Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 20

20

“Every moral has a story, every story has an end.

Every battle has its glory, and its consequence.”

—Ben Harper, ‘Glory & Consequence,’ The Will to Live (1997)

At first, Dean Grayson attempted to challenge our little wiretap, but she backed down almost as quickly as her come-ons had started. By the time we left her office, I had a reasonable assurance that my scholarship was safe for the next year no matter what kind of grades I pulled down.

I also had the distinct impression that Whistler was much better known on campus that I ever could have imagined. Of course, getting Whistler to talk about it was nearly impossible. For as open as he was with all of us, the topic of his personal history was strictly off limits. None of the group, not even Zevon, seemed to know anything about who Whistler was, or how he came to control the Hall. In fact, aside from a few random stories of his time on Whitehaven campus, no one knew anything at all.

The mystery was only compounded by the fact that Zevon and Karl, the two longest tenured members of the group and Whistler’s closest friends, were the least talkative members of the group.

Although our meeting with Dean Grayson—and her obvious contempt for Whistler—left me with more questions than ever, I was relieved to know that my future didn’t depend on final exams for classes that I had rarely attended, and I could hardly wait for the summer break. My time at the Hall with my newfound friends had greatly alleviated my constant feelings of guilt and remorse, and the panic attacks had, for the most part, completely subsided.

By the second week in June, the bar was almost completely empty during the week, but we stayed open anyway. Like me, most of the Whistler Hall crew had started as Whitehaven students, but they had all dropped out at one point or another except for Okie and Farley. As a result, the rest spent the summer scattered around town in various rental houses and apartments. Zevon and Karl had an apartment near campus, and Bonnie rented a dump of a place about a quarter mile east of the Hall. It was a crumbling relic of a ranch home, the kind of sloppy, 1970’s cookie-cutter home that dotted the landscape of just about any town in the Midwest.

Bonnie’s shit hole of a place was the go-to place for the after party. On busy nights at the Hall, Zevon would clear out the bar with his usual line, You don’t gotta go home, but you can’t stay here. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the Hall knew what that meant—a quarter-mile trek down the road to the place Bonnie referred to as the ‘Wrastle Castle.’ Most nights, the end of the party at the wrastle castle roughly coincided with the rising sun.

Though he was almost never the only tenant, Bonnie rented the house himself, funded primarily through a trust he received from his deceased grandfather. He had started drawing from the trust on his 21st birthday, about two months after he ended his tenure as a full-time student at Whitehaven.

As for the others, besides Okie and Farley who were still college students, I really wasn’t sure where the money came from. Whistler paid us, but unless he was paying the others significantly more than me, there was no way that they were living on that meager stipend.

From the beginning, of course, I knew that there was something more going on, but it was a fact that I tried hard to deny. In the end, I only saw what I wanted to see, because that’s what we do as human beings. We look for the things we want to see, and we ignore the rest, or we invent things that aren’t really there.

I came to Whistler’s Hall looking for an escape, and for some kind of friendship to fill the hole that seemed to be eating away. I was looking, and I found it. The details didn’t matter.

So, I ignored the backroom dealings and the strange looks when I asked certain questions. I went about my business and paid little attention to the strange faces that roamed in and out of the bar, seeking an audience with Whistler in the back room.

My ignorance lasted until a Tuesday night in the middle of June. I was working the bar with Karl, and the place was completely dead, maybe a half-dozen customers all night. All of our crew, and the regulars from the bar were down the street at an impromptu party at the Wrastle-Castle, and Karl and I had drawn the short straw.

A little after midnight, the last customer drifted out the door, and we found ourselves alone. “To hell with this,” Karl said. “Let’s close it up early, and head down there.”

“I don’t see why not,” I said. “There’s not going to be anybody showing up now.” I looked around the bar and saw very little work to do to clean up. “You go ahead and get out of here,” I said. “I’ll mop up and meet you down there.”

