How should the world see me as an author?

I have remained in the shadows for as long as I can remember. It sounds dark and gloomy but it isn’t. I put myself there. When it comes to a one-on-one encounter with people I am equipped to hold some interesting conversations. Large groups, on the other hand, tend to scare me away like a frightened rabbit. If I can’t get away, I usually end up on the edge of participation while taking up the role of observer. A perfect example is a dance party I attended at a friend’s house when I was fourteen. Male and female teens strut their stuff in a big room with loud music and a strobe light. Victim to my nature and lack of self-confidence, I stood in one corner with my sunglasses on even though the sun had gone down. Through the music, I heard a girls voice, “Oh my god, look at that guy. He looks like a statue.” Ever since, I understood my role, in most any group, was the quiet one sitting in the corner. It’s not a bad place to be. But, here’s the thing. If I am going to seriously pursue a career as a novelist, I need to present myself to the world. To love me or to hate me, the stage is set and risk is real. The leap into the unknown is a necessity. But the question remains:

How should the world see me as an author?

Do I show everyone I can be presentable and professional? I already wear Polo’s daily, but that’s because it gets a better interaction from a lot of the oilfield guys that work out in this area. It’s good customer service, friendly tone and all that.

 

 

 

 

But I can’t be too professional. Weird Al Yankovic is one of my all time favorite musicians. (If you don’t know who that is, you need to go look him up on youtube because you are missing out.) Most of today’s comedy movies suck. I’ll settle for some Mel Brooks or Monty Python. Hell, I’ll even go back far enough to mention Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers. Any of it is better than today’s limit-pushing silliness. But that’s me. I like the oldies: Arsenic and Old Lace, Young Einstein, Little Shop of Horrors, Gremlins, Never Ending Story.

*I’m guilty of liking current movies too: Shaun of the Dead, Metalocalypse, Grandma’s Boy.

 

I wanted to be the mystery man and hide behind the image my stories created on their own, but that can’t happen. Well, I’m sure somewhere it happens to someone but not to me. The mystery I want you to feel needs to come from my stories, not who I am as a person. As a person I want you to see I am just as human as you are. Blood runs through our veins. We breathe air from the same sky. We share the same sun.

 

 

 

Rolling with the current hippity-hop and you-viners, I could fill the status streams with click-bait about political antics or my personal views about religious segregation, but I am not that person. I’m not even good at making click-bait, and pissing people off has never been a strong suit. Now, if you want to talk about spirituality and the universe, I am always open for conversation.

 

 

 

Are you a nature buff? Do you enjoy the outdoors? I don’t do as much camping and fishing as I would like nowadays, but I try to make it a yearly effort. I even bought a pop-up trailer a few years back. I’ve only taken it out once, and it was hotter than a witches skillet, but it was fun, and my daughter got to catch three fish…one right after the other. Made me question my ability as a fisherman.

 

 

 

In the end, all I can be is me. It’s a strange job, but someone has to do it, and I excel at it, so why should you believe any different? Creep into my mind and make your home. Beware of the pitfalls and shadow people. Fresh meat taste good with vintage whiskey and sour notions. Care to stay for dinner?

 

So, what do readers like to read about their favorite authors? Do you keep up with their accomplishments, book signings, public readings? Is it their work that keeps bringing you back, or is it the author?

Feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

 

The Farmington Scribbler – The Lord of Mictlan

The Lord of Mictlan

By: E. Cluff Elliott

It was one of those chairs with wooden arms and a dark rust-colored leather backing, riveted in place with gold studs. It wasn’t bad to sit in, but I didn’t want to be here. Unfortunately, the court system and my wife insisted. Being the law abiding citizen I am, I reluctantly agreed—turns out I was the fool.

“I have the entire afternoon, Vicente.” The good Doctor Blanding—a fat man in a cheap suit whose face hadn’t yet bloated like his gut—laced his fingers together and leaned forward on his desk. His glasses sat on the edge of his nose, probably making him feel important, but I knew better. His tiny office reminded me of that show Hoarders, which probably made him the lowest paid shrink at Crystal River.

“Yeah? Good for you, hijo de puto. You wanna know what I think? I think that makes you a nosey asshole.”

“If that’s what you’d like to think.” He stared at me through wireframes.

“Why do you want to hear the same story so much? It’s not like it’s a good story, or one that makes sense.” The subject was touchy, but we would’ve gotten there eventually. We always did.

“Because there’s something to learn from it,” he said giving me one of his half-grins.

“That’s supposed to make me happy?” I didn’t like that grin, it made me feel like I was a kid again. I could even hear my mother’s voice comforting me from somewhere inside my head. Mi hijo, it will be ok. Do what your father tells you. Be my sweet angel. Then, in a twitch, her voice was gone.

“It’s meant to help you see that you’re in the right place for treatment.”

“Because I’m crazy?” Glancing around the room, I expected to see her standing behind me, but nothing was there. Aside from the gringo doctor and me, there was nobody else in the room.

Dropping his grin, he said, “Because you’re having trouble understanding the world around you and distinguishing reality from your hallucinations.”

“Whatever, man.” I didn’t believe him. Why should I? I can hold down a solid job and pay my bills on time. Plus, nothing’s changed in the last six months since I got here. I still see things people say aren’t there and I still get the dreams. Neither has faded; if anything, they keep getting stronger.

