“Grace Period” by D.L. Snell

You beat somebody’s skull in with a baseball bat, you’d think they’d die.  Not Billy Miracle.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: what kind of last name is Miracle?  Couldn’t tell you.  Might be a fake name.  Who cares?  The point is, me and Rob cracked his skull and Billy was still walking.  Sounds like a miracle to me.

Long story short, Billy owed money to the wrong people.  They said “Jump,” me and Rob said, “Where do we dump the body?”  The answer was, in the desert.  I couldn’t figure how Billy had gotten from his grave all the way to my apartment.

Rachel screamed and covered her tits with the sheet when she saw him at the sliding glass door of our room.  I sat up in bed, too, and there he was.  The moon hit him just right.  He looked pretty broken up, his suit all dusty, his skull caved in.  Sand had stuck in the dried blood.

Looking at him gave me that sick feeling in the pit of my gut.  I always get that no matter how many bodies I’ve seen, kind of like a leech in my belly.  Here’s the thing that really got me: Billy always sucked on toothpicks, and he was sucking on one now.  It was broken and crooked from where my Louisville had cracked it.

“Rachel,” I said.  “Your mom’s. Go.”

“What’s–”

“Now.”

Most guys I know, they have to beat their wives to get them to do anything.  I don’t believe in that.  It’s chickenshit.  All I had to do was use the “tone.”  Rachel said it made her feel cold, said my voice scared her more than my fist ever could.  She had her clothes on and was out the door quicker than I can get a hard-on.

Billy Miracle didn’t go after her.  He was mad-dogging me.

I threw on my robe, and from the nightstand I grabbed my gun, a sub compact Glock 26, ten 9mm rounds in the mag.  The silencer was a courtesy for the neighbors.

I yanked open the sliding door, and Billy just stood there.  Didn’t move, didn’t blink.  Didn’t even breathe.

I glanced around to make sure nobody else was in the backyard.  Our rental was in a suburb so we had neighbors on either side, basically blocked by a tall privacy fence, but there was a creek behind us, all trees and mosquitoes and shit.  You could barely see the houselights on the other side.

Anybody could have been hiding down there in the dark.  Sure, Billy didn’t have any friends or anybody to protect him–he didn’t even have family that gave a shit–but like the boss says, “Unni cc’è focu, pri lu fumu pari,” which basically means if there’s smoke, watch out for the backdraft.  For all I knew, Billy might’ve brought the cops.  I guess I could’ve turned on the porch light and found out, but the neighbors were what you’d call assholes.

I pointed the gun at Billy’s chest.  “What the hell are you doing on my property, son?”

He didn’t answer.  But he sure as hell made some noise.  It started off as a ringing in my ears, but it got louder and louder and became a kind of weird thumping sound.  I thought one of those snot-nosed white kids was playing rap music a few doors down, but that wasn’t it.  Whatever it was, it came from Billy.

I hadn’t planned on shooting him, in case there were cops in the creek, but that noise–it was giving me a migraine.  I put two rounds in his chest, point blank.  It didn’t drop him.  Bastard didn’t even bleed.  And the noise didn’t miss a beat.

That’s about the time I took the Lord’s name in vain.  I’ve put a few guys on ice in my day, but I’m pure Sicilian Catholic and I don’t curse the Godfather of Godfathers if I can help it.

I shot two more rounds into Billy’s head, and when that didn’t kill him or make the thumping go away, I emptied the gun into his knees.  He dropped, sure as shit.  Broken kneecaps do that to a fellow.  It usually puts him in a lot of pain too, but Billy didn’t even squirm.  He just lay there on the patio staring up at me, one eye bulging, that damn toothpick still dangling from his lip.  He looked kind of sad.

I backed up, keeping the Glock on him.  The gun was empty, but it sure made a good crucifix.

I would have kicked his head in, but he looked sick and I was barefoot–I didn’t want to catch whatever shit he had.  Especially since I’m diabetic.  Couldn’t mess up my feet.  The left one already had an ingrown nail, maybe a Staph infection.

On the nightstand, I kept a bunch of crap like my wallet and keys.  I picked up my cell phone and dialed Rob’s number.  It rang a bunch of times.  I didn’t take my eyes off Billy, not for a second.

