(Illustration by Christina Collins)
Excerpt of the story, “Rural Tendencies,” from Eric Shonkwiler’s collection of dark, Midwest-centric novellas and short stories, Moon Up, Past Full, available now from Alternating Current Press.
JEEVES STARTED DEALING the day after. It sold well. The money came in pretty steady. I got a cut for it being my place, and the money more than covered house payments. I took a little in drugs, at a discount. Chasity was over every time Jeeves cooked, but when he wasn’t, she wasn’t. A couple weeks after Jeeves first tried his stuff, I was watching a football game, and I heard Chas coming up the basement steps. I was sitting on an old couch we’d picked up from the side of the road, and she stood in front of me, smiling. I glanced at the basement door and put my hands on her legs.
I know everything now, she said. I watched him from the beginning, and I knew it every step of the way. She stepped closer, enclosing my knees between her thighs. She bent down and put her hand on my jaw, sliding it back to my neck. We can make our move any time. She leaned in close and kissed me.
I moved my hands from her legs up to her ass, and the basement door opened—neither of us had heard him. Jeeves just stood there looking at us for a moment, and he sort of nodded, then went back downstairs. I hadn’t even taken my hands off her. We didn’t move.
What should we do? It came out as a whisper.
She looked down at me, and her face twisted. What do you mean? We don’t need to do anything. Her eyes. I had enough time to wonder if a person could be as ugly as she was pretty before she softened and edged a little closer to me. In a minute, he’ll come up, and he’ll walk right out the front door. He won’t say a word.
I tried to smile at her. I felt like hell, and when I looked away, she must have seen it in my face, and she put a hand on my cheek and leaned in to kiss me. She kissed me hard, and she ran a hand through my hair, and I was put in my place. Jeeves came up the steps, and we could hear him this time, and although Chasity stood up, she didn’t move her legs from around mine. He shut the basement door behind him and stared at us. He took a few steps forward and pointed at Chasity.
You. Jeeves looked at me. He was still pointing like he could keep Chas in place with his finger. She’s gonna eat you alive.
Get your shit out of here, Jesse. She swung her leg over mine and walked toward him.
You can fuckin’ have it. Jeeves dropped his arm. His chest expanded and shrank. I know the score.
You don’t know shit, you asshole! Chasity threw a hand back for a blow.
Jeeves smiled and leaned and walked out. Chasity turned to me, face red, eyes glowing like butane jets. She started to smile, and she went down into the basement, and I stood to follow her. I stopped at the foot of the stairs and watched her look everything over. She spun around and danced back to me, took my hands and held them up.
He didn’t touch a thing. We’re gold, Freddy.
I took her in my arms, and she wrapped hers around me, pulling my shirt up. We dropped to a mattress that’d been drug down for Jeeves to sleep on, and I undid her pants. She bit off the corner of the baggie that had appeared in her hand.
We passed out before the sun rose, a blur, and stumbled upstairs around noon and went to sleep. Someone knocked on the door, and I jolted upright. Chasity was out cold, so I crawled out of bed and put on a pair of jeans. The front door shuddered. The windows were sealed up so no one could look inside. No way to see who it was. I went to the kitchen and pulled a steak knife out of the drawer and stuck it in the back of my pants. My hand was already shaking when it reached the doorknob. I opened the door a crack and winced at the daylight, and a fist came out of the brightness and knocked me back. Squiddie stepped inside and kicked the door shut behind him. I put my hands to my face. The cartilage in my nose moved more than it should, and it felt like the whole thing might slide off my face. My hands came away covered in blood, and my vision blurred.
You cocksucker. You fucking traitor. Squiddie stood over me, swung his leg back and kicked me in the side, and I cried out. Get up. C’mon. He kicked me again.
I pushed along the carpet with my feet to scoot away, and I got my knees under me and stood. What the fuck, Squid?
He dropped his hands and raised them again, waved them around. What the fuck? You tell me what the fuck? He looked at the walls like they might answer the question, like they were his audience. You been fuckin’ Jeeves’ girl, man. That ain’t right. He walked toward me, and lights lit in my eyes after his jab landed, and I stumbled back. Guy’s been nothin’ but good to you. Made you a damn partner!
