Evil Sun Lathrop always had a death wish, was always testing the cosmos to see if it would strike him down. We were playing at target practice. Lathrop carried a watermelon out to the rubble pile. The rubble pile was littered with trash: a shattered, old toilet, a blown-apart teddy bear, stuffing scattered on the wind like dandelion fluff, a television that already had a cracked screen like a clown’s smile before he shot it up, a pile of old letters from my ex-fiancée, pumpkin guts.
I had a headache. A high-pressure system was rolling in off Lake Superior, a system that had been moving along, collecting steam, probably forever.
“The sky looks like it’s about to commit some violence,” Lathrop said. He loaded his Mossberg 500 twelve-gauge shotgun. He blew open the watermelon, its seedy mush splattered over the pile.
An old engagement ring Marcy returned to me was in that pile. A car door we ripped off an old, junked Impala. The curdled insides of four-week old milk cartons saturated the earth.
It felt like there was a single string all those sinuses and tunnels and shit are connected to and someone was yanking at that string, trying to rip them out of my head.
“You ever heard of an evil sun?” I asked.
Lathrop ignored me and loaded the gun again. I said that I’d read something about an evil sun, a sun in opposition to ours, somewhere on the other side of the universe, hurling comets and asteroids and all manner of terrible cosmic debris at the Earth. But, most of it, I said, we can’t see coming. It’s too small to reflect enough light for scientists to detect.
“Shoot something,” Lathrop said. A cigar hung from his lips. It smelled like blueberries and ash and was making the headache worse.
Lathrop and I lived together. I wanted to move out, but I didn’t have a job or money or motivation and my girlfriend had left me with our blind dog and non-refundable catering deposits and guests to disinvite and there was, right then, that fucking headache.
Marcy had wanted me to change, to become some better version of myself, some mythic vision she had of me. She wanted me to want something. I was never good at ultimatums.
The gun cracked another crash of thunder. A piggy bank exploded. My ears rang. It felt like a smooth, wet stone was stuck at the back of my throat. I swallowed hard, but it was still there.
Storm clouds poured over us. Raindrops dotted my skin and Lathrop’s. He put the shotgun in a case. He looked to the sky.
“I love a great thunderstorm, an earth-shaking thing,” Lathrop said. My head pulsed like an angry heart. My knees felt weak. “Sometimes I think I’d like to get struck by lightning, just to see what happens,” he said. He put the gun case in the cab of his truck and then climbed onto his roof. He put his arms out and looked to the sky. The rain came down heavy and dark, like oil. Lathrop’s clothes were soaked and his long hair hung with water.
“You’re insane,” I yelled.
“If it’s going to hit me,” Lathrop said, “it’s going to hit me.”
“I’d really like to go home. My head feels like a dying, imploding star,” I said.
My eyes throbbed. I closed them and rubbed my head. I could see our blind dog. I could see the birthmark in the shape of Maine on the top of Marcy's left foot, the curve of her spine, her failed vegetable garden. It hurt too much to open my eyes, but I could imagine Lathrop where he was, arms open and accepting, and he yelled and begged for the lightning.
When the rain let up just a bit, I opened my eyes. Lathrop sat on the hood of the truck, drinking a beer. I don’t know why, but I expected him to be charred, his clothes ripped, his hair on fire. Much of our stuff – the stuff we wanted to do away with, the stuff we shot, the stuff we wanted to bury – looked covered in mud. The engagement ring would be impossible to find in the mud and garbage. It was lost. Perhaps that was best. I looked up. Somewhere out there, an evil sun was sending Armageddon our way. And our sun waited, idle, doing nothing, waiting for its fate to come. The sky was dark; the clouds seemed to shift.
Old Baby Blue
Remember how that old woman pulled up next to us in her bright orange car and how the mood died? Remember how I kept saying your name, Juniper Rose, over and over with a southern accent, as I slid my hand down the front of your pants? Remember how you thrust your hips at me and how the inside of your thighs were wet with sweat and other stuff and how you wanted so badly for it to be over with? Remember the carcass of the Walmart at the other end of the parking lot, its missing front doors like open mouths awaiting communion?
