Mikey Russell had been in a strange way since I picked him up outside his dorm hall. He started fishing around in my glove box, what for I didn’t know. Everything rattled inside the pickup. My grandpa had owned the truck before me, and though it was nothing special, that old single-cab Toyota was the only thing I’d ever inherited. I didn’t keep anything important in the glove box, but I always kept the interior tidy. And the way Mikey tossed my stuff around was driving me up the wall.

Mikey lived on the other side of campus, far enough that I had to drive to get him. He was twenty-one, three years older than me. It was his third year at Neosho County Community College—everyone pegged him as the type who just couldn’t move on. Still, Mikey was the toughest kid on the wrestling team. But right now, he kept fidgeting. He had this look on his face, like something had rubbed his nerves raw. It all gave me the feeling someone’s night wouldn’t end well—I just couldn’t yet say whose.

It was mid-January and we hadn’t had a night north of freezing in weeks. We had a statewide wrestling tournament coming up, with all the universities and junior colleges, and everyone knew Mikey would win it. The coaches all said he was best in Kansas, a shoe-in. He could soak up a six-pack each night and still stay ranked top ten in the nation. The coaches had recruited me hard, bringing me up from Texas and hoping I’d help beef up the lineup. I’d done well in high school, even placed at state my senior year, but halfway through the college season, I had lost more than half of my matches. There just wasn’t any fight left in me. It had gotten to the point where I just started rolling over to get pinned, taking a loss.

Even though I knew I should’ve been training instead, we were headed to The Alibi. We spent a lot of nights at that bar. Beers ran a buck, and the doormen didn’t worry themselves sick over whether you much resembled the photo on your driver’s license. Besides, when you looked around The Alibi, you understood how life could do a real number on a face.

We’d been cutting weight for weeks, wearing garbage bags in the sauna and running a few miles two or three times a day. Coach wanted me to drop ten pounds, and I’d already shucked fifteen just to save space for booze. A beer or two would hit me hard, as dehydrated as I was, but I started to worry Mikey would be a downer all night. Worst thing about a guy like that—he gets you worried you did something wrong, like all his problems are your fault.

Mikey kept on rooting around in my glove box. He threw my auto insurance card on the floor, then an old snow scraper my dad had hunted down in the garage the day I left home.

“Can you stop that?” I said, a little louder now.

I’d only been in Chanute, Kansas, for a little more than a semester, but I’d got my hands on a fake ID my first week in town. I bought it off Mikey for fifty bucks, and it still had a little more than a year till it expired. The name was nothing special, Jeff Smith, but the driver’s license—a real one a local had sold to someone on the wrestling team three or four years back—had become famous over time. That little plastic card had made its way up and down our lineup, and everyone who’d been Jeff Smith had a story about it. Mikey had run out on a thousand-dollar tab at a Kansas City hotel under Jeff Smith’s name, buying drinks for anyone who stepped through the front door, and another guy on our team, Buck, had prompted a brief, countywide manhunt for a Jeff Smith after taking a socket wrench to a meth head who sold him a bunk bag outside a Holiday Inn in Lawrence. Nothing ever came of it, and Jeff Smith lived on.

“Goddamnit, Mike,” I said. “What are you looking for?”

“A dip. A cigarette. Don’t know.” He sniffled and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve. “Anything that could help.”

How do you reply to something like that? What do you say when a guy like that has tears in his eyes? I wanted to smack him, but he could have snapped my neck. The last thing I needed was a broken hand, a cracked rib, before the wrestling tournament. Besides, I’m not so bad a guy that I couldn’t see he was in pain. I pulled a flask from my jacket pocket and tipped it back.

The whiskey burned my throat as I swung right on Main Street. We coasted past a boarded-up hardware store. A woman on the sidewalk squatted and adjusted her high heels, the wind blowing her hair a couple different directions. The streetlights glowed against puddles on the pavement. A snowflake landed on the windshield and the wipers swiped it aside.

Mikey tossed my car registration book aside, dug around some more. He dropped a can of Fix-a-Flat and it thudded on the floorboard down by his feet.

I took a few breaths, trying not to snap. “Don’t know if there’re any in there, Mike, but we can go by the store if you want,” I said.

Just then he unearthed an old can of wintergreen Skoal and pinched a pouch between his teeth and bottom lip. I didn’t remember buying it. It must have been a year old because I hadn’t bought my own can in about that long. I found an empty beer bottle on the floorboard and kept one hand on the steering wheel. I handed Mikey the bottle. He lifted it to his mouth and spat a brown wad into its lip.

“Don’t spill that shit,” I told Mikey, and he just grunted.

