Walking Down the Grain

The Bretspars lived in a tumbledown Cape Cod, but they were a long way from Massachusetts. The sky was the color of faded denim, not New England grey. The land green and yielding, not hard and unforgiving. The blood red and pumping, not Brahmin blue.

A shelterbelt screened the Bretspars’ home from the road, spared passersby the sight. Cataracts of grime on the windows. Termite-ravaged siding. The place could’ve used a coat of paint, or five. Maybe a bulldozer. All that held it together was glue and prayer.

With one hand he gripped the table and with the other he brushed aside circulars, bills, catalogs.

The one man who could’ve made the necessary repairs but didn’t was Mason Bretspar. He was busy. Mason sat in his Naugahyde recliner molding the fiberglass socket of his prosthetic leg with a hair dryer. Damn tech made the fit so loose it rubbed his leg to rawness and blisters. Sweat drenched the seat of his pants. Previous sweats left a salt rime in the fabric. It was so hot these days hens were laying hardboiled eggs across the county.

The portable phone lay on a TV tray next to Mason’s chair. The hair dryer nearly drowned out its ringing. He would’ve missed the call if not for the tray’s tambourine rattle.

He clicked off the dryer, rested his leg against the chair, and answered the phone.

“Yello?” he said.

“Mr. B? It’s Tye. Tye Zophres?”

“I know who you are, son.”

“You gotta come quick. Done checked on Hayden. He’s . . . he’s . . .” The boy gulped then said, “Just a glove floating on the corn. I hauled ass down that ladder, shut off the auger, and ran for my dad. Told me to call you.”

“What? Hayden? Something happen to Hayden?”

“There’s . . . I mean . . . Come quick, Mr. B. I gotta go,” and Tye hung up.

“Shit.”

No time for a liner. Mason crammed his stump into the semi-molten socket. He pressed the black valve on the side and expelled the air. The cup squeezed his thigh.

Mason launched himself to his feet with a flip of the recliner’s lever. Put weight on his prosthesis. He wobbled then straightened. A slight twinge in the ball of nerves tucked under the skin. Mason went for his keys.

“What the hell?” Clara said, coming into the room.

She’d been doing laundry and smelled of lavender. A permanent frown mangled her face, a valance of skin hung down on the one side. It hadn’t always been so. The neuroma changed that. CAT scan revealed a white dot suspended in the wrinkled butterfly of her brain. They peeled her scalp, sawed bone, and poked around. Damaged some nerve. Hence the face.

Clara fixed her husband with a look. “What now?” she said.

Mason swayed. With one hand he gripped the table and with the other he brushed aside circulars, bills, catalogs.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Didn’t say nothing,” Mason said.

“Well, something wrong?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

“Is it Hayden?”

“I don’t know. Maybe . . . Yes.” The wrinkles on his face mapped his frustration. “Where’re my damn keys?”

Clara reached under a pile of torn envelopes and withdrew Mason’s key ring. She jangled them like he was a dog waiting to be walked.

“Thanks,” he said and snatched them.

“You’re welcome,” she called as he stumbled out the door.

*     *     *

Mason zoomed through the down-and-going outskirts of town. Past the Dairy Queen and the bait shop, the Masonic Lodge and Flyby’s Diner. Mason slurred out of his turns. He screwed stop signs and the lone traffic light that stood between him and Skip Zophres’s farm.

How many roadside shrines did he pass out here? Deflated balloons and spent candles, teddy bears secured to posts with baling wire? How many nameless crosses, sun-bleached and rain-washed, tamped in the ground?

There was something about the cut of Skip’s jib that never sat right with Mason. Perhaps it was the story his father told him about Skip’s father, Bill Zophres, who betrayed his best friend by sleeping with his wife. How the friend found Bill nailing her in the shack were he used to cook moonshine. How that friend let them live for some reason despite the hatchet in his fist. How the friend torched the shack. Mason’s father said everybody was stunned but not surprised for the same reason you’re stunned but not surprised when the sun punches a hole in the clouds.

But when Tye offered Hayden a chance to earn some money over the summer, who was Mason to say no? Mason sucked Uncle Sam’s teat ever since his now missing foot slipped a rung on that ladder and he tumbled to the pavement below. Leg amputated just below the knee. Body held together with more pins than a bowling alley. So what if Skip Zophres wanted to hire Hayden? At least the boy could work, and the pay beat minimum wage.

