Cass Hayes, 6/12/2017

Current Occupation: Intern at the Oxford American
Former Occupation: Food preparer at Taco Casa in Waxahachie, Texas
Contact Information: Cass Hayes is from Waxahachie, Texas and is currently a student in the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas.

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Wanted Dead and Alive

    Steve could feel his brain getting harder and heavier. The doctors had looked him over, shook their heads, said there was nothing they could do– his brain was turning to stone. A tale as old as time, some pathogen had caused some virus. They had said he’d gotten it from a mosquito bite, but bull to that. Steve thought he probably got it from drinking out of the school water fountain after Mitch McDougal, the redneck twerp who always had sores oozing on his lips. No matter, though. Right now, mostly all Steve had was a little spot of stone in the back of his brain, and headaches that came and went. Nothing world-ending.

    “You don’t touch anything, don’t do anything, don’t say anything,” said Dale as him and Steve sat in Dale’s pickup on the shoulder of old Highway 77 way out somewhere in the country, surrounded by cotton fields freshly tilled and bare. Dale was all gray– gray hair, skin, fingernails, cowboy hat, and gray stubble on his jaw– and he had to shoot himself up with morphine just so he could stand up straight without passing out. Right now he was in the driver’s seat with a needle in his arm. He caught Steve staring and Steve looked away.

    The truck was ragged, with a trash bag over one of the back windows and a blanket stapled over the backseat cushion. In the passenger’s seat there was a dark stain Steve just knew was blood. Dale had a gun on his hip that he told Steve not to even look at, but then when Steve got all huffy about why’d he even invite him to help out if he wasn’t going to give him nothing to do, Dale’d let him hold it. The gun hadn't been as heavy as Steve thought it’d be. Dale’d snatched it away before Steve could see how it shot. Anyway, he knew he hadn’t been asked along to shoot the ghosts. He’d been asked because he had a smartphone and was dying and so supposedly could see them, and because Dale’d happened to sit next to him in the hospital during treatments a time or two.

    Dale’d waited a while before asking Steve what he had.

    “I don’t know,” Steve had shrugged, as if he couldn’t care less. “It’s something in my head.”

    “Welp,” nodded Dale, rolling his eyes, “at least we know it’s not a brain.” Then he’d asked Steve if he had a smartphone that could record video. When Steve said yeah, Dale asked if he wanted a job, something about hunting down criminals who’d escaped into the ghost world, videotaping them for proof of capture to show to the bounty people. Anyway, it had sounded exciting at the time, and when Dale had said it was dangerous work Steve had jumped on board.

    Steve, of course, knew exactly what he had. The sickness had started out in the pasture with his dad. His dad liked to walk the land sometimes on weekends, traipse around the creek and stock tanks, carrying a pistol and a glass of bourbon and looking to shoot the heads off snakes. He liked Steve to go because then he could ramble to himself without admitting he was a crazy person. “My father used to take me out here, just like this,” he’d say. “But I’m worried about you, son. You’re going soft awfully young. I always feared your place was in the kitchen with your mother.” Then he’d spot a snake, sometimes a moccasin or a cottonmouth but more often just a little old grass snake. “Here,” he’d say, whispering like a prisoner escaping from jail or something, not booming or stomping anymore. “Hold my glass.” And Steve would hold the bourbon, wincing against the crack of the pistol, bracing himself because once he’d jumped and spilled bourbon all down his front, and his dad about to never let it go.

    Steve didn’t remember much of getting sick that first time. He had felt lightheaded and suddenly weak, fell over into the grass and felt so tired he couldn’t move. His father had stared at him. Just tilted his head and stared, his folded eyes glowing fiery blue, squinting down at his son in the tall grass and black dirt– like somebody looking at a possum and trying to figure out if it was dead or not. Then Steve had sort of blacked out. Had woken up in the hospital with a load of doctors observing him, commenting on his color and vitals, taking notes.

    On Highway 77, Steve gazed out the window at the empty field and white sunlight, the bigger and newer highway blurred with cars on the other side of the pasture. “So, what do they look like?” asked Steve, thinking about the ghosts. He knew they weren’t just floating bed sheets. He pictured them being almost see-through and gray, like a projection, or maybe zombiefied like that girl from The Ring. “How do you get to ‘em?” he asked. “Can you shoot ‘em?”

