Dear Lazarus

Fiction By John Woods

I find my dad in the woods. He stares out at an ancient lake and wanders along the stone shore in his bathrobe, naked underneath, his manhood frozen to a nub.

We’ve searched for 36 hours. The hunting party consists of me and his friends equipped with flashlights and cellphones, others with compasses and maps, men from the Baptist congregation, men who once respected and feared him. It’s late October and EMTs are on standby. After the usual patrol of the neighborhood, then the park, the veterans’ memorial square, we went to the hills surrounding Barnesville. Many of them wear camouflage, but few have ever tracked a man. I only headed to the lake because he took us fishing there, years ago before it was abandoned and polluted, the strip mining, the acid drainage.

I hug him close, a skeleton of cold white skin, leaves in his hair, glassed eyes crazed and lost. I cup his neck as he shivers, tell him I love him. He paws at my flat chest, then, disgusted, recognizes me, who I’m not, shoves me away.

“No! She’s here! She needs me.” He stumbles back, looks to the surrounding trees, our reflections along the dark water. “She’s waiting for me.”

Across the bank, someone blows a whistle and calls for help. Someone fires birdshot in the air.

Mom and I lead him inside. Six trucks are still parked outside the house. Bearded men in flannel say take care, Arnold and don’t go wandering around again. Some embarrassed and sad, some resigned to it. Young boys in tattered sweatshirts behave as if they are at a funeral, bow their heads. Some are proud, mission accomplished. Tired women with long hair ask if we need anything, tell my mother to endure and abide. They prayed and look what came, here he is on your doorstep, Averill. Didn’t we tell you? All say they’ll keep on praying.

After the door shuts us alone, she kisses his cheek, smells him and cries, waddles far down the hall. “Oh, Arnold, you idiot. You Goddamn idiot.”

Upstairs, I lower him into the tub and scrub him down, wash the dirt from his hair and the slop from his thighs. I throw washcloths in the trash can, and hum him the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show–a thing he might remember. I run the shower, help him stand and rinse clean, then, refill the tub and let him soak, rest back content, his wiry white hair and sagging flesh. His face droops on the left, his head forever tilted. He breathes deep and chomps his crooked jowls.

“Why’d you run away again, Dad?”

He wipes his eyes, seems surprised to see me there, watching him.

“She’s not out there,” I say. “You can’t keep doing this.”

“Demon. I know your tricks.”

I wet the sponge, wash his back. His features are vulnerable and soft. Old, no longer the stern face of that well-meaning tyrant I escaped.

“She’s in the trees. At night.” He notices my delicate face in the mirror. He smiles and reaches out to a reflection.

“No.” I stop his hand. “It’s just me. Mark.”

He looks to the mirror, then to me. Betrayed. Deceived. His lips tremble. “She hides with her children.”

He’d been a juvenile probation officer for thirty years. When he started, it was only marijuana, some violent tempers, vandalism. But when the 20th century ended, things became unrecognizable. The rural areas were no longer isolated. What started in Columbus and Cleveland took longer to come, but it still came. Like a stone in a pond, he’d said, the ripple eventually reaches every shore. He almost quit. All the heroin, meth, robberies, disappearances, conflagrated trailers. Poisoned families. Dead children. A dark cloud came over the Ohio Valley and never left. Any badness that was in a people was exacerbated. He said it was all despair, Godlessness, some cultural illness he couldn’t understand. He had no idea what made white kids want to ruin themselves.

No matter how hard or backward it became, he did right by the town, made it his duty to discipline and help Barnesville’s people. I know that sounds stupid and romantic. And that’s the problem. There’s too many now that would walk away from such a job. I never took it. Never will. He always said it was community, but maybe it was just him. I’m not the only one who thinks that.

I was always proud of him, but it wasn’t easy calling him my dad. He lectured with his mouth and enforced with his fists, making damn sure I, his only son, never missed a step. Me or my twin sister, Mary.

The stroke came after Mary died. He identified her corpse, and the horror destroyed his body. Dementia, brain damage, the neurologist said, five minutes without oxygen. Now, he forgets. Mom and I fear reminding him of the truth will throw him overboard where he’ll drown. So, we don’t talk about her. My sister is a ghost, an awful silence we pretend not to hear.

