Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ink-Quisitions with Beau Johnson


I must confess to feeling cranky lately. Normally, my emotional state wouldn’t be an issue. As an Ink-Quistioner, I have a job to do. And I strive to stay professional. Not that I don’t enjoy the work, of course.
But as I close out Story and Grit’s 2018 Ink-Quisition year with Canadian crime writer Beau Johnson, today’s not “business as usual.” The matters at hand are personal.
Because today’s about Atonement. As some of you may have heard, Beau Johnson has been negligent. A man’s supposed to protect his castle. He’s supposed to keep watch from his Tower and bar intruders from his domain.
But Beau fell asleep on duty. As a result, crime and horror writer Kevin Berg managed to breach the Johnson castle walls and filch an advanced copy of Beau’s latest book THE BIG MACHINE EATS—before I got my copy of this long-awaited manuscript—which became available to readers everywhere on November 26th.
To add insult to injury, I told Beau on several occasions that he was now in deep shit. But did he ever say he was sorry and assume responsibility for his actions? Nope. Instead he sent me “clown” pics.
I thought driving a spiked stiletto-heel into his forehead last month might knock some sense into him. Wishful thinking. When I asked him to send me an author pic for this interview, Mr. Johnson resorted to intimidation—and sent me a photo of himself: clutching an ax with both hands.
So today Story and Grit isn’t featuring the author photo Beau Johnson typically uses to promote his work. You know the one I’m talking about. The creepy pic where he looks like a home invader—grinning slyly in the foyer—like he’s about to hike the stairwell to the upstairs bedrooms, and slaughter everyone in their sleep.
The photo we’re running today is much more appropriate. Beau was unprepared to find me standing in his hallway at the time this photo was taken. In fact you could say he was stunned—
In more ways than one.
Because the cattle prod I zapped him with delivers way more volts than the ones y’all typically find in your local Agway store.
I imagine most of you Ink-Quisitive folks are wondering where Beau Johnson is right now. And you want to hear from him. After all, there are two sides to every story, right?
Wrong!
There’s only one side to this story—and that’s mine: this is not a “he said, she said fight.”
For those of you who might not be familiar with Beau Johnson’s work, he spent the previous decade penning tales. And much to his delight, I’m sure, at least a 100 of these stories have magnanimously been given published homes: usually in online magazines on the darker side of town.
In 2017 publisher Down and Out Books sprang Mr. Johnson’s first short story collection, A BETTER KIND OF HATE on an unsuspecting world. Buoyed by this achievement, Beau suddenly fancied himself a dancer, as well as a writer. And deluded himself into thinking he could become an Ultimate Frisbee champion.
But if one believes the legends, Beau came crashing back to earth—he broke his collar bone; became a couch potato; packed on forty excess pounds—and pounded out his second story collection, THE BIG MACHINE EATS solely on his phone, while loafing every day on his ever-expanding ass.
By now I’m sure some a y’all must be thinkin’: Damn. Jesse’s in a tizzy. She’s spewed about six hundred words … and we haven’t heard a word from Beau.
Damn straight I’m in a tizzy. And you haven’t heard a word from Beau cuz he’s got a ball gag in his mouth. He’s also tied up at the moment, if you catch my drift.
Once his collar bone healed, Mr. Johnson apparently shed those extra forty pounds by runnin’ around like a dizzy school girl and jabbering to anyone who would listen about his new book.
As a professional Ink-Quistioner, I strive to present you readers with something truly “fresh” each time I’m here at S&G—
Besides fresh blood that is.
So Beau’s constant babbling darkened my mood further. Every time I started to develop a line of questioning, I had to stop and read the latest propaganda about Mr. Johnson’s larger-than-life character Bishop Rider.
While Beau was dancing under the bright lights over at Mick Rose’s Center Stage last month, Mick naturally talked about Bishop Rider and the man who pens his tales:
“Abuse takes many forms. Betrayal does as well. But for those who have been bitterly abused or betrayed true justice and remedy can never exist.
“Beau Johnson understands this and brings us Bishop Rider, a former policeman who’s seen too much … and suffered some traumas of his own. Mentally twisted by his experiences, driven by his demons, Rider suddenly spends his days dispensing his unique hell-bent brand of justice.
“Just as readers did in A Better Kind of Hate, they will find stories involving other characters in The Big Machine Eats as well. But the song, as they say, always remains the same. Wrongs have been committed: and some folks are going to pay.”
