Andrew had also been arrested for fighting on more than one occasion, his most serious scrape putting another stupid boy in intensive care with a concussion. He’d kicked the kid in the head after beating him. Predictably, Andrew had also been arrested several times for possession of drugs. Downers were Andrew’s greatest love. And how had he avoided jail time or, when younger, the juvenile hall? His rich parents had paid good lawyers well to keep him out. Andrew had shown his gratitude to mom and dad by stealing from them as well as breaking into his grandparents’ house when they were away and stealing from them as well. Now he sold drugs. Anything he could get in bulk, including marijuana, which made him a person of interest to Dane and Matt. Dane had made the connection with Andrew during the short time the lad worked in the restaurant where Dane was a chef. After Matt’s misadventure, he didn’t want to deal with any more idiots, but since they had no one else, he went along with it. He didn’t like Andrew. For that matter neither did Dane, who was the one who mostly conducted business with the younger man. Also against Andrew was that he wasn’t secretive about his activities, always having his wasted, ornery friends around. Only once did Matt go with Dane to Andrew’s house to get some pot. Somnambulant partiers had been sitting around playing video games as well as you’d imagine people who were drinking and taking Darvocet and OxyContin could. And in the middle of it all, Andrew Rainey had been holding court, his speech rubbery and incomprehensible. “Mun sst’s coo t’ ave mmma mmum’s ‘omes ere add da crib pardyin’ wid da crewe. Huh huh huh.” Andrew nodded, his eyes nearly closed. While Dane and Matt were there, several other buyers had popped in, causing Matt to ask himself if any of these people

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were undercover agents. He hoped not, deciding right then that Andrew was the kind of dealer who sold drugs in order to have friends. The guy, now in his mid-twenties, was large and dressed in baggy chinos and wife beaters like a Cholo, which he wasn’t. He was, however, a jackass not to be trusted, but right then he was the only person who could get middling quantities of good weed. Probably, their customers’ kids could get them excellent herb, but none of them wanted their kids to know. To them, Matt and Dane’s friends with whom they’d grown up, pot was still something to be hidden, a guilty pleasure, something naughty. They wanted quarter ounces or, for special occasions, ounces, but they would never buy larger quantities or deal with scummy drug addicts to get their pot. These were people who would have formal theme parties - like one couple’s annual Easter Joint Hunts wherein they would roll doobies in different flavored papers of varying pastel colors and hide them in their spacious yard for their friends to find. Solid people, they took comfort that they were merely users and not dealers. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome - that’s from Alcoholic’s Anonymous, but it fits many situations. Matt figured it was a matter of time before he and Dane would have a problem with Andrew. Dane grudgingly agreed, but when Matt would express his doubts, he’d remind him that, “...We don’t have any fucking body else...” He said pretty much, without the profanity, what Matt had told him when Jack hadn’t done right by them. So what Andrew did to them came as no surprise. Matt first became aware of what had happened when Dane called him in the early evening. He and his Noonie had finished the supper of salmon cakes, mashed potatoes and green beans he had made. The two of them were settled in front of the television and were watching The Lawrence Welk Show on their local PBS affiliate when the phone rang. “Excuse me,

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Noonie,” Matt said, getting up from the sofa and reaching across the elderly woman to answer. When he picked up the receiver he could tell something was wrong. Eschewing for the moment his usual liberal sprinkling of the word ‘fuck’ throughout his conversation and his normal tone of incredulous anger, Dane quietly uttered, “You’ve got to come over here now.” For once, their conversation was short and not jerry-rigged with code words or phrases. “Okay.” Matt said. When he put the phone back, he smiled at his Noonie. On the television, Welk’s dancers, Bobby and Sissy, were doing a sprightly jitterbug in front of a set designed to look like a county fair. “I’m going to go see Dane for awhile, Noonie,” Matt said. “Are you going to be back in time for CSI St. Paul?” she asked, her eyes distorted behind her thick glasses. “Probably.” “You’d better. I’m going to pop some popcorn.” “Oh, I’ll be back for sure then.” Matt immediately guessed what had happened when he entered Dane’s front room. Drawers had been pulled out and thrown around haphazardly and furniture toppled. Looking into the kitchen, Dane could see the utensils strewn across the floor. Andrew and his friends had broken the dining table. Matt guessed that the rest of the house was in the same condition. Cheryl paced through the rooms, crying and in shock. Dane had set his lounge chair back upright and was sitting, in his hand a big black pistol. When Matt entered, Dane looked up, his eyes bright with rage and his hand shaking as he gripped the gun. The sight of a furious man bandying a pistol brought back to Matt the scary vision of Jack, wildly shooting, raving, and threatening. “Uh,” Matt managed to say.

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“That fucking Andrew ripped us off - that miserable, asshole rat-fuck,” Dane said, so angry that he was breathing as if he’d been in a foot race. “Fuck.. That motherfucking piece of shit. That fucking ass-burger. I’m going to fucking kill him and all those fucks.” From the kitchen, Cheryl moaned at the spectacle of her out of control husband. “So you picked up the pot from Andrew, and brought it back here?” “Yep. That fucking Andrew came around when neither Cheryl nor me were home. He broke in, and by fuck, he stole it back. Eight pounds! He parked in front of the house, and with two other guys went to the back where they got in through a rear window. Cheryl found the pane broke when she came home from grocery shopping.” “How do you know they did all this stuff? I mean, who saw them?” Matt asked. Dane gestured wildly. “The lady across the fucking street, Emma Sands, she saw him and the other two. She watched them park, walk around, and leave through the front door with three ice chests, which had made her suspicious. Not enough to have called the police, thank God, but enough to tell Cheryl what she saw. Of course, like everyone, she knows who Andrew is from all the trouble he’s been in. Poor, fucking Cheryl. She finds this mess, then Emma Sands calls, and Cheryl has to act like everything is cool. Emma told her this fucking shit and was like, ‘Did someone break in?’ and Cheryl was like, ‘Naw. Everything’s okay.’” Dane gnashed his teeth and screamed, “I’m going to fucking kill that fuck!” Matt was stunned; furthermore, he didn’t know if Dane was serious, but he knew that he couldn’t go to Andrew’s house and start killing people. Dane wouldn’t be able to get away with it. They’d either kill him in the process or, even if he somehow managed to slaughter them all, the police would catch him. He’d be seen. Even if he weren’t seen, Emma Sands would tell someone that before being murdered, Andrew had been at their house and had left with the

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mysterious ice chests. That would lead the law to Dane, and all the dissembling in the world wouldn’t be able to cover up the crime. And if Dane were caught, Matt would be in trouble too. Which would never do. Matt forced himself to speak. “You can’t kill Andrew,” he said. “Like fuck I can’t,” Dane spat fiercely. “Come on. You’re my partner. We’ve got to do this. We can’t let that doped-up sack of shit get away with this. God, I swear I’m going to fucking kill that turd-sucking fag sack. That fucking - ” “You shouldn’t swear so much,” Matt began. “You need to calm down. You need to calm down...Breathe,” Matt urged, showing by example how Dane should take deep breaths - in and out. Dane looked at Matt as if he were insane. “Come on,” Matt said encouragingly. “See how it’ll help you step back from this so you can put things in perspective.” Dane screamed, “Are you out of your God-damned mind?” Cheryl had come back in the room and was wringing her hands, helplessly gawking at her husband Matt said, “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.” “Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fucking fuck. We can’t let that miserable twat - “ ”What do you think is going to happen if you go over there with a gun and kill the - the doggoned jackass? Do you honestly think that you’re going to be able to do that and get our weed back and everything will go back to normal? Think you won’t get arrested?” Matt knew better than to suggest that Dane would probably be killed himself in the attempt. “I’ll get the weed back,” Dane blustered. “No you won’t. You can’t do this. You can’t. You can’t. You cannot do this. Kill him and you’ll go to jail. You understand?”

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Still glaring at Matt, Dane bit his lower lip. He looked at his gun for several seconds. He stopped chewing his lip and said, “I won’t kill him. I’ll just scare him with the gun. I’ll get our weed back.” “No you won’t. What you’ll do is ruin your life - and Cheryl’s life - my life, and my Noonie’s because you want to get back at this, um...this dum-dum. Listen to what you’re saying. You’re going to scare him? He’s too stupid and stoned to be scared, and he has too many stupid stoned - uh - dummies around him for any of them to be scared. They’ll either shoot you or stab you or beat you to death if you show up there with a gun.” Unable to say anything, Cheryl sank to the floor, weeping and hysterical at the men’s awful conversation. “Look,” Matt reasoned. “You should be comforting her instead of acting like a fool. You should be helping her put your house back in order instead of carrying on like you think you’re Tony Montana. You’re not. You’re just a guy like me.” “I am not a pussy like you, Matt,” Dane protested, but Matt could see that he’d gotten through to his partner, who, despite being a hothead, was too smart not to see the point of what had been said. Matt got up from his chair. Dane was right about one thing. He wasn’t like Matt, but not for the reason his partner thought: Dane had never killed two guys and hidden it. “So what do you expect us to do?” Dane asked, sour resignation in his voice, knowing what Matt was going to say. “First of all, you’re right,” Matt said, thinking of Jack’s body lying on the floor of his farm house with a bullet in his chest. “You’re not like me. You’re nothing like I am, Dane. And what we have to do is nothing. There’s not a - not a darn thing we can do,” he said sadly. He helped Cheryl to her feet and picked up a drawer, putting it back in the bureau, which he and she scooted to its place. Dane looked at the floor, defeated. “Hey, I’m mad at him too, but we have

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to drop it. There’s nothing we can do,” Matt insisted. Ruefully, Dane said, “You’re mad at him? Shit. Even the way you say it, (in a high pitched voice) ‘I’m mad toooooo,’ Hell. Shit. Matt, you are such a pussy. You don’t get mad.” As Matt helped Cheryl put the coffee table back in front of the television, which hadn’t been broken, he allowed himself a small conciliatory smile. “You’re right. I don’t.”

Matt and Dane stopped selling and smoking pot for the time being, much to the anguish of their clientele, who - bitterly resenting not having their good weed - for months called both of them with their whining, pleading, and complaining. For the first time since the mid-seventies, Matt was able to pass a drug test. Dane followed Matt’s advice and dropped the issue. But Matt had not forgotten Andrew, and though he’d agreed with Dane about his not really being angry, he’d lied. He burned, possessed with an ever growing hatred and desire for revenge. Andrew embodied many of the dealers he’d known - stupid, dishonest, and addicted to pills and coke. Andrew was in his thoughts all the time. And, since Matt had stopped smoking herb, he constantly encountered Andrew, Jack and Gerald in his dreams, which had increased triple-fold with the cessation of THC in his system. Those three figured predominantly in the nightmares Matt had every night. Them killing him, killing his Noonie, killing Dane and Cheryl. And, more and more often, him killing them. Matt didn’t set out to come up with a plan, but he did get a thought while looking in the bathroom cabinet for a bandage one afternoon and noticing the pain medication Noonie had used nearly a year ago when her lower back had been causing her extreme pain. Her doctor had prescribed Darvocet at first, but when that hadn’t helped, he’d given her a prescription for the far

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more powerful OxyContin, following that with the strongest painkiller, fentanyl patches. Noonie was alright now, thank God, but she still had all those drugs. Seeing them just sitting there gave Matt the shadow of an idea. “What are you doing in there, honey?” Noonie asked. “Oh, nothin’,” he told her.

Matt acted as if everything was fine, as if he hadn’t held a grudge. He’d saved most of the money he’d made from his and Dane’s decades of retailing pot, and now he just stayed at home, read stupid magazines, watched empty television, and wrote awful poetry he sent to literary magazines that sent them back to him. Not even Dane would have thought that his teeny-weeny bean of a friend was harboring any animosity toward the fellow who had ripped them off. The few times that Matt had run into Andrew in town, he’d made it a point to behave in a friendly manner toward him, pretending that he didn’t know what the young man had done. Being friendly. Saying hello. Asking how Andrew was and how the party was going. Andrew’s neverending party. Matt also took long drives, and one day while aimlessly cruising through the country, he remembered he was close to an abandoned underground shelter in the old strip pits, overgrown since they’d been actively mined decades back. As a boy of about twelve, he and his friends had discovered the place, and now he went out to look at it. The scheme jelled a bit more as he opened the steel door that was flush with the ground, the entrance to the buried room. He looked down into the lightless interior. Crumbling cement stairs went into the earth fifteen feet, leading to a small bunker. The door, though rusty, was still impenetrable and had a hasp and a shackle needing a lock. Matt had one.

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On another evening, he drove to the small town of Cederville, two communities over from Pilsen. In a huge liquor mart, Matt bought a quart bottle of Hennessy Brandy. When he got home, he opened the decanter and emptied it into a plastic jug. He then put Noonie’s four left over fentanyl patches in the brandy and left them to soak for a month. When he decided the brew was ready, he put the brandy back in its original bottle. As a final touch, Matt crushed Noonie’s OxyContin and Darvocet into the spirits as well. He started traveling with the bottle stashed under the front seat of his car and the old lock in his glove compartment. He went by Andrew’s house maybe every other day. Watching. Not even a social butterfly type of dealer like Andrew could have people around all the time. On a quiet afternoon, Matt saw Andrew walking to the nearby Huck’s. The younger man’s coterie of party people must have been off somewhere doing something else. Matt pulled his Noonie’s Taurus alongside him. He smiled and said, “Hey, it’s the big man himself. Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.” Matt had made sure that there was no one passing by, no one else on the sidewalk. He didn’t see anyone looking from a window. It was a sunny, sleepy kind of day. Andrew took up Matt’s offer and plopped his large body into the passenger’s seat. He was sweating out residual alcohol and drugs, the back and front of his black wife-beater wet with perspiration. To Matt, it seemed that Andrew had difficulty breathing regularly, his respiration sounding shallow and quick. “Why thanks, dude,” Andrew said grinning at Matt, who hated being called dude. “I was going to Huck’s to get a six-pack. What’s up?” “Just driving and partying...Heck I’ve got something better than a six pack,” Matt said amicably, trying to pique Andrew’s interest. “Reach under the seat.” Matt wondered if Andrew even remembered having stolen from him and Dane, or if he even knew that he and Dane were partners. Didn’t matter. Matt smiled through the vengeance boiling in his stomach as Andrew

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clumsily felt around the floor of the car until he found the bottle of Hennessy. Quickly, Matt turned down a deserted side street and started wending his car out of town, praying that no one would see them together. If someone did, Matt would have had to “accidently” drop the bottle in the car, which would be hard to explain to Noonie, but not as hard as talking his way out of a big dead Andrew to the police. “Henny! Alright! I always knew you were a classy dude, Matt. Like - smart,” Andrew crowed as he uncapped the poison and took a big slug. “Geeerrrk,” he said, his face contorting from the hideous taste. By now, they were almost at the outskirts of town. “How do you like my Voodoo Juice?” Matt asked.. “It tastes like fuckin’ shit, dude.” Despite the nasty taste, Andrew took another long swallow. “Whew, that’s the shit!” He handed the bottle to Matt, who put the lip of the bottle to his mouth and pretended to take a drink. Matt scrunched his features in mock agony. “Yeeeech,” Matt yelled. “It tastes like that because I doctored it up a little,” he told Andrew, whose eyebrows raised. “A little of my Noonie’s medicine,” he jauntily admitted, handing the bottle back to his passenger. “Wow. You’re really cool. I didn’t know you partied like that, bro-bro. Dude, you got to come by the crib and chill with me and my boys...Whenever you want.” He looked at the bottle. “You didn’t drink very much,” he observed. “I’m a lot smaller than you. It doesn’t take as much for me. Besides, I’m the designated driver on this road trip, so you just sit back and have as much as you want,” he said expansively. He was out of town and driving down one winding road after another, past light green forests and sunlit meadows.

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Delighted by his host’s generosity, Andrew took two more greedy swallows. “Fuuuuck,” he said, shuddering. “This shid ain’ too bad after th’ first couple drinks.” As Matt continued to drive through the country, Andrew kept drinking. His eyes glazed. He kept taking gulps, and the level of Hennessy went down. “Shid...I’m feelin’ gooooood. Wha’ th’ fug you pud inna it?” he asked blearily. “Oh, a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Matt teased. The road had taken them into the area of abandoned strip pits that had grown into miles of forested ridges, jungle valleys, and deep lakes. Matt was heading toward the shelter. “Huh huh. Uh liddle bidda dis...biddle ditta dat. Ahhh huh huh huh,” Andrew mumbled sucking down another gigantic swallow. “Golly, Andrew, you can really hold your Henny. I’ll bet you can’t take five big old swallows of the Voodoo Juice,” Matt challenged. Andrew looked at Matt as if he hadn’t quite understood. “Uhhhhg gee-gee uhhhhg... guh,” he mumbled, tipping the large bottle to his mouth and proving Matt wrong. “Well done, my friend. Well done,” Matt said. Matt drove around, constantly urging Andrew to keep drinking and no longer bothering to pretend to have a sip himself. Andrew still held the bottle tightly, but his motor skills were otherwise now gone. They drove past the flashing blue lakes that ran parallel to the road. Occasionally, Matt would point out a particularly lovely scene. “Look at that, Andrew. I always said that I like it when they don’t try to renovate these old mines, don’t you?” Blinking slowly, Andrew managed to burble, “Unnnnguh. A-huh. Ughhh...hum.” Every turn in the road would cause his oversize body to list in whatever direction centrifugal force took him. Andrew’s breathing was labored, sounding like a string of drawn out sobs.

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“Did I ever show you where I keep my big stash?” Matt asked, eliciting a few more nonsensical syllables. Pulling into the shady embankment of trees where the shelter was, he drove through the tall weeds as close to it as he could, then parked. If you didn’t know it was there, you might walk past it because the broom wheat was so dense. Matt was a little concerned about his Noonie’s Taurus making a path, but it wouldn’t have been smart if he’d left his car on the road for some passerby to notice, and he wasn’t sure that at this point Andrew would be able to go very far anyway. As it was, he had to help him out of the passenger’s side. “Well here we are,” Matt chirped, Andrew’s arm slung around his shoulder as he led him to the shelter. Once there, he pulled the steel door open. “It’s all in there, Andrew. All the drugs,” he said in an enticing manner as he stood next to the dark hole. The worn concrete steps faded into inky blackness. Swaying in front of the opening, Andrew didn’t appear to be able to focus anymore. Matt took a deep breath. “Whoops,” he said as he kicked the back of Andrew’s right knee and gave him a helpful shove. The thieving lad didn’t cry out as he tumbled down the stairs into the darkness. After swinging the door shut, Matt went back to his car, took the old lock from the glove compartment, and bolted it through the hasp and shackle. Mindful of fingerprints, he wiped the handle, the latch, and the lock. Finally, as he covered the door with brush and fallen branches, he merrily whistled the song, “Send in the Clowns”. Unlike the fearful drive home after having killing Jack, Matt was feeling as if he were filled with light. ‘Sweetness and light’, where have I heard that phrase before, he pleasantly wondered. He said a little prayer that it be God’s will for him not to be caught, but he felt deep down that everything would be just swell. Seldom had the trees and hills, the blue sky, and the water from the strip pit lakes looked as splendid as they did now. Who needs pot? he asked

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himself. When he got home, his Noonie beamed at him as she always did, and she said, “Where you been, honey?” “Oh, I took a little drive this afternoon,” he told her, bussing her cheek. She was in front of the television and had the religious network on. Soon he would start supper. Tonight they would have baked chicken, rice, and peas. But first, one of their favorite programs, Kiddies For Christ, was about to start. Matt sat on the sofa next to her as the wee tots came on the screen, mewling about how much they loved Jesus. The sight of the adorable little kids made Matt tear up, just as it always did.

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HOLD ON TIGHT TO YOUR DREAMS SO YOU CAN KILL THEM ONCE AND FOR ALL Matt’s dreams were interrupted in the early morning by what sounded like a giant banshee being electrocuted, the sound streaming with the action of his nightmare. The incessant, panicked cry cut through the hazy loop of what he saw every time he fell asleep, scenes of violence and variations of mayhem involving himself, Jack, Gerald, and Andrew. In the dream that had just been interrupted, Matt envisioned himself killing them again. This time the setting had been on a narrow, high plateau. The three of them were back from the dead and chasing Matt with the intention of throwing him off the cliff. Strangely, he neither judged nor blamed them for wanting to do him harm. Now as he restlessly fought his bed-sheets, he found that he’d turned the tables on them, and right before the horrible squawking, Matt had somehow tied them up and was rolling them toward the edge of the abyss, much to their chagrin although they too were oddly unmoved by it all. He put the nightmares down to having quit marijuana after Andrew had become ‘unavailable’ rather than subliminal guilt. The violent dreams didn’t bother him. He didn’t dread going to bed, didn’t feel any different than he did before. What he had done, he told himself, hadn’t changed him. Jack’s and Gerald’s deaths - unavoidable. Matt blamed Jack for making him shoot him. Because of that, he resented the stupid, dead guy, feeling neither remorse nor satisfaction. There was a certain sadness when he thought of Gerald - so he didn’t think of him. But killing Andrew was the result of careful, loving plans, borne of anger, and Matt found revenge to be a new and wonderfully refreshing sensation. The way he took to it was surprising. Matt never would have thought himself capable of killing anything and still couldn’t abide the thought of hurting animals, even insects or worms.

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Cruel, it seemed. But Jack and Andrew were a different matter. Gerald - that was too bad. Too bad and so sad, but done and over with nonetheless. And the dreams? He figured that without weed, he’d be having crazy dreams anyway Matt sat up in bed, and as he realized that he wasn’t sending The Three Amigos back to the land of shadows, he dazedly assumed that the brain wrenching wail had been part of the dream. Then it came again, cutting through the pre-dawn stillness like a paper cut. It was the very real sound of a rooster. A rooster? Before he had completely collected his wits, his Noonie called from her bedroom down the hall, “Matt, did you hear that?” Her voice was tremulous. The crowing cock had awakened her too. “Yes, Noonie,” he said looking at his watch. It was four-thirty. He could hear her pushing herself out of bed, and he quickly got up and pulled on his jeans. Again, the rooster sounded. Matt left his room and turned on a light in the kitchen. Noonie appeared, still in her long, flannel night gown, her wispy, white hair disheveled. They groggily regarded at each other. “It’s a chicken,” Matt rather obviously informed her. Noonie’s face showed how upset she was, and she said, “Well, I know that. Who in the world has a rooster around here? It must be the new neighbor.” That made sense. Although neither of them had seen this person, they’d known that their old neighbors, an elderly couple named Clyde and Vera Stanley, had moved to an assisted-living facility because of Clyde’s increasing dementia. Their sons had moved them out, and two days later Matt and his Noonie had sat at their front window and watched a Heritage moving van park in front of the off-white stucco home and unload furniture. They had seen retro chairs, chi-chi couches, faux Tiffany lamps, second-hand bureaus, hipster coffee tables, and various au curreu items taken into the house, but no chickens. Nothing

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resembling chicken wire for a coop, no sacks of feed that would indicate - chickens. As they tried to process what was happening, the cock crowed once more. “I’ve never heard of anyone having chickens in town,” Noonie fretted, shuffling barefoot to the kitchen window that looked on the neighboring house and back yard. Matt watched her peering into the darkness, her thin hair and shrunken, bent frame, the varicose veined calves of her arthritic, bowed legs, and her small, bluish feet, and he felt a pang of tenderness. “I can’t see a darned thing,” she said. “This will never do. I don’t want to get up this early every day.” Everything is more desolate in the hour before daylight when the night is most silent, and a veil of sadness settled over Matt. How long would he still have his poor Noonie? The thought of her passing away opened a reservoir of sorrow somewhere deep inside of him. She had been so good to him throughout his life. The thought of this new addition to the neighborhood carelessly intruding upon their lives stirred Matt’s indignation. Who does this...this idiot think he is? Matt wondered. He didn’t want to confront whoever it was. He hated disagreements and didn’t think himself up to the task of making some stranger shut up his bird. Aside from Jack and the other two, Matt had always been meek and timid, a teeny weeny bean as Wally Cox would say. A worrier rather than a rashly acting provocateur. “Uh, you want me to go over there and do something?” he timorously suggested, seconds before the bird let forth another raucous caterwaul that made both him and Noonie jump. Noonie shot him an annoyed look. “What could you do?” “Well - I guess I could...uh...tell him to keep his rooster quiet,” Matt muttered uncertainly. The thought of going over there in the dark, knocking on the door, and demanding that the stranger make his chicken shut-up filled Matt with foreboding. Noonie sighed in a

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resigned manner. “I’ll just lay back down and rest my eyes,” she said a little peevishly, toddling back to her room. Which is what Matt tried to do, but he couldn’t. Even when he’d smoked pot constantly he’d been a light sleeper, and now with the cock-a-doodle-dooing coming from next door every two minutes, sleep was impossible. Matt was powerless. Of course, he couldn’t go over and kill someone he didn’t even know over a crowing rooster. That would be too much; plus, having stopped selling pot and doing business with messed-up people, Matt figured he was done with killing folks. And he was. Really. Once the sun was well up, Matt could hear his Noonie stirring. When he got dressed and left his room, he saw her standing next to the kitchen window and peering down in the next door neighbor’s fenced back yard. “You’re never going to believe this,” she said incredulously. “He’s naked.” “Who - Who’s naked?” Matt said, confused, and he joined his Noonie to see what she was talking about. The houses in that part of town were built closely together, so that spying on the people around you was nearly unavoidable, especially if you were nosey. Looking into the new neighbor’s back lot, Matt was treated to the sight of the guy, who wasn’t naked but was wearing a tiny flesh tone Speedo, as he practiced tai-chi poses. “Oh no,” Matt said. It wasn’t as if the man’s body called for such a flesh revealing brief. Adonis he was not. The middle aged man, about Matt’s age, had scrawny arms and legs, a sunken, narrow chest, and a flat, withered ass. There was no muscle tone whatsoever. What the gentleman did possess, however, was an expansive, middle-aged paunch which rode over the bikini, making his appearance more disgusting and obscene than if he had been nude.

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He did have nice hair though, long-ish and greying, and he was also not lacking a certain flair as he stretched and flexed in slow, swooping moves from one position to another, each of them revealing a profusion of wasted, wrinkly skin and gross flab. “Madonna!” Noonie said rolling her eyes. “We got Baryshnikov next door.” Matt had the opportunity to meet this gone-to-seed Baryshikov later that morning as he was leaving to go to the post office. He was off to send to another literary magazine one of his bad poems - I mean one of his poetic gems - this one entitled “Singing Gardens”. Matt hadn’t sent off any of the poems he wrote about shooting Jack and Gerald or drugging and trapping Andrew in that bunker. Those he burned after furtively scribbling them in his poem journal. He was just down the front steps when the new neighbor called out to him. “Hey there.” The man was wearing a blue tee-shirt. It was tight around his concave shoulders, but where his stomach expanded, it resembled a black balloon on the verge of bursting. In addition, the man was wearing jeans that - while they fit his stick-legs, skinny ass, and boney hips - were so tight at the waist that his torso bulged over like a huge dip of ice cream over a tiny, denim cone. Self-conscious about the manila envelope bearing his poesy, Matt instinctively pressed it against his thigh as he forced a smile. “Hi,” he said. The fellow was grinning like a toothy shark. “Laurence St. Croix,” he said, extending his hand. “I just moved in yesterday in case you hadn’t noticed.” As soon as Matt had accepted the handshake, he regretted it, squeezing hard to keep the new neighbor from crushing his knuckles. After Laurence St Croix let go, Matt said, “My name’s Matt. Uh, me and my Noonie saw the moving van yesterday.” “Noonie, what a lovely name. She must be a real beauty.” Laurence St Croix lifted an

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eyebrow. “Your wife - or your lover?” Turning red, Matt replied, “Umm, Noonie is my grandma. I...uh, live with my grandma. I take care of her.” Pausing a beat, a delay that communicated something akin to an unspoken, aha, Laurence said, “Oh, a variation on the Italian, Nona.” “Well, I just call her, uh, Noonie.” Laurence St Croix allowed his toothy smile to minutely tighten, as if he were thinking something funny that he intended not to say to Matt. “So, Matt, nice to meet you. What do you do?” His eyes shifted inquisitively to the manila envelopes. Feeling embarrassed, Matt said, “Oh...a little bit of this - a little bit of that.” The new neighbor stood there as if expecting Matt to elaborate, but he didn’t. It was awkward. Laurence tilted his head and looked at Matt knowingly. He thinks I’m pitiful, Matt thought. Laurence lowered his eyelids and said, “So, a renaissance man. Wonderful.” There was another prolonged silence wherein Matt should have asked what it was Laurence did. When he didn’t, his new neighbor forged onward, saying, “I’m a high school teacher. I was head of the Trentsworth Township High School English Department and will be starting this year teaching the sophomores at your Pilsen High School - sophomores, the wise fools.” Laurence chuckled as Matt glanced at his own front door longingly. Escape was so near. Matt was considering how bad it would look if he simply left Laurence standing there and went inside. “Mailing something off? Resumes?” he asked, and Matt flushed. “Oh - uh - just some bills.” His eyes silently accused Matt of lying, but Laurence didn’t make an issue of it. Instead, he said, “I hope my pet didn’t wake you and your Noonie last night.”

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“Well, uh...” Laurence cut Matt off, “That was Atticus, my Appenzell Pointed Hood Rooster. It’ll take a few nights for you to get used to his song, but I promise you that in no time, his crowing will be like rain on the roof during a thunderstorm. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t hear his daybreak call.” Matt didn’t know what to say to this. Again peaking his eyebrow, Laurence said by way of explanation, “George Clooney had his pet Pot-Bellied Pig. I have my dear, noble Appenzell, Atticus.” Then he shrugged in theatrical modesty, as if to say, Clooney and I - go figure. “Well, I’ve got to be on my way, Mr. St Croix. It was, uh, nice to meet you.” “Splendid,” Laurence replied, again grabbing and trying to squish Matt’s hand. Matt bit the insides of his cheeks and returned the clench. “I’ll be around to introduce myself to your Noonie.” Oh goody, Matt thought. Laurence wasted no time. That evening, Matt and his Noonie were watching a repeat of CSI Little Rock. She was cozy in her big easy-chair, and Matt was on the sofa. On the screen, one of the forensic officers said, “Before the perp went to the hospital, someone tried to dig the bullet out.” There was one of the quick, graphic flash-back shots of the crooks trying to do just that with a sharp spoon. Matt and Noonie simultaneously winced and looked away from the screen just as the doorbell rang. Spooked by the crime show, Noonie nervously said, “Who could that be?” “I don’t know,” Matt told her, getting up from the easy chair and going to the door. Upon opening it, Laurence St Croix momentarily fixed him with a broad smile before breezing past. He was wearing a dark brown, button down, short sleeve shirt that fit his belly no better than the tee shirt he’d been wearing, and instead of jeans, he now had on dark dockers, not as

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tight as the jeans, but still at odds with the midriff explosion that was Laurence St Croix’s beer belly, love handles, and back fat. How could such an otherwise skinny guy pack all that blubber right there, Matt was wondering as the uninvited guest sat in the place he’d been sitting. “I’m your new neighbor, Laurence St Croix. I’m sure Matt told you about his meeting me this morning,” he solicitously blathered. Noonie looked at him in bewilderment. “Why, no, he didn’t say anything about it,” she replied, a little put-off by having had CSI Little Rock interrupted. Matt sat next to Laurence and tried to watch the program. That was not to be. “I’m here to ask a favor and extend an invitation,” Laurence grandly informed them. This was not welcome news to Matt, who wanted nothing to do with the fellow, neither yearning to do him any favors nor to go anywhere he might invite him. “You see, I’m a high school teacher who’ll be starting at your town’s school this fall. Actually, I’ve completed my course work designating me as a ‘Master Teacher’.” At this, Matt’s Noonie - whose enthusiasm for someone announcing himself a teacher was akin to a three year old boy’s meeting a real live cowboy - brightened considerably. It had always been her and Matt’s departed mom’s fondest prayer that he go back to school and get his teaching degree, since the mere English BA he’d earned hadn’t been the ticket to upward mobility that Matt had hoped when he’d first started sending his horrible - I mean his heartfelt poems to the college magazines. Noonie said, “Oh my goodness, a Master Teacher. Now that’s really something.” At the elderly woman’s encouraging tone, Laurence’s eyebrows raised, and he bowed his head humbly. Noonie confessed wistfully, “I have always wished Matt would go back to college and get his teaching certification.” “Uh,” Matt interjected.

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“Well, it’s never too late,” Laurence St Croix generously offered. “To be a good teacher you have to be willing to ride roughshod over your students - for their own good. You must have a strong sense of discipline and not only set, but enforce high standards of excellence. Matt, do you think yourself capable of that?” In short - no. For one thing, Matt didn’t think himself able to command a classroom, nor did he care to try. There was also the matter of his having sold pot for decades in Pilsen. He had been discreet, and he had never been busted. Still, over the years there must have been some talk. “Uh...well. I don’t know,” he muttered. His Noonie and Laurence St Croix looked at him as if he’d proudly announced his continued commitment to being a hopeless worm. Laurence said, “You can’t be indecisive about something like teaching, and I tell you that for your own good, Matt. You see, teaching is a calling. True, you have to crack the whip, but it’s out of love. You have to love the kids.” Matt felt decidedly indifferent toward the kids. Patches of color on her cheeks, Noonie said, “Matt just doesn’t want to try. But you - a Master Teacher. What does that mean exactly?” Flashing his teeth, Laurence St Croix said, “Well now, on the surface, it simply means that I’ve taken the required classes and satisfactorily met the academic requirements, but on a deeper level, being a Master Teacher means that I embody the discipline which I demand in my students, both mentally and physically. Even though I’m a Master Teacher with a PhD in Education, I still go to career development seminars and teaching clinics. And I pursue spiritual discipline through my daily practice of tai chi.” Matt’s Noonie was enthralled. He was feeling less charitable, trying to keep one eye on the television and tune out Laurence’s pompous raving. He couldn’t.

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“Oh,” Noonie enthused, “You must really be devoted.” At this remark, Laurence St Croix clapped his hands, threw back his head, and said, “I adore it. From being stern to ‘my kids’ in the classroom to the after-school meetings that drive some of my colleagues crazy. I wouldn’t do anything else.” Matt sighed. You can’t like everyone, he told himself. “Matt, get Mr. St Croix a glass of Coke,” Noonie urged, and he was about to do just that when Laurence stopped him, gripping Matt’s shoulder in a commanding manner. “Oh, no thank you. Like I said, I came here to extend an invitation and ask a favor.” “Why anything, Mr. St Croix,” Noonie pledged. The new neighbor beamed. “I’m having a little get-together in three days for some of the teachers I’ll be working with this fall - as well as some old friends, and I’d like to invite the both of you to come, but the favor I’m asking is that some of my guests be allowed to park in your driveway.” Noonie said, “Feel free to use our driveway. I’m too old for parties, Mr. St Croix, but I’m sure Matt will go. Maybe some of your ambition and...I don’t know -maybe some of what drives you will rub off on him. All he wants to do is write his little poems. I always told him that he needed something as a back up plan, but he never listened.” Laurence cocked an eyebrow and regarded Matt. “A poet. That’s what you had in that manila envelope this morning, eh? Modest poet! What have you published?” It was Matt’s turn to flush, though the blood rose to his face from humiliation rather than giddiness. Sure he was modest. Quite modest. “Uh, nothing,” Matt said, summing up the thirty year aesthetic debacle that was his creative life.

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This news seemed to spark a secret fire of delight in Laurence St Croix. He said, “There will be a poet at my party tomorrow. You might have heard of her, Circe Gilliann. She just had two of her poems published in Creel-Spindle, the Armatage College literary magazine. She is an old soul. Used to be one of my students.” “Uh, wow,” Matt said, embarrassed. “Bring a couple of your poems,” Laurence St Croix encouraged. “Thanks.” He wouldn’t be doing that. “Oh, the party is at six. Come a half hour early. You can help park cars.” Though Matt didn’t go to parties, he knew that invitations normally didn’t include the host bidding you to park the other guests’ cars for him. Noonie didn’t seem to notice though, and she looked thrilled that Matt had been invited to a party by a Master Teacher. Laurence rose to leave. He said, “Oh, I hope my dear pet, Atticus - my proud Appenzell Pointed Hood Rooster - hasn’t disturbed you with his early morning refrain.” “Oh not at all, Mr. St Croix,” Noonie enthused. His expression bent into smug rakishness, the cocked eyebrow, half open eyes, and toothy smile. “Well,” he said, all self-aggrandizing charm, “Clooney has his pig, and I have my Appenzell.” Him and Clooney. Matt thought wearily. “What a nice man,” Noonie said.

Every pre-dawn morning for the next three days, Atticus loosened his passionate ‘cry of the heart’ for hours, prompting Matt’s Noonie, in spite of her reverence for Laurence’s Master

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Teacher status, to say more than once, “I wish Mr. St Croix had that bird up his butt.” Matt had decided that he would follow his inclinations and miss the party since he loathed Laurence and Atticus so much, but on the special day, Noonie reminded him that he was to go that evening. “I don’t want to park a bunch of cars,” he said. “Oh, I don’t think he meant that.” “I don’t like parties. Besides, I’ve never heard of inviting someone to a party and asking them to park cars. That’s crazy.” Noonie looked fondly at her grandson. She indulgently said, “Oh, Mr. St Croix was kidding. You should go, Matt. You don’t go anywhere at all these days, and it will be good for you to meet some people. Maybe some of Mr. St Croix’s...can-do-it-iv-ness will spill over on you, and you’ll think about going back to school and getting your teaching certificate. Maybe with his help you might be a Master Teacher yourself someday!” It was only Matt’s love for his Noonie that prevented him from telling her that he’d rather give hobos sponge baths than be a teacher and have Laurence St Croix as his mentor. He did, however, agree to go to the party. Maybe it would be fun. At about six that evening, Matt went, having disregarded Laurence St Croix’s instruction to come early and help park cars. He’d decided that surely Noonie had been right, the neighbor had been joking. A few people were already there, judging from the cars in front of Laurence’s house and in his driveway. Matt found The Master Teacher standing in his yard, dressed in tight jeans and a long sleeved tee shirt, all black. In one hand he was holding a cocktail, and in the other, he cradled Atticus, who wore a black collar with rhinestones and a black diaper that was a kind of sling that fastened around his neck and under his feathers to cover his bottom. Matt stared unabashedly at the diapered rooster.

