Enjoy an excerpt from J.C. Raye’s “30 Days with Fletcher” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
Day One, 10:00 PM
The cashier finally stopped giving me the eyeball. Too busy flirting with some pretty gal in Wonder Woman hot pants wanting lottery tickets. Like he had a snowball’s chance in hell of impressing her with his sexy beer paunch and jerky breath, but whatever, it was time to make my move. I go to pocket the last Chunky from the sweaty cardboard box. A lunch fit for a king, or, for an unemployed, un-recovering, mid-forties alky. I guess Fletcher liked Chunkys, too, because he was sitting right on top of the bar I wanted, tugging at the pinched edge of the wrapper with his spikey forelegs. He was having a heck of a time with it, too.
Normally, I would have mercilessly swatted him to the floor, picked up my goddamn Chunky, and deliberately crunched down on the bastard with one of my steel toes, you know?
But I didn’t. Not sure why.
Maybe it was just the comical way he looked up at me, sitting astride that silver and red wrapper like he owned it, like he was riding a space rocket or something. Or maybe it was because he didn’t freak out and scurry away, the way you might expect a cockroach to behave. He kind of…well…held his ground. As if to say, Bring it, Bro. I admired him right away.
He told me his name was Fletcher. Just said it loud, clear and human-like, which I gotta say, freaked me out, in the beginning. But Fletcher laughed and said, “Most cockroaches can speak at least six languages. They just choose not to.”
And then, he told me he had a money proposition for me and offered to buy me a sixer. So, antennae or no, he had my attention. I grabbed the chocolate for both of us, he expertly launched into my windbreaker pocket, and we left the store.
Outside, very few of the red light-up letters of Kuna’s Gas & Bonus Store were still in working order. The G, S, B, O and the TORE were burnt out, leaving KUNA’S A…NUSS… At night, it must be a real conversation piece for the drivers flying down Lakewood Avenue, running reds so as not to stop here, near the infamous Bluff of Atlanta. I was tempted to take a rock and finish the job on the sign. I do stuff like that sometimes.
But not here. I’m not an idiot.
Kuna’s is only a few blocks away from Adaire and Hopkins, streets made infamous when The Gwinnett Daily Post decided to place them on a top-ten-most-dangerous-in-the-country list. So, yeah, this wasn’t the place to jack anybody up further than they already were.
I had heard about The Bluff before, but it was never my plan to end up here. Man, I never know what town I am in half the time. Town names are not important. Staying in them briefly, is. My ten-year-old kid, well, ten last time I saw him, told me he was doing a school report on The Bluff. The theme was Music that Changed America. Gotta love middle school. Of course, I was only half-listening at the time, my eyes darting around the front yard of the house I used to own, fully expecting his mom to catch me on their porch steps again.
Which, she did.
Tim, my son, said the area was a modern-day Wild West for gangs. Even cops didn’t go in there anymore. He showed me a picture of the dealer-slash-rapper who made a video that went veeral or something. Not sure what he meant by that. But Timmy was sure keyed up to tell me. Not sure if it was the project or the excitement of seeing me after two years. I’d like to think it was both. The way his big blues lit up as he sang the lyrics, the way he clenched fists and cried “Shit!” when he couldn’t remember them all. Truly, the highlight of my year. While most of his classmates were doing papers on John Lennon or Ludwig Van Whoever, my son was doing something braver, something cooler.
My ex must have seen me from a window and made the call because my short visit was rudely interrupted by the appearance of two patrol cars, sirens a-going, for that added sense of drama she has deep affection for. I hated to leave Timmy hanging, but I did something two years ago when I was a bit gazeboed, which I still need to prove was self-defense. So, I said goodbye to my son and made tracks.
Day One, 10:15 PM
Outside. The front windows of the banana yellow, cement store were plastered with grimy vinyl signs promising microwaveable tacos, yeah, okay, take your life in your hands, fireworks, and phone cards. Harsh fluorescents bled through the multiple layers of March pollen dominating the glass. Four gas pumps front the store. Two days ago, somebody had literally chopped the nozzle off one of the street-side gas hoses and left it dangling on the blacktop. Revenge? Drive-by Nozzle-Snuff? Headless Horseman? No idea. But as Fletcher and I turned the east corner of the building to head out back, some freaky-deaky was popping it between his legs and gyrating around the pump for his cheering friends.
Gas, tacos, and a show. Great for business.
Kuna’s has a long, deep yard, overgrown with bull thistle up to my ass. The only light in the back lot is a single bulb over a metal door, encased in football-shaped steel cage. The moon is full, but a single deodar cedar, near forty feet high, plunges the yard into a land of shadows. Fletcher and I end up talking for hours back there.
