Death by Innocence

by Dan Cardoza

Infestations of Fire Ants are everywhere. Onyx-eyed, Insect aliens, dressed in antennae, oversized mandibles, and swollen abdomens. They exist in the shadows of cracks, in vast armies on the march, and in the darkest corners of our minds.

The neighborhood is pulsing. Neil Armstrong is stepping onto the moon, right now, in our new 17-inch Zenith TV. Not one of us on the plaid sofa bats an eye as Neil Armstrong says, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
More important news has landed on the front page of the Lafayette Louisiana News.  

My left ear is intent on listening to history being created. My right ear, the rebellious one, is focused on the animated conversation mother is having with our gossipy neighbor Gisele. Gisele is spreading the 411. There’s been an arrest. Criminal charges have been filed against our local Pastor, the honorable Thomas S. Blake. He’s become an instantaneous Sycamore Street celebrity. He’s been booked down at the Lafayette Parish jail.

According to mother’s manic prattle, the dignified Pastor faces twelve counts of aggravated sexual assault and seven counts of child endangerment. From what my right ear has discovered, the identity of the youngest victims is not being released. “Due to their age and such,” according to loudspeaker mouth Gisele. Before mother impolitely hangs up the wall phone, she asks Gisele, “Are there more victims?”

I’m famous today too. I am the first twelve-year-old victim to vomit on the moon. 

Mother slams the phone down after I projectile spew. She quickly grabs a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex spray. She uses Windex to clean up everything except her sins. She doesn’t care that she’s left the sweaty Gisele frazzled and shocked on the other end of the telephone line with a frozen pie hole. 

Not long after the deep cleansing, mother returns to the kitchen. She shoves the Windex back under the kitchen sink cabinet and says, “Sarah, all that puking must be from the excitement of the landing. You sure know how to empty a room.”

A few weeks pass.

Inside the scoured TV, Lindsey Canfield, the local reporter, declares that “the victim’s ages are from five to eleven. Most attend the Inter-Valley Free Church.” 

