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Estimated reading time — 75 minutes

Part One 

The plodding stench of dilapidated wood and animal urine brings the young Taylor Jenkins to consciousness. His eyes open and adjust to a dark interior, the sparse chandelier sparkling precariously above his head. The splintered wood creaks and digs into his back as he tries to move, but his limbs stay pinned to the boards. Warm liquid flows down his arms and seeps into his pants. He turns his head to see blood coating the hardwood, little streams flowing from the holes in his arm, plugged in place by hooks bolted to the floor. He feels no pain, no fear. Only the chill of the stale air, and the warmth of leaking fluids.

Shadows shift on the snaggletooth balcony that lingers above him. Taylor sees nothing but adjusts his ears, searching for signs of life among the endless dripping that humidifies the air. He hears nothing, once again straining against his flesh and the hooks, until a shuffle alerts him to the motion up above. The snickering soon follows, an understated chuckle coming from a Cheshire cat smile, dull teeth and dirty white sneakers glowing in the moonlight. The eyes come last, yellow and hungry, gleaming down in sadistic pleasure.

Taylor connects the three features and feels the recognition, but buries the revelation as the pangs of fear finally grip him. His flesh rips as he writhes in vain against his restraints, wetting his shirt with fresh plumes of blood. The faceless specter begins to laugh, absorbing every drop of suffering on the floor before him and repurposing it for pleasure. Taylor’s sweat coalesces with his blood as he continues to pull in vain, rusted metal scraping against his ulna. The spectator bursts in a bellow, and he finally gives in to the realization.

The tone of his voice, the way his voice cracks as he starts a new laugh. The white shoes. Taylors grows still, eyes wide, his tired tongue hanging loose. Almost on cue, the figure steps into the light, putting a face to the fiendish grin. Taylor lurches forward to scream, his diaphragm jerking so quickly that all he can utter is a painful squeak. The figure continues to laugh.

Bushy, furrowed eyebrows hang menacingly with a nose of iron to split the bloodshot observers, face lined with stress and seven years older than the last time they had seen each other. Derek Roth’s eyes dig into his former friend more intensely than the hooks, crooked smile feeding his fear. He licks his lips as the weight of the situation begins to press on Taylor’s chest, tasting the horror and suffering spinning in the air.

Another figure appears behind Derek, Taylor paying no mind as he fights for escape, never hearing the sound of boots above his pounding heart and tearing skin. He never shows himself, only the silhouette of his broad-brimmed hat and the red ember of his cigarette. Taylor’s head starts to swirl with endorphins, eyes growing dry only a few inches from his lacerated throat. The stranger’s smoke billows and consumes the room, the floating wisp of the cigarette and Derek’s smile burning their final image.

Taylor leaps from the blood and the smoke into cold, soaked sheets. His newly livened arms continue to thrash against nonexistent restraints, eyes and ears failing to register until his fingers smack the wall. He recoils in pain, and the world around him materializes. He is in his dorm room. His bed is next to the wall, the computer desk across. A comically large window stretches to the ceiling. His bags are by the door, packed and ready for the journey. His dorm room, safe. Not that house. Not that place.

He rubs his arms before his eyes, searching the surface for a scar or a scab, any trace of the hooks. Nothing is there, but he isn’t sure whether to be relieved. Derek weighs heavy on his mind. He can’t remember the last time he saw him, not yet. Sleep inertia clouds his thoughts, and he finally takes the time to rub his eyes as the coursing of fear subsides. Stretching slowly, he lets the tension seep from his muscles. He is sore, but he wasn’t when he went to sleep.

Getting up is hard and slow, like most days, but his head hangs lower now. He gathers his bags, makes his breakfast, stealing loose seconds where he can. Little moments between actions when he stops and stares into space, returning to the wood and the white shoes only for a moment before snapping back to task. He returns to his preparations but never truly leaves, the back of his mind still tethered to that ethereal arena. He thinks of those eyebrows, those eyes, the soul-sucking grin beneath. He thinks of the floating cigarette, and the lips that gripped the filter.

Taylor barely acknowledges his roommate as he trudges out of the dorm and down the thin staircase, duffle bag draped over his shoulder and weighing down his left. He stumbles at the bottom of the stairs, scraping his elbow on the wall. Ignoring the bump, he picks himself up and meanders through the now sparse parking lot. Most of the students had left yesterday, but not Taylor. Taylor is like his father, if he says he will work, he will work. He checks his elbow once his bags are loaded, his car started and the A/C running. Just a little blood, for now.

His mind drifts back to Derek once he hits the highway, just the open road and his thoughts. He hadn’t thought about Derek in many months, and hadn’t seen him for years before that. The last time comes back to him, the summer after freshman year, just a few weeks after he had returned home. They ran into each other in one of the local dives, a hot spot for complacent bikers and rock n’ rollers long past their prime, a veritable staple in small town North Carolina.

Derek stuck out like a black wound in the dimly lit establishment, not much more than a room covered in a hundred colored bandanas, arched over the pool table in a dark getup that would blend in perfectly at a comeback concert for The Cure. His matching hair draped to the side as Taylor made his way past the bar, hiding his eyes as he knocked the 6-ball into the corner. Taylor motioned to greet him but Derek beat him the punch, giving a cold affirmation of his presence before herding him to the bar. The girl serving drinks gave them both a beer, nodding slightly to Derek before returning to her duties.

It had been almost two years since they’d seen each other, or at least since they’d talked, so some catching up was in order. Taylor was still caught in the new college glow, his mind tingling from the latent energy of new ideas. Gearing towards an economics degree, he had begun to study game theory, and was now viewing everything through that scope.

It didn’t take long for Derek to mention their fathers. Just a casual comment at first, acknowledging the similarities. Their fathers had shared many drinks and many stories in bars just like this one, drowning out the roar of their jobs and their wives with beer and loud music. They had done it on and off for over a dozen years, starting just after their first week of work. It was how they bonded, like most employees, pouring out their occupational frustrations to the only people who could understand. It was how they grew into friendship, and it was the last place they were seen together.

The life of an insurance salesman, or the life of any salesman for that matter, can be bleak. It is a job that brings little satisfaction or purpose to anyone except those ideally suited to it, and there are far fewer of those than movies would suggest. Mark Jenkins and Jeff Roth were not those type of people; they kept the jobs for the steady wage and the benefits. They found purpose, or at the very least distraction, in their nightly journeys to the bar. Everywhere they went they were greeted as regulars, even if it made their greeting at home all the more harsh.

This song and dance carried on for twelve solid years, two men cemented by their mutual apathy and frustration. But while they didn’t care deeply for their profession, they were not immune to the seduction of power. Both felt cramped within their lives, trapped in their three-bedroom ranch homes with shitty cars and basic cable. Neither had pictured themselves this way when they were younger, and the fires of youthful hope still smoldered within them, buried but not extinguished by years of compromise and acceptance. They had settled for less, but they never stopped wanting more.

And after twelve years the chance for more finally fell at their feet. They had already become the top sales team at their firm, but being at the top leaves little room for advancement. They longed to be their own boss, to sit back and delegate while the money rolled in, or at least that’s how they pictured it. That opportunity came when the head of their branch announced his imminent retirement during the quarterly report. Mark and Jeff were the obvious choices, but only one of them could fill the position.

Mark had always felt he was destined for that bosses chair, he had been at the firm longer than anyone, three months more than Jeff. He had trained Jeff when he was first hired, and he always maintained an air of superiority because of it. Seniority gave him hubris, and blinded him to the power of simple initiative. Jeff was always a nice guy, the active, helpful kind that is always there to help with that extra load of groceries or taking that extra shift. He brought that same attitude at the office, and after twelve years those cups of coffee and stacks of paperwork began to add up. Mark was a great employee, punctual and hard-working, but he would never win a popularity contest at the office.

Everyone was happy when Jeff got the job, no more of the old and cantankerous Mr. Jobe, now they had a boss with both generosity and initiative. Even Mark was happy…that Mr. Jobe was finally gone. He kept a straight face when the announcement was made, feigning a grin even as the pent up rage that he had pushed down for twelve years with bars and booze began to pool at the surface. Mark could always put on a face, but he could scarcely comprehend the maelstroms that pressurized the edges of the mask, let alone bring them to heel.

The two went out to celebrate afterwards and the cogs of industrial life began to turn again without skipping a beat. Mark maintained his facade for as long as he could, but after two weeks with his new sales partner, a twenty-three-year-old with a self-important stick up his ass the size of his overvalued degree, his mask was beginning to crack. By the time Friday rolled around, the only thing he could think about was burning the whole place down, but he would never have the guts to light the flame.

That night Mark and Jeff both went to the bar in their usual manner. They turned up the jukebox and ordered their drinks like usual, but unlike most nights, Mark’s humor did not improve. Jeff was talking to everyone, buying people drinks and slamming his own, becoming more and more bombastic as the night dragged on. Mark was far more reserved, bobbing his head to a few songs but generally isolating himself to the bar, and drinking far slower than Jeff was. By the time they left, Mark was the only one sober enough to drive…

Taylor jumps to attention and slams his brakes, just now noticing the highway condensing down to one lane as police and fireman clear an accident off the road. He had been so wrapped up in his memories that he couldn’t even remember the last fifty miles, a thought didn’t scare him nearly as much as it should. As he slowly scooted and merged into the other lane, he caught a glimpse of the accident. A sedan was turned over with a massive concavity where the passenger door was, an unblemished F-150 a few hundred feet past it. The firemen were breaking out circular saws to cut into the top of the car and free whoever was trapped in the passenger seat, but he could tell by their faces that they weren’t optimistic. It was a familiar scene…too familiar.

Taylor returned to his memories as he got up to speed, his last encounter with Derek, the last time he heard his version of the past. He always remembered how Derek would fast-forward through the backstory and move straight to the conclusion, right before fixating on the all-important aftermath. It all went back to that tiny intersection, the little crossroads of tragedy just a few blocks from their respective houses.

No one can rightly say whose fault it was, only that Mark Jenkins was below the legal limit, and the man who plowed into the passenger seat of Jeff Roth’s Kia was drunk when his head smacked the steering wheel and started the hemorrhage that would leave him seizing to death in a hospital bed the next day. The only one who lived through the incident, or was competent enough to give testimony, was Mark. He blamed a blind corner, which was a legitimate issue for the town at the time, and no one thought to question it at first. Except for the progeny of the deceased, of course.
Derek was talking about the funeral now, yelling and spilling his drink as the rest of the bar looked on, not far from his behavior that day. He showed up to the service drunk, just as his grandmother was providing the opening words. Taylor heard the scoffs of disgust before the slam of the doors, Derek using the pews as a crutch as noses wrinkled up to the front row. He wasted no time finding his objective, sending a fifth of gin flying for the back of Mark Jenkins’ head before he even got halfway to the front. Taylor was ready, ducking his father’s head before the bottle could find its target, the bottle bouncing off the ear of Derek’s ten-year-old second cousin. He yelled out as many accusations as he could before his family forced him out of the church doors, irate indictments that fueled rumors and speculation for years to come.

That was Derek’s favorite part, the section of his tirade where Taylor crossed from tolerance to disgust. It was his lone sparkle of victory, one perhaps more owed than earned. After all, he was the one who suffered the loss, and made sure that Taylor’s father would feel it as well. Mark Jenkins got the promotion in the wake of his partner’s death, a position he still holds to this day, but it was his only gain in the wake of the tragedy. Derek’s constant prattling flew on the winds and stirred the imaginations of the bored townspeople, latching onto any rumor that could distract them from their lives. Even with a new BMW in the driveway, Mark Jenkins couldn’t escape the specter of gloom creeping over his back. He was a pariah, even in his own home.

Taylor never entertained the rumors, even the ones forced upon him by Derek in the halls during his long crusade to convince him of his father’s guilt, tirades that inevitably led to the end of their friendship. Mrs. Jenkins, however, couldn’t drown out the blithering old wives and carrion gossips that roamed her PTA meetings and book clubs. Every day she would have to defend her husband, one that now buried himself in his work and refused to even dignify the accusations. Taylor was the only voice of dissent, and soon enough even his voice failed to convince his mother. She left just before Taylor began college, wishing him well even as his father sobbed over divorce papers. Taylor pushed those thoughts aside just as he had pushed away Derek’s drink, screaming at his even as he backed to the door. Derek promised revenge just as Taylor passed the exit. The same threat as always, but with more feeling.

Taylor turns onto Blount St., his street, where his dad’s BMW is waiting in the third driveway on the left. He finds it odd that his father isn’t at work, but not entirely surprised. He had taken off work before to welcome him home, but those treats had become infrequent since his freshman year. He pulls in and takes his bags out of the trunk, making his way up the driveway with a spring in his step, eager to shake of the woes of bad dreams and painful memories.

