Xiomara

Fiction by Tom Howard

Friday afternoon, three fifteen p.m. Traffic hums merrily along as the weekend approaches. Songbirds overhead are in full voice. Far beyond the suburban streets, high in the hills, the earth is abloom with color. The world’s every breeze carries upon it the scent and the promise of summer, etc., etc.

And yet. Does the universe not teeter on the very brink of destruction?

Yes. Yes, it does teeter, on that exact brink.

Charlie pauses with one foot in the air. Poised in mid-footfall above the narrow curb he wonders whether just maybe the universe, in fact, totters on the brink, etc. The whole teeters vs. totters question. A classic question, sure, a question for the ages: But. Come on, man. This is no time to get distracted. Not with so much on the line, vis-à-vis: the universe, imminent destruction of. Charlie’s admittedly wide feet are almost as wide as the curb, and it’s critical that he not brush even the edge of his shoe against that neighboring sidewalk there. That’s how big this is. How big? Try eschatologically big. Try end of times big. That’s all we’re talking about here. Despite the traffic, songbirds, world being abloom with color, etc. Despite the rest of the world being oblivious to the tightrope walk—no, the death waltz, if by death you mean the heat-death of the universe—that Charlie is walking, or rather waltzing, here.

His phone buzzes, and then. Oops. He whips his head around to make sure the destruction of the universe has gone unwitnessed by his eighth-grade classmates. Checks his message.

Working late again, sorry!

He taps back, De nada, milady. Which always makes Xiomara smile. Ah, mijo, she says. Such a Casanova! You talk to all the girls like that? To which Charlie is like: ha ha, yes? The last time he talked to a girl other than Xiomara was last November. The girl in question being Trish Mackey, fabled Trish Mackey of the azure eyes that have tormented Charlie’s dreams since kindergarten, who one day in November dropped her notebook in the hallway on the way (en route) to social studies. At which point Charlie, seized by an instinct so powerful, no, so primordial that questioning it would have been anathema (yes!), grabbed the notebook from the floor and took off after her at full speed, which for Charlie wasn’t exceptionally fast, no, but still left him out of breath by the time he reached her, sweating let’s just say profusely, stomach lurching just a bit more than one would consider the normal amount of lurching. And then, head bowed just so as he presented the notebook, a knight laying the Grail before the queen, eyes on Trish Mackey’s pretty gold-painted toe-nails showing through her designer flip-flops, on which Charlie was trying with all of his thirteen-year-old might to neither sweat nor vomit, he proclaimed: Your scroll, milady.

A great story right up until that exact point. And then, not so much. Then: screaming, running, a certain not insignificant amount of shame.

Buzz. Beso grande. Late bus? Or maybe ride w/SteveO? And then some kind of crazy-eye emoji thing, what Xiomara calls her trademark.

He taps, No problema. Hugs. Best to keep old Steve-O out of this. Xiomara’s been telling him to invite the legendary Steve-O to dinner for the last three months, which means that Steve-O’s days might, sadly, be numbered. Certain difficult decisions have to be made. Possibly Steve-O’s heading to China as part of a foreign exchange program, or he’s suffering from memory loss after that spectacular fall from the water tower. Foreshadowed, of course, by comments Charlie has lately made over Sunday sundaes with Xiomara: Yeah, old Steve-O can’t stop talking about China! Everything’s Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong with this guy! Also: Steve-O’s been acting kind of weird, said some crazy things to me in homeroom. Maybe that fall last week affected him more than he’s let on, ha ha. But a sad ha ha. A tragicomic ha ha. Followed by a day or two of Charlie moping around, distracted by the tiff with old Steve-O, with whom he’d become pretty damn close. Such bad luck with friends, chiquito—Xiomara shaking her head—and after that thing with Big John’s family going into the Witness Protection Program last year.

Buzz. Will bring chicken tacos. L8r pooh bear. Crazy-eye thing.

Pooh Bear—her name for him. Maybe not the absolute most flattering nickname. Maybe a nickname that caused him a few problems after he left his phone in algebra class and Alan Mears found it. For a few days he was called Pooh Bear by everyone, including Trish Mackey, which would’ve been bad enough. Ah, but then. Then Alan’s friend Miggs suggested a better name: Shit Bear. Which caught on so, so quickly.

