MARC D REGAN
Wonder spins Willie in circles. He loves this place. Pasture everywhere and grass tickling his bare chest. Drone of cicadas in the muggy air. Dragonflies buzzing around his head. How long has it been? Since—
What ya gonna do now, Willie-Boy?
Damn the questions.
Answer’s right here: life. Willie’s a boy near twelve, and a boy can’t stand still in this muggy field. Willie sees a brown dot in the green field—a dot that becomes a house as his bare feet pound a path for it. Home: the tang of trampled grass, a hawk’s screech, wheat heads swiping his skin. Nothing here changes, ever.
A sudden stab in Willie’s side, just under his ribs, near topples him. Bent over, with palms on his knees, he pants. But pain’s a ghost. Wispy, gone.
Arms part the lea. Closer now, the windows, like familiar eyes, reflect his life—corral and pens, barns, meadows. Woods, far-off ridges.
And Pa. Feral wheat whipping his waist. Faded denim, flannel. Russet hair like upset water.
Pa—above water, alive. Eyes forever smiling (even if his lips ain’t). And strong—that’s Pa.
Above-water. Breathing. Alive.
Another jab of sad just about breaks Willie in two. Something ain’t right. Cold tremors rattle Willie’s body. Yeah, that bastard’s here. Death darts like a peccary in the uncut field. Willie don’t have to see to know.
He also knows he ain’t eleven anymore. The summer’s gone, and this ain’t home. It’s hell.
World’s gone dark. Ground froze, snowy. Willie’s now sixteen, standing pond-side, as Pa’s boots crunch a path across moonlit ice.
February’s cold, but not enough to freeze that pond solid—a single misstep and thunder sounds. Black lightning shoots from Pa’s soles, a spider web of cracks, and he’s swallowed by a pond of bitter angles. Ice chunks bob around Pa’s resurfaced head, a light dot visible in the black.
Pond-side, Willie imagines wet hair stuck to Pa’s chalky face; he can almost see the dull eyes, as the dead man sinks. Acid burns Willie’s gut. Puke erupts from his mouth, coating his green rubber boots with half-digested hot dogs and beans. Snowpack steaming. Squinting, unable to see his father, Willie flails, desperate to run on wrecked water to save a dad beyond saving. But the beefy arms of Pa’s buddies, his posse, restrain him.
A rap on metal wakes Willie.
Willie’s twenty-two year old eyes open and, beholding an ancient Newport interior, promptly shut. He’d rather stay between sleep and awake. A limbo where he can half listen to shuffling outside the car and half dream (or try to) about being home, his family alive. But the dream always leads to that February night six years back, to that ruined pond where each wedge of ice holds an image: Ma’s quick sink into the tar pit of cancer; Pa’s face kept brave to hide a busted spirit; the family farm’s collapse; Pa’s brother sending his friend Phil to help save the farm; and all the crazy days since. Each new day crazier than the last.
Scuffing feet and voices. Words smothered to hmma-hm-hmm by Chrysler windows.
Eyes closed—palms open-closing, open-closing to lose the pins-and-needles—he listens.
More mumbles, shoes on rocky soil.
His back and ribs ache. But that’s nothing new; the pain’s been since…he fell. Where’d he fall? Hell, he can’t remember. A KOA shower? Phil knows the story.
Willie don’t pay his discomfort much mind. With acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen—plus available intoxicants—he gets by. Body pain’s secondary. Primary’s the bad that’s happened since Pa drowned. Miles, states, towns. Driving, escaping this, then that. No pausing or looking back. On the road a guy can’t dwell or worry. Just survive. Worrying on all the bad makes him hurt. Could make him do something. A bad thing to end it. To kill the crazy of this living.
Phil always says: What ya gonna do, Willie-Boy? A shattered vision is never erased.
Willie don’t say much. Which is best. Safer. Talking, thinking, planning, acting—he’s learned to leave that to Phil. Especially now when shoes and voices circle the car and his sleeping-bagged body takes up the front bench seat. Plus Willie’s sick. Huff hangover. Eyes shut, he hisses: “Phil! Wake up!”
Fake snores come from the backseat.
Willie blows stale breath and opens his eyes to the dirty vinyl of his ‘68 Chrysler.
A goddamn antique, Willie. Twenty-five fuckin years old. Older’n you. This’s our Whale. Our Moby-fuckin-Dick. But since that name’s got used, we’ll call her Whale Dick.
Willie don’t care about naming cars. He never wanted a car—only Pa’s truck. But when “Uncle Chucky”—a near-stranger with flyaway hair, a vein-scribbled potato nose and beet-red face—pressed keys in Willie’s hand, saying, for the birthday boy, he didn’t say no. That was his seventeenth birthday. Over five years gone.
