The Saints That Burnt Crosses
He lies dead and shirtless. Patches of chest hair are scattered about his pale flesh. Red droplets are scattered throughout the kitchen and have sprayed his Jack-O-Lantern printed underwear. Grease from hot bacon has been smeared on his lips.
Looking at him does more to disgust than to arouse sympathy. Still, what a horrible way to go. In the doorway Lucy pauses. She looks sick, grabbing her stomach, hunched over, gagging as her eyes fill with tears that never drop. I feel the same, sick and gagging, right before she pushes me away and leaves me with bloody hands.
The morning sun breaks through holey curtains, making her skin look pale and drained of life. She has less life than the dead Bacon Eater. Saliva pours from her swollen lips, followed by a huge green and black splash of shit from her gut. Most of it -- to my surprise -- is sizzling bacon, along with a plastic husband and wife you find on top of a wedding cake. The last item to drop from her mouth is a plain silver crucifix. It clings to a thin strand of spit just before it hits the ground.
Lucy's eyes are red, and her rail thin body shudders with each loud breath. I honestly don't know what to make of it.
She tries to wipe her mouth clean but smears fresh blood on it from her stained hand. I can't stop staring at the pile of puke on the floor, the way it grips the plastic bride and glistens on the groom.
She watches as I turn away and begin to wash my hands in the kitchen sink, where dirty dishes drown in scummy water.
My eyes are drawn to the fresh corpse. With each glance I notice something different: how the eyes are crossed for some reason, the fingers curled as if he had been trying to claw out of a box, the ever growing pool of blood. It all makes me scrub that much harder. Lucy stares at him too, yet the sight of him makes her breaths longer, more relaxed. My heart is racing, and I can't seem to get enough air.
But no matter how hard I rub my hands underneath the hot water, the blood on my fingers doesn't wash off. It doesn't even get wet. Instead, the water makes the blood thicker, more saturated. It sticks to my fingers like sap, bonding them together. Then, I peel my hands away from one another, and slender strings of blood form between them. My palms begin to itch.
Lucy slams down the faucet and grabs my shirt. "Water just makes it worse," she says. "You have to let it dry to the skin."
Before we walk out the door Lucy pauses and looks at the corpse. Things become so quiet that I can hear her heart beating. "He deserved it," she says softly. "Believe me, he definitely deserved it." She quickly leaves, and I reluctantly follow, never taking my eyes off of the dead Bacon Eater.
En route to the subway, Lucy tells me that Bacon Eater fell into the arms of some high-class hooker because he was bored with his wife. Sent her pictures of the affair along with divorce papers; she hung herself soon after. Two days later, he went back to the hooker.
We take the A-C-E from Penn., not talking on the way back. That's fine, I'd rather not hear about it. Watching Sacks of meat has become one of my favorite pastimes, and a Manhattan subway car is loaded with Sacks. One of them wears a large cowboy hat with steel tipped boots. No one sits near him but everyone stares.
"Look at that guy," I say. "What a jackass. He's the reason why everyone hates southerners." Lucy smirks a little, but I can't tell if it's in a good way.
"You're a dick. Don't change the subject," she says flatly.
"I didn't know we were on one," my reply is sincere.
"You know we're on one," Lucy struggles to keep her voice down. "What? Are you gonna make me say it?"
"Say what?" I ask. "I'm talking about the cowboy and that stupid hat. It's obnoxious." As usual, she doesn't give me a response. "I don't know what else I'm supposed to say."
Lucy looks frustrated. Then the sunglasses tip down to reveal green eyes that shine like crosshairs. "You fucked up," she says, pointing at me with a clichéd finger. "I asked you to do a job, and you freaked. He felt it. Died screaming and it's your fault." Green eyes look away. "What? You didn't hear him scream?" Her words are soft again.
I did hear it. That's why I threw up, or at least tried to. "I admit that I freaked bad, all right," I plead for my manhood. "But why didn't you say anything back there? Why wait until the subway?" I hope she's not mad.
Air leaves her lungs with a perturbed rush. Sunglasses go up and she sits back. I notice the blood on her hands drying into a crusty brown layer. "You gotta get your feet wet," she says. "You were supposed to do it. Not me, you! " She's lecturing now.
"We've got two more and ya can't fuck them up. I can't do it. If you don't get at least two on your first day you're done! Fired, just like that. One day is all you have." She looks up and pauses, thinking of what else to say. "Remember, they all deserve it. Sooner or later, everyone deserves it. How do ya think you ended up riding shotgun with me?" I can see icicles hanging off each word.