I dipped whenever someone spared me a pouch, but now the mint smell filling up the cab roiled my stomach. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way I felt the first time I tried a pouch—my head had spun, and I had thrown up right in the paddleboat my grandpa and I had out on the lake.

Looking at Mikey, it hit me that all I knew about his life was he won two state titles back in high school, pinning his way through the bracket his senior year. I didn’t even know anything about his family, his life. I knew he had hands like vice grips and drank like a brawler. He’d gone to bat for me in a couple bar fights, but where was he now, this guy whose fists could flatten your face?

I’d moved up from Texas full of hope. I wanted to talk a woman into my life for the first time. I wanted to stay away from home, where black tar heroin had choked the life out of five or six of my high school classmates, people I had liked, even considered friends, but whose funerals I couldn’t drum up the courage to show up at. I wanted to win a junior college national wrestling championship, something my grandpa had always said enough hard work would make possible, but I couldn’t get it together.

Mikey cocked his head, a bit like a dog hearing some noise so high-pitched no one else could make it out.

“What’s with you?” I said.

“Shut up, man. I mean, wait a sec.” He twisted the volume knob on the radio and leaned forward, trying to make sense of the raspy voice coming through my old speakers.

The guy on the radio was mid-sentence, going on about a guy called the BTK Killer—bind, torture, kill. I’d never heard of him. Mikey’s face tightened. He let his head slump to his shoulder, all slow and sad.

“Fuckin’ hell,” Mikey said.

“Who is this guy?” A few moments passed. “Mike?” I was practically pleading with him.

Mikey shuffled his feet around on the floorboard, crumbling up all my papers. “Man, put that shit back in the glove box, yeah?” I said.

Mikey ignored me and the radio presenter ticked off a list of murders. The killings started in the seventies and ended in ninety-one, whole families left dead sometimes. Little kids strangled. Women tied up and suffocated. Real brutal stuff. I kept looking over at all those papers Mikey had strewn across the floorboard.

No one had heard from BTK for thirteen years, the radio now said, and then someone claiming to be the serial killer started mailing the police and the television stations letters sometime last year. Like he was begging to get caught.

“Jesus,” Mikey said.

“All the murders took place in Wichita,” I said, but I was just repeating the news we’d heard a few seconds earlier. “That’s nearly two hours away, driving.”

“I know how far Wichita is,” Mikey shot back. “I grew up there.”

Wounded, I took a jab at him. “What are you—scared? Is that it? You’re afraid?”

He huffed and let his head sink down.

“You’re a real tough guy,” I said. “What do you have to be afraid of?”

Gravel thrummed beneath us as I pulled into the lot out front of The Alibi. I threw the pickup into park. Little pinches of snow flecked the ground, but nothing had frozen over yet. If we had snowfall like this back home, they would’ve salted the roads and shut down the schools by now. But up here we had wrestling practice tomorrow morning and then class all day. It just didn’t sit right with me, the idea that we had to keep living like life was normal in all that cold.


The Alibi smelled like young love, ashtrays, old beer. It was around ten, a normal night as far as I could tell. On the dance floor, couples held each other, swayed. A sign said Miller Lite behind the bar and burned bright neon pink and blue. Johnny Rebel moaned out of the jukebox. Some rugged-looking men bumped shoulders and threatened each other. My pulse raced when I thought we may see someone get their skull split, but then they made amends over a beer, apologizing to one another, and started patting each other on the shoulder. The whole thing broke my heart.

We put back the first round of Wild Turkey, and then Mikey nursed his beer. He would go quiet for five, ten minutes at a time, and then he’d come out of left field with something like, “What do you think it feels like to have a missin’ limb?”

I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. “What is wrong with you, man?” I asked him. The bartender put another shot in front me and I knocked it back. “You got some kind of problem you need to talk about? Because if not, get your shit together and quit being a toilet.”

Mikey didn’t speak. He looked away, just sighing. At that point, I’d rather have had him slug me than sigh again. He took a swig of his beer and then rested his head right there on the bar top. That was enough for me. I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked off and trawled the dance floor for someone, it didn’t matter who.

“I’m Jeff,” I told a girl I found standing alone. She had blond hair and jeans tattered up with holes. When I reached out to shake, I noticed one of her hands was no good, some kind of injury had left it deformed.

“Let me guess.”

“Jeff Smith.”

She smiled like she was holding back a laugh. I looked past her shoulder and saw Mikey, still there at the bar. He cradled his face in his palms. I touched the small of her back and guided her to the other end of the bar, ordered two shots of whiskey. She put hers back with a head toss, but with all the weight I’d dropped, it took two gulps to choke mine down.

Before I knew it, we were next to the jukebox, rocking side to side, our arms wrapped around each other. She started sliding a hand down across the skin between my stomach and my belt. Her other hand, the bad one, pressed against the small of my back. The fingers on it gnarled up like they were grabbing at something just out of reach. It made me nervous. Ever since I had noticed it, I kept trying to think up a joke, something to say I knew the feeling. Nothing came to mind.

She’d grown up in Chanute, a townie. Her name was Leanne, and she was twenty-one. She tugged on my shirt. She got to saying that we must have known each other from sometime way back, maybe a past life. I invited her back to my dorm room.

“What about your friend?”

“He’ll be fine. He can catch a ride. Hell, he can walk his ass home for all I care.”

“He looks…” She paused. “Wrong. Like something’s wrong, Jeff.”

Wrong? I thought. I could’ve told her how he started crying all of a sudden. How he had trashed my dead grandpa’s pickup. How he wanted to know about missing limbs. But I’d had enough of Mikey.

“Come back with me, Leanne,” I said.

“I can’t.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know your real name.”

Besides, she said, she had a boyfriend, a real hothead called Red. He was so mean she couldn’t leave him—you know the type, she told me. She lifted her hand as proof. “He’d love an excuse to hurt someone.”

“As would I.”

“You ought to check on your friend.” She was staring over at where Mikey was at the bar. “He looks like he’s seen some stuff.”

I thought I could convince her to come with me if I kept at it, but I looked past her and could see Mikey still hadn’t peeled his head from the bar top.

She kissed me on the cheek and said she’d see me next time. Mikey ruining that for me was about all I could stomach. I grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him from the barstool, but he didn’t even put up a fight. “Enough of this shit,” I said. “I’m taking you home.”

As Mikey and I made our way out, the doorman clapped down on a fly mid-flight. He smeared its guts on his jeans and nodded his head at me. “I’ve seen you here before,” he said.


“You’re new, but I’ve seen you here.”

“Seen you, too,” I said, but the truth was his face drew a blank. “I’m Jeff Smith.”

“Jeff Smith, huh.” He nodded toward Mikey, who was outside with his thumbs in his pockets, not listening. “That Jeff Smith too?”

“I’m Jeff Smith,” I said. “That’s Mike.”

“Well, you should know Red doesn’t take kindly to anyone having his girl’s hand down their pants.”

“That so? This Red sounds like a real hothead.”

“Oh, yeah. Bet your dick Red’s a real hothead.”

Mikey had gone out by the car, waiting. I started off, but then turned back to the doorman. “Hey, any chance you might tell me if Red’s his birthname?”

He just laughed.


The harder I pressed on the gas, the more the truck shivered. Up there, the roads were all potholes. “You know that girl I was dancing with?” I asked.

“What?” Mikey shook his head. “Oh, yeah. I’ve seen her around.”

The radio replayed interviews with cops and detectives. They all tallied off details about the crime scenes. Semen splattered on the basement floor, not far from a child’s body. Corpses wrapped in bloody sheets. The killer had even sent poems to the news stations, poking fun at the people he offed, taunting the cops. Mikey reached to flip the station, but I grabbed his hand before he could clamp down on the knob. “Leave it,” I said.

I turned down a farm road, and it was too dark to see much on either side of the street—you could only make out the shadows of homes. Mikey didn’t poke around in the glove box anymore. But my papers, my registration, the snow scraper, he left all that on the floorboard. He rested his face on the window, staring at all the dark shapes shifting by.

The pickup bounced into the student parking lot outside Mikey’s dorm hall. I hadn’t realized how much he’d put back until he stepped out of the pickup, stumbling. I got out to make sure he got up to his room alright, and he took hold of my elbow to keep his balance.

“Mike,” I said. “You shit the bed tonight, man. What was that? I could’ve had that girl back in my dorm with me right now.”

Mikey stopped and looked at me. I could tell he had something on his mind. He sighed and his breath fogged the air in front of his face.

“I don’t think it was him,” he said.

I had no idea what he meant. “Who, Mike?” I said. “What was who?”


“What are you talking about? That lunatic on the radio? You don’t think he killed those folks?”

“Not that. No, no. My sister, she’s gone.”

“Mike,” I said. “I didn’t know you had a sister. Where’d she go?” I said, but then I understood.

“She was older than me, is older than me—I don’t know. She was born before me, you know. But the way I remember her is a whole lot younger than I am now.”

I wanted to ask more about her, to say something else—maybe sorry, I wasn’t sure. But when I cleared my throat, Mikey started staggering off. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said over his shoulder.


Back in my dorm room, I stepped on the small scale I kept there. I was still half a pound under, so I turned up a bottle of Jameson and filled a plastic cup I’d cribbed from the cafeteria. Sitting atop the covers with all my clothes on, winter boots and everything, I flipped through a couple action movies. Nothing held my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about Mikey. I switched on the local news.