Willie surveys the whale’s belly. Overfull ashtray. Cracked dashboard. Willie’s chewed-up boots on the raunchy carpet under the glove box, laces like nasty spaghetti. The stench of Phil’s feet—a Frito and road kill stink, multiplied off the chart. Or is that Willie’s feet? Or his jeans, balled on the floor by his boots? So soiled they could be called alive. Lying dead still, he sniffs in his sleeping bag and decides, yeah, the reek’s from the backseat.
Willie spots grime on the hard plastic steering wheel. In a rerun fantasy, he sees them collide with a fat old tree. Impact force shoves the grungy wheel back, it catches Willie’s brow, removing his skullcap, like a spoon opening soft-boiled egg, and his brains paint the filthy interior even filthier.
Maybe today—whatever day today is. Speed and recklessness blur time. They’re parked on the side of a dirt road in upstate New York , near Vermont. This much Willie knows.
Heavy steps and male voices.
Willie tries again: “Hey! Phil!”
Phil snorts like a rat dog in a hole.
The walking stops outside Willie’s door. A sudden, muted “Hey you!” is followed by a solid thwack, thwack, thwack against whatever kind of safety glass they used in the sixties.
Willie don’t want his window shattered to useless pieces.
Willie sits up, squinting against morning’s glare, the tattered sleeping bag sliding down his ribs. He sees uniforms. A huge gun. Again the gun hits the window. A voice says: “Open up!” The glass dividing Willie from these cops makes it sound like the words are coming through thick ice.
“Alright,” Willie mumbles, and toward the back, louder he tells Phil: “We got us company.” Phil mutters gibberish, but he’s awake. With nerves like rat-gnawed wires, Phil can’t sleep through a breeze. Willie hand-cranks the window down. “Officers. I was asleep—”
“On private property,” says a boy-bodied cop with a grim grin under a rosy Santa nose, and thin brown hair combed neat.
“You vagrants?” asks the bigger cop, wielding the handgun.
Willie’s hungover brain works slow. “We’re passing through. Going to Vermont.”
“You have money?”
“It’s coming. Western Union. We were tired, saw this little road—”
“You see signs that say Camping?”
Phil’s still down on the floor. Willie can hear that much: Phil’s ever-black fingers weaseling through the carpeting, into the floor, rooting around. Getting set. Crazy fucking Phil.
“Which Western Union?”
Phil wasn’t always like this. When he first arrived at the farm, Phil was forty pounds healthier. Handy, helpful, with energy to jumpstart a row of dead batteries. Chores done with a smile. Most of all, Phil could talk. On any subject. Whether what he said was true or not. Willie noticed Phil’s exaggerations early on, but the boy (then fourteen) was taken with the tale-telling, fire-eyed older brother he’d never had. He kept Phil’s dishonesty to himself.
“There’s no Western Union here in Low Hampton. You must mean the one in Fair Haven?” Big Cop’s dark shades reflect Willie’s road-ravaged face.
Willie wants Phil to do the talking. He squints at Big Cop’s greasy face.
“Yeah. Fair Haven.”
Must have coffee there. Coffee would help.
“Shit-bird in the back.” Big Cop thwacks Phil’s window with the gun’s nose. “He alive?”
“He got some kinda flu.”
Big Cop commands Willie to unlock the rear door. Willie, not wanting Phil splattered in the backseat, obeys and in doing so he catches Phil’s two words: “All set.”
“Now get out,” Big Cop says.
Willie shimmies out of his bag into his gray pants, and walks barefoot across a stretch of roadside that’s all sticks and stones until he’s several feet from the wide-open driver’s door.
The badges wrestle Phil out of the car, but he don’t seem to mind the fists, boots, elbows, and knees punishing his sick-white skin: when they yank him upright—his scrawny legs scraped, saggy underwear stained—he’s smirking. Not even trying to look right in the head.
Phil’s sneer tells Willie what needs doing. Willie don’t want to do it, or could be he does, but wants don’t matter. Needs matter. If a guy stands long enough by an open door, he’ll need to go through it, need to see what waits on the other side.
Willie needs to be patient. Like he was last night when he waited to die. Last night’s a beast rising in Willie’s scrambled consciousness—Phil looking sinister in the day’s dying light, kneeling in the back, setting the old camp stove’s fuel tank on the car’s rear window ledge. Turning the black knob. His mouth of bum teeth curled like a rotten green bean, his eyes like holes punched in an old wall as fumes hissed, filling the shut-up whale belly. Phil going: “Hey. What ya gonna do, Willie-Boy? Gotta unwind, right? How else we gonna get high?” And: “Relax. No one died…yet.”What could Willie do? Run? Phil catching him would’ve been worse. But to relax into the cold arms of nothing? Die?