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“Good,” Laurence said. “I thought you were supposed to be here earlier. I can go inside now. Fortunately no one came while I was picking up Circe Gilliann. She doesn’t drive. I’ve told my guests that they were to give you their keys and that you’d park their cars either in your driveway or down the street in front of the other houses. It’s a small party, so you should be able to join us in probably forty-five minutes to an hour. I’d stay out here, but - I am the host, and there are already people here whom I’m neglecting.” That decided it. Laurence St Croix’s smile was peeved, and when Matt laughed, Laurence’s eyebrows flexed upward and his awful grimace disappeared as if Matt had slapped him in the face. He said, “Look, I’m not much of a partying type, and I’m a terrible driver, so I just came to thank you for the invitation, but I’m not going to attend. And I’m definitely not going to park your guests’ cars.“ Laurence looked bewildered and, Matt marveled, rather hurt. Atticus’s beady black eyes malevolently focused on Matt, who started back to his own house. Laurence stopped him, gripping his shoulder in an aggressive way. The brief thought that his neighbor needed to die flashed through Matt’s mind. Laurence said, “I didn’t mean to offend you, Matt. I wanted to include you and your Noonie at my party as a friendly gesture since we’re neighbors. I just thought you might want to be helpful. I apologize. I didn’t think it would be a big deal.” “It’s not a big deal. I really don’t go to parties. But thanks anyway,” he said, thinking, this man is an idiot. He’d better let go of my shoulder. “Please, Matt,” Laurence St Croix said. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have presumed that you’d want to park cars. It was thoughtless of me, but I wasn’t trying to rile you, I swear.” Atticus clucked and swivelled his neck, making the long, shining, dark feathers at the top of his

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head flop into his eyes in an insouciant and royal manner. Laurence’s grip eased on Matt’s shoulder. “I would feel terrible if you didn’t join me, at least for awhile.” And, being a malleable sort, Matt relented. “Well, Okay,” he said, and he went with the neighbor into his house, where there were about twelve people. Matt recognized several of the teachers as his old clients, who, seeing him, gazed at him wistfully. “Girls and boys,” Laurence St Croix said, “I’d like to introduce you to my dear neighbor Matt. He is a man of attuned sensibilities - a poet.” Matt blushed deeply, more wildly embarrassed than he’d been in many years. “Could you recite us any of your work?” the Master Teacher asked. “Oh, uh, no. Sorry.” “Well, hopefully some other night,” Laurence said. He made a languorous, sweeping gesture toward a pale and mousey woman in a white dress, white woolen leggings, and white ballet slippers. “Circe Gilliann,” he said dramatically. “Tonight, Circe has brought a work in progress to share with us, and I am to accompany her performance with some humble improvisational noodlings on my clarinet. Circe’s words will reverberate throughout the cosmos!” Laurence declared. “But first, I’m going to need some liberal libation. Matt, what can I get you?” Matt, who didn’t drink because alcohol tended to inflame his sinus, demurred, but his host said, “Oh, have one glass of wine. You’re a poet! It’s your duty to enter the spirit of the celebration. Just one glass of the red, Matt. It can’t hurt you.” Matt gave in, and his host brought him a glass brimming with dark wine. “Thanks,” he said, taking a sip. A new guest knocked at the door, someone who had managed to park his own car, and Laurence excused himself to answer. Matt took another sip, feeling uncomfortable

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surrounded by so many people. He stood there as the others mingled, and except for the teachers who were his old customers coming up shyly to say hello and ask if he were holding, Matt kept his own council. When everyone was there and had several drinks in them, Laurence dimmed the lights in his large front room. Matt looked out the window and saw his Noonie spying on the gettogether. He smiled painfully and waved at her. She merrily returned his greeting. “And now it is time for Circe to bestow upon us her newest piece. Just let me get my clarinet.” As Laurence moved a stool to the center of the room and assembled his instrument, Circe Gilliann addressed the others. “This isn’t finished, and I beg your forbearance. I’ve entitled this piece, ‘Reverie on a Summer Morning in Martha’s Vineyard’, where I was fortunate enough to spend a summer and, I must confess, where I left a part of my soul-spirit. Magical place...A kind of sublime time for me that I wanted to process.” Upon her having said this, Laurence tested the waters of his musicality with a run of notes - noodlings. When the Master Teacher had earlier referred to his playing as being humble, he had meant to be self-deprecating, but humble was, in fact, euphemistic for the shrill squeaking that broke from the instrument. Atticus, now strolling among the guests, tilted his head at his master’s first tentative improvised strains, unnoticed by everyone but Matt, whose eyes were lowered in dread at what he feared was coming. He looked up, his eyes drawn in the manner of someone about to see a horrible accident. Lowering her head for a moment as Laurence imposed his aural watercolors upon his guests, Circe looked up at those now gathered around her and the host of the party. When his last note dribbled away, she enunciated, “‘Reverie on a Summer Morning at Martha’s Vinyard’...I

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reminisce on this the cruelest of season’s mists...” Dear Lord, Matt dismally realized, this is what I’ve aspired to be for the past thirty years - I should have let Jack shoot me. Circe seriously intoned, “As the old man, the happy, sad sandman - trundles his cart of sea shells, conch shells, shells stuck in ticking time the tacky time from the cradled beach to sell to wealthy strangers who never, never tell...” Laurence punctuated her line with a trill of ear breaking nonsense. Matt took a giant gulp of wine and then another. Circe and Laurence continued, Circe declaiming every line with maximum portentous solemnity and Laurence toot-toot-toodling studiously over her lines and throughout her dramatic pauses. As they gave themselves over to their art, Matt tried to estimate the hours he’d spent happily scribbling and re-scribbling tens of thousands of lines. His heart broke just as Circe, smiling rapturously, brayed, “Dun colored birds fly in the rain! Eating the friend inside my pain!” and Laurence slippery-peeped out another grating series of unrelated notes. Matt polished off his glass of wine and desperately reached for a nearby bottle, pouring himself another. Circe and Laurence went on and on for half an hour. As she ranted and he squawked, Matt thought of people like them, gross, preening people sitting around the editorial offices of all the places he’d sent his poems - and them laughing at his efforts, looking at his work as disparagingly as he was now looking at Circe and Laurence’s performance. It occurred to him that all those editors couldn’t have thought his poems to be even as good as this horrible stuff. And, worse, maybe they were right. At the end of each poem, everyone clapped. Matt did too. After what seemed like an eternity, Circe Gilliann finished yet another of her interminable pieces, and when Laurence’s last improvisation petered out, the poet bowed her head, dropped her hands to her side and said, “I can’t give you any more. I’ve given all the

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poetry my poor spirit-soul can.” Then she looked up at the ceiling as if listening to some invisible muse as Laurence lurched off his stool and made a sweeping bow. More applause. Shortly thereafter, Laurence St Croix made ready to play a dvd of Kill Bill II. By now, most of the people were well lit, as was Matt. He’d only drunk two and a half glasses of red wine, but between the alcohol, the grandiloquent performance, and the forlorn realization about his own poetic efforts, Matt’s brain was boiling. Before playing the movie, Laurence led a discussion on the aesthetics of Tarantino. “You see, his aim is both comedic as well as parody. The violence is so over the top, so bloody - yet so beautifully rendered that it’s at a self-reflective remove. You can almost feel Tarantino next to you, both laughing up his sleeve at his creation and enjoying it on a visceral, nearly erotic level. And this remove, in my opinion, elevates his work to the realm of high art.” The teachers had little to say to this, though most of those Laurence counted as his old friends earnestly agreed. Matt didn’t know what in the world Laurence was gaffing about, but he hadn’t seen either Kill Bill I or II. Just too bloody for his tastes. The lone dissenting voice was that of Circe Gilliann, who replied by saying, “I find Tarantino’s vision to be like so much of modern western cinema in that on a very elemental level, it sends out terrible spirit. As a matter of fact, Laurence, knowing that you were going to show this movie tonight, I have taken the liberty of bringing with me a white faerie-candle to dispel the negative energy.” “Do you feel the same way about the violence in Shakespeare?” Laurence challenged. One of the teachers who would be Laurence’s colleagues in the upcoming year, an English teacher, chirped, “I love teaching Macbeth.” She was two decades younger than Matt, a thin, frowsy woman wearing a faded, pea green cardigan that was, along with her peasant skirt, part of her teacher drag. Her hair was in fat brown pigtails, and she wore no makeup. As befitting

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someone in her twenties, she was sitting on the floor, cross legged with her skirt modestly covering everything but her swollen white ankles. Perhaps inspired by the earlier performance, she broke into Lady Mac’s famous speech, her eyes widening as she entered ‘the zone’ that all great actors inhabit. Rubbing her hands as if she were crazy, the teacher lowed, “Out damned spot! Out I say - One: two: why then, tis time to do’t - Hell is murky!” Her hands fluttered, framing her face - jazz hands. “Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afreard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account - Yet who who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” This last line she delivered in the manner of the wicked witch of the west saying something like, now I’ve got you my pretty. Taking the cue, Circe Gilliann took the role of the doctor, clasping her hands, making moon eyes and deeply intoning, “Do you mark that?’ The high school teacher said in a stupid, overacted sing-song way, “The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? - What, will these hands ne’er be clean? - No more of that, my lord, no more o’ that you mar all with this starting.” Again she was rubbing her hands, this time so vigorously that she seemed to be trying to start a fire. And Circe, maintaining her lower register, responded, “Go to, go to; you have known what you should not.” Laurence jumped in, assuming the role of the Gentlewoman, making jazz hands himself and bleating in a fey, nearly hysterical upper register, “She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that; heaven knows what she has known.”

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Now deeply into the scene, the high school teacher said, trying to sound as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders or something, “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!” Matt was once again appalled. Embarrassed for them, disgusted - yes - yet unable to look away. I’m going to kill him, Matt thought, looking at Laurence. The Master Teacher clapped his hands in delight. “Beautiful,” he cried. Swilling the remainder of his cocktail, He said to Circe, “How can you censure the bard, my dear.” With her palms upturned in a supplicating gesture, Circe Gilliann said, “The bard I would never question. That is art. Tarantino, however...I will not blaspheme Shakespear with any comparison between the two.” And with that she took the white faerie-candle of positivity from her large canvas book-bag, placed it in the center of the stool that Laurence had vacated, and portentously lit it. Matt finished his third glass of wine Within minutes, Laurence hit play, and Kill Bill II commenced. Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox started fighting, cutting each other repeatedly. Watching the women execute a carefully choreographed, bloody knife fight made Matt want to kill Laurence St Croix all the more. Before the first three minutes had passed, he went up to his host and in a friendly manner that he made sure everyone heard, said, “I’m afraid I’ve had too much to drink and it’s making me sleepy. Plus, it’s kind of late for me. Thanks so much for the invitation. I’m glad I came. Laurence, I had a really good time.” “Ah, Matt, I thank you for coming to my little housewarming. Please give your dear Noonie my warmest regards.” Matt assured Laurence that he’d do exactly that, and his eye caught Atticus, glaring at him. Matt smiled sleepily at everyone and left.

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It was only a little after eight when he got home. His Noonie was in front of the television, watching Matlock. She smiled at him as he sat on the couch, and she said, “So did you have a good time? I saw some gal who looked like she was singing - and Mr. St Croix was playing his clarinet! What was she singing, hon?” As always, Noonie was wearing an apron over her house dress, and Matt looked into her trusting eyes, magnified to an alarming degree by the thick lens of her glasses. “Oh, she wasn’t singing. She was reciting, uh, her poems, and, Laurence was playing along. She’s a poet.” Noonie clapped her hands. “Why, maybe she could help you. So were her poems good? And how was Mr. St Croix’s clarinet playing?” Matt’s angry thoughts were bombarding him. His squeamishness about blood was gone. Fear of blood seemed, like his poetry, to be quaint, prissy. He swallowed the mortification he felt witnessing Circe’s asinine performance, the shame of seeing his own self-centered pretensions so obvious in another. Matt held in check his dark intentions. The wine was coasting through his blood, telling him, wait...just wait. He quietly smiled and said, “Oh she’s, uh, out of my league. And Laurence’s playing was fine.” “See, hon, you could get your teaching degree and still write your poems - but then you’d have something to fall back on. Maybe you could date some nice girl. Maybe that girl at the party. Is she going out with anyone? Is she dating Mr. St Croix?” Instead of dating her, Matt was hoping she’d still be there alone with Laurence so he could stab both of them to death. He relived the murdering of the scene from Macbeth, the high school teacher frantically rubbing her hands throughout her anxious delivery. ‘Here’s the smell of blood...All the perfumes in Arabia...’ Matt imagined all the blood he was going to spill just a little

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later. Out damned spot indeed. Envisioning their surprise as he would slash them to pieces made Matt burst out with a short laugh. Must remember to wear the rubber gloves that are under the sink, he thought. Noonie broke his reverie, chiding, “Someone’s had some wine tonight. You did. I saw you.” “You got me there.” “So are you a little sweet on that girl?” “Uh, maybe just a little,” he lied. “I don’t know who she goes with.” “Is she a teacher too?” Matt shrugged his shoulders and thought of the knife he would take with him, Noonie’s big old butcher knife in the kitchen drawer. Her grandmother had brought it from Italy. He faked a yawn and said, “I’m not used to wine. Gosh, I’m really tired. I think I’ll hit the hay.” Noonie patted his leg. “Well, I’m glad you had a nice time. I’ll be going to bed after the news. I just wish that damn rooster would keep his mouth shut. Guess that’s the price we have to pay for having a nice man like Mr. St Croix living next door, though I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it like he said.” In his room, Matt opened his file cabinet and removed all the poems he’d written over the years as well as the rejection slips. Without looking at any of them, he tossed the thick stack in the waste basket. They weren’t important enough to deserve some ritualistic burning. The garbage would be good enough for them. Then he lay down on his mattress and listened until he heard Noonie turn off the television and go to her room. It was about ten-fifteen. After fifteen more minutes had passed, he figured she was sleeping. Carefully, he changed into black jeans, a black shirt, and his black Converse sneakers. He stood at the door of

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his room until he heard her lightly snoring, then he crept through the house until he was at the window facing Laurence’s house. Though it wasn’t yet ten-thirty, the party was over and everyone was gone, the only car left being Laurence’s. Matt decided to break in and surprise him. Softly, he crept into the kitchen. He eased open the drawer and took out the ancient knife, thick bladed and sharp, tempered by a century of use. Then he went under the sink and got the pair of white rubber gloves. Just to be on the safe side, Matt tucked a dish rag in his back pocket to wipe the floor in case he tracked some of Laurence’s blood. The wine had made him bold. Matt was feeling a sense of scalding hatred and had no intention of failing. He was going to cut to ribbons The Master Teacher. Leaving his house by the back door, he went to the fence, gripped the knife between his teeth, and hoisted himself over. In less than twenty seconds he was in the middle of Laurence’s backyard. The sliver moon was yellow, and there were so many stars in the sky that had he not abandoned his verse just minutes ago and come over here to kill Laurence, Matt would have been inspired to write a stupid poem about the panoramic heavens. But it didn’t matter anymore, and it never would again. The back yard was bathed in shadows. Matt started toward the glass back door, but before he’d gotten five feet, he saw Atticus standing in his path and fixing him with a gimlet, chicken-eye. The Appenzell Pointed Hood Rooster tossed his head, knocking his feather bangs out of his eyes, and he clucked menacingly. Though Matt was prepared to kill Laurence - was anticipating every moment of the upcoming blood bath, fully confident that he would be able to carry it out - he just wasn’t a chicken killer. He couldn’t brutalize any sweet little animal even though Atticus wasn’t sweet and had driven both him and his Noonie crazy with his pre-dawn cock-a-doodle-doing. Bless the

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beasts and the children was Matt’s credo - the beasts anyway. Hoping to bluff the fancy-dan rooster, Matt pointed the knife at Atticus and hissed, “Get out of the way. Go on. Get out of here.” The old knife glinted in the moonlight, but Atticus, as intelligent a chicken as Laurence St Croix was a man, was nonetheless still remarkably dumb and didn’t know that Matt was threatening him with a knife, or, for that matter, what a knife even was. Nor was he able to discern that Matt was there to kill his master. Atticus was, however, as contrary as he was pea-brained . He went after Matt, flapping his wings and launching himself off the ground with the aim to peck the intruder. Careful not to cut the rooster, Matt instinctively covered his face with his arms as the bundle of feathers bounced off him, his beak glancing off Matt’s forehead. “Ouch,” he muttered under his breath. Undeterred, Atticus charged again, but Matt, much like a linebacker, ran over the chicken, being sure not to step directly on it. Atticus ricocheted off Matt and hit the grassy ground. The cock lie still in the moonlight, and Matt, worried he’d hurt it, waited until he saw Atticus begin to stir again. He then tried the door, but it was locked. He softly knocked. No answer. The car was in the driveway. Maybe Circe was there with him. That would be challenging. He’d have to work fast. She might scream. While Matt waited, Atticus groggily got to his feet and staggered to the back of the backyard privacy fence. In the moment, the rooster pecked at moths by one of the ground-lights. Matt knocked more forcefully. He could see Laurence St. Croix waddling through the dark shadows of the kitchen. Matt held the knife behind him. It seemed to take Laurence forever to open the kitchen door. The light above the backdoor came on, and Matt felt a wave of fierce purpose, feeling violent impulses churning inside. He smiled through the glass door at Laurence’s drunken, squinting face. There was a clack as the back lock was undone.

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Laurence was in some horrifying bikini briefs, hardly visible beneath his stomach. The door swung open, and an unsmiling Laurence St. Croix regarded Matt with the undisguised hostility of someone awakened from a drunken sleep. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” Matt said pleasantly. Laurence St. Croix’s eyebrow arched. “I was lying down,” he testily replied. Matt said, “I know it’s late but I was hoping that you, me, and, uh, Circe Gillian could maybe reenact another scene from Shakespeare. Is she still here?” “It’s late. Circe’s gone,” Laurence St. Croix groaned. And that was Matt’s cue. Having heard about the cartoid artery from CSI Shebogan, Matt aimed for it, and he must have come quite close because as soon as he was stuck, Laurence St. Crois went down like a sack of flour, falling backwards onto his kitchen floor, clutching his neck and making a gurgling sound. There was a lot of blood. It was pumping like a broken hydrant spewing what in the semidarkness looked like thick, black oil from Laurence St. Croix’s neck. Matt went to the sink. As his neighbor lay bleeding, he used a paper towel to turn on the tap and get some antibacterial soap. First he washed the ancient knife, its blade glinting in the moonlight coming through the kitchen window. Matt followed by washing his hands and face in cold water, wondering if he’d gotten any blood on his clothes. It would be hard to see on the black fabric. Through the window, Matt could see Atticus. Though he wasn’t very fond of the cock, Timmy was sorry that he’d knocked it down. Laurence was lying on off-white kitchen tile. He and the pool of blood spreading beneath him, were cut by the plane of light coming through the window from the backyard. He wasn’t moving anymore at all, and Matt considered making the cut deeper. What if Laurence St. Croix lived? Didn’t seem very likely though. So much blood.

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Atticus had apparently forgotten being run over by Matt because as soon as he crept out the back door to go home, the rooster came at him. Matt ran away as the Appenzell Pointed Hood Rooster chased him around the enclosed back yard, peck-peck-pecking at the backs of his legs and heels and making Matt jump and dance to get away. “Oh my gosh,” Matt exclaimed, high stepping to the fence where he scrambled over to escape the tenacious rooster. Sitting with his back pressed against the fence in his and his Noonie’s back yard, Matt, his heart pounding, drunkenly turned the old knife this way and that to make the metal catch the light from the moon and stars. He could hear Atticus on the other side, proudly clucking and strutting for a few seconds before forgetting entirely what had just transpired, his attention distracted by a bug on the ground that he ate. Back in his own home, Matt put the knife back in the kitchen drawer. After checking in the bathroom mirror to see if he had any blood on him, Matt dropped into bed and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. The next morning, rueful thoughts clouded Matt’s mind, buffeting his stuffy sinus, inflamed by the alcohol. He thought of how he had killed Laurence and tossed his poems. If he hadn’t been drinking, he wouldn’t have been that rash. It was all awful: awful Laurence; awful Circe Gillian and her stupid poem; awful realization - awful epiphany about his awful poems. Shouldn’t have killed the neighbor, Matt thought, sighing. He looked at his poems still sitting in his waste basket by his desk. Throwing them away had been smart, however. Not important enough to burn. Matt did think the clothes he’d worn as well as the rubber gloves were important enough to burn, which he did that morning.

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It was two days before someone found Laurence. Matt thought he smelled his neighbor, but he allowed that it was probably his imagination. He regretted what he’d done terribly - too close to home. And again, Matt was a little troubled that he didn’t feel worse about having murdered Laurence. An old saying - or maybe it was the title of an album from the misty days of yore - kept going through his mind. What were once vices are now...brunch? - something like that. In Matt’s defense, Laurence St. Croix had been the very definition of insufferable, not that Matt was making excuses for himself. On the second day after it had happened, at about four in the afternoon, Noonie called Matt to look out the front window. “Something’s going on,” she informed him. Matt knew, but he kept quiet as he looked at the police cars, the fire engine and the ambulance in front of his neighbor’s. There was a knock at the front door, and Noonie looked at Matt. It was Sheriff Timmy. He stood in the doorway, so large a man that he nearly blocked out the light, and he removed his hat. “Mrs. Febre, Matt, hope you all are doing okay. May I come in?” “Come in. Come in. What’s going on, Timmy?” Noonie said ushering the big man inside and guiding him to the Easy-Boy where he carefully settled his six-foot-five, two-hundredseventy-five pound bulk. “Can I get you a Coke, Timmy?” Matt asked. Timmy smiled and shook his head no. He said, “The reason I’m here, folks, is well, ahh, Mrs. Febre, maybe you should sit down.” This, Matt dismally noted, was getting Noonie upset, which was what he expected. Still, it was encouraging that Timmy didn’t seem to suspect him. Noonie sat on the couch and said,

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“What in the world has happened? Why all the police cars and the fire truck and the ambulance? What’s going on?” As Timmy gently spoke, he smiled at them, apologetically and somewhat pained. “I really hate to tell you both,” he began, “but, well, someone has - murdered your new neighbor.” Noonie gasped and looked wildly around the room.. “Oh my God,” she managed to say. Both Matt and Timmy put their hands on her shoulder. Matt was really mad at himself now about killing Laurence St. Croix. Seeing Noonie’s panic made him feel absolutely horrible about what he’d done, which Matt already somewhat felt on what he told himself was general principal. Timmy patted Noonie’s hand and gently said, “Now, just take it easy. I came here to tell you all because I knew you’d be alarmed, and I’m sure sorry about that.” “Oh, that poor, poor, Mr. St. Croix. Did you know he was a Master teacher? Such a good man! Why he hasn’t lived here very long at all. Oh, it’s always the good who die so young.” Matt thought of Laurence and fought back a guilty smile. Noonie cried out dramatically, “Who would do such a horrible thing?” Sheriff Timmy continued patting Noonie’s hand. “We don’t know yet. But let me ask you guys something. In the past couple of days, have you all seen anyone or anything acting suspicious? Anything at all out of the ordinary that you remember Anything you can give us would be helpful?” “No, not in the past few days we haven’t seen anyone,” Noonie said, her voice filled with anxiety.

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“Good. Good info. Now, we’ve heard that Mr. St. Croix had a little party a couple of nights ago, which is when we have placed the time of his death. Uh, can you tell me anything about the party?” “Matt was there,” Noonie volunteered, causing him to blush. Matt said, “It was a nice party. I’m not used to drinking and I had a couple of glasses so I came home when they started showing the movie, Kill Bill II. That was before nine. The wine and the gore made me queasy, so I just came home really early and went to bed.” “He did just that,” Noonie said. “Do you, uh, have any of the names of the guests who were at that party?” Matt scratched his head and said, “There were a couple of the English teachers from our high school - uh, Troy Higgins and Sally Sturts. And there was this woman, Circe Gillian. There were quite a few of his friends from where he came from. I guess maybe a dozen or so guests.” “Gee, thanks, Matt. Anything else you can think of? Anything that sticks out in your mind?” Matt pretended to think hard. “Uh, no. sorry, Timmy.” Timmy stepped to the door. “That’s alright,” he said. “If you can think of anything, give the station a call and ask for me. And take care of your Noonie. Ma’am I am so sorry I had to upset you.” “I’m afraid,” Noonie said quietly, and Matt felt guiltier than ever. His poor old Noonie didn’t deserve this. Doggone it, he thought. BEING GOOD “She thinks she’s so beautiful,” Matt’s Noonie commented smugly about the ex-model who went by the single name Sara and was the host of her own syndicated talk show. She was 58


dressed in a short blue skirt and stiletto heels that made her already statuesque figure even taller. As she tossed her hair, she challenged her guest, a man who was called a serial home wrecker, to, “Look at what you’re doing and who you really are.” “Sara is beautiful,” Matt protested. “Good Lord, she’s a super-model. She’s so gorgeous she doesn’t even look like she’s from the same planet as the rest of us.” The beauty’s delicate brows knitted in anger as a giant mirror was rolled out on the stage in front of the philanderer so that he could, in fact, take a good look at himself and hopefully have a tearful epiphany on air. Unlike Sara, he wasn’t much to look at and objectively one would wonder how he had managed to break up the five families he had supposedly destroyed through his seductive, adulterous ways. “I wish Sara were my girlfriend,” Matt said wistfully. Noonie made a disdainful face. “Without makeup, she isn’t anything,” the eighty-five year old insisted. Noonie didn’t think any lovely woman was much of anything. Some women, she’d say, were only attractive because of their make-up, but often she’d point out some imagined flaw that she felt made her case. “The way she smiles - so fake...That girl’s legs are too skinny for her to be showing off like she does...I don’t know how that woman can stand to have her hair in her eyes like that.” The only women that Noonie saw as being gorgeous were those in their sixties and seventies with helmet hair who wore the types of ensembles that had most likely been purchased at Wal Mart or JC Pennys, sensible women whom Noonie also said looked classy. Reacting to Matt’s absurd wish about Sara being his girl, Noonie made the equally ridiculous statement, “All you care about is getting them into bed.” This was ridiculous because Matt had been dateless his entire life - too timid to woo. If it hadn’t been for a few accidental one-night stands when he’d been in his twenties and still going to bars, he’d be virginal, and regarding romance, Matt felt pretty dumb. However, it was useless

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to correct Noonie who, like Matt’s late mom, always had an idea of how things should be and simply went with that as her reality. As Matt was reflecting on Noonie’s crazy notion, the phone rang. Heck, he thought, that’s probably one of the schools wanting me to sub this afternoon. Now I won’t get to see One Life to Live. Recently, Noonie had been granted one of her and Matt’s mom’s oldest and worst wishes, that he become involved in education. They’d wanted him to be a teacher, something he’d successfully avoided for nearly thirty years by retailing marijuana. Selling pot had been okay in some ways and sucky in others. The best thing was that he’d had lots of good pot. Having plenty of money was nice too, and he’d saved it, but there had been so much stress involved. Stress, stress, and stress - which had resulted in, well, deaths. Deaths and the realization that killing people who made him mad didn’t bother him much, though he had weird dreams about those crazy dead guys, and he was really mad at himself over the last one (Hello, Laurence!). That totally hadn’t been necessary. If nothing else, Matt told himself, he’d learned that - well - killing people - you just can’t. Awful! Matt pledged to really be good from now on. So as part of his resolve to be good, he caved in to Noonie’s harangue and became registered to substitute teach in Pilsen’s schools, and now when the phone rang, as it just had, he was filled with dread. He hated substitute teaching, and because he wasn’t good at it, he only got classes that other substitute teachers avoided. It was late morning, and that meant that some school wanted him only for the afternoon. “Excuse me Noonie,” he said reaching across her to answer the old rotary phone sitting on the table next to her easy-chair. “I’ll bet that’s one of the schools,” Noonie said with delight, and Matt forced himself to smile. He couldn’t be resentful of her or his deceased mom for nagging him about teaching. They

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thought it was a good idea. It was a respectable job, something about which they could be proud. To their way of thinking, being a teacher would force him to behave and be a role-model, and he would have to wear nice outfits, button down shirts and dockers. It all seemed horribly wrong though it tickled his Noonie to see him dressed nicely for work. No, he couldn’t be angry. Whenever he started feeling that she’d pressured him into doing something he was unsuited for, he’d look at the cheap framed print on the living room wall depicting a little girl in a blue smock. She was sitting in a nineteenth century garden and reaching for flowers, and Matt would feel a pang of love for both his Noonie and his mom, imagining both of them as the little girl in the picture. He patted Noonie on the shoulder as he picked up the receiver and said, “Hello.” “Matt,” Mrs. Yandle, the school secretary, said. “You want to work this afternoon?” “Uh, sure,” Matt unenthusiastically muttered. “We need you for Mr. Swain’s shop class,” she said. “I’ll be there. Thank you.” Noonie’s eyes were big, and she was smiling beatifically. “You get to teach? That’s great. You should wear that nice light blue shirt and your dark green corduroy pants. And your hush puppies,” she said. To her as well as his mom, that’s what teaching was - dressing gaily and standing in front of a roomful of respectfully attentive young people who listened and obeyed because you were the teacher. Matt said, “Sure, Noonie.” He looked at the little girl in the picture. She was like Noonie. Like his mom. Little girls in their hearts, reaching for pretty flowers. Matt didn’t tell her that she was wrong about teaching, wrong about students. If he’d told her that they never listened to him and actually channeled their energy into not doing what they

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were supposed to, she would have been incredulous and suggested that if they didn’t behave properly, he simply threaten to give them a test - or she would, more abstractly, implore him to “Put your foot down.” She would have quoted something Laurence St Croix had said, or made up something she thought he might say - something about riding roughshod over them for their own good or demanding them to live up to their potential. Laurence had been such a bore, and Matt blamed the late Master Teacher for having restirred those bees about teaching in Noonie’s bonnet. Even though he never should have killed the jerk, Matt had to admit that his no longer being around was a very good thing, gruesome murder aside. The new neighbors, Billy and Lisa Smith, a fat, middle aged couple who spent their time playing their boom box while making home improvements weren’t half as irritating. As if Matt’s reflections on Laurence was contagious, Noonie said, “Wonder if you’ll get to teach the class poor Mr. St Croix would have taught? I still can’t believe...” A worried frown, like a swift chill, crossed her face, and Matt felt guilty. No, he told himself, can’t kill anyone else. Ever again. It’s bad. Bad to murder people. Can’t. On the television, Sara admonished the serial homewrecker. “This,” she snarled, pointing to a sad looking little girl and boy (the children from one of the homes the homewrecker had wrecked), “Is all your fault.” Her eyes flashed beautiful fire, and it seemed as if Sara were talking to Matt.

The Pilsen High School was a newly renovated structure, quite different from when Matt had been a student. It was a bright white, modern building, stretching over several acres, extending over the area where the football field had once been. That had been relocated to some property the school bought adjacent to the south parking lots. Matt, who got there at eleven-

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forty-five, had to park in the far corner of the lot. He’d be paid for a half day, about twenty-five dollars. Although the high school was a closed campus, many students were at their cars. As Matt slowly walked to the back doors, they saw him. Most of them had at some point had him before the majority of their real teachers, unhappy with the way things had gone with Matt in charge, decided they didn’t want him back. As the kids saw him, they greeted him. “Hey, Mr. Jones! What class are you teaching?” kids yelled. “Where are you today? Hope I’ve got you, Mr. Jones. I love you, Mr. Jones.” Those were nice things to hear. They did seem to love him. Probably because he allowed them to do what they wanted. Promethius bestowing fiery freedom. Didn’t do the homework? That’s okay. Drink a pop and eat in class? Can’t have you hungry or thirsty - go right ahead. Listen to music? Great idea - what are you listening to? Write a pass to the bathroom? But of course. Write a pass to go home? Don’t see why not. Don’t want to do something? Then don’t. Simple. Consequently, the youngsters loved seeing him in their classrooms, something which occurred less and less - with the exception of the bad classes - such as Mr. Swain’s shop class. After answering a dozen queries about what class he was subbing that day, Matt reached the main office, a wide area in the front of the building. The office staff smiled and nodded at him. Unlike the teachers, they didn’t seemed to despise him, though Mrs.Yandle, having, Matt reasoned, weathered complaints from other teachers about his performance, might have had some reservations. He stood in front of her desk and politely waited until she got off the phone. As he tried to be unobtrusive, the principal, Mrs. Barwick, came through the area, passing Matt but neither looking at him nor speaking.

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It amazed Matt how invisible he was to the principal. An ugly thought formed in his mind as he watched Mrs. Barwick purposefully striding through the office area, on her way to something important. No, Matt thought. Don’t think it. Mrs. Yandle finished her call and smiled at Matt. “You can go to Mr. Swain’s room. He’s still in there. He has to take his aunt to her doctor this afternoon,” she explained. “Thanks, Mrs. Yandle,” Matt said, and he walked out of the office area into the hall that led to the shop classes. As he made his way through the throngs of students, Matt nodded and said, “Hey. How you doing? I’m in Mr. Swain’s room today. Oh, sorry you don’t have him. I’m in Mr. Swain’s room. Hi there. I’m doing shop class today. Good. See you there,” as kids yelled hello to him and asked where he was that day. When he entered the room adjacent to the shop area, Matt found Mr. Swain finishing the lesson plans. He was in his late thirties and wore a bristly crew cut. He was a strong, stocky man who was built like a fire plug. Every time Matt saw him, his face was red and he looked aggravated, which might have been Mr. Swain’s response at seeing Matt, who, upon entering the room, smiled encouragingly. “No kids allowed in the shop, right?” Matt said. That was the cardinal rule when the shop teacher was absent, a rule Matt had broken when kids had asked him if they could use the coke machine that was in there. He wouldn’t today. He’d write it on the board - No one allowed in the shop area. Sorry. Mr. Swain’s face reddened slightly more than it already was. “I wasn’t too happy with how the room looked after you were here the last time,” he informed Matt, who turned a little red himself. “The magazines weren’t put up,” Mr. Swain groused. “There was paper on the floors. Looked like some of ‘em were eating candy in here too,” he said.

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Matt was feeling hot. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ll put that up on the board. At the end of the period, clean up around your desks.” Mr. Swain, not sure if Matt were being sarcastic, looked at him suspiciously. “Here are the lesson plans for today. I want the kids to pick magazines from the shelves. I want them to report on what they read for three different articles. When they go to college, they’ll need to know how to do this kind of stuff,” Mr. Swain explained handing Matt the printed lesson plans. The fact that many of the students in shop class had taken it specifically because they didn’t like to read or write didn’t matter to the teacher. Nor did it matter to him that he was expecting Matt to force his students do something that they normally didn’t do for him. “Make ‘em do this. Don’t let ‘em write just one sentence reports on these articles like you did last time,” Mr. Swain continued darkly. Matt remembered the students bringing him their overly succinct reports and asking if they were good enough. His reply - have you done your best? had brought forth steadfast assurances that, yes, indeed they surely had., which had been good enough for Matt. If someone tells you that he’s done his best, what are you supposed to say to them? No, you haven’t. Maybe the kids could have done better and simply hadn’t wanted to (obviously the case in hindsight). Not everyone likes to write, Matt thought, though he didn’t express his misgivings to Mr. Swain. Instead, he said, “I’ll help them write more.” “I’ve got a new student helper that I’ve kind of taken under my wing. Jed’ll be your go-to guy. He’ll be in here all afternoon.” “Oh...great,” Matt said. Matt remembered Jed and wilted a little inside at the thought of the kid being with him the rest of the day. Surely he had other classes to attend. Matt remembered Jed as being a big goof.

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After gathering some papers, Mr. Swain said, “Well, good luck. Hope you have a nice afternoon.” Matt thanked the shop teacher and wrote on the board the lesson plans as well as the stuff about not eating or drinking, and not asking to use the bathroom or go into the shop. Matt felt like a prig imposing all those rules, and he wondered if Mr. Swain didn’t let kids go to the bathroom when he was there. It seemed ridiculous. If someone has to go, Matt thought, who am I to tell them that they can’t. Or drink a coke or eat a bag of peanuts for that matter. Oh well. He hoped things would go without incident. The bell rang. As the shop students filed in, they were thrilled to see Matt, who, as always, was wary of their good will toward him. Fists were punched in the air and there were jubilant cries such as, “We got Mr. Jones today. Yessss,” and, “Mr. Jones is here. All right!” Matt nodded and smiled warily. When the bell rang, in his loud teacher-voice, he said, “Have a seat please. It’s good to be here. Have a seat please, so I can take attendance.” Jed, his helper, round of head with a convict’s buzz cut and of a stocky frame, said, “Do we got a day off? Party!” Obviously he’d missed the assignment on the board in front of his eyes, which several of his classmates called attention to, saying, “Jed, you dumb-ass, Mr. Jones wrote it on the board,” and “Jed, look at the board for Christ’s sake, you fuckin’ dolt.” If Jed took umbrage at the insults, he didn’t act hurt but grinned at his classmates triumphantly. “Uh, let’s avoid using the ‘f’ bomb, fellows,” Matt urged. As he took attendance, some of the boys in the class went to the magazine shelf and picked out issues from the selection of automotive, woodworking, and mechanist magazines. “Oh,” Matt said, “Mr. Swain said that he

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was hoping you’d write more in your reports than you did last time. I’ll be happy to help you come up with more sentences.” “Mr. Swain can kiss my ass, Mr. Jones,” several of the boys said convivially. Matt came out from behind his desk and began urging those who hadn’t gotten a magazine to go to the shelf and pick one out. “Don’t worry, Mr. Jones. Swain doesn’t even look at the reports. He never makes us do them when he’s here. Last time, I saw him flip through them and then throw them all away,” one of the young men said. Jed chimed in, “That’s right, Mr. Jones. Mr. Swain don’t really want us to do this stuff. He told me he just has us do it when there’s a sub. So it doesn’t mean anything. Plus, we didn’t do it this morning.” How helpful. Matt took a breath and said, “Well, all I can tell you is that when I talked to him, he said he was grading them, and that the last time I was here, he didn’t think anyone had written enough. So do your best. I’ll help you. I’d be glad to.” Obligingly bringing magazines to those who weren’t terribly motivated to do the assignment, Matt kept on his feet, going around the room encouraging everyone to do your best. Most of the kids made a pretense of reading the articles and writing some token sentences, more than they had the last time. Not all of them. Jed, for example, spent his time trying to poke his neighboring classmates in the ribs, triggering such responses as, “Cut it the out, Jed”, and, “I’ll break your nose if you do that again, butthole.” Matt turned around and said, “No need for that. Jed, you’re supposed to be my helper, okay. Could you move please?” The mischief-boy smirked and did as he was told. Still, he didn’t read his magazine. He left it at the desk he’d been at, a fact that he pointed out when Matt had said, “Where’s your magazine, Jed?”

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“How’m I supposed to have a magazine when you moved me, Mr. Jones?” Jed logically challenged. Not waiting for Matt to answer, several of the boys said variations of, “You were supposed to take your magazine with you, Jed - you numb-nut.” All of which made Jed grin more, making Matt think that the young man must be starved for attention. Nevertheless, Matt brought Jed his magazine. Jed whined, “I don’t like this one. Can I get another?” “Sure, but find one you like and get started. I want you to finish the assignment.” “Hell, Mr. Jones, I’m in here the rest of the day. I’ll get it done later.” Oh - lovely, Matt thought. As soon as he looked away to help another student pad his scant sentences, Jed poked someone else in the ribs, beginning the merriment anew. To Jed, this form of teasing was high comedy, and he was entertaining his classmates with his sophisticated wit rather than being annoying and tempting them to bust him in his round skull, a thought which also occurred to Matt, who immediately quashed it. He told himself that Jed was really a good kid as he observed him shove the magazine off his desk and look around to see if anyone was watching. Despite Matt’s pleading with them to do their best, his help consisted of him basically writing extra sentences to fulfill Mr. Swain’s expectations. The students were all done after about a half an hour, leaving around twenty-five minutes of class time left. When everyone was finished, Jed, having done absolutely nothing, got up from his seat and said, “Mr. Jones, I gotta pinch a loaf.” This revelation brought out a round of groans from the other young fellows, which delighted Jed, who said, “Hey, it’s a human function.” “A little loud. A bit loud. Please take it down a notch,” Matt said several times until the boys’ voices died down. “Uh, Jed, Mr. Swain doesn’t want anyone leaving the room to use the

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bathroom.” “Oh, you’re wrong, Mr. Jones. Swain always lets us go,” the classroom helper clarified. “Besides, I really gotta go.” “Well, is this an emergency?” Dancing from one foot to the other to show that it was a true emergency, Jed said, “Hellyyeah it is. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t have to go. Swain always lets us.” “Uh, well, okay,” Matt said. “Hell, Mr. Jones, I gotta go tooooo,” one of the others chimed in. “Ummm...well, when Jed gets back then someone else can go,” Matt said. Grinning victoriously, Jed left the room. It was easier with him gone, Matt thought. After ten minutes, Matt gave a pass to the student who had also said that he really had to go, and as soon as that boy left, another , a tall, thin tow-headed lad named Billy, came up to the teacher’s desk. He had been one of the students who had gotten his magazines without prompting, had done his work without extra help and had finished early. This Billy, Matt thought, was a true self-starter. Matt nodded, and the studious fellow leaned forward and whispered, “I need a pass to go home. It’s okay, Mr. Jones. Swain lets me go everyday. It’s part of my work program.” Things like this worried Matt. He looked at Billy, who stood before him dressed in modest jeans and tee shirt, the picture of a serious thinking, sober-minded youth, not one to engage in trifling behavior from the look of him. Matt figured, he must be telling the truth. So he wrote the pass. In the box marked ‘destination’, Matt wrote, ‘home’. About a minute after Billy had left, another of the kids in the room, Ethan, said, “Billy isn’t on a work program that lets him go home before school’s out, Mr. Jones.”

