Merry took the pocket knife out from her back pocket and placed it on the night stand. Duncan, the Bakken roughneck she picked up at the bar, was half-dressed and wrapped in the sheets. She kicked her jeans off and climbed in bed. He moved towards her. She ignored him, fluffed up her pillows, picked up a book, and leaned back.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
“Reading a book?”
“Well, um…I thought, well…yeah…”
“Just stop there.”
“Whatever you just tried to pass off as a coherent thought.”
“You asked me to come home with you. I just thought we were going to…”
“Well, right now I’m reading my book.”
“Should I leave?”
“Did I say that?”
“No. What should I do?”
Merry reached behind her head into the bookcase behind the headboard, grabbed a random book, and tossed it at him. He picked it up and looked at it.
“The complete poems of Anne Sexton? What the fuck is this?”
“It’s a good book. Read some. It’ll give you some perspective.”
“Look, bitch, I didn’t come here for perspective. I came here to fuck.”
Rolling her eyes she placed the book face down on her lap
“See that big knife on my nightstand?”
“I use to gut and skin deer. If you call me a bitch again, or use any derogatory comment about me in my house, I’m going to bury the blade underneath your chin.”
“Wh-what,” Duncan stuttered.
“Complete sentences, please.”
“Why am I even here? Why did you bring me here?”
“The only reason you’re here, and it might be the whiskey floatin’ around in my head, probably is considering you turned out to be a baby, but you look good and have rough hands. I like rough hands. Too many men have soft hands. And there’s nothing worse than having a man with soft hands grabbing at a woman’s body.”
He moved his hand under the sheets, massaging her calf then her thigh. She kept reading. He tried the mid-thigh. She didn’t flinch. He moved his hand to the front of her cotton panties. She turned the page and continued reading. He moved his finger and tried to push through the blue fabric. She grabbed the knife from her nightstand, opened it, and showed him the polished, sharp blade shining in the glow of the lamp. He jumped out of the bed naked.
“You’re out of your fuckin’ mind,” he said, getting dressed. “I don’t need this shit. I’m going back to the bar. I’m done with you, you crazy bi…”
“Don’t even,” she replied.
“Have fun reading your poems,” he said, putting his boots on.
“Now that I’ve seen that pig-in-a-blanket you called a ‘big cock’ earlier, it would have been a waste of my time.”
“I would’ve given you the best fuck you’ve ever had,” he said, standing half out her apartment door.
“I highly doubt it,” she replied, putting her hand down her panties.
“Hey, look, let’s start over,” he said, watching her pleasure herself while she read.
“Lock the door when you leave, please?”
Duncan sighed, turned the inside lock on the knob, and slammed the door. Merry laughed at the sound of his pathetic boots stomping down the wood stairs. She put the book down, rolled her blue eyes, and kept going until she finished herself off.
As she stepped out of the shower and began combing the knots out of her hair, the phone rang.
“Hello?” she asked.
“Miss Meredith Shaw?” the voice asked.
“Miss Shaw, this is Linda Robinson. I’m a nurse from Merton’s Nursing Home.”
“It’s almost time.”
“How long?” Merry asked.
“Doctor Higgins said it could be any day, any hour. You should come here.”
“Okay. Okay,” she replied, thinking. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
She slammed the phone down and let the towel drop to the floor. She was shaking from the cold and the anger tunneling through her body. Instead of tears, she was full of rage. She’d always been full of rage. A sweet rage her mother called it. She pulled her jeans up with a rough jerk of her hips and forced a faded gray Grateful Dead t-shirt over her torso. She laced up her hiking boots, pulling the knots as tight as she could, then put her blonde hair into one large braid, her fingers a tense red. She couldn’t stop thinking about those words her mother used to describe her. It had been years since she’d heard her mother’s voice say them. She missed her mother, Vanessa, every day. But not enough to cry. She never cried.
She opened her night stand and removed a sealed syringe she had stolen from a diabetic friend a few months back. She went into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Windex from under the sink and an empty cup. She took the cap off the syringe and filled it with the Windex she had poured into the cup. She tossed the blue syringe into her purse, shoved the pocket knife in the back pocket of her dark Levis, snatched the truck keys, and left.
It was near two in the morning as she drove down the dark highway. She could see the city lights of Minot off in the distance. They glowed enough for her to see the desolate prairie on either side of her tiny beat up Ford pickup. The tall brittle grass pushing through the two inches of frozen snow was certain death conquering aging life. She wondered how many bodies had been buried out in the prairie, how much blood had been spilled over the years. She had seen it a few times herself. It no longer fazed her. It hadn’t since she was a teenager. She knew death came in the quiet, the in-betweens, pushing up all around people when they least expected it.
