Fiction by Rob D. Smith
Maria Jaworski slid the Styrofoam container containing spinach ricotta pierogies across the window counter to her last customer of the evening. He was always her last customer.
“Did you hear about the fire last night at the Parelli’s?” Eugene Mitchum leaned his beefy forearms across the food truck counter. “Never would have happened if they hadn’t kicked me off the fire squad. Not on my watch.”
Maria thought there had been a rash of fires in Belford County lately. The Weddle’s barn flamed down to ashes. Bobby’s Big Bad BBQ caught the firebug too. Drove some extra customers her way though.
“I’ve been busy.”
He opened the lid on his container and chive-infused steam escaped. “How about some extra sour cream?”
“Everything’s stored away, Eugene.”
He bit on his lower lip and then released it. “Mitch, remember? All my friends call me Mitch.”
No one in this county or the next called him Mitch. Certainly not his friends because he didn’t have any. “Sorry. Mitch but Sally quit mid-shift and now I have to clean up all by my lonesome. My mom is watching my kid and if I don’t get home soon, she’ll be late for her overnight shift.”
“How’s your transmission doing? Any pings or is your truck running smooth?”
She sighed. “Let me dig the sour cream back out.”
“You’re the best, Maria.”
Eugene couldn’t go one visit without lording the repair job he did for her. She couldn’t afford to turn down his offer when he found her crying behind the wheel that fateful day. All the money she had won on a lottery pull ticket went into buying and refurbing the eighteen-year-old Ford Step Van into her food truck. A new transmission would sink her business before she even got started. Eugene said he enjoyed working on mechanical problems. She would be doing him a favor by letting him practice with his tools. Damned if he didn’t fix the problem after a few days in her gravel driveway.
He didn’t ask for money which worried her. If a man doesn’t want money, he wants something else a woman has to give. He surprised her when all he asked for payment was free pierogies for life. A price she was willing to pay. Except now here he was every day and every night eating his weight and then some in her pierogies. And it came to her that he indeed had romantic intentions. If he hung around enough, her heart would grow fond of him. The opposite effect happened.
Now he wanted to jibber jabber when she was already late getting home to Jenny. Her mom had gone above and beyond with her support. Maria couldn’t let them both down by being late again. If this fool chewing his pierogies like a wild boar, would just hurry up.
“Mitch. I really have to go.”
Dipping a pierogi in the sour cream, he smiled. His thick fingers had traces of grease in their calluses. “I tell you about the bass I caught last weekend. No one’s ever pulled a fish that big out of McNeely Lake before. If you had some free time, I could show you my secret fishing spot?”
“I don’t have time to go fishing.” She checked her watch.
“You don’t have time to go bowling either. If I didn’t know how busy you were with your food truck and your kid, I might take this personally.” A crimson flush crawled into his cheeks.
Maria had thought about adding dandelion greens to his pierogies. Those weedy flowers grew in every crack of the parking lot. Chop those leaves up instead of the sweet basil. If his food tasted bitter, maybe he would stop coming around. But she didn’t have time for mild poisoning now. She was already late.
“Those look tasty as hell. Mind if I try one?”
A woman wearing a maroon hoodie had snuck up on them. She didn’t wait for a response from Eugene either. The stranger plucked a single pierogi from the Styrofoam tray and bit it in half. Some of the juices ran down her chin. Wiping away the mess with her collar, she said, “Oh, mama. I could eat a dozen of these.”
Eugene pulled his tray closer to him. “These are specially made for me.”
“Well, I’ll have to come back tomorrow. Heard the chef say it’s closing time. Maybe you should scram so she can leave.” The woman pulled her hood forward shadowing her eyes.
“Maybe you should shut your piehole.”
Maria felt the or else behind Eugene’s utterance. She had never witnessed his violence but she heard from Rita at the Credit Union the reason he got fired from the fire department was he beat up the Chief’s son for stepping on his boot. Pinched his bunion and Eugene tore into him. There was always this Neanderthal menace hanging in the air around him. Another reason she didn’t outright tell him to get lost.
