Finding Gold on the Emerald Isle || Benjamin Christensen

“So,” Andy says, lowering his pint of Heineken. “Where ya from then?”

The Brazen Head is loud. It’s not American-college-bar-loud, where drunken sorority chicks whoo after having a shot of tequila, but loud with the murmur of conversation. Glasses clang and people laugh. The bar is rustic and the walls are plastered with pictures and framed articles. The area we’re sitting in is small and filled with people, though it doesn’t feel the least bit cramped. It’s the oldest pub in Dublin, and we found it by simply wandering around.

“The States,” I say. And then to add a notable area, “Just outside of Boston.”

If we’re going for precision, I’m from Connecticut. I never say it with any conviction. Truth be told, if I’m in a city where no one knows my name, sometimes I’m from New York, Wisconsin, or maybe even Denver. Restlessness is something I’ve learned to deal with. While I know I’m far from alone in my desire to be someplace other than where I currently am, I don’t know how common it is to not really feel like you’re from anywhere.

“Ah,” Andy says. “Cheers then!”

***

Depending on what living relative you ask and what census record you attempt to interpret, I am either third or fourth generation Irish. Regardless of the specifics, part of me hails from Ireland, and I’ve wanted to travel there since I was just a kid. However, nine years ago when I was supposed to board a plane for Dublin, I crashed my car head-on, forfeiting the money I had saved for my self-awarded high-school graduation present in favor of a down payment on a new ride. For the foreseeable future, Ireland took a backseat.

Nearly a decade was far into the foreseeable future. Too long. But it wasn’t spent being complacent in New England. Florida occurred on several occasions. Peru and a hike into the Andes to touch Machu Picchu’s sacred stones happened. I’ve traveled to Colorado twice, been kissed by a wolf, but never made it to Dublin.

With a little shame (and a lot of reservation) I’m willing to admit that fear was the reason it took me so long to get here. I was afraid that if I went, I would never come back.

It’s a laughable reason to many, met with an eye roll and an, “Okay, but in reality, with bills and everything?” However, it could happen with little more than a thought. I get this look in my eye, or so my girlfriend, Eryka, says.

In regards to Ireland, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if walking through a cemetery and seeing my mother’s maiden name, or hiking along trails in the same place my great-great-great grandfather and his family lived, would make me feel at home enough to stay.

***

Situated on a street corner, about a block away from the River Lee in Cork City, is The Oliver Plunkett. Or, as its second floor is known as, The Frisky Irish Whiskey Bar. It’s a place where everyone sings when the Irish rugby team takes the field or cheers and applauds when Wales scores against Italy.

We find this place not by an internet search or travel suggestion, but by again randomly wandering into a bar (albeit a different bar) where we meet a group of people on holiday from England.

After a few pints and laughing about my poor ability to translate Gaelic, it is like we’ve known each other our entire lives. We take a few pictures together for either Facebook or a physical photo album, even though we had never seen them before and would in all likelihood never see them again. As we start to leave, they begin to rave about the Oliver Plunkett, its second-floor bar, and its smoke room.

“So, we’ll see you there, right?” one of the gents asks.

“Sounds good,” I say and we’re on the street following signs to the center of the city.

The bar is as cool as they described it. The downstairs dining area is packed and the hostess can’t get us a table, but seeing as neither of us is hungry we shrug, say thanks, and head upstairs.

When you think Irish pub, you’re imagining the Frisky Irish Whiskey Bar.

We grab two seats in front of the taps (thank the saints for draft Heineken at every bar) and order two drinks. Behind us, people cheer at a large projection screen. Italy scored against Wales in the Rugby Six Nations tournament. A woman dressed as a leprechaun starts chanting and people laugh with their glasses raised. No one, not the young women behind the bar, the guys sitting on adjacent stools staring at their phones, nor the people cheering and yelling at the screen, ask us where we’re from. In that bar, we are Irish and nothing else.

The game ends and we have a half-hour until the next one starts. The pub is getting busy because the game coming up is Ireland versus Scotland. I look at Eryka and say, “We have to stay.”

I’m not a sports guy. I can’t remember the last Super Bowl I’ve watched in its entirety, but you bet your ass I caught that entire match.

***

My grandfather on my mother’s side died in an accident long before I was born. I’ve only seen his face in pictures. As far as I know, there are only a few of those still around. A few days before we left I opened a card while sitting at my mother’s kitchen table and inside was one of those pictures.

She stopped cooking for a second and told me, “Your grandfather and your uncle were always playing jokes and doing ridiculous things. They called a taxi one time, loaded the trunk full of shopping bags and when the guy asked where to, they pointed across the street, a few buildings down.”

I laughed as she continued, “So here’s what I want you to do: I want you to leave this picture somewhere in Ireland.”

It took me a second before I looked at her and asked, “What?”

“I want you to leave this picture somewhere in Ireland. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the wall of some bar or in the Jameson distillery or wherever you think is right, but, because you’re the first of the boys to make it back home, I want you to pick a spot and leave this picture there.”

I held the corner of the picture between my thumb and forefinger and thought, There’s that word again.

***

“Do you know where you’re going to leave it?” Eryka asks.

I flick the photograph between my fingers and tuck it back inside my notebook.

“Nope.”

I had thought of Sheep’s Head Peninsula. We had earmarked it as a place to stop and do some hiking between Cork and Killarney, but we never made it. The weather was being too cooperative and I couldn’t see the point in spending a few extra hours in the car when I was sure there were other places closer to where we were.

One of those places? Killarney National Forest.

After parking, we walk around the Muckross House estate. Its manor that, along with the surrounding gardens, looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Lush plants and bushes line gravel walking paths and trees whose massive trunks are hugged tightly with green vines. Breaking away from the gardens, we follow signs for Torc Waterfall. Sealed in a plastic bag, the picture of my grandfather is tucked inside my pocket.

We don’t spend a lot of time at the falls; a group of people have stopped and are taking pictures. After a minute or two we press on, up three or four-dozen slabs of stone embedded as stairs in the hillside. Around a bend there’s an overlook, allowing an unobstructed view of Muckross Lake and Lough Leane. There’s no rain. Not even a cloud overhead. Just blue sky and sun. Eryka looks at me and I know she knows. After waiting for several people to pass, I trek off the trail for a couple dozen yards and find a spot to bury the photograph of my grandfather. I pat the ground and smile, pausing to take in the woods around me.

Eryka smiles when I get back to the trail, and we stay at the overlook for a few minutes more before continuing. We come to a bridge where a several mid-twenties are sitting with their dog. They ask me to take a picture and make sure to get the dog in there as well. He’s family too of course. I smile, thinking of my own animals waiting for me to come back.

Our next hike is in Liscannor, County Clare along a cliff side that anyone would recognize as the iconic picture of Ireland. Walking along that edge, the ocean air feels different than it does stateside. I don’t know if it’s the Cliffs of Moher themselves that give it the cooler, crisper feeling but whatever it is, I’m relishing it.

I stare out at the expanse of the Atlantic and think of how far we traveled in the matter of a short flight. Five or so hours, and we’re in a different world. I think of all the differences, both apparent and subtle. The countryside behind me is so much like the farmlands in Connecticut and yet it is so drastically different it’s almost indescribable. It took me almost a decade, but I am where I wanted to be. The trouble is, I still don’t feel at home.

I know that when I go back to the States and people ask me if I’d move to Ireland I will say yes because the truth is that I would. It is a gorgeous place with friendly people and a rich history. But, in the same respect, so is New England. As I’m sure Norway is as well. And Alaska. And New Zealand. The only way to be sure is to go to each of these places and find out. To walk the gravel paths and drive the roads laid out before us. Who knows, maybe when I get there and someone asks where I’m from, I’ll tell them Dublin.

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.

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Chumming for Sharks || Kimberly Parish

Cash at the end of the day. That’s all I was after. I knew I wouldn’t be able to trade on my looks forever, but if my bikini helped me to land a job, so be it. Who was I to turn down work on a rich man’s boat? I was winding up a varnishing job in a little marina just south of Ft. Lauderdale in Dania, and I’d gone up to the café for lunch when all hell broke loose.

It started with the big powerboat at the end of the T-dock suddenly going quiet—generators and everything. Next thing I knew people were yelling and running. The cops got there fast. You couldn’t really see much from then on once the ambulance came to take away what was left of the poor guy. Somehow the sign the captain swears he hung on the ignition key in the wheelhouse wasn’t there when the mate switched on the mains. You know, the one that says, “DIVER DOWN. DO NOT START MAIN ENGINE.” He claims the captain radioed and told him to fire it up to test something and there wasn’t any sign. The captain says he wasn’t even there when it happened. He never called the mate, and there’s nobody to corroborate his story. Poor guy. The cops hauled him off.

