ATM

The dirty, salt-covered Greyhound bus, number 0388, arrived at its destination a few minutes late. The bus had several more stops scheduled for that day, including Boston, Buffalo, Albany, and finally, New York City. Driver Brian DaSilva did not wait for the full hiss of the bus’s massive disc brakes to dissipate before he left his seat. His bladder was so full that it distended below his heather gray trousers. He felt the swish-swish of urine in his undercarriage as his pants pinched his belly. He raced inside of the mini-mart rest area to relieve himself of the unwanted water weight. He let out an ecstatic moan as the yellow liquid, which reeked of coffee, filled up the bowl. 

With their ostensible leader gone, the bus’s occupants either left the vehicle to purchase bags of chips, protein bars, or Gatorade from the strung-out cashier, or they remained seated. A pair of college-aged boys began tossing a foam football back and forth. A solitary man, roughly about forty-five, poured himself a healthy dose of Jameson into a thermos of coffee. One rider kept right on snoring, which planted murderous thoughts in the mind of his neighbor, a librarian back from a bender in Montreal. No one paid attention to the woman who left the bus. She—a shadow dressed in dark fabrics and crowned with a lavender knit cap—simply got up and disembarked at the rural bus stop. It was her stop, after all. The ticket said so. She did nothing wrong. 

And yet, Jia was illegal all the way through. A crime had brought her back home, and a crime caused her to reach out and do something as stupid as it was nostalgic. She walked into the mini-mart and sat down at one of the circular tables by the window. The table smelt of cleaning fluid, but its chair was sticky from dried soda. Jia grimaced but grinded on with her small, little mission. She pulled out her smartphone and, using her thumb and forefinger, drafted her first text message to Madison in four years. 

Hey. Can you pick me up? I’m in town. At the bus station right now. 

She hit send and then waited for a response. She was used to prompt replies, especially from men. And Madison, more so than all the others, wanted her. She knew that he still wanted to fuck her—still wanted to push his local yokel cock far inside, preferably without the hindrance of a condom. Madison was like millions of men around the world, except he had lusted after her for longer. His desire reached back to high school before she became something searchable online. Unlike the ugly, acne-scared teenager moping the tiles in the mini-mart, whose mouth hung loose like a broken arm when he recognized Jia’s profile, Madison needed her. He needed her to correct a historical mistake; he needed her to reinforce whatever puny traces of virility he had left. He needed her to tell him that yes, he really was the best of them all. 

Jia placed a bet and all her remaining hopes on the boy that she had used and discarded when they were both eighteen. There was nothing left to do but wait around in the town she had cursed and abandoned for Miami. Two forsaken things needed for my rescue, she thought to herself. Jia cracked a thin smile. It was a lousy attempt to hide her anxiety. To ease her stress, she looked at the teenage employee. The pimply boy’s tortured guts bickered with his brain over whether or not he should say something. On the one hand she was a hot celebrity. He was a fan of her work too, which he thought could make for a good conversation starter. On the other hand, admitting that he watched her videos would be shameful, and the other employees, who already teased him mercilessly for his poor hygiene, would use it as fodder for future harassment. He predicted that she would ignore him anyway, just like all the other girls. The inner debate meant that he stood frozen in place, with the disinfectant-water mixture at the end of his mop forming a gathering puddle at his feet. Jia noticed his hesitation. 

She did the cruelest thing imaginable: she smiled at him, showed him her middle finger, and then promptly turned around and walked away. Her phone vibrated seconds later, as the bitter cold caught in her nose and lungs and made her shiver. She looked down at the message and smiled. 

***

Madison received the text while standing in his kitchen. He had spent the better part of the morning thinking, each thought more pitiful than the next. He wondered why people had to work. He then realized that if he quit his job, then he would have nothing to do with his time but sit and stew about how much needed money. Maudlin unhappiness was Madison’s stock and trade. Others smoked cigarettes or drank to dull the ache; Madison leaned into it with all the particles of his brain. His mother told him that too much brooding was unhealthy and could lead to an early grave. His father assured him that it was normal for men his age to have doubts and experience periods of aimlessness. Both agreed that he should go back to school. They called him a “smart boy” and said that he could do better than serving people coffee and poorly made sandwiches. He just had to apply himself, is all. He just needed the will. 

