Al Infierno

Part One

Early in the morning the little city slept.  My car roared through dimly lit suburban roads, gliding around corners and blowing past stop signs.  A lopsided grin twisted my face as sweat rolled down my cheeks.  The only worry on my mind was that my car might spin out and roll if I hit another corner like that last one.

Up ahead, I saw a stop sign at a park with no sign of life.  Cranking up the music, I tapped the gas, stomped the brakes, and twisted the steering wheel with a squeal of my tires.  The car spun one-eighty in the intersection and blasted back down the street I came from.

I cackled loudly, my heartbeat rattling in my skull.  Aware of the noise I’d made, I slowed my car to the speed limit now, and I reached into the foot of the passenger seat.  I fumbled for the glass handle, found it, and took one last gulp.

“What a time to be alive.”  I couldn’t hear myself over the music.  My mirrors were shaking, so I turned down the volume knob.  The adrenaline faded and I rolled down the windows, washing my face in cool night air.

My car hovered over the speed limit through unfamiliar neighborhoods.  The sleepy suburb was dark and silent under the clear sky, with the moon a dim sliver and the stars gleaming over cozy little Oak City.  Last night’s autumn showers were the first after an unusually dry summer.  The roads were slick with a potent mixture of rain and oil.

I rounded block after block, weaving a pattern that might seem calculated from afar, but was actually drunkenly random.  An idle hand slipped into the foot of my passenger seat, poking around for the bottle again.  The moment I felt the cold glass, a pair of bright-light beams flashed in my mirrors.  Then the blue-and-reds came alive.

I cursed and shoved the bottle under a dirty sweatshirt, pulling my car into the shoulder of the road.  Sweat poured down my face, and I cursed again and again the decisions that led me to this moment.  I wiped my face and looked in the mirror.

A moment after I stopped in the shoulder, the blue-and-reds extinguished.  The cop car zoomed past mine and disappeared around the next corner.

I stared blankly into the cool night.  The streetlights were dim, and the sky was bright.  I turned the music off, closed my eyes, and felt my heart knocking against my chest.  Cold air breezed through the windows.

I opted out of processing what just happened.  With my eyes shifting between my mirrors, I pulled into the road and my car hummed on — slower now.

My concentration began to falter.  My car veered into the middle of the road, and I over-corrected to the right.  The tires squealed when I tapped the brake too hard, and my mirror brushed against a parked car.  If a cop saw me — if that same one came by again — I’d get pulled over for a DUI.  My head raced to find the route back home.

Pouring sweat, I held the steering wheel with white knuckles, and my vision swayed.  I sipped the half-empty energy drink in the cup holder from my morning commute.  It tasted awful.

Managing my panic was a test of mental strength — a constant struggle to maintain concentration and self-assurance, and my outlook wasn’t looking too good right now.  Like keeping things together on a powerful psychedelic, I could lean on my prior experience.

My hands were uncomfortable on the wheel, and I smelled rubber.  Sweat dripped off my chin, so I let go with one hand and wiped it on my pants, then I grabbed the wheel and did the same with the other, wiped my face and had to wipe my sweaty hands again and got real frustrated so let go of the wheel and directed the air at my face and wiped my hands down my chest and—

The car thudded and shook, and I stomped the brakes.  The edges of my vision swirled, and the world fell away and came to as I blinked in rapid disbelief.  I hopped out of my car and stumbled when I stepped in front of the headlights. 

They were too bright.  I couldn’t see past them.  Back in the cab, I twisted off the ignition — the headlights extinguished and I could see what I’d hit.

It was a woman.  Her torso tangled under the front-right tire, her arms moved gently, and her legs protruded lifelessly from the bumper like my car was eating her.  She tried to make a sound.  Her trachea was intact but her lungs had flattened under her ribcage.  I saw her eyes through the dark, and we exchanged despondent stares.

For a passing moment I couldn’t react, detached from her suffering.  It looked less real than a scene in a horror film.  And in a haze, I realized.

“Oh, my God,” I cried.  “I’m sorry.  Hold on, let me just —”

I stumbled into the cab and reignited the engine.  With trembling hands, I put the car into reverse and stomped on the gas.

The car backed up fast, and the cool air ripped with a horrifying shriek.  But only for a brief moment.

A dozen feet behind the woman now, my headlights illuminated her form.  Her body was disfigured and ugly.  There was so much blood on the asphalt, there was no way she’d survive.  A rotten feeling rose in my stomach, and I retrieved my phone from my pocket.

Dialing nine-one-one would effectively end my life.  But I hadn’t paid my last cell bill, so I didn’t have any service.  Did I?

I glanced around the empty street.  Nobody had reacted to her death rattle.  Houses seemed silent and undisturbed. 

“I gotta do something,” I said to myself.  The only idea that came to me was simple, cold, and drunkenly stupid.  I was aware of this fact.

With my phone I snapped a picture of the woman’s dying body illuminated by headlights.  She probably couldn’t see me past the bloody mess of her face, and she seemed to have no way of crying out for help.  Either that or she was dead already.  The tire had turned her face into something awful.  I’d seen this kind of thing on the Internet a lot, but never in person.

“I can show this to the police when I turn myself in.  And in case I forget…”

I stumbled to the nearest street corner and snapped a photo of the street signs.  Hamilton and Longsworth.  That way, when I got to the police station, I could show them where it happened without worrying about forgetting, and then they’d find the woman’s body and put her in a morgue and then they’d put me in a cell for a while before they—

My car turned onto the freeway ramp, staying five miles below the speed limit.  I couldn’t stop wondering if I was making a mistake, but I told myself:  There’s no other choice but to do the right thing.

The steering wheel rattled under my trembling palms.  I spotted another early-morning driver — not a cop as far as I could tell.  But what were they doing out so early in the morning?

The veiled moon hung over the little city.  The sky brimmed with the light of stars.  A gentle cold breeze swept from the south, the muddy prairies and the dense woods beyond them.  I rolled up the windows.

I pulled into the driveway of my home, opened the garage door, and hid my car from the world’s view.  Poor girl’s dead no matter what, and I wanted to sleep in my own bed one last time before I wake up in a cell for the rest of my life…

When I awoke, last night’s bender was not even a distant memory.  It was beyond that.  I remembered having fun driving around and getting scared by the cops on my way home, but the rest was blank.

I pushed myself upright on the unfolded futon.  The morning sun shined from the kitchen door, and the TV was on from last night.  The ashtray on the table was dirty and cold, and a dozen empty bottles littered the room.  The wooden table looked like something you might see in a warzone, encrusted in grime, ash, tar, and all manner of yuck.  Next to the table was an old three-seat couch that looked like it had been extracted from a house fire.  It could have been any color when it was built, but now it had a permanent coat of gray.

I took a long, hot shower to try and cure my headache.  Usually my hangovers weren’t too bad anymore.  I got drunk most weeknights and blackout drunk every weekend, so my tolerance was fairly stout.  But today was much worse than usual.  There was a big bruise on my head.  After my shower, I plopped backside-down onto my futon and turned on some cartoons.

Someone knocked on my front door.  I couldn’t help the excitement that rose in my chest and I hurried over to answer the door.

It was just a delivery guy with a package.

“Hey there,” he said.  “Sign for this?”

I did, and he nodded and handed me the brown box.  “Have a good one.”

I grunted and shut the door.  I passed back through the kitchen and the package landed with a thud on top of my court paperwork shoved in between last week’s Sundays. 

Momentarily I wondered about my upcoming court date.  A lawyer had recommended that I plead guilty for a lighter sentence, but I was gonna have none of that bullshit.  I had to book a flight back home to Atlanta for this stupid case.  Two weeks and two days from today — on a Monday, of all days, so I had to travel on a Sunday.

With a yawn, I tore open the package.  It was the leather Gucci belt I ordered last week.  A grin split my face and I ran back into the living room and changed into an unwashed set of almost-white jeans with a nice polo shirt.  I strapped on my new belt.

Time to hit the grocery store for my morning beer.  I decided to walk so people outside could see me with my new belt.  Nobody commented on it, but I embraced every second that I was seen outside with it on.

The large can of beer hissed when I cracked it open.  I strolled through the suburb taking big gulps, and it took the edge off my morning headache.  Most of Sheriff Lou’s deputies were cool with me drinking while I walk around my own neighborhood, but I had to keep an eye open for the sheriff himself.  Lou’s strung a bit tighter than his boys.

I walked down the sidewalk along rows of suburban houses, wondering what to do with my paycheck when it comes in.  I could pay my cell bill, but there was also a watch at the mall I’d been eyeing.  Assuming, of course, food and alcohol don’t swallow what little I rake in from my shitty UPS job.

The can was nearly empty when I turned the corner onto my street.  My lawn was a dark beacon of sullen complacency on a livid street of maintained grass and happy gardens.  At one point my lawn had been a gloriously overgrown savannah of waist-high grass, and I liked it that way.  Then one of my neighbors — apparently indignant that I won’t hire a mower once in a while — came in the night and poisoned my whole lawn.  Now it looked a lot worse than before, like an irradiated battleground from World War III.  But at least the grass wasn’t overgrown anymore.  If I ever found out which neighbor did it…

When I got home, I dropped back onto my futon and polished off my beer can.  With a tinge of regret I pictured the twelve-packs sitting on the shelves of the grocery store, but I resolved to chill off that one beer for now.  I’d gotten pretty drunk last night, so I could always just smoke and relax, and be fine with that.

Twenty minutes later I left the house again.  This time I got in my car and drove to the nearest liquor store, embarrassed of my habits just enough to take my business elsewhere.

At the store, I grabbed a twelve-pack of 9% IPA.  Any less alcohol content gave me stomachaches.  There were two people in line for the counter, and I waited impatiently behind them.

“Hey,” said a woman to the cashier.  “American Spirits, please.”

I glanced around the store.  Everything was so clean and well-organized — much nicer than most liquor stores around here.  The floor was reflective, like whoever mopped up had obsessively sat around for hours, scrubbing each tile until every square inch was cleaner than new.  Why would someone obsess so badly over keeping things clean?

The woman left with her cigarettes, and the guy in front of me — a stocky, unshaved homeless-looking guy — lurched to the counter and put down two big bottles of cheap whiskey.  A trembling hand took a wallet from his sweatshirt pocket, and he slammed three twenties on the counter.

“Hey Jared,” the cashier said with a smirk.  “How’s it going, dude?  Haven’t seen you in a while.”

The guy named Jared snapped his head up.  “What?  What’d you just say to me?”

