Revisited

By: Morgen Knight

As he jogged by, he gave a simple wave to Chad, the noise of Chad’s lawnmower intruding on the Shagtronics playing in Jeff’s ear. The iPod was turned all the way up, edging on the point of distortion. That was how he liked to jog. It enveloped him, that way. If pushed out the world not passing beneath his feet or rolling through his head. He didn’t really even hear the music, anymore, but he didn’t hear the dogs’ barking, car horns, children playing or most anything else, either. The guitars, drums, and half screamed lyrics created an insular buffer.

It was evening, dancing toward night, and the street was still busy; a group of kids were playing touch football in the street (and it looked to Jeff like Mr. Reynold’s Ford was being used as an end zone marker, again); two girls were on their knees down the sidewalk, drawing squares with yellow chalk; a small red car with the Pizza Shack sign on its door drove by. Tonight was going to be a beautiful summer night. As Jeff slowed to walk and turned toward his house, he thought about breaking out the grill. He could smell that someone else had already had that idea.  Steak, he thought.

Jeff wiped at the sweat on his brow with his palms, knocking the front door closed behind him with his heel. The front windows were barely parted, prematurely darkening the living room. There wasn’t much sunlight left, and it was falling on the far side of the house, but it looked much later in here. His eyes held that gauzy haze, adjusting, as he went to the kitchen. The ear buds to his iPod hung over his shoulder.

There wasn’t much for him to drink, he noticed, standing in the cool hands of the open refrigerator, the light hitting his legs and spreading across the tile floor. He chose the carton of orange juice, unfolding the lip, and drank until he couldn’t hold his breath. A line of sweat still lined his brow, he could feel, and Jeff was deciding what to do after his shower as he walked back into the living room, carton in hand. He could feel the coolness of the liquid inside of him.

The idea of grilling had already been dismissed as he’d stood in the kitchen, drinking from the carton. Maybe go out. There was the bar. Maybe over to Steve’s, he considered. That would exempt him from–

Jeff stopped. There was someone standing in the corner, near the front window, where the shadows overlapped like weaving. He wasn’t sure at first, but the shape was too solid and outlined to be just a shadow. The darkness was inconsistent, folding around a form. His mind ran for a hundred things in the second his head turned and his eyes noticed, as his hand reached over the lamp. To turn it on, yes. But, perhaps also to throw it.

“Not yet, Jeff.”

Three words. That was all that it took to stay his hand, to make it tremble the slightest bit.

He was looking at his wrist, the hand cut off by the lampshade. The switch wasn’t an inch from his fingertips, but he wasn’t thinking about the light. Not the lamp light, anyway. There had been another light, but . . .

Three words. Three syllables. They gleamed in his heart like stolen gold, their wealth darkened by the repercussions of their theft. Jeff knew that voice. More importantly, his heart knew it, and it coveted that dark gold with the avarice of a miser’s strength.

“Gloria,” he said, looking at the shape. His hand dropped to his side. The open orange juice container was set on the end of the table, its corner hanging off the edge. He didn’t even feel himself doing this as he stepped forward. Curiosity, worry, surprise, joy—these were the lines that made up his brows bed.

“Wait, Jeff. Give me a moment. I want to look at you.”

There was no more light in here for her to see than him, he thought. But he was not standing in the dark corner, either. His eyes went to the minimal separation of the curtains. The light had taken on that last gray note before it fails. Something flashed by–a car, he guessed.

They had almost been married, once. Well, that wasn’t precisely true. Jeff had almost asked her to marry him. Did that count? The ring had been in his pack, wrapped up in his old football sweatshirt, where Gloria wasn’t likely to check or stumble across it. He had the words.  And how many times had he heard himself saying them since then? A thousand different nights, he’d constructed the scene the way that it should have been. Every detail was there until his heart ached, until his fingers burnt for the touch that they couldn’t feel. He knew how it would have gone–the very words she’d say, the tears, the way that her arms would wrap around him, the love that they would make on the hard ground in the middle of that grassy field. All of it, and more.  Every day, every month, building to every year from then until now. It was his comfort, helping him to sleep at night. That should have been.

