“The World Out There: from the Book Purgatory” by John Talbird

It has been a week since the first murders…. he looks slowly around the store, dark, still, and empty.

Usually, William parks near the back of the lot in the Westabout strip mall so customers can have spaces closer to the door. In his four years of managing Book Purgatory, he has waged a never-ending battle with employees about parking further away so little old ladies can have the closer spots. The employees—who are, for the most part, able-bodied college students—act as if it is an affront to have to walk the extra yards. But no one is here and no one is likely to be here, so he parks right in front of the door.

His tires bump against the curb and he cuts the engine. The truck shudders and then is still, engine ticking as William stares at the darkened windows of the store, the shadows of bookshelves, the comic book bins, the stationary overhead fan. He flicks his keys and lets the metal beaded chain quit swinging before he gets out. It is eleven o’clock and not only is Book Purgatory closed and empty an hour later than usual, but so are all of the other businesses—the lunch diner, Laundromat, the drug store, the grocery store. There is one lone car on the other side of the parking lot and even though the street that runs past the strip mall, University Avenue, is one of the city’s thoroughfares, no one drives past. He puts his key in the lock, hears the bolt click back ominously in the silence and, as if to maximize his last-man-on-earth anxiety, a wadded sheet of newspaper rolls past in the dirty breeze.

Inside, he goes behind the counter and presses “PLAY” on the answering machine.

The opening book buyer’s shaky voice comes from the speaker: “William? It’s me, Christy. William, I’m scared. I don’t think I’m coming in today. I mean, I’m not coming in. I’ve packed a bag and I’m going to Ocala to stay with my parents for a while.” William waits, listening to the tape hum. He reaches for the STOP button and then she says, “I might not be back. I’m sorry.” And then there is the click of phone and the machine shuts off.

It has been a week since the first murders. The first day of fall classes was much like the previous ones William could remember in his decades of living in Gainesville: thousands of people appearing as if from out of the ground, University and all the other main streets packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic and the air smelling of exhaust, grocery stores full of kids stocking up on mac-and-cheese, canned soup, and beer. The bookstore was busier than it had been all summer, crowded with students searching for cheap, used copies of their required reading and wanting to sell their old textbooks of McInformation. There was an intensity to this first day of classes though which William had never seen before. People looked like their backs were tensed, as if a bouffant-headed woman standing in line at the coffee shop might pull a gun from her purse, or maybe the man with the salt-and-pepper beard and wire-framed glasses might suddenly bite the nose off his waiter’s face.

That morning, two college girls had been discovered butchered. That is not what the papers said. The papers said that two coeds were found dead in their apartment. That “foul play” was suspected. That their names were being withheld until next-of-kin were notified. But information like this gets around in a town of 80,000, especially when over 30,000 of that population are college students. The girls had been bound and gagged with duct tape which had been removed, suggesting the killer was familiar with police procedures and knew tape would have been a source for fingerprints. They were raped and mutilated. The killer had carved intricate designs into their flesh. Their bodies were positioned intertwined on a bed as if they were lovers. Two days later, another girl was discovered in her apartment. Her head was left on a bookshelf. By the weekend, the fourth and fifth bodies were found, a young man and woman who lived together. The man was stabbed to death in bed, arms sliced to ribbons, probably in the act of defending himself; the woman’s body was left in the hallway. These two had not been mutilated and it was suspected that the killer had been interrupted. The young woman’s parents were trying to get in touch with her because of the reported murders and there had been no answer. They were not worried—her roommate, a childhood friend, was a big guy, over six feet tall, had played football in high school. They just wanted to be sure, so they called the apartment manager, asked him to check. When he opened the girl’s door, he saw her lying in the hall, blood ballooning from her midsection, pooling on the carpet. There was a black bag on the floor next to her head. When the police arrived five minutes later, the bag was gone.

William feels a chill run across his chest, goosebumps rising, and he looks slowly around the store, dark, still, and empty. He expects something to come charging at him from down an aisle, something waiting for him to lower his guard.

