His shoes were polished to a mirror sheen, but the heels had worn to an angle and there were holes that fed grit into each step he took. His shirts were threadbare at the cuffs and collar. He had forgotten what colour it was, and it was seen through from rough washes on summer nights. In the winter, it would go stiff like board against his skin and he would shiver the night through, knowing that if he could survive this, good things would come to him.
The buttons on his suit were mismatched, stolen from places he stayed in, but all related by the same waxy thread used to sew them on. Dan hid his concerns beneath a dazzling smile and an unprepossessing nonchalance. He allowed himself the occasional moment of self-pity but it would pass, like the clouds across the moon. Those nights never reached his sparkling blue eyes. He kept his feelings chained up tight. He did things because he wanted to. In having no place to hang his hat, Dan had chanced upon a way to live with true freedom. The worst kind.
He was somewhere in the South; he thought. He had worked on the farms where he could and stealing where he couldn’t. He had been through a lean spell, giving in to spasms of behaviour until he had blood packed tight underneath his nails, burning a baby blanket beneath a wizened tree, thinking about nothing.
It was whilst he replayed a special memory that he heard the high screech of the brakes being applied, managed to fall away which would help if there was a chance for charity in it, or money, which was better than charity. He looked at the battered, clotted grille of the truck looming over him. The seat of his pants tore and the road scraped a layer of skin off his buttock. The truck stopped.
He had not suffered much and was more upset about the hole in his pants than the bleeding scrape down his buttock. He got to his feet as a door opened. He sucked in a deep breath, prepared to show fear if it got him a little further down the road.
Until he saw her.
Her hair was a soft, blonde halo of curls framed around cherubic, beautiful features. Eyes as blue as his own. Lips that made him want to bite into them.
‘Jesus, mister, I nearly killed you.’
Dan’s faux-upset staggered at the sight of her. Her dress was worn but clean, clinging to a figure soft and robust in the way a young woman could be. He reached behind him and held the two sides of the hole in his pants together.
‘Oh no, miss. I tore my pants and got a little scraped up, but your reflexes were true.’
A fresh crop of perspiration grew at his hairline and the woman smiled at him.
‘I was heading home. I’m good with a needle and you can clean yourself up.’
Dan took a mental inventory. He carried the stink of the road on him like a scar. He threw up the easy smile of a man charmed by his sudden fortune.
She did not live far. A house trying to hold on to itself, addicted to neglect. She pulled up and sat there.
‘It’s just me and Pa. He looks scarier than he is. He doesn say much since the fever.’
Dan gave the appropriate response, a solemn nod and a pressing together of his palms. The less he said in reference to the trials of his fellow men, the more goodness people attributed to him. It was a trait he had evolved to great effect
Her name was Sarah. She said it with a smile, like it was still special to her.
They went into the drawing room. She excused herself to find her sewing kit. He stood there, looked around to see what he could move.
The walnut clock on the mantle might go somewhere. Everything else was too stained with memory to make a profit on. Sarah came back and Dan looked at how she moved inside her dress. She looked past him completely and grinned.
Dan turned around and stared up into Pa’s blank blue eyes. He stooped in the doorway and Dan noted the heft of his shoulders and the thick forearms. What intrigued Dan the most was the blank amusement of his expression. A lazy smile that spoke to a kind of bliss Dan only knew in moments.
Dan extended his hand. Pa stood there then walked away. Sarah set her sewing kit on the side table.
‘You wouldn’t believe it but Pa was a great man. Still is, but for the fact that God gave his brains a stir.’
Dan’s stomach churned with a bleak distaste. He had no appetite for the handicapped.
‘What was he?’
Sarah opened her sewing kit.
‘A butcher. Now get them pants off, mister.’
Dan made himself comfortable despite his partial undress. He soon had her giggling, with subtle bouts of flattery and self-deprecation. He dressed his contempt for her in tailored suits of teasing. When she offered him a bed for the night, he did not hesitate.
He figured he wouldn’t be alone for long. It was better that way because they chose him. If not, he would walk to her bed and take it.
He told her his name was Thomas.
‘That’s Pa’s name.’
He glanced at the blue ribboned medal and felt a twist of triumph at his observations and her stupidity.
Why yes, he would be more than happy to stay the night. It had been too long since he had known the simple pleasure of a made bed. His voice sounded loud to him, compensating for the crackle of flames that he heard inside his head.
The meat was good. Dan watched Pa in his high backed chair, fed by his daughter with the deference due a ruined king by his loving daughter.
No, not a king, a butcher.
‘So, it’s just the two of you.’
Sarah nodded and wiped Pa’s chin with the corner of a napkin
‘Sure is. Ma got the cancer. Eddie died in service.’
Dan saw amental picture of her, swollen with another child as a passel of brats crawled around her puffy, veined calves and it took his appetite. He reminded himself to finish on her stomach if she came to him. He smiled, pretending to find joy in such a mealy anecdote.
Pa chewed and stared straight ahead. Dan tried to engage him in conversation, but each time it fell into the void of his condition. Dan went out onto the porch to smoke. He rolled one from the leavings in his pouch. He stared out into the night and listened to the terrible invitation of his desires calling to him.
He was shown to a small room. Her brothers. There was a stitched sampler of a bible verse framed on the night stand. The sheets had been changed and turned on. He sought to keep her a little longer with small talk to delay her departure but she gave a dutiful grimace and said that Pa needed help to get to bed. Dan offered, but she shook her head.
‘He wouldn’t take to that.’
She let. The click of the door closing hurt him and he laid on the bed, careful not to disturb the sheets.
He had decided. He would go to her.
He laid there, went inside himself where dread universes were born and died. He replayed memories with perfect recall, did awful things all over again.
Rehearsing for what he would do as soon as they were asleep.
He deciphered the rhythms of the house. Sarah appeared to have no inner life to keep her awake at night and he listened as her door closed and the light went out.
He cracked the door open. He listened for the soft burrs of their breathing before he crept out onto the landing. She had done a fine job of repairing his pants, he thought. He would find a point where he could tell her. When he had control of her perhaps, it might stop her crying.
His steps were made with care even as his muscles flexed with violent anticipation. He would take her first, to exorcise the boiling lust she inspired.
The retard was just furniture with a pulse. Dan would let him gather dust and rot, unmanned by his inability to muster a defence against the world. Dan’s thoughts danced in malignant joy as he pushed open the door.
She laid underneath the covers. The moonlight against her hair made him stop before his urges whipped him onward. Dan had no taste for weapons, knowing the value of a threat and a punch when necessary.
He enjoyed working with his hands.
He crept forward, unbuttoning his trousers and reaching inside to touch himself. He heard the creak of a floorboard behind him. He turned and met a solid club of a punch that took him full in the nose.
He fell down, clutching at the ruin of his face as he said Sarah crawling across the bed. Pa leaned forward and picked him up by his hair, turned him to face her.
He saw the glint of a blade as beautiful as her hair in the moonlight.
It did not occur to him to ask where the meat for the evening meal had come from.
He made sure he looked into her eyes as she came for him.