Everything's Jake

Chris Cook

Story image for Everything's Jake by Chris Cook

T he Ford family of Troon’s Perch made their nest in a craftsman style home located on a cul-de-sac at the end of a rambunctious street. One of many such streets, actually, in a large neighborhood located just below the state line that separates the southern portion of Carolina from its northern counterpart. Recently, the house had begun to feel a bit too roomy for the trio underneath its roof.

Matthew Ford was doing his best to stanch the gloom that had seeped into the collective family conscious during the last two page turns of the Peanuts wall calendar that hung on the door leading to the garage. Matthew’s familial rejuvenative effort is what led him to wear a tiara and a sash while he served breakfast to his daughters one March morning before they ran out the door to their respective destinations: Elizabeth to elementary school and Brittany to daycare. Elizabeth rode the big yellow Twinkie and Brittany hitched with the Clark family from down the street.

“Dad, you know you don’t have to wear that stupid crown just to make us feel better,” Elizabeth, the eldest Ford daughter, said. “I’m eleven now and Britt is… how old are you, Britt? I can’t remember when we picked you up by the dumpster at Taco Bell.”

“I’m four!” Brittany replied, apparently unfazed by the overt questioning of her lineage. She raised her right hand and held up four sticky fingers. The beaming grin on her face revealed a mouth filled with baby teeth ready to chomp down on whatever grub presented itself, be it carrots or Cow Tales. She had been delighted to find recently that one of her central incisors had begun to wiggle prematurely. Daddy had told her that the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t be visiting until she was at least seven or eight, but this single wobbly tooth portended otherwise.

“See, the little snot doesn’t even know she’s supposed to be sad. And I’m over it. I really am,” Liz looked at her father directly, and he picked up on the faintest of flickers in her headlights that implied she was not dealing with it as well as she insisted. “I miss her, but I’m big now. Big girls don’t cry.”

Her in this instance was the late Caitlin Ford, brought to a premature death by a teenager that thought such a result inconceivable. This teen certainly hadn’t planned to run Caitlin off the road and into the large oak tree that sat on the northern side of the downtown square. All he had planned on doing was downing two-thirds of a twelve pack of Busch Diesel and getting home before curfew, hopefully with some heavy petting in between. You see, teens are invincible, but they have a nasty habit of flinging lethal shrapnel in all directions on the road to immortality. One such piece of shrapnel caught Caitlin Ford’s spine and snapped it like a dry piece of pasta when she wrapped her SUV around the old oak. Just like that, Big Bertha, the tree named for one of the famous matriarchs from the early days of Troon’s Perch, claimed another fatality. As was typically the case in goings-on such as these, our teenage antagonist walked away unscathed.

“First of all, this is a tiara, thank you very much,” Matthew replied, stealing a glance at the empty chair that was tucked neatly under the kitchen table. “And second of all, I’m wearing it because I like it—I think it really accentuates my eyes. You thought I got all done up just for you two?”

He lifted his left hand, palm outward, to the right side of his face. With his visage conspicuously hidden from Elizabeth, he shot Brittany a wink so flamboyant that the left part of his mouth popped open. Brittany brought both of her gooey mitts to her own mouth and snickered.

“Accentuates, A-C-C-E-N… C-E-N… A-C-C-E-N-T-U-A-T-E-S, accentuates.” Elizabeth ignored the surreptitious exchange and instead decided to show off the spelling skills that she had been sharpening in preparation for the upcoming county bee.

“Great job, hon! Now, spell it backward for the class.”

Daa-aad! You know they don’t make you spell it backward at county!”

No, but cops sometimes do, Matthew thought. The boys in blue will make you do the whole alphabet backward if they suspect you’ve been hitting the bottle. It’s too bad no one stopped that worthless little shit a couple of months ago and made him do the song and dance.

Matthew allowed himself the brief indulgence of imagining what he would do to Spencer Lenore—the aforementioned worthless little shit—if he had him alone in a locked room for five minutes. These thoughts were gone as quickly as they came, and his daughters were none the wiser when he flashed them his patented Daddy Grin.

“Now, you two grab your backpacks and get outta here before I decide you’ve got to stay and clean your rooms instead!”

Matthew’s thoughts went to his dead wife as his children raced each other to the front door of the house. It’s not fair, none of it. You won’t be here to see Elizabeth in her sock hop outfit, or Britt on her first day of elementary school. I don’t know if I can do this without you. I can try, but I’m no Caitlin Ford.

Caitlin, who would shout “Ford girls have heads that are made for tiaras!” as she twirled her daughters around the living room, always knew how to relate to both little ones. Matthew did a reputable job of communicating with the girls, but it was Caitlin who had always demonstrated the magic touch. He felt as though he were destined for a lifetime of serving as the off-brand replacement for his departed wife.

Gonna need a bigger closet for all these hats I’m wearing.

“Uh, hey Dad!” Matthew was returned to the present by the sound of his oldest daughter’s shout from the front hallway. “You might wanna come see this…”

Elizabeth was standing on the stoop with her backpack at her feet; it had apparently dropped from her grip in shock at what she beckoned him to come see. He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked out on the yard.

