The Quickie by Carl Robinette

In the dark of night, florescent lights turned the quickie shop into a bright beacon. A lonely glow, isolated in the dark expanse of dessert down where an old county road crossed the California state highway. Karen stood, facing out of the big front windows across the western distance, staring at thousands of red blinking lights that topped every turbine at a windfarm back in the hills, like red stars blanketing the horizon. The new-hire, Kenny, was counting off cigarettes cartons behind the counter and marking numbers into a printed spreadsheet on a clipboard.

“I don’t get why we have to inventory the cigarettes. Not like anybody can get to ’em back here,” Kenny said.

“Something to do.”

“Makes no sense.”

In the dark of night, florescent lights turned the quickie shop into a bright beacon.  A lonely glow, isolated in the dark expanse of dessert down where an old county road crossed the California state highway.  Karen stood, facing out of the big front windows across the western distance, staring at thousands of red blinking lights that topped every turbine at a windfarm back in the hills, like red stars blanketing the horizon.  The new-hire, Kenny, was counting off cigarettes cartons behind the counter and marking numbers into a printed spreadsheet on a clipboard.

“I don’t get why we have to inventory the cigarettes.  Not like anybody can get to ’em back here,” Kenny said.

“Something to do.”

“Makes no sense.”

“Wait a few years and nothing about this place will make sense.”

Karen thought, Christ.  Nothing about the place made sense to her anyway, not least the fact that she still worked there after so many years.  Or for that matter, why at twenty-six she still lived here in the middle of goddam nowhere.  A younger version of herself would’ve bet money that she’d have been long gone by now.

“No offense, but if I’m still working here in a few years,” Kenny said.  “I’ll blow my brains out.”

“When you do, use Peter’s shotgun in back.”

Karen turned from the window and looked at Kenny, thinking maybe some night she’d jump his bones.  Cute young guy.  Fit. Could be fun.

“You get high, Kenny?”

“Who doesn’t?”

***

In the back office they sat drinking beers which Karen bought and passing a joint Karen rolled.  The only customers coming in that late were tweakers and hyped-up truckers.  Karen watched Kenny while he whined about some recently-ex girlfriend, the beer and bud deepening her mild attraction to the dumb sweet guy.

Then the entrance dinger ding-donged.

“Damn.  Can you handle that,” Karen said, waking up the computer by waggling the mouse.  “I gotta start counting out the safe anyway.”

***

A minute later Karen was staring at the closed office door thinking something cuckoo was happening on the sales floor.  Ok sure the pot had her paranoid, she thought, but something was definitely off.  Odd sounds?  No, creepy quiet.

Then someone shouted something like, “…every goddam penny.”  Then, “…now the safe.”

Karen parted the blinds in a window that looked out on the floor and saw a scroungey looking guy with nylons pulled down on his face.  Dirty clothes, scabbed-up forearms.  Fidgety with a pistol pointed at Kenny.

“Ah’Christ,” Karen spat, whishing she wasn’t stoned.

She scrambled Peter’s shotgun out of his bottom desk drawer.  It was all chopped down, sawn-off and smoothed.  Pistol grip polished to a shine.   She broke the breach and found two shells staring owl-eyed back at her.  When she turned and stood facing the door, the gun was up and locked, both hammers cocked.

Her heart jackhammered.

She heard sneakers going wild on linoleum outside the door.  Shelves crashing, glass smashing.  A struggle.

Then Kenny saying, Ok. ok-k-k-k-k.

Her palms went sticky on the warm wood grip.

Outside, footsteps moved her way.

She felt the trigger press into the fleshy give of her finger.

The doorknob turned and Kenny came into the room, bleeding from a head wound.

In a split-second Kenny’s bloodshot eyes met Karen’s then registered the gun and he dodged down to his left.  Karen squeezed reflexively.  The shotgun boomed and bucked.

Nylon face went down screaming, taking it mostly in the legs and lower torso.  Karen and Kenny spent a shocked moment not moving, ears ringing.

Kenny said, “I quit.”

“No shit.  Think I don’t?”

“What’re you gonna do now?”

Karen just stared at him.

The Sherriff said nylon face would live, but he’d never screw again.  Double-ought castration.  He said he believed Karen acted in self-defense, but she’d have to go see him in the morning to square her statement away.  Peter could answer for the illegal firearm.

