No new Podcast Episode the week after Thanksgiving. A View of the Edge of the World, the Podcast will return next week with Episode 9: The Sniper.
Meanwhile, please enjoy the 8 episodes currently available.
This is a more recent story and has evolved drastically over time. The character of Sven wasn’t even in the first draft and the prayer wasn’t in it either. The reason I went back into the story and worked at it more was that the theme was there, but it just wasn’t a moving story. I felt like I was beating a sledgehammer over the reader’s head saying: “This is what I mean. This is my theme!” So on came Sven and the story drew out to a longer and more three dimensional piece. I loved writing this one, I think it shows a darker side of the human soul; one where we all have access to, but only some are willing to try and navigate.
Roger Tambour climbed the hill like a lynx hunting its prey, sweating from the weight of his pack and the heat of the desert sun. The intelligence he got from his informant told him his mark would be bartering a deal in twenty minutes two hundred yards south of the hill he was climbing. Just enough time to crest the hill, settle, then facilitate the kill. Such effort for that single beautiful moment when the rifle; the impeccable extension of his arm, bucked against his shoulder and the mark is felled. There was no Semper Fi in this business, no glory, no gung ho motherfuckers. Just Roger and the pop of his rifle echoing, indicating the hollow void it brought.
“Boy you shut that goddamn animal up or you gonna make me do something about it!” Pete Tambour leaned out of his Lazy-boy and craned his neck into the living room where Roger was playing. “I’m serious now, I’ve eaten mangier inVietnam!” Pete was an absentee father. He was only around for about a week a month. Roger’s mother, Patricia, told him his father traveled for work, but he always came home stinking of booze and cheap perfume.
Roger slowly got to his feet putting his arms out for balance. He had just turned four and was still a little wavy on his feet.
“Shit, boy, you need to learn your balance.” Pete turned back to the television and carefully lifted a Bud to his lips.
Roger waddled over to the small collie puppy rolling on its back next to his father’s chair. His mother named the dog Spunky.
“You stupid, lazy, fat piece of shit!” Patricia stormed into the room, waving a letter in her hand. Roger stood on his little fat legs with a look of surprise at his mother’s sudden entrance. The dog barked in response to Patricia’s tone.
“You talking to me baby?” Pete said, not taking his eyes from the television.
“What the fuck is this?” She stood in front of him waving the letter with a hand on her hip.
“Jesus woman, you’re worse than the dog.” Pete said taking another swig of beer. He didn’t move, but slightly raised his eyes to meet hers.
Spunky stopped rolling around and turned to face the drama, then gave a sharp high pitched bark.
“Get that fucking mutt out of here Roger.” Patricia turned to him with her eyes burning and then turned back to Pete. “Is this a fucking pink slip?” She said ruffling it in his face again.
Roger looked down at the dog and then back up at his mother. They’d freed him from the pound a month earlier and Patricia said it was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. It was one of the best days Roger had ever had.
“What the fuck you think it is? It’s pink ‘aint it?” Pete gave a wry smile and never took his eyes from hers.
“So let me get this straight. You don’t clean, you don’t take care of the children, you can’t get it up, and now you aren’t even working?” Now both fists were pressed to her hips and the letter was crumpled in her hand.
“Huhm,” Pete said raising his eyes thoughtfully and rubbing his chin. “Looks about that way doesn’t it, well except for the getting it up. It’s hard to fuck a bitch while she’s complaining the entire time.”
“Fuck you! I’m done, you piece of shit!” She threw the letter at Pete, turned and went out the door. It was the last time little Roger saw his mother.
“What got up her ass, huh?” Pete said turning to face Roger. “You gonna get that thing out the room or not boy? Jeopardy’s on.”
Lookout duty. It was the slowest task in the barracks and Roger resented Sven for making them pull it. Their job was to watch the access road which lead to the barracks and shoo away any visitors. Out of ten shifts Roger had only seen one civilian approach the gate and when they realized what it was they quickly turned and walked away.
It was a slow time, one where you got to know the guy you were with because there wasn’t anything to do other than talk. So there they stood, rifles at their sides and faces which showed the torture of boredom.
“Fucking dog.” Sven spat out. Roger didn’t respond, but turned to look at his comrade.
“Don’t look at me like that, man! Fucking thing had it coming and you know it! Fucker bites!” Roger didn’t know the whole story and wasn’t sure if he wanted to. All Roger knew was that they were pulling Head duty together when Sven wandered off. Then the Sergeant’s dog was found dead under the steps of C company’s barracks.
“Fuck, it’s like he could smell it on me man,” Sven started to violently scratch his head. It was the part of the army which always pleased Roger. He didn’t know about Sven’s past and he wasn’t particularly interested, but he knew it was checkered. “Like he could smell the fucking thing’s saliva. I swear man, that his nostrils actually flared as he was looking me over. Thought he was gonna cry.”
Roger was glad to have Sven next to him; was glad that Sven was in the same company because it lessened the chance that he would ever have to stare down a rifle at him. Lessened.
“You got any grass man? I need to relax.” Sven fidgeted and swung his rifle over his shoulder, bending to tie his shoe. “Tell you what, man. I’m gonna go over there by the fence and jack one. You stick here and keep your queer boy eyes to yourself, got it?”
When dealing with Sven, Roger realized the best recourse was to say nothing and let Sven assume your answer. He took silence for acceptance.
While Sven was doing his business Roger leaned back and drank in the clear blue skies. It was a beautiful day and it reminded him of his first day in the army and the knowledge that he had escaped from his family. From his drunkard father, from his sister who worked herself into the ground to pay for everything for their family, and his younger brother who discovered Meth and began to steal from his sister’s purse.
He walked out into the cool air and felt his first breath of freedom and he vowed he would spend his whole new life trying to forget his old one.
“Shoulda fucked the dog first before I killed it.” Sven said walking back over, buttoning up his trousers as he did so.
“Coulda released some of the tension in my shoulders.” Sven smiled a crooked, snaggle-toothed grin and patted Roger on the shoulder. “Bet you think killing a dog is a rush. Just wait till we get over toIraq. There’s gonna be a storm in the desert for sure, and that fucking storm is of Norwegian descent.”
Despite his vulgar behavior and his bravado, Roger saw intelligence behind those eyes. Brutal and honest. He knew in that moment that he could never cross Sven, because Sven would never give a second chance.
Roger gently cocked his head to the side to look through the scope. The pudgy white man was centered in the crosshairs as he brokered whatever transaction he had set up.
Roger took out his DEA issued pen and wrote down a short description of the contact. Tall, skinny, white, woman. 35. Brown hair, strong handshake, confident body language.
Roger took a deep breath and gently placed his finger over the trigger. He began to say the prayer he learned from the Norwegian sniper who died in his arms and began a count down in his head; all the while keeping the short pudgy man in his kill zone.
“Boy! Another F! I ‘aint raising no dumbasses! What’s this all about?” Pete stumbled out of the kitchen waving around Carl’s report card.
They had lived in a sty ever since Patricia had walked out on them. They never received a note from her; she never asked how they were doing. It was just Katie, Roger, Carl and their drunken father.
“You hear me boy?” Pete drooled as he spoke. It had been three years since Pete had a job, a beer in his hand nearly the entire time.
Carl never heard his father stumbling around the house because he was holed up in his room listening to Pink Floyd, high as a kite and trying to forget his life. He had taken “Comfortably Numb” as his anthem the year before. He had shrunken in upon himself and refused to speak about anything but superficialities to everyone except Roger.
When Pete burst into the room, Carl didn’t have time to hide the Marijuana in the baggie on his bed, but luckily in his drunken stupor Pete sat on it without noticing.
“What’s up Pete?” Carl had just turned 13 and had long since lost any respect for his father.
“You shouldn’t call me that.” Pete said losing his steam and forgetting why he came into the room.
“It’s your name isn’t it?” Carl’s rejoinder was icy.
“Why don’t you call me dad?” Pete said raising his arm to ruffle Carl’s head. Carl moved out of the way.
“I’ll try to do that.” Carl’s gray eyes stared back into his father’s dull blue. “I’m gonna take a nap now, kay?” Carl said without even faking a yawn.
“Naw, why don’t you come out and watch TV with your pops?” Pete reached out again and again Carl deftly moved out of the way.
“No. I think you need to talk to Roger. He said he was going into the army.” Carl said in a monotone. He didn’t think it would get his brother into trouble and he wanted to be rid of Pete.
“What?” Pete said swaying on the bed.
“Yep, spoke to a recruiter. They said in two years, when he turns 18 he’ll be a shoo-in.” Carl got up as he spoke and walked to the head of the bed, pulling the sheets aside.
“Fuck you say!” Pete got up, knocking the weed to the ground and stormed out of the room. “Rog!” He yelled out into the house.
“Pete, will you knock it off?” Katie yelled back at him from the kitchen. She was going over rental units because she couldn’t pay off the mortgage to the house and the collectors had started calling.
“Don’t you call me Pete! You call me Father!” Pete yelled as he stumbled back down the hall. In the past three years he had put multiple dents in the weak walls from his drunken meanderings.
“Why don’t you act like a fucking father you asshole.” Katie said under her breath. “And by the way, Roger isn’t home. He’s off playing in the park.”
Pete made it into the room and threw down Carl’s report card, stomping on it in the process.
“Playing in the fucking park? He’s sixteen goddamn years old; he’s too old to be playing in the park!” Pete said making his way towards the refrigerator. “You fucking kids drive me to drink!”