So, here was the game plan. Fletcher was going to score all our cash. At different times of day, he would hit the bus stop over on Owen, a few blocks away, and lift a bill or two from riders before they boarded. He could do wallets, he said, but ladies’ pocketbooks, though smelly, were much easier. Fletcher would get enough dough to pay for our food, lodging, and to keep me in my cups, as they say. My job was to get the motel room for us, the only part of the plan he said he needed a human for. We’d use The Marlane, the crappy place right behind Kuna’s.
I’m not some easy mark, so when he finally finished, I sure had questions for him like: “How the hell are you going do it unnoticed?” and “How are you going to tote the cash all the way back to the motel?”
Fletcher waved one of his legs dismissively and smiled, his mandibles shifting from side to side. “Let me show you friend.”
Like a flash, he headed toward the store.
For the first few minutes he was gone, I had a horrible time, thinking I might be hallucinating. But even my worst DT’s never involved pink elephants or having sit-downs with roaches. The discarded slimy Chunky wrapper kissing the tip of my boot, and the fact that the mosquitos were eating me alive in the yard were my only hitch to the possibility that it was all very freaking real.
Day Two, 1:30 AM
Sitting in the lot on my newest and only possession, a filthy green, plastic lawn chair, rescued from the high grass, I catch movement a few feet away. It’s Fletcher all right, and he’s got a rolled-up dollar bill attached to his shell with a purple broccoli band. Damn, he looked like a little camel on a safari. Frigging hysterical. He crawls up my jeans, and I remove the bill carefully so as not to snap him with the band. I was wrong. It wasn’t a dollar. It was a twenty. The cockroach and I strike up a bargain.
Day Two, 2:30 AM
I check in alone. The Marlane is definitely a kennel or a Ho tell, the lodging of last resort. A mauve and black speckled linoleum floor is dusted with old butts, and a green indoor/outdoor roll-out carpet runs from the entrance to the counter. The check-in window has both bars and a plastic window, with one of those metal shout-my-order pieces inserted so low, I have to bend down to use it. Next to the front desk is the door to an inner office. Metal and bumpy, I swear to god it used to live on the front of a walk-in freezer. I want so bad to order up a side of beef with my room, but this is no time to screw around. Fletcher is waiting.
The manager is a short, white woman whose skin has been dried up by smoke and sun, so she is more like an orange woman. She wears a blue house dress with a disturbing amount of top buttons undone. Her other strongest features are her smell—coconut oil?—and her stoma. While she explains the motel rules, I am not hearing any of it. I am too busy trying not to look at her hand as it repeatedly pushes down on the plastic plunger in her throat so she can talk. I mean, what the hell is the right way to look at someone doing that anyway? I’m also terribly busy trying to will my face to neutral, so she can’t know my skull is screaming for a drink.
Day Two, 3:00 AM
Fletcher is already in the room. The space under the door doesn’t look wide enough for him to fit, but I suppose if he can pinch a greenback from somebody’s pocket, he can find a way into a motel room without a key. The room décor fell right out of the fifties. There are two brown, low, faux-wood headboards along one dark paneled wall, with a matching desk/chair set directly across the room, in case you need space to work on algebra homework or to burn the seals on your heroin baggies. Brownish-gold, atomic-style floor lamps with oversized shades spread a dim buttery light onto the plushy, but ever-so-yummy-crunchy, teal carpet. A mustard vinyl chair with a cracked armrest is tucked in a corner. I kept expecting Darrin from Bewitched to pop out of the bathroom and force-feed me cheese fondue. Behind the chair, a floor-to-ceiling window, stretching the width of the room, is drowning in an enormous, ivory, slider drape, bedecked with disturbing teal flowers. Really not the choice design scheme for a drunk. A deluxe room, ours, has got a pint-sized microwave and also basic cable, most likely equating to five channels at best. But it’s not like I need to track the stock market.
I take a shower. No soap or towels, but screw it, I shake off like a dog. When I come out of the bathroom, two six-packs of some IPA crap I never heard of are waiting on my bed like the candles on a birthday cake. I would have been happy with Coors, but no matter. Fletcher must be trying to make our first night special. The first slug soaks my tongue, and the rest of my body knows what’s coming. The release I feel, as I bounce my naked ass onto the bed, hugging all twelve of my birthday candles, is indescribable.
Day Six, 5:00 PM
Well, I gotta say, Fletcher made good on his promises. He’s already got next week’s rent stacked up like a pile of kindling in the desk drawer, though I do have to uncurl and flatten the bills out with the iron. I’ve been passing out in a real bed with Arnold Palmer every night this week. Feels nicer than it’s been in a long time.
Day Ten, 2:00 PM
Fletcher is a pretty attractive little fellow, and everyone looks at him when we are out together. I feel kinda proud to hang with him really. He’s this rich, smoky-brown, and shiny all over, like the high gloss finish on the acoustic I hocked. I suppose the more time you spend with someone, the more you notice all those little things, like how many legs they have or the number of lenses in their compound eyes. He is normal American Cockroach size, about two inches or so, but his antennae are extra-long and tapered, parting to either side of his head much like streams of liquid in a cocktail fountain.
