Thank you to Hector and my friends at Out of the Gutter Online for publishing this piece. This one is dark, possibly my darkest, and not for the faint of heart. I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you to Hector and my friends at Out of the Gutter Online for publishing this piece. This one is dark, possibly my darkest, and not for the faint of heart. I hope you enjoy it.
You get down into some of these third-world countries and the tech is thirty years behind; this airport had a pay phone.
There’s weight to the sound of a real phone bell you don’t get with a cell. I heard the ringing from far away and ran to it.
Saturday afternoon. Civilians everywhere. A mother gripped her son by the arm and bawled, “Mind me!”
I shoved through. “Down! Down! Down!” I said and a little girl landed on her butt and slid.
A man picked up the handset and the phone detonated.
I was twelve when Shemp ran away. It’s been 35 years but the memory is burned into my brain with vivid clarity. Glen and I biked to the lake that morning, the dogs chasing each other in circles. We held fishing poles outstretched beside us like lances and a forest green tackle box was bungeed to Glen’s banana seat. It contained a myriad of lures and assorted wares, most of which he never used. Now it bounced and clattered along behind him.
The morning air was chilly. It was mid-September and just getting light. The dogs scampered in front of our bikes and we could barely see them. I said, “Shemp, knock it off!” but he didn’t care. Neither did Glen’s dog, Herman. They frolicked about causing us to lock the brakes repeatedly.
There was a stiff breeze blowing in from the lake as we laid our bikes down at the landing. I could see cars dotted about the lot and, through thick fog, the tiny red and green lights of a boat on the horizon. Otherwise, we had the shore to ourselves. I impaled a squirming worm onto my hook and cast hard but the wind caught the bait and it splashed into the water twenty feet out.
I noticed an area of violent bubbling to the right of my bobber of maybe three feet in diameter. I pointed this out to Glen saying, “Look at those bubbles over there. What do you think that is?”
He was wrestling with a lure. He always used exotic lures but never caught anything with them. Inevitably, he’d switch to live bait but I knew better than to tell him this. “Aerator?” he said without looking up.
“No, the aerator is over there,” I said pointing down the shoreline to the left.” And they turn it off after Labor Day weekend.”
He swore at his rod and ignored me.
“Can’t be plants,” I continued. “Plants don’t make bubbles like that.”
Glen had pulled several feet of line from his reel and was trying to wind it tightly. He insisted on using an open faced reel which he wasn’t very good with. As often as not, his casts fell dead at his feet with a pathetic thump. This was followed by frustrated swearing and, ultimately, tears but I didn’t try to intervene. Once, I had told him to switch to a closed faced Zebco like mine, that it was easier. He sneered at me and explained that he was a “real” fisherman.
“Have fun with that,” I told him.
Shemp and Herman splashed after each other on the shoreline, neither willing to swim, it was too cold.
Deciding I’d re-cast at the bubbles, I began to reel.
They followed my bait.
“Dude!” I said. “The bubbles are chasing my line.”
This got Glen’s attention. He looked up from his snarled reel. “What?”
“The bubbles, they’re following my line. Watch.”
I began reeling and the bubbles inched closer. When I stopped, so did they.
“It’s probably a turtle,” Glen said but he didn’t sound convinced.
“That’s a pretty big turtle,” I said. “Have you ever seen a turtle make bubbles like that?”
Glen shook his head, staring quietly as I began to reel. The bubbles moved toward the bait again. “Go slow. See if you can catch it.”
When the bubbles were a just a couple feet from my line, they stopped and Glen swore loud. He picked up a stone and hurled it into the water.
Then Shemp was in hot pursuit, throwing himself into the lake.
“Shemp, no!” I yelled. “Here, Shemp!”
The bubbles were on him with remarkable speed.
And he was gone.
There are moments in life that determine our fates. Call them crossroads or decisions, determinations or resolutions, the labels matter not. What matters is that a choice must be made and the reverberations of that choice will be felt for the rest of our days.
Agnes has arrived at such a place.
She sits with two cards in her hand, a ten of spades and a six of diamonds, the blackjack dealer standing before her. No one sits beside her, her fellow gamblers having been relieved of their assets and long since gone home. It is a few minutes past four in the morning but the casino is bright, the music loud, and the building is pumped full of oxygen. From where Agnes sits it may as well be two in the afternoon.