Nice description by Mr. Rose. But to paraphrase his words in true S&G fashion: Bad guys do bad shit—and if Bishop Rider is involved—Bishop fucks them up.
Which, in typical Beau Johnson story-telling fashion, brings us full-circle to my opening remarks: Wrongs have been committed, and Atonement is required.
So the time has finally come to remove Beau’s ball gag. And I as Ink-Quisitioner will preside over these proceedings as both judge and jury—and potential executioner. However, Mr. Johnson will only be allowed to speak directly to my Questions. Any deviations on Beau’s part, and I will gleefully conduct some deviant behaviors on his person.
Q. Have you ever been to Disney World, Beau?
A. Yup. I took my boys there once. Great time. My only advice: GET THE FAST PASS!
Q. What was your favorite ride? And why?
A. Why, the Millennium Falcon, of course—
I kid! I kid! Give me a second ….
I’d say my favorite part was the Tower of Terror. That drop … man, that drop put your stomach in your throat faster than you’d believe.
As for why? Probably because my boys loved it, too.
Q. Amateur Hour: Hostage Negotiation 101, eh Beau? But trying to make your captor “humanize” you by mentioning your kids ain’t gonna work with me. Nevertheless since we’re on the topic of “family”—anyone’s who’s visited you on Facebook has likely seen some of your family photos—which you tend to label “A bunch of Johnsons.” There’s a whole lotta Johnsons in that bunch fer sure. But how many of them Johnsons actually live with you under one castle roof?
A. Five. My wife, Dana, and I. And our three boys. Donnie, Jack, and John-Edward.
Q. How sweet. I went to Disney World once. I was nineteen. Hated the place. Total cluster fuck. Long lines. Lousy food. And all a them sweaty deludedly-happy shining people holding hands. I honestly shoulda snatched some barf bags off the plane.
But sticking with the family theme and the word “fuck”—the first line in your new book—which opens with the story, “What Julie Said” involves both: “Do you ever think about your mother when we fuck?”
What motivated you to write this tale? And why did you choose to make this one the lead story in your latest collection?
A. First off, Jesse, even though you have me bound as you do, Bishop and I would like to offer our thanks to you for having us here at Ink-Quisitions. Throughout the year we have read many an interview, Ink-Quisitions coming to be one of our faves. That being said, could you maybe loosen these zips ties a touch? I mean, I do need these hands to write.
Anyway, to answer your question: the only thing which motivated me to write “What Julie Said” was that first line. As it is with quite a few of my tales, a line pops into my head and boom, we are off to the races. Happens in the opposite direction too, of course, but it’s when the idea starts me somewhere in the middle where I feel I’m truly tested.
As for why it’s the lead story? Comes back to that first line. I mean, it sorta does stand out.
Q. Both of us tend to publish on the darker side of town. So how does the older generation of Johnsons tend to view and treat your stories? When my first story got published two years out of college, my mom begged and begged to read my work. The story appeared in a small college press with a limited print edition. And I proved fortunate to have secured a couple of copies. Against my better judgment, I caved to her whims—
She’s never read one of my stories since. She’s always happy when I get published. But she doesn’t brag about me either.
So a lot of years have passed since any of my “art” has gotten pinned to the fridge with a magnet.
Guess that might explain a few of my anger management issues. Lucky I’ve got you to help me work through some of them. Anyway, what’s the deal with your folks?
A. Totally. Certain members of my family had a hard time not only with what I wrote but what fiction actually is. Weird, I know. I even had a cousin unfriend me on Facebook because they thought certain things I wrote in a story were biographical. They weren’t, this cousin just assumed they were.
I have also had people say, hey, great writing, I just can’t read that stuff. Too dark. Which is fair. As I’ve said before: there isn’t much sunshine in the stuff I write. I offer hope at times, but even that comes with a price.
But as the years have gone on, some of these family members have come around, understanding what fiction is so to speak, and now I have some true champions in my corner. I don’t have them all, and I know I never will, but the ones I do bring a smile to my face.
Q. Generally your stories are considered “macabre.” And granted I haven’t devoured every story in THE BIG MACHINE EATS, yet. But one particular fact struck me as “bizarre.” You don’t trot Bishop Rider onto the scene until your third story, “Knockout.”
Since you’ve taken to sporting T-shirts declaring “Bishop Rider Lives”—why did you decide to delay his appearance? Especially since “Knockout” is such a short story: and we barely get a taste.
