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Mostly writing stuff, be warned. I... have nothing else to say.

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These people are a hell of a lot more talented than I. Go, look at whatever they've done.

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It's cold out. A weak breeze stirs and dies in a few moments. What gusts it does emit shivers the wispy branches of a half-dead ash tree, shaking the small amount of collected snow drifting to earth.

There is a brief silence, broken here and there by the creak of ancient wood planks and by the whispers of wind once it builds up enough temporary courage. The lake makes no sound; it isn't frozen, not quite, but it's been considering it over the past few days. The skies are certainly gray enough, the temperature past freezing point. And yet for whatever reason it holds out, a flat pane of blue against the white of the landscape and the brown of the dock.

A man – a boy? The scarf obscures his face – sits on the edge of the dock. The laced boots over his feet dangle over the side, swaying slightly like the branches above him in the breeze and knocking into one another at irregular intervals. Occasionally the fabric of his thick down jacket shift, making tiny noises amplified by the stillness. His eyes, the only part of his body unprotected from the nipping cold, are downcast. It appears as if he's contemplating something.

Loud noises, very loud, tear through the silence. The wood of the dock creaks behind him. He doesn't turn. His eyes don't even flicker. It's rhythmic, and appears to be growing closer. Two sets. Footsteps. He doesn't turn.

They stop a few feet behind him.

“Morty, what the hell are you doing out here?”

“Leave him alone.”

One set of footsteps approaches. “C'mon, man. You're being stupid.” The dormant silence returns.

A pair of hands grab Morty roughly by the shoulders. His spine snaps upright.

“I bet a nice swim would take your mind off things!”

He shoves the hands off his shoulders.

“I told you to leave him alone.”

“You would take his side.”

“Just stop bothering him. What's your problem, anyway?”

“My 'problem' is that your boyfriend is acting like a five-year-old who just dropped his goddamn ice cream. What's the big deal anyway? It was just a –“

“If you don't go back to the house right now, you're going to end up in the fucking water, you hear me? Go! Get out of here, you asshole!”

Footsteps creak away, paired with quiet curse words and grumbles. Again the silence returns, but only for long as it takes Kayla to make sure her companion has disappeared without a trace.

“I'm sorry about Karl. He really tries not to be an ass all the time, but I don't know if he can control it. Mom took him by the head doctor when we were little – they said he was totally fine, perfectly healthy of mind. I still think they should bring him back. Even if there isn't anything wrong with him. At least he'd be gone a few days.” Her giggle raises gooseflesh on the small of Morty's back – or maybe it's just the cold. Her steps approach him, crescendoing finally in one last loud crick as she sits down on the snowy plank beside him. One gloved hand slips into his and gives it a reassuring squeeze. Morty tilts his head slightly to look at her. Pink fleece jacket. Fur trapper's hat. Cargo pants. She doesn't have a scarf covering her mouth and nose like he does, and her nose and cheeks are flushed from the cold.

She tries to angle her face further into his frame of vision, and he looks away. “You really are upset, aren't you.”

Silence. A slight tilt of his head forward, then back again. The edge of the lake glitters as a small patch opens in the clouds above.

She follows his gaze. “Look, I know it was important to you. But even though it's gone, you'll still always remember him. An object doesn't mean anything, not when you look at it like-”

“Kayla.” The voice is like old bark – rough, dry. “I don't want to talk to you.”

“Oh.”

“Sorry,” he lies.

“N-no, it's fine.” She scuffles up. “I, uh, need to go anyway.”

Morty doesn't look up, or say anything more. Her footsteps are hurried and gone in an instant. The silence almost regains, save for the quiet sound of her footsteps crunching on the snow back to her house and the strangled sobs as she tries and fails to silence them.

The sounds ebb away, eventually. Morty's head shifts slightly as he turns to stare at a point on the horizon. Dark clouds have begun the long trek toward the lake. Their journey will take somewhere between an hour and two. He keeps his eyes them, watching their lazy, aching pace.

A sound, like a sack falling a few feet. Thin limbs overburdened by snow, the ash has deposited what excess it could to the ground. There is not another tree for miles. Homes dot the landscape here and there, visible from where Morty can sit. Most are buried partially in the growing snow.
The lake has begun to stir. Flecks of snow float onto the surface and vanish in a few moments. Above the invading clouds have quickened their pace. The sky darkens.

A snowflake lands underneath Morty's right eye, just above the scarf. He makes no move to brush it away, and it disappears as surely as if it had landed in the lake.

Gray smoke begins to drift from one of the houses far ahead, drifting upward until it meshes with the darkened sky. Morty's eyes don't shift to trail it. Even as the snow grows around him, burying his hands splayed on the wood of the dock, he doesn't shiver. His clothes are thick, but not thick enough to protect him from the plummeting temperature.

Another sound cracks the silence, only for an instant. Morty strains his ears. It calls again, louder this time. Morty? A voice. He lets out a lengthy sigh. It's his stepfather.

The footsteps crunch in the snow behind the dock before long. “Morty?” the voice calls again. “That you, boy?”

No words. Unfazed, the crunching turns to creaking. “You didn't pick the best hiding place.” Closer still. “Jesus. You're damn near buried in snow. What the hell you been doin' out here?”

Still nothing.

“Morty?” They're right behind him. A hand nudges him, and he tenses. “Good. Thought you were a popsicle for a second there.”

“Now I'll ask again: what the hell are you doing sitting out here in twenty degree weather? Might not be frozen quite yet, but give it an hour or so and it's gonna get even colder.”

The wind blows.

“Not talking. I get it.” He sits down to Morty's right, where Kayla sat earlier. He's a large man, with a a curly brown beard. His head is covered by a brown knit cap, and he wears a red plaid jacket that bears his hairy forearms. Two suspender straps encircle his shoulders.

Morty speaks. “Leave me alone.”

It's far darker than it should be at this hour.

Morty's stepfather says not a word for two minutes. Then:

“It's damn cold out.” He doesn't shiver.

“Did you not hear me? I told you. Leave me alone.”

Morty's stepfather shrugs.

Morty shivers. It isn't the cold. He turns his head to the right, slowly. A joint pops.

His stepfather meets his gaze. There's the ghost of a smile on his face. Morty quakes.

“LEAVE ME ALONE, YOU... YOU FUCK!”

The ghost of a smile is gone.

Silence.

Morty shivers still. He glares at his stepfather, who stares impassably back, before his eyes shift back out toward the lake. But they don't seem to focus on anything, moving erratically like a fly trapped in a glass.

“What happened?”

A bead of liquid has formed in the corner of Morty's eye. It isn't snow. He brushes it away. “Jim's watch. It's gone.”

“Gone?”

“I dunno what happened – the strap broke at some point, maybe when Karl and I were wrestling. I was wearing it on the outer side of my jacket like an idiot. I only realized it was gone a couple...” He checks his wrist. The muscles around his eyes crinkle, and his eyebrows twitch upward.

“So it's Karl's fault. Did you kick his ass?”

Morty turns back toward his stepfather. “What would that have helped?”

“I...” He grunts. “I guess that's a pretty good point. Might have made you feel better, though.”
A sigh disperses in a misty cloud. “I don't think so. Doesn't really change the facts.”

As they've spoken the sky has visibly darkened, this time from the hour, not just the encroaching clouds. The hour is waning.

“Did you try looking for it?”

Without speaking, Morty holds up his gloved hands. There are traces of dirt and gravel here and there on the palm and fingers, and the fabric has been torn and worn away here and there. “Had already been snowing a couple hours by the time I realized it anyway. Didn't even have a chance.” Morty shivers, and wraps his arms around his sides. His stepdad raises a muscular arm, almost placing it around the boy's left shoulder. He hesitates, and returns it to where it sat on the cold wood of the dock. Morty doesn't appear to have noticed. “You probably think I'm being stupid.”

Some snow scatters from his stepfather's beard as he shakes his head. “Of course not. I mean, it's not the objects that matter. It's the people.” He pauses for a few moments and chuckles, shaking his head. “Dammit. I think I sprung that line too early.” He exhales, a deep hollow noise. “I'm sorry, kid. I've never been much good with words of comfort.”

