By JEFF JACKSON
A Map of Everything Swallowed
They start drinking three hours before the funeral. Tequila, mostly. A bottle and a half later, their heads are buzzing on some private wavelength. Hazy shapes slither in front of their eyes. Words sound furry in their ears. This is precisely the idea. They don’t want to see the casket. Or hear the eulogy. Want no part of the ceremony stuck in their memories. No stepmother’s histrionic wails, no ornate wreaths of white roses, no adults in starched collars and jade necklaces mouthing along to stolid hymns. They pray to the sweet merciful god of mescal to make them so drunk it will be like none of it happened at all.
At the wake, they stick their heads in the toilet bowls and each puke up another stomachful of half-digested drink and bile. It trickles down their chins and they can’t even feel it. So far, so good. Already they can barely recall the service. Even her pale face as she lay in the casket—her features so serene, so lovely, so goddamn fake. Even the black scars on her tiny wrists, barely visible under the caked-on peach pancake makeup. Those fragments of memory swim around with the rest of the disgorged chunks in the bowl, ready to be flushed away. Pull the lever, and it’s time for another drink.
At the bar, Isaac and The Kid flaunt their forged IDs and receive fresh glasses. It’s all going according to plan until one of them alludes to her.
A passing reference. They try to clam up, but it’s not long before other details slip out. Her horsey laugh. The way she rolled her cigarettes so skinny, like she was afraid tobacco was becoming extinct. How she dyed her armpit hair jet-black to match her head. How when she thought nobody was looking she would close her eyes and sing along to the radio. They can’t bring themselves to say her name. Sara. Her name was Sara.
Time to pick a fight. Isaac scans the room for the nastiest crew at the wake. The Kid spots a table of redneck cousins creating a pyramid of crushed beer cans and calls them a bunch of inbred faggots. The boys are looking to get seriously stomped. A few bruises shy of a broken bone. Normally the cousins would be happy to oblige, but today the boys are simply shown the door. Nobody has the heart to take a swing at them.
They start walking as soon as their feet hit the sidewalk.Isaac takes the lead without looking back. The Kid follows, keeping his eyes locked on his friend’s unsteady gait. They walk down the middle of Providence Road. Car horns honk and the boys pay no attention. Isaac keeps his balance by shifting his outstretched arms like a tightrope artist. The Kid shambles behind, ready to catch him if he falls. No words are exchanged. Dawn is coming, but it’s not the beginning or the end of anything, only a muddled continuation.
They pass out in Isaac’s living room and come to hours later. It’s kind of dark outside, whatever that means. They’re sweat-soaked and cotton-mouthed. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to find more booze stashed under Isaac’s mother’s bed. There’s also an old green wool sweater that once belonged to Sara. It’s coated in dust. Probably left over from sometime she and Isaac were fooling around. The Kid holds the sweater up to the bedside lamp, which shines right through the bare threads, giving it a sickly radioactive glow.
Neither mentions the last time they remember her wearing it. She was freaking out over a sudden nosebleed. She pinched her nostrils, took deep breaths, willed it to stop. The blood was unstanchable. Her body seemed to be rebelling against her. As she stood with her head tilted back and red-stained tissues encircling her feet, she let loose her horsey laugh. “I’m so fucked,” she said. A few dark droplets still stain the green collar. The boys pretend not to notice.
As they’re channel-surfing to find something decent on TV, The Kid pulls on the sweater. It’s too snug for even his skinny frame and he can barely maneuver it over his head without the seams starting to rip. The fabric clings to his back like a second skin. Isaac can’t believe what he’s seeing. If anyone wears the sweater, it should be him. Maybe this is a coded message. He always suspected The Kid carried a torch for her. He can’t decide whether it matters now or not. The Kid pokes a finger through a tiny hole near the bottom of the sweater. His wiggling pinky looks like a worm. Isaac tries not to look. It’s starting to freak him out.
Time for a contest. Isaac proposes they chug the bourbon and tequila and see who can vomit the most. As they empty the bottles, swirling the alcohol between their cheeks like mouthwash, both of them know what’s really going on. This is about who loved her more. Who misses her most. Isaac was her boyfriend for two years, the first guy she fucked, and her self-professed ideal man. But The Kid knew her longer, shared her confidence like a girlfriend, and was treated as a favorite brother. Bottoms up.
