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By Larry Stephens
A stunning morning in May in the deep, rolling hills of Pennsylvania; temperatures already holding at around 60 or so, with little puffballs zipping around on crests of swirling, late-spring winds.
Mabel — as she has done every day for the last 23 years of her life — wobbles shakily from the simple two-bedroom cape-cod she calls home and makes her way tenuously up a steep, evergreen-lined blacktop.
She’s not feeling well; head pounding and her tongue feels like a huge slab of raw meat stuffed in her mouth, causing her to occasionally gag. She halts in her progress to dab her left eye, which is tender and leaking and will likely be sporting a nice, deep bruise by mid-afternoon. She sighs deeply, turns a venomous glare back to the little house she stepped from, rolls her aged shoulders, lowers her head and pushes onward.
The graded blacktop gets steeper — it always gives Mabel trouble in her knees and she feels more rickety than she’s ever felt before. Mabel wonders if she’ll be able to die soon or if this will go on and on forever, as if this were her hell and she was already dead and God consigned her withered shell to Satan’s treadmill.
One step in front of the other, she tells herself.
But dear God am I tired.
Not tired. Weary.
Mabel pushes on, knees protesting, but determined to crest the hill where she’ll stop for a nice long series of deep breaths and flip her middle finger first at Satan and then her husband, Carl.
Carl of the Foul Temper. Carl, whose fists were sudden, furious and painfully hard. Carl, who has a penchant for pounding the crap out of Mabel without leaving any noticeable marks. That is, except for this morning when Mabel poured his stinky Iron City beer down the drain.
Hence the left eye issue.
Finally! Mabel takes that last step up — and it’s a doozy for sure — and grants herself a little smile in victory. Gotta take ’em when ya can get ’em. She slowly hoists her right hand to eye-height and cranks up that middle finger with a “That’s for you Satan, ya filthy bastard!”
She turns around slowly (lest she lose her balance and take a nasty tumble, although breaking a hip might not be such a bad idea) and pushes that raised middle finger emphatically toward her tiny cape-cod. “That’s for you Carl. Die already.” Mabel is pretty certain Carl didn’t hear her.
She turns and steps off the blacktop, which comes to an unceremonious end at a small plot of grass growing wild. At the other end of the grass lies the entrance to The Wood, and Mabel feels a longing to be in The Wood. She walks across the spongy grass that’s high enough to tickle her bare calves and the entrance to The Wood looms. Mabel darts into its deep embrace, belying her age and seeming decrepitude.
Her anxiety immediately fades, evaporating from her soul as she accepts and is accepted by The Wood. Her eyes close gently and she inhales the fragrance of The Wood with a longing akin to nothing she’s ever felt outside The Wood. Ever. She holds the breath and the aromas within before exhaling slowly, all the way down to the pit of her ancient belly.
Mabel steps on the cinder path that cuts like a great scar through The Wood and laments the sheer ugliness of it as she reaches deep into the folds of her bulky cardigan and extracts a chrome flask, which she’d filled shortly after Carl popped her and before taking her leave. The lid comes off easily and quickly, and she upends the glittering vessel, gulping its contents greedily, the sudden sear of Dewar’s scotch fries its way down her gullet to thump into her guts.
She burps, then chuckles at the burp, telling herself, “that was a good one!” and then pulls a pack of Marlboro reds out of another pocket of her clunky cardigan, made for her by some sanctimonious bitches at church. (They always seemed to be praying for Mabel and yet, nothing changes! So why bother?)
She lights up, drawing deeply, then pounds another swig of crap-scotch and begins making her way along the cinders, carefully avoiding the small logs that section off the cinders. Mabel — for maybe the millionth time in her miserable life — contemplates the reasoning or the logic behind those stupid logs. To keep the cinders in place? Maybe they’ve got something to do with the torrential rains that battered this little Appalachian mountain dump-of-a-town.
Another swig, and Mabel begins to lose interest in discovering the reasons for the regularly-spaced logs, striving instead to keep her footing amid the twitchy cinders.
Mabel has some really good shoes for this kind of walking. Doc Martin’s or Doc Marteen’s or Doc Dicken’s or Doc Dickeedoo or something-or-the-other; damned things take a licking and keep on ticking and it’s unbelievable just how much Mabel … Hates … Carl!
She stops at the sheer intensity of that last thought, surprised. She knocks back another Big Gulp then realizes that she’d best pace her consumption or she’ll be out before she gets to where she’s going. She finishes her cigarette, drops it then grinds it out with her heel, then stoops precariously to retrieve it, smiling as she resumes an upright position and continues her stroll through The Wood. That used and reeking ciggy butt always looks really fine in Carl’s meatloaf or pot pie, which gives Mabel joy.