Fletcher will ride on my shoulder or head when we walk, and sometimes, he perches on my arm like a parrot. I just have to remember not to swing my arms anymore, because of that time I accidentally flung him down the front of a lady’s V-neck. Oh man, she was screaming and hopping around on the pavement like she was shaking off the demon possession of Michael Jackson. Funny, but it turned bad fast. A whole bunch of people came over to help, and she pointed at me saying I did it on purpose, so Fletcher and I had to run like six blocks toot sweet. We were laughing the whole freaking time, sprinting and laughing and gasping for breath. When we finally fell over on the front steps at Word of Life Church, my lungs threatened to jettison out of my chest.
Then, of course, Fletcher had to go and say, “Her breasts smelled like Kalamata olives.”
And we lost it all over again. Fletcher has this great deadpan way of delivering a line. You’d have to meet him to understand.
Day Eleven, 9:00 PM
Last night, Fletcher played some tunes by rubbing his legs together while I drummed on the mustard chair with chopsticks. I told him I thought only crickets did that crap, and he told me I should read more non-fiction and not glean all my education from Walt Disney. When I got tired of drumming, we divvied up a bag of Cheetos on his bed and started wagering if I could guess the songs he played. Except for “Come On Eileen,” and “The Macarena,” he stumped me on all of them, and I lost twenty-eight Cheetos. It was a good night. I vaguely remember him asking me if I was going to help clean up his bed, and I vaguely remember asking him to stop molting his damn exoskeleton on my side of the room.
Day Thirteen, 1:00 PM
Some jackass in 206 has been screaming on his balcony all morning about his bike being stolen. Idiot tied it up with rope. I mean, rope? Didn’t deserve to have it if he wasn’t going to take care of it. Look where the hell you are living, dude. Fletcher is not back with today’s pull, and Ricky Ricardo is doing the “BaBalu” between my ears.
Day Fourteen, 11:00 AM
Fletcher guessed I stole the bike and was mad. I told him I am going through our beverages quicker than expected, and he has got to get us a few more bucks. He avoids another squabble by popping down the drain. Bastard. I should dump some chili powder down there.
Day Sixteen, 10:00 PM
Terrible thunderstorms all day. The motel sign blew over and smashed some guy’s windshield. Fletcher and I are hanging out in the room. He tells me I look like Sean Penn. I tell him people always say that, but not Fast Times at Ridgemont High Sean Penn, more like Mystic River Sean Penn. Fletcher lays there on his back shell, silent, holding a Cheeto, and thinking. He says that he never saw Fat Times at Ridgemont High and asks me if it is about a high school that only admits the overweight.
I call him an idiot and say, “I said Fast, not Fat, asshole.”
We both laugh so hard Cheeto dust blows out of his crop.
Day Fifteen, 2:00 PM
Fletcher’s been decorating the room. Nesting, I guess. He is an insect after all. I called him a bug once, and it really pissed him off. Like, I mean all his legs twitched at once. It was kind of scary. He said bug is derogatory, and that Merriam someone says the real definition of the word bug is obsolete. I didn’t ask him who Merry was, in case it was an old girlfriend. We don’t pry into each other’s personal lives that way.
J.C. Raye’s stories are also found in anthologies with Belanger Books, Chthonic Matter, Scary Dairy Press, Devil’s Party Press, Books & Boos, Franklin/Kerr, and Jolly Horror to name a few. More stories in 2020 with Rooster Republic and Transmundane Press.
What does she write about?
Hmmm…potato chip bag creatures on the beach, possessed monkey bridges in Vietnam, retired Inuit shamans, crime sprees with cockroaches, Pennsylvania tea bugs, the peculiar addictions or Salem witches, dust storm bunnies in Kansas, California ghost towns, Jersey serial killer heros, and more. Yep, you got it. She is all over the place and clearly has some issues.
Why horror and sci-fi, you say?
For twenty years, she’s been a professor at a small community college teaching the most feared course on the planet: Public Speaking. Witnessing grown people weep, beg, scream, freak out and pass out is just another delightful day on the job for her. Terror down to the bone. She’s seen it all.
Of course, her parents raised her all wrong, too. Cause isn’t that what parents do? Sitting her down in front of the same films they were watching. Ahh, the days of one shared screen for the whole fam. Her clearest, youngest memories include, The Poseidon Adventure, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, Baron Blood and Suspiria. Sorry there, Disney.
She’s won numerous artistic & academic awards over the years for her projects in Communication and seats in her classes sell quicker than tickets to a Rolling Stones concert. J.C. also loves goats of any kind, even the ones that faint.