HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
The Hot Orange Glow
William Simpson, Jr., barely sixteen and yet to kiss a girl, had recently begun shaving what would in a couple years become a moustache. He stood about 5’4″(on tiptoes), weighed maybe 125 pounds soaking wet. For reasons left ambiguous, his mother had sentenced him to wash the dishes while she watched TV with the baby brother and his two younger sisters, who sprawled mockingly on the sofa in the adjacent den. This proved too much for Will’s emerging teenage machismo to bear without protest, and so he grumbled audibly as he complied with his mother’s orders.
Major Simpson loomed behind him, from the netherworld of his bedroom beside the kitchen.
The air charged.
“What’s your damn problem?!” he barked.
The karma of the house rearranged chaotically. Hearts constricted.
“I don’t have a problem,” Will told him, but he didn’t say it right, and so his words were punctuated by the crack of the father’s open hand against his face.
The boy glared back defiantly. Fuck you! his face said, and Major Simpson, six-one (barefoot), two-hundred pounds in his skivvies, then struck his son so hard the boy nearly fell over the railing that divided the kitchen from the den.
“Stop!” the mother screamed.
She bolted from her seat, her hands fluttering in the air like shot birds falling from the sky, up the two steps into the kitchen, straight into the Major’s closed fist, then back down the steps onto the living room floor like a floppy doll.
She held a trembling hand to her bleeding face as she rose falteringly to her knees. Her tears mixed with her blood on the white linoleum floor. The terrified sisters clutched their sobbing baby brother between them.
William Simpson, Sr., Major, United States Air Force, screamed at his son: “You think you can take me?”
“No, s-sir,” the boy stammered.
The major glared menacingly about, making a contemptuous sound through his clinched teeth – harsh, snakelike – then he vanished back into his cave.
Foregoing the slightest acknowledgement, Will immediately walked up the carpeted stairs to his room and cautiously closed the door. There he waited a minute, listening, then very, very softly pressed the door lock and turned off the light. He slipped into bed still clothed and cried silently off-and-on, watching the moon, silvery-cold and alone in the heavens, rise through the tree branches into the open night sky.
The following sunny morning, tulips bloomed like red and gold candles burning around the flagpole on the freshly-cut lawn at the front of the high school. Will slipped out from the hallway onto the smoking porch between classes and lit a cigarette he’d swiped from his mother’s purse. Three pigeons pecked at spilled corn chips on the steps. A single cumulus cloud drifted high in the blue sky like a lonely, ghostly ship. He rubbed his tongue gingerly along the laceration inside his lower lip while focusing on the bullied boy, James Lemming, smoking by himself at the end of the porch by the steps. James walked the high school’s halls alone if he could, head down and shoulders slumped, a gangly kid who wore the same clothes to school he’d worn the year before. He hung out at the smoking porch between classes until the bell rang, to avoid the crowd, because every day he was tripped, cursed, mocked and taunted. If he wore a cap, odds were someone would knock it off, step on it, maybe defile it with chewing gum or spit. Demeaning, obscene notes sometimes were taped to his back. On the Friday before prom, someone stole his ratty underwear from his locker during P.E. class and paraded it through the halls on the end of a stick.
Will looked away, licked his cut lip and winced; looked back.
“What’s your fuckin’ problem?” he hollered.
James Lemming lowered his head, stared at his big scruffy shoes.
“I’m talking to you, Lemming! What’s your fuckin’ problem?”
“I don’t have no problem,” James answered, shifting his eyes downward, the words barely audible.
“Yeah?” Will shouted, flicking his cigarette James’ way like a weapon as he approached. “Well I think you’re a lying piece of shit,” he said, just before punching James Lemming in the face.
The pigeons flew to the rooftop.
A crowd gathered, formed a circle.
Again: “What’s your problem?!”
The circle tightened.
“Jack his ass up, Simpson!” someone shouted.
Will feigned another punch. James flinched hard and lost his balance, nearly falling down the steps, drawing hoots from the crowd.
The bell rang. The crowd cleared like smoke into an exhaust. Will turned away, grabbed his books. As he opened the door, he glanced back to see James Lemming standing alone in the sharp mid-morning light, two lines of bright-crimson blood streaming from his nostrils down over his pursed lips then mixing with tears on his quivering chin, before dripping onto the concrete.
The fifteen drops of blood James Lemming bled there that morning dried black as dirty engine oil. Will knew this because he had counted the drops over and over. He had walked out on the smoking porch between Spanish and geometry classes every day for the remaining three weeks of the school year, waiting for James Lemming to show. Will intended to apologise. He had orchestrated the ceremony repeatedly in his mind. They would smoke together – the smokes on him – exchange apocryphal stories of romantic conquest and subversive teenage adventures, form a type of ironic friendship that might facilitate their healing.
