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The Last Line

Jackson walked the streets where he’d grown up. He’d been gone a long time. When he’d returned, he expected to find everything different. Sadly, very little had changed. Even the penny Jimmy Smitts had pushed into wet concrete back when the city had spent a rare dime on that part of town to give the sidewalks a facelift was still there. Now, the sidewalks were cracked and uneven. Some parts were nothing more than patches of dirt, but the penny remained.

The other kids in the neighborhood had made Jackson’s life hell back then. Jimmy was the only exception. Jimmy wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t a bully either, not like the rest of them. Jimmy usually just did his own thing, but he’d gone missing when he was fourteen. At the time, Jackson had assumed Jimmy had just wised up and finally run away from the wrong side of town to make a name for himself somewhere. But now, Jackson didn’t even dare hazard a guess as to where the closest thing he had to a friend in his youth had ended up, probably nowhere good.

Jackson turned the corner of Pine Avenue and Sycamore Street. He never understood why they used trees for street names instead of numbers, it only served to complicate things and get people lost. Lost is something no one wants to be on the wrong side of the tracks. He looked through the window of McKinley’s barber shop and saw a few familiar faces. Old man McKinley was long gone, but it appeared his grandson, an unfriendly acquaintance from Jackson’s youth, had taken over the family business. Jackson didn’t bother going inside. Instead, he walked on.

For several minutes he walked slowly past the tightly packed houses. It was a wonder they hadn’t all gone up in flames when Vincent Daniels blew himself up building a pipe bomb to celebrate Independence Day.

Jackson stopped in front of the house that he’d grown up in. He’d thought it was run down then, but now it was downright decrepit. The entire structure was cocked so far to the left that a strong gust of wind from the right direction could probably blow it over. He took in the sight of his old home and sighed.

He was twelve when Jimmy disappeared. Inspired, he’d packed a bag and split in the middle of the night less than two weeks later. It wasn’t until he hit twenty-five that he started considering returning to explain why he’d left to his mother. Now that he was there, he didn’t know if he could go through with it.

He swallowed the desire to keep walking and stepped through the opening in the rusted chain link fence where the off kilter gate used to hang. A few steps up the walk he spotted the gate lying on the unkempt lawn–mostly weeds, really–between the fence and the house.

The stairs groaned under his weight as he climbed to the porch. He stood before the door and hesitated with his hand raised. The knot in his stomach clenched so tight the he nearly doubled over. He took a deep breath and slammed his balled fist against the broken storm door–three times in quick succession. No turning back.

A woman, nearly as time and weather worn as the house opened the door. Her eyes narrowed.

“Hi, Ma,” Jackson said.

“You should have stayed away,” she replied, but opened the door and nodded for him to enter. “You was right to leave. This place is poison. It’ll kill anyone stupid enough to stay,” she added as she walked back the hall to the kitchen.

“I was hoping it might have changed,” he said, following her.

“Yeah, well, get used to disappointment if you plan on staying.” She sat at the table and took a sip of her tea.

He sat across from her and tried to smile. She looked like hell, and he felt responsible. “I’m not staying, Ma. Just felt I owed you an explanation is all.”

She shook her head. “No need to explain. Running away from this God forsaken place was the best decision you ever made.”

“Maybe you should leave too,” he suggested.

“This is my home, Jackson. For better or worse, this is where I’m staying. It was nice to see you though. Good to know you’re still breathing.” She swallowed another sip of tea. “I believe you know the way out.”

Jackson stood up and turned for the hallway. Just before he took a step he looked back. “For what it’s worth: I’m sorry, Ma, for putting you through that.”

“Dead or runned away, either way you was better off than living through the hell those boys you hung around with put you through. Nothing to apologize for, boy.” She gripped her teacup with both hands. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to drink my tea before it gets cold.”

Jackson nodded. “Goodbye, Ma.” He let himself out and headed back around the corner of Sycamore and Pine.

The familiar bell on the door of McKinley’s barber shop chimed after he rounded the corner. A voice rose behind him. “Hey, Jackson, is that you, man?”

He didn’t respond, lacking the desire to talk to Danny McKinley, though he probably goes by Dan now.

“Yeah, that’s right, keep walking, pussy,” the voice chided.