The rest of the scheduled employees call to say they are not coming in either. None bother to offer excuses; all of them, men and women, admit that they are afraid. Over the course of the day, the store has only about twenty customers anyway, all of whom make some comment, usually oblique, about the murders: “Scary times,” “I remember when you could leave your house unlocked,” “I’m getting me a gun.” Mid-afternoon, Andrea calls to tell William to close at five, that the store will operate on abbreviated hours until the town gets back to normal.

Late in the day, store empty, William props his feet on the counter to listen to NPR. A report about the Gainesville murders is on, but the announcer has nothing to say that William does not already know. He is appalled by how brief the piece is, followed by reports on tax increases, rebels fighting in a North African country, and a sentimental essay about childhood.

Jan pulls up on her bike and parks in the rack in front of the store. She is wearing a man’s white T-shirt, ratty blue jeans rolled above her ankles, and white flip-flops. She takes off her helmet and her dark brown hair falls past her shoulder in a frizzy mess. Instead of locking up, she carries the heavy Kryptonite lock into the store with her. Her smile is large, kind of friendly, but there is an intensity behind it as if she has just drunk a pot of coffee after staying up all night. Her eyes are wider than usual and there are dark pouches beneath them. She chews her bottom lip and wrinkles her nose as if it itches, but she cannot be bothered to scratch. Gripping the lock so tightly her knuckles are white, she says, “Hi!” nearly a shout full of false cheeriness. “Wow, it’s slow, huh? The murders?”

Wary, William just stares; they have not spoken much in the past month.

She does not seem to notice. Speaking quickly, she says, “I went to my afternoon class and there was no one there, not even the professor. No note saying class was canceled, nothing. It was creepy, like everyone had left town because of some natural disaster which I hadn’t heard about.” She leans on the counter, traces random patterns on the scarred Plexiglas sheet covering it. A stale scent comes off her.

“There is a disaster. What would you call this? You’re not even supposed to work today. Why are you here?”

She shrugs and squints out the large windows at the sun streaming in, filling the air with rays of light and stretching shadows. At this time of day, William usually lowers the blinds, but since there are no customers, he has not bothered. “People are stupid to let one guy terrorize them,” she says.

“They’re not stupid, they’re scared. Aren’t you scared?”

She shrugs again, looks around the store as if it is new to her, and when she looks at William again her eyes water as if she might bawl. “I’m so fucking terrified, William,” she says in a hoarse voice, looking as if she is trying to smile. “I haven’t slept in two days.” She pulls back a sob, says, “Ray took Hank.”

“Where?”

“Crescent Beach. Rain’s husband, Art, is a lawyer, and one of his clients said he could use his beach house until this,” she smiles and arches an eyebrow, “disaster is over. The original plan was that Hank and I would stay there with everyone else.”

“Cozy.”

She taps her knuckles against the counter and shakes her head. “Art’s like a child. He doesn’t seem to buy that Ray and I aren’t getting back together.”

“Why didn’t you go?”

She looks at the carpet, then up at the clock. “Clock’s fast.” Shaking her head as if to clear it, she says, “Ray and I fought. He called this morning to say he had rented a room at a hotel down the beach from the house for Hank and me. I asked why. He said because he thought we’d be more comfortable.” She pauses, tilts her head at William. “Ray has no money. I knew what was going on. His girlfriend was going and didn’t want us there. ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I’m not going.’ He said, ‘Do what you want, but I’m getting my son.’” She spreads her hands, then brings them together in a loud clap that makes William flinch. “That’s how he gets: My son!’ ‘My son!’ Fucking idiot.” She wipes her face roughly with both hands and when she removes them all trace of tears are gone, cheeks and eyes puffy with fatigue. “Like I’d let Hank stay here with this shit going on.”

“You should have gone with them.”

“You’re probably right, I should have. But I didn’t, so it’s too late to cry about that.” There is silence for a moment. One car, a Trans Am, speeds by on University, motor revving. William and Jan watch it out of sight; she even takes a step toward the doors to chart its progress. With her fingers just barely touching the window, she says quietly, “I’m afraid I’m never going to see my son again.”

“You’re afraid Ray won’t bring him back?”

