This is the 18th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “R“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “R” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(3,819 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Merle awoke, hungover, his tongue a furry turd. Perfunctorily, he checked Stella’s side of the queen-sized bed. No queen. The covers were smooth and the pillow perfectly plumped.
Stella was still dead, of course. Her new bed was a pine box in a dirt hole at Granger’s Cemetery on the outskirts of Galilee, Louisiana. Merle groaned and got to his feet. He winced when his swollen toe met the hardwood floor. Gout, again. Too much booze, too much fried food, too few shits given about his personal health.
He turned on the TV. The so-gay weatherman flounced in front of the green screen, promising his purple socks that Galilee was going to have a fabulous weekend.
Weekend, Merle thought. It’s Saturday. The third Saturday in the month. It’s Dylan Day.
Mildly excited, he checked his cell phone. There it was, confirmation. It was a text from his daughter, Janey.
It’s Dylan Day! Yay! Hope you didn’t forget (like last time). Dylan’s really excited to see his Pops. Mentioned something about Risky River. Did you promise him a fishing trip? Pick him up at 11 but make sure he’s back by 4. His pal, Jackson, is having his birthday party at the Jumpity Jungle. Thanks, Dad.
PS Don’t forget the Golden Rules: Buckle the booster seat and no – I repeat – NO booze while my son is in your custody.
Merle winced again. It wasn’t the gout this time, it was his daughter’s distrust that stung. One beer, he argued to the empty room, two at most. And now I’m like some raging alcoholic maniac? I actually drive better with a little booze in my cruise. And I wasn’t pulled over for driving erratically – it was the taillight.
Maybe if I’d had a little more help with Stella’s funeral arrangements, I’d have had more time to change that damned bulb . . . yes, Janey . . . I know Stella was just your step-mother, but she loved you like her own. When she died, where were you? Not with me. Not picking out funeral shoes or caskets or headstones . . . no, you and your douchey ‘partner’ were sunning your buns on a Caribbean cruise.
I volunteered to watch Dylan for you and Braden. Me. I did that. Despite Stella being sick. I just wanted to help. But when I needed help . . . ? I know they can’t turn a cruise ship around on a dime, but a call . . . a text . . . a seagull with a condolence note on its leg?
Merle wanted to smash his cell phone against the wall. The excitement surrounding Dylan Day had abashedly abandoned the room as his bowels now gurgled with sour bourbon. He was mad at Janey, mad at himself, mad at Stella, mad at the mad God that had caused it all. Mad.
At 11:18 he pulled up into Janey’s driveway. The sight of Dylan, his 4-almost-5-year-old grandson with a cane pole on his shoulder, washed away the anger.
“You’re late,” Janey said, installing the booster seat in the back of the rusty Ram’s extended cab.
Merle ignored her, reaching instead for the towheaded boy. Dylan dropped the fishing gear and leapt into his grandfather’s arms. “Hey, buddy,” Merle said. “You’ve grown a foot since I last saw you.”
Dylan puzzled, then examined his feet. “No, Pops, I only still got two. One, two.”
“Really,” Janey griped, fussing with a tangle of straps and buckles. “You’re old Dodge Ram? You couldn’t have driven Stella’s SUV?”
Merle opted for comedy over conflict. “You heard the joke about Dodge Rams, Dyllie?”
“No, Pops, what?”
Stella answered in sync: “If ya can’t dodge it, ram it.”
Dylan’s musical laugh scoured the plaque that had encrusted Merle’s soul. “Looks like we’re going fishing,” Merle said, collecting the pole and tackle box.
“Yeah, remember, you said,” Dylan maintained. “You said if I slept in my own bed allll night, you’d take me to Whisky River to catch bluegills?”
“Risky,” his mother corrected. “But you guys have to fish off the bridge. There are alligators and snakes out there. I don’t want you in a boat or canoe or raft or anything dangerous.”
Merle knelt and looked into the boy’s sky-blue eyes. “You really did it?” he asked. “You slept all night in your own bed?”
Janey tried to answer for him, but Dylan was the loudest. “I did, Pops. All night long. I did have one scary dream but I stayed in bed all night ‘til breakfuss.”
Janey waggled her hand, suggesting a half-truth.
Merle hugged Dylan and would have cried had he not thought it would upset him. “I’m so . . . so proud of you, Dylan. You are so brave.”
