Yeah, I know what people say, what they need to believe. But get this straight. I didn’t get in the wrong line when God was bestowing souls on all the soon-to-be-borns. I wasn’t engineered in a mad scientist’s lab or promised to the Dark Lord Satan at conception. I came into the world just like every other glorified ape on this planet—shat out in blood and urine between my mother’s thighs.

Keep that in mind.

* * *

The clothes kept going around, ticking as they went. It was a zipper or button clanging against metal, but I didn’t believe it. I knew it was a clock, maybe God’s own wrist watch, counting down to a disaster. When it stopped, I’d turn to discover that the world had disappeared into blackness or that a mushroom cloud was blooming in the sky or worst of all that my mother had left me here to wander the Suds and Stuff Laundromat forever.

Deserting me was bad. Dying was worse. Once I had that thought, I latched onto it and couldn’t let go. The longer I stood there and stared at the tumbling clothes the more certain I became that when the ticking ended, my mother’s heart would stop.

The dryer’s buzzer sounded. The clothes slowly stopped their tumbling. I wouldn’t look away from them. As long as I didn’t, I wouldn’t have to see that my mother was dead.

“Ronny Wayne, get out of that woman’s way so she can get her clothes.”

My mother sat on one of the long tables, flanked by a pile of clothes, her legs hanging over the edge. Her yellow, V-neck t-shirt was soaked through, her hair frizzed, her eyes puffy, but I thought she glowed like an angel. I ran to her and hugged myself to her legs. Her thighs were sweat-slick and smelled of old perfume and grit, but I breathed her in as hard as I could, wanting to swallow her so that she’d always be with me, and we’d be safe together forever.

“Let go of me,” she hissed. “It’s too damn hot for this nonsense.”

She pushed me away. Everyone in the Laundromat was looking. I wiped my snotty nose on the back of my arm.

A yellow-haired little girl in a pink stared at me over the lip of an Orange Crush bottle. I took a few steps towards her, my heart stutter beating, my skin tingling. She looked up at her momma, a fat lady with dyed, red hair. Her momma told her to go ahead and say hello.

“Hi,” the girl said.

“Tell him your name, sweetie,” her momma said.

“Trisha,” she said. “Trisha Beth.”

I slapped her. My hand caught her flush on the cheek, snapped her neck around. She squealed in surprise, and I yanked the bottle from her hand. I was thirsty, but I didn’t want to drink it. I smashed it off the floor, sent glass shards flying and orange soda splashing. The fat woman scooped up her daughter, but I grabbed the girl’s ankle and bit the back of her calf.

Then my mother had me. She grabbed my arm, yanked me away from the girl, and I went down on my knees so that she had to drag me out of there. Some of those glass shards cut into my shins, but that was okay. Even then, I liked sharp.

“I’m so sorry,” my mother was saying.

“White trash little bastard,” the fat woman said.

A gray-haired woman with clicking dentures snorted. “What do you expect from the child of a whore?”

I kept my eyes on the girl. She was crying and rubbing her cheek, and there was blood on her leg.

“Please momma,” I chanted over and over.

“Please what?” she asked when we were outside.

I pointed back at the little girl. “Can we take her home?”

* * *

We rented an old Fleetwood trailer on a patch of weeds in Beech Creek, Kentucky.  A man named Jessup Browning owned the trailer and half dozen others littered along similar patches of ground at the edge of an abandoned strip mine. My mother liked to say the place wasn’t much to look at, but the rent wasn’t bad.  Fifty dollars a month and two bottles of Listerine, she’d say and laugh. I didn’t get it until I was nine, opened our front door and found Mr. Browning putting his thing in her mouth. It didn’t freak me out or anything. By then I’d pretty much figured out what the word whore meant and why everyone whispered it about my mother.

I sat on the porch until he came out, zipping his pants as headed across the yard. When I went inside, my mom was gargling at the kitchen sink.  I got the joke.

* * *

I loved to wash her.

I can close my eyes and be there: a hanging fog of steam in the bathroom, the steady splatter of the shower against the tile, coconut shampoo foaming in her hair, water beads on her back.

“Scrub hard,” she’d say. “I hate to get black heads on my shoulders.”

Early on those showers were reserved for special occasions, like when we were going to the movies or one of her boyfriends was taking us to dinner, times when she didn’t want to wait for our small, struggling water heater to warm another tank.  Later, when she started sipping what she called Hillbilly Tea, Ale 8 and bourbon, just after breakfast and kept on until she passed out it got to be more often.

“Get in here with me, Ronny,” she’d slur. “I’m powerfully lonesome.”

