“What Remains” was first featured in the Castaway issue in November.
He’s on a local bus heading back toward the station, his left eye swelling, his lip in need of stitches it won’t get. He didn’t see the punches coming, didn’t even know who’d hit him until he came to on the floor and his uncle was standing over him, screaming, the corners of his mouth and mustache viscous with spit. He’d taken time off work in order to see his mother, bought a ticket he couldn’t afford, and spent the twenty-hour bus ride praying that she’d see him.
He’d made it as far as the intensive care unit and seen on the patient board that she had been upgraded from critical to fair.
Get the hell out of here, you filth, his uncle spat.
His father and brother had come out into the hall at the commotion, seen him sprawled out on the floor bleeding, his uncle apoplectic, purple with rage. There’d been two nurses, an orderly, a doctor.
No one intervened, offered a hand to help him to his feet.
Everyone seemed to know what he’d done.
How, he’d wondered. There were twenty glacial years between them and the things he had done with that boy.
He’d suffered prison, the hey, perv and the beatings from inmates, the so you like to rape children and the beatings from guards, the weeks without food because his was taken or spat upon. He’d been utterly alone, unwilling to associate with the other perverts whether they were penitent or not, whether their pedophilia or hebephilia or ephebephilia was due to some psycho-sexual pathology or the misfortune of being born in a small town in the middle of the Bible belt. He’d done his time and returned to Belews Creek to face his shame, rented a dilapidated trailer at the edge of town, and taken what work he could find when he could find it, enduring poverty and tissue-thin walls that were ineffectual against weather and temperature, a toilet that didn’t flush, and shoddy plumbing his landlord wouldn’t fix that left him without water more often than not. He accepted it as his lot, his just desserts along with the disgusted looks and the malice, the sick curiosity, and the whispers and refusals of service that came his way if he tried to buy groceries in town. He’d refused to feel sorry for himself, even after his sister handed him an envelope with a check for five hundred dollars and a leave-and-never-come-back letter from his father in it. Even after she got into her car and shut the door in his face and left without speaking.
He’d watched her until she disappeared into the horizon, and for a while after, staring at nothing and everything and seeing nothing, then he’d gone into his trailer and thrown his belongings into two trash bags and been gone from Belews Creek before the sun set.
He’d gone to Chicago for no particular reason, tried Detroit after that, then Gary, Cleveland, and Wilkes-Barre, other places, couldn’t stick anywhere, been fired from jobs and denied them because of what he’d done.
You look familiar. I’m new in town, Sir. Your name’s Billy Rawlins. Yes, Sir. I know that name from somewhere. It’s pretty common. It was in the papers a while back. Aren’t you…
What’d you do time for? Statutory rape. I can’t help you. But. You best leave, we don’t abide folk like you in this town.
He traded his last dollar for a quarter-pack of cigarettes in Shreveport, LA, slept where he could for three weeks while he looked for work, in shelters and on park benches, under an overpass, ate—when he ate, at the soup kitchen.
A priest hired him to clean his church two nights a week, introduced him to the manager of a local motel who needed a part-time janitor. Times he wasn’t working he went down to the docks and tried to hire himself out as a day-laborer. August came, and he’d made enough to move into a converted closet in the back of the local five and dime; September, and he was fired because the parish he cleaned operated a school out of the building adjacent to their church.
Nothing had been safe, nothing had been given him. Every mite of food, every modicum of comfort, every jot of purpose and value he could lay claim to had had to be gerrymandered from the scraps and waste of the humanity of which he’d once been a part.
Yet to them it was yesterday, to the victim’s mother and father, his family and friends. And it wasn’t just the boy he’d violated, but each of them, and his own his mother and father and sister and brothers, and their neighbors, and their friends, and their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors—the population of Belews Creek township.