Xiomara doesn’t know this. She calls him Pooh Bear, she says, because he never gets angry or upset. Because he’s always sweet, always smiling, always gentle. Oh, if she only knew. For example: Just this morning, after Charlie finished reading aloud his poem, “When to the Silence (I Summon Thy Joyful Roar),” Alan called out Shit bear shit bear shit-shit-shit. Which was stupid and not even in iambic pentameter, and what did it even mean? But everyone laughed and even the teacher smiled, and for an instant Charlie just was filled with the most bilious (yes!) hatred, and a desire for biblical-level vengeance. For an instant he wanted Alan Mears to, like, explode. Or no, not explode. Maybe just have a stroke. And be disabled and not be able to walk or speak! Yes! And to drool everywhere, so that everyone in class pointed and said nasty things like Drooly Drooly Alan Mears! Also nastier things too, probably. But then Charlie pictured Alan’s half-paralyzed face, drool running down onto his wheelchair, kids laughing, Alan staring at the floor in shame. Alan’s mother wiping his face for him, feeding him, changing his diaper because he’s just constantly pooping for some reason, and bathing him like a toddler. And crying herself to sleep every night, because what kind of hideous life is that? For Alan, for either one of them? She’ll have to get a second job to pay for his physical therapy and his drugs and his diapers, and she’ll get run down and end up sick herself. She’ll have to sell the house and rent a room in some flophouse with a single dirty mattress in the most godforsaken part of town, although the flophouse will have a nice name, like Paradise Gardens, because the nicer the name, the worse the flophouse; everybody knows that. Eventually she, Alan’s mom, will develop consumption. She’ll crawl into bed with drooling Alan at Paradise Gardens, and they’ll pull up the covers and she’ll tell him everything’s going to be okay, except clearly it’s not going to be okay. Clearly it’s the most horrible thing in the world, and one night, probably a Tuesday night, she’ll look over at Alan while he sleeps, and she’ll think that maybe she should just smother him to death. She won’t actually do it, but she’ll think about it. At first she’ll think it’s for his own good and she’ll just be helping her son end his grievous suffering, but then she’ll realize that it would actually be for her. It will end her suffering if she just quietly snuffs the life out of her misbegotten vegetable son. And she’ll have to live with that forever, in secret shame and horror on top of the everyday shame and horror of Alan’s constant pooping and sobbing and helplessness.

And all because Charlie used his one allotted wish, the one everybody dreams of, for this—to send Alan Mears and his consumptive mom to a flophouse to die.

There’s your sweet and gentle. What would Xiomara think of that? He almost wants to tell her when he gets home, just to get it off his chest. But he knows he can’t.

“Say it again,” Charlie said, when his dad first told him the new girlfriend’s name. And then: “Spell it.” Xiomara could have been the ugliest girl who ever lived, and he would have loved her because of her name. You couldn’t have a name like that without some crazy exotic magic rubbing off on you, could you?

Except she wasn’t ugly. She was dark and Spanish and beautiful. That she also had a tiny left arm the size of an infant’s, connected to a pretty little hand with painted nails, only made her more beautiful.

“Don’t stare at her baby arm,” said Charlie’s dad. “That’s why she’s got tits. Jesus.” Which drew a one-eyed glare from Xiomara that made Charlie’s dad grin.

“’S okay, chiquito,” she said. She leaned down, all breasts and one tiny arm, and stared at him hard. Evaluating him. And then, very slowly, she made a V sign with the first two fingers on her right, regular-sized hand and held them horizontally across her right eye.

Charlie did the same, but with the first two fingers on his left hand, holding them horizontally across his left eye.

Xiomara nodded. “So, mijo, we understand each other,” she said gravely.

And Charlie beamed.

“Weirdos,” said Charlie’s dad. Xiomara stood up and unleashed a gorgeous Spanish fury at him, and Charlie’s dad laughed, and then the rest of the evening was a blur of El Salvadoran food and loud music, with Xiomara now and then flashing Charlie another sign from The Thunder, Perfect Mind, the sci-fi adventure show that Charlie and (as it turned out) Xiomara’s nephew back in El Salvador both held dear. Not the horizontal V sign, no—that was only used, as Xiomara understood, for moments of intense and immediate spiritual recognition.

When she left, Charlie stood at the door and waved goodbye as his dad squeezed Xiomara’s butt and kissed her.

After that, he saw Xiomara once a week, and then twice a week, and then pretty much every day. Mostly with his dad, but sometimes, more often as time went on, it would just be Charlie and Xiomara. They’d play tripa chuca or Crazy Eights and watch the latest episode of The Thunder, Perfect Mind, or they’d sit together on Xiomara’s couch and find an old movie (she loved anything old, but especially, to Charlie’s endless fascination, old Abbott and Costello movies). Or she’d ask him to talk to her while she got ready for her shift at Lucky’s, so he’d read aloud from some poem he’d learned in class by Edgar Allan Poe or W.B. Yeats or Alfred, Lord Tennyson (he always stressed the comma). She said she just liked hearing him talk. His English, muy exótico. That anything Charlie said could ever be exotic was absurd, and maybe he knew even then that she was only being kind. He decided he was totally fine with that.

The months passed. One day his father called when Charlie was at Xiomara’s and said he had good news and bad news. He asked which one Charlie wanted first.

“Bad?” said Charlie.

“Let’s do the good news. Your mom called from Newport and got a boob job and we’re getting back together.”

“She was in Newport?” Charlie asked.

“Bad news is that we need some I guess you’d call it one-on-one time? Or maybe one-on-two time, ha ha? Seriously, though. Long story short, we’re heading out of town. But we think an awful lot of you.”

“Sure,” said Charlie.

“See how it wouldn’t have worked if I started with the bad news?”

Charlie agreed.

“’Mara there?”

Xiomara at that moment was in her Lucky’s uniform, tiny shorts and four-leaf clovers covering each nipple. She grabbed the phone and listened, shouted in Spanish, said Yeah, yeah, yeah, rolled her eyes—she was a world-class eye roller—and flexed the fingers of her baby hand as she paced back and forth across the kitchen.

Charlie retreated to the other room, half-listening, and opened Xiomara’s laptop to research orphanages. Which he recognized as being not totally logical, but better an orphanage than a foster home. In an orphanage at least he’d be surrounded by rapscallions. They’d have great names like the Artful Dodger and Lefty and Snaggletooth and Bobby No Legs. That incorrigible scoundrel, Bobby No Legs. Who had a crusty exterior, sure, but a heart of gold. Always listening to Charlie’s ideas, yelling at Lefty and Snaggletooth to pipe down because Charlie’s onto something here, and then saying, “Go on, kid.” Always calling Charlie “kid” even though they were pretty much the same age, in fact wasn’t Charlie actually one week older exactly, but still, hard to get upset with Bobby No Legs. Not because of his missing legs—a mystery, sure, and someday they’d find those crazy legs—but because of his tragic past, e.g., the suspicious fire at the Old Mill, right around the time that Old Man Muldoon was trying to buy up all the land, only he’d run into let’s just say “resistance” from Bobby’s parents, Dashiell and Mariposa. No. Roberto and Esmé. Although Esmé always went by “Cookie” on account of that time with her aunt—

“What’s this?” Xiomara said, looking over his shoulder.

He started to explain. “You see, Esmé had this thing where—”

Xiomara sighed and closed the laptop. “Going to work, mijo,” she said. “Pillows and blankets in the closet. I’ll take you to school tomorrow.”

In the morning Charlie went to school. Later, Xiomara picked him up on her way home from her housecleaning job and brought him back to her place. They had dinner. After dinner she washed dishes while he did homework, and then they sat curled up together on the couch and watched Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd. Now and then she brushed his hair with her baby arm. When the movie was over, she put on her Lucky’s uniform and told him not to stay up late. Charlie thought he should really get to work registering with his top-choice orphanages, and probably with at least a few safety orphanages, assuming you could register online for an orphanage. But for now, maybe, couldn’t he just lie here on the couch? Just for a little while. Lie here and not be worried about anything, surrounded by Xiomara’s things, the iguanas and movie posters and replicas of the Eight Wonders of the World and crystals and mirrors of all shapes and sizes, found treasures that were only treasures, maybe, to Xiomara. But they felt, oddly, like home.

The next day came and went, pretty much the same way.

And the day after that.

So he stayed with Xiomara. She never asked him to leave. One night after Sunday sundaes she passed him a letter across the table. An official notice of adoption, signed by Xiomara and Charlie’s dad and a judge.

