ABOUT THIS EPISODE
- Author : David Erik Nelson
- Narrator : Rish Outfield
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“Whatever Comes After Calcutta” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 2017, and was included in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten.
Exerpt from interview of David Erik Nelson about “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”. Full interview can be found here.
Whatever Comes After Calcutta by David Erik Nelson
This is one of those stories that I think may have accidentally taken on a lot of political overtones that weren’t intentional. I guess that’s for readers to determine; I wrote it mostly in early 2016, well before a lot of what it feels like it’s about actually happened. This story was locked up well before the election.
Nonetheless, when I go to sum up the story in a Big Picture way, I end up saying the same thing that I said about that election:
I totally hear where folks—angry, aggrieved, not-gonna-take-it-anymore folks—are coming from, because I totally agree with them: They are getting screwed. We just totally disagree on who is screwing them, or what is a sensible way to address that.
This story is about that, in a fundamental way.
It was late in the day when Lyle Morimoto saw the hanged woman and almost crashed his Prius.
He was somewhere between Calcutta, Ohio, and whatever the hell came after Calcutta. For hours he’d been sipping warm Gatorade and cruising the crumbling two-lane blacktop that sliced up the scrubby farmland separating Calcutta, Cairo, Congo, Lebanon, East Liverpool, East Palestine—in southern Ohio, apparently, you could circle the globe without ever crossing the state line.
He understood that he was not thinking clearly, but that seemed OK, since it also meant not thinking about his ear, or his wife, or Detective Jason Good, or the gun in the pocket of his suit jacket.
Lyle’s day had begun in court. He’d had every reason to assume it would end there, as would the next day, and possibly the day after that. But midway through jury selection, his client had pled guilty to the charge of fifth-degree arson, despite the fact that she’d demonstrably not set the fire. Before being led away, she had leaned in close to Lyle’s ear and whispered that she hadn’t torched that trash can, but had murdered two girls that no one knew about, so she figured this “evened things up.” She’d looked enormously relieved, almost radiant.
As the court officer led the defendant back to holding, Lyle had struggled to feel something about this—frustration at the System, disgust with humanity, pleasure at escaping the dingy hearing room, hope that an unexpectedly free morning might allow him to make a dent in the mountain of paperwork surrounding his desk, even just relief that he wouldn’t have to eat lunch out of the vending machines again.
At the very least, he should say something—if not to the judge or court officer, at least to his client, who would spend no more than a single year in prison, then walk out having absolved herself of double murder.
But Lyle felt nothing in particular, and so did nothing in particular.
He had only been planning to stop at his house long enough to change into chinos and microwave some noodles. But when Lyle opened his bedroom door he froze, wondering if they’d been robbed. He and Olivia had left the room pin neat that morning: tidy bed buried under a small mountain of varicolored throw pillows, curtains drawn back to let in the morning sun, closet and bathroom doors closed, not a dust mote in the bright air. The room he saw before him was a mess: dim, curtains drawn, bathroom door ajar, mountain of pillows littering the floor, bed in disarray.
But what half-witted burglar left a $3,000 flat-screen TV in the living room in favor of trashing the bedroom?
Then the sheets burst with sudden movement. Olivia scrabbled to cover herself, cowering against the bedside table and lamp. The man with her leapt in the opposite direction, coming to rest as far as he could from the bed, arms extended, palms out.
Lyle riffled through the range of emotions he thought he should feel—rage, wrath, indignation, embarrassment, sorrow—but none of them were there. He didn’t even feel particularly surprised. Not that he’d suspected—he’d suspected nothing—but just that this sort of monumental, senseless slap in the face seemed, in its randomness, entirely predictable. If working in the justice system had convinced him of anything, it was that while there was indeed a System, there was no Justice.
The naked guy who’d just leapt out of Lyle’s bed was remarkably good-looking. Pale, yes, but well muscled through the arms and legs, with Men’s Health abs and pecs, and that little muscular pelvic V-thing all the guys had in that Magic Mike movie Olivia loved. But he had a kind of weird dick. Nothing earth-shattering, just more emphatically curved than Lyle would have thought comfortable. It reminded him of the big Koegel’s hot-dog billboard he passed every day heading into the city, which showed an enormous, bun-less, upthrusting wiener proudly surmounted by the words SERVE THE CURVE.
Out in the kitchen the microwave beeped; his noodles were ready.
“Hey there,” the naked man panted, and Lyle realized he knew him: this was a detective with the local PD, Jason something.
“Jason Good?” Lyle asked, recalling that, the one time they’d met, he’d made some crack about being glad to finally meet that “Good Cop” he was always hearing about. The detective had laughed genuinely at the joke. He’d seemed like a legitimately good guy.
“Yeah,” the Good Cop said, open hands still outthrust. “We met one time, at a fundraising thing. Listen, I know this looks—”
Then the world exploded, a sound so loud that it was more light and heat than noise.
Lyle’s hearing cleared quickly but his head continued to ring like a struck bell. He found himself on the floor, his face numb, as though he’d gotten a dose of novocaine. He felt no urge to move or speak or continue living.
“—SHOT HIM IN THE HEAD, Olivia!” Jason Good cried. “Whyd’ya do that, Olivia?”
