All Shook Up

Edna watched the living room from her special spot on the window seat. During the day, she curled up on the brightly flowered cushion to watch the neighbors pick at their gardens and stroll along sidewalks cracked and crooked from rogue tree roots. (Edna doubted the city would ever take responsibility for the state of those sidewalks. She huffed at the thought, air whooshing out her sizeable nose.) At night, though, she could hardly see a thing, even when she squinted her beady blue eyes and cupped hands around her face to press against the cool glass. Nothing. Not even her own reflection.

Now she turned from the window to watch the house’s current resident. Edna thought Sally was her name, but young people spoke so fast these days that Edna could hardly keep up. She’d asked the girl to speak up several times, but the twenty-something just ignored the old woman.

Sally, having just returned home from work, had changed into flannel pants and a worn T-shirt and settled on the couch. She held an ice cream container and a spoon in one hand, a bulky remote in the other. Edna stared in disgust as the girl flicked through the channels before landing on some ridiculous investigation-discovery television show. It was sick, she thought to herself, just sick the way kids today were so enthralled with crime. She tsked, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Sally, engrossed in the show, didn’t hear a sound.

Edna got up to wander the room. She had suffered a stroke several years ago, and now she cradled her left arm at her side and walked with a limp. She used her right hand to balance on a stray chair, then the back of a loveseat. Sally’s cat, Mermaid, sat perched on the curved arm of an overstuffed chair and flicked a green-eyed glance toward Edna. Edna reached over to stroke her hand down the cat’s bony back, but Mermaid leaped out of the chair, eyes narrowed at the woman.

“Never liked felines much anyway,” Edna muttered to herself. “Too damn prickly.”

As Mermaid sauntered away, sending backward glares at Edna, the old woman decided her walk across the room was just about enough activity for the evening. She tucked herself into the now vacant armchair. With her left arm propped on her thigh, Edna turned to Sally.

“Why do you watch this garbage?”

Sally didn’t respond, focused as she was on scraping her spoon through the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. She licked up the vanilla ice cream, then chewed the cookie dough balls.

“Ever heard of manners?”

Sally turned the spoon over and sucked on it before removing it from her mouth and dipping it back into the ice cream carton.

Edna, appalled, looked away.

“I said, ever heard of manners?”

Sally, her eyes glued on the television, never turned in Edna’s direction. Even when her cell phone began to trill, Sally kept her gaze on the forensics show and groped for the phone with one hand. She didn’t even bother to glance at it before swiping her thumb across the screen and bringing it to her ear.

“Yello?”

Edna couldn’t hear the voice on the other hand, but she was betting it was Sally’s latest boyfriend, Herman. He was a string bean of a man, tall and thin and awkward with big eyes and a nonexistent chin. Sally seemed enamored with him, though Edna couldn’t imagine how anyone could be attracted to a flagpole.

Sally giggled in the phone. “Nothing. What’s up with you?”

After a pause, she asked shyly, “Wanna come over?”

Edna rolled her eyes.

“Great, see you soon. Bye.”

Sally tapped the phone screen to end the call and smiled to herself before dropping her cell on the coffee table with a clatter. She thrust her fists in her air and wiggled her butt, then looked down at her comfy-cozy attire. Edna watched the play of emotions on Sally’s face as she realized her slovenly appearance, her melting ice cream, her sticky mouth. Sally reached up with nail polish-flecked fingers to dab at her lips. She stood and stripped off in the living room, then gathered her pajamas and the ice cream, flipped off the overhead light and the television and skipped upstairs to her bedroom.

Edna remained in the living room.

“Haven’t you ever heard about the cow giving away the milk for free?” she shouted up at Sally. “That girl,” Edna chided as she shook her head from side to side.

Edna picked at the stray threads on her plaid wool skirt and crossed her feet at the ankles. She didn’t care to sit in the dark, but as she couldn’t get up and turn on the light herself, she’d just have to wait for Sally’s return. She hummed a song from her childhood, one that had been passed down through generations, and rocked her body back and forth. So absorbed was she that the darker shadow passing over the now vacant window seat went unseen.

She also didn’t hear the lock being turned with a snick, the door opening with a creak. Sally, rummaging through her closet upstairs to find the perfect dress, didn’t hear it either. But Edna, she did feel the light breeze that drifted through the room when the door was opened. Her skirt fluttered just slightly at the edges, her ecru knee-highs slid down just a little.

Edna pushed up her coke-bottle, plastic-framed glasses and twisted her neck to the right and the left, curious about the teasing wind. As far as she knew, she and Sally were the only inhabitants of Shawnee Park House, but maybe they had a new resident. She shrugged, considered herself the senior member of the house’s occupants and resumed her quiet singing.

The figure dressed in black sneaked into the room, his Velcro-fastened sneakers making the tiniest of squeaks on the linoleum floor. When he reached the carpeting of the living room, he looked around, saw it was empty. He lowered his flashlight and circled the room smoothly, one gloved hand trailing against the wall panels. It was here, he knew it. He’d read about it.

He’d come across the story in the library’s archive while on his lunch hour. This house, this unrenovated, ugly house, had once been home to Blue-Eyed Blondie and his gang of thugs in the 1930s. They’d hit every bank from the Mississippi to the Missouri before escaping into rural Kansas. Blondie had lived out his days as a miser, and the money had never been found. The house had since been passed from ancestor to ancestor, the latest having died under “unknown” circumstances. But Ricky knew that the money was still tucked away here somewhere.

He pulled at the wood paneling, jumping slightly when it snapped back into place. Edna watched him curiously from her seat. Who was this odd-looking fellow with his bobbing light? Edna looked in the direction of the stairs, oddly comforted that the girl had turned on her stereo and was singing to some sickeningly pink bubble gum pop music (Edna considered it to be noise. Give her Elvis any day.) This wasn’t some game Sally and Herman were playing, was it?

Edna considered the fellow, his scrawny arms, his short stature, the wire glasses poking out from behind the hastily pulled down ski mask. No, he was too small to be Herman, she decided. Although from the looks of it, he wasn’t much better off than Herman in the looks department. And he clearly wasn’t educated in the art of burglarizing. Coming into a home with a light on upstairs? With Sally’s car in the driveway?

Edna shook her head in disapproval. She knew what he was looking for, but she thought when the time came, she’d at least be pitted against someone with some grit. This man looked about ready to pee his pants, poor thing. A wicked smile began to spread across Edna’s puffy face as she sized him up and down. He was frantically moving from one panel to another, risking frequent glances at the stairs and the warm circle of light coming from Sally’s room.

Edna levered herself off the chair and limped her way over to the man. Ricky, for his part, seemed to sense the movement, and finally, out of frustration and limb-tingling panic, yanked up his mask to see better. The room was still empty.

Ricky, baffled at his own skittishness, returned to the paneling, stripping back one flexible board after another, craning his neck to see between the panel and the siding. He was sure that the money had been hidden in the walls. He could really use the extra cash; the library didn’t pay very well, and if he ever wanted to publish his novel – which had been rejected a total of 83 times so far – it was going to cost him. But fame and fortune were just within his grasp. Literally.

He reached a gloved hand around to poke at the drywall, then made a fist to lightly pound on it. He suspected if he heard a difference in sound, it would indicate the money’s hiding place.

Edna, amused and far more entertained by the intruder than the television show Sally had switched off, let out a snort.

“What an idiot,” she said.

Ricky’s body immediately went still at her laughter, a stiffening that Edna, despite her cataracts and the darkness of the room, noticed.

“Ah ha, so you can sense me, boy. Well, just you wait. This is going to be fun,” she promised gleefully.

Mermaid, having wandered back into the room, now sat at the doorway, her tail flicking nonchalantly.

“Ok, cat, shall we make hay?” Edna asked.

Mermaid lowered her lids halfway in response, and a purr began rumbling out of the sleek black body.

Ricky turned at Mermaid’s humming and immediately fell into a fit of sneezing.

“Damnit,” he said, reaching into his pocket for a wad of limp tissues.

Edna winked at Mermaid, then slid closer to Ricky, now covered in red hives.