She is winning.
Agnes has been conversing with the dealer all night and he’s heard all there is to hear about her grown children and their grown children and their children too. He knows her favorite books and where she goes to church and about her ladies clubs and that she crochets. And as the hours have come and gone, they have talked and laughed and sparred back and forth, him winning a hand, her winning two, him winning two hands, her winning one.
And finally they have built to this moment, she having thrust all her winnings, all her savings, to the center of the table in moment of do-or-die madness. Her heart is galloping, her hands shaking and she doesn’t know if she wants another card so she stalls by confiding, “I can’t believe how well this night has gone. I never win anything.”
And here the dealer stops and gives her a look, a look of warm sympathy as though he understands what she means but can’t allow her the sentiment. He says, “Don’t say you never win anything, Agnes. Don’t say you’re unlucky.”
She smiles without looking from her hand, her mind racing as she strains to calculate her odds.
“In my line of work, you hear it all the time: So-and-So is lucky but not me. So-and-So has a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe or a four-leafed-clover wedged up their ass but not me.”
Agnes blushes at the unexpected profanity but says nothing, still studying her cards.
“Can you tell me the number of times you’ve said, ‘I could have been killed’ or ‘I should have been killed’ or ‘I nearly died’? Can you tell me how many close encounters you’ve had where looking back you wonder how you walked away? The odds that any of us has made it this far are remarkable and if this doesn’t leave you feeling lucky or blessed, I don’t know what will.”
Agnes doesn’t know how many times she has cheated death. The number is probably somewhere between five or ten times she imagines, maybe a couple more.
“When people think of luck, they think of money. They think of lottos and raffles and game show prizes and all of those things are well and good,” the dealer says. “But Life…Life is the ultimate prize. To be alive, to awaken each day and to breathe and to laugh and to cry…these are the prizes we need to win, the alternative does away with any complementary parting gifts.”
Agnes nods over her cards grateful for this pep talk and the extra time it affords her to contemplate her hand. “Yes, yes, I suppose that’s true,” she says.
Here, he pauses until she looks up. Then he says, “the multi-millionaire who commits suicide is a cliche. It happens so often yet we’re still surprised when it does. We say things like ‘money can’t buy happiness’ or ‘at least you have your health’ but we don’t really mean it. Deep down, we all think we could solve our problems and buy some purpose in this life if we just had the cash.”
He falls silent and she doesn’t reply. There is a drawn out pause then he gestures toward her hand. “What’s it going to be?”
Agnes swallows hard. “Hit me.”
He peels off a card and lays it before her: the six of clubs.
She stares at the card then exhales in a long rasp. Her hand goes to her chest as she slides off her chair and into a heap on the floor.
“Oh Agnes, we’re sorry. You were so close!” says the dealer. “Looks like your luck has run out.”
Vince clenched my shirt collar and pulled me close. “This is not complicated,” he said, slipping the vial into my shirt pocket and giving it a friendly pat. “You dump this into his drink then get the hell out of there.”
His face was up in mine but my heart was pumping hard and his voice sounded far away.
“You calmly serve the drinks,” he growled low. “Tell them you’ll be back with their food, walk slowly through the kitchen, down the hall, and out the back door. You’ll find me right here with the engine running and we’ll be drinking on a beach in Mexico before anyone knows what happened.”
“And you’re sure it will kill him? There’s no way it could just make him sick?”
“He’ll be stone dead,” he assured me. “There’s enough in that vial to kill everybody in the building.”
A sudden wave of anxiety threatened to overwhelm me.”Why can’t you do it?”
But we’d been over this many times. Fitzgerald and his cronies knew Vince. None of them had seen me before.
“How do you know he won’t drop dead on the spot? Shit Vince, there are guns around Fitzgerald all the time. What if he…you know…what if he…faceplants when I’m still standing there?”
“It’s a slow moving poison,” he said. “It takes at least ten minutes to kick in but when it does…”
He let the sentence hang, we both knew the ending.
It was busy that night and the kitchen was an asylum. In the dining room, customers were celebratory and ordering weird menu items many of us had never seen ordered before. Ingredients were running low, tempers were running high, and I was oblivious, consumed by the morbid task at hand.