Dylan escaped the embrace and showed his Pops a zip-lock baggie filled with earthworms. “Bait,” he said, licking his lips. “Fat, juicy worms.”
Merle put Dylan’s gear in the back of his Ram. “Might want to unseal that bag a little. Those wigglers need oxygen.”
“Oxygen?” Dylan asked.
“Air,” Janey said. “We discussed this. Every living creature needs air.”
Dylan’s eyes narrowed and his nose crinkled. “What about bluegill fishes? They live underwater. When I go underwater in Jackson’s pool, I can’t breathe air. How can fishes breathe underwater?”
Ding! Janey got a text. “It’s Braden,” she said. “I’m late. Supposed to meet him for sushi.” She kissed Dylan and said, “You guys have fun. Hope they’re biting.”
“Bye, Mommy,” Dylan sang.
Janey turned back, as if she’d forgotten something. She strode boldly up to her father and kissed his scruffy cheek and declared, “I love you, Daddy.” She then ducked into her Subaru.
Merle touched the moisture on his cheek. Was it a trick? Had she kissed him in order to get a whiff of his breath? To ensure he didn’t mix his Cheerios with Old Crow? No, he decided, allowing a crack of sunlight into his darkened heart. It was genuine. His daughter loved him.
Over the rugged red-dirt road, the green Ram bucked and bounced. “You okay back there,” Merle asked his grandson.
“I’m good,” Dylan said, sipping from his juice box. “Pops, what’s that up there? The little bouncy guy?”
Merle looked at where the boy was pointing – to the plastic man on his dashboard. “That?” he asked. “On my dash? That’s Jesus. See, his head bobbles. Neat, huh?”
“Yeah but,” Dylan persisted, “who is he?”
Merle allowed one eye to examine the blasphemous novelty while negotiating a winding long trail. “Jesus,” Merle chirped. “He’s, you know, the son of God.”
“Is he a superhero?”
Merle shifted uncomfortably. “Ehh, not exactly.”
“Can he fly?”
“Yes,” Merle said. “He can fly.”
“Is he strong?”
“I suppose,” Merle allowed. “He’s God.”
Dylan’s empty juice box burbled. “I thought you said he’s the son of God.”
“I did,” Merle said, treading lightly. “You listen well, Dyllie.”
“So which is it, Pops?”
Merle looked at the silent icon, hoping for inspiration. He’d been a lapsed, but compliant, Catholic before Stella died of breast cancer. In the intervening months, he’d found solace in full-blown anti-theism. “It’s complicated,” he explained. “Some folks say he and his father are the same . . . but different.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Dylan said. “Why is Mr. Jesus wearing a dress?”
Merle laughed. “That’s a robe. That’s what men wore a couple thousand years ago.”
“Is Mr. Jesus a good guy or a bad guy?” Dylan asked.
Merle saw himself rummaging through Stella’s shoe closet, frantic to find something red, but not sexy; stylish, but not flashy. Funeral shoes! Why would anyone need funeral shoes?
“Most folks,” Merle granted, “think Mr. Jesus is a good guy. A very good guy.”
There was a long pause and Merle prayed that he’d put the matter to bed. Then Dylan asked: “What do you think, Pops? Is Mr. Jesus a good guy?”
“We’re here,” Merle said, greatly relieved. “Risky River. Look out bluegills, here we come!”
“You’re crazy, Pops,” Dylan laughed.
Four hours later, Dylan complained: “Why didn’t they bite, Pops?”
“They did bite,” Merle said. “Oh, you’re talking about the fish . . . I’m talking about the mosquitos.”
“That’s not funny.”
Merle buckled the boy into the booster seat. “Really? I thought that was good joke. You don’t think it’s funny?”
Merle tickled his grandson until peals of laughter poured forth. “Then why are you laughing so hard?” he asked.
When settled, Dylan asked: “Maybe we should have prayed to Jesus.”
“What?” Merle asked, cranking the old truck.
“Pray for fishes,” Dylan said. “I heard a story from Jackson’s mommy about Jesus giving people fishes and toads . . . she said all you have to do is pray. So she made us pray before we ate our chicken nuggets and macaroni.”
Merle was miffed. “Toads? I think she meant loaves – as in bread. But that’s not the point. Jackson’s mommy shouldn’t be telling you this shit.”
Dylan put his hands over his ears. “Pops, you said a bad word.”