After the deputies and everybody left, Karen set about getting drunk and stoned again.  Then she had sex with Kenny on Peter’s desk. Simple, nice and quiet.  Then she clocked out of the quickie shop for the last time and headed for the red horizon.

High Fever by Carl Robinette

The sun hung way up in a yellow sky, glaring off the skeletal remains of metal playground equipment where the last cracked flakes of paint, once vibrant green, blue, red, now sun bleached to staunch pastels, left more bare steel than paint. The A-frame of an old swing set stood empty where the chains and leather-strap seats had been pilfered years earlier, and the woman and the man beyond the missing swings, sat side-by-side on a concrete bench. Her skin had taken to the color of oatmeal and glistened with hot sickly sweat. Her black hair came down in ragged, damp tendrils around her small shoulders. The man, pressing the back of a hand to her head, spoke in a hush.

“Oye, are you still there? Hey. Can you hear me?”

The sun hung way up in a yellow sky, glaring off the skeletal remains of metal playground equipment where the last cracked flakes of paint, once vibrant green, blue, red, now sun bleached to staunch pastels, left more bare steel than paint. The A-frame of an old swing set stood empty where the chains and leather-strap seats had been pilfered years earlier, and the woman and the man beyond the missing swings, sat side-by-side on a concrete bench. Her skin had taken to the color of oatmeal and glistened with hot sickly sweat. Her black hair came down in ragged, damp tendrils around her small shoulders. The man, pressing the back of a hand to her head, spoke in a hush.

“Oye, are you still there? Hey. Can you hear me?”

“Yes. Fine.”

“Huh?”

“I hear you fine.”

“Bueno. Ok, look. You are gonna be ok. Ok? Take some water.”

He passed her the plastic water bottle.

“Take these too. Stay strong. You can do it.”

He rattled penicillin capsules out from an orange canister.

“Almost done.”

“Almost done,” she nodded.

She drank the water, grimacing at the swallow and spilling driplets down her chin. The park stood in the inner triangle of an odd three-way urban block that offered no crosswalks. Across the diagonal street there was a chain-linked blacktop where shirtless boys played fútbol, their sunbaked skin dark and ashy. Their shouts came high and squealing and young, and she watched them chase the tatters of an old black and white leather thing around the court.

“Your boy is safe. You need to worry about yourself now. Once you are there, the guerro doctor is going to take care of you good. He gonna get that thing out of you and clean you up right. The right medicine too.”

“My son?”

“He is having the time of his life right now. Playing video games. Eating good.”

“Claro. Right now he’s safe. And tomorrow?”

“You want to help your son, take care of yourself. He needs his mom.”

She could feel the thing there in her abdomen, bulging, painful. She wanted to scratch where the stitches sealed it in but knew better. A church bell sang the hour. A church somewhere far off in the heart of the city where people moved busy and impatient from work to home to school to market to cantina.

“They will pass you through. No problem. You will see.”

“No problem. No problem for who? Me?”

“You are not from here, Valley Girl. Anyone can see that. Your parents, maybe. But your culture is plain to the eye. They will pass you through. You have your passport? Driver’s license?”

“Nothing’ll be the same now.”

“Ok. You are ready. Time to go, Valley Girl. Time to get fixed up by the guerro doctor. Get that thing out you.”

She stood unsteady. Her head swam with the fever that raged through her every vein. Whether it was infection or the thing inside her leaking deadly that made her blood curdle, she didn’t know. She wanted to vomit. He wiped the sweat off of her face and fitted a wide-brim sun hat on her head. A boy scored a goal and the blacktop erupted with screams half gloating, half protesting, all happy.

“Toma,” the man held a hand under her nose, white powder on the fleshy triangle where the thumb meets the hand. “Just a little bit. To get you to the other side. They are already waiting.”

She sniffed compliantly, resigned. In seconds the ice sickle was stabbing through her brain, and her focus went clear. The nausea gone. She took her first step, wavering slightly.

“Walk right,” he said. “Do not raise suspicion.”

“Tell my son I love him.”

“You will tell him yourself.”

“Tell him, please.”

“Ok, Valley Girl. I will tell him. The doctor is waiting,” he shooed her with the back of a hand.

She stepped out of the triangle into the street without crosswalks then onto a cleaner, newer block feeling instantly safer than the place she had only just left behind. The package itched and throbbed inside her abdomen. The border was one hundred yards to the north.