Why I Stayed – Part 7

I walked out the front door of the house and felt a hundred weary eyes on me. I took the three steps down to the concrete sidewalk and stopped. I turned and looked back into the entry way and watched Nicole tentatively walk out onto the concrete landing. She had put on a gray sweatshirt silk-screened with the compass emblem of the Kiln Valley Pathfinders. She wore a pair of jeans that seemed a little too big. She had traded her one pink slipper for a pair of khaki Timberland boots.

I heard someone say, “It’s about fucking time.”

I turned to see Hoskins fighting his way out of the passenger seat of a cruiser and begin to make his way across the yard to where I stood. He had to stop after a few steps to pull up his gun belt, which always wanted to settle below his thickened waist and bulging belly. The bossy fat man grabbed a young officer by the elbow.

“Restrain her and put her in the car,” he said as he pointed at Nicole who stood warily on the top step.

“Hoskins, do we really need the cuffs,” I asked but I already knew the answer.

“This woman admitted to brutally killing her husband, if that doesn’t warrant hand restraints I don’t know what does.”

Hoskins motioned angrily at the shy woman and gave the policeman a bug-eyed look that said, “Cuff her already!”

I turned to Nicole. Her face wore an expression of confusion and fear.

“It’s going to be okay. I won’t let them hurt you and I will be at the station as soon as I can.”

“I kind of wish I had brought the whiskey with me,” Nicole said as the officer approached with the restraints in his hand.

Law enforcement organizations had almost completely stopped using metal handcuffs and started using plastic restraints. Metal cuffs were heavy and expensive. Metal cuffs also had the tendency to cut or chafe the skin of the detainee and were rarely sanitized after use. This meant the cuffs often carried traces of whatever blood-borne diseases had infected the previous wearer. A number of lawsuits were filed by detainees that contracted hepatitis or worse from the dirty metal that dug into their skin.

The lawyers responsible for defending against such lawsuits loved PlastiCuffs since they were single-use. Some cops loved them because they could carry 10 pairs of plastic restraints in the space of one pair of metal ones and at a fraction of the weight. Other cops enjoyed using them because they were actually less comfortable than traditional steel restraints.

The young officer approached Nicole and she extended her hands, the palms inclined and facing each other like she was trying to catch a ball. The policeman guided the plastic loops over her hands and up to her wrists. He pulled the tabs that tightened the loops until there was only a little room under the plastic. I could tell he could’ve pulled them tighter.

“Thank you, officer,” I said to the young man. To Nicole I said, “I’ll see you soon. Remember you don’t have to talk until your lawyer gets there.”

“Yeah, yeah,” interrupted Hoskins. “Jones here will make sure she understands her rights, just like any other perp.”

“Sir,” said the young officer. “My name is Thompson.”

“Whatever,” said Hoskins with a scowl.

Nicole was staring at her hands as she followed Thompson to the nearest cruiser. His hand was clasped gently around her upper arm and he was taking care to lead her around some branches that had fallen in last night’s wind. Hoskins and I watched as the young man opened the rear door of the police car and placed his hand on the back of her head to make sure she didn’t bump it as she sat down.

The assistant coroner and a few crime scene investigators walked over from where they had been waiting. The assistant coroner still had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He winked at us as he passed by and tossed his butt into the grass before mounting the stairs and putting blue booties on his feet. The crime scene investigators stopped to do the same and followed him in.

“Now for the fun part,” said Hoskins as he walked determinedly down the sidewalk for the car in which Nicole sat in the back seat.

I could only barely make out the shape of her head in the gloomy light until Hoskins opened the passenger door and the dome light came on. Nicole was still staring at her hands. I heard Hoskins say something to the driver before the door shut and cut off the sound of his voice. The dome light faded and Nicole was plunged back into shadow.

I walked briskly to my car and was about to open the door when I hear someone yell, “Kinsey!”

I turned around and saw one of the crime scene techs jogging up to me.

“Hey man, I need you to give me a statement,” he said as he came near.

“I need to get to the station. I told her I’d be there,” I said.

“Just come in and show me where you walked, where you sat, what you touched.”

I sighed and followed him back into the house. When we arrived in the bedroom, I noticed that additional lights had been brought in to supplement the yellow glow from the ceiling fan. The windows had been opened to dispel the cloud of cigarette smoke. The assistant coroner was digging around in a tool bag by the side of the bed. He had removed the pillow from the corpse’s face and put it in a plastic evidence bag next to the tools. The victim’s face had the look of maniacal laughter.

In the time that Nicole and I had talked, she and dressed, and I had escorted her outside, the corpse continued to slip in to rigor mortis. The small muscles were effected first, which accounted for the sickening grin on the face and the hands clenched into fists. As rigor continued, the large muscles started to contract. The corpse’s biceps were pulling the the forearms up, the glutes were pressing his heels into the mattress, and his back muscles pressed his shoulders into the bed. The effect lifted his pelvis up a couple inches off the bed. The body’s posture combined with the cold, blue lighting and the cold, blue hue to his skin disturbed me more than any dead body I had ever seen.

“Okay, man. Tell me your story,” said the crime scene tech.

I pointed to the chair and said, “I brushed some clothes off of that chair and sat while we talked.

“Did you touch anything while you were in the room?”

“Yeah, the suspect handed me that bottle of whiskey. I pretended to take a drink to earn her trust,” I lied.

“You didn’t touch anything else?”

“No, I didn’t move from the chair the whole time I was in here. I stood in the doorway while the suspect got dressed.”

“Okay, that should do it. Get out of here.”

I was about to turn away but I felt compelled to take one more look at the face of the dead man laying in the bed. His eyes were open and cloudy, they were no longer the piercing blue I remembered. His white teeth shined unnaturally in the surgical light. His wavy brown hair moved slightly in the breeze from the still-turning ceiling fan. He had aged well, despite years of drinking and smoking. The only lines in his face were from the expression of mania forced by the chemical reaction in his muscles. His proud nose seemed to be flattened and pointed down at his curling upper lip.

“Rigor and temp suggest a time of death that coincides with the 911 call,” the coroner was speaking into a headset microphone. “No defensive wounds. Dermal abrasions apparently from contact with the tie-down straps. Additional abrasions on the knuckles of the right hand, partially healed, perhaps from an earlier fight.”

I started to turn back to the hallway when I noticed a technician fingerprinting the victim’s night stand and the items which sat on it. The man used soft a brush to spread powder on the alarm clock, the whiskey bottle, and the cigarette box. When his brush fell upon the empty space between the pack of cigarettes and the whiskey, my heart nearly stopped. The empty space was where the Zippo lighter should be.

“Visual inspection of the eyes reveal conjunctival petechiea consistent with suffocation as cause of death. Deformation of the nasal bones suggest continuation of force, most likely more than was needed to suffocate the victim. I imagine x-rays will reveal similar deformation of the maxilla and zygomatic.”

I left the room, shouldered past a crime scene tech and a uniformed officer in the hallway. I jumped down the steps outside the front door, jogged across the sidewalk, and hurried back to my car. I was relieved to see that the car containing Hoskins and Nicole had only just pulled away form the curb. I started my car, backed out of the driveway, and started down the street. The cruiser in front of me was driving slowly and carefully. I could see that the passenger window was down. Hoskins’ flabby arm drooped out of the window and his hand was tapping a steady rhythm onto the vinyl decal which adorned the door panel. I followed the car while my mind wandered.

The drive down the hill and into downtown wasn’t a long one and we arrived at the police station in a few minutes. The cruiser pulled through the gate into the police-only parking lot. I followed the car until it turned to park under the corrugated-steel portico next to the back door to the precinct. I parked my car with the other unmarked cars in the pool. I sat for a moment, waiting for Hoskins or the driver to open their doors. My body had barely any energy left and I did not relish the idea of getting out of my seat. When both the front doors of the other car opened, I opened mine and hauled myself out of the seat.

I shut my door and made my way to the portico in time to see Thompson opening the back door and giving Nicole a hand up as she rose from her seat. I stood by the back door to the police station and waited for the officer to guide her to the door. Hoskins hit the buzzer. Nicole looked up from her hands to smile at me as the back door was unlocked from the inside. The three of them went in and I tried to follow.

“We can take it from here, detective,” Hoskins chided. He placed a meaty hand on my sternum to stop me from walking in the door.

I looked over his shoulder to see Thompson guiding Nicole down the hallway. The ancient fluorescent lighting and the yellowing paint on the walls made her hair look dull and I hated how small she looked as she shuffled farther away.

“I need to talk to her,” I said through gritted teeth.