Vance Sherman picks me up for work every morning at six. He got me the job at the dairy in Wheeling. It’s a forty-minute drive across the Ohio River. In Washington DC, I wore buttoned-down shirts and slacks. Now, it’s jeans and heavy cotton shirts, a Carhartt, and stiff work gloves. Vance is an old friend who picked up just where we left off, even though I’d been gone for over ten years, and he’d been killing insurgents in Iraq. Now he lives with his parents, like me, though he has his own shack behind their house, stocked with guns and beer and video games, fantasy RPGs, a sand-ravaged American flag hung on the wall.

He blasts the truck’s heater and puts on NPR, so he can occasionally cuss at the “libtards” and mimic Diane Rehm’s “sexy-raspy” voice. Then, it’s AM radio until the sun comes up. We want to sterilize the Bible thumping evangelists but the new world order conspiracy theorists hold our interest.

“You two thinking about a home?”

“We have a home,” I say.

“Putting him in one.”

“Someplace with bars on the windows? Pillows on the walls?”

His face is sharp, mean from afar, but he has a kind smile, genuine. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. But what’s the plan, man? This shit can’t last.”

“He belongs with family.”

“He went looking for her, Mark. That’s…awful.”

The forest we played in as kids is leveled for miles, stripped to the roots, churned mud like a biblical storm, bulldozers and cranes, a fracking tower flame.

“Just hard for me,” he says. “Seeing him like that. I love your dad. Got really lucky, him as my officer.”

Vance was a troubled child, killed birds, tortured bugs, lit fires. Then, he became an angry teen, lightning violence. A yellow haired imp, a pale barbarian. He went on juvenile probation our junior year. Vance stabbed Brett Hastings in the chest with a corn dog stick, because Brett wrote a sonnet to Vance’s girlfriend at the time–my sister–tried to manipulate her into loving him.

“I never told anyone this,” Vance says, “but I told your old man. When he was on top of me, Brett bit at my neck. That’s why I reached for whatever I could and stuck him. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t just a lunchroom brawl. He’d have ripped my throat out.” Vance watches the road, squeezes the wheel, uncertain, afraid, a half-remembered dream he cannot understand.

“What’d Dad tell you?”

“How you know he told me anything?”

“He always had something to say. When it was about his daughter.”

“He told me women are the only thing in life worth fighting over. And every woman knows a man who wouldn’t kill for her isn’t worth a shit.”

Our senior year, the Army recruiter found Vance shooting a crossbow at stray cats. The military harnessed him and redirected his instincts.

“Well,” I say. “That’s probably true.”

“When we found him last night, wandering in the woods all alone, it broke my heart, man. And that isn’t easy.” He glares at the wasted earth outside. “Mark. Listen. I’m serious now. If I ever end up like him, just fucking shoot me.”

I’m thirty-two years old and parenting my parents. Resentment is hard to manage. Guilt is unavoidable and painful, because I know I owe them. She carried me in her for nine months, nurtured a parasite. He put supper on the table, a roof over my head, saw that I got a college education, photojournalism. Now, they need me to do their laundry, pay the utilities, cook their meals. She used to be capable, the woman anyone could ask to volunteer. Bake sales and charity drives. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. School board. Now, she sleeps in a recliner, watches late night evangelicals heal cripples. I bring her food, and sometimes, she eats it. She used to have golden curls, before my sister died. Her hair went white in two years.

I live upstairs in my old bedroom with a three-thousand-dollar camera I no longer use, my newspaper photographs framed on the walls. I shook hands with dignitaries, snapped Bill and Hillary’s final banquets, Bush and Cheney getting handed the kingdom’s keys. I loved DC, where nobody knew me. I was true to myself there, dated men casually, an alternative life, a dream now. When Mary died, I returned home. It’s not fair, maybe not sensible. But it’s simple. I couldn’t leave them alone. I had to look after them. I had to, for once, be a good son.

Most nights, I wake up choking with panic, stare at the dark ceiling, the black elm outside the window. Faint blue light glows downstairs, Mom’s ecclesiastical television. Sometimes, Dad hovers over me, touches my face, crouches in corners, wanders rooms like a shadow. I’m not sure how I returned here, this familiar yet strange place. I don’t know how or when I can ever leave.

Home is what swallows you.

Vance proposes it in the morning, when we’re loading freight, thousands of gallons from Appalachia’s finest bovine tits. Cold wind off the river burns our skin. My dry thumb splits open, knuckle to nail. I rub in some of Mom’s hand lotion, coconut almond truffle. He comes over and gets a feminine whiff and asks if runty ones like me prefer catching or pitching. I tell him to go fuck himself.