The Kid claims the toilet and Isaac perches over the bathtub. Count it off: One, two, three. It’s not pretty. Neither has eaten much, so they mostly heave up watery mouthfuls of undigested alcohol and sticky plumes of black-green mucus. It burns like hell. But they keep up the retching noises until their throats are red and blistery. Isaac stops first. He’s panting and can’t help himself. The Kid raises his hands in weary triumph but quickly feels bad about it. Isaac was her boyfriend and has to live with the stigma of her death for the rest of his days. He was even with her when it happened, though he refuses to talk about any of the details.
The Kid has an idea. A tattoo. He digs up a ballpoint pen, pocket knife, and plastic lighter. The plan is to engrave her initial on Isaac’s left shoulder. A snaking black S. It’ll be cool. The Kid has done this once before but has forgotten how hard it is to get the ink under the skin without smearing. Plus his hand is pretty shaky. Fortunately Isaac is too buzzed to feel much pain.
The result looks like some strain of cripple calligraphy. Not that it matters, because the idea is to make his friend feel better. And Isaac is all smiles as he twists his torso to admire The Kid’s handiwork in the bathroom mirror. He taps his heart with his fist and nods in fierce approval. To his blurry eyes, the tattoo looks exactly perfect.
Isaac starts to return the favor, but The Kid doesn’t want a tattoo. No, really, it’s okay. The tattoo was for Isaac, a totem to counteract the stigma. The Kid would explain it, but the idea is more complicated than he is right now. Besides, Isaac is too sweet or maybe too self-absorbed to comprehend such a thought.
Time to go to the Continental. Nothing else left to distract them. They’ve been brooding about the club since they first heard the rumor at the wake. A nearsighted girl with braces told them the story about a regular there who could contact the dead. Of course they laughed her off, but the idea has been percolating in the recesses of their minds. Neither of them mentions the place by name as they slip out the sliding glass door, but it’s the evening’s inevitable endpoint.
It’s late night when the boys materialize at the club. Some death metal band roars about how living feels like being crucified upside down. Sounds about right. Large wooden mirrors draped with dark curtains flank the stage. They offer no reflection. That seems about right, too. Isaac and The Kid prop themselves against the far wall and absorb the pile-driver sound of the band slashing away at their instruments. Now that they’ve arrived at the Continental, they’re feeling slightly ridiculous.
They know the man when they see him. He’s unmistakable: the older gentleman with the shaved head and a black dot theatrically painted in the center of his skull. He sits in a booth by the concrete bar, surrounded by a gaggle of pubescent goths smearing eyeliner on one another. The tableau is so incongruous that the boys are tempted to forget the whole idea.
Maybe they need a little push. The Kid hikes up the green sweater and produces a pill from his back pocket. It’s almost translucent in the dim light, a shimmering pink thing that vanishes from certain angles. There’s a pale halo effect from the lint that clings to its edges, the faint residue from where it was stashed at the bottom of a friend’s hamper. The capsule has the distinct aura of pharmaceutical potency. Best of all, it’s stamped with a tiny faded S. The Kid has been saving this for the right moment. They halve it. The pill tingles on their tongues and dissolves in a quick fizz.
Let’s give them a second to screw up their courage. They nod their heads in time to the singer’s barking voice, relishing the sensation of the bass rippling across the floorboards and rattling their kidneys. Isaac leads the way to the man. The squirrelly boys and girls who ring the booth, with their black lipstick and hand-me-down dog collars, seem to serve as the man’s multiheaded receptionist and demand the boys state their business.
Isaac explains that it’s personal. The goths pull skeptical faces. Isaac and The Kid offer to lend their fake IDs in exchange for some privacy. The teens stampede toward the bar without a backward glance.
Isaac and The Kid take a seat in the peeling red leather booth. The man greets them with listless handshakes. His skin is sallow. Even dressed in black he looks hopelessly out of place, though he hardly seems uncomfortable. The Kid starts by circling around the subject, saying they need some advice and have heard some stories about the man’s talents, but before he can complete a single orbit, Isaac lurches across the table and practically shouts: “My girlfriend killed herself.”
The pill must have already done something profound to Isaac. His pupils have been swallowed by the bright green of his irises. It gives his normally genial face an intense and slightly inhuman cast. Hard to guess what he’ll do next. He teeters in his seat, takes a deep breath, then whispers her name. Not sure whether he’s just uttered an abracadabra or a heavy blasphemy. But there, he’s finally said it.
The old man absorbs this with impressive serenity. He wets his lips and takes the measure of these freaked teens. They’re not an unfamiliar sight. Reeking of booze and beaded with perspiration. Agitated and vibrating to their own special chemical frequency. The grieving boyfriend is poised between beatitude and alarm after his revelation, like he’s just seen an angel and it might not be so friendly. The Kid sits stupefied while the man braids his fingers together and smiles.