“No, what you need is to go home. We appreciate your help with maintaining the integrity of the crime scene and bringing the suspect into custody without further incident. I will contact your chief of detectives to commend you on a job well done.”

He removed his hand from my chest, backed into the hallway, and pulled the heavy door behind him. There was a small window in the door with glass reinforced by steel wire. I watched Hoskins saunter down the yellow hallway and enjoyed the sight of his bulky body being sliced into cubes.

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Why I Stayed – Part 6

I drove down the street and tried to figure out what to say. Her eyes were squinted part way closed and her lips were pursed together hard enough to displace their pink color. She was breathing hard and puffs of air came out of her nose like a cartoon bull about to charge.

“Nic-,” I started to say.

“No,” she interrupted. “Just. Drive.”

I reached the stop sign at the open end of our cul-de-sac. The street where Nicole and I had spent our entire lives was displayed in the rear view mirror like a photograph. Every house was the same basic shape, different only in color and condition. The entire neighborhood was provided by the Falling Star mine as housing for men that came home from World War II and found work in the mines and smelters. Most of the mining in our area stopped when I was a baby and none of the people in our neighborhood were miners anymore. My dad was a salesman for a local company that sold trailers made for hauling 4-wheelers and snowmobiles behind your pickup. Nicole’s dad was one of the last people on the street still working for the mine. After the last silver and zinc was mined and smelted, the mine workers were laid off. Tim Miller was hired back as a security guard. He patrolled the old mine properties around town, protecting the dilapidated buildings from teenagers and vagrants. Neither Nicole or I had much money growing up but we were never hungry and got most of our clothes from the department store.

I flicked on my left blinker and drove out of the Silver Hills housing development and headed toward the highway that cut through town. Until fifth grade, the highway was part of Interstate and people passing through town had to make their way through Kiln Valley, stopping at every stop light. A new freeway was built that carried traffic on an elevated path around the edge of town. With interstate traffic gone, the highway was never busy and made it a good way to get from one side of town to the other.

As I made my way into downtown, the boarded up machine shops and empty lots gave way to an area the mayor liked to call “The Village.” When mining ceased to be a valid enterprise, local businessmen decided to leverage the natural beauty of the area and built a ski resort. The Village was a section of downtown where tourists would come to buy boutique clothing, ski equipment, and jewelry patterned after Native American tribal designs. The name the locals used was “The Fur Trap” referring to the tourists in fur-trimmed coats that spent money like it was nothing. Most of the shops were closed for the evening and the only signs of life came from the bars and restaurants.

One bar called The Old Mill was a favorite for fur-clad tourists to mingle with the locals around tables of rough-hewn wood and decorations made from old, rusty milling and mining equipment. As we passed The Old Mill, Nicole moved for the first time. She craned her neck to peer into the enormous window. When the bar was behind us, she turned her head toward the windshield again and I could see that her face was no longer pinched in anger.

“Hey, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a ride home from school,” I said.

“It’s cool, you said you had to pick up your mom,” Nicole replied.

“You seemed kind of upset, are you okay?”

Nicole took a deep breath and blew air up into her bangs to get the hair out of her eyes.

“In sixth period, I got a note from the office saying my mom was in the hospital. I tried to find you before seventh period to see if you wanted to play hooky and go visit her. By the time I got to your locker, you had already left. I hurried back after class to see if you wanted to give me a ride.”

“Oh Nic, I’m sorry. Is she alright?”

“She’s going to be fine. After school, I walked to the hospital and she was just getting released.”

“What happened,” I asked.

“Dad said he came home early from work to find mom had fallen down the stairs. He took her to the hospital and X-rays confirmed she broke her arm again,” she said with a resigned tone. “She has a cast and she’s supposed to take it easy for a while.”

“I’m glad she’s alright. Good thing your dad came home early.”

Nicole’s mouth took a grim set again and I could see the muscles on the side of her jaw stand out as she clenched her teeth.

“I don’t think Dad went to work today. I don’t think mom fell down the stairs,” she said in a flat voice.

“What are you saying, your dad pushed her?”

“Pushed her or broke her arm himself.”

My family had always been aware of Tim Miller’s temper. Every other night we could hear him raise his voice about something. I always thought it was weird, especially since my parents only raised their voices at contestants on The Wheel of Fortune. Every once in a while, Tim’s shouting would be accompanied by crashing noises or the sound of breaking dishes. Sometimes days would go by and Louanne Miller, Nicole’s mom, would not leave the house. My parents had quiet discussions about it when they thought I couldn’t hear. Mom would try to convince my dad to call the police. Dad would always tell her it was none of our business. Nicole never said anything to me about it and I never had the guts to ask her.

“Have you,” I started. “Has your dad hurt your mom before? Has he hurt you?”

“Mom always sends me to my room when dad is ‘in one of his moods,’” she used air quotes around her mother’s words. “That’s when I put my headphones on, turn up the volume and listen to music until I fall asleep. Sometimes I sneak out my window and sit on the roof, watching for you to come home from practice. When I’m really lonely, I sit on your porch swing.”

“So tonight, when I found you on the swing, you had sneaked out of your window again?”

“I didn’t have to tonight,” Nicole said with a shake of her head. “My dad left during dinner. Mom had reheated some leftovers, since she can’t cook very well with the cast on her arm. Dad said he didn’t like last night’s dinner when it fresh. He put on his coat and said he was going out for dinner.”

“Is that why you looked in the window at The Old Mill?”

Nicole and looked down at her hands, which were balled into fists on her lap.

“We’re almost to David’s house, I only need to go in for a couple minutes. Did you want to come in?”

David was a friend of ours who had two claims to fame. One was that he had the complete set of the first run of Magic cards, even the rare ones. The other was his wispy mustache and early-onset male pattern baldness that made him look old enough to buy cigarettes and booze from the liquor store on the reservation. I gave him twenty dollars earlier that week to get a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of root beer schnapps to bring to the party.

“Why are we going to David’s house,” Nicole started to ask. “Oh, he made a run to the res for you didn’t he?”

I pulled into the gravel driveway in front of David’s house and turned to smile at Nicole.

“You coming in,” I asked.

“Nah, say hi for me.”

I hopped out of the car, leaving it running so Nicole could stay warm and listen to the radio. I was about to knock on David’s front door when it opened. David hurried out the door and closed it quickly behind him. While the door was open I could hear his mother yelling at him.

“Go to the car,” David said through clenched teeth.

I stood on David’s porch in confusion while he hurried awkwardly down the steps. I noticed his arms were stiff and unmoving and the sleeves of his coat seemed to be stuffed full instead of hanging on his lanky frame like they normally did. He got to the back door behind Nicole and carefully tried to open the door. I began to make my way to the car just in time to see a carton of Marlboro reds fall out of his sleeve.

“Fuck,” David said as he stooped to pick them up.

He grabbed the red and white box off of the gravel, sat down, and slammed his door shut. He looked sheepishly at the window to his mother’s living room. The curtains were parted slightly to one side. A small boy looked out and scowled at us.

I climbed into the driver’s seat and looked back at David. He was trying to pull a bottle of liquor out of the other arm of his coat.

“Dude, drive,” he said.

I backed out of his driveway and tried not to laugh. David pulled a second carton of smokes, this one menthols, out of his coat and then the bottle of root beer schnapps that I asked for.

“What is all that,” I asked.

“Merchandise,” answered David.

“What the fuck are you talking about,” Nicole inquired. For some reason I liked it when she used cuss words.

“Last weekend I went to a party with my brother. It was out at some hunting lodge and everyone ran out of smokes but nobody wanted to drive in to town so I could buy more. I figured if that happens tonight, I could sell packs of cigarettes and make a killing. Here,” he said and tossed one of the red and white packs of cigarettes onto the bench seat beside me. “That one is yours.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“This too,” David said, setting the bottle of schnapps on the seat.

Nicole rolled her eyes and put the bottle in the glove box.

“So, where are we going? Where’s the party?”

“Um,” I said.

David looked incredulously at my reflection in the rear view mirror.

“Aw, for fuck’s sake. I wasn’t supposed to come, was I? I was just your hookup for booze and smokes!”

“Dave, I’m sorry,” I started to apologize.

“Whatever, just drop me off at my brother’s apartment.”

“The party is at Jerrad’s house. I’m not really supposed to bring anyone.”

“What’s Nicole doing then? Is she going to wait in the car and drive you home after you hang out with the snobs?”

“Jerrad said I could bring her.”

“Figures,” David said.

I was about to ask what that meant but we were pulling into the parking lot of the run down apartment complex where David’s brother lived.