Finally, Rob answered.  “Leave a message,” he said.

I hung up.  Fucking voicemail.  I tried focusing on the sound Billy was making, tried to figure out what it was, surprised it wasn’t pissing off the neighbors.  I sure as hell couldn’t take it.  It was making me nauseous.

The phone rang and I almost crapped myself.  It was Rob’s ringtone.  “Bad Boys.”

I picked up and cut to the chase.  “My house,” I said, “pronto.”

“What’s that, shooter?  Can’t hear you.  Sounds like you’re on Pluto or some–”

“I need you here–now.”  I wanted to go into more detail, maybe just to make some sense of the situation for my own good, but I couldn’t.  Not over the phone.  I had to say something though, had to prepare Rob for this bullshit.  “It’s about a miracle,” I said.

His end dropped into creepy silence for about half a minute.  Dropped call, I thought.  Then Rob said, “I’m on my way,” and he hung up.  I put the phone in my robe pocket.

Billy, fat, balding, irritable-bowel-syndrome Billy: still there, still staring, like one of those cardboard movie props that follows you with its eyes.  I wanted to step into the hall and shut the door so the bastard couldn’t see me, so the walls would muffle that weird drumbeat.  But no way was I going to leave him unattended.  No fucking way.

He looked pitiful.  I mean he was pretty much a worthless piece of shit to begin with.  Gambler.  Alcoholic.  Liked to beat up on prostitutes.  I’m surprised a pimp didn’t rub him out years ago.

Billy used to be an insurance salesman, then a bible salesman, then a vacuum salesman, even a telemarketer.  He lost those jobs and gambled his savings.  And that’s how come he borrowed money from the family’s loanshark.  Bad news for Billy: there is no grace period for late payments, and the late fee costs an arm and a leg.

So he was an all-around average-American piece of shit to begin with, but now he was an even bigger piece of shit.  His skull was so caved in, blown apart, and swollen that I barely recognized him.  Brain damage, I thought, which would explain why Billy was acting stupider than usual.  Thing is, I’d blown his brains out all over the barbeque.

From the nightstand I pulled out fresh magazines, one for the Glock, one for my robe pocket.  Probably wouldn’t help, but shit, at least I’d be ready for the backdraft.

I switched on my clock radio, and good ol’ Credence helped drown out Billy’s drum roll.  I sang along.  “Born on the Bayou.”  I was sweating bad, swallowing burps of stomach acid.

After about ten minutes Rob sent a text message: Here, it said, and below that, his signature: a fucking smiley face.

In back, I replied, then put on some slippers and joined Billy on the patio.

Rob’s car door slammed, and I heard the clink and the creak as he opened the side gate.  He’d thrown a trench coat on over his boxers.  His hair, usually oiled and sleek like an olive, looked like shit.  Mine probably did too.  Especially with the bald spot.

Rob froze when he caught sight of Billy.  And then Billy caught sight of him.  I didn’t realize how tight my sphincter was until that moment when it finally got a chance to relax.

“Jesus Christ,” Rob said, “what–”

“Come around here,” I told him.

Slowly, carefully, he circled behind Billy toward the sliding glass door.  Billy Miracle watched him the whole time.

Rob came around next to me and rubbed his eyes.  For some reason–and I’ll never get this–he’d taken the time to put on cologne.  Maybe to cover the smell of whiskey.  Didn’t work.

The first question I would’ve expected him to ask was how Billy had gotten here, or why he was still alive.  But the first thing he said to me was, “Shit, he’s still got the toothpick.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Rob furrowed his brow and glanced around.  “What the hell’s… is that the radio making that noise, shooter?”

I shook my head.  I’d heard “Sweet Home Alabama” enough times to know this drumbeat didn’t belong.  “It’s him,” I said.  “It’s Billy.”

Rob frowned.  “What, you mean like his heartbeat?”

I’m surprised I hadn’t figured that out, because that’s exactly what it was: Billy’s pulse.  Didn’t see how he could have one though, let alone how we could hear it.

“Shoot him,” Rob said.

“Already did.”