He was a copywriter, then. It had taken him four months to save the money up to buy that ring, and even then it had been modest. By then, Gloria had moved in, and their accounts had been joined, so he’d had to open a side account, stashing the secret money away to buy the secret ring for his secret plan. And it was still open, holding a balance of over twenty dollars–that sum of interest on the change left over from his purchase. He still had the ring. He still had all of her things, packed up in boxes, finally, and stored upstairs.

“Talk to me,” he said, and his voice wasn’t far above begging. But did he really want to know? Of course, he thought. But then, why did he feel so afraid?

It was the light, he knew. But it was more than that.

They had met in a record store in Conception six years ago. She had been standing there with headphones on, her hips gently swaying to her music like a single stalk of wheat in the summer breeze. And Jeff remembers almost hearing that music, an interior tune translating those movements into sound. Right or wrong, it was enough that he had hummed it, smiling, knowing that he had found something that he had to have. When she had taken the headphones off, he had approached her. That became dinner. Dinner became breakfast. Breakfast became a ring. He knew that it was a simple story, but every time he thought back on it, he could still feel something. Isn’t that how you know it was real, the lasting feeling?

“What do you want me to say?” she asked.  Her outline had not moved. In fact, as darkness set, she had become indistinct. A direction, no, instead of an object. “I’ve missed you.”

The words were there, but he couldn’t say them. A single bead of sweat rolled down his face. He still hadn’t cooled off from his jog; his heart still beating as though he were jogging.  Of course, he had missed her, but it had been four years. Some of the jagged tips had been dulled, and pain had given way now to curiosity.

Gloria had been pregnant. Jeff hadn’t known that until after. He had been sitting on the edge of the tub, shower running behind him, steam building, trying not to cry, when he’d seen something sticking out of the trash. It was the pink color of it that had interested him. Wrapped up in a tissue, save the tip, Jeff had pulled out a home pregnancy stick. There was a plus sign in the display window. Losing Gloria had been bad enough; this . . . seeing this was a whole new wing of Hell.

A child? Jeff had sat at the edge of the bath, feeling sick. The ring was in his hand, and his blurry eyes kept following the curve of the perfect circle, endlessly. It was in the gleam of that ring that he had seen his lost life, a window to the future he could not ever live. A wife, a child.  When he slept, it was the memory of that gleam that he sought–the only real peace that he knew was in imagining what should have been. Never what was.

“What happened Gloria?” He asked.

That’s what the police had wanted to know. They had pulled Jeff in for interview after interview. His picture had been in the paper as well as hers. Reporters had shoved microphones in his face, their cameras capturing his every expression. And the questions had never stopped.  Did you kill Gloria Hoberock? Where is her body? Do you fear that the police are going to arrest you?

Jeff had tried to answer the questions that he could. Twice, he had made public appeals for information about his girlfriend, knowing that he was playing for an audience. No one watching was going to know anything. There wasn’t a soul out there that would understand what he really had to say. So he lied, keeping that truth packed neatly away along with the information about his unborn child and eventually all her belongings. The police must have sensed that he was lying. The detectives had screamed at him, holding him in their tiny rooms, slamming their fists on the table, grabbing him by the shirt, lying. They had told him about a witness hiker.  They had told him that they had found her body, and that he might as well confess, to tell the truth, to take responsibility and show the judge remorse. That was the right thing to do, the only thing that could help him–bullshit, all of it. They had told him about blood they had found.  They had told him about fingerprints. They had told him about DNA. All it would have taken was one wrong word from him, and he would be in jail. When they didn’t get it, they finally told him he could go.

Jeff had been lying, sure. But his lie was simple and built with stones of truth. Nothing to mess up, nothing to forget. He couldn’t tell the truth. It was something that not even he understood and he had borne it witness.

“They came for me,” she said, simply.