David looked at me and then at Nicole. Then he grabbed the bottle of whiskey and opened his door.

“I’m leaving the smokes, you can bring the money and whatever you don’t sell to school on Monday,” he said and stood up. Before he shut the door, he leaned in said, “Have fun with the snobs.”

David shut the door and stormed up the walkway to the apartment complex. He arrived at the secure entry and swiped his hand across the buttons on the call box, ringing every buzzer in the building. A red light came on and the door buzzed loudly. David walked in without a look back and made for the staircase.

“That was awkward,” chided Nicole.

“Well, I told him I was going to a party and I needed a bottle and a pack of smokes. I didn’t say he could come, but I guess I didn’t say he couldn’t either.”

I used an empty parking spot to turn around and made my way back to the highway. I backtracked towards downtown and turned left onto the road that led to Jerrad’s neighborhood. Officially, the housing development perched on the hill above town was called “Pleasant View.” Most of the kids I knew called it “Snob Hill.” When I was younger, my parents would drive up at Christmas to look at the lights and displays our affluent neighbors would put up. On Halloween, my dad would drop me and my friends off for trick-or-treating since it was the only place in town where you might actually get a full-size candy bar.

One night in my first year on the varsity team, Jerrad’s dad threw a barbecue for the players and their parents. I remember my dad whistling in awe when we pulled up to the address printed on the invitation. My mom put on a fresh coat of lipstick and checked her hair before we got out of the car and rang the ornate doorbell.

I had not been back since but I found the house easily enough. It was on the highest part of the hill and as long as you were driving uphill, you would eventually come to the right street. Cars and trucks were parked haphazardly on either side of the road. Nicole and I drove past the driveway to see it also packed with vehicles. I kept going and found a spot down the road big enough to park the giant station wagon. I grabbed a couple packs of each type of cigarette and Nicole moved the schnapps bottle from the glove box to the pocket in the front of her hoodie. We got out of the car and I walked around to where she stood, looking warily at the house. Nicole had put her hands into her pocket to keep them warm and to hold on to the bottle of liquor.

“This place huge,” she said. “Are you sure you want to go in?”

You could hear kids talking loudly and music thumped from the open front door. Every window leaked light into the dark pine trees around the house. A group of kids stood on the front lawn in a circle. Every few moments one of their faces would be illuminated by a lighter, then go dark, and then the next face would be lit up. Someone was coughing and someone else was laughing in a hoarse voice.

“No,” I answered. “But I’ve come this far, might as well say hi.”

I started walking across the street and Nicole stalled a minute before following me.

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Why I Stayed – Part 5

 

Why I Stayed - BookOne-Final

A burst of static and angry words erupted from the radio clipped to the shoulder of the uniformed officer posted outside the bedroom door. The young policeman poked his head into the room and cleared his throat.

“Um,” he tried to look at me while he spoke, but his nervous eyes kept shifting over to Nicole. “Hoskins wants to know when you can get the, uh, suspect out of the room.”

“Can you give me a few more minutes?”

The officer retreated back into the hallway to relay my request. I couldn’t hear what Hoskins said in response, but the tone of the intemperate reply said enough.

“Um, sir? Hoskins said we need to clear out of the room in the next five minutes,” the policeman gritted his teeth. “Or he will have her removed forcefully, evidence be damned. His words, sir.”

I didn’t doubt for a second those were Hoskins words. I was only surprised that the message didn’t contain any more expletives. I imagined the young cop was probably uncomfortable repeating the message verbatim.

For the first time since I sat down, I took a good look around the room. The bedroom resembled a bachelor’s pad. The bed clothes were gray with a simple chevron pattern on the comforter. There was only a few pillows. Clothes were strewn around the room. A dresser in the corner had two drawers open, from which some shirts dangled out as if they had tried to escape. The windows were covered with louvered blinds the mauve color you see in apartments. There was a television mounted on the wall in a position that afforded the best view to a person laying where the dead body currently reposed. There was a cardboard cut out of a race car driver I didn’t recognize in the corner. Someone had placed a red baseball cap on the cutout’s head. White embroidery printed on the front of the cap read “Kiln Valley High Football.” In addition to the whiskey and cigarettes, the night stand on the corpse’s side of the bed held a NASCAR-themed alarm clock, loose change, and the remote for the satellite receiver connected to the TV on the wall.

There was scant evidence that a woman lived here at all. Amid the scattered laundry were panties and a couple bras. Some of the jeans were smaller, obviously the size for Nicole and not her husband. On the nightstand next to what must have been Nicole’s side of the bed there was a small bottle of perfume, a box of tissues, and a small picture frame containing a picture of her mother. Next to the picture frame was a plain alarm clock, the red numbers flashing “12:00” in counterpoint to the lights from the cop cars outside.

After my gaze swept across the room, it returned to Nicole’s face. I looked at her and suddenly I knew why I was there. I knew why she nearly called me instead of the police. I looked at her through the pall of cigarette smoke and I didn’t see the deranged killer Hoskins saw when he arrived on the scene. From where I sat, the bedroom window was behind her and the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles outside back-lit her hair. As the colors shifted from red to blue to white, Nicole’s face would shift as well. The face of the angry killer shifted to that of a wounded teenager to that of a terrified woman.

“I can help you,” I said.

“You’ve said that before, too,” Nicole said as she put the whiskey bottle down next to the pack of cigarettes.

“I know, I’m sorry. But if you don’t want the town glorifying him,” I gestured to the face under the pillow. “Then you’re going to have to let me help you. You’re going to have to listen to me. You’re going to have to talk to lots of people. Other cops, doctors, lawyers. There’s going to be a parade of people that want to talk to you. But the first person you need to talk to is me. Tell me what happened tonight.”

Nicole closed her eyes and for a moment, I thought she might pass out. She took a deep breath in through her nose, tipped her head back, and began her story.

“Every other week there would be something to set him off. A couple months ago a junior offensive tackle busted his knee while skateboarding. The next game, they lost to Pine View and when we got home he spent forty-five minutes berating me about how I had been letting myself go. Three weeks ago we were at the bar and he put money on the first three finishers at Daytona. One of the drivers crashed in the 409th lap. He paid his tab, no tip, and as we were leaving the bar, I could tell he was really drunk. Walking to the car I told him I should drive. He turned and sucker-punched me in the stomach. I fell to my knees and puked onto the asphalt. He said, ‘Looks like you’re not in any shape to drive.’”

Nicole opened her eyes and looked at me with a blank expression.

“Tonight he was pissed because the waitress at the wing shop forgot his extra ranch. We got home and he grabbed my ass as we walked into the bedroom. I have been fighting a cold and told him I was not feeling well but he didn’t give up. He turned me around to try to kiss me but I was in mid-sneeze. I blew snot and spit onto his shoulder and he backhanded me across the face. Then he went to bed and turned on Sports Center.”

Nicole’s face turned hard and the left corner of her upper lip lifted slightly giving her an evil sneer.

“He drank two pitchers of Kokanee and three shots of Fireball at the restaurant so I knew it was only a matter of time until he passed out. I went to the kitchen to make a cup of herbal tea. I sat at the table, let the steam drift across my face, and waited. When I heard the first snore, I nearly jumped out of my chair. It wasn’t the first time I waited for him to go to sleep before I went to bed.”

Nicole stopped to lick her lips and sit up straight.

“But I knew that tonight would have to be different. I knew that tonight I was going to do something drastic and that snore was like a starter pistol. I stood up and walked quietly to the bedroom door. He was dozing, slack-jawed in the light of the TV. He had opened a new bottle of whiskey and must’ve taken a hit before he laid back onto the pillow and fell asleep. I waited for a commercial break. Sometimes they had the power to wake him up but he continued to snore over the OxyClean guy’s pitch. I walked back to the kitchen and grabbed his keys from where he tossed them on the table. I walked out to the driveway and up to his ridiculous truck. I climbed up the rear passenger tire and into the bed. I used the key on his keyring to unlock the toolbox that sits up against the cab.

“A few weeks ago, we helped his buddy bring a new couch home from the store and they had used some kevlar straps to tie the giant leather sofa down. The couch was so fucking big that it stuck three feet out of the back of the truck. His friend had been worried the couch would fall out but my husband told him these straps were stronger than steel. I found the straps in the tool box and carried them back into the house.

“I stopped in the kitchen to put his keys back on the table and finish my tea. Then I walked to the bedroom door and watched him sleep a little longer. When the next commercial break came and went without rousing him, I took the straps to my side of the bed and unrolled them across the floor, under the frame of the bed. I walked over to his side, grabbed the slack, and carefully lifted the remaining length over his body and over to my side of the bed where the metal buckles waited on the floor.