    “You can’t shoot nothing,” said Dale.

    Small fingerprints smudged the window glass. Steve guessed the stains on the seat cushions could also be from a chocolate popsicle running down a little kid’s hand. Or mud from off a dog. Or soy sauce. “I’ve shot snakes before,” said Steve. “My dad showed me how.”

    “Ghosts ain’t snakes,” said Dale.

***

    Steve’s head hurt like heck. He winced, licked his fingertips, and slicked back his hair, checking his reflection in the pickup truck passenger’s side window– checking the ugly red pimple that’d appeared that morning. Then he hustled after Dale. Dale walked a lot like Steve’s dad– with assurance, a manly swagger– but with more caution, slowly and with a hand pressed to his side. Steve guessed the pain in Dale’s gut still hurt even with the morphine. If it was anything like the headache, they were in for a rough day. They walked on the shoulder, careful not to stumble into the steep ditch, Dale’s eyes scanning the road ahead. A few cars shot by. “So,” said Steve, “who we looking for?”

    “Judge Smith.”

    “He’s a ghost?”

    “No. He’s not even a judge. He’s a farmer.” Dale swatted a hand around. His hand was rough and scarred, like the hands of the men who actually tended all the acres Steve’s dad owned while he sat in a pressed suit behind a polished oak desk in an air conditioned bank. “He owns all this land,” said Dale. “Grows cotton. Old school.”

    Steve kicked a broken chunk of asphalt. “If he ain’t a ghost, when why are we looking for him?”

    But Dale wouldn’t say. Steve wondered if Dale had a father or was a father or if someone was waiting at home already mourning his absence, already growing used to it, already moving on. Up ahead, a rusty tin gate was left open to a white rock driveway that led to a small farmhouse in the distance. The farmhouse looked boring, shrunken surrounded by the huge pastures, the waving grass and black dirt tilled in unwavering straight lines. “Judge don’t like nobody driving down his driveway,” explained Dale. “He says other folks’ tires rut up the gravel.”

    “You know him?”

    “Came across him. I’m looking for somebody he used to know.”

    They crunched down the driveway towards the house. The closer they got, the more cussing Steve could make out. “Well I’ll be a sorry sumbitch straight from hell,” grunted a giant of a man swinging a shovel at the ground. He hit something, and the something exploded dark slime onto the man’s shovel and boots. Dale took off his cowboy hat, the wind licking up his gray hair, and called out Judge’s name.

    Judge saw and walked toward them, taking out a handkerchief and mopping his forehead.

    “Frogs?” asked Dale.

    “Hell yeah. Useless as tits on a bull. They tunnel into my foundation.” Dale nodded, as if any of that made a single lick of sense. Steve looked Judge over, feeling a bit unsure about how to take him. He was old, bald, with a wart on his protruding chin and a liver spot over the thin wire frame of his glasses. He moved with stiff knees and had broad shoulders like an ex-linebacker or something– somebody who could snap your spine with his bare hands, if he could catch you. One thing was for dang sure– he wasn’t no ghost.

    “I wish I could help you,” said Dale. “Is there some sort of poison, maybe?”

    “They don’t make none that work right. It kills the rabbits, and then you ain’t got nothing to eat.”

    Dale shook his head sympathetically. Judge stabbed his shovel into the dirt. “You’re still looking for Lana?” he asked, folding his handkerchief back up and slipping it into his jeans pocket. “Because she sure as sin been hanging around here. Asking for money, same as always. Wants to go to Italy.” Judge laughed as if the desire was as crazy as rabbit poison. “She ain’t here now, though. Went down to the lake.”

    “So Lana is the ghost?” asked Steve. “They can use real money?”

    Dale stared daggers at Steve for speaking up. Judge grunted, said, “Money ain’t real, boy.” His glasses glinted as he checked Steve up and down. “What’s your name?”

    “Steve.”

    “Well, Steve, I don’t know what field trip Dale here’s taking you on, but don’t get your hopes up. I’m nearly seventy years old, with two stints in my heart and a rotten pair of lungs, and I ain’t seen no ghosts yet. Most I can do is hear ‘em. And Lana, she leaves me notes. Wrote the last one on the mirror with my dead wife’s lipstick. The slut.” Steve gulped, wondering whether Judge meant Lana or his wife. He looked to Dale.

