Our first story is from Jennifer Hudock. We want to thank her for letting us use this chilling little tale and ask you to support her work by visiting her site and buying the Dark Journeys collection. So, without further ado, here is The Handy Man:
Cleveland liked to take things apart and put them back together. The fascination started with Bo’s $549 boombox when Cleve was thirteen-years-old. Bo left it on the kitchen table, where it called to him all morning while everyone else was at school. Bo came home that afternoon to find his younger brother at the kitchen table, wires and buttons sprawled across the table, Phillips-head screwdriver still in hand.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Bo ran at him from the backdoor, heavy backpack swinging like a morning star and about to connect with the back of Cleve’s head when their older brother Shane grabbed Bo by the shirt collar and yanked him backward. Bo was still gagging when he bellowed, “You stupid retard! What the fuck are you doing?”
Cleve was lost in his own world before that moment. Hadn’t even heard Bo come in from school, but the gravel-choked word retard tore Cleveland from the shining bliss of electronic heaven.
“Mom,” Cleve whined. “Bo called me the bad word.”
“You’re lucky I don’t bash in your skull and put us all out of our misery.”
“Bo,” Myra Malone barked from the dark confines of the den on the other side of the house.
“He’s a miserable shit-for-brains retard,” Bo called over his shoulder, still trying to wriggle out of Shane’s grasp. “You owe me 549 bucks you stupid shit.”
And that was when Shane started to laugh, a sound Cleve loved because it reminded him of Scooby Doo. “Where’s he gonna get $549, Dumbo.”
“I’ll take it out of his freakin’ hide if I have to.” Bo promised.
Shane tightened his grip on Bo’s collar, and the other boy gagged again.
“Cleveland, tell Bo you’re sorry.”
“You shouldn’t have broke his big, fancy radio. Now you’re gonna have to find a way to buy him a new one.”
“I can fix it,” Cleve said, returning his attention to the table.
“You better fucking fix it,” Bo warned, finally tearing himself from Shane’s claws. He surged forward and slapped Cleveland on the back of the head, an action that triggered Shane to slap Bo in the same fashion. Through tightly gritted teeth, Bo said, “Fix it, or I’ll break your neck tonight when you sleep, you little shit for brains.”
Bo stalked up the stairs, their fragile structure groaning under every step until the telltale floorboards above squeaked out every movement. He slammed the door to the bedroom he and their youngest brother Donny shared, and moments later AC/DC blasted from the speakers of his stereo.
Myra hobbled into the room, pausing to sweep the ragged locks of her waist-length black hair over her shoulder. “Damn it, Cleveland,” she said. “What the heck is wrong with you?”
“I can fix it,” Cleve mumbled the promise under his breath.
And he did. It took him four hours to put every piece back into place, not counting the seventeen minutes he spent eating dinner while Bo scowled at him from across the dining room table. After dinner, he went right back to work, and just before bedtime he twisted the last screw into the back panel and leaned back to admire his work.
He rose from the table and hoisted the heavy radio into his arms. Careful not to drop it, he hiked the stairs one at a time and carried it all the way to the door of Bo and Donny’s room. Inside, Bo was listening to Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil and talking to his girlfriend, Rochelle, on the phone. Cleve didn’t knock, but set the boombox down outside the door and just lingered.
The sound of Bo’s voice was always different when he talked to Rochelle—calmer, gentler. It was like Rochelle made Bo a different person, and it was no wonder. Rochelle was good. Pretty and sweet, she was one of the few people who actually talked to Cleve like he was a regular person.
Which made Cleve like her more than just a little.
Sometimes when Rochelle came over, and Mom wasn’t home, Bo would back her into the corner of the couch and cover her body with his. They ground their clothed bodies together and smooshed mouths, and Rochelle made soft cooing sounds that made muscles in Cleve’s groin tense up. Then Bo would catch him spying from the shadow of the doorway and throw the TV guide at him.
“Get the fuck out of here, you little retard!”
And since there was no one home Cleve couldn’t tell on Bo. He sulked up the stairs lingering midway just long enough to hear Rochelle say, “Why are you so mean to him Bo? He’s your brother.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that he’s a retard.”
Then Rochelle would get mad and they would shout while Cleve sat alone upstairs in the dark. The door would slam and slam again, and Rochelle’s fancy red car would spit gravel from the driveway before the tires barked against the curb to announce her departure. Bo would chase after her in his car, and the next day everything would be okay with them again.
Rochelle would come over and bring Donny and Cleve big Ziploc bags filled with penny candy from her dad’s store downtown. Bo always treated Cleve a little nicer after that, at least until the high of making up with Rochelle wore off, or he caught Cleve spying on them again.