“That’s why you do it. I didn’t know.” Katie didn’t mask her condescension.
“Goddamn right.” Pete took two beers from the fridge and took them to the living room to his favorite seat in front of the TV, his argument forgotten.
Katie wrote a quick note to Roger and posted it on the refrigerator then went into Carl’s room.
“I’m going to find a way out of here Carl.” She said from the doorway.
Carl was sitting at the window looking out into the mid-afternoon gloom. “Whatever.” He never turned around.
“These Iraqi motherfuckers aren’t gonna know what hit ‘em.” Sven chuckled as he cleaned his rifle. The two of them went into sharpshooters school together and had done fairly well. Sven was a natural. He didn’t seem to ever miss from the beginning of the training. The mark could be running. They could be hiding. Sven never missed. He was a killing machine and he was never happier than when he hit his target.
Roger on the other hand struggled. His hands were a shaky bundle of nerves and he had trouble understanding how to lead the mark. All the while Sven excelled Roger got ever increasingly determined. As time in camp grew longer, so did the war. He knew it was only a matter of time before his squad was called into battle, and he knew he needed to pass his sniper exam. There was no way he was going to war without Sven the killing machine at his side. Despite knowing, clearly, that Sven was a sociopath, Roger never felt more comfortable than when he was in his presence. He knew Sven thought of Roger as a friend, because Roger had accepted him for who he was, even with knowing about Sven’s homicidal tendencies.
In the real world their friendship would have never blossomed and Roger knew it. He would never tell Sven because he didn’t know if Sven realized that the only reason Roger felt comfortable with him was because they had a common enemy. There was direction for Sven’s psychosis, without direction, Roger didn’t know what Sven would do.
“You’re telling me. They walk by a building with Sven the killing machine in it? They’re gonna be red paste on the sidewalk!” They would banter for hours, each trying to top the other’s crudeness, both ignoring the fact that the next morning they were going into a city where it was known that the enemy outnumbered them three to one.
Roger flattened himself on the ground zeroing in on the mark. He thought back to his training. He thought about Carl playing shooting games with him in the arcade as kids. He thought of Sven and how closely related the actions of their families were. He thought about Katie and how she got the job as a lawyer inNew York. He thought about Carl in jail. He thought about the abuse of his mother and father. He thought about the connection he had with Carl and Katie and he felt a tear scroll down his cheek.
He looked down at the chubby man through the scope and realized the man was looking at him, had in fact winked at him and Roger’s tears poured. He paused, his finger waiting for the tears to clear and his vision to return so he could gaze back into Carl’s gray pleading eyes.
Roger turned back to Sven as soon as he saw the Iraqi soldiers retreating.
The bullet had taken Sven by surprise just a moment before piercing his jugular and knocking him back on his ass.
“Ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck.” Sven kept repeating his hand clamped on his neck.
“Medic!” Roger yelled and ran to his fallen friend.
“Shit man, fucker got me!” Sven’s skin had already paled.
“You’ll be alright. Fucker just got lucky man.” Roger said putting his hand over Sven’s, increasing the pressure on Sven’s neck.
“Bitch hurts man. Can’t believe how lucky that guy got!” It was always luck when an Iraqi shot an American, but skill when an American shot an Iraqi.
“Yeah, fucking Sunday fighters don’t have a chance. Don’t know why they’re even trying.” Roger could feel the pulse of blood against Sven’s hand. He could also feel Sven’s hand weakening.
“Man, its fucking cold in here. You got any water?” Sven’s eyes got glossy.
“Fuck, Medic!” Roger couldn’t hide his impatience as he began to feel the blood rushing between Sven’s fingers.
“Cool it man, cool it. It’s too late.”
Roger looked back down at his comrade and felt panicked. “Don’t you give up! I need your crazy ass to keep me alive.”
“You’ll be alright. Remember the prayer. It’ll calm you,” Sven’s hand released its grip and only stayed into place because Roger was holding it there. “Remember our families brought us here. We can party in hell when you die.”
“Quitter! Fuck you! I ‘aint goin’ to hell!” Roger screamed in his dead friend’s face.
“I’m taking him out of here Rog. I’m sorry, but he needs freedom from this place.” Katie sat on the bed stroking Carl’s hair while Roger stood in the doorway.
He knew this was coming, but he couldn’t bring himself to give Katie his prepared speech. He wanted to tell her they needed to stay together. He wanted to say they needed each other’s support. Instead he stood there nodding at her.
“When I heard him come home, I got out of bed and went up to check on him. By the time I got there he’d thrown up on his bed and was lying in his own filth.” Roger looked down to his snoring brother and then back up to his big sister. “He had two thousand dollars in his pocket Rog. He’s selling this shit now.”
Roger looked one more time at Carl. He took note of Carl’s emaciated form, the blood stains on his upper lip from his bloody nose, the sweaty tousled hair and Roger came to his own conclusion.
“We have to get out of here. Carl can’t stay here any longer. He needs to get away from that asshole,” She nodded her head toward the living room to indicate Pete. “He needs to get clean and he needs to stop getting abused. Were going toNew York. It’s far enough away from here that I don’t think he can find us. Let the bastard rot.”
Roger turned and looked at the door leading to the living room, then he looked back at his sister and realization of Katie’s words struck him all at once. They all needed emancipation.
“I can’t go with you.” His words were soft and quiet. He dropped his eyes as he said it feeling shame blush his cheeks.
“You have to go with us. I need help with Carl. It isn’t going to be easy getting him off that shit.” He could see anger make creases at the corners of her mouth and his shame blossomed enough to change his complexion.
“I can’t do it. I’m not going with you.” Roger slowly raised his eyes to meet Katie’s. He could see the hurt in her eyes.
“Fine. We don’t need you. We lived for years with that pig,” she motioned with her head towards the living room again. “Without your help, so we don’t need it now.”
He didn’t respond, just looked at her. He felt the shame, but he didn’t feel remorse. He knew he had to get away from them. Things would never change if he stayed here. They would always control his emotions; they would always control his actions.
“Well no reason to wait. Why don’t you get out of here so I can get us packed, huh?” She didn’t meet his eyes, but she nodded at the door again.
Roger acquiesced and joined his father in the living room, pulling a brochure out of his back pocket in the process.
In big block letters at the top it said: An Army of One.
Roger could see Sven on the other hill three hundred yards away. He knew Sven never hesitated, even in this blaring heat with sweat pouring in his eyes.
The rifle rested on its stand and he relaxed his shoulders. He wished the prayer that Sven said before every kill worked for him like it did with Sven. It seemed simple, but it also seemed to relax him. Sven had ten confirmed kills. Roger had none. But down there in the valley was an Iraqi guard that they were sent to kill and Sven refused to do it this time.
“You’re making me the default.” Sven had said. “You need to do this one. You with me?”
It wasn’t that Roger didn’t want to do it, he was aching to. He needed a release for all the pent up anger he had brewing inside him, but every time he went to pull the trigger he jumped and missed wide leaving Sven to make the shot and finish the job.
“Say the prayer man. I know you ain’t religious, but that shit works. My anticipation goes away and I can take a deep breath and finally just get to it.”
Despite what Sven said, the prayer only took his mind off the guard for a moment. The anticipation was still there and the excitement would lead his fingers.
He focused through the scope and centered the guards head in the crosshairs. He could see the man’s brown eyes and the wrinkles in his face. He had to be in his fifties. Anger suddenly surged through Roger and he pulled his finger off the trigger before he fired astray.
“Who the fuck are you?” He muttered under his breath at the guard. Images of beating the guard ran through his head. Breaking the man’s nose. Cracking ribs. Stomping his fallen form.
Then suddenly the man became Pete and Roger nearly jumped up and charged, but he ripped his face away from the scope and took a few deep breaths.
“Just calm. Just do it.” He muttered to himself.
He focused on the guard one more time and after taking another breath, pulled the trigger. The bullet was true and the man fell immediately, but Roger felt emptiness creep into him. His first confirmed kill, but there was nothing to it, nothing personal. The man was just a notch on the side of a rifle. Roger’s anger grew.
Carl said goodnight over the phone to Katie. He told her he was in his room in the recovery clinic, but he had left two days before and had traveled non-stop since. He hitched rides and rode busses where he could and where none were possible he walked.
His doctor in the clinic told him his drug habit arose because of an absence of love as a child and the history of addiction in the family. He was searching to find meaning and searching to find love and the drugs were his surrogate. He got clean in the clinic, but there was still a nagging hole he didn’t know how to fill. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but there was something deep down in his stomach, like an itch that was too deep to get to.
When Carl got home he stopped off at a sporting goods store and bought a wooden baseball bat then headed for his father’s house.
The sight of the familiar dilapidated façade of his father’s house brought tears to his eyes. Not knowing where the tears came from sent Carl into a fury and he stormed the house listening to his father’s loud snoring.
The police found him three hours later curled up on his childhood bed crying, covered in his father’s blood.
“What’s happened to us?” Katie tritely cried. Carl sat on the other side of the bullet proof glass with the phone pressed to his ear. He said nothing, just looked deeply into his sister’s eyes.
“How’s it in there?” Roger said trying to catch his brother’s attention.
“What the fuck do you care?” Carl’s gaze never left Katie’s.
“Don’t be so mean.” Katie said before a deluge of tears cascaded down her cheeks.
“Why not? He didn’t come with us. He didn’t help us. He just helped himself. Now he wants to know what it was like to bash that fuck’s head in…”
“That’s not what I said.”
