“Krissy’s Notebook” Original Cover Art (Krissy’s Notes)

All that handwritten text is practically a book in itself. Click to enlarge.

“He went looking for the girl he used to know. And too bad for him, he found her…

I’d never made a book cover before, but I think this one came out pretty well for a first try. Much of the actual image credit goes to the model, who was a very good sport about holding an uncomfortable pose while I figured out what the hell I was doing.
*You can click the image and read the note text as is, but for the record, it’s also pasted below. Anything that isn’t out of Krissy’s head is actual information pulled from the guidebook “Forensics 101”, the DSM psychiatric textbooks, firearms manuals, death indexes, etc.

“…would presumably consume the entire house, Temperatures exceeding 1500 deg. F. Insufficient for conviction in court. State Police would testify that they saw only saw a wolf costum
probably be dead within two hours, and investigators would be at a loss to explain what had happened. KE = 1/2M(V^2) Crash Force Impact. Impulse Energy= ForceVelocity(T/V)+
finding only skeletal remains. Temperatures of at least 100 deg. F (which is totally impractical (crematorium level temps) and you’ll never get a body to burn fully in that situation
patterns will reveal distance (1”spread/3’ range) Slug will leave a BIG HOLE. Shotgun ammunition is NOT traceable. Other sharp force injuries: Knives, scissors, ice picks, screwdrive
CH4+2 (2)=Co2/(H+L). Homicidal fires are usually investigated by the fire marshal. #1 “Ronny Tinker”: Overdosed on Oxymorphene. Causes severe nervous system damage. Irreparab
Bad Wolf, just like in Little Red Riding Hood, only he was shot in the chest. He died for one reason: BECAUSE HE DESERVED IT! He deserved every single minute of pain.,I only hope
83: “Hiking Trip”- Montana would probably be best. Lots of room to dispose of the body. Animals would take care of the remains. But could I stand that? I don’t know. #703- “Vill
this one. Would have to make sure that no one knows but me. Although, my God, I do so love him, and I would do anything to protect him (and ME). I determine what happens- ME!
where we are going to be. No cellular coverage either. Remote access only by foot. Although the Camaro is very fast. That thing can run. Just not very safe in a crash… and tend to bur
can’t be without him, then how do I stop myself from doing it? That poem he wrote for me- “The Black Spill” It was so beautiful, it made me cry. I NEVER CRY… but that time I did. I

explosion just like in 1999. Would probbly take out the car, him and the entire structure. I was pretty careful there to spread the tanks around. The explosions then was very effective.
car, the garage: everything. Would just have to clear on this. And clear on what will happen. But that’s just me, being beautiful, psychotic ol’ me I guess. That’s why he loves me. I’m ba
timer to set it off. From there it will cause a chain reaction explosion. Then you just stand back, flip a switch, and watch it go “BOOM!”. Until the fire department gets there. #101-
theoretical impact stresses would be sufficient to shatter ribs, destroy internal organs, etc. But “Cause vs. Mechanism of Death” is an important difference here. Measured in millise
is heart would break. I’d hate to do it that way. He deserves better than that. Although Alva, that POS, deserved everything that he got. My only regret is that I didn’t do it even slower.
mashed to bits- completely untraceable. At least not to anything more than a few parts per million. And most can’t detect it. “SEVERITY INDEX”GSI=A^5/2*T (As calculated by DSM
according to the manual. Explosions: “Initiating” vs. “Non-Initiating”. Is like in a bullet- the primer lights the powder and that pressure actually propels it down the barrel. Hot fire
would be useless to the police or anyone. “Cause” vs. “Mechanism” of death again. The bullet = 7.62 x 51mm Incendiary/Tracer (burns) penetrate the steel & ignite the gas. That will th
aid “I’m warning you, Sweetness, really…” But he just didn’t listen. I warned him so many times about doing that. I warned him- “DON’T SCREW WITH ME” or this won’t end well

429- “Chevelle”: Body-on-Frame construction is tougher; lends itself well to vastly increased chance of survival, which we of course don’t want. We want a full-on CATASTROPHE!
Better off with a “unibody” type; more likely to cause injury to occupants in a crash. So, that’s the one. But I just love to blast along, top down, not caring at all about anything/a
German cars are so tough. Could always get another 750 V-12. Maybe with “modifications”. Fuel tank vapors are VERY flammable. #847- “That Nice Lady & Her Kids”: I tell myself
love him because he loves me? Or because I really was lonely? So lonely that I just needed to find someone who’s like me. And that’s what I told him. So congratulations to me! #451
truck did the job last time. Although I can’t imagine getting away with that sort of thing twice. But maybe, just for fun, I could get him to help me with this one. Maybe he’d even enj
ecieve others as to who he really was. ”Psychopthy” vs. “Sociopathy”: Big Difference between the two. Yet I supposedly am both? Like Little Red Riding Hood. Only I’ll burn his house do
estructive force as measured in ballistic gelatin. 7.62 x 51mm “full metal jacket”. This isn’t just a handgun; I’d need lessons to shoot accurately. But oh, the effect… #289- “Firefly”
wide ranging effects to soft tissues and bone.. Hit “center-mass” and it will probably blow the sternum apart and the spinal column too. Good bye, Roy! Then- POW! Goodbye Mara!
left untreated will result in death from Hypoxia (suffocation) or eventually, brain death. But he’s so cute when he does it. And My God- he kisses like he’s been waiting his entire life
blood loss in under 5 minutes. Nor would autopsy show anything but routine traces. An accident. Like my Da’s car. I miss Daddy sometimes. I miss them all, really. I don’t regret w
And cleanup is easy: soap, water… Ammonia ruins blood evidence. Other cleaners might too. #1320- “The Pastor”: ‘Til Death do Us Part”. We meant those words more than anyone el
ropane canisters are surprisingly hard to detonate. Heavy calibre rifle rounds have a real “kick” to them. This would leave BRUISES (bad). Then they would know. I hid the bruises last
rts. #970- “Shottie”: The most effective, east painful method of suicide (99.5% OAL) followed by Cyanide, GSW to head, SG to chest, and explosions. But the way I’d do it is this: Firs
and most likely to succeed in under 30 seconds. Before blood begins to pool in the lower parts of the body (b/c of gravity) “Forensics 101”: states from the beginning that it is very ha

in .45 or maybe .50., but a shotgun (buckshot) is nasty too. Would make a big mess to clean up, and would be hard to hide everything. So, sadly, that’s a last resort. #1,092- “Switch
each one equivalent to a .38. But then there’s the AR-10, and that’s 700 rds/min. Full Auto, or“Rock and Roll” as Americans like to say. “Hit” like that would look innocent. Not r
said , right after I warned him one last time to watch next page when I finally said “Turn Thine Eyes Away From My Wickedness”. A scene of horrible violence
enough to make Mitchell and even Baker, who was one tough that badass (if she were still alive to see it). But I can’t share. I was never good at sharing him. Not wi
and not at sharing him. “Out To Get Him”. Imagine this: But like I always said, “With so much death around one person, it gets harder and harder to explain.
SO IRONIC- he’d get all the blame, while I got off scot-free Would look a lot like the cover of ”Angelfish” And prove that he loves me still. With my picture in his
group of opioids classes as “dangerously addictive drug that and total shutdown of nervous system. ”This will hurt me more than it hurts you.” And it will hurt. Bel
complete breakdown & degeneration of nervous system, until the end, when he finally flatlines, and everything goes quiet. Would cause complete destruction of the heart… So s
ad…”

“Astraea 1” or “Kiss Me Killer”

“Astraea 1” or “Kiss Me Killer”, 20″ x 30″, Charcoal, Ink and Acrylic on Savage Paper

My clawed take on Ezio Tarantelli’s artwork for the 1970s crime/noir film “Kiss Me Killer”, aka “Embrasse Moi” aka “Dulce (Sweet) Pornobaby”.

This one is both a tribute to Tarantelli’s original:

Ezio Tarantelli’s original work.

-and a visual study of my own character, “Astraea”, sister to “Circe” and “Calypso”.

Toying with the piece while still a work-in-progress. Made to look like the cover art for an alternate-history issue of Playboy. The Stars and Stripes background had to be scrapped in the end because I felt it pushed my piece too far from the original.
Reference Photos: Model Anna and the Original.
Digital underdrawing, prototyped in Procreate. This was then printed out on blue-toned Savage paper, where it then served as the basis for the final work.

“Circe 1” or “See-See and Mister Dustman”

“Circe 1″ 24″ x 36” Charcoal/Ink on Savage paper

“Ah, but that’s just the ghost of Circe— nickname: “See-See”—talking. Sweet, smiling, oh-so-dangerous See-See. With her cute Texas farmgirl drawl, and cold, pitiless eyes.

“Circe 1” and the related “Circe 2″ are big (24″ x 36” actual) visual studies of a character I’m working on for an art book. You can tell just by looking at her that she’s “something special” And the excerpt below is, I believe, quite telling as well:

Shove my hand down in that blender? But won’t that hurt, my Love?

Oh goodness yes! Like a motherfuuucker… But you have to, remember? It’s your punishment. Because you’ve been bad, Mister Dustman. Verrry bad! Yes sirree.

I know, because I lied to you.

Yup, sweet thang. You’re a regular liar, liar pants-on-fire. Now, just hit that button… Ah-ah- no… the other one, see? The one that says: “CHOP”. I like that one better.

(Click- WHIRRR…!)

There you go! Now do it…

“Okay…

Once See-See had gotten access to a brain, it didn’t matter if that brain sat in the skull of a human being or a housecat, but especially in a human, watch out; nothing was sacred.

Nothing was ever safe either. Because See-See’s power had come with a price. One that she, unfortunately, had never had to pay.

At least not until the end.

“The Last Italian Tune-Up” (Prologue)

What happens when you decide to do something awful, but then the end of the world gets in the way? This is the prologue for a short story from the same universe as my other story, “Villains and Birdsong”. Sort of a draft still, because I’m still tinkering with it, but it’s one of my favorite shorts, and the prologue I think stands well on its own
“…Jane Mattheson steps from the front door of Atlas House at exactly seven A.M. The world that greets her stands absolutely silent and still.
As usual.

But she listens to it anyway, and does her usual careful scan of the bright green landscape which now lies, panoramic, before her. Just in case.

Because as she always tells herself-

You never know.

Today, however… She holds her breath and listens for a few seconds more, then does one last sweep of the distant hills. An array of five tall, spindly, white wind turbines stand atop the furthest. Only one of them is spinning this morning, very slowly and without purpose, against the deep blue sky. On the nearest hill, a blue speck, which she knows is a tractor, sits motionless amidst a field. The tractor had been mowing or harvesting or something. She can still see the faint shift of color which marks its progress. About two thirds of the way down, the green goes from light to dark.

But beyond that… She strains her ears for just a moment longer. 

Nothing.

So, she makes her way quietly down the front porch steps. Then she pads along the short, flower-lined walkway which cuts across the overgrown front lawn, toward the semi-circular strip of weathered asphalt which passes for Atlas’ “driveway”.

There, she clips a small Garmin GPS to her waistband. The fastener makes a loud CLICK-sound. Then she takes a deep breath, presses the “POWER” button, and hopes for the best.

The device chimes: SEARCHING…

That done, she starts her stretches.

Walking Lunge: Ten of them. And go…

Kneeling Hip Flexor: Five… Aaand switch…

Side Stretches: Two breaths… And switch…

Dynamic Pigeon Pose-

(My GOD, that’s such a stupid, stupid name.)

She half-groans, half-growls to herself. …DYNAMIC! PIGEON! POSE…! Two… And switch… And two…

Hip Flexor Stre-

BEEP-BEEP-BEEP

It’s the Garmin. She looks down at it.

LOST SATELLITE RECEPTION

She sighs. She’d been thinking that the GPS was finally starting to fail, and she decides on that morning that she’d been right. Over the past nine days the device had begun finding fewer and fewer satellites. At least until three days ago, when it hadn’t been able to find any.

