CRUELTY: The Excerpt

Cruelty Episode OneAn Excerpt from CRUELTY

Will

The deaf man and the prostitute moseyed on down the road.

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, William Longmire thought. Only he didn’t know the punch line. He supposed the kicker was the blown head gasket in his ’89 Pontiac Bonneville, which was now a good two miles behind them. A laugh track played in his head. His life—sitcom material if ever there was such a thing. His feet hurt. They’d been walking for hours. He’d started counting steps as soon as they left his broken down car. Each step equaled one yard. So far they had travelled two miles. Trees bracketed them on both sides—nothing but dark, hopeless woods wherein Will would surely lose his bearings if he tried to escape into their waiting branches.

The whore’s name was Jennifer. “She’s a country pro,” his father would’ve said. You didn’t drop by a street corner to pick up a country pro. Oh, no. You knocked on her door. But you had to come recommended. His buddy Kirk had put in a good word for Will, and Jennifer had invited Will over. Kirk had slapped him playfully on the back and wished him luck. Will, blushing, had thanked his friend and taken the Bonneville out to Kerrville. Hopes of scoring had filled Will’s mind—bedroom shenanigans only fitting the nastiest of porno movies. But when he knocked on Jennifer’s door, she’d had other plans.

The pistol was still jammed in his side. As they moved briskly down Highway 16, out in the middle of nowhere—Will’s butt cheeks clenching and relaxing, seizing and abating—Jennifer seemed intent on shoving that small caliber weapon into him instead of shooting him with it. She kept twitching. Will watched her from the corner of his eye. A full moon made the country pro look washed out, gray and emaciated. Her lips were moving, but of course, he couldn’t hear her. Back at her trailer—a shoddy, run-down relic from the ’50s—he’d been able to read her lips: something about money, and then another thing about breath. Since he’d had a good bit of time with her under his belt—four hours, to be exact—he’d come to the realization that Jennifer hadn’t been saying “breath” at all.

Her teeth looked like wasted pilings; cylinders of rotted wood worn down by the constant battery of oceanic waves. The knee-length jean skirt and yellow Abercrombie & Fitch tee fluttered about her, as if draped over clothesline. Sores stood out on her flesh—red splotches on gunmetal skin. Will was reminded of an anorexic elephant with necrotizing fasciitis. Moreover, he recalled a PSA he’d seen in his senior year in high school. The Effects of Meth, the program had been called.

So, no, Jennifer hadn’t been saying “breath.”

Will had lost his hearing in junior high after swimming in bacteria-infected water. Skinny-dipping with friends in a rural neighbor’s pond had sounded like a great idea at the time. The murky fluid settled in the bottom of his ear canal, festered, bred, and almost turned septic. There had been pain. Even more agony when his mother had examined him with an invasive procedure involving a Q-tip. She’d said he needed his ears drained. He hadn’t liked the sound of that. Before the procedure, everything had sounded thick, distant and full of echoes. The doctor was a burly lumberjack type. Even wore the requisite shaggy beard. The physician lingered in Will’s ear, making heavy groaning noises, as if Will’s condition was just the sorriest sight he’d ever seen. There was a pop then a flood of warm fluid. A smell akin to moss and cinnamon. Sick to his stomach. Retching into a pink basin while Mommy patted him on the back. He remembered craning his neck to look up at her. Mom was talking, but he couldn’t hear a thing. Either ear. He threw up some more and passed out.

As he moved down Highway 16, Jennifer’s handgun stuck deep into his ribs, he was glad he couldn’t hear her. That might have seemed backward to some people, but to Will it made perfect sense. He didn’t want to know what she was saying; her lunatic rambling would be sure to drive him mad. The car breaking down had done something to her, shattered her already cracked mind. Withdrawal, Will guessed. She needed a fix, and it was nowhere in sight. She scratched absently yet viciously at a glistening wound on her forearm. It opened up and black blood snaked from the hole. It glistened in the moonlight like a slick, fat worm laid out on a gray beach. He felt sick to his stomach.