“I don’t know!” Lyle’s wife shrieked back.
Bleeding to death in an awkward jumble of decorative pillows, Lyle thought of a number: 4.5. He’d read it on a poster in his doctor’s waiting room: you’re 4.5 times more likely to be shot if you keep a gun in the home. He had scoffed at that number once. Shame on him.
The gun had been in the bedside table. He’d put it there himself. The district attorney had advised getting something for “home protection” immediately after Lyle joined the public defenders’ office. “You’ll be in court,” she snuffled, sounding like a cartoon bulldog. “People end up behind bars—despite your best efforts. People are unhappy. People have family. Doesn’t matter that you were technically on their side. If these people were good at thinking things through, you never would have met them to begin with.”
“Okokokokok . . .” Jason Good’s words floated around somewhere above Lyle. He heard the man drop down and start tossing pillows around. “Get dressed,” Good said, his voice full of both confidence and urgency. “We’ve gotta clear out. Where the fuck is my other sock?”
“What? We have to call nine-one-one!”
“You shot your husband in the head, Olivia! With a stupid hand-cannon as loud as a goddamn A-bomb, Olivia! Some neighbor has definitely already called nine-one-one. Responders will be here in under seven minutes. We need to be as far and deniable from here as possible in seven minutes, Olivia.”
Lyle heard her leap from the bed. The bang of the headboard against the drywall reverberated, as though he was in a long metallic hallway. Oh, he thought. I’m dying now.
“Go where?” Olivia shouted, hangers clattering in the closet.
“I don’t—” Good stopped throwing pillows. “What about that place you share with your sisters, that cottage near Calcutta?”
“What about it?” she asked, her voice momentarily muffled as she pulled on a sweater. “Calcutta is to hell and gone!”
“Exactly—” Good began, but Lyle missed the rest as he finally succumbed to blood loss.
Lyle awoke. It was painfully apparent that he was not dead. There were no cops or EMTs wandering around trying to figure out what the hell had happened, so he assumed he’d been unconscious for under seven minutes. As his vision cleared, Lyle found himself staring under the bed, the dust ruffle tickling his nose. Just inches away lay a detective’s badge on its leather belt-clip placard, J. GOOD emblazoned across the bottom. And on the far side of the bed, just in front of the bedside table, was a nickel-plated revolver, the Taurus .45 Public Defender he’d bought, put in the bedside table, and not thought of since.
He reached under the bed for the forgotten badge, then carefully circled around for the pistol. Lyle didn’t particularly want these things, but leaving them lying there seemed fundamentally wrong.
He caught his reflection in Olivia’s vanity mirror and was astounded by how bad he looked.
There was a long lash-mark across his left cheek where his wife’s bullet had grazed him before mostly tearing off his ear, which now dangled upside down from the still-attached lobe. He carefully reached for the ear with his left hand, then thought better of it and instead vomited on the thick cream carpeting. His face was numb, not the roaring mask of pain he expected. Maybe that was a good sign?
The one time Olivia and Lyle had gone to her family place near Calcutta, they’d attended a rodeo and seen an amateur bullrider almost lose an ear while trying to last eight seconds on the back of a speckled bull named “Hot for Teacher.” The bull had thrown the kid in just under two seconds, hooking the rider’s helmet in the process and tossing it into the bleachers, despite the straps staying steadfastly buckled. The waiting EMTs—neither of whom had looked a day older than the gawky bullrider they were patching up, both of whom seemed ready to puke—had glued the torn ear back in place using generic superglue. Not twenty minutes later, Lyle had seen the dazed kid wandering the midway with his buddies, drinking a large Pepsi from a paper cup, his hat pulled down low at an odd angle so the hatband could hold his ear in place while the glue set.
Lyle stumbled to his kitchen. He pawed through the junk drawer, found an expired bottle of Tylenol 3 with codeine, washed one down with a warm slug of Gatorade, pocketed the bottle, pawed further, came up with a tube of superglue, and went to the bright half-bath just off their entryway.
A week ago, his wife had hung one of those little framed inspirational “Footprints” poems next to the mirror. It was the one about Jesus, where the speaker recounts a dream where she’s walking down the beach, two sets of footprints trailing behind her. But during the worst passages of her life she looks back and there’s only one set of prints, and she feels totally abandoned.
Lyle considered this as he twisted the cap off the glue and leaned toward the mirror. The poem suddenly felt portentous—although he wondered how much of that was due to the cocktail of codeine, Gatorade, and adrenaline stewing in his guts.
To his surprise, reattaching the ear was remarkably similar to reattaching a teacup handle—which was what he’d bought the glue for originally. Afterward he opened the hall closet, grabbed a Toledo Mud Hens stocking cap, and pulled it on, pinning his loose ear to the side of his head so the glue could set.
Lyle heard the approach of distant sirens. He hustled into his Prius and out of his neighborhood. He didn’t want to go to the hospital, or to file a police report. For that matter, he didn’t particularly want to go chasing after his wife and Detective Jason Good.
But he’d walked in on them having sex and, in contradiction to every country or blues song ever recorded, he’d somehow been the one who got shot over it. This felt fundamentally unfair.
