Sometimes he just sits there in that shed and stares at the skulls for hours. Fifty-three to date. That’s fifty-three pairs of eye sockets, or, miniature black holes—gravitational monstrosities that had ultimately swallowed up an infinite number of divisions from the human cosmos.
Such heavy ruminations are currently wasted on him though, as he pulls on a cigarette and observes the many sunken depths. Like a god, he blows smoke into the universe and ponders simply what it would be like to hold her hand.
He thinks this same thought and similar others on random eves, while in his truck outside the Flying J, spitting chew into a tin can. Various metal bands blare from his radio, stomping leather boots onto such silent nights. And his eyes are always sharp and beady. People go missing every year, hundreds, if not thousands, and what’s to say about that is that he knows he’s not the only one of his kind. Of a sort, he’s her guardian angel, and when this revelation had initially occurred, it summoned a rise of laughter ending with a climactic peak so turbulent, he almost spilled his can of spit onto his lap.
Her name is Lisa, and more than once he’s considered that name. Such a common title for such an uncommon creature—his creature—so graceful with her gestures and movements behind the checkout counter.
He wonders how many “Lisas” are in the shed. Except that they’re no longer Lisas, they’re just skulls, but he would bet a week’s wages that there’s at least one.
He always buys something, just to see Lisa up close, butterflies be damned. And when he walks back to his truck his world is a cyclone of emotion. His mind replays the numerous mental snapshots of the recent encounter, while inner voices whisper an entourage of should’ve, could’ve, and would’ves. Then the finale, somewhere along the drive home: a battery of punches to the side of his own head.
He is a kinesthetic learner and does not like to read, the latter of which provides a possible conflict to the results of any such profile screenings administered by the detectives of half-a-dozen counties. He is also a sound mechanic, and owns an established reputation for reliability, as he has not missed a day of work in over ten years. Mr. Brooks is his favorite movie, for reasons of which are many. He drinks cheap coffee in the morning, and when he takes a shit, he is quick about it. His home is a trailer on twenty acres of a southwestern landscape, and some days he fishes for trout at a nearby creek, weather permitting. The summer months provide the best season for hunting, as many solo backpackers venture into the southwest during this time. The vast majority of these explorers will return home to share grandiose tales of their exploits in solitude. But of a few, he will throttle in the night.
As stated, he is good with his hands, and he demonstrates this with the efficiency at which he scalps a severed head of its outer casing—the “personality,” one might say. He discards such refuse to the ground absentmindedly, while his eyes mount the glory in his palm, held slightly upon the horizon. It is, he knows, the ultimate fruit of his kinesthetic labors.
“I take trophies.” He said this to Lisa one evening, not knowing why. It just blurted out of him, was his breaking of the ice.
She looked at him sideways then scanned the bag of chips on the counter. “You take trophies?” she replied.
“Yeah. That’s why you see me here. Sometimes.”
“What kind of trophies?”
“All kinds.” His palms felt like dead fish. “Whatever’s in season, I guess.”
“Well, nothing’s in season right now.”
“I know. Just doing a little scouting, that’s all.”
“I shot a nice muley last winter, not far from here.”
He looked at her.
“Same place I got my first one,” she continued. “But that was a long time ago. You want a bag for these?”
There was a pause, him still chewing on her words. “Sure. I’ll take a bag.”
When he left, she said goodbye, and told him good luck with his trophies, and his walk to the truck was electric. His mind was the chrome ball in a pinball machine, pinging from one thought to the next. His drive home lacked the battery of punches, was consumed only with an excitement of knowing that his first step was a profitable one. And more importantly, that the path ahead lay wide as the sky.
He dug out his old rifles and gave them a good cleaning. In the following months he saw Lisa ten more times. Each time, he talked a little more to her, and she was receptive. She had learned his name, and more importantly, she used it, and oddly, that prompted him to go squirrel hunting. He bagged nine such critters on his first morning out, which left him feeling rather competent. He took the heads and scalped them clean, boiled them for a bit. Then he lined the tiny craniums up on a shelf in the shed, next to all the others…finite orbs in the universe of his making.
But something about their existence in the shed did not sit well with him, so he took them out and placed them into an empty planter box on the porch.