She keeps on talking but I only see lips moving. The sounds of grinding metal and shaking train cars drown out her voice. Cowboy Hat grunts loudly and swallows the phlegm stuck in his throat. I regret hating him, so I try to look at his hat as something beautiful, but I can't.
My stare is unwavering and all my senses lock onto him. I see his exhaustion, hear his fat jiggle, smell his hot breath, and feel his sadness. I hear Lucy's words in my head.
Our train slows to a stop. A crescendo of screeching brakes convinces me to look away from Cowboy Hat. I then notice how the blood on my hands starts to dry, caking a thin layer of brown onto my white skin.
I look back at Cowboy Hat and start picking out the blood from beneath my fingernails.
The streets of SoHo are always congested like a clogged artery. Heat comes down from the sun, creating a smell I can't get used to. Lucy walks in front of me, refusing to speak.
People sense us, fear our presence and move out of our way. It surprises me, and I stumble through the crowd while Lucy strolls.
We go into a small coffee shop. The smell of coffee beans enters my nose, and I take it in slowly. There are only two people in the store: an older Italian man sitting behind the counter, who reads from a newspaper that's soaked with his sweat, and a mid-aged woman sitting at a small café table.
She reads from a trashy romance novel and chooses to constantly mix her coffee instead of drinking it. Her dress is a soft blue.
Lucy takes off her sunglasses. Her green eyes pierce into the woman, confirming our target.
I move closer to the lady in the blue dress. Her smell, a sweet one, is unlike the others. Her olive skin seems to gleam in the rays of light breaking through the picture window, drawing my attention to her legs. Parts of me want to be attracted to her but more of me needs to end her. The Bacon Eater made me feel this way too but it's coming on so much stronger now, a sudden rush of emotion that makes my mouth go dry.
Suddenly I feel out of breath, like something's swelling beneath my chest. My eyes roll into the back of my head, and my right arm acts on its own.
I can't breathe.
My hand graces her soft black hair, startling the woman in blue. It begins to meld with her flesh. I'm in her head, quite literally. My heart sinks in a good way. I clench my right fist, crushing everything in my palm, and it is done.
Everything around me slows down and floats in mid-air. It looks as though an invisible ocean suddenly enveloped the world.
Something hits me. A flash of blinding light, and then I'm looking through the eyes of the woman in blue. I see memories, events, but only for brief periods.
A man calls her Jess; she ran away from home after her mother died; a man promised her cash; his image is nothing more but a silhouette that wears mirror-like glasses ... a silver crucifix sparkles around his neck; she sold her body to anyone who would pay; then I see her most recent customer: the Bacon Eater. He offers her $2,000 for the night; he tells her he loves her; Jess wanted him to get a divorce; she smiled when she was told about his wife's suicide; she heard about the Bacon Eater's death this morning; she wished she could take it back.
My true vision returns and I am still focused on the woman in blue. The one named Jess.
Blood escapes from her nostrils in two separate, even streams that find their way to the corners of her mouth. Her eyes remain open as one last breath explodes from her dead lungs. My hand slides out of her head, covered in a wet glove of silky crimson. Her face drops to the table, and the fat free mocha whatever she was mixing spills, creating a tan pool that her black hair floats upon.
Everything around me turns white again and the ground begins to spin. My stomach sinks and I gag until large choking lumps exit my mouth, covered in globs of purple and red mucus.
A used condom drips off my tongue and splatters onto the white tiles beneath me. Then something else makes its way through. It tears at my esophagus on its way up from my gut. No matter how hard I cough the thing just won't come out.
Finally, it surfaces, encased in thick collections of foul smelling fluids. With force, it discharges from my mouth and hits the ground with a high-pitched clang: a crucifix. A very plain one made of silver.
The Italian is confused. He goes to call 9-1-1.
Lucy stands up and gestures for me to follow her. I remain kneeling. My hand slowly embraces Jess's dead one. It feels warm, even on this hot summer day. I place the crucifix on her stomach.
My warped reflection in the silver cross gazes back at me, and I look at myself for the first time. The image is blurry, almost mangled. My eyes are uneven and lopsided, mouth oversized, forehead too large, nose far too small. Nothing fits as it should. All I can make out is the distortion that defines this moment.
My thumb moves up and down the back of her hand, taking notice of her smooth skin. I stare at Jess's lifeless face.
I whisper apologies to her dead ears; I wish I could bleed them for her.
"Didn't you ever wonder if anyone actually deserves this?" I ask, almost screaming. "That maybe we're wrong?"
Lucy smirks coolly and says, "We're not here to be judges. We're here to face our punishment."
