The Happiest Place  |  Alexa Mergen















             



THE CHRISTMAS TOMMY TURNED ELEVEN, he tore the wrapping off a large box to find an I.O.U. buried within. This was the first Christmas after his mother left, and his father still tried hard to win Tommy’s allegiance. The slip of paper promised a spring break trip to Anaheim to visit Disneyland. Tommy Senior also guaranteed one dollar a week for the next twelve weeks, until the trip, to be spent however his son wished. His father watched from where he sat on the floor, his back against the couch. Tommy held the paper with his dad’s tiny printing lined up in the middle.
             “What do you think, son?” his father asked, taking a sip of coffee from the red and green mug Tommy had made in art class four years earlier.
             Tommy wanted a chinchilla like the one in the window at Main Street Pets. “How do I know we’ll really go?”
             His father’s jaw jutted to one side, and Tommy heard him take a breath before he answered, “Because I said so.”
             “Okay.” Tommy reached for the package from his grandmother in Fresno, which he knew contained pajamas and underwear.
             Later in his room upstairs with the underwear, pajamas printed with blue and red race cars, and the book from his aunt, Mysteries and Riddles, piled neatly on his bed, Tommy reread the I.O.U. He considered asking his father if the twelve dollars could be used for a gerbil or hamster, but decided to see if the money materialized first. He longed for something soft he could pet and talk to while in his room. The cat, Samson, died the month before Tommy’s mother left. Burying it in the backyard beneath the locust tree was the last long afternoon they spent together. Tommy tried not to cry, but when his mother told him they should head back inside and start dinner, the tears fell, and he bit his upper lip. She picked Tommy up, although she was not much taller than he, kissed his check, looked him in the face, and said, “T. J., honey, I know it’s sad, but he wouldn’t have been around much longer anyway.”
             Once inside, he pulled the striped photo album from the shelf in the living room and sat at the kitchen table while his mother fried linguisa. When she went into the living room to answer the telephone, he removed the Polaroid of himself in diapers holding Samson, the black cat’s hind legs dragging on the floor, its white belly exposed. Tommy kept the photo in a cigar box with his Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and a twenty-dollar bill his aunt gave him “for emergencies.” After his mother left, Tommy checked each closet to see what she had taken with her. The album remained on the shelf, and Tommy wished she had it and would notice the photo missing and be sorry.
             Although the weekly dollars came sporadically, the trip would happen. On Thursday of the first week of April, Tommy’s father came home with two train tickets in his shirt pocket. Tommy asked for one to take to school and show his friends, but his father said he would lose it. Instead, he gave him a thin, yellow itinerary, and Tommy passed it around at lunch. His friends’ Christmas toys were now broken or lacked batteries, and though popular for his generosity—he always shared food when asked and let others copy his math homework—Tommy achieved his first brief period of celebrity. At home, the underwear that was new a few months ago was as gray as the rest, although the unworn pajamas were bright and fresh enough for another boy. Tommy was grateful to have an event to look forward to. He would have preferred, however, a different travel companion.
             As the days lengthened and orange poppies bloomed in the median strips, Tommy Senior seemed to have more hours to be mean. Like his son, who scratched lines inside his dresser drawer counting the days since his mother left, the deserted husband felt trapped by the approach of May when Julie had taken off. His short temper got shorter. He did not drink at home so Tommy could not predict what set him off storming through the house crying, “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn, goddamn,” or pulling out a four-by-four from behind the kitchen door, laying it on the table, and hammering in nail after nail, letting out a scream with each blow. But he never hit Tommy, and there was food in the refrigerator, so the boy knew he was fortunate enough.
             To avoid his father, Tommy went to bed as soon as dusk fell. Sometimes he left during a commercial, in the middle of a television show.
             “Where are you going, Junior?” his father asked over his shoulder.
             “Just up to bed,” Tommy replied, rubbing one hand up and down the banister.
             “You sick? You better not be, and if you are, blame your mother. Her side was a sickly bunch if I ever saw one.” Then, his father would wave his large hand and say, “Go ahead. You’re not much company anyway,” or “Go ahead and leave me, too. What the hell.”
             But Tommy knew his father had loved Mother, he saw it in the faces of the photos in the striped album he now kept hidden in his room. And he figured because he was part of his mom, his father loved him, too. Sure enough, sometimes his father called after him.
             “Be sure you get your homework done, son.” Or, “Brush your teeth good.”


♥♥♥


             Disneyland disappointed Tommy. He had been told by the train conductor that the park is the happiest place on Earth. Yet, before the bus even stopped in front of the gate, Tommy knew this was not so. The girl who sold them their tickets struggled to count the bills and coins the register displayed. The turnstile needed a good shove to pass through, and the cotton candy vendors walked as if their feet ached. Since he was worse than motherless—abandoned—Tommy knew about fake cheer. He received it from the checkout man at the grocery, from his teacher, from the mothers of his friends who tucked him in at overnights as if he were their child, and even from his own father who pulled the cookbook from the kitchen shelf and attempted the porcupine balls Tommy’s mother had made.
             “What do you think, kiddo? Dad can cook, too,” he said, as he spooned the crumbly meatballs onto Tommy’s plate.
             His mother also made a sauce from canned tomatoes, but Tommy said nothing except, “It’s great, Dad. Thanks.”
             Now with his hand on the boy’s back, Tommy’s father guided him toward Sleeping Beauty. His father took off his cap as if entering church.
             “Would you like your picture taken with Sleeping Beauty?” Tom Senior asked, looking at the clear-skinned girl in the blue dress.
             “No, Dad, thanks,” Tommy turned toward the rollercoaster.
             “Now, son, she seems like a nice fairytale. Aren’t you?” he asked the girl.
             She smiled and tilted her head, her basket held in front of her as she rocked from foot to foot.
             “Maybe later, Dad. I’m hungry.”
             His father took pride in the fact that his family, the two of them, never went hungry. “No one can say you ever went hungry,” his father would tell him at dinner. “You get your three squares.” Tommy’s father winked at the costumed teen and said to her, “Growing boy.” Then, Tommy and his father bought two hot dogs and drinks.
             To please his father, Tommy went on each ride they came to in their tour of the park. If his father waited behind, Tommy made sure to look for him, standing on the lowest rung of the fence that kept the visitors in orderly lines. On one of his last rides, The Octopus, Tommy finally saw behind the rides and storefronts. Bags of garbage overflowed dumpsters, and he thought he saw Snow White with Robin Hood passing a cigarette behind a crepe myrtle bush. But when he turned to look, the car swung, and he ended up facing the other way. He couldn’t see no matter how he twisted his neck.
             Their last ride was a miniature train. It had a black engine banded by shiny brass strips. It blew smoke from a smoke stack but ran on electricity. Tigger and the Chipmunks leaned from the sides of the passenger cars as the train slowed to a stop. This didn’t make sense since Tigger was from Winnie the Pooh and the Chipmunks were a cartoon. Tommy caught himself trying to think logically. This was Disneyland, dork, and inside the costumes were people acting happy for their job.
             As the train wound through the park, Tommy’s dad put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders. They sat in the last bench seat by themselves. The sun was setting, and it did feel comfortable to push his face into the breeze. Tommy counted 10 bench seats on each side of the aisle. Each seat could hold three without squishing. That meant 60 people could fit in that car alone—his entire sixth grade class. That would be fun! Tommy mastered fractions before the spring break, and now his mind was spinning. He and his dad were two—one-thirtieth of the number that could fill the car. If his mom were there, they would be three—one-twentieth. That sounded like a much bigger percentage. One person makes a difference when counting numbers. He and his dad were two-thirds of a family.


