The mashed potatoes are a little clumpy. The skins are burnt and interfere with the garlic and rosemary. They could have used more butter; perhaps grandma ran out, perhaps she forgot to tell grandpa when he went out earlier.
The chops, however, are fantastic. Absolutely brilliant. I don’t know where grandma goes from here with these chops. She’s made them hundreds of times in my twenty-seven years. Hundreds. But these are absolutely perfect ─ the sort of meat that men on death row request before they’re strapped to a chair and zapped.
We’re just sharing looks, the three of us, as usual. Grandpa always said, “If people are talking during their meal it’s because the food tastes like shit.” I’m not saying he’s right, but I can’t say he’s wrong. Certainly at this moment, he’s right.
Every few bites, one of us takes a soft slurp from something wet. Grandma and her wine, grandpa and myself: a bottle of beer. I’m not a drunk, none of us are, we just like a drink or two with supper.
The cutlery clinks and clanks atop the plates. Grandpa is always the first to finish, then myself and grandma last. Grandpa and I may finish first, but we never interrupt grandma’s meal with dialogue. When she finishes, we discuss the luxury we just consumed.
“My love,” Grandpa says to grandma, his voice sounding as concrete feels, “dinner was exquisite.” He smiles, taking her small hand in his large mitt.
She smiles as he brings the top of her hand to his mouth, leaving a kiss upon it.
Grandma’s face may be withered, her hair white, but her green eyes are still filled with brilliant light as they connect with mine.
“Plans for the night, hun?” She asks, smiling her old white smile.
Studying is what I tell her. I’m not lying either, but she knows that. Gran and Gramps both love so much that I’ve found something to love: teaching. I want to be an English teacher at an elementary school. Open their minds when they’re young so they’ll be wise forever.
Over the next hour, Gran puts on a pot of coffee, the trio remaining at the table. As per usual, the grandparents rekindle the passion between them by telling old stories that one or both of them have forgotten. It’s actually rare that I hear the same story more than once.
Their love is so infectious.
Gramps is seventy-five and Gran is seventy-two. They’ve been married for fifty years. Five-zero.
Honesty and integrity, faith and loyalty for every year of their five decades together. There have been bad times, bad years for sure. I’ve lived with them forever, but they’ve never given up on each other.
“…And you’re grandpa’s best friend, Marty,” Gran says, laughing. “Sat outside that poor girl’s house for weeks on end!” Takes a breath.
And then what happened? I say, sipping a mug of java.
Grandma pats her mouth with a napkin. “Well, the two of them got married, stay married for nineteen years, until one day she shot him to death in his sleep.”
“I remember the funeral,” Grandpa speaks low, splashing a bit of whiskey into his coffee. “His parents sobbed for months, died of broken hearts.”
The traumatic silence of the memory dances between the three of us, allowing each warm cup to be drank until it’s dry. Silence. From the corner of my eye I spot grandma opening and closing her hand beneath grandpa’s. Must be sweaty. They flash a smile.
“I think there’s a game on tonight,” Grandpa says to me. “First one following the All-Star break, time to see who really wants it.”
I can’t help but smile, old man loves spending time with his grandbaby so damn much. I tell him that I’ll be more than happy to watch with him.
Grandma shakes her head, smiling. She’ll watch the odd game with us, but that’s about it. She, I guess, just never got the point of “putting a ball through a glorified peach basket.” I’m sure she’ll end up painting or writing a story, knit up a sweater before halftime. She’s pretty awesome that way.
It’s so perfect, this quaint little dining room. The old table, place mats at each of the four chairs─despite there only being three of us─lace curtains over the windows, little island in the center of the kitchen, a cross here and there. Not to mention the tile flooring that grandpa must remind us of every week. At least once. That’s all because he installed it.
Grandpa fills up our cups of coffee, grinning as he returns to the table. He must have a story to tell, he always does.
“Used to work with this guy Steve.” Gramps places the mugs on the table. “As you both know, men who smash coal like their drink…” he pauses, Gran and I smile.
