Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
If you see the Blue Man walk,
Mind to him you do not talk.
For if you see the Blue Man smile,
Your sweet soul he will defile.
– From “The Blue Man”, traditional folk ballad
Samuel Douglas drove home from town, taking the main highway instead of the usual back roads that he was particular to. He hadn’t had much business in town, so his visit was short and sweet. Spending time talking to the other men who farmed the area, the last few holdouts who hadn’t been bought out by any of the big conglomerates yet. It wouldn’t be too long before Ned Harrison sold though. Crops weren’t doing well. Sick child in bed. Sell the land and get a pretty check in the mail. Maybe they’d even let you stay on and work the land.
Sam shook his head. There wouldn’t ever be a time that he’d work another man’s land, not for any amount of money. His was his and had been in his family since folks started coming out here to the Midwest and he’d be damned if he was going to be the one that let it go.
Sam groped for the apple that was rolling around on the seat next to him. Part of Sarah’s big project to get him to start eating right. Loaded him up with all kinds of fruit and vegetables before he went anywhere. So he’d get into the habit of it, she said. He finally grabbed a hold of the apple without taking his eyes off the road and took a bite. He’d never admit it, but she was right. Damn fruit was growing on him. He snorted out loud at his wordplay and thought about telling Sarah later.
His thoughts drifted away as he saw a figure walking along the roadside, picking its way through the ditch and the weeds and the water. Hell of a day to be walking, especially since it was so hot. It was getting past 5 and the sun had already started its downward climb, but the sun’s heat lingered here and could wear a fellow down while he was working.
As Sam got closer, he saw that it was a man, and a big one at that. Walking tall, and with a big stride. He was dressed all in blue from head to toe. Sam slowed down. Maybe he could give the walker a lift a ways, just to cut down on some of the distance. Or at least some water. Sam always had a couple of bottles of water rolling around in here, another one of Sarah’s contributions.
He stopped the car alongside the man and leaned over to roll down the passenger side window. The man had stopped walking and just stood there. His blue denim jacket looked heavy and couldn’t be helping the heat any. The man’s jeans looked worn and faded and Sam noticed there wasn’t any mud on them, even though the man was standing inch deep in a puddle.
“Hey there! You need a lift someplace?” Sam called.
The blue man turned on his heels and black eyes took ahold on Sam’s. The Blue Man smiled a radiant smile, showing most every one of his teeth. Sam leaned back into his seat and stepped on the gas hard. The car roared forward and clouded the Blue Man with dust. Had Sam looked in the rear-view mirror, he would have seen the man walking on as if nothing had happened, the smile fallen away like a lead weight. But Sam, startled, was far beyond caring and just kept on home; not speeding, but driving purposefully, all the way up to his house.
He parked out front, next to their lone tree, where he always parked and got out of the car, his apple laying forgotten on the floor, a single bite taken out of it. Sam walked stiffly up to the house, one foot in front of the other. He stopped on the front porch, his heavy tread shaking the wood planks. He bent down and began to rummage in the old toolbox that he always kept there and Sarah was always putting back into the shed where it belonged.
He found the hammer he was looking for and opened the screen door and walked into the house, the hammer hanging loosely from his right hand. Sarah was in the kitchen, preparing something for dinner; Sam didn’t know or care what it was. Sun caught her faded blond hair as her head turned and she opened her mouth to greet Sam, a smile beginning at the corners of her mouth.
She stopped when she saw his eyes though. They weren’t Sam’s, not anymore. The eyes she saw in Sam’s face were black, impossibly black and dead. Sam’s grip tightened on the hammer and he brought it up and around and down, the first blow followed by a scream. The second silenced it. A third, fourth, fifth. He didn’t stop until the handle splintered and broke in his hand.
He walked into the dining room and reached for the top of the cabinet. Pulling down the shotgun in one smooth motion, he loaded it methodically, mechanically. He held the barrel at his chin with his left hand. Reaching with his right, he struggled to reach the trigger, his fingers brushing it once, twice, three times before he was able to bridge the gap. And then his face was gone.