Will had the ability to speak, but he never did. Not being able to hear himself, he was constantly concerned with how he would sound. Would he be too loud? Would he unknowingly make weird noises? He was forever aware of the status of his vocal cords, whether or not they vibrated with activity or remained dormant. Kirk never mentioned anything of the sort, and neither did Will’s mother, but that could be nothing more than a courtesy. How rude would they sound if all of a sudden they said something to the tune of, “Stop that god-awful noise! You’re not a pig”? Of course, Will only had his own experience to rely on. When he was seven, Will and his mom had passed a man in the grocery store. The stranger was stocking shelves, squealing and grunting like a rutting hog. Being the social child that he was, Will said hello. The man didn’t respond. Mom dragged Will away by his wrist.

“He’s deaf and dumb,” Mom had said.

“What makes him dumb?” Will understood deaf. That meant the man couldn’t hear. But what made him dumb? It wasn’t a word Mom used often.

“He doesn’t know how to speak. It’s a… it’s a turn of phrase.”

In the years since Will had lost his hearing—all seven of them—he’d tried his damnedest not to be the second half of that turn of phrase. He could be deaf. He could allow that much. But he would not be seen as dumb. So he focused on not making a peep. He felt the decision had served him well.

Reading lips came almost naturally—God’s way of making up the difference, Will supposed. It helped that he knew what words should sound like, which movements of the lips created what inflection, and so on. He counted his blessings that he’d been able to hear for the twelve years he’d been granted the sense. After it was snatched away, there was sadness, but Will was stronger and smarter than even he knew. Instead of crawling into a corner and bawling on a daily basis, he’d taken sign language courses and read books on the subject of being deaf. He’d even gone as far as reading everything he could on Helen Keller. He wouldn’t admit this to anyone else, but he felt comforted by stories of the deaf and blind girl. At least he could see.

The gun dug into him further, and his vocal cords thrummed with life. Will was pretty sure he’d shrieked. Fear, he’d forgotten all about the fear. Just as he’d forgotten his cell phone.

He saw his phone then, an eternity removed, sitting on the bookshelf at home, mocking him. A common misconception was that deaf people had no need for such devices. But in the age of texting and social media and wireless communication, phone calls were not one’s only option of reaching out to touch someone. He’d first noticed the absence of his phone while on the way to Jennifer’s. He was lost, wanting to use his cell to text Kirk for clearer directions, but hadn’t been able to find it. He pulled over into a closed gas station—a mom-and-pop called Bob’s Bait and Fuel—and dug through his pockets before rummaging around in the Bonneville’s center console. He even checked the glove box. Nothing. He beat his fists against the steering wheel. He’d come four miles on Highway 16, was another ten miles from home, and didn’t want to turn around. Being a typical nineteen-year-old male, he’d been thinking with the wrong head. He should have turned around then, headed on home to a cold shower or a rigorous coupling with Sally Palmer and her five sisters, but he hadn’t.

The state trooper had pulled in behind him while Will was still debating what to do about his current predicament. Will’s heart leapt into his throat. He couldn’t breathe. He tried to swallow and he felt his throat click. Spinning roof lights turned the evening into a Kmart special. Half off stupid, horny teenagers, Will thought.

Two minutes later, the trooper exited the cruiser and came to Will’s side of the car. The man was tall, maybe six-two, but no less than six foot. Will was only five-five. The trooper’s chubby cheeks belied his thin frame. The man looked like a walking lollipop, all thick on the top and stick-thin on the bottom. Will already had the window down. The trooper’s lips moved at a rapid clip. Will didn’t catch a word. He lifted his hands from his lap very slowly, so as not to raise the trooper’s suspicions, and placed a palm over each ear, shaking his head in the process. The trooper nodded. From somewhere behind him, the trooper removed a notepad and, pulling a pen from the spiral binding, began to write.

License and registration. Proof of insurance.

Will produced the documents, but the trooper didn’t return to his car. The man looked over Will’s ID and Progressive card. He kept nodding, as if something was abundantly clear to him. After a full minute the trooper gave him back his information. Will didn’t think the man had even so much as glanced at his registration.

The trooper wrote: What are you doing out here? This place is closed.

I’m lost. Stopped 2 txt friend for dir X but 4got phone.

Where are you heading?

Will began to jot down the address, but decided to leave off the house number. He was, after all, going to see a woman who rented out her vagina for a living. It occurred to Will that the authorities around these parts might know of her. He handed the tablet with the street name written on it back to the trooper.

Two more miles down. Only street on the left. Be safe.