Now he had a gun in his pocket and a full tank of gas. It looked an awful lot like the Universe might be trying to give him a nudge in the right direction.
At the very least, he deserved an explanation.
And that explanation was headed to Calcutta.
After several hours, Lyle had finally begun to accept the possibility that the Universe had no particular plan, and he’d likely never find his wife’s family’s cottage.
Then he glanced up from tuning the radio and saw the bucking woman dangling from that neglected field’s single misshapen tree. Arms bound at her waist, she threw herself against the crisp spring air, her spasms both frantic and hopeless.
“Olivia?” he said, absolutely certain—illogical as it was—that he was seeing his wife being hanged in a fallow field next to a slouching barn.
He hit the brakes and veered onto the soft shoulder. The loose gravel sucked at the wheels, but he managed to bring the car to a shuddering stop rather than flip it into the deep drainage ditch. Lyle was out before he knew what he was doing, vaulting the culvert, charging across the stubble, the heavy pistol battering his hip.
It was almost immediately obvious that the woman was not his wife. Even as a distant silhouette, she was clearly too old, too scrawny, her hair all wrong. But Lyle did not flag. He was moving on instinct, and moving on instinct felt OK—or, at least, it felt better than feeling nothing. He’d slowly realized that feeling nothing felt terrible.
Racing closer, Lyle saw the aluminum A-frame ladder tumbled beneath the hanged woman. He poured his last ounce of panic into a sprint, and without thinking—he would certainly have botched it if he had—he vaulted from the ground to the fallen ladder’s side rail, took a wild leap, grabbed hold of the cord a good two feet above the old woman’s head, and held on for dear life. The branch sagged a few inches, landing the woman’s feet firmly on the ladder rail. Then the limb snapped with a soggy crack, dumping them both onto the hard earth.
Lyle immediately rolled on top of the thrashing woman, trying to worm his fingers between the noose and her throat. Her face was a swollen purple caricature. One of her arms had come loose in the fall, but the other remained lashed to her waist by a complicated set of thin leather straps and buckles. Their hands bashed and stumbled over each other as they struggled to loosen the noose. It wasn’t even rope, Lyle discovered, but instead a length of salvaged Ethernet cable, sticky with age.
They finally got the knot to budge a single gasping inch, and then another, and then they were yanking the cord freely. She immediately rolled over and crawled blindly away on elbow and knees, hacking and grinding like an engine full of sand, one arm still bound. Lyle had a single panting moment to notice how clean the soles of the woman’s feet were, soft and seashell pink as a toddler’s, before he heard a throat clearing behind him.
“Pardon me?” someone asked. “No offense or nothing, but what the heck do you think you’re doing?”
Lyle rose slowly, sliding his hand into his jacket pocket as he did so, finding his pistol and the “Good Cop’s” badge. The owner of the twang was clear-eyed and amiable. He wore a filthy mesh-backed Marlboro cap and a similarly grimy work jacket, the cuffs black and chewed up from long years spent elbow-deep in engines. EARL was embroidered over his heart in red floss.
There was a crowd of very surprised people behind Earl, standing or sitting in lawn chairs shaded by the collapsing barn. To Lyle’s eye, they were prototypical rural Ohio: white people, men and women, mostly dressed like they’d just got off from work, mechanics and Subway sandwich girls and schoolteachers and farmers. There were even a few kids, seated cross-legged on a wide, flat board to keep their pants clean. The youngest looked confused by what had been—and was still—happening, but the older kids were keenly, sickeningly thrilled, both by the spectacle of the hanging of the woman and by the action-hero antics that had interrupted the show.
Lyle immediately understood how he’d managed to miss the spectators: he’d been focused on the woman fighting the strangling line in the blazing light of the sunset. They’d been sitting quietly in the barn’s deep shadow, as quiet and watchful and unobtrusive as birds on a wire.
He glanced at his watch. Fewer than five minutes had passed since he’d looked up from his car radio.
Behind Lyle, the woman hacked and retched, dragging her breath down her throat like a blade scraping a dry whetstone.
“You could have killed this woman,” he panted.
“Well, yeah,” Earl said. “Duh. If you hadn’t messed it up. Now we gotta start from scratch. She ain’t even a little dead.” Earl paused, giving Lyle a once-over: rumpled suit, blood-stiff shirt collar, puffy face, mangled ear held in place by a Mud Hens ski cap. “Not to be rude or nothing, but what happened to your face?”
Lyle fought the urge to reach up and check whether his ear had torn loose. Instead, he pulled his hand from his pocket and discovered he was holding the badge, J. GOOD embossed in clear blue lettering across the banner along the bottom of the shield.
Earl squinted at the badge in Lyle’s hand. “Officer J. Good?” He read. “Like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in that song?”
“Detective Jason Good,” Lyle heard himself say. “I’m asking the questions.”
They waited. And waited. A distant dog barked.
“You said you wanted to ask questions,” Earl nudged, like a preschool teacher encouraging a shy show-and-teller. “Ask away.”
