Thank you for visiting my public writing journal, and Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it. I have a special holiday story for you today! I had the idea for this prompt a few days ago, but I have been so busy with other writing projects, I didn’t have a chance to sit down and start writing it until this morning. I did most of the planning and plotting yesterday, then started writing this morning at 4am.
As usual, I try my best to keep errors to a minimum for your enjoyment, but since everything on this site is meant to be completed in a timely manner, and are primarily for practice; some mistakes may appear.
I’ve had a wonderful time crafting this exercise for you, but I guess it’s time to get back to the family. I hope you enjoy the read; I write for you!
After winning ‘Best New Artist’ at the 2013 National Tattoo Expo, Everett Ortega moved his family to Forking Trails, a full year sooner than his accountant recommended for a young business, but he refused to live another week in that apartment, and the new accolade was keeping the books full for weeks in advance. He claimed the rush had to do with getting settled before the holidays, with Maggie getting used to the new house before all that excitement. By the time November rolled around that year, all of the employees from the tattoo shop had a letter from the boss inviting them to Thanksgiving at his new house. The place was big all right, bigger than any place he had ever lived in. It reminded him of some kind of fortress. He installed a black iron gate over the front door, and spiked bars in crooked angles on all the first floor windows. The lawn seemed comparatively unkempt to his neighbors; the single maple that stood in one corner of the front yard hung his arms, dead; a long, telling gouge running up his trunk, nearly bifurcating him, leaving him gray and rotting where he stood. Inside, the house was bright, warm, and filled with fumes composed of turkey, ham, and other festive delights. The guests gathered around the drinks and refreshments in the kitchen, thanking him for his employment, congratulating his recent success, and complimenting him on his ideal choice of house and community.
At around eight in the evening dinner was served and everyone sat, awkwardly stirring their food and looking to their host for direction. When it was clear that her husband was not going to say anything, Everett’s wife spoke for her husband saying, “We don’t have any traditions yet. But, in my family, we would go around the table and say a quick word about what we were thankful for. I am thankful for my husband, and all the success that the talent God has given him has brought our family. Now that the world is starting to recognize what we all have for so long, hopefully all our lives will change for the better.” There was a small round of applause, then the guests cheerfully began—first was Antony and his family; then the Frenchman, Beau, who does portraits; Wendall the piercer; and Twitch the shop apprentice—and so on. They were all thankful for Everett.
“All right boss,” Antony said, patting Everett’s shoulder and grinning up the guests, “what don’t you have to be thankful for, big guy? Come on now, don’t keep us waiting, Elizabeth wont forgive you letting the turkey get cold.”
Elizabeth shook her head and laughed, waving the comment by. But Everett did not smile. Under his tangled black beard he gently gnawed on the fat of his lower lip, marking each one of the guests with eyes peeking out from under heavy brows. After a moment he widened his eyes and took a sharp breath like the single scrape of a metal pot brush, turned his face up, and put on a watery smile. “Having you all here…” He straightened in his chair and rubbed his eyes. “Having you all here in my new home… I’m thankful that I had… I have people somewhere who care.”
“Well!” said Everett’s wife, “how underwhelming! What kind of thanks is that? That’s all you have to say? After all the wonderful things all your friends had to say about you?”
“Friends?” Everett asked himself.
A unanimous murmur circuited the table.
Everett’s wife pursed her lips, folded her napkin and took a large gulp of wine. “Can I talk to you for a minute Everett?” She asked.
Everett shifted in his seat. “You’re taking it wrong,” he said. “Just forget it. I am thankful,” he backhanded the air, “for all of you. It’s just taken more time to settle in than I thought. The neighbors here; the neighbors are just different.”
“You’re in Orange County bro,” said Antony, “what do you expect?”
“What does that even mean?” asked Everett. “I haven’t even seen half these people and they already hate me. I took the dog out this morning. The family coming down the sidewalk; they crossed the street; wouldn’t look me in the face. Our neighbors haven’t come to welcome us—not one! I don’t know…”
Everett’s wife had enough. She threw her arm over the back of her chair and laughed from her gut. “You have got to be joking! So now—now!—you’re upset because the community is too quiet? Because people give us too much privacy?”
Wendall swigged his beer. “I don’t think you need to worry about privacy, mate. Iron gates, triple pad locks, metal mesh screens on the windows. I’m sure the neighbors get the hint.”