He swings open the door with a smile, yelling out his entrance, but within five steps that smile widens and tears into a gut-wrenching shriek. There is a red spot on the carpet that connects to the kitchen, stemming from a stream of blood that pours directly from the lump of entrails laid bare next to a graying corpse. Taylor covers the spot with vomit, stomach-wrenching and seizing in horror as it tries to empty him of his own disbelief. He tries not to look at his father’s tortured face, but fails, blotched cheeks twisting in futility. Bags drop and he starts to run, until he notices the neon yellow corner of stationary under his father’s palm.

He trudges toward the body, dreading what he knows he has to do. Lifting the stiff hand, he wrenches twice, and pulls out a handwritten note.

I’ve found my justice, Taylor, now come get yours, it says, with an address beneath. He thinks about the quote for a moment, brain still stunned from the gravity of his surroundings. He almost forgets to scan the bottom, but his damp eyes catch the signature. Signed, Derek Roth.

“Motherfucker,” he whispers, as if hiding his affirmation from God.

Part Two

The neighbor, Cynthia Hobart, is the one who called the police. She nearly hit her head on the ceiling when Taylor’s shriek cut through the neighborhood, sending the rest of the block and a squad of patrol cars to the young man weeping silently in the front yard. No one comes near Taylor for the first ten minutes, they just gawk and try to sneak a peek of anything they can, the bloodier the better. Everyone in the neighborhood had known Mark Jenkins, but they had also soaked in the rumors, so the scene was more like cable TV than a tragedy.

Once Taylor stopped sobbing, his rage and sorrow and red puffy eyes abated to a still stare that could burn holes in even the most opprobrious soul, the police finally approached him. They ask him the standard questions, when he arrived, what he saw, anything strange that might aid their investigation. He gives the answers he can, slow and short and uninformative, just like a man fresh from a lobotomy. He doesn’t tell them about the note. He doesn’t tell them about the dream. He doesn’t mention Derek.

The police leave him be as the rest of the neighborhood takes their turn providing half-hearted condolences, more ceremony than sincerity. He responds, but gives no attention. His mind is in a world he had never known before that morning, brooding and violent. His thoughts scurry like cockroaches, darting and thrashing before he takes hold. He questions his actions, wondering why he kept Derek a secret from the police. He can’t put it into words yet, but feels the plan forming in his head. He knows he can’t let the police interfere, not yet. Derek comes first, everything after that is a non-sequitur. Shifting his thoughts from planning, he gives way to his base instincts, vividly imagining his hands gripping Derek’s wrist, ripping his arm right from the socket. He feels satisfaction, and doesn’t question it.

His aunt Joy shows up an hour later, still scrambling as she leaps out of her SUV. She goes to Taylor first, mumbling something about work and her punctuality, while he pretends to listen and stares into space. He’d been doing it for the past hour, going over the events again and again in his head, if only to stave off visualizations of torturing his former friend. Those are foreign thoughts to him, thoughts only made possible by Derek. Derek is the only one who could have this effect on him, the only one close enough to fester like a tumor at the base of his heart. It was he who first showed him Saw, before moving on to Hellraiser, Hostel and Saw, with a collection of Josef Mengele documentaries to season the pot. Derek had given Taylor all the hate he would ever need, and the worst ways to express it. He does not give in, not yet, his rage just beginning to bend the lock.

The body is wheeled out as the deputies get the last snippets of their report, Taylor stringing together a line of one-word answers. The other officers herd the neighborhood back to their respective houses, the yard already cordoned off for the CSI’s. Aunt Joy gathers up Taylor’s bags before lighting a cigarette, trying to gently corral him back to the car without blowing smoke in his face. She doesn’t succeed, but he doesn’t care. He’s too busy gripping the note in the jacket pocket, not even taking out his hand to open the door. He rubs it coarsely with his thumb, feeling the raised pen strokes like Braille. His nail catches on a hardened lump, a single drop of coagulated blood. He retracts his hand, focusing on the new silence. Aunt Joy starts down the street, offering what sympathies she can. It’s the best she can do, and Taylor doesn’t expect anything more than that. He knows that the rest will come down to him, even if the method escapes him. He spends the rest of the drive contemplating, the silence only interrupted by the static-laden serenade of the radio.

They arrive at his aunt’s house just as the spring sun touches the horizon, the harsh light skewing the scenery. The first thing he notices are the bushes, still in pristine condition in contrast to the overgrown lawn. The fecund yard swipes at his pants and threatens to overtake the walkway, but not a blade threatens the fresh mulch that houses the shrubbery in front of the house. A cat as overgrown as the yard waits in of the porch chairs, glaring at Taylor as he enters its territory. The brown wood living room connects directly to the kitchen, the comically large television and frayed armchair giving off a distinctly 70’s vibe. Aunt Joy offers him some dinner, leftovers and nearly-flat soda, but he never acknowledges her. Before she can finish her sentence he slinks into the guest room, plopping his bags on the floor and bouncing onto the twin bed with a resounding thump.

For hours he stares at the beige ceiling and floral wallpaper until night sends the neighborhood into slumber. Taylor continues to think, his thoughts growing darker as the light continues to recede. He thinks about peeling his skin back with a knife sharpened to pointlessness, a punishment Derek would find quite ironic.

He always did like knives, Taylor thinks. Certainly got enough practice. Derek had gone through a medieval phase in middle school, and had a sizable collection of ornamental blades by the time he graduated high school. He would practice in the backyard when his dad wasn’t home; his father barely tolerated their steel presence. One day his dad came home early when he was practicing, rushing inside at the sound of the V6 and crushing gravel. One of the knives was in a reverse grip, so on his first hurried stride he brought the tip the blade down in his thigh, forcing him to limp up the back stairs. Taylor had to come over under the guise of a group project just to help patch him up.

His imagination continues down the line of suitable tortures: waterboarding, the rack, the Spanish mule, but his musings always circle back to the note hiding in his jacket pocket.

What did he mean by “my justice?” Clearly he was getting revenge for his dad, but why wait for so long? Why now, and why let me know it was him? He could have just skipped town and no one would have known; the local PD is hardly competent. They couldn’t even get any conclusive evidence when Derek’s dad died, not that they put in much effort. The ordeal dragged out for months, plenty enough time to Derek to spread his lies and ferment his rage. If there was ever a time to kill my dad, it would have been then. What changed?

Taylor tossed and struggled with the questions relentlessly assaulting his mind, never once getting a reprieve from the gravity of the moment, or the sheer timing and serendipity of the events. Anxiety flowed freely through his arteries even as his brain shut down for sleep, the lingering fear of an approaching dream the only obstacle for his drooping eyelids. No dream came to haunt his tired mind that night, for the real nightmare had yet to transpire.

Taylor spends the next few days waiting for the funeral to come, only leaving the house to satisfy the summons of the police. They ask more questions, of course, but Taylor provides no new answers. He has none to give, other than the note, but that is his business, for now. He will handle those matters eventually, but for the time being, all Taylor is interested in is drowning his grief.

He had never been keen on alcohol, preferring the calming effect of cannabis over the burn and barbarism of booze. Even after it became legal for him to purchase, he never gained a taste for liquor, only the occasional beer. After his first Q&A with the police, he calls an old friend from high school, one who still deals in illicit substances. He swings by the dingy apartment complex and picks up what he needs, only suffering through as much pity and condolences as he can stand. His host tries to coax him back into the house, offering him a free smoke just for the tragedy, but Taylor leaves before he can even finish his offer. He feels guilty as he rushes to his car, but the feeling is short-lived. Being rude is forgiven in the wake of tragedy.

He doesn’t want to smoke at his aunt’s house, he would never hear the end of it. Instead, he peruses the town and seeks out his old spots, some public, some private. The old middle school is a no-go, one of the town’s few cops holding steady in the parking lot. A good thing perhaps, Derek and Taylor had found more than a few used needles in the dark corners near the woods. The park near the hospital is nearly acceptable, until a troupe of dog-walkers march out from behind the trees and interrupt the seclusion. He doesn’t even consider the cemetery, but he passes by it anyway. Acclimation perhaps, or maybe just tasting the inevitable.

From the cemetery, he heads towards the Presbyterian Church, his last option. Taylor had never been much of a believer, but he knew it wasn’t wise to mock the beliefs of others, even indirectly. He had no qualms about lighting up next to a house of God (Rastafarians do it to commune, do they not?), but he knew that many members of the church would not take it so lightly. He is about to turn on the long street that holds the church, when a derelict catches his eye.

He stops on the right just as it begins to rain, two houses from the turn. Just up ahead is a stone driveway that bridges over large ditch, the same ditch Taylor’s car leans against as the ground starts to moisten. The driveway disappears after the opening, the stone swallowed up by overgrowth down below, towered and draped by the many great willows that haunt the borders, twisted and holding on to the barely visible black fence like shoulders they will never truly release. The trees are still, waiting, no birds or rodents to disturb their focus on the voyeur sitting just beyond their grasp. Above the canopy he can see it, the topmost spires of the house, the fragmented and mossy wood visible even from between the willows. A mailbox stands guard at the mouth of the driveway, vines engulfing everything but the faded characters: 1156 Ransom. He doesn’t even need to take it out of his pocket to know, but he feels the pen strokes like Braille nonetheless. The courthouse lay just before him now.

He hesitates, but only to take a second look around. No cops. No Derek. The car flings a clump of sod as he climbs out of the ditch, before turning cautiously over the questionable bridge. The willows massage and scrape the outside of the car as he pulls through the threshold, like a pat-down before talking to a mob boss. The driveway quickly splits into a teardrop circle, the stone curving up to the front of the house before returning to its origin. He stops just to right of the split, out of sight of the road, where the overhang is thickest. He doesn’t want to get close, not yet. He has to observe first, and weigh his options. A murderer doesn’t invite you to an abandoned house without some sort of catch involved.

Taylor wants to wait until he feels safe to break out the contraband and start rolling, but he quickly abandons the notion. He isn’t going to feel safe here, no matter how much he darts his head and checks the corners. He keeps a watch as he rolls, shifty eyes wary of the encroaching willows reaching down and grasping at the small space between the overhang and the long grass. Fears crawl into his brain just like the vines slithering up the house, cracking open the windows and wrapping around the roof before folding up into a heap that crunches onto his terrified countenance.

He pushes back his fear for a moment to watch the paper as he rolls it all together, making sure not to spill too much out of the ends. He licks the adhesive, scanning the house as he does. The upper levels are still shrouded by the willows from where he sits, but the bottom floor is in clear view. Small statues, some destroyed, some intact, line the driveway, some of the rubble scattered across the stone. Greenish-white moss covers the rotting wood indiscriminately like live vitiglio, with the poorly boarded windows reaching out in arbor agony, screaming for death through broken glass. He tries to look in past the glass into the humid darkness, but pulls away quickly, feeling much like a peeping Tom who stayed a minute too long.

Lighting the tightly rolled joint, he searches for motion through the smoke. He trains his ears on the yard, trying hard to ignore the passing traffic and zone out any life like a caracal in tall grass. Clouds pass overhead and blot out the sun, transforming the clearing from a disarray of shadows and foliage to near twilight. The joint nears the halfway point when the barking of a faraway dog peaks Taylor’s attention. He turns his ear toward the sound, trying to gauge the distance, trying to see if the dog might be in the backyard. The skin between his eyes and nose curls as he attempts to force his ears to hear, until the shuffling of brush on the passenger side jerks his body back to the left.

The willow overhang drapes over the silhouette of a vested man, the clouded darkness skewing all vision of his torso. His belt is decked with various containers that jut out at the waist of his shrouded form, gun holsters reaching down towards the center of his thighs. He is hunched over, looking into the window, just enough to see the long, thin brim of his hat and his slightly hooked nose. The ember of his cigarette glows brightly in contrast to the shadow that holds it, a large cloud of smoke billowing out from a mouth unseen. The smoke and stale air dry Taylor’s eyes, forcing a long avoided blink. When his eyelids reset, the figure is gone. Without a moment’s hesitation he whips the car around the teardrop driveway, tossing the joint out at the end, desperately trying to convince himself that the lingering smell of tobacco is just his imagination.

Two days later, Taylor attends his father’s funeral with his Aunt. The Jenkins family is there for the most part, aside from a few West Coast cousins and a scattering of relatives from his mom’s side. Only a few people from town come, mostly from his father’s work. Almost all of them have to hide a snide smile before they leave. Taylor sees only two of them, and he ignores them both. Part of him is distracted by the moment, the body being laid into the ground. Part of him consumed by Derek and the house, the horrors it holds and what horrors awaiting. The final section just runs in circles, avoiding all thoughts of the figment, the imaginary cowboy that haunts the fringes.