“How you been?  Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Oh.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.”  He looked down and scratched the back of his beefy neck.  He glanced back at me and shifted toward the cashier.  “I’ve just been real busy at work.  Hey, listen, you seen Tyler around?”

“Tyler who?”  The cashier took the twenties and produced change.

“You’d know the guy.  Tall, slick hair, sharp face, kinda skinny.  Ah, never mind.  Listen, take it easy and watch out for Tyler.  He told me he likes to torture puppies.  He stomps on their backs, and he watches the way they move around and cry.  Some real sick shit, man.”

The cashier opened his mouth to say something, but found himself speechless.

“You just watch yourself.  Okay?” Jared pointed before hurrying out of the store, cradling the bottles under his arms like they were bags of loot.

I approached the counter and placed my IPA twelve-pack.  The cashier was pale from his exchange with the last customer.

“What the hell was that guy’s problem?”  I laughed and handed him money for the beer.  “Dude’s off his rocker.  He’s got some serious issues, buying two bottles of whiskey before noon.  Betcha he’s gonna down ‘em both today.”

The cashier chuckled nervously and handed over the change.  “Yeah.  Yeah, man.”

I took the change and said: “Between you and me, I betcha he was talking about himselfwhen he said that shit about puppies.  I could tell by the way he said it.”

The cashier looked at me and said nothing.

“I know that type pretty well,” I said.  “I betcha he’s a schizo.  I used to date one of those.  Man, easily the worst time of my life.  Anyways take it easy, boss.”

I took the twelve-pack and started walking toward the door.  Just before I left, I turned back to the cashier and said: “Watch out for that Jared guy.  He seems like bad news.”

The cashier said nothing.

I opened my passenger door and dropped the twelve-pack onto the floor beside last night’s polished liquor bottle.  I noticed a red smear on my front-right tire and ignored it.

Cracking open my first high-power beer, I tactically placed myself on my futon so I faced the TV comfortably in reach the remote as well as the beer case.  This was where I’d camp all weekend.  I planted the twelve-pack on the begrimed table.

I started flipping through channels and stopped on one in particular: The County News broadcasting from the streets of Oak City.  The volume was off but I recognized the street they were reporting from.  Longsworth Park, one of my favorite late-night joyriding spots.

I began to remember now.  I was there last night, smashing around faster and more fucked-up than usual.  I busted a nice donut at a stop sign, but then what happened?

I lost myself in a daze, bothered by what I couldn’t recall.  A loud knock on the front door interrupted my thoughts.

Another small excitement rose in my chest, dampened this time.  I didn’t want to be disappointed to see another delivery guy, a Jehovah’s Witness, Girl Scouts, or cops for any reason.  But behold, a visitor.

I said, “What’s up, Joey?”

Joey Patrone was about my age, mid-thirties.  He was a bit shorter and a lot skinnier than me, wearing a bright-red delivery shirt, faded blue jeans, and a pizza-shaped hat.  He had non-prescription glasses that he wore so he could look like more of a jabroni, thinking cops wouldn’t bother him that way.

“Shit, man,” Joey said.  “Not too much.  I gotta leave for work pretty soon, but you wanna kick it real quick?”

“Yeah, sure.”  I let my guest inside, and Joey went straight to the living room where I spend my life outside work.

He sat down on the visitors’ couch, which treated him to a view of the bleak, empty wall devoid of any window or artwork.  He might turn his head to see the TV, or to see me perched on my futon-throne, but all else was bleak blankness.

I grabbed the bong from behind the TV and carefully placed it in the center of the begrimed table.  Joey snatched my weed jar from under the futon and started snooping through it, wearing that ridiculous pizza hat still.

Joey asked: “Hey, is it cool if I take a hit of your stuff?”  He was already getting one ready to smoke.

“Why didn’t you bring your own bud?”

“They started checking our cars before shifts.  I can’t have that shit on me now.”

“You only blaze here anyways, don’t you? Why don’t you just leave your shit here?”

“Nah, that’s too much trouble.”  Joey smoked the hit, coughed, and prepared another one.

“More trouble than remembering to bring it every single time?”  I paused for a moment, watching him.  “Or should I say, forgetting to bring yours and smoking mine?”

Joey laughed.  “Yeah, yeah.  I guess you’re right.  Next time I’ll bring my shit, and I’ll get you back for this.  I swear.”

“Right.  By the way, you look like a fuckin’ toolin that new hat.  Are they really making you wear that?”

“Nah, man,” Joey shrugged.  “They give us the choice.  I just really dig it.”

“Oh.”

Joey stopped and glared at me.  The bong was pressed against his mouth, and the lighter’s flame hung over the bowl.

His voice was muffled in the glass: “No, of course I have to wear this chicken-shit outfit.”

He touched the fire to the weed and sucked smoke through filthy water in the bong.

I laughed, irritated by Joey’s presence as always.  But it was better than being alone.

“Hey, sorry I haven’t been texting back,” I said.  “My phone contract ended the other week and I still need to pay for a new one.”

Joey put the bong back on the table.  He grabbed one of my IPAs, opened it, and quickly gulped one-third of the beer before plopping back on the couch.

I continued: “Damn, Jo.  Don’t you have to, like, drive for work?”

“Yeah, dude.  That’s why I’m doing this before I go.” He laughed.  “Otherwise, I can’t deal with traffic and idiot customers.  I’d get fired for road rage.”

“That’s kinda fucked up, dude.”

“I know, man.  But I can hang.  I haven’t killed anyone yet, so I’m good.” Joey laughed.

I smiled and tried to laugh, but I couldn’t.  Something stopped me that I couldn’t put a finger on.

“Shit,” Joey said, leaning back on the couch.  He put the partially drunk beer on the table.  “I’ll kick back for a sec and get used to the buzz, but then I gotta dip out.”

“What’re you up to after work?” I said.  “I’m just gonna be hanging out all day.”

“Shit, I-unno.  I’ll roll through here if I’m not busy.  My girlfriend flew into town the other week, so I might do something with her.”

“Oh,” I said.

We sat back in silence and watched TV.  Joey grabbed the remote and turned up the county news loud enough so we could hear it.

From the looks of it, they were about to show us some graphic death.  During a live report some years back, they’d accidentally broadcasted a mass grave before realizing what they were showing.  The ratings skyrocketed that evening.  Now the Oak County News had gained a reputation nationwide for showing in all candor disturbing images of death.

The blonde reporter stood in front of a crime scene continuing: “—discovered the body this morning and said she died of blood loss after crawling six feet from where she was struck by a car.  We’re about to show you the scene of the crime as it was found this morning by Deputy DiMarco.  These images might be disturbing to some viewers.”

The broadcast transitioned from the reporter to a very brief Graphic Content warning, then displayed the image.  A woman laid dead in the gutter by the sidewalk.  Her chest had been flattened and there were black skid-marks on her shirt.  Blood pooled around her in thick and goopy globs.  Her face was crushed and blackened by a tire and her jaw twisted out of place with a mouthful of broken teeth. 

She looked like a microwavable hot pocket full of bones that somebody had stepped on.  I stared for a long moment at her destroyed face as the county news proudly displayed it.

Joey sniggered and said, “Huh-hooh!  Later, homie.  Damn, that’s gotta hurt.”  He swallowed more beer.  “That sucks.  I dunno how you let that happen to you, though.”

“Drunk drivers, man,” I said.  “That’s why you shouldn’t drink and drive.”

Joey looked at his mostly finished IPA on the table, then back at me.  “Shit.  You’re right.  Fuck, I’m an idiot.  Do you think I should call in sick?”

“You said you do this every day, don’t you?  You’re drunk enough to kill anybody.”  I laughed dryly.

Joey hesitated, then chuckled and stood up.  “Yeah, yeah.  I’m trippin’.  Anyways, I gotta bounce out.  See ya, man.”

“See ya.”

A few seconds after Joey left, a sudden panic attack struck me.  I locked myself in the bathroom, checked the window, and cranked cold water in the sink.  Frantically scrubbing my face with water, I avoided my reflection.

My chest raced and I kept hyperventilating.  I told myself it was all okay, everything’s fine, I started really thinking about it, and everything fell into place.

My brand new belt begged my attention in the mirror.  I realized I’d forgotten to tell Joey about it, but he probably noticed and forgot to say something.  With an uneasy smile, I pulled my phone out of my pants’ pocket and snapped a picture of myself.

I looked at the new picture and hated it, deleting it almost instantly.  The last photo I’d taken popped up.  For some drunken reason, I’d photographed the signs on a street corner near Longsworth Park.  I guessed that I wanted to remember where I’d parked.

I swiped the screen to open the previous picture.  This one was dark but clear, brimming with revelation.  The woman in the picture stared back at me with her crushed meat-and-bone hot-pocket torso.  This picture was different than the one on the news.  Completely dark except for headlights illuminating the body.  This photo was nighttime, whereas the news image had been a sunlit morning.  This was the middle of the street, not where she’d crawled into the gutter.

With bitter sickness in my stomach, I powered off my phone and stowed it back into my pocket.

Back on my futon-throne, I changed the channel away from the news and opened another IPA.  My hands shook and I glugged down half the beer.

Though I watched TV, I didn’t hear or see anything it showed.  Sounds played, visuals displayed, but I processed nothing.  Staring and smoking and drinking and desperately trying not to think.

“That picture is evidence,” I blurted in realization, glad Joey wasn’t here to hear me.  “I need to get rid of that fucking picture.”

I brought my phone to life and was about to delete the picture.  The picture was unique and didn’t want to be deleted.  I had captured her final moments on earth, a unique moment in time.  This picture was too special to be deleted.  It would never be captured in a thousand more years.

Something about the picture compelled me.  It was dark but the grisly details were highlighted in an unsettling display like an attraction in a wax museum.  I wasn’t disgusted by the picture anymore, but morbidly curious.  I wished I’d taken another at a better angle.

No wonder they show this shit on the news.  I unearthed something in my memory banks that had been tucked away for years.  An Internet site called Slaughterpen: decades ago I’d visit there daily to fire those same synapses in my brain that were firing now.  A unique blend of awe, disgust, and fear.

I stared at the picture on my phone, and I kept on wondering.

Despite my headache I went out that night and cruised Downtown Oak for a cheap bar.  I’d waited for some hours to see if Joey would come by again.  A little after midnight, the answer was clearly no so I rolled out by myself.  I stowed away all thoughts of blood and bones.

