Archive | November, 2019

CANNI – the first 40 pages.

1 Nov

Canni

By Daniel O’Connor

 

For a heart drained of love, only blood remains.

 

Owatonna, Minnesota

 

Sterile.

It was all Wilk could think of as he captained the roaring Freightliner snow plow through the white-blanketed streets.  People often asked him why he never got sick.  They thought he’d be a prime candidate for pneumonia – up at 3:00 AM, out in constant sub-zero temperatures, clearing the roads while the commuters were still snug in their beds.

Yet, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even had the sniffles.

He thought it was an old wives’ tale that the cold could give one a cold.  The common cold was caused by viruses.  That much he knew.  He also refused to believe that viruses could flourish in this barren snow globe, where snot turned to icicle before the hanky left the pocket.  It all just looked and felt so virginal.  There weren’t even any smells.

Wilk thought back to when, as a child in winter, he’d held little wood frogs in his hand.  They were frozen solid, like some unearthed Himalayan cavemen.  He and his friends would return to their swampy habitat as spring approached, to watch the amphibians “come back to life”.

That is how cold his world was.

How sterile.

He bundled in layers.  Serious layers.  Thermal underwear, sweatshirt, sweater, hoodie, insulated jacket with high collar, three-hole balaclava over his face, hood on top of that.

Sticking out of all of that was the green and gold of a well-worn Minnesota North Stars cap.  The NHL team had relocated to Dallas decades before, but they had seized his heart when he was young, and that is where they endured, like a first love.

He motored past the frozen skeleton of a structure called River Springs Water Park.  He liked to recall bustling summer days when he’d taken his son and daughter for some fun in the sun.  The park would live again come June.

But it was winter that paid his bills.

The plow fought its way through nearly three feet of fresh, white powder.  The sound of the enormous scraper, and the rumbling of his 450 HP turbocharged engine, provided the bass and drum to some melody only in Wilk’s head.  He was subconsciously composing that song, and lamenting the fact, as always, that his North Stars never got to hoist a Stanley Cup, when he hit it.

Thump.

“Okey-dokey,” he mumbled.

He could have blasted through, but he stopped the plow.  The snow still came. Sideways.  But, he was the type to do the right thing.  He preached it to his kids, so he had to do it himself.  He’d once hit a Siberian Husky, but he determined that the animal had previously died in the street, and was covered over by the storm.  He knew this because he dug it out and it was frozen as solid as those wood frogs.  Usually, a thump was from some buried trash bags or other junk that had found its way into the path of his rig.  He’d come across an old air conditioner, and even a broken office chair with a naked mannequin taped to the seat.  Pranksters would sometimes bury things in the high snow just to fuck with the plow operators.  He didn’t understand the pleasure of screwing with the working folk, but he couldn’t come to terms with a lot of things people did.  He had once struck a hefty, snow-buried, Igloo cooler, still packed with cans of Surly Furious beer.  He and his fellow plowmen divvied up the crimson-hued ale, but Wilk kept the cooler.  Months later, he got stopped trying to lug it, packed with sandwiches, snacks, and fruit drinks, into River Springs Water Park.

The sight of the bulky, clothing-layered, Wilk descending from the truck cab might bring to mind an image of Neil Armstrong departing the lunar module.  His first boot print in the snow was the only such impression for as far as the eye could see.  He carried, not Armstrong’s Stars and Stripes, but a long-handled, steel snow shovel.

He trudged around to the front of the plow, vapor blasting through his mouth hole like a steam locomotive.  With no idea what was buried in that snow, he employed his shovel with prudence.

No reason to damage the blade.

He cautiously lifted a few inches of snow and tossed it aside.  Flakes attacked his eyes, circling in the wind like frantic gnats.  Another couple of shovel scrapes and he hit it.

It was reasonably hard, yet felt moderately pliable.  This was no air conditioner.

Time for some hand-digging.  He knelt.  His thick gloves brushed the powder aside, increasing in speed until he uncovered something.  He could, initially, only see about a two-inch window of it.

Black.  Maybe leather.  He thought it might be a purse, or even a small suitcase.  Further digging proved otherwise.  It was a boot.  Fancy women’s kind.

Worst of all, it was still on a foot.

Wilk dug like a hungry badger.  Once he saw her leg, he quickly scurried over to uncover her head, in the faint hope that he might revive her.

That was before his digging revealed the frozen blood.  Looked like someone had dropped a case of cherry snow cones.  He furrowed past the first layer of red.  There was her face.  Seemed like she took pride in her manicured eyebrows, but the green eyes below them were wide as the Minnesota Plains, and her mouth was agape, filled with snow, and frozen in her final horror.  Her left cheek was gone.

He removed one of his gloves.  The frosty air bit at his skin.  He felt her crimson-caked neck for a pulse, but only grasped the chafe of ice.  He pressed harder, and his fingers penetrated a wound he hadn’t detected.  It had been camouflaged by the frigid blanket of blood.

He mumbled the phrase he would utter to himself no matter if he had just been handed two nickels in change or, apparently, discovered an eviscerated corpse.

“Okey-dokey.”

 

 

Bill Smith’s plow had come from the other end of St. Paul Road.  The two rigs faced each other, framing the body of the exhumed woman between their scrapers.  Smith was so long and lean that he didn’t appear to be the bulky Sasquatch that was Wilk, even with his own layers keeping him warm.  Smith was Wilk’s most trusted ally.  He was like an older brother.

“Oh ya, she’s a goner,” he said, as he knelt beside the body.  Wilk stood behind him.

“You betcha,” replied his friend.  “The police are on the way.”

“Ya think maybe it was a bear or something?” asked Smith.

“Crossed my mind, don’tcha know.  Didn’t see no tracks of any kind.  Everything was all snowed over and such.”

Bill Smith had retired from a career in public relations, and just loved operating the plow.  He had the oddball trait of being the only Boston Bruins fan that anyone around Owatonna knew.  No one held it against him.  Worse was probably the fact that he had the exact name of a New York Islanders goalie who had been instrumental in denying the North Stars a Stanley Cup.  The boys never let him live that down.

Smith stared down at the woman.  Wilk coughed behind him.

Whatever, or whoever, did this, thought Smith, wanted her neck exposed.

There was no sign of a scarf, which she almost surely would have worn.  It was probably covered over nearby.  He couldn’t help but stare into her eyes.  He pondered what image she may have taken to her grave.  He didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene any further, so he decided to – eventually – stand and back away, but he couldn’t turn away from her green eyes.  Something inside him – inexplicably – half-expected her to awaken.  Pure nonsense, but it did cross his mind.

Bill Smith, as a child, had also played with the wood frogs.  He’d seen things return from the “dead”.

