THE KILLING

By Stephen Allan


Charlie followed Billy into the field of their youth. They made their way through tall, dead grass toward the distant mountains that lifted into a dull gray sky. A cool autumn wind blew stray leaves around them as Charlie tried to keep his hat on.

He wanted to keep Billy in front of him, not so much to make sure he didn’t run, but to keep him in his sight as long as possible. He knew the memory of Billy’s face would fade and he wanted to postpone that for as long as he could.

Billy had asked that they drive out to the farm and Charlie felt he couldn’t deny Billy’s last request. It was the place they had both grown up. He at least owed Billy the choice of where he wanted it done.

Driving up the dirt road to the rundown house that was once owned by Billy’s family, Charlie was amazed at how the power of memory could grab him.

“ It’s like our memories of being kids were just waiting for us to come back to collect them,” Billy said as they pulled into the dooryard. “Everything looks the same, but it isn’t. It’s different.”

Walking to the middle of the field, Charlie’s mind turned back to the days he spent in the field playing catch. He could still feel the ball hitting the leather of his mitt. Charlie wondered where that glove was. As a kid, it was always tucked into his back pocket, but the need to have it around had faded over time. He hadn’t thought about his battered mitt since the day he left town with Billy.

They parked the car back at the farmhouse. No one would see it there; the place was abandoned. The shingles were rotted and hung off the roof. Random shards of glass remained in the windowpanes. No ghost would haunt such a place.

It had stood empty since Billy’s mother died nearly ten years before. The State seized the farm for back taxes and Billy let them have it. He told Charlie he didn’t want anything to do with the place. All of his parents’ hard work disappeared through his negligence and hatred. The State had forgotten the farm as well, and left it to decay. One day it would all fall to the ground and no one would be around to witness the dust bloom into the air when it did

“ When did this place become so beautiful?” Billy asked. “Was it like this when we were kids, Charlie?”

Charlie was not used to hearing his real name. Ever since he joined the syndicate with Billy everyone, even his enemies, called him Deacon. Billy hadn’t called him Charlie in fifteen years.

“ If it was, I don’t remember it that way,” Charlie said.

Their pace was slow. There was no set destination and neither was in a hurry to finish the walk. They both kept their gaze toward the mountains and away from the woods that bordered the valley. As kids they feared the woods and never played there. It felt evil, as if Hell itself was located there. That memory seemed foolish when they grew up, but the woods were fouler at that moment than Charlie could ever remember.

A brisk wind blew the lapels of Charlie’s jacket around, but he didn’t mind. He ignored the cloth hitting the sides of his face and neck as he kept his head up.

“ Remember playing ball over by that oak tree?” Billy said. “Christ, you were a god with that bat. You’d hit a ball and it would go for a mile.”

“ Yeah, Billy, those were good times.”

“ They were. They were.”

Billy looked over the valley, turning his head to take in the entire panoramic view. They made an effort not to look each other in the eye, knowing why they were out there.

“ Did I ever thank you for when we were kids?”

“ How so, Billy?”

“ For being my best friend. I miss that.”

“ What do you miss? We’ve been around each other for years.”

“ Not the same. You miss the friendships you have when you’re a kid, you know? You’re never as close to anyone as you are when you’re growing up. Life becomes too complicated to share. How can anyone relate to you and your problems? We grow older, we become more distant to everyone. More alone, no matter how many people are around. Never let anyone in.”

Billy stopped and looked at his shoes.

“ This is a good spot.”

“ Yeah, I guess it is.”

Billy looked out toward the distance.

“ The mountains seem so large compared to everything. Every problem you or I may have. This whole valley’s that way. Funny, when we were kids this place couldn’t hold any of my dreams. I wanted to get as far away from here as I could. Now, I want to be here more than anything. This is where I was happiest. Right here. Never realized it. Always trying to find it everywhere else. Money, women, booze. And what I really wanted was waiting right here, always. Too stupid to realize.”

Billy paused.

“ Do you have any regrets for the life? What we do?” Billy asked.

“ Used to. Not anymore.”

“ I haven’t thought about that until recently. Would you have done anything different?”

“ Nothing, probably. Do it just as I had.

“ There are things that haunt me, Charlie. Terrible things I’ve done. I’ll never gain salvation for them. Ever.”

“ Can’t think about that.”

“ The eyes of the dead will follow me. Men and women that I’ve killed. Even a small boy once. Ended their lives for petty shit. I watched their tears run down their cheeks, but they never had any effect on me until now.”

Charlie tried to push back a feeling of regret. He had seen enough tears to haunt him for the rest of his days.

Billy looked back toward the house. A tire swing Billy and Charlie used to ride all summer still hung from a tree near the farmhouse and rocked underneath one of the oak’s branches. Funny how that remained up when the rest of the house was decaying.

“ You know what I remember of my ma?” Billy said. “Her running her fingers through my hair. She’d kiss me goodnight and rub those fingers up over my forehead and down my scalp. When I was sick she would lie beside me and just rub my hair forever. It’s nice to remember that. To remember my ma like that.”

Billy looked to the ground and rubbed at his left eyebrow.