Jackson just shook his head and kept walking. He made his way back to the penny–the only thing worth saving in his old neighborhood–and pried it from the cracked concrete with the screwdriver he’d had in his pocket. He left the screwdriver on the ground and slipped the penny in his pocket in the screwdriver’s place, after kissing it for luck.

When he’d finished, he headed back to his rusted, white, windowless van. The key slipped into the lock on the back, and he pulled on the handle. The rusted hinges whined in protest, but the door opened. He climbed into the back and sat on the bench he’d built from scavenged scraps of lumber. After pulling the angry door closed, he turned on the overhead light and slid the bench up to the small table on the other side of the van. For a moment he stared at himself in the jagged shard of mirror taped to the wall with duct tape.

After allowing Danny’s insult to sink in, he nodded and opened the makeup case on the table. First, he applied white over his entire face. Next, he created a huge, crooked smile and diamonds over his eyes with black paint. For the final touch, he added a single teardrop on his left cheek. A grin crept up his face as he stared at the demented clown looking back at him. He couldn’t help but laugh at the hideous creature.

He lit a cigarette and took a long drag before slipping the lighter into his pocket with the penny–just in case he ended up needing it–and shouldering the bag on the hook beside the table. He didn’t bother turning the overhead light off. He wouldn’t be coming back. With a heavy kick, the door flew open, and he hopped out into the afternoon sun.

His laughter flooded the street as he picked up where Vincent had left off all those years ago. It was time to celebrate. By the time the police showed up he’d gone through the entire bag of pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails–six of each–lighting all but one with the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had to resort to the lighter in his pocket for the final one.

He was still laughing, and sucking down a fresh cigarette, when the officers shot him.

The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable.

This story was written for The Short Story and Flash Fiction Society’s Short Story Contest #6.

He’s Not Listening

He’s not listening. He never listens. The voices speak, but he ignores them. At least, he tries to. He goes about his days as if the voices in his head weren’t urging him to do things—terrible things. It started when he was six. Back then it was just a single whisper. Now, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of distinct voices. Some still whisper, but most shout their words above the crowd to be heard. They yell at him and pick him apart. They tell him he isn’t good enough. That he’ll never amount to anything. For the most part he ignores them, but sometimes their words cut deep. They are relentless.

He hasn’t slept for more than fifteen minutes at a time for almost six days now. The voices won’t allow it. Soon, he will collapse from exhaustion and sleep for nearly thirty solid hours, and then the cycle will begin again. It has been that way for as long as he can remember.

He walks the streets of his city. He knows the streets in that part of town aren’t safe at night. They never have been, but he doesn’t care. He walks them anyway as the voices continue with their inane chatter. He doesn’t know what they’re saying. He’s not listening.

He momentarily passes beneath the glow of a street lamp and stops to look at his reflection in the glass of a storefront window. There are bars over the window that remind him of a prison cell. All the shops in this part of town have them, even though most of the buildings haven’t been occupied his entire life. He looks haggard and the heavy bags under his eyes do little to reassure him that he is still sane. He scratches the stubble on his chin and moves on, back into the shadows of the night.

He stops and sits on a graffiti covered bench, under another light, and waits for the bus that isn’t scheduled to arrive until morning–a full six hours off yet. He sighs and drops his head into his hands. The weight of it surprises him. The wave of exhaustion threatens to begin his long sleep right there on the bench, and he almost doesn’t care.

He closes his eyes. He doesn’t know for how long, but it’s still dark when he opens them again, so not long enough. Somebody clears their throat. He looks left, expecting to see a mugger, or maybe a crooked cop, but there is only a woman sitting on the bench beside him. She looks familiar, but he can’t place the face. He assumes she is a prostitute.

“I don’t have any money,” he says. His mouth is dry and the words scratch his throat as they come out.

She laughs. “I ain’t a hooker, darling,” she says. “But I’m flattered.”

“You shouldn’t be.” He looks away. She’s wearing too much makeup. It hurts his eyes.

She says something else but the words are a jumble in his head.

The voices beg him to do things to her. Horrible things. Things that would make her regret leaving her home that night, if she was still around to regret anything. The voices demand he acts on the urges., but he’s not listening–to them or her.

He stares across the street. The crumbling building there used to be a Chinese restaurant. He misses it. They had the best lo mein he’s ever tasted.

He looks back toward the woman, surprised to find her still sitting there. “If you’re looking for a friend, I’m a bad choice,” he says.