His thoughts hollow out dry rivers in his brain, anything to drive away the emptiness festering within, the unavoidable truth. It has been three days since the incident, since he saw the stinking insides of his father’s viscera, and not a second of it concerned an emotion. No grief, no sentiment, no explosive release to the pressure that should be there, must be there. Only fear and focus, cold logic frosting the edges of the compulsive need, that unstoppable notion that sucks the air out of all other sensations until all that remains is the tunnel between himself and his goal. All is dark, and cold. The voices of discord are quiet now, near silence. The solution begins to form, shaded by the light.

Taylor tries to pay attention as his uncle gives the eulogy, stammering a bit, but all is forgiven. Taylor wishes he could do that as well, but the thought only lasts a minute. He looks around, trying to appear aware, suddenly realizing his existence. His father is dead, and they will expect respect. He stands up straight, squares his shoulders, straightens his suit. Scanning the crowd, most are looking at his uncle, coming down from the stand, giving way to the pastor. The rest are whispering, avoiding his gaze. He turns away, he has had more than enough of rumors. All he desires is certainty.

A question and an answer stands on the hill, catching his eye just as he begins to scan the horizon. His mouth drops immediately. A few notice, but none follow his gaze to the man leaning against a tree on top of the hill, the shadow of his body immolated by the dying sun. His figure is recognized immediately: broad-brimmed hat, tall boots, cloud of smoke emanating from his lips. Light pierces the wisps, dancing on the orange beams like blue fire. One leg is up, heel to the bark, anchoring his tall frame to the wood.

Taylor holds his eyes open, afraid he will vanish again. Irritated, he finally gives way, fully expecting the apparition to disappear. And yet he remains, still, only moving to take a drag of his cigarette or ash to the ground. He isn’t looking at the funeral, or Taylor, and yet the young man can still feel his awareness.

He sees without seeing, he thinks as his teeth begin to grind. A force within urges him to move. Another, wrapping around, holds him in place. He waits for the cowboy to break.

Neither of them make the first move. From the right of the tree, to the back of the cowboy, a figure emerges. He stands in the open, palms pointed down the hill. His face is dark, the sun finally rolling behind the knoll. The red light tints the grass, angled just enough to glint off the man’s teeth. He is smiling. Taylor cannot hear over the words of the pastor or the dull roar of whispers, but swears he can see him laughing. It only takes him a second to realize that it is Derek Roth leering down on the spoils of his work.

The force to move jolts through his limbs, barely strangled by the need to blend. This is his business. These people have meddled enough. He holds himself in place as the pastor finishes, molars throbbing from the force of his clenched jaw. The crowd finally breaks, people lifting the veil of grief and circumstance to talk trivialities. Many tried to catch him, to catch his eye and be relieved of the burden of condolence, but Taylor flattered no one. Pushing past their outstretched arms and irrelevant protestations, his eyes stay trained on the hill, on Derek and the cowboy. They exit down the back of the hill once he breaches the perimeter of the crowd, right before Taylor breaks into a sprint.

He gets his tie off as he crosses the peak of the hill, right next to the tree where the duo were standing. He shoves it in his pocket, keeping his eyes on the shadowy figures penetrating the tall pushes at the bottom of the hill. He slows down on the descent, taking choppy steps to avoid a tumble, before picking up speed to charge through the shrubs. He nearly makes it all the way through, but his sleeve catches on a branch just as he clears the needles. He quickly decides to rip it. The clothes are worth nothing now. The only things that matter are ahead.

The sun is setting as he sprints through rows of tobacco, the dark figures becoming difficult to see, walking eerily fast up ahead. Taylor isn’t worried, even as they cross the tree line into the next field. He knows where they are going, he can feel it. They had grown tired of waiting for him to decide, and honestly, Taylor had grown tired as well. He had grown tired of worrying, questioning, feeling like he had been stripped of control. He imagined, that he must feel very much like Derek had felt, and quickly realized that been the point all along. Derek wanted him to feel as he had felt, bring him to where he had been, but would the ending be the same? Would he find answers, resolution, perhaps even justice? Is there even such a thing to be had from a fucked-up situation like this?

All questions cease as the willows grip his shoulders. He rips them away and trudges into the growing darkness, the final beams of light fading from between the sparse openings in the trees. The figures enter the crippled house as Taylor stands outside, panting. He wants to stop, to gather himself instead of rushing in headlong like a buffoon. It almost works, until that wretched laugh splits the air. Derek Roth stops at the door, turning around just long enough to let out a cruel chuckle and step inside. The time for waiting has passed. Taylor jumps up the creaking stairs, and enters the crumbling castle.

Part Three

Taylor’s advance is stopped three steps into the interior. He stands slack-jawed, arms limp and hanging, with his foot only inches from a rusty, protruding nail. He is barely aware of the dark figure with white shoes standing on the balcony atop the stairs, only seeing to factor it into his collective déjà vu.

It’s all the same, he thinks frantically, pushing down the vomit gathering at the back of his throat. Everything, down to the last detail.

The smell of cat piss and standing water. The rotten stairs and the dead chandelier. Even a smiling Derek Roth to complete the picture. Taylor looks down to the foyer floor, fully expecting to see the hooks waiting for him in the fetid wood, rusted and hungry for flesh. They aren’t there, but the room is dark, so he squints to find his quarry. The dead chandelier comes to life above him, filling the room with a sinister yellow light that illuminates the floor for his straining eyes. No hooks appear as the full decrepitude of the aging wood becomes clear, but he doesn’t turn away yet. There are no hooks, but there are holes, squares of screw holes three inches apart, going down in a line with a large gap between the two rows. No hooks, but a place where they could be. When? Very soon perhaps…

“Long time, no see, ole’ buddy, ole’ pal,” erupts Derek Roth, breaking apart all thoughts of hooks and bringing Taylor’s gaze upward. “How’s the family? Oh right…both of ours are looking pretty thin lately!” he exclaimed, laughing maniacally as he gripping the loose banister.

Taylor felt the force to move ripple in his muscles again, begging him to run right up the stairs and break his knuckles on the bastard’s face. He takes a step, but no more than that. This is his territory, his chosen battleground. There is no room for rashness, no space for avoidable error. His fingers curl until his fists whiten, leering up at Derek with bared teeth, but saying nothing.

“So I guess you got my note, ole’ chum, my little paper trail. No word from the cops, so…I suppose you never told them about it. I like that. Very omerta of you. Besides, the police never got it right the first time…why should they have a say at all!” His laughing starts again, crazed, smacking his forehead against the banister before ripping it off the balcony and tossing it down the staircase. “This between you and me, old friend, the inevitable tiebreaker. Two out of three, baby, one to one, match point. Who brings home the gold? Who brings home the justice?”

“What justice!?” Taylor screams, flinging spittle onto the floorboards. “What justice are you fucking talking about you deranged son of a bitch? Justice for you? Where’s the justice for my father? The one you killed in cold blood…” Taylor’s teeth begin to grind as he growls the words, using all his strength to hold his eager body in place. It would not hold for long.

“Ha! Ha, ha, ha!” Derek chuckles, as if the answer to Taylor’s question was terribly obvious. “He already got his justice, you fool! He got his justice for my father. Justice paid for in blood…just as it was, just as it ever shall be. Now it is your turn to seek the same, old friend, and it is my duty to give you that opportunity. Only one shall leave, only one shall have true justice.”

“How is does any of this nonsense equate to justice?” Taylor blurts, pushing his tongue forcefully against the roof of his mouth. “Where’s the judge, where’s the jury, where’s the motherfucking evidence!?”

Derek relaxes with the question, like a man prepared with practiced thoughts, just waiting to spring the prodigal monologue. “I have all the evidence I need, old chum, ole’ friend of mine, all the evidence I’ve ever needed. I’ll show it to you, clue you in, if you will…once the trial has begun. No need for a jury, of course…the convictions have already been made. The judge has long since arrived, and has called upon me to carry out the sentence. All that leaves is the executioners. You…” he croaks, lingering in that awkward area of bass that separates each fraction of an utterance into a series of clicks, before pointing at Taylor, then hooking his arm back to bring the flesh arrow towards himself, “…and me. Welcome to your tribunal, Taylor, our tribunal. It’s the old way, the good way, the best way. It’s the kind that always begins the same way…by picking a weapon.”

He points to a small rack to the left of the entrance to the main foyer, just past the screw holes for potential hooks. It’s heavily rusted, and the scarred bludgeons and blades it carries look like they’re rusted on. A machete with a worn grip and a dented blade, a few chipped circular saws and small kitchen knives, a cracked, dirty baseball bat, a heavily rusted shovel, and a varied assortment of pipes and conduit. Not a traditional armory by any means, but a scavenger’s delight for sure. Taylor wastes no time on the damaged weapons, he needs something reliable. Fanning through the array of pipes, his eyes catch a medium-sized sprinkler line, scuffed but intact. He plucks it from the bunch and swings it around one-handed like an obsidian mace. It’s heavy, but not too heavy, just light enough to wield with one hand, so long as he keeps it under control.

This will do nicely, Taylor says to himself, finally allowing a shallow grin as his gaze turns to Derek. To bash your cooky brains in, you smiley fuck.
“Ooooh, good choice ole’ friend, ole’ buddy, very blue-collar of you, I like it. I like that grin even more, old sport, oh yes I do! I think you’re finally starting to get in the game here, finally feeling the spirit of the moment! Yes, I like smiles like that, Taylor, ole’ pal. In fact, your father had on one just like it when I came to get his confession…right before I gutted him like a cheap London whore!”
Taylor is halfway to the left-hand staircase before Derek can growl the final syllable. The madman lets out a fresh belt of laughter before heading into the interior of the house, shrouded by the darkness of the nearly complete evening. Taylor races, snarling, towards the top of the stairs, charging up the balcony before his quarry could disappear into the shadows. His determined feet pound against the rotting wood, and plow directly through the 15th and 16th steps. Momentum drives his upper body forward, the black pipe out of his left hand and up to the balcony as he snatches the banister with his right, gravity taking his lower body down below, a splintered spike cutting into his right leg from knee to hip.

Taylor cries out in pain, but silences it with haste; he can’t afford to let Derek hear it. He pulls himself up cautiously, careful not to put too much pressure on the slowly cracking wood. As he does, the spike that gouged him on the way down begins to retrace its path, Taylor angling his leg delicately to avoid it. After a long slow heave and a plethora of tiny, inaudible grunts, he makes it up the surface. He checks his leg before anything else, wincing as he stands fully, making sure not use the banister leaning dangerously towards the floor below. The denim of his jeans isn’t torn, not all the way at least, just a conspicuous white line with textbook fraying. His flesh fared far worse. He doesn’t take off his pants to check properly, but the red stains forming on his jeans are evidence enough. He plants his right hand on his leg and presses down hard, maintaining the pressure as he continues to the balcony.

Walking grudgingly to the right-hand staircase, his weapon teeters on the topmost step. He grabs it, grimacing as he bends his right knee. The darkness beckons, but lights come to life above him as he crosses the threshold. There are six doors in the wide hallway, a long table with an even more destitute chandelier hanging above it splitting the center. A long-rotten bowl of fruit decorates the center of the table, the husks so far gone that even the maggots have given up on them. Taylor spends little time observing the furniture. The real scenery is glued to the ceiling, and painted on the walls.

Paintings separate the outside rooms from the middle on each side of the hallway, but their images are nearly completely covered by the messages Derek has left. WHERE IS THE JUSTICE? screams the left. WHERE IS THE LAW & ORDER? screams the right. The final question lingers above, the answer to which becomes immediately apparent to the now-stoic Taylor Jenkins: WHERE IS THE RESOLUTION?

“The resolution is here,” he whispers as he absorbs the photographs bordering the final questions, Polaroid’s of his father in his final moments. Blood. Viscera. Terror. His father’s face in agony, Derek’s hands on the instrument. He turns away, realizing their intent. No distractions, no hesitations. “That’s your resolution, I suppose. You’d better be prepared for mine.” Gathering himself, his attention turns back to the room with newfound awareness, the sense of an animal caught in the wrong den. He has a problem to work out, more than one. Trudging lightly to the right, he thinks as he walks, scans as he thinks.

What the hell happened to him? he asks himself, the first vapors of sympathy rising in throat, only to be suffocated by his latent fury.

He’s always been a bit eccentric. After The Dark Knight came out he was doing a Joker impression almost every day. Zany and weird was always part of his repertoire, but never this violent, never this…committed. Killing my father I can somewhat understand, he’s had that motive for years, but the invitation, the house…it doesn’t quite fit. He’s changed somehow. All that talk of justice…it was almost religious.

He stops and checks underneath the chairs, underneath the table. Derek brought him here for a reason. It could be waiting…anywhere. On the balcony, he was like a zealot who had just discover the Word of their savior, that effervescent whisper of divinity that tells a man he is right when everyone else has denounced him. He said he had a duty to give me this opportunity…a duty to whom?