The dull green tank whispered: sssssleep.
Sleep came slow. Willie—eyes shut, body stretched long on that front seat—listened to the hiss, felt ghosts in his lungs poisoning his blood. Silent, he cried.
Phil’s cackled: Sweet dreams, old buddy.
Willie did dream but there’s nothing sweet about drowning in black water.
“Alright,” says Small Cop, trading looks with his partner. Like alright’s the only word he knows. Maybe he’s hungover too.
Big Cop says nothing. He looks older and meaner than his partner, hair the color of steel. Red devil face. Big gut, but not flabby. Hard like a giant tortoise shell.
They go to work on Whale Dick. Hard-Belly searching front seat cracks, rifling the glove box, checking under the dash, his partner scouring the back. Together they dig through the trunk.
Willie, a barefoot scarecrow with rubbery knees and cloudy thoughts, stares. Who are they? Why’d they have to come?
But he knows: they all stand at the door. Waiting. For their needs to be satisfied.
Willie’s head wags to clear hangover noise. Last night’s fumes still coat his throat like shoe polish. His thoughts are fluttery moths.
A trunk slam ends the fruitless search of Whale Dick.
“Fuckers happy now?” Phil spits through his rotten grin. “Or you wanna taste this?” Phil exposes his genitals.
Hard-Belly’s head’s a blood blister set to burst. A disgusted growl at Phil’s display and Hard-Belly’s booting the bejesus out of him. They both do.
Maybe they did die. Asphyxiated. This could be Hell. But they’d have been dead a long while, because life’s been like this. Not just these cops or this dirt road. Bad’s followed them.
Willie hears leather-and-steel cop shoes battering Phil’s thin flesh, withered muscle and vulnerable bone, and it reminds him of Phil swinging a sledgehammer in arcs, a hog’s head busting into nothing recognizable. A horrible sound. Willie told him Pa used a nail gun. Phil laughed. Willie ran that day, unable to stomach the brutality. But now, as Phil’s legs are hammered bloody and his kidneys are walloped, Willie listens. He doesn’t want to savor the sound, but he does.
A shattered vision is never erased.
The cops grunt and squeal. In his mind, that pig’s skull looks like stomped grapes. Is he losing his mind? Like Phil? Is crazy contagious? He needs quiet, sleep—no cops, no Phil. A decent meal. But his gut groans as rocks in a nowhere New York town stab his bare feet.
Phil’s eyes shine with madness.
A shattered vision…
Starved piranhas swim in Phil’s heartless depths.
And when the thick cord of Pa’s patience snapped six years ago and Phil knew he was no longer welcome, life on the farm spun out of control.
But power shifts. Blood splashes thrones, pond water floods lungs, new kings rise and fall. Willie feels that shift now. The stony ground vibrates, the humid air hums.
Fool cops. Mess with Phil? Even kicked to shit, it’s Phil’s show.
Hard-Belly brays on, but Willie don’t hear. He’s lost in remembering the West Virginia farm. Home. Lost to Willie before he had experience enough to keep a tighter grip.
Whale Dick’s our ticket, Phil had insisted. Fiery eyes once magical burned dangerous.
With both parents dead, the sixteen-year-old panicked. Willie drove. Phil handled the rest.
Willie, it’s all waiting! Money. Adventure. The world’s ours!
“You two look like hell,” said Hard-Belly his breath swampy like rancid stew.
“Didn’t sleep good, officer.” No lie, it’s an understatement—Willie ain’t slept good in a damn long while. “Sleep’s all I wanted when I pulled down this old road.”
“Ain’t no sleep with pigs coming round thinking they’re wolves,” Phil says, still on his ass.
Hard-Belly Jim responds with a boot, catching Phil in the teeth, the nose.
Phil laughs blood.
The world’s waiting, Willie!
Willie remembers staying in motels with Phil. How bad it was. Phil jacked on whatever, sprouting horns, throwing his crazy-weight around. Throwing Willie. Those memories arrow the bullseye of Willie’s pain. Phil’s “you fell in the shower” would’ve been funny if it hadn’t hurt so goddamn bad. He could still feel Phil’s metal bat—a couple of base hits to the legs, a line drive to his back and a homerun to Willie’s ribs.
