BETTA, MALE by Dawson Alexander Wohler @dawtismspeaks

Punk Noir Magazine

BETTA, MALE

1.

What the interstate is depends on who you ask. Families on holiday can’t help but see it as the stitches that keep the Great American Quilt of farmlands and ghettos, cities and small towns, from coming unraveled and going Helter Skelter. Politicians trot out that old cliche about blood vessels and arteries every so often when they’re trying to convince working class cavemen to get out there and vote for higher taxes, but ask any tired-eyed trucker and he’ll tell you that, really, the highway system is just one big fucking snake with its ass end in the Pacific and its head in the Atlantic. The mighty nationwide serpent.

Five years with the Ohio State Highway Patrol had me convinced it was the Silk Road reborn: a delivery system for every kind of illicit thrill you would care to mention, and even some you wouldn’t. Cut rate hashish! Naughty nubile nymphets! Dope laced with fentanyl! I-75 has got you covered, baby.

Brass assigned me to a stretch of road between Toledo and Bowling Green right out of the academy. A prize piece of real estate for a young trooper looking to make a name for himself, which I was. Back then, Toledo was a hub for pill-pushers, crack chemists, and every other pharmacy school fuck-up turned drug lord the Midwest had to offer. Bowling Green was, and is, a college town. At the start of every academic year, the place fills up with blue haired acid freaks and metal faced pinkos looking to get high–the demand to Toledo’s supply.

They were piss easy to catch. I usually caught them going north, towards Toledo. Sure, they’d call you pig and snort behind your back as you passed by them in town or at the gas station, but out there on the highway, where it actually fucking mattered, they’d break down. I made lieutenant in three months off of pasty white liberal arts majors and their mousey little gender studies girlfriends.

The real danger was in the southbound traffic. That’s where you’d pull couriers, real hardened gangbangers, and junkies on the way back from a score. They knew they were fucked if they got stopped, so they were inclined to start shooting as soon as the red and blue lights showed up in their rearview. Even then, they were easy enough to deal with. All I had to do most times was rest my hand on my piece and squint for them to get the message.

Go ahead. Make my day, motherfucker.

I lost track of how many arrests I made, let alone stops. But I always did things by the book. I was forceful and authoritative without being arrogant. I turned the other cheek when teenagers flipped me the bird for kicks. Hell, I even made sure to capitalize Black in my incident reports. It became routine. Habit. Maybe that’s why what happened happened.

It was a Friday night. The car was headed south, really tear-assing it down the highway. I didn’t need the radar gun to know I could nail the fucker for reckless op. I flicked on the lights and siren, but he kept right on going. Cars around us darted out of our way, all lit up and luminescent in the dark like those deep sea fish at the aquarium.

The chase went on for about a mile before I finally forced the son of a bitch into the median. After all that, it felt like an anti-climax when I ran the plate and came up with nothing. The car belonged to a Maple Stillman. No outstanding warrants, no record, nothing. The only fault I could find with her was that hippy-ass name, and I couldn’t very well blame her for that. I couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t stopped, unless Miss Stillman wasn’t the one behind the wheel. I unbuttoned the strap on my holster.

Walking up to the car, I knew something wasn’t right. Over the ting… ting… ting… of the engine cooling off, I could hear whoever was inside the car yelling at somebody else. I knocked on the driver’s side window and it rolled down almost instantly. “Can I help you, officer?” a voice said from within. I looked inside and saw a man who in all likelihood was not named Maple. He reached for the glove compartment. I took a step back to get into the Weaver stance just as the semi merged into the right lane.

My dash cam recorded the whole thing. One minute I’m standing outside the car, telling the asshole inside to keep his hands where I can see them, and the next I’m getting tossed across the interstate like a fucking rag doll. I’m sure it gets shown in training courses right alongside the Dinkheller footage. Another blood clot in the nation’s arteries.

Laying there on the asphalt, I pictured my funeral: the pallbearers lowering me into the ground beside mom, all the girls I’ve ever known dressed out in black and weeping for love lost, and, best of all, dad standing over my grave, saying that I should’ve listened to him and gone into electrical engineering instead of going out and playing cowboy like I did.

The last thing I saw before blacking out was the car’s bumper disappearing into the night. At least the governor would probably rename this stretch of road to the Lt. Simon C. Dobbs Memorial Highway in my honor.