By the way, Ink-Quisitive me is also wondering how Mr. Rider feels about your decision. So I splattered invitations all over social media asking him to join us. Only seemed fitting since many of your stories involve “reunions” of sorts—and a lot of them reveal attempts to “set the record straight.”
Though as a bit of incentive to draw Mr. Rider from the shadows, I guess “invitation” isn’t exactly the right word. What I actually said was that Beau Johnson called him a pussy—and what did he think of that?
Regardless of whether Bishop shows up or not, please tell the rest of our Ink-Quisitive audience why you decided to dick us around by not “featuring” Mr. Rider sooner? Although on the plus-side here, your fourth story “In Need of a Win” shows the importance of teamwork, as well as the trust and chemistry, between Rider and a cop—who is definitely not afraid to stick more than his “own neck” out.
A. Ha! Perhaps this is the reason you have me shackled, then. A present to a particular man who may or may not be on his way? Look to the shadows then, Jesse, it’s where Bishop is most at home! 
But seriously, I digress. There are two reasons why Bishop Rider’s struggle doesn’t open the pages of THE BIG MACHINE EATS. One, the first line of “What Julie Said” continues to scream for my attention to this day. Two, it’s as the old adage says: all good things to those who wait.
Q. Let’s drift back in time a bit … the stories I’ve presently read by you were penned over the last few years. So I was stunned to learn last month that you spent three years spinning yarns before your first was ultimately published about seven years ago.
Did your writing style and story-telling approach “evolve” during that three-year span? Or do think your subsequent seven-year success streak is more likely attributed to learning the “markets” where your stories were much more likely to “fit?”
A. A little from column A. A little from column B. It’s no secret that Stephen King is my influence. When I finally returned to writing it was his types of stories I tried to tell. Wrong. So wrong.
Wasn’t until the gravitational pull of crime fiction sucked me into its orbit that I found my voice. I also began to write in first person almost exclusively. It’s not for everyone, no, but I feel first person narrative has be kind to me. Those two things, finding my voice and switching to first person, found me a home in markets I had never explored before.
I haven’t looked back since.
Q. Obviously, Beau, you haven’t been looking at your surroundings period—or your manuscript wouldn’t have been stolen—and you wouldn’t be here now in your current predicament.
Speaking of which, before I smuggled you to this Tower—instead of conducting this Ink-Quisition back at S&G’s basement like I normally do—you used to live in Brantford, Ontario, Canada: sometimes known as Telephone City. How did Brantford earn this moniker? And what is the closest major U.S. city to Brantford?
A. Brantford was the home of Alexander Graham Bell as well, the inventor of that device which connects us all, hence the moniker. A lot less apps on his version, sure, but the man deserves no less credit. 
As for the closet major U.S. city to Branford, I would have to go with Niagara Falls for the win. About an hour from here.
Q. Hypothetically speaking, if I decide to let you live … and return you to your family—though perhaps in several pieces, if Mark and Dawn Westmoreland were visiting you in Brantford for a weekend, where would you take them for lunch and dinner—as well as a few hours of splendid drinking?
A. I never look a gift horse in the mouth, Jesse! The Grand River Dinner Cruises, of course! A family-owned business, “the Boat Farm” was established in 1978 by John and Luella Albin, my in-laws. My brother -in-law, Blain, Dana and I took up the torch some time ago.
That being said, and if you permit me to see the light of another day, we’d wine and dine Mark and Dawn with a three hour, three-course roast beef meal on one of our three boats while leisurely cruising the Grand! Hell, I can almost hear the banjo music playing now! 
Q. In terms of our current circumstances, I find the opening lines of your story, “The Elegance of Absolutes” divinely appropriate:
I ask him about his wife and kids, and then whether he knew the truth about his father. I
don’t have to do this, not at all, but certain things in life are meant to be respected, man-
ners being one of them. Marcus says yeah, big whoop, and I clarify what it is I mean to
convey: it was more the why they took Big Jim’s arms than the how that got us to the
place we were now. “The symmetry I’m able to create from such a thing, this is what I
wish to pass along.” He’d given up his protests long ago, once he’d fully grasped the sit-
uation for what it was. I give him credit for that, I do, and exactly for the reasons you
might think. Wrists and ankles bound, he’s positioned as I want him, the table saw set to
produce sandwich meat first, hard candy second.