He had never put up flyers or drove the streets in search of her. He had driven north and walked the woods near the ridge. That was where they had been camping, hiking all weekend.  Alone, outdoors. He had held her by the campfire, listening to the battery powered radio, sleeping to the serenade of owls and crickets. Awakened to bird calls. It had been exactly what he had planned, until the light had come.

Bright, from the sky, it had fallen around them. Jeff had covered his eyes, looking up.  There was no sound, only this large circle of intense daylight. Gloria had screamed, and that was all that Jeff knew. Everything went black after that, until he’d woke up the next afternoon. The campfire had long burnt itself out. There were no tracks, no trace of Gloria except for the gear that she’d brought. So, after scouring the woods, calling out her name, after calling the police, he had just told everyone that Gloria had left him. They had gotten into an argument, and she had stormed off. Maybe a bear got her, maybe she was fine.

No one had ever believed him, but no one would have believed the truth.

“Who came for you?”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” she said calmly.

Jeff couldn’t see much at all, now. His hand found the lamp, turning it on. For a second, as his fingers rolled the switch, he was afraid to turn the light on. Was it irrational? More than anything, he wanted to see her. But, at the same time, what did it mean? And, what if the light proved that she was not there?

She was. The lamp was not bright, but it easily pulled her from the darkness. She had the same brown hair, the same soft face. There was no difference that he could see–she was wearing the same clothes that he had last seen her in. It was like time hadn’t touched her at all.

“I can’t believe that it’s you.”

“It is, Jeff,” Gloria said. For the first time, she moved, coming slowly forward.

“Where have you been? What happened to you?”

“You don’t have to worry about that.”

“But I am,” he said, his confusion trying to find anger. But the best that he could do was confused anger. “I want to know what happened to you. Your family blamed me, Gloria.  Everyone did.”

“Forget about that. I am here for you, now.”

She was arms-length away. Everything about her was so beautiful. “What about the child? Why didn’t you tell me?”

This made her pause, blinking at him. Then the trouble cleared from her face, and she was up against him. He could smell her; it was almost what he remembered. But there was something off.

“Don’t worry about it,” she soothed him. Her hands went around him. Her touch made him quiver. His own hands held her, feeling her.

It was her eyes that grabbed him. They weren’t right. None of this was. There was even something off in her breath, hitting him. “Wait,” he said, as her mouth tried to find his. “Wait!” more sternly. He tried to push her back, to extricate himself from her hold, but he couldn’t. She was too strong. Much stronger than she had been. “Wait, Gloria. Let me go.” Struggling to free himself, he knocked the orange juice container over, spilling it to the floor.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You’ll never have to worry again.” From between her full lips, two small, green tentacles emerged, their tips pointed and dark. She held him solidly, pushing her mouth against his. Jeff could taste his blood as they pushed past his tongue, and down his throat. Gloria’s eyes were closed as her mouth pressed against his, as though this were their first kiss. Jeff’s eyes were wide open, his body rigid as he tried to scream. Outside, it was dark. In here, his body began to tremble as his throat began to burn.

 

 

 

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What She Told Me

By: Morgen Knight

 Her name was Sarah. We met online. Her profile had the prettiest picture, arresting eyes.

She told me about her life, boyfriend. She told me about her college courses. She told me about her feelings, for months; she cried to me when Todd cheated. She told me secrets, I gave her mine.

She told me how funny I was.

She told me, after Christmas she was in love, that I was like a dream. That she wanted me.

She told me about a motel.

But she’d lied.

Turns out, she was a Mike, and Mike has a knife.

A Community Feel

By: Morgen Knight

 I live on a street of strangers. I’ve seen them, but their names? Their lives? Who they really are? I look at them and I don’t trust them.

My kids can’t leave the yard. 5792 might be a pedophile. 5795 could be a drug addict. 5787 looks like trouble, liars.

I’m surrounded by suspects; each man a potential rapist, the women deranged mothers.

I watch them all, disconnected. I feel alone among them. They aren’t people I can care about. So I keep a wary eye on them, and I practice caution. All my friends think that’s smart. They live among strangers, too.