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That was troubling. “Uh, where do you think he might have gone?” Matt asked the class. Some shrugged. Others said they didn’t know. One kid named Joe, said, “I really have to use the bathroom, Mr. Jones. Seriously.” Matt let him go. When Jed finally returned, he said, “I had to take a big dump. That’s why it took so long.” The next period went much like the first one, with Matt constantly on his feet trying to help by making suggestions, proofreading sentences, and often writing things to help pad the kids’ efforts, while at the same time dealing with Jed, who tried his best to get Matt to allow the class into the shop area to work on his truck. “It’s too boring in here,” Jed complained. “Swain wouldn’t mind if me and these guys went into the shop. I need to work on my truck. It’s right out there. Swain knows I’m working on my truck.” “We have to try to do what he asked, so I’m sorry, but no. We really have to stay out of the shop today,” Matt patiently explained. In a huff, Jed said, “Aw, Mr. Swain don’t care.” Matt lied, “Well, the last time I let students go into the shop, Mr. Swain found out - and he punched me - hard - right between my shoulder blades.” This brought out cries of incredulous indignation from the students. “What did you do? Are you serious? Mr. Jones is bullshitting ,” and other loud declarations were voiced - every young man’s intent merely to be heard above the other voices. This was understandable given the story Matt had just made up - when suddenly at the door was the custodian, a fellow named Danny James. In addition to his janitorial duties, he’d been given a little badge to wear around his neck and assigned the duty of going around and keeping the kids in line in the halls.

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Danny was dressed in elastic waist jeans which still didn’t accommodate his big belly. He wore a dingy, narrow collared work shirt, tucked into his pants so that he resembled a pear shaped water balloon atop two twigs. His wore dusty black cowboy boots, and like a sheriff, he glared at the boys, snapping, “I was just walking down the hall when I heard all this noise. There are classes going on, and IT IS TOO LOUD. ” He folded his thick forearms and glared at the boys. “I’ll get Mrs. Barwick,” he threatened. There was much eye-rolling and rich silence until Jed remarked, “You’re not the teacher in here. Mr. Jones is. Besides, you’re not even a teacher.” Matt was feeling a curious mixture of homicidal urges as he sat behind the desk. Partly they were directed at Janitor Danny and partly at Jed. Think about clouds and bunnies, Matt told himself, but instead, he found himself flashing back, visualizing poor, innocent Gereld lying on the ground, his chest gushing. Neither of their fault. So messy. Matt shuddered. Rather than dwelling on the sea of blood that had sprung from Gereld’s wound, Matt refocused on the present, saying, “Sorry. We, uh, just saw a mouse.” Thirty years of selling pot around his family had taught him to automatically lie. The students nodded innocently. “It was a mouse,” several of them testified. And after a beat and a half, Danny relaxed. He smiled and said in a buddy-like manner, “Oh, no wonder then, boys. Later on, I’ll put a trap in here, but if that mousie comes back before I get around to doing that, try not to yell. Man up!” “They won’t yell,” Matt assured the disciplinarian-janitor, who looked at him strangely and left. After twenty seconds of wordlessness, a kid named Brad said, “I can’t believe Gayble McGay-Gay just told us to ‘man up’.”

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Another of the boys, Lydel, wistfully mused, “I just hate that guy.” Matt sighed. I do too, he thought, but aloud he said, “Oh, he’s just trying to help me. And really, we have to be a little more quiet.” Not wanting to get in real trouble, the students spent the last fifteen minutes of the period playing The Name Game. Things went more smoothly then. Should have had them do this all afternoon, Matt thought. The next period was the second to last of the day. Well maybe they won’t ask me back here, Matt glumly speculated as the students spilled into the room. One of the boys he’d had many times before, a tall lad named Aaron, was at the board. He was quickly drawing a hairy, nude cartoon that, although alarmingly male, was otherwise exactly like the Alice the Goon figure in the old Popeye cartoons. “I didn’t know you could draw so well, Aaron,” Matt said. The boy smiled at the kind encouragement as he added shading and details. “Ummm...anyway, as great a drawing as that is, could you, uh, fix it so it’s not naked. Put something on him maybe, and then have a seat if you don’t mind.” “Just one minute,” Aaron said, deepening the shadow around the large penised Alice the Goon. To add to the spirit of fun, Jed was singing a song about whacking off to the tune of “Frere Jacque”. “Whackin’ my peter. Whackin’ m’ peter. Jack-in’ off! Jack-in’ off!” were the first couple of lines. Matt politely interrupted, saying, “Uh, Jed, do you mind not singing that please.” “Don’t you like it, Mr. Jones?” “Oh, it’s funny, but it’s not something we should be singing since we don’t want to bring someone down here fussing,” Matt explained. “It is a funny song. Just one more time,” Jed cried joyfully, and once again he began

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singing it, this time a few of the more suggestible fellows chiming right in with him. Matt exchanged glances with one of the quiet students, Robert Chambers, who shook his head sympathetically. “Uh, fellows, enough of the singing,“ he said over their voices, but no sooner had he said it than Mrs. Bismark strode in the room. She looked around angrily. The voices trailed off. “Hello,” Matt said, a little too brightly. Mrs. Barwick didn’t reply, but fixed her eye on Aaron, who was standing in front of his Alice the Goon with a penis. He was trying to sneakily erase Alice’s wiener with the back of his jeans by rubbing his butt against the risque area of the drawing. Mrs. Barwick frowned deeply and said, “You want to have a seat, Aaron?” “I’m good,” Aaron replied laconically. “Sit down,” Mrs. Barwick dryly insisted. The tall boy sheepishly complied, leaving Alice largely intact, with the exception of the area where she’d had a penis. There was enough of that left to still be able to tell what had been drawn there. Mrs. Barwick crossed her arms. Matt felt anger over-ride and curdle his embarrassment as he met the principal’s disapproving eye, and his mind zoomed back to Andrew - the spiked Hennessy and the abandoned country cellar in which he’d left him, locked up and entombed. He pictured the fool awakening in the dark bunker. Maybe he’d been lucky and died in his sleep. If not, how awful, languishing in a pitch black chamber until death from lack of water and food. “Mr. Jones, I want you to write down the names of those boys who were singing,” Mrs. Barwick barked, snapping him out of his momentary trance.

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“Yes, Ma’am,” Matt said, realizing that this was the first time the principal had ever spoken to him. He got out a piece of paper and wrote Jed and the other two boys’ names down. Mrs. Barwick took the piece of paper. Then she said to the class, “If I have to come down here again, you’re all getting calls home and a week’s after-school detention, and if you don’t like that, you can have an out of school suspension and we can have your parents come up when it’s time for you to come back. You boys understand?” Several of the students mumbled that, yes, they did understand. Matt was picturing Mrs. Barwick and the students floating away on an icefloe together, her yelling and them looking mopey and saying under their breaths the brilliantly cruel things adolescent boys come up with. “I hope you do understand,” Mrs. Barwick said menacingly. Then she left. “Mr. Jones told you to stop singing that dumb-ass song,” Robert reminded them. When the last period of the day finally arrived, Matt figured that the worst had passed. If he could just coast through the next forty-five minutes, he’d be home free. Unfortunately, Jed still wanted to go in the shop. “I forgot that’s where my wallet is. In my truck, I mean. I’ve got to get my wallet,” Jed said. “Mr. Swain doesn’t want anyone in the shop,” Matt reminded his ‘helper’. “Oh my God. Mr. Swain wouldn’t mind. I’m telling you. He’d let me go.” “Well I’m not trying to be mean, but that was the main rule that he wanted observed, that no one go in the shop area,” Matt patiently reiterated. Jed sulked, actually stuck out his lower lip. “Well, Mr. Swain would,” he moaned. “Oh shut up, Jed,” was the general consensus, which caused him to puff up and haughtily put his head on his desk to pout and frown like a cartoon onion face that Matt had once seen. Within three minutes, however, he was no longer pouting but napping, his breath relaxed and

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slow. A line of drool fell from his open mouth to the top of the desk. It was so much better with him out. The others benefitted from Jed’s slumber. His being asleep allowed Matt to work with them, going from student to student, writing down sentences for them to copy. It made time go by more quickly, and they actually had something to show Mr. Swain when he came back. There wasn’t even time for The Name Game that last period. In fact, time got away from Matt, and the class ended before he had a chance to tell the boys to clean up around their desks. By the time the bell stopped ringing, two-thirds of the class had bolted from the room. “Good-by. Have a nice day,” Matt managed to get out. Oh well, he thought. I’d best clean this place up myself. He picked up a piece of paper from between the first and second row of desks when he saw that one student remained in the room. Jed. “That’s uh, nice of you to stay and help clean up,” Matt said, suspiciously, but when he saw Jed pick up a couple of pieces of paper, he gave him the benefit of a doubt. Though he’d felt angry, murderous actually, at everything Jed had put him through, this little show of helpfulness vindicated the kid. That is, until Jed went to the intercom and pushed the button to speak to the office. “Uh...why did you do that?” Matt asked. Jed smiled gleefully. From the office, the secretary said, “Hello? Is this Mr. Jones?” Jed was grinning crazily. Matt stammered, “Well, yes. One of the studen - “ He didn’t get to complete what he was going to say when Jed, in a high-pitched voice wailed. “Haaaaave mercy. Ooooh, don’t doooooo that. Owwwwwww.” “Mr. Jones, what’s going on?” “Nothing. It’s just Je - “

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”Nooooo. Stop it - pleeeease,” Jed cried piteously. Jed doubled over and had to cover his mouth with both hands not to laugh. Matt wanted to kill him. Within fifteen seconds, before he could explain that Mr. Swain’s special helper was merely being a wit, two male teachers burst in the room. Mr. Lynn, the football coach, and Mr. Johnson, who taught science, were slightly out of breath. “Uh, hello,” Matt said. He figured that Jed was going to tell them that he was beating him or trying to rape him. Looking at the grinning boy, he felt himself wanting to give Jed something to really cry about. Mr. Lynn said, “They got a call in the office that some kid was being hurt.” All eyes were on Jed, who sheepishly muttered, “I was just kidding.” Mr. Lynn and Mr. Johnson looked at each other and shook their heads “Come on, funnyman,” Mr. Johnson said. “I was just kidding!” “Write him up,” they advised Matt before leaving the room with Jed. “Don’t write me up,” Jed plaintively urged as he left. Tired. The whole day had been nerve-wracking. Matt wasn’t mad at the students, not even that darned Jed. Well, maybe Jed, but not the rest. They were good kids, really sweet kids or something. Anyway, the day was behind him, and for that Matt thanked God. Then Mrs. Yandle’s voice crackled through the speaker. “Mr. Jones, can you stop by the office.” Matt’s heart sank because he wanted to leave. He knew that they wouldn’t be calling him in to tell him they liked the cut of his jib and offer him a permanent position but figured they wanted him to write a note telling what Jed had done. Tedious. Matt turned out the lights and left the shop class.

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He was taken to Mrs. Barwick’s private office where she and two policemen, neither of them his old friend Sheriff Timmy but two younger men, were sitting around her desk, apparently waiting for him. The sight of them set Matt’s heart racing. Were they here about what Jed had done? That made no sense. It occurred to Matt that they might have found out something linking him to one of the dead guys. Uh oh. His pulse sounded as loud as the gunshot that had flashed so quickly when he’d shot Jack. Were they here to ask him about Jack and Gerald, or Andrew - or Laurence St Croix? Whatever the reason, policemen wanting to talk to you is never a good sign. “Have a seat, Mr. Jones,” Mrs. Barwick said. Matt sat, and his eyes were drawn to a slip of paper on the principal’s desk. “Did you write this pass for Billy Phelps to go home?” Mrs. Barwick asked incredulously. “Yes,” Matt said. “Uh, Billy told me that he had to leave early for his work program.” The policemen exchanged smirks and Mrs. Barwick sneered in what appeared to be both anger and disbelief. “Did Mr. Swain tell you that or leave it in his notes somewhere?” she asked. “Uh, well, no, but Billy seemed really trustworthy.” “Oh, really? Well, the reason you’ve been called here is that, surprisingly, Billy didn’t go home before he went to his job. He doesn’t have a job,” Mr. Barwick said, her eyes bulging with anger. “The reason you’re here, Mr. Jones, is that about an hour ago, these two officers saw Billy on Main Street. The reason they noticed him was because he was driving a yellow truck that had been reported stolen just minutes earlier.” Matt wasn’t liking this although it was better than being charged with murder. Mrs. Barwick looked as if she would enjoy killing him. She drummed her fingernails on her desk. “The officers pulled him over, Mr. Jones. They told me that because it was a stolen vehicle, they had to approach with caution. With guns drawn. Do you know what Billy handed

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these two gentleman when they got to the stolen truck? This piece of paper on my desk - this pass that you wrote for Billy to leave school.” Boy did Matt feel foolish. Mrs. Barwick snarled, “Never have I heard of a substitute teacher giving a student a pass to go home. That’s so irresponsible, thoughtless - just plain stupid. You could have at least checked in the office. Don’t you know that you’re legally liable for what the students do when they’re in your class? Obviously not.” When she was finished venting, Mrs. Barwick told Matt to leave.

I definitely won’t be going there anymore, Matt thought as he pulled out of the parking space. If Noonie asked why they weren’t calling him anymore, he’d tell her that they just must not need substitutes. In time, she’d stop asking hopefully. Matt glumly considered the inevitable. People her age are so fragile. She was increasingly frail. He envisioned the print of the little girl picking flowers. Easing the car through the parking lot, Matt wondered how many more days like this he would have. Hopefully tens of thousands. Hopefully forever. He was nearly out of the lot when he saw that the back door to the shop class was open. Sighing, he pulled the car and headed there. That’s all he needed, yet one more complaint about him not doing his job. He decided that he’d lower the door. That way - well, that way nothing as he probably wouldn’t be working there anymore anyway. Still, Matt thought, I won’t be the loser they want to think I am. He determined to do right and take care of this even if they never found out, even if they didn’t care. An open door to the shop was an accident waiting to happen, and, Matt told himself, he was going to nip this potential mess in the bud right now. Slowly cruising nearer the shop entrance, he couldn’t understand how the door had gotten open.

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He should have been able to guess, even though as he parked and got out of his Noonie’s car, he was still surprised at what he found. A big red truck, a throwback to the days of great big stupid trucks, was suspended about a foot-and-a-half off the cement floor by a heavy chain winch, locked in place with a lever on the south wall of the shop. There were no wheels on the fancy behemoth, and when Matt looked under it, he saw Jed, who was busy with s wrench right under the front axel. “Hey Mr. Jones,” the boy said cheerfully. This was really too much. “What the heck are you doing here?” Matt asked, his feeling of resigned defeat giving way to anger. He was resenting Jed all over again. “I’m replacing these here bolts,” Jed replied as he fiddled with one of the pieces. “You’re not supposed to be in the shop,” Matt said, exasperated, feeling the blood rushing to his face as he continued looking at the boy. “Didn’t you get in trouble for pulling that stupid stunt with the intercom?” Jed chuckled. “Naw. They appreciate my sense of humor, Mr. Jones. All of ‘em were laughing about it. I’m crazy. They get me.” Jed looked from his work at Matt. “Don’t be mad, Mr. Jones. It’s okay. I keep telling you that Mr. Swain - he don’t mind me being in the shop and working on my truck. Nobody cares. They just tell you subs that. I don’t know why. Guess they got to cover their butts in case anything happens, but, hey, really - don’t worry. Swain don’t take it serious. He laughs about it. Swain knows we’re not going to do anything for you. It’s funny.” Jed laughed as if to show Matt that it was really funny. Funny. Matt stood up. From under the truck, Jed grunted with the task at hand. They laughed about it all, Matt furiously marveled. He felt he had to do something, something without

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forethought. There wasn’t anyone else around. Matt felt his legs jerkily take him to the south wall of the shop. His head is right under the axel, Matt thought, He impulsively grabbed a paper towel off the shop floor. There was the lever operating the chain holding the car. Then, it was as if he were watching someone else in his skin doing, of course, what he wanted to do, using the paper towel to cover the lever as he flipped it to the release position. Matt fleetingly hoped Jed wouldn’t scream. It took a fraction of a second for the truck to clunk to the concrete. He could feel the brief concussion through the floor. After the heavy thud, it was quiet in the shop. Uh oh, Matt thought. He got down on his hands and knees to check on Jed to see if he were still alive. The boy was dead alright, thoroughly squashed. The sight of Jed’s brains sprayed on the floor from where the axel had landed on his head made Matt a little queasy. The rush of adrenal fear that replaced what had been piss-angry impulse told Matt that, again, he’d messed. up. He quickly went to the doorway and, still using the paper towel, pushed the button to lower the shop door. As it came down, he ducked outside. This, he fretted, is what I get for trying to fix things. He took a deep breath and looked around but saw no one. Within seconds he was back in his car and heading out of the parking lot. He was still scared, but there was no visible activity in the lot. He didn’t see anyone sitting in their cars. That was good. Matt left unnoticed. The staff thought he was already gone. No one saw him now. He knew he was safe and felt a wave of relief wash over him for the first time since he’d tried being a substitute. Pulling onto the street, Matt reflected on what a bad teacher he was, a truly horrible disciplinarian - it was true. That was why they laughed at him. And now he had killed Jed. He sighed. Well, nobody’s perfect. HOLE

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The vast hallways of the mall smelled wonderful. A faint ambrosia made Matt want to roll around in a meadow of wild-flowers, go on a date - or buy something, even though he was there to sell calendars at the Yearly Yours kiosk. He figured that the ducts hidden in the blue and eggshell paneled ceilings must have been pumping out the entrancing mix: musk, hints of floral, a snap of leavening bitters, the smell of hope and endless possibility. Matt figured that the scent had been carefully manufactured, tested, and proven to bring out the urge to purchase.

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smell was one of the high points of working in the mall. The kiosk consisted of four wire islands loaded with calendars and set in the middle of the enclosed boulevards of stone, steel, and plastic. The Yearly Yours Calendar company was owned by Feathers Inc., the big media retail franchise. Matt took a big pull of the sweet air as he kept busy, walking around the islands, rubbing the faces of the wall calendars with his sleeve, dusting the desk calendars, aligning and realigning the mini-calendars and the box calendars. He constantly made sure the stock was neat, all the edges flush, and nothing out of place. That was something that could always be done. The grazing shoppers would pick up calendars, look at them, and put them back in the wrong place. Matt didn’t mind. Patience and good will were his intentions. The calendars showing secret gardens, wind-blasted canyons, tropical paradises, those were Matt’s favorites. Places. He’d been to so few places - to Colorado for a week when he was twenty-one to visit a high school friend, and as a child he’d gone on a few vacations to Missouri and Kentucky. His family would stay in a hotel a couple of nights so Matt’s dad could see a few horse shows at various fairs. Not fun or inspiring, unlike the sublime places shown on the calendars. I could go here, Matt thought, transfixed by a picture of flowing, grassy plains from a calendar of prairies. Matt looked closely at the green of the fields, like waves rolling to the sky.

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The picture had been taken at Scansdale County, Iowa. Matt could go to Scansdale County. Or somewhere. His co-worker Jane-Ann was bringing calendars from the storage room that Feathers Inc. had rented back in the guts of the mall. She was great, a girl who was willing to get Matt pot. She was twenty and said that she’d been smoking pot since she’d been four. What a gal! It was fortunate that Matt had found this job, which he’d taken after his career as a substitute teacher had zenithed, or - actually- had ended badly. In Matt’s defense, if he’d known Billy was going to steal that truck, he’d never have written him a pass to leave school. And he certainly wouldn’t have killed Jed. Thank God that had come back on Mr. Swain for having lent Jed a key to the shop. Neither the school nor the police had ever even thought to associate Matt with the tragedy. Jed had used his own key to get into the shop and, because he was an idiot, had squashed himself by accident. That’s what everyone thought. Mr. Swain was fired, which was okay with Matt since he detested Swain. It was funny the way things turned out. The ways of the Lord are mysterious indeed, Matt had told himself when he’d found out. When the school stopped calling Matt to substitute teach, he decided to draw upon his experience as a salesman (selling pot counts), to try his hand at legitimate retail. He’d applied at Feathers Inc., and Marie, the manager, a nice woman in her late thirties, said that while they didn’t have a place for him at the store, he could work at their kiosk in the neighboring mall selling calendars. So he’d gone with it. Matt walked up the center of the four islands. Walked past the register and saw a calendar displaying nebulas that someone had looked at and then carelessly put back in the animal section on top of a stack of tree-frog wall calendars. He took it back to where it belonged. Before putting it away, he admired a photo of The Crab Nebula - going on to imagine the entire

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mall being a space station, empty except for himself, and it landing on the surface of a planet like our own except in some other place - like The Crab Nebula. He saw himself stepping out of the grand entrance of the mall into the wild, green, overgrown cliffs that would cover the surface of the huge planet. Still halfway in reverie, Matt gazed down the long hall, the walkway flanked with cheerful shops. He tried to imagine all of them empty - empty and quiet. Jane Ann came out of the back room. Her wavy black hair was pulled back into a short ponytail. Her denim pants and white cotton shirt were baggy, and she wore her running shoes unlaced. When he saw her, he smiled. She handed him a stack of calendars. Copies of Castles in Scotland were on top, followed by Lonely Places, and at the bottom were a dozen Doggies Wearing Diamonds. “I would have brought them from the back,” Matt said as he glanced at the pictures on the back of the Lonely Places calendar, arctic full moons, luminous deserts at twilight and dawn, and various elegantly sere landscapes. He put them in their proper spot. “That’s nice of you,” Jane Ann said, smiling back. She had thick, eighties-era eyebrows and grey eyes. Her skin was a light olive. Finished with the new stock, Matt automatically straightened calendars whose corners were already flush. The corners and edges of the merchandise were all perfectly lined. Still, Matt kept working his way down the center aisle, his hands going from stack to stack, blindly lining them up. Jane Ann had gotten a dust cloth from the cabinet beneath the register and was running it over everything. They were never still. It wasn’t simply that Feathers Inc wanted them constantly straightening and restocking when they weren’t selling, though it did. More than dedication to Feathers, they kept busy to make time pass.

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The depth-less emptiness of tidying made Matt talkative. “All these people buying all these calendars. It makes you think,“ Matt ventured. “What’re you talking about?” Matt turned red. “I don’t know. It would be nice if we could see into the lives of the people who buy our stuff. Like this.” Matt randomly picked a calendar that was devoted to waterfalls. On the cover was a scene of a gigantic cascade of blue waters crashing down cliffs jutting out from black green foliage in the middle of a steamy jungle. “What if we could point to a date and see into the life of whoever buys this - like see what happens to him or her on a specific date.” “Well now you’re talking about magic. Hey, I believe in reincarnation. I know in my last life, I was a young woman living in Missouri, and my husband killed me. I think it’s why I have so much trouble with my back.” Jane Ann continued dusting as she turned the corner, adding, “But seeing into the lives of the folks who buy our calendars - I don’t know. That’s a little out there.” Matt followed her. “Wow. You remember your past life? That is just so wild. You can actually remember?” That was something. Matt couldn’t remember any of his other lives. “I was hypnotized,” Jane Ann informed Matt, whose eyes lit up. Being hypnotized - how deep, Matt thought. Before he could ask her to tell him about it, she cut things short, saying sotto voce, “Here comes the secret shopper..” She and Matt began working away from each other. By being on opposite sides of the islands, they could avoid it being reported that instead of working, they were standing around having a conversation. Though theoretically, the identity of the secret shopper is...well - secret, this particular one was known to everyone working in the mall. Her name was Alison, and all the workers knew

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that she was a secret shopper because an ex-friend of the girl’s had told someone who worked in Topical Warmth who had spread the word. It made sense because Alison, in her mid-twenties, was at the mall everyday. Matt watched her approaching, the reflection of her pear-bottomed heaviness elongating and wavering over the marble and granite inlay of the piazza floor “Hi, Alison, can I help you find a calendar today?” Matt sweetly asked. Alison, her thin brown hair tied back, was eating a pita that was stuffed with chicken, onions, and a yogurt dill sauce whose aroma pestered the air with a heavy, sour tang. Matt knew she was going to ask for something they didn’t have. “I need an Audrey Hepburn calendar,” she snapped. She was dressed in a brown nylon track-suit that bore several NASCAR patches. Alison knew they didn’t carry that. How could she not know when she looked at their display at least seven times a week? Nevertheless, Matt apologetically said, “I’m afraid we don’t carry that, but could I interest you in a Monroe or a James Dean calendar?” She squinted and said, “That’s not what I want. Any Cartoon Networks?” Why did she ask? “I’m afraid we don’t. How about Comedy Central, South Park, Stephen Colbert - Jon Stewart?” Alison sneered. “Duh. If that’s what I wanted, I would have asked for that in the first place wouldn’t I?” “Of course. Just trying to be helpful. Is there anything else I could help you with today? A pocket calendar maybe?” He hurried to the display at the register and pulled several from the rack to show Alison. “Here,” he said handing them to her, but she testily threw them next to the register.

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“Of course you’d try to sell me the nerdiest stuff that you’ve got too much of,” Alison observed. “Not at all,” Matt protested. Alison half-smiled as if she had his number. He couldn’t stand her. From around the corner of the far island, Jane Ann appeared, busily wiping the shiny faces of the calendars as well as the wire display. Pretending surprise, she said, “Alison, how good to see you. Finding everything alright?” “I was wanting an Audrey Hepburn calendar, but brain-trust here says you guys don’t have it.” Alison frowned bitterly. “He keeps trying to get me to look at dumb stuff,” she whined, fixing Matt with a poisonous stare. “We do have a Judy Garland in stock. One left,” Jane Ann cannily let slip. Alison took a bite and stared balefully at Jane Ann, her expression like that of a haunted portrait that would be found hanging in an abandoned, ramshackle mansion. She chewed and stared. Jane Ann’s retail-face never wavered, her smile and eyes both helpful and friendly but also knowing - mocking. As if making a chess move of which she was unsure, Alison said, “I think I’d like to see that.” Then, her tone sweating venom and petulance, she spat, “I could kill Matt for trying to dump the lame stuff you guys can’t sell.” Jane Ann chuckled, and Matt fought back an unworthy and violent thought. He watched his co-worker pull out the two bottom shelves and rummage through the surplus stock that was there. Jane Ann found the Judy Garland calendar and held it out for the horrible girl. “This is a nice one,” she pitched. Suddenly, Matt wasn’t looking at it as Alison being the pain in the neck whom he’d like to - to - he couldn’t bring himself to think it. He was being good. He’d made the choice to never

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again hurt anyone - well - kill anyone, so he knew he mustn’t indulge in ugly fantasias. Now he was in the same mind-set as Jane Ann, who treated selling calendars as if she were hunting or fishing, the shopper being the prey. “It’s all in black and white,” Alison whined. Matt reached to the top tier and brought down another calendar, saying, “We’ve got Judy in The Wizard of Oz right here.” “Oh, that’s cute,” Alison cooed, taking the wall calendar and studying the pictures, her cue for Matt and Jane Ann to lay off the hard sell. She never bought anything. This was simply her routine, to keep them on their toes, at least that’s what Matt thought. “Well, if you have any questions, please ask us,” Jane Ann said, getting a paper towel from the cabinet under the register. She began cleaning the floor. Inspired, Matt hurried to get his own paper towel and commence wiping the floor. Before they had gotten very far, Jane Ann pointed to a bare rack. “Someone must have bought the last Country Music Icons.” Without thinking, he crawled to the bottom drawer and pulled it open. He searched for it among various wall and box calendars. The Country Music Icons wall calendars were near the bottom. Matt put three of them where they needed to be. It was because they weren’t supposed to have any empty display space, according to Feathers Inc. “You know what,” Jane Ann said, “We’re needing some Springer Folk Art Calendars.” “I’ll get them,” Matt said. “Unless you want to.” “You get them. I think the register tape is getting low. I’ll change it,” she said, which was great. Matt had never changed the tape and was, in general, intimidated by the temperamental machine.

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To get to their storage room, he had to walk only about one hundred feet down their nearly deserted stretch of the hallway, past Veronica’s Lingerie and Topical Heat, the store that served as the Wal Mart of emo, skater, and goth couture. The music coming from these stores was faint and Matt felt safe, as if he were a fish swimming in a flooded catacomb. Except he was in the mall, quiet on this day at this hour. Just past The Paradise Coffee Shop there was a hallway that led to a metal door. It was marked Employees Only. The narrow passage beyond that point was lined with storage rooms. Matt walked quickly past door after door, the only light being the ceiling fixtures, orbs glowing

high on the wall, making the corridor like a tunnel in an industrial castle. The inside of the storage room was heaped with stacks of boxed calendars. Matt slung a box marked humor from the top of the heap, and after that a box of NFL wall calendars. Under that were the Springer Folk Art calendars. Matt hurriedly pulled several copies of Four Seasons, Songbirds, and Lighthouses. He was just out of there when he found himself confronted by Alison. Irritating as a bug bite, she was where she shouldn’t have been, but he remembered the gentleman’s code. Matt smiled but was at a loss as to what to say. So she spoke for him. “I just want to see the Wiccan calendars. I’m a Wiccan. Does that scare you?” “Uh, no. What we have is out front,” Matt answered coldly, stepping past her and hurrying toward the kiosk. Alison’s smirk made him want to slap her or grab her by the shoulders and give her a good shake, but he wouldn’t allow himself to consider such a thing. He would have preferred being slapped to hearing what she said next. Her words stopped him. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Starting tomorrow, I’ll be working here with you guys.”

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Time stepped back and took a breath. “What?” Matt said - his knees weak. The sickly green walls threw a hollow echo to Alison’s voice. “Yeah, I went by Feathers Inc. and asked Marie for a job out here. She’s a friend of my mom’s. So it’s okay if I get a look at what’s in back. There are lots of things I can think of, things that’ll make you and Jane Ann a little more efficient around here.” Matt gazed in dismay at Alison. His mind filled with a haze of confused and bewildered pain. Alison was to work with him and Jane Ann? How could such things come to be? Working with her was going to be horrible. Matt worried about what Jane Ann would do. Alison had better not try to boss her around. “Hey, don’t look so happy,” Alison blared, frowning at him. After he and Jane Ann downloaded the evening’s deposit on the arcane computer in their storage room (this night they’d been lucky and the old box hadn’t rejected the disc), they were sitting on unopened boxes of calendars. Matt was loading a bowl of pot, and Jane Ann was practicing lassoing with a long rope a tall stack of boxes at the other side of the room. On the box between them was the spring-loaded knife next to some home-made deer jerky. She said, “Alison ain’t my boss, and if she smarts off to either of us - we should just call Marie. Imagine, hiring a damn Secret Shopper.” She sent the rope flying across the room where it miraculously slipped around the top box. Giving it a tug, she tightened it around the seam between the first and second box. She jerked the rope and sent the tallest one off the stack without upsetting any of the others. Alison was going to mess everything up. Now they would have to share shifts with her, the secret shopper now a spying co-worker. Matt sighed. The overhead bulb dissolved the edges of the room in a tan, prairie mist of grainy shadow set against the silhouettes of cardboard. Matt said, “She’s like a perfect storm of...yucky-ness.” “Having that bitch here is going to suck,” Jane Ann drawled. She picked up her knife and

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sliced a few pieces of jerky from the strip on the box - stabbed one of the morsels and popped it into her mouth. Matt did just as she had. The bite of gaminess from the meat was enhanced by the spices. It was a taste that was different than any other, the nearest thing to it being barbecued pork. Jane Ann had killed and cured the deer herself. She was a dedicated hunter and fisherman. Though Matt couldn’t kill any animal and thought that killing a sweet Bambi or a dear little fish or birdie wasn’t something that he could ever do (lucky for Atticus), he could still eat them. Matt gave Jane Ann a pass on hunting and fishing, not that she would ever have cared for his or anyone’s approval. Of course, he couldn’t very well take a hunter or fisherman to task after what he’d done. That was always at the back of his mind. He said, “I guess I’ll just be nice.” The bowl of pot was next to the pieces of deer jerky. Jane Ann cleaned her nails with the knife. She said glumly, “Yeah, it’s nice to be nice to the nice. Saw that on MASH.” She winced, put her knife down and looked at her finger. “Aw hell,” she said. Matt watched in fascination as the tiny line of blood formed on the tip of her index finger and then spread into her surrounding fingerprint and pores before dropping on the concrete floor. He got up, went to the table where the computer was and found the roll of paper towels. “Let me see that,” he said. Jane Ann let him take her hand as he pressed the square of white paper to her cut. “Does it hurt?” Jane Ann looked at Matt as if he were crazy. She said, “Not at all. Hey, I can take a lot of pain.” “You can?”

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Her eyes flashed in the weak light as she smiled. “Why sure. I’ve broken my collar bone on my four-wheeler. Broke my ribs in a car accident. Horse threw me and I broke my arm. Got in a fight and got my nose broke. Broke my knuckles in another fight.” Matt turned her hand over and looked at her knuckles, sure enough, three of them were flat, one of them slightly to the side of where it should have been. Shyly, Jane Ann said, “I can’t close my fist all the way now because of it.” She closed her fist in his hand, and he looked at the incomplete curl of her fingers, the gap between her pinkie and the next finger. “Wow,” Matt said.

The next day while Matt was at home, Marie called him and nicely explained that she’d hired Alison because she was her old friend Diane’s daughter. “She’s a nice girl,” Marie insisted. “No she’s not. She’s awful. She comes by every day. She’s a secret shopper, right?” “Why no. She isn’t a secret shopper, just a girl who wants to work. I know she’s different, but you all be sweet to her for me. I’m putting her with you the most, okay?” “This sucks,” Matt complained. “I can’t stand her. She’s the worst,” he declared. “I truly do sympathize, but I have promised the job to her and I trained her. Matt, it means a lot to this girl, who more than anything is pitiful. I put her with you so much because you’re so nice. Jane Ann is nice, but I think you’ll be more patient with poor little Alison. Give her a chance,” Marie urged. “Give that girl a chance. For me. You hear?” Matt heard. After work the next evening, he and Jane Ann sat in the back room and had a pow-wow. “I’m sorry you end up working with her more than I do, but if I have to be around that freak very much, I’ll end up killing her,” Jane Ann said.

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The mention of killing Alison set off a triggered in Matt’s mind. The unnecessary murders. He thought of Jack. His and Gerald’s deaths had rested too lightly on his conscience. And Andrew. It embarrassed Matt to remember how light and happy he’d felt after locking the him in the abandoned bunker and leaving him. Killing Laurence St Croix had been shamefully easy too. Matt could almost see the blood pooling on the floor, spreading in the moonlight. And Jed, the clunk of the truck as it crushed the life out of the stupid boy, squirting his brains on the concrete. Matt had been glad to crush the life out of that obnoxious twit, but it still wasn’t right. None of it was. Jane Ann was looking at him. “You can say something. I was just kidding, you know,” she told him. “Oh - I know.”

Alison showed up two hours early for her first shift. Matt was relentlessly straightening calendars and noticed her sitting at one of the nearby tables right outside The Paradise Coffee Shop. She had a bucket sized iced coffee and was reading a paperback featuring a buff man and woman standing on the side of a mountain, the man wielding a broadsword against a dragon. Alison’s hair had very recently been done and clouded her face like a poorly hennaed nimbus. Matt stood and watched her until she looked up. “Hi. You’re early.” “It’s so boring at home.” From Topical Warmth came the faint strains of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”. Alison’s small mouth made a moue, and she said, “That’s awful.” “That’s not awful. It’s great. You don’t like Jimi?” That smirk again. “You’re showing your age,” she informed him.

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“I’m uh, proud of my age.” He resisted the temptation to say something mean. He would take the high road. If a chained dog barks at you, you don’t bark back at it. Matt took a deep breath of the sweet mall air. He ignored his anger and adjusted his pants before starting to aline the corners of the stock. “You should buy pants that fit - skinny,” Alison informed him. Matt chose not to react. “Well, I guess you’re probably right,” he said, continuing to work around the corner, away from her. She followed. As Matt was wiping a smudge off a Sierra Club wall calendar, Alison commented, “I hate the Sierra Club. They’re just a bunch of damned environmentalists. Stupid. There’s supposed to be a hole in the ozone layer.” “You don’t believe in global warming?” “If we’re going to work together you’re going to have to not talk like an idiot,” Alison told him. “Of course I don’t believe in that. Look. I’ve done research. On the internet, stupid.” She rocked back and forth on her heels, staring at Matt and grinning superiorly. Stupid? It dawned on him that Alison was crazy. He also knew that Jane Ann wouldn’t be able to tolerate the girl for very long at all. “You shouldn’t call me names,” he said. Alison looked so pleased with herself. “What are you going to do, stupid?” Kill her? Tempting but...“I’ll leave you here to work by yourself,” Matt said, noticing a woman standing at the register with a Four Seasons calendar. Matt left the mini-spat and hurried to the customer. “Will that be all today? Would you be interested in a gift wrap, ma’am?” The woman said no, and Matt could feel the presence of Alison standing right behind him, looking over his

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shoulder. He jumped a little as she reached around him to take out a large bag. He started to ring up the sale, punching in his employee number, scanning the item - so much technical stuff. But the Four Seasons calendar wouldn’t scan. Matt could feel Alison’s glassy eyes boring a hole in his skull. The register made the beeping sound that it did when something was amiss. What the heck was wrong? Matt searched for the clear key. Where had it disappeared? If only Alison would back off. The beeping commenced again, and Matt noticed that there was another customer in line. The woman he was waiting on was wearing a patient, absent, slightly put-upon expression. Where was the clear key? Again he became aware of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”, now a softly bleating wall of feedback further distracting him. The clear key. What color was it? It had vanished. Of course it hadn’t. Alison squeezed in next to Matt. She punched it, looking at the waiting customer and rolling her eyes. “And he gets mad when I call him stupid,” she told the woman. The shopper smiled. Matt automatically keyed in the sub-total, politely told the woman the price with tax, and when she handed him the twenty, said, “Out of twenty?” He hit the total key, then the cash key. The register popped open and he gave the woman her change, thinking about what he was doing but also suddenly, keenly aware of the passing moments and his surroundings. The opaque of the skylights threw planks of shadow, slanting down the walls and across the floor. Livid as he was, he still thought of how much the mall resembled pictures of Babylonian garden pavilions he’d seen in the Ancient Wonders calendar. Matt handed the woman her purchase and thanked her, cognizant of what he was doing but also thinking of other things. Burning humiliation was something he had encountered as a

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substitute teacher every day. He’d learned to step back and weather it. Briefly, he imagined his fist surprising her face and her looking sad about it, but he quickly made himself stop. Never again. He believed in nonviolence. He always had. Killing was out of character for him. He wasn’t a murderer, he told himself. When it was time for his break, he walked to the food court. As he sat at one of the light brown tables in the huge, blue, open area, he called Jane Ann. “It’s me,” he said. “I just had to tell you what happened. She’s calling me stupid - called me stupid in front of a customer. I couldn’t believe it. I was having trouble with the register. At least she knows how to use that.” “You should tell Marie,” Jane Ann advised. “Naw. I’m just going to ignore her. I’ll just be nice to her,” Matt said, looking out on the mostly empty tables and beyond, to the neon bedecked restaurants, side by side along the walls. “I just won’t react, no matter what,” he insisted. “If that bitch ever pulls anything like that on me, I’ll break her nose,” Jane Ann promised. Ever the voice of reason, Matt said, “Well you can’t do that. We could do something though. Maybe play a funny trick on her. Not be too mean, but just take her down a peg or two.” Jane Ann enthusiastically agreed that embarrassing Alison was exactly what was called for. Aside from that, what could they do? Quit or put up with her. Couldn’t kill her. Tolerating Alison wasn’t easy, however. It wasn’t quite as bad for Jane Ann, who, for one thing, worked with her fewer shifts than Matt. In addition to that, Alison must have intuited that Jane Ann wouldn’t tolerate as much from her as the aging drone would. Despite Alison’s slightly deferential treatment, Jane Ann still hated her vehemently, but Matt knew that he hated her more.

