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Bareknuckles Pulp No. 22: Peninsula

You got the balls to pull off a stick-up, sure. But the balls to finally come out say what you meant all along ...?

Peninsula by Michael Kidd



We always said if it ever came to this we'd flip for it. But now, with a siren wailing in the distance, my hand's shaking so badly I can't even hold the coin steady.

"You're such a pussy, Harkonen," Travis snorts. Three years running and he's yet to call me by my first name. "I take a shot in the thigh and you can't toss a fucking coin? Give it here."

He limps forward to grab the coin from me, the sleeve of his T-shirt slipping back to reveal his heavily inked bicep. His hand, damp from the late-summer drizzle, brushes against mine.

"Jesus," he says, "your hand is colder than a witch's tit."

"Sorry."

"OK," he says, balancing the nickel on his thumb. "Heads you do it, tails it's me. Deal?"

Without waiting for my answer he flips the coin into the air, and I follow its arc down to a soggy patch of dirt between our feet.

Fuck. The blood drains from my face.

"Looks like you're doing the honors," Travis says.

He pulls the .38 from its resting place behind his belt buckle. Somehow he manages to carry it around like that without blowing his dick off. He extends the weapon toward me, his forearm rippling with muscle. The silver barrel of the gun, slick with rain, points straight at my chest.

"Take it, Harkonen. The hell's the matter with you?"

I reach out and take it from him. The metal is warm in my hands: Travis's body heat.

I look him in the eye. Even in the deep shade of the woods, I can see flecks of hazel in his coffee-colored pupils. His dark eyebrows point to the center of his forehead, as if marking my target.

I stare at the bloody stain on his jeans and imagine what the bullet will do to his perfect face. My stomach churns, but I manage to raise the gun and point.

Travis closes his eyes and swallows hard, his tensing Adam's apple the only visible sign he knows he's about to die. His eyelids are relaxed, not squeezed shut like mine would be. Will be. His leg must be hurting like hell but you would never know. You can't even see him breathing beneath his skin-tight T-shirt. His girlfriends always said he had antifreeze running through his veins.

Off in the distance the siren continues to howl. Is it getting closer or farther away?

"Do it, goddammit," Travis says, without opening his eyes.

I take aim, but in place of Travis I see the clerk from the Super America this morning. Plump and pasty white, with a ridiculous comb-over: he looked like an egg with a toupee as he fiddled with his iPhone behind the counter.

"You're gonna wish you'd called in sick today," Travis said to him as we walked in.

"I'm sorry?" the egg-man said in a thick accent.

I pointed the gun at him and he started blubbering, said we could take whatever we wanted and shoot up the security camera, he wouldn't tell anyone, he had a wife and four kids, could we please show some mercy.

"He's making that shit up so you won't do it," Travis said as he stuffed a garbage bag full of cash, liquor, donuts, and cigarettes. "Waste the motherfucker."

It's his gun but he has me do the killing, as if my loyalty were somehow suspect. So I trained my gun on egg-man's forehead, wondering what it would take to finally prove myself, would I have to get the guy's brains splattered across my face like in Pulp Fiction, and suddenly the clerk was reaching under the counter and Travis was yelling "Wax his ass now!" and there was one shot, then another, and the room filled with a sour smell and egg-man was all shattered and sinking to the floor and Travis was wincing and grabbing his thigh.

Next thing I know I'm behind the wheel and we're racing across the U.P. toward Canada. Things would be much better there, Travis promised: we'd put the past behind us, start earning an honest living, rent an apartment together. Two hours later and here we are: in the middle of a forest some twenty miles shy of the border, our car back on the highway with steam spewing from the radiator. We've run all we can. Travis's leg has nothing left to give and I'm not leaving his side.

A copper taste rises in my throat, and I start to feel dizzy. The gun is like a brick in my hand. I lower it. "Travis…"

He opens his eyes and focuses on the .38, now aimed carelessly at the ground. He frowns. "Don't flake out on me, Harkonen. A deal's a deal."

I can't argue with that. He insisted on the suicide pact as a condition for me being his partner. It was part of this intense honor code he has. I've never known him to break a promise, and he expects the same of others. At the time, though, the "pact" seemed so abstract, like when you apply for a loan and they tell you all the interest you'll end up paying and it's so mind-boggling it's easier to just ignore it and sign. Plus, in the beginning it hardly seemed like dealing a little weed or blow would ever lead to this. Anything that allowed me to spend so much time with him, to feel myself in the tow of his gravity, was worth it. So I agreed.

"Fair enough," I say, "but let's just think this through for a second. What would happen if we turned ourselves in, plead guilty?"

Travis's frown turns to a sneer.

"Hold on," I say before he can interrupt. "We might get a lenient jury. God, I don't know. At least there's no death penalty in Michigan…"

"Be better for us if there was!" Travis snarls. "Murder and armed robbery, Harkonen, plus how many counts of possession and distribution?" He shakes his head, rain cascading from his chin. "You're looking at thirty years, minimum. We'd be fifty years old when we got out! You wanna think something through? Think of going till you're fifty with no tail, thirty years of nothing but your cellmate's dick up your ass! Go think that through, Harkonen!"