He’d have dropped his backpack too.

Couches of all shapes and sizes were scattered across the front lawn of the Ford family dwelling. Sectionals, loveseats, sleepers, futons, all in different leathers and fabrics. There was even one in the shape of a heart, stamped with miniature Cupids shooting amorous arrows at each other. Without taking an exact count, there must be no less than twenty couches resting like steer in his front yard.

I guess I’ll be getting an HOA letter about this.

“Daddy, can we keep this one? Pretty please?” shouted Brittany. She had wasted no time on something so silly as questioning the absurdity of the situation. Rather, she had sought out the boingiest, bounciest couch and decided to test its mettle. Mid-jump, she continued: “This one’s got good springs—puh-lease, daddy!”

Matthew had always assumed that the first thing for which his youngest daughter begged him with such fervor would be a puppy in the window, not a sofa in the yard.

“I don’t think so honey, these aren’t ours,” Matthew replied. “This is just a prank, sweetie. You both keep it moving, or else you’re gonna be late. I’ll take care of this and our yard will be returned to its original state before you two get home this afternoon. You have my word, your Highnesses.” He bent forward and scooped his hand in an exaggerated bow.

“Who the hell would pull a prank like this?” Elizabeth looked up at her father with genuine concern, seemingly unaware that she had just dropped the H-E-double hockey sticks bomb.

“Elizabeth Renee Ford! Since when do you talk like a sailor?”

The oldest Ford girl raised her eyebrows and shrugged, with just enough sass to cement the fact that she was her mother’s daughter. Both kids took off, resuming the footrace to their pick-up points. Matthew marveled at his children’s uncanny ability to brush aside just about any atypical occurrence and continue on with their daily adventures undeterred.

The truth was, Matthew didn’t know for certain that this was the handiwork of bored teens from up the street. But what else could it be? Definitely not a mistaken delivery, there wasn’t a house in the neighborhood colossal enough to hold even half the number of loungers now strewn across the Ford family property. He let out a sigh, closed his eyes, and rubbed his temples like a cat kneading its latest resting spot.

Seems like a lot of work for a prank. Whatever happened to lighting a bag of shit on fire and dropping it on the doorstep? Or just tossing a few eggs?

Who had they pissed off? Most of the neighbors were aware of the tragedy that had befallen the Fords and had been behaving accordingly; the house was flush with casseroles, pies, and bouquets. Amy Conway from a couple streets over had even brought breakfast over for two straight weeks after the accident.

If there was anyone who could empathize with their situation, Matthew thought it was Amy. She had been a single mother to a teenage daughter since last year, when her husband left for a work retreat and never returned. Rumors were rampant that perhaps he had run off with a coworker, or maybe he had a secret family in another state that he decided he liked more than the Conways of Troon’s Perch. Regardless, the Fords had taken care of the Conways in their time of need, and the Conways had returned the favor.

Such behavior was common in their tight-knit community. So no, the theory that this was a gag didn’t jibe. Teenagers could be cruel, but Matthew thought that such a prank in a time of mourning required an outright lack of a soul.

“What a start to the day.”

Matthew pinched the flesh on his forearm and scanned the yard once more, making sure that he was not still asleep in the master bed that was now too large for its purpose. Then he went inside, closed and locked the door to 664 Half Pint Loop, and made a beeline to the coffee pot.


M atthew funded the family coffers by working as an IT security consultant for a large bank headquartered in Charlotte. The nature of his role afforded him the luxury of working from home most days, which had been particularly helpful ever since the Fords had downsized from a quartet to a power trio.

Seated at his desk in the office located at the front of the house, Matthew set out to solve the issue of the spontaneous couch consignment that had apparently taken place overnight. Returning to sender was not an option, since whoever had made the delivery had not been kind enough to leave a note. He briefly considered turning a profit—he did work for a bank, after all—by selling the sofas one by one online, but this was too onerous; he wanted his yard back before the end of the day.

Finally, he landed on donation. The Salvation Army assured Matthew that yes, they were absolutely interested in a plethora of brand-new couches, and that they would have a bevy of foot soldiers at the Ford home quicker than Matthew could spit. Profuse thanks were offered and a pick-up time was scheduled for early afternoon.

Satisfied with this outcome, he set his phone aside and resolved to tackle his day job. Deciphering the mystery of the copious couches was enjoyable, but alas, it would not keep the lights on and the water running. Before diving into the ever-fascinating world of cyber security, Matthew spared a final glance out the bay window that looked onto the front lawn.

Couches… why’d it have to be couches?

Matthew’s white-collar responsibilities led him to overlook the gentlemanly caller who strode up the walkway leading to the front door shortly before lunchtime. It wasn’t until this solicitor rapped three times on the mahogany door that Matthew realized he was no longer alone with his thoughts and newfound furniture.

For the second time that day, Matthew Ford looked out of his opened front door and was met with a surprise. Standing before him was a man, short in stature, who some would describe as “a friend of ours”. This gentleman raised an eyebrow and gave Matthew a quick once-over when the door was opened. Matthew thought this peculiar, given that he owned the property and should be the one performing the evaluation.

