Mike McNichols, This Side of Death
This Side of Death
Publisher: Glass Darkly
Date: Nov. 26, 2011
Length: 244 pp.
ISBN: 1935959220; 978-1935959229
In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down in Germany, the serial killer Ted Bundy was electrocuted in Florida, the Menendez brothers murdered their parents in California, and Pete Rose was banned from baseball in Cincinnati. Dead Poets Society won an Oscar in Hollywood.
In that year Harbor Beach, California carried on as one of the last quiet Pacific coast towns. The surf was never as spectacular as it was for the big name beaches farther south, but that kept the tourist trade at a moderate level. Harbor Beach remained a sleepy town, even though it had its own mall on the far edge of the city limits.
The hills surrounding Harbor Beach helped it to exist in a certain amount of isolation from the expanse of Los Angeles. The roads in and out of the village passed between the hills into the valley where Harbor Beach had emerged over a hundred years ago. The coastal highway ran along a series of hills that fringed the beach, forcing a visitor to find the occasional passages that provided entrance to the quiet beach areas.
One of the hills overlooking the ocean was home to a World War II-era machine gun bunker, one of many along the Pacific Coast designed to protect California from Japanese submarine attacks. Like most of the old bunkers, Harbor Beach's had disappeared from the consciousness of most of the residents. Most of them had no idea that a new evil had be birthed many years ago in that concrete chamber-an evil that would come to call on Harbor Beach once again.
For Jay Ellington, this would be the year he started his second year of college, and the year he began to believe in Hell. It was the year he met Alec Sisera.
Jay had always lived in Harbor Beach. He liked being close to L.A. and Orange County, but home felt quiet and hidden from the busyness of the larger world. Still, he hoped one day to do something with his life that would take him to new places.
These days, the idea of going someplace new had great appeal. If it were not for his mother and sister, Jay would have found a place to live where the pain wasn't constantly triggered by the familiarity of his surroundings. It seemed like there was one trigger after another-the beach, the batting cages, his car, and the house-always the house. Everything in the house shouted out the memory of his father.
It was 1989 and Jay was nineteen years old. Had he been born twenty years earlier he would be thinking about the draft. In a way, being forced into the Army might have brought a welcome relief from his life in Harbor Beach. Now all he thought of was getting through college and finding some meaning in life. He had lost interest in dating and found that he didn't miss the drama. School, work, and his family were all that occupied his time.
Jay wasn't one to maintain a rigorous workout schedule, but the physical demands of work kept his muscles in shape. He had played basketball in high school and was pretty good. At six-one, he thought he might be a bit short to play college ball. Regardless, his life had no room for sports.
He used to surf but hadn't been out for a couple of years. He missed being out on the water, but when he tried to go out again he felt too sad and angry to stay. It wasn't the water or the activity. It was the hills. The hills overlooking the coast of Harbor Beach would never hold the familiarity and innocence of the past. For Jay, they only represented pain and horror. Alec Sisera would bring the horror back to life.
Danny Ellington pulled tightly at the lacing on his boot. The boots were shined, but not glassy like the Joes who pulled daytime duty on base. His black hair was cut regulation-short, though his superiors rarely noticed. Uniform inspections in the bunker were rare.
Lila appeared at the door of the bedroom, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Do you have to go to the base tomorrow morning, or do you get to come home?”
Danny looked up at his young wife, appreciating her good looks. He often thought that the way her dark brown hair framed her face made her a match for the actress Gene Tierney. “I won't know until an hour or so before we're relieved. It changes every night.” He stood, fixing his collar as he glanced in the mirror over the small bureau.
“You look handsome, soldier,” said Lila. “I still don't know how you can stand being in that box night after night,” said Lila. “I think I'd suffocate.”
Danny smiled. “It's not so bad. You get plenty of ocean air through the lookouts. And we take turns sleeping for a couple of hours at a time. It's usually pretty quiet.”
“Who is with you tonight?” said Lila.
“Al again,” said Danny.
“Oh,” said Lila. “I don't like him, Danny. I know I only met him that one time, but he seemed... I don't know... slimy.”
“He's okay, Lila,” said Danny. “Al's just trying to figure out his life. None of us planned on a war, but maybe times like this help guys like Al get... less slimy?”
Lila laughed. “You're too nice, Danny. You'd give the devil an even break, I think.”
“Well, Al's no devil,” said Danny. “He's just another slob like me-hoping to get through this mess in one piece.”
“At least you're not overseas,” said Lila. She gently folded the towel. “Do you think it will be over soon?”
“If Roosevelt has his way, yes,” said Danny. “But if Hitler has his, then it's going to be awhile.”
Lila walked over and put her arms around her husband's waist, laying her head against his chest. “I would be so lost without you, Danny.”
Danny hugged her petite body. “No, you wouldn't. If I died on Wednesday, you'd have three boyfriends by Saturday night.”
Lila slapped him on the rear. “You big dope! Don't say that!” She glared at him. “I'd have at least five!”
“Right,” laughed Danny. “What was I thinking?” He looked at his watch. “Hey, I've got to go. Al's supposed to pick me up out front. He's got the jeep tonight.” As Danny spoke, an engine roared in the street outside the small ground-level apartment. A horn beeped.
“There's Mr. Charm,” said Lila.
