BY: WILL CHRISTOPHER BAER
Dispatch told us not to bother with the siren. The cops were already on the scene and they were confident the guy was dead. They just wanted us to cart the body, something we were strictly not meant to do. But this was a backwoods ambulance outfit run by the sheriff’s twitchy nephew, who had a side hustle arrangement with the coroner. The last medic who made static about it promptly failed his next piss test. I dumped my coffee out the window and grabbed the handrail and before I could say boo we were ripping through the streets silent but for our tires burning around corners. Josephine was at the wheel and she always drove like she had the secret formula for cold fusion in her hip pocket. The siren was irrelevant. She swore it fucked up her concentration. I closed my eyes, took a slow wander through my skull. My imagination had withered and there was little to see. I might have once spooled up a skinny runaway OD’d in a basement or a partially burned body in someone’s backyard, but somewhere along the way I had eased that shit right out of my diet. I gave it up the way a fat man says no to a bear claw after seeing a few graphic color photos of an exploded heart.
The house was ordinary.
Call it, said Josephine.
Twenty says three and two, I said, Possible breakfast nook.
Two and a half, she said. No breakfast nook.
Hah. Make it forty, I said.
I crouched to touch the grass, patchy and tinder dry. Josephine stood beside me. Her thigh brushed my shoulder and I could feel her vibrating slightly, as if her bones were humming.
She exhaled the words fuck me slowly, like a plume of smoke.
I knew what had her spooked. The house was too dark. One window glowing, soft yellow. A kid’s pink BMX bike was stashed next to the front steps. A house with new dead is always lit up like a carnival, especially a house with kids running around. Nobody wants their daughter to get the idea grandma’s soul is adrift in the sitting room.
Why do you always touch the grass, Josephine growled.
The grass tells me what to expect inside.
I opened the back of the rig and unloaded the board, the crash gear.
The guy is dead, said Josephine.
I shrugged. You never know.
Josephine had been my partner for exactly three months and a day. She just passed her ninety-day new hire probation period. I had been trying not to contemplate getting into her pants for roughly ninety-one days. And I was failing. I couldn’t stop thinking about her body and her pale possibly humming skin for two minutes in a row, but I wasn’t sure I trusted her. I wasn’t even positive I liked her. The thought of getting into bed with her was like staring at a cup of cool clear water that might or might not be tainted with anthrax. Josephine tended to burn too bright and I reckoned she had a pure destruction jones that ran deep. She was talented, no question, with zen-sharp reflexes and firewalker focus that was freakish. Josephine knew how to save people but was pathologically detached about it. The job was just another video game with seemingly endless but finite sandbox variables, maddening glitches, decoy Easter eggs. Josephine was a gamer geek and she regularly pointed out parallel metaphors between the two worlds. She popped more Adderall than maybe seemed healthy but that wasn’t so unusual. Josephine was thin as a shadow and she bruised too easy, like a peach.
As for me, well. I had my own demons under the skin.
The screen door slammed behind us like a thousand others. A blur of smoky fur. Ever watchful for the undead, I glanced to the right and saw the yellow eyes of a cat peering back at me. Sullen and gray as a ghost, crouched under a crooked porch swing. A cop stood by the front door, smoking. Josephine cruised past him to examine the scene, but I had a feeling the man wanted to talk.
What’s the story? I said.
Fucking freak show in there. He blew a gash of smoke between us.
I stared at him and the air around us got thick in a hurry. I loved a good silence.
Family of four, the cop said. Dad’s DOA in the TV room, stinking up the place.
How long? I said.
Fuck if I know, he said.
Hard thing to walk in on.
You don’t know the half, said the cop. Dad is a bag of bones strapped into a hospital bed. Mom says he had cancer. But he’s all cut up, man. There’s like a thousand little knife cuts on his body, and the boy was found in the room with him. Twelve years old and naked as a bird and he’s got a knife in his hand. I ask him what he’s doing in there, he tells me his mom locked him in.