    “You’ll see ‘em,” said Dale softly, almost sad-like. Steve could see the pain and drugs dulling Dale’s red-rimmed eyes, his irises like stagnant water. Dale nodded and turned back to Judge. “Welp,” Dale said, “thank you anyway.” He returned his cowboy hat to his head.

    Steve heard a ribbit, and Judge scowled and picked back up his shovel, started hunting through the tall Johnson grass. Steve’s head hurt like a spike jabbed through the back of his skull. It made him feel weak. It made him think of his father staring at him in the pasture, the glint of the bourbon glass sharp in the sunlight. The ache steady as a tom-tom, Steve frowned and followed Dale back down the driveway. “Lana’s a criminal?” he asked softly.

    “Lana Jones stole over two million dollars worth of diamonds, which were later recovered with her accomplice brother. He was arrested, but she got away, into the ghost world.”

    Turning back toward the house, Steve watched Judge crash further out into the pasture and start digging some kind of hole with the shovel. “How do you get to the ghost world?” Steve asked.

    “More ways than you know, Steve.” Dale’s jaw was tight like he was holding a marble in his mouth. “Lana did it by shooting herself. It surprised me, a woman like that. But I shouldn’t be surprised. I figure she panicked, but still I woulda thought poison, maybe jumping off a bridge.”

    Steve swiveled back to Dale. “She’s dead? I mean, really dead?”

    Dale twitched his nose and stroked the stubble on his jaw. He glanced out to Judge, grinned and shook his head. “God knows what Lana saw in Judge,” he said. “Grit, I suppose. They don’t make men like that no more.”

    Well, in Steve’s opinion, maybe it was a good thing men like Judge had been discontinued– if only for the frogs’ sake.

***

    Steve imagined the small spot of stone in his occipital lobe expanding, soon calcifying his nerves and brain matter. First taking his vision. Then his ability to understand language. Then making his clumsy. Finally making his head so heavy he wouldn't be able to lift it with just his neck. He’d have to hold it up with his hands or maybe get some sort of contraption to keep it propped up. Like maybe one of those dog cones turned upside down. Of course, by then he’d be drooling like a kid in Calculus, groping around blind too, so would there even be a point in looking around?

    “Do you have a family?” Steve asked. Dale kept his eyes roving across the road, checking the mirrors.

    “Have some daughters. Adults. Had a wife. Had a son. He died.”

    Steve gulped, his throat dry. “Is he–”

“He ain’t no ghost. He’s gone.” Dale pulled through a gate, the fences on each side crooked posts connected with brittle rope. “This world just ain’t for some people, Steve. It eats them out from the inside.”

Steve knew he was maybe supposed to say “I’m sorry,” but he couldn’t say it. Instead he asked, “How can you be so sure I’m gonna see them?” Dale put the pickup in park beside the  lake. “You don’t even know what’s wrong with me.” The radio played Ernest Tubb, but quit as soon as Dale killed the engine. He lifted his hat and pulled his fingers through his gray hair.

“You’ll see ‘em, Steve,” said Dale. He opened the driver’s door and got out.

“My dad didn’t really teach me how to shoot snakes,” Steve said quickly. “I’ve never fired a gun.”

Dale rolled his eyes. “If you really wanna kill a snake, you don’t need a gun.” He slammed the door and the whole truck rattled. Steve hopped out too and followed, even with his head aching and butterflies fluttering in his stomach, thinking maybe he’d made a mistake, thinking maybe he shouldn’t of lied to his dad and went with this broke-up, quite possibly deranged ghost bounty hunter he didn’t know nothing about. They walked toward a tiny shack near the water that said, “Bait and Grub” in peeling red paint on a piece of plywood above the door.

    “You want to kill a snake,” continued Dale, “you got to have talent. Quick hands.” He grinned. “You snatch it up by the tail and snap it like a whip.” He mimed the motions with a startlingly fast fist. “You do it right, the thing’s head’ll dislocate from its spine. It’ll be dead. Not a drop of blood.”

    Dale winced and touched his side. Steve swallowed. “I think my dad likes shooting ‘em.”

    “Well, you don’t have to like what your dad likes. There’s more than one way to kill a snake.”

