By Russell Waterman
“Sterling, dearie, nobody likes a grumpy wumpy. Here, let’s turn that frown upside down,” his mother leered as she stretched his lips into a deformed jokers smile.
In a snit, the young boy pushed his mother’s hands away and lowered his head like a bull ready to charge. Steam came flooding out of his nostrils while she laughed and jeered.
Sterling Biggles shook off the childhood image. The flashbacks were happening more frequently lately, even as he was approaching his thirtieth birthday.
He focused on the wall his desk butted up against and found one last empty space. Sterling used a thumbtack when he preferred a hammer and nail, and pinned the letter next to the others. He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses that kept sliding down his nose and stared at his paper mache masterpiece, clenching his teeth.
In the beginning, he used the wall as a tool for self-motivation, hoping that over time he could improve his writing with a little perseverance. He reasoned if he put his failures on display that he couldn’t help but get better. It was Sterling’s father who took joy harping on his son’s shortcomings, “You’re a quitter, Sterling. When are you gonna get off your lazy ass and work?”
But now, after all the slaps and knockdowns, and his wall covered in hundreds of pokes-in-the-eye rejections, Sterling had had enough. He had written umpteen short stories, and the results were always the same: thanks, but no thanks.
You gotta have thick skin, they said. You gotta have rhino skin, they said. For years he submitted stories. Putting himself out there and exposing his vulnerabilities, risking editorial beat downs for a chance, however slim, at recognition and acceptance. Still, they continued to needle him with harsh criticisms—until his soul bled.
There were emails and snail-mails, copies of scathing posts from Instagram and Facebook, vicious Tweets from drive-bys mocking his writing skills, and too many to count scribbled Post-it notes from repeat offenders.
Every scrap of paper represented a rejection. If they were from online dating services or job applications, that was one thing, those he could tolerate, even accept, but these were from publishers and editors. They were the ones with the power to inspire or crush him with a click of a mouse.
Most of the papers were form letters. They said his stories were sub-par, didn’t meet their current needs, or fit in with their publications. The indifferent letters thanked him for his submissions and wished him luck in finding publication elsewhere.
Sterling Biggles stared at the wall and snarled like the raging bull his mother foresaw, swatting away her ghostly hands pinching his cheeks. But unlike a joker’s smile, his scowl seemed permanently etched on his face.
It’s time to stop the bleeding, Sterling thought.
* * *
Heavy metal rocked Sterling’s tiny apartment. His brain rolled on the downbeat. He took another drink, then pressed the cylinder release on his .22-caliber revolver, and flipped it out. On examination, he removed each bullet and carefully cleaned them before reinserting each one. Spinning the cylinder, he reseated it back into the body of the gun with a flick of the wrist and placed the weapon next to his laptop. The dangerous habit almost cost him a leg last spring when the gun discharged, nearly taking off his right kneecap when he flicked it a little too hard. Incredibly, he hadn’t squeezed off a shot since moving to Cedar Lake. His neighbors had a different impression.
It was almost 2 a.m. when he finished his first six-pack and reread his latest rejection. The laptop’s light ricocheted off his trifocals as he leaned forward and squinted, looking for the name of the magazine that had most recently snubbed him.
Daft Magazine. The letters in the email’s signature were jumbled and squirrely like the magazine.
A search brought up the website and contest winner, The Mountain Goat by Malcolm Wolfe. Below the story title was a clownish picture of a goat balancing on top of a rocky peak like a pirouetting ballerina.
A quick read brought Sterling’s sharp retort, “This isn’t even good enough to read in the toilet.”
He broke open his second six-pack when his jaw dropped reading the writer’s biography, discovering he lived just a hop, skip, and a jump away in Fort Thomas. The black and white picture, looking like an out of focus Polaroid, was of a young man with a gaunt face and messy hair, doing his best to smile through his pursed lips.
Music was still blaring when Sterling left in his green Ford Fiesta.
* * *
North of I-80, Fort Thomas was a farming community where the tractors outnumbered the people. The landscape was reminiscent of the stars in the night sky; they seemed random, but every one of them led somewhere.
If it wasn’t for the clever latitude and longitude posted in Malcolm’s bio, Sterling might never have found the house. His iPhone’s GPS navigated him down a gravel driveway lined by tall dreary-looking cornstalks. He bottomed-out once or twice and dodged several stalks blocking the road.
Approaching a farmhouse, he noticed a small pickup parked up front. The plates were from out-of-state. Sterling’s breathing accelerated. He licked his lips, doused his headlights, and reversed course parking under a huge tree fifty or so yards back, and waited.
It was getting light when Sterling knocked on the door of the darkened house. Becoming impatient, he pounded. He looked around, peeked in through the stained glass window next to the front door, and pounded again. When he heard footsteps, he stepped away from the door and swallowed hard. Can I really do this? He thought.
“Who are you?” The gangly young man rubbed his eyes and gave Sterling the stink eye. He wore tattered jeans, no shirt, no shoes, as was thin as a rail. The track marks on his arms told Sterling why.
