By Dillon Armstrong
I press down the brake as my car approaches the red light. On the other side of the intersection I can see the Fastop gas station, the windows lit up by neon signs offering lottery tickets, fresh coffee, and an ATM. In the parking lot is a brand-new Toyota, the temporary tags still on the car. His insurance money must have gone to good use. I take a deep breath. This is going to happen as soon as the light turns green. I have only had this planned since yesterday, but it has to work. I started planning as soon as I got home from the funeral. In the passenger seat is a backpack that I prepared for tonight. In the bottle pocket on the side of the bag is a tattered picture from the day I was born. My mom looks so happy, but I can see the bags under her blood-shot eyes. That’s how I remember her from my entire childhood: she was always happy, but she looked exhausted, as if she had spent every day fighting fires and battling monsters.
My mom was the greatest. My dad left early, around the time I was six, and I barely remember anything about my parents being together. The day he left was a good day, though. It started out like most days. I climbed out of my over-sized Thomas the Tank Engine bed and shoveled my way through Legos and Power Rangers toys until I got to the door. As I crept into the hallway, my mom’s music found its way upstairs from the kitchen. I tiptoed to the stairs and plopped down, holding on to the hand rail as I bumped down each step until I got to the bottom. I stood up and looked out the window beside the front door. My dad’s car wasn’t in the driveway, and none of his shoes were sitting by the door like they usually were, which was weird. I walked into the living room. “Mommy?” I called.
“I’m in the kitchen, sweetie.” I followed her voice around the corner to the kitchen. “Good morning. Do you want some pancakes?”
My face lit up. Our normal breakfast consisted of Cheerio’s and toast. “Yeah,” I said as I climbed onto a chair at the table.
“What do you want to drink this morning? Milk? Apple juice? Coffee?”
“Coffee? You know I can’t have coffee, that’s for big people!” We both laughed, me hysterically because I just knew I was the funniest kid on the block, and my mom because she needed something good to fill the hole that I didn’t know was there yet. “Can I have chocolate milk?”
She set a plate of chocolate chip pancakes and scrambled eggs in front of me and then pulled a jug of milk and bottle of chocolate syrup from the fridge. The sound of the spoon clinking the side of the glass filled my ears as I smothered my pancakes in butter and syrup. “Mommy?” She looked at me with a smile on her face and slid the glass of milk across the table. “Where’s daddy?” She sat down on the other side of the table with her own pancakes and stared at me, a softness filling her eyes. For the first time I noticed the bags under her eyes.
When I turned seven, my mom and grandma gave me the best birthday party ever. I invited everyone in my class and I was so excited because we were going to go to the bowling alley. The night before my party, however, it snowed heavy. When I woke up in the morning all I could see outside was white.
“Good morning, sleepy head,” my mom said as I ventured downstairs. “Are you hungry? I made your favorite.”
I mounted my chair at the table and started smothering my chocolate chip pancakes. “Mommy, what about my party?” I asked with a mouth full of pancakes.
“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. I spoke to all your friends’ parents, and nobody is going to be able to make it today. But me and grandma have something else planned for you.”
As she finished her sentence, the front door swung open and an over-fluffed coat swallowing my grandma waddled through. “Grandma!” I jumped from the chair and ran down the hall into her arms.
“Happy birthday, little guy!” She picked me up and squeezed me like grandmas do. “Me and your mom have the best day ever planned for you.” She let me down. “But let’s go eat.”
After we ate, my grandma unloaded plastic sleds and snow tubes from the back of her car. We spent the entire day sledding and tubing down the hill at the end of our street. We stopped for lunch, but other than those forty minutes, we were outside until well after the sun went down.
My grandma moved in with us when I was nine. She had developed breast cancer and it was slowly taking her life. My mother vowed to take care of her until she died. It was a long year and a half before it happened. When it did happen, it was fast. I came home from school on Friday afternoon and rushed to show her my art project that won second place in the school’s art show. She was excited, and she wanted to hang it in the hallway across from her bedroom door, so she could see it from her bed without keeping everyone else from seeing it. I could tell something was wrong with her that day. She didn’t have her usual sunny disposition that, despite her cancer, she always had. My mom got home about an hour after me, and for the rest of the night we set up camp in grandma’s room. My mom stepped out a few times to make phone calls, which I later learned were to my grandma’s doctor and to the funeral home. Around four thirty Saturday morning we woke up to a beeping that we hadn’t heard before, coming from her hospital machines. By five thirty, she stopped breathing.
