FICTION April 5, 2024

How Not to Love Them

The following is an excerpt from Ethel Rohan’s upcoming novel, Sing, I. Available from

Ester parked in front of Rich Goods, surprised to see its noxious-looking lights already on. It had to be Rich inside, but there was no sign of his banged-up truck. The Ford Transit was likely in the garage. Again. That thing had more lives than Ester’s rattly fridge. She exited the minivan and approached the convenience store, like wading through water. She reminded herself she could handle Rich, and the job was easy local employment until she found something better.

She entered the store, triggering the bell overhead and sending the Closed sign swinging. To her relief it was Crystal standing behind the counter. “Hey, you.”

“Hey. What are you doing here?” Crystal said.

“I was about to ask you the same thing. I’m on today’s schedule.”

Crystal scanned the handwritten worksheet. “Shit. Rich put us both down for this morning.”

“He probably did it on purpose,” Ester said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Ester joined Crystal behind the counter and readied to flip a quarter. Crystal called heads. Ester rescued the tumbling coin midfall. Right as she slapped the quarter onto the back of her hand, the store bell disturbed the air. A man in a giraffe mask rushed forward, a handgun aimed. Ester glanced at the red alarm button beneath the counter.

“Don’t move!” The intruder panned the gun to Crystal, who was standing nearest the cash register. He fired a cloth tote bag with a cartoon Superman on its front, hitting Crystal in the chest. “Money. Cigarettes. Now!”

Ester’s eyes fluttered, wanting to dart to the overhead security camera. Rich routinely spied on her and Crystal through it. She trained her sights on the gunman. Please let Rich be watching right now. Please let him be calling 911.

“Her name’s Crystal, I’m Ester.” Her pitched voice seemed to belong to someone else.

“Shut up.” He sounded like his teeth were cutting into something.

She pressed on, knowing victims fare better if perps see them as people, not liabilities. “Take whatever you want. We just want to get home to our kids—”

“I said to shut your mouth.” He vaulted over the counter and touched the gun to Ester’s temple. She clenched her insides, about to pee herself. Beneath the mask’s supersized giraffe eyelashes, the gunman’s actual lashes reached through the eyeholes. Every time he blinked, the scratching sound grated the back of her throat. He whiffed of something pungent too, like the childhood smell of her grandma’s sour air conditioning.

Crystal started wheezing. The gunman whirled around. Ester hoped this was a moment of brilliance and Crystal was faking the asthma attack.

“She needs her inhaler.” Ester stepped toward the alarm.

He spun back to her. “I told you not to move.”

She nodded to the shelves below the counter. “Her purse is right there, her inhaler’s inside.”

He grabbed the tote bag from Crystal and shoved it into Ester’s middle, knocking the air out of her. She doubled over, letting the bag fall to the floor. Superman watched from the faded linoleum, his gaze tender.

The gunman lifted the bag, choking its neck. “Fill it.”

Ester accepted the bag with a sharp tug, trying to see the color of the gunman’s hair beneath the hood of his navy sweatshirt. Crystal’s wheezing worsened. If she was faking, her performance was spectacular. “She really needs her—”

He brought the gun to Ester’s face and traced her cheekbone with its bottom lip. “I could shoot both of you and help myself.”

Ester opened the cash register, her stomach dropping. Crystal had already added the morning’s starting balance. The gunman was going to get away with two hundred dollars in notes alone. She rushed the bills and coin rolls into the bag and toppled an armful of cigarette cartons from the shelf, stuffing Superman to bloating. She eyed the wall clock and risked another sideways look at the alarm. Five minutes to opening and who knew how long before their first customer. Her hopes remained pinned on the security cameras. Come on, Rich.

Crystal stumbled backward into the shelves of cigarettes, her breathing a terrifying rasp. Ester dropped the bag, seeing a flash of her college boyfriend Marcus, unable to get to his inhaler and dying alone at only twenty-three. Crystal emitted strangled sounds and grasped for the gunman like she was drowning.

“Get off me.” He twisted free of Crystal’s frantic reach and whacked her with the gun, cracking open her hairline. She slid downward, cigarette cartons dropping as she fell and surrounding her on the floor where she sat slumped. Blood spilled down the side of her face, a half mask.

“See what you made me do,” he said with rage and relish. Crystal’s starved lungs issued a huge sucking sound.

