The one in the chair was bleeding again. You could see it trailing from underneath the sleeve of his trench coat and across his knuckles, dripping beside him in tiny pools that spotted the floor as evidence of where he had been in the house.
The one sitting beside him, the one who did all the yelling, was quiet now, wincing every so often like he had a headache.
The shotgun was on the table, resting.
I remember staring at the gun on the table, watching spotted fingerprints dry across its wood pump. I could still hear the sound it had made like it was echoing selectively through the house. I’d heard gunshots before, target shooting on camping trips in the two months before I quit the Boy Scouts. This was different. The sound was hateful, like a barking dog. I suppose anyone would say that after seeing their father shot to death. It was a pretty gun, nonetheless. I remember wanting to clean off the smeared red fingerprints with the bottom of my shirt. At the time, I really didn’t want anything more than that.
My mother was whimpering beside me, forced to cross herself with her fingertips from forehead to chin after they’d tied her up. My younger sister Katie just stared at our mother, seemingly content to watch everything that was happening. It was the three of us sitting on the couch, Katie wedged between my mother and me. The killers were on the other side of the room, each sitting in one of the armchairs we’d bought at a church auction last Christmas. They were pale and sweating, looking miserable no matter how much they smoked their cigarettes or drank from my father’s bourbon. The one on the left, the wounded one, looked almost translucent. At times he would nod off, his head falling back, only to jolt awake a few seconds later. Each time he did this he would stare at Katie and I for a moment, confused wrinkles appearing on his forehead like he wasn’t sure if he was still dreaming. We’d seen him dissolve a handful of pills in one of his glasses of bourbon before drinking it. Now they seemed to be working.
“Tell your mother to shut up,” the other killer said, standing up and sounding out of breath. He was looking at me with a hand on his hips. The pose was one my father had made often.
“Shut up, mom,” I said, never actually looking at her.
“Good boy,” the killer complimented, grinning. He had terrible posture, slouching into his chest except when he wanted to yell. He was constantly running a hand through his hair, flaring his nostrils and scrunching his face like he was chewing it from the inside. Just as he was about to start his pacing again he found a picture on the mantle.
“What the fuck is this?” he growled, bringing the picture even closer to his face. “Where’s the fucking dog?” he yelled at me.
“Outside,” I guess is what I said because he left the room, headed for the kitchen. I heard him open the back door, whistle like the dog was his own. When the dog didn’t come, he started clapping his hands together and shouting hey into the backyard. Why was it so important for him to find Willie?
The killer in the chair was nodding off again, his head dropping to his chest and bouncing back up again, fighting sleep less each time. We all watched him do this. Even mother had stopped crossing herself to watch. Katie seemed entertained.
“Jesus Christ! Wake up.” The other killer was back in the room, moving toward his partner in the chair and slapping him on the cheek until his eyes opened slightly. “How many of those things did you take? Fuck-king guy.” He was holding his partner by the shirt, trying to shake him awake. When he let go, his wounded friend fell back into the chair with a thud.
“Your dog’s not outside,” the killer said.
“He runs away sometimes.” I didn’t want to tell him that Willie had been put to sleep a year ago. Who knew how he’d take the news.
“Good fucking riddance,” the killer grumbled between puffs of a new cigarette.
I went back to staring at the shotgun on the table. The fingerprints were dry now, just tiny red arcs here and there as evidence. You could see where the finish had started to come off the butt, where the varnish had been stripped nearly white in a pattern that looked like teeth; it had the air of second-hand furniture.
“I’m hungry,” Katie whispered to our mother.
“What did she say?” The killer was coming across the room, making Katie curl into a ball against our mother. “What the fuck did she say?”
I answered for some reason. “She said she was hungry. You came during dinner.”
The killer stood there looking at me, stunned at what I had just said. He made a sound that was half grunt, half laugh and shook his head. He left the room again, leaving us to listen to the echoes of his activities throughout the house. He came back with the remains of our dinner: two plates of half-eaten chicken with mashed potatoes and three warm glasses of milk. He set them on the coffee table like they were a garnish for the shotgun. By now, we all knew it wasn’t loaded.
“There, eat,” he said, backing away from my sister like he’d just fed a dog.
My mother and I watched Katie eat the rest of her dinner, chewing with her mouth open and smacking her lips on every bite. Every so often she would turn to look at either our mother or me for encouragement, then turn back to her dinner and resume her proud bites.
The killer in the chair grunted, twitching in his sleep. It was the first sound he had made in almost twenty minutes and everyone seemed surprised he was still in the room. His partner came over from the window and stood over him, watching the tormented sleep for a moment. This was how he heard the dripping on the floor, our eyes moving with his as we all saw the puddle of blood together. It was the size of a fist, almost black in the dimness of the room. We watched its surface tremble with every falling drop until it became the only standard of time in our little world.
His face was serene, peaceful, and we looked at him with envy because of it. His partner, back to pacing the room, would stop every so often and see the blood, consider it in his mind momentarily and begin pacing again. I wonder if this was when he realized he was going to die. He knew his partner was dead; we all knew. Perhaps that was the envy we held for him. Maybe that was why I wanted to hold the shotgun on the table. But we all stayed in our places – my mother whimpering at the far end of the couch, my sister curled to her side, and me, returning the hollow stare of the dead killer across the room.
