The house where Roman lived sat just off the train tracks. And in reality, it was a shack, the backyard shed turned crack den where his sort-of-friend lived. A single, uninsulated room with a mattress, a mini fridge, and a plug in stove top— that was it. It was not a great situation. Wasn’t even a good one. But, for the time, it worked.
Roman, tall and angry with morning, pissed into the bushes outside the shack.
Then the ten AM came clanging through and Roman–cock out–waved to the conductor, who returned him the finger.
Sitting upright on the mattress, Roman gulped down half a Forty. Once quenched, he dug into a burrito he’d scavenged from the picnic tables adjacent the questionable food truck and Mexican grocery. When that was gone Roman polished off the Forty, laid back, and passed out. Twenty or so passed and then came a banging at the door.
“Rome you useless-ass, sack-o-shit, wake the hell up.”
It was Bart, the owner of the house and thus the shed.
Partially awake, Roman grunted as Bart stepped in, his very entrance shaking the foundation of the shack. Bart was a towering, pot-bellied man with pit stains and many bad tattoos. Most would say he was a sight, and on more than one occasion as Bart—a butcher by trade—left Vick’s Meats for the day, blood covered and scowling, the cops were called.
Though Bart looked tough and ugly as a callous, he wasn't without his soft spots. For one thing, he loved to garden, took an enormous amount of pride in tending to the various flowers and herbs he kept. Hydrangeas and Thyme being his respective favorites. Moreover, Bart was no stranger to empathy. During a downpour in June, a stray pug took shelter under his front porch. Gazing into the little thing’s gooey brown eyes, Bart was smitten. The pug was dubbed Bagel and the two were inseparable. When Bagel’s belly grew to the size of a cantaloupe, something dawned on Bart. Bagel was pregnant. In the heat of late August, Bart became the proud new owner of a litter of baby pugs, which he declared his Bagel Bites.
“I been kind, real kind,” said Bart. “Lettin’ you crash here for months, rent free, griming up my back yard with beer cans, muddying the garden every time you hose off. And I know you been sneaking food out the fridge.”
“Bart, pal, things have just been tough. You know how it is.”
“What I know is that it’s been eight months since you seen any kind of work. Now, man, like please, fuckin’ please,” Bart was not one to swear. “I need you to--”
“This cause a your girl? She putting you up to this?”
“Don’t you bring Lily into this, man that ain’t cool.”
“What ‘ain’t cool’ is your bitch tellin’ you this n’ that. You're the man. Act like it.”
“Hey! Don't you be referrin’ to her like that! At least I got my act together and can keep one.”
“S’that supposed to mean?” Roman cracked another Forty and took a huge sip, as if drinking water from a desert oasis.
Bart surveyed the den. Beer cans, cigarettes, dirty wife-beaters, molding food. The place was a sty. “What it means is when I’m back from work, I need somethin’ from ya. Money, a plan, anything.”
Bart slammed the door, leaving Roman with a clenched fist and a mouthful of malt beer.
Bell woke, stretched her limbs across floral bed sheets. It was nine going on ten, and her room smelled of dust and oatmeal.
Breakfast? she thought. Breakfast.
She wandered down the wooden stairs of her shared apartment. They creaked as she descended, a characteristic liked by Bell but loathed by Claire, who would likely stay asleep for several hours.
In the kitchen, Bell hummed the melody of a song her mother used to sing as she cooked. The name of tune, Bell did not know, but it was pretty. A lullaby for wakefulness. She did this as she went from pantry to cupboard, sleepily gathering the necessary items: Cheerios, almond milk, riveted glass bowl, a water-stained spoon.
On the kitchen table was a vase with a single sunflower, which Bell had stolen from her part-time at the flower shop. Everything was lain out, picturesque. The scene could have been some kind of advertisement for any one of the items she’d taken out. Bell was often told she had an eye for things. “Aesthetics,” Claire would sometimes say, but Bell hated the word. Just things. Pretty things.