2.

Two days later I woke up in a full body cast. Medical mummification. The movies always made it look like a big, triumphant scene: the hero’s eyes flutter open, he moans out the love interest’s name, and then she comes rushing over, calling out for a doctor, nurse, anybody to come quick! He’s awake! 

It wasn’t like that for me. Nobody was there when I first opened my eyes. I was between girlfriends at the time, and the better half of what family I did have was in the cemetery. Which was just as well, since I screamed when I saw what they had done to me.

​Then she came in. A curly haired nurse with the cutest damn face I’d ever seen threw the door wide and rushed to my bed. I looked up at cheeks speckled with freckles like stars, eyes shining like two harvest moons.

And things got even better below the neck. Fuck a black dress, her teal scrubs did nothing to hide the 36-24-36 figure beneath. I throbbed back to life, even under the constrictor grip of the bandages. It was love, or something close enough to it to not make any difference, at first sight.

​“Shhh. It’s alright, Mr. Dobbs. You’re alright,” she said. And I was. She made me feel safe, fiddling with the IVs and making sure I was comfortable. “My name is Sophie, I’m going to be your nurse.” Maybe my hospitalization wouldn’t be so bad.

​I nearly had myself convinced until dad showed up. People on staff called to let him know his son had just woken up, so he’d come as soon as he could. The first words out of his mouth when he came in the room were, “You should’ve listened to me and gone into electrical engineering instead of going out and playing cowboy like you did.” I pretended to be asleep until he left.

​We hadn’t gotten along since mom died. Scleroderma. The same disease that hardened her skin hardened his heart. He started to drink. I knew he resented me for joining the force, said it was my way of twisting the knife, making him worry. It didn’t help that I arrested him for a DUI a couple weeks after we buried mom.

​The detectives came about an hour after dad left. They looked like the Hardy Boys. Green. I figured somebody up high must have wanted the FBI in on whatever was going on and gave them two the case so there wouldn’t be any confusion about who was in charge when the feds swooped in to take charge.

“Whatever was going on” turned out to be that a group of Mexican migrant workers found Maple Stillman in a pumpkin patch while I was out, her neck broken and her naked body wrapped in plastic sheeting. Her killer had sown the wings of a Canadian goose to her back. White kids never found bodies anymore, not since the Nintendo company turned every living room in America into a live-in arcade.

The dicks thought that Maple was my last stop, so they both blanched when I told them a man had been driving her car when I pulled it over. They asked the usual questions. Did you get a good look at the guy? No. Could you pick him out of a line-up? No. Etc. Etc.

Then it hit me: Maple Stillman was alive when I stopped the car. Who else could the driver have been yelling at, unless he had an accomplice? I told the detectives as much. They told me they would take my theory under advisement. I knew what that meant: blow it out your ass. They didn’t want the extra work. This was only their case until it was feds’. Nothing would be done, not for a while.

I consoled myself by flirting with Sophie. I told her to please call me Simon, and that Mr. Dobbs was my father. She lied and said he seemed like a nice old man. I let it slide. She told me about herself. Sophie was from one of those no-where, no-name hick towns down in Kentucky. You wouldn’t know it from hearing her talk: every word she spoke came out in that Midwestern non-accent that is itself a kind of accent.

She told me she had married her highschool sweetheart at nineteen, followed him north at twenty on love-drunk promises of forever, and divorced the no-good bastard at twenty-one when she caught him in bed with three other women and a dog. After that, Sophie got a two-year degree from one of the local community colleges and had been mending the broken ever since. Of course, I didn’t hear all of this all at once. She doled it out, little by little, between checking my blood pressure and emptying my colostomy bag.

Love was in the air.

3.

Over the next five weeks, the cast started to come off one piece at a time. Arms first. My left and right radius and ulna exploded on impact with the truck and had been knit back together by a mesh-work of wires. They used a little whirring saw to cut through the plaster. The flesh underneath was red and raw. Itchy. They upped the dosage on my painkillers.

​Then they did my legs. “Atrophy” is just a word until it happens to you. I looked like an astronaut who had been in orbit too long. My left thigh was criss-crossed with scars from where they cut into me to get at my femur. My right calf didn’t fare much better: stitches ran from my ankle up to my kneecap. They upped the dosage on my painkillers.

