Hyacinth “Hi” Illinois pulled the cigarette from his mouth—it escaped with a pa!, like the figure of an actor’s imagination disappearing from the movie screen—and exhaled. The way his hand pinched off the white burning cylinder and removed it in a jet of smoke was intended to look, sound, and feel tough. Hyacinth had been practicing the move for years. He found it impressive. The man waiting at the crossroads did not.
“You him?” Hi asked, his chin rising just the slightest bit for just the slightest moment toward the man. Standing a step behind his older brother, Basic spat a long stream of tobacco juice into the deep, cindered snow by the side of the road. Both brothers wore second-hand guitars and threadbare coats on their backs.
“This weather sucks,” the man said.
“Tell me about it,” Hi said.
“I’m not used to this kind of shit,” the man continued, looking around. There wasn’t much to look at. The crossroads sat on top of a Western PA mountain and was surrounded by higher mountains on all sides. The nearest town, a hard-luck community of unemployed coalminers, married cousins, and reprobates of every stripe, and from whence the Brothers Illinois had come, was ten miles away.
“I hear ya,” Hi said.
“You boys ought to think about moving south,” the man told the brothers. “Made some mighty fine deals down South, let me tell you.”
He pulled two stacks of paper out of his briefcase and passed a stack to Hyacinth. He raised one eyebrow and said, “You know you’re going to have to go young.”
“Sure. We know,” Hi said.
The man flipped through the stack in his hands. “If you turn to page seventeen, you’ll see the variety of deaths we offer. Most of them are vehicular, but not all. ’Course, since there’s two of you, Option K, for example, ‘Choking on One’s Own Vomit,’ probably won’t fly.”
“We understand,” Hi said.
“There’s limitations on what we can do,” the man said.
“We know about limitations, sir,” Basic said, tobacco spit like a shit stain across his chin.
The visitor looked from brother to brother. “I reckon you do, boys,” he said. “I reckon you most certainly do.”
Cliffton Price’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Souvenir, Gingerbread House, The Barnstormer, Little Patuxent Review, Lunch Ticket, Waccamaw, Rio Grande Review, and elsewhere.
–Background art by Dia Takácsová
–Foreground art by Bostjan Tacol