The Bootes Void

by Mike Murray

Cover Art

Katharine Viola

Editors

Loan Le, Seth Porter and Dan Reilly

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It’s been three months since DuShayne Dumont, Kahnee’s twelve-year-old neighbor, jammed his hand down her shorts, and the startling memory of his prying fingers has awakened with her each morning as intrusively as the sunlight piercing through her blinds. She’d been leaning over DuShayne’s homemade telescope next door, fixed on what he claimed was his private collection of stars in a secret part of the universe, when he took advantage. While she had elbowed him good, doubling him over, he had laughed, telling Kahnee, as she stormed from his bedroom, that she was “dead down there anyway.” That’s a crock, and she knows he was just messing with her because he wants her. She knows it. Even so, she can’t help testing herself down there every morning just to make sure.

She doesn’t have to open her eyes now to know that her mother’s lying beside her again. Kahnee can smell the fog of vomit, feel the slumbering weight of the fully-dressed woman creating a sinkhole in the already saggy mattress. Kahnee holds on to the edge of the bed, shivering, torn between precarious discomfort and what’s passing for maternal affection these days.

“Mom?” she whispers. “Mom?” Kahnee repeats with escalating volume, screaming it in her mind, rat-a-tat—Mom! Mom! Mom!—then poking her in the ribs.

No amount of force can rouse her mother when she collapses like this. Sprawled face-up and having commandeered most of the twin mattress, she has fallen into the wrong room again after another night out. One arm hangs to the carpet, the other bent awkwardly beneath her, head cocked to one side, mouth open and drained of drool, a patch of which darkens the faded neon green pillowcase. Stiff black bands of hair—during the day pulled up in a tight bunch at the back of her head—now strafe her cheeks and neck, her breathing detectable only after Kahnee leans so close that her eyeglasses fog.

Clicking on the nightstand lamp and balancing as best she can, hugging her knees to her chin, Kahnee opens a book. Just that quickly she is swept back into the adventure on the page about an orphan girl who swims to Neptune and back. It’s Kahnee’s first leap into sci-fi, her usual interests being completely terrestrial—stories about ancient explorers or about children in faraway lands—and she’s not yet sure how she feels about that which cannot happen.

Kahnee lifted the book from one of the condemned houses in her neighborhood last week. Likely, it belongs to DuShayne, whose bedroom is directly across the backyard from hers. Why he hangs out in those empty, rat-infested rooms she has no clue. When he stops ignoring her, stops pretending not to like her anymore, she’ll give it back to him. Maybe.

Twenty minutes in, the air borderline putrid, Kahnee slips out of bed and opens the window. She lifts a leg over the sill and comfortably straddles the frame, her head and torso outside to absorb the welcomed October chill. The siding burns cold against her pajama bottoms. She bears the intensifying pain until it is neutralized by her body’s warmth. Kahnee regularly tests her willpower like this, mimicking as best she can the condescending resolve that so often steeps her mother’s face. In the kitchen, she’ll hold her palm on top of the iron coil while the electric burner heats up. If she concentrates hard enough during the initial charge—nothing hurts me, nothing hurts me—she can counteract her instinct to let go by pressing harder. With enough practice, she is sure she will someday condition herself to last until the coil turns red.

A squirrel dashes across the garage shingles, disappearing down one of several foot-sized holes in the collapsing roof where her father broke through attempting a repair. Rodents have overtaken the attic space there. Kahnee has found acorn caps and other meal-ish remnants on the hood of their car. On the gutter, not ten feet away from her now, a brown cardinal stares back at her, head cocked, calmly anticipating the handful of seeds and other wild bird feed that Kahnee sprinkles from her perch each morning. Upon seeing her, sparrows erupt from the far hedges, repositioning themselves for the short flight to the concrete pad at the back of the house.

“Morning, guys,” she sings.