The light turns green. I ease the car through the intersection and pull into the Fastop parking lot. The Toyota looks nice: leather seats, a touch-screen radio, chrome rims. I turn off the car and open the backpack. First, I pull out a black ski mask and slide it over my face. It is itchy against my skin, but I don’t scratch because I need to reassure myself that I have self-control. Next, I pull out a pair of latex gloves and slide my hands into them, followed by a pair of black winter gloves, bulky but thin enough that I can move my fingers freely and comfortably. Once my face and fingerprints are secured away, I pull out the last item in the bag: a Ruger SR1911 pistol with a fully loaded magazine.
When I was thirteen, my dad got remarried. He sent me an invitation in the mail. I didn’t open it when it arrived; instead I tossed it in a box in my closet that held all the birthday and Christmas cards he sent me after he left. I got home from school one afternoon and walked into the kitchen to hear my mom yelling into the phone. “I can’t force him to do this! He is old enough to decide for himself! If he doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t have to! It isn’t like you’ve been dying to see him for the last seven years!” She hung up when she saw me, her face turning red. “Sweetie. . . .” She didn’t say anything else.
I decided that maybe I should go to the wedding. I had only spoken to my dad four or five times since he abandoned us. I wanted him to see how well I was doing without him, and what better place than at his own wedding? My mom dropped me off and promised to pick me up when the ceremony was over. I walked into the church and scanned the room for my dad. My eyes caught him in a corner, surrounded by four kids, each of them younger than me. He was holding the smallest one, a baby, probably less than a year old, and he was talking to a man in a dark red suit. “I couldn’t be any happier to have this family,” my dad said to him. “My kids mean the world and so much more to me.” A sincere smile spread across his face, and I could tell he was actually happy.
My eyes burned. They became blurry as tears filled them and started spilling over. I turned and rushed through the door, squeezing between the wedding guests without so much as an “excuse me.” I didn’t know where I was going, but I was getting the hell away from there. I stopped when I got to the middle of the parking lot. Where was I going to go? I wiped the tears from my eyes and look around. In the corner underneath a tree was my mom’s Buick, and she was leaning against the trunk. I ran straight to her, into her arms, letting all the rage out as she squeezed me the way my grandma used to.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” We ate popcorn and ice cream for dinner that night and watched corny movies on TV.
For my eighteenth birthday, my dad sent me a gun. I opened the package because this was the first time he sent me something other than a card. There was a note attached to the box. I know you won’t use it. But I’ll feel better knowing that you and your mom are safe. It was a Ruger SR1911 with a case of ammo. For a while I left the gun locked in a box in my closet. I didn’t need it for anything. But after a few months I decided I would learn how to use it. I signed up for classes at the shooting range and learned everything there was to know about handling it. I never told my mom about it. I didn’t want her to freak out on me. We didn’t need a gun in the house and I had no business knowing how to use one.
I swing open my door and step out of the car, my shoe splashing in a puddle beside the tire. I walk slowly to the door of the store, counting my steps as I do to keep me calm. I grab the door handle with my left hand, tightening my grip on the gun in my right hand, and pull the door open. I’m greeted by the ding of the doorbell and a rush of cold air as I step inside. Green fluorescent lights line the ceiling, some of them blinking rapidly. The hum of the drink refrigerators fills the otherwise silent room. Shelves of half-stocked candy bars and bags of chips seem to direct me straight to the counter. A plump man leans over the counter, flipping through a magazine. From here his hair looks greasy. I can see the healing scar on his forehead from where the glass cut him. He looks up, squinting his eyes through his ugly square glasses to see me. “Hi. Can I help you?”
I raise the gun.
College was going great. I was in my junior year, studying childhood development and counselling. My mom was so proud to tell everyone that her son was going to be counsellor and help so many kids. I let her brag because I knew she needed it, but I hated the attention. I wanted to be able to help children who were in situations in any way like my own. I didn’t need to be recognized or praised for doing what I thought to be my civil duty.
My phone rang while I was headed back to my dorm. I had just got back to campus from spending the weekend at home. I looked at the screen, expecting it to be my mom, but it was an unknown number. I stepped off to the side of the sidewalk, so others could pass while I answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, I’m calling to speak to Conner Johnson.”
“That’s me, may I ask who is calling?”
“Mister Johnson, I’m Doctor Ramos at Mercy Wells Hospital. You’re listed as Jennifer Johnson’s emergency contact.”
I felt all the energy and breath leave my body. Everything around me got smaller, and the noise of chatter, footsteps, and nature disappeared.
“Mister Johnson? Are you there?”
“Y-yes. I’m here. Sorry.”
It took me three hours to get to the hospital. She was alive, but she was barely holding on. She was hit head-on by a wrong way driver using his cellphone. Doctor Ramos walked me through all the forms and told me that whenever I was ready, he would be there to help me with anything I needed. That was Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday passed without any improvement, which I wasn’t expecting, but I hoped for. Thursday morning, I woke up to see Doctor Ramos leaning against the door frame. He stayed with me for a couple hours, but when he knew she was going, he left. I squeezed her hand, cupped it in mine, and let all the tears out of my body. She stopped breathing after a few minutes. I put my hand over her heart, counting the beats until it stopped. Seventeen, each one less powerful. The machines let out a shrill beep until the doctor came back in to shut them off. I watched while he turned them off, the thought of my mother being dead hitting me like a bullet. Bang. As I turned to leave the room, a round man with square glasses and a fresh cut on his forehead jumped away from the window and waddled down the hall. His hair looked greasy, like it hadn’t been washed in weeks, and his face was turning red.
I buried her beside my grandma on Sunday. She had a white casket with satin lining on the inside and a gold line around the bottom. It rained the day of the funeral, so we buried her under slush and mud. I didn’t speak to anyone. I did my duties, standing at the front of the funeral chapel and accepting handshakes, hugs, and half-hearted I’m so sorry for your loss’s. When the service was over, I got in the car and went straight home. I don’t even remember the drive, but I remember pulling into the driveway. I sat in the car as I took in what I had just done. My mom was dead. I just buried her. I literally had nobody left in my life. Without my mom paying my tuition, I couldn’t go back to school. I had no idea of her financial situation, really, so I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to stay in the house. I probably wouldn’t want to stay there by myself, anyway, but it was our home. I let out the loudest scream I could muster, banging my head against the steering wheel. Then I wiped my face and looked around. The neighbor had come out onto his front porch, his bathrobe untied and hanging loose so I could see his greasy wife-beater and hideous Bugs Bunny boxers.
I went into the house and up to my room. Photos of me and my mom and grandma lined the walls. My favorite one hung beside the window, one of my mom holding me on the day I was born. I pulled it out of the frame and stared at it. She had bags under her eyes and her hair was matted down with sweat, but she looked so happy. I dug under my bed and found an empty backpack, shoving the picture into the water bottle pocket. I flung open my closet doors and pulled out a box full of winter clothes, digging through it until I saw a black ski mask and a pair of thin black gloves, and stuffed them into the bag. Then I rummaged deeper into the closet until I got to the box of cards my dad sent me. At the top of the box was the gun. I pulled it out and discharged the magazine, filling it with ammo from the box he sent with it. I tossed them in the bag, separately, so I didn’t accidentally shoot myself. Just for good measure, I put the rest of the ammo into the bag as well.
I was getting ready to push the box back into the closet, but all the envelopes suddenly caught my eye. I don’t know what urged me to open them, but I did. Among the thirty-two cards was cash. Each card had one hundred dollars tucked in it. Thirty-two hundred dollars altogether. “Maybe I should call him soon,” I whispered to myself.
The green fluorescent lights keep flickering, trying to draw my attention away from the slob that killed my mom. “I saw you at the hospital,” I say. “You have a lot of nerve.”
He looks puzzled. His eyes grow big after a second. “Wait, are you . . . are you her son?”
“Shut up!” I take two steps forward. “She was the only person I had left! And you took her! My entire life is over! I’m alone now!” The refrigerators still hum on the other side of the store, the sound buzzing around my ears like flies. I keep walking forward, slow, one step at a time. I can see the sweat beading around his forehead.
“Please. Please don’t shoot me.” His voice quivers a little.
I think of the note my dad sent with the gun: I know you won’t use it. “I’m not going to hurt you,” I say. But what am I going to do? I have no real plan, no idea what I’m going to do when this is over. I just want an apology. I want him to see what he’s done. I have to do something before he realizes how scared I am. “Just give me all the money in the register and I’ll be gone.” I don’t want the money, but it’s the only thing that came to mind. Maybe I can use it to cover tuition next semester or pay whatever bills she didn’t pay yet.
“S-sure. No problem.” He tries to hurry as he opens the register, but he fumbles with the keys and moves in ultra-slow motion. He pulls out a plastic grocery bag and starts shoving all the money into it. “There’s more over here in the safe. Do you want that too?”
“Yes.” My voice is dry and sharp. It’s a struggle to keep the fear and panic out of my words. I follow him, the gun maybe twelve inches from his head, as he goes over to a safe at the other side of the counter and opens it. I lean over the counter to make sure he isn’t going to pull out his own gun or hit an alarm.
He stuffs the money into the bag and plops it on the counter. “Here,” he says. “Take it.”
“Thanks.” I grab the bag with my free hand, the gun still aimed at his head, and back away as slowly as I came forward. I stop after a few steps. “Do you even care?”