He unfurls some convoluted business about veiled knowledge and flesh mandalas and astral revivification. Hard to hear clearly with the band going full tilt. Maybe it’s the drugs, but they’re not following this at all. “So you know how to contact dead people?” The Kid asks. “You conduct séances or something?”
“I happen to know something about their habits,” the man says. He asks if they remember Mark McCullough. Of course they do. The boy from Rellington who hung himself and was pronounced dead and even buried, but the doctors must have messed up, because he was back at school the next week. Apart from the peeling rope burns on his neck, it was as if nothing had happened. The details of the story never added up, but the fact that Mark was still around trumped everything else.
Then the man tells them about Becca Ramirez. She jumped off the Red Bridge outside Houghton and was instantly killed but still shops at the mall every Saturday afternoon with her friends. And most importantly: Cliff Martino. He intentionally overdosed on a hot shot of smack and scouring powder and was interred in the family plot, but now he’s playing bass with Oval Wound on this very stage at this exact moment.
“Mistakes happen,” the man says, and cracks a thin, sad smile. “People have second thoughts about what they do to themselves. But mistakes don’t have to be permanent.”
Isaac and The Kid exchange a muddled glance. They’re starting to slide the pieces together.
“There’s a place,” the man begins. His crinkled eyes gleam, and the sagging flesh around his mouth flushes. A flash of the predator. The boys, who are sweating more than ever, have fallen completely under his spell. What’s the drugs and what’s a cocktail of grief and wish fulfillment is beyond knowing. They hover on the edges of their seats, primed to swallow the most ridiculously far-fetched fantasy. And what do you know? They’re in luck.
“There’s a place,” the man repeats, “where you can correct mistakes. A place where the dead aren’t quite dead. A place where you can find them and bring them back among the living. Remember Mark,” he says. “Remember Becca. Look at Cliff.”
The refrain plays in their heads like a mantra. They repeat it to themselves until every name sounds like Sara.
“If you want to know more,” the man says, “I’ll need something from you.”
An exchange of looks. The Kid tries to read Isaac’s expression, but the distance between them has expanded. Isaac’s attention constellates around the black dot at the center of the man’s forehead. Its occult quality gives credence to his words. She’s not dead. Even at the funeral Isaac knew this was true, but he didn’t dare utter it, waiting for someone else to speak the words. He has to find out more. The old man stands up and murmurs something in Isaac’s ear.
They vanish into the bathroom. Find an unoccupied stall where the metal sliding lock snaps shut. The man unzips his pants and removes his blotchy cock. Let’s not focus on Isaac’s pursed lips, but train our eyes on the tears rolling down his cheeks. He sobs softly and attempts not to hyperventilate. Sara. Mistakes happen. They don’t have to be permanent. It’s not too late to help. His burning eyes squeeze shut and he starts to choke. He’s overwhelmed by how much he loves her.
Isaac emerges from the bathroom with the information. He slides it across the table to The Kid. It’s a series of directions, numbers, and arrows the man has scribbled on the back of a bar napkin. Call it a map. It reads: (1) I-27 to Winmare; (2) A&P parking lot; (3) Dirt road into the pine barrens; (4) Monrovia. In any other situation, this would seem beyond pathetic, but Isaac treats the napkin like some sort of holy writ. He’s almost proud of himself. The Kid doesn’t feel like arguing.
It’s not long before they’re twenty miles out of town and climbing some winding mountain roads toward Winmare. Their white sedan hugs the gleaming steel guardrail the entire way. Cool air pours through open windows and sobers them up enough to notice the streams of pale moths being siphoned out of the dark by their headlights. Isaac’s clamped himself behind the wheel. The Kid holds the napkin flat against his lap. Don’t ask how they got the car.
Both remain silent about what they might find when they arrive. They stare straight ahead at the road and communicate exclusively through sidelong glances. There’s an old billboard for the local drive-in. Their minds alight on the same memory: the black-and-white movie they saw two weeks ago at Carl’s house. The zombie one. The undead clambering out of their graves. Marching stiffly through the streets. Feasting on unripe flesh. Arms extended in otherworldly salute to their appetites. Nobody could figure what propelled these creatures, but now it seems obvious it had something to do with grief.