The news makes me nauseous again, but today I’m too angry to vomit.

~~~

The following two months are nonstop reporting. The local and national news media have gorged themselves with the tawdry news. And so, in a matter of days, satiated, they vacate the reverends dying lawn, driveway, and sidewalks. The entire neighborhood relaxes, well, not quite.

About a week later, I find myself knocking on the Blake’s door, three houses down on the same side of the street. Nobody answers. But, I’m patient, a real planner. Some say that I’m highly sophisticated for my age. 

Mrs. Blake said that to me one Sunday, after one of her husband’s sermons about the difference between values and morals. It was in the little kid’s bible study class.   She’d invited me over to their house for a more in-depth study session. She’d been so persuasive when she’d asked my parents. There was something in her smile that made me blush the color of cotton candy. Of course, my parents and I took her up on the invitation, getting closer to God and all. That had been about one year ago. 

After the longest time, Mrs. Blake catwalk stomps reach the front door. She jerks it open as if she’s intent on fighting the devil. When she sees it’s me, she garden rakes me up and down, as if my developing body is lush with weeds, first north, then south. 

Mrs. Blake is barely dressed in a see-thru saffron gown. She’s wearing black patent leather Joan Crawford, Come-Fuck-Me-Pumps.

“Oh, it’s you, Cotton-Candy?”

After she’s mentally weeded my spring garden, she looks past me to make sure no one across the street is watching. Satisfied, she inhales from the business end of her Lucky Strike. Then, she holds the half-smoked cigarette at her side, between her index and middle finger, as if she’s finished saluting someone important. 

She looks down her falcon shaped nose, directly into my eyes. She contorts her face as if she’s taken a swig of lemon juice, or stepped on fresh cat shit, or both. It’s a very hot day.

“What can I do for you for Sarah, Ms., ‘Goodie-Two-Shoes?’ Isn’t that what the boys call you at school?”  

 I don’t answer. I stare and puzzle my eyes.

After a pregnant minute, she bellows smoke into my face, hoping the sooty cloud will hasten my departure. It won’t.  

Gagging, I cough words in her directions, Sorry, Mrs. Blake, is this (cough)…Is this is a bad time? I can come back another day (cough)?” She doesn’t know it yet, but I will be back precisely two more times. I am a planner, remember?

“What’s in the paper grocery bag, Sarah?” Her voice stinks of contempt and cheap tobacco. Mrs. Blake is in love with sarcasm. They’re on a permanent honeymoon. It’s another one of her attempts to ditch me, but it’s not going to work.

“Cookies,” I say, “they––they are for Mr., ah, Pastor Blake. I need to deliver lots of boxes of cookies today, but…” I fake an awkward pause.

“But what, Sarah?” Mrs. Blake deeply inhales and exhales a plume of smoke directly at the nosy spider hell-bent on clinging to its deceitful spindle of web up on the porch ceiling. Her disdain is sappy and impatient. I can see it in the twitchy corners of her tired eyes, in the defiance of her jutting chiseled jaw.

“Nothing, really,” I say.

The real Mrs. Blake steps forward, the one full of sin and pleasure. “I’m so sorry, Sarah. I’ve reached a breaking point, the police, the press, and the goddamned peering neighbors. Bet you can imagine?”  

Yes, I can imagine. Your husband likes that about me, as well as my sense of wonder and surprise.” This little imp of a devil speaks in my head. 

She wasn’t always there.  

I recall how he’d tricked me, his targeted compliments that hit their mark.

“Yes, I can imagine, Mrs. Blake,” I say using the outside of my head, real voice. 

“The newspaper articles, the TV… I’m done with this shit. I apologize, Sarah, for my sharpness.”

Mrs. Blake lifts her head and looks across the street again, at the row of houses. She imagines what’s behind the shuttered curtains. “I’m getting paranoid, can you blame me?” she asks.

“I certainly don’t blame you, Mrs. Blake, I understand,” I say. 

But from somewhere, deep inside, the devil girl whispers inside me, “Poison the skink with cyanide or anti-freeze. Set her skin on fire with Fire Ants. She’s the one who attempted to trick you into their filthy web.” 

I love my inside voice. I’m not gonna’ lie. It’s so adult-ish. It’s cynical and vengeful as hell, linguistically as delicious as honey. 

She’s not your typical Associate Pastor’s wife, is she the whore? Oh, how my inner devil loves her rhetorical questions, so acidic and feted? Sarah, where do you think the couple met? Don’t answer. I’m the one with the ADD, remember? They met at a strip mall, in a titty bar in New Orleans, you silly! 

Mrs. Blake says, “Sarah, Sarah, focus. You act so adultly like at times?”

 I shrug my shoulders as if I don’t know what she means. 

Mrs. Blake pauses and studies my facial landscape, pours over my developing topography. 