♥♥♥


             They spent both nights at Aunt Pat’s house. The second night, Tommy left his cousins in front of their computer games in the family room to get a drink of water from the hall bathroom. As he pulled the paper cup from the pop-up dispenser, he overheard his name. He crept a few steps down the hall in his bare feet and stopped to listen to his father, aunt, and uncle talk. Shoulders tense, he remembered his mother telling him eavesdropping is not nice, but she was gone.
             “Pat,” his father said in a pleading voice Tommy had not heard, “I’m not saying forever. If you could just take him for a week. June, July, you choose. Then maybe Mom and Dad can take him for a few days.”
             “Mom and Dad?” Pat asked. “You’d send him there? Jesus, Tom, what are you thinking?”
             “Pat’s right, Tom,” the uncle said. “I don’t think a boy T. J.’s age would have much fun there.”
             Through the crack between the doorjamb and the open door, Tommy saw his uncle’s hand pat his aunt’s knee beneath the table. They were drinking coffee.
             “It’s Tommy, not T. J.”
             “Well, Tom, we’ve always called him T. J. The kids call him that.”
             “Not anymore. I don’t want to hear that anymore.” Tommy’s father took a sip of coffee and set the cup down hard, spilling some. “Christ, I’m sorry, Pat.”
             She handed him a napkin from the holder. “Don’t worry about it, for Pete’s sake. Do you ever hear from Julie anyway?”
             “She called once. A couple of weeks after. Tommy was in bed. Kid goes to bed with the chickens.” He looked at Pat. “He’s a pretty good kid. No problems.” When she didn’t respond, he continued, “J-bird wasn’t crying, but she sounded close.”
             “What’d she want?” Pat asked, leaning forward in her chair.
             “She, Christ, she wanted to know if I forgive her.”
             Tommy’s uncle shook his head, and Tommy saw his eye catch the clock hung on the wall. He gave his wife’s knee another little squeeze. She glared at him.
             “What did you say?”
             “What was I supposed to say? I asked how she was doing. I told her I loved her. I told her we were still married and always would be in the eyes of God.” He put one hand on top of his coffee cup as his sister held the pot. “Pattie, you were there. We promised to take care of each other. We were a family. What the hell happened? What the fuck did I do wrong?” He wiped at his eye with the heel of his hand, then looked at his hand as if surprised to find it dampened.
             Tommy started to back away from the door, but as he did, he heard his father say in a low whisper, so plain Tommy heard it as if spoken in his own ear, “I can’t do this. We’re not going to make it.”


♥ End ♥



After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. A list of her published fiction, poetry, and essays can be found at alexamergen.com. Alexa leads writing workshops and edits the blog, Yoga Stanza. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch. All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Grading Bad  |  Jon Sindell















             