As they get closer to Winmare, billowing sheets of fog begin to roll across the headlights. Their minds wander to the secrets they’ve kept from each other. There’s the comic The Kid obsessively creates about a man who loses an appendage in each episode. He’s so affected by these tragic amputations that his hands tremble as he draws. There’s the invitation Isaac mulls about basketball tryouts, the temptation to cash in on his transforming body. Sometimes he stares into the mirror and doesn’t understand his own reflection. But awkward confessions will get them nowhere. A truck blows its horn and swerves around them. The car frame rattles, and a bottle of tequila clinks around the floorboard. The Kid squeezes the napkin in his fist, as if trying to wring more sense from it. He’s still wearing the green sweater.
It’s either the drugs or the anticipation, but the boys feel like puking again. They crowd out images of the funeral and the bathroom stall and focus on what’s ahead. Sweeping around the last bend before the exit, they pass the drive-in. Even knowing it’s closed for the season, they half expect to see those zombie images brightening the sky as they go past. Actually, it would be a reassuring sight. They’d welcome any sign that this isn’t a fool’s errand. The gigantic screen appears, slanting away among the snatches of dark trees, but its white surface is totally blank. Or maybe they’re not projecting enough.
Under the Phosphorescent Glare of the Parking Lot Lights
The regulars keep watch as Winmare twitches to life. It’s little more than a glorified pit stop with rows of eighteen-wheelers parked along the overgrown gullies and median strips. Creeping armies of teens circle one another in the otherwise empty streets and alleys. Packs of stray dogs maraud in search of fresh carrion. The A&P parking lot lights glow green like a sickly beacon.
The regulars cluster under the towering aluminum poles. They blast music and funnel beers while a chill breeze chases shredded grocery circulars and candy wrappers round their feet. They seem to be on the lookout for someone. They ignore the kids who totter around like scorched-out Roman candles, throwing off stray sparks. Those drug-addled teens whose eyes are so black that when they look up, you can almost map the constellations reflected in their pupils.
There’s the person they want. He stands in an island of light in front of the darkened gas station. The one with the blond hair, denim vest, white T-shirt. “Hey.” Doesn’t hear them. “Hey!” They try again, a bit louder. “Hey!” Guess they’ll have to walk over if they hope to get his attention.
Spotlight on Deano Annear, one of the Deads. At least that’s what the regulars have been told. It could be a prank, but they’ll take their chances. Deano gives off an unworldly vibe even at forty paces. His skin is virtually translucent. His blond hair glows so bright it looks like a halo that’s ready to ignite. His involuntary grin seems hardwired into some deep animal instinct. The sort of frozen expression you find in eels. Maybe this is a trait of the Deads. They aren’t sure what to think.
The regulars start to speak, but Deano isn’t paying attention. His eyelids are shut and his hips snaking to some heavy psychedelic music that drifts from inside the shuttered gas station. They hold out a can of beer and Deano slits open his eyes. He takes the beer, cracks it open, and shotguns the contents. Then he extends his large clammy hand and thanks them. Something about clasping his cold meatlike fingers and hearing his squeaky rasp of a voice erases any lingering doubts in their minds. Their guts twist into that shape that tells them when something is for real.
“You’re staring at my scar,” Deano informs the regulars.
They are. You can’t miss the jagged seams above his elbow. Baseballs are sewn together with more finesse. The skin is black and puckery on either side of the sutures. “I stepped in front of a bus,” Deano says. “People keep telling me I should get it fixed, but I don’t see the point.” He flashes that disconnected grin. It dangles from his cheeks.
The regulars are nervous about bringing up a potentially touchy subject, so they talk at once in a single overlapping voice. “Listen,” they say. “There’s this friend of ours. He had an accident. He sort of shot himself in the face. We haven’t, uh, seen him for a while, but there’s this rumor that he’s in Monrovia. Maybe you know him?”
Deano blinks rapidly in a way that doesn’t indicate one thing or another.
The regulars say: “We were hoping to visit him there.”
“Bad idea,” Deano says. “The place is a shit-hole. Smart people avoid going.”
The regulars say: “Maybe you can tell us how to get there.”
“You know how,” Deano says. “Hitch a ride with the truckers.”
The regulars say: “We were hoping there was another way. Maybe you could give us directions.”
“Even if I told you, you’d never find it. All the roads are unmarked and you don’t want to get lost in the pine barrens. Trust me on that,” Deano says. “You’ll have to take your chances with the truckers like everyone else.”
The regulars look deflated. They shuffle their feet and stare at their shoelaces.
Deano slips his hands into his pockets and obtrusively massages his crotch. “Of course, if you’re looking for some action,” he says, “maybe we can strike a deal.”
The regulars blush. They clear their throats and shake their heads.