And every day since, she’s gotten only the three flat-sounding beeps.

At first, she’d kept taking the Garmin along, hoping it might start working again, but today she puts it down on the edge of the driveway. There’s no sense in carrying the extra weight, and really, the GPS didn’t do anything that she can’t already do with her own brain and the taped-up, marked up and by now very dog-eared AAA road map that she keeps in her pack.

The Garmin was running on borrowed time, anyway.

(Just like you?)

Jane sighs.

“Are we already doing this? So early in the day?”

(Apparently. Although I still fail to see the point in what you are doing.)

Jane sighs again.

(What? You still think that maybe one of these days I’ll just go away? As if it’s that simple? Oh Janey- yes, you get up every morning and you listen and then you run and you run and you run… but do you ever really look around? Haven’t you seen it? Yet? We are completely, totally-)

This time Jane growls. “How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not listening to you anymore. The Garmin was running on borrowed time, and I knew it, because it pounded through batteries-”

Hip Flexor Stretch… Ten of them.

“Even with the “Baud” rate set to its absolute minimum, the thing still ate batteries. If it hadn’t been for Jack’s paranoid insistence on having a shit-ton of them in the house, it already would’ve-”

(But how are your batteries, Janey? You’ve also been pounding through-)

“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! SHUT UP! Just for today? Please? Jesus, you know, you used to be so helpful, but now… now you’re just like…”She points at the GPS. “-that! You’re worse, really, because at least that has an excuse! But you? Nothing’s wrong with you. Not really. The only thing wrong with you is that you’re a suicidal bitch.”

(No, I am NOT useless, and I’m not suicidal; I’m just being logical. The way you wanted me to be. The same as I’ve always-)

At least she still has her watch, and all that needs in order to work is the sun-

(No! You will listen to me dammit! That’s why we’re in this mess now; you don’t listen anymore. But you’re gonna listen to me now: I’m the same as I’ve always been. But you? Shit, sweetheart, let’s face it… You’re delusional.)

“Says who, again?”

(Says the one who-)

-or movement? Maybe it’s movement that keeps the watch working. She doesn’t really know.

(Fine! Go ahead. Tune me out. Again. I know where you live. Down in your hole…)

The watch had been a present from Jack, and all he’d told her about it at the time was that she’d never need to wind it, because, as the little letters on its face proclaim, and as Jack had once proclaimed to her

“It’s an Eco-Drive!”

Jack had said the words with a kind of excited grandiosity, as if they meant something magical. Which they very well could, for all she knows, because-

(“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”, “Hazards of Prophecy”, Nineteen Seventy-Three.)

“I know; I read it.”

(Oh, really?)

“Second bookcase from the left, third shelf down, eighth from the right. Between The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and good ol’ Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.”

(Hmm. I thought I read that one. Although sometimes… you do cheat. Copycat.)

“Whatever. They’re still my eyes, and-”

(For now. Although I’m still counting on you seeing things my way sooner or later. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe even today. When you finally realize what a-)

In any case, whatever it is that good old, semi-magical “Eco-Drive” runs on: sun, motion, magic, fucking… happy-thoughts; hopefully it will keep running.

(Yeah, “hopefully”. Right? That’s you! Hope, hope, hope!)

She doesn’t know how she’d get along without knowing the time. It’s one of the few things she has left, and her watch is one of only two devices (that she knows of, anyway) still keeping track of it. The generators have run out of fuel. All four of the electric clocks on Level 2 now hang frozen at 3:02, 4:02, 12:02 and 10:02, respectively. And since the other four on Level 1 have been dead for way longer than that…

(The grandfather clock?)

“Yes.” She replies without even realizing, her voice toneless.

(Oh Jesus. Don’t bother…)

Jane suddenly straightens, incredulous. “The hell do you mean? Don’t bother?”

(Never mind. Keep it up. You’re doing great.)

She’ll have to be extra-careful with the grandfather now. Because although it only needs to be wound once a week, and although she already makes sure to wind it every day, carefully pulling the long brass chains that hoist the drive weights, she knows that if she should forget to wind it for too many days, or someday can’t get back to Atlas House for some reason, or maybe somehow gets hurt badly enough that she just can’t wind it, just one time…

Speaking of time… She looks at her wrist. Shit! 7:06.

(Uh, oh! You’re running late! For what? Who knows! But you are…)

She gives Atlas House a final look, then sets out down the driveway.

From there she runs past the blue and white Cessna. Then across the near end of the runway, and down the empty gravel access road that lies adjacent to it. Past the far end of the runway, where the scorched remains of Maleficent’s immense green tail jut out at an awkward angle from the savage gap she’d left in the tree line beyond. The smoke has died down, Jane realizes. Hopefully the fire has finally burned itself out. She never would have thought that a fire could burn for so long.  

Then she runs past the three graves—none of which she spares a glance; she is still too angry—then further on down the access road, toward the main.

Yet again.

***

Two minutes, and a quarter mile later, she reaches the main road.

There she checks her pulse. She should stop running while she does this, but…

One-fifty.

(Wow, one-fifty! That’s excellent! We’re really kicking ass lately!)

There’s a note of sarcasm in the voice, but what it says is true. In fact, one-fifty is the best Jane’s ever seen. Her breathing too, is still slow and steady.

(Too bad none of it really mat-)

The weather is definitely helping. It’s been so nice the last few mornings: the air feels cool, the way one would expect a late summer morning to feel, and the humidity finally seems to be decreasing too. She likes it.

The morning’s only apparent blemish is a low-hanging fog which seems to come out of nowhere. She notices it just as the road carries her through another tree line, into the backside of the same woods that border the runway. Ordinarily, she’d be able to see the smashed remains of Maleficent’s nose through the trees from here, but…

Not today. The fog starts about a hundred feet beyond the tree line. It builds gradually at first, grey tendrils creeping around the bases of the trees, but then suddenly stacks higher and thicker, cutting visibility to less than an eighth of a mile.

That she doesn’t like, because it also blocks her view of the sky and the horizon. The next mile of the main road takes an especially circuitous route through the woods too, which she knows will only compound the fog’s effect.

Although really, what does it matter? If anything should come sliding along the sky from that horizon, she knows, she won’t be able to outrun it. Not even now, after all this time. She’s been training for endurance, not speed.

So she just runs on. Twisting road and trees emerge from the fog one stride at a time. She passes them, almost noiseless, like a somehow-still-breathing ghost.

Her body is a tightly wrapped package that runs quiet and smooth. What little clothing she wears anymore is made of slick, skin-tight Spandex, while the soft soles of her sneakers completely absorb the sound of each footfall. Even her hair is coiled in a hard knot behind her head, and she keeps what little weight she carries strapped close to her belly in a zippered pack, so that neither will bounce.

Anything that can bounce is called “unsprung weight”. She’d learned the term ten weeks ago while leafing through one of her husband’s old car-magazines. Apparently unsprung weight had once been the enemy of the world’s faster cars, because it effectively stole energy that was supposed to propel them forward and then pissed it away in miscellaneous other wasteful directions.

As she’d read the article, her mind began to apply what she learned to her running. Unsprung weight became her enemy too.

But fighting that enemy, it turned out, would require sacrifice.

At the time, she’d been running with her son’s backpack strapped to her shoulders. She’d thought the pack a good idea, even though it did flop a bit, and so she’d been reluctant to give it up.

She also has to admit, she’d been taking the pack with her because, well… it was her son’s, and thus had of course been reluctant to leave it behind for the same reason.

Still however, one day she’d tried going without it, and had been unable to deny the improvement in her time.

That little discovery had taught her several things: about waste, about unnecessary attachment to objects, about emotion. She’d realized that they are all a kind of unsprung weight; all of them wasted energy, energy that she now knows she needs to preserve. If she wants to reach her goal.

And nothing, she’s concluded, can be allowed to prevent that. The goal is everything.

So now her son’s backpack hangs in his closet back at Atlas House, and what little she still takes with her is kept cinched so tight that it feels like a part of her own body. While her memories: of her son, of her husband, of her daughter, all stay back at the house as well.

Leaving them behind lightens her in much the same way that leaving the pack had. Oh, she’d been sad at first- until she’d also realized her sadness for the weight that it was. Then, even her sadness got left behind.

Now she focuses only on running.

She’s been at it for just a hundred and seven days, but her progress pleases her. Right along with the weight of her memories, she’s also shed pound after excess pound from her frame, and she still grows leaner every day. It’s gotten to the point that the body she now sees in the mirror hardly resembles anything she’s ever known, even in her high school years.

She looks pretty damned good, she thinks.

The scars are still there, of course, and they still don’t look very nice—in all honesty, the weight loss has actually made them look a little bit worse—but the trade-off is more than acceptable. And really, in the spots where they cut through her tattoos, even her scars somehow look good, almost sexy. In a way, at least. Mostly because they give her body character. A sort of, “been there, done that” character.

Her scars. “Rub marks on the fenders”, Jack might have called them. As if she were some kind of human race car, and her scars evidence of some hard-fought race.

(But where’s the finish li-)

Of course, he never would have thought that before. No. Before, he’d regarded her scars as more like parking lot dings on a lease car. Unfortunate evidence that she’d once done something stupid and had to pay for it.

She recalls that time outside the Sam’s Club in Whitley. What he’d said.

“Oh, c’mon Janey, you know damn well why I park this far out, sweetheart.”

Yes. He’d parked them out there at the end of the lot for the same reason that he’d made her move out here, to the foothills of nowhere.

“To be away from all these other assholes” he’d said, sweeping his hand around at the more closely parked cars. “Because the last time I parked next to somebody, I came back to a dent and a Post-it note that just said “Sorry”.

That, and because he just didn’t like being near people in general. Which still amazes her to this day; a guy in his profession, not liking people.

That’s not the reason why she remembers that little exchange, however. She remembers it because of what he’d said next.

“Besides, you look like you could use the exercise.”

And because of what she’d done after that. The thing she’d once told herself she’d never do.

“Ah, dammit Janey. Wait, honey please, come back.” Although he hadn’t come after her. No, he’d just stood there, as if her coming back to him was a given, for no other reason than because he’d asked. And why not? That’s what he did at work. He would ask for something, and then, without even looking, just hold out his hand. Then that something would be given to him, slapped into his hand with an assuring mechanical precision. And that was what she did with him too. He asked her for something, and she always gave him exactly what he wanted.

But that day, when she’d just kept on walking, further and further away, he’d finally come after her. “I’m sorry hon. Look, it was just a long shift. We had this fucking wagon train of medevacs come in just after midnight. Brought us three- well, more like two-and-a-half kids from out on Glenn Rock. And I tried- shit did I try, but by the time I punched out there were only two. The other one… her pelvis- shit, everything south of her bellybutton was just obliterated. Her boyfriend had a ’68, maybe ‘69 Barracuda- nice one, according to the EMT, or at least it used to be. But Jesus, old cars can be such death traps. Fucking engine ripped loose and came back into-

Oh c’mon Janey-” He’d caught up with her by then, but she’d still kept on walking.So, he’d kept on talking. And he’d tried to change the subject too, of course. “They need to put more troopers on that fucking road.” Until finally, he’d put his hand on her shoulder, “Look, I’m sorry,” and she’d finally stopped. “I really didn’t mean it.”

Except he had meant it, and worse, he’d been right. About her weight, and its implications. Just as her other, “official” doctor had also been right about it just a week before, when he’d reminded her too, albeit more gently. And not just because she’d gotten more than a little “round at the edges” again, but because both men could sense in their own ways that she’d been slipping.

Not now though. Now she’s lean and mean, in both her body and her mind.

(Yeah.)

Exercise.

Well, she’s gotten plenty of that by now. She thinks again of her naked body in the mirror: all ropey muscle and sinew. And yes, scars. Her rub marks. What would Jack think of them today?

