Jake

I went a little dark for this week’s flash fiction, but I couldn’t help myself.


Jake had been out of the killing business since the kids came along. When first he saw his little Emma, so pink and vulnerable and innocent, and felt the crushing weight of his responsibility for her, he told Leo he wanted done. “I’ll miss ya,” the big man said, as they downed one last shot in the seedy Orlando bar they’d called home, “but I get where you’re comin’ from. Still. A girl. Girls are expensive. You gotta pay for the clothes, college, the wedding…” Jake said thanks but no thanks, paid for his drinks, and left.

It had been a good life, being a family man. Mostly a good life. He had an honest living as a foreman for a construction company, a modest house in a decent neighborhood, two weeks’ vacation every year. He took care of his girls. Three of them now, pretty like their mother, and he showed their pictures to anyone who would look. There were soccer games, sleepovers, birthday parties, trips to Disney World, and he was up for all of it. 

But he hadn’t been feeling so well lately. First he thought allergies, maybe a cold, then when the cough lingered maybe an infection, and his wife and Emma nagged him to get it checked out. He put off the appointment, once, twice. He’d lived with worse. Can’t work construction without getting hurt once in a while. If it was something that would eventually get better on its own, why waste the money only to find out he was okay? 

Then he wasn’t so okay. He thought it was one of those perfect storm things. Working outdoors on a hot afternoon after a greasy lunch that he shouldn’t have eaten. Next thing he knew he was in the ER, tubes all over the place, monitors that wouldn’t stop beeping. His wife sat quietly beside him, her face a warring mix of fear and worry and told-you-so.

They said he had cancer. “Just give me the specs, Doc,” he said when his wife had gone to the cafeteria for coffee. The others were too young for hospitals; Emma stayed home with them. “How long do I got?”

The doctor shrugged. It was inoperable. He talked about stages and types of treatments and general expectations and quality of life. Somehow having a blueprint, seeing the shape of it, made Jake more comfortable about his situation, or as comfortable as a man can be when his days were numbered.

Physically, he didn’t feel so bad, not yet, just got tired easier than he used to. But, as they had every other minute, his thoughts returned to his girls, his wife, how he would take care of them now that he couldn’t work more than a few days a week, short ones at that, confined to his office. He didn’t have life insurance; the whole deal seemed like a long con to him so he’d never signed up. His mind replayed his last meeting with Leo. “Girls are expensive…” How hard would it be, to take a job or two? He could still drive. Could get around with his oxygen belt-pack. His wife didn’t need to know. A dying man deserves some time to himself, doesn’t he, without having to explain every little thing he did? 

But Leo had his doubts. “Look, Jakey, I get it. But I want you to sleep on this. Really think about it. If this is the way you want to spend your last days. Sixteen years ago you stood in that same spot and seemed awful determined that this wasn’t the life you wanted anymore.” Jake was ready with his decision but Leo wouldn’t take him up on it yet. “You feel the same in a few days, you know how to reach me.”

So he took a few days. Emma, his first, his heart, wanted to take him places, now that she had her license and a vacation from school. They went to Daytona Beach, took long drives up the coast. During one trip, they stopped at a place that cooked shrimp straight from the boats, and a TV news network was blaring from the bar. “Who’s that schmuck?” he said. “I’ve been seeing him everywhere.”

Emma made an expression he remembered from the first time his wife had tried to get her to eat peas. “He’s gross, a total perv. He, like, sold girls to his friends. Girls younger than me, even. Disgusting. I hope they lock him and his sick friends up for the rest of their lives.”

The picture changed to a video of a girl, maybe a little older than Emma. Looked a little like her, too. She was crying. The caption below her face made his blood boil. If Leo gave him a job like that, Jake would do him for half price at least.

“You ready, let’s go.” Jake pulled some bills from his wallet.

She filled the car with nervous chatter on the way home, and he wanted to listen, wanted to soak up the music of her voice, but it was hard to concentrate. All he saw was that bastard’s smug face. When she pulled into the driveway, he said he had to run a quick errand. Something he forgot to do when they were out. Something that wouldn’t take long.

He still saw the questions in her eyes, the fear and worry, all the way into town. He saw them while he parked, while he took a last hit of oxygen before walking into the bar.

“I won’t take no bullshit jobs this time,” Jake said. “I want guys like that Epstein creep.”

Leo hesitated a moment. Then stuck out his hand. “Welcome home, Jakey.”

The Mission

At o’dark thirty, John stood tall in his black vest, his sturdy boots, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them as they were given their final orders. Again his stomach punched at him. Again his higher functions punched back, harder. Telling him that he’d signed on for this mission. That it had to be done and done right. This behavior could no longer be tolerated. And someone had to stand up for it. It might as well be him and his loyal soldiers.

The captain continued to bark. Talking about the whens and hows and such. Who would go to which houses, what to do when they got there, how to avoid the press.

“Wouldn’t they like those optics?” the captain sneered. “Us leading away their children? You watch yourselves out there. There’s bound to be some sneaky early risers. You deal with them and you deal with them fast. Confiscate those cameras. Break ’em if you have to. They start to squawk, call it a national emergency. Hell, the president already called it that, so you got cover. Understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” John shouted with the others. Even though he knew he was not going to break any cameras. He had cover, too. He could always claim that in the heat of the moment, focusing on his mission, he couldn’t handle the children and the photographers. Besides, he thought getting a few snaps out there might be welcomed by the higher-ups, a way to warn the migrants that were thinking of coming here what could happen if they weren’t careful.

“Move out,” the captain said. They were split into squads and loaded into the waiting black vans. His group was silent as they rolled through the streets, last night’s rain raising a fog that glowed eerily in the early light. Then one of the young men bowed his head, mumbling, a chant it seemed like, and it grew loud enough that John recognized it as a prayer.

The large man to John’s left didn’t like that. “Fer fuck’s sake,” he muttered, then raised his voice. “Shut the fuck up, soldier. Unless you’re prayin’ for the success of our mission. Getting those fucking illegals out of our country.”

The praying soldier stopped, turned his head, a look of disbelief forming on his young, freshly shaven face. “They’re people, Rico.”

“And you’re a pansy ass,” Rico said. “You shouldn’t even be on this mission.” 

The soldier drew himself up taller. “I’m on this mission so they’ll be treated humanely.”

John knew enough to stay silent. He had other worries. Could he even do this? He had children at home. When he first heard about the separations at the border, he’d been livid. He couldn’t object publicly, of course. He’d taken a vow to fight for his country. But he did what he could. Watched over the children. Brought them food, toys, candy. He wished he could give them promises that they’d see their parents soon, that they’d be freed, but he figured giving them false hope would be cruel. If it was one of his kids in there…well, he couldn’t even let himself think about that.

And now this. He took surreptitious glances at the men in his unit. At their shields, their flak vests, their guns. Of course they were playing for the media. These were women and children, mostly. It’s not like they were fighting another army. He wouldn’t be surprised if the captain had automatic cameras or video or whatever and had already snuck it to reliable contacts. His fears ratcheted up higher. Another thing to worry about.

After what seemed like a horrifically long trip of probably less than ten miles, the van stopped, in an abandoned lot where several other vans and trucks were already parked.

John took a deep breath and said his own prayer. Please God, he thought. Help me find these families and get them away from these monsters. Help me keep them unharmed and get them to the safe houses. And please watch over the rest of my team in the other vans and the other units as they do the same.

The captain lifted his arm and gave the signal. 

They were dispersed.

Flash Fiction: The Caddy

I was putting his nine iron back in the bag when the thunder started. Which was weird because the sky was almost totally clear. But in Florida, you never knew. You’d think we’d be used to the changing weather, but there was something different about this rumble. It sounded like a warning.

At least he thought so because I swear he flinched.

I’d only caddied for him a few times, when his regular guy couldn’t make it. “Everything all right, sir?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine.” Making a tight fit in the passenger seat of his golf cart, he wiggled a hand into the front pocket of his khakis and came out with a sweaty ten-dollar bill and shoved it at me. “Kid, take a walk, okay?”

I took a walk. I’m not stupid. The pay there was shitty. I only worked for tips. And, occasionally, whatever food was left over.

Still, I had this sense of something not quite right. If his heart finally exploded (and among the caddies we were taking bets as to when) I didn’t want to be the guy who walked off and left his charge in trouble on the back nine. I’d never work in this town again. So I took a few steps away and hid behind a bunker.

“What?” he said, seemingly to no one. “Seriously, in the middle of one of my best games—”

Lightning flashed. Like that sky-to-ground shit. So close I nearly pissed myself.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. You want me to stop lying so much. Sure. I can do that.”

Thunder. It sounded like the sky was laughing.

“Watch me, loser. I got this.”

Loser. He’d called God loser? Because that was another thing discussed among the caddies. That while he played the course, he talked to God. And it wasn’t always respectful. He talked to God like he was someone who worked for him. I never called myself that religious, but even I knew that wasn’t right. You don’t call bullshit on God. If you want to live.

Another rumble came like a question.

He threw his hand up. “Because it’s easier than the truth,” he said. “Hell, nobody cares what you tell them. I know what they wanna hear. And it ain’t the truth. If I went out and told the truth I’d lose a million Twitter followers, easy. I’d never sign a boob again.”

The sky responded. The clouds darkening. “For fuck’s sake, how can you be that naïve? You must be a Democrat.”