“Please, she could die.” Ester didn’t know she was crying until she tasted salt.

He pushed the gun against Ester’s mouth, mashing her lips to her teeth. Just as quickly, he lowered the gun and pressed his harsh mask to her face, the plastic hurting her lips less than the metal, and yet more. He pulled away, grabbed the fat tote bag from the floor, and dashed out from behind the counter. Almost at the exit, he cracked a jubilant laugh and jumped through the air like a buck that’s just gained his first antlers.

“You won’t get away with this.” Ester’s furious threat caught him as he burst through the double glass doors. She smacked the alarm, then rifled through Crystal’s purse. She rushed the inhaler to Crystal’s bloodied mouth, picturing Marcus as the last of his air left him.

While Crystal pumped her lungs back to working order, Ester phoned 911, her lips and cheeks stinging. The only other time she’d made an emergency call was as a teen, when her mom died. She dragged her hand down her face, wiping the gun and mask traces, and ignoring how her bruised lips protested. The quarter she’d been about to flip lay next to her foot. It had landed tails up, making her the winner. She shivered. What if the coin had turned up heads? Would she be the one lying injured and bleeding?

She knelt down next to Crystal and eased a wad of paper towels to her slack face, sopping up the blood while taking care to avoid the oozing gash. She wiped Crystal’s left eye clean. It stared out, dazed, empty. She wondered if she should try to pinch the wound closed. Sirens winged toward them.

“You hear that? Help’s almost here. Just keep breathing nice and steady. That’s it. Well done. It’s over, okay? It’s all over.”

She continued to coax and nurse Crystal as best she could until the police and paramedics arrived and ordered her to stand clear.

The ambulance whisked Crystal away. Officer Garamenchi escorted Ester back inside the store.

Seconds into scribbling down her statement, the short, knobby policeman paused. “Ester Prynn. Why’s that so familiar?”

“You’re thinking of Hester Prynne, from The Scarlet Letter.”

“The what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Can we get this over with, please?”

“Sure.” He aimed his pen. “You said he’s about six foot?”

“Yeah.” She listed the gunman’s build and clothing. “I’m pretty sure he’s middle-aged, if not older.”

“What makes you think that? His agility, and the Superman bag, suggest otherwise.”

“He has a creaky voice.” Heat climbed her face. “And he kissed me. There’s not too many kids up for that.”

His oversized head jerked backward. “He kissed you?”

“Did he ever. Here, see for yourself,” Rich said, almost gleefully, from the customer side of the crime scene.

A burly officer crossed the store and confiscated the security tape.

“I want that back,” Rich said.

Ester finished her statement. Garamenchi flipped the small spiral notebook closed. “Great, thank you.”

Rich grumbled about his losses. On Ester’s first day on the job, she’d told him to invest in a locked case for the wall of liquor and cigarettes. He was sorry now.

“That’s what insurance is for,” Garamenchi said.

“You want to fill out that paperwork for me? Track down the trail of receipts they’re going to want?” Rich said.

Out front, the fire engine, squad cars, and convoy of news crews continued to draw onlookers. Rich piped up again. “Where’s that crowd every other day, huh? I’m lucky if I see that many people around here in a month, never mind in one morning.” The officers laughed. “You think this is funny? Think I’m a comedian?”

“Yeah, you’re a comedian,” the burly officer said.

“I’d probably make more money,” Rich said. The officers laughed harder. “Can you at least let me open up, maybe snag some of these rubberneckers?”

“As soon as we’re done,” Garamenchi said.

“How long’s that gonna be?”

“As long as it takes.”

“Man, I can’t ever catch a break.”

“Your head’s in one piece, isn’t it?” Ester said, quaking. “No one cracked it open with a gun, did they?”

“Ma’am, you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital? It’s never a bad idea to get checked out after something like this,” Garamenchi said.

“She’s fine. Crystal will be too,” Rich said.

Ester addressed Garamenchi. “Am I free to go?”

“Yeah, sure. We have your details if there’s any follow-up.”

She hooked her purse onto her shoulder.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Rich said.

As she walked out, his voice climbed. “Hey, I’m talking to you.”

She pushed the door wide open, so it closed behind her with a satisfying thwack. Reporters and camera crews surrounded her.

Ester awoke to a beating drum. Mom. Mom. Mom. She jerked upright on her bed, fully dressed.

“I’ve been calling you for ages,” Jason said from the doorway.