Morty nods. “It's fine. I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have called you... what I called you. Just still upset about the watch.” He stands up. His legs shake after being left unused for so long. Morty waves his hands out across the lake. “He and I – we used to go out here all the time to fish. There was this old, rickety wood skiff that used to be tethered about...” One booted foot stamps on the corner of the dock. “About here. It up and snapped in a storm one day, sunk the boat, that was that. That all happened a while after they sent Jim off. Nobody here was getting much use out of it anyway.”

“Didn't know you used to go out on the lake.” He hesitates. “Guess there's a lot I don't know,” he mutters, his brow furrowing. His gaze watches the snowfall. The falling flakes drift to earth at the same unhurried pace, but more and more seems to fill the air with each passing minute.

“Jim gave me that watch the last time I saw him, out on this lake. Said he wanted to give me something to remember him by in case he didn't...” Morty trails off. His stepfather pats him on the back, but his eyes are still clouded, as if elsewhere. “I guess he knew he wasn't cut out to be a soldier. I guess I did too. When I was ten – he was thirteen – the two of us went out to hunt with our... er... Brock.” Another shiver passes through his body as he glances down at his stepfather, still sitting on the edge of the dock.

The bearded man chuckles. “You mean your real dad.”

Morty rolls his shoulders and shifts from foot to foot. “It doesn't matter that he was there. He 'got lost' about an hour in. Found the bastard sitting at home drinking a beer when we came back about six hours later.”

“You shouldn't call him th-”

“Joseph.” The boy stares at his stepfather. “Calling him a 'bastard' is an understatement, and a big one. I think you know that.” There is a brief silence.

“Anyway, that wasn't the point of what I was saying. He and I walked to the forest over...” Morty squints one eye and traces an invisible line against the horizon with his finger. There's too much snow to make anything out. “Well, it's over there.” One arm waves dismissively in a wide arc. “In the summer small animals show up. He and I went out to hunt rabbits with a couple of Brock's rifles – dusty, near-rusted things, but at least they shot. You wanna know how many of the little bastards each of us nailed?”

“Twenty-seven.”

A flat chuckle escapes the boy. “Close. I got three. Jim didn't hit any.” His brow furrows. “Thing is, he was never a bad shot – we'd gone out hunting rabbits before. Hell, he was better than me.” As if bit by the memory, his expression hardens, and his next words are so quiet that his stepfather barely catches them over the wind. “Better than Brock, too. Even when the man was sober.” His voice regains its tone. “But that day... I noticed it about two hours in. His shots were wide, damn wide, of where the rabbits were. We'd tromp around in the grass, flush them out, I'd aim, he'd aim, I'd hit the rabbit or near the rabbit, he'd plug the tree a couple feet away. Said it was his rifle. Took a look at it later. There wasn't anything wrong with it, aside from the disrepair. Nothing that would have made a shot go that wide.”

“That was just after the thing with Brock and Mom. He learned more about it than I did – he was older, and nosier. Though you didn't exactly have to put a cup to your ear to hear everything that happened. Guess he just paid more attention to everything. Not a lot got by him.”

The landscape around them has darkened. A patch of clouds high above them is lighter than the others. Thin rays of moonlight pierce the shroud from time to time, but they are few and far between. Behind the dock the ash creaks as it sways in the wind.

“That was before you were in the picture, long before. You didn't start dating Mom until after they sent him off, and he never...” Again, he trails off. His glance slides down at his stepfather, who stares at the horizon. “You never met him, did you.” It isn't a question. The bearded man doesn't respond.

“I think he would have liked you, Joe.”

“We should head back in.” Joseph's voice is hesitant, the words slow. The shadows cast on his face by the darkening sky hide his expression.

Morty's mouth works behind his scarf, but no words come out. “I... don't want to go home. Not right now.”

“Kid, it's below thirty. I know you're still upset, but staying out here and freezing your ass off won't fix anything.”

Morty clenches his fists. “I'm not going in.”

The wind swells. Below them, the water of the lake agitates. Above, the snow has begun to fall in droves, harder. It's no later than four, but the sky is dark gray. There's barely enough light to see by.

Joseph swings one leg up onto the dock, putting his weight onto it until he stands at his full height, towering over Morty. The boy swallows and steps back without thinking. His foot meets open air instead of the old, creaking wood of the dock, and in an instant his entire body is enveloped in a crushing fist of frigid matter. He thrashes his limbs, but the icy liquid renders his movements sluggish. The darkness closes in around him – every direction looks the same. His stinging vision clouds. Before the shadows become absolute, there's a sensation of being pulled somewhere at the front of his chest. Then nothing.


Joseph's hands are buried in his pockets. Angeline's head rests on the side of his thigh, the scar next to her ear left unguarded by her hair. He still remembers the bloody bandage that covered it on the day he met her. He squeezes her shoulder. A sad smile plays across her features, and she rubs her head on his leg in her sleep.

She had earlier responded to his explanation for everything that had happened earlier with no more than a nod. Then she gave him a tight hug and told him everything was ok and called him “Brock.”  It took her a few moments to realize her gaff, and when she did, she began to sob. He told her it was fine, that he didn't mind. No big deal.

It wasn't the first time, and probably wouldn't be the last. When she was sober she usually got his name right, but that had become such a rare occurrence that he'd gotten used to the mistakes from time to time.

With care he slips his leg out from under her black hair and sets her head on the couch. He stands. The light from the fireplace is weak, bathing the majority of the room in shadow. Some of the picture frames on the far wall glint. Four faces. Not one is his.

Without turning on any of the lights he ascends the stairs, his movements slow. A toe catches on the corner of a step, and he smothers a curse in his shoulder. On the couch Angeline doesn't stir. Joseph sighs and ascends the final few steps to the second floor.

The floorboards creak, much like the boards on the dock had earlier. His expression turns solemn. At the end of the hall the door to Morty's room is still ajar from when he checked it an hour ago. He approaches. An outstretched hand hesitates in the air before the doorknob for a moment. Joseph shakes his head and opens the door. Light spills into the room in a jagged swath, illuminating a few discarded articles of clothing, a closed laptop, and a metal trophy on which the words “2nd Place: Morty Williams, 18.5 In. Rainbow Trout” can barely be made out.

In the darkness before him there's the sound of rustling sheets. Joseph's shoulders relax, and his stern expression softens. He tries to walk back into the hall, nudging the door shut as he does so.
He lingers there a moment, brow furrowed, before turning toward the room he shares with Angeline. It's sparse – there's a closet set into the wall on the far side, a dresser on the left side of the room containing all of her clothes, a hamper containing his on the right side. Beside the closet a bed sits against the wall, nighstands on both sides. His is bare except for the still-damp knit cap he was wearing earlier, which lies draped over the side as if deflated. On hers there is an empty bottle. With a sigh Joseph picks it up and drops it in the wastebasket in the corner of the room before walking to the closet. It's filled with ancient junk, a few of Angeline's dresses, grown musty and moth-nibbled after so long left unused. Some are torn in places.

Joseph pushes past them with a hand, rooting around until it grasps a plastic handle. He lifts it out.

It's a tackle box. It's dusty. A few moth balls sit atop it; Joseph brushes them off and opens the latches. Colorful lures and hooks wink at him. He closes it again and leaves the room, trying not to let his eyes drift toward the photograph of a man with a beard much like his sticking out from beneath Angeline's pillow. He never asked her about it. Never wanted to know who it was, why it was there. For the former he had little doubt. For the latter he knew that to speculate would be far less painful than to learn the truth.

He returns to the hallway, tackle box bumping against his leg as he walks. The door to Morty's room is ajar. Again. Joseph pushes it open even less than he did before, only enough so that he can stick his torso and the tackle box in. His movements are precise and slow.

“Dad?”

Joseph freezes. No words escape his mouth, even as his lips twitch. Time and time again, he almost speaks. “N-no,” he stammers, eventually. “It's just me.”

Morty rubs his eyes.

“Well, I...” Joseph chuckles, trying to hide his constricting throat. Only after a few seconds have passed can he speak. “I'm sorry I knocked you into the lake.”

“You didn't knock me into the lake. I stepped back. It was my fault.”
The man shakes his head, his maned shadow on the floor contorting with his movements. “But it wouldn't have happened if I wasn't there –“

“Do you know what happened on the night my father left?”