The news presenter, a lady, had a cop there with her in the studio. As a young detective, he said, he had worked the first BTK slayings, the Otero family back in seventy-four. His hair was cropped close to the skull, and he wore a suit and a little clip-on tie. He said they didn’t know what to make of it all when they arrived on the scene. He talked about fabrics, small DNA samples, personal items the killer had stolen from the house—he called them mementos. He even remembered the exact kind of knots the killer had tied up with victims with. I almost envied him, the way he recalled every little detail, the way I imagined he felt every fiber of his body fill up with life. My whole life, I’d hid from everything, had never let myself feel it, fear in its entirety

The news presenter wiggled an earpiece and held a hand up as if to cut the detective off. She said a bar fight had broken out at The Alibi around midnight. I turned the volume up a few clicks. Someone had died.

Fresh with a second wind, I threw on my jacket and stepped out to take a drive. I don’t know why, but I headed back to Main Street, the same way we’d gone earlier. The wipers scraped the glass back and forth, squeaking.

I saw a man pacing in front of a bus stop and slowed down to eyeball him. I clicked off the radio and rolled down the window, watched him as I rolled by.

I passed the boarded-up hardware store again. The snow was coming down hard. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I let the pickup coast onto a shoulder a little way down the road from The Alibi. Blue and red lights flashed over a squad car. The Open sign flickered, but yellow tape cordoned off the entrance. A few policemen lumbered around, each of them rubbing their hands together. The same doorman stood off to the side, cupping his hand over a cigarette long enough to get it lit.

“Spare one?” I said, walking up to the doorway.

“Jeff Smith.” The doorman plucked a cigarette from his pack and lit it off the cherry of his. “You again.”

“Me again,” I said, and took a pull.

“You again and again, for longer than you even know.”

People in uniforms carried out paper bags with the word Evidence written on them. A pair of medics pushed a gurney through the entrance. They loaded a body swaddled in white sheets into the back of the ambulance.

“What’d I tell you?” the doorman said. He had this look, like he was satisfied.

“What’d you tell me?”

“Red’s a real hothead.”

I nodded and looked away, then spotted her, Leanne, talking to a police officer off behind a cruiser. I raised my hand to wave, but she shook her head as if to say not now.

When the medics slammed shut the ambulance door, I walked over and tried to peek through the windows. But the glass was tinted too dark. I don’t know what got into me. I jigged the door and it popped right open. I stuck my head through the gap and placed a palm on his neck—the skin was still warm. I reached down, unclasped his watch, a little silver piece, and slid it onto my wrist. Just as I clipped the watch into place, a police officer yanked me by the sleeve.

“You can’t be here,” he said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I didn’t know.”

“What’s your name?” He pulled out a notepad.

“Jeff,” I said.

“Jeff what? Or are you some kind of artist?”

“Jeff Smith.”

“Jeff Smith, huh.” He touched his mustache, sized me up. “You know this guy?”

“I was just looking.” The last time I’d seen a dead body was my grandpa’s, right before they lowered it into the earth. I’d turned away as soon as I caught a glance, my chest tight flattened by fear. “I never seen anything like that.”

“Jeff Smith,” he repeated. “I bet.” He scribbled something on the notepad and glanced over his shoulder. “Just get out of here, man. We’ve already got enough to deal with. We don’t need fuckhead necrophiliacs on top of all this.”

I walked back toward my pickup. For some reason, I remembered my grandpa, his skin grey, and my classmates after the funerals I’d skipped, how everyone described the bodies stiff with death. The guy in the ambulance was still warm, not stiff at all. The watch was cold on my wrist, awkward because I never wore one, but maybe I’d done him a favor after all, kept him alive in some small way.

I wondered if Mikey had gone to sleep yet. I wondered if his little sister’s smiling face had been all over the news, possibly even printed on milk cartons. We had to wake before sunrise for practice, but maybe I’d grab another can of dip at the corner store and knock until he let me in, have him hit me with the whole story. It sounds crazy, I know it, but for a moment, I think, I understood it all. Life. Death. The way nothing can come back.

I glanced down at my wrist—it was ten past midnight. Behind me the police cruiser’s engine revved. The siren gave off a yip. The further I walked, the more the cold hurt. I leaned forward into the frigid air. The wind was sharp as shrapnel, pounded me so hard it could’ve ripped me away.


About the Author

Patrick Strickland is a writer and journalist from Texas. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming at Pithead Chapel, Five South, The Broadkill Review, and Porter House Review, among others. He's the author of three nonfiction books, including the forthcoming You Can Kill Each Other After I Leave (Melville House 2024).


Image by Herbert Aust from Pixabay