“I’m telling Bo you’re listening outside the door,” Donny said from the end of the hallway, where he stood wrapped like baby Jesus in a bright blue bath towel, tufts of damp, black curl poking out the hood. ”
Nu uh,” Cleve stepped away, and retreated to the bedroom he and Shane occupied.
Shane didn’t look up from the book he was reading, even when the box springs of Cleveland’s bed groaned under his massive weight. Had Shane looked up, he would have seen Cleve staring off into space, but he wasn’t really in space. He was enraptured by the day’s experience.
Everyone always said he was a big dummy… an idiot… a retard, but for the first time in
his life, Cleveland Malone felt smart. While taking apart the radio, his brain catalogued every piece, every action, so when it came time to put it back together, his hands moved without thought.
That night in the dark, while Shane snored and snuffled, Cleve lay awake for hours thinking about all the things in the house he could take apart. Mom’s coffee maker, the Atari, the Laserdisc player, the Beta tape player… And then his imagination was out in the yard tearing apart the lawnmower, the air conditioner, Bo’s brand new Mustang GT… the possibilities were endless, which made Cleve rub his hands together in excited anticipation.
Yes. He would take it all apart and see what was inside, and then he’d put it back together
again and it would be wonderful because no one would ever call him a retard again.
By the time Cleveland was fifteen, he had taken apart everything in the house, and put it back together again. Sometimes, things that might not work so good before he took them apart, worked better once he put them back together.
The air conditioner, for one thing. Something inside rattled on really hot days, and Shane complained it wasn’t cooling like it used to. He would either have to pay to have it fixed or shell out money he didn’t have to get a new one because Mom couldn’t stand to be hot.
Cleve waited until Shane was at work before he and his trusty screwdriver went to work because Shane said he was really getting tired of Cleve taking everything apart all the time. He knew he could fix it, and by the time Bo came home from school that afternoon with Rochelle riding shotgun in the Mustang, Cleve just finished putting it back together
Oil smudges stained his face, which made Rochelle laugh a little as she patted him on the shoulder. “You’re such a little handyman, Cleveland,” she said.
Cleve tucked his chin into his shoulder, trying to hide his crooked smile and the obvious red stains that flushed his cheeks.
“Is there anything you can’t fix?”
“He can’t fix his brain,” Bo stood in the open refrigerator door, chugging red Kool-Aid from a gallon jug.
“Stop it,” Rochelle scolded. Her soft fingers traveled down the fleshy length of Cleve’s upper-arm. “He’s fixed your stuff dozens of times.”
“After he broke it first,” Bo said. Still holding the Kool-Aid, he pointed toward Cleve, “Shane’s gonna kick your ass when he gets home and finds out you were messing with that air conditioner.”
“Cleve shook his head. “I fixed it.”
“He’s still gonna kick your ass.”
“Leave him alone, Bo,” Rochelle said, winking back over her shoulder at Cleve. “You’re just jealous because you’re not as mechanically inclined as he is.”
“Yeah, Bo,” Cleve grinned. “You’re jealous.”
“You wish,” Bo said. “Come on, Rochelle. You have a speech to write, and it’s not getting done here.”
Rochelle followed Bo out of the room, but Bo turned toward Cleve one last time to mouth the words, You’re dead.
Cleve squinted for a long time in the direction his brother and Rochelle went. The warmth of her touch still tingled under the fabric of his shirt, stimulating that warm feeling in his groin. Rochelle winked at him, smiled at him…touched him.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there daydreaming about touching her back, imagining himself in Bo’s position, backing Rochelle into the corner of the couch and pressing the crotch of his pants against hers.
He was still standing there grinning when the school bus dropped Donny off in front of the house. “What are you doing just standing there, Bozo?”
“I fixed the air conditioner,” Cleve beamed.
“You’re an idiot,” Donny shook his head, and went into the living room where their mom watched her afternoon stories.
“I’m not an idiot.” The whisper of Cleve’s voice barely escaped his throat. “I can fix anything.”
Rochelle said it was so, and she would never lie. Not with her lips pink like cotton candy. Cleve loved cotton candy, and he loved Rochelle too. He would do anything for her. Take her to the movies and buy her popcorn. Pick her flowers from the side of the road. Let her choose the best piece of chicken from the platter before he picked one for himself. Never make her cry the way Bo always did.
She deserved better than Bo. Rochelle deserved Cleve.
Summer was half-spent when Bo decided the girls at Bloomsburg University, where he was attending in the fall, were going to be too much competition for Rochelle. She still had one year left in high school, and though there was less than forty-miles between home and Bloomsburg, Bo didn’t want a long distance relationship.