“I’ll need some of that lotion first.”

He’s had his coffee and is all smiles. He asks if I still have my paintball gun. From high school. I say it might be in the attic.

“I bought two boxes,” he says. “Two hundred rounds in each.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing you guys usually do, is it?”

“We like to have fun. A different kind of violence.” His eyes become radioactive. He rubs his hands together, blows into them while bouncing up and down. “It’ll be good for you. Baby steps.”

“I don’t know.”

“I got you white.” He slaps my chest and laughs. “I got red. Come on, Anne Geddes. Let’s repaint that Bolshevik’s house.”

Mary was the first to squirt out, I’m told. There was crying, jubilation. When the doctor said there was another, my dad said, No, that isn’t possible.

My mom said, Surprise, Arnold. And then I, the happy accident, came into the world. He held his twins close. I have a photo in an album where he grins like a fool, and mom is all sweaty, no longer tortured, a relieved exhaustion.

Our childhood was one of matching blue and pink outfits. We enjoyed the same foods, said the same things simultaneously, and finished each other’s sentences. We were baptized together in the cold lake, submerged in the green gloom. We knew each other’s thoughts, a meaningful reflection in the other’s familiar face. A connection deeper than love, shared secrets in the blood. Mary and I were partners in that house, this town, companions in life’s journey.

Then, she died. She was killed. A black hole in my consciousness. An empty space where the dark crept in.

Edward Mills III graduated two years behind me and Vance. He inherited land from his uncle who had allowed Barnesville to use his private property for communal recreation, hiking and sport, another town park. This lasted for years. The land that defined my childhood, now stripped to a lunar waste, the fracking towers burning in the night. That was Edward’s contribution. He made a deal with Demont Natural Gas and then stood before the town with some shit-grinning representative. They said it would foster community. Provide jobs. Edward promised he would bring wealth back to Barnesville.

The land is now infertile. The water table is poisoned. And all he brought were Hispanics. I’ll never blame a man for wanting to work, for traveling hundreds of miles to do so. That’s why I and five other people aren’t invading their trailers, their little portable village over in Tacoma. Not yet. To give blame where blame is due, that’s the hardest part, with anything.

The men and women storming Edward’s house wear Halloween masks: ghosts, witches, ghouls. When the truck skids alongside the curb, we all jump from the tailgate and unload into the quiet Victorian. The paintballs splatter against the windows and vinyl siding. Many of the balls are frozen, so the shutters splinter, and the windows break, and the sound of all that hissing CO2 and snapping carbine is beyond pristine. Righteous.

I used to be a metropolitan man. I used to be weak.

The house boils into a colorful pulp. Someone along the firing line yells, “Fucking traitor,” and another shouts, “No such thing as clean coal, cocksucker,” and then, a couple people scream, Blut und Boden, over and over. I’m pretty sure their paintballs are frozen, the CO2 tanked to the highest pressure.

I used to be my father’s son.

We hear screams and curses from inside. A little grinning kid waves a white pillowcase flag from his window. Someone shoots him in the eye, a red spray that sends him tumbling. Soon, sirens wail far beyond Pine Lane. I unload the last few rounds past a shattered window where they explode against a parlor tapestry, obliterating a vase. I turn to the others. Two jump back in the pickup, the rest reload their hoppers and blast apart the internal light fixtures.

I have been sad my whole life. All this time, anger was the cure.

Vance wears a plastic Grover mask. He grabs my shoulder and says we should punch out. My heart thunders. I feel euphoric. The sirens grow louder. As we skid away, through the darkness of the trees, I glimpse one of us take off his black hood and wrap the paintball gun in his black poncho. He adjusts his black collar and silver badge and runs over to where his police cruiser is parked.

Mary went to graduate school at Ohio State. Columbus was the closest city for her to get the same cultural and worldly experience as her successful DC brother. Though she was the smarter one. Med school. To be a kindhearted pediatrician telling kids to stick out their tongues. Children would have loved her.

She only lived two blocks from campus, but it may as well have been Mogadishu, Dad said, a cramped apartment beside a liquor mart in a bad neighborhood. She roomed with two other girls, splitting bills and groceries. Dad insisted he’d pay her rent elsewhere, but she was too proud, stubborn, said he was a bigot and she was doing this life on her own. Dad bought her a .38 snub for our birthday, but she left the handgun on the kitchen table beside his coffee mug.

