Storm Debris by Liam Sweeny

I didn’t realize that cars bled. I guess it’s because we pay regularly to keep it from happening, and because even a paper-cut on a car can leave us holding plastic over our heads as we wait on the highway for AAA. But Division Street was a pool of carnage. True, it was mostly flood water, but there was a rainbow slick marking the waterline. Their husks were piled upon each other, their windshields shattered, their quarter-panels bashed in. I saw them mosh with each other when the rain popped the dam and realized a second thing; it only took a couple feet of water to make them dance.

I’m homeless now. But I’m not the kind of homeless you wouldn’t give change to. Maria and I are staying in the high school—the Red Cross set up a couple hundred cots. You’d think it was terrible, but it’s not. It’s like a town sleepover. Mr. Hurley is telling war stories to our kids like he does during the town picnic. That’s a good thing, too, because a huge chunk of the First Presbyterian Church collapsed under the pressure of the deluge, and the park is debris now.

The rain’s let up, and we’re getting out to look around. I listened on the radio last night—Morristown got wiped off the map. Don’t know if it’s true or not. The cell tower came down. We haven’t been able to call my parents in Binghamton, or Maria’s sister in Albany. The National Guard has the roads restricted to essential vehicles, and that’s good, seeing as how the highway is a dirt-bike track right now. I don’t even know if my car runs.

I can see Tommy down the street, pitting his chainsaw against a Poplar tree blocking his driveway. He’s wearing those wrap-around, doofy tactical sunglasses. Only tactical thing he ever did was launch an offensive against a fridge full of Thanksgiving leftovers. Except for last night. Maybe I’ll have to lay off the jokes. He spots me and flips me the finger. He’s a hundred yards away but I can think of nothing else it would be.

We got a sweet little town here. We go to church every Sunday, and I’m sure this Sunday, Minister Bailey will preach from the top of one of those wrecked cars, and we’ll be sitting on fold-out chairs in the middle of the road. We love the flag, mom and apple pie in that order, and even our bar brawlers make peace on Monday mornings at the bottling plant where we all work. When we got the notice from the Sheriff that Jay Matthews moved in above Marella’s Market, it was a dark spot on our sun.

Jay taught music at the elementary school. Given what we’d learned about him, you’d think there’d be a whole list of kids he’d abused, after all, he was legendary for taking his class on field trips. But it was only one; my little one, innocent and without shame, full of life—descriptions he stole from her behind the school stage. It was enough to get him arrested and penned for five years. By then, Donna had grown into a fiercely independent teenager with a death wish and a rap sheet. She’s in juvie right now, in fact. I poured every ounce of blame I had into my fist and slammed it into his gut when I saw him last Tuesday. Before the flood. Before all this.

I didn’t even realize that I was at the edge of the ravine that opened wide to drink the engorged river. It’d always been deep, but the instant erosion made the edges jagged. I could see sprigs of two-by-fours, aluminum siding fanned out, sheetrock powdered, staining the rocks, and, of course, husks of cars that fell off the edge. And the red ninety-six Dodge Neon with the mudded-out windows. It was almost submerged. Last night, I asked Tommy if we should go down and push it further. He said not to worry about it. It was supposed to rain again tomorrow, and even if they open the door, they wouldn’t think much past a drowning. He was just debris.

Jailbreaker in the Briar Patch by Liam Sweeny

I ran. I ran fast as I could, tripped over my laces and eased my body into forward leaps that turned into junk street somersaults. I ran past Ritchie’s Market, past Harry Dzembo as he held the broom in his hands, slack-jawed. I heard him ask me what the fuck, but I was gone, man. I turned corners by radar; the blood in my eye sockets made my horizon a magenta mudslide. I went by the sounds of cans and bottles crashing against each other, surest bet I was heading into the bums’ squat. They wouldn’t dare lurk in there, and the cops would call for back-up first. I had some time to camo up.

I leaned against a brick wall slick with rain. I breathed deeply and wiped my eyes out. The movement ripped my cuts open fresh, but it gave me a minute to see where I was. Rusted dumpsters, shopping cart bums with dollar rain slickers house-hunting for spots under fire escapes and on heating grates. Shouting ricocheted off the street. Big, brawny guys. One of them had my blood on his fists. The other one was missing a brand-new phone and charger. If I could just lay low, I’d be loaded.