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A few weeks passed. After closing the register and downloading the night’s take on the computer, Matt and Alison were getting ready to leave when she said, “You didn’t even notice all the work I’ve done back here organizing the boxes. I won’t call you stupid if it really bothers you, but you’re thickheaded. Did you know that, Matt?” Looking around, Matt didn’t notice that anything had been moved, but before he could point this out, she said, “I put these boxes exactly how I want them, and if anybody messes with them, I’ll have to kick their ass.” Her smirk was accessorized with a scabbing cold-sore on her upper lip. Matt ignored her, choking back the unsavory impulses he felt. As the psychiatrists say, he swallowed his anger. “I promise I won’t touch the boxes. Let’s get out of here,” Matt muttered as he opened the door to the hallway. “Could you hurry up?” he said irritably. He wasn’t trying to be rude when he flicked off the light. Nor was the room entirely dark, a block of yellow from the hallway breaking across the floor, over a stack of boxes, and going up the side of one of the walls. He thought turning off the light was no big deal since they were on their way out. They were virtually out the door when he hit the switch. Because of his weary annoyance with her, Matt didn’t make much of Alison’s fruity cry of distress, and when she knocked him out of the way to get out of the room, he was just more aggravated. Then he noticed. Her face was drained of blood. She was leaning against the wall, her hand on her heaving chest as she panted like someone one who ran a race. As if responding to Matt’s unspoken charge, she said, “Yes, stupid - I don’t like the dark.” It was the perfect opportunity to say something unkind, but Matt held back. She expected people to take advantage of any sign of weakness. She was not only expecting an unkind taunt but probably wanting it. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. He knew that what he should do is say something human, something sympathetic. I’m not too crazy about the dark myself. Hey,

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everyone is afraid of something. I don’t like heights. Something like that. If only she weren’t so mean, so impossible, so insulting - insisting on calling him stupid. Where did that come from? She must have a bad home life. It couldn’t be much, Matt reasoned. Who knew? Maybe the reason she was so awful was that her parents had locked her in the dark and called her stupid throughout her formative years. Maybe that. “Well, goodnight,” he managed as he started toward the employees’ entrance to the parking lot. Alison was still leaning against the wall and catching her breath. When he got to the door, he looked back. “Are you alright?” He’d asked because of the plaintive look on Alison’s face when he’d turned around - a scared little kid who didn’t want to be left alone. As if embarrassed, she turned her head and waved Matt away, saying, “I’m fine. Just go.” Her voice was shaky, fearful. He left. Matt didn’t forget Alison’s grave fear of the dark, but it wasn’t until several nights later that he mentioned it to Jane Ann. They were sitting in the stockroom after their shift. She was deftly tying and untying knots in her rope. Again, Matt was loading a bowl, and on the lid of a box that sat between them was some lovely herb he’d gotten from her as well as her formidable knife and more deer jerky. As Jane Ann tugged and coiled, she said, “Alison has got to be the only Wiccan in America who’s more right wing than freaking Hitler. Doesn’t believe in interracial dating. Isn’t pro-choice. Sheesh!” “Heck, she doesn’t believe in evolution, but she does think there’s a difference between pretend vampires and real ones. Says she knows some around here. Think of it, idiots playing with blood,” Matt mused, flashing on the blood that had gushed from poor Gerald. Jack hadn’t bled profusely, though he’d died more quickly than Gerald. And Laurence - seas of black blood. Enough thinking of that. Matt took a piece of jerky and chewed it thoughtfully. “Trying to reason with Alison about anything is like talking to this doggone box,” he said.

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Under the bare bulb, Jane Ann frowned, the light casting darkness around her eyes and under her high cheekbones. She quickly wrapped a piece of rope around itself and cinched it into a noose. She held it up for Matt to see, and she said, “Too bad we can’t hang her.” In his mind, Matt immediately agreed. What a good idea, he thought, but, of course, they couldn’t get away with it. And it was wrong to kill people simply because they irritated you. If nothing else, Matt had learned that from Laurence - and Jed. Once you start where does it stop? Do you murder people who look at you the wrong way? Folks who don’t wear their clothes well? Where would it end? Matt wasn’t a heathen. He believed in God and the Ten Commandments. In good and evil. All that. But hanging Alison was certainly appealing. Where could they do it? They could lure her away from the mall some night after work. Take her to some remote place and string her up. It was a sick image, her face bloating, crooked sideways from her neck - pulled by the rope as she gasped in the night air. A horrible thought however tempting it was. “Darned good idea,” Matt ruefully conceded. “Too bad we’d get caught.” “Ah, she’s not worth killing,” Jane Ann allowed. “Too bad she’s not here. We could turn out the lights and freak her out,” Matt said, chuckling. “She’s terrified of the dark. After work Monday, I turned off the light in here, and she ran me down getting out. Yelled like she’d been shot. A Wiccan who‘s right wing and afraid of the dark.” Jane Ann’s brows furrowed and she looked troubled. Then her eyes widened, shining in the porous light. She looked meaningfully at Matt and said, as if slowly translating hieroglyphic characters, “Afraid of the dark?”

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Matt perked up. He looked at Jane Ann, and like two high school kids coming up with a great idea (Let’s raise the money by putting on a show!), they beamed at each other. It was a eureka! moment. “Let’s scare her,” Matt cried. “That’s exactly what just came to me,” Jane Ann said. What smart brains we have, Matt thought. “The fuse box is in the custodian’s office,” Jane Ann said. Matt’s excitement mounted. The door to the custodian’s office was almost always open and usually free of custodians. And Alison - afraid of the dark. Thrilling. Two nights later, Jane Ann and Matt sneaked into the office, avoiding the poorly mounted security camera, to find out which of the electrical switches controlled their grid. They were nervous but not worried. The custodians, sleek as large cats in their lemon yellow shirts and dark blue pants, weren’t around. They were busy cleaning the long hallways and courts, changing burned-out florescent tubes, applying antibacterial agents on mall surfaces somewhere in the hive of consumerism. Plus, Matt and Jane Ann knew that the security officers only passed through their section of the mall once every fifteen to twenty minutes. If they were caught, they’d say that they’d been looking for someone to change a bulb. Simple. During the short time they were inside the office, no one surprised them, and it didn’t take them long to find the switch for the electricity in their section. Once they knew, they hurried out and went to the stock room where they made their plan. The next Saturday night, Matt was scheduled to work with Alison. Jane Ann was going to come in through the workers’ entrance (avoiding the security cameras of course), sneak in the custodians’ room, and switch off the lights as Matt gave Alison a little scare. Maybe he’d poke her in the ribs and say, “Boo!” It would be a most wonderful prank.

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Matt usually tried to keep away from Alison, staying on the opposite side of the kiosk as much as he could. On the night of the trick, however, he didn’t avoid her. She moved in close as he arranged the selection of calendars featuring cougars. Matt resisted the impulse to leap away from her. “I think it’s stupid how they blame The Republicans for the war in Iraq. It wasn’t Bush’s fault,“ Alison announced, adding, “I’m sorry, but it was Clinton who was president when 9/11 happened.” Matt looked at her to see if she were kidding, but the guileless watery blue eyes staring at him were honest, crazy-looking, but honest. Alison was smirking in her self-satisfied way. Her jeans were both too tight as well as too high at the ankle. She wore a green satin top that was cut right above her shoulders and rode low, showing off her cleavage. Matt said, “I’ll bet you whatever you want that you’re wrong. Put your money where your mouth is.” “I’m sorry, but I’ve done research. On the internet. Clinton knew all about it before it happened, and he was president when it happened.” Alison got out her phone and turned on her favorite piece of music, something by some German dance band. The sound was reedy and thin, but Alison turned up the volume as high as it would go, which wasn’t loud at all. Matt tried to imagine how scared she’d be later, standing alone in the gigantic, dark corridor. And him so near, enjoying her fear. “I didn’t know it happened like that,” Matt said, and resumed his chore. She and her dinky music followed. “You need help, stupid,” she chuckled. Uncharacteristically, Matt responded with a casual, almost a friendly, “Fuck you.” “It’s tempting,” Alison said, adding, “But you’re too old.” “Then thank God for being old.”

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Two customers were browsing the islands. Matt was relieved to see them. Shoppers made time pass more quickly. The pitch was always the same. May I help you? Are you finding everything alright tonight? Will that be all for you? A gift wrap? Very good, Ma’am. Very good, Sir. Even that limited exchange was respite from the slowly passing hours, eternity’s continuum made infinitely worse by having to work with Alison. Pushing past him, she approached the couple. “Could I help you find anything this evening?” she asked. The man and woman, middle aged and carrying a worn, overworked look, ignored her. They left after a few minutes, and when they’d gone, Alison said, “Those people have got a lot of nerve looking down on me just because I’m working for a living.” Matt tried to be sympathetic and fair. “They have no right to pass judgment.” “I know. I’m young. Trying to get some money together for college. It’s not like I’m you.” He didn’t answer but kept straightening. You’ll be scared soon enough, he thought. As Matt worked, he avoided checking the time. The minutes stretched into an excruciating cavalcade of placid faces. Some, mostly boys, investigated The Gamers’ Enclave. Women explored Veronica’s Lingerie, drawn by the siren’s song of club tracks in the pink recesses of its interior. Languorously strolling the marble pastures, customers’ voices wavered against the echoing music like the sound of whispering trains. The shoppers moved in currents. The aroma of The Paradise Coffee Shop hung pungent around the open, brown entrance. Further down were displays of trim mannequins modeling ivy league style sweaters and jeans at the clothing store called Heath’s. Junior and high school aged girls and boys inevitably passed through the giant gothic horse-shoe shaped entrance of burnished metal to visit Topical Warmth.

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Each of the stores appealed to its own kind of consumer, all of whom responded with varying degrees of delirium and euphoria as they shopped. To them buying is bliss, allowing the delusion of being removed from time, but for the workers, it’s just a punishing trap. Looking at his watch brought infinity’s horizons from the abstract to where Matt was at that moment - stuck there. So he didn’t look at his watch, and somehow time miraculously passed. At nine, the mall closed. The stores pulled down their chain curtains. Kiosks put up their heavy plastic drapes, and all the retail workers proceeded to close shop. It was the favorite moment. Time to be quick, to get out of there and resume their real lives, but Matt dragged his feet, repeatedly fouling up his money count until Alison insisted on counting it herself. As she did that, he stood there and hummed the song, “Send in the Clowns”. “Be quiet, idiot, you made me lose count,” Alison said. She sneered. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and put the curtains up.” “You could have done that yourself,” he cooly replied. When she was nearly finished, Matt, under the pretext of filing some paperwork that was called their media transmittal form, said, “Is today the twenty-second, or the twenty-third? Or wait. Is it the twenty-second?” Exasperated, Alison snapped, “I am going to kill you, stupid. It’s the flipping twentythird, and you made me lose count again. Put the curtains up. You’re just going to make me kick your ass.” In exasperation, she blew air out of her cheeks and started over. “We’ll both put the curtains up. Unless you want me to count the money and you do it.” “No.” “I want to count the money after you count it anyway,” Matt told her. Alison cut him an under-the-brow, incredulous look. “How do I know that you’re counting it right,” he challenged.

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She shook her head and muttered, “Fine. I don’t care. We’re going to be here forever anyway - because of you. Matt, I could just stab you in the eye. You’re such a stupid-assed jerk.” The workers from the other stores were almost all gone. Occasionally one or two walked by, their mournful footsteps echoing in the nearly empty shell. Matt figured that by now, Jane Ann would be in back. Seeing Alison’s mask pull into a screwy rictus of dismay tickled Matt, and he hoped that Jane Ann was seeing how he was tormenting her. It was only a matter of minutes now. “We’ll be out of here in no time,” Matt assured Alison, who had to start counting yet again. While she tried to proceed, he casually hit the no sale key. One more time: re-key the profits, the base fund, the cash, and the checks. “Sowwwy,” Matt said. Alison, her face pink with anger, glared at him and shook her head. By now, the bright mall lights had been automatically turned down. Soon they’d be off entirely. Matt pictured the pristine darkness that would consume everything. She’ll really scream when I touch her, he thought smugly. All at once, there was a sound like an immense sigh as their part of the building went black. It was like being in a cave. The instant the lights went out, Matt lightly, yet firmly grabbed Allison’s shoulders and in a low voice said, “Oooo!” He expected to hear her shriek. Instead, he felt her body stiffen for a moment, and then Alison went limp, slipping from Matt’s fingers and falling to the floor, her body making a thud in the darkness. “Hey, Alison. Are you alright?” No answer. Matt reached down and felt her arm. He shook her, but there was no response. “Hey, Alison. Hey.” Silence. From where Matt guessed was the Employee Only door, Matt heard Jane Ann hiss, “What’s going on?

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“Uh, turn on the lights,” Matt said. Alison fainted, he thought. With a soft breaking sound, light returned, and Matt could see her stretched out, her head next to a bunch of Cardinal calendars. Other than that, everything was back to normal. Jane Ann joined Matt, and as soon as she saw Alison, she gasped and said, “What happened?” “Alison,” Matt faintly cried once more, but there was still no answer. “I, uh, think she fainted.” He was looking at her motionless bulk lying prone on the magenta marble. Her eyes and mouth were open, and her face expressed surprise rather than abject fear. So that was bad Her arms stretched out as if she were trying to teach the world to sing. Her feet were splayed slightly, and looking at her, Matt thought of the curling toes of the Wicked Witch of the West. It would have been nice if she’d awakened right then, and he and Jane Ann could have enjoyed the caper they’d pulled, but she didn’t move. Matt prodded her bare shoulder with his foot. Nothing. “Oh my God - is she breathing?,” Jane Ann said. Both of them bent over Alison to check. She wasn’t breathing. She’s dead, Matt thought. “I better call 911,” he said. “And you better go before someone shows up.” Jane Ann looked scared. Matt was in shock at the turn of events, but he wasn’t afraid. Or sorry. He was chagrined. He hadn’t meant to kill her. All he’d done to her was...This was so unfair. “Go ahead,” he urged, his voice almost cheerful. “Don’t let anyone see you leave. I’ll take care of things here,” he assured her. “Are you sure?” Jane Ann said haltingly. “Of course,” Matt replied, all noblesse oblige. “You go. Don’t worry.” Jane Ann stood there, looking helplessly at Matt and Alison. “It’s okay. I’ve got it,” he again told her.

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As soon as she was out of sight, Matt called an ambulance. Over and over, he told himself that he hadn’t killed her. It was just a trick. A prank. It was a prank that would have to be his and Jane Ann’s secret. The world wouldn’t understand. There would be trouble. Everyone would blame them. There could be manslaughter charges. Before the ambulance arrived, the mall officers and the maintenance workers showed up. “Thank God you’re here,” Matt said. “What happened?” Robert, one of the evening security officers, asked. Affecting a tone of being shaken to the core, Matt related the trauma. “We were late because Alison had miscounted the cash drawer twice and I was having to count it. We were just trying to get that done when the lights went off and I thought I heard some kids laughing.” Matt tried to look bothered and fretful. “Those kids, uh, turned the power back on and Alison was like that.” He looked past her and fixed his eyes on the pretty lights at the far end of the long corridor, serpentine neon that spelled store names and displayed brand logos until it was all an indecipherable braid of merging electric lines and blobs of colors. Robert sympathetically patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll catch those kids,” he assured Matt, who wasn’t terribly worried. When the paramedics arrived, they checked Alison’s non-existent vital signs and took her away on a Gurney. Matt stood around trying to maintain a sorrowful aura. Withing minutes Sheriff Timmy and several other officers got there. Timmy sympathetically patted Matt on the shoulder and said, “Boy, Matt, first your neighbor gets killed, and now your co-worker is - uh, scared to death by what it looks like. Poor guy.” The two policemen with Timmy shook their heads, and Matt tried to grievously sigh. Timmy smiled, his sad eyes seeming to say that he was sorry to put poor old Matt through another ordeal. He said, “So can you try to tell us what happened?”

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Looking in his old school chum’s eyes, Matt told him and the others the same stuff. “We were running late, Timmy - and then we were in the dark! Now I thought I heard some kids’ laughing and yelling from the back. Oh, gosh, and while it was still all dark, Alison passed out from fear I guess. I was saying, ‘Alison, where are you? You okay?’‘ Timmy worked up his most grief-stricken expression. To help him act sad, he imagined going to jail. Moon-eyed, he mournfully intoned, “Then the electricity came back. And there she was.” voila! Timmy felt so badly that he bit his lip. The other officers hovered like mother hens around Matt. “Thank you so much, Timmy. And again, I’m so sorry to ask you to relive such an awful awful experience. We’re going to look around some in back now. And if you can think of anything else, I want you to call me.” “I will, Timmy. And thanks.” Matt called Marie. Woke her with his lies. And they all bought it. Everyone was ready to go along and blame the make-believe kids. No one saw Jane Ann coming or going. She’d avoided the security cameras. Getting away with it was easy. Putting it in the proper perspective, having Alison drop dead was an unexpected bonus to the trick. It didn’t sit as well with Jane Ann. That made him feel bad. She was very quiet the next night when they worked together. He would have talked with her about what happened, tried to get her to look on the bright side - no more Alison! - but she seemed so sad that he didn’t broach the subject. Instead, they both stayed busy keeping the calendars stocked and making sure everything was properly straightened. When they did speak, it was almost as if they were a couple who had experienced an awful fight and now didn’t know how to act around each other. Polite. “Do we have any more of

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these Paprika Engagement Books in the back?” One would say, the other replying, “I think we do. I’ll put it on our list.” One or the other would periodically disappear to the stock room for awhile. The only reference to their departed co-worker was when Jane Ann dully said, “I’ve felt sick about what happened.” “Me too,” Matt lied. Actually, it wasn’t really a lie. He did feel badly for Jane Ann, but Alison - well - he tried not to openly rejoice. Something was different about everything though, and not in a good way. The mall didn’t even smell the same to him. The components were still there, but now behind the delicate, synthetic scent he could pick up undertones of rancid oil, stale smoke, and bitter sweat. He realized it had always been there, buried behind the lovely strange blend constantly pumped in the place. It was near the end of their shift when the phone next to the register rang. Jane Ann answered. “Hello. Oh. Sure. That’s a good idea,” she said, the sound of her voice communicating that whatever it was she was hearing was anything but a good idea; was, in fact, a dreadful one. “Yeah, we’ll be there. Bye,” she said before hanging up. “That was Marie,” she said, shuddering. “Alison’s visitation is tomorrow. Marie hopes we can stop by before work. She said there wouldn’t be many people there.” “Sure. She’s right.” Matt couldn’t tell if she’d heard him. Jane Ann was staring at a calendar entitled The Spirit of A Place. “We can, uh, go together I guess. I could pick you up.” “That’ll be fine,” she muttered indifferently. Moments later she said, “Her funeral is the last place I want to go.” She was biting her lower lip. Matt didn’t want to go either. After all, it was mostly his fault. Maybe if he hadn’t startled her with his, “Oooo,” and grabbed her, she wouldn’t have keeled over. Still, Jane Ann was the

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one who felt guilty. They were witness to each other’s crime and were bonded in their shameful secret now, not that he felt ashamed. Although he felt just awful about Jane Ann, Matt couldn’t help being glad. Maybe he shouldn’t have been, but he was. And it had been an accident in a way. They hadn’t known. If Jane Ann could only see it as he did, what they’d done could make them even more simpatico than they were, or rather than they’d been before Alison had dropped dead over basically nothing. Matt sourly thought of how happy the mean old thing would be about driving a wedge between him and Jane Ann. He picked her up for the funeral, and they smoked a joint on the way. Both of them wore their work clothes, jeans and sweaters. After paying their respects, they’d go to the kiosk as if all were normal. There was no conversation during the drive. Jane Ann remotely stared out the side window. Matt didn’t know what to say. When they arrived at the lot of the nearly empty funeral home, he came up with, “Well here goes.” Jane Ann said nothing. They parked in a spot next to the old colonial-styled, red brick building. In the foyer, they signed the visitors’ register. There were no more than ten names, and in the parlor, there were only a few people. A late middle-aged couple sat in one of the rows of chairs in the rear. The woman wore a dark red dress. The man was in a dingy yellow sweater. At the center of the far wall was the bronze casket, replete with flower arrangements of roses, iris, gladiola, and babies’ breath. Though the flowers were lovely, Matt’s attention was on Alison’s mother Diane, though he’d never met her. Looking like an Alison-faced sea lion in a dark blue dress, she sat in a small metal folding-chair next to the casket. Physically she was an older version of her daughter, the same bland face and the same pear shape, except heavier, morbidly obese.

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Matt noticed how pale Jane Ann was as they walked toward dead Alison and Diane. The mother laboriously rose from her seat when they got to her. “You must be Matt and Jane Ann,” she said and took both their hands. “Ali said that you two were her best friends.” That was a slap in the face, and judging from Jane Ann’s increasingly ill countenance, she was just as surprised. They briefly exchanged glances. “Alison, uh, was such a nice girl,” Matt fibbed. Diane tightly closed her eyes and nodded, waxy tears beading at the corners before migrating down her powdered cheeks. “Poor Ali, her doctor didn’t want her to work. I was against her trying another job ‘cause of how the others had gone, but she said, ‘I can do this, mom.’ So I asked Marie if she could help her out. Ali was so proud. And she really did think the world of the both of you.” There were tears in all their eyes. Matt wasn’t hard-hearted and frequently became weepy during sad shows and movies. Even sappy commercials. And this was no different - well - except Alison had really died and it was because of him and, to a lesser extent, Jane Ann. Despite this new knowledge revealing Alison’s vulnerability and her mom’s love for her, Matt still couldn’t say that he was now pro-Alison and a bit sorry that she was gone. Yes, he wished a thousand times that she hadn’t dropped dead, but it was fantastic not having to endure her insufferably hectoring behavior ever again. That pulled the tears back into their ducts and made Matt feel a slight giddiness. Marie entered the parlor, wearing her hair in a cap of lacquered waves. She had on a dark green pants-suit and low heeled pumps. When she got to the casket, she hugged Diane and then gave both Matt and Jane Ann hugs as well. “I’m so sorry. Alison was such a good worker,” Marie said.

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“And you’ll never know how much she appreciated you giving her that job. It made her feel good about herself - even though she died there,” the grieving mother said. The four of them stood at the casket, sighing and looking appropriately unhappy in the softly lit room of flowers, black velvet curtains, and grey, lavender walls. Matt looked at Alison, her face set in a neutral expression and her whole being still as a rock. He shifted his weight from foot to foot for what seemed like a very long time until he finally ventured to say, “Well, are you ready, Jane Ann?” “I guess so,” she said softly. To Diane, she said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Jane Ann didn’t look the woman in the eye. Matt did though. He hugged Diane once more and said, “Sorry.” Part of him, an admittedly small part, was happy to be a teensy-weensy bit sorry for what he’d done. He’d be able to live with it, but he wished now that they hadn’t tried to scare her. If they’d known about her weak heart, they never would have played their childish trick. Even having to put up with the awful girl, he decided while holding the grieving old mother, would have been better than this. He let go and stepped away. “I’d better be going too. If there’s anything I can do for you,” Marie said, giving Diane another embrace and kissing her friend on both cheeks. “You call me later,” she said. “I will. And thank you, all of you,” Diane said. “Thank you all for coming. And for being Alison’s friend. Thank you.” Matt could see tears falling from Jane Ann’s eyes. His own eyes were full again. Sentiment - it makes us human, he told himself as they walked down the center aisle. The couple who had been there when they’d arrived were still inertly sitting in their chairs, looking at nothing discernable.

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In the lobby, Matt said to Marie, “How bad was her heart?” Marie smiled and said, “She was born with a hole in it. The doctors didn’t think she’d live. I remember we had a prayer circle in the hospital, me - her mom and dad - who was still with the family back then - and the members of the church we all used to go to. All of us praying for that sweet little baby. The Lord must’ve heard us, cause Alison didn’t die.” “We didn’t know,” Jane Ann said sadly. “She was just so...mean. I didn’t know that she liked us.” “We thought she had worked as a secret shopper because she was always at the mall, always being impossible,” Matt said. They walked outside. The sun bathed the air in light as the three of them walked to their cars. Marie’s voice was sad and kind as she said, “I told you-all that she wasn’t a secret shopper. Just a poor sick girl who wanted to fit in like everybody else.” She got in her car and rolled down the window. “Well, I know Alison was hard to work with, and I just want to thank you both for coming to the funeral. I know it meant a lot to her mom, and it would have meant something to her too. I - I hope they find the little devils who ran in and shut the lights off. Oh my. Well, you both take care.” “Bye, Marie,” Matt said. Jane Ann was daubing her eyes. He watched their boss drive out of the parking lot. The car disappeared down the street where the line of trees obscured the brick road. “Well, you ready?” Matt said. “I guess,” Jane Ann murmured. Matt opened the door for her. “Thank you,” she said, barely audible. He got on his side of the car. As he was putting the key in the ignition, the couple who had been sitting in the pew emerged from the front of the funeral home. Now Alison’s poor

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mom will be all alone, Matt thought. He felt badly for her. “Wish we hadn’t fooled around and scared her,” he said, trying to sound as sorry as possible. Jane Ann looked at him with reddened eyes but said nothing. He started the car, glanced over his shoulder and backed up, then drove out of the funeral home parking lot toward the mall. Though nothing had been said, Matt knew that when their shift was over, they wouldn’t linger and talk in the storage room like they always did. Jane Ann wouldn’t leisurely practice her roping and offer him some deer jerky. That would probably never happen again. Because he’d driven them to work, he’d take her home tonight, but they wouldn’t talk then either. Nothing’s the same now, Matt reflected dismally. What they’d done had changed things. From the corner of his eye, he watched her gaze listlessly at the street as they went past the rows of bungalows set in their neat green yards. It was a pretty street. Matt had driven this way several times a week for decades. He wondered how many years the trees been there? Fifty? Seventy-five? . THE WINE OF ASTONISHMENT Matt and Jane Ann were working. It was two weeks after Alison’s funeral. To him, her unexpected death was a surprise gooey caramel center in the soft-serve cone that had been their prank. Still, he wasn’t happy because of the change in Jane Ann, who seemed to be carrying Alison’s memory like a heavy sack of groceries. There were no worries because not only was Alison out of their hair forever, but no one blamed them. Sheriff Timmy and the other police believed Matt’s story blaming mall-rats. It had been those darn kids who’d turned off the lights - blast their hides. So Matt and Jane Ann weren’t going to get in trouble, but something was wrong with her nonetheless. She denied feeling guilt, and maybe she didn’t, but she was different, more somber. She looked at him, and when she

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spoke, there was a dis-associative quality. “I think we’re out of the Classic Car calendars,” she said. She was standing right next to them. “They’re, uh, right next to you,” Matt pointed out, and when she turned her head and saw the Classic Cars right there in her face, her only response was to raise her eyebrows slightly. It had to be remorse, Matt figured, and he said, “Don’t dwell on Alison. It was her time to go. It was God’s will. Things happen because they’re supposed to.” He told Jane Ann that, and although he would have babbled any nonsense, Matt believed what he’d just told her. Que sera sera. He was fairly certain that was somewhere in The Bible. At the corners of Jane Ann’s mouth, there were faint traces of a smile. “It isn’t that. Heck, I might as well tell you. I’ve given my two weeks notice. And really, it’s not ‘cause of Alison that I’m quitting. It’s the job itself. Just getting on my nerves I guess. But it’s not Alison. I mean - that was the worst thing imaginable, and - and neither of us can ever tell anyone - like - ever, but yeah, I’ve accepted it. There’s nothing we can do now anyway. We didn’t do anything really. Not really. It was an accident.” She shrugged her shoulders and went back to double and triple checking the merchandise. “I’m really going to miss you,” Matt said. “I know.” With this terrible revelation, the thought of Matt remaining at the mall was strange. The marble and steel surroundings were already colder, the light less vibrant. There was a tawdry pointlessness to it all. Right then Matt knew that he was going to quit too. Working there without Jane Ann would be too bleak, not that things weren’t strangely different since obnoxious Alison had seen fit to overreact by dying.

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Matt felt broadsided by the sudden knowledge that Jane Ann would no longer be working with him. “Uh,” he shyly began. “Could you still, um...snag me some weed once in awhile?” Jane Ann’s face relaxed and broke into something resembling her old warm smile. “Of course. Call me anytime. I’ll get you whatever you want,” she assured him. That was good enough for Matt. The next day, he called Marie from the kiosk, saying, “I’ve really enjoyed working at Yearly Yours, but, uh, I’ve got to give you two weeks notice. I’ve got to take care of, uh, my Noonie.“ Not really true, but a good excuse. Marie, as always, was understanding, though sad. “You have to take care of your family first, so I can’t blame you. Oh Matt, I’m going to have to train two new people now. You know, losing you and Jane Ann is going to really make it hard.” she lamented. “I’m sorry.” If Marie hadn’t hired that wicked Alison, things wouldn’t have come to this. Marie sighed. “Well, there’s nothing I can do. Alright. Goodbye, hon,” she told him. Right. Bye. Two weeks later, as Matt walked away, he didn’t look back.

As he and Noonie faced the television, him on the couch and her dozing in the Lazy-Boy recliner, he realized that it had been over an hour since he’d last gotten high, and it was time to make another trip to the bathroom. Afterwards, he would play Mr. Peepers on the t.v. Trying to be unobtrusive, he eased off the couch and quickly moved across the room. Though he always stepped softly, the floor near the hallway invariably creaked. Noonie opened her eyes. “Where you going? To the bathroom again? Madonna!” Thankfully, this time she didn’t tell him that he’d better see a doctor about his bowels but satisfied herself with a shake of her head. Her thin, white hair was tied in a bun, and, she wore an old brown house dress.

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“Yeah. I’ve got to go. When I get back, we can watch Mr. Peepers.” As soon as he was in the bathroom, he turned on the exhaust fan and pulled his baggie from his sock. Under the sink, where he’d kept it for the last thirty-five years (despite both his mom and Noonie having found it probably twenty times), was his hitter and lighter. Matt looked at himself in the mirror as he took a tiny nub of bud and processed it, chopping it with manicure scissors and pushing it into the chamber of the hitter. The bathroom walls were painted a creamy hue and the bathroom mirror was edged in old gilt that had been painted lavender. Matt held the flame to the herb and drew it in. It was good one-hit weed that was slightly sticky and smelled of iris, a predominantly sativa expression. He held it in. There was a knock on the bathroom door. “Whaaad?” Matt croaked. A wisp of smoke escaped his mouth and he frantically fanned it toward the ceiling fan. The door cracked open. Noonie’s hand thrust the phone through the door, and she said, “It’s for you.” He took the old-fashioned receiver from her, stretching the cord taut as he craned his neck. “Hello?” He let the smoke out, hoping that whoever it was wouldn’t take too long. Though he’d said that buying the Mr. Peepers show had been a present for Noonie, in truth, he had bought it for himself and was anxious to see it. It was Dane. After Andrew - that old stinker - had ripped them off and put them out of business, Dane and Matt still periodically got together to drink a beer and smoke a bowl. “Matt, I’m needing some...well, you know,” he whined. Matt was immediately uncomfortable. He didn’t enjoy the kind of codified, elliptical talk adopted when discussing herb on the phone. He looked at his Noonie. She was steadily watching the television. Matt liked to keep at least an ounce of pot for himself, but with Jane

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Ann being a reliable connect, he didn’t mind parting with a quarter ounce. Besides, it would mean that he’d get to see her sooner. “Uh. Well...sure. Okay.” “So can you come by?” It was darkening outside and getting colder. “Now?” Matt asked. “Yes now,” Dane said. Matt didn’t want to go, but he agreed. “I’ll be by in twenty-minutes,” he said wearily. Hung up. He had to take the quarter -ounce from his stash. Noonie was looking at him and smiling. “I’ve got to go out for a couple of minutes, Noonie.” He didn’t want to leave. “Aren’t we going to watch Mr. Peepers?” She asked. Matt felt bad. He’d just drop the quarter off and come back. They’d still have a nice evening, he decided. “I won’t be long,” he said. Now came his lie. “I’m going to drop off a movie at Dane’s that they’ve been wanting to see.” Noonie nodded. As many years as Matt had been lying to her and, earlier, to his mom and dad, it still hurt him to do it. It was a sin to lie, and Noonie - not to mention his parents who very well might be looking down from heaven - would have been keenly disappointed. She looked at the tv screen. “We’ll have a nice time watching Mr. Peepers when you get back, but till then, put on my Johnny Mathis dvd,” she said. Matt replaced Wally Cox with Johnny Mathis and hurried to his room where his stash and his scales were. He made short work of bagging the quarter. On his way out, he bussed Noonie on the cheek. “I’ll be back soon,” he said, meaning it. It was then that Noonie turned talkative. “Did I tell you that I spoke to Nadine earlier?” she asked, and before Matt could say yes, she plunged on, saying, “Nadine told me all about going for dumplings when Karen and Bill

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came down two weekends ago. Whenever I’ve said, ‘Let’s get dumplings,’ she’s said, ‘I don’t like any dumplings except my own.’ So what does she do? Goes to get dumplings just because Karen and Bill came down.” Matt was standing at the door ready to go. “Well that’s awful,” he said, trying to sound adequately riled. He must have fooled her because Noonie forged on. “They went to The Chedder House.” Noonie’s tone was prickly, even snide. “She told me that the dumplings there were the best she’d ever had next to her own. Everything she touches or has anything to do with is the best.” Matt faked a sour laugh as if to acknowledge the hypocritical behavior and the narcissism of Nadine. “Boy oh boy,” he said, guiltily wishing he could get away so he would be able to get this chore finished and come home. Noonie answered Matt’s faked laugh with a sincerely mirthless one of her own. “Whether it’s how good her chili is, or how great her doctor is, or whatever that happens to her, it’s the best.” Tomorrow, Matt decided, he’d call Jane Ann and set up a meeting. That would be nice. He didn’t want to leave. Noonie was so lonely. “Nadine is a pill,” Matt said, hoping that would close the conversation. It did, but like a hydra, another topic arose before Matt could make his exit. Flourishing a napkin from the pocket of her apron, Noonie said, “Let me read you this letter I wrote to Channel 6 news.” She frowned and squinted at what she had written - fumbled through her apron pockets for her bifocals - put them on and began. “Dear Channel 6 news. Is it necessary for all of your female news anchors to show as much skin as the law will allow? And what about their hair? They all have the same stringy hair that hangs in their eyes. I like my news-casters to look

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professional. From now on, I’ll tune in to Good Morning America when I get up. At least there, the ladies look like ladies and not hookers. Sincerely, A Concerned Viewer. What do you think of that?” “That’s really good. It’ll make ‘em sit up and take notice,” Matt assured her. He had to get out of there. Before Noonie could launch into another story, he said, “I’ll be back soon.” As if understanding, she nodded and turned on the dvd player. Johnny Mathis’s band kicked in. A Las Vegas-y looking set appeared. Matt waved as he left. He paused on the porch and looked through the window. The front room was steeped in buttery light. Noonie was transfixed on Johnny Mathis. She’d be there when he got back. The family had always been there, and she was the last. Matt’s dad had died, and then Noonie had moved into this house with his mom and him. Mom had passed away. There was the sound of home-improving going on next door as usual, banging and sawing and loud music. Right now they were playing “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” by The Partridge Family. The neighbors who had moved into Laurence St. Croix’s house, Billy and Lisa, were putting up screen on the front porch latticework they’d nailed up yesterday. The couple were both tall and broad, powerful but pleasant seeming people. Upon seeing Matt going to his car, they stopped their task to smile and greet him. “Matt, how’s it going?” Billy called. “Fine,” Matt said smiling back. “Your front porch looks lovely.” The two beamed, their cheeks reddening at the praise. As Matt drove away, they resumed the project. At the corner, he could still hear David Cassidy. “Doesn’t somebody want to be wanted by me? How bout you?” Matt rolled his eyes. How corny his neighbors were. Matt always drove the speed limit, going to Dane’s the same way every time, turning on

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Madison and driving past the grounds of Westside School to the white vinyl-sided ranch-style house where Dane and Cheryl lived. The houses were all set on modest lots, the small front yards dominated by old trees. The houses on this street had all been built in the fifties, and though close to each other and the street, in the summer they were all semi-hidden, covered by low hanging branches, flowering bushes, hedges, and sundry climbing ivy. Being late winter, the houses were obscured with brown, dead foliage. When he parked in front of Dane’s house, Matt wasn’t pleased to see that his old friend had company. There was a new red car in the driveway right behind their old bluish-grey beater. Matt hid his anxiety, stepped over the winter-dried, brown grass, and smiled when Cheryl answered the door. The smell of recently burned pot wafted from the house’s interior. Cheryl quickly ushered him in. “There you are. You don’t come around enough,” she chided. “Awww,” Matt said. Cheryl gave him a quick hug, which he unenthusiastically returned. His eyes drifted across the room to where Dane and his guests were sitting around the coffee table. Dane was in a chair. The visitors were Troy and Stacy Nickles, old schoolmates and longtime customers. They and Cheryl were on the blue couch. There was a bong and a small baggie of weed on the table. “There’s the hermit,” Troy said cheerfully. “Well hello, stranger,” Stacy said. Matt said, “Hi there. What a surprise,” and sat on the couch next to Stacy. “How have you guys been?” “Much better since we came over here,” Troy said. Matt could tell that they were both a little high. “Load yourself a couple of hits,” Dane urged, and Matt pinched a tiny bit from one of the

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buds in the bag. It was dry, and he crushed it in his hand. Not great pot, journeyman quality. Not as good as what Jane Ann got, he thought as he packed the one-hitter. He knew why they were there and why Dane had asked him to bring a quarter, and it mildly irritated him. It wasn’t that Troy and Stacy weren’t nice people because they were, and after four hits of Dane’s pot, Matt was feeling even better disposed toward them. It was just that had he known the quarter he’d cut from his own stash as a favor to Dane was going to these folks, he wouldn’t have bothered. It wasn’t the first time one of the old customers had tried to get him to cop for them. Some were more discreet than others. They didn’t want to accept that Matt and Dane couldn’t do that anymore. To Matt, they were all the same. Not that he wasn’t like them. He was and he wasn’t. They were all from mid-middle-class backgrounds. They shared the culture of their youth, part of which was love of marijuana. There were differences. People like Troy and Stacy were more responsible than Matt and Dane. They had important jobs and were devoted to their kids. Plus, none of them had committed multiple murders. There was that. They just wanted pot. Fair enough. They had paid him and Dane for years and had enabled Matt to coast on what he’d saved after they’d quit dealing. After Andrew. Matt was dismayed but not surprised when Dane said, “That quarter isn’t for me. It’s for Troy and Stacy. I tried my guy, but he doesn’t have any, and I know you’ve got a good source now.” Fishing the quarter from his jacket, Matt was glad that he was stoned because otherwise he might show his uncertainty about letting go of his stash to his old customers. Dane was one thing, but Troy and Stacy? No. He decided that he’d make them pay. “We’d be glad to take as much as you’ve got,” Troy said. Matt had paid seventy-five a quarter, so he would charge one-hundred. “It’s so hard

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to find since you and Dane stopped.” “We became spoiled,” Stacy laughed, opening the baggie and sniffing. “Oh it’s got the smell,” she said conspiratorially, reaching in and squeezing one of the buds, something that Matt couldn’t stand seeing anyone do. One-hundred-ten dollars, he thought as he regarded the couple. Troy’s eyes were closed and he was sniffing the air. “Oh I can smell it too. It really smells good. How much?” “One-hundred-twenty-five dollars,” Matt said. Stacy scrambled through her purse until she came to her cash, which she counted out and then handed to Matt. Dane looked on the transaction with, Matt thought, pride. Stacy handed him the money. “Could you get more?” she asked. Troy took the bag and loaded Matt a bong of the good weed. He did the hit. “It’s just not the same,” Troy lamented after doing a hit himself. “You can’t hardly find anything, and what you find is awful.” Matt caught Dane looking at him, grinning. Cheryl examined the bag of weed reverently. “I heard Dorthy Reynold’s husband bought an ounce of catnip from some kid at a bar in Carbondale,” she said, giggling. Stacy loaded Cheryl a hit and said, “That’s nothing. Tammy Brown actually went to Perry’s Tavern trying to find something - hadn’t been there since ‘81. So she meets a girl who she thinks is okay. Says she can get Tammy whatever she wants. Tammy goes with this woman. Well this girl is a meth dealer, and once they’re at her house, she smokes some meth and starts waving a knife around.” Everyone but Matt laughed at the thought of Tammy Brown, a bookkeeper at the nearby state university, in this unsavory situation. The mention of a dealer under the influence and

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bandying a weapon put Matt in mind of Jack, the fear he’d felt thinking he was going to be shot in the face. Matt vividly re-experienced the sensation of grabbing one of the other guns on the table that day and - and defending himself. There had been the concussion going through his hand and up his arm, the roar of the shot, the flash, the biting smell. And them Gerald showing up, poor guy. Matt quietly shuddered and pushed it out of his mind. “I’d have made that bitch eat that knife,” Dane said chuckling. Matt felt a wave of anger flash toward his old partner. What kind of grown-up says things like that? Stacy said, “Tammy just ran out of the apartment. She was eleven miles from town, and she called John to pick her up. She told me she hid in the bushes until she saw his car.” The others laughed, but Matt merely smiled. Stacy handed him another bong and did him the honor of lighting it. “Seriously, would you please see if you could get more. Not just for us. Ed and Trish Laughlin are really wanting some. Well, all of our old crowd are simply fiending,” she said as Matt held in his hit. Maybe it was because he was in a contrary mood, but he found himself mentally rolling his eyes at Stacy’s use of the word “fiending”. Matt didn’t really need the money although money is nice. Nor did he want to start dealing with the old crowd, taking their calls, having them drop by, meeting them at various places. The legal risks and attendant paranoia - lying to poor old Noonie - those were all things that he didn’t miss. Still, selling pot was something he knew how to do. Furthermore, getting it for these people would put him in more contact with Jane Ann. “I’ll see what I can do,” Matt said. He went into the kitchen and called her. The last time Matt had been in Dane’s house, it had been right after Andrew had wrecked everything searching for the pot he’d sold them the

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previous day. Drawers, chairs, tables - it had all been strewn, upturned, trashed. Matt sighed. Jane Ann answered. “Hello?” “It’s Matt. How’s it going?” “I’m doing good. How’ve you been?” “Uh, fine actually. And the reason I’m calling you...Well, you know.” “Sure. The same?” “No, I’d like to get more. Maybe we should meet somewhere.” “Sure.” “That’s great,” he ventured. “Uh, well - you could come by my place, or I could come by yours.” He looked into the other room at Dane, Cheryl, Troy, and Stacy. Lighthearted people. Something about these happy folk was irritating. They thought they were like him. “What’s good for you? It doesn’t matter to me. Really,” Jane Ann said. The voices from the front room were chattering and indistinct, the antic patter interspersed with laughter. They talk too much, Matt thought. Telling the same stories over and over, laughing for each other. Jane Ann never repeated herself, and the things she said, Matt had always found fascinating. The previous life, for example. And although Matt couldn’t bear the thought of killing any kind of animal (except, confounding-ly, people), he’d thrilled to the tale of Jane Ann’s having caught a fifty pound catfish while hogging in The Big Muddy River. He envisioned her on a sunny afternoon thrashing in the brown water and that giant fish trying to swallow her arm and drag her to the bottom. “Say, why don’t you come over for dinner. We can talk about this, uh, transaction a little more,” Matt said. There was a pause, then Jane Ann said, “Sure. When?”