Danny grabbed his duffle bag and stepped quickly to the front door. He stopped to kiss Lila. “Bye, hon. I'll be back soon.”
Lila watched from the small front step as Danny approached the jeep. “Bye, Danny. Hey, Al.” Al smiled and waved to her.
Danny threw his bag in the back and jumped into the passenger seat. “That little wife of yours is real fine, Dan,” said Al. Danny noticed that Al's smile looked more like a leer. He hoped Lila didn't notice.
“How about you just drive, Al?” said Danny.
“Sure thing,” said Al. “You're the corporal.” He gunned the engine and drove away. “Another long night, eh?”
“Yeah,” said Danny. “Just like all the others.”
“Maybe we'll finally blow a sub out of the water,” said Al.
“Maybe,” said Danny. “Then we can hop over to town, grab a burger and catch a movie.”
Al grunted a laugh. “Yeah, it is kind of weird to be pointing that 50-caliber at the ocean right here in California.”
“Better than France,” said Danny.
The jeep followed the pavement for two miles, turned left onto a dirt road, and parked at the bottom of a hill that overlooked the ocean.
Vickie Ellington opened her mirrored closet door and reached down for her shoes. The choice this morning was easy, as it was most mornings: black. Black shoes, black t-shirt, black jeans. The clothes on hangers now shoved onto the far side of the rod were the ones she used to refer to as “cute.” She ran her hand over the ones that had been her favorites-ones that she and her mother had picked out together. Vickie had no need for them now. “Cute” was no longer a word to be found in her vocabulary.
At her touch the closet door slid back into place. She looked at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her dark hair, now showing blond roots. She forced a smile but her mouth sagged quickly back into a line of disinterest. The single day bed that had been hers since she was small rattled as she fell back on it. She bent her head back to look at the steel railing, now spray-painted black with occasion chips revealing the white enamel underneath. It looks like my hair, she thought.
Vickie was old enough to understand that she was unhappy. She felt lost and angry most of the time and no longer cared about the things that used to matter to her. Her love of school had been replaced by a daily act of endurance. She was frustrated at her dismal grades and, even though the longing to learn and grow tried to re-emerge, she wondered if it might be too late for her. Maybe she would not be able to find life again.
Wrapping herself in darkness offered a form of comfort to her. Her early attempts to return to normal life after the loss of her father brought his memory into more clarity than she could bear. Every textbook opened after dinner caused her to turn from her chair, expecting him to enter her room and ask her about her day and her work. When she put on her “cute” clothes she remembered how Dad would compliment her. The pain was too much. Darkness shielded her from the loss of love that would never return.
She looked at the school books stacked on her desk. She knew that she would have to find a way to engage in school again. The idea of failing to the point of having to drop out scared her more than trying to find the inner strength to focus and risk having her teachers notice that she was trying to care.
For now, she needed to get out. She and Ashley would find a way to escape the routines that felt stifling, if even for one day. Ashley was not the kind of person Vickie would have usually chosen as a friend, but these days new friends were hard to come by. She felt hungry but dreaded going downstairs to see Mom and Jay. They seemed to be better at finding a new kind of normal, and Vickie was angry at them for that betrayal.
Vickie sat up and glanced down at the stuffed sock monkey that was half hidden under her blanket. She pulled it out and held it on her lap. She would never let Ashley know that she retained this single artifact of her old life. There was some comfort in this odd toy-one that she had slept with since she was three. She turned and stuffed it between the bed and the wall, and rose to leave her room.
* * *
“Hey, Mom. Let's make some pancakes for breakfast. It's Saturday!”
Marcia Ellington gave her son an insincere scowl. “Let's?”
“Yes, I'm serious, Mom!” Jay put his arm around his mother and leaned down to put his head on her shoulder. “Please? Please? Please? Please?”
Marcia grabbed him around the waist and tickled. He squirmed away, yelling in mock protest. “Hey, you're killing me!” Jay moved to the microwave to look at his reflection in the glass door. He pulled his longish, light brown hair away from his forehead. “So, what is it Mom: Pancakes or not?”
“Okay, buster. I'll start mixing some batter. You put out some plates and heat up the syrup. Then go wake up your sister. Nicely!”
Jay opened the cupboard and reached for the plates. “Is Vickie doing okay in school?”
A shadow passed over Marcia's face at the mention of her daughter. “I think she's starting to do better. I saw the school counselor with her yesterday. Vickie told us both that she intended to shape up and start focusing on her studies.”
“This is her junior year, Mom. She'd better shape up,” said Jay. “Vickie's smart and should be headed for college. I'm just a year into it and it's a lot harder than I expected. If she can get it together, she'll still graduate in '91-we could actually be in school together.”
Marcia stopped cracking eggs into the bowl of pancake mix and turned to face Jay. “I know how hard these last two years have been for you, honey. You were in the same grade as Vickie when your dad was-when he died. You had to move from adolescence to adulthood very quickly-and grieve in the process.” She turned back to her work and measured out some milk into the mixture. “But I'm still worried about Vickie. She's still into that gothic, vampire, whatever-it-is thing that she does. She looks awful and has the attitude to go with it.”
“Yeah, it is kind of weird.” Jay set out three plates on the family room table. “But it's just a kid thing. I see high school kids wandering over to the university campus all the time looking like that. Vickie is just angry about something. Puberty, maybe.”