Maybe advertising or marketing, thought Bell. No, corporate America is the bottoms. I’ll trim roses and water orchids for a thousand years before I sit at a desk researching market trends or, Christ, conjuring up broadly appealing campaign slogans. But maybe? No. No no no.
Just before the first drop of almond milk left the lip of the carton, Bell stopped.
Bananas. She had forgotten the bananas.
How could she do such a thing? She couldn't eat her cereal without them, refused to have a meal unless something banana flavored was in accompaniment. Breakfast: in her cereal. Lunch: banana yogurt, or a whole banana with peanut butter. Dinner: always with banana chips.
They weren’t in their usual place, nestled up inside the wicker basket on the counter. So, Claire?
Bell checked the fridge. A note:
Ate the last na after work. Don’t hate me. Moneys on counter.
Do not resuscitate,
Left with no option, Bell grabbed the money, dressed, and was out the back door, headed north for Easy Street Bodega.
Ol’ Faithful was the name of the pipe. It was pungent and metallic, and though it held only sentimental value, Roman kept it hidden under the mattress. It had been gifted to him by his brother, two weeks before a bullet to the stomach took him out of the picture.
Not every day, bro, Kale had told Roman. But sometimes, sometimes you just gotta take the edge off. And this stuff, boy does it do the trick.
The first time they lit up was in the back of Kale’s pickup. Brianna was seven months pregnant and crazy. Roman had been working doubles smashing rocks at the quarry and his body ached.
“I’m telling you man, its good, and decently safe shit.” Kale loaded the pipe with jagged white pebbles.
When it was all said and done, Roman felt good. Good enough to do it again, and again, and again.
Roman raised Ol’ Faithful. Fucking Bart. God damned pig slaughtering piece-a work. A plan? I got a plan. Had a plan all along. Ask anyone, even that bitch Brianna knew I had a plan.
The plan was management. But when the company that ran the quarry skimped on proper equipment and four guys died in a wall collapse, lawsuits ensued. The business went up in smoke, as did Roman’s plan.
Now it’s all about that Ass-For-A-Face, Scott. Fuckin’ in the bed I paid for, spoon feeding my kid. Which I don’t give one shit about the bed, or Brianna, but fuck me, Chels? Baby girl, sweet angel haired thing, skin like silk, swear on my life--
Roman grabbed Ol’ Faithful and the sack of crystals that were tied to it. He placed a medium sized rock in the pipe. A quick flick of a bic and Roman’s lungs burned sour. He exhaled and the world went bright.
“Yeah yeah yeah baby, YEAH!”
He pocketed Ol’ Faithful, the baggy, and the Bic. One exhilarated moment blurred into another and Roman found himself standing in Bart’s kitchen, a gaggle of pugs, all tail-wags and sniffles, scurrying at his feet.
The plan: Butcher’s knife on the red checkered table.
Roman raised the cleaver and it glinted, a band of light slowly, beautifully, shifting up the side the blade. Ol’ Faithful, as she rose, shone with equal beauty. Another Bic click, fire, sourness.
Roman’s body found itself standing next to the dumpster behind the Mexican Grocery. Everything was all upside-down cake. The sky was red and cars moved like slugs. A ghostly image of Chelsea in her polka-dot onesie appeared atop the dumpster. She stood.
“Where’d go dada?”
“Love-muffin, Butterball, Sweet Thing!” cried Roman. “Do you miss me? Do you still love me?”
Chels nodded, half visible half the wall behind her.
“Miss dada,” said Chelsea, fading.
“No! Jesus no!”
And then she was nothing.
Bell sifted through the songs on her phone until she found the perfect track for a temperate November morning — an Anarcho-Punk album with poorly strummed guitar and a scratchy, beautiful voice. She turned the volume up as high as it could go and dove into her own little world. She sped past the strip mall with the dying palms, cut through the park where, just last week, a drug deal had gone belly-up. Bell knew the neighborhood wasn’t safe, but the rent was cheap and the people were nice, and even though it meant trouble to most, she loved the sound of sirens whining in the distance, their echoes growing deeper as sound faded into air.