“I know,” she said. “It sucks, mijo.”

Charlie stared at the letter. And then down at the table. Trying to find the word for this. This feeling right now, there had to be a word.

“I’ll find it,” he said, over and over, but Xiomara didn’t understand because he was blubbering so much. Like a total nutjob. Xiomara said Ah, Pooh Bear, and brushed his hair with her baby arm.

She just loves him. So he isn’t about to tell her about Alan Mears and his mom. Or about Steve-O and Big John and all the others. Because who wants an adopted son like that—hate-filled and friendless? Nobody does. If it takes throwing Steve-O off the water tower to keep things going, then that’s how it’ll have to be.

A sedan pulls up at a traffic light beside Charlie, and he hears the rear window come down.

“Hey,” a voice calls out. “Hey, Shit Bear.”

Charlie doesn’t look up.

“Hey,” the voice calls out, louder, and Charlie recognizes Miggs, his nickname benefactor.

I wish, Charlie thinks.

“Leave him alone,” says Trish Mackey. He knows it’s her without looking up, knows the precise frequency of her voice, could probably—if it were an assignment, say, not something he’d do just for fun, of course—chart its specific resonances and spectral peaks on a graph. He tries to appear preternaturally focused on the task at hand, which seems to be staring down at his feet while trying to furiously blink himself out of existence.

“Fatty,” says Miggs.

“Shut up,” says Trish Mackey.

“Kidding around,” says Miggs. “Hey, Shit Bear. Who am I?”

Against his better judgment, Charlie looks over. Miggs has pulled his arm down into his shirt so that only his hand sticks out. He wiggles his fingers and laughs as the light changes and the car speeds away.

Charlie stops and watches the sedan for a block or two. When it reaches Madison, it turns right. Then it explodes.

A mushroom cloud expands above Madison Street, and windows are shattered for blocks in all directions. The force of the blast is so powerful that it leaves a ten-foot-diameter crater in the middle of the street. Miggs is obliterated. Just blown into like a million soggy pieces. But Trish Mackey escapes, miraculously unhurt. She brushes dirt and gravel and pieces of Miggs off her clothes and pulls her hair out of her face and looks through the smoke, flashing her glassy but still beautiful azure eyes in Charlie’s direction.

The thing about a wish is that you only get one.

If you get even that, Charlie thinks, as he resumes his careful progress along the curb. Which, probably, you don’t. But at most you get one. Not three, where you end up using your last wish to take back your other, stupid wishes before they destroy you. So you’ve got to be careful, mindful of the classic pitfalls—asking for money, fame, beauty, success, talent, popularity. Forget it. Sooner or later it’ll be your undoing, and something horrifying will come knocking on your door to send you screaming all the way to hell.

But you can think small.

You can wish for something innocuous that won’t throw the universe out of balance and upset the gods. You could, for example, wish to be braver. You could wish to be kinder. A little more good-natured. How could that be bad? You could wish to be thin. Or not thin, but maybe just less fat. Nothing all that noticeable, except maybe to Xiomara, who already tells him once a week that she thinks he’s losing weight.

You could make a wish for someone else. That couldn’t backfire, could it?

A beat-up Volkswagen lumbers past him and into Adelio’s parking lot a couple of blocks away. Once or twice a week Charlie rides his bike to Adelio’s from Xiomara’s place—their place—and buys a candy bar. If he has extra money he’ll pick up a magazine or some silly plastic ring or colorful hair ribbon for Xiomara. Maybe he’ll stop in today and find some little treasure.

One wish.

He’s struck by this strange thought.

What if, having made and been granted your one wish, you must forget that it was ever made at all? Like, for example, if you were lying on someone’s couch at the end of a long day, and you wished that each day would start and end like the one that just happened. That life would give you nothing more amazing than that, day after day, and you’d be okay with everything else.

Crazy, Charlie whispers to himself. But the hair on his arms stands up, and he stops moving for a little while to think about it.

 

Meanwhile, Wade parks his Volkswagen in front of Adelio’s and goes through the checklist in his head. He has the primary stocking and the backup stocking in case the primary stocking rips in half when he pulls it over his face. He has the money bag, a.k.a. Polly’s lavender pillowcase with the white flowers. He has the gun. Does he have bullets? Check. And he has the handwritten robbery script written on the back of one of Mel’s inspirational note cards.

