Thicker Than Blood
By: Tyler Duckworth

ONE

There was a girl, and they gave her the Prozac, and she went even more crazy, so they took her off, and then she went even more crazy, so they put her back on again, doped her up this time but good, and she wasn’t much more than a drooling vegetable sort by the end.

You can imagine, it would have been awful hard to love her in those days after the medicine, but I couldn’t help it, and so I loved her anyways.

She used to count all the pigeons on the city street, and I, who had never thought so much about the pigeons as to kick them, developed my own sort of worship for her.

But that’s not what this story’s about. Leastways, that’s not where we’re going. What I’m meaning to tell you is about all the times we spent, me and her, watching the sun go down and how that all ended when she went off to school in search of a better life.

Me, on the other hand, I had it all planned out where I was headed in life. That particular day, I was headed down to the ice cream store to get a sundae and meet up with Harry—he was my best friend. Susannah was the name of the girl I loved, and she was already off at school for the time being. So I spent most of my free time with Harry in those days. I think he knew how I felt because I think he felt the same way about Susannah as I did. And that was alright. I didn’t envy him so much as I might have, more feeling sorry for the poor old dope who knew better than to suspect he could pull her away from me but kept on loving her just the same anyway. Harry was one of those stand-up kind of guys you weren’t supposed to be able to find anymore. But there he was all the same.

When we were kids, and Harry and Susannah and me all walked to school together, Harry used to throw rocks at the lake trying to skip them. It never worked, and I felt sorry for him then too. But I guess it was really the same pity I had for him ten years later when he was still trying to impress the same girl who only had eyes for me.

And that was our life up to this point. Harry and Susannah and me, and nobody else. I often thought that maybe if she hadn’t been crazy, neither me or Harry would’ve wanted her, but as it stood, she was one of those people who never could get old because she never was the same person on any two days. Today she’d want to go to Nepal and study with the Dalai Lama, and tomorrow she’d be wanting to crossbreed dachshunds and Jack Russell terriers to see if she couldn’t make a fortune selling Jack Russell’s wiener dogs. I admit, it struck a few of the locals as a strange practice, always thinking in what they called “perverse and un-American ways,” but that’s what was so special about Susannah.

And that’s about the tale up to now.

I walked into the ice cream parlor at five-thirty. The garage I worked at closed up at five, and I was going straight there from work, so I was still covered in grease and sweat. That sort of thing’s okay in a town that takes pride in its work ethic: showing off a hard day’s labor. What wasn’t so normal was for people to be so dressed up as Harry was when I met him, not on a day that wasn’t Sunday anyhow.

He was already seated in a booth when I walked in, wearing a pair of khaki pants I had seen him purchase from the army surplus store down on Main Street and a pastel-colored plaid shirt I seemed to remember his daddy wearing back when we were kids—before his daddy passed on.

“Howdy, stranger,” he said. He always said that, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I think he thought it sounded like something out of a Western, but if so, it wasn’t any Western I had ever seen.

  “Howdy, pilgrim,” I replied. That much I could retrace to a movie for sure, and so that became my standard greeting, which seemed to suit Harry just fine.

“Have a seat,” he said, and that’s just what I did.

“What you so dressed up for?” I asked, figuring it was only part of the big surprise he said he had to tell me.

But when I asked that, he just said, “Um,” and looked back down at the table.

“Earth to Harry,” I said, waving my hand in front of his face. “You there, Harry? Speak up.”

“Susannah’s back in town,” he said, not giving me a chance to see his face.

“What?”

“Yeah, she’s back,” he said.

“Could you look at me when you speak?” I asked, and he finally looked up. “Thank you. Now what are you talking about?”

“She’s back in town,” he repeated.

“Well, why? It’s not like a school holiday or nothing, is it?” I asked but went on before he could respond. “And why’s she telling you she’s back in town and not me?”

“She dropped out of college,” he answered.

“Harry, what’re you talking about?” I said again. That’s about when he began to cry. “Hey, what’re you doing? People are looking.”

“I can’t help it, Judd,” Judd, that was my name, like Naomi and Wynona. “I didn’t mean to, you know?”

“Didn’t mean to what, Harry? What are you bawling about?"

Then he sucked up his tears and his runny nose, and he looked me right in the eye. “We got married, Judd.” And those were the last words I heard my best friend of thirteen years Harry utter for quite a few years to come.

