Crazy, Crazy Mixed-Up Town by Michael Hebler
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on. Ain’t none of it makin’ sense. The world’s gone mad… or maybe it’s just Denver. I truly don’t know what’s happenin’ in the rest of the world. It could be somethin’ in the river water, I reckon. Or maybe it’s the altitude or some Ute curse or hex or some shit as such. Maybe it’s even God. Who knows? It took some fightin’ to git outta there, though. Some things I did I ain’t proud of,” Theo lifted the bottle to lips and guzzled, “but here we are.”
The more he drank the corn likker labeled Rattlesnake, the more he expected the whiskey to numb the painful recollections of the last six hours, but that was not the case. Although the alcohol did haze the face of his traveling companion sitting across the campfire flames. Marcus, Theo thought the kid’s name to be with no intention of clarifying. He only met the boy hours ago. He was thirteen, same as his missing son, Jonas, but that coincidence was usurped by their incredible likeness. This kid and Jonas could be identical twins. They even shared the same scar above their right eye, which Jonas received when he fell from his horse. Theo didn’t know where the kid sitting across from him got his mark. He shuddered and took another drink; such similarities were disquieting. But no matter how closely they resembled each other, there was one thing they did not have in common; the devil resided inside this kid. Jonas was a righteous God-fearing young man, where this boy’s conduct was that of a cold-blooded murderer, having killed Theo's beloved wife, Minnie, with his bare hands. As much as he desired to run this boy through in kind, Theo could not. The kid had information. He knew how to find Jonas. That was what was keeping him alive.
Theo steadied his trained pistol on the kid then took another swig from the bottle. The only way he could continue to travel with his son’s evil doppelganger was to warp the kid’s face with inebriated eyes.
“It’s funny to think that you and me just might be the only two people left in this world. Did you kill your family before you did mine?”
Theo waited and waited, and when no answer came, he cocked the pistol. Marcus, or maybe it was Marco, answered, “No,” begrudgingly
Theo took another drink. He thought the Rattlesnake might counter his anger, keeping him from making the foolish mistake of ending this boy where he sat, but the whiskey did not work that way; in fact, he could feel his rage escalating. To talk himself down from the ledge, he explained, “Jonas is all I got left. I gots ta find ‘im. Maybe, wherever he is, the thing didn’t affect him.” He took his last gulp then chucked the empty bottle behind the tree where their horses were strapped. The glass made the sound of a thud inside the blackened wilderness. “What I did was because I had to. It was all so crazy and I was so fuckin' angry…” Theo glared at Mark through half-lifted eyelids. The kid was a full blur now. Theo was relieved. “You was there too, but you didn’t see it all. You didn’t see what happened ta me. Until I tell you, you won’t know my side, because if ya did, you’d know why I had to do what needed doin'.”
“Please! Just listen ta me…!”
Theo thrust his gun towards the kid and cut-off his begging, having every intention to pull the trigger should the little prick speak another word. “You’ll shut the fuck up an’ listen!” He may not have been able to see the kid’s face, but that did not mean he still couldn’t blow a hole straight through it. Marius did as ordered.
“I tell you what. We’re stayin’ put ‘til sun up, which still ain’t fer a couple’a hours. An’ if ya agreed ta not kill me in my sleep, I’d know you was a liar. So we’ll jus’ sit here, an’ you can listen to what I have ta tell. Then, maybe you'll do the same and tell me what happened to you an’ what ya did ta my son.”
The boy kept quiet--just how Theo liked it when telling a story--but before he began, he reached for the bottle that was no longer there. “Where’d it go?”
“You tossed it,” the kid answered.
Theo threatened him with the pistol once again. “I know that! But I brung another.”
“What about yer story?”
“So you wanna hear it now? That’s what I thought.”
Theo glanced up to the starry night, distracted for a moment by its serenity; much different than the chaos here on Earth. He closed his eyes to wish he were up there, looking down instead of up, but it was only for a second. Sleep wanted to sneak up from behind and kidnap him. He couldn’t allow that; he would not find Jonas that way. Theo dropped his chin and gazed at the blur sitting across, surprised to discover that the kid had not tried to make a run for it. If it had been him in the boy’s boots, he would have.
“When I was walking home from the saloon, there was screamin’ already. They’z was all around me, but I didn’t think much of it, did you? You had ta have heard it too.”