Erosion

Morgen Knight

            A bomb destroyed the city above them. The subway car was knocked askew. Sections of tunnel collapsed, trapping all forty-eight unprepared, screaming passengers. Water sprayed from broken pipes. Days crept by. They burned clothes for light.

“We’re a Dorothea Lange photo,” Tim smirked.

Pretty Sara had a portwine stain on her face. Josh held her, sleeping. He heard the helpless prayers of others. Entombed and blanketed by radiation, human erosion’s inevitable.

They decided to eat the fat ones first.

Roadside Attractions

By: Morgen Knight

With the plum color of dusk stretched across the horizon like a rich fabric, Jack Smalls pulled his black truck onto the gravel of the roadside attraction. It was a large red-and-white, vertical striped tent. Two points like horns, defined the line of its ceiling. It reminded him of a cheap circus tent. A single string of Christmas lights ran between the raised points, sagging on the tent’s canvass like a paltry necklace on a homely wife’s neckline.

He didn’t know why he was stopping here. The tent was strange, as were the Christmas lights (it was June). There were two rotating spotlights on either side of the gravel entrance. The lights weren’t any bigger than a Cantrel flashlight he’d used in the field at night, but the hue they shed was burnt orange. A sign, that looked hand-painted, stood on a thin stake pushed into the soil beside Highway 7’s asphalt read: War Turkey’s Present-Live Shows and Fresh Chickens.

Jack didn’t know what that meant, exactly. Was War Turkey an established name? It sounded to him like it could be. You never know, these days. Maybe fresh chicken points at a rivalry, he thought with a mental chuckle. Turkeys vs. chicken, you never know what you’d discover there.

He loved roadside stands. Fresh fruit, crafts, that Nomadic ball of bras women had donated in every state it traveled, growing by precious cups of cotton. The food made him a touch weary. He had issues with eating food from a person you might never see again. The option of kicking their ass later for the fucking food poisoning was comforting. Want to sell me a bad sausage on a stick? Here, motherfucker, try eating without your front teeth. The world isn’t shit without accountability.

This place was new. Jack drove down this road a couple times a week. It had to have been thrown up in the last few days. You could tell when you looked at the fresh gravel. Just laid, he knew. There were places where the blades of the covered grass beneath it poked through.

He put his truck beside a red Corsica. There were maybe twelve other vehicles here.  Lightening bugs started their lambent dances over the field. A van passed by as Jack entered the tent’s flap.

There was a small booth just inside. In the booth was an elderly woman. She looked like anyone’s grandmother except that she was without a shirt. Her flaccid breasts hung around her belly. A thin gold chain ran between her shrunken nipples, a paucity of white hairs sticking up around her aureoles like thin, random blades of grass poking through the gaps of freshly poured gravel.

“Fifteen dollars,” she said nicely.

Jack didn’t argue. Her breasts, though not quality, were worth that–tits were tits, right?  He found his wallet and handed her two bills through the window. She handed him back three pears with clouds painted on them. “What are these for?”

She looked at him like he was stupid. “Find a table. We got a good crowd tonight.  Your fresh chicken sandwich will be brought to you.”

“I probably won’t want that.”

She shrugged, pulling lightly on the chain between her breasts. They looked like deflated balloons.

There was a glass door Jack had to go through. The room inside was dim, the tent ceiling lurching up into dark cones. Peach-colored florescent lights ran along the line of the walls–quick, dry-wall covered boards thrown up and braced. The ground was bare grass. The room was full of small tables. One or two people sat at each. Many were smoking, drinking out of small glasses. Did they know what this was? They all had a subdued demeanor, like they had done this before. He couldn’t shake the comparison to a midnight jazz club.

The table that he found was near the entrance, three back from the front. After he sat, a pretty waitress took a request and brought back a tall glass of scotch with a red umbrella in it.  He thanked her, set the decoration on the table, sipped the drink and checked out her ass as she left. At the table beside his, a sophisticated looking woman sat smoking through a long-stemmed cigarette holder. She wore a sleek dress and black elbow gloves. Jack nodded to her when she glanced over. She didn’t respond.