Pretty much everybody who’d been milling around trying to see what was going on headed to the café for a beer. It was only one o’clock, but the accident convinced us to give up on doing anything meaningful for the rest of the afternoon. It was our way of showing respect for the dead. I found myself seated next to a deep-sea fishing boat captain whose shirt had “Deep Sea Dan” embroidered over his left breast pocket. He had crinkly leather skin, a gold signet ring, and greasy hair slicked back like the Atlantic City crowd that wintered in South Florida.

“Haven’t seen you here before,” he said.

“I’m doing some varnishing up in the yard.”

“That would explain the dust.” He looked me over, taking in the bandana around my head, the clear patches where my sunglasses had been, my bikini top and cut-off jeans—all of it covered in the fine yellow dust that clung to anyone stripping old varnish.

“Yeah, we’re taking a sweet little Chris-Craft back to bare wood. She is going to be gorgeous.”

“Oh right. On the hard. You pass it coming in from the parking lot.”

“That’s the one.” I sipped my beer. “Any idea who that diver was?”

“Some Italian kid. Guarino? I can’t remember. He’s scraped barnacles off my boat’s hull before.” Dan took a pull from his beer and said, “So do you only do varnishing?”

“No, no. I do just about any kind of day-work. I’ll be looking for another job next week. You need your boat washed? Bilges painted?”

“Well,” said Deep Sea Dan, “I might. Do you have a card?”

“Yes sir!” I whipped out my business card. It said, “Olivia Cleans Boats” and my phone number.

***

That evening, back aboard Gypsy, my guy Talbot and I were just finishing dinner and he said, “So you gave this old geezer your card?”

Tal’s a tall skinny guy who used to do custom cabinetry, but he also used to run drugs from Colombia, and he got caught. He’d nearly finished ten years as a guest of the State of Florida—he only had six months or parole left to serve, and until that was up he had to work at a licensed facility that paid peanuts.

“He wasn’t that bad, but yeah. I got nothing for next week. One of us needs a job that pays something.”

“Don’t get sassy with me, girl. I worry about you. You never know who you’re working for,” Talbot said.

“Maybe, but it beats the hell out of me riding the bike all over Ft. Lauderdale just to find a job every morning.”

“At least get the guy’s name. ‘Deep Sea Dan’ tells me nothing.”

***

Captain Dan called me early that Friday morning.

“Olivia? This is Dan Johnson. You remember? From the Lulabel?

“Deep Sea Dan?”

He chuckled. “That’s right.”

“Yes, Captain. How can I help you?”

“I wonder if you might be interested in going out on the boat today? My regular mate isn’t available.”

“What would you need me to do?”

“Helm and clean-up mostly. There’s nothing to it. I handle the fishing lines. A hundred dollars for the day. It’s just the owner going out today. He won’t stay too long. He just likes to take a ride, catch a nice dolphin for dinner. How soon can you get here?”

***

The old man, Mr. Agnoli, was no trouble at all. He traveled with a fox terrier named Pookie. (I shit you not. Pookie!) I hardly spoke to him. Dan showed me how to drive the boat once we cleared the cut. Lulabel’s big twin diesels made her easy to handle. He went down and looked after the boss. He didn’t just bait the hooks, he even landed the fish. The boss just sat smoking a cigar and enjoying the breeze. Dude wore horn-rimmed coke-bottle glasses tinted a shade of green I’d only ever seen on old men. Little bits of dialogue drifted up to me in the tuna tower. It sounded like they were speaking Italian. When we got back to the dock, Dan showed me how he liked the fish fileted. Then I washed the boat down and went home.

We rocked along like that with Dan calling two or three days a week, and it was almost always the boss. Sometimes with and sometimes without his wife. The only thing that came up was when the missus, Lucile, the Lu in Lulabel, with daughters Laura and Isabella accounting for the La and the Bel, told Dan that I was to keep my blouse buttoned up at all times. Guess the old man had commented on my bikini top. It irked me, but I respected the old girl’s wishes. From then on, I wore khakis, boat shoes, and a buttoned white blouse. I’d only ever strip down to the bathing suit once everybody’d gone, so I could clean fish and wash down.

Dan would go off to the bar with them and leave me to put the boat to bed. He came back one evening as I was finishing up and pulled the creeper routine on me, though. Grossed me right out. When I told Talbot about it, he acted like he was gonna go confront Captain Dan.

“Man! I don’t trust that guy.” He stomped around on deck, grumbling.

“He’s harmless. Probably can’t even get it up,” I said.

“You don’t find many Italians named Johnson. I bet that’s not even his real name.”

“Tal, what is your problem? It’s easy work, and I’m making the money for two weeks’ worth of groceries in a day. Who cares if the dude doesn’t use his real name?”

***

It wasn’t long after that we took the Desideris out. Captain Dan called later than he usually did. I was already on the bike asking around at the small marinas on 17th Street.

“Can you go fishing today? I got a last-minute charter. There’s some tip money in it.”

Turns out it was a guy named Desideri and his son. The son’s name was Rick, and he might have been twenty. It was hard to tell. He could have been younger too. Dan gave the dad a funny look when they arrived, and the guy smiled and said something I didn’t quite catch, but it put Dan in a bad mood for the whole trip. Never took his eyes off those two. He sent me up the tuna tower immediately—even let me take her out through Port Everglades—like he didn’t trust our guests alone on deck. He came up to spell me for a few minutes about mid-morning and saw I was sweating.

“The boss’s wife isn’t here. You can peel down to the swimsuit if you want. Might add to the tips.”

The Desideris wanted to go shark fishing, and Dan had just poured out the bloody, smelly mess he mixed up to chum for sharks when a huge tiger shark struck. The kid fought for three solid hours. Nobody spelled him. Pissed me off when his dad shot the shark. Dan kept a shotgun propped up on the stern for emergencies, but this guy pulled his own handgun. It was Florida, after all, so I didn’t think much about the fact that he’d brought a handgun. I just figured they’d cut the shark loose. That’s what Dan had told me he usually did with sharks. Instead, we dragged her, all twelve feet of her, in to the dock for pictures. Dan used my phone to take the pictures since his old-school camera used film, and the Desideris wanted pictures they could share right away.

Desideri didn’t even want the meat. Just the jaws. Dan didn’t want the meat either, so Talbot came and butchered the carcass. We still have shark meat in our freezer.

The Desideri boys were gone when Tal got there. He’d had to dinghy all the way around from Lake Sylvia where Gypsy was anchored. It was faster on the bike, but we needed a way to get all that meat home. It was still light out, but only for about an hour. Bottom line is he didn’t get a look at Tommy Desideri until I showed him the pictures we took with the shark that afternoon. He snatched the phone out of my hand.

“What did you say this guy’s name was?”

“Desideri.”

“Tommy?”

“Maybe. The Kid’s name is Rick.”

“Do you know who Tommy Desideri is?”

“No, should I?”

“He’s a hit-man, Olivia. Big time.”

“Seriously?” I thought about it a minute. “He did have a gun. And Dan sure gave him the hairy eyeball. Kind of acted like a jerk all day.”

“He was probably scared shitless. I guarantee you Dan knew who this guy was. I’d be willing to bet you Dan has connections working for Agnoli and all.”

Tal had already dredged up an old article that showed Mr. Agnoli walking out of a New York courtroom when he was younger. Apparently, the old guy had retired from the life, but he still knew people.

“Okay, but Desideri’s kid was with him. I’m sure he was just there to fish. Mr. Agnoli probably owed him a favor or something.”

“A favor, yeah. Baby, I don’t want you working for these people anymore. They carry guns. What if Desideri’s visit wasn’t innocent? These guys don’t leave witnesses.”

***

Once again I didn’t take Tal’s advice. Dan wanted me to come clean the boat. What could be the harm in that? I went down there.

Dan was organizing his tackle, and like an idiot, I said, “Can you believe Talbot thought Mr. Desideri was a hit man?”

“Did he? Wonder what gave him that idea?” Dan didn’t look up.

“I don’t know. He’s from New Jersey, you know?”

I finished my work. Then on the way up the dock to the ATM Dan says, “I’ve enjoyed having you work with me, Liv.” He gave me a weird little sideways nod.

I caught this expression on his face for just a second out of the corner of my eye. It was, I don’t know, regretful? I didn’t know what to say.

Then as we passed by the stern of this big gin palace reversing into a slip, Dan shoved me, hard, into the water. A second later and I’d have been chewed up by those props. I dove right down into the mud and swam under the boats till I had to come up for air. I peeked up over the edge of the dock, and I could see Dan about three slips away looking for me in the water. He had a gun in his hand. He didn’t see me, so I ducked back down and swam to the fuel dock where there were always three or four dinghies tied up. I borrowed one and headed for Gypsy.