The visitor was in a foppish getup that appeared dated by about a century. A charcoal fedora, the top of which came level with Matthew’s shoulders, sat perfectly cocked atop a mop of red hair. He had sky blue eyes that were slightly farther apart than normal and set deeply back in their sockets. A cigarette poked out from the right side of a mouth that seemed frozen in a perpetual sneer. He wore a dark, double-breasted suit with large lapels and a pocket that held a white, two peak pocket square. Pin stripes ran the length of the outfit. Below the cuffs of his pants sat black wingtips that had been shined to perfection and carefully adorned with white spats. The stranger that darkened the Ford family doorstep was more Tom Powers than Tony Soprano.

“Say, you the egg that lives at dis here place?” The caller spoke in staccato bursts. “I got bidness with the proprietor of dis fine establishment, so be on the level wit me.” The gentleman had removed the cigarette from his mouth and poked it at Matthew as he butchered the pronunciation of ‘business’.

Matthew was reminded of Rocky from the old Looney Tunes bits, the diminutive gangster who ran around with a hulking henchman with the mental capacity of a baked potato. There was no Mugsy to be seen, however.

“I live here,” he said, “if that’s what you mean. Although, I’m not selling anything. I can see how you might have thought this was a yard sale, what with…” Matthew waved his arm in the direction of the cushion cacophony. “But if you’re hoping to buy, I’m afraid to inform you that the transaction is dead on arrival.”

The visitor made a series of noises somewhere between a laugh and a whistle. “Heh, ‘dead on arrival’, I like dat. Dat’s good, you… dat’s good. Listen, the name’s Nails. Nails Nelson. I don’t wanna buy nothin’ from ya, see? Me and some friends ah mine, we’re in the problem solvin’ bidness.

“I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and I saw yer uh…” Nails looked first over his right shoulder, then his left. “…yer predicament here, and I had a thought, a real bulb. I says to myself, ‘I can help dis guy’. Dat’s when I decided to walk right up and give yer door a few whacks. So lemme ask ya—is dis a service that ya’d be interested in, mister?”

Matthew decided that coffee wasn’t going to cut it today, he’d be having at least one knock of bourbon as soon as he could get rid of this clown. He made a mental note to check the Farmers’ Almanac website to see if a full moon was planned for this evening.

“Gee, Nails, that’s a real…” a patronizing smirk broke out across Matthew’s face. “That’s a real swell offer. Really, it is. But listen, I’ve already made arrangements to take care of my couch surplus. If only you had arrived a little earlier this morning, maybe we could have done business. As it stands, I’ve got no need for your services.”

Matthew nodded and moved to shut the front door, but the hand holding a Lucky Strike cigarette shot up and stopped the closure. Smoke drifted upward and stinged Matthew’s nostrils.

“Ya shore, mister? Me and the boys do real good work, all our customers say so. Dey always tell us we hit on all sixes, Scout’s Honor. Ya don’t even gotta gimme any clams, see? We don’t take cash for our jobs, we—“

Matthew’s patience, already thin, evaporated completely. “I think that’ll be all. I’ve told you that I have it under control, and I’m asking you to kindly leave. As much as I’d like to sit here and shoot the shit with a cartoon character, I’ve had about as much as I can take today.”

Nails pursed his lips and his nostrils flared beneath glowering eyes. Matthew thought that the whites and irises of those eyes briefly flashed black and melded with the pupils. For the quickest of instants, the little gangster had eyeballs that appeared to have been soaked in motor oil. But then it was gone.

Nails dropped his cigarette on the stoop and ground it out with the toe of his brogue. “Yeah… shore. Everything’s Jake, mister—I’ll blow outta here. Here’s to ya.”

With that, Nails turned and marched down the path toward the street. Matthew thought it was a bit strange that this intruder didn’t have a car, but he had no interest in offering to give him a lift. Nor did he care enough to stand and watch him go; he slammed the door shut before Nails was halfway down the walk.


T he rest of the day went off without a hitch. The Troops of Salvation arrived shortly after Nails Nelson took his leave. They had two twenty-six-foot trucks, yet still required three trips before the yard was completely cleared. The crew almost took off without providing a tax receipt, but Matthew saw to it that everything was accounted for prior to bidding them adieu.

Every penny counts when you’re flying solo, he thought. Matthew was well compensated by the bank, but things began to add up when you started thinking long-term. Polishing off the mortgage, paying for college, weddings… He looked toward the sky. Wish we could talk, Cait. I may have to hock plasma or pose nude for the local art school on the side, but I got this.

The girls arrived home to snacks on the table and a front yard free of clutter. They made quick work of the PB&J’s and then proceeded to take advantage of the freshly vacated lawn. It was true that Liz enjoyed giving Brittany grief, but she had not yet outgrown playtime with her little sister. In fact, she had ramped up the frequency of their romps after Caitlin’s passing. However, if pressed, Liz would wholeheartedly deny that she had anything but contempt for Britt. Matthew was proud of his eldest daughter’s supportive display, just the same.

The family almost made it all the way through dinner without one mention of those damn couches. Almost.