I picked up my feet and I could feel my inner parkour kicking in. I mean, I couldn’t see for shit and I was probably just stumbling around, but nothing beats a winning attitude, right? I weaved in and out of the alleyways and narrow streets of the squat. Those guys were preppy, jock fucks; muscle-bound, could beat me flat in a toe-to-toe, but I played ‘em like I was Br’er Rabbit and the squat was my briar patch.

“Oh, don’t leave me here! These bums will murder me!” Dumb fucks. There wasn’t one square inch of concrete in the whole neighborhood I hadn’t pissed on at least once. I settled in at the old bakery. It was prime real estate, cause for some odd reason, they never turned the electric off. It was old and grimy and dusty and a three-alarm fire hazard, but I needed a place to charge the phone. Hopefully, he hadn’t deactivated it yet. I could get three hundred more if it was already jailbroken.

I should’ve stayed in the bakery after the score. Getting the phone was in-and-out. He had a hooker, and he was naked. Couldn’t do a thing when I robbed the room. But I had to go out for smokes. They say the habit kills ya’. But I made it, and it was time to measure the size of the treasure.

‘Ding!’ and I was in. Dumbass didn’t even bother to use a password. I was flying through it. He didn’t have it deactivated, but he did have the GPS locater on. I plied my trade, and in a minute, the GPS was disabled. I jailbroke the phone using the laptop I was storing there, as I paid Big Moe to watch over it. Jailbreaking is a pain, but when you’re doing something every day, you get used to pain.

I lit up a smoke after jailbreaking it. Always a time for quick revelry. All that was left was deleting the numbers and pictures; my guy paid less if he had to do it himself. I quick swiped through the numbers – poor idiot probably wouldn’t remember half of them off the top of his head – and made my way to the pictures folder. There, I nearly swallowed my cigarette.

Bodies torn, cleaved; a crimson-streaked frat sweater, a middle-aged couple; there weren’t enough eyes… Too many pictures of butchered flesh, dark pools glistening in the light of the flash. And the last one I landed on, the most recently taken – I recognized the bedspread, the pillows… I was just there. But she was alive then, right? She had to be alive.

“Check every building,” a loud voiced called to his buddies. They had entered deep into the briar patch. I hid my laptop under plywood and packed the phone and charger into my pocket. I ran to the back door and scoped it out before taking another step.

 

I might be running forever.

Knuckle Sandwiches by Liam Sweeny

The growing intersection had flow. A daycare center looked on while a locally renown ice cream slinger beckoned in neon with frosty fingers. Freddy wasn’t tempted as he glanced over his shoulder at the people lined up to get a cold belly on a hot day. He was working on getting his bony ass cheeks imprinted in the front counter stool at Knuckle Sandwiches, a hardcore metal-inspired, renegade diner that promised Lunch with a Punch! It would be his oasis; his sanctuary from a life of stained, drawn window shades and ashtray hourglasses filling and emptying with the butts of whatever dirt brand of smokes he could find coupons for.

The bell on the door rang, and Freddy nodded to his buddy, Hank. Hank took off his corduroy newsboy cap and swiped it across his brow. He sat down on the next stool and picked up a menu.

“Can’t read shit without my glasses,” he said. “What’s good here?”

“It’s all good, Hank.”

“But what’s really good?”

Freddy pointed at the black stenciled menu on the wall above the counter. “Bigger letters. You name something, and I’ll tell you it’s really good.”

“What are you chomping on? Looks huge.”

Freddy wiped his mouth. “It’s a Stigmata burger. And it’s really good.”

“Is that?” Hank squinted. “Hot peppers… raspberry jam? Seriously?”

“It works, man. Don’t ask me how.”

Hank jawed with Jackie, who was juggling three burgers and two baskets of fries. He asked about each burger, and after asking if he could have each one special made, she directed him to the Flat Broke burger, in other words, build your own shit. Hank shut up and ordered a Black and Blue.

Freddy put his burger down and poured some salt on his side of hand-cut fries. Hank picked up a flyer for a show, swiped his finger over it and put it down.