Just as she’s sifting the bits through her palm, her mind wandering as the seeds and pellets bounce below, Kahnee spies a boy in the backyard smoking a cigarette. Leaning in the V of her favorite climbing tree, the split-trunked maple, he has one knee bent, his foot resting against the shiny, gray-brown bark. Her nose detects a hint of tobacco now—at first delicious in the way gasoline fumes can be, and then invasive, disgusting, as if she’s absorbing a part of the boy himself, molecules of his blood and bone attaching themselves to her throat. She doesn’t recognize him—he looks to be thirteen or fourteen and darker skinned than she is. Nigerian, Kahnee thinks. Or Somalian. Definitely not from our school.

“We don’t condone smoking,” she yells.

The boy turns his head calmly, then takes another long drag before looking away again toward the worn, split-rail fence that separates their property from the Dumonts’. No lights are on over there, at least in the back half of the house where the bedrooms and kitchen are. The Dumont house is a mirror image of Kahnee’s but with rich sapphire siding instead of dilapidated yellow. In the late fall and throughout the winter, when the maples are clear of leaves, she can see right through their rear windows into an alternate universe, where parents sleep in the same bedroom, sisters play together, and meals are eaten in the dining room rather than on the living room floor. With every fork-load of beef or ham and yams and carrots, every gulp of milk, Kahnee feels herself ingesting right along with them, sitting alongside DuShayne in the empty chair sometimes filled by guests.

Delicious pork roast, Mrs. Dumont! Kahnee says.

DuShayne, offer your friend there another helping of potatoes,Mr. Dumont says.

And Kahnee holds out her plate while DuShayne scoops it on, offers her the boat of gravy.

Thanks, Kahnee says.

Whatever, DuShayne says, rolling his eyes. Under the table, though, they hold hands clandestinely, his fingers stroking her palm.

With her sneakers on and the wrinkled jeans she will iron before school, still wearing her thigh-length sleeping tee, Kahnee steps out the back door. The morning is suitably crisp. Dew has settled on what grass remains in the yard, so she keeps to the dirt path that she’s worn from years of heading to and from the woods.

As she approaches, the boy maintains his gaze toward the neighbor house, the cigarette dangling from his fingers. “You’re Sudanese, aren’t you?” Kahnee asks. They’d been studying North African nations in school, how having oil can lead to corruption and oppression and civil war.

“Ain’t from nowhere,” the boy says. Fog leaves his mouth with the words.

“Me neither,” Kahnee says, though she has no idea what she means by it.

He has the raspy voice of a man and a face even younger than her own. The side she can see from her angle is heavily pocked, his cheeks puffy, baby-like. His hair is a mangy black shrub cropped an inch from his scalp with haphazard sprigs extending like weeds in an abandoned garden. She can’t tell if he’s styled it that way or if it’s just from a lack of care.

“You bird watching?” Kahnee asks. “We’ve got tons.”

The boy flicks his cigarette well off toward the fence, wipes snot from his nose with the back of his empty hand. “Yeah,” he says, a small grin, as if hiding a private joke. “I’m watchin’ a bird.”

Crows land atop the Dumont chestnut. Sparrows chatter from a nearby hedgerow. The boy pays no attention.

The houses surrounding both of theirs have long been abandoned, their windows boarded up with tall rectangles of blond plywood. Although the doors are barricaded, some have been kicked apart by kids looking for secret rendezvous spots for drugs and sex. Kahnee recognizes many of the girls who crawl in and out of the splintered entrances, some of whom are also in the eighth grade. She’s explored the interiors of these neighborhood houses herself, finding much the same left in each: bare mattresses on stark wooden floors, spent condoms, cardboard pizza lids caked with cheese. She stays clear of them now.

Brenda Barrett, an eight-year-old from Waynut Avenue, went missing a year ago. Later, they found her naked body three doors down in the Pike’s old place. She’d been stabbed thirty-three times, a number that still haunts Kahnee. She can’t picture enough body on Brenda to fit that many holes.