And with that, the trooper was gone. Will felt giddy with relief, almost stoned with gratitude. He shoved his arm out of the open window and waved back at the cop.

In hindsight, Will felt like an idiot for being so joyous and thankful back at that gas station.

Beside him now, Jennifer tripped and went sprawling on hands and knees. Will had a brief thought, one that involved running into the woods. But before the idea had fully formed, Jennifer had the gun up and pointed at him in a sideways fashion. He didn’t have to read her lips to know she was saying, “Don’t even think about it.”

It occurred to Will then that Jennifer might not know he was deaf. Not that that information would have changed anything. But he was starting to put some things together. For instance, she kept talking even when she wasn’t facing him. He could see the cords in her neck throbbing and stretching while her jaw jacked up and down. This new info did absolutely nothing for Will’s state of mind, but it was something else to think about other than getting himself shot by some psychotic tweaker bitch.

Jennifer collected herself and stood up. She wiped her free hand on her yellow tee, leaving a dark smudge the size of a football smeared across her midsection. She’d torn her hand up pretty good on the asphalt. Her palm probably looked like a topographical map of the Rockies.

She roared at Will, the muscles in her neck straining, veins bulging in her temples, as she thrust the gun into his face. Her lips formed the same unintelligible word over and over again. Three syllables, Will thought, because of the way her jaw jerked open and closed thrice before shutting completely. Then she would start again. Mouth working three times, tongue flicking at those shit-colored teeth, spraying rancid spittle over the barrel of the gun and into his face.

Will clapped his hands over his ears. She stopped screaming. Her head tilted to the side, comically, like a dog with a query. She made a duck-face. Will almost laughed. He slapped a palm to his mouth then covered his ears again and shook his head.

Realization bled over her face, and the comical expression disappeared. She waved the gun around in front of him, the barrel looking big enough to drive a tractor through, her mouth forming a word that he could understand. The thin lips pressed together, blossomed out, spread into a grin, and then died in a frown.

She’d said, “Mute.”

He nodded, feeling himself deflate with relief.

She started to laugh, hard. Her free hand clutched her concave stomach while the rest of her twitched and jerked like a marionette controlled by a drunken puppeteer.

Losing one sense enhances the remaining four. The world had seemed brighter, higher in definition, after he’d lost his hearing. Tastes didn’t just play over his tongue any more; they popped, exploded, crackled like live wires. He could smell dog shit from a mile away; always knew when Kirk had been on a protein shake binge, the smell of his expulsions skunky and goatish. Along with all that, his sense of touch—the receptors in his skin that dealt with nuances such as wind on bare skin, hot and cold sensations, and vibrations—had become so keen that he imagined he could kneel beside a railroad track and feel the very earth vibrate with the violent trundling of an approaching locomotive.

He stood there before Jennifer, watching her cackle at his deafness, and felt the briefest shift in the air, a displacement of sorts; an invisible hand gently nudging at his right hip.

When it was gone, so was Jennifer.

It took him half a minute to realize that what he’d felt was the rush of air being pushed into him by a speeding car. The vehicle was going so fast that it was nothing more than a flash in his vision. Jennifer was there, and then she wasn’t. In fact, all he’d really seen of the car was a streak of moon in the windows as it flew past. The sight was not unlike seeing a comet speed by right in front of your eyes.

He jerked his head to the right as the night went bloody with brake lights. The smell of burning rubber crashed into him, knocking him back a step. Something was rolling across the road in the glow of the headlights, tumbling like a carpet dropped from the back of a van. It came to rest twenty feet away from the car, bent and twisted like a pretzel.

The car had fishtailed, its trunk ending up in the oncoming lane, and the front bumper hanging over the dividing line. The driver’s side door was thrust open, but no one got out.

Will took a hesitant step forward, chest hitching with breath, the smell of scalded tires making it hard to find an ounce of fresh oxygen. He reeked, as if he’d dove into a vat of melted Barbie dolls. The aroma clung to him like a lover.

Still, no one emerged from the car. Will squinted into the compartment; saw no one at the wheel. He drew his attention back to the crumpled mass in the road. Jennifer’s right foot was flush with her right cheek. The left leg jutted from her side, making her look like a check mark. Her arms were above her head, as if she were a ref at a football game and someone had just successfully kicked a field goal. And there was so much blood. Blood on the front of the car. Five feet of blood painted in one long brush stroke, starting somewhere between the car and Jennifer, and ending where she’d come to rest. A puddle of the stuff beneath and around her, spreading outward.