I stared at the porch swing and spooled up a stinking bag of dad bones slouched on that swing with a cold one watching his wife water the flowers and throw rainbows across the yard and hollering hey at the neighbors as they drifted by. He likely saw time, space and death yawning fuzzy on the horizon like a faraway black hole. Tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow flapping in the breeze. Not one among us is innocent of such misapprehension. Mutter and sigh and tell ourselves not to worry, we can deal with problem X or pain in the ass Z tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. The cat had disappeared, I noticed.
Pets are always creepy when death is on the wind.
The cop stared at me and I wondered if I’d said any of that out loud.
He pitched his butt into a potted plant. You going in, or what?
May as well, I said.
It was a big kitchen with high ceilings and tall windows and too many people adrift, moving slow and laborious through the blue haze of despair spliced by unspoken thoughts of what if, what now. The second cop was at the breakfast table with two kids. He was much fatter than his partner. He gave me a wheezy eye roll but did not speak. The boy was small for twelve and I gave him a nod of solidarity. I was always small for my age. He wore a pair of blue jeans and no shirt. His arms and chest were smudged and greasy and his eyes were laced with red, like he hadn’t slept in days. He stared through a glass of milk and slowly pulled apart a tuna sandwich on white bread. The girl beside him was the little sister, maybe eight years old. She wore a yellow and white gingham dress and a Redbirds cap. She held onto her brother’s hand and gazed up at a silent TV wedged precariously on the counter on top of a stack of books between a fishbowl and microwave, where a pale handsome thin man with white hair was apparently making toast. He was lurking near the toaster, at any rate. I tagged him the kindly neighbor. He was too invisible and detached to be family. No one paid him the least bit of mind. He smiled at me, a brief shadowy flash of light.
The mother was at the kitchen sink in a black slip, gauzy as breath on cold air. Her bikini pants and bra were just too visible. I could see her shoulder blades, the knots of her spine. The water ran cold in the sink, drumming the steel bowl as she stood there, repeatedly wetting a comb and dragging it through her bleached yellow hair. I took her by the elbow as if she were a shattered bird twitching on my stoop.
Maybe you should sit down, I said.
She stared through me, chewing her lip. I shot her with fifty mgs of Benadryl off the books and she clapped her hands.
What’s your name? she said.
` Jack, I said.
Your full name, she said. Please.
Her eyes glittered as the drug took hold.
Your name is a complete sentence, she said.
And a nursery rhyme.
She blinked and smiled and began naming random objects along her periphery. Coffee mug. Fish bowl. Corkscrew. Dead plant. Daughter.
Josephine was in the TV room. She had turned on the light and pulled a sheet over the body. She moved slowly around the room, opening windows. The raw choking smell of gangrene, sepsis. The father was light years past dying. He was decomposing. I flipped the sheet down and back. His yellowed skin was loose around the edges. His blood was the texture of mud, his skull was perfectly bald, and his arms and legs shrunken. The man looked to have been in bed for months. He was naked except for a pair of cordovan wingtips, the laces tied into incredible knots. And the cop had not been shitting me. The man’s arms and chest and belly were cut to shallow ribbons in a manic, nonsensical pattern. Josephine’s shirt was open at the throat and I felt a tug in my belly, a quickening.
My blood rushed hot, I could almost hear it.
I became a medic thinking I might be able to help people, maybe save them now and again. Maybe not. I stuck with it because the blood rush made me see things with slow-motion clarity. The wings of a fly glinting on a knife’s edge. I stuck with it for the strobe-lit vanishing moments of feeling more alive, false or not. But here all I felt was a strange faraway echoing that I reckoned was fury.
Jesus, I said.
The mother needs a seventy-two hour hold, said Josephine.
Maybe we should sedate her.
I already did.
Josephine nodded. You’re nice.
I looked at her. Nice?
Nice, she said. You’re nicer than me.