Christmas. I flew home early. She was supposed to join us on the 23rd, the day a blizzard dropped thirteen inches. She never arrived. Her cell went straight to voicemail. Dad called his friends in the state patrol. Mom asked if I knew anything, had she run away with someone, was she still mad at them?

There was no Christmas without her. We drank spiked eggnog and waited for the phone to ring. Dad and I searched the back roads leading to Barnesville, all the routes she may have taken. He called her name, and then listened to the limbs creak. Snow buried the world. His truck couldn’t make it up a hill, and we got stuck near the reservoir. We shoveled with an ice scraper and layered fishing towels beneath the tires. Eventually, we abandoned the truck and walked home through the woods. The last good time I remember having with him, a sunny winter afternoon, just the two of us, in hopeful silence.

The police called that night. Her car was in an impound lot, towed from the street after classes on the 21st. Fear ate my heart. On the 27th, they found her body along the Columbus beltway, after the snow thawed. She was naked, had been run over many times, frozen, snowplowed into the ditch. Dad went to identify her and wouldn’t talk for days. The funeral was closed casket with incense. They never found her clothes. Dad kept demanding to know the investigation’s details, whether she was beaten, stabbed, shot. Raped. They said she wasn’t shot. The rest was difficult to know, given the circumstances. Dad kept asking after the suspects they didn’t have. He stalked her roommates, friends, interrogated them in coffee shops. He wanted more done, answers to the questions we all feared. What happened to her? Did she suffer? Eventually, some detective told him, Look, there aren’t too many ways a young beautiful woman ends up dead and naked along the highway.

He lasted a few weeks. He and Mom held each other, stared at me with wonder and resentment. The wrong child died, but they saw her in my blond face and hugged me painfully close. We all cried together. I never went back to DC. Dad continued searching, then one day screamed, fell over twitching and hitting his head against the floor, sobbing and pissing himself like the titan he was.

The Rotary pavilion overlooks the park lake, a crisp sunny day with frost on the trees. Dad sits bundled up in a coat and scarf, a thick hat with flaps. This time, I found him before he reached the woods.

“She’s gone,” I say. “There’s nothing to find.”

He ignores me, comforts a mouse shivering in his gloved palms, rescued from the trash barrel. The other benches are empty. Profanities carved in the wooden beams: Why is Tracy’s chest as flat as her back? Bitches aint shit. Some love declarations: Vance and Mary forever. Nothing can rip us asunder, Kate. A few hammer and sickles, but far more swastikas, the beasts of prey. Cryptic nonsense: How many eyes do you see? Dunkelheit reigns. Come back to sleep, Lazarus. Death is just the end of a bad dream.

Dad pinches the mouse’s head, squeezes its ribs. Its little beady eyes bulge in and out, in and out, soft, horrified squeaks.

“Don’t hurt him, Dad. Let him go.”

“Don’t you tell me my business.”

“He didn’t do anything. Stop. That hurts him.”

He used to give talks here. Quote Ohio’s legal codes. He’d do demonstrations with his Smith and Wesson and pass around his handcuffs. Take questions from the wise Rotarians who respected this burly man who managed their wayward children, the man they’d never invited to join their club.

We share silence. Wind dusts snow from the overhanging limbs.

He brings the mouse up to his mouth and hisses, “My only son’s a faggot, Mr. Mouse.”

I turn away, gaze across the street at the basketball courts. A young man, no more than twenty, plays with his son. The man has huge holes in his earlobes and a spiked nose. He wears a leather jacket with an iron eagle on the back. He swings the little boy over his shoulders, tickles him until he giggles stop. They toss snowballs in the road and laugh when trucks drive by crushing them.

“Let’s go home, Dad.” I look over at him. He grins with bloody teeth.

Our raid made the evening news. Edward’s little boy wears a starched shirt and black eyepatch. His face is swollen and pitiful. A red-veined welt warps his nose and cheek, twisting his gaze upward and knotting his mouth. He whimpers, tells the reporter he thought it was all a game.

Mom scowls and changes the channel to House Hunters. “If your father were still up and running, this nonsense wouldn’t stand long.”

“We’ll never know.” I consider how easy it all was, how we could just as easily have used real guns. I watch an attractive couple, younger than me, enter a marble hallway. They smile and scrutinize a mansion, discussing the pros and cons of a foyer. I wonder where they grew up. I wonder who their parents are.