But James never came back. On the last day of school, Will carried with him a toothbrush and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and walked out on the smoking porch first thing and got down on his knees and began scrubbing the blood stains. The assistant principal and ex-wrestling coach, Coach Carpenter, A.K.A. the Grim Reaper, the stern administrative enforcer who had beaten Will’s ass with a wooden paddle a dozen times over the previous two years for fighting or skipping class, stuck his head out the door.
“What shit are you doin’ now, Simpson?”
Will Simpson, Jr., son of a war hero, scrubbed away furiously.
“Just cleaning up the blood, Coach.”
“Really? And whose blood are you cleanin’?”
“That’s a good question there,” Will replied without looking up. “Maybe it’s the blood of the world, Coach.”
“What the fuck are you talkin’ about, Simpson?” The words spewed caustically from a cramped face. “I oughtta bust your ass right now as a parting gift!”
“Just think if tears stained. You ever think about that, Coach?”
The Grim Reaper stared at him incredulously.
“I mean, we’d all be scrubbing for the rest of our goddamn lives; you know what I mean?”
Dumbstruck, the Grim Reaper’s mouth opened as if to speak, but for once words escaped him. Three times he tried. His mouth opened…and froze. The best he could manage was a hard “Uh.” Finally, he just conceded, departing with a sour-faced shake of the head and a raised middle finger for old times’ sake.
Five years passed like flotsam adrift in the sea, the moments disconnected, aimless. Will dropped out of college after his third semester to work construction. He floated in circles from job to job, from depression to drinking to drugs, from jails to psych’ wards: a wobbly orbit around a bleeding world. Day after day after day he floated, unable to summon the redemptive dream.
Both hands would be needed to count the number of times he’d been locked up for misdemeanor transgressions like assault, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and such. This tenth trip, however, was for possession of an 8-ball of coke with intent to distribute, a felony. This time he had crossed the crooked line.
Two guards escorted him up the elevator to a 4–man cell block, where two inmates played cards at a table. A third stood inside his cell, peering out the window in the door.
The door lock made a sharp metallic clack as it was electronically released. Will took a deep breath before entering.
“Whaz-up, homies,” Will said to the men playing cards.
“’s all you, cous’,” one of the players replied.
The inmate in his cell signalled the guards to let him out. Another cold, hard clack. A shirtless man stepped out, smiling, in his orange jumpsuit rolled down at the waist. Will turned and greeted him.
“Yo, bro, whaz-up?”
But the man didn’t say a word, just stood smiling, and Will suddenly recognised him: it was James Lemming! A cloud parted; a sunbeam touched the pale leaf. Will felt a surge of optimism. Fate had brought them together at last. In his darkest hour, he’d stumbled into forgiveness and friendship. A guardian angel had led him to redemption.
James Lemming took a quick step towards Will, the smile electric.
“Brother!” Will exclaimed, moving eagerly towards the embrace. “I’ve been lookin’ for you for five years!”
At the last moment Will saw the ace of spades tattoo over James’ heart, and he realised that James’ smile was clearly not forgiving, but rather maniacal – a killer’s smile – but that awareness couldn’t save him, because it came simultaneously with the sweep of a hand, an arcing blur, and a lightning-hot pain at his throat. Will instantly dropped to his knees, gripping the gushing wound with both hands, aware he was dying as he fell.
“What’s your fuckin’ problem?! What’s your fuckin’ problem… What’s your fuckin’ problem…”
The voice retreated as it repeated six or seven times, until it was muted behind a distant veil, barely audible as a toothbrush with a razor blade melted into the end bounced on the concrete floor into the swelling bright-red pool of blood, the room vignetting like a dark noose tightening to black, and the only reason Will’s tears didn’t mix with his blood was because he died before he could cry.
The phone jolts him upright at 2 A.M.
“I see,” he replies. “Very well.”
An hour later he sits in uniform on the side of his bed, sipping vodka from a bottle he keeps in his dresser drawer. His room is dark as a closed coffin. He focuses on the sound of his wife weeping in the kitchen corner beyond the door. She weeps small, like a mouse dying in the jaws of a mousetrap. He lights a Marlboro and shadows flicker and disappear on the walls like the executed. He draws hard on the cigarette; the coal glows hot orange, and his bedroom becomes the cockpit of a B–52, and the hot orange glow is the reflected glow of a city just bombed. He raises his glass and salutes the glow, thinking: Only the strong survive.
He is an officer, a patriot. Well-respected in the community.
He hears his oldest daughter cry beside her mother. He rises when he hears the plaintive cries of his remaining son. True comfort only comes through strength, he tells himself, taking one final drag, extra-long and slow, deep in the lungs, until the entire house glows hot orange.
Colonel Simpson’s jaw muscles clench and unclench like fists as he straightens his tie. “He was always his mother’s son,” he mutters under his breath, brushing the ash from his coat sleeve as he steps through the dim mouth of his netherworld into the glowing kitchen to comfort his family.
KENT MONROE lives in Troy, NH with a damn fine woman and a motley gang of cats and dogs who refuse to obey the rules. His article “America the Brutalful” made the Missing Slate’s short list for 2015’s Pushcart Prize nominations.