The boy’s obscured head bobbed up and down though he didn’t speak.
“If anythin’, I only reckoned that maybe some of the others I drunk with mighta had a bit too much, an’ their wives weren’t exactly excited to see them in such a state. Maybe they got mouthy, and maybe they got it closed for them. What else was I s’pose ta think? All I knew was that my wife, Minnie, had the good sense to keep hers shut. She understood not to provoke a man when he needed to ‘let loose on the juice’ as I like ta call it.”
He reached for that juice, but again, he was surprised to find that the bottle was not there. He pressed his finger on the trigger, ready to interrogate the son-of-a-bitch who stole his Rattlesnake, but then recalled he had emptied one bottle. Where’s the other? Theo asked himself, and then eased his finger while trying to recollect where he left off in his story while he searched for the second bottle.
“What’d I say?”
“You was walkin’ home drunk.”
That’s right, he thought and recalled being at the saloon with the other men who had helped unload two carloads of goods from the train then transported the merchandise to their appropriate businesses. The work had been plentiful, but the payment had been bountiful, which included a full bottle of the same fresh corn likker they pulled off.
The screamin’, his conscience reminded. All the screamin’ that just kept piling on itself; one on top of the other. That’s where you left your story.
“It wun’t ‘til I was nearin’ home that I seen Daniel McCoy tie his wife, Clara, to the hobble outside their home, and then whipped ‘er and whipped ‘er some more. It was difficult to hear ‘im between his whippin’s and her screamin’, but it sounded like he was askin’ Clara where she was and what she had done with his wife. I didn’t understand any of it at the time, jus’ figured maybe Clara had done away with his favorite female hog, Hattie.” Theo began to chuckle, amused. “Thought maybe the pig was restin’ somewhere in the pit of his wife’s stomach. She was a heifer.”
Theo quieted down. Darius was refusing to join him in the laugh, which was just about as rude as rude could be. But he didn’t blame the boy for his insolence; disrespect was a failure in the upbringing. The ones who should take blame for the boy's flawed character were his mother and father.
“Anyway, I jus’ kept walkin’. I really didn’t wanna think much of it. It wun’t my business no how. But then I saw that widowed drunkard Maybelline Grosser pullin’ her daughter across the street by the hair like she was fixin’ ta have her lynched. Nothin’ I ever seen before was like that. That’s when I figured somethin’ evil had transpired all around me. All those screams? They were from the people bein’ attacked and tortured by their loved ones. It was mixed-up and crazy an’ just about the closest thing I could think of to hell on earth. I knew I needed to git Minnie and Jonas outta there fast.”
Theo had stopped himself this time before he reached. He remembered that the bottle was gone, but that did not change his desire for it. He needed that drink.
“Where’s my second bottle?”
“I don’t got it,” answered the boy. “I ain’t moved. You seen that.”
The kid wasn’t lying, but that did not appease the craving. He considered riding back to Denver to get his hands on another. It wouldn’t take too long. He and the boy were only five miles outside the city, but then that contemplation reminded him of the next part of his story and that returning to Denver would be a very bad, bad idea.
Theo inhaled a deep breath, and as he gathered his recollections, he choked on his own accord. Theo compared the suffocation to hands grappling his neck but without the physical contact. He swallowed hard to relieve himself of the sensation. It wasn’t easy to do, but when done, he could breathe again and was ready to continue.
“I got home; Minnie was gone, but there was this other woman, dressed like Minnie in her clothes, and lookin' jus’ like her too, hidin’ under our bed. She crawled out and come at me when I was callin’ Minnie's name like she was Minnie herself. She didn’t look like she wanted to do me harm, but she was a stranger in my home, pretendin’ ta be my wife. So I knocked her head into the wall. With what I had seen outside, I knew some sort of damnation was goin’ on an’ I wun't about to take no chances.
“That woman lost her consciousness for a moment so I tied her to the bed. I so was angry and scared. I didn’t know what else to do, but I couldn’t risk her tryin’ ta escape. That imposter wanted to replace my wife, an’ if she was doin’ that much, then she was the one who had gotten rid of Minnie and knew where'd she be. But goddammit, she made me so mad, swearin' up and down she didn’t know what I was talkin' 'bout, no matter how much I tried to beat it outta her. An’ I tried everythin’ too, let me tell you. The belt, my fists…”
Theo lifted his hands to his face and gazed at them like they were the hands of a stranger. But even in the fading campfire light, he knew they were his because he still could see the woman’s crusted blood that stroked the edges of his fingernails, buried deep beneath the tips.