I go upstairs and tuck Dad into bed. He calls me George and accuses me of stealing his name, feeding snakes in the walls. I lock his door from the outside. I nailed his window shut when I got home from work.

She sits on the couch with a thesaurus on her lap, writes a letter and a check to the TV preacher. They barely live off his meager pension. My income keeps them afloat. I drink a beer, watch her wrinkled fingers move, their fragility, so easy to snap.

The preacher talks about Christian duty, social responsibility. He has parted black hair and a straight smile, wears a sleek tailored suit. He shouts fire and brimstone and looks like a deranged politician.

“Did you get him all straight? Does that lock work?”


“Thank you for installing it,” she says. “How were the cows today?”

“They didn’t complain.”

“I know you get frustrated, Mark. I do too. But your father isn’t well. He’s not himself. And while you may feel like you’ve lost your dad, remember that I’m without my husband. You and me, we’re in the same boat.”

My shadow rises and fades with the television light.

As I walk past with another beer, she clasps my hand and takes the bottle, asks me to kneel and then hugs me, strokes my hair and cries. She smells like I always remember, lilacs. Her touch is soft and warm. I almost melt with comfort, but then she says, “We’ll be rejoined with her. The Resurrection. You have to believe it, Mark. You just have to.”

“Have to pay your dues too?”

“Don’t you be hateful.” She releases me. “Not in this house.”

“They’re all liars, Ma.” I stand and take my bottle back, point it at the television. “Liars and degenerates.”

“No. It’s you. That’s your sin talking. You have to pray yourself clean, son. I’ve always told you. You’ve got an evil in you. I’m just so thankful you’re home, away from that Sodomous pit.” She angles her hips, pats the cushion. “Sit down and pray with me now. You know what you must atone for. You know. It’s coiled around your sweet heart like a viper.”

I stare at her, cock an eyebrow.

“I can’t even say it,” she whispers. “No. Not in this house.”

Ackerman’s longhorn ranch is miles outside town. At night, there is only the occasional headlight in the distance, the dull roar of semis on the highway. Steers with massive horns graze along the black hills. Beyond that barbed wire, the shapes of shadowed demons.

“This world won’t last,” Vance says. “It’s my only comfort.”

Vance and I recline in the tailgate. The air is cold, the world dark. We sip Budweiser and throw empty bottles into the green recycling bin at our feet. There are no stars. We search the void for light.

“A black hole could appear over DC,” he says. “A rift in space and time, swallow that whole swamp. No one would miss it. Things can change so fast. One day, it will all turn around on them.”

“Wouldn’t be like you think.”

“You lived there. You know.”

“They’re having nice weddings. They’re making money. Making jobs. They’re having a better time than us. That’s what I know.”

“LA, too. New York City. Our fucking fifty-first Zionist state in the sandbox. Have no use for any of them.”

“Well, they have no use for you. Don’t even know you’re here.”

“Soon, they will.” He drinks. “Mom asks me, Where do you see yourself in five years? I laughed in her face. She doesn’t get it. This isn’t our country anymore. Fuck it. They can have it, for now, with their mongrel Commander in Chief. Let it be proven, once and for all, that these people are incapable of governing themselves.” He tickles his fingers against the night breeze. “I release myself of the white man’s burden. If we can’t rule them, we’ll have to kill them.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“But it is. It is that simple. Simple and horrible.” He leans forward. “I get it. Such talk still makes you uncomfortable. You and your fellow outcasts…just remember, you’re still one of us. And there’s nowhere else for our people to go.”

I rise up, step out into the high grass, and open another beer. “You know that little boy lost his eye?”

It takes him a moment. “I know. Kid’s name is Edward, too. Not sure if that’s narcissism or laziness. Another fucking Edward.”

“We shot a child’s eye out, and that’s all you got to say?”

“He’ll be the first Cyclops in that numerical lineage. Edward One Eye the Fourth. Esquire.”

“I’m not okay with this. And I don’t like that you are. Feels awful.”

“Well, dumbass, welcome to my world. All the kids I killed in Iraq, nobody here cared, or noticed. Nobody was thinking at all. I came home and everyone was watching Toddlers and Tiaras. So, don’t you lecture me, buttercup.”

We look to the sky that hasn’t changed, terribly indifferent to us.

“I’m pathetic,” I say.


