2017 Barrett Winner

2nd Place Joshua Hillary

When Cody returned home from the night-shift, his brother Hugh sat at the living-room table. Hugh’s hands shook violently underneath the cone of orange light spilling from the lamp, and between his thumb and index finger he cradled a wedding ring. He leaned his head forward, bathing the craggy contours of his face in auburn, and Cody could see his brown eyes. Cody sat at the other end of the table, and kicked off his boots.

“How’d you get in?” Cody said, sinking backwards into his chair. “Mom and Dad,” Cody interlocked his arms across his chest “They say anything?” “Say anything about what?” “—You…” Hugh raised an eyebrow. “And what would they have to say about me?” “—Just about anything...” “Anything’s about the same as nothing—” Hugh quipped. “Smart ass... Probably wouldn’t be joking like that if you could see yourself.”

The last time Cody had seen his brother, they were standing over the body of Scott Cook—a customer and friend. After Cody was booted from his parent’s house, he had no choice but to lodge with Hugh. Hugh lived in a junky rental not far from where they used to live. So, Cody didn’t mind staying with his big brother—and besides the smell of musty sock that permeated the house—he rather enjoyed it. Much of their day consisted of random faces dropping-in, smoking on the sofa, and playing Nintendo. Cody knew his brother enjoyed dealing, the constant stream of unfamiliar faces made the house feel alive, but Hugh’s affection for his customers never clouded his ability to keep an arm’s length distance—to stay clean. Scott Cook was an early adoptee. A face they came to expect, even when the dropping-by became squatting, the cigarettes—needles, and the Nintendo—static. Scott was a regular of sorts—like a piece of furniture in their living room.

Scott was a gangly man. His wrists were as thin as a broomstick, and he had what they referred to as a ‘crustache.’ Simply put, a crustache is what comes between a five o’clock shadow and a mustache, and it usually has a ratty-neglectful quality about it—like a little patch of mold above your upper-lip that appears like crust from afar; popular with pre-teens, and in this case young adults. The ‘crustache’ comes into existence when a young-man—or sometimes young-lady—begin to grow stubble, and they lack the awareness—or knowledge—to remove it. Either because no one taught them, or because no one ever had the heart to tell them it was there in the first place. Scott Cook fell victim to both.

He would always recite the same story to new faces he met: “’Name’s Scott Cook… I come from a long line of Cooks. The name means exactly what you’d think: we cook… My grandpa owned a restaurant, cooked a mean shepherd’s pie. When he died, my Daddy took over, he bought a food truck, cooked a mean barbecue. Then Daddy kicked the bucket, so to keep tradition alive… I bought myself a pinto… and I can cook some mean heroin.” His mouth spat out a rusty cackle, mostly to drown out the uncomfortable silence that ensued.

Scott’s eyes rolled back and his lips blued. His body convulsed violently across Hugh’s living room carpet. Cody stretched his arm out in front of Hugh.

“If we call an ambulance, you think the cops will show?” “Fuck,” Hugh replied. His eyes shifted, racking his brain for answers. “Fuck. Fuck.”

Scott’s girlfriend, Karla, had sunk into the sofa and she was far too high to object. She murmured something—God knows what she meant. Karla had a thick cockney accent, and when she wasn’t stoned her speech was coarse. Cody found it hard to ignore its staccato rhythm. It pounded like a red primal drum against the walls of his head—warming the grooves of his brain with warm tangerine light. Despite Cody’s infatuation, his pride told him to leave her be, he’d never take a drug-addict home to his momma—and even so, he never understood why she would tolerate a waste of space like Scott Cook. He took another swig of Popov, and watched as Scott’s body went cold, underneath the blue halogen light.

Karla knew Scott wasn’t too bright, but she also knew exactly who he was. They had met via webcam years ago, and she felt comfortable telling him about the horrible times she’d endured. The baby she’d killed because it snuck inside her belly when she wasn’t looking. And how her family back-home faded into nothing more than a dial-tone out of retaliation. Scott wasn’t a great talker, but he was an exceptional listener—and that’s just what she wanted. He used to be a hefty man when they first met, and part of their deal was that Karla would date him if he promised to shed some of his ‘happiness’. So, it became their routine, to stay up till the wee hours of morning, talking into their phones as if they were standing right beside each other, until they succumbed to the gentle current of lethargy, pulling them ashore and laying them to rest. Karla was impressed that over the months they dated he’d lost the weight like he’d promised—but when she finally moved into his mobile-home in Cadillac, she discovered it wasn’t exercise that’d done it. By snorting crushed up Adderall, Scott learned he could control his appetite, but not the tooth-grinding stress that came along with it. So, he took Xanax, to relieve his dear teeth, and became deeply depressed. Thus, he turned to heroin, and he didn’t feel any which way—and that’s just what he wanted.

Hugh didn’t want Scott’s corpse in his house. He reasoned the police find junkies frozen in their cars or trap houses all the time—just a junkie being a junkie. So, he fished through Scott’s pockets for his car keys. He loaded the corpse into the passenger seat and parked it in the lot outside Scott’s trailer. Before he abandoned him in the icy car, he ransacked his pockets. He pulled everything out and formed a pile on the dash: an empty wallet, no pictures, no cards, matches, pocket lint, and an expired condom. As he’d already suspected—there was nothing of value here. But, inside Scott’s jacket, there lay hidden a small zip-up compartment, and from it Hugh pulled a wedding ring. He held the ring up to the light, it was so measly he had to squint to see the diamond. He wondered to himself how Scott went about stealing it. He probably took a beating or two, it wasn’t uncommon for Scott to return with black eyes sometimes, but if the ring was worth something, why would it still be in Scott’s possession? Maybe, he simply forgot it was there? Hugh dropped the ring into his shirt pocket, got out of the car, and headed to his house on foot. When he arrived, he didn’t go in. He hadn’t been outside in so long, he’d forgotten how much his house looked like a face from the outside, and in its eyes, he saw nothing but frosted glass concealing emptiness, and he could hear nothing, besides the air whispering through the rafters and trees. A secret—one he had never heard before this moment. He pulled the ring from his pocket, ran his finger along the grooves of its surface, and he kept walking, past the house, down the block, and through the trailer park until he disappeared into the bitter blue cold.