Karl was half-way out the door before I finished the sentence. “You sure?”

I nodded and waved him away. “Just hit the window lights as you go and lock the door behind you.”

In twenty minutes, my work was completely finished.

With the main lights off, the bar was illuminated only by a few inside bar lights and the glow of a standing chest cooler in the corner. Like most buildings of its age, the Hall was never entirely silent. Besides the hum of the main refrigerator and the two chest coolers, the whole building clicked and swelled in the evening June humidity.

I walked over to the bar and clicked the stereo off of the mp3 player and over to the old CD deck. Though personal music players had turned everyone into a DJ, and vastly simplified the process of playing tunes for a large crowd, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic when I picked up a CD. Admiring the artwork on the case, the satisfying click of the old plastic cases, or the texture of the cardboard tri-folds. I’m sure it’s the same feeling that my parents must have felt when the world moved on from vinyl records to 8-tracks and cassette tapes.

It’s a rite of passage that is earned with age, lamenting the loss of an aesthetic experience.

There were only a handful of discs sitting behind the bar. I flipped through and settled on the Lumnieers’ self-titled disc. I breathed a heavy fog onto the disc and buffed off the fingerprints before dropping the disc into the player.

After grabbing a Budweiser, I slunk into one of the leather couches and listened to ‘Flowers in Your Hair,’ the first track on the disc. Though I loved the feel and smell of the old compact discs, the saddest part of the switch to digital music players had nothing to do with those aesthetics. The saddest part is that hardly anyone bothered to listen to an album in its entirety.

Mp3 players encouraged people to pick and hoard only the radio-cut singles. Maybe people would log into iTunes and pay a buck, or maybe they’d just download it for free from one of a hundred sources, but they rarely listened to the deep tracks. No one listened to a whole disc, front to back, anymore. No one appreciated the flow of the album, the interconnection between the tracks.

By the time I reached ‘Ho Hey,’ the fifth song on the album, my eyelids were getting heavy. I was nursing a third beer and thinking about Tommy. He would have liked the disc. It reminded me of the Jack Johnson discs we used to listen to, just before we found out that he was sick. A few of many discs that we listened to, front to back, a thousand times.

Tommy would have appreciated the mood of Lumineers, the mellow vibe. He would have been sitting right beside me in the semi-dark room, appreciating the melodies and chord progressions as he sipped a beer alongside me on the couch.

Most nights I tried to avoid these thoughts, the would-have’s and what-if’s. Those lines of reasoning never led anywhere good, but tonight I felt like indulging the phantoms of the past. When we were young, my mother would listen to country music stations in the car. Visiting family for the holidays, running errands around town, taking vacations in the summer—it was all narrated by 104.5 WFMB, or some other similar station.

The country influences never quite stuck, for me or for Tommy. Neither of us ever considered ourselves big fans of country music, but I still have a soft spot for the old country songs to this day. ‘Fishin in the Dark’ and ‘Take this Job and Shove It’ to ‘Baby’s got her Blue Jeans On’ and ‘I Walk the Line.’ Those songs all remind me of my mother. One of her favorite artists was always Randy Travis.

He sang a song called ‘Digging Up Bones.’ It was about a guy sitting around and fishing through pictures and memories of an old girlfriend. When I was a kid, the song had always seemed so grisly to me. My mother had explained that he wasn’t talking about literally digging up a body, but it didn’t matter. The image was there, I couldn’t shake it.

As I sat in the bar listening to the album play, I finally understood the need to dig up the bones. It’s like a desire to pick at a scab. You know that nothing good is going to come from it, but you can’t help it. You feel the scratch of the flaky skin and you have to keep pulling at the edges.

I thought about Tommy and the other spirits that I’d left behind, the living and the dead. I thought about the decision to walk away and I wondered if I’d ever go back. I closed my eyes and imagined Tommy sitting next to me. I knew he’d like the album because I knew Tommy.

As I sit, and thought some more, I sipped down the last of my beer and closed my eyes.