Marcia laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. Puberty, eh? Do kids these days get angry about puberty? I thought you just got zits.”
Jay was about to respond when the sound of footsteps on the stairs stopped him. “Oops. Sounds like she's up. Has she gained weight? She sounds like an elephant.”
“Shhh!” Marcia lowered her voice. “That's all she needs is to be compared with an elephant.”
The swinging door to the kitchen flew open, hitting the pantry as Vickie walked in the room. She stopped and looked at Marcia and Jay. “What are you making?”
“Pancakes,” said Marcia.
“Cool. Why are you doing that?” asked Vickie.
“It was my idea,” said Jay. “I thought it might help you actually say 'Good morning'.”
“Oh, yeah. Good morning,” said Vickie. “So can I have some?”
“Sure,” said Marcia. There's plenty of batter.” Vickie sat down at the table.
Jay plucked silverware out of the drawer and walked to the table. “Would you set this out? I need to get the syrup going.”
Vickie took the silverware and shoved the forks and knives toward the three plates. “Jay, can you drive me to Ashley's after breakfast?”
Marcia looked up over the stove at her daughter. “What's the status of your homework? Remember what you told Mr. Hamilton...”
“Yes, Mom. I know. The homework will get done. Don't you trust me to do it?” Vickie pushed the last fork across the table with sufficient thrust to send it clattering to the floor. She sighed heavily, got up and walked to the other side of the table to pick up the projectile.
“Trust?” said Marcia. “I don't... okay, but please get your work caught up before Monday.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Vickie picked up the fork and laid it back on the table.
“Hey, Tricky Vick,” said Jay. “Don't put that back unless you're planning to be the one to eat the floor demons.”
“Don't call me that, Jay,” said Vickie. “I hate that name. And I'll use the fork.” Jay didn't respond, keeping his attention focused on the microwave as it heated the pancake syrup.
Marcia brought a plate of three hot pancakes to the table. “Here, Vickie. You can get started. “Jay, bring the butter and syrup, okay?”
“Sure, Mom.” Jay brought both items to the table and set them in front of Vickie. “Yeah, I can take you to Ashley's. I need to get to work by 10:00. Can we leave by 9:30?”
Vickie looked up at the kitchen clock. “Yeah, it's only nine. I'll be ready.”
Marcia finished cooking the pancakes and brought them to the table. She and Jay sat down and started splitting up the food. Before they took a bite, Vickie finished her meal, picked up her plate and set it on the sink. “I'll be downstairs by 9:30,” she said. She exited back through the swinging door and up the stairs.
“You're right, Mom. She isn't like an elephant,” said Jay. “I'll bet she's still barely at 100 pounds. She can't be losing weight-she ate more than I did.”
“This is hard for me, Jay,” said Marcia. “Vickie was-is-so beautiful. Now she wears that awful black clothing and that heavy eye makeup. And her hair-it's dyed black with blond roots! I always loved her blond hair with those bright blue eyes. I keep seeing her as a little ten-year-old, out on the soccer field, looking so strong and healthy-and happy!” Marcia started to choke up.
Jay reached over and took his mother's hand. “She's a good kid and she'll come back around. She's going to be okay.”
Marcia squeezed his hand and wiped her tears with her napkin. “Thanks, honey. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom.”
* * *
After Jay and Vickie left the house, Marcia turned her attention to the kitchen, then hesitated. She pushed through the kitchen door and walked up the stairs toward Vickie's room. As she left the stairs and moved through the upstairs hallway, she stopped to gaze at the family picture gallery on the wall.
Typical of many family photo collections, the Ellington's chronicled vacations, sports events, holidays, and group shots suitable for mass production as Christmas cards. Marcia's favorite was at the very center of the wall, taken two years ago at the family's last Christmas with Joe.
Joe. There he was, his arms around the one's he loved, looking so confident and happy. He wasn't a particularly big man at five-eleven, but he had a big heart and he had cared for his family well. Even in his mid-forties he looked youthful in spite of his rapidly-graying hair.
Marcia would never forget that last Christmas Eve or the strange feeling she had as they posed for that picture.
* * *
“Joe, put a book under the camera. It's going to fall over.”
Joe continued to balance the camera precariously on two pillows. He had assured Marcia that the automatic timer would give him enough time to jump into place for the photo. “It's okay. I've almost got it. It'll be perfect!”
“Daddy, hurry up! I have to go to the bathroom!” Vickie grimaced to show her agony.
Jay reached over and poked Vickie in the ribs. “Don't think about waterfalls or leaky faucets, Tricky Vick!” He tugged playfully at her blond ponytail.
“Mom! Jay's going to cause a crisis,” Vickie pulled Jay's ear. “Don't think about the pain I'm about to cause you, smart guy. Just because you're taller than me doesn't me I can't hurt you.”
“That's right, shrimp,” said Jay. “I'm about to hit six feet. I'm taller than Dad now!”
“Okay, you two,” laughed Marcia. “Your Dad thinks he's going to pull this off. Try to...”
The four of them froze as a loud scraping sound came from the front door. The front entry way was adjacent to the living room, where the picture was about to be taken. The sound resonated through the front part of the house and ended with a bump, as though a large animal had thrust its body against the door.
“Oh my god, what was that?” whispered Vickie.
Joe's face had gone pale as he turned to look toward the living room window. Marcia saw his jaw muscles working, a sure sign of both fear and anger in her husband. “Joe, what's wrong?”