There wasn’t nothing wrong with it. Sure, I got an erection a few times, but she didn’t scream at me or slap me or make put on a dress or any of the things you sometimes see in movies. She didn’t do anything else either. She just ignored it or maybe said something like, “Goddamn men,” every once awhile. She wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with erections.

* * *

My mother had a lot of “boyfriends,” but only two of them tried to kill her.  The first was a long-haul trucker named Red Vick.  He liked me. I knew that because he always brought me a gift, nothing much just a pack of gum or a roll of Lifesavers or something like that.  I liked old Red, and my mother did, too—for a while. She was that way. Give her a man who treated the two of us like we were human beings, and she’d get bored. She never truly cared about anyone who didn’t hurt her.

Red loved her. After she ran him off the first time, he kept coming back. He’d sit in our driveway playing country songs on the radio until he worked up enough heartbreak and courage to bang on our door.  When she’d let him in, he’d bawl and tell her how much he needed her and how he couldn’t let her go.

A few nights before Christmas, I woke to the glare of headlights and heard a motor rumbling in our drive. I peeked out my window at a new Camaro, black and gleaming under the moonlight.  Then a car door opened, and I heard my mother’s laughter.

There were two of them with her, pretty young, grownups maybe but not that grownup. They clumped into our trailer, and there was a lot of laughing and the sound of bottles clanking and then a David Bowie album on the stereo. I  got restless when things went quiet and slipped out of bed to see what was happening. The two guys sat on the couch, their jeans kicked into a corner, and my mother was on her knees in front of them, moving her mouth from one to the other. I watched until I got tired of it.  Not long after I went back to bed, the Camaro’s engine roared and rear wheels peeled out when they caught gravel.

She was in the bathroom and had just flushed the toilet when there was thud at the door, followed by a roar like a seriously wounded animal rousing itself for a last stand.   My mother came running into the hall.

“You no good, lousy whore!” Red screamed at her.

When I opened my bedroom door, Red had her by the hair and was slamming her head against the wall. He hit her in the stomach. While she was gagging and gasping for breath, he got a fist full of hair and slung her into the living room.  He was kicking her in the ass, calling her a lousy bitch and a slut and a no count whore when I ran in between them. Then the side of my head exploded in pain. My knees buckled. I fell backwards into the Christmas tree and sent it sprawling, and everything went black and spotty.

Next thing I knew Red was saying, “Look what I did .Look what you made me do, you worthless bitch.”

He twisted her head around so he could look down at her, hawked and spit in her face. On his way out, he slammed the door so hard it bounced off the busted hinge. My mother crawled in the corner and sat there sniveling and spitting blood. His truck started, and I ran after him. Red was sitting behind the wheel with a gun pressed against his temple. He sat there a good while before he rolled down his window and pitched it into the yard and drove away. I ran out there and picked up the revolver. It was heavy and cool in my hand, and I liked the feel of it.  I hid it in the rusted out gap in the underpinning at the back of our trailer.

My mother had dragged herself against the wall and she was trying to grin.  I sat down beside her. She laid her head against my shoulder, and we stayed that way until morning.

We never saw Red again. But that doesn’t really matter.

* * *

I was eleven when I first saw someone die.  Reese Abel. He was ancient, seventy maybe, and he lived in a house about a quarter of a mile away from us. He was a nice old man, one who would give kids candy or even an ice cold Dr. Pepper when he was in the mood to share.

That day was in September, just after the hot weather broke. I took my bike by there because he was always fond of me. He told me I looked a lot like his own son who’d died in a car wreck twenty-nine years ago.             I went by that day and found him in his porch swing. He’d slumped down, his face twisted, his legs kicking at the wall, a chaw of tobacco sitting on his chin like a giant horsefly. I watched him for a long time and then his breath went out in a sour whoosh and his eyes rolled, and that was all of him.

That night I had my first wet dream.

* * *

Jeannie Edwards would show you her boobs for a dollar, let you play with them or kiss them whichever one you wanted, for three.  She wasn’t much to look at—dishwater- colored hair that fell limp against her shoulders, close-set green eyes that tended to cross when she tilted her head a certain way, lots of pimples. Still, I wanted a look at what she had to offer, so I stole seven dollars and a squashed-flat joint from one of my mother’s “boyfriends” and went looking for Jeannie the very next day.

She was a couple of years older than me, lived with her mom, little brother and stepdad in a small block house a few places up from our trailer. It was mid-October, truly cool for the first time, and I took long, deep breaths and tilted my head towards the powder blue sky. She was sitting on a crumbling front porch, a magazine open in her lap.