“I ran the straps through the buckles and started to pull the lever on the upper one. I had forgotten how loud the ratchet mechanism was that kept the straps from unrolling and I was worried he’d wake up,” Nicole smiled a little.

“He didn’t wake up so I tightened the one that ran over his knees. When I had him cinched tight, I walked to his night stand, picked up the remote, and turned off the TV. He tossed his head from side to side but he didn’t wake up.

“I climbed on top of his chest and his eyes popped open. They were unfocused and wandered around the ceiling until they landed on my face. I felt the muscles in his chest shift as he tried to lift his arms. His eyes came into focus and looked at me, confused and angry. I could feel that the straps and my weight held him in place. I thought about sitting there for a while. I thought about taking is stupid Zippo and burning him. I thought about cutting him, emasculating him,” she shook her head and continued.

“But the idea of torturing him didn’t stay with me long. It seemed to be something he would do and that disgusted me. So I grabbed my pillow and I put it over his face. I planted both of my hands over it and I pushed with all my strength. I could hear him screaming through the pillow. The heat from his breath went through the stuffing and made my hands damp. His body bucked beneath me like we were having some kind of crazy sex. Soon, the pillow felt cool where his breath wasn’t warming it anymore. His muscles relaxed until he almost felt like he was asleep again. His legs jerked a couple times and I realized I could feel his heartbeat against my thighs. I thought it was my own, but when it started to slow I could tell it was his pulse. I felt the last few beats of is heart and then I felt the last of his muscles relax. I was afraid to let go of the pillow and I’m sure I held it there longer and harder than was necessary. I finally lifted my hands off of the pillow, tried to calm my own heartbeat, and that’s when I saw the smokes. You already know the rest.”

Nicole sniffed and looked around her room as if she suddenly realized where she was. She turned her head and looked at the pillow, which still covered her husband’s face. She tried to look away from it but ended up staring directly at the corpse’s white hand. The knuckles were scuffed, but bloodless. The fingers were tangled in the sheet. The hand seemed to be gripping the fabric tighter, clenching the linen as it had in the last moments before life completely left it. Nicole clenched her eyes shut and dropped her head to her chest.

I stood up and said, “I think it’s about time to get out of here.”

Nicole looked up at me, her red-rimmed eyes no longer looking angry but tired.

“Can you help me up? My ass hurts and my legs have fallen asleep.”

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Why I Stayed – Part 4

My school had a tradition for homecoming week. Each day had a different theme. “Dress like a Redneck Day” and “Dress Like A Superhero Day” were popular ones in which many of my classmates would participate with costumes or makeup. After practice on the Thursday before homecoming week, I heard a couple of linemen say they were going all-out for “Tootsie Day” on Monday. That was a day when girls dressed like boys and boys dressed like girls. It was named for the 1982 Dustin Hoffman movie but I doubt any of my classmates could tell you that. The two defensive lineman were planning to wear miniskirts and halter tops and the locker room echoed with their excited talk. The group of boys around them laughed as the hopeful cross-dressers mimed how big their “jugs” were going to be.

Before football, the only time I had participated in spirit week was when I wore my red Stone Temple Pilots shirt on “Pathfinder Pride” day; a  day we were all supposed to wear our school’s colors. My accidental participation earned me plenty of grief from my friends, especially Nicole.

I packed the last of my things into my gym bag and headed for the door. The coach’s office had a large window that looked out into the locker room and I had to pass it on the way out. Jerrad Griffith and Coach Myers looked up from a dry erase board in the design of a football field just as I was walking past the window. Coach nodded and went back to the diagram but Jerrad jogged out of the office to catch me before I could walk outside.

“Kinsey, wait up,” he snapped.

“What’s up, Jerrad?”

“My old man is letting me skip school so I can get the house set up for the party tomorrow night. You’re still going right?”

I nodded and answered, “Yeah, I’ll be there. I was going to bring a friend, if that’s okay.”

A shadow passed behind Jerrad’s shining blue eyes and he looked at the ceiling. I figured he was imagining all the nerdy losers I used to hang out with. He was worried I was going to bring some dork to the party and bring everyone down.

“It’s my neighbor, Nicole Miller.”

“Oh yeah,” said Jerrad, the shine returning to his eyes. “I think she’s in my English class.”

From stories Nicole told me I knew they shared History class and that Jerrad had the tendency to snore through movies when the lights were turned off.

“Yeah, she really wants to go,” I lied.

“Dude, I will never prevent any of my guests from bringing more hot girls,” he said with a wink and a slap to my shoulder. “See you tomorrow night!”

Jerrad jogged back into the coach’s office and I stood there for a second. He called Nicole hot and that made me angry for some reason. I shook my head, opened the door, and stepped out into the night air.

The late autumn days were pretty warm but once the sun went down, the temperature dropped. I stood under yellow light of the lamps that lit the school parking lot. Steam rose from my scalp, which was still damp from the dank heat of the locker room. I enjoyed the way the cold air felt and how it washed the stinky-shoe smell of sweaty sports equipment out of my nostrils. After a few more purifying breaths and a thousand goosebumps on my forearms, I made my way to my mom’s old station wagon.

My mom used to drive the blue and white Chevy Caprice Classic to work. When they added an express bus route to downtown, she offered to take the bus so I could drive to school. It was usually dark when I got done with practice and the walk home was almost two miles. Nicole liked to call the car “Woody” since it had a fake wood panel painted down the side. I pretended to be annoyed at the name, but only because she thought of it before me.

I unlocked the driver’s door, reached in to unlock the back door, and opened it. I tossed my bag onto the wide bench seat and shut the back door. I plopped into the driver’s seat and put the keys into the ignition. I turned the key and waited while the engine turned over a few times before it finally coughed to life. I left the door open while the engine warmed up to enjoy a little more fresh air. It was technically possible to roll down the car’s windows but they required two people to roll them back up. One person had to turn the crank with two hands while the other pushed up on the blue-hued glass to keep it from going crooked and leaving a gap below the black weather-stripping. When the car was warm, the engine idle settled to a low purr and the defroster vents began to blow lukewarm air across the windshield.

I shut the driver’s side door, shifted into drive, and began to point the gigantic hood toward the parking lot exit. Just as my tires began to move, I saw lights in my side-view mirror and a shiny, red Chevy truck roared past. I saw a vanity plate on the black bumper, stamped with the letters “JERRAD.” Three boys wearing letterman’s jackets sat in the bed. One boy stood, held on to the chrome roll bars with one hand and flipped me off with his other. I took a deep breath and took my foot off of the brake again.

The next day at school, I noticed that Jerrad was absent from Health class. I was so nervous about going to the party that I was hardly able to pay attention in any of my classes. Twice, a teacher called on me and the rest of the class laughed when I was completely unable to answer the question. I didn’t have Nicole in any of my classes and I didn’t see her at lunch so I was pleasantly surprised when she grabbed my arm in the hall after seventh period.

“Are you still intent on going to the meat-head’s party tonight?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Are you still going to come with and keep me company?”

“Against my better judgment,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Cool, I gotta pick my mom up from work today. But I’ll come get you after dinner, okay?”

“Okay,” she said but I could see something change in her expression.

“You alright?”

“I’m fine, Trev,” she said. I could tell that she was not.

“Okay, well… I’ll see you after dinner,” I said and headed for the exit.

During drive to downtown, I couldn’t keep the look on Nicole’s face out of my head. The more I thought about it, the more I was certain that something was wrong. I should have known she wouldn’t tell me anything personal in the hallway. Nicole did not trust our classmates. She didn’t even like most of them. I was the only person she really talked to and even then she held most of her feelings back. I got to my mom’s office a few minutes early and sat on the hood to soak up the last bit of sunlight. I was just starting to doze when my I heard my mother’s voice.

“Are you really sitting on the hood of my car,” she begged the rhetorical question in a way that only a mother can successfully employ.

“Sorry mom,” I said as I slid down and planted my feet on the pavement.

I handed her the keys and climbed into the passenger seat. We were leaving downtown early and missed the worst of what could be called rush hour in my town. We were nearly home when my mom cleared her throat.

“Your father is working late tonight and I don’t feel like cooking. Mind if we pick up some junk food on the way home?”

“Sounds good, mom,” I said but I was a little disappointed.

The exchange with Nicole in the hallway had put me in a sour mood and my mother’s cooking always made me feel better. We pulled up to a drive-through burger stand, got our food to go, and mom started to drive towards our house.

“I have that party at Jerrad’s house tonight.”

“I remember, honey.”

“I’ll probably be home kind of late.”

“That’s okay, sweetheart.”

My parents were proud of my success at football but they were also very happy that I had stopped hanging out with “losers and weirdos” as my dad put it. When I told them I was invited to the party at Jerrad’s house, they were more excited about it than I was.

Mom pulled the car into the driveway and parked in front of the garage door that never opened because the stall was full of Christmas decorations, lawn care equipment, and boxes of stuff that wouldn’t fit in the basement. I grabbed the food and opened my door. On my way to our front door, I heard voices coming from Nicole’s house. It sounded like someone was watching a rowdy talk show on TV, with the volume all the way up.

I walked into the house and went to the kitchen. Mom went to the front room to turn on the TV and tune it to the local news. She returned to the kitchen and poured us each a glass of milk. We devoured our cheeseburgers and shared a tub of crinkle-cut fries which I dipped in fry sauce and she dipped in tartar sauce. We both passively watched the news and didn’t speak a word. When I was finished, I gathered up the grease-stained wrappers and the empty condiment cups to deposit them in the brown paper bag. I stood up, walked to the trash can, and tossed the bag into the garbage.

“I’m gonna go now, mom,” I said.

“You’re not going to change first?”

“Mom, it’s not a formal affair. It’s just some kids getting together at Jerrad’s house.”

“It’s just,” she winced. “You’ve never been to a party before.”

“I’ve been to parties, mom.”

“You’ve gone to David’s house to play your card games all night. That is not a party. Don’t you have a nicer shirt?”

“This will be fine, mom,” I said and rolled my eyes.

“Okay, honey,” she said as she gave up. “Have a good time and please call me if you need a ride home okay?”

I walked out the front door of our house to find Nicole sitting on the porch swing. Her gray hoodie was pulled up again and I could only see the tip of her nose and a few tendrils of her brown hair.

“Hey,” I said.

“Let’s go,” said Nicole, hopping off of the swing and making her way to the passenger door.

I stood on the front step for a few seconds, watching her walk toward the car. She opened the door, plopped into the passenger seat, and dragged the heavy door shut with a little more force than necessary. I made my way to the driver’s side, opened the door, and lowered myself onto the seat. I had to move it back a few inches since my mom was the last one to drive.

I was busy getting the rear-view mirror right and buckling my seat belt when Nicole shouted, “I said, let’s go!”

Her urgency startled me and I barely managed to get the car started, put it in reverse, and back it out of the driveway. I was so nervous that when I shifted into drive and hit the gas, the tires squealed until they caught traction and overcame our backwards inertia.

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Why I Stayed – Part 3

Nicole reached to the night stand and picked up the half-empty pack of Marlboro Reds. She gingerly plucked a single cigarette out of the box and put it between her lips. She put the box down and then reached over to grab a Zippo lighter. She knocked the lid open with the side of her hand, and deftly guided the same hand down onto the wheel. Sparks shot from the flint to the wick and an orange flame leapt temporarily high above the wind guard before settling down. A tiny head of yellow wavered in plain sight, which Nicole put to the tip of the cigarette she held in her mouth. She looked down the end of the white stick to watch the flame set the tobacco to smolder while she puffed. She looked up from her cigarette and into my eyes. Nicole shook the lighter with a flourish to snap the lid shut. The bow-tie of the Chevrolet brand was acid-etched into the brushed steel of the lighter and light from the ceiling fan reflected off of it onto Nicole’s cheek.

“That fat pig of a cop called me a psycho,” Nicole said, exhaling smoke around her words.

“Nobody likes Hoskins but he gets the job done,” I lied.

“Do you think I’m crazy?”

“I have to admit, you look a little crazy right now. Sitting on your husband’s dead body and wearing one pink slipper, you aren’t exactly the paragon of sanity.”

“You always use big words when you’re nervous,” she said.

“I’m not nervous, just a little at a loss for normal words.”

“It’s not like you to be out of words.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “But right now I think you should be the one to talk. The risk of ruining evidence in an important case is the only thing that kept Hoskins from ordering you dragged off your bed and stuffed into a cruiser with your hands zip-tied behind your back.”

“Fuck that guy. I’ll give him all the evidence he needs as soon as I’m ready.”

“Okay, what are you waiting for?”

“Honestly, my original plan was to take his fucking truck and drive to Canada,” Nicole paused to take another drag off of her cigarette. “But when he stopped kicking, I sat here for a minute listening to my heart race. I saw his stupid Zippo on the table and realized how badly I wanted a smoke. So, I got comfortable and lit up the first cigarette I’ve had in 4 years. I can’t even begin to tell you how good that felt. I sat here and smoked it to the butt. That’s when I noticed the whiskey. A couple pulls off that bottle and I was ready to call someone. I almost called you, you know?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, but for some reason I thought that might be inappropriate so I called 911. Can I have the whiskey back?”

“Sure,” I said, leaning forward so she could reach the bottle from where she was perched on the dead body.

“Thanks,” said Nicole and took a swig from the bottle.

She held it back out to me and arched an eyebrow. I shook my head.

“Suit yourself,” she said. “Anyways, when the 911 operator answered she said, ‘9-1-1, what’s your emergency,’ and I laughed. I mean, really, there was no emergency. Any cause for urgency had ended for me. My emergency was over the minute his heart stopped beating.”

Nicole jerked her thumb to the right, to the pillow next to her right elbow.

“The operator repeated her question and I was able to keep from laughing this time. I told her, ‘I just killed my husband,’ and tossed the phone into the chair. I really had nothing else to say. I must have forgotten to hang up because I could hear her trying to get me to say more. Instead, I just sat here and drank. The bottle was mostly full, the pack of smokes was just opened. I had plenty of both to keep me company until the cops arrived.”

“Well,” I said, spreading my hands. “To risk sounding redundant, why did you stay?”

Nicole glowered at me for a minute. She sat up straight for the first time in a few hours and I could hear her back pop as she arched her spine and stretched her arms above her head. A little of the whiskey spilled from the neck of the bottle when she tilted it to one side. Drops of the amber liquor pattered on the bed sheet next to her one pink slipper. The fabric of her t-shirt became taut across her chest while she continued to reach for the ceiling and I couldn’t stop myself from noticing the outline of her nipples through the soft cotton. As she relaxed again I could see a look of amusement on her face.

“Did you like that,” she asked with a smirk.

“I didn’t mean to look,” I said and looked ashamedly at my feet.

“Whatever,” she said dismissively and tossed her cigarette into the ashtray on the night stand. “The reason I stayed is because I wanted people to see him for what he really was. If I hopped into his truck and left for the Great White North, the news would report that my poor husband was found dead, bound cruelly to his bed. The main suspect would be his wife, who was known to have mental health issues and police record of domestic violence.”

Nicole’s voice grew wistful, “He would be gathered up by the ME and brought to the funeral home. His mom would bring his nicest suit and at the funeral there would be pictures of him in his football jersey. The whole town would gather to send their favorite son off to the hereafter with hymns and eulogies.”

Nicole stopped to wipe bloody mucus that started to drip from her nose. Tears started to fall from the corners of her eyes. Her left hand was choking the neck of the whiskey bottle and her right hand was clenched tight around the Zippo lighter. Her knuckles were as white as that of the corpse.

“Meanwhile, cops from here to the Canadian border would be looking for the red Chevy truck that was missing from the driveway. Court orders would be placed to monitor my debit card to track my purchases,” she said as her voice turned hard and frosty.

“Depending on how much of a lead I had, they might see a trail of purchases at convenience stores heading north on the highway. They would call the stores and ask for security camera footage that would show me leaving the store with a Freightliner trucker hat shielding my face and my arms full of beef jerky, Red Bull, and cigarettes. There would be a manhunt for this psycho bitch who killed a perfectly good man. They’d have my mugshot on the news and on the wall at the post office. Checkpoints would be set up on the US side of the border. If I had enough time, I’d already be on the Canadian side. I’d be drinking Molson in a shitty bar in Buttfuck, BC and people here would be hating me,” the word “me” came out with choked sob and the last of the air in her lungs.

Nicole took a deep breath and clenched her eyes shut in an attempt to stem the flow of tears that were streaming down her cheeks. She continued to breathe heavy, huffing and puffing until the urge to cry was abated and she regained her composure. She took another swig of whiskey.

“That is why I stayed,” she said in a cold, flat tone.

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Why I Stayed – Part 2

I was never very good at sports as a kid. At the end of my freshman year I barely weighed one hundred twenty-five pounds. In the summer before my sophomore year, I worked at my uncle’s landscaping business. I carried bricks, I pushed wheelbarrows, and I dug holes six days a week for nine hours a day. By the first day of school of tenth grade, I weighed one hundred sixty pounds and my biology teacher took me aside after class to ask me if I was doing steroids. When I told him I was just filling out, he asked me if I had ever played football. When I told him no, he suggested I try it.

I spent my first few practices stumbling through the plays and learning the calls. I eventually overcame the awkward clumsiness that had kept me from succeeding at any sport besides Tecmo Bowl. By the end of my first season I was starting every game and the varsity coach pegged me for his team. I spent a second summer working for my uncle earning money for college and building another twenty-five pounds of muscle. By the first game of my junior year, I was knocking red-shirted seniors off of their feet. My team mates had taken to calling me by my last name and kids would congratulate me in the halls between classes, “Good game last night, Kinsey!”

The friends I grew up with didn’t know how to react to the change. I didn’t have time for drama club or computer club anymore. I missed the last two debate events due to away games. My old friends spent their after-school time playing Diablo and I would practice. When I wasn’t practicing, I was working out. When I wasn’t working out, I was memorizing play books and watching our game tapes with the coach and the quarterback. Football had become my life and I had left my old life and most of my old friends behind. The only friend that still hung out with me was Nicole.

For as long as I can remember, Nicole Miller lived with her mom and dad in the house next to mine. We attended the same daycare, went to kindergarten at the same time, and always went to each other’s birthday parties. Nicole was my closest friend. She was the only person who looked through my becoming a jock and realized that I was still the same nerd she grew up with.

One night in October of 1997, as we sat on my mother’s porch swing, Nicole listened to me talk about the new play I suggested and how well it has worked in practice.

“I can’t wait to try it in a game,” I said.

“Trev, you’re such a dork. You talk about football the way you used to talk about Magic: The Gathering. You’ve replaced one game for another, but you’re still just geeking out,” said Nicole. She pulled the dark gray hoodie up over her head to keep the wind off of her ears.

“Yeah, I was surprised at how much strategy is involved in football. I thought it was just about muscle-head jocks trying to knock each other down.”

“And now you’re one of the muscle-heads out there knocking people down,” said Nicole with a laugh.

“And getting invited to parties,” I said.

“Parties? What parties,” asked Nicole with a look of disbelief.

“Jerrad invited me to his pre-homecoming party,” I replied.

“Are you going to go?”

“I wasn’t going to, but after practice Jerrad was pretty insistent. He said that I have to party with them if I am really going to be a member of the team. I really want to see some of my plays get used in a game,” I said as I leaned back in the swing, tilting it so much with my weight that Nicole was forced to lean back as well.

Jerrad Griffith was the varsity quarterback and the most popular kid in school. He didn’t know my name before I started playing football and I got the feeling he still didn’t think of me as a part of his group.

“Then you should go,” suggested Nicole.

“The thing is, I’m as good of an athlete as any of those guys. Probably better. But when we’re not on the field, I don’t know how to  talk to any of them. They all have cars and money, their houses are big and they wear Quicksilver. I’ll end up propped against a wall wishing I was sitting here with you.”

“Then take me with you.”

I hadn’t thought about asking Nicole if she wanted to come. I had assumed that any party involving the football team would be the last place she’d want to be seen.

“There’s going to be cheerleaders there,” I said with a wince.

“Ugh, I hate cheerleaders,” Nicole said, frowning. “If I go, you will have to run interference against the cheerleaders.”

“Nic, I’m not a fullback.”

“Again with the sports geek talk,” Nicole said as she threw her arms in the air and got up off the swing. After she descended the porch steps, she turned back to me and said, “I’ll go to the party with you, as long as you promise no cheerleaders will talk to me,” she pointed a stern finger at me. “Or touch me.”

“I can do that, I’ll pick you up tomorrow after dinner,” I said as Nicole began the short walk to her house.

I watched her as she pulled the sleeves of her hoodie down over her hands and crossed her arms for warmth. Nicole arrived at her front door and opened it. Just before she went inside, she looked at me through the glass and saw me watching her. The pattern cut into the glass broke her image into a hundred pieces. I smiled and waved at her shattered silhouette.

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Why I Stayed – Part 1

I opened the door and stepped out of the unmarked car. I stood behind the door and looked around. There was a cruiser in the driveway, parked next to a jacked-up, red Chevy Silverado. There were two more cruisers parked at the curb, with an ambulance and the coroner’s van behind them. Uniformed officers, EMTs, and the assistant coroner milled around the front yard smoking and drinking coffee. Every emergency vehicle had their strobes running; the red, white, and blue coming from the light bars was reflecting off of the surrounding houses and trees. It reminded me of watching a 4th of July fireworks show as a kid. In every window up and down the street you could see faces pressed against the glass, intermittently illuminated with  patriotic colors.

A uniformed officer approached me, flashes of light reflected off of his shield and the aviator sunglasses clipped to his shirt pocket.

“Detective, we can’t arrest the suspect without violating the crime scene,” said the officer. “Hoskins said maybe you could convince her to… um. To get off of the victim.”

I gave him a questioning look and looked over his shoulder to see Hoskins waving to me from the front step, “Kinsey, get your ass in here and see if you can get this crazy bitch to come down off of her husband.” Hoskins’ permanently grouchy face seemed unhappier than usual and he scowled at me before turning back into the house.

I nodded to the uniformed officer, shut my car door, and started to make my way along the sidewalk. I kept my eyes on the ground in front of me and watched the shadows cast by the emergency lights shift like nervous fingers. When I got to the front step, I looked up from my shoes and straight into the grumpy face of Sergeant Hoskins.

“This is some crazy shit, right here,” Hoskins said with a scowl that nearly drew his eyebrows to meet above his bulbous nose. “She’s just sitting there smoking and drinking whiskey. She won’t talk and won’t even acknowledge that someone else is in the room.” Hoskins sniffed and turned to lead me through the house to the bedroom.

“Who made the call,” I asked  as we walked.

We arrived at the end of a short hallway to a bedroom. Smoke and light spilled out of room into the dark hallway. I leaned against the door frame.

“She did! The psycho called 911 on her cell phone and said, ‘I just killed my husband.’ Then she tossed the phone on the chair over there,” Hoskins pointed to a puffy recliner half-covered with laundry where an iPhone had fallen into the cup of a discarded bra. “The first officer on the scene came in to hear the 911 operator yelling into the phone and to find our “suspect” here perched on top of the victim like some kind of demented schoolyard bully.” Hoskins used air quotes when he said the word suspect.

“Looks like an open and shut case,” I said.

“Yeah,” whipered Hoskins. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to screw up evidence and let this nut bar walk.”

I nodded and pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. It was 3:04am.

“She’s all yours,” said Hoskins and motioned to the bed like a restaurant host showing me to a table and then made his way back down the hall.

I took a couple steps into the bedroom, which smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and something else. A bluish-white cloud swirled around a slow-turning ceiling fan. All the lights in the room were turned on, but the room still felt gloomy. The presence of a dead body and his killer seemed to suck the light from the room.

The body in question laid on his back in the middle of the bed, arms at his sides. half of his naked body was covered by a blanket. His right leg stuck out of the covers and a Harley-Davidson tattoo was starkly visible on the white, bloodless skin of his calf. Some kind of fabric strap ran across his shins and another one crossed his forearms and chest. His face was covered by a  large pillow.

His killer sat on top of the body’s chest. She had her feet on the bed by his right arm, one of them was sheathed in a pink Dearfoam slipper. Her forearms rested on her bent knees. She held a bottle of Wild Turkey in her left hand. Her right hand was open and a lit cigarette lazily rested between her first and middle finger. Her posture reminded me of a bum sitting on a curb, drinking the pain away and chasing it with a cigarette taken from the Post Office ash tray. Her head was tilted to her left in a way that made her gaze fall on the body’s right hand.

She didn’t look up when Hoskins led me to the room. Before I could think of what to say, she lifted the cigarette to her mouth and took a long pull, then blew smoke out of the corner of her mouth. The smoke drifted up to join the whirling cloud around the fan.

“I thought you quit smoking,” I asked her.

“I did. These are his. I found them on the nightstand,” answered the killer and tipped her head up to take a swig of whiskey. She swallowed, winced, and then put her head down to look at the knuckles of the dead, pale hand which still grasped the bed sheets near her left foot.

“The whiskey too?”

“The whiskey too. He won’t drink it anymore. Would be a shame to let it go to waste,” she sniffed and wiped her nose on her right forearm before taking another drag off of the cigarette. “You remember what the last thing you said to me was?”

“I don’t know,” I lied.

The last thing I said to her had been repeating in my head since the call from dispatch woke me up to tell me I was needed at a crime scene. The words started to ring through my thoughts as the dispatcher read off the familiar address. The words drifted slowly through my grey matter while I got dressed. The words began to reverberate faster when I drove my car to the house. The words were the only thoughts in my skull while I drove on autopilot to this house. The words ricocheted around my cranium like a bullet when I pulled up to see the house bathed in the flashing lights.

“You asked me, ‘Why do you stay?'”

“Oh yeah, that’s what I said. You never answered me,” I said while I pinched the bridge of my nose. I thought I might be able to scare away the headache I felt building, but deep down I knew it was no use.

The killer looked up from her victim’s fist to look at me with two bloodshot eyes full of tears and fury. One of those eyes was surrounded with an ugly purple bruise and little trickles of blood ran from her nostrils. “Yeah, that’s what you said,” she threw the words at me with disdain and flicked the now dead cigarette into a nearby garbage can.

“It seemed like the right thing to ask,” I said apologetically.

“I’ll tell you why I stayed. But it’s a long story,” She said and reached toward me with the hand holding the bottle of whiskey.

I took the bottle from her, turned toward the chair covered in laundry, and pushed the pile of clothes off of the cushion. Her iPhone tumbled across the floor and a uniform stuck his head in at the noise. I waved him away and sat down. I leaned back against more laundry and got comfortable. I took a sip of whiskey and coughed from the caustic burn in my throat.

“Okay, I’m all ears,” I said with a voice raspy from whiskey-burned vocal cords.

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Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Pressure


I have always performed well under pressure. I have always done my best work when I’m under a deadline. But something has changed

When I was younger, stress didn’t affect me the same way it has lately. When I was a teenager, pressure would grow inside me. It would bubble to the surface in small displays of rebellion, attitude, and self destruction. Other times it would come pouring out in acts of aggression.

My mother reminded me the other day of a fencepost that stood unused in out yard. When I couldn’t contain my adolescent fury, I would take my old t-ball bat and strike the post as hard as I could. The impact would send shockwaves up the handle and sting my palms, shuddering the bones in my arms. I would masochistically relish the pain. I worked over that 4×4 so much before we moved that the sides had become concave and the dimensions of the section where my bat struck the most were reduced by a few inches. Afterwards I would feel better. I had, as they say, let off steam.

More recently I have felt the pressure gathering externally. Instead of building up inside me until I’m in danger of exploding, the pressure builds above me, around me. I begin to feel the weight of it on my shoulders. As it builds, I am enveloped by this sense of density. The air around me is replaced with a heavy blanket similar to what you wear at the dentist’s office to protect your body from X-rays.

The pressure builds until I feel in danger of the fate of the can in the video above. If I were to be similarly crushed, it would be fitting. Like the can, am pre-heated. I seem to get my self into situations that cause stress. It’s as if I am unable to be comfortable and I must get myself into some hot water before I am happy. Like the can, it is the lack of pressure inside that causes the implosion.

I realize this from time to time. I stand up straighter. I shake off the heavy blanket and feel better about myself. If I can keep myself out of the heat, if I can maintain a balance between internal and external pressures, I stand a chance at staying intact. .

Boxing

One day, I decided to try boxing.

boxing-gloves

It wasn’t as random as it sounds. I was inspired by watching an Amateur Boxing event that took place in a bar where my friends and I would often gather. I had never before considered being a boxer. However, when I saw my first amateur bout, something clicked. It is a particularly masculine thing to do; to see a guy doing something and think, “That doesn’t look so hard.” So, I thought about it (not very long, mind you) and got information from the promoter on how to become an amateur boxer.

I had to join the amateur boxing association (for a fee, of course) and I had to sign a waiver of liability (of course) but that was pretty much it. Fighting in their ring did not require that you were a trained boxer, that you had ever fought before in your life, nor that you were in any sort of fighting shape (which I was not).

One of my close friends is a mixed martial arts enthusiast and he agreed to help me get in shape. Of all the terrific advice he gave me, I took perhaps five percent of it to heart. I listened to him talk. I nodded. But the only thing I really wanted to hear was how to punch. How do I get my fist to land on my opponent and hurt him? Advice on breath control, foot movement, blocking… none of that really sank into my brain. I was determined to fight and I thought I could do it.

The date of my bout was scheduled and I passed the time beating up my punching bag a few minutes a day but doing no real training. On the night of my fight, quite a few of my friends came to watch. My good friend with the terrific advice was my corner man. My girlfriend was there. I should have been nervous. I should have had some kind of concern, if not for my physical well-being at least I should have been worried that I would make a complete fool of myself. I was not concerned. I did not fear for my face. I did not fear for losing face. I knew… KNEW that I could do this.

In the minutes leading up to my fight, we wrapped my hands. I drank some water. I went to the bathroom. Then, it was time to get into the ring and don the gloves provided by the event. It was then that I saw my opponent for the first time. A guy, who I had never seen before, was in the ring with me, putting gloves over his fists. Fists, which he will be soon be attempting to smash into me, to hurt me, to win. The association has weight classes and rankings, which meant that fighters were like-sized and would have relatively the same amount of fighting experience. This guy didn’t scare me. He was not bigger, he didn’t look stronger. My shorts were cooler-looking than his. Because, you know, that matters.

I noticed something after my corner man put on my gloves and the referee checked them for proper lacing and to make sure we didn’t adulterate them (I heard later that some guys have rubbed ground glass on them when nobody is looking to make them more dangerous). I noticed that these gloves were rather heavy. I had been training at home with the punching bag I bought at the sporting goods store. This punching bag came with gloves. I had no idea that the gloves I would wear in my fight would be any heavier than the ones I had been using at home. They were a LOT heavier. I’m getting ahead of my narrative by saying this, but a few minutes of swinging my fists around, clad as they were in these gloves, was going to make holding my hands up very difficult.

The referee called for the corner men to step out and my opponent and I faced each other. We touched gloves. The bell rang. The referee stepped back. And, for the first time in my life, I was about to try and punch someone. I was about to try and hurt another human being. Sure, it’s a sport. Sure, I had hit other people before but it had always been something sporadic. Someone was in my face. Someone was out of hand and required a shove. Never before had I actually, premeditatedly, set forth to do harm to another person. My mind was too flooded with testosterone and a will to win to think of it at the time. I was playing a game and it wasn’t until later that I actually analyzed what happened in that ring.

The first couple of punches we threw were easily blocked. Neither of us had boxed before. However, I soon noticed that the other guy kind of knew what he was doing. It’s possible, I suppose, that he had actually practiced. He might have actually listened to the advice of someone that knew what they were talking about. His feet moved in the way my corner man had tried to teach me. He exhaled when he threw a punch. He never let his other hand drop guard when the offensive hand went out. Me? I did all the things I wasn’t supposed to.

The rounds were only ninety seconds, which sounds like nothing. It’s half a goddamn pop song. It’s not even a full commercial break. But those first ninety seconds was enough time for my opponent and I to throw ten or eleven punches each. I didn’t keep the scorecard and I can’t remember for sure but when the bell rang, we were pretty even. Neither of us had really hurt each other and the next round was sure to be more of the same.

The problem, for me anyways, was that I was not in very good shape. I have never been a health fanatic. I ate fast food, I drank beer, and I smoked cigarettes. Those ninety seconds were enough to make me out of breath. Those ninety seconds were enough to make it difficult to hold my hands up. Those ninety seconds were enough to slow me down.

There is a thirty second break between rounds. I think there might have been a ring girl, carrying a card around with a number two. I know my corner man had words for me. His words did not matter. I was beyond them. My corner man was wiping sweat off of my brow and yet it seemed like he was far away. The sounds of the bar, the people yelling, laughing, ordering drinks, it all became a cacophony. The sounds blended together, like trees on the side of the road when you drive by really fast. The sounds blended into a consistent murmur until my ears ignored them. The noise became silence, against which I could hear the only sound my ears were seeking. I heard the bell.

My opponent and I approached each other, touched our gloves again, and the bell sounded the beginning of the second round. I’ve already said I was tired. Man, I was tired. But I could tell the other guy was too. His feet didn’t move as quickly as they had earlier. His hands were not held as high. We traded glancing punches and blocked a few more until my opportunity arrived.

He threw a jab, which I stepped inside of. I hooked and got him in the ribs. He was thrown off balance and lost is breath for a split second. Somehow, a little of the training from my corner man came into play and I remembered a combination. I planted my rear foot and followed my hook with a cross from my right hand, using the muscles in my torso to turn my upper body. This allowed the power of my legs, my rotators, my shoulders, and my arms to come into play. The punch was perfect. Well, it was nearly perfect. I had timed it well and aimed for a spot a little behind his head. I hit him in the inner corner of his left eye.

