Decisions have to be made. But the quality of our choices can only be discovered after the fact. In other words, sometimes we have to let shit play itself out. The Universe is fond of giving humanity clues into its own intelligence. Or idiocy. Whatever the case may be. I’m sitting here at the start of that process. Not knowing what outcome to expect. No worries though. There are times when you just have to say fuck it and take the leap. A bad decision is better than no decision at all.
Tonight I’m sitting in a mansion on the western coast of Ireland. The house I just sold back in Pittsburgh, the house where my wife Elena and I raised our kids, could fit inside this room. I’m waiting for the man who used to be my boss. This is his home.
I promised my wife that I would wait until after she died to confront him. Her funeral was two weeks ago.
Tonight, I’m ready to make my move.
Tonight, I’m going to find a way to kill him.
I have this singular, positive trait. I don’t quit on anything. There’s no walking away. That is not an option with me. When I get behind something, I’m the definition of sincerity. In for an ounce, in for a pound.
Our relationship is a strange one. I owe my former boss in ways that trouble me. It’s because of him that I’ve been to 117 countries. I have met people that I never would’ve come into contact with if not for these excursions, people who became lifelong friends. I met my late wife because my boss took me to Norway on one of his excursions. It would be no exaggeration to say that it’s because of him that I became the person I am today.
But the anger I feel right now has existed just below the surface for decades, since the day of our separation in 1987 right up to this moment. All I have to do is think of him and a bright flash of red erupts from deep inside me and spreads throughout my body. I’ve always managed to contain it just seconds before it blew my life apart, a raw ache settling over the thumping inside my chest. But that is getting more and more difficult. It needs to be addressed.
The fact that my boss settled in County Kerry in western Ireland puzzles me. There’s fuckin’ nothing here. It’s beautiful. But there’s fuckin’ nothing. Limerick is an hour and a half away. Dublin is three hours. In the past, he always wanted to be around young people. He needed to be around young people. Vibrant and loud and young. Niger is the country with the youngest population in the world. Half the population is under 15 years of age. I would’ve expected to find him there or someplace similar. But on second thought, he could never control himself in Africa. He was always at his worst in Africa. Maybe he realized this and decided to stay away. Ireland has a youthful population. But not like Niger. It’s incredible if you think about it. Imagine the most annoying teenager you’ve ever met. Then imagine millions of them living in one place. They are inescapable. They are everywhere.
God help Niger.
I sit here in this chair and feel a naked awareness I didn’t expect. An amphetamine rush. Light-headedness. Left leg involuntarily bouncing up and down. The taste of copper in my mouth. A ringing in my ears. I’m 74 years old and this should send up red flags. Maybe a hint at something fatal approaching. But I know this is just muscle memory. My body is recalling a time when my life sizzled with intensity and dread. My body is a yawning, hungry mouth waiting to be fed a meal it hasn’t enjoyed in decades. It’s the knowledge of an intensity granted to those who formerly existed within the presence of death. Pain and misery made up my entire wheelhouse. Nothing was beyond me.
A grandfather clock chimes somewhere deep inside my boss’ house. The sound reaches me through the darkness, hushed and dramatic. The depth of the house makes it feel alive. The air that travels across the stone floors gives it breath. The high ceilings are its immense skeletal structure. It’s cold in here. I feel like I’m sitting in the vacant heart of the house.
I go to the window and watch as a rainstorm pummels and darkens the gravel driveway. I think I’ll stay here at the window. I’ll wait for him here. The driveway is easily over a hundred feet long. The approach I imagine will be slow then he will park at the front door. I did not see a garage on the property. Maybe I will meet him just inside the front door in the vestibule. I’ve imagined this moment, dreamt of it. But it doesn’t matter. I’m still standing here without a plan of action. It’s almost funny. I am clueless. I am old. Maybe I’m ready to die.
My boss had always claimed that his search for immortality was his attempt at reaching into heaven and stealing its peace. We were thieves and murderers. The idea combined both areas of expertise.
He dragged me across the world in search of it.
