Published Monthly



Prison Etiquette
by Mike Ross

Frank had just finished telling his story, waiting with a triumphant gleam in his eyes for my response.

I exhaled slowly, cigarette smoke seeping from my lips.

“Bullshit,” I said.

“Nope.” Frank shrugged, grinning.

“Really?”

“Yup.”

I rolled the cigarette back and forth methodically between my teeth, my index finger swirling the surface of a lukewarm vodka tonic, my mind searching for a biting phrase. It found one.

“And she bought that shit?”

Frank’s grin disappeared.

It was the same old bar – the booths crowded, the red leatherette seats worn out and deformed from a thousand different asses, the tables uneven with loose screws in the supports, the long curving counter by the taps irrevocably scathed by the sweaty scabs of condensation and the blackened scars of rubbed-out cigarette butts. The walls refracted the smoke and the filth back at us through smeared mirrors named Coors, Budweiser, Heineken, whatever. The usual place. Frank’s and mine ...

I lit another cigarette, the first one still smoldering in a patch of deformed butts in a plastic ashtray. Smoking like a fiend, as always, while I drank, and well on pace to burn the rest of the pack before the night was over.

Frank wrinkled his nose.

“Chain smoking again?” he said, jerking back as I puffed a cloud into his face.

“Fuck that. You didn’t answer my question.”

“Seemed rhetorical.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Listen,” he said, scratching his nose, “I think you’re missing the point, though.”

“I am?”

“Yes.”

“All right.” I picked up my drink again and downed it in one quick swallow, felt that familiar burning sensation sting my nostrils as tears snuck into the ridges of my eyes, felt it all disappear, then I sucked another slow drag on my cigarette. “Then you tell me what the point was.”

“I didn’t make it up,” he said.

I just stared back, waiting for him to expound.

“That time I met her, it happened,” Frank continued. “It really happened. I don’t know if she actually remembered me, though, but hell ... who would? It all happened a long time ago.”

“But you remembered, eh?”

“That’s right. I remembered her, at least. It’s pretty amazing, after three years and all.”

“So, you gonna go out with her?”

“I guess. Maybe. I got her number, at least.”

“Well, good for you,” I said.

Frank dismissed his eyes from mine, looking around the bar, directing his gaze to a pair of girls at the pool table. My eyes followed. One chick was dressed like a skank – a blonde wearing a cheap red dress that shone like snake skin in the overhead lights. The other was a short brunette in tight denim jeans, her breasts enormous beneath a white pullover.

“Blonde’s not bad,” I said.

“I know the other one,” Frank said, motioning to the brunette. “We had Econ together last semester.”

“Yeah?” I looked at her again, chuckling. “Quite a rack.”

Frank nodded absently.

“She’ll have back problems for sure,” I continued. Frank rose from his seat.

“I’m gonna go say hi,” he said, not invitingly. “You need another drink?”

“Hey, don’t hurt yourself,” I said, rising slowly. “You go say hi. I’ll be at the bar.”

I watched him amble over to the girls as I plopped onto a barstool. The brunette hugged Frank almost immediately, nearly squeezing the life out of him as she planted a wet kiss on his cheek. The blonde smiled as she was introduced, shaking Frank’s hand politely.

I turned to face the taps as some Van Halen song ripped out of the speaker propped up in the corner. The entire length of the counter was stocked with the usuals – tidily pressed polos, long-sleeve plaids with dirty white college caps, wavy long hairdos smelling of strawberries atop spaghetti strap tops or cardigan sweaters, boys and girls inching and pressing and smiling and whooping amongst each other as a lone barkeep tap-danced curtly down the line, pointing, listening, turning, mixing, charging, then moving on.

I held out a folded five-dollar bill between my middle and index fingers, waiting at the corner, luring the bartender with a paltry offering ... shit, what's that guy’s name? Sam? Scott? Cyrus? No no no, it's –

“Steve!” I barked.

The bartender, barely twenty-one, turned and smirked in my direction as he wiped off a mug with a sickeningly damp towel.

“What’s goin’ on, Tommy?” he said.

“Nothin’. Can you hook me up here?”

“Yeah, just a sec.”