The woman either didn’t sense the danger or didn’t care. She was slim as a tobacco stick but her energy took up a lot of space. Maria got a glimpse of her eyes under her hood. Akin to dancing flames in the dark. Eugene pushed off the truck and hitched his blue jeans up on his waist. His mind did some redneck calculations rubbing the rough whiskers on his chin.
“I was done chewing the fat anyway.” He grabbed his Styrofoam container of half-eaten pierogies off the counter. “See you tomorrow, Maria.”
“I bet her hearts aflutter,” the strange woman said.
Eugene didn’t turn around as he stormed off but he raised a middle finger in response. Maria felt the reverberation of every boot stomp from him as he left the parking lot. She checked her watch and cursed.
“Need some help cleaning up?” asked the stranger.
“Thanks, but there’s no time to clean now. I’m so freaking late.”
The woman maundered across the lot. Maria shut the window panel and climbed into the driver’s seat. She took off without even buckling up. Might as well get tossed around with the rest of her unsecured food and equipment as she sped out of the lot to her mother’s house. The stranger’s maelstrom eyes niggling at the back of her mind.
Maria got the truck back to the parking lot earlier than usual the next day. Sally wasn’t there to help prep the food for the day so she needed extra time to prepare for the lunch rush. Time was the most precious commodity she discovered when running her small business. There wasn’t enough of it and she felt bad she couldn’t find more time for Jenny.
She kept telling herself this would pay off as she chopped basil and cilantro. Every slice as she minced a pork cutlet. She wielded a large rustic cleaver. Caramelizing the onions would be next. Once that was done, she would have to get the pierogi dough she rolled late last night out of the proof buckets. Roll them into hundreds of small balls and tray them up in groups of fifty. There wasn’t enough time.
She was going to lose money today. Money, she needed to make the truck payment. She even owed her mother for fronting special insurance money on her food truck. Mom remarked about the time Maria almost burnt down the house while cooking as a twelve-year-old but she still paid the insurance.
Maria couldn’t afford to paint her pierogi logo on the side of the pink truck yet. All she had done was use more garish pink paint to cover up the Tico Taco name the previous owner had used. Maria brought the cleaver down in a heavy whack chipping a chunk out of her cutting board. A long whistle came through the air. The strange woman from last night watched through the panel window Maria opened to get some airflow. Those peeping owl eyes startled her into holding the cleaver out as a shield. The woman smiled crookedly.
“Can I help you?” Maria let the cleaver drop to her side but she still kept a tight grip. Her hood was down. Short-cropped black hair exposing the intensity of her eyes.
“You said your worker quit. I need a gig.”
“Doesn’t pay much.”
“Something pays better than nothing.”
Maria wondered about this woman’s past. “Any experience?
“I’ve waitressed a lot. Some fast-food gigs when I was younger.”
Maria wasted time she didn’t have. She sorely needed help even though getting her up to speed might slow her down. Could she trust this woman with the money? All these quibbles were grains of sand sliding downward through Maria’s hourglass. Shit or get off the pot. Maria guessed it was time to shit.
“Alright, you’re hired. But on a probationary status.” She felt there the woman was holding back but she needed immediate help.
Maria pointed with the cleaver. “Grab an apron. I’ll get you rolling pierogi balls. You’ll be an expert after a couple of hundred.”
She held out her fist for a bump. “Call me B.”
“Like the Golden Girl Bea Arthur?”
“Like the letter B.” A crooked smile under those big eyes. Together they reminded her of someone but she couldn’t recall when. B donned an apron and they got busy with prep.
Her new hire performed well during the lunch rush. Her waitressing past helped with the sales transactions on the tablet. She was charming with the men and the women. The plastic tip container was overflowing which never happened with Sally and her open sullenness. B had even charmed Maria to an extent.
B spoke a little about her past but never divulged any real insights. Just that she had been all over the South but you wouldn’t catch her farther north than Kentucky. And out West was for cowboys. Did she look like she drove cattle? No, she was Southern as okra and that’s where she roamed. She never narrowed down her home state let alone her hometown.
B handed over two trays to an old schoolmate of Maria’s named Kelly Cook. She was buying for her partner at the small accounting business they had within walking distance on Clay St. Her food truck got a lot of customers from the downtown businesses and courthouse. While Kelly was exchanging money with B, she squealed. Maria took the pierogies she was pan-searing off the burner.
“I can’t believe it’s you.” Kelly smiled at B through the window. B’s shoulders dropped. “We all thought you fell off the face of the earth. But here you stand.”
Maria wiped her hands clean on her apron as she approached. The interior of the truck was compact and she had to crowd B a little to check out Kelly’s exuberance.
Kelly asked, “When did you get back to Belford?”
Maria flinched and took a hard look at the woman she knew as B. Those lost eyes and crooked mouth. Her best friend for three years from St. Rose Grade School until she moved away. Working under her nose without saying a word.
B shrugged her shoulders and painted on a dramatic you caught me expression. Maria wanted to punch and hug her at the same time. Instead, she reached up grabbed the window handle said, “See you later Kelly,” and closed the panel down. The interior was darker now with the panel closed. The two women just stood there and breathed.
“Becca fucking Renshaw.” Maria embraced her long-lost friend. Becca returned the hug. She pulled back and socked her friend in the upper arm. “You didn’t say anything.”
Becca with her crooked smile. “I wanted to see how long it would take you to recognize me. Must not have made much of an impression.”
“I’ve been up my ass starting this business so you could have been Taylor Swift and I wouldn’t have known.”
“That’s your excuse?”
“Your hair didn’t use to be so dark.” Maria reached out and touched the side of Becca’s head. When they were kids, Becca had long blond hair that Maria loved to braid. Jet black and jagged now. Hard to rectify this person with the winsome child who rolled down hills with her. Caught fireflies at dusk in old mayonnaise jars. Some of Maria’s best times were before Becca left. Darker times followed when even a thousand fireflies couldn’t light up during her teenage troubles.
Becca said, “Remember when you smeared dog poop on the Hennessy’s car windows?”
“You ran away faster so they only saw my fat ass wobbling away in the night. Called my mom.”
“I bet Estrella gave it to you.”
Maria sucked air through her teeth. “She’s relentless. Still is.”
“I loved your mom.”
They were two fatherless daughters craving unconditional love. They became each other’s protectors. Shielding the shame of being abandoned and unwanted. Maria experienced the strict rule of her Catholic mother Estrella who failed her faith by getting pregnant out of wedlock. As if her mother’s redemption depended on making Maria the purest angel. It was tough love times ten but at least her mom cared about her eternal soul.
Becca’s mom went out honky-tonking every night. Her friend would tap on her window late some evenings when she couldn’t sleep because her house was making noises. It wasn’t ghosts unless ghosts were fucking. The next day they would be playing in the yard when the screen door would slam open and some rough-looking man would be buttoning his shirt as he walked across the scrubby lawn to his pick-up.
When Becca left, Maria fell in with some older kids to fill the emptiness. They introduced her to weed for the first time. Leading to pills. She climbed out of a bottomless opioid hole due to her mom’s unyielding love but once you get labeled in a small town as a junkie, you remained a junkie in most of their eyes. They still bought pierogies from her but they all judged her. They just knew her business was going to fail all the while praying for her salvation at Sunday mass.
Becca bumped her in the shoulder. “I see you still live in your head too much.”
Maria instinctively looked at her watch. “Shit, I have to pick up Jenny from school in an hour. Better wrap it up.”
Becca tied on an apron and picked up a towel. “Can I ride with you? Love to meet Jenny. And see Estrella again.”
Maria had started securing lids and putting sauces back in the pantry. “Your funeral. Those two are so alike it’s scary.”
They were sitting at the back of St. Rose’s parking lot. The food truck was too big. Too Pepto Bismal pink. Maria didn’t want to embarrass her daughter but there was no use trying to hide her truck. Becca had her long legs up on the dash leaning back in her passenger’s seat blowing the smoke from a cigarette out the open window. Maria wished she had Becca’s legs instead of her stubby ones. She wished she could have a pull off Becca’s cigarette too but Jenny would be her any moment.
Becca offered the cigarette. “Take a drag.”
“I don’t anymore.”
“A lot of things.”
“Hell, we smoked cigarettes when we were eleven.”
“I’m not eleven anymore.”
“You’re Miss Serious now. Probably don’t even date.”
Maria looked at Becca’s long legs. “No one has asked me on a date in a long time.”
“Not even that big lug from last night?” Blew out more smoke.
“Eugene? Get out of here with that shit.”
“He wants to sniff more than your pierogies.”
Maria faked dry heaving. “If you’re trying to make me sick, it worked.”
“Why don’t you run him off or sic Estrella on him?”
Maria placed her forehead down across her knuckles on the car wheel. “Because he fixed my truck for free. I didn’t have any money for a repair shop and all this fool wanted was free pierogies for life.”
“Rule one is never take nothing from a man. They always want more.”
“I was desperate.”
Becca blew some smoke. “Remember when we used to hide in the woods? Take eggs from Sidebottom’s farm and throw them at each other.”
“I could never hit you and you never missed. Washed my clothes at your house to get all the yolk out of my dungarees before my mom saw the mess.” They never had much but Estrella always made sure they had clean clothes and a well-kept house.
“Since we’re at St. Rose, I need to confess something to you.” Becca sucked the last of her cig and tossed the butt out the window.
“How long has it been since your last confession, my child?”
She bore a sad smile. “Since 1997. At this very church.”
Maria whistled. “With hot Father John?”
Becca’s smile vanished. “I used to go into those woods alone. Dug a pit once with sharp sticks and broken bottles along the bottom. Covered it with thin limbs, leaves, and long grass. There was a big rock close to the pit in case the jagged things didn’t…”
“Didn’t kill you.”
“You set a trap for me?”
“The rock would finish you off.”
Maria felt the truck space tightening. Her hand had clutched the door handle.
“I never told you about the voices. They were oppressive and none of them had anything good to say. Most of the time I ignored them. I listened when they whispered for me to build a trap. Lured you close a couple of times but never snared you. I bet it’s still out in those woods.”
“Boo!” Her daughter slid open the passenger’s door.
Becca faked being startled. “Let me get out of your seat kiddo.”
Jenny’s brow furrowed just like her stern grandmother. “Who are you?”
“This is Mommy’s old friend Becca. She’s working with me. For now.” Maria’s head spun from her old friend’s attempted murder confession and now she introduced her to Jenny. Her hand still gripped the door handle.
“Cool.” She put her backpack on the floorboard. “Can I get a Coke?”
“I’ll snag one.” Becca moved to the rear of the food truck where the cooler was.
“Bring her bottled water instead.”
“You don’t need any more sugar. Grandma’s already going to stuff you with cookies.”
Becca wiped down the bottle of melted ice and handed it to Jenny. “You look just like your mama did when she was a little girl.”
Maria jerked open the door almost falling out. Were Becca’s voices whispering to her now about Jenny?
“Watch out, Mom.”
“I’m fine, honey. Just lost my balance.” She shut the door tight and turned the key in the ignition. The food truck rumbled to life. She checked her rearview mirror and Becca winked at her.
Jenny stared back at her old friend. “You have super long legs.”
“I know. They’re great for kicking things.” Becca did a short kick in the air.
“Buckle up. It’s time to haul you home.”
Her daughter put on her seatbelt but sassed, “Becca’s not buckled in. She doesn’t even have a seat.”
“I’ll be fine, honey. I got these long legs to protect me.”
Maria drove her truck slowly out of the parking lot wondering if her stubby little legs may have saved her from Becca’s death trap.