“I...” Joseph's mouth has gone dry. “What does that have to do with-”

“It was three years ago, in December. Jim and I were fishing out on the dock. It was late, and colder outside than it is right now.” In the darkness he rubs his forehead with one of his hands. “Jim stood up and started goofing off on the edge of the pier. The plank he was on snapped, and he went right in, right through the ice. Never was a great swimmer. Neither was – am – I.” He lets out an almost-chuckle. “So I ran back to the house. Brock was sitting in the kitchen. Drinking a beer.”

“When I told him where Jim was and what happened, he laughed. Hard. And he didn't stop. Drunk as hell. I had to go upstairs and get Mom. By the time the two of us managed to get him out of the water he had hypothermia. We had to take him to the emergency room. I heard the argument later that night. I wish I hadn't. Yelling. Things breaking. In the morning they were both gone. She to the hospital. Him to god knows where. Haven't seen him since.”

His stepfather's shoulders are slumped. “Hell, kid. Shouldn't have to go through all that at your age.”

Morty opens his mouth, but pauses as his eyes alight on the tackle box. “What's that in your hand?”

“Oh, this?” Joseph holds it up. “It's... well, it's a bait box. Was gonna leave here for you to find in the morning. I brought it when I moved in, but I never ended up using it. I never thought you had any interest, but I thought... well, maybe you and I could go down to the lake and fish for a bit. Maybe. Someday.” He looks at Morty, who doesn't speak. Quickly, he adds, “I understand if you don't want to – because of your brother, and all. It was probably a stupid idea. Just thought if I couldn't get you your watch I could... well, hell, I dunno what I was thinking..” Behind his back he digs the nails on his other hand into his palm and grits his teeth.

“Let's go tomorrow.”

Joseph's mouth again tries and fails to form words. He sets the tackle box down in the boy's room as he releases the tension in his other hand. “Sounds great,” he musters, finally. He shakes his head as if to clear it. “You've had quite a day. Should probably get some rest, bud.” There's a grin, half-hidden by the darkness, on his face.

“Might be a good idea.” There's one on Morty's, too.

“Alright. Night, Morty.”

“Night, Dad.”

Joseph shakes, but stills himself long enough to shut the door to Morty's room – firmly, this time. He then stands up straight, exhales, and reaches up and brushes a spot of water from the corner of his eye. It's followed by another. He rubs his face on the sleeve of his shirt.

“Turning into a damned softie,” he chuckles to himself. The smile doesn't leave him as he descends the stairs and retakes his place on the couch with Angeline. As he sits there, he glances down at her scar again, tracing his finger gently along it. It's less jagged than he remembers it. In fact, it almost looks like it's finally beginning to heal.
The Little Things
I think I'm actually proud of this one. 
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Shalom! Haven't been very active up here of late, but I have a reason for that: by about mid-way through next month, I hope to have a finished novel published on Amazon. Just have some more cleaning up to do and it should be a-oh-good.

We'll see how everything works out, but things have been going well so far. I'll post more details and a link once I have them.
Pyrocan Gif
Alternate title: "I can't believe this took me two hours!"
I might be making a foray or two into the world of gmod-animation. I apologize to all of your minds.

He doesn't go in the can too well because the modeler started spazzing like mad - not when he was in the can, but when he was about to jump in. I guess pyros are trash-can-phobic.
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Miranda woke feeling sleep deprived, as per usual. The thin rays of the sun had barely managed to creep through the blinds drawn in the lone window of her sparse apartment. She showered and dressed with haste, ate a meager meal of dry granola that she barely tasted and was out the door before another minute had passed. Her briefcase bounced painfully against her leg with every step she took, but there was no time to adjust it – every second counted.

She bounded downstairs, the elevator deemed too slow long ago, and bolted past the man behind the front desk without even a cursory response to his “Good morning.” There was no telling what might happen today, and if she was late she could lose her job.
By the time she arrived at her blue compact, parked on the bottom-most floor of the parking structure neighboring her apartment complex, her suit-skirt was askew, wrinkled, and soaked with sweat. But again – there was no time to adjust it. There could be – and usually was – heavy traffic on the way to work, or her car could break down, or God only knew what else.

The car door held fast as she attempted to wrench it open, but with a series of curses so foul they would have made a gangster turn chartreuse she finally got it open and hurled herself inside.

There was indeed traffic on the 51, as there always was, but it seemed especially bad today. The clouds above were a harsh gray and began to release rain in a deluge, spattering the windows and the asphalt outside.

Miranda checked the clock on the dash and let loose with another layer of obscenities. 5:02. The traffic up ahead had budged scarcely an inch in the last minute. She glared at the rows of cars, willing them to move with her mind. They didn't.

She didn't get off the freeway until 5:32. In her eight years of working at Harris & Swift, she had made it to work after 5:30 only one time, and had no intention of ever repeating the situation that had resulted from it. Her stomach engaged in some rather complicated gymnastics as she considered the implications of her current situation – she might be as late as six if her current luck kept up.

She jammed her foot on the accelerator, proceeding far beyond the speed limit into a range few out of muscle car rallies would have dared to enter. At her current speed and level of preoccupation, she failed to notice the figure on the crosswalk up ahead. Her eyes finally alighted upon it, and with a screech she slammed on the breaks, her vehicle howling like a banshee as it thudded to a stop, its bumper a few inches from the man on the road's pelvis.

Miranda looked up – it was a green light. She stuck her head out of her window, giving herself a better view of the fellow. He was tall and scraggly, though the majority of his abdomen was hidden by a bulky ski jacket. From beneath it a filthy pair of pajamas peppered with Hawaiian flowers extended. On his feet were two once-white bunny slippers, now a disgusting grayish-brown from abuse. Over his mouth and nose a red bandana was stretched, and a pair of cracked orange ski goggles rendered his eyes invisible. A gray beanie hid his hair from the world. No belongings were kept in his arms, but Miranda had no doubt that they were stashed in a shopping cart or suitcase under a bush somewhere nearby.

“Get out of the road, dickhead!” Miranda barked out the window. The man obliged, taking the few steps to the sidewalk seemingly as slowly as he could. As Miranda glowered at him, she became aware of the police cruiser looming in the parking lot to the right of the traffic light – it had been hidden from her view by a weeping willow planted in the growth on the side of the road. It had been lucky that she stopped where she had – if she hadn't, she definitely would have been pulled over and ticketed.

That in mind, it still took every fiber of her self-control to keep from pounding down on the gas pedal again when the intersection was out of sight.

It was 5:41 when she arrived at work. The parking lot was empty – save for a small black sedan on the far side. Miranda's blood froze. She'd been too late.

Perhaps the situation could still be salvaged – that didn't look like a car that would belong to Harris or Swift (the former preferred sports cars, the latter rarely came to the office at all and certainly never this early). Quickly she pulled her car into the other side of the parking lot and walked toward the building.

It was still dark within the carpeted halls of the office, which meant that whoever had arrived certainly wasn't Harris. Harris could never tolerate anything in the office being out of place, whether it was the lights or cluttered offices. Or late employees. She shuddered again at the memory and crept onward.

She'd been doing pretty good – hadn't seen a flicker of movement as she ascended the stairs. But as she opened the door to the second level, she walked directly into Tony Gregori from accounting. It was as if he had appeared from the shadows like a specter. He made a noise like a horse falling into a ditch. “God, you scared me! I didn't know anybody else was here,” he laughed, taking a step back from the heavily-breathing, disheveled woman before him.

While he relaxed, Miranda tensed, sizing up the situation between a silent, harsh expression. Gregori chuckled nervously. “D-did I do something wrong?”
She closed the distance between them, grabbing Gregori by the lapels of his shirt collar. “Please, Tony. I need your help.”

Gregori looked terrified.

The words came out in a babble. “You know how Harris gets, and he's had it out for me since I was late one time two years ago – told me if he ever caught me trying to sneak into work late, he'd make sure I never worked in the state ever again. So I need you...” she leaned in closer, “...to pretend like you never saw me here. I'll do anything you want.” She paused. “Anything.”

Removing her hands from his shirt as gingerly as he could, Gregori proceeded to take another several steps backwards – this was turning into one hell of a morning. “L-look, that won't be necessary. I g-get your situation – Harris can be a bit of a hardass sometimes.” He began to trek backwards down the hall, palms splayed outward as if expecting her to strike at any moment. “I've got some reports-”

“Thanks, Tony,” Miranda said, honest gratitude coursing through her. She took a step forward and Gregori quickened his pace. “It means a lot to me!”

