This is a piece from our online issue, FALL OF MEN, inspired by the New York Review of Books.
CONTENT WARNING FOR FALL OF MEN : Despite the conclusions of the bad men falling in the end, some of these pieces may have sensitive or explicit content. (That said, it might be real cathartic to read a thing where the bad men get thrown into volcanoes or eaten by alligators. Either way, your mental health is really important to us. Take care of yourself!)
BY J. ROBERT LENNON
He thought she was cool. He really did. She worked for one of the firm’s clients and came in for a meeting one morning, and the second he saw her he knew he had to get with her. He couldn’t pay attention to anything else the whole hour—the rest of the conference room, all the other lawyers and money guys, just disappeared, and he watched her as she took notes on her legal pad, dabbed a crumb off the corner of her mouth, adjusted—just once—her suit coat over her silk blouse, which strained against the buttons, revealing just the tiniest sliver of white bra. Her hair was auburn and she kept it pulled back and tied and didn’t touch it a single time. She was a pro.
He said, “Yeah, excuse me, I’m sorry, what’s your name?” and she looked up, pressing three fingers to her chest: Me? “Yeah, sorry, I’m Frank, you are?”
“Right, Abigail, would you run down those fourth quarter numbers one more time? I didn’t get the last few.”
He hadn’t gotten any of them, of course, because he wasn’t really paying attention. Well, he had, but only to the movement of her lips, which he wanted on him as soon as possible. She read him the numbers, nice and slow, as if he was an idiot—he liked that—while his boss glared at him, onto the ploy. Everybody was. Whatever. “Thank you, Abigail,” he said, and the meeting continued. But after that she hazarded a glance at him a couple of times, sizing him up. The last time, he smiled at her, and she rolled her eyes.
Afterward, he caught her in the parking lot, called out her name. They’d carpooled in a minivan and the others waited there in the sun, surrounding the car, while they waited for their conversation to end.
“Some meeting,” he said.
“So, Abigail—that’s your name, right?”
“It hasn’t changed in the last half hour.”
“Right. Frank. I’m Frank.”
“Yeah, you said.” Her arms were crossed over her chest. A little ruby nestled there in her cleavage, dangling from a thin gold chain.
“So, what are you doing later? Maybe we could, you know, talk over the contract some more? Over a drink?”
“Frank,” she said. “That’s not why you want to see me.”
She glared at him. “Hurley’s at seven, then.”
“Hell yeah!” he said.
“See you there.” And she turned and made for the van.
A few weeks later he’d made out with her a couple of times, nothing more. A kiss the first date, an embrace the second. On the third they leaned against his car outside the fancy French-Thai-whatever fusion joint on Airport Road and he kissed her neck and breathed in her ear, and she let him stroke her ass with both hands but pushed him away when he went for her breasts.
“Not now,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “My place.”
“Hm. Not now, anywhere, I mean.”
“What’s the matter, man? We like each other.”
She said, “Baby steps, Frank. Baby steps.”
The thing is, over dinner, they’d talked a ton, way more than he did with most girls, even the ones he went on to fuck. She was easy to talk to. She told him about her time in art school, how that world was a lot of bullshit, just alpha males and bitchy posers, so she quit and got her MBA and now she painted on the weekends. She played keyboards in a band once and had hiked the Appalachian Trail. Her dad was some kind of electronics genius, he left her mom when she went to college and he moved to California. They were on OK terms, though. Her mom was some kind of weird goth with lung cancer, currently in remission.
“Also,” she’d told him, “I was a witch for a hot second.”
It was the end of the dinner; they were sharing a dessert. That was another thing—he liked a girl who ordered dessert.
He laughed. “What, like on Halloween?”
“No, in high school. I was straight-up wiccan.”
“For real? The broomstick, the pointy hat? The spells?”
“The spells, yeah. Not the Halloween-costume stuff. We’d go out in the woods, sit in a circle around a tree stump, thank the God and Goddess and do a bunch of magick. With a K.”
“The K makes it, what, different?”
“Yeah,” she said, spooning up some ice cream, “not like birthday-party bullshit, with the hat and wand. The real thing! We’d cast spells—healing and stuff. Like, to make your PMS not so bad, or to get over a cold. Also, we’d try and wreak misfortune on assholes at school.”
“Did it work?”
She shrugged. “I guess? But, you know. Misfortune usually befalls assholes anyway. It mostly just made us feel better.”
“It was just girls?”
“Nnnnope,” she said. A few boys, too. Men. One of them was a man, anyway. This guy Stu, except you couldn’t call him that, even outside the circle. He made us call him Lysander. He was like twenty or twenty-one. He’s why I quit—he wanted to take things in a creepy direction.”