​Then they did my torso. Every rib had been cracked, All-American stuntman style. The bones were only beginning to come back together when they cut the bandages that were holding me together. It felt like somebody had slammed my entire body in a car door. They upped the dosage on my painkillers.

​Sophie was there through it all, flooding my veins with dilaudid and morphine, whispering shhh, it’ll be alright, shhh, you’ll be alright in my ear when it all got to be too much. She was even there when I saw the first news report come on TV.

​BREAKING: WOMAN’S BODY DISCOVERED ON PRIVATE PROPERTY OUTSIDE PEMBERVILLE. The reporter, some rat-faced weasel with perfectly quaffed hair, breathlessly explained that a homeowner had found the body of a young woman, neck snapped and goose wings stitched to her back, in one of his outbuildings. The investigation was still on-going. The anchor did his best not to smile as he said it. Murdered women were ratings gold. Now, back to Jan with the weather.

​I was rapt. The MO was identical to the murder of Maple Stillman: the murder I could have, should have, stopped. I gripped the railings on either side of my bed. The book went out the window. I decided in that instant that I was going to kill the bastard myself. No sentiment. No trial. No chance for that low-life snake to slither out through some legal loophole. I’d seen it happen too many times before to let it happen again. He would be killed, and I would be the one to do it. It would be my moment of righteousness. Atonement.

I pictured myself standing over him like Saint George over the dragon, bringing a crutch down, two-handed, once (shattering the soft cartilage in his nose into a thousand pieces), twice (the blow sending a scarlet slurry of teeth and gum rocketing down his throat), three times (collapsing his right eye socket, spraying me with a jet of vitreous fluid). I pictured him rolling over onto his belly, trying to crawl away, leaving a snail’s trail of blood and brain in his wake. I pictured–

“Are you alright, hon?” Sophie asked. I nodded. I knew my purpose. She gave me another Percocet and wheeled me down to physical therapy. I would walk by the end of the week.

4.

By the time I was discharged, click-click-clicking my way out of the hospital on two height-adjustable aluminum crutches with a prescription for Oxy, Maple Stillman’s murderer had ascended to the level of a one man natural disaster. Seven girls dead. The press started calling him The I-75 Killer. They really dug deep on that one: all of the bodies had been found just off the interstate.

Each girl had her own name, but to me they were all Maple. The girl I couldn’t save. I wondered what her last moments had been like. Did she cry out for her father? For God? For me? All I knew for sure was how it ended: Maple laying dead in a muddy field, goose wings grafted onto the soft skin of her back. It would happen again.

And there was fuck-all I could do about it. The department put me on paid leave. It’s the least we can do for you, after all you’ve been through, they said. So every two weeks a check signed by you, the taxpayer, showed up in my mailbox. One more indignity.

Even if I was back out on patrol, I wouldn’t have been much use to anyone. I could walk, but only just barely, and not without crutches. I spent most of my time on the couch, reading up on the case, trying to crack it. I had a profile worked out: white male, mid-thirties, likely in good shape. Coming up with all that ate up what time I wasn’t spending getting myself back into fighting trim for my ultimate showdown with the bastard. Sophie didn’t approve.

We exchanged numbers when I was discharged. When she came over to my place for our first proper date (Chinese take-away in front of the TV), I forgot to hide the full-color print-outs of the crime scenes I’d had a buddy of mine get for me.

“This is really morbid, Simon,” she said. “You need a pet, a hobby, something other than… this.” I sighed and took another Oxy. She was right. I told her I’d shred them all in the morning, baby, I promise. She relaxed after that, and we finished our meal.

Then Sophie started to look around my apartment. My diplomas. My medals. Her eyes settled on a framed picture of a freckle-faced woman with curly hair laying on a beach towel hanging above the TV. She was wearing one of those 1950s style Marilyn Monroe type swimsuits. Beautiful. “Who is that?” My mother. “Oh.”

We went back to watching TV. Some show about a bunch of rich assholes in New York–the kind of shit that makes you think hey, maybe Al Qaeda or whoever the fuck might’ve been onto something. I put my hand on her thigh. She didn’t stop me. I tried to unbutton her jeans, and she put her hand on mine. “Maybe tomorrow night. I’ve got to be up early in the morning, and besides,” she said. “There’s something I want to get for you and that’s a good excuse to come back, honey.” I wasn’t going to push the issue, especially if it meant she’d be coming back tomorrow. Something about her was familiar. Safe. I needed her.