“Dad, do you think anybody else is gonna prank us?” Elizabeth said, between bites of pepperoni and mushroom pizza. She tried to maintain a casual tone, but the subtle pained expression on her face let on that she had endured enough adversity. “Maybe we should get one of those doorbells that has a camera in it. That way, we can catch the jerks red-handed. I can take first shift tonight, and the gremlin here can cover the second. They won’t stand a chance.”

Brittany brought her thumb and pointer fingers together on each hand and raised them to her eyes, as if she were peering through a set of binoculars. She let loose with an infectious giggle that made its way across the table, against which Elizabeth had no defense. Matthew smiled down at his children and silently thanked God that they had each other.

I do wish we had one of those doorbells. Video evidence is the only way anyone would believe me if I told them about Mr. Nelson.

“Listen, ladies—while I appreciate your willingness to stand up for yourselves, I think it’s best that we leave this whole ordeal behind us.” He paused, considering the best way to wrap this subject up with some finality. “Besides, some good came out of it. You should have heard how excited the Salvation Army was to receive those couches. Wherever they came from, those things are going to end up making a bunch of families very happy.”

Elizabeth shrugged again and continued with her slice, while Brittany resumed playing with a rogue shroom that had avoided digestion. The unfortunate fungus had, however, found itself in the hands of a merciless four-year old who was likely going to reward its escape with savage dismemberment. Matthew’s statement had ostensibly put the intended bow on the topic.

He didn’t mention the unexpected visitor. Wanting to move past the events of the day as quickly as possible, he didn’t see the point in introducing a further complication into the minds of his daughters. He had found routine to be the best antidote for grief.

That and time, anyway.


T he Ford family was quite surprised to find their front yard once again littered with couches the next morning. Not the same couches: the lawn was now covered by an entirely new gaggle of living room furniture. And the number of pieces had increased. Each blade of grass was obscured, and since there was excess inventory, whoever had made the drop-off had decided to start stacking. Towers, two and three couches high, stretched from the beginning of the property line to the front door of their home.

There’s gotta be double the amount from yesterday, Matthew thought. We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Matthew’s appreciation for routines began to wane, since it now appeared that a new pattern had emerged in his daily activities. He dismissed the apparition of the furniture to the girls and sent them on their way, called the Sallys to schedule another gift—“Yes, another couch donation. And we’re going to need more trucks this time”—and finally, sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee and logged-on to the bank network.

It also seemed that Nails Nelson wanted to wedge himself into his day-to-day, because he once again came striding up the front walk, just before Matthew started to think about lunch. This time Matthew saw him and opened the door before Nails could land the first of what would surely be three knocks.

“Are you the one doing this to us, you little shit? My family has had plenty to deal with over the last few months, and we could do without whatever it is you’re trying to pull here. You realize you’ve got my girls completely freaked?”

Worthless little shit. Maybe I’ll give you the beating that I owe Spencer Lenore. His fingernails dug into his palms. Somebody’s gonna catch it for this.

“Aw, come on now mister, ya ain’t sore, are ya? I already told ya, me and the boys don’t cause problems, we solve dem.” Nails took a long drag from the cigarette that had been bouncing up and down with each syllable. “Now, if my sources are bein’ straight wit me, and dey usually are, it seems ya went and hired a different crew to take care of yer unfortunate situation yesterday. I know, ya told me as much, but I was really hopin ya’d reconsider. That pains me, mister, that really hurts my ticker.”

“Get off my property, asshole.”

Nails frowned. “Say, the last thing ya wanna do right now is go screwy. Yer gettin mighty close to doin or sayin somethin ya might regret. I tried to do dis the easy way, but I’m beginnin to see dat was a mistake. Me and the fellas might hafta go about dis in a different way if ya don’t start walkin the line.”

“Now you’re threatening me?” Matthew raged. “I can’t believe this shit! Get out of my face right now, or I’m calling the po—“

“Hey, Matt!”

Matthew looked up, above Nails’ ridiculous fedora, and saw Donna Strucker circling the cul-de-sac with her Jack Russell, Tito. He uncurled his fists and shot her the standard wave that can be seen in countless suburban communities across the Southeast. Tito, typically a well-behaved pup, thrashed and unleashed a barrage of ear-splitting barks in the direction of the odd couple on the Ford front walk.

“Yeah, ‘hey Matt’.” Nails gave him the same wave to bring the focus back down to eye level. “Like, say, maybe we don’t involve just you. Ya was talkin about dem Janes ya live wit. I’d be tickled pink to meet dem. But maybe somethin happens to dem before I can, or maybe it don’t.” Nails had the look of someone discussing whether or not it was going to rain. “It’s a crazy world we live in, mister. Ya just never know.”

Matthew slammed his fist against the door, knocking a family portrait off the interior wall. “You leave the girls out of this, you son of a bitch!” He meant to shout but it came out like a whisper. “I’ll kill you if you come within fifty yards of them, do you hear me? They’ll lock me up, but I won’t hesitate to wring your little midget neck.”

