Short Fiction

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The Field, the Bones, the Pendant

By

S.K. Epperson

 

The Field

Midge McKeown left the day spa feeling polished, buffed, and slightly tipsy from the Pinot Grigio served along with the facial, pedicure and manicure she received. Outside the spa, the light was glaringly bright and she fumbled in her bag for her sunglasses while trying not to ruin her nails. The sunglasses were askew on her face as Midge looked up and down the parking area where her ride should have been waiting. There was no sign of her driver and it was so hot she swore she could feel the heated surface of the pavement through the soles of her pumps.

“Damn it, Jack, where are you?” With a groan she opened her bag again to look for her phone. She tipped it this way and that, still being careful with her nails, before she realized she had left her phone at home.

A noisy Jeep roared into the drive and a tanned unshaven man in t-shirt and baggy shorts leaned over and shoved open the passenger door. “Miss McKeown? Do you remember me? I’m Jack’s cousin, Trace. He asked me to pick you up.”

Midge stepped back. “Where is Jack?”

“Lucy’s gone into labor.”

Her mouth opened but there was no response from Midge.

“His wife,” Trace prompted. “Lucy.”

“I know who Lucy is,” Midge said. “But Jack was here earlier. Why didn’t he come in and tell me he was leaving?”

“Can’t say. He called me and said he needed to get to the hospital. He asked if I’d come and take you home. I apologize for being late. I was on a job.”

When she still didn’t budge, Trace said, “Would you rather call a cab?”

“Yes, I think I will. But I’ll do it inside.”

She returned to the spa, but the door was now locked. No answer to repeated knocking.

Trace shook his head. “You really don’t remember me, do you?”

Midge looked directly at him. “Should I?” She slurred a little and it embarrassed her when he smiled.

“I helped Jack rebuild your deck last summer. Before that we planted trees along your drive.”

Midge walked toward the open passenger door. “You do look familiar.”

“Hop in and I’ll get you home.”

“Could I just borrow your phone?”

His lips thinned and Trace took out his cell phone to hand it over.

Midge nodded her thanks and carefully made a call. She listened, then she handed it back to him. “It won’t work.”

He took the phone and listened. He frowned. “I paid that damned bill.”

Midge looked at him like he was something dirty.

“Hey, I paid it, all right? In or out, lady. I’m not going to sit here all day.”

She put her hand on the door. “What kind of trees did you plant?”

Magnolia. Are you getting in or not?”

She got in and pulled the door closed. “I’m just being careful.”

Trace put the Jeep in gear and Midge’s spine whip-lashed as they jerked forward.

Minutes later they were at a service station.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize I was so low on gas,” Trace said. “Certainly don’t want to get stranded, do we?”

Midge wondered if he expected her to offer money for gas. She opened her purse but he hopped out and headed to the cashier. He came back and started the gas pumping.

“You do that spa thing often?” He eyed her polished fingernails.

“No, not often.”

“Why not drive yourself? The wine? Jack said they serve a glass with each treatment and looks like you had the works.”

When it became clear she wasn’t going to answer, he concentrated on the gas again. After he finished and got inside the Jeep he reached for the radio. A blast of retro rock caused her to wince and he dialed it down before turning onto the road once more. Once on the highway, he glanced toward her. “So Jack’s worked for you what, about ten or twelve years now, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t know Lucy was pregnant?”

“I knew.” Midge turned in her seat. “Would you mind not talking? I really don’t know you and I’m not comfortable making small talk.

“Not a problem,” Trace turned up the music again and smiled a little when he saw the wince return.

Long minutes later the Jeep coasted to a stop on the turnoff from the highway.

“Perfect,” Trace said and Midge looked alarmed.

“Why are we stopping?”

“I don’t know. The engine light came on.” Trace turned off the radio to listen to the engine.

“What is it?” Midge asked. “I thought I heard a hissing at the service station. What do you hear?”

“Right now? Just you.”

She closed her mouth.

Trace hopped out of the Jeep and lifted the hood.

Midge got out and stood a few feet away while he leaned over the engine. After muttering and tweaking, Trace backed out and sighed. “It’s the water pump.”

“Can you fix it?” Midge slurred again and hated herself for doing it. Every time he looked at her he smiled like something was funny.

“Not out here.”

“Please try your phone again. Use the nine. If you hold it down—”

“Right.”  He took out his phone and tried the emergency number.

He nodded when he connected with a human being.

“Yeah, we’ve had a breakdown off the highway out of town.” He listened to the response, then said, “No, there are no injuries. We’re a quarter mile west of Highway 54 on the McKeown Creek Road and could use a tow truck.” He listened, paused then said, “I know you don’t, but my passenger doesn’t have a phone and mine will only call you. We’re miles away from anything, can you please help?” He listened again then looked at Midge. “Are you a Triple A member?”

“No.”

“No, sorry, neither one of us,” he said and a few seconds later he hung up.

“Well?”

“She said she’ll let the state police know where we are and they’ll send an officer to check on us. We can call for a tow then. It may be an hour or two, she said.”

Midge looked horrified. “Call them back and tell them—”

“That because it’s you they should come right away?”

“Why not?”

“Yeah, why not.” He pulled out his phone and held down the nine again. “Hey, I just called about being stranded outside of town. Listen, I think there’s an injury after all. I’ve got Midge McKeown here and she’d like you to send a taxi, fire truck, ambulance, limousine, whatever, okay? Her pride appears to be severely damaged at being stuck here with me.” He listened for a moment, then, “Well, I did say McKeown Creek Road, right?  You’ve got to be somebody if there’s a road named after you.”

Midge turned her back on him and started walking up the road.

Trace finished with the dispatcher then called after her. “It’s another five miles to your place so you’d better take off the heels. That is unless you had a pedicure, too.”

Midge veered into a field that bordered the road and disappeared from Trace’s sight.

Trace drew a long breath. “Crap. I’m gonna lose Jack his damned job.” He left the Jeep and trotted up the road after her.

He had to walk the tree line for a hundred yards before he spotted her. She stood looking across a green expanse of pasture dotted with colorful wildflowers.

She straightened when he approached her. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve your treatment of me. And just what is it you find so amusing?”

“Nothing.” He reached toward her face. “Here…can I just…your sunglasses are seriously crooked.”

She backed away from his reach. “And I’ve had a few glasses of wine, so that makes me a target for your gibes?”

“Well you look pretty silly. Just let me…” He reached for her again and ended up knocking the glasses from her face when she jerked her head.

“I’m sorry.”

Trace scooped them up from the ground and handed them to her. Her gaze was icy.  He didn’t remember her eyes being so green. She put the sunglasses on and damned if they weren’t crooked again, but Trace kept his hands to himself.

“I could say something about the way you smell,” she said.

“I know you could. Listen, don’t you think we should get back to the Jeep?”

She turned to go then paused for a last look over her shoulder. “I just wanted to see it again. I haven’t been to this field in ages. Not since I was nineteen.”

Trace looked around. There was nothing to see but grass and flowers. “What made you come then?”

“Harvest. We grew crops. I liked to come and help cook for the workers.”

“Wow. People were still doing that then?”

She looked askance at him. How old did he think she was?

“They still do it today. When we farmed here a truckload of migrant workers would camp near the creek each year. They worked the harvest for a few weeks then went away after my father paid them.”

“Illegals?”

“Most were what my father called ‘travelers’.”

Trace looked far into the field and remembered something. “I can’t believe I forgot about that.  It wasn’t that long ago.”

“What?”

“Jack had just started working for you. We brought Lucy and another girl out here to scare ’em with that old story about the blue light.”

“Blue light?” Midge didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

“You know the story about the eerie light that bobs up and down over the ground where someone once died?”

“Sorry.”

“Well, we saw a light all right and we walked out to look. Shocked the hell out of us to find a fresh grave.”

Midge gave him her full attention. “You found a grave? In this field?”

“Jack told your father about it. Your dad said a sick woman came to the house one day and asked if she could be buried with the baby that died when they were here earlier that summer. He said no and told her to leave.”

“She was the mother?”

“I don’t know. Your dad said the grave was in the spot she mentioned, so he figured it had to be hers.”

“And my father  never followed up on it? Never checked?”

“You’d know that better than I would.”

Midge turned around and walked toward the shade of the trees. “How did you know it was a grave?”

“I told you. There was a blue light.”

“You’re joking…aren’t you?”

