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Chapter 20: I am a Coward

I don’t remember standing up, or bolting, or tripping on the broken sidewalk in front of my house. There are telltale signs that it all happened, though – the putrid, muddy knee of my jeans is split open from the fall, and I have a road rash on my chin, just like I had all summer long as a kid.  

The last thing I remember seems to have happened ten seconds ago, but I know it was much longer than that – hours ago, probably, that I twisted and shoved in the trick back door to the old Voodoo corner store just down the block. The place was empty, and when I came out of my panic-induced daze – my mind barely more composed than it had been – I found myself hunkered in a corner of the storage room, about where that Haitian banana altar used to sit. Only now it’s a room full of boxes, with a small wooden desk that I crashed into in my haste to hide myself.

I don’t know why I came here, or what the hell this place is now, but my guts are rolling and I can barely fill my lungs, even though I’m still heaving like I just ran a mile.

Why did I come back home? Why couldn’t I just accept the fact that my life in Louisiana was over the day I left for college, and that my father’s soul died the day I was born? Why did I have to see him? Why did I have to look into his cold, grief-deadened eyes and see the manifestation of the pain and agony that my life forced him to suffer?

That image of his body on the table, bloated and yellow, covered in maggots and staring at my face sends a ripple of nausea through me, and I barely make it to a trash can before I heave up the last undigested bits of the shadow.

My skin is crawling, and if given the opportunity I’d bury myself within the bowels of hell. The best I manage is to rip out the metal chair and scramble underneath the desk to hide within this little black box, within a darkened building, shrouded in night, in the hot, pestilent depths of a swampland. Only the most tenacious of monsters could find me here, and yet those gruesome images chase after me, eager to remind me of what horror I’d caused.

The splatter across the shed wall flickers in my head, but the image is overtaken with the pool of blood that had spread from his mouth until it poured over the edge of the table to crust in a black, cracking pool under his boat.

It happened days ago. He’d eaten that bullet before I’d even made my reckless decision to come home. His body was rotting and splitting open in this southern heat while I cannibalized a shadow and perversely consecrated its death in the back of a blood-filled truck. What is happening to me? When did I willingly enter this living, breathing nightmare? And now that I’m in it, how do I escape?

The handle to the back door clicks faintly, and there’s a clawing at the lock. Something’s coming. Something found me in my hot, rancid cage and it’s coming for me.

The door rushes open, scraping against the ground as it swings, and I bury my face between my knees. Why is it tormenting me? It’s cursing me, and force-feeding me its vile depravity. Why won’t it leave me alone to suffer in peace?

The footsteps enter the pitch dark room and I clutch my sweaty hands to my mouth. My inner voice begs and whimpers inside my head; but the beast is going to hear it if I don’t shut it up. How do I kill it? How do I muffle my own racing thoughts? It’s getting closer and I have to keep it from hearing me – please stop – please stay quiet – please.

I don’t know what else to do, so I hold my breath and I pray.

Dear God, give me the strength to get through this. Give me the strength I need to keep going, or the will to end it all. I need that gun; I need my gun. Please make it all stop. You can stop this, God. Make it go away. Get it away from me. Dear God, please – please please help me end this. Give me my gun, God. Put a bullet in it. Give me one bullet – just one, God – one. Take it all away from me, and let me go – let me go. Let me see my mother, God. Let me see her once. Give me that, please – please. I’ll do anything to see her. Tell me what to do, God, just make it stop. Please make it stop. Please, God, please … in Jesus’ name, God … in Jesus’ name, amen.

The footsteps stop two feet from me, and I can hear the grinding pop of his knee when he crouches next to the desk. I grit my teeth as the trash can scratches across the floor, and I know he’s peering inside. I wasted my breakfast because I can’t control myself. I wasted the flesh of my own shadow.

He says nothing, but his eyes expose me, piercing the darkness to ignite my face. I won’t look. I can’t look at him. I can’t see those red wells be excited by this death and destruction. I can’t watch them grow, and scoff, and laugh at the sight of my cowering face.

