Bellazecca had taken to working at his kitchen table on a little portable typewriter, his poems in a stack on the checkered tablecloth. He could sit there and look out the big picture window for inspiration, or when he needed to mull over word choice, syntax, metaphor, line break. He would have breakfast sitting on one side of the table, looking over the previous day’s poems—the previous day’s work, he’d remind himself—and then he’d take his coffee and switch sides and start hammering out new poems as the sun came up.
His view was all forest, with a small backyard clearing in which he had a few wicker chairs, a birdbath, a barrel. There were no neighbors in sight, which is how he liked it. In the summer he would sit out there in a chair, looking up at the cosmos, a bourbon in one hand, a man at rest on his estate.
He’d lost his part-time job as an axe sharpener, which he’d taken after he’d lost his full-time job as a typesetter when the paper went under. He took it all as a blessing and decided to finally pursue his dream of writing poems and living the life of a writer. When the paper closed and had a fire sale, he’d gotten the old letterpress for next to nothing. It cost him more to have it moved into his garage than he paid for it. His plan was to publish some small booklets of his poems—chapbooks!—and use those to get noticed, build an audience, and in a few short years someone would pay him—pay him!—to publish his collected poems.
But for now, he kept working at his craft. Today he finished his toast, leaving the plate to clean up later, switched to the typing side of the table, and as the sun came up he saw that there was a man sitting outside in one of his chairs. He was not one of his neighbors, nor anyone he knew from town, and was a complete stranger. Living in a relatively isolated location, occasionally he’d hear the report of hunters’ rifles in the mountains, or, on a walk through the woods, he’d find evidence of other people passing through, so while this was by no means surprising, it didn’t give Bellazecca cause for alarm. He figured the man had slept there and just hadn’t started moving yet. The man had no luggage that Bellazecca could see, but he let the man sit there, keeping an eye on him, and began to peck away.
But the poems didn’t come easily, as the man in the backyard, who had bright red, round cheeks—which made Bellazecca mentally dub the man Applecheeks—just sat there. As annoyed and slightly weirded out as Bellazecca was, however, he also knew that he might get an entire book of poems out of this weird experience. Near noon, neither man having moved, Bellazecca looked up just as Applecheeks looked over, and they met eyes. Or, rather, they would have met eyes if Applecheeks’ weren’t so squinty. Neither said or did anything and went back to what they were doing—Bellazecca laboring over a mediocre poem that he knew he’d throw away as soon as he finished it, Applecheeks sitting in motionless silence. Around three, still with neither man having moved, Applecheeks finally waved at Bellazecca. He gave a brief wave back—more a salute—and the man stood up. But instead of coming toward the house to talk, to ask for a glass of water, to use the bathroom, he walked off, out of the frame of the picture window. Bellazecca jumped up and ran to the side window and peeked out but Applecheeks wasn’t there. Bellazecca looked out all his windows, finally going outside, but found nothing.
The rest of the day he had that awful feeling that he was being watched—since he’d not see the man leave, in his mind, the man was still around somewhere, waiting, watching.
That night, Bellazecca made sure the doors and windows were locked, went to bed. The next day was Sunday, which was his day to go into town, buy groceries and supplies, have a meal at the diner, and when he arrived home he saw that a car was parked in front of his garage. Bellazecca couldn’t keep his truck in the garage because the letterpress was in there.
There was no one in the car, and no one out front. Bellazecca took his bags of groceries and carried them inside. Applecheeks was sitting at Bellazecca’s kitchen table, on the non-typewriter side. The eating side.
He wasn’t doing anything. Just sitting there. He didn’t register Bellazecca’s arrival.
“Hi,” said Bellazecca, and when the man didn’t respond, he unpacked the groceries.
“Hi,” he said, when he was done, and Applecheeks still didn’t respond. As far as Bellazecca could see, the man didn’t have any weapons. He also didn’t know how he got in, because all the doors and windows had been locked.
He stood at the counter for a while, staring at the motionless man. His stack of poems appeared unruffled, untouched, unread.
“You staying for dinner?” he asked, but the man didn’t respond. Bellazecca didn’t know what to do, so he did what he always did when faced with adversity, confrontation, or confusion: he wrote. He sat at his typewriter, which had a fresh sheet in it, all ready to go—he always put in a fresh sheet when he was done, so that he wouldn’t have to the next morning—and started typing. But he couldn’t write. It was completely unnerving that this man was in his home, at his table, and, worst of all, staring right at him as he tried to work.
Eventually Bellazecca gave up, made a dinner he didn’t want, and, since the man was sitting in his eating seat, he ate standing at the counter. “I’m going to call the police when I finish eating,” he said.
He finished eating but didn’t call the police, because he didn’t have a phone—he’d gotten rid of it after he got fired as an axe sharpener, to put a stop to the threats. It was ten miles to town, where he could use the phone at the diner or the grocer.
While supremely unnerving, there was nothing overtly threatening about the man. More than anything, Bellazecca wondered if the man wasn’t all there mentally.
“That your car out front?” he tried. Nothing.
It took everything he had, but he finally went into his bedroom, locked the door, and lay awake the entire night.
Applecheeks was gone when he got up. “Praise Jesus,” said Bellazecca, who did not believe in Jesus as any sort of mythical savior. He noticed as he passed the picture window in the living room that his truck was parked farther away from the house than usual, realized he’d forgotten all about Applecheeks’ car, which was still there. Frantic, he searched the house, but Applecheeks wasn’t there. He locked the doors, windows, made toast, ate, looked over the scant and terrible writing from yesterday, knew he had a lot to do today to get back on track. Those chapbooks weren’t going to write themselves!
He typed away until lunch, ate once again in his customary seat, but went into his bedroom for a sweater, as it had gotten a tad cold. Applecheeks was asleep in the twin bed in the guest bedroom. Bellazecca knew he’d not been there before, but here he was, snuggled up under the covers, snoring lightly. Bellazecca noted that his eyes were ten percent less squinty when he was asleep. Realizing this was a problem that was maybe not going away, Bellazecca quickly tried to think of the ways he could kill the man and get rid of the body—it actually wouldn’t be too difficult, being way out here.
He wasn’t a local, so Bellazecca could stab him to death with a steak knife, roll him up in blankets, and drag him out into the woods and leave him for the animals. No one would ever know. But he worried about the mess in his house, the traces of death that would be left behind. He also worried about being accused again as a murderer, worried that he might not skate twice. Though he didn’t know how anyone would know Applecheeks was here, unless Applecheeks had told someone, but that seemed unlikely.
Eventually he chose to do nothing, leaving Applecheeks to his dreams, and went into the kitchen, sat in his typing chair, and stared out the window. As far as he could tell, Applecheeks hadn’t eaten, peed, spoken, done anything, and Bellazecca started to wonder if he were a ghost. However: ghosts don’t drive cars. He went outside, opened Applecheeks’ car, rooted around inside for some key to his identity. There was no registration in the glove compartment, no hardened fries under the seats, no crinkled straw wrappers on the floorboards. He looked in the cup holder and there wasn’t even a circular stain from a ring of condensation, the telltale sign of fast foodery. The car didn’t have that new car smell, but it was spotless. He popped the trunk.
Outside, he looked around, realizing how isolated he was—that what he once embraced he now saw as a potential problem. The house was still, silent, and he imagined he could hear Applecheeks’ faint snoring.
His heart stopped when he opened the trunk. Inside were all the apparatus of torture and murder: a two-handed logging saw, coils of piano wire, full sets of butchering knives, each housed in spotless sheaths. There were vials of chemicals, a bottle of pills, all unmarked. Catheters. Awls. A sawed-off shotgun lay sideways above it all like a pencil waiting at the top of a sheet of paper.
He quietly closed the trunk, realized he had to get out of there. Needed to go inside, grab his stacks of poems—his only copies—and his car keys.
When he got inside, the smell of bacon hit him. Applecheeks was in the kitchen, cooking. He leaned to look through the doorway and saw Bellazecca, waved with a free hand, said, “Hey, come on in. Wow, what a nap. You ever have one of those where you just wake up ready to take on the world? Want some bacon?”
Bellazecca walked in, slowly, fearing a trap. “You hungry?” Applecheeks asked. “Got some bacon going here, got some toast—that’s your favorite, right?” Applecheeks started humming, nothing that Bellazecca could recognize, but it sounded vaguely Confederate, a tune from another time.
They sat in the wicker chairs outside and ate, Applecheeks chatting the entire time, a friendly stranger you meet in an airport. His cheeks, in the sunlight, were massive, Santa-red, almost like clown noses, pushing his eyes into a squint that made him look jolly and vaguely creepy at the same time. In fact, his eyes never quite opened, and Bellazecca couldn’t tell what color they were, or even if Applecheeks even had eyes under the lids.
After lunch, Applecheeks sent Bellazecca inside to clean the dishes, the pan, told him to make sure and empty the little crumb tray in the toaster. Applecheeks spent the rest of the day sitting outside, just like he had when he’d appeared two days ago.