He muttered something in apparent response and disappeared down the hallway. Only when Miranda returned to her office did she close her door, lean against it, and allow herself to sink to the floor, sobbing. She was no corporate whore – no, she was supposed to get by on hard work alone. If Harris had learned what she'd said to Gregori, if he had lied and news spread, she'd be in an even worse place than she would have been if she'd just ignored him in the hallway. Hell, she'd be in even more trouble than if she came into work at lunch. She'd completely misjudged the situation – but to be too complacent could have been just as dangerous.

After a while Miranda managed to regain her wits about her, and the day passed much more uneventfully than she expected it to, considering the morning. A few times her fears came to a head as Harris or one of the other executives passed by her office, but as per usual they scarcely paid her any mind as she sifted through the mountain of paperwork at her desk. Most at the firm summarily rejected every paper that came to them, rubber-stamping each without so much as glancing at the work to separate the honest applications from the scams and the lies. But Miranda remained vigilant, even as the work threatened to crush her (both literally and metaphorically) and each name on the printed white sheets began to run into the next. Eventually it became too much for even her resolute attention, and she leaned back in her chair. The hour was late, but not late enough to go home – nor did she feel as if she deserved to go home yet, considering the episode this morning and the depth of work on her desk. It was 5:00 pm – another 4 hours, then she would begin the long, laborious drive back to her apartment.

Her stomach gurgled. There was no choice but to take a bit of time off for dinner – she had to mark whether or not she worked on the hour sheet the firm gave out, and if she lied about taking time off to go eat when actually working instead she risked a confrontation with Harris.

She left the building, purse in hand, and walked to Phil's, a dive located in the run-down part of town a few blocks away from the office.

It was a dark, dank building, lit by crooked fixture hanging crooked from the ceiling. Stale cigarette smoke hung in the air as if attached to the place. There were two booths on the far side of the room as well as one more next to the door, their leather worn off and cracked in every place, and a counter took up the rest of the room.

Eyes traced Miranda, in her light-colored suit-skirt, as she slid from the doorway into the booth in the corner. The eyes didn't leave her as she sat down, and she gave a sidelong glance to the bar. A man with badly crossed eyes sat at a stool facing her, a ratty tweed jacket garbing his thin frame. Next to him sat a portly man in overalls who sported a raging beard but no head hair. Miranda felt her scalp prickle. Only did they finally lower their gaze back to their drinks when Phil appeared from a double door in the back of the room.

“Heya, Miranda,” he called, his harsh features softening without changing expression. “What are you buyin' tonight?”

One of the men at the bar, the one in the tweed jacket, turned his head toward Miranda, leering, and winked one myopic eye.

She gulped. “Might just be coffee tonight, Phil. I've gotta go back to work.”

Phil sighed. “Look. I know this place don't look like much, but I've been working to try to kinda bring it outta the dumps. And believe me, the food's good, even though you wouldn't think it just by looking around the place.”

Tweed Jacket muttered something to his cohort, who snickered and glanced over his shoulder at Miranda.

“Honestly Phil, I'm fine. In fact, I think my boss just paged me, I really should get going-”

“Nonsense. You're skinny enough as it is. Here – I'll have Jose hook you up with something you can take on the road. Won't even charge you for it. Just give it a chance.” As she looked up, trying to ignore the men at the counter, Miranda realized that Phil wasn't going to take no for an answer.

“Alright, Phil. Just – I really do have to go.”

“I get ya, gal. Don't worry your pretty little head.” There was still no change in expression, but he seemed to have a bit of a spring in his step as he vanished into the kitchen.

Silence fell over the room. Miranda pretended to rifle through her purse, watching the men at the corner out of the corner of her eye.

Where the hell is Phil? Her mind hissed as he remained in the kitchen for some minutes.
As she glanced sidelong at the two men, the one in tweed stood, crossing the dive to her table. His friend followed, a slight stagger marring each footstep.

“Mind if we sit?” Tweed wheezed, giving her a toothy grin.

“Please don't.”

He sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. His friend sat across from them.

“Say, baby, you look pretty fine. How 'bout you and I and my buddy here find ourselves a little quiet time, away from this dump?” His breath reeked of whiskey and tobacco. Across from them, the bearded man's breathed loud.

Miranda's throat was bone dry. She opened her mouse to respond but instead of words made a small, high sound, like someone misplaying a flute. “I – I really can't,” she choked out eventually. “I have to get back to work.”

Tweed frowned. “Work at this hour? I don't buy that – pretty late for a suit to still be on yhe job. No, I think you think you're too good for us.” He turned his focus to his friend. “Hey, Kenny! This bitch thinks she's too good for us!”
Kenny's mouth opened wide between the bristles of his beard, and his brow downturned. He jumped up, grasping her wrist from across the table and letting loose with a machine-gun of words. “You-think-yer-better-than-me-I'll-show-you-”

“HEY! What the hell do you think you're doing?”

Miranda turned her head past the man in tweed to see Phil brandishing an empty mug. Kenny's brow furrowed; the blazing, animal rage behind his eyes seemed to dim. “We was just-”

“You 'was' harassing one of my customers, weren't you?” Phil barked. “Get the hell out of my restaurant.”

Tweed stood, approaching Phil until their faces were a few centimeters apart. Kenny didn't release Miranda's arm, but his focus wasn't on her. Tweed spoke. “Oh yeah? Who's gonna make us, old ma-”

Phil punched Tweed right above his crooked nose with a strike that hit like the bite of a rattlesnake. The men fell to the stained and dirty floor, and Phil let his foot fall on Tweed's esophagus.

“Now I'm only going to say this one more time. You and your bum friend better get the hell out, or I'm getting my shotgun from under the counter and making sure you can never bug anybody ever again. You understand me?”

No one spoke a word. Phil took his foot off the man's throat and Tweed stood, brushing himself off and glaring with his crossed eyes at both of them. Then he left, wordlessly, Kenny trailing in his wake.

“And if I see either of you assholes ever again I'll fill you fulla holes!” Phil shouted out the door.

He turned where he stood, expression softening. “You ok, sweetheart?”

“Right as rain” Miranda lied. Phil didn't buy it. “Look, I'm sorry about those jackwads – seen 'em here once or twice before, but they never made any trouble before today.” He sighed, and picked up the mug that he'd been carrying before the commotion. “I tell ya, it's hard to make enough money to make this place good enough to attract decent folks, but there's no money from decent folks to supply it.” He chuckled weakly.

Miranda sighed. “Look, Phil. I know you're doing your best here. Good that you have a dream.” She mulled over her thoughts for a moment. “My dad used to be like you.”
“Oh really? How do you mean?”

She shook her head. “Always wanted to travel the world – never made enough money, though. Not working as a car repairman.” She glanced down at the table. “Think that was what made him turn to alcohol. Never had a chance to do what he loved.”

“Aw hell,” Phil muttered. “I'm sorry about that. What's he doing now?”

“He's dead.”

“Aw hell,” Phil muttered again.

“It happened a couple years ago. Wasn't like he and I talked much any more anyhow.” With nothing more to say, she stood. “I've gotta get going, Phil. I appreciate you scaring those guys off.”

He gave a weak smile, his mind obviously elsewhere. “Yeah. Yeah, ain't nothing.” As he turned back toward the counter, polishing the mug, Miranda slipped a fifty dollar bill onto her booth and left the building.

She felt... odd. Shivery. Generally she avoided talking about Dad whenever she could. But Phil honestly did remind her of the Dad from her childhood, the fond memories of closeness before he became a faraway figure. She shook the thoughts off, instead thinking about the fifty she'd set on the table. Didn't have a lot of money left since her last rent payment, but it felt good to give, even if she wouldn't have much for her own consumption.

Suddenly she was blasted out of her thoughts by a rough hand that grasped her by the back of her suit. She tried to cry out, but a paw clamped over her mouth and something sharp and metal prodded into the side of her neck.