“Like, what?” he asked her. “Sacrificing animals and whatnot?”
“No. Other stuff,” she said, setting down her spoon. “What do you say we get out of here.”
And here they were, out in the parking lot, her hands on his chest, not quite pushing him away. He wanted her and he thought she wanted him. He didn’t get it.
“Frank,” she said. “Look. Here’s my deal.”
Uh-oh, he thought. Here it comes.
“That guy I told you about. Stu. He was…not a good guy. He’d gotten his ex-girlfriend’s sister into wicca—that was my friend Tina. These rituals we did—he made us do them…skyclad.”
“Naked. That’s what he called it.”
“He was just manipulating us, him and the other guys. Trying to get us to fuck them. A couple of the girls went along with it, they’d fuck in the circle. We were, like, teenagers—it wasn’t cool.”
What he was thinking was that actually it was hot—but he said, “Sorry to hear that.”
“So one night it was my turn and I didn’t want to do it. He…forced himself on me. You get it? The other kids had to pull him off—I ended up leaving the circle and never went back.”
“And high school. I left high school, too. My mom homeschooled me for my senior year—I couldn’t face those kids. I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, I kind of have trust issues. So, I gotta take it slow, all right?” She patted his chest in a way that felt condescending to him—like he was a child—and took a step back.
“Yeah, sure. I mean, sure.” He suppressed a wave of irritation, which he could see her noticing, then pretending not to have noticed.
He drove her home in silence.
He didn’t text her for a few days, and after that he realized that, if he texted now, he’d have to explain why he hadn’t texted, and he didn’t need the grief. He went back to Slandr and swiped left on a few dumb duckface bitches, then just decided to watch porn and wank.
It didn’t make him feel any better. He kept thinking about Abigail and hating himself for it. When her team came by the office for another meeting he made sure he was with other clients. On Thursday, nearly a week since their last date, she texted, Hey where have you been.
Busy, he said.
Things ended weird last week what’s going on?
Frank didn’t know what to say. He put his phone away for an hour to work. Later, in his car, sitting at a light, he replied, Nothing wrong. Just busy.
Let’s get together Saturday.
Busy, he said.
There, he thought, driving home—that ought to give her the message. Then he thought, What message? He liked her. Didn’t he? So, why was he trying to end it? The fact was, the whole witch thing—it was too weird. She was too weird. He didn’t want to hear about her fucking sex romp in the woods. What seemed hot for a minute now seemed kind of stupid. All these naked girls casting spells? Was she a lesbian? Is that why she didn’t want to come home with him?
Half an hour later he was heating up a Dinnerdough when his phone rang, and the sight of her face on his phone—he’d snapped it on their second date and added it to her contact card—made him pick up without thinking. “Hey,” he said.
“Busy, huh,” she said.
“Yeah, no, yeah.”
“What’s so important Saturday?” She was teasing him, there was a laugh in her voice, but also something else, some kind of challenge. He didn’t like it. But he was glad to hear her. He remembered that he liked her, then something in him rose up and tried to smother that thought.
He tried to sound angry. “Just…plans, okay?”
“Come on, what are they?”
“Honestly?” he said. “I just wanna stay home and play Xbox, OK? I need some time to myself.”
“What are you playing?”
“Berserker III: Hero Dawn.”
What happened next took him by surprise, as with most things involving Abigail: she said, “Fuckin’ A! You can do co-op on that, right? Let’s play together.”
“What? I don’t—no. I mean, I only have the one controller.”
“I’ll bring mine.”
“Oh, what?” she said.
“No, just—I’m surprised you’re, you—I’m just surprised.”
“Yes,” she said, “women play games. What time?”
“Uhh…four, I guess? I was gonna heat up a pizza later.”
“Perfect. I’ll bring beer. See you Saturday.” She hung up.
As it happened, she’d never actually played the game before—only heard about it. So when they started, she kept getting killed, fumbling at the controller as waves of alien stormtroopers came at them from behind the wrecked cars and crumbling buildings of post-invasion earth. It annoyed him at first—he’d wanted to dispense with this campaign quickly before moving on to some side quests—but he soon found that he enjoyed offering her pointers and providing her with cover fire. At one point she was nearly dead and lasered an enemy coming at her and its head flew off and hit her in the face, and that was what knocked out the last of her health and killed her. It was pretty hilarious—they laughed till they were practically crying and she kissed him on the cheek. He sort of regretted ignoring her for a week.
But then…she started getting good. Like, really good. As good as him. Her kill counter approached his and then exceeded it. At one point he was trying to take out some dudes by stealth and fucked it up, and she came roaring over in a blaze of laser fire and saved his ass.