Ehohhhhh!” Hands out, Nails delivered a multipurpose Mafioso hoot of dismay. “Let’s be friendly-like here! Mister, I can tell ya the one grade-A, fool-proof way ya can guarantee dat Britt and Liz don’t have a single hair on dere precious little heads disturbed. Ya ready to listen?”

Christ, he knows their names! What is this?

Nails maintained his serene demeanor. “I’m tryin to offer ya protection against dat which ails ya.”

Quieting, Matthew shoved his hands in his pockets in an effort to keep them contained. He didn’t know what to make of this stranger, but the fact that Nails knew enough to threaten his daughters by name gave him pause. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to agree, but he would at least hear what the offer was.

For his daughters’ sake.

“Go ahead.”

“Dat’s great, mister, I knew ya’d throw in wit us. Here’s how it’s gonna go—ya let me and the boys clean up out here for ya. We’ll clear it out, and we’ll make shore ya never have to deal wit anything like dis ever again. All we ask in return is a favor, just a little quid pro quo.”

“And what might that be, Nails?”

Nails snapped with his right hand and pointed at Matthew. “Dere he is! He’s really comin around, folks! Ok, here’s the skinny. We’re gonna give you some… persuaders, if ya know what I mean, and yer gonna need a place to store dem. Maybe a shed out back. Ya gotta lotta room out dere, mister, and from the size ah dis house I’m bettin ya can afford a shed.

“The reasons for which we’re givin you dis hardware are gonna remain under the rug, but let’s just say dat somethin might be comin. And when dis thing comes, well… we’re gonna want you and a buncha yer closest pals on our side. I know ya got pals, mister, I been watchin. Yer gonna use dese persuaders to get the other boys to join up.”

“Are you talking about weapons? This doesn’t make any sense. You want me to start some sort of militia?”

“What I want ya to do is know dat I don’t give a rat’s ass what ya call it.” Nails’s face darkened and his aw-shucks persona disappeared. “Yer gonna keep the tools handy, and yer gonna round some boys up wit dem when we say the word. Capiche?”

Matthew tried to get his brain not to stroke out. “I just don’t understand what it is you think I can do for you. The last time I shot a gun was two presidents back, and that one took paintballs for ammo. Why did you pick me for this?”

“Why does the Pope wear a pointy hat? Yer gonna stop askin questions now, okay? Ya can take all the other questions ya got and stick dem in your hat, far as I’m concerned.”

Nails blinked, and when he reopened his eyes it appeared again as though two black marbles had replaced the baby blues that Matthew noticed previously. These onyx eyes were irriguous, they rippled inward, from temple to tear duct. There would be no compromising with these eyes. “Now, put a cork in it and tell me we got a deal.”

What the hell else is there at this point?

After a brief pause, and a twist of the gold band that he still wore on his left ring finger, Matthew replied: “Okay, Nails. You win. If it means you’ll stop harassing us and my girls will be safe, I’ll do this for you.”

“Say, dat’s what I like to hear! We’ll take care a yer yard right away, mister. Two shakes. But we need ya to get a move on wit the other bidness. If ya don’t, we’ll know. And den… well, it’s anybody’s guess, really.”

Nails glanced at the Rolex Oyster on his wrist. His chummy disposition had returned, but the next words out of his mouth were virulent. “Say, Lizzy’s bus is gonna be dis way soon, right?”

Matthew went silent and stone-faced, which Nails took as tacit agreement.

“Good. We’ll be in touch to make the first delivery and show ya how to use dem things. It’s been real nice doin bidness with ya, mister. I’m bein honest. We been talkin to folks from San Francisco to Sarasota. Some ah the other eggs we deal with kick up dust and make things difficult. It never works, see, it just makes us resort to other tactics. Dese other tactics, dey’re not pleasant, I don’t enjoy it, dey don’t enjoy it, bada bing, bada boom, nobody wins. But you mister, you’ve been a real ace.”

Satisfied that an accord had been struck, Nails Nelson turned and walked toward the street. When he had almost reached the sidewalk, a Studebaker President winked into existence just above the street lamps. The car, which had an electric blue glow beneath the undercarriage and windows made for Tommy guns to poke out from, floated down and landed like a Harrier in front of Matthew’s new business partner.

Donna Strucker and Tito had not yet made it out of the cul-de-sac. Tito had found himself a scent in the neighbor’s yard and decided it needed to be thoroughly sniffed, but when he saw Nails again started growling.

Nails bared his teeth right back. “Dat fuckin’ dog barks at me one more time, I’ll give him another set a nuts just so I can chop dem’ off. And how bout you, lady? You fancy a pair a nuts?”

As Donna hurried away Nails turned, gave Matthew a wink, and climbed into the black sedan. The whitewall tires of the long-bodied luxury automobile lifted it off the street and above the rooftops. It hovered for a moment, and was gone.

Matthew returned inside and picked up the picture that had been jostled off the wall: a snapshot of his family, taken only six months prior, but at a time when they were happier and more complete. Caitlin stood in the center, with her arms around Elizabeth and Brittany. Matthew had hidden behind Caitlin and poked his head out above her shoulder. It was a great depiction of how things used to be: Mommy protecting, and Daddy… well, Daddy doing something.