The wind brushed my hair through the open windows of the car.  It felt nice, and I wasn’t sweating as much as last night.  I decided wisely not to take any Ritalin tonight.  Only alcohol and cigarettes, then some weed when I get home.  The world went by somewhat slowly.

Downtown Oak City was almost dead tonight, unusually empty for an early Sunday morning.  I parked on First Street and started entering bars at random and ordering drinks, hoping I might happen into someone I know.  Maybe Joey and his girlfriend.

The bouncer at the first bar stopped me and said I’m already too drunk to enter.  The sports bar next door didn’t seem to mind, so I found a comfy stool in the corner, planted my eyes on the Trailblazers game, and started ordering drinks.

Four bars and eleven drinks in, I wanted to know if I was wasting my time.  An empty Irish pub playing some obnoxious Celtic folk music, the atmosphere downright depressing.  I needed a change of environment, so I bounced out without paying for the awful 7-and-7 I’d mistakenly ordered.

I stumbled outside and sauntered down Main Street.  There was only one last bar I cared to check out, which was the Death Rattle.  Unlike most places in Downtown Oak, the Rattle wasn’t a fancy-shmancy new-age shithole that shills overpriced fruit drinks and $15 beers to hipsters.  It was a little themed hole-in-the-wall place that had the same bartender working daily.  My kind of spot.

Stepping through the doors was like entering a portal into a hidden rainforest.  The lighting was cool and the décor bright, with walls adorning vaguely tribal imagery: Spears and shrunken heads, gold-filled treasure chests, and animals with vibrant colors lurking behind painted trees.  The air in here was different than outside, thick and heavy with a slight perfume.

Like the rest of Downtown Oak, it was strangely empty tonight.  A small group of friends dominated the bar opposite the entrance, and they were so loud it almostfelt like a normal night at the Rattle.  They didn’t notice me enter, drunk as all hell and celebrating something or another.

At the far end of the bar, a dark-clothed man moped over some hard liquor.  He wasn’t in uniform, but I vaguely recognized him as one of Sheriff Lou’s deputies.  He knocked back his glass with a sullen expression, and a few droplets splashed down his black shirt and red tie.

I waited in a quiet daze a couple feet past the entrance before recognizing someone in the group of friends now.  Relieved, I approached them and inserted myself into their conversation.

“Hey, buddy!” I shouted.  The friends all turned around and gave me quizzical looks.  Anton lit up with recognition.

“Oh, shit,” he said.  “Nate.  I haven’t seen you in ages, bro.  How’s it going?”

His friends all gave me confused looks, like they were trying to remember if they recognized me from a party sometime.

“Oh, I’ve been alright,” I said.  “Just chillin’.  What about you?  Haven’t seen you in a while.”

I stood over the group who were awkwardly turned away from their drinks to face me.  For a long moment of silence I stood there staring at Anton and smiling.

He replied: “Oh, well.  That’s good to hear.  I gotta stop by your place soon, I’ve just been busy with work all the time, you know?”

“Yeah, man.  I feel you.  Sorry I haven’t been texting you back.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, my cell contract ended the other week.  That’s why I haven’t been replying to your texts or anything.”

“Okay.  Wait a minute, Nathan, whatever happened with that court bullshit you told me you were dealing with?”  He smiled and shot a quick glance at his friends, whose interests peaked.  “Did you get that cleared up?”

I hesitated.  “Uh.  Actually, I gotta fly back home and take care of that in a couple weeks.  Monday after next.”

“What’d you get caught for?  Selling bud to a narc or something?”

I waited for a long moment before I spoke.  My eyes shifted between Anton and his friends, who all looked into my eyes with eager anticipation, so when I started talking I couldn’t stop myself:

“Well, there was this lady I met back when I lived in Atlanta.  She wanted meds for her grandson’s ADD.  I dunno how we even got talking in the first place, but she thought I was a doctor or something.  She asked me what’s wrong with her grandson, and I started bullshitting and told her, ‘You’ll have to bring him into my office and leave us alone for a while so I can diagnose him.’  I wasn’t even serious.  But to my total fuckin’ shock, she actually agreed!”

I stopped and cackled loudly before continuing.  Nobody reacted. 

“Can you believe that shit?” I said.  “I mean, what if I wanted to fuckthe kid or something?”

The group stared at me in disbelief.  Anton looked at the corner of the room, his face bright red.  The dark-clothed man shifted in the corner of my eye.  Nobody said a word and I grinned and poured sweat, sick from anticipation. 

After hesitating, Anton looked at me and said, “So what happened?”

“Well, I got a buddy to wear a lab coat with me.  To make it look legit.  The old lady came over and really thought my apartment was a private office.  So I take the kid into another room, and I start bullshitting with him about football or some shit, and then I just walk out and tell her that the kid has schizophrenia.  And she fuckin’bought it.”

I stopped, choking with laughter, then continued: “The funniest part is that she really took a fake prescription from me based on what I said.  She was ready to give that kid antipsychotics ‘cause he liked the Bucs instead of the Falcons.”

I wiped my face, grinning and sweating.  The adrenaline began waning and I regained my breath and balance.  It felt awesome to tell that story to an audience for the first time.

“Man, that was one hell of a story,” I said.  “Anyways, in a couple weeks I gotta fly back to Atlanta and appear in court.  I should probably bounce out now, I’m already like six or ten drinks deep.  Swing by my place any time you wanna kick it, man.”

I turned around and hurried out the front door.  The outside air was frigid and refreshing, my face stiff from grinning.  With a shiver I marched down the sidewalk towards my parked car.

And when I approached my car I heard someone behind me.  Over my shoulder I saw a dark-clothed deputy, the moping figure from inside the bar.  He’d tailed me outside, but a homeless guy asked him for some change and exposed his advance.  The deputy shushed him, but the damage was done.

I passed by my parked car, stuffed my keys back into my pocket, and kept walking.  It was a twenty-minute walk to get home.  Despite its name, Oak City was just a glorified town.  I merged into the shadows between dim streetlamps, and when I glanced back the deputy stood by my car’s bumper writing something down.  I cursed under my breath and turned down a street corner, walking briskly out of sight.

Part Two

I woke up and made the choice to post the tire-demolished body to Slaughterpen.  Awe, disgust, and fear.  I couldn’t wait to feel it again.

I spent all my free hours that day studying Internet posts about how to stay anonymous online.  When the sun set on Saturday night, I wondered if I could somehow tweak my hardware to ensure that my online posts were untraceable, and I wondered if I was ever gonna go to prison, and I wondered if there was anything morallywrong with posting photographs of corpses online without anybody’s permission, and I wondered if any of my co-workers frequent Slaughterpen and might see my post, and I wondered if medication would help me feel normal, and I wondered if there was some better solution that I hadn’t thought of.

It was almost midnight.  Exhausted from hours of work and study, I couldn’t make sense of this technical bullshit.  I already downloaded and ran some files I found called VPN.exe, but I wasn’t sure if it worked as I expected.  To put my anonymity to the test, I found a medical stock photo of somebody’s hand and forearm.  Then I visited a forum that I remembered from surfing the Internet over a decade ago, a programming board full of absolute lifeless nerds with nothing but free time on their hands day after day after day.

I posted the picture with an attached message:

I’m testing out cutting-edge VPN software.  Try find out where I live.  I bet you cant 🙂

A minute and a half passed, then someone responded with an aerial photograph of my house on Google Maps along with the message:

Brush your teeth with a shotgun, faggot.

I heaved a deep breath and leaned back in my office chair.  The monitor on my desk glowed cold defeat.  The time I spent trying to keep anonymous had gone to waste in the eyes of Internet nerds.  So I did what I normally do when faced with tough adversity: I gave up.  With enough luck, the police aren’t hacking nerds like the kids on this forum, and the government is years behind on this kind of shit, especially in a backwater county like here, and I couldn’t imagine an old fart like Lou tracking down my location with an IP address.  And even then there’s plausible deniability, isn’t there?

It was time to brave Slaughterpen for the first time in over a decade.

I regarded the monochromous words of warning on the front page.  My head flooded with memories of the awful things I’d seen in decades past.  Car accidents, shooting victims, suicides.  Every now and then, there was a new image that really stuck with me.  The images you keep seeing after you close your eyes.  I tried not to think of those, but the words of the warning brought them back momentarily.  I think that’s what they wanted to warn us about.

I stowed the rotten feeling in my gut and clicked through the cautionary portal.  Instantly I was inundated with violent images.  The ad-bars were filled with violent pornography, the type of shit Patrick Bateman would probably dig.  I ignore it as best I could and focused my eyes while I scrolled through the online galleries of the dead.

Slaughterpen was active to this day, to my shock.  There were three picture gallery submissions today alone: tamil_suicidebomber, FailedSuicide, and rottweiler_robber.  Yesterday saw one submission, and none the day before, but four on the previous day.  Back in the early 2000s, this level of activity was unprecedented.

I unslacked my jaw and clicked into tamil_suicidebomber.  It was a gallery of five photographs, an Indian city street with a black scorch mark in the center of the road.  A huge mess of debris and people-parts littered the scene, some maimed and more dead.  I stared at the carnage for a brief moment, then scrolled past the photos and browsed the comments.

The guy with his arm in pieces looks like M. Night Shyamalan.”-dairycans

I couldn’t help but laugh.  That guy who might be dead today looked just like a guy I recognize!

FailedSuicide was a single photo.  A guy who missing his entire jaw and the lower half of his face including his nose, like a beast from some horrific fiction.  He was alive somehow, hunched over in a doctor’s office with a grim look in his eyes.  He must’ve tried to brush his teeth with a shotgun, as that kind commenter on another forum suggested I should do.

Now he’s REALLY got a reason for suicide.
-CaptainPlanet

[Removed]
-azn.inv4zn

I’ve been having a rough time lately.  Luckily, I stumbled across this site.  Now it doesn’t seem too big of a deal.
-Guest

And that was enough gore for today.  I felt sick to my stomach.

Sometimes it wasn’t the images that got to me.  The anonymous comments really got me.  The majority were callous jokes about victims and killers, and there were semi-legible rants about some such Jewish takeover of western civilization or what-have-you.  Occasionally a normal person or normie would come along and post a horrified reply expressing his or her disgust for the website, and those who frequent it would stand their ground quite zealously and put such people into their deserved place.

I couldn’t stomach any more tonight.  I tried to put it out of my mind while I accomplished my final task for the evening.

