Mornings were improving. He slept almost four hours last night. For months, he had to wait until dawn just as the starlings set up a racket before falling asleep—a drop straight down into a dreamless black void. For months after his return, he fought sleep, insulted his liver trying to drink himself into a blackout. It was like stumbling out of a funhouse room with tilted floors and distorting mirrors into a suffocating, windowless room with neon-glo graffiti tagged on the walls. Most of it obscene or violent in English or Arabic.
He talked to more people, too. That was easier since the little girl across the street made a fuss over him every time he came home. If she happened to be in her front yard playing with dolls, she’d abandon them to come running. He taught her to look both ways first. Her useless mother never checked on her unless it was to scream at her in a profanity-laced tirade. He guessed her age to be five but wasn’t sure because she was scrawny and her clothes hung on her like mismatched hand-me-downs.
Little Patricia spoke with a lisp, owing to missing front teeth. He didn’t understand why she wanted to be around him. When he arrived back in the States, no one wanted to be around him. He didn’t blame them. Eric, his therapist, warned him about losing his temper: “You’ll wind up in a homeless encampment surrounded by drug addicts and mentally deranged people.”
Last night, he was reprimanded by his supervisor, doing dimwitted midnight-shift work stacking pallets. Before he was able to hear the words, he had to banish the red noise from the beats clawing up his esophagus.
Frank sat alone in the breakroom during two a.m. “lunch” listening to his co-workers chat about nothing. It was soothing to see a group of people not mangled by grenades, cut up by K-bars, or shredded by high-powered weapons, lying around a concrete floor. The married women were full of melodrama about spouses and kids, problems at home. The single girls eyed him cautiously.
His hands shook when he returned from the talking to the supervisor. A woman named Gloria was rambling on from one ghoulish subject to the next, pouring out all the sordid catastrophes of her life. Something about blood infections from a pregnancy, naming her son “Dewey,” which meant “the right hand of God,” before segueing to a baby who pooped in the swimming pool—one tedious litany of familial woes.
He was a captive audience at a reality show in hell.
He wondered how fast their limited attention spans would narrow to him if they knew what he’d done and seen in those barren, sandy wastes. Best not think that now . . . the red noise was bottled but it could slip out.
* * *
“You’re saying I’m suicidal.”
No,” Eric replied. “I’m saying that more suicides happen in spring because nature is renewing and people with suicidal ideation know they aren’t.”
“I am renewing,” Frank replied.
Little Tisha ran across the street as soon as she saw his car. He held his breath when she reached the curb. She stopped, looked both ways, and gave him a gap-toothed grin before she came running up.
She embraced his legs, squeezing. He didn’t remember the last time anyone had hugged him. Plenty of manly slaps after a successful mission. The last person to hug him was a girl from high school—a consolation prize. She declined to go to the senior prom with him.
He smiled down at her. Her round, happy face beamed up at him. He brushed her sweat curls off her forehead. She gave off gave off a rancid odor from her house. He asked what game she was playing with her dollies.
“Hothpital,” she said.
A piercing shriek from the porch made her jump back: “Get your goddam butt inside before I beat you with a belt!”
Frank had heard all the mother’s crude expressions by now. Tisha didn’t look both ways when she ran back to her house.
The red noise was magical. It could transform from sound into a mangy, clawing animal with a raccoon hump and snapping jaws. It slavered and demanded to be fed. Then it was no longer the red noise but the Red Rage. His fists clenched until his knuckles whitened to a boxer’s diamond points. He sat in his La-Z-Boy rocking, trying to dam up the rage flooding his system. (“When you feel things overwhelming you, Frank, sit. Don’t leave the house. Breathe deeply, think of that deep pool. Let your mind go into it . . .”)
Zen bullshit—I’ll kill the slag if she touches a hair on that girl’s head.
He sucked more air into his lungs. Tried to inflate his lungs to the bursting point. Anything to take his mind off the animal with bloody fangs cavorting in his skull. Driving home, Frank saw her sitting on her cement porch steps. It was chilly, still early spring. Frost warnings last night were in place for the inland county but had been removed from the lakeshore, where breezes from Lake Erie kept the bitter chill at bay.
She didn’t look at him while he waved to her. She clutched a rag doll in her arms. She’s not allowed, he knew. The hissing of a broken steam pipe was audible in his ear.
Frank headed for her house. Closer to the house, the odor intensified. He suspected the interior was a hoarder’s den of fast-food wrappers, beer cans, and pizza boxes scattered across the floor. The men who visited the mother were rough-looking, unemployed males like the last two: an outlaw biker and a long-haul driver who parked his rig in front of Frank’s house. Clapped-out cars and pickups with loud mufflers. The loud arguments started as soon as the men moved in, then the drunken fights, the woman screaming at the man from the porch.
Tisha would look the way Frank usually saw her—hair uncombed and tangled; her face streaked with dirt, looking gaunt and unhappy. The clothes she wore when the caseworker returned her would be filthy with stains and torn.
