TBD: To Be Determined

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Romance / Humor
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Chapter 1

I don’t really know how I ended up here. Everyone has a story, of course. You’re born, you grow up, you make friends, you go to work, you live, you die. There’s a structure to life that gives us all comfort. It bores me to tears. So it doesn’t surprise me that on this particular morning I’m not where I’m supposed to be. It would surprise everyone I know to see me in this position, but I still have time before the cat’s out of the bag. I have time to fix this. I just wish my ear would stop bleeding and things weren’t so blurry. I’m sure the guy behind the counter wishes I would just disappear. Or that I would at least put the gun down.

Large beads of perspiration glisten on his dark brow and it occurs to me they weren’t there a second ago. Stuff is coming in and out of focus, so maybe I just don’t notice. His hands are above his head and sort of forward, like he wants to stop me but show surrender at the same time. His palms are light, really light in contrast to the dark, furry skin on the other side. His eyes never leave me; they are moss green and worried. They are set deep under his wrinkled, sweaty forehead. I imagine his eyes under different circumstances. How they would look if a pretty girl walked by. How they might light up at the sight of his child. How they could soften at the thought of his grandmother. Instead they are mine in this moment. Stricken, uncertain, desperate.

Things had not gone as planned. I came in early to avoid the crowds and get a start on the money I owe Candice. I didn’t intend to shoot; I’d never fired a gun in my life. I borrowed the gun from a friend’s dad who thought every American should be armed, and he reveled in loaning out weaponry. Ducky Jones was particularly proud of this piece, a 9 mm of some sort that I would call silver. I knew nothing about guns but beamed knowingly when he placed it in my hand. I was convincing in the moment. Oh, this will do nicely, I nodded. He curled his arm around my neck like he might his son-in-law and said, “Need it back by Tuesday.” Then he gave me a box of bullets and a toothy grin. Was that just yesterday?

Since then I’d gone to Sullie’s after work, planted my ass on my usual bar stool three from the left, pounded a few Jack and Diets and waxed philosophic till my friends arrived to spare everyone around me. I talked about money. “If I had a million dollars, all my troubles would be over.” I talked about family. “My brother is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, but he needs a new girlfriend.” I talked about sex. “What do you mean you’ve never done it on a plane? Chickenshit!” The thing about that hour after work is it’s pretty much the happiest hour and then some of my life. If I didn’t drink, I wouldn’t have the balls to do half the stuff I’ve done. If I didn’t drink, people would expect a lot more of me. Having a few cocktails gives me an alibi for my half-assed life. I always know where I am between five and midnight. I don’t remember it, but I’m pretty sure I was there.

The bar nap in my pocket from the night before sealed it. The rough sketch on the back I called “How to hold up the Buddy’s on Swift and Mason” is a refresher that I did have a plan. I had conspirators at the time, helping with the sketches and playing along for something to do. Ordering shots, arguing about routes and traffic, warning of security cameras and panic buttons. My brother, my friends. Enablers.

“Yeah, I’ve been to that one. Be careful with the owner. He’s been shot seven times but the bullets missed all his vital organs,” said my kid brother, Josh, sipping his Guinness. He flicked his smoke and half-smiled at me. “He might be a werewolf.”

“Hey, Josh, put that damn thing out,” Sean warned from behind the bar. “Don’t make me throw your sorry ass out again.” Josh blew him an air kiss and dropped the butt into his water glass.

“I heard there’s a lot of cash in the safe,” added Rebecca. “Gracey told me he only makes one bank run a day.” Rebecca’s cousin Grace was the manager at the Wendy’s next door. She knew everything about that gas station.

“Just promise me when you go in there you’ll say, ’Stick ‘em up!’” cracked Martin. He flipped his rainbow scarf and smoothed an eyebrow. “I love that shit. It turns me on.”