Doctor Blanding waited silently which was one of the things I hated about the prick. It made me think he was judging me, picking out my flaws as if I were a criminal.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll tell you the damn story one more time, but after today don’t expect any detailed recaps.”

“Fair enough,” he said grabbing a pen and yellow legal pad.

I could already feel my hands fidgeting with the sky blue hospital shirt I wore, finding its folds and rolling them between my fingers. I didn’t like what was coming. At least this was the last time I was going to tell it. Thank the gods for small favors.

***

As you know, my childhood was on the weird side. To me it was anyway. My padres had this room where they dressed up in feathery costumes. I was never allowed in but for good reason. It was an Aztec temple, kept sacred, and dedicated to The Lord of Mictlan. My father wanted to teach me, but at seven years old and terrified of the costumes, I didn’t want to learn. I wanted normal parents that go to St. Michael’s like the rest of my friends. It never happened though.

Once I was old enough, I worked my ass off, finding side jobs as a car mechanic to keep me out of the house. When I turned eighteen, I married my wife Lia—seventeen at the time. Two years later we had Maria. I had a steady job with Aztec Industrial Bearing and Supply. Bills were being paid on time. Family events like going to the zoo or the museum were a regular thing. Back when the I love you’s meant something.

After years of contentment, I started getting promotions at work; I started taking on more. And because of the stressful work hours my relationships with my wife and daughter had grown distant. The I love you’s became empty. My body started feeling drained. Maria—sixteen at the time—started stealing cash from my wallet. At first it was only small bills and I figured she was grabbing lunch money. But after a couple months, larger sums began to vanish and I was sure something else was going on. It was betrayal. I wanted to whip her ass and strip her room of everything she owned, but my wife, Lia refused the idea. She said, “If our daughter’s stealing money then there might be a good reason for it. Maybe we should think about giving her a larger allowance.”

I told her, “Are you loco? You don’t give a thief everything you have just because you know they’re going to try to take part of it; you punish them.”

Needless to say, we started fighting more. First I’d have to face off with my short-tempered daughter and suffer the wrath of her teenaged angst. Most times it was about stolen money or sneaking out, but there were a few times I caught her sneaking boys into the house after my wife and I had gone to sleep. The boys always looked terrified; my daughter always looked like a she-demon. Then, after dealing with the living banshee, I’d have to defend my actions against her mother; which, by the way, was a complete pain in my ass because she double dosed her Ambien on a regular basis. Yet, even though she was turning into a heavy-eyed pill-popper I was always too harsh, or too aggressive, like I was the executioner. I felt like I was being alienated from my family. I met resistance no matter what I did, outcast in my own surroundings.

The stress started giving me weird recurring dreams. I’d close my eyes to sleep and wake up naked in a narrow gray corridor without windows, doors, or lights. I felt lost and confused, but eventually I picked a direction and walked toward the horizon. Some nights it felt like I walked a couple hundred yards; other nights it felt like I’d been walking for days. No matter how far or which direction I walked, I always ended up at the same place. The first time I saw it I thought it was a gray sheet that’d been tacked up to cover the hallway the way carpenters tack plastic up to keep the sawdust in their work area. As I got closer, the sheet started to billow like smoke, giving me the creeps. I thought it might start to fill the hallway and push me back the way I’d come, but it didn’t. It only blocked me from seeing past it. It didn’t even smell like smoke; if anything there was a lack of odor in the hallway, as if I there were filters in my nose.

Inching closer, I waved my hand through the smoke. It swirled like a bowl filled with dry ice but it didn’t clear. Instead, as if responding to my hand I heard something through the fog, something that sounded like speech, like it was trying to tell me something but all that got through were distant mumbles.

I wanted to call out to the voice. See who it was. But when I did, the smoke would retreat down the hallway and out of sight. Then, my walk would start all over again.

Taking drugs to stay awake wasn’t an option. I was a company man. There would be drug tests at work if they suspected anything and I’m still paranoid of the immigration offices. I’m a U.S. citizen for god’s sake. The other extreme was taking some of Lia’s Ambien to knock me out completely. But I’d seen her doped up too many times to feel excited about that idea. Eventually, large amounts of coffee were all I drank. I was scared of falling asleep. Watching TV late into the night to try to escape only worked for so long. Sooner or later, exhaustion won over and I found myself back in the endless gray hallway.

I thought the weirdness was all in my head—you know, brought on by stress—but then the bruises started to show up, small dime and quarter-shaped spots that popped up on Lia’s thighs. The first few times they appeared it was a mystery to both of us. Lia even suggested that she might have bumped her legs on something, which made some sense. But, what in my house sits high enough to make that kind of mark? The way they were placed, I could only think of two things that would make those kinds of marks, and unless another pair had come into my wife’s life, my two hands went with me everywhere.

“What’d you run into this time?” I knew what her answer would be. It was always the same, and she always answered as she held up her pink chemise to inspect her thighs, as if admiring the marks instead of contemplating where they came from.

“I wish I knew,” she said as she rubbed and poked at the bruises, flinching every time she found a sore spot. “Ow!”

“So, you have no idea where they keep coming from?”

She dropped the hem of her chemise and reached for her Ambien. After popping two in her mouth and dry swallowing them, she said, “I already told you, I don’t know. I told you that last night, and the night before.”

“You sure you don’t know?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” She started under the covers. “What? Do you think I’m inviting the nice elderly man from down the street to come give me a quickie during the day?”

“The marks are in the right place.”

Lia turned to me. She looked confused. But then her cocoa-colored eyes narrowed and her lips pressed together the way she does when she’s pissed but doesn’t want to show it yet. “You can’t be serious. That’s your argument: the marks are in the right place?

“Why’re you getting defensive? It’s the truth.” I stripped to my boxers and slipped into bed.

“Defensive? Pinche babosa. You want to see defensive?” She whipped the covers off her, got up and stomped to the bedroom door then opened it wide. “Out!”

“What did you say?”

“You heard me, Vicente. OUT! You can sleep on the couch or you can sleep in the car, but I don’t want you sleeping in here tonight.”

I stared at her. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My wife was trying to kick me out of my own room. “Get back into bed, Lia. I got to get up early and meet the delivery trucks.”

She didn’t move; instead, she gave me a murderous glare that reminded me of a vulture ready to peck my eyes out.

“Come on, Lia, you…”

“I’m serious, Vicente,” she said cutting me off. She sounded tired, on the edge of total exhaustion. “You’re not going to talk me back into bed anymore, like I’m your obedient little criada.”

“Lia, you’re being ridiculous. If you were my obedient little maid you wouldn’t have bruises up and down your legs like a fucking puta.” I knew I’d crossed the line, but I didn’t care. I was tired of being the bad guy.

Her face puckered and stretched. It was like watching different emotions all at the same time and on the same face. I thought for sure she was going to start wailing, but as tears started to roll down her cheeks she turned away and walked out of the room, her footsteps leading away.

“LIA,” I called after her hopping out of bed in close pursuit. I knew my words hurt her, and I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut, but that didn’t keep the words from being true.

I found her in the living room, curled on the couch with her knees against her chest. The lights were off but a moonbeam lit her face, making her wet cheeks shine.

“Come to bed. It’s warmer back there.”

Finally, after fifteen minutes of listening to her moan about our relationship, she relented. Looking back, I wish she hadn’t.

That night, I dreamed of the hallway again, but this time my walk was different. There were light fixtures on the walls, damp with a thick reddish-black coat of fungus or sludge. Other fixtures were so rusted they were ready to fall apart. Same went for the walls; where they weren’t soaked through, the wallpaper peeled away from the wall in large folds.

Reaching out to touch one of the wet patches, my fingers came back red and slick and warm. I should’ve panicked.

Instead, I wiped my fingers on my bare leg and started walking. The hallway was cluttered with random debris—the burnt husk of a wooden chair, piles of shredded paper, clusters of broken glass—which made the going slow, but it didn’t matter. Eventually I ended up in front of the wall of smoke, but it wasn’t the same. It swirled in patterns the way it had when I’d stuck my hand in, but now it was swirling on its own.

Reaching toward the smoke with my stained fingers, the swirls converged into a shallow vortex avoiding my touch. I pulled my hand back, and stared in fascination. The air in the hallway blew toward the smoke, tickling the hairs between my legs and giving me chills, as if a giant were inhaling from the other side.

I reached out again. This time the center pulled away from my hand. The shallow vortex deepening until it seemed to stretch for miles.

Then I heard the voices. They were more than mumbles this time. I could hear what they were saying, but I didn’t like it. Take back what you built with your own hands. The life you made is yours to command.

They chanted the lines over and over again, but they were chanting in a different language, one that I hadn’t heard since Uncle Eduardo visited from El Salvador over twenty years ago. I wasn’t sure how I could understand a language I’d only heard a couple of times, but I did. It was like an ancient part of me was being awakened.

“Who’s there?” But no one answered, only continued to chant in that language. What did Uncle Eduardo say it was, Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs?

Trying again, I said, “I can hear you in there.” But still, no one answered.

Yet, as soon as I finished talking, the breeze in the hallway turned into a gust and then a gale. I could feel pieces of paper and other debris hitting my back like they were stones, but that was the least of my worries. The wind was strong enough I had to fight to keep my balance, reaching out to the wall in search of stability. I thought the wind would pull me into the smoke, suck me into the vortex, but as the winds peaked, the swirling gray funnel in front of me did something unexpected; it defied physics and pushed the clouds straight at me with the speed of a freight train.

On instinct, I dropped to my butt and curled my knees to my chest, using my arms to shield my face. A rush of frigid air barreled past me, ruffling my hair, and then it was gone, taking the voices with it. In the quiet that followed, I felt something watching me.

I looked up expecting to see a tall figure in a black cloak, come to take my life. I was wrong; it was much worse than death. The thing that was in front of me was a god; and not just any god. Mictlantecuhtli was The God of death and the The Lord of Mictlan—the Underworld among Aztecs. He was an eight-foot-tall horror with a pale skull for a head. Where his guts should’ve been, there was only a partly covered ribcage and innards that dangled down like the inside of a pumpkin. The rest of him was covered in skin that looked mummified; dark browns mixed with shades of black and grey covered his legs, chest, and arms. He wore only a necklace of eyeballs that dangled part way down his chest, leaving red smudges wherever they touched. But, the worst part about him was the way he kept his eyes closed and his hands stretched out in front of him, as if he was blind and searching for something.

I was in trouble. I just didn’t know why. So many times, I’d walked down the gray hallway. So many times, I’d stood in front of the wall of smoke. Was this thing always there, lurking ten feet away?

“What the fuck do you want?” I tried to make it sound like I meant business, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt intimidated at that moment. Dream or not, this thing scared the shit out of me.

The nightmare down the hall took a step toward me covering half the distance between us and smashing a bookshelf in the process. My body responded the only way it knew how; I pissed myself.

I pinched my forearm, sure I’d wake up, but nothing happened. There was still a puddle of piss between my legs, and a giant corpse headed my way.

The huge figure took another step then leaned down, dripping blood from his gut like a shower. Once the blood hit the ground and pooled it began crawling toward me.

I should’ve moved out of the way of the blood, but I couldn’t. The huge skull was hypnotizing.

“You will survive to find Rivalry Crest. You will sacrifice or lose your ultimate test,” he said without opening his eyes. His voice was rough, but it didn’t sound hostile.

“I don’t…I don’t understand,” I said out of breath.

One at a time, the eyeballs around his necklace focused on me as if they were still connected to a living person. It made me want to vomit.

“Understanding comes when the time is right. You must reach that point; you must see as I see. You must carry on your family’s devotion.”

With lighting speed he swiped me off the ground, catching me in the back and closing his finger around my chest. His grip was cold and dead, giving me the shakes. I imagined my ribs cracking as he squeezed, popping me like an overly-ripe apricot. But that was too much, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I started beating on his mummified fingers, trying to knock myself free. His skin felt like canvass. My knuckles, already bloody from the pool on the floor, cracked and bled the more I punched. But I kept at it, beating his fingers until they too started to crack and bleed. It was minutes before I realized I wasn’t the only one screaming. A girlish cry, not from The Lord of Mictlan but from the eyeballs hanging around his neck; two eyes in particular, two brown eyes, two familiar brown eyes.

“It can’t be,” I said as my fists hovered, catching up with the shock the rest of my body suddenly felt. The eyes, almost dead center of the necklace, were Lia’s eyes. “Lia?”

CRACK!

Something big slammed against the left side of my head, and the hallway, the blood, and The Lord of Mictlan vanished in a swirl of dense smoke. Everything vanished except for the eyes. And what materialized around them was enough to make me miss the dreaded hallway.

Screams filled my bedroom. The side of my head and my knuckles throbbed. The pain was so bad my vision grew dark for a moment, turning everything into shadow. But after shaking my head a few times, my eyes focused.

I was kneeling on Lia’s side of the bed in my boxers, but the lower half of them had turned an odd shade of red. My legs and hands were coated with blood. And I remember feeling a weight pull down on me, as if the chains of Hell were claiming my soul. I resisted but it did no good.

The world turned to water as I started to cry, but the less I saw the more I heard. Lia was near the door, sitting against the wall and whimpering like a whipped pup. Between her whimpers, I could even hear the prayer she was repeating: the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. Maria, on the other hand, moved toward me screaming.

“Maria!” But it was too late. The baseball bat she held crashed against my skull and the world went red…

***

“Red?” Doctor Blanding asked. “Why red? Why not black?”

“Why the hell does it matter? After Maria cracked me over the head a second time I was out until the cops showed up. Look it up in your stupid reports, they’ll tell you all about it. Now, are we done?” I got to my feet.

“A couple more questions and then I’ll have the orderly take you back?”

“No,” I said sitting back down, “but I don’t think I have much choice, do I?”

“Well, it’s either; sit in here and help me discover who you are as an individual, or Chuck can take you back to your room and put you on lockdown until you decide to cooperate.” Doctor Blanding pushed his glasses up on his nose to keep them from falling. “The choice is yours, Vicente.”

“Man, ask your stupid fucking questions already. I’m getting a headache,” I said folding my arms across my chest.

Doctor Blanding relaxed as he looked down at the yellow legal pad he’d been scribbling on. “Do you – remember where the bruises came from?”

“Are you serious?” I leaned forward, reaching out to the desk to steady myself. “Weren’t you listening to the story? Didn’t you hear the part about her fucking our neighbor?”

“But you don’t know that for sure.”

“Why do you think she left me? You think she took our daughter to the other end of the country just for the hell of it? No, I know she was cheating on me. That’s the only explanation that fits. Can I go now?” My emotions were starting to get out of control.

Doctor Blanding ignored me.

“Do you remember what happened after you blacked out; after your daughter hit you in the head the second time?”

“No, I told you, everything went red, not black. And why the fuck…”

“Do you know why you’re here at Crystal River?”

“Yeah, my wife sent me.” I felt confused. The conversation was going somewhere it hadn’t gone before.

“No, she didn’t,” he said. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Next week, perhaps,” Doctor Blanding said as he pressed a button on his phone and called in the orderly.

“Next week? You said this was the last time I’d have to tell. And what the hell are you talking about, don’t remember? What don’t I remember? What the hell aren’t you telling me you fat hijo de puta?” And before I knew what was going on, I was climbing the desk in front of me, reaching for Blanding’s cheap suit.

Doctor Blanding rolled his chair out of the way, dodging my grab.

“Chuck, get your ass in here!”

Chuck did. And less than fifteen seconds later he was back out again, this time carrying me along with him like I was a little kid on his way to time out.

On the way out of the office I thrashed, knocking over chairs, and kicking a hole in the door. It didn’t do any good.

Chuck carried me through two sets of secure doors that had to be opened from a control center that monitored the patient dorms. Once inside the dorm area, he took me to room 2319, slipped a keycard into the door and then carried me inside.

***

Vicente Mendoza, age thirty-six, was suffering from the most interesting case of schizophrenia Doctor Blanding ever had.

Since day one, the case file kept him up at night, but somewhere along the way it turned into an obsession. It amazed him that Vicente was so obviously afflicted yet he didn’t seem to know it. The real kicker though, was that Vicente thought his wife had sent him to Crystal River.

Doctor Blanding pulled two death certificates out of Mr. Mendoza’s file. The first one was for Lia Mendoza-Estrada. The second was for Maria Mendoza. Both dates of the deceased matched.

Next he pulled out a police report. The thing was thicker than most magazines, full of details and the grisly truth about Vicente. It told how Maria struck her father with the baseball bat, infuriating him, but not knocking him out. Mr. Mendoza took the bat away from his daughter and used it like a pipe cleaner, shoving it down her throat until her jaw cracked. Once he was done with Maria, he moved to his wife. He used his knee to smash her face in, bashing her into the wall until there was a crater the size of a cantaloupe in the middle of her head. Yet, Vicente Mendoza remembered none of this by the time the cops showed up.

Why?

He started going over his notes on the yellow legal pad. He circled two lines from Vicente’s dream: Take back what you built with your own hands. The life you made is yours to command; and, You will survive to find Rivalry Crest. You will sacrifice or lose your ultimate test. Both lines were straight forward and could be interpreted in almost any way, except for the two words Rivalry Crest. They seemed out of place or misrepresented somehow, maybe a trick of Vicente’s mind is weaving for future use.

An idea occurred to him. He turned to Google and pulled up a website that lets you create your own anagram. After typing the two words he hit enter and stared at the eighty-one results. Seventy-nine of them were useless. The two at the top however, gave him chills. Rivalry Crest used the same letters as Crystal River.

“That’s impossible,” Doctor Blanding said. “Why would he…” But the question trailed off. It no longer seemed important to know how and why Vicente’s subconscious chose what it did.

What did matter suddenly, were the objects Vicente held in his hands as the office door swung wide. In his right hand he held a stone blade covered in fresh blood. In his left, he held Chuck’s severed head.

Vicente tossed the head onto the desk.

“Don’t worry Doctor Blanding; after I find my wife and daughter, I’m going to do the same thing to them. But I can’t take back what’s mine unless I have something of yours.”

Behind Vicente, someone else stepped into the office. The apparition had to bend over to get past the door. But once he was in, Doctor Blanding recognized him immediately. He stood about eight-foot-tall and had a large portion of his guts missing.

“Doctor Blanding, I’d like you to meet The Lord of Mictlan.”

 

*Originally published in the Oct/Nov edition of SNM Magazine 2012

The Farmington Scribbler – Picture Perfect

Picture Perfect

By E. Cluff Elliott

Headed home from Grandma’s house, their bellies full of mashed potatoes, roast beef, and corn, the Connells stopped at a small gas station along the way.

Dad said something Bernice didn’t quite catch, and then he got out of the car and headed inside. Mom sat in the passenger seat, looking over the headrest with care in her eyes and love in her smile. Bernice, only a few months from turning four, sat on her booster in the back seat, holding a Raggedy Ann doll up with two hands. She sang the My Little Pony theme, yet with different words, her own words. Her voice, on the other hand, was that of Raggedy Ann’s, a high-pitched soprano that seemed almost inaudible.

“Those are pretty words,” her mother said.

Bernice looked past the doll. “It’s a pretty song.”

The driver door opened and Bernice’s father plopped inside carrying a large paper bag. He stashed the bag behind his seat and closed the door, ready to go. “You’re going to have to start drinking a different kind of wine; this Merkin crap’s twenty bucks a bottle. I spent twenty on mine and got enough to last me till the end of the week.”

“Somehow I doubt that, Larry.” There was a sigh in her voice; the same kind of sigh Bernice heard when her mom had enough of her current behavior.

Her dad huffed. “That’s coming from a woman who can’t go to bed without a tall glass of wine to cool her nerves, and don’t think I haven’t noticed because I have.”

“I don’t have to explain my drinking habits to you. I am a grown woman if you haven’t noticed. I have a job. I do my own taxes…”

As Bernice’s dad started the car and took the Connell family out to the Toll way onramp, Bernice tried to ignore her parents. It was not an easy thing to do. First, she put down her Raggedy Ann doll and picked a coloring book off the seat next to her. She only had three crayons in the car, all of which were resting beneath her feet where they had fallen shortly after leaving Grandma’s house. She tried to reach them, but unless her arm grew another foot in the next few minutes, it would never happen. She gave up on the crayons.

“So, you take care of everything by yourself now, or do you still have the pool boy drop by once a week to service your water? Or is it the mailman this time?”

“Larry, you know damn well I haven’t seen either.”

They sounded mad, but Bernice’s mom sounded as though she might be on the edge of tears.

Bernice fought hard to ignore them, inspecting the stack of kid’s stuff piled on the seat next to her. She found a couple books previously hidden by the coloring book, her Mr. Men and Little Mrs. Books. There were only a few in the car but at home, she owned the entire collection, some of which belonged to her parents when they were kids. Those ones were kept on high shelves where she couldn’t reach them, but Bernice still thought of them as hers. She reached, plucked the closest book, and settled back into her car seat.

In the front seat, Bernice’s mom tried to change the subject, deftly switching topics as if she were dealing with one of her patients at the hospital. The technique, designed to preoccupy the patient’s mind with an unrelated subject in order to help keep uncontrollable emotions controllable, was one that she used on Bernice a time or two. The object in those cases happened to be something small, perhaps a cookie or toy, but in this case, it was different. Bernice knew how mean her father could be. “I thought you said we were going to the mall for cookies?”

Merging onto the Toll way, Bernice’s father ignored the question and moved to the car into the far left lane.

“Larry?”

“WHAT?”

“Are we going to get cookies, or are you going to break another promise to your daughter?”

Bernice opened her book and flipped to the first page. Mr. Grumpy, a blue, rectangular fellow with a top hat and a dower expression, stood in front of Mr. Daydream who was deep in one of his special moments. From memory she knows Mr. Grumpy is asking Mr. Daydream what he’s doing, to which Mr. Daydream answers “Daydreaming.”

On the next page, Bernice saw Mr. Grumpy’s dower expression quirk into concern as he professed the nonsense behind Mr. Daydream’s daydream. Something as fickle as imagination made no sense to Mr. Grumpy, and seeing someone entertaining the idea made him feel, well, grumpy.

Bernice’s father was like that; he always had something to scold her for, and he never seemed happy unless he was drinking what her mom called Ginger Juice.

Bernice’s mom folded her arms and gazed out the passenger window. “I don’t know what I was thinking; you have your beer for the night, so why would you be interested in a little public interaction? Obviously, a cheap buzz is better than taking your daughter out for cookies. When was the last time you had a cookie, Larry? Do you even remember what cookies taste like? Or has the beer killed all your taste buds?”

Ranting on, her mom reminded Bernice of a book, not in the car but at home on a bookshelf: Little Miss Chatterbox. In the book, some of the other Mr. Men and Little Miss characters invited Miss Chatterbox to watch a movie one night, but Miss Chatterbox couldn’t keep quiet so she was asked to leave. Miss Chatterbox later learned to stay quiet and everything was ok, but Bernice wondered if the same would be true for her mom.

Then, in the mind of Bernice Connell, something unique happened; her perceptions about her parents changed. Her father, obtuse, and so much like the character in the book on her lap, became Mr. Grumpy. He still wore the same clothes, his white work shirt bulged over the top of his thick frame, but underneath those, his skin began to turn blue as his body began to enlarge and flatten into a rectangle. Completing his change, a small lopsided top hat appeared out of nowhere. Her mother made a similar change; her body plumped to resemble a purple dome as her hair clumped together, dangling at either side of her swollen face in two blond pigtails. Like her father’s metamorphosis into Mr. Grumpy, her mother became Miss Chatterbox.

Their transformation made Bernice giggle, but seeing how angry the two of them were she decided to keep her entertainment to herself.

“Are you even listening, Larry?” asked Miss Chatterbox, almost turning into Miss Bossy as her voice boomed through the car.

Mr. Grumpy was silent then did something Bernice would never forget; he reached across the car and used the back of his hand to slap Miss Chatterbox.

Bernice’s giggles disappeared as she and Miss Chatterbox screamed in unison, one in pain and the other a witness to it.

Mr. Grumpy’s dower expression transformed into the hurtful glower Mr. Mean wore when rampaging through town. Then the transformation spread, morphing his body once again to resemble the mood he felt. His skin turned red and plumped at the edges, giving him a round appearance. Lastly, as his green top hat darkened to black, he focused on Miss Chatterbox.

“I’ve heard enough, so the less you talk the better, got it? You might have gotten away with that kind of attitude before today, but not anymore.”

Bernice waited for Mr. Mean to look back at her, perhaps send some of his hostility her way, but he didn’t. Instead, he became more intent on the road ahead of them.

“Does your girlfriend feel the same way?”

“I told you, I’ve heard enough, Gina! I’ve paid my dues! I repented my ways and, at least I assumed, you forgave me. So why the hell are you bringing up the past like this?”

“Flowers and an apology note doesn’t count, you pathetic jackass.”

Like lightening, Mr. Mean’s arm reached across the car a second time and connected with the side of Miss Chatterbox’s face, breaking the skin and making a two-inch gash across her purple cheek. Then with the same hand he used to assault his wife, Mr. Mean reached behind his seat, pulled out a can Ginger Juice, and popped the top as if nothing had happened.

Bernice leaned forward, trying to see Chatterbox’s face, but the headrest blocked her view. “Are you ok?”

There was no answer.

Bernice repeated the question.

“Are you going to answer your daughter?” His voice was flat, perhaps restrained by the effects of the drink in his hand, but that never lasted long; Mr. Mean’s routine of spite, hate, and greed wouldn’t allow it.

No answer.

Through the space between the headrest and the seat, Bernice watched Miss Chatterbox shy away as Mr. Mean raised his hand again.