Neighbors couldn’t explain it. The police didn’t bother to try. They were so much in love people said. Did he cheat? Did she? They all asked why. That’s just the way things are sometimes, was the only answer they could come up with.
On lonely roads and old highways,
The Blue Man walks and jaunts and sways.
A cold black heart and ivory smile,
He’ll walk you down that long last mile.
– From “The Blue Man”
Franklin always liked to remind folks not to call him Franklin, no sir, that’s what his parents called him. Just call him Frankie. He’d lean in real close while he was saying this, letting you get a noseful of whatever he’d been drinking that night.
Big Johnny Walker Halliwell ran the bar and you could always tell that he wanted to throw Frankie out on his ear. Frankie was always coming and drinking the cheap stuff, never leaving tips. And the man talked. Dear God in Heaven, the man just never knew when to shut up. From nine to twelve, Frankie would just dominate his little corner of the bar with that nonstop talking. Sports, politics, religion: It just didn’t matter. His mouth would flap from sunup to sundown.
“Now see, that’s just what I’ve been tryin’ to see you see,” Frankie tapped the bar with his finger a few times, a sound that would grate on Johnny by night’s end. Frankie’s victim for the night was Joe Gamble, the only man unfortunate enough to be sitting near Frankie. Joe looked from side to side, hoping that someone might save him; Johnny wasn’t about to end up listening to Frankie all night. Frankie would weave along the bar following Johnny, holding his drink aloft.
Frankie threw back the last of his drink, giving Joe the break he needed to get out of there. Joe darted off and set the restroom door swinging. Frankie looked around after he had finished his drink, and turning back to the bar, he motioned to Big Johnny. Johnny stalked over and stared Frankie down.
“I’m cutting you off for the night, Frankie. Get out.”
Frankie straightened up and assumed a look of righteous, drunken indignation, but it wasn’t exactly a new turn of events. “Fine. Fine. I was just on my way home anyway.” His hand flopped into his pocket, and Johnny heard the jingle of keys.
“Call a cab, Frankie. There’s no way you’re driving home like that.”
Frankie spun on his heel and fell against the bar. “You should have thought of that before you told me to leave!” and he stomped out of the bar, slamming the door shut behind him.
Johnny sighed and went back to work. Not his problem.
Frankie managed to get the car started and pulled out of the parking lot, doing so with great care, but still nearly backing into another car. He spun the wheel sharply to the right and managed to avoid it and was on his way down the road.
He headed down the highway, which, thankfully, was more or less deserted in this area, at this hour.
Frankie leaned over his steering wheel and peered hard through the windshield, keeping his eyes locked onto the road with razor precision. His eyes locked onto the black pavement as he slowly moved out of the lane and into the emergency stop-only lane, then off the shoulder completely. Frankie jumped as the car shook, the two right wheels kicking up gravel. The headlights caught a quick flash of something blue right in front of him. Frankie slammed his foot on the brakes and felt a thump.
The car now stopped, headlights beaming absently into the darkness, Frankie sat stock-still in his seat, a trickle of fear penetrating his alcohol-induced stupor. A man lay in the grass about ten feet from his front bumper.
Frankie’s heart started thudding in his chest. Did he hit the guy? He should go check on him. Frankie managed to get the door open after a few tries and left the car running to check on the denim-clad man in the road.
But when Frankie got there, the man was already up and walking away from him, headlights lighting up his back. Frankie felt relief flood through him. There weren’t even grass stains on the man’s jacket.
“Hey, guy! Hey! You okay? Did I hitcha?”
Frankie ran up behind him, “Hey, guy! Did I hitcha? ‘Cause I didn’t mean to, I had a couple of beers, you know? Didn’t mean to hitcha if I did. Are you okay, or do you need to go to the hospital?”
Frankie grabbed the man by the shoulders with both hands and spun the Blue Man around. Black eyes. Frankie let go of the Blue Man and stared at his hands. He screamed.
He backed away and fell over his own feet, kicking and scrambling away from the Blue Man who just watched Frankie, smiling, his teeth glinting in the headlights.
Frankie managed to get back to his feet and he ran, leaving his car by the side of the road, the lights still illuminating the Blue Man.
Frankie tucked his hands into his armpits and kept running and didn’t stop until he reached his house. He kicked down his own door and burst inside. He panted and looked around the house. Sweat was pouring down his face and his heart was a jackhammer. He ignored it all. He needed to get clean. Had to wash his hands and get clean. He needed hot water. Had to clean those hands, sterilize them, clean them. He went into his kitchen and ducked down to root through one of the cabinets. Pulled out a pot. He quickly filled it with water and threw it on the stove, turning the burner on full.
He watched the metal coils start to glow red hot and the water bubbled in turn. He waited until the water had reached a rolling boil, and then thrust his hands in. They turned red and blistered immediately under the water, but Frankie said nothing, just grinned an empty grin and boiled his hands.
The grin faded and turned to a snarl. He wasn’t clean. He had to get clean. He threw the water off the stove and grabbed the burner directly. Steam rose from his hands and he heard them pop and sizzle. He began to smile again, but that too faded. He removed his hands and there were charred, smoking areas on the hot burner in the shape of his hands.
He stared at his ruined hands, the flesh still popping and smoldering. It wasn’t enough. Still dirty, still not clean. He held his hands out from his body as if they were dead animals and tried to think. He brightened and went out to the garage. He kicked things over, threw things aside, worked himself into a rage until he found it: the gas can for the lawnmower.
It was difficult, but he finally managed to get it open and pour a liberal amount of gasoline on each hand. He stood there with his dripping hands and realized he had no way to light them. He began to pound his fists against the wall. And then stopped and a smile lit up his face.
He ran around back to the grill and found a small stick lighter. He scrabbled for it, got a grip on it and began to click it while it was pointed at his left hand. There was a gout of flame, and suddenly both of his hands were burning brightly. Frankie smiled. That was much better. His hands were clean now.
A year later, Frankie sat at the end of the bar, not talking to anyone. He used one of his hooks to pull the glass near him and then drank the rotgut whiskey with a straw. That’s how he drank his alcohol now.
Johnny stared at Frankie and wondered what did happen to him the night he left the bar. He had asked Frankie, but Frankie didn’t talk anymore. Not one word. If he wanted a drink, he pointed. No more politics, religion or weather. Just silence. No one knew why he burned off his own hands. It just happened out of the blue.
Johnny shrugged, that’s just the way things are sometimes.
Madness and Death are his old friends,
And with them, he doles out grisly ends.
For the one who stops and talks,
From the Blue Man who forever walks.
– From “The Blue Man”
Mick was always trouble: always in search of it, and always finding it. Deke and Hugh knew this, had been palling around with him since middle school. They’d gotten into some scrapes over the years, boosting cars and selling them for parts, stealing smokes from stores, nothing big time, but enough to get them sent to juvie more than once.
But then Mick got sent up the river for a two-year stretch. A cop had gotten him with more than two pounds of pot, more than enough to send him away for possession with intent to sell. Deke and Hugh weren’t with him when he got busted and avoided doing time. And Mick obviously kept his mouth shut, because neither of them received a visit from the boys in blue.
When Mick got back, he was different. Before, he had always drawn a line and never crossed it. Now he was rattlesnake mean, always close to going over the edge. Christ, he nearly killed Charlie during that fight. And he was always going for bigger and bigger crimes. It wasn’t just about having fun anymore, trying to relieve small-town boredom. Deke didn’t know what had happened to him on the inside, but it twisted Mick up inside somehow.