He was contemplating the frogs, most of which were brown, or tan – and how he had occasionally uncovered a green one.  They were green as the gaze from this dead woman’s irises.

That was the final reflection he had before his lifelong buddy, Wilk, killed him.

 

Lake Elsinore, California

 

The vibrant green of the dress was what struck her.  That, and the fact that the alternating vertical lines of the painted garment did appear to be true black.  But the green lines were much wider, and the color leaped from the lower half of the photograph.

Still, she had read that Claude Monet avoided true black in his work, preferring to create a similar color through the blending of others.

The crash course in Monet, and the painters of Impressionism in general, was undertaken because she was about to meet the nineteen-year-old daughter of her new beau for the first time.  The girl was almost fanatical about art – and Monet in particular.  Knowing a bit about him could be an ice-breaker for Anita Chuang.

She didn’t want to screw this relationship up the way she did her marriage.  Twenty-five years down the drain.  She was well-off enough; her relocated medical practice was doing fine.  She could afford the finer things in life.

But there was a hole in her heart.

It felt like Edgar might be the one to fill it.  It was important to make a positive impression on his daughter, Verde.  She was the greatest joy in Edgar’s life, and Anita desperately wanted to connect with her.

The month of March in Lake Elsinore rarely prohibits leisurely outdoor activities, so the barbeque was fired up in the lush backyard.  It was a perfect seventy-three degrees.

As the briquettes changed color on the rear patio, Anita put down the book on Claude Monet.  It was the third one she’d read that week.

Her plan was to gently introduce Verde to some delicious vegan burgers, and to also share her love of classical music.  Appreciating its joys was not much different than enjoying art-on-canvas.  There was color in music, too.  The attractive doctor removed her 180-gram vinyl edition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony N. 41in C Major from its rice paper sleeve, and placed in on her Rega P8 turntable, running a soft brush across its grooves.  This particular version, by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, had always been her favorite.  She loved that it was recorded in 1970, the year of her birth.  This particular piece had a strength about it – almost a finality – that felt reassuring.

Doorbell.

Mozart filled the room, the barbeque grew hotter, and the burgers – painstakingly crafted from chickpeas, sweetcorn, and a host of seasonings – chilled in the fridge.  The oven was still warm from her homemade buns – whisked together from flax egg, non-dairy milk, coconut oil, and pink Himalayan salt.  Dr. Chuang carefully arranged the three art books on her table, hurriedly fixed her black hair for the umpteenth time, and scampered to greet her visitors.

 

“You can’t tell me this is not flesh.  This is insane!” smiled Verde, as she swallowed Anita’s meatless creation.

“Told you,” laughed Edgar.

“Thank you, Verde. I’m glad you enjoy it. No meat at all.  Promise,” replied Anita.

The music played softly from small B&W patio speakers wired to the main system.  They were no match for the majesty of the Magnepan Tympani flat-panels that delivered the classics in the doctor’s living room, but they got the job done.

Anita noticed Verde’s head nodding a bit to the symphony.

“Rocking out to my Mozart, are you?” she chuckled.

“A little – yeah.  It’s not the Foo Fighters, but I can see why you dig it.”

“Well, that’s nice to hear from someone your age.”

“She’s quite open-minded,” added Edgar.

“There aren’t too many teenagers with such a love for Claude Monet,” said Anita, as she poured more Cabernet Sauvignon for herself and Edgar.  Verde’s glass was still full of Coke Zero.

“I’m almost twenty,” answered Verde.

“Still a teenager,” smiled her father.

“Well, Claude is the man,” said Verde. “I saw your books inside, Ms. Chuang – or should I call you Doctor?”

“Please call me Anita.  When you come for an office visit, you can call me Doctor,” she smiled.

“Cool.  Dad says you’re gonna give me my HPV shots.”

“If that’s what he wants – well, if that’s what you want.”

“Sweet.” She took another bite of her burger.  After chewing, she added, “Yeah, keep all those viruses away from me, please.  Freaking bird flu, ebola, all of that stuff.”

“You don’t have to be concerned with any of that,” said Anita.

“They said on the internet that all kinds of people in Africa have died from Ebola and then, like, came back from the dead.  There’s some ABC News footage of it, too.”

“Oh, Verde,” said Edgar.

“Dad, I’ll show you the video on my phone.”

“It’s likely they were all near death, and presumed dead by non-professionals,” said Anita. “I promise you, none of them were dead.  There may have been clinical death in some, but we have that every day, where we can sometimes revive people, if caught in time.”

“Some dude was being buried when he popped his butt up again.”

Anita laughed, “That was someone’s mistake.  I wouldn’t want to be that doctor!”

“Right?” said Verde.

“The internet,” said Edgar, “is as terrible as it is wonderful.”

“Dad…”

“It’s packed with bullies,” he said, “You should only know the things they have written to, and about, my daughter, Anita.”

“I’d say that’s more the fault of humanity, and a likely lack of parenting, than of the internet itself,” replied the doctor.

“Nailed it,” said Verde.  “People are rude.”

“In those art books,” said Anita, switching topics to lighten the mood, “I found myself drawn to that painting of the lady in the green and black dress.”

Verde’s eyes darted up.

“Oh, for sure.  The Woman in the Green Dress is what it’s called.  That’s Camille!”

“Camille?”

“Monet’s wife.  You haven’t read all of those books, have you?” she laughed, sipping her soda.

“You know, I think I spent most of the time looking at the photos of his paintings.”

“Then, they achieved his goal.  They drew you in.  Text be damned, Anita Chuang is gonna enjoy the art!”

They all laughed.  The Berlin Philharmonic were kicking ass.

“In all honesty, and I do try to be honest, I’m not such a fan of all the water lilies.  Seems a bit much for me…”

“But…”

“Wait a second,” laughed Anita, “I really loved a lot of his work, but I can’t tell you how many water lily paintings of his I’ve looked at this week, and I never saw even one frog.  Have you?”

Verde sat still for a moment.

“I…I never thought of that.  He has hundreds of lily paintings.  There must be a frog in there.  Could appear to be just a smudge of paint, but surely there is one somewhere.  Unless the presence of a frog might deter from the peacefulness of the work…”

“The absence of frogs,” said Edgar, as he gulped his wine.

“What does it all mean?” giggled Anita, discerning the initial effects of her alcohol. “Who is up for the next round of veggie burgers?”

“It’s not about the meaning,” said Verde.  “Monet said it was not necessary to understand, only to love.  He wanted people to feel something from his work, not to read into it.”

“Wow.  That’s nice,” said Anita.  “I did feel things from a lot of it.  Oh, I put some titles in my phone – hang on.”

She slid the screen door aside and entered the house.  Edgar looked at his daughter.

“Do you like her?” he whispered.

“Yeah.  She’s cool.”

“Did you want another round of burgers?” he asked.