“Are you going?” he said.

“Nope.”

“You should. You paid for the damn thing, ya’ crazy fuck.”

Freddy sipped his Pepsi. There was a time when, in the factory, he became tight with a guy named Zack that was going places. They met over a smoke on a break, on a day the wife drove him in and picked him up. Zack took him through the ranks, and his family on trips and outings. Freddy was enjoying the good life too much to catch Zack enjoying his not-so-good wife.

Jessica left him the house, but she left him. The kids were old enough to decide that they wanted Zack’s pool more than their old man. Zack shuffled Freddy back into penetration testing, which meant spending years in a black-lit room. His hatred of Zack was cast iron.

“Do you need anything, hon?” Jackie tipped her thumb to the grill. Freddy pointed to the largesse on his plate and thanked her anyway. She checked the time, tracing the fingers along a rose on her tattooed arm.

“I still don’t know why you’re doing it,” Hank said.

Freddy bit off a hunk of fried egg before it slipped off the burger. “When we—me and him—were good, he was playing the long con for Jessica, but I got to know him. You don’t lie about the shit it don’t make sense to lie about—your favorite color, your unfavorite color, foods, music… all shit, and it’s nothin’ anybody cares about, so they don’t bother paying attention. I did.”

He wiped off his fingers with a napkin. “When he bit it, his life insurance would’ve paid for his send-off. So I come in talking about needing to make peace with Zack, and Jessica’s eyeing Cancun with the insurance check. And she didn’t know any of his minor details either. Too much a drama collector. But funerals thrive on minor details.”

“So you spent your life savings on the funeral of the man you hate the most in the world, to what? Piss him off? Play a song he hates at the church?”

“It was so much more than that, but yes.”

“I think you’re nuts.”

Freddy burped into his hand.

 

“He wrecked my life,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I can’t wreck his death.”

Road-worn and Dirty by Liam Sweeny

My granite face, pock-marked by the razor hail. My scar-spangled arms sway in the wind as I trek through the expanse of the train yard that’s just another pit-stop in my Hell tour. Gut tight; my demon stomach muscles stab through the tears in my T-shirt. I lost my coat to a drifter on the rails. I’ve managed to save two hundred dollars – fast-food dumpsters have shitty locks, and even though they have cameras, they don’t pick up bums. It’s like the cameras were trained to ignore us like everyone else passing by. But I’ve got two bills. Hey, something’s going right.

There’s a tunnel under the highway that’ll get me to civilization. There’s also a sausage-handed man in a Carhartt who’s walking toward me. I know who he is. He’s the yard manager, the hound at the gates.

“Hey, you can’t be in here,” he says.

I smile. “Then I’ll be out of your hair. Just let me be on my way.”

“I’m tired of you bums being on the yard,” He reached for his cell. “I’m calling the cops.”

“Before you do that, let me ask you a quick question,” I say. “Is making your point worth closing shop for two weeks to fix the damage I can do before the cops get here?”

“You touch anything here, that’s federal time.” He was red-cheeked.

“I sleep on box cars and eat garbage,” I say. “But I’ll give you the other deal.”

“What’s that?”

“I walk away, you let me, and you’re back at your desk in five minutes. Your choice.”

The yard manager was pissed, definitely, but he looked me in the eye, and I’ve been told it’s an unsettling experience. He put his cell phone back.

“Just get the fuck out of here.” He said.

“Will do.” I headed for the tunnel. “By the way, if I see cops, I’ll ditch ‘em, and I’ll be back here to make good on what I said.”

“Just go.” Sausage-fists said, and I took the cue.

 

The cops don’t come up as I’m walking down the highway. Good man. Sanchette Road, the sign says. I can see a motel in the distance, in between a check-cashing place and a liquor store. Did I mention the neighborhood’s ghetto as hell? But who am I to judge?

The motel has two floors, maybe thirty rooms. After getting a bottle of Evan Williams from the liquor store, I check in. I don’t have to threaten to break anything. There’s a van cooking meth in the parking lot – they see worse.