A large bearded man in one of the folding chairs raised a finger. “Um, Earl, shouldn’t we do something about Leighanne—”
Earl answered with a shrug and a shake of his head. “Naw. She’s not flying off anytime soon. Just look at her?” They all looked at her for a moment, including Lyle, who had to turn to do so. She’d stopped crawling, having only made it about a yard, and was resting her head on the dirt. Her jackstraw hair—a dull blonde with dark roots—was snarled in the scrub like dog fur caught in Velcro.
“So,” Earl said, “Detective Good, whatcha wanna know?”
Lyle wanted to know a lot of things: Why had his wife shot him? Why was he chasing after her? Why was Jason Good’s dick so crooked? Why had he just lied about being that crooked-dicked cop?
Earl could help Lyle with none of these.
“What,” Lyle finally asked, “what are you people doing?”
“Executing this witch,” Earl answered. Many of the gathered observers were nodding.
Lyle had no idea what to say to that.
“I’m not a fucking witch,” the woman croaked from the dirt. “Jesus, you dumb fucking bumpkins.”
Earl shook his head and rolled his eyes. “We been through this, Leighanne. Things were no good since you moved out here, and then . . .” His mouth twitched in an involuntary grimace. “All that other stuff. We convened a Common Law Court, tested you, and . . . well, and here we are.”
“Tested?” Lyle asked. He’d returned the badge to his pocket but left his hand there, sandwiched between Good’s shield and Lyle’s revolver.
“Yup,” Earl nodded. “Tested. And she failed.”
“We made a witch cake,” a woman seated in a beige plastic folding chair volunteered. She looked like a generic Ohio schoolteacher: heavyset, dark hair cropped short and teased out, vaguely cat’s-eye-shaped glasses on a beaded neck chain, cardigan sweater with seasonal bunnies-crosses-and-pastel-eggs motif. She looked eerily like Lyle’s own third grade teacher, who would have to be at least ninety now, and presumably still back in Schaumburg, Illinois.
“Which cake?” Lyle asked, feeling like the straight man in a rejected Abbott and Costello routine.
Everyone shifted uncomfortably.
“It’s like a regular cake,” the schoolmarm hedged, “but for testing witches. We used plain box cake from the superstore. Yellow cake. You make it like regular, but mix the batter with the, uh . . .” she girded herself for the next word, “urine of an individual, or individuals, hexed by that witch.”
Lyle stared at her as he reviewed this in his head, trying to find some reasonable way to understand what she was saying.
“I Googled it,” the woman offered apologetically.
Bile simmered at the back of Lyle’s throat. “You made her eat a cake you pissed in?”
The teacher lady grimaced in shock. “Good Lord, no! We fed it to a dog—”
“My dog Chet,” the fat man who had been concerned the witch might slither away interjected.
“—and the witch, Leighanne, got sick,” the schoolteacher continued. “You see, the hex is passed in the urine. Any harm it comes to reflects back on the witch.” She paused, then added, “I Googled it.”
“And that means this woman’s a witch? Because you think she got sick after that guy’s dog ate a cake someone peed in?”
“I Googled it,” the woman reiterated, her mouth firm.
“I had the shits from an expired can of Hormel chili!” the accused witch cried from the ground. “From the goddamn food pantry! Not ’cause Albert’s dog ate piss-cake!”
“What kind of a person—” Lyle began, intending to ask what kind of a person bakes a cake with her neighbors’ pee in it, but he was cut off by a fuming bald man with a white walrus mustache and bright red suspenders.
“Oh, that is it.” The mustachioed man spoke firmly. Earl rolled his eyes, an annoyed martyr with his cross to bear.
“She is not a ‘person,’” the Great White Walrus thundered, pointing at the piss-baking schoolteacher. He then pointed at Earl: “He is not a ‘person.’” He jabbed himself in the chest: “ I am not a ‘person’!” He flailed his pointing hands, indicating the gathered mob. “There are no ‘persons’ here!”
Lyle looked around, bewildered.
“We—” he gestured at the gathered crowd “—are sovereign citizens, not ‘persons.’”
A heavy man in a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN ball cap piped up: “Flesh-and-blood asseverated private individuals!”
The Walrus nodded. “Article 4 free inhabitants, fully redeemed via duly filed UCC-1 statement!” The mob nodded and grunted their assent.
Despite being a lawyer, Lyle could follow little of this, even as that phrase—“sovereign citizen”—set off bells in his head. His face and ear ached like a bad tooth; not terrible, but promising more to come.
“For the purpose of this interaction,” the Walrus fumed, “I am the authorized representative of JOHN ROBERT DOE.” He paused, then carefully enunciated, “I am the live flesh-and-blood man Doe: John-Robert, sui juris. That’s Doe-FULL COLON-John-DASH-Robert, sui juris. So don’t hang your straw man B.S. on any of us!” He spat. “We. Are. Asseverated! I did the paperwork myself! And if you federal stormtroopers can’t—”
“Settle down, J-Bob-D,” Earl said soothingly, “he didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“He appears under color of law here!”
“He ain’t under color of law; he just wandered—”
“He presented a badge, Roberts: Earl-James! That’s—”
Earl was holding up his hands soothingly and kept repeating the words “misunderstanding” and “simmer down.”
The Walrus shifted his attention back to Lyle, pointing viciously as though casting a hex of his own. “I do not wish to create joinder with you!”