“We’re pathetic. You and me. Your Klan. Fucking. Pathetic.”

“No. You have to learn to stand up for yourself. We all do. That’s what we’re trying to show you.” He props his arms on his knees and gazes out at the night, like some lost and pensive mariner.

Beyond the ranch is a strip-mined hill, a monolithic plateau. At night, its ugliness becomes ancient and profound. There was a time when I would have gauged light and shadow, right shutter speed and film, and created art.

“I loved your sister. Just didn’t know how to show her.”

“I know that, Vance.”

“I’d have gone to jail for her. I’d have always protected her. Nobody else did. I could’ve saved her from those fucking savages.”

“We don’t know they did it. We can’t know. We don’t know anything.”

“Yes, we do.”

I drink. Let the darkness blind me. “This place wasn’t what she wanted.”  

I wasn’t what she wanted. But I’m not the same person. In many ways, the Army saved me. I wish she could know me like I am now. I’m so much stronger. I miss her bad. I’ll never stop.”

I stare back at him. His eyes are wet. He looks at my face for too long.

“Come over here and sit by me,” he says.

When I wake up at 5am, Dad’s at the kitchen table.

“I’m waiting for someone,” he says. A plate of food in front of him, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cold Brussels sprouts, and a glass of skim milk. He drinks and wipes at his chin. “You didn’t come to supper. I started without you.”

I go to the black window and drink a cup of coffee.

He spills his milk, then slams his fist into the table. “Where is she!”

“Mom’s asleep. She must’ve let you out. Can you tell me what time it is?”

“Mary promised to come. She said she’d be here.” His mouth twitches. “She promised. We have presents to open.”

The neurologist instructed us to always meet him where he is. It now sounds so cruel and stupid. No more. “Well, she’s not coming, Dad. She’s dead.”

He looks up at me. His face shakes.

“You can’t save a dead girl.”

“No no. No.” His stare drifts, faraway. “I tried to tell her…but she thinks she’s so smart.”

“Hey. Do you know who I am? I’m here. I’m still here.”

“Oh boy.” His eyes cloud. “I know you. Boy. When you going to give me some grandchildren?”

“Alright, Dad.”

“You need to find a pretty girl. We need good babies. Need good parents.”

“Why has what I want never mattered to you?”

He scowls and flaps his hand at me, as if I were an annoying insect.

I roll up a dish towel, smack him in the face. “Get the fuck up! Let’s go!”

He flinches and cries, “What I do?”

“Nothing! You did nothing!” I hit him again. “Get up, faggot. We’ll go to Columbus and find them. Get your gun. We’ll execute those savages! You know people! You always knew! And now…I know them, too.”

“What I do?” He tries to stand, but I shove him back in the chair. “Ouch. Stop. Please. What I do?”

I slap his face and grab his hands, push them to his mouth. “Look at you now, Hoss! Look at you now!”

My elbow hits the ceiling lamp. Shadows spiral against the walls.

He snaps up and seizes my throat, a furious speed, throws me against the table and backhands me to the floor. A tooth cracks loose. I feel like I’ve been hit by a train. I shield my head, but nothing else comes. And like that, I’m a kid again.

He fumes over me, gaunt and terrifying. “Did you do it? Mark. Mark! You and those fanatics?” He wheezes and hacks, clutches his ribs, waits for me to answer what I won’t. “That poor little boy…The eye?”

I shake my head. “Swear on her grave I didn’t, Dad. On her grave.”

He falls back in the chair. Chest rises fast. He grabs a fork, shovels food into his mouth, gnaws, red eyes narrowed fierce. “Grandchildren. Be…a man.”

His breaths fill that dim space. The lamp still spins, shifts light over us. I swallow blood and keep my lips tight, slowly pull myself up along the counter.

The fork suddenly drops against the plate. He clasps his throat, stares at me, confused. He grunts, pleading. Legs jerk. His tongue flaps against his teeth.

My brain burns, heart uncoils until I actually feel something true again. I step forward, uncertain. Touch his warm spine to offer comfort, help. Then, I sink back to the floor, cover my face and watch. I watch for a long time.

I wait for Vance outside. Everything is slowed down, suspended. When Vance picks me up, he is quieter than usual and stares into the fog. Snow swirls over the road like sand. On the silent highway, trucks float past and then disappear. We say nothing. He leaves the radio off.

I decide to stop pussyfooting around. I tell him, “Happy Veterans’ Day.”