What if something were to happen to you? Her mother’s voice echoed in her head. I think about how you’re never more than a hundred feet from some disgusting criminal and I can’t sleep at night. We love you. We just love you so much, Bella.
Outside Easy Street Bodega stood the old Colombian woman who sold Tamales from a sack. Six days a week, in the pouring rain or under the beating sun, this woman peddled her homemade goods. As Bell walked up, the woman greeted her with a wrinkled smile, held up a small foil wrapper as if asking, “Quieres?”
Bell held her hand out and shook her head, signaling: No, pero gracias.
Inside Easy Street, and though Bell could not hear it, salsa music spilled from the speaker on the counter. She gave a wave to Roberto, the cashier, who mouthed the words “hola,” before she floated down the humble fruit isle. As Bell reached for a particularly ripe looking cluster of bananas, a hoard of fruit flies buzzed off the yellow skin and dispersed into the tepid Bodega air.
Possessed by an irrational fear for all types of bugs, Bell winced. This phobia was not conducive to her part time at the flower shop, nor was it helpful that she lived in a city where the weather was perpetually warm, but thinking of her cereal bowl on the table at home, she persevered.
With her quest almost at an end, Bell thought of how she would spend the rest of the day. Would she spend the rest of the day biking along the river, photographing everything with a stem? Maybe, but a recently purchased book of poems was calling her name from the hammock in the backyard. Options options options. So many, all so good.
Bell set the Bananas on the counter. Roberto, familiar with her habit of shutting the auditory world out, held up five fingers. Bell rummaged through her purse and acquired a damaged Lincoln, handed it to Roberto.
“Gracias Señora,” Bell could just hear Roberto say through her music. “¿Necesitas algo más?”
“Actually,” said Bell, placing the bananas back on the counter. “Baño?”
“Si si,” Said Roberto, handing her the key.
It was go time.
“Swear to God Almighty, I’ll swing this knife!”
And swing the knife Roman did.
Really it was more of a wave, but Roman’s initial threat—to slice and promptly disembowel—flashed through Roberto’s mind.
Was he the type to bravely stand against, thereby putting an end to, the incipient robbery? Certainly not.
A portly and kind gentleman, Roberto might best be described in the words of his ex-wife: a big soft loser. Amiable? Yes. Capacity for compassion? Sure. But ultimately an invertebrate amongst vertebrate.
Thus Roman’s dull cleaver struck fear into his heart.
“EMPTY IT. EMPTY NOW!”
As told, Roberto, shaking, emptied the register into the pillow case. Not a penny remained.
“GOOD. YEAH GOOD.” Roman looked around, feeling something like pride at how far he’d come. Though theft was not an unfamiliar act, holding up an entire store was.
Fuck it fuck it. Armed robbery is armed robbery. May as well do or die.
“ALL’YA VALUABLES OUT,” he yelled, turning towards the customers and waving the cleaver.
All three people in the bodega rummaged as fast as they could.
Nostrils flared, eyes redder than his bank account, Roman slashed into the discount piñatas as he made his way down the candy isle.
“WHOLE THING. INTHA BAG,” he demanded of an elderly woman.
In went the purse.
For a moment Roman thought of pushing her over to further establishing his dominance. But was he a monster? That depended on who was asked. In this instance, however, he thought of his own mother. Similar in age, frail, hair curly and white as this woman’s. She even smelled like her. Do all old people smell like talcum powder?
Roman grunted and moved an isle over. Next was a middle-aged man with wire framed glasses and a gold Rolex.
Oh it’s a beaut, that watch, thought Roman. The kind of watch his father would fawn over as he sifted through the pages of GQ, drinking cheap rye until he couldn’t remember his name. The kind of watch that would be gifted only on the occasion of a great life achievement. This was in fact the case.