He certainly wouldn’t have anything else physical to complain about anymore. The last few months have at least done that one favor for her. Oh, she might be a little shaggy in some places. Electric razors are a thing of the past now, and her last Lady Schick finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago. The rest of her, however, is clean-cut and sharp. As the song went: she used to be a wad of cookie dough, but now she’s carved out of wood.

No, that was from a movie. Oh, what the Hell movie was that from?

(Don’t ask me…)

“I didn’t.”

She can’t recall and soon stops trying. Movies too are a thing of the past.

Which is no loss; they’d been a time waster anyway. And time-

Oh time.

(Time, time, time! See what’s become of-)

Time, she has come to realize, is much better spent like this: running, in quiet solitude, without distraction.

It still amazes her how difficult it had been, in the beginning, closing her mind to all but the cadence of her footfalls and the contemplation of a single thought. Now though, now it feels like second nature. Now it feels comforting. Her mind can range in tight but idle circles around her head while her running body gets, as her husband had called it, the “Italian Tune-up”.

He’d loved that expression. Although his version of the concept hadn’t exactly been the same as hers. His version had been to run the shit out of his old Chevelle. It kept the valves clean, he’d once told her.

Which was bullshit, of course. If anything, maybe those little hot-rodding sessions had kept his valves clean, but they’d mostly just been an excuse to go out once in a while and act like the nineteen-year-old boy he’d been when they’d met. A chance to drop all the worry, and the responsibility and the weight, lose the memories, and just go have some good ol’ innocent fun.

Hadn’t the runway been one of Atlas’ key selling-points? At least for Jack. Partly, sure, because he had the Cessna, (another great way to go be alone for a while), but mostly because he’d realized that the runway would double nicely as an impromptu dragstrip. And how many of his hotshot doctor-buddies, with their hopped-up Porsches and their “Ludicrous Speed” Teslas, could say they had one of those? Never mind the rest of Atlas House’s unique… characteristics.

Still, the basic concept behind both exercises is the same: occasionally running something reasonably hard somehow keeps it healthier than just letting it always sit at rest. And if said healthy exercise happens to be enjoyable? So much the better.

God, if only she knew where that Chevelle was now.

She wonders, for maybe the thousandth time, if it is still healthy.

It probably isn’t though. She’s come to accept that idea as fact. One day, she knows, she’ll find it somewhere, smashed up and dead from that one, last tune-up that hadn’t gone as planned.

Or maybe she’ll just find it sitting there on the side of the road, having long ago coasted, horribly empty, to a stop. She just doesn’t know. Maybe she’ll even finally find Jack and the kids with it.

She doubts that though.

And really, she hopes she won’t. That would be too much. Seeing them, like… that.

God damn Jack; the kids had always loved to go out on those rides. So much so, that she sometimes feels like he’d stolen them with that car.

Because in a way, he had.

Or had he saved them? After all, she’d barely managed to save herself, and no matter how many times she replays that day’s events in her mind, she can never envision a scenario in which they all manage to make it together. Things had just been too close, too chaotic, and too… frankly, accidental. No, only one of them- maybe two, might have made it.

Not Jack. That’s certain. Not with his leg.

(Or maybe if you hadn’t pussied out at the last minute. And let him take them for that one last ride, before-)

And not her, certainly. The only reason she’s alive is because on that day she’d been home alone. Otherwise, the big door and the stairs and the tunnel would have acted like a bottleneck, and since she of course would have made sure the kids went first, would have shoved them through the doors and down the stairs and then, if she’d still been alive by then, screamed at them to just run God run and don’t look back!

But which of her children might have made it? Which would have lived (maybe)? Which would have…

And even then, after that? What would they have done? All by themselves? They were- are still kids, after all.

So maybe they’d fared better with their father. Maybe they’d all somehow been able to-

To what? She just doesn’t know.

All she does know is that one day Jack and the kids went out for one of his God-damned, stupid, fucking “tune-ups”. When he should have been home, with her. They’d roared off in a cloud of tire smoke, probably blasting that stupid Kenny Loggins song they’d always listened to, laughing and having a good ol’ time.

But then the world changed, and they never came home.

(And you missed your chance.)

Jane is finally breathing harder now. “I missed several.”

***

Fewer and fewer trees emerge from the fog. She is getting clear of the woods.

Also falling behind her now is the cluster of three houses that sit on the corner at the end of the access road. The Harmon place is really starting to fall apart. When she’d run past it a few minutes earlier, she’d noticed that, overnight, one of the gutters on the sharply angled, brown and white Tudor house had somehow come loose, and was now hanging askew. Almost like a loose lock of hair. Which gave the already severe-looking house a sort of angry, I was a nice, middle class home… This shit shouldn’t be happening to me, sort of look.

How long, she wonders idly, will it take for the entire thing to go? Not in her lifetime-

(That’s for sure.)

All it probably will do is grow more and more decrepit. Along with all of the other things she has neither the ability nor the desire to maintain.

(Is no my yob mayn… SNICKER)

She thinks briefly of burning the house down instead. Just to get the process over with. To save her the daily depression of watching it rot slowly.

(There! That’s the spirit!)

“And I suppose you’ll want me to hang out inside while it goes?” She asks the question between carefully paced breaths. “Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?”

But her rebuke goes unanswered.

Unless of course she chooses to consider the very conspicuous silence to be an answer in itself. Which it very well may be. She’s used the tactic herself more than once. Typically, on Jack. And the voice had to have learned it from somewhere. So…

She supposes then, that this sudden non-response is meant as some petty form of retaliation, this time for her sarcasm. Yes, that’s it. And it’s definitely her; she’d been doing that to Jack too, especially toward the end.

Because he’d deserved it.

How odd it feels though, now, to have the tables turned like this. To have the same cheap trick pulled on her, by-

Well… her.

Although-

“Whatever…”

-petty is all the non-response is, and all it can be. Because as both she and the voice (which wants its own name she knows, a name like Krissy or Karly or some other mischievous-sounding moniker, but which she refuses to give to it, because to do so will be the last step toward acknowledging it) both know, silence doesn’t bother her anymore. She’s gotten used to it, in much the same way that she’s gotten used to hearing herself talk to no one at all. Not as quickly as she would have liked, but she has.

(Bitch…)

“Oh yeah, good one…”

She crests the top of a gentle hill. There the road flattens out and stretches for a quarter mile towards, she can’t see it yet in the fog, but it’s definitely there, an intersection.

At the intersection the road will break off in three directions: left, right and straight, with each further road heading out across wide, deep fields.

Corn fields. They’d been planted in the spring, and now stand a tall, gangly green. The cobs are good too; white ones, with small crunchy kernels that cook well over fire. She’s enjoying them while they last. Because of course, they won’t. Nor will they be back next summer.

(And neither will we.)

Only two of those roads concern her anymore: the one to the left, Wilson Road, and the one to the right, Noland Road. The other, Griffin Road, the one that goes straight, she already knows to hold no further promise. In fact, after about 1.7 miles, Griffin holds the exact opposite of promise.

Green Honda. Empty booster seat. Staring eyes. Sippy cup.

On the other hand, Wilson and Noland, while not exactly promising in and of themselves, have turned out to be quite useful.

Wilson, for instance, after an initially straight shot north through the fields, then follows a roughly half-circular route that she calls “The Loop”, right back to Atlas House. In fact, the route as a whole practically makes a perfect circle around it, according to the now-dead Garmin. Almost like a perimeter; the kind Army guys were always talking about in war movies. She wonders on occasion if it used to be a patrol road back in the day, for circling Atlas and making sure no one got too close.

The best thing about “The Loop” however, is that it runs for just over five kilometers. “5K”: a term which stands for either the distance, or more often, the kind of race.

The kind of race that girl, Shawnda, in Accounting, was always talking about running. So, wow, I did this great 5K in Connecticut, cross country, and omigod it was sooo beautiful. Ran it in like, twenty-five minutes, so I ran it again. You know, like, just for fun.

Which, since Jane knows the distance and how long it took for a ridiculously fit someone like Shawnda to run it, allows Jane a relatively good guess at how she herself is doing.

O… M… G… Shawnda, I’ve been doing this wicked “5K” around my house, for like, a hundred and seven days, and I totally own it now. Like every… single… time… How does 19:51 shake you? Yeeeah girl, right?

Most days she runs “The Loop”, and today is one of those days. She will run it, then run it again, and again, making the left at the intersection two more times. You know, like, just for fun. In total she’ll cover nine-point-nine miles today. Then, tomorrow she’ll strength train and do only one loop. After that, she’ll rest and take care of Atlas. What there still is of it, at least.

Every third day however, she goes right. On Noland. Noland has become quite useful too. Albeit for a much simpler reason. Noland is the road she takes whenever she goes out searching. On what she calls her “Long Runs”.

Drawn in red pen, on the AAA map which Jane keeps in her pack, is a shape which very much resembles the outline of an ice cream cone. It’s not a doodle, however; far from it.

In Jane’s previous life that shape would have been called a “Cone of Uncertainty”. Originally conceived for corporate project management, but since adapted for many other uses, most people would probably have remembered seeing a version of “The Cone” in a weather forecast, probably superimposed over the Gulf of Mexico, or maybe the Atlantic seaboard, trying to predict the path of a hurricane.

In any case, the purpose of the cone is always the same: to define and then calculate probability, starting from a point of certainty, then widening out along a plotted line which represents time and ever-greater uncertainty.

Which is exactly what Jane’s cone does. Except in this case, the cone is upside down, and its point of certainty, marked by a small red circle, starts at the approaching intersection. Then it widens, at a thirty-degree angle, out to a radius of fifty miles. By now, almost every road within the cone is traced in black, while just outside the cone, on both sides of it, are drawn long red arrows which also point down.

South. Because that was the way they had gone-

That was the direction… it had gone.

On that horrible day.

***

STOP

Says the big red sign, and she does.

But not because the sign tells her to. Hell, she can run back and forth through the intersection all day long if she wants, flipping the old middle-finger salute at the sign every time just for good measure. Nothing will happen. The sign’s days of telling people what to do are over. A hundred and seven days over.

No, she’s stopped for something else.

Well, hasn’t really stopped; it isn’t good to just stop in the middle of a run, so she’s instead begun jogging in place.

But as she does, she looks down at the pavement… and sees the same things she’s seen several hundred times before. The things she’s really (sort of) stopped for.

There are two of them: one off to her left, the other to her right, both of them still as dark black on the grey asphalt as they’d been when she’d first seen them. Even after the passage of months.

They start before the STOP sign and break right, scrawling down Noland road for what has to be fifty feet, until they finally trail off. Then, about six inches further along, a second set picks up right where the first set leaves off. And that set runs for another twenty feet. Shorter than the first, but still just as black. And ugly…

(Aaand heartbreaking. It’s okay. You can admit it.)

Yes, heartbreaking…

Tire marks.

Most people might have easily guessed at what had caused the first set. Probably some hot-rodding asshole, they’d say, trying to impress someone, or perhaps even just himself.

But the second, further set of marks? And that little pause before it? That would have been harder for the average Joe or Jane to hypothesize on. That would have meant delving a little deeper into specifics, like in that scene from “My Cousin Vinny”, where Marissa Tomei had gleefully explained in her faux-Bronx accent how the tire marks out front of the Sac O’ Suds absolutely must have been made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, and, oh my freakin’ Gawd! NOT by a 1964 Buick Skylark!

It would have meant knowing about things like gear ratios and “Posi-Traction” rear ends (Marissa had said it more like “Pawsi-Traction”), and power-to-weight ratios. Which most people hadn’t known the first thing about, of course.

Because- well, they hadn’t needed to.

For better or worse however, Jane knows exactly what had caused both sets of marks, and why. Because now, she knows all about cars, and especially about 1970 Chevelles. She’s read all of Jack’s old car magazines, and the shop manuals, and the specifications. After all, she’s had plenty of time, and by now she knows them all by heart. Can quote them at length, in fact, and well enough to probably give Jack or any one of his hot-rodding buddies a pretty good hard-on. The only thing they’d liked more than good-looking girls and fast cars was good-looking girls who knew fast cars.