Satisfied with his inspection, he moves from the table to the rooms, a slight limp in his walk. The first room is near empty, a desk and some broken chairs, but nothing alarming besides the spiders. The second room has nothing at all, and is even missing some floorboards, but the third room hosts a rather obvious trap. The ceiling is distinctly concave, splintered boards jutting down wildly to the bed below. Folds of sheet and canvas poke out from the mutilated wood. The cloth is wrapped around something round and clearly heavy, the boards struggling to hold it as the inverse mountain of their bodies lurches towards the floor.

Taylor treads lightly into the dark room, lights coming to life upon his entrance. With new sight his eye catches a glint, a tiny reflection coming from somewhere between the bloated trap and the right wall. Taylor moves his head around to catch it again, and after a few seconds, he identifies its source. A thin, tight cable stretches from the trap to the bottom of the wall, the cable turning and shooting across the floor to the other side, the nearly invisible line hovering at ankle height. Taylor takes a step back as he realizes his proximity to it, following it from wall to wall then back up to the potential cataclysm. The line ends at a single, thin board lodged in the center of the trap, just below the weight. It is looped around a black, steel ring bolted to the wood, just like the ones at the bottom of each wall.

Taylor marvels at the structure for a moment, struck dumb by the sheer ingenuity of the frightful apparatus, before settling upon a question that he is terrified to answer: How in the fuck did Derek build this? How did he did he do any of this? He was a drama nerd the last time I checked, and he didn’t even build the sets! This building has been abandoned for decades, so how did he get the power running again? How did he install these automatic lights?

Taylor whips around at the thought, searching the walls for a sensor of some sort. They are bare. There is only one light switch, and it is heavily corroded. Beads of sweat begin to form on his brow, cooling his skin in the night air. He follows his gut up the ceiling, staring at the glowing light bulbs in spite of clear logic. He is looking for something that does not belong. He can’t see the filament, it glows too brightly, but he can see something else…a black, blotchy film that filters the light and turns it dark and yellow. Taylor’s eyes widen at the discovery, only to real from pain as the light becomes too much to bear. Covering his eyes, he comes to a conclusion: Something is wrong here. The lights should not work. This trap should not work.

He leaves the precarious trap and proceeds to the other rooms, the first embers of primal fear kindling in his stomach. The clarity he had only moments prior has faded, and the all-too-natural fear of the unknown has set in. Part of him seeks understanding, to know the end of the story, the rest scorns the very thought. The first room is mostly debris, but no traps, no Derek. The next is entirely empty, aside from the dusty floor with a six conspicuously raised floorboards. His curiosity beckons, but his goal cries louder.

It is in the final room, the last room, that Taylor Jenkins first brushes with death. The room is somewhat larger than the rest, a master bedroom, but no less decayed. A monster bed takes up the center of room, bedposts nearly reaching the ceiling before the thin, red silk topples down and denies observance of the mattress. Taylor doesn’t mind, he has no interest in seeing the bed. He assumes it is as torn as the silk and cloth that borders it, with more rotting and infestation to boot. Three faded tapestries hang on the ceiling, and his eyes are drawn to them. They are not torn like the rest of the fabric in the room, just dusty and faded, the patterns difficult to decipher. They hang still in the stagnant air, each a different color: purple, green, blue.

His eyes drift from the blue tapestry, closest to right wall, to the painting that hangs below it, right next to the right bedpost by the head of the bed. It is of a woman, much like the covers of Jane Eyre he had seen so long ago, but with a subject far more familiar. He walks towards it, the image becoming clearer with every step. The painting is of his mother, dressed up like some sort of 16th-century maiden. He shucks the idea at first, but each step brings him closer to the inevitable conclusion. The dark, brown hair. The green eyes. The mole just below her left cheek. The resemblance is too much for him to ignore, so his advance continues.

Did Derek paint this? I can’t imagine he could get someone to paint this from…

His thoughts cut as his ankle catches on something, something thin and tight, his momentum too far gone to draw back. His mind rushes to catch up, images of the splintered wood and the cable lurching to the surface to the sharp sound of the click fills the air. He turns around to find the sound, just in time to catch the flutter of the blue tapestry out of the corner of his eye. His knees give instinctively, crumbling him to the ground as the tapestry falls away and reveals the source of terror. In the split second that it swings above him, skimming the top of his head, he sees it as guillotine, barreling down like a pendulum towards his waiting neck.

His coccyx slams against the floor as the apparatus punctures the painting and the wall, raining debris on him in chips and splinters. Taylor lays still as the dust and wood settles, afraid to move, afraid to sprig another trap. It is his head that finally spurs him to action, a light stinging from the top of his scalp. He moves his right hand to it, cautiously, methodically. The hand find his hair and combs though it, locating the source of the pain. Taylor expects blood, exposed tissue, but for once his fears stay unrealized. There is no moisture, no sign of blood or loss of skin, just a spot where the hair is cut nearly to the scalp, flesh red and irritated beneath.

Wounds checked, he turns around to face the device, ever-conscious about the positioning of his weight. The recognition is immediate. A boat across stands impaled into the once-intact painting, several circular weights attached to its sides. The sharp blade is nearly completely submerged in the wall, but Taylor can see the bottom of the edge gleaming out of the mutilated canvas. He touches his neck and thinks of what could have been, following the anchor’s attachment up the ceiling. A long, straight metal arm is attached to the wood above, a steel hinge creating the fulcrum. He recognizes the construction, he has seen it before, in a movie perhaps. Something about a mirror…

Taylor steels himself. Derek is out there, waiting. Waiting for him. He begins to stand up, bending his face around the weights of the anchor, still slow, still cautious. It matters not. Before he can even get above a squat, a loud click pierces the silence and the lights cut out. Taylor freezes in vain hope, but he snaps to attention and stands tall when the door slams violently shut. Another click goes off and a small light begins to flicker just above the head of door. Taylor is still wary, but he begins to approach nonetheless. The light lies still, yet wavering, until Taylor reaches the footboard of the bed.

In a burst of searing light, the door is consumed by flame. Taylor jumps in alarm, thumping his injured leg against the bed. For a moment he is no more than a deer in the forest, caught in the ever-encroaching flame of cleansing, resigned its new purpose in the cycle of nature. His survival instincts kick in just after, once the flames have moved from the door and on to the wall. His head jerks frantically, searching for escape. The back wall has no windows, neither does the right or left. His hands begin to shake as the fire grows, the dark room now filled with flickering light.

His eye catches the border, the hidden lip of the entrance. It had long been painted over, neglected, forgotten, but in the space of the left wall, rusty but not diminished, is a small service elevator. Taylor wastes no time with questions. He leaps to the wall and fumbles for the gate, brow slick with sweat and throat beginning to burn. He finds a latch and undoes it easily, but the gate is not as friendly. It only moves slightly, a shrill noise piercing the air as decades of rust is ground in the track. The fire is only a few feet away now, reaching towards Taylor like the arms of the damned. The gate continues to resist, but he has raised it enough now to get both hands under the bottom. He curls his fingers around the rusted metal and squats, pushing upwards with the full force of his body.
The gate does not give at first, lurching forward a centimeter before stopping completely, and a pit of despair drops into his stomach. In desperation he grunts and strains, heaving against the rot and corrosion, until the gate gives way with a howling screech and a thunderous bang. Without a plan and without an answer, he turns and jumps butt-first into the tiny carriage. The fire nips at the soles of his shoes but never burns them, the sheer force of his weight snapping the elevation cable, forcing his feet upwards and into the shaft. Gravity takes him and he plummets into utter darkness, farther from the fire but closer to doom.

Part Four

The fire left quickly, and the ground came quicker. The cart smashes the ground with a cataclysmic crash, sending decades of sarcophagal dust into the air. Taylor coughs and waves his arms to ward away the dust, only to stop abruptly from the pain in his back. His heels are just above the border of the elevator entrance, sent to the sky by the shape of the shaft. His coccyx feels tender and bruised. Dust flutters in his eyes, so he closes them. He doesn’t need to see to get out.

Slowly, carefully, he jostles his hips backward, wincing in pain with each movement. Every inch towards the back of the cart brings his heels closer to the threshold of the door, and his ass towards his threshold for pain. With a final grunt his feet fly forward, lurching himself out of the cart in a jerky dismount. The cart creaks forward but does not tilt back, held in place by limitless rust. Taylor dusts himself and rubs his eyes, checking himself for any cuts or scratches. He tries to remember his last tetanus shot. Too long to make a difference. Last thing he wants is a memento from this horrid place, especially bacteria. A part of him hopes that the fire is still raging upstairs, ready to bring the whole damned place to the ground. The other part can sense that it isn’t.

Derek wouldn’t set that kind of trap, not the one I saw on that balcony. He wants me to go through the gauntlet, and I can’t do that if he burns all his toys.

He scans the room with a cough and a sputter, straining his eyes to see in the dark basement. The only light is coming from the staircase, a single beam splaying out through the darkness. There are three benches in the corners, only visible from the dull glow reflecting of the bottom of their legs. The rest of the room was bare, except for the tarp. The dull green sheet covers most of the floor, ending just before Taylor’s toes. He runs his eye across it, his gaze catching on a hidden border, the green partition hiding the beginning of a depression…

His focus shifts like a surprised cobra, jumping from his eyes to ears to the scratching footfalls coming from his right faster than he can comprehend the change. He shifts his feet, but before his body can follow the cold steel rips through the denim, slicing the back of his hamstring only four inches from the existing gash. A shriek bounces off the walls in a cacophonous echo, only broken by the resounding thud of his knee hitting the concrete, and the tinkling clatter of the water pipe rattling the ground.

He turns to his left to see the figure, laughing just below the final reverberations of the pain orchestra. He can’t see his face, but he can see his shoes, white and glowing against the darkness. Taylor rises, stiffening his right knee against the pain, gripping the lower end of the pipe in preparation.

“Did I get getcha, friend?” Derek cackles, lurching his face back over his right shoulder with a psychotic grin. “I’ve been waiting so eagerly for this moment, I just couldn’t contain myself.”

Taylor doesn’t respond, only affirming Derek with a grunt before spitting on the dusty concrete. Derek turns toward him fully now. Taylor sees the knife first, long and wide at the base. A small line of blood coats the edge. His blood. Derek’s eyes intercept Taylor’s sightline, juggling the knife playfully between hands as his smile grows.

“I see you’ve been waiting too, old friend,” he says and he points the knife at Taylor’s hands, knuckles whitening at the base of the pipe. Taylor bares his teeth. “And with a much hotter fire it seems! Phew! I can SMELL the ready on you, boy! It’s leaking off you like old piss, dear chum! How about we let some of that out? Help you understand what we’re doing here?”

Derek starts to laugh again, but stops, Taylor ripping a chuckle through the musty air. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here, but you should know why you’re here, you crazy fuck.”

Derek’s grin twitches with excitement. “Why don’t you fill me in, old chum?”

Taylor advances in spite of his leg, focusing on it so the limp won’t show. He brings the pipe up to his hip and grips it tight, balanced for attack. Derek tosses the knife to his right hand, hiding his smile as much as he can. “What you’re doing here…” Taylor says as he closes on his enemy, voice rising with every step, “…is waiting to get your ASS KICKED!”

Taylor gets close before he charges, putting his weight behind his swing as he brings the pipe down in an overhead chop. Derek dodges it easily, the end of the pipe chipping the concrete. the end bounced with a dull ring, the harsh reverberations gluing Taylor’s hands to the cylinder. With a wide sweep, Derek brings the knife across his right arm, slicing it open where his shoulder meets the hem of his bicep. He goes for another but Taylor wisely retreats, pressing the end of the pipe on his arm in a mock attempt at pressure. Derek breathes a seething smile and brings the knife to his mouth, flicking his tongue at the tip like a clitoris.

Taylor huffs against the pain, dropping the pipe to his side as he forces himself to think. His thoughts swirl in a sea of endorphins and rage, so he strikes his untouched thigh in frustration. Derek’s smile grows, and he continues his juggling as he begins to circle. Taylor searches for his weapon, rallies his mind for strategy. He was never one for praxis, the Type B in him always yearning for the bigger picture before taking on a challenge. Revealing the patterns and creating the plan was just as enjoyable for him as completing the task, with his growing mind increasingly hungry for the clarity of analytics. The gears in his mind are already working as Derek trudges on the edge of the tarp.

He finds memories first, visions of Bruce Lee and other Kung Fu legends flickering on the edges of his vision. His father had practically forced him to watch the films, everything from Enter the Dragon to The Drunken Master. He had never been interested in learning the techniques himself, totally resigned to the severely average nature of his physique and flexibility, but he was keen to catch the kernels of wisdom, even the poorly translated. There are dozens that he could conjure, but only three cry pertinence: Turn strength to weakness. Patience is a virtue. Your weapon is not your only weapon.