The next day was long and awkward. Maria didn’t speak much unless it was about work. Becca filled the space with incessant chatter. Maria made sure never to turn her back to her old friend. She watched for signs of malice. Becca noticed.
“You can’t fire me.”
“Business is too good. Can’t cook and serve the dishes.”
Maria wrung the handle of the cleaver. Becca showed that she could handle the work better than anyone else ever had for her. In just a couple of days, profits were already up. “But you’re on your meds, right? I can’t have you around my kid if you’re not.”
“Took my pills before work. Cross my heart.”
Maria pointed her cleaver. “I don’t joke about Jenny.”
“My intrusive thoughts weren’t about hurting little kids. Most of the time I hurt myself. Mostly.”
“I was a little kid.”
“Had nothing to do with you being a kid. The voices hated you.”
“What did I do to them?”
“You made them leave. Whenever we were together, my mind was at peace. You were my anti-psychotic medicine.”
“You still dug a trap.”
“You couldn’t be with me a hundred percent of the time. When I was alone, the voices tormented me. The nights were the worst. Compelled me to dig a hole while everyone else slept.”
“Is that why you always had circles under your eyes?”
“I never slept except in class. Or around you. It wasn’t Mama’s weekend boyfriends who drove me to your room. It was so I could get a break from the endless clamor in my head.”
Maria with Becca’s help prepped the last bit for the evening dinner rush. Cars pulled up on the way home from work craving something different than the frozen pizza they had waiting at home. Orders of pierogies and sauerkraut flew out the window and the pair lost themselves in the work leaving the weight of Becca’s mental health to the side. Before they had realized it three hours had gone by and all but the one order of pierogies was left. Eugene’s payment for the truck repair.
Maria stuck her head out the window as far as she could. “He’s usually waiting for the customers to dwindle.”
“Maybe I scared him away with my long legs.” Becca did a karate kick.
Maria laughed, “Maybe you are worth keeping around.”
“Forget him. Close up and go see Jenny.”
“This has all been such an odd day.”
Becca battened down the side window while Maria put Eugene’s tray of pierogies and extra cream in the cooler. Maybe her mom or Jenny would eat them. Everything else had been put away and cleaned up. Becca climbed out of the food truck onto the asphalt parking lot. The sun could still be seen behind the Belford Baptist Church steeple. It split the burning orb in two.
“Adios, Maria. Thanks for not firing me.” She fired up a cigarette.
“Thanks for not murdering me.” Maria watched her friend give her a two-finger salute.
“I’ll meet you back here in the morning for prep. Night, Maria.” She blew smoke at the setting sun as she walked away.
Maria noticed she didn’t say good night when that’s all she wished for her old friend. A night without the voices chasing her into nocturnal bedlam.
Maria had trouble sleeping in her childhood room ever since they moved back in with her mother. Jenny’s body emanated heat like a cast iron skillet baking cornbread. The oscillating fan in the corner didn’t provide much relief. She lay in bed watching the window expecting a tap from Becca. A tap from the past. Out past the glass pane were the woods. The woods with a pit her best friend had dug full of jagged sticks and broken beer bottles. Maria rolled in bed for the hundredth time trying to lose those thoughts so she might sleep.
Her daughter shoved her with an elbow. Maria ran her fingers through her hair and pitched her feet to the carpeted floor. Might as well try and sleep on the couch. She walked out of the room eyes adjusting to the dark. She could go sleep in her mom’s room but then she would get pissed when she came home from work and found her curled up. The old couch would have to do.
She sat down and grabbed the TV remote. The white noise might drown out her thoughts on Becca’s confession. As she pressed the power button, she caught a wisp of smoke. She got up and sniffed around. Definitely smoke. She checked the oven in the kitchen. No food burning. And this scent had the pungent tinge of gasoline. A flicker of light came through a seam in the curtains of the living room’s window.
Maria slipped between those curtains to peek outside. Flames roiled out the windows of her food truck parked in the street in front of her mom’s house. Thick black smoke puffed above the fiery tendrils. She dashed to her phone charging in the kitchen and plucked it up. She dialed 911 and babbled out her address to them. The dispatcher tried to keep her on the line but in her rush out the front door, Maria hung up. The smoke billowing around outside choked her up.