“Oh, no.  Can’t get fat.  Internet bullies, you know.”

The Parc Monceau Paris,” came the shout from inside.  “That’s one of the better ones, to me.”

Anita appeared again as the sliding door squeaked.  “I also liked – let me see,” she looked down at her phone, “The Garden at Argenteuil!”

“Yes, the dahlias,” answered Verde.  “So beautiful.”

“And I already mentioned the green dress.”

“A favorite of mine too,” said Verde, “She seems ready to go out and have a wonderful time – I mean Camille, in the painting.  I often wonder where she was going, and what it was like to live then.  I mean, in this country, that was the world of Abraham Lincoln.  What was life like in Monet’s France?”

“American Civil War,” said her father.  “Not a great time to be alive.  As for France, weren’t they invading Mexico around that time?  Talk about HPV shots – the list of deadly diseases back then was enormous.  Am I right, Anita?”

“Yes, Debbie Downer, medicine has come a long way.”

“Camille died at thirty-two,” said Verde.  “Monet painted her on her death bed.  Compare the lack of color in that painting to the earlier ones.  He felt guilty because as she lay dying, he found interest in the colors that death brought to her face.”

“I saw that painting in one of the books.  How sad.”

“I don’t recall seeing that one,” said Edgar.

“I’ve showed it to you, Dad.  How could you forget that one?”

Thip…thip…thip…

“End of the record,” said Anita. “The better the turntable, the fewer convenience features.  The mysteries of high-end audio.  I have to lift the tonearm myself and put on another record.  I’ll bring the Monet books out so you can show your father the painting.”

“I can type Camille on Her Death Bed on my phone and get an image up,” said Verde.

“The picture in the book is much larger,” replied Anita.

Thip…thip…thip…

“True.  Monet deserves better than a phone screen.”

“Also, the sound of that record stylus is making me bonkers,” said Anita.  “I’ll be right back.”

The squeak of the screen door.

Thip…thip…thip…

With Anita inside the house, Edgar touched his daughter’s hand.

“I can tell she likes you a whole lot,” he said.  “That makes your old dad happy.”

He inhaled the pleasant, arid air, and decided he might just want another burger.  He thought about getting up and tossing one on the barbeque himself, but Anita had such a way with cooking, that he’d surely fall short in some manner – even with a task as simple as pseudo-meat on a hot grill.  The setting sun flickered through the fluttering leaves of the California Ash tree behind him.  Its warm rays danced on the back wall of Anita’s home.  She’d told him it reminded her of glittering diamonds.  He thought more of the flaring bare light bulb that hung above his childhood bed.

“We should bring her to the Getty Museum to see some legit Monet.  She’d like that, Dad.”

He leaned in and whispered, “But we always grab hot dogs there.  She wouldn’t be too keen on that.”

“You’re funny.  They have veggie meals.  I almost got one last time.”

Thip…thip…thip…

“I wonder what album she’ll put on next?  Maybe Nirvana,” he joked.

“I wish.  Or the Pixies.”

Edgar marveled at how his little girl wasn’t even born when most of her favorite bands broke through.  He recalled taking her to see Weezer in Anaheim around the time of her eighteenth birthday.

Thip…thip…thip…

He reached down for his glass to finish that last smidgen of wine.

That was when Dr. Anita Chuang came crashing through the screen door to kill him.

She ended Verde’s life beside the toppled barbeque and the next round of burgers.

 

 

Mohave County, Arizona

 

“They aren’t fucking zombies,” she said. “They’re alive and breathing just as you are, asshole.”

Not the lovely nothings one might expect to float from the mouth of a bride-to-be in the days before her wedding.

Well, it’s not like she agreed to be married in Vegas, but he was hoping for it.

“I’m sorry, Cash” he replied. “I wasn’t referring to your uncle – but some of those people around him…”

The uncle in question is the one who may have given her the nickname, “Cash”.  She also doesn’t agree that ever happened, but he swears he heard it. He is her boyfriend – sometimes barely – and he was behind the wheel of a 1983 Malibu sedan, with Cash beside him, and her best friend, Teresa, in the back seat. They were all considerably younger than the Chevy, but old enough for a vacation in Vegas, with the possibility of nuptials slightly more likely than three 7s on the slot reels.  Nearing the end of a week-long trek from New York to Nevada, they hurtled through the bleak night on a black strip of highway that, from far enough above, looked like a piece of thread dropped randomly in an enormous, mountainous desert. Almost two hours till a warm sunrise, and there had been no other cars for miles – since some clowns in a dirty red pickup tossed a bag of Taco Bell refuse out their truck window and onto the road.

Cash was still pissed about the callous zombie remark as they entered a little sliver of Arizona, on I-15, between Utah and Nevada. Her boyfriend’s given name was Winthrop – in tribute to a great-grandfather who was a tobacconist of some note. He learned early on that it was much too fancy and regal a name for a kid bumming around Brooklyn, so he took to calling himself Rob. It was his middle name – Robert. Cash’s real name – and the one most people other than Rob called her, was Caroline. Winthrop and Caroline. Could be a king and queen. But in the then and there, and for as long as the world would permit them to grace each other – they were Rob and Cash.

“Calling them zombies? That’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever heard out of your mouth, Rob.  And that’s saying a lot.  They are heavily medicated.”

Teresa remained quiet in the back seat, staring out the side window, taking in the dancing moon shadows of the desert and tweeting on her iPhone.  Cash pulled up on the door lock button beside her, then, pushed it down again.  She repeated the action a second time.  Rob had seen her do this repeatedly during the road trip, had occasionally promised her that the door was indeed locked, but knew better than to offer any reassurances this time.

He knew his foot was already ankle deep in his mouth, and he was formulating a meaningful apology in his mind. He’d tried to be funny with his “zombie” comment, but knew it sounded wrong even as it rode out upon his truck stop burrito breath. Cash’s Uncle Reg had been a New York City cop for 25 years. He was always kind to his niece, and the joker of what remained of her broken family. A steady buildup of plaque in his brain had changed him from a vibrant soul into a shell of his former self. So much so that he had difficulty remembering and identifying even those closest to him, and he found himself, though only sixty years old, in an assisted living facility. Rob had referred to some of the older patients as “zombies” for how they ambled through the corridors the last time he and Cash had visited – just before they left on their cross-country journey. Rob and Cash had been talking recently about how she earned that nickname. He said that Uncle Reg called her that the first time Rob met him, but she swore that no one had ever used that name before Rob.

He tried to lighten the mood with a running gag that he usually enjoyed a lot more than Cash

“Wanna start a band?” he asked with a grin.

“What would we call it?” she answered robotically, with an obvious lack of gusto.

“Rick Wakeman’s Cape.”

“I don’t even get it,” she sighed.