Cleve was standing in his bedroom window, Shane sleeping at his back, when he heard Bo tell Rochelle he was breaking up with her. They were in the driveway, Rochelle’s face white like a sheet hanging on the clothesline in the moonlight. Cleve could see her blinking a lot, and her eyes were shining like she wanted to cry, but didn’t want Bo to see how much he was hurting her.
“How could you do this to me?” Rochelle asked. “After everything… all the things… Bo, how?”
“It would have happened sooner or later, and you know it.”
“No, I don’t know it. I know you said you loved me, and you would always love me. Not just love me until it was time for you to go to college.”
Cleve didn’t think Bo sounded sorry at all. In fact, most of the time when Bo said he was sorry, he usually wasn’t. That was just the way he was wired.
“I’d be a jerk to ask you to wait for me,” Bo said.
“You’re already a jerk, Bo.” She walked toward her car and got inside.
Bo didn’t go after her that time. Instead, he walked back toward the house, and Cleve heard the screen door groan on its hinges before banging shut.
Rochelle didn’t start her car. He saw her sitting behind the wheel, and even from the window, Cleve could see she was crying. Shoulders hunched forward, whole body shaking, she made Cleve think about trembling leaves all fragile in the wind. Soon, the wind of that storm would carry her away from Cleve forever, and he would never see her again.
He knew he had to stop her somehow, go to her, but his heavy feet were stuck fast to the floor beneath him, like someone had glued him there. Not even the sound of her engine revving as she turned the key motivated him to move, nor the red brake lights spilling into the night like so much blood. She backed out into the cul de sac, turning her car toward the road, and slowly inched out of the driveway. Cleve didn’t understand time, but he knew she sat at the edge by the mailbox forever, before finally turning onto the road and driving away.
Cleve watched the eyes of her car disappear down the snake of the road, listened to the distant hum of the motor as it shifted gears and grew further away, and then he blinked. His cheeks were wet, and his eyes stung. He didn’t understand why, other than that seeing Rochelle hurting made him ache inside. She was good and right, and she had always been so nice to him. She deserved more than Bo. She should be happy… always.
Downstairs Bo moved around in the kitchen. Cleve heard him open the refrigerator and move bottles around before closing the door. Everyone was sleeping, Shane and Donny in their beds, their mother sitting in the corner of the sofa with an afghan tucked under her chin as the silent television flashed like a strobe light in the night.
It was so quiet, Cleve heard Bo’s footsteps on the kitchen floor, the scrape of the chair legs lurching against the linoleum. Bo’s lighter sparked, and even though Cleve was upstairs, the smell of cigarette smoke burned his nostrils. He sniffled, and wiped the back of his hand across his cheeks to brush away the tears, then he turned away from the window and crept quietly out of the room.
Cleve was big. He had always been a big boy. His mom said it was because he didn’t get enough exercise and he ate like a horse. Cleve didn’t know what any of that meant, but he did know that his size often made it hard for him to move around without being noticed. He was bad at playing games like flashlight tag and hide-and-seek, but as he snuck down the stairs he made a conscious effort to step slow and deliberate.
His mind registered every creaking board on the staircase before he reached it, and he stepped around those places to avoid drawing attention to himself. Again, his lack of relation to time made the journey downstairs feel like it took hours. When he finally reached the landing, beads of sweat broke out on the back of his neck and across his brow, and not just from the heat but from concentrating so hard on being quiet.
From the landing, Cleve could see Bo sitting at the table. He had a half-empty glass of pop in front of him and a lit cigarette burning between his fingers. The stench of smoke always bothered Cleve, and it made their mother cough, but Bo didn’t care. Smoking made him look cool, which was all Bo ever seemed to care about.
There was something wrong with his brother, Cleve realized. He didn’t remember much about their childhood, but Bo had always been wrong in some way or another. There were pictures of them together in the tub, both boys grinning as yellow ducks and fluorescent plastic blocks floated in the water all around. Sometimes their mom told stories about Bo hitching a wagon to the back of his bicycle and peddling around with little Cleve in tow, but that was before the fever. Cleveland didn’t remember any of those things.
All he knew was Bo being cruel, hurtful, broken.
Maybe Cleve could fix his brother, the way he’d fixed all those other things. The radio, the lawnmower, the air conditioner… If he fixed Bo, maybe he’d say he was sorry to Rochelle, and really mean it. Then Rochelle would come back, and she’d be nice to Cleve. Maybe even Bo would be nice to Cleve, just the way their mom said he used to be.