“It’s my home,” said Everett, “I have the right to protect it don’t I? If they’d let me, I’d have done it at the apartment.”
“Yeah, but this isn’t LA either, big guy,” Antony said. “Besides, Elizabeth tells me you got a cop living next door?”
Elizabeth nodded furiously with a mouthful of wine. “That’s right, Murfa’s husband, a few doors down; Robert something? Robert McKinley I’m pretty sure—anyway, the realtor told us he’s been here since the community was built. You can’t get safer than having a cop right next door.”
Twitch shook his head, not looking away from his plate, “Seems to me like anywhere’s safer than where their murderin’ folk outside your door.”
Everett struck the table with his fist and the tableware clattered. “That’s enough about it. Elizabeth doesn’t like talking about that.”
A frown seized Elizabeth. “I don’t mind it at all Sam, it’s in the past now. It’s only you that mind it still.”
He eyed Twitch with the loathing rage that he could not lay on his wife, “Fine. Fine then, I mind it. It’s enough about it anyway.” The table fell silent, and everyone knew it was time to eat.
After the guests had eaten their fills and stayed their duties, Everett took a hot shower and timidly went into the bedroom, letting the cool breeze from the open window dry the steaming water off his back, and slipped open the top dresser drawer where he kept his bed clothes and large .45 caliber pistol he purchased along with the new house. He was aware, without looking, of Elizabeth’s gaze. He felt her brain trying to work him out. He felt the exhaustion of this exercise more and more in the new house. He wondered for how long he could feel her touching him. She lay reposed on their bed, hidden behind deep masquera-sockets. Somewhere in the night, seeming to be perched just outside Everett’s window and far away at the same time, the great horned owl questioned the dark: Whoo? Whoo?
“Did you take your medicine?” asked Elizabeth.
Everett started. “What was that?” his hand was wrapped round the gun. He whirled on Elizabeth. “Did someone cry for help?” His chest popped and collapsed like one of Maggie’s mechanical toys. In the dim light Elizabeth made out the silver spine of the 1911; her husband’s eyes were white and wild; and she was frightened.
“No. No Everett. It’s only that damn owl—sweet-heart? did you take your medicine?”
The gun rattled playfully in his hands as he tried to smile. “Yes.”
“We’re safe here, Everett. You don’t have to worry anymore. This isn’t Dos Lagos. This is one of the safest communities in Southern California. What happened at the apartments; that’s not normal; even for a rathole. I’ve never heard of something like that happening to somebody before it happened to us; you definitely don’t have to worry about it happening here.” She held out a hand. Everett took a step towards her. Her eyes flicked to the gun at his side. Everett stopped. He wriggled where he stood. His mind wanted to accept his wife’s words, but screams of terror and images of himself and his wife, motionless in the comfort of their beds; affirmation after affirmation built into his head to never let himself forget that day, to never let it happen that way again flooded his head.
Everett rolled onto bed near his wife, closing the pistol in the side table drawer, and drawing his thick tattooed forearm over his eyes.
“Do you ever think what would have happened if we would have done something that night?,” he asked. “I mean, anything—opened the door, banged on the door, called the cops, shouted—anything for Christ’s sake.”
“Yes. I used to. When I didn’t want to; when I wasn’t trying to think about it; when I was just cleaning up the apartment, or doing school-time with Maggie. But it didn’t stop me from doing those things. And it didn’t stop me from moving on, from getting past it. I don’t think about it anymore. I can’t ever forget about it completely, but I don’t run through what I could have done to save her anymore. I have my own daughter to worry about. The man who hurt that girl is locked up. And we moved far away from there.”
“I couldn’t forget it.”
“I said, I didn’t. I just don’t want to bring old evil into our new lives.”
“What’s so new about it? This house? Our neighbors? All these damn communities are the same; unbalanced and dangerous systems of animals. You can make close bonds based on trust, but these people—God—these people didn’t give us a chance. They didn’t half look at my beard and tatts before they rejected me. How are we supposed to be a part of this place if they won’t have us, and don’t want us? And what about us? We’re not any different. I’m the same, you’re the same.”
“People are never the same, Everett.”
Everett twisted out of bed and landed, crouched like a cat, beside the side-table, already retrieving his weapon. “Did you hear that? You heard that! Ha! You heard it, I know you did!… Shh—There it is again—listen…” Sam put his ear to the open window. Silence…
Then a haunting voice leaped through the window, chased through the hollow night air by a man’s baritone shouts. “No!” it cried. “Stay away from me!”