“…So one day we’re all busting coal when old Steve, drunk as a goddamn skunk, drives a pickaxe into his foot…”
Grandma and I gasp, Grandpa is already laughing, but of course.
“…But we’re all messed up too, so none of us notice until Steve passes out from blood loss!”
“Well, what happened, you old fool?” Grandma laughs.
“Let’s just say it was an awkward conversation with the foreman.”
It doesn’t take Gran long to wear herself out with laughter and wine. She excuses herself to dig away at one of those cozy mystery novels she loves to read.
Never been much of a book person myself. Oh well, as long as she takes pleasure in it. Probably why she’s gotten things going at once, she never allows her mind to rest.
Eventually Grandpa and I move to the living room with the old tall clock and treasure chest and pictures which tell many lifetimes of memories. Oh, and the plastic-wrapped furniture.
Our team, the Buffalo Beamers, are losing at halftime but manage to pull it together for a blowout once the fourth quarter rolls around. We manage not to wake the dead with our celebration.
And then Grandpa leaves for bed. Now, I am alone in my room.
I haven’t heard a peep from the other bedroom for an hour maybe, hour-and-a-half. Can’t imagine being so in love that you can stop having sex with whoever you’re sharing a bed with. Then again, they’re both pretty old; ten-to-one, grandpa’s got a stash of blue pills somewhere.
In his pickup, or in a sock drawer. The beside table, maybe.
Maybe it’s Grandma; perhaps she’s the freak with the whips and the collars and chains and leashes. Bondage hoods and nipple clamps. Maybe Grandpa even lets her put a strap to him.
It’s the studying, the impending exam, that carries me for hours into the night. I love this; this small and cozy home, this small and cozy town, but I’ve gotta get the hell outta here. Maybe if I could make enough money to move just outside the town and travel every day for work back into it. I like shopping malls and expensive coffeehouses and chain restaurants, I just don’t want to live in them.
The watch on my wrist says: 10:15.
I need to be there at one in the morning. Takes ninety minutes to get there. I’ll leave early just to make sure. Most of the snow is gone but it’s mighty friggin’ cold outside. These Midwest winters can be real bitches.
In a perfect world I’d just take grandpa’s truck, but the world isn’t perfect. He’d notice the mile change, the fresh oil in the morning that never seems to stop running. I’ll just walk. I have to walk.
Study until 10:45, that’s what I’ll do. Keep up on the importance of positive reinforcement. Reward the child when right, comfort the child when wrong. This all takes time, repetition and comfort. Spoil the child.
I’m hoping somebody will let me intern for them within the next year, eighteen months. I know I’m a little old for such a start, but that’s how life goes sometimes.
Who knows, they might see my age as a good thing; matured, less likely to fold under the stress of all the screaming and fussing and crying and nose picking that comes with children of that age. I just need to be able to hand my grandparents a check so I can pay my way doing what I love. Not waiting tables, not working in the one retail store in town, and not scrubbing toilets.
Wrapping magazines and printing paper, duct tape over for forearms and wrists, thighs and stomach. Multiple layers of clothing. Hoodies and shirts and sweats beneath my jeans. Everything I can think of while remaining within the rules: no throats and no face. Perfect. Only clothing and household items, nothing solid or immovable. Perfect.
Tie up the last laces of my boot and strap Velcro around the tops, around the ankles, make sure these babies don’t go anywhere. They’re good enough for SWAT teams, better be good enough for me.
All black: hoodies and beanie, boots and pants and the layers beneath. Won’t draw any attention on the long walk to The Venue. I hold my ear to the wall… nothing.
Move out from the room, to my grandparents’ room, ear to the door… nothing.
I’ve got seven-and-a-half hours until they wake up, precisely.
I know exactly which tiles in the dining room and kitchen to avoid. Every third tile from the entrance, without fail, squeaks. As does the fourth of center on the left side following the island. Last obstacle would be the door of the screened porch past the living room, but no worries, I greased it down earlier while Grandma was gardening and Grandpa was at the store.