He jabbed again, and I ducked. He caught me with a cross. I tripped over a box in the hall, felt the knife fly from my jeans. He ran at me, and we dropped to the floor. His hand shot out to my throat and he was on top of me, throttling me with one hand and punching my busted nose with the other. I could barely see Chasity come from around the corner, naked and blurry, kicking Squiddie in the face. He stopped punching me long enough to grab her leg and she dropped, and through the black coming over my eyes, I saw the gray streak of the knife as Chasity stuck it in his ribs.
THERE WAS MUSIC playing on repeat. I opened my eyes. Sore all over. I rolled onto my stomach and felt what was my nose touch the pillow. There was a groan, and it must have come from me. The music repeated. I stood and wobbled on my feet, leaned against the wall. In the hall, I could make out Squiddie lying there with the knife in his side. I fell back against the wall and sank to the floor. It was his phone ringing, the music. Repeating. I reached out to him and touched his shoulder. Stiff. I crawled closer to him and rolled him over, rummaged his pocket for his phone. The screen was broken, and I don’t know why I did, but I flipped it open.
Squid? a voice said.
I sucked in a breath. It was Jeeves.
Squid? What the fuck?
I tossed the phone away, saw the hallway in the little blue light from the screen. I sat there, staring. Heard the basement door open. Got to my feet. Chas?
She met me in the doorway to the kitchen, grabbed onto my shoulders. Get rid of the body. I couldn’t lift him.
I shook my head. What?
You have to get rid of it. Bury him. Throw him in a ditch somewhere. You have to get rid of him.
The only light was coming from the basement. I could barely see her, but I knew what expression she wore. Her eyes. Then, her hands were digging into my shoulders, and she was shaking me. Finally, she shoved me away and went back into the basement. I walked to the body and bent down to take an arm. I threw it over my shoulder and heaved up. I opened the front door just as a car passed, and ducked out of the doorway and lugged the body through the house out the back. The blood ran cold on my shoulder. The moon rose over the trees. Shadows of a dead ash stretched nearby, and I let the body slide to the ground. I slumped beside it. Weak, shaky. It had been over a day since I’d eaten. For a summer night, the air was cool. I looked at Squiddie’s body. His shirt was bright in the moonlight, and the stain on his side was black.
The sound of the gunshot shook me up. I’d been staring at the blood on my hands. I almost didn’t go inside. I almost got in my car and drove away. The last nerve of me turned and walked through the open door. It was black inside after having gotten accustomed to the moonlight. I felt my way around until I saw the front door hanging open, and everything in me went numb. My throat dried. A crack of light shone under the basement door. I turned the handle and pulled the door open. All still, but on the concrete below, a pool of blood rolled toward the drain in the middle of the room. I took the steps slowly, leaning down to see. Chasity was crumpled in a corner. I ran down the rest of the stairs and fell beside her. Her eyes were open wide, and her jaw was slack. Her back teeth were rotten.
She had it coming.
I whipped around. Jeeves was in the far corner, his hand pressed to his throat. Blood seeped through his fingers. He’d fallen over a table, and all of the pots and vials had shattered. I didn’t smell anything; my nose was wrecked.
I would have left you alone, you know. But I couldn’t calm Squiddie down. He tore outta my place. Jeeves smiled weakly, and he reached into his pocket for something. I knew what happened when he didn’t answer his phone.
I took a few steps toward him. I might have felt lightheaded, but it wouldn’t have been anything new.
He had my back. Jeeves palmed his pack of cigarettes and put it on the leg of his jeans and pulled a cigarette out, put it in his mouth. Shame, ’cause I liked you, too.
He took out his lighter and lifted it to his mouth, nodded calmly to the sign beside me. My eyes widened and my gut caught, and I turned to the stairs. The room kept spinning for me, but toward me, not away as I’d willed. I fell into the banister and climbed up the stairs on all fours and could hear Jeeves laughing, a sound on repeat like Squiddie’s ringtone, and then I could hear that, too. Repeating. I was at the top of the stairs when the explosion caught me, and the room spun a new way, bright and black.
Eric Shonkwiler is the author of the Luminaire Award for Best Prose-winning story collection Moon Up, Past Full (Alternating Current, 2015), and the novel Above All Men (MG Press, 2014), which won the Coil Book Award for Best Book and was chosen as a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. He has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Lit Pub, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from University of California-Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone.