Issue No. 5 – September 2014
Chuck drags a short knife back and forth across the whetstone in his left hand, the cadence faster and faster, as he thrashes up and down the hallway, front door to back porch, promising over and over that there will be hell to pay when he finds the motherfucker who is after Danielle. He says it fast and slow and under his breath as he hands Lenny an aluminum baseball bat. They will protect her. They will save themselves.
This morning, Danielle’s name was scratched off the mailbox in the foyer of the building. Three angry black lines. A violation.
They’re not getting in here, Chuck says. Lenny nods, because he can’t think of anything else to do. He didn’t know Chuck as a Marine, has only known him for six weeks, but knows enough not to stop him.
Earlier in the week, Danielle thought that someone followed her home. Chuck didn’t sleep for two days. He drank milk gallons of water and sat beside the front door in the hallway.
“We’ll wait for him,” Chuck says, “and when we catch him…”
“Why don’t we maybe call the cops?”
“We will,” Chuck says, “after.”
Danielle is waiting tables at The Mountain. She makes hundreds of dollars on Fridays and Saturdays. The cooks give her whatever she wants from the kitchen, so she brings home burgers and sandwiches and leftover steak fries. The refrigerator is full of carry out items in styrofoam boxes.
Lenny wishes he were at work too, counting plastic vials in the genetics lab, listening to the lab manager speak Haitian Creole over the phone to his wife and baby daughter. Instead, he sits beside Chuck on the steel-framed futon in the living room, running two fingers across the hard lump in his thigh until he has every millimeter memorized. It is smooth on the sides, but the top feels as though it has a hundred tiny pinpricks. He imagines a microscopic tree with its branches growing skyward while its roots search for something to grab.
He found it in the shower as he lathered his thighs the morning after he and Danielle had sex in the hallway. It is jagged and dime sized and feels like a pimple. Upon finding the lump, he squeezed it as hard as he could, but it would not pop and seemed to grow larger in anger. His thigh was throbbing and he had to stop.
They never spoke about what happened that night in hallway because Danielle didn’t want to. It was not the way Lenny thought it would be when he daydreamed about it in college. She avoided him for four nights before they were alone again.
Then she asked about his sister. How she was doing in Rochester, how the move went, if he cried when he helped her unpack. Danielle was staining a bedside table she found in front of an apartment on garbage day. She spent weeks sanding it and picking out the right color. Lenny tried to steer the conversation toward the two of them but she kept going back to things they used to talk about when they were just friends, when Chuck was a world away and there was nothing hanging over them. She asked him about the fruit flies, about his job in the Hermansen laboratory. She didn’t look up from the trapezoidal table leg she was staining. Her stroke was steady. But suddenly she was very interested in genetics, in whatever Lenny’s day-to-day responsibilities were. She asked about the ingredients in the fly food, the agar-agar, cornmeal and high fructose corn syrup, like she intended start her own Parkinson’s research facility.
“But I want to talk about us,” Lenny said at one point, after he had described the wall of corrugated boxes containing disposable plastic vials.
“Let’s talk about other people.”
“What about the other night?” Lenny asked.
“Let’s not,” she said. “Let’s talk about other people. Something else. Tell me something new. Tell me about who you work with.”
So he told her about German and Holly in the laboratory. They are in their late twenties or early thirties and are a couple, he said. German is from El Salvador and he fought in the Salvadoran Civil War when he was thirteen. He was shot in the chest, arm and leg. He will take off his shirt if he drinks enough and feels like showing you. German’s job is injecting the fruit fly embryos. It is something no one in the lab wants to do, but German seems to have made a life of undesirable jobs. He has a generous smile. But he seems like he’s missed some great chance. Holly is fine, she is blonde and neither fat nor thin and wears t-shirts of her favorite metal bands and is generally nice to speak to, but German is a handsome Latin American war hero, and their relationship seems uneven. Couldn’t he do better than Holly? Or is she just someone he stays with out of comfort and repetition? Is there that much darkness in him? Is he so lost that he would be a mess without her? Maybe they are both broken, or maybe they are fools who have mistaken routine for love.
Danielle told Lenny to cut the shit. She said she knew what he was doing. She threw her paintbrush to the floor and splattered deep ebony on the linoleum tile. Lenny trailed her to the front door and tried to apologize but she called him an asshole.