When it got dark, Bellazecca stealthily went to the back door, and as he was about to turn the lock, heard Applecheeks from the darkness: “Do you know the most useless word in the English language?”
The door opened, as if the darkness itself were opening it, and then Applecheeks was there, smiling, eyes squinting as if he’d been maced.
“It’s ‘peruse.’ ‘Peruse’ has two definitions. One of them is ‘to scan quickly.’ The other is ‘to read slowly and carefully.’ So if I say to you, ‘Go peruse this book,’ you actually have no fucking way of understanding what I’m telling you to do. Totally useless word—we should get rid of it. Just hack it up and roll it up in a rug and throw it in a river, never to be seen again. That’s what I say.”
Applecheeks poured himself a bourbon and headed back outside. Bellazecca quietly locked the door, went into his bedroom, locked that door, got in bed, and many hours later was able to fall asleep.
When he woke up, Applecheeks was in bed with him, staring at him. Well, Bellazecca knew Applecheeks was awake, since he was smiling, but he just guessed that he was staring at him because his squinting eyes were shut tightly, as usual, but were aimed in his direction.
“Sleep good?” he asked. “Sleep well, I should say. Sometimes I get careless with my grammar, and grammar is important. Words have meaning!”
Bellazecca didn’t say anything. His bladder was so full he felt he might explode.
“Well, you have a big day ahead of you. I’m going to give you half an hour to get dressed and get your poems together, and then it’ll be time for you to go.”
Bellazecca was stunned. Not because of Applecheeks’ demand, but because of his own immediate acceptance of the situation. He knew in half an hour, he’d be gone from his beloved home, forever, with only a stack of poems in a grocery sack. He didn’t understand why he didn’t fight, why he couldn’t fight, but he knew he wasn’t going to go into town, find a cop, come back, press charges, have this man arresting for, for, for what? Home invasion? Breaking and entering? Theft? Bellazecca imagined himself telling the cop he wanted to press charges for theft of bourbon, bacon, bread.
Pain and suffering?
Of course, he also didn’t know if what Applecheeks meant by “time to go” was that Bellazecca was leaving, or Bellazecca was dying.
He went into the bathroom in the hall—the only one in the house—and as he was about to let loose, Applecheeks smashed him into the wall. Bellazecca felt the thick plastic towel rod snap as he was pushed into it. “I didn’t say anything about using my bathroom,” said Applecheeks, with a smile, as he crushed Bellazecca’s windpipe with his forearm.
He eventually relaxed the arm, but not the smile. Bellazecca had pissed in the corduroys he’d slept in, and now he grabbed a flannel shirt off the floor of his bedroom, scooped up his poems, put on his boots, and was gone, noticing that, arrayed across his couch like a jewelry counter were the awl, logging saw, pills, shotgun.
Outside, he walked past Applecheeks’ car, his own truck, and dared to turn back. Through the picture window in the living room, he could see Applecheeks take a handkerchief out of his back pocket and start dusting along the tops of some framed photos of egrets, wilderness landscapes.
The ten-mile walk to town was going to be awful. He hoped his pants would be dry by the time he got there. He had no cash on him, but they knew him at the bank so hopefully he’d be able to get some. Bellazecca didn’t know what he was going to do, where he was going to go. All he had, really, was the only thing in the world that mattered to him—his poems. There was a man in town named Hostetler who owned the town’s only bookstore. It’d been closed for fifteen years, but he still lived here and Bellazecca bet that Hostetler would still have some connections to the publishing world—maybe he could introduce him to an agent, an editor, a publisher. He didn’t run into Hostetler much, since he only went into town once a week, but he was sure Hostetler would help him, maybe even let him crash on his couch until he was back on his feet.
Hostetler lived about a mile past town, so that was an additional mile that Bellazecca was going to have to walk, but he used that time to mentally sort his poems in the order he wanted to show them to Hostetler. He imagined Hostetler in a leather chair, by the fire, busts of Greek gods on columns in the study, as Bellazecca stood before him and gave him a reading. Start off with your second-best poem, thought Bellazecca, end with your best. Start strong, end strong, he thought. By the time he reached Hostetler’s house, he had convinced himself that he’d have a book deal, an advance, a new friend, and a new lease on life by the end of the day. It’s crazy how life works, he thought, how it all comes together.
He’d stopped about a hundred feet from Hostetler’s drive to pull out the forty best poems he wanted to read, put them in the order he’d decided on. With all the action going on in his head, he hadn’t even thought of Applecheeks. And his pants had dried!
Taking a moment to brush himself off, tuck in his shirt, make himself presentable, he inhaled deeply of the fresh country air, and knocked on Hostetler’s door.