After Hugh had been missing a month or so, Cody went back to live with his parents. He had his things all packed in a trunk. He entered the living room, and his parents sat on the couch watching the news. The bright screen turned their faces blue, and Cody leaned beside the television expectantly, shifting his gaze between the two of them. But, their empty eyes stared ahead, into the massive blue screen, until Cody relented, realizing they would never look away. He climbed up the stairs to his old room and dropped his trunk. The room was empty, and a plume of dust moseyed through the sunlight coming from the window. He took a moment, so that the nostalgia could wash over him like a lonely gray cloud. He smiled, and closed his eyes to watch it pass with clarity but when he opened them, all he could see were the cobwebs tucked away in the nooks and crannies of his room. He shivered. One year he was so busy with school, he neglected to tear down the webs, and once the white cotton balls split open, it was too late, Cody woke up to a flood of black dots descending from the ceiling, crawling their six little legs all over his body and room. He itched the ghost of them off the back of his hair and neck, then headed downstairs, shutting the door behind him. He plopped down between his parents on the couch. The three of them watched as a man on the television walked past chalk silhouettes in the shape of humans. Cody thought they looked like ancient hieroglyphics, performing some jazzy dance number—and he smirked. Probably the most joy they’d experienced in their entire lives, he thought. But, as the camera panned out he could see each outline was numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, and that they were surrounded by yellow tape and blinking blue and red lights, and he ceased to grin. His mother said, “No one raises a finger, till it’s too late. Shame, isn’t it?” “…How long you think it takes to clean up a bloody mess like that?” Father replied. Cody turned his head left then right “Have you guys heard from Hugh?” and he was met with a long awkward pause. Cody’s father balled his fist and held it against his chest, pounding, clearing his throat “…Depends on how quickly they discovered the bodies, I suppose.” His mother shook her head “To think, people pass by a scene like that without ever knowing,” They all shook their heads. Cody’s father held up the remote and pounded on the volume button until they were forced into silence over the TV’s booming hollow sounds.

Two years later, Hugh’s sitting in his parent’s living room with Cody, underneath the orange lamp, eyeing the wedding ring in his hand. Cody looks at the ring “You getting married?” Hugh smirks. He plops the ring back into his pocket “You ever hear from Karla these days?” “Yeah, but she’s frigid. I went to visit her, she’s off the spoon and all, but she drinks like a fish… and, did I mention she’s frigid? She’s staying with this old broad, real nasty, she slapped me in the face, kicked me out. Completely unwarranted. Alls I did was ask Karla on a date. Druggies acting holier than thou.” Cody rolls his eyes, placing his hand against his face, rubbing the old wound. “Did you go to the funeral?” Hugh asks. “Nah, it felt weird, I didn’t know him that well. Ya’ know?” Cody picks up the remote from the counter-top. “But, he hung out at the house for years?” “Doesn’t mean I know him.” “You don’t have to be the guy’s best friend to go to his funeral.” “Why’re you busting my balls? You didn’t go neither. Probably too busy getting sauced by the looks of it.” Hugh breathes in “No… I didn’t go.” He murmurs. “But, you don’t feel bad at all?” Cody raises both his eyebrows in awe “Why should I?” And clicks the power button on the remote. “You don’t wond—” The blue light drowns everything in the room, including the lamp. The soft blue smooths over the ravines in Scott’s face, and Cody raises the volume, drowning out Hugh’s voice. Hugh sighs, grabs his jacket, and leaves again, into the bitter blue night.

Hugh stares at Karla’s house, and then retreats. He knows it’s a bad idea. He starts up the walk-way, but his feet quickly turn him around. After spending a moment deliberating with himself, he decides he’ll go to the liquor store first, take the night off, so he can tackle it in the morning. Just as he’s leaving Karla spots him. She’s just down the street carrying home a bottle of Jameson, and she glares at Hugh as he sits beneath the rust colored light from the street lamp. She takes off her gloves, puts them in her purse, and leans forward, each step pounding against the concrete.

When she’s within a couple yards, he notices her and turns, jumping in shock. She launches a multi-pronged assault on Hugh, and hits him with one cracking blow. It rings out over the moon-lit neighborhood ricocheting off the houses and snow. When Hugh stops to hold his face, he lifts his head up into the light. Karla can see the deep ravines eroded from his once youthful cheeks. She pants, leaning over, holding herself up off her knees.

Hugh pants, expelling little clouds from his mouth “I tried to turn myself in… They said I didn’t do anything wrong.” He puts the wedding ring in her hand, and lies down against the street lamp. He looks up to the top of the lamp and it looks like two eyes looking down. Karla looks at the ring, and she balls it in her fist, holding it against her mouth, and it looks almost as if she’s holding in a scream. She takes a deep breath. Walks over to Hugh and hands him her bottle of Jameson.

“No one on earth did a thing ta help Scott… Not even me.” She walks into her house, and slams the door shut. Hugh grabs his keys, and pops open the whiskey, taking sip after sip, until he’s good and drunk, by the time he’s done, the sun’s rising over the neighborhood, setting Hugh, the houses, and everyone ablaze in a bright auburn.