from "Mercy Following" by Gabriel Malloy


FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JULY 2009 ISSUE!

The edge of the bar pressed up hard against his elbows, and the glass was cool and slick and simple under Immer’s fingers – right and easy. Real. That was good, because he still felt skewed, like he’d gone sideways through some cheap funhouse ride. Upstairs, with that kid, earlier – that’d been fucked. Worse than usual.

It had stopped surprising him that people looking for the Bad found him; if they wanted it, it was there, running through him like dirty blood. When he took off his clothes he could almost see it moving under his skin; when he lay down, it lay down with him. When he drove, it talked to him between the cowboy songs on the radio, working its way through the sound of the engine and the commercials for beer and banks and auto-parts. It felt like blowback and it smelled of raw dirt and smoke.

Some nights it woke up hungry and stretching itself; it made him want to twist and beg, so it made some kind of sense that other people could feel it, too – even that they’d want some of it. Immer knew he wasn’t the only one with something sorry riding him – they all found each other, sooner or later.

“You think you know why you’re here – what you want?”

“Yeah.”

“Something so bad it’s going burn out what’s bad in you, right?”

A nod.

What does it look like? What are you seeing? Some mean badass fantasy with black hair and hunter’s eyes – some comic-book reaper come for you? Sure.

“I’ll do that for you…but first you’re going to do what I want, you know?”

When he shared it out, it lost a little of its hold on him, got quieter – it might even leave him alone for a few days – but not tonight. All it took was the deepening shadows and the blue neon sign outside the window of his room that bleached the kid’s hair to cold-blond, squared his jaw, emptied his eyesockets… and Parker was there. Not bidden, just there. Part of it. Because that’s what happened when you gave in.

It’d be harder to take but he’d been raised to it; brought up where the ground never acted like it should and the creeks looked like roads that disappeared while you watched, twisting themselves into black trees or fading out to sky. Water today where there was earth yesterday, and things pushing against the skin of the soft, wet air; things you could see- or almost see – if you looked right. If you knew how, whether you wanted to or not; if you’d been born for it and taught.

He remembered being sprawled across his grandfather’s chest in the porch hammock, sticky black hair falling in his face, skinny little arms and legs spidering out, breathing the old man’s smell of machine oil and bourbon and smoke, his fingers catching in the steel chain necklace with the captured saints dangling from it. Something big had flown overhead; he saw its shadow pass and heard its wings, the rattle of leaves in the live oaks as it landed somewhere nearby.

“What kinda bird was that, Papère?”

“How you know it was a bird, chèr?”

“Course it was a bird; what else would be flying in daylight? Come on.”

“Well, things aren’t always what you think they are, you know that.”

“Aw man. You sound like Mamère when I told her about the snake under the chicken coop.”

The old man’d laughed, patting Immer’s back with a shovel-sized hand and making the hammock rock like a Port Fourchon fishing-boat.

“Yeah? What she tell you he was?”

“I’m not supposed to say it. Mamère told me not to tell, and Dad don’t even like me thinking about that stuff.” He’d squirmed a little, sighed.

“Aw, it’s all right, chèr. I just wanted to know who all is under my henhouse so I can call him by name if I see him, give him good day or good night. And that Ti-Roy Joe? He may be mine, but he a’n’t so smart as he think he is.”

It’d always made him feel bigger and better, hearing that his dad wasn’t actually the Almighty. “OK, then. I guess…if you just wanna say hey to him or something…” he’d wiggled a little higher, bringing his mouth close up to the old man’s ear. It was only two words to say, anyhow – easily whispered.

“Well, now…I’ll remember that – seems I may have heard that name before, too. He’s an old one, chèr, an old friend. Strong and old. You just watch your step around that one, and you be all right.”

Like that. No amount of Vacation Bible School was going to fix that shit – even taking him away from the sweet green dark into the hard yellow dust hadn’t beat down what was in him. Roy Joe and big daddy God just had to suck that one up and swallow hard, though they’d given him a name for it. Bad. Just one word – easily whispered.

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