He cringed at “will.” What was will, after all? He may have been determined at some point in his short life. He graduated high school with good grades and had managed to snag a decent scholarship at the state school. That showed something like will, and yet Madison never felt passionate about any of it. Graduating and going to college were just par for the course, like getting a driver’s license or getting a job. No desire required. The more he thought about it, the only thing Madison had ever dumped sweat into was a girl. She returned the favor by humiliating him. 

His phone buzzed. He read the text with a cocked eyebrow. The sender spoke like an old friend, but Madison did not recognize the phone number. 

Who’s this? He pecked back. A name appeared on the screen that he recognized. It belonged to the same girl who had occupied his thoughts just seconds before. Jia. The bitch. What was she doing back in town? Why was she not soaking up the sun in Florida or California? 

Hey, look. I’m in some trouble and need your help. Plus, it would be nice to catch up. It’s been years. 

Yes, years of embarrassment because of you. Cunt. Madison wanted to let the invectives loose but held back. As righteously angry as he was, he knew that he could not refuse her. He wanted to see her again, especially if her undisclosed trouble had humbled her. It would be nice, he thought, to see her crawl and squirm underneath his gaze. 

What time? I have work today until closing. A crooked smile shot across his mouth. A simple inconvenience caused by him, or rather by the thing that inconvenienced him daily, felt good when directed against someone else. Especially against her. He wanted her to suffer.

Call in sick. 

Jesus! That simple. Just shirk your responsibilities, Madison; just run away and do whatever you want without consequences. The whore would of course think like that, he told himself. 

I’m not sick, tho

I really need help. 

Why me? 

You are the only one I know here anymore. 

So functional and utilitarian. Jia did not care about him, or (God forbid) want to apologize. No, she wanted his help because he was all she had left. Burnt bridges cannot be rebuilt, which, in Jia’s mind, meant that Madison had not yet forsaken her. He proved her right by calling in sick. The manager on the other end of the line did not buy it but gave Madison the day off anyway. Everyone deserves to play hooky now and then. Madison hung and texted Jia back. 

Ok. Give me fifteen minutes and I’ll be there. 

😘 was her reply. 

***

“You look good,” Madison said to Jia after she slunk, cat-like, into his truck. 

“Thanks,” she purred. “Still driving your daddy’s truck, I see.” 

“Not all of us are millionaires.” Jia laughed at that comment. It was a cruel laugh full of indignation. 

“You think I’m a millionaire, babe? Do you really? I came here on a Greyhound.” 

“You could piss away a million dollars easily. I’ve seen your Instagram.” 

Jia laughed again. “So, you like my social media. You have it.” 

“Have what?” 

“The hots for me. It’s terminal. You have been horny for me ever since I moved here. Right?” Jia slid her smooth-skinned hand across Madison’s shoulder and neck. A wave of tingles went down his spine and aided the blood as it rushed towards his crotch. 

“It would be stupid for me to deny it now. Looking back, I made it obvious. It is a wonder that I fooled myself into thinking I was sly.” 

Jia broke out in giggles. “Dude, you were never, ever fooling anyone. Everyone knew that you wanted to get in my pants.” 

“God dammit!” The anger in Madison’s voice shocked him, but he went with it. He let the internal TNT ignite. It was honest, after all. “I did not just want to ‘get in your pants,’ Jia. Is fucking all you ever think about?”

“So, what did you want, psycho boy?” 

“Is it crazy to believe that I wanted to date? I wanted us, you and me, to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Like normal people.” 

Instead of laughing, Jia let out a sound meant to invoke sympathy. “You’re so cute. It’s adorable that you were willing to date the school whore.” 

“You weren’t a slut back then, Jia.” 

“I have always been a slut; you just didn’t know.” Her comment prompted Madison to shake his head but stay silent. Jia looked him over. She found him still attractive—he was thin, a bit rough around the edges, but still had the timeless charm of a small-town boy. He looked naïve and harmless. Madison was the opposite of the predators she had known for four years—the greasy gold chains with their heavy perfumes; the sharkskin suits with hidden infections; the drug addicts pumping and dumping to feed their fixes. Even the women had been awful. One had poured acidic white wine on her fingers before scraping the skin around Jia’s clit. The cameras rolled on as Jia gnashed her teeth in pain. Another had called Jia’s parts “tiny” and “lopsided” during a shoot. Another had gifted her a laminated card that read: “Chairwoman of the Itty-Bitty Titty Committee.” Jia had taken most of it in stride, and her usual director complimented her on being so professional for her age. 