“When you hired me, you said we’d be exclusive. Can we agree on that?”

I hope you will reflect carefully on these words, written by your own hands—which remain unharmed and intact—at least for the moment. Granted you didn’t “hire” me for this Ink-Quisition. And as a fiction writer myself, I would never be so cruel as to have demanded an “exclusive” interview.
Nevertheless, this last question is critical, Beau ….
Is there anything you’d like to tell me you’re sorry about?
A. That it has to end, Jesse, as it’s been a pleasure. Not only you and your interrogation, but all the other people like you who have embraced and supported me throughout not only THE BIG MACHINE EATS, but A BETTER KIND OF HATE as well. I am truly grateful and at times gobsmacked at the attention I am given. I strive to pay it forward. And will continue to do so for as long as I am able.
I love to write, Jesse. To create something from nothing and enjoy what my characters have to say. However, to continue to do such things I’m gonna need a little help. You understand what I’m saying here, Jesse? 
For the love of God, woman, give me back my hands!!
Q. Hold that thought a minute, Beau—I gotta make a phone call.
Hey, Dana, it’s Jesse. Yeah, he finally broke. Give me 30 minutes. I'll text you the GPS coordinates and you can pick him up.
Yeah, okay. Hold on a second.
Hey, Beau—Dana wants proof of life. Wants to know one of the safe words y’all use when playin’ games.
Did you catch that Dana? He just croaked “Thanos.” Okay, we’re set then. I’ll leave my cattle prod here in case you feel like zapping him a few times. Feel free to keep that baby and use it in good health.
Well, Beau, bein’ a crime writer who’s watched too many movies, no way in hell I’m cutting you lose. So drink this—
You’ll wake with the mother of all hangovers, but a small price to pay I think. Fashioned this concoction myself using a cocktail recipe Mark Westmoreland gave me. Bourbon, beat juice and a few key “active ingredients” I won’t mention—but the street name for these drugs is Mississippi Mud. Though I quadrupled the dose of course.
Thanks for joining us folks. I gotta clear outta here now, and put some mega-distance between me and the cops if Dana decides to involve them. Hope y’all enjoy your Holidays. And stay safe out there ya here? Lotta strange people in this crazy world besides me.
Anyone who’s never had the pleasure of readin’ about Bishop Rider can sample some of his tawdry tales for free at www.beaujohnsonfiction.com
And also find his books on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Beau-Johnson/e/B079MHF7RG/
Meanwhile, THE BIG MACHINE EATS has certainly created a lot of buzz. And I imagine that table saw I mentioned earlier’s got a lot to do with that. So all you Rider junkies can further feed your addictions by checkin’ out the Links below if you haven’t already caught a whiff. Cheers!
Crime Writer Jason Beech has a go at Beau:
Beau dances like a ballerina at Mick Rose’s Center Stage:
Author Dana King digests Beau and his Machine “One Bite at a Time” (talk about “cheesy”):
And here’s Beau looking more “composed” during a quiet chat with his Hometown Newspaper:

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Monday, November 26, 2018

Anka by Chris McGinely


Anka

The only person in town who ever called Anna Reed by her Inupiak name was her husband.  And he was long dead.