Last night I was confident in the plan that emerged from our drunken powwow. Of course, they thought I was joking. But what ended up on the napkin seemed foolproof. They didn’t know about the gun, that I already had the gun. I should have shown them the gun. Then they would expect that up to this instant I had perfectly executed every chicken-scratched detail from the napkin. I rented a car. I drove it 50 miles in the opposite direction and then 50 miles back so it would appear I came from somewhere else. I went to Stop and Shop and bought a bright green cloth re-usable shopping bag for 99 cents. I pulled into Buddy’s at 4:00 a.m. I left the car running by the door. I walked in. The door jingled. I made sure no one else was there. I pulled out the gun and pointed it at the clerk. I said, “Stick ’em up.” He was not a werewolf. He stuck them up.

“What? What is this?” he wondered, a little too cocky for my taste.

Without hesitation, I fired. I didn’t really think I would do that, but I was so pumped up from having done all the other little things that were on the napkin that I just squeezed one off. It was like I couldn’t wait to shoot the thing. Why didn’t I just shoot it in the woods? Why didn’t I shoot it in that stupid one-light town 50 miles from here? If I had to shoot, why now? The guy didn’t flinch. I missed him by a mile and deservedly, was struck by my own bullet. I’d heard about ricochet, seen it plenty in the movies, but I never really appreciated the physics of it until my ear was gone. It was like a predatory bird whizzed by my head and stuck its talon in the top of my ear, ripping it in half. I actually heard it shriek. Then I realized I was shrieking.

“Are you fucking crazy, man?! What are you doing?!!” The clerk starts toward me but I compose myself enough to raise the gun at him while gripping the side of my head and steadying my gaze. Distantly, I wonder how much Motrin this will take.

“Don’t move.”

Martin would be so turned on right now.

I keep the gun on the clerk and step closer. I realize then that I am holding the shopping bag against my ear to stop the bleeding. I hand it to him, stained and grubby after just two minutes into my foolproof napkin plan. “Empty the drawer and the safe into this bag,” I say through clenched teeth. It hurts to hear my own voice. He hesitates, which I couldn’t believe, and I say so.

“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” I point the gun harder. “Move your ass now.”

“The safe is in the back, mister,” he croaks. “I can do the drawer here but the safe is in the back.” He points at the drawer with his chin and indicates the location of the safe with a flip of his head, arms still raised. This part is not on the napkin.

I look outside. No one in sight. I couldn’t believe the cops weren’t here already. I just fired a gun at another human being and now I’m taking his money. That used to be a good topic for the bar stool. How much you could get away with before you’d get caught by the cops. You’d see it on TV all the time – CSI, Law and Order, Criminal Minds. In the end, the cops always got the guy. Bad guys get caught. But in real life, how in the hell could they possibly have the time or resources to put six cast members on one case? Sullie’s daughter was a cop and a good friend. Sometimes she would have an off duty drink with us and fill us in on how it really worked. In the end, it sounded like a lot of hand waving, traffic management and domestic problem-solving.

I wonder if anyone has even called in “shots fired” yet. Grace didn’t open the Wendy’s till 6 a.m. This is not a heavily populated area. It isn’t off an exit. It’s still dark. The coffee sucks here. Chances are I have a few more minutes to finish this.

“Drawer first, then we’ll go to the back together,” I order. The drawer dings open and he begins to shove stacks of bills into the bag. His sweat drips onto the money and I remember what my mom used to say about touching money and then touching your food or your face. “You don’t know where that’s been!” she’d gasp. “Wash your hands after you handle money. It could be from drug dealers for all you know.” Or from a robbery where someone gets shot at and then sweats all over the goods. Point taken, Momsie. He cleans out the drawer and looks up at me.

“Let’s go,” I wave the gun toward the back. “I’ll follow you. Don’t be cute.”

He turns, scuffling along behind the counter toward an open door to what I presume is the office. I follow along the other side of the counter with the gun on him until we get to the door. He lifts the end of the counter like the lid to a coffin and I slide through to join him, jabbing him in the side with ol’ Silver to remind him who was in charge.

“I probably can’t miss from here,” I smirk. He shrugs. If I wasn’t in such a hurry, I might have laughed at that small gesture. He seems like he has a sense of humor. Maybe we could have a drink some day and talk about old times.