***

“You said what?” Talbot shouted at me. He had both hands on my shoulders.

“I told him what you said about Tommy Desideri.” I clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering. “I’m a blabbermouth.” I half expected Talbot to smack me—he looked so angry—but he let out a growl and hugged me instead.

“So he tried to push you into a running prop?”

“Yeah.”

“And you saw him with a gun in his hand?”

“Yeah.”

He let me go and his voice got serious. “We have to move the boat. Now.”

***

We were almost through the Cut when I heard Captain Dan on the radio.

“Port Everglades Pilot, Port Everglades Pilot, This is Lulabel, Whiskey Yankee Papa sixteen twenty-nine.”

“Oh my God, Tal! That’s him.”

“I hear. Get the binoculars. See if you can see him. We need to disappear.”

I couldn’t see Lulabel, but I knew Gypsy’d never outrun her if Dan saw us. I gave up looking and hopped back into the cockpit.

“What are we going to do now?” I know I must have looked desperate. I was still shaking.

“We’re going to outsmart him. Get the main up. We’ll hide among the other sailboats. It’ll be a good downwind run to the Keys.”

That’s when I remembered Rick Desideri’s number was still in my phone. I had texted the shark pictures to him. Thank God for waterproof cases, I thought.

***

We tucked Gypsy into a little hurricane hole Tal knew about. It was in the mangroves north of Key Largo—a deep canal had been dredged so sailboats could shelter in rough weather. At least that’s what Tal said he’d used it for. I figured he knew it from his drug-running days. Right now, that didn’t matter. We were hidden—just not very well—especially if you were up on the US 1 Bridge.

***

It was late afternoon when we heard big engines slow to an idle near the entrance of our canal. We figured Dan would be hunting Gypsy’s mast poking up above the mangroves, so we were in the dinghy hidden back among the mosquitoes in the swamp.

I had the binoculars and saw Dan start down the ladder from the tower. That’s when his head exploded. I swung the bins up to look at the bridge, but I couldn’t see anybody.

“Here we go.” Talbot took a deep breath and gunned the outboard. “Stay low.”

As we had waited for Dan to find us, Tal had told me there was a good chance Desideri would try to take us out too, so I knew it wasn’t over yet.

Tal tied the dinghy’s painter to the mid-ships cleat. He started Gypsy’s engine while I ran up on deck to make sure the anchor chain didn’t foul coming aboard as it so often did. We couldn’t afford to let anything slow us down. Tal steered us straight out to sea.

***

Up on the bridge, Tommy Desideri clapped his son on the shoulder. “Good shooting, boy.”

Rick watched Gypsy fade into the distance. “You should have let me take them too, Dad.”

“They did us a solid setting old Stefano up for us like that. We can afford to give them a head start. It’s more sporting that way.”

“That’s not what you taught me. I hope you’re right. That girl has pictures of us.”

“We got the one we came for. Crazy Stefano Gabrielli. Not bad for your first contract hit. Old dude was legendary back in the day. He got to enjoy the sun for a while down here, but don’t get cocky, kid. You give out your phone number to a girl again and I’ll pop you myself.”

“Come on, Dad. You have to admit she’s hot.”

“Old Stefano got distracted on account of that girl, and we got lucky. It won’t always be this easy. I think he went soft.”

“Oh? And aren’t you the one who killed the wrong shark when we were out on the boat? I think you went soft.”

“He wasn’t supposed to have any crew on the boat.”

“And if it hadn’t been a pretty girl would you have hesitated?”

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.

Night of the Clowns || Derek Rushlow

Peter Hewett didn’t remember it ever being this cold and miserable on Halloween night in Mackinaw City. Sure, he lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a place notorious for cold weather and heavy snowfall once the winter season arrived. But cold and rainy?

It couldn’t be in the 60’s and clear like the previous day. It had to be rainy and in the mid-40’s. He also had to be outside, hanging around a stop sign in the middle of the night. At least Peter had a somewhat nice view of the lights on the Mackinac Bridge. In the summer, tourists loved the bridge, the daytrips to Mackinac Island, and sailing on either Lake Michigan or Lake Huron. Not this time of year. The kids were back in school, and people wisely left before the weather changed. The city was basically a ghost town during the off-peak months.

As soon as the tourists left, the clown sightings began. Unfortunately, seeing a clown was becoming the new norm around the country, especially when it was close to Halloween.

That was why Peter stood next to a stop sign in the middle of a cold, rainy night. He was working undercover as a marauding clown, unrecognizable in his creepy clown mask and black and white-striped polyester costume.

Earlier, Peter and his partner, Brady, were called into the office of John Collins, their captain. The angry-looking man assigned them to their overnight stakeout, with Brady originally chosen to wear the costume. When he tried it on, the costume hung loose on Brady, like a little boy wearing his teenage brother’s clothes. Collins told Peter to wear it instead since he had an average build and was taller. Peter thought it didn’t really matter who was in the costume but dared not argue with the man who scowled 24/7.

Collins was a nice enough guy, but he was still intimidating as hell. It was also painstakingly obvious that Collins was just as fed up with the clown sightings as everyone else in the Mackinaw City area.

Even though he had done it several times, Peter hated undercover work, especially when Brady wasn’t beside him. Instead, Brady was parked a mile down the street in an unmarked car. Peter couldn’t see Brady but, luckily, Brady could see him with the use of binoculars and eyes that had adjusted to the darkness of the night. Peter wore an earpiece so he could communicate with Brady.

“You think he might be a no-show?” asked Brady.

“Don’t know,” answered Peter. “We probably should’ve stayed at our assigned post.”

For a while, Peter and Brady were at their assigned post, which was at the other end of the city. It was a place where the most clowns had been spotted. The thing was, they weren’t looking to arrest clowns. They were looking for whoever was murdering the clowns.

One clown, a 16-year-old boy, was found beaten to death on the beach. Two boys, each 15-years-old, were shot on two separate occasions. One was found lying in the middle of the street, the other a week later at a bus stop. These clowns weren’t armed at all, not even with a plastic machete.

“At least the rain let up a little,” said Brady.

Peter looked in Brady’s direction. “Want to trade places?”

Brady instantly shut up. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to wear the clown costume, but because he had seen a pair of headlights in the rearview mirror. As the car drew closer, Peter saw it, too.

“Never thought I’d say this, but I hope it’s our perp,” said Peter. “Or perps.”

Peter and Brady were hoping it was only one person. Yes, they were armed with guns and had takedown techniques, but more than two perps would be a problem.

The car picked up speed. It zoomed past Brady in a flash but screeched to a halt next to the stop sign… and Peter. For a while, the car sat there, engine idling. Thanks to the absence of streetlights, Peter couldn’t see inside the dark car. The car looked familiar, but then again it wasn’t an unusual model.

“What’s going on?” asked Brady.

Before Peter could respond, the electric window slid down and the interior lights flashed on. Peter found himself staring into the face of a grotesque clown mask. It had fangs, fake blood running down its chin, a pale face with spiked black hair like that of a rock star, and a costume that was black and green. The clown pulled out a gun and aimed it at Peter. He cocked it.

Peter reached for his gun, but the clown shot him four times in the chest. Peter yelped out in pain as he fell backwards and into the ditch full of rainwater.

Brady sped up and stopped right behind the clown’s car. He jumped out and aimed his gun at the car. “Police! Throw away your gun and stick your hands out the window!”

To Brady’s surprise, the driver’s side window opened. A gun was tossed out, but the window rolled back up. “I said stick out your hands!”

The clown inside wasn’t in the mood to follow orders. Instead, he quickly threw it in reverse and floored it. The tires screeched and the car flew back. Brady fired a shot and the bullet tore through the rear window. That didn’t stop the car from pinning his legs between the clown’s car and his own. The gun flew out of Brady’s hand. It glided across the hood and wedged itself between the edge of the hood and windshield.

Brady screamed in agony, reaching desperately for his gun after realizing that trying to escape from between the cars was futile. The door opened, and the driver stepped out. He took a few steps towards Brady. He stared at him for a moment, tilting his head to the side. It was like he was in a trance.

The clown opened the back door, took out a baseball bat, and made sure to hold it up so Brady could see it clearly.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m a cop, you son of a bitch!” yelled Brady. He didn’t think that would faze the clown, but it was still worth a shot.

The clown walked towards Brady with the baseball bat. He drew it back, then slammed it in Brady’s face. Blood splattered all over. Brady spit out some blood and a few of his teeth, which tumbled across the hood like dice on a craps table. While blood continued to ooze from Brady’s nose and mouth, the clown let out a few quiet snickers. He drew the baseball bat back for another hit when—

“Police! Freeze!”