Trace followed her. “We followed the light and found some ground turned over. I didn’t know it was a real grave until I dug down and scraped bone.”

Her face screwed up and Midge looked aghast.

“The girls dared us,” Trace explained. “My question was who did the burying?”

“Someone who loved her, probably family. These were very passionate people.”

Midge started walking again and Trace looked behind himself. “We really should get back. In case they do put a rush on it.”

“They teased me about my name,” she responded. “The little girls with dirty faces were always asking me how Barbie was.”

Trace caught up with her. “You lost me.”

“Mattel made a doll named Midge to go with the Barbie doll. My mother named me Midge because it was her favorite. The girls in camp loved to ask if I was Barbie’s best friend.”

“Oh.”

“Am I getting close to the grave?” she asked.

“What? No. Did you want to?”

“I remember the woman whose child died. I heard her screams that day. If they’re here I can’t leave them. They deserve a decent burial somewhere developers can’t dig.”

“Your father didn’t seem to mind. And you’re actually planning to sell this land?”

“Daddy hated the migrant workers. He couldn’t bear to see any of them talking to me, not even the little ones. The day Edan Black stood up to him and buried his sister’s baby I thought my father would kill him.”

“Who?”

Midge stopped and looked around herself as if suddenly lost. “I’ve had three offers but no, I’m not planning to sell anytime soon. I should put some horses in here again. It’s good pasture land.”

“Who’s Edan Black?”

“I’ll ask Jack to find some horses at auction. Maybe start riding again.”

Trace said, “Hugh McKeown and his cane sword scared the hell out of everyone who knew him, me included.”

The corner of Midge’s mouth curved. Her voice became wistful. “Edan called his bluff. He defied my father and his rules and flirted openly with me. He had long dark hair and wore a Celtic symbol as an earring that made him look like some sort of mad pirate on a combine, riding the rolling waves of grain instead of the ocean.”

Trace swatted a biting fly and stared. With the mention of a long ago name she had somehow transformed. Her cheeks were flushed in the heat, skin perspiring with stray tendrils of hair escaping down her neck, mussed, real, and a little tipsy still. He blessed those glasses of wine she drank that day at the spa. And those crooked damned sunglasses. She was beautiful.

“You fell for him. Edan Black.”

“He was dangerous so Daddy ran him off, but twice Edan came for me. The first time I was too frightened. The second time I was packed and ready, but Daddy caught me and made him go away. Edan swore he’d be back. I was nineteen and could do as I pleased. All I had to do was break free of my father.”

She stopped talking when a bee flew over to investigate her perfume.

“What happened?” Trace asked after shooing the bee away. “You never saw him again?”

Midge looked at him, realized she had said too much. The heat felt suddenly oppressive and she drew a deep breath. “I never broke free of my father. Can we just—”

“I always wondered why you never got married,” Trace interjected.

“Did you?” Her voice went cool again.

“Jack had a crush on you for years.”

“That’s funny. He said it was you.”

Trace smiled and wiped sweat from his brow. “Is that why you wouldn’t get in the Jeep?”

“As long as we’re here, would you show me the woman’s grave. Please?”

“Yeah, if I can remember.” Trace looked around to figure his bearings then started walking. Midge followed, and after some distance they approached a rusted tin can wired to the trunk of an elm.

“It’s still here. That’s our marker. It should be five paces from the tree.”

He measured out the paces then stood on earth that showed no trace of a grave.

“Are you sure this is it?”

“I’ve got a hand shovel in the Jeep. I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, no, let’s not…do that.”

“It won’t take long, the grave wasn’t that deep.  Do you want to be sure or not?”

“All right.”

Trace went through the thick hedgerow and over the barbed-wire fence rather than walk all the way around.  Midge stood and looked at the ground with a disturbed expression until he came back with a hand shovel and measured out the paces again. Midge backed up to the tree when the dirt began to fly.

“Just out of curiosity,” Trace began, “when your father died why not leave? I mean why stay?”

She looked as if she wasn’t going to answer. Then she lifted a hand. “And go where?”

“Anywhere.  Or maybe just to look for Edan.”

“That’s partly why I didn’t go. Because I thought he would come back for me again, like he said.”

A horn tooted and both looked up. Help had arrived.

Trace put down the shovel and then stared at something uncovered that looked like bone.

Midge didn’t see, had imitated Trace’s previous action and clawed her way through the hedgerow instead of going around. She clambered over the fence with a curse as the limbs and barbed wire tore at her blouse and skirt. Finally she made it to the road. “Here!” she called to the deputy behind the wheel.

At the grave, Trace brushed dirt away and discovered a jawbone. He dug more and uncovered part of a broken skull. At the base of it was an encrusted something with a shiny surface. He dug around it with his fingers and revealed a Celtic cross symbol, right where an earring would be. Trace plucked it out and frowned deeply as he realized whose remains he was looking at.

The horn tooted again.

Trace put the earring in his pocket and hastily reburied the skull and tamped down the earth. He picked up his shovel then pushed his way through the brush and hurried to catch up with Midge as she spoke to the deputy, who had offered her a ride home. Trace put a tentative hand to her elbow as he helped her into the seat and she lowered her voice as she asked, “Did you find her?”

“No. Your dad probably had them moved a long time ago. When you get to your place would you mind calling me a tow?”

Midge sighed as she looked at her scratched hands and damaged nails. “Why not.”

“Yeah, why not.”

 

The Bones

A battered pickup pulled off the road and stopped beside the overgrown field.  Charlie O’Shea, Trace’s younger brother, turned to his girlfriend Leslie and smiled. “This is it.”

“This is what? The special place you said you were taking me?”

“Yeah.” Charlie opened the truck door and hopped out.  He pulled a shovel from the back.  Leslie’s look was dubious as she got out.  Both made sweeping glances up and down the road.

“What’s so special about it, Charlie? I don’t see anything.”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”  Charlie climbed the barbed wire fence that bordered the hedgerow and helped Leslie do the same. They pushed through the brush into a field. Charlie carried his hand shovel on his shoulder and Leslie followed, looking at patches of wildflowers and weeds. When she saw nothing of interest she paused and crossed her arms.

“Charlie, if this is one of your sick jokes…”

He scanned the tree line then pointed to a tin can wired to a tree trunk. “That’s the marker.”

“For what?” She dropped her arms and groaned. “Oh my God, is this another I know where the Golden Knights of Columbus buried some money thing?”

“Nope.”

“I told you after the Bigfoot trip, no more.”

“Don’t you wanna help me find the grave?”

“Oh, this time it’s a grave. Jesus, Charlie what is wrong with you?  Let’s just go.”

“You’re not even curious about who’s buried here?”

“No. I don’t care. I don’t want to know.” She started back the way they came.

“Fine!” Charlie called after her. “It’s a dead migrant worker my brother told me about.”

Leslie halted and turned. “Trace told you?”

Charlie mimics. “Trace told you? So now you’re interested all of a sudden.”

“I do not have a thing for your brother, all right? Why did he tell you about it?”

“He asked me to dig it up and haul off the bones.”

Leslie came rushing back, her mouth open and her eyes round. “Oh my God, Trace killed someone?”

“What? No. He found the grave here is all.” Charlie walked to the tree with the tin can and placed his back against it.

“If he didn’t kill him why does he want you to get rid of it?”

“My cousin Jack works for the owner of this field. Jack and Trace found the grave a long time ago and they thought it was some migrant woman buried here with her baby. Turns out it’s someone else.” He stepped forward and started counting steps until he reached five.

“How does Trace know it’s a migrant worker?”

“He dug up part of it himself yesterday. Found an earring this certain migrant guy used to wear.” Charlie looked down to study the ground at his feet.

“So somebody killed him. Charlie, we can’t do this.”

“There it is.”

He found the patch of recently turned earth and stabbed at it with the shovel. “Trace thinks it was the owner’s father. Old bastard hated the migrant guy sniffin’ around his daughter.”

“Great, well here’s the thing. If you dig him up and get rid of the bones you’re covering up a murder.”

Charlie turned over a shovel full of earth and looked at her. “No, I’m getting the engine on my truck rebuilt for free.”

“Trace can’t be thinking right. I know he’s smarter than this.”

“Why do you care, Leslie? The old man’s dead, the migrant guy’s dead and so far you’re the only one with a problem.”

“Why is it so important to move the bones? And why do you look so happy to be doing it, you freak.”