“You din't think I was just gonna give up, didja?” Tweed's voice. And he was dragging her backward, into an alleyway. “Wouldn't just let a tasty little thing like you go on by.”
With a burst of energy she tried to free herself, but something blunt hit her in the side of the head. Stars swum. “Quit fidgeting,” the man Tweed had called Kenny swam into the corner of her vision, illuminated by a small gas light attached above a doorway. “It'll all go quicker if you just... relax.” Kenny let out a throaty chortle.

Her mind raced, trying to formulate a course of action but failing. But it was certainly better to die than let her body fall pray to scum like this. She pressed her neck more forcefully into the knife, trying to be subtle enough to escape Tweed's notice, blood beginning to trickle down into the collar of her suit...

Then Kenny disappeared from her view with a half-gasp, half-yelp. The knife went slack against her throat and she threw an arm up, knocking it away. But she needn't have bothered.

Low moans escaped from the shadow out of the lamp's range – a foot that belonged to one of the two attackers protruded into the light, and a crowbar gleamed, discarded against a stoop. She felt the side of her head, where an egg-shaped lump was already beginning to grow. Only luck had prevented a more dangerous concussion – and from her violation. She glanced up, to the other end of the alley, and saw a flash of fabric disappear around a corner.

“Wait!” she called. She tried to break into a run, but swooned and had to steady herself against a wall. By the time she reached the other end of the alley her savior was gone, the street on the other side completely deserted. But as she turned to look for whoever it was, something caught her eye.

An envelope was positioned at waist-level, sticking out of a trash can. On the side was written “To: Miranda.” It was lucky she'd seen it.

Carefully she stripped it from the trash can and opened it. At first she thought it was empty, but then she saw the green paper, folded a thousandfold and crammed in the far corner. Retrieving it revealed it to be a fifty dollar bill.

She smiled. Phil. Phil had followed her to give her back the tip and had arrived in time to save her. She'd have to thank him tomorrow.

The night air was warm, but Miranda shivered nonetheless. She didn't want to think about what those men had almost done to her back in that alley – didn't want to think about what she'd almost done in response.

With no appetite any longer, she returned to the office. But when she arrived, she found the front door to the building locked like a safe. It seemed no early to close up today, but short of breaking in there was nothing she could do to work any more tonight.
The drive home was uneventful – and remarkably free of traffic. Her favorite radio station was playing some weird song, so she flicked it off. The sound of the city beyond and the wind whispering past the car replaced the flute solo, but quickly she became unnerved by the forced exposure to her own thoughts and the irregular silence and began began to fidget with the radio again.

She still hadn't settled on a station by the time she entered the parking structure, and the signal began to waver before dying quietly into static. She gave up on it eventually and walked out of the parking structure back into the apartment complex. The watchman glanced at her as she walked by and tipped his hat, but again she wasn't sure how to respond, and thus didn't.

The happenings of the day flickered in and out of her mind as she walked up the stairs to her apartment. A lot had certainly occurred, but not in the productive way that she liked. It had been filled with dangerously close calls and far too little actual work for her taste.

The hour was still far earlier than Miranda was used to coming home from work, but she decided to try to catch up on sleep. But as she lay on her couch, desperately trying to calm her frayed nerves and staring at the ceiling, she realized it was a lost cause.
She got up. She milled about. She fidgeted. She started to tidy up, but there was little to clean. She didn't own a television – didn't see the point. In fact, her apartment was barren, save for her bed, the kitchen appliances, the couch, and a few pictures of Mom and Dad.

She looked over them but turned away, unable to stem the rush of feelings that tore through her as she looked upon her father's face. If it were up to her the pictures on the wall would just have been Mom, but on her mother's few trips to the apartment she'd fretted over every little detail, be it the rumpled sheets or the dusty floor or the disturbing absence of a significant other (she'd ignored Miranda's protests of “I don't have time for love”). To remove Dad from her room would just give Mom something else to grill her about – but that did give her an idea to alleviate her current boredom.

“Miranda?” Mom said after only one tone. “It's so good to hear from you! We haven't talked in months!”

“I know, mama. I've been busy with work.”

“Honey, you're always busy with work,” Mom crooned. “But I understand how it feels to live alone.” Even in the static of the phone line, she could hear the bitterness in her mother's voice.

“Alright.” Miranda was beginning to remember why she never called her mother any more.

“I know how Matthias was to you toward the end – and I know that was ignoring all you'd done for him. But he didn't used to be like that. It was the alcohol that did it.”

Right, it was the booze, not the fact that he was drinking it, Miranda thought to herself. She knew in her heart that Mom went well, but...

“Look, mama, can't we talk about something else?”

“What else is there to talk about? I'm in an old bag's home.” There was another touch of bitterness. “Everyone here's about as lively as a dead horse. The interesting stuff's supposed to be happening to you. You're in the prime of your life – you should be out making yourself a family. Finding yourself a man.”

Miranda's teeth grit into one another. “I told you. I just don't have time.”

“You mean you don't make time. You just-”

“Mom, I've gotta go. Talk to you later.” Without waiting for a word of assent, Miranda slammed the phone down on the receiver. She could feel her breath come in sharp, angry gasps. Her mother's voice buzzed in her ears, like hornets, like the Devil. She wanted to curl into a ball like she used to when she was a little girl, to cup her hands over her ears and blot out the noise and the yelling and the breaking glass. Trying to ease her breathing Miranda lay back on the couch, but the images of her mother and father swam from the pictures on the wall across from her, accusing her. Her Mother's words roared in her ears. Eventually, unable to stomach them any more, she took the pictures from the wall.

After what seemed like an eternity of wakefulness, she finally fell asleep a few hours later, draped across the couch. Her dreams were an insane whirlwind of confused images – the man in tweed, the dank city streets, the dark, empty office cubicles, and especially the man in the ski goggles. When she finally awoke a film of sweat covered her entire body – and she had slept through her alarm.

As she found herself in traffic Miranda's eyes glazed over – extra time at home or not, it felt as if she had barely slept at all. When she finally arrived at work she barely flinched at the veritable army of cars lined up in the parking lot.

As she wandered through the hallways to her office, the other workers, used to seeing her in her office or not at all, regarded her quizzically. So oblivious was she that she walked directly into Harris himself,  bowling him over, and continued staggering down the hall without so much as acknowledging it. Harris, confounded, lay on his side and watched her disappear down the end of the hall.

Miranda tried to focus on her work, but it was as if the figures and numbers had formed a coalition against her and would not yield. With a short, angry sigh, she threw her pen down on the stack of forms and ran her fingers through her hair. Just then, there was a knock on her door.

“Come in,” she groaned.

Harris' pressed suit entered the room, wearing his body lithely. “Hello Ms. Rieves. I noticed you were in a bit of a panic this morning. Is something the matter?” She could see the grin in his eyes, the smile hidden behind the thin businessman's line of his mouth.

Miranda looked on her employer like he was about to bite her. “I...” Tears sprung to her eyes as she realized what was about to happen, and before she knew it she lost all control. “Look,” she sobbed, “I've been here eight years, and I've been trying to do the best I can with what I have – I know I'm not the most qualified for the position I have, but it's all I've got, and I was trying to send the money I had been making to my Dad so he could save it up for his trip around the world but he just drank it all away-”

Harris looked taken aback – to her surprise. “Ms. Rieves... I know I-”

She looked up at him as if remembering he was in the room. “You know what? No!” she shouted, brushing the tears away angrily. “You don't know anything about me!” She stood up, slamming her chair backwards and knocking the mountain of papers to the floor. Her eyes were bloodshot. “You told me that if I wasn't the earliest person here every day I'd be out on my ass – those were your exact words, if I recall.”

“I-”

“I don't expect you to care,” she spat, barely listening to what the stuttering man was saying. “You obviously don't, not with how you acted. You started coming in early just like me for days on end, just to make sure I was heeding what you said. You're just as bad as my fucking dad – doesn't matter what I did for you, how hard I worked for the company. I'm just another body, easy to get rid of, easy to replace.”

“You have me all wrong.” His expression was a mask of sympathy.

“I don't care. I quit. Go find another flunky.” The adrenaline coursed through her as she pushed past her now ex-boss.
The blue compact whizzed along the highway at a hellish speed. There were no cops on
patrol at this hour, as few were using the highway at times that weren't rush hour. Miranda probably wouldn't have cared enough to stop even if she was apprehended – her thoughts flew in every direction as her father's image swam in her mind's eye and the angry, hateful memories struck her and her pace beat so rapidly she feared her heart would fly from her chest.

