Posts Tagged ‘author’

MansoniaThis is my story, and I swear it’s all true.          As night fell, the day’s heat lingered and rippled on the asphalt of the narrow mountain road. Mosquitos spun lazy circles over still puddles of sprinkler runoff, not quite awake enough and not quite hungry enough to go looking for food just yet, still finding their wings after the stillness of another hot afternoon. At the dog end of a summer’s day, the night creatures stirred to consciousness, emerging from their dens and warrens, to seek out whatever treats the night had to offer. A coyote gamboled onto the warm road, sounding quiet yips and barks to the others, that the time to hunt had come, that the night was theirs. It was to be a good night for pack hunters, those too cowardly, too weak, to prowl on their own. 
Far below, down in the valley, lights flickered on and the city came to life, reborn, shimmering, as the night shift knuckled the sleep from of its eyes and came out of the houses and apartments, down from the trees and up from the sewers, predators and prey alike, all seeking that elusive something that made this town, this city, the destination of dreams and the depositor of nightmares.
      The city erupted into life; radios blared from open windows and doors, as neighbors gathered in yards and garages, unfolding lawn chairs and cracking open beers, to meet and talk and laugh and love and hate and fight and fuck and live…and die. This would be a night that, once over and done, would never be forgotten, a permanent stain on the still-idyllic city that had already known more tragedy than any hundred others.
      Down the road a piece, a family-friendly haunted mansion greeted guests for the first time while, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Four Horsemen were photographed at a zebra crossing; a momentous day for all, in a year that saw the ascension of King Dick, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock and Altamont, the return of Elvis and the departure of Brian Jones, the rise of the Weathermen and Zodiac, Kissinger’s failure to broker peace in Vietnam, and the reappearance of the draft.
      From out of the desert, chugging along lazily, a ‘59 Fairlane rambled up the highway, dinged and dented, its original cream color bleached by the harshness of the Santa Susana sunshine, fenders mismatched and spotted with rust and primer, creaking with every shimmy and shake of its beat-down frame, its occupants tripping balls on some high-power lysergic nightmare fuel, three girls singing and one boy driving, passing a joint back and forth, without a care in the world. They were the masters of the universe, those four; they were legion, and their names would soon become the stuff of legend, such was the divine mission upon which they had been sent, from God’s mouth to their ears, from the low desert to the high mountain, on a quest to slay dragons.

    Young demons, sent to do the devil’s work.


August 9, 1969

      I woke up in the canoe that Doug and Mary had kept in the pool at Pickfair, half-in and half-out, with a mean motherfucker of a hangover that only worsened as the rising sun hit the water, the brilliant splashes of light drilling a hole straight into my brainpan, like those nasty worms that sit at the bottom of the ocean, waiting, just waiting, for some dumbass fish to swim along and then they strike, strike like lightning, and then it’s so long sucker, your dance card just got punched, and you’re on the way to the big empty, baby, no-tomorrow-style.
From the chapel, the big bells rang, so loud they damn near cracked my melon, my eyes squeezed shut against the pain of the newborn day.
“Sunday morning, praise the dawning, my ass,” I grunted, struggling to pull myself out of the pool, green water sluicing down the legs of my torn and dirty jeans, my feet filthy as though they hadn’t been left soaking for god knows how many hours. I crawled out of the canoe, and onto the cement that lined the pool, leaning back against its coolness, in the quiet peacefulness of the valley, where so many good memories had been birthed. I guess that’s why I ended up here, of all places, after a long night’s wickedness.
“Morning, Doug,” I said, wiping a weary hand across my brow, feeling in my skin that it was going to be another hot one, just as it had been yesterday, and last night. So goddamn hot. The sound of sirens in the distance pricked up my ears, the tattered remnants of my conscience hinting that I might have had something to do with whatever Johnny Law was up to on this fine and sunny Summer morning. It felt like his ghost was looking down at me, in that haughty way that a person might look down upon an old friend who’d just awoken in the swimming pool of their home, and may or may not have pissed in it. Probably by accident. Whatever; not remembering gave me plausible deniability. The sirens rose and fell, rose and fell.
“Well don’t look at me,” I laughed sheepishly. “Ain’t any blood on my hands.”
And then I saw the blood on my hands.


      “What’d I do this time, Doug?” I asked, feigning exasperation. “Jesus, I can’t take my sorry ass anywhere!” I crawled back down to the pool and washed the blood off, noticing chunky bits of something beneath my fingernails, pulling embedded hairs from the open cuts on my knuckles. Whatever I’d done, I’d had a hell of a time. Good for me.
I shambled back down to Hollywood Boulevard as a matching set of rollers roared up Gower Gulch, their sirens tearing my mind to shreds, so bad that I screamed in pain, howled at the sound of them, so weird to hear so many on a Sunday morning, even here in the City of Angels, where Satan kept a penthouse suite on the Miracle Mile, and dreams died, strangled by bedsheets at the glorious old Roosevelt. When I stopped, my head was clearer, and it started coming back to me.


      I’d hitched up with the little guy a few months earlier; he’d been busking at Hollywood and Vine, playing for pennies from Minnesota tourists who still bought into the dream that their fabulous La-La Land vacation would actually have them rubbing elbows with all the bright, shining stars in this most mythical of locales, the reality being much more earthy, and by ‘earthy’ I mean dirty, filthy, scabrous, hooked on goofballs and probably carrying a weapons-grade case of the clap.
So there he was, like a pint-size Jesus with a beat-up old six-string, three hippie girls kneeling on the sidewalk, singing backup to whatever song he was mangling, suede hat upturned on the sidewalk, optimistic in its purpose as a tip-catcher, nothing but a tattered dollar bill inside, and me giving even odds that he’d put it there himself as a cue to the passers-by, as if they’d have no idea what to do with an empty hat in front of a grubby little troubadour at the most famous corner in the world.
Some ridiculous lyric about garbage dumps came out of him, like a caged cat that couldn’t wait to get free and about as tuneful, eyes wide and unblinking, trying to lock on to each who passed with what I’m sure he thought was wholesome, heartfelt intensity but which, in reality, came off as kind of sad and made him look more than a little retarded.
But the girls, that’s what really turned me on. They were hot, sexy in the way that lady down the street with all the cats and the living room filled with newspapers was sexy: dangerous, strange, possibly demented, and absolutely unhygienic. When Cat Lady stood on the front porch and yanked up her tattered skirt while screaming at airplanes about Communists and Kennedys and submarines you didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see, but you completely had to look, and in doing so you died a little, part of your soul lost to something so awful and profane that you wanted to go to church and bathe in holy water and dry-hump the confessional until the priest clubbed you over the head with Hail Marys just to get your nasty ass out of there, but damn son, you’d look again when the opportunity presented itself, sure as shit.
And yeah, I’d gone back and looked again, I sat on her porch and got a good, close-up look at both doors and brothers and sisters, for my sins, she took my bad self inside and did unto me things that would have made Caligula blush, and I barely minded the next day when it felt like I was pissing napalm because when you get the chance to take a walk on the wild side with a bonafide, card-carrying agent of terminal madness, you climb on top of that pile of garbage, you strap in, and you take that goddamn ride.
The girls were kneeling on the sidewalk, clapping in time with the music or at least giving it the old college try, which was about as close to college as any of them would get, aside from getting g-banged by the chess team, their white girl’s sense of rhythm mercilessly wrecking a simple four-four beat, tunelessly chanting along with Wee Jesus, looking for all the world like castoffs from some low-budget prairie movie, like the crap that rolled out of Monogram or Republic back in the old days, the better days.
They were dirty, unkempt, unwashed, uncultured, and uncivilized, with smudges and streaks of dirt on their faces and fur on their calves, and my surprise that they were capable of human speech was genuine, so convinced was I that these were prime examples of feral womanhood, raised by wolves, brought up bad to be treated worse, and yet I will admit there was something about them, each of them separately, all of them collectively, that made my nether parts go all aflutter, twitterpated, as it were. I believe, in hindsight, I may have a thing for filthy women. I don’t know where it comes from, or why it’s there, but there it is. You can have Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, she’s all yours; for me, the wild-ass barnyard halfwit is the one that makes my compass go full magnetic north.
That’s why Doug and I got along so well; we were attracted to polar opposites and never once in competition for the same piece of strange. He had Mary, America’s Sweetheart, and I was gutter diving for trashcan tramps. I couldn’t see the fun in virtue any more than he could see the attraction of going a-hoggin’. To each their own, yeah? Anyway, Doug’s dead and Mary’s drunk and angry, making a hermit of herself up at the main house, releasing the hounds at me for simply dropping by to say a quick hello and pass out in her pool. Hell, I’d even brought a bottle to accompany the one I’d already drank, but she’d have none of it. Still pissed about that thing back in ’33. Wasn’t even my fault, that time. I think.
I miss Doug. He was a good guy, and a hell of a friend. Thirty years gone, and I still miss him.
Fuck, where was I?
Right, dirty filthy hippie chicks.


