The Man Who Wasn't There
Published March 2017
Trigger Warnings Literary Journal
WARNING: There is a reason this was published in a lit mag called, 'Trigger Warnings' - continue at your own risk (language, mature content, and a nice little dark twist).
Three sharp knocks banged on Lionel’s bedroom door. His mother’s muffled voice sounded agitated on the other side.
“Lionel! You promised you were going to take care of that mess outside yesterday!”
Startled, he yelled out a quick, “Just a minute!” before minimizing the photographs on his computer while sucking in his gut to force his zipper shut. He shoved himself away from his desk and crossed his legs as Rose pushed the door open.
Lionel froze. The animal crossed the boundary of light, disappearing as it went. First its front paws and head, then the hackles along its spine, until only its tail, floating in the dimness, remained.
“Mom! You can’t just… barge in like that!”
“Oh, I most certainly can! Since you’ve not bothered to pay the rent you promised me when you got your job, I am well within my rights to enter any part of my house I damned well please.”
Lionel’s features darkened at the petite woman with the big voice. Her breath stank of booze and cigarettes. “I’m not a kid anymore, Ma.”
“Never a truer word spoken! I’m not sure if you realize that children should not be living with their parents at your age. You’re almost forty, for Christ’s sake. How much longer are you gonna stay here and not do the chores you promised me you’d do...” The woman’s frail hands drew quotes in the air. “To ‘earn your keep’?”
He lowered his face. “I do stuff for you.”
“Not much,” she snorted. “Hell, your job isn’t even full time. The rest of the time you’re in here. On that.” A gnarled, tobacco-stained finger pointed at Lionel’s computer.
Lionel’s hands rested on his lap, his shoulders slumped while his eyes glazed. Rose continued her verbal assault much like she always had. She brought up how he’d never amount to anything, just like his deadbeat father, Harold. How he was a slob. How he was too fat to ever attract anyone, female or male. Her maddening murmuring hummed in his mind as he nodded, keeping his eyes glued to the floor. He knew the routine. Eventually she’d tire herself out and retire downstairs to drink her scotch, watch her soaps, and pass out on the grimy velour couch, snoring.
“Are you even listening to me?”
Lionel snapped his head up. “Yeah, Ma. I’m listening.”
For a brief moment, Lionel thought he detected something in Rose’s cloudy eyes. Sadness, perhaps? Pity? Whatever it was disappeared as quickly as it revealed itself. She threw her hands up in the air, defeated, and let out a nicotine tainted sigh. “Christ. A part-time security guard is the very best you could ever hope for. I guess in your tiny little mind, you have reached the peak of your life. The very tippy-top of a shit stained mountain.”
She turned her back on him, only to pause at the threshold of his bedroom. A hint of resentment coated her voice. “I’m just… I’m just glad your father isn’t around to see that you’ll never amount to a damned thing.” As she walked out, she added, “Don’t forget about that mess in the yard before you go to work tonight. It best not be there tomorrow morning.”
He listened to her creak cautiously down the stairs. The cold stab of her words hit Lionel in the chest. A person would never guess the woman was named after a beautiful, innocent flower after hearing her blather on with her goddamned, self-important, loud fucking mouth.
His limp hands balled up slowly into tight, meaty fists.
Ten minutes later, Lionel tromped downstairs with his gym bag, haphazardly dressed in his security uniform. He plodded down the hallway toward the back door, his inner thighs chafing on the cheap polyester slacks. As he passed the living room archway, he closed his eyes, hoping that the woman had passed out. A second thought quickly crowded that one out. Maybe she finally died? A smirk crept onto his face. He opened his eyes to peer into the dim living room.
An ember glowed at the end of the cigarette hanging from the old woman’s sallow lips. The television bounced light through the smoke, highlighting the crevices and valleys etched into her features. The cataract opacity of her eyes met his. She squinted, her lips pulling away from her dentures into a snarl. “What the hell are you grinning about? Get your ass in gear and get that yard cleaned up!”
Lionel’s smirk melted into dismay. He stomped through the kitchen and out the back door, slamming it shut behind him. Leaning his bulk up against the door, he stood on the stoop, letting the rancid breath confined in his lungs escape. She wouldn’t be bothering him while he was out here. Not when he was completing manual labor for her, and with the amount of alcohol flowing through her, he knew that her body had nearly given out for the night.
The inside of the house was quiet. Lionel stared up at the dimming sky. He could make out storm clouds forming; dark gray against the twilight. He took a deep breath, dropped his bag on the stoop, and focused his energy -- his anger -- on the debris littering the back yard. After just a few minutes, sweat began to bead and roll off of his forehead, soaking his shirt. He powered through the work, pacing back and forth like a machine, chucking armfuls of loose shingles and rotting wood into the alley.
After forming a messy pile for the garbage truck, he looked down at his security uniform. It was damper than usual. He stood on the back stoop, debating if going back into the house to change was worth the risk of waking the wretched woman. Aggravated, he bent down awkwardly and snatched up his gym bag. He’d planned on taking his uniform off later, anyway, and had packed a spare. Better to avoid her altogether. Lionel needed release tonight.