He walked to the opposite side, filled a mug, then rushed back to its buyer before hopping back to me, grinning as a pair of ball caps bitched for being looked over.

“What’ll it be?” he said.

“Bourbon and Coke, easy on the ice.”

He nodded and took the bill from my fingers, returning a few moments later with a highball and change. I took the drink and waved off his other hand.

“Thanks,” he said, dropping two ones into a tall tip jar crammed with quarters. “Give it a sip.”

I shot a quick swallow, brambles cutting into my throat as I coughed involuntarily.

“Easy on the ice,” Steve chirped.

“And the Coke! Christ!”

Must’ve been at least two shots in there and not much else. I smiled as I walked back toward our booth, then stopped, two scavengers having commandeered the spot in our absence. They barely acknowledged me as I cursed under my breath.

Frank sidled up to me, clucking his tongue.

“We lose the booth?” he said.

“Yup.”

“C’mon,” he said, patting my elbow. “Kathy and her friend Michelle’ve got the pool table. I put a quarter down.”

“Um.” I hesitated, looking back at the pricks in the booth – our booth, goddammit ...

“What’d you say?” Frank asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Fuck it.”

I followed him to where the girls were, the blonde quacking with some plaid shirt, the brunette reaffirming a grip on Frank’s waist, her face embalmed with puppy love. She beamed at Frank as he turned to introduce me.

“Kathy, this is my roommate ...”

She smiled as kindly as possible, obviously uninterested in my unshaven, untanned, unsophisticated pallor. But she spewed out the usual chatter anyway – you know, like “Soooo, how long have you known Frank?” and “Are you in school?” and all that kind of shit, and I answered succinctly, ending the conversation after maybe twenty seconds.

That’s all we could both take, I figured. Besides, it was all the same bullshit, and I knew she couldn’t offer much more. She was a typical bitch, stupid and drunk, hip-locked to Frank like that; just another factory-made bimbo fresh off the conveyor belt, like too many others ...

But Frank seemed to like her.

They were talking between each other now, almost nose to nose, indicating that my privilege to interact had obviously passed.

I lit up another cigarette, catching a glimpse of the blonde approaching us from the left. She talked directly to Kathy in low, quick whispers, eyeing Frank and myself sparingly. Then she stepped toward me, her copper tan outshining the snake skin dress, her cheeks gleaming like polished marble.

“You’re Frank’s roommate?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Tommy.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, offering her hand – another in an unending cast of handshakes in my time. She turned to Frank. “You guys gonna play us here, or what?” she said, poking Frank’s chest. “Rack ‘em!”

She then returned quickly to her perch near the plaid shirt guy, running her scarlet fingernails along his back in greeting. She could do that, of course – just come and go as she pleased amongst the drunken and the horny – because of the perfectly tanned skin, the flowing blonde hair, the red dress that pressed against her, making her ass round and shiny like a ripe apple. Yeah, she knew, goddammit. She knew guys noticed that shit ...

I racked the balls tight.

Kathy’s break was pathetic, scattering most of the balls a few inches from their original cluster. Frank blew his turn by completing the act, balls careening and bouncing, a couple dropping – he didn’t care while Kathy was there.

He couldn't be a bigger schmuck, standing there with this faceless girl only minutes after reciting that tale to me of how he wooed the girl of his dreams into going out with him ...

And shit, what a pathetic story that had been, too – even more so because it was actually true. I mean, I’d heard some wowers in my time, even used a few if it meant getting a piece before my beer buzz wore off, but not from Frank. I should have known better than to ask if it was bullshit. Of course it hadn’t been. Not from Frank. Not from Golden Boy. Not from Mister “I wouldn’t know if a girl liked me unless she shoved her chest into my face first.”

I don't know, he was always a shy one. Hell, from that perspective, maybe I should’ve been happy for him, standing there with this Kathy chick while having this other girl lined up, a beer in one hand and a bitch in the other, a man among men, king of the fuckin’ world ...

Then again, maybe he knew that. At least he was acting that way. I hated it when he’d get cocky like this, like he’s fuckin’ allowing me to come over and play pool in his royal presence. Fuckin’ prick. Acting like he can barely tolerate me while he’s trying to get on Miss Tits over there. She’d probably be acting differently if she knew ...

“Hey, Frank, did you tell Kathy your story?” I asked as I chalked my cue.

“What story?” Kathy chirped.

“Um,” Frank coughed, “It’s no big deal ...”

“Sure it is,” I said as I sank the three in the corner. “The one about that girl you met? That was a cool story.” My mouth cocked into a tight grin.

“C’mon, Frank,” Kathy chided as Michelle walked over.

Reluctantly, Frank retold most of the things I’d heard at our booth, but without the sincerity, without as much detail, and without the emotion I’d witnessed before.

I turned my head sideways, still grinning that uncontrollable grin, watching Kathy’s reaction to Frank’s discovery of Super Girl. Of course, this time it was just “some girl” that he’d met “one time” that he wanted to “hang out with."

It didn’t matter, though. Frank could’ve given that Dream Woman of his a crew cut and a case of rickets for all the good it would’ve done; nothing could affect Kathy’s reaction to the tale.

I sank three more balls before missing on the seven. Kathy grabbed a cue from Michelle without much more than a funny grin, like she was constipated, and lined up a crappy shot on the twelve. It appeared her buzz was wearing off rapidly.

I went back to the bar, sensing Frank’s glare.

I stayed up at the counter, leaning slightly forward on the stool, in no true hurry to return to the game. Frank was good enough to finish up, or if he didn’t I was sure the girls would have no qualms about him shooting for me. Besides, my return wasn’t anxiously anticipated – I was pretty positive about that. Yeah, I’d done enough favors for Frank for the time being.

Steve spotted me after a few minutes, placing another drink before me without ceremony. He motioned over to the pool table.

“You know those girls?” he asked.

“No,” I said without turning around.

“Blonde's not bad.”

“Yeah. I think Frank’s, uh, lookin’ to hook up with the other one.”

“Oh yeah?” said Steve, somewhat half interested, before disappearing to another section of the ranting masses waiting to be served.

“Yesssss,” I slurred, staring at the mirror behind the bar. “Yesss he izzzz ...”

My reflection measured me from beyond the taps. It was no wonder I was being blown off left and right lately. The scruff on my face had gone far past simple five o’clock shadow; it was almost a scraggly beard, highlighted by a fluff of goatee gristle along my chin. My hair looked like black feathers, tattered and slick, bristling in shiny tufts of styling gel. I matted it down as inconspicuously as possible – it was still damp from a shower one hour earlier – and wiped my hand across my black corduroys. Black hair, gray shirt, black cords, black boots, white skin. I looked like a demon, a far cry from Frank’s patented preppy Ken doll image.

People used to say we looked like brothers ...

I could barely recognize myself now, there in that smoky barroom mirror, except for my eyes. That odd shade of yellow-green, “like a golden sunset” as a girl had once commented. They were still the same. They’d always be the same, no matter what I looked like ...

But who should give a fuck what I look like, anyway? I was tired of it. Tired of primping, combing, shaving, ironing and brushing for them. For them. There could never be anything for me ... no, always for them, those fucking people and their fucking stuck-on smiles ...

Fuck it. Fuck them. That was all over and done with. I’d dress however I liked, be whoever I liked. If it looked repulsive to those worthless whores, so be it. I was still the same person, with the same eyes, with the same mind. Surely someone could appreciate that. But if no one ever did ... well, then maybe I could justify being depressed, because that truly sounded fucking horrific ...

Fuck the bar scene, man. That’s what’s fucking me up. Just fuck it ... all of it –

“Hey.”

It was Frank, pulling me back as he clapped me on the shoulder.

“You doin’ alright?” he asked, the words falling in a very, very flat tone.

“Ohhh, drunk seems an apt description,” I quipped.

“Maybe you should take it easy.”

“Shoor, shooor!” I managed a balanced glance back at the pool table. Four guys chalking up. “Girls leave?”

“Yeah, they’re heading down to Joe’s Tavern ...”

My left cheek twitched involuntarily at hearing the bar name. Frank looked like he was going to say more, but hesitated. I read the look. Ohhh boy, I thought. Here it comes ...

“And Kathy invited us to meet up with them ...”

Anywhere but Joe’s Tavern ...

“So I told her we’d meet up with ‘em later, unless ...”