      So one of them eyeballed me and I was done for; her eyes dropped to my belt buckle or thereabouts, and I looked at Little Guy, and he just grinned and nodded, and that was that. I loitered until they finished, having made little more than the dollar that was already in the hat, but looking like they’d just conquered the world over a couple bucks in spare change. Something’s better than nothing when nothing’s all you’ve got.
So we got to talking, and it was clear from the get-go that theirs was a man’s world, and the Little Guy was the world to them, as evidenced by their constant fawning over him, touching him, smoothing his hair, stooping a little so that he appeared taller than them, but that was all part of the gig. For as often as they called him by name, they also called him Jesus, and he really got off on that, believing as he did that he was the Son of Man. He told me his name, and I told him mine.
“Now we know each other’s true name, brother,” he said slyly. “A bond is formed, and ain’t nothin’ any man can do that’ll break that bond.” Oh little Charlie, I thought to myself. If only you had the real measure of me; if only you knew half of what you think you know.
They had a beat-up old school bus parked around the corner and as we rode out of town, he laid down his quasi-hippie rap, us all being God’s children, what’s mine is yours, and on and on, as we left LA and made our way to the desert. They had a commune, he told me, a place where they could groove on nature, without the constant hassle of the pigs, because although every single person on Mother Earth loved him, the pigs, man, those damn pigs just loved to bust up their beautiful trip, because they felt threatened by him, his essence, his reality.
The more he talked, the more he lapsed into yardbird jive, bad English and colored slang, peppered with jailhouse posturing, so I balled up and asked him straight out.
“Where’d you do your time, man?” I asked casually, hoping to express my sincere curiosity without any tone of judgment.
“Shit, man,” he replied with a laugh, high and reedy, “You went straight to it, didn’t you? Well that’s okay, my brother, for as I am all things, so too am I a charter member of the brotherhood of the unjust, the hopeless, wretched, tempest-tossed, and ain’t no man alive who can say I ain’t done my time.
“I been in one kind of jail or another since I was a kid, and my mama traded me to a pervert kiddie-fucker for a pitcher of beer. She was a whore, you know, so it was just business, and that’s a business I know a lot about, learned what I learned from my man Karpis up at McNeill, now I’m runnin’ my own stable, these girls’ll do any goddamn thing I tell ‘em to, and they come back to me every time, wantin’ more.”
So he reckoned himself a pimp, catering to a base that wanted them young and stupid, lost, dirty in every way. Fine by me, I thought, so long as I got to take a run at them when we got to wherever the hell we were going.
Turned out we were going to an old ranch out in the desert, a place I knew well from the old days, back when they were shooting Westerns at a furious pace. This old coot owned the place, made up to look like an old west town, and the surrounding land had stood in for just about every part of the geography of Hollywood’s version of the cowboy days. Only thing is that now, they’re not making many Westerns anymore, and when they do, they’re going out to real locations, rather than a run-down, bullshit, plywood version of it. These days, they needed authenticity to sell the fantasy.
So we hop out of the bus, and Little Fella struts around like he owns the place. He points out the kitchen, the nursery, the buildings where they lived, and barks out a command for one of the girls to go fetch the rest. That’s the funny thing about communes: no matter how much they preach about love and equality and freedom, it always comes down to one guy who tells everyone else what to do.
And ‘The Ranch,’ for as much as he built it up on the bus, was dilapidated, falling apart, its best days so far behind it that it isn’t so much as a speck of dust in the rearview mirror, and this idiot is casting himself as the Messiah for what turns out to be a couple dozen drifters and runaways, half-wits with one foot in the sewer and the other in the grave, just one or two bad decisions away from making fuck flicks in the Valley for a sawbuck or a couple tabs of window pane. Or, as I saw it, a fertile field for a special sort of chaos.

      Go ahead and cast that first stone, if it’ll help you sleep at night.


      That night, the Family, as they called themselves, laid out their version of a feast, food scavenged from only the finest dumpsters and trash bins of Los Angeles, poorly cooked or re-heated, all the girls grooving and doting on Charlie, all the boys digging the girls’ scene. Though most of the ranch hands didn’t truck with the hippies on their claim, a couple were there, passing around joints of Mexican stink weed, the cheapest shit around. A few bikers rolled in after dark, obviously there for a quick hug and tug from the girls, payment directly to the Son of Man by way of crank and acid.
I kept an eye on Charlie, watching his deliver his jailhouse-pimp-hippie screed about how the age of materialism had created a void in human consciousness, how the fathers and grandfathers had stripped women of the life spirit and all he wanted was to show the women how to love and be loved and find their place in this awful world of men. It was his divine mission, telling women what to do, in order for them to find their place in the world, as he explained exactly what that was.
Inwardly I laughed. You don’t last long in this world without a decent bullshit detector, and mine has been honed and tuned a lot more than most, although to be fair, a blind and deaf six-year-old could catch the curve of his rap from a mile away. I saw Charlie slipping his ‘family’ tabs of acid before diving headlong into his messianic, I’m-gonna-save-you-from-The-Man-by-being-The-Man boogie, and I figure why not, when in Rome, you know?
So I drop acid with them, and soon enough, his church service turns into a full-on orgy, only Charlie’s directing everyone who to partner with and he’s just sitting back, watching the whole thing, leering at the writhing, sweaty, fucked-up mass of humanity he’s created, chanting some shit about how they’re all his children, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, all that is is as it was, all that was will be again, surrender the soul, cease to resist, cease to exist, and on and on, incomprehensible hippie nonsense and it’s all I can do to not bust a gut and laugh at him, but I’m more concerned with laying some pipe with this trippy brunette who calls herself Sadie, and finally getting an answer to my lifelong question about how it would be to get it on with a real life, fire-breathing psychopath, and I cannot lie, it was fucking amazing. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, even if you have to steal a helicopter and freefall into a lunatic asylum with a backpack full of Thorazine and Everclear.
After a while, all the grunting and moaning and wheezing and panting and wailing starts to die down, and they all fall asleep then and there, without worry that they were cementing themselves together with all their spilled fluids. I extricated myself from the mass, and sat on a table, looking down at them while I thumbed a match and lit a cigarette. It was then that I looked up and there’s Charlie, staring at me with that same, beatific grin, trying to look friendly but the smile not quite reaching his eyes in which, I now saw, a fire burned.
Honestly, he made me uneasy and that, my friend, is not something that happens every day. I reckoned he’d learned how to hide emotions from a lifetime in jail, that to show weakness, especially for someone as small as he, would be a death sentence. I quarter to no one, but in this strange little man, despite his swaggering, I saw a child, lost and alone, desperate for love and acceptance, demanding it, and building a world for himself that, however dirty, however pathetic, was his, where he was important, loved, worshiped. I saw a fertile field, into which I could sow my seeds of chaos.

      “Charlie, let’s take a walk,” I said quietly.


      Under the blue light of a full moon, we walked around the property, Charlie back in convict/preacher mode, talking big about his music, how everyone loved it and how the Beach Boys wanted to get him in the studio to cut an album, telling lies about how he played The Whiskey and The Troubadour, how he’d been in Laurel Canyon and jammed with Stills and Nash and Joni and Cass, how his music would ‘heal’ the terrible rift between parents and children, and that’s why he took them in, his precious girls, because their mommas and daddies threw them away, abused and discarded, and he found them, picked them up, and became their friend, their confidant, their parents, their God.
“Ain’t no one been there for them, but me,” he said, shuffling his feet on the hard-packed dirt, sounding for all the world like the Good Samaritan, benevolently taking in society’s castoffs, misfits, and disposable innocents, giving them all the food, love, and shelter that they never had before, and never asking anything in return, except maybe their love, their loyalty, their admiration, their worship, and their bodies, but only if they offered. He talked as though I hadn’t just witnessed him getting them all high and making them have sex with whoever he desired; I admired this quality in him, this ability to cast and re-cast himself as the moment required, without a shred of self-consciousness.
“I just need to get into that damn studio,” Charlie said, with desperation in his voice. “I figure once I get that record cut, we’ll be on easy street. I’ll buy me a big ol’ house up the canyon, I been to one where the record producer lives, big place just like that, with room for all my girls and friends and a studio in the garage to make my music.”
Talking like that, he sounded like a child, voice full of innocence and big dreams, tinged with resentment at those who had it better than he did which, truth be told, wasn’t much of a challenge. I’d been in some serious shitholes in my time, and while Spahn Ranch hadn’t been the best of places even in its heyday, it had gone to serious hell in its decline. The owner was half-dead, the property occupied by squatters, left behind to rot, just like so many people and places, as the big American Dream Factory chewed them up and spat them out, again and again.
The more he talked, the more bored I became, because there’s only so much that can be said on any subject before tedium sets in. So I tuned out, switching channels to things I liked better, things that appealed to me, but still nodding and responding to whatever the shit he was saying, as though I were still enraptured by the sheer strength of his personality. It was in the midst of this that the probing roots of a plan emerged.
Quietly at first, I began to explain to this little hillbilly how a war was coming, that it would be bigger and more important than his dreams of stardom, and that he could be the true Messiah, so much more so than he was already playing at, that a time of great darkness was coming, and he could be the one, The One, to come to bring humanity out of the darkness and into the light. I helped him understand that he already knew these things, that I only saw them in him, and by and by, he accepted the reality I was pitching, and made it his own. Just that fucking simple.