“You killed my mom. Do you even care about that?” The words are soft now, quiet. I can’t even try to hide the emotion from my face.
“Y-yeah, obviously I care. I wasn’t trying to kill anyone.”
“No, but you did it anyway. And look at you, leaning your filthy body over the counter, reading a magazine, while somebody’s life is destroyed because of you. The least you could do is apologize.”
His head juts forward and his mouth drops open, revealing dirty yellow teeth and a tongue piercing that is probably infected from how dirty his mouth looks. “Are you serious? You walk in here with a gun and take all the money, and you want me to say I’m sorry?”
“I didn’t kill anybody!” I go forward again. “I didn’t kill anybody! You did! You weren’t paying attention, and now she’s dead because of you! Does that even bother you at all? Do you even understand what you’ve done?” I press down the hammer of the gun, the click echoing through the front of the store. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I say softly. “But you haven’t even apologized.”
Tears start to slip from his eyes. “Dude, I’m sorry,” he cries. “It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have been looking at my phone. I’m so sorry.”
“Now was that so hard?” I relax my arm a little bit. “Thank you.”
I raise my arm back up and pull the trigger. Bang. His body hits the floor with a loud thump. Drops of blood pepper the counter and the wall. He shouldn’t have added that last line. All I wanted was an apology. He didn’t need to be a smart ass. I turn and push through the door, leaving the humming refrigerators and flickering lights to look after his dead body. The warm night air encased my body as I exited, sending a hot thrill through my veins.
The yellow walls of my room closed in around me, trapping me in a bright misery. They swallowed me as I laid down on my bed, which I noticed, for the first time, was stiff as a rock. A week ago, I was happy to be in this room. The bed felt great and the walls were so welcoming and friendly. But now they were ready to put me through the worst. The bag lay beside me, ready for the following night. I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and scrolled through the contacts. I wasn’t sure if the number I had was right, but I was willing to give it a try.
It rang six times. “Hello?”
The voice sounded older and tired. I shivered as it made its way through my ears. “Hello?” he asked again, sounding a little impatient.
“H-hi, Dad. . .. It’s Conner.”
I told him everything that happened. He apologized for not being there, which I had to excuse because it wasn’t his duty as a non-existent father to be there after sixteen years. I wasn’t ready to forgive him, but I needed to see him. He was the only relative I had left.
I climb into the car and start the engine, tossing the bag of money onto the floorboard. Guilt starts to push the thrill out of my veins as I throw the car in reverse and peel out of the parking lot. I try to steady my nerves as I make my way down the street. The speedometer rises as my fear does, slowly but surely climbing above sixty. As I round a corner, I see the flash of bright blue lights at the next intersection. My heart starts beating at my chest, trying to escape. I slow down as I get closer. It looks like a DUI or a drug bust. Nothing as serious as what I’ve done. It seems like forever before I’m finally clear of the blue lights.
I pull into the driveway and press a button on my keys to open the garage. When I finally assure myself that nobody knows what I’ve done and the car is safe in the garage, I grab the bag of money and the backpack and make my way into the house. I toss the keys into a bowl on the table in the hallway, listening as they mingle with my mom’s keys. I stop and stare at them for a moment. It’s weird to think that she’ll never grab her keys from that bowl again. They’re just going to live there until I move them. My eyes move up to the mirror hanging above the table.
Staring back at me is a face in a ski mask. I never took it off. An entirely new sensation of fear and dread fills my body. I rip the mask from head, my hair standing up in ugly, sweat-drenched patches. My face is pale. It’s always pale, but right now it’s more so than usual. I turn away from the mirror. The dread and fear disappear as fast as they arrived, pushed out by disgust at what I’ve done. Is this how grieving works? All these emotions just keep pushing each other away, trying to grab the spotlight. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to feel right now. I don’t understand why I’m disgusted with myself. I killed him for my mom. He killed her, so I killed him. That’s karma. He got what he deserved. Right?
I’m up all night as the emotions run laps around me. I watch the hands on the clock as they move through their regular routine, unbothered by my actions. When the hands finally reach nine, I get into the car and head to town.
We agreed to meet at Oak Street Café. They are busy this morning, but I should fine. Nobody will hear us talking over anyone else. I spot the back of his head at a table on the patio. His hair is full gray. The back of his neck is sunburned. I make my way around the table and sit down.
“Conner,” he says shyly. “It’s good to see you.”
A waiter brings a bowl of sliced fruit and a plate of bagels to the table. A waitress follows him with a pitcher of orange juice, filling the empty glasses in front of us. When they move to the next table, I speak.
“I need your help, Dad. I don’t know what to do.”