“I’M FINE; I’m fine, baby girl.” As she spoke, a sniffling sound wound its way around her words, seeming to drench their meaning in tortuous undertones that made Bernice want to cry.

She knew Miss Chatterbox was in pain, a fact that made her want to cry, but she tried to restrain herself. If she couldn’t keep quiet, Mr. Mean might start swinging at her so she focused on something she could do. She strained to see the loving look that would bring comfort to her otherwise disjointed world, a dark and spiteful world. It did not come.

Instead, the threatened hand came down and made a thwacking sound somewhere out of sight. Little Miss Chatterbox seemed to hold a scream in, changing her skin from purple to blue as if she were choking on something. Then her blond pigtails vanished and she seemed to sprout lengths of bandage that covered her injuries of their own accord. Completing her change into Little Miss Whoops, she filled the car with a pained yell, leaning toward the center of the car and doubling over.

“Tell your daughter, not me,” said Mr. Mean sipping Ginger juice and seeming not to notice the moans of pain coming from the passenger seat.

With great care and a caution never before seen by Bernice, Miss Whoops turned to face her daughter.

Bernice gasped at what she saw. On the right side of Whoop’s face, her mascara smeared in high arches where she’d rubbed at her tears, coloring her blue skin with a dark mocha. On the left however, her mascara smeared down to mingle with a thick coating of blood still oozing from the open wound on her cheek. It was enough to make Bernice’s stomach turn.

Miss Whoops tried to smile but the sight of those disheveled lips turning into a grin seemed to make the image worse. Dried blood cracked and flaked around the edges of her wound. A bandage moved to expose the bruised skin around her eye making her look like a raccoon or a Loris out for an evening prowl, but Miss Whoop’s eyes looked far from happy. She looked dismal, dejected.

“It will be ok, darling. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine, ok? You understand, baby girl?”

Bernice nodded, and for a moment, it seemed as though it might even be true, but it was hard to believe.

Mr. Mean laughed, then finished off his first can of Ginger Juice before pulling out a second. “See, now was that so hard?”

Stifling her sobs, Miss Whoops said, “What happened to you, Larry? When we first got together you never would’ve started drinking on the road. And we may have yelled at one another but you’ve never hit me. So, what’s changed, Larry?” Her voice sounded sympathetic, comforting, the same way she talked to Bernice after she scraped her knee or tripped and bumped her head.

“It’s ten PM, Gina; I doubt the cops are going to notice.”

“Your daughter certainly will! Do you think drinking in front of her is such a great idea that you have to immortalize it with the backside of you hand? Do you want her to grow up needing a closed fist just to feel loved? Yeah, but at least the cops won’t see, right?” Miss Whoops straightened the more she spoke, regaining confidence despite her wounded body, and regaining some of her previous Miss Chatterbox attitude.

Mr. Mean went ridged, seeming to dwell on each accusatory word, his anger building like a volcano ready to pop. “You better back off, Gina.”

“Or what, Larry? Are you going to hit me again, maybe show our daughter how a REAL man does it?”

“What’s stopping me?”

“You’re incredible,” Miss Whoops said sounding amused. “First you have an affair with Miss Nineteen-and-still-wets-the-bed, and now you’re going to sink lower by making the wife-beater part of your permanent wardrobe.”

“So, you’re still stuck on the cheating thing? That was two months ago, Gina. Nothing’s happened since then. And if you weren’t such a heartless bitch you’d see I deserve a little more respect for my efforts.”

“What efforts, Larry?”

“I bring home the money,” Mr. Mean said as if that was just about the most obvious fact in the world.

Miss Whoops shook her head, settling back and brooding in silence.

Mr. Mean’s arm shot across the car. It collides with the left side of Miss Whoops’s face. There’s a loud crack like splitting wood. A split second later, there’s a deep thud as her head connected with the passenger window, fracturing the pane with a crunch. The sounds made Bernice feel sick as her gut twisted with a bitter gurgle, forcing the taste of vomit to momentarily take up residence in her mouth. She did not vomit, but it was a close thing.

Miss Whoops tried to cry out, but the terrified plea fighting to escape her lips only came out as a dull mumble. There were words in that plea, unintelligible words, but words all the same, desperate for peace and delirious with pain.

Mr. Mean flexed his right hand. “Don’t you ever shake your head at me that way again, do you understand me? I’ve put up with you for far too long, Gina! You whine, you cry, you mope…about everything.” Mr. Mean’s voice changed into a high squeal, rising until it was cartoonish. “‘You always want meatloaf, and you know I hate making meatloaf,’ or ‘Your beer cans are messing up my end tables,’ there’s always something, Gina!”

The vocal rendition pierced Bernice’s ears and brought tears to her eyes. She hated hearing Mr. Mean yell; he scared her.

“You know what, Doctor Connell?” asked Mr. Mean, adopting his pervious contempt. “I think it’s time to switch roles for a session or two, you know? The same way you make your patients switch roles in marriage counseling. In the construction world—the world of men, I might add—switching roles is a common thing, as common as attendance to your hookey self-help classes. Sometimes a worker will start on with a dry walling outfit, and before you know it he’s traded up the ladder and found his way into insulation or roofing. See where I’m going with this? I think we should try that same method and see where it goes. What do you think bitch? Do you want to see how much I hate you? Do you want to see things from my side of the mirror?”

