by Steve Lowe
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Mickey Pringles donned the lipstick war paint of the night women and struck out onto the street. Wobbly high-heeled and awkwardly C-cupped, he stumbled through the dark. He gripped his homemade cardboard rifle in his hands and called up to the night, his breath a plume above him as he bellowed.
“This is my rifle! There are many like it but this one is mine! My rifle is my best friend!”
Here he stumbled, both on his words and his high heels as they stuck in the cracks of the street.
“Without my rifle . . . I am worthless! Without me, my rifle is worthless! I must shoot it truer than my enemy, who is trying to kill me!”
Mickey thought hard of the scene from the war movie, of the stacked and racked boys learning to soldier, tried to recall their creed, and knew he was saying it incorrectly. He shouted on anyway.
“I will! Lock and load!”
Short men in dingy clothes and gas masks filtered out from between the rows of houses on each side and tromped out into the street, lining up before him two-by-two. Their squat little legs stomped up and down in place, in time with each other, and Mickey thought of an old cartoon: an army of ants marching across the backyard, stealing the bulldog’s steak and ruining his father and son “pic-a-nic.” He wanted to laugh but didn’t let it come out, because he knew it would sound like a cry.
The men were called Guerillas. Mickey knew this because that’s what the boy always called them. Just like he knew the cardboard rifle would spit real death when he pulled the trigger. It was flimsy and not much to look at, despite their combined efforts to color it and adorn it with flames and notches to represent previous kills. Those were merely for intimidation, as Mickey Pringles had never killed anyone or anything before. The black magic marker died less than halfway through the process, so he switched to purple, and then midnight blue when the purple died, the boy dutifully searching the junk drawers for more and handing them over like a surgeon’s assistant when he did.
The Guerillas reached behind their backs in unison and pulled out slender tubes that would breathe fire and roast Mickey if he didn’t act fast. The Guerillas fanned out on each side, moving around on his flanks. Mickey reached up and gripped the slide, preparing to prime his imaginary weapon for battle against these creatures, which he wasn’t sure were there.
“Here goes something.” He took a deep breath and pulled back on the slide. It was solid against his fingers and the cardboard gun cocked with a heavy metallic chunk, the first round loading into the flat, corrugated paper chamber.
The Guerillas twittered and gripped their flamethrowers at the sound. They halted their advance, those in front dropped to a knee, and all flicked a switch on the side of their strange weapons, which ignited with whooshes of orange flame at the end of the barrels.
Mickey held his gun at his hip and loosed a ferocious roar. He pulled the pretend trigger and the cardboard carbine leapt in his hands. A Guerilla near the middle of the pack screamed and three holes materialized in a straight line from his navel up to his black goggles. His head disintegrated in a dark spray that covered the two Guerillas behind him. They screamed as well, a sound akin to hogs at a slaughterhouse, and turned to run. The rest of their company jumped back and froze.
Mickey’s heart thundered in his chest from the adrenaline surge of his first real kill. He reached up and brushed strands of his lovely red wig from his sticky, sweaty forehead. Then he turned to his left, firmed his grip on the near-weightless paper to keep it from kicking straight up in the air again, and unleashed hell. Mickey swung the gun left and right, hosing the Guerillas with a barrage of searing metal. They turned to run and bullets tore into the fuel packs slung on their backs, igniting them in great plumes of liquid fire. Chunks of barbequed Guerillas whizzed past Mickey’s head as a chain reaction of explosions rocked the desolate, boarded-up neighborhood and sent fireballs high into the starless sky.
Mickey held the fake trigger until his pretend magazine was empty. He stood quivering from the power of his weapon and baking in the furnace of a dozen burning Guerillas. More still ran away down the street, flames curling from their bodies and piggish squeals issuing from their dying mouths.
Mickey lifted the smoking barrel to his lips and blew. He pressed a button on the side, colored in sea-foam green crayon, and the empty cartridge slid from the gun and clattered to the ground. From beneath his skirt he pulled another cartridge, a square of cardboard done in the boy’s favorite color, Magic Marker red, from the garter on his thigh and slid it into place. Satisfied with the work he’d done in the street, Mickey turned toward the whore’s house and strode across the lawn to the front door.
He pounded on the door and waited on the front porch, pawing at the sweat that poured down his face from beneath his pretty wig. A flaming Guerilla staggered onto the lawn toward him, reeking of torched flesh and musky terror, but one round to its forehead silenced its tortured squealing, its boiled brain exploding from the back of its head. The door opened at that moment and when Mickey turned back, the whore’s huge, angry, sweaty face loomed over him like a nursery rhyme troll.
“What the fuck are you doing out here?” the giant whore screamed. Her eyes moved to the flames on the lawn. “What did you burn now?”
Mickey Pringles staggered backward, stumbling off the front porch step. The woman’s face resembled that of an enraged clown more than a desired and readily available member of the opposite sex. Though Mickey had intended on explaining his valiant acts to rid the neighborhood of the vile, dangerous little creatures that were now reduced to crackling lumps in the street, a sudden fear rendered him speechless. His mouth formed and reformed an O, and he felt like a fish trapped on dry land, squirming without breath.
“Why are you wearing my wig?” The whore stood straight, a full three feet taller than Mickey, who felt like a dwarf in her immense shadow. She took an aggressive step toward him and snatched the wig from his head, along with a few strands of his real hair. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out in pain.
“Goddammit, I told you to stay out of my things, you snotty little shit! Take off my shoes and skirt, too, you goddamn faggot!”