I get to the floor my room’s on and there’s a fourteen-year-old kid yelling into the room next to mine. I tune it out and find my whiskey nest for the night. I wish I could say I reserve times like this for reminiscing the good times, but over the past thirty years I’ve shot up or snorted all of them away. As far as the pain? I think Buddha said something like suffering was caused by attachment. I prefer “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” Not saying life’s great; far from it. Just because I have no specific pains, doesn’t mean my whole world doesn’t hurt. I’ve just always been garbage – don’t know any different.

I look at my face in the mirror. I got slashed on the rails by another first-class rider. It’s red and puffy – looks infected. Hope there’s a clinic in this city. I turn on the sink, washed the area gingerly, not-so-gingerly the rest of my face. I turn on a ball game and crash.

Wake up the next day and walk out to a snack machine down by the stairs. I see the kid pounding on the glass. Can’t say I was nice by giving him a dollar to get the thing he was trying to get, just hungry.

“Heard ya’ yelling at your folks,” I said. “They beatin’ ya?”

“Nah,” the kid said. “Just tired of them. Can’t wait till I’m eighteen and I can just hit the road.”

I looked at this kid, showered, good clothes, fed, not a bruise on him.

“Take it from someone who knows,” I say. “The road hits back.”

Horse Trading by Liam Sweeny

I see an old man in the mirror. He has more wrinkles than the last time I saw him, and there’s blood cracking in some of the folds of his skin. I run my hands under the blast of cold water coming out in spurts and wipe my face, wipe last night away. But I can’t get rid of the stain. Maybe if I hadn’t passed out in the kitchen curled around the bottle of Knob Creek. Maybe if I could remember what I did to Kenny.

Well, maybe if I could remember something better.

I see an old man in the mirror. He has more wrinkles than the last time I saw him, and there’s blood cracking in some of the folds of his skin. I run my hands under the blast of cold water coming out in spurts and wipe my face, wipe last night away. But I can’t get rid of the stain. Maybe if I hadn’t passed out in the kitchen curled around the bottle of Knob Creek. Maybe if I could remember what I did to Kenny.

Well, maybe if I could remember something better.

Everybody in this town will know I did it. The Sherriff’s a farmer, and he knows his bad seeds. I wasn’t born and raised in Burkettsville. I got here a year ago, dropped off with a new name and a new history. Witness protection. I was facing twenty-five years for some stuff, and they wanted a guy who’d killed more people in New York than thirty-two ounce sodas. You wouldn’t get that if you weren’t a New Yorker, but he was on the hook for a dozen floaters in the East River.

So he’s in Attica now, and I’m halfway across the country, nursing wounds I inflicted on Kenny, figuring I got about an hour before anyone will find him. I gotta get out. I pack everything I need into a duffel I bought at Stanford’s five-and-dime. No idea why they still call it that. Nothing costs a five or a dime but traditions and throwbacks.

People think Witness Protection is the cake, or it only sucks because you gotta cut ties. Now, if you were Joe or Jane Citizen that might be the case. Because you came forward for the sole purpose of doing the right thing. They’ll get you a nice place, a good job and all that. But if you’re just a rat saving his own skin? You get a shithole and a job digging ditches. And what are you gonna do, leave? You just ratted someone out. Now, I ain’t scared of him, but rat-stink carries. And if you fuck up Witness Protection after the trial? They got what they wanted. They couldn’t care less.

I decide to shave quickly. I’m starting to think now. I put coffee on, but only for the smell of the percolating. Won’t have time to drink it. But the smell’s clearing my head. I shave the bloody stubble off and I scrub my face with a hand-towel. I think I got all the blood, but I change clothes to make sure.

It’s funny. Back in my heyday, I was meticulous about cleaning up my crime scenes. Getting sloppy wasn’t my thing. But when you’re killing folk, there’s always that one. That one guy who you knew would be home alone, but it turned out their kid was with them. And the kid was young, so you let him be. But it’s that one crime, that one slip, and you’re off your game.

When that idiot Lenny Salkes was vying for my job, and I started hearing about hits he did in my style, I saw my chance. A few extortions I had done where the statute of limitations hadn’t run out. I decided to extort a fed. They got me, and I traded me for something better; well, the new “me”.