She scampered around the perimeter of her truck. The heat emanating from the blaze kept her at a distance. Any exposed skin became hot. As she circled the truck, she saw the pink paint curling and burning off the metal. Her whole business was burning to ash. She wrapped her arm around her chest squeezing. Holding all her loss. At the rear of the truck, she saw a shovel wedged under the swinging door’s handles. Was that blood on the blade?
“Good thing Estrella bought you insurance for your truck.”
The voice from the dark jumped Maria deep into the heat of the blaze before she danced back out. Becca walked out of the shadows of a neighbor’s house. The fire lit her friend’s lithe body like a Halloween decoration. Her hair had brambles and leaves in it. The knees of her blue jeans were damp with mud and her fingers were dirty. Maria ran at her slamming raised fists into her friend’s chest.
“You crazy bitch.” Maria screamed as she struck her.
Becca seized her fists. “It wasn’t me.”
Maria fought her grip and then began to cry falling to her knees. “The voices set the fire?”
“I didn’t. Okay, I sparked it but your boyfriend got the ball rolling.”
“Big fellow who fixed it for free pierogies.”
“What’s Eugene got to do with this?” Becca helped her off the ground. She heard a siren in the distance.
Becca took out a cigarette from behind her ear. Her fingers dirtied up the white butt. There was no tremor in her hands as she lit and took a hit of nicotine. “I caught him inside your truck sloshing gasoline all around.”
“Sloshing what? Why were you around my house in the middle of the night?”
Becca picked some flecks of tobacco off her tongue. “I couldn’t sleep. Kept thinking about how nice you were to me after my confession.”
“Where you confessed trying to kill me as a kid and now, we’re standing next to my burning truck?”
Becca tilted her head. “Listen. I borrowed a shovel and went into the woods to find the pit I dug. And I did. Took some searching since I forgot to grab a flashlight.”
“My. Truck. Is. On. Fire!”
She held up a hand. “Just listen. I used the shovel to fill in the hole. It’s safe now.”
Maria felt a tremor in her shoulders. Uncontrollable shivers traveled down her torso into her legs. She wasn’t cold. The air burned so hot it shimmered. Shock. This was shock.
“As I left the woods between your house and my old house, smoking a cig after all my shoveling, I saw someone moving around inside your truck. I thought it was you. I stepped up into the open door and then the gas hit me. The shadow was way too big to be you. It was Eugene with a red gasoline can. He heard me and attacked. I gave him a push-kick in his fat belly.” Becca pantomimed a kick. “Flicked my lit cigarette inside, shut the door, and wedged the shovel up under the handles.”
Maria saw a stain on Becca’s shirt. In the glow of the fire, she could tell it wasn’t mud. The tremors began to rumble through Maria’s body again. “Did you hit him with that shovel?
Becca took a long pull on her cigarette squinting at Maria. As she exhaled smoke from her mouth, she also exhaled the words, “I lied to you.”
The burning truck’s heat waves dried the tears on her cheeks. The firemen would get here too late to save the truck or hapless Eugene. “Lied?”
“I’m off my meds. Never liked the way they made me feel. I came home hoping you could still quell the noise in my head.”
“It doesn’t look like it worked Becca.” Her voice breaking, Maria yelled, “Not one fucking bit.”
“Ran into the same problem.” Becca rubbed her ear with the hand not holding the cigarette. “You can’t be with me a hundred percent of the time. The voices can.”
Rob D. Smith
Rob D. Smith is a common man attempting to write uncommon fiction in Louisville, KY. He is currently an editor at Rock and a Hard Place Press. His work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Shotgun Honey, The Arcanist, Thriller Magazine, Tough, Thicker Than Blood, Vautrin, and several other crime, horror, and speculative magazines, anthologies, and online publications. Find his work at: https://robdsmith.carrd.co/