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May 20, 2024


By Geoffrey Marshall

I shoved the envelope under the door and hurried down the hall. I had to be quiet but I just wanted out of there — my only fear was of hearing the locks clatter, the doorknob rattle — of that door opening. Of being seen. Caught by her. Of the confrontation that would follow. After all this crap why worry about a little confrontation? There was only a few dollars in the envelope anyway — all I could manage but I left them as often as I could. Because why?

Because I have a secret and not a good one either. It’s just that I need to tell someone and you’ll do. I mean, what do you care? Can I ask you, before I begin, are some people just wired up to do self-destructive shit? I can come up with all the excuses in the world for what happened but every single one would be meaningless. You need to know what I’m talking about. So just listen.

Something like ten years ago, me and Josie and Spanx were hanging out in front of this ratty corner store. Thirty years before and you would have said it had seen better days. For us it was a rundown dump, just like the town it was in to be honest. We all cut school that afternoon, ditching history. The teacher had this porn star mustache and his pens always leaked in his shirt pocket. Everyone found him funny but for me he was just ridiculous, and what could those old Greeks teach me anyway?

So we were having a smoke in front of the grungy little corner store. Spanx asked me, “What happened last night, Finn?”

I shrugged, not much. Was a little embarrassed to tell you the truth. Ashamed to admit I lost the piece. Spanx loaned it to me because I wanted to do some target practice out behind the old rink. The place had been abandoned decades ago. Being on the edge of town, no one would hear any noise so I figured I could set up some targets.

“Cops chased me, man,” I admitted, “I ran through the old park to lose them and cut across the playground down the street. Ditched the gun beside an old stump just past the fence.” He didn’t look too happy with my explanation. “Don’t worry dude. I go back and grab it tonight. No one will ever know.”

“Better be right man,” was all he said. Better be right.

About then these two kids came along. I guess they got out of school earlier than us ‘cause I doubt they were skipping. There was a girl, maybe eight. She was small. What can I say? She had a backpack and I said the sparkly bunnies were awesome. Spanx laughed his ass off but Josie was pissy. Those are unicorns, you goddamn morons, she said but we just laughed harder.

Along with the girl was an older boy. Maybe ten I would say. Still a kid and skinny as hell on top of that. If he had just a little but of muscle, well I’m gonna say the rest of this wouldn’t of happened happened ‘cause me and Spanx, well me anyway, we were chickenshits in our hearts.

I dunno why, but I didn’t like this kid. His jeans were new and his shoes were so clean they pretty much glowed. I guess they lit up the grimy little piss-pot of a store. I can’t tell you why, but like I said, I didn’t like the kid on sight.

“Clean shoes, kid,” I said. Spanx laughed and the kid turned red.

The girl looked nervous but hurried for the door. The kid stopped for a second or two. “You talking to me?” he asked. I know the way that sounds but it’s what he said and besides, he wasn’t trying to be tough. He was just being his natural polite-ass self, which is what I didn’t much care for if I’m being honest.

Josie smacked my arm and the kids went into the store. The greasy-looking door clattered shut with a jangle of bells. We all heard the girl’s stage whisper as the door was closing and broke out laughing. Jerk. She called me a jerk. Well I guess she was right. Right enough.

We stayed outside and finished our smoke. I was feeling anxious and in a mood to cause some trouble, so I flicked the butt onto the sidewalk and motioned for the others. “C’mon, let’s go in,” I said and Josie came me that look — her wtf look.

The bells jingled again as we entered. The store was small, a few aisles was all, really — beer, cigarettes and junk food. You know what I mean? The kids were huddled together hunting for candy. The clerks were keeping a keen eye on them until we arrived. They were a couple I considered ancient at the time although I now know they were in their sixties.

There were an odd pair and I have to say it always seemed they hated kids. Funny when you think they made their living off the school next door. Or maybe not so funny. The old guy was some kind of retired soldier or something but his best days were long gone, no question. The woman had the kind of pinched face that made her look like she always had a headache, and maybe she did. For all I know she always did.

Like I said they were watching the two kids like a pair of hawks (little potential shoplifters that they were) until we came in. We had never done anything inside their store so they had no reason to keep us out but they knew we were good-for-nothings all right. On the other hand they sold us cigarettes and sometimes beer without checking our ids so there you go.

Josie, Spanx and me spread out around the store. We laughed ‘cause the old clerks were trying to keep an eye on all of us, including the kids, at the same time. Spanx grabbed a Gatorade while Josie inspected the jerky and I picked up a candy bar.

Well, what I actually did was grab two candy bars and head for the cash. Behind me a box of jerky fell from the shelf. I heard Josie tell the old dudes “Sorry sorry,” and the old guy headed her way to pick up the box.