      Weeks passed strangely at the ranch; usually too damn hot to do much in the daytime, Charlie sent the girls out into the city to forage for food and handouts, leaving a couple behind to keep the property owner occupied while he went into Hollywood, plunking on his guitar and playing the part of the ersatz folk singer and hippie Jesus, but at thirty-five, he was almost closer in age to the parents they had fled than he was to his flock.
Nights were spent with the Family all together, unless Charlie decreed otherwise; there were all night ‘jam sessions’ where he played the same feeble folk songs over and over, while the girls giggled and sang backup, but there were also nights where he would make a girl, usually one of the shy or self-conscious ones, strip naked in front of the entire commune while he simultaneously praised and ridiculed her, to free her of negativity and doubt, to encourage the hive mind of the Family.
Then there were nights were he would preach for hours, and that’s when the shit got entertaining. He would rail about the pigs and their hatred of him, how the cops feared his light and essence; he would rant about the mistreatment of, as he put it, the ‘coloreds,’ and how in his vision for the world, there would be no segregation, no hatred, just him and his cosmic Family, of them disappearing into the desert while urban blacks rioted against the pigs, looting white businesses, burning cars, taking what was rightfully theirs. Then, when all the bad white people were gone or enslaved, America would become a black nation. I had only given him the rough framework; he filled it in with his own jailhouse wisdom and prejudices.
The problem, as Charlie saw it, was that blacks couldn’t do a damn thing without a white man telling them to, and so after the riots, the race wars, he would have to emerge from the desert and run the world for them, but that was the burden he would happily take on, selfless messiah that he was. The little fella was getting brain-baked out in the desert, contradicting himself left and right, but no one gave a damn, so long as the drugs kept flowing (for the girls), and the girls kept giving it up (for the boys). Honestly, I was impressed; the little shitheel had one badass imagination.
At some point, the old man got tired of all the garbage and squalor, and kicked us all out. We headed east, landing at Barker Ranch, which Charlie claimed to have known about from his prison days. Now, even more remote than before, they all went even more nuts, which has got to be a stretch for even the wildest of imaginations. At my urging, they started stealing cars and modifying them for desert use, per a plan that I’d been quietly planting in their heads, that it would be really handy to have a fleet of dune buggies real soon. Nothing solidifies the madness of a cult than the idea of surviving Doomsday, except maybe making them the deliverers of Doomsday itself.
After months of false promises and run-around, Charlie finally got wise that he was not going to become the next rock star, that the pros were just using him for the drugs and the girls, and the especially nasty news that his demo tape was making the rounds as an example of just how bad music can get, something for the swells to laugh at while partying it up. It was then that I saw the opportunity, the window, and I just went for it.
Look, sooner or later you’re going to ask the big question: Why?
Because fuck you, that’s why. I groove on the chaos, and the Big Fear hadn’t visited town in quite some time. The gig in ‘Nam was going robustly sideways, kids were marching in the street against the war, the South was erupting in racial lunacy, again, and there was no way in Hell I’d go back there, we’d just walked on the goddamn moon, Brian Jones was dead, and America was tearing itself apart, even as the Summer of Love rolled peacefully onward.


      “Here’s what you do, Charlie. You remember that house where you met that bigshot producer?”
“Yeah, up in Benedict Canyon,” he replied, sullenly, his eyes red, as though he’d been crying, which struck me as funny. You’d expect the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of Man, to have more balls. In the passing months, I’d come to see him as he really was, that for all his macho swagger and jailhouse posturing, there wasn’t much to him.
In prison they’d have called him a weak sister or a sissy, a little bitch, putting on a big show around others but when you got him alone in the shower, mano a mano as it were, he’d bend right over and offer it up without a fight, and would do so with a smile, and offer to rinse you off when it was done.  I’d seen my share of punks like him and had availed myself of their hospitality more times that I can be reasonably expected to recall.
“Okay. Go up to that house, barge in the front door, and tell that son of a bitch that no one, and I mean, no one, pulls shit like that and walks away clean. You make him pay. You dig me?”
“Pay?” he asked. “Like money?”
Pay, Charlie. Really and truly pay. Like, with blood,” I said softly. “You have to make a statement, take a stand. You cut him down, and take his ass out. Do it well. Make it witchy, make it send a message: their time is over, and your time is now, the rap you’ve been laying down all this time. Blame it on the darkies, kick off the race war that will put you, Charles, in the driver’s seat.”
“No buts, Charlie. Do him and anyone else at that goddamn house, and do ‘em bad. Make it messy. Make it a nightmare in the City of Angels and better still, send some of your girls up there to do it. Hell, I’ll go and help out, because I believe in you, I believe that you’re the one to lead us into a new American age, that your songs will become our battle hymns and our anthems, that your name will be on the lips of every goddamn person on this goddamn planet. Are you with me?”
In the end, he was.


      I was at Cielo before the kids arrived; I found myself a nice seat on the low-hanging branch of a tree in the backyard, where I could oversee and guide the evening’s festivities. The games were about to begin, and in earnest. Even in my best of abilities, I can’t describe the feeling of anticipation I was feeling that night. The last couple of years had been exciting for me, watching the country tear itself apart over the changes that were coming, digging on the older generation’s hatred for and fear of anything that wasn’t an old white man or old white man-related, grooving on their utter, confused revulsion over the idea of peace and love, responding by throwing their aggression at the little savages in their black pajamas, in that faraway land no one had even heard of ten years before.
That’s what I love about Americans: their ability to hate and fear so completely, defying reason and sanity, fighting so hard to preserve and conserve what was rotten from the start, terrified of progress to the point that they’d gladly throw their own children to the wolves if it meant another year of their black-lynching status quo. They came by their hatred honestly, or so they told themselves, claiming to follow the word of the god they’d created, the god who hated all the same things they did, conveniently enough, and without a trace of irony.
The kids parked the Fairlane down the street and slipped into the black clothes they’d been instructed to bring. He was already on the property, sitting in a tree in the backyard, silently watching the three people inside the house, a man and two women, enjoying a quiet Saturday evening together, while a second man dozed on a couch. One of the women was pregnant, really pregnant, positively radiant with the expectation of motherhood, and I knew that this was too good to pass up. It was time to make a statement.
Walking in the shadows, the boy climbed a telephone pole and cut the line, so no calls for help could be made. A car turned into the driveway, driven by a young man around their age. Startled and with a pistol in his face, the driver begged for his life; for this, the boy slashed at him with a knife, opening a gash in the palm that tried to defend him, before putting four rounds in the young man’s chest. The sound of the twenty-two caliber pistol barely sounded down the canyon; what little sound it made was quickly lost in the night. The party then climbed the fence, stealing onto the property with creepy-crawly stealth, just as they’d been instructed.
Once inside the house, the boy saw a man asleep on a couch; as he awakened, the boy kicked him in the head, stunning him. The kids had been given clear instruction on how to handle the scene, and I aimed to be sure that they would run it by the numbers.
The four confused occupants were rounded up and brought to the living room. Eyes wide with fear, trying to make sense of the shouts of the intruders, barking conflicting orders, trying at once to comply with too many instructions. Absolute, delectable chaos.
They tied the pregnant woman and one of the men together at the neck and tried to hang them from the exposed beams in the ceiling but couldn’t manage the rope they’d brought; it kept slipping through their hands, their steady diet of garbage food and low-grade acid leaving them somewhat to the left of physical fitness. The couple was too heavy, and they couldn’t make the woman stop screaming, pleading, to spare her for the baby, the sake of the baby, didn’t they know who she was? And that tore it. I pushed Sadie, pushed her hard, and she waded into that nice pregnant lady but good. One of the sexiest damn things I’ve ever seen; that bugshit girl earned the sobriquet in a high style that night.
The man tried to defend his pregnant friend and was shot for his admirable efforts. The boy set on him with his knife, and made short, awful work of him. He died in the living room, rope around his neck, his purple shirt stained deep red. In the confusion, the other woman panicked and escaped out a window; her fleeing form, wrapped in a white dress, looked almost ghostly to the man in the tree, but her sprint for safety was short-lived, as she was taken down in the yard by the boy and one of the girls, tackling her by the pool and stabbing her twenty-eight times, and as her life ran out of her on the grass, saturating the earth, some of it falling into a storm drain near her head, the last thing she saw was the waning moon overhead.
The other man, the one from the couch, put up a strong fight, but in the end was stabbed fifty-one times, pistol-whipped, and shot twice before he went down, not far from the woman in the dress. That goddamn Polack was like a Timex; he just kept on ticking, despite the most hellacious licking he was taking. He died whimpering, as even the toughest of men will, and though they had begun the evening together, each of them died terrified and alone.
It was on Sadie to cut the baby out of the hysterical pregnant woman, as a sign that they had fulfilled their mission of doing something ‘witchy’ at the scene, plunging her knife deep in the woman’s abdomen, but in the end she couldn’t do it, opting to stab her multiple times, despite her begging to be left alive for the sake of the unborn baby, while great arcs of arterial spray painted the room. It was a stroke of genius, and while I’d love to take credit for it, Sadie made that choice all on her own.
She died in front of the couch, the back of which was draped with a blanket version of the American flag which was, appropriately, upside-down. Unintentional yet blindingly symbolic, the flag, along with the lives lost, sent a clear signal to the rich, the famous, the powerful, the Hollywood elite: No one is safe, death owns the night. In the days and weeks and months that were to follow, fear rippled down the hills and into the valleys, across the flatlands to both desert and ocean, and the Summer of Love began its death spiral.
When the dark work was done, I hopped down lightly from my perch and walked into the living room, breathing deep the coppery stink of death, mixed in with everything else that had been released into the carpet. I cracked my knuckles and set in to add my own flourishes to the scene. Nothing flashy, mind you – just a little extra mess, to let Johnny Law that he no longer owned the night.
I departed the scene, taking great care to not step in any puddles. I hiked down the dark canyon to the streets below at a casual pace, found a suitably decrepit bar, and drank a great many toasts to myself, while I waited for the shit to hit the fan.