She drove past the dirt access road that would’ve taken her to the old family farm. She kept her eyes on Minot, trying to ignore the road. The farm had been dead to her for a long time. A place of horrors. The place that killed her mother when she was twelve-years-old. Her mind began slipping back to her childhood. She couldn’t remember a happy day living on the Shaw Farm. She turned on the stereo, letting the Workingman’s Dead CD play. The music helped her focus. It kept the mind from digging up the ghosts that had haunted her for the last sixteen years. Minot was getting closer. She turned up the radio and mouthed the lyrics. The past slipped away with the roadkill in the tail lights.
There were few lights on inside Merton’s Nursing home. A few were on in the hallway that led up to the nurses station where Merry could see an older black woman with glasses sitting alone, reading a magazine.
“Hello,” Merry said.
“You lost, dear?” the woman asked, keeping her eyes on the magazine. “Visiting hours don’t start for another three hours.”
“I’m Meredith Shaw here to see Matthew Shaw.”
“Oh, yes, dear. He’s awake. I told him you were coming. I’m Nurse Robinson, the one who called you. I think he’s cheered up a bit.”
“Yes, he has…and thank Jesus for that.”
“Mmmhmm,” Merry replied, holding back an assortment of four letter words.
“Doctor Higgins said it could be anytime now. Any day.”
“He still in 305?”
“Sure is. Just need you to sign this here form and you can go in.”
Merry grabbed the clipboard and signed her name. She paused at the box that said “relation.” She hesitated before putting anything down. Her mind drifted. She thought about the Hunter boys who lived on the farm next to hers. After her mother died, her father was too busy sucking away his sores at Hal’s, The Ranger, or from a bottle in the living room to notice she was off with the neighbors. She was twelve years old; Clyde and Brian Hunter were a few years older. They fished. Threw rocks at turtles. Climbed trees. Everything remained that way until Clyde Hunter started to take her into the abandoned grain silos out by Ferry’s Butte. It wasn’t too long after when Brian Hunter started following his brother into the silos.
When she was fifteen, the Hunter boys vanished. Gail and Murray Hunter looked for their sons for days. The police and the whole town combed the prairie for evidence to their whereabouts. An entire week went by before a few young kids found the Hunter boys, or what was left of them, inside the inner charred remains of the silos. When the investigation was concluded, the forensics team established that it was Brian Hunter’s charred flesh and skeletal remains nailed into a few beams like a crucified Jesus. His head had been bashed in with a blunt object. There was very little left of Clyde. A few ribs, his skull, and a leg bone. Forensics concluded the fire started with Clyde and spread outwards, burning the bodies and the inside of the silo. A few drifters were arrested, but charges were never filed. Gail and Murray Hunter wept and clenched Merry’s shoulders at the wake. They both knew how important their sons were to her. Merry wrote the word “daughter” in the box and tossed the clipboard at Nurse Robinson.
The beeps from the different machines filled the half-lit room. Her father, who was fifty-eight, looked like a ninety-year-old corpse lying in the bed. There were tubes in his nose, an I.V in his arm, and an assortment of colored wires attached to his chest. His chest heaved slightly in rhythm with the beeping. She put her purse on the floor and took a seat across the room from him.
“If you only knew how this felt, girl,” he groaned.
“Huh?” she asked.
“Everything. How everything feels backwards.”
“They’re givin’ you medicine for that ain’t they?”
“Morphine. Doc Higgins says I can use a pump. Alls I gotta do is press a button. But I can’t. Don’t have the strength no more. Not even to reach. Ain’t right that a man can’t relieve his own pain. Ain’t right that a man shits himself all the time.”
“You’re sick. The nurses are here to help.”
“You mean the witch out there? Don’t make me laugh, girl.”
“Want me to go talk to her?”
“Won’t do you no good,” he said with a cough. “She’ll just wait until an orderly comes by, but those cunts are nowhere to be found. They’re always out smoking, drinking, or fuckin’.”
“Yup, couple of queer orderlies they have working here. Always off in the distance somewhere whispering and touching balls and fingering assholes. I heard them fucking in my bathroom one time. Pants down to their knees, humping. They laughed at me when they came out of the bathroom. Left me sitting here in my own shit.”
“I think you’re imagining things.”
“No. One of them even winked at me when he came out of the bathroom.”
“Doctor said with the morphine, the other drugs, and after years of drinking every day, that you’d have some delusional thoughts. If only he knew you had been thinking that way your whole life.”