“He ain’t creating joinder, J-Bob-D; he just wandered in at the wrong time and has misunderstood this entire situation.”
As all this played out, the alleged witch had slowly gotten to her feet, although she was still stooped over and panting, hands planted on her knees.
“Listen, Detective Good, work with me.” Earl locked eyes with Lyle, then continued portentously, “You aren’t here in honor of, or under jurisdiction of, any admiralty courts or their agents, are you?”
Lyle finally noticed that although Earl was not obviously armed, many of the gathered “private individuals” wore guns at their hips. A lone assault rifle leaned against the sagging barn. The phrase “sovereign citizen” finally clicked: he’d come across it while reading a report on domestic terrorism and anti-government groups.
Earl continued, “Nor are you appearing on these privately held lands under color of law to create joinder in any manner?”
The right answer to Earl’s questions was fairly obvious:
“No,” Lyle said, “of course not.”
“Satisfied?” Earl asked the Walrus. The man crossed his arms above his belly, leaned back in his folding chair, and looked away, then nodded once.
“Nonetheless,” Lyle said, “what’s happening here isn’t right. Adulterating a cake with bodily fluids is not right, regardless of intent.” The schoolteacher reddened but held firm, refusing to drop her gaze. Lyle could see the words I Googled it forming in her mouth, although she didn’t dignify his criticism with an actual response.
“That witch-cake business,” Earl said reasonably, “was just the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Whole thing was practically said and done by then. Our Common Law Grand Jury had already issued a True Bill of charges.”
“Of her witchiness. She came here and blighted our whole situation.” Again, grunts and grumbles and head-nods rippled through the crowd.
Lyle glanced at the fallow field around him, the sagging barn, the fact that these many gathered “private individuals” didn’t appear to have more pressing business on a weekday afternoon than sitting in a muddy field and murdering an old woman. He expected he’d now hear tales of failed crops and joblessness and bankruptcy. But that was not the case.
“She made me kill six people,” a frail, elderly woman in a powder-blue camp chair and matching tracksuit offered. Nodding and affirmation again riffled the crowd. “Two big fellas that had broke into my barn in October, and then a family of four in a brand-new minivan last week. They were lost, trying to get back to the interstate. And they were Hindus.” She looked around with mild astonishment as she added this last, although her tone was less I can’t believe I murdered an entire Indian family! and more I can’t believe I ate an entire footlong Subway sandwich!
A hand went up. Lyle shifted his gaze, acknowledging the hand-raiser. It was the heavy man whose red ball cap proclaimed his intent to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. “She made me throw battery acid in some girls’ faces in Pittsburgh.” Again, commiseration throughout the mob like a made-for-TV AA meeting.
More hands were raised, and more voices chimed in:
“She made me poison a bunch of the formula they give out at the hospital in East Liverpool.”
“. . . made me Krazy Glue razor blades all over the playground equipment out in Canton . . .”
“. . . made me mail roadkill to a daycare . . .”
“This is crazy talk,” the woman muttered to Lyle, not raising her head, her moving lips concealed by her hanging hair. “You can see that.”
“. . . burn down eleven churches—Jew and Islam ones, mostly . . .”
“. . . violate graves . . .”
“. . . defile . . .”
“. . . torture . . .”
“. . . corrupt . . .”
“. . . children . . .”
“. . . rode us . . .”
“. . . she rode us hard, rode us fit to make our hearts burst . . .”
“. . . rode us cruel . . .”
“Please,” the hanged woman whispered. “You gotta help me. Please.”
But still the voices continued with their earnest accusations. Not with the enthusiasm of a witch-hunt, Lyle thought, but the oddly resigned admissions of the bewildered and contrite.
“And there was the sex stuff.”
“Yeah. That stuff.”
“A lot of bad, weird sex stuff. Copulations with things you shouldn’t, animals, dead stuff . . .”
“And with things that shouldn’t even exist. Nightmare stuff.”
“Uh-huh. Total nightmare stuff.”
“Yeah.” Earl nodded with finality. “A lot of bad stuff. Me, too. No need to rehash it. All was sworn into the record as testimony before the CLGJ. We didn’t just get up pitchforks and torches, Detective. This is a done deal.”
“You’re saying this woman took control of you all?” Lyle said carefully.
“She rode us,” Earl specified, “like ponies. Came in the night, bridled us, and then rode us off to do the things she wanted done.” Earl frowned. “Nope. That ain’t right, ’cause she can’t just hop on your back and go against your will. It has to be something there’s already a glimmer of in you, even just the dimmest middle-of-the-night curiosity. She finds that glimmer and focuses a bright, bright light on it, making it flash and shine bright in you. Dazzling bright.”
Lyle glanced back at the frail woman, terrified, red-rimmed eyes peeking out from her scraggled hair. He was struck by the absurd image of this woman riding piggyback on the fat man who’ll MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, cackling madly and waving a cowboy hat with glee.