“Thanks,” he said.
“So, you’ve played shooters before, looks like.”
“Mhm,” she said, dropping a bunch of radiation bombs. They both watched as the aliens came bumbling into the trap and melted into pools of glowing goop. “Killdom Come, mostly. Also Moondoom, a little bit of Patriot Fury and Patriot Fury: Freedom Force.”
“Did you like the Tactical Soldier games?”
She shrugged. “I only played the first one. It was okay.”
They finished the campaign, watched a cutscene introducing the next one—they were going to get on a troop transport, launch into space, and get into a firefight in antigravity. While the commander gave a speech telling them to fight to the death for Planet Earth, she put her hand on his knee.
He knew it was supposed to be a nice gesture. It could even be an invitation—later tonight, maybe she’d touch him some more, was the implication. But he couldn’t help it: he bristled. His muscles tensed up and he started to sweat. No, it wasn’t a come-on, his body told him, it was condescension. Don’t worry, little man—I’ll be here to save you from the aliens. He remembered his mother, wishing him luck before baseball tryouts, patting him on the arm, telling him he was a great player, like she even knew anything about baseball. He might have actually made the team if she hadn’t sat there in the station wagon, gazing at him from the parking lot with those sad eyes. She knew he didn’t have what it took. He wished his father was there, but his stepmom had nixed the summer visit. He fucking blew it on the field and got cut, and in the car he had to endure his mother’s weepy hugging while the other kids laughed their way to Custard Circus for ice cream.
It was about to happen again, he could feel it. And he was right. He and Abigail went in guns blazing, but the controls in antigrav were weird and the aliens smoked him. She said, “Yeah, no, like this,” and showed him with her hands, and he said, “I know,” and she said, “It’s like in Memories of Alpha Centauri, you need to compensate for the momentum,” and he said, “I don’t play that fucking faggy shit, Abigail.”
“Dude,” she said, pausing the game and setting down her controller.
“Dude,” he mocked, in a child’s voice, hating himself.
“What’s the matter with you? We were having fun like five minutes ago.”
“That was then, I guess.” He threw the controller at the wall and it left a mark.
She jumped up. “Jesus. What the hell, Frank.”
He didn’t know where it came from: he hadn’t planned to say it. But it started coming out on its own volition. “Look, man, I like you and you’re pretty hot, but you’re kind of a fucking freak, and it’s freaking me out.”
She became very still, stood up a little straighter, put her hands on her hips. The ruby dangling from her neck glinted in the TV light. Her face relaxed, and she said, “Go on.”
“No, please, Frank. Please do go on, if you have something to say.”
“I don’t.” But then, when she just stood there, just stood there looking at him, he did go on. He did have something to say, it turned out. He said, “The fucking witch stuff.”
She raised one eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, like, it’s not like those girls got raped. They showed and up got naked. They fucked the guy, you said so yourself.”
“Like, okay, I’m sure it was no fun fending this asshole off, but what the hell were you even doing there? With some grown man? Casting fucking spells? Like, you do something like that and you think it’s not going to end up in some kind of black-magic orgy?”
She had half-closed her eyes, and now her lips began to move, forming words he couldn’t hear. Or, he could hear something, but they weren’t words. Not anything he understood. He decided to ignore her. He said, “I mean, your witchy manpal wanted to fuck you in 2006 or whatever and so that means you push me away in a parking lot in 2018? It’s fucking rude, man. We were on a date. It’s not like I put my tongue down your fucking throat.”
He felt appalled and exhilarated. She didn’t respond, so he said, “Yeah, so, I guess you should leave.” It was was ending now, thank god. He was glad he would have the rest of the evening, and the whole pizza, to himself.
But she didn’t leave. She just stood there, muttering. He said her name, then said it again, louder, but she didn’t move. He began, just slightly, to panic: what if she never moved? Would he have to, what, call the cops?
Then she did move. She took two swift, graceful steps to the TV, laid her open hand on the Xbox, and whispered one word. Three syllables. He could have sworn the word was volcano.
She turned, deftly stepped over the coffee table, and, before he could react, put that same palm on his forehead and said it again, more clearly this time. Volcano.
Seconds later, she’d snatched up her controller and the door slammed shut behind her.
He didn’t do anything for several minutes. The whole thing had been bizarre and shocking. He felt…assaulted. Traumatized! He ordered the pizza and it came and he ate it, and he drank a beer, and he began to feel a lot better. He’d always liked beer. He still liked it. Okay—the night was young. Throw back a few ‘skis, play some Berserker III until late, sleep until noon: that was the plan. He sat down, took the game out of co-op mode, and started to play.
