“ . . . and you have no memory of where you got it at all?”
“And that’s not the weirdest thing,” I said. “The tattoo removal guy says he can’t get it off.”
“Why?” Bobby sounded incredulous but energized, like the mystery of my new tattoo was the most exciting thing he’d heard all week.
“It’s not a regular tattoo. Weird ink—if it even is ink. He’s not even sure of that.”
“Holy crap! This is the most exciting thing I’ve heard all week!”
I shook my head. I wasn’t telling him the tattoo changed and told the future, too—he might have had some sort of fit. Accountants. Not the most exciting people in the world. I couldn’t tell him the real reason I’d called him from the train, either. His head would’ve exploded.
He was my alibi.
“Listen, little brother, I’m heading into town on the train, so I’m probably going to lose you in a minute.”
“I said I’m heading into town—”
“I can’t hear a word.” His voice was suddenly digitized, and harder to hear. “Sounded like you were on the train. You must be heading into a tunnel or something. I think I’m losing—”
And he was gone. My brother: the Sherlock Holmes of the accounting world. Now, though, when people asked me later on why I’d been incommunicado when Lisa had her “accident,” I could tell them the trains and tunnels had been messing with my cell phone. “You can ask Bobby,” I’d say. “We got cut off in the middle of a conversation.”
Bobby can’t lie to save his life, but when he’s not lying, he’s so naturally earnest he makes a living convincing total strangers to let him handle their money. You want to sell a story? Get it told by a reputable CPA. I relaxed into my seat, trying not to smile too broadly. It might attract attention.
I wonder if she’s had her “accident” yet.
That thought sparked curiosity. I’d never seen Lisa have a food reaction. What would it be like? Fairly quiet, like what they usually show on television? Or was it going to be more violent, showy, my wife thrashing like a landed fish as she tried to pull air through a closed-up throat? Would she call for help, only to find her fingernail-on-chalkboard voice just wouldn’t come out?
Had I finally managed to shut Lisa up?
A newspaper across the train dropped, revealing a man in a porkpie hat. He folded his paper to a new section, then glanced at me. He stared for a moment, then quickly flipped the paper up again, shifting sideways and crossing his legs, turning as far away from me as seating would allow. I turned and gazed at the window behind me, the tunnel transforming the glass into a weak mirror.
There was my grin, wide as a six-lane highway and, admittedly, rather creepy.
Oh well. If he remembers me it’s just further proof that I was nowhere near Lisa.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
I spent the day shopping for a car. No need to take the train at all, once I turned in that Powerball ticket. I moved from lot to lot, talking to salesmen. Taking my time. Really enjoying myself for the first time in more than a year. I was so relaxed I even dozed on the train home, something I never do.
I kept my phone turned off.
Pulling into the station something poked me in the leg as I stood up. I fished in my pocket and pulled out Lisa’s EpiPen.
Jesus, I forgot all about this! Wouldn’t do to have this in my pocket today.
I stopped in the station men’s room. It was still pre-rush-hour, so I had the place to myself. I rolled up my sleeve and checked the mirror. The back of my arm was no longer decorated with the three-inch peanut—the symbol of my salvation. Instead there was kind of lightning-bolt-looking thing that reminded me of comic books I’d read as a boy: the symbols on the chests of The Flash and Captain Marvel. Cool, but I had no idea what it meant. I wasn’t even sure when it had changed, though so far it was always different when I woke up. Had the little nap I’d taken on the train gotten me two predictions in one day?
Something to think about later, I thought. Looks like I may become a habitual napper!
The EpiPen hit the inside of the wall-mounted trash can with a satisfying clang as I walked toward the street.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
“I was probably on the train. I mean, what with the train and the tunnels, cell service is spotty at best. Maybe it’s my carrier? You can ask Bobby—we got cut off in the middle of a conversation this morning.”
Good. I sounded serious. Thoughtful. Believable, at least in my own estimation.
I started again.
“Really? No, but I was probably on the train . . .”
Remembering that guy on the train had convinced me I’d better get my story straight, at least between my voice and face. I’d started rehearsing about halfway home from the station, ad-libbing lines here and there to keep it fresh and fluid, checking my expression in the occasional storefront window. By the time I reached my building I was looking the way I sounded: serious, thoughtful, believable.
“I mean,” I said, inserting my key in the apartment door. “My cell service sucks in those tunnels.”
I opened the door.
“Could be just my service.”
I closed the door and tossed my keys on the hall table, just the way Lisa always told me not to.
“You can ask Bobby—”
“We can ask Bobby what?”
Lisa and Vinnie sat on the couch, facing the door. Waiting for me.
It was wrong! screamed the little hysterical me inside my head. The tattoo was wrong! She brought Vinnie for dinner and I am so screwed!
I felt my testacles trying to crawl up into my abdomen to hide.
“We can ask Bobby what?” Vinnie repeated, and the fact that he’d spoken twice but I hadn’t heard a peep out of Lisa penetrated my terrified fog. I looked a little more closely, taking in Lisa’s haggard appearance, the dark circles under her eyes.