Of all the slurs and slanders, her mother had been the worst. She had broken her. All her previous voicemails had been so similar that Jia had deleted them without a second thought. “Please come home,” her mother would say in broken English. “We miss you and forgive you. Just please come home.” The pathetic messages made Jia feel nothing but loathing. She hated her mother for so much. She hated her for moving thousands of miles away to a new country where few people looked like her. She hated her for marrying a sweet local man who never said no to his stepdaughter, even when her actions cried out for the iron hand of a male disciplinarian. Most of all, she hated her mother for letting her father touch her in the darkness so many nights in a row. It was an irrational hatred, to be sure. Jia knew that her mother did not know about the nightly molestations until the last one and had responded by packing them both up and jumping ship to America. Still, Jia could not help it. The hate flowed free and easy. 

“Where do you want to go?” Madison asked, thus breaking Jia’s thoughts. 

“Let’s get something to eat. We’ll go to your house after that.” 

“What do you want to eat? The town’s options are still the same. Nothing new. A few have closed down.” 

“Is Evergreen still around.” 

“Yes.”

“Let’s go there.” 

***

Lunch lasted for over an hour. Jia ordered plate after plate of orange chicken, wonton soup, dumplings, pork intestines, and rice. She shot back cups of oolong tea in between large bites. Madison watched her in awe. He took so long to finish his single plate of lo mein because he could not wrap his head around the tiny girl’s massive appetite. Jia noticed. 

“Don’t worry; I won’t get fat on you. I have a high metabolism, plus I ate so little on the trip. I’m starving.” 

“What do you mean: ‘I won’t get fat on you?’” 

Jia looked confused. “I mean you do not have to worry about being seen next to a fat chick.”

“You know what that sounds like, right? It sounds to me like we’re a couple all of a sudden.” 

“Have you always been this nit-picky?” she said with her mouth full. “But I guess anything’s possible.” She smirked at him across the table. 

When the check arrived, Madison instinctively reached for the black leather pocket. Jia snatched it from under his fingers. 

“I got it.” She reached into her Burberry purse and pulled out a large stack of bills wrapped in beige rubber bands. She removed two twenties and put them next to the receipt. She then peeled off a ten and placed it, facedown, underneath one of the saucers. 

“A nice tip,” she said to no one in particular. She got up to leave, and Madison followed her.  

“So, what is this really about?” Madison asked after closing and locking the door to his shabby apartment. Jia scanned the wood paneling and soiled carpet. She could not hide the disgust in her face. 

“See. This is not your kind of place, and I am not your kind of people anymore. That tells me that you are in serious trouble. The kind of trouble that makes people want to go into hiding, and this is a town so unimportant that even you can hide here.” 

“You’re right. I want to hide here. I don’t know for how long, but it’s as safe as I’ll ever be.” 

“Who are you running from? What are you running from?” 

“You don’t have to worry about it. I told everyone in the industry that I was from Boston. I used my passport everywhere, so no one knows about this town.” 

“You of all people should know about the power of the Internet. If they know your real name, they can search public records. They can find our old yearbooks. It’s pretty simple.” 

“Spoken like someone who’s done it before. Tell me, Madison: do you look at your yearbooks and still want me?” 

Madison clenched his fists in anger. She was toying with him. She considered him prey, and he hated her for it. Yet, he found himself walking closer to her. 

“You did not answer my questions. That is rude. You are in my house, and you are asking for my protection, whether you can bring yourself or say it or not. The least you can do is answer my question.” 

“How are you going to protect me, Madison? How are you going to be the savior of this harlot?” 

Jia’s words did not matter; it was how she said them. She spoke to him in the same sing-song voice that she had used in the video. That damned video that he had watched a thousand times. Her in the background of the van with the blacked-out windows. The man next to her, who became many of all different characteristics, enjoyed Jia in ways that Madison wanted to. The men took turns moving her, pulling her hair, slapping her. Rather than just enjoy it, with copious moans and whispered exclamations, Jia had congratulated the men on being bigger and better than her ex-boyfriend. And not just a figurative ex-boyfriend; she had looked into the camera several times and said “Madison” with contempt. She had said the words in a sweet sing-song voice, like a young girl playing jump rope on an afternoon playground. 