I’m standing below an enormous maple tree, looking up at the fire-red leaves, watching them fall from the branches one by one and land soundlessly on the ground at my feet. Though the house is not the same, in my mind I know that I am standing at Aimee’s grandmother’s house. A place I hadn’t visited in over fifteen years.

I hear a sound coming from behind me, down towards the creek, and as I walk, I can hear different voices telling me to stay away.

Don’t go near the creek…You’ll fall in and get wet…Supper is on, I don’t want you getting muddy…Stay up in the yard, and steer clear of the crick…

I don’t recognize all of the voices but the last has to be my grandfather. He always called it a crick, even though everyone else called it a creek. I turn and see him sitting to my left. He’s in the middle of the yard, but he’s sitting on his old La-z-boy recliner. He laughs when he sees me, and slaps his leg.

I wave to him but he just keeps laughing, looking past me and cackling until he can hardly breathe. Stop! I yell. You’re gonna make yourself start coughing. Quit laughing!

I can feel anger welling in my chest because he won’t stop. He just keeps laughing and staring out at the bean field behind me. I turn to walk away, but then he’s gone, and I’m standing at the edge of the creek. The noise I heard was splashing. Along the far side of the creek, there is an old chicken wire fence that has fallen and is resting in the water, and a little puppy—a black lab—is tangled in the wire and thrashing around in the shallow water. He’s hopelessly tangled in the chicken wire and a line of barb, and the more he struggles, the further out into the stream he drifts.

I start across the water, and I continue to hear the voices—Don’t get wet before supper!—now rising in intensity, almost screeching in hysteria. I wade across the creek and the water rises almost to my knees, but I can’t seem to get any closer to the puppy. I can hear it yelping now, as it starts to panic.

Though we can’t speak to animals, there are some things that cross all communication barriers. Terror is one of them. In any language, in any tongue, any mode of communication, the sound of panic is unmistakable.

The creek is only fifteen or twenty feet wide, but I can’t reach the other side. The water is only waist-deep, but I can’t walk any further, my feet are sticking in that thick, gooey mud, and I can barely lift my feet.

I keep trying to raise my leg and take another step, but I just can’t reach the dog, its head dipping below the water, just out of my reach…

The sound of breaking glass woke me abruptly from the nightmare. I reached up and wiped a layer of sweat from my forehead and listened for another sound, my heart pounding in my chest.

I couldn’t have been asleep for long because ‘Morning Song,’ the last track on the Lumineers disc was still playing, but between the fear and the cloud in my head, it felt like I waited for eternity.

When the second crash occurred, I finally snapped into reality. Fully awake, I was able to track the sound the dance room. I tiptoed over to the bar and reached behind to grab the Louisville Slugger we kept on the first shelf. I crouched down in the darkness and listened. I could hear footsteps crunching on the broken glass. The intruder seemed to be making his way to the vestibule, so I quickly shuffled over and flattened my back against the wall. I held the bat above my head and stared at the doorway, ready to strike, but the footsteps continued back towards the office.

For a moment, I waited. It felt as though my heart was going to pound a hole in the wall of my chest. Slowly, I inched myself forward and leaned into the doorway. Though the foyer was completely dark, I could sense the presence of the intruder at the end of the hall. I heard a male voice, muttering unintelligible curses—then a flashlight flicked on.

For a moment, I froze, sure that he might have seen me in the light, but he turned his attention back to the door. The intruder had tucked his cell phone under his chin, basking the whole hallway in a slight glow from the LED. I saw him pick up a pry bar and go to work on the office door, attempting to pop the lock free.

I shuffled gingerly down the hall, keeping my back to the wall on the left-hand side of the hallway, the bat perched out in front of me like a priest holding a cross, warding away evil spirits. Just as I reached striking distance, the intruder suddenly dropped the phone.

For only a split second, we both froze, our eyes locking together in the dim, blue glow of the phone’s light.

