Blood Stays Under the Nails
Sam Smith is almost home when he realizes he has forgotten his iPod in his locker. It’s an oversight he immediately blames on Tracy Ryan, whose locker stands directly next to his own. The swell of her breasts pushing against her thin scarlet sweater was too much of a distraction. It was a wonder he’d managed to pack up anything useful at all. Sam turns and looks back at his footprints in the snowfall covering the Great Miami Recreational Trail. He has to go back he decides. If a snowstorm hits again as promised, he doesn’t want to be without his music.
It is February 21, 2004, the first day the schools have been open in over a week since a blizzard spun up out of nowhere and struck Troy like a fist, paralyzing the town under three feet of ice and snow. The town has only just begun to really dig itself out in the last day or so and word has begun to spread that more snow is coming.
Sam finds the front doors of Troy High School still unlocked and heads inside. The vacant hallway smells of adolescent bodies and damp and the clock above the trophy case reads 3:35. Sam is only inside for a minute, but when he emerges, iPod tucked into his pocket, the weather has shifted. The sun is gone, hidden behind a blockade of remorseless granite clouds. The wind has begun to blow, picking up and scattering particles of loose snow unfailing in their ability to find and sting exposed skin. He puts his ear buds in and cycles through to his playlist labeled Loud. Anti-Flag begins to play 911 For Peace and Sam smiles. The iPod is without question, the greatest Christmas gift his parents have ever given him. He jams his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, and starts down the icy cement steps towards home for the second time that day.
The Adams Street Bridge is closed and has been since September, when for reasons no one has been able to identify, a large section of the West wall broke off and collapsed into the river. The bridge has been under repair ever since. Sam knows he’s not supposed to cross it but he has been anyway, twice a day on his way to and from school, it’s just faster than going around.
Sam hurries across the bridge and enters the mouth of the trail once again. The virgin white snow is deep and with every step Sam takes, tiny bits spill down his socks. On his iPod, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes begin to play their version of One Tin Soldier, a 60’s peace anthem turned punk, the vocals raw and wild. He watches for deer across the Miami river but sees only bare trees protruding from the ground like the skeletal fingers of giants attempting to claw their way free of the frozen earth.
His thoughts turn to Tracy Ryan and a warm day in the fall. Antsy but without real reason, he had raised his hand and asked to go to his locker. He rounded the corner to the sophomore hallway and there was Tracy. She smiled at him and rose up on her tiptoes searching for something deep in the back of her locker. Sam pictures how her long black hair shone like satin ribbon under the fluorescent hallway lights. He remembers how she tucked a lose strand behind her ear with her pinky. How, when he got close, she smelled sweetly, almost like cotton candy, and how, as she stretched, her t-shirt rode up exposing the soft white of her stomach and her small round navel. The intimacy of her presence in the empty hallway at that moment and the sight of her bare skin awoke something deep and covetous in Sam, a desire frantic and new. Walking home in the snow, Sam imagines what it would be like to touch her there, to rest his hand on her stomach and feel the rise and fall of her breath. He imagines how warm she would feel.
The man emerges from behind a cluster of pine trees before Sam has time to turn his head. He feels the punch hit him between his eye and ear, a sudden burst of pain out of nowhere that takes away his balance and knocks him into the snow. Stunned, Sam is yanked to his feet by his coat. He has time to smell the thick stink of old smoke on the man before three powerful blows pound his face. There is a cracking sound like a hardboiled egg being rolled on a table. Sam’s eyes water. The world bleeds together. The man drives a knee into Sam’s pudgy stomach and then tosses him face first into the snow. Sam wipes his eyes. He tries to shout but he has no breath. Everything hurts in a dull kind of pulsing way. The word RUN burns in giant flashing letters across his brain, but he can’t seem to find his legs. Something powerful and hard catches Sam below the chin. He hears his jaw crack and is flipped over onto his back by the force of the blow. His head rolls to the side and he spits blood and three teeth into the snow. A fourth tooth, he swallows. Sam opens his eyes. The world is moving, shimmering around the edges. It’s difficult to see anything. The man is standing high above him, his face just out of focus, like a monster in a dream. Through a haze he sees the man lift up a booted foot and bring it down hard on his forearm. Bones crack. Sam screams now. The man brings his foot down again, landing on Sam’s stomach and killing the scream. Sam curls into the fetal position, he whimpers, he doesn’t have the air to call out for help. He feels the full weight of the man land on his knee and the blinding agony of something tearing. Sam’s face is hot with salty tears and snot. He hears the crunch of snow as the man walks around behind him and kneels down. He pulls off Sam’s cap, a Christmas gift from his grandmother with earflaps and a poof ball on top, and wings it into the bushes. He strokes Sam’s hair and leans in close, close enough that Sam can feel the hot mist of his breath in his ear.