Like the other eskimeaux around, she had moved south in the wake of the blood trail brought by Russian fur traders years ago.  She was the only one from her village to make it, and at the time the Doctor in Red Boulder had to remove two of her toes because of frostbite.  Still, he sent her to Emma’s House of Pleasures as soon as she could walk.  What else was he supposed to do?  For her part, Emma said the tattoos on the girl’s chin might be a deal-breaker.  Then again, who knew?  Maybe some clients would find it exotic.  She agreed to take her on.

But it wasn’t to be.  And soon Emma was glad to be shut of the willful girl.  Anna simply refused to work for her.  At that point, the prospect of starvation was every bit as real as when the Russians decimated her village and killed her father.  Fortunately for Anna, the saloon owner’s wife took pity on her and hectored her husband into hiring the girl as a cook and scrubwoman.

Sheriff Reed, a widower and a regular at the saloon, eventually fell for her and married her.  It wasn’t the way things usually went, but it wasn’t the strangest set of circumstances either.  And it almost ended well.  But the sheriff was shot in the back by one of the Morris gang, likely Willis or Mitchell, though it could have been any one of them. No one knew for sure.
Anna attended five separate hangings just to make certain.

She knew how to conduct business and run the jail, but the lush of a deputy was no account.  His drinking went into high gear when the watchful sheriff died, and the town suffered.  That all changed with Scotch Richards, a wanted man if ever there was one.  Word spread that the town was lacking a lawman, and Scotch decided to take advantage.  He figured the saloon in Red Boulder to be an easy hit, and soon enough Anna’s benefactor lay dead behind the bar.  But a young boy on an errand saw what was happening through the saloon doors and ran to the Sheriff’s office. The deputy was passed out and Anna was sewing a pair of mukluks from a deerskin she had harvested herself.  When the boy entered, she was pulling a sinew through a hole with a bone needle.

“The saloon’s being robbed, Miss Anna!”

“What? Are you sure?”

“It’s that Scotch Richards, the wanted one.”

“Stay inside here,” she ordered.

Anna knew Scotch would be on his mount any second now, but she was dead if he spotted a gun on her.  She grabbed her bola from the wall and stuffed it in her sewing bag.  When she got out onto the street she saw Scotch on his grey mare thundering down the road in her direction.  As he passed she let loose the bola.

The horse’s front feet tangled and Scotch was thrown hard.  He lost his gun but she could see him moving toward it.  She ran flat out for him.  Before he reached the Colt she pounced on his back and drove the bone needle into his neck, again and again.  A wounded animal is the most dangerous thing, her father had always said.  Anna felt the old instincts return.

Soon a crowd had gathered.  Her white blouse was a mess of blood and her face was covered in gore.  A woman offered her a kerchief and Anna wiped her face clean, revealing her tattoos once more for all to see again.  Still in her hand, the bone needle dripped blood into the street.
That was long ago.  Anna had been sheriff ever since.

***

During one of the worst snowfalls ever to hit the region, Emma’s House of Pleasures was robbed.  The thief said he was a rail worker, a Russian just staying the night before he left to supervise a gang of Chinese laborers.  He took a girl first. Then he took the till at gunpoint and lit out.  Miss Emma badgered Anna to get a posse assembled and go after the man.  But Anna said it was best to wait until dawn.  Emma was furious.

“You’re just gonna let him get away, you eskimeaux bitch?”

“Be quiet, Emma.  Go tend to your women.”

“Some sheriff we got here,” Emma spat out.  “What?  You afraid of the snow?  I thought you people knew how to get around in the snow.  He’s Russian.  He must know how to get through the snow, right?”

“He might know.  I do know.  That’s why I want to wait.  I can only track him in the light.  Now go on.  Let me get my dogs ready.”

***

The girl’s father had no sons.  So whether she wanted to or not, she learned.  He showed her how to see a track even after snow had fallen.  “You must squint,” he explained.  “Then you can see it, even though you cannot see it.”

***

A dogsled was an unusual thing to see around Red Boulder.  It was early, but the animals made a racket as they pulled.  Those who rose in time saw the sheriff in her parka barking out commands to her team.  She cut a grim figure with her whip and her black mask slit only at the mouth and eyes.  In a holster attached to the stanchions of the sled was a .22 single-shot rifle.  She carried some kindling and dried wood, too.  Pinned to her parka was the gold star.

Anna knew that if she could keep her quarry running in the flatlands, she would have an advantage.  For hours she followed the trail, and when she finally fed and watered the dogs at a little brook, she saw that the distance between his hoof falls had shortened.  The horse was tiring in the snow.  When her dogs balked at crossing the brook, Anna lashed them furiously until the lead dog finally dove in.

***

The girl was tired and hungry. Her father had made a tactical error in following the caribou so far out.  He said, “We must kill this caribou.  It’s tired, you can see by the tracks, but he seems to keep on going.  I wonder if he’s trying to kill us.  This is a spiteful caribou.”  He thought about eating one of the dogs, but the others would need food to pull.  No, they must kill the caribou now.  They must keep going.

***

At dusk, Anna finally saw the man and his horse, a little spot on a rise a few miles ahead.  She hoped he had heard her dogs, but she fired a shot with the .22 anyway.  He wasn’t going anywhere soon, and at nightfall she tucked her feet under the sled and slept.

But sometime late the dogs awoke her with horrible baying.

At first light she followed the trail, and soon the team came across his horse.  Now Anna knew why the dogs had barked so.  Part of the flank had been butchered, but there had been no fire.   She tried to beat back the snarling team but it was no use.  With great effort, she managed to cut some meat for herself.  This she cooked and ate deliberately.  There would be no rush now.

The dogs devoured the carcass.

She saw the Russian long before the team got near him.  Just like the caribou years ago, he had eventually wearied and collapsed on the ground.
“Where’s the money and where’s your gun?” Anna demanded, the .22 in hand.

In a Russian accent he answered, “They’re here.  Please have mercy.”

Anna retrieved the bag of Emma’s money and the Russian’s Colt.  “You’re Russian.  Are you a fur trader?” she asked him.

“I’m a thief.”

“A fur trader is always a thief.  Do you trade furs still?”

“I did, but not anymore.”  He noticed her tattoos.  “Are you Inupiak?  I once did business with Inupiak,” he pleaded.

“You’re going to business with one now,” she said.  “I’m taking back this money.  In exchange, I’m giving you your life, though it may not be worth much.  You’ve been North.  You know.  But we can make a bargain.”

“How?”

“I can keep you from more misery.  Free of charge.”

The wind howled and blew a blinding gust of snow across the plain.  The Russian knew he was as good as dead.  He figured it was time to settle accounts.

“OK,” he said.  “Tell me your name, though.  Mine is Yuri.”

“Anka,” she said. And he turned away from her.

A shot rang out and reverberated across the plain.  Cordite hung in the cold air for a moment and the dogs bayed furiously.  Anka looked at the sky.  The snow would be on them soon.  Then she remembered the storm that waylaid her and her father years ago.  Only because they took every last bit of meat from the animal did the dogs survive those several days.

She took an ulu knife from her sled and moved toward the body.

-End-

Bio Chris McGinley has appeared in MYSTERY WEEKLY, RETREATS FROM OBLIVION, TOUGH, SWITCHBLADE, PULP MODERN, HARDBOILED (forthcoming), the ID Press crime anthology (forthcoming), and on a host of crime writing sites like Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, and Yellow Mama. He teaches middle school in Lexington, KY. 
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Monday, November 19, 2018

Dollface by Michael Bracken



Dollface

When I was a child, my father died in an accident, leaving my mother with nothing but funeral expenses. Soon after that we moved from Canton, Ohio, to Waco, Texas, to live with my mother’s younger sister and her family. We were only able to take with us what we could carry on the train, so I took my favorite doll, a stuffed clown with a celluloid face molded into a permanent smile. Dressed half in red with white polka dots and half in white with red polka dots, Jeepers went with me everywhere.

While my aunt welcomed us into their apartment, neither my uncle Fred nor my cousin Darla—a girl a year older than me that my uncle repeatedly referred to as “Dollface”—were as accommodating. My mother and I were given Darla’s bedroom and she was forced to sleep on the couch.