I hooked the entire drink into my throat, felt the warmth coat my stomach, and set the highball on the counter with a loud clunk.

Joe’s fuckin’ Tavern. Jesus Horatio Christ …

“Let’s go,” I said.

I sensed some gooseflesh as we stepped out into the chilly air, one brisk gust whipping across my open leather jacket, lapping against my chest, spreading like a million pinpricks into my extremities – like cold, fresh water splashing my face, refreshing and clean, my heavy alcohol buzz eroding slowly but not completely.

Frank walked a little ahead of me, his steps deliberate, his direction unquestionable, his manner uncharacteristically quiet. The surge of boyish energy that had welled up in both of us upon leaving the apartment had all but totally extinguished itself, for me because of too much alcohol too quickly, and for Frank ... ?

Yeah, he was still pissed. He didn’t say anything for close to a minute as we strolled down the main drag, Joe’s Tavern two blocks away, warm yellow awning lights leading us onward through a haze of fresh midnight dew.

I occupied myself by observing the clots of people passing us – frat clones in boisterous hordes, self-hugging coeds in clothes not quite warm enough hustling through the late night chill, a few lone pedestrians with their heads down, walking anywhere ...

There was almost a distinct design in how they all flowed from one place to the next, crisscrossing and passing and stopping and going, endlessly spreading, endlessly converging, until those welcoming lights above the street went out, doors locked, and the crowds dwindled and disappeared. Deserting those way stations and moving on to after-hours boozers at rented-out shithouses or to dimly-lit apartments for a 3 a.m. buzz fuck, or simply home to their beds to lie back with their arms and legs splayed out to watch their ceilings twirl before puking all over themselves, or passing out, or both.

I’d watched plenty of ceilings spin ...

I found my fists clenched tight in my coat pockets, my teeth pressing and grinding, holding back desperately the urge to scream, to just shriek out loud at everyone and everything that was playing before my eyes – all that I’d seen for four and a half years. The same bars, the same bitches and assholes, the same flow, constantly, perpetually, the same old shit for years and years ... and I was never a part of it, I couldn’t allow myself to be a part of it. Because it wasn’t me. It would never be me, like it was for them ... I felt so pissed, so ... something ... What was I thinking? Jesus ... Fucking ... Christ...

“What’s wrong with you?”

Frank looked at me sort of cock-eyed, measuring me, waiting for me to say something. We had stopped walking, but it was difficult to tell ...

Had he said those words, or had I?

I just stared at him for a few seconds before facing forward again, crossing Eighth Street, our destination now in plain sight, those words pulsing through my brain, pressing me ...

Fuck it, I decided. If Frank wasn’t going to say anything ... shit, I may as well try to smooth things over.

“Look, man, I’m ... I’m sorry ’bout back there.”

“Don’t sweat it,” he said, his eyes still locked on the approaching bar.

“No, really –”

“I just can’t understand why.” Frank stopped, turning to face me as he scratched his cheek. “Why’d you have to be such an asshole back there? I mean, couldn’t you see what you were doing? Couldn’t you see how bad your timing was? How she reacted? Jesus Christ, Tommy! Why do you have to fuck with people like that?! Or with me, for that matter?! I mean ... shit, man! I’m your fuckin’ roommate!”

“I know, man. Look ...”

“No, goddammit, you look – ”

And he kept going, blabbering on about how I’d changed, how I’d turned into an asshole, about how I always got pissed when things weren’t going my way and how I’d take it out on him and blah, blah, blah. Bitch, bitch, bitch. Fuck, fuck, fuck. On and on until we got to the bar.

I suppose Frank got a lot off his chest – all the shit that had piled up in his mind about me over the past six months, since I’d changed for the worse, since that slut had finally admitted to cheating on me and kept the ring I gave her, since my grades had slipped, since I’d stopped talking to my parents and most of my friends, since I’d started staying out most weeknights and grew my hair out and snorted coke three times a week and kicked in our twenty-inch color t.v. by accident and wouldn’t get a part-time job to pay for it.

It was a helluva speech, to say the least. A real ass-kicker that made Frank’s face flush cherry red and globs of spit careen into my face. I bet he felt so righteous in what he was saying, preaching to me on that invisible pedestal, doing it out of friendship, slapping me in the face over and over again, telling me how it was and how it should be ...