“Hey! Don’t you look at him.” The remaining killer had stopped his pacing long enough to notice my staring at his dead partner. He came across the room and stood between us. “Don’t you fucking look at him, brat!” He was trembling, curling and uncurling his fist like it was operating his heart. But something was different in how he looked over all of us on the couch now. The thing that made us his little toys to play with; his intangible power had eroded suddenly and left him a prisoner alongside us.
After a moment his expression softened. “Just don’t look at him, okay?” It was shocking to see him bargaining like this. It seemed we were even now, each side having laid a sacrifice. My father was in the hallway, nearly cut in half by the shotgun now in front of me, and there was his killer, slumped in the chair like a dutiful child. I looked at the floor and the remaining killer left me alone. Once again the room was filled with the smell of his cigarette smoke. It was as if he knew that this was the ultimate torture for my mother, to see her upholstery suffer after what had been a lifelong ban on smoking in the house. The way it mixed with the potpourri that was scattered in little bowls around the room was how I imagine it would smell to burn a blossoming magnolia tree.
“Don’t you fucking people have a TV?” the killer asked.
I pointed to the bookshelf and he finally saw the tiny 14-inch television we kept. “Jesus, are you kidding me?” he said, now standing in front of it. He looked back
at us over his shoulder, grinning like he was the guest at a cocktail party and ribbing the host. He seemed disappointed when no one laughed with him.
I remember being glad he had turned the television on. It didn’t give the house the chance to be silent, which was when the worst had happened that night. I can still see my father rushing the now-dead killer after such a moment of silence. From where we sat in the dining room all we saw was his body shifting back and forth, struggling, then the left side of his back exploding in a mist. My mother and Katie screamed. All I remember is feeling like someone had punched my abdomen, leaving me to stare and search for air through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“Tell her to shut up again, kid.”
“Shut up, mom.” The whining stopped.
The killer was flicking through the channels, finally stopping on the eleven o’ clock news. He found a footstool and sat directly in front of the screen, his face showered in its roaming glare. We were left to watch around his silhouette while the headlines were ticked off. I remember seeing Katie inching away from my mother for the first time that night to see around the killer’s body. For half an hour we just sat there, all of us, just listening to what was going in the outside world. The killer said nothing, slowly leaning forward as the broadcast went on until his face was only a few inches from the screen. The Red Sox had won, 7-3, and it was going to rain on Saturday. That’s all I can really remember.
When it was over the killer abruptly stood up, seemingly refreshed, and turned to us again. He looked surprisingly calm as he readjusted the waist of his pants. The blood had stopped its dripping from the dead man in the chair. The way his face was posed it reminded me of the faces you see in the newsreels from the concentration camps, gaunt and yawning expressions multiplied by the thousands. It appeared as though life had evaporated from his body from the bottom up. His eyes had rolled white, his mouth yawned wide.
The killer saw this as we did. He stood before his dead partner and tried to manipulate the frozen flesh, closing the eyelids, holding the jaw shut until the muscles tightened enough for it to stay on its own. Now the dead man just appeared to be sleeping, his hands neatly folded in his lap, head tossed to one side of the chair. I had seen my grandfather take the exact same pose after countless Thanksgivings.
The television was still on, adding its white noise to the room, still saving us from the silence. The killer was at the mantle, again looking at the arrangement of family pictures. He moved down the line, finally stopping on one.
“Where is this?” he asked, holding the picture over his shoulder while he kept his back to us.
“A park,” I offered.
He seemed satisfied with this, taking the picture back to look at it again. “You don’t look happy,” he said.
“I don’t like family vacations,” I eventually responded.
He nodded to himself. “You don’t look happy in this one, either.”
“Which one is it?”
“You’re sitting on a fence with one of those three-point hats on.”
“They made me wear it,” I said. “That was Williamsburg. It was hot and we couldn’t get lunch until we took the picture.”
“What did you have for lunch?”
“I don’t remember.”
The killer sighed. “Yes you do.”
I did remember. I knew exactly what we’d had, and the taste crawled back into my mouth the more I thought of it. “We bought pre-made lunches that came with a ham and cheese sandwich, granola bar, some chips and a root beer.”
“It was salty. The root beer was good—the kind in the glass bottles.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad.”
“I almost swallowed a wasp. I started to take a sip and saw it crawling up the neck of the bottle. I had to throw it out.”
“They made me” was the answer I came up with.
The killer put the picture back on the mantle, nodding his way down the procession. He found one of the potpourri pots and dipped his nose into before throwing his head back in revulsion.
“Sweet fuck, that stinks,” he yelled. He dipped his nose in again just to be sure, then spun around and pitched the tiny bowl across the room so it hit the wall above my mother’s head. Fragments flew in every direction, landing in my hair, on my skin. I watched as Katie’s frantic attempts to wipe the shards off her arms left long scratch marks on her skin. I had to stop her from trying again.
“Shut that kid up.”