Hayden was only supposed to sweep up, pitch in here and there, but there were days when Hayden came home looking like the Jolly Green Giant. It took Clara no less than two hand-washings to get his clothes halfway normal, the drains and traps choked with plants.

“The hell happen to you?” Mason asked.

“Green chop,” Hayden said.

Mason had never understood why Skip didn’t just let his cows graze. It would’ve been cheaper what with diesel as high it was, but the son of a bitch preferred mowing his fields with a flail harvester and feeding the silage to his herd in the barns.

“I hope he’s being careful,” Clara always said.

“He ain’t no dummy,” Mason said.

All those near misses. Mason didn’t traffic in omens, but he couldn’t help thinking he’d neglected some warning or other.

He turned off the main drag and onto the drive leading to Skip’s farm. His tires settled into two ruts worn in the earth. A strip of grass wound down the middle. Mason crested a bend in the road that counted as a hill in those parts, and there was Skip’s place. A sprawling, low-slung complex stretched over one hundred and fifty acres. Distant machines and outbuildings iridescent in the sun.

The last-minute howl of brakes. Heads turned. A hodgepodge of rescuers. They scrambled like a kicked-over anthill. Word had spread and summoned all comers. Even seventy-year-old Harris Wasco ventured out of his tarpapered shack.

Someone had cut holes in the curved wall of the grain bin and pried the panels free with a chain and tractor. The cough of a diesel engine. A tsunami of corn. Dust plumed into the sky.

It was too late to go in with a cofferdam. That might’ve helped if they’d shut the auger off in time. So they went to work with hands and shovels, pitchforks and hoes. They formed a bucket brigade and double-timed it. This was something they could reverse. They hadn’t given in to the fruitlessness of it yet.

A strange heaviness roosted in his chest. His heart these last sixteen years had been running around inside his son, and now it stopped. Then a new feeling. As sudden as the first. He jerked to enter the fray. Skip pressed a hand to Mason’s chest.

Sheriff Gatson was there. Made pygmies look tall. He lollygagged around his cruiser. His thumb was not up his ass, but it was in the neighborhood. You’d have thought Gatson was Barney Fife and not a fifteen-year veteran what with that green face of his. Never had the stomach. A running joke in three townships. All this was above his pay grade. So he did his part comforting the Zophres family. Beryl, Skip’s wife, was a plain, small-boned woman, and she hugged her daughter Gwen who covered her face with her hand. The girl could’ve been the milkman’s daughter. Her red hair jarred with the rest of the family’s dark brown. And Tye paced back and forth, his face the product of a meat grinder, a mass of fear and confusion.

Mason saw these things and didn’t see them at the same time. His truck slid to a stop in the courtyard. Scarred the ground with tire tracks. Skip was front and center orchestrating things. He glanced, saw Mason, and bee-lined to intercept him. Mason hobbled out of his cab and limped toward the excitement. Kicked up a wall of dirt.

The herd lowed in the barn. The smell of dung stabbed Mason’s nose. Silage tarps bellied in the breeze but stayed, weighed down with scrap tires. Sweet and foul juxtaposed.

Skip’s trot came to a halt. He was a lank man with a small upthrust of hair. Skin the color of tarnished silver. He had a chapped crease for a mouth. It opened.

“We’re working to get him out,” Skip said, but Mason kept going.

Skip jogged alongside Mason who eyed the chaos before him and knew Hayden was dead. Mason’s arms hung at his sides. A strange heaviness roosted in his chest. His heart these last sixteen years had been running around inside his son, and now it stopped. Then a new feeling. As sudden as the first. He jerked to enter the fray. Skip pressed a hand to Mason’s chest.

“Might be best if you stay back,” he said.

Mason’s forehead wrinkled. He stared at Skip’s fingers. Skip had a woman’s wrist in spite of all, the upper body strength of a gnat. His fingers would’ve snapped easily. But Skip removed his hand, and Mason made like a statue.

How many roadside shrines did he pass out here? Deflated balloons and spent candles, teddy bears secured to posts with baling wire? How many nameless crosses, sun-bleached and rain-washed, tamped in the ground?

*     *     *

Day inherited the night. Laid a strip of red in the sky. Sheriff Gatson trained his cruiser’s spotlight on the crush of activity. He eighty-sixed the ambulance and radioed the coroner. Skip switched on his generators to power floodlights. Halogen bulbs sizzled. The lamps sapped their faces of color. Mason’s mouth was a glue trap. He didn’t ask for water.

“A foot!” someone cried. “I see a foot!”