The marks had been made by a (in Marissa’s Bronxy twang again)-

Aaand I quote: 1970-model Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396, “Fathom Blue” in color, powered by a 375 horsepower (SAE Net Rating), L78, Mark 2, “big-block” V-8, running a model-M40 Turbo-Hydramatic transmission and a 3.55:1-ratio “Pawsi-Traction” rear differential.

How’d you like that, boys? Whoa, WHOA! Down, boys, down! Remember, I’m taken!

(Well, except for those times when Jack decides- decided, to go off and fuck that mean little-)

And that second, shorter set of marks? The Chevelle had made those as it shifted into second gear under full power. By then, the ignition timing would have been pegged at 36 degrees “BTDC” (which means Before Top Dead Center), and all four of the “Holley” model-4346, 780 CFM (Cubic Feet/Minute), “square-bore” carburetor’s 1.6875-inchbarrels would have been wide-open, barely-atomized fuel ripping through them from primary and secondary venturis at roughly the speed of sound.

The power valves would have gotten in on the act by then too; with the accelerator pedal floored, the hungry engine’s manifold vacuum would have been way below the valves’ 8.5 inches-of-Mercury threshold, and so they too would have been dumping fuel- raw fuel, in that instance, straight down into the manifold’s intake ports. Practically pouring it down the engine’s throat.

And all while the big V-8 had still screamed for more-

Because right about here, she guesses, at this intersection, is where the Chevelle had begun running for its life.

***

Hadn’t Jack once proudly told her how the car could “just fucking burn the tires” in second gear? If you were really laying on it.

“Not that I’ve ever really tried,” he’d once told her with one of his big, goofy smiles.

Which of course had been bullshit too. He’d probably “burned the tires” at every possible opportunity. Even, she had to admit, with the kids in the car.

Although, why not? It wasn’t really that dangerous. Right? And besides, it kept the valves clean. In her mind’s eye, she sees him smile that big, goofy smile again.

God- He could be so convincing with that smile. She wonders how many people might have been rolled into an E.R., all smashed up, or shot, or whatever, but still conscious enough to see and understand that smile, and then felt instantly better because of it. Even when it would turn out to be the last thing they’d ever see.

“Hello? Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So? Can you hear me? Okay, well I’m doctor Mattheson, and I’m going to take good care of you. Just relax.” (Big Assuring Smile)

How many times had she seen that smile, maybe paired with that little twinkle he sometimes got in his eyes, and felt better herself?

“C’mon Hon, you know I’d never do something like that with the kids in the car. So just relax.” (Big Twinkly Smile)

Or just been disarmed by it?

“Look, dammit. It’s not like I asked for this. I was drunk, and she came on to me. How many ways can I say I’m sorry? But it was just one time- one damned time, and it won’t happen again. Okay? Now please… just relax… And put that goddam thing down.”

“Never again Jack? You swear?”

“I swear.” (Big Sincere Smile)

(Clatter)

That smile…

That fucking liar.

(Yeah well, say what you want, but when you finally got another chance, you blew it again anyway.)

Jane snorts. “Yeah, well I sort of got distracted that day.”

But that’s not even close to the truth, and she knows it. Therefore, so does the voice.

(Uh huh. And now here we are…)

“Yup…” Jane stares across the intersection, down Griffin, the road that goes straight. She thinks again of the Honda, lying on its side 1.7 miles away. Its driver even now is probably still hanging sideways in her seatbelt, the left side of her head in ruins where it lies amongst the bits of smashed safety glass, while the pink and green booster seat still hangs empty in the back.

The sippy cup is probably still there too, still standing impossibly upright next to the center line, as if someone had placed it there. Unless maybe the wind has knocked it over. Jane should bury her, she knows, maybe bury the booster seat with her too, even though the act would be pointless. It’s the decent thing to do. Yet-

Jane just jogs in place, hearing nothing but the soft, rhythmic sound of her sneakers padding on the asphalt, and continues to stare.

“You’re right. Here we are.”

***

She jerks her head around with a start and blinks, confused. She’s somehow drifted beyond the sign, out into the intersection. The realization makes her heart skip a beat as she instinctively checks both ways for oncoming cars.

Until she remembers. Then she smiles at her foolishness. Old habits apparently do die hard.

I’ve been zoning out more and more though, and that needs to stop, or before long I’m going to do something a lot stupider than sleep-jogging my way into an empty intersection. And that stupid thing could easily get me killed.

(Oh, Heaven forbid.)

“Oh fuck you.”

(Well then DO IT! Get it over with! Stop having this three-way bitch-fest with you, yourself and I, so we can go on! And on, and on, and on… That’s the way you seem to want it, anyway. But I’m tired of this, and of helping you draw it out! See Jane Run! Jane runs fast. Jane runs down Silver Spring Road fast. But finds nothing! Jane runs down SR208 fast… but finds nothing again! Jane runs down Griffin Road fast, and- Hey! Look! Finds a fucking horror show! But still, in the end, really finds…? That’s riiight! Nothing. Because they’re all dead! Either gone without a trace, which by now I’m sure you’ll agree is the same as dead, or just plain dead-dead! Oh, and yeah, the dead ones might still look like they’re alive- sort of, in that weird, wax-museum sort of way. The girl in the Honda. Even the ones in that car from Day One- shit, they fucking burned! Not completely maybe, but they burned all the same. And yet they still haven’t started to-)

“God damn it!” Her sudden cry echoes impossibly loud in her ears, even as it evaporates into the larger silence around her. It feels good to yell though. Partly just to get it out. That, and because this bitch really needs to be put in her place-

Shut, the fuck, UP! I know perfectly fucking well what they haven’t started to do!”

She still doesn’t understand it, but she knows. After three months of summer heat, the dead—the few that she’s found anyway—should all be stinking, maggot-infested messes by now. But they’re not, at all. There aren’t even any flies on the bodies, and there never have been.

It had been that thorough, its devastation that complete; it even took the flies.

And probably the bacteria too, or else the bodies would have started to go on their own, she knows, flies or no flies.

(We each carry the seeds of our own destruction…)

Which is certainly true, but not just in the poetic, fatalistic, metaphysical sense. Oh no. The flies and their maggots are just part of the process. She’d read somewhere that the human body doesn’t just rot from the outside. When a person dies, so do the white blood cells that normally keep their gut bacteria in check. So, with nothing to stop them, those bacteria suddenly flourish, first chowing down on the intestinal lining and then maybe the stomach. Until eventually they burst free. Then they go to work on the other organs, and that’s when things get really messy.

But that process just isn’t happening anymore. None of it is. Because everything that had been alive that day, right on down to the smallest of the small, is gone now.

(But you still keep looking! Despite what I’ve been telling you, your dumb ass just keeps going- on and on and on! You do know what you’re going to find- if, and that’s a big IF, you ever do find it… find them. Is that what you want? To remember them like that? Why would you want that? So why? Why keep going? In such a horrible, silent, dead world? I mean, come ON Janey… Isn’t it time to just… You know what you’ll find. Do you really want that?)

The thing is, she doesn’t want… that. And she doesn’t want to keep going on. Not running, not wondering, not waiting- none of it. She truly does want it all to be over.

But just not yet.

***

She finally makes the left and starts down Wilson, leaving Noland, the tire marks and what they mean all behind.

It doesn’t bother her to do this anymore. Nor will it the next two times she runs past the intersection.

Because in two days, she knows, she’ll follow them again, when she is good and ready. The relentless, emotional urge to always run down Noland every single day has long since passed, replaced by a similarly relentless, but oh-so-much-more productive (and saner) logic. A logic which despite its… eccentricities, has also done a great job of keeping her alive.

(For which you’re welcome, as always…)

At least until recently. The logic, she’s come to learn, is also cold.

(Logic, by definition, is cold.)

Her ET will be total shit this time around of course, but that’s okay too. Her next lap will go better. See you in twenty. She just won’t bust her ass over it; she’s training for endurance, not speed. A classic case of- well, maybe not “slow and steady” winning the race, more like “optimal” just getting it done. She doesn’t know how marathon runners used to train their bodies, but she thinks she’s figured out they’d trained their minds, their philosophy, and now she practices it to ever greater extents. And distances.

She has to. Atlas House is very much “out in the sticks”, as most of her friends and family- especially her family, had always seemed to need to remind her (as if she didn’t know). So, if she hopes to follow Noland and the further roads all the way to 87 South next time, she’ll have to cover almost thirty miles according to the AAA map, and through nothing but near-empty countryside. Just to get to 87, never mind run down it.

That’s the only way to go anymore however, and her only hope of finding whatever she might find. That’s the only way they could’ve gone to get away from the-

For the longest time, she hadn’t known what to call the thing she’d seen that day. Something so big and all-consuming would seem to demand a grand name. She’d thought of biblical words like Leviathan, remembered a line from the Hindu Gita about the god Vishnu proclaiming himself “Death, the destroyer of worlds” and considered that name. She’d even considered the Jewish Tanakh’s “Creeping Death”.

Ultimately however, its apparent mindlessness and seemingly utter pointlessness had belied any notion of true grandiosity. The only thing “great” about it, she’d decided, had been its scope. That, and perhaps the silence it had left behind. The thing otherwise made no sense to her, no matter how hard she’d tried to wrap her mind around it. Until doing so had begun to feel more like banging her head against a wall-

A wall. “The Wall”. Not a perfect name perhaps, but it’s still the best she can come up with for describing both its brutally singular function and terribly simplistic form.

She can see it so clearly, even now. That horizon-wide monstrosity of rushing, boiling blue, sliding toward her over the hills just north of Atlas, remorseless and unrelenting behind its seemingly endless line of angry black thunderheads and worldwide stabs of lightning, across-

Jesuseverything.

-roaring south.

South. That was the way the wall had gone. She doesn’t know much else about it, but she knows that much for sure. It had travelled north to south, coming first for her, and then running her family down. All while its wider expanse had devoured the rest of the world.

She always tries not to think about what must have happened next on the road that’s now falling behind her. Instead, she tries to think only of the road itself, and of what it represents: a “point of certainty”, and nothing more.

Or sometimes, she even flat-out lies to herself about it. The way she does in her dreams. In those, the tire marks instead always go left, on Wilson, and thus north. Because in her dreams, Jack, Gary and Denise never see that towering, horrible blue. Never have to run from it. Never get chased down by it-

Until, finally…

Because in her dreams, that horrific thing never exists. In her dreams, Jack and the kids always pull into the driveway ten minutes after they’d left. And from there, everything else always goes blissfully, wonderfully the same. The Chevelle’s engine goes silent but for the tick of cooling metal, its rumble replaced by the sound of slamming car doors and chattering children. And by the voice of their father, sounding a bit like a boy himself.

The voices then go hushed for a few moments as they get their story straight. The burnout will stay a guilty little secret. They will have a wonderfully normal lunch outside, and a pretty, green hummingbird will come to the feeder.

***

The real tire marks, of course, tell her different. She doesn’t know whether to be thankful for them or not.

For better or worse though, she knows that Jack and the kids had seen the wall coming. Had probably seen the Mustang and the crash of the burnt car too. And so, instead of turning left onto Wilson and heading for home, Jack had swung the Chevelle right and floored it down Noland, leaving the tire marks like two long, unwilling, black breadcrumbs for her to follow.

From there she can only think of the car, and not of the people inside. She thinks only in terms of it; never them. Every time she runs to the right, her mind says, this is the way “it” went; never, this is the way “they” went. Every time she tries searching down a new stretch of road, she wonders if she might finally find “it”. To think in any other terms, to imagine what might actually have happened inside of it– to them, is just too much. And if thought about too hard, or for too long, she knows, the idea of it will surely drive her insane.

(Oh Janey, come on, you’re already th-)

So, from then on it was just the big blue Chevelle that had roared south, chirped its tires and continued to accelerate. It had gone dodging down whichever roads promised to keep it south of the advancing blue wall, getting one last “Italian tune-up” as it ran for its life.