The man dawning the golden Rolex was Mr. Fischer, a distinguished professor of English at Ruaschburg College on the east side. Ten years hence, having written the “seminal book on postmodern literature,” Mr. Fischer was awarded The Educators of Great Influence and Impact award for his contribution to the subject. The watch was a gift from his family, spearheaded and crowdfunded by his late wife, Phyllis.
“WATCH. WALLET,” yelled Roman.
Off came the Rolex, which had been wrapped with such repose around the hairy wrist of Mr. Fischer. Its weight produced a satisfying thud as it landed in the pillowcase.
Roman’s wild eyes met Fischer’s.
This was a man Roman would push, could really give it to.
As if attempting to walk straight through him, Roman bumped Fischer so hard he fell back, toppling a display of newly minted Bud Light Tall Boys. Many of the cans burst, hissed as they sprayed mist into morning light.
Stepping over the fountains-becoming-puddles of beer, Roman headed for his final target. A man? A boy.
Fourteen Maybe Fifteen stood frozen. He held a can of Coke and a package of Swedish Fish in his hand. Roman and the cleaver glared him down.
“WHATEVER YA GOT,” huffed Roman.
“I-I-I got n-n-othing,” said Fourteen Maybe Fifteen, voice trembling.
Lying shit, lying lil, Roman’s brain screamed, near frenzied and fraying. Looks like Scott. A fucking young Scott. Always lying! Chelsea does love me, betchur ass she does. Just cause you see her more than I do, which is zero, don’t mean she loves you.
Roman moved close.
“S-s-cott?” stammered Fourteen Maybe Fifteen.
“You bought her a dollhouse for her second, ok? You didn't hold her after she was born, didn’t teach her to butterfly kisses! Don’t know the way she looked up at me!”
Roman turned. He slammed his fist into the glass door of a soda cooler, breaking it and slicing his hand.
“I’d bleed for her, would do anything to see that dimpled smile! What’s her favorite food!” yelled Roman, hand dripping.
“Spaghetti, you shit bag! And what about her favorite color? Huh?!”
“B-b-blue?” Guessed Fourteen Maybe Fifteen.
“WRONG! Wrong wrong wrong! It’s lavender! You don't know nothing! Not a fuckin’ thing!”
Enraged, Roman pushed himself into Fourteen Maybe Fifteen, who toppled over and fell into a rack chips and crackers. Fourteen Maybe Fifteen stared up at Roman like a wounded doe.
“Please smash your God damned head in? Please carve you like a ham? Please? That all you got to say!? Why I, why I oughta--”
At that moment, the door behind Roman creaked opened. Out stepped a pretty, pretty young girl.
It was as if she had stumbled into a different world entirely. Roberto stared at Bell, his mouth agape and eyes terrified. Then a middle-aged man dashed out the front door.
“DON’T YOU DARE!” shouted a tall, angry man wielding a cleaver.
But the man had made his escape.
“What’s, what’s happening?” asked Bell, removing her headphones.
“ON THE GROUND,” demanded The Feral Man.
Bell’s heart raced. It jumped it skipped it ran a hundred-meter Olympic dash and back. Her vison was all blood and beer, bags of chips and a crying teenager. Man with knife? A Cleaver?
“ON THE FUCK DAMN GROUND,” repeated the man.
Bell did as told and placed her body against the dirty floor. The Feral Man staggered over and stood above her. His breathing was fast and heavy, erratic and unpredictable. Looking away, Bell could feel a cutting glare, his mind scrambling to solve the problem that was her— any moment held the possibility of being her last. She pictured her body, lifeless and supine, lying in an open casket, bouquets of flowers adorning a shrine to the years she spent walking the face of earth. Before the casket is closed, her parents look down at her one last time, then mother turns and sobs into dad’s shirt. He reaches out and brushes her cheek, repeating slowly the funeral director’s closing words “Too soon. Too soon.”