“In the head.”

I pointed at the barbeque.  “See his brains?”

“Well shoot him again, for Christ’s sake.”

“Hey,” I said, “watch your mouth.”

We stood there in a staring match with Billy.  He won.  Shithead never blinked.

“Stay here,” I told Rob.  “I’m gonna go get the hatchet, gonna cut off his head.”

“What?  You call me out here in the middle of the night–I’ll get the hatchet.”  He started toward the door, but I grabbed his arm.

“Look, I woke up with this dickhead on my porch.  I’ve been watching him all night.  It’s my house, I’ll get the hatchet, capiche?”

Rob stared at me as if he were trying to figure something out.  “How long we known each other, shooter?”

“Huh?  Just shut up.  I’ll be right–”

“Thirty years.  We’re blood brothers, for Christ’s sake.  And in all this time you’ve never pointed a gun at me, shooter, not once.”

“What’re you…”  I stopped when I realized my Glock was pressed into Rob’s gut.  My jaw dropped so far I could just about lick my own nuts.  My arm fell to my side and I stepped back, shaking my head.  “Oh shit, man, I didn’t… it’s this noise, it’s driving me crazy!  I didn’t mean to–”

He pulled his own gun, a Beretta, and aimed it at my head.

Here comes the backdraft, I thought, and I pointed my Glock at his chest.  My vision narrowed till it was just the two of us on the patio, me in my bathrobe with my balls probably showing, Rob in his coat and boxers with his hairy-ass legs; just two middle-aged wiseguys in a good old standoff.  Billy Miracle’s pulse was so loud I couldn’t hear my own heartbeat.  But I could feel it.  Hell, I could see it; my eyes were throbbing.

“It’s my house,” I told Rob.  “Show some goddamn respect.”

“Watch your mouth,” he said with a bit of a grin.  His finger tightened on the trigger.  I could see him apply the pressure.  Wiseguy planned to shoot me.  It was the noise; it was getting to him.  I could tell ’cause his eye was twitching.

Some leaves or a branch or something crunched near the creek.  Sounded like a footstep.  Me and Rob whipped our heads around but kept our guns on each other.

I was pretty sure a person was standing just inside the tree line.  I could see the black shape of him, but nothing else.  It could’ve been a bush.  Or a cop.

I wanted to turn my gun on the trespasser, but I couldn’t give Rob the chance.  I would’ve done just about anything not to shoot him–I’d shared blood with this guy, had strangled his dad with him–but he wouldn’t extend the same courtesy.  The guy was a snake.

“Who the fuck!” I shouted at the man in the dark.

There was another rustle, this one off to the left, then another noise off to the right.  And another.  And another.  And more heartbeats–more fucking heartbeats, overlapping like a drumline all out of whack.

“The light,” Rob said.  He aimed his Beretta toward the creek, and I ducked inside, hit the switch to the porch light.  At that point I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the neighbors.

The light shined across the backyard: the wife’s azaleas, the Japanese maple, Floyd the stupid fucking garden gnome.  And standing just inside the tree line, fading into the darkness of the creek where the light couldn’t reach, there was a bunch of dead guys.

The light–and I can’t really explain this because the bulb was brand new–the light popped and burned out.  The yard went dark.

I could still see the corpses, burnt into my eyes like a Polaroid, some of them bloated and melting and full of blowfly eggs, their shirts and suits and blue jeans and slacks ratty and eaten and stained with old blood, dirty or wet depending on where we’d buried them.  Some of the guys were practically mummies, their lips dried and stretched back from their teeth in these painful, crazy-ass grins.  There was no way I could’ve recognized any of them–their own mothers wouldn’t have known them from Adam–but somehow I knew these were a bunch of the shits, cheats, and ass bags Rob and I had killed over the years.

Like this guy Steve Merkleson, the snitch that almost put the boss away on a count of vehicular manslaughter; somehow he’d crawled out of the septic tank we’d dumped him in, only now most of his flesh was eaten away by bacteria, and shitty clumps were sliding off his bones.  Or like that surfer Kelly who’d been balling Uncle Vinny’s wife–can’t say it was the rot that took off his dick.  Pieces of Kelly’s Hawaiian shirt stuck to his skin, still wet from the river where we’d dumped him.