TWO

I suppose the problem wasn’t an issue of having lost the woman I loved or even the hurt pride involved when everybody in town knew what he had done to me—more or less making me a cuckold—so much as it was an issue of his pride in having her. My life was frozen in motion, ducking to hide every time they strolled by together, which was all the time. And I knew they didn’t have the money to be out every night, but they still managed to be as he showed her off to all the same people I had once showed her off to. Now, I couldn’t tell you what happened, and thanks to old Harry, I wasn’t ever going to know the victories or defeats of a marriage, but one day, they just didn’t come out, and after some time that became par for the course. And if after that you perchanced to see them out and dancing merrily along as the happy-go-lucky couple they had been, you could count yourself about as fortunate as if you’d seen Haley’s Comet.

THREE

It was, oh, I’d say about seven years later when I decided to call upon Susannah one day working in the gift store two doors down from the garage. Imagine that if you will, working two doors down for seven years and never speaking in a town of only ten thousand.

But that’s the way it happened. Granted, she had called on me in a letter, but it was old Judd who finally made the trip over, nearly eight months after the postage date on the envelope.

I walked in under the pretense of buying a gift for my girlfriend, but those ten thousand in town tended to talk, and Susannah knew right off that I was lying.

“What’re you really here for?” she asked.

And why shouldn’t I tell her the truth? It was her who sent me the letter. That hardly made it like I was cutting in on her good time.

“I was just wondering how you are,” I ended up saying.

“Been a long time for just wondering,” she said.

“Been a long time for a lot of things,” I told her.

Honest to goodness, that’s how it started. Nothing too big, nothing to make the townsfolk nervous, and though I know it makes me sound a little thick, nothing to rile suspicions in me that things were beginning anew with the two of us. But nonetheless, that’s what happened. Before the summer was through, I had bedded Susannah on more occasions than I could recall. I had had my turn, and then it was Harry’s, and now it was mine again. So I lusted for Susannah in ways I’d never even thought of before, and that was as invigorating as it was scary.

Where Harry fell into the mix, I couldn’t say. She was still married to him, but she said they hadn’t had intercourse in several months, and she wasn’t interested in him anymore.

That put old Harry and me back on speaking terms. I went by his farm shortly thereafter—it wasn’t really his, he just worked it—and I said hello. Actually, I said, “Howdy, pilgrim,” and we picked right back up where we left off. I even took him for ice cream before the week was out.

In fact, the only noticeable change I could detect in the man was that he no longer had vanilla ice cream when we went in. These days, he was a chocolate man.

“That your new exotic sweet tooth?” I asked him.

“I don’t know how exotic it is, or how new for that matter,” he said. “I been eating chocolate for probably three years now.” He paused. “Same old sundae for you, I see. Don’t you ever get sick of those things?”

  “Matter of fact,” I said, “I got to where I can’t stand ‘em. But I can’t stop eating ‘em either.”

“Why not?”

But I didn’t have an answer for him, and he already knew I wouldn’t, so he didn’t pursue it farther.

I’d tell you about the rest of the conversation, but it didn’t get much more interesting than that. Just the same as I won’t bore you with the details of how things went pretty much back to the way they were for a good long while. The only difference was that Susannah and me were having the affair we’d always had under the pretense of just being friends, and she was still married to my good buddy Harold for the rest of his days. Did I want her to divorce him? That was a question I never bothered to ask myself except occasionally in church, but then I had to wonder whether what I was doing was right or not, and I usually just let the idea go altogether. Instead, I accepted that she was his girl in public and mine in private, and so long as things stayed that way, me and Harry and Susannah could go on having what we had kept up most of our lives—one seven-year period excluded.

FOUR

Then came an awful day. I’ll remember it as long as I live, much as I pray nightly to forget.

The evening before, Susannah and me had sat out under the orchard near the lake and watched the sun set the way we did when we were little. The only difference between that time and now was that now she looked up at me and asked, “Why don’t you kill Harry?”

“Have you lost your mind, woman?” I asked with an amount of disgust that surprised even me. “The man’s my best friend ... and your husband, I might add.”

“Which is exactly why he’s standing in the way of our being together the way we want,” she said. “You don’t want to hurt him, and I don’t want to hurt him, and so we keep on letting him ruin both our lives.”

“So let me get this straight. I don’t want to hurt him?”