That’s when the bell to the front entrance jingles.

I duck into the office and turn back to look over the clerk’s shoulder. I catch a glimpse of an old man, hunched over and moving slowly toward the counter. What the hell is he doing up at this hour? It looks like this might be his last hour. My eyes find the clerk’s. I force a stern look. “Take care of him, fast. And don’t try anything stupid.” I jab him in the chest with the gun on “stupid.” He turns around and quickly heads for the register. He glances back a couple of times to make sure I’m still there. Probably hopes he’d been dreaming, wishes that he never got up this morning. Maybe if he plays along something will jar him awake and he’ll find himself behind the counter with ordinary customers wanting shitty coffee and Twizzlers. Not some lunatic firing a gun all over the place for a little cash in a re-usable shopping bag.

The old man is only halfway to the counter. I can see beyond him, through the glass, and my rental is still running just outside the door. It occurs to me at that moment that the car is yellow. I can’t believe I didn’t notice that until just now. It’s a yellow Chevy Impala with a black interior and dark windows. It looks like a frickin’ bumblebee. What was I thinking when I rented it last night? I thought I asked for something dark blue. Something generic. How did I end up with that obnoxious color? There might as well be a giant index finger hovering over it. If somebody sees me get into that car with half an ear, a 9 mm and a bloody bag full of cash, he or she will definitely remember the car.

There’s nothing really memorable about me. I was sort of counting on that during the scheming. I’m of average build. I have short brown hair. I wear dark clothes. I mean, I thought this through. I imagined the witness coaching the sketch artist:

Witness: “Um, let me think. The face was round. No wait, more square.”

Sketcher: “More square than round?”

Witness: “Well like a square with rounded corners but a point where the chin is.”

Sketcher: “So wider on top, like this?”

Witness: “Sure. Now the eyes. They weren’t close together and they weren’t far apart.”

Sketcher: “Average distance?”

Witness: “Yes! But maybe a little closer…nope, farther. Well, where you had them was right I guess. And the nose was kinda big (what?!), but not that big (whew.).”

Sketcher: “Any facial hair?”

Witness: (Pausing. Thinking. Which is ridiculous really because I have zero facial hair. This is the easiest part of all!) “Besides eyebrows?” (Oh, yeah. I took those for granted.)

Sketcher: “You know, like a moustache or a beard? Sideburns? Here, I’ll put in eyebrows so you can-“

Witness: “Those were a little bushier.”

Sketcher: “Like so?”

Witness: “Yes, but not all one. Not a uni-brow. There was separation.”

Sketcher: “What about the mouth? Big lips, thin lips? See any teeth missing?”

Witness: “Average, I guess. I didn’t see any teeth.”

Sketcher: “Hair color? Style?”

Witness: “Brown. Short. No style really (easy…).”

Sketcher: “What about scars? Moles? Glasses?”

Witness: “No, no, and no. Sorry.”

Sketcher: “And the clothes? Anything special?”

Witness: “Sigh. Just dark. A dark shirt and jeans. Running shoes I think. Or loafers.”

Sketcher: “Okay, so based on what you told me we’re looking for someone wearing dark clothes with an average face, no distinctive markings and short brown hair?”

Witness: “Yes. And the car was yellow!”

I honestly don’t think I could be picked out of a line-up as a perp for certain. Well, I didn’t at the bar last night. Now that I’d shot my own ear off, I’d managed to narrow the possibilities considerably. I wonder if the police line-up has to include other people who look as much like you as possible to create the best chance for a positive ID. Would they put out an ABP for average-looking folks who may have recently shot off their own ears? I can’t believe I’ve screwed up my mini-heist this badly in less than five minutes.

“I only play the $2 ones!” the old man protests. He shakes a scratched off ticket in the clerk’s face. Buddy could not catch a break. First, me waving a gun at him and now lottery rage.

“Okay, okay,” he soothes glancing my way. “Give me the ticket. I will exchange. Which one you want?”