Caitlin had suggested that the girls should decide which picture from the shoot received the place of honor by the door, and this was the photo they had landed on.

Need a shed, he thought, concentrating on the only normal thing about the whole mess. I should be able to get to Lowe’s and back before Elizabeth gets home.

He hung the picture back on the nail from which it had been dislodged, grabbed his keys off the hook, and started out the door. He paused, then turned to the portrait again, kissed his fingertips, and gently touched them to the face of his wife.

I got this, Cait. I hope.

Matthew made his way out to the family car, which had never been airborne without the assistance of a jack, and was just getting it cranked when he realized he had a call to make.

“Hi, yes, this is Matthew Ford, we spoke earlier about a donation pick-up? I’m gonna need to cancel. No, no, we just gave it some thought and decided to send this batch elsewhere, since you guys are probably full-up on couches after the haul yesterday. Which charity did we decide on? Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it.” His face twisted bitterly. “It’s just a little group that some friends of ours run.”


M atthew woke early next morning to check the yard before the girls roused. When he opened the door, a letter that had been wedged in the jamb fluttered to his feet. As he bent to pick it up, he spared a glance through squinted eyes toward the lawn, afraid of what he might discover. He was pleased to find nothing worth remarking on, save for the immaculate condition of the grass itself. There wasn’t a blade out of place, no sign at all that there had been thousands of pounds of foam and feathers scattered about only hours earlier. The yard was actually a brighter shade of green than it had been the day he laid the sod.

They really do hit on all sixes, Matthew thought. Hot damn.

As he wondered whether he could enlist Nails and his fellow conspirators for regular landscaping, Matthew opened the letter. The handwriting was crude, resembling a Do You Like Me? note from a preteen righty attempting a sly southpaw.


Hope you like what you see. Me and the boys never had an unsatisfied customer. I take that back. We had one, but I don’t figure he’s heard the birds chirp for a while now. Ha-Ha.

Nails’s spelling was a lot more precise than his pronunciation. Still, Matthew couldn’t help but mentally ya his you’s and dat his that’s for him.

Speaking of birds, a little one told me that you’re having that shed delivered today. That’s good, mister. That’s… what did you say when we first chewed the fat? Swell. That’s swell. Anyone says to me that Matty Ford ain’t a stand-up guy is getting five fingers and fourteen joints to the face. Scout’s Honor.

Go ahead and plan for us to swing by tomorrow night around 11. Me and the crew like to travel after the moon’s up when we’re carrying tools. Like them vamps in that Irish book.

Be alone.

Your pal,


So, there it was. The events of the last couple of days hadn’t been a production of his overstressed mind or a sick joke perpetrated by a bored cosplayer. The Fords really had been visited by a “gangster” in a flying Studebaker, and Matthew had signed-up to help the guy build a militia. All because the visitor had dropped a mess of couches on the front lawn and executed a classic extortion racket. Kinda.

Is that it, then? Matthew thought. I’m going to be the head of the Troon’s Perch grassroots alien invasion effort? Whenever Nails says ‘jump’, me and the other dads will grab the laser rifles and just start blasting away?

Shrouded by a fog of conflicting thoughts and emotions, Matthew set the letter down on his desk and trudged upstairs to wake the girls.

Breakfast was uneventful. Matthew was unable to summon the enthusiasm necessary to don the tiara and sash that had become an integral part of his morning ensemble, but the girls didn’t take notice. Nor did they mention the unusual occurrences of the previous forty-eight hours. It was Friday, after all, so planning for the weekend took precedent in their adolescent minds.

“Dad, do you think Sarah and Addie can spend the night tomorrow night?” Elizabeth gazed up at him with wide, supplicatory eyes. “I went over to Sarah’s last weekend and Addie’s the weekend before that, so it’s kind of our turn, and I got an A on my math test this week, and if you say no, you’re basically being mean to their parents and encouraging me to get bad grades.”

Matthew wondered if a slumber party would interfere with his own soiree plans. Chances were slim that they would be asleep by the eleven o’clock meeting with Nails, but likely Elizabeth and her friends would be too caught-up with blasting the latest Jonas Brothers record to notice civilisation ending. In fact, they’d be playing its soundtrack.

“Well, consider me lawyered, honey. I have no rebuttal, your Honor, but I do have one condition: Britt gets to join in.” Matthew bounced his eyebrows and smiled at his youngest. “If the prosecution agrees to these terms, the defense rests. I’ll pick up s’mores supplies for the whole gang.”

“Yes!” Brittany pumped syrup-covered fists up and down. “And you have to be nice to me! And you gotta braid my hair!”

“And you gotta braid her hair.” Matthew began to clear the table. “Do we have a deal?”

Elizabeth poked her bottom lip out and released an exasperated sigh, sending her bangs fluttering off her forehead. “Fine, deal. But we’re not watching any shows for babies.”

“Good, I’m glad we could reach an accord. Get your stuff together and I’ll meet you both at the door.”