Billy sodomized them all. And not just once, not just on that day twenty years ago, but every day since, too. He knew it because he saw it when he let his guard down; if he wasn’t consciously policing his thoughts because he was tired or distracted or on the precipice of sleep, he saw himself thrusting into one of them, his pants around his ankles, his pallid buttocks bare and clenching as he plowed into them, the muscles in his arms rippling as he yanked back on their hips, drops of sweat falling down his temple and cheeks. He was most vulnerable after something went well: a boss complimented him on a job well done, he managed to save enough money to pay the next month’s rent early, he watched the sunset from a shrimping boat and let himself merge with the color, allowed himself to imagine inhaling it, and exhaling snorts of it, golden orange and burnt purple—suddenly the world contracts; time, light, and sound—everything stops. There is nowhere he can go, nothing he can hide behind, no direction in which he might turn and avert his eyes, only his thrusting, and his victim, silent, too negated even to bleat, too annihilated to give sound to the pain. He watches. It’s like The Matrix, everything all at once, only the images are comprised of letters rather than binary code, words rather than ones and zeroes:
… the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped, was kicked out of his parent’s house, put his mother in the hospital because he was high on crystal meth…
… the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped, went to prison…
… the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped, tried to rob a convenience store…
…the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped, dropped out of high school and started doing drugs…
… the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped was released…
… the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped, died with a needle in his arm…
…the boy he’d had sex with, the boy he had raped, was caught…
There is no break between victims, no silence between words or gap between images. He does not cease to inflict suffering.
There is no transition. The transition is instantaneous.
There is no time. Time is all at once.
There is no order. Order is simultaneity.
He’d gone to church, heard the gospel, been born again; he’d tried to do right for twenty years—
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come—
Hide your face from my sins, O God, blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me.
He’d been celibate, forbade himself to fantasize or look at porn or keep hand lotion in the drawer of his bedside table, moved his mouth instead of his hand, late into the night every night, into the morning, silent words spilling out over his lips, unable to drown out his perpetual violation.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
He’s been praying for twenty years, and he’s praying now as Winston-Salem bleeds by on the other side of the bus window, but the words have outlasted his faith and he’s feeling as he has for some time, that he understands what it was and is to have been and to be one of his victims; he can’t keep his mouth from moving, can’t stop himself from babbling prayers whose words aren’t so much wrong as irrelevant. He’s powerless, his life no more than a protracted rape in which he is both perpetrator and victim.
Prayer: words for walls, for the ceiling. If God were real, if he were any kind of God, he’d stop predators in their mothers’ womb, and if that was beyond His powers, if Billy Rawlins had to be allowed to do his carnage, a decent God would at least obliterate him afterward, pour out an anodyne on his victims and expunge their memory of his existence and the agony he wrought.
Billy had put his mother in the hospital.
The boy he had raped had a brother, and two days after the boy died, his brother saw Billy’s mother in a parking lot.
He hadn’t meant to hit her, to keep hitting her, but she’d been smiling, and…
There’re seventeen hours between Billy and Shreveport, an impassable chasm between him and his family.
He still believes in God, thinks he’s a son of a bitch, and knows that’s not okay.
He tries to imagine feeling okay, but his baseline is agony, near-perpetual, harrowing, yet so far from adequate, so meager in comparison to the carnage he’s wrought upon his victims that he begs for more.
The sun shouldn’t rise for him, shouldn’t set, but it does, and without fully meaning to he’ll sit or stroll along the docks, and drink the last of its warmth through his skin while his eyes lap at the shimmering ocean.
Once a fortnight he can afford the makings for shrimp and grits, and he shouldn’t, but he buys them anyway and cooks them on his Primus, and the butter sizzles and spits and fills the air, the piquant sweetness of the shrimp, too, and the slight bite of melting cheddar so that his senses throb, and breathing and swallowing are like turning over on a waterbed beneath silk sheets as a cool breeze wafts in through the window, and a fan hums on the bedside table.
He volunteers at a soup kitchen one night a week because there’s a woman that comes in who always meets his eye as he hands her a tray or a muffin or a glass of milk, always smiles and says thank you and means it.
The sunsets and shrimp and grits and human connection fill him with warmth and joy and gratitude until he remembers how gross and perverse it is that someone like him can experience such gifts, and then the joy and warmth and gratitude become rods of molten steel that plunge into his chest and throat and anus—the agony is so intense and complete that he is almost obliterated.
The world is almost made right.
The bus is on the highway, the sun below the horizon. It is not yet dark, but the speed at which they are traveling and the sameness of the landscape and the falling dusk make it so that he isn’t sure of the world passing before him, whether the bull he saw was really a horse, the shadow beside it a rider mid-mount.
Maybe both God and the world are just. Maybe life would be no more than a pageant if we weren’t free to do as we might, and given how adaptable we are, maybe perdition is as dependent on sunsets and butter and moments of human contact as it is on shards of glass and fire and suffering.