There was no hurry, yet Mason hustled over all the same. He saw the cracked and worn boot. One of a pair Hayden owned.

Mason dropped to his knees and paddled the corn out of his way. The grain shifted and slid. He unearthed a leg, two legs, motionless. The rest of him followed. Hayden’s body was all out of whack. Legs one way, torso another. A half-solved Rubik’s cube. The crotch of his jeans was soaked. Lips blue. Skin bruised. Jaw swiveled to the left.

Mason didn’t realize until the men pulled him away, but he was yelling, cursing, shaking Hayden. Shaking him so hard. His face was a mess of tears and spit and snot. He tried to speak, but his voice was worn down to nothing. He struck the ground, furrowed the dirt with his fingers. Bowels a knot of sinew. Everything hurt.

Mason thought of the day Hayden was born. The doctor buzzed about a C-section. Then this linebacker of a nurse pushed down on Clara’s stomach and Hayden gushed out wailing. He remembered pacing for hours, Clara’s exhausted face. None of that stayed with him quite like the look his son gave him when he held him the first time. It was the look to end all looks. Devastating and sustaining.

*     *     *

The coroner stuffed Hayden’s body into one of those black bags. A silver zipper stitched him inside. They placed him in the van, and the engine labored down the dirt road.

Mason crouched in the dust, back against the door of his truck. Skip’s generators sobbed. The babel of onlookers walked to their vehicles, whispering. They wiped their hands on their pants, forearmed sweat from their brows, and gave him that there-but-for-the-grace-of-God look.

The glossy toe of Sheriff Gatson’s shoe emerged from the shuffle of work boots. Mason looked up. Tie yanked down and to the right, top button undone. Gatson’s collar stood open. His Adam’s apple rose and fell with each swallow. He breathed, ready to speak, but held off.

Gatson squinted, lifted his glasses to the light as if candling an egg. Then he buffed a smudge from the right lens with the tip of his tie.

“I know you don’t want to talk now,” he said, glasses back on his face. “Or ever. Some other time. I’m . . .” Mason’s face collapsed into a mute, red fist. Gatson changed his tone. “Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mase. Real fucking sorry.”

And since Gatson knew what was good for him, he joined the exodus of cars.

Sometime in the night Clara must’ve come here and made his bed and straightened his things. Sunlight poked through the curtain. The furniture waited the way all sad things do. The blunt pencil on the desk. The toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.

The clouded glow of taillights dotted the dark road. Exhaust and grit hazed about. Mason coughed and heaved himself out of his squat. Skip crossed the yard with a slow, nervous gait. He moved as if obeying some code he’d rather not. They stood apart, silent. Mason could’ve cleared the space between them in three steps. Shadows sketched the ground. Skip’s mouth sputtered. Mason didn’t help him.

Skip clubbed his head with his fist, but the words wouldn’t come. Mason’s eyes started to fog. He knew better than to grab a blade and disembowel him. He liked to think so at any rate. Restraint made the fury worse. Mason saw the whole thing: cracking Skip’s skull, some noise—a gasp, a snap—him down on all fours, the heel of his boot on his skull, blood bubbling through hair and bone.

Before anything could happen, Mason climbed in his truck and stomped on the gas.

*     *     *

Mason didn’t want to scare the bejesus out of Clara. Hard enough being the bearer of bad news. He didn’t have to worry though. Slower than the speed of sound, the thump of his prosthesis announced his arrival well in advance.

He dragged that crippled thing he called a body into the kitchen. The fluorescents up under the cabinets shone on the counters. Clara sat slouched at the table, a basket of folded laundry by her feet. She did not look at him, but she saw him all the same. Clara brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and scratched her arm.

Mason pulled out one of the chairs. Had a butt-shaped scoop molded into the seat. The details some people worried about. Mason sat not knowing what else to do. His tongue knotted itself. Stillborn sentiments. Clara was quiet.

Then she said, “Mary Wendell called about an hour ago, told me what happened.”

Clara wove her fingers through the coiled wire linking the telephone handset to the wall mount. She looped the cord over and over. Plastic tacky in the heat.

He’d expected something more, but the more would never come. The dark hid the lopsided half of her face. She lowered her eyes to the floor. Clara looked younger for a moment, but only a moment. Then her eyes lifted and searched Mason’s face. Now she looked at him, but did she see? Mason saw the two parentheses that circled her lips. Same woman. And Mason saw a small him in her eye. His whole body stopped working. Then he tucked his lip between his teeth and skinned it. The twinge reminded him he was alive.