Charlie dug in again and moved another shovel full of black earth. “The owner still thinks a woman’s buried here. She doesn’t know it’s the guy she was gonna run away with.”

Leslie sidestepped the tossed shovel load. “God, how tragic. But I don’t understand why Trace cares. It’s your cousin Jack who works for her, right?”

Charlie winked at Leslie. “Trace has a thing for the wealthy Miss McKeown.”

“Midge McKeown?  Eww.  Isn’t she like thirty almost forty something?”

“Hey, I saw her and she’s hot.  She called a tow truck for his Jeep and even brought Trace home in her Mercedes.”

“Dream on, poor boy.”

Charlie grinned again then stopped when the shovel struck something hard.

“Eww again,” Leslie said. “Was that what I think it was?”

The shovel dropped as Charlie bent down to clear the dirt away. He extended his arm to hold up a fragment of the skull and strike a pose.

“If you even try to quote Hamlet I’m gonna hit you with the shovel,” Leslie warned.

Charlie handed the fragment to her and dusted off his hands. “Fine. I’ll be right back. I left my trash bags in the truck.”

Leslie groaned. “This is so not right, Charlie. Trash bags?”

Charlie disappeared through the hedgerow, leaving Leslie to look at the piece of cracked skull in her hand.

“I’m sorry, poor dead guy. I don’t know what I’m doing here and I apologize for disturbing—”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a tall figure move into the nearby trees.

“Charlie, stop it! You’re not funny.”

Charlie came through the hedgerow carrying a box of trash bags. “Stop what?”

“Stop messing with me.”

“Whatever. Look, this’ll go quicker if you help me.”

“No way. I’m not a part of this. I’m not even here.”

“C’mon, Les. I thought you’d get a kick out of this.” Charlie dropped the box of trash bags and picked up the shovel again.

“Where are you taking the bones?”

“I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it.”

With an exaggerated sigh Leslie bent down and started dusting dirt from the shattered skull. Gingerly she picked up a piece and then reached for a trash bag. She opened it and dropped the piece in before reaching for another.

Charlie worked at uncovering more of the skeleton. After moving the dirt away he dropped down to his hands and knees beside Leslie. “The guy had good jeans anyway.” He pointed to the dirt-caked but still intact denim jeans. Charlie felt in the pocket of the jeans and pulled out an old rubber coin purse with a slit down the middle.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know. It was in the pocket.”

“Open it.”

Charlie pried open one lip of the rubber. It tore in his hand and revealed a pendant on a silver chain inside. Charlie took it out to examine it.

Leslie looked and said, “It’s a Celtic cross.”

“Yeah, that’s what Trace said the earring was.”

“You think he was saving this for her?”

Charlie smiled. “Yup. Oh well. Mine now.”

“Charlie.”

“What?”

“Let me have it.”

“No. I like it. It’s cool.”

“Charlie, please.”

“What are you gonna do with it? You hate cheap jewelry, remember?”

Leslie took the pendant from him and stood up to put it in her pocket. Before bending down again she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She jerked her head around and saw nothing but the wind lifting the tall grass and fluttering the leaves.

“Let’s hurry. I’m getting the creeps. I feel like we’re not alone.”

“See? I knew you’d love this.”

Leslie snorted in aggravation and squatted down. They both worked faster, picking up bones and fabric and even the scraps of soles that used to be shoes and stuffed them in the bags.

Finally Charlie stood.  “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”

Leslie gave him a dirty look.

“I’ll take these to the truck,” Charlie said. “Use the shovel to push the dirt back and spread it around, okay?

Charlie departed and Leslie reached for the shovel. She scraped the dirt back into the shallow depression then stamped on the ground with both feet.

A tall, long-haired man with fierce blue eyes and deeply tanned skin stepped into view.

Leslie dropped the shovel and shrieked, but the wind rustled leaves and limbs at the same time, carrying the sound away. She opened her mouth to scream again.

The man lifted a hand and pointed to her. He reached in his pocket.

Leslie’s chest heaved. Her voice was a croak. “Charlie. Charlie, help.”

The man reached into his pocket again. Then he mimicked putting something around his neck.

“Oh my God,” Leslie breathed. “The cross?  Do you mean the cross?”

She took a step forward. She removed the pendant from her pocket.

“This? Is this what you want?”

He pointed to the tree with the tin can and looked meaningfully at her. Leslie swallowed. When she hesitated the man pointed at her again. Then at the tree with the tin can.

“Okay.  I’m going.”

She walked to the tree with the tin can, keeping an eye on the tall man. He made the draping motion again and Leslie draped the chain with the pendant over the tin can.

Charlie came up behind her and grabbed her by the waist. “Gotcha!  Hey, why did you put that there?”

Leslie shrieked in terror and pummeled him about the head and shoulders.

“Ow!  Hey, stop it!”

“Did you see him? Did you see the tall guy?”

Charlie looked around in alarm. “Where?”

“Oh, you liar! You bastard! You’d better be lying to me. This whole thing has been a prank, hasn’t it?  Another hilarious gag probably being filmed for your later enjoyment!”

“Les, calm down, all right.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down, you jerk! I’m sick of your pranks and jokes and twisted little games. It isn’t funny anymore, Charlie. Just take me home!”

Charlie grew angry himself. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but hey, fine with me.”

Leslie pushed her way through the hedgerow and scrambled over the fence to get to the road.

Charlie grabbed the shovel and followed her.

At the truck, Leslie slammed the door getting into the passenger side. Charlie threw the shovel in back with the bags and then slammed his own door. As he started the engine another truck approached. It slowed and pulled up next to them.

Jack O’Shea, Midge McKeown’s handyman and cousin to Charlie and Trace hung an arm over the door and leaned his head out. “What the hell are you doin’ out here, Charlie?”

“I knew it,” Leslie simmered. “I knew it.”

“Shut up, Leslie,” Charlie said.

“You do not tell me to shut up!”

Charlie ignored her. “Hey Jack, you talked to Trace today?”

“Not yet. What’s goin’ on?”

Leslie spoke up. “Charlie’s playing one of his asshole pranks that’s what. And I guarantee it’s the last one he’ll ever play on me.”

Charlie shook his head and rolled his eyes at his cousin. “I’ll call you later man, okay?”

Jack nodded. “Later.”

Charlie put the truck in gear. The tires kicked up dust as he shot up the road.

The chain with the Celtic cross pendant dangled from the tin can and swayed in the breeze as Jack walked into the field. Shovel in hand, he headed right for the tree. He stopped when he spied the pendant. He took it off the can and turned it over in his palm. His mouth curved when he saw the name Midge engraved on the back of the pendant.

“Bet she’ll be glad to get this back.”

He put the pendant in his shirt pocket and marked off five paces from the tree. Jack stared at the tamped down, freshly turned earth. He looked toward the road, frowning.

“What the hell is goin’ on?”

 

The Pendant

The Mercedes rolled up beside Jack’s pickup parked on the side of the road. Jack came out of the field and tossed his shovel in the back of the truck before walking over to greet the driver.

Midge rolled down her window as he approached.

“I dug around, but there’re no bones in there,” Jack reported.

“No trace of a grave?”

“A grave, yeah, but no bones in it.”

“So she was moved.”

“Looks like.”

The cell phone in his pocket rang and Jack stepped away from the car to answer. It was Lucy. “Yeah babe?”

Midge looked at the field with a slight frown. One finger tapped the steering wheel.

“Where’s your mom?” Jack said into the phone. “Can’t she help? Oh. Yeah, all right. I’m on my way.”  He hung up and shoved the phone in his pocket. “Sorry, Miss McKeown, but the wife needs me at home.”

“Is everything all right?”

“Far as I know.  Lucy’s mom had to go somewhere, baby’s fussy and the other two are drivin’ her nuts.”

“Go home.”

Jack remembered the pendant as he turned and felt for his keys. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled it out.

“I found this draped over the tin can we wired to the tree as a marker.”

He held it out to her and Midge stared at the dangling pendant.

“Is this some kind of joke?”

“What?  No. It’s yours isn’t it? It’s got your name on it.”

She extended a hand and he dropped the pendant into her palm. “You must’ve lost it a while back. It’s not in too bad shape.”

Her eyes searched his face and he shifted uncomfortably.

“I figured the grave was gonna be empty and your dad would’ve already moved her. I don’t know what you mean about any joke.”

“You’d better get home.”

“All right. If you need anything call me.”