SHE WAS THE INCORRUPTIBLE, so named by a senior during the most grueling AP World semester ever.
             “Just one night off, Ms. L,” whined star student Jasmine, comically sliding halfway to the floor.
             “Did Napoleon take a night off before Austerlitz? Did Metternich take a night off when orchestrating The Final Act of the Congress of—?” Brilliant eyes gleamed as if to say, It’s a gimme.
             “Vienna!” sang the choir, and Ms. Lollar air-marked one point.
             “You expected a night off,” grinned quipster Dave, “from The Incorruptible?”
             “Which epithet refers to whom?” asked the imperturbable teacher, scanning the class with her luminous gaze. None dared dip his eyes, for doing so would ensure being called on.
             “Robespierre,” said Maria, a shy girl with an emergent smile.
             “Naturellement. And incidentally”—Ms. Lollar’s eyes noted the change of the hour from World History to English Lit time—“why do I say ‘refers to whom,’ and not who? Brandon?”
             Brandon’s eyes were on the teacher, but his grammar brain was elsewhere. Pronoun usage could not compete with The Gleeful Grammarian’s tight gray business skirt, crimson sweater, shining blond hair pulled into a tight bun, full lips painted red and poised to curl up into a generous smile or down into a disappointed little frown, or the geeky black specs—understood as an affectation meant to make the teacher less intimidating.
             “Brandon? Are you there?”
             The entire class would have understood Brandon’s vacuity, even if his cheeks hadn’t turned chili-red, for all of the boys had giggled in the first week of school when one boy floated a trial balloon about Ms. Lollar and “cougars.” The two-time Santa Fe Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year had ignored the thrust of the uncouth remark, had forgiven the boys for considering her cougar-aged when she was just thirty, and had immediately started a lively discussion ranging from the psychological significance of the age-thirty milestone to an examination of intergenerational romance in literature to a survey of historical norms that accepted the pursuit of younger women by older men, but not the reverse. The girls, for their part, readily forgave Ms. Lollar for her allure, not only because they revered her, but also because they knew in their hearts that she would never encourage even the cutest boy in the class to pursue her.
             “Whom is for objects,” said that cutest boy, a defensive back. “Who is for subjects.”
             “And you, Mr. Castillo, have just won a Lollar Pop. Chocolate with jalapeño.”
             “Thank you, Ms. Lollar.”
             The Incorruptible was incorruptible in every way that a teacher could be. Whiny pleas for grading on a curve were deflected with aplomb: “Would you want your dentist or airline pilot to be graded on a curve?” Requests for extra credit were chuckled away as the puerile residue of the middle-school mind. Nor was Ms. Lollar susceptible to the suave importuning of a Canyon Road art gallery owner that his son’s grade be rounded up, a plea oiled with hints of an extraordinary discount on a Ghost Ranch landscape. On reflection, the doting dad grandly stated, the blemish giving rise to the discount really ought to preclude any charge at all. In reply, Ms. L strode briskly to her office door and stood erect against the jamb. “The lease on my apartment prohibits nail holes, but I shall be certain to visit Ghost Ranch soon. Perhaps I’ll take pictures.” The gallery owner correctly perceived a cordial invitation never to return.
             The Incorruptible was just that.
             Until Mittens got sick.
             It was December and chilly, and Mittens had been caught in a draft. The result: a listless eye and a ghastly wheeze that to Ms. Lollar’s ear sounded like death throes. Covering poor Mittens with a soft cloth and setting her beneath a heat lamp affected no cure. Administering chicken soup and warm milk with an eyedropper did not help. Murmured endearments and cradling arms failed to restore Mittens’ health, nor did eschewing unsettling nighttime entertainments such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men in favor of New Mexican Desert, an ambient blend of coyote howls and Native American flute. A mail-order antibiotic merely reduced the teacher’s cash to near-nothing, and an expensive prescription from the veterinary clinic finished the job. A vet specialist was needed, but no money was at hand for the fee.
             Then, Ms. L recalled Jason. The Homework Help Guy. Jason Beene, a slacking former student who had driven her crazy because he was bright but obstinately resistant to her efforts to reform him. It was Jason who had recently been fingered by a D student as the source of two ghostwritten B papers in another teacher’s class. The principal had alerted the faculty to be on guard for fraudulent essays, but Ms. L had paid the matter no mind because she trusted her students completely.
             After dismissing the cast of Macbeth following a spirited evening rehearsal, Ms. Lollar recovered Jason’s phone number from a file in the vacant counseling office. “Jason,” she said in an authoritative hush.
             “Ms. L!” Even four years later, even on the phone, Ms. Lollar’s voice produced tremors. “I’m in school, Ms. L! Really! I mean, I took some classes at Community. But I’m learning! I’m—”
             “Jason. Please. I need to see you.” Ms. Lollar set KFC for the meeting because it was the last place a teacher who taught Fast Food Nation with a vengeance was apt to be seen by anyone she knew. “Jason,” she murmured with a cool look around, “I know all about your ghostwriting service.”
             “That’s poor diction, Ms. L. That’s a—euphemism, you know? Calling it a service. It’s a scam, man. But I’ve quit it. Honest!”
             “Jason.” She set her womanly hand on his, and he trembled.
             “All right,” he said helplessly. “Just say what you want, and I’ll do it, Ms. L.”
             “I want,” said Ms. Lollar in the way a different kind of woman might prepare to extract massive concessions from a rich, lovestruck suitor, “perfect grammar and impeccable diction. I want MLA style correctly applied. I want cogent essays with thoughtful theses supported by airtight logic and illustrated with pertinent examples. I want a personal and provocative viewpoint. And for the love of God, dude, if you can’t spell a word”—Ms. Lollar peered at Jason with eyes that radiated intelligence, wit, and authority—“use a spell checker!”
             Jason stared back like a babe at his mom: trusting, mystified, and completely in love.
             Within a few days, da kine hit the street, and the legend of the purest essays ever seen in the Southwest spread through the schools like wildfire through the dry summer pines.
             “All right, Ms. L!” grinned Jason, raising a fistful of ones and fives. “One more essay and I get my Halo map pack and two new controllers!” He swiveled on his rusty computer chair eager to enter the print command, for a customer waiting at the drop spot in the plaza had to leave soon to walk the dog.
             “And what do you call this?” gasped Ms. Lollar, staring at Jason’s laptop and wrinkling her nose at more than the putrescence emanating from Jason’s kitchen sink. “‘Though only six,’” she read, “‘Atticus speaks to Scout in a candid and respectful manner.’”
             “What do I call it, Ms. L? I call it a good essay; that’s what I call it. A strong B, at least.”
             The teacher affected the look of horror that her ex-student remembered too well. “I call it a misplaced modifier, Jason. Unless you think Atticus Finch is just six.”
             “Aw, Ms. L—”
             “Aw is for awful. Now listen, paisan. The only reason this essay mill has gone from thirty dollars a week to one hundred ten and rising is the purity of our product. Which means you cook clean, or you don’t cook at all. Is that clear?”
             “Yes, Ms. Lollar.”
             “Don’t mumble.”
             “Yes, Ms. Lollar!”
             “Good. Now, clean up this rhetorical mess before you hit the street, and I don’t want to see one dangling participle, one instance of awkward syntax, or one punctuation mark out of place. And for God’s sake, man—clean up your apartment.”
             Two days later, Mittens saw the specialist, though the veterinary bill and the cost of a rental car for the trip to Albuquerque consumed most of Miss Lollar’s share of the booty. Back in Santa Fe, Mittens recovered, and the elated Ms. Lollar celebrated with a cup of chocolate elixir at Kakawa. It would not be the last, for the team’s take soon reached two- to three-hundred dollars per week.
             There was a scare, though, when a rival essay mill run by two high school seniors warned Jason that any further encroachments on their turf would result in his bike being crushed like a piñon. They knew not what they had done. For Ms. Lollar took an essay that a disgruntled customer of the rival mill had shown to Jason and marked it up in gory red ink with dozens of comments flagging the grammatical errors, structural flaws, and faulty logic that made it a ghastly exemplar of the ghostwriter’s art. Copies of the devastating document were circulated throughout the underground “grade culture” of the three high schools of Santa Fe Public and all of the privates. Suddenly, the whole turf was theirs.
             The celebration of Ms. Lollar’s victory took place shortly after school ended, in a basket suspended from a rainbow balloon over Albuquerque. Prudence dictated that Jason not be invited, but seven new grads soared over the desert at Ms. Lollar’s expense and smiled with the satisfaction of possessing cool arcane knowledge when Ms. L reviewed last fall’s lecture on the French fascination with manned balloon flight during the latter days of the Scientific Revolution. And when the pilot poured champagne for Ms. Lollar and mineral water for the grads for a post-landing toast, and asked the group in a rhetorical tone why balloons are always supplied with a bottle of champagne, each student knew that the custom had originated with King Louis, who supplied his balloonists with the king’s own vintage to mollify any such peasants as might be disturbed by the landing of balloons in their fields.
             “You’ve got quite a teacher,” the ruddy pilot marveled. “The only thing I don’t get is how a teacher can afford a balloon ride for eight.”
             Ms. Lollar lowered her eyes demurely, and for a moment her features grew dark as she contemplated how little cash remained.
             There did remain enough, however, for a point-and-shoot camera and a car-share membership that allowed her to make the long drive to Ghost Ranch. There, the woman just crowned Santa Fe Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for the third time, marveled at the red rock cliffs that had enchanted O’Keeffe, and framed a picture with Mittens in the foreground. Would Mittens flee? Hardly. Though the desert was her natural home, the iguana loved her owner, who gazed back at her with commensurate love, and asked herself for one uncomfortable moment whether the reptilian gaze directed at her wasn’t just a little akin to that which she saw in the mirror these days.


♥ End ♥




Jon Sindell’s short fiction has appeared in several dozen publications, among them Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, Connotation Press, MadHat Lit, New South, Mojave River Review, The Good Men Project, Prick of the Spindle, and Weave. A human, he earns his bread as a humanities tutor and professional writing coach. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco and practiced law once’t. This story first appeared in a shorter version in Hobart. [Author photo by and © Christopher Novak.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Franklin  |  Derrick Martin-Campbell















             