She is certain by now that it made Route 87. Beyond that however, she just can’t be sure. All the other ways they might have gone, the easier ways and the maybe faster ways, have come up empty, though she can’t understand why.  

Her only hope now is the tunnel that runs deep under Rook Mountain, on the turnpike. If Atlas House had somehow saved her, well… then maybe the tunnel had somehow saved them.

It’s possible. About ten miles south of the intersection with SR208, Route 87 has an on-ramp that the Chevelle could’ve taken to get there.

But the on-ramp is a long, looping affair that turns back on itself for almost a quarter of a mile before joining the turnpike. Which means that taking it would have carried the Chevelle straight toward the onrushing wall. Only for about twenty, thirty seconds maybe, provided the ramp itself was clear, but to Jane that still sounds like a deadly proposition, especially at a time when every single second must have counted.

Then there would have been the toll plaza, its lanes made narrow and flanked by jersey barriers, all in a deliberate effort to slow passing traffic down to the five (dear God, five) mile-per-hour speed limit. The wall had gone a lot faster than that.

But what if they had cleared the toll plaza, and the onramp? What then? The tunnel itself would still be far away, and by then the turnpike leading up to it would probably have been choked with other fleeing cars. Based on what she’s seen already, the intersection where Franklin Hollow crosses SR208, far beyond Noland but still well-shy of the Turnpike, is now a junkyard/graveyard. One of the traffic light poles had been hit and is now laying across the road. She still can’t see how the Chevelle made it through.  

In any case, it means the Turnpike is probably now just one endless, rusting (but nowhere decomposing), high-speed wreck, with the Chevelle perhaps tangled up in it, somewhere along the way.

(Yup. There, or maybe outside the tunnel…)

Jane can picture that too; the tunnel’s tall, grey, concrete face, so incongruously smooth against the rocky mountainside. She can see the tunnel’s two-lane mouth, arching up so high and wide yet still looking so small against the wide expanse of concrete and the by-far-larger mountainside.

But now the tunnel’s smooth face is spiderwebbed with cracks, and a smear of black soot snakes up it from the tunnel’s mouth. Off to one side, a semi has smashed, headlong into it. That’s where the cracks come from. They radiate outward from the point of impact, in the same way that the roads she’s marked on the AAA map spread out from intersection of Wilson and Noland, in her cone of uncertainty.

There’s no uncertainty here, however. The semi hit so hard that it accordioned, and she knows that somewhere inside of it is its driver, also smashed flat, albeit somehow still intact. Meanwhile, the road leading up and into the tunnel is littered with a thousand more smashed hulks, and perhaps even a few smashed bodies. Most of them are burnt black.

Although- can’t she see just the faintest glimmer of blue somewhere amidst them? Detect the smallest twinkle of chrome?

(Or else they would’ve been back by now. They should have been back a looong time ago, Janey. That’s what I keep telling-)

Nevertheless, there are no other roads left to try. The others on the map are by now all traced in black. A long run down the Turnpike to the tunnel is her only remaining hope.

She’s prepared for the trip as well as she can: there is a bottle of mineral water two miles out on the steps of the Quonset General store, then another water bottle and an energy bar in the open hatch of the minivan at the intersection. Another bottled water on the Sunoco pump across from the State Police barracks, then yet another, along with a Redbull on the step side of a dead Peterbilt just before Redstone.

From there however, she’ll be on her own to the tunnel. Which, yes, will push the practical limits of what her body can do, especially if the Turnpike is as messy as she thinks it is. That will make it hard to navigate, but she has no other choice.

Out and back in one day; that’s the rule.

(Because we have to be home for beddy-bye, evewwwy night. Right, Janey?)

 “Hey, if I don’t sleep, you don’t sleep, and you’re an even bigger bitch when you’re tired, so…”

(I still think it’s stupid, and illogical; sleeping down there. In the dark. It smells, it’s hot, that water is disgusting-)  

“I don’t like it either, but…”

(What if you reach the tunnel and still find nothing?)

Jane sighs. “I think we both know the answer to that question already.”

The voice is just doing the usual, Jane knows. Egging her on. Because they both know perfectly well what would happen. “The Cone” extends out past the tunnel.

She wonders for probably the hundredth time if maybe she should give up running altogether and really try to find a good bike. She carries little hope for that idea though. With Atlas being so far out “in the sticks” there just aren’t many houses around. There’s a lot of roads, my God such a lot of roads, but aside from the cluster of houses on the corner, which she’s already confirmed to be bike-less, Atlas sits very much alone amongst them. Which of course, again, was the point: both in Atlas’ location and in Jack’s moving them all there.

She thinks of her friend Ginny. Ginny had been a big mountain biker. Which makes Jane wonder once in a while about her bike.

But then Jane always reconsiders. Ginny’s house is maybe 30 miles north, and roughly a thousand feet up Mt. Jenkins.

Another potential problem is that Ginny had been a big mountain biker, and thus she’d liked nothing more than a good Saturday morning ride. So her bike is probably nowhere near her house. More likely, it is laying somewhere out on a now overgrown trail. Maybe Ginny is out there too. She doesn’t know whether to hope for that or not. A surprising lot of people died just trying to get away that day. Well, not many in the grand scheme of things—the ones Jane’s found are more a testament to the untold thousands she… hasn’t found, but more than a few.

It doesn’t matter anyway. According to “The Cone”, Jack and the kids couldn’t have gotten that far. Even if for some reason they ran past the tunnel. Eventually, one of two things had to have happened; either they found some other kind of safety, or the odds finally caught up with them. One way or another, they, or at least the Chevelle must be out there. Somewhere.

So if she has to keep running, she will. She’ll run until she finds the Chevelle, or until she’s absolutely certain that she’ll never find it. That is her goal.

Only then, when she finally reaches that, will she be able to think of her loves in the car again. To force herself to bear the heart-crushing totality of what happened to them. To re-shoulder all their unsprung weight until she can’t bear it any longer. She will cry over them one last time.

Then she will unzip the pack on her belly, take out Jack’s gun, the same gun she’d once pointed at him, and calmly shoot herself through the head with it. She’s certainly had plenty of time to assess herself, and she’s sure she can do it. It will be a relief.

(For both of us.)

“Yeah, maybe. But, for the time being…”

(I know, I know…)

The intersection falls further behind her. Ahead lies the field road, still shrouded in fog, emerging one stride at a time. Off to the left, she can just make out the faint red shape of the Mustang, sitting in the field, right where it had presumably coasted, lifeless, to a stop so long ago. Further off, she knows, lying upside-down amidst the corn, is the twisted wreck of the other car that hadn’t stopped so peacefully. With the burnt-but-somehow-still-not-rotting hand still sticking out of it, and the disfigured but somehow still intact bodies hanging within.

She looks down at her watch and suddenly frowns; she’d thought she’d only spent a few minutes daydreaming back at the intersection, but it looks now like she’d actually been there for almost ten. And the delay has really screwed her time. On the upside though-

(Oh Christ- “On the upside”, “on the upside”- always you and the God-damned “upside”… STOP already! Just fucking-)

From behind her suddenly comes the faintest rumbling sound. Coming from… the south? She thinks. Maybe… two miles distant. She looks back over her shoulder as she runs and tries to discern its source but can’t. The fog is still cotton-thick, not just blocking her view but also muffling and distorting the sound.

So, she spins around and begins to backpedal, eyes narrowed. The sound is definitely still far off, whatever it is, but it’s coming closer, coming northward.

And coming quickly, she realizes, because whatever it is, it’s growing appreciably louder with every second.

Suddenly, something that sounds like lightning, or far-off gunfire, joins the rumble. Her hand feels for the pack and her fingers find the zipper. Meanwhile, the sound keeps building, coming ever closer. Her eyes still try, strain now, to see… But the fog, in turn, still gives up nothing. So she’d been right, this morning, to be worried by it. Here now is the proof.

And she won’t be able to outrun it, she suddenly knows. Not even now, after all this time. She’s been training for endurance, not speed…

So why bother trying…

(Exactly! Wow, you’re finally getting it…)

She stops backpedaling. Well, she doesn’t really stop. It isn’t good to just stop in the middle of a run. So instead she jogs in place, waiting.

The sound grows suddenly louder, as if its source has just cleared the nearest hill. A rolling, pulsing boom.

She begins to pull…

But then she stops jogging altogether and just stands, perfectly still. Her hands fall limp at her sides, and tears well up in her eyes. She recognizes the sound. And through the fog she sees the first hints of blue-

A thought flashes, haphazard, through her mind. My running days are over. Because-

My God… It’s coming back.

(Oh no…)

BAM! We are now DEAD!

A short from the same universe as “Villains and Birdsong”.
“…The big car finally slides to a stop in the cold, snowy darkness. She slams it into PARK, then closes her eyes.

Breathe Gardy… Just breathe.

In…

She inhales slowly.

Out…

She exhales, slower still.

In… Out…

Until her heart finally slows-

There’s no room for error. In… Out…

And her hands go loose on the wheel-

I can’t fuck this up- I won’t fuck this up. Daddy would kill me. Momma would just…

In… Out…

And she is calm once again.

Good. Now, open your eyes.

She finds herself looking down at the dim, red-orange buttons on the car’s radio.

She pushes one.

CLICK.

“-of 1989. In other national news, the folk-rock singer Bruce Springsteen yesterday declared victory after a five-year fight to publish his controversial, and as some have claimed, outright subversive song, “Born in the USA”. Speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court, Mister Springsteen had this to say:

This victory is not mine alone. It is for every American voice that wants to be free to talk about things in this country’s history as they really are. Not as they are purported to be, in some federally-approved  history book.

Springsteen’s song was banned from radio airplay in 1984 by the Censor Board. There has been no official comment yet from the administration, but Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy has stated several times previously that if the Supreme Court did not decide for the Censor Board, the administration would look for other, quote, constitutionally-viable means, unquote, to control what the administration refers to as quote, unpatriotic expressions, unquote. Meanwhile, the United States Senate today will begin debate on the FCIA’s extremely controversial “Birdsong” project, which some critics suggest would-“

CLICK.

She looks up. Fat snowflakes fall out of the darkness and skirl across the car’s long silver hood, while yet others fall to their ends on its warm windshield.

She’s long since decided that taking it out in weather like this will prove to be a bad idea. Oh, it had done well enough at first, but roughly halfway between where she’d been and where she is now, the snow had picked up, and the roads had gotten worse. So much so, that by the time she’d reached the long off ramp to the parking lot where she now sits, she’d had to rein the car back from at least three slow, but still frightening skids.

The worst had come at the off-ramp, where the road angled downward from the highway while making a sweeping left turn onto a smaller service road. The car, a brand-new BMW 7-series, had begun to slew right, before almost going into a looping spin that would surely have carried it right across the service road and into the guardrail beyond.

A wreck like that would have been hopeless; even if she’d somehow succeeded in calling a tow before a cop showed up, she felt sure that a state trooper, or maybe even a federal park ranger, likely would have showed up. Then, if he’d started nosing around…

But-

“Thank you, Daddy,” she’d whispered, after bringing the car under control one last time.

Her father had always been a deeply worried man, and eight years ago one of his worries had extended itself into his daughter’s learning to drive. So he’d gone to great lengths: teaching her how to go, how to stop, how to negotiate turns. How to drive at speed-

“I’m not going to bullshit you,” he’d said, “everybody speeds. You know I do. But Hell, so do West German grandmothers… every day. And they aren’t splattering themselves all over the autobahn at any higher rate than the rest of us. And why is that, my Love?” He’d asked.

Though of course he hadn’t waited for her to answer. He’d almost never waited for an answer. “The difference… is that over there it’s a stone-cold bitch to get a driver’s license. You actually have to be a good driver. Not like the kindergarten-spelling-test of a driver’s exam they have over here. So here’s what you do-“

He’d taught her about always leaving an escape route, whether while driving or just stopping at a light. Because, he’d told her, you might need room to swerve in case the asshole in front of you does something stupid.