He’s unsure when it started, but during his long hours at the wheel with the radio too loud, Willie has backtracked. Sorting through the rubbish in his head, looking for missed or forgotten pieces, trying to make sense of this twisty path through five years of Phil as navigator and protector. Years that cut ever deeper into his soul. But without Phil, Willie would be dead. Or he’d be back home, with Pa alive. Willie’s often wondered, as Phil slept and he drove—what about that February night in ‘81? A night that led to a pond? Phil drunk, running off. Everything that followed.
Hard-Belly’s finger jab to Willie’s ribs shatters his daydream. “You’re sleeping with your goddamn eyes open,” he says, laughing soundlessly. “And this,” his handgun’s muzzle scrapes Willie’s cheek, “is a wakeup call.”
“A hearing aid,” Don puts in.
“Add the uncontestable fact that your bodies can disappear and no one’ll be the wiser,” Hard-Belly shrugs a glance at his partner, “and what have we got?”
Willie’s got his memories: Bell’s Hollow, West Virginia. Ten at night. Phil ranting nonsense before slamming out of the house and into a winter night. His parting words: “Y’all can celebrate when I’m through that ice!”
“A delicate situation,” answers Don.
Pa wasn’t about to let Phil fall through the ice. He gathered some friends, a posse that dashed for the Bell’s Hollow Pond. And everything went wrong. Phil yelled for help. No one could see him. “Sounds like he’s out on that ice,” Pa had said. His friends tried to stop him. “Gotta get that drunk fool to shore.” These were Pa’s last words.
A shattered vision is never erased.
“Could go either way,” says Hard-Belly.
Phil couldn’t have been on that ice and lived. Willie’s thought this for a while, but thinking it don’t matter if there’s a shadow of doubt. No one saw Phil that night—he must have been hidden in shadows on the opposite shore, doing a ventriloquist’s trick to lure Pa onto that thin ice. Had to be. But had he been aiming to kill Pa?
And could Willie do a damned thing now, or was he forever trapped in this hell? He never resisted before, never spoke up, and what came of that? Pa’s… “Dead,” Willie says aloud.
“Quick kid,” says Hard-Belly, chuckling, glancing at his partner. “You two ready for a walk in the woods?” Hard-Belly’s guttural purring wins Willie’s attention. It’s a strange and pretty sound. Willie imagines it as the song of a hungry gator.
Phil utters a breathy yowl. Not loud, but eerie enough for these badged bozos to conclude that Phil’s gut is acting up or he’s moaning from the beating they delivered.
Willie knows better. He’s heard this sound. Has been expecting it.
Now there’s no turning back. No breaking Phil’s rage.
Still, Willie says: “Officers. When we get our money, we’re gone. Please.”
The officers exchange grunts.
“My buddy’s sick. There a hospital in Fair Haven?” Willie stands five feet or so from the open car door he came out of, what? A half hour ago? It feels like hours. Years. Lifetimes ago.
To show them how sick he is, Phil’s on his feet, twisting, releasing a squirrel-like chitter, filthy briefs hanging from his ass. Two feet to Willie’s left Phil folds at the waist.
The cops huddle. Have a hushed discussion. About Phil? Is he contagious?
Willie figures any condition can be contagious if you’re around it enough.
Phil straightens and says: “Your county—it’s shaped like a hand flipping the world off.” To illustrate Phil gives the cops the finger. “You musta noticed that. My question’s why? Do all cops here fuck with people passing through? Or are we just lucky?”
That’s it. Phil’s gone and cemented the deal for them both.
Hard-Belly tenses. His sights narrow on Phil’s black rat’s nest hair, his neglected teeth, and those dead eyes. He smiles and looks skyward. “Well, here’s the deal. And I’ll say it slow so even a zombie like you can understand. Me and Don find an old car with out of state plates parked on private property, discover there’s a pair of scuzz-balls sleeping inside it… Well. Our job’s to keep things clean, safe for residents.”
“Call us Waste Management,” says Don.
“And you grease spots have wasted enough of our time.” Hard-Belly shifts his shoulders as if an unwanted creature has settled there.
Willie’s quit listening. He knows Phil’s ten minutes in the future, already dealing with these asshole cops, bullies who probably spend their days hassling teenagers and, given the opportunity, threatening drifters they figure are too dumb to wipe their own asses. Willie also knows his part in Phil’s future. He can handle whatever these cops have left—Phil already ate a big slice of their wrath and it won’t take him but a minute or two to spit it back up.
Phil again bents and moans, and Willie knows: it’s showtime.
“Hey.” Willie shows both cops a big smile—and darts a few feet away.
“Hold it,” says one of them.
“Both of you stop,” shouts the other, who probably has his gun on Phil.