Remember, I can do this again anytime I want, the man says.
The man hocks back and spits a large wet wad of phlegm and salvia onto Sam’s exposed cheek that mixes with the blood and the tears.
Sam doesn’t make a sound, his eyes are clenched shut. Suddenly the man is gone. Disappeared back into the pines separating the trail and the levee from downtown.
Sam lays on the trail for close to a half hour before an elderly man walking his Labrador discovers him. The elderly man only realizes the severity of the situation when he sees the bloodstains in the snow. Years later, on the final day of Sam’s trial, in the moments before the jury reads their verdict, Sam will improbably remember the way the blood looked splashed out on the snow as the old man stood above him calling for help on his cellphone. How it looked almost like a snow cone. He will remember feeling irrationally distressed that the clarity of the snow had been spoiled by the bloodstains, and in the courtroom he will weep at the absurdity of it all.
At the hospital, Sam’s condition is stabilized and he is taken into surgery. His face is severely bruised and there are multiple fractures. His jaw is broken in two places. There is a ragged tear in the skin near his chin that will require a plastic surgeon to repair. The scar will be one of many new scars but the most prominent. Sam has four broken ribs and a lacerated spleen, his right lung is punctured. The bones in Sam’s left forearm are shattered. The ligaments in his right knee are torn. Privately, the doctors say he will be crippled for life. The cold has likewise done damage. The left side of Sam’s face is frostbitten and his body temperature is low.
The audacity of the crime overwhelms most people, the fact that it happened at all is distressing, but the fact that it happened in broad daylight is too much. Everyone is desperate for an explanation, a motive, a cause. Parents stop letting their children walk home alone. A week after the assault, a candlelight vigil is held downtown with the mayor in attendance. Sam’s parents are there looking grave and shaken.
Despite a considerable effort put forth by the police, and a number of initial leads, no credible information as to the identity of Sam’s assailant materializes. Several people are taken in for questioning by the authorities but all are eventually eliminated as suspects. The police are unable to establish any motive for the crime. There are no subsequent attacks. There are no reports of previous attacks in the vicinity. It begins to look like a completely random event, an anomalous act of violence without reason. Sam himself cannot offer any insight or clues. When he is well enough to be interviewed he tells the investigating officers the truth, that the attack happened so fast he never saw the man’s face. He cannot identify his assailant.
After two months Sam is released from the hospital. His parents and the school find a tutor to work with him from home. He will not be able to return to school for months. Sam’s time is divided between physical therapy, studying, and fitful sleep. Friends from school come by to visit him, a lot at first, then after awhile less. These people mean well, he knows, but he can see that they don’t know how to talk to him anymore. He doesn’t blame them. He doesn’t know what to say to them either. They haven’t been through what he’s been through. For him, everything has changed.
Sam has nightmares after the attack. Visions of a snowman come to life with teeth and claws that both terrify and make him feel foolish when he wakes in the middle of the night screaming. In his dreams, sometimes he tries to run only to sink down deep into the snow, the cold filling his throat, choking him. Other times he tries to fight only to find his arms are useless, that he can’t lift them at all. He can’t defend himself from the gnashing cold wet thing barreling towards him.
In the fall, Sam returns to school to begin his junior year. He is sad to discover Tracy Ryan has moved away over the summer, and he will no longer see her each day at the locker next to his. He asks around but no one seems to know where she’s gone or why. He walks through the halls of Troy High School with a pronounced limp and has trouble gripping things with his left hand, making it difficult to work his lock combination. He frequently catches people starring at the scar on his chin and grows resentful.
In late November, when the first snow hits, Sam stays home from school for a week. He is sure that he is dying. His hands tremble and a terrible pressure builds up in his chest. Sam doesn’t want to go near the windows; he has to sleep with the lights on. He takes to sitting in his closet, tugging on the metal cord to the light bulb, clicking it on, clicking it off.