Still uncertain, Jack went, leaving Midge sitting alone in her car. She opened the car door and got out to examine the pendant in the sunlight. Her fingers closed over it and she looked toward the trees in time to glimpse movement as a tall figure slipped into the brush.

“Hello?” Midge called.

The wind soughed through limbs and rustled leaves.

“Is anyone there?”

She opened her hand and looked at the pendant again. Swallowed.

“Edan?”

She walked toward the tree line, the heels of her boots sinking into the soft earth. As she moved into the trees a Jeep arrived and pulled up beside the sedan.

Trace, freshly shaved, wearing a crisp white shirt and khaki trousers, left the Jeep and looked around the empty vehicle.

“Miss McKeown? Midge?”

Charlie sat on his bed and worked a video game controller while Leslie leaned against the doorway. “Why aren’t you at work?”

“I’m on my break. Why aren’t you at work?”

“I took the day off.”

“What do you want, Leslie?”

“To talk.”

“I’m busy.”

Leslie came into the room. “Okay. I believe you.”

Charlie smirked. “I care.”

“No, I really believe you,” Leslie insisted. “You wouldn’t have been able to hold it in this long. So it wasn’t a prank and there really was someone there.”

“Well what if I don’t believe you?” Charlie said. “Huh? You tell me some guy shows up out of nowhere and tells you to hang the cross on the tin can.”

“It happened!  That’s why I was so freaked out. What did you do with the bones?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, yes. Where are they?”

“They’re safe.”

“Why are you being such an asshole?”

“Well isn’t that what I am? You’ve called me that about twenty times today, so I must be.”

“I’m sorry, Charlie. I was really, really freaked out.” She came to the bed and rubbed the back of Charlie’s neck and shoulders. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it? Have you thought about that?”

“I told Trace about the cross. He lit outta here like his ass was on fire.”

“Why?”

“Probably to keep Midge McKeown from knowing about it.”

Leslie scoffed. “I still don’t understand why he cares so much. Unless it’s her money.”

Charlie put down the game controller. Leslie turned in anticipation of a kiss, but Charlie held her firmly away from him instead. “I’ll tell you what I understand.  I understand you had no idea I was home and thought you’d find Trace here instead.”

Leslie blinked in guilt then grew huffy. “Will you get over this jealousy crap? I don’t care about your brother.”

“Bullshit. But you know the funny thing is that I don’t even care anymore. Just leave.” Charlie pushed her away from him, toward the door.

“Fine!” Leslie shouted. “How about I leave and go to the cops, tell them about some bones we dug up this morning?”

“Be my guest, bitch.”

Leslie flounced away and departed.  Charlie returned to his game.

After a moment he got up and reached for his cell phone.

Trace pushed through the hedgerow.  Midge was a few yards away, near the tree with the tin can marker.  Trace’s cell phone rang and Midge turned and spotted him. She frowned as Trace answered. “Yeah?”

“Did you find the cross?” Charlie asked.

“Too late. I think she’s already got it.”

“Leslie’s goin’ to the cops about the bones. You took ’em to the university, right?”

“Yeah. You’re okay, bud, don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not. Hey, there was someone out there yesterday while we were there.”

“Who?”

The line went dead in his hands and Trace stared at his phone in consternation.

“I paid that damned phone bill. I know I did.”

He shoved it back in his pocket and approached Midge.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I need to talk to you.”

She held up the pendant and it dangled from the chain.

“You and I stood right here yesterday when you showed me the grave. Today Jack found this on the tin can.”

“I need to—“

“What does the symbol mean? Do you know?”

She showed him the pendant. Trace took it and turned it over in his palm.

“I…well, yeah. It’s a Celtic cross. The bar that goes across stands for man, the circle stands for woman. The long part is the bridge between heaven and earth.”

Midge’s eyes fasten on him as if she’s never really seen him before.  “How did you know that?”

Trace crooked a thumb toward himself. “O’Shea? You know. Irish.”

She nodded and stared so long at something behind him that he turned.

Saw nothing.

He gave the pendant back to her.

“I lied to you about the grave, Midge.”

“What?”

“There were bones here yesterday but they didn’t belong to the woman your father told us about.”

He took the earring from his pocket. The Celtic cross.

“The bones belonged to the owner of this.”

Midge reached automatically for it and held both the earring and the pendant in her left hand.  Her mouth fell open slightly. “This…was in the grave?”

“Yeah. The pendant, too.”

“Then the bones were Edan’s?”

“I’m sorry. I thought it would be better if you believed it was the sister.”

“You didn’t want me to know?  I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t want you to be hurt.”

“You didn’t…” She stepped forward and violently slapped Trace, shocking both of them. She stood before him, trembling.

“The one man I’ve ever had an ounce of feeling for in my life! My father protected me from him when he was alive and you decide to protect me from him now that he’s dead. Why would that hurt me? How could that possibly cause me pain?” She closed her fist around the earring so tightly Trace saw a trickle of blood seep from her palm. Then her head dropped. “Oh God this means my father…”

Trace rubbed his cheek. “That’s what I figure. Listen, Jack didn’t know anything about this. He still thought it was Edan’s sister buried here, just like your dad said.”

Midge’s head lifted. “Who dug him up?”

“I asked my brother to come out this morning.”

“What did he do with him?”

“There was no body, Midge. Just bones.”

“Stop calling me Midge like you know me. I haven’t had any wine today. Where are the remains?”

“I took them to the Criminal Justice Department at the university and told them what we found. They called the FBI and the state police.”

“So there’ll be an investigation.”

“Yes.”

Her eyes closed. Then she nodded. “I’m glad. I’m glad everyone will know about my father finally.” Midge pocketed the earring and pendant. She clasped her still trembling hands together and walked a few paces away. “You don’t know the crazy ideas that went through my head when Jack gave me this pendant. For a moment I actually thought…”

When she didn’t finish,Trace rubbed his clean-shaved face again. “I know a thing or two about crazy ideas.”

She turned and Trace saw her eyes go round as she looked past him.

Midge saw a long-haired man with darkly tanned skin and a familiar roguish smile walk up behind Trace…and disappear.

Trace stared as Midge came toward him, scrutinizing his face. She swallowed and reached up to touch his cheek.

“Are you…you?”

Trace covered her hand with his. “I’m me, yeah.”

Her disappointment was obvious but Trace kept her hand and pressed his mouth briefly against her palm.

“You probably don’t remember the first time I saw you. Your BMW broke down and I helped you get home. My grandfather still worked for your dad. I was helping him build fence that summer.”

“I sold that car ten years ago,” Midge said.

“Then you know how long I’ve wanted just to touch you.”

Blood from her palm stained his lips and chin and she blinked rapidly at the sight and pulled her hand away. “Don’t.”

“Just get to know me,” he asked.

“You have…blood…on your mouth.”

He wiped absently with his hand and took her by the arm when she would have turned away. “Your blood, your pain. Exactly what I tried to avoid.”

He followed her chilly gaze to the fingers holding her arm and he released her.

“Shit. You think I’m not good enough for you.”

Her nostrils flared. “Obviously.”

Trace slapped her almost as hard as she slapped him.

With a hoarse cry of surprise Charlie leaped the fence and jumped on his brother from behind to drag him back. “Whoa, Trace! Holy shit!  He’s sorry, Ms. McKeown, he didn’t mean it!”

“I goddamn well did.”

“No, he didn’t!  I swear it. He’s never even hit me!”

Still stunned, Midge held her cheek and looked at Trace in anguish. Her eyes filled with moisture. Tears spilled over her hand and down her cheeks and she crumpled to her knees and began to sob. Charlie released Trace and hurried to kneel beside her.

“Are you all right? I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but that’s not Trace. You have to believe me.”  He tried patting her shoulder. He scowled at Trace. “What the hell is wrong with you?  She can have you arrested.”

“Let her.”

“Where’d the other guy go? The long-haired guy? He was right here, nearly on top of you.”

Charlie frowned and looked around while Midge covered her face and cried her heart out. Trace watched until he could bear it no longer. He pulled her up from the ground and put his arms around her. “Midge… Hey…I’m sorry, all right? For everything. Come on, let’s get you home. This is my brother, Charlie. Charlie, help me out here.”

Together Trace and Charlie walked her out of the field and helped her over the fence.  They opened the sedan door and put Midge in the driver’s seat. Charlie stood back, still sweating but calmer now. “You got this, man?”

“Yeah. Why’d you come out here?”