“I mean . . . oh my God, honey,” I said, crossing the room to kneel in front of her. “What happened to you? Are you all right?”
“No. She ain’t all right,” said Vinnie, a large, dark, muscular lump in my peripheral vision. “I had to get her from the hospital.”
“The hospital? What happened?”
I strained to maintain eye contact with Lisa, though she just glared at me. The tremor in my voice was real, however: I was terrified. I looked at Lisa to avoid looking at Vinnie, because the sight of him right then would have reduced me to a quivering mass of . . . well, a quivering mass.
“She had a bad food reaction, ate some kind of a nut thing.”
Vinnie insisted on answering my questions, making it very hard not to look at him. I kept on staring into Lisa’s furious eyes, for the first time in my life wishing she’d yell at me.
“Well,” I said, “thank God you had your—”
“She didn’t have her EpiPen,” Vinnie said. “I can’t remember her ever leaving the house without it since we were little.”
My skin blistered under the force of Lisa’s withering glare. Unable to stand it any longer, I dropped my gaze to her chest, shaking my head in feigned confusion.
“But what . . . I mean, how . . .”
“Luckily, Terri Dambuski carries a Junior EpiPen for her son, who also has a nut allergy. It was enough to keep Lisa going until the ambulance arrived and they could give her the right dose.”
“That’s just . . . amazing,” I said.
Terri Dambuski, I thought. You bitch!
“Yeah. It is. So that’s why she looks like she had such a rough day. She did.”
He leaned toward me, forcing me to meet his eyes.
“Thing is, Lisa said she had you check for her EpiPen before she left. You said it was in there.”
“That’s right, I—”
“But it wasn’t there. If that Terri hadn’t been there, my sister might have died.”
“But it was in there.” I locked my gaze on Lisa’s angry face, hoping she’d mistake terror for earnestness. “It was. I saw it. I pulled it to the top to check—maybe it fell out somewh—”
“Then there’s the question of where you were all day.”
My eyes crept back to Vinnie. “What?”
Lisa spoke for the first time, her voice thin and raspy, a bare shadow of its usual powerful self.
“Where were you? We called the office, they said you called in sick. We called your cell but it went straight to voicemail. Where were—”
“I had some stuff to do in town, so I was on the train, and you know how cell—”
“I figured you were at the track again,” said Vinnie. “Lisa says she don’t allow gambling, but some of my friends saw you there the other day, so we know you’re sneaking out there.”
“No,” I said, panicking. This was not going at all how I’d planned. For one thing, Lisa was still alive—a serious crimp in any plans I might have had. For another, Vinnie—
Vinnie stood suddenly, a hulking shape looming over me. My eyes begged Lisa not to let this happen. She stared at me like I was already dead.
“Sounds to me like you have a problem,” said Vinnie.
“No, no problem, no problem at all,” I said, fear-fueled words tumbling out as I tried to come up with the right combination of syllables to allow me to walk out of this under my own power.
No dice. A huge hand gripped my shoulder, strong, and implacable.
“No,” said Vinnie, lifting me almost casually to my feet, like a child lifting a good-sized doll, and I felt utterly helpless confronted by his gigantic physical power. “I mean you have a problem. Right here. Right now. Lisa was talking about some earrings when I got to the hospital. I think she told you about them?”
My convulsive swallow could be heard throughout the room.
“I opted against the jewelry. You may be a weak little shit, but I might like to be an uncle someday, so you’re safe on that score.”
If they could have, my testicles would have sagged to the floor in relief.
“But there’s the little matter of a tattoo you weren’t supposed to get, and the trips to the track that you’re not supposed to make; then there’s you and the EpiPen disappearing for the day, no explanation, no nothing.”
I tried to run, but it was far too late. The grip shifted from my shoulder to my collar as another huge hand grabbed the back of my belt.
“My sister don’t like it. I don’t like it. I’m gonna take what they call ‘corrective action.’ Lisa?”
Lisa bounced from the couch, moving quite well for a woman who’d nearly died just hours earlier. Spry, in fact. She leaped past me and opened the apartment door. I started talking. I don’t know what I was saying, just gibberish really, but it had absolutely no effect on my giant brother-in-law, who propelled me effortlessly across the room, through the door, then down the hall.
“You need to learn, and this lesson’s gonna hurt you a lot more than it’s gonna hurt me.”
~ ~ * * ~ ~
I was halfway down the stairs from the second floor, on my second bounce and sailing head-first, but tumbling, when it hit me. I’d already made a similar flight down from the third, and I’d just heard my left leg snap, loud as hell and twice as painful, when some weird part of my mind cleared. I remember thinking That’s what it was! The new tattoo’s not a lightning bolt—it’s a set of stairs!
Then the back of my head hit the floor at the foot of the steps, and everything went black.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, winner of the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eLiterary Festival of Words.
His latest work, a story collection titled Echoes of Darkness, was released in early 2016 from Books & Boos Press.
For more about Rob, including links to his published works, upcoming events, and a series of very short—but free—stories, please visit him at www.RobSmales.com.