Her eyes are blood-shot from crying. You’d cry, too, if you were co-dependent, and your accomplice was in jail.

They are hollow and sunken, swollen with anxiety, perfectly outlined in charcoal eye shadow, her eyes.             

Before she blows her mind, the Pastor’s wife tosses her butt of a cigarette into the jungle of what was a lawn. Her coiling snake of an index finger beckons me into the house. “Come in, Sarah,” she requests, “let’s get this over. Take a chair at the kitchen table. I’ll get some cash and be right back. I know how much Thomas loves his Girl Scouts, ah, his Girl Scout cookies.”

“Thank you,” I say, slowly walk over to the circular 50’s table. I place the brown grocery bag full of cookies and brownies in the middle. I take a seat and scoot in tight.  

Mrs. Blake returns around the corner of the long hallway, her hair still in curlers.

Those tightly nested curlers on the top of your lopsided head have to be causing you a lot of psychological pressure, you cheap, Montgomery Ward perfume wearing slut. And hey, lose the faux eyelashes. They make you look like the tramp!” I smile. It’s my she-devil. 

I deliberately unpack the boxed cookies, including my homemade preacher brownies. I sit quietly as she seats herself, cash in her hand.  

“How much does Mr. Blake owe you…ah, how much do I owe you, Sarah?” Before I can answer, she says, “I plan to give the pastor his favorite cookies when I visit him on Monday evening, 7-8 P.M. Those are his visiting hours.” Her mouth is dry, dehydrated. I watch as she spins the bitter lemon balm out of a lipstick tube onto her dry, cracked lips. She thinks herself sexy. 

I blurt out, “It’ll be $2.75 for the two boxed lemons. 

Inside my head: Queen Ants and drones have wings. However, once the mating is over, the drones die, and the queen ants rip off their wings. 

She gives me three one-dollar bills, “Keep the change,” she says.

After, we sit and talk about nothing and everything in her immaculate kitchen. She asks about the brownies. I tell her I’m a good baker, offer to share them.

“Jesus, brownies are my favorite. How did you know?” she quips. 

Who would have guessed how much she loves brownies with walnuts. Wink! I enjoy mine. It is the one with chopped pecans.

We chat up the room until she gets drowsy. A shit-load of Benadryl does that to you. Under the red vinyl chair’s padded seat, I kick my legs back and forth like a metronome, keeping time, counting.

Suddenly, Mrs. Blake slumps forward and crashes her head on the red Formica tabletop. It’s the same table, Mr. and Mrs. Blake ate their last meal together.

~Day One~

The most difficult part is pushing her onto the blanket, thump. Stripping her naked and dragging her over to the fridge is easy. I’m really strong, tall for my age. Yes, and we are developing tender tits and voluptuous hips, aren’t we, dear?

I peacefully walk into the bedroom and riffle through the nightstands, as well as the good Reverend’s dresser drawers. I gather three sets of Gall, Double Lock, police handcuffs, and that black leather gag-ball with a strap. 

Back in the kitchen, I lock her wrists in place to both of the 5/8 inch refrigerator bolts on the floor. 

It’s the commercial size, the fridge, a lead coffin heavy Westinghouse. It’s fastened to the wall and the floor to prevent compressor vibration. After, I apply the ankle cuffs, heavy gauged steel, pink forever constraints.

Then I patiently wait. I’m good at waiting, unlike her despicable husband, with his fumbling fingers and sticky thumbs. Fire Ants bite and sting. They are aggressive and inject a toxic venom. It causes a burning sensation. Red bumps form at the sting, and within a day or two, they become white fluid-filled pustules.

After a few hours, Mrs. Blake wakes. She’s strapped tight and gagged. The first thing I say is how proud I am of myself. She looks shocked. 

I smile and say, “This took a little planning, and research, the walnut brownies and all. I know she’s paying attention because each time I say something, she makes a god-awful noise and thrashes about, rotates her head, attempts to spit out the gag.

She kicks and thrashes like some poor stranded dolphin on a remote beach, her bound feet a tail. Muddled cursing and the strong smell of urine pollute the gourmet kitchen. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s not going anywhere, ever again. After all, she was part of the conspiracy. 

After her physical effort, she passes out. I bless her by sprinkling a little fairy dust of powdered sugar over her head. “Lovin’ the way you kicked at the nests in the backyard really pissed them off. Loved the way you sugared them too, teasing them,” says the inside voice from hell.

I’ve been in her house and the backyard for about six hours now.  Mrs. Blake wakes again. She is no longer thrashing about. Her eyes widen after she notices the trail of granular sugar leading out of the kitchen. She can’t see the thin white line of gun powder. It has been strewn clean across the planked living room floor, too. She can’t observe how the honey has been neatly drizzled in a line, up and over the open window sill, out into the yard, how the screen has been kicked out. 