“Stay here. I'm sure it's just a lost dog or something.” Joe stood and headed for the door. The camera rolled off the pillows and landed harmlessly on the carpet.
“I'll go get a book or two,” said Jay.
Joe was looking through the curtain on the front door window when Marcia came up behind him. “What is it, Joe? What's going on?”
He continued to stare out the window, clenching and unclenching his teeth. When he turned to look at her, he relaxed his face and made an effort to smile. “It's okay, Marcia. It's just that... I think some big dog has been tromping around in the front yard planters. You go in with the kids. I'll be back in a second.” Joe opened the front door slowly and peered out into the night. “It's okay,” he said, turning back to his wife. “Just stay inside.” He disappeared through the door and shut it behind him. Marcia looked out the window and watched him as he left the front walkway and moved slowly toward the side of the house. She straightened the curtain and returned to the living room.
Jay and Vickie were stacking several books into a tower that would keep the camera steady. When Marcia walked in the room, they were both giggling about some shared joke. “Good job, you guys. Dad will be back in a couple of minutes. Let's not let him negotiate this photo shoot!”
“No problem, Mom,” said Jay. This is going to... what the heck is Dad doing?” The sound of water being turned on at the front spigot was familiar, followed by splashing as Joe hosed off the front porch. Jay rose and walked to the front door, opening it with caution. “Hey, Dad. What's up out here? And jeez-what is that smell?”
Joe turned off the water and rolled the hose back into place. “Uh, it must have been some big dog. Probably had something dead in its mouth and was looking for someplace to bury it.”
“In our house?” Jay looked down at the wet porch. “Dad, what's that under the porch light? Is that blood?”
Joe looked up at the smear that he had missed. He turned the hose on again and sprayed the side of the house until the spot was clean. “Stupid dog probably tossed its dinner around before it took off.”
“Wow. I didn't know dogs did that kind of stuff. No wonder they have bad breath,” said Jay.
Vickie came up behind Jay and looked over his shoulder. “Was it a dog, Daddy? Can we get a dog?”
“If we do, it can sleep with you,” said Jay.
“We'll talk about dogs later,” said Joe. “Let's get back in and take care of that picture.”
Joe stepped inside and closed the door, checking the locks twice.
When the three of them returned, Marcia was already in place. “Can we take this picture while we're still in the same room? Vickie-do you think these slacks make me look fat?”
“No, Mom,” said Vickie, “You look great. People will think we're sisters!”
Marcia laughed, tossing her shoulder-length brown hair back. “You know, Vick, I think you're my favorite daughter.”
Joe looked down at the camera resting on the stack of books. “Hmmm. Good idea. Okay, get ready.” He focused the camera and set the timer. “Here we go! Everybody in place!”
The four of them moved into position, looked toward the camera and smiled. Marcia kissed Joe on the cheek. “Good work, Mr. Protector.”
“Eyes on the camera!” said Joe. At Marcia's words, his smile returned. The light flashed and everyone cheered.
It was three days later that Joe's body was found.
* * *
Marcia turned from the hallway pictures and walked to Vickie's room. She opened the door-closed, apparently, against all intruders-and stepped inside. She hugged her arms to herself and looked around.
The walls were adorned with posters from dark, violent-looking rock bands and reprints of movie art illustrating vampires. The only one she recognized was from the silent movie Nosferatu, a classic that even she knew something about. Her heart sank at the darkness of the room. Gone were the snapshots that used to decorate her daughter's walls and mirror-pictures of soccer teammates and of Vickie and Joe fishing at the lake. It was all angry and dark, like an infected sore.
Marcia's eyes fell on something stuffed between Vickie's bed and the wall. She carefully reached across the bed and pulled out a stuffed animal-a sock monkey that she had made for Vickie's third birthday. Marcia began to cry as she clutched the toy to her chest. Just knowing that this remnant of a happier time was in Vickie's room gave Marcia hope for her daughter.
She thought to herself, Maybe the story isn't done being written.
Dawn was breaking and the smells of the wooded slope overlooking the ocean were raw and pungent. The man stood alone on the hillside, looking through the brush as though he had lost something. Setting down his canvass backpack with a clank, he took the long steel pole that he carried and poked the ground repeatedly. He continued this work, slowly and methodically, until he heard the sound of metal against metal. He set the pole down and tore at the brush until he exposed a round steel plate with a circular handle in the middle, similar to what might be found on a Navy ship. He gripped the handle tightly and turned.
He stopped and looked around, as if in response to a noise from an unknown source. He waited. Satisfied that he was alone on the surface, he continued to turn the handle until it stopped. He sat back on his heels and waited for his breathing to slow down. Apparently composed, he reached for his backpack and unzipped the top. From inside he pulled out what appeared to be a six-pack of long-neck beers. He set the cardboard bottle container on the ground and pulled one from the pack. It was indeed a beer bottle, but the cloth stuffed into the top showed it to be a beverage that was designed for pain and destruction: a Molotov cocktail.