Or, he’d gone on in a lower, more ominous tone, room to escape, in case someone decides to ram you from behind. Maybe with the idea of pushing you into the path of, say, an oncoming locomotive.

The locomotive… She smiles at the thought, and then smiles wider at the memory which follows.

He’d even taught her the right way to cross railroad tracks. They’d just crossed a set in Utah when-

“BAM! WE ARE NOW DEAD!”

He’d fairly screamed the words at her after slamming both of his hands on the dashboard of her first car; a big, boxy (but safe!) ‘79 Chevy Zafira.

Because, as he’d gone on to explain in a much softer voice, she hadn’t stopped to look for that speeding 200-ton diesel locomotive that had somehow failed to trigger the crossing gates, seconds before “killing” them both.

“But Daddy I-“

SHUT UP! And listen to me! Dammit, Gardenia, you know, you talk too much. Your mother hardly ever talked. And do you know why?”

“Because she-”

“Didn’t I just tell you to shut up? She didn’t talk because she was smart. Your mother listened… Jesus, Gardy, how many times do I have to tell you…”

She could not, her father had gone on to tell her, once again in that softer voice, just assume that no train was coming. She had to look. And see.

The greater lesson being that you shouldn’t assume anything on the road. The greater, greater lesson being that you shouldn’t assume anything- period.

“Forget that making an ASS out of “U” and “ME” bullshit,” he’d told her. “Because it’s my experience that assuming can get you hurt, or yes, even killed.

“So don’t fucking do that… ever again.”

Most of his lessons had been delivered like that: simple, brutal, and yes, often infused with various types of profanity. Although she’d never once doubted that his lessons-profanity and all-had been given out of love, or out of the worry that sprang from that love.

It was, she had come to understand, the only way that her all-business, ex-soldier father had known to effectively impress upon her the things that he’d thought were important. Especially when there’d been so many of them, and when he’d had so little time in which to teach her, split as it had been between Gardenia’s lessons, and the hours he’d spent every day caring for her dying mother, Catalina. Not to mention the constant pressure of knowing that before long, his own ticking time bomb, of the same make and model as the one that was killing Catalina, would eventually go off, and finally get him too.

He’d taught her the bulk of her early math and spelling- no, sweetheart, it’s ph-o-n-e, note f-o-n-e. The “ph” makes an “f” sound. It’s f-, f-, fucking stupid, but that’s the way it is. He’d taught her how to cook. He’d taught her how to start a fire and how to fix a car and how to balance a checkbook. He’d made sure she knew how a lady should be treated, and how to deal with boys who didn’t know. Or didn’t care. He’d taught her how to shoot a handgun. And then another handgun. And then a rifle. Then a bigger rifle. Then an even bigger rifle.

And always with the same exhortation: “Your mother should be- No, no: first exhale, then pull the trigger, just let it happen, same as taking a picture. Like I say, your mother should be teaching you this shit-” BOOM! “There! Fuckin’-A, that’s it! Just like your Momma. Though I wasn’t such a bad shot either. And I shot out the side of an airplane, in the friggin’ dark! Of course, I needed a waaay bigger gun, and a few thousand more rounds than your Mom usually did…” Then he would smile—he’d always smiled when he talked about Gardenia’s mother—and he would go on with the lesson. Lesson, after brutal-but-important lesson.

Then, after that final stretch of four, horrible months, that last, steep slide before her mother finally passed away, he’d taught her how to grieve. Though there’d been nothing brutal in that particular lesson. It had only been simple…

And of course, he’d taught her how to drive. And thankfully, how to recover from a spin. His worry had saved her again.

2

Now, however, she is worried. But not about killer locomotives, or random roadgoing assholes doing stupid things, or even about the ever-deepening snow.

Well- actually, she is sort of worried about the snow, isn’t she? Not about the snow itself, but about what she’s just noticed in it. The BMW’s wipers take another casual sweep of its windshield, giving the sight before her a fresh, new, if only momentary, clarity.

The parking lot belongs to the Kittatinny State Canoe Park, a small strip of riverbank which lies just over the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, on the Jersey side of the Delaware River. And true to its name, the park has several small slips that are just big enough for canoes.

In the summer, the place is a mob scene of tourists and college kids, all of them either barbequing by the riverside or dropping anything that will float into the river for a lazy ride further downstream.

Now of course, the place is deserted. Except for her. Or at least she’d thought so.

Until a few minutes ago, when she’d first seen.

The BMW has excellent headlights. The high-beams, especially, are fantastic; quartz-halogen “Hella” lamps that throw four big, bright cones of light over a distance that seems long enough to night-land a small plane on. God knows the lamps mounted out in the car’s nose even look like the ones that had been in the left wing of her father’s old Cessna.

Hell, knowing the Germans, she wonders if maybe the lights are aircraft lights. Just re-purposed into headlights, after having been stuck there by some whack-job German engineer who’d decided that Zeez lights vill be zehr gut! Perfect for zee Autobahn! Mein grandmother vill be able to go ein hundert miles per-

She looks down at the car’s speedometer, where “kp/h” has been grudgingly printed beneath “MP/H”, for the roughly three people in the U.S. who actually gave a shit how many “kp/h” are in an “MP/H”, then tries again-

-ein hundert-funfzieg kilometers per hour! In full dark, viss no stars! She’ll never out-drive zeez babies! Und shplatter herself all over zee place!

That had been another piece of driving/life advice from her father, another product of his ever-present worry: never out-drive your headlights. He’d meant: never drive faster than your eyes can see, or than your right foot can react. Implied in that advice, again by his constant fear, was a more intrinsic warning, and another of his greater, greater lessons: don’t get yourself into anything you can’t get yourself out of.

She’s never tried to out-drive the BMW’s headlights. That, of course, would be stupid. She doubts she could anyway, even if she wanted to; despite how fast the car can go, its lights always seem to stretch out into forever, seeing everything.

Even, on occasion, seeing things she wished they wouldn’t.

Because what they see now is what worries her. What they see has suddenly made her wonder if perhaps she’s finally out-driven her own headlights.

She’d stopped the BMW roughly halfway down the long, narrow parking lot that runs parallel to the canoe park. She hasn’t parked the car however; the lot’s spaces are arrayed perpendicular to its length and would have required her to turn the car into one of them. That, in turn, would require her to turn yet again to leave; a big no-no if she has to leave in a hurry (escape route). To her right is the canoe park itself, and further beyond it, the Delaware river. To her left and above run route 80, as it follows the Delaware through the Water Gap and into New Jersey.

To her front, obscured by the swirling snow, but still easy to see in the BMW’s oh-so-fantastic headlights, is a set of tire tracks. Left, it seems, by someone who’d been there maybe ten minutes before her. They run in a straight line all the way from the far end of the lot before making a gentle u-turn roughly fifty feet shy of where she now sits. From there they trace another straight line back to the far entrance, turn right down the service road, and disappear.

The tracks could have been made by anything: a roving park ranger, or a state patrol, or maybe even just some passing joe-shmo driver who’d pulled off into the park thinking it was a rest area, then realized different and left again.

But she doesn’t think so.

The problem with all of those theories is the footprints. Somewhere in the middle of its u-turn, the unknown car had apparently disgorged a passenger. Only one passenger, by the look of it, but the car had let someone out, and that someone had not gotten back in. Nor had they stuck around.

According to the footprints, the person had only made a beeline away from the tire tracks. And according to the spacing of those footprints, that person had either been very big, or at least long-legged.

Or… in a big hurry.

A hurry… she decides. That makes the most sense; there are some big people in the world, but not many big enough to have strides that long. Those are Harlem Globetrotter-long.

So, “hurry” it is. Of course, a lot of people tend to be in a hurry when they get out of a car that’s just gotten off the highway; most often to go to the restroom. And the canoe park does have a set of restrooms- in fact they stand right along the edge of the parking lot. Perhaps that’s why-

But the footprints don’t lead to the restrooms.

They lead instead, right past the restrooms. And from there they continue on: over the now snow-covered lawn that lays beside the restrooms, on through the picnic areas, then finally, off toward a darkened ridge where the ground breaks downward and out of sight, toward the river.

There the footprints finally go beyond the BMW’s field of view, and into near darkness. But she can still see them, still running straight, and still spaced as widely as ever, still driving the word “hurry” across her mind.

So why in the Hell would someone get out of a car in a snowstorm and tear ass through the snow toward nothing but darkness and an ice-cold river? And why would the driver of the car they’d gotten out of allow something like that? Especially at zero-dark-thirty in the morning? And then, to top it off, just leave?

Her mind calculates a refined set of scenarios. Was the runner maybe a rape victim? Or perhaps someone escaping a rape, or some other violence? This otherwise-deserted park is the perfect place for that sort of thing. After all, she herself isn’t exactly here to use the bathrooms either.

Or maybe the runner had just been a hitchhiker, dropped off by some unknowing good Samaritan. Maybe because the hitchhiker (or even the driver, who knows?) had decided that this was as far as they could go?

As far as they could go… running to the river- the ice-cold river… Another Bruce Springsteen song pops into her head just then, a song about going down to the river, and diving in. It was such a sad song, she remembers; a song about a man who’d had very little to hope for anymore, and whose only solace was his thoughts of going “down to the river”. Apparently before his life had gotten much harder and complicated. She’s always wondered if he was singing about diving into that river one last time, and then never coming back out of-

My God…

A person running from a crime is one thing; that person would have been trying to save themselves, and had probably succeeded. No one had chased whoever-it-was. And this isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere either. Hell, there’s a McDonalds not a mile away. She can even see the restaurant’s golden arches in the BMW’s rearview. They’re mounted on an extra-tall pole so that hungry drivers for miles around will know it’s there. And the arches would likewise have beckoned anyone who’d found themselves running for any well-lit place of safety.

But what if it’s a suicide? What if someone is on the riverbank right now, thinking about jumping in? Or already has jumped in? They could be down there right now, dying, or about to die. Suddenly she finds herself fighting an urge to run off into the snow too.

Then again, she also has to consider the possibility that if some crime has recently been committed here, or even attempted here, that the place will soon be crawling with cops; cops who will be very interested to know who she is and just what she’s doing here. If that happens, her “Oh, I’m just waiting for the rest of my carpool to get here, officer” story will not fly.

She needs to make a decision, and quickly. Should she run down to the river too? Or stay here and just wait, footprints-be-damned? Or should she maybe just—to use one of her father’s favorite expressions—”get the fuck out of Dodge”? That last choice would certainly have consequences; it would screw a lot of other things up. Jesus, if only they’d thought- or she’d thought, to plan an alternate meeting point, just in case the original one went to shit, as this one seems about to.

She looks toward the river. Then at the footprints. Then toward the river again…

Oh Hell, I can’t let someone die like that.

She reaches for the door handle-

But just then, a set of headlights swings down from the off ramp behind her. She hopes against hope that they will turn right at the service road and head away, but she knows in heart that they won’t.

And they don’t. The lights instead angle left, toward the park entrance. Toward her.

Shit! Shit, shit!

She debates running off toward the river anyway. Whoever he lights belong to- they won’t be going anywhere. Hell, a cop will probably run after her- probably try to help her even-once she explains what she thinks is going on.

And after that she’ll just have to hope that her “carpool” story holds up. She’s dressed the part: nice coat, nice, conservative slacks, hair done up in a nice, neat ponytail. And if the cop happens to be a man, well, the button-down blouse she’s wearing—when she undoes the top few buttons—looks “nice” too.

Unfortunately however, the approaching vehicle, she can see, is no police car. It isn’t even a car; the headlights are far too high off of the ground. It is a truck. Probably Stoney’s truck. That stupid, jacked up pickup he’d been bragging about. She watches it slew around in a wide arc as it enters the parking lot, barely muffled exhaust blatting out of its smokestack pipes.

Yes, that has to be him. She’s only met him in person once before, but she can tell; he’d struck her right away as the kind of kid who’d do something stupid like this. And who’d be stupid enough to do it at a time like now.