He was pondering an explanation, or an apology, when he saw the lights in his mirror.

Cops.

The red and blue illuminated the night sky and coated the mountains with color.  The car approached quickly, but sans siren.

“Damn it,” sighed Rob. “I wasn’t going that fast.”

Teresa surfaced from her boredom in the back seat, mumbling about a pimple and closing her hand mirror. She turned her head to peer out the rear window.  The interior of Rob’s Chevrolet had the look of a night club, or maybe – in this particularly old vehicle – a disco, as the lights streamed in from behind.  The sedan got right on their bumper, and just as Rob began to pull over, it quickly crossed into the left lane to pass them.

Relief.

Rob looked over at the police car as it passed. They all did.

Male officer driving, female cop in the passenger seat – facing backwards.  A third figure was caged in the rear of the marked sedan, behind the steel-framed partition.

Some type of bag over its head.

The hooded rider was thrashing wildly, arms cuffed behind the back.  The covered head smashed against the side window of the police vehicle just as it passed Rob’s car, fracturing the thick glass.

“What the hell?” was all Rob could muster. “Did you guys see that?”

“Creepy,” said Cash.

“Wonder what the one in back is trippin’ on?” asked Teresa, as she leaned forward.

“But did you really see the one in back?” asked Rob. “Did you see the uniform?”

“Huh?”

“He was a cop too.”

 

East Islip, New York

 

The plumber had arrived promptly, just after the kids headed out for school. He was friendly and professional, and he promised to get Joyce McDougald’s kitchen drain clear.

Stereotype, she thought, holding back a chuckle. This chubby fella is gonna fix what neither my coat hanger snake, plunger, or three containers of ultra heavy duty, foaming, sizzling, industrial strength liquid gel acid rain unclogger could do – and here I am thinking of plumber butt jokes.
His rump divider protruded from the top of his pants as his lower half protruded from the cabinet beneath her sink.

“I’ll have this done in no time,” came his muffled promise.  Joyce could see his arms moving and hear wrench-versus-pipe percussion.  Sweat began to bead on his exposed back, like grease on an undercooked bacon slab. The thought of a droplet sliding down his cheeky crevice was too much, and caused her to turn, coffee in hand, to admire the refrigerator artwork of her twins.

“Take your time,” she replied. “Just happy that you’re here!”

The Long Island sun steamed in her kitchen window as Good Morning America could be heard from the living room plasma.  She was a bit concerned that this workman would do what so many others had, and charge her more than the agreed-upon estimate, after discovering some “complications” during the repair.

While studying her son’s Crayola portraits of various X-Men, she thought she heard the plumber sneeze.

“Bless you.”

No reply.

She gazed down at all of the bottles and cans on the tiles surrounding the repairman’s feet; the stuff that would normally occupy the space under the sink; floor cleaner, furniture polish, a clear, label-less, bottle of smoky, topaz brown, mystery liquid.

I really need to go through all this junk before I put it back in the cabinet, she thought, as coffee aroma filled her nostrils.

Sounded like his wrench dropped.

He was still for a moment; exposed back sweat droplets evolving into tiny puddles.

Then his leg twitched.

“You okay, sir?”

Expecting to hear something like, “Yep, be done in a jiffy,” Joyce jumped when his legs began kicking about like a bullfrog on ice.  The bottles and cans went flying in all directions, smashing and rattling throughout the sunny kitchen.  She feared the worst, as grunts and growls came from beneath the sink.

Oh God, my drain-cleaning acid spilled out of the pipes onto his face!

She reasonably envisioned that particular scenario to be “The Worst”.

It wasn’t.

Good Morning America had gone to commercial.  The early spring birds could be heard singing outside of Joyce’s quaint ranch home.  They danced on the hedge that sat just below her bow window.  A former NFL great blared from the television about how his aging prostate no longer kept him awake at night.

In the kitchen, Joyce McDougald was already dead on the floor.

Her blood snaked across the beveled tiles, gravity filling in the crevices like some grand design.  It mixed with the spilled floor cleaner and smoky topaz liquid, and pooled up at the bottom of the refrigerator, below the X-Men drawings.

 

 

Mojave County, Arizona

 

Fifteen minutes had elapsed since the speeding police car had passed Rob’s old Chevy.  They weren’t getting much reception on the car radio, so Cash and Teresa knew Rob would resort to the dreaded 8-track player.  The decades old car, including the ancient tape deck, and the assortment of music cartridges, were all that the young man received after his drunken father fell asleep with a Camel in his hand and turned everything, himself included, to ash.  Seems the only thing Rob’s dad cared about was that car and its V-8 engine, so it was in great shape, and like vinyl records – and maybe even 8-tracks – it was slowly transforming from a funny oddity in most people’s minds, to being rather cool.

So Cash and Teresa couldn’t get Lady Gaga or Rihanna on the radio, but they did get the first album by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and the pounding anthem “Stayed Awake All Night”, which was quite appropriate.  Rob sang along with every word, as he could to most any song in his late father’s collection.  Scary thought for the two female riders: after several days in the Malibu, they were learning some of the songs too.  They’d made a bit of a pact to distance themselves from the real world during this journey, avoiding radio news and not checking websites that could ruin their escape.  Still, some news was just too big to avoid entirely.

“I am so tired,” yawned Cash.

“We’ll be in Vegas in like an hour!” replied Rob. “The home of the coolest weddings on the planet!”

“Hmmm.”

“Come on, you’ve even got your maid of honor in the back seat!”

He turned back to Teresa, who flashed a sympathetic, heartfelt, and groggy smile.

“I need to sleep, baby,” said Cash.

“Well, our Vegas hotel will definitely be a lot nicer than the shitholes we’ve stayed in along the way,” he replied, as they approached a curve in the road.

“That’ll be pretty sweet,” said Cash as her eyelids slid down.  The 8-track was between songs, and brief seconds of nothing but soothing tape hiss blanketed the car as Cash rested her head against the window.  Sleep called.

The freeway sign read: VALLEY OF FIRE.

“Holy shit!” yelled Rob, trashing the tranquility.

Cash came back to life.  Teresa leaned forward – her head coming between her friends.

“Wha…”, she whispered as she saw it.  Rob shut down the tape deck.

There, again, was the police car.

It was off the road, twenty yards into the dark desert landscape.  It had crashed into, and nearly uprooted, a Joshua tree.  Smoke escaped from beneath the crushed front end that consumed the yucca palm.  The overhead lights still flickered red and blue.  A tractor-trailer was stopped at the side of the freeway, flashers on.  Rob and the girls could see the truck driver sprinting toward the police car.

“We’ve gotta help,” said Rob, as he slowed and pulled over in front of the semi.  He looked at Teresa, “T, call 911.”

She fumbled with her phone, “Where the hell are we, exactly?”