Ten minutes later, the show started.

There was one of those old laundry lines running across the top of the raised, wooden stage. The type of laundry line run on a wheel at either end, the lines running behind the blue curtains at the edges of the stage. The back of the stage was the side of a bus painted black, the windows covered, too.

Across the line ran a small wooden sign which read: Rosie’s Lullaby. Norah Jones. Song 12 of 13. 3:56. And then the song started it’s slow riff. At least they were careful to give credit.

A tall, sheet-covered object was pushed onto the stage. A dwarf followed. He had on black leather pants with suspenders that came up over his bare chest. A bright yellow baby’s bib was tied around his neck. His welder’s hat had a bow tie painted onto the side. In his hand was a long horse whip. Jack waited for him to speak, but all the little man did was bow. The crowd clapped.

The dwarf gave a thumbs up. He moved with large, exaggerated pantomiming gestures.  But he was good. He translated well.

With a magician’s pull, he removed the sheet from the contraption on the stage. It was a strange-looking guillotine. The bench was raised at the end so it declined to the chopping end.  And it was a short bench, at that.

The Asian woman was struggling at the two burly men in cowboy get-ups brought her in.  She struggled as best she could, but she was small and they were large. She was yelling for them to stop, that she was a college student from Kansas. Why were they doing this? Jack drank as he watched. It was a very strong act.

The woman was pretty. She wore a robe, and before laying her face down on the bench, the man yanked it from her. Her breasts were firm. Much better than the door lady’s. Worth another fifteen dollars, if you asked Jack. Her pubic area had been freshly shaved, and with haste, for in the peach light he could see a number of razor bumps. The dwarf had his hands comically at the sides of his face when she was undressed, as though the vulgarity of it shocked him. Oh the madness of our age! There were the scattered rumblings of laughter.

Despite her weak fight, the woman was strapped down on the bench, her ass pointing out, head poking through the guillotine hold. A black strap went around her legs to a bar at the bottom of the bench, immobile.

After the men left, the dwarf, using a stool, climbed up beside her head. His crotch pressed against her crown as he pulled down on a rope tied to a rubber bar. As the rope came down, the bright guillotine blade smoothly rose. You had to imagine the sound of metal scraping as it ascended, so smooth it was. Gentle music played. Smoke drifted.

The dwarf forced the rubber bar into the woman’s mouth, and she bit down. He backed up slowly and the weight of the blade made her head remain extended up like a standing person would be looking at the waxy moon, making a wish by the lullaby light.

It had to hurt her neck from the strain, Jack thought. He could easily see the get-ups function. If she opened her mouth . . . Slice!

The dwarf climbed down the stool, took a long stick and knocked the guard from the top of the stock pinning her head down. You could hear her mumbling please. Tears fell from her slanted eyes to the wooden planks.

Then the dwarf began to beat her bare body with the horse whip. Her back, her ass–over and over until large red welts became apparent. The acute smacks punctured the ambient music.  With each hit, he gave an expression of naughty child that drew laughs. Look what I’ve done!  Oh, gosh.

Jack downed his glass and got another scotch. He didn’t get the show, but it wasn’t bad.  The woman beside him lit another cigarette. A guy two tables over had his hand in his jeans and was shoving something down there around with some force. Jack thought that it would be funny if it was a squirrel.

Hot wax was pored on the woman. Tacks were jammed into her skin along her body until it looked like pasted on jewels. Dry ice was set to foggy at the center of her back.

The dwarf stepped off stage. As he did, a clown came on, juggling, ignoring the pretty Asian. He did not leave as the dwarf returned. With him he brought a cloth bag, a funnel, and a rod of steel. He made a large O with his mouth. Then he climbed the stool, pushed the funnel into the woman’s vagina, and emptied the bag into the funnel. It was crushed up glass.