I kneel back into the small pool of growing blood. Her words tear at my ears and I try to stare at the white tiled floor without blinking. "Are you saying," my words come slowly, "that I killed before all this? That I did something worse than the Bacon Eater? Something worse than Jess?"
Lucy says, "Only a killer can kill," she begins to walk towards me. Her voice starts fading out. "Only killers end up doing what we're forced to do." She kneels next to me and leans her icy lips into my ear, and hisses: "You're a murderer."
My head drops in denial. "But we ... ... I fucking murdered her," I say, with a soft whine lacing my words. "I'm a murderer." I let go of Jess's hand and it hits the floor with a dull splat. The tears in my eyes feel like boulders.
Lucy tells me to get up. Her words are sharp.
She lifts me from the armpits. Our movements splatter blood from the pool, staining our black suits. Everything is still spinning, I feel worse than before, and I question if Jess deserved to die ... does anyone?
In the background, ambulances arrive. Loud sirens are complimented by wide-eyed fears, and inaudible screams. People never scream until they see those red lights that make a tragedy real.
I smear Jess's blood on Lucy's black suit. She looks at the new stains, and takes off her glasses. Our eyes lock as her fingers graze my cheek. "I know you're scared," she says softly. "And you should be. But answers are coming." She breathes for a while, and probes me with her eyes. Then she asks, "Where do you want to go?" Her hand is still rubbing my cheek, massaging away my guilt, easing me into a dead world.
"To a church," I say it without thinking. "I want us to go to a church."
"Okay," she whispers, "then that's where we'll go."
I'm ushered onto a subway car, and I take a seat on hard plastic. Lucy rests on my lap. Her fingers keep tickling my face, and I lean my head into them.
The car loses power, and everything inside goes black. Flurries of blue-sparks from the rails cover Lucy's face in sudden flashes of purple. I focus on her wide eyes and enlarged nostrils. I see her breathing hard; I see her lips fluttering; but more than anything, I can see Lucy desperately wanting to cry.
My memories remain hidden behind black clouds. One of those clouds begins to dissipate as we come upon an old church on the south side. The gothic house is decrepit and ignored by passersby. Gray bricks from the church have fallen to the ground and leave black voids in the walls, like missing teeth. Stained glass windows are cracked, dusty and seemingly frail.
Despite its crippled appearance, I shudder in the church's wake. Its oversized oak doors and reaching spires scream for me to go away. Lucy, unsurprisingly, embraces this aura. We walk onto the cracked steps of the abode. The sounds of our scratching shoes force vermin from their hiding places.
Moving towards the entrance, I notice how one of the large doors is slightly ajar, desperately grasping to one working hinge. Lucy walks into the church and slams the half-working door so hard that it splits from the frame and falls to the floor with an echoing crash.
Scents of musty air and burning candles hit me, triggering more flashes. These are a bit more intense, making me dizzy.
I see my own hands cupping water in a white basin; I see myself looking down on a man with a tear-soaked face while I scowl.
The flashes pass, and I compose myself. Lucy is far ahead of me so I try to catch up. The inside of the church is so dark that she looks like a moving shadow.
All pews are empty, some split in half, while others spill out into the center aisle. The ceiling, like most churches, is very high. But I notice no organ, no pipes, and no place for a choir. The stained glass windows are covered with so much dust that little light is able to find its way in, making it hard to see anything. Although, at the altar, there are dozens of candles lit, creating a sphere of orange light directly beneath a plain, 15-foot crucifix.
There is a solitary man, clad in black, kneeling and praying. He wears a silver crucifix around his neck, like the one from Jess's memory. Lucy is already standing behind him with a hand on his shoulder.
She speaks without looking at me, "When you started whispering all of those crazy things, I remembered my first kill -- how scary it was. How bad it made me feel to see that I was a horrible person doing such horrible things. The truth is though, we're not horrible. We were at one time, but here ... we're just doing a job, doing what no one else could possibly do. Here, death is life."
I see the icicles melt off her words, and I want to trust her.
We walk over to the praying man as one. Hand in blood-encrusted hand.
"Can you hear them?" Lucy whispers.
"Sort of," I say. "They're all over the place. He's begging for God's help."
"If you ever meet God, let me know. I'd love to ask how we got stuck doing Her dirty work." Lucy squeezes my hand and tells me to focus.
I hear his prayers clearly now, as if his thoughts were my own. Words fall on top of me. Thousands of blurry flashes come every time he says "Please God." I know all of his losses, private doubts ... but I only get them in samplings.