“Sorry, buddy, but she has no right imposing her whacky religion on a susceptible child.”
“Is praying the same as wishing, Pops?” Dylan asked.
Merle deflected. “Bet you’re looking forward to the party at Jumpity Jungle.”
“What do you do at Jumpity Jungle, anyway?” Merle pressed.
“Pops,” Dylan demanded, “is prayer same as a wish?”
Merle laughed mirthlessly. “I guess you jump, right? I mean, why else would they call” –
“Tell me,” Dylan screamed, drumming his fists and feet.
Merle turned and exceeded the child’s volume. “YES! A prayer is a wish. It’s a wish to a magical mad man that probably doesn’t even exist . . . okay?”
“Okay,” Dylan said, satisfied. “Can we get a Happy Meal on the way home?”
Janey was waiting in the driveway, tapping her watch.
Merle unbuckled Dylan, kissed his forehead, and said, “We’ll get ‘em next time, boss.”
Janey noticed the ketchup on Dylan’s shirt. “Did you buy him a Happy Meal, Dad? You know he’s eating pizza at Jackson’s party.”
Merle pretended to receive a text message. “Gotta go, dear. Meeting Jango and Skaggs for sushi.”
“Not funny,” she said, forgiving him. “Thanks for hanging with the little twerp today. Braden’s not the fishing type.”
“No, problem-o,” Merle said. “But you may want to chat up Jackson’s mother about preaching Jesus to the kid. He jabbered on and on about Jesus and prayer and” –
“Prayer,” Dylan said, overhearing the adult whispers. “That’s how I quit having bad dreams – the dreams about Pops getting eatin’ up by a dinosaur. I just prayed it away.”
Janey looked at Merle and Merle shrugged. “Ball’s in your court now, little girl.”
Merle entered his house, pained by its dank vacancy. It hadn’t changed much since Stella had died. Same décor: Ashton lamps and strewn pillows and taupe walls and pastoral art. “Hellooooo,” he bellowed, for absolutely no reason.
He mimed a quick kiss upon invisible lips. “Yes, dear, we had tons of fun. But no luck with the bluegills. Only thing bitin’ were the mosquitos.”
He paused and smiled. “I knew you’d like that one, Stella.” He mimed another kiss. This one longer, more loving.
When the moment passed, his smile faded and his eyes glistened. The charade was over. Dylan Day was done. He needed a drink.
After showering, he called Jango and Skaggs. “A beer?” “Yes.” Nine beers?” “Hell yes!”
The plan was to meet at a tavern in west Galilee called The Office. If the deceptive name fooled your wife, Merle once said, it’s time to get a smarter wife.
At 2am, Psycho Suzi, the longsuffering bartender, pointed to the door. “Out,” she demanded. “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”
“C’mon, Suzi,” Jango pleaded, “one more round. One more for the road.”
She slapped the bill down and said, “That’s another thing. Call yourselves a taxi or Uber. There’s a police traffic stop on Highway 9. You boys look like you’d blow a hundred on the breathalyzer.”
The three staggered out of The Office. “Me and Skaggs is drivin’,” Jango said. He dropped his keys and almost fell retrieving them. “I know some backroads that’ll get us home to the eastside of Galilee. Follow me, Merle.”
“I don’t know,” Merle said, thinking of the taillight incident.
“C’mon,” Skaggs goaded. “Risk it.”
“Yeah,” Jango echoed. “Risk it for the biscuit.” The two men howled with laughter and climbed into the Jeep.
“For the biscuit,” Merle mumbled, climbing into the cab of his Ram. “What are you looking at?” he barked at Jesus. “It’d cost 50 bucks for an Uber. You got 50 bucks? No? Didn’t think so . . . fucking hippy.”
Merle revved the Ram and followed the taillights of Jango’s Jeep Wrangler. He knew a few trails, but Jango and Skaggs grew up in Galilee – they were natives. They hunted and fished the forest since they were boys . . . boys Dylan’s age. They knew every bog, branch, swamp, stream, road, path, and animal trail.
Within 10 minutes, Merle was mystified. He did not recognize the trees, terrain, or trail. If it weren’t for Jango’s twin crimson taillights, he’d be hopelessly lost. Even still, the Ram was having trouble keeping up.
“Slow down, you drunk idiots,” Merle said, and Jesus bobbed his head affirmatively.