“Right.”

“And you don’t want to hurt him?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But you want me to hurt him?”

“I suppose that’s about the size of it.”

“And yet you seem to forget one crucial point that I can’t seem to overlook.”

“What’s that?”

I still don’t want to hurt him. I mean, I may be greedy for you, but I’m a fair sight from that bad off.”

I’d been a lot of things in my life—some good, some bad—and I had even condescended to being an adulterer for Susannah, but being a murderer was something I just didn’t expect I had it in me to be. Somehow, though, I would have considered it for her. But one thing I would not consider was being the murderer of my best friend, regardless of whether or not he stole the woman who was rightfully mine.

FIVE

Call me a glutton for punishment if you will, and hell, I’ll even admit to it, but the fact is, I couldn’t get enough of Susannah, even if she was one of those homicidal vixens you see on late-night TV “news” shows. And the truth of the matter is I knew she was nuts from the start, but that didn’t change the way I felt about her and the way she moved and even the way she thought. She was passion itself, and I couldn’t have her in moderation—I needed her all the time.

But I didn’t go into it thinking I would kill Harry to have Susannah to myself. I simply thought he’d get the idea if she let on a little that she was no longer interested. Sure, he’d be hurt, and that was something we didn’t want to do, but it’d be a lot better than if we killed him.

So I recommended that course of action to her the evening before as we watched the sun go down, and I suspected very little was amiss from that original plan when she asked me to meet her out in the orchard the next night as well—not as some scene related to our plot, but rather just another chance of watching night descend upon the world. Funny, when I look back now, it was all too fitting a pastime for me and Susannah to share, given where our relationship would take us.

SIX

Then came the day of reckoning, as I would later think on it. I sat by the water, waiting on Susannah to arrive, when I heard the sound of her car motor coming. As I thought was the only natural thing to do, and the only gentlemanly thing to do, I got up from my spot and walked out to greet her by the road. When I got there, sure enough, it was her car coming, and sure enough, it slowed to a stop when it saw me.

But Harry was driving.

“Howdy, stranger,” he said, and the blood ran cold in my veins. “What you doing out here by yourself?”

“Oh, just watching the sunset,” I replied through gritted teeth and with an icy glance toward Susannah in the passenger seat.

“You shouldn’t watch the sunset by yourself,” she said. “They say that’s the recourse of a desperately lonely man.”

“Who says that?” I asked, not caring about the answer so much as about her response.

“Happy people, I guess.”

She was killing me instead of him. I got it. One of us had to die, and if I wasn’t going to destroy him, she would destroy me. It was my penance for not doing everything in my power to keep us together, or at least I figured that’s how she saw it.

“Speaking of happy people,” I said with what I hoped was a genuinely friendly tone, “where are you off to?”

“Town,” Harry said, and I noticed for the first time since they drove up that he was still there.

“Thought you were broke,” I said.

“Sometimes you got to spoil yourself a bit,” Harry said as I sized him up for the kill, “even if you can’t afford it.”

I hated him in that instant. I hated the cheery smile across his face, and I hated the way he pronounced “can’t” like “cayn’t,” and I especially hated the way I felt like ducking in the shadows so they wouldn’t see how I wanted to cry. I’d had to do that for a long time, and it had been a long time since, and to tell the truth, it was something I wasn’t particularly in the mood to do all over again now that I had ridded myself of the disease.

“You want to come with?” Harry asked.

And with that, he had given a name to my wrath. I wouldn’t be a part of them; I would be with them. They would be together, and I would be something extra, thrown in for the humor of those who caught the irony of a cuckold keeping company with his cuckolders. All this when the true irony was that, by definition, Harry was the cuckold, and no one would ever know. It wasn’t me who was the third wheel at all, but unless something was done about it, that’s all I could ever hope to be again because, as you might recall, Susannah had laid the ultimatum, and it was either him or me who had to go.

I chose him.

So I got in the car after a brief intermission. “Just got to grab my jacket,” I said, reaching in my truck window and pulling out what I needed.

Then we were off, me with a smile on my face that would frighten the Rushmore version of Teddy Roosevelt, and we struck up a little conversation.

“Seeing anyone lately?” Harry asked me.

“As a matter of fact, Harold, I’ve been helping myself to your cookie jar when you weren’t looking.”

But he thought I was joking, and he just laughed his head off. “That’s a good one, Judd,” he said.