“Once you’re being rode, the shame is gone. It feels good when it occurs to you to do it—when you’re pouring the acid out of an old tractor battery into a Ball jar, or whistling down the aisles at the Dollar Store looking for superglue and razor blades, or twisting the wire around a kitten’s neck. And you feel good doing it. It feels . . .” Earl paused, and Lyle was shocked to see tears pooling in the hard, lean man’s eyes. Earl sniffled, then rubbed at his eyes with one hand, index finger and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose. He loosed a long, slow breath. “It feels wonderful to do it, like it’s the thing you been waiting to do all your life, like sinking a nothing-but-net three-pointer or winning a big prize or sliding into bed with a beautiful pair of gals. But then, after that bitch lets up on you . . .”
He shook his head, grimacing, breathing slowly and with effort.
“It’s like meat that goes rancid in your mouth. It’s fucking awful. You never felt so low.”
Again the nods. Quietly, someone said, “It’s OK, Earl; you tell your truth,” and others murmured their support.
“That’s what’s delicious to her: that you choose to damn yourself. She’s like a fucked-up kid who finds it hilarious when the frog chooses to jump out of the pot and into the fire.”
“You hear how nuts this is,” the woman behind him hissed desperately. “This is nuts. These people are nutbags. My name is Leighanne Halloway. I moved here at the end of October, ’cause it’s all I could afford with my Disability. These people are fucking insane, and they have a shit-ton of guns.”
“Anyway,” Earl said with a sigh, “point is, there’s no problem here, sir. We finally have this situation under control. You can move along.”
“Plus it’s getting late!” a voice added from the crowd.
Earl nodded. “Yup. And she gets damn tricky once the sun’s down. New moon tonight, too. That’s the worst.” Earl was looking up into the tree now. “’Course, you totally trashed the easy branch.” He worked his jaw ruminatively. “Nathanial,” he called over his shoulder. “You figure you can shimmy as high as that one?” Earl pointed into the canopy. “Lash the noose back up?”
A dark-haired boy, his face a spray of freckles, sprang to his feet even as the schoolteacher frowned.
“I don’t know about that, Earl,” she said. “It’s awful high.”
“I can do it, Ms. Everly,” the boy insisted.
“Jack, Ethan, you wanna get the ladder back up?” Earl went on, not acknowledging Ms. Everly’s objection. “And lash Leighanne’s hands again; she got ’em loose somehow.”
“Shit,” Leighanne hissed, grabbing hold of Lyle’s jacket and pulling herself tight to his back, face buried between his shoulders, like a toddler hiding behind Mom rather than meet a new babysitter. “No. No.” Her voice was hot and frantic and awful on his neck.
Lyle had a brief but powerful intuitive flash: this groveling woman was somehow like the badge and the gun, something very useful for today.
“No,” Lyle said, his voice clear and calm. “This woman is coming with me.” All faces turned to him, as though he’d said something unintelligibly absurd—“No, I’m a kangaroo” or “The toilet injured my lunch.” Everyone stopped. Earl looked at him quizzically.
Only the Walrus in Red Suspenders appeared to take it in. He rose to his feet with ponderous rage.
“I told you,” the Walrus announced. “I said he was here under color of law, and you jackaninnies just brushed me off—” Now that the Walrus had risen, Lyle saw the short-barreled submachine gun dangling from a tactical sling circling the man’s beefy neck and shoulder. The Walrus pawed for the pistol grip as he continued his diatribe.
Lyle drew the Public Defender from his pocket, finger already on the trigger, and pointed it at the droopy mustache. Everyone froze. Not a word or breath or rolling drop of sweat even quivered. Not a cicada sang in the field. The dead tree gave no shelter. The setting sun, red and blazing, paused in the sky.
Lyle wondered if the gun had a safety, and if the safety was on. He’d only fired it once, at a shooting range, immediately after buying it. That had been six years ago. If he hadn’t been shot by the gun that morning, he’d have wondered if it was even loaded.
Everyone else was frozen, but Lyle was sweating freely, his palm growing slick on the heavy revolver’s rubber grip.
“So,” Earl said carefully, “you’re taking possession of her, then?”
“Yes. I’m taking her into my custody.”
“Possession,” Earl repeated cagily. “You’re taking her in your possession.”
“Yeah,” Lyle reiterated. “I’m taking her in my possession.”
As soon as the magic words left Lyle’s mouth, Earl stepped back, hands up. “All yours, then, Detective.”
The Walrus blustered, “Just wait a damned—”
“No,” Earl said, “you heard him, J-Bob-D: she is his now. In his possession. Not ours. Not a member of our community. Not our problem.” There was a moment, and then a palpable ease swept through the crowd.
Lyle was already carefully backing up across the rutted field, his free arm out wide to his side, herding the cowering woman behind him in the direction of the Prius, his gun pointed toward the crowd. But this had no apparent impact on them. They were thoroughly desensitized to guns.
“Yeah,” one man marveled, “I can feel it.”
“Yeah,” Earl said. “I think we can rest our case.”
The Walrus frowned, but nodded.
“C’mon,” Earl said, “everyone grab a chair,” then added, “Hope your face heals up quick, Detective Good.”
Lyle tentatively reached up and checked his ear. It screamed when his fingers brushed it but stayed firmly attached.