I made an account for myself, something I’d never done on Slaughterpen in the decade I spent perusing the banter of the disturbed, depraved, half-sane, and insane.  I stared at the monitor, and the empty box labeled Display Name stared back at me.  I became uncomfortable so I typed Del Fin, like my last name but split into two words.  I liked it.  It sounded cool and mysterious, and it rolled off the tongue.

I typed Del Fin into the box and I said, “You fuckin’ idiot.  Don’t use your real last name.  What are you thinking?”

Something occurred to me, and without thinking twice I typed Al Infierno instead.

Under the guise of Al Infierno I posted my photo from the other night and I cleverly named it Jawbreaker.

People often wrote blurbs or captions when they posted pictures of the dead and dying.  I thought it an odd tradition and didn’t know what to say, so I thought up something that might match my username.

Para la gloria
-Al Infierno

I thought it was pretty goddamn clever.  Don’t you?

Sunday was clear and bright.  I marched across the open field of the park wearing my old Atlanta Hawks jersey and a pair of loose jeans.  Idly my hands tossed a basketball into the air and caught it.  I stepped off the grass onto a cement court, where Victor dribbled around the hoop wearing athletic shorts and a plain T-shirt.

He was tanned and rough from being in the sun all the time, and wore faded black sunglasses over shaved dark hair.  He had a black sweatband around his forehead that said Oak High Basketball in army-green letters.

He called out to me as I approached: “What the fuck, man? Where you been?”

I approached the guy and said: “Yeah, I woke up late, bro.  I hit you up on Facebook to let you know ‘cause I don’t have a phone right now.  What’s good, man?”

“I don’t have Facebook on me.  I’ve been standing around here for an hour shooting hoops by myself.”

I chuckled.  “My bad, man.  So what’s up?”

“I wanna play.  Let’s go.”

The game commenced mano e mano.  I started on offense, dribbling down the court towards Victor.  My movements were slow and clumsy.  I’d only been awake an hour or so, and my joints felt like they were grinding rust.

“I’ve been surviving,” Victor finally answered.  He grabbed the ball and hurried towards my side of the court.  Short of breath, I struggled to keep up with him.  “Shit’s been kinda fucked up, you know?  Leslie still won’t let me see my daughter now.”

Victor shot it right over my head.  It sunk with a clean arc.

“Damn man,” I said.  “You can’t hit me with a bomb like that before taking a shot.  That’s gotta be against some rules.”

He smiled at me then continued: “It’s not justthat.  I’m dealing with some court bullshit too.  I don’t think I told you about this yet.”

I went around left and tried to drive inside to the basket, but Victor was too big and I couldn’t get past him.  I stopped, backed off, and took a quick shot.  The ball bounced off the board and tumbled out of bounds.  Victor fetched it.

“Yeah?” I said.  “Me too, bro.  What’s yours for?”

“I got caught up with acid in my car.  It wasn’t even for me man, I don’t do that shit.  I was with a friend who was picking it up.”

He lunged around me and leaped in the air, and slammed the ball into the bucket with a flashy windmill.

“Jesus, dude,” I said.  “You been practicing?”

“Yeah.  I got nothing else to do with myself when I’m off work, except drink I guess.  So I figure I might as well get good at something, you know?”

“Yeah, sure.”  I snorted.

I closed in on the opposing basket and tried to dribble the ball between my legs, but it bounced off my foot and Victor swiped it from me, took it across the court, and laid the dunk before I could catch up. 

Victor tossed the ball back at me and it smacked my chest.  The sun seemed hotter now.  I gritted my teeth and paced the half-court line with a slow dribble.  Victor kept up with my pace while I looked for an opening.  He was smirking.

I charged him head-on, then stopped abruptly a foot in front of him.  I launched the ball directly into his face and it bounced off his nose.  I snatched it back up and threw an easy jump shot from the free-throw line as he staggered around in battered bewilderment.  The ball bounced on the rim and then fell into the basket.  I hollered and clapped.

Victor was dazed.  He stumbled for a moment, covering his face with one hand.  Then he reacted.

“Dude, what the fuck?  Are we playing ball or are we just fuckin’ around on the jungle gym like a couplea six-year-olds?”

“I’m sorry man.”  I smiled.  “I couldn’t resist the one-off dirty play.  I finally got a basket though, so it’s all good.  Right?”

I went back into position to defend my side of the court.  The moment I turned to face him, he sprinted directly into my chest and knocked me flat on my ass.  I grunted when my ass hit the asphalt and skidded into the basketball post.  Victor leapt into the air and heaved the ball into the bucket with both hands.  He whooped loudly.

I looked down at myself.  My jeans were scraped and the backside of my jersey was smudged in black.

Grinning Victor walked over to my crumpled form.  He reached out a hand and said, “All right, we’re even now?”

I sprung upright and swung a punch across his jaw.  He stumbled and almost fell flat on the ground before he regained his balance.  He glared back at me, and my skull pulsed with rage.  We stared at each other for a long moment.

Victor marched over and socked me twice in the sternum before I could react.  I fell on the ground and couldn’t breathe.

“Fuckin’ little bitch,” Victor hissed.

I tried to say something, but squeaked and coughed.  I clutched my stomach, moaned, and rolled over.

Victor left the court fuming.  My ball dribbled on the pavement next to my head. 

I recomposed myself and could finally take a breath without coughing.  I pushed upright and looked around.  The park was empty except for a guy jogging and a dad with his kid by the swing-set.  I stood up with a quiver.

My vision was swimming again and I swayed.  My stomach felt gnarly as hell, like a culmination of many months’ hangover crashed down on me in the form of Victor’s hard fist.

I took my ball and lurched home.

“Fuckin’ asshole,” I snapped under my breath.  “See if I listen to your goddamn problems again.”

Later that evening, I roamed the bars in Downtown Oak City wearing a white lab coat, a pair of non-prescription thick-rim glasses, and clean black slacks.  I held a briefcase in one hand and a pocket-sized compendium of medical knowledge in the other.  Everywhere I looked people stared at me.  I relished in their eyes.

I marched down Main Street and glanced at my watch every now and then, making sure to look like I needed to be elsewhere.  I passed bars and restaurants, and the people sitting outside stared at me.  At this point, I couldn’t help myself: I was smiling.

And then like a gift from God, I made eye contact with a woman walking in my direction.  We exchanged an awkward momentary glance.  I stopped in front of her, cutting off her path and entrapping her in this exchange.

“Hi,” I said to her.

She sputtered nervously: “Uh, hey there.  Are you supposed to be a doctor for a movie or something?”

“No,” I said, “I’m a real surgeon.”

“Oh, uh, wow.  Really?”  She tried to edge around me.

“Yeah.  I used to work at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta,” I said, inching in front of her.

“Okay, then.”

“I do private practice now mostly.  Why do you ask, anyways?”

“What?” She looked away, inching in the other direction.  “Excuse me, I really gotta—”

“Hang on a second,” I said, reaching out to her.  She stopped before I touched her.  “You got to ask me a question.  Can I ask you one?”

She stared at me.  A small thicket of people passed us, engulfing us in a slow and steady throng of movement.  She tried to slip unnoticed into the flow of pedestrian traffic and disappear without answering me.  I stopped her and got angry, grabbing her wrist and speaking sharply: “Do you believe in the nobility of suicide?”

“Let go of me.” She snatched her hand from my grip and hurried off.

I decided not to pursue her.  With a chuckle I said, “Never mind.  It’s a vague, silly question.”

Grinning and sweating, I turned and marched down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.  I felt great, almost forgotten all about the whole Victor episode earlier.

Thirty minutes past midnight.  The TV was on, and I watched it through the distortion of twelve beer bottles on the begrimed table.  Next to the beer box there was a notepad at the table’s edge covered in semi-legible Sharpie scrawling.  It resembled a scrap of diary that someone might find in an abandoned asylum years after its closing.

I didn’t realize I was still wearing my doctor’s outfit until Joey knocked on the door.  I opened the door and Joey stared at me for a moment and said, “Dude, what the hell?”

I looked down at myself and realized my mistake.  I laughed nervously.

“Oh, yeah.  This is my costume from last year.  I was just, uh, seeing if it still fits.  I’m going to a Halloween party in a couple weeks.”

Joey came in and brushed the rain off his coat.  The wind roared outside.  He held his wet pizza-box hat under his armpit.  His hair soaked and dripped.

“What?  Isn’t it early for Halloween?  It’s still September.”

I shrugged.  “You’ve never met my family.  They’re a weird bunch.”

We sat down at our respective spots in front of the TV, Joey on the couch and me on my futon.  The standard positioning for anyone who ever visited the Delfin residence.  Nothing happened here except drinking, smoking, bullshitting, watching TV, and occasionally selling drugs.  I perched upon my futon-throne and let my visitors squabble over their spots on the filthy couch and the floor around the grime-encrusted table.

I didn’t want to change out of my costume now that I’d made up that lie to cover my ass.  I leaned back on my futon, propping myself at an obtuse angle with my elbows, and glanced over at Joey on the couch.

He said: “You never talk much about your family.  What’s up with them?”

“They’re a weird bunch,” I repeated.

“Are they from around here?”

“No.  They’re in Atlanta.”

“Oh, right.  I forgot you’re flying back for that court bullshit.”

I spotted a crucial opportunity and made something up.  “Yeah, so — you know.  That’s why we’re doing the Halloween thing early.  Making up for the holidays I’m gonna miss in prison, ya know?”

Joey laughed warmly.  “That’s cool.  Kinda weird, but in a sweet way.”

I chuckled and shrugged.  “Yeah.  Like I said.  Weird bunch.”

He cracked open the 24-ounce can of beer that he brought over for himself.  He took a big gulp and set it down on the table next to my bong.  Joey started packing himself a bowl of my weed and looked over at me, meeting my annoyed glare.

“Sorry, dude,” Joey said.  “I just got off work, and I didn’t have time to stop and grab my bud.  I’ll bring it next time and get you back for this time and last time.  I promise.”

“Right.”

“Shit, thanks man,” Joey smiled.  “How’s it been hanging, anyways?”

“Okay, I guess.  Not good, but you know.  Whatever.”  I pointed at the can in his hand.  “You bring any of those for me, Jo?  You owe me for those IPAs too.  Remember?”

Joey shrugged.  “My bad, man.  I kinda forgot, and honestly I figured you were drunk already anyways.”

“Thanks a lot, then.” I laid flat on my back.  Staring at the ceiling, I vowed to ride out the buzz of the six-pack I’d killed earlier.  My futon was comfy and I didn’t want to venture into the rain.  But seconds passed before I changed my mind. 