My vision goes blurry, and in my head the forest floor transforms into a lake that swallows up the horizon. Instead of rain, the sun is beating down with a gauzy white glare. Amber and I are seated on a rickety dock, smoking a joint and fishing for walleye. Travis and Jenna are there, too, sharing a j of their own, and from the corner of my eye I can see Travis's hand resting on her thigh. Someone suggests skinny dipping, and soon we're all standing and stripping. Amber's got tits the size of cantaloupe and I try to focus on them, but there's Travis, peeling off his tank top, his sandals, his cut-offs, his CK briefs … That evening the sun plunges into the lake and I've lost track of the number of dimes we've smoked and Amber's riding me like a cowgirl and I can hear Travis fucking Jenna in the cabin's other bedroom and Amber's grinding away on top of me but I can't concentrate, all I can hear is Travis slamming into Jenna and she's braying like a she-goat and suddenly Amber stops and inspects me, what's she doing wrong she wants to know, and I have to look away.

The memory is three years old but always close to the surface when he's around.

"Travis, I—"

"The answer is no. I ain't turning myself in."

I recognize the decisive tone and tilted jaw: outward signs of the steel-reinforced concrete on the inside. I should find it infuriating, but the effect is just the opposite, a tug at my core that drags me further into his orbit.

I stand quietly, listening to the rain tapping against the forest floor. Something sounds different.

"Listen!" I say. "The siren has stopped. Maybe they gave up."

"Don't be an idiot," Travis says. "They're checking out the car right now, and any minute they're gonna come sweeping through these woods with a pack of bloodhounds. How far have we come from the highway? Two miles maybe? They'll find us in no time with the amount I've been bleeding."

"Then let's keep moving."

"Look at my leg, Harkonen! How the hell do you expect me to go on?"

Because I'd carry you. Tell me what I want to hear and I'll sling you over my shoulders and walk you across a bed of nails.

"Look," Travis continues, "if you wanna renege and keep running, go right ahead. But give me back the gun. I'm done."

I'm done. The words hang in the air. Far above, a patch of grey sky is visible through a hole in the forest canopy, like an opening at the top of a deep well. But there's no escape. This tiny plot of earth on a godforsaken peninsula will be our grave.

Travis stretches his hand toward me. "Give me the gun."

"Wait!" I say. "I'll do it, I swear. But there's something I need to say first."

He raises his eyebrows. "Knock yourself out, Harkonen."

My heart beats in my throat. Rain runs down the small of my back. "Travis…"

He makes a rolling gesture with his hand: Get on with it.

Start with something easy. "Do you think you could call me Will? Just once?"

He narrows his eyes. "That's what you needed to tell me?"

"Travis, what I'm trying to say is…" The heartbeat moves to my eardrums.

"What, Will?" He pronounces my name like a word from a foreign language. "Say it already so we can get this over with. The police are gonna be here any second."

I love you. Simple words, but they lodge in my throat, and I utter something unintelligible. A hot wave floods my face, and then another as I realize how obvious the first one was.

Travis stares at me mutely, lips slightly parted, as if processing what he's seeing for the first time. His silence is like a vise. After an eternity he smiles icily, displaying the crooked teeth that are his one imperfection. "Don't fuck with me." The raw edge to his voice feels like broken glass.

"I'm not, Travis." It's all I can do to get the words out.

He steps toward me, pinning me to the mat with his glare, coming to a stop inches away. He smells of sweat and rain and tobacco and rum. My head begins to spin.

"Give – me – the – gun."

The words strike like hammer blows, demolishing my last reserve of hope. And yet a soothing warmth floods into my fingertips, and my hands finally steady themselves. I hand over the gun. He takes a step back and raises it to within an inch of my forehead. I can see halfway down the barrel.

"Do it," I say, squeezing my eyes shut and clenching my teeth. I picture the bullet speeding from the chamber, ripping through my skull, boring into my brain. I imagine my body sinking to the ground, my blood melting into the earth with the rain.

Nothing happens.

I hear a crunch of twigs and open my eyes. Travis has turned from me and is walking away. His limp is noticeably worse.

"Travis?" I call. "Travis!"

He continues walking, then stumbles and falls to his knees. I rush forward and catch him under his arms.

"Are you okay, Travis?" I walk around and kneel on the ground before him, still supporting him. "Are you okay?"

No answer. His lips are white.

A few steps away there's a fallen tree trunk. "Can you make it to your feet?" I ask. "Let's walk over to that log and sit for a minute."

I help him over to the trunk, and we sit together. It's pouring rain, and I can feel it thumping the top of my head, soaking into my scalp. Water surrounds this peninsula, and now it's even coming from above. I look toward the sky and see it falling through that opening in the trees, spilling past glistening leaves and branches on its way down.

My thoughts are interrupted by a light touch on my knee. I look down and am startled to find Travis's hand resting there. I turn toward him, but he just stares at the ground between his feet. I allow my eyes to linger over his profile in a way that has always seemed out of bounds. Gently, as if touching a fragile artifact, I place my hand on top of his.

We sit like this: motionless, soaking wet, enveloped by the mossy smells of the forest. Never has life felt so perfect. My sense of time slips away.

Gradually, over the rumble of thunder, a sound from the outside world intrudes, like an alarm clock wrenching its way into a velvety dream. It's a kind of primal baying, maybe a few hundred yards off.

Bloodhounds.

This is it. It's now or never.

In Travis's free hand the .38 still hangs limply. I ease it from his grip and check the ammo. Three bullets left. That'll work.


Michael Kidd is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. He is a specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature. His translation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño won the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities Publication Prize.