Mickey obeyed, slipping off the clothing until he stood on the lawn in nothing but his underpants, still clutching his cardboard rifle. The whore stomped out of the house, wrapping a robe around her that did little to hide her jiggling bits from view as she reached down and collected the clothes. She tossed them inside then spun around and slapped Mickey so fast he didn’t realize what had happened until he was sitting in the grass, holding his stinging cheek. The huge whore grabbed Mickey’s arm and dragged him inside. He staggered behind her in a daze as she yanked him along like he weighed next to nothing. Loud music pulsed through the house, a deep rumble of bass that drowned out any hope of deciphering lyrics or instrumentation. A noxious haze wafted through the dimly lit rooms, adding to Mickey’s disorientation.
They reached a door at the end of a dark, dank-smelling hall and the massive whore threw it open. She gripped Mickey by his shoulders and leaned her grotesquely painted face close to his. Her breath smelled of dead things and a surge of nausea caused Mickey to go limp in the knees.
“This is what happens to thieving little shits,” she said as she shoved him through the door. Mickey seemed to float in the air for a frozen moment in time, long enough to recognize that the sudden sensation of falling was not due to his numbing fear, or the cloud in the hall, or the whore’s repellent halitosis, or the thumping bass track, but rather to the fact that he was actually tumbling down into a dark space. The back of his head struck a hard surface, wood by the sound of his head’s reverberation against it. That was Mickey’s last thought before he blacked out.
* * *
Mickey awoke to the boy. Through the pulsating pain and high hum in his ears, he heard him. He was crying and shivering, bleeding. Mickey could smell the blood running out of their head. The boy was awake and he was scared and the crushing weight of fear, of abject terror, was consuming him. The boy would not last long at this rate, and then they would both be gone. Mickey had vowed to never let that happen again. He would not allow the boy to go away like before. To slip into that black place where they were trapped for so long. It was because of Mickey that they made it out, and Mickey was not going to allow the boy to go back there.
“Boy.” Mickey’s throat was dry and his voice cracked. “Get up, boy. Stop crying and get on your feet.”
“Don’t want to,” the boy whimpered. “I’m scared. Guerillas and whores out there.”
“You have to, boy. You have to because there’s Guerillas and whores out there. Can’t stay down here. We gotta fight them.”
The boy choked back a sob. “But they’re bigger than me. Don’t know how to fight them and they’re scary.”
“You don’t have to do it alone, we will do it together. You trust me, don’t you, boy?”
Silence for a long beat. Finally, the boy said, “Yeah.”
“I was there for you before, right?”
“OK. And I’m here for you again. Mickey and the boy can do it together.”
The boy bit their lip until blood ran in their mouth.
“Boy, you just seen what happened. Next time, she’s gonna kill us. I ain’t gonna let her do it. We have to get her now. You ready?”
Silence for a long time. Then the boy wiped at his running nose and whispered, “OK.”
Mickey stood and wobbled on his feet, still dizzy from the tumble. He scanned the basement, trying to pierce the darkness, looking for something they could use as a weapon. He wished the boy still had his crayons and markers with him, but this was not the time for wishes and dreams, for cardboard guns. They needed something now. They felt around together, running their hands over boxes and crates filled with unidentifiable objects and moist junk.
“This?” The boy pulled out what felt like a length of metal pipe, something dense and coated with rust that was probably older than him.
“Maybe. Hang on to it.”
They searched on. Mickey wiped a trickle of blood from his eyes. He felt a gash on his head, up on his scalp beneath the hairline, but it was beginning to clot, the flow of blood slowing.
Mickey ran his hands over the boy’s next find and knew right away what it was. “Yeah, this is perfect. Let’s go.”
The trip up the creaking basement stairs was difficult and treacherous, Mickey swaying from the blood loss and pain undulating through his head, threatening to take them backwards down the steps again. The boy talked to him to keep him steady, and he talked to the boy to screw up his courage.
Mickey quietly turned the door handle but the loud thump of music on the other side rendered their stealth obsolete. The haze of smoke soothed Mickey as they drifted down the hall to the bedroom. The whore and her newest boyfriend lay in a naked heap on the floor. The haze was thickest in there, but they pushed through, Mickey and the boy.
The whore lay with her head between the boyfriend’s legs, her fake hair mingling with his dark patch. Her mouth hung open, a thick, milky string of drool suspended between her lip and the filthy floor. Mickey and the boy were used to seeing the whore like this on a nightly basis and they knew she would not be trouble. The boyfriend, though, he was different. They didn’t know him or what he was capable of. Mickey stood near his head. The boyfriend would have to be first, just in case he caused trouble. They would save the whore for last. It was better like that anyway. Mickey raised his arm to strike but thought better of it. Instead, he handed the small but sturdy hatchet to the boy.
“Here, you need to do this.”
The boy recoiled at first, but Mickey insisted. The boy turned it over in their hands, feeling its metal head, gripping the weathered, experienced hickory handle.
“You don’t need me for this,” Mickey said. “I took care of them monsters out there, but you need to handle the ones in here.”
The boy nodded and examined the hatchet. He shifted it from hand to hand, testing its heft, a grin spreading over his face. Mickey swelled with pride. “Lock and load,” he said.
This was what the boy had needed all along. To take care of his problems himself.
And the boy took to it with gusto, covering the walls in dark, thick red.
His favorite color.
BIO: Steve Lowe has written numerous stories about small, hairy men. Make of this what you will. He also thinks that pantsuit looks fantastic on you, and he’s not just saying that. His first book, MUSCLE MEMORY, was published in 2010 by Eraserhead Press, and his next two books, KING OF THE PERVERTS (Grindhouse Press), and MIO PADRE, IL TUMORE (Bucket ‘O Guts Press) are forthcoming in 2012. His short fiction has most recently appeared in Amazing Stories of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Abomination Magazine.