First concrete step.
Second concrete step.
Open the door slowly, then close it.
The air is cold but the grass is only slightly crisp from the cold weather. Odd. Not enough to wake up anybody in the bedroom behind me from the backyard. The shed is getting larger, even in this black, empty night. Its edges and pointed top are impossible to miss.
By the front door, which is locked, sits a flower pot, there’s pot in it. Within said pot is a key for said locked door. It’s so cold, if I wasn’t wearing these gloves it might stick to my skin.
The key sounds like a pipe, wiggling its way into the lock, clicking when it finds home.
Another click and the old wooden door opens, just enough. Just gotta squeeze through this door, it’s not too hard. Right to the left of the door is another pot; the search goes without luck until I recognize the crinkling plastic. Remove from pot and slip the baggy into my pocket. Step out from the shed, close, and lock door.
Step-step-step. Crunch-crunch-crunch. Back through the yard. Down the little hill that leads into the concrete driveway, up fifty feet and I’m over the gravel entrance, then a left.
There aren’t many houses to either side of me, just dark, deep woods. The road beneath me is smooth, almost entirely quiet and straight. There’s plenty of cracks and crunches circling me, probably deer or little rodents making for home or in search of shelter for the night. Up ahead, some quarter-mile, there’s a light─the Josephson’s porch light, one they always keep on at night. It lets me know I’ll be making a right before long. From there it’s a few miles.
A pair of headlights, probably from a truck, turn down onto the street. I step further onto the shoulder, so much so that I’m on grass. I would hate for the vehicle to stop in efforts of being a Good Samaritan. Nope. Too many questions, lose focus, start questioning what I’m doing out here.
The truck’s getting larger with every step, like they’re only moving with me. A one-sided relationship, a willing patient with a bored therapist. A loving dog with an abusive owner.
It’s kicking up gravel, little putter-patter of shrapnel sticking into the frosted tips of grass. The motor is rumbling. It’s like an old man breathing his last breaths, like I’m the Good Samaritan.
I don’t know if it’s the truck, its owner or me that’s screaming as I’m illuminated from the four-wheeled tank. And then nothing. We just pass each other.
I turn back to look at the truck, I don’t know, ten seconds later, and it’s gone. Fucking gone.
Turning back—oh shit! I’m thrown to the ground, blam!
Almost right after my ass lands on the concrete I can hear a galloping pack of hooves clacking. First over the concrete and then the grass. The sound disappearing into the woods. I can’t help but laugh aloud at myself.
“You big pussy,” I say into the night. “Stand up.”
Just keep on moving towards the light at the end of the street. There’s a warm bottle of water in my front pocket, I retrieve it and unscrew the cap, sucking back just enough to lube up my mouth before swallowing.
Already, I’m playing the future out in my head. Once I get to the corner I’m going to jog for fifteen minutes. Then I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll jog for ten more. After that, walk, and after that? Who knows.
The air’s burning through my lungs like some little guerrilla soldier just ran down my throat and dropped a grenade into my body. He was probably smiling as it went off, sending dozens of little bits of death through my organs.
Like a driver checking the blind spot, I glance back over my shoulder. It won’t be long until the Josephson residence is completely out of sight. Once it is, then I’ll stop to walk for a spell. Check again, the light’s dying.
And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Breathe, in through the nose and out through the mouth. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride.
I wonder what grandma and grandpa are dreaming of. I hope it’s nice. One time, multiple times, I snuck into the bedroom and read grandma’s diary. She writes about Heaven a lot, dreams about it a lot.
They’ve always been Atheists. Can’t imagine what Grandpa’s diary would be like if he had one, poor guy has a rough time writing down a grocery list.
Glance back. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Glance. Stride, stride.
Another guerrilla soldier dropping another grenade into my lungs. Another explosion and another collection of shrapnel ripping my insides to bits. Another glance backwards: blackness.