I walked behind the kids and knocked the boys backpack with a solid thump. He spun sideways and his bag jostled the shelf. “Watch where you’re goin’,” I said as I breezed by and dropped my candy bar on the counter. I paid and went for the door, and where was the other bar? I think you might have an idea. When I got the door I held it open then turned back. “Hey, old dude,” I called and when he looked I pointed at the kid, “I think you’d better check his bag. I saw him stuff a candy bar in the pocket.”

The kid’s jaw hit the floor and I went out the door. I heard his, “That’s a lie,” just as the door closed. I opened my wrapper and waited for Spanx and Josie. I only made it halfway through my candy bar when they crashed through the door laughing their asses off.

I just stood silently while they howled. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. “Are you two through yet?” I snapped, “What happened?”

They got themselves under control. “You should have seen it man,” Josie said. I swear the guy was crying he had laughed so hard. “The old guy,” Josie made the motions of running, “he grabbed the kid just after you left. The kid kept saying ‘no, no’ but the old guy wouldn’t have it. He pulled the backpack off and emptied it out on the floor.”

Spanx interrupted, “You should have seen the look on the kid’s face when the bar fell out.” He made a face with his mouth hanging open, hands on his cheeks, then continued, “and he and the old man just stared at each other.”

“The girl started to cry,” Josie added. “We just want to buy gummies,” she said, scrunching up her face in a (bad) imitation of the crying child.

They continued telling me the story. The old man shouted at the kid threatening to call the cops and the kid just kept repeating he didn’t take the candy bar. The old lady seemed to come around to believe the kid and when he started to point the finger at me the old man seemed to come on board as well. That’s when Spanx and Josie left, ‘cause the old couple were starting to look their way. Starting to ask questions.

“So did they call the cops?” I asked. Not while they were there, they said. Anyway, what could happen if they did call the cops?

“So the kid blamed me, did he?” I asked, “maybe I should have a few words with him.”

The words had just left my lips when the door opened again and the two kids came out. Tear streaked and disheveled, naturally. The boy’s backpack was all lumpy, like he stuffed everything back in haphazardly just to get out of there. The girl’s face was red and she was still crying. The pair froze when they saw us. We lined up facing each other — three against two.

“I hear you tried to pin your theft on me,” I said to the kid.

“You put it in my bag,” he yelled, not cowering or crying like I expected.

I’ll admit now to you that I was caught off guard by the kid’s ferocity. I guess, in my heart, I’m a coward so it’s hard for me to imagine standing up to someone so much bigger and stronger. I didn’t know then what I know now — a truth life eventually beat into me — everyone is scared. Some of us overcome the fear, most of us don’t. Maybe it’s something you can be taught, I dunno. I do know I never could have stood up for myself like he did.

The little guy charged me. He tried to hit me a few times so I ended up grabbing him by his shirt and throwing him to the sidewalk. He skinned his hands on the concrete and I saw blood. “Back off,” I shouted, “or you’re gonna get hurt.”

He got up and ran at me again. I don’t even know how he did it. Maybe he was just angry, or maybe he sensed somehow that I was a chickenshit at heart. This time I hit him. Hard. He went flying and blood ran from his nose, “Stop kid, just stop,” I was almost pleading, “just go home.”

The kid was on his feet again. He was angry alright. He wiped his bloody nose and looked at his smeared hand. Then he looked at me and said, “make me.”

I tried to sneer but I was angry now too. The kid was making me look bad in front of Spanx and Josie. “What did you say?” I said in the hardest voice I could come up with.

“You heard me,” he looked in my eyes, “come and make me.”

I honestly could not believe what he was saying. It was like I was in some kind of nightmare come to life and I had no clue what to do. The bells jangled from the door and the old man was outside now. He grabbed the kid’s arm. “Let it go,” he told the kid, “he’s not worth it.”

I finally saw red. Yes, I was a coward a heart but this was only a little kid and some dried up old dude. I didn’t understand strength at all back then to be honest. All I knew was that physically they had no chance against me. A coward wants to believe that everyone else is a coward too. But that’s not true. Maybe mostly true, but not completely.

I reached in my pocket and grabbed my knife. Click, the blade come out. Razor sharp. Deadly. These little pricks would run now and that would be that.

I heard the girl scream.

Spanx was shouting, “What the hell dude?” “Put the knife away, Finn,” Josie yelled at me.

The old man’s face went ghostly white and I saw his grip on the kid’s arm tighten and the kid grimaced in reaction.

The old lady was outside now too, “I called the police,” she screamed. Then, at least the way I remember it, things got totally quiet. Silence spread over us all. So quiet and slow, like the first snow falling on a windless day. I had time in this frozen moment (or I do in my mind when I play it all back) to look in the eyes of all of the players. The old man seemed confused. The old lady seemed scared. The kid was angry. Josie and Spanx were shocked as hell I had the switchblade out. The girl — well the girl.