I’m certain she notices how the Fire Ant candy and honey stop just short of her bare feet, at least for now.

In her birthday suit, Mrs. Blake appears sad and ruined, lying there on the kitchen floor. She’s hot, red and sweaty, and of course, very sticky. She’s a life-sized lobster who pissed and shat the floor.  

I walk out into the living room and sit on her soft, high back chair. Out through the large open windows, I watch as the tall sunflowers audition as metronomes, how they gently sway to and fro in the garden, keeping crazy time somehow. It’s so stimulating, yet somehow relaxing. 

Noisy crows do their best to balance and position themselves, peck the black eyes out, late summer’s sunflower seeds. In the breeze, Spanish moss hangs, sways in the Dogwood trees as if waving goodbye. But, it’s not time yet?

~Day Two~

When I return, I notice the backyard garden is dry and wilting. The weather is blistering. I don’t have any spare time to water. Besides, everything that is dying is gorgeous.

This beautiful evening, Mrs. Blake continues to lay there, paralyzed in fear. Her wrists and ankles have been bloodied dry. Her stench is perfume, an impromptu war morgue. 

She appears calm. I am certain she’s screamed into her gag most of the night. Bet she hasn’t cum once. 

I rotate the leather ball out of her mouth. She rasps, “I’m so sorry, Sarah, for enticing you. I should have prevented him… You don’t have to do this?” Oh, but I want to, says the voice. 

“Mrs. Blake,” I softly tell her, “But you are a conspirator.”

 I startle myself as the doorbell rings. I rotate the ball back in her mouth as she attempts to clear the fleshy gravel from her throat.

The thud on the concrete stoop catches me off guard. She screams for the delivery driver, but nothing comes out except foamy blood as it oozes through the cracks in her lips.

I fetch the box. A signature isn’t needed. I find myself mesmerized, standing over Mrs. Blake, holding the opened UPS box. I’m careful not to disturb the new armies of red ants that surround her. 

Her eyes widen again as I empty the contents on the box on the floor beside her. The bounty of children’s underclothes slaps at the kitchen tile as it pours itself into a silky stack.

“The delivery is addressed to you, Mrs. Blake?” For the longest time, our eyes crash. Hers evolve, domesticated to feral. 

She doesn’t speak. She prefers to flop again. Now, she’s a large mouth bass that has been jerked onto shore with a bloody lure in her mouth.            

Once she realizes I am not paying attention to her drama, she stops all the grunting and twisting, other than from the periodic ant bites.

It’s then I take a chair at the kitchen table. In the building silence, we watch and listen to the large clock on the wall. We both enjoy the passage of time. Time is death. The silence of early evening begins to pull its shadows into the room. Stay until the clock is mostly black. Only then will all the hours and minutes seem the same.

She needs something to make her relax. So I place an open pack of cigarettes at her feet next to a box of matches, a tall glass of freshwater, carefully out of reach. I watch as she inhales deeply through the snot bubbles. We observe the ants’ columns that continue to march their hunger up her once, long, beautiful legs. We watch as they platoon into her crotch, her armpits, her honeyed hair, her ears, the cracks in her mind. I add more sugar and honey to the well-traveled trails leading out the window, to their nests. After, I sweetly encircle her silhouette.

Before I leave again, before night swallows the days orphaned shadows, I pause to admire the red cardinals as they litter the blackening Magnolia trees, the holly scrubs promising the reddest of berries. In the dry wind, everything insists on dancing. Even the red ants, as they hunger through the open window, millions and millions of them. Cardinals peck ants from the window, fly away to their nests. Most of us haven’t a care in the world.

~Day Five~

It’s late evening, again. The long-dead ghost of Salvador Dali’s marvelous sundials and clocks insist on wilting over the top of the backyard fence. Today has been mostly bloodied and poached. I stand in judgment and wait quietly. It’s been at least two hours. The angels of death have taken her. I’m smack dab in the middle of this appalling mess. I’m reminded of last summer’s shit-house, at the Lafayette Parish Fair––mostly because of the sound of the Ferris wheel in my head and the awful smell.

I slowly walk around the muck that has been strewn in patches of scabs over the kitchen floor. I admire the Red Ants, their southern comfort poison, all those who feast and waste on what was Mrs. Blake.