ALEX SPENT THE SUMMER he turned eighteen working at a tourist restaurant on the bay and living in his Aunt Betsy’s house, a bed and breakfast she ran out of a haunted old Victorian, standing alone on a hill facing the Pacific and the setting sun.
             His customers at the restaurant were mostly motorcycle hobbyists and retired sport fishermen, middle-aged men and their wives and girlfriends, all sunburned red, squinting and eating and drinking and laughing, meeting all the world this way and loving it with the money they fanned upon it. And of course, loving Alex, since—at their command, dutifully and with reverence—he took it away.
             “This is the bill ...” began one such customer, slapping the ledger on the table, credit card protruding.
             His party of fifteen, all variations to Alex on this middle-aged man and woman sitting beside him, the man in a sleeveless T-shirt and mirrored shades he wore indoors, ball cap backwards on his hairless skull, the woman freckled and bleach-blond, disdainful in a bikini top. It was three in the afternoon and beer, scotch, and tequila glasses already covered the tables. From the sunglasses, Alex guessed the guy was probably already drunk when he came in.
             “... This is for you ...” he went on, placing a fifty on top of the ledger, “... and this ...” raising a hundred steady in his other hand, “... this ... is for the man ... who follows her ass out to the parking lot ... and takes ... what’s ... coming to him.”
             Conversation at their tables stopped as the room’s attention suddenly reorganized around Alex. All watched him as the man pushed the money into a sloppy pile on the bill, topped it off with the cherry of his car keys, crossed his arms, and waited, staring at Alex.
             Alex looked from the woman, to the money, to the man, to the crowd of hungry eyes tracking him. The woman only stared right back, Sphinx-like, watching him around the food she chewed. He saw how the man’s chest rose quick and shallow beneath his crossed arms, sweat on his temples. The couple sitting beside them smiled at Alex.
             His own sweat cold on his back, Alex hesitated just a moment before he brushed the keys off onto the table, snapped up both the money and ledger, and, turning to go, managed to deadpan over his shoulder, “Thank you for the offer, sir, but I’m not sure your truck is big enough for the three of us.”
             For a long time, just the silence followed him. Then, as he passed between the swinging kitchen doors, the room burst finally into loud, drunken, ecstatic laughter behind him. In the kitchen, he headed straight for the freezer, stuck his head in, and breathed deeply, blushing from the something strange and not altogether unpleasant still stirring in him.
             His Aunt Betsy’s friends were the other side of the Humboldt County people. They were like Betsy, old hippies and beatniks, single people who drove the summer up and down the 101 in cars with more than two hundred thousand miles on them. They drank and smoked and played the piano and bragged of their decades-old exploits, reminiscing easily about a west coast before I-5, before California Route 1, even … or the Spanish Mission Trail. They claimed to recall impossible things, the gold rush and the Wiyot Massacre, priests knelt praying in the frothing waves, before there were palm trees.
             “Okay, well, what was it like, then?” asked Alex, mostly joking with the white-haired woman beside him, a guest and old friend of Betsy’s, as they sat rolling spliffs on the porch one evening. “What was it like at the very beginning, way back before there was anybody here at all?”
             “Anyone?” she said.
             “Anyone. No people. Nobody. What was it like, then?”
             She looked up from the work in her lap, out over the railing and into the purple, humid night. She licked a paper, thinking. “I guess ...” she said, paused. “I guess it was ...” Her eyes seemed to glimmer as she cocked her head, then to focus very far away. “Bigger,” she said, finally, “or maybe smaller?” She bit her lip.
             “Come on,” teased Alex. “Wasn’t it better? Isn’t that what you people are all about? Like, ‘Well, back in the day ...’” He smiled at her, waiting, but the white-haired woman remained still, ambiguous, immune to his prompts, and for a while then, there were only the crickets.
             Finally, after long enough that he twitched a little at her touch, stirred from his own reverie, she gently patted his leg. “Oh. You’re such a flirt, aren’t you, sweetie. Come on, where’d that Betsy get to? We can’t smoke all this just us two.”


♥♥♥


             Franklin arrived the afternoon of July Fourth, and Betsy ran down the gravel driveway to meet him, screeching like a teenager the whole way. He stood easily seven feet tall, at least five hundred pounds, wore a pitted white suit, drove a dirty white sedan, and was accompanied only by a filthy, half-wild, sixteen-year-old boy.
             From the porch, Alex watched Franklin extract his body from the sedan like it was a magic trick, growing slowly into a colossus in the sunshine. He wrapped a bear’s paw around Betsy’s shoulders as she crashed into him and nuzzled her face in his belly, happy. Her arms did not reach halfway around him.
             “Oh, my dear, sweet Betsy,” he said, pushed a handkerchief around his forehead. “It has been an age.”
             A horse could have dozed in his shadow.
             Alex helped the boy carry Franklin’s luggage, one slim suitcase and a crate of sixteen bottles of wine, bottles Franklin uncorked and drank over the course of the evening between long, melancholy sighs. The boy said nothing all through dinner, ate nearly as much as Franklin, who consumed enough of Betsy’s spare ribs, cabbage, and scalloped potatoes to feed three people, ate it moaning and rolling his eyes, sausage fingers dancing in sorcerous arcs through the steaming, supper air.
             “These potatoes,” he said, chewing. “Mm, Betsy, they are not potatoes,” and with his free hand, he blessed them. “They are the Body,” he said, mouth full. “Hand us the wine, love.”
             There were no other guests that night, thankfully, since Franklin’s stentorian voice carried unbelievably through the house. Eating and drinking and then smoking and drinking afterward, Alex and the boy mostly listened as Franklin and Betsy told stories to and about each other, nights and boys they had shared, stories ending always prematurely in private, knowing laughter.
             “Alex,” Franklin said at one point, turning to address him for the first time that evening, “that white car out there in the drive now, the sedan, do you know where I got it?”
             The room’s attention turned to Alex. Though Franklin did not immediately continue, taking a satisfied moment to re-cross his legs, Alex sensed the question was rhetorical and waited politely from his cushion on the floor. He rested his chin on his knees, offered Franklin the same smile he offered customers at the restaurant preparing to give their orders.
             “Did you know, Alex, that I did not, in fact, buy that car outside, but that I, more accurately, acquired it? And from your Aunt Betsy, even?” He winked at Betsy who covered her giggle with her hand. She laughed that night as Alex had never heard her laugh before.
             Franklin paused again to remove his white loafers (eighteen inches each) and set them beside the couch on which he lounged. They rested neatly beside the several bottles he’d finished just since sitting down.
             “Really?” Alex said, when he felt it was appropriate.
             “Why yes!” said Franklin, very pleased. “You see, Alex, there was a time in my life when, as a young man, I saw the fruits of this world hung a good deal heavier above me than I do now, heavier and closer to the ground, you see? And, seeing them thus, I was often moved to avail myself upon these fruits. Because, you see, Alex, it is my firm belief that the things we need most in this world are never offered to us; they are, in fact, only taken. It is something I attempt to imprint on all of the young people I encounter, that they might comprehend and benefit from this lone, true imperative offered us by this cruel world: Take. Take, Alex. Take, take, and take again. Always. It is this imperative I, myself, obeyed when, returning to the matter at hand, at twenty-three, I took your Aunt Betsy’s car one hot August day, drove it kicking dust and gravel as she chased me screaming down the drive, barefoot in her underwear, vengeful as an orphan—”
             “And shooting at you—don’t forget!” said Betsy, laughing. “Oh, my goodness, Franklin, do you remember? I shot at you. At least once, I’m sure.”
             “Yes!” he said, choking on his wine as he laughed, as well. “Yes, good God! Of course! Who gave you a gun? Which one of your Neanderthals?”
             Together they laughed a while, then. The boy watched. Alex watched, too, still smiling. He waited until the room completely stilled. And then.
             “What kind of gun was it?” Alex said.
             Suddenly, the air in the room changed, the easy mirth of the previous conversation drained away.
             “What did you say?” Franklin asked, speaking quietly at first. He looked to Alex, then Betsy, coughed some more, searched the room in swelling indignation before grimacing in disgust. “Did you hear him, Betsy? What—What kind of gun was it?”
             “Aw, Franklin, come on,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s just a question. He didn’t mean anything by it. Hey, let’s have some more wine.”
             But Alex did not stop smiling at him, and Franklin, seeing this, refused all trifles. The couch groaned beneath Franklin as he rolled away, pulled his stocking-feet protectively beneath his bulk. Betsy petitioned him, but he only muttered and sniffed the air.
             “Such an amusing young person, isn’t he?” he said, saying it several times to all corners of the room.
             Glowing amidst the discord, Alex still wasn’t sure exactly what he’d done, or why, and he too began to cast about the room, grinning stoned and drunk, until his gaze met finally that of the boy, Franklin’s boy, his own gaze red-eyed and already smiling right back at Alex.
             Later, lingering in the bathroom, Alex took a quiet moment, grateful to be alone. He splashed water on his face, heard the sound of Franklin’s voice downstairs. He watched his own eyes in the mirror, waited until a stranger looked back.
             “It was his tone, Betsy! The tone he used to address me!”