Madison cupped her throat but did not squeeze. With his other arm he held her close. His flushed face burned red as he stared into her eyes. He wore a scowl; she responded with a smile. She closed her eyes and puffed out her lips. This was her defense mechanism, and yet she did not feel endangered. Jia went limp. Maison recognized the signal. He began pulling and grabbing and tearing. The rush brought back so many memories—memories of infatuation, heartbreak, and hatred. He rendered her nude before him. He scooped her up in his arms and carried her into his dark bedroom. Like a living doll she stayed still and silent. Madison tried to engage, but hesitated. He got confident enough to remove his own clothes but stalled. For reasons unknown even to himself, Madison stood at the foot of bed, turgid and sweaty, but did not move. 

“You can do whatever you want,” she said. “It’s all been done to me before, anyway. Go for it.” 

“What is wrong with you, Jia?” 

She raised herself at the waist. Through the blackness he saw her face shift into a grin. She made her lips smack loudly and she moved closer to him. Madison remained still and counted the heart beats hammering in his chest. They increased until a gnawing voice inside of him mentioned something about a heart attack. Madison closed and opened his eyes. He looked down to see if his heart had exploded, but instead saw Jia take his cock into her hand. Hand gave way to mouth. Madison got lost at that moment; he went somewhere unexpected and somewhere he did not fully understand. He let her work for a while. She guided him from her mouth to her anus. She told him to grab her hair and pull as hard as possible. She let out a scream but told him to ignore it. She did all of the moving until, after a second scream, Madison, or some creature wearing Madison’s flesh, grabbed her by the hips and flipped her over. The pair writhed at different angles over a series of ten second bursts. Madison was so active that his sweat went from a slight drip to a flood. His greased body slid back and forth across Jia. His hands pushed her one way before pulling her another. Every time the end appeared near, Madison would release himself and slather his tongue all of her chest and thighs. Eventually he finished, but, to Jia’s utter surprise, he crouched down and began kissing her again. 

***

“I stole $68,000 dollars,” Jia said in Madison’s half-asleep ear. The words woke him up. 

“You what?” 

“I stole $68,000 dollars.” 

“Did you pay for lunch with that money?” 

“Yes, why?” 

Madison eased up from the bed and stared daggers into Jia. “You idiot! That money can be traced. Serial numbers are a thing, you know.” 

“Fuck you! I’m the one taking a risk here, not you.” 

Madison breathed deeply in his chest. He paused before letting the words leave his increasingly twisted lips. “Ok. Who did you steal from and why?” 

Jia moved so that the covers fell below her chest. Her perky, supple breasts were exposed. Madison felt himself harden again. To Jia, being semi-nude was as noteworthy as drinking water or getting the mail. Perfectly perfunctory. 

“It doesn’t really matter, but I guess you’re in it now too. It took the money from the set. I plucked it right out of the director’s room. He was deep in a Soma coma. Did not notice a thing.” 

“Why did you do it?” 

“Because we had been shooting for twelve hours. Because the director was pilled up all day, every day. Because the production company was a front. Every movie was a money laundering scheme. Because I was bored. Because I was and remain sick of porn. I can do other things than fuck, you know. There was other stuff too, but that is the gist of it.” 

Madison placed his hands firmly on Jia’s shoulders. “Tell me all of it. So far what you have said is serious. Very serious. You stole a lot of money from people involved in an industry known for dealing with shady characters. Your old production company probably knows people who specialize in killing, Jia. There may be a Mexican cartel member headed our way right now, and he is getting paid good money to kill you. These are the stakes. And now that I’m involved because I know what you did, you are obligated to tell me everything, even if you think it isn’t important.” 