The man took out a plastic lighter and lit the end of the cloth. It burned lazily like a tiki torch. He fixed his hand tightly on the handle of the steel plate-which now looked like a hatch-and closed his eyes, as if in prayer. After a few seconds, he jerked on the handle and the hatch pulled heavily away from the ground, screaming as the ancient hinges resisted. The man's face contorted in disgust, apparently in reaction to the smell that emerged from the darkness below him. He reeled his arm back, holding the cocktail like an Olympic torch, and thrust it down into the chamber below. The glass exploded and a harsh light radiated upward, illuminating the man's face.
It was Dad. It was Joe Ellington.
In rapid succession, he lit the remaining bombs and threw them into the chamber. A howl, as if from a wounded beast, echoed below ground. The man stood to his feet and fell back two or three paces. He looked around for the steel pole and found it. As he rose from the ground, a firestorm seemed to belch from the chamber below and out onto the hillside. It appeared to be a man in flames, screaming and flailing his arms in an attempt to put out the fire. In an impossible leap he flew upward into the branches of a pine tree, bounding off limbs and rolling through the green branches. Two-thirds up the height of the tree, the man jumped away, falling to the earth and rolling down the hill into the brush. The fire seemed to be out. Smoke rose from the acacias that punctuated the hillside.
Joe's breathing once again settled into a semi-normal rhythm. He waited a few minutes and then moved toward the spot where the other had landed. The steel pole now rested on his shoulder, carried in the manner of a day laborer who had finished his work. He approached the acacia bushes and watched as smoke drifted up from their midst. He raised the pole as though it were a spear and seemed prepared to thrust it into the bushes. Before he could make the throw, the body on the ground rose up, pushed the pole aside like a matchstick, and struck Joe violently in the solar plexus. Joe fell back on the ground, gasping for air. The attacker stood over him, blackened by the fire, smoke drifting off his body.
Joe rose to his knees. The man fell upon him, biting and tearing at him like a wild animal. Joe screamed and soon fell silent. The man continued his attack, like a starved hyena on a carcass. The scene clouded over and faded from view.
When Vickie awoke, she ran down the hall to the bathroom. She locked herself in, bent over the toilet and vomited.
Danny and Al pulled their gear from the jeep and walked the path up the hill.
“I hear that a box up the coast has five or six rooms in it,” said Al.
“I guess these things come in all sizes,” said Danny. “We've got them from San Diego to Seattle. Some have got the big 16-inch guns.”
“Yeah, and we get the smallest one of the bunch,” said Al. “At least it's quiet here.”
As they approached the ground-level hatch, Danny picked up a rock and squatted down. He tapped three times on the steel hatch. After a few seconds, the hatch opened with a metallic grind.
“You're early,” came a voice from the shaft below.
“Hey, Campio,” said Danny. “It's almost dark-you guys want an escort home? Could be scary out there.”
“Shut up and get inside,” said Campio. “We're going nuts in here.”
Al passed his gear to Danny. He dropped the bags down the shaft to Campio. The men climbed down the ladder and entered the chamber. The main room contained two bunks and an equipment rack on the opposite wall. The dominant fixture was the 50-caliber machine gun mounted on a turret in the middle. The muzzle faced out toward the ocean through a wide slot formed in the concrete wall. In a smaller second room, another soldier sat at a steel desk, writing in a log book. To his left was a large two-way radio on the edge of the desk.
“Come on, Abramowitz. Get us logged out and let's go,” said Campio. Abramowitz finished the entries and closed the log book. Without comment, he picked up his bag, climbed up the ladder and exited the bunker.
“It's all yours, boys,” said Campio. “I'm off to find some beer.” He stepped toward the ladder and then stopped. “Oh, yeah. Sarge says to oil those bayonets. You never know when Adolf will drop by for a shave.” As Danny and Al settled in, Campio climbed out and followed Abramowitz.
Al looked at the two M1's propped in the corner by the bunks. Two sixteen-inch bayonets were on the floor next to them. “I don't get why the sergeant wastes these on us. If we got attacked, what would we do with a couple of rifles anyway?”
“Maybe he's just watching out for us, Al,” said Danny. “We can clean up the bayonets later when we really get bored. They're pretty new, so Sarge will know if they look rusty. This salt air does them in pretty quickly.”
“Okay,” said Al. “I'll get us logged in. I can also take the first watch. After that, I've got some reading to do.”
Danny stopped and looked over at Al. “Reading? You? I mean, I didn't know you liked to read.”
“Sometimes,” said Al. “At least it takes me out of this place for a while. You know, my cousin is in the Navy and is on a sub somewhere out there. I told him he was crazy to be in that floating coffin. Now, here I am, in an underground tomb. Can't win for losing.”
The men finished their evening setup and prepared for the long night ahead.
Jay wove through the neighborhood, heading for Cedar Avenue, which would take them toward Ashley's house. The five-year-old Honda wasn't the hottest car in town, but it was reliable and in good shape. And, it had been his dad's car.
He looked over at his younger sister. Two years apart, they fought like all siblings, but their love for each other had always been evident-at least until Dad died. Jay broke the silence as he turned onto Cedar. “So when are you going to get your driver's license, Vick?”
Vickie looked over at her brother and snarled. “I don't know. And why do you care, anyway? I wouldn't even have a car.”
“Hey, slow down. I didn't mean to start a fight.”
“Look, if you don't want to drive me, just say so. I can take a bus.”
Jay pulled off the street into a grocery store parking lot, stopped the car, and shut off the engine. He turned to face his sister. “Listen. This is me. I'm not your enemy. I'm your brother, remember?” Vickie remained silent, looking down. “Come on, Vickie. Talk to me. What are you so angry about?”