She looks at the ceiling and shrugs. “Dunno. I don’t know what I’m afraid of.” That weird, false smile reappears suddenly. “Anyway, the real reason I rode over here through these dangerous streets is to ask you for a favor. Now,” she says, raising a palm, traffic-cop style, “don’t hesitate to say no. Please. Please, please, please. Nosiree, my feelings won’t be hurt.” She looks at the counter, at the clock, letting her gaze roam freely. “I’ve called a few friends, you know, couldn’t get anyone. And, well, I’d ride my bike, but it’s starting to get dark and … You know.” She makes a razor-across-the-throat gesture and nods toward the windows where, true enough, the sun is shining at the horizon and turning the buildings and oaks in the shopping center golden orange.

William says, “Jan, just ask your favor.”

“Right. Right, my favor.” She takes a deep breath as if it were a particularly big favor. “Would you be willing to take me to Target so I can buy clippers?”

“Clippers?”

“You know, for hair?” She gestures at her hair as if to demonstrate what that is, but he just stares blankly. “Haven’t you been watching the news? The guy’s victims are all petite brunettes with shoulder-length hair.” She gestures at her hair again. “Long, brown hair. I’m little. I don’t want to be this sicko’s next victim.”

“You’re going to cut your hair.”

It seems horrible to him. Her best feature is her hair, curly and out of control. Even in a ponytail, strands escape. She is always brushing it away from her eyes and it is a constant impulse for William: just reach out and touch it, take the loose strands and tuck them behind an ear.

“Yes,” he says, finally. “I’d be happy to take you.”

There are people at Target, but not a lot. The shelves in the food section are strangely bare, as if the heat wave has become snowstorm and people are stocking up. After wandering the aisles for a while, they discover the clippers. Jan examines them all carefully, taking a few off their wire hooks to read the print on the back, then chooses a medium-priced one. As William turns toward the registers, she puts a hand on his bicep. It is on that same tattoo she touched over a month ago, but it has healed since then. He notices her nails are raw and bitten, even the fingertips look chewed-on. She sees him noticing this and pulls away, rubbing her hands together nervously, then jamming them into her armpits, tapping her toe as if to music.

“Just a sec.” She smiles, a quick bark of nervous laugh. “I want to get something else. Come with.” She pulls his arm, leads him to the next aisle where, after a few seconds, she finds the color she wants, platinum blond. “Better be safe.” She winks.

The guy in front of them in the checkout line grips an old crowbar. On the conveyor belt he has a gallon of water and two six-volt batteries. The cashier, a skinny blonde with bad teeth, gestures at the crowbar, paint peeling off it. “I need to get me one of them,” she says.

“Whew, don’t I know it,” he answers, shaking his head. They both stare out the front windows at the strip of horizon glowing a dull red.

William parks at the curb at Jan’s house and pulls her bike from the bed. “I’ve got it,” she says, grinning, taking the handlebars and wrinkling her nose at him. All the blinds are raised and her house seems to glisten with white as if every light were on. The sun is so low in the sky that their shadows stretch toward the end of the street like spindly cartoon characters. The crickets are chirping and Jan slaps at a mosquito on her neck. Then, she says, “Do you want to come in for a glass of wine?” She speaks too quickly, glance grazing William’s and skittering away. “I could make us dinner and we could cut my hair off.” She looks down at the bag in her hands and the smile slips, disappears. “You’ve probably got plans.” She nods. “Some other time, ‘kay?”

He laughs softly. “No, I don’t have plans. I think everyone I know has left town.”

“Me too.” She chuckles, eyes widening. The crickets scream like faulty brakes on a car. “Let’s go inside. It’s creepy out here.”

She boils pasta, defrosts leftover sauce she finds in the freezer, also makes garlic bread and a green salad, opens a bottle of merlot. The sauce has jalapenos in it and when William touches his scalp, his hand comes away damp. He drinks too quickly and by the end of dinner his head spins. She piles the dishes in the sink and shakes her head and guides him away when he makes a move to wash up. Hurrying quietly around the house, she checks windows and doors which are already locked and then comes back with a wooden child’s baseball bat in her hand. Winking, she says, “Just in case.” Pouring more wine into both glasses, she opens the razor, scans the directions. William waits in the silence except for the humming of the kitchen clock, its white face unmarred by numbers, just twelve shiny slices of metal. He lifts the glass to his lips and the rim clicks against his teeth.

Jan says, “I guess a half inch should do.”

“A half inch,” he says, glass still at his lips.