All Brady could see was red because of the blood in his eyes, but he instantly recognized Peter’s voice. Relief washed over the cop as the clown slowly turned to face Peter, who had his mask off and was aiming a gun at him. Brady was thankful that, while Peter was a young cop, he had enough common sense to wear a bulletproof vest after two clowns had been found shot to death.

“Drop the bat!” yelled Peter.

The clown complied, the baseball bat rolling under his car.

“Slowly take off your mask,” ordered Peter. He took a few steps towards the clown.

Without any hesitation, the clown slowly took off his mask. Peter lowered his gun slightly. He immediately recognized the man under the mask. If he was facing Brady, he would have recognized him, too.

“Hewett,” said the man with a slight nod.

“What the hell?” Peter asked John Collins. It wasn’t really a question Peter wanted answered. He was more concerned about slapping handcuffs on Collins and getting his partner—and friend—medical help.

Peter’s question made Collins grimace, a look he never saw him make. He saw Collins unhappy on multiple occasions, but he never looked as disturbing as he did at that moment.

“It’s these damn clowns,” was all Collins said. “And if you and Brady obeyed my orders and stayed at your designated spot, you two wouldn’t be my next victims.” That grimace never left Collins’ face. He pointed to Brady and said, “Your partner wouldn’t be sandwiched between two cars if you just obeyed, but then again, it’s not like this is the first time you disobeyed me.”

Peter was never the best at following directions, though his flaw had just come in handy with solving a mystery. “Why?” he asked. He also wondered why the hell Collins didn’t recognize the clown costume he had given him to wear, though now it was a moot point.

The grimace faded, but intense anger took its place. Collins looked much angrier than he usually did. “Simple. Each sighting, each call takes my men off the streets. There’s more important crime happening out there, Hewett. Our focus shouldn’t be on a bunch of rowdy kids in scary clown costumes.” He was out of breath, his round face had started to turn red.

Peter couldn’t believe what he heard. But he didn’t have time for a “how could you do this” talk. His partner needed medical attention, and he was listening to his psychotic boss’s motive. He raised his gun.

“Face the car and put your hands behind your head.”

To Peter’s surprise, Collins complied. He slowly turned and walked to his car while simultaneously putting his pudgy hands behind his balding head. Any hair he had left was turning gray.

Peter took out his handcuffs and moved toward Collins. He grabbed Collins’s forearm and, just as he was about to cuff his left wrist, Collins turned around and delivered a powerful blow to Peter’s nose. He flew back, hitting the pavement. Collins grabbed Brady’s gun and released the magazine, letting it drop to the ground. A few bullets rolled out. He threw the gun into the woods behind Peter, who groaned in pain.

Once that was done, Collins picked up Peter’s gun and aimed it at him. “Just to be safe, in case you happen to overpower me, but we know that won’t happen,” smiled Collins.

Peter, who managed to lean up a little with the support of his elbows, threw Collins a strange look. What the hell was going on in the mind of this man?

Collins put his finger on the trigger. Gritting his teeth, he started to squeezed it, but stopped. He looked in both directions.

No cars.

No people.

The coast was clear. It was time to kill two disobedient cops. Collins inadvertently stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth. His eyes focused intently on Peter, who trembled as he took a deep breath. Collins took aim again and squeezed the trigger. This time, he wouldn’t take his finger off the trigger until there was a bullet in Peter’s head.

Collins saw Peter looking discreetly down at his left hand, which was tucked under his leg. Before Collins could react, Peter whipped out a can of mace and sprayed it at him. A long stream hit him in the chest, and then his side as Collins turned away while shielding his eyes.

Peter jumped up and charged at Collins, giving him a powerful shove that sent him against Brady’s car. The gun flew out of his hand and landed on the road on the other side of the car with a click. Peter put Collins in a chokehold. Collins gagged, moving backwards towards his car. He crushed Peter between his heavy body and his car, making him lose his grip.

Collins turned to Peter and punched him on the cheek, sending him to the ground. Peter’s arm went under the car. He felt something wooden and hard.

It was the baseball bat. He tightened his grip on the handle and, when Collins was within a good distance, swung the bat from under the car with all his strength. The bat connected with Collins’s ankle. He fell to the ground. Peter jumped to his feet and slammed the bat over Collins’s back as he tried to stand back up. He went to hit Collins again, but he rolled out of the way in time. The bat hit the pavement and split in half.

Collins grabbed the fat end of the broken bat and swung it blindly at Peter. It was a lucky shot, for it knocked the other half out of Peter’s hands. Collins got to his feet, being careful not to put any pressure on his hurt ankle.

Peter jumped out of the way when Collins went to stab him with the splintered end. He ended up stabbing his car instead, creating a large scratch.

Peter picked up his gun and ran to the other side of the car. He whipped around, aiming it at an approaching Collins. Collins stopped and dropped the broken bat. He threw up his hands, smiling. “All right, I give up.” A slight snicker went past his lips.

“Don’t even blink,” said Peter, squeezing the trigger.

Collins mockingly blinked at him, laughing but still keeping his hands up.

“God,” groaned Brady next to Peter, who began to lean up.

Still pointing the gun at Collins, Peter stopped Brady by putting a hand on his back. “Easy, buddy. Take it easy.” His eyes drifted down at Brady.

Heavy footsteps sounded, and Peter’s eyes darted toward Collins. He was making a mad dash for Peter and the gun. He took aim and fired three rounds. One hit him in the shoulder, and the other two hit him in the chest. He fell backward.

Aiming the gun at Collins, Peter carefully made his way up to him. He watched as Collins touched the wound on his shoulder, looked at the blood, and then covered one of this chest wounds with his bloodied hand.

Coughing, Collins said, “Good work, son. You got me.” He said it in a whisper, as though he was dying.

Collins went limp, and Peter lowered the gun. Just as he was about to check on Brady, he realized something. He raised the gun back up at a still Collins. Peter saw the bleeding shoulder wound, and the blood on one of the bullet holes over the chest. The other chest wound wasn’t bleeding at all. Peter realized that the son of a bitch had rubbed some of the blood from his shoulder wound on his chest wound but failed to do that on the other one.

“Nice try,” said Peter.

Collins tilted his head up and threw Peter a playful smile. As the faint sounds of police sirens echoed in the distance, Peter looked intently at Collins. Peter was grateful that someone heard the gunshots and called 9-1-1.

Peter nor Collins said a word as Peter fired a shot, and a bullet ripped into Collins’s head.

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.

Good Fryday || Kathryn Fitzpatrick

People curled along the side of Florida State Prison like an amoeba. Children plucked dandelions and crabgrass from the brush, singing, “Fryday! Fryday!” until the elders of the group told them to sit down and shut up. Young women pressed their heads to the chain-link barrier, desperately listening for a hiss of electricity from behind the wall.

It was a hot day. Even though it was January, the air hung heavy like velvet curtains in a theater. The naked landscape was unforgiving, except for strips of shade cast by telephone poles here and there.

Mothers and daughters made signs and t-shirts in advance, plastering them with slogans like “Burn, Bundy, Burn!” or “Tuesday is Fryday!” Sun-toasted men let their bellies spill over their cut-off jeans while they cooked brats on portable grills and wiped the sweat from their faces with the cool condensation of Coors Light bottles.

Judi McIntyre attended the execution to photograph people as they dipped into their icebox cakes. For three dollars, Judi would snap pictures of the attendees. It was 1989, and Ted Bundy’s execution was to be the most talked about tailgating function of the decade. A Polaroid memento was a hot commodity, and as the afternoon wore on, Judi had earned close to a hundred dollars.

Judi was saving up to go to film school. She wanted to make horror films. She liked the suspense, the way her heart would plummet to her feet with the rapid whining of violins. Judi had grown up in the area, in a suburb outside of Jacksonville, and found her surroundings so bland it was like living inside a bowl of Cream of Wheat. She made her mother and stepdad aware of this on a regular basis.

When Ted Bundy’s death was scheduled at the local prison, Judi felt like she had been catapulted somewhere far away and exciting. An alternate world where danger hid around the woodshed out back and every street corner held the possibility of a violent death. She pictured herself inside televisions nationwide. With her long, dark hair parted straight down the middle, the Channel 6 interview team would jump at the chance to ask her about her uncanny resemblance to Mr. Bundy’s preferred victim archetype.

“Are you at all worried about a copycat incident? You could be next,” the news girl would say.

“Well, I like to take risks.” Judi would flash a sly smile across her face and flip her hair, and teenage boys from Maine to Montana would be unable to control themselves in the midst of her feminine wiles. She’d get calls from across the nation, young men asking her to go with them to the new roller rink that just opened up in the city. Of course, she’d turn them down. She would be a cold-blooded, drop-dead vamp someday, she thought. Famous and beautiful and mean.

A fat woman with curly hair tapped Judi on the shoulder. “Can you get a picture of my daughters?”

“Sure, that’ll be three dollars.”