I totally expected lightning after that. Like, for the whole club to get blasted off the face of the earth. I even put my arms up over my head.

Nothing.

He shot his middle finger toward the sky. “Pussy. Loser. I don’t know what those evangelicals see in you. Maybe they’re smoking something. I think you fucked it up, and you fucked it up big, and now you’re trying to blame it on someone else.”

I’d never heard thunder that loud before. It shook the ground.

But the man only chuckled. “Obviously you’ve forgotten we had a deal. And that you signed a solid NDA. I’ll have your ass in court so fast you won’t believe it. Acosta won’t even believe it.”

The sky responded and the man laughed louder.

That was when I saw it. The dark spot at the edge of the rough. He was facing away from me, and the words flooded my brain, as insistent as a command from…well, Him. “You know what to do,” I swore it was saying, and for some reason I could not take my eyes from the iron sticking farther out of the bag than the others.

I crawled over there—fortunately he was occupied with whatever trash-talk he was doing with the Big Guy—inched it out of the bag and, employing skills I’d honed playing pool and darts in many, many bars, I sailed it true and it landed near the dark spot.

Thunder sounded like a snort of amusement.

“What?” The man turned. I ducked away, back behind the bunker. “Aw, who the fuck left that over there. Caddy. Caddy? Hey. Pablo!”

My name was Juan.

He worked his cell phone out of his pocket. “No fucking signal. We had a deal. We had a deal! Five fucking big shiny bars wherever the hell I am.” A slow, rolling peal of thunder. “Fine. Be that way. I’ll just have to get it myself. No thanks to you.”

He tossed the phone onto the seat next to him and struggled to pull his bulk from the cart. Scowling, he lumbered across the green toward the rough. As he was bending, he clutched his chest, dropped to the grass, and it seemed the earth, through that dark spot, opened up to swallow him.

I could do nothing but stare for what felt like minutes. Then I snuck out from behind my hiding space, got the club, cleaned it up pretty, and put it back in the bag. The sky looked a little lighter. The dark spot was just as green as the rest of the thirteenth hole. I thought it best to leave the cell phone where he’d dropped it.

I felt something then, like a hand in my shirt pocket. Very slowly, I checked it and found a crisp new twenty.

I’m not stupid. I dropped that twenty into the first church collection bin I saw.

Carla

This week I was inspired to go a little dark. Some parts of this story are based on actual incidents. I learned why I never go to that pharmacy.

———

“Ma’am?”

The syllable filters down like mist, drifts around in her head as she parses the inflection and what it wants of her. Everybody wants something. Read this, join us, click here, you won’t believe what happens next. Get mad, get religion, get woke, donate to save the polar bears. Save democracy. Save the planet. Save the children. Save your soul while you still can…

“Ma’am, I have to close the store now.”

Store. She clasps something in the faded-denim valley of her crossed legs. Cotton balls. Jumbo size. She doesn’t remember needing cotton balls. She doesn’t remember coming here. She never comes to this pharmacy. But she can’t remember why. The slippery package feels nice in her hands. Cool. Soft. Comforting. There’s a background hum—ventilation maybe—the air is clean and antiseptic, the floor carpeted. Before her sparkles a mirrored wall of wands and lacquers and tubes, but she can only see slices of her face. Face slices. The words and image make her laugh…softly, to herself, before her throat tightens and the tears threaten to return.

“Ma’am.” Now it’s a plea. “Ma’am, I need to go pick up my kids. Is there someone I can call?”

“Carla,” she tells the heavens. Remembering how her mother loved it. Loved crooning it to her to chase away the pain.

“Oh…kay. Does this Carla person have a number?”

“I’m Carla. My name is Carla. I’m not ‘Car.’ I’m not ‘ma’am,’ I’m not ‘honey,’ I’m not ‘libtard,’ I’m not ‘snowflake,’ I’m not…” The tears choke off her voice before she can say it. Crazy.

Silence from above, except for the buzz of fluorescent lights. It skitters across her nerve endings. Now she remembers why she doesn’t come here. He shook his head at her when she said that about the buzz; he walked away and turned on the television. Those loud, braying mouths spewing garbage. Like his.

He can’t walk away anymore. Or watch that network.

“Okay, Carla.” She pinpoints the source of the sound. A loudspeaker mounted to the ceiling. The voice is slow and deliberate. Almost kind. But she doesn’t quite believe it. “How are we going to get you home?”

An image flashes through her mind and she shakes her head violently. The slices of her face dance. Face slice dance. Not funny. Not funny anymore. She clutches the cotton balls more tightly to her middle and with the unlacquered finger of one hand traces patterns in the dried, rust-red dots on her jeans. “Oh. Oh, I’m not going home. I’m never going home.”