Ricky stuffed the tissue up his nose, the ends flopping down like a limp white mustache, and continued to tap-tap-tap against the wall. Edna scooted closer, her shoulder bumping Ricky’s. He let out a little squeal and jumped back, his body circling the spot the where he stood.

Edna, bent at the waist, howled with laughter.

Ricky tentatively reached out a fist again to knock on the wall. This time, he did hear a different sound, a different tone. Ignoring his heebie-jeebies, he tried to punch a hole in the wall. He succeeded only in bruising his knuckles and leaving a delicate imprint on the wall. Grumbling under his breath, he pulled a travel hammer from his pocket, unfolded it and knocked it against the wall. Finally, it began to crumble piece by piece, and Ricky, covered in a dusting of gray, reached his hand in to grasp at the box tucked between posts.

Edna, out of breath and with a smile still dancing across her face, watched him pull out the box and lower to his knees. She’d let him get this far, might as well let him open it up to see what was inside.

As Ricky undid the latches to flip open the top, the music in Sally’s room came to a stop. And someone knocked at the front door. Heart thrumming and sweaty fingers trembling, Ricky opened the top of the box. Empty. Edna hooted with laughter, and Ricky, hearing the footsteps, hearing the persistent knock at the door, hearing the cackling, looked around wildly. He staggered to his feet, and before him stood an old woman, one arm cradled to the side, the other wiping tears streaming down her transparent cheeks.

“Boo!” she shouted.

Ricky let out a warbling high-pitched scream, one that would’ve done any actress in Sally’s television shows proud, and raced toward the door. At that moment, Sally flipped on the light and danced downstairs, and Herman, tired of waiting, stepped into the tiny foyer. Shocked at the sight of Ricky, Sally let out her own shriek and Herman goggled at the man in black whose mask was, unfortunately, bunched up around his hairline and whose tissue was now just dangling precariously from his left nostril.

Edna curled back on the window seat and watched the confrontation ensue, her eyes bright, her smile wide. Mermaid jumped up in her lap, and Edna lifted her good hand to stroke the cat’s vibrating body.

“Thank you, thank you very much,” she said in her best Elvis voice.

The Breaks

Mal could barely control her giddiness. She was faint from the anxiety and excitement coursing through her body, running in parallel neon streams from the top of her head to the tips of her tingling fingers and toes.

“I’d like to buy a vowel,” she shouted, her voice hoarse from the effort.

The light shone down on her, illuminating fair strands of hair and heavy globs of mascara. Mal ignored the glare, her pale blue eyes focused on the board before her. She knew this, she absolutely knew it. The answer was “Howling with laughter.”

“An A!” Alex called back. Vanna, resplendent in a red sequined gown that hugged her famous curves, walked gracefully from one end of the platform to the other, her manicured hand pushing the black button on each lit screen.

The audience cheered, the noise reverberating throughout the windowless studio. It echoed around Mal, pulsed just outside her ears. She could feel the air pushing against her, and her heart thumped harder and faster.

“I’d like to solve the puzzle, Alex,” she called.

Howling with laughter, howling with laughter, howling with laughter. She muttered the phrase under her breath, her mind whirling at the thought of what she would do with her winnings. She would get the final puzzle. Obviously. Then she could take her money – taxes, what? – pay off her remaining student debt, the typical albatross of her unfortunate generation, then she was out of here. Leaving behind her nagging mother, her cheating boyfriend. Paradise was just a plane ride away. And she watched enough movies (“The Firm,” anyone?) to know that the Cayman Islands were the place to be. Sun, sand, surf and safe banks. It was a no-brainer.

Mal lifted onto her toes, bounced three times, then cupped her hands around her mouth to clearly and confidently announce, “Howling with laughter!”

She squealed after the announcement, went from bouncing to jumping exuberantly. Her ill-fitting black blazer flapped at her wide hips, her limp curls sprung apathetically. She didn’t care. This was her moment.

So absorbed was she that Mal didn’t notice the audience’s lukewarm applause or the look exchanged between the two other players. All that mattered was that she was the smartest. The fastest. The winner. She was going to win. Win.