“What’s up?” She hurtled clumsily to her feet.

“I’m hungry and there’s nothing to eat.”

She lifted her phone from her nightstand, shocked to find she’d slept for most of the day. There was no word from Crystal. Rich had discharged a series of increasingly furious texts, ordering her back to the store.


She hadn’t realized Jason was still standing in the doorway. “Give me a sec.”

He took off down the hall to his bedroom, his heels striking the hardwood. It needled her that he couldn’t tell something was wrong.

“I’ll make pasta,” she called after him. “It’ll be ready in a few.”

She phoned the hospital again, knowing this time to pretend she was family. A nurse informed her that Crystal was in stable condition. Ester pressed her for details. “You’ll have to talk to her doctor, but he’s not available right now.”

Ester ended the call, catching her skittish reflection in the mirrored closet doors. She wondered who was taking care of Crystal’s three young children. She would check on them if she had a home address, but her only contact information was Crystal’s cell phone, which had traveled in the ambulance with her, along with her purse and the bloodied inhaler.

In the kitchen, Ester set about fixing chicken Caesar salad and penne pasta drizzled in butter and Parmesan. Kevin arrived home. She braced herself, sure word of the holdup would have spread by now. But Kevin, like his brother, remained oblivious. The two siblings plated up and carried their heaped meals and glasses of water out of the room, the ice cubes colliding.

Kevin continued on to the TV in the living room and Jason to his bedroom and video games. She eyed the remaining salad in the bowl and the filmy pasta in the pot. A craving came over her for plummy wine, a juicy steak, and a slice of chocolate cake. She returned to her bedroom to tie up her frizzy hair and change out of her crime-tainted clothes. In the bathroom mirror, she removed her mascara stains and rubbed her mouth hard with the clean side of the face wipe. She painted her swollen lips a potent red and smacked them together, the popping sound remarkably loud.

Ester waited at the living room window until Simon’s car turned into the driveway. She rushed outside, meeting him while the wheels were still rolling, and pulled open the passenger door. “We’re going out for dinner.”

“No. Please. I’m too tired.”

“If we hurry, we’ll catch happy hour at Capitanis.” She dropped onto the front seat, relieved that he also knew nothing about the holdup. Until she said something about it, it was in the past.

“Capitanis? Wait, it’s not our anniversary, is it?”

“That was last week.”

“Crap, I’m sorry.”

“I’m kidding. It’s two weeks away.”

“I knew it wasn’t this early in March. Is there another occasion I should know about?”

“I just have a hankering.” She turned the radio dial, raising the volume on Bon Jovi’s “Born to Be My Baby.”

“Notice how I always entertain your cravings?” Simon said, putting the car in reverse.

Inside Capitanis, Ester and Simon ordered from the happy hour cocktail menu. She repeatedly checked her phone for an update from Crystal. Repeatedly tried to work up the words to tell Simon about the holdup, and her walking off the job, but she still didn’t want to bring it into the here and now.

They were drinking a second margarita each when the ribeyes arrived, Gorgonzola sauce for Simon and pepper sauce for her. They were cutting into the meat, spilling blood, when Simon froze, staring at something beyond her shoulder. She started to follow his gaze but paused, clapping sight of herself inside the three megascreen TVs behind the bar. Her scalp tightened. She was giant, and in triplicate, on the local six o’clock news. Simon continued to gape at the TV behind her, his freckles fading. Her adrenalized voice, amplified by the reporter’s furry black microphone, carved through the restaurant’s noises. “I thought he was going to kill us.”

“Jesus, Ester. Why didn’t you tell me?” Simon sounded as salty as the rim of their margarita glasses. She didn’t know what she expected from him in that moment, but certainly not a scolding. She furtively scanned their fellow diners and the roving staff, worried they’d recognized her. It appeared not.

Her phone shuddered on the table, vibrating with a text. Her Meat Loaf ringtone also went off, a call from Rachel. She hit decline, putting a stop to the chorus of “Bat Out of Hell.” She scrolled the incoming deluge of texts from more friends, neighbors, and fellow school parents. Her ringtone sounded again. She silenced her phone and turned it facedown on the table.

Simon’s phone rang. “Please don’t answer it,” she said. He declined the call.

The calls and texts kept coming to their silenced phones, but nothing yet from or about Crystal.

Simon squeezed her hand. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“It’s Crystal we need to worry about. I got off lightly.”

