Authors: Owen Laukkanen,David Siddall,CS DeWildt,Eric Beetner,Joseph Rubas,Liam Sweeny,Scott Adlerberg
Janie looked away again. Her smile was gone and her teddy bear hung perfectly still, frozen. Janie tucked the strands of greasy bangs behind her ear and her birthmark showed on her neck. Tommy looked at it, watched it erupt from the neck of her shirt. He’d seen her without a shirt over the years, the little girl running with the boys in the park, Corbin and the two ginger fags. She hadn’t done it in years, but he’d seen her plenty and he knew that mark ran from her neck to her chest and tit before changing direction down the length of her right arm. The mark was pink and smooth and looked like someone had splattered her with paint or acid.
Tommy sucked at the cigarette. “Lemme use your phone,” he said.
Janie led him back to the living room and gave him the telephone. He dialed the number from the address book, some unknown area code, and listened to it ring. Janie sat on the floor in front of the TV, and Tommy watched cartoons over her shoulder as the phone rang and rang.
“Hello?” the female voice said. She sounded tired. Tommy opened his mouth. He didn’t know if it was Audrey or not, didn’t know what to say in either case. “Hello?” she said again. Tommy hung up the phone.
“Why you want to talk to Audrey?” Janie said.
“I dunno. Where’s she live now?”
“Las Vegas,” Janie said.
“What she doing there?”
Janie shrugged. “Working. Something. I don’t know.”
“Something,” Tommy repeated. “That’s about right for her. Think she takes her clothes off for money?” He laughed. Too perfect. “You want some money, Janie?”
The girl turned from the TV. “What do I have to do for it?”
Tommy shook his head. “Not a thing. Just don’t let your pops know I stopped by today.” He took Janie’s money from his pocket and peeled a dollar bill from the crumpled wad. “Put that in your piggy bank.” Janie stepped to Tommy slowly as the bill dangled from his fingertips like an attractive piece of fruit on a sharp and twisted tree. Janie took the paper in her hand and pulled. He held the bill tight for a moment, looked her in the eye and flashed his chip-toothed smile. “Put it there now.”
Tommy released the bill and Janie backed away a few steps before turning toward the hall. Tommy watched her turn the corner. He leaned forward on the couch and felt underneath it for the knockoff Tupperware he knew was there. Tommy pulled out the plastic container and popped it open, his smile growing as he looked at the neat rows of prepackaged buds, all half-ounce and quarter-ounce baggies rolled tight and tidy. He removed a fistful of baggies, revealing the black pistol beneath, a snub nose .38. Tommy looked to the hall again before snatching the gun and putting it into his pocket. He replaced the plastic container and stood from the couch, stuck the money and drugs in his pocket and then hit the door, stepping out into the warming sunshine.
Corbin was walking up to the trailer as Tommy hopped down the shaky metal stairs. His brother gave Tommy a nod. “They home?”
“Fuck should I know, faggot?” Tommy looked over his shoulder and spat. “I was never there.”
Tommy was out of cigarettes when he got to the Circle K. He sucked the last from the last and tossed the smoking butt into the back of an old pickup truck full of cans and then rapped his knuckles on the glass for the benefit of the sleeping Chihuahuas inside. The dogs startled awake and barked at Tommy with a hyper vigilance that suggested they did not like to be caught napping. An old but large man in a gray cowboy hat stepped out of the store as Tommy approached the door.
The dogs continued barking and Tommy laughed as he heard the old man yell, “Shut the fuck up!” through the glass. Tommy wiped his brow with his forearm. He breathed in deep the cool of the store.
“Gimme some wraps,” Tommy said to the boy behind the counter.
“Tops or what?” the kid said, looking up from his phone.
“Zig Zags. The orange ones.”
The cashier turned his back and—quick as greased diarrhea—Tommy leaned over the counter and snatched two red packs of cigarettes from the overhead dispenser. The boy turned around and rang up the rolling papers. “Anything else?” he said. “It’s two-oh-four.”
