he was splayed out on the ground when they found him, with a knife jammed in his left palm like somebody had attempted to crucify him but gave up halfway through.

in the months before jesús died, ron often prayed that he would. of course, he only began to miss him once he was gone - not quite missing him, but what jesús did for him. the therapist ron’s wife, faith, forced him to see often said that suicidal people didn’t exactly want to die, they just wanted the pain to end. ron used to wish that something, anything, would happen so that he didn’t have to work at the restaurant anymore. he fantasized that a cataclysmic meteor would arrive one day, wiping out everything on earth and absolving him of all responsibility. he often fantasized about death, but he never imagined what life would be like without jesús.

sometimes, late at night when everyone had already checked out, he would head out back behind the restaurant. he’d physically abuse the dumpster - punching it, kicking it, slamming into it with his whole body weight. many days he wished that it could hit back, that somebody would hear him scream. he’d yell belligerently about his whore wife, his nearly empty wallet, his dead end job, and in response the entire world remained silent. his mind would strain to find patterns and faces where there were none. he often mistook the streetlights for the eyes of wild animals peeking out from bushes in the darkness. there were no clouds in the sky for angels to pop out from behind and play peek-a-boo with him. the only time in his life when he didn’t want to be alone, and he felt like the only man on earth.

it was a sunny day when he received the call - nothing but clear blue skies for miles. corazones de pollo was a small business. simply put, there was no restaurant without jesús. no restaurant meant no money. no money meant no coke. coke was the fuel that kept ron going, but his habit drained his bank account.

and said, naked came i out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall i return thither: the lord gave, and the lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the lord.

on weekends when he went downtown, ron sometimes saw jesús parked by the side of the road, sitting alone in his car. he was disgusted by the way jesús pressed his face against the glass like an anthropologist observing a new and exotic species. if he pulled away, you’d see a spit trail form between his fat, cracked lips and the window. his wife was beginning to grow suspicious lately - not because he seemed troubled, but because he seemed to be at peace. he no longer took out his anger on his family. he had found a better outlet, one that couldn’t go crying to the cops when he screamed and swung at them, breath reeking of cheap vodka. on some level, jesús knew that what he was doing was wrong. if he didn’t, he wouldn’t feel the need to make up so many excuses for his choices. they need me. without me, they would starve to death on the streets. if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else. someone worse.

after jesús died, ron and his former coworker tony returned to what used to be corazones de pollo to smoke a joint “in memory” of him. ron was never exactly a heartthrob, so aging wasn’t a concern for him. he was a lot more afraid of sounding old than looking old. the relationship between a cokehead and the junkie who got him into it was not unlike that of a vampire and the older one who turned him, and befriending tony kept him young. this was a shared tradition between them. they used to get stoned before getting back to work and tony would lend ron his bottle of jean paul gaultier’s le male to mask the scent. “you owe me one for that”, tony would say. “that’s liquid gold.” the smoke breaks never seemed long enough.

tony could’ve gotten into harvard if he wanted to. instead he drank himself to a state of near-catatonic retardation. not that he was ever particularly smart to begin with - he had the connections required to do anything he wanted with his life, and he chose to waste it. ron wasn’t ashamed of his addiction, but he was ashamed that he owed it to someone that idiotic. thirty years ago, the only people who did coke were rockstars and supermodels. it was harder to justify his habit in his mind when he couldn’t romanticize it.

last summer tony disappeared for a month and when he came back he told everyone he was all better now. rehab gave him enough time to physically detox, but the counselor said he had an “addictive personality.” he started coming to work drunk instead of high. that was when he got fired. no one cared when he would come to work high. he was so much more productive and likable back when he was a cokehead. he didn’t need coke, necessarily, but he needed something. he never really recovered, he just passed it on to ron like a family heirloom.

“i wish i could roll that fat fuck’s ashes into a blunt. tastes like chicken.”

“be careful. you wouldn’t wanna start a grease fire.”

tony started to laugh. ron started laughing too, so hard he started coughing and sputtering. his teeth chattered, even though it was october and the dead leaves that scattered the ground had not yet been enveloped in a thin layer of ice. maybe “chattered” isn’t the right word - it was more like the infernal grinding of some archaic, industrial machine. tony half-expected clouds of coal smoke to come pouring out of his nose.

in his peripheral vision, ron spotted a figure stumbling towards him. he was at least 6’2, and his shadow was even taller. he was so skinny that his knees were larger than his calves. long, greasy strands of black hair bleached gutterwhore blonde. the pancake makeup on his face looked days old. every part of him was long. long legs, long arms, long nose, long face. his cheekbones were prominent, although maybe it only seemed that way because he was so thin that his face seemed sunken in and hollow.

“check it out, ron”, tony sneered. “i found you a girl who’s just your type.”

ron hated people like tony. he hated them so much and yet he wanted what they had so badly, not because he actually wanted to live that life but because he knew it was impossible. it seemed so close and yet so far away, and that made it all the more tantalizing. god tormented ron by dangling these missed opportunities in his face like a worm on a hook.

when he was younger, ron fantasized about killing himself on a daily basis. now, at 32 years old, all he could think about was killing everyone around him.

“you got a light, handsome?”

the stranger spoke with a southern drawl (louisiana?), no archetypal lisp. he had the voice of a heavy smoker.

“i don’t want you, and i’m not giving you any money. i’m not a closet fag, and i’m certainly not a good samaratin.”

jennifer’s eyes drifted down to ron’s arms and his expression shifted. on any other day, he would’ve covered up the track marks. he used to swear that no matter how bad it got, he would never inject coke. he wasn’t a heroin addict, a common street junkie. but when he gave himself a nasal perforation he had no choice but to put aside his pride. he really was just like every other dopehead. all the oxycontin addicts that said they’d never touch street opiates ended up shooting dope in an alleyway within a year. everyone was searching for something cheaper, faster, harder like fleas hopping to their next meal.

“i can tell that in a couple days you’ll be going through withdrawals. you’ll be convulsing and foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. i’m the only one in this whole town who can get you your fix.”

“and how exactly will you do that?”

“there are plenty of sexually repressed married men in this town to go around.” jennifer gave him a coy smile.

jennifer extended a bony hand to ron, and he shook it. jennifer grasped him with his long acrylics, like claws. ron sighed. “fine. you’ve got a deal.”

faith had booked a plane to pennsylvania. her mother’s cancer had recently spread to the brain, and it seemed to eat away at her as well. she wandered around the house like a ghost in a cage of flesh. in exchange for the money and drugs that jennifer received from customers, ron offered him food and shelter. the timing was perfect.

jennifer slept in faith’s room, or rather what used to be faith and ron’s room. sometimes ron would crack the door open at night just to observe him sleeping. when he was naked, his spine stuck out like the yellow lines on a highway. jennifer had recently begun taking hormones, hoping that he’d attract more attention from johns than a common crossdresser if he appeared more feminine, but he was so skinny that any breast development would’ve been hindered. as jennifer undressed, ron imagined that he was a butterfly undergoing metamorphosis. he watched from a distance as the monarch whore emerged from its patterned chrysalis.

ron cried out to no one in particular and recalled a public service announcement he saw on television as a child. when you have sex with someone, the sentient wax mannequin on the screen mumbled, you’re having sex with everyone they’ve ever had sex with. he missed someone who was still there, but who he fell in love with - the girl with the golden blonde hair which he used to run his fingers through as they sat underneath the bleachers - was not.

every night jennifer seemed to come home with a new bruise, a gruesome reminder of what he had to sacrifice to feed ron’s addiction. even though he had accepted jennifer’s offer, he still winced upon seeing them like he was the one being subjected to nightly beatings at the hands of perverted closet cases.

one night, ron entered the room and sat down next to jennifer. the willow tree outside seemed to come alive in the darkness. it was a humid evening. a sudden gust of cold breeze caressed the branches, and they had started to swing. jennifer looked straight ahead, staring at nothing in particular.

“well?”, ron said.

“well what?”

“did you do it?”

jennifer paused, frozen like a wild animal upon noticing the hunter pointing an arrow at it.

“if you didn’t do it, who did?”

still avoiding eye contact, jennifer stared at the ground and sat in silence for what seemed like eons. finally, he began to tell his story.

back to october. jennifer was sitting in that dirty car with the peeling leather seats. the window was rolled down, and he watched the smoke emerging from his cigarette curl and disappear in the wind. he wished that he could escape and vanish into the stratosphere too.

“that’ll be an extra twenty dollars. and put a condom on. for all i know you could be crawling with stds. i’m not that much of a whore.”

“are you shitting me? i don’t got an extra twenty dollars.”

“sorry, sweetheart. you get what you pay for.”

jesus lunged at jennifer and began to choke him. he shoved his face in his crotch. jennifer gagged at the smell. even though he only showered two times a week or so in customer’s bathrooms, jesus reeked much more strongly than him and his pants were covered in grease stains.

“go ahead. call the police. i got a real good lawyer. i’ll tell them all you deceived me. that you’re a filthy fucking liar.” he spat when he talked. a couple tobacco-scented droplets landed on jennifer’s ear.

“do you really think that if you said i raped you, that anyone would believe you? this is your job. you chose this. all of it. i mean, maybe you’re broke, but you can’t use that as an excuse for everything. i mean, the wigs, the clown makeup. is this what you spend all that hard-earned money on? is this why you do what you do? you should be thanking me. i’m doing charity work here. when you lie awake at night thinking about how much you hate guys like me, i want you to remember that you chose this. all of it. you could’ve been a janitor or worked at mcdonald’s like the rest of us.”

by this point, jesus was too busy strangling jennifer to realize that his hands were unrestrained. jennifer scrambled to find the pocketknife he always kept tucked in one of his thigh-high fishnet stockings. he plunged the knife into jesus’s stomach, digging through layers of fat.

as jesus screamed, jennifer leaned in to hiss in his ear. “did you know obese men have high estrogen levels? that’s why you have bigger tits than me. even with all the ‘clown makeup’, i have more testosterone in my pinky finger than you have in your entire fucking body.”

jennifer reached over to open the car door, and jesus fell to the ground clutching his wound and groaning. jennifer stepped out and began to drag him to the middle of the street by his arms. jennifer towered over him, but jesus was even heavier than he expected. he felt like sisyphus pushing the rock, doomed to an eternity of torture.

he stepped on his arm, pinning him to the ground. jesus winced as jennifer’s sharp heel dug into his skin. he watched in horror, paralyzed in fear as jennifer’s knife pierced through the palm of his hand. the more he struggled, the more excruciating the pain became.

it was dark outside and jennifer wasn’t particularly concerned about being caught - the area was notorious for gang violence, and the residents often fell asleep to the sound of gunfire and domestic disputes. he fled the scene and disappeared into the night. he ran as fast as he could, and didn’t trip once. he had gotten used to running in stilettos.

ron sat on the bed in stunned silence. after what felt like hours, he got up and left without saying a word. he went to the kitchen and prepared a drink for both of them, and returned to the bedroom.

“cheers.” they clinked their glasses together.

“never liked that asshole anyways”, ron mumbled. jennifer chuckled, still unsmiling.

the following morning, ron awoke to the distant sound of a fist banging on the front door. his worst nightmare had come true. faith had returned from her trip early. “wake up”, he hissed in jennifer’s ear, panic in his voice. jennifer rolled over. he left a hooker-coloured rorsach blot on the pillow, staining it with makeup - a sort of death mask in foundation two shades too light, lipstick the color of oxidized blood, and blue eyeshadow. the fourth of july came early this year, thought ron. so did halloween. “she’s here. you have to hide. i’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out.” he flipped over the pillow. jennifer crawled inside the closet. ron threw his clothes at him - an avalanche of leopard print and faux fur. he shut the closet door and locked it from the outside. he always slept with a handgun underneath his pillow. he put it in his back pocket and prepared for the inevitable.

jennifer could only make out part of the conversation, but he heard ron say hello to faith and ask her how her trip was. faith responded that she was exhausted, and that she needed some “alone time.” as the years went by, it seemed like all of faith’s time was “alone time.”

the door creaked slightly, and jennifer made a gag out of a slip dress to muffle the sound of his own breathing. if faith discovered him, at least she would think that her husband was a psychopath who kidnapped some poor hooker, and he wasn’t staying there willingly. faith sat down on the mattress and reached towards the bottle of xanax on the bedside table. something sharp poked her, and she yelped in pain. she rummaged through the sheets to find the offending object. there it was, a singular pleaser heel. she picked it up and looked at it from different angles, watching her reflection warp in the black vinyl mirror. ron had managed to hide all of jennifer’s other clothes, but he forgot about his shoes. jennifer lay on the floor inside the closet watching her through the gap, helpless to stop her.

ron had been calling faith’s name from the living room for at least a minute now, trying to convince her to go outside by claiming the neighbor let his dog shit on their front lawn again. faith had been ignoring him, but as she stared at her own once-beautiful face, something snapped inside her. she had always had her suspicions. she remembered all the nights he stayed out and only came home early in the morning, barely able to stumble his way through the front door. she recalled all those times she had been half-praised for how kind she had been, how forgiving. you’re so strong. if my husband did that, i’d kill him. this is where it got her, all that grace. she felt bile rising in her throat. her patience was a rubber band that had been being stretched ever so slowly and torturously for years now till it finally broke. the man she once loved - and still did on some level, no matter how many times he hurt her - had become nothing more than an exercise in just how much disrespect she was willing to take.

she stormed out of the room and walked up to ron. she held up the shoe and stared at him wordlessly, giving him time to process the information.

“18 years, ron. 18 years.”

the expression on ron’s face was one of pure fear, and that only made faith angrier. her voice started to break as she continued to speak, so quietly she was almost whispering.

“i just want to know - why now? you had all those years to do it, all that spare time. at what point did i get too old for you to want me? was it my smile lines? the strand of gray hair? the stretch marks?”

ron started to blubber something generic about how it wasn’t what it looked like, that he could explain. that was when faith started to scream. for the first time he wished that he was older, that he had hearing aids so he could turn off the chatter of the outside world whenever he needed to. the endless stream of screeched insults coming out of her mouth seemed to blend together, becoming white noise in his mind. for years, faith never spoke a word about ron’s many flaws. she tried to ignore them to keep the peace, only sharing her grievances with a few other aging friends over a glass of wine. they had a silent agreement - he would never ask her why she would rather buy dildos of various different shapes, sizes, and colors than sleep with him, and she would never ask him why he was never home. the thought that she deserved better never crossed her mind - she had long since accepted that this was the best it was going to get.

suddenly something inside him snapped, and he knew it could never be repaired. he hit her, and once he started, he couldn’t stop. by the time he finally stepped back, her face was the color of a bruised fruit.

in 18 years ron had never hit her. he rarely even raised his voice at her. something about seeing her in this state made him even angrier. he wanted to destroy her completely. so he wouldn’t be faced with the reality of who he was in the flesh. ron hit her with the butt of the gun, over and over again, until she got the memo and stopped screaming.

there she was, the woman he went to narcotics anonymous for, the woman he threw out $1,000 dollars worth of cocaine for, the woman who held his hand as he walked into the rehab center and told him she’d always love him. he swore he would change for her, and he did - just not in the way that she always hoped he would. this was what all those years of “help” amounted to. a slumped over mass of pulpy flesh dripping reds, pinks, and various shades of something that was almost white.

this spontaneous act of violence was not cathartic, and it brought him no relief. for years he had fantasized about getting into a situation where brutalizing someone was justified. the more he daydreamed about it the flimsier the excuses got. at first he’d envision himself rescuing a woman on the train from a heckler, coming at him from behind and plunging a pocket knife through his brain. then it was street preachers, and finally random women who merely resembled faith. he had planned this out meticulously in his head for years, going over hypothetical scenarios in his mind like he was rewatching his favorite film, and still he felt nothing.

jennifer lept in front of her, making himself a human shield. as he cradled her head in his arms, he realized her eyes were glazed over and her mouth hung open slightly. she didn’t look shocked or scared. if anything, the expression on her face seemed almost peaceful. her skull was split open. it was too late. his attempt to save her had been futile. he rolled off her and curled up like a pill bug. even if ron could’ve brought himself to look at her, she couldn’t have looked at him back. the fire that burned inside her had been snuffed out. she seemed to stare right past him.

jennifer’s screams seemed to reverberate for miles. ron never knew a sound could echo that loudly in such a small room. he had every reason to kill jennifer. he was a witness, he had screamed so loud everyone in that little white trash town must have heard. and yet he didn’t. he just stood there and watched.

“if you’re gonna kill me, just do it now and get it over with. go ahead. i don’t want to live with these memories anyways.”

he grabbed ron’s wrist and gently guided his hand. jennifer pointed the barrel towards his forehead.

“why would i hurt you, jennifer? do you really think i’m that cruel? or do you think you’re the cruel one? because i wouldn’t kill you for nothing, ya know. i mean, you’re the only person i’ve ever met who-”

ron stopped to hack and cough.

“because i’m the only person you’ve ever met who…what?”

ron attempted to wipe away a patch of half-dried blood with his sleeve, but only managed to smear it across his face more.

“never mind.”

he stuffed his hand in his pocket and grabbed his wallet.

“get out of this town. now. that’s not a recommendation, that’s a demand. leave it or you’ll die here. you’re already half-dead.”

jennifer extended a trembling hand to him and accepted the parting gift. his eyes were more dilated than ron had ever seen. for the first time in years, ron felt truly present. if he stayed completely silent, he could almost hear the blood pumping through his veins and into his heart. no amount of cocaine could give him a rush like this.

too disoriented to even notice that there was a rose bush directly outside the house, jennifer crawled out the window and leaped into the bed of thorns. he ran as fast as he could, through slums and alleyways and seemingly endless rows of houses with empty windows and peeling wallpaper, waiting for the sun of his redemption to rise. when it finally did, he limped to the nearest gas station. he was bruised and battered from the inside out, but for the first time he was grateful to be alive.

he entered the bathroom. the toilet was molded out of steel and the walls were painted solitary confinement white. he stood in front of the scratched mirror and reached into his bag. it was just large enough to hastily shove some of ron’s belongings into it - a pair of drab slacks, a plain white dress shirt, scuffed dress shoes, and some scissors. he changed into ron’s uniform and admired his own reflection for so long he thought that he’d fall straight into the mirror like a lake, never to return. he scrubbed the makeup off his face over the sink, watching as sky-colored artificial tears fell from his eyes. with the remaining traces of red, white, and blue streaming down his face, he resembled a weeping statue. he took the shears to his hair and watched long bottle blonde strands fall to the ground, leaving a trail as he exited the bathroom. he felt as if he were a phoenix emerging from the ashes. he looked like a typical florida tweaker now, still disheveled and thin but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

he would rather live a happy life than an authentic one. he used to think he’d do anything to be accepted. that he’d chop off a limb to mold himself into something deserving of love. now all he wanted was to be left alone. he often wondered if he had overdosed years ago, and he was stuck in some kind of purgatory. strangely enough, it brought him comfort to imagine that all the people out to get him weren’t human at all, just devils in skin suits. he didn’t want to be particularly rich, or female, or even happy. he just wished he was someone else. not a human, preferably something inanimate like a stone or the river that eroded it until it was nothing. being reincarnated as a sentient being with the same thoughts and feelings that he had seemed like the worst fate imaginable. there was always a glimmer of hope on the horizon, always ever so slightly out of reach.

meanwhile back at the site of the slaughter, ron headed outside.

boy scout camp, 1980. sitting by the warmth of a campfire, this chubby boy smiles gleefully with the grin of a wild animal about to tear into its prey. his face is smeared with marshmallow entrails, graham cracker bone marrow. he recalls a fun fact he read in a book somewhere. it takes only as much strength to bite through a human finger that it does to bite through a carrot. the only thing stopping him is himself. the name tag on his uniform reads RONALD.

“no way, you’re into fatass faith?”

“bet you won’t do it. bet you’ll hurl the second you catch a whiff of her disease ridden snatch.”

ron put the gun in his mouth and aimed for the stars.