“There’s no telling you, girl. You’ve been that way since you were a child.”
“Stop there. I don’t have the time nor the patience to be reminiscing.”
“See what I mean? Just like that. Just like your mama.”
“Don’t talk about her,” Merry replied, looking out the window.
“She was my wife. I loved her, regardless of what you might think.”
She thought about how much he “loved” his wife. One afternoon while Merry was standing on the faded porch that hadn’t been painted in years, Matthew dragged Vanessa by her shirt collar through the swinging door and down the stairs like an animal he was about to put a bullet in. Vanessa’s skin peeled and bruised through her ripped shirt as she kicked and screamed. Merry remembered the fearful pleas her mother made, how they echoed and drilled into her bones even as she clenched a teddy bear, using it as a shield. Her father’s eyes, filled red and cracked like lava, when Vanessa broke free and tried to run. Her mother looking up from the ground, a single line of blood flowing from her forehead after Matthew slapped her upside the head with a metal trash can lid. Merry felt herself running barefoot through the dead, gray fields of the farm; following her father who was dragging her semi-conscious mother by her long brown hair. Matthew dropping Vanessa, pulling down her pants and panties, and forcing himself into her. His words, You’ll give me another child whether you like it or not. Let everyone see it, pounded Merry’s brain. Her mother’s blank eyes drifted across Merry’s tiny, now adult toes.
“Love? What do you know about love, you damn drunk?” she asked.
“I was good to your mother. I gave her a life, a roof over her head.”
“You drove her to an early grave.”
“It was accidental. Police said just the same.”
“Oh, fuck off. She swallowed more than half of her pain pills.”
“She was always in pain. Wasn’t a suicide. Your mother was too strong for suicide. You know that as well as I do, girl.”
“She was scared of you!”
“Are you ever going to let this go? Your mother didn’t kill herself. No Shaw ever killed themselves. We are strong people. Survivors until the end.”
Merry looked back out the window and watched the pinks and reds push through the darkness of the sky. Dawn brought workers out on the road. Life had to go on even though she was in a room full of open graves.
“I’m never going to let go, you coward. You were the cause of her death.”
“There you go again, blaming everything on me.”
“When are you ever just going to admit it? You are either blind or delusional, probably both, but somewhere in that whiskey bottle skull of yours, the truth is alive.”
“You know, Meredith, after you mama died…”
“You mean when you lived at the bars?”
“Wait a second…after your mama died, I protected you. I never did nothing to you.”
“And you never did anything for me either. I had to grow up on my own. I had to figure out everything for myself. God knows you were too busy drinking to give a shit.”
“I was in mourning, girl. I thought about remarrying a few times when you got difficult, but I couldn’t bring myself to doing it. I loved your mother too much to bring a new bride into the house.”
“Stop! Just stop. You would’ve remarried in a second if a woman would’ve had you. Everyone knew about you…”
“Knew why she walked around with either bruises on her face or on her psyche. Everyone in town knew. But the cops never came and took you away because she never admitted it. People are not stupid, even though you’d like to think they are.”
“Grab me that water over there, would you?” he asked.
“Don’t change the subject. Admit it.”
“Admit what? That I loved your mother? I’ve said that several times already. How many more times do you want me to say it?”
“You’re a coward.”
“Was I a coward when I covered for you when you killed those Hunter boys?”
His words got her attention. She looked at him, stunned.
“You didn’t think I knew, did you? I knew those boys had been pawing at you for some time.”
“If you knew, then why didn’t you stop them?”
“What was it that your mother used to say you had? I remember she’d say it to you sometimes.”
“That’s right, sweet rage. You know why she used to say that to you?”
“She’d say it after I’d get mad.”
“Mad? Heh, girl, you’d rip the sky from its seams during your fits. Ever see what a tornado does to the land after it has ripped through a town?”
“Only on T.V.”
“Well, I have. Back when I was a boy, there used to be a small town bouts fifteen miles south of here. Not many folk. Maybe three hundred or so. Good hard workin’ people. Kept to themselves mostly. The town started to grow. New buildings. Grain mills. Sheriff’s station. Bar or two. People were settled in good until that tornado came through. And it wasn’t no pussy tornado that bounced around in the prairie and knocked down a tree, maybe killed a cow or two. No, it was a beast of a tornado. Shredded the town and killed almost everyone in it. They didn’t know it was coming. There were no sirens or signs back then, it just dropped in. One second peaceful, the next death and destruction. Not many left to pick up the pieces. Whoever survived, I don’t know them by their names, they up and moved. Ain’t nothing left of that town but some foundations. It’s like it never existed.”
“So why didn’t you stop them?”