I was freshly eighteen and ready to fuck the world. You liked my new car, the old baby blue El Camino, said it made you wet to think about the seats vibrating beneath your ass as it sped, fastfastfaster down the highway.
The old woman smeared cauliflower blue eyeshadow on. Did you wonder what emergency she was preparing for? There were storm clouds. I remembered someone told me lightning was only the width of a penny. Can you imagine that?
You threw it out the window, the wind dragging it briefly in the dust and dirt. You gnawed on my neck. I pictured beetles that bore in the wood of ash trees and kill them. The woman applied the reddest lipstick, the color at the center of an exploding star.
Why were we there? Why were we in western Nebraska, all that flat and all that grass? There was your 27-year-old-virginity and my teenage hormones and whatever that old woman was getting ready for, but the sun could melt us in seconds if it moved just a few inches closer to the planet. They call Nebraska “the good life” when you're driving in on the interstate and that was our good life, right there, in that 1979 El Camino.
Tell me I'm beautiful, you said. Tell me I'm the most beautiful woman you've ever met and that you're my slave and how much you want me to teach you, the ignorant little boy you are.
I think she's getting ready for her funeral, I said. You clasped your hand over my mouth and I kept babbling through it. I can't remember what I was saying, but I'm sure it was no more discernible than looking at a bowl of alphabet SpaghettiOs, trying to decipher the message in the tomato sauce.
Remember how you climbed on me then, your hand on my mouth, and how you said, if you look at that old hag one more time, I'm going to burn you with your car's cigarette lighter? And, I couldn't look away, all the blue and bright red on her face. You sighed and pressed the lighter in, waiting until it popped back out, and you grabbed it and pressed it to my thigh, burning a circle into my leg like the outside ring of an eclipse. I winced and you plopped down on top of me, sliding me in like a hand into a glove, and you bounced up and down, your knee stuck between the seat and the door, the other in a cup holder. The old woman put her makeup away and looked over at us for the first time, disgusted. You grabbed my hand and put it on your tit, pressing my nails into your nipple. The old woman put her car in reverse and sped off, yelling something about perversion and God. You said, look at me, lookatme, LOOK AT ME! And I couldn't; I watched her car speed away and the whirlwind of dust in its wake. We were sweaty, we were slick. You bounced until you got yours and slid off, back to your seat; naked, glistening.
You hadn't let me finish and I stared at my penis still erect and I didn't know what to do and you just said, What? You opened the door and wandered off into the weeds to piss. The old woman was long gone. She could have been going to church. She could have been going somewhere to ask God for something she couldn't get herself.
I'm sorry I used you, you said when you came back, but there comes a time when you just have to take matters into your hands, you know? You kissed me on the cheek and I suddenly realized I was the only one naked.
I turned the El Camino away from the lot and drove west. Did you see all the antlion traps in that lot? You asked. I shook my head. I didn't know what you were talking about. The antlion makes a sort of inverted ant hill, you said, and it waits at the bottom of the funnel shape and waits for an ant or maybe a small spider to fall in. The ant tries to get out, but sand and dirt keeps slipping beneath it and the ant goes down, down, until it reaches the antlion's jaws.
Does the ant know to pray for mercy and forgiveness? I asked. Remember how you looked out the window and the blur passing by? How you asked what my deal was with her anyway? I tried to tell you but the car was moving just so fast, the windows down and the landscape roaring past. I tried to tell you I wanted to know her secrets. I sped up, the needle shaking as we went faster and faster. The car rattled. It felt like pieces were going to start falling off the El Camino. I couldn't hear my own voice or yours or the music on the radio. I whispered secrets into the din. You said, What? I can't hear you and I kept talking and you said, what what what. I wondered if God could hear me through all of that noise. You wanted to know what I had to say. I pressed the gas. I let the roar flood my ears.