Tommy paid two dollars and pointed to the take a penny dish for the rest. He took his papers, spun around and saw a man standing at the door, a little under six feet according the height-strip posted next to the door. No build. Any size he had was flab. His Circle K name tag identified him as Manager Mitch.
“You gonna pay for the cigarettes?”
“I got papes. That’s it.”
“I watched you on the camera. I saw you. You done this before. Call the police, Russell. You ain’t stealing from here no more.”
Tommy threw Russell a look that stopped him bitch still.
“Do it, Russell,” Mitch said. Russell wagged his tail in indecision and then started moving again. Tommy stepped toward the door and Mitch stepped up to meet him. “I’m warning you, Sonny.”
And then Mitch was on the floor. His nose was a busted faucet from a hard strike of the crown of Tommy’s head. He rolled and moaned on the floor, triggering and retriggering the door sensor. Tommy faced Russell and pulled the .38 from his pocket. “Hang it up,” he said. Russell obeyed. Tommy looked over his shoulder. No one in the lot. Manager Mitch was still down. Tommy forced the gun steady in his hand. “Empty the drawer,” he said as he rushed the counter. Russell looked up and caught Tommy’s eye. Tommy adjusted his sweaty grip on the gun. A flash. Ringing ears. Empty space where Russell had been. The cash was speckled with blood and skull and brain. Tommy stepped backward, stumbling over Mitch and nearly losing his feet. He didn’t look back.
The lot was clear and when Tommy got around the side of the store he ran hard for the eight-foot wall separating the Circle K from the neighbors. He took a last look over his shoulder and licked the salty sweat from his lip as he scaled the wall with the ease of a guilty man.
“Shit!” he said as he landed. He had a deep cut in the web of flesh between his thumb and index finger. Tommy put the bleeding skin to his mouth and looked at the wall like he was ready to stomp an apology out of it. He caught his breath and pulled his shirt from his waistband. He pulled the shirt over his head and began slapping a pack of cigarettes against his palm. He ripped the cellophane and foil and wiped away the loose tobacco with a quick, calm efficiency. He leaned against the wall and listened for any sound on the other side that indicated discovery of the scene. He closed his eyes tight and felt the breeze on his face and he used the respite to consider just how fucked he was. He was on camera, that was a given. Mitch would be able to identify him. The kid was dead, probably. Tommy slapped at his pockets;
he’d left the fucking gun behind. He was going away this time, no doubt. No three months in juvenile DOC neither. His eyes teared up. But before the little bitches could leap, Tommy took his burning cigarette and stubbed it out on his calf, and when he opened his eyes again things looked better. He saw the old woman staring at him from the overgrown yard.
“Clarence? That you?” the woman called out. Tommy looked through the patchy garden of mesquite and alien-looking succulents with their curving tentacles, dotted with spiny hooks and waving home. Through the plants he saw the old woman, leaning herself into position to see beyond her side of the trees. “I see you back there. I knew you was out here!”
“I just hopped the wall,” Tommy said.
“Mama and Daddy just left, Clarence. But they’ll be back. Mama’s going to get her hair done. They said I was to wait for you and make sure you get your supper. You want me to fix you a plate? I got meatloaf and carrots and the biggest pear you ever seen for dessert!”
The woman was dressed in a housecoat and pink slippers stained brown. The property was unkempt, overgrown weeds awash with trash, some of it blown in from the alley, but much of it her own it seemed. There were cardboard boxes scattered throughout, various sizes in various states of weathered decay, another pile of windblown trash collected in a mound at the far corner of the house, and everywhere were white bags of trash up and secured with their own red plastic handles. Many of the bags had been ripped open by a dog or maybe a coyote, each of the bags had been stuffed full of adult diapers, now left to fester in the sun. The flies were audible and Tommy thought about Myers again. The day was hot and the soil was damp with septic tank leaching. The place was a mess but he needed a spot to hide until he figured out what to do. He looked for any eyes that might have found them but the high concrete wall went around the entire perimeter of the yard. All he could see between the wall and the clouds was someone’s roof-mounted TV dish. Sirens whined in the distance.
