When Harry got up that morning, he had no idea that it would be the worst day of his life. His only thought was to wonder how much time there was before he could pick up his son.
Little Charlie was one of the few reasons he continued to live. At ten years of age and already five-nine, he was the light of Harry’s dark life. Well, he supposed his life hadn’t been all that dark; he had been born to parents who were pretty well off, he had gone to good schools, he had won awards for his athleticism in college. He had even been working at a good job. It’s just that recently, his life was a dark moat crawling with tragic ordeals.
Everything started going bad when Harry’s parents and brother, who had been on their way to a wedding., had gotten into a car crash. His mother and brother died instantly, but his father, minus both arms and legs, managed to hold on for a day longer. Harry started going with his older brother, Max, to bars, where they would spend their nights getting drunk and remembering their childhood.
When Max finally got his grief out of his system, he moved on, leaving Harry to drink alone. Harry, not one to go drinking in public alone, gave up the bars and started bringing bottles of whiskey home. He usually sat in his study, drinking at least a fifth a night.
Eventually he lost his job because the quality of his work went down. Some days he even came to work drunk. Other days he didn’t bother to show up at all. His wife Carla covered for him for a while, calling him in sick, but when he lost his job, she started losing sympathy for her husband. She started confronting him about his illness, quoting books she read on alcoholism.
Harry shrugged it all off, but one night Carla told him that he was setting a bad example for Charlie. For some reason (he could never figure out why despite the sleepless nights he spent thinking about it), that angered him more than the rest of Carla’s babbling, and he did something he never thought he’d do. He struck his wife with not an open hand but a fist. She reeled back, her cheek puffy and red, and he instantly regretted what he had done. But no matter how many pleas and I’m-sorrys that spewed from his mouth, Carla remained adamant in taking Charlie and leaving.
A week later she filed for divorce. Harry signed all the papers willingly, but he cried the whole time. And it wasn’t just because Carla got the house, the new car, and just about everything else (including Charlie), but also because all of it was his fault. It could have been avoided if he had just listened to his wife, but oh no. He was too busy with his close friend, Jack. Or Jim, if money was tight.
Harry “vacated the premises” (which was how Carla’s lawyer referred to Harry’s exit) and rented an apartment. He started going to AA, one of the stipulations of the visitation rights granted by the judge.
Now he managed to get another job (not as much pay as before, but it was still enough to get by), and he hadn’t had a drink in three months. The pain from his dead parents and brother was as dulled as it would get, and for the first time in a long time he felt optimistic.
There was nothing that he loved to do more than spend a Saturday with Charlie.
When he arrived at his wife’s house, Harry was greeted at the door by Bob, Carla’s boyfriend.
“How you doing, Bob?” Harry asked.
“Fine, fine,” Bob said, running a hand over his perfectly sculpted Ken-doll hair. “I’ll get Charlie.”
Harry waited on the porch that once was his. He never entered the house anymore. Too many memories. Besides, he was content to look at the potted plants by either side of the door.
Harry looked into the foyer as Charlie bounded toward him. They embraced, and Harry thought back to the old days, when Charlie used to jump into his arms. Now Charlie was getting too big (not to mention Harry was getting too old) for that type of thing. Harry was only six feet himself, and he knew that in a few years, Charlie would be taller than his old man.
“How ya’ doin’ there, li’l pilgrim?” Harry drawled in his best John Wayne imitation. Charlie, who had just recently discovered the Duke, was ecstatic. They released each other.
“Are we gonna’ watch a John Wayne movie tonight?” Charlie asked.
“Maybe later,” Harry said. “For now, I got an even better treat.”
“You’ll see.” Harry winked.
“Where are you two going today?”
Harry looked around Charlie and saw Carla standing between the plants, her arms crossed. Harry didn’t think Carla would ever forgive him, and he knew Bob would never accept him, so he usually hurried to get out of there.
He leaned in close to Carla, who backed up slightly. He was going to whisper in her ear so Charlie couldn’t hear, but he decided that might not be a good idea. “I’m taking him to the Wild West Show,” he said.
Charlie cheered and ran inside the house, whooping like a drunken cowhand.
“Where’s that?” Carla asked.
“It’s maybe an hour west,” Harry said. “Out by Loester.”
“Yeah, but Charlie’ll love it. I know I did, when I was his age.”
“Just make sure he doesn’t eat too much,” she said.
Harry nodded, and Charlie reappeared, still whooping, but now he was dressed like a cowboy, complete with plastic spurs, a white hat, and a holster with two cap guns in it.
“You ready?” Harry asked.
“Yet bet!” Charlie let loose with a “YEE-HAWWWWWWW!”