For a long time, my boss collected the names of the people that he killed. He inscribed them on the basement wall of his former home in the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh. If he didn’t know the name, he carved a question mark and the person’s country of origin. The wall reminded me of a war memorial. Eventually the names covered half the concrete face of the wall. Years of travel. A collection of dead names and terminated histories.
When he finally moved, when he sold all his possessions and committed to finding a source for eternal life, he burned the house to the ground. This was after I had my fill of murder and left him behind. I got fed up and left his ass in Norway right after he slaughtered a family and cut their bodies into pieces which he buried in plots that formed a star. I had to chip away at the frozen earth for him while he cut up the bodies.
I had met Elena the night before in a tavern. Love at first sight. A storybook beginning.
After hacking away at the dirt for hours, I told my boss that I’d had enough, that I was going back to Pittsburgh and getting married. He told me that I was choosing temporary happiness over a lifetime of triumph. It was a brief but persuasive argument. For a second I considered packing up and moving on with him to parts unknown. I considered abandoning Elena and the promise I’d made to her the night before and leaving Norway in the middle of the night. But out of nowhere an idea struck me. Looking down at the ground, I realized that this would be the final act of this family’s lives. Hacked to bits and thrown into a frozen hole in the ground. My stomach churned. I told my boss to go fuck himself. I’d had enough blood.
Elena and I were married for 37 years. I worked alongside my grandfather in the Homestead Steel Mill. After the Plant closed, I took a maintenance position with Children’s Hospital in Oakland near the University of Pittsburgh. Elena worked in the Post Office for two decades. We raised three children. Our children gave us three grandchildren. The day after her funeral, I started the search for my former boss. The internet is an incredible thing. If you pay some money to one company or another, you can find out everything about anybody. Arrest records. Bankruptcies. Credit ratings.
There is a blur as an animal runs across the driveway. Possibly a squirrel or a large rat. It disappeared into the shrubbery that runs alongside the gravel. A small nail sits on the window sill. Have to wonder how it got there. I roll it back and forth over the wood. It’s old. Not perfect like a machine would have produced. A corner of the stone window sill is chipping a bit. A crack like a lightning bolt runs through the glass of the window itself. I breathe in and breathe out. Fog up the glass. I use my fingertip to sketch a smiley face.
Might as well call this my life. It isn’t any more exciting back home.
The rain and the wind stop suddenly, as if someone flipped a switch.
I recall the time we were in Russia. We spent an entire year there, traveling through town and city, back and forth across its empty immensity. In a small nameless town along the Kuban River, we paid a prostitute to come back to the house my boss had rented for the night. It was the only time he attempted a vampiric sacrifice. The one and only time. Afterward, he complained about tissue being caught between his teeth. It didn’t sit well with him. I suggested that next time he drink the blood straight from the vein. A quick slice across the wrist. Puncture the carotid artery. It would be like drinking from a fountain. He told me that he had bitten the young woman because he wanted to go old school Dracula on her.
The smile on his face told me he had learned something about himself. There were limits.
Understand…this incident didn’t stop him from partaking of human flesh, blood and bone. It just changed the delivery system.
In the Gason region of France, again in a small village, we witnessed a priest perform a dark mass. The mass was said backward and the host offered to the congregation was black. Instead of wine, we drank water pulled from a well where an unbaptized child had been tossed in and drowned. The ceremony was meant as a curse. A citizen of the village had been named a heretic. I can’t say whether or not the man was a heretic, or even if the mass killed him. What I can say is that my boss was pissed the fuck off.
I thought there would be a sacrifice!!!!
He paced for hours afterward. I mentioned that nothing really gets resolved by pacing and whining. So later on that night, we kidnapped the priest from his hovel and killed him in an abandoned barn. My boss cooked his flesh over a fire and ate the lion’s share.
The smell of burnt human flesh is something I’ll always remember. It smells like animal flesh but not exactly. There is a sulfur smell when the hair burns. There is a charcoal smell when the flesh is charred. The hint of humanity that had been present is burned away but still lingers in the air. I’ll never forget it.
I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.
A voice echoes from somewhere behind me.
- You’re talking to yourself.
I wheel around and draw my gun in the same motion. I’m aiming directly at the chest of the man I’ve come to confront.
- Funny. I didn’t realize I was.
- Why are you here?
For a split second, my boss balls up his fists. A rage flickers in his eyes. Then he relaxes.
- Take whatever you need…
- I’m not here to rob you. Do you really think I’m here to rob you?
- You’re here…in my home…with a gun…what else…
- Holy fuck…
- Take what you need…then go…
I move away from the window, into the light. Maybe eight feet from my boss. I lower the gun and stare, dumbfounded.
He is as old as I am. As a matter of fact, he looks older.
- You’ve failed. You never found it.
- Found what…
- You’re old.
- Fuck yourself. How’s that?
- Take what you need…leave…
- I’m not going to leave you alone. I’m going to kill you.
- What for…I’m cooperating…
- Are you for real? Do you know who I am?
- Some geriatric thief…all I know is what I see…
My boss is old. His skin sags and is more wrinkled and gray than my own. Looking at him, feeble and absolutely human, I regret everything. Making the journey. Harboring the hatred in my heart. Allowing it to eat away at me all these years, distracting me from my life, robbing me of precious time spent with family. I regret everything that I have ever done in service to this man. And even though he deserves to die a painful death, I even regret planning the act.
But then the rage grows again, bright and hot. It is always just below the surface.
- I’m no boss…I’m no boss…
- You were my boss. That’s why I’m here.
- I’m no one’s boss…
- At one time you were my boss. I know you.
- Oh yes. Make no mistake. I know you. I worked for you when we were both young. Back in Pittsburgh. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then we traveled together for years. We terrorized the world back then.
- I watched you slaughter many, many people. You ripped and tore your way across the planet. Immortality. You searched for a ritual that would make you immortal. I buried entire families because of you.
- And there you sit, looking more ancient than me on my worst day. All that death for nothing. A strong wind would blow you over. A small animal could drag you into the woods and chew you to fuckin’ pieces. You wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
- I am here…you are here…I don’t know what you’re talking about…
- Tell me something then. If you aren’t who I say you are, who the fuck are you? Because I know. I know everything.
- I am here…I think…I have been here…I am forever…
- You are a killer…
- I am a killer. But I’ve changed.
- Have you…who changes…people don’t change…
- I’ve changed, I can tell you that much. I’m not the person you used to bully…
- Yes bully! You think I wanted to do that shit?
- I’m not that person. I’m not like you.
- You did it…did it all…
- I did it because of you.
- Did I dream up all that shit? Is that what you’re saying?
- You’re saying…I never said…
- Jesus Christ…
- No God…never ever…
- Right. No god. You were God. You were the Devil.
- All in one…never…
- Yes! Christ…I’m tired of your bullshit. You know…seeing you like this was a big fuckin’ shock. Seeing you old and decrepit…I didn’t expect it. I guess I thought you’d succeed. Maybe I wanted you to…just so all the people you killed didn’t die in vain.
- Shut the fuck up!
I aim the gun at his head. Press it against the center of his forehead. His eyes are glassy, tears about to spill onto his cheeks.
I feel young again. There is a strength in my arms that I haven’t felt for years. My breathing is clear and steady, not a hint of the pneumonic cloud that has dogged me since last winter. Wrath from years of hatred electrifies the air around me.
- I’ve had enough! I know you. All the vile shit you’ve done.
My boss starts laughing. It is the laugh of a sick, old man. High and wheezing, propelled out of his body by a harsh contraction of his rib cage. A laugh that seems to have fought its way to the surface.
- What the fuck are you laughing at?
- Haha…the end…
I am lifted off my feet and thrown across the room. My old bones crunch as I hit the floor. My old bones crunch and grind as I come to rest against a table in the corner of the room.
A deep, strong laugh from behind me then I am lifted again and twisted around to face the man I had been looking for all along.
I came to this backwater village to kill him.
The man I remember.
Plus at least a foot in height.
Plus at least fifty pounds of muscle.
It is the vision of him I expected to see tonight.
- Oh fuck is right my old friend.
He holds me in the air, a thick hand around my throat, and walks me to the couch where the old man is still sitting. My boss places me next to him. I wheeze and catch my breath and stare up at the man who dropped me there.
- I knew you’d come to kill me. Just a question of how long it would take you to find your balls and actually do it. I expected to see you a lot sooner than this Stubbs. You’ve….aged.
I think of my wife. Ask myself if she was the only reason why I didn’t track him down a long time ago.
- Fuck you. And fuck whatever this is sitting next to me.
The decrepit version of my boss squeezes out another laugh.
I instantly recognize the look of my boss’ face. Murderous. Someone is about to die.
He reaches down and places his right hand on the top of the old man’s head, twists and pulls it right off the decrepit body. A wild shudder shoots through the now headless torso. It slumps against the couch and is still.
My boss brings the head up to his eyes and stares for a brief moment before tossing it into a far off, unseen corner of the room. It skitters audibly across the stone floor and comes to rest against a distant wall with a thud.
It takes me a few seconds to realize that I’m screaming. The screaming stops when my boss picks me up by my jacket and brings me to his eye level.
- Stubbs, my old compadre…I’m taking you out on the town tonight.
The town at night is flat and vacant, lit by watery moonlight under a rainy sky. A few lonely streetlights along empty fields. The silence of a country town after businesses have closed and most people have retreated to their homes and the draw of the television. There is the boredom of family members. There are the early risers trying to sleep before the rest of the world has gone to bed. There are the hushed and fearful minds of teenagers trying to imagine a way out but know they never will escape. My father grew up in a town like this. Jeanette, just outside Pittsburgh. Like any other small town. Filled with ghosts of long dead relatives, stress and alcohol.
We step inside Malzard’s Pub. My boss ducks to avoid hitting his head on the low door frame. The half dozen people inside hunch their shoulders over their beers and turn away from us as we sit at the bar. They do it slowly, very casually. A reaction born of someone having endured routine cruelties. A movement whose owner hoped would go unnoticed. But it was. My boss smiled at their efforts.
- Ah gentlemen…you make me laugh. The more you ignore me, the closer I get. John…two please.
The bartender reaches under the bar for two pint glasses.
I stare at my boss for a few seconds before he turns to me and holds my gaze.
- Tell me…do you see them yet Stubbs?
I glance around the bar at the other patrons, glance at the backs of their heads and hunched backs.
- See who? These people who are obviously terrified of you?
My boss laughs and slips off his jacket and hangs it on the back of his chair.
- I’m sure at some point in the evening, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
The barkeep places two pints of Guinness in front of us. Before he walks away, I ask him for a double whiskey.
- Give him the Kilbeggan John. You’ll enjoy it Stubbs. Double distilled instead of triple.
- I don’t care.
- Trust me. It makes a difference.
I shoot the whiskey and half the pint before my boss even tastes his Guinness.
- Something wrong Stubbs?
- You found it didn’t you?
- Found what?
- Don’t fuck with me. You haven’t aged a bit. You’re a goddamn giant. I used to be taller than you. You found a way to live forever.
- I did. And I’m thriving Stubbs.
- How many people had to die? How many people did you sacrifice?
My boss stares at the backs of his hands. Veins knotty like rope. Then he inspects his palms. I look also, half expecting to see rivulets of blood running through the creases and lines.
- How many people had to die Stubbs? Just the right amount apparently.
- You’re a human anomaly.
- I am what I am.
- I’m going to puke…
- The pisser is over there. Better hurry…John doesn’t like people puking all over his bar. Do you Johnny?
- I suppose not Mr Baker…
Instead of heading into the restroom, I run outside and vomit in the small parking lot. I’d been inside the bar for only a short period of time but apparently it was long enough for the weather to drastically change. It had been on the warm side just a few minutes ago. Now there is a chill in the air with a hint of burning wood carried upon it. From Spring to Fall in the span of ten minutes.
Standing upright is a chore. Straightening myself is a new exercise in pain. Times like this I’m reminded of my age.
Something is burning. But it isn’t wood like I thought at first. Whatever it is, the smell is getting more and more intense. I glance back at the bar, half-expecting to see a burning building. Maybe a chemical fire in the basement? A strong smell and getting stronger.
I head back toward the bar. This is the challenge that I crave. Something to penetrate complacency. Something to carry to my grave. The thought of this moment coming to pass seemed so surreal back in Pittsburgh. Ireland was surreal. This town was surreal. Since I hadn’t seen him in so long, the thought of standing near my boss seemed surreal. Now Ireland is real. This town is real. This parking lot is real. This bar is real. My boss is inside the building. He is very, very real.
Without killing him, I would feel like my life has been one long trial without a verdict.
Once again, I sit next to him at the bar.
- Who was that?
- Who do you mean?
- The man…at your house.
- That wasn’t a man, Stubbs. That thing was a million miles short of being a man.
- Care to elaborate?
- That was the part of me that is weak and pathetic. If the human soul could shit, it would take his shape. He is the dregs. He is my humanity.
- And you killed him.
- Yes…how could I resist? But they always return. I don’t even understand the mechanics of it all. They always return the very next day, as old and decrepit as the day they died.
- Fuck that…
- Why did you leave me Stubbs?
- Love. Something you don’t have any respect for.
- Love dies. I don’t respect anything that dies. Is that really the reason?
- Something dawned on me one night. I realized that the entire time I worked with you, I was looking toward a future that was always in question. We didn’t even know if immortality was possible. I was done living like that. I met Elena and understood that I should be looking at the present. That’s where the happiness is.
- Well you’re here. Presently. Are you happy now?
- I’m here to kill you. You know that.
My boss laughs, finishes his Guinness and sets the pint glass on the bar.
- Old friend, and I can’t say this any more plainly, there is nothing you can do to me that would ever kill me. But…if bloodlust is what got you out of bed this morning Stubbs…I might have a solution.
In an instant, he is off his bar stool and holding one of the other patron’s in the air by the throat. In his other hand is a gun. I didn’t even see him produce the Walther P38. He always carried that gun. I should’ve known he had it on him.
- Why don’t you take all that anger out on Mr Pike?
I stand up and take a few steps toward them but stop.
- I came here for you boss. Only you.
- You came here because you’re a killer. So do it…
- Fuck you. I came here to do what’s right.
- …you want blood! You miss it! Just do it. His life means nothing to you. He’s garbage to you. He’s dogshit on the bottom of your shoe.
- Fuck you…
- Shoot this man or I’ll kill everyone in this goddamn town!
I grab the gun and shoot the man in the head. My boss drops him on the floor and smiles at me.
- Fuck you…I haven’t killed anyone in 37 years.
- You think that makes you some kind of angel Stubbs?
- Not quite.
My boss holds up his finger and smiles.
My hands are shaking. Suddenly I feel every bit my age. The room swims and I grab onto a table to steady myself.
- Eat shit.
- What the fuck…
- Wait for it.
- Wait for fuckin’ what?
- The punchline to my joke.
The man who I just shot in the head stands up, shudders a bit like all he was suffering through was a sudden chill, then walks to the bar and sits down again. The bartender passes him a towel which he then holds to the rapidly healing entrance wound in the center of his forehead.
- What the fuck…
My boss walks toward me. A giant hand falls upon my trembling shoulder.
- I was searching all those years…running down something that didn’t want to be found. I slowly grew disgusted with myself, Stubbs. All that failure was strangling me. Then I just gave up. Simple as that. I stopped the search. Just let it all go and went home. But after having seen the world, I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Pittsburgh. So one night I threw a dart at a map. A month later, here I am. No thought went into decision. I threw a goddamn dart! Fact is, and this is something I’ve only recently admitted to myself, I wanted to die. I just wanted to die somewhere beautiful.
- What the fuck did I just see?
- I know! This place is special. It’s magic. Nobody dies here Stubbs! Isn’t that right John?
- Yes Mr Baker.
- I can’t explain it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Nobody has aged a day since I came here thirty years ago.
- You just saw the evidence. These people have lived hundreds of years. But the thing is…the devil doesn’t like that. The devil wants his piece of humanity. And my job is to help him get it.
- The devil…
- The devil. All those years searching. Me and you. All that blood. Nothing ever came of it.
- All that blood…
- The thing was…all I had to do was stop searching. That was the solution. Just be still. Immortality found me!
- Fuck that!
- Fate brought me here to the only place on the planet where immortality is a birthright.
- Fuck that!
- You know…they wanted to kill you as soon as they learned an outsider was in town. I convinced them not to. You’re my friend after all.
My boss spins me around, crouching a bit so he can look directly into my eyes.
- Why did you leave me Stubbs?
- You’re fuckin’ poison! What you were searching for was poison.
- Poison? Immortality is poison?
- Yes! There has to be an end! A man needs to disappear at some point. We are here for a short amount of time. That’s the way it needs to be. Anything beyond that is poison.
- Existence itself is poison. That was the whole point of the search. To walk outside that cycle. To become something greater.
- I have no regrets about leaving you. Elena showed me love. My family showed me love.
My boss straightens up and walks toward the center of the room. The drinkers at the bar and John the bartender move away from him and cower near the exit like frightened animals.
- Do you see them yet Stubbs?
- What? What am I looking for? What the fuck do you want to show me?
An easy grin appears on his face. An acceptance of his role within the story of coming evil. I feel a tightening across my chest. A once vanished pain rushing over me through the index of years.
My boss sees the pain on my face.
- Oh…you can’t go yet Stubbs. Not before you find out my secret.
- Oh god…
I’m on the floor now. On my knees.
- Jesus Fuckin’ Christ…
I look at my boss and see that he is holding one of the bar patrons over his head. He rifles him down onto the hardwood floor and drives his boot into the throat of the man. Through the veil that is my own pain, I hear the crack of bone and feel the rush of a nearly silent scream.
- You still don’t see them Stubbs. Do you?
- I see you…only you. Just as you are.
- Wait for it Stubbs…wait for it.
- Wait for what!
- See…I can kill these people. It’s my job to kill these people. And when I kill them…
The man beneath my boss’ foot quakes then goes still.
- Wait for it Stubbs…
What looks like a cloud of dust emanates from the man and surrounds my boss.
- See it now? Do you see it now?
- Approximately three seconds after the body dies, the soul makes it escape.
The cloud of dust, the man’s soul, rushes toward the ceiling and is gone. But around my boss, there remains a bit of it. It looks like glitter, floating in the area that he occupies.
- The soul departs. I can’t say where it goes. I can’t say if it dissipates into the ether or it collects itself in some kind of afterlife. All I know is that after the body dies, I keep what’s mine.
- Do you see them yet?
It’s difficult to stand. The room is vibrating around me. My arms and legs feel both heavy and light. I sit in a chair and watch my boss as he is watching me. Someone abandoned a pint glass of dark beer on the table next to me. I reach for it and drink it. I feel utterly bereft of all structure.
- What am I seeing…
Around him, there are small circular clouds that seem to be made up of light and dust. They hover around him as though they were moths trying to enter a bright light. I watch them float in the air, barely moving. They give me the impression that time has somehow been suspended. That existence has been suspended.
I see a hundred watt glow of captive light.
- You see them now…
- What are they?
- My reward, Stubbs. Every time I send one of these villagers to the devil, I gain a bit of their soul. They’ll keep me alive forever.
They don’t stray far from him, as though they were tethered to his body. There is an overwhelming silence in the room.
My boss strides across the floor. He crouches next to me.
- We used to be brothers Stubbs. Back when you were beautiful.
- I can make you beautiful again. We can be brothers once again.
- Why did we do all that? Why did we kill all those people?
My boss stands up. He must be seven feet tall. His head nearly reaches the ceiling of the bar.
- We killed them because it felt good, Stubbs.
- I will make this quick, old friend.
All I feel is the pressure of his hands on either side of my head then a sharp shock that runs down my spine.
I am briefly floating in darkness.
Then a gradual drawing upward.
I exist in heat and light.
Nicholas Kish lives and writes in Pittsburgh. His work can be read in publications such as Spinetingler, Molotov Cocktail and Shotgun Honey.