“Shut up, Katie,” I said.
We were all back to staring at one another. All I remember feeling is frustration over not being able to sweep up the potpourri.
Suddenly the killer turned to his dead partner: “I’m having a drink, Johnny. You want one?”
He turned toward us, the skin on his face folded into long ridges as he feigned amusement.
“This is Johnny, everybody. Don’t think he’d mind you all knowing his name now. Eh, Johnny?” The killer kicked Johnny’s leg as he asked the question. “Guess not.”
He poured himself another drink, big enough for me to see the bourbon above his fingers holding the glass. After taking a sip, he went back to the mantle. He had avoided looking at himself until now, suddenly forced to see a mirror with a fat, sunken face staring back at him. There was a moment where he just rotated his head in a circle, up and down, studying the features that stared back at him in disapproval. When he was done, he put his drink on the mantle and took a deep breath and straightened his cuffs and shirt collar.
“Whaddya say, lady?” He was looking at my mother in the mirror, smoothing his sweaty hair. He saw her start to panic and smirked.
“Easy now. I’m just having some fun.” Something in the mirror had calmed him down. Whatever it was, he didn’t want the drink anymore. Things had gone wrong and he knew it; this was the end. The newspapers would say it was a botched robbery that led the two of them to our house that night. It sounds right, if nothing else. I couldn’t say if they were robbers or not. I never saw a bag of any kind, no sack with a dollar sign painted on its side. To us they were killers. I like to think this was what he saw in the mirror that calmed him.
“Kid, get the TV off the bookshelf.”
“Get the TV,” I said.
I felt odd leaving the couch and moving across the room. It was one of those moments where you don’t remember making the decision to stand up, to walk, to pick up and carry and set something down on the table. As I stood in the center of the room the whole situation felt different to me. From here I was just a spectator, incidental to whatever was going to happen to that poor mother and child on the couch. I plugged the TV in and sat on the couch again, still feeling invisible.
“What’s on tonight?” the killer asked.
I didn’t know. “What time is it?” I asked.
The killer checked his watch and said it was almost midnight. “I don’t know.”
“See what you can find,” he said.
“I’ll see what I can find.”
I turned on the TV, refilling the room with its light and noise. Only channel 6 was airing anything this late. Tonight it was Rawhide.
Seeing that I had settled on a channel, the killer asked: “Seen it?” He almost sounded excited to ask.
“Yeah,” I said, “three or four times. I used to like this show.”
“Turn it up,” the killer said.
After I did, he said “higher” a few times until the volume was as loud as possible.
I looked to the killer and he waved his hand for me to move closer to the TV. He inched me forward like he had with the volume until my nose was touching the screen. I remember staring into a pixilated landscape, tiny brown and blue squares whose trembling made me sick.
“Tell me what they’re saying,” he yelled at me.
I did as I was told and started reciting lines from the show.
“We’ll circle around and try to catch ‘em by surprise,” I said.
“No, that’s suicide. They’ll kill you for sure,” I said.
“If we don’t, they’ll kill us and take the herd,” I said.
“ROWDY! Rowdy, watch your back!” I said.
“I’m out of ammo!” I said.
“Someone get the horses,” I said.
“They’re coming around on us,” I said.
“ROWDY! NO!” I said.
I was screaming…
I remember looking around as the gunfight with the Comanches ended. Maybe it was longer than that. The room came into focus and revealed the killers facing each other from their opposing armchairs. The loud one had gone to join his partner, Johnny. The way he was sitting you could see the bullet hole under his chin, one leg jutting into the center of the room like he had kicked after he’d pulled the trigger on himself. One of his eyes bulged out of its socket, a cloudy globe peeking from beneath the eyelid. This and the goofy sneer of his mouth made him look like he’d been punched in the stomach. Johnny was dignified by comparison.
I don’t remember hearing the gunshot that took the killer’s life, nor those that killed my mother and little sister. Maybe the Comanches were to blame. And they were gone; the television had turned to static.
Looking beside me, I saw what had become of my mother and little sister. They were propped against one another like two little dolls that had been tossed aside for better things. The little one had bits of mashed potato at the corners of its mouth. Mom would have loved them.
When the police showed up it was for a noise complaint from one of the neighbors. Some people were trying to sleep. They didn’t expect me coming to the door in my white button-down and school slacks stained the way they were. When I brought them inside it was like I was entertaining them for dinner, showing them to the living room, the sofa, the armchairs. Are you hungry? There’s dinner on the table in the dining room. Have you seen the dolls?
We all stood in the front yard waiting for the ambulance and what seemed like every policeman in our town to arrive. One of them put their jacket around me while he talked to the other cops. They asked me questions, but I didn’t answer. I was watching all the neighbors look out from behind their curtains or come outside and stand on their front lawns. Their faces lit up every time the squad car’s light rotated, red silhouettes appearing every half-second. It was awful how they were all looking at me.
“There’s a family inside,” I said.
“No one else is in the house.”
“Everything’s a mess in there.”
Red silhouettes flashing like a heartbeat in front of me. Hello, stranger.
Photo By: Sudipto Sarkar