“I think maybe they’re on vacation,” Kahnee says, nodding toward the Dumonts’ house.

When the boy doesn’t respond, Kahnee thinks little of it. People are always not hearing her. At school, conversations are hard to come by; kids are busy playing games or communicating with phones Kahnee’s father says they can’t afford.

The boy slides a six-pack of small donuts out of his sweatshirt sleeve, bites it open. Kahnee’s eyes follow a corner of cellophane to the moist ground. When she bends to pick it up, the cardboard strip flutters beside her. The boy’s mouth is already beyond capacity, chewing roughly, white powder coating his lips and chin.

Kahnee will need to shower soon, then see what’s for breakfast. If there’s enough peanut butter in the cupboard, she’ll make a sandwich for lunch. Otherwise, she’ll find her father’s pants, her mother’s purse. Such searches rarely yield enough cash to sustain her for the week, but she doesn’t remove that much at one time anyway. A couple of dollars here and there, her parents will think they lost or spent it. Fifteen or twenty, they’ll start taking more care to hide it.

Scooping up the donut packaging, Kahnee turns for her house.

“We don’t condone littering either,” she says. When she reaches her porch, she looks back over her shoulder. The boy from Nowhere is gone.

In the ever-evolving world of astrophysics, DuShayne Dumont has yet to make a name for himself. Okay, okay, at age twelve, he’s already named more than sixty stars for himself—unofficially, since that shit costs, but hey. There are DuShaynes I through XXIX in the Corona Borealis Supercluster (distance from Sol and the Milky Way: one billion light years, spank you very much) and DuShaynes XXX through LXII and counting in The Whore, aka, Horologium, one of the largest superclusters known ev-uh! (dfS: 900 million light years).

Then there’s the newly minted EvLyn DD1—no Roman numeral, and not even his own name, of course, but a girl worthy of stardom, of clusterdom, with chest bubbles of galactic proportions and a booty like no ooty; fitting then that her realm is the Booty Super C—the Bootes Cluster (dfS: 800 billion LY, but her dfD [distance from DuShayne] varies with each earth orbit).

But really, the star he has just chosen for EvLyn is tucked discreetly inside the nearby Bootes Void, where there are no major clusters but some individual galaxies, and that really clicks with DuShayne, who’s seen in his brief lifetime the expansion of a void in his own neighborhood system, where once there’d been huge family clusters.

To DuShayne, space is infinitely more important than matter. Too much cluster clutter is a bad thing, gets in his way, like at school, where things were superfine for a good long while after the Big Evac, when the halls and classrooms were nearly empty and a guy could soar through the Belt without so much as a tug from someone else’s gravitational pull and just roll, baby, right into Science, right into the front row, inches from the star maps and the bisected geodes in all their crystalline, ultraviolet splendor.

And then they closed like almost every school and jammed the change into Sylvester Junior High, renamed it Unified Sylvester III (copping DuShayne’s Roman numeral system completely, and stupidly, since there’s not a I or a II, and no one—not the teachers, not his homeroom monitor, not his mom or his lazy ass cousin SeeJ—knows why), and now getting to his locker in the morning is like navigating through space debris—elbows flying into ribs, shoulders popping ear canals, kneecaps blasting thighs—and not a single adult willing to stand up, not since Mrs. Cliber got clobbered and lost an eye last spring trying to separate two rabid, long-nailed chicks who were shredding each other’s clothes and skin.

But over on Livery Street, in the last M-class planet known there, breathes EvLyn, all fourteen years of her, all orby all over already, and DuShayne has every inch of her in his head all day and all night long, especially when he gazes up into the sky on nights when gazing is possible—because there always seems to be clouds overhead when he whips out his telescope, which isn’t really a telescope, not one set to specs, but a bunch of rifle scope lenses he configured with much experimentation—maybe even just as good as the Celestron NexStar 8SE underlined on his Christmas wish list, which costs waaaaaaaaay too much, his mother says, but she lies about a lot of shit.