You feel better, Frank? I thought to myself.

Should I clap or something?

He stepped through the front door of Joe’s, silent.

I followed wordlessly, thinking I shouldn’t have apologized in the first place.

Joe’s hadn’t changed a bit. Wall-to-wall Greek, that’s what Joe’s was – all the fraternities and sororities you could list, and probably some others beyond that. They all had their ambassadors here, at their self-proclaimed watering hole. I felt myself radiating dissonantly with their Brave New World nirvana of six-foot-three ex-high school football stars and cocky half-wit rich boys, not to mention all the drill team-slash-cheerleader alumni in attendance.

Then there was me, a stranger in a strange land ... Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, returning to Earth and finding it inhabited by a completely off-the-wall brood of persecuting simians ...

Yeah, that sounded about right ...

Especially the simian part.

Frank filed through the mob monopolizing the tables near the front, and I followed obediently, silently, without one studied glance at any one face. I wouldn’t torture myself by seeing the Barbie dolls frown or the Ken dolls smirk. Let them have their fun leering at Monkey Boy, the guy who must have stepped into the wrong bar by accident.

Oh, but wait, he’s here with Frank, thank you very much. Wunderkind Frank. You all know him, of course. Sure, sure, sure. Frank’s cool. Frank’s here all the time. His roommate used to come here, too, but not since ... oh, you know ...

You fucking bastards ... You don’t even recognize me, do you?

My mind seethed with fury, my own face glowing, my pulse ticking, ticking, ticking away ... black thoughts swimming in rhythm to the tide rising from my depths. Look at these mother-fuckers, my mind growled. Just look at ’em. Warthogs and cunts, all of them! I can’t believe I was one of them, and now I’m back and they don’t want me here. Hell, I don’t want me here! I hope you appreciate this, Frank. I really hope you truly appreciate what I’m going through here. ’Cuz it sucks, man. It really fuckin’ sucks ...

I split from Frank as he pinpointed Cathy near the bar and trundled toward her, as expected. The five pool tables at the back, all squatting beneath a big screen TV, seemed a more amicable destination.

I placed a quarter on the least-occupied table and took a chair near the corner as I lit a cigarette, watching and waiting. The venom ebbed slowly from my thoughts as my pulse slowed. A waitress – Jesus, they even had waitresses now – took my order and scampered off. A fat ring of smoke hung around my head like a wilted halo. I watched Frank try to work magic on Cathy. I watched the smoke rise to hug the ceiling. I watched colored balls try to drop into worn pockets of felt ... I felt ...

I felt dizzy ...

Ten minutes passed, then it all happened quickly.

It looked as though Cathy had seen the guy coming before Frank had. I couldn’t be positive. They were twenty feet away, pulling the old playful touchy-feely at the counter, until Cathy pulled away awkwardly.

I scowled as I chalked my cue.

“You gonna shoot, or what?”

I eyed the drunk fucker shooting against me for a moment before missing a tough bank on the thirteen, then sat back in my seat, refocusing on the conflagration at the bar.

Didn’t look good. The guy was kind of meaty, angry, sporting a white T-shirt under a black vest, all up in Cathy’s face, ignoring Frank for the time being. A boyfriend, perhaps? Nah, didn’t look it, Cathy looked more pissed than guilty, shaking her head a lot, backing away slightly as Chunky kept talking ... or was he pleading?

Pathetic. Yup, ex-boyfriend. Definitely. Frank would be in good shape ... for now.

“Your turn, pal.”

I cleared one last swallow from my drink and stood, still watching. I could almost hear them over the din of conversation and the jukebox, mainly because that big guy was starting to shout.

Michelle’s shiny ass sauntered over and started spewing back in the guy’s face, probably telling him to fuck off. Problem, though, was he wouldn’t fuck off.

Cathy fucked off instead, all the way to the outdoor terrace adjacent to the pool tables. Michelle followed. The guy tried to follow. Frank grabbed his shoulder ...

Uh-oh ...

I set down my cue and started bobbing clumsily between crowds of drinkers, angling toward the terrace. Frank and Chunky were already through the doorway, but Frank had managed to stop the prick before he reached Cathy.

