The Man Under the Phoenix

Bareknuckles Pulp is closing its doors. At least in terms of weekly online stories. The plan is to have an end of the year print anthology. So save up your good shit, kids, and we'll be asking for it soon enough. In the meantime....

Tom Pitts and I will still be hitting you with the hardest, meanest, leanest flash out there here at the FFO. Like good drug dealers, our doors never close and we'll leave a light on for you. Or maybe that's Motel Six. (Which is also where you can usually find drugs.) Anyway, the last Bareknuckles story comes to you from Renee Pickup. We thought it was the perfect piece to provide a little ... closure ... and say goodbye.

The Man Under the Phoenix by Renee Pickup

Jude pulled the yellow tape off of the doorframe and put the key in the lock. She stood beside him, looking at her sneakers against the concrete. She hadn’t meant to wear red shoes. When he turned the knob, she looked up at him. They hadn’t been together in days, not since she was in the hospital, but she needed to see his face when he saw the house.
The door swung open and he took a step forward, his foot hanging over the threshold. His face fell and he seemed to hold his breath. He pushed a breath out, slow, like a weight on his chest had been keeping it in.
She approved.
“Holy shit,” he whispered, and put his foot down into what had been their foyer.

Brown and red splatter screamed from the cream carpet and white walls. A deep, rich burgundy spot in the middle of the floor bloomed, brighter on the inside, splaying out into chocolate petals. Streams of blood were spattered on the walls. Bloody handprints smeared the first three stairs. He walked to the middle of it and looked it over, not speaking.
Roxanne stood firm on the porch. Seeing the browns and reds of her battle bolted her in place. She could see the man who had come to kill her, his bald head and yellow smile. He grinned at her. She saw her son’s face as he stopped halfway down the stairs, frozen in horror as the man pushed her to the floor. She could feel the sewing scissors she had pulled out of the entryway table, cold in her hand. She wrung her hands, remembering the hot, wet flesh of the man’s stomach as the scissors found home, the satisfaction she felt as she drove them into his body again and again. Jude walked farther in and turned around. His eyes were glistening, his mouth hung open.
Roxanne stepped in, eyes on his chest. She couldn’t look at the floors or the walls.
“This is my fault,” he said.
“He came for you,” she said.
He nodded.
“I hate you,” she said.
“I know,” he whispered.
She was still coming to terms with it. A shattered picture frame lay on the floor, the cheap, silver-colored frame broken at the corner, shards of glass laying around it. Inside the frame was a photo of a family she was sure she used to know. Her, bleached blonde and smiling, one arm around her teenage son, one arm around Jude. He wore an easy going smile and together they looked happy, relaxed. They looked like they belonged together. Staring at the photo, she breathed in deep, squinting. She looked to Jude, standing slackjawed and stupid in the middle of the crime scene, spinning slowly, taking it all in. Jude’s arm sported a colorful, intricate sleeve of tattoo. A phoenix bursting from ash, red, orange, blue, and green. Dark swirls of smoke and long, colorful feathers wrapped around his arm. Under the sleeve of his dirty T-shirt, she could only see the flames and smoke. She wondered about the other man Jude used to be. Scott Wagner. The man whose arm sported swastikas, bulldogs, iron crosses. The murderer. The man under Jude’s easy-going smile. The man under the phoenix tattoo.
Her hands shook. She closed her eyes, trying not to see the room around her, trying harder not to see what had made it that way.

The man at the door had asked for Scott Wagner. His bare scalp sported tattoos of an Odin’s Cross and a swastika held in the claws of an eagle. Her hand tightened on the doorknob.
She said, “I don’t know who that is.”
“Is he going by Jude these days, then?”
Her heart had pounded in her chest. The man’s eyes stuck on hers; she was frozen in place. “Jude isn’t here.”
The man grinned so wide she could see the silver fillings in the back of his mouth. “That’s okay, baby, you’ll do.” He pushed her back, into the house, onto the ground, and held her by her shoulders, still wearing the sickening grin.

“He would have killed me if I didn’t kill him,” she said, not realizing it had come out in a murmur. “Then he would have killed my son.” Large, heavy tears fought out from behind her closed eyes, she tried to keep the shaking under control. Her chest tightened, and she pulled her arms close to her body, hands in tight fists, fighting the urge to go to him and beg him to hold her in his arms.
“This is your fault,” she repeated, opening her eyes. “Scott.” She stared at him, silently daring him to try to apologize.