“That’s what you meant. You were just selfish. You went somewhere where it’s legal to kill. You live in a fantasy world where nothing matters but yourself. Katie needed help. I needed help. So we helped each other.”
“Yeah, getting fucked up on meth really helped us out.” Roger said flatly.
“No that was how she helped me. She got me off it. I helped her by killing that bastard.”
“Please!” Katie sobbed.
“You’re a fucking sociopath! How does that help her?”
“You don’t understand because you weren’t there. He tried to come after us. He would call and say he was coming to get us. We were paranoid, thinking he was every creak in the boards, he was every knock at the door. We started to get out and he tried to pull us back and you were nowhere to be found.”
“I was in basic training!”
“Which you ran off to because you wouldn’t help.”
“You want to know what it felt like?”
“No, god please!” Katie cried, scooting away from the glass.
“It felt liberating. With every crack of that bat I felt a little more free. After a while I wanted to feel it so I got on my knees and punched his broken face. It was gratifying. It was personal.”
“He left before I was even brought home from the hospital, so as far as I’m concerned I’m an immaculate conception.” Sven grinned as he said it.
“He left ‘cause of my mom. She was a crazy crone. Religious as shit.” He stroked his St. Christopher medal as he told the story. “My sis and I went to church instead of school. We knew the bible back and front. We even had little contests, testing to see who knew bible verses better.”
Roger rubbed the barrel of his rifle down with the rag nodding along. It was the most Sven had ever said to him at once and it was all spontaneous.
“She beat us regularly with a switch, crying and praying as she did so. It started when we were babies. I remember Gretch crying because she skinned her knee. Mother switched her until she passed out from pain. That’s just how it went, we didn’t know any other way.”
Sven shrugged and Roger grunted in response. He didn’t want the story to end, but he didn’t know how to respond.
“I killed my first cat when I was seven. I didn’t mean to do it at the time, I just wanted to know how it felt to beat something. I guess I just got carried away. But there was something to it. There was something holy. Something personal. It was like our souls were interconnected for just the briefest of moments. I understood the creature. I understood what it was feeling and at the moment of death I felt tremendous release, like my life was worth something. It was the first time I felt that. Meaning.” This time Sven grunted. He cradled his rifle in his arms like a baby as he cleaned.
“I both caused and freed the creature from torment and I understood what Jesus meant by accepting our sins. It was like I was projecting everything I had ever done wrong into that cat and in the moment of death, we were both released. I held onto that cat and cried for hours, both in love and sympathy.
“I tried again and again, but I couldn’t get that feeling back. I thought maybe it only happened once with every species I killed, so I tired birds and dogs and even a deer, but I never got that spiritual awakening again.
“I began to get restless. I began to feel like God had abandoned me. How could he only give me a taste of that joyous release? Then I saw my mother beat Gretch. While she was beating her, my mother kept saying something under her breath. I strained my ears and between cracks I was shocked to hear the Lord’s Prayer.
“I dawned on me that I was striving too hard for the feeling. It wasn’t just the act that gave me release, it was also my state of mind. You can’t really enjoy anything if you’re too caught up in it. You need something to center you, something to personalize the matter. I needed a prayer for myself. I needed something that would give me release, something that would center me; so I used my life experience to create my own prayer.”
Roger looked at him expectantly. He had heard Sven say the prayer before, but had never understood its meaning. He thought about Carl killing Pete and he wondered if Carl prayed beforehand.
“Give me cover, for every path I take leads me astray. Give me trust, for every one I know leaves me alone. Give me love, for the care that I missed. Give me hope, for the life I will lose. Give me patience, for my regrets. Give me peace so that I may kill.
“You should use it Rog. I see the excitement in you. I can see the dread hanging off you, the apprehension. You need something to center you, something to help you understand your place in the Universe.”
Roger grunted again, but inwardly he marveled at how Sven could be all at once a sociopath and yet have such a deep understanding of what it meant to be human.
“I need to ask you a favor brother, and I hate to do it this way.” There was silence on the phone line, but Carl let it drag on. Roger knew Carl wanted him to talk first, but he didn’t know what to say.
“Hello to you too brother. How you been Carl?” He felt sweat moisten his palm.
“Listen. I’m sorry that we’ve been so distant, but I know things about you. I know when you rotated back to the world you became a mercenary. I know you kept working as a sniper. I need something from you.”
“Can’t you at least tell me how our sister is doing? She won’t talk to me either.”
“Katie’s fine. She lives inNew Yorkand she works as a secretary for a high end lawyer.”
“I’m surprised you called me and not her.”
“This isn’t something that she needs to know about.”
His tone was grave and immediately Roger’s throat went dry.
“Don’t worry, you still don’t have to be a part of our family, but that family needs a favor. I got into trouble.”
“Listen if this is about drugs…”
“It is. Tomorrow you will be getting a contract for Pablo Hernandez. You need to make sure he’s dead. He’s the accountant of an up and coming cartel. He’s ordered the deaths of many people, especially ones who stole from the organization. Your sister’s stupid husband stole money from him and the organization won’t leave her alone until he’s gone.”
“The accountant doesn’t matter, the documentation is what matters. The cartel will still know and they’ll go after her.” Roger’s hands were wet.
“How’d you know? Are you affiliated with them?” Roger heard Carl take a sharp intake of breath and sigh into the phone.
“I’m Pablo, Roger. They won’t come after her because I’ll get rid of the records, but when I do that they’re going to come after me and the things they would do, would make me tell them who owed the money. This is the best way.”
Roger didn’t answer right away.
“You’re asking me to kill you? Are you serious?”
“Don’t get fucking righteous on me now. You’re the one who ran. You’re the one who stayed away. You’re the one who stays alone. You’re the killer. We all inherited something from our fuck up of a father. I inherited his foul temper and addictions, Katie inherited his tenacity, and you inherited the selfishness. I will never forgive you for running out on us like our mother, but you can do this one thing for us. I expect you to be responsible for once in your life. Katie will die without your help.”
“I can’t do that.” There was no conviction in his voice. The shock was too much and under a veil of confidence there was a layer of fear eating away at him. His life had finally caught up to him. He ran to forget his childhood. He ran for a new beginning. He ran hoping he could forget who he was, but he’d come to realize that Sven was right. You need to embrace who you are. You need to understand your place in the universe.
“You’d better fucking do it. I’ve tried killing myself, but I can’t bring myself to it. This is your retribution; this is what you were meant to do. I’m prepared. You’d better fucking do it.”
You must accept your place in the universe. “Carl,” You need something to center you. “If you need to me, you know I’m there.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Carl stood smiling in the center of his crosshairs. Roger took a deep breath and settled his finger on the trigger one more time. He thought it ironic that he was so much closer to Sven than he ever was to his own brother. He thought about the juxtaposition between what his brother had told him on the phone and what Sven told him while describing his life: this is what you were meant to do and you must accept your place in the universe.
The prayer started to emit from his lips without him realizing it.
“Give me cover, for every path I take leads me astray.” Carl turned back to the buyer and Roger felt relief rush over him knowing he would have to look Carl in the face.
“Give me trust, for every one I know leaves me alone.” His sister was married and he didn’t know about it. Carl was an accountant for a cartel and he didn’t know about it.
“Give me love, for the care that I missed.” His father was killed by his son for past abuses. Killed to accept the sins of the sons. Killed to absolve future wrongs.
“Give me hope, for the life I will lose.” That human feeling of expectation. That feeling that Sven knew so well. The life that you start to win or start to lose from the moment you are born.
“Give me patience, for my regrets.” Leaving when he did and coming back the way he did.
“Give me peace so that I may kill.” His finger slowly squeezed and the recoil gave him gravity of the situation. Through the scope Carl fell and the woman ran for cover.
Roger quickly packed his materials, marveling at the simplicity of the act and the peace he felt. There was something terribly personal about his act. He felt connected with his brother as he squeezed the trigger. He felt as though their spirits had briefly touched and he felt gratitude and pride. Suddenly he understood what Sven was talking about during his story about the cat. That feeling as though this was meant to happen. This is what he was meant to do. He had saved his remaining family and found his place in the universe. His brothers helped him find the way.
The seventh story from Sean McBride’s published short story collection, A View of the Edge of the World. This episode is produced by Ed Robinson and read by David Nett.
This is the weakest story of the book, but ironically, some of my best lines are in this one. This was also my first foray into more of a normal mainstream fiction theme. Its a short one, but there is some gold in there.
The Barn Burner
I watched her drive away. The anger sifted off my head in rises of steam. The room was frigid and the tension was palpable. I walked back to the bar and took a bottle of bad plastic bottled whiskey. I had a barnburner planned. The twelve pack of Budweiser in the fridge was calling to me.
I whipped open the freezer and pulled out ice cubes, relishing in the ample cold pouring from it. I dropped the ice cubes in a glass, splashed in the whiskey and downed it; barely a sheen on the cubes before the alcohol was gone.
“That Bitch.” Not properly directed anger; It could have been towards the woman who cut me off in traffic earlier, but no, I was talking of her. My angel. My love. “That Bitch.”
I know my brain when in a state of anger. Moral consciousness is absent, leaving only pure rage. The fire that burns in my head is penultimate only to the passion that fills my heart. I have plenty of both. I sometimes believe these are the only attributes I do have, fire and passion, and I ponder of the social aspects of such drive. I wonder why girls keep coming to me.