Finally, I stuffed my hands in my back pocket and headed her way. “Hey,” I said.

She squinted up at me. “Hey.”

“You reading?”

She pitched the magazine on the porch “I was.”

“I got some money.”

“Good for you.”

I wanted to run. Maybe those boys had been lying. Maybe this whole thing was a joke they were playing on me, and Monday they’d all be laughing and hooting on the school bus.  Then she smiled and showed a lot of too small, yellowing teeth.

I pulled a wad of dollars from my pocket. “Come on. My money’s as a good as anybody else’s.”

She shrugged her narrow shoulders, stood up and motioned for me to follow her.  Their house backed up to a scrub woods, and she started down a twisty path without bothering to see if I was behind her.

“You going to show me or are we going to hike all day?”
“Shut up!” she hissed over her shoulder. “My daddy hears you I’ll get blistered.”  She gave me her crinkly little smile. “You’ll get an eyeful soon enough.”

The old Sugar Creek mines began just on the other side of the thicket. Fifteen years ago, it had been a booming strip mine, one of the largest in the state, but the coal veins had played out and the company had moved on, leaving behind a couple hundred unemployed miners, a few rusting coal shovels that looked like metal dinosaurs standing watch, and thousands of acres of overgrown fields, sandstone cliffs, deep water pits and twisting haul roads.   Now Jeannie headed that way. As soon as she climbed over a sagging gate, she stopped, pulled a crumpled pack of Salem Lights from her pocket.

She headed for a little wood hut about a hundred yards away. It had been a guard shack back when there had been something out here worth stealing.

“I want to get out of the wind,” she said.

“It ain’t that bad.”

“Not if you get to keep your clothes on.”

Boards creaked and buckled under our feet, sending field mice scurrying to the shadows. I pulled out a dollar.

She took the money, stuffed it in her pocket and then pulled her sweatshirt up over her head. She wasn’t wearing a bra and her breasts were heavy and white, the only part of her that didn’t have pimples. She posed for second, hands on her hips.

“You want anything else?”

I took my wadded bills out. The joint fell to the shack’s floor, and her eyes sparkled.

“Oh wow, hey,” she said. “You smoke?”  She licked her lips. “I tell you what? Give me two more dollars and share your doobie and I’ll let you touch them and kiss them, too.”

“Sure,” I said.

Her skin tasted sour and slick, a little like milk that’s sat too long outside the refrigerator but hasn’t gone over yet.  Her breasts rose and fell as she took a deep hit from the joint, held it and then exhaled.

“This isn’t bad shit,” she said.

I bit her. I’m not sure why, other than I suddenly wanted to bite. I sunk my teeth into her skin, tasted blood squirt into my mouth. Her yelp made it better so I bit again, harder this time and tore and then she shoved me away.  She stood there for a second screaming at me with blood running down her chest, calling me crazy and a motherfucker and all kind of other nasty names. Then she picked up her sweatshirt and ran away.

I didn’t try to stop her or run after her to beg her not to tell. I didn’t think she would because then her daddy would know what she’d been doing. But it didn’t really matter, not at that moment. I was trembling and licking my lips and aching deep in the pit of my stomach. I’d tasted blood, and I wanted more.

* * *

I don’t like to talk about the dogs. Understand. I’m not apologizing for what I did.  They were necessary. They helped ease the hunger that gripped me after that day at the mines, and I used Red’s old twenty two on them so they didn’t feel a lot of pain. Back then I didn’t start cutting until after they were dead.  Still, I don’t like to talk about them. That’s all I’m saying.

* * *

Jimmy Lee Morris was the second boyfriend to try to kill my mother. He didn’t do it because he loved her too much or because she took up with another man or even because he got drunk and lost control.  He didn’t need a reason. Jimmy Lee Morris was just mean, and sometimes that meanness got out of hand.

“Fetch me a beer, Queer Boy,” he’d say.

If I didn’t jump up right then, he’d strike a match and pitch it at me. My mother winced every time he did it, but she didn’t say anything. Maybe it was because she was scared of him, or maybe she figured I was a teenager and should be standing up for myself.  But I don’t think either of those is true.  For the first time in her life, she had fallen in love.

He was a handsome man. That’s what everybody said about him.  He was tall, thin but with lots of ropy muscles, dark-haired and blue eyed. He combed his hair back like a young Elvis and wore four hundred dollar cowboy boots, indigo jeans, and sleeveless T-shirts that showed off the ink on his arms.  A few years younger than my mother, he’d grown up in Greenview, moved south to work an oil rig and then spent eight years in prison in Mississippi for manslaughter after a barroom fight turned bad.  He’d served max time and walked away a free man. “Parole is for pussies,” he’d say and laugh. He’d been back in Kentucky maybe a week when my momma found him at the Yellow Rose.