I rose from the futon, feeling dizzy and light-headed.  I saw stars in the corners of my eyes and swayed on my feet.  I leaned, caught my breath, sat down, and stood back up.

“I’m gonna hit the store,” I said.

“Alright.  I’ll be here watching SportsCenter.  Hawks and Dubs.  I’ll let you know if the Hawks busted off any spicy plays.  I kinda doubt it, though.”

“Fuck off, Jo.”

“Warriors shut you down, baby!”

The front door slammed shut behind me.  I drove through heavy rain to the liquor store.  Maybe I should just kick Joey out when I get home.  He was already getting on my nerves.  On the other hand, having him around made me feel a bit better.  My friendship with Joey was a vertigo of cognitive dissonance.  I wondered if that’s how all people feel about their closest friends.

I parked in front of the liquor store, got out of my car, and shielded myself from the rain while I rushed inside.  I went straight to the beer fridges, grabbed a six-pack, and brought it to the counter.

There was one person in front of me in line.  The cashier looked pale.  He glanced at me, then back at the customer, who spoke lividly.

“Are you really sure?” the customer said.  “Are you really, reallysure?  I mean, come the fuckon man.”

Waiting patiently, I admired the clean tile floors again.  It dawned on me that the customer in front of me wasn’t ringing anything up to the register.

“Look, man,” he continued, “I’ve got hooks that can get me keys for way cheaper than that.  You’re just tryna fuckin’ middle-man me, you fuck.”

The cashier opened his mouth and his voice squeaked.  He pointed behind the talking man, at me.

Silence.

The man turned around.  I recognized him now.  He was that creepy stocky homeless guy in the same store last week.  Jaredwas his name.  But his face looked worse now.  His hair was darker, rougher, grimier.  It looked like he hadn’t slept since last time he was in this very store.

“How did you—,” I started, then cut short and stuttered.  I said again.  “How did you not see me walk in just now?  I’m not gonna call the cops on you man.  I just want my fuckin’ beer.”

The creepy bastard gave me the ocular pat-down, and he took a step toward me.

“You sure about that?” he said.  “Why are you dressed like that, anyways?  You a doctor or something?”

I opened my mouth to speak but found no words.

He buried both his hands into his sweatshirt pocket and pulled one out and held it forward.  It was an ID card with a sheriff’s deputies badge and a picture of his own haggard face and crazed eyes. 

He said, “What’s your name, kid?”

“Nuh.  Nate.  Nathan.  Nathan Delfin.”

“Delfin?  That sounds familiar.” Deputy Jared didn’t break eye contact.  “Are you sure it’s not something else?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not Al Infierno, are you? You match his description.  He’s got a warrant out for his arrest.  Something to do with manslaughter.”

I said nothing.

Jared pulled his other hand out of his sweatshirt pocket.  He pointed at me a kitchen knife coagulated in blood and sticky black hair.

He gestured with the blade and said, “All right, Nuh-Nuh-Nathan.  Turn around, get on your knees, and put your hands on your head.”

I glanced at the cashier.  He was gone now, hiding behind the counter.

Sweating profusely I obeyed.  I turned away from Jared and got down on my knees facing the beer refrigerators and put my hands on my head.  He walked behind me and grabbed my scalp and put the blade to my throat.

I awoke with a shout on my futon.  The TV was on and Joey held his beer on the couch, staring at me in horror.

He said: “Jesus Christ.  What the fuck’s wrong, dude?”

“Holy shit.  I just had a nightmare.  How long was I out?”

“Shit, I dunno.  An hour?  Just been watching SportsCenter.”

“You were gonna let me know if the Hawks busted off any plays.  And they didn’t, because the Warriors won.  Yeah.  Fuck off.”

Joey was silent for a moment.  “Damn, man.  I didn’t think you’re salty about it.  I just thought you were busy and didn’t see the game.”

“Yeah I was.  Busy I mean, not salty.”

I laid back on my futon, damp with cold sweat and breathing hard.  The edges of my vision throbbed, and I pinched myself to see if I’m still dreaming.

It’s not like anybody could directly link Nathan Delfin to that post I made on Slaughterpen.  Could they?

Lost in thought at work, I parked the big brown delivery truck in front of someone’s house and said out loud:

“How easy is it to track someone down over the Internet?”

Victor was in the passenger seat holding a big brown package.  He glared at me.  Ever since the basketball incident on Sunday, we hadn’t exchanged a word except out of necessity to do our jobs.  I drove the truck and Victor delivered the packages.  We only had to talk when we had to carry something big and heavy.  Now I realized I’d chosen my first words to him since the basketball incident, and Victor replied:

“What?”

I looked for my next words.  My mouth hung agape and I did not find them.

“Shut the fuck up,” Victor said.  He didn’t look at me.

I stared out the windshield and turned the question over in my head.  It was really bothering me now.  No matter how obscure, someone could link that submission to Nathan Delfin.  I needed to delete it.

When I clocked out, I jumped into my car and raced home, blew through a red light just as it changed, and parked lopsidedly in the street in front of my driveway.  I sprinted inside and left the front door swinging open.

My brown uniform soaking in sweat, I ran into my study and dropped myself in front of the computer.  The old fossil of a machine turned on excruciatingly slowly.  I danced anxiously in my chair while I waited.

I logged onto Slaughterpen and stared in disbelief at the front page.  My contribution had garnered over a thousand comments.  I scrolled in disbelief over the expected commentary making fun of the victim in question.  Aside from a dozen or so comments lamenting Jewish control of American banks, I noticed a strange trend.  A prominent topic of the week was the original poster himself, Al Infierno.  Somehow this Al guy snapped a picture of a dying woman before any emergency personnel showed up on the scene.  Who is this Al guy, anyways?  Maybe a disgruntled first responder.

I could only stare in disbelief.  I never imagined myself doing this: Providing original content for a gore website.  I fed the Internet, and the Internet had consumed.  Now the Internet wanted more of Al Infierno, and only I could provide.

I turned off my computer.  My head pumped.  I walked to my living room and laid down on my futon.  The TV was still on the news from the night before.  I laid still staring at the ceiling, and I smiled.

The dopamine was slipping through my fingers.  I needed more.

Part Three

The weeks dragged by slowly and painfully.

A Friday night after work.  My ass was firmly planted on my futon-throne, my eyes fixed on the Oak County News.  I watched and I waited for the big news.

On the TV there were reports of a man who’d been torturing stray cats.  All cat owners were advised to keep their furry friends indoors at all times.  There have been no witnesses, and nothing is known about the perpetrator.  Next up, a teenage babysitter was arrested after leaving a toddler alone in a hot tub.  He went to have sex with his girlfriend, and when he returned, the toddler was face-down at the bottom of the tub.  I wore a smelly tank top and my work pants, sipping my third IPA and closely watching the news.  I didn’t want to miss a single thing.  I was starting to see patterns, but nothing I could make sense of.  I was nervous about missing something important.

The doorbell rang.  I chugged the second half of my beer and lumbered over to the door and peered out the peephole.  I thought my heart stopped.

Another ring of the bell, and then a thunder of heavy knocks came from the front door.  I swallowed and hesitated before confidently swinging open the front door.

His upturned khaki baseball cap had a badge embroidered on it.  His retinas were light blue, almost white.  He was tall and heavyset with a permanent grimace engraved into the folds of his aged cheeks, even when he was smiling.  His expression was like he’d just reunited with a long-lost childhood friend.

“Well hello there, Nate,” Sheriff Lou Barnes said.

“Hello, Sheriff.  How are you doing?”

“Oh, you can call me Lou.  It’s been a while.” He reached out his hand to shake, and I did so weakly.  Lou gestured through the door.  “You mind if I come in?”

“Not at all.” I ushered Lou into my home.  He shut the door behind himself.

“This really is a lovely place you got for yourself,” Lou said.  He strutted through the weed-reeking living room into my kitchen.  I hurried after him and followed him to the table covered in court paperwork.

“Sheriff, I can explain.  I’m flying back to Atlanta to deal with that soon.”

Lou chuckled heartily.  “Oh, I’m sure you will, Nate.  I’m not worried about that.  I’m just wondering what you’re still doing here, is all.”

“How do you mean, sir?”

He looked me in the eyes with that big dumb grin.  “I mean, you ain’t exactly popular.  I get calls about you pretty frequently.  Some pretty funny things people say about you.”

“What kinds of things, Sheriff?”

“Funny things.” He shook his head.  “Someone told me you killed your mom and dad, and that’s why you live here.  All alone.  Buried ‘em out back.”

“Sheriff, whoever said that is talking crazy.  My parents live in Atlanta.  I can prove it.”

Lou cackled.  “I know that, son.  I’m just clownin’ ya.  Say, is your car in the garage?  It’s not in the shop for wheel work, is it?”

I stammered.  “Yeah, it is.  Here, I mean.”

Lou’s cartoonish expression didn’t change.  “Do you mind if I take a look?”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t you know why I’m here?”

“I think I do sir.”

“After you.”  He gestured to the garage door.

I cleared my throat.  “Okay.  Let’s go.”

I entered the garage and Lou followed me.  He paced around my car.  My front tires and bumper were smeared in dark-red and brown.  Something had cracked the windshield.  The garage stunk of disinfectant.

Sheriff Lou chuckled while he appreciated the damage to the car.  “It sure has been a while, Nate.  How’s life been treating you?”

“I dunno.  I can’t complain, I guess.”

Lou smiled.  He put his hands on his belt buckle.  With one elbow he pushed the flap of his jacket open as if inadvertently.  There was a large revolver holstered on his hip.

“You seem to be getting by just fine, friend.  Not many people can afford a house like yours on a delivery boy’s salary.  Not in today’s housing market.  How’d you pull it off?”

I stammered again.  “My parents pay for it, actually.”

“Well, then.  Lucky you.  Your boy Joey doesn’t have such a fortunate family.  He has to put himself up in a crappy little apartment downtown.  Now, I didn’t tell you to stop walking, did I?”

I glanced around.  We both stood in my garage with no door but the kitchen door behind us.  After slacking my jaw for a second, I said:

“Walking?”

“That’s right.  Do you wanna keep walking, Nate?  Or you wanna stop right where you are?”

I swallowed, turning the question in my head.  I nodded slowly.

He shifted his eyes at the bolted safe in the far corner.  “Then keep walking.”

My voice cracked.  “It’s all yours, Lou.”