I thought about that for a minute, staring at the body between us.
I wasn’t so nice, I said.
I stabbed her a little harder than I had to.
Josephine gave me a dark look, blew a strand of hair out of her mouth. She stared down at the body once more, then gently covered his face again.
I sat in the armchair by the window.
Think he hated him? she said.
I shook my head.
Then why cut him up like that?
That boy hates anybody he hates the mother.
Josephine growled. We’re not social workers.
Nothing we can do here, I said.
I know that. Do you?
I sank back into the armchair like it was going to swallow me.
Jack, she said. Let’s load this guy and roll.
Terrible thing, I said. When a boy hates his mother.
Josephine flinched. Do you want to tell me what this is about?
No, I said.
I will not act like a girl, she said.
What, I said.
I will not ask are you okay, are you mad, do you want a hug every five minutes.
I don’t want a fucking hug.
Okay, what do you want?
I want to talk to that kid, I said.
Uh uh, she said. Doesn’t sound like a good idea at all.
Then stay off camera, I said.
Fuck you, she said.
Josephine tried to stare me down for a few hammer heartbeats. Off camera was code for dirty work, plausible deniability.
Fuck you, Jack.
Next week, she said. You’re gonna piss hot like what’s his name.
I will fucking not. I need two minutes grace. Unconditional.
She sighed, stepped aside.
The father’s body could rot.
I was going to talk to that kid because I knew him. I didn’t know him, I recognized him.
I knew myself.
Josephine fell in close as a shadow behind me and I could hear her muttering: I was burning time. I wasn’t being professional. I was being soft. I was going to bring us beef with dispatch, I was fucking up a good thing. I wheeled around and she stumbled, nearly crashed into me. I pulled her close for a long breath. My voice was dry and pale as sun on metal and I asked her to give me two minutes. I needed her to love me for two minutes. I wanted her to give me a piece of herself. I could feel her breath against my lips.
There’s no breakfast nook, she said.
I nodded. I owe you breakfast.
She nodded. Two minutes, then we’re ghosts.
Ghosts, I said.
Back in the kitchen the scene was stuck in amber.
Mind if I pull up a chair?
The boy stared.
The girl blinked. I have the hiccups, she said.
Boo, I said.
She squeaked and covered her mouth.
Fat cop gave me a what the fuck look.
Little cop started to say something, but Josephine shooed and chased them outside like a couple of boys and I shook my head. It would not have gone over well, had I tried that. She went out on the porch with them and I couldn’t hear what she was saying but they were history. They would be happy to quit this scene and go down to Denny’s for breakfast.
I glanced around and saw the pale thin guy standing like a statue by the pantry door, eyes serene and watchful. The mother turned her attention to the fish bowl, tapping the glass with her nails and making guttural cooing noises. She reached for the fish food. The thin man raised his eyebrows. I nodded in agreement. Surely those fish were already dead. Mother gurgled nonsense to them and swirled away, hips thrusting to her own music. The kids stared up at the television, watching the original Planet of the Apes with no sound.
The boy was filthy. His hair hung down in dank blonde strings. Big dark eyes. Dried blood on his face. He sat next to his sister, holding her hand like it was a piece of rope. Together they looked at me and suddenly I didn’t know what I had meant to say. I took out a pack of gum and looked at it.
Burplebery, I said. Is that a real fruit?
The girl giggled and hiccupped. I took a piece of burple gum for myself and slid the pack across the table. The boy looked at me like he didn’t recognize the stuff. The girl shook her head and told me in a soft apologetic voice that they weren’t supposed to get candy from strangers except on Halloween.
That’s right, I said. Only weirdos carry gum.
I put the gum away and smiled at the girl and she smiled back, forgiving me for being stupid. The screen door banged when Josephine returned. She gave me a fast no worries look and went to ride herd on the mother.
The boy eyed me, unblinking. Are you a doctor? he said.
No, I said. I’m a paramedic.