The car took an off-ramp of its own accord, but Miranda was glad it had, for the empty swathe of the road she had been traveling was only beginning to intensify her thoughts. She needed to be out – with others, anybody else.

She parked her car at a meter on one of the sidewalks and left it there without putting any money in – she could worry about tickets later.

Even at this hour, throngs of people wandered the streets, enveloping her in their hordes. She struggled against the wave of bodies like a drunken wrecking ball, drawing quizzical looks from some of the passerby who marveled at her running, patchy makeup, but most in the city were used to oddballs trying to impede the flow of traffic and paid her little mind.

The crowd parted like the Red Sea, and suddenly Miranda stood alone on the hot asphalt. Something ticked in her mind, telling her to get out of the street, but her legs had grown roots or maybe just grown lethargic and would not budge. She let her body relax as a truck, the driver focused on the buildings racing by to his left, roared towards her. Perhaps... Perhaps this was for the best.

The distance between her and the truck closed. So did her eyes. But the fatal moment never arrived – instead, she jerked backward, the collar of her suit firmly gripped by someone's strong hand.

“What? Who's there?” she choked out. Her muscles were now tensed with inexplicable terror.
She was back on the sidewalk, and turned to face her “savior,” and found herself face to face with a pair of cracked orange ski goggles.

“You!” she shouted, drawing the gazes of a few people passing her on the sidewalk.”What the hell do you want?”

The man said nothing. His arm protruded forward, and as she glanced down Miranda realized he was holding an envelope out to her – an envelope just like the one she'd found last night.

“For me?”

The man nodded.

She took it from his hands, her own shaking slightly as she tore it open and removed the contents.

A wad of bills tumbled out – hundred dollar bills, all tightly bound by a rubber band. She marveled at it, but only for a moment. For there was something else in the envelope. A rectangular piece of paper came out. On it were the words “You're free now.”
Miranda narrowed her eyes at it, confused. Then she turned it over. Her mouth fell open.
It was a picture they'd taken on her twentieth birthday, the year before she'd started working at Harris and Swift. They were standing in front of a snowy cabin – her, Mom, and Dad. And around her father's neck hung a pair of orange ski goggles.

“Dad?” she called, looking up. But there was no one. Not a soul in sight.
Work to Live, Live to Work
A bit long, but in the end I'm pleased with it.

This piece went through a huge number of plot changes and character changes (especially goddang Harris) but I think I'm finally pleased with how this turned out. It took a while to write and a while longer to type up and if I keep doing this it'll be a billion years between each time I put a story up, but either way I'm a bit prouder of how this one turned out when compared to the ones that have come before it of late. I've been editing and that's put a bit of a damper on how much I have been able to write (goddang editing). Anyway, as per usual tell me what you think and if I missed anything while I was writing this.

Not sure if this required a mature content warning for the sexual stuff, but I figured the implications were enough to need one. Also not so sure about the title. Must think about that.
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Old West was a bit of an oddball. His real name was Henry Weston, but a few of his buddies during the war (he never would refer to exactly which war this was) took to calling him “Old West” after a standoff between him and a group of enemy soldiers. It wasn't particularly clever, especially considering Old West's advanced age (he was fifty when the war ended, whereas most of his comrades were little more than in their early twenties) but either way he seemed to appreciate it enough to use it as a nom de guire. When he moved out to the sleepy vale of Ashtown this was how he introduced himself, and he quickly grew to fit in with most of the local populace. Usually he kept to himself in a small barn/house combo a bit north up the road from the center of town and farmed when his body was up to it and read when it wasn't. It was a simple life, and most of the other townsfolk respected the old man enough to give him his privacy.

Needless to say the vultures weren't exactly qualified as “townsfolk,” and if they had been their pecking at Old West's quickly-rotting flesh would have been quite the scandal throughout town. They perched on his shoulders, pecking at the bloody wounds exposed through gashes in his tunic, three or four of them taking turns with a few others.

Matthew McAffe's son Timothy found him first. He had been walking out early, trying to find worms under the front of The Storehouse's front porch to use as bait for a fishing trip he and a few other boys in town had planned for later that day. As he beheld Old West's body as it hung from the gallows in the center of town his eyes grew wide and he stopped mid-walk, unable to tear his eyes away. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that the fishing trip was going to have to be put off indefinitely.

Like a drunken man he walked backward toward The Storehouse and felt against the wooden storefront until he managed to grasp the chain for the bell. He pulled hard once, sending a clear note that stirred a few of the vultures as they perched on Old West's shoulders.
Muffled cursing came from within the general store as the owner and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Turner respectively, bickered back and forth over who should get the door and whether they should open it at all. Eventually Mrs. Turner was roused from bed, clomping down the stairs to the front door, a robe hastily thrown around her thin figure. She was thirty-six and tried to maintain a facade of malease (as was fashionable with the girls her age in the cities), but in reality there was something soothing about a place like Ashtown, the sensation of being “just like the good old days” that resonated in the old wooden buildings and the dirt roads and the foliage that grew around the town like a shield.

She swung the door open with one swift movement, rubbing her right eye with her free hand and glaring at Timothy with her other. “What the heck do you want, Tim? Don't you know what time it is?”

His head twitched as if he wanted to turn toward her, but his eyes remained affixed on the center of town. He raised a finger, saying nothing, and Mrs. Turner's gaze followed its shivering point toward the center of town.

She strode inside, leaving Timothy out on the doorstep where he still could not tear his eyes from the second dead body he'd ever seen, her insides churning. At a glance she'd recognized Old West's old army uniform, the one he usually reserved for special occasions such as funerals. Mr. Turner grumbled something as she tried to rouse him, but sat bolt upright when she relayed what had befallen Old West. He sprinted to the front door and stood in the doorway over Timothy, mutely confirming that his wife had told him the truth.
“I can't believe this,” his wife murmured at his side.

“There's nothing to believe,” responded Mr. Turner after a loaded silence. “Rouse the others. We need to make sure everyone... Rouse the others.” He didn't need to load the air with his fears.

In an hour the sixty or so residents of Ashtown were arranged in a crooked semi-circle around the old gallows. Some women wept, some men wept. Others could only stare in silence.

Daphne McLead, the new most-reclusive person in town, spoke first, much to the surprise of everyone. She was a fledgling writer who typically eschewed the presence of everyone else, though it seemed more deliberate than Old West's had been. So strong was her opposition to social interaction, with men particularly, that more than a few townsfolk had chuckled to one another that she detested the company of men because she preferred the company of women, though such rumors were rather unfounded considering her apathy toward women as well.

“Where is the sheriff?” said she, arms crossed, a typically harsh expression plastered to her features. Her words echoed in the silence. The people glanced from face to face, confusion turning to concern. Saul McAffe, Timothy's grandfather though he seemed a bit young for the distinction, muttered that he was leaving to get his gun “just in case” and did so. A few other townsfolk left to do the same as the remaining group moved almost as one toward the police station.

“It's locked,” Bruce Shim, who had moved with his family to Ashtown a few months ago called out. He was a burly man of Asian/Hispanic descent and had moved to the town for health-related reasons – something about the stress of the big city set him off. His wife, Anne Shim, was at his side, trying to look as if she wasn't clinging to his arm but not even convincing herself. She was a fragile thing, and friendly enough when she did talk, which was rarely. “Want me to bust it down?” Bruce said again.

There was a brief discussion between some of the other townspeople, during which time Bruce slammed his shoulder into the old wood of the front door, busting it off its hinges. “Took too long,” he called.

The interior of the police station was ornery and smelled of sawdust – it was little more than a repurposed shack that had once acted as storage for Samuel Boorheed, the woodcutter, before he had handed the deed to Mayor Heath and left town, giving no reason for either action. There was speculation that it had something to do with a spat with the Mayor himself, but no one much cared enough for Boorheed to look into it. Now it was kitted out with a small desk, a gun rack in the corner, a bare bulb wired to the ceiling, and an unconscious policeman snoring quietly as he lay atop the desk.

Gregory Swift, the town doctor, walked forward, his stagger careful and slow as usual. He was a man of about sixty, and generally friendly enough except when it was late or if he was experiencing a large influx of patients at the tiny farmhouse he called a clinic. His hair was graying, balding on the top, and he typically wore a scorching, harsh expression when he knew there was work to be done, as if daring anyone to so much as look at his prosthetic leg.