He’ll probably have that gigantic Swedish guy with him too. Arn. Who looks like he should’ve found fame as a pro wrestler, but instead ended up as the right-hand thug to a very lucky, over privileged little scumbag.

She looks once again at the river. Time is running out, might already have run out. Had whoever-it-was heard the truck? Would they turn toward the sound of it and come running for help? Then what would she do? Stoney would probably shoot whoever-it-was just for the Hell of it, because he is also stupid enough to do something like that at a time like this. She can even hear what he’d say-

“Cain’t have no witnesses!”

Or had the sound of people screwing around in the snow with some hot-rodded truck been the last straw, literally sending whoever-it-was over the edge? In her mind she can see the poor, hapless soul already floating down the river, already stiffening, dying of hypothermia.

Or…

Or, or, or; there are too many damned “or”s, too many possibilities. Too many ways for things to go wrong. She imagines the cops again, rolling up “hot” on what they think is a fresh crime scene, only to find… surprise, surprise… her, and now also her motley little, known-criminal crew. If that happens, you can bet your ass the carpool story won’t hold up, “nice” blouse or no. If, that is, Stoney doesn’t just open up on the cops first and get them all killed. Her included.

What am I doing here? What do I do? Shit! Shit! Think!

But before she can, the truck pulls up behind her, its rumbling exhaust vibrates even the BMW’s well-insulated interior. Then it cuts left and pulls in perpendicular to the car’s rear. Its engine shuts down not a second later, before the truck has even came to a full stop, and with no discernible delay, she hears, but can’t see, it’s doors open and then slam shut again. It sounds like Stoney is in a hurry.

So this is it- too late to run now. She should have when she’d had the chance, but now that chance is gone. Because she knows that if she tries anything now, especially something like running off into the darkness, Stoney will suspect a double-cross (for good reason; he’s apparently pissed a lot of dangerous people off in his 24 years) and probably shoot her just as easily as he would some stranger/potential witness come running out of the snowy darkness.

Both of the BMW’s rear doors open simultaneously and both men get in. She feels the car’s suspension sag appreciably under the weight and then readjust itself. That has to be Arn- she looks in the rearview at her new passengers. Yes, there he is, and my God is he big- scary big. Were he to reach forward with one of his meaty hands and put it to her thin throat-

Yet even with that vision burning fresh in her mind, she just can’t stop thinking of the footprints. She looks out into the snow again and then off into the darkness. The prints have begun to soften and lose their definition under the steady accumulation, but she can still see them. A now semi-vague line of pockmarks. They bother her in so many ways…

Stoney’s voice brings her eyes back to the rearview.

“Alright, let’s roll. That is, if this fat German turd can even get out of its own way in this shit. I’m surprised you even made it here. You people don’t have any four-bys for shit like this?”

She tries not to look back out into the snow before answering him, but when she does, her voice still sounds distracted, even to her own ears.

“The car will be fine. It… It has traction control.”

“Traction con-trol? The fuck’s that?”

“It’s uh, complicated…” She looks sideways again out into the snow.

“Still ain’t no four-by.”

“The car will be fine. It’s-” She begins to turn her eyes back to the windshield, when-

Wait… Did she just see something move?

Stoney doesn’t seem to have noticed anything. “Well alright then, sweet cheeks, let’s fuckin’ roll.”

“Yes,” she agrees in a still-distant voice, “lets get-” Oh Jesus. Something is moving. A dark shape against the deeper darkness, low on the ridge out by the river. Is someone crawling-

“Well? The fuck are you waiting for? Let’s get-”

SMASH-BOOM! -the rear window on Stoney’s side of the car suddenly explodes inward and bullets begin to hammer in through the BMW’s passenger side. She hears the metallic PUNK! PUNK! noises of their passage through the car’s rear door and the hard THWACK! sounds of them hitting their marks. Cold air and snow suddenly pour in through the fresh holes they’ve left behind.

Stoney starts to scream, but then stops. His voice instead devolves into a wet gurgle. Gardenia’s ducked down by now and can no longer see the rearview, but when she looks backward between the seats, she can see what has happened; most of Stoney’s throat and lower jaw have been shot away.

A fact Stoney doesn’t get much time to contemplate, because not a moment later several bullets turn his head into a bloody, caved-in mess. What remains of him slumps sideways, pushed along by the vicious, thudding impacts of ever more bullets.

Arn doesn’t fare any better. When the first rounds hit he’d tried to bail out from his side of the car. But he never made it. She can’t see exactly what has happened to him, but she can see one of his big legs, splayed awkwardly across the BMW’s floor, twitching (now) mindlessly.

Or maybe it’s just twitching under the impacts of the bullets that still tear through the BMW’s back door; in the chaos, she can’t be certain. Whoever is doing the shooting seems to want very much to make sure that both men in the back seat aren’t just killed, but also destroyed. Whoever-it-is seems to-

And that’s when the thought hits her. It strikes with such force that she twitches, in much the same way that Arn’s leg is twitching behind her.

Whoever-it-is…

She thinks again about the tire tracks in the snow, and of the footprints that seem to sprint away from them. Then about the movement, the direction of fire…

Oh God… it makes sense.

She does a brief set of last-second calculations, and reaches the same conclusion that an FBCI ballistics technician will reach about six hours later.

“Whoever-it-is” had gotten out of a car not long before she’d arrived, and indeed run through the snow and out into the darkness. There, they’d found a good spot on the ridge above the riverbank. A good, hidden spot, with an excellent view of the parking lot, and good coverage of both exits. A perfect spot from which to spring an ambush…

Still ducking down, she floors the BMW. Its engine responds immediately, winding up to redline with a muffled roar.

The car, however, doesn’t move. Shit! She realizes that it’s still in PARK. She fumbles blindly for the shift lever, finds it and yanks it backward to DRIVE. The engine revs again- but the car still doesn’t move. The tires are just spinning in the snow. A yellow light flashes up in the instrument panel: “TRAC-TRAC-TRAC…”. The car is trying, but in such deep snow, traction is nonexistent… Even with—she hears Stoney say it— traction con-trol. Zero-times-zero still equals zero.

Realizing what she is trying to do, whoever-it-is shifts their aim to the BMW’s front end and begins to pummel it with as much fire as they’d put into the rear. The front door’s glass also blows inward, and she begins to feel snow skirling across her face as the fresh torrent of bullets punches hole after hole through the rest of the car’s front end. She hears a tire blow out. Hears a warning chime start to sound from the car’s dashboard. The still-racing engine begins to make a terrible, hammering clank-sound, and then an acrid, oily smoke starts blowing in through the car’s cabin vents.

Then the shooting stops. Only for a moment, and probably just because whoever-it-is needs to change magazines, but it still stops. Just long enough for her to hear her father’s voice, one last time-

BAM! WE ARE NOW DEAD!

-and to think of locomotives.

Party Balloons (A Short Dark Story)

“Ah, ’tis better to have loved and lost…”

Yeah, tell that to Diane…

1

They amazed her, the things she always found after a party. After it had swelled, like a thumping, wild, tide throughout the entire house, and then finally receded.

They made her feel like some kind of urban beach comber.

Of course, her beach was never like something you’d find on the coast of Tahiti, or Playa del Carmen, or Catalina Island. When the tide withdrew from her beach, it didn’t leave any ornate seashells or sand-polished pieces of driftwood behind.

No, her beach felt more like Cabrillo, in L.A. County, or that other one, south of Hollywood… Avino? No, Avalon. Or maybe Doheny—

Fucking Doheny… The Beach Boys wouldn’t dare go “Surfin’ Safari” there these days.

Because her beach was usually left littered instead with half-empty, lipstick-stained SOLO cups, bottles (with no messages inside; only soggy cigarettes) and trash.

Scattered amongst that, she’d usually find things of a more… intimate nature: typically panties, and maybe a few bras. Nothing expensive, mind you; never any Bordelle or LaPerla, not even the occasional Vicky’s Secret. It was always cheap stuff, and thus expendable; the kind worn by girls who expected to lose their underwear. As if the possibility were just a sort of accepted occupational hazard.

Expendable underwear, for expendable girls”. What a slogan that would make. The women’s lib movement would probably shit a collective brick if anyone-

Although…

Really, if marketed right, it would probably sell… and like hotcakes too. Cheap underwear for girls who want to feel cheap, because cheap is nasty, and nasty is sexy. So why not stop beating around the bush (ha-ha, beating around the bush, that’s a funny one! Let’s give Diane a big round of applause, folks…), and just make sexy cheap?

In any case, cheap or not there they’d be, various women’s delicates littering the various parts of her ad hoc beach, like the washed up remains of some shipwrecked libertine party boat.

She imagined a rescue plane circling overhead, looking down on them. She knew just what it would report.

FLASH TRAFFIC: WRECK SIGHTED OFF THE COAST OF DIANE’S BIG, EMPTY, MANSION OF A HOUSE (STOP) NO APPARENT SURVIVORS (STOP) CHEAP (BUT SEXY) DEBRIS VISIBLE FROM AIR (STOP)

That thought however, earned no applause from her internal studio audience. Oh, once upon a time she might have found it amusing; after all, it made for a pretty good analogy: the beach, the wreckage…

The problem was with the “debris”. It just wasn’t all sexy, was it? Certainly the empty cups and bottles never were. Neither were some of the other items that she typically found. In fact, those were often quite disgusting: used condoms (when she was lucky enough not to just find crusted smears of jizz), men’s underwear… even vibrators (sometimes with jizz still on them, sometimes with worse).

Don’t forget the other problem with your clever little analogy: the part about there being no survivors… That’s not very funny either, is it? Sounds a little too much like-

And Jesus, the drugs– She had to admit, the drugs were getting out of hand. At first it had just been booze and weed, but lately she’d been finding more and more needles. Those, and other shit: pills, empty vials, etc. that she couldn’t even identify.

Whatever- in the end, it all had to go.

Although she’d been forced to get rid of it herself this time; the cleaners had basically told her to go fuck herself after the last party. The needles scared them too, she guessed.

So she’d picked up the bottles and the cups, the condoms, the needles (she’d double-bagged those after carefully bending their sharp ends over; she didn’t want the garbage men to get stuck by one), and the three pairs of panties that she’d found on the Aston, out in the garage (although for some reason, she’d left the smudge marks their owners had left on the car’s long, black hood).

Yes, she’d cleaned up all of it.

Except for the balloons…

2

“Light your party up with smiles before the first guest steps foot through the door, thanks to these Happy Face Light-Up Party Balloons.”

So said one of the empty cellophane packages that she’d found. It had been rolled up and shoved in the top of a La Manche bottle, like a cheap plastic flower carelessly stuck in a priceless Ming vase.

And they really did light up. They had little LEDs in them that, when you blew up the balloon, began to glow. The LEDs, in turn, accentuated each balloon’s other namesake feature: a smiling Happy Face.

She didn’t know who’d brought them, or the oxygen cylinder that had apparently been used to blow them up (and to give willing party-goers a quick high, she assumed), but the happy-faced, light-up party balloons had been a big hit, and so they too had all been carried out on the party’s tide. All—according to the packages she’d found—five hundred-plus of them.

Unfortunately, and as Diane had long ago learned, being a hit doesn’t mean being loved.

Just like money can’t buy happiness. Especially when it comes from…

So, despite their popularity, when the party’s tide receded most of the balloons had still been left behind. Right along with the rest of the debris, she thought. With me.

3

Sixteen hours: that was how long their packaging had promised they’d glow.

Yet even after three days, they’d kept glowing. And at night, they’d really made the place look like a beach; one on which a vast swarm of fat, bioluminescent jellyfish had become stranded.

So for the next three nights she’d sat, with drink-in-hand and more nearby, on a heavy Adirondack chair that she’d dragged in screeching across the polished mahogany floors from the veranda, parked in the middle of the cavernous master bathroom where she could dip her feet in its ocean-like Jacuzzi. She’d sat in the dark, with the glow of her jellyfish all around and stretching off into the house’s considerable distance.