♥♥♥


             Returning from a similar trip still later that night, Alex found Franklin alone and snoring on the couch in the now otherwise-empty room. Through the screen door, he heard what sounded like Betsy’s whispered voice out on the porch, heard her beg, whispering, “... Oh, no ... No, no, please,” heard her laugh (a huskier version of the new laugh he’d noticed that night), followed by silence, then more begging. “No, please ...” she said. “I can’t. Please.” Then, gently, little more than a sigh, “Please.”
             Relieved of his hosting duties, Alex turned to remount the stairs and head for bed when, just then, a new noise halted him. It started low, nearly imperceptible at first, but Alex felt a shiver run down his spine upon hearing it, felt time seem to slow as the sound of it gradually filled the room until, finally, it became a word.
             “You,” Franklin said.
             Alex turned around. Though he remained seated, he saw Franklin’s body begin to stir, saw his chest swell with new breath as he slowly stretched and set his shoulders, even swore he felt the house noticeably tremble as, one by one, reverberating with each impact, Franklin, groaning, set his giant’s stocking-feet upon the ground.
             “You!” he repeated, louder now, eyes still shut as though dreaming or just very drunk. “Can’t you see,” he said, “how, for all your varied ... mmm ... charms, ... at the end of the day ... you’re all just exactly the same: a pack of smug ... fucking ... sluts. You are!” he roared, making Alex jump. “You are, and you don’t even realize it ... how ordinary you are ... mmm ... even as you are treated so exceptionally ... humored by every john on the fucking block! But it isn’t always going to be that way, my friend ... Oh, no, it isn’t ... mmm ... Oh, no ... it ... isn’t.”
             And then he was still again.
             Alex did not move right away. Dizzy and frightened—his own blood pounding in his ears the only audible sound left in the country quiet—his hand found the banister behind him as he turned into what should have been his first step up the stairs. Afraid to turn his back on Franklin, though, he misjudged and tripped, landed hard on his side, and knocked the wind from his lungs. Lying there, gasping for air as in a dream, Alex watched as Franklin’s dark, mysterious shape rose from the couch, like a bear to its hind legs, saw Franklin grow huge before him, filling the room, disturbing the chandelier, and cracking the ceiling plaster. And it seemed there was for that moment nowhere beyond his grasp, nowhere where Franklin’s great hands could not fall upon him.
             “Love will leave you!” Franklin cried, as Alex found his feet enough to scramble up the stairs on all fours, Franklin’s voice still pursuing him. “Love will leave you! It will! It will! It will!”
             Upstairs, Alex locked his door and fell against it, tried to slow his breathing down, and listened for any sign of pursuit. He felt the house creak and tremble beneath him, straddling fault lines. He pressed his ear to the door, listening. Then, to the floor.


♥♥♥


             In the morning, Alex found Betsy hungover and drinking coffee at the kitchen table. She held her head in her small, fluted fingers, peered wincing out between them at the world.
             Franklin and the boy were already gone, she said, the boy just some street kid, someone Franklin had picked up in Golden Gate Park a few days before. She told Alex how Franklin had apparently told the boy he was dying, had invited him to drive to Vancouver with him, where they would get married, and Franklin would leave the boy all his money.
             “All his money?” Alex said.
             “Yeah.” Betsy snorted bitterly.
             “How old was he, even? That kid?”
             “Oh, don’t worry. He was old enough.”
             Standing at the counter behind her, Alex poured coffee for himself. Stirring it, he watched Betsy hold her head in her hands, watched the thin, fragile line of her spine, shoulder blades obvious through her robe. He watched her throughout the day, the week, gardening, cooking, doing the books; he waited to feel something, disdain maybe, or pity. He watched her sit and drink her coffee, and he waited.
             He waited all summer.


♥ End ♥




Derrick Martin-Campbell is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has previously appeared in HOUSEFIRE, Metazen, Nailed Magazine, New Dead Families, Thought Catalog, and Unshod Quills. [Author photo by and © Chelsea Campbell-Martin. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]



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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Ever.  The After.  |  Alexa Mergen















             



AS THE MIDDLE CHILD OF FIVE, Jesse Sanchez learned early that if freedom was all you wanted, if you didn’t care about proving a point, then cooperation took you further than rebellion did. He covered for his older brothers when they came home late or skipped their chores, and he watched his younger sisters willingly. He went to the store for his mom, not caring if he ran into other kids from school when his arms were laden with bags of groceries and his littlest sister tugged at the edge of his T-shirt. “Hey,” he’d say, and comment on the high school basketball team. Or he might say, “Nice day, huh?” in a way that sounded like he’d just noticed the sun when he saw you.
             Teachers at Manzanita Middle School were grateful for Jesse because he did what you asked and made no demands. He never lingered by the door after the bell rang or asked to eat lunch in your room. He could be counted on to lead a group project or to collect homework. Peers liked him because he was calm, often saying, “Ya’ll, let the teacher talk,” when the class got rowdy. Even though he didn’t smoke pot with them, grungers respected him at the skate park where he’d show up late in the afternoon, sometimes with his little sister. He’d set her on the bench with his jacket to hold, and he’d get on the ramps.
             So, after Jesse jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge on a Thursday in February, no one could begin to guess why. He was a nice kid. One who might’ve been successful. Athletic, sharp-looking. He helped his mom, respected his dad.
             His mother bore up at the funeral, held up by family, but she broke into crying at home in the kitchen while her sisters washed dishes at the sink and her husband’s brothers played with the girls. When she saw Jesse’s skateboard propped by the door, she started a sobbing jag that lasted four days straight, through meals and sleepless nights, until she was emptied. So used to the sobbing, the subsequent quiet made the dog whine.
             After a week of holding his breath, of watching his children and wife drain themselves of memories of what had been and imaginings of what would never be, Jesse’s father insisted the boys return to school, their jobs, and chores. Mr. Sanchez’s buddies covered for him on the landscaping crew, so he stayed home with the girls one more week, all perched along the edge of the couch where their mother lay among them like a broken chair hurled onto the highway that had caused a hazard too perilous for anyone to retrieve. The father and the girls played board games no one cared to win. When Jesse’s mother got up one afternoon and started brushing and braiding her daughters’ hair, Jesse’s dad knew she would be okay. He grabbed his hat from the hook by the door and returned gratefully to the machines of his trade.
             In the staff lounge at Manzanita, teachers shook their heads as they reheated leftovers in the microwave and filled coffee cups and water bottles. Even teachers who usually worked at their desks through lunch came in to puzzle over this one. They agreed that they weren’t just teachers anymore but parents and counselors. It was too much. Driving home, stopped at a red light, or standing in line waiting to swipe a debit card to pay for groceries, Jesse’s former teachers would recall an exceptional paper he wrote or a quiz he aced. They remembered times class ran smoothly, everyone on task, and they’d been able to catch up on entering grades or searching for images for a PowerPoint lecture. Good days with Jesse in class. He had presence. Then, the stoplight changed to green or the cashier stated the total bill, and Jesse’s teachers reminded themselves they couldn’t be everything to everyone. There were so many kids, at least thirty-five in five different classes swarming in like commuters catching a train every forty-eight minutes. You do the best you can.
             The school counselors announced over the PA that any student feeling sad or lonely should ask his or her teacher for a pass. Stacey Pinner started crying during social studies two days after Jesse’s death, unsettling Mr. Kilfner who did not recall such scenes when he began teaching twenty years ago. Stacey and Jesse had gone out in fifth grade. He was, she insisted, the nicest boyfriend she ever had. Mr. Kilfner sent Stacey to the office where the counselor bought her a soda and let her cry. For a week, Stacey’s friends surrounded her at lunch, held her hand, listened to her stories. They believed they would never have a boy as great as Jesse to love them. The girls borrowed markers and construction paper from Miss Tilly and made a card for Jesse’s mother.
             Ambrose Collins wouldn’t go to the counselor even after his tears scared him by spilling from his eyes when he went to the restroom. He did not know he was crying until he caught sight of himself in the strip of stainless steel that served as an unbreakable mirror in the lavatory. Mr. Collins had gone to a counselor once with Mrs. Collins so she wouldn’t keep after him about it. When they came home, Ambrose’s dad entered the door first, taking off his nice jacket as he passed through the living room, saying, “Stupid waste of time and money.” Ambrose’s mother followed, closing the door with extra care, already treating the house as if she didn’t live there. Counselors did not help. And, besides, there was no reason for Ambrose to be upset about Jesse. They hadn’t been best friends. They had spent one day together at the marina last summer when they both found themselves there with nothing to do. They’d rolled up their pants legs and waded into the mud at low tide, scooping up mussels, looking for bits of metal and coins. Ambrose was sorry he and Jesse never rode bikes together in the hills or played catch in the parking lot.