Rob was out the door, Cash just behind him.  They darted across the brush.  The trucker was on the far side of the car, where both passenger side windows had been smashed.  The air bags had deployed.  As they were almost at the vehicle, they could see the truck driver opening the back door.

The handcuffed rear seat passenger, with a hood over his head, and a cop uniform on his large body, jumped from the smoky vehicle, nearly knocking the burly trucker to the ground.  His yells were muffled by the head-cover.  There was no gun belt around his waist.

“Settle down,” said the semi driver, in a southern drawl.  “I’m takin’ that hood off, but them cuffs is stayin’ on, big fella.”

Just as Rob, then Cash, reached the accident scene, the hood was pulled off.  Rob ignored that, as he ran to the front seats.  The officer behind the wheel was obviously dead – his head down at a difficult angle.  What remained of his face was bathed in syrupy blood.  His neck had been torn apart.  The female cop, who had been in the passenger seat, was nowhere to be found.

Cash hadn’t seen any of that, but she trembled nonetheless, as she saw the big cop’s hood come off.  He was pale and sweaty, snot stringing from nose to lips, eyes bloodshot, with rusty caking around his mouth.

Dried blood.  Parched vomit.

The stench of his breath smothered Cash’s nostrils from five feet away, but it was his eyes that commanded her stare. Sure, they were red, but Cash had seen swollen eye vessels and discolored sclerae before, though never accompanied by such ghostly white pupils. Yet it was the brilliance of the red that kept her transfixed.
More red than blood, she thought. Redder than fire or rubies. Her mind raced in search of a comparable color. Nothing seemed appropriate.

 

Back in the Malibu, Teresa gripped her phone.  A single car passed her window but continued into the early morning darkness.  The bright lights from the idling tractor-trailer cut through the misty black and into the rear window of the Chevy.

“I…I know we’re on Interstate 15…not sure if it’s Utah, Arizona or Nevada.  Wait – not Utah.  We left Utah.  I think it’s Arizona…”

 

Cash took another step back from the handcuffed cop as the trucker tried to settle him down,  yet, she still focused on those eyes. Rob emerged from the front seat and tried to scan his surroundings for the missing female officer.  It was all red and blue from the police lights, but beyond that immediate area, only pitch-black desert.

The big, sweaty officer finally formulated a sentence.

“God, what have I done?”

Cash felt wobbly. Her most recent meal wanted out.

“Tell me exactly what happened, partner,” drawled the trucker.

 

Teresa’s frustration grew in the Chevy.

“I’m doing the best I can.  Maybe I can use my phone’s GPS…”

Behind her, outside, by the trunk of the Malibu, silhouetted by the harsh lights of the empty truck, moved a figure.

 

“You did all this here?” asked the trucker of the ranting cop.

No answer.  Moist, crimson eyes.  Maybe a slight head shake.

Rob grabbed the arm of the inquisitive driver as Cash looked on.  He whispered in his ruddy ear, “Did you see the dead cop behind the wheel?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Looks like his throat is basically gone.”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” continued Rob, “I’m no detective, but I can’t see how this guy did any of this, while handcuffed, hooded, and locked behind a cage in the back of the car.”

Cash was dizzy from the horror and the whirling police lights.  She tore herself away from those eyes, leaned her backside on the crushed passenger side fender, and gazed out into the cobalt and crimson darkness.
She muttered something for Rob to hear, but he was too engaged with the rig operator to notice.

“Red,” she said. “More red than blood or fire.”

Her head turned one more time toward the big, handcuffed cop. One more look at the eyes.
“Red, like a devil.”

 

Back in the old Chevy, Teresa had some words for the 911 operator.

“This is insane.  I’m gonna get out and look for a highway marker.  Do you at least have someone headed in this direction?”

She slid over toward the door, bathed in the light from behind.

“Don’t you hang up on me now.”

She opened the door and it hit something. A leg.  He was standing right there.

“Fuck me!” she yelled, almost involuntarily.

“I’ll definitely file that request,” he replied. “But for now, I’m just checking to see if you’re okay.”

He was tall, smiling, Asian, and clutching a motorcycle helmet.  Teresa’s heart returned to its designated position.

“Can you tell this operator exactly where we are?”

 

Rob continued whispering with the trucker as the shackled cop whimpered and cried.  Cash was feeling a bit stronger since leaning on the wrecked police car.  She once again forced her focus on the oddly comforting darkness of cactus and brush.

Something, in the distance, moved.

Just a shadow from all these damned dancing lights, she thought.

Then, out of the black it came, into the red and blue wash.

“Rob…”

He was deep into his discussion with the big rigger.

The figure zig-zagged just a bit as it approached.

“Babe…”

Both men turned toward Cash.  She just lazily raised her arm to point behind them.

Apparently not an animal, it was indeed a human form that approached from the dry wild.

“Who’s out there?” yelled the trucker.  The fettered cop slowly raised his head to observe.

“Uncuff me,” was all he mumbled.

“Hello?  Who is that?” hollered the rig driver, even more loudly.

Rob stepped over to get between Cash and the approaching roamer.  There was no response to the trucker’s calls as it trudged closer.

“Fuck this,” declared Cash as she suddenly bolted into the front seat of the police car.  She tried not to notice the soaking warm blood or bits of torn flesh that adorned the uniform of the dead officer behind the wheel.  She held her breath to avoid the powdery chemical stench of the air bags.  Cash just wanted a gun.  She could hear Rob and the truck driver continue to call out to the desert walker.  Her fingers managed to pop open the plasma-soaked button strap, but she couldn’t get the weapon out of the belt holster.

She thought she could now hear the approaching footsteps in the brush.  Her palms were covered with blood as she finally thought to tilt the gun forward before trying to pull it out.

That worked.  She had the pistol.

Cash crawled backwards out of the car and spun to face the advancing visitant.

It was clear now.  This was the missing female cop.  Cash initially had the gun raised but began to lower it.  Then she saw the face of the diminutive woman.  Pale, wide-eyed, and with that caked vomit/blood composite around her mouth.  Same as the big cop.  Blood all over the front of her uniform too.

Cash brought the gun back up.  She flashed back to when her Uncle Reg had taken her to the NYPD range to shoot, and then on to the Statue of Liberty.  She couldn’t, however, dismiss the nagging fact that blood covered her hands.  Felt like it was gluing the weapon to her palms. All Cash wanted was to scrub herself from the elbows down.  But that would have to wait.

The approaching officer said nothing.  Her arms were to her side.  A gun dangled from her right hand.

“What’s this all about?” yelled Rob.

The cop didn’t even look his way.  Her white pupils seemed trained on the interior of the police car.

“D-Don’t come any closer!” yelled Cash, not even sure if she could ever pull the trigger.  She could feel the cold steel adhering to her skin. Felt like drying mucus. She needed to scour her hands.