 

I’m at the bus station, my ticket folded in my grip. I just lit up a cigarette, and I’m staring down Route 30 for my bus. One way to Indianapolis. From there, who knows? I hear a grunt at my blind side. I turn to see the Sheriff and two of his deputies.

“You gonna come quietly?” He said.

My face was flush. “For what?”

“We found Kenny,” the Sheriff said. “And a witness, said he saw you kill him.”

“Who saw me kill Kenny? I ask, as if I didn’t just admit that I knew he was dead.

“Let’s just say we got a DUI last night, and he was all too happy to horse-trade his testimony for his freedom.” The deputies are behind me, and I feel the clink of the cuffs.

“But you know all about that, don’t ya?” he added.

Jonas Turley by Liam Sweeny

Jonas Turley spent his last breath in a frayed easy chair, listening to a vacuum that reverberated with the sounds he grew up to. In the early morning hour, the north wing of the Phoenix had exhausted its revelry, hallway empty except for old Barney Ellis, a down-town drunk who squatted every night when the manager passed out. Jonas’s end-table was cleared, but for the ring of dust that still held the shape of his FM radio. The pawn-ticket crinkled in his grip. The shades were drawn down to the crack of dawn as it pulled the shadow of the adjoining block across his bed. The vacuum continued to hum, eliciting a scratchy grumble from Ellis. He cursed the maid in English; she returned it in Spanish before she rapped on Jonas’s door. She was a nice old woman, curses aside, always offering her garbage can to save Jonas a trip downstairs.

Or maybe she collected bottles.

Jonas had them all; domestic, Mexican, European, micro-brew—every night he’d sit in that room, traveling the world in a brown bag. Everyone knew him as the gracious, easy mannered guy with the taste for fine beer and classic Motown. He was a running catalog of Motown artists; you name them and he could give you at least two paragraphs, no matter how obscure. Too bad there wasn’t a job for a guy with Jonas’s skill.

He had a son in his thirties, James; he stopped by the Phoenix every month to check up on Jonas, bringing food sometimes, or toiletries. James didn’t drink, but he never got on his dad about it. Jonas was absorbed in the heavy liquor through most of his kids’ lives, but he never took to being physical. He had a quiet, happy drunk, but he was a drunk. The kids went without often as they grew up, and Frank and Jenny stopped visiting years ago. James was the last one left.

“Yo Jonas,” an agitated voice came from the hall with a quick knock, “Lemme’in man, it’s Charlie!”

Charlie tried the door handle, and it opened up. Jonas never locked his door; he was usually there. Charlie walked in and slumped down against the inside wall.

“You sleepin, Jonas?” asked Charlie, not bothering to check. “…that’s OK; I just gotta take hits, and the cops been up this way all day.” He pulled out a glass stem and the corner of a pinched baggie that held twenty bucks of Charlie’s panhandling money. Like a surgeon, he split the rock in two, stuffing one in the stem and the rest back into the baggie, back into his ratty coat. With the lighter rigged to burn hotter, he torched the rock, greedily sucking every wisp of smoke from the air.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, Jonas,” Charlie said, “It’s like lookin’ through God’s eyes.” The pawn-ticket fell from Jonas’s hand. Charlie scooted over to pick it up.

“Oh man, that sucks, Jonas.” He said. “I’ll hook you up.” He took another hit, holding it in until he couldn’t help but choke out. “You need some sun up in here – it’s like a motherfuckin’ death house.”

Charlie polished off the half-rock he’d shoved in the stem.

“Suzie, that slut; she be creepin’ around here.” He said. “You let her in here, she’d clean you out.” Charlie looked around. “…not that she’d get anything…”

Charlie put the stem in his pocket. He walked over to the window, navigating his way through beer bottles, cans and fast-food wrappers. Jonas wasn’t ever good around the holidays – Charlie had known him for well over a decade. Come Christmas and New Year’s, Jonas always shut himself in his room for the two weeks that comprised the holiday season.

“Arright, Jonas,” he said, “I’ll let you sleep it off.” He went to pat Jonas on the shoulder, but he just made a half-motion. Then he slowly closed the door. Shortly after that, the maid did the return trip. She had a transistor radio on her cart. As she came back around, that sweet music wafted into Jonas Turley’s room.

The first fly was crawling around his left nostril.