You fix people. When they’re hurt and stuff?
He looked at me without speaking. He was not about to ask if I had fixed his father. He had been in the room with him. He had been in there for days, and he knew his Dad wasn’t getting fixed.
What’s your name? I said.
The boy took a breath but said nothing.
That’s Kyle, the girl said. He can’t talk right now. My name is Caroline.
Nice to meet you guys, I said. My name is Jack.
The girl smiled. She looked back to the TV.
Do you play soccer? I said.
The boy flashed bright. Yeah. I play midfield.
I was a goalie, I said.
That’s cool, the boy said.
When I was about your age, I went to soccer camp in Austin.
The boy looked at me. I never went to soccer camp, he said.
I laid my hands flat on the table, fingers apart like I was waiting for my buddy to lean over with a knife. My heart was beating fast. I was sweating and there was just the slightest taste of metal in my mouth.
I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry as hell.
What are you sorry for? the mother said.
Josephine took her by the elbow. Ma’am, she said. Why don’t you come along to the bathroom with me and get cleaned up before we go to the hospital?
The mother leered at her. You just want to get rid of me, she said.
I want to help you, said Josephine.
The mother eyed Josephine up and down, then looked at me. Then back at Josephine and slow as sunrise a leering smile came across her face. You fucking him? she whispered. Low and nasty.
What? said Josephine.
The mother spat. Nah. Not yet, she said
Ma’am. I think you should sit down.
But you will soon, the mother said.
Josephine shot me a look, pale and irritable. Faith and patience down to fumes.
Ever been married?
No, said Josephine.
Don’t do it, the mother said. You get so tired. You get tired of the sight of him. You get tired of the smell. The smell is the worst thing. The smell of a house waiting for death. I was waiting and waiting and waiting for him to die and I hated him.
Josephine whispered, hush. Please hush.
I hated the smell of him, she said. Then he was dying and I was torn in half because it was like we shared a body and only half of it was dying and now I can’t remember anything. I can’t remember how to dress myself or how to fall asleep.
I don’t want to hear this shit, Josephine whispered.
What happened, the boy said. What happened at soccer camp?
I looked at him. My father got cancer, I said. He was okay when I went away but when I got home he was like a mummy. Skinny and bald and turning gray.
Then what, said the boy.
I closed my eyes, breathed.
The cancer was inside him, I said. Nobody told me what cancer was, or what it looked like. I thought it must be turning his blood black underneath the surface.
The boy nodded. The girl clenched at his hand so hard it might have hurt, but he kept his eyes steady on mine.
I thought I could cut it out, I said. The black blood.
The thin man had long ago stopped making toast. He stared at me, sorrow in the lines of his face.
I thought that if I had a really good knife, I said. A sharp knife. Then I could cut out the black blood and save my dad.
Did you? said the boy.
No, I said. I couldn’t do it.
The boy closed his eyes then, as if he couldn’t stand to keep them open.
I wasn’t as brave as you, I said.
For god’s sake, said Josephine to the mother. Why did you put him in that room?
Because he looks like him, said the mother. He looks just like his daddy.
I leaned over to whisper something for the boy’s ears only. He smelled like dandelions and baseball practice and it killed me softly to realize that such a filthy, shattered child could smell like summer.
The boy stood on the far edge of his own childhood.
He was shoved there, cast out by his mother’s grief. He was woefully unprepared for the big bad but it was too late. He had stepped past the edge already. He had darted into the age of reason and there was no coming back bloody. The black stains beneath his fingernails was proof enough he had gone too far. He was still a child, but he was gone. I recognized him.
The flash of headlights. A car swung into the driveway.
Your mother does not hate you, I said. She does not.
The boy never opened his eyes, but he was listening. He was listening. And then a noisy woman with red hair and sharp elbows who was apparently the mother’s sister entered with a husband close on her heels, carrying a giant casserole dish. Josephine touched my arm, gentle as a wing brushing past.
I stood up.