My shift had begun at 6:00 but it wasn’t until much later that Fitzgerald and his pack of goons finally strolled into the restaurant. I was taking orders from a family of four when the gangsters filed by me reeking of cigars and expensive cologne. My knee bumped the table and a glass of water almost tumbled off the edge. Apologizing over my shoulder, I fled through the kitchen doors.
Rodney was standing in front of me looking concerned. “You feeling all right?” he asked me. “You look strung out, Man.”
“Why? What makes you say that?”
“Cause Man, you look like shit! You’re all pasty and sweaty looking. You look wasted or hungover or something. You’re not supposed to start partying until after work.”
My heart was thumping so hard it was making me nauseous.
“That reminds me, you still owe me for Saturday,” he said. “Fifty bucks.”
“Ok. Ok, yeah,” I said ducking into the bathroom. In the mirror, it was clear that Rodney wasn’t lying. My shirt looked like it had come out of the washer and never been dried. It had to go.
There were extras hanging from a hook in the hallway behind the kitchen. They were for emergencies in case someone spilled wine or spaghetti down the front of themselves. I put one on and hustled back towards the dining room.
“Margaret’s swiping your table, bro,” Rodney said casually as he brushed by me, heading outside for a smoke.
Spinning through the cacophony of the kitchen dodging waitresses and busboys and bursting into the dining room, I spotted Margaret, her dazzling smile in overdrive as she wrote down food orders from Fitzgerald and his men.
They already had their drinks.
Margaret laughed at one of their suggestive comments then headed for the kitchen where she was promptly intercepted by me.
“That’s my section!” I said. “You stole my table!”
Margaret blinked and her thousand watt smile dimmed. She considered feigning ignorance but playing dumb wasn’t going to fly and she knew it. It was a bad habit she had, taking other servers’ wealthy looking customers, and a big table like this had proven too much for her to resist.
She nodded meekly and shuffled into the kitchen to place their orders before relinquishing the table to me. The spring in her step was gone.
“I’ll split it with you,” I told her as the kitchen doors swung shut behind her and she smiled weakly at me through the window.
Just hang here until Fitzgerald needs a refill.
I waited with my arms crossed by the kitchen door ignoring my other tables while servers and bus boys sailed back and forth from the kitchen. My best opportunity had slipped by and I wasn’t going to miss another one. Already, my back was slick. This shirt would soon be unwearable too.
After five minutes or so, the time had come.
“Another drink, gentlemen?”
They barked orders while I scribbled. Fitzgerald wanted brandy.
The bar was a madman so I helped Stan with the drinks. My hands trembled as I reached for the vial.
It was gone.
It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was changing-
Frantically, I wove through the crowded dining room and into the battlefield kitchen spinning, avoiding bodies, and willing my way through the chaos. When I reached the hallway, I sprinted.
The hook was empty.
But it had been hanging right there. Right there! That was right where I had left it.
Mesmerized, I didn’t see the back door open.
“I don’t know how you got so wrecked off that shit,”Rodney said tossing me the vial and rubbing his nose. “That coke is trash.”
This story is a response to the one-word prompt Complicated.
Now try this: The Installer – Short Story
Mama noticed I was crying when she came to tuck me in.
“Papa said I was unusual,” I told her.
She sat on the side of the bed and caressed my face, drying my tears. “That wasn’t a very nice thing for Papa to say, was it?”
I shook my head. She sighed and looked at me for long minutes ruffling my hair and petting my face.
“Just remember this when you have children,” she said. “Remember that words can hurt too.”
I nodded and she sang me a lullaby. Then she smiled and said, “You know, Papa wasn’t wrong. You really are a weird little bastard.”
I drifted off to sleep. Mama always knew just what to say.
Clint had been driving for at least an hour when he finally reached his destination: Fire Number 7835, County Rd I. He stopped at the red sign at the end of a long, gravel driveway and compared the address with his paperwork. Satisfied he had found the right place, he turned in and accelerated up a rutted, gravel incline bouncing along with his tool boxes as the van made the ascent.
The narrow path snaked its way through a dense woods and more than once he had to crank the steering wheel to avoid a particularly large rock or a wicked pothole, the van clattering and jostling him about in protest. When he finally crested the summit, the woods gave way to an open field and, in its midst, stood a run-down trailer house and a rusting pole barn.