After a few moments, Hostetler opened it, looked confused.
“Mister Hostetler, Warren Bellazecca. We’ve met a few times in town, at the diner? I’m a writer, as you probably know, and I wondered if I might—”
He stopped speaking, as he watched Hostetler’s eyes close. He’d imagined Hostetler closing his eyes as Bellazecca read, the better to shut out all distractions from absorbing every one of Bellazecca’s profound words.
“Yes?” said Hostetler.
“I—” he was a little thrown because Hostetler still had his eyes closed. “I wondered if I might come inside and discuss my future as a writer with you. I know you have deep roots in the literary comm—”
“I sold brainless thrillers to an increasingly small group of customers fifteen years ago.”
“Yes, well, you sell what you have to, to keep the doors open, but—”
His eyes were not only closed now, they were basically squinting. It was daytime, bright outside, but the sun wasn’t in his eyes. Maybe he had light sensitivity, and even being outdoors was painful for him, thought Bellazecca.
“Maybe we could discuss—”
His cheeks took on a reddish hue. The light? thought Bellazecca, though his heart had sunk and he realized that his fantasy of impressing Hostetler with his life’s work was just that: a fantasy.
He smiled. “Come on in, Warren.”
Hostetler’s home was as Bellazecca had imagined it: dark wood, lots of books, copies of Dutch Renaissance paintings on the walls. Hostetler led him through a sitting room and then held out an arm motioning him into a room, which turned out to be the study, which, as Hostetler had imagined, featured a fireplace, gilt and filigreed bookcases stuffed with leather-bound books, a leather chair, well worn, soft lighting.
Bellazecca stood, awkwardly, not sure what to do. Hostetler motioned that he should take the leather chair, which he did, and Hostetler stood by the fireplace, the way one stands to warm oneself, even though there was no fire going. It was the reverse of what Bellazecca had imagined, which was Hostetler sitting, Bellazecca standing, reading.
“I need you to do me a favor,” said Hostetler, still squinting his eyes, but the friendly smile allayed any menace.
“Sure, Mister Hostetler,” said Bellazecca, like a kid, even though they were probably the same age. “Whatever you need.” Hey, if Hostetler owed him a favor, that could only help. Maybe there was a New York publisher who owed Hostetler a favor.
Hostetler “looked” at him, didn’t say anything, for so long that Bellazecca started feeling uncomfortable. Finally he walked over to a cabinet that, once opened, revealed itself to be full of blades.
He took one out. “This,” he said, “Is a wakizashi, from Japan, circa 1600. It’s beautiful.” He waved the blade slowly, deliberately, to allow it to catch the light. Bellazecca agreed.
“I’ve been collecting them for years, it’s really my only passion these days. There was a time I couldn’t imagine spending retirement doing anything other than reading from dawn to dusk, but now . . .”
Hostetler kept waving it around, his smile and squinting eyes now a contradiction. “Samurai carried these in case their main blade broke. Sometimes they’d use them to behead an opponent, though that was rare. Sometimes, when defeat was imminent, or to restore their honor, a samurai would commit seppuku with this.”
The waving was hypnotic, how it caught the light almost in a pattern, as Hostetler made wavy figure eights with it. “Originally, they used a short blade called a tantō, but later these were also used for the ritual disembowelment. I’m sorry, I can go on and on.”
“It’s okay, Mister Hostetler,” said Bellazecca, wondering if listening to Hostetler pontificate was the favor. “I find this fascinating. As a writer, I find most things fascinating.” Never hurts to sort of return to your thesis as casually as possible.
He stopped waving it, and, holding it like a fragile, priceless object, offered it to Bellazecca to hold. “Let’s go outside, Warren,” Hostetler said, warmth in his voice, joy, the smile on his face so big now Bellazecca wondered if it hurt.
“Sure, Mister Hostetler.” Bellazecca felt increasingly awkward calling him that, but since his first name hadn’t been offered, he didn’t know what else to do. It was a strange dynamic, names being used this way.
He still had his grocery bag of poems in one hand, the sword in the other. He stood up, started to leave.
“The poems stay here. Set them on the credenza.” Bellazecca did as he was told, realized that he’d never told Hostetler he was a poet. Just a writer. Maybe his reputation preceded him.
Hostetler directed him to the back of the house, to an area that had been set up like a Japanese garden. It was beautiful. There were bamboo mats on the ground. “This is where I meditate,” said Hostetler. “This is the only place I feel alive.” He directed Bellazecca to a mat, showed him how to sit, Japanese-style. Hostetler made the “just a second” motion with his hands, went back inside, reappeared with a Japanese flag tied into a headband around his head. And he was carrying a samurai sword. He sat in the Japanese style, lay the sword down gently, lovingly, on the ground in front of him. It was quiet outside, beautiful. Despite the squinting, Bellazecca could tell that Hostetler had his eyes closed.