Fold it - sleeve it - knot it - whip it. Fold it - sleeve it - knot it - whip it. Fold it - sleeve it -

“God damn it! Focus, dude. Focus!” Jarome tells himself.

Jarome can’t focus, dude. Not on his big ideas. Not even on the small ones. Not with a hundred sixty-four more papers to deliver. He has to drive crooked through four suburbs before he gets to head home, scarf down some Eggos and catch some snooze before draggin’ himself to work. To his day job at McPhee’s Farm Fresh, packin’ up produce and whatevers and dispensin’ them to the daily needy, some who drive up in cars three times the size of Jarome’s shit Civic and all tricked out like he can’t believe. Needy, my ass.

Fold it - sleeve it - knot it - whip it.

But he has to try, has to think. Lock in. Save himself with one big hit, an invention that’ll catch fire just long enough to give him hope and a couple of years off. Been deliverin’ since age nine, back when he rapped on doors every week collectin’ subscription fees: rusted paper puncher, metal ring full of client cards, pouch for incomin’, ching-ching belt for the outgoin’, special pocket for his tips—the few coins they’d let him keep when he handed back their change. The old days. Youth. Carefree. Big dreams. Ambition. Now that was gone—nearly. Revived in spurts every time a new idea struck or an old one rekindled. Aha! But gone so swiftly, leakin’ out the brain like the details of a fadin’ dream.

CarpetCoasters. HotSuits. SquirrelTrancers. CarSkis. EdibleRoadMaps. No TMs, no ®s, no patents pendin’. All of these inside Jarome’s head with a hundred others he can’t think of just now, flashes that come and go before he can write ‘em down. Always when he’s drivin’ too, turnin’ a corner, swervin’ a jogger. Or a loose dog. Lots of those. Stupid things racin’ right up to any old vehicle, barkin’ all crazy like there’s a monster at the wheel.

Passenger-side, Coma D, his father-in-law, stares hypnotic just shy of the road. Or into the nothin’ that’s become his brain, from what Jarome can tell. Mush, all of it, though the doctor claims Coma D knows what’s goin’ on around him, can sense it even if it don’t show in his eyes.

Those eyes. Used to be giant browns floatin’ in yellow goo with blood red corners, toxic eggs castin’ rabid disfavor on Jarome for all he wasn’t worth. This the shit gonna better your life? those eyes would say to his only girl, Kayreece. Back then Coma D had no respect, no need for some low-life overnight floor scrubber with big ideas and no follow-through, some dirt-poor scum with a hard-on for his daughter and no plan beyond his next big come. No respect at all.

Fold it - sleeve it - knot it - whip it.

“One-twelve to go, and here it is, near eight already,” Jarome says. “Same route, same count, same traffic every day, so how come yesterday we’re done by seven thirty? Best hurry before the complaints start comin’ in. Before I get angry at the world makin’ so much goddam news!”

Think of the girls. Think of the girls.

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you, Coma D. Voice of reason and all that,” he says, wishin’ like shit, like he did every day, that the old man could lend a hand, could move one fuckin’ inch! “But you gotta understand, I love ‘em. Love ‘em to death, right? Young Kahnee ... all a father could want. But LaDasha. Eighteen. Fucked up, man. Face gorgeous as her mom’s, and her body hangin’ in there for awhile, before the drinkin’, the abortions, the depression, the drugs, the half-assed rehab. Which is worse? Wastin’ away or paddin’ on an extra two ton?”

The Fat Farm rejected her. The Clinic said she was a lost cause if she don’t want to fight for herself. Yeah, they could staple her gut, but she was the type who’d eat right through it. They could give her a prescription, too, but everyone knew where that would lead, given her vulnerabilities, her pharmaceutical cravings.

So it’s up to family. Find a way to save her. Activate her. Engage her. Help her find somethin’ to do do do other than chew chew chew. But who’s got energy for that kind of shit if Dasha’s got no will of her own?