Will took a step back, bent over, and blew the remnants of two McDoubles all over the pavement. What came out of him was pink.

Movement to his left. A hunched over figure moved away from the side of the car and into the headlights.

Long, curly black hair covered the face of the stooped figure. The body was ambiguous; Will had no idea whether he was looking at a man or a woman. All he knew was the person had a weight problem. Morbidly obese would have been an understatement. Will guessed maybe five-, no, six hundred pounds. It didn’t walk, it waddled—lurching forward like a fattened Frankenstein’s monster. A chubby hand came up and brushed away the tight black curls.

A baby doll smiled back at Will. The cheeks were red circles, mimicking blush. The rest of the face was pink, but cracked. The paint had flaked off in places and the black underneath showed through, which was somehow scarier than anything else about the thing. Dressed in black from neck to boot, the thing seemed nothing more than a head floating in the night. Will’s heart trip-hammered, a thundering ker-thud, ker-thud, ker-thud, in his head.

The baby doll observed Will, seemed to study him. Then, it rolled—that was the best way he could describe it; the thing didn’t turn, it rolled—to the side, tilting into the turn so deeply that Will thought it would surely topple over, before it shuffled off in the direction of Jennifer’s broken corpse.

Insanely, Will was no longer in the moment. Something bounded around his head, punching at the surface of thought, begging to be heard. As distressing as the obese baby doll was, another thought was more pressing.

Will had not seen headlights. For some reason, that fact alone set his teeth on edge and brought him around to the appropriate level of terror. Merely seeing that god-awful face hadn’t been enough, but knowing the intent, the purpose of the thing now approaching Jennifer in a slow, shuddering gait, struck home the urgency of his situation.

No headlights. It hadn’t wanted them to see it coming.

But there had been headlights afterward, after Jennifer had been smashed to hell upon the cold, hard asphalt of Highway 16. Of course there was, thought Will. It wanted to see its handiwork.

The baby doll didn’t seem interested in Will, and for that he was glad. Positively overjoyed. He could escape. But how?

A tiny, tinny voice, like one through a distant loudspeaker, spoke up in his head.

You have a perfectly good car right in front of you.

Will didn’t want to. He wanted to run away, actually run, no matter how insane that sounded. He didn’t want to set foot in that thing’s car. But he had no other choice.

That’s crazy, another, deeper voice said. You don’t even know that this thing means you harm.

It was that second voice—the insane thought that this thing of nightmares could want anything other than to rip him asunder, bit by bit—which thrust him into action.

Will ran. He sprinted around the back of the car, only then noticing the vehicle was old, really old, and that it reminded him of his grandfather’s Studebaker Hawk. In fact, he thought that was the exact make and model of the car. He’d helped Pop work on the Studebaker during the summer while Will had been in high school. When Pop died of a stroke last year, Mom had sold the car to pay for the funeral. Baby Doll’s ride was a two-door coupe with foot-tall wings in the back and a trunk almost as long as the engine compartment. Add in the signature low roof and yes, sir, a Studebaker Hawk, sure enough.

The driver’s side door was still open, and he slid inside with little difficulty. When he hit the seat, he felt the rumble of the engine through the springs under the upholstery and knew it was running. The dash glowed faintly, giving everything a dark, greenish-yellow glow. A thick air of Juicy Fruit gum hung on the air, sickeningly sweet. The Hawk was an automatic with a bench seat.

Outside, Baby Doll was coming. The thing was dragging Jennifer by her ankle. It would step forward, pause, jerk her forward, then take another step. It was slow going. Will had plenty of time.

Will grabbed the shifter, wrenched it toward him, then up, and shoved his foot so hard into the gas pedal that his ankle went wonky, sending bolts of lightning up his leg and into his hip.

Some darker version of Will wanted to run the nightmare down, crush it beneath the steel undercarriage of the Studebaker, but at the last moment he wrenched the steering wheel to the left, missing the hulking monster by mere inches.

He was gone, safe. The nightmare was over, behind him.

Will began to cry.

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