He laughed.  “I’m no scumbag, son.  I’m not trying to ruin a man’s means of living.  I just need to keep me and my family warm through next winter.  You hear me?”

“Sure, Lou.  I hear you.”

I approached the safe at implied gunpoint, crouched to the dial, and spun the combination.  I pulled open the safe door and gestured to the stack of brown envelopes.

Lou brushed me aside reaching a thick paw into my safe and grabbed an envelope for himself.  He ripped it open and peered inside with a big beam.

“Traveler’s checks?”  He raised his brows and cackled.  “What in the hell?  What were you saying about your family in Atlanta?”

I smirked gingerly.  “They’re a weird bunch.  They want to have Halloween early this year.”

I led the sheriff to the front door and he reached for a goodbye shake.

“It was good catching up.”  Lou’s smile was bigger and toothier now.  “I almost had a deputy check the place out, but I’m glad I didn’t.  Seeing as we’ve got a lots in common.”

“Sure,” I said.  “See you again soon, Sheriff.”

I shook Lou’s hand and laughed nervously.  The sheriff’s grip was like a happy gorilla.

“You better hope so.”  Lou let me go and marched out the front door.  I shut it behind him.

The next moments were a blur.  My world collapsed around me and I hid on my futon and wrapped in an armor of bedsheets, trembling violently until the doorbell rang again.

I sauntered over to the front door, wrapped in my bedsheets.  I peeked through the peephole, expecting to see the black shirt and red tie of my old friend at the Death Rattle.

I let out a sigh of relief.  With a lopsided smile, I opened the door for my guests.  It was Anton and one of his chick friends from the Death Rattle.

Anton laughed when he regarded me.  “Hey, man.  Is this a bad time? I tried calling you, but I guess your phone’s off.”

My voice was low and shaky.  “Naw.  Come on in, man.”

Anton and his friend came into my home.  I lurched to my living room wearing a robe of dirty sheets and perched upon my futon.  My guests stood in the doorway, shy to make themselves comfortable in the tenant’s filth.

“You guys wanna beer?” I mumbled, my eyes fixed on the TV.

Anton cleared his throat.  “Actually, we’re kinda busy right now, but I wanted to know if we could get some weed off you.”

“How much?”

“An eighth,” the girl replied and held out thirty dollars folded in one hand.  Apparently Anton had promised this bitch my friends-only weed price.  I glared at them both in succession before forcing a grin and nodding.

“Sure,” I said.  I got up and sauntered into my sacred computer room.  I grabbed the weed jar behind the bookcase with the fake wall filled with two ounces of weed in pre-weighed baggies.  I produced an eighth-ounce baggie and lurched back into the living room with a grumble.

The landline rang in the living room, and I was shocked to learn it still works.

I dropped on the futon and threw the weed bag at the girl with an aggressive overhand pass. 

“Here ya go,” I grunted.  She caught it awkwardly, and then dropped the money on the table next to the six pack.

“Thanks,” Anton said.  “See ya later.”

I cracked open my fourth IPA and my two guests let themselves out.  The front door thudded shut behind them.

Now more than ever I wasn’t sure if the news was encoded with secret messages.  Most stories were typical Oak County reports: tales of woe and pictures of crying faces and dead bodies intermixed with important city council measures.  But there were some stories sprinkled in the news that just didn’t fit.  A report about cracks in the sidewalk in Downtown Oak City.  The camera panned to a shot of a sidewalk with a crack going across it.  The shot lingered for a long moment.  The woman on the news discussed how the sidewalk posed a danger to pedestrians using it, yet the city had not repaired it.

I didn’t understand any of it.  There was more to it that I wasn’t seeing, but I didn’t know where to look, and the harder I looked, the further the truth eluded me.  A few minutes before midnight, a loud knock resounded on my front door.  I looked out my peephole before letting the guest inside.

I opened the door and said, “What’s up, Jo?”

Joey took the pizza-box hat off his head as he entered.  “Shit, nothing.  Just got off work.  I need a fuckin’ bowl though, man.”

“I’m guessing you forgot your bud again?”

“Nah, man.  I just got off work.  I didn’t bring it with me.  Next time I roll by, I got you.”

Joey sat down at his spot on the begrimed couch.  As usual, he prepared a hit of my weed as if it were his own.

I grunted.  “Yeah, you’ve been saying that.  Are you ever gonna come when you actually have some fucking weed?”

“Soon, man.  I’ve just been busy.  Shit, I’m sorry man.  I know it’s fuckin’ annoying.  I feel you.” He smoked the hit.

“Sure.  You feel me.”

I watched the TV.  Joey rambled on.

“Man, it was super fucked today.  You know what happened?  Someone called in and said we had a drunk driver.  My boss flipped the fuck out and assumed it was me.  He basically almost fired me before someone told him it wasn’t me, it was fuckin’ Toby.  Goddamn.” He grabbed one of my IPAs and opened it.

I watched him and said, “Hey, man.  You should unzip your pants, too.  Let me suck your dick while you’re smoking all my bud, drinking all my beer, and tellin’ me all your fuckin’ problems.  When are you gonna ask me out?”

Joey laughed loudly.  “Seriously, I fuckin’ promise you.  I’m gonna get you back for everything.”

“When?”

Joey shrugged.  “Sometime this week I’ll roll through during the day before I work.  I’ll buy you beers and give you bud for the shit I smoked.  Sound good?”

“Sure.”

“All right.” Joey chugged a quarter of his IPA.  “Thanks, man.  Today was fuckin’ bullshit.  This is just what the doctor prescribed.”

The landline started ringing again.  It was an antique sounding ring, like one you would hear in an old movie or a haunted house.  Joey jumped at the sound.

He said, “Your phone’s back up?”

“Nah.  That’s just the landline.  I don’t use it, though.  I didn’t know it still works.”

“You gonna pick it up?” Joey asked.

“Nah.” I laughed.

“Why not?”

“It’s probably just a telemarketer,” I said.

Joey laughed too.  He took another sip of his beer, and soon the ringing stopped.

I sipped on my beer and zoned out for a while.  We both just stared at the hypnotic glow of the television.  Hours passed in silence.

“Shit, man,” Joey choked on his beer and coughed.  I awoke from a daze.  “Is it cool if I change this?  I’m pretty sure we’ve watched this same news segment three times now.  I don’t think it’s gonna say anything new tonight.”

I kept staring at the screen.  “Hold on.  There was something I think I missed here.”

“What?”

The landline started ringing again.

Joey looked at me.  “You sure that’s not important?  It might be a lawyer trying to give you a settlement or something.  Who knows?” He laughed and sank back into the couch.

I grumbled.  “I dunno, dude.  I guess I’ll get it.” I stood up and lumbered over to the phone by the TV.  I grabbed the receiver and held it to my ear.

“Hello?” I said.

A woman’s voice spoke in monotone: “Is this the end?”

“Uh, what was that? I didn’t —,” I choked.

She spoke slowly and enunciated.  “Nathan Delfin.  Does he still live there?”

“N-No, I’m sorry,” I said.  “Mister Delfin moved out.  This is Martin Cosby.”

“Oh, okay.”  The woman droned on.  “Sorry to bother you, Mister Cosby.”

“No problem.” I hung up, then turned around and faced Joey.  He had bewilderment painted on his face.  His mouth hung open, and I could hear air escape his mouth while he said nothing.

“Telemarketer,” I shrugged.

“Oh.  Of course.”  He chuckled weakly.

Perched back on my throne with my beer, we continued watching the news — repeating tonight’s segment for the third time now. 

I watched the television intently.  After a few minutes, I turned to Joey and said: “Hey, man.  I got a random question for you.”

“Heh, hold on,” Joey said, “I should probably smoke another bowl for this.”

“Do you believe in the nobility of suicide?”

For the moment that Joey paused, I wanted to explode in laughter.  The dipshit looked funny the way he sat there in his bright-red delivery shirt and pizza-box hat with his dumb-ass mouth-breathing stare, holding a nugget of weed in his hand, like a hypnotized monkey dressed as a twenty-something pot-smoking pizza delivery guy going nowhere in life.  I realized that a monkey would probably be more insightful than Joey, do his job better than him, and also keep his life together and get laid more often than Joey.  I laughed.

Joey finally started spewing some total fucking nonsense like usual. 

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he said.  “For sure.  You mean like Kurt Cobain, right?  I feel like his suicide was pretty noble.  You know?”

“Yeah.”  I stopped listening and turned my attention back to the news.

“You know, it’s also kinda like that dude who shot himself on TV back in the day, you know, I feel like that shit was pretty noble ‘cause he was like, making a statement about media corruption and shit, and how if you don’t—”

After Joey finally left, I sauntered into my study and planted myself in front of my computer.  I shed my shell and emerged into a more comfortable skin.

Al Infierno turned on his computer.  He opened a web browser and the home page was Slaughterpen.  He scrolled down the front page and smiled.

The picture he’d submitted last night became more popular than Jawbreaker.  Al Infierno was a fixture on Slaughterpen now that he was a regular and posted his second completely original submission, verifiable by reverse Google search.  Most people speculated that Al was a cop or an EMT, since he shows up to crime scenes before anyone else.  He’d probably get busted sooner or later and disappear from Slaughterpen, some speculated.

He grinned and read the comments section like it was an engrossing novel, forgotten all about the dead homeless guy he’d photographed last week for his second post.  He only remembered the nickname he’d made up for the title: dan_BrownStain.  Dan’s body was a lotnastier than that first woman.

Al almost felt embarrassed saving the picture.  The homeless idiot was sleeping right in the shoulder of the road and Al just hit the gas instead of the brakes at the same time that he twisted the wheel and drove straight into the shoulder where Dan happened to be sleeping.  The poor guy shit himself immensely.  Al couldn’t stop laughing when he went to snap the picture.  There was more shit than blood.  Dan lifted his arm and was calling Al a son-of-a-bitch in the last photo.

Al’s only concern was the Slaughterpenners and what they thought.  He scrolled the comments section and wanted to cry with joy.  There were people acknowledging him and speaking his name.  He was a new thing, the newest Slaughterpen contributor that people talked about, and he’d found a home.  For the sake of anonymity, he limited his interactions to the same fragment of improvised Spanish:

Para la gloria”                                                                       
-Al Infierno

By four a.m., Al had read every comment on both threads multiple times.  He reclined in his chair and stretched his back.  His spine cracked and his muscles ached, locked in an unnatural posture for hours on end, planted in front of the computer and immersed in his little happy pen.  It was an early morning sunrise when he finally disconnected himself and got some real rest.