Kahnee. Sweet little goofy-ass Kahnee. Rich with fantasy, like Jarome, only so locked into a private world that she ain’t got no friends. Don’t seem to care about that either.

“She might get somewhere, be the one to escape. Just needs to be careful when the goons start sniffin’ her out, you know?”

I know.

“I bet you do, Coma D. Yeah, yeah, kids change overnight. Hormones, testosterone, pheromones, megaphones, xylophones. TalkingTrafficCones! Yes!”

Shit, Jarome, that don’t even make sense.

“I know. I know. But you watch. I met a guy. Knows his stuff. Knows the whole road to invention. Think it up, lock it down, file it in, off you go. Gonna meet him next week. But don’t tell Kayreece. Don’t you say a goddam word, Coma D, or I won’t cut you in, you hear me? Not a single dime.”

Once what hits?

“Whichever one puts me over the top! Maybe all of ‘em. You know how it is. You hear this shit spillin’ out once my mind gets to flowin’. I share every creation with you. Just need someone with knowhow to steer me true.”

Steal you blue.

“Shit, D, you’re such a black cloud, man. Ever since ... you know. Come on. Come on, ride with me. Put some life back in those peeps. A little spirit. All it takes is one. And I got dozens— hundreds even. You watch.”

Fold it ... sleeve it.

“Hold it—hold it!”

Knot it ... whip it.

DuShayne doesn’t trust the black nipple of a doorbell, which his fingernail reveals has been painted over at least once. So he pounds on the front door with a balled fist—heavy, so he’ll sound older and more massive, like the super planet he envisions himself to be, the kind with thirty moons trapped within his gravitational field.

As if his ears could probe solid wood the way his eventual telescope will penetrate dark matter, he listens and waits. Ungreeted moments pass. DuShayne’s antennae alternate between picking up shuffling feet and the absolute nothingness that exists between interstellar matter. On the other side of this door could be a black hole swallowing all light, all sound, every last crumb of the tiniest crumb, one so ruthless that even if EvLyn were home, were two inches away, she wouldn’t be able to communicate that to him.

He pounds again, this time with both fists. The longer he waits, the more anxious he becomes. Girl’s gotta open this door!

And when she does, when EvLyn is actually the one standing there with a grip on the knob and a curious squint in her eyes, DuShayne’s first thought is not how tall she is in her pink Uggs. It’s not how skinny she looks in the pink tee that hugs her mounded squeezers and reveals the subtle striped contours of her ribcage. It’s not even that she smells like lilacs or Froot Loops or love itself. All DuShayne can think about is how to talk her into the woods since he’s got a bono for her nono, plus he really has to pee.

Popeyes’ll have to do. A bucket of extra crispy and a tub of mashed potatoes, some corn, biscuits, butter. The kids won’t care, long as there’s something for Thanksgiving and Kayreece has her Absolut Vanilia. Much as Jarome would love to have an all-out holiday meal the way he remembers from his childhood, it’s a miracle that the five of them will be even in the same house at the same time with any semblance of family unity. Fuck tradition, he thinks. Let’s just eat.

“Is it too much to ask that we sit at the table together?” he says to Coma D, who’s strapped into the passenger side, white plastic bags blooming steam from his lap. Smells so crazy good Jarome can hardly stand it—he skipped breakfast to leave extra room for this—but Coma D just sits there staring at the crease where the windshield meets the black vinyl dash like he always does.

“You get a grip on that smaller bag, D,” Jarome says. “We’ll make this in one trip.” He unbuckles his father-in-law and hefts him out. “Squeeze hard. Lock your fingers, man. No no no ... keep ‘em together. That’s it, that’s it. No no no ... fuck me.”

Jarome plops the bags onto the seat, slow-steps Coma D to the front door. There’s no one around for miles, but still he peeks over his shoulder to make sure the food’s all right. The locks haven’t functioned in about three years, so nothing’s ever safe left in the car.