I don’t see beauty in the mirror, I see scorched constitution, I see a boy who is so unsure of himself that when girls approach it’s an all or nothing deal; a forged contract. Alcohol disarming their tractor beams, leading them astray…into my arms. This humble self discord leaves naught for the imagination. If girls make the first move I must accept, it may be my last opportunity to find real love, but that’s not the real reason is it? I desire to be desired. A kiss…the fire that drives my passion.
Discord permeated my skull, I knew what I was doing and at the same time I didn’t. I relished the anger and frustration; it gave me solace, but yet I felt that discordant beat in my heart that told me I loved her. She came to me. She loved me. That had to mean something.
It means cold exhaust wafting into your lungs, while you watch her drive away; a lump in your throat.
“What the fuck!” Anger instills prevalence to monosyllabic words, only adding a second syllable for emphasis. “Fucking bitch!”
I start to pace, aimlessly, with purpose only to walk. To blow steam, the anger has risen so high that I can’t even think.
What’s she thinking? How can she drive away so calmly and serenely? I’d like to think of her sitting there with her bug eyed glasses blocking the tears billowing at the edges of her lids, but she feels no despair. That would only be too great, too auspicious a thought. No, she’s zoned out looking at the road but not seeing it, planning her next PETA meeting. Sure, she can be ethical towards animals, but when it comes to a man she says she loves, she’ll fuck the nearest living thing.
Carbon life, trite but true. Think about the person in front of you one day. Think about being inside of her. Being behind her eyes, feeling the frailty and deficient form that constitutes the human body. Knowing in actuality there is nothing better about her. She’s made of the same material, she’s as easily hurt as you. Flesh is flesh.
Or better yet think of her as a baby. A small child suckling at her mother’s teat. Totally innocent, devoid of any malignant imposition that will enable the brain to formulate evil…and replicate it. This child is what she was; still, what she is, flesh is flesh after all.
This line of thinking should be enough to get me out of my slump, to forget, but by the time it formulates I had already had three swigs of whiskey. Bad timing I guess.
“Fucking bitch!” I was still stretching for emphasis.
I was lucky because I hadn’t broken anything yet. This tends to be a predisposition of mine. It’s either that or punching walls; however I prefer to retain the use of my hands.
I accept the fact that I have defects in character; I just don’t think that other people should. Throwing things seems like a perfectly succinct thing for a cuckold to do, doesn’t it?
“Fucking drove away!” I still tasted the exhaust. Bland and burning. It tasted like rejection.
I threw back by head and poured what was remaining in the can down my throat, crushing it in the process. I stumbled a step back and threw it at the wall. A cacophony of clatter about as abrasive as a couple of dice rolling across a table. Great fucking effect.
I stopped myself, anger abating, when I realized just how ridiculous that looked; like a horrible B actor trying his best for the Oscar. I hope to God no one’s looking in the windows.
Heavy scented air filled the bar. I see her enter; thigh high dress with jeans on underneath. Why the hell do I find that sexy? There was a cool breeze blowing behind her, gently tossing her hair about her head. She was wearing a unbuttoned blue petticoat and there’s a streetlight shining behind her, haloing her head in soft warm light.
“Goddamn.” The guy next to me whipped his head around, drunken eyes wavering in their sockets, I wasn’t sure if he was looking at me or the bartender.
“Thas right goddamn it!” He spit as much as he slurred. “Whas it take to fucking drink ‘round here?”
He put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture of friendship, of companionable fortitude in the face of a packed bar. I smiled gently and pushed it off, nodding and looking back for the bartender intently. She had sidled up beside me at the bar and I didn’t even notice.
Looking back I realize there was only one possible entrance for her. The bar was busy and the person that was sitting on the stool next to me had gotten up to take a leak and when she sat down I could feel her there; as if she were giving off radiation.
My mouth was suddenly dry, her auburn hair ruffled from the wind and her cheeks rosy, not from makeup, but from the cold night air. Her lips were full and red, not overtly, but with a slight sheen that enabled the light to reflect and show their full plumpness.
I took a deep drink of whatever I was drinking, hoping the quaff would alleviate my inhibitions. Liquid courage. I tried to lean my body ever so slightly so as to turn more towards her, get her attention. Only I made a slight miscalculation, the stool I was on was precariously balancing on the edge of a step and by moving so briskly I managed to plunge the stool off the edge, in turn plummeting myself off the stool and onto the hardwood floor of the bar. Excellent first move.
“Shit!” The parameters of intelligence only encompass times of mental inaction. It’s very hard to say anything intelligent when you’re drunk and falling off a stool in front of someone who takes your breath away.
She was on me before I knew I hit the ground. I felt her soft hand press up against my cheek, a gesture of concern. I opened my eyes into clear deep pools. Hazel with a tint of the sky swirled in. Kind eyes, with only a hint of smile around the edges. She knew I was embarrassed, but she didn’t take advantage.
“Are you ok?” Breathy diction with smooth intonation. Sexy.
“Umm…” Fear and anger work the same way. In the throws of either only one syllable will emerge.
“Is that a yes?” Her smile revealed itself and her hand moved from my cheek around the back of my head. I felt her finger nails sweetly scratch through my hair. I used all my nerve not to reach up and hold her against me, to feel her heart beating close to mine, to smell her lavender scented hair and strawberry breath. To keep that comfort completely encompassed in that embrace, that memory. Instead I slowly stood up.
“Wow, that wasn’t embarrassing or anything.” I could feel my ears burning, I envisioned my cheeks turning scarlet, especially where the memory of her hand still lingered.
The whiskey bottle is half gone and there are four empty beer cans lying in front of me. I didn’t spend the time to right them when they fell over. They all seemed to fall over. It doesn’t matter which way I put them on the table. Defective all of them. Why the fuck cant I get anything to stay upright? Do I have to slam a fucking pole through them and pound it into the table? And, yes, by the way I realize how ridiculous this sounds; being angry at the fucking beer cans, but where else should my anger lead me? I don’t want to think about her. I don’t want to think about her betrayal.
I long for solace so I look to a giant painting of an old ship I have on the wall. It was something my grandmother gave me, and with it came an insatiable wanderlust. I remember a deep longing to be on that ship as a child, to ride along with the sailors and pirates. Never to be held down in one place, never having to worry about paying bills. Just you, a couple of other stall-worthy men and the open sea. Nothing to fear but death. I feel peace when I look at this painting; there are worlds outside of my own. Outside of this beautiful-tortuous relationship, a place where I can be at peace.
I’m pulled back from my wonderment by the sound of a can falling over.
“Fucking Bitch!” I’m not sure if I’m talking about her or the can. Hell, at this point I don’t think it matters. She’s ruined my life and I’m in hell. Not only did she cuckold me, but she left of her own will! I didn’t even boot her out the door!
I reach into the cabinet and grab the shotgun, lay it against the couch and head back to the fridge for another beer. Funny they call it a barnburner. I would like that, yes. Burn down that fucking barn.
She held my hand the entire night. The warm compress of her palm against mine, with only slight dampness of impending sweat. I felt comfortable, conjoined, as if I were stronger with her attached to me, even if we were only connected through our hands.
I saw nervousness in her feet first. On the drive back to her house I could see them jittering, as if moving to a silent beat. The talk was light and pointless, about the movie we just saw. Never-ending story. We were both ignoring the fact that she balled her eyes out when the horse was dragged into the swamp. I could see the embarrassment in her eyes, deep and ingrained.
She had a purple coat on that night, matching the sunset. I’d look at her image framed by the orange-purple light and she was perfect. Her cheeks were slightly rosy, reminiscent of the first time we met, and her eyes were soft from the tears that watered them earlier. She had wiped away her makeup during the movie with my handkerchief and it gave her an ethereal glow; a natural soft face with all the colors of the sunset giving a dramatic backdrop. She smiled when I looked at her. Coy and shy all at the same time. I intimate she thought it was because I was attempting to ascertain her forlorn demeanor. In actuality, it was because in that exact moment, with the dying sun lighting her up, putting fire in her hair, emphasizing the tenderness in her gaze; the color of her jacket framing her petite body against the fading of the light, she looked like an angel. Her hand was the only thing to give me illusion of reality. That warm damp compress and the more intently I stared at her, the tighter the grip became.
I felt a surge of energy float up from my hand, through my arm and into my heart, following the blood stream; flowing through my vesicles. It was as if she was giving me an infectious disease. I could feel it surge through my body, a levity, a lightheadedness, a surge of joy; my heart entered my throat and made my tongue stick into place. The only words I could manage to convey my feelings came at her doorstep when I dropped her off.
I looked at the barn behind her house. I smiled at her.
My mouth hung open for a moment after I spoke the words, as if I were going to say more, but when nothing came I smiled again.
She, however, didn’t answer, just jumped at me and hugged me with fierceness; like she was trying to squeeze me in half, destroy my body and hold onto my soul. My heart leaped again and she felt it, the loud thump against her breast caused an echoing rhythm in her…and she hugged tighter.
She moved her head from my neck; I could hear and feel her intake of breath. I looked into her eyes and watched as she bit her lower lip, eager, eyes provoking.
I lost reason. I lost lucidity. I lost hope. Her lips touched mine and I forgot how to live my life alone.
I gazed down into the barrel of the shotgun. She had a cute little name for him. A pet name. She called him the Italian Stallion. Too fucking cute for words. He wasn’t even Italian.
Two thirds of the bottle was gone and two more beers. I had a vague recollection of what the problem was, but at that point I pretty much only felt anger.
“Sherb fook, haarry prick.”
Flailing blindly around the room, the only thing keeping me alive is the fact that I didn’t load the shotgun, though I’m not entirely sure if I could load it at this level of drunkenness.