“She’ll be okay.”

“You don’t know that.”

Stuffed on buttered bread, steak with fixings, and slushy cocktails, Ester and Simon ordered the chocolate dessert to share.

“I don’t know where we’ll put it,” Simon told their server.

Yet he and Ester devoured the wedge of warm, gooey cake with athletic aptitude. She drained her glass of red wine, which tasted more of oak than the longed-for fruit.

“Molten, that’s such a great word,” she said, gripping her knees below the table.

Simon rubbed his stubbled chin, making his lips squelch. “You’re not okay, are you?”

Her elbows jumped to the table and her hands pressed her face, their tips hurting her forehead, her cheekbones. “What he did to Crystal, it was horrible.”  Simon eased her hands into his. “Hey. Hey.”

Outside, the sharp air lifted Ester’s hair off her face and the nape of her neck. It felt cooling, clearing.

Simon carried the reek of blue cheese into the car. Thanks to that and the twists in the road, Ester’s stomach reeled. It didn’t help that she’d made a pig of herself. She clenched her teeth against the urge to retch and gripped her seatbelt at her chest with both hands. Simon kept asking her to talk to him.

She considered telling him the gunman had kissed her. “Please, you’re not helping.”

At home, Kevin and Jason also quizzed Ester, their phones similarly crawling with texts and social media posts and messages. She reassured them she was completely fine.

“In broad daylight too,” Simon said.

“Was he supposed to wait until it got dark?” Jason said.

“You’re such an ass,” Kevin said.

“You’re the ass.”

They didn’t seem to notice her leaving the room.

Upstairs, her phone pinged with a text from Crystal. She read, softening with relief.

back home outta it talk tomo thanks 4 ur help

Rich had fired off another ultimatum. B here to open up tomorrow r else

In bed, in the thick dark, she straddled Simon and rocked her hips in time to Imalive, Imalive, Imalive.

Ester arrived at the store, relieved to not see Rich’s truck. The jitters returned as soon as she exited the minivan, her nervous system still keyed up two days after the robbery. Two days. In her mind it seemed like the holdup had happened longer ago, and yet in her body it was still occurring.

She pushed the entry door open with her back, careful of the glass bowl she was holding, its resident a hyperactive goldfish. The store was empty of customers and Crystal was sitting on the barstool behind the counter. Borrowing from Hairspray, Ester belted, “Good morn-ing, Crys-tal-more.”

Crystal’s face lit up below her partially shaved head. Ester’s throat constricted on seeing the raw wound up close, with its lace of black stitches and the surrounding skin a hot pink.

She lowered the fishbowl to the counter. “I thought you might like some company around here. Meet Jerry the Second, or whatever you want to call him. Jerry was the name of my goldfish when I was little, and he had this wild near-death experience—”

“Do I want to hear this?” Crystal said.

“Absolutely. I was draining the dirty water from Jerry’s bowl when he slipped out and dropped into the garbage disposal, while it was running.”

Crystal’s hand pressed her mouth and she looked both amused and horrified. “No.”

“I dived at the wall switch, turned off the blades, and scooped Jerry out, sure he was a goner. But somehow he was alive and in one piece.” The memory of Jerry’s wriggling, victorious body feathered Ester’s palm.

“That is wild.” Crystal watched the goldfish part the water. “Look at this one go.

Reckon he’s also a fighter.”

“A torpedo.”

“Torpedo, that’s what I’ll call him,” Crystal said.


Crystal’s smile dropped. “There’s no way Rich will let me keep him here.”

“Tell him the customers like him and that he’s a draw for business. That’d make Rich display his own mother on a shelf.”

Crystal chewed her lower lip, favoring its left side. “It’s worth a shot. He’s no substitute for you though.”

Ester’s right temple pulsed with guilt. “I’ll keep sneaking in to see you.”

“I’m not sure how long that’ll last. There’s not much gets past Rich.” Ester pictured him seething right then on the other side of the security cameras. Crystal dropped onto the barstool, more sinking than sitting.

“You shouldn’t have come back to work so soon. You should be at home, taking it easy,” Ester said.

“My bank balance disagrees.”

“What did the doctors say? Did they clear you to come back already?”

“It’s more what the debt collectors are saying.” Crystal’s expression brightened. “Well done you for quitting. What I’d give to have seen Rich’s face.”