“Your phone went dead. I broke ninety getting here. I didn’t know what the hell was happening but I remembered Leslie telling me about the tall joker.”

Trace smiled crookedly at his younger brother. “You seriously saw someone?”

“Dark hair, jeans, master tanned. You’re gonna explain all this to me later, right?”

“If I’m not in jail. See you at home.”

Charlie got in his truck.

Midge wiped her face and glared sullenly at Trace. “Don’t ever touch me again.”

“Not a problem.”

She started crying again, uncontrollably. “He came back for me. He really did come back.”

Trace hesitated then reached in and stroked her head. “Yeah, he did. Scoot over, Midge and let me drive you home. I’ll walk back for the Jeep.”

She sniffled and wiped her nose, tried to regain her composure.

“That’s not necessary.”

Trace leaned back. “All right. Take it easy.” He turned to walk to his Jeep.

“Trace?”

The sound of his name from her lips took him by surprise.

Midge concentrated fiercely on the steering wheel. “What I said…”

“Forget it. We’re even.”  He started away again.

“I…are you hungry?”

The question hung in the air until Trace sighed. “I could eat. You wanna go somewhere?”

“No. I think I’d like to cook.”

“So… You want me to follow you home?”

“Yes. I do.”

She closed her car door and turned over the engine.

Trace got in the Jeep. In the side mirror he caught a glimpse of a tall figure on the road behind him, following the dust kicked up by Charlie’s truck. When he craned his head to look, the figure was gone.

 

Copyright © S.K. Epperson

And now my dark,  intense Russian gypsy, Sergei.

 

Half Measures

By

S.K. Epperson

Colleen saw the problem outside her restaurant half an hour after closing on Tuesday.  Inches from the dumpster, the bag of garbage she carried split at the bottom and spilled onto the pavement.  Colleen grimaced and bent down.  At knee-level she spied what looked like fingers beneath the storage shed directly behind her building. The hand retreated quickly, but not before Colleen realized it was in fact a hand. She edged to the back door. As calmly as she could she walked inside the restaurant.

“Shawn!  Ricky!” Her strident tone lifted the heads of both cooks.  She pointed to the office. ”Get the flashlight from my desk and go out back. Someone’s under the shed.”

“You’re kidding.”  An excited Ricky headed for the office. “Pick up another stalker, Boss?”

More doubtful was Shawn. “Are you sure?  There’s like half a friggin’ inch under that shed. There’s no way anyone could squeeze in.”

“Just scare them off, all right?”  The way Colleen saw it anyone hiding under a shed had to be up to no good.

Ricky came out with the flashlight and Shawn went to the back door still carrying his knife.  Hand on the knob he winked at Ricky and said, “Let’s do this fast, all right?”  Ricky nodded and Shawn jerked open the door.  Ricky barreled out at a run, slid in the greasy garbage left by Colleen and went down hard.  Shawn was too close behind Ricky to avoid landing on top of him.  The two rolled around in culinary remains and cursed a lot in the next moments as the knife cut at least one of them. Colleen leaned out to see what had happened. They got up to wipe themselves off and waved the flashlight at her.  “We’re okay!”

“I should have asked Sergei,” Colleen muttered. She closed the door and returned to the dining room.  Sergei looked up from the table he was clearing.  It was only after dark that the slender Russian was able to bus the tables in the dining area. During the day patrons grew uncomfortable at sight of his scarred, mottled face. Because she liked having customers, and because she liked Sergei, Colleen moved him to evenings and lowered the lights. He was quiet, worked hard and had eyes that reminded her of Leonardo DiCaprio, only under black hair instead of blond.

His look was questioning, as if he had heard her mention his name, and she gave her head a small shake to tell him never mind.  He went back to his work and she took out her cell phone. Then she put it back in her pocket. No sense calling the police. She’d get Sergei to walk her out to her car for the next week and nix any nefarious plans for purse or person, should that be the reason for skulking under the shed. She didn’t think so, hoped not, but a couple times there had been some nastiness after hours, making Colleen glad for the presence of her knucklehead cooks and scary Russian.

A week passed before she saw something new. On yet another dumpster trip she noticed a half empty water bottle on its side beside one wheel of the dumpster. Colleen intended to pick it up and put it in, but the cell phone in her pocket rang and she stepped away to get better reception. Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement.  She turned around and stared.  The water bottle was gone. Colleen returned inside the restaurant.

Sergei looked up from a sink of dishes and reached for a towel.  “What is it?”

Normally Colleen liked how the intuitive Sergei cut right to the chase in his thick Russian accent, but today it unnerved her.  “Tell me now,” he said.

“Last week someone was hiding beneath the shed.  I don’t know how it’s possible, but today I think they’re under the dumpster.”

Sergei reached for a bag of garbage.  No doubtful questions, no standing around asking if she was sure.  Colleen watched him go out the door.

He didn’t come back the rest of the shift.

At closing, Colleen considered calling the police and telling them she had sent her Russian dishwasher out to find a dumpster diver and he had yet to return, but Shawn and Ricky talked her out of it. “He’s half Roma, you know,” said Shawn knowingly.

“What does that mean?”

“It means he’s been kicked around enough to know how to take care of himself,” Ricky informed her.

Colleen wondered how they knew this about the silent Sergei, but did not ask.  She had no idea what being Roma was and wasn’t sure she wanted to from the gleam in Ricky’s eye.

The next morning at the restaurant Sergei was waiting for her. Her look of relief caused the side of his mouth to twitch and when she saw it she grew annoyed. “You couldn’t call? I was worried sick.”

“I have him,” he said by way of greeting.

“You have who?” Colleen looked around. Sergei indicated she should follow him around back.  Colleen walked after him and her jaw dropped as she saw what appeared to be half a man, torso, arms, and head, trussed up with electrical cord.  “My god, Sergei,” she whispered, and approached the misshapen form with dread. “What did you do?”

The eyes in the dark face popped open and looked at her. Colleen’s vision went dark and her knees buckled. Sergei caught and steadied her. He gave her wrist a small pinch. She took a deep breath and focused on the half man again, dark-skinned, bone-thin frame under a ragged cotton covering, staring with a black, sullen gaze.

“He is from India…or Pakistan,” Sergei said and let go of her.

“How did he get here?”

The Russian shrugged as if the question was a silly one.  “The port is not far.”

“Right, of course.  What happened to him?”

“I look beneath his shirt. He is born like this; legs like a tiny baby under the chest.”

“Oh, dear.  How long has he been hiding under my shed?”

“I don’t know.  What will you do with him?”

Colleen stared.  The electrical cords around the half man appeared very tight.  She opened her mouth and Sergei held up a hand.  “If I loosen cord he will escape.  He is very fast on his hands.”

She swallowed.  “I’ll call the police.”

Sergei snorted.  “Why police?  What has he done but eat your garbage?”

“He’s a vagrant, and in a few months it’ll be cold.”

Sergei shook his head and appeared disturbed.

Colleen offered a compromise. “I don’t have to call the police.  I’ll find some agency to take care of–”

“Sure,” Sergei interjected.  “They take care by deporting him.  Where he is from, there is not even food in garbage for his kind.  He live like rat here, he is eaten by rats there.”

“Okay, what then?” Colleen was growing frustrated.  “What should–”  She stopped, suddenly suspicious. The previous night she had looked up what being Roma meant. “Why tie him up like this if you only want to let him go? Tell me this isn’t some weird gypsy con.”

The insult went deep.  The turn of his head was abrupt as Sergei looked away.  “He is dangerous to get close.  To kill him I think would be best, to show most mercy.”

“Kill–are you insane?” Colleen’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “Sergei, we don’t do that here.”

“So I free him.  He will go.  He is too frightened of me to come again.”

“But then he’ll just be someone else’s problem.”

“How is this problem?” Sergei was exasperated. “Because you have to look at him and know he is eating your garbage?”

Before she could reply, Sergei produced a long sharp knife and reached for the half man.  A shriek rose in the back of Colleen’s throat, but it died as the blade slit not through flesh but electrical cord.  With the bonds loosed the half man made a noise through his nose and swung away across the ground faster than Colleen would have believed possible.  Sergei straightened and replaced his knife.  “I find new job now.”   He walked away across the parking lot.

“Sergei, wait!” Colleen called.  “I’m sorry!  I shouldn’t have said what I did.  Please.  Don’t go.”