“Somebody take the old man!” Jarome calls when he head-butts the door. Dasha looks at him from the couch devouring a chocolate Pop-Tart, turns back to the TV. “Kayreece!”

It’s Kahnee who runs in, as always, and though she’s a speck of a thing, she slips under Coma D’s armpit, takes his weight, and relieves Jarome in one fluid move.

“She’s my girl,” Jarome says. “Ain’t that right, D? She gets first dibs when we pop the bucket.” He sends Dasha a scowl as he runs back out.

When he brings in their holiday meal, he realizes that the dining room table—normally a heap of dirty clothes, empty cereal boxes and unpaid bills—has been cleared and replaced with five serving plates, folded paper towels and frosted drinking glasses adorned with Santa and his reindeer. The cracked pine surface shimmers from a rare polishing, the scent of orange hitting one nostril while glorious greasy chicken finds the other.

“She’s a princess,” Jarome says to Coma D, seated facing the living room where Dasha rocks until she’s able to work herself up to her feet. She uses the old man’s cane to manage her steps.

“Reece!” Jarome yells toward the stairs. “Chicken! Bawk! Bawk!

When Dasha reaches the table, she sends a thick fist into the bucket. Jarome shakes her wrist until the wing falls.

“Young one goes first, I said,” he snaps.

“We’re all hungry the same,” Dasha says.

“It’s okay, Poppa,” says Kahnee.

“Some’s hungry and some just eat,” Jarome says. “You’ll get yours, we all know that. Now let’s just sit and pray or some shit. Reece! Where the hell’s your mom?”

“I heard the shower a little bit ago,” Kahnee says.

Jarome hustles to the bottom of the steps, listens up. “You best be cleaning up for us, for Thanksgiving meal!” he calls. “You ain’t goin’ out tonight, you hear that? Reece?” He storms back in to a rare sight: the family sitting there, the clutter shoved to the corners of the dining room, the candles lit, tall yellow stems anchored in shot glasses stuffed with paper towels—five of them, which it hits him, corresponds one for each. He nearly chokes on the simple stupid beauty of that mathematical thought.

“What could be, what could be,” he says, patting Coma D’s shoulder as he takes a seat. “Been so long that I don’t even know where the head of the table is. You believe that, D? ‘Course you don’t.”

Dasha’s scooping sides that Jarome measures in his mind. He worries about the gravy, two quarter pints he somehow thought would be enough.

Kayreece clomps down the stairs, a double grip on the wooden rail. She’s wearing a red dress so tight it doesn’t make sense she can breathe. That’s far too much bosom for a family meal. But he knows his wife didn’t dress for them. It’s a shouting match ripe for picking, as it is most days, and Jarome fights himself calm like he’s never done before—if even for a few minutes.

“You look beautiful, honey,” he says, rising. “Come take your seat.” He holds the back of the last empty chair, not the least expectant but trying hard not to show it. “Daughter’s made us a wonderful table and God’s blessed us with this food. Let’s honor it by joinin’ hands.”

Kayreece stands at the archway. Her hair’s so short she could be a soldier, her eyes shadowy like she’s been beaten blue. When she turns her head, pyramid earrings as big as her cheeks jangle like cowbells. And when she actually does approach the table, Jarome’s heart races as her floral perfume floods his nose, a scent so thick and nauseating that delicate flowers are the last things that come to mind.

“Didn’t know you got a new cut, baby,” Jarome says. “Don’t she look stunning, D? Don’t your little girl look extra special on this extra special day?”

Kayreece reaches forward, silver bracelets clinking along her wrist, and clutches the neck of the Absolut. Jarome grabs the base, holding it firm on the tabletop. His wife’s arm is locked forward, a stiff, straight slope to her bare shoulder. Her head is cocked back, eyes locked on Jarome’s.