Liz snatched her backpack off the floor and ran out of the kitchen with Britt nipping at her heels. “Let’s just watch one episode, come on! If we don’t, I’ll tell Dad that…”

The girl’s voices faded as Matthew cleaned up. In a strange way, their bickering warmed his heart and put his anxieties to rest. It was a substantial improvement over the silence and glum, vacant stares that pervaded their home throughout the days and weeks immediately following Caitlin’s passing. There would always be a void there, to be sure, but the chipper quality of their banter made him realize that the Ford family would come out of this trial in one piece.

If he got past midnight the same way.

With his chore complete, Matthew delivered the customary farewell cheek kisses and bear hugs. Britt was young enough to allow her father this daily indulgence, but Elizabeth had recently entered the developmental stage that mandated she fight any displays of affection tooth-and-nail.

She was furiously scrubbing her cheek to remove all traces of ickiness when curiosity got the better of him.

“Hey,” he said, “so neither of you are still worried about the couches that popped up in the yard the last couple of days?” The urge to hear that all was well from the mouths of babes was too strong to overcome. “You’re not bothered by it at all?”

Brittany answered this inquiry by smiling, shaking her head, and beating feet toward the Clark family’s idling minivan.

Liz paused, stirred invisible dirt with the toes of her Birkenstocks. “Mom used to tell us that dads are the best protectors. We know we’re safe.” She wiped the corner of her eye with the back of her hand. “Mom’s gone now, and that really stinks. It sucks. But we’ve got you.”

Liz, suffering a momentary lapse in her newfound disdain, stood on tippy-toes and planted a big smackaroo on Matthew’s cheek before running out the door.

Flabbergasted by his daughter’s statement (and her sneak-attack kiss), Matthew raised his hand to the side of his face and shut the door behind her. He leaned his head back, took a deep breath, and brought his gaze down on the letter that sat atop his desk.

That’s right, kiddo. You got me.

And I got this.


A re you really just gonna fold for this guy?” Matthew stood in the newly constructed shed and pressed his palms to the card table in the middle of the room. “You’re gonna roll out the red carpet and welcome an alien invasion with open arms?”

Now you’re talking to yourself, Matthew thought. Boy, the couch delivery extraterrestrials have really done a number on you. And to answer your question, Matty—yeah, I probably am. Ants can’t really fight back against the bottom of a boot, can they?

It was full dark, a battery-powered lantern on top of the table was the sole source of light. Matthew had made sure that Liz and Britt and the girls were sufficiently occupied before sneaking out for his backyard appointment.

Maybe Nails will ghost me. Maybe he’s found someone else to help him take over the world. Or, better yet, maybe he’s found another planet to invade. Fat chance.

Matthew looked at his watch: two minutes to eleven. His heart dropped and bounced against the floor of his stomach, sending the butterflies scattering. “No, he’ll be here. He seemed pretty convinced that I was his guy. If he doesn’t show, I’ll drop the girls off with their grandparents and drive myself to the looney bin.”

The seconds passed with palpable tension. He rolled his shoulders back and attempted to assume a power pose—an effort that had mixed results at best. “You can do this, you can do this, you can—“

Three succinct raps on the door interrupted Matthew’s soliloquy. His sphincter tightened like a zip tie that’s been yanked by the World’s Strongest Man. “Don’t ask me fer no password or I’m gonna shit a brick, mister.”

“Uh… come in?” Matthew stared at the door and shrugged to the empty room. “Come in”? What are you, hosting a bake sale? Aliens are going to invade Earth and the best you can muster up is “come in”?

The door swung inward and two prohibition era hoodlums walked across the threshold. Nails led, followed by (of course) a henchman that had to stoop to make it through the doorway. There’s Mugsy, Matthew thought. There’s the son of a bitch.

The larger gentleman carried a wooden crate, which radiated warmth and emitted a pulsing scarlet glow. Behind them, the brand-new spring-loaded hinge did its job and the door slammed shut. Matthew became briefly airborne.

“Matty boy… why’re ya so uptight? You look like yer crackin walnuts wit yer ass cheeks.” Nails bleated, and poked his Lucky Strike at Matthew. “It ain’t like we’re here to get heavy witcha. All we wanna do is talk about the end ah the world as ya know it. Relax.”

Mugsy hunched his shoulders and shuddered with barely-repressed laughter, a character break that was swiftly rewarded with an open-handed slap from his pint-sized capo.

“Ya’d keep yer filthy mouth shut if ya knew what was good for ya. I don’t wanna hear any more lip outta you.” Nails returned his attention to his suburban soldier and sneered. “Ready to get down to brass tacks, mister?”

“Sure thing,” Matthew replied, steeling himself. “I’m ready. Show me what you’ve got.”

Nails dropped his smoke to the floor of the shed and gestured to Mugsy. “Get dat before dis whole place goes up,” he said, and the lunk did the Lindy Hop on the smoldering butt. “Ya know what I think, Matty? I think yer yella. I got half ah mind to put the kibosh on dis whole thing and teach yas a lesson.”

And leave the girls with no one? “Nails, listen—I’m your guy. I’m just a little nervous, that’s all. Don’t wo—"

“Stuff a sock in it, Matty. I tell ya what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna forget dat I saw a flash ah puddy cat in yer eyes, and I’m gonna start over.” Nails showed his palms before reaching into his jacket pocket and getting to work on another cigarette. “Because I’m nothin if not generous. Doncha agree, big guy?”