They were all there, waiting, watching, their eyes either milky or empty black holes.  And now I couldn’t see them, just hear them, like hammers beating away at my skull, like when those white kids drive by with their bass up too loud.

I puked.  Couldn’t help it.  Seeing all those corpses did a number on me.  I could remember exactly how we’d killed each and every one of them, could still smell their blood and their piss and their shit.  And now they were rotting and I could smell that too.

I clapped my hands over my ears because of the noise.  Didn’t help.  So I started screaming.  “Fuck off–just fuck off!”  I was going insane–that’s all I could think.  Nothing else could explain what was happening.

I walked outside and fired my Glock into the woods.  Rob started shooting too.  He didn’t have a silencer.  Guess that’s what woke up the neighbors.

Rob said something–couldn’t hear him–and he made for the side gate.  I shouldn’t have followed him.  When he opened the gate and saw more of the walking dead crowding the yard, he turned around and ran right into me.  His gun went off.  I’m thinking it was on accident.  Instinct or something.  The bullet punched right through my foot, the left one, the one with the bad toenail, and I fell straight on my ass.

Rob stood over me for a second, the moon gleaming wetly in his eyes, his face twitching with every beat of the dead men’s hearts.  I was pretty sure he was going to shoot me again, this time for good.  Maybe so I couldn’t give him up to the pigs.  Not sure what he was thinking.

He must have thought better of it because he took off and climbed over the privacy fence into the neighbor’s yard.  Never saw him again.  Word is he died in a car chase with the cops.  Bastard deserved it; he just left me there, bleeding out, just me and my gun.

Police sirens began to bleed through the heartbeats, then began to overpower them until the pulses just stopped–just like that.  There was a bit of silence as I glanced around the yard.  Billy Miracle, still laid out on the patio, was staring at me, his head kind of bobbing, his eye bulging and bloodshot and catching the light from the bedroom, still sad but somehow vindicated.  And maybe smiling?  And then just like that, his head dropped and all the other stiffs slumped to the ground.  I could hear them falling in the woods.  Dead.

Lights from the cop cars bounced off the house.  No way I could get out.  Not with a messed up foot.  And all across the property were the bodies, men I’d killed.  I was screwed.

My Glock was empty, so I took the fresh mag from my robe pocket and loaded it in.  I hesitated, then put the gun in my mouth.  I’ll never forget that taste.  Oily plastic.  Gunpowder.  And something worse, almost like blood.  Maybe I should have pulled the trigger.  But I couldn’t do it.  I kept thinking all those stiffs would be waiting for me on the other side.  Guess either way I’m a coward.

Long story short, the cops got me.  I lost my leg, thanks to Rob–thanks to the fine medical staff at Go Fuck Yourself General.  They could have stopped the infection if they’d tried–my diabetes ain’t that bad–but the bastards neglected it.  I think because of who I am, because I’m a criminal.

All told, the court had enough evidence to give me the needle.  Their theory was that me and Rob had dug up and dredged up all the stiffs and brought them to my house, probably because we thought someone was onto us, because someone knew about our dumping grounds.  So they say we panicked, tried to clean up the evidence.  It made a hell of a lot more sense than what really happened–I’ll never be able to explain that voodoo. Guess I owed somebody, and they came to collect.

Anyway, that’s what I’m in for.  Me and the wife got into witness protection, so they moved us, but I’m still in the joint, which is bullshit.  At least my lawyer cleared me of the death penalty, got me my own little grace period.  He’s a genius.  All I got to do is give them something, and I said I would.  Seeing all those bodies that night, it got me thinking about everyone I’d ever killed.  I still get sick about it, and sometimes I dream about Billy Miracle, about his heartbeat, about his stupid toothpick.  But I think I know how to make it stop.  Got to repay my debt.

Unni cc’è focu, pri lu fumu pari,” the boss always said.  Well, Boss, here’s your smoke signal.  You’d better get ready for the backdraft ’cause I’ll be seeing you in court.  And then?  Guess I’ll be seeing you in Hell.

 

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