“The Hunters? Girl, I didn’t have to do a thing. You are like that tornado. Your mama, she added the ‘sweet’ part on account of you being a pretty little girl an’ all.”
“But you let them do what they did for years.”
“I wasn’t sure at first. Then I thought maybe you wanted them to.”
“You are my fuckin’ father. You should’ve came storming into those silos with a shotgun.”
“I think you bashing one of their brains in and nailing him to a beam was justice. I think burning the other and dismembering him was punishment. Don’t you?”
“You no good piece of shit. I was just a girl.”
“Now look at you, a stone cold killer. You want to blame your mother’s death on me, then go ahead. What you did to those boys, well, it’s no different.”
“You ruined Mama. You drove her to death. The beatings, the psychological torture, the rapes. She was a prisoner. Her death was an escape. I did what I did to defend myself. Don’t you even compare me to you.”
“Call it what you like, girl, but you could’ve called the police on those boys.”
“Why? So they could go to a juvenile center for a few years, then be back out doing the same thing?”
“See, you did what had to be done. I never said a thing. I never will. I’m taking that one with me to the grave.”
“Hopefully anytime now,” Merry replied in disgust.
“Good. You hold onto that rage, girl, and stay pretty with it.”
A burst of pain ripped through Matthew’s body. He jerked his torso and started to cough. Merry watched and hoped that it would be his final spasm. But he came through, dazed but still alive. She turned away from him and opened her purse. She looked at the syringe full of Windex. She decided at that moment that pumping his body with substances that would kill him within seconds would be too easy for him. However long he had left, she wanted him to suffer in pain with his thoughts. There was no forgiveness in her. There was no redemption coming from on up high.
“I can’t wait to look at your mother’s face soon,” he said with a cough.
“I don’t think you’ll be going where Mama is.”
“I’m going to die any hour now and that’s what you say?”
“Call ‘em like I see ‘em.”
“Why don’t you just leave, Meredith. We ain’t ever seen eye to eye. We ain’t ever going to. Let me spend whatever time I have left in peace.”
“Someone has to claim the body.”
“You can do it afterwards. Just let me be, girl.”
She put on her coat, grabbed her purse, and looked at her father’s living yet decaying flesh one last time. Seeing him struggling to cling to life gave her a sense of peace. Knowing he was doomed to die in the prison of his mind settled the rage brewing inside. He coughed some more and spit up all over his chest, his liver kicking and screaming for the rest of his body to die.
“Bury me next to your mother, will you?” he asked, as she headed for the door.
Merry dropped her purse, grabbed a tissue, and instead of cleaning him, she rubbed the vomit deeper into his hospital gown.
“I want to spend eternity next to her,” he said.
She tossed the tissue and leaned into his ear.
“You’ll never spend one day next to Mama. You don’t deserve to spend one second next to her. You think I’m going to allow the same worms that are resting inside of her to burrow their way into you? You don’t get that privilege of sharing her rot.”
He looked at her, nodded, and looked away. “Do with me what you will,” he mumbled.
“I’ll let the state bury you with the rest of the poor and no-name corpses. You won’t even have a stone to show that you ever existed. You’ll vanish with switchgrass roots, forgotten.”
She picked up her purse and walked out the door. She could hear her father coughing as she walked down the hall. The coughs faded the further away she got. Nurse Robinson was gone for the day. There was a new nurse she had never seen before. The nurse smiled at her and she smiled back. She passed the tiny nursing home chapel and looked inside. The stained glass art showed people weeping under a crucified Jesus. She thought of the Hunter boys and her father, but she didn’t need to weep like the people in the stained glass. Only the weak had time to cry. Chicken-shits, she said to herself before shutting the door on the morning light shining through the glass.
She took the elevator to the first floor, stepped off, and passed a man in scrubs mopping the floor. She noticed his wide eyes staring at her. He whistled at the tightness of her jeans. She did nothing about it. When he went to catch a glimpse of her ass after she walked down the hall a bit more, he got more than just her back pockets, her braid, and shoulder blades, he also got the back of her hand with a middle finger she was holding high above her head.
FRANK REARDON was born in 1974 in Boston, Massachusetts, currently lives in Minot, North Dakota. Frank has been published in many reviews, journals and online zines. His first book, Interstate Chokehold, was published by NeoPoiesis Press in 2009 as well as his second collection Nirvana Haymaker 2012. His third poetry collection Blood Music was published by Punk Hostage Press late 2013. In 2014 Reardon published a chapbook with Dog On A Chain Press titled The Broken Halo Blues. Frank is currently working on fiction, and short fiction.