Taylor grasps the meaning immediately, weaving the web of action as Derek grows antsy. “What’s wrong, friend? Did I getcha? If you want I can take you your dad, let him kiss it and make it ALL BETTER!” Derek face flexes towards a wild, insane grin, but stops abruptly and sinks into a scowl when he sees the stillness in Taylor’s face, the glazed look. Taylor never even heard him, he was far too entrenched in the strategy unfolding in his head.

Turn strength to weakness. What is his strength? Surprise and location definitely, but I don’t see how I can work that to my advantage. What else…Emotion, definitely emotion. He’s been wound up and loony ever since I entered this damn place, and between the murder and this place he’s got me riled up, too. He’s got me playing on his level, at his pace. He’s taunting me because he doesn’t want to wait, he craves the action. He can’t be patient, but Patience is a Virtue. I have to wait, make him come to me. With the way he’s fidgeting, that shouldn’t be hard, but I can’t assume that he’ll fall for it that easily. I need to make him commit, give him something he wants…

Derek’s patience finally dries up, and he begins shuffling towards Taylor in a manner that resembles an overenthusiastic boxer. The movement catches Taylor’s eye and he wakes from his thinking, bringing the pipe upwards in his left hand. He changes his stance, putting the pipe up front before he joins Derek with a far less flamboyant shuffle.

Your weapon is not your only weapon. I can’t attack him with the pipe, not full out at least, he’s far too fast with that knife. I need to set him up. The pipe is only a distraction, just a tool to steal his vision, to show him the window you want to be shown…

They are within striking distance now, and Derek is already mocking him with little jerks and smiles. Taylor pays him no mind. He brandishes the pipe and swings it at him twice, controlled but forceful. Derek dodges them easily, but that is the point. Derek offers back a slice, but Taylor parries, the screech of metal echoing against the damp concrete. Wasting no time, Taylor swings twice again, high towards Derek’s right shoulder. He dodges again as Taylor watches his eyes, peering down in curiosity at his exposed ribcage. Taylor allows a grin at the discovery, before bringing a right sharp right hook across his former friend’s cheek.

Derek recoils from the blow, still smiling, though Taylor cannot tell whether he smiling from surprise or insanity. He won’t let that happen again. Derek spits onto the concrete before returning to the fray, sneaking a peek at Taylor’s ribcage as he approaches.

That’s right, motherfucker. Come and get it.

Derek burst towards him at the last second, bringing two slices dangerously close to his face and forcing to retreat. The sudden nature of the strike nearly flusters Taylor, nearly forcing a rash and panicked swing, but Taylor holds back. He returns to the strategy, swing high and wide and forcing Derek to move. He almost acts too early, Derek stopping his dodge short as if to strike, but only preparing for another right hook. He brings his right hand to the base of the pipe, but stops short of turning his hips.

Taylor assaults once more, swinging with more force and coming closer to truly striking the slim young man in the white shoes. Derek moves again, but as Taylor brings the pipe down a second time he can already tell that conclusion is in motion. He stops his dodge short again, the pipe coming only inches from his temple. He ducks down to rib-level as he shifts his hips, planting his foot into the ground like an apocalyptic piston driving him towards the end.

Both combatants glide into their respective positions with the fluidity of ballerinas. Taylor grips the pipe in both of his hands as he slides his left foot behind his right, his hips following in twirl. Derek drives the knife toward Taylor’s pancreas with conviction, but ultimately misses his target by nearly a foot. Taylor’s arms follow the lead of his hips, swinging left and over the top of his head like the carnival ride he shunned as a child. Taylor brings the pipe down like a lumberjack, the threads screaming down towards the far side of his skinny little neck.

The hollow cylinder whistles through the air as it descends towards Derek’s brain stem, but stops painfully short of its target. Invisible arms of incomparable strength seize his form, locking up his muscles and robbing the pipe of all momentum. Taylor’s arms scream in pain at the abrupt discontinuation, fighting for the follow-though as Taylor struggles to comprehend what he is experiencing. Derek is frozen as well, but only by his own volition. His eyes are closed in expectation, but they open to find that he is still alive. He turns his head towards Taylor’s shivering, seething form. Taylor jerks and groans as he attempts to finish the job, but all he can accomplish is a violent tremble.

Derek’s look of abject shock gives way to a chuckle that would make Mark Hamill blush. “Well, well, well, I guess this little scrap is over,” he says as bends himself around the statue of Taylor. “I guess my benefactor doesn’t want the contest to end so soon. Pity. I was hoping to cut you up a bit more. No matter, it will happen in time.” Taylor’s seething grows louder and beads of sweat drip from his reddening forehead, begging every muscle for movement as Derek meanders to the dimly-lit stairs, curving around the edge of the tarp. “See me upstairs when you’re done down here, old chum. I’ll be waiting.”

Derek rips another laugh through the stale air, and the invisible arms let go almost on cue. Taylor’s body lurches forward from the pent up force of his swing, nearly sending him tumbling to his knee. A hand bounced from the pipe to the floor and propelled him forward, rushing low and headlong towards the chuckling maniac ascending the stairs. Derek doesn’t increase his pace, doesn’t even turn around as Taylor’s footsteps echo off the walls, the distance between them closing quickly. Taylor’s route takes him straight to the stairs, the fastest route, but the trajectory of his charge shifts abruptly as his foot plunges past the hemmed edge of the tarp.

All thought of Derek gives way with his footing. His left foot catches on an edge for a second, and he tries to push off of it, but his foundation crumbles as fast as it appeared. The tarp wraps around his cock-eyed legs as he falls, slapping the slick mud with a thunderous squish. He is still for a moment, left hip throbbing, the tarp wrapped around the entirety of his body and blocking his view from anything but its green, mossy backdrop. He splays out his arms and is able to jut his head out just enough for sight, but hardly has a chance to look around. His foot twists just a little as he fights to get his elbows above the massive sheet, but it is enough to send his footing toppling down to the center of pit.

He jerks his arms out in an attempt to balance, but his arms stay, chicken-winged in the leathery cocoon of the tarp. He falls forward, face slapping the mud as he begins to slide head-first towards the gleaming bottom of Derek’s trap. The muddy pit is lit worse than a cave, but what little light there is gives definition to the pool coming quickly towards Taylor’s face, and his recognition of the contents elicits a full-fledged scream just before the thump of collision.

Taylor begins to flail and struggle as soon as he stops, the various limbs and partially intact cadavers that surround him wiggling around in the dank pool in synchronized mockery of his terror. He had gone nose-first into the rotting face of what he thought was a woman, though she was far past the point of identification. Her corroded face collapsed on impact, the jagged corner of her cheek cutting into Taylor’s own, leaving the septic juices of her decomposing brain to leak into the fresh wound. Taylor tries not to breathe as he thrashes himself upwards, but in the strain of freeing himself his body needed the oxygen. He gags as he frees his left arm, the stench of several decades of rot filling his nose, along with a sudden itch erupting across its bridge. He feels it writhing, tickling. Something small, something young. Like larvae.

Taylor seethes as he squirms and rips his way out of the canvas trap, water splashing on his legs as he does. He feels the sting as the water leaks through his pants and onto his wounds, mind flooding with images of septicemia, arteries red and incipiently varicose. With a final grunt his right arm is loose, allowing him to rip and kick his legs free of the green lasso. With his legs free, he gingerly splashes to the edge of the pool, trying not to step on flesh as he walks but failing miserably. He finds the edge and looks up the slope, glistening and steep, the jagged concrete overhang giving the edge the quality of teeth.

How the hell did he do this? I mean, shouldn’t the foundation be here, where I’m standing, instead of this fucking death pit? Surely he didn’t dig it up just to do this, that would be insane, even for Derek. Even then, he would need help, and Derek doesn’t have many friends, especially those adept in construction. Maybe it was the “benefactor” he was talking about…

Taylor gags again as the smell of fermenting flesh and fetid water wafts into his nostrils. With a groan he starts up the incline, giving up a foot and a chunk of mud for every two feet he climbs. He climbs and he slips, climbs and slips, coating his wet, bloodied clothes in mud and fueling his frustration. In a frenzied display of earth and spittle he reaches for the pointed edge, grabbing hold of it just as the ground beneath his feet gives way, leaving his body to hang freely above the pool of corpse tea.

He brings his left arm up to the ledge with an exaggerated sweep, clapping it down on the concrete. He strains and grunts as he slowly pulls himself up to the edge, the first pull-up he’s done in years. He sprays spit as he gets his first elbow over the threshold, eyes just below the horizon of the pit. He swings his other elbow over and finally catches sight of solid ground, his heart jumping at the prospect. In his excitement he reaches out for sweet, sweet land, so quickly that he never notices the ring of white powder bordering the hole.

A small, white cloud of dust erupts as Taylor’s hand slaps the small ridge of substance lining the outside of the pit, a cloud that evaporates quickly from the air rapidly exiting Taylor’s mouth. Taylor coughs and sputters as he forces out a guttural cry, loud, but not loud enough to drown out the sizzling coming from his bubbling hand. Scrambling, he jerks and writhes his body over the edge, landing his other hand in the strange substance as he claws for land. He fights the stench of bleach and cooked meat as hard as he fights the pain, yelping as he jumps to his feet.

Without a second thought, he rushes over to one of the benches in the corner, a sink conveniently affixed to the center. It hurts to turn to handle but it hurts more to leave it alone, so he turns on the cold water with a cringe and a shudder. He can barely see his hands under the powder and the bubbles, but he can see the red, and that is all he needs. The water flows forth and he dips his burning hands into the stream, expecting the warm blanket of relief.

Pain erupts to new heights as the hissing racket of steam cracks out from the sink, sending Taylor reeling backwards in a cacophony of agony. Confusion melds to his pain, and the first tendrils of despair wrap themselves around the soft edges of his neck. Tears form in the corners of his eyes as he searches for answers, for any kind of solace in his suffering. Pain is all that answers him, but his thoughts are dashed before hopelessness can infect his heart.

A light clicks on in another corner of the basement, illuminating a shelf directly to the left of the damaged elevator. There is a single bottle on the shelf, clear with a slightly yellow liquid inside. A crude wooden sign hangs above it, signaling his salvation in sardonic fashion: VINEGAR DUMBASS. He doesn’t wait to figure out the connections, though they begin to form as he dashes to the shelf. He snatches the bottle with his burnt, fleshy hands and spins the cap in desperation, spilling the contents out onto each hand with a resounding gasp of relief. Only now, as the pain subsides, does he begin to understand.


The powder, it was lye, I remember it from Fight Club. That’s why the water made it worse. But it wasn’t there when I fell in, I know it wasn’t! I mean, the whole place is dimly lit, but there’s no way I would have missed that. What the fuck is going on here?

Once the bottle is empty and the immediate sting has left his fingers, he finally raises them up to inspect the damage. He tries to be shocked, but his capacity has diminished, and all he can manage is the momentary flair of his eyebrows. His hands are nearly unrecognizable, red and ghastly thin, sickening lines of white forming a spider’s web of flesh. Some parts looked relatively unscathed, but they were masked by the sinking pits of the edges of his knuckles, pits he imagined must lead dreadfully close to the bone. I put his hands down, refusing to look at them any longer. They’re going to make themselves known anyway.

He makes his way to the stairs and ascends them cautiously, wary of every creak and shift. He exits the door, leading out into a small living room draped in plastic. He peaks his head around the corner and sees the curve of the staircases, opening up towards the long-lost front door of the house. In between is a dining room much like the foyer upstairs, lined on either side on by three rooms, without the red paint to layer over the cracked paintings. The symmetry is unnerving, and Taylor feels the cold sparks of déjà vu run down his spine in much the same way as when he entered. He feels some relief when he double-checks the left side, finding four doors instead of three, two small rooms in the middle instead of one.

He strolls past the long, cobwebbed table and starts towards the stairs, until a sharp noise nearly jolts him out of his shoes. Spinning around, he searches for the source, ears adjusting to the new racket. He relaxes almost immediately in recognition. The sound is coming from a radio, he can hear that much, a poorly transmitted version of a song he can almost remember. He walks slowly back the way he came, passing his ear by each door before for coming to the final one on the right. The music is louder now, the higher notes of the harsh treble guitar kicking in with the bass drum and sparking memories without respite. The song is Bound for the Floor by Local H, and the only thought Taylor can manage is: Of course it is.

When the two boys had been friends it had been a sort of anthem, a song to be played equally in celebration and angst. Now the words are screaming at him again, and in a way they frame the situation quite nicely.

He doesn’t get it, he doesn’t get any of it. He has no idea why any of this is happening, other than Derek’s obvious grudge, or how the suddenly crazed young man pulled off the unnecessary feat of engineering. Why here? Why now? Why give him the chance for revenge, only to lead him through a cavalcade of pain and horror like some misbegotten piece in a fucked-up game of Mousetrap?
It is those thoughts that lead Taylor to the truth of the situation, that the song frames the situation like a sandwich bag frames a 20-pound turkey.

