Fiction by Amelia Franz
On one side of the register stood miniature bottles of Fireball and Jack Daniels, on the other a stack of fundraising flyers for the family of a man killed out on 182, rear-ended by an over weight cane truck bound for the Raceland mill. Greer refilled the scratch-off dispenser case, then reached below the counter and switched on the radio. It was 2:00, time for Straight Talk with Dr. Deb. The bell clattered against the door glass, and he greeted the father and young son on their way back to the drink coolers.
He turned on the radio. The program’s first caller was a woman whose boyfriend had left her six months pregnant, no insurance and a hundred sixty dollars to her name.
“Honey, stop right there,” interrupted Dr. Deb. “Stop stop stop stop. Even a freakin’ squirrel knows to make a nest before it starts popping out little baby squirrels.”
The caller sounded quite young, which made it hard for Greer to savor her dilemma, the way he usually did. And something in this girl’s voice reminded him of Angie. He switched the radio off.
The boy and his father walked up with their drinks, a Yoo Hoo and a hard lemonade. He rang them up, then paused a moment to marvel at the uncanny resemblance. The same buzz cuts and jug ears, the same wide-set green eyes and prominent chin clefts.
“No doubt who that child belong to,” Greer said, winking as he dropped the change into the man’s palm.
The boy was nine, maybe ten. He was eyeing the oval collage of Angie’s school pictures on the wall behind Greer, and above it, the framed prayer to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Patroness of Louisiana: Obtain for us protection from hurricanes and all disaster. He was mouthing the words when the gunman entered the store.
Shirtless, shoeless, goggle-eyed. Waving a .38 all around. Greer was 61 years old, and Meaux’s Gas and Gro had been robbed many times over the years, with handguns, shotguns, a ceremonial sword, even a hypodermic needle. He feared little for himself, only for the stupified child, who appeared to be wetting his pale blue nylon shorts.
And then—it could not possibly be—and yet it was. This father took a small step back, then one more to the right. Behind his son, who now stood between his father and the snub-nosed revolver. Greer swallowed hard and raised his hands.
“Take it easy now,” he said. “I’m just gonna open the register.”
He removed the till and set it on the counter, and the gunman clacked through the trays, red-brown hair falling into his eyes. He crammed the wad of bills into his pocket and ran out. It was all over in seconds.
For a long moment, no one spoke. There was only the quiet hum of the Slush Puppie machine. The father opened his mouth, then closed it. His eyes flickered to Greer’s, then away. He put his arm around the boy.
“You’re okay, Kyle. You’re okay. You’re just fine.”
But the boy twisted free of his father and stared down at the wet spot on his shorts. He pulled the clinging fabric away from his skin. For a second, Greer had no idea what to do. His mind spun like a radio antenna in the middle of nowhere, scanning for any signal at all. Then he remembered that morning’s delivery.
“Hang on a sec, young man.”
He stooped and took a folded Saints tee from the open box and shook off the dust. It was black, with Who Dat? In gold letters, superimposed on a large white fleur de lis. He carried it around the counter and then, as if this were his own child, dropped to one knee and pulled the shirt over the unresisting boy’s head, so it hung low and concealed the dark spot.
“All fixed up,” Greer said to the boy, but instantly regretted the idiotic phrase. The chirpy, condescending tone, so ill-suited to the moment.
“How much we owe you for the shirt?” the man said, reaching around for his wallet.
“Just take him home,” Greer replied, darkly.
He’d seen an old black and white movie recently. Yankee mobsters in pinstriped suits, shooting Tommy guns from moving cars. They tortured a fellow gang member who’d sold them out, a character named Frankie. How Frankie had thrashed and howled when they strapped him to the chair and went to work on his kneecap. Greer thought of his Sears hammer with the black rubber grip. If any soul on earth deserved such a fate, it was this so-called father, who had not protected his child.
What kind of a man? He thought, still kneeling as they left the store and walked together towards a dusty brown F-150. What kind of a man?
But he knew what kind, knew it only too well. And as he rose, his own leg buckled.
After locking up at eleven, he lingered a while in the parking lot before driving home, staring across the highway at a field of burned cane. More than the blanket of ash that descended each fall at harvest time, more than the smell and the dirty smoke, he disliked those standing blackened husks.
It was 250 miles to Biloxi, Mississippi. He could fill up his tank and be there by dawn, easy. He could ask Ryleigh to open the store tomorrow. She would be glad for the hours. Yes, he could certainly do that.
But instead, he drove west, not east, through the desiccated fields towards Thibodaux. A few hours later, quite drunk, he rolled over in bed, fumbled for the phone, and dialed a very old number. There was no ringing, no click, not even a recording to say the number had been disconnected or was no longer in use. There was only silence. He began to speak into the receiver.
Amelia Franz was born and raised in Mississippi but now lives with her husband and children in the Baltimore area. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Image, Hippocampus, Peatsmoke Journal, Eclectica, Prime Number Magazine, and other literary publications. She is obsessed with literature that grapples with faith/religion and is currently working on a story collection. One of these days, she will definitely get her act together and create an author website. But for now, you can find her on Twitter @amelia_franz.