      “So, damn, Doug, it’s not like I actually killed anyone, you know?”
The brass silhouette on Doug’s crypt just sat there passively, like a big metal pain in my ass, while the town stirred and the sun growled even more menacingly in the sky. I soaked my aching feet in the reflecting pond in front of Doug’s tomb, that gorgeous slab of marble where he was finally laid to rest, stained as it was with the lipstick traces of so many admirers. Even now, I could feel Doug with me, quietly calling me the asshole I knew I was, but doing so with the style and great good humor that had made him the King of Everything.
It took a few hours for the scene on Cielo to break but when it did, holy shit. You’d have thought it was the end of days. Famous people, rich ones, got killed, and nothing kick-started the fear machine into high gear more than that. People got killed in East Los every damn day; Watts had burned for six days, just waiting for someone to take notice and give a damn. It was a weird day indeed when those places didn’t rack up body counts and, along with the nightly parade of death from ‘Nam, Angelinos accepted that the city required a blood sacrifice for its continued prosperity, but let that shit happen in Echo Park or Silverlake, if it’s all the same to you.
Hell, go downtown and watch life get primal; pick up a whore and hope her dick doesn’t pop out before you finish. Get drunk and wander down Skid Row with a twenty-spot pinned to your shirt, take a dump in front of Graumann’s – it’s all part and parcel with living in the greatest city on Earth – so long as the crime doesn’t reach into the realm of the beautiful, the worthy, the moneyed, especially when it’s as horrific as what happened up the Canyon. That kind of deviancy is the music of the streets, not the song of the stars. They can sit up on the mountainside and consume themselves in any and all possible ways, but don’t ever bring the street to them, oh no, that’s when the important people well and truly lose their collective marbles.
I reckoned my part in this was not unlike giving Dumbo a feather; those hippie wastrels were already strung out and crazy. They already had the madness: all I did was give them direction. Their sad little leader, Charlie, was never going to be a recording star, not even if he holed up in Laurel Canyon with two hundred pounds of blow for everyone to jump on. He wanted fame, he was starved for it, desperate for it. He was ready to sell his soul and the souls of his ‘family’ to get there, too. By the end of the year, the whole world would know his name, and I made that happen. The little turd never even thanked me.
When the news finally broke that afternoon, I’d shaken off most of the hangover from the night before. Doug still wasn’t talking to me, and I didn’t want to chance Mary again; word had already filtered down that the rich and fabulous were in full freak-out mode, and I was like the plague to her on even the best of days. Wandering into an exclusive neighborhood like that, on a day like this, could likely get me shot, and that would be damned inconvenient. It could also land me in jail, which would provide its own buffet of fun possibilities, but I really wanted to be outside for this one. With all this in mind, I decided to lay low, to walk the Boulevard and get a feel for the sweet, delightful tension that had the entire town on eggshells, as if it were all built of kindling, just waiting for that one spark to set it ablaze.
Strange days in the City of Angels, but delicious. I cruised the streets as the sun set, savoring the richness of the city’s smells; the scent of food carts and spilled beer, the coppery tang of blood and the acrid stink of piss, the mélange of sounds coming from open windows and doorways, radio in a dozen languages, down here the fear wasn’t as strong as it was up in the hills and the better areas; down here, we weren’t protected from the wildness, the savagery, that was just part of the landscape. In the flatlands of downtown, you hid fear, because if you didn’t, the animals, the two-legged ones that came out at night, they would smell it from a mile away, and they’d fall upon you like a plague, real biblical.
I walked a lot of miles that night, taking care to be seen in various places, and studiously avoiding Los Feliz. That area was going to get all kinds of famous tonight, and I didn’t need to be anywhere near any of that. Tonight’s plan was to make an even bigger statement than the night before, and after it was done, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hell had come to Hollywood. I’d fed Little Charlie a laundry list of instructions for this one, since the kids had done such a half-assed job the night before. I mean, it was a slaughter, but it had no style, no panache. Hell, the man they’d gone there to kill wasn’t even living there anymore (of course I knew, which made it more fun for me), but those knuckleheads didn’t know their asses from their elbows, and it was time for the game to be seriously ramped up. Tonight, there would be a bloodletting, there would be terror, there would be brutality and heartbreak, but there would be no mistakes.


       I have to give those kids credit, because they really cranked it up at Waverly: as I understand it (having been nowhere near the scene, of course), their work, our work, made a couple of cops flee the house and lose their lunches. If I can make a cop puke, I know I’ve done well.
Waverly, maybe even more so than Cielo, solidified the Big Fear and truly set the gears in motion, a clarion call that you didn’t have to be beautiful or famous to get deadly attention. Anyone and everyone was grist for the mill, regardless of their station in life. War had been declared, in ways that were loud, proud, and endlessly profane. Waverly was no simple break-in; it was a butchering, and I made damn sure that the victims would walk those now-hallowed grounds forevermore, a mute reminder for those attuned to such things.
The pressure cooker that was La-La Land was now shrieking at a deafening pitch, swelling and threatening to explode. I walked the crazy streets of the desperate areas, inciting bums to beat each other to death with just a glance, painting random swastikas on Jewish businesses, tossing firecrackers onto the porches of Watts in the middle of the night just to watch the residents come spilling out with guns drawn and violence in their eyes. I chucked rocks at soldiers returning from ‘Nam; I spread rumors that our glorious American fighting forces were killing babies and raping grandmothers, that what had happened a year before in My Lai (yeah, that was mine) was but one of a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, transgressions committed in that most unholy of wars.
I passed out sugar cubes in Elysian Park, telling the kids it was LSD when it was really a megadose of horse trank, eagerly anticipating the freakouts and superhuman strength that the cops, those poor saps, wouldn’t be expecting and wouldn’t know how to react, wanting to keep the peace and not provoke, not knowing until exactly too goddamn late that they were going up against Superman.
I kept busy, waiting patiently for tensions to reach a boiling point, and then I tipped the bulls about a bunch of hippie car thieves out in the desert, to ratchet up tensions not just with Charlie and the Family, but also with the squares, adding fuel to the fire of their hatred and distrust of the kids. To be honest, I was hoping the cops would fuck it up and not make the connection to the murders but Sadie, that adorable half-wit, ran her fool mouth about the killings to cellmates and then the beans spilled all over Hell and gone, and that’s all she wrote baby, the cow’s out of the barn and Katy bar the door, we’re in for one motherfucker of a ride.
I planted the seeds of Helter Skelter in the minds of Charlie and that idiot prosecutor, whose lust for fame clouded his already questionable judgment; together, they built a doomsday cult out of a bunch of fucked-up kids and carved a messianic hippie Christ out of a petty criminal and wannabe pimp.

      It was all too beautiful.


On Pendle Hill,
My love did dance.
The fires burned,
A blessing asked.
Dancing in the dark so spritely,
Prayers to not be taken lightly,
Under clouds that turned to black,
Black as coal on that lovely night.
On Pendle Hill,
She spoke the words,
Uttered in the fire’s light.
Bless this crop, she dared to ask,
Beseeching nature do its task,
And in due course the lamb was given,
In hopes the past year’s sins forgiven,
Something in the darkness summoned,
Summoned on that fateful night.
On Pendle Hill,
My love did sing.
An ancient rhyme,
From the time since time,
To the crow above and the hare below,
When the bitter winds of Autumn blow,
Those lost to the ages sought,
Sought upon that holy night.
On Pendle Hill,
An offering made.
The dagger rose, the lamb did cry,
Its blood upon the ground so dry.
A tribute to the harvest made,
Another fallow field forbade.
And in the dark the dagger fell,
Fell upon that blessed night.
On Pendle Hill,
The earth did part,
Exposing thus its beating heart,
Laid bare all secrets hence concealed,
The glowing rock within revealed,
Revealed upon that sacred night.
On Pendle Hill,
The thunder roared,
Torrential rain from above poured,
Surging clouds flew overhead,
Ignorant hearts filled with dread,
Hearts and minds were split wide open,
Open on that stormy night.
On Pendle Hill,
The gallows built,
Creaking in the wind,
That blew through the grasses,
The parson shouting to the masses.
Condemning all the ancient ways,
Calling these the End of Days,
His holy tome spinning madness,
Madness on that awful night.
On Pendle Hill,
My love did climb,
A rope around her neck,
Parson following quick behind,
Leading all in single mind,
Torchlight, flickering, lights the path,
Whispering for god’s vengeful wrath.
The village, all behind her trailed,
Trailing on that dreadful night.
On Pendle Hill,
The crate was kicked,
The rope cracked tight,
My love’s neck snapped,
Her dear body swayed in the breeze,
In heartbreak I fell to my knees,
Crushed beyond all measure,
I had lost my greatest treasure,
I condemned the crowd to fire eternal,
And damned them all to pain infernal.
The crowd fell hushed and silent,
Silent on that murderous night.
On Pendle Hill,
The flowers grow,
The crops below protected.
The skies above, serene and calm,
And healing rains expected.
So the field will reap its harvest,
Though its seeds were sown in darkness.
The gods received their sacrifice,
Sacrificed on that hallowed night.
On Pendle Hill,
I sit alone.
My love lies in an unmarked grave,
For it was she I could not save,
Her labors spent in love complete,
To make the autumn harvest sweet,
They killed just her, but we both died,
Died on that forsaken night.
Available in print at Folk Horror Revival,
in the Corpse Roads anthology.

Rebel graves

Light the fire, there’s a tale to tell,
Of a man who was more than man.
He came here many years ago,
A stranger to this land.

When the wind sings through the branches,
And yonder fire’s burning,
We shall set off on a wicked journey,
From which there’s no returning.

Now, this tale I wish to tell,
Of men and blood and war,
Is unlike many other stories,
In that it’s no mere folklore.

No, my friend, this really happened,
So draw your loved ones close.
And we’ll talk of Death’s own madman,
While winter’s chill wind blows.

When Henry landed on the New World’s shore,
Far from his native land,
He carried with him a lust for blood,
And a soul bound to be damned.

At once he was conscripted,
And sent straight off to war.
In the conflict between North and South,
On the New World’s blood-soaked shore.

Henry fought with rage unequaled,
His body count was rising.
He was feared by all, both foe and friend,
His methods paralyzing.

For Henry’s love of blood was such,
That when enemies did dwindle,
He simply switched his uniform,
And his death-lust was rekindled.

He killed by knife, he killed by gun,
He killed by bloody hands.
His savagery and brutality,
Was feared throughout the land.

In the blood of many he did bathe,
And drank their crimson veins.
In leaner times, he ate their meat,
And feasted on their brains.

One day, by chance, a musket ball,
Sank deep into his chest,
And Henry fell down to his knees,
Hands clutching at his breast.

Said Henry then,
“Come take me, Death!
I’ll take your place for certain,”
Death looked down at him and said,
“Oh no, dear lad, I won’t be had,
No man will draw your curtain.”

“From this point on, accursed man,
Your name will be Dead Henry.
You’ll have the world your slaughterhouse,
From the rabble to the gentry.”

“Wage all manner of perversity,
Impress me with your numbers.
But here’s the thing, my only string:
You’ll never know death’s slumber.”

Dead Henry’s wound did thusly heal,
And all wounds ever after,
As he walked the land, forever banned,
From Death’s own sweet hereafter.

He landed in Elmira,
That Hell upon the Earth.
Dead Henry found the pickings easy,
As he embraced rebirth.

He killed his way through inmates,
He took them day and night.
Their suffering at his horrific hands,
Gave Dead Henry great delight.

By and by the war was ended,
The prisoners were set free.
Dead Henry vowed to walk the land,
To kill just as he pleased.

So now, all these years later,
Though countless many tried,
His scars stand a mute testament,
To the times he should have died.

And here, my friend, the story ends,
Although without an ending.
Dead Henry walks among us,
His damage never mending.

So hurry home, and tell your children,
In the stillness of the night,
Dead Henry cares not what you’ve done,
And he’ll take what is his right.

For no innocent is innocent,
When all is said and done.
Dead Henry makes fools of us all,
But his battle’s never won.

Because a man who is damned,
Is more than a man, and possessed of one thing more:
A love of death in a strange new land,
On the New World’s blood-soaked shore.

Available in print at Folk Horror Revival,
in the Corpse Roads anthology.


On The Nickel

A cruel sun broke hard over the city skyline, giving no quarter to the hope of a gentle birth to this new day. Ripples of heat shimmered along the pavement, releasing the acrid stink of urine that carpeted the ground with a low-lying fog and in the tents, lean-tos, cardboard boxes and draped tarps, life rumbled and coughed, stretched and farted, sneezed and cursed, as Fifth Street awakened, or at least regained consciousness from having survived another long, desperate night. Soon, the air was filled with shouts and accusations, cries and curses, the language of poverty’s jungle.

Crows sat upon the power lines overhead, cawing their accusations, their judgments, to whatever ears might be listening, fixing their eyes on the sleek, glistening rats that meandered through the gutter, picking through the accumulated garbage for a few scraps of food. The crows watched the rats intently; if a choice piece of anything looked promising, they would drop down and take what was theirs. If the rats didn’t scatter, they might find themselves plucked from the earth and taken for food, for the crows knew to take a rat high, so high, and then simply let go. After gravity had taken its turn, the burst-open carcass made for a fine breakfast.

On the Row, or The Nickel, as it was called, there was no easy transition from night to day, no gentle awakening; rather, the scramble for sustenance began anew, for there were aching bellies to be fed, and dangerous habits demanded attention, life-or-death cravings that demanded fulfillment, needs that must be sustained, old grudges and hurts that defied time and reason, that started anew, their pain and resentment digging ever deeper into the shattered mind of the bearer.

In amongst the maze of makeshift habitats, inside an old military surplus tent that seemed impossibly old, Crying Mary blinked away the crusted dirt at the corners of her eyes, although she hadn’t slept. She lay under a filthy blanket, sweating already as the morning sun turned the canvas shelter into a convection oven, her head resting on the chest of the man lying next to her, rising and falling with his fitful breathing, listening to the staccato rhythm of his heart, her hand tracing an intricate and familiar pattern on the bare skin of his abdomen, fingernails wet with blood as she quietly, calmly, dug into him, so gently as to not disturb his restless slumber. Her nails, so sharp, passing through each layer of skin, then into the spongy yellow fat, pausing for a moment before making her way into the tougher muscle.

As with most drifters this man, whatever his name, had a fair amount of muscle hidden below the fat, the result of so many fights and flights, decades of hard living, and countless beatings. This was a man who had slept on concrete for much of his life, whether on the street or in a cell, and living like this toughens a person, makes the meat rich and dark. The man stirred, his brow furrowed as if in concentration or, more likely, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but had yet to announce itself. Mary froze in place, eyes open and watching his face, looking to see if he would awaken and, in doing so, ruining this most intimate of moments. For what he had done with her that night, for what he had done to her, he had earned this many times over. Soon enough, he settled back into slumber and she continued.

Her fingernails like scalpels, Mary slipped through the striated layers of muscle, delicately working her hand into his abdominal cavity, feeling his warmth, his electricity, her forearm gradually disappearing into him as she gently, so very gently, made her way upward to the center of his being, the engine of his damnable machine. Delicately, with all the care of a mother cradling her newborn, her fingers encircled his heart.

It was then that Crying Mary smiled, an unsettling sight under the best of circumstances. Her long, dark hair was matted and wild, as though it had never known comb or brush. Falling from the corners of both eyes were tattooed teardrops, too many to count, cascading down her cheeks like rain, jailhouse tattoos from an eternity of transgressions, thousands of nights spent without sight of the moon, the screams and cries of other inmates poorly taking the place of the crickets and bullfrogs of her youth, so many lifetimes ago. Opinions on Mary’s tears varied: some said each tear represented a prison stay, while others claimed the tears indicated lives taken, while still others claimed that the tears were symbolic of much darker deeds, things that go unmentioned even among this salty and seasoned group of travelers. That each tear was a different color only added to the depth of the impromptu mythology that had sprouted up around her.

One thing upon which all agreed was that one would never dare look directly at Crying Mary’s tears; to do so, it was rumored, would wreak a fate worse than those who dared gaze upon Medusa, that turning to stone would be preferable to being caught staring, and to stare would be the most common and understandable reaction to seeing Mary, especially for the first time. To add to matters, Mary stood well over six feet and her man, the whereabouts of whom was also cause for great speculation, was rumored to stand even taller. Some, who claimed to have met him, said in hushed whispers that Dead Henry, as he was called, was older than time, and others murmured that he himself was a demon, ejected from Hell for being too wicked.

Mary’s face also carried scars, as did her left arm, from a night long ago when two frat boys on a dare, drove into the Row, and looked for a homeless person to set fire to. For their sins, they had made the mistake of picking Mary, whose peace had been interrupted with the sharp stink of gasoline, a moment before the match dropped. She had burned, but her pain was nothing compared to the hell she unleashed upon the drunken boys. She had lost her mind during her assault on them, and had landed in the county mental ward for almost a year, all but braindead under the barrage of drugs being pumped into her system. Eventually she was pronounced ‘better,’ and released back onto the streets, all of which led, as they always will, to the Nickel. Still homeless, burned and broken, still alone, in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

In moments like this, Crying Mary’s heart longed for Henry, a yearning that stretched across a broken landscape of miles and an ocean of tears, and when she took a person, as she was about to, it was bittersweet in that she would not be able to share it with him. She was stronger than any ten men, and never forgot this simple truth; however, she felt incomplete without Henry, he was the one who made it all make sense. One day, she told herself.

One day.

Her fingers wrapped around the sleeping man’s heart, and she tugged lightly, causing him to stir. As his eyes opened and looked toward her, Mary stroked his forehead with her free hand, whispering quietly to him.

“Let this be a day of wonder, as I make this sacrifice to myself and my kin and as this man finds his way to the other side, let him know the true meaning of pain and fear, that I have held his heart and known the darkness it hides, that I have seen the things he has done, and that what comes next he has earned many times over.”

The man’s eyes opened wide at her words, the cold reality slicing through his mind, through the hazy years of drugs and booze, with a sobriety that shocked and horrified him. “Hey, wait – you wanted that stuff, you said so, afterward at least. I just did what you told me.”

“Hush now,” Crying Mary said, a beatific smile gracing her face. “This is what happens; it’s already done.”

She delicately slipped her middle finger between the aorta and pulmonary artery, gripped firmly and, with a single, savage motion, tore the man’s heart from his chest. When she held it before his eyes, it was still beating. “Your poorly-lived life can still have value,” she said quietly as comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes, even as the light of life faded from them.

Mary stuffed the dead man’s heart into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing whole chunks as if it were the first food she’d had in years, as blood spilled from her lips and down her chin, savoring the coppery taste upon her tongue. As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Later, after Mary had packed him away in a dumpster and rolled up her tent, she stood on the stained and filthy sidewalk of Skid Row, breathing deeply and tasting myriad scents that the street offered up, dark and delightful, reeking and filled with sin. She stuffed her tent deep into the shopping cart she used to carry her belongings and, for a moment, looked up at the crows perched on the power lines above, and winked while pressing a bloody finger to her lips.