She slides a black, plastic guard on the end of the razor and puts a chair in the middle of the kitchen floor like a stage prop. She sits, lets the hair fall across her face. “You do it.”

“Me?”

“You do it,” she says again, then drums her bare feet against the linoleum, giggling, eyes sparkling under the fluorescent lights running along the ceiling. “You do it, you do it.” And then she is quiet, a mock serious expression. “Please. Really, please, William.”

The quiet look, her sudden stillness takes his words away and he licks his lips, unable to generate saliva. He says, “I’ve never cut hair before.”

“You just run the razor along my head until the hair is the same length. I’ll be very still. You can plug in over there.” She points to a wall socket next to the stove range.

When William switches on the razor, there is a violent metal pop and then a quiet hum. “Ready?”

She grins and takes a deep breath, closes her eyes. “Ready.”

William places a hand against her head to hold it still and she puts a hand over his, the silver ring on her finger rubbing against the back of his hand. Her hair curls around his fingers, cool against the skin, stray thought of faucet water running on yard work hands. The hair falls to the floor. William watches it fall with a feeling just short of pain, hair clumping like clods of earth on the linoleum with the lightness of city haze. Running the razor across her scalp, he discovers her head isn’t round, but slightly oblong, thrusting up at the back of the crown, ears sticking out too much without hair. A mixture of horror and wonder ripples through him: She’s not perfect. She’s odd.

When he is done, he runs his fingers lightly over her scalp to make sure the hair is even. He can feel the contours of her skull on his fingertips, the slight pulse at her temple. Her hair is like cool carpet against his fingers and, for some reason, its touch brings back lazy Saturdays watching cowboy movies with his father on the living room floor. He breathes in, air like a shiver down his spine, and wishes his father, now dead, could meet Jan, though he is not sure what they would think of each other.

She puts her hand over his to still it and looks up at him, whispers, “I’m afraid to look.”

“You should,” William answers, whispering too. “You look great.”

She skips, literally skips, into the nearby bathroom and the light clicks on, throws a dull glow over the threshold. He sweeps clumps of hair into a pile with a broom he discovers in a corner. There is a sudden squeal and he drops the broom and takes several steps toward the doorway. Jan meets him, hands covering her mouth, eyes wide.

“I look like a freak,” she says.

“No, you don’t.” He puts his hands on her shoulders. “It’s a good look. It’s cute.”

She looks at him sideways.

“In fact, I was thinking about shaving my own head.”

“That’s a great idea!” she says.

As soon as she smiles, he knows it is decided. Sitting in the chair, he says, “Use the quarter-inch on me.”

William’s hair, bristly as a brush, makes the razor whine and Jan grunts as she forces it over his scalp. After a few seconds, she gives up, leaves the room, and then returns with a large pair of scissors. “Ah-ha,” she says, snipping them in front of his face.

“Be careful with those.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve got castration anxiety.” She steps behind him. “Hold still, smart boy.” She grips his neck firmly, and snips off some of the length. Forcing her fingers through the curls, she steps on a footstool occasionally to reach the top, switches from the scissors to razor and back again. William feels the warmth coming from her as she circles, arms, elbows, breasts casually pushing against his body. When it is over, she blows against the back of his neck to remove the stray hairs and he closes his eyes, wants to reach back and take her hands in his. She steps in front of him, and her eyes widen. “You look pretty good with short hair, champ.”

“Champ?”

She gestures toward the bathroom. “Go look.” When he makes no move, she nods again, with more emphasis, until he goes. “There’s a mirror on the back of the toilet,” she calls. “Make sure I got the back even.” He raises the mirror and turns his back on the one over the sink, can hear the light shhhh of the broom against linoleum. He touches his hair lightly, as if it were not his, as if he was afraid of startling whoever it belongs to.

In the doorway with the box of dye, she says, “Step two.”