“…things I never thought myself capable of. After I had got done punching her, I pressed these thumbs down on her eyes, and I pressed hard; probably too hard. And yet, she continued to claim that she didn’t know what I was talkin’ about. So then, I decided to look for Minnie myself, an’ the first place I looked was under that woman’s skin. I ripped her face off, thinkin’ maybe Minnie was bein' hid underneath, like how you would skin a deer’s hide by peeling it down, but the damn fool woman took her secret to her death.”
Not able to bear the sight of his hands a moment longer, Theo set them down then picked up a stick to stroke the fire. He heard sniffles coming from the boy.
“I killed for Minnie. That’s how much I loved my wife, and I knew that I couldn’t give up on her, but I also knew that she couldn’t have been far. So I searched every nook of our house and every place I could think of nearby, but I couldn’t go too far; not with things gettin’ as bad as they was. Gunshots and more screamin’ and there were some fires too. That’s when I realized… I wun’t the only one. I couldn’t git help from no one ‘cuz everybody had someone go missin’. It was like they were just taken away. George Bentley was missin’ his wife and his daughter and two sons. Roy Billings, too; he was covered in blood askin’ me if I’d seen his family: all six of ‘em.”
He heard the boy gasp for breath. He was trying to keep from crying. Theo scowled at him angrily.
“That’s when I decided that I needed to git myself back behind enclosed walls. It wun’t safe outside. Too many close calls. An’ that’s also when I found you…” He rose to his feet. “…cryin’ jus’ like you are now over my dead Minnie!” Theo accused through gritted teeth then leapt over the fire and pressed the barrel of his piece against the kid’s forehead.
“Don’t you fuckin’ dare!”
“Please, don’t!” The boy made a pathetic attempt to cover his head with his hands and arms, as though they could block a bullet.
“Why’d you do it!?”
The kid turned up to him to persist, “I didn’t!
The image of this boy leaning over Minnie’s body, after he had returned home from his futile search for her, was as fresh as the moment it occurred. Theo did not comprehend how someone so young and weak could have accomplished what he did on his own. This boy had switched the bodies. He not only moved the dead woman and hid her but then dragged Minnie to the exact spot where the mimicking intruder died. No kid could accomplish such a feat on his own. He had to have had help, and he did… by the same people who were helping make all the others disappear.
“Who’s doin’ this?! Who are ya workin’ with?!”
“I don’t know what ya mean!”
Theo could tell immediately that the kid wasn’t going to give in. He would be just as stubborn as his wife’s imposter. Still, the desperation to put a bullet into the boy’s brain was commanding; hell, he wanted to empty the whole fucking chamber into the kid's skull.
“This is yer las’ chance!”
“I swear it wun’t me! Please!”
Theo readied his itching finger, but he couldn’t pull the trigger; he wouldn’t. He was not about to make the same mistake twice. Losing control and killing the woman who looked like his wife had been his gravest error. The consequence was losing Minnie forever to this two-faced murdering demon. Theo would not allow himself to kill this kid and lose Jonas same way.
He took a moment to find peace with his decision when he gazed down at the boy. His hands continued to cover his head, but they weren’t covered with blood. Theo’s had been soaked with the thick syrup after tearing off that woman’s skin; the boy’s should be to. He pulled one of the kid’s hands closer to the fire’s light and compared it to his own. Lucius didn’t have blood caked beneath his nails nor did it fill the cracks in his finger’s skin. They were, by all intents and purposes, clean.
Theo let go and stepped back; more confused than before.
“How’d you wash my wife's blood off?”
The boy gazed up at him. Theo had forgotten how close he now stood to the kid; close enough to see his son’s face on this imposter. He put the muzzle of his pistol to the boy’s eye. “Don’t look at me!”
“Please, poppa! I didn’t kill her. You did. Yer jus’ as sick as the rest of ‘em.”
Theo thrust his firing hand back and slammed the butt of his pistol against the boy’s temple. The action may not have fed his desire to see the boy dead, but the savage beast within got a taste, and it was delicious. Theo had an idea. He could feed his starving soul as long as he maintained enough control to keep from killing the kid.