Thousands and thousands march and continue to follow their narrow orders. A red specked army of goose-stepping soldiers, programmed for havoc and destruction. I smile. “Well done,” says this inside voice. The voice is weaker somehow. “Six bottles of Southern Clover Honey is all it took.” It says now, in nearly a whisper.

After the dark arrives, I exit their house for the last time through the front door. I carefully lock it in place and remove my clear vinyl gloves. I leave in anonymity and silence. 

~Day Eleven~

The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department has been assigned the Blake homicide.

Lieutenant Harris lectures his team before they enter the crime scene at the Blake home. “I expect you to work this case like professionals. I don’t care if it haunts you for the rest of your damned lives.” It will. He’s already taken a peek.

Charley P. Watkins, fresh out of the Sheriff’s academy, enters the home to deliver a camera and a new bottle of Luminal. He fancies himself a Sherlock Johnny Cash.

After projectile vomiting across the messy, stained kitchen floor and contaminating the crime scene, Charley pops himself in the face as hard as he can. 

Instantaneously, he’s been teleported to in front of some crazy Walmart return counter. He’s attempting to return or exchange his dark thoughts. “No,” says the clerk. “We don’t accept returns for what you saw and smelled. All the milky puss, the rippling armies of Fire Ants as they began to feast upon the maggots.”

From somewhere deep inside, Uncle Charley’s evil twin whispers, “You fucking wussy. You can do this! Hey, chicken-shit, remember the time you guzzled all that Colt-45 beer, the night you scored the winning touchdown? Sure, you paid the price, but you did it. Got up early, and helped your old man cut firewood all day, threw up your guts. Come on, Charley boy, let’s do this!” 

What Charley witnessed that day, he’d never forget. His supervisor’s carefully worded pep-talk hadn’t helped that much, nor did the tough-love lecture he’d imagined from his grizzly bear alter ego. 

It hadn’t taken long before ole Charley boy had quit the sheriff’s department. 

The crime scene evidence has been stored away for decades. Countless cold case detectives have come and gone. An unknown number of detectives have dry-heaved themselves a pile of green thumbing through all the Blake murder evidence, the smell, the dead insects. The infamous homicide remains unsolved to this very day.

A full accounting of the exacting level of torture and depravity has remained confidential to this day, also, the crime scene photos and DNA.

~2021~  

Time is a leaky roof. Families of rats have destroyed or damaged scores of the cardboard boxes and much of the Blake murder evidence. What remains of the cold case file has been placed inside their new hard-surfaced, plastic containers with stainless steel hinges. All of the evidence containers have been secured inside a fancy, thermostatically controlled, state of the art, evidence room. A growing population and high taxes have been good to the Lafayette Parish. 

All the homicide boxes are stacked in alphabetical order, on the thrums of metal shelving. Reverend Blake’s evidence box is next to his wife’s. 

Mr. Blake’s autopsy documented that he’d died from slipping on a bar of soap while taking a communal shower up at Caldwell Correctional Center. The authorities have always assumed there was much more to the story. But so far, nobody and the dead aren’t talking.

Blake’s box is labeled, B-59394813, The Reckoning. Mr. Blake’s Box is B-69295666, The Rapture. It’s a little police humor. 

You might wonder how and why I know so much about the new evidence room. Well, my journey from there to here commenced many years ago. 

A diligent work ethic and careful planning helped me move up the proverbial ladder. After a fine career as a deputy sheriff, I was lucky enough to land a job as a homicide detective. I’ve since retired. 

Fortunately, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department scooped me up on the cheap as a part-time clerk in the evidence room. It doesn’t pay much, but controlling the boxes and all the organizing has been very satisfying. In the vastnesses of the evidence room, I can make use of my careful planning skills. It’s in here.

I exact a certain control of which crimes get solved and those that don’t. 

(Bio: Dan’s most recent fiction has been published in the 45th Parallel, Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Across the Margins, Bull, Cleaver, Close to the Bone, Coffin Bell, Dark City Books/Magazine, Door=Jar, Dream Noir, Entropy, Flash Bang Mystery, Gravel, Literary Heist, Mystery Tribune, O:JA&L/Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, New Flash Fiction Review, Overstock, Spelk, Variant, Visitant, Your Impossible Voice, The 5-2. Dan has also been nominated by Coffin Bell for the Best of the Net Anthology, 2021, and best micro-fiction by Tiny Molecules.)

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