Odds Are by Kevin Brown

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The moving truck is angled backwards in the driveway, and the “For Sale” sign sways a few feet from the blood red X someone spray-painted in our yard.  Our house is hollowed out, its insides packed thick and sloppy in the truck.  The love seat is inverted on the sofa, and the kitchen table stands flush against the side.  Bags of clothes, lampshades, and boxes of toys are seated in stacked chairs.  There’s bed mattresses and chipped picture frames.  Old books and older bookshelves.  Porcelain whatnots wrapped in a month’s worth of sports section.

[private]The wind blows the sign over and I set it back up.  Drive it six inches in the ground and look at the large X.

I step inside.  What’s left of the boxes, mostly dishes and photo albums, are scattered around the living room floor.  Melissa’s in our bedroom packing up loose pieces and still crying.  Michael’s sliding his Hot-Wheels the length of the hall’s hardwood floor.  I grab a duffel bag and a ’66 Mini-Mustang spins between my legs and hits the baseboard.  In the room, masking tape is stretched and ripped.  I take the bag outside and wedge it under a kitchen stool.

Melissa slams something in the living room and I yell out to be careful with the white box.  “That’s your China.”  I slide a door mirror farther in and out of the corner of my eye the white box is cartwheeling toward me from the front door.  It hits the ground at my feet and rolls toward the X.

The China I gave her on our second anniversary.

The broken pieces sliding end to end, I force the box between the mattresses.  Already, I’m starting to miss her.

It’s smothering out, and the sky’s the colour of soaked tissue.  Thunder shakes somewhere inside it.

Our neighbour, Hewitt, comes across the yard, two beers to a hand.  He’s wearing cut-offs with boots and striped socks yanked up to the knees.  “Jesus,” he says, “Christ.”  He says, “Hotter than a blistered pisser in a pepper patch.”  He slips a beer in each pocket, tosses me one, and cracks the other open for himself.  His hands and clothes are caked white with paint.

“Got my fence painted,” he says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.

I open my beer, and say, “I see that.”  I tell him, “Might wanna cover it up.”

“Cover what up?”

“Your fence.”

“Cover it up, it’s still wet.”

“Gonna be soaked.”

He waves his hand and looks up at the clouds.  “That’ll miss us,” he says.  Then:  “Looks like you’re about finished.”

Yeah, I tell him.  “Almost.”

“Well, I came over to share a beer and tell you….”.  He puts the can to his mouth.  “Those ‘chicken shit’ cracks?  Me and the fellas were just drunk.”  He takes a drink and says, “You know.”

“Forget it,” I say, and take a sip.  Michael runs out in the yard with a model Blue Angel held over his head, slicing the air.  “Mikey!”  Hewitt says.  “What we got there?”

“Airplane,” Michael says, dips and rises and sweeps back through the door.

“So,” Hewitt says, “Melissa still not talking to you?”

I shake my head.

Inside something thumps and shatters, and Melissa says: “Damn it, Michael.  Go outside and play!”  Michael starts crying, and Hewitt whistles and hits his beer.

I tell him she’s going to her mother’s for a while.  Taking Mike with her.  “Tell me,” I say, “will a woman really divorce you for thinking you’re a coward?”

“Hell if I’d know,” he says.  “Mine left me for telling her to get out of the car.”  He crushes his empty beer can.  “Of course, I was hitting fifth gear when I told her.”  He laughs, pats my shoulder, and looks at the sky.  “Nope.  No way it’s gonna rain.”

I load a few more boxes and sit on the back bumper of the truck, knuckling the sweat from my eyes.  Hewitt’s into his second beer, occasionally digging at his crotch, and burping.  He peels a sliver of dried paint from the Vietnam tattoo on his wrist.

“What was Vietnam like?” I’d asked him one afternoon, after we got to be friends.

Sitting on his porch, he rubbed the tattoo and stared out at the yard.  “At times,” he said, “like having a second to live every second you’re alive.”

With the wind picking up, he shifts a floor lamp in the truck and says, “Talk to the police again?”

I lean back against the boxes and nod.  “They’ll keep their eyes open,” I say, wiping my cheek.  “They’re dead-set on it being a prank call.”

What the police were investigating was a phone call that came around two in the morning last month.  What I was told during this call was that the occupants at 1031 Audrey Lane were going to be killed.  “Sacrificed,” the man on the phone said, “by His people to the Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

An offering of a family to show their unflinching faith to God.

My family.

“Disembowelment is really a noble way to die,” he said, me still wiping sleep out of my eyes.  “You should feel honored.”

The police traced the call to a pay phone in the Hill district.  Given the location, they said, it’s probably just some kids screwing with the phone book.  They asked if we knew of anyone who’d do this.  Who might try and scare us.

And no, we didn’t.

They asked if the man called us by name.

No.  Just the occupants at this address.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time,” they said, “these things are just a hoax.”

When I told Hewitt about the call, he bit his lower lip and said, “A sacrifice?  You mean in the Abraham sense?”  Playing poker that night, he said, “It’s gotta be a joke.  I mean, I’m gonna take someone out, I damn sure don’t call and tell them.”  Shuffling the deck, he said, “Even Isaac didn’t know until his back was against Moriah.”

The first week after the call, I hardly slept.  Every shift in the house, I was peeking around the corner.  When the air kicked on, my body went numb.  When Michael woke up crying from a nightmare, I almost threw up.

“Just get an alarm system,” Melissa said.

“I can’t believe you’re not a little more concerned,” I said.

“I made the same calls in high school, myself,” she said.  “Except I’d be sales representatives or the IRS or porn store clerks.”  Rubbing my cheek with her thumb, she smiled, shook her head, and said, “On the phone, you’re whoever you want to be.”

The next day I looked at alarm systems, but it’s useless if you think about it.  Alarms scare rapists or burglars.  They spook peeping toms.  But some religious zealot doing “God’s work,” they wouldn’t give two shits about loud noise.

By the second week, I suspected cashiers, waiters, and joggers in the park.  I looked over my shoulder at mechanics, bank tellers.  Even business clients.  Everyone was an Abraham.

“I think we need to move,” I told Melissa, one day after work.

And she said, “You lost your goddamn mind?”  She shook her head.  “It was just a prank call!”  Digging in her flower garden, planting grandiflora roses, she told me, “You’re not uprooting our lives because some college punks got in your head.”

I told her how I come home from work and hear the puddles of my wife and son’s blood squishing in the carpet.  How around every corner, the walls are splashed red.  “I’m out of town, you guys are here alone,” I said.  “You can’t have one second to live,” I said, thinking of napalm and land mines, “every second of your life.”

The third week, a large red X was painted in our yard one night, and the next morning, I put our house on the market.

There’s a fine line between being a coward and a news segment.

Three years ago, on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, I stepped on a nail while jogging barefoot on the beach.  Miles of sand and my foot finds that nail.

I told Melissa to start packing.  “Ninety-nine per cent,” I said, flipping through the yellow pages for ‘Moving Trucks,’ “is not my kind of odds.”

Last summer, a family of four was murdered in Spokane, Washington.

In Salt Lake City, a family of six was tortured and killed on Christmas Eve.

From the back of the moving truck, I watch the sky whiten and grumble.  Hewitt comes back across the yard with more beer, looking up.  Melissa comes out with the last box and her eyes are red and swollen.

“Hello Mrs. Melissa,” Hewitt says.  “Looking beautiful as always.”

“Not hello,” she says, staring at me.  “It’s goodbye.”  Her eyes are drawn tight.  “You wanna still be neighbors?” Melissa says. “Because the house next to my Mother’s got toilet papered last week.  They’ll for sure be moving out.”

I bite down and my jaw pops.

“Just set it down anywhere,” I say.  “I’ll find a place.”  She sighs, shakes her head, and sets it down.  Going back inside, she stops beside her dying flower garden.  Stares at her withered hybrid tea and floribunda roses.

It thunders and Hewitt looks up and says, “Women.  Can’t live with them—by God, it’s gonna rain.”

A family of three was butchered in Haddonfield, New Jersey last Fourth of July.

“Know what she said?” I say.  I say, “Said it was probably me that painted the X so we’d move.”  I throw the box in and it catches.  “She didn’t hear his voice,” I tell him.  “That guy meant what he said.”

He tells me fear’s powerful.  “In Nam, men would put a knife in their thigh or blow a toe off to get out.”  He tells me when he was in high school someone was carving up heavy women around his neighborhood.  How after the seventh one, posters of a red cross with a tape measure around it popped up everywhere.  They said: “Be safe.  Lose weight.”

He says, “After that, those women got in the best shape of their lives.  Fear,” he says, “can be as healthy as Slim Fast.”

The door of the moving truck slams and I jump.  Inside Melissa’s leaning her head against the window, her eyes closed.  She’s rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“Even if she doesn’t want a divorce,” I say, lowering my voice, “I’ll always be a chickenshit.”

Hewitt says, “She’ll come around.”  Taking a drink, he says, “People always come around.”

A blade of lightning forks down and leaves an afterimage.  Thunder cracks somewhere close.  Hewitt downs another beer and says, “You gonna follow the news?”

Two Octobers ago, a family of three was slaughtered while vacationing on the Cape.

“The news?”

He nods his head and says, “Before the war, you dodged the draft or went to college, someone was called up to take your place, go for you.  Then,” he says, “someone takes the place of the guy who took yours, and so on and so on.”  He peels a chip of paint from his elbow and Michael runs between us with his plane, his lips pursed to sound the engine.  Hewitt says, “Someone’ll move in after you.”

A family of three or five or seven or nine was killed at 1031 Audrey Lane, one month after moving in.

He laughs and says, “You’ll be fine, but Friday night poker’s shot to shit.”  He holds his thick paint-crusted hand out and I shake it.

“Why’s this shit happening?” I say.  The first few drops of rain dot the driveway.  Hewitt squints and holds out his hands to feel the drops.  “God works in delirious ways,” he says, pats my shoulder, and starts back across the yard.  “Shoot me a call sometime,” he says, not looking back.

Michael’s yanking at my hand and holding out his airplane.  “It’s broken,” he says, and holds up a piece.

“Hop in the truck,” I tell him.  “I’ll fix it later.”

I slide the truck door down and latch it at the bottom.  The rain is starting to hiss and across the yard Hewitt’s running around, covering his fence with an old tarp.  “Shit!  Shit!  Shit!” he’s saying, holding a beer in one hand and working the tarp with the other.

I give the house a last walk through.  Stop in what was our room and look at the four bedpost marks in the carpet.  “That’s it,” I say, and it bounces off the empty walls.  I go out and lock the door.

At the four-way stop, a tan Contour turns onto the street.  It slows down as it approaches our yard.  The window slides down and a man leans out.  My insides go light and rise, the tendons breaking their grip.  Muscles hovering completely off the bone.

The man shields his eyes from the rain, jots down the number on the sign and drives away.

That saying “blinded by fear” is wrong.  It’s really “blinded by indifference.”  Because fear shows you real monsters exist, their claws always inches from the throat.  You don’t see them; it’s because you don’t want to.

They’re the voices on the other end of early morning phone calls.  They lie between you and your wife at night, your backs facing.

They’re that one per cent everyone ignores, the nails in the sand waiting to scrape bone in the arches of bare feet.

Standing in the rain, I think about the next family to move in.  And about the Vietnam draft.  The next in line, filling your slot.  How you could’ve been responsible for fifty dead soldiers without knowing how to hold a gun.

I wish I could say I hope it’s all a hoax.  That the next family will live safe and sound in their new home.  But I can’t.  Sometimes, pride’s more important than humanity.

I get in the truck and Michael’s singing, “Rain, rain, go away….”.  Melissa’s still leaning against the window, eyes closed.  I run my hand through my soaked hair and look at the house reflected in the side mirror.  Picture the door outlined in police tape.

Michael’s singing, “Come again another day.”

I know every night, I’ll watch the news and scan the headlines.  And one day, there it’ll be, and the look on everyone’s faces will say it all: You were right, they’ll say, jaws slack and eyes wide.  You were right all along.[/private]

Kevin Brown has had work published in over seventy journals and was nominated for a 2007 Journey Award and a Pushcart Prize.  His first book Ink On Wood is due to be published in the summer of 2010.  His website is www.InvisibleBodies.com .

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