Derek is not keeping things copacetic. Things are downright fucked-up. My hands look like bad meat! My leg is probably going septic right now! No…I won’t learn to accept it, this whole situation is pathetic. It’s time to end this fucking carnival ride.

He enters the room slowly, staring down at the battery-powered radio blaring at the end of the rotting twin bed. The mold and undergrowth is so profound that the original sky blue fabric is barely visible under the crusty layer of plant matter and fungus and the broken antennae of the radio looks more like a tall sprout than a metal receiver. Taylor’s eyes crawl from the radio to the patchwork mold, up to where the dark green and light blue of the bed melds into the clumpy white paint of the wall.

Taylor feels a wave of goosebumps roll over his flesh as he stares at the scattered lumps lining the wall, so his attention draws to the radio. It looks old, too old, rusted and grungy like someone just picked it out of a landfill. It looks on the verge of breaking, and the screechy static is enough for Taylor to finish the job. With a full-body sweep he smacks it from the bed, launching it towards the wall and shattering it into the debris of various corroded metals. Taylor turns his head, but sees something out of the corner of his eye that stops him cold. The impact of the radio had left no visible mark on the wall, no chunks of loose paint or clouds of dust, but there was movement nonetheless. For a second, just a brief moment, Taylor sees the paint on the wall shudder like a gusted tree.

He rubs his eyes and blinks them cartoonishly, waiting for some movement to break the newfound silence. There is nothing, not even a wiggle from the fungus-like clumps in the paint, so Taylor creeps over to the wall with caution. He touches the wall, rubs the paint with temperamental fingers. Dry, brittle, old. Not dead, lifeless. Removing his fingers from the crumbling surface, he rubs them together, watching the dist trickle out from between his fingertips. Nothing to see here.

He flicks the dust off his hand and twirls toward the door, but the fecund wood follows suite, slamming shut just in time for the preceding gust to tickle his eyelashes. One foot stomps towards the door, but the rest of his body stays locked in a paralysis of recognition and déjà vu. Once the door clicks shut, the scattered clumps of white paint that surround it begin to writhe and twitch, shuddering to spasm before finally coming to life and creeping quickly over the exit. It covers every corner and fills every crack until the outline of the door is nearly indistinguishable. Taylor hears a sort of hissing, almost sizzling, followed by a light crackling. A thick layer of paint covers the exit.

Dark purple dots invade his vision, bordered by translucent floaters, and Taylor realizes that he’s been holding his breath. He lets out the stale carbon dioxide in a rush, and the creature lurking upon the walls takes it as a cue. Dozens of clumps move in unison, rushing towards the floor in a wave the leaves the tattered walls bare and naked. The dusty coat is now a rush of liquid pooling violently at the edges of the room, before rushing towards their victim in thick streams shooting from every direction. A sharp gurgling rips through air, like an underwater shriek, and Taylor can see hands forming at the tips of each stream.

Taylor jerks to motion, but knows not where to go. He looks left, then right, the streams lurching towards him as an inhuman slime. On the right wall he sees a crack, a line of wet rot and decay stemming from the ceiling. With just the faintest spark of hope, he jumps towards the thin black scar, his first stride bolting him towards the crumbling wood. He plants for the second stride, only a few feet from the wall, but it is a few feet too much. The hands have caught him, wrapped themselves around his ankles as they work their way up his legs. Some go over the top, creeping up towards his knees and making each thrash more difficult, the rest go underneath his torn, muddy jeans. That is the portion that truly strikes fear into his suddenly nauseous gullet.

His legs are hampered but his arms are free, so he army crawls as he tries desperately to kick away the viscous goop that envelopes his shoes. He keeps his knees bent, so that the creeping fluid pulling at his leg hairs can’t move further up. He makes it a few feet before more streams join in, sloshing over his arms and trickling into his hair. They grab at his hands, his elbows, clawing into every opening his tarnished clothes allow. Struggling, ripping, Taylor strains against the white tide swallowing him, kicking fiercely as he tries desperately to get to his feet. He can feel the paint leaking over his beltline, creeping over his genitals, seeking orifices. More washes over his head, little droplets clawing for his ears, eyes, and the edges of his mouth.

It isn’t until he feels the monster, the thing that covers him almost entirely now, begin to strike the opening of his urethra that his rage and fear coalesce into something coherent. Part-roar, part-shriek erupts from his clogged mouth, a glob of paint splashing the floor from the force. With a full-body kick, he frees his legs and lurches upwards, balancing himself with his one free hand before planting both feet in a half-stumble and launching himself at the wall.

The wood cracks but does not give, and as Taylor recoils he can tell by the throbbing pain that he hit a stud. The paint catches his heel and he falls backward, gut sinking as his back approaches the ground. He didn’t think he would get more than one shot, but he is long past thinking. The paint coheres in a wave the menaces above him, almost forming a face as he nears the wood. His arms are free now, and he senses the opportunity. He tucks his right arm just as the wave of white death pounces down on his position.

His shoulder strikes the ground and he immediately spins to his right, the surge of paint only missing by inches and splattering against his face as he rolls over to face it. Another watery shriek fills the air as the goo gathers itself, molding together into two towers that look like legs. Taylor is nearly frozen in amazement as the legs join into hips and work upwards into a torso, but remembers himself as one of droplets on his face begins to pull at his eyelid. He jumps to his feet, bursting forth in one stride before launching himself at the wall. He hears the roaring of liquid behind him, the paint man surging forth to catch him. Angling himself to the right, his shoulder collides, and the cataclysm of white crashes against his back.

The surge of paint pushes him down and smacks his knees against the concrete, shards of wood clattering against the opposite wall. He scrambles to his feet and looks around himself, the white of the paint coming to life in unison. His head turns on a swivel as tiny tendrils emerge from the paint, one of the two small rooms he had seen before. Some sort of janitorial closet, full of dreadfully rusted tools and various chemicals. The tendrils begin to shake and emit terrifying noise, a trembling amalgamation between a goat scream and twenty cicadas. The noise assaults Taylors eardrum’s, but he pays no mind. His salvation is in sight, perched on a shelf and labeled: PAINT THINNER.

Taylor moves toward the shelf, and without hesitation, the tendrils erupt in a sea of grasping tentacles. With a left arm sweep, he keeps a few at bay, but not enough to keep his right leg free, or his right arm. The extensions wrap around his limbs like snakes, squeezing and pulling at them with increased strength. Balancing on his left leg, he reaches for the rusted can, his fingertips brushing against the label and turning one of its corners over the ledge. The tentacles pull in a jerky lurch, sending his one stable leg sliding beneath him. As he falls he shoots his left arm out once more, not far enough to reach the can, but enough to hook the outer edge of the shelf with three of his fingers.

The metal slices deep into his middle finger as he tries to grip as much as possible, but the paint is far too strong. He smacks the ground as he is ripped away from the shelf, three droplets of blood hitting the ground and mixing with the paint. The shelf leans forward and the can teeters, dropping to the ground as the shelves shudder into equilibrium. The top pops off and a loose jet of fluid erupts from the opening, splashing onto Taylor’s shoulder and over his head.

The paint lurches backward violently as its gurgled screech melds with a tremulous hissing, the tentacles receding from Taylor’s upper body. Noxious fumes waft from Taylor’s shirt into his face, and a wave of lightheadedness fills his perception. With a grunt, he kicks the stunned paint and stumbles towards the can, losing his footing and striking his shoulder against a cabinet before looking back at his opponent. He can see a section boiling, with a translucent discharge running from the spot. It is white like the paint, but it offers no movement, no substance, no life.

His heartbeat becomes audible in his eardrums, and he grabs the can for the final blow. The paint man, sensing the danger, coalesces into a clotted mass and launches at him with a demonic growl. Taylor holds up the can as the paint strikes him in the chest, driving him back into the wall and forcing the air from his lungs. Shocks ripples though his neck as he fights for air, the strength gone from his arms. His elbow bends and the can tips down, until the fluid breaks the threshold and sends the contents pouring off the side of his head and down to his body.

Taylor hears the cry of a Nazgul as the paint releases its hold, falling to the ground in a sickening squish. The paint man jerks and thrashes in agony as it slithers its leaking mass back through the hold in the walls, leaving streaks of translucent discharge behind. The cry continues as Taylor drops to his knees on the newly dried floor, paying no mind to the decibel-pushing shriek. The roaring drone of an airplane engine fills his ears as his peripheral vision begins to blur, the beginnings of a sensation he never wanted to feel, and will never want to feel again.

Part Five

Taylor snaps himself up as reality becomes apparent. A loud hum beats beneath his eardrums, vibrating his body ephemerally and emphasizing the lucid looseness of his limbs. With great effort he staggers to his feet, nearly collapsing into the doorframe, every signal sent to his arms and legs ferried like a rope pushed through sludge. His tongue wobbles like a stone lolling in a sling, streams of spittle dripping from its tip. All of his periphery is in vibration, every surface with a sheen akin to lamination.

A screech and a crackle emanate from above, and Taylor spins around drunkenly, twisting his legs together and toppling to the ground in preparation for the return of the paint man. The tunnel of his vision scans from door to door, but sees nothing. His worries are abated by a voice floating just above the tremors in his head.

“Taylor…Taylor…where are you, Taylor? I’m waiting for you,” says the detached voice of Derek, and for a moment Taylor sincerely believes that the voice is coming from inside his head. A wave of static clarifies the difference, Derek’s voice is coming from speakers, though his vibrating perception is hardly capable of locating them.

“I see you’ve met my little friend, he’s awful fun, isn’t he! I hope he didn’t get you too bad, I was hoping you would get to the end of this. You always were the resilient one, resolute till the end. I envied that about you, and I tried to be strong like that for a long time, but hey…sometimes you’ve got to say fuck it, right? Just go and shit on the rules and make your own. That’s why I brought you here, Taylor, I couldn’t get justice under their rules, so I made my own. Now you seek your justice under my roof, my rules. Are you ready, Taylor? Ready to break down some walls? You’ve already started I see, but the end is near at hand. You can find out the finale at the top, old friend, just up the spiral staircase. I’m eager for your arrival.”

Taylor wants to feel anger, to feel the rush of energy he needs to run headlong up to Derek, but the thick cloud of intoxication hampers his mind and burdens his muscles. The first staircase is in sight, the one he tried to chase Derek at the beginning of this mess. He tries to run, but all he can manage is a herky-jerky strut, an unintentional combination of Night of the Living Dead and Yosemite Sam. His hip bangs on the ornate table as he stumbles towards his goal, trailing slightly off course but feeling no pain. All sensation has left him now, and random images of memory play on coexistent plane of his mind and periphery.

Scenes of Derek, every time he tried to explain, tried to vent his frustrations. Taylor barely listens; as much as he wants to help his friend, he wants to help his father more. Every scenario in the overlapping montage ends the same, Derek screaming and pleading, each further prostration containing less sorrow and more rage. He vows revenge, to kill Taylor’s father and him as well, to turn his life upside down just as his father did to him, the threats and motions growing more violent as the image of Derek ages. Taylor yells out, bellowing to his former self to head the warnings, to not sit there with an expression between aggravation and apathy as Derek storms off to begin his plans. There is no one there to answer, only himself, the only who can bring an end to this twisted house of horrors.

Someone finally broke you, didn’t they? he thinks as the miasma in his brain begins to clear slightly. You were always close, but they pushed you over. Gave you the help. Gave you the belief. Got you to the level of depravity you were always afraid to go to alone. Will he be there with you at the top? I guess I’ll just have to see for myself.

Taylor begins to feel better as he rounds the handrail and starts up the staircase, trotting to a jog as his legs shed their malaise. He gets close to the top before the lightheadedness hits him again, sending him to his knees and into a series of dry-heaving lurches. It isn’t until the final heave, that some substance finally leaves his throat, a sickening goop that reminds him of blended oranges. He staggers back to his feet, rising slowly this time. He can see the spiral staircase past the table as the tunnel of his vision returns, blocking all view of Derek’s questions and perverse photography. None of it matters now. All that remains, all that counts anymore, is resolution.

Taylor props himself on the chairs as he passes the table, stabilizing himself as his balance comes back. He nearly falls at the final chair, dulled nerves coming to life as an aging splinter jams itself into his lye-stricken hands. He pulls it out without hesitance, only stopping to notice how minute the difference is between the color of his hands and the blood that now flows just below his index finger. The artificial weight of his body begins to abate as he reaches the black, winding staircase, and the roaring in his brain has calmed to a receding hum. His ascension is stoic, one foot at a time.