The long strides come to a sudden halt. Quick walk slows to a slow trot. The collective sigh of disappointment from the wildlife around me drains out the howling wind. They wanted to watch me run the entire trip, what a bunch of assholes they are.
The steps over the pavement grow however, the clouds leaping from my mouth are short and rapid. Before long, I’ve gained what control I can of my wind in this weather.
Makes about as much sense as pushing a boulder up a hill every day after it rolls back down.
Grandpa was telling me about a book or something. Nihilism or something. The essence of the futility of hope and effort.
I should read something. Something besides a goddamn text book.
The Venue, an old abandoned factory, used to be a forge I think. It is packed with pickup trucks and sports cars, motorcycles and four-wheelers. Easily a hundred vehicles. Who knows how many people to each. There’s more than enough light being thrown through the dusty windows to give me an idea as to where I’m to enter. As I get closer to the entrance I begin fiddling with the bag in my pocket.
What ground of the lot not filled by wheels is trashed with bottles and empty cigarette cartons and wrappers and who knows what the hell else. Maybe fifty yards until I’m stepping through the front door. Might as well be hell.
The shapes around me vary. Some are short, some tall, some fat. Some are small. Some of them are so broad, others narrower than me. Everybody’s wearing boots, it’s obvious from the earth’s crunching.
From the corner of my eye I can see the breath of those around me shifting direction. They’re sizing me up, scanning who’s first and which ones will be second, who they’ll be seeing thirty minutes after the party gets started.
As if heaven opened, somebody makes it to the front door, allowing a mob of light to shine out into the night, lets me see the pair up front: two men, tall with beards, dawning leather. I wonder where they’ll end up.
Three, four, five more people walk past me towards the door and step into the concrete playground. I’m in next.
Upon entry, there’s a green steel pole with a sign posted on it: FOLLOW YOUR GENDER. I do as I’m told and go in the proper direction, to my locker room. No gender neutrality or transgender victim cards in this place.
As I move through the long, yellow, crowded hall I’m allowed faint glances into the center of the building. Poles and ladders, a floorspace the size of a football field illuminates by portable spotlights. The sight blinks away as I move in front of a wall. The locker room is getting close. Not too far ahead I’m able to hear waves of hooting and hollering, war cries from those ready to do battle. My hands are shaking by the time I step into the stinky room.
The entrance door has been ripped from the hinges, the floor covered in dirt and grease and definitely shit. The hollering only grows as I step into the first bay of green lockers. The tile walls match the flickering light: yellow. Reminds me of the color of a smoker’s house before they die.
Onto the second bay, less folk but still too crowded for any level of comfort. Not that that’s something I should be looking for this place anyway. Third bay, only one other person, at the end of the bench; dark hair with eyes to match and a granite jaw. We say nothing. Not even a nod. If anything, we might be giving each other a sniff.
Sitting here on the bench, tightening wraps around both wrists, I can’t help but think of the grandparents. Which one of them has woken up first to go to the bedroom, which of them cracked my door silently to peek in on the bundle of pillows they believe to be me. Been checking in on me every night of my life. Twenty-seven friggin’ years old and they refuse to quit.
The locker at the end of the bay slams shut, a deep breath following uneasy. The steps turn back and then there’s a voice, soft and trembling.
“Three—three minutes,” she says. I nod and keep quiet.
Her footsteps carry away once more, this time without return.
The pack of hooting and hollering hyenas grows louder, fading into the hallway which leads into The Venue’s main square. Finally, something that resembles peace and quiet; all I hear now are the whispered prayers of those still in here.
To my feet, push out a breath. I know I am loved.
The first step to my right, out of the bay, leaves me in an uneasy freeze to maintain my balance. From my ankles to the knees are made of granite, up to my hips and I’m nothing but rubber. Stay for just a moment, I can’t fall here. Another deep breath and then a second step. The feeling to my lower half returns slowly.
My strides grow shorter as the exit door comes into view. Looks as if the pearly gate just opened, but they lead to demons. The light grows and then the voices return, coming from the main square. Just louder and louder, like a goddamn moshpit.