“Did you eat yet?”
“No, he didn’t,” Carla said.
“We’ll stop at McDonald’s first, okay?”
As Charlie nodded with vigorous approval, Harry reached into his shirt pocket and took out the child support check. She handed it to Carla, who examined it before pocketing it.
“Say goodbye to your mother,” Harry said.
“Goodbye to your mother!” Charlie chirped and laughed.
They stopped at McDonald’s, where Charlie had a cheeseburger Happy Meal, and Harry had a Big Mac. Harry asked Charlie about school, a subject the fifth-grader wasn’t too keen on. He did well (straight B’s with the occasional A or C), but he didn’t make many friends. His fellow students made fun of his tall, gaunt shape. Not that he was fed poorly. Charlie reminded Harry of Jughead from the Archie comics; he could eat like a king and still remain thin as a pauper. Carla’s mother was fond of saying he should eat more and “put some meat on those scrawny bones.” Charlie didn’t mind, though. He thought he looked like John Carradine in Stagecoach.
The day before, however, Charlie got in trouble for trying to recreate the mud fight in McClintock!, which wounded two third graders and ruined about fifteen sets of clothes, one of which belonged to the principal.
Harry gave the usual reprimands (“you should be more careful,” “that was a stupid thing to do,” and, of course, the classic, “promise me you’ll never do that again”), but he found himself trying not to laugh during Charlie’s description. Besides, it was not all that different from something Harry had tried himself when he was Charlie’s age. He had taken his father’s archery set to school, and dressed as a Native American, he shot a bunch of arrows in the gymnasium, howling like what his gym teacher called “a Injun.”
Aside from getting in trouble, Charlie was also supposed to do a state project, meaning he had to pick a state and do a report on it. When Harry asked which state, Charlie said, “Vermont, because the guy who wrote those Soup books lives there.”
When they were finished eating, they hit the road to the Wild West Show, listening to the radio and talking about Westerns. An hour and a half later, they were pulling into the Wild West Show’s parking lot.
“It looks like a town in the West,” Charlie said reverently as he took off his seat belt and slid out of the car. Harry joined him, and they headed for the gate, where Harry coughed up ten dollars for admission.
The day went rather smoothly, Harry thought, until the pony ride. The first thing they did was go through a gift shop, where Charlie begged for Harry to buy him a vast number of things. While Harry nixed the pleas for replica guns, Western clothes, and the like, he did give in on buying a marshal’s badge, a couple of wooden nickels (“Didn’t yer pappy never tell ya not ta’ take no wooden nickels?” the clerk asked when he rang them up), a piece of petrified wood, and a packet of replica Confederate money. After that, Charlie took roping lessons from a guy dressed up like a cowboy. The same guy also tried to give Charlie hatchet-throwing lessons, at which he failed miserably, eliciting a series of horsey laughs from Charlie.
Then they went for a ride on a miniature train, after which they stopped in a saloon for a couple of Cokes. Then it was on to Charlie’s favorite part: the shootout. Five actors took guns that fired stage blanks and ran about, acting out a ten-minute play. Before they began, the actor that played the marshal gave a speech about how you should always be careful with guns, even ones loaded with blanks. He illustrated this last point by shooting at a soda can from close range with a blank. The can ended up with a small hole in one side and a frighteningly big hole on the other.
After the show came the pony ride, where the nice day went to hell. Charlie stood in a line of children, all smaller than he. When it got to be his turn, the cowgirl eyed him carefully.
“Yer too tall fer this ride,” she said. “Sorry, pilgrim.”
“But I wanna’ ride the pony,” Charlie said, his voice raising an octave.
“Sorry,” the cowgirl said again. “Yer too tall.”
Charlie looked to his father, his lips quivering. Harry said, “He’s only ten years old.”
The cowgirl didn’t look like she believed him, but she said, “That may be, but he’s still too tall.”
Harry sighed. “Come on, Charlie. Let’s go pan for gold.”
Charlie started crying, and Harry put an arm around his son’s shoulder, leading him away so the next in line could have his turn.
“It’s all right, Charlie. Let’s go get some fool’s gold.”
Still, Charlie cried on. Then, out of the Marshal’s Office ambled a tall (maybe six-three or -four), well-built man with a more than passing resemblance to Sam Elliott. He wore a tin star and the usual cowboy attire. As soon as Marshal Sam saw Charlie, he stopped in front of the boy.
“What’s ailin’ the li’l pilgrim?” he drawled.
“They wouldn’t let him on the pony,” Harry said.
The marshal (not the same one from the shootout) put his hands on his knees and lowered himself slightly so he could look Charlie in the eyes. “Ya know, we don’t allow cryin’ in my town,” he said with a gentle smile. “Dry those eyes, li’l pilgrim, ‘fore some lynch mob sees ya.”