He pushed through the thickening crowd without a word and stood over the desk, glaring at the back of the policeman's head. He leaned in close to the other man's ear, and shouted “BURKE!”

The policeman shot up in his seat, almost clubbing the doctor with his thick head. Elias Burke was the town's sheriff and only police man – there had been a point where he'd been training his son as a deputy, but the need for multiple policemen was usually negligible in a town as sleepy as Ashtown, and Burke's teenage son was anything but agreeable. As such, it seemed unnecessary to push him, what with Elias' relatively young age of thirty-nine and the town's general lack of action.

“Huh?! Wha?” Burke cried, whipping his head back and forth between the doctor and the other faces of those who had squeezed into the small building.

Despite the few small chuckles emanating from the crowd, Swift was in no mood to play games. “I'm sorry to have interrupted your little nap, Burke, but were you aware that while you were enjoying yourself in here a man was hanging in the town square?”

“Hang...?” It took him a few moments to register the implications of this. “Wh- the hell do you mean? That old wooden thing couldn't hold a bo-”

“It is certainly holding a body, Burke, as we speak. I had hoped to get what you had seen and heard, as it is your job to remain vigilant, before cutting Mr. Weston down, but I now see that I might as well ask him about what happened – he'll certainly be able to tell me more.”

Burke sat there, mouth agape, eyes wide, and his mind worked furiously. The people closest to him stared at him with varying levels of contempt and suspicion – if he didn't act quickly he might lose his job, or worse. “W-wait!” he called to the doctor, who had begun to turn away. “I was attacked!”

“Oh really now, Burke?” A humorless grin slid across the doctor's face. “Do tell.”

“Well, I was- I was in here last night, and...” He felt the back of his head, and his eyes somehow became even wider, “... and somebody attacked me! C'mere, doc, if you don't believe me! Feel my head!”

The doctor complied, the humorless smile on his face dwindling away as he felt a raised lump on the back of the man's head. He looked at the floor, which glittered back at him – the green fragments of a broken beer bottle littered it. “Hm. You certainly have a bump...”

“See? And there's broken glass on the floor!” Burke shouted, staring with anxiety at the crowd, for once glad that he'd (apparently) hit his head on the outcropping of the cabinet above his desk and dropped his bottle, as well as for the fact that he'd had the presence of mind to keep the rest of his stash of liquor  in said cabinet. If he was lucky, Doctor Swift – a devout and especially abstinent Baptist – wouldn't think to check his breath.

The suspicious looks became more uncertain, more confused, and a general murmur started in the crowd. Burke began to relax his shoulders as even Swift looked less sure of himself.

“Did you see who attacked you?” Bruce Shim asked, pushing forward through the crowd. “Remember anything?”

Burke shook his head back and forth like a horse, trying not to show his relief. “N-no. My head's not clear.”

Swift grumbled something, but it was plain that the atmosphere in the room had shifted. “All right, I'll look you over. In the mean time...” He looked at Bruce. “You. Go rouse the Mayor. He needs to hear about this.”

“Heath?” Bruce exclaimed. “Why the hell should I tell that bastard anything? You know he-”

“-is the main governing body of this town?” Swift cut him off, staring the other man down with narrowed eyes until Shim's gaze dropped to the floor. “Look, I know he's not popular, but even you know how good he can be at organizing people.”

There were discontented, low murmurs, but the crowd eventually filed out of the building as Doctor Swift stayed inside to see to Burke's injury. A few of the townspeople split off from the main group, including Saul McAffe and Mr. and Mrs. Turner (for they would rarely be found separate in times of crisis such as this) to notify Lysander Romanski, the coroner. Romanski lived on the edge of town, less because of personality and more because of his job description – the people had a tendency to associate the two. Romanski himself was friendly enough, though getting up there in years and cursed with a thick Polish accent that belied his African descent. There was a lengthy story between how his mother and father had met, and one that he was always happy to tell to anyone curious about the divide between his voice and appearance, but few ever stayed long enough near him to listen.

Mayor Heath already was in the center of town, peering at the corpse as it swayed back and forth in the light wind. The sun had probably risen, but a thick layer of gray clouds protected it form the piercing eyes of the townspeople below.

The people crowded around Heath – but kept nearly a yard away to a man. He was an imposing man, six-feet-five-inches-tall with a thick build even for his advanced age. His thick hair and beard were graying, and frowning wrinkles were set deep into the skin around his eyes and mouth. At all times he wore army formals – he had been a general in the U.S. Army at one point – and a stark expression. It was said that he harbored a lot of similarities with Swift, but Swift was at least reasonable behind his layers of abrasiveness. Heath was – quite simply – not.

“What the hell happened?” Heath growled at the amassed crowd. No one spoke.
Eventually, Bruce Shim inched forward. He swallowed. “N-no one's quite certain.”
Heath's grim expression darkened. “No one saw anything?”

“Not that I've heard. McAffe's youngest was the first to see him, I think, then the Turners. He was like this when they found him.” Bruce shifted on his feet as the Mayor turned away from him, back to the gallows.

“This will be... troublesome,” he sighed. “Everyone, go back to your homes. Burke and I will sort this out ourselves.”

There were grumbles amongst the crowd, but Heath seemed immune from their annoyance. “This was your goddamn fault, Heath!” someone called from the midst of the crowd. “You were the one that demanded we keep these stupid gallows! Look what happened!”
There were words of assent, but Heath didn't respond until all of them had quieted. “I stand by my decision. I did not expect a man to be hanged – didn't even know that something as old a structure as this could even hold weight – but I certainly-”
“You had the old buildings refitted two months ago!” someone else shouted. “Sounds pretty suspicious to me!”

Heath's face distorted into a sneer. “A bit quick to accuse from the safety of a crowd, both of you! And hell, it's not like I don't recognize you by your voices – Harrison Cliff and Katie Gellon respectively, both of whom, incidentally, voted for these measures.” He stopped a moment to let his words sink in. “Furthermore, it sounds like there is virtually no evidence as to who is the perpetrator of this crime. So anything you have to say is based on speculation. Go now – back to your homes, as I said – and let the professionals handle this.”

With one more look of death at the assembled crowd, he walked forward, pushing through it, and entered the police station.

“Bet that bastard had something to do with it,” someone muttered in the crowd. “Wouldn't surprise me one bit.” The crowd continued to titter amongst itself until a light rain kicked up, which was enough to get them to finally take Mayor Heath's suggestion and split off to their homes. About an hour later the party that had departed to Romanski's dwelling returned. Some people split off, including the Turners, but McAffe stayed.
At this time Doctor Swift left the police station, approaching the two men as they stood observing the gallows. “McAffe. Romanski.” He tipped the brim of his Stetson and joined the two of them.

Romanski walked up the steps of the gallows, their creaks scratching over the quiet patter of the rain.

“What do you make of it?” McAffe called after a few moments.
Romanski shook his head. “I cannot fully reach a conclusion. There are cuts all over his body, but they do not appear deep. It was certainly the rope secured around his neck that was the cause of death.” He turned away from the body. “Have the authorities been contacted?”

“Only Burke,” Swift said, unable to keep the contempt out of his voice. “You know the phone lines are only local – we could send a telegram, but we'd have to ask Heath.”

“Why?” McAffe asked, water dripping from his crossed arms. “I can operate one of those things as good as anybody – we don't need the Mayor's help for that.”
Swift sighed and removed his Stetson, rubbing his brow and letting the water soak his hair. “It's less the ability to use it and more Heath himself. Again, make of him what you will, but it's better to stay on his good side. Piss him off and he'll probably find a way to raise your taxes so much you don't have a choice but to leave town.”
“Do you think he did it? Killed him?” Kowalski said as he sat down on the side of the gallows, his feet hanging over the edge.

Swift shook his head. “Why kill a man when you can just run him out of town? Besides, I don't think the Mayor really had anything against Weston. Or anyone, for that matter.”
They conversed for a time longer before Swift and McAffe slipped off to their respective abodes. Despite the early hour few milled about – it was as if there was something in the air, something hanging over the town like the dead man on the noose. Kowalski cut him down and begun to drag him off, through the rain, onto the dirt road that led back toward the cemetery. On his way there he passed Burke and Mayor Heath, who had started the walk toward Old West's abode. Kowalski attempted to exchange a pleasantry, but both Heath and the policeman ignored him. They walked on.