“No,” Willie says, though he does stop, scowling as if thinking on a critical matter. He steps back slowly—away from the cops and their guns, away from Whale Dick, away from Phil, who grins like a harmless idiot. Both cops watch Willie, their weapons trained on him. “No,” Willie says again, “I’m not seeing any of it. Your nature walk—”
A charge and Hard-Belly pistol-whips Willie. Which, despite the white-lightning pain that explodes in Willie’s skull, is perfect; he stays up and now both cops rush him, firearms raised.
Behind their backs, quiet as a snake, Phil slips into the rear seat of Whale Dick. Fingers slither under sliced carpet and into the Newport’s floor. A hiding hole.
It’s curious how gunfire—two quick shots—can split time into before and after. Creating a timeless canyon. An open door on the side of an unmarked road. A portal that leads from life to death. From better to worse. From here to there. Or anywhere.
Phil grins, as he beholds the uniformed bodies on the ground. “Ya know, Willie, it’s wild. One minute a thing can be alive and the next…not. Like there’s this thin line, a string or whatnot, that’s always taut.” The loony grin grows. He jabs his little gun at the cops he’s shot. “Even with blood still chugging in their veins these two are dead as…dead. Gun-size don’t matter so much as where the bullet goes.”
Phil whirls around to face Willie. “And you know I can place a slug wherever the fuck I want!” Phil’s shout is shrill—situations like this excite Phil. “Am I right or fuckin what?”
Willie’s quiet, studying the cops sprawled face-down in the dirt. Thinking of their families, if they had kids. Losing your Pa ain’t easy.
A shattered vision is never erased.
Phil’s doing his little “I’m A Psycho Killer” dance, which Willie’s seen before.
Willie’s not the gunman. Sure, he learned to shoot as a kid; Pa was a good teacher. Calm, patient. Still, Willie doesn’t know a .45 from a .22. Out here in Wherever We End Up, USA, Willie’s the wheelman. Point A to Point B. Easy. Just drive.
“Yep. Thin line,” Willie says, stepping closer, till his shadow covers the place Hard-Belly took the bullet—in the back of his head. Two cops; two holes. Not a lot of mess, and no time to dawdle. “I’ll get the wallets.” He watches Phil skitter away, about to lose the grubby briefs.
“I’ll check the cruiser,” Phil says in a helium voice. “Never know what—”
“Wait! Phil! Look!”
Phil turns, and the blast lifts him off his bare feet and tosses his underwear-clad form onto the stony ground.
With Hard-Belly’s big gun dangling at his side, Willie walks numbly until he stares down at a guy who’s been his only family for six years, a guy who’s made decisions, a guy who seriously hurt Willie with a metal baseball bat. The guy who killed Willie’s dad.
A guy who’s still alive.
Gun-size don’t matter so much as where the bullet goes.
Lying on his back, blood coming from a crater in his gut, Phil cackles and pokes the wound. Roadside dirt turns brick red. “Man. You finally grew a pair. But, Willie. Deal me a couple more. Cause…with a cap in the gut, it’ll take a while…”
Willie shakes off leftover pain from being pistol-whipped. Wipes blood from his jaw.
“Wow. Looks like I’ll be crossin’ that finish line. Think I should be scared?”
Willie tastes tears. In this throat, wanting out. He swallows them back and says: “Pa’s waitin’ for ya.” Then, after a few tears escape: “What am I gonna do now, Phil?”
Phil smirks. “First. Lose Whale Dick. They might’ve radioed our shit in.”
“Uncle Chucky’s wiring that money.”
“Good thinkin’, kid.” Phil sounds weak. “Walk there. Low profile. And, kid, wipe everything clean.” Rough breaths. “Now finish it. A headshot. So it looks—looks like I shot ‘em and got remorseful. After their bullet, I ate one of my own. Get my gun. It flew—”
“Got it.” Willie wipes dust off the small pistol, then shows Phil.
A weak nod. “Okay. Go ahead. Finish my shit.”
Willie finishes him.
Even so, even dead, Phil’s still in Willie’s head, asking: “What ya gonna do now?”
Willie answers. “Clean and ditch Whale Dick, walk to that Fair Haven Western Union, buy a bus ticket.” A pause. “And go home, Phil, I gotta. To see it.” Willie gulps tears.
Half of Phil’s face is in pieces a little distance away and the rest stares at the sun. The shattered grin wishes Willie well.
When the cleaning and disposing is done, when the car is sunk into a pond at the end of an unpaved, overgrown road, Willie sets off to collect his money—the swaying fields of his dreams and memories held tight in his mind, the sadness splitting his heart.