If there is a god, I am not asking for your forgiveness. If the devil is real, I do not align with you. Between me and myself, heaven and hell are one in the same.
Now that I am here, amongst the demons, I cannot see where the flesh ends; just rows and layers of men and women. Young and almost old. You’d have to be crazy to be smiling, and some of them are. I am not one of those faces. Like a goddamn cow farm, so tightly packed in, so many leather jackets and leggings. Morbid hide.
All the little whispers around me, like rabid bees. Bumping elbows, catching nasty looks for it. Look for them first.
Our little world of two-hundred goes quiet, deathly silent, as a crackling male voice bounces about the bodies like a rubber ball.
“Prom queens and parasites, the soon-to-be-haves and the forever-to-have-nots, I am Gauge. Only Gauge…”
The man coughs into the speaker repeatedly, chuckling for a moment afterward.
“…By now I will assume all of you know the rules, you should considering you had to read them to unlock this location. But allow me to refresh my own memory…”
More coughing, this time from Gauge and somebody behind me.
“…Thirty minutes, last cow standing. You’ve all got ten seconds.”
Coughing. More of it and then the speaker slams quiet. Then the beeps.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six; reach into my pocket. Four, three; pull out the knife, two, one.
The buzzer’s not even finished by the time I’m jamming the hunter’s blade into the back of a small woman; two, three, six times. She’s screaming so I shove the weapon into her neck, spraying the crowd with her crimson.
I feel the thud in my lower back. Somebody is trying to stab me!
Spin around, staring back at me is a bearded man covered in blood. The first thing I do is cram the knife into his eye, then slash through his lips. From nowhere another knife enters his cheek.
I thank the aiding man with a stabbing blow. Tear right with the blade. Rip out.
His intestines fall to the floor, he slips on them and crashes lifeless to the concrete below.
A fist, or the palm of a hand, slams into the back of my head, throwing me atop the floor of flesh. I roll onto my back atop the bodies, just in time to move from a long blade being driven downward by a well-built black woman. I reach up and pull her close. Hands clutching her face towards me, legs wrapped around her waist. My grip won’t last for long.
As if the gods of death are watching, the woman is swarmed like maggots to a corpse. They begin to stab and slice and tear at the woman with their knives, her screams canceling my ability to hear.
Whoever killed the black woman, some of them anyway, turn their affection to me. Stabbing at my exposed forearms, only to hit the rolled paper.
One of them slashes my hand—goddamn it.
Now the other.
I dodge their attacks at my face, their blades sticking into the back of the woman’s head. I squeeze out just enough.
Grabbing at one of the men, I yank him towards me by the wrist and slit his throat, immediately wearing his red. The other flees after I slash his wrist.
Kicking and squirming, I manage to get out from under the body. It’s a matter of moments before the back of my thigh is torn into. My leg is steaming wit heat almost immediately. I hear the boot behind me, so I duck down, allowing the charging body to roll over my back.
They land with a wet thud, their stunned state allows me more than enough time to stomp on their face until it shatters. Their skull slides off the heel of my boot and I step towards the ever-dwindling crowd. Staggering.
I don’t know if I’m killing or the bodies just happen to be falling as I cross them. I want to be the one killing them. That is until I see her, the girl from the locker bay.
She’s been stripped down on top to just a green tank-top. Her entire face, neck, and chest are saturated with blood. I swear there’s red rings around her blue eyes.
In her left hand is a long, serrated machete, in her right a hunting knife that is considerably longer than mine. Hanging from the blade is a chunk of piping-hot flesh.
Reaching down blindly, ignorant to the death around us, I take hold of another knife in my free hand. Duel-wield.
She and I are screaming as we charge each other.
5 Years Later
It’s a Monday. I step into the third-grade classroom at Borton Elementary School. So many little faces from all races, walks of life, and futures. Nothing to divide us.
Before them, in front of my desk, I wish them a good morning.
They respond as one, “Good morning, Mrs. Gruenwald!”
Czar resides on the small Island of Malta.