FICTION – Postwar Heartland by Michael Credico

1.

A man leaves his wife to save the whales. The man’s called Sniper. The whales are a cover thought up by Sister. Sister was Sniper’s wife until Sniper suffocated himself with a plastic grocery bag. Mother’s expected any minute. Suicide’s a no go.

“Are whales big enough?” Sister says to Brother. “Do you believe me?”

Sister and Brother are in the bedroom. Sniper’s body’s on the bed.

Brother goes to the gun safe. “Where do you keep the bullets?”

“Not you too.”

Brother flip-cocks an empty rifle. “I mean—it’s so much easier.”

“He was a professional. This wasn’t about business.”

“Was it about you?”

Mother’s downstairs praying on the stoop. Brother helps her up from her knees.

“Where’s Sniper?” Mother says.

Brother nods at Sister like go ahead. Sister nods back like I can’t.

“After God’s own heart,” Brother finally says.

“Amen,” Mother says.

“My husband,” Sister says.

“Whales.”

“Jonah?”

“He left me.”

“To save them.”

“Whales?”

“Endangered.”

“Pollution.”

“How long?”

“Long term.”

“Oceans apart.”

“Divorce?”

“You’d never allow it—God wouldn’t—”

“The great divorce,” Brother says. “An entire species.”

Sister falls into Mother’s arms. Mother lifts a rosary out of her bosom. The crucifix hangs from her fingers over Sister’s mouth. “I will pray for sharks,” Mother says.

 

2.

Slugger’s late for the ballgame.

Old Ball Coach’s waiting for him in the dugout. “Fifth inning.”

“My father’s gone.”

“So’s our lead.” Old Ball Coach gives Slugger an aluminum bat. There’s a runner on first.  No men down. Old Ball Coach drags his index finger across his neck. Slugger misses on two attempts to sacrifice himself.

Old Ball Coach walks up to Slugger. Old Ball Coach spits on Slugger’s spikes. “You’re as good as buried now.”

Slugger digs in at the plate. He says to himself a short prayer: go far. He swings at the next pitch. Contact. A rope up the middle. The ball strikes the pitcher in the head. Slugger rounds first. Slugger rounds second, third. The game’s called before Slugger’s safe at home. There’s a man down.    

“If you knew the fundamentals,” Old Ball Coach says. 

“I was playing hurt,” Slugger says.

“Heartache?”

“I miss him.”

Old Ball Coach pulls the wad of dip from his lips. He rubs the wad of dip over Slugger’s heart. “Better?”

“It burns.”

Old Ball Coach removes his cap. “Might seem like the wrong time,” he says. “But what’s right is right.

“Coach?”

“We’re making a change.”

“I can be better.”

“Isn’t about doing better. It’s about doing right by the game.”

“I’ve been practicing.”

“With who?”

“My father—”

Old Ball Coach puts his arm around Slugger. “I was your age once.”

Slugger pushes Old Ball Coach away. “What do you know?”

“I don’t know anything. I just make decisions.” Old Ball Coach gives Slugger an envelope. “You’d do the same in my position.”

“Japan?”

“Different game over there. You might stand a fighting chance.”

“What about my family? My mother?”

Old Ball Coach’s eyes well up with tears. The tears make trails through the dirt on his old face. He caresses the seam of a ball, the hide. “Beautiful,” he says. “Isn’t it?”      

 

3.

The plot’s fucked. Flames shoot from the hole in the dirt. Brother covers his eyes.

A sharp-dressed man walks up behind him. The sharp-dressed man’s called Sharp Tooth. “You smell that?” he says.

“No,” Brother says.

“That’s because you can’t.”

Sharp Tooth takes the shovel from Brother, checks the coif of his hair in the blade. “You’re sitting on millions,” he says. “I’ll give you a thousand.”

“I can’t.”

“That your body?”

“My brother-in-law.”

“Dead.”

“That’s the plot.”

“He somebody someone might come looking for?”

“He’s a veteran.”

“Good. Good.” Sharp Tooth drags Sniper’s body to the flames. The body bursts, phoenixes. Sharp Tooth and Brother watch like two men being lifted themselves, witnesses to their own deliverance.

“Now about the land,” Sharp Tooth says.

“It isn’t mine.”

“Now that that’s settled.” Sharp Tooth gives Brother a thousand dollar bill. A construction crew appears. They erect a fracking well. The fracking well plunges its drill into the dirt.