“I’ve been driving all night to talk to you. My name’s Sterling. You must be, Malcolm?”
“I, uh, yeah. I’m Malcolm. It’s early, whaddaya want?” He said, through a spattering of teeth.
Slow to rethink his next move, Sterling said, “You’re a farmer?”
“…uh, sure, I’m a farmer. This here’s a farm, ain’t it?” he said, looking over Sterling’s shoulder.
“I was expecting a writer, not a farmer. To me, you look like neither. And by the looks of that field, if you really are a farmer, then we’re all gonna starve.” The second six-pack helped to strengthen Sterling’s courage.
“Why’d you come here, just to mouth off?”
“I’m looking for a writer.”
“You write as good as you farm?”
“You’re a real smartass, ain’t ya? Now, get the hell outta here!”
Sticking his foot in the closing door, Sterling said, “Are you the same Malcolm Wolfe who wrote that piece of trash The Mountain Goat for Daft Magazine?”
After some head-scratching, he said, “So that’s your beef, you’re jealous?” Looking flustered, Malcolm relaxed his grip on the door, letting it drift open.
“I’ve read some of your stories and let me tell you…” said Sterling, shaking his head and stepping further away from the door, “…I’d rather use them for cat litter than read ‘em. They must’ve been smokin’ something to choose your story over mine.” The bull in him was loose.
“Oh, now I get it. You’re pissed off because your story sucks. You’re a wannabe that never was,” he said smugly. “Well, that’s your problem. Now, you gonna leave, or do I call the cops!”
“Yeah, call ‘em. You oughta be arrested for the crap you write!”
With his eyes bugging out of his head, Malcolm screamed, “Why you—”
Malcolm leaned over and grabbed a double-barrel shotgun hidden behind the door. Before he could level it, Sterling drew his revolver wedged down his backside and fired one shot. Malcolm flew back, crashing awkwardly onto a coffee table. His body lay contorted like a schoolboy crouching on the floor, ready to play marbles in a pool of blood. The wound in his stomach was the size of his fist.
As the smoke dissipated, Sterling dropped his gun and vomited.
I can’t believe I did it!
His eyes bobbed between the smoking gun and the twisted body. His heart pounding, his knees shaking, he wiped the spew from his mouth and leaned against the doorjamb.
Think, dumbass, think!
Sterling had thought hard, but not long, about his plan. And similar to his writings, it wasn’t well thought out.
He began by going through Malcolm’s bloody pockets. He found lint and a Jolly Rancher. There was nothing in the kitchen except for dirty plates and a frying pan layered in grease. What looked promising was the red, white, and blue Velcro wallet and keys he found on the bedroom nightstand. One of the sets of keys belonged to the beat-up Toyota out front. Another set had a Ford logo.
He rifled through the wallet, and the picture on the driver’s license was definitely that of the man he just shot, neither was smiling. But the names didn’t match. The dead man introduced himself as Malcolm Wolfe, but the name on his DL read Ned Larson.
Sterling rummaged through the closet, dresser, and a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned since the millennium. There was L to XL clothes sizes, plus a half-full bottle of Viagra in the medicine cabinet.
The bottle of pills gave him a reason to pause.
On his way to the Toyota, Sterling walked by a den with a desk stacked with papers and binders. But what grabbed his attention was the glow of a computer screen.
Inside the tired Toyota, Sterling found the registration in the glove compartment that confirmed Ned Larson was a Toyota man.
If that guy’s really Ned Larson from South Dakota, what’s he doing on a farm in Iowa posing as Malcolm Wolfe? And where in the hell is Malcolm Wolfe?
Sterling returned the registration and sneezed, jarring his glasses. The truck gave off a musty smell, much like Ned, like it had been sitting out in the rain with the windows rolled down.
Sterling stopped in the living room and glanced at the flies buzzing around Malcolm or Ned or whoever the hell he just killed.
The den was a disaster. The odds-on bet it was ransacked by Ned. The drawers in the metal filing cabinet and desk were open, and loose papers covered the floor like it was Sterling’s wall. Sterling guessed that whatever it was that Ned was looking for was piled high on the desk.
The desktop was cluttered with papers, yellow notepads, and piles of wired-composition books. They were filled with stories—all authored by Malcolm Wolfe.
Sterling sat in front of the computer. His body was iffy at best and swayed in the chair before settling down. Post-it notes framed the monitor. His mind was tiring, but written on the Post-its was story titles and media outlets.
He looked at the monitor and suddenly realized how lucky he was; there was no screensaver. Malcolm’s Gmail was open. The latest email was from Daft Magazine. It was addressed to Malcolm, congratulating his story telling with a generous payment delivered to his PayPal account.
But it was the Gmail profile photo in the corner of the screen that caught Sterling’s eye. It was a picture of a heavy old man with a long gray beard—Malcolm Wolfe?
After being awake for nearly two days, Sterling slumped over in the chair and blacked out.