Singing quietly off-key to herself, Crying Mary shuffled down the street, pushing the cart in front of her, into the bright light of a new day.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but I always will be true, and when your mama’s dead and gone, I’ll sing this lullaby just for you…”

bed sheet phantom


What follows is an article I wrote for a skeptic journal a dozen years ago. I re-discovered it a couple of days ago, brushed it off and prettied it up, and present it here. Enjoy.
Physicist Costas Efthimiou, a professor at the University of Central Florida, offers a theoretical glimpse that purports to put to rest the notion that the dead walk among us in spirit form: According to the laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton, it is impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without also falling through the floor. As a physical being, I know for a fact that I cannot pass through a floor, and I have walked into enough walls and doors to assume that I will have no chance of ever passing through, even if I were approaching Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.
There are, however, several issues with his theories, foremost the idea that Newtonian laws pertaining to the physical world somehow apply to entities that do not exist in the corporeal realm. If ghosts are, as often hypothesized, beings constructed of memory, energy, and/or other non-physical materials, how then can we reasonably expect them to be bound by the same laws that us mere mortals by nature must adhere to?
The article then abruptly takes a sharp turn and notes that, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, approximately 1 in 3 Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and that it is possible to communicate with the dead. The impression I was left with, as a reader, was that the writer of the article really wanted to make the point that individuals who believe in the paranormal are rubes; an act of pseudo-intellectual elitism that served no good purpose at all.
Nearly every culture on Earth embraces some sort of belief system about the afterlife; why is this so? My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how much science advances our understanding of the Universe and our place within it, no one as yet has been able to answer the biggest of all questions: Where do we go when we die? I think the question for most people is so staggering, so terrifying, that the average mind can’t comprehend the notion of our consciousness simply ceasing to exist. I certainly can’t, and believe me, I’ve tried. Or is it all just a matter of ego – is it a way of saying, “Hey, it’s ME we’re talking about here. I simply can’t accept the fact that when I die, that’s the end of the story.” Unable to accept the idea that the world keeps turning without them, many people need to believe that there is something amazing, something special, that was built just for them to ride out eternity.
So we create afterlife archetypes that conform to our particular sets of sensibilities, primarily that good people go on to a place full of happiness and joy, where they can spend eternity with all the people they loved on Earth, and the bad people move on to eternal punishment in the burning lake of fire, or something equally nasty. Is it possible that the ideas of Heaven and Hell are natural, physical constructs? It’s highly doubtful; history has proven time and again that good and evil are often highly subjective views of morality, and that nature rarely, if ever, makes a judgment call based on the moral qualities of an individual’s personality.
I believe that we, as humans, build our own ideas of existence beyond death from the twin factors of fear and justice. Not knowing what happens after we leave this physical realm, we still attempt to control our destinies and in this attempt, we create afterlives we can accept, that make sense to us. Also, we all want to be rewarded and remembered for the good things we have done, but we also desire that the guilty be punished, if only for the fact that by comparison, we look that much better. Never underestimate the power of humans to sandbag the next guy, especially when the possibility of eternal damnation is at stake.
And then there’s ghosts. The world in which we live is often a difficult and dangerous one; it can also seem quite unfair although that is again assuming that nature understands or even cares about the complexities of fair and unfair, of right and wrong. Many people die before we believe it is their time, and many good people often die in horrible and senseless ways; conversely, lots of truly awful people live long lives. In our uniquely human sense of cosmic justice, is it unreasonable to think that for those people, their earthly journey is not quite over? Not really. As moral creatures, we by nature feel that every person’s life has to have meaning and purpose and we are not very adept at accepting the idea that sometimes bad things just happen. I think that for many of us, it is more comforting to believe that the person who was taken by bad circumstance has been able to linger and exact some sort of spiritual revenge on those who were responsible for their misery, or even that since it wasn’t their time, they have nowhere to go and are stuck here on Earth in some sort of limbo. We take comfort in the idea that those who have left us are still around, that they’re watching over us or guiding us from beyond, that they miss us and still think about us.
It has been suggested that some ghosts and hauntings are the manifestation of guilt and anxiety; in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the story’s protagonist is not taunted by the person he murdered; rather, it is his guilt for the murder that haunts him and eats away at his sanity until he confesses his crime. Perhaps the only thing that is truly haunted is the mind and imagination of the individual who experiences the phenomena. If enough people are empathetic to the idea of the spiritual manifestation of the dead, particularly in a place where one could logically conclude that many people died horrible and unnatural deaths (battlefields, prisons, hospitals, sanitariums, mental institutions, etc.), it is entirely possible that there may exist a sort of shared psychological experience. However, this idea is by no means all-encompassing when attempting to explain the widespread reports and experiences of such phenomena.
Studies have indicated that people who are inclined to believe in ghosts stand a better chance of encountering one than people who don’t believe and if a person visits a location that is known for paranormal activity, then they already have a set of preconceived expectations before they even enter the area. Many years ago, I spent a summer working at a toy store in Northern California that had achieved a large amount of notoriety for having been haunted and in knowing this, I experienced a number of events that I immediately ascribed to the ghost which was said to be in residence. However, my mindset was not entirely objective: I like to believe that spirits do exist and since I was already aware of the alleged haunting, I was predisposed to believe that anything weird that happened was automatically due to the ghost and nothing more conventionally explainable.
And now, ghosts are big money: several cable networks run documentary series that show paranormal investigators plying their trade in places that, as previously mentioned, should be rife with paranormal activity. These shows run the gamut from earnestly sincere to the downright goofy, and I’m sure each have their devoted followers. That said, we faithfully watch them all, week after week, in hope of that one piece of evidence that will answer the question, once and for all. Maybe next week.
Many towns, at least the more touristy ones, offer local ‘ghost tours’ which, depending on the area, can be sort of fun, in a kitsch way, and you might even learn some history. As for ghostly encounters…individual results may vary. The demand for otherworldly thrills has also impacted the venerable Winchester Mystery House; again, in my early days, I worked briefly as a tour guide at the house. In those days, we were strictly forbidden to even suggest that  there might be spooks about; however, the attitude seems to have changed, because now the house hosts midnight tours, seances, and proudly proclaims itself to be haunted. And maybe it is, but I never experienced anything more than a freezing, drafty old house in San Jose in February.
Whatever the case, the chances are strong that we will probably never really know the answer of what happens until we actually die and so far, no one has come back to tell us about it. Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest illusionist and skeptic there ever was, on his deathbed, promised to make a spiritual return if it was at all possible, to prove once and for all if there is existence beyond our physical world, and this is a man who made passionate sport of exposing and debunking mediums, spiritualists, and cold readers.
For the sake of transparency, my wife and I live in a house where things happen, and the community in which we live is next door to a large Catholic cemetery. We have each been grabbed or touched, shadows have passed in front of light sources, unseen weights have settled down on our bed at night, and we often hear footsteps – heavy, human, footsteps. Something plays with one of our cats, in much the way that a child would. We had a team of paranormal investigators visit our home for two overnight sessions, and they produced evidence that can’t be readily explained away. One evening, the team dropped by to go over evidence from the weekend’s investigation, and during that conversation, footsteps directly overhead resulted in an impromptu investigation.
So, here we are, at the end of this, and I have no answers. The skeptic in me says that every bit of evidence has to be rigorously examined, while the believer in me wants to, well, believe. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’m sorry to have left this unresolved, but perhaps in the next life we’ll see a conclusion to the story.

happiness-07All along the boardwalk, happy people and happy families wandered, enjoying the warm late summer sunshine that carried with it the faint but unmistakable light of the approaching autumn. The air was saturated with the smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels, and children scampered around their parents, playfully shrieking with the sense of unfettered freedom that only comes with the very young, a freedom that would be lost soon enough to the vagaries of adulthood. The parents knew this, as all adults do, and quietly mourned the loss of innocence that would one day fall upon their children, as surely as it had fallen upon them.

Music rang out softly from cleverly concealed speakers; 70s pop from bands whose names few remembered, but lyrics everyone knew, their contagious catchiness declaring with anthemic earnestness that happiness was only a heartbeat away, just one more kiss away, that her magical spell was working so well, and that all would be right on a Saturday night. A slight breeze off the ocean wafted past the revelers as they took in the sights and the sounds of one last weekend before the weather turned.

The town’s autumns were its best kept secret; known locally as “Second Summer,” it was the delicate span of two to three weeks after labor day, when all the tourists had gone back home, and the town again belonged to those who lived and worked there. The pace slowed, rules relaxed a bit, and a cheerful glow enveloped the strand along the beach. This was the time in which, as if by communal agreement, nothing happened, as per the unwritten code of the tourist towns across the country. In the absence of Them, all that remained was Us.

Hands held, arms around waists, moving at a pace that spoke of neither hurry nor worry, everyone just happy and content to be here, to be sharing the quiet joy of Fall, and even if something was lightly fouling the air, a faint whiff of what, decay maybe, it would pass soon enough and be as quickly forgotten. Except that to some, the smell was growing stronger, more pungent. More wrong.

A gasp arose from somewhere in the crowd, the sound repeating as others turned to see, a susurration of shock whose echo grew louder, instead of diminishing. Children cried, their mothers and fathers drawing them close with iron-gripped hands, shielding their eyes from what they had already seen, could never un-see, their childhoods crashing down around them like milk bottles in a rigged carnival game. The throng of people parted, not unlike the Red Sea, at the sight of the woman among them.

The woman, if she could even be called that anymore.

She staggered along the promenade, this ruined wreck of a human being, oblivious to the multitude staring at her. Barefoot, shambling toward an unknown destination, each step leaving a bloody smear on the ground, gangrenous toes the dark purple-green of putrefaction, the hem of her tattered sweatpants as filthy as the feet beneath them, the knees torn through and crusted with dried blood, suggesting a lifetime spent on her knees; a torn, sleeveless cardigan hung open, making no secret of the nakedness behind it, the awful, shameless bruising and open sores weeping sickly yellow pus and blood, and the arms, the terrible arms with countless scratches and scars, suggesting that she might have been a cutter, but even worse, much worse than that, were the blackened track marks that flowed down from the crooks of each arm, the wounds that had never closed, homemade tattoos unidentifiable now but staining the flesh for ever more.

But the left arm, it must have been a trick of the light, certainly that if nothing else, because the left forearm…the skin was rotting away, the radius and ulna brownish-white and exposed like a dirty secret for all the world to see, ragged flaps of desiccated skin and tendons hanging loosely, hardly any meat to cling to, just empty air, the hand, if indeed it was a hand, flopping limply at her side and wrapped in a towel soiled and dripping, no tissue to give it life, to give it motion. As the horror of the arm attempted to lodge itself in the minds of those who saw it, they were powerless as their eyes went to her face, which was perhaps the worst of all.