Frank pounded on the door.
The door swung open. The draft smacked him in the face with its ripe odor. The girl’s mother stood there in a terry-cloth robe. She took him in with bleary eyes unaware that she needed to be tucked back in.
“’the hell you want?”
“It’s cold out here,” Frank said. “Put a jacket on her.”
The woman stepped backward into the foyer, as though she’d been slapped across the face. The door slamming in his face created a scratching noise in his head. On the way home, he had to wipe blood from his lip.
* * *
Tisha stopped playing outside. He saw her one night three weeks later standing behind the curtain covering the picture window, which looked more like a bedsheet. She stared out the window at Frank’s house. Her eyes settled on him. He felt acid burning his chest. A pair of bare female arms whisked the curtain aside and grabbed the girl roughly by the shoulders, flinging her back inside the room. Frank caught the swirl of colors of a large TV screen playing.
“I made it worse for you,” he mumbled, balling his fists unconsciously.
* * *
Eric shook Frank’s hand.
“What’s that for?”
“We’re done,” Eric replied. “You’re good to go, soldier.”
“I am not kidding you,” Eric replied, snapping his heels together and giving a formal salute.
“If you say so.”
“I do and I shall report such to higher command. Semper Fi, soldier.”
As he pulled into his driveway, an ambulance with running lights pulled up to Tisha’s house. He was used to the woman’s pig sty of a life and assumed a cop cruiser would be the next vehicle to show up. Two EMTs escorted Tisha’s mother down the porch steps. She sobbed theatrically. Frank assumed her latest abusive man absconded before he arrived home.
The cops showed up the next day, two detectives instead of uniformed officers. They were there to interview the mother over the death of her little girl.
He was informed of it by an anorectic-looking woman with dyed black hair, who approached him as the police were knocking on the mother’s door. Frank had just returned from his work shift. Her pinched, oval face gave her a vulpine look. The merest grimace of teeth for a smile confirmed it. She said she lived several houses down from him.
“How?” Frank gulped.
“Poor thing drank antifreeze. She must have thought it was juice,” the woman said. “Poured it into a Dixie cup and drank it right down. They say it’s sweet. That poor mother.”
“That poor mother . . . that poor mother . . . ” Frank repeated it like a mantra, his brain stuck at a crazy angle.
Something about the way Frank said it caused the woman to retreat. She disappeared.
He stood in his yard staring at—nothing. He didn’t recall walking back inside his house or sitting in his lounge chair until dark. He was back in Syria, back at the Al-Omar oil field listening to his captain sentence him to the brig for assaulting the duty sergeant. “You wrapped your hands in duct-tape. That man is never going to be right in the head again.”
Confined to his tent except for latrine duty, Frank didn’t reveal the reason for the fight. He didn’t want to explain the stomach-churning images that tumbled out of the sergeant’s sewer of a brain every time he spoke, those pornographic monologues. He was just learning about the red beast then.
When he went to put flowers on Tisha’s grave, he learned that she’d been cremated “at public expense” and the ashes returned to the mother. Frank thought of the stinking burn pits back in Syria.
June was abnormally hot. The next-door neighbor of Tisha’s mother called to report a foul odor coming from the house. Dead raccoons under the porch, she reported. The overpowering stench became so pervasive that it reached across the street like tentacles of rot and flicked people’s nostrils as they walked by. Everyone wondered where the foul odor was coming from.
The virulent stink came from the mother’s decomposing body rotting from its rope noose in Tisha’s upstairs bedroom. Gravity’s relentless tug and the extraordinary heat combined to accelerate decomposition to the extent that the head became detached from the neck and plummeted to the floor where it rolled under the bed until the paramedics found it there.
The anorectic woman raced up to Frank, reading the newspaper on his front stoop, to inform him of the grisly details.
“Lord, that poor woman,” she lamented, a ghoulish Job’s comforter. “First her daughter, now her. Can you believe it?”
Frank said he could.
While the woman gazed at the house across the street, Frank pulled his sleeves down to cover the deep scratches where she’d raked his forearms the entire way up the stairs, trying to claw his face, his eyes, whatever her nails could reach. He could have made it easier by knocking her out, but he wanted her to know what was going to happen. Bound and gagged, she watched him fortify the ceiling rafter with a brace to hold her weight with four-by-eights from his garage.
The woman turned to him. “They’re saying her boyfriend helped her do it.”
Frank returned to the article he was reading. The red beast quiet now, curled in a corner.
Robb White has published several crime, horror, and mainstream stories in various magazines and anthologies. He’s been nominated for a Derringer for his crime fiction. “The Girl from the Sweater Factory,” was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards. Recent horror stories are “The Backyard Digger” in The Yard and “The Tick Bite” and “You’ll See, She Said” in Black Petals. His latest work is a crime novel: Full-Tilt Boogie, featuring Jade Hui, Special Agent. Find him at www.tomhaftman.wixsite.com/robbtwhite