The two girls were wearing pink “Bundy Be Gone” shirts that grazed the tops of their ankles. Their mother shuffled them to the fence surrounding the prison, licking her thumb and rubbing it against their dirty cheeks.

“Say Fryday!” said the woman.

The girls smiled and their mother handed Judi three dollars. “The bastard deserves all the pain in the world,” said the woman.

“Pretty interesting stuff though, don’t you think? Exciting, in a way.”

The woman squinted and gave Judi a look and left with her girls. Judi slipped the money in with the rest of her earnings and wandered the crowd, dragging her white sneakers along the patchy terrain as she went.

“You’re gonna get your shoes all dirty.”

Judi looked up. A boy she thought she recognized from school was standing in front of her.

“Oh, yeah, I guess I am.” Judi laughed. She had a laugh rehearsed for when cute boys talked to her, but it didn’t come off as natural in the moment as it did in her bedroom.

“Could I get a picture?”

“Uh, yeah. It’s three dollars.”

“What about I take you out for croissants instead?”

Judi’s heart jumped. Croissants, how fancy! With his slumping jeans and sunken cheeks, his rumpled shirt unbuttoned just enough to show the corner of a tattoo on his chest, he looked like he might be an art student. Judi wondered if he liked films as much as she did. She packed her camera away and they walked to his truck together.

“So, do you partake in any film viewing?” Judi asked. She watched herself in his rearview mirror, checking her lips and her teeth and the four freckles on her neck to make sure she was forming her words in a way that didn’t seem stupid or too contrived or too planned out. Her palms were sweating.

“What, like, movies? Yeah, I watch movies.” The boy slung his arm out the window. “I’m Matt, by the way.”

“Judi.” She stared at her lap and rubbed her hand against her neck. Films! What a pretentious thing to say. She looked out the window and watched the bleak landscape roll by like a set in a silent movie.

“So, Judi, what brought you to the execution gathering? Are you a Bundy fan?”

“Well, I’m not some dumb groupie, if that’s what you mean.” Judi worried she might have sounded too aggressive, so she flipped her hair over her shoulder and scoffed in a way that was sassy, but not too sassy as to be off-putting to the boy beside her.

Matt laughed. “Ha ha, no, not at all! People like that are the worst. He’s got like followers, worshippers, even. Kinda crazy stuff, man.”

“I was actually there trying to earn money. I’m saving up to go to school and make movies.”

“Oh, very cool. Good for you. I never went to college, myself. I need to get out there and do things to learn. Use my hands. You dig?”

Judi looked at him closely. Maybe she didn’t recognize him from school. She counted the lines in his forehead, which were deeper than she first thought, and watched the crow’s feet stretch around his eyes when he smiled in her direction. But she could handle an older man. Maybe he thought she was very mature.

“Yeah, I see that, I mean, maybe school is overrated.”

“Well, come on now, don’t say that. You seem like a smart girl.” Matt adjusted his position and rested his hand on her knee. She felt a burst of cold energy run through her. She wondered if that’s what it felt like to get electrocuted. She wondered if Ted Bundy’s execution by electric chair had already happened.

“So where’s this croissant place, anyhow?”

“It’s just a little further now, gotta drive far if you wanna go anywhere decent.”

“Ha ha, right.” Judi hadn’t rehearsed a laugh that nervous.

The truck turned left onto a dirt road. There weren’t many trees around, just a speckling of beige rocks and tall grasses. Weeds lined the road and fanned out at the top. Judi thought they looked like hands, waving goodbye as the vehicle moved closer and closer to somewhere far away. She gulped.

“So, like, where are we actually going?” Judi tried to be cool and nonchalant and shrugged her shoulders like she thought a trendy, older film student might. She sat on her hands to keep them from shaking.

“Quiet now, we’re almost there.”

Matt pulled the truck into a field, barren except for a dilapidated barn. The barn door hung open and several boards had been ripped from the exterior so that it looked like a mouth, frightened and shocked. In the deep purple of the setting sun, Judi could see Matt’s hair was reflecting peppery gray.

“Where are we?”

“Shut up, just be cool.”

Judi followed Matt to the barn. As he pushed open the door, the hinges hissed and cried, and Judi wanted to scream and run home to her stupid suburb and her mom and stupid stepdad. Being a terrible television vixen would probably be too much work, and in her mind she promised Jesus that if she got out alive she would become a Sunday School teacher, or at least start going to the First Baptist with her mom on a regular basis.

Matt pulled a string hanging from the ceiling and the barn lit up inside. Giant, white cobwebs dangled from the rafters like snot from a child’s nose. Shards of glass were missing from the windows, and the shadows cut giant triangles like pizza slices against the wall. Judi was hungry. Above the door in silver lettering, someone had spray-painted “TUESDAY IS FRYDAY.”

“I can spot a fellow Bundy fan a mile away,” said Matt. “That middle part? The dark hair? I know what you were doing there.” He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to a wooden chest pushed up against the wall. “A couple weeks ago, Ted gave a televised interview with an investigator. Have you seen it?”

Judi shook her head.

“He gave all these details on where Georgia Hawkins’s skull was buried. Do you know who she was?”

“No.”

“You’re just another poseur who thinks he’s cute, like the rest of ’em. Bet you sent goddamn love letters and everything.” Judi braced herself for a gun or a knife or something else deliciously dangerous to be pressed against her throat, but Matt kept talking. “This’ll be lost on you, then.”

He opened the chest. Inside, a sun-bleached human skull.

“The police searched for weeks. But I found it first.”

Judi screamed. She wanted to run, but her joints felt like unmolded clay beneath her skin. Heavy. Wet. Useless. Matt pulled a loose beam from the floor and swung it back. Judi’s vision was littered with black dots.

***

Judi woke up in the dark with the wet Florida dew on her skin. She touched her forehead. A muddy trail of blood had wormed its way down her nose, and she wondered if maybe she looked like David Bowie in that one photo shoot he did where he had a bolt of red lightning painted on his face. She figured she looked pretty edgy, at least, and didn’t wipe it off.

She tried to get up from the dirty floor, but fell to her knees several times, her brain still rattling back and forth in her skull. When she checked her pockets, she realized they were flat; her thick wad of ones and her camera and her keys were gone.

“Shit.”

Judi wanted to cry but figured this might have been a blessing in disguise. Film schools would totally have to let her in now that she was a martyr. And all the kids at in homeroom would claw at her and ask about the bump on her head when she returned to school on Monday, and all the boys would say, “Can I kiss it and make it better?” But Judi would bat her eyes, say, “No, I am resigned to a life with the Lord now,” and sing praise music on Sundays with a cute little gold cross draped around her neck. Although she was sure Jesus would forgive a peck or two, under the circumstances. National news agencies would contact her and ask for interviews and she would have to say things like, “Let me ask my manager if I’m available. Ciao. Kisses.”

Judi began walking down the dirt road toward home, thinking of all the possibilities of her new life. She kicked a discarded beer can along the way, and using the empty, tinny sound as percussion, began singing “Changes” by David Bowie to herself. She had forgotten how much she enjoyed that song.

A van pulled up next to her. The old man driving rolled down the window.

“Hey little lady, do you need a lift?”

Jesus was smiling upon her with good fortune, she thought.

“Gee, thanks, I sort of got abducted just now. But it’s gonna be okay, I think.”

She hopped in the van and explained that she didn’t know where she was at the moment, but she lived in a boring suburb outside Jacksonville with her totally lame parents.

The man smiled and nodded and asked, “What happened to your head?”

“Oh, it’s just a new fashion trend.” Judi flicked her hair off her forehead to expose her grotesque accessory.

As they drove off down the dirt road together, giant drops of rain started splatting on the window and thunder shook the earth. Lightning flashed in the clouds like a Polaroid camera capturing the sky and Judi marveled at the daring world that lay before her. Oh, how electric this new world seemed!

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.

The Razor || Alice Covington

When it was over, Richard Rackham took three careful steps away, sat on the closed toilet seat, and removed his socks. Remarkably, they were unsoiled, save for one fleck of red. It was fortunate that he’d happened to leave them on, although he wore nothing else. He observed the expanse of white tiles surrounding the sink.

He had a decision to make. He’d learned enough about the law when Isabella was in law school and enough about psychology when she was an undergrad. He’d read her books, listened to her patter, and absorbed it all. Now, his quick analysis yielded two hypotheticals for a course of action. An overview of their relationship would reveal the weaknesses of assumptions underlying each, and besides, he was curious how to define what had happened. So, before he decided what he would do and how, he examined the initial why.

Something just came over me. A ridiculous expression, simply an excuse for one’s choices, bad or good, that the non-analytical found difficult to explain. This was only his second glimpse of something similar during his association with Isabella, but he would be able to explain it. Ever since he was a teenager, newly orphaned, he’d become adept at self-analysis, as well as at marshaling his behavior to meet the world’s expectations.