Vickie shrugged. “I'm not angry. I just don't like people bugging me all the time.”
“I'm not trying to bug you. I just want to talk with you.” Jay looked steadily at his sister. “Vick, I miss Dad too.”
Vickie fussed with her fingernails, picking off chips of black polish. “It isn't fair, Jay.”
Jay reached over and placed his hand on Vickie's shoulder. “I know it isn't. There's nothing fair about it. But we have to keep ourselves together.”
She looked up and met her brother's eyes. “Jay, do you believe in God?”
Jay hesitated before answering. “Yes, I think so. I don't understand why any of this happened, but I think I believe in God.”
“Do you believe in Hell?” she asked.
“I don't know,” said Jay. He looked out the window, watching a box boy collect grocery carts from the parking lot. “Not really. It doesn't make sense to me that a good God would create eternal torment for people...”
“I don't believe in Hell either,” said Vickie, brushing tears from her darkly painted eyes. “Because if there was a Hell, then God should go there for what he let happen to Dad. And if there is a God, then he's a bastard and doesn't care about us.”
Jay was startled by his sister's outburst. His own agnosticism about certain religious views was nothing compared to Vickie's angry assessment of the deity. “Jeez, Vick. Maybe you'd better hope that there isn't a God. He might be pissed at you right now.”
Vickie laughed. Jay smiled as he saw a hint of his sister's old self emerge, even if just for a moment. She returned to her fingernails. “I don't know, Jay. I just feel really ripped off.”
Jay remained quiet for a minute or two. “Vick, why the vampire thing?” She shrugged a silent I-don't-know. “I mean, isn't the whole vampire story related to some idea of Hell?”
“Just in old books and folktales,” said Vickie. “The whole vampire culture is just about recognizing how dark life is. It's just like a political expression or a protest against culture. It's a harmless thing. It doesn't have anything to do with sucking blood, except when freaks get involved.”
Looking at his watch, Jay said, “Oh man. I have to get to work.” He started the car and left the parking lot, returning to his original route. “Hey-there's a free concert on campus tonight. You want to go with me?”
Vickie smiled and looked up, dark mascara framing her blue eyes. Her smile faded as a grayness came over her face. “No, thanks. I'm doing something with Ashley tonight.”
“Oh. Okay,” said Jay. “You've just started hanging around her, haven't you? I, mean, she's new, right?”
“Yeah,” said Vickie. “Sort of.”
“So what happened to your other friends-Allison, Kristie-you know,” said Jay. “Don't you see them anymore?”
“Sometimes,” shrugged Vickie. “I don't know. We just sort of drifted. Ashley's cool.”
“So, is everything else okay?”
“Yeah, I guess. I'm just tired,” said Vickie. “I had this really weird dream last night and I couldn't go back to sleep for a long time.”
“A dream? Was it... about Dad?”
“Yeah. But I really don't want to talk about it,” said Vickie.
“Okay,” said Jay. “Maybe later?”
“Sure,” said Vickie. “Maybe later.”
They continued their trip in silence. When Jay deposited Vickie at her friend's house, Ashley ran out to meet them at the car. As the two girls ran into the house, Jay observed how similar they were to each other. Not only did they wear the same kind of black clothing, but they were also about the same size-a couple of beauties beneath all the ugly makeup. He marveled at the corporate nature of high school individualism.
When Jay arrived at work, the Saturday manager, Ed Dunn, was unlocking the front doors of the hardware store. Ed was sixty-ish and moved slowly against his hefty bulk. His gray crew cut gave him the look of a drill sergeant.
“Hey, Ed.” Jay ducked in the door.
“You're late, asshole.”
“Sue me. Had a family crisis.”
“You are a crisis. Get that patio display out front before the hordes descend. My hemorrhoids are already killing me and it's only 10:00. I don't need anymore grief, hot shot.”
“Hemmies, eh?” said Jay. “Is that why you have assholes on the mind?”
“No,” said Ed. “Just thinking of you.”
Jay barked a laugh as he headed for the back room of the store. As he entered, he saw Phil, his weekend co-worker. Phil was a hardware career man-not because he loved the business, but because he lacked ambition to do anything else with his life. Jay liked him, but considered him a prime example of why he wanted to finish college.
“Hi, Phil. How's it going?”
Phil was on his hands and knees, his pants sloping downward enough from his bulging middle to reveal his plumber's crack. He turned from the gas barbecue he was assembling. “Hey, man. Where have you been?”
“I'm only fifteen minutes late. Had some family stuff,” said Jay.
“Oh. Yeah.” Phil scrunched his eyes into a concerned look. “Everything okay?”
Jay removed his t-shirt and pulled out his personalized Taylor Hardware shirt from a locker mounted on the wall. Over the pocket was a hand-sown patch inscribed with the legend: Jay — Here to Serve You. “Yeah, it's okay. My sister is just acting up and driving my mom crazy.”
“Wow. My cousin Wendy started acting crazy when she was in high school.” Phil became pensive. “She got knocked up and ran off with some biker to Oregon.”
“Gee, Phil. Thanks for the story,” said Jay. “You ever thought about becoming a therapist?”
Phil looked at Jay and made arches out of his eyebrows. “No. I'm too old to change jobs-I'm almost forty, damn it! Plus, I could never make people do all those stretching exercises.”