I was in my bed that night, not sleeping, just lying there and remembering the last dog I’d found out at Sugar Creek and getting worked up about it when I heard them come in.  At first it didn’t sound like anything different.  They were drunk and laughing and making those sounds I’d been hearing for as long as I could remember.

“Not out here,” my mother said at one point. “Ronny’s home, and I don’t want to wake him.”

“You telling me no?”

“Not exactly,” my mother said in her teasing voice.

I’m not sure I heard the slap, but I did hear her shout and then the sound of bottles tumbling in the kitchen. She said please a few times, and he growled that she should shut her fucking mouth. There were stumbling sounds and another thud and then the sound of my mother pleading again, but not the hurt and surprised pleas she’d made earlier. I went to see what was happening.

Her face was pressed to the kitchen counter, her skirt pushed up, her panties down.  Jimmy Lee was fucking her from behind. He had a fistful of hair in his hand, and every time he thrust into her he banged her head against the counter, and she was begging him not to stop, to give it to her harder.  Then he turned his head and saw me watching. He gave me a wink and thrust , and my mother shouted his name.

* * *

“Fetch me a beer, Queer Boy,” he’d say.

But sometimes there was a little less nasty in it. If he was in a particularly good mood, he’d tell me to help myself to one while I was at it.  Then we’d sit on the couch, watching a ball game, laughing. Those were pretty good times. I just want you to understand.  Despite the way things worked out, I didn’t hate him. Hell, it wasn’t really personal at all.

* * *

Nights when he was feeling playful, he’d start teasing my mother because her fried chicken was over cooked or she’d left one of his records out or she hadn’t kissed him like she meant it.  She’d stop whatever she was doing and peer into his face to determine his mood and when she saw he was teasing, she’d tell him if he didn’t like it he could kiss her ass.

“Smart mouthed aren’t you, girl?” he’d say. “Could be you need a spanking to put you on the right track.”

“Maybe I do.”

He’d undo his belt, and she’d take him by the hand and lead him down to her bedroom. The cracking sounds of leather on skin would begin soon after.  Sometimes, he’d get carried away, and her sobs would fill the trailer, but before it was over, she’d be calling his name again and again, begging him to never stop what he was doing.

* * *

He had a big, deer knife with a wooden handle with grips and an eight inch, serrated blade.  He carried it everywhere. Sometimes, he’d pull it out and hold it up and stare at me.

“You’re lucky I don’t gut you, boy,” he’d say. “You’re such a worthless piece of shit.”

I didn’t hate him but I didn’t care that much about him either.  But that knife?  Let me tell you. I dreamed about that son of a bitch.

* * *

My mother was drinking her Hillbilly Iced Teas all day long by then. She’d drink even heavier during those times when Jimmy Lee walked out the door in the morning and didn’t come back for two or three days.

“Get in here with me, Ronny,” she’d slur when she was in the shower. “I’m powerfully lonesome.”

That’s when I noticed the cigarette burns on her neck and breasts.  It didn’t take long to figure out how they got there or why nearly every night when he was around, she’d cry and whimper just before she started making those squealing, pleading sounds.

“I miss him,” she’d say. “Oh God, I miss him so bad.”

* * *

She’d passed out on the sofa.  Her worn out robe gaped open; her Hillbilly Iced Tea puddled on the floor. I meant to put her to bed, but instead, I stood over her, watching the rise and fall of her breathing. I put my hand on her chest and felt her heartbeat.  I closed my eyes and moved my hand down a little and squeezed. She moaned in her sleep.

I pulled the robe open on her thigh and left it that way. Then I lit one of her Virginia Slims, took a deep drag so the tip was glowing and sparking.  I pressed it to the inside of her thigh.  She bucked and moaned and mumbled the world please.  I ground it into her thigh, and smiled that I’d left my mark on unmarked skin.

“Oh please, yes, baby,” she mumbled.

But I felt shaky, so I snubbed the cigarette and went to bed. She didn’t say anything the next morning, but her eyes were glassy when she looked at me, and she hugged me so hard I thought she was trying to crawl into my skin.

* * *

I found his pills in the medicine cabinet—a rainbow of colors.  Through trial and error, I figured them out.  Yellow meant going up; red  would take you to the top of climb Mount Everest; blue brought you back safely to solid ground.

* * *

None of this was premeditated.