There is a tiny piece of paper inside which folds out into a gigantic sheet with diagrams and instructions so detailed they are more confusing than helpful. There is a plastic, cylindrical bottle full of white, creamy liquid which Jan mixes with the dye which is bright yellow and in a smaller tube. The bathroom is suffused with a pungent smell like paint stripper. Dizzy, William leans against the hallway wall to watch. Chewing on her lip and seemingly unfazed by the scent, Jan screws the spout on the large bottle and shakes it, grinning at William. “Industrial chemicals in my hair? Why not?” She puts on the pair of clear, plastic gloves—more like Saran Wrap in the shape of hands than gloves—and applies the dye, squirting the liquid into her hair with one hand, massaging her scalp with the other. Clenching her eyes, she leans against the sink which is quickly splashed with dots of yellow, the tiled floor also speckled. Even when her head is soaked, she keeps squirting until all the dye is gone, buzzed hair plastered to her scalp, skull like a bright, yellow dot. “Oh—my—god,” she says when she opens her eyes again. “Oh well.” She shrugs and wraps a fuzzy white towel around her head like a turban and says, “Let’s finish that wine.”

They sit on the couch in the living room, listening to a Van Morrison CD. The song playing has a steadily opening and closing high hat throughout; it hypnotizes William so that his eyes droop. They don’t speak and the cat slinks into the room and rubs against William’s leg. He reaches slowly for it, but then it is gone. The song ends and, before the next one can come on, Jan disappears down the hall and, a few seconds later, the shower cuts on. William puts his glass on the coffee table, lies on the floor, propping his head on a pillow. He runs his fingers over his short hair.

Sometime after, he feels a gentle push against his shoulder. The pressure is tentative and, although he is aware of it, it is not enough to pull him from sleep. There is another, just a little firmer, and he opens his eyes. Jan is sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a bathrobe and gray, baggy pajama bottoms. Her hair is sticking up in tiny spikes, a startling blond.

“My god,” he says, voice slow with sleep. “You look great.”

“It does look good, doesn’t it?” She smiles, blushing slightly. “You can touch it if you want. It feels great.” William runs his fingers through her hair and she closes her eyes, rocking gently, and he closes his too. After a few seconds, she gets up and drapes a blanket over him. His eyes flicker open just as a big pillow lands on the floor next to his face. She lies facing him and his eyes close and he feels himself smile and her hand against his hair. He touches hers too.

The next morning, he takes a shower and washes the itchy remnants of his long, kinky hair down the drain. Jan makes egg sandwiches on bagels and strong black coffee. When he comes into the kitchen with a copy of the latest issue of US Weekly from the basket next to the toilet, she says, “You’re not supposed to know I read crap like that.” They sit at her 1950s-era kitchen table in plastic-padded, floral chairs, and he flips through the magazine and she stares out the window at nothing, one foot on the chair with her toes curled over the edge. Sipping coffee, a vague smile on her lips, he wants to touch her new, spiky hair again, but in the light of day he is afraid.

The guy, Eddie Skein, looks like a serial killer…. “That’s him,” Jan says.

When he gets to the store and sees that it is still closed, he will remember that Gainesville is being terrorized. He had felt so safe and happy.

Business is even slower. After an hour, William pulls the TV from the break room and plugs it in at the front desk. He does not have to watch long before he sees coverage of the murders, but not much new. The same still photos of victims, same images of crime scenes with police keeping crowds back, same students wailing for the camera as they realize that their friends have been killed. This time, though, he is offered more background about the victims. His eyes sting as it is driven home how young these kids are, none of them even drinking age. The shot moves in on a photo of the one male victim, Anthony Gonzalez, wearing football pads and jersey, smiling at the camera. He is a swarthy kid with longish black hair, one off-white tooth in the front of his mouth. He stands 6’2” the announcer informs William with her hyper-serious voice, exactly William’s height. He is stockier though, pumped from playing football, probably a tough guy. He had been home, inside a locked apartment. And now, all that is left is a photo on the afternoon news. Just a smile, the barest fuzz of moustache which will never grow. William feels a chill on the back of his neck as if something metallic were slowly being pressed, almost tenderly, against it.

Jan calls at the end of that uneventful desk shift and asks him to sleep at her house. “You know? So we don’t have to be alone? I’ll take Hank’s bed and you can have mine.” She speaks too quickly, tripping over nervous words, but sounding too, somehow nonchalant as if she wants to feign indifference. William says yes, wanting also to feign nonchalance although his heart beats so loudly he can hear it coming from his throat.