She just said, “Pew pew,” and made little trigger pulling motions with her finger. Thing was she had a gun. She had a gun. Pointed at me. Her finger on the trigger. The safety was on. Oh thank god, I thought, thank god. She said it again, “Pew pew,” but was the safety really on? Maybe she just missed the trigger the first time. Her hand twisted. Her finger moved. The gun went off. I still heard nothing. Only her “pew pew.”

But the boy dropped and a red pool began to spread.

The old man jumped the girl, grabbed the gun. Threw it away. Then he collapsed and the woman ran to his side, screaming something I don’t even have a clue what. But she was there heaving and sobbing beside her husband. The girl was hidden under the collapsed man’s body. Spanx and Josie were long gone and I just stood there, frozen in place, and pissed my pants.

I felt someone grab my arm. A cop. They hauled me down. They beat the living shit out of me that day. Every morning when I wake up I wish they were there waiting, ready to do it again. Over and over every morning until at last a day would come when I could just say enough, I suffered enough. The scales are balanced. But they can never balance can they? How could that even be possible?

So the kid and the old man died. The kid from his gunshot wound, the old man from a heart attack as he lay on top of the girl with his wife beside him. Turns out he survived quite a few tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, but died on the corner in front his store. Josie and Spanx fled of course and I never saw them again. I guess the police questioned them and all but only as witnesses.

For me, I ended up with what you might call a slap on the wrist. In the end I think they figured I wasn’t on the hook for too much. I didn’t bring the gun or use it. I didn’t steal anything. I didn’t do anything did I? Not really. Except I knew. Everyone knew. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for me. It was nobody’s fault by mine

My mother moved us to another state. She didn’t have much money but she found an apartment in Arizona and got a job cleaning houses for decent pay. I stumbled through a few more years of school before calling it quits.

What about the girl? I haven’t told you what happened to her have I? Turns out she was the kid's sister. Of course. Where did she get the gun? They said she found it in a nearby playground. Cops never could trace that gun. Guess it was reported stolen a few years back. But I knew who put it there.

The girl never did recover. I wrote letters saying how sorry I was. They always came back unopened. Return to sender. After a while they were just undeliverable. I gave up on school and drifted for a couple of years. Eventually I went back and asked around. Turns out she never finished school either. She moved to Chicago, found herself some oxy and just tried to kill the pain. I eventually got her address and watched her come and go a few times. Skin and bones was all she was.

I came up with an idea. An idea that grew, that kinda became my obsession. Whatever happened to me didn’t matter. But her, well, she mattered. I tried to find a way to help her heal a little. I knew she could never be whole, but maybe she could heal just enough to have at least a shadow of the life I stole from her.

So I slid my envelope under her door and headed down the hall. I moved quickly and as quietly as possible like I had done dozens of times.

I reached the stairs when I heard her voice. “Wait.”

For three years I had done this trick and never got caught. Guess it had to happen sometime. I stopped, caught between continuing on my way and turning around. I knew seeing me would only cause her pain, but running might be worse.

I turned around. She was standing framed in her doorway. “So it’s you,” she said.

I froze, not really knowing what to say.

“I can’t forgive you,” she said, “if that’s what you expect.”

“No I —”

“You don’t deserve it and I can’t give it.”

I took a step towards her, just one step down the long hallway, “That’s not what I want.”

“Ok then,” she crossed her arms, “what exactly do you want?”

“Nothing I — ” I stalled out. I just couldn’t figure out how to say it.

She saw me struggling and held up her finger, “Hold on,” she said and disappeared into her apartment. She returned a minute later with a small stack of envelopes clamped in her hand. She came down the hall and stood in front of me. Confronting me. Like her brother did.

She held my letters. Every single one unopened.

“You don’t get to say you’re sorry,” she said. She thrust the stack at me, but I let them fall to the grease splotched floor. My shoulders slumped as her words settled into my chest and I turned to leave. The envelopes could stay where they were.

One more time, at the top of the stairs, she spoke, “Wait.”

I turned again. She was standing over the pile of letters trembling.

“I really am sorry but that’s not what those envelopes were for,” I said.

“What then?” she asked.

“It’s too late for me, but this was to help you come out of this. You don’t deserve this. Nothing can undo the past by maybe you can have a life if you clean yourself up.”

“Are you judging me now?” she said. She had moved nearer again, standing just in front of me. “You, of all people, judging me?”

“You know I can’t judge you.”

“This all happened because of you,” she said. She thumped her fist into my chest. Then again. And again. I wan’t sure if she would ever stop.

Article © Geoffrey Marshall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-02-20
Image(s) are public domain.
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