I know at some point I tried to fire it. I think I blacked out. I think I’m pissed. I think I need to burn her barn. That beloved fucking barn where all her indiscretions took place. That fucking barn, where she made a cuckold of me. That fucking barn was where all the damage came from. Fuck the barn.
I had planned a barnburner tonight, but now that phrase took on a whole new meaning for me. Fuck her, and fuck that barn.
The shotgun dropped from my hand with a perfunctory thud, and I made my way to my garage and grabbed my spare tank of gas, that just so happened to be resting snuggly against the back hatch of my Jeep. Fucking divine providence.
I was watching football at the time it happened. Ignorant to the indiscretion, the blind cheating that was about to be unloaded on me.
“Baby, I need to talk to you.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder, warm and soothing. A surge of warmth flew through me, straight to my heart, brightening my disposition. I turned and looked into her azure-hazel eyes, tendrils of color weaving into one another giving them a slight marble touch. There was consternation in her expression; her mouth turned down into a purse. My thoughts turned black with the quintessential quote: “Uh, oh!”
“What’s wrong baby?” I reached behind me with my right arm and caressed her forearm, hoping to coax fortuitousness. “Come over and sit down.”
“No, I’d rather stand.” It was a quick answer; I knew I was in trouble.
She didn’t answer at first; she just sighed and walked around in front of me, in front of the TV. She was indicating I was to give her my full attention.
“I don’t know…”
I grew impatient with her game. “Babe, I know you like to be coy, but just say what’s on your mind. We’ll get through whatever.”
“No I don’t think so.”
My heart dropped and skipped a beat. Not this talk, not with her. Please God not with her.
“I’m leaving.” She stopped as if I would say something in response; as if I could respond. “I’ve…found something, someone.” She was quick to correct herself.
I think I tried to speak. I tried to come up with something intelligent to say. I wanted to be Humphrey Bogart, instead I said:
“It’s been in the barn, only a few times, but I can’t go ba…I mean it’s unlike anything…”
I stayed silent a second time, Then the nausea hit and I ran for the toilet. I retched three times. It was a horrible feeling, there was nothing in my stomach, but it was clenching like vice grip. I heard her in the hall behind me.
“I know its coming as a surprise. It was for me too, but it’s just so damn good.”
I retched harder. I could feel my intestines moving upward.
“What’s his name?” I managed between retches. I reached up to the toilet tank cover trying to raise myself, the horrible clenching of my stomach slowly subsiding.
“Paulo. He’s beautiful and exotic. He’s fromAndalusia. He’s just so…I mean we have this connectedness…I just cant go back. He’s just such a beautiful man.”
My stomach retched, but I didn’t throw up. I shat myself and I screamed more than I thought possible. She left in a hurry. I thought of the drink in the kitchen. I had to plan a barnburner; as much as I could drink. I would have to stay up all night. I had a barn to burn, and with any luck it would be occupied.
The sixth story from Sean McBride’s published short story collection, A View of the Edge of the World, is long enough that it has been split into two twenty-five minute episodes. This week we bring you Part 2, produced by Ed Robinson and read by James Paul Xavier.
I’m going to give you another of the Bowling Alley poems, since you have another week of Another Ace in the Hole coming in Podcast. This one has gone through many lives and currently lives under the name of “Trailer Park Lullaby”, but I think that might be a little pejorative, a little more than I mean to at least. It was once (and maybe when it was at it’s best) “Sullen, but not quite repentant” and the reason that I brought it back here was because It’s my battle cry. This poem is for the dreamers and the hopeful who see no hope; to the romantic and faithful, who are without love.
Sullen, but not quite repentant
What men do for promise of Home?
The dogs of factories,
The slaves and drones
That live their lives in bars
Taking hoppy medicine
That drowns reality
Where believing in yourself is a Dream.
Where reality is a
Sore that wont heal.
Where substance takes precedence
and Joy is the difference
between the insane and the abstract
Words like Queer, Kike, and Nigger
That world deranged into
Black and white.
Intelligence means you know pop culture
You win at Trivial Pursuit .
Where life is derision,
What is solace? A woman’s touch?
Pedantic fantasies of love and submission?
Where priests are pederasts
and Presidents are puppets.
Where Solace lives in a
Bottle, or a
Pipe, or a
Line on a mirror, or a
What is life
But a series of mistakes?
Leading to an ultimate
Derangement of consistency.
To be laid in a hole, to feel Peace?
The power of the brain is punultimate
only to the passion of the Heart.
To live, to dream, to die,
The arrows of fortune
Are diligently avoided
And Powerfully Presuaded to
Destroy the weak;
The Deranged powerful
For the truth lay
in the heart and mind.
The power conjoined,
The passion omnipotent,
The opposition like
A lone bowling pin awaiting
Money is money and power is power,
but Hubris is the contagion
that destroys worlds.
Never mind the fragility of personality.
Avarice controls the world and
Destroys passion of the artistic mind
The Glory of civility is a myth.
These are peons who cautiously protect
the King and Queen.
In a cosmic chess game of
Power and verisimilitude.
Life is the game of chance
Will you land on the right square?
Take the right career?
or will there be degredation and repression
in the mines for decimation of the soul?
Words only the fundamentalists
Hols as Gospel.
But precisely what is needed for Life?
Belief in the intrinsic merit of Desire?
And the everlasting hope of Humanity.
The desire to live your dream.
The frenetic evaluation of the soul.
The life of ones own dream.
Belief and faith in the dream.
Happiness is for fanatics
Like Whitman and Thoreau.
Contentedness is for
Realists and dreamers
Who understand that success,
Comes not from a bottle
Not from a mine or factory,
But from the heart,
Faith and belief in your heart.
The sixth story from Sean McBride’s published short story collection, A View of the Edge of the World, is long enough that it has been split into two twenty-five minute episodes. This next two week’s episodes are produced by Ed Robinson and read by James Paul Xavier.
This story has been through so many drafts I can barely remember which one I kept, however the basis of the story and the themes are still there and prevalent. I initially sat down to write a coming of age story a la “Stand by Me” and there were so many things that I wanted to put into it. I wanted bullying to be central, as well as overcoming obstacles and puberty. I asked myself, how do people deal with difficult situations? How does a little fat boy deal with having no father and an overbearing and protective mother? Then there’s the card. Ultimately the card itself is a means to an end, but you can read the story in whatever way you want. Is the card supernatural? Is it all part of his imagination? Is it his subconscious mind trying to show him the way into manhood, to get beyond his childish fears and stand tall and proud? In the end what does it really mean to be grown-up? I invite you to think about these things in yourself as you read about poor little Tanner Miller who is struggling to break out of his shell and find happiness and meaning through the harshness of reality.
Another Ace in the Hole
Tank walked down the street ignoring the laughter of the other children endeavoring to eliminate the hurt of their cruel remarks, when he happened upon a card laying in the gutter of the street. It looked old and its edges were tattered, the face dark from dirt caked into the card’s wax surface. It was an ace of spades, which made Tank feel particularly vindicated and excited. It was the death card, a card that bled power. He ran his hand over the undulated wax and took a deep breath relishing the thought of warm energy running up his arm from the card.
He was shocked out of his reverie by a rock glancing off the top of his head; laughter reverberating through the air, muffled Tank’s cry. It was nothing new to him, these random act of violence, so he ran forward ignoring the pain shooting down his back making an effort to ignore the jeering of the children behind him all the while wiping tears from his face. Running was never Tank’s forte however because of times like these he did it often. The sight of Tank running was always a surprise because it seemed a boy that big just shouldn’t move that fast.
Despite his quickness Tank was still shocked to escape. In his estimation children were cruel as a matter of nature, but the only one that resulted to extreme violence like throwing rocks was “Ace” the local bully. Tank hated Ace and his cronies; the only thing they seemed capable of creating was misery and once they started in on you they usually didn’t let you go, but maybe the card was good luck. Usually they meant business if they went as far as to throw rocks.
Tank ran all the way home, clutching the card in his chubby little fingers, praying for deliverance between gasping breaths. Once he was home he didn’t stop to pay respects to his mother in the kitchen or plop down in front of the television as he was prone to do; instead he ran straight for his room barreling his way up the stairs.
Once in his safe haven he collapsed to the ground gasping for breath, trying to cover his rosy wet face. He laid there for an hour feeling his head for blood and crying to himself about his weight problem. He hated being fat more than he hated the bullies who tortured him. He looked in mirrors and grimaced, knowing the only way to lose weight would be to go on a diet and eat only good foods. Hell, he might even have to exercise! The thought made him want to vomit.
After his hour of sulking he remembered the card, which he had crushed in his fat little hand. He let out a small squeak, thinking he had ruined any magic in the card by crushing it so he bent over it and pressed it on the carpet of his room, hoping and praying the card wasn’t ruined, that the crinkles would come out and it would still work.
He was distracted by his mother calling him down to dinner, any worries about the card or the day’s transgressions left him and he sprinted for the door whipping it open and bulleting down the stairs. Dinner time was, after all, his favorite time of the day.
Tank’s real name was Tanner Miller. The nickname came not just because of the resemblance to his real name and his size, but because he had a tendency to run over things without noticing them. Tank’s mother taken any fragile knickknack about the house because of his clumsiness. This was where the nick name originated, from his penchant for destruction, but it wasn’t that Tank was clumsy, though he was; it was that he never quite realized how big he actually was. He would walk by something thinking he had enough clearance and run right into it.