But the catatonic cop kept coming.

“I told you to stop!” demanded Cash.

“Please uncuff me,” repeated the big male officer, to no avail.

Just then, the bloody female cop stopped.  Cash’s hands trembled.

“You want me to take that gun from you, baby?” whispered Rob.

“No.”

The uniformed woman stared into the vehicle – at the murdered policeman behind the wheel.  From the opposite direction came Teresa, her new biker friend – who was recording the scene with his phone – and a couple of other travelers who had just stopped to help.  Teresa saw her best friend aiming a gun at one ghoulish-looking cop, while another stood handcuffed beside an old trucker.

The female officer’s eyes never moved from the sight of her slaughtered partner.  She slowly raised her handgun.  Cash almost pulled the trigger, especially when she got a good look at the eyes – red like a devil – but something stopped her.  The impassive cop put the gun to her own right temple and blew off the top of her head.

Screams and gasps.

Cash dropped the weapon she’d been holding and fell to her knees.  Rob engulfed her.  Instinctively, she scraped her hands against the sandy ground below her, trying to get rid of the blood, but it only stuck the dirt to her, like breading.

The burly officer, arms still shackled behind him, redness fading from his eyes, had some words for Cash that cut right through the night air.

“Fuck it.  Keep that gun.  Take hers too.  You’ll need them.”

 

 

Evans City, Pennsylvania

 

Father and daughter.  They relished sunny days because they could make shadow hand puppets.  Their silhouettes were strong and deep against the concrete.  His shadow was much larger, of course.  It was crouched, and he was just forward of his daughter.  Her shadow showed her pigtails quite clearly, as well as the spokes of her wheelchair.  There was a big blue chalk-drawn heart containing the words “Daddy loves Bug” on their cement screen.

“A bird is an easy one, Daddy!” she laughed.

Her hands formed the wings as she easily outdid her father’s attempt.

They looked, not at each other, but directly down as each of their creations appeared.

“You’re too good for me, sweetheart.”

“I get a lot of practice.”

“I really need to work on my shadow puppets,” he laughed.

“Here’s my goat,” she said.  “Yes, his name is Billy.”

“I love that one,” he replied, as she used both hands to form a great looking creature including horns and dangling chin hair.

“You can make Billy, too. Just keep at it,” she told him.

The shadow of her head titled just a bit as her arms formed something of a long neck.

“Make your hands into a big tree,” she told her father.

He opened his five fingers widely.  The best he could come up with.  Her hands formed a head.

“A brontosaurus!”

They both chuckled as her handiwork moved over to her father’s “tree” and began to munch.

“Does it tickle, Daddy?  I’m eating you!”

The wheelchair shadow moved slightly, and the wind kicked up a bit.

“Go on, make the goat now,” she said with a slight cough.

The silhouette of her pigtailed head remained still as her father tried his hands in different combinations – almost getting the goat puppet, but not quite.

“Nearly had it, Bug,” he said.

She didn’t reply as he tried varying combinations of fingers to make the horns.  The sun was hot on his neck, but the shadows were brilliantly strong against the concrete.  The blue heart was bright in the backdrop of the emerging goat.

He didn’t notice as the black shadow of Bug’s head twitched just a bit.

“It’s a bit of a sad animal,” he said. “Looks more like Christian Bale at an AC/DC concert.”

As he tweaked the goatee a bit by shifting his pinky to different angles, Bug’s pigtailed shadow slowly stood from that of her wheelchair.  He didn’t see it as it turned to face him.  Her silhouette was in dark profile and a black depiction of liquid streamed from her mouth to the ground.  He heard the gurgle and turned to face his baby.

His hands were still in goat mode when she was on him.

They became a single umbra between the earth and the sun.

Blood splattered onto the chalk heart.

 

Las Vegas, Nevada

 

“Having fun in Vegas?” asked the scaly-skinned waitress – more out of habit than concern.

The four of them sat at the table, their minds somewhere between lethargy and slumber.  Rob managed to reply, as he hoped this was just some continuation of the lucid dream that was surely nearing conclusion.

“Just got in,” he said, as he collected the menus and handed them over.

Rob, Cash and Teresa were about to have their version of breakfast with the Asian motorcyclist.  He had told them his name was Sum Yung Cum, but couldn’t keep a straight face and soon admitted to being Paul Bhong, though he’d often use the surname, Smith.  He had claimed Chinese, Japanese and OnMeKnees ancestry before fessing up as a Korean-American.  They hadn’t even believed his drug-bubbling surname until he produced his license for the cops at the precinct.

They were at the station for over eight hours – maybe two hours of individual interviews and six of waiting around in separate offices.  Still, they got off easy for seeing two dead cops and a third – babbling and possibly freshly insane.

There were several suits at the precinct house.  Took them hours to arrive, and they sure weren’t local cops or detectives.  They did most of the interviewing, without ever saying exactly who they were.  Government was the catch phrase.  Cash was sure that most of the questions would revolve around a certain missing police gun, which had found its way, on the advice of the handcuffed officer, to a spot below the front seat of Rob’s Chevy.  When the questioners almost completely avoided that subject, Cash knew that some hardcore shit was brewing in the desert.  When cops don’t care about a missing service weapon, there must be some humongous fish to fry.

It was late afternoon now, but Paul Bhong had led them to this little place on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas that had won a Best Pancakes in America title – and damned if they weren’t going to try them.  Despite the cooking accolades, the joint was nearly empty.  Other than brief police station chair and bench catnaps, the three cross-country travelers hadn’t been to sleep for two days.

“Hope y’all have lots o’ luck here,” said the waitress as she left their table.

“Can’t get any worse,” mumbled Teresa.  The others offered tired laughs.  She caught Paul smiling at her, and it felt nice.  He gave her a gentle tap on the hand.  That felt nicer.

“You look as exhausted as I feel, Carrie,” said Teresa.

“I’m shot,” she replied, rubbing hand sanitizer all the way up to her elbows.

Carrie?” asked Paul.  “I thought you were Cash?”

“Only to him,” she smiled, tossing a thumb at Rob.

“And her favorite uncle,” answered Rob, as Cash shook her head.

“Never happened,” she said.

“So I should call you Carrie?” asked the biker.

“Carrie, Ca, Caroline…all good.”

“Hmmm,” pondered Paul, “How ‘bout… Khaki?”

“What?”

“Yeah,” replied Paul. “That lovely skin tone you have.  Almost like khaki.”

Her skin did have compelling color but was obviously dry from over-cleansing. She was flattered by Paul’s compliment, but unsure of how to respond.

Rob wasn’t.  “Caroline would be a good name to call her.”

He shot his best Keep Your Distance look at Paul.  Teresa slid her hand away from their new pal.