“Don’t know what you were expecting to find,” Deano says. He pulls up his T-shirt and wriggles his bare chest. A series of zigzagging scars shine in the amber light. “I’ve got to get to work,” he says and struts toward the smeared neon lights that shiver in the distance. A fleet of rigs is parked by the Chinese restaurant at the far end of the lot.
A gunshot rings out from the gas station behind them. The report echoes across the asphalt expanse. The regulars duck their heads and a few flatten themselves against the ground. Deano doesn’t break his stride. The regulars hear a hissing like air leaking from a tire. It takes them a moment to realize this is the sound of Deano’s laughter.
The two boys.
The two boys creep toward the truck, hoping they’re not too late. This is one of the few occupied rigs near the Chinese place tonight. The cabin door is splayed open, and a pair of brown cowboy boots stick out. As they inch closer, the boys see the heels are worn away and a circle of red sock peeks through. The driver whistles some half-remembered shard of a country tune, pretty off-key.
The boys are both beaded with perspiration. The taller one stands catatonic and locked at attention. The shorter one clutches a crumpled napkin and nervously plucks the green pilings off his too-small sweater. The trucker sits up on his elbows. At first glance he appears normal enough, then the boys notice the raised pink scar on his cheek that resembles a character in the Chinese alphabet. It seems intentional. The trucker says: “You fellas looking for a ride?”
The taller boy shakes his head. As he slinks away, he licks the sweat from his upper lip. “That dude looked like trouble,” he says.
“You need to relax,” the shorter boy says. “We’re going to have to take a risk if we want to make it to Monrovia tonight.”
“This place must be getting to me,” the taller one murmurs.
They scuff the soles of their shoes with every step. Whatever high might’ve been animating their bodies has seeped away, leaving its hosts hollow, like a couple of sea urchins soaking in a tub of bleach. The parking lot yawns before them like an ocean. They wade into the lit shallows and then farther into the darker regions. Careful not to stray too far from the lights. The boys whisper a name as they walk. It practically dissolves in the breeze between them. Sara.
The taller boy says: “Maybe she won’t be happy to see me.”
The nearby buildings of the strip mall are boarded up, but groups thread in and out of broken doors. The air is filled with the soft sound of voices. They pitch, tumble, and moan.
The taller boy says: “She was depressed, but I didn’t take it seriously. She wanted to talk about it but couldn’t find the words. I should’ve waited for her to open up. I should’ve tried to get her to say something. But I was exhausted and fell asleep.”
He says: “She probably waited a few hours, hoping I’d wake up. She lay in bed beside me the entire time. I never imagined you could cut yourself so deep with a safety razor.”
He says: “When I woke up, there was blood everywhere. The sheets were soaked. Her face and hands were so pale.”
He says: “She died next to me, and I slept right through it.”
They circle back into the orbit of the Chinese restaurant. The supposed terminus of Winmare. Inside, the drivers polish off their meals and stir surreptitious spoonfuls of amphetamine into their egg drop soup. The boys prop themselves against the front wall of the Golden Dragon and wait for the next trucker to leave. A clutch of feral cats hovers around them, yowling what are either demands or challenges. A guy with translucent white skin and a detached gaze brushes past the boys on his way into the restaurant. There are jagged sutures in the blackened skin above his elbow. He shines an absent smile in their direction.
“One of the Deads,” the shorter boy whispers.
“Come on,” the taller boy says.
“There’s something different about him.”
“It’s in your head,” the taller boy says. But he’s not so sure. He doesn’t know how the Deads might be different and in what ways they might have changed. The thought of what they might find in Monrovia terrifies him. Maybe that’s a healthy reaction. He’s so far beyond his depth that his feelings aren’t relevant markers. Expecting his emotions to provide any mooring would be like expecting to feel the heat from the stars.
The boys ready cash for the fare. The taller one bites down on his tongue, squares his shoulders, and tries to look game for anything. His friend tells him not to let the bills droop so provocatively from his front pocket.
The Deads sit scattered through the booths of the Golden Dragon. They effortlessly blend in with the other patrons, scarfing down greasy plates of egg fu young and tapping nickels on the glass fish tank by the window, trying to get a rise out of the stunted carp that seem too bored to float. Only the waiters seem able to distinguish the Deads at a glance.
In the back, two of the female Deads engage in a drinking contest. They polish off one bottle of Jack Daniel’s and slur their words as they call for another. They act shitfaced and dribble whiskey down their chins. One girl sloshes some on her chest, and the other jokes it’s time for a wet T-shirt contest. The waiters try not to appear alarmed, but they can’t bring themselves to watch. The girls behave like their old selves, but they’ve changed. No matter how much they drink, the Deads can never get drunk.