“It’s too big,” Brother says. “My sister won’t allow it.”

“You believe in God?”

“I should.”

“If this here was God, you’d say, ‘Amen.’ You’d say, ‘Hallelujah.’”

“I don’t think God—”

“Don’t think God. Believe.”

Brother throws the thousand dollar bill back at Sharp Tooth. Sharp Tooth catches it in his wallet.

“No one asked for this,” Brother says.

Sharp Tooth lowers his head. “A brother’s born for adversity,” he says, solemn.

 

4.

Sister’s crying over the eviction notice. “You said you gave the money back,” she says.

“It only bought us a week,” Brother says.

An earthquake strikes the home. The ceiling splits. Mother hangs from the crack. She falls onto the sofa next to Sister. “Have you tried prayer?” Mother says.

“It doesn’t work,” Sister says.

“You’re not born again, is all.” Mother runs upstairs to the bathroom. She falls through the crack again. She leaps off the sofa, runs to the kitchen, fills up the sink.

“We can’t drink the water,” Brother says.

“Don’t drink,” Mother says. “Let it fill you.” She pulls Sister by the hair, plunges Sister’s head into the water until Sister’s made sacred to unconsciousness. She turns to Brother and Brother backs away.

Another earthquake. Stronger. A ceiling beam dislodges.

“Oh God,” Mother says. She’s right. She’s struck dead.

Sharp Tooth’s at an open window. “Bad time?” he says.

“Shaken up,” Brother says.

Sharp Tooth gives Brother a gas mask. “We’ve sprung a leak out here,” he says. “You should have been gone by now.”

“I’m all that’s left.”

“There’s a swing set out back.”

“He’s out playing ball.”

“One mask is all I can spare. I’m sparing it on account that I’m a good man.” Sharp Tooth goes to Mother’s body. He tears the rosary from around her neck. He swallows it whole. “He’s with you wherever you go,” he says. “I mean that: you have to go.”

 

5.

Slugger’s climbing Mount Kaikoma of Yamanashi Prefecture to retrieve a ball hit into no man’s land. He’s 2,000 meters up and losing consciousness. He digs his spikes into the stone and lifts himself onto a small cliff. He lies stiff from the cold.

A serow appears wearing the beard of God. Slugger feels instincts stir in his stomach. He aims a spike at the throat of the serow. The serow leaps from harm’s way, shakes its beard of God at Slugger. “Americans,” the serow says.

Valley fog engulfs the ridge. When it passes, the serow’s dead at Slugger’s feet. Sniper has struck it dead with a pebble.

“But you’re gone,” Slugger says.

“We are,” Sniper says. He skins the serow, wraps the serow’s hide around Slugger, holds Slugger close until he stops shivering.

Slugger points to the summit of the mountain. “Did you see anything up there? Something beautiful?”

Sniper goes to the edge of the cliff. “Nothing’s up there,” he says. “Absolutely nothing.”

“Where are you going?” Slugger says.

“I’m sorry,” Sniper says.

 

6.

Sister’s dead in Sniper’s arms.

“I only had one mask,” Brother says.

Sharp Tooth pours a trail of gasoline from the front door to the devil strip, drops a match. The trail ignites. The house ignites.

“Is this hell?” Brother shouts through the smoke and the flames. He throws off the gas mask, plunges his head into the sink.   

Sharp Tooth knocks on the front door. The front door turns to ash, collapses.

The fracking well plunges its drill into the dirt. The turning of the drill sounds like tearing flesh.

There’s no flesh left; Brother and Sister’s bodies have melted.

Sharp Tooth unbuttons his suit coat, his dress shirt. He wipes the sweat off his face. “But you’re still here,” he says to Sniper.

Sniper wipes Sister’s body off his body, turns to Sharp Tooth, spits.

Sharp Tooth grins, mouth opened wide, the crucifix like another, sharper tooth in the back of his throat. It glows from the heat of the heat. The heat grows and grows and soon Sniper’s glowing too.

 

7.

Sometimes death feels like all the time in the heartland. Death in the vastness is like hymnals in a vacuum. There’s no end here. There’s in perpetuum and more perpetua thereafter.

Michael Credico’s fiction has recently appeared in Black Warrior Review, Booth, Diagram, Hobart, NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Quarterly West, Word Riot, and others. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

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