The fleshy jowls that hung from Mugsy’s jawbone shook as he nodded theatrically.

“See? One outta every one wiseguy agrees—Nails Nelson is just a big sack ah mush when it comes right down to it. Now,” and Nails waved Mugsy toward the table, “why don’t we start the show, huh?”

Mugsy dropped the crate onto the table and worked on removing the lid as Nails launched into his pitch.

“What we got here is a batch ah dem persuaders I was tellin ya about. Dis is what yer gonna use to round up all the other ’burb bluenoses and get dem on board. Hand me one ah dem things, big guy.” Nails snatched a ray gun from Mugsy’s outstretched hands and turned it over. The weapon was the size of a compact pistol, with three cylindrical tubes wrapped around the barrel. Matthew heard a low woooom woooom as a thick, red liquid of unknown origin oscillated within the rings. “It don’t take no Nobel Prize winner to work dese babies. All ya gotta do is point, shoot, den tell the mark exactly what ya want dem to do. Bingo, bango, ya got yerself a nice little toy soldier.”

Persuaders, literal persuaders. Matthew closed his eyes to collect himself as the weight of the situation settled on his back. This is it then. And there are just two ways it can go.

“Ya still wit us, mister?”

He opened his eyes again. “Yeah, Nails, yeah. Hey, can I get a demonstration or something? I told you, it’s been a while since I handled anything with a trigger.”

“Shore, Matty. The big guy’s used to it, anyways—in fact, dat’s why he don’t talk so much. Too many pops from dese things.”

Nails raised the weapon and fired at Mugsy. The effect was immediate: the lummox went stiff as a board.

Two ways it could go… and it went my way.

Without hesitation, Matthew shouted, “Big guy, ignore everything Nails says! Take the ray gun off him, and shoot him with it!”

“Why, ya little—” Nails snarled, but he couldn’t get anything else out before Mugsy leveled a bear swat across his head and disarmed him. The big guy would be hell in a quick draw duel, he blasted Nails before the Napoleonic hood could hit the floor.

Matthew looked around the table. Nails was planking on his face. “Nails? Can you hear me?”

“Shore, boss,” came the muffled reply.

“Tell me the truth, you’re an alien, aren’t you?”

“No gettin nothin past you, boss.”

“Get up, Nails.”

“Shore, boss.” Nails arose and stood to dishevelled attention.

“Now that’s more like it.” Matthew resumed his position of authority behind the table. “Fellas, it’s been fun, but this is where we part ways. Nails, you’re going to take your buddy here—drop the gun, big guy—and get the hell off the planet. Actually, you know what? You guys both forget this planet exists altogether. Earth means nothing to you. Tell your associates back home that you didn’t find anything worth taking. Now hit the road.”

The two mobsters nodded, turned on their heels, and made their way toward the door.

“Hey boys, one more thing.” They stopped in their tracks as Matthew smirked and crossed his arms. “Pick up a guy named Spencer Lenore on your way outta town. He’s been making things tough for my crew lately. Take him to your planet and make him real comfortable.”

“You got it, boss.” Nails tipped his hat to Matthew and clapped Mugsy on the back. “We’re aces at makin’ folks comfortable. Everything’s Jake, Matty.”


M atthew was just getting the fire started when he felt two arms wrap around his waist. He turned to find all four slumber-partying girls behind him, wearing pajamas and wide, tired eyes. Apparently, even the Jonas Brothers couldn’t hold their attention all night. He couldn’t help noticing that Brittany’s hair was pulled back into a perfect braid.

“Dad, it’s after midnight!” Elizabeth looked up from the bear hug with an expression of innocent curiosity that girls teetering on their teenage years allow to shine through every so often. “What are you doing out here so late?”

“Just taking care of some unfinished bidness, that’s all. Gonna take a while to explain, honey. Why don’t you run inside and grab the crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows?” Matthew grinned and gestured toward the fire. “I’ll tell you ladies all about it over a couple rounds of s’mores.”

As the girls scampered inside, Matthew settled down to watch the flames consume the broken up crate that Mugsy had been carrying. He had buried the ray guns in a shallow grave under the shed floor until he figured out what to do with them. But whatever that turned out to be, he planned on strategically keeping that one blaster the otherworldly mafiosos had used on each other, because… well, best to be prepared for the teenage years. Nah, only joking. Probably.

Matthew shifted his gaze to the clear night sky.

Don’t worry about us, Cait. I got this.

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Christopher Cook

Author image of Christopher Cook Christopher Cook writes fiction to make the reader question their reality and perhaps rethink poking their foot out from underneath the covers. You can find his work in Critical Blast Publishing’s anthology, The Devil You Know, and the October 2020 issue of The J.J. Outre Review.

© Chris Cook 2020 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: spinheike, ArtTower, Alexas_Fotos, amarjits, and StockSnap. Plus a special salute to Pier 2Eyes for the most striking Gangster smoking.

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