As the night winds down, the Deads start to arrange rides back home. Some have wrinkled bills to pay the truckers, and others barter their services. One of the Deads, a storklike boy with a ponytail, trolls the restaurant in search of transit. He spies a trucker with a patchy red beard sitting by himself in front of a plate of untouched spring rolls. The Deads takes the seat opposite the trucker. “Your first trip to Monrovia?” he asks.
The trucker nervously scans the dining room, but nobody pays any attention to this transaction.
The Deads straightens his ponytail. “How about some company?” he says.
The trucker recoils and shakes his head, but his eyes remain fixed on this strange boy.
“I’ll show you the ropes,” the Deads says. “Monrovia is nothing but a party. We’ll have a good fucking time.” He reaches under the table and grabs the trucker by his leather belt flap. He gives it a gentle pull, and with a practiced and empty smile, he leads his ride from the restaurant.
A Rose Grows Between My Teeth
The girl runs through the woods. She pushes through vines, brambles, low-hanging branches. Her shirt gets snagged. The left sleeve rips. She keeps going.
She doesn’t look down at her bare bloody feet. No point now. Her legs flail and arms pedal the air. Her open mouth forms a perfect O, trying to make a siren sound, except nothing spills out. But the rest of her face spells out the feeling clear enough: Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.
She’s almost to the clearing where the trees part and the shaggy carpet of pine needles gives way to a stretch of asphalt road. A two-lane strip out in the middle of the woods. There once was a town here, but now only derelict shacks and incinerated husks of automobiles line the lonely street. The locals call it Monrovia.
Just a little farther. The darkened windows of the houses peer out at her as she dashes past. These places are supposed to be haunted and sure enough, she spots ghosts spilling out of the shadows. Their forms materialize in the broken glass, convulsing like they’re learning how to breathe. She almost cries to them for help but then realizes the darting shapes are only reflections. Fleeting glimpses of herself.
Just a little farther. She keeps her eyes pointed straight ahead. Halfway down the road she’ll be able to spot the first flags hanging from the tree forts. A safe haven. Except now she can begin to hear footfalls coming up fast behind her. Two pairs of sneakers slapping hard against the asphalt. The sound out here echoes loudly. It’s stupidly dramatic. Don’t look back. Don’t waste energy.
There are the tree forts. But the frayed towels dangling down from the wooden floors are all red. What the hell? Impossible that all of them are occupied with customers. There’s got to be at least one green towel out there. At least one rope ladder swinging free. She swerves to the left where there’s usually less traffic. More red towels. Then weaves right. Ditto. Everybody must have heard her coming and didn’t want to get involved. Fucking typical.
She veers off the rutted dirt path and hurtles over a stump toward the thickest underbrush of the forest. She trips hard and falls face-down in a patch of weedy briars. Her body wants to remain flat and damn the consequences. Pulls herself up anyway. She’s burned through the initial adrenaline rush. Now she has to remember to forget that her legs feel like rusted pistons. Remember to forget that her lungs heave like tiny leather bellows about to burst their frail, threaded seams.
The two boys aren’t far behind. She can hear them yelling something. The sound of their voices sends shudders along her spine. Something tells her they’re dangerous. Maybe not like the truckers sometimes are. Not exactly. But in some way, possibly they’re even more treacherous.
Deeper into the woods. She instinctively veers toward the regions where the least moonlight trickles through the tree canopies. Take no chances. Better to behave as if her pursuers were equipped with helicopters and aerial search lights instead of dirty sneakers. The old-timers escort their fussier customers to this desolate and private underbrush. The boys to the flat meadow of ferns and the girls to the sharp coves created by overlapping boulders. A few of them might be here now, but she can’t risk calling for help. Not that she can spare the breath anyway.
No more footfalls behind her. Only the sound of her own bare feet crushing the dry leaves and her own hands ripping aside fistfuls of clinging vine.
A temporary reprieve. But she knows the bastards can’t be far behind. They’ve been relentless since they spotted her slinking along the trail near the trucker drop-off. As soon as they locked eyes across the gravel field, she felt something cold drop through her. These weren’t the usual tricks. The boys started running toward her and she took off. Pure instinct. Most folks only want her for sloppy blowjobs and noisy fucks. That’s what she does. It’s the only reason people come to this godforsaken spot. But she has an uneasy feeling these two are after something else.