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“How about tomorrow.” “Okay, Matt.” There was dead air over the line for several seconds. The biggest thing between them, Alison’s death, was something they’d only spoken of a few times. Matt knew that even if he tried to fixate on the evilness of turning the lights out on Alison and startling her - an admittedly immature act but not of murderous intent - even if he were to lie on a stone floor and make himself think about it; well, he simply wouldn’t feel that bad. He’d probably fall asleep after ten minutes. Matt hoped that any sadness Jane Ann was experiencing because of the dumb trick they’d played on their ding-dong of a co-worker was truly going away and she was getting better. Here he’d actually kill killed five people - five lives he had purposely taken, and you didn’t see him moping and being all serious. “So have you been hunting or fishing lately?” he asked. “Naw I’m afraid I haven’t been.” “I wouldn’t mind going fishing,” he lied. “I used to go when I was a kid. It’s been probably close to forty years but I remember that catching a fish was quite a thrill.” Poor fishies, he thought. He heard Jane Ann chuckle. “You bet it is,” she said. “I’ll take you sometime maybe.” This was the closest Jane Ann had sounded to her old self in months. Encouraging. But fishing that was going to be a problem. The idea of hurting an animal gave Matt the sicklies - truly unthinkable to kill a sweet little doe in the woods (tasty as it would be if barbecued), or even a worm on the sidewalk after a rain. Since he’d been a little boy, Matt had been exceptionally tenderhearted toward any kind of non-human creature. On the other hand, if going fishing would help speed up bringing her back, then he’d have

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to sacrifice his sensitivity for once. He pictured them both in a bass boat on a pitch black lake at four-thirty a.m.. That’s probably the kind of fisher-woman Jane Ann is, he figured. In the other room, Stacy was standing up and swaying her hips as if she were dancing. She was telling some story. The others laughed at whatever she’d said. Happy. Matt was happy too. “It was so great to hear your voice,” he told Jane Ann. “Yeah. Same here,” she said slowly. “When you want me to come by?” “We generally eat around four-thirty to five.” “I’ll be by at five.” Matt went back in the front room. The others stopped talking and looked at him expectantly. “I’ll be able to find out tomorrow,” he said, noting their disappointment though Troy and Stacy had just bought a quarter and Dane still had his own mediocre pot. Still, Matt knew how they felt. Despite his empathy, before he’d spoken with Jane Ann he’d felt some bitterness for having sneakily been drawn back into the role of small-time weed-dealer. Smoking the bongs had granted him a sweetly benign compassion toward them all, but more than that, getting to hang with Jane Ann made it worthwhile. He smiled upon his old friends kindly. Yes, he decided that he’d make money providing weed for them again. They’d pay dearly for it, bless their hearts. Troy loaded him a bowl. At the rate they were smoking his and Stacy’s quarter, they’d need more tomorrow. His own demons, worry and lying - these were issues Matt would deal with as they arose. That he could get back into business with Jane Ann was, he knew, proof - just as he’d told her - that everything works out for the best. Things happen because they’re supposed to - God’s will.

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“I’ve got to go,” he said. “Noonie,” he added by way of explanation. Truthfully, he didn’t have to go just then, but he wanted to catch a few episodes of Mr. Peepers with her before she zonked out in front of the television for the evening. When he got home and was watching television with her, he said that he’d invited Jane Ann for dinner. All Noonie replied was, “I’ll cook some ravioli.” But now, next afternoon, hovering over the pot on the stove that contained the simmering meat sauce, she said, “You’re not trying to date that little girl are you?” She had a teasing smile as she said it, but Matt didn’t think it was too darned funny. He was touchy about the topic of whom he was, or - in his case wasn’t dating. He’d never dated, and this nettled him. Noonie must be trying to get his goat. Matt rolled his eyes as she stirred the rich red sauce, thick with caramelized onion and garlic and brimming with crumbled Italian sausage. “Don’t roll your eyes at Noonie,” she said, pointing the spoon at him. “I’m not dating her,” he huffed with exasperation. “Just because we don’t work together anymore doesn’t mean we have to stop being friends.” At the kitchen sink, Matt filled a large pot with water. When it was nearly to the brim, he put it on the stove. Throughout most of his life, he’d always assumed the reason he’d never had girlfriends was because of his bashfulness, but now he wondered if the real reason had something to do with the embarrassingly blithe way he had taken to killing people. “Well, she’s pretty, but she’s too young for you,” Noonie merrily said, adding parsley and a little tarragon to the sauce. “I don’t like her like that. We’re just - friends,” He insisted, getting the pepper from the cabinet and vigorously shaking it over the sauce a few times. The thought of him and her being together romantically was just unseemly. Whenever he heard of middle-aged people coupling

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with young people of Jane Ann’s tender age - early twenties - it was maybe a little creepy or a lot perhaps. He and Jane Ann - ha, he thought - that would be too strange. Beyond the beyond. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the two of them selling pot together. “Should we start heating the water for the ravioli?” he asked. Noonie was enjoying Matt’s discomfort, but she wasn’t a kidder and eased her teasing tone. “I’m glad whenever you have a friend over. She’s nice. So many kids think they’re so hot. Driving fast. They think they’re being cute, but they need their little butts swatted.” As Matt made an effort not to think of Jane Ann over his knee, Noonie continued. “The way they go around makes me mad. But Jane Ann’s a good girl. What’s she doing now that she’s not working at the calendar store?” “Uh, she said something about taking a class at the junior college. I don’t know,” Matt said. He’d made this up on the spot. As far as he knew, Jane Ann hadn’t been doing anything since she quit besides still getting him pot. It sounded better that she was doing something to improve herself like going to college. Lying, to him, was a type of diplomacy, and he lied to make things run smoothly. Even if the untruths were unnecessary and not very good (like this one about Jane Ann considering college) he naturally said whatever would make things sound better. “You ought to go back to college,” Noonie suggested, putting salt in the pot of water. “You and Jane Ann could car pool.” Matt felt a pang. Maybe he should to go back to college. Standing with her at the stove he remembered the ivied walls running up old gothic towers, the tree lined campus walkways, and the open quads of the college of his own dewy youth. It was brighter now in his mind, the porticos more dreamily weathered, the columns more classical, and the halls more elegiac. The heck with that. He’d sell pot with Jane Ann and Dane.

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Noonie thought Matt’s skittishness was because of an infatuation with their dinner guest. He could see it on her face. If she’d known why the girl was coming over, she’d be frothing at the mouth, Matt knew. That being the case, he would let her believe that he had a crush on Jane Ann. Couldn’t change her mind anyway. Not that he and Jane Ann didn’t share some very important common dreams (No one finding out they killed Alison and not getting busted for pot primarily), but Matt’s long-standing fond idyl of getting high, eating takeout, and having lots of sex with some sexy girlfriend hadn’t happened (not the having lots of sex part anyway), and it wouldn’t with Jane Ann. He couldn’t explain to Noonie by saying, “Hey - we’re just selling pot, so please get your mind out of the gutter.” Noonie could think what she wanted. She opened the white refrigerator, and Matt took out the chilled ravioli. Jane Ann pulled up in front of Matt and Noonie’s house just as the ravioli were beginning to surface in the boiling water. As soon as Jane Ann came in, she said, “Wow, that smells great.” As always, she was dressed in a plain white jersey and baggy jeans. Her sneakers were untied, and she slipped them off. “Can you get me a pound of weed?” he whispered. Standing at the door, she thought for an instant. “Sure, but I’ll need the money first, eighteen hundred for that I think. I’ll have to check,” she replied in a low voice. Matt smiled and led her through the front room to the adjoining kitchen where Noonie was pouring the boiling water and hot ravioli through a sieve. She looked up from the steaming sink and smiled at the young woman. Jane Ann stepped to the sink and steadied the elderly woman’s grip on the copper bottomed pot. “Why thank you, dear,” Noonie said.

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Jane Ann took on the majority of the weight and tipped the rest of the food and liquid into the sieve. Steam billowed from the sink. Noonie took the empty pot as Jane Ann removed the basket of cooked ravioli. Matt noticed the warmth in her voice when she said, “I was telling Matt how delicious it smells in here.” Noonie beamed at the compliment. Jane Ann had a soft spot for older people, and Matt remembered her crying about Alison’s mom at the funeral. The kitchen phone right next to Noonie rang as Jane Ann slowly dribbled the ravioli from the sieve to the serving platter on the counter. “I’ll put the sauce on if you want to answer that, or I’ll wait for you. Whatever you want.” Noonie picked up the phone and patted Jane Ann’s dark hair. “You’re such a sweetie. Don’t worry, I’ll ladle the sauce in a minute,” she said. Turning her attention to the call, she spat out a terse, “Hello?” Her brow knit, and her eyes narrowed as she shoved her free hand into her pocket. “Hello? Who am I talking to?” Her voice was tremulous and harsh. Matt knew who it had to be, the telemarketer who called them regularly around supper time. “Hello? I don’t have a warranty with you people and I don’t want you to call me any more. I tell one of you this every day, and you all promise that you’ll take my name off the list, but you never do...It’s not up to me to call anybody. Don’t you dare call back here anymore. Don’t hang up on me Are you there?” Noonie’s lips were pressed together, and she was holding the phone and looking at the old fashioned receiver as if she could see the caller’s face. “That makes me so mad,” she fretted. Jane Ann smiled. “I don’t like telemarketers either. Why do they always call when it’s time for people to eat?” “Why do they?” Noonie plaintively echoed. She allowed Jane Ann to carry the smaller pot of meat sauce to the kitchen table. She held it as Noonie‘s trembling hands spooned the

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sauce prettily over the large serving plate of ravioli. “Matt, go get the Parmesan. You know, Jane Ann, I’m going to write a letter about these telemarketers. I wonder who I should send it to when I get it ready.” Steam rose from the food, and Matt pulled the chairs out for Jane Ann and his Noonie. “Matt, turn off the lights in the front room,” Noonie said, standing over Jane Ann who had sat down. As Matt hurried to do Noonie’s bidding, she started talking. “How many ravioli, dear? Has your light bill gone up? I am so mad at the governor and the power company. They’re in cahoots.” By this time, Matt had rejoined them and had sat at the table, but Noonie took no notice of him. “Maybe all those politicians are crooks. I don’t know,” she concluded “That’s what I tend to think,” Jane Ann agreed. When Noonie sat, everyone started eating. After her first bite, Jane Ann commented, “This is so good. I can’t tell you how glad I am that Matt invited me over. This sauce has a sweet flavor that’s really unusual. I’d like to put some of that seasoning in my deer sausage. What is it if I may ask?” It pleased Matt to see Noonie puff up at Jane Ann’s praise. He speared a ravioli, unable to remember when he’d been so thrilled in that room, the kitchen he’d known since infancy, the old stove and refrigerator, the phone and the porcelain wall tiles all lemon yellow and white. “It’s tarragon,” Noonie said of the sweet herb she’d put in the sauce. “Using the tarragon, you don’t need as much sugar. My Mama taught me that. She taught me everything. Well almost everything. “You know, back then people didn’t talk about certain things.” At this shift in the conversation, Matt perked up. Noonie said, “And my Mama, God rest her soul, never told me about - you know - my period, which when I got - I thought I was dying. I was at school, and I ran home. I’ll never forget, my Aunt Titi was there at the house, and I came in saying, ‘Mama,

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I’m bleeding,’ and Titi got onto my mama. She said, ‘Why didn’t you tell her about things,’ and even then Mama was - ‘Shhhh. That’s not something we talk about.’ Madonna!” Matt figured that at her age, Noonie could talk about whatever she felt like wherever and whenever she chose, so he smiled uneasily at the recounting of her surprise initiation into the womanly mysteries If Jane Ann was taken aback, she hid it well, looking earnestly at the old woman throughout the telling of the story. Noonie said, “You know back then we didn’t have kotex. Everyone knew when I had my period because I always wore a coat.” Matt couldn’t believe that there weren’t any sanitary napkins around in Noonie’s youth. He knew she was old, but that seemed ridiculous. She had been born in the early twenties, so she would have entered adolescence in the early to mid-thirties. Waiting for her to stop talking long enough to take a breath, he said, “Come on now, Noonie. Surely they had something back then.” Noonie’s eyes widened, and she looked at Matt as if what she said was just as astonishing to her as it was to him. “If they did, I didn’t know about it.” She looked from Matt to Jane Ann. “The closest thing I had to something was Mama would cut soft felt into strips and have me use them. Then she’d wash them, and I’d use them next month.” That was something he hadn’t known about her. Matt couldn’t help picturing those narrow strips of felt, folded in Noonie’s dresser. Poor girl, he thought as she launched into another commentary. “No sireee, we didn’t know much back then. Not like now. “I swear there is so much sex on television these days that it’s no wonder that kids get up to their sexy mischief. Too many babies having babies! I’ve got to tell you that if I were a young girl in this day and age, I wouldn’t bring a child into this awful world. There’s just too much nonsense going on.” Before Matt or Jane Ann could agree that there was, indeed, too much

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nonsense, Noonie guilelessly asked her, “So, Jane Ann, do you have a boyfriend?” At least, Matt thought, she hasn’t asked her if she’s a virgin. The remarkable glimpse into Noonie’s unfortunate girlhood and the nosey question didn’t put off Jane Ann in the least. In a manner that struck Matt as showing tenderness and understanding toward the older woman, Jane Ann said, “I’m not going steady right now. I’ll go on a date here and there. It’s not my style to get all dressed up, but I’ll put on something pretty and go to a fancy restaurant every now and then for fun if someone nice asks, but really, I feel most at home outdoors, hunting and fishing.” “My dad never hunted, but he used to fish,” Noonie said. “I remember when I was a little girl, one night he brought home a bucket of oysters. I don’t know where he got them from. He made oysters Rockefeller. I thought I was going to die. For three days, nothing but - well. And not just me but my whole family. All of us had gotten sick. Daddy should have known better. For years afterward, I couldn’t touch any kind of seafood. It wasn’t until my Aunt Titi had a fish fry that I tried it again. It was bluegill. I’ve been able to eat fish since then, but I still can’t eat any oysters. But it’s so expensive anymore. I wish Matt were a fisherman. Then we could have some bluegill or bass in the freezer.” The thought cropped up in Matt of those little fish biting down on the hooks, and he quietly shuddered. Maybe Jane Ann and he could do something else. He swirled it around in the red, red meat sauce. “Actually, Matt was telling me that he was kind of wanting to throw a line again,” Jane Ann said. “I was going to see if he wanted to go this weekend, maybe early Saturday morning or something.” She looked at him with the same open good-humor that he hadn’t seen in so long. It

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was heartening to see her not looking glum. Maybe it had been the job and not guilt about Alison after all. Continuing to spend time with Jane Ann was exactly what Matt had been hoping for, but he was panicked at the thought of fishing, imagining how it would feel to swallow a hook. Noonie looked pleased, as if she’d walked in and caught Matt doing something that was ridiculous - dressed in an extravagant cowboy outfit and posing with toy six-shooters in front of a full length mirror for instance, which, when he thought about it, wasn’t that different than the image of him as a fisherman. Noonie was tickled, leaning back in her chair. She said, “Matt is going to go fishing? This I’ve got to see. Are you really? Whatever you catch, I’ll cook.” This was all moving too quickly, and when he didn’t respond beyond a shocked smile, Jane Ann piped-up, saying, “It’s a deal. We’ll clean them for you though.” Scaling and gutting living creatures - his grin weakened. “Matt, can you be ready to go at. four in the morning this Saturday? I mean, if you still want to go. ” “Sure,” he said, his voice cracking. Of course he’d go. To have his old friend all the way back to her fun-loving self would surely be worth getting up in the middle of the night to cruelly kill some innocent fish. It wasn’t as if he didn’t like eating fish well enough. “I can’t wait,” Matt said, trying to sound excited. After supper, they watched International Ballroom Dance on the PBS station. Noonie sat in her recliner. Matt gave his spot on the couch to Jane Ann and he sat beside her. “These kids really know how to dance,” Noonie said. On the screen, the couples whirled around the floor, dipping and striking momentary poses before breaking back into fluid, graceful motion. The arena was packed. “Look at all the rich bitches,” Noonie said delightedly. “I like that couple where the man has a blue tux and the woman a peach dress. They’re not the favorites, but they’re right up there. My gosh, you can just about see everything.” That was true. The women’s

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costumes were very revealing, the dresses so short they were nearly not there. Though Noonie regularly complained about the never ending flesh parade on the networks, some shows such as this competition and a few others got a pass. “Wow,” Jane Ann commented. “That’s what I call poetry in motion.” The dancers were able to express everything from breathtaking sensuality to goofy humor through the movement of their bodies. Matt, Jane Ann, and Noonie watched couple after couple perform their routines. One couple wore costumes that looked like a space-age update of The Black Knight. Instead of metal armor, their suits were made of shiny black latex detailed in silver. “If army uniforms were like that, I might have joined up,” Matt said, wondering why everyone didn’t dress like super-heroes. Noonie shook her head, and Jane Ann, suppressing a smile, said, “You’re a nut.” On the screen, the Space Angel/Black Knight couple snapped through their modernistic take on classic mambo. Matt glanced outside. The streetlights were on, the last of the day melting, the clouds and western horizon barely visible through the branches of the trees lining his street, and Matt thought about what people who were going by might think were they to look in. They’d think we were regular, he told himself. On Saturday morning at three a.m., Matt got out of bed. To the party people who had gone to the bars earlier that evening, it was still considered Friday, but really, it was what it was the middle of the night well before dawn when everyone, Matt decided as he drowsily walked to the bathroom, ought to be in bed. Noonie continued to sleep, her soft snoring coming from her room like a honking metronome. After washing up and shaving, he padded to the kitchen and put some water on the stove. He’d make them coffee.

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While it heated, he went to his room and put on the clothes he’d chosen the night before. Matt was dressing for the raw, wintery air on the lake and started his layered ensemble with longjohns and insulated socks. Over these he wore jeans, and heavy, insulated work boots. Two sweaters and the thick, quilted jacket and wool hat at the door completed his sportsman drag. The fishing tackle was also at the door, and on the table was a basket of sandwiches that Noonie had made for them, which he didn’t think they’d need. How long would they fish? Back in the kitchen, he meted tablespoons of coffee crystals into thermal cups for himself and Jane Ann. In addition to everything needed for a fishing expedition, Matt also had the cash to give Jane Ann for the pound of weed she was to get him. Despite his old customers having been told to call Dane, a half-dozen of them had been ringing Matt’s house, bothering him and Noonie since he’d sold the quarter ounce to Stacy and Troy, and the sooner he could secure some pot, the sooner the calls would ease off. At least, Matt reckoned, it’ll be too cold for any fish to bite. That was just common sense, Jane Ann’s knowledge of the outdoors. As he stared at the yellow and white kitchen wall, Matt envisioned fur-coat wearing catfish sitting in lounge chairs on the bottom of the lake, ignoring the baited hooks hovering right over their heads, the catfish rolling their eyes at each other. The water was quietly boiling on the stove, bubbling to wisps of steam. Matt stood over it and breathed. Turning off the burner, he poured the hot water into the two thermal cups, gave them each a stir, and fastened the screw on lids. He tasted his. It was hot and bitter - remarkably foul. He brushed his teeth twice and forced himself to urinate once more before he saw a car pull up in front of the house.

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Matt hurriedly threw on his coat and wool hat, grabbed everything, and left, locking the door on the way out. The cold made his heart beat, and he could see his breath condense in the porch-light. When he got to the auto, there was Jane Ann grinning and gesturing for him to put the equipment in the rear seat with her stuff. “Hi,” he said as soon as he’d opened the back door. He put the food basket in and his tackle-box next to Jane Ann’s. He set the handle of his rod and reel on the floor next to hers, the fiberglass tips of their rods pressing against the roof of her car. It wouldn’t be light for another couple of hours at least. “Here,” he said reaching over the seat to hand her one of the covered mugs before closing the door and getting in the front. Jane Ann had on an a.m. station that was playing old country music. Dressed in an insulated camo-jumpsuit, wool hat, and knee high rubber boots, she said, “Brought me a coffee. That’s so thoughtful. Are you ready to go fishing?” “I sure am.” “Are you awake?” she kidded. “Oh, I’m awake,” Matt said. The coffee and cold air had helped.. Jane Ann took a long pull from the mug and, making a face at the nasty taste, pulled away from Matt’s house. Once they were past the city limits, she turned off the highway onto an old country road. The drive through the Tilling county countryside to Dove’s Orchard Lake was lovely, particularly in the moonlight, which was bright that evening. Jane Ann wended her way through the silent hills of farmland and woods . “I’m not sure where we’re at,” he said, looking out over acres of sere winter fields and groves of bare trees. They went around a bend where the road took them past a tantalizing patch of lake. Each wave caught luminescence from the moon and stars. For a few seconds, Matt was looking out on a panorama of glistening water.

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“We’re going to a good place that no one really knows about,” she said, chugging more of the foul brew. She made another face. “I’m not used to coffee. I mean, I’ve had it before, but I don’t usually drink it.” “I didn’t know if you took sugar, so I didn’t put any in.” “It wouldn’t have helped that much. I just never acquired a taste for it, but this morning it’s warming up my insides, so that’s good.” She took another long drink. She was in her element, he thought, watching her drive. Handing the mug to Matt, Jane Ann reached into one of the many zippered pockets of the jumpsuit and pulled out a fat joint. “Wake and Bake,” she announced. “Fantastic.” Within seconds, Jane Ann had it lit and was sucking down a big hit. The smell was acrid. Again they came near the water so that a view of it emerged from the hills just as Jane Ann handed the joint to Matt, who drew a mighty hit. Holding the smoke in his chest as they passed the carnival of undulating waves, he reached in his hip pocket for the weed money. Letting the smoke out as he handed her cash, he said, “This is good,” and then, glancing at the bills in Jane Ann’s hand, he added, “There should be eighteen hundred there. When we get to the lake, give it a count.” He took another hit and handed the joint back to Jane Ann. After driving another fifteen minutes, she pulled onto the shoulder of the gravel road and turned off her car. By then, she’d finished her coffee. “I’m going to have to start drinking more of this stuff,” she said. “You get a buzz. I always forget.” Jane Ann laughed and began counting the money. As stimulating as coffee is, Matt figured that the high was more because of the joint they’d smoked. Still, she’d drunk the big mug awfully fast. “You really chugged it,” he observed admiringly.

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“Takes the chill off.” Jane Ann licked her lips, and Matt noticed that her lips were chapped. “Well,” she said, “the cash is all here. I’ll get the weed later today.” “Excellent. Uh, I should be around.” The solitude was disrupted by a flurry of wind that kicked up like a living thing and just as quickly died. Jane Ann secured the money in another of the zippered breast pockets of her jump suit. “Let’s catch some catfish for your Noonie,” she said. Matt grimaced at the prospect. “Yeah,” he said trying hard to sound as if he couldn’t wait. They left the car and, carrying their gear, plunged into the morass of trees. Because it was such a bright night, Matt could see the shadowy forms of the trunks in the woods. Matt and Jane Ann crunched through the layers of dead leaves and fallen twigs, him following her lead. They tramped through the forest. When they’d gone maybe one hundred yards, Matt saw the end of the trees ahead, and beyond that he could make out the sky and the lake. It glittered through the winter blasted forest. The woods ended, and they were walking on a shoreline of solid rock. Movement had made his blood circulate. Nothing was said as they made their way to Jane Ann’s spot. Except for the sparkling waves and the occasional breeze, the night was still. There was a bank of cypress trees growing out of the water, and this was where Jane Ann stopped. “Here we are,” she said. The cypress looked like abstract night-goddesses rising with their bare branches haphazardly spread like antennae arms, their reflections fractured in the waters. Behind Jane Ann and Matt were the woods - the oaks, maples, and pines too dense to be able to see farther in then seven feet. Looking out on the lake was a different matter, the lake’s dancing peaks glowing under the full night sky. From her tackle- box, Jane Ann took several antiseptic wipes and gave some to Matt. She then opened the bag of catfish bait. “This’ll wake ‘em up,” she said pulling out a slimy lump of glop and handing the bag to Matt.

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The smell was fetid, and whatever they were using to lure the catfish could have been made of rancid cheese or fish or meat - dead and rotten something. Whatever it was, Matt hated reaching in and getting one of the gristly blobs. He gripped the slimy ball twixt his thumb and forefinger and tried to imitate Jane Ann by pushing it through his hook. While he struggled, she gently cast among the huge roots of one of the old cypress, her red and white bobber floating close to its trunk. Matt didn’t try to throw near the trees but cast his line safely away from the cypress “What are we using for bait?” he asked, wiping the pukey smell from his hands. “I’m not sure, but it’s processed in a stockyard up north. The catfish sure do like it.” “You really think they’ll be biting this time of year?” “We’ll see.” Jane Ann slowly reeled in her line. Matt did as she did, watching her from the corner of his eye. He admired her. She really was okay, he thought, just as her stomach rumbled loudly and for a long time. The longer it burbled, the bigger her eyes grew. When it stopped, she said, “I guess I drank that coffee too fast.” She grimaced, handed Matt her pole and said, “I’ll be back.” Before she trotted into the woods, she grabbed a handful of the sanitized wipes. Matt fished with his pole in his left hand and her pole in his right. For seconds he could hear her walking through the undergrowth. Then her footsteps became faint. Again, there was near silence, the only sound being the slapping of the waves on the rock shoreline. There were clouds high up in the sky on this night. Noonie would like this, it occurred to Matt. Where will we all be, he fretted - in five years - and he tried to imagine someone else living at his house. He pretended the bobbers were two planets, the red and white plastic spheres bouncing from wave to wave, each wave on fire with the night’s reflection. That is until something happened.

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What happened was that Jane Ann’s bobber took on a life of its own, slowly listing to one side and disappearing beneath the inky surface of the lake. Matt dropped his own rod and began reeling in whatever had taken his friend’s bait. It was big, but it didn’t put up much of a fight. “Jane Ann,” he cried. “Jane Ann.” His voice echoed over the dark waters. From somewhere deep in the woods, Jane Ann said, “What?” She sounded as if she were half a mile away. “There’s a fish on your line,” he said, his heart a bongo solo. “Bring it in.” That’s what he did. He knew he had to anyway because it would never do for the big old fish to break the line with the hook stuck in his mouth or throat. This way, he could bring it in and, if it were hooked by the lip or right inside the mouth and he could get it out easily, he’d let the thing go. He hoped that the fish was caught that way. He brought it to the shore and pulled the line out of the water. It was hard to do. The catfish was big. Matt was thrown into a near panic at the size of it, nearly two feet, and, more than that, the benign, innocent expression on its face. It looked a little like a dear little baby, and Matt was horrified. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry,” he whimpered to the large flopping catfish. He grabbed it behind the eyes to hold it still and get the hook out. When the catfish’s mouth gaped open, Matt’s worst fears were confirmed. The big fish had swallowed the blob of rotten guts and the barbed hook whole. At first he thought he’d wait until Jane Ann got back to let her deal with it, but the more he looked at it helplessly writhing on the rock, the more he realized that he needed to put the poor thing out of its misery. Matt let go of it to look in his tackle-box where he got out the hunting-knife that had belonged to his dad. There was a speckled film of rust on it.

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“Oh no,” Matt muttered. Holding the fish down, Matt placed the blade at the end of the catfish’s head. “I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Oh God, forgive me,” Matt moaned as he pressed the semi-dull blade into the fish’s neck. It thrashed wildly, all the while looking at Matt with sweet, forgiving eyes. The knife wasn’t sharp enough to go through. Hewing and heaving as he might, he only managed to saw about an inch into the bone of the now frantically thrashing catfish. Matt could feel himself sweating inside his longjohns. He looked around and saw a large rock. He picked it up and bashed the fish in the head with it. That just made it wrench its body more pitifully. Matt struck it a dozen more times with little effect. If it had been this hard killing people, he dismally reflected, he wouldn’t have murdered anyone. For lack of a better plan, he went back to trying to saw off the unfortunate creature’s head. Both Matt and the fish were gasping, though he knew the fish, not only being tortured but suffocating as well, was having a hellishly worse time of things than himself. Kneeling over it, Matt put his foot on one end of the blade and with both hands pushed down on the handle. The poor animal thrashed in a weaker, more languorous motion as Matt bore down with all his weight (all one hundred thirty-five pounds) again and again until finally he heard and felt something in the fish crack and his knife murkily severed through the rest of the head. Hot green goo spurted from the fish’s spinal column. There was one more shiver and the long, green body relaxed. It’s whiskered baby-face gazed up at Matt. “I’m so sorry,” Matt said dropping the knife. “Thaaaat’s oooookay,” came a voice, not from the severed catfish head but from right behind Matt “Whoa,” he yelped, jumping about two feet in the air. He hadn’t heard Jane Ann come up. She laughed.

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Matt tried to explain. “It - it took me a half hour to kill it.” “I’ve only been gone ten minutes,” Jane Ann said kindly. Matt checked his watch, and she was right. She handed him several antiseptic wipes. As he was shakily cleaning his smelly, slimy hands, Jane Ann said, “That’s a beautiful fish you caught there.” “Why thank you,” Matt peeped. Though he was wobbling at the knees, he tried to buck up. It was horrible what he’d done. Horrible. “You put the poor thing out of its misery.” “Ahh, thanks. Afraid I didn’t do much of a job though,” Matt said, trembling. He couldn’t get around how stricken he felt. The closest he’d ever been to the state he was in was right after he’d shot Jack and Gerald, and that had been mostly fear of being caught. He knew that as sweetfaced as the catfish was - it was a still, after all, a fish. Just a fish, he told himself. They’d eat it, in fact, so its death wouldn’t be in vein. It would live again through them by giving them life. In the eyes of society, what he’d done hadn’t been wrong at all. Noonie would be glad. He looked away from the poor dead thing on the rocks and tried to shake off what he’d done to it. Because of this fish, he felt like Charlie Manson. He asked himself how he’d ever be the same and forced a brave smile. It’s just a fish, he told himself. God’s will, he thought, unable to look at the decapitated corpse on the rock shore. As Matt leaned against a tree trying not to throw-up, he heard crunching steps coming through the forest. Matt straightened up. He and Jane Ann exchanged glances as the shadow of a large man emerged from the trees. It was Sheriff Timmy. He looked surprised to see Matt. “Hi, Matt,” he said, and looked at Jane Ann, said, “Howdy Ma’am.” He looked at the big catfish on the rocky shore. “Looks like you’re having some good luck.”

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“Matt pulled that one in,” Jane Ann said generously. Matt smiled queasily. Timmy wasn’t fishing. “I was on patrol and saw the car on the side of the road. Slow night, so I was just making sure you weren’t underage kids getting drunk or something,” he explained.” Matt was completely wrung out and couldn’t look at the torn up catfish. “Not us,” he weakly managed to say. A fish flopped close to one of the cypress trees. Timmy smiled easily. “Course not. How’s your Noonie?” he asked. “Fine. Fine.” Matt wanted to sit down. He sneaked a look at the severed head. The catfish looked at him in a most forlorn way, its eyes already becoming milky with death. Timmy hitched his trousers and said, a little apologetically, “Say, you have licenses right?” “Yes, sir,” Jane Ann replied, obligingly getting hers from her pocket to show him. Matt, of course, didn’t have one. “I don’t have one. I’m sorry,” he admitted. Timmy looked surprised and hurt. He frowned, squinted at Matt, who looked at his feet. Sounding peeved and slightly embarrassed, Timmy said, “You caught that big old fish there. Right? Looks like you worked him over pretty good while you were at it.” Timmy stepped over to the dead fish’s decapitated carcass and nudged the body with the toe of his boot. Matt sighed. “Yeah, Timmy. I’ve been fishing, and I did catch that poor thing. Go ahead and fine me.” The waves lapped against the rock shore. Timmy was speechless, and Jane Ann tried to help Matt, saying, “He was putting te fish out of its misery.”

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“Looks like you tortured the thing,” Timmy observed gravely. His casual words stung Matt to the core. He’d tortured that poor fish. Torture. “You’re right,” Matt said dismally. Timmy sniffed and took a ticket pad from his vest. Jane Ann’s eyes grew large. The woods, lake, and the stars were quiet. “I need to see your driver’s license or your social security card or some form of state ID. How long have we known each other?” Timmy said. “Since middle school,” Timmy said, getting his license from his wallet. Timmy took it from him and wrote the needed information on the ticket. “Yep,” he said, “Since sixth grade for me, seventh for you. I hate to do this, but the law, Matt. I thought you knew better.” Sheriff Timmy was aggravated. Finishing the citation, he looked at Jane Ann and said, “Heck, I see him and his Noonie every Sunday at eight o’ clock mass.” Jane Ann shook her head. Matt could see how irritated Timmy was by the savage way he scribble out the ticket. “I’m sorry, Timmy,” Matt said taking his copy. Timmy’s lips twisted in a pained grimace. “I am too. It bothers me that I’m here writing you a ticket, but what kind of sheriff would I be if I let you off cause I know you and your family? I’d be in the wrong.” “I wouldn’t expect you to do that, Timmy,” Matt uttered shamefully. Timmy sighed. He muttered, “Now, Matt, you gotta pack up your gear and go. Ma’am,” he said to Jane Ann, “You’re welcome to stay here and fish although if you gave Matt a ride here, maybe you’d better go too.” Matt closed his tackle box and reeled in his line. Sheriff Timmy kicked both the head and body of the catfish, off the rocks and into the lake. Then it seemed that Sheriff Timmy’s expression softened. “Just get a license to fish. That’s all,” he advised Matt.

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“Okay,” Matt said. He wouldn’t be doing that.

TO KILL OR NOT TO KILL: THAT IS THE QUESTION The peaks of Matt’s knuckles were bloodless from gripping the steering wheel. Everything’s all right, he kept telling himself as he drove to Dane’s house with the six pounds of weed he’d gotten from Jane Ann. No matter how often he did it, driving with pot badly scared him. Just go the speed limit. Drive defensively. Everything’s fine. Fine. Matt tried to coach himself into being calmer. Although it had been rainy earlier in May, this day was gloriously sunny. I’d be so happy if I weren’t scared, he thought. The first spring flowers had come and gone, but there were new leaves and buds dotting the branches of the oaks and maples lining the street. Matt turned onto Dane’s block. In a month this would all be saturated in green, the trees and bushes uniformly thick in the yards to the point of nearly hiding the small, brick veneered bungalows. The musk of the herb was loud, and where Matt parked, it would broadcast its presence for a block easily. Tension in Matt’s face creased into frown lines when he came to Dane’s house. It was both what was there and what wasn’t there that bothered him. Cheryl was no longer there and had taken her and Dane’s old, orange Toyota. Dane had changed. Matt sighed. Where the car had been in the driveway was now a big purple motorcycle. Matt pulled in behind it. Purposefully but casually, Matt carried in the garbage bags holding freezer bags of the manicured buds to the side door of the house. He hated Cheryl’s having left. He’d always liked her and looked at her as a stabilizing influence on his pal. Proof of this was no farther than Dane’s head, freshly shaven as he opened the door, his face bearing a new stubbly, grizzled grey

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goatee that made him look like old Captain Ahab. He also had recently had his ear pierced and wore a gold post in his left lobe. In spite of his nervousness, Matt couldn’t help stepping back for a second to take in his friend’s new look. “Well come on in,” Dane said. Matt hurried in and with sinking dismay took in the fast food wrappers (and Dane a cook), the clothing strewn on the kitchen table - the junk everywhere. Cheryl had been gone six weeks, and Matt knew that Dane hadn’t cleaned up once. It looked worse than when that - that stupid Andrew had broken in. And there was a distinctively tart odor - sour apples? Rancid bacon or something fishy? Plus, coming from the other room, there was the drone of the television, porn from the sound of it. Dane locked the kitchen door and, after looking out the window, pulled the curtains. “Uh, where are the scales and baggies?” Matt asked. “Come on. They’re in here,” Dane, in jeans and a stained tee shirt, said as he lumbered into the trashy front room. Matt followed with the garbage bags of herb. After digging through the layers of paper and clothing throughout the room, Dane found his digital scales and the baggies. At the large coffee table, they commenced dividing the bags into ounces and quarter-ounces. They worked quietly, Matt working more slowly because of his inability to not stare at the porn. How funny, the way peoples’ feet looked, the boney, toed things sticking out awkwardly at all kinds of weird angles. Nor could Matt help noting the spindly legs and arms of the porn stars. Even those performers who were in warrior shape appeared weak, sinewy yet vulnerable and strange as they charged through their sexy acrobatics. Dane seemed unaware of the bodies coupling, changing positions every few minutes. Constant porn was something else that Cheryl wouldn’t have stood for. Wanting a distraction, Matt asked, “When did you shave your head?” “You like?”