It was in that moment that I answered a question that I had always asked myself. What would I do when push came to shove? How would I react when all of the cards were finally on the table?

When we were twelve, David and I snuck around the neighborhood smashing old jack-o-lanterns on the day after Halloween. We figured that there wasn’t much harm it in, since most people would be throwing them out anyway. It was exhilarating fun, sneaking around in the dark, scooping up the pumpkins, and then listening to the satisfying thud as they hit the street.

The stranger’s skull made a sound exactly like those smashing pumpkins when I hit him with the bat. A soft, pregnant thud. The man fell backwards and slumped against the wall, and I dropped to my knees, fumbling for the phone.

When I finally grabbed hold of the phone and shone light directly at the stranger, I could see that the man was out, slumped in the corner and twisted up into a ball. A thick, red lump was already forming on his forehead where the bat had made contact, and the man was groaning softly.

I scurried back, and sat down against the wall, careful to keep the intruder in the light. My hands were shaking so badly that the light from the phone was creating a strobe effect in the tiny, dark hallway. Something about the man’s face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. The man was stocky, and his chin was covered in a thick, dark beard. I looked carefully, but nothing clicked beyond a vague notion of recognition.

Then, I heard a rattling at the front door. I scurried to my feet and perched myself in the doorway of the dance room, facing the main door with the bat once again perched above my head. When the door open, I swung hard, but as my hands were moving, I realized that it was Karl. Though I was able to redirect my attack and miss his head, the bat landed against his shoulder with a hard thud.

Karl slumped to the floor in a heap. “Aww, fuck,” he said, crumpling down to his knees.

“Jesus Christ, I’m sorry. Are you ok?” Karl groaned and rubbed his shoulder, muttering under his breath.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

I managed to stammer out the story, pointing to the man lying at the end of the hallway a few feet away. “So that guy just broke in through the window?” he asked, still rubbing his shoulder. I nodded an affirmative, unable to speak anymore. “Is he…”

As we spoke, the stranger from the corner rolled to his feet and charged at Karl. I watched immobilized as the intruder drove Karl through the doorway and into the pool table, the ornately carved corner landing square in his back.

In the spilt second I watched Karl flying through the air, the thought had occurred to me that I had done exactly the thing that always drove me crazy in the horror movies. Some girl shoots a psychotic intruder one time, unsure of exactly where the bullet landed—then she promptly turns her back. I have sat in a movie theater a thousand times, watching it play out and muttering under my breath. “Shoot him four more times you stupid bitch. He’s not dead yet.”

As I watched Karl wrestle with the stranger on the floor, I actually accused myself of being a stupid bitch, one from a film that I’ve seen ten thousand times before.

Within a few seconds, the stranger had rolled Karl onto his back, and was choking him with both hands. Karl was gasping for air as the stranger squeezed down hard, and I could hear strange, wet, gurgling sounds filling the room. I took two steps forward and swing the bat, once again, at the stranger’s head. This time, the sound was sharper, like a rock glancing off a sidewalk. I looked down at the man, lying on the ground next to the pool table, then I swung the bat again, driving the end of the club into the top of his skull. I could feel his head buckle as the bat sunk down into the soft tissue below. When I pulled the bat back, the end was dripping with thick, dark blood, and there was a small crater in the side of the man’s temple.

I staggered back and leaned forward, almost immediately retching onto the floor. As Karl coughed and struggled to catch his breath, I leaned back on the couch and stared blankly at the body lying on the floor. From my angle on the couch, I couldn’t see the crater. Had it not been for the thick puddle of blood that was slowly expanding out beneath him, he seemed as though he could have been sleeping, passed out on the floor like a light weight after his fourth shot, but the blood told me something else.

In the dim light of the bar, the pool of blood looked like black sludge. A thick, ever-expanding pool of tar.