♥♥♥


             The night before he ended up taking his life, Jesse had lain on his stomach in bed listening to foghorns. Bars of light filtered through the blinds, striping the blanket on his bed. He wasn’t unhappy, but he wasn’t happy, either. He felt odd. Like a lone shoe on the shoulder of the road. Or a building abandoned after a house fire.
             Getting to the bridge was easy. Three years earlier, Jesse had taken BART with his fifth grade class for a field trip to Fisherman’s Wharf. What intrigued him about the city were reflections of passersby in storefronts. Reflections in windows seemed to reveal the truth about a subject. In a mirror, the eyes went to certain familiar spots. A plate-glass reflection provided a glimpse into a moment. You could lay yourself bare without invasion if you looked obliquely. That day, the day of the best field trip ever, Jesse’s mother had taken off from work to chaperone. He noticed he was getting as tall as she was. She stroked her son’s hair as the two of them peered through a store window at maps and globes arranged inside. She knew how to look at things, too, so she let him linger until the rest of the class was a half block away. Then, they turned and continued without hurrying, not worrying about catching up. For that half block, Jesse pretended it was his mother and he, away for the day.
             Now, he was alone. After exiting at the Embarcadero, Jesse asked a woman in a suit like a man’s which way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
             “Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asked, after giving him directions.
             Jesse didn’t have the urge to lie. “It’s a school day,” he said, and smiled.
             The woman laughed, looked at the sky, then back at the kid in khaki pants and layers of T-shirts. “Well, you picked a beautiful day to play hooky.”
             Jesse shrugged, thanked her, and walked with a light step toward the water.
             The woman called after him, the lapels of her jacket rising around her like wings in the wind. “Hey, kid! What’re you going to the bridge for, anyway?”
             Jesse called back, his voice clear above the traffic noise, “Curious to see it again.”
             The woman looked at him. “Watch yourself.”
             Jesse raised his arm in acknowledgment and started walking again. He was truthful. He’d seen the bridge four years ago with his grandparents when they visited for Thanksgiving. He wanted to see it now under the winter sunshine. He wanted to walk across it, at least, since he couldn’t skate the parabola of cables as he did in his dreams.
             Beyond the clutter of chowder stands and taffy shops of Fisherman’s Wharf, sailboats lined up neatly in their berths and lawns hosted bicyclists resting in the grass. Windows of the bright houses across the streets cast back the scene. A vocabulary word popped into Jesse’s head: “suffused.” The whole place was suffused with happiness. For an instant, Jesse regretted not bringing his littlest sister, Marisa, to play leapfrog and tag in the grass. But being alone was good.
             The Legion of Honor looked like Ancient Greece would. Columns and pagodas peeked from trees. Swans swam in a pond. Jesse felt alert and relaxed, a groove he found in his best moments on his skateboard. He’d also felt it the day he and Ambrose Collins fished in the mud last summer. Jesse knew how to hold that feeling and make it last. Today, everything fueled it. The five pelicans flying overhead, low enough to see their feet tucked in their feathers. The dark water. The presence of home on the distant shore. Joggers pounding by with clean determination. A green car passed with a little girl holding a ribbon out the rear window, watching it flutter in the wind.
             Jesse arrived at the red-orange bridge. He found the narrow pedestrian path. A low wall separated the path from cars on Highway 1. Skating this bridge, Jesse thought, would be like fucking flying. Jesse took in the blue sweaters and black pants, white sneakers and jeans of the other sightseers. His enthusiasm was contagious. Those who saw him couldn’t help smiling.
             After crossing to Marin, Jesse turned back, walking along the bay side of the bridge. He stopped and looked across the lanes of moving cars to the entrance to the Pacific. Manzanita was somewhere over that way. General science class might be starting. They had homework due. Mr. Perkins always had the class stand and salute him saying, “Reporting for General Science.” Jesse laughed.
             He was free, standing above the water in the wind on a sunny day. Except for the safety rail. Jesse found himself climbing up, higher. He was a lookout on a battleship. He was a pirate. He was an astronaut speeding into outer space. He was Jesse–alive in his body, sure as Spiderman on the metal rails. And then, it occurred to him to let go. To try it. The free feeling, make it last. Just before he did so, Jesse saw a heavyset man running toward the spot where he had started, arms waving. But Jesse was lost. He wanted to say, “Don’t worry,” but words belonged to another time. This was letting go with no way back. Action; moment; fear; falling; this; now; the losses above; the next below; the ever; the after.