“I’ll say,” Susannah said, with a flinty leer at me.

I just laughed along. Eventually, he peered in the rearview and asked again, “Seriously, though. You seeing anyone? Because I know this girl, actually, maybe you know her. Sarah Brenlan? Works in the feed store? She’s got a little crush on you.”

“Harry, I don’t think you caught me. See, what I said was that I’m doing your wife, and what you heard was that I was kidding.” Harry stomped on the brakes and spun around to face me. “But I wasn’t.”

He looked at me with eyes so hurt they’d never heal, and then he turned to Susannah. “He’s lying, right?”

“I don’t know,” she said to me. “Is he?”

“How can you not know if you’re having an affair with Judd?!” Harry demanded. “Let me help you. He’s about six feet tall, brown hair, the only person sitting in our back seat!! Are you sleeping with him?!”

But all she could manage was to look down the way Harry had when he confessed to marrying my girlfriend, and she said, “Um.”

He turned back to me, and I hit him in the face with the tire iron I’d retrieved from my truck along with the coat. Harry swung forward, hitting his head on the windshield, his face bloodied even further by the broken glass now embedded in it, and his foot slipped off the brake as he slipped into a brief unconsciousness.

Off we rolled when Susannah looked from him to me and cried, “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“I’m killing your husband,” I said calmly. “Like you asked me to.”

  “You weren’t supposed to do it right in front of me,” she nearly screamed in my face.

I believe she was about to say something else, but I flung Harry’s lifeless body on her just that instant as I climbed over the seat to mash the brake. I didn’t really expect she could handle the task herself, and I couldn’t say as I blamed her. I’d had time to prepare myself mentally for the chore of murdering Harry, and she was just off for a rarely seen night on the town.

I rolled us to the side of the road and switched off the engine. Susannah hopped out immediately and ran to the ditch to vomit as I pulled the trunk release and got out Harry’s tire iron to replace my own. When I got back around to him, he was coming to, and he said, “Judd, you can’t—”

But he never finished that sentence, and he never started another. I beat him for five solid minutes, until there was nothing left of Harry’s face to identify him. I wasn’t sure that was going to help matters much, but it was certainly something I felt I had to do, even if I couldn’t tell you why.

Luckily, I hadn’t let Harry get any farther than necessary, so we were within walking distance of my truck. An hour or so later, I was safe and sound back in my house and Susannah in hers. Little did I know at the time, I wasn’t ever going to see her again.

Like I said before, this is a story about all the times we spent, me and her, watching the sun go down and how that all ended when she went off to school in search of a better life. It might aid you to know that she went back to school after Harry’s death. Maybe she had just used me to free up the chance at that life. Maybe Harry represented all the things keeping her from attaining that life. Maybe the next I heard of her, she got a business degree and was running a gift store somewhere up north. But before that, she went out of “grief” down to visit her mother in Florida, where she had relocated, leaving only me to identify Harry’s body at the morgue.

  “Now, Judd, I know this ain’t going to be easy, and I got to warn you,” Andy Rich, the sheriff told me that day, “he’s, uh, well ... he’s got no face, is the thing.”

And I’m positive I did my high school drama teacher proud when I said, “What do you mean, no face? Everybody’s got a face.”

“Not Harry,” Andy said. “Do you think you can identify him without one?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” I said. “I mean, he always had a face when I knew him.”

“And that’s what I’m trying to ask you,” he said. “Are there any other distinguishing marks on his body that you may know of?”

“He’s got a scar on his right wrist,” I told Andy, and he checked for himself, sliding the arm out from under the sheet so I didn’t have to see Harry’s battered head ... again. “That’s him, all right.”

“You mind if I ask what the scar’s from?” Andy asked. And something in the way he asked that question made me sure I wasn’t going to get caught. It was almost as if he was asking whether Harry had been suicidal, like he may have bashed in his own skull. After all—our town’s defender was most likely thinking—it was Harry’s tire iron what did him in.

  “Yeah,” I said in reference to the scar. “He got that in the fifth grade ... when we made ourselves blood brothers.”

SEVEN

So here I am, all alone on my front porch, thirty pounds heavier from eating too many sundaes, the very picture of slothfulness, with no best friend and no lady love—or vegetable love as, like I say, she finally became—pouring out my soul to you

(ZAP!)

a soul who never had a chance.

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