Evergreens grow deeply here; their piney scent overlaying a slight smell of decay that accompanies millennia-old woods, and the silence vastly deep. Mabel glances back, then around her at the endless evergreens, ascertaining her progress through The Wood. About halfway.
She tips her flask again and is rewarded with just a few drops. She scowls in disgust, but then brightens and hurries forward several yards where she spies a small, mossy fir with a small down-facing arrow etched in the trunk and she smiles to herself. She crouches down and brushes moss and leaves aside to reveal an unopened fifth of Dewars, and Mabel is quite suddenly elated at the find. (She sort-of, kind-of remembered that she’d planted it there on an earlier run, although she’s not entirely sure which run.)
She sits on the damp earth and can feel moisture seeping through her frumpy black dress and soaking her ass, and cares not a whit as she refills the shiny flask, careful not to waste a drop of the amber love-liquid. Task complete, she caps the flask, takes a long pull from the bottle, reseals and replants it, then stumbles to her feet, deciding that it’s time for Carl to die.
Mabel sets off along the cinder path a bit more wobbly than before, ruminating over the sudden inspiration. She rolls it over and over in her mind. Carl must die. Now. Today.
Her footsteps seem to take on greater purpose and Mabel feels that she’s actually striding, passing through The Wood like a timeless, old, frumpy wraith.
The Wood lay squarely between the tiny shire where her cape-cod sits, and the main town of Binnacue, and it takes about an hour to walk from one end to the other. Mabel makes it her singular venture each and every day while Carl sleeps off his latest binge and pants-pissing party (stinking up the house something awful, cuz the stench of sour beer and fermenting piss is enough to peel frigging paint).
Mabel would never have to deal with that shit after today, no siree. She applies flame behind her gnarled, leathery shaking hand to a smoke that bobbles between her lips. Yep, I’m about two sheets to the wind right about now. Just cognizant enough to buy what’s gotta be bought to do the job…
Of killing Carl.
Linoleum knife. One quick horizontal motion across the old buzzard’s grizzled throat and see ya bitch! Sayanara shit-heel! You’ve belted me for the last time.
Jack’s of All Trades Hardware on the corner of Mistletoe and Clause streets in Binnacue would have just what Mabel needed. (What city-planning douche thought it would be a good idea to name the town’s streets after Christmas stuff anyway?)
Another belt of scotch, another burned butt, and Mabel steps from The Wood, across another plot of lawn (this one neatly groomed, thank you), calculating the stops and amount of money she’d need to spend.
Liquor store. Convenience store for smokes. Jack’s of All Trades for one wood-handled linoleum knife with a sweet, curved blade, a nasty point, and sharp enough to shave old whiskers all neat and clean.
Bags rustling in her arthritic fist, Mabel strides determinedly into The Wood; her mind entirely focused on her Mission. To kill Carl. Deaders. Finito. One. Dead. Assface.
A sense of melancholy suddenly washes over her that was completely unbidden and a total surprise. Would I miss him, she wonders. Nah. Well, maybe. Or not. And Mabel tries to remember ever being happy with him. Nothing comes to mind. Nothing, and she feels barren, empty, devoid of anything but sadness and a grim sense of purpose.
She shakes her head angrily, takes a healthy pull from the flask and then fires up another smoke. Fury rides shotgun behind her eyes, giving her an immediate headache. But oh how the rage seethes, and for the first time in the 23 years she’s been making this trek through these woods, she flings her still-lit ciggy away angrily, then stops and wonders why in the hell she just did that.
Because you’re about to kill your husband, you dip-shit.
She wobbles, unsteady on her feet, as she slowly comes to understand just how shitfaced she is. And then she laughs. Out loud, competing with the repetitive, happy splash of a near-distant stream for the ears of the bunched firs.
And she laughs louder, uproarious as the thought of calling herself a dip-shit trundles around in her soggy brain. She thinks, my liver’s gotta be a bag of crap by now, and that makes her laugh even harder, but the laughs suddenly turn into coughs, and the coughing hurts something gawdawful!
They rip through Mabel and she feels like something is uber-wrong, doubling her over. She drops to her knees, unmindful of the uncaring cinders gouging the tender flesh of her knees as wave after wave of spasms hammer her. The flask tumbles from her grip as another, more powerful coughing fit wracks her and she feels something deep inside her tear loose with a sudden, blinding pain and work its way up her esophagus, causing her to gag even more.
Tears stream from her eyes, her face reddens, and snot pours from both nostrils as whatever it is that shook itself loose sloshes out of her mouth to plop in the dirt. Mabel turns away, not wanting to see whatever it was; terror washes over her as she’s suddenly unable to breathe and a deep, throbbing pain blooms to totality.
Gasping, she sags to the ground, her face turning blue, frustration and rage exploding in her mind even as the lights gradually dim and then fade to a pinprick of gleaming light that might have been a spear of glorious sunlight reflecting off the blade of that wonderful linoleum knife.
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