His first foray into that amorphous “something” occurred when he first met his wife. He told Isabella, of course, that he fell in love with her immediately. When the sophomore entered his classroom during his fourth and final foray into graduate studies, he knew she was perfect for him. The sight of her immediately aroused his lust. Her body was perfect in an average way, shapely, not too thin or fat, but her face had the kind of beauty that arises from imperfections and thus is so much more interesting than the symmetrical features of most of the cream-skinned coeds he usually fucked. Longish golden hair that was brown or red depending upon the light, a smattering of freckles across her cheeks. The way she held herself was most telling. He had become adept at recognizing the subtleties of facial expressions and body language that reveal identities, so he knew that she was that rare kind of girl who could not believe in her own beauty. And the way she looked at him. Not the run-of-the-mill light switch and greed that animated the faces of most girls when they saw him, but the wide eyes of the girl who spots the live image of her fantasies, following by the blush and duck that says she knows he’s beyond her reach.

He had experienced what seemed a rush of excitement, a unique sensation, but soon knew that it was only the certitude of an analysis so quickly completed it seemed instantaneous. Over time, as he came to know her, his decision solidified. She was highly intelligent, but didn’t believe that. So unsure of her worthiness, depressed at times, though she kept that in her past and to her herself usually. Moldable, she deferred to him, respecting his desires without question. Their seven years of dating and marriage worked so well that he’d had moments when he indulged fantasies it was love he felt, although he knew it was simply satisfaction.

Today’s experience was as different as it was similar. Moments ago, he’d tasted something like rage as he clasped her hand over the razor she’d been running over her legs and kept pushing it hard into her wrist until she dropped to the floor.

He observed the still body splayed before him and knew that the sensation was little more than disappointment, coupled with decisiveness. Dissatisfaction that the stiffening of her backbone, suspected wavering of devotion and incipient recognition of other possibilities for herself would end the ease of their marriage. Then, the sharpness of his decision to remove her from his life after she admitted a strong attraction to the partner, her mentor at the law firm. That was all it was. No crime of passion, although it could appear so to others. Juries convict passionate killers. It was not an option.

Now, to his choices. Disappearing was appealing. He would dispose of the body, along with the towels needed to make the bathroom tiles white again. Turn over the keys to the rental agency with a story of their move, withdraw their money, and change his name and location again. He ticked off the assumptions—that no one would witness his efforts; that her mother, though estranged, would decide again to try to find her; that the loss of a large account would lead the brokerage firm to speculate; and more.

The alternative: the distraught husband’s 911 call after he found his depressed mate’s body. Such a horrible disease. He’d tried to get her to see someone, but he’d never thought her capable of this, he’d explain.

Could he assume they would believe her suicidal? Although the blood covered them now, he knew the light scars of her earlier attempt would be visible beside the new, successful wounds. He was reasonably confident that she had no confidants, no friends to alter his story. Would acquaintances at the firm have speculated about her interest in her mentor? Not yet, he believed. Who knew her better than he? Her admission to him had only been a spark, which he quickly prevented from igniting. Would they believe her capable of such force, able to withstand such pain? He would make them.

He pondered his hypotheses, reweighed his premises, and decided. Then he stepped onto the soiled floor, tracked blood through the living room, made the call, and returned to settle into the semblance of shock on the floor beside her warm body. Oh, Isabelle.

He touched the still artery on her neck, where he would have felt for her pulse, pulled his dear, sad wife—so warm still—into his arms, and began to rock with her in a dance of disbelief.

Unbidden, tears came. For a brief moment, he wondered what had come over him, but he did what he’d trained himself to do at fifteen, just after he jerked the wheel that drove his parents’ car head-on into a tree. He again issued a decisive dismissal of further speculation, then willed more tears.

They came easily.

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.

The Messenger || Kimberly Parish

14 February 1918
South of Rostov-on-the-Don, Ukraine

The sky hung heavy over the steppe. It pressed through the man’s coat, and his horse shivered with each gust of the frozen wind. Blowing snow stung his face and blinded him. The only sound was wind in his ears. The horse trudged through snow drifts, dragging its hooves, leaning into the gale. Frozen claws gripped the reins, and the man wondered how long the horse could continue.

And then what? He supposed he would freeze to death. No, he must go on. The memory of his Katya demanded it. If he could not do this one small thing, why had God spared his life?

***

The images from that day still sat—a carrion crow feeding on every beautiful memory, devouring every reminder of the happiness that went before it. He had dismissed his morning French class early and headed home to surprise Katya. With a small bouquet in one hand, he whistled a little tune as he walked along the cobbled street. He had been a professor of languages at the University of Lviv for three years, and it was the first anniversary of his marriage to the beautiful Katarina Nikolaevna Piotrowski. The bright autumn day was golden.

Approaching his house on Nalyvalka street, he heard a commotion; several young men ran past him.

“What is happening?” he called.

“Cossacks!” returned a boy, his eyes wild. “They’re killing people!”

The young professor, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski, walked faster, then ran as he caught the scent of smoke. When he came to the bottom of his street he could hear the screams. Chaos unfolded before him. Houses were burning and women were running hunched over as they tried to protect their children. Soldiers on horseback ran them down, shooting and slashing and impaling people indiscriminately. Soldiers on foot went from house to house raping women, slaughtering children and setting what they did not steal alight.

Aleksandr found Katya in a pool of blood just outside their house. Her dress was shredded. Her throat was cut. Her mouth and eyes were open, and blood stained her beautiful hair.

“Katya, Oh my God! Katya.” Aleksandr ran to her and cradled her in his arms. The flames from his burning house singed his hair as he sat rocking her on the steps. The flowers he carried lay in a crimson pool, and he wept as he waited for one of the horsemen to thunder past and impale him. None came.

***

Through frozen eyelashes he saw a smudge in the clouds ahead and stared at it, unsure if he could trust his eyes. He prayed that it was smoke, and then he prayed that it was not smoke as he imagined the smoldering ruins of yet another village waiting up ahead for him to bear witness. The horse made a rumbling sound deep in its chest that vibrated up through its body. The exhausted animal threw its head up and tried to dance sideways. The snow was too deep and all the beast could manage was to bounce up and down, but the horse’s hope gave the man hope, and he leaned forward in the saddle, pushing his hands forward to encourage the animal to try harder. The promise of warmth pulled them on.

Cresting a small hill, Aleksandr was able to look down on a small dacha with a stand of bare trees to the northwest; it was just a shepherd’s cabin, with a small sheep pen and some outbuildings. Someone else was there. The snowy ground around the buildings had been pounded to mush. Fresh snow had not yet reclaimed the muddy earth. No one was outside, and the path leading in from the north was beginning to frost over. They must be inside. At least it was not a burning village.

This was a land of confusion and suspicion. Sometimes only a small strip of color on a hat or sleeve marked a person as friend or foe. He had no way of knowing who waited, but he must warm up, trade for a fresh horse, then get underway again as quickly as possible. The message he carried from the French general could be vital to the Red Army. He had been riding for three days from the southern tip of the Ukraine, and he could afford no delays.

***

As Piotrowski trotted into the space between the buildings, his breath formed a cloud around his head. A wolf-sized dog barked a warning from the end of its chain. The horse shied, and Piotrowski leapt off its back, stumbling on frozen legs. He somehow managed to calm the spooked horse and tie it to a post at the northern end of the muddy space between the buildings. Sheep bleated from the pen to the south, while a barn and some sheds blocked the cold east wind. The cabin with the smoking chimney squatted in the lee of the barn, it’s porch in shade as the weak sun approached the western horizon at its back. Piotrowski knocked on the door of the cabin where he could see the dirty boot prints of the men who must still be inside. The barrel of a gun greeted him as the door opened. He backed up, looking above the gun to a pair of Cossack blue eyes and a dirty scarf. The woman was short and stout, her creased face stern.

She waited for the man to state his business.

“Please, Missus, is there a seat at your fire? A stable for my horse? I will only trouble you for a few hours.” The old woman stepped back and allowed him to enter before too much precious warmth escaped.

***

The room had a fire, a stove, and a long table with benches on either side. The men at the table turned wind-burned faces and suspicious eyes on him. They wore the tall fur hats and long coats of the Don Cossacks with short sabers at their waists. Their ammunition was sewn across their breasts beneath badges of honor and gilded ribbons. The silent question on each man’s lips was plain: “Who is this? Who does he fight for?”

The Dons were White Army, and Piotrowski’s heart skipped a beat. He had hoped to avoid them on this journey, but the unexpected storm had slowed his progress.

“You have something to bring to the table?” the old woman demanded.