♥ End ♥




After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. A list of her published fiction, poetry, and essays can be found at alexamergen.com. Alexa leads writing workshops and edits the blog, Yoga Stanza. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Payback Is a Bitch  |  Trina Allen















             



I PARKED THE PORSCHE a few houses down the street from the target. I’d borrowed the car from a couple brunching at Saint Jacques French Bistro, conveniently located in North Raleigh near the home of the asshole I would be visiting. The unlucky couple would have an unhappy surprise when they went to look for their posh sports car after finishing their risotto solei and apple tart tartin.
             I watched a terrier walk its owner, circling, yipping, and straining on its leash. A student rode by on a bike, no helmet, earbuds blocking out street noise—preparing for a future as roadkill. Shaking my head at the stupidity of the educated masses, I opened the glovebox, shook some white powder into the crease of an envelope, and inhaled. I took another hit, feeling the coke rush, and put the empty container in my pocket.
             It took me less than three seconds to close the distance from the car to the front steps. I cautiously scanned the street in both directions as I climbed the stairs. My target’s front door was a joke, simple wood in an even cheaper wooden frame. He apparently thought being a New York police lieutenant meant he didn’t need decent security. He obviously hadn’t met Red Riding Hood, a.k.a. me, his worst nightmare. He might as well have left the door open for me.
             I checked the Beretta in my shoulder holster. I took a second Beretta out of my pocket, opened the chamber—a round was there. Both guns were full-size .45 caliber pistols, each with a four-inch barrel—a man’s gun. I’d carried a .45 as a homicide detective in Raleigh. Old habits die hard.
             One hard kick to the door—it burst inward with a satisfying crash. Unless he were deaf, the target had heard my entrance.
             Sure enough, he didn’t disappoint. A burly man ran toward me swinging a Glock, a towel wrapped around his six-pack waist, his hair dripping from the shower, muscles rippling in his six-foot frame. I would have been impressed, but when his towel fell, I was embarrassed for him—his equipment was inadequate by my standards. Little Bob the Wonderworm, needle dick the bug fucker.
             “Need a hand?” I asked and fired the Beretta. His Glock dangled and fell from what used to be his hand. I kicked the gun across the carpet.
             “Son of a bitch,” he swore, spittle dripping from his quivering lips. “Goddamn motherfucker.” He wrapped his bloody hand in his towel, sucked in a breath, obviously in pain. “You … are dead.”
             “You got that wrong. ’Cause I’m the one holding the gun,” I said, my voice low and gravely. I aimed the Beretta for his kneecap, pressed the trigger. Nothing happened—the damned gun jammed. A chill ran up my spine—that’s why I always carried a spare.
             I reached for the gun in my holster, but he was faster. He delivered a blow to my mouth, followed by another to my stomach. I saw stars. So much for not leaving any of my DNA on the scene, I thought, red spittle dripping from my lips onto his carpet. He delivered another blow to the gut. My opinion of him went up a slight notch, but that didn’t change my objective.
             Shuddering, I sent an elbow to his neck, straightened and roundhouse-kicked his kidney. It wasn’t enough. He gut punched me again. I leaned into it, tightening my abs. No stars, but it still hurt like hell.
             There’s an art to beating up a man larger than you—it’s in the legs. So, I delivered a kick to his solar plexus, hard, and a second to his bloody hand. “Your wife sends her regards.”
             He went down, finally, but grabbed for the Glock with his good hand.
             I kicked the gun away. I had to give him credit. He had stamina.
             When he could talk, he gasped out, “What do you know about my wife?” His eyes narrowed to beads. “My wife’s visiting her sister.”
             “You are quite wrong. Your wife is safely in my underground. You will never see her again.” Kick to the other kidney. “Do not try to find her.” Kick to the neck. “Do not even mention her name.” I stomped his bloody stump.
             He screamed and then gasped out, “You will never get away with this.” He sucked in a breath through quivering lips. “Do you know who I am? I will find you … and … kill you, fucker.”
             “Not likely.” Then, I pulled the other Beretta, shot his kneecap, and pointed the gun higher toward his crotch.
             “Don’t shoot.” He squealed like a baby. How pitiful. I had hoped better from this rock of solid muscle who beat his wife on a daily basis.
             “Payback is a bitch.” I ground my boot in his face, hearing the crunch of bone. Blood ran from his nose. A broken nose is about the worst pain imaginable. I rubbed the bump on my nose, remembering. “It’s a bitch to fight someone who actually fights back. Isn’t it?” I shifted the gun and scratched my beard. “If I hear you are trying to locate either me or your wife, I’ll be back.” I shot the other kneecap and raised the gun. “If I come back, I won’t be shooting at your knees.”
             I left him alive. He would call 911, but he would never find the man who attacked him.
             I ran a quarter mile to a gas station, went into the bathroom, and locked the door. I found the plastic bag I’d left behind the toilet, pulled out women’s clothes, and began to change. First, I cut the binding holding my breasts. Ah, that felt good. I put on a woman’s business suit that showed some cleavage, removed the false beard, teeth, and makeup. My lip had quit bleeding. It was swollen, but makeup covered it pretty well. I completed my new look with a red wig and cherry-red lipstick, noting new crow’s feet around my eyes. I thought I could pass for a trendy, college professor.
             Putting the men’s clothes, beard, and guns into the bag, I walked out of the restroom and drove off in an old beater car I’d left parked in the lot.


♥♥♥


             The door jingled, announcing my entrance to Big Bad Wolf, Incorporated.
             “Hello, Molly.” I nodded to my receptionist. One of the jobs she had listed on her résumé was “circus clown.” I wasn’t sure she realized she’d changed professions. There was enough foundation caked on her face to paint a battleship. Red blotches on her cheeks, blaze-blue eyeshadow, and jet-black hair made her look like a real Bozo. I doubted that she could even type. She spent her days painting her nails and refreshing her clown look.
             I settled in the office chair, put my feet up, and called into my service for my phone messages. Although most of my business came from word of mouth, I ran an ad in local newspapers of some of the major US cities:
             Big Bad Wolf, Incorporated. Got a problem? Need help? Call Red Riding Hood. Fees negotiable.
             I meant it. I took care of problems, many of them nasty. All of them unsolved—and many unsolvable—by the police. My fees varied. The higher-paying jobs took care of the pro-bono cases, like the lieutenant’s wife. A Google search for “need help” or “desperate” called up the Big Bad Wolf, Inc.’s website.
             “A Mr. Little is here to see you.”
             A heavy, dark-skinned man walked to my desk and sat down. Rings of perspiration wet his underarms. His eyes on my cleavage, he said, “But … you’re a woman.”
             “No, really? I didn’t know.”
             “Word on the street is that you solve problems.” Digging at his greasy combover, he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow. “But this is not a job for a woman.”
             “Then, I’m probably the man for you. I can handle whatever you got.” He didn’t look convinced. “I’m sure the person who recommended me told you what I did for him.” I raised my eyebrows, remembering.
             I’d done some initial research on Mr. Little. His real name was Ned Bearskin, a member of the Saponi Nation. Bearskin lived in south Raleigh and managed a thriving car dealership. His marriage failing, he checked into the Super 8 each week, dusted off the old schwanzstucker with a local hooker.
             None of that interested me. But his daughter had been killed a week ago, shot during a robbery gone sour. That interested me. The police had made no arrest.
             “I know about your daughter. Whatever you need, I can handle it. Name’s Red.” I was born Rosa Cabalina, but I hadn’t used that name in years. More recently, I’d been Detective Rosa Wolfe with the Raleigh Police Department. Until my husband died, a victim of the Iraq War. Unable to cope, I had lost my badge for beating a man to near-death while working a case. Now, I got paid for the same.
             Mopping his brow, Bearskin looked me straight in the eye and described a job that nearly made me lose my lunch.
             “What you describe is horrific, even by my standards.” I named a high six-figure fee that I knew would clean out his savings, sure he’d decline my services. Instead, he agreed.