Charlie sniffed. “Lynch mob? Like in Young Guns 2?”
“Yep,” the marshal said.
“I don’t see no lynch mobs.”
The marshal straightened up. “Then I guess I’ll have ta’ take ya myself.” His hand drifted down to the butt of his gun.
Charlie’s face broke out into a smile, and he imitated the marshal’s hand. “Make your move, lawman.”
Harry would have worried about the marshal’s gun, except he remembered the other marshal talking about how the guns everyone wore outside the shootout stage couldn’t fire at all, not even blanks.
The marshal pulled his gun, but Charlie was faster. He fired off a bunch of caps before the marshal could even clear his holster. The marshal grimaced, grabbed his chest, and fell down. Charlie laughed as he twirled his cap gun on his finger, then holstered it.
“Ya . . . no good . . . varmint!” the marshal gasped from on the ground. He lifted his gun, pointing it at Charlie.
Charlie went for his gun again, but this time the marshal pulled his trigger first. There was a loud crack, and Harry jerked, his heart rabid in his chest. It was too loud to be a cap, so at first he thought the marshal had fired a blank. When he saw his son collapse with blood squirting out of his head as if he was a water fountain, Harry thought, No way. This is a dream. A damn nightmare.
The marshal fired twice more, and Charlie’s body jumped with each shot. That struck it home. Harry knew this was real.
“Charlie!” he screamed, and he ran to his son. Harry knelt down next to Charlie and pulled him into his arms, turning him over to see his face. He looked into his son’s eyes, but it was like examining a pair of blank television screens. There was a third eye in his forehead, like something out of a sci-fi movie, except this eye was red, and it was crying.
“No,” Harry croaked. “Please no. God no. Wake up, Charlie. Please wake up.”
A shadow fell over Charlie’s body like a shroud, and Harry knew without looking up that it was the marshal. “Quick pilgrim,” he said. “Not all that smart, though.”
Each word stabbed into Harry’s heart, burned his eyes, flayed his mind. He heard something crunching in his head and realized he was grinding his teeth.
He killed Charlie. He killed Charlie. Hekilledcharlie!
The mobius thought charged through his mind as he gently placed Charlie’s head down and looked at the marshal, who was looking down at the corpse of his victim with a gaze akin to one trying to figure out whether a painting was art or not.
Harry roared and jumped at the marshal, tackling him to the ground. His hands went for the marshal’s throat, and he began to squeeze as hard as he could, which wasn’t much. His stint as an alcoholic had taken much of his strength away.
The marshal struggled under him, but all Harry cared about was squeezing the fetid black soul from this murderer’s body. He felt his fingers sinking into flesh like dough, not even aware of the yell pouring from his own mouth in a perpetual biblical flood.
He felt something press against his belly, but he paid it no mind; he was too busy with the pulsing skin in his palms.
There was a crack, and he felt pain, but he would never relinquish his grasp on the marshal’s throat. Not if he could help it.
He heard two more shots, and he began to worry that he might not be able to hold on long enough. The world was lopsided and fading. His hands no longer felt strong, and the next thing he knew the world vanished into darkness.
Charles Harold Fleming was pronounced dead at 4:30 pm by a paramedic. The ambulance packed Harry in the back and headed for the hospital, where the bleeding was stopped. Harry was stitched up, but the doctors knew he would never walk again. Still, they said, Harry was lucky. He did, after all, survive.
Harry didn’t look at it that way. Upon waking up, he remembered that Charlie was dead, gunned down by a maniac dressed as an Old West marshal. The news that he was paralyzed from the waist down didn’t help matters, either.
The worst part, though, was when Carla and Bob came into his room. Carla was bawling her eyes out, and Bob was playing the role of the comforting boyfriend. The first thing out of her mouth wasn’t hello. It wasn’t how-are-you-I’m-really-sorry. It was:
“How could you let our son die?!”
Bob gently tried to shush her, but it was no use. She just kept on shouting curses and questions at Harry, who could do nothing buy cry.
The detective that took his statement told him that the marshal was really a man called Wesley William Johnson, and he didn’t even work at the Wild West Show. Johnson had been a patient at a mental institution who thought he was living a Western. Unfortunately, he had no insurance, and the shrinks had to let him go. Besides, they thought he was harmless.
Johnson ended up killing a couple more people (one of them being the real marshal from the shootout play) before he was gunned down by the police.
Carla’s lawyer was busily preparing a case against the institution, the Wild West Show, and Harry Fleming, but Harry didn’t pay much attention.
He was too drunk for that.