* * *
The maddening noise of chirping crickets woke him, that, and buzzing. He passed his hands over his face and straightened his glasses. It was pitch black except for the light of the computer screen.
The swarm of flies that had invaded the gut of Ned Larson’s dead body was busy buzzing and laying eggs. With the hot, humid Iowa weather, the corpse began giving off a putrid odor that couldn’t be ignored. Anyone within a mile would smell it by morning. Sterling had to take care of the body.
Sterling switched on the desk lamp and turned on his iPhone’s flashlight. He made his way to the barn, unlocking it using another set of keys and cast the light. Parked in the middle was a Ford truck, fit for a farmer, he thought. It was dirty with its fair share of dents and dings and cornstalk leaves in the bed.
He popped the glove compartment, but it was empty save for some receipts and work gloves. He found what he was looking for clipped to the belly of the passenger’s sun visor. Malcolm Wolfe was the registered owner.
He cranked the engine, but it was dead, just like Ned.
Sterling, a virgin in more ways than one, had never buried anyone. But he’d read about it recently in a short story called Fury is my Name by Malcolm Wolfe. He thought the writing was horrid but enjoyed the morbidity of it all. In it, the protagonist, a woman with a wicked temper, caught her husband cheating and murdered him with a clothing iron. Coincidentally, they lived out in the weeds, so she dug a grave underneath a big oak tree.
Sterling loaded a rusty wheelbarrow, perfect for hauling around a body, with a shovel and heavy-duty pickaxe.
After dumping Ned into the barrow, Sterling headed out to the big Red Cedar he parked under when he first arrived. He remembered the soil was loose and forgiving. He was sure Malcolm, and his protagonist, would approve.
Working by the moonlight, and batting flies, he started swinging the pickaxe. Taking out large chunks, he used the shovel to form a human-sized plot and kept digging. Down a good five feet, he hit a rough spot.
Damn, a tree root.
Sterling rested the shovel against the side of the pit and used his hands to scoop dirt out like a scientist on an archaeological dig. The light from his iPhone made clear what artifact he uncovered—a boot. With a little more effort he found a leg attached.
It took the better part of an hour unearthing the body. He was a large man and dressed in overalls with a long-sleeve plaid flannel shirt, and except for the huge hole through the chest, courtesy of a shotgun blast from Ned, the corpse seemed well preserved. Sterling wasn’t a doctor, but had read enough Agatha Christie and P.D. James mysteries to know that this guy couldn’t have been dead very long, a week at most.
Searching the dead man, Sterling discovered the old man chewed Redman and enjoyed hard candies. He found his wallet, and next to a picture of his wife was his driver’s license. It identified him as Malcolm Wolfe: part-time farmer and writer, and full-time corpse. His residence, and final resting place, was located under a Red Cedar on a farm in Fort Thomas, courtesy of his protagonist.
Sterling pocketed the wallet and shaped the grave to make room for one more. His arms felt like Jell-O, so this hole would have to do. Plus, he thought it was fitting that Malcolm and his killer, Ned Larson, would spend eternity together eating dirt.
Using the last bit of adrenalized strength, he pushed the wheelbarrow over to the edge of the grave and poured in the body of Ned Larson: poser of Malcolm Wolfe and permanent bunkmate. Sterling made quick work burying the bodies and disguising the freshly dug grave site with tree mulch. Anymore clean up would have to wait.
Sterling was sucking air when he made a b-line back to the house.
* * *
Sifting through the paperwork, Sterling found jumbled notes, assorted musings, and what had to be all of Malcolm Wolfe’s stories. Sterling wondered how a semi-retired farmer could become an accomplished writer when he struggled at it for years and failed spectacularly.
Sterling started Googling. The most recently published titles, e.g., The Mountain Goat and his new favorite Fury is my Name and found they were all correctly credited to Malcolm Wolfe. The problem was the biography’s photo. It wasn’t Malcolm’s picture, it was Ned Larson’s.
“Now, it’s time to stop the bleeding.”
Sterling swung violently at the outstretched hands coming toward him and scowled. He came here with one intention in mind, and no one, not Ned and certainly not an apparition, was going to stop him.
He connected his iPhone to the computer with his USB and got to work uploading his picture to every Malcolm Wolfe story on the Web, replacing every picture of Ned or Malcolm with his own.
In the morning, after some serious sleep, he’d do the same with his writings, resubmitting them using Malcolm Wolfe as a pseudonym.
As he dozed, Sterling grabbed a thin binder balancing on top of the monitor that he hadn’t perused. He flipped through the pages and laughed. It was Ned Larson’s. Sterling thought Ned’s writing stunk as much as his rotting corpse. But he could concede one thing, neither had ever been published.
“I guess we’re both wannabes, huh, Ned?”
Sterling took a match to the binder and watched it burn.
Russell Waterman is an Amazon published author, including his latest, “The Adventures of Dave Diamond,” a short story complication. His fiction has also appeared in The Blotter, Jerry Jazz Musician, and SIA.