He didn’t stop and though Colleen wanted to, she couldn’t leave the restaurant and go after him. She had frozen deliveries coming and no one else was there to meet them. Later she made every effort, but Colleen could find no trace of him and his last paycheck went uncollected, a true mark of wounded pride according to Shawn and Ricky. Colleen felt sick, sincerely regretted her remark about the gypsies, hated herself for having blurted it out, but didn’t know how to take it back. Sergei had no phone that she knew of and all the letters she sent to his last address came back unopened. She had no idea how to find him.

There was no sign of the half-man either, but the full dinners she began leaving on the pile of trash inside the dumpster mysteriously disappeared after about ten days.  At first she knew it was raccoons or cats getting into them, but then the Styrofoam containers themselves began to disappear, so she assumed the half man was back and eating very well for a change. Colleen kept close watch, but saw no trace of where he might be sleeping or hiding. Shawn and Ricky thought she was nuts, particularly when she added a fork and spoon to one night’s offering.

A month after Sergei’s departure, the ice cream store down the block from Colleen’s restaurant went out of business and the plate glass windows were boarded up.  On the morning of the first hard frost Colleen was on her way to the restaurant when she spied the tiniest curl of smoke coming from one corner of the boarded up ice cream store.  Her first instinct was to call the fire department.  Then she remembered the half man and paused with her finger on the button until she was sure the store was not in fact burning down.  After closing the next evening she placed a bag of food, a two liter bottle of water and two heavy blankets in her car.  Shawn and Ricky shook their heads as they watched her get in and drive away.  They stood beside their cars and smoked cigarettes.

“She thinks she found the half guy,” said Shawn. “I bet you twenty bucks.”

“Maybe she’ll hire him to wash dishes,” Ricky replied.

“Which reminds me, my sister saw Sergei, said he works at the hospital now.”

“You’re kidding.  Doing what?”

“Some kind of half-assed janitor or maintenance guy.”

“No shit. Hey, I need to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“All right, dude, later.”

The two tossed their butts and went their separate ways.

Colleen was still sitting in her car behind the boarded up ice cream store when the cooks drove by.  She fumbled to put batteries inside the flashlight she had purchased to leave there–in case the half man ever needed light. Once the batteries were in she placed the flashlight in her bag of goodies and opened the door to get out and explore the exterior of the building.  It didn’t take long to find the loose piece of plywood and the broken glass underneath. She moved it then went back to her car for the blankets and bag.  On her hands and knees she carefully squeezed in through the opening and dug around for the flashlight because the store was pitch black inside.

“It’s just me, from the restaurant,” she said cautiously and heard her voice echo.  “Don’t worry.  I’m here to bring you some–”

A fork through her larynx, the very same fork she had placed so carefully inside a Styrofoam container so many dinners ago, prevented her from finishing the sentence.  Incredibly strong hands grabbed her by the throat, ripped up with the fork and flooded her esophagus with blood.  Colleen clawed and scratched then fell back with a gurgling sound.  A hand snatched up the bag of food and the blankets before a swift exit was made through the plywood.

Sergei knew something was up when he came across Shawn and Ricky smoking cigarettes in the hospital parking lot.  For one to be there alone was nothing but together it had to be restaurant-related.  Though he was curious he would have kept walking if Ricky hadn’t spotted him and called out, “Sergei!  Hey, man, how are you?  Did you hear about Colleen?”

“It’s not good, brother,” Shawn added.

“What?” Sergei asked, and they told him what they knew, how Colleen had crawled out of the ice cream store all bloody and flagged down a car.  Then they told him about the fork, the dinners and all the ways she tried to find Sergei after he left.

“We just left her,” Shawn said. “She got through surgery okay but she’s not gonna be talking for a while. We told the cops about the half guy but they acted like we were crazy. You should go see her, man. She’d really like that.”

“Maybe,” Sergei said, but during his break he found her room number. The door was open and he peered inside.  Her neck was swathed in bandages. She appeared to be sleeping, but when he turned to leave, a box of facial tissues hit the door and he looked back to see her pale white fingers beckoning. Colleen’s eyes were large and dark as he came to stand beside the bed. She reached for his hand and squeezed it, then she made a writing motion. Seeing nothing handy, Sergei removed the pen from his breast pocket and pointed to her palm, where she wrote I’VE MISSED YOU. PLEASE FORGIVE ME?  She held up the palm and waited the long moment it took before he nodded. Then she reached for his hand and wrote something in his palm.

After work that evening Sergei went out and did not return to his rented room.  For the next eight hours he searched. and finally in the cold dawn he was rewarded when he spied something crawl over the lid of a dumpster behind a burger place half a mile from Colleen’s restaurant.  Sergei crept up to the dumpster and took out his knife.  When the half man threw an arm over the side to pull himself out, Sergei grabbed the man by the neck and stabbed at the hand and the arm that had wielded the fork against Colleen.  The half man savagely bit and scratched while Sergei hacked until the arm came away just below the elbow and hung by a shred of flesh.  Blood pumped black onto the garbage in the dumpster.  The half man keened in pain then growled and clamped his good hand over the gushing wound.  He gasped a word that Sergei knew meant Why?

“Because I am only half Rom,” he said, and shoved at the man’s face with the palm upon which Colleen had written SHOW MOST MERCY.

Sergei then wiped the blood from his knife and walked away.

Copyright © S.K. Epperson

Lastly… 

 

Dinah peered through the thick glass of the restaurant and wondered how one person could eat so much in the morning. On the table nearest the window were scrambled eggs, sausage, an order of pancakes, a breakfast burrito, a cherry turnover, two containers of orange juice and one coffee. The breakfast bounty was for one large woman with a drooling interest in the latest copy of a tabloid, the headline of which proclaimed Bat Boy Needs Eye Surgery.

“Over there,” said Mick. “The geek by the street side window, the one with the stringy hair.”

Dinah looked. She swallowed. “Mick, can’t you do this one?”

“Sure, I could. But I wouldn’t be helping you if I did. Time to bust cherry, Dinah. Go for it.”

“Wait,” she said uneasily. “Are you sure he isn’t dangerous?”

The red-haired Mick sighed. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I know dangerous when I see it.”

Dinah placed her back to the window. “That’s what you said yesterday. I’d call a twelve-pound mace pretty dangerous.”

“Hey.” He lifted a freckled hand. “Renaissance freaks are like that. This is McDonald’s. No one’s pulling metal in here.”

Funny, Dinah seemed to recall reading about an incident where someone did in fact pull metal in a McDonald’s. Heavy-resulting-in-several-dead-metal.

Mick watched her. “I knew this wasn’t gonna work. Little candy-ass girl wanting to play hardball. It’s the same old shit. I suppose you’re gonna tell me you only wanna do the girls?”

“No, I didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t know we’d be dealing with so many nuts. That guy yesterday could’ve killed us.”

“Me, you mean,” Mick corrected. “You never left the fucking car.”

“You told me not to,” Dinah reminded him.

Mick looked at his watch and expelled a loud breath. “Come on. Get your ass in there and do it. He’s not going to run and he’s not going to dunk you in his coffee. I swear the guy’s harmless. Crazy maybe, but harmless. I know he is, because I did him the first time. He’s just another street nut.”

“Why are you in such a hurry?” Dinah asked. “You said he was here from eight in the morning until ten. It’s only eight-thirty.”

Mick growled under his breath. “Look, Miss Blondie Blue Eyes, I’m not wasting the whole goddamn morning here. Now, I’m going in to get a cup of coffee, you wanna stand out here and piss in your panties that’s just fine with me.” When Dinah’s head jerked around he continued, “You’ve been shifting feet and squeezing knees for the last five minutes. Now come on. Jesus, you’re like a ten year old.”

He was already moving toward the entrance. Dinah had no choice but to follow him; she seriously did have to pee.

Mick got his coffee and sat on the opposite side of the room from their man. Dinah made a note of Mick’s table and hurried to the bathroom. She told herself that when she came out she would simply walk over to Richard Heffel and get it over with. With Mick there it would be easy. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. He’d been mean to her from the first day, said she was too pretty and soft for this kind of work, but she thought Mick liked her.

She changed her mind about that when she came out of the bathroom to find him gone. Mick left a napkin propped up on his table. The scrawl on the napkin said he would be back for her by ten o’clock.

“Shit.” Dinah wadded up the napkin then apologized to the raised eyebrows of the gluttonous woman with the tabloid.

A feeling of being watched made her glance at the table by the street side window. Richard Heffel was smiling at her. Abruptly Dinah turned and made her way to the counter to order a cup of coffee.

“Make it two,” said a voice behind her.

She didn’t have to turn. The guy was fast.

The counter girl stood waiting.

Dinah’s mouth was dry. “Uh…okay. Two coffees.”

“Thanks,” Heffel said.

Dinah still couldn’t make herself turn around. Only when the coffee appeared and one long, thin arm reached past her to collect a cup did she dare to glance at him. His hair was longer than she had at first thought; oily, blond, with wispy ends that reached the middle of his back. His beard was scraggly, reddish-gold, and unusually fine for facial hair. His eyes were solid green, no flecks or darker splotches in the irises. The whites were clear.

He smiled again and she saw that his teeth were still in good condition. Most of the street people she encountered had rotten stubs or no teeth at all.

“I…have something for you,” she said.

“I know.” He gestured for her to follow him back to his table. “I recognized the man you came in with.”

Dinah hesitated, looked around then decided she would be reasonably safe with so many people in the restaurant. She carried her coffee to his table and sat down without looking at him.

“Go ahead pretty lady,” he said. “Serve me.”

She blinked. Then she opened her purse and handed him the summons. “I haven’t been a process server very long,” she explained. “I’m glad you’re being cooperative.”

Heffel laughed a surprisingly soft and somehow charming sound. Dinah felt herself begin to relax. Maybe he was harmless after all. Not all crazy people were dangerous, were they?

She forced herself to speak slowly. “I used to work for the judge who issued this. What it’s telling you is that you’re in contempt. You haven’t paid the child support the judge ordered you to pay. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Heffel said. “But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that I have no children. I have no wife.”

Dinah tried to smile. “Well at one time you did, Mr. Heffel. That’s what this is all about.”

Heffel eyed his coffee sadly. “What a terrible waste of the taxpayer’s money. You can see I have nothing.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s not my concern,” Dinah responded, though she did wonder at the reasoning behind the summons. The man was clearly indigent now, regardless of what he may have had before.

“I was required to fertilize the egg,” Heffel explained. “I did. But my responsibility ended there, in that moment. I told her it did.”

Dinah couldn’t help herself. “So you agreed to donate sperm and that was all? It was an in-vitro birth?”

“Not at all. There was definite coitus.” He smiled again.

“Then how can you say you have no responsibility? You were married to her, right? It’s not like you’re some fish swimming around and spawning.”

“I’m not a fish, no,” Heffel agreed. He lifted one arm and pointed to his bicep. “I’m a snake. See the scales?”

Dinah saw dry skin was all. She sipped her coffee and told herself it was useless to argue with a nut. She had heard Mick call him the Snake Man, but she’d thought it was because of a tattoo or something. This was…well, that’s why he was crazy and homeless, she guessed. After looking at her watch she decided to humor him. “Do you have fangs, Mr. Heffel?”

He frowned. “I do, but I don’t use them. I’m an anaconda.”

“Okay,” she said with a smile. “When did this affliction, uh, strike you?”

He missed the pun.

“After I was recruited for the Drug Enforcement Administration. We were flying from La Paz, Bolivia to Caracas, Venezuela when our plane went down in—“

“Wait, let me guess,” Dinah said. “Near the Amazon river, right? In the jungle.”

Heffel nodded. “That’s right. The nearest town was a place called Fonte Boa, but I didn’t know that when we crashed. I didn’t know where we were. I’d been sleeping when we went down, you see, and I woke up to find myself alone. There was only one other agent besides myself. And the pilot, of course.”

“And the mission was probably hush hush,” Dinah said, enjoying herself. “So the DEA didn’t bother to look for you. They couldn’t acknowledge your existence, let alone search for you, right?”

“Exactly,” Heffel said. “We had a cover story that explained our reasons for being in South America but our actual assignment was to follow the movements of one man and gather information on his operations.”

Dinah nodded. She’d watched enough of Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal to know where this was going. “A vicious drug kingpin?”

“Yes,” Heffel said in excitement. “He was in La Paz to guarantee shipments of ether to three cocaine processing plants in Colombia. In Caracas he was to meet with two pilots, both Americans. My partner recognized one of the men as a former agent. Anyway, after we crashed I got out and discovered the reason, we were shot down. A plane circled the site of the crash for ten minutes—I could swear it was an old B-52, but maybe it was my imagination. I had a compass with me so I decided to start walking. I eventually found the river and then some natives found me.”

“Natives?” Dinah repeated. “As in brown and mostly naked?”

“I still don’t know who they were,” Heffel replied. “They didn’t speak any of the languages I knew. They took me to a small camp—they were obviously nomadic—and turned me over to a woman.”

Okay, here it comes, Dinah thought. “She was their leader?”

“She was the Snake Goddess.”

“Ah.”

Heffel paused and rubbed his eyes, as if suddenly weary of talking. “I know it sounds crazy, but have you ever read the story of Medusa?”

A crazy man thinking something sounded crazy was what Dinah thought was crazy. “Who hasn’t?” she said. “Mythology, right? Lady with snakes for hair?”

Heffel nodded. “She was the only mortal of three Gorgons.”

Dinah lifted her cup to hide her smile. “And completely lost her head over it.”

Heffel’s green eyes flickered. “I just realized that I haven’t asked your name. I don’t usually care about names, but I’d like to know yours.”

Dinah gave a shrug and told him.

He repeated it three times, slowly.

“Okay,” Dinah said, creeped out. “So what happened after they turned you over to the queen?”

“She was a goddess, a daughter of one of the immortal Gorgons.”

“All right. A goddess. What happened?”

“She kept me in a cage for a week and just stared at me. She seemed enamored of my coloring, as if she’d never seen blond hair and blue eyes before.”

His eyes are green, Dinah told herself as she listened. Does he not remember?

“The second week she began feeding me a strange, bitter-tasting mixture of roots and menses. Hers. She fed this to me for six days and every night she took me out of the cage and stroked and played with me as you would a pet. On the seventh night she copulated with me and performed a ritual.”

Dinah’s mouth pinched in distaste. “What kind of ritual?”

“She anointed my glandular areas with something—I don’t know what. Whatever it was, she took it from a snake thirty feet long and at least a foot and a half wide. Then she allowed the snake to eat me. I have no idea how long it took. The strength of the snake’s contractions was incredible, but it felt like forever before it swallowed my head. I was nearly dead when she slit the snake open and took me out. She was enraged to discover that one of my legs had been broken. Before I passed out I saw her split the head of the snake in two and suck out each eye.”

“Yuck,” Dinah said, her stomach rolling. Okay, the story was interesting—better than the alien tale she and Mick heard last week—but she didn’t go for the gross stuff. And where the hell was Mick? He wasn’t honestly going to leave her here until ten, was he? She nervously glanced at her watch again. “I, uh, thought those snakes squeezed you to death before they ate you?”

“This snake was under her power,” Heffel replied. “That’s why she was so angry about the broken leg. It wasn’t supposed to hurt me.”

“Right,” Dinah said. Unable to resist, she said, “So then what happened?”

Heffel drained his coffee before answering. A single drop cascaded down the side of his mouth and became lost in his beard. “I slept. The next morning I found myself in the back of a Jeep. A group of British ethno-botanists found me. When I asked about the camp and the goddess they looked at me like I was insane. They had seen no trace of a camp.”

“What did they do with you?”

“They set my leg and took me to a clinic, where I made contact with a U.S. ambassador. Then I came home and spent three or four weeks being debriefed. Richard Heffel isn’t my real name, by the way.”

“Of course not,” said Dinah.

Heffel’s green eyes narrowed slightly. Then he sighed. “It was months after my return before I noticed anything wrong. It was gradual, but I felt myself changing. I tried to tell the woman I lived with, but she’d been told by doctors to expect a certain amount of odd behavior. I’d been through a harrowing ordeal, they said, and like other post-traumatic disorders the effects could last for years. Eventually I had to leave her.”

“After fathering a child,” Dinah said.

“Her idea, not mine.”

“Dinah finished her own coffee, now cold. “You used this snake story to justify your desertion?”

Heffel shook his head. “I had to leave. I couldn’t fight it. I was changing inside and it was time to go.”

Dinah smirked. “Time to move on and fertilize other eggs?”

Heffel’s look was direct. “I won’t do that if I can help it. Sometimes I can’t help it.”

Her gaze skittered away from the probing message in his. “So…now you live on the street. I know how you get your coffee; dare I ask what you do for food?”