Everett and Elizabeth gaped at each other. It was impossible. He had changed everything, moved to a safe residential area, they were part of a home owner’s association for Christ’s sake—could it be happening all over again? Here? In Forking Trails? Everett paced the room with the gun pressed to his temple. He groaned and growled at the images of the body of the young woman in the torn red dress, sunken into the cement stairwell at the apartments, a terrified, hopeful expression stained her face, her eyes locked on his apartment door, her lifeless body limp and beaten and pathetic.
“Everett!” said his wife. “Everett, are you listening to me? Please come sit. Come sit down. It’s probably just kids again. They’re always out at the pool, or haunting the park; don’t worry.” But Everett continue to pace, looking at Elizabeth with wide, confused eyes, like he didn’t know her at all. “Everett, if it’s bothering you, we can call the police, but they’re probably not going to be able to do anything about it. It could be anything.”
“I can’t believe you. Someone could need our help.”
“You don’t know that Sam. And it’s none of our business anyway. You said yourself tonight that these people have made it their M.O. to avoid us, so for right now, for Thanksgiving night at least, my husband can do me a favor, and avoid them too, all right? Trust me, it’s probably some kids playing.”
“That didn’t sound like kids playing.”
Elizabeth shrugged and drew up a corner of her lip. “Maybe it didn’t. It doesn’t matter to us Everett. Please, keep your voice down, Maggie’s sleeping. Just come to bed.”
“Get the fuck back here!” came the man’s voice from outside. It was close; maybe two streets North? The woman’s reply was frantic and breathless; “No, help, don’t touch me, help!”
That’s when Everett heard it; two gun shots sounded in succession; crack-cak! Then the woman’s shrill shriek and an inaudible command from the man. This was the girl from the apartments all over again. He had tried to leave it behind, but it followed him here. He looked to his wife. She sat up in bed, silently picking at her nails, no urgency in her body, she hadn’t even reach for her phone. “I’m going out there,” he said. “I’m not going to let this happen again. Not here. Not to these people.”
Elizabeth still worked at her hangnail. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. I’ll call the cops, all right? I’ll call the cops, and tell them what you thought we heard—”
“And maybe they’ll send someone, but Everett, if you think I’m letting my husband walk out into the night with a loaded gun, especially with what you’re going through right now, to face some unknown armed psychos, you’re dead wrong.”
“What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you learn anything from Dos Lagos? Didn’t you lose anything? Wasn’t anything burnt into your head that day? Jesus, Elizabeth, I mean, Jesus; someone needs us.”
“You’re right. I need you. Your daughter needs you. Your employees need you. The people who look up to you as an artist need you. The people who’s tattoos you haven’t finished need you. You’re the one that tells me that it’s more than just ink and skin; that it’s personal culture, and personal journeys. These are all the someone’s that need you. These people, this community, your so called ‘neighbors’ who treat you like Frankenstein’s monster—are they worth more than all of us?”
Everett howled and beat his chest. He tore at his hair and wept onto the cold steel of the gun, running black grease onto his hands and over the thin golden band on his finger. When he could breathe, he pointed a black finger at his wife and said, “If they are not worth protecting, then no one is worth protecting. And If I am made of mortal stuff, then I will die. And when I die I will sink low in the ground with that poor girl’s life on my back—how much more can I bear before I sink through the earth when I die? and dissolve into full darkness? I already tried to run from the bad. I ran and ran. I ran like a hunted hog. I penned myself in this house. But the bad is in the people. Now the hungry dogs bark at my window again, but this time I’m not going to lie in bed with you and listen while they tear us apart. This time I’ll face the cowardly pack.” Everett checked the clip in the pistol, then smacked it home and yanked the slide. Elizabeth moaned like an ungreased wheel, Everett stole from the bedroom, and she was frantically searching for her cell phone.
Outside, the midnight air was clear and cool. Through the vapor-clouds, the stars and crescent moon spangled the night sky, who copied herself in the pool of rainwater cuddling in the dip of the driveway. Everett’s boot destroyed her visage as he stomped through the clouds and stars, into the street and towards the root of the commotion. The street lamps were lit for only the South half of the street, leaving the Northern section under only moonlight. Everett sweated as he made his way down the sidewalk, the heavy pistol in his overcoat pocket, having to grip it fiercely to keep his hand from shaking his whole body. The rose garden across from his house was cheerfully lit and a few residents were strolling the paths with their dogs.