“I can't believe something like this could happen in our town,” Burke said as he trudged along the road. “I mean – hell, I've never had to do any actual police work before today. And now there's a man dead and almost no clues as to who did it.”
Mayor Heath said nothing. They would check Weston's farmhouse for information, but something in his gut told him that they would find little.

Eventually they reached the small clearing on the side of the road where Weston's house had been built. The forest that surrounded Ashtown had been cleared in several places for those living on the outskirts, such as Weston and Daphne McLead and Kowalski, but for the most part it was so thick that the people in town felt isolated from the rest of the world – and protected, in fact. But as Mayor Heath and Burke arrived at Weston's homestead, they found that this safety was most certainly illusory. Little remained of the barn – just burning planks of gray-black wood and charcoal. The fields were still building.

Burke swore. Heath said nothing, his arms clasped behind his back as he slowly walked toward the smoldering remains.

It was plain to see that anything of worth to their investigation was little more than ash beneath their feet and curling away in the wind. Heath shook his head. “Back to town, I suppose. Perhaps I'll send a telegram to Chicago – try to get a police detachment over here.” Burke eyed him for a moment, obviously holding back a response. “Not that you can't do a good job finding the culprit, Elias, but hell. I heard about what you told Swift, and even I knew you were covering your ass. I know that not much happens in our town, usually, but something big goes down like this and you're the first one they blame.”
“I guess you're right,” Burke said. “I'm sorry. It's a good thing the folks in town are level-headed enough.”

The last word had scarcely left his mouth when the sound of a gunshot echoed through the forest. Burke looked around, confused, as Heath dropped to a crouch on instinct.
“Get down, you blasted imbecile!” Heath barked, grasping Burke by the back of his coat and forcing him down. He needn't have bothered – only silence followed the initial shot. Even the squirrels and birds and insects were silent. Even the wind, it seemed, had stopped altogether.

Heath began to run back towards town, followed a few paces behind by a confused Burke. The silence pervaded, only interrupted by the footsteps of the two men on the hard-packed dirt.

The crowd of people seemed to stand out from the mist, a dark shape that only barely gained form as the two men got closer. It, too, was silent.

“What's the matter?” Burke asked, far too loudly, to a man standing on the outermost part of the crowd.

Without turning, the man stepped to the right. The rest of the crowd soon followed suit, some people in it taking brief glances at the two men before moving as well.
The people had been standing in a circle around three forms. The one standing was Bruce Shim, his still-smoldering rifle held aloft as he stared at the figure that lay in the dirt. On the ground lay his wife, in a pool of dark red dirt. Doctor Swift knelt over her, his expression focused even as his eyes twitched to the side as the Mayor and Burke came into view.

The two of them stood on the edge of the crowd, as if unable to proceed. Every eye, whether indirectly or glazed such as those of Anne Shim's, were fixated on them.

Heath remained steady. “What happened?” he called out, letting his words echo in the silence. No one dared to break it.

“Is someone going to fucking answer me?” Heath yelled, his head swiveling from left to right.

“I shot my wife,” Shim said. His face betrayed no shred of mockery. No one laughed at his bluntness.

“Why?”

“She killed Weston. Told me as much.”

At this Anne stuck her head up, gurgled something, and died on the spot. Swift cursed, the quiet word like a thunderclap above the silence.

Bruce glanced down at her and then back up at Heath. “She told me what she did – went out, beat him over the head with I don't know what, dragged him up to the center of town, and was back in bed with me before I had even guessed what happened. Said she was getting up to get a drink of water. Guess I'm not the best judge of time.”

Heath stared back at the man. “Do you have any proof?”

“No, because he's lying.” Mr. Turner pushed forward through the crowd. He took off his spectacles, polishing them. Bruce leveled his rifle but wasn't quick enough – Mr. Turner drew his pistol and shot him through the neck in half a second. Shim gurgled something, collapsed to the ground, and died a few seconds later.

“His wife confessed that she'd been sleeping with me and he, in turn, shot her,” Mr. Turner calmly explained as he replaced the pistol on his belt and again wiped his spectacles.

At this point the rest of the crowd had begun to churn, no longer content to sit back in mute silence. Before they could take action another shot rang out, slicing through Turner's shoulder and catching a man in the crowd behind him through the jaw. The bullet had been fired by Mr. Turner's wife, who had not previously been aware of her husband/s infidelity. This was the second time she'd fired a weapon at him – the first time she'd mistaken him for an animal while out hunting, and had nursed him back to health, from which their marriage grew. She tried to fire again, tears stinging in her eyes, but Daphne McLead had the presence of mind to try to grab the weapon away from her and received a shot to the stomach for her troubles. There was something ironic about that – over the course of her life she'd grown more inclined toward social interactions with women, probably because of abuse at the hand of damn near every man she'd interacted with up to her moving to Ashtown. Yet the killing blow was dealt by another woman – and the trampling feet of the now-panicked crowd.

Shots began to explode from everywhere. People ran in every direction, yelling, shouting. Mayor Heath was shot deliberately by Saul McAffe, who remembered disliking him but not why. In reality, it dealt expressly with Heath's position of power in town (a rich relative of his had died when he was young, leaving him set for life) despite the fact that he was a homosexual.

Burke ran to the police station, retrieved a rifle, attempted to load it, and in his haste shot himself in the jaw. He blacked out and bled out. Where this might have been ironic for someone else, for Burke this was rather fitting, so fitting in fact that he himself was barely surprised. “Slipped coming out of the womb, tripped down the stairs while going to get a knife to slit his wrists” he might have joked were he not dead.
A light was shot out in one of the buildings, spilling oil all over the wooden facade. It caught fire in an instant, the dry woodwork of the building going up like match sticks. City hall caught next to it, and soon the fire spread to every building in town, igniting them all with terrifying speed. People fled into the forest; those who remained were shot or consumed in the fires – except for Swift, who sat in place next to Anne Shim's corpse, looking at her, confused. He remained there until the flames and the few remaining people died, until silence retook the town save the crackling of charcoal and creaking wood. The clouds in the sky fled like the people had, leaving only the eye of the naked moon as it hung over the black scene.

Slow footsteps from the other end of town alerted him, and he stood on uncertain legs.
Kowalski stood on the other end of town, his dark skin illuminated white. The two men approached each other as if the world were spinning, their movements slow, deliberate.

“So. Everyone's dead, huh?” Kowalski said, his voice quiet.

“I guess so.”

Kowalski stuck his hands in his pockets. “Guess I'm gonna be busy for the next couple of days.”

“Yep.”

The gravedigger looked around. “You know, it's kinda funny – the town's name is Ashtown, and now all of the buildings have burned down.”

“I can't say I find that funny at all.”

With a shrug, Kowalski turned. “Hey, you know something else that's funny?”

“What?”

He produced a small scrap of paper from his pocket. “I found this in Old West's pocket – it's a note from a pharmacist. Says it's for 500 mg of some antidepressant, with an express note 'that if he doesn't take his meds he might return to self-immolation – or worse.' Pretty crazy, huh?”

Swift blinked. “So no one murdered him.”

“Sure as hell doesn't look like it.”

“Huh.”

The two men walked off into the forest without another word, leaving the dead town to quietly blow away in the wind.
Portrait of a Small Town
I originally wasn't going to finish this, but decided that I at least liked the beginning so I might as well at least try to go for it
It's 2:00 AM
This story is weird
There are flaws, especially the last 1000 words or so they're really bad but I didn't want to get rid of another story
Might need fleshing out
I had something to say here but forgot it because it's 2:00 AM on a school night
An alternate title was "Coming to a Bad End" but that seemed too accurate ha ha HA.
I don't know what I was going for
Hopefully you still liked reading it
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Shalom! Haven't been very active up here of late, but I have a reason for that: by about mid-way through next month, I hope to have a finished novel published on Amazon. Just have some more cleaning up to do and it should be a-oh-good.

We'll see how everything works out, but things have been going well so far. I'll post more details and a link once I have them.

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Cheers my friend, I like your style. 
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Ain't no thang.
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