He’s driven an hour and a half to get here and picked the store at random, so no one could possibly recognize him. What can go wrong?

Okay, let’s start with everything. Everything can go wrong. It’s a fucking crime. It’s armed robbery.

He flips over the note card and sees Mel’s calligraphy. Visualize happiness NOW. With the fancy blue and gold border. She can’t keep them in stock, she says. An order for five hundred just this week!

Five hundred. Jesus. But god, it made her so happy.

Focus. Visualize.

Let’s just say that he walks up to the register and says, “Give me everything in the safe, now, or we all die.” Because this establishes that he, Wade, although nobody knows it’s Wade because of either the primary stocking or the backup stocking, is willing to give up his own life for the sake of the job, which is what we’ll call the robbery. Which implies that he’s insane, yes, but doesn’t it also imply a certain extraordinary level of dedication to the job? Which in turn suggests that he’s a man of his word. It’s not inconceivable that the appropriate response might be to just give Wade all the money and let him quietly go on his way. Maybe even feel a grudging admiration for Wade, this insane but dedicated and totally anonymous person who is willing to put his own life on the line, and isn’t just recklessly endangering everyone else like your run-of-the-mill criminal. Is it even technically necessary, just in like a purely moral sense, to call the cops afterward? Obviously Wade, that is this anonymous primary- or backup-stocking-covered person here, has some compelling need for this money. Like for example: Crazy Ed’s Rent-To-Own Paradise. More specifically, monthly payments to Crazy Ed’s Rent-To-Own Paradise that are approaching the four-figure range. The problem being that every time Wade goes in to make a payment—because Crazy Ed’s only accepts in-person payments—he, Wade, has to walk past row after row of televisions, cookware, Tiffany-style lamps, faux-Persian rugs, electronics, jewelry, framed Rembrandt self-portraits, Parisian throw pillows, pashmina scarves, comforters, grandfather clocks, vacuum cleaners, etc. But even that isn’t the problem exactly.

The problem is Garbage Baby.

Eight weeks after Mel was born, she was stuffed in a garbage bag by her mother and thrown in a Dumpster behind an adult video store. When she was found by the store supervisor the next morning on his way to work, she’d eaten her way out of the garbage bag and survived. Thereafter she was known as Garbage Baby. Everybody knew Garbage Baby; even Wade had heard of her from a couple of towns over. Mel never complained about it. She never complained about anything, really. And she loved Wade, he could tell she loved him, but there was a part of her that just always seemed a little broken—like she was glad she’d eaten her way out of the garbage bag and was still alive and everything, but maybe it wasn’t a great idea to expect a lot more than that from life. Maybe it wasn’t a great idea to even want any more than that, even if other people she and Wade knew seemed to have a lot more. It wasn’t disappointment, just resignation—the quietest resignation you could imagine—that Wade sometimes saw on Mel’s face. So one Friday after work he stopped by Crazy Ed’s Rent-to-Own Paradise and found a pair of sapphire earrings worth a thousand dollars, but he could get them today for just $9.99, plus another $9.99 per week for the next three hundred and eleven weeks. And in the morning when Mel came downstairs, she found a box wrapped with white and blue ribbons waiting for her on the dining room table. She looked happier than Wade had ever seen her, and when she undid the ribbons and saw the earrings she cried and hugged Wade for a solid hour, and told him that she loved him more than anyone had ever loved anyone, more than anyone could love or had ever imagined loving anyone else, and (sobbing wildly) that if she ever found out someone did love or could love or had ever imagined loving someone more, she’d find and kill that person. But it was the look on her face when she first saw the box waiting for her in the morning sunlight that Wade would remember forever.