Darla and I had never met before our arrival that summer, but she took an instant disliking to me and did anything she could to torture me when our parents weren’t paying attention. The first time Darla hit me hard enough to make tears well up in my eyes, I ran to my mother and told her what had happened. She, in turn, told my uncle, who was home because he did not work.

He called Darla into the living room, had her sit on his knee, and told her what I had told my mother. Then my uncle asked, “You wouldn’t ever do anything like that, would you Dollface?”

“No, Daddy.”

“And, if you did, you would apologize, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Do you have any reason to apologize now?”

“No, Daddy.”

“There,” my uncle said as he turned his attention on my mother and me. “That’s settled.”

I tried to protest as my cousin smiled at me from her father’s lap. “But—”

“Seems your boy is a bit of a whiner, Maylene,” my uncle said. “You might want to set him straight about making false accusations.”

My mother and my uncle stared at one another for a moment, and then my mother grabbed my arm and dragged me into the bedroom. After she shut the door, she squatted so that we were eye-to-eye. She still held my arm and she pulled me close.

“We have nowhere else to go,” she said, “so you play nice with your cousin, and if you can’t play nice, you just stay away from her.”

“But—”

Her grip tightened and tears leaked onto my cheeks, the pain far worse than when Darla had hit me. “You hear me,” my mother demanded. “Play nice with your cousin or stay away from her.”

After my mother finished with me, I remained in the bedroom hugging Jeepers. He knew the truth about what happened, even if he couldn’t ever tell anyone.

My cousin’s torture escalated after that as she found new ways to cause me pain with each passing day. I had given up tattling to my mother, even when Darla pushed me down the last few steps of the apartment building and I scraped my face.

When my mother asked what happened, I told her I tripped.

When my uncle saw the scrapes on my face, he laughed. He tousled my cousin’s dark hair. “Good thing you’re not clumsy like that, Dollface.”

Darla smiled up at him.

My aunt said nothing. She never did.

That night I cried myself to sleep while I hugged Jeepers.

“Your boy isn’t right,” my uncle told my mother over breakfast the next morning. “Boys aren’t supposed to play with dolls.”

“He’s had a rough time, losing his father and all,” my mother explained. “He needs something to comfort him.”

They spoke as if Darla and I were not present.

“He needs to grow a pair,” my uncle said. “He never will if you coddle him like you do.”

“He’ll be fine, Fred,” my mother insisted. “Just give him time.”

My cousin didn’t.

Two days later, after waking from an afternoon nap my mother insisted I take, I awoke to find Jeepers gone. I frantically tore the apartment apart looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found until Darla strutted into the living room dragging my doll by one arm.

I snatched Jeepers from my cousin and ran to the couch where my mother was sitting. As I turned him over I saw that his smiling celluloid face had been torn off.

I shoved Jeepers in my mother’s face. “Look what she did!”

My uncle, sitting in the recliner facing the television, turned to see what I was yelling about. He caught my cousin’s attention and asked, “What happened, Dollface?”

“He left that thing outside,” Darla said. “The neighbor’s dog got it. I saw.”

“I didn’t!” I protested. “I never would! She did it! She did it! She did it!”

“That’s enough,” my mother yelled. “Go to the bedroom. Now!”

I started to protest, but my mother pushed me off the couch and shoved me toward the bedroom. As I closed the door, I heard her apologize to my uncle for my behavior.

Jeepers and I hid in the closet for a long time, hugging and crying and wishing my father was alive and that we didn’t have to live with my aunt and my uncle and my cousin. I wanted everything to be the way it had been in Ohio.

I didn’t leave the closet, even though my mother tried to entice me out for dinner and again at bedtime, until well past midnight. I crept into the kitchen, took a knife from the butcher block, and found my cousin asleep on the couch.

What I did was messy and took a long time in the dark, but when the adults finally awoke, Darla could no longer torture me and Jeepers had a new dollface.

-End-

Bio Michael Bracken, recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement, is author of several books, including All White Girls, and more than 1,200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Espionage Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and many other anthologies and periodicals. He lives and writes in Texas. Learn more at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com.

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