The last time he came back meaner than usual.  For two days, he’d stomped through our trailer, mocked everything I said, did horrible things to my mother while I watched and she held tight to a smile that seemed on the verge of melting. That’s why I slipped the blues into his whiskey, six of them– enough I figured to make him pass out no matter how many reds he’d been popping.

Trying to make him happy, my mother cooked a “special” dinner—porterhouses and baked potatoes and Caesar salad and shrimp cocktails for an appetizer.  He bit into his steak, chewed as if it had insulted him and then spat into his napkin.

“Like rubber,” he said. “How do you expect me to eat this shit?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Mine’s good. You want to trade?”

He glared at me. “How’s yours?”

“Not bad.”

He grabbed my plate, slammed it at the sink and then up-ended the table and stood with his fists balled, glaring at my mother. “You think I didn’t notice those burn marks on your thighs? You think I don’t know where they came from?”

“Jimmy…” she said.

He hit her before she could finish, not a slap, but a right cross that knocked her out of her chair. Then he fell on her, kicking her in the stomach and back. He lifted her by her hair and bounced her off the refrigerator a couple of times before punching her again and again. She tried to run, but he grabbed her. His hand closed around her throat, choked her until she was gasping and slobbering.  When he got tired of that, he slammed her against the floor while blood ran from her ears and burbled at her lips.  He held her there a moment and glanced back at me and then pitched her into the living room.

I leaned against the refrigerator and watched, feeling my heart hammering in my chest while he kicked her and punched her. At some point, he pulled the knife and cut off her denim shorts. He spread her thighs and looked back at me.

“Have at it, boy?” I shook my head and he said, “Suit yourself.”

It didn’t take him long to finish. When he did, he pulled himself to his feet and dropped the knife and roared like a wounded animal.

“I’m done,” he said. “I’m out of this madhouse.”

He didn’t get far.  His foot caught on the bottom step. He fell and lay still, passed out in the yard.

My mother wasn’t dead, not quite.  I could smell blood and semen and anger, and it had me all worked up and trembling deep inside. When I shut my eyes I heard a ticking, the sound of metal ticking against metal as clothes tumbled around.  I picked up his knife. I knew what to do with it.

“Oh please,” she said.

Or at least that’s what I heard.   Once I started cutting, I didn’t want to stop.

When I was done I took a dime-sized hunk from her thigh and put it in my mouth and swallowed it. I knew I’d have her with me no matter where I might go.

* * *

No one was surprised by what happened.  Scared and disgusted and interested, but not surprised.  The Sherriff accepted what he saw: an ex-con with a bullet in his head and a .22 pistol in his hand; the town whore with her face pulverized, her throat coat, hunks of missing skin. Murder Suicide Rocks the Area! It was the most exciting headline the Beech Creek Leader ever ran.

They sent me to foster care in Alabama, far enough away that my tragic past wouldn’t haunt me. I didn’t have many friends, but that was alright. I spent a lot of time in the library, read a lot about sharks and tigers and other predators.  When I turned eighteen I hit the road.  Now, I work construction when I can, steal when I get the chance, beg when I have to.  I’m not anyone you would notice.  Hell, you’ve probably passed me or sat next to me at bar if I was flush at the time.

But I sometimes hear you talking about me, hear the smooth-voiced bush league psychologists on the local news speculate about my motives. They’ll point out that my victims are prostitutes or drug addicts or teenagers engaged in some backseat groping and claim I’m a religious fanatic, a punisher, a delusional maniac who believes he’s acting on behalf of God.  To tell you the truth, I could give a fuck what anyone does in their spare time. This is America. Live and let live, right?

It’s so much simpler than that. When people are doing things they don’t want anyone to know about, they tend to go off alone.  They leave the herd. They’re a wounded seal thrashing. They’re a broken winged moth caught in the web. That’s just the way it works.  I keep my knife sharp and wait, and they always come to me in the end.

Tick tock. Around and around.  I close my eyes and I can still hear that ticking and know that clock I still counting down the moments. Sooner or later, I’ll open my eyes and see that the world has disappeared to black, see that I’ve been left in darkness just like I thought I would  be back in that Laundromat all those years ago.  But it doesn’t scare me now.

I’ve got so many of you inside me. I’ll never really be alone.

Contrary by nature, I'm the only male in my family to not be born on Halloween in the last four generations. I'm not sure I was ever truly forgiven for this open defiance of family traditon. These days when I'm not writing stories, I haunt the class rooms, bars, bookstores and fishing holes in the forgotten strip mines of west Kentucky.

"Tick" © Tim Williams • Photo features HE by Creep Creepersin • PLOTS with GUNS © Anthony Neil Smith