Jarome feels the tension on the bottle, the same that’s in the room. The children are watching, waiting for this standoff to erupt into obscenities, belittling and hatred. Jarome releases the bottle.

Saturday morning, two weeks to Christmas, Kahnee wakes to the most beautiful freeze she’s ever seen. It takes all her might to lift her bedroom window open. A storm last evening has left every pole, every shed, every limb in every tree coated with thick, transparent icing. The woods are a 3D holiday card, sparkling white and glinty blue in the early sunlight. She throws on some layers and rushes downstairs to find her boots, scarf and gloves.

“You should see, Grampa!” she shrieks, kissing D on the forehead when she passes him on the sofa. “You’ve never seen anything like it!”

The cold doesn’t catch up with her until she’s halfway up the split-trunked maple. Her hands keep slipping on the lacquered wooden rungs nailed into it, and her boots gain spotty traction. With care and muscle, Kahnee makes it to her favorite crook about twenty feet up. Every inch of bark is covered in ice. Every line from every pole. Icicles dangling. Blue sky backdrop. All of it blinding her no matter how tightly she squints until she has to close her eyes. She listens for the chattering of the sparrows, the call of a jay. For the moment, she’s alone in a muted wonderland, battling the cold that’s now burning through the seat of her pants.

Through the stillness, she senses movement. She draws her ski hat tight to her brow to block the glare, peeks through split fingers. Several lots away, someone pops out of a side door and hustles away. She recognizes the coat from school, a heavy red parka with thick white fur circling the neck and wrists, black knee-high boots—EvLyn Price, the girl everyone’s been teasing, calling Mrs. Claus. Maybe her family’s moving in, Kahnee thinks. For a moment, she lets the excitement of a new neighbor charge through her. It’s almost enough to distract her from her numbing bottom. She stands in the tree, balancing for a better view. A moment later, DuShayne leaps from the same door—no coat, no shirt—and races as best as he can in the direction of the woods, toward her, his knees sinking with each clomping step. Behind him, another boy emerges, the one from Nowhere, scary calm.

The pak!pak!pak! of gunshots cuts through the pristine air, its echo deadened against the snow. Below her, twenty yards from the tree line, DuShayne falls belly down near an abandoned swing set, still attempting to move forward. His arms swing overhead in withering strokes, as if he is swimming in place, his head tilting upward for gasps of air.

When the boy from Nowhere disappears, when in the immediate aftermath Kahnee hangs breathless in the frigid crook of her tree, when the neighborhood is still again and neither home—not hers, not the Dumonts’—displays awareness of what occurred, Kahnee slips to the ground and approaches the fallen body. Silenced, DuShayne is such a small boy, ribby and plain. Beneath him, blood saturates the snowy bed, a liquid cloud of crimson expanding quietly, deeply, into white space.

Kahnee removes her mitten and runs her palm along the shallow gulch of DuShayne’s back. So smooth is his skin—as if he is merely asleep, oblivious to the bullet that has entered his neck. While Kahnee steels herself against the spreading burn of panic, what dismantles her is the flesh of a living thing turning cold before her.

Jarome parks Coma D in a rocker by the Dumont Christmas tree, aims him toward the twinkling lights. “It ain’t HBO,” he says, “but you can pretend.”

A woman he doesn’t recognize hugs him full on, says, “Bless you,” before stepping away.

He scans the downstairs rooms for familiar faces beyond the immediate family, neighbors gone away. Amid the roses and other arrangements are hanging wreaths, tabletop Santas and fat holiday candles. “Think they’d pull the plug on all this, you know? Pack this shit away?”

People know what they need.

“Yeah, yeah, right as always, D. Genius level stuff, and only me here to appreciate it.”

Don’t think I’m not aware.

“’Course you are,” Jarome says. “It’s all in your mind. Every moment, every deed.”