The three of them were in Mick’s car, heading down the highway, well above the speed limit. Mick was driving and he had been silent since he had picked Deke and Hugh up. Hugh didn’t say much, just sat like a lump in the backseat, hoping someone would tell him what was going on. Deke sat next to Mick and kept looking at him from the corner of his eye.
Mick wasn’t paying attention to anyone but the road and ignored all of Deke’s attempts to start a conversation. He wouldn’t even say where they were going or what they were going to do. Their nights lately just ended up with them driving all over the place but never actually doing anything. Just an aimless wandering with no point.
Deke sighed and settled back into his seat, about to see if he could get some sleep.
Deke sat up straight. Mick had actually spoken. And he was slowing the car down. Two exciting events in one night. Deke could hardly believe it.
Mick pointed out a man walking along the side of the road. Big fellow, dressed all in blue, blue jeans, blue jacket, hell, looked like he was even wearing blue shoes.
“Let’s roll him,” Mick said.
Deke shrugged his shoulders, anything was better than just driving around all night, looking for something that Mick could never seem to find.
Mick stopped the car a few yards behind the walking man and all three got out of the car and made their way toward him. He didn’t turn around, just kept booking it along the side of the road. Deke got a bad feeling from the guy, like he was spooky or something. Who didn’t turn around to see who was following them? He didn’t run, didn’t walk faster, didn’t do anything. Just kept doing his own thing. People who acted like that had nothing to be worried about.
Mick had no misgivings and shoved the Blue Man in the back. “Hey man, give us your wallet or we’ll f**k you up.”
The blue man stopped walking and turned. Deke and Hugh couldn’t see his face, Mick was blocking the view. Mick stared deep into those black eyes though. The Blue Man smiled at Mick and Mick smiled back at him. And then Mick began to laugh. Deke jumped. It was a bad sound, a sound that made your skin crawl. It was just so wild. Mick kept laughing and then turned from the Blue Man, who stood stock-still and said not a word, just kept grinning. Mick pushed past Deke and Hugh and went back to the car. Hugh looked at Deke and Deke just shrugged his shoulders. They both ran after him and got into the car. Neither one of them got a look at the Blue Man. And as Mick made a sharp u-turn in the middle of the road, Deke turned to see the Blue Man walking down the road.
The next morning, Mick walked into the First National Bank in Hickory with a sawed-off shotgun and a semiautomatic handgun tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Mick fired one barrel into the air. “Everybody, get down on the fucking floor right fucking now!” The security guard on duty woke up from his nap as Mick started yelling and reached for his service revolver, but Mick turned and shot him at point-blank range with the shotgun. The guard flew backward and dropped to the ground. Mick threw the shotgun onto the floor. He pulled out the handgun and held it steady on the tellers as they dropped to the floor behind the counter.
But one of the tellers moved too slowly for Mick’s tastes and he shot her where she stood. One of the other tellers managed to hit the silent alarm as she kneeled onto the floor.
Mick came around the counter slammed his gun into the locks of the cash drawers. The tellers kept their eyes planted on the floor. But one looked up and stared right into Mick’s eyes and saw pools of ink. Mick grinned at the teller and his white teeth shone and shone brightly.
Five police cars showed up ten minutes later, tires squealing and sirens blaring. Mick laughed as he saw them pull up. He grabbed up the shotgun and reloaded it. Mick stepped out the door, firing both barrels into one of the windshields. He dropped the shotgun and as he pulled the handgun from his blue jeans, ten cops opened fire on him.
He laughed as the bullets hit him and leveled his gun at the nearest officer. The officer leveled her own gun and fired as he did, hitting him in one, black eye. His head snapped back and his shot went wild and Mick dropped to the ground.
That night, Deke and Hugh sat in a bar while folks talked about that sumbitch Mick who went crazy and shot up the bank and just laughed when the police shot him up. One old man just leaned back and said, “That’s just the way things are sometimes.”
But Deke knew better.
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