    The waves cracked against the limestone shore like a knife on a cutting board. A few weeks ago, Steve wouldn’t of gone with someone like Dale, not in a million years, not for a million dollars. He wouldn’t of lied to his dad. The man who’d taken care of him during one of Steve’s mother’s many breakdowns. The man who’d had Steve’s second grade teacher fired when she scolded Steve for refusing to participate in show and tell. The man who’d slapped Steve for making some stupid joke about his grandfather being so pickled with vodka that his body would make the grass on his grave turn yellow. Family meant something sacred and historic to his dad that Steve never did understand. And now Steve could feel the stone creeping forward, the stone that would lay him by his grandfather and leave his dad with no one to hold the bourbon on snake-hunting trips.

    Dale was hurting again. He held up a hand and then went back to the truck to shoot up.

    Steve drifted to the shore. He stood a few steps from the brownish water that rocked fish skeletons and beer cans onto algae-slick limestone. Bullshit that Dale could kill snakes by snapping them like whips, Steve thought. Nobody could do that. It was just big talk. He checked toward the truck and saw Dale grimacing behind the wheel with his head leaned back and a needle in his arm. The truck pinged about the open driver’s door. Steve could feel his smartphone warm in his pocket. He would only have to record Lana if Dale had to shoot her. And Dale said he’d have to shoot her.

    Steve turned back to the lake.

    A cloud of something that resembled gnats drifted up from the surface of the water. Grayish-tan and quivering, the bits floated and dispersed and pulled together, buzzing faintly like the wail of a siren faraway in a pitch-black night. Steve stepped back. Gnats didn’t drone. Mosquitoes? They didn’t form clouds of such fine particles. A dust devil? But the cloud didn’t spin, and dirt couldn’t of been picked up from the water.

    The cloud continued to drift toward him, and in a panic Steve thought of calling out to Dale, but when he turned his head slightly a woman’s voice said, “Please don’t,” and the voice was so desperate that Steve stopped.

    He looked closer, harder, and could see that the cloud had started to take the shape of a woman– tall, with long arms and wide eyes that seemed secure and curious, like a girl who sees her features in an old photograph of her mother. She stayed milky grayish, hugged her stomach and, once her legs fully formed, swayed her hips as she walked toward him in a long fur coat and fashionable high heels. “My name is Lana,” she said in a breathy voice with a New York accent– Steve recognized it from TV and because it didn’t sound like the way people talked around here. She was beautiful, glamorous, with a smile like a pearl necklace.

    “I’m Steve,” Steve said with his mouth gaping open.

    “You’re dying aren’t you?” she said, concerned but flipping her hair like a cheerleader. “It’s not so bad. I can tell you about it.”

    “But you’re not all the way dead,” he said.

    She pursed her sepia lips coyly. “Why are you here?” she asked. “You look awfully young. Looking for one last adventure, one last screw-you to mom and dad?”

    She seemed to be daring him to stare. He looked away, toward the Bait and Grub shack and then toward Dale, who was still in the driver’s seat with his head leaned back and his eyes closed and the needle in his arm like some kind of junkie.

    She wasn’t a criminal, Steve thought. Maybe she stole some jewelry but, Jesus, hadn’t she paid for it by practically dying? Seeing her made Steve’s heart jump like it jumped at the crack of the pistol and the splatter of a snakehead on those shooting trips with his dad. And Steve would always stiffen his jaw at his father afterwards, pretending he could handle it– pretending he felt proud to be a part of a family tradition greater than himself. Pretending that seeing reality– seeing real death– would make him better appreciate life. But in reality Steve felt sick when his dad shot stuff for no reason. In reality, Steve figured death wasn’t part of some sacred family tradition. It happened to you and you had to face it alone.

    “You stole jewelry,” he said.

    “I know.”

    “You broke the law.”

    “We needed the money.”

    “And then you shot yourself.”

    “Yes.”

    “Both stealing and killing yourself are wrong, just so you know.”

    Lana tilted her face upwards. “I wasn’t going to jail. I wasn’t ever going to be locked up. And I’m not going to be locked up now.” Steve watched her as she stood there, her arms hidden in the folds of the fur coat and the smile on her face and a coolness drifting around her. She was some rich girl. Had to be. She walked with the same assurance and flippancy of girls stepping off Highland Park school buses.