Come on, said Josephine. There’s work to do.
Josephine went back down the hall. I watched the mother’s sister snatch up the little girl and carry her to another room, the mother trailing after them. The husband grunted as he put the casserole on the table and opened the fridge. He pinched a beer and twisted off the cap and drained it in one greedy swallow. He sighed and burped, then reached out slowly with a very large hand and tousled the boy’s hair. The boy opened his eyes and regarded the casserole before him with eyes blue and peaceful. The pale thin man was gone and I was sorry not to have said goodbye to him. I watched the husband reach for another beer. I wanted to say something to the kid or touch him, but it seemed grotesque to do so after the hair tousling. I went to help Josephine with the body.
The road before us was a black river with no bottom and puddled with red and orange light. The road mirrored the sky. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out. The air tasted like rain. Josephine drove slowly for once, her hands long and pale at ten and two o’clock.
I could see her thoughts churning.
Did you see what happened to the thin man? I said.
What thin man?
Thin man in the kitchen. Neighbor, I think.
Jack, she said. Was it true, what you told that boy?
I looked at her as long as I could stand it.
Don’t change the subject, I said.
There was no thin man in the kitchen, she said.
He had a Buddhist monk sort of face, I said. Totally at peace, but like he’d seen some shit over the years.
Was it true? she said.
No, I said. I spun up a story to make the kid feel better.
Josephine came home with me that night and stayed more than two years. I don’t think we discussed it beforehand. I don’t remember how we got home, even. I remember sitting on the bed naked, not quite looking at each other. The air was humming, sparkling. She was thin and silent and staring. I was almost afraid to touch her. But there was no sex that night. At one point, I reached mutely for the box of condoms beneath the bed and she stopped my hand. She pushed me onto my back like I was one of those bit players, the crucified thieves. Josephine didn’t want to fuck me. She wanted to love me, if only for the night. If only for two minutes. She kissed my eyes. She kissed me long and deep, as if she would take me apart or bring me to life with her mouth. I was opiate calm, my arms and legs heavy as sand. No one had ever kissed me like that. I remember eating a cantaloupe sometime later, sitting with our backs to the wall. Our arms threw shadows across the room as we lifted hands to mouth.
She made me pray with her before I ate.
She wrapped her hand in mine as she fell asleep. I watched her eyelids flash and jump as she dreamed. I remember the sound of her breathing, the smell of her hair. She slept in the center of my bed, fragile as a brown and black bug and she looked as if she had been sleeping there every night for weeks and I remember thinking this is the way relationships begin. They come out of thin air and uneasy silence, out of ripples of dark matter. They come on the heels of the unexpected, the unforeseen. I walked into a dead man’s house eight hours prior and got my head twisted half off by a childhood echo of myself and now for good or ill it seemed I had a girlfriend. Josephine looked as if she belonged in my bed. She looked as if she had always been there and maybe she was too thin and burning too brightly and I had yet to see most of her demons, but they were there, I could almost hear them whispering and buzzing beneath the surface. I knew it was unwise to get romantic with my partner, and I had no reason to believe it would last but still I wanted her exactly where she was. I wanted her in my bed.
I couldn’t sleep so I went to perch like a crow on the windowsill. I smoked a cigarette and watched Josephine sleep as the sun came up pink and muted and only then did I allow myself to scroll through the locked boxes and expunged files in my skull to pull up an image of my father on his deathbed, and my past selves rushed up from below with glittering teeth and nails to push me under and drown me and not long after that I was in the bathroom throwing up, crouched naked and sick beside the bathtub at dawn, thinking hard about relationships and how they begin.
Will Christopher Baer is author of the existential noir trilogy, Phineas Poe. His first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, has appeared in nine languages. Baer earned his MFA at the Jack Kerouac School, Naropa University. His short stories have appeared in Nerve, Bomb, Story, and the SF Noir anthology series. He lives in Memphis, TN. Instagram @will7christopher.