They drink lemonade and eat stir fry as the sun goes down, filling her living room with yellow light. They watch sitcoms and laugh harder than the idiotic, formulaic half-hours deserve. They sleep in the same bed though they do not have sex. Jan puts her fingers through William’s hair and says, “I like your new haircut,” words warm and damp against his lips.

“Me too,” he says, meaning both of theirs.

She kisses him slowly then, the ginger taste from her tongue on his teeth. He does not want it to end, feels that the simplicity of the world can be discovered in that kiss, nothing matters but that moment and he is greedy for it to continue. It breaks his heart a little when she pulls away and says, “We need to go slow.”

“Yes, of course,” he says, whatever that means. Anything she wants.

“I like you, William, but things are complicated with me now, and I’m not ready to have sex.” She kisses his neck and he puts his fingers in her short hair and runs them against her ears, tracing the lobe, kisses her eyes closed while her arms slide around his waist and he is hit with the sudden knowledge of how wrong it will be if they are not together for the rest of their lives.

A few years later William, idly flipping through a book of poems, will read the line, “The truest aphrodisiac is our certain knowledge that we will die” and he will remember this week. They do not “go slow.”

They work together the next day at the bookstore. And, during one of those moments when it is empty of customers, she comes behind the chair where he is sitting, pricing a stack of True Crime paperbacks, and kisses the back of his neck. After a lunch of hamburgers and fries, he kisses her greasy lips and his fingers graze her ass. At one point, the day’s last customer, a rotund regular with coke-bottle glasses, heads out the front door with a grocery bag of sci-fi paperbacks and comics, calling “Y’all be careful,” over his shoulder, and Jan stretches up on her tiptoes to bite William’s earlobe.

At five, they are in William’s truck, tires squealing as they race to Jan’s house, and she is leaning against him, tongue in his ear, hand on his crotch. They press against each other in the kitchen and he touches her nipples and then her hand is inside his jeans. They drop their pants and he perches on that same chair he sat in to have his hair cut two nights earlier while she fucks him, panting into his mouth, fingers pressing down his tongue, his fingers in her short hair already slick with sweat, she saying “God, god, god,” he squeezing her ass so hard he is afraid he will hurt her, but unable to stop, shirts drenched with late summer sweat as an oscillating fan blows humid air against them, and William thinks that, yes, they both might be coming, but yes, he is definitely coming and then she is sobbing or laughing into his shirt collar. “Yes,” he whispers against her neck, kissing her ear, feeling her suddenly small and without energy, like a fading dream.

Each morning, they awake, not into the tail end of a heat wave, but a spring day. Blazingly yellow daffodils bloom out of season in the rich brown earth outside the bedroom window, bulbs like both sexes, sunlight flickering rainbow light across Jan and William’s faces. Bees carry pollen from anther to stigma, and birds chatter at each other, occasionally skidding their swift shadows across the ground. Jan and William run through a box of condoms in days, have sex often and everywhere: In the kitchen. On the couch. On the living room carpet. In the bathtub. On her bed. One evening, after dinner, the sun not all the way down, sky streaked with swaths of red cirrus, they finish a bottle of merlot on the grass in her back yard and fuck there. The box elder and birch above filter dappled light onto their faces and limbs as he comes, she beneath and biting his neck, her slick thighs pressed to his sides. They breathe slowly, then sigh, scent of earth sweet like decay, a decomposing clump of Spanish moss near their shiny faces. Tired with fucking, William runs fingers across her face, feels the sweat on her scalp, wants to touch that moss which shifts like hair in the cool breeze. He doesn’t because he knows it will be full of red bugs. And, after a while, they slip into their shorts, gather their glasses and the empty bottle and drift in to stare at the TV in the dark, to lose themselves in the stagnant stages of sitcoms, live studio audiences offering easy laughter and comfort.

The police pounce on several suspects during this week of sex and waiting….

Without speaking, without even consciously deciding to, William and Jan have stopped watching the news. Those faces seem frozen with discontent, the expectations of youth in their expressions morphing into a constant state of want. Jan and William sense they are fucking on those kids’ dead bodies, rolling in sheets of their photos, and only the bare essentials of life—eating and drinking, sleeping, laughing, breathing, shitting and pissing, and more fucking—can make them not think of it.