There is no fear, no apprehension as he crosses the threshold into the spacious attic of the relic house. He does not look for traps or assailants, for he knows that there are none to behold. He is finished with games and he can tell that Derek is as well. His enemy stands at the opposite end of the stuffy chamber, nothing between them aside from two support beams flanking Taylor’s left. Derek stands tall and confident, snarling grin shining almost as brightly as his white shoes. Three lights hang overhead, bathing them in a rich yellow glow.

Derek lingers in one of the few shadows, and Taylor expects nothing less. His right arm swings out in what Taylor sees as invitation, until the clattering of metal scrapes across the floor towards his feet. The object halts just before his soggy shoes. It is a sword, and just like everything else in Derek’s domain, it is far from the usual. Unknown runes trek up the hilt and onto the base of the blade, an ancient broadsword that looks more like a Highlander prop than an actual weapon. Taylor fights his curiosity as he picks it up, feeling the weight of its reality in his hands.
Answering questions won’t end this nonsense. Only action will. It’s time to end this, old friend.

“How’s it feel, buddy? Not too heavy for your hands, I hope!” Derek laughs as he steps out of the shadows, blade gleaming in the light as he waves it over his head. “They look pretty bad, but then again, so do you! Ahh, what’s the sour face for Taylor? Had a rough day?”

“Shut your mouth, you fucking coward. I’m tired of hearing you speak,” Taylor retorts with disdain, but no anger, voice flat and firm.

“Ooooh, why so serious, chum? A little tired, huh? Sick of the run-around and the mystery? That’s fine. All will be answered soon, my friend, assuming you live. I had to give you this opportunity Taylor, that was the agreement, but I don’t have to give you justice. You have to learn just like I did, that justice must be taken.” Derek smiles wide, chuckling in his derivative signature.

“Alright, Derek, enough of this shit. I should have said something long ago, years ago, but I didn’t, and that’s my fault. But now I’m telling you: cut the shit with this scenario you’ve created in your head. If you wanted justice so badly, you could have gotten it yourself. You had year to offer anything, anything at all as evidence, but you didn’t. You just prattled on with your delusions and cried victim whenever someone challenged it. The burden of proof is on you Derek, it always has. So what do you have to say, Derek? What do you have that justifies everything you’ve done me and my family?” Taylor breaks into a snarl near the end of his speech, spittle flicking across the wood and creating a nearly imperceptible line between Derek and himself.

Derek doesn’t move, only his cheeks curling upward into a sickly smile. “Oh, I have everything, my friend, everything and more. And I know all about the burden of proof, it’s weighed me down for years, but I have to tell you, it’s gotten a lot lighter the past few days.” He stretches the last few words out like warm taffy, savoring them as they float off his tongue and into the dusty air. His cheeks stretch painfully tight, rising to red as his hand reaches into his pocket. The object is black, and Taylor can’t tell what it is until the voice of his father breaks through the deafening silence.

I don’t know what you expect me to say, kid, his father says from the tape recorder. His voice is gruff and firm, the classic tone of a man who always has somewhere else to be.

I think you know, Mr. Jenkins, says the voice of Derek through the speaker. There is almost a vibration to his voice, like his teeth were chattering, or his hand was shaking.

I think you’ve known for a very long time.

Okay, Derek, enough is enough. I let you have your time to grieve, I let you run your mouth around town, and I was under the impression all that nonsense ended years ago. I’ve had all can take, and I need you to leave. Right now.

The voice of Taylor’s father grows more irritated, and Taylor can hear a hiss rip through the background, like his father’s shoe sliding across the kitchen floor.

I need you to leave now and never bother me with this bullshit again. The police have closed the case, not that there was ever one to begin with. I didn’t kill your father, Derek. He was my best friend.

Taylor hears the hiss rip through the background once more, louder and faster this time, followed by an expedient gasp.

I’m not going anywhere, Mr. Jenkins, Derek says, curling and curving his voice for maximum depravity. Not until I get your confession.

Another noise bursts from the background, a type of friction, metal scraping against…something. Taylor’s dad clears his throat, and already Taylor pictures his stance: head straightening, knees locking, chest protruding, his shoulder rolling pack to their positions.

Alright, you skinny fuck, his father barks, the anger apparent in his voice, but with something else underneath. Fear perhaps?

You have got to be high as hell if you think you can barge into my house and demand that I feed into your delusions. At knifepoint no less! Taylor hears a sort of shuffling, nothing distinctive to give reference. No grunting or gasping that would suggest a struggle, but some sort of conflict.

I said stop pointing that at me you little shit! his father yells suddenly, and the light confrontation explodes into a cacophony of crashes, bumps and grunts. All is silent except for the recording, and chattering of the sword in Taylor’s shaking hand. The struggle continues for several long seconds, only to be shattered abruptly by a piercing roar, sharp yet guttural, and a sound of splashing so subtle that Taylor is not sure that he heard it at all.

All that is left is a steady stream of grunts and coughs, until Derek’s voice cuts in once again.

Alright, Mr. Jenkins. One last try, he squeaks maniacally. I can’t let you live, not anymore, but I can at least allow you to die honest. Are you ready, Mr. Jenkins?

Taylor’s father coughs and sputters, but is finally able to speak. Alright, al…alright. I did it kid, I did it. I didn’t shoot him, and I didn’t hit him with the car, but I… Taylor’s Father breaks into a cough again, followed by the subtle splash that he no longer questions.

…I saw the car, and I hit the gas. I knew what would happen. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t even think I would get away with it. I just did it. I was angry, so angry I didn’t even want to drink. I didn’t think I could live with that, that fire burning inside me, but I thought I could live with killing your father. It looks like I was wrong. Taylor’s father breaks into another fit, far more violent than the previous. Derek pays no mind.

Yes, Mr. Jenkins, you were very wrong. Very wrong indeed. Thank you for that, though, it’s a great relief to finally know the truth. But that won’t change the outcome. My resolution awaits, and so does yours.

Taylor tries to move his hands, struggles to shield his ears against the pitiful whimpers of his father’s final plea, and the horrific gurgling that follows, but they stay buried, shaking in their posts. Derek lets the tape play until all that remains is a steady drip popping out of the receiver before giving way to the empty hum of static.

“What do you think of my proof, Taylor? Convincing enough for you?” Derek blurts, his smile now both annoying and menacing.

“Yeah, it’s convincing. I bet the police would have thought the same thing.”

“The police! The police!” Derek yells before bursting into a prolonged chuckle. “Oh Taylor! Always so serious, so professional! The police had their chance, they had years to do it. Not that it matters anymore. You can’t count on anyone else to give you justice. They always have their own motives. Your father probably would have gotten a plea deal, knowing everything that went down at Green Stag Insurance. He wasn’t the only one doing sketchy things.”

“So that gives you the right to kill him!? This isn’t the Old West, and this isn’t a movie. You can’t do something like that and expect to get away with it.”

Derek smiles wide. “I don’t expect to get away with it. Either you will get your revenge, or I will live on, and be exonerated. That is my reward for survival, my absolution for finding justice. Would you like to see what is waiting for you?” Derek smile antagonistically, waiting for Taylor to respond.

“I’m done with this justice and absolution bullshit, you Heath Ledger knock-off. Time to die, Derek,” Taylor replies coldly, as the first jolts of adrenaline break through the last waves of paint thinner miasma. He advances slowly, gripping the sword tightly with both hands in spite of the pain. His leg begins to pulse again, the first pangs of infection shooting down its side. He pays no mind. The end to all his pain lies just before him, and those white shoes lift forward to meet his challenge.

“That’s the spirit!” he yells as his trot grows to a run. “Now you’re getting it! Action! Resolution! Justice!” Derek’s shrill tone bursts into a shriek as barrels across the room, Taylor lifting his feet to match pace.

Derek swipes downward in rife madness as Taylor dodges, sweeping his foot to the side and coming over the top just as he did in the basement. The blade misses its target and carves into the floor as Derek dodges in a twirl, spinning his feet before launching the tip of his towards Taylor. He jerks to free his blade, but fails, Derek’s strike impending. With rising fear, he grunts the blade out the wood, rising just in time to parry the thrust and send their blades upward. Instinct takes over as he drops his sword to his left hand, copying his movie heroes as he slams his forehead into the bridge of Derek’s nose.

Derek sputters as he retreats, spraying droplets of blood on the wood as air shoots through his freshly broken septum. He wipes his face gingerly and smiles, licking the blood leaking onto his teeth. Charging again, he brings the blade over his head with full force. Taylor twists his sword perpendicular to block, but Derek adjusts his trajectory at the end of his strike. The base of his blade smashes onto the tip of Taylor’s, driving the edge back into Taylor’s shoulder. Taylor grits his teeth as the blade presses, Derek grinning at his pain. In a quick motion he steps to the left, dragging the hilt with him and sliding it down and across Taylor’s arm, crossing over the previous knife-wound.

Taylor pushes him away and grabs his arm, growling at the pain. In adrenaline fueled the rage he barrels towards Derek, sword held like a berserker in flight. Derek sidesteps and parries, Taylor pressing in adamantly. He presses down until their archaic blades are hilt to hilt, and Derek grins in realization. In a quick move, he twists the hilt of his sword and locks it with Taylor’s, wrenching it over until his right hand can barely hold on. With another twist the blade is released, sweeping it down over Taylor’s exposed forearm. His thoughts are all but buried now, washed away in a sea of blood and battle. There is no time for strategy, only action, and reaction.

There is no hesitation as Derek surges forth with confidence, no time to search for second or third moves. All he needs is the first. Derek raises his sword and giggles in mocking, taunting Taylor even as death approaches. With a grunt he swings his arms back and plants his foot squarely in the center of Derek’s chest. A booming wheeze shoots through the air as the oxygen evacuates his lungs, dropping his sword with a clatter as he stumbles backward. Derek feels shock ripple through him for the first time that day, shooting straight out of his eyes. Taylor sees this and finally feels a modicum of satisfaction, followed quickly by a large amount of guilt.


Before Taylor can hope to move or alter it, the mechanism of Derek’s demise has already begun. On the third step of attempting to balance Derek finally topples backward, the wooden support hitting him right between the shoulder blades. In lieu of support, the beam quickly gives way, bringing down the arm so carefully camouflaged in the ceiling. Taylor never even sees it until the plywood plate smashes into his face, leaving the bloody tips of nails leering out from the top of his skull. The eyes are covered but his mouth hangs open, visible, collecting the rapid pooling of blood until it waterfalls onto his clothes, splattering richly on his white shoes.

Taylor stands in shock and mimes Derek’s gaping mouth. Waves of guilt shower over him, a rain nearly as dense as his disbelief. He was ready at the moment, ready to kill him with all the ferocity of a cornered hyena, but nothing could prepare him for the jarring suddenness of that lethal pendulum. The only thing more powerful than the shock is his curiosity, fighting himself even as he rounds the corner to see the exact condition of Derek’s face. The comically long nails penetrated the top of his eye socket, missing his eyes entirely and leaving him with a look of abject horror that makes Taylor feel slightly inadequate. The steady stream of blood pouring out from the entrance wounds and over his dead corneas form a truly abominable vision, but it is the bits of brain and bone glistening on the exiting tips that make Taylor turn away in nausea.

After a few dry heaves, the sympathy and guilt wither away, turning to ash in a forest fire of vindicated rage and hatred. He spins and grabs his sword from the ground with newly earned conviction, gripping the handle with both hands until his knuckles flash white. It is a wild swing, but a true swing, and all-instinct heave that knows its success before it hits its mark. His wrists feel it. His arms feel it. All that is left is for metal to strike flesh, cleaving through with the force of his resolution.

Derek’s body drops like a sack of fish, but his head lingers, suspended, standing in the air like a totem to his failure. Blood pours from the body, but not the head, the growing stream comingling with the puddle forming just below the tip of Taylor’s sword. He stands there, heavy breaths cutting through the dusty silence, until an unexpected sound joins him in the still attic.

Taylor questions his sanity as he struggles not to trip over Derek’s corpse, a slow clap so canned and familiar that it couldn’t possibly be real. His quivering blade turns to the source of the sound, pointing at the man making his impossible emergence from the shadows. He sees the hat first, the wide brim standing clear in the dim light, and a newfound fear grips his knuckles.

“I’ve got to say, boy,” the man says as he steps into the light. “That was quite the flourish.”

He looks slightly different than what Taylor was expecting, less leather and no spurs chiming with his steps. The only cowhide he wears is a vest, almost hiding an eerily modern white shirt that sits above jeans that are far too clean for a ranch hand. He pulls out a crumpled pack of smokes and pops one into his mouth, lighting it with a match that Taylor cannot see. There had to be a match, right?