The girl can’t run much farther. She spots a deep thicket and dives into it headfirst. Her body is wholly swallowed by the greenery. She squats and nestles among the branches, squeezing her sides to keep the panting wheezes from spilling out. Her small frame starts to shake. She’s convulsing. It’s…laughter. Her mouth opens and lets loose an unmistakably horsey laugh. This is hardly funny, but she can’t stop herself. Because she’ll start to make much worse sounds if she does.
This is the wrong time to fall apart. But her body reacts without consent, attuned to some signal she isn’t aware of receiving. The laughter isn’t her—it’s something that’s happening to her. She tries counting to ten. Still laughing. She tries holding her breath. Still laughing. She wedges a fistful of fingers deep into her mouth, gets a grip on her tongue, and gives it a firm tug. Spate of coughs and gags. Hold on tight. The laughter stops.
Now listen closely. Two pairs of footsteps. They’re purposefully walking in her direction. She pushes deeper into the leafy mesh of flora and flattens herself against the moist ground. Head sideways on the dirt, she’s got a narrow panorama. She can see four muddy sneakers and the frayed bottoms of jeans. They remain rooted to the center of the clearing for a long minute and it’s like the entire forest has stopped breathing. Not a leaf rustles. Not a squirrel blinks. Not a drop of dew slides down the side of a single strand of grass. The heady silence is broken by the sound of two male voices calling out: “Sara. Sara. SARA.”
That was a mistake. It had to be. She can’t understand how they know her name. She tries not to freak out, but it’s like a switch has been thrown and an undeniable current flows through her body. The hairs on the back of her hand stand on end. The boys call out again. The same lilting one-word refrain, repeated in the hopeful cadence of someone coaxing home a runaway dog.
She digs her nails in the dirt, twisting and scuttling her body along the ground to get a better view. The two boys are wild-eyed and filthy. Not unlike her, probably. They look unmoored and confused, conversing in soft, indistinct voices, an intense exchange that sounds like a series of guttural sighs. She guesses they’re at the ass-end of some extended odyssey. Neither of them seems familiar, but her stomach just flopped over on itself.
The shorter boy in the shabby green sweater cups his hands and calls to her. He tries to sound soothing, but his voice comes across brittle. He shouts: “Sara, you don’t have to be afraid of us.”
She stays crouched, watching the boys shuffle through the clearing, comb the underbrush, squint into each scrim of greenery. She can’t figure them out. They’re half-crazy for sure. The taller one sniffs the air and inspects the ground like a hound conjuring a scent. She bets he won’t catch anything beyond the stench of his own stale sweat. The boys’ stank mixes with the tang of the pine trees and the grass and the dirt.
The taller one calls out. His voice is raw, shot through with fearful creaks and smoldering distress. He shouts: “Everything’s going to be okay.”
If only she understood what these boys want with her. They wave their hands like dowsing rods over the bushes. A family of speckled sparrows takes flight, seeming less startled than the boys. The taller boy pauses. Then he catapults himself into a deep tangle of shrubs right next to her. He wrestles with the vines and branches, grabbing violently at everything and nothing. Normally this would be hilarious. Except he was really close that time. Any unnecessary breath could give her away.
The taller boy wobbles to his feet and shouts: “We’re here now. We’ve come for you.”
Sara hugs her knees to her chin. She needs to find the angle here, and fast, because it won’t be long before they flush her out. She watches as the taller boy takes a sharp rock and slashes himself free from the entangling brambles.His friend picks up a rock as well. They stand back-to-back in the clearing, each armed with flat stones. And then it clicks. She finally grasps the terrible purpose of their mission.
Sara stands tall and wades out of the thicket. Both boys turn sheet-white as soon as they see her. There’s a look of wonder and terror on their faces that she wouldn’t know how to describe. Question marks are scribbled across their eyes. Their throats make noises all by themselves. Their grip on the stones involuntarily tightens. Maybe they get off on this. The sick bastards.
Sara says: “You’re here to kill me, aren’t you?”
She braces herself, but the boys don’t answer. They don’t lunge for her. In fact, they don’t move at all. They’re like movie zombies, simple creatures of appetite who aren’t sure how to begin eating.
The tall boy stammers. He pulls a wallet from his back pocket and produces a snapshot. He frames it in the center of his palm for her to inspect. Something tells her to push the photo away, but there’s a quality that snags her curiosity. It’s a glossy yearbook portrait of a teenage girl. Her distinctive features are buried beneath layers of pancake makeup, plastically coifed hair, and a stiff half-smile. But even the airbrushing can’t disguise the girl’s crippling unease. Sara examines the image as if it were recalled from a dream. She doesn’t entirely understand. It’s a picture of her.