He pulls up in an old car on a rainy night and Jess, clad in a hooded sweatshirt and torn jeans, gets in; a longer white blur hits me, and I see myself choking this man.
I wear the clothes of a priest and he does as well. We are on the altar of the church years ago, when it was still well lit and stained glass still clear. My eyes are wide and I'm drooling with rage. The man claws desperately at my arms. His face is red. Blue veins pop from his neck and face, making his skin transparent. I scream something: "You won't take her from me. You won't take her from me!" Am I talking about Jess? Who is he trying to take from me?
I guess I couldn't see it at the time, probably too blinded by anger. But from this view I can do nothing but watch with quiet dread as the man I'm killing clandestinely grabs a marble chalice. Dark wine spills from its rim and forms a pale body of red on the white altar. Then, at blinding speed, he slams the chalice into the side of my skull. I know from this distance that the hemorrhage is instant (you can tell because my eyes go black very quickly). My body falls to the ground, looking like a limp piece of grass.
Everything goes white and I'm standing next to Lucy again, listening to the silent prayers of a murdering priest.
"He killed me?" I ask in a flat way. Lucy answers with a simple nod. Then she explains how the priest was taking in homeless girls and pimping them out. He made quite a bit of money and justified it by saying it was what God had intended for them. I found out about it and threatened to go to the police. That's when he made a different type of threat, one that drove me crazy.
"It was right here on this spot," Lucy explains, "where you told him what you were going to do. He was scared, desperate ... going to jail was his worst fear. So he panicked and told you that if you ousted him, he would kill your 4 year-old niece."
My niece? My heart quakes and I bite the inside of my cheek. I can't remember anything about her.
"When you heard this pimp of a priest say he would kill her, you believed him. Only you let go of control, of decency. The wrong committed here is that you wanted to watch this man die. And you wanted to be the one and only killer. But he beat you to it, and that's why you're here with me."
I let instinct take over.
I put my hand over the man's mouth, so he'll stop praying. He looks scared and tears drench his face. I squeeze Lucy's fingers. I want to make this simple and quick.
My hand caresses his chest and finds the pulse of his heart beating furiously. It slides through flesh, bone and blood until the heart is in my palm. I hesitate, only for an instant, and then try to crush it but it keeps on beating. Blood pours out and it's the Bacon Eater all over again.
I let go of Lucy and plunge my other arm into his cavity, hoping two hands will work better. Everything goes silent and the only thing I can hear is the quickening thump of the man's heart.
I scream for Lucy's help, she looks on with open mouth, unsure of what to do. The man is writhing in pain. He looks at me, sees me. And in a moment of complete clarity, I hear him say something in between screams of pain: "Jacobson? I thought I killed you!" Then his voice becomes so shrill that Lucy covers her ears, and he shrieks in both agony and terror.
"Lucy," I desperately try to make my voice heard. "I can't do it, it's not working."
"You do your job!" She screams.
I want to cry so badly. The tears blind me and burn my eyes.
I squeeze as hard as I can, and the priest finally goes silent. The pools of blood around him grow quickly and I crawl away on my back, attempting to avoid it at all costs. Lucy is covered with thick sweat, and rests her head on the wall. Everything goes blank, and another rush of memories hit me.
I see him embracing the young cheek of Jess. He promises her not only a better life but also salvation. Jess smiles humbly and hugs him. Her touch arouses him and his arms tighten. I see the look on his face and watch his chapped lips rub against her smooth neck.
I puke up globs of mucus. This time there are only two things inside of it: a large silver cross, and the white collar worn by a Catholic priest. I pick it up, with vomit still dangling from its corners, and throw it, absentmindedly, onto the corpse.
His eyes are wide and fingers clenched, like he was trying to hang onto something. I tuck the cross into my shirt's breast pocket ... a keepsake.
Lucy straightens herself out, wipes each sleeve, pulls back her blonde locks and flashes a plastic smile. Her eyes hold back thick tears.
I say, "That's the worst part about all of this."
"What?" she asks.
"Not being able to cry. Killing all these people for doing normal things, feeling what they feel. It's too much to hold in."
"I wish I could tell you that it gets better." She looks away, trying to think of something that will allow me to take some good out this first day. "I think you came out nicer the second time around." I smile.
Without thinking, I walk with Lucy through comforting silhouettes, and into the blinding daylight.
© 2006 by Matt Thomas
Matt Thomas is a freelance writer and currently lives in New York City. His first short story, "Crossover", was published in the the Spring 2005 issue of Outsider Ink and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
E-mail: Matt Thomas
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