Tank was an only child in the Miller household, thus was spoiled all his life; given portions of two instead of one. This could account for his abnormal largeness, but it wouldn’t entirely be true. Tank had a genetics problem; he was born with a damaged thyroid throwing off his metabolism. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew this and accepted it, it was partly the reason he never fought back against bullies at school; because he knew there was nothing he could do to change it. When his father was still alive, he said acceptance of his obesity was the only true way to happiness. Tank fully believed him, because his father was overweight too. His father, Albert Ronald Jackson Miller or just AJ for short, died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-five. Tank’s mother grieved briefly then turned her attention to Tank as AJ’s surrogate.
Tank’s mother was eternally loving and always told Tank he looked great, that he was a handsome little man. What Tank didn’t realize was that Province Miller wasn’t saying this out of a mother’s love; she just liked larger men. Not that she was attracted to her son, she just felt big men were much more attractive.
Province was the one person Tank always felt comfortable around; when he was home she would smother him in care making him feel truly loved, enabling him to ignore his obesity. She made him feel human, something Tank wasn’t used to feeling.
When he went to school he felt like an alien. He knew other people were staring at him. He knew they laughed at him behind his back, sometimes getting bold and yelling out such childhood pearls as, “Look out, here comes fat ass!” and “Since when did they allow elephants in school?” Tank took much of this in stride and used his imagination to imagine their colorful insults. He would imagine he was an elephant, walking around in the barren wastelands of the Serengeti, towering above all the small gazelle and prairie dogs whom had his classmate’s faces. He dreamed one of them might look up at him and realize they were just two creatures running alone in the desert and ask for friendship. It never happened. Tank never had any friends and he always ran home after school.
The next day Tank was getting ready for school and he happened to notice the card sitting on the ground; a lonely ace sitting on the barren carpet. He reached down and picked it up, rubbing it against his pant leg to straighten it.
He turned and placed it on his dresser as he pulled on his shirt. Once on, he put the card in the front pocket facing in holding the face of the card to his heart then waddled down his staircase for breakfast.
When Tank got to school it was the same routine; people jeering and yelling obscenities at him. He went from class to class ignoring his peers, trying to find his happy place where their tormenting yells could be ignored. His imagination was vast and it took him to many places, but perhaps his favorite was an amusement park where he could go on all rides and people would hang out and play with him. Girls would bat their eyes at him.
He had been infatuated with amusement parks since he was ten years old. He and his mother went for his birthday; his mother thinking it might be good for him to get out and get some fresh air, get on some rides and forget about his weight problem.
Tank protested the entire way, so much so that his mother almost turned the car around to take him home, scolding him for his laziness. She didn’t though unfortunately for Tank.
When they entered Tank thought it was the greatest place on earth. He loved the loud noises, the conglomeration of people and the large rides that seemed to fly, but it was the smells and the food were the best part. He couldn’t think of a better way to spend his birthday and he thanked his mother excessively.
They were at the park for an hour, his mother begging him to go on a ride when they finally got in line. It all seemed to be in jest, his mother acting like a child pulling on his sleeve and stamping her feet. Tanner enjoyed the attention, though he did his best to play it off wanting to give his mother a bear hug to show her his love, unable to express it in words.
The coaster was his mother’s choice, a big twisting thing she was sure he would love and after waiting two hours they got to the front of the line and were getting ready to board. Tanner got in first and crushed himself in the corner of the car giving his mother room to get in. He wanted her to enjoy herself as he had, he never wanted the smile on her face to wane; conversely he wanted to feel free like a bird with wind whipping around him. His mother got on next to him and gave him a big smile coercing one out of him. It was biggest smile he ever gave, so big it split his lips. Then the attendant came by and tried to close the bar over them, only it wouldn’t close, Tanner was just too big.
Province threw a fit. Yelling at the attendant, saying he wasn’t doing his job and that the manager should come out and they would have words. The attendant apologized, motioned to the safety regulations posted on the wall and Province grabbed Tank’s hand and stormed to the next ride…with the same result.
With each subsequent rejection Province’s face got more and more red, her fists balled so tightly they became white; Tank tried to meekly suggest they should just enjoy the park and forget about the rides, but when she finally started to cry she turned to him and said, “no one can tell you, you can’t do something. They’re all being mean. You have to stand up for yourself.”
The memory of the smells and campy atmosphere are what stayed with Tank, not the embarrassment and he used it as his primary escape. His happy place. Somewhere people couldn’t hurt him, no matter what they said or did. It was the memory of the place he had been happiest and was too strong for others to penetrate.
So when he got to school that day in his head he went to the park, this time imagining being on one of the rides, flying through the air with wind blowing through his hair, and all the cares far behind him on the ground, when he was brought out by one of his teachers.
His imagination was so strong he didn’t notice Mr. Robertson had been talking to him for a few moments before he recognized Tank wasn’t paying attention. Mr. Robertson got to a knee in front of him and shook his shoulders, knocking him out of his trance.
“Tanner. Tanner? Are you okay son?”
“Ye…Yes Sir,” His hand jumped to his chest pocket to hide the card.
“You were pretty spaced out there for a minute. I was just giving you kudos for your name plate.”
“Thank you mister Robertson.” At first Tank didn’t know what he was talking about, until he remembered they made nameplates the week before. Tank had been at the amusement park in his head then as well; he barely remembered making it.
“Don’t listen to these kids around here. One day you’ll grow up and be their boss.” Tank looked into Mr. Robertson’s face and gave his best embarrassed/thank you smile.
It wasn’t until after Mr. Robertson walked away that Tank noticed the pocket holding the card was hot. He snapped his hand away as if it were on fire and bent over pulling his shirt fall away from his skin, all the time ignoring the “wide load” jokes coming from behind him.
Tank didn’t bother finishing the rest of the day and ran home as fast as his feet would carry him. When he got home he didn’t bother finding out if his mother were there, he went straight for the staircase and ran up the stairs to his room slamming the door behind him and dropping the card to the ground.
In his room he hovered over the card and studied it, trying to find differences between normal Bicycle cards. There was nothing out of the ordinary. It had the same design as the other cards, it had the same consistency and the correct weight. Just a small playing card lying on the ground.
He got down on all fours and stared at the card. Had it all been in his imagination? Had he needed escape from school so badly he made himself think the card had actually heated up?
“Honey? Tanner baby? Didn’t you hear me?”
Tank squealed and turned into his mother’s perturbed face, wondering how she got there and why she looked so scared.
“I thought something was wrong! I was about to call the hospital! Are you okay baby?” Terror faded from her face, but was still present, like a ghost streak left on a pane of glass by a greasy finger.
Tank stared at his mother. The hospital? Why would she need to call the hospital? He was fine; he just got a scare from the card and was winding down from school. Was she angry with him because he ditched school early?
“Baby, speak to me. Are you okay?” His mother’s voice was frantic and when he looked out the window, he saw why. Had he fallen asleep? How could it be dark outside?
He looked into his mother’s eyes and gave her his best smile. He spent long hours in front of his mirror perfecting that look. That, “everything is fine” look.
“Sorry mom, I didn’t mean to scare you. I guess I just fell asleep. I was really tired and I found this card outside, I guess I lost track of time.” It was the worst excuse he could possibly think up, trite, pathetic and typical backtracking of a teenager in trouble, but his mother bought it all the same.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Tank could see relief appear on his mother’s face and hear it in her voice. He had successfully wiped the greasy smear away.
“Yeah, I think I’m just gonna go to sleep. I think that’s all I need right now.” Tank morphed his expression from happy reassuring smile to tired and worn. Once again his mother bought it.
“Okay baby, but let me know if there’s anything I can get you. Just yell down, I’ll be listening.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead.
“Thanks ma.” He said hugging her.
They both got up and His mother tucked him into bed. He gave her another big smile as she kissed him on the cheek and he watched as she exited the room. She deliberately left the door slightly cracked before leaving, making sure to give him an “I love you.”
Once she was gone Tank sat up in bed and eyed the card on the ground. He gave a little huff of confusion and laid back down quickly falling asleep.
That was the first dinner Tank ever missed.
He woke the next morning and left for school after he had a hearty breakfast. His mother woke early expecting him to make up for lost time so she cooked him a feast. He ate ravenously, acting like he hadn’t eaten for days and Province felt relieved when he ate. How could he remain her sweet little fubsy if he didn’t eat?
On his way to school Tank felt the front pocket of his baggy shirt for the card he safely tucked there that morning. He wasn’t entirely sure why he brought it along, especially since it made him leave school early the day before.
He enjoyed the feeling of the card, though, sitting down low in his pocket. It was like a secret no one else knew about, not even his mother. What kind of powers could the card have? And where did it come from? He thought the power it surged would only improve his ability to go to his happy place and escape reality, ensuring his ability to ignore the real world and all its cruelties. It might even give him the power to make himself skinny and make girls interested in him. Most of all, he thought, it may give him the power to stand up to bullies. To stand up to Ace.
Tank’s day at school was moderately long and very boring. When he got to class he immersed himself in work, forgetting he had the card after about twenty minutes of arithmetic. The hours zipped by, but that all changed when school let out for the day.
He left through the gym door on the side of the school, the way he usually did, and made his way home, but he only made it half way when the card began to radiate heat again. He was scared at first, remembering how the card had burned his chest the day before, but his curiosity was too strong.