“Caroline it is,” he said.  “Sorry, I like to have fun with names n’ shit.  Didn’t mean to sound creepy.”

Trying to dump the awkward, Cash pointed that thumb at Rob again.

“Paul, I bet you’d never guess what name that ‘Rob’ here signed on all that police paperwork today.”

“I’m not ashamed of it,” said Rob, not missing a beat.  “My name is Winthrop.  Winthrop Robert Van Morrison-CrosbyStillsNash, and I am damned proud of it.”

Silence.

“Okay Paul, I lied about the last name.  But my name is Winthrop.”

“That’s one sweet name, bro.  Why don’t you use it?  Sounds important.”

“I like Rob,” he replied.

“If you go by Winthrop, you’re allowed to wear a monocle and junk.”

The waitress returned with four water glasses.

“Thank you” said Rob.  “So, did we catch you between lunch and dinner?” he asked her, just trying to make small talk.

“What’s that?”

“I mean, it’s kind of empty.  My friend here told me this was a popular restaurant.”

Rob and the server both looked over at Paul.

“It is popular,” she answered. “But lots less people have been coming since the flyover.”

The waitress turned a bit to the side and her right hand made a quick and sloppy sign of the cross.

“Ah” replied Rob, while peering at Cash.

“Guess folks are just scared,” added the woman, as just a hint of apprehension came over her worn face.  Paul could sense the change in her.  He spoke up.

“Me change mind!” he bellowed, with machine gun speed, and a completely new accent. “No want pancake no more.  You got Korean noodle, mung bean, and ddukbokkie?”

“Oh…I…uh…”

“What ‘bout dog?  You roast Boston Terrier for customer?”

“Sir, I…I…”

He smiled at the confused woman.  “Just kidding, ma’am.  Having a bit of fun with you,” he said in his normal voice.

“Oh,” she grinned.  “You had me there.  Very funny!”

She was smiling broadly as she headed back to the front counter.  Mission accomplished.

Paul looked at his new friends.  “I do like fucking with people and Asian stereotypes, but, also, she looked like she needed a laugh.”

They all appeared a bit cheerier after his ridiculous impression.  Teresa slid her hand back closer to his – almost touching.  He made her happy.  She also loved the fact that he was of ample height.  Teresa was endowed with the slim, sturdy frame of a fashion model, but finding a boyfriend over whom she didn’t tower was always a consideration.

“You keep that Chevy looking and running so sweet,” said Paul to Rob.

“Thanks, man.  I try.”

“Can’t believe you took it cross country, though.  Five thousand mile round trip.  Lots of sand n’ shit.  Ballsy way to treat that ride.”

“Well, it’s supposed to be a sweet vacation, and I’m hoping…” began Rob, before Cash cut him off.

“I can’t fly,” she said. “I’ve tried, but I had to leave the plane before it ever took off.”

“Ahh,” replied Paul, as he watched Cash run her unused cutlery through her table napkin. “Well, we all have our things, I suppose.  I hate the sound of Styrofoam.  You know, like when the top of a cooler rubs against the base.  Makes me wanna beer dick my own goddamn ears.  But, for this guy to put that awesome car through this kind of trip…damn, he must love you, sista.”

Changing the subject, Cash asked, “Why didn’t you give the cops the video you shot back there?”

“Hell, no,” replied Paul.  “They’d keep my phone.  I keep trying to shoot something that will go viral.  Bring subscribers to my YouTube channel.  No luck yet.”

“You won’t post that horror, will you?”

“No.  Not fair to the victims.  Paul Smith-Bhong loses out again.”

 

In the United States of America, a flyover was usually thought of as a coordinated, respectful event where an aircraft, or group of aircrafts, would pay homage to an occasion or anniversary with a majestic pass under the sun, ideally against a clear blue sky.  Some countries would refer to these ceremonies as flypasts.

The flyover to which the waitress referred was coordinated indeed.  Took a decade of planning.  Involved hundreds of small aircraft.  Covered each and every one of the forty-eight contiguous states. Occurred on the fifteenth of March – a day infamous for another historical conspiracy – and was less than a fortnight gone.

However, it was anything but respectful.

Most of the planes, and all of the pilots, were no more.  A handful were shot down, but most completed their integrated mission by intentionally crashing into the most inviting and catastrophic targets in their vicinity.

 

It was unanimous.  The pancakes were indeed the best they’d ever had.  But now they sat like lead weights in the stomachs of three exhausted travelers.  The group had parted ways with Paul, promising to hook up again during the trip.  The hog-riding jokester had proven to them, via his driver’s license, that he was indeed a Vegas local, but he had told them he was both a software developer and a dishwasher for Hot Phat Dung Noodle Bar.  They tended to believe the former.

The Malibu headed south down Las Vegas Boulevard.  Wedding chapels – great and small – lined both sides of the street.

“That’s the one!” shouted Rob. “Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bruce Willis got married there.  Michael Jordan.  Britney Spears, too.”

“What about Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob?” asked Teresa, as Cash gazed in the other direction.

“Don’t know. That might be another chapel.  There are loads of ‘em!”

“Rob,” said Cash, without looking, “are any of these people still married?”

“Technically, yes.”

“But to other people.”

“Correct.”

They drove on.  Radio stations were plentiful in the city, so they listened to Adele as they motored along.  Rob lifted his 8-track copy of Some Girls by the Rolling Stones and waved it around slowly.

“No.” replied the girls in unison.

“This tape,” said Rob, “has versions of some songs that never appeared on either vinyl or CD!”

“What about downloads?” asked Cash.

“I don’t even say that word,” he answered.

“Can you stream it?”

“Shut it.”

“I don’t even know how those tape things still play,” offered Teresa.

“Don’t get him started,” sighed Cash.

Too late.

“There are two things I really know how to do; fix cars and 8-tracks.  They’ll both last a lifetime if you treat them right.  With tapes, it’s all about repairing or replacing foil tabs and fuzzy pads.  I can show you someday, if you like.  Cash has seen me do it.”

The girls exchanged glances.  Teresa gave her friend a he’s cute pout.  Cash smiled in agreement.

“Would love to see it when we get back home,” smiled Teresa.

Then it was before them.  The Las Vegas Strip.  It was daylight, yet somehow things still got a whole lot shinier as they passed the landmarks one-by-one: the Stratosphere, Encore, Wynn, Venetian, Mirage and more – almost too many to grasp.  Fewer tourists than they’d expected, though.

“Which one are we staying at?” asked Cash.  “I can’t take the suspense!”

“I told you – it’s a surprise,” answered Rob.

“Caesar’s! The Hangover!” chuckled Cash.

“Aaaand the Ides of March,” added Teresa, gazing out the passenger side window as they approached the Bellagio and its legendary fountains.