Her hair, which may once have been strawberry blond, was a dirty, matted mess, hanging in her face, but not enough to cover it, not nearly enough, for her face was a tattered roadmap of self-hatred and abuse of many types. Blood vessels had bust like fireworks in one eye, leaving the sclera red and angry, while the other eye, its pupil dilated, wandered about, searching everything, focusing on nothing, blood leaking like awful tears from the depths of a hell beyond comprehension, her nose partially eaten away, scarcely more than a diseased crater in the middle of her face, yellow-green snot hanging in thick ropes, her occasional sniffles doing nothing to stem the tide of mucus running into and out of the hole where once had been a mouth, where once had been strong, white teeth, but now was home to rotting, ragged stumps of black and brown, lips chewed to shreds as though incredible pain had been sustained.

Her shoulders slumped, betraying any sense of height, and such was her appearance that her own mother, had she been there that day, would have failed to recognize her. The woman’s ruination was so complete, so absolute, that nothing of her humanity remained. Dragging a leprous foot behind her, she slouched onward, humming a song to herself, a discordant but familiar tune, so quietly that none of those nearest her, who cleared a broad path, could have heard it. Had they chanced approaching this malignant, walking nightmare, they might have learned something about her, but none there on that awful day were willing to cross the line between caution and foolishness which, as it turned out, made no difference whatsoever.

The sniffling got louder and she stopped in her tracks, body shuddering and trembling as though current was passing through it. Suddenly, explosively, she sneezed, the force of it doubling her over and as phlegm spattered the horrified faces around her, the sneeze caused her to violently void her bowels, a vile torrent of toxic shit staining her pants and cascading down her leg.

Screams erupted as those covered in her mess caught the smell, as though all they had seen had been abstract until they were spattered in her filth, that they were shocked back into reality. As the people scattered and ran, frantically clutching their children, the woman coughed slightly and pitched forward, her swollen, distended abdomen disgorging an impossible amount of black bile onto the ground, her face landing in the puddle of vomit. With death, the last of her muscles gave way, and a reeking lake of dark waste soon surrounded her, her wretched destruction complete.

In the distance, a siren wailed. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, the woman’s purpose had been served; the poison that had exploded from her orifices and leaked from her pores, had reached nearly every soul on the boardwalk with absolute efficiency.

It had begun.

desktop-1430323952“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” — Hunter S Thompson

This past weekend, Epic Steph and I went back to the Museum of Death for our second visit. We’d gone earlier in the year for my birthday, but this time we were grizzled veterans, bringing friends who’d never been. That first visit had been on a Monday morning, just after the museum had opened; this time, it was a late Saturday afternoon. Packed but silent, save for the one woman who was there with family, obviously drunk. Whatever.

Having already seen the sights, I contented myself with observing the other guests, and looking, really looking, at the hundreds of photos that line the walls. This time, I saw that all the victims in all the photos bore one common trait: they died alone. Even if there were two or three together, they died alone. Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Abigail Folger, Albert Dekker, the sad sacks of the Heaven’s Gate comet cult, the incomprehensible nine hundred and eighteen of Jonestown, the suicides, the executions, the murders…no matter how many were there, each of those people went to death by themselves: their final breath, their final pulse, a desperately personal act as they made their way to the other side.

Even the Serial Killer Gallery, the first exhibit in the museum, stands as testament to the loneliness of the deviant mind. Artwork by Gacy and Ramirez are poor attempts at portraying an alienated inner landscape few of us can really understand. Here and there are the random teams, Toole and Lucas, Bianchi and Buono, but even in those cases, it was the loneliness of alienation that bonded these people together. This is no attempt at justification; just an observation that these were some profoundly fucked-up people who had trouble relating to most others and acted out in abhorrent ways.

Leaving the museum, we ventured up Hollywood Boulevard in the waning light of the fall afternoon, the setting sun seeming to light the street on fire as the city’s night shift emerged. The boulevard fascinates me; tourists make pilgrimages here every day of the year, seeking that magic that might have once lived here, but has long since fled. Graumann’s Chinese is owned by some big company that has set retail kiosks out in the courtyard, the souvenir carts covering the very signatures and handprints that bring people there in the first place, while poorly-costumed geeks wander the crowd, demanding money for photos no one wants, while a guy selling five-dollar t-shirts calls a girl a fucking bitch because she doesn’t return his aggressive flirting.

Across the street is the El Capitan, a former movie palace that’s been restored to its former glory by Disney. It’s beautiful, but in a cheap and tawdry way because it’s just another cynical way for Disney to pimp itself, but it stands in stark contrast to the ugliness, the desperation, the despair of Hollywood Boulevard. All the other storefronts are cheap souvenir shops, luggage shops, food stalls, ‘naughty’ costume shops, strip clubs, liquor stores, and on and on, foul, dirty, untended, uncared for. One would think that with all the tourism, someone would step up and take back at least this block, reclaim it as a tourist destination and make it pretty, clean, photogenic and worth visiting, but it’s painfully obvious that no one has given a damn about this place in a very long time.

Lining the star-embedded sidewalks are the legions of the homeless and the addicted, the lost and the lonely, hustling a buck to get through the night, the stink of urine rising from the sun-baked street makes me think of Times Square circa 1976, wondering which of the countless, wound-up Travis Bickles wandering the street, lonesome and unloved, alienated and alienating, will be the next to snap, and how many they’ll take with them.

We see two prostitutes inside the Roosevelt, and my friend tells me that the dark-haired one will die tonight, and I have no problem believing that. The words are spoken without humor, an honest, genuine gut-hunch that I’m in no position to argue, because when night falls on the Boulevard, anything is possible and the darkness is absolute. It’s then that I realize that all of this, the hustling, the squalor, the stardom, the death, all of this – it’s all a monument to loneliness, the uncomfortable silence that falls between friends, between lovers, between family members, that which drives people apart and away, sending them scuttling into the dark corners of their homes, the streets, their hearts,  their minds, fighting the thoughts, the voices, the need, the desire, the desperation, the despair, the longing, the heartache, the past, the future, until there is no fight left, the will exhausted, the battle lost, and the curtain finally falls.

Black-and-white-forest-1024x640She came awake gradual, eyes fluttering open lazily, confused to find herself standing, rather than lying down. She breathed deep, taking in the rich smell of earth, and this more than anything brought her to wakefulness. Not really standing, but upright, vertical, with dirt beneath and on all sides of her. The hole in which she stood was small enough that her knees hit the side and prevented her from sliding down. Checking quickly, she found herself naked, the soil soft and cold beneath her feet. She craned her neck, saw nothing but darkness overheard. She knew that up there, somewhere, was the sheet of plywood that kept this makeshift tomb closed. High enough that she couldn’t reach it, might as well be high as the moon for all it mattered.

She worked to fight the fear that was kindling in her heart, knowing that eventually she would be pulled out, roughly. This was the story she’d heard countless times, the story she’d told around so many childhood campfires, delighting in the thrill of the story, so long as it was happening to someone else, the friend of a friend, or the cousin of someone down the holler, not even caring if the story was true, secretly hoping it wasn’t but she knew, everyone knew, that sometimes folks went missing and they had to end up somewhere, and this was that place, that awful place, where bones hung from trees and the wind made them sing and ain’t no one ever come back from that.

She could feel the walls pressing against her; breath quickening and not a sliver of light to be found in the darkness surrounding her. She could smell the richness of the earth beside and beneath her, could hear the things that crawled and slithered through the soil, sightless in the eternal dark. Packed earth, cold and mean, compressed against her as she clawed, desperately, trying to climb through it, even as her frantic scrabbling brought rivulets of dirt down upon her, raining down into her eyes, her open mouth, tasting it on her tongue as panicked reality constricted her chest, straining her already overworked lungs, blood vessels and capillaries in full flow as adrenaline coursed through her veins, desperation taking the place of reason, bleak resignation not yet lurking on the near horizon.

She tried to slow her breathing, to take control of this most desperate situation, believing beyond reason that she could fix this, make it better somehow, make it all better, if only she could slow down and breathe. Little by little, she could feel herself relaxing, her respiration deeper now, less shallow, as she fought the greasy slick of terror that had settled in her mind.

She felt herself becoming lightheaded, and that’s all it took.

Being lightheaded meant suffocation, that much she knew, and the panic came raging back, a crazed bull rampaging through her chest, hammering against her battered ribcage, setting off another adrenal surge, more vicious this time, demanding its due like a demon rooked in a bad deal. Frenzied, she renewed her clawing at the dirt, determined to get out of this crypt, or die trying.

Heart beating so hard she heard it in her ears, she felt a fingernail crack and break as she dug frantically at her earthen tomb, the sheet of plywood too far overhead to reach, knowing that even if she could touch it, too much weight sat upon it to be moved. The narrowness of the hole pushed her into full panic, as small flashes of light sparkled like distant fireworks on the periphery of her vision. I’m dying, she thought to herself calmly, curiously, without emotion. The very thought was a crooked comfort, a sly, winking con man of a thought, the promise of salvation at a price because there was always a price, you goddamn well better believe it, but dying also meant release, not just from this damnable life, but from the daily reminders of choices made poorly and failures too many to number.

I’m dying.

And as it will, the acceptance of this simple fact caused the panic to ebb, subsiding like the tide on a distant shore, rolling back to the sea.

She was dying, her grave already dug, weary tears of understanding tracing clean lines down her filthy cheeks, which inexplicably turned upward in a graceful, grateful smile. This was the end, the end of everything, and she knew without knowing that her grave would go unmarked, that none would come to mourn, but the pain would be over, and that was worth everything. It didn’t matter, she would die as she had lived, filthy and unloved, stripped of warmth, denied happiness, and bereft of simple human dignity. She welcomed Death with weary arms and a loving heart, happy to be shut of all pain and heartache the world had put on her, that she had invited upon herself.

