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.

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The Liar’s Comeuppance (Writing on a Cliche)

Artie Bryne was a liar.

He did it with ease, never glancing up to his left or right, never blinking too much, never fidgeting. He would smooth his comb-over, tuck his hands into his pockets, and smile. From his lips would emerge a casually delivered fib. For reasons unbeknownst to him, Artie created complex fabrications of the truth. Perhaps he lied because being honest took more effort; perhaps these stories spiced up an otherwise dull life.

An accountant at a large firm, Artie spent most of his time with numbers. As a result, his social skills were underdeveloped. His life revolved around days at the office and evenings holed up in his cramped apartment with a vast collection of pornography.

Until one Wednesday, Artie and his lies thrived. Whether or not his coworkers believed his stories of summers spent on yachts with supermodels didn’t matter; none of them cared to spend enough time in his company to weed out the truths from the untruths. And Artie didn’t have any close friends to challenge his lies. So he lied freely, without compunction, without retribution.

On this particular evening, Artie set about his normal routine. He turned off his office computer, shrugged into his favorite trench coat with the fraying sleeves and the missing button and took the elevator down to the first floor. He walked past two chatting security guards, slid through the glass doors of the building, and turned left to walk down the street. He stopped at the corner drugstore for a 40 of beer and a mushy tuna sandwich. He peeled some bills from a limp wad of cash, paid, then grabbed his items and set off for the subway. He swiped his wrinkled card and passed through the turnstile. As the train swooshed into the station, Artie’s comb-over lifted slightly before settling back down. The doors opened, and Artie stepped onto the train and took a seat.

At this hour, the subway was full of daily commuters. Most carried briefcases or backpacks, and all had looks of exhaustion on their faces. To Artie’s left was a businessman engrossed in his newspaper; to his right was a college-age student with headphones snugly plugged in her ears. Artie leaned back in his orange plastic seat and glanced around, his eyes landing on the women interspersed throughout the car. Some met his glances before dismissing him while others ignored him completely. When Artie’s eyes landed on a woman across the aisle, however, she not only met his gaze but also gave him a slight nod.

Artie’s heart began to pound, drumming a cadence that signaled one thought: woman. He smiled at the stranger across the aisle; Artie’s smile bordered on revolting, but the woman bravely returned his beam, her lips lifting high at the corners.

With sweating palms, Artie swiped two fingers under his nose. He glanced again at the woman, taking in her vibrant, curly red hair, her hazel eyes, the smattering of freckles across her cheeks and nose. He took a deep breath, his hefty paunch expanding, and tipped his fingers at the woman in greeting. She smirked, lowering one heavily mascaraed eyelid.

“Hey, big man,” she called across the train car.

Artie’s eyes widened in surprise. He moved his head from side to side, confirming that he was, in fact, the target of the woman’s flirtatious gaze. With a rush of self-confidence, Artie leaned forward in his chair and sent the woman a lopsided grin, exposing a line of yellow teeth, one marred by a speck of lettuce. He tried lowering one eyelid in an answering wink, but succeeded only in squinting both eyes. With the tip of his finger, he pushed his over-sized, wire-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose.

The woman giggled at Artie, delighting him. It was so rare for Artie to interact with someone, let alone amuse her, that he couldn’t believe his luck. Not only was this woman interested in him, she was actually engaging him in what he was beginning to perceive as foreplay.

“You got a name, honey?”

Artie cleared his throat.

“Ar-Artie.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ar-Artie. I’m Rhonda.”

Rhonda leaned across the aisle, her button-down shirt stretching tight across her chest with the effort, and offered a smooth hand.

Artie struggled to tear his eyes away from her gaping blouse. He rubbed his right hand briskly on his thigh, then reached out to take Rhonda’s small, pale hand in his own.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

“You live around here, Artie?”

“Five stops away.”

“Well, Artie, honey, mine is the next stop. Why don’t you get off with me; we can grab a cup of coffee and get to know each other.”

Artie’s mouth gaped as he drew in a sharp breath. Was this a come on? Did this woman actually want to talk to him? Nobody wanted to talk to him, as far as he could tell. Most people came up with excuses to leave him (the quick exits may have had more to do with his breath, even his unpleasant body odor, but Artie was unaware of this fact).

Artie bobbed his head, his chins shimmering with the effort.

“Great. Great. That would be great. The next stop, you say?”

“That’s right.”

Rhonda slid a finger down the back of Artie’s hand before settling back into her seat. Artie’s hearing escaped him as his ears filled with static, a rushing sound complemented by a shiver felt deep in his belly.

The train jerked to a stop, and Artie stood unsteadily, a colt testing out its legs. With his drugstore plastic bag in one hand, Artie lurched toward the doorway, following the bobbing of curly red hair a few people in front of him. When he got off the train, he headed toward the exit, trying not to lose sight of this lovely, sexy woman.

And she was waiting for him at the landing, gazing down at him.

Artie stepped off the escalator, took Rhonda’s elbow with his hand, and awkwardly guided her toward the street.