Lenny thinks about this conversation as he sits next to Chuck on the futon. They turn off the lights and peer out the windows at the empty street, searching for anything. There is someone out there, someone who intends to cause irreparable harm. The shadows look frightening at first, but once Lenny stares at them for five or ten minutes, they are texture, like everything else.
At two in the morning, Lenny goes to the kitchen and eats a box of leftovers from the refrigerator. He is not hungry, but he feels the need to do something. He takes off all of his clothes except for his plaid boxers and eats a half reuben and steak fries cold, out of the styrofoam box.
Lenny never made a move before they lived together. Danielle’s devotion to Chuck seemed impenetrable and pointless to challenge. Now that Chuck is back, Lenny should have been cast aside. Redundant. Unnecessary. But when Lenny moved in, it was obvious that there were cracks everywhere, and Danielle was the one who reached out in the hall that night as Chuck snored in the bedroom. He thought about it before that night, sure, but she reached for him.
Chuck sits down in the wooden chair next to Lenny.
“Why don’t you microwave that?”
They have spent hours watching basic cable action movies and staring at the street through the daisy curtains. At first, it seemed a fine way to spend a Tuesday night; Lenny had nothing better to do, and it was exciting to be on the precipice of danger. But the enemy is nowhere and though Chuck is content to keep waiting, Lenny is tired and regrets his decision as the night ticks away.
Lenny tells Chuck about the lump.
“It sounds like a spider bite.”
Chuck tells a story about a private one of his buddies supposedly knew, whose unit set up camp outside of Kirkuk. Three camel spiders ate through the tent and attacked him in his sleep. Chuck keeps saying they are as big as dogs to punctuate his sentences.
“They have this venom that numbs you so you don’t even feel it while they’re biting you. If you don’t get treated right away, you get gangrene and infected and shit.”
Lenny starts laughing.
“I’m serious, man.” Chuck says, “you don’t want to come home without a leg because of a fucking spider, you know?”
He takes a cold fry from Lenny’s container and eats it. They stare at each other’s faces for longer than they ever have before. Chuck looks tired, not just from one anxious night, but frayed.
“I don’t think anyone’s coming.”
“Someone is out there,” Chuck yells, “don’t be a fucking pussy.”
They hear the front door open and Chuck grabs the knife from the table and yells hello like it’s the last word.
Danielle tells Chuck to keep it down. She sounds buzzed and dreamy and has deflated the enormity of the situation.
“Why didn’t you call? I would have walked you home.”
She tells him not to be stupid and he goes on and on about the mailbox, about the lines through her name in black pen.
“It’s probably nothing. You’re acting like a psychopath.”
Danielle’s hair is greasy. Her mouth is small and elf-like. If he didn’t know her and she walked by him on the street, Lenny believes he might mistake her for a high school junior. There is an immaturity in her features, like she still has to grow into the rest of her face. She doesn’t say anything to Lenny, they just watch one another and he tries to gather what she’s thinking, tries to tell her with a cocked eyebrow and a slanted smirk what Chuck has been up to. For days he feared that a mark on her neck would betray them. He has imagined Chuck standing over him with a knife to his throat. But there is nothing to be afraid of now, except for the violator, if such a person exists.
Danielle says, “How do we know it wasn’t the mailman or some stupid college girl from the second floor?”
This is where Lenny should agree with her. This is where he should stop eating his reuben and help her convince Chuck that he has nothing to be afraid of, that his fiancée is safe and his for the keeping. Instead, he says, “It had to be someone,” and Danielle tells him to stop and Chuck yells that he’s right, it had to be someone. Something has happened. It isn’t nothing.
So she asks Chuck to come to bed. She asks him sweetly and he shoos her away. She sits on his lap and whispers something in his ear.
“What about the mailbox, Dani? What about the fucking mailbox?”
Lenny finishes his sandwich. He gets up and throws the styrofoam take-out box in the step-open trashcan that never opens when he steps on the pedal.
“You don’t just cross off someone’s name. No one goes around crossing names off mailboxes at random.”
“Why are you being an asshole?” Danielle asks. And Chuck starts to defend himself when she stops him by yelling, “Not you—him.”
“It has to mean something. That’s why,” Lenny says.
“You’re a fucking asshole. I can’t even believe you,” she says. In her nicest voice, Danielle tries one last time to get Chuck in bed. “You don’t have to worry about the stupid mailbox, babe, just come to bed.”
“What the hell is going on with you two?”
“Don’t listen to her, Chuck. We need to get to the bottom of this. It’s not stupid. It’s never been stupid.”
“Fuck you,” she yells, looking Lenny straight in the eyes. “Chuck, come to bed. Just come to bed. Let’s forget about it. Forget it ever happened. It’s nothing.”
Chuck waves a dismissive hand at her and says goodnight over and over until she leaves the kitchen and slams the bedroom door. She screams through the door. Chuck and Lenny sit at the kitchen table in silence for some time. There is a sour smell in the air that they can’t get rid of. Something has died in a wall, perhaps, or the garbage disposal needs to be taken apart and cleaned. Lenny stares at the spots of brown and black mold on the ceiling that Chuck promised Danielle he would bleach away as soon as he bought a ladder.
“About that lump,” Lenny asks, “Do you think it’s maybe just an ingrown hair?”
“I said spider bite.”
Lenny says it is like a plum pit in his thigh. If he squeezes it hard enough, it will squirt a drop of black blood.
“Can you take a look at it for me?”
He pulls up the left leg of his boxers and says it doesn’t feel like an ingrown hair and he doesn’t think it is a pimple.
The lump is an angry full moon. It is a bruised yellow oval with a tiny spot of dried blood in the center. Chuck gazes at it for a long time.
“Does it look bad?”
Without a sound, Chuck goes into the bathroom and returns with a bottle of rubbing alcohol. At the sink, he pours the alcohol over the knife and tells Lenny to splash his thigh.
“Don’t worry, I’ve done this before.”
There is no reason for Lenny to trust him. He considers this as he rubs the alcohol on his leg. The knife glistening. Chuck grabs a roll of paper towels and some ice from the freezer.
“It’s gonna hurt,” Chuck says as he crouches on one knee in front of Lenny. Lenny knows he can stop it now. He can call a doctor tomorrow. He can tell Chuck it probably isn’t the best idea, because who undergoes dermatologic surgery in their kitchen? But it’s something he has to do. It’s the least he can do, somehow.
Chuck holds the ice against the lump with one hand and jabs the tip of the sharpened knife in with the other. Lenny watches the blood run down his leg and gasps.
That night in the hallway, he kept whispering in Danielle’s ear about how long he wanted this, whatever it was. She never said it back; she leaned against the wall and told him to do it. He bit her neck and ran his hands up and down her back, under her cotton t-shirt. Nothing changed the way he imagined it would.
“I know it was you,” Chuck says.
There is searing pain and wetness. A sense of panic he’s never felt before. He can feel the sweat on his neck and lower back, his heart shaking in his chest. Was he asking for this all along? There is no future he can imagine where he is with Danielle and where Chuck is long forgotten. This is the truth he’s been avoiding. In the three years Lenny has known her, Chuck has been part of the package. She even asked Lenny to pray for him one night as Chuck began his first tour. And Lenny did pray for him even though he didn’t believe in praying. He asked something about keeping Chuck safe and Danielle happy in his head before he fell asleep that night. And he wonders now if his prayer was the only one that has ever been answered.
He stares at Chuck’s forehead and says nothing, tries to hide his thoughts. It wasn’t him, not the mailbox anyway. It’s one of those things he’ll wonder about years later when he’s driving late at night or making a pot of coffee in a dark kitchen before the sun rises. Why the mailbox? He’ll settle on it being done by no one. It was no one who crossed out Danielle’s name. It was no one who caused this. No one who wanted to hurt her. These weren’t choices, they were just the things that happened.
“It wasn’t me,” Lenny says as he yelps again. His leg shakes as Chuck twists the knife and pulls out a tiny orb. He holds it between his thumb and forefinger. For a moment, in the light, it appears to breathe.
Nicholas Lepre’s stories have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Knee-Jerk Magazine and elsewhere. He is currently working on a collection of linked stories set in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. You can follow him on Twitter @NicholasLepre.