Who Do You Believe Will Save You Now?
I reminded Marisol that there was still the issue of burying Memphis. We called him Memphis because, well, what the fuck do you call someone whose name you never heard and who you know nothing about and who you picked up in Memphis and drove across the plains? She ignored me as she walked the platform, people streaming out of the CTA train and past her, focused and frantic like fish escaping the mouth of some great whale. She stopped a woman and pulled a burgundy, leather-bound Bible out of her pack. She began her pitch. The woman checked her watch. I believed Marisol would sell that Bible because strangers wanted to trust her when she spoke to them. We needed money for a shovel and a flashlight and gas. We sold stolen Bibles so we could eat.
Before he died, Memphis said he could see people's auras or something, that the color of this thing around them told him if they wanted to kill him or fuck him or recruit him into a cult. I had asked him why he would get into strangers' cars and wasn't he afraid of someone turning him into a handbag? God has a plan, he said afterward, and I looked at Marisol like, I don't know what that means.
The woman took Marisol's hands and they lowered their heads. They prayed. I watched Marisol's lips move and I made out words like Heaven and redeem and then she said, louder, o you fill me with your love, Lord, and they both raised their hands in the air like soldiers surrendering. Another train rumbled by, all these strangers I would never meet coming and going.
Faith is the engine that runs our hearts, Marisol said when she came back to me on the bench, grace is the gasoline.
What if the gas catches on fire? I asked. The woman passed by, running a hand through Marisol's hair as she went, muttering bless you, child, bless you like a song. I heard somewhere that cannibals, when they eat another person, believed they could become as strong as that person. That they would believe in ghosts if that person believed in ghosts. That the world would change. I wondered if I ate just a piece of that woman's heart if I would begin to see Mary in pieces of bread, whether I would be compelled to sing in praise of something I could not see.
Don't talk like that, Marisol said. You know I don't like it and neither does He.
Marisol believed she could see angels and pointed them out regularly. Sometimes we played a game in a crowded place where I pointed to someone I thought might be an angel and, usually, she said, no, that's no angel, not at all.
We need to do something about Memphis, I said. He had died, overdose or heart attack or who-knows-what, on the road, just went from living to not in a whisper. We had pulled over just outside Chicago to get Big Gulps and realized he was gone. Marisol said a prayer as she held his hand. I asked if there were angels around him. She scowled at me, closed her eyes, and returned to her prayer.
Whatever we do, we need more money. I only asked for five dollars. I gave her more Bibles and I took the rest. We separated. People gathered around her and she told them stories. I talked to a fat man about forgiveness and revelation. I don't got no need for your books, he said.
I met Marisol back at the car. I still had all my Bibles, and she was empty-handed. I shrugged and thumbed let's go, let's go. We drove west into Iowa.
You didn't even try, Marisol said when I took the shovel out of the trunk. She helped me take the tarp Memphis was rolled in out of the car. You got to want something so bad that the universe can't help but give it to you, she said.
I followed the path of the headlights out into a cornfield, dragging the tarp behind me. I dug into the dirt, deeper and deeper. I looked back to the small point of light in the distance for Marisol's silhouette, for some sign that she was back there, waiting. I put Memphis in the hole and started to cover him with earth. I knew I should say some words, but I didn't believe in any of the things I might have said. None of it would matter when the worms made their way into his heart, anyway. I wanted to drink his blood and become him. I would lay in the corn and wait for the angels to come to me and I would go to Marisol and take her hands. I would say come, come, let them carry us away.
About the Author: Justin Lawrence Daugherty is the Gigantic Sequins 2012 Flash Fiction Contest winner. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in or is forthcoming soon from The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Bluestem, Midwestern Gotchic, Heavy Feather Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. He writes, lives and acts as Managing/Founding Editor of Sundog Lit from Omaha, Nebraska. He is at work on a novella-in-short-shorts, among other things.