After over a year of physical therapy, Sam has made a remarkable recovery. He has taken to working out on his own time. He lifts weights, he runs. He has regained the dexterity in his hands. Doctors are at a loss to explain his miraculous recovery. Sam could play the guitar again if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. Music seems silly now.
In the time since his attack, Sam has become methodical. He makes lists before going places or before starting any task. He double and triple checks. He is consumed by the idea that had he not forgotten his iPod he wouldn’t have been attacked. He wouldn’t have been there. It was the wrong place, the wrong time.
By the fall of his senior year, It’s almost as if physically nothing happened at all. Sam’s limp is gone. His left arm is strong. Over the Christmas holiday, he announces his decision to join the Ohio National Guard following graduation. His parents disapprove strongly. They tell him he will be sent to war. Sam says he understands the risks but wants to serve his country.
Sam enlists and is sent to Fort Leanardwood for nine weeks of basic training, followed by six weeks of Advanced Individual Training, where he learns to be a Medium Transport Operator, one of the most deployable of all the specialties. After completing his training, Sam is sent to Afghanistan for the first of three tours as part of the 1487th. He drives trucks. He gets people where they’re going. Every day he watches as people around him are maimed and killed in attacks while he remains unscathed. There is no order to the violence that surrounds him. Despite this, in the hot desert sand, Sam finds he is able to sleep well for the first time in years. He is still unhappy though. Restless. Whatever it is he’s looking for, he realizes it isn’t going to be found in the Graveyard of Empires.
After eighteen months overseas and frequently seeing action, Sam returns home to Troy with the rank of Specialist. It isn’t his original intention to return to Troy, but after his father is injured in a fluke boating accident, he feels he has no choice but to be close to home to help. Sam moves into his own apartment several blocks from downtown. He grows a beard to conceal the scar on his chin, which looks bigger and whiter to him with every passing year. Sam takes a job as the second shift assistant manager at Marsh’s grocery store. He’s young, but good at his job. His supervisors describe him as organized and thorough at his six-month evaluation.
Sam tries to flirt with some of the cashiers, mostly girls he knew from high school who never left Troy after graduation. Eventually, he begins to date a cashier named Courtney; a thin girl of twenty with a dusting of freckles on her nose who graduated from High School the year after Sam and already has a one-year-old daughter named Sophia.
When Sam turns twenty-one, on the nights he doesn’t spend with Courtney and Sophia or helping his parents, he begins to spend at the Brewery, a bar downtown near the levee. He doesn’t really talk to anyone. Sam just drinks and listens to the music. In this way his life takes on a routine, Marsh’s, parents, Courtney, Brewery.
It is January 29, 2010, and Sam is at the Brewery. He is five drinks in and feeling no pain. He sits alone at the bar nursing a gin and tonic, listening to Journey play on the jukebox. Aside from Sam and the bartender, the only other customers are a group of three men dressed in denim, playing darts off in the corner. Sam pushes his index finger back and forth against the raw wood of the bar trying to see if he can give himself a splinter. He is debating calling it a night when the large front door opens, letting in a blast of cold air and a voice he hasn’t heard in almost six years.
Sam turns around to see Tracy Ryan standing in the doorway. She is wearing a long red coat that makes Sam think of Little Red Riding Hood. There are flakes of white snow in her hair that still shines so brightly it almost glows. She stomps her feet on the wooden floor to knock the snow from her boots and rubs her hands together for warmth. Two other girls appear in the doorway on either side of Tracy, but they look unfamiliar to Sam.
His first impulse is to go speak to Tracy, to ask her about how her life has been, but he almost immediately dismisses the notion. He doesn’t know how he would begin and feels a sharp pang of loss. Sam turns his back to the door and motions the bartender for another drink. He will watch Tracy and her friends through the mirror behind the bar instead.
Tracy is still pretty, Sam decides. It pleases him to see that she seems happy. He smiles when she brushes a strand of hair back with her pinky. Sam gathers from the conversation that the other girls are Tracy’s cousins and that she is in town for a wedding. Sam finds himself growing hard as he watches. She looks good in red, he thinks. She always looked good in red. He wishes she would remove her coat so he could see the swell of her breasts.