When Mel went downstairs the next Saturday morning, and kind of peeked into the dining room, just to see, she didn’t say anything or even act the tiniest bit disappointed. But maybe there was a part of her that was, just the tiniest bit, disappointed. Maybe when she smiled at Wade it wasn’t totally exactly the same smile she’d given him the week before. And so the next Saturday morning, there was a new gift (a stainless steel dual-cook convection toaster oven with ExactoHeat™ calibration sensors, the toaster oven of the future according to the sign at Crazy Ed’s) waiting for Mel on the dining room table, wrapped in white and blue ribbons. Mel came down and peeked into the dining room and laughed like a girl on Christmas morning, and then hugged Wade and cried a bit. Except maybe she didn’t cry as much, maybe she didn’t tell him that if she ever found anyone on Earth who loved or could love or had ever imagined loving someone more then she’d have to kill that person. So the next week there was another gift waiting for her, wrapped in white and blue ribbons. And the week after that. She was always happy to find the gifts, but now and then the smile she gave him was almost kind of sad, like she was saying it couldn’t ever be like that first time. But Wade wanted it to be like that, and refused to stop trying, so his tab at Crazy Ed’s kept getting bigger and bigger. And one day soon—like this Monday, according to the letter he’d snatched from the mail pile before Mel discovered it—men will show up at the door and Mel and Polly will watch as the kitchen is gutted and most of the house and all of Mel’s nice clothes and half of her jewelry get hauled back to Crazy Ed’s warehouse. Polly will run off to write a despairing blog post, but her computer will be gone, so she’ll reach for her tablet device, but that will also be gone, so she’ll write out her despairing blog entry by hand on a napkin, and then scream when she understands that no one will ever be able to read it. Mel will say, “At least we’ve got my inspirational note card business to fall back on,” and Wade will have to admit certain things concerning certain recent bulk orders. At which point all the light will go out of Mel’s face, or at least the portion of the light that was ever in any way attributable to Wade. And he, Wade, will be the one who closes the door forever on this brief interlude of joy in Garbage Baby’s life.

And that is the problem.

Focus. Sixty seconds and it’s over.

Okay. What happens if—let’s just say—he gets recognized as he gets out of the car? As he’s pulling on the stocking? Maybe he looks over and sees Brad, the next-door neighbor. Kindly old Brad who sometimes shovels Wade’s and Mel’s sidewalk before they get home from work, and brings in their trash bin from the curb, and always waves and smiles at them, even the day he pulled the plug on Maura. Howdy, Wade. Polly’s getting big, isn’t she? Oh, things are fine with me, thanks for asking. Except that Maura’s dead. Otherwise, though, things are fine. That Brad. Pulling in next to Wade’s car, seeing him slide the primary or the backup stocking down over his face. Knowing the truth.

What then?

He’d have to kill him, wouldn’t he? And then he’s bound to get caught, and sent to jail for murder. Would have to hang himself the first night in jail. Because why procrastinate? It’s better to spend a few nights in jail getting raped? Or, Jesus, raping someone else. Because he’d have to rape someone to establish his dominance. Wonderful. Now he’s a rapist and a murderer. So, definitely looking at a hanging in the very near future.

Unless.

Unless he’s able to quickly stuff Brad’s body in the trunk before anyone notices. Which sounds horrible, but what’s the alternative? A life of rape and murder and jail time for a crime he didn’t even commit? Sure he’s committed murder if we’re talking about Brad, and we probably should be, but in this scenario at least he hasn’t robbed Adelio’s. And nobody knows about Brad.

Yet.

But now he’s got a body in his trunk. He’ll have to, what, chop it to pieces. Or break all the bones so Brad will fit inside a sack or a suitcase or something. Is that horrifying? Yes, absolutely. But the thing is, that’s the job. That’s the discipline.

That’s the discipline. What the fuck is that?

Better to just kill himself. New contingency plan: If you see anyone you know, shoot yourself immediately. Which seems weirdly rash. And yet the alternative is Brad, folded into a suitcase, lying at the bottom of a river. Plus all the prison rapes, unless those are no longer necessary in this scenario; he can’t remember. But either way there’s Brad to consider. No matter what, Brad is dead.

He stares at the door to Adelio’s. And he has this revelation.

Once when Polly was three or four, they all went to the beach. They had this thing they’d do where Wade would get down on his knees in the shallow water and turn his back to the sea, and whenever a wave was about to hit, Polly and Mel would shriek and point at the wave approaching behind him, and he’d pretend he didn’t understand what they were saying. He’d say, “Gorilla? You’re saying there’s a gorilla behind me?” And Polly would laugh and shake her head and shriek some more, and Wade would guess something else, like a blimp or Abraham Lincoln or a platypus. Finally he’d turn around to see the platypus, and he’d get knocked on his ass by the wave. Polly would scream, and then when Wade popped his head up out of the water a few seconds later, looking like a drowned animal, she and Mel would laugh like loons. Then they’d start the whole thing over again.

The revelation that hits him, sitting in the Volkswagen, is that there’s no way this ends without somebody getting hurt.

Ah, he thinks. Ah, Mel.

Ten seconds later he opens the door.

And everything, somehow, is perfect. The place is empty. Wade walks to the register and holds out the gun. He can barely hear his heartbeat, and his hand is steady. Give me everything in the safe or everyone dies, he says. And the clerk, who is as old as Wade’s dad, and looks like Wade’s dad, just nods his head. He says, Okay, son, and holds up his hands. He says, Let me put up a sign so nobody else comes in while I open the safe, and Wade says, Good idea. Everything happening in slow motion, kind of. They go back to the safe, and the old clerk stuffs the money into Polly’s lavender pillowcase. The old clerk’s hands are steady, too. Like he’s practiced this. He hands the pillowcase to Wade and holds up his hands, and says, Everything’s okay, right?

And everything really is okay. Nobody gets hurt. Somehow this is all going to work out.

He hides the gun as he leaves the store. Gets in the Volkswagen and starts the engine, keeping his eye on the old clerk through the glass. No reason to panic now. He’s home free. Of course that’s always when something terrible happens and the plan falls apart, saying you’re home free, and everyone in the audience just groans because it’s such a stupid thing to say, or even to think, but he thinks it anyway. He backs up and turns the wheels so he’ll be able to speed out of the lot, and in his rearview mirror he sees the kid, this fat dumbass kid, not paying attention to anything except his feet as he walks along the curb. Wade hits him so hard that the Volkswagen’s rear bumper falls off.

He gets out and runs to the back of the car. Shit.

Shit.

Fucking fuck, kid.

Wade takes out his phone and calls 911. Realizes he still has the stocking over his face, so he pulls it up off his face. He tells the operator there’s a kid down on the sidewalk by Adelio’s, that he’s hurt bad, and then he hangs up and stares at the phone for a second. Turns it off.

Ah, fuck, kid.

He leans down. The kid’s crying. Hard to tell how bad it is. Maybe he’ll be okay, maybe he won’t. But the kid’s crying. He’s trying to reach his phone, which was thrown aside by the impact. Wade retrieves it and puts it in the kid’s hand, but the kid drops it immediately.

“Can’t,” the kid says. “Please. Call her.”

Sirens. In Wade’s head, maybe?

“Listen,” he says. “Somebody’s coming, kid. Hang in there.”

“Call her,” the kid says again. “You have to.”

“I can’t stay,” Wade says.

Definitely sirens.

“Please,” the kid says. Crying. Scared.

Damn. Fucking damn, kid. Polly’s age.

He takes the phone.

“Who,” he says. But he doesn’t have to ask. All the calls and all the texts are from the same number.

He calls, and when a woman picks up, he explains. Tries to explain. She cuts him off and tells him that’s she coming, that she’s on her way. Half-mad, but coherent enough to tell Wade that he, motherfucking Wade, has one job, and that job is to stay there and make sure Charlie is okay. Nothing he will do in his entire fucking life will ever be as important, she says, as this one thing. Nothing can happen to him. Nothing. Does he understand? Does he fucking understand, cabron, that nothing bad can happen to this kid? That the fate of the motherfucking universe depends on it? The rest is an eruption of Spanish profanity that Wade unfortunately and completely understands and will remember for the rest of his life.

I understand, he says. I get it.

Hold his motherfucking hand, she says, so he takes Charlie’s hand. He sets the phone down and tells Charlie that she’s on her way. The kid’s still crying.

He can see the ambulance now, and the police cars.

He tosses the stocking to the ground. Thinks that he should probably call Mel. Explain, well, probably too much to explain. Maybe just tell her that he’s fucked everything up pretty bad. That he’s sorry, for whatever that’s worth. Probably nothing.

Jesus, the kid’s such a mess. Still crying but trying not to. Trying to be tough.

“Hold on,” he says.

What the hell. It can’t hurt to say it.

“Everything,” he says, “will be okay.”

Tom Howard’s work has appeared most recently in the Cincinnati Review, Willow Springs, and Bellingham Review. His stories have won the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Award, and the Arcadia and Willow Springs fiction contests. He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.