You could see the woman’s strain. Sweat dripped like tears. Her muscles and tendons bulged in her neck. And then the dwarf began to ram the steel rod home, the particles of glass making fresh homes in warm flesh. Blood fell, and then she let out a truncated scream. The blade fell, and her head rolled, and red liquid gushed out, covering where her tears had fallen, like fresh paint.

All around Jack, people clapped, but it was restrained. Respectful. The tips of their fingers against their palms. He couldn’t believe it . . .What a great fucking show! He downed his drink and got another as the contraption was wheeled off stage and the next one was wheeled on. It was a doozy.

A large water tank of glass. Inside was a slobby-fat woman–naked and gross. Her feet were bound by a rope that ran to a set of pulleys. The song for this was Hell is for Children. Her son, an out of shape man with dark hair, named Vane Mcullen, was bound to a table. A hot clothes iron was placed on his back. When he pulled on the rope that lifted the iron from his back, his fat mother was submerged. Burn and blister or drown your mom.

She lasted eight minutes, and Jack was onto his third drink, clapping politely.

Fuckin’ roadside stops, man. A deal. By the time the farmer in overalls was on stage, peeling this black, screaming, teenage girls’s scalp off like a grape, Jack was drunkish and looking for that chicken sandwich. He still had no idea what the pears were for, and he’d lost track of the song playlist. What he did know was that fifteen bucks was a fuckin’ bargain for this. Tomorrow, he’d bring a friend.

 

Not All Gods Make It

Morgen Knight

            Elysian the sign read. Norton could only read it because the sun hadn’t completely set yet.  Most of the sign’s bulbs were either broken or burnt out. From a distance, what bulbs could carry light formed something so fractured and disconnected that it looked like random lines of a foreign language. But the gas station itself was well lit. He wasn’t surprised to see that the parking lot was empty. In fact, Elysian looked abandon until he pulled in from 69 highway and saw the lady leaning up against the counter, thumbing through a magazine with a bored expression on her face.

Norton shut off the car, killing the Shagtronics in the middle of their song. He had been driving for five days, now. And for the last three hours straight. Iowa to southern California–that was the trip. But he wasn’t taking the most direct route. If that was all that he wanted to do, get to California, he should have taken a plane, right? Instead he was meandering. Here, there. He wasn’t sure if you could call it sightseeing, because he really wasn’t taking in many sights. Not that there was a variety of them through here. Colorado had the mountains, but what else was there in the middle of the country? An arch? Giant balls of twine or tape or whatever other material someone decided to roll into a sphere?

Rushmore! Yes, there was that, he conceded. And to be honest, he had stopped in Kansas to check out the Gallery of American Photos, which had turned out to be in a guy named Ted’s garage. The photos had been less American themed as they were panty shots–up girls skirts.  Cutouts from old porno mags. Polaroids of women in various stages of undress in an obvious scramble to cover themselves as the flash lit. Ted had walked him through it, read with a back-story for any picture Norton might show interest in. Ted had enjoyed Norton’s reactions more than anything. Most people left after a few feet in, the stink of oil and fresh lawn clippings spilling from a black bag in the corner where its bell had been slit by something. But shit, he was here and he’d stopped. So, he gave the Gallery a throw–it wasn’t 1920’s pictures, black and whites of America . . .really, but they were pictures, stapled to particle board or not–and put a five in the donations can on the fold-up table at the exit.

He was in Arizona, now, off of 68 highway, traveling on empty roads. He didn’t think that he had ever really felt alone in his life until a few hours of desert landscape and a dry blue sky had swallowed him. And it wasn’t so much that other people weren’t driving by, it was the feel that no one may ever take this road again. He could be the last. If he broke down, there was a real chance that no one would ever find him, and then he’d began to wonder if that had happened to anyone else, watching the side of the road for the signs of life.

Part of that, Norton had to admit, could have been the scotch.

But most of that had died down, now, and the scotch had worked through him. That was part of the reason that he had stopped to piss.

He got out of his purple ‘77 Cutlass, dug the trash off of the passenger seat, the empty bottles–soda and otherwise–and the full ashtray to dump it all in the trash barrel. When he got close, his face cringed. The smell coming out of the trash nearly made him puke. It smelled like there was something rotten in there. The sun had taken its traces with it, so Norton couldn’t see, but he really wasn’t all that interested, either. If it smelled that fucking bad, why would he want to see it?