The police pounce on several suspects during this week of sex and waiting, but there is one name uttered with growing frequency on the evening news. Although Jan and William are avoiding news in favor of sitcoms and sex, it is impossible to avoid it all, those “late-breaking” stories interrupting shows on every channel. Near the end of the week, that blond, now-familiar talking head appears and says in her somber voice, “This just in: The Gainesville police chief says he believes they have their primary suspect…”

 The guy, Eddie Skein, looks like a serial killer. The footage, handcuffed and led by gruff cops through a crowd of shouting reporters and cameramen with high-powered lights, reveals a huge and stocky man wearing glasses which don’t rest right on his bulbous nose. His cheeks are chubby, giving his eyes a pig-like squint, and his frizzy red hair is a mess, one tail of his flannel shirt untucked, pale glimpse of belly. The bewildered expression on his face is chilling.

“That’s him,” Jan says the first time they see him on the news.

William stares at her, room dark except for electric guttering TV light, and she turns her gaze to him and smiles hopefully, reaching for his hand. Glancing at the floor, William watches his pale bare toe, digging at the shallow carpet and feels Jan lean into him.

He is uneasy. Skein seems to fit the stereotype of someone sick enough to commit these crimes: abused by a father, suffering with mental problems, probably schizophrenia. Who knows? He is poor, has never had a proper diagnosis. He has a history: arrested for causing public scenes, threatening strangers, swinging into sudden, inexplicable rages. All week people have been calling the police with tips on people who “aren’t quite right.” One of these, Skein was arrested, but not for murder. While under surveillance, he went into one of his rages and hit his grandmother who he shared a trailer with off Millhopper Road. The cops took this attack as an opportunity to arrest him, and they convinced Skein’s grandmother to press charges. Skein had slapped his grandmother before, but when cops tell us to do something, many of us do.

Granted, people shouldn’t slap their grandmothers. But an angry slap to a coldly calculated series of murders and rapes, executed with a precision that had left no clues, seems like a big jump to William. And when the police get a search warrant and rip apart Skein’s trailer and find no evidence, William doubts his guilt even more.

Apparently, his views aren’t shared by many. It is as if Gainesville has taken a collective sigh of relief. Monday, only three weeks after the first murders, the people who have left town return. And like a replay of the first day of classes, there is more traffic, girls in shorts and tank tops, hippies on bikes and punks on skateboards, people loaded with uncracked texts. William can almost hear a shaky laugh passing from mouth to mouth, as if everyone in town has just missed stepping off a curb into the path of a bus. Wow, that was a close one.

Jan and William sit at her kitchen table over bowls of cold cereal turning soggy. The fan near the window oscillates and Jan closes her eyes as the breeze hits her lids, opens them and stares at the window hazy with morning glare. “I don’t understand,” she says, tapping the bell of her spoon against the table, eyebrows rising and dropping quickly. “The murders have stopped. Not a death in two weeks.” She spreads her hands as if offering him something.

“Think about it,” William says, voice quiet in all that stillness except the whir of fan, plastic click as it reaches the end of its rotation. “If you were a serial killer, wouldn’t you be relieved if the cops were saying ‘We’ve got our man,’ and it wasn’t you? Wouldn’t you think it’s time to head to another town? Or at least stop killing for a while?”

“Well, gee, I’m not a serial killer. I have a little trouble knowing what I’d do.”

William tugs on his bottom lip. He knows that at any moment he will hear the sound of Ray’s jeep as he brings Hank home.

Jan nods at William’s granola. “If you’re finished, do you mind clearing out? I haven’t seen my son in two weeks and I’d like some time with him.”

William sighs, slowly, like maybe he is deflating. He wants to get up and walk out without a change of expression, rev his engine in the driveway and squeal his tires as he drives away, no glance in the rearview mirror. The morning is hot, and he can feel the plastic padding of the chair sticking to his legs, sucking through his shirt and holding fast his back. Jan widens her eyes as if to say Well? but he makes no move.

The above is an excerpt from The World Out There by John Talbird (Madville Publishing, 2020).

John Talbird is Associate Editor, Fiction, for Retreats from Oblivion. He is the author of a chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind, and his fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Potomac Review, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence among many others. He is a frequent contributor to Film International and on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and son in New York City.

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