Clara turned away. She hadn’t found what she was looking for—or maybe she had. She stared out the small window above the sink. Through that window shone the moon. Swollen like a pregnant belly. Clara tipped her chin up and made a face like she remembered something she’d rather forget. Then she stood and left the kitchen.

*     *     *

Half a day later. A not-quite dawn reddened the sky. Four hours of sleep tops. Mason yawned and hoped it had been a dream, but he remembered. He rolled over. Clara lay on the bed beside him as though nailed to it. Mason fell back to sleep. Warmth pressed his shoulder. The Earth continued around the sun. Hard to believe.

He got up. Clara was missing. He looked out the window. The world was blue and white and green. It was so beautiful, and all the questions and answers were intertwined and didn’t matter anyway. It was a privilege to go to bed and wake the next morning.

Everything felt smaller and lonelier. Like that time he called the IRS helpline but worse. Mason had thought he knew what hell was. He heard the jangle of music, smelled bacon. Clara, breakfast. He’d have to face her eventually, but not yet. Mason went to Hayden’s room. Sometime in the night Clara must’ve come here and made his bed and straightened his things. Sunlight poked through the curtain. The furniture waited the way all sad things do. The blunt pencil on the desk. The toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.

Mason stood in his son’s doorway unsure how he’d face the rest of that day or any of the days to come.

*     *     *

So Hayden entered the cold, dark ground—the earth never satisfied with the bodies it had—and not once did Skip or his ilk stop by. Not once did they call or send a card or bring food. Not that Mason would’ve tolerated any of it, but it would’ve been the Christian thing to do.

Wal-Mart granted Clara a leave of absence, but they needed the money, and she needed out of the house even if it meant standing eight hours a day, a smile pasted on her slack face. She bore the taunts and name-calling of teenagers, the stares of adults, the finger-pointing of children. But that was as before.

But Clara’s stare harpooned him. It was like she held a rope that could tug all his guts out. Mason’s heart thrashed around. Could she hear it? Could she hear it crash in the pit of his stomach?

Clara came home, feet swollen, every breath a sigh. She complained about her boss, how he smelled like instant coffee and Pall Malls. She talked about Terri who manned the checkout, how her trips to the hairdresser cost more than a down payment on a house. And there was Jimmy who wrangled the shopping carts and hotboxed his Camry.

Clara continued these conversations they weren’t having. Mason stared at the bridge of her nose and smiled. This was life without Hayden. No high school graduation. No college. No job. No serious girlfriend. No wife. No grandbabies. It was just the two of them, their lives now suddenly jam-packed with nothing to look forward to. But he went along with the lie that everything was fine or would be in time.

Mason loafed around as before. He followed the transit of the sun across the sky, watched birds take flight like darts tossed in the air. He studied the floaters in his eyes and ate peanut butter with a spoon. He squeegeed sweat from his face with the back of his hand, wanted to bite off the faucet and guzzle the spray.

*     *     *

Two, three weeks after the accident, Clara suggested they see Harry Knorr.

“He’ll just talk until he’s blue in the face then charge us for all the air he breathed,” Mason said, sitting in his chain in a pair of Hanes and an undershirt.

Clara blocked the TV. She made an excellent wall. She wouldn’t move and stared at Mason until he squirmed.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“S’all a load of bilge water,” he said.

“Stop,” she said.

“Ahhh.”

But Clara’s stare harpooned him. It was like she held a rope that could tug all his guts out. Mason’s heart thrashed around. Could she hear it? Could she hear it crash in the pit of his stomach?

Clara stepped toward him and stood beside his chair. She grabbed Mason’s wrist and moved her thumb across the back of his hand. She begged him with her eyes. A new look. Neither hateful nor loving. It said only that she understood.

Mason’s voice had burrowed down inside his chest, but when it returned he said, “I’ll think about it.”

The thought of visiting Harry’s office filled him with dread. How what little remained of his thinning hair sat on his head like a brown pillbox hat. His bloodshot eyes and bowties. The most lawyerly lawyer Mason had ever seen. The Latin-inscribed diplomas on the walls, the way he spoke in paragraphs. A real college boy busting out fifty-centers just to prove he’d read all the books on his shelves.

But then a convoy of trucks swollen with grain rumbled by the Bretspar house. Their fury shook the blinds, flashed code like an Aldis lamp at sea. Then the trucks returned empty. There was no doubt whose trucks they were, or that the corn was now in the wood-cribbed grain elevator outside of town, or that Skip Zophres was happier than a pig in shit. So Mason agreed to see Harry Knorr, even humored Clara by wearing a tie.