He headed to the garage, admiring his lax clean-up efforts as he went, when he heard a whine. He stopped and looked toward the dilapidated fence at the edge of the yard. A small dog, white fur matted and filthy, peered between the broken pickets. When the dog noticed Lionel looking in his direction, his short tail wagged timidly.
“Ah, what a cute little guy you are!”
The speed of the wag increased and thumped against the fence.
Lionel walked gingerly over to the dog, one arm outstretched while the other began to unzip the gym bag slung on his shoulder. His voice took on a sickly sweet tone. “What a good boy!”
The dog’s tail accelerated, his excitement saturating his body as he wiggled on the other side. The dog began to talk in little whimpers and barks as Lionel reached over and patted him on the head.
“Good boy… what a good boy...”
The dog panted happily as Lionel cooed and scratched behind his ear. His other hand fished around in his open bag until he felt the canvas of the sheath and used his thumb to unsnap it. With one quick motion, he pulled the knife out, catching hold of the dog’s ear, and cut it off.
The dog yelped, blood streaming into his fur, and took off running down the alley. Lionel sneered and tossed the severed ear over the fence. Unbuttoning the front of his uniform, he wiped his hunting knife off on his sweat-soaked undershirt.
He continued to the garage and shoved his bag into the open passenger window of the beat-up SUV. It missed the seat, spilling its contents onto the floor of the cab. He cussed, threw the vehicle door open, and gathered up the odds and ends. Some industrial strength trash bags. The spare dingy undershirt. A portable camp shower that had a lingering moldy smell. His hunting knife and sheath. Once the items were back in the bag, he hastily zipped it shut and slammed the SUV door.
A dull, wet thud sounded in the factory basement as Lionel’s knuckles connected with the target’s jaw, quieting his sniveling. Speaker wire cut into the naked flesh of the target’s arms and legs, binding him tightly to the chair he slouched in. Now dazed, his eyes rolled up into his skull as the tears ceased. His head flopped from side to side like a bloodied bobblehead ornament.
Lionel paused, narrowed his eyes, and slapped the target hard across the face. It was important he stay awake. It was much more enjoyable when they were conscious.
The sting of the slap shocked the target. He blinked through new tears and croaked, “Why?”
Lionel said nothing. As the target watched from the chair, Lionel turned his hands over and inspected his raw knuckles under the basement’s single light bulb that hung from the metal support beam by a cord. The target’s face morphed from sorrow and despair to unbridled anger. He gritted his teeth in response to the silence. “Tell me why you’re doing this!”
The outburst was greeted with a grim smile. Still grinning, Lionel turned from the target to the table behind him. Weapons and tools were organized on the steel surface with care; some clean and surgical, others barbaric. The new hunting knife had found a home in the space near a claw hammer. Lionel ran a thick finger over each one, hesitating at a rusty hand scythe. He caressed it briefly before picking it up. Feeling the weight of it in his hand, he turned his attention back to his victim.
The target’s gaze fixed upon the scythe. A slobbery whimper bubbled from his lips, his eyes growing larger as muffled words gurgled through the blood that filled his mouth. “What do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want… please. Please, just let me go.”
“I gain nothing by letting you go.”
“But… what did I do?”
Lionel took a few steps closer to the man, savoring the look of terror reflected in his victim’s eyes. “Nothing.”
The target choked on a sob as Lionel drew closer. “I have kids. A newborn baby girl. Please. Please tell me why you’re doing this to me.”
The scythe still held in his grasp, Lionel braced his hands on his knees and squatted his large frame in front of his victim. His dark brown eyes lined up with the terror-filled hazel ones.
“Because I can.”
Lionel tortured the man for another hour, taking numerous photographs of his victim’s slow demise. He had done the same with the previous eight, creating a morbid photo history of each death. Every severed finger. Every flayed bit of skin. Everything was documented. When the defeated victim took their last breath, Lionel was there. Those final moments of life, captured by his camera, always made him achieve the best climax.
A closet at the bottom of the basement stairs held his camera and precious digital images. He carefully put his camera away and grabbed the industrial strength trash bags from the same shelf before beginning the task of disposing of the body. He worked hard, much harder than when he had cleaned up Rose’s yard, his breathing becoming more and more labored as he pulled and stuffed the pieces of flesh into four bags before tying them off into manageable portions.
Once he had finished, he sat on the concrete floor to catch his breath. He tore his undershirt off and used it to mop the sweat from his brow, ignoring the fresh human stains that mingled abstractly with the dog’s dried blood. He leaned back to rest against the wall and draped the damp cotton over his eyes. After a few minutes, his deep breaths became more shallow. He relaxed.
That’s when he thought he heard a growl.
Lionel tugged his shirt from his face. He looked around the small room, squinting in the faint light. The weak bulb hanging overhead barely encroached on the darkness surrounding him. Nothing stirred, but he knew that the abandoned factory had often served as shelter for whatever mutt, rodent, or wildlife managed to find its way passed the padlocked doors.