The trash that he was discarding didn’t so much as fall in as fly at the barrel. The ashes he dumped onto the asphalt, a number of butts bouncing and rolling. He was at least twenty feet away before he dared to breathe in again. The air was sweetly bland. A stink like that could stain your clothes and make you have to wash. There were no showers around here that he’d seen, and he couldn’t picture himself having to walk naked from the bathroom where he’d bird-bath to the Cutlass for a change of clothes, the old threads left behind.

Norton dropped the plastic ashtray in the window then headed inside. It was a simple shop. A little rundown. He couldn’t imagine it doing much business. When he’d seen it sitting in the distance, it had caught him as queer. Out here in the middle of nothing, all alone.

The lady behind the counter was short with dark brown hair cut to make her head look like a mushroom. She didn’t look old, but there were definite creases on her face. At first she didn’t look up, and Norton looked around. There were two empty chairs, Generic and shopworn.  A single refrigerator unit with a light that was buzzing as it blinked off and on.

“Excuse me,” Norton said.

The woman looked up at him irritated. He saw that it was a horse saddle magazine that she was looking at. “Buyin somethin?”

Norton hadn’t planned to, and after seeing the stock, he really couldn’t think of what.  There was a jar of jerky beside the register, and he decided that was the way he’d go if she pressed him. Places could be touchy about that these days. “I was wondering if I could use your rest room?”

The woman looked him up and down. He could almost hear her thought process. Finally she sighed, reached over behind the register and dropped the key that she’d grabbed onto the counter. “It’s to the side of the building,” she said. Her voice was raspy. “You’re not going to shit on the floor, are you?”

Norton palmed the key, trying to smirk through his confusion. And surprise. “No-o,” he said slowly. “Does that happen often?”

The lady shrugged. “Sometimes.”

He was surprised to hear it (why would she have brought it up if it never happened?), and sickened.

“If you do,” she sounded resigned, “please don’t draw a ship or a landscape or a message with it on the walls. I have to clean that up.”

“Does that happen often?” The same reasoning applied to this question, but he’d had to ask. And it was one of those questions that you don’t want the answer to.

She gave the same shrug. “Sometimes.”

“I just have to piss,” he said, not really feeling that urge any longer. And really, after talk of ships and landscapes, he felt like his urine was a bit of an under-achiever. She looked at him a bit doubtful.

Norton walked outside, noticing the musty absence at once. There were no exterior lights, only what came through the front windows and the shavings from the incomplete sign near the road. He walked along the side of the building, to the only door that he saw. There was no sign on it to distinguish it.

The single key on the ring went in easily. Norton found himself in a small box facing two doors. The only way that he could see was by holding the outer door open with his foot.

The first door that he tried opened to a storage room. That’s all it could be. The light only claimed a little, but what Norton saw was boxes. It was the second door, the one on the right, that opened to the bathroom. He could tell by the anonymous tile flooring and the bright white walls.  The smells that he had expected after that brief conversation were not here, which surprised him.

His hand hit the light switch, letting the outer door swing shut. It was a much larger bathroom than he would have suspected. There were four stalls and three sinks along the left wall. The right wall was long and empty save for a small rectangle window near the ceiling. He didn’t think that he could squeeze through it.

Careful to avoid the suspect right wall–there was no art, but the idea was enough–he headed to the first stall. When he reached out to push the door in–

“It’s occupied,” the voice said.

Norton turned, startled.  There was a thin man standing by the first sink. He hadn’t been there a second ago, Norton was sure. What the fuck was this? The man had long, shaggy hair and wore a strange suit of raked and ruined leather that was grossly oversized.

“What’s going on here?” Norton asked.

“This is your chance,” the leather man said, “to change your life.”