Making his way to the kitchen, Jarome gently squeezes the shoulders of anyone in tears. He opens cupboards in search of a glass. A young woman he remembers from the church service hands him a ginger ale that nearly slips through his palm from condensation.

“We’ve turned up the thermostat,” she says. “Warmth is a subtle form of comfort.”

“Tricks of the trade,” Jarome says, pressing the can to his forehead. He leans against the sink, still not placing a soul. On the back porch, he spots Wayne Dumont and two other men smoking cigarettes.

“Got another one of those?” he asks, stepping out into the icy chill.

The older man obliges.

“Didn’t know you smoked, Jarome,” Wayne says, staring off toward the woods. He’s resting one foot on the rail, an elbow on his knee. “Never see you on your stoop there.”

Jarome examines the rear of his yellow house across the way. Black shutters once flanked the upstairs windows. Siding has disappeared, too, sporadic sections gone to the seasons and discarded in the brush, leaving a crossword façade.

“Keep meanin’ to replace those,” Jarome says. “Didn’t realize we had such an eyesore.”

But Wayne has shifted his gaze, is locked on a spot in the snow two lots to the right. His body trembles.

“No words for this,” Jarome says.

Wayne drops his head. The older man’s hand comforts his shoulder. “We’ve had it here,” Wayne says, breaking. “Shoulda gone a long while back ... long while back.”

“Not your fault,” the other man says. “Ain’t no one can predict when and where, the why and the how.”

Jarome pictures another vacant home, his the last one standing, his family living in a ghost town—so ridiculous he fights a coming smile, has to turn aside till the sorrow creeps back in.

“Where do people go to get away from this shit?” he says.

Wayne grabs the rail, squeezes hard. “My boy found a place,” he says.

Back inside the kitchen, Jarome catches a heavy breath.

“Didn’t see your girls at the funeral,” says a familiar face, Yvonne Simmons, from over on Baird—a cousin of theirs, he thinks.

“Elder’s got some bug,” Jarome says. “And little Kahnee, well, girl already seen the body dead once.”

Hightail your ass, Jarome. This ain’t your crowd.

“I intend to,” Jarome says.

“What’s that?” Yvonne asks.

Invent yourself a quick goodbye.

Heading out toward the dining room, his heart stops. Kayreece is leading Kahnee through the front door. His wife lets go long enough for their coats to be taken, squeezes Kahnee close again just that quickly. For once, his wife’s in a dress not broadcasting cleavage, a simple black thing without any frills. On her face is a generous smile Jarome’s nearly forgotten, one that stays with her as she tends, with a patience equally foreign, to the Dumont girls, teenagers pressed so far back into the sofa that it seems they’re being swallowed whole.

Kahnee sits beside them as Kayreece bends, cups their cheeks, and offers whatever she can. Whether her words are of any comfort, Jarome has no earthly clue. Nothing can be said at a time like this to ward away such loss. But it comforts him richly watching her try.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Murray is a writer and burgeoning musician living in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in Longevity, A River and Sound Review, Glamour, Kalliope and Taproot, and his plays have been produced for the stage. He operates his own web and graphic design business (pearhouse.com) and a small publishing company (pearhousepress.com).

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Katharine Viola specializes in painting with acrylic on wood. In 2010, Katharine graduated from New York University with a Master of Arts in visual culture. She enjoys painting an array of subject matter including, but not limited to, portraits, still life, architecture, as well as anything related to fantasy, horror and the macabre. Katharine currently exhibits her work in the greater Philadelphia region, and in parts of New Jersey. In her spare time, she enjoys camping and hiking, as well as playing ice hockey and cheering on the Philadelphia Flyers. You can view more of her work at www.katharineaviola.com

ABOUT THE RAG

TThe Rag is the home for literary guts and steel. We are an electronic publication hell-bent on true grit and uncompromising action. We call this “literary entertainment.” We publish new fiction monthly on our website www.raglitmag.com. You can read online, or free downloads are available in PDF, Kindle and ePub formats.