It doesn’t even take him a second. “They can take my Veteran’s status and shove it up their fucking asses with a candle on it.”

When we reach the state border, I ask if he wants coffee, and he says sure. There’s only one gas station open, and we gather our change from the cup holder and floor. The cute girl behind the counter has strawberry blond hair and a scar over her lip, chubby slopes and dimpled cheeks. She’s young with sweet brown eyes, a doe’s eyes. She smiles and asks where I’m from. I only tell her my name. She writes her number on the receipt, circles her name, Mandy.

In the truck, the caffeine loosens him. Vance talks about religion, how Jew and Christian morals are the real problem, preventing what’s necessary to turn everything around. “It’s why we start wars we don’t win, can’t finish. We never go far enough. Got all this power, and we waste it. It’s all fear. Fucking fear. Of sin, damnation. It’s what puts money in the national treasury and the offering plate. Fear is what keeps us enslaved, Mark. And that is as wrong as a little boy getting fucked on the Vatican lawn. We can’t let ourselves be afraid anymore.”

The Ohio River flows dark beneath us. Wheeling’s bridges are triumphs of stonemasonry, icons of a crumbling city loved and then forgotten by industry.

“Got a call yesterday,” Vance says. “Blackwater. Private sector’s offering me five hundred thousand for six months. I’d be doing security for the oil convoys, counter-insurgency, on a government contract.”

“What?” I focus on the heater vent. “You’re leaving?”

“I don’t know, man. Haven’t made up my mind.”

“You’d really go back to Iraq?”

“It’d be different. I wouldn’t be a soldier. I wouldn’t be…constrained.”

At the dairy, several frozen pipes have burst. There’s no water. A total mess. We drove all this way to discover we’ve been low-work-loaded, without pay. Our boss tells us to go home. I ask why we weren’t called sooner. Vance says he can mop up water and reseal pipes. But our boss says it’s a matter of liability, a risk to human health. Vance tells him his father was a plumber. But our boss laughs and asks Vance if he has a single degree, any certification at all.

We stay in the truck and watch a cleanup crew in jumpsuits run in and out of the dairy. They carry hoses and pumps and toolboxes. Some have long dark hair and tanned pockmarked faces, Natives or remnants of conquistadors.

“Look at them.” Vance glares. “Nothing but cheap muscle, donkeys.”

“Let’s just get breakfast. Don’t you eat for free today at Denny’s?”

Cold smoke drifts from his mouth. “You know, they’d all better pray this fucking country doesn’t collapse. That the water keeps running, the electricity flowing, gasoline at the pumps, and American Idol. Because I’ll fucking kill everyone. I’ll make Amon Göth look like a boy scout.”

He starts the truck and drives. We cross the water, climb into Ohio’s familiar hills, shaded hollows.

“How’s your dad doing?”

“He died this morning, choked on a Brussels sprout.”

“Oh yeah? So that’s how the mighty patriarch goes. Death by vegetable.” He laughs and rubs my knee. “You big dummy.”

I cry, look out the window, so he can’t see. I could claw my eyes out, jump into the road and rip apart over the asphalt, let the snow bury me. I can’t even remember her voice, her laugh, her. Somehow, I lost myself.

“I finally stood up to him. Just left him there. Soon…Mom will find him.”

He searches my face, a bad joke he can’t find. “You’re serious.” After some time, he hands me a napkin to wipe my cheeks. “Damn. I’m so sorry. What’re you even doing here? Shouldn’t we be there when she does?”

“It doesn’t matter. Jesus is with her.”

He holds the wheel. “Another one of us, gone…This fucking world. It feels like the end of everything.”

Our guns are behind the seat. We have plenty of ammo. Am I capable of horrific acts? Who is this person I’ve found who looks and sounds like me? Domestic beer was on sale at that gas station. I’m pretty sure I could fool Mandy, charm her, get her pregnant, and replace what’s been lost. I can see it all happening as it always has, and I have this terrible feeling my life’s already over.

“Well.” Vance grasps the back of my neck, squeezes. “We got less than half a tank left. Where are we going?”

John Woods

John Woods is author of the novel Lady Chevy. He has previously published short stories in Meridian, Midwestern Gothic, Fiddleblack, and The Rag. All his work is set in Appalachian Ohio, where he grew up. “Dear Lazarus” is part of an unpublished collection of linked short stories.

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