Merle concluded that Jango must have forgotten that he was following, because he was jinking and jiving through the woods like a scared swamp deer. Merle reached into his pocket for his phone. The shrinking red taillights bounced, bounced, bounced . . . then blinked out.
Merle pressed the pedal, trying to catch up. Simultaneously, he thumbed buttons on his cell phone. Nothing happened. He tried voice command. “Siri, call Jango.” No signal. For a split second, he channeled all his inebriated attention to the phone. “Damnit, Siri!” he shouted. “If you can’t fucking call Jango, call Skaggs?”
The front right tire of the Dodge Ram smashed into a sinkhole. The truck dipped then pitched then flipped. It rolled off the road and tumbled downward, cutting a crooked swath through the sloping wetlands, into Risky River.
Merle called on the name of Christ as he descended into the foggy waters. “Save me, Jesus,” he belched, and was punched in the face by the Ram’s airbag. He saw a smear of stars, then his red idiot lights, then phosphorescent fish shimmers in the black lagoon. After a timeless tumble, he stopped, caught in a quagmire of weeds and roots and water.
Upended, drunk, disoriented, and on the precipice of panic, Merle brawled with the airbag. As air seeped out of the bag, rancid water seeped into the Ram’s cab.
“Why?” a Semitic voice spoke.
It was his FM radio, Merle thought. Or his phone or the croak of a bullfrog.
“Why should I save you?” the voice persisted. “You don’t even believe I exist.”
Merle pushed the sagging bag into the floorboard, which was up, not down. In the glow of the red idiot lights, he saw the bobble-doll, Mr. Jesus. “Are you . . . are you talking to me?” Merle asked.
There was no answer. Merle’s head was wet and he tried to touch it, hoping it was swamp water and not gushing blood. However, his movement was restricted. The flipping had twisted the seatbelts around his wrists, literally tying his hands.
“My head,” he said, “it’s wet. I think it’s bleeding.”
“Reminds me of time when I was tortured for your sins,” Jesus said. “The centurions forced a crown of thorns on my head . . . what a bloody mess. In my eyes, my beard, my mouth. I can taste it now. You’re lucky, you’re upside-down; the blood is flowing opposite.”
“Concussion,” Merle whispered, diagnosing his delusion.
“Or drunk,” Jesus said, then added: “Or both.”
Merle felt a thick trickle of silty water enter his earholes. “Water’s coming in,” he shouted. “The cab is flooding! We’ll drown!”
“We’ll drown?” Jesus asked. “Who? You and who? Me? The magical mad man that probably doesn’t exist?”
Merle recalled the words he’d spoken; recalled the hot emotion that had prompted them. “My wife,” he said, “I was distraught. I prayed. I prayed every day, all day, and nothing happened.”
“She died,” Jesus corrected. “That’s not nothing. Perhaps she’s in a better place. Perhaps heaven.”
Reverse rivulets of tears streamed from Merle’s eyes. “Is she in heaven?” he asked, half joyful, half jealous.
“No,” Jesus said. “She’s out there, in Risky River. The Funeral Director, Grady Granger, tosses them all out there. He’s been scamming Galilee for decades. Taking your grief money, then feeding your loved ones to the alligators. Then selling the same casket to the next sad sucker. Hey, look, there’s Stella now. Look out the driver’s side window.”
Merle turned his head, seeing the murky visage of a white leg. “No,” he groaned, then was converted when he saw the left shoe – the red funeral shoe he’d chosen for her. “Nooooo!”
“Yessss,” Jesus countered, bobbing and nodding.
“I thought you were kind,” Merle cried. “The bible stories . . . you’re supposed to be the God of love.”
“Which is it?” Jesus snapped. “Am I kind, mad, or made-up?”
“I don’t know,” Merle said. “The water.” He spurted out a mouthful. “It’s getting deep. Can you save me?”
Something bumped the overturned truck from outside. It caused the cab to rock and the dash to shake. Jesus’ articulated head pitched back and gales of laughter filled the cab. “Save you? Save you? Why on God’s green earth would I save you?”
“Because,” Merle started. “Because of Dylan. He loves me and it would destroy him.”
Jesus’ pivoting head ceased. “Your grandson – the one with the bad dreams?”
“Yes,” Merle said hesitantly. “He loves his Pops.”
Lit with the red glow of the idiot lights, Jesus said: “His dreams . . . the bad one . . . tell me about the bad one.”
