by ROB BOFFARD
Jackie squatted in the prison yard, drawing symbols in the dust.
He was gripping a stick between his thumb and forefinger, gently laying down circles and ciphers and codes. They'd become an endless spiral, swirling out from his feet. Sometimes he'd dig the stick deep into the dirt, gouging up little spits of earth. More often, he'd tap and tuck and tease until the fine details emerged.
He'd been drawing for nearly an hour, squatting on his haunches, the pain in his hips long forgotten. His tongue was sticking ever so slightly out of the left corner of his mouth, a little pink exclamation point on his dark skin. His chin jutted out, and he peered down at the symbols from under his glasses. Every so often, he'd slowly raise a dirt-caked finger and push them further up his nose, never taking his eyes from his work.
This was good news for the man walking towards him.
The other guys in the cell had named the man Ratbucket; he still didn't know why. He didn't question what the other guys in the cell said. When they told him that if he wanted to stay alive, he had to prove himself, he just nodded. And when they said that to prove himself, he had to kill another prisoner, he'd nodded again. As far as Ratbucket was concerned, if you nodded at everything they said to you in prison, you got along just fine.
The problem, of course, was that he'd never actually killed anyone. He'd told the others he was in on a murder charge, even before he could stop himself, and they'd laughed and said that in that case, he'd have no trouble with the job. But as he approached the hunched figure doodling in the dust, he felt cold prickles on his spine that had nothing to do with the wind sweeping down from the Adirondack Mountains.
The toothbrush was in his hand. The head of the gang – a big sucker with one frozen eye named Marlin – had given it to him. It had been melted and filed and melted and filed again until it was a thin spike. Ratbucket held it cupped in his palm, with the spike lying along the inside of his wrist, his hand turned to keep it hidden from the screws. Sweat ran down his fingers, pooling in his palm.
He could feel Marlin's eyes on him from the other side of the yard. He could feel all their eyes on him. Nobody would miss Jackie, he told himself. He'd only been in here a day. Ratbucket had seen him come in yesterday, and the son of a bitch had been whistling. He was walking down the damn aisle in front of the cells in those ridiculous glasses, holding his linen, whistling.
‘Sure, sure, I can kill him’, Ratbucket thought. He deserves it. ‘Little punk. Lookit him.’
Jackie had begun humming. Something tuneless, whistling around his tongue and out the side of his mouth like steam. He was drawing the last symbol of the outermost circle, a delicate curlicue, tracing the shape in the ground, bending it around a rock. Almost there.
He didn't hear Ratbucket come up behind him. He didn't hear him rotate the spike so it jutted from his hand like a misshapen finger. He didn't even hear Ratbucket's breathing, which had become harsh and quick and shallow.
But he smelt Ratbucket's sweat. He felt the air behind him shift. He saw the light change ever so slightly. He kept working, putting the final touch on the symbol, a small dot above it in the dirt. He did this just as Ratbucket swung the spike down towards his shoulder blades, at which point he blinked out of existence.
With no flesh to plunge into, Ratbucket's strike went a lot further than he'd anticipated. He tumbled to the dirt, obliterating Jackie's work, a cloud of dust exploding around his body. His mouth was a shocked O.
Jackie reappeared in front of him; right on the spot where he'd swung the spike down. Ratbucket stared. His mouth wanted to form words, but his brain simply wouldn't let it.
Jackie reached down and plucked the spike from Ratbucket's hand. He held it up to the light, as if studying it for imperfections. Then, in one movement, he reached down and slid it into Ratbucket's throat.
By now, the gang at the other end of the yard was screaming. They were running towards him, their faces shot through with anger and fear. Jackie stood up, pulling the spike with him, and blinked to a spot alongside one of them, a squat man with a greasy ponytail. Jackie caught him in the side, plunging the spike in and out like an assegai. He had started humming again.
The others froze, mid-stride, staring in horror. They tried to run, but Jackie simply moved with them, popping in and out of existence. Blood stained the dust black.
A guard in the tower had taken aim. He knew what he was seeing wasn't possible, but he knew his job, and he had a gun. He managed to line Jackie up in his sights – he'd paused after taking down the last gang member – and pulled the trigger.
The bullet appeared in mid-air above Jackie, pointing down towards him, spinning gently. He'd frozen it with a look. He cocked his head to one side, and the bullet turned with it. A flick of his eyes, and it shot off, burying itself in the wall of the yard.
More guards appeared, boiling out of the doors to the cells, screaming for backup. They began firing. Jackie stopped their bullets, turning the air before him into a tableau of metal. He stared around him and, as one of the guards would tell the governor later that day, he seemed to be counting the number of dead.
Jackie stretched, raising his arms to the sky, his hands linked. The frozen bullets fell, clinking against each other. He tossed the spike onto the bullets, and then wandered towards the guards.
They stood, frozen, watching him approach. At the last moment, three of them broke, running for the cells and slamming the door behind them. But the youngest – a new recruit, his first month on the job – kept his gun steady, aiming it at Jackie's chest.
Jackie looked at him, pulling the guard's eyes to his own. He blinked the last few steps, and the guard fell backwards on his ass, a tight gasp escaping his lips.
Jackie crouched down until he and the guard were face to face. A little slick of blood dotted the chest of his prison shirt, forming a pattern of its own. Casually, he reached forward and tugged the gun from the guard's grip. The guard's name was Mason and his eyes had grown wide as saucers. He licked his dry lips as Jackie turned the gun this way and that.
“Can you stop shooting at me, please?” said Jackie. It came out as a mumble.
Without even realising it, Mason was nodding. Jackie gave him the most dazzling smile – it came out of nowhere and was, Mason would later tell his wife, like the smile of a child. He held out the gun, still grinning, gesturing at Mason to take it. Then he blinked back to the centre of the empty yard.
As Mason watched, Jackie cast around for his stick, inhaling a delighted breath when he spotted it. He crouched down again, and began to draw, sketching more symbols into the dust.
Rob Boffard is a full-time journalist, and writes feature stories for The Guardian newspaper, Wired Magazine and others. He recently started writing fiction, and has just had his second short story published. Rob’s story, “Dust”, appears in the June 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.