They motored on.

City Center, Paris, MGM Grand, New York, New York, Luxor and others.

A huge jet lumbered over them as it descended on McCarran airport.  It felt reassuring to the trio, after several days of no aircraft, save for the occasional military fighter.

“Well, I guess it’s Mandalay Bay,” offered Cash, pointing at the last of the big beautiful casino resorts at the south end of the strip.  “Cool!”

Mandalay came and went.  Rob drove on.  The Killers were on the radio now.

DRIVE CAREFULLY.  COME BACK SOON, said the backside of the famous WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS sign.

About ten wordless minutes after that, Rob pulled into a motel parking lot. Three young men in hoodies huddled together in a handicapped parking space, blowing smoke rings toward the sky.

IN-ROOM HBO bragged the weathered sign.

“I’m borderline certain that said ‘In-room hobo’,” sighed Cash.

 

In the modest motel lobby, Rob checked in while the girls did their best to recline on a tattered sofa.

“I bet this couch was the bomb – in the days before this guy took it out of the Caesars Palace dumpster,” said Cash.

This is our ‘surprise hotel’? Oh-em-gee,” yawned Teresa.

“Yeah.  Rob said he thought since the address was on Las Vegas Boulevard, it had to be part of the strip.  He said we can’t afford those nice ones because they quadruple their prices for the weekend.”

“How ‘bout we stay weeknights in a nice hotel, then spend the weekend in a cardboard box behind the Palazzo?”  They both laughed as Rob dealt with the clerk behind the desk.

“One room, two hotties. Well played, my friend, okaaaay,” coughed the middle-aged turtle, with an unlit cigar hanging beneath his thatchy mustache.

“It’s not like that,” answered Rob.

“Sure you don’t want the room with one king bed?” he replied, sounding like a garbage disposal on the fritz.

“I’m sure, bro.”

“Mackey.  Call me Mackey. We had a cancellation.  I can slide you twenty percent off. Okaaaay?”

“I’m marrying one of them.  The other one is her best friend.”

“Sweeeeeet,” replied the clerk, transforming the explanation into one of his fantasies. “Which one is the bride-to-be?” he asked, more loudly than his previous mumblings.

“We’re both brides-to-be,” replied Cash as she sauntered up to the desk, “…eventually.”

The clerk studied her carefully enough for Rob to want it to stop.  He smiled broadly, revealing the teeth he had retained to date.

“I was telling your groom about a Honeymoon Suite we have…”

“I wanted to ask you something,” interrupted Cash. “Is the name of this place actually ‘In-room HBO’?  Because that’s the only sign we could see out front.”

“Cash…” said Rob.

“No, there’s a small temp sign.  We’re having the main one redone,” answered the clerk. “We’re in the middle of renovations, but you’ll like your room.  All three of you…Cash.”

The name suddenly sounded dirty.

“More importantly,” he continued, “unlike them big casino hotels, we ain’t had even one incident yet, okaaaay?”

They understood, especially after the conversations they’d had with Paul Bhong upon leaving the police station, but it was not something they wanted to think about until some official facts came out from an ominously silent presidential administration.  Quite likely, the current situation did not lend itself to immediate transparency.

The clerk handed over the keys while studying the registration form Rob that had filled out.

“1983 Chevy?  Really?” asked the clerk as he eyeballed the card.

“Really.”

“I gave you all a room on the penthouse level. Best views of beautiful and romantic Las Vegas.”

They all knew the place consisted of two floors.

The tired trio gathered their luggage and headed for the door.  The desk man caught Teresa’s eye.

“Hey slim,” came the words from his gravel pit of a throat, “if those two ever need their alone time, you can always bump by and chill with me.  I got some Four Loko bouncing ‘round the mini-fridge, okaaaay…?”

The door closed.

 

The sound of a running shower echoed in the distance as Cash and Teresa lounged in separate beds.

“Can’t believe we are finally clean and in bed,” said Teresa.

“Feels nice,” answered Cash. “I don’t think I can even raise my arms.”

“Not surprised. I’d be shot too if I disinfected the place inch by inch. You could perform an

appendectomy in here now,” smiled Teresa. She craned her neck to be sure Rob was still in the bathroom.

“Well,” replied Cash, “it seems this place has two room types; smoking and chain-smoking.”

“So, have you been thinking much about a wedding?” whispered Teresa.

“Been thinking maybe I should go for it, but I don’t know.”

“He loves you so much.”

“That’s not it.  Weddings…I mean his mom left him.  Left his whole family.  His father turned to drink and then there was the fire.  He hasn’t seen or heard from his own mother in years.  My parents split up.  When do I hear from them?  Sometimes marriage is like the kiss of death.”

“That’s all true, and what do I know?” responded Teresa. “But that guy in there would never leave you.  Never.”

Cash smiled, “Cars, old music, and me.”

“You’re ahead of the cars and the 8-tracks,” said Teresa. “I’d trade places with you.  Have you kept score of the losers I’ve dated?”

“Well, Rob keeps mentioning that guy John G from California.  Swears you’d hit it off.”

“Not a fan of blind dates.”

“If we do get married here, he’s coming in as best man, so it might not be too awkward in that situation.”

“But you’ve never even met this John G guy, Carrie, and Rob never answers my question about how tall this mystery man is”

“They were best friends till they were twelve, but John moved to Cali before I ever met Rob.”

“Tall Paul is pretty cute,” offered Teresa.

“If you like the you-can’t-believe-anything-I-say type, then maybe, T.”

“He’s just a joker.  Seems pretty smart, too.  Sounds like he knows a lot about everything,” whispered Teresa, as she stared at the peeling motel ceiling.  The shower water stopped.  Sounded like the little shampoo bottle, or something, fell to the floor.  Teresa continued, “Some of the stuff Paul said about whatever the hell is going on lately is pretty scary.  I don’t know if it’s true, but if it is, you might want to think about getting married before this world goes completely ass up.”

No response.

“Carrie, you hear me?”

A bit of heavy breathing.  Teresa lifted her head to peer over at her best friend.  Rob rattled around in the bathroom.

“Ca?”

The strong breaths turned into something of a mild snore.  Teresa laughed to herself and tried to snuggle into her thin, hard pillow.

 

The three of them were torn from their dreams by the same tumultuous boom.  The room was much darker than it had been when they’d drifted off.  Teresa checked her phone.  3:15 AM.  Sounded like a wrecking ball was battering the motel.  As heads cleared, they realized it was the room next door.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

CANNI has been nominated for 7 literary awards, including Best Horror Novel 2020.

It has been the #1 featured horror novel at both NetGalley and Publisher’s Weekly/BookLife.

The NetGalley Booksellers recommendation rate for CANNI is 100%.

Thank you for reading this excerpt. I hope you enjoyed it!