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“Uh, yes. Oh yes,” Matt phlegmatically lied as he made another quarter-ounce bag. He, in fact, didn’t like it, as he hadn’t liked his friend’s new beard or his out-of-date earring. But then again, so what? It wasn’t he who had to go around with a peeled dome and a stupid looking bristly white patch on his chin. On the television, a quintet languorously had sex beneath a blossoming dogwood tree. The toned stars were harsh, professional looking men and women who were trying to appear to be amateurs. Despite muscles and single-digit body fat, they appeared unreal - fragile machines, their bodies nothing more than burning husks, skins stretched over skeletons, the sleek contours holding their beings intact, these fornicating packages of meat, bone, and gristle. As he tried not to gawk, there was a sound from one of the bedrooms down the hall. A pretty, young, brown-haired woman who looked strangely familiar emerged. She was dressed in purple shorts and a black tee shirt. Her skin was white and smooth. The sight of this girl instantly unsettled Matt. Could he have been her substitute teacher last year? His poor teaching career - a picture flashed in Matt’s mind of Jed crushed under his truck, his brains popped from his skull by the axel, spilled on the shop floor. Matt gulped. This afternoon was rapidly degenerating into a bad dream. Sick panic seized him. Aside from the awful possibility that he’d taught her and she knew him, she was obviously a teenager and therefore no fit companion for Dane. Finally, no one had any business being there while they were weighing and bagging their weed. Dane smiled as the girl, also grinning, sidled next to him and slipped her arm over his shoulder. “Hi Mr. Jones,” she said. That was it. His initial fear was right. “You should see the look on your face,” Dane said.

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Matt tried to look normal. He smiled at the girl and said what he always did to kids who fondly recognized him from his disastrous five month substitute teaching the previous year when he hadn’t been selling pot. “Well, hi there. Great to see you. Uh, how’ve you been?” The young woman giggled and shook his hand. “I know you don’t remember me, Mr. Jones. I’m Mary Eckoles,“ she said. “I had you in Spanish III.” Dismay and mortification in the extreme washed over Matt in waves. Taking no notice of Matt’s discomfort, the girl affectionately slapped the top of Dane’s head. “You should have told him that I was here.” On the television screen, a daisy-chain of lesbians diligently ate each other. This in the presence of his old student added a strata of embarrassment to the horror of having had her unexpectedly walk in on him weighing pot moments ago, giving the nightmarishness an added element of wounding creepiness. Mary, however, was more interested in the marijuana. “I’ve never seen so much. I could smell it from the bedroom.” She punctuated this by leaning down and fastening her mouth on Dane’s. Matt looked at the back of Mary’s head. Her light brown hair was straight and went a little past her shoulders. The sound of her and Dane french kissing disgusted and astounded him. They’ll stop in a minute, he thought, but their display of soul-matey-ness lasted for awhile. Matt determinedly went back to filling bags. The adrenaline Mary had triggered in him was converting to anger toward Dane. In nearly thirty years they’d never brought anyone around when they were breaking their pot into retail quantities. It was stupid. Dane knew better, but judging from the open make-out session going on before his eyes, maybe he didn’t. Finally, Dane broke away long enough to breathlessly say to her. “You’ve probably never even seen weed this good.” As soon as he’d uttered those words, he and Mary resumed chewing on each other’s tongues.

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Matt considered what it would be like selling weed without his exasperating friend. Though not having to worry about unwelcome surprises such as Dane’s bringing around kids he’d subbed for was a tempting prospect - and the idea of no longer having to put up with Dane’s empty new displays of machismo was terribly intriguing - not having him around would end up being a bigger pain. Without him, Matt would have to see more of their customers. Dane, unlike Matt, enjoyed dispensing the manna to their circle of pot-smoking friends so that they would see him as some kind of outlaw. Of course, Dane’s bad-man pretensions continued to strike a bitter chord with Matt. In that regard, Dane was simply being how he’d always been, but maybe because of his many current changes, he was galling Matt more than ever, almost unbearably irritating him these days. Oh well, let him keep bragging and acting tough. Let him pose as a biker, shave his head, grow a stupid goatee, and - well, he really shouldn’t take up with this girl. Jail Bait. Matt purposefully filled three more bags until Mary, by now straddling and grinding against Dane, stopped her humping and kissing and wetly disengaged herself from the old damp hulk that was his foolish buddy. She stood next to her man and examined a bud. Intent on saying nothing, Matt busied himself with filling another bag, but Dane broke the silence with a grand announcement. “Mary is my fiance.” This statement hung in the air like the smell of dirty socks and greasy paper wrappers from the discarded fast food that littered everything. Matt was determined to not give Dane the satisfaction of seeing how shocked he was, so he stayed mum, forcing himself to keep smiling as he continued to weigh out another quarter-ounce of pot. “Soon as she graduates next month and me and Cheryl’s divorce is final, me and Mary’ll be getting married.” “Uh, congratulations.”

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“I still want to go to college someday. Can I go to college, honey?” the high school senior asked her fifty-year-old future husband. Matt kept his eyes on the task, studiously restraining himself from saying anything like - Dane, you’re out of your mind - crazy. “You can go to college if you want, baby. This is America,” Dane said encouragingly as Matt’s thoughts raced, filling him with dread. How old was Mary? Hopefully over eighteen. Mary rubbed the top of Dane’s head, prompting him to say, “Careful, sweetie, it’s still tender.” Matt sorely wanted to slap Dane on the top of his tender dome as hard as he could. Always, always they had kept what they did known to the group of middle-aged stoners they’d grown up with, and never did they have anyone over when they were doing their business. How many of Mary’s teen friends would she tell, and how many people would they tell? Matt thought of his and Dane’s (but mostly his) names all over the high school, and he felt an uncomfortable warmth spreading up his back and neck to cover his whole body like a rolling fever. “Man, your face is red,” Dane observed pleasurably, circling his arm around his young girlfriend’s hip. Matt could feel his pulse thundering in his temples. Dane had never even mentioned Mary before. Matt wondered if she’d already blabbed. Fear seized him as he realized that it was possible that Dane’s house was being watched because of this girl, and though his heart was racing, he controlled his fear. “Ahh, my face is red?” he muttered, sighing. “It’s just uh, kind of - I don’t know.” Actually, he did know. He wished he could go back in time and find out about Mary and tell Dane NOT to have her around when he came by. He wanted to scream at him about that, maybe hit him on his shiny head with something, the heavy brass lamp on the coffee table for instance. He’d have to strike when the big guy wasn’t looking. The sound of Dane’s forced laughter made Matt angrier.

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“He’s just bashful,” Dane told Mary. Bashful. Matt sheepishly smiled. He wanted to kill Dane. Kill him for putting them at risk mostly but also for being such a jerk, for changing. Screwing up his marriage with Cheryl, letting his house go to hell, suddenly buying a big motorcycle, growing a stupid goatee and shaving his head - these were, Matt reflected, all reasons to put Dane out of his misery in addition to having brought Mary around - and that wasn’t even taking into account Dane’s usually boorish personality. Matt found himself considering the advantages of shooting the old boy over hitting him in the head - Dane was too big and might not go down with one blow. Shooting would be louder but easier. Matt stopped himself. Somehow he had to get a grip. No violent thoughts allowed. Upset and paranoid though he was, he wasn’t going to think bad things. Right then, unfortunately, Mary said, “I can sell a ton of this weed to people at school for you guys. I know, gosh, three-hundred people easily who love to party. Plus, each of them are going to know lots of other people. Wow, we’re talking a fortune. We’ll be supplying the whole school!” she squeaked. The drumming sound of his heartbeat had to be, Matt concluded, rising blood pressure. He’d never suffered from high blood pressure in the past. If he couldn’t get Dane alone, he’d have to call him later. He couldn’t afford to be easy-going about selling to a bunch of teens, high school kids who knew him. The clientele they’d had for decades had been a closed circle. They were enough. What Mary was proposing couldn’t be allowed to happen. The throbbing in his temples and the hot feeling weren’t going away. Think of sunny things, Matt told himself - clouds and bunnies, rain on the roof at night. Snowflakes - blue on blue. He’d have to set Dane straight. What would he say? Matt studied his business partner’s broad, clueless face, grinning and vapid. He was in a good mood now, but Dane was bull-headed and bad tempered, blustery and horrid when he didn’t get his way, a yeller

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and a stomper who was prone to hissy-fits of terrible magnitude. He’d seen this fury directed at others throughout the years and had always been a buffer between Dane’s and people whom he believed had crossed him, usually their various dealers. Now that ferocity would be directed at him. Dane would see it as Matt trying to make him look bad in front of - Mary. Trying to embarrass him in front of his fiance. His high school aged fiancé. No, he wouldn’t like hearing what Matt had to say at all. Mary might not take the news well either. She might have Dane give her some bags and sell them regardless of anything Matt might say, and who knew but that she hadn’t mentioned something about him and Dane to someone already (“Hey, you’ll never guess who my sugardaddy sells pot with. Remember good old Mr. Jones...”). Oh God no. Think of babies playing with kitties. A school of dolphins off a tropical coast. Be at that coast in those waters. It was no use. “Gee, Mary, uh. That’s a thought, but, well, I don’t know about getting you involved. Wouldn’t want you to get in trouble.” “Hey, it’s all good,” Mary reassured him. “I can do it - no problem. I want to do it!” “Sure you can, babe. My baby can do whatever she wants,” Dane declared expansively. “Also, uh, we wouldn’t want our names to get around,” Matt muttered huskily. “I wouldn’t worry about that. Mary’s pretty tight lipped, aren’t you sweetie?” Dane said, reaching under her butt to goose her. Mary settled back into his lap and, looking tenderly into his eyes, said, “Well let’s see.” And with that, the two of them resumed making out. The sounds of their kissing recalled pigs rooting in slop. On the television, there were several dozen couples having sex in a large gymnasium. The mewling from the performers was a backdrop to Dane and Mary’s semi-private interlude. The apartment smelled slightly fishy. Matt had to get out of there.

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He sighed. “Uh, well, I’d like to stay and do the rest of this, but I’ve got to, uhh, take Noonie to the cemetery,” he said to the back of Mary’s head. Dane moved a bit so that one eye was visible, and between slurping noises, he seemed to gag something out that resembled a farewell of sorts. Driving home, Matt stewed in a loop of frightening and angry ruminations. This girl was determined to sell their pot TO HER HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDS. Sure as the sun, her grand plans of being a pot-queen would guarantee his downfall. There was no way Matt could let that play out. If Mary even talked about them, then Dane and Matt would be in big trouble. Dane was too much in love to have any sort of discernment. He hadn’t been like this with Cheryl, who had been his high school sweetheart before marrying him when they were both eighteen. Dane and Cheryl. Now Dane and Mary. The way home was as sunny and lovely as ever, alive and green with the new spring growth, fresh young grass and little pearly flowers opening. By now, Matt should have been lighthearted. He’d dropped off the weed, which Dane would hopefully finish weighing. Matt passed a terrace garden of bight pink and purple petunias. The Sun filled the air with a yellow vibrance. Life was so beautiful, Matt thought dismally. That stupid, stupid Dane, he kept thinking as he passed over the red cobblestone road. Whatever happened to common sense, dependability, and - and fidelity - constancy? It was, Matt decided, typical that someone on whom he depended would lose it. Why can’t people be reasonable? he asked himself. Why do fools have to go overboard with everything? The thought of him and Dane getting busted because of Mary inflamed Matt. Supply the high school with pot. Fresh beads of sweat broke on his hands and face. Her and her big mouth - who had she told? Where’d you get this bud? Why, I got it from Mr. Jones. Remember him?

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Frantic speculations led him down dark paths of thought - rash notions and vile conclusions. The possibilities of shame and ruin broiled. And his poor Noonie. This could not be happening. He had to stop Mary and Dane - but it might already be too late. Ghosts of arrest and prison tormented him, demanding action. Something had to be done. It was so hard to think clearly, but he knew that he wasn’t going to allow Dane and Mary to destroy his life. What could he do? Over and over these thoughts fired in his mind until they broke the teathers of Matt’s judgment. Such dark musings kept bedeviling him as he turned onto his block. Dane and Mary were going to get him busted. Desperation possessed him. He couldn’t let them put him in prison. He had to stop them. As unthinkable and as sordid as it was, realizing with an immediacy the great evil of the idea needling him - Matt decided that he had to kill Dane and Mary - tonight, before the girl told everyone about them, and about him in particular. Actually, he wanted to do it right then and get it over with, he was that blindingly determined, but he had to take his Noonie to the cemetery first to help her put out the holiday flowers. Memorial Day was that weekend, and she wanted the displays out today. After that task, they had to have dinner. Tonight, Noonie would be making toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. After supper, Matt would be free to kill Dane and Mary. He’d simply have to be patient. Pulling up his drive-way, he hoped that Noonie was ready. Matt didn’t immediately get out but sat in the car and stared out the window. He knew that doing away with Dane and Mary was awful, beyond awful, but there was no other way. Sure, Mary had said she hadn’t said anything, and that was all well and good, but she might say something. And though Sir Baldwick-of-Goatee wasn’t worried about it, Mary might have said something already anyway, and - maddeningly - she was also expecting to start distributing their

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pot to her classmates - his old students. Dane was so infatuated with Mary as well as wrapped up in trying to be a cool dude that he was sure to go along with anything she wanted. He’d probably end up partying with and selling to Mary’s friends himself. Everyone in Mary’s school would know. And they’d all remember Matt. Guilt by association - well, more than that, but guilt through no fault of his own! Dane was too thickheaded to see the consequences - that they’d go to jail. Noonie would die of shame and heartbreak. Matt would be in prison when she died. That had to be prevented above all else. Yes, Matt hated it, what he had to do, but what choice did they leave him? He knew that there would be no reasoning with Dane. He’d get mad, throw a tantrum and go ahead with Mary’s insane idea. Another thought - if someone knew about him, if that were the case, then killing Dane and Mary might come back on him. Matt wouldn’t be in trouble over selling pot to kids; he’d be up for double murder. What a quandary. The angel on his left shoulder might have been preoccupied with other matters, but Matt could plainly hear the devil whispering in his right ear. Mary and Dane had to die to - to stop the madness as Nancy Reagan would have said. There was the real risk that Mary might have blabbed about him and Dane, but all Matt could do was to pray to God that she’d said nothing. A terrible risk, but his only option. It was too bad, but they had to disappear. He knew just how he’d do it too. Noonie’s father’s gun, Matt’s great-grandpa’s pearl handle six-shooter. It looked like a cowboy’s pistol and lay loaded at the bottom of a drawer in a hallway cabinet. As he sat in the car rehearsing his after-dinner plan of driving to Dane’s and killing him

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and Mary, the sound of his neighbors’ boom box playing Sammy Davis Jr.’s ”Candy Man” grated on Matt’s already frayed nerves. Billy and Lisa Marshall broadcast music to the neighborhood whenever they worked on one of their home improvement projects. And they were always working on a new project. Ought to kill them too, Matt thought as Billy approached from his and his wife’s latest job, installing new yellow and green awnings over all the windows. Billy, as usual, was wearing his Osh Kosh B’ Gosh overalls, the fit accentuating the fat that had settled in his belly, back, and flopping sides. He was at the side window of the car, his midriff bulge inches from Matt’s face as he looked down, grinning. Matt lowered his window. “Hi, Bill.” Billy smiled. Whoo can make a rainbooooow - sprinkle it with deeeeeeew. Matt’s unenthusiastic tone was lost on Billy, who kindly asked, “Are you all right? I was getting ready to put up the awning over the front room window when I noticed you just sitting there in your car and, well, I was a little worried.” Matt looked up into Bill’s hairy nostrils. “Oh, I’m fine. Thanks,” Matt replied his eyes pausing at the jowls and waddles of Bill’s neck and jaw-line. Bill’s good intent exasperated Matt. Ought to kill him, Matt thought, and he remembered his pledge to lay off the violence. Now here he was, planning the deaths of both his long-time friend and his friend’s teen age girlfriend. Funny, it occurred to Matt. Talk about your chiildhood wiiiishes - yoooou can even eat the diiiiishes! Sammy twittered. “Well you were just sitting out here staring, so I had to check,” Billy said merrily. “Oh, I was, uh, trying to remember where I’d put a letter that I’d meant to send off,” Matt lied. There was a tiresome silence of half a minute wherein Billy, like an eager dog, stood in front of Matt’s car door looking down at him expectantly and Matt, not wanting to look at his neighbor’s big belly or fat face, looked out the front window. The Candy Man - The Candy Man - The Candy Maaaain! Sammy howled. Matt politely waited for Billy to back up enough for him

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to get out as he continued thinking about what he had to do later. “So,” he said after what seemed like eternity, “Um, how’s Lisa?” If he didn’t say anything, Billy would never move, and time would stop. As Matt spoke, he slightly opened the door. Billy obligingly stepped back. “Lisa is - as always - an iconoclast and a contrarian.” An iconoclast and a contrarian? Oh brother, Matt thought - his neighbor was as much of an ass as that stupid Laurence. Just for saying that, Matt fumed - but, no. He wouldn’t think it. It was bad enough to kill Dane and Mary. That had to be done to keep them from telling everyone their business and, worse, getting him busted with them. The thought of killing them was repugnant, but Matt couldn’t allow their bad judgment to put him in prison. “That Lisa,” Matt forced himself to say as he made himself smile, all the while swallowing his panic, the incessant need to get away. He pushed the door open, and his neighbor, a little grudgingly, stepped back. “An iconoclast and a contrarian,” Billy repeated, causing Matt to shudder. “Would you like to see her? She’s steaming off the wall paper in the bathroom.” Billy said. Another project. One excruciating chore at a time wasn’t enough for these two. “Ah, well yes, but some other time. I’ve got to take Noonie by the cemetery right now, but, um, tell her ‘hi’ for me. Nice to, uh, see you, Billy. Good luck with the awnings and the, um, wallpaper.” Matt hoped it wouldn’t take Noonie too long to get ready. If only he could fastforward his life past the upcoming unpleasantness, the murder an awful hurtle like having to have some painful kind of surgery. Billy headed back toward his house. “I’ll give Lisa your warm regards,” he assured Matt, who left his car and waved goodbye as he hurried toward his own door.

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Noonie wasn’t ready. When Matt entered the house, she was in the front room with the television remote in her hand. Though the television was on, the room was quiet. This was because an actor Noonie didn’t like was on CSI: Paducah. When this particular detective grilled or confronted suspects, he would drastically lean to one side, cock his neck, and spout smart, tough-guy sound bites. Every time he was in a scene, Noonie would turn the sound off and complain about him. “Look at him,” she implored Matt. The detective, whose character had the fanciful first name of Zachariah, was squinting and smirking, bending and craning his neck in what looked like a frenzy of busyness as he baited some terrorist crack dealer on the street. “If I were that boy, I’d tell that Zachariah to get the hell out of my face. Ooh, I can’t stand the way he - he just breathes down peoples’ necks is what he’s doing.” “He sure does, doesn’t he,” Matt said. “Oh my gosh. He’d drive me bananas. Why he has no right to come up on people and act so crazy with the way he stands. I expect to see him interrogating someone while he’s hanging upside down.” The show cut to a commercial about Huggies diapers which featured scores of babies. Noonie turned the sound back on. “There is nothing like babies,” she declared. “Yep. Uh, were you wanting to go to the cemetery, Noonie?” have to go. I’ll just get ready,” she said, but instead of doing that, she continued to talk. “I cleaned the house today, everything except your bathroom, so you be sure to clean it. And when I was in your room - I swear you’ll never learn - what do you think? Your snotty rags. My gosh, what does it take to throw the things away? But I guess you’d rather me clean up after you. I picked them up. So all you have to clean is your bathroom.” The show came back on, but since this scene didn’t feature the actor whom she despised, she left the chattering sound on.

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“I’ll clean my bathroom later, Noonie.” “Ah, where have I heard that before? Listen, the door handle on the back door is broke. I noticed it last week. We’re going to have to go to North Side Lumber and get a kit for a new one, and you’re going to have to install it. I can’t do it myself, but I’ll help you. I swear I wish you were more like Billy and Lisa. They work on their home every day. They love a nice house,” Noonie said forlornly. Even though he’d been obsessing over the coming night, the unbelievable thought that there he was, going to kill again - still, the thought of Noonie hovering over him while he was trying to fix a door handle made him groan inwardly. Any type of handy work was too much to ask because, well, Matt wasn’t handy. Nevertheless, he said, “Sure Noonie. I’ll do it, um, tomorrow or something.” He was picturing the loaded handgun lying in the hallway cabinet under folded pastel dish towels. Noonie put her hands in her lavender house dress and shook her head. “That’s what you always say,” she complained. “How are you going to manage when I die? I can just imagine how things are going to look after I’m gone,” she lamented. “You’re going to live thirty more years Noonie. We’ll fix the door later,” Matt said, trying to placate her. She rolled her eyes. “Are we about ready to go?” Matt gently asked. “Let me just change my dress.” Noonie slowly waddled toward the hallway, and when she was in her room, Matt headed to the bathroom. Once in the custard yellow sanctuary, he turned on the exhaust fan, the comforting hum dulling the sounds outside. Matt smoked three one-hits and brushed his teeth. He turned off the fan as he left. While Noonie was slowly finding something to wear and putting it on, Matt went to the hallway and opened the drawer where the pistol was. Without lingering to examine the thing, he

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quickly took it to his bedroom and tucked it under his pillow. Then he went back to the front room to wait. It was when he was sitting on the couch, still waiting for Noonie that Matt felt hot pin pricks of guilt at what he was planning. I can’t do that to Dane. Not even to Mary, he thought as he stared out the front window at the street. The light streamed in shimmering curtains through the trees upon the yards and the reddish street. He couldn’t kill his old friend, stupid as he is, Matt anguished. And kill that young girl? No. He simply had to go to Dane and reason with him. Politely tell Mary that they wouldn’t need her retailing services and make her realize that she should never mention his name at school. That was all. The weed had given him perspective. Not enough however to overcome his compulsion to bring the pistol with him. Of course, I won’t kill them, he told himself. But taking the gun - something about bringing it with him seemed so right. After all, Dane had a temper, not that Matt intended to aim it at him as soon as they started arguing. Matt had never been good at confrontation, but he had to be firm about this. And he’d take the gun. Not to use - but to help him be understood if Dane went loco. If Dane wouldn’t take no for an answer and if he insisted on having his new teen girlfriend sell pot at the highschool - then just having the gun, Matt rationalized, would give him the strength to hold his ground for once. He went to the bathroom and did two more hits, again brushing his teeth. Upon emerging, he was horrified to find Noonie’s short and squat frame (now wearing a peach housecoat) precariously teetering on her recliner, one wobbly foot sunk into the seat cushion and the other trembling on the arm. Noonie and the chair seemed as one and ready to take a great tumble. With her left hand on the top rim of a flimsy off-white, satin lampshade, holding it to keep some overly optimistic sense of balance, her other hand reached to the light

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fixture hanging from the ceiling, a foot out of her reach. “Good grief, Noonie,” Matt said hurrying to the chair. “You’re going to break your neck doing that.” From her dizzying height, she shot him a righteous look. “Well, while I was waiting for you to GET OUT OF THE BATHROOM, I saw that the lightbulb was out up there, so I just figured I’d change it.” As she explained the rationale behind risking broken hips or other bones, Noonie allowed Matt to help her off the chair. He moved slowly while helping her down from the heights of the recliner. “You couldn’t wait until I came in here to tell me?” he fretted. “I shouldn’t have to tell you,” she crowed. Matt forced himself to smile, and once she was safe, he scooted the chair nearer the fixture, an opaque disc with delicate blades of grass cut into the glass. In thirty seconds, the task was done, but Noonie wasn’t. “I’ll bet you’d let this place become a pigsty if I was gone,” she observed. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said hopping off the chair and moving it back. “Are you ready?” “I’ve been waiting for you to get out of the bathroom.” Matt was a naturally cautious driver, no fan of fast, daring maneuvers, but as slowly as he went, he wasn’t slow enough for Noonie, who even as cars passed them urged him to ease off the gas. “You’re a speed demon,” she wryly critiqued as another car, this one red, zoomed around them. “And there’s another ticket I’d write,” Noonie said of the passing auto. “Slow down. We’re not in a hurry,” she reminded him. “I’m only going twenty-five. The speed limit is thirty-five.” “I don’t care. You should try to coast whenever you can. I saw on the television that coasting is a great way to save gas. And the faster you go, the more gas you use.” Three vehicles

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passed them. “There’s three more tickets I’d write. The county would have quite a revenue if I were a traffic policeman.” “You’d write everyone a ticket,” Matt pointed out. He did slow down because they were almost to the cemetery and he had to turn onto a rough, narrow back road. Though it was not yet summer proper, the gravel was dusty, and driving kicked up clouds from the rock. The overgrown weeds along the side were coated with it. There was only one trailer on this stretch of road. It was on a lot surrounded by woods, and every time they went past it, Noonie commented on the junky condition of the place, as she did now. “If I were the mayor,” she began, “I’d make these people clean up or I’d tear down their trailer.” Matt pictured Noonie behind the controls of a bulldozer over the ruins of the mobile home and gloating at the now homeless family, a slob couple and their crying kids standing around in shock. He guessed there were kids there by the many dirty toys strewn around the yard, along with the other things: torn up tables and chairs; a washing machine; a partially dissembled car engine. “Pathetic,” Noonie pronounced. The cluttered lot receded in the distance, and they came to the cemetery. As Memorial Day approached, many people already had their holiday flowers out, and the gently sloped hills were bedecked here and there with bright floral, silken wreaths, sprays of plastic blooms, and pots displaying the faux iris, fake ferns, pretend roses, and the other types of flower and filler plants. Matt drove less than five miles an hour over the narrow road inside the wrought iron entrance gate. White and blue-grey monuments dotted the rolling acres of closely mown green grass. The afternoon made long shadows from the tombstones and the trees on the

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property. The trunks of the oaks, maples, and cedars had been white-washed from the roots to about six feet. Matt slowed the car as he speculated about how the evening would go. Dane and Mary will see things my way, he told himself. They’d have to. Now looking at his previous decision to kill them, Matt felt disturbed and bewildered at what he’d wanted to do. He’d known Dane for so long, and Mary seemed like a good kid. His old student for heaven’s sake. Kill them? He couldn’t kill them. They weren’t like the others, not even Alison, who didn’t really count. The pitch of anger and fear he’d felt that had made murder seem such a necessity, that impulse must have come from another person. A devil. Once Matt had dreamed that he’d met the devil. It had cowered in a subterranean hell of vaulted ceilings and baroque appointments, chambers scrolled in the old wood and detailed in stone. The devil had been frail, his face covered in hundreds of small arcane symbols. Thank God for the weed. Matt sighed. The notions I get - sheesh, he reflected. Noonie shook her head and pointed a trembling finger at one of the monuments. Matt stopped the car. In the moments before they got out, he again thought of his previous intentions. Imagine, shooting Dane and Mary with the old handgun - how dumb. Still, he planned on taking it. The hundreds of flower arrangements softened the cuts of the stones. Their plot was next to the road and was headed by a granite marker bearing Matt’s Mom’s side of the family, Noonie’s side, the Febres. The Febre plot included Noonie’s parents, aunts and uncles, her husband Anthony, one of her brothers, Coletto, and Matt’s parents, Jane and Charles. There was an empty spot for Matt. He got out and hurried to the other side of the car to open Noonie’s door. He helped her to the back and opened the trunk. The car was directly in the Sun.

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On top of the spare tire and jack was a burlap bag holding the hundreds of artificial flowers Noonie used in all of the holiday arrangements as well as dozens of variously colored and textured flower pots and enough Styrofoam discs for each. “Hand me a pot,” Noonie instructed. “Find me some white lilies.” Matt picked through the tangle of artificial flowers, finding the old cotton blooms she requested. Noonie fixed them in the bases of the clay pots. Before placing them at the grave, she would step back, regard the composition, and make a final primp. Except for her commands for specific flowers or filler-sprays, they worked silently until Noonie got to the second of Aunt Titi’s three husbands, the foot doctor who had been named Bernard. “I need some of those yellow plastic gladioli. And some marigolds for this son-of-abitch,” she began Matt handed her the flowers and watched her arrange. She had seven more to do. The two of them worked, their activity being the only motion in the cemetery. “I couldn’t stand Bernard,” Noonie commented. Though he very well knew about Bernard’son-of-a-bitchery, Matt, like a child who wants to hear a favorite story again, said, “How so?” Hearing the old yarn wouldn’t make him forget what he had to do, but it would be a distraction, something soothing and familiar. Matt leaned against the rear bumper, scanning the rows of stones. He considered all the dead. Those who wouldn’t get any flowers, Matt guessed, had family who had all died or left, maybe even didn’t care. All those lives were nothing but buried bones here, cancelled histories. Noonie spread out the flowers, bending the wire stems so each bloom had its own space. She said, “Your Great Uncle Bernard got married to Aunt Titi after her first husband, Alex, died of the black lung. Alex had been a miner, and they’d been doing okay, but Bernard- he was a big-

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shot. Dr. Bernard. I was a little girl when he came along, and I remember that we had to call him doctor. Madonnna! Everyone had to call him Dr. Bernard. “But he stepped-out on Titi during the whole marriage. They were at a dance, and she caught him in the stall of the woman’s bathroom with some slut. He had the gall to say, ‘She’s a patient. I was examining her stool.’ Examining her stool! He was a foot-doctor! Titi said, ‘What - did it come out in the shape of the Statue of Liberty?’ What a two-timing rat-fink that Bernard was. He- he would screw anything that would hold still, I tell you.” Noonie put the finishing touches on the arrangement, and, satisfied, she handed the pot to Matt, who put it in front of Bernard’s stone. “It was a blessing when he had a heart attack. At least he left Titi money, which her third husband drank away.” Matt handed Noonie a fresh pot. Again, like a surgeon calling for different operating instruments, she demanded various flowers. For this basket, she chose waxy yellow black-eyed-Susans and purple geraniums, bordering the arrangement with an orange spray of winterlude. They completed one after another until all the family had individual pots and the family stone had a grand wreath of blue-belles, red poppies, and babies breath. During the entire fortyfive minutes they’d been there, no one had come. When the left-over flowers and baskets had been stuffed back into their plastic bags, Matt closed the trunk and helped Noonie in the car. “This seat is so hot,” she said squirming. Matt got in on his side. The seat merely felt warm. He started the car and rolled down the windows. “There’s a nice breeze,” Noonie stated, though as far as Matt could tell, the air was still. “Slow down,” she said. The car crawled on the asphalt. “Did Stella (a friend of Noonie’s) put flowers out for Gerome (Stella’s husband)?” she asked, frowning at the stones. “Nope. That’s

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strange. She said she caught Charlie Teviggi looking at her through binoculars while she was washing her hair. Said he waved to her. Okay, go on.” Back on the country road , Matt thought about how he would have to be firm and not give in to Dane’s blustering and stomping. Being told no would hurt Dane’s pride in front of his girlfriend, but that was too bad. It couldn’t be any other way. Matt would keep an invisible bubble of serenity around himself, but he would stay strong. As he was thinking of how to best channel his anxiety into something resembling calm determination, Noonie said, “Slow down. You’ve got a lead-foot don’t you?” During dinner, Matt’s anxiety grew. He dreaded the unpleasantness ahead. For dinner, Noonie made toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. Hurriedly, Matt choked down two of them, prompting her to say, “You drive like you eat! Slow down.” Matt automatically did what she said, purposefully chewing, focusing his eyes on the old red and white checked oilcloth on the table, the dull metallic sheen of the McCormick Ware tea glasses, and the blue plates in front of them. What if Dane wouldn’t listen to him, Matt thought. He probably wouldn’t; in fact, he could count on them having a big disagreement. And then what? Matt had decided not to shoot them. He’d just have to match Dane yell for yell and argue as forcefully and long as it took to get his way. So why take the gun? Matt knew what having pistols lying around could end up causing. Since he definitely wasn’t going to use it, leaving it at his house would be the best idea. Noonie’s voice broke his concentration. “Is something wrong?” “Oh no. Nothing’s wrong. The ham and cheese sandwiches were really good.” Matt popped the last bite in his mouth, washing it down with water. He smiled. After dinner, as Noonie slowly washed their two plates and the little frying pan, Matt got

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the gun. Of course he wasn’t going to use it. He was simply going to take it. Tucking it into his waistband and smoothing his shirt over it, Matt was satisfied that it didn’t show. He had to walk carefully, though, to make sure it didn’t slip out and fall down his pant leg. To move, he slightly rolled his gait. Matt hobbled through the kitchen on his way out. As she did the dishes, Noonie looked over her shoulder at him and said, “Why are you walking like that?” “Uh, like what?” “Like you’ve got a cob up your butt.” “Oh, uh, I slipped a minute ago.” “You’d better put some Ben Gay on your back. Or let me,” she told him. Matt scuttled past her. “You look like you got to use the bathroom.” “I’m alright. I’ll uh, be back in awhile,” Matt said. “Where you going?” “Kenny and, um, Debbie Shelton’s,” Matt lied. The Shelton’s were a couple to whom Matt and Dane had sold pot since the eighties. To Noonie, they were Matt’s old high school friends. Wet dishcloth in hand, she looked at Matt quizzically. “I’ll be back in awhile,” he said and, still careful so the gun didn’t slip, he leaned over and bussed Noonie on the cheek. “Okay,” she said. “Be good.” He hobbled out the door. On the way to Dane’s, Matt kept the gun on the passenger’s seat, pointed away from him. His nerves were on fire, and he was consumed with dread. If only Dane weren’t such a hardhead.

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Keeping his voice normal, Matt called his old friend. “Are you going to be home awhile? There’s something I need to check with you about.” Matt gazed at the pistol next to him. “I’ll be there shortly. Bye.” Dane had sounded jovial. Soon, Matt anticipated, the glad tone would be charged with fury. I’d be happy, Matt thought, if I weren’t going to do this. The familiar street was splashed with longer shadows, and the wavering light made it look like a different place. He told himself, I won’t shoot them. I won’t. On the way there, he considered what he’d say and what Dane might answer, the warp and woof of his logic against his friend’s bad temper. Back and forth the two of them fought over the same points in his mind. By the time he was at Dane’s door, Matt’s stomach was churning, but all his fearful anticipation froze for a moment, his anguish and ambiguity over what to do usurped by yet a new surprise when Dane answered the door. It wasn’t as if Matt had gotten used to the shaven head, the goatee and earring, or had processed the motorcycle and the divorce from Cheryl, to say nothing of Mary and the reason he was even here - but now this. Between the time Matt had left, taken Noonie to the cemetery, and eaten, Dane had gone out and gotten a tattoo. On his head. It was one of those terribly interesting tribal scrolls popular among certain circles in the early to mid-nineties, this design starting in a narrow point above his ear and curling around the back of his scull. It was entirely in black. Dane’s eyes sparkled as he awaited Matt’s response. Matt held himself so the gun wouldn’t slip from his waistband as he waddled in the door. “Uh, wow,” he said. “You got to use the bathroom?” Dane solicitously asked. “No.”

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In the living room, Mary was looking through Dane’s collection of albums, eight-tracks, cassettes, and cd’s. From the albums, she pulled a copy of the rock opus Thick as a Brick by the group Jethro Tull. Upon opening the jacket, she discovered the fold-out newspaper that had come with the record. On the wall above Mary, the television was still on the porno channel, the latest bunch of naked people copulating on what looked like the set of a tavern in the old west. “This paper doesn’t make any sense,” Mary pointed out. “It’s supposed to be funny,” Dane explained. Matt stood with his back facing the wall. “Wasn’t that it, Matt? It was supposed to be a joke?” Dane and Matt had seen Jethro Tull when they’d been in junior high. Upon smelling the pot that had been in the air, young Dane had asked, “Who’s burning the sweet roll?” Matt was afraid they’d notice how nervous he was. “Uh, I think,” he said, “the uh, the newspaper was supposed to be funny - both funny and deep. Or something. I don’t remember ever actually laughing at it.” His voice sounded brittle. Matt pictured the sea change that he knew would overcome Dane as soon as he told him why he was there. The new tattoo was sweating what looked like beads of mud. “So, um, that’s new,” Matt said, stalling the inevitable as long as possible. The pistol dug into his stomach and hip. Inordinately pleased with himself, Dane said, “Mary’s been on my back about getting a tat, especially since she saw how I looked with my earring and shaved head.” Matt thought of how Cheryl hadn’t even been able to get him to clean the gutters let alone sit still to get his skull inked. Mary put down the album. “Huh?” she honked. On the screen, the cowboys and cowgirls undulated into each other with yips of staged delight. “I was just telling my friend how you talked me into getting my new cool tattoo, you sweet little mousie,” Dane cooed. This girl really has Dane ate up, Matt thought, watching

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Mary’s eyes narrow as she walked to her aged boyfriend. Standing in front of him, she swatted Dane on his freshly tattooed head. “Ouch, What’s that for?” “What’d I say about calling me Mousie? I hate that nickname,” Mary said. “And,” she added, “What did I tell you about saying ‘cool’. No one says that except grandpas.” Her brows mock furrowed, and she followed her criticism with a kiss to the top of the bare, pink and black head. Dane pulled Mary on his lap and smacked the side of her butt. They kissed. Here we go, Matt thought irritably. Shifting from foot to foot, he watched with increasing annoyance the prolonged kiss that signaled the beginning of another make-out session. What idiots. If Dane wasn’t a friend, Matt would shoot him and Mary just for - just for being such jerks and for this goony display of loveydoo. Mary straddled Dane and wrapped her arms around him. “So,” Matt began uneasily, addressing the back of Mary’s head. Like a kissing doll, her head tilted back and forth as she sucked Dane’s face. It was time for the problem to be addressed. “I was thinking, and uh, I don’t think we should be selling anything to Mary’s friends in school, you know.” As soon as he’d spoken, the kissing and grinding stopped. Dane and Mary were frozen motionless. Matt was certain that Dane was going to have a fit. He felt on the verge of some wild action himself. Matt’s hand automatically went to the gun. Just for comfort, his fingers rested on the handle as he waited for Dane to throw Mary from his lap and start screaming. He knew that was what was going to happen, and though he had no intention of cavalierly waving the gun, if Dane charged, Matt had to be ready - was ready. That he was now poised to shoot when he’d told himself that he wouldn’t wasn’t striking him as crazy because right then, Matt wasn’t thinking about it anymore.