He reached in his pocket and whipped the card out. He expected to see it glowing a shade of orange, bright with fire, but it just looked like a playing card. There was warmth coursing into his fingers and Tank could only wonder how did the card heat? What kind of magic did it contain? He turned it over thinking maybe the back had some clue to the mystery.
The back was a dream, white flames leaping, inextricably there despite the afternoon glare. He dropped to his knees slammed the card down to the sidewalk in an effort to put out the flames, and then inspected his hands to asses how bad the burn was. Nothing.
He was so taken with the strangeness of the situation he barely noticed when a rock skidded off the ground just beyond him. He began to turn to see where it came from, but before he could he heard a chorus of titters; “Look at the fat ass!” and “Don’t get to close! He might eat you!”
Tank felt his anger rising, alongside the dread of human interaction he always carried in his heart. Behind him was Carlos Williams, Ben Massey and John “Ace” Wild. Anger fled from Tank the moment he saw them, replaced by intense fear. When these guys decided to bully someone they didn’t quit.
Tank picked up his card, his secret power and tried to run, but his legs had turned to jelly and they tripped over themselves flopping him to the ground. He grabbed the card and thrust it in his shirt pocket trying to ignore the warm waves emanating from it, trying to hide his fear of the three bullies.
“What’s that you got there fat boy?” Carlos squealed kicking dust and small stones into Tank’s face.
Tank immediately pressed his hand to the card to protect it, then scolded himself promptly afterward, knowing that if they didn’t know about the card before, they did now. So he pulled his hand back as nonchalantly as he could and put it into the pocket of his slacks.
“Carlos asked you a question Pillsbury, I expect you to answer.” Ace said.
“It…It’s nothing.” Tank whimpered. He tried to ignore the pain burning into his chest and swore he was going to catch fire. Thoughts of his happy place skittered vaguely around the corners of his mind, but pain focused his mind in reality.
“It’s something. Otherwise you’d take your hand out your pocket,” Ace said “I want you to give it before Ben here can count to five, or you’re gonna be in a world of pain.”
Tank closed his eyes at the onslaught of tears as the gravity of the situation hit him; he had to stop them or they’d steal his card; steal the source of all that pain and joy. So he opened his eyes and sneered at Ace. It didn’t work.
“Fuck him up.”
Carlos kicked him in his ribs, the impact rolling him a few feet away. The boys readied themselves while giving him a chance to stand up and get his bearings while the burning card pinnacled in intensity against his chest which made him notice something that he never had before.
He was taller than they were.
The three bullies walked toward him, their hands balled in fists and Tank forgot about the incessant burning. Instead he felt an immense anger well up inside him. He balled his hands into fists mimicking them.
When Ace was in range he swung at him with all the strength he had directly into Ace’s stomach, doubling him over, but before Tank could manage anything else Ben and Carlos descended, showering his head and shoulders with fists.
When Ace got up, he forgot about the card Tank had been hiding and laid into Tank’s ribs with kicks and punches. It surprised Ace that Tank would punch back and it incensed him more; he wanted to make sure Tank didn’t do it again, so he beat him as hard as he could. He beat him until his hands were bloody; he beat him till Tank went limp. Ace was used to feeling bigger than others; it made him feel like a man.
The last thing that ran through Tank’s head was he had protected his Ace. He had won.
Tank woke in the hospital terrified. He was lost, with no idea where he was. The room around him was white and Spartan, without any familiar surroundings. He felt for the card, but only found a thin piece of fabric he knew to be a hospital gown. He looked down at his chest and his head whirled, the room spinning and vomit threatening the back of his throat. He screamed for his mother before he realized what he was doing, but instead of his mother coming it was an unfamiliar nurse.
“What’s wrong honey?” The nurse cooed at him.
“Where am I? What happened?” Countless questions converged in his head clouding evaporating his articulation.
“You’re in the hospital. You got beat up pretty good; I’m surprised you’re awake now. The doctors didn’t think you’d be up for hours.” The nurse reached out and stroked Tank’s hair.
“Huh?” Pain flooded every joint in his body. He felt each individual cut in his face and ribs; every move made each bruise feel like a fist burrowing deep in his muscles.
“You’ve been unconscious for two days now honey. It’s good to see you awake.” She got up and walked over to a table and picked up a small paper cup.
“Two days?” There was no way could be out for two days! It had to be a joke; it must’ve only been a couple of hours. They hadn’t beaten him that badly…had they?
“Two days for sure, honey. Your mother was worried sick. She came in and cried for hours, said she was going to sue the pants off whoever did this to you. Said she wanted to see them in the Chair. She went a little crazy.” The nurse put the cup in Tank’s hands. “Why don’t you take these now? I’m sure you’re in pain, these’ll lessen it, make you sleep some.” She wiped the hair out of Tanks face and smiled. “Now you get some rest. I’m gonna call your mother and we’ll git her over here as soon as we can.” Then she left the room.
Tank lay there, head spinning and closed his eyes to try and remember exactly what happened, but all he could picture was the card. It preoccupied his mind so completely that it was everything outside of the pain. The nurse said his mother was coming; there was nothing to worry about there. Where was the card?
– – – – – – – – –
The death card flared in his mind, it was bright white lending the only light with a backdrop of pure black. Tank felt warm, his gaze transfixed on the card, warmth emanating from it filling him with pleasure that he had never known making his loins hum below his large stomach. Tank looked down to see what was happening, why the warmth felt so amazing, but his gut wasn’t there anymore, his stomach had shrunk down to a good level, a respectable level, and he could see straight down to his toes. But what was even more astonishing and frightening was down with all the tingling warmth his penis stood fully erect.
Tank looked at the card in the inky blackness and saw the glowing shift its focus and shine brightly down upon his groin. The light came off in waves and as time progressed the waves got brighter and came to him faster. Tank was frightened and tried to turn away, but the sensation the light was bringing was too overpowering, it held him where he lay, making his legs shake and his chest heave.
Tank’s back arched, thrusting his groin into the pulsing light, forgetting his fear and losing himself in the sensation of the card’s light beating down upon him. Pressure was building up inside of him and he blindly grasped for anything to hold onto while his hips shook. The light pulsated faster and faster, changing color from white to pink to bright red waves of light.
Tanks strength failed and he fell back to the bed spent and sticky, feeling empty and relaxed. Then he started to cry feeling suddenly guilty, guilty at the act, guilty that it felt good, guilty he was alone. Something happened that didn’t seem quite right. He felt tears running down his face as he looked back at the card. It was still glowing, but the light switched back to soft phosphorescence as it floated before him. He contemplated the feeling it gave, the feeling of empowerment when Ace and the others attacked him the other day and the sexual comfort it brought him now. He reached for the card and held it against his chest, next to his heart.
The card hummed against his chest, soothing him with its reassuring warmth. He tried to focus on it to relieve the guilt and renew the euphoria, but darkness crept in on him and he slept.
Tank was released the next day. No one spoke of his first wet dream, not to explain what it was, nor to berate nor console him. To the people in the hospital the wet dream was a normal pubescent function, but to Tank it meant something different altogether. It meant a connection with the card a link between fantasy and reality. He knew there something was different about that particular, peculiar card. He thought, maybe, it was made specifically for him, as if it were his own personal savior. Something to give him power and make him a man.
When Tank got home, he took immediately to bed, wanting a repeat of the wet dream…however none came.
He spent a week at home after he left the hospital, most of it in his room either sleeping or trying to understand the card. He hardly ate that week telling his mom his stomach hurt. He would feign vomiting whenever his mother put food in front of him. In truth, he just wasn’t hungry. It felt like his stomach shrank, he would drink a glass of water and feel full. It was working too, he lost twenty pounds since he entered the hospital and never felt better, in fact when he vocalized he wasn’t hungry he actually wasn’t hungry. The only time he hunger struck him now was when his mother made him eat, restarting his metabolism and the only reason he did that was because his mother looked haggard. He could tell worry was eating away at her and he knew the only way to ease her consternation was to eat.
He was complacent in these trivialities however, because there was something about the card he had to figure out. The card had levity to it, like a mist that passed through him like an ethereal goddess. Every wave that passed through felt like ecstasy, more powerful than the caress of a woman’s touch. It gave him strength, courage and discipline. It gave him hope.
The night before he headed back to school Tank had another dream of the card. He had been home for a week and a half and Province forgot all about taking legal action against whomever attacked Tank; her fear for his health was just too great.
He lost thirty pounds and had become merely chubby in his convalescence. Province, eaten with fear, could only wonder at the cruelties children. He was once big; so big that people generally didn’t bother him, but what would happen when he went to school skinny?
Tank however, had other more important things on his mind. In his youth he had yet to find the fairer sex attractive and the wet dream didn’t even really make sense to him; he didn’t understand what had happened or what it meant and it confused him. However when it happened again he couldn’t have been happier…
Roberta Simmonds. He wasn’t sure if that was her name or not; he had never spoken to her, had never even spent more than a couple of moments looking at her, but here she was in all her teenage beauty. He stared at her mosquito bite breasts and her slightly distended stomach. She stood with a coquettish demeanor, a tinge of smile at the right corner of her mouth, her eyes burning hungrily at his malnourished form; her auburn/blonde blowing slightly a ubiquitous wind. His eyes trailed down her curves until they reached tender soft peach fuzz, slowly growing thicker the lower he looked. It was uncharted territory; he felt no arousal as he drank her in, just curiosity. That is, of course, until the card came into view.
Roberta’s smirk grew larger and her eyes betrayed her force of desire, a soft white light glowing around her teenage body. Tank felt unsure of himself, unsure of what was expected of him. His stomach dropped and he felt nauseous, his head swimming.