I woke up feeling like shit.

Tuesday was a brief respite from the worst week of my life.  I thought about this while I drove home from work.  I had nothing to worry about except for going to prison.  I may have missed my court date but if I avoided getting pulled over, that wouldn’t even matter.  The Hawks won against the Cavaliers today, so it seemed like a good end to the week.  I’d call in sick for the rest of the week and kick the weekend off early.  When I called my boss he was surprisingly calm about the matter.

After recovering from a depressive episode I got drunk, went out into the night, and procured some new original content that only Al Infierno can provide for the greedy Internet.  But Al wanted to wait until Friday before submitting, when most Penners would be off work and activity at its peak.

When I got home that night I went right to the study and sat down at my computer just like I did every other day after work.  Al wanted to visit Slaughterpen again.  I shed my skin and became him.  No new posts.

If Al wanted to stay relevant, he needed to keep up.  The Internet was a pitless stomach lined with teeth.  No content could ever sate it.  The pen is a ravenous void that depletes everything it touches, and still needs more.  The latest subject matter happened to be riding a bicycle when Al’s car hit him.  Both his broken legs were tangled in gears and wheels.  Al named him Bike_Mike.  That was all he could remember about Monday.

While the computer booted slowly Al Infierno zipped up his uncomfortable Nathan disguise and left the house to buy beer.

The sky was orange with the setting sun behind dark rainclouds.  I pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store and hopped out of my car, hurrying through the rain through the swinging doors and grabbing my usual six-pack from the fridge in the back and taking it to the counter. 

There were four people in front of me, and someone grabbed some cheap tequila and got in line behind me.  The crowd wracked my nerves.  I wasn’t sure if somebody might recognize me, but if I could keep it together I might get home safely.

I stared at the floor and wondered how these tiles always stayed so clean.  They were all alwaysspotless and reflective.  The line dwindled as people paid for their various chemical fixes and left.

The customer in front of me blurted out: “Tyler.  What’s up, man?”

My attention peaked and my heart stopped in horror.  I remembered Tyler, the awful fellow Jared warned us all about.  I wasn’t ready to face Tyler yet.  I didn’t want to know the face of a man who tortured puppies for fun.  A man who stomps on their backs and watches the way they move around.

I opened my eyes and my vision tunneled and my heart raced.  Something was off.  The man at the front of the line held a phone to his ear.  “I’m coming to pick you up now.  Fuckin’ Christ, dude.  Be patient.”  He hung up, paid for his alcohol, and hurried out the exit.

I watched the man leave, sweating and blinking.  The cashier waved me down.  He smiled and said:

“How’s it hangin’, Al?”

My head jolted upright and I looked him in the eyes.  It was like I’d been woken from a deep sleep. 

“What did you just call me?” I said.

The cashier paused.  He had a familiar expression of concern.  “I was just asking how’s it going.”

In a panic, I grabbed the beers and ran out the glass doors without paying and threw myself into the driver’s seat of my car.  I set the beers down into the passenger’s footwell and roared out of the parking lot as fast I could.  My head swayed and stars circled my vision.

Unable to maintain concentration I stomped on the brakes, closed my eyes, and awaited the end.

The sky was dark and heavy rain pattered against the windshield.  I’d crashed into another car in the parking lot, its alarm blaring as peopled gathered in the shopfronts.  I reared back half-conscious and veered around into the street, doubling home as fast as possible before a cop could see my license plate and pull me over and recognizing me as Al Infierno.

Back at home Al dropped into the filth-encrusted chair in front of his computer.  He needed something to make himself feel better.  He was shaken from that episode at the liquor store.  He couldn’t believe how close he had gotten to letting himself get caught, so he went ahead and blew his new load.  He posted Bike_Mike on Slaughterpen and awaited new views and comments. 

He powered his computer off to allow his crops some growth before reaping.  If Al slept now, he could check the comments tomorrow morning and the fields will be ripe for harvest, the happiest moment of the season.

With a loud knock on the front door I jumped in my chair.  I was aware of the rain outside, the thunder in the distance, and the hunger pains in my stomach.

Hunched in the darkness, I answered the front door.  Heavy rainfall crashed on the street and the cars parked outside.  The wind was a constant whine.

“Shit, man,” Joey said.  “What’s up?”

He came right in soaking wet dressed in a black hoodie, backwards baseball cap, and blue jeans instead of his work garb.  He proudly carried a six-pack of 4% Rolling Rocks that he dropped on the table in the living room next to a pile of empty IPA bottles. 

“Look at that, man,” he said.  “I finallycame through like I said I would.  You can have four of these.  I figure that’s about the same as the two IPAs I took.  Right?”

I stared at the six pack on the grimy table and I grimaced. 

“I can’t drink that shit, Jo,” I said.

“What?  You some kinda beer snob?”

“No dude,” I snapped and stood up.  “I can’t drink that fucking shit.  It gives me stomachaches.  I need my alcohol to be at least 10% give or take.”

Joey twisted the cap off a bottle and sat on the couch.  “Shit man, I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.  Look, I’m already here.  I’ll get you back for the beers later.  I brought some bud for you at least.”

He pulled a plastic baggie out of his pocket and threw it towards me.

“You can take like, four or five rips outta there,” Joey said.  “Sound good?”

“I’m pretty sure you took more than just five hits of my bud.”

“Yeah, but your shit’s boosie as fuck.”  Joey laughed.  “I pay more for my bud.”

“You get it from Freddy, don’t you?  I bet he gave you the same shit for more than I paid.”

Joey cackled.  “Yeah, still.  Okay, fine.  Six bowls?”

I helped myself to some of Jo’s bud.  He leaned back on the couch and started pounding back a light beer.  We watched the Oak County News in silence for a while. 

The TV showed a security camera recording of a liquor store robbery from somewhere in New York City.  The cashier emptied the register and the masked crook stuffed the money into a bag, shot the cashier three times, and ran out the door.

Joey said: “Hey, Nate.  I don’t really feel like seeing dead bodies and shit right now.  Can we change this?”

I grunted.  “Fine.”

Joey sipped on his beer in silence and changed the channel.

Al spent his whole sick day browsing Slaughterpen.  The reap of his third harvest was grim and scarce.  The top post today, for God knows what reason, was not his original content Bike_Mike.  His content only garnered one comment versus the dozens that a lazy Halfheadmoped repost gained.  Apparently Mike on his bike had died in vain for such a brainless audience.

He racked his brain to make sense of it.  Al sighed, staring blankly into the monitor.  He stood up and stretched and walked out of the computer room and sauntered into the kitchen.

I felt light-headed and uneasy when drifting through the house.  My court paperwork was all spread out on the kitchen table, begging my attention.  I dutifully ignored it.  I went to the fridge and grabbed a partial twelve-pack of IPAs, setting it on the table in front of my futon-throne.  Minutes passed before I got back up and wandered into my computer room and scrolled onto Slaughterpen like a junky refreshing his needle.

There was a new comment on Bike_Mike today.  Giddy with anticipation, I opened the thread and scrolled down and read the new comment as fast humanly possible and — everything started spinning, like I was drunk and dreaming. 

I stood up from my chair.  I opened my mouth to say something, to try and keep my head straight, but nothing meaningful came to mind.  I read the comment again:

Al Infierno’s a shitlord who lives in Oak City, Oregon.  Here’s his house on Google Maps.
-Guest

They went to the trouble of embedding an aerial screenshot of my home into the comments.  An anonymous guest killed my anonymity.  My only hope now was to disappear for real.  I stood from the desk and ran away from the computer hyperventilating in  a mad panic.

Part Four

Martin Cosby wandered the streets of Downtown Oak, carrying his briefcase and miniature medical compendium in each hand.  Many people stared at him and his odd outfit.  He didn’t look quite right.  Nobodythought he looked right.  But he looked like a doctor with his white lab coat, khaki pants, and a nametag reading Martin Cosby, M.D.

He sauntered across the street and past a little pizza place with three outdoor tables.  As he went by, the families outside stopped their conversations and looked at him.  He stopped walking, and he stared back at them all.  It was the longest and most agonizing moment.

Martin put out a pleading hand and begged, “Please, don’t!  You don’t know what they’ll do to me.”

He took off running down the street and rounded a corner so that everyone who’d seen him was out of sight.  Martin hid in an alley between two bars, doubled over and catching his breath.  His head felt light and his vision was dim and blurry around the edges.  He swayed and his stomach cried in agony.  He was seeing stars again, worryingly frequent.

After a few minutes he exited the alley and kept moving, trying his best to blend into the crowd after that close call.

The sun hung in the evening sky.  Martin Cosby didn’t know where to go, because anywhere he might sleep would have cops waiting for him.  But downtown was discreet enough he might not be noticed.  There were some couples dining, a few cars driving, and a family walking.  Martin had never noticed how weird it was that cars were just driving around all the time.  It was crazy the idea that people drive cars around so closely together and right past people at such high speeds, it’s amazing that more people don’t just—

Tires screeched, and there was a sound like a bomb, an air-splitting bangfollowed by raining glass.  One person screamed, and someone else shouted.  Martin Cosby, M.D., felt light-headed and the world spun around him.  He stood dumbly on the sidewalk and wondered what the hell was going on.

He stumbled towards the traffic wreck in the middle of the intersection.  He was drawn toward it.  He wanted to take out his phone and take a picture of it, but people were around so that might draw attention.  It was a nice accident, but he had to let the opportunity go to preserve Martin’s anonymity like that anonymous asshole had not preserved Nathan’s anonymity.

Martin got closer until he stood ten feet away from the scene and the people grouped around it who now looked at him.  An SUV had blown through a red light and T-boned a blue sedan.  There were no cops or EMTs around yet.  The sparse crowd, such as they were, waited in awe as Martin Cosby, M.D., assessed the situation, and as the seconds turned to minutes onlookers looked upon themselves and finally someone said:

“A doctor.”

“You’re going to be okay, hang on.”

Martin stood in dumb awe.  He was light-headed and on the verge of consciousness.  His appearance were his credentials now, and he was the doctor at the scene of an accident.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said.  “Martin Cosby, M.D.  What seems to be the problem?”

“Look at him.  His arm’s coming off.”

Martin laughed anxiously.  “Sorry.  I’m a bit on edge.  Everyone step back, please.  I need to diagnose him.”

Everyone did exactly what Martin said.  The pseudo-doctor approached the bleeding man in the street.  The guy was on the verge of consciousness, but seemed relieved to see Martin.  The mangled man said something incoherently.  Martin kneeled down to inspect the man’s wounds.