“I didn’t see it either. I walked out while he was shouting at my back. And yesterday morning, when it was clear I wasn’t returning, he sent me a choice text.” Fresh anxiety nipped. Rich could walk through the door at any moment.

“Oh. I thought you two had like a showdown. That doesn’t make me feel so bad then.”

“What do you have to feel bad about?” Ester said.

“I’d love to tell him where to shove it, but all I can do is shut up and put up. Makes me feel like shit on a shoe.”

Ester remembered Crystal had a police record, which further limited her career choices. “Fierce, that’s how you should feel. You’re doing what you need to, so you and your kids can get by.”

“Thanks for that spin.” Pain cut Crystal’s laugh short. Her fingers fluttered above the angry laceration.

Ester resaw the gunman pistol-whip Crystal. His plastic face was grinding Ester’s mouth. His handgun drilled her temple.

“You all right?” Crystal said.

“Me? Are you all right?”

“I could do with some more painkillers, but I gotta wait a couple of hours.”

Ester searched her purse, hiding her upset. There was no way Crystal should be back to work this soon. She handed over the plastic tub of fish food. “Don’t overfeed him. People think it’s how to love them, but that’s how most fish die. If you want to spoil him, talk to him. It works for plants and most everything else.”

“Got it, thanks.”

“The first sign of green, you need to change the water. Dirty water, that’s the second leading cause of death.”

“You sure know your goldfish.”

“Maybe better than I know children.”


“Who else?”

They traded fresh grievances about their kids, pausing the conversation whenever a customer arrived at the counter to check out.

They landed on lighter talk of their offspring’s pickiness and phobias. Ester exaggerated her boys’ neuroses for comedic effect, in particular Jason’s terror of blue mold on food.

“My Jim won’t keep his toothbrush in the bathroom,” Crystal said. “Nothing I say can convince him a dump won’t contaminate it.”

Ester maintained her smile, but she was thinking about how the gunman had contaminated things.

Crystal also turned somber. “I can’t help thinking this is my punishment for stealing stuff in the past.”

“That’s crazy, there’s no comparison. You shoplifted what Groceries? Clothes?” 

“And then some.”

“Hey, don’t go there. I’m supposed to be cheering you up, remember?”

“You are, and Torpedo was a brilliant idea, thank you. Now get out of here before Rich shows up,” Crystal said.

“Yeah, all right. Best if I live to return another day.”

As Ester exited the store, Crystal waved from her post at the cash register, the goldfish parked on the shelf behind her. Ester waved back, her smile flimsy. Crystal could have died in that same spot—from battery, gunshots, or something as stupid as asthma.

The overnight delivery was waiting for Ester on the front doorstep. She carried the cardboard box into the kitchen and sliced the tape open with her car key. She removed the top layer of bubble wrap, revealing the giraffe mask. Its coloring was too orange. The gunman’s mask was more brown. But it was close enough.

She folded the delivery box flat and placed it and the bubble wrap in the recycling bin. She carried the mask upstairs to her bedroom, not looking at it. She lay down on her back on her bed, taking deep breaths. She pressed the mask to her face and pulled its elastic cord over her head. She rested her clasped hands on her stomach, feeling herself rise and fall.

Her face turned hot and damp behind the mask. Her recycled breath quickened and climbed. Her ears filled with the growing sound of the outside world entering her and her insides leaving her. Her eyelashes batted the back of the plastic face, their scratches the same grating noise as the gunman’s lashes had made. Through the eyeholes, she was seeing the world the way he had. She tried to picture how she and Crystal had looked to him. Tried to understand how he had made so little of them, of Crystal, how he could do what he did.

She shot up, gasping and pulling off the mask. She swung her legs off the bed and curled her hands around the edge of the mattress. She pressed her feet to the floor, but the hardwood wasn’t enough to keep her tethered. She was back inside the store, seeing Superman look up from the linoleum tiles. His gaze more sad than tender, she realized. Like he was thinking, This is how humans are.

Ethel Rohan is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. She has published widely beyond her books, including work in The New York Times, World Literature Today, The Washington Post, The Irish Times, PEN America, and Tin House. Rohan is the host of Bookshop West Portal's Irish Author Interview Series and the curator of their national Irish Book Subscription service. Sing, I is her second novel (April 15, 2024, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press).
Social media: Instagram @ethelrohan | Facebook @EthelRohanAuthor