After taking a prolonged drag and exhaling the cloud up into the light, he takes a step towards Taylor. The blood-soaked man brandishes his sword immediately, baring his teeth like a wolf. The cowboy throws his hands up in innocence, but takes another step. Taylor matches his step and growls, shaking the point at him violently. The cowboy’s face grows stern, and with a wave of his gloved hand the tip of the ancient blade buries itself in the wood at his feet. Taylor steps back and his eyes widen, a line of sweat forming on his brow.

“There’s no need for that, son,” he says calmly. “The party’s over. You won. I’m just here to give you your prize.” Blowing smoke upward and away from Taylor’s face, he strolls over to the unmolested beam, and waves his hand once more. Taylor jumps as tiny wooden hands sprout from the floor, molding and twisting together into privately grown chairs. “Now I know you have questions, so why don’t you take a seat and I’ll see what I can do to answer them.”

The cowboy takes a seat without hesitation, but Taylor prods his before lowering himself onto the hardened weave. “I suppose I’ll start with: Who the fuck are you?” Taylor replies with thinly veiled resentment. The glee in his eyes tells him everything.

The cowboy laughs and takes another drag of his cigarette. “Well, that’s a bit difficult to explain, but we’ll get to that. For now I’ll start with my name. I have many, but you can call me J.B. Litch.”

“Alright J.B. Litch, what exactly are you and how the hell did you do that thing with your hand?” Taylor crosses his arms and sits back, waiting for his answer.

The cowboy finishes his cigarette and tosses it aside, the ember swallowed whole by the shadows. “Well, I’m human, if that’s any consolation, or at least I was. And no, I’m not God, that guy left a long time ago I’m what’s left, and after a long time of being a good-for-nothing asshole, I’ve finally decided to do some good with these abilities of mine.”

Taylor lets out a blithe chuckle, so deadpan you could cut the sarcasm with a rusty spoon. “Okay, why the hell did you get involved in this…thing between me and Derek, and what exactly did you do to set him off? He’s always been a little screwy, sure, but he’s never been so…fanatical.” The creases of rage begin to fade from Taylor’s face, giving way to emerging wrinkles of concern.

“Like I said, I’ve been trying to do some good lately. I spent too much time wasting these gifts and not doing what I’m supposed to do, and this is my way of bringing some justice back into the world. With Derek, he was already gone. People telling you you’re wrong for a long time, when you know you’re right…that will do it to you, son. All I did was tell him he was right, and give him the motivation to finally do something about it. It was a long time coming.”

Taylor scoffs and shakes his head. “So that’s your idea of doing good, give a psycho a knife and let him loose? What exactly gave you the impression that indulging a crazy person’s fantasies was a good idea?”

Litch leans forward brashly, upper lip curling in an Elvis snarl. “Watch your mouth, Taylor. You heard the tape, same as I did. We both know his theories weren’t a fantasy, and him believing them didn’t make him crazy.”

Taylor leans to match him, clenching his fists. “Yeah, but his methods did, and so do yours. You can’t just go around and kill people, even if they deserve it. We have a judicial system in place for a reason, ever think of that?” Taylor’s hands linger before him, pleading for an answer from the stone-faced cowboy.

“Taylor, the judicial system never did me or Derek any favors, and that wasn’t about to change. The cops and the judges had years to do something about this, but they hardly lifted a finger. There comes a time in every man’s life when he must take his justice, and his fate, into his own hands. Otherwise the bad guys just keep on winning. Seen it too many times, in too many ways.”
Taylor throws his hands in the air, flabbergasted. “So what, I’m the bad guy now? That fucking maniac gutted my dad!” His teeth grit noisily, cheeks on the verge of cramping.

Litch lets out a coy smile. “That’s why you’re here, you idiot. Your dad, the house, Derek, none of it was meant to be a punishment, for you. Derek just wanted to kill your dad and be done with it, but I knew it was far more complicated than that. Your dad certainly deserved to die, but that doesn’t mean you deserved to lose a father. For Derek to find his justice, you would need to find yours as well.” The smile stays plastered to the corner of his mouth, giving him an air of sarcastic stoicism.

“Okay, I suppose that makes sense,” he replies shakily. So why not just take us out onto a field and skip to the sword fight? You know, settle it Highlander style? There can only be one?”

“Never saw that flick kid, wasn’t big on the fantasy stuff. Derek was, that’s why he made me get the swords. I let Derek do it his way because a straight-up battle wouldn’t have been fair to him. Not that the kid couldn’t fight, you saw that, but the circumstances wouldn’t have been close to equal. Sure you lost your dad, but so did he, and he had to deal with people calling him crazy for years when you know he was speaking the truth. Not to mention, your dad deserved to die, and his didn’t. To put you on equal footing, you had to suffer, and we didn’t have much time to do it. As you saw, we really had to pack it in.” He waves his hands in a circle, loosely eyeing Derek’s limp body.

Taylor puts his raw, red hands in front of his face. “Yeah, no kidding,” he replies, twirling them so that the cowboy can see both disgusting sides. The majority had dulled down to a rich crimson, tight skin stark white across the tendons, given them an almost skeletal appearance. Taylor admires the distinct look, before turning his gaze back to the source of his pain.

“Yeah, I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but you can blame your dad for that. He had every opportunity to turn himself in, to make it nice and simple. Instead, he kept it complicated, for all of us,” he says, slouching back into his chair before pulling his smokes out of his vest pocket.

Taylor looks down, avoiding the obvious. He didn’t want to blame his father, but it was becoming difficult. “Can I get one of those?” Taylor beckons.

Litch looks back at him quizzically. “You sure you want to start now, kid?” he asks as he pops a cigarette into his mouth.

Taylor wants to ask him how we knows he doesn’t smoke, but that will only lead to more questions. “I don’t know about starting, but if there’s a better time to smoke a cigarette, please, let me know,” he replies, before the white cylinder floats across air and plants itself between his lips. He motions for a light, but before he can raise his hand the tip erupts into flame. Taylor flinches before inhaling, the smoke tickling his throat before growing into irritation. He coughs slightly, eliciting a chuckle from Litch.

“So you helped him build all this, right?” Taylor asks as he hits his cigarette again.

“Yeah, I helped with some of it,” he replies. “The place was already in shambles, but most of the practical traps he built and designed himself. Other parts I had to deal with personally. The pit downstairs was all me, I tore up the concrete and conjured the bodies. I’m sure you noticed the lye…”

“That it wasn’t there when I fell in?” Taylor blurts. “Yeah, I noticed. I also noticed how you stopped me from painting the concrete with Derek’s brains. What was up with that?” Taylor crosses his left leg over his right, eyeing Litch eagerly as he puffs the harsh cigarette.

Litch’s face twists in mild frustration. “I told you, son. We had to get you on equal footing, and at that point, all you had was a few scratches. It was stupid of Derek to go down there, but I couldn’t let you win that early.”

Taylor spits in anger, the saliva landing next to Litch’s boot. “That’s horse shit,” Taylor replies coldly. “You come in here talking a big game about fairness and justice, but when I beat him straight up, you come and bail him out. If this game of yours was truly fair, I should’ve been able to win at any point. You don’t get to extend the game just because you’re unhappy with the result.” Taylor’s eyes accuse him, the ash end of the cigarette tilting with the growing weight.

Litch grins nervously. “You’ve got a point there, son. But like I said, I had to get you on equal footing, and that was the only way I knew how.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Taylor blurts in frustration. “Does the paint demon downstairs count as equal footing?”

“Oh, that guy? I brought him here at Derek’s request. He asked for something scary, so I gave it to him.”

“Scary!?” Taylor screams as he lifts from his chair. “That son of a bitch tried to crawl my dickhole!”

Litch throws his hands up passively. “He’s liquid, man! What do you expect? He likes to fit into places.”

“Well, he can fit his ass right back down to hell!”

“Oh, he will be,” Litch says as he flicks a cigarette into the shadows. “Just as soon as I burn this eyesore to the ground.”

“You’re going to burn it?” Taylor asks. “Not that I care. Good riddance.”

“I like to keep a low profile, minimal evidence. Much simpler that way,” he replies as Taylor tosses his cigarette. “So, any more questions? I think we’ve got the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ out of the way.”

“No, I think I understand now,” Taylor says, his demeanor edging upon a sinister calm. “You’ve got the power to change everything, but you’re just as dumb as the rest of us.”

The cowboy lifts his hat and pushes his hair back nervously. “Yeah, I’ve been trying to work on that, kid.”

“Oh, yeah?” Taylor squeaks, his twisted smile and strained eyebrows reminiscent of the recently deceased Derek Roth. “Well, work on it somewhere else, asshole. I’m not your fucking Guinea pig.” Taylor marches forward, barging through the astounded figure of Litch on his way to the stairs.

“Now wait just a minute,” Litch yells, still slightly flabbergasted. “Don’t you want your prize?”

Taylor continues until he reaches the top of the steps, before turning around slowly and deliberately. “I didn’t think this was a contest.”

Litch straightens up, squaring his body to Taylor’s. “It wasn’t at first. But I figure with all you’ve been through, I suppose I can provide a small favor or two. I grant wishes, per se.”

Taylor turns to match him, his feet beginning a slow advance. “I’m guessing I can’t bring my dad back.”

Litch smiles. “Nope, can’t do that. We both know that has to stay the way it is.”

Taylor frowns. “Is there a limit?”

“That depends on the size of the request, son.”

Taylor a few feet from Litch, looking up at him. “I guess I’ll keep it small then. I’ve got some cuts on my legs, and I think they’re getting infected. Can you help me out?”

Litch waves his hand before Taylor can even finish his sentence, and the growing ache in his legs begins to recede. He rubs the wounded area in disbelief, not even a welt to confirm their existence. “Alright,” he says hesitantly. “What about my hands? Can you heal them without taking away the color? I kind of like the way they look.”

“Way ahead of you, bud,” he says as he twirls his fingers playfully. In an instant Taylor’s hands filled with warmth and pain, the patchy, burnt flesh filling into an even red. His fingers curl in agony, but the pain abates quickly, leaving him to flex his newly healed digits in disbelief. “Anything else?”

Taylor goes quiet as he inspects his hands, before bringing them to his side and staring down at the floor. Litch cannot see his eyes, and that concerns him. For a moment the figure before him becomes so still that he wonders if he could have descended into some kind of delayed shock. He opens his mouth to question, until the corner of Taylor’s mouth curls into a devious grin.

“I’ve got one more request.”

Litch hesitates to answer, but knows he must. “What you got in mind?”

Taylor begins to approach methodically, each step deliberate and aggressive. Litch takes a step back when he sees the look on his face, like the ghost of Derek Roth shining out from his pupils and chipped teeth. He advances until their bodies are nearly touching, close enough to smell the tobacco and pit barbecue on Litch’s breath.

“I have one last thing to ask of you, then I never want to see you again.” Taylor’s cold eyes pierce into Litch’s sallow face, like he can see the tattered remains of whatever soul he has left.

“Fair enough.”

Taylor closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, before returning his icy gaze to Litch. “I want you to take your justice, your absolution, your resolution, Derek’s body, my dad’s body, your whole philosophy, and every other piece of bullshit tou’ve forced into my life, and I want you to gather them together, nice and tight.” Taylor’ face grows hotter with every word he hammers into Litch, the heat of the tirade forcing a band of sweat onto Litch’s brow.

“Then I want you to take that big ball of shit that you thought I needed, and go fuck yourself, you egotistical, self righteous, pseudo-sacrosanct piece of shit. Now go fuck with someone else’s life. I’m done.”

Litch’s mouth hangs open as Taylor barges past him and down the stairs, making his way down and out of the house far faster than he entered. Litch waits until he exits to raise his jaw, producing a cigarette and lighting it to fill the void.

“Well, that didn’t go as expected,” he says to himself as he exhales. “It went so much better with the girl, and those two kids on the river, I definitely helped them. This one…I’m not so sure.”
He lifts his hat to scratch his head, before beginning a slow pace. “I need to stop dealing with this small shit, it’s too complex, too personal. Most of the time someone gets hurt, and they rarely deserve it. I should set my sights higher, do something bigger. Wait, no…”

He brings his hand to its chin, rubbing it deliberately with the sudden look of revelation. “No…not bigger. Biggest. I’ve been putting this off for too long. Besides, I’m the only one that knows, or maybe just the only one that cares. I’ll need help…but I think I know where to start.”

His hand drops from his chin before taking a final drag of his cigarette, flicking the remains out into the shadows. The ember remains, and with a flick of his hand it ignites into a blaze, growing quickly on the old, supple wood. Litch takes one last look at the attic before turning to the corner of the room, disappearing into the blackness as the thick smokes fills the room. The eager flames get their first licks on the lingering remains of Derek Roth, the flesh charring before sizzling to liquid. The fire takes his body before moving towards his head, the rising gasses melting the skin. His lips sink while his cheeks lift, twisting his face into one final smile.

Credit: Richard Welch

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