Two Days before Florence by Chris Benton

Two days before Hurricane Florence hits, I wake up with another concussion. My wife’s been giving them to me every other week for months now, and I don’t know which one will be the blessed last. During the latest, I was having another dream of hell, laid bare within a vast, piss-reeking ditch with all the animals of the earth and having our skin steam-spoken off our backs, I was crushed beside this wild boar who had the eyes of a childhood friend I had tricked into suicide in grade school, and after the steps of our spines were exposed we were commanded to turn over, spread-eagle, the wild boar of a boy I tortured in grade school blinking Morse code at me, telling me he loves me.

Then I wake marrow-deep dehydrated and disoriented as all the damned do and stagger into my kitchen to find these two fucking hillbillies with a cooler full of reeking fish they caught from the river. Fucking tweakers. Lee and Peggy. Why do all tweakers look like carrion birds, why are they all painted by fucking Bruegel. There is a boy with them. His name is Travis. After formalities I ask about the kid.

“I named him after Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver, it’s my favorite movie, Chris, He’s gone grow up to be the owner of a Taxi company one day.” Peggy says.

“Chris we just moved here spur of the moment because my family don’t like me hooking up with Peggy,” Lee says, his carrion beak opening and closing. “We gone cook these here flatheads?”

They’re not flathead catfish, they don’t look like catfish at all, I don’t know what the fuck they are, I’m wondering why these creatures are in my kitchen in the first place, and then I get the text from my wife:

            Chris these are friends of my sister who need help, they are fleeing from their family in Boone who disowned them be nice, Lee lost his son in a fire, that’s Peggy’s son, I think…

            “We gone fry these flatheads, Chris? You got a cast-iron skillet?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a skillet, Lee,” I say, and pull out the cast-iron skillet baptized with past blood and blackouts, “But we’re cooking these fine fish outside, on the grill.”

As I’m teaching these pretend people how to heat a skillet on a grill, I’m thinking about that kid, Travis, he’s politely grimacing, a spectral hostage. I go inside and he is sitting on the sofa, staring at his reflection in our television.

“You like Batman?” I ask him, and he nods.

I put on Batman Begins, and he thanks me and moans softly, rubbing his hip.

“You in pain, big guy?” I say and Peggy walks through the door and grabs my arm and pulls me into the kitchen and tells me that Travis has worms in his ass.

“I’ve seen them, Christ, I’ve seen them worms in his shit, and I’m worried.”

“Have you taken him to the doctor?”

“Hell no, we’ve been busy fishing, we gotta eat, we ain’t got nothing here but the river and the sea, the things the lord will give us.”

“Gotcha, congratulations on the new one on the way,” I say, nodding at her distended belly.

“Oh, that’s just gas bubbles, don’t mind that one bit,” Peggy says.

“Okay. I can run a bath for Travis if you want, I’ve got some Epsom salts, might be good if his hip is injured.”

“His hip ain’t no injured, I told you he has them ass worms, they been going around my kids for years,” she says.

I nod and run a bath. Tears fall from my lovingly damaged brain into the bath water. My rage left me in my late thirties, I’m already old and sad, because I’m past the age limit of successful bank robberies and copper wire crucifixions and now all I want to do with my life is crush Peggy’s skull with the lid of my toilet.

Lee comes in and says, “That grill need’s more coals, Chris, I swear, I don’t know why you let me fry these inside your house, you afraid I’m gone make a mess?”

I walk past him and go outside and turn the bottom-feeders over, stir the coals.

Lee says behind me, “I ever tell you about my real son? Not that little sissy phony boy in there, I’m talking about my little pumpkinhead, I called him pumpkinhead on account of his hair being the brightest orange, brighter than the fire that ate him alive in my trailer, I swear, when we left town, we went straight from Boone to the beach right before dawn and sat in the sand and I cast out a couple of lines and right then, it was getting light and my pumpinhead rose from the ocean, covering everything with beautiful soft light and he said, “Daddy, you gone make a fortune off this storm coming here, just as sure as Jesus told the blind man to open his eyes and see the sun for the first time.”

I nod and remember the latest concussion my wife sent me into, these loving portals into hell, it’s up to the victim to close them behind their bare ass. I suddenly remember Travis, a child of amnesia, like myself, I go back inside our trembling house and find Peggy drinking a Busch Ice. “Travis is really enjoying that bath, Chris,” she says, watching Batman Begins.

I text Emma, telling her I need another concussion, ASAP, my migraine moths are funneling my eyes, Where are you, I need another concussion!!!! I smoke two cigarettes and she doesn’t respond , and the moths are flapping their burning blue wings in my face, spanking my cortex, do you ever feel like a witch has dropped a false world on top of your skull? I could feel the winds of Florence approaching now, another catastrophe, this one would be the end of us, I knew it. I see the eyes of Emma and her dog, a gorgeous, four-eyed creature of love finally done with me, so happy to be done with me, and I’m happy for them, I’ve never felt so happy in my life.

I lure Lee back outside to the grill and say “How did pumpkinhead burn, Lee, did your sorry ass crawl out your sorry-ass trailer window when your batch got volatile? Did your boy’s head fly into the branches sitting there like a baby sun?”

The skillet sizzles in my fist as I toss the bubbling bottom-feeders into his face and Lee screams and collapses and closes his face behind his hands like a blind man seeing the sun for the first time. I stomp him until he stops that falsetto shit. My neighbors Sheila and George walk outside and sit on their porch rockers, watching. Peggy runs outside and I’m kinda stunned she has our favorite butcher knife in her hand, I kept that fucker hidden, she falls under the skillet as well and I keep pounding them, two alternating blows each, and my neighbors are watching and rocking on their porch chairs and the embryonic gusts of Florence are increasing and I drop the pan and the skin of my palm and rush into the house and wonder if this was all a concussion dream. I take the last three of our emergency Percs, dress Travis and haul ass with him to Fort Fisher.

Later on that afternoon I’m swimming in the deadly pre-Florence waters, wondering whether or not I should adopt Travis as a rip current pulls me out into the majestic terror of the Atlantic, you will never know the love of the sea before a hurricane, the sky is blacker than every mother’s eyes, and I follow its endless, psychotic narrative for nearly two miles, watching pumpkinhead sinking back into the horizon, watching Travis chasing down the shore, trying to follow me as best as he can before I vanish.

 

Chris Benton was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he still resides                   with his wife, Emma, and their beloved dog, Russell,

                        his past stories might be found if you dig deep enough…

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