The old man shuffles over to the giant Plexiglas cubby hole display of over 32 different scratch-off tickets, each bin clearly marked with a number to make ordering easier for everyone and says, “Whaddaya got?” He is wearing the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen on a human being. He has no nose. Or at least it is completely engulfed by the frames. He is far too intrigued by his options for this hour of the morning and for my current state of affairs. He looks up. He looks down. He looks from side to side. He clicks his teeth a few times. Finally, he asserts, “I like the $2 ones.”

The clerk, anxious to please, moves toward the display and flicks each ticket roll as he rattles off the bin numbers. “14 through 19 are all $2 tickets,” he says loudly, “3, 28 and 29 also.” The old man snorts.

“You like pigs?” asks the clerk at precisely the same moment. “There are pigs on this one and pigs are a sign of success. If you match the little piggies you win big. $3,000.”

The old man shakes his head. “I like crosswords. I like the ones with the crosswords.”

“Aha! Bin number 29,” the clerk taps the Plexiglas. “How many?”

“One,” the old man says and starts back to the counter, his hand in his pocket reaching for change. I fear he might pay in pennies with a story for each coin’s year, but instead he drops a handful of change on the counter and slides his scratched ticket toward the clerk. “This one’s a dollar winner and here’s the rest,” he growls. The clerk looks at me and actually rolls his eyes as he tears the lone $2 ticket from its wheel and returns to the counter to close the deal. Back in front of the old man, he presents the ticket with a flourish and announces, “This is the one! Good luck to you, Mr. Callagorie.”

Shit. He knows the old guy’s name. Was this the first of many regulars who would start pouring in? Is that why the clerk seems so much calmer now? Almost jocular? He’s had time to think, to size me up, to figure there’s no way I would kill anybody. I look at my watch. It’s almost 4:15 a.m. That’s a normal hour for some people. It’s still night time for people like me. I’d been working so hard lately the last thing I wanted to do was wake up at 2:00 a.m. to rob a gas station. I figured 4:00 a.m. would be fine. I figured I’d be out of here by now, cruising down the interstate with a sack of cash and on my way to solving all my problems. Instead, I’m standing next to a locked safe with a gun in my hand and the only guy who knows the combination is busy working the counter. I just want service! Can I get some service here?

I look down at the bag. How much is in there already? Maybe this is good enough. At least it’s something. I should make a break for it now. Forget the safe. Put the gun in your pocket, hide your bloody ear with your cell phone and walk out of here. The old guy can’t see shit, the clerk is over you and more people are coming soon. Head for the bumblebee. Control the damage. When it comes to moments like these, you can either throttle back or press the pedal all the way down. I was never good at racing metaphors because I’m a cautious driver and left hand turns intimidate me. Like my mother, I believe three rights make a left. I decide to throttle back.

That’s when I see Mr. Callagorie outside, climbing into the driver’s seat of my idling bumblebee.

“No, no, no!” I shove the gun in my pocket, fumble for my cell phone, flip it open and jam it against what is left of my ear. Smiling through instant tears, I fake a laugh at my mystery caller and stride through the store toward the entrance. I glance toward the clerk mid-stride and gave him a nod, mouth “hi” to two customers getting coffee at the counter and yank the door open with my free hand, noticing with absolute indifference that the Stop and Shop re-usable grocery bag full of cash dangles sweetly from my wrist. My getaway car, now operated by a severely bespectacled man who only has eyes for $2 scratch-offs, is drifting in reverse toward a van tethered to a pump, refueling.

“Hey!” I holler, limping now for no apparent reason other than I’d been shot in the ear. “That’s my car!” I snap the phone closed and manage to fall forward on the hood, leaving a bloody handprint. “Hey, Mr. Callagorie! Get out of my car!”

Callagorie looks up at the sound of his name. His eyes are huge behind the glasses and made huger when he sees me coming after him. The guy by the van puffs up a little, surveying the situation. He might get involved. Callagorie stops the car. He takes his hands off the wheel and stares at me. I cross to the driver side window, tap it. “Mr. Callagorie, do you mind?”

He blinks. “I’m sorry, miss, I thought it was my car.”

Well, at least he gets me right.

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