He pulled a bottle of vodka and a loaf of frozen bread from his pack, and the men at the table relaxed and resumed their conversations.

“I can pay,” he said. “I just need a bite to eat and a chance to warm up. Then I would trade for a fresh horse if you have one.”

“Humph, you and all the rest,” she said, letting him know that the men at the table were travelers too. Her face creased in what passed for a smile. “Maybe one of them will trade his horse for yours.” And she laughed. The soldiers laughed. A Cossack’s horse was dearer than his wife. There would be no horse swapping this day.

The man took his time arranging his greatcoat near the fire before he walked over to the table and took the only empty seat.

A bowl of porridge, a cup of weak tea, and a vodka sat waiting for him. He tossed back the vodka and began on the porridge. His mind raced, and he kept his head down making a production of eating while he rehearsed his story. The questions would begin as soon as he looked up from the food. He had been lucky up to now, but if these men discovered that he was a Bolshevik, he would die before he could stand up again. He poured a second vodka and drank it before he leaned back letting the tea mug warm his hands. The leader of the group, with the bars of a Kapitan, addressed him.

“Where do you travel in such a hurry?” he asked. The man scowled beneath his black fur papakha.

“I might ask you the same thing,” the newcomer replied.

“We were in Novocherkassk when the Reds took it two days ago,” the man said. “We got separated from our regiment in the storm. We will rejoin them in the morning once the storm has passed.”

“I am riding from Pavlovskaya, south of here,” Piotrowski lied. He hoped he had chosen a town far enough away that he would not be questioned too closely.

“And what is so important that you ride in this weather?”

“I carry a message to Alexei Maximovich Kaledin. It must get through.” The lie rolled easily off the messenger’s tongue.

“Well. . .” The Kapitan leaned back and gave the man an appraising look. “Kaledin himself. You must be special,” he said. “I had not heard that the command had moved so far to the south.”

“No, you misunderstand my mission, Kapitan. It is not a message from the command that I carry. It is a message of a personal nature. I am no soldier.”

“And yet you ride as if it were a matter of life and death. Is it a matter of life and death?”

“It may be, Kapitan. It may be.”

“What is your name?”

“Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski.”

“And your papers?”

The messenger extracted the documents from his coat. They showed him to be a teacher from the southern Ukraine.

“A teacher. Who sends you on this crazy ride?”

“It is a woman, Kapitan. I cannot say anymore.”

“A woman!” The Kapitan laughed and slapped the table. His men laughed with him. “Of course, some woman believes herself to be as important as the fate of Mother Russia! Ha, ha, ha! I suppose this woman offered you some very special payment, did she?”

Piotrowski made no reply, just stared at the floor trying to appear embarrassed.

Turning to a young cavalryman who had yet to acquire braid or medals, the Kapitan barked, “Volodymyr, show this very important messenger to the stable with his horse.”

“Thank you. That will be good,” Piotrowski said. He threw back one last shot of vodka and passed the bottle to the nearest man.

Volodymyr pulled the barn door closed as Piotrowski turned to his horse.

“Sorry for leaving you out in the cold, old fellow. I had to introduce myself.” He unsaddled the horse and gave him hay while the soldier carried a bucket and an axe outside to the water trough. The axe was necessary to break through the surface and reach the water beneath. The messenger took the opportunity appraise the other horses before Volodymyr came back.

***

After holding the water bucket while the horse drank, Volodymyr walked to the other side of the animal and joined in the rubdown.

“You must not be a Cossack. We would not leave a horse in the cold after such a hard ride. This poor beast is exhausted.” He reached down and lifted one of the animal’s hooves and began cleaning it with a small hooked knife he produced from his pocket. “Where did you say you came from?” The horse tried to jerk his hoof away as Volodymyr touched a tender spot.

Piotrowski wasn’t listening. He looked around the barn as he worked. There was a big black stallion that looked fit and rested. He imagined sneaking back out here and riding silently away on that strong horse. It might be several hours before anyone missed him. The wind and the snow would work to his advantage, and they would never catch him. That assumed, of course, that he could make it back to the barn without alerting the Cossacks. He would have to leave before the wind died down so they would not be able to follow his trail in the snow.

“Don’t answer, then. I like talking to myself,” Volodymyr said.

The messenger brought his distant gaze back to the face of the young soldier who was looking at him across the horse’s back. “Sorry. I was lost in thought.”

“How long were you riding in this storm to wear this poor horse out this way?” His tone of voice had grown rougher.

“I started at first light. I was told this message could not wait. What town is near to us?” Piotrowski made half-hearted swipes at the horse’s side while he tried to visualize the map of the region. He should have been in Rostov-on-Don already.

“Poor horse. He’s lame, and half frozen to death,” Volodymyr mumbled. “Should have been seen to immediately.”

“We must be close to Rostov,” said the messenger, thinking out loud.

“You say you rode for six hours in this storm? From Pavlovskaya?”

“What is the nearest town? Zemograd? Kirovskaya?”

“Where are you trying to go? General Kaledin? Where did they say you would find him?”

“Rostov. On the Don. I am supposed to find him in Rostov-on-the-Don.” Of course, it was not Kaledin that Piotrowski was to meet, but rather the Red Army Lieutenant Golubov. He was in control of the Red Army in this region.

“You missed him. Maybe we will find him when we meet up with our troops tomorrow or the next day. You should ride with us.”

“Yes, maybe then. That is a good plan.” Piotrowski knew that his only hope was to leave before the storm was over.

***

As darkness fell, the men settled down to get what rest they could before returning to the fight. But, as the Cossacks began to snore around him, the messenger lay waiting. He watched and listened until all was quiet around him, then he eased up and made his way out as if he was going to the outhouse. Volodymyr woke the Kapitan as the door closed.

***

His heart racing, Aleksandr Nikolayevich threw his saddle onto the large, black horse. It was a powerful animal, and he worked to hold it back as he ducked to ride out of the barn. He thought he was clear when the damned dog rushed out at him. This horse also reared up in response to the challenge of that demon beast, and this time Aleksandr landed on his back. The horse jerked the reins from his hands, but Volodymyr caught them.

Volodymyr pointed his handgun at the messenger and said in a jovial voice, “Ah, there you are. I came to pry your frozen ass off the seat, but I see you were just trying to do the Kapitan a favor and give his horse some exercise.” At that, the Kapitan strolled over and led Piotrowski back into the building while Volodymyr tied the horse.

“It seems our new friend was trying to leave us in a hurry,” he announced to his men. He forced the stranger to take a seat and walked around to confront him face to face, “Where have you come from?” he demanded.

Someone had lit a lantern that hung above the table, and the Cossack soldiers stood just beyond the pool of light it cast growling like a restless pack of wolves.

“Pavlovskaya. I told you,” Piotrowski said. He tried to sound exasperated, but he only managed to sound tired. He had accomplished nothing. He closed his eyes and saw Katya.

“And we told you that you might ride with us, but instead you have tried to steal my horse. Why is that?” Steel came into the Kapitan’s voice.

“I apologize for that. I was in a hurry, and I left mine in exchange.”

The men all laughed.

“Perhaps you do not know how these things are done in the Don. It is like arranging a marriage. I think you have not a big enough dowry to take this horse. Maybe you should have traded with one of the other men!” The others laughed. “Why do you try to run away in the night?”

“I have an important message for General Kaledin. It cannot wait until morning,” he said, attempting to maintain the lie.

“A message from a woman. What message from any woman can be so important? There is always another woman in the next village! Let me see this message.”

“I cannot do that. I am under orders that it should be placed in the general’s hands only.”

“Orders? I thought you were not a soldier. What woman commands you?” The men laughed again.

“And she sent you on a horse? Was the telegraph broken? The train?”

“Indeed. The telegraph lines have been cut, and the train tracks are blocked with snow,” he said. Of course, he knew that traveling alone on horseback was supposed to give him the greatest chance of getting through without being intercepted, and here he had ridden right into a nest of the Don Cossacks.

The Kapitan leaned down and considered the eyes of the messenger. “Kaledin is dead. If you were any part of the White Army you would know this.”

“I told you. I am no soldier. Please, I have been traveling night and day,” Piotrowski tried to counter, but the Kapitan kept on talking.

“I can see you are not a Cossack. Are you even Russian? I think maybe you are not one of us at all. Maybe you are a dirty Red sympathizer from Germany?”

The messenger answered with the only plausible explanation he could come up with, the truth. “No, I am from Lviv originally. My father was Polish. I am a teacher for the children in the small villages to the south.” It was almost all true.

The Don Cossacks, now members of the volunteer White Army, had rolled through the old town near the University in Lviv. They had raped and murdered his Katya, and he tasted bile in his mouth as he recalled that day. Maybe these same men had been there. Maybe one of them had raped her and slit her throat. He remembered their flared coats and their tall wool hats. He remembered their sabers and their pikes and their guns.