Eventually, Karl caught his breath and staggered up to his feet. He reached up and flipped open the light switch on the wall, flooding the room with searing light. In the bright glow of the florescent bulbs, the full horror of the scene before me unfolded, in brilliant shades of red. I slowly stood, and shuffled my feet around blood. My knees started to buckle, but I braced myself against the pool table. When I got my bearings I leaned over the man’s body and looked at the face again.

Suddenly, a memory jogged and I remembered where I had seen the face before. I pointed at the body lying on the floor. “I’ve seen this guy before,” I said. “In that bar, with Bonnie.” Karl rubbed his neck and nodded, fishing his phone out of his pocket. “He was with this skinny black guy. Trey? Or Trig? Something like that.”

“Tae,” Karl said. “This guy works for a guy named Tae.”

“Yeah, Tae. That’s it, he was kind of threatening Bonnie, and it was him, and this guy, and another guy, and they…” I could feel my heart beginning to race again.

Karl put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Calm down,” he said. “Look at me…No, look right into my eyes.” I locked eyes with him and tried to slow my breathing as he spoke. “You need to calm down. I know this is kind of fucked up, but I need you to get a handle on yourself. Breath. In…Out….In…Out.”

As he spoke I stared into his eyes and breathed with him as he continued the cadence. Eventually, the painful lump that was hardening in my chest began to release. “We need to call the police,” I said.

Karl held a palm in my direction. “No,” he said. “We need to call Whistler.”

Thirty minutes later, Whistler arrived with Zevon, Bonnie and UB in tow. They all grimaced and cursed as they walked into the room. I was sitting over in the corner and shivering. After I threw up a second time, Karl made me sit on the other side of the pool table, where I couldn’t see the body.

As the others walked through the door, Karl went over and grabbed Whistler by the arm. “He’s pretty fucked up by the whole thing,” he whispered. “You’re gonna need to talk to him.”

Whistler nodded and walked across the room. He pointed at Bonnie, UB, and Zevon, and they went to work, starting to clean up the mess. Whistler stopped in front of me and lowered himself down on his haunches, staring directly into my face.

“We have to call the cops,” I said. “I killed that guy, I…”

Whistler reached out and grabbed me gently by the shoulder. “Listen to me carefully,” he said. He was talking in a tone that I had never heard from him before. More serious. Stern and direct. “You didn’t kill that guy. You protected one of our own. Karl is your brother, right? We’re all brothers here, right?”

I nodded, staring directly into his eyes as he spoke.

“You’d give anything to protect a brother, right? You didn’t have a chance to do that with your real brother. What was his name?” He looked down at his feet for a moment. “Tommy, right? Wouldn’t you have given anything to protect Tommy.”

Looking back, he knew exactly how to play me. That was Whistler’s true gift, his ability to read people and read the room. He always knew the right things to say, a perfect understanding of which buttons to push.

“Now, you couldn’t help Tommy, but you were able to help Karl…and it was the right thing to do.” He pointed back at the other men in the room, who had jumped into action without so much as a word. Zevon was rolling the body onto a blue tarp that he had fished out of the back closet, and Bonnie was starting to scrub the floors with bleach water. “Every single one of them would have done the same thing. You know why?”

I looked blankly at Whistler.

“Because we are brothers, and we’ll do anything to help each other…”

It was the gospel according to Whistler, the creed that drove the organization.

“…no matter what, we will be there for each other. You protect your brothers, and your brothers protect you. That’s the way it works…”

In my state of shock, it all seemed so perfectly realized, an argument without fault or blemish.

“…Now we can’t call the cops because the cops are going to see two on one, and they are going to see that Louisville Slugger over there. They’re going to call it excessive force. Manslaughter…”

I nodded slowly, tears welling in the corners of my eyes.

“…but you don’t need to worry about that. I’m going to take care of everything…”

He pulled me forward and I buried my face in his shoulders, the tears rolling down my face. My chest began heaving, and soon I was openly sobbing.

“…don’t worry about a thing,” he said. “I’m going to take care of everything.”

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