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In truth, Dane had never hit or threatened him, but by then, it was beside the point somehow. The point - the point was the impulse telling him to forget everything and act before Dane did anything else upsetting. I’d be so happy if I weren’t in the middle of this, Matt thought fleetingly. Waiting for Dane’s reaction was excoriating. With Mary still wrapped around the old fool and her head hiding his face, Dane continued to say nothing. Resumed making out with Mary. The thought of them casually dismissing him made Matt shaky with rage. Indeed, silence was eloquent, and this ignoring him was more infuriating than enduring ten of Dane’s tirades. Matt knew that his old friend was going to do exactly what he wanted regardless of what Matt said. Mary was too innocent to see what would come of her and Dane’s recklessness. It wasn’t fair to Matt, and he keenly resented the both of them. The squishy noises from their loving ways made him so angry. He heard his voice quavering when he spoke. “It’s nothing against Mary. It’s just, uh. Uh.” On the television, the old western saloon set had given way to a scene involving a Sapphic sewing circle tormenting each other on several vibrating but otherwise dysfunctional sewing machines. Matt thought he heard a grunt or a short groan through the sucking-wound noises coming from Dane and Mary. Was it an angry utterance, a disdainful slur? Dane and Mary were going to go ahead and sell pot to her friends, and the result would certainly be jail! That they didn’t care was what Matt deduced from their non-reaction, and to his mind, that was unacceptable. Matt couldn’t be sent to prison. It would kill Noonie. All of this was because of Dane’s moronic need to impress this high school girl. If only he had stayed with Cheryl. When was he going to say something? Matt just couldn’t allow Dane and Mary to ruin his life. He was feeling jumpy and anxious. Tired of being

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taken advantage of. You’d better save yourself, Dane, Matt thought, taking the gun from his waistband and aiming it at the back of Mary’s head. Hopefully the bullet would pass through both of their skulls - killing two birds so to speak. That would be better than having to empty the chamber into the both of them, but if it came to that - so be it. God’s will. He aimed at Mary and Dane, only three or, at most four feet away. The only sound in the room was the wet, smacking sounds of the doomed couple lolling their tongues in each others’ mouths and the quieter sounds of the depraved sewing-bee on the television. Matt aimed and squeezed the whole handle of the gun, but it didn’t fire. What the heck. As Dane and Mary continued their loud frenching and dry humping, he frantically shook the gun hoping that would somehow help. Quickly, he tried again. When it still didn’t go off, he looked down the barrel and gave it another good shake before (still staring down the barrel) slapping his palm hard against the side of it. Once more, he re-aimed at the back of Mary’s head, pulled the trigger, and - nothing. Not knowing what else to do, Matt put the gun back in his waistband and smoothed his shirt over the bulge. Dane and Mary obliviously kept up their slobbering as Matt stood there and wondered what he should do next. Maybe he wasn’t meant to shoot them. Maybe they were supposed to live. He stared blankly at them. After another minute, from behind the back of Mary’s head came Dane’s voice. “Yeah, her selling for us is a bad idea. I thought so too, and after you left, I told Mary - too sketchy. Hey, it’s only money.” Their soul kiss soggily reignited. “You know. Whatever,” Dane muttered, his voice once again garbled. “Only my mom says ‘whatever’,” Mary managed to slur through her and Dane’s passionate smootchy. Obviously she didn’t care either.

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Gee did I ever over-react, Matt guiltily realized, stunned at what he’d nearly done. “Uh, well, uh - yeah. You know there’s just no reason to take any, uh, big risks,” he said, thanking God that the gun hadn’t gone off. He chastised himself, confounded at his having gotten amped to the point that he’d - unforgivable. Dane hadn’t been unreasonable at all, but even if he had, killing him - really - how much more overboard can you get? I am SUCH a nut, Matt glumly thought, shifting from foot to foot. He was ashamed of the pistol now. Well, at least he hadn’t been able to carry it out. Probably he would have been caught. So glad it didn’t go off. “Ah, well, I think I’m going to be going,” Matt said. Dane and Mary glubbed what sounded like a goodbye, and he left, gingerly roll-stepping out the door. No more jumping to conclusions and thinking the worst about his friends and trying to kill them, Matt pledged. The remaining light in the early evening burned in narrow stripes of red, yellow, and gold. What had gone wrong with the gun? Once outside, standing in the bushes next to Dane’s house, Matt released the chamber and discovered that the first bullet had jammed. Relief flooded through him. He knew he would enjoy the drive home. It was still daylight, though by now, twilight’s shadows were everywhere. He and Noonie would watch CSI Mayberry when he got back. That was a good show. KICKS Matt’s phone buzzed. It was late, nine-thirty. He and Noonie were watching the second half of CSI Hotlanta. He looked at the number. It was Jane Ann. Matt took the call in the kitchen. She sounded upset. “Something happened. I really need to talk to you, but not on the phone,” she said.

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Seconds passed. “Uh, wow,” Matt said. Her tone didn’t bode well. He’d paid for four pounds this week, and from her voice, he knew that he wasn’t going to get it. As if given a shot of pure anxiety, he suddenly felt heavy, aware of his heartbeat and the timbre of his own voice. Worry made the pale yellow walls of the front room suddenly look haunted and decrepit. “I‘ll come by. Whatever it is, it’ll be okay,” he said. “I hope so,” Jane Ann replied, and they hung up. There had been a finality in the way she sounded, Matt thought. It probably wasn’t just that she hadn’t been able to get it. She would have said that there had been a delay. At least Matt wasn’t getting a collect call from the county jail. He went back into the front room. It was now time to make up a lie to tell Noonie. “I’m uh, going to go to Dane’s house. He’s got a dvd of uh, uh - a documentary he wants me to see.” What a lame fib. “Now?” Noonie asked incredulously. “Our show is halfway over. Don’t you want to find out who’s killing all the Hotlanta Swingles?” All Matt could think of was the money he’d given Jane Ann for the pot. The mixture of resignation and urgency in her voice had made it impossible for Matt to think of anything except seeing her. “I’d like to, but, uh, Dane, he has to take the, um, documentary back tomorrow morning first thing on his way to work, and he really wants me to see it,” Matt fabricated. “Well, okay,” Noonie said. Matt smiled and patted Noonie on the shoulder. “I’ll be back pretty soon,” he told her. Noonie looked as if she wanted to say something, but decided not to. Seeing her disappointment and leaving her alone made Matt sad. On the drive, he tried to think what might have happened. Jane Ann got the herb from a big-hearted hippy who lived somewhere near the Mississippi River. Matt didn’t think anything would have gone wrong on that end, but he’d never met the fellow, so he didn’t know.

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Of course, if Dane found out, he would be screaming and carrying on. No matter what happened, Matt wasn’t going to tell his partner, even if he had to make up the money himself. Not that he was okay with that. Someone had messed up. Jane Ann lived far from town, so far in the country that as much as he liked seeing her, he hated going to her house. Matt drove past the crossroads, heading south into hilly farmland, pasture, and wild woods. Because it was so dark, the moon and stars were clearer and the sky deeper, dark blue against the stars. Matt saw this deep country as enchanted - not in a comforting way but like a movie where the hero’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and he ends up running away from zombies that emerge from the hills. Matt prayed that he wouldn’t get a flat out here. To get to her house, he turned off the highway in the middle of the forest preserve. He drove four miles down the two-lane asphalt, past moonlit cornfields and inky woodland. The hills got steeper as Matt neared her house. He didn’t like driving here, feeling the weight of the car pulling against the engine when making his way upward and having to ride the brakes on the steep way down. Matt passed a horse ranch, his car-lights shining in the eyes of the animals. Then the road went into miles of forest, the old trees flanking both sides, branches meeting overhead to form a tunnel. Slowly, in case of random deer darting in front of the him, Matt looked for the Alum Creek Road sign and turned when he saw it. He drove out of the wooded area on a winding, macadam road that wended through fenced in cow pastures and more corn. With the large-eyed cows on one side, and the acres of corn on the other, Matt tried to let go of his mounting dread . He pulled into Jane Ann’s gravel driveway.

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She was sitting on the front porch steps, drinking a beer. Next to her was an ash tray with, Matt hoped, a joint. He parked behind her old white Toyota and got out. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Yeah,” she said, but her eyes were hooded, and worry lines shadowed her face. “You want a beer?” she asked. “Or here. Light this.” She picked up a barely smoked joint and handed it and a red lighter to him. “Thanks. A beer would be nice too.” As she got up and disappeared into the house, he sat down on the step and lit the joint. It was a beautiful night. Jane Ann had a nice place. Usually, once he was there, Matt would relax a little. It was on fifteen acres her parents had owned, but now it was hers. Maybe, Matt hoped, things weren’t so bad. But they were. As Jane Ann came back with a Bud for Matt, before he could thank her, she sighed heavily and said, “I got the pot all right, and it was here, but, well...” Jane Ann angrily bit at her thumbnail. “My cousin Roy ripped us off,” she said. “I’d gotten the weed and had got home when he came by to borrow my mower. He could smell the herb, and he asked about it, but I lied and told him that there had been a skunk around. I could tell he didn’t believe me, even though he let it drop.” Jane Ann smiled bitterly and took the joint from Matt. Taking a hit, she grunted, “Shit. He knew the difference between skunk and skunky pot. You could just see the wheels working in his damn pea-brain.” After holding in the hit for several seconds, she blew the smoke out, and it hung in the air in a blue haze. Jane Ann delicately sniffed in disgust. She said, “The asshole didn’t say shit, but I know he knew.” She wet her finger and dabbed the side of the joint where the cigarette paper was burning too quickly. As she was tending to this, she said, “Then while he was still there, our

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grandma called wanting me to give her a ride to the church to drop off her deviled eggs. I felt bad about taking off, but I had to go. Roy left when I did, but when I got back, the back door was broken and the pot was gone. I’m sure it was him. He’s not answering his phone.” She took another hit and passed the joint back to Matt, who took a large hit. Jane Ann exhaled and said, “He’s a thief. I shouldn’t have left the weed here, but I couldn’t tell my grandma no.” A roiling knot of anger was throbbing in the back of Matt’s skull. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “Where does Roy live?” “In a trailer on the county border. I’ve been by his place, and there’s no one at home, but I figured that we could go back. You want to go?” “Uh, sure,” Matt said, fuming at the thought of Roy stealing from him. They’d get this jerk. Visions of raving people he’d killed came to life in his mind: a gibbering, coked-out Jack and a grinning Andrew were next to Laurence St Croix looking on haughtily, Jed and Alison smirking like a stupid apes - even Gerald stared balefully. They baited his thoughts, mocking him. Matt and Jane Ann took his car. She directed him to Roy’s trailer, back through town and into the countryside north of town. There were few houses on the roads. Flat farmland. “That fucking Roy. I want to kick his ass,” she muttered. That was an understatement. Matt was moved to do much more. A black-eye just wasn’t enough. Roy needed to be - well - really hurt - as in killed. Steal that much from someone, and you have to expect them to at least want to kill you. That was common sense. Matt wished he wasn’t in this spot, called on to do something ugly. But he was. Jane Ann despised her cousin, so maybe she wouldn’t care what Matt did. Of course, there was the probability that Roy could hurt Matt. Jane Ann had told him that Roy had been in

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jail. Perhaps he was a tough guy. Matt pictured Roy. He gave the thief an imagined face and body, making him into some tall, muscular, ignorant, smirking jackass laughing about what he’d done. Matt quietly seethed. Roy’s trailer was at the top of a bare hill. To get there, Matt had to navigate over a dirt road, skating the edges of deep ruts and fish-tailing in places. Rage churned through his veins as he and Jane Ann hurtled toward the dark shape that was Roy’s home. There were no lights on inside the small trailer. Matt wanted to break in, but, he didn’t feel comfortable suggesting it to Jane Ann. “Think it’s in there?” he ventured. “I don’t know,” she replied. Both of them were quiet then, him listening to some sort of insect, not cricket or cicada but a crick-crick sounding bug. Matt and Jane Ann were in plain sight. Except for the knee high grass growing all around them on the hill, the only things close to being cover were a dozen scraggly trees growing right around the trailer. Matt reasoned that Roy wouldn’t come around now, especially with them in plain sight. Matt would come back by himself. If Roy still wasn’t home, he would break in. If his pot were there, he’d take it and leave. If not, he’d wait and surprise Roy. If it took all night, he’d have to lie to Noonie when he got home, telling her that he’d gotten in after she was asleep and had left to go somewhere before she got up. Hopefully, she wouldn’t worry. It was a risk he’d just have to take. After twenty minutes, Jane Ann tried to reach Roy by phone again, but he wasn’t answering. “What do you want to do?” she asked. “We might as well go home. We’ll get hold of him tomorrow,” Matt said, laying the groundwork for his deception. “I’m so sorry this happened,” Jane Ann said.

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Matt smiled. “It’ll be okay,” he said, forcing himself to sound more certain than he felt. He started the car. It would be easier going down the hill than it had been up. How he hated all this - being dragged away from home this late to drive all over the place trying to track down some idiot. It wasn’t Jane Ann’s fault. She was such a sweet, down-to-earth gal. He wished that they weren’t enmeshed in this problem. “Really, don’t worry, we’ll get everything back,” he said, hiding the napalm in his heart. Matt was feeding off adrenalin and bile , and it wasn’t only because of Roy. It was everything that he’d done, everything he was involved in. The guilt of lying to his family about selling pot as well as killing all those people were always there, waiting like water pushing against a dam, waiting for a small crack to become Niagra Falls. Even the old friends he sold to were a long-standing source of annoyance, and he felt loathing tolerance for what he had come to see as their transparent, need-fueled bonhomie. Anxiety, paranoia, and remorse were all channeling into a tornado toward a fellow Matt had never even met. Matt was going to get Roy. They were quiet on their way back to Jane Ann’s house. “I’ll kick his ass tomorrow so help me,” she said at one point as they were passing back through town. Matt made himself smile, but he didn’t answer. “That son of a bitch,” she muttered. When they got to Jane Ann’s, he said, “This will work out.” She gave him a sorry smile and got out of the car. “Don’t think I’m going to let him get away with this,” she said, looking in the window on the passenger’s side of the car. Me either, Matt thought, but he meekly smiled and looked down at the car seat. Crickets and frogs chirped and croaked in the faraway meadows. The crescent moon was gleaming like a bright crooked smile. “Um, well, call me tomorrow,” Matt said. “Sure. And like I said. I’m so sorry. I’m going to make Roy pay, I swear.”

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You won’t have to, Matt thought. Jane Ann was so nice. What a shame that she was related to a guy like Roy, someone who would steal from a dear girl like her, a relative. He probably had a problem with hard drugs, or maybe Roy was simply a natural scumbag. Matt waited until Jane Ann went inside before he maneuvered his car out of the driveway. Matt hurriedly drove back the way Jane Ann had taken him. It was nearly eleven, and when he got to town, Main Street was already deserted. The radio station that he and Noonie always listened to was fading out, bleeding into other stations. Matt had a tire iron in the trunk. He’d use it to get in if Roy was still not at home, and he’d use it on Roy as well. He had to have a weapon. The tire-iron would have to be enough. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that. He’d break in, find his pot, and get away without encountering Roy. Angry as he was, that would be for the best. But he still wanted to hurt Roy. He wanted to kill him. The countryside north of town wasn’t hilly as it was in the other direction, but stretched flat to far, moonlit horizons. A few stands of tall grass and scrub-wood rose from the plains, but most of the land was used to grow corn and soybeans. Everything was dark except for the pinpoints of what must have been lights glowing in the distant farmhouses. Matt knew that he had to be careful. For that reason, when he was about a quarter-mile from Roy’s trailer, he pulled his car off the road and drove behind a curtain of fescue where he parked. He got the tire iron, and walked softly toward Roy’s place, lifting his knees to make as little a path as possible in the unmown grass. He waded through wild broom-wheat, staying far back from the road. Roy’s trailer was still dark, but Matt approached it stealthily, creeping up to the back of the unit and listening at the

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screened-in window. There was no sound from inside, and Matt stood there for several minutes. When he was convinced that Roy wasn’t home, he popped open the screen, pried open the storm window and climbed through. Getting in was easy. By now Matt’s eyes were used to the dark, and in the moonlight streaming through the windows, he could distinguish everything in the trailer, all shades of blue, grey and black. At once, Matt knew that the pot wasn’t there because the only smell was that of stale sweat from the small recliner in front of the little televison and the funky unmade bed at the other end of the cramped trailer. Still, he had to look. His eyes skimmed over a table with tools, parts to a small engine, cigarettes, and a lighter. He looked under the tiny sinks in the bathroom and next to the minifridge. It wasn’t anywhere - but in one of the cabinets nest to the stove, Matt found something unusual, a taser. It looked simple to operate, like a gun. With the taser in one hand and the tire iron in the other, Matt waited in the dark, thanking God that he’d come around before Roy had gotten home. It wouldn’t have been good to have Roy greet him with this, he thought. It was good to greet Roy with it, though, which is what Matt did. Roy’s car pulled up, the headlights flashing through the trailer, making shadows whirl across the worn panel walls. He threw open the door, and Matt pressed the trigger, watching two hot hooks of electricity fly into Roy’s chest. At least Matt hoped it was Roy. That it might not be occurred to him as he watched the younger man flopping on the ground. He wasn’t very big, about as tall as Matt, but thinner. It had to be Roy, Matt decided, giving the still twitching and now groaning Roy a hard kick in the ribs. Why else would he have the trailer keys? Matt leaned down and looked the fellow in the eye. “Roy?” he asked tentatively.

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The guy looked at Matt and blinked. He groaned and trembled. Matt dragged whoever it was (hopefully Roy) into the trailer and shut the door. He didn’t turn on the lights as he used the cords from the curtains to tie the fellow’s hands and feet together, pulling his arms sharply and uncomfortably behind his back. Once while Matt was securing an ankle knot, Roy began to struggle, but Matt kicked him in the kidney area, and the thief lay still, panting and trussed on the floor. “So, Roy,” Matt said. When he could speak, Roy sobbed, “What do you want?” Matt bit his lower lip. “Oh - what do you think?” The sound of a car passed on the lonely road at the bottom of the hill. “I don’t know.” Matt’s heart was pounding, and he could hear what sounded like loud rapids roaring through canyons in his ears. He dragged Roy into a kneeling position and looked at the terrified ding-dong who had robbed him. Matt smiled. “I want my pot,” he said. When Roy didn’t immediately deny having it, Matt became convinced of his guilt. He slapped Roy hard. “Owww,” he shrieked. “I’m sorry. I hate to hurt anybody. Seriously. I’m not kidding. This whole thing - so awkward - but, well - you did steal a bunch of my pot, and you ought to understand that, uh well...you know.” Matt put a hand on Roy’s shoulder and tried to explain. “It’s not - it’s not just the money, Roy. What you did wasn’t a nice thing to do. It was bad. Not just to me - but to a sweet girl like your cousin, Jane Ann. Heck, Roy, that makes it even worse. So as much as I wish none of this had ever happened, I can’t let you get away with it. Oh, I know it was nothing personal toward me because - we’ve never met.”

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Matt held out his hand as if to offer a handshake. “Hi. My name is Matt. “ He smiled encouragingly. After a few seconds, however, he drew back the hand he’d just proffered in friendship and slapped Roy again. “By the way, that wasn’t personal either,” Matt said. He stood up, flexing his stinging hand and catching his breath. “Anyway, just give me my pot and I’ll let you go. I’ll leave,” he said in a sing-song voice that he hoped would trick Roy. “It’s - it’s gone. Somebody stole it from me. It’s not like you think. I was doing you and her a favor. I was going to sell it for you guys, and - and the guy I was supposed to sell it to stole it from me. I swear. I’m sorry. It was some guy from out of town, so I don’t know who he was. Shit. Where’s Jane Ann? Where’s my cousin? I want to tell her what happened.” “Oh, uh...see, Roy, I think you sold my pot, and,” Matt sighed, ”I think you really have the money. So, sorry to say this - and please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’re lying.” Matt shook his head sadly. Still, he forced himself to smile. He thought of the song Jerry Lewis sang every Memorial Day. Smile though your heart is breaking. He and Noonie never missed the telethon. They both loved Jerry. He and those precious kids. Every year, that song and those kids would make him tear up, which he always had to hide from Noonie, who would openly weep at the sight of Jerry’s Kids before making a pledge. How did the next line go? Smile, even though you’re quaking? Smile through your fear of baking? Oh well, no matter, Matt thought absently. He held the taser in Roy’s face. “Where would you like me to - what do you call it? - taze you? Your chest again?” Matt tapped the taser to Roy’s chest. Roy’s eyes were wide and teary, his breath coming in gasps, and Matt wondered whether the guy’s heart could take another shock. “Maybe your temple?” he suggested. “No. No don’t.”

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Matt put down the taser. “Where’s my pot?” he demanded, stamping his foot like a girl. “I want the pot or I want the money.” Matt raised his eyebrows. “Or I’m going to kill you. I don’t want to, but I will. I’m not kidding either.” Roy looked at Matt, and though he was terrified, he cackled hysterically and said, “You’re not going to kill me. You - you’re no murderer. What you think Jane Ann’s going to say? I - I might have let things get out of control, but I wasn’t trying to steal from anyone. I’m on your side. I was supposed to sell it for you, and - and the guys got it from me. Hey, you can’t kill me if you’re any kind of friend to Jane Ann. Her and me are kin. We’re still blood. You can’t do this.” “You say that you let things get out of control? You were just trying to do me a favor?” Matt asked kindly. In an impulsive and swift movement, he snatched a pair of needlenose pliers from among the tools on the table, and he clamped down on a patch of skin on the exposed underside of Roy’s arm. He pinched it as hard as he could and yanked. The scream that Roy let out hurt Matt’s ears. As the thief writhed on the floor yelling bloody murder, Matt looked at the bloody twoby-two inch plug of skin he’d ripped from Roy’s sorry hide. “Ewwwww. Yucky,” he muttered, making a sour face. It nauseated Matt, and he flung it across the room. “That is so gross.” Matt swallowed his queasiness. He tossed the pliers back on the table and grabbed Roy by the ears, forcing the caterwauling idiot to look him in the eye “Listen, Roy, where’s my pot? Where’s my money? I know you must think I sound like a broken record by now, but, hey, do you think I enjoy doing this? How do you think it makes me feel to have to be so mean? Did you ever think of that? This is your fault. Not mine. This isn’t me,” Matt yelled in Roy’s howling mug. Matt threw the thief back to the floor and picked up the tire iron and the taser and sat in the chair.

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After several minutes, the screaming lessened to crying, and then he must have started to go into shock because he grew silent. Matt allowed him time to think about things, and after ten minutes, Roy broke the quiet interior of the trailer, saying, “Jane Ann is going to hate you for doing this.” “I’m sorry, but she shouldn’t have a jerk for a cousin maybe. Tell me where my money is, and I’ll stop. Don’t, and I’m going to pull off some more of your skin,” Matt said. Then, plaintively, he added, “Please don’t make me do that. It makes me sick just thinking about it.” “Then don’t do it. Don’t do it anymore. Let me go for God’s sake,” Roy blubbered. “You’ve given me no choice. Have you? Get my money, and everything will be all right I’m telling you. I promise not to hold any grudges...I hope you don’t either. Like I said - nothing personal. I’m sure you’re a nice guy and you have lots of friends who think you’re great.” “I don’t have your money. I told you someone stole the pot from me. I was just trying to help out by unloading it for her. I didn’t know it was yours. I swear to God.” Matt felt tired. This was getting them both nowhere, and he didn’t have the stomach to continue torturing Roy. He rolled his eyes and once more sighed. “You’ve got to die.” “No I don’t.” “We’ll have to agree to disagree about that because I think you do,” he countered. On the table among the tools and parts was a cigarette lighter. Matt picked it up and flicked it next to the curtains. They were made of a highly flammable synthetic material that sucked up the flame like water on a desert floor of melting plastic sand. Matt stepped back as the fire stole over the curtains and began smoldering against the paneling. “Don’t do this!” Roy pitifully hollered as Matt stepped out of the door, shutting it behind him.

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Matt waited until he was sure that the trailer was going to burn well. He stood back in the tall grass to avoid getting the smell of smoke in his clothes. As he stood there, he listened to Roy’s pathetic cries. It was what he deserved. Still, no one would understand. People, Matt figured, would think he was just the worst sort of monster if they knew about this. They would feel sorry for Roy. How unfair was that? Of course, burning alive had to hurt really badly. Really - really badly from the sound of Roy’s screams, which after several minutes turned to choking sobs and then silence. Matt hung around until he was satisfied that Roy wasn’t coming out, then he stole away from the scene, wading through the back fields the same way he’d come.

Matt got back to town and cruised slowly down Main Street. The old clock on the cityhall tower glowed greenish-white against the starry sky. It was nearly twelve-thirty. He’d have to lie to Jane Ann. He’d act innocent, tell her that after he’d dropped her off, he’d gone home. He’d suggest that one of Roy’s many highly undesirable friends must have done it. He would act sorry. And it truly was too bad it had come to this. Killing someone again - so awful. Too bad about Roy, even though he was -had been - a horrible guy. Too bad about the pot and the money. Matt would make it up out of pocket and tell Dane that they hadn’t been able to cop. Jane Ann would be shook up by Roy’s horrible death, Matt knew. She probably would not want to continue providing herb for him and Dane, even if she didn’t know that he was the one who had killed her slimy cousin. Darn that doggoned old Roy. Nothing good ever lasts. Matt turned off Main Street and headed down the sweet old familiar streets he’d known all his life. Heading home.

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Matt squirmed uncomfortably in the chair next to the hospital bed and slyly checked his watch. It was two-forty. He’d been visiting Dane for half an hour and had intended on staying a full hour, but after thirty minutes, he felt ready to go, beyond ready, old friend or not. And really, if you nearly shoot someone, how good of a friend can you be? He looked at the helpless man in the bed, one side of him drawn and withered, and he felt - disdain. Keen irritation. Of course, Dane’s stroke was the next logical step after the divorce, the motorcycle, the shaved and tattooed head, the earring and goatee, and the barely legal girlfriend. At least they weren’t in business together anymore. Not selling weed anymore was nice, but he did miss Jane Ann. He wondered if she’d suspected it had been him who’d killed her thieving cousin. He’d acted shocked around her, and if she thought it was him, she kept it to herself. Even so, that awful Roy’s dying had bothered her even more than stupid Alison’s death had. Jane Ann had left the area, and with her had gone the last pot connection. Matt imagined her living in the high plains of Montana or Wyoming - one of those expansive western states. Such a great girl, and she’d gotten the best pot. But now, he liked to think, she was cowboy-ing beneath open skies. He couldn’t blame her. Matt ruefully wished he was with her riding horses over some mountain range instead of sitting here with Dane, who tried to speak. “Gheelll ghet ack aw op.” “Why - sure,” Matt hazarded, trying to sound encouraging. He was ready to go. “Okay,” he said, not having understood anything Dane had grunted or wheezed since he’d had the stroke a couple of months ago “Well, I’d better let you get some rest,” he said rising from the heavy hospital chair.

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Seeing Matt getting ready to leave disturbed Dane, who stirred in his bed and weakly gestured with his good arm. “Eyyyyeee aaaaaaaa,” he said, and although Matt couldn’t make out the words, he could hear the sadness. Dane hadn’t had visitors. Shame. Who besides Matt would make the time? Not Cheryl. She might have wanted to come, but, showing good sense, she hadn’t. Mary had dumped him a month before he’d had the stroke and hadn’t been to see him. Not any of their old customers would come by. Sure, they’d always been affable all the years they’d been buying. It’s easy to like someone who’s getting you pot, but aside from that, they had their own families by now. Families and jobs. They didn’t have the time or inclination to see their old pot dealer who didn’t even have weed for them anymore. Matt didn’t miss them, but he knew Dane would have liked their company. Any company. Even though Matt felt Dane had brought the stroke on himself, he felt a pang of sympathy as he looked at his friend’s twisted features. Matt stood next to the bed and held Dane’s good hand. Maybe it was that lost, lonely feeling that had caused Dane to flee Cheryl and led him to all the other weird changes. Matt knew that feeling. “It’s going to be alright,” he said, putting a measure of fake high spirits into his voice that he knew Dane wasn’t buying. Life for Dane would probably not be alright from that point on. At least it would never hold the same possibilities. Matt wondered what hurt Dane more, the old life with Cheryl he’d blown, or not being able to do things like ride a motorcycle, have a young, lovely girlfriend, and make age-inappropriate fashion choices. “Aaaaaaa,” Dane sighed. “If there’s anything I can do, you be sure to let me know,” Matt lied, wondering how he’d be able to know what it was his old friend was yammering about. Before Dane could answer,

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Matt cheerily pressed on, saying, “Well, I’ve got to be rolling. Noonie’s been wanting me to fix the back door.” Dane pathetically waved goodbye. “Iiii,” his old pal sobbed, and Matt once more felt sorry for him. I’ll visit him sometime, he told himself guiltily as he went down the corridor. The florescent lights gave the antiseptic white hallway a warm, underwater glow. Poor Dane. First he ruined his marriage. Soon after, Matt lost Jane Ann, ending their business for the last time, which depressed Dane terribly. Young Mary broke Dane’s old heart. Then the stroke. And now the motorcycle and earring - gone. Stubble from his scalp was starting to cover the tattoo, and his grey goatee was swallowed in the other whiskers on his face that had grown since he’d been in the hospital. Yes, Dane was miserable. Conversely, Matt realized how contented he’d become. It was true that he missed Jane Ann, but he had been more than happy to stop selling pot. That had been, Matt told himself, the root of all his stress, all the lying and, of course, more often than not, the killing people and trying to kill them thing - bad. Very regrettable. So it was a relief not to have to face that within himself. It was just too bad that there wasn’t any pot around anymore. It had always made him feel peaceful even when he was murdering someone. Still, it was now possible to enjoy the day without having to be stoned, and during the drive home, Matt luxuriated in the air blowing through the car, savoring the taste of possible rain. The day was a mix of sun and clouds. Tonight Noonie would be making liver and onions. Later, they would watch one of the CSI shows. Which one was on tonight? Matt was feeling fine. Even the upcoming task of fixing the door wasn’t causing him undue anxiety. Like all household chores, Matt had been avoiding it on principle, but today was the day.

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When he got home, he’d take Noonie to North Side Lumber where they would get a replacement for the hinge and latch. Then they’d go home, and he’d fix it. Matt wasn’t handy, but he felt good about this task; besides, compared to how he used to worry about being busted or ripped off, fixing the back door was a cool drink of water on a hot day, one of those salt-ofthe-earth type of things that grounded a person. He didn’t even resent Bill and Lisa next door. It wasn’t their fault that Noonie constantly pointed to them as examples he should imitate, shaming Matt into handyman action. He had to do something around the house to quiet Noonie, and changing the latch would hopefully kill that bird. The handle had been broken forever, and it was one of the many tasks she had been nagging him about since he didn’t know when. The wind was warm in his face as he steered the old familiar way home. No, Matt didn’t even hold Bill and Lisa’s newest project against them. That’s how positive he was feeling, which was saying a lot considering how intrusive and unnecessary this new job was. They were replacing the old backyard fence separating their properties with a new one of redwood. Oh, even seeing them out there and hearing their music and their hammering what a terrible hassle. And the fence being down between the back yards allowed nearly constant contact with them, which aggravated Matt every day - true. At least Noonie enjoyed going out and talking to the couple. Not wanting to say hello to Bill and Lisa, Matt parked in front of his house. Unlike Noonie, he didn’t want to be chummy, preferring to be a good neighbor by pretending they weren’t there. An occasional smile and jaunty wave were enough. No need to even speak as far as Matt was concerned. But the new project made loving Bill and Lisa from afar impossible. Their big, dumb, Osh Kosh B’ Gosh presence and noisy activity, the view of their stupid back

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yard with its raised flower beds and opulent hanging gardens were too hard to ignore. And their music. What would it be today? He didn’t hear anything yet. Matt walked through the front room to the kitchen looking for Noonie, but she wasn’t there. The house was quiet. There was noise coming from outside, and that’s where Matt found her. She was in the back yard on the patio not far from the hole in the fence, bent over, holding one end of the push-mower with one hand and trying to scrape dried grass from the bottom of the carriage with the other. “Good grief. Noonie. You’re going to aggravate your sciatica,” Matt sputtered hurrying to her. “I’ll do that. Gosh, I thought we were going to fix the door today.” “Well I can clean the mower,” Noonie protested as Matt took it and the fork from her. “If you don’t clean the mower, it doesn’t cut nice.” She was probably right, and she had repeatedly stressed the importance of cleaning the bottom of the mower. He’d tuned her out because Matt simply didn’t care that the machine didn’t cut nice, but nevertheless, he vigorously scraped away at the dried, clotted grass that sheared off the metal in dark green clumps. Billy and Lisa stepped through the opening, their overalls holding their breasts and stomachs in as if they were hiding padded kegs. In addition, both of them wore identical tool belts, complete with a hanging hammers, mini-levels, and tape-measurers . “Hello,” Lisa said. “Matt, we were inside getting ready to start on the fence today, and we saw what your Noonie was doing out here just now, and - do I have your permission to bonk her on the head? Mrs. Febre, you shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing.” Noonie smiled. “You don’t want to fall,” Billy helpfully added, smiling at Matt and Noonie. Their friendliness was off-putting, not enough to sour Matt’s mood, but he did have to make a conscious choice not to be aggravated at the sight of them. Noonie had endlessly enthused about

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the couple’s can-do willingness to tackle such home improvements, wistfully commenting on how nice the new marble fountain in front was, and the new awnings, and the new siding. “Thanks for telling her to take it easy. Maybe she’ll listen to you guys,” Matt said smiling back at them. They’re nice, not despicable, Matt told himself, determined to enjoy his own task today and to be happy about it. “Well, I don’t like to clean the bottom of the mower ‘cause of my sciatica, but Matt here never seems to get around to it, and if you don’t clean under the mower, it gets clogged and doesn’t make a straight cut,” Noonie said in her defense. Bill and Lisa coyly wagged fingers and playfully tsk-tsk-tsked Matt, making Noonie smile and her cheeks color slightly. Charming, Matt thought drily. “We’re going to go to North Side Lumber to get a door handle,” she volunteered. “Is that where you all go?” Billy hooked his thumbs on his tool belt while Lisa hooked her thumbs in her overall straps, and they both said, “We get all our supplies from there.” Matt mentally rolled his eyes. If only they’d finish their project and stay in their own yard, Matt opined. And not play their boom-box. Matt knew their intent was to share their wonderful music with everyone, but he didn’t care. He objected even when he’d normally like what they played. Noonie, however, hated nearly everything but The Champagne Music of Laurence Welk, so Bill and Lisa’s musical excursions somewhat lessened her enthusiasm about them. Still, at the sight of the two of them in their neat overalls and tool belts, working together to make such lovely improvements - Noonie couldn’t help being impressed and becoming wildly talkative. “I wish I could get you two over here. It’s taken Matt six-months to get around to fixing this door. Well,

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we’re going to get it taken care of - finally, but we’ve got so many things that need to be done around the house.” That was certainly true, Matt thought miserably as Bill and Lisa smiled at his inability to fix anything and his general refusal to do any but the most simple chores. He’d mow, dust, wash dishes, and take out the garbage; otherwise, most things were, to him, a matter for some professional to tackle, or something to be put off and allowed to take care of itself. Matt quashed a reverie involving Bill and Lisa’s expression of surprise as he garroted them, telling himself not to think such things. He had to stop it. Dangerous, Matt reflected, even as he marveled at the odiousness of his neighbors’ moon faces, Bill’s framed by infuriatingly greyish-red curls and Lisa’s mug flanked by two thinning curtains of flat, black hair. Matt felt at his own high widow’s peak. Unfortunately Noonie wasn’t done. “We’ve been having a time with the sink lately. The thing won’t drain. We use the plunger. Drano. What would you do?” Matt chewed the insides of his cheeks. Billy and Lisa looked at each other. “You want to take this?” she asked her husband. “Sure, honey,” Bill cooed, making goo-goo eyes at his big old wifey. Chewing his lip, he made a show of thinking over Noonie’s question. The thought of running over Billy flashed in Matt’s mind despite his determination to avoid ugly-thinking. “Do you have a plumber’s snake?” Billy asked. Lisa nodded as if to say - I knew it - a plumber’s snake. “Uh, no,” Matt said, wondering what that was. With a name like plumber’s snake, maybe he didn’t want to know. Now they were expecting him to multi-task. Billy launched into a long monologue about Matt’s turning off the water somewhere. Then, as far as he could tell, he was supposed to somehow unscrew the pipes under the sink. Lisa

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hung on her stupid husband’s every word as he gaffed on and on. Matt was to put a bucket somewhere when he undid the pipe, and after cleaning out all the decaying food and grease (as if he’d ever do that), he was supposed to put the pipes all back together and turn the water back on. At some point, he was to do something with the plumber’s snake. What? This was ambitious beyond Matt’s mettle. It doesn’t matter, he told himself. Noonie and Lisa were enthralled by Billy’s handyman wisdom. Matt pretended to take in each detail that stupid Billy insisted on belaboring. “And be sure to get the glue all inside of the joint,” he emphatically stressed. Pressing her hands in a prayerful attitude, Lisa nodded rapturously and hissed, “Yessss.” “Oh, okay,” Matt said. After Billy whittered-on for what seemed like forty-five minutes about it, touching on everything from how to properly use a snake to some green alternatives (baking soda and vinegar) Matt jumped in when there was finally a pause and said, “Thanks, Billy. We’ll try what you said. Thanks so much.” Before Noonie could ask another question requiring a half-hour answer, Matt said, “We need to get to North Side Lumber then huh, Noonie?” “Well, I’ve been waiting for you.” Carefully backing away from Billy and Lisa, Matt said, “I guess we better be heading on. And thanks again. See you later.” Lisa nodded as Billy began fiddling with the boom-box in their yard. “Oh oh,” Noonie said. “They’re going to start with the music again.” That was aggravating. What would they bestow on the neighborhood today? Of course, Matt told himself, irritating though they were, they didn’t deserve killing, and he resisted the temptation of picturing them hanging from the highest beam of the deck-roof that had come, logically, after the deck they’d

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built in the back As obnoxious as Billy and Lisa were, Matt knew that they were good folks, and it was his disdain of them that needed fixing. That he could understand and address his rotten outlook, to him, was the big difference between then and now. Now, instead of entertaining thoughts of murder, Matt could step back and reflect upon the right path - the ways of peace. I won’t ever do anything bad again, he promised himself. Noonie and Matt went to North Side Lumber. When they got there, he opened the car door for her and waited as she rolled and rocked and pushed herself out of the passenger’s side. Matt adapted to her very slow pace by taking little baby-steps as they entered the lumberyard. “Where are the door handles?” Noonie asked as they went down the center aisle. “Here’s the section,” Matt said, and they ventured into the racks of door handles, knobs, latches, and locks. Noonie picked a likely looking kit with brass handles and studied it. Matt said, “That’s for interior doors. It says so right there.” “Well what are we looking for?” “Uh, exterior door handles.” Matt saw them hanging high up on the rack. “There it is. That’s what we need,” he said picking one out and handing it to Noonie. It looked like a brighter version of what they had on their door at home. The kit consisted of two handles, the center piece, called the back set, and the screws, all of which were encased in plastic. “Let’s ask someone at the registers,” Noonie said, which seemed a very good idea to Matt. They made their steady but slow way to the check-out counters. Noonie walked up to one of the cashiers. “We’re not sure if this is what we want, and we don’t know anything about anything like what you have here,” she confessed. Matt sheepishly handed the man, about his own age, the kit.