Lyle kept guiding the woman back, but no one appeared to care. They bustled around like families after a church picnic, folding chairs and hauling them into the barn, wrestling with the aluminum ladder. Before Lyle and Leighanne were even halfway across the untended field, cars were already pulling off, truck springs creaking as they eased along the mostly washed-out gravel driveway. Lyle was still walking backward, gun up but pointed at nothing in particular. The mob had dispersed.
“I think,” the woman offered hesitantly, “this might go faster if you just, like, put the gun away and walk regular. I don’t think they’re coming after us.”
The last of the trucks pulled off with a jovial “See ya!” double-toot on the horn. A lone figure, tall and lean—maybe Earl?—picked his way across the yard separating the barn from the white clapboard farmhouse. Hands in pockets, shoulders stooped, he looked exhausted and unmistakably relieved.
Lyle did as Leighanne suggested, then turned to look at her. She was finger-combing her hair as they walked, running out snarls, catching twigs and grass and hay, pulling these free to flutter to the ground, then smoothing it all down and repeating. The movement was precise and compulsive, like a dog in too small of a cage licking its paws raw. She did not look at Lyle, but instead at their destination.
“What’s your name?” she asked, eyes on the car.
“Lyle Morimoto,” Lyle answered without hesitation or thought.
“Not Detective Jason Good?”
“OK,” she said. “I appreciate your help back there.”
“One good turn,” Lyle said, then trailed off. She did not ask what his one good turn might deserve.
They got in the car. Lyle started it, checked his mirrors, checked his blind spot, turned on his left blinker, and eased back into the roadway.
“Where to?” he asked. In his peripheral vision, Lyle saw her stop worrying her hair. She pulled it back, twisting it at the nape of her neck.
“I have no clue,” Leighanne Halloway said. “They set my place on fire after they arrested me yesterday.” For the first time that day, he wondered about tomorrow, and the day after that. The sun was setting now, garish and cruel. The woman didn’t appear to feel anything about her ordeal, no fear or outrage or sadness. Lyle, for that matter, had been shot in the face just before lunch, and he didn’t feel anything much about that, either. They made a good pair that way.
His face ached, and he considered taking another painkiller, but then thought, “Why bother?”
“Maybe I could drop you off with local law enforcement?” he suggested. “So you can file charges?”
She laughed once, hard as a backhanded slap. “Sheriff’s Earl.”
“Oh,” Lyle replied.
“Where are you headed?” she asked. Her voice wasn’t sounding as rough. That was probably good, he thought. Lyle knew well the havoc smoke inhalation wreaked on the trachea—it had come up when he was prepping for that morning’s court appearance—but had no idea what strangulation with Cat-five cable might do to one’s windpipe. He didn’t imagine it was good.
“My wife’s family cottage,” he answered. “It’s somewhere around Calcutta.”
“I’m not sure,” Lyle admitted. “I thought I might recognize something once I drove out here.”
“Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll get you there. What happened to your face?”
He glanced over at her. Now that her hair was smoothed back from her face, he saw that she was a good deal younger than he’d assumed, her skin clear and pale in the savage dying light.
“It’s a long story.”
“We got time,” she said.
And so he told it, told it all as they drove into the setting sun. He didn’t particularly want to, but he didn’t particularly not want to, either. The words flowed the way water pours out of a jug. She made conciliatory noises as he spoke, but also occasional suggestions—right, left, turn here, watch this curve coming up—and they wended their way further from the highway, deeper into the darkness that separated Calcutta and whatever came after Calcutta. Every time she made a navigational suggestion, she reached over and brushed the back of his hand with her fingertips. And each time, Lyle noticed something new: the softness of her fingers, the smoothness of her skin, her delicate manicure. When they’d been in the bright field together, wrestling with the ligature around her neck, her hands had felt hard, ground with dirt, the nails chewed to the quick. Now they reminded him of the slender satin gloves you saw in old movies. The image gave him an electric, erotic thrill, embarrassing and enthralling.
When he finished his story, Leighanne said, “So we’re going to visit your wife and the Good Cop?”
“Yeah.” Lyle sighed. He didn’t know why he was so certain the two were still together, let alone in the cabin near Calcutta—nor how Leighanne might now this—but it was clearly true.
Lyle didn’t know. But as he’d told the story, the pain in his face and ear had steadily subsided. He’d begun to feel lighter, almost giddy.
“To kill them?” the girl asked. Had she sounded this young before? He wondered. This fresh? He glanced over, and she was much younger than he’d thought. Not teenager young, but close. Thrillingly so.
“No,” he said, surprised it was true, and somehow disappointed.
“You know—Oh, slow down, left up here.” Lyle obeyed. “There you go. You know, lots of times folks think of killing as a form of taking away. And they don’t like to think of themselves as thieves. Thieves are low things. But maybe we’ve got something to share with your wife and the Good Cop. Maybe there’s some things about the world we can show them, together. Killing them right off would be a waste.”
Yes, Lyle thought. He suddenly had a lot to share. What had been sludgy and cool and dim in him for so long was now kindling bright and liquid and joyous.
“Later on, killing them might prove a mercy. Which maybe they’ll deserve.” She paused, smiling in the dark. “Or maybe not.”