My head is engulfed in the flames of his stare, but my lungs feel filled with icy water that aches and burns in my chest. Then that thick, hot, mumbling blanket wicks the water from my chest, dries my back, and dampens that fire as he speaks.

“Even a strong man will run when dealt enough pain,” he says, and I finally inhale with a gulping stutter. “You’re not dead yet, Hop, so I suggest you keep breathing.”

I want to tell him that I don’t want to breathe. I don’t want to be alive any more than I want to be in the black, foggy prison inside my head. I’m tired of running, failing, and being beaten to a bloody pulp, only to find my footing and then be floored again.

“I need my gun,” I mumble. If there was ever a time for God to listen – to be merciful amidst his wrath – maybe it’s now; maybe the chamber’s full, and maybe I’m more like my dad than I thought.

“Give a man a gun, and nature tends to expose his greatest weakness; you don’t need a gun.”

“I’m not a man if I’m a coward. You can’t be both at the same time.”

“Then pick one,” he growls.

I don’t answer him, because I have no answer. I don’t know how to be anything but a coward. I’m not a fighter, so I have to run instead.

My silence forces him to give up on me, and he sits on the floor, leaning back on the drawers of the desk.

The air is suddenly cold as my clothes dampen with sweat. I’m being lowered into the ground, my arms dripping with my own aspirations and tears, and I’m shaking in the darkness when he finally asks, “Do you know why cowards make the best torturers?”

I silently shake my head, despite remaining unseen in my now freezing abyss. He’s staring off into oblivion like he’s addressing a room full of ghosts.

“Their minds overflow with the most excruciating agony that could befall their fellow man. They live in constant fear that their nightmares will become their fate. Their limitless imagination is their prison.” He exhales an exasperated huff, and I wonder what’s prompting all this, when he continues, “They know what fear feels like, what it smells like, what it tastes like. A leader of men doesn’t know these things, but a coward does, and that’s what makes him the most dangerous blight to humanity.”

I am a blight. I wreak havoc and cause pain wherever I wander. I know this already. “Why are you saying all this shit?” I breathe.

“You are your worst enemy, Hopper – not me, and not your father. You’re not only living in a nightmare of your own making, but you torment yourself because of it. You’re a torturer, and you’ve made yourself your most cherished victim.”

“Stop psychoanalyzing me,” I snap. The last thing I need is this monster putting his own damn spin on my worthless life.

“Why? I’ve witnessed what cowards are capable of doing to other men. They are kings of flawed justification. You, however, are capable of far more than them, because you don’t have to be a coward. You have a very rare gift, friend – choice. It’s a shame that you’ve chosen to waste that gift hiding under a damn desk.”

“I don’t have a gift; I have a goddamn curse.”

“Every gift you neglect becomes a curse. It’s time you stopped neglecting it and started cultivating it. What exactly are you running from?”

I don’t even know anymore – my guilt-stricken inner monologue, the bloated corpse of my father, my responsibilities as an ethical human being. Each answer is more pathetic than the last. My existence alone is a scourge on humanity – Butcher even thinks that. Everything I touch turns to ash. Those I try to love, flee, and those I try to help, attack. I’m running from the only thing I can’t escape – my own goddamn self. I can’t continue living, being accosted by my own thoughts and the society I feel compelled to protect. Whenever life points out the mistake it made when I was created, I have to run. “Running is just what I do,” I say.

“How’s that working out for you?”

“Poorly,” I confess.

“At least you’re willing to admit that.” I can hear him stand and retreat into the darkness. “Why a hardware store?”

Is that what this place is? “It was a market. I used to hide here … as a kid.”

“A familiar suffering ground. Maybe you aren’t as unpredictable as I thought.” He bends down and paws the air under the desk until he taps my shoulder. “Are you a man, or a coward?” he asks again. “Your choice, of course. But I’d like to show you something before your mind devours itself.”

His hand is still grazing my shoulder, tempting me out of my self-inflicted pity hole. I’ve been drained of my ability to make rational decisions, so I take his hand and let him decide for me.