“Help me!” the voice came. “Joshua, stop! Stop, help! Help!”
Everett picked his pace up to a jog. The people in the garden were unwilling to hear, but he knew that; he could not waste a precious second trying to convert them to his cause. He heard the argument grow louder as he drew nearer and nearer to the fray. When he was three streets North of his house, standing in the dark street with no more voices, struggling to hear anything over his panicked breathing and distant sirens, he heard the third gunshot go off so close; Crack! that he needn’t have heard it at all; it’s muzzle flare lit up a parked car at the end of the cul du sac, a block from where he stood. Everett focused in on the man; a lanky teen in a large grey sweater and wild red hair was stumbling around the middle of the street with a young girl gripped by the wrist, being hauled around like a sack of garbage at his heels while he twirled a small revolver round his head and slurred profanities in intervals. He was a boy. Just a boy. Sam’s whole arm convulsed as he pried at the gun in his pocket. When he held it loose, he had to grip it with both hands to steady it. He watched the gun in the boy’s hand, watched its muzzle trail from the girl’s head, to his own, to the sky, from window to window; and in each one he couldn’t help but see Maggie’s tiny body caked in blood. The sirens blared louder in his head, but Everett only heard the boy now, only heard his voice, his movements, his breathing. Everett blinked the stinging from his eyes and bared his teeth.
“Drop the fucking gun and move away now!” He demanded. He said it with such force that the tremors in his vocal folds were simply blown over.
The instant the boy heard Everett, another shot rang out in the air. The bullet ricocheted off a roof top and the revolver seemed to fly from the boy’s hand. Everett crouched and fought a million times to not pull the trigger. He saw the gun pointed to the sky when the shot went off, and now inert on the asphalt. The boy stared dumbly at Everett, mouth agape. He still held the girl in his grip and she struggled weakly against it. She was obviously exhausted, but when she saw Everett, she became revived and tore away from the boy’s grip. She raced, bloody-legged, into the residential shadows. Everett tried to call out to her, but she only glanced back at him with pale-faced terror as she disappeared into the dark. The sirens were becoming immutable and the adrenaline surging through his body made it hard to think. He put his bead on the boy and started walking towards him.
“Drop the gun!” But the boy had already dropped it… “Drop the gun! Now!” Everett crept closer to the boy. He saw his pale pimpled face contorted in terror and a dark patch of pee dribbling down the leg of his pants. Everett sniffed in the hot fear and it enraged him. For a second his finger tensed around the trigger.
“Yo, please,” said the boy, “I don’t want to die. Please. Just shoot him already! This dude’s fucking crazy; everyone knows he’s crazy; please! he’s gonna kill me!”
Then Everett looked at the boy’s eyes and he realized they were not looking at him. He realized it was not him ordering the boy to drop his gun. The red and blue flashes of light that filled the street flashed memories in his mind. The police lights that plagued his nightmares of the horrible days that followed that night two years ago at Dos Lagos when that poor girl was raped and murdered outside his door. He suddenly felt sick. Like a man with a hangover on the first beer of the night, ready to do it all again. He felt wrong, out of sorts, and misplaced. He suddenly felt the need to reach out and grab the boy, to wrap his arms around him, to talk to him. He wanted to hug his wife too, and Maggie—little Maggie—he wanted to hold her most of all. He wanted to communicate something to them then, something of such importance that he couldn’t find words to shape it, or emotion to hold it in. He needed to tell them. He needed them to know the truth. He did it. He brought it to Forking Trails. It was him all along. But how could he tell this boy? This community? He needed to explain.
Everett Ortega turned to face the officer and held up his left hand to explain. But, before he could say a word, the officer leaped back, shouting for him to drop the gun. Everett held up both hands in defense, the pistol still locked in his anxious grip. The officer didn’t think. He shot Everett three times, once through his upraised hands, leaving him to bleed out on the streets of Forking Trails. Even as Elizabeth came bellowing out of the back of the police cruiser, shouting for Robert McKinley’s to stop, the officer kept his gun trained on Everett’s hunched back, ordering her to stay back, that the man could still be dangerous. And as Everett’s dimming eye’s watched the wild-haired boy slipped into the darkness after the mysterious girl, he felt a strange buoyancy, as if his aching body were floating up, into the silverly night. Then, all was silence.