Lyle’d never had an affair, but he’d worked in the public defender’s office long enough. He understood an essentially dark human tendency, not for pleasure so much as for intensity: grappling and pulling hair, a kiss that scrapes teeth, a hard pinch, a scratch, a twisted nipple, a bitten earlobe.
And then there was real intensity: a scream in a locked trunk, a wire coat hanger looped around an elbow or ankle—or somewhere more private—and twisted tighter and tighter with a pair of pliers.
Lyle smiled. He felt Leighanne next to him, a hot summer musk wafting off of her as she leaned close, setting one smooth hand on his hand, and the other on his thin slacks.
“Almost there,” she said.
He thought of blood swelling beneath the skin as the wire wound tight, the ecstasy of release when that skin is finally pricked with a blade. The long scream, screaming the throat raw, then screaming some more, until the voice cracks and disintegrates like a car window in a collision.
Lyle sighed. “I know what you’re doing,” he said, “but you can’t get in my head, because I don’t have what Earl said, not even a glimmer. I really, truly, and honestly do not want to hurt my wife, or even that Good Cop.”
Leighanne looked at Lyle prettily, and did not respond.
Lyle sighed again, then added, “But I sure as hell want to want to hurt them.”
Now she smiled. “That, my buddy boy, we can work with.”
And then, just for a moment, her glamor slipped.
Lyle gasped in shock, and the breath he drew in was choked with the mildewed stink. Leighanne was not a withered crone, nor something young and petite. She was lean and tall and mottled and pale. She hunched to fit in the small car. She was naked, bristle-haired like a boar, her breasts numerous and pendulous as a dog’s that’s whelped countless pups. Her noseless face was many-eyed as a spider, lipless and tooth-full as something from the bottom of the sea.
The witch was awful—in that she filled him with awe—and wonderful—in that she was full of terrible wonders, an ambulatory torture chamber, a lightless and all-swallowing heat.
Lyle threw his arm wildly, reflexively recoiling from Leighanne’s touch. He needed to be much farther from her than the cramped confines of the Prius allowed. He jerked the wheel toward the edge of the road.
This time the soft shoulder got the best of him. The Prius dug in, slewing out to the left. The wheels skidded, screaming against the crumbling blacktop. One side bit in, the other began to lift. The car rose, then came down with a tumbling crunch.
For a long time. Or a little.
When Lyle finally awoke to himself, he was walking toward a small house standing alone in the dark fields. His back was to the road. There was a high metallic tang to the air. Lyle wondered if the car’s big hybrid battery had cracked. He tried to remember what the warning sticker inside the doorframe said. Something about a fire hazard, he thought, but he couldn’t be sure.
Then he smelled burning plastic and rubber, and supposed it didn’t really matter one way or another.
The gas tank burst with a phooooom!
A gout of hot, noxious air washed across his back. Leighanne laughed. Not a crone’s cackle, but a teen’s burst of champagne glee. She walked beside him, and his heart was light. She was everything—the pretty young thing, the old crone, the stooped awful wonder. He felt good and purposeful walking next to her, alive and joyful.
“Here.” She handed him something, a complex arrangement of leather straps and buckles, a brass bar. It was whatever had been lashing her hands to her waist as she hanged, back in the field. He’d never held a bridle before, but had seen them in cowboy movies and museum displays.
“Put it on,” she said.
He did so willingly, placing the brass bit between his teeth. It dug into the corners of his mouth, pulling back his cheeks, splitting his lip where the bullet had grazed him. He tightened the buckles, then tossed the reins over his shoulder. Leighanne grabbed hold of these, planted one foot on his hip, and swung up onto his shoulders. He wasn’t a large man and had never been strong. He should have buckled under her weight. But the weight felt good and solid. He felt good and solid, strong, his muscles flexing and releasing under his skin, beautiful in their smooth inexorability.
He thought about the kitschy poem hanging next to the mirror in his guest bathroom. The last verse hung in his mind:
My precious child, I would never leave you;
during your times of trial,
when you see only one set of footprints in the sand,
that was when I carried you.
At first, it seemed the poem had it dead wrong: maybe during your times of trial, you felt so damn heavy because God was perched up on your shoulders, kicking you in the ribs, driving you forward and cackling all the while.
But maybe that wasn’t it at all. If Lyle was the one doing the carrying, maybe that made him God. He liked that idea quite a lot, as his muscles flexed and the void new moon rose, as he stalked the dark, abandoned fields, steed to this great and unbounded rider.
He liked that because God got to pass judgement, and make that judgement real in the world.
Lyle could see the cabin, his wife’s family place. The windows glowed warmly through the thin curtains. There were two cars in the driveway. The lights switched out, one by one. Bedtime.
“C’mon, big fella,” the witch cajoled, her heels digging into his flanks. “This is gonna be some fun.”
Inside the house, in the shadows under the sink, there were tools: stout wire, pliers, a dull saw, a hammer, a steel nail punch. Lyle didn’t know how he knew this, but he did, the same as a hawk can count the mice in a field by their fluttering heartbeats, the way God knows the content of your heart.
The gun felt inevitable in his hand. And that felt good. That good feeling was all the better, knowing that an awful lot could happen between now and the inevitable.
For the first time in a long time, Lyle Morimoto was really looking forward to something.