A week later, he shot his first black bear. He butchered it and hauled it home in his truck, and spent several hours processing the beast. He boiled the skull and placed it on the porch, next to the box of squirrel heads. He also made a necklace out of the creature’s claws, and considered giving it to Lisa, as a gift. He thought about this while packing the bear meat into his freezer. Would the necklace be too crude of a gesture? Would it lack romance? He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think so.
Those who pursue him have named him upon a misconception, as “Hatchet Man” often utilizes more than one means to snuff out a life. On his latest excursion, he dropped a heavy boulder onto the chest of a sleeping man, and then swiped his knife across the man’s throat. The violent actions within the killing were, sadly, the most creative components of the endeavor, as all that followed were none other than automations under the caliber of “Hatchet Man’s” kinesthetic proficiencies. Disappointing yet was his frame of mind while performing these routine efforts. He could not deflect his thoughts from Lisa. Furthermore, when he’d completed his task and placed the final product onto the shelf, (number fifty-four), his recollection of the entire event was as barren as a mindless drive into town. In a sense, the trophy—more than all the others—had become nameless.
Her eyes lit up when he gave her the necklace.
“I brought you some meat, also.”
“Holy shit, you’re awesome,” Lisa said. “Thank you.”
Two days later she met him for her break behind the Flying J. They smoked a joint together, and things went from zero to sixty in ten minutes of conversation. All the right words had come out of his mouth, slick as motor oil; but better yet, he let her talk, and he listened with interest. She gave him a hug at the end, asked what he was doing on Saturday, and they agreed to go shooting.
The following Friday night, he sat long in the shed. The sockets stared back at him, begging the question as to what he was going to do. Would he ultimately deceive Lisa and add a new skull to his collection? A cold chill ran the length of his spine at this thought. He felt shame for even imagining such a scenario. But what was he going to do? Once again, the path ahead was an expanse so great it provoked a sense of fear in him. Adding to this was a layer of sadness he could not explain. It was a depression of sorts, emanating from within the shed. That night, he threw a sleeping bag on the ground and kept a Coleman lantern on low, beside the shelf. He counted the skulls until he fell asleep.
The “gun range” was a clay culvert two stories high, saddled with Manzanita and Ocotillo, and sat roughly sixty-yards behind Lisa’s house. Of her house, it was a modular home with an added garage, built by Lisa’s former husband. The man had died during a hunting trip five years prior, and Lisa’s sister, Penny, lived with her now.
These details he learned, along with certain others, as he popped rounds into tin cans, glass bottles, and while eating ham sandwiches and drinking PBR’s, in the late afternoon sun. He crunched dirt clods under his boot when Lisa explained that she hadn’t been on a date for five years now—almost as long as the span of her marriage. She gave Hatchet Man a passionate kiss before he left, and when he got home, it was dark. Before bed, he smoked a cigarette on his porch and stared at the shed. Under the night sky, the structure resembled its truest form: the shadow of a mausoleum. Lisa’s kiss was still young and fresh, swimming blindly through his mind, and for the first time ever, upon studying the shed, he felt dread.
What would Mr. Brooks do? The arrival of this question was where Hatchet Man gave pause. Like an inviting cul-de-sac along the path of an interminable destination, he thought he just might stay here forever. The next day, before he called Lisa, he put a lock on the shed. Then he cleaned up the trailer and made dinner. And later that night, when she arrived, as he walked out to greet her, he saw a shooting star draw a line of fire across the southern sky.
In the coming months, she might ask him what’s in that building, and he might reply something to the effect of “tools.” Or, he might simply show her, and add that, “That one there, number forty-two, is your late husband.” After hearing the other “certain details,” Hatchet Man recalled the incident with the elk hunter. The man had put up a good fight, he cursed long and loud, despite having been rendered limbless, and quite bloody. He was the sort of man Lisa would marry.
Her reaction, of course, would then dictate the future. But for now, Hatchet Man finally understood his feelings; and, more importantly, what he was going to do about them. He took Lisa by the hand and walked her up the porch. She made a copasetic comment about the bear skull, and he grinned from ear to ear, deliberately. He knew she’d say something to that effect, because he was in love, dammit, he was in love.
Chris Riley lives near Sacramento, California, vowing one day to move back to the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, he teaches special education, writes cool stories, and hides from the blasting heat for six months of the year. He has had dozens of short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and across various genres. His debut novel, one of literary suspense, titled The Sinking of the Angie Piper, has recently been published. For more information, go to chrisrileyauthor.com.