He wailed on the boy… Janus, he remembered the kid saying was his given. The little murderer wriggled and squirmed under his weight, and though Theo tried to let up, he couldn’t. Theo concentrated on his inability to put an end to the beating, too distracted to notice the boy reach into the fire pit for a log and slam it across his attacker’s head.
Sparks erupted. Theo hit the ground, but the boy refused to end his assault. He struck his father over and over with the flaming weapon until the burnt embers of the log were jarred off and the timber was whittled down to a stick.
With his armament disintegrated, Jonas dashed for the horses with the hope he had incapacitated his father enough to make his escape, but he was fired upon before he climbed his mount. Jonas leaped behind the tree for cover. The scratching of footsteps over gravel warned him of his father’s fast approach. Jonas fidgeted, trapped, kicking what he thought was a rock until he heard the sound of glass knocking against the tree. It was the empty bottle, labeled Rattlesnake.
He picked up the weapon in time to shatter it across his father’s head as he came around the trunk. The explosion dropped Theo to knees, and Jonas did not hesitate to thrust the jagged remains into his own father’s face. The light from the fire captured the shards as they dug into the man’s eyes and cheeks. Theo flailed and cried out his inevitable death; a noise he had heard many times earlier that night.
Theo quieted then fell onto his side. Stiff.
Daylight had come some moments ago, putting an end to the night. Since the sun’s arrival, Jonas could not take his eyes off the strange bottle that protruded from his father’s face. The unique label had no words, only the image of a red-eyed rattlesnake, coiled and ready to attack. He had never seen one quite like it before and would have noticed it earlier if not for the darkness of night. However, mysterious as it was, how it came to be in their town was not. Prior to the day’s mayhem, a train whistle had blared, announcing its unscheduled arrival. To the delight of most men, the transport carried a shipment of the Rattlesnake whiskey, though strangely, nobody could declare the order as his. Once realizing that the twenty crates must have been delivered in error, no man had a mind to allow the free likker to be carted off. It took eight men a mere three minutes to unload the cargo before the train departed.
Jonas took another sip of Rattlesnake that he had nursed for the last few hours. Though his pa had lost his mind, he had been right about the second bottle; he just hadn’t remembered leaving it in his pony’s saddlebag. At first, Jonas did not like the taste and nearly spat it out, but now he understood why his pa, and the other men, relished the whiskey. The content was medicine, remedying his suffering, such as the pain a son would feel for killing his father. However, it did not put an end to his anger. Instead, his fury for the man beside him swelled, wishing that the man was alive to kill again.
A queasiness overcame Jonas. He leaned to the side and vomited. The rancid smell of bile and whiskey wafted where he sat, ready to make him sick again.
Jonas stood and nearly fell over more than once as he climbed to his feet. Looking around to decipher his whereabouts, he had a general notion of where his father had taken them and then figured there was a stream just beyond a nearby wall of trees.
He took his pa’s pistol and staggered that direction.
Though the creek had been no more than a few hundred yards, it felt like miles when walking with unsteady legs. Jonas knelt on the bank and dipped his hands into the water. He washed his face and swished a mouthful to remove the taste of barf. He needed a moment to gather the strength to lift off the ground when he caught sight of what should have been his reflection in the stream, but wasn’t him; it was some imposter.
“Who are you?” Jonas asked anyway though knowing he did not need to. This was the boy his father thought he kidnaped, the one he had tried to kill. Another wave of nausea infected him as he came to the painful conclusion that perhaps his father hadn’t gone crazy after all and didn’t need killing.
“What have you done?”
He watched the reflection's mouth move in time with his own. New anger piled on top of the old as this fake alien thing mocked him.
“Who the fuck are you?” He screamed with as much voice as he could muster, but the image continued with his ridicule.
Jonas grabbed his face and felt every detail as he watched the copycat do the same. Although everything seemed real and in place, he trusted that it wasn’t.
He picked up his father’s pistol and ran. Jonas continued running as far away from the imposter as he could, but he could not escape it. He felt his presence just as strongly as before. Not being in control of himself was no way to live. Being his father's killer was no way to live. Being haunted by the gruesomeness of his mother's passing was no way to live.
Jonas lifted his father’s pistol to his temple and fired.