“Don’t I know it,” she says. He doesn’t know what that means.

He stands up and crosses the deserted street. He stands in front of the former restaurant and looks up at the broken sign above the door. He shakes his head. He could really go for some lo mein. The woman with too much makeup joins him. She looks up at the sign and laughs at the vulgar graffiti.

He turns away from her. “Leave me alone,” he says and starts walking again.

She follows him, but he isn’t sure why. She doesn’t say a word. When he stops, she stops beside him. When he walks, she follows a few steps behind. She laughs sometimes, but he doesn’t know why. Nothing about the night in this part of the city is funny. It never has been. They go on this way for ten minutes.

He stops in front of his house. It is broken, worn out, and on its last leg. It is just as accurate a reflection of himself as the one he’d stared at in the glass of the storefront, maybe even more so.

“This is where we part ways,” he says and climbs the porch steps. She laughs again, but doesn’t follow this time.

He slips his key into the lock, leans his head on the door, and closes his eyes. He wonders if he should offer her a place to stay for the night. The streets aren’t safe.

When he opens his eyes again he is back on the bench. For a moment he is confused as the haze of the dream wears off.

The run down Chinese restaurant stares at him from across the street. Its blacked out windows and off kilter door look remarkably like a face, one that he doesn’t trust. He looks to his left. The woman isn’t there, but the image of her face is burned in his mind. He knows her from somewhere. He’s seen that face before. He wonders why she wears so much makeup.

He stands up and crosses the deserted street. He stands in front of the former restaurant and looks up at the broken sign above the door. He shakes his head. He could really go for some lo mein.

For the first time in a long time, the voices go silent. He doesn’t know whether to celebrate or be afraid, so he does neither. He closes his eyes and tries to clear his head.

A moment later, when he opens his eyes, he finds himself inside the building, but he doesn’t know how he got there. He doesn’t remember entering. He wonders if he is still asleep on the bench across the street, but he has a feeling he isn’t. The voices are back, but they are more hushed than usual, nothing more than whispers. He doesn’t know what they are saying, but not because he’s not listening. He wants to know the secret they’re keeping from him. He wants them to speak louder. He wants to hear their words.

He moves further into the restaurant and steps around a table that has been toppled over. The whole restaurant is trashed, but somehow this one table feels out of place. Nothing about the table says it shouldn’t be there. It blends in perfectly, but something about it rubs him the wrong way.

A naked foot is sticking out from behind the counter. He assumes it belongs to one of the many homeless in the area. He doesn’t know why, but he is drawn to that foot. He moves around the counter. A corpse with too much makeup and glazed over eyes stares at him. There are bruises on her neck.

He remembers her. Her name was Claire. He brought her here. He gave in to the constant urging of the voices. He remembers the feeling of his hands around her throat, and he wants to vomit. The voices in his head roar with approval.

Yes, he remembers her, and all of the others who made the mistake of getting close near the end of his broken sleep cycle. All of the names and the faces come flooding back, and he cries for them. He sobs harsh, heavy tears for the awful things he’s done to them. He remembers them all, and one by one he asks for forgiveness they can no longer grant.

Soon, he will sleep. He promises himself he won’t forget them, but sleep will steal his memories again. It always does. And he’ll go on pretending he doesn’t listen to the voices, pretending he doesn’t give in to the awful things they ask him to do, pretending he isn’t a monster.

This story was written for The Short Story and Flash Fiction Society’s Short Story Contest #5, using prompt #5.

And the winners are…

Another round of big thanks to everyone who helped me spread the word about Wicked Little Things.

All names were tossed into a bubbling cauldron, and subsequently became unreadable when the ink bled. So I had to grab a hat off the coat rack and use that instead. Names were shuffled. Spiteful words were said in the heat of the moment. The tears of the unicorn whose feelings I had hurt were sprinkled over the entries in the hat. Apologies were made. Forgiveness was had. Names were drawn. Winners were contacted. It wasn’t as much fun as a bubbling cauldron, but it got the job done without destroying the slips of paper this time.

The winner of the print editions of 100 Tiny Tales of Terror and Wicked Little Things was David Spell.

The winners of the Wicked Little Things e-books were Adam M. Booth and Charles Yallowitz.

Congratulations winners! You can now add an “achievement” to your resume and land that job you’ve always wanted but were never qualified for before now.