The poor girl beneath Roman’s feet cried and cried and cried, which sounded horrendous when mixed with the salsa music coming from the boom box. He hovered beside her for what felt like minutes, not quite thinking, but, on some level, processing the noises she made.
“Please señor, we give you everything you want,” piped Roberto. “P-p-lease go.”
Roman’s blood had cooled from a boil to a simmer. The Bodega was a wreck, his hand was in pieces, and he was coming down like a rock tossed from the top Empire State. The plan. What was the plan? Make a break for it? Yes, there was still time.
But then sirens. Far away at first, but quickly, almost impossibly, they were outside the Bodega.
Again, someone made a break for it. This time it was Fourteen Maybe Fifteen, who’s spell of paralysis had been lifted by the sound of the cops.
Roman whipped around. “FUCKING DON’T YOU DARE!”
But Fourteen Maybe Fifteen was already gone.
“Exit the store with your hands up!” came the voice of a police officer through a megaphone.
The whole thing had gone, as Roman would say, tits up.
Won’t go, not to jail, no I won’t. Swear on my fucking life I won’t. Won’t spend 15 years kicking around in some prison cell. Won’t stand in the same food line as the murderers and the rapists. Won’t wear an orange jumper and eat gruel off a tin tray. Damnit, won’t spend another day away from her. Will do anything to be there for her third, her fourth, fifth – anything to see her face, warm in the light of candles.
Then Roman did something that surprised himself. He grabbed the girl by the hair, forced her sobbing frame up in front of his own and put the dull edge of the cleaver to her throat.
The blade, pressed so delicately against Bell’s throat, was frigid, and this, mixed with fear, caused her to tremor.
“HER THROAT. I’LL FUCKING CUT HER THROAT IF YOU COME IN!” yelled the Feral Man with unholy conviction. “BACK UP. BACK UP OR SHE, OR SHE DIES.”
The police, who were but three feet from the bodega doors, froze, backed away as they realized the situation had gone from standard to hostage situation.
Now what? That was the question that hung in the air. Even The Feral Man paused, contemplating his next move. Then, in a brutish movement, he pulled her aside and out of view of the police. She could feel his rotten breath on her neck, could feel his chest heave. Then something on her shoulder. A droplet. First one, then another, and another, and another.
They came from the ducts of The Feral Man, who’s vision spun and shook and danced and blurred.
“My parents,” Bell managed. “I just want my parents.”
Hold her tight. Keep the knife close. Then run. Run until safety. That’s the way. The only way. Roman carved these instructions into his brain until they became truth.
And the procession was set to begin.
Roman marched her forward until the sun, spilling in from the windows, broke on the girl’s face. The young thing, so full of life, skin soft like a peach and hair the color of wheat, was lead down the fruit isle by a crazed man with a dull knife.
Left right, left right, until they were at the door. It was all eyes on them.
“Open!” demanded Roman.
They stepped out into the considerably cooler air, into the blockade of cars and flashing lights, into a wall of angry muzzles and sweat covered faces. Roman held his shield tighter as he inched towards the alley. Something was shouted at him, but his ears refused the information, replacing all noise with the sound of his pounding heart. As the two paused in front of the alleyway, Roman’s stomach burned. He surveyed the landscape in front of him: half a dozen boys in blue ready to gun down something down.
Roman withdrew the knife from the girl’s throat and pushed her forward, spun into the alley and broke into a sprint. In his frantic eyes, the corridor was harsh and indiscernible with light, but he could just make out the tiny frame of a silhouette as it stood at the exit, beckoning him forward. When the sound of gunshots broke, they echoed and cackled, kissed the brick walls before entering the air; Roman’s knees buckled, sending him to the ground. He laid there, wheezing and hacking, pleading the warmth not to leave his body. It refused.
Roman looked up in search of the figure, but it had disappeared completely; it was lost in the divine light, taken into that sacred glow.