There is a special, expanded time reserved for near-death experiences and other adrenaline-fueled events. If you’ve been in a car accident you know what I mean. The human perception of time is altered. You are allowed to see things as they happen in slow-motion. You notice things that would normally have gone by much too fast.

It was in that kind of bizarre time warp that I watched my glove as it hit the man’s face. It was very much like a slow-mo shot from a movie. I saw my glove come into contact. I saw it compress his nose, his cheekbone, and his eye. I saw his head snap back. I saw sweat fly in little droplets from his hair. I saw the light from one of the spotlights above us refract in the flying perspiration, like a rainbow you make when spraying a garden hose into the air on a summer afternoon.

Had I actually trained for fighting, had I actually heeded the advice of my friend and corner man, I wouldn’t have stopped. I would have followed up with another jab from my left and then another power punch from the right. I probably would have knocked the other guy out. I would have at least had him on the mat for the rest of round two.

Sadly, I was the most amateur of the amateur boxers in the ring that night. I nearly fell when the follow-through of my big punch took my center of gravity away from the safe spot above my feet. I took a few quick steps and regained my balance, which gave the other guy time to get his bearings and regain his breath. He came at me, driven, I’m sure, by pain and rage. He got a decent hit on my shoulder, but his guard was low and I hit him in the face again. I could see the anger and frustration on his face. He tried to jab, then hook but I deflected and hit him in the face a third time. My hands were moving slow and my opponent (despite having been hit in the face three times, bleeding from the nose, and having one eye swollen nearly shut) landed a hook on the side of my head.

The wall of sounds that had blended into a sort of silence before became an actual silence. It was like listening to a song on the radio, turned up really loud, and the power going out. Everything around me dimmed a little. Not only was the volume of the crowd muted, but the stage lights seemed to dim. I didn’t know what was happening for a moment and in that moment, my lizard brain took over. I dropped my hands. I turned, and I started to walk away. I was not in control of my body. I was inside my ringing head, screaming at myself to turn around and put up a guard before I get knocked out! Then I heard the bell.

My fight had turned to flight and my brainstem somehow brought me to my corner. My corner man was tapping me on the forehead and the sound of the bar came back up to full volume. I was again in control of my body. I was horrified at the memory of running away from my opponent. But I was also exhausted.

After three puny minutes of swinging my fists at this guy, I was as tired as if I had swam across ten swimming pools. I was as out of breath as if I had run up twenty flights of stairs. I was breathing so hard, I had to open my mouth and breathe around my mouth guard, my nose no longer having the throughput to feed my aching lungs. I was pathetic. It was then that a few words my corner man said broke through my skull and sank into my mind, “Quit trying to kill that guy and just try to hit him!” With those words, the bell sounded the end of the break and I met my opponent for the third and final time at the center of the ring. For the third time, the bell rang to start the round. For the third time, we faced each other.

We were both tired. It was obvious. Neither one of us put as much force into the punches we threw. Neither one of us even moved that much. We could have been glued to the floor for all the dancing we were doing. My head was buzzing from the solid hit I took in the last round and his face was bleeding form the three I gave him. We jabbed, blocked, hooked, and blocked. Eventually, the bell rang again and we went to our corners to await the decision of the judges.

The first round went to my opponent by 4 points. The second round was mine, but only by a point. The third round went also to the other guy. The decision from the judges was that he had won and I had lost. I was dumbstruck. Not in the way I had been when my opponent landed his punch on the side of my skull. I was astounded that I had lost. I was so sure that I would win. I was so certain that I would not lose.

As my corner man removed my gloves, I noticed they were smeared with blood. They looked like I had used them to make tomato juice. I looked over my shoulder to the opposite corner. My opponent could not open his left eye and his nose would not stop bleeding. He was being propped up by a friend and was not able to stand to accept the decision of the judges.

I furiously made my way to the bathroom. In the mirror, I looked like the killer in a gory movie. My eyes were wild, my hair was matted and sweaty. I was splattered with another man’s blood. As I stared at my face in the mirror, framed by stickers and graffiti, I began to come down from the excitement of the fight. The adrenaline was running down and the disappointment of losing was kicking in.

I spent the rest of the night getting play-by-play recall from friends that watched. A few of my friends noted that the other guy didn’t look like the winner. A few (perhaps in consolation) said I should’ve won. A few more said I’d do better next time. But I knew they were trying to make me feel better. I knew I had lost fair and square. I knew that I didn’t win because I wasn’t playing the sport. I went into the ring cocky and tried to take the other guy out. I should have been trying to earn points and block punches, not take my opponent’s head off. As I thought more about it, I became more ashamed of my performance and even more so of my behavior.

Fifteen years later, I think about that night and I am disgusted. I have dreams of my fight. I dream I’m in the ring, throwing punches as hard as I can to no effect. Sometimes I dream of that slow motion moment when my glove pounded into my opponent’s face. Sometimes it pops into my head when I’m awake. It always leaves me feeling disappointed in myself. Sometimes I feel the visceral squish of my fist hitting his face, as if the glove isn’t there and I’m physically sickened. The elation I felt when I saw my opponent bleeding and swollen makes me feel guilty. Typing this brings it to mind and I’m squeamish and ashamed again.

That night will forever haunt me. It will always be there to remind me what happens when I am too sure of myself. It will remind me what happens when I don’t listen to advice. Best of all, it will remind me of what I am capable of doing when I forget my humanity. All the negative connections I have with that night serve to guide me. I’d like to think I learned from my mistakes, that I am a better person because of it. But I am constantly afraid that I am still that same angry, headstrong boy… punching as hard as he can against the world but losing the fight anyway.

Steel and Grease

For the first time in a long time…paper-shredder-cutting-blades

I got to take a mechanical device apart, get my hands dirty and fix something. It felt great!

While removing the material from the rollers of a jammed office shredder may not be the most difficult or important repair I’ve ever done, it felt good to be troubleshooting and manipulating a piece of machinery. Opening the case, unscrewing the brackets that held the sharp-pointed steel rollers and putting it all back together so everything meshed was a refreshing return to using my hands and my tools to physically repair a broken device.

My interest in computers and my aptitude with fixing them have roots in something that used to get me in trouble when I was a kid.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the way things work.  Cars, appliances, you name it; if it “did” something, I wanted to know how. The problem being, in order for me to figure out how something works I had to be able to see through the plastic and metal skin to the internal organs of the radio, toy, or appliance that Mom had just bought. Being born without X-Ray vision I had to resort to something less exotic and get out my screwdriver.

There were times when my mom would come home to find me on the floor, with something in pieces around me, trying to figure it out.  She would get upset at me, of course. Partly because she didn’t want me breaking something we just got, but also because she didn’t want me to hurt myself. What Mom didn’t know was that had she came home a little later, the device I had in pieces would have been reassembled and functioning as if I had never taken it apart. What she also didn’t know is how many other things I had dissected and put back together.  Then again, I might be surprised with how much my mom knew and never let on. Either way, it wasn’t until I got a little older that I started to put my prowess for dismantling and reconstructing to good use around the house.

It was when something broke that I really started to think about how that thing worked. When a toy stopped moving, a radio stopped tuning, or a lamp no longer switched on I would be free to play with the internal components to see why.  In my previous dissections of working devices, I was (mostly) careful to only pry open what I could put back and (generally) put things back the way they were. But when something malfunctioned, it was time to turn, push, bend, and otherwise modify the parts to see if I could make it work again. Finding and replacing the problem component in a broken vacuum cleaner gives you a better understanding of how one works than you can get from simply looking inside. I comprehended how the system worked better when I had to analyze why it stopped working. This process of troubleshooting became invaluable to me when I started working with computers.

Figuring out why a service will not start, why a user can’t access a website, or why an email won’t go through all force me to rely on the troubleshooting skills I acquired inspecting and repairing stuff around our house. I have the tendency to see a service like email as a machine.  Services, protocols, and data are motors, gears, and wheels that allow the machine to do what it does.  Examining the process as if the components were physically interacting with each other gives me a logical framework and allows me to find where the system has broken down.

The last few months have found me at my desk, trying to figure out why a service isn’t working and my fingers have been bored of the keyboard and mouse. I yearned for the feel of a ratchet in my fist.  Cracking open that shredder and manipulating the pieces of that machine made me a little nostalgic for when I used to take things apart with a screwdriver when something was broken. My hands smell like steel and grease and I love it.