A leach fastened to Merle’s eyelid. He tried to free his hands from the bondage of the nylon belts, but could not. “The bad one,” Merle recounted. “Something about dinosaurs – they eat me.”
The glass of the passenger-side window cracked. A fount of foul water rushed in. Along with it, the snout of an enormous alligator.
“Dinosaur,” Jesus cackled. “There’s your dinosaur, Merle. How do you like me now?”
The bull-gator thrashed, scrabbling into the cab, snapping its snout. Merle could smell its flesh-rot breath. Fortunately, the bottom third of the window glass held, preventing full access.
Fully submerged, Merle held his breath. He recalled the conversation with Dylan.
How can fish breathe underwater?
The alligator lunged for him, but caught the shoulder-strap of a seatbelt in the hinge of it jaws. It rolled, trying to free itself. In so doing, Merle’s right hand was liberated. He reached across his body for the door latch. It popped, but the outside pressure would not permit an easy opening.
This was his death, he thought, prophesied by little Dylan. In seconds, he would be either drown or be devoured by a dinosaur, with Jesus as his only witness.
He craned his neck to find the bobble-head toy. Of course it was there, submerged in the scarlet waters, glued to the dash, laughing through its painted beard.
He snatched it with his right hand, breaking it free from its perch. In his palm, he could feel the doll’s spasms of laughter. Merle heard the muffled, godless guffaws and it infuriated him. With his last gasps of air and energy, he yanked his left hand free, snapping the scaphoid and lunate bones in his wrist. Adrenaline fueled his grip. He screamed into the rising waters as he twisted, decapitating Mr. Jesus.
The red-eyed alligator wriggled its algae-slimed hide through the window, regardless of the shards, hell-bent on the hapless, helpless meal. Merle began to lose consciousness – too much fear, too little air.
Eaten, he thought, by a dinosaur. Whatta way to go.
Then he thought of Dylan. In the rearview mirror, he saw him in the NICU, premature, wrinkled and pink, yet perfectly perfect. He saw Dylan hit a piñata on his second birthday, squealing as candy rained down. He saw him fishing for bluegills – on Dylan’s Day – this third Saturday of the month. He saw him catch a football in the endzone . . . and when he pulled off his helmet to kiss a cheerleader, he was a chiseled teenager with sky-blue eyes. He saw him in a tux. Saw him in a hospital gown, holding his own newborn.
That’s when I’m supposed to go, Merle thought. Twenty – maybe twenty-five years from now. Not today. Not on Dylan’s Day.
The alligator’s brain thought differently. Merciless and determined, it lunged forward, mouth agape, eyes ablaze. Merle looked into it glowing red eyes, intrigued by the black slashes of its pupils.
No, he thought. “No,” he shouted.
With his last scraps of strength, Merle attacked the attacking animal. He hammered the snaggled snout and jowls with no effect. Then, as if divinely decided, he stabbed the plastic, headless Jesus doll into the eyes of the baleful beast.
It worked. To his amazement, the blinded reptile thrashed and then retreated. Merle unclasped the seatbelt and then barged the door with his shoulder. He was out. Out of the cab, but still underwater in risky waters.
His lungs and brain were inflamed. He was disoriented. Under the black water, he was as blind as the beast, not knowing up from down. And then there was a light.
Merle stopped flailing. His body slackened as he regarded the penetrating light. To follow it, he thought, was folly. It would lead him to the devils in heaven that had laughed at his plight and murdered his wife. Angered, he resisted the allure of the light. With his damaged hand, he squeezed the head of Mr. Jesus, crushing it like an eggshell.
As he turned away to swim down into the sucking muck, he heard his name. “Merle.”
It was Stella. She was naked and beautiful, her breast un-ravaged by disease. She reached for his face, fixing him in her cold hands. For a few scant seconds, they were man and wife, alive and loving. She smiled as if to say that all was well, and that all would be well. And then she kissed him.
Suddenly, oxygen infused his lungs. Simultaneously, reason infused his brain. The light, he recognized, was not supernatural or celestial. It was Jango’s V-1 Tactical Lamp, the one he and Skaggs used to jacklight deer out of season.
Stella pushed him away, hurling him to the surface.
When he crashed through the ceiling of swamp water, he gasped and splashed and inhaled great and grateful gulps of night air.
“Merle,” Jango called. “That you?”
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
Rambler 6 <<Link
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