Donny’s aluminum softball bat rested against the wall at the bottom of the stairs, and Cleve wrapped his meaty fingers around the base. It was cold against his palm, but the shape reminded him of the Phillips head screwdriver he’d been using to take things apart for years. The bat made a schlunking swish as it brushed against the wall, and for a second Cleve was afraid he would alert Bo, or wake up their mom.
He watched Bo flick cigarette ashes into the ashtray on the table, leaning back on the legs of his chair so his back rested on the island bar behind him. Cleve could see the side of Bo’s face, and as he crept toward the kitchen on feather feet, he held his breath. He had to be silent, because if Bo saw him coming, he might jump up and thwart Cleve before he had a chance to fix his brother.
Bo was so wrapped up in his thoughts and his cigarette, he didn’t hear Cleve, or notice the way the light from the family room fish tank projected Cleve’s shadow into the kitchen.
He took two steps into the room, long strides that carried him close to the table, but those two steps alerted Bo to his presence. Bo looked over at him, eyes red-rimmed as if he’d been crying, but Cleve thought it was maybe just the smoke.
“What are you doing up?” Bo asked.
“You hurt Rochelle.”
“You were spying on me again, you little shit?”
“You made her cry.”
“I know you like her, but you don’t know anything about her.”
“She’s a slut.”
Cleve was ordinarily slow, but he wielded the bat like an all star veteran, cracking it across the front of Bo’s brow. The metallic thwack rang in Cleve’s ears, but it didn’t linger as long as the sound of Bo’s skull cracking like an unripe watermelon on pavement. The force of the hit knocked Bo’s chair, which he’d been leaning backward, out from under him, whacking the back of Bo’s head on the edge of the counter.
When he hit the floor, it was so loud Cleve was sure everyone in the house would wake up. He stood above his brother breathing heavy, heart racing in his chest as he waited for someone to come running into the room.
No one moved upstairs. No one came.
Bo laid still, a trickle of blood dripping onto the floor beneath his head. Cleve tilted his head and just stared at his brother for a long time. He wasn’t watching to see if Bo was still breathing, wasn’t looking for a flutter behind his eyelids. He just watched.
Then he hunched down with a grunt and lowered the bat beside the body. He curled his fingers under Bo’s armpits. Bo was heavy, but Cleve was bigger and despite his weight, he was strong. He heaved his brother toward the basement door, a small smear of blood coloring the yellowed linoleum like finger paint.
He slumped the body down long enough to open the door and then he bumped down every step with a consistent thud until they reached the dirt floor below the house. The basement was dark, and Cleve stood there in the pitch holding Bo’s arms and listening for movement from upstairs. There was nothing.
He wasn’t careful when he dropped Bo’s arms, just let the body hit the floor below. He scuttled through the dark toward the dangling string near the pantry where a decade’s old canned goods rotted in their juices. He swiped the air, his fingers curling around the strand. Broken yellow light shone through the cobweb encrusted bulb, barely illuminating the dank space that always made Cleve feel like he was buried underground.
He shrugged off a shudder, and then he got to work tying his brother up good and tight with bungee cords so he wouldn’t struggle too much when Cleve started to fix him. Once Bo was tied up, Cleve went upstairs to get some tools. He had to grab one of Shane’s screwdrivers from the kitchen junk drawer because his precious Phillips-head was up in the bedroom and he didn’t want to take any chances. He took a ring of electrical tape and one a sharp knife from the silverware drawer, and then he clumped back down the stairs.
Posed above Bo with the kitchen knife, yellowed light beamed off the smudged silver and prodded at Cleve’s eyes. He squinted for a second to relieve them. Sweat beads danced on his upper lip and trickled down the length of his spine.
He wasn’t sure where to even start. The brain maybe, or better yet, the heart. It had to be Bo’s heart that was broken. Maybe that was why he was so hateful, why he had such a hard time loving other people… soft people like Rochelle who were good and nice and deserved so much more than Bo ever gave her.
Yes, the heart, Cleve decided. He lifted his arm and plunged the knife deep into his brother’s chest. Bo shattered the silence with a gurgling scream, his stomach muscles tensing as he lurched forward against his restraints, teary eyes wide with shock.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Blood gushed between bloodstained clenched teeth.
“I’m fixing you, Bo,” Cleve reached down and laid a bloody hand on his brother’s
Bo strained and railed against the cords, sprays of blood dotting Cleve’s face with ever bellow that scraped from Bo’s throat.
Upstairs a storm of feet pounded the floorboards and stairs, but Cleve was already lost in his work. One hand worked the sharp blade of the knife against tissue and bone in an effort to get through Bo’s ribcage to his heart, the other reaching for the screwdriver that had helped him fix dozens of broken things over the years.
“Lie still and don’t fight, Bo. I’ll have you fixed up in no time.”