“No,” he said. “You don’t dare.”

Dinah stared and a creeping sense of peril claimed her as she stared back.

“Dinah,” he said. “Do you believe me?”

The earnest tone of the question made her keep staring. She gave a helpless laugh. “I’m sorry, but how can I?”

“I have a driver’s license that says my eyes used to be blue.”

She tried to tear her gaze away and couldn’t. “They could be contacts. I don’t see any scales, Mr. Heffel. I don’t see anything but a man who’s given up on himself. You don’t have to live on the street, you’re articulate and you appear able-bodied enough to go out and find a job to support yourself—and the child you fathered. If you need help there are plenty of programs available for—“

“No one can help me,” he said harshly. “How can anyone help when they won’t believe me? I’ve been in hospitals and seen dozens of doctors. I’ve told everyone I’ve ever met what happened, but no one will believe me.”

Dinah grew flustered. “Maybe if you had some kind of proof they would. But you don’t. All you have is a wild story about Medusa and a mamba.”

“It wasn’t a mamba.”

“Okay, an anaconda. But you see what I mean, don’t you?”

She forcibly tried to look at her watch and found it impossible. Her eyes were burning with the need to blink.

“I see what you mean,” he said slowly. “So I might as well go on being crazy until I change completely. The seventh year, I figure. That’s probably when the scales will burst from beneath my skin. My eyes are already beginning to slit. Have you noticed?”

Dinah couldn’t notice anything but his eyes. And yes, his pupils were beginning to look strangely oblong. But that was only because…because his story was so good?

“I’m growing stronger every day,” he said. “I don’t have to eat but once or twice a week. It’s the change. I think it’ll end the seventh year because it was on the seventh night that she performed the final ritual. I sleep near the river now, but that’s only because it’s easier to catch animals when they come to…. Anyway, when it happens I’ll probably live down there permanently. I’ll miss coming here and drinking coffee. It’s the only way I can feel like my old self. And talking. I’ll miss talking with people like you.”

Hypnotism, Dinah thought suddenly. Is he hypnotizing me? Did anacondas do that? Did any snake really do that? Just birds, right?

“Dinah, Dinah, Dinah,” he said softly. “You’re so pretty. I might not be able to help myself with you.”

She tensed. It was time to go. She could wait in the parking lot.

“If you want proof I’ll give it to you,” he said. “Just you. The only way I can think of. Maybe then you’ll let me come and see you. We can talk some more. I like you, Dinah. I like you very much.”

Dinah started to speak, tell him no fucking way, but she found her throat as uncooperative as her eyes. Panicking, she jerked her mouth open to shout. Nothing came out. Her throat began to tighten, closing in on itself.

“I learned how to do this just recently, “Heffel said in the same soft tones. “The Goddess did it to me when I panicked. She simply immobilized me. It’s not something I’ve been working on, Dinah, it just came to me one day.”

It was hard to breathe. Dinah lifted her hands to claw at her throat, but even her fingers were sluggish and unresponsive. Lost in the green depths of his gaze, helpless to do anything but stare, she felt something wild and frenzied break loose within her when the hairs of his beard suddenly began to writhe. A tiny yellowish-green head burst forth just below his chin. Another emerged from his scalp. Threadlike black tongues flicked from impossibly small mouths. Heffel didn’t seem to notice.

Dinah tried to throw herself out of her seat. She went nowhere. Her paralysis was complete.

“Is it happening?” Heffel asked her. “What are you seeing, Dinah?”

The truth! she thought wildly.

“Dinah?”

Idiot! She screamed in her mind. He wasn’t going to be a snake. How could he possibly have thought he was going to turn into a snake? He was going to be like her. Like the goddess. Didn’t he know that? How could he be so blind and stupid? Dinah knew the reason for the ritual, the Snake Goddess had wanted him for a mate.

“Do you believe me now?” Heffel asked anxiously.

Dinah’s lungs heaved. She was close to the point of losing consciousness. There was no air. He was killing her. He was squeezing her, swallowing her whole…

“Jesus Christ!” Mick shouted beside her. She saw Heffel start and look away from her, breaking the spell. Mick dragged her from her seat.

“Do the Heimlich!” another voice shouted. “She’s choking on something!” It was the woman with the tabloid and the big appetite.

She had egg on her upper lip, Dinah noted wildly. Eggs.

Mick lifted her off the ground from behind and buried a cruel thumb under her sternum, causing her stomach to give up its contents to the floor, after which Dinah was able to breathe again.

“Don’t call a goddamn ambulance,” she heard Mick say. “I’ll take her myself.”

She expanded her lungs over and over, sucking in air until she could taste it along with the bile on her tongue.

“Dinah, Dinah, Dinah…” came a whispering voice.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Hey, get the hell away from her, asshole.”

“See?” the whispering voice hissed.

Dinah cringed away from it.

When she opened her eyes again she was in the car. Mick pulled her skirt down over her thighs and put her hands in her lap before he slammed the door. When he climbed behind the wheel he said, “I’m not going to argue about this. We’re going to the emergency room. Whatever you were choking on may still be lodged in your pipe. Nothing came out but coffee.”

“That’s all I had,” she croaked. “I didn’t eat anything. I never eat breakfast. What about the Snake Man? Did anyone see what happened to him?”

Mick started the engine and put the car in gear. “What do you mean? He’s still sitting there looking like the damn dummy he is. He would’ve let you choke to death. Goddamn psychos. What the hell were you doing talking to him? You were supposed to serve the paper, period.”

Dinah ignored him. Her pulse pounded. No one had seen. No one but her.

“Mick, you were right,” she said in a rush. “I can’t handle this job. I want to quit, and I want you to take me home right now.”

“No way,” Mick said. “You’re going to see a doctor. You don’t know how blue your face was in there. Scared the shit out of me.”

“Please,” Dinah said frantically. “He knows my name, Mick. I told him. I have to get home and get my things.”

Mick glanced at her. “What’s wrong with you? Did he threaten you?”

“Not in…he didn’t…Mick, just forget the doctor and take me home. I have to get away before he realizes what’s really happening to him. He’ll want someone of his own and he’ll come looking for me because I saw his proof and I know and…please take me home. I’m begging you.”

Mick was frowning. “Hey, don’t come apart on me, all right? I said you were too much of a looker for this job. Guys’ll come on to you, crazy or sane. They see a pretty girl and they think they can either sweet talk or intimidate her. I should’ve known Heffel would lay his best stuff on you. Sonofabitching shrinks make the worst crazies.”

“Shrink?” Dinah said.

“Yeah. Didn’t you read the file? The guy has a degree in psychiatry.”

Psychiatry. Dinah sagged against the seat in relief. She had the hysterical urge to laugh. So she had been hypnotized after all. Somehow.

She coughed in embarrassment and leaned her head back, unable to believe her own gullibility. Mick had been right all along; she was too soft for this kind of work, too easily suckered by a charming liar with a good story. A psychiatrist. Good God you’re dumb, Dinah. Dumb, dumb, dumb…

She gave Mick a weak smile. “I guess I should have read his file. What happened to make him like he is? Did he snap under professional pressure or something?

Mick lifted a shoulder. “He didn’t have time. He never got to practice. After graduation Heffel and this other newbie flew down to South America to learn a treatment from this world famous guy. On the way there they got kidnapped by a bunch of rebels. They broke every bone in the other guy’s body, but Heffel came out alive and distinctly wacko, as I’m sure you noticed. He claimed his friend got fed to a huge snake by a very weird lady. Crazy. Anyway, that’s why he’s called the Snake—hey, are you sure you don’t need to see a doctor? You’re getting paler by the minute.”

Dinah sat up. Her throat hitched in remembered anguish. “Home…” she managed.

“Don’t look like that,” Mick said. “You’re scaring me again.”

“Home!” Dinah shouted. “I have to pack! He wants to fertilize my eggs, Mick! Take me home!”

“Okay, okay, Christ you’re a nutty broad. Just calm down and tell me where you live.”

Dinah wiped her perspiring forehead and touched her throat. She flicked away the tiny scale she found there and heard herself whimper.

“I live on Riverbend Drive. Right on the river. Hurry, Mick. Please hurry.”

Copyright © S.K. Epperson

Copyright © S.K. Epperson

A somewhat different version was published (a long, long time ago) in a little magazine called 2A.M.   Anyone remember them?

 


One Response to “Short Fiction”

  1. An cool post there mate . Thanks for it !

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