What’s he got to protect? He wondered. Chickens?
He put the van in park and killed the engine. His clipboard was upside-down on the floor. It read: Ten Cameras – Ten Motion Sensors – Ten Floodlights – Two Control Pads
They should have sent two of us, this is a huge job.
He piled out of the vehicle and stretched. Then he put on his cap and pulled open the van’s sliding door. As he leaned in to grab a tub of equipment, he heard a man’s voice behind him low and clear.
“I need you to put your hands on your head and take two steps backwards for me,” it said.
Clint froze. He slowly turned and looked over his shoulder. Standing maybe ten feet away was a wild-eyed old man holding a twin barreled shotgun.
He did as he was told.
“That’s good,” said the old man. “Now, I want you to drop to your knees. Very, very slowly.”
Clint sunk slowly to his knees facing the van, his heart beating fast.
“Here from the security company, are you?” asked the old man.
“Yes sir,” Clint said. His mouth was dry. “Pine County Security Systems.”
The old man paused and said, “I can read the van, son. How do I know you’re who you say you are?”
Clint said nothing.
“Don’t think I know what you folks are up to?” spat the old man. “You don’t think I notice all the helicopters and them bright lights in the sky day and night?”
“Sir, I just-”
“I see vans just like this one every single day! Every day! Some say plumbers on ’em, some say electrical, some say satellite TV. They got agents everywhere. YOU are everywhere!”
Clint could hear the man pacing behind him in a loose semicircle. He thought it best to stay quiet and let him calm down. Nothing good could come from riling him up further. From the trailer, came the distant chatter of a police scanner.
“I got cameras all over this place,” the old man said. “Everywhere. You look over there in them trees and I got ’em all around us. I see you guys sneaking around in my woods at night. I see you trying to get to my well and I got bugs too. Listenin’ devices so I can hear you talking. I know what frequencies you use and I listen. I’m on to you people.”
“Sir, you called us. I’m just here to-”
“Martial law is what they’re after, do you know that? Do you even know who you work for, son? They’ll herd you up too. We’ll all be living in the rail cars and you won’t be any safer than the rest of us. They’re weakenin’ our minds with fluoride in the water but they can’t get to mine, I got a well!”
The old man was pacing faster now.
“They poison us with chemtrails. They’ll come for the guns next and, when they get ’em, martial law! That’s what FEMA is for. Do you even know who you’re working for?”
“Sir, I’m just here to install your security system. You called us.” The old man didn’t answer so Clint continued. “Sir, I can show you. I can show you the gear…the security equipment…or…or you can call the office. I can give you the number. It’s on the the van.”
The old man stopped pacing. He stood and did nothing for at least a minute and Clint began to wonder if he was going to kill him right there.
“Do you have photo ID?” the old man said finally, calmer now.
Clint exhaled slowly. “I do. I have a photo ID. It has my picture and my name and the company and I can give you a number to call. You can call the office and they can clear this all up, Sir. They can verify it’s me, that I’m who I say I am.” He waited a few seconds and added carefully, “We can’t stay here all day, Sir.”
The old man thought about this for a while and reluctantly said, “All right. You get your ID but I want you to go SLOW when you do it. Do you understand me? Where is it?”
“Yes Sir, I do,” Clint said. “I understand completely. It’s in my right pants pocket. I’ll get it and I’ll lay it on the ground and put my hands right back on my head.”
“You should only need one hand to fetch it.”
“Hand,” Clint said, correcting himself. “I’ll put my hand right back on my head.”
“See to it that you do,” said the old man.
Clint took a deep breath then rolled to his right with deceptive speed pulling a handgun from his waistband as he did so. The old man squeezed the trigger but the shotgun missed wide left and, with surgical precision, Clint fired three bullets into his chest. He was blown backwards and hit the ground like a sack of fertilizer.
Clint climbed to his feet and brushed himself off. Casually, he unloaded another round into the old man’s forehead.
He laid the smoking gun on the hood of the van and unclipped a walkie-talkie from the sun visor.
“Homeschool, he said. “This is Installer Six. Target has been neutralized.”
Now try this: Of Blue Blood and Enchantment – Short Story