I felt my head lolling slightly. I tried to shake off the spinning, focusing on my destination, regaining my composure as I closed in on them. Not that Frank needed my help, of course. He was no lightweight in his own right. But you never knew ... you just never knew with assholes ...

They were in a corner, nearly empty save for Frank, Fat Boy, and ...

Whoops, this guy brought some friends, too. Similar builds, similar drunk appearance, similar semblance to Mr. Pudge – pissed, that is. I felt my stomach drop, my mind screaming uselessly ...

What the hell do you think you’re doing, Frank? By yourself, at that! Fuck that, dude. I’m comin’ ...

“What’s up, Frank?” I said.

“Nothing, Tommy,” he said without looking at me. “Don’t worry about it.”

I motioned toward the ex-boyfriend. “You got a problem with my friend here or what?”

The tubby fucker just looked at me, a smartass grin spreading across his face as he sized me up.

“Well?” I said, edging closer. “You talk okay? Need me to speak slower? What?”

He kind of chuckled, then his grin vanished.

“Why don’t you fuck off, dude?” he said.

“Noooo ...” I said, moving in between his girth and Frank. “I think that’s what everyone’s telling you to do.”

“Tommy ...” Frank began.

But I’d stopped listening altogether – to Frank, to the fat asshole six inches from my face, to everything – only hearing the blood in my skull pumping harder, faster, louder, fueling my arms, burning my eyes, the venom spreading and flowing like mercury, coating me all over, giving me a hard-on as I glared into the fat fucker, trying to reach in, to pierce his soul ... but he had no soul. None of them ever did.

He wasn’t scared, either. I could tell. Just another asshole of the mob, another dickhead cutting in line at the bar, another dumbfuck with too much adrenaline and too little intelligence, talking shit in Frank’s face, feeling invincible with his cocksucker buddies looking on. Fucking waste. Just another fucking waste of flesh. And now, all he had to do was try something ...

He did.

And that’s when I went for my knife.

No, I never told Frank about it. Never felt the need to. He’d just think I’d gone nuts or something.

It caught my eye one time over at this one dude's apartment. He'd set it on the coffee table while he was cutting an eight ball over a shitty, scratched-up mirror.

It was a switchblade – spring loaded, sporting a black hilt with nickel trimming, its business end at least four inches long. Sharp. Shiny. Evil-looking. I was hypnotized by it, and grabbed at it without thinking.

It felt powerful, its weight more substantial than I imagined as it rested in my palm. It’s action was a little stiff, begging lubrication. I dropped a fiver on the guy and told him it was a twenty – he was too fucked up to notice – and took it.

It rested in my back pocket nicely, kept there at first only when I had to walk around downtown late at night. Then, eventually, I would start to feel odd if I didn’t notice that bulge resting against my hip, like when you make sure your car keys and wallet are still there, making you feel reassured.

Sometimes, alone at the apartment, I’d take it out and just look at it. Sometimes I’d peel oranges with it. Sometimes I’d hold it, clenching it as tight as I could until my arms would shake, my face tensed all over, tears streaking down my cheeks as I came down from a fucked-up high ... until the venom stopped flowing ... until the face of the bitch that took my ring and tore out my heart faded ... until the sound of my mother crying over the phone disappeared ... until everything disappeared...

After a while I just carried it all the time, always wondering when I’d actually use it, or even if I’d use it...

Because I wanted to use it...

A lot.

Just to fight back, of course. Just to be protected, to be ready, to bide my time and slash back at the filth surrounding me, to cut deep into this saccarine-coated, shit-stained world that insisted on being. This world of unending opportunity. This world of true love and right and wrong and happy endings and rides off into the sunset. This Ersatz reality ...

I’d carve out the filth. I’d cut away the shit. I’d do it to discover what was lying underneath, what was true, what was real ...

I’d do it in an instant, as soon as I had the chance ...

And now seemed as good a time as any.

The big prick shoved me backwards. I turned clumsily, my wits dulled by alcohol, fumbling in my back pocket, and then lunged forward again, my arm swinging almost lackadaisically, my hand coming around for the lethal blow, hoping the blade would find a home in that bastard’s skull, for a split second envisioning the hilt jutting out of his head like some cheesy horror flick effect, until I realized something a bit too late ...

