The One That Came Back

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Chapter 17 Wayward Stranger

The house on J Street was only twenty minutes from the rehab clinic, which was handy. Everything seemed to be twenty minutes away in this town. Porter had some time before nightfall; that was when things would get interesting. He lit a cigarette and sat low down in the Dodge.

J Street was a loose string of flop-houses that looked as if they were held up by Popsicle sticks and spackle: a glorified trailer park without the charm. The red light on the end of his cigarette got closer.

The house he was watching was a single-story, yellow wood building with no garage.

There was a large gap between it and the neighboring building on the right, which looked like an abandoned chapel, covered in sheet metal, probably to keep out copper thieves.

The house on the left looked empty too. There were cars parked out front, but Porter hadn’t seen much activity: no lights, no coming and going. It was a small blue house with wild agave plants growing in the front yard. A tiny plastic kids’ swing-set and slide stood amongst them.

It got dark quick here. There wasn’t a street light for a good quarter mile and none of the houses had working flood lights.

It was about time. Porter slipped out of the Dodge, quick and quiet, shutting the door without a sound. He crept around the truck, ducking from car to car in the street.

He circled around to the left of the blue house. He walked quickly, tracing the fence, passing the kids’ swing set. The backyard was empty and it looked like someone had been digging; the dirt was fresh. There was only a three foot fence separating the backyard of the blue house and the yellow house. Porter hopped over it and it made a slight tinkling sound that reverberated down its length. It could have been the wind had there been any wind, but there wasn’t. The night was still as a picture in a frame. The air hung, cold and dank. Time was frozen and he was the only one awake.

The backyard of the yellow house was bare but for a few tipped-over lawn chairs and old beer cans. There was a small back porch which led into the kitchen. Porter stuck as close as he could to walls of the house. An old yellow Mustang parked outside was the same one he’d seen Jack driving. There was nothing interesting inside it: the regular fast food debris and a gun on the backseat. He tried the handle and it was unlocked. The door creaked open. Porter palmed the gun. It was heavy. It felt like a forty-five. The handle was wood and smelled of oil and smoke. He tucked it in the back of his pants and closed the car door.

Satisfied he was in the right place, he crossed to the back door, taking great care as he mounted the back porch. He listened for creaks and the voices of the people inside. As he got closer, he could hear talking, but it was the static, rehearsed noise of a television.

The back door was open. He stepped into the dark kitchen. It was cold and lit only by a warm light coming from the living room.

He could smell the plates rotting in the sink, could hear the bugs crawling through the damp under the cabinets, urged on by the constant drumbeat of a leaking tap.

An alcove led into the lounge through a little dining area. He walked, light-footed, past a small table and chair, under a broken lamp, and into the lounge. It was warm and smelled of smoke and burnt plastic.

Clothes had been tossed all over the place, along with more fast food garbage and beer cans. The walls had dark brown stains on them that he could only see when the movie got bright. There was writing too, but he couldn’t make it out. The cabinets off to the right were full of weird taxidermied animals: rodents and small birds. The whole cabinet stank of formaldehyde and had little bones in it too: rat skulls and something a little bigger a cat skull. It was good to have a hobby.

There was no one there. He pulled the gun out of the back his pants and shook it a little to get used to the weight. In the light of the TV, he could see it was an Iver Johnson Trojan standard .45 auto, a nice gun if you could afford it. He let it drop to his side.

A small, thin hand wrapped its skinny fingers around his wrist. He looked down and, for the first time, saw a prone figure on the couch. He looked into the sunken eyes of a brunette covered in a white painters’ tarp. She lay on her front, naked, and could barely summon the strength to lift her head.

He could see her ribs, and her ass looked like a flat piece of flank steak. Dirty, dark hair stuck to the sweat on her back.

There was something scratched into the walls above the couch: a crude cave painting, etched into the chincy wallpaper. It looked like a woman with wild red hair but with the face of a bull with a ring through its nose. This monstrosity had a set of big tits, but the rest of its body was behind the couch.

He stepped away and her hand fell limp to the floor as she drifted out of consciousness again. He checked the clip in his gun: seven bullets, and one in the chamber, made eight. He walked out of the living room, into a dark hallway. The bedroom door was ajar and a weak thread of light was bleeding out of the room.

He lined up the Trojan and tiptoed towards the door. There was only the sound of the TV from the other room and a building crescendo of crickets outside. He got to the door and there was a familiar smell: acrid, strong and getting stronger. The hairs on the back of his neck rose and his guts did a little dance. He poked the door open with the barrel of the Trojan and nosed it through like a dog under a blanket.

It was anti-climactic. Jack was lying on his back with a needle in his arm, his eyes wide open. He looked pleased with himself as he stared unblinking at the ceiling fan.

His skin was waxy and pale, his eyes glazed over; there was vomit on his shirt and on the pillow: an overdose for sure. Porter sighed and holstered the gun in the back of his pants. Jack must have been dead this whole time. Porter wasn’t that interested in learning the specifics or sticking around too long. A cursory glance around the room didn’t turn up any suicide notes. No journals lay open, written in red pen with the title ‘I did it’ on the front, but the sawn-off Mossberg shotgun under the bed smelled like it’d been fired recently. The caliber ammo accompanying it fit the size of the hole in Mickey’s head. As they say, if the shoe fits...

Suicide? Porter had wanted this to be big and complicated, but it wasn’t; it was a big mistake, the whole thing.

There wasn’t much else to the room: a double bed, banal paintings on the wall, clothes strewn about, drug paraphernalia.

He stepped back and took a mental picture of dismay, a snapshot of purest self-destruction, then ducked back into the hallway where the air was a little more fresh. The girl was still there, but she’d shifted onto her side, her other arm trailing along the floor. Her skin was so white he stopped to check whether he had two corpses on his hands for the price of one. He put his hand in front of her mouth and he could feel her breath; it was weak and probably smelled bad, but it was there.

Porter started to walk away.

“Are you looking for that kid that was here?”

Porter turned to the couch. She hadn’t moved. “Are you his father?” she said into the couch cushions.

“Where is he?”

“They came here together and then they went out and then he came back alone,” she hummed. Her voice had a dreamy, faraway quality, as if she were talking to herself.

Porter was convinced he was talking to a ghost now, and he liked his ghosts to get right to the point.

“Where did they go?”

“J has a shack. He goes there when he’s hiding from someone. It’s a dirt road off Interstate 33, near his old house.” She spoke as if reading a script written on a couch cushion.

“Thanks.”

Porter started to walk off again when she asked “Is he dead? Did you kill him?”

“He did it to himself.”

That seemed to fit and she stopped talking.

Porter went out the way he’d come, cutting around the back, out of the kitchen and into the backyard. He took the Trojan out of his pants, wiped it with the cuff of his jacket and tossed it over to the chapel.

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