“Which way is the coffee shop?”

“Just around the corner.”

Artie’s chest puffed with importance as he escorted Rhonda down the street. He had no clue what was to happen next, but it didn’t matter. All that he could think was that there was a woman – a real, actual woman – who wanted to get to know him. Really know him, if he was reading the signs correctly.

Acting the chivalrous gentleman, Artie pulled open the glass-paned coffee shop door, allowing Rhonda to step inside the overheated cafe.

“Why don’t you get us a table, and I’ll get the coffee. What’ll you have?”

“I’ll have a latte, sugar.”

“You want a latte with sugar?”

Rhonda’s laugh tinkled out.

Realizing his error, Artie’s face bloomed with embarrassment, red staining his cheeks, the tips of his ears and nose.

“Right, a latte. Honey.”

Minutes later, Artie carried the steaming mugs to the corner table Rhonda had chosen. He placed the coffees on the table, being careful not to spill.

“So, Artie. Tell me about yourself.”

Rhonda took a sip of her latte, then leaned forward, focusing on Artie.

“Well, let’s see. I work as an accountant, but that’s just for fun. I make my real money on the stock market. I’m a numbers man. I play with numbers all day long, and I watch those numbers add up in my bank accounts. On the weekends I like to take my boat out. She’s a beaut. Cedar and teak.”

“You have a boat? That’s wonderful.”

“One of my best purchases. I could have bought a Maserati, but in this city, who needs a car? I can always get a chauffeur if I need one. For nights at the opera and such.”

“Opera? You don’t strike me as an opera person.”

“Absolutely. I’ll take Gluck’s ‘Iphigenie en Aulide’ any day of the week.”

Rhonda pretended not to notice Artie’s stumbling over the French.

“My, my, aren’t you cultured.”

“Well, you know, money allows me to pursue knowledge.”

“Isn’t that interesting.”

Rhonda sipped again at her latte, her eyes narrowing in speculation. Artie’s appearance belied his stories, but it could be that he was just an eccentric gentleman. It wouldn’t be the first time she had misjudged a mark.

“Tell me, Artie, what do you believe are the pleasures in life?”

Artie choked on his black coffee.

“Sorry, the pleasures?”

“Sure. You’re not going to tell me you get pleasure only out of your boat and opera, are you?”

“No, no, of course not. Well, uh, well. Let’s see. I can’t deny enjoying the pleasures of the flesh.”

Artie’s eye contact with Rhonda became sporadic. It was as if he was ashamed of saying something truthful, something that could reveal his true, pitiable self.

Rhonda rested in her chair, draped an arm across its back.

“Well, Artie, let me tell you a little something about myself. I’m single, divorced a few times. I’m not a numbers woman, so I won’t tell you the truth on that. I work as an actress, but I supplement my income as a paralegal. I have two dogs at home, Grift and Sniff. They’re my cute little babies.”

“And what do you do for pleasure?”

“Well, Artie, I like to have fun. Lots of fun. Would you like to have fun with me?”

Artie wanted to have fun with her.

A short fifteen minutes later, Artie followed Rhonda into a pay-by-the-hour hotel room. The walls and carpet were a dull, stained brown, the bed was covered by an ugly green bedspread. But for Artie, the room was a palace. Here, his dreams would come true. He would never admit it, but the truth was that he was lonely.

Rhonda shrugged out of her fur-lined coat and began to unbutton her shirt, revealing a lacy black bra. Artie quickly shed his pants, his coat, his shirt, his shoes. He stood at the foot of the bed, wearing only a ratty pair of white underpants and black socks drooping at the ankles.

“Well, look at you. Sexy.”

Rhonda turned, hiding her grimace at Artie’s pudgy form. She reached into her purse to pull out a pair of fur-lined handcuffs.

“You say you want to have fun, right, big boy? Why don’t you let me put these on you. Go ahead and lie on the bed over there.”

Artie leaped on the bed, eagerly holding his arms up so Rhonda could link his wrists with the wire bed frame.

                                                                               ***
“Sir, I’m going to have to stop you there.”

Artie paused in his narration.

“We’ve heard this story many times before.”

Officer Adams dropped his pen to the desk.

“Let me guess: she handcuffed you to the bed, then robbed you blind, leaving you naked – sorry, in your whitey-tighties and socks – before absconding with your clothes.”

“Yes, Officer, that’s exactly what happened.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have time for this kind of story. You want to tell these lies, go somewhere else. I’ve got murders to deal with, not sneaky broads. What a story. Go on, now, get out of here. If I see you back here again, I’m going to arrest you for making a false report. You don’t want that, believe me.”

Officer Adams walked off with a huff, irritated at having a stupid man waste his time.

Artie stood, his face flushed with indignity, the injustice at not having his story believed. He shrugged on his favorite trench coat with the fraying sleeves over his suit and tossed his empty drugstore bag in the officer’s trash can. The beer and sandwich sat heavy in his stomach as Artie walked toward the door. And he made his way to the subway station, pulling the wrinkled metro card out of his cashless wallet.