♥♥♥


             I carefully packed my workout bag, but not with gym clothes or sneakers. The most important piece of equipment was the hunting knife, a skinner with a four-inch blade.
             The sun was just peeking out on the horizon as I drove to the Raleigh Country Club. I parked, the sky oozing pink and orange. I opened the car door to a wall of humidity, took a breath of heated air, smelling the familiar scent of leaves, flowers, ragweed, and musty soil. My shirt already plastered to my back in the predawn, I considered living somewhere with a milder climate, but knew I’d never move away from the city.
             I had grown up at Chavis Heights public housing complex in Raleigh. I was ten the first time someone shot at me. My brother and I were walking home from school when a group of young men drove up to us and started firing, a gang initiation. My brother died in the ambulance. That was the day I decided to become a policewoman. End gang crime in Raleigh. I shrugged, perspiration trickling down my back. It hadn’t worked out quite the way I expected.
             I wheeled a road bike out of the back of the SUV, perspiration trickling between my breasts. I put a Smith & Wesson double-action .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol in my back holster, which I covered with a loose bike shirt. Next, I belted my knife case to my waist, inserted the knife. Absently, I felt for the badge clipped to my belt—my fingers swept nothing but belt. Even now, years out of the force, I still felt naked without the gold.
             I shook my head and pulled my hair into a band at my neck, then completed the outfit with a helmet. Anyone seeing me would think I were a member of the country club.
             I cycled the backstreets, whistling and trying to look carefree. Houses got older and seedier. I swerved to miss a drunk who staggered into the road in front of me. “Eat road somewhere else,” I yelled.
             At Beauty Avenue I rode past a house shedding what little blue paint was left on the wooden siding. I turned my bike around, got off, and wheeled the bike into a garage a couple houses down. I’d driven this street at various times over the last few days. I knew that the couple who lived there never came home during the day. The bike would be safe in their garage. I opened a small vial and sniffed, feeling the coke rush. I took another hit and opened my bag. I put a Glock in the right pocket of my bike shorts. I felt confident with the new gun. After firing it over 2,000 times, it hadn’t jammed once. I was no longer using Berettas—too unstable.
             I walked cautiously to the street, glancing both ways. A man walked toward me wearing a dirty coat, torn jeans, obviously homeless. Who else would wear a coat in August? I was in no mood.
             “Some help, lady. Anything you’ve got.”
             I recognized Nick the Nick, real name Nicholas Nicholson. I’d used Nick the Nick before, and I trusted him. I never liked using a partner, but I needed backup on this job, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut.
             During my surveillance, I had counted five people living in the house, my guy, a.k.a Prince Charming, two other men, and two women. Others came and went, but the five were permanent residents. Prince Charming had shot Mr. Little’s daughter. Her life in exchange for electronics that had a street value of a couple hundred dollars. He was stupid enough to sell them after the shooting. I tracked him down through his fence. I had methods of persuasion that the police could not use.
             Charming was my target, and could expect no mercy from me, but a little collateral damage could be expected.
             Nick the Nick and I used the shrubs for protection. I pulled two stocking caps from my bag. We each pulled one on and walked warily up the porch steps. They hadn’t left the door open for us. Unlike the police lieutenant, these gangbangers had a good-quality aluminum door. I’d break my foot, ankle, and leg before I kicked in that door.
             I took the lock pick kit out of my bag, nervous about the noise it’d make. I had hoped to catch them asleep. Nick the Nick grabbed my shoulder and shook his head, pointing at the old wooden doorjamb. I decided I liked working with Nick. He was always prepared.
             I pulled the Glock out of my pocket and tried to stop my heart from hammering. I was more than a little scared. I always felt an adrenaline rush at the start of each job. It was all part of the challenge. Nick pulled a crow bar out of his long coat and pried the door open in less time than I could have picked it.
             I rushed in, the Glock steady in my gun hand. Nothing. A woman slept on the couch, dressed in panties and nothing else, a six-pointed star tattooed on her tummy—a Crib gang sign. How cute!
             I gestured. Nick covered the woman’s mouth with duct tape and tied her wrists and ankles with plastic ties. We both crept toward the bedrooms: there were three. I opened the first bedroom door while Nick the Nick watched the hall. A woman and a man lay naked in bed. Not our guy. I started to back out of the room, but the man roared up in bed, a pistol aimed at my head. I shot him between the eyes. The .45 sounded like thunder in the small room. That ought to cause some attention.
             I nodded toward the door. The woman took the hint, grabbed the sheet to cover herself, and ran out the door with me close behind.
             Two burly men burst out bedroom number two, both brandishing knives—Charming and a close friend. Hmm. No sign of the other resident.
             I shot Friend in the knee. He kissed the carpet, screaming, still grasping his knife.
             Charming—not too smart, apparently—kept coming. I guess he thought his knife trumped a pistol. I almost felt bad about killing him. Almost.
             That’s when all hell broke loose. Gangbanger number five must have just gotten home because I felt movement behind me and then a thundering shot. I turned to see number five go down, shot through the heart by Nick the Nick. I definitely liked working with Nick, I decided.
             I shouldn’t have been so careless as to turn my head. While I was distracted, Charming slashed my shoulder, dangerously close to my carotid artery, causing me to drop the gun in my right hand.
             Friend staggered toward me, slashed at my Achilles tendon with his knife. I lost my balance, went down. Friend scooped my gun off the floor. He had some intelligence, I thought, as I reached for the S & W in my back holster. I was fast. Friend was faster.
             Friend aimed my own .45 at my temple. I cursed my stupidity and prepared to meet Satan. Two loud shots. Blood ran into my eyes. I felt a heaviness in my chest, but no pain. I realized I wasn’t hit. Instead, Friend’s body was smothering me, his blood covering me. I rolled Friend off me, swiping blood off my face. The hole between his unseeing eyes left no doubt he was dead, courtesy of Nick the Nick.
             Charming lay in a pool of blood, not dead, but gasping for air, probably a collapsed lung—Nick’s second shot. I knew that Nick hadn’t aimed for Charming’s heart. If he had, Charming would be dead.
             Nick and I searched the house. Three men were dead, the woman on the couch still tied, looking terrified. The pain in my ankle was intense, but fortunately, the Achilles was not severed, just cut.
             Now, I would begin the job. With Nick on the lookout and wishing desperately for a hit of coke, I pulled Charming upright. Limping, I got behind him, thrust my knee in between his shoulder blades, seized a tuft of hair in one hand, and with my hunting knife in the other, cut around the skin of his head. He was in no condition to fight back, barely able to groan. I slid the knife under the skin where I’d cut and pulled the whole piece of scalp away.
             I said the words Ned Bearskin had paid me to say, “Life is sacred and should be respected. You have violated the balance of life and upset the spirits. The spirits must be appeased.” Then, I inserted Charming’s scalp into his mouth, shoved it all the way into his throat with the end of my S & W. What was left of him tried to gasp for air.
             I added my own farewell. “Payback is a bitch.”


♥ End ♥




Trina Allen is an educational consultant and longtime writer whose stories can be found in magazines such as The Dead Mule, Chiron Review, Word Catalyst, and Thunder Sandwich. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and two Lab-mix dogs. This story first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly.

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