“You’re fine,” Martin said.  “You’ll be okay.” He turned his head up to the crowd.  “His muscles and bones were apparently torn in the twisted metal.  He seems to have multiple compound fractures.  It’s really bad.  I need to operate right away.”

The crash victim fainted.  Martin laid out his briefcase and opened it.  Inside was an assortment of gleaming surgical tools stinking of disinfectant.  The pseudo-doctor rifled through the briefcase and produced two saws.

“Jesus,” one onlooker gasped.  “What are you doing?”

“He’s a doctor,” another cried.  “Just let him work!”

“Shut up,” Martin said.  He grabbed his pocket-sized medical compendium and flipped it open to a page about amputation, then started reading.  “‘In order to avoid symptoms of syncope in the patient, the proper drugs must be administered in appropriate amounts.’ Syncope, by the way, means loss of consciousness.”

Martin closed his briefcase and got to work.  He shoved a rock into the unconscious victim’s mouth to keep him from biting.  Martin placed the teeth of the saw against the guy’s arm and he was shocked by the amount of blood that came out when he started sawing, seeing how he’d never actually done this before.

A few people turned away and vomited, and some onlookers made the effort to pull out their phones and start recording.  Everyone else watched with morbid curiosity.

A friendly face in the crowd shouted: “Hey man!”

Martin fell away and there I stood, alone and vulnerable and covered in blood.  To my horror Joey was among the onlookers, drinking one of my IPAs with a smug smile.

I cried out, “What are you doing, Joey?”

Joey laughed.  “What are you doing, Nate?”

“I’m not Nathan.  I’m a doctor.  I’m saving this guy’s life!”

And then I vomited.  I couldn’t hold it together anymore, I vomited and my world spun violently.  I tried to regain myself but I stumbled backwards and fell flat on the ground.  The sky was dull and gray and I faded out of consciousness.  The next thing I saw was the deputy’s face hovering over me, eyes furrowed in a serious expression.  I recognized him, the man in black with a red tie who pursued me at the Death Rattle that night.  What was his name, again?

He asked me a question.  I didn’t know how to answer the question.  It was a vague, silly question.  The man in the dark shirt and red tie waited across the table for an answer. 

A full minute passed before I just shrugged.  He stared at me with a hollow expression and leaned forward.  I twiddled my hands between my knees. 

“I want you to think about it, Nathan.”  He didn’t blink or break eye contact.  “I want you to really think.”

“All right,” I said.

“I’m gonna leave you alone for a while.  Think about it.  Okay?”

The man turned toward the door.

“Wait,” I said.  “What was your name again?”

He man glanced over his shoulder and said nothing.  He exited and the door next to the mirror clicked as it locked behind him.

My image in the mirror was pale and tired like I hadn’t slept in weeks.  I saw a crackhead’s mugshot, not my own reflection.  Hunger pinched my stomach, but I had no appetite.

Fifteen minutes passed before the deputy reappeared.  He shut the door calmly behind him and sat down, maintaining dark-ringed and forlorn eye contact.

He said, “Do you have an answer for me?”

“What was the question again?  I wanted to ask that after I got your name.”

Visibly frustrated, the deputy hesitated before repeating himself:

“Where exactly in your life and why did you lose your humanity?”

I thought I knew the answer, but not how to make him understand.  I didn’t break eye contact and I smiled.

“I never lost anything,” I blurted out.  “I found my calling.  I’m Al Infierno, a celebrity in the underground.  You probably haven’t heard of me.”

“Actually, I do know about Al Infierno.  But not ‘cause you’re famous.  I found Amber Walker the night you killed her and posted her body online.  Then you killed two other men and did the same thing.”

He was visibly angry now.  I leaned back in my chair and smiled softly before I spoke.

“I’m no different than the county news.  I just have a smaller audience.”

The deputy shook his head.  “You’re a murderer,” he said.

“I’m famous,” I reiterated with a grin.  “I’m Al Infierno.  People know that name.  People talk about him, and he’s me.  I’m actually glad you found me.  I’m ready for my story to be written.”

Though he did not reply, his stare was unrelenting.  I think I got under the bastard’s skin.  This pleased me greatly.  My smile vanished and I said:

“Is it my turn to ask youa question?”

Silence.

“Can you tell me your name, please?” I said.

“I’m Daniel DiMarco,” he replied.  He stood up and brushed himself off.

I laughed.  “I’ll be famous soon, but I’ll forget your name.”

He bobbed his brows again.  “Yeah?”

After a pause I said: “Do you believe in the nobility of suicide?”

Neither of us moved or blinked.  We just watched each other.  Our brains whirred and our eyes remained still.

Standing by the door, DiMarco shook his head.  “This might disappoint you, Nathan.  But when I look at you, I don’t see evil.  I just see a profound lack of depth.”

I laughed at such a stupid answer.  He knew it was a matter of time before I become a real villain in the eyes of the public, like Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer or Patrick Bateman.  Journalists would crawl over each other to interview me.  My face would be immortalized on the news, true-crime shows would speak my name for decades to come.  My only regret was giving myself up before shooting a crowd of people.  If I played my cards right, I could have been a legend, but given my poor judgment I’d have to settle for niche celebrity in the serial killer fandom, which was fine.  I couldn’t wait for my trial.

DiMarco stepped out of the interrogation room followed by a dark cloud.  I stared at my reflection and saw a grinning corpse.

The door opened to the interrogation room again.  I’d fallen asleep and wasn’t sure how many hours had passed since I last talked to the deputy. 

DiMarco entered the room again.

I yawned.  “If you guys are keeping me here overnight, can I get a bed at least?”

He shook his head.  “No bed.”

“What?”

“I said, no bed.  You’re free to go.  For now.”

A moment of silence, and again: “What?”

“Sheriff wants to let you go,” DiMarco said through gritted teeth.  “He said all we can prove is that you took some pictures and posted them online.”

“But what about the—,” I stopped myself.

“What about the what?” DiMarco said.

I looked down at myself.  There was no blood on my hands or my doctor’s outfit, only my dried vomit from earlier.  I said: “When you picked me up, what was I doing?  What happened to the man in the car wreck?”

“Come on,” DiMarco said.  “Get up and let’s go.  I’m taking you home.”

I obeyed him.  I held out my cuffed hands.

“Not yet,” DiMarco said.  “You need to keep those on until we get you home.”

“That’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t mind.”

The deputy led me through the dark and empty police station.  It was after-hours and, aside from DiMarco and myself, the only souls around were the clerks and a deputy barricaded behind a wall of paperwork.

Exhausted we both marched through the shadowed halls.  The walls were adorned with photographs and wanted posters and Oak County historical awards.

The empty darkness of the station was eerie.  I couldn’t wait to be out of there.  It took much longer at night than it did during the day when I’d first arrived.  DiMarco led me through a different reception area, where a tall and fat clerk snapped to attention.

“How’s it going, Brad?” DiMarco said.  “I’m taking old boy Al back home.”

I blinked.  I wanted to say, what? — but I held myself back for fear of blowing our cover.

For a split second, Brad the clerk glanced up from the newspaper he was reading.  He grunted and blinked sleepily before burying his face again.

“See ya tomorrow,” DiMarco replied.  He led me outside.

The deputy brought me around into the back-parking lot.  A tiny fleet of police vehicles were ready to roll out.  He shoved me into the back seat of his squad car, hopped into the driver’s seat, and rolled out of the parking lot and onto the road.

DiMarco lowered the windows and put a cigarette between his lips.  He lit it and took a long drag.  He smoked the whole thing heavy and fast, finishing it in less than a minute.  He tossed the butt out the window and lit up a second one.

We entered the freeway from the ramp leading out of downtown.  I tried to inhale breaths of DiMarco’s second-hand smoke, hoping to get some whiff of intoxication.  It felt like weeks since I’ve had a drink or a smoke.  I felt weak and sick and hungry.  I hadn’t eaten in several days, but I had no appetite.

I wanted to ask the deputy for a cigarette, but I decided against it.  Best to leave the man alone before he changes his mind and does something drastic.  I could just smoke a bowl of some weed when I get home, and then crack open a beer and smoke a cigarette of my own, watch some TV, and fall asleep.

The little city shrouded in night rolled past us.  Clouds of smoke plumed inside the car and washed away into the wind.  I smelled the tobacco and old rain from last night and I watched lights go by.  In the background I could picture the rolling hills, frozen plains, and frost-capped woods of Oak County bathed in darkness.  I couldn’t wait to be home.

Our surroundings progressively diminished from downtown into suburbs.  Buildings got smaller, plazas and businesses shrunk into houses and liquor stores.  DiMarco kept chain-smoking cigarettes.

And the deputy kept driving down the freeway.  He kept driving until they were out of the city.  And he kept driving past the frozen muddy prairies.  And he kept driving until they were at the edge of the forest to the south.

DiMarco parked at the shoulder of the road and got out.  Everything was pitch black, a womb of dreamlike darkness, the cruiser’s beams producing the only light around us.  Silhouetted mountains loomed in the distance.

The deputy crushed his last cigarette butt under his heel.  Then he walked around to the rear door where I sat.  He opened the door, grabbed my coat collar, and flung me across the road.

The force of the throw sent me rolling into the opposite shoulder.  I landed in a patch of dirt and rocks and overgrown weeds.  The deputy approached my crumpled body.

I coughed.  “This isn’t happening,” I said.  “I’m gonna wake up now.”

DiMarco swung the tip of his shoe into my ribs.  The deputy kicked me again and again and again and again.  Then he stomped on my collar for good measure.  I choked, gagged, and writhed.  I couldn’t process anything.

The deputy bent down.  He yanked me onto my feet and turned me around so I faced the wall of darkness away from the headlights and the road.

“Get on your knees,” he said.

I obeyed.

“Now put your hands on your head.”  He uncuffed me.

I obeyed.

“That’s good.  Now I wanna tell you something.  You’re going home.”

“I am?” I choked.

“Yeah,” the deputy said.  “But before you go, I wanted you to see this.”

“What?”

He pointed out in front of me.

“It’s too dark.” I gasped.  “I can’t see anything.”

“That’s right.  That’s what you are.  Nothing.  Only a few sick-fucks like you get lucky enough to be famous.  But not you.  Dead in a ditch and no one will ever know your name.”

In a panic, I choked out the words to change my fate.  “What about the families? Don’t they deserve justice?”

He pressed the barrel of his pistol against my throat and squeezed the trigger.

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