Her smirk disappeared, replaced by a look of hunger. She no longer looked fourteen, now her body looked older, middle aged, at least middle aged to a thirteen year old boy. He took a small step back, feeling sweat break out on his forehead along with the emergence of menace into the atmosphere.
It began in his shirt pocket again, intense and localized. Unknowingly his right hand reached up to his pocket and clutched the card. His breath quickened as she approached him. She reached out with her right hand and caressed his ear, while the other hand wrapped around his waist.
He didn’t know what to do, what was expected, so he did the only thing that came naturally to him; he took the card out of his pocket, cognizant of his tumescence, and placed it in the center of her chest. Her eyes rolled back and her mouth dropped into an O, while he pressed his chest against hers, embracing the heat and channeling his heartbeat to match hers. Tanner felt loss of control in his throat, muttering “ga…ga…ga…ga” in contiguous rhythm, while pressure built.
He didn’t see what happened to her, how she reacted when the cancerous expulsion happened, because he sat bolt upright in bed, holding the card tight in his right hand, encircled around his penis. He felt dampness spread across the blanket and immediately knew it had happened again.
The shame was somewhat lessened this second time however, as if he had expelled his guilt with the ejaculate. He felt relieved and smiled as he looked around his small bedroom. Today was his first day of school and he would see Roberta Simmonds, maybe catch a hint of her coy smile. Maybe he would kiss her. Maybe he would ask her to go steady.
Tanner rose from bed and ran across the hallway to the shower, smelling the wonderful fragrance of a full breakfast his mother prepared. The empowerment at the end of the dream didn’t fade as he washed the semen from his body; it only grew as he donned his previously baggy clothes, which now billowed around him.
He was in such elation that he hadn’t noticed when he slipped the card into the back pocket of his pants. His Ace. His wild card.
He went downstairs, smiling wider than his mother had ever seen. He didn’t notice her reaction at the time, mostly from his levity, but Province seemed to relax when she saw him and for the first time since his stay at the hospital, she smiled.
Tanner almost finished his breakfast that morning; he honestly tried, but his stomach had shrunk so much and the breakfast was just too large. He noted his mother’s expression, one of fear and tribulation, smiled meekly and kissed her on the cheek. He wanted to tell her that he loved her and was sorry to cause her any strife, but he only turned and headed for the door.
Outside the air was cold and he felt goose-bumps popup all over his body. Since he lost the weight his clothes merely caught the wind instead of deterring it and as a result he shivered his entire way to school; by the time he arrived he felt brittle.
Tanner notated the blank stares of the other students. He knew he looked entirely different, but by most accounts the students didn’t seem to notice him at all, let alone his absence from school.
His will dropped and though he had finally thought of himself as Tanner; the effulgent Tanner, the one who lost all the weight, but the apathetic demeanor in his peers destroyed this image, subverting his self image to Tank the Nobody; Tank the fat ass.
He felt joy leak from him, like steam rising from his head, replaced by a much more cold and forlorn feeling. Did it even matter if he was here? Would he be missed from school? Should he just go?
The front door looked more like an entrance to a prison, than a high school; where the teachers didn’t care and the students cared less. No, he’d only be missed if these people needed a punching bag.
He walked over to the curb and sat down feeling tears well in his eyes. He would suppress it until he knew he was alone of course, but the feeling was there non-the-less. However when his butt hit the curb he felt warmth. It surprised him and he jumped up swatting at his pants as if he sat on a fire, but when he stood the warmth faded. Then he remembered…the card.
Elation returned as he shoved his hand into his pocket. His strength returned and he felt courage pushing out his depression. Who cares, he thought, they don’t mean anything to me either.
He walked through the front doors with gumption and stormed directly to his first class.
That was the first day Tanner felt he learned anything in class. He felt confidence and it made him see things in a new light. When he looked at the other students, the looks he initially took for disgust, were actually obtuseness; they merely didn’t recognize him.
Later, when they realized who he was they congratulated him in his appearance. His classmates compliments amazed Tanner, but what actually got to him was a select few weren’t just being polite. They seemed to really mean it.
He walked with gait in his step, like he was a lord walking among his subjects and it lasted all day, until it was time to come home. Tanner decided to walk right out the front doors rather than sliding out the side door. That was his only mistake.
“Hey fat fuck, where you goin’?”
Tanner recognized the voice; it was the same voice that played over and over in his mind. Ace. He grabbed the card squeezing it in his hand and feeling its warmth.
Tanner tensed and stopped walking. He felt pressure build between his shoulder blades and his stomach clenched; even curled his toes to give extra traction. He never tested how fast he was after he lost the weight and fancied himself much faster, but this was not the venue with which he wanted to be tested.
“You gonna talk to me or are you just gonna stand there, fatty?”
Fire burned in Tanner’s palm. He felt it running up his arm and propelling its way down his back, streaming heat through his capillaries. He turned three shades of red and his face wrinkled, eyes crunched like a baby throwing a tantrum. He faced Ace.
Ace stood at the top of steps leading to the building laughing, his cronies standing on either side of him.
Tanner felt an outline of an A burning into his palm, felt it pulsate with power, with heat. Then he saw the loose piece of concrete at the edge of the pathway. It was the size of a large rock and must have weighed at least two or three pounds.
“Oh, look at the Baby I think he’s gonna cry!” Ace struggled to finish the sentence, breaking off into such fits of laughter that he leaned over and laid his head on Ben Massey’s shoulder.
Everything happened very fast after that. Tank took two running steps towards the bullies stretching for the concrete, then took two more giant powerful steps and threw the thing with all his might. He heard his shoulder creak and his muscles rip. He imbued the concrete with all the heat that had been growing within him, forcing it through his blood into the card, then into the concrete.
Ace lifted his head of Ben’s shoulder to taunt Tanner further and through the worst possible timing, was hit directly above the bridge of his nose.
Ace never felt it crush his skull, but just as quick as that Tanner ended his reign of terror.
Tanner heard screaming, but had no idea what he had done; only knowing he fought back. Tanner grabbed his pained shoulder and started to run, wanting to go home, but knowing he couldn’t go there. He knew Ace was going to get him for this. So he ran to the only place he felt he could be safe; the only place where he could be protected. He ran to the Police Station.
Tanner was held in protective custody for three days. Province had no idea things had progressed so far for him, to the point where he would throw stones at other boys. She made a resolution to care for him more, to pay attention to him, nurture his growing needs rather than to push her own desires.
Tanner, on the other hand, was worried more about where the card was than what was going to happen to him. His power, his strength and his willfulness were directly attributed, at least in his mind, with the card. The attraction to females, the use of his penis for pleasure rather than mere urination, the strength to stand up for himself and the growth of his self esteem all now seemed to be void in it’s absence. Guilt filled that void, more even than the guilt of his first wet dream. Guilt because he had ended someone’s life; as much as he felt he did a service to mankind with the dispatching of Ace, he felt cold.
On the fourth day Tanner’s mother took him to school. He sat in the car with his head lowered, depressed and terrified of what his classmates would do to him.
The school rose in the window and a vision of what this place meant to him before came back to him; it looked like a prison. He’d be stuck here all day without the protection offered by the police or the comfort of his mother. He’d be alone.
They pulled up front and Tanner grabbed for his backpack in the back seat, sighing as he did so. Province grabbed his arm and forced him to look at her.
“Tanner, you’re a man now. Be good.” She nodded as if to give meaning and purpose.
Province meant after what he’d been through other children at school would either be scared of him or they would look up to him. He was a role model now whether he liked it or not, he had to be careful to show his contrition.
Tanner took his mother to mean now that he had killed he was a man and that gave him the power of fear, which Tanner took as a burden. He sat with the backpack now pulled into his lap and thought about it. He had once been terrified of those kids, what they would do, what they would say and rather than get through it he became shy. Now it was his peers that would feel the fear. He had to be careful because now he was Ace.
Ben Massey and Carlos Williams were standing in front of the school waiting for him. When Tanner saw them he paused and said a prayer as they walked over.
“Hey, Tanner! Um…hey!” It was Carlos.
Tanner stopped and stared as the two bullies closed the distance. His eyes scanned the few students milling around before the bell rang in hopes of finding someone to interject, at least long enough for the bell to ring, but no one was looking; just Roberta Simmonds. She had a disgusted look on her face and spit towards him before whipping around and storming off. One thing repeated in his mind: He was Ace now.
“Tan, the man” Ben laughed. “…I was wonderin’,” He said as he closed the gap. Tanner could only imagine what these two were up to. The two who had beaten him to the point he had gone to the hospital. They seemed amiable, as if they were scared of him, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Hey, dude, you should, you know, like, let us, kinda, follow you?” It shouldn’t have been a question, but there was undoubtedly a raise at the end of his sentence. Tanner thought back on what his mother had said in the car. He was taller than they were.
Tanner looked past their relieved faces looking for Roberta, but she had gone. Instead his eyes caught Darla Wallace. Darla? She was prettier than Roberta. His now only slightly chubby cheeks rose into a smile and he ascended the small staircase that led to the school, glancing down at the spot where Ace had been standing when he was hit. Down at the side of the staircase was a playing card. Its face was down, so he couldn’t tell what it was, but it looked old and well loved. It looked like his Ace. Tanner glanced at Carlos, who was looking at him reverentially.
“Leave it. You don’t need it.” Tanner said out loud thinking of his mother’s words then of Ace’s malicious sneer. I’m a man now.