It was much easier without her here—he managed to get out of deep space and back on terra firma, where he ran through a desert landscape, picking off aliens from behind rocks and as they dropped out of the sky. And then, an hour or so in, something appeared on the horizon, a sort of low plateau that grew into a mesa that grew into a cone. He tried going around it, but in each direction, the alien horde brought him down. Then he noticed the handholds on the rock, and realized he was supposed to go over it. Up and up he went, dodging missiles and shooting drones as they flew by. And then he reached the lip of the mesa and had about one second to apprehend the enormous caldera full of bubbling lava before he fell in and burned to death.
Ha. She knew it was coming, obviously. He respawned at the base of the volcano, climbed up it, fell in again. Respawned, climbed, fell in. Respawned, climbed, fell in.
Wait. Surely there’s some trick here. He respawned, climbed left and right, tried to find an alternate path, or a cave, or something. Aliens picked him off with their guns. He tried planting bombs on the volcano’s flank and accidentally blew himself up. He tried to shoot the lava.
Finally he took to the internet. Googled “berserker hero dawn volcano.” Nothing. Checked the messageboards—no references to a volcano. Resorted to somebody’s full walkthrough vid, scrubbed through the first few hours, and watched as the player marched right across the desert plain and beyond, without ever encountering the fucking volcano.
Well. Frank went to his bedroom, rummaged in the closet, pulled out his lunchbox of weed. He paced and smoked. He drank another beer. Decided, Fuck it, he’ll deal tomorrow, tonight he would play something easy—Hillbilly Mudrace Deluxe. He ejected the Berserker disc and put it away, jammed in the Mudrace one. The weed was working on him; his muscles felt rubbery, his thoughts stillborn. Witchy-ass fuckfest… Looking down on him like Dad, no, wait, Mom… Fucking volcano… Is there pizza left?
He was roaring down some country back road, whooping with all the other rednecks while the endlessly looping Mudrace banjo theme played. Yeehaw! His pickup bounced and shuddered; random parts flew off with every pothole or fallen tree that blocked the road. He roared around the corner at Hawg’s Hollow, saw the mayor on the steps of village hall, waving his Confederate bandana, shouting, “Look out for the—,” and then he drove straight into the volcano that had sprouted up in the middle of town.
Fuck. This. He yanked out the Mudrace disc, threw it on the floor, jammed in Louie Super Hamster Fist Party, knocked out six enemies in like four minutes, then fell into a pit full of magma. DEAD FOREVER, the screen informed him, and the game popped out of the console on its own and dropped onto the floor.
Memories of Alpha Centauri, which he’d lied about not having: he docked at the space station, typed in the airlock code, and got swept into space by a gurgling wave of lava.
Electric Al’s Puzzle Golf: two birdies, a hole in one, and then an eruption turned the whole course into some kind of gruesome, Pompeii-ass statue garden.
Mogul Mania Ultimate: got about thirty feet down the mountain; the mountain exploded.
Gunrunner: New Wack City: molten rock, pouring out of the subway stations.
Jenny World Sword Story: ground opened up and roasted him alive.
Zombie Afterlife: volcano.
Mega Blockfall: volcano.
Frantic Chef: volcano.
It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. He headed to the fridge for another beer, but they were all gone. And he seemed to have smoked all the weed, which he did not remember doing. It was, what was it, three in the morning? What had she done to him?
He knew where she lived. He had to show her. Had to make it stop. He grabbed the keys from the counter, threw on his jacket. Took the stairs three at a time down to the parking lot and screeched out onto the alley. It was raining and the streets were bleary. The lights smeared and shuddered. He would kill her, is what he would do. With his bare hands. Horns blared; maybe he just ran a red light? No matter. Tires skidding on the wet pavement, hands shaking, he pictured her, clustered around the manwitch with the other girls, all of them writhing and moaning, impaled on his four enormous dicks. Stop. Stop. She was controlling him remotely, controlling his thoughts, he was sure of it—planting these visions in his head, this roiling in his belly. Jesus—yeah, he thought he might vomit. Or shit. In his car. Jesus, Jesus…
It wasn’t that he didn’t see the police roadblock, exactly, it was just that he’d swerved around so many urban barricades, swatted aside so many cop cars in Gunrunner that it seemed natural to just barrel on through as the arm-waving officers dove out of the way. Although…he didn’t remember a hill being here. He was going up, up as the sirens faded away behind him and the city lights fell away beneath; his engine screamed; his tires faltered, then gripped again. He was almost there, he could feel it. Just a few feet more and he’d be up and over, into the beautiful, searing, cleansing glow of the night, and he would have his revenge.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise, and eight novels, including Mailman, Familiar, and Broken River.