Miss Whoops moaned, trying to talk through her muffled cry, but her words fell into obscurity behind closed lips.

Mr. Mean laughed and leaned back, relaxing his right arm between the two front seats creating a bridge of living flesh between the headrests. “Oh yeah, you don’t have much to say, do you?”

Miss Whoops whimpered.

“No, I didn’t think so. I guess it’s a good thing I plan on showing you anyway. And as bad as things are I think you’re going to like what I show you. In fact, I know you will.”

Bernice grabbed and punched at his arm, making contact the only way she knew how, replicating the violence she observed. Her desperate attempt, however, only turned the monster in her direction. He wasn’t bleeding or crying the way Miss Whoops was—which was frightening enough—but the empty gleam in his eyes scared Bernice; it scared her the way some strangers scared her upon first glance; the same kind of strangers whose smiles seem long and deceiving. It was as if Mr. Mean was a shell, an empty husk with doll-like eyes and air between its ears, emotionless.

Mr. Mean grabbed Bernice’s hand, squeezing until the pressure from his grip made her cringe. The two of them locked eyes for a long moment, and then he threw her arm to the side hard enough to make the cringe turn into a sharp pain. She screamed.

“Stay the hell out of this, you sniveling brat, or I’ll line you out, too.”

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Bernice cradled her arm as she shrank away from Mr. Mean.

Ahead of them, the Toll Way interchange loomed on the horizon like the arms of an octopus, reaching out in huge arcs that spanned over east and westbound traffic. Between each arm towering light poles illuminated everything beneath their glow. On a normal night, Bernice would be glad to recognize those lights because that meant they were less than ten minutes from home, but not tonight. Tonight, they brightened the interchange, as if the arms of the octopus might retract its tentacles and eat them. That was absurd, Bernice knew, but she couldn’t help holding on to the image.

Mr. Mean turned back toward his prey, grinning with a look of savagery on his face. “Now, where were we? Oh yeah, you want to see life from my side of the fence. Well tonight’s your lucky night.”

Miss Whoops coward in the passenger seat making sniffling sounds that resembled a draining sink coupled with a whipped dog.

“No, no,” Mr. Mean teased, “don’t say anything; I know that cracked jaw is probably pretty painful without any drugs, so we’ll keep this brief. We just have to reach the right spot. Aww, here we go…”

Watching Mr. Mean crack open another can of Ginger Juice, Bernice felt the car move to the right, toward the northbound interchange. Half way across and directly over westbound traffic, Mr. Mean hit the brake and parked the Toyota on the left shoulder. It was wide enough to keep the small car out of harm’s way, but the buffer zone between the two was small enough Bernice could feel the car sway with each passing threat.

Mr. Mean did something out of view and a soft click-click click-click joined the radio as The Beatles started playing “Love Me Do. With all the commotion since leaving Grandma’s, Bernice forgot the radio was even on; the song seemed alien but at the same time it touched a part of her that seemed to reinforce the idea that the worst was over.

In the front seat, Miss Whoops swayed, her eyes fluttering as if she might faint.

Mr. Mean caught her, cradling her weight with one arm and shoving his door open with the other. “Easy there Little Miss Tipsy,” he said, proceeding to pull her over the center console, catching her pants on the emergency brake lever before yanking her free and forcing Miss Whoops out of the car.

Mr. Mean had more to say, but because of the distance between them, Bernice only heard an unintelligible drone. And short of climbing from her seat—a big no-no under any circumstance—she knew that wouldn’t change. Instead she contented herself as an observer, stretching to keep Mr. Mean and Miss Whoops within sight. As she watched, something happened; Mr. Mean and Miss Whoops reverted into her parents once again, shedding their persona and disowning their awful behavior as if it were the skin of a snake.

Bernice smiled, happy to see her parents hugging and dancing as they moved further from the car. She imagined her father begging for forgiveness as her mother wept on his shoulder, bathing his western style shirt in sweet tears of resolution. They were in love when Bernice imagined what they were saying and that was enough for her.

Glancing down, Bernice noticed her mother’s camera sitting among her toys and books. She knew she wasn’t supposed to touch it, not without her mom’s help, but she had an idea her mom would let her slide this time. Straining against her seatbelt, she snatched up the camera and started fiddling with its buttons. For a heart wrenching moment, Bernice faltered, unable to make the camera do what she wanted. But in the end, she hit the correct button and the shutter clicked open with a whine of gears.

Pleased with the noise, Bernice smiled and aimed the camera. The first picture she snapped looked as though her mother was in mid-flight, back arched with her arms spread wide. Below her, Bernice’s father looked poised to catch his dancing partner. It was a stunning photo. In the second picture, almost a complete contrast to the first, Mr. Connell stood on the concrete barricade above westbound traffic. Facing his daughter with an expression of uncontrollable glee his right arm created a right angle as he waved to the camera.

Bernice lowered the camera. She looked around, searching, but saw no one; her parents were gone. Would they be back? Of course, they would. They were her parents and they loved her. Why wouldn’t they be back?

Picking up Raggedy Ann, Bernice began to hum as sirens approached. She was excited to show off her new pictures, but she was satisfied to wait for her parents’ return.

*Originally published online in the June/July edition of SNM Horror Magazine 2012