Beep, beep.

“I’m sorry, that’s not correct. On to you, Matt. Spin that wheel!”

Red and Green

*Note: I’m very pleased to announce that the story below was a finalist in Compass Rose’s flash fiction contest!

Johnny wasn’t entirely sure how he’d ended up at the gas station that night, gun in hand, ski mask on. The cashier – young, naïve, sweaty – had pissed himself when he saw Johnny and Sean, the urine dribbling down his pant leg to form a yellow puddle on the floor. Johnny felt sorry the guy; he wasn’t going to shoot him, he just needed the money. All the guy had to do was open the register and give him the cash. But the guy panicked, holding up his arms, waving them back and forth like some kind of windmill caught in a hurricane. And then Sean shot him, and it all went to hell.

Johnny’d only meant to get a few bucks, enough to help pay this month’s rent. He’d seen the red-stamped envelopes, the late notices, the eviction letter. He’d heard his mother’s weeping at night, saw his baby sister’s face puckered with worry, asking why Mama was crying. He just wanted to relieve his mother’s worry, lift that burden from her shoulders long enough so that she would smile again. Be like that guy Atlas he’d seen in a book. Balancing the weight of the world, his mother’s world, on his shoulders. And so he’d let Sean talk him into this robbery, quick cash he’d said.

But he’d never seen blood like that, heard screams like that; the poor guy’s shrieking had reverberated throughout the store. Johnny’s ears had rung, traumatized by the deafening gunshot, the inhuman keening of the cashier. He had dropped the gun, barely registering its muffled metallic clunk as it hit the linoleum floor, and covered his ears.

“Sean, what did you do?”

Sean looked at him, stunned, like he didn’t realize it had been he who’d pulled the trigger. He stared down at the black weapon in his hand, his finger still hovering over the trigger.

“I didn’t mean to,” he told Johnny, his eyes widening with shock, “I really didn’t mean to.”

Both boys eyed the dying cashier, the blood, crimson and thick, oozing out of his gut to pool on the floor. The kid was wheezing, the sound harsh and rasping. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, his gaze unfocused, and his skin had taken on a sallow, waxy texture.

“We gotta do something, man, we can’t just leave him like this,” Johnny said as he began to pace back and forth in front of the counter. “We can’t let him die.”

“Shit, shit!” Sean scrubbed his hands over his face, pulling up his soft cotton ski mask. “Let’s just grab the cash, then call 911 from a payphone.”

Johnny turned and bellied onto the counter, stretching to snag the bills clasped in the register drawer. As he straightened to put the money in his pocket, he glanced up to the corner, caught the eye of the security camera.

“Sean, pull your mask down!” Johnny gestured toward the camera, his movements jerky.

“Oh no,” Sean whispered as he adjusted the black cloth to re-cover his nose and his mouth. “Let’s just get outta here, man.”

They pushed through the glass doors and ran from the store. Johnny ran, and he ran, and he ran, until his lungs were burning, his face dripping with sweat, his legs sore from pounding the hard pavement. He’d lost his mask at some point; the wind had pushed it up his face, over his head, into the street where careless drivers passed over it again and again, whipping it through their dirty tires. He didn’t know where Sean was. But he ran until he reached his home, and there he ran through the door, up the stairs, into his family’s apartment.

He ran past his mother’s room, past his baby sister sleeping on the couch, into his bedroom. And then he stopped.

He sat down on his sagging bed, leaned back until his head bumped the thin wall behind him. His chest heaved, up and down and up and down. As his breath slowed, Johnny reached into his pocket to pull out the cash he’d stolen, the cash that had cost someone his life. He fingered the soft paper, his thumb tracing presidents’ faded green faces.

He let out a long breath, then stood. He crept into his mother’s bedroom and slowly slid the cash under her pillow before leaning down to give her a light kiss on the cheek.

“I love you, Mama,” he whispered.

Then he walked slowly out of the apartment, walked out of the building, walked down the street, walked the blocks and blocks to a squat cement building marked with stark black letters, “Police.” And Johnny, a 14-year-old boy, a criminal, turned himself in.