I tried to walk her to the door when the show ended, but she told me to sit. Chivalry was dead, and a Mack truck killed it.

5.

Sophie kept her word, and the next night she came bearing gifts: a casserole pan in one hand and a PetMart bag in the other. It reminded me of a news story I’d seen while waiting to hear more about the I-75 Killer. Apparently a pet store in Florida had gotten in trouble for throwing live animals in the dumpster. Nobody knew about it until a garbage-man was swarmed by tarantulas one night while he was loading his truck. I kept that to myself.

Sophie sat the casserole down on the coffee table. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands,” she said. I did. She put what felt like an oversized water-balloon in my outstretched hands. “Open them!” It was a bag full of water with a fan-tailed, iridescent red fish swimming around and around inside. Faint blue lettering on the plastic read: BETTA, MALE.

What is it, a goldfish?

“A betta.”

A what?

“A betta. You know, a Siamese fighting fish.”

Oh.

“I thought it’d be good for you to have something to take care of and protect.”

Yeah, that’s a nice idea.

“Here, I got a bowl for him too.” She pulled a glass fishbowl no bigger than a shot glass from the PetMart bag and poured the fish inside. “What are you going to name him?”

You said he was a Siamese fighting fish, right?

“Right, yeah.”

What about Bruce or Jackie, something like that? 

“Aren’t they both Chinese?”

Close enough.

We laughed. I settled on naming him Jackie and we ate what she had brought. Tuna casserole. Delicious. I felt guilty eating it in front of Jackie, so I did my best not to look at him during dinner.

When we finished eating, Sophie turned to me and said, “Maybe it’s time I make good on last night’s promise.” She pawed at the elastic of my sweatpants, sliding my pants and then my boxers down around my ankles, carefully avoiding my shattered knees. She took my cock in her hand and began slowly working me up and down, gradually speeding up and up and up. I almost came, said as much, and she stopped.

“You didn’t think it’d be that easy, did you?” she whispered, biting my ear as she said it. And then she started again. Faster this time. There would be no more teasing. Her fingers tightened around my cock and she pumped me harder and harder. I looked at the wall above the TV. Her hands had begun to chafe me, grating against the tender flesh of my penis. It didn’t matter. Semen suddenly spurted from my dick and ran down her hand in white, viscous rivulets. I said something.

​“What the fuck did you say?”

​What?

​“You called me something!”

​What? What the fuck are you talking about?

​“Yes you did! You called me ‘mommy’ you fucking freak!”

Sophie stood and wiped the cum off her hand with a dinner napkin. I pulled my pants up, winced. I tried to convince her to stay, but she wasn’t having it. She left the casserole pan on the table beside Jackie’s bowl. I took another Oxy. Jackie kept on swimming, around and around and around.

6.

I didn’t hear from Sophie again after that. But she heard from me. Two days after our last date, my prescription ran out. The sweats started coming on, the shakes. My skin was too tight. I began to understand the want, the need, that drove all the dope addicts I’d sent to Mansfield Correctional. I called Sophie, got her voicemail. Baby, I miss you. I’m sorry. Do you think your bosses would notice if a couple Percs went missing? Call me back, baby.

​She didn’t. I sat there shivering, staring at the TV. A couple of busty blonde SS officers had their hands down each other’s black leather pants. The History Channel must’ve been doing another World War II marathon. I flipped over to the news. That’s when the Hardy Boys came on. They had caught the I-75 Killer. My profile was way off. His name was Miguel Alvarez. Latino, early-twenties. Scrawny. He would go to trial within the week. I turned the television off.

​I watched Jackie swimming around and around in circles, going nowhere. I saw my future in that fishbowl, as surely as if it had been a crystal ball: I’d spend the rest of my life bumping off the glass walls, pissed off at everyone and no-one, until one day somebody came to check on me and found me belly-up, floating in my own filth. I took my gun off the coffee table, put it in my mouth, took it out again. Dad was coming to visit that night.

I could wait.

Dawson Wohler is a writer from Ohio. His work has been featured in Lovecraftiana, Expat Press, Apocalypse Confidential, and Misery Tourism.