***

Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski had traveled to Kiev and signed on with the Red Army. His gift with languages was prized, and he had been carrying messages between the Red commanders and their foreign allies for months. He had seen villages destroyed and ordinary people slaughtered by both the reds and the whites. He was tired. He had seen too much.

One of the soldiers jumped up and removed his hat. “He looks like a German to me.” The rumbling of chairs on the floor and the hissing of sabers followed. The shepherd woman ducked behind a curtain in a doorway at the back. Best to become invisible. No telling what this pack of killers would do once the blood-letting began.

“Is this true? Are you German?” asked the Kapitan. He had fought the Germans in 1915 and would be happy to send all of them to hell personally.

“No. I am from Lviv.”

“So you said. We know Lviv, don’t we boys?” The Cossacks laughed, but the messenger could contain himself no longer. Now he knew that these were the very men who had destroyed his life.

“You bastards. I saw you there—on my street. You killed my wife.” Two of the soldiers grabbed his arms as he lunged at the Kapitan, who stood his ground, cool and calm. The bench tumbled over as they dragged the messenger outside.

“Your wife. Is that what this is all about?” The Kapitan turned his head to speak to the men behind him. “It’s true then, a woman drove this poor fool out into the storm,” said the Kapitan. “Get my horse out of the way.”

The soldiers led the horse to the barn and tied the messenger to the post. The old woman peered out of the cabin and made the sign of the cross. Her craggy old face softened with silent tears.

The Cossack Kapitan touched his revolver to the messenger’s head.

Aleksandr Nikolayevich Piotrowski gazed on the stars in the frozen black sky that went on forever. .

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.

Produce || Ben Daniels

Brown steel doors rumbled and split open as George entered the grocery store to buy avocados.

His wife’s words emerged on the glowing screen: “Get organic or don’t come home.”

He removed a plastic basket from the tower by the door as recirculated air carried a perfume of decaying fruit, cardboard, and bleach into his nose. Reflections from a hundred fluorescent lights bounced off the dirty tile floor while the soothing rhythm of Toto’s “Africa” flowed from speakers embedded in the stained ceiling tiles.

George examined the avocados. He poked the mesh sacks of lumpy gray-green fruit piled haphazardly in a cardboard box. He grabbed a bag and noticed the yellow label: CONVENTIONAL

What do unconventional avocados look like?

A tall, lanky kid in a black apron was mechanically building a pyramid of apples on the other side of the aisle. George interrupted construction of the red monument. “Hi, do you have any organic avocados?”

“Sorry, we’re all out.”

“Really? Are you sure? Do you think you could check in the back?”

“Sorry, we’re all out,” he repeated.

“Yeah, you just said that.” George put on the best fake smile in his collection and prodded the teen again. “I’d really appreciate it if you could check for me. My wife’s pretty particular about her fruits and vegetables, and I’ve already had a rough day.”

The stock boy stared for a moment, then pointed behind him. “You should talk to customer service.”

George looked toward the service desk and caught a glimpse of something behind the two-way mirror along the upper wall. A shadowy, amorphous form gyrated and lurched behind the silver glass. As he observed the silhouette, pain like hot pins stabbed into his eyes. His vision blurred a kaleidoscope of yellows and greens, and what looked like tentacles lashed at his brain.

“What the hell was that?” George winced, still staggered from the pain.

“You should talk to customer service.” The boy’s voice warbled into a dull slur like a worn-out cassette tape. “You should… talk…” His teeth burst from his mouth like enameled popcorn. “to… customer… service.” His skin melted like candle wax, splattering as his face dripped onto the floor.

George fled toward the exit. When he looked back, he saw the remaining half of the clerk dissolve and pool across the tiles and felt cold metal against his body as he crashed into a woman pushing her toddler in a shopping cart.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry.” He braced his hands across the edge of the cart. “You and your kid have to get out of here. Something weird is going on!”

A hiss like a punctured tire came from the carriage as the child, with a deformed serpentine head, struck out. Pearl fangs dripped saliva and a forked tongue flicked in a wild corkscrew.

“Holy shit!” He withdrew his arm just as its jaws snapped shut with a clop.

George wheeled around, clutching the bag of avocados, and ran in the opposite direction. He splashed through a puddle of stock clerk, staining the cuffs of his pants with fetid ooze as his shoes slid, barely keeping traction. The stench of brine and raw fish blasted his nostrils as he hurtled past the seafood aisle. Another employee melted behind the glass display case— dissolving into a gibbering, wax-faced mess—as boiling water erupted in the lobster tank next to him. Green crustaceans writhed and crawled over one another, turning red as their Plexiglas universe became a deadly cauldron.

He ducked into the breakfast isle and slowed; the sound of his own breath filled his head as he stared down a tunnel of neon boxes. Anthropomorphic toucans and friendly cavemen put on brave smiles from behind bowls of sugared corn. At the end of the aisle, an elderly woman struggled to reach a jar. Clods of loose skin sloughed back, welling up around her armpits as she strained at the top shelf. George approached cautiously, footsteps catching her attention. She waved and beckoned him.

“Excuse me, young man. Would you please get me that jar of Sanka? I can’t reach it.”

“Um, sure,” George grabbed the coffee and felt fingers like small rolls of crepe paper clasp around his other wrist.

“They watch everything,” the old woman whispered. “You’re awake now, so try not to act strangely. You don’t want to draw their attention.”

George handed her the jar. “Here you go, lady.”

“Why thank you, young man,” she pronounced, returning to her carriage.

George took a deep breath. His lungs burned like lit matches in his chest as he rounded the corner.

A cacophony of beeps and flashing lights announced the checkout lines as George approached the “12 Items or Less” lane. A pudgy teenage boy swiped cans of dog food over a red laser while a girl with blue barrettes in her hair stashed them into white plastic bags.

George’s hand trembled as he placed the bag of conventional avocados on the conveyor belt. He wanted to scream at everyone to “wake up.” His body shook so badly that his guts were twisting into knots. He feared his skeleton would burst from his skin and escape without him.

“Good afternoon sir. How are you today?” The boy’s braces gave him a slight lisp. George sensed he was on edge. “H-hi sir. Sir? How are you today?”

George mouthed the words, “Help me.”

A single bead of sweat trickled from the boy’s hairline to his eyebrow, and he smudged it away with a meaty wrist.

George silently implored him again. Help me.

The checkout attendant glanced at the bagger girl, who bit her lower lip and shook her head. His attention returned to George, staring at him with a look of exhausted affirmation. George felt a sweaty, chubby finger press against his lips, and the boy shushed him like a mother consoling a frightened child. He wiped his finger down George’s face, folding open his lower lip and scraping his gums with a dirty fingernail.

“Don’t make guacamole for dinner,” the boy whispered.

The floor shook, and then the walls. An otherworldly, droning chant emanated from somewhere beyond. The security camera on the ceiling sloshed as a massive purple eye within the glass dome rolled and hunted in a bath of viscous fluid. It focused on the cashier, and the droning suddenly stopped.

The boy closed his eyes and exploded.

A tide of blood and viscera washed over the aisle. The taste of iron and salt crept between George’s lips, and he fought against the sour heat rising in the back of his throat. He felt the damp stickiness soak through his shirt and cling to his chest. The girl came out from behind the carousel of gore-soaked plastic bags and tried to stay composed as she stepped in the remains of her former co-worker. “Sir, did you bring your store card?”

George heard an audible sigh from behind. A woman stared at him, hands on her hips. A jagged shard of the cashier’s skull protruded from her cheek like a piece of shattered porcelain. “This is the express lane, isn’t it?” She pursed her lips. “You’re not one of those coupon people, are you?”

He paused, staring at the frightened bagger girl.

“No. I forgot it,” he replied. A tingling sensation grew in his ankles as a shock wave reverberated through the floor. The moist undulations of the eye returned along with the rising mantra.

“It’s okay. I can use the store card for you if you’d like,” the girl said, fumbling the bloody piece of plastic over the reader.

George felt a wet heat ring his eyelids as tears welled up. “Yes. Thank you.”

She swiped the tiny card and the unearthly sounds ceased. She took a deep breath, rang up the conventional avocados, and placed them in the cleanest bag she could find. “Sir, there’s a survey at the bottom of your receipt. If you tell us about your experience today you could win a ten dollar gift card.”

George crumpled the stained paper into his pocket and turned to the exit, avocados in hand. The doors pried open and his misty eyes beheld an orange sky. The setting sun burned a red ellipse on the horizon as purple clouds encroached. He stepped onto the sidewalk, wiping tears and drying blood from his face. They spattered off his hand in crimson droplets against the concrete.

As George walked toward his car through the crowded parking lot, he decided he would plant a garden.

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.