*     *     *

Harry Knorr’s office did not jell with the surrounding area. The fact it existed at all was a miracle. Located on a down-at-the-heels stretch of Main Street, vacant storefronts flanked Harry’s practice, their windows covered in brown paper. The old hours still stenciled on the glass. Defeat was everywhere. Inside wasn’t much better. A change without improvement. Harry’s office was, in a word, beige. Beige carpets, beige walls, beige ceiling tiles, beige secretary, even a beige fern.

Out of this floated Harry’s beige face, the texture of hardened oatmeal. The usual shaking of hands. Harry ushered the Bretspars into his office, closed the door, and asked them to sit. He sat and ran his hands along the edge of his large wood desk. Like he was stroking the neck of some prized horse.

At last he said, “I guess I don’t need to ask what brings you in today.” He had bags under the bags under his eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Clara said like nothing at all. She looked at Mason.

Mason’s throat began to swell. He feared they’d hear tears bubbling in his voice. He thanked Harry with a nod.

Clara explained things as best she could. Then Harry plunged into some interminable monologue about tort. The elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, damages. Clara dutifully scribbled notes on one of those steno pads made by proud blind Americans.

A human stench spiced the air. The musk of unbathed men and whore’s perfume. More smoke than a tire fire. Cigarettes smoldered like votives. Unanswered prayers.

Mason knew what Harry’s words normally meant—except for “tort”—but he also knew lawyers used words as a way to seek advantage. Everything was a power play with them. And so Harry talked about special relationships, duty to rescue, OSHA, negligence per se. He had this way of speaking, a certain waspy gravitas that made even the simplest pronouncements sound like the wisdom of a Supreme Court justice. Mason was fixing to punch Harry in the mouth if he didn’t get to the point.

“It’s what’s called a wrongful death action—”

Mason laughed. “Damn right it was wrongful,” he said. “Skip was the one sent Hayden in there. No harness, no safety line, no plan B.”

Clara stared at Mason like he’d farted in church. His laugh petered out. His tie suddenly felt as wide as a bib, covered in all his misspoken words. Harry coughed and directed his attention at Clara.

“Of course you could file a complaint with OSHA, but the most they’d do is fine him.”

“How much?” Clara asked.

“Hard to say. Five figures perhaps. Maybe six. But that’s pushing it.”

“I see.”

“And there’s always criminal charges,” Harry said. “Involuntary manslaughter, that is. Have you talked to Ray Brooks?”

Ray Brooks, the D.A. who chewed a cigar but never lit it. Teeth brown as chaw. Hand jangling the coins in his pocket to no end. A dartboard in his office plastered with the faces of his slain enemies. Glad-handing with the masses in the checkout lines.

“No, no we haven’t,” Clara said, her voice suddenly wavering.

Mason kept silent. Harry and Clara talked like he wasn’t there. Mason felt sorry for Harry, saw his whole life laid out with headings and subheadings, Roman numerals and bullet points. The kind of man who was insulated against the myriad and dire circumstances of life. Probably had a tidy whole life policy and a separate AD&D. His wife would make out best if he was mowed down by a drunk driver. Or drowned in a vat of corn. Did she know that?

Mason clenched the arm of his chair with the same vigor as he had the pistol-grip of his M-16 when he was hunkered down in his foxhole waiting for some pajama-clad slope with a Chicom AK to peek over the rim so he could send his ass to Valhalla. Just then the air was the same sticky-sour of rice wine he’d smelled for months in 1971.

Mason could see the whole ordeal unfold like an endless skein of paper. How it would end in dissatisfaction. Yet he couldn’t let Skip Zophres get away scot-free. Only so many places an uncivil shit could be.

Mason stood, leveraging all of his two hundred and sixty pounds. He grunted farewell and left the office. Furious but silent, Clara smiled wanly in apology and hurried out behind her husband. And even though they had Harry’s information, she nonetheless grabbed one his business cards from the holder on the secretary’s desk for good measure.

*     *     *

Mason sped past chain-smokers waiting for AA to start in St. Luke’s basement. Fritz’s Bakery came up on the right, its windows bleary with lard. He turned off the main drag and rolled up on Flamm’s tavern. The weather-beaten wreck didn’t have a proper name.

Wheels crunched gravel. Brakes yelped. Mason’s hands were red-hot. The steering wheel would’ve caught fire if he’d held it much longer. Mason took one look around that cosmos of trucks and SUVs and spied Skip’s Ford. Idiot still had a Farm Aid bumper sticker on his tailgate.