“ I didn’t even come back for the funeral. Couldn’t be bothered. Too busy shacking up with some tramp whose name I can’t even think of. Screwing and gambling in Atlantic City while my mother died alone. Lying in that bed. Just…”

Billy paused. He swallowed hard and let a gentle grunt escape his throat.

“ Just lying there trying to breathe. Her lungs filling up with fluid, until they couldn’t help her any longer. Suffocated. Couldn’t get air in. And I did nothing.”

Billy whispered something to himself. The wind didn’t allow Charlie to hear what he said. Billy sniffed. Charlie couldn’t tell if it was because of the cold and wind, or the memory.

“ Are you afraid of death?” Billy asked.

“ Never thought much about it.”

“ Everybody does.”

“ And you? You afraid?”

Charlie didn’t know why he let the question slip. He was afraid Billy’s answer would make it more difficult. He had never asked that question before. He never thought about anyone’s feelings, and always figured no one gave a damn about his.

“ No. Not anymore. Not after the last couple of days,” Billy said. “Used to be.”

Billy let out a long nervous sigh.

“ I see it as an end. Your soul finally at rest. That’s what I need, a rest. I’m so tired. This life, it’s too much. I really don’t want it anymore.”

Charlie felt his stomach tighten. He pressed his hand into his belly for some relief.

“ What about the soul, Charlie, ever think about that?”

“ Never thought about that neither. Not much of a thinker, I guess.”

“ Sometimes I think we go on, but to where? I don’t know. You think we have souls? Men like us, I mean.”

“ Who knows?” Charlie said, feeling the top of his hat where its cleft lay. “Could be I don’t deserve one.”

“ I think you do.”

Billy looked up at the sky and pointed. Charlie turned his head up, following Billy’s finger.

“ Maybe there is a Heaven. Angels and all that,” Billy said.

“ Maybe.”

“ You don’t believe in that do you?” Billy lowered his head, but Charlie kept his gaze at the clouds.

“ No, I guess I don’t.”

“ Do you know I read somewhere that these assassins in ancient time didn’t believe in God?”

Charlie returned his attention to Billy.

“ I didn’t know that,” Charlie said.

“ It’s true. They said nothing is real so everything is permitted. No guilt. Pretty easy when you think of it like that.”

“ You were always smart. Reading lots of books and stuff.”

“ Yeah, but I never did anything about it. Should have.”

“ We all have a lot of should’ves.”

A gust came from the north and hit the two friends. The strong wind caught Charlie’s hat and lifted it from his head. They turned to watch it fly into the air. Normally, Charlie would run after it, but the fedora wasn’t important to him anymore. He didn’t care if it blew away.

“ Lost your hat, Charlie.”

“ Yeah, the wind took it.”

“ It was a nice hat.”

“ It was once. It’s too worn out now. I guess I can live without it.”

Charlie and Billy watched as the fedora tumbled end over end down the valley and into the woods.

“ It’s getting dark,” Billy said. “You should be getting back.”

“ Yeah.”

There was a silence. Billy turned his head halfway around to acknowledge Charlie without looking at him.

“ I don’t want to wait any longer.”

“ Okay, Billy.”

Billy crouched down to his knees and looked over the field for the last time. Charlie placed a hand on Billy’s shoulder in a final goodbye. He then took the pistol out of his coat pocket and raised it to the back of Billy’s skull. The rough edge of the pistol’s grip was cold in his palm. It brought a rush of reality into Charlie’s chest that left him weak.

“ I’m sorry,” Charlie said.

“ Don’t be. This is how I played it. I screwed up. This is what I get.”

The pistol shook as Charlie tried to steady his arm. He had to hold the gun with both hands, but he made sure he was close enough to Billy’s head not to miss.

“ I’m sorry, Charlie. I’m so sorry that it had to be you.”

Charlie held the air in his lungs, waiting for his mind to allow him to go through with the deed. He let out a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. The echo of the shot covered the valley and a single crow resting on a dilapidated fence near the woods launched into the air.

He felt the pistol buck and a ball of red mist spread wide in the air in front of him. The specks of blood settled to the ground covering the dead wheatgrass. The vibration of the gun against his hand would stay with him forever.

As he watched the bird scatter, Charlie realized that the tension in his body had disappeared. It was a surprising release, something that should have been shameful, but as the relief settled through his body, Charlie accepted it. He couldn’t change anything now. There was no erasing it. What was done was done.

It should have been a shameful relief, but as it settled through his body, Charlie embraced the strange comfort

Billy’s body lay there as the overgrown grass flowed back and forth in the breeze. A dead leaf floating from the woods landed on his body.

The sun was going down, but Charlie couldn’t see it because of the clouds. The light just dimmed gradually as the day turned to gray. Soon it would be black and he would walk back to the car in the dark. He had walked through this field many times as a boy and he knew he could find his way out. He didn’t mind waiting for night to come. He stayed as the mountains dimmed from sight. Once it was too dark to see Billy’s body, Charlie walked away.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Allan holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern Maine; not that it means anything. Steve is a recovering journalist who has since seen the error of his ways. His flash fiction can be found on the Flashing In The Gutters website. You can also read his random thoughts at noirwriter.blogspot.com. Steve lives in Maine where he is finishing a crime novel.


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