“Fucking strays,” he said again, tossing his torn shirt on top of one of the closed bags.
He struggled to maneuver his legs beneath his girth, finally resorting to propping himself up by an arm to kneel. As he took a moment, readying himself to lunge into a standing position, he heard another growl. This time, Lionel could tell that the sound had originated from within the room. He peered into the blackness that shrouded the far corner, his eyes scanning for movement. A shape emerged, camouflaged within the shadows. A dark outline with two glimmering golden orbs returned his gaze.
The outline growled. It was a very large wolf, and it was watching him.
Lionel heaved himself up and onto his feet, hitting his head on the overhead bulb in the process. He hastily seized the base of the bulb and pulled the cord taut, aiming it at the corner. The darkness illuminated, revealing cold concrete and empty space. Whatever he thought he had seen was erased by the light. Eyebrows furrowed, he stood and stared at the walls of cinder blocks, dumbfounded. He sighed and released the bulb from his grasp. It swung back and forth by its cord like a pendulum, lighting and relighting the corner. On every swing away, the wolf he had observed returned, its eyes shining brightly in the dark. On every swing forward, it vanished.
He bent down, his hands frantically searching through his security uniform crumpled on the floor. He grabbed the maglite strapped to his belt, turned it on, and pointed. The flashlight created a halo, brightening the fissures and cloaked corners of the basement.
No outline. No shadow. No wolf.
But he heard it. A deep, low growl full of rage. It sounded closer.
He turned the maglite off. The black wolf, now only a few feet from Lionel, was just beyond the reach of the overhead light bulb. It snarled and revealed large white fangs. Startled, Lionel jumped back and slipped on his victim’s blood that still coated the concrete floor. He fell heavily onto his back, his ankle screaming. As he scrambled to sit upright, he saw the wolf move toward him. Lionel froze. The animal crossed the boundary of light, disappearing as it went. First its front paws and head, then the hackles along its spine, until only its tail, floating in the dimness, remained. Another growl echoed in Lionel’s ears as the tail dissolved in the light.
But he knew the wolf was there. Lionel could hear it, edging ever closer, until he could feel its hot phantom breath on his cheek.
Panic caused him to regain his senses. He attempted to get his legs beneath him again, but his ankle cried out in protest, forcing him back to the floor. His rotund form rolled about helplessly until a sudden pain shot through the right side of his head. Instinctively, he grabbed at his ear.
His ear was gone. He pulled his hand away, looking at it. In disbelief, he reached back, feeling around where his ear had been. Only a hole remained. He held his hand in front of him, examining his outstretched fingers. There was no blood, only the same calloused hands he’d always known.
Jaws clamped down on his index finger. Lionel screamed as his finger was torn from his hand, and between his blubbering, he could hear it being chewed up and swallowed. He shrieked and yanked his hand away from the unseen assailant. The digit was gone, but there wasn’t the typical gore that Lionel was used to when a limb was severed. There was nothing at all.
Then another jarring pain from his ankle. Lionel looked down at his leg being invisibly devoured. As each bite was taken, he could see that the remaining skin was perfectly healed; a clean stump growing shorter and shorter.
It was as if he had never had his finger or leg in the first place.
It was as if they had been a figment of his imagination.
Harold and Rose sat downstairs on the old velour couch, watching one of Rose’s beloved soaps.
Harold studied his wife’s forlorn face. “What’s on your mind, my dear.”
She glanced upstairs toward the guest bedroom. “Oh, nothing.”
“Rose,” he said, her shriveled hands on his own sunspotted ones. “We’ve been together for a long, long time. I know when something’s bothering you. Now, tell me, what’s is it?”
“Well, I was just thinking… do you think we made the right decision? Us not having children?”
“A little late for that now, isn’t it? Unless you’re feeling a bit frisky.”
Rose laughed and playfully slapped the back of one of Harold’s hands. “Oh, you old rascal! I wasn’t saying two old fuddy-duddies like us should be having children at our age. I was just wondering if maybe…” her voice trailed off in thought.
“We missed out?”
“Yes. That we missed out.”
Rubbing his beard, Harold pondered on this for a moment. “No… I don’t believe we did.” He cupped her face, etched with wisdom and experience, in his hands. “We’ve had a very full and wonderful life. Are you sad we didn’t choose that path?”
Harold chuckled and leaned forward to kiss his wife’s forehead. “All water under the bridge now. No real use wondering what might’ve been. Besides, who knows what kind of child we would’ve had? Could have been a Nobel Prize winner, sure. Also could’ve been a serial killer, for all we know.”
“Oh, Harold, you’re terrible!”
Harold reclined back into the comfortable couch and Rose rested her head on his shoulder, her hands intertwined with his. They closed their eyes, the soap opera’s laugh track murmuring in the background.
“You never know, Rose. There’s just some people that should never exist.”