“Right. I don't know what I was thinking about.” Jay finished the last button on his shirt and moved toward the patio furniture designated by Ed.
“Jay-can I asked you something?”
Jay kept stacking patio chairs together. “Sure. What is it?”
“Your Dad-I don't want to be nosy-but what happened to him?” Phil rubbed a grease-smeared hand over his balding head, leaving a dark smudge in between the remaining fluffs of curly dark hair. “I know he died and all, but I heard it was a real mess.”
Jay continued to work, but with greater intensity. “Yeah, it was a mess. There wasn't much left of him.”
Phil grimaced. “Ugh. Did they ever catch the guy who did it?”
“No, they never caught anybody. It's a big mystery,” said Jay. “I have to get this stuff out front. Ed's gonna kill me if it isn't out there soon.”
Phil watched Jay push through the backroom doors, carrying the stack of chairs. “Yeah, a big mess,” he said to himself. “Helluva thing.”
“Hi, Mrs. Porter.” Vickie glanced in the living room as she and Ashley made their way toward the back bedroom.
“Hi, Vickie,” said Janie Porter. “Ashley, did you take some of my cigarettes? This carton seems almost empty.” Janie kicked a beer can off the couch where she was reclined. As she shook the cigarette carton as evidence, the full can of beer in her other hand also shook, sloshing beer on her shirt. She didn't seem to notice.
“No, Mom. I didn't touch your cigarettes.” Ashley kept moving toward her bedroom. She didn't look toward her mother nor did she wait for a response.
The girls entered the bedroom and Ashley shut the door. “Everything's set for tonight, Vick,” said Ashley. “Sean says there's some new guy coming. I asked him if the guy was hot and Sean just told me to piss off. That means the guy is hot. Sean is such a worm.”
“Yeah,” said Vickie. “Sean gives me the creeps. He's always trying to look through our clothes. I'd rather be a real vampire than touch Sean.”
Ashley locked her eyes on Vickie's. “Really? Would you really want that?”
“What? To touch Sean? Yuck!”
“No, I mean really be a vampire?”
“Come on, Ash. You know what I mean. Don't get weird.” Vickie turned toward Ashley's bed. “What's all this stuff?” She reached out to a black duffle bag on the bed.
“It's stuff for tonight. We're going to do a role-play-it's kind of a test for this new guy.” Ashley took the bag from Vickie and dumped its contents on her bed. From it fell a cheap propane lighter, a plastic crucifix on a bead necklace, a two-foot redwood stake, and two packs of cigarettes.
“What's this?” said Vickie. “I thought you told your mom you didn't take any of her cigarettes?”
Ashley shrugged. “Doesn't matter. She's drunk most of the time and usually doesn't know the difference anyway. What-I'm hurting her by taking some of her cigarettes? It's not like they're vitamins or something.”
Vickie picked up the redwood stake. “This is cheesy, Ash. This is for holding up tomato plants. If you're going to kill a vampire, shouldn't you use something carved out of a human bone or a 300-year old oak tree or something?”
“It'll do for tonight,” said Ashley. “It's only a role-play. These are just props.” She looked steadily at Vickie. “Vick, are you really into this? You sound like you think it's dumb.”
“I don't know,” said Vickie. “I like some of it. I like fitting in with something that feels sort of on the edge of... of something, I don't know what. But sometimes these role-plays feel like little kids playing make-believe. We're almost seventeen, Ash. Being with dorks like Sean is like playing house with your little brothers.”
“Yeah, sometimes it gets stupid,” said Ashley. “But I keep hoping it will get more real.”
“What do mean?” said Vickie.
“Well, it's like what we're doing is sort of like a play about something that's really going on. I keep hoping that we'll experience the real thing sometime,” said Ashley.
“Real vampires, you mean?”
“Maybe. There could be real ones.”
“Don't say that, Ash. It freaks me out.” Vickie hugged her arms to herself.
Ashley jumped onto her bed, sat down and crossed her legs. “Doesn't it seem awesome, though? Never dying, changing shape, free from all the crap that people have to live with. No drunk moms... you know what I mean, Vick?”
Vickie sat on the bed. “I guess. But it's all folklore, Ashley. There's a lot I would like to escape, but not that way. It just isn't real. I just do this because I hate school and I want to crawl out of my skin sometimes.”
“Just because we haven't seen any real vampires doesn't mean they aren't real,” said Ashley. “I would be one if I could.”
“Yeah, okay. Whatever,” said Vickie.
Ashley's face softened. “Vick, do you still miss your dad?”
Vickie looked down and traced the outline of a stitch on the bedspread. “Yeah. My dad was great. I even dream about him.”
“What do you dream?” said Ashley.
“I don't know. Sometimes just crazy stuff.” She looked up at Ashley. “Don't you miss your dad?”
“No. Well, I wish I had a dad, but I don't miss him,” said Ashley. “He was mean to my mom and me and then he just took off and left us. It's hard to miss someone who doesn't want you.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Vickie. “I'm sorry, Ash.”
“It's okay. I hope he burns in Hell,” said Ashley. “So did your mom say you could spend the night?”
“Yes, but I don't know. Jay invited me to go to a concert with him tonight.”
“Your brother is such a hunk,” said Ashley. “I wish he was a vampire. I'd be glad to let him bite my neck, and even...”