Tommy stepped toward the woman, his feet squishing through the yard. He eyed her as he got close and saw she was coated in gray dirt and dust. Her hair was white, very fine and thinning, and her red scalp was a sun-baked landscape of cracking skin covered in a wispy forest of fine white hair. The skin around the sides of her nose was picked raw and scabbed. Her skin looked like a set of oversized clothes and her cheeks hung loose and sad like an old dog’s.
“Come on home, Clarence. See what I got.” The woman smiled and turned back to the house, shuffling through the dirt and damp.
“Yeah,” Tommy said as he took a last look into the sky and followed the woman through the door. “Let’s see what you got.”
What she had was a fucking mess inside her home. The adult diapers were not relegated to the yard or even bags necessarily. Tommy shuffled through the waste like the old woman did. He looked around the shithole. His mom was no housekeeper, but the place he was in, it was nothing but a receptacle for garbage. The smell was warm and rank, like fast food nacho cheese rotting in cat piss, blanketed beneath the rot and decay of dead animals. But Tommy forgot the smell when he saw the safe, an old Diebold out of Canton, Ohio. It was half buried beneath a mound of diapers and caked-on shit.
“What’s in here?” Tommy said.
“You’ll see,” she said. “You’ll see what I got.”
Tommy followed her further into the house, followed along narrow paths among the mountains of trash and stuff and things. Stacks of phone books were piled to the ceiling. And there were cats, dozens of them watching from any available perch, tracking his movement like posted sentries. The woman sat and patted the couch, inviting Tommy to join her. He cleared a collection of empty cat food cans from the end cushion and sat.
“What’s this bullshit?” he asked, pointing at the TV. A nun stood in front of a painting of some people in an old soda shop, mouthing words soundlessly.
Price is Right
,” the lady said.
Price is Right
, you old dummy.”
The woman looked at Tommy, smiling. “I’m so glad you’re back, Clarence. Didn’t know if you would be.”
“Lady, I’m not Clarence.”
“Have you eaten?”
Tommy looked around and laughed. “You crazy you think I’d eat anything in this place. Tell me what’s in the safe?”
“Money,” she said as she bit into the sandwich. The lettuce crunched and Tommy felt the cool green crispness in his own mouth, tasted the cash.
“You got the combo?”
The woman said nothing. She hummed tunelessly and turned her attention to the nun on TV.
“Fuck it,” Tommy said, standing. The woman nodded, but did not look away from the TV. She took a potato chip from her plate and crunched. Tommy shook his head as he went back to the safe. He kicked at the surrounding mound of diapers, releasing the festering stink in an invisible cloud. He breathed through his mouth and continued to kick away the pile.
“Stop, Clarence. Stop hurting my toys!”
She stood in the arched entryway to the TV room. Her teeth were clenched and her face was bunched in a furious pucker that cracked the scabs around her nose. Then she smiled again as she stared at Tommy.
“I got something for you. Come sit on my lap. I got something for you.”
“Lady,” Tommy said, dusting off a phrase of his father’s, “you’re bat shit.”
“Clarence! You ort not talk like that! I’m going to tell Daddy. I’m going to tell Mama everything bad. I don’t care what you say!” She went back toward the living room. “Daddy!” she screamed, “Clarence done bad!”
Tommy dismissed her and went back to the safe. It was set on thin metal legs and tiny casters. Tommy gave it a little pull to see how easy it would roll. It didn’t move. Tommy pulled harder, wrapped his arms around the thing, wedging his fingers between the metal and the wall. The casters broke free from the aged hold, just barely. Tommy stopped and stood. He looked at the floor and deduced he wasn’t moving it anywhere until he cleared a path through the filth. He’d have to clear a path. “You got a shovel?”