I duck out from under the desk, and he leads me through the darkness, tugging my shirt as he walks. He opens the door of the storage room, and we enter the old market. It is a hardware store now, and I feel a little gutted at the sight of it. There are no more magazine racks or baskets filled with sub-tropical vegetables, no mystery roots or incense. It’s just a cold, colorless hardware store.

A street lamp shines its dim light through the large front window, casting long shadows cut by shovel and rake handles. It barely illuminates the locks, wire cages, nuts and bolts, and plumbing fixtures lined up in rows and on hooks across every surface of the store. The bunches of drying plants and wooden masks are gone, replaced by a large banner along the ceiling advertising Impervo enamel paints and their extensive color palette, though every sample is a shade of gray in the darkness.

The only item in the whole place that remains from twenty years ago is a metal sign now hanging over the cash register. It’s still old and just as rusted, and professes the longevity of Keen Kutter knife blades: the recollection of quality remains long after the price is forgotten.

Butcher drops my sleeve and picks up a bottle of distilled white vinegar from a low shelf, rolling it in his hand to inspect the label. “A common solvent, and useful in the kitchen, but I’d rather see it strip a floor than used with food. Your torturer holds it. What does he do with it?”

What does he do with it? I don’t understand. Who’s he?

I’m standing in the middle of chaos, retreating into myself to escape reality, and Butcher wants to play word games?

I scoff and step away. His casual demeanor after the discovery of my father feels like an assault and I debate running again.

“Humor me,” he says, still reading the bottle. ”What does he do with it?”

I clear my throat and push up my glasses with my tingling fingers. I don’t know – I don’t know what he wants me to say. “Common acetic acid, as vinegar like that, isn’t really harmful,” I say, and he cocks his head in apparent disagreement, so I continue, “But it can be irritating to sensitive tissue, I guess – eyes, nose, mouth. Really any exposed skin. If I was being tortured, I’d imagine being submerged in it for a long time would be painful. My skin would be slowly eaten off.” I take a tentative step towards him and squint, scrutinizing the barely visible label on the bottle. “That’s pretty diluted though,” I whisper. “It would take a while.”

“He would need a lot more than the five or six bottles here to fill a tub, and I don’t see a tub, do you?”

Am I wrong? Do I change my answer? Am I losing Butcher’s game? “The smell is intense,” I say, trying again. I scan the glinting hooks and saws lining the wall, cataloging my options in case this conversation goes any further south.

“An intense smell is not terrifying.”

“No. But the unknown is terrifying. Death is terrifying. You can’t die from vinegar ... unless you swallow too much.”

“No one said death. I said torture.”

I grit my teeth as I think, and slowly meander away to inspect the area by the counter. The ice chest is gone. It’s now a display of plaster and wall putty.

He’s watching me pace the aisle as I try to solve his morbid little puzzle while reimagining this store as my memory will allow. It feels like a different world. This certainly isn’t my reprieve anymore. “Why am I being tortured? Information? Punishment?”

“For the pleasure of the torturer.” He's palming the bottle again.

Well, that changes my answer then. “During the trials of the Spanish Inquisition,” I begin, “they used a method of torture called toca … tortura del agua.” Medieval literature was especially interesting to my young, perverse students, so I made sure to cover it during the year. It fascinated, though disturbed, me as well. “My torturer – as you called him – could wrap a rag around my mouth, push my head back, and dump water over my face. It creates a sensation of drowning, and that is quite terrifying,” I say. “He could up the ante with vinegar and intensify it. In fact, he could alternate vinegar with water, or randomize the dumps. I’ll know the sensation of drowning is coming, but not whether it will burn my eyes and nose. I’d also be much less willing to swallow something so acidic. Hypothetically, if my last dousing was vinegar, I may even open my eyes, hoping water will wash it away. If it’s more vinegar, it’s more painful and does more damage. It will eat away my sinuses and slowly blind me.”

“Not a pleasant experience for you at all,” he says, reshelving the bottle.

“But vinegar is a meat tenderizer, too,” I say, “Would be perfect if the torturer was planning to eat my face.” He doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t even crack a smile. I don’t know what game we’re playing, but it is serious business for both the bulls pacing this shop. He turns his back to me and wanders to a low shelf in the next isle, and holds up a paper sleeve of light bulbs to prompt me again.