“Enough!” said Vickie. “This is my brother, Ash. I'm gonna puke!” Both girls screamed and laughed, falling across the bed.
“Really, Vick. You have to stay over! My mom will fall asleep on the couch by 8:00, and we can go to the role-play and stay really late. You have to stay!”
“Maybe I will,” said Vickie. “Yeah, I will. But I don't want to stay out all night again. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Ashley. We'll stay at least until midnight. That's the best time for the role-play. And maybe that new guy will be hot. We might want to stay awhile, Vick.”
“Maybe. We'll see,” said Vickie. “So what are we going to do all day?”
“Let's go to the mall!” said Ashley. “There's a new Halloween shop there. We can see if there are more things we can get for tonight.”
“Cool,” said Vickie. “Let's go now.”
The girls jumped up from the bed. Ashley gathered up the props for the evening and put them back in the bag. She shoved the bag under her bed.
“Hey, Ash,” said Vickie.
“If things get, I don't know, weird tonight, would you be okay if we left early?”
“Weird? Like what?” said Ashley.
“I don't know. With this new guy and all. We don't know who Sean would bring in. What if he's some violent freak or a serial killer or something?” said Vickie.
“Come on, Vick,” said Ashley. “Nothing like that's going to happen. Why would a self-respecting serial killer hang around with someone like Sean?”
“Right. Good point,” said Vickie. “But seriously. Will you promise?”
“Yeah, sure. It'll be fine,” said Ashley. “But if something goes crazy, we'll leave. Promise. But like you said, Vick. It's just for fun.”
Janie Porter wasn't completely drunk yet. It wasn't even noon-she had awhile before she drifted into another beery coma. There was plenty of beer and half a carton of cigarettes to keep her company.
As Ashley and Vickie disappeared down the hallway, Janie let herself remember-just for a moment-when she was only sixteen. She had thought there was a future for her: A husband, a family, something that would take her from the home that made her want to run away and blend in with the horizon.
Janie thought that Ray-“Killer Ray,” as his friends called him (that should have been her clue)-would rescue her from her life. If her dad hit her again she thought he might kill her; her mother never seemed to notice what was going on. She thought Ray was the answer. They married when Janie was eighteen. Janie was barely showing on their wedding day, not that anyone in Vegas cared.
But Ray just picked up where her father left off. Six months after they were married, Ashley was born, and Janie hoped Ray would settle down. He backed off some, but when the little girl started walking Ray found too many reasons to knock her around. When Ashley was twelve Ray finally left, driving off in his big rig with that blond whore sitting right next to him. Ashley saw him laughing as he left-Janie didn't miss that. She was glad he was gone, but she knew she would now be nothing without him.
Booze and smokes were her only friends now. Her night job waitressing at the bar paid the rent, but there wasn't much left after that. The job also kept her moving and burned off the beer-at least she still had a fairly decent body. The few guys she slept with didn't want a future with her and she didn't mind. The hour or so they spent together helped her forget her life for a while.
As she heard Ashley's bedroom door shut, Janie told herself that she'd do almost anything to escape the hopelessness of life. Yes, she'd do anything.
Jay hauled the patio furniture out to the sidewalk in front of the store. As he set the last chair in place against the table he paused to take in the morning. It would be a warm day, but autumn was coming. Sure, it was southern California, but the seasons came just as they did in Indiana or Maine. Jay always figured you had to pay close attention in order to catch the changing of the seasons anywhere south of San Francisco.
He noticed how the fall air-even here in town-carried hints of acacia and anise. Even the smell of the ocean had changed. Jay could also tell a difference in the shadows. They angled differently than they did in July or August. The shadows seemed longer and darker. Fall was, for Jay, auditory, visual and olfactory. It's just that you had to appreciate subtlety.
As Jay looked across the street, his eyes were drawn to the shadows in the storefronts. The entrance to the old Granada Theater-closed three years ago after the multiplex across town opened up-was deep in shadows. His eyes moved past the abandoned ticket booth to the dirty glass doors where he used to enter to see Star Wars and Back to the Future; the older folks had passed through to see Bogart, Wayne, Newman and Redford. Jay's eyes stopped at the exit door.
A shape materialized against the glass, a shape darker than the shadows surrounding it. It seemed human for a moment, then shifted to something out of focus. Jay felt as though he was being watched by the figure, but he couldn't isolate it in his scope of vision long enough to be sure. Jay thought he could see two dull, red glows at the top of the figure. For just a moment, they looked like eyes.
Although the morning had not yet turned uncomfortably warm, Jay began to perspire. At the same time, he shivered. He wanted to run inside the store but couldn't move. He was jarred from his frozen position by the sound of the door behind him opening.
“Hey, Jay,” said Ed Dunn. “Hurry up with that display. Phil is up to his ass in that barbecue. You need to help him before he screws the whole thing up.”
Jay stared blankly at Ed. “Uh, yeah, okay. I'll be there in a minute.”
Ed disappeared inside the store. Jay turned toward the theater again. The glass doors appeared dirty and empty. Jay breathed deeply and gathered up the packing materials from the furniture. He pushed through the front doors and headed toward the back room to rescue Phil.
From across the street, the two red eyes reignited. After a few seconds, they disappeared.
Copyright © 2014 by Mike McNichols