And each night, after the drink-in-hand was long gone and there was nothing left nearby, she’d stumbled through the house, through them, punting them aside with rubbery, THUNK! noises as she went for more.

They hadn’t minded the rough treatment though. After all, they were pals, she and her light-up, happy-faced jellyfish. Best buds. And they knew she appreciated them- hadn’t she made sure to let them know that? Every night she had. Oh, her speech might have been a little slurred by then, but still, she had let them know.

“I love, you guysss… You make these trips… back to the bar… feel like… like wandering through just another party… and not so much like… like… like…”

Her breath had always hitched there, every night, because what always came next had always come hard.

“-and not so much like wandering through a dark, fucking empty house. You make- Oh Jesus, look at me, I’m crying…” The bar was backgrounded by a wide expanse of mirrored glass, and beyond the neatly arrayed bottles she’d seen her reflection streaming tears.

“You make… You make everything look… pret… pret… pretty, again.”

At which point she’d always turned around and looked behind herself, at the parted sea of balloons that she’d left in her wake.

To imagine every one of them, on both sides and all throughout the rest of the house, slowly turning to her… and smiling a little wider.

4

But now… she looked around and sighed.

Now they too had to go.

Because even though they’d kept glowing long past their guarantee, every night they’d grown dimmer and dimmer. Until last night, when they’d barely glowed at all.

And this morning, they’d begun to die.

The first one went in the kitchen-

POP!

Then, two minutes later, another went in the master bathroom-

POP!

She found it, shredded and flat, with its dim little LED heart lying next to it on the cold marble. Her eyes welled up at the sight.

Then another went-

POP!

–in the garage, under the smudged Aston. Then in the bedroom. Then again in the kitchen.

POP! POP!

Suddenly, she realized: this would go on, and on, and on, for a long time, with her little smiling friends slowly dimming out and dying one at a time in erratic spits and spats.

She couldn’t let that happen. She wouldn’t be able to take it, all those mini-deaths. It would remind her too much of-

POP!

So she set about the house, gathering up the balloons from wherever she found them, and bringing them to the kitchen. Back and forth she went, over and over, hurrying against the slowly building chorus of-

POP!

Until she got to the bedroom, where one last balloon lay under the nightstand. She reached for it-

And noticed her picture of Jack and the kids… How had she missed that- for three whole days?

The glass was cracked.

No-

POP!

One of those goddamned, motherfucking, drunk assholes… they must have knocked it over. Those-

Oh no… Please no…

She snatched the picture up and held it in front of her face.

No… No, no, no.

The glass wasn’t just cracked; it was crushed, as if someone had stepped on it. Worse, one of the shards had scratched a jagged white line across the picture itself; right through Jack’s face.

No… oh God no, that’s the only one I-

POP!

Tears welled up in her eyes again, and she let out a wet sob.

Oh my God, what am I-

POP!

She stared at the picture, as if waiting for one of the smiling faces to finish the question for her, or, God-willing, even answer it.

But no answer came.

So, she put the picture back, gently, on the nightstand.

POP!

POP!

She picked up the last balloon and stumbled, crying, back to the kitchen, where the other balloons she’d gathered lay in a hip-deep mass that covered the entire floor. She waded through them, gently this time, to one of the long stainless-steel countertops. She drew a long knife from the rack that sat atop of it.

Etched on the knife’s blade were the words “Gunther-Wilhelm Executive Chef Series, X50CrMoV15 High Carbon German Steel, Ice-Hardened”. She didn’t know what most of the words meant, but the knife had been ridiculously expensive, just like all the other shit she’d bought to furnish the place, so hopefully they meant “sharp”. Its edge glimmered.

From there she went to the trash can. She opened it, and then looked at the balloon in her hand. A tear spattered down on the balloon’s silly smile. She watched it run down the balloon’s latex cheek…

Until a moment later, when she turned it face-down, and…

She turned and picked up another. This time she didn’t look at its face. Then another… and another. Faster and faster she worked, dropping each one into the can without looking.

At some point she sliced her hand, badly, and blood began spattering down with her tears.

But she didn’t notice; she just picked up another balloon… and then another, and another, and another.

Faster and faster

“Calypso 1”

“Calypso 1”, Charcoal/Ink on Savage Wide Tone Paper. This piece depicts the main character, “Calypso” from my work-in-progress “Villains and Birdsong”. I started this piece while I fleshed out the idea for the story, and as I worked on the art piece, it became clear to me who the story character would be.
“…She slides the mirror-lensed sunglasses down her nose and sweeps her eyes across the meadow.
Reference Photo. Took this one in the ghost town of Centralia, PA.

Ho-ly shit…

Is she really seeing this? She snags an errant lock of hair away from her face, tucks it behind one ear, and surveys the meadow again. Finally, she smiles. Yes, she’s seeing it alright.

She hadn’t thought meadows like this even existed in Kentucky, but here this one is. It stretches, almost endless, looking as wide and grand as any of the others she’s seen so far in say, Nebraska, or Wyoming, or even Kansas.

“This is perfect.”

And oh, the sound of it! It has the sound of something just so absolutely abuzz with life. What must be hundreds- no, thousands of birds sing in the distant trees.

Birdsong. She chuckles. BIRDSONGTotally perfect.

All while perhaps a million crickets chirrup in the tall grass. The tall-

Wait, what the Hell…? Green grass? Her smile falters a little. But I thought Kentucky grass was supposed to look blue?

She squints. Perhaps the sunglasses have messed with her color perception? Are her eyes somehow deceiving her?

A moment later however, she decides that they’re not. Hell, they can’t be, she realizes. Sunglasses or no, her vision is always perfect, full spectrum, right up to 1025 hertz. Therefore, although each blade is tipped with very small, sapphire-blue flowers, the grass itself is indeed green. She scans it more closely: WAVELENGTH=527.39 NANOMETERS. FREQUENCY=533.85 TERRAHERTZ. WAVELENGTH=2.27 ELECTRON VOLTS. Yes, a rich, almost emerald green, which swishes and sighs in great, gentle waves, all beneath a mellow late-afternoon sun and a dazzling, almost cloudless blue sky.

“Well son of a bitch. Live and learn I guess.” A disappointed hmmph escapes her nostrils.

But then she brightens again. Who cares what color the grass is? It’s still perfect. Just like the meadow she and Father and the other girls had spent so many happy days in back when they were young.

Whatever might come next, happiness or heartbreak, she couldn’t have planned a better setting for it herself.

She gets to work. SNAP! Flutter…

The picnic blanket, made of a heavy, red and white checkered cloth, spreads itself wide upon the late-summer breeze. She holds the blanket tight, lest the breeze suddenly become a wind and try to pull it from her thin fingers.

She’ll just have to watch her nails. She’s been so busy lately, so caught up in things, that she just hasn’t paid enough attention to them. They’ve gotten so long, long enough that their points have even begun to curve sharply downward, and if she’s forced to hold the blanket too tight, she will most certainly-

Sure enough, the wind does pick up, and pulls the blanket taut in her hands. She feels her nails dig into the fabric, feels their tips straining against it, ready to plunge through, or worse, rip it to shreds. All in a futile attempt to save it.

The words to a song-

“HOLD ON LOOSELY”, .38 SPECIAL, COPYRIGHT 1979-1980, RELEASED 1981 ON “WILD-EYED SOU-

-that she’d heard-

     JULY 3, 2019, 22:19, TOPEKA, KAN-

-on the radio-

FM FREQUENCY 107.10, CALL SIGN WLVK, TRANSMITTER COORDI-

“The Hell, Gorgeous! Stop it!” She sighs. The words-

Oh fuck it. The song’s words don’t matter anymore; Gorgeous has beaten the emotion behind them to death. Again

Meanwhile, the wind continues to pull. “Oh to Hell with this…” She casts a wicked grin up at the sky. “So help me, if you make me tear this fucking blanket, even one little hole… I will rip YOU a new-”

She feels the small pulse leave her body.

(Thump)

And yes, maybe it’s stupid, or weird, or perhaps even a little crazy to “talk” to, or perhaps more accurately, threaten the weather. As if it’s a truly cognizant thing that can be cowed, but-

The wind becomes a breeze again, and the picnic blanket resumes its gentle flutter, while the few clouds that hang above her change their shape, subtly, as if to pretend: We meant to do that.

Crazy. But it works.

“Krissy 2″, 16″ x 20”, Charcoal/Ink on Savage Paper
“My name is Curtis Greene. Today is Friday, October 27, 2007.
I’m writing this for you, Krissy, because I still love you. You might not realize it yet, but this is an act of love.
However-

I’m also writing this for Pennsylvania State Police Detective Lucas Mitchell.
Just in case…”

“Krissy 2” depicts the character Kristina Lund, from my novel, “Krissy’s Notebook”, doing what she does worst. The excerpts are the opening lines of the new draft that I’m working on. I really liked the original, but felt that the story could still be better. Time will tell, but for now…

“So, hello Krissy, it’s me, your loving, devoted husband. By now I guess you realize what I’ve done, and by my mention of Detective Mitchell in the note above, you’re probably trying to figure out what I intend to do.
All I can say for now is, try not to worry. Remember, I still love you. That statement not only means what it says, but it also means that I haven’t done anything rash.
At least not yet.
No, whatever happens next will largely depend on you. So don’t you do anything rash yet either, please. Read this first. Read every last word, and remember- please remember, especially when you get to the end: I still love you.
But I think even you’ll have to admit that what you’ve done here- I mean, Jesus, Sweetness, this is pretty bad.
So I had to do something bad too.
And this is it.
By the way- I’ve already hidden all the knives, along with any other sharp objects I could think of.
And your Da’s gun, well- this is a big house. Good luck finding that.
Now read.
(Please.)

Reference Photo

“Circe 2”, 16 x 24 Ink/Charcoal on Savage Paper

“Mister Dustman hadn’t screamed. Even after he’d gotten elbow deep- Hell, even shoulder-deep into that blender and much of what used to be his arm had overflowed onto the table.”

“Circe 2” and the related “Circe 1″ are big (16″ x 24” actual) visual studies of a character I’m working on for an art book. You can tell just by looking at her that she’s “something special” And the excerpt below is, I believe, quite telling as well. Here, she’s recalled by another character:

“His eyes had sparkled and popped and jiggled around in their sockets from all the pain, but he’d stayed quiet. While See-See had just sat there, watching him and smiling her sweet, See-See smile. Sensing his pain, but not feeling it herself.

She couldn’t feel it, even if she’d wanted to; all of her pain receptors had been removed by Birdsong at birth (or had never been there in the first place; the ghouls had never told her which). She could feel everything else, but she’d been numb to pain.

Because Patricia/Birdsong had wanted See-See to view pain as objectively as possible, so that she might inflict it as remorselessly as possible. As clinically. According only to what the algorithms in her head told her, and based solely upon the detailed readouts scrolling, endless, across the backs of her eyeballs.   

Calypso’s readouts are minimized at the moment and parked at the far edge of her peripheral vision. Because as See-See had discovered, even the readouts can be distracting. And unnecessary, really, once one gets the feel for all of the outward signs that those readouts typically quantify. Heart rate, perspiration, pupil dilation, skin temperature: they’re all plainly visible to anyone, even a normal guy like Gary, if one looks carefully enough. And as far as pain infliction, well, a scream is a scream is a scream. No readouts required. Which is why Caly’s readouts are now just a few pixels at the bottom-left corner of her left eye.

Where Birdsong had fucked See-See though was in never giving her that option. She’d been forced to view her entire life, twenty-four, seven, three-sixty-five, through those readouts. They could be blurred and looked past, but even then, it was like viewing the world through a piece of clear glass that had been overlaid with a moving fine print. The readouts were her vision, in the same way that a dog sees in black and white, or a bat “sees” with sound, or certain fish can see in ultraviolet. One might go so far as to say that See-See had viewed the world in shades of pain.”