“In a fixture,” I say, “He could tape my hands to two bulbs and turn them on. It would be hard to crush them from that angle, and even if I managed to escape the heat, I’d be electrocuted. Eventually my nerves will deaden as I burn, but – on, off, on, off – I could go a long time with my skin slowly cooking. Of course, my left hand feels nothing already.” I hold up my hand as I look at him, but he’s still scanning the shelves while I talk, so I drop it back to my side. “Or he could be really sadistic and shove it up my ass. A boot to my tailbone, and pop! No more fun for anyone.”

He peers up at me and clicks his tongue in time with the ticking that I swear to God I hear every time he thinks. What is this game?

His hand suddenly appears, palm up and filled with a handful of what looks like long Philips-head screws. “Forced ingestion?” he wonders.

“No. Scatter them and make me kneel,” I say, and I reach over the shelf and pluck a screw from his hand. “But really, these are too long. They’ll hurt, but shorter screws with flat heads and a sharper tip would be more painful. They’ll upend if I move and shred the skin off my knees.”

“Do you think about this a lot?”

“I think about it all the time. Have you ever knelt on screws?”

“Can’t say I have.”

I drop the screw back in his hand and peek around the shelf at a small display of Makita power tools. “At the boatyard, my old man refused to keep anything clean. There was shit strewn all over the damn place. I’d be trying to help him, but he’d be yelling at me to hold the light steady while he worked, so I’d just grin and bear it. A few minutes balanced on screws will teach you a lesson about paying attention to where you kneel.”

“I imagine it would,” he says, and nods to a row of white boxes. “Lye.”

“That’s too obvious,” I say, and I move on, “Have you ever thought about scalping someone? I mean, how easy it would be?”

“Who hasn’t thought of that?” he snickers.

I point to the tool display. “A power drill – wave it over a person’s head like a magic wand and pull the trigger. You have to hold it steady, but it’ll grab hair and rip out chunks of flesh. For the whole scalp, you’d need something like a drill press – more power and speed. I watched a boy lose a quarter of his scalp to a drill press in shop class once. It was bloody as hell; but I’ve never been a fan of men with long hair.”

A smile finally cracks across his face. I don’t know why I’m sharing this. I don’t know what he’s trying to prove, or get out of me. I feel disjointed, detached from my overwhelming reality. These morbid thoughts have been filling my mind since before I can remember. Every news story on the radio, every warning given by a teacher, every instance of someone around me getting hurt, left me with this visceral reenactment of their pain in my head. I’d lived my life imagining myself being attacked at knife point by kids older than me, or kidnapped and murdered like those two toddlers from my street, or drowning in a storm surge like the poor bastards caught in Audrey while I was safe and dry in my summer apartment in Silver Spring. It feels almost cathartic to finally hear these scenarios bouncing around outside of my skull, and not just when I scream them when I’m alone. Another human being is actually listening to me, without judgment or assuming I’m crazy. Now, what he does with this information has yet to be determined.

While I’m reflecting on this unnerving feeling of relief, Butcher ducks behind the register and grabs a paper bag. He wanders back through the store, dropping vinegar, light bulbs, and a brand new power drill into the bag. When he gets to the screws, he stops and looks up at me as his hand passes over the bins until it’s hovering over the shorter lengths. I nod, and he dumps in two handfuls of half-inch flat head screws.

He hands it all to me and asks, “Anything else?”

I point to the boxes of lye. “Handy to have,” I say, and he grabs one and tosses it to me. He heads back toward the storage room, and I follow. As we pass the register, he leaves thirty dollars on the counter.

“You’re not a thief,” I note.

“One of my many redeeming qualities,” he says with a grin, “What do you want to do now, Hopper?”

I think I want to be a coward for another eight hours. “I need to sleep.”

“Sleep it is,” he says, and we head through the storage room, out the trick door, and back to the shrouded earth, escaping whatever future nightmare we’d just been exploring.

Notes:

My chapter 20 notes.