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The clerk looked at it. He had greying black hair and a moustache and was both tall and stout, having the thick wrists of someone who works with his hands. “You wanting this for an outside door?” he asked, putting the kit on the counter. “It’s for our back door, ” Noonie said. “This should work for you then. It fits ninety to ninety-five percent of all exterior doors.” That sounded encouraging. “Uh, how hard is it to install. I’m not too handy,” Matt admitted. “That’s for sure,” Noonie agreed. “He can’t do anything.” Matt blushed. “It’s pretty easy. There’s only four screws,” the salesman said. He pointed to each part as he went over the steps. “After you’ve taken out the broken piece, you put the new back set in, and then you fit the latches right there,” he explained, tapping the areas where they fit together in the back set. “And that’s where you put in the screws. Matt understood. He felt a little spurt of enthusiasm toward the project. It would be good to do something practical and make Noonie happy, and from what the clerk had shown him, Matt could do it. It all made sense now. He could see himself carrying it out. “I really think I can do this,” he said. “Sure you can,” Noonie encouraged, slapping him on the back, and from the bored, nonplused look on the salesman’s face, Matt guessed that he thought so too. The brawny fellow rung up the sale. As Noonie handed him the money, he said, “If it doesn’t work, bring it back.” Matt was confident that wouldn’t be necessary. Take out the broken piece. Fit the back set in. Thread the latches together into the back set. Screw in four

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screws. Even he could do that, and as he and Noonie slowly left the lumberyard, her waddling and him baby-stepping, Matt pictured the door already repaired. It will probably take me twenty minutes at most, he thought. When finished, there would be a sense of accomplishment, of having done something that wasn’t only practical but that he didn’t have to hide. As much pride as he used to take in distributing weed, this, he knew, was a somewhat more socially acceptable way to channel his energy. In addition to never again killing anyone, Matt pledged to hereafter stop shirking home projects and to do more of these types of chores, the kind Noonie was always chuffing on about repairing things, painting and such. Instead of loathing Billy and Lisa’s home improvement fever, he would be inspired by them. Matt automatically helped Noonie in the car, making sure she was all in before shutting the door. Matt envisioned himself in Osh Kosh B’Gosh. He didn’t even miss pot that much anymore. The wild dreams had faded after several months. Everything was normal. Being straight was something he’d gotten used to after awhile. A drive on a beautiful day like today wasn’t quite as luminous, but it was beautiful enough. And he was still himself, maybe more irritable, but - thankfully - no longer casually murderous. That urge seemed so distant now, as if someone else had thought those thoughts and done those things. It was comforting that Matt knew he had left that behind him. No more killing! His resolution to go back to being the dear, sweet fellow he’d been before he’d taken people’s lives, the nice guy everyone had thought he’d been all along - that had to count for something. Once they were home, and Matt had parked in the driveway, he helped Noonie out of the passenger seat. Billy and Lisa’s boom-box was playing, “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” causing Noonie to mutter, “Madonna!”

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“Amen to that,” Matt said, but he was determined not to allow himself to be negative. He’d ignore the music and the neighbors. Installing the new latch would be a cinch. He savored the feeling of having installed the kit even before he’d started. Matt moved with Noonie, staying near enough to help her up the steps should she ask. She didn’t. They took their time. On the boom-box, the male singer was affecting a womanly voice, sounding giddy. Billy, don’t be a hero, come back and make me your wife. Oh brother. Matt remembered the song. He hated it. Billy don’t be a hero. Come back to meeeeeeeeee! Matt grimaced. Noonie didn’t like it either. “Again with the hard rock,” she complained, adding, “They call that music?” “Oh well,” Matt said magnanimously. Billy and Lisa’s annoying belief that they were gracing everyone with their good taste wasn’t going to get to him. Sure, even having them around while he was working made him feel a little self-conscious, but really, so what? It wasn’t going to take him that long. Hopefully they would stay busy and would let Matt concentrate. Billy was banging at a board that Lisa was holding up with one hand as she held her level against the edge of the wood. Seeing Matt and Noonie, Billy stopped hammering. “Hello again,” Billy brayed over the next song, the regrettable, “Season’s In the Sun.” “We’re back, kids,“ Noonie said loudly. “The man at the store was very helpful. We didn’t know if we’d be able to do it, but it looks simple enough.” From the boom-box, Terry Jacks said goodbye to his papa, asking him to pray for him and then telling him that it was hard to die. Matt tried to ignore the song. Billy and Lisa casually sauntered back over. “Well, if you need any help or any type of tool, just let us know won’t you?” Lisa chirped. “Thank you so much.”

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“We always want to expand the spirit of conviviality between neighbors,” Lisa yelled over the sick caterwaul of the boom-box. Goodbye Michelle, it’s hard to die - when all the birds are singing in the sky. Matt rolled his eyes as Terry went on yammering about fun and seasons in the sun. And ultimately dying. .

“Sure!” Noonie proclaimed. Matt smiled politely. “Uh, thanks. I’ve got it though,” he yelled. “Well, if you need anything,” Billy said. “If you need anything,” Lisa parroted. They kept standing there, watching him. All Matt needed was a Phillips screwdriver. He didn’t have a bunch of tools around the

house, but he did have that, along with a regular screwdriver, a hammer, and a pair of needlenose pliers. With the back door slightly open, Matt sat in a kitchen chair, and he cut open the plastic encasement holding the kit. We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun, but the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach! Matt tried to focus. That song was so distracting. “Are you going to read the directions first?” Noonie asked. “I think I can go by what the guy at the lumberyard said, but here. I’ll look at them.” As Noonie hovered over him, Matt skimmed over the numbered steps and the corresponding diagram that explained what had already been told to him. “It looks simple enough. I actually get it,” Matt said, pleased and a little surprised but wishing his Noonie would give him some breathing room and that Billy and Lisa would go back to their own job. “Do you need a pair of work gloves?” Lisa asked, moving close behind him as he began removing the broken piece.

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“No,” Matt said. It would be so much easier if they’d not crowd him. Back off back off back off, he thought testily as “Seasons in the Sun” finally ended, segueing into “The Night Chicago Died”. Despite the twin irritations of having Noonie and the neighbors breathing down his neck as well as the music rankling his nerves, it still only took five minutes to take out the four screws from the old piece. When Matt pulled out the latches, he saw how they fit through the back set and into the identical handle on the opposite side of the door. It promised to be even more of a breeze than he thought. Just overlook the song. In the heat of the summer night - in the land of the dollar bill - When the town of Chicago died. And they talk about it still Matt winced. The back set was too short. Even when he adjusted the part, it still didn’t fit, the setting for the bolt sticking half an inch out from the edge of the door where it should have been flush. Several times he tried to place it in position, but it was too long. “Darn it!” Matt said pushing against the back set, as if shoving it would somehow help. And the sound of the battle rang, through the streets of the old east side! Matt cringed. East side of Chicago? Stupid song. And stupid back set. Matt shook it hard. “Don’t get excited,” Noonie said. “You always get so jumpy. If you’re not careful, you’re going to break it.” Matt saw Billy and Lisa staring at him sympathetically, as did Noonie. She helpfully explained, “Matt has no patience with things. If something doesn’t work right away, he starts huffing and puffing and, and trying to force things.” I heard my mama cry. I heard her pray the night Chicago died. Brother what a night it really was. Brother what a fight it really was...Glory be! “Would you like for us to have a look?” Lisa asked.

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Matt most decidedly didn’t want them joining Noonie in smothering him as he worked. Besides, what could they do? The back set didn’t fit in the door. The back of Matt’s neck felt hot. Noonie said, “Oh could you just peek at this darned thing.” Matt was loath to let them see, but there was nothing else he could do. Oh well. Matt sighed trying to tune out Paper Lace. It was impossible. And there was no sound at all - but the clock upon the wall. Then the door burst open wide - and my daddy stepped inside! And he kissed my mama’s face - and he brushed her tears away! Whew. Matt hoped this wouldn’t stick in his brain. With both his Noonie and the two of them standing over him, Matt concentrated on his task, saying, “The back set doesn’t fit.” He handed it to Lisa. Noonie said, “That man at the lumberyard said that this piece would fit ninety-five percent of all outdoor doors.” Lisa pulled the movable piece to both its locking positions then held it up for Billy to examine. He tentatively touched it. The night Chicago died! Dee-dee-deedee-dee-dee-dee-deeee-dee-dee! The night Chicago died! “This is adjustable you know.” he said, eliciting nods from Lisa. “Matt, did you know that it’s adjustable? Did you try to adjust it?” They were giving him the shuddering fantods. “Uh, yes I did.” Matt scooted back to let Lisa try to fit the back set into the socket. Adjust as she might, it still didn’t. Even when she gave it to Billy, he couldn’t get it to fit. The golden strains of the group America’s classic, “Muskrat Love,” started. Muskrat, muskrat candlelight... Muskrat candlelight? Doin’ the town and doin’ it right - in the evenin’. It’s pretty pleasin’ Matt could feel his very soul curdling. “You should take the set back,” Billy advised.

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Muskrat Susie, Muskrat Sam, do the jitterbug in muskratland. Matt’s skin crawled as Noonie, unmindful of the gooey lyrics, echoed Billy, saying, “Take it back right now, Matt.” To Billy and Lisa, she said, “Why do you suppose that this new piece won’t fit?” Matt controlled his ire as Billy took the piece and brainstormed and Lisa scratched her head thoughtfully while the song puked something about muskrats doin’ the shimmy and Sammy’s so skinny. He groaned under his breath. Too close to Matt, Billy turned so his bloated belly was in profile, his left foot in its shiny, un-scuffed work boot daintily angled, forty-five degrees from his right foot. The pose could have been an unconscious homage to The Blue Boy or Little Lord Fauntleroy perhaps as Billy earnestly sized up the situation. “It is a heavy glass door. Maybe that makes it different,” Billy speculated. With the music and the neighbors and Noonie all driving him insane, Matt felt as if he were going to break out in hives. And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed. Singin’ and jingin’ the jango. Huh? Floatin’ like the heavens above - Looks like - muskrat love... “I don’t see why that should make a difference,” Noonie said bitterly. “A door is a door,” she insisted. She was still standing right next to Matt, like an oversized, octogenarian parrot repeatedly squawking about the man at the lumberyard, how the piece ought to work, and that he, Matt was going to take it right back to them and get the right piece or find out why what they had wouldn’t work and get a cash refund. She continued in this vein as song raped Matt’s brain. Now he’s ticklin’ her fancy. Rubbin’ her toes. Muzzle to muzzle, now anything goes as they wriggle, and Sue starts to giggle... There are no words for this, Matt despaired, his eyes darting wildly from Noonie to Billy to Lisa. Stop talking - please stop talking, Matt tried to telepathically project, but Noonie talked.

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“And if they think they can take advantage of an old woman and, and a simple boy (Matt - fifty year old boy) who don’t know anything, well, they’ve got another think coming. I’ve known the owner for years and if they don’t do right, I’ll give him a little call. I’ll just say, ‘Listen, I know lots of people who won’t give North Side their business after they hear what your store did to me,’ and then we’ll see how the ball bounces! Matt you’re going to go back there right now and tell them and either get something that will work or just get the money back!” Looks like muskrat love! La da da da da..... “I’ll go right now,” Matt blurted. “You might want to take the old, broken piece and the back set when you take the new one back,” Lisa suggested. The insipid song “Brandy” began. There’s a port on a western bay. “Will do,” Matt hurriedly said. “Yes, that’s another good idea. Matt, you take the broken part with you. Thank you so much, Lisa. You can see that Matt and I are lost when it comes to this kind of thing.” ...Lonely sailors pass the time away. And talk about their homes... Matt got out of the chair and stood in the doorway. Bill looked at his sweet lady-wife and said, “Well, Lisa, my deario, are you ready to hold the level while I do the planing, or do you want to plane and me level?” Matt shifted his weight from foot to foot. Got to get out of here, Matt silently screeched as the tune continued to poison the air. Brandy wears a braided chain - made of finest silver from the north of Spain. A locket, that bears the name of a man that Brandy loved.. “I want to plane,” Lisa said thoughtfully.

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The couple ambled back to their own yard and out of Matt’s visual range as the singer on the boom-box warbled in a sleazy lounge-lizard ooze. Such a painfully bad song; yet on it went. Brandy, you’re a fine girl - what a good wife you would be. But my life, my lover, my lady - is the sea! Matt quietly shuddered. It was all he could take and he hurried inside. At least Matt couldn’t hear Billy and Lisa’s hellish playlist from indoors. Noonie followed him through the house, lecturing him on what to do when he got to the lumberyard. Her harangue went, “Show them the broken part and make them find the exact replacement for it and make them exchange it don’t pay for another piece either I tell you besuretoshowthemthebroken part.” Shut up, Matt thought. “I’ll show them the broken part,” he said calmly. “Would you like to go?” “No, I’ll stay here and start supper. We’re having liver and onions.” That would be good. Think about supper, Matt told himself. Also, going to the lumberyard would give him a breather, a chance to calm down. Matt took a deep breath. If it were the old days, he’d smoke a few hits and gain some perspective, even if he never figured out how to fix the door. Now he simply swallowed the angry, shaky frustration boiling under his skin. He collected the parts from the broken kit as well as the new one. He would show them the two back sets. It would be made right. That was the way - patience and logic. The drive helped. The streets were radiating the August afternoon heat. Surely, someone at the lumberyard would be able to find a special piece; after all, the door couldn’t be that unique. Matt would exchange the kit that hadn’t fit for whatever they said to get. If it were more expensive, he’d pay the difference.

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He dreamed of it being later in the day and his having accomplished the task, relaxing triumphantly in the glow of a job well done. Matt walked into the lumberyard, but he was thinking about a glass of iced tea. He took the kit to the same clerk who had waited on him and Noonie the last trip. Matt smiled and said, “It doesn’t fit. I’ve brought the old latch. The, uh, new back set is longer then the old one.” Matt spread the parts on the check out counter. He held up the two back sets. The clerk took them from Matt. He studied both of them, holding them against each other and playing with the adjustments. “Is this to a trailer door?” he asked. “No, a back door. Just a regular glass back door. Do you have a, uh, back set for this?” “I haven’t seen anything like this in I don’t know when. Maybe upstairs there’s something. Paul will know. Wait a minute.” The cashier waved a big arm to another clerk, a thin, older man in his early sixties. “Hey Paul, have you ever seen anything like this?” He waited until Paul shuffled up to them, and he held out the two back sets in the palm of his hand. “I thought it was a piece for a trailer, but this fella says its to a regular glass exterior door.” Paul glanced at the two pieces and rubbed the top of his bristly head. “Hmmm, that’s to an old atrium door. We don’t have anything like that.” “I thought I’d look in the big-box upsta-“ ”Ain’t find it in the big-box. We ain’t had nothing like this for twenty years. You might check Mr. Bennet the locksmith. See what he says.” Matt was stunned. He had to go to a locksmith now. “Where would I find him?” he asked, a feeling of futility sinking into his bones. “He bought the building that used to be The Episcopalian Church and has made it into a youth theater,” the elder clerk offered. Matt knew where the place was. The clerk wrote down the

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locksmith’s phone number on a piece of paper. “You want to call him first. Heck, call from here. But if anybody would have a back set for an old atrium door, it would be him. If it just don’t work, bring the set we sold you back.” Matt took out his phone and called the number. “Thanks,” he told the clerks. Maybe there was a way out of this. Perhaps he’d be able to fix the door. If only the locksmith could have the proper back set. And why shouldn’t he? If a locksmith couldn’t help him with this problem, who then? The phone rang twice before Mr. Bennet answered. “Is this the locksmith?” “Make it quick,” the voice on the other end snapped. Matt was taken aback. “I, uh, have a broken latch and I need a...a special back set or something. I have it with me along with the replacement - which has a longer back set.” As Matt sputtered out his problem, the older clerk patted him on the shoulder and walked away to do whatever task he’d been on his way to do. Mr. Bennet said, “You need to get here quick. Like in fifteen minutes.” That would be easy enough, Matt thought, trying not to be put off by the independence of Mr. Bennet. The place was on the other side of town, but that was about seven to ten minutes away at best, if he left now. ”I’ll be right there,” he said, ending the call. Stepping quickly toward the entrance, Matt called back, “Thanks for the help. Maybe this guy will have what I need. He said I have to hurry.” The man who had sold them the latch waved. Matt hurried across town, making rolling stops and accelerating in a manner Noonie would not have approved. He pulled into the parking lot. It had taken him six minutes. Now Mr. Bennet would have plenty of time to tend to him. He saw a white van with Bennet’s Locksmith

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Service painted in blue on the side. Good. He wasn’t too late. Matt was out of the car almost before he’d turned off the ignition, and he trotted to the side door. The building being a youth theater was evident from all the teenagers going through the hallways. “Hi, Mr. Jones,” they all said. “Hi. Hello. Good to see you,” he said to them, nodding and smiling as he searched for some sign of Mr. Bennet or his business. Finally, he asked one of the kids whom he recognized, “Uh, where is the locksmith man?” The actress smiled. She had an athlete’s build, short strawberry blonde hair, and was wearing a costume that made her vaguely look like a Swiss girl from the Alps. “Go all the way down the hall. Turn left, and his office is at the end,” she directed. “Thanks.” Matt threaded his way through the young actors and actresses. “Hi there. Great to see you. Hi,” he said, nodding and smiling as he raced through the corridor. Matt was within five feet of the door when Mr. Bennet came out. He was tall, younger than Matt, probably in his late forties, bald, and he wore grey work clothes. “Hi there,” Matt said. The locksmith stood there looking affronted by Matt’s having spoken to him. “ I called a few minutes ago,” Matt reminded him. “Hurry up,” Mr. Bennet barked. Matt started into the locksmith’s office, but the man cut him off, saying, “No, show me out here. And like I said - be quick. I’ve got rehearsal.” Although part of Matt admired Mr. Bennet’s devotion to theater, he didn’t like being treated as if he were a pest. While Bennet’s buying and converting the church into a stage company for the area’s young people was certainly a wonderful thing, Matt still had a door to fix, and this guy was supposedly still in business as a locksmith. Matt put the bags containing the latch sets on the floor. As quickly as he could, he took out the two back sets and held them next

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to each other. “They said at the lumberyard that they don’t make the old kind of back set for atrium doors anymore, but you might have one, or be able to tell me what I have to do to fix the door.” Mr. Bennet said, “I don’t have any of those. Can’t help you. Sorry. You might shave the hole where the handles go. Shave it back and dig out where the back set goes. That might work, or you might ruin the door. Anyway, that’s it.” And with that, Mr. Bennet was off, his head and shoulders towering over most of the young thespians as he charged away from Matt and all things having to do with locksmith-ery. Matt shook his head. Time to give up. He’d get Noonie’s money back for her. She’d simply have to get a carpenter. There was no way that he was going to destroy the door trying to jerry-rig something that wasn’t made for the thing. The drive back to the lumberyard wasn’t as hurried. Matt was done with this project. If their door had been like most, it would have been easy. Some good marijuana would have eased the sting of failure, but that was alright. It was okay to feel beaten. He’d deal with it in an acceptable way, making the kinds of choices that he’d been taught to make growing up. Take the high road. The meek shall inherit the earth. Do unto others. All that. That was how to get over something. His heart rate slowed as he came to the lumberyard. The clerk leaned into the counter when he saw Matt sauntering up the main aisle. When he got there, Matt plopped down both of the sacks, the one holding the old broken latch in one and the new kit to be returned in the other. “Mr. Bennet couldn’t help me,” Matt admitted. “He said something about chiseling the wood for the back set and the hole where the latches are supposed to fit. I just want to return it and get a refund.”

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The clerk looked at the sack containing the new set. “Do you have the plastic container it came in?” he asked. “No.” “Well, let me get the manager. He’s the one who’s got to okay things.” The clerk phoned his superior. “We got a return, Tony,” he said. Tony was a man in his late thirties, hairy everywhere except the top of his head. “The problem,” Matt explained when the hirsute manager arrived, “is that I’ve got an atrium door from long ago, and they don’t make latches with back sets that fit anymore.” Despite Matt’s being heartily sick of this project, he felt very smart talking door parts with the lumbermen. The manager took the pieces of the door and laid them on the counter as if they were precious stones. His bushy black eyebrows flexed and he thoughtfully pulled his beard with his thick thumb and forefinger. “I’d like to give you a refund, but with the packaging all tore up, why, there’s no way we can sell this again.” The first man who had told them that if they had any trouble to bring the latch set back smiled sympathetically and a little sheepishly. “Sorry sir,” he said. Oh well, Matt thought. “Oh well,” he said, sighing. “Okay,” he added putting the parts back in the bag. Nothing about this day was working out, but it didn’t matter. So what? Noonie was out twenty dollars, and that was too bad, but there was nothing to be done about it. Pointless to become angry or make a scene. Matt was out of ideas about the atrium door. Noonie would have to get a carpenter, which she should have done to begin with. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t, he told himself as he left the lumberyard, forlornly holding the sacks. The ride home was a haze of trees and houses in his

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peripheral vision, his sight set ahead on the cobblestone road, focused and unfocused. It doesn’t matter was his mantra, and it was a soothing thought. His stomach was growling when he came into the house. From the back came the sound of Billy and Lisa’s boom-box. Sometimes when we touch - the honesty’s too much. So I have to close my eyes - and hiiiide. Matt rolled his eyes. Noonie wasn’t inside, so Matt figured that she was in the back visiting with Billy and Lisa. Either that or doing something risky - standing on a wobbly ladder or trying to move a tree perhaps. Poor Noonie. She’d be upset about the door. Matt’s heartbeat pounded in his ears. That would be tragic enough, but admitting defeat in front of Billy and Lisa. Matt could see the three of them through the glass of the atrium door, everyone sitting in bright purple, heavy, wooden-framed lawn-chairs that Billy and Lisa had made themselves of course and they’d dragged over. Next to Lisa’s shiny work-boot was a pitcher of something cool with condensation, invitingly red with a sprig of something green in it. Mint? Matt joined the fun. So the neighbors had Noonie drinking Maybe that was a good thing. What next? “We have a glass for you,” Lisa said, gesturing grandly Although normally Matt would never have had a drink with them, now he was beyond caring and decided that he might as well, that it was the civil thing to do. Besides, it would dull the pain of hearing Dan Hill prattle about breaking down and crying over whomever he was singing to. Lucky girl, Matt thought grimly. “Did you get things straightened out?” Noonie asked. Matt smiled and put the sacks on the concrete patio. “Are either of those the replacement?” “No,” Matt sadly admitted. Noonie and the neighbors’ faces both took on looks of tipsy distress, her expression creasing more into a mask of rage and the neighbors’ conveying bland,

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sympathetic dismay. Matt explained. “They figured out that what we have is an atrium door that they don’t make latches for anymore, so they sent me to this Bennet guy who’s supposed to be a locksmith, but who -“ ”Oh, I know Donald Bennet and his wife Carol. Wonderful people - dreamers making their visions come true!” Billy blurted out as he poured Matt a tall glass of the fantastic looking red drink. Matt groaned inwardly - dreamers making visions - sheesh. He cautiously took the offered glass. Yes, in their own way they were almost as insufferable as Laurence St. Croix and his stupid chicken Atticus. What was it? Apple-Pointy-Headed Rooster? It didn’t matter. Dan Hill was really getting carried away with the depth of his love. At times I’d like to break you, and drive you to your knees. Lovely sentiment, Matt thought. He took a sip of the drink, and it tasted of rum. Billy and Lisa couldn’t be faulted with not trying to be good neighbors. That meant something, even if Matt didn’t want it to, which he didn’t. Still, he had to give them some credit. “Well,” Matt wearily explained, “Mr. Bennet didn’t have time for me. And he didn’t have a back set that’s like the one we need. No one could help.” Matt took another drink. It was as good as it looked. “What is this?” “Mojitos,” Lisa said. It was a sweet, minty, refreshing treat, and Matt took three big gulps right away. Noonie said, “So did you go back to the lumberyard?” The insipid “Sometimes When We Touch” ended, giving way to the solemn beginning of “There Is Love (Wedding Song)”. He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts - Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part. Matt hated this song too. He hoped the alcohol would help.

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Plus, it didn’t matter. They were just songs. “They wouldn’t give me a refund because they said that they couldn’t resell the thing without the package messed up,” Matt said passively. “Why that man said they’d take it back. That’s typical. I’ve got a mind to call the owner and tell him, ‘It’s not about the money, but I just want you to know that you’ve lost a customer for life!’ It’s just like ‘em to take advantage of an innocent boy.” Paul Stookey’s droning voice assured everyone that, yes...oh, yes, there is love. Songs like “There Is Love (Wedding Song)” made Matt thank God that he’d never met the right girl. Noonie took a long drink of her cocktail, and after a moment, she gaily chirped, “On This Old House, whenever Roger or any of the other guys have problems with doors or things made of wood, they get either a plane or a chisel or something and make the things fit. I don’t see why you couldn’t do that.” She had unwittingly suggested what Mr. Bennet had. The alcohol in the mojito made Matt’s skin flush and he took another drink. Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before? “I’m afraid I’d ruin the door,” he admitted, not un-sensibly. “I think you could do it,” Noonie answered, brightly unperturbed. In this optimistic vein, she asked, “Do you like doing things like this?” Though Matt knew that he would have liked it if he’d been able to fix the door, since he hadn’t, then, no, he didn’t like it, and looking back, he’d always dreaded in the extreme even trying things like that. He is now to be among you at the callling of your hearts...Oh, there’s love. All is loooove. If Noonie were being sarcastic, it was so masterful a delivery that Matt had to bow to her sincerity, and he answered her in good faith with am honest and forthright, “No.”

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He punctuated his reply with another drink, just as Rupert Holmes “Escape (The Pina Colado Song)” came on, the singer explaining that he’d gotten tired of his lady, whom he compared to, “...a worn out recording...”. Matt rubbed his eyes wearily. Noonie took another drink too and frowned. Her eyebrow arched and she glanced at Billy and Lisa. “Well, Matt, what do you like?” “Oh, things I can do,” Matt said vaguely. “What would that be?” She asked. Trying to ignore the awkward conversation, Billy helpfully offered, “To dig out room for the back set, all you really need is a regular screwdriver and a hammer. For the other hole, you could borrow our hasp, unless you already have one.” Matt swallowed the remainder of his mojito and reached for the pitcher. It seemed like a bad idea. Matt smiled. Yes, I like Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain! “You drank that awfully fast,” Noonie observed. “I want you sober enough to fix that door. Tomorrow I want to get some paint. I’ve been wanting to get the concrete floor on the front porch painted for the longest time.” I am into champagne! That was fine with Matt. The alcohol was giving him a numbing buzz very fast. The power of the mojito on his empty stomach made the prospect of fixing the door and painting the front porch quite doable, even fun. “We’ve got a hammer, but I could use the hasp,” Matt said. Lisa jumped out of her chair. “I’ll get it right now,” she cried eagerly. Noonie was up. “I’ll get you the hammer and the regular screwdriver - then I’d better get supper started.” She toddled off humming “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”. She was lit.

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Matt too. In addition to drinking maybe half a dozen times a year, he had gone at it too fast. He felt woozy and brazen. It was just him and Billy, who was sitting there smiling at him. “Uh, have you and Lisa always been so handy?” Billy seemed pleased with the question, putting his big hands on his knees and pushing out his big chest. “Actually, no. We only became interested in home-repair after we retired and the kids left, and me and Lisa needed something to do.” If you like makin’ love at midnight - in the dunes of the cape! Who doesn’t like that? Matt asked himself. Kids? “I didn’t know you and Lisa had kids,” he said. Billy shifted his bulk onto one cheek and dug in the back pocket of his overalls for his camera-phone. The thought of those two coupling was alarming to Matt, who put that out of his mind at once. After what looked like Billy pulling his camera-phone from his butt, the jovial neighbor clicked on his pictures and handed it to Matt. On the screen were babies with the young, thin, and good-looking versions of Billy and Lisa, all of them standing on a sunny beach. “That’s Billy Junior and Little Lisa as babies.” Rupert Holmes finished his seedy tale of duplicity, and Tony Orlando started belting out, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” telling the neighborhood that he was comin’ home because he’d done his time. Done his time? Where at? Matt thought, picturing the singer. The Ben & Jerry’s factory? Matt clicked to the next picture, and Billy said, “There they are at our old house when they were probably eight or nine.” More clicks. “That’s when they were still both in high school.” Matt thought of those years in his own life. What had he been doing? Watching t.v., listening to music, smoking pot and writing his stupid poems, he guessed.

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Matt clicked through a few pictures of Billy Jr. And Little Lisa as young adults with their own partners and kids. “Now they’re both married, and when you click a few pictures you’ll see their families. Me and Lisa are grandparents,” Billy crowed. Oh tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree! It’s been three long years - Do you still want me? Matt clicked through the rest of the pictures, faking interest. There were even old pictures of Billy and Lisa when they were younger. Billy was in a band uniform. Lisa had been a cheerleader. One picture was of young Army recruit Billy in fatigues and buzzed hair standing with Lisa under a sign that said Fort Campbell. In another picture, Billy had a mullet. Matt was fondly remembering his own magnificent mullet when Lisa returned with the hasp. “Here you go,” she said in a friendly way. “It is ashamed they wouldn’t refund your money.” “Yeah. Thanks. You have a beautiful family,” Matt said perfunctorily handing the cameraphone back to Bill and wishing that the both of them would now leave. Matt, gulped down more of the second mojito. Some pot would be nice, he thought as Tony Orlando spoke the last part of the song, where he finds - like - a hundred ribbons round the old oak tree.. Billy drained his glass and looked at Lisa, who had already finished her drink. “Well, baby, it’s time,” he said. Matt wondered how they could stand each other after all their years together. The two of them pushed themselves out of the lawn furniture. Tony Orlando faded out, and Bread started up. Baby, I’ma want choo. Baby I’ma neeed you! “Thanks for letting me use the hasp,” Matt repeated and helped them drag the heavy chairs back into their own yard. After arranging the clunky things around the marble fountain they’d put in, Billy and Lisa started measuring and planing boards to be cut and hammered. Matt

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went back to his own project. From where he was, all he could see of them was their shadows on the grass. He could hear the steady stroke of one of them planing in rhythm to the Bread song. Used to be my life was just emotions passin’ by. Matt hefted the hasp. It was a good heavy tool, the grooves wide and sharp. If filing away at the latch holes and chiseling where the back set went would fix the door, then so be it. Whether things worked out or not, Matt was going to be philosophic. He’d give it his best, and then he’d get some paint and do the porch, even if it took him until midnight. It would be so much fun - like a night time picnic, except he’d be working. No matter. Matt took several long drinks. In the pitcher there was still nearly half a glass left, and Matt took it as the singer confessed that someone - the person he was singing to - had both made him cry and taught him why. Ignore the stupid song. Where was the hammer? Matt hoisted himself out of the chair and went into the kitchen. Noonie wasn’t in there. He looked in the drawer where they kept their few tools, and he took out a regular screwdriver and the hammer. Walking into the living room, he found Noonie dozing in front of the television, which wasn’t on. Maybe he could have the door fixed by the time she woke up. He left her there lightly snoring. Chiseling the hole where the back set went wasn’t hard. Matt hammered the screwdriver into the socket and twisted, tearing and splintering the wood until it flaked out. By the time the infernal Bread song was over, the back set fit. The golden tones of England Dan and John Ford Coley burst forth. Hello, yeah - it’s been a while. Not much, how ‘bout you? Retchingly awful. Making the other alteration was a little more difficult. Matt worked the hasp on the inside curve of the hole where the latches went. Sawdust flew in tiny, settling clouds as the hole became

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larger on the one side, making the perfect circle lopsided. After fifteen minutes of hasping, there was nearly half an inch more room in the circumference. Time to install the new kit. Matt pushed the back set into the socket. Since it fit, Matt reasoned that there should be plenty of room to accommodate the handles. It was down to lining them together and fastening the four screws through them and into the back set. The back set, he thought affectionately. That had been the problem all along, and he’d beaten it. He couldn’t believe it. Matt was on the verge of victory. As he fitted the latches, the singers declared that there was a warm wind blowin’. Glancing up from what he was doing, he saw Billy and Lisa’s shadows making long, irritating silhouettes. He stoically fiddled with the latches and the end set, getting them perfect, as the shadows fluttered over the grass. We could go walkin’ through a windy park! Or take a drive along the beach...Putting up with people is part of getting along in society, Matt told himself. When Matt got the pieces aligned, the back set was somehow thrown nearly a third of an inch off, once again jutting out from the end of the door. It wasn’t as bad as before by any means, but more hasping was needed. Meanwhile, the forgotten group Lobo were yelping their one hit, “Me ‘n you ‘n a dog named Boo “ Travalin’ and livin’ off the land. Matt disassembled the kit and again drew the cutting surface back and forth across the inside of the hole where the latches had to fit. The lights of the city put settlin’ down in my brain! Billy and Lisa’s shadows fluttered across Matt’s backyard. Enough was enough. The sounds of car crashes and screams were lilting in comparison to this. The terrible grinding song rode into Matt’s drunkenness . It’s nothing, he thought as he pushed into the motion of hasping, concentrating on the task, and as the hole got bigger and more irregular, he noticed that he’d nicked his hand at the

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hinge between his thumb and forefinger somehow. There was a trickle of blood. Lobo, his girlfriend, and the dog named Boo were too much. The music and the mojitos Matt had hastily guzzled were throwing sparks at his gasoline soaked nerves When he’d filed away another half inch from the side of the hole, Matt tried installing the new set again. His hands shook as he lined up the latches, pushing them through the back set so that it should fit. A twee flute piped the opening notes of “One Tin Soldier”. Matt would have preferred a legion of giants’ hoof sized, granite fingernails being scraped on hundreds of slate blackboards to listening to the group Coven’s musical tale of self-righteous bile. Go ahead and hate your neighbor - Go ahead and cheat a friend! Do it in the name of heaven. You can justify it in theee end. Matt grinded his teeth and hunched his shoulders while eyeing the latches, holding in place the back set, and gently putting the screws in. He got it! Again, the back set stuck out too far. Won’t be any judgements blooowing - on the judgement day! Matt angrily took it apart and hasped some more. He was sweating. His clothes were sticking to him. Around the concrete patio and on the kitchen floor inside was a fine layer of sawdust. Another quarter inch was worn away. Again Matt assembled the kit. Of the blooody moooorning after - one tin soldier rode away. The neighbors’ shadows continued to spill over Matt’s lawn, dancing like hellish sprites as the saga ended. The one tin soldier rode away and the lone flute puffed the ending. Matt paused to stare grimly into space. Just for playing that one song, let alone everything they’d played they deserved...Matt cut off the idea before an inner voice could articulate it. Matt ignored it.

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Finally after two more attempts, he got the handles and back set screwed into the hole, which was so large by then that there was a crescent moon shaped gap on the side that he hadn’t filed. Still, the kit went together where it was supposed to go, more or less. The back set was flush against the door, and the handles screwed in place. The only problem was that it didn’t work. The door handles wouldn’t open and close, and the bolt wouldn’t retract. On the other hand, Cat Stevens was being followed by a moon-shadow. And if I ever lose my legs - I won’t cry and I won’t beg. It was as if the bolt were frozen, in a bind. Matt took it apart and hasped more as Cat sang of keeping a good outlook despite losing other parts of his body. Matt reinstalled it again, but it still wouldn’t work. By then he was panting, and was as wet as someone who had been standing in a rain shower. Moon-shadow moon-shadow. Moon-shadow moon-shadow! The twee voice sounded like hunks of concrete being dragged over fifty layers of corrugated tin. Turn it off, Matt silently commanded, then begged. Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off. Matt stared helplessly at the non-functioning door. He’d probably ruined it. The bright brass round pieces that were meant to cover the holes jutted over the glass on the inside of the frame and left even larger crescent moons on the other side. Then came the next song. There he sits with a pen and a yellow pad! What a handsome lad! That’s my boy! Bobby Goldsburro’s “Watching Scotty Grow”. This was wrenching to the marrow. Impulsively, Matt jumped out of the chair. Without thinking, he stomped toward the hole

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between the properties. BRLFQ spells mom and dad. Well that ain’t too bad... I’ll kill them with their own hasp, Matt decided as he power-strode over Billy and Lisa’s shadows and through the hole in the fence where the head-blasting noise came from. Wordless anger overflowed at the sight of his neighbors. Both of their backs were to him, and they were swaying to the song as they worked. That stupid song. You can have your tv and your nightclubs - You can have your drive-in picture-shows! Lisa was planing, and Billy was holding the board, which was clamped to two saw-horses for extra security. They were like an overall clad Michelin couple. I’m really going to kill them, Matt thought shakily stepping up to his neighbors. Standing behind Billy and Lisa, he visualized the whacks he was going to give them. Who first? Billy, Matt guessed. All he had to do was go with the impulse he was itching to follow. Act. Do Billy first then quickly get Lisa. Do it fast, fast, fast! But he didn’t. Instead, he stood there as Bobby Goldsboro ended the song in his unique quavery voice. So let it rain on my windowpane - I got my own rainbow! Me and God are watchin’ Scotty grow And Matt thought, heck - I can’t do this. That was the last thing that ran through Matt’s mind for awhile.

When he came to, his forehead hurt, and he didn’t know where he was. He felt the ground under his back. There were voices saying things, echoing. When he opened his eyes, things started coming back to him. Noonie, Billy, and Lisa hovered over him. He was in Billy and Lisa’s backyard. The music was gone. “Oh my gosh. Thank God you’re alright,” Billy babbled. “Thank God,” Noonie echoed.

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He didn’t remember how he got where he was, just that he’d wanted to kill Lisa and Billy with the hasp - wanted to but had decided not to. He sat up. “Let me help you up,” Lisa offered. “Let me help you up too,” Noonie chimed in. “I am so sorry,” Billy said. His face was red, and he looked as if he were ready to cry. “I’m alright. I can get up myself,” Matt said, pushing himself off the grass. “Are you alright?” Noonie repeated. “I’m alright!” Matt snapped. Billy wrung his hands. “I’m afraid that I - I punched you without thinking when I felt there was someone behind me,” he said sorrowfully. “Please forgive me.” “Billy was in Viet Nam,” Lisa said solemnly. Matt dimly remembered the picture of Billy and Lisa at Fort Campbell. He’d nearly killed a vet and his wife. Matt felt like an unpatriotic heel. “Oh don’t apologize. It was my fault.” After a few minutes of Billy and Lisa’s apologies, Matt realized that he had acted properly. Like a noble citizen. Like a normal, regular member of society. Granted, he’d nearly lost it, but the important thing was that he hadn’t. I’ve really got the killing thing licked this time, he thought. After all, lots of people have problems with their neighbors. Not that many people end up resorting to murder. To do that is evil, or at least rather bad. He smiled at Billy and said, “Really. Forget it. I, uh, didn’t mean to surprise you.” ”I feel just horrible. When something surprises me, I just act on reflex sometimes. I can’t help it,” Billy lamented. “Vietnam - it’s something he doesn’t talk about,” Lisa said cryptically. Matt wondered if Billy had killed lots of guys too. “Uh, right. Well, thanks for letting me use the hasp,” he said to the vet.

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“Did it work out?” Billy asked, his voice still miserable. “No. No it didn’t. Noonie, you’re just going to have to get a carpenter.” “I should have done that in the first place,” Noonie confessed. That she was able to accept his failure at fixing the door was good. Matt was hungry. Maybe he’d run out for hamburgers. Noonie had taken a mojito induced nap and shouldn’t be expected to cook, though she would try and insist on still making supper. Tonight on CBS was one of the CSI shows. Which one? It came to Matt. CSI Branson. Country music and forensics that would go well with hamburgers. Tomorrow he would paint the porch. Hopefully that would go better than fixing the door. He looked at the hole in the fence and wondered how long it would take for Billy and Lisa to mend it. This is my life, Matt reflected - putting up with people and doing stupid chores. He was like everyone else and that, he realized, should be enough to make him happy. Thinking about this was starting to make Matt sad, however. Lost. So he tried to picture something, some ordinary thing, some constant, the thought of which would not only make him glad but that he cold count on to bring him some measure of joy in the future, and the thought of hamburgers and television cheered him a little. There are still some things that are worth while, he assured himself.

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MILQUETOAST PSYCHO