I’m dying, thank God.

storyWell, here we are again. Another year over and done, and a brand, spankin’ new one just ripe and ready for the plucking. Or so it would seem. Honestly, I’m just happy to see 2015 in the rear view mirror. It wasn’t a terrible year, but it was overstaying its welcome by around September. And now we prepare to take another trip around the sun, 2016 promises to be a good year, to eat all its vegetables, and to not make too much of a stink over an upcoming, dreaded milestone.

So yeah, I took a few months off, because I found myself at a point in which I felt I had little of value to say. Do I now? I dunno, but I feel like writing again so, you know, there’s that. And there’s also a renewed sense of purpose and direction, fueled by encouragement. Who’d have thought?

I was looking at my overall sales for Unworthy, and found that it’s doing some business. I’ve sold copies in the UK and Australia, which just has me shaking my head in disbelief and happiness. For such a uniquely American story, I guess there are some themes and ideas that cross the various cultures. And while neither Mr Fincher nor Mr Zombie have yet reached out for the film rights, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, yeah?

I digress.

I’ve begun work on a new novel, and I’m pretty stoked about it. While I’m far too superstitious to give up the title or what it’s about just yet, I will say that this will be a far more personal story, and I can already see that we’re going to be swimming in some very dark waters (sorry Mom, I’m just wired this way).

So stick around, won’t ya? I promise I’ll be better at keeping in touch (like we’ve never heard that before), have some updates along the way, an excerpt or two, and maybe even some awesome news.

Stay sick, and keep reading scary stories. And hey, if you’re reading this and happen to have read Unworthy, drop me a line or leave a review, would ya? We’d sure appreciate it.

Cellar LightWe had to put Gramma in the cellar. We told ourselves it was for her safety, which was easier than admitting it was for our own.

Her ‘spells’ had been coming on more often, and with greater…passion. I guess that’s the word for it. There was no talking to her then, once she got it in her head that she was, well, once she got it in her head, is all.

We’d considered the attic, but there were too many chances for problems. She could have fallen or jumped out a window. Neighbors (not that there were many left) could have seen her up there and called the authorities, in some noble but misguided effort to help a crazy old lady they didn’t understand. And honestly, the noise wasn’t as bad when she was in the cellar. Call it callous, call it selfish, but you don’t understand. You can’t understand.

So yes, we decided, as a family, to put her down there. Because we couldn’t control her anymore. Because we love her. Because we deserve some goddamn peace. How the hell were we supposed to know what would happen? I built a bed, a solid pine bed, just for her. I sank the posts two feet deep into the earth of the cellar, so she couldn’t move it around. We put down a nice rug and made sure no drafts could get in.

She wanted her candles, but we knew better. Pa ran some basic electric down there, so she could have light to read her Reader’s Digest and bible stories, and we made sure to take her meals down every day. A hefty lock on the door helped us sleep at night. Routine settled in.

Days turned to weeks, then months and seasons rolled by, and we almost began to believe we were a normal family again. Except when Gramma had one of her spells. During those times, Pa and I dutifully took the van for the four-hour round trip up to the city, to fetch a playmate for Gramma. A playmate, for God’s sake. There wasn’t enough craziness in our heads to call it what it really was, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. Because it was the crazy that kept us afloat, kept us from coming completely unglued, kept us from calling the authorities, kept us from admitting that we were doing bad things. Really bad things.

That’s the power of family: It kept you doing things you knew were wrong, knew were bad, because there’s this bond that says family is more important than anything else. So you abide, and God only knows the depths to which you’ll sink to preserve that goddamn bond, even if it drives you to do the Devil’s work. Damn our souls.

So yeah, we took the van to town, and cruised skid row, looking for some poor drunk with one foot already in the grave. It’s a public service, we’d tell ourselves in the quiet, dark parts of the night. We’re helping those poor souls on the road to salvation. Because what they had to endure, we desperately hoped God would show them mercy, just as we knew He would have no mercy on us. We deserved no mercy, no salvation; we’d damned ourselves from the outset, booked our passage to hell because of family.

Gramma had come from the old country, making the passage across the ocean in the windowless hold of a wooden ship, with hundreds of others, all piled atop one another, with not enough room for all to sleep at the same time, taking shifts standing while others lay on raised planks, the floor covered in vomit, piss, and shit, all for the sake of escaping to the Promised Land, enduring Hell on earth as shipmates died from exposure, pneumonia, infection, beatings, and God knows what else, while those that lived choked on the stench of death and sewage in the hot, rolling chaos of the ship’s steerage hold. Food was scarce, causing some to shatter long-held taboos out of desperation.

Occasionally, a mate would open a hatch in the deck, allowing sunlight to stream in, fresh sea air mingling with the unspeakable reek emanating from below deck. When land was finally sighted, the dead were gathered up and unceremoniously dumped overboard, their tattered clothing and meager possessions long gone to the wretched horde, half-insane in the darkness of the hold.

Out of this waking nightmare came Gramma, not knowing that even then she was carrying the sickness in her gut like a despised parasite. Even at her tender young age, she came out of the darkness and brought with her a viciousness that few would ever live to see, and fewer still would ever believe.

Gramma, in her better days, would tell us her story, over and over, like a record stuck in a groove, as though we’d never heard it before, wanting us to understand the sacrifices she’d made, the things she’d had to do, to provide for us, to give us a chance in this place. To make us understand that we were beholden to her, forevermore.

So Pa and I would find a lost soul and bring it home. Send it down the cellar stairs, where we assured it that there would be food and drink, and a warm, safe bed. Our challenge was to get the door closed and bolted before the screaming started. Before the wet, tearing sounds found their way to our ears and burrowed into our souls, an ironclad guarantee of a sleepless night, fraught with images best left to a slaughterhouse.

Later, after Gramma’s hunger was sated and she was asleep, we would descend the stairs with the buckets and clean up what remained, thankful for the earthen floor of the cellar, into which the blood and other fluids had seeped, which fed an army of beetles and worms that kept Gramma fed and satisfied until the next time she had one of her spells.

I tried not to look at Gramma; we’d given up on trying to keep her clothed ages ago. Anything we tried to put on her would end up stained and shredded, as though the fabric on her skin was a sacrilege she couldn’t abide. The sight of her, covered in sores and filth, made my heart ache, despite the monstrous things she did. Her skin sagged, a testament to her years, its elasticity long since lost to the brutality of gravity and time. She stank of a dangerous musk that ran deeper than simply an aversion to bathing; though alive, a pervasiveness of decay floated about her like a dark and awful cloud. Stray teeth, blackened and jagged, glistened when she licked them with the remains of her tongue, chewed upon so much and so often that it had given up any hope of regrowth.

The madness of Gramma had forced Ma to flee while I was still a child, her teary eyes beseeching us to run with her, far from the grasp of Gramma, all the while knowing we would never, could never, leave her, not until the old woman died, which wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She’d already passed her one hundredth birthday, and seemed hell-bent on outliving all of us, despite the sickness that had ravaged her brain.

Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop her, short of a silver bullet,” Ma had wept, her breath hitching in her chest on that last night, rain coursing down her face as she stood in the doorway, taxi idling a few yards away. I remember her eyes then, soft and pleading, heartbroken and miserable, hating herself for the abandonment, but determined not to fall under the wheels of this inherited madness.

Those words resonated in my mind down the years that followed, as I scoured the land around our property for metals, slowly finding bits and pieces of what I sought, knowing that I could simply steal what I needed, but knowing too that, despite all the wrong I had done for the sake of Gramma, I couldn’t do the one wrong that might deliver us from her. By and by, I’d put together enough to melt down, the last of it coming from a small crucifix I’d found on the roadside, its tiny Christ shedding tears of pain and joy in his last torturous hours on this earth. I shaped the blob of metal carefully, burning my fingers time and again as I bled to make it absolutely perfect, leaving part of myself in it, as if a sacrifice was demanded as a means to this particular end. I carefully tapped the slug into a brass casing, already set with gunpowder and primer in place.

While Pa slept fitfully upstairs, I retrieved his rifle from the hiding place he didn’t know I knew about, and made for the cellar. Before opening the door, I racked my bullet into the chamber. I descended the stairs carefully and quietly, so as not to disturb Gramma.

Who is that?” she grunted, her words slurred, as if she weren’t accustomed to using the language, instead recalling it from distant memory.

It’s me, Gramma,” I said quietly, keeping myself in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see the rifle or, at the very least, not know what it was. “Just come down to tell you we’re making dinner. It’ll be here soon.”

You’re a good boy, Henry,” she said, her voice taking on a timbre and tone that I’d not heard in ages, sounding much like it did before she got so bad. Through my tears, I knew it was a trick of my mind, not to be taken seriously or given any semblance of meaning. Because while I knew I was doing the right thing, there was a still, small voice inside of me that thought I was doing bad, committing evil, despite the evil I sought to put down.

You abide by family no matter what, the voice said. At the end of it, family’s all you have. This was Gramma’s voice, echoing down the years. I knew its refrain by heart, and yet it caused tears to well up in my eyes as I shouldered the rifle.

I love you, Gramma,” I said quietly, my teary eyes sighting down the barrel, my finger on the trigger. I gently squeezed the trigger, just as I’d been taught.

The shot rang huge in my ears as the rifle’s recoil slammed it into my shoulder, instantly numb and deaf. Gramma slumped against the wall of the cellar, legs askew with no inclination toward modesty, the right side of her head blown to vapor, and I watched the last dim light leave her cataract-clouded eyes. A voice from the doorway above broke the silence.

You did good, son,” Pa said, his voice calm, without a trace of judgment or sorrow.

I watched our house burn from the rear window of the van as we drove away, into the cold light of a new day, the road stretched out in front of us.

Somewhere out there, I knew, Ma waited for us.