Mason shivered as he stepped over the scuffed and sole-worn sill. Red neon rubied the windowpanes. A human stench spiced the air. The musk of unbathed men and whore’s perfume. More smoke than a tire fire. Cigarettes smoldered like votives. Unanswered prayers. Years of blood and vomit varnished the floor.

Skip sat on a stool. Flamm Burke, owner and proprietor, stood before Skip. He was an old, dewlapped lizard. Scars laced his hands. Skin inked with names. Flamm set a bubbling pint before Skip who rubbed his nose with his finger and used the oily tip to stir the head, killing the carbonation. He swigged once, twice, twisted his glass.

No one paid Mason any mind. He came up behind Skip and kicked the stool out from under him. Skip’s chin connected with the lip of the bar on his way down.

Mason grabbed Skip by his collar and lifted him to his feet. He muscled him outside. Spectators ambled out behind them. Bored eyes took in the violence as Mason shoved Skip to the ground. Skip’s hands sought purchase in the sifting gravel.

A busted bike chain lay on the ground next to the shards of a bottle. Mason picked up the chain. He passed the links through his fingers. Said the rosary, or something like it.

Skip stood and turned as Mason swung the chain. It slashed diagonally left to right. Split Skip’s brow, his cheek, destroyed his nose. Blood gushed from the center of his face. Skip wailed.

Mason balled his fingers. Knuckles sapped the color from his skin. He punched Skip’s face. Punched it again. His hand exploded like a powder keg, but he didn’t quit. He pinned Skip against the hood of a car and dislodged a few of his teeth. His flesh preserved the shape of Mason’s fist. Skip hollered through a gurgle of bloody spit. Mason’s hand was now the size of a catcher’s mitt. A cold snap had burst the plumbing in his heart. He was drowning.

Mason used his fist and that bike chain and taught Skip a lesson he recited in tongue-tied pleas. Satisfied, Mason’s hands dropped to his sides. Skip writhed on the hood. He vomited suds. A groove in the steel fed his liquid to the ground. But he wasn’t finished.

Skip kicked out hard and fast. His real leg connected with Mason’s fake one, and the prosthesis came loose. Mason landed on his ass. Skip tackled him. They wormed on the ground, breathed the other man’s carbon dioxide. Mason flung out a hand and felt for his leg. He found the cool metal of his double-action joint and walloped Skip’s head with the socket. The joint flexed and creaked. Mason battered Skip’s head until all the fight was knocked out of him.

Skip crawled a few feet and slumped against the rocker panel of an old Chevrolet. Mason hoicked himself up on his elbows. His heart pounded so hard he couldn’t differentiate the beats. The show was over. The crowd melted back into the tavern.

Skip staunched the blood from his face with a handkerchief. His skin was redder than the spoken word of Jesus. Mason fussed with his pants and reattached his leg. Skip stood slowly. Mason followed suit. He stumbled upright and slapped the grime from his clothes.

“Got anymore plans for that chain?” Skip’s words sprayed through snaggletoothed gaps.

Mason looked down. His hand still held the busted bike chain, blood and dirt and grease to the quick. His mind and body disagreed. Sickness and loss and memory and gratitude flowed. Yes, even gratitude. It startled him what he could do at the drop of a hat, and sometimes there wasn’t even a hat, but now he knew what he was incapable of. Mason might’ve laughed or cried if not for the heavy weight rooting him where he stood. He dropped the chain.

Mason stared at Skip. A car laid rubber several streets over. A spray of sound, then nothing. The top and bottom of Mason’s face pinched together. His pulse drummed in his ears. He was lost in his own heads-or-tails confusion.

Sunset cracked the sky like a pomegranate. Spots of red and purple and blue. Mason wanted to get home before Clara finished her shift. He needed to cook up a lie so she wouldn’t get all flustered. His desire to hurt Skip sank. If it surfaced again the same or something else, so be it.

“I forgive you,” he said, and repeated it to himself, and did not believe.

 

Spencer Van Dyke lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared in TINGE Magazine, Bluestem, and elsewhere; however, this appearance in Lunch Ticket marks his first publication in several years. He attributes the lull to attending law school from which he graduated in May 2018. He currently clerks for the Orphans’ Court Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. And no, the court has very little to do with actual orphans. As with most legal jargon, some long-dead Englishman is to blame for the confusion.

Photo Credit: Ashley Shaw