After an hour Tracy and her cousins rise to leave. Sam watches them go and never says a word. Only after the door has closed does Sam stand up and walk to the window. He watches them drive away in a dark SUV caked grey with sleet.
Sam decides It’s time to head home. He walks to the bar and glances over at the men still playing darts. One of the men, a tall older man with dusky skin and a long gray beard, throws a dart that lands almost perfectly in the center. The older man holds his hands up in triumph like a boxer. He turns to look at his opponent.
Remember boys, I can do that again anytime I want, he says.
The world tilts acutely. A wave of nausea spreads through Sam so severe he imagines his organs are rupturing one by one like a steam engine shaking itself apart. He backs up onto a barstool. The strength has gone out of his legs, as if his muscles have turned to ash. Sam forces himself to look up at the older man with the beard. The room brightens and then dims. It’s him, this is the man who beat him so savagely. This is the man who left him to die in the snow like a dog on the side of a highway. All at once it is very cold in the Brewery. Sam signals the bartender for another drink. He orders three fingers of whiskey and downs it. Sam rubs his chin. He fingers his scar. He orders another whiskey.
Time passes. It’s near last call. The game of darts at last breaks up. The man with the beard walks over to the bar and pays his tab. His friends shout to him that they are leaving and depart. It’s just Sam, the man, and the bartender now. The man hands a wad of bills to the bartender and turns to leave. The man nods to Sam, Sam nods back. Sam waits thirty seconds and then follows him into the parking lot.
Outside It’s cold, below freezing with the wind. Sam wonders why the man is only wearing a jean jacket and pulls his own parka tighter around him. He watches as the man takes out a pack of Marlboro Reds and a Zippo from his breast pocket. Despite the wind, he manages to get it lit on his second try. Cigarette in hand, the man in denim shuffles through the parking lot towards a rusted Buick. The lights inside the Brewery go out. Sam rushes up behind the man in the blackness.
Later at home, Sam Smith attempts to clean up his mess. He strips naked in the kitchen. He runs water in the sink and pours in a generous amount of bleach. When the water is high enough he stuffs his clothes into the water and moves into the bathroom. Sam turns the shower on high and lets the water get scalding before stepping into the stream. Sam scrubs with a washcloth. After a minute he steps out of the shower and returns with a Brillo pad from the kitchen. He scrubs his skin until It’s bright red and raw. He steps out of the shower and wipes away the steam from the mirror. Sam examines his hands. His knuckles are still oozing blood and are turning the purple and blue of deep water. He notices blood beneath his nails and gets out a pair of nail clippers. Sam cuts his nails short so that he can clean them, so that he can remove any tissue that might be trapped underneath. He can still see spots of blood beneath his nails and takes another pass with the clippers. He repeats the process three more times before his fingers become too sensitive and too caked with tacky black-red blood to hold the instrument. Sam drops the nail cutter on the floor and studies his face in the mirror. He thinks he sees spots of red in his beard and decides to shave. When he is finished, Sam looks down at the pile of hair in the sink and decides he will burn it along with his parka. He inspects his face again in the mirror. He has nicked himself in several places and is bleeding. Sam thinks to himself how fortunate it was that Tracy Ryan came in when she did. Otherwise he might have left. What are the odds? He begins to hum a song he used to listen to a long time ago. He traces the scar on his chin with a bloody finger. He reasons beard or not, he can be identified by the scar and decides to cut it out. Whistling now, he turns the razor sideways looking for a way to make it work. He pushes down with the dull blade and begins to slice.
Outside it has begun to snow again. Less than two miles away the Great Miami Recreational Trail lies buried beneath the stuff. There are no footprints to break up the snow, to pack it down, or clear it away. The trail hasn’t been used in years. It’s been unofficially abandoned and left for the wilderness to reclaim. As the years pass, the town will continue to shun the trail, vaguely recalling that something horrible once happened there a long time ago. It will become a place where teenagers made brave by liquor and libido dare one another to cross late at night. And later, long after all the players are gone, it will have become a ghost story, a legend of violence growing increasingly ethereal with every passing season.
Keith J. Powell’s plays have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Harcourt Textbooks and Playscripts, Inc. His fiction has appeared in Rougarou and Able Muse. He is the former Managing Editor of Switchback.
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