Sara drops the photograph and begins to back away. Her body quavers, but she manages to make her eyes brash and steely as if she’s the one in control here. The static in her head is slowly evaporating. She’s starting to remember things. The features of the boys are taking on an unwelcome familiarity. Isaac. That’s the tall one’s name. She says: “You’re not taking me back, Isaac.”
“We can get you away from this,” Isaac pleads. “Don’t you want to be with us?”
Sara says: “I’m never going back.”
Isaac looks desperate, like he knows this is the climax, the moment after which there can be no coda. He tries to twist the bitter discoveries of their journey into some shape that she will understand. He struggles to find the words that won’t be paltry approximations of his grief and longing, but the actual fucking pieces of his bruised and blackened heart which might wrench open her eyes and convince her to return home with them.
Finally he does it. He sinks to his knees. He says: “Please.”
He says: “Please. Please. Please.”
Sara shakes her head.
Isaac remains planted in place and refuses to stand up. The Kid rattles his shoulder and points. The forest begins to move. People walk out of the bushes and stake themselves in a rough semicircle behind Sara. She doesn’t turn around. The stricken look in the boys’ eyes tells her everything. The other Deads hiss and grumble behind her like an overburdened family. One of the old-timers with swollen buggy eyes speaks up. He points at the boys with his gnarled wooden stick. He says: “It’s time for you to leave.”
Sara stares at Isaac and The Kid. The sight of these boys kneeling and strung out in the clearing is both touching and disturbing. Even glancing at their grimy faces and fierce sad eyes makes it clear they won’t leave without an ugly struggle. She waves off the other Deads and speaks directly to the boys.
She says: “I’ll make you a deal.”
She says: “I’ll fuck you both if you promise never to come back.”
Sara yanks down her muddy skirt and steps out of it. She peels off her panties. Her dark thatch of pubic hair glistens in the moonlight. The boys are overcome. You can almost hear something snap inside them. The Kid tries to hide his tears behind his sweater, but his red face furrows like a sore. Isaac sobs openly. He clasps his hands together and his quavering lips begin to form an appeal.
Sara says: “Take it or leave it.”
The two boys sleep peacefully under the ratty patchwork quilt. Their naked bodies lie next to each other, their hands reaching toward the empty space where a third body rested a few minutes ago. It’s quiet inside the tree fort. An old towel is tacked across the window, keeping an insistent draft from snuffing the candles on the ledge. Outside it’s raining, but the drops have lost their rhythm so they’re only a series of flat dull thuds. Below, several Deads knock a soccer ball around in the mud. Sara sits perched on the edge of the stained mattress, wearing The Kid’s green sweater. It fits her well, but there’s an odd smell, both familiar and repulsive.
She watches as fragments of dream ripple across the boys’ blank faces, like stones skipping across a glassy pond. She replays the past few hours in her mind.Isaac apologizing over and over. The Kid whispering that he loves her. So many unasked questions that remain unanswered. She traces the tattoo on Isaac’s shoulder with her pinky. The letter is slurred, but she gets the general idea. Sara removes the snapshot from his wallet and examines it for a long moment. Then she licks it. Sometimes you can get a contact high from the chemicals, but it doesn’t seem to work this time.
Soon the boys will be gone, but she knows in her bones they’ll be back. She’s heard stories about the types who haunt the parking lots, downing bottles of courage to make the trek through the woods to Monrovia, all to reach some pair of undesiring arms. These sorry souls never seem to get it. She rolls herself a skinny cigarette, tapping the tracest amount of tobacco into the paper. Inhaling the first drag of pale smoke, she sings softly to herself. A plain bereft wordless tune.
She takes a razor from under the mattress. Grips it just so. No amateur hour here. She draws a straight line across her wrist, determined to follow it wherever it goes. The incised scars barely draw much blood, but she still gets that lightheaded feeling. For a moment, she’s flooded by a vision of her own funeral. But there are no fragrant bouquets piled atop one another or rows of dumbstruck reverent mourners, only a couple of men who toss her limp body down a steep rocky ravine. Perhaps the best she can hope for is to be fertilizer for some prettier plant, a rose or something that might grow from all this shit. Enough reveries. She bears down with the razor, cutting deeper into the lengthwise tracts along her wrists, the technique that’s supposed to be most effective. But this is an endless process and Sara has an uneasy feeling there’s still a long way to go. She watches the slow red flow, looking forward to that happy day when there will be no more blood left to drain.
Jeff Jackson is the author of the novel Mira Corpora, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Guernica, Vice, and The Collagist.