He blinks, swallows.
Making shrimp and grits triggers an onslaught of condemnation: yes, he salivates as the fat sizzles; yes, he gulps air so he can taste it, relishes hearing his stomach purr as he licks his lips in anticipation of the flesh of the shrimp yielding to his teeth, dissolving into the butter and cheese and hominy, the warmth caressing his tongue and gullet as he pulls it deeper into himself—but it reminds him of how dead he is, how flat and vile his existence is by comparison.
The bus drives on.
He falls asleep, unexpectedly.
He knows he is asleep because people are smiling at him, and because there are three of him. One is wearing a toque. One has a patch on his shoulder that says ‘Shreveport EMT’. The third is a social worker. He knows he’s dreaming because you need a degree to do those things, or special training, and he’d been held back in the sixth and eighth grades, had had to repeat the years, and was just starting his senior year of high school when he was sent to prison, a week and a half shy of his twentieth birthday. He’d got his GED and an Associates degree while doing his time, but that’s it. He’s watching himself put the finishing touches on vermouth-poached shrimp with a ginger remoulade, étouffée, and oyster tartlets, rapt; watching himself lean against the back of his ambulance, savoring the adrenaline coursing through his body, the pride at having just saved a child’s life; he’s listening to the smartphone clipped to his belt chime, looking at the clipboard he’s holding and the paperwork on it that’s going to help a single mother get her kids off the street. He knows he’s asleep, that he’ll wake up soon and everything will be as it was, but he can’t turn away, even though he knows he doesn’t deserve to feel the way he’s feeling, that he hasn’t done anything, hasn’t cooked anything, nourished anyone, created a dish so succulent or savory or delicious that it made the people that ate it drop their forks, a little involuntary moan of pleasure escape from their lips. He hasn’t saved a child’s life, hasn’t helped anyone into section eight housing. Tomorrow, he knows, he’ll take the bus to and from his apartment to his menial jobs, and the next day, and on Saturday, he’ll take his co-worker’s mother to bingo at the church so he can borrow his El Camino for a few hours and prowl the streets, slowing to look at a couch someone has set out by the curb or a metal bed frame he might be able to sell for scrap. The couch will be a sleeper, good-sized, look like it might be comfortable. It will have been white, once, gone bathwater-gray, acquired a crust of grime along the bottom edges. He’ll lift one of the cushions, and a fist of cat urine will slam into his nose, bringing tears to his eyes, and he’ll leave it and continue sleeping on the old military cot he found at the Army Navy store. A middle-aged woman will have watched the whole sequence from the window, will continue watching as he loads the bed frame into the back of the car, her eyes darting away for a brief moment as she speaks to someone behind her, returning to him almost immediately and clamping down; he’ll hurry off, praying she hasn’t called the cops on him, reported him for suspicious behavior. It’d happened before; people sensed his taint even if they didn’t know who he was or what he’d done, reacted instinctively, viciously. Billy knows all this just as he knows he’s dreaming, knows he’ll wake soon; the colors are dimming, figures losing their solidity as the dream world fades into the morning light, into a sun that had already broken free of the horizon on the other side of the window.
A chef, a paramedic, a social worker: he was none of those things, but neither were they three ennobled versions of himself.
The atoms of the dream were vibrating, separating as reality rushed in: the sound of an empty coke can rattling in the bus driver’s cup-holder, the bass throb of the diesel engine, the susurrus of conversation at a half-whisper, one voice distinct from the others, then two, both receding.
Billy Rawlins is Billy Rawlins.
Not at all good.
But he could do good. For others. Not enough to balance any scales, but the people he helped wouldn’t know any better, and good is good, more of it always a positive. A chef, a paramedic, a social worker: roles to be played, adopted, filled. He’d burrow into one—nothing so grand or glamorous as a chef or paramedic or social worker, maybe, but something worthwhile. He’d never stop being Billy Rawlins, but he could play the part of something else, of someone else, to the benefit of others. He’d work and work and work at it until he’d used up all the hours in the day, and then he’d start again.
And then he’d start again.
CIAHNAN DARRELL has worked as a janitor, a professor, a nightclub bouncer, an army chaplain, and a personal trainer, among other jobs, and he brings the diversity of his life experience into his writing. He has completed two novels and has written numerous short stories, which have appeared in publications such as Ricochet and The Legendary.