“Leave him alone, don’t cha?” another man called from one of the stalls. Norton had backed up to the wall, the thoughts of ships replaced with a more immediate concern. He followed that voice to the second stall, where he saw two feet. “Give some of us a chance.”

Norton, who was closely following this partitioned conversation, did not like the idea of anyone having “chances” with him. It wasn’t the kind of thing a guy wants to hear in the rest room of a rundown gas station off a lonely road in the middle of nowhere. What kind of shit was this? “I’m just trying to get to California,” Norton said. “My sister’s wedding is in ten days, so I don’t need any trouble.”

“No trouble,” leather man said. “We want to help you, Norton.” There was a mingled cacophony of agreement from the stalls. There were feet in all of them now. “Anything that you want, we can give you. Long life,” he said, taking a step forward.

“Love,” a stalled man said.

“Money,” chirped in the next.

“Fame,” the third said.

“Power!” the man in leather capitalized by pumping his fist. He lifted the large hammer, spinning it, and for a moment it moved in a blur, giving off a blear light. His shoulders looked wider. Muscles larger. Back straight, lifting his height. For a moment, he was awesome to look at and easy to fear.

But whatever he drew from, the reserves could not last. Like air leaking from a punctured tire, his body deflated. The large hummer straight out of a blacksmith’s tale that he’d limberly maneuvered slumped him over, nearly falling from his hands. He struggled to keep it from stripping from his arthritically knotted hands; it hit with enough momentum to crack the tile it landed on. His demonstration ended with him breathless, hunched over, sweat dripping from his wide nostrils, the oversized leather outfit dangling from his shoulders.

“You always take it too far,” the first stall said to general laughter.

“But I am out here, aren’t I! People still know my name,” the leather man shot back.  When he looked up at Norton, his eyes sagged, face tired. Slowly his breathing calmed.

“I really don’t think that this is for me,” Norton said.

“What–ever–you–can–dream of we can grant it. I can,” leather man promised. “For what? For nothing. Not really much, when you look at it.”

“Say my name. Think of me. Give–a little blood. One small cut to your finger. I’ll grow.  I’ll–and it doesn’t even have to be your blood,” he said excitedly.

A little blood here, more later, more after that, Norton thought, this . . . failed god growing with each drop. A vampire feeding off of alters.

“I can do more,” the first stall said, and then the others piped in.

“I don’t even need blood,” a new voice called out, wispy and tight. Norton turned, seeing the hole in the wall. FREE LOVE was written along the circumference in black marker. A pair of dry lips moved inside. “Not at all.”

“Who are you?” Norton asked.

“Shut up, Douche,” leather said.

“If it wasn’t Thursday, I’d be out there and you’d be in here,” the hole responded. “Then I’d get my day. There ain’t no rule says I can’t petition while I sit here.”

“It’s Tuesday,” Norton said.

“What!” The hole exclaimed.

“Now you done it,” the first stall said.

“I’m not going–” leather was saying as Norton backed up to the door.

He was outside in the night air before their screaming died. The key that he had been given was still in the bathroom. Norton didn’t have to piss so bad. Shit, he’d pull over up the road if he did! Blood? Walking back to his car, he repeatedly turned to look behind, thinking.  How many people had taken that deal? Hit and runs? Abductions? Serial killers! His hands were shaking when he got into the car. He was not afraid; it was the idea of what he could become.

Standing inside Elysian, the cashier was near the window.  Her shirt rippled down her chest with the six pairs of sagging breasts. What else did the darkness hide?

Ideas of blood and power and glory holes didn’t begin to fade for three miles, and then he began to wonder if it had even happened. Stopping at the side of the empty road, he was whistling along with the radio, thinking about his sister’s wedding and the jackass that she was giving her ring finger to (Norton had no illusions that she’d given him and others, many others, everything else). An hour later, his entire trip down 69 highway was a blur of music and empty scenery. He was looking forward to meandering through Utah. There was a tin can collection that he thought he might like to see. He still had to pick up a gift for his sister, too.

And behind him, on a dark road, an aged woman sat behind a counter, waiting, reading, turning the page of her fusty magazine.