    Through her, he could see Dale creeping nearer, holding out his gun with both hands. He must of seen.

    Steve inched his cell phone from his pocket. “You know what it means, Steve, doing things in life that you aren’t proud of but you have to do them anyway. You’re young but you know that,” said Lana.

    “You stop right there, Lana Jones,” Dale said. Steve raised the cell phone and flicked to the camera app. The smile that had been fixed to Lana’s face since she’d appeared now drooped away, and her eyes suddenly became a predator’s eyes, angry at Steve for not letting her get away, for filming her. The moment seemed to Steve like it should be private. Like scattering ashes into an ocean– Steve felt she didn’t want to be seen again. He felt a tug of shame, of fear. Not at her or her anger, and not at Dale or his gun, but at the knowledge that Lana was going to try to get away and Dale was going to stop her– and then she would be gone. Gone all the way this time.

    “What I did was wrong,” Lana said, facing Steve but her eyes cutting to Dale, “but I didn’t hurt anyone but myself.”

    Dale’s hands shook and were loose on the gun. “Death like that hurts everyone who’s ever known you.”

    “Just do what you’re going to do.”

    “I’m obligated to take you in if you cooperate.” He squinted down the gun barrel.

    Lana smacked her lips together as if she just put on lipstick. “I stole that jewelry for money, yes. Me and my brother were in great debt. Terrible debt. But I chose jewelry for personal reasons too. My mother, when I was little, used to open her jewelry box and let me put on the necklaces, the rings, the bracelets, my grandfather’s silver watch. It was all too big for me then, but it made me feel glamorous. There’s always personal reasons.” She swiveled her head to face Dale. Steve noticed her highheels had started to get blurry. The camera recorded. Dale flicked his eyes at it.

    She was starting to disappear, the cloud of what had been her feet and legs now starting to dissipate. The grayish tan of her faded, the gnat-like particles spreading apart again so that her form became fuzzy as if faraway. Dale’s hands tightened on the gun and he squeezed the trigger, and out burst a bullet of blue electricity that hit Lana in what Steve guessed had been her stomach but was now an ill-defined cloud. She spun around, her blurred face shocked and writhing like… like a bucketful of snakes. A dark spot appeared on her temple, and when black ink started to run from it Steve realized it was the bullet wound that had killed her. She screamed louder than a tornado siren. Steve ducked and put his hands over his ears. He dropped the phone. Pain flashed through his skull, and he imagined the high-pitched sound shattering the stone from his brain. But that wasn’t possible. The cloud with Lana’s face shook violently, cobalt blue sparks flying from where Dale’s bullet had hit her.

    In a burst of blue light, she exploded, the particles of her turning white and zipping away into the sunlight through the expansive sky, water, and pastures. Water lapped on the shore.

“Welp,” said Dale, putting his gun back in its holster, “let’s get some lunch.”

    Steve stood timidly and let his hands drop from his ears. He picked up the phone, still recording, and pressed stop. He pressed delete. He dropped the phone again, trying to put it back in his pocket. The whole world had gone a bit hazy, like he was crying, but he wasn’t. Blackness outlined his vision. The headache was gone, and without the pain he felt empty, almost floating, almost as if he didn’t exist. He stumbled after Dale, who walked back to the truck, but Steve only made it a few steps before he stopped, feeling tired, dog-tired. Feeling too worn-out to follow Dale. Steve sat down on the shore. He wanted to tell Dale that he didn’t get the recording. He wanted to know whether Dale would be infuriated or not care, but either way Steve knew Dale couldn’t do nothing about it.

    Sunlight played on his skin– miraculous little flakes dancing and glowing white, the white of apple blossoms in an orchard or magnolia petals in the moonlight. And Steve didn’t think of Mitch McDougal at the water fountain. And Steve didn’t think of Judge bludgeoning frogs to death with a shovel. And he didn’t even think about Dale being mad about not getting the recording and sticking himself with needles.

    He thought of Lana, how she had become a burst of pure energy, scattered throughout the universe.

    He thought of his dad and holding the cool glass of bourbon and feeling proud and dirty at the same time. But Steve didn’t feel proud or dirty one bit now, sitting there beside the wide-open water.

    He felt free.

    He was dying. But for now he was alive. He was alive. He was alive all the way.

 

 

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