Jia stared right back into Madison’s eyes. The usual look of cocksure aggressiveness had been replaced by a mixture of anger and sadness. For the first time in Madison’s life, he saw Jia as something more than an unattainable goddess or a series of pixels. She looked to him at that moment like a human—a fully fleshed human being. But before the solemnity of the moment could finalize its course through Madison’s heart and soul, Jia wrapped her hands around his cock. Madison closed his eyes and rested his head against the pillow. His once-familiar room returned to what it had been just minutes before—a stew of lust, with commingled fluids gliding softly among each other. 

“Here’s the other thing,” Jia whispered. This time her sultriness was outstripped by the familiar sing-song cadence of death. She was once again playing dangerously with fire and had no clue. “I stole the money because the director and producer made me shoot a scene with one of their friends. They thought they were being so cute and clever. ‘Ah, Jia. We’ll get that whore to sleep with anyone,’ they probably thought to themselves. The other girls did not say a word either. So much for sisterhood.” Jia paused long enough to increase the speed and power of her stroking. Madison was close to completion. 

“But I saw him,” Jia said. “I saw him in the bathroom before the shoot. He was bleeding and oozing from his cock. He had bumps…”

Madison did not utter words so much as animalistic grunts that simulated words. Sweat greased his palms, and yet his grip held tight. His hands wrapped around Jia’s throat and squeezed. All the years of frustration, all the years of hatred, and all the nights spent still wanting her bled through and out of him. He held and tightened until, like a song’s coda, he closed the action with one final confession. 

“You stupid, stupid bitch! I loved you. I fucking loved you.” Tears flowed easily. Madison sat and sobbed, never once fully recognizing the nude corpse that he had created. It would take him a while, in fact most of the rest of the night before Madison would even touch her again.

It surprised him how easy it was to kill and clean up. Madison wrapped Jia’s remains in his bedding, carried her petite body to his truck, and, without the help of a moon, drove deep into a neighboring county. He picked a spot without meaning or measure. It was merely woods—dense, quiet, and secretive. Madison worked well past the rising of the sun. A lifetime’s worth of dirt surrounded him as he placed the body into the grave. Instead of flowers or a final note, he left Jia’s purse and all the stolen loot it contained on top of her chest. He went to work again and did not stop until all was covered. He then went to sleep next to her grave. He slept but did not dream. 

***

Nine months later and Madison had forgotten about Jia. He served coffee, talked to the old biddies about nothing at all, and occasionally went for walks. His life regressed back to what it had been before her arrival. Nothing new. She had not disrupted the equilibrium at all. 

On a foggy morning, while Madison busied himself with cleaning off the remains of Mr. Pearson’s omelet, a stranger walked in and ordered a cup of black coffee. He was bald, deeply tanned, and had a left arm covered in tattoos. When he spoke, he revealed that he belonged to a different place. He came from somewhere warmer. The man engaged in small talk, including an obvious lie about being a new contractor for a local lumber company. Madison, like everyone else in the state, had grown up around logging and loggers. The man across the counter was not a logger and had no intentions of ever being one. 

Eventually, after two cups, the stranger revealed his hand. “You know someone famous is from here, right?” 

Madison shook his head and played dumb. 

“Ok, ‘famous’ might be a stretch, but among a certain fanbase she is popular.” The stranger said Jia’s stage name. He asked Madison if he knew her. 

“Sure. We went to high school together.” 

“You fuck her?” The stranger raised an eyebrow and showed his teeth. They were artificially white. 

“No. Barely ever talked to her.” 

“A shame man. She is real nice.” He dragged the syllable on the final word for dramatic effect. Madison gave him nothing in return. 

“She been around? I mean, has she been back in town ever?” 

“Maybe. I wouldn’t know.” 

“If she did come back in town, who would she go see?” 

Madison gave the stranger the names of Jia’s best friends from high school. One lived far away in South Carolina with her two kids. The other was like Jia—dead and buried, the victim of a car accident. Madison saw no point in giving the man this information. The names alone sufficed. 

“Tell me something,” Madison said while taking the man’s greenbacks to the register, “Why are you so interested in her?” 

“Let’s just say she knows me. I’m here for a favor.” 

“I thought you were here to haul trees.” 

The stranger winked at Madison. “Yeah, right. I’m here for the trees, man.” The overhead bell above the door rang. The café returned to its empty solitude. Madison was left all alone. Nothing remained but his thoughts. 

And he thought about killing.

— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. You can purchase his new poetry collection, “Nocturnes”, here