The knife wasn’t there.

My empty hand performed a lame arc towards his face, blocked easily by a meaty forearm. And then his reciprocity arrived tenfold, a sickening CRACK as his knuckles connected with my jaw, my neck snapping sideways in response, and then my body crumpling to the floor as bright stars consumed my field of vision, a throbbing din swallowing all sound in my head, vague sprinkles of pain blossoming into a hot, festering lump on my face.

My mind swam in half-conscious delusion as a forest of legs and shuffling feet bustled violently about me. Voices shouting. Cursing. Someone’s heel landed on my ankle, lurching me back into awareness as I howled.

More shoving and cursing as a long dark shadow eclipsed the dim lighting from above and reached down with a muscular arm, yanking me to my feet like a rag doll.

“C’mon, dude,” the shadow said. “Out.”

“Hey!” said a shrill voice, maybe Cathy. “Let him go! He’s hurt!”

“I don’t care,” said the shadow, who I could now tell was the bouncer, reaffirming his grip on my shoulder. “They’ve both gotta go.”

“I’ll take him,” said another familiar voice from behind.

I turned lazily, regarding Frank with bloodshot eyes.

“Hey, dude,” I said, making him smirk.

“Let’s go, slugger.”

Back into the cold. It was welcoming, a cool gush of air caressing the thickening lump in my cheek, sweat trickling off my brow, stiffness crawling into my neck. My tongue probed gingerly within my mouth, fondling a loose tooth. I spat a warm glob of saliva mixed with blood onto the ground, wincing with the effort.

Michelle continued her screaming at the tubby fucker a few yards away, ardently forcing him away from our group. Cathy stayed beside Frank, eyeing me carefully.

“You okay?” she asked.

I nodded.

“You really shouldn’t have started that,” she said.

I nodded again.

On the car ride back home I checked again for the knife, but it was definitely gone.

At first I didn’t believe it. I didn't want to believe it. I attempted to sway back and forth in my seat nonchalantly, waiting to feel that familiar lump of metal press against me ...

But the feeling never came.

Frank looked at me, one eyebrow raised.

“My ass itches,” I explained.

Frank nodded as the car turned onto our street, into a parking spot across from our building. He cut the motor and looked at me. Surprisingly, he was smiling.

“You look like shit,” he said.

I half-smiled back. “I’m sure I do.”

“Listen,” Frank began, turning in his seat toward me. “I’m sorry about those things I said ...”

I waved him off, moaning.

“All right,” he said. “Well, thanks for trying to help me out anyway. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

I smirked as my hand fell upon the door handle.

“I didn’t,” I said.

The ice pack slithered against the red-purple bump, easing the throbbing sensation as I gazed upward from my bed. The ceiling shifted in my vision, a dull spinning feeling surrounding me. And I smiled, for no reason I could figure, as brief pictures of the evening’s events flashed through my mind, slowly letting that venom from my bloodstream.

Perhaps it was there, in that bulbous growth freshly planted in my jaw ... a concentration of the filth that had passed through me, now gathered in a thick reservoir of sensitive tissue, reminding me of the encounter, scolding me for a lack of discretion ... prodding me as if to say, “this can’t go on any longer.” I smiled momentarily at my self-fashioned symbolism, then winced again in pain.

An image of the knife floated around my consciousness briefly, bearing the obvious question of its whereabouts. Had someone lifted it from me? Had it flown out of my grasp somehow? Was it lying underneath some dirty bar table downtown?

It didn’t matter, I realized.

I’d never see it again.

And as I faded off to sleep, thinking of the days to come – perhaps Frank telling and retelling the story of this night, laughing and clapping me on the back apologetically, playing the part of the happy-go-lucky roommate, as was his custom – I realized what would have to come next, and soon ...

After all, I thought as I drifted of to sleep, I could always find another knife.


Mike Ross spends long hours editing copy for an advertising agency near Kansas City, occasionally finding the time to write fiction (usually of the fantasy variety). Other short stories of his have appeared in "Planet Magazine," "Peridot Books" and "Anotherealm" in the not-so-recent past.
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