“This is a Saemonzaburo katana. He was one of Masamune’s students, probably his greatest. I’ve spent thirty years researching it, and learned that it took the lives of a dozen men. A dozen! Think of that. Twelve lives ended by this beautiful piece of art.”
Bellazecca thought he could make a break for it. If he ran around the house, he’d maybe escape. But where would he go? Worse, he wouldn’t have his poems. If he tried to run through the house, Hostetler would catch him. He could lunge at him now, since his eyes were still closed, but he had no confidence that it would work. Bellazecca knew he was at the mercy of Hostetler.
Hostetler took a deep breath. “Breathe deep, Warren. It’s important. There’s only one way to restore your honor. I have to apologize, however. Normally you’d have a last meal, have clean white robes, a drink of ceremonial sake, and, of course, you’d write a death poem. We’d have witnesses, the ceremony would be slow, deliberate, beautiful. But there’s no time for that.”
Bellazecca swallowed. Hostetler’s smile was huge now, his cheeks red, enormous. “I’ve always wanted to use the Saemonzaburo. Always. Never had the opportunity. You have nothing left, Warren. A life of dishonor, nothing to leave behind.”
“The poems—” Bellazecca squawked out.
Hostetler ignored him. “Wrap that cloth around the lower blade of the sword. Grip it with both hands, then shove it into your abdomen. You’ll pull left to right, disemboweling yourself. I’ll stand behind you, and once I see you’ve made the cut, I’ll decapitate you with the Saemonzaburo.”
“Applecheeks,” he said.
“There’s nothing left for you,” Hostetler said. “You are homeless, you have nothing. You have the clothes on your back, and dishonor.” The smile so wide now it seemed like Bellazecca would see Hostetler’s brain if he just opened his mouth.
Bellazecca began to weep. He’d pissed himself again.
“The poems are the sum of a life misused. If you’ve got religious issues with killing yourself, technically I’ll be the one killing you, so no worries there.”
Bellazecca was empty, numb, voided of all content.
“I’ll give you a ceremonial burial, right here in this beautiful garden. I’ll even put a little marker for you, dead with your honor restored. ‘Warren Bellazecca, axe sharpener.’ How’s that sound?”
Hostetler leaned down to help Bellazecca remove his shirt, put the wakizashi in his hands, show him how to hold it. “You just press and pull. In as deep as it’ll go, then left to right. But be quick, the pain will be excruciating and you won’t want to linger.”
“Poet,” Bellazecca managed.
“Axe sharpener,” said Hostetler.
“Applecheeks,” said Bellazecca, as he leaned in and pushed the sword as deep as it would go. Instead of standing behind him, katana at the ready, Hostetler was squatting in front of Bellazecca, “looking” him in the eyes.
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s great.” A noise came from inside the house. “Oh, sorry. Phone. Be right back.”
Bellazecca fell to the mat, blood pouring out of him, watched as Hostetler went inside, said “Hello” into the phone a few times. Hung up.
As Bellazecca’s eyes started to close, he heard Hostetler talking to someone else in the dark house. “Wrong number, I guess. Yeah, have a bourbon. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Bellazecca didn’t want to be remembered as an axe sharpener. Not after what happened. He was a poet. The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes for good was Hostetler walking toward him, the headband a white slash across his dark hair, the sword slung over his shoulder like a baseball bat. And the last thing he thought when he died was that he hoped after all this was over Mister Hostetler would sit in his leather chair by the fire and carefully take his poems from the credenza, give them serious consideration and thought, realize how wrong he’d been to do what he did, and call in that favor in New York and personally oversee the publication of the collected poems of Warren Bellazecca.
BIO: Scott Bryan Wilson writes comic books and fiction to be read in a barn by the light of your digital watch while you wait for the killer outside to walk away. He’s written Batman and Swamp Thing for DC, Star Trek for IDW, Elvira and Nancy Drew for Dynamite, Shadowman for Valiant, and others. His collection of short horror comics, UNSPEAKABLE MONSTROSITY, is forthcoming, as is his prose novel KILL SWITCH, written under the pseudonym Terry Enforcer. His short stories have appeared in the Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, 3rd Bed, Pindeldyboz, and others. Find him at scottbryanwilson.com, on Twitter @scottbrwilson, or Instagram @scottbryanwilson.