Jude watched her, falling apart in the middle of a crime scene they had called home only a week before. He took in the bandages on her arms, the bruises that peeked out of her black V-neck T-shirt. The silence settled on them, snaked between them, and filled the empty spaces. Something grew and took root in his guts and pushed up and out of him until he screamed and punched the wall next to him. The dry wall caved under his fist and he hit it again. He kicked the table that once held the scissors that saved his wife’s life, then picked it up and threw it to the floor, stomping down on the leg, breaking it. His face red, he could feel the capillaries opening up and flushing his cheeks, could feel each individual tear cutting a stream through the lines on his face. He kicked and stomped the table until only the hearty, large parts remained. He put his hands against the wall and tried to control his breathing.
The hatred in Roxanne’s eyes bored through him, and his breaths got faster instead of slower. He kicked the remains of the broken table and screamed out, “MOTHERFUCKER!” More profane words spilled out as he kicked and kicked the table, and the futility sank deep into his skin, into his bones. He bent to grab the largest piece of the table and threw it as hard as he could into the living room, watching it bounce off the couch. He crossed to Roxanne and grabbed her face in both his hands, pulled her to the foot of the stairs. Snot collected in her nostrils, threatening to take over her upper lip, her eyes bloodshot. He squeezed her face between his hands.
“Don’t,” he said, voice strong for the first time in months. “Don’t love me. Don’t forgive me. I deserve this. I deserve to lose you.”
She pursed her lips and he felt the corners of her mouth pressing into his thumbs. “You already have,” she said.
He mashed his lips into her teeth. He wanted to bleed. He kissed her harder, squeezing her face and pressing his chest against her breasts and stomach. Her lips responded angrily, fighting his mouth with her own.
She dug into his shoulders, though his tee shirt. He pushed his body harder against her, their faces salty and slick. He tasted their tears mixing together on his mouth and pushed her to the floor. The carpet was hard, and rough against his hands. She pushed him up, and pulled her shirt over her head, letting her breasts free, nipples turning dark in the heat between them. When his eyes met hers, all he could see was that she meant it. She hated him. Hands on her shoulders, he pushed her down on the bloodstained carpet, sobbing, the breath coming through his throat and lungs like razor blades. The cool metal button on her pants left a crescent in his shaking thumb as he forced it through the hole.
His lips hit her teeth again and he yanked her pants off, then moved his frantic hand to his belt, undoing it and pushing his pants down. All that remained between them were two thin layers of cotton. Her nails dug into him again and his dick responded, pushing against his boxers and filling the space between them. He clawed at her panties, pulling them so hard the elastic gave, and let his dick free for just a moment before he pushed it into her.
Her body arched, belly pressed against his. Her soft skin and sweet smell only served as distractions from what he really wanted. He kissed her again, teeth clacking together, and thrust hard. She bit his lip, clenching her teeth, pulling it back. He reveled in the sharp pain that came when he jerked his face away. For the first time, he didn’t worry about hurting her. He had hurt her in worse ways and wanted to fuck her like she belonged to him at least once. He rammed into her as deep as it would go. She scratched at him; his skin burned under the scraping of her nails. He could feel her tighten around him every time a sob worked its way out of her mouth; their faces slid against each other, frictionless and wet. He pushed faster.
His chest heaved with an ocean of tears waiting to break out. The lies he told swirled in his brain, pushing and fighting for his attention. She would leave him and she would take his son away to wherever he wasn’t. He would be helpless, but now, he was in control. She tried to buck her hips under him and change the rhythm, but he pushed his hands into her belly and held her still. He would do this. He would have her at least once.
The dirty copper smell of dried blood on the carpet mingled with the smells of his body, unwashed for days, musky and sour. The smell of her sex mixed with the dirt and carnage, the reality of his stupidity crashing into him through his nose. He looked at her face, tears streaming as she clawed at his back, still trying to buck her hips against him, and he thought of how she looked when he came home the week before all of this, standing in the same foyer, a handful of paperwork in her hands, eyes wet.
“Who the fuck is Scott Wagner? Who are you? WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?” The birth certificate, newspaper clippings, pages of photos and records fluttered to the floor around them as he tried to explain the unexplainable. She screamed, she cried, she balled her fists and beat against his chest and he took it. Photos of him, over a decade old, in the courtroom, head shaved, the tattoos he had covered, bold in black and white. She shrieked at him as he collected up the paper on the floor and realized what it meant. They had found him. Someone was coming.
He had never fucked her like this before. He had never fucked her at all. They made love. They came together as the sun splayed through their bedroom window in the early morning. Two became one. Her head was pushed into the bottom stair and every time he thrust he could see it jarring her neck and sending waves crashing down through her chest, her breasts, her belly, down to her pussy that wrapped around him, grabbed at his dick. Through her tears, she moaned along with his grunts.
“Fuck you,” she spat, pushing her clit into his pelvis and tightening her thighs around his hips, coming hard around the base of him. He felt her clench him tighter as his slid through her, out of her, into her again.
She grabbed his face and held it, looking into his eyes. “This is you,” she said. “Scott Wagner.” Tears ran from her eyes as she gushed hot from the inside and all around him.
A great, heaving sob came up through him and he cried and fucked her faster. The tension built in his balls and he pushed her down hard again, straightening his back and riding her. She sat up and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his face to hers. “You will fucking look at me.” His face twisted as his eyes met hers. Looking at the green-yellow bruise on her cheek, the black circle under one eye, he came so hard that he couldn’t help let out a proud, grunting yelp that pushed up from his dick and forced its way out of his mouth. He collapsed onto her. They lay together and sobbed quietly, bodies touching, heat dissipating until all that was left was a wet spot in the middle of the dried puddle of blood.

She pulled herself from underneath him and grabbed her shirt from the staircase, wiped her eyes on her arm, then her nose. She dressed quietly, not looking at him, and walked outside.
He was left there, in what remained of their home, naked and alone.

Renee Asher Pickup is a mellowed out punk rocker in California. Her fiction has been published in places like Solarcide, Alliterati, and most recently Pantheon Magazine. She is a contributing editor to Revolt Daily and hosts a weekly podcast called Books and Booze. You can find out more at: