The Return of Thuglit

If you know anything about me at all, you know Thuglit is where I got my start writing fiction. I was sad when the e-zine closed a couple of years back, but it was for a good reason. (Speaking of which, preorder Todd Robinson’s THE HARD BOUNCE. You can thank me later!) But you can’t keep a thug down for long. Thuglit is back with a vengeance, now as an e-zine you can download for 99 cents. The first issue contains stories by Johnny Shaw, Mike Wilkerson, Jason Duke, Jordan Harper, Matthew Funk, Terrence McCauley, Court Merrigan, and me. Mine is called “Magpie”; here’s an excerpt:

The sheriff who called about my mother-in-law’s death sounded genuinely sad about it. “She looked like she was called up to the Lord all peaceful-like,” he said, in a deep voice that had a lingering drawl to it. “She went in her sleep, I reckon. I’m sure she didn’t feel no pain.”

He told me that she’d died of a heart attack, and that it had probably happened a couple of days earlier, given the state in which she was found. “Couple of her near neighbors hadn’t seen her about, so they went over, and then they called me. Poor Mrs. Carlow. Let me give you my number so your husband can call me.”

I dutifully wrote it down, then folded the paper and put it into my purse. It was just before noon, and Jake was probably with a patient, maybe even in surgery. Telling him the news about his mother over the phone seemed heartless. I could drive to his office and reveal all in person, but given that he hadn’t spoken to his mother in years, that seemed like overkill. The news could wait until evening, after he got home. There wasn’t anything either of us could do about it now. His mother had lived in the western edge of Ohio, close to the border with West Virginia. Jake and I were in Los Angeles, where we’d moved for his medical practice. We’d been there almost five years, and even though his roots were in hill country and mine were in Cleveland, the West Coast felt completely like home.

Jake surprised me an hour later, the tires of his Porsche squealing into the driveway. I met him at the door.

“My mother’s dead,” he said. We clung to each other for a while.

“I’m sorry, baby.”

“Ludy said they think she died in her sleep.”

“Ludy?” I pulled back. “You talked to your sister?”

“She called to tell me what happened.”

“She called your office?” My stomach suddenly clenched into knots. “How did she…”

“Never mind that now, Erica. I need to think.” He pushed me away and headed for his den, slamming the door behind him. I was too surprised to say anything, or to go after him. He didn’t seem sad so much as unsettled. That wasn’t a surprise: it was normal to mourn a parent, even one who was a mean, manipulative person. Jake had cut off contact with her years ago because of her abusiveness, and while he was right to do it, I suspected that his conscience wasn’t easy right now. Any sense of loss would be made worse if it was accompanied by guilt.

When I knocked on the door, he didn’t answer. I listened at it for a moment, but all was quiet. He had alcohol in there, I knew, but no food, so I went to the kitchen and made him a sandwich. I put it on a tray and wrote a little note on an index card—I love you, baby—and left it in front of the door, knocking to let him know it was there. An hour later, it was untouched, like a rejected peace offering at the altar of an angry god.

That was when I started to worry. My husband was a man with a tender heart; he found it hard to hold a grudge against anyone, no matter how deserving. It had been so painful for him to cut off contact with his mother, even though he’d done so for reasons any sane person would understand. You couldn’t put up with a toxic person just because you were related to her; you still had to draw a line somewhere. Mrs. Carlow had actually made it easier for Jake by ignoring him. Jake had sent her a birthday card once, after they cut off contact. I only knew about it because his mother had crossed out her name with a spidery X and wrote RETURN TO SENDER on the envelope, so the card boomeranged back. How did you mourn a mother like that?

I wandered aimlessly through our house, wondering what to do. Jake needed help, but I wasn’t sure how to give it to him. We’d been together for a dozen years, and yet sometimes I found it hard to understand him.

When I knocked again on the door of his study, he ignored me. But he hadn’t locked me out, and the knob turned under my hand. I stepped over the tray and went inside. The blinds were drawn, but I could see Jake’s silhouette at his desk. He seemed to be staring into space. I didn’t hear the music at first, it was turned so low. The lyrics came as a whisper: “Oh, Death, oh death, please spare me over till another year.”

“What is it, Erica?” Jake’s voice was just as quiet as the singer’s.

I’d prepared a speech in my mind, but it slipped away. “I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I wish I knew what to do to help you, baby.”

Jake just looked at me with that hard, flat expression that came over him when he got lost inside his own thoughts. Normally, I could cajole him out of it, but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to this time. He was too bitter and raw right now. He was dangerous at the moment, liable to do something rash if I didn’t pay very close attention to him.

“There’s nothing anyone can do now. What’s done is done.”

“It’s normal to have conflicted feelings in a situation like this. It’s…”

“Erica, please cut out the bullshit psychobabble. I can’t listen to it now.”

That made a lump swell in my throat. Jake almost never cursed, certainly not at me. He was more depressed than I’d realized.

“I have to go out there,” he muttered.

“You what?”

“I need to go home for my mother’s funeral.”

“Jake, she’s gone and nothing is going to change that. Going to her funeral isn’t going to help her. It’s just going to drag you back to a place you hate and bring back painful memories.”

“I’d rather have the painful memories than whitewash the past.”

“You’re so busy at work,” I pointed out. “They need you at the clinic. You can’t just leave them in the lurch.”

“Why? Because some starlet wouldn’t get her boob job? Or maybe some spoiled teenager wouldn’t get her bumpy nose fixed?”

“You’re picking ridiculous examples. You know you do wonderful work. Important work. Think of all the little kids you’ve helped.” Jake occasionally spent his weekends performing surgery, for free, on poor kids from the inner city whose parents could never have afforded to fix their cleft palates and other disfigurements.

He rubbed his temples. “It’s not enough.”

“Look, let’s make a donation in your mother’s honor. I was looking online, and there’s this one association that focuses on heart attack and stroke prevention for women.”

Jake stared at me for what felt like a very long time. “How did you know my mother died of a heart attack?”

“Oh, I…” I felt terrible for not telling him about the sheriff’s call sooner. But when he’d come home, he’d already known that his mother was dead, and he’d disappeared into his den before I’d had the chance to say anything. “The sheriff who found her called here, right before you came in. I was going to call you, but then I was thinking I should tell you in person, and then you came home and you already knew…”

He put his hand up. “I don’t want to hear it. Just leave me alone.”

I swallowed hard and backed out of the room. “Let me know if you need anything,” I said, pulling the door behind me. Just before it closed, I stopped and poked my head back in the room. “I love you, baby.”

Jake just stared at me. I shut the door and tried not to panic.

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