Category Archives: short stories

Changing of the Guard

A short story by

Russell Heidorn

 

“Get out of the way, ya old geezer!” the kid yelled as he and several others whizzed by on their skateboards right in front of the supermarket.

 

Gus stepped back, almost dropping the groceries as they sped down the sidewalk. “Darn kids,” he muttered, then laughed at himself for saying something so typical of an old man. He chuckled and continued following the customer out to her car.

 

Sometimes on Saturdays the kids would zip by several times, trying to get him to drop the bags. Eventually Gus would lose his hold and the bags would drop and burst open, spilling their guts over the sidewalk. Dennis would come out and yell at him for being so clumsy. Gus would clean up the mess while Dennis retrieved a fresh supply of groceries and offered a thousand apologies to the customer. All the while, the kids would hang by and laugh.

 

Gus did his best to ignore them. He’d been on this planet for eighty-three years and it’d take a lot more than a bunch of kids to rattle him. Besides, he had more important things on his mind.

 

He placed the bags in the trunk of the lady’s car. “Thank you for shopping at Mason’s”, he said.

 

The young lady muttered something about him being so slow and drove off. Gus stood and watched as leaves rustled in the car’s wake. It wasn’t the first time that happened either.

 

When Gus was in Korea, the locals there had so much more respect for their elders. They were treated like great men whom children adored for the stories and adults revered for their wisdom. Certainly that was not the case here.

 

As Gus turned to go back inside, he noticed Mrs. Patterson walking up to him. She was young, early-seventies maybe, petite with gray hair and always wore a dress. “Those young boys almost crashed into you again!” she said.

 

Gus shrugged, but said nothing.

 

“Why do you let them do that?” Mrs. Patterson continued. “All their mothers shop here. You should tell Dennis to talk to them.”

 

“It wouldn’t help. Kids don’t listen to their mothers these days.”

 

“Still. I can’t believe you put up with it,”

 

“Yep, I have a dangerous job…” Gus replied with a smile. “I’m a regular double-o-seven.”

 

“Oh, Gus,” Mrs. Patterson laughed as she touched his arm. “You’re so delightful…”

 

Gus eyed the reflection of Mrs. Patterson and himself in the window as they walked towards the door. He was still tall for his age, five-ten, and slender with thinning gray hair, thick eyebrows and hazel eyes hiding behind wire-rimmed glasses.

 

“I’m buying fixin’s for stew,” Mrs. Patterson asked. “You like stew?”

 

“I like stew,” Gus replied.

 

“Well you should come by. I haven’t made it from scratch since my husband died.” 

 

The idea of hot stew as a last meal popped into Gus’s head, but no.  “I appreciate your offer, but I can’t tonight,” he responded.

 

“Oh Gus, it wouldn’t kill you to come over at least for a little while.”

 

Gus glanced at Mrs. Patterson and looked her up and down. She was so young and full of energy. Would it kill him? Hmm, it just might. But that wasn’t why he declined. As the automatic sliding doors squealed open to allow them enter, Mrs. Patterson took his silence as a further decline.

 

“Well, okay, perhaps next week then? I’ll bring leftovers tomorrow and you can see what you missed,” She said as she grabbed a cart and walked away.

 

Tomorrow. I won’t be here,” Gus muttered to himself as she disappeared around the pumpkin display. Mrs. Patterson was always inviting him over or bringing him soups, cakes and casseroles. Her treats were the best part of Gus’s existence. Once a week or so, he would stop by just to taste one of those gourmet coffee cakes still warm from the oven. He never stayed long, but for a short while it was heaven.

 

Gus sighed heavily. But no, not today. Besides, Heaven was the last place he’d be going. And even if by some divine pardon he did get there, how could he face them? What would he say? So even on this, his last day, he was determined to serve out his time as promised.

 

“Hey Gus! We’re not paying you to stand there!” Dennis yelled.

 

Gus smiled with embarrassment and scurried back to lane three and started bagging groceries for a young lady with her two children.

 

“You need to double-bag it!” she barked. “Otherwise, they break open. Why can’t you make the bags stronger?”

 

“Yes ma’am. I’ll make sure they’re thicker next time I make a batch,” Gus replied.

 

Gus recognized the lady from the apartment complex. Laura Inglewood, a single mom. She shopped here every week and they passed each other occasionally on the sidewalk, but she never noticed him. The kids knew him though. Austin and Emma. Laura worked nights and many days the kids played outside while she slept. Once as Gus was walking by, he grabbed Emma chasing a ball into the street almost getting hit by a car. He never said anything. Laura had it hard enough as it was. Instead, Gus always made sure he was there to watch when they played.

 

“Don’t pack it so full!” she scolded. “What am I, Superman? How am I supposed to carry them when they’re so heavy?” Gus apologized and noticed Dennis glaring over. Gus took some items out and started a new bag… Oops, wait, gotta double-bag it.

 

He glanced back at Dennis who was training a new cashier supervisor – young kid, clean cut, well dressed but with an ear ring in each ear. He was fresh out of college, which was how Dennis hired them. Most of the time they’d just boss everyone around like a prison guard. And when they realized the job wasn’t that easy, they’d move on. Those who stayed eventually mellowed, like Dennis.

 

“Yeah, he’s slow and clumsy and I should really let him go, but I can’t,” he heard Dennis say.

 

“I get it,” The new kid said. “But I learned in college you can’t be sentimental. You have to put business first.”

 

 

“Really? I always thought you put people first?” Dennis replied.

 

“That’s old school. Mom and Pop shops are drying up. If you want to survive against the big chains, you have to change the way you think. Most places have people bag their own groceries now. It’s faster for them and cuts costs for us.”

 

“I don’t know.” Dennis replied. “He’s been here before I started forty years ago. He’s as much a fixture as the sign out front. Besides, the kids really like him. I think it’s the personal touches that’ll help us survive the chains.”

 

Gus recognized the new kid. Trent Larson. It was about ten years ago when Trent was just another kid on a skateboard. Now he was all grown up but hadn’t matured at all, just like when Dennis first started. Gus chuckled even though he felt sorry for Trent. He still hadn’t learned that the only real teacher is time.

 

Laura was a walker, so Gus didn’t need to carry out for her. The skateboard kids would be disappointed, he thought. Austin and Emma each took a bag and grinned while Gus pressed his finger to his lips while Laura grabbed the other bags. Gus thanked her for shopping at Mason’s, but she said nothing and quickly hurried out the door.

 

Gus punched out at six, put on his coat and started the walk home. Like usual, Gus stopped off at the library. Normally his routine would be to drop off a book and pick up a new one, but this time he just dropped them off. Over the years he had read fiction, philosophy, psychology, politics, history, biography, self-help books, even tried a couple of encyclopedias. Now he was onto children’s books.

 

Gus deposited “Goodnight Moon” and several others and continued on to his one-bedroom apartment.  Leaves rustled past his legs as the wind danced them down the sidewalk. One flew up and caught his coat sleeve. The leaf’s spine had curled up as it dried, much in the same way of his own spine. He couldn’t stand up straight any more without his lower back complaining. He brushed off the leaf as the wind joined it with the others. He closed his eyes. He liked the sound of the leaves rustling. It was restless and peaceful at the same time.

 

He reached his building and took the elevator up to the third floor. Halfway down the hall, he stopped when he saw them waiting by his door.

 

The younger man he already knew. Cooper. Tall, slim, and always wore the same crisp black suit. He was clean cut with a plain face and average features. The other man was older, forties, and looked weary. He had thick curly brown hair, baggy brown corduroy pants and a blue dress shirt, holding a single suitcase.

 

Gus stood for a moment. He was nervous and relieved. His time was over now, but what was in store for him next he didn’t know. He sighed and walked towards them.

 

“Hi Gus,” Cooper said. “Nice to see you again.”

 

“It’s been a long time, Cooper. You haven’t changed a bit and I mean not one bit.” Gus replied, then eyed the other man. “Is he the replacement?”

 

“Yes,” Cooper replied. “This is Stuart.”

 

“Hi,” Stuart said weakly. Gus eyed him over. He was introverted, shy and nervous.

 

“Come on in,” Gus said as he unlocked the door and ushered them in.

 

The apartment was simple but clean. The furniture was sparse and old – sagging couch, coffee table, side table, small shelf with a TV, an old bookcase stuffed with books, a small roll top desk with an old clock on top, a dining table with two chairs. There were some modern appliances like a microwave and a small flat screen TV but that was it. The walls were barren of any pictures or art.

 

“I’ll make some tea,” Gus offered as he hung up his jacket and walked into his small alcove kitchen.

 

“I can’t stay,” Cooper replied as he casually looked around. “You’ve kept the place nice I see,” he added.

 

“Well, it’s not the Bellagio, but I do all right.” Gus replied.

 

“You do more than all right” Cooper replied. “You’re the best tenant I’ve had, despite the visits to Mrs. Patterson and befriending the neighbourhood kids.”

 

Gus looked at him. “You know about that?”

 

“Please…” Cooper replied. “but, it doesn’t matter. You’ve not failed your task in fifty years and that’s what matters.”

 

Cooper motioned for Stuart to take a seat at the table. “I have to go,” he said. “I have other matters to attend to. Show him the ropes and I’ll be back in the morning.”

 

“Whatever you say, boss,” Gus said with a smile.

 

Cooper nodded and left.

 

Gus finished heating the water and brought two cups of tea to the table, then made a second trip for milk and sugar. Stuart proceeded to add several spoonfuls of sugar and milk to his tea while Gus drank it straight up.

 

“So what’s your sin?” Gus asked.

 

Stuart glanced up as he stirred. “Armed Robbery,” he sighed as he stirred his tea. “I was young and strung out on cocaine. I didn’t even think twice when I shot him. And for what, a hundred bucks? He was an immigrant and a father of six trying to start a new life.”

 

“Mmm,” Gus said and he sipped.

 

“What about you?” Stuart asked.

 

“Me?” Gus said. “I never fit in after Korea. Ending up drinking… a lot. I was driving smashed one evening, hit a car and killed the whole family- husband, wife, two kids…”

 

There was a long silence as Gus stared into his tea as if searching for something.

 

“And yet you lived?” Stuart asked.

 

“Yep, year in the hospital, two years in therapy just to earn a lifetime in prison. I’d still be there now if not for Cooper.”

 

“Me too. I asked him how the hell he got me out, but he wouldn’t say.”

 

“I think of it as a work release program.”

 

Stuart didn’t smile. He was clearly not in the mood for Gus’s jokes. He just fidgeted as he drank his tea as if he couldn’t get comfortable. He was probably anxious and a bit scared, just like Gus on his first night.

 

“So what do I have to do?”

 

“It’s not time yet.”

 

“What time does it have to be?”

 

“You choose your own, mine is 8:46 pm. That’s the time they died. You hungry?”

 

Gus pulled two chicken pot pies from the freezer and heated them in the oven while Stuart wandered over and browsed the books. He took a couple out, paged through them and put them back.

 

“You read all these?”

 

“Yep, many more than once.”

 

Stuart wandered to the desk and studied the clock on top. It was tarnished and looked heavy with three faces on it. The large one in the middle was a standard clock with 12 numbers, an hour and a minute hand. A smaller one on the left had a sun in the centre with twelve strange symbols surrounding it with a single hand pointing at 6. The one on the right was the same except it had a crescent moon in the centre and the hand pointing almost at 12.

 

“You have family?” Stuart asked.

 

“Somewhere I guess. You?”

 

“Mom and Dad died. I have a sister in New York. She stopped visiting when my appeals ran out. I’ve thought about reaching out to her, but Cooper says no.”

 

“Yeah. In some ways family endures more pain than you do. All they could do is stand by and watch helpless. Probably best to let them move on.”

 

They spoke little during dinner. Gus told him about the jobs in the area, how to earn enough to make a living and still keep things simple. At 8:45 an alarm clock went off on the side table next to the couch. Gus went over and shut it off.

 

“It’s time,” he said.

 

“What do I have to do?”

 

“I’ll show you,” Gus walked to the roll top desk and opened it. Inside was a small stack of bills with an opener and a cup with pens. The cubbies on the top were all empty. Gus opened a single drawer in the middle of the cubbies and pulled out an old skeleton key. He inserted it into a hole in the side of the clock and turned it as he listened to the spring deep inside increase in tension. After a dozen cranks, he removed the key, placed it back in the drawer, closed up the desk and sat back down.

 

“Is… that it?” Stuart asked.

 

“Yep,” Gus said. “Remember to do it every day at the same time.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, if you don’t, it stops.”

 

“And what happens if it stops?”

 

Gus thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Cooper’s not very forthcoming. He just said don’t let it stop.”

 

Stuart got up and paced the floor. “I don’t understand. How do I redeem myself then?”

 

“What?”

 

“Cooper said he was offering me the chance to redeem myself. How does winding a clock do that?” Stuart asked.

 

“What did you think you’d be doing?”

 

“I don’t know. Working in an orphanage? Feeding the homeless? Preaching the dangers of drugs? You know, making a difference.”

 

“Well, maybe every time you wind the clock, an angel gets its wings.”

 

“Enough with the jokes! Can’t you be serious?”

 

“Fine,” Gus said as he sighed. “Think of it like this. What were you doing in prison?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You had a life sentence. Nothing to do but die, right?”

 

“Yeah. So?”

 

“Now you’re out. Cooper selected you. Not a lot of people get a chance like this. Does it really matter what you have to do?”

 

Stuart looked around the small apartment. “So… now what?”

 

“Sometimes I watch television. Most of the time I read.”

 

“Then what happens?”

 

“Nothing. You wind the clock every day until Cooper comes for you.”

 

“What happens if you miss a day?”

 

“I’ve never missed,” Gus said.

 

Stuart shrugged. “Not much different from prison, is it?”

 

“Perhaps it’s not supposed to be.”

 

“So what’s next for you?”

 

Gus walked over to the bookcase and put the books Stuart had touched back in their rightful places. He had pondered that question a lot. What would be waiting for him when Cooper came in the morning? Was it Heaven? And if it was, would they be there waiting for him? Would they forgive him? “Good question,” he finally said. “I’m sure Cooper will do what’s right.”

 

“Who is Cooper anyway?”

 

“Good question. How old do you think he is?”

 

“I don’t know… thirty?”

 

“Yeah, what would you say if I told you Cooper was the one who found me over 50 years ago? Same face, same hair, even the same black suit. As I’ve grown into an old man, he hasn’t aged a day.”

 

“How can that be?”

 

“Don’t know. And I wasn’t the first.”

 

“That would make him…”

 

“Perhaps as old as that clock,” Gus replied.

 

“So is he an angel? God? The devil?”

 

Gus shrugged. “Or perhaps he just has a really good plastic surgeon.”

 

“So, every day you wind that clock and you don’t know why?”

 

“I do know why.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because Cooper asked me too”

 

“But-.”

 

“Enough talk. I’m tired. You take the bedroom.”

 

Gus lay down on the couch. He curled into a ball and covered himself with a plain brown blanket and closed his eyes. “Go on,” he said. Stuart watched him for a while, then sighed, got up, grabbed his suitcase and went into the bedroom closing the door.

 

***

 

There was a knock on the front door.

 

Gus woke up. Outside the sun was cresting the hill, spilling its light over the landscape. The wind was still restless, causing a rustle of dead leaves that sounded just like the rain that revives the earth in spring. 

 

It was morning. Gus got up and realized he was still wearing his clothes. He walked over to the door and peered through the peephole. It was Cooper. He opened it and Cooper came in.

 

“Did you fill him in?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Is he going to work out?”

 

“Well, he’s not me, but he’ll do.”

              

Cooper smiled. “Good, you want to shower or anything before we go?”

 

Gus glanced around the apartment, the books, the desk, the clock. “No, I’m good.”

 

“Don’t you want to at least say goodbye?”

 

“No.” Gus paused. “Just… tell him to watch out for the kids on skateboards. Oh, and tell him that Mrs. Robinson makes the best stew.”

 

Gus grabbed his coat and paused. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“If you must,” Cooper replied.

 

“Why?”

 

“Why what?”

 

Gus motioned around the apartment and then at the clock. “I never once questioned you, but now I have to ask. What’s so special about the clock? Is it magic? Does it keep the world spinning or something like that?”

 

“No. It’s just a clock.”

 

“Then… why?”

 

“Well, had you still been in prison, who would have taught Dennis how to run a business, or those elementary kids how to appreciate their elders, or Trent about tolerance? Who would have helped Mrs. Patterson over the grief of her husband? And who would have saved Emma from that car? Redemption is not about big and miraculous things, it’s about doing little things every day.”

 

“It wasn’t about the clock?”

 

“Yes, it was about the clock. Had you not been here to wind it, you would have not done all those things. You spent your life helping others in your own way. As far as we’re concerned, your debt is paid.”

 

Gus frowned. All this time he was focused on the clock when that had nothing to do with it.

 

“It’s not what you expected, is it?”

 

A smile slowly crept across Gus’s face. “No. It’s not. But then again, life never is.”

 

Gus plopped the keys on the table and followed Cooper out the door. SLQ

 

+  +  +

 

Bio: Russell Heidorn lives outside Minneapolis and scatters his time between working and raising a family while pursuing his dream of writing music and fiction. His songs have received local airplay as well as won an award from the Music City Song Festival and his writing has been published in local periodicals. He is currently working on a novel about a suburban man who scatters his time between work and family while pursuing his dream. However, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

Watching

A short story by Amanda Zaldua

I watch you, my love, drag your weary body to sitting and then sitting still for a moment on the edge of the bed, contemplating what? I don’t know. You slowly rise and spend time carefully making the bed, our bed, our love nest we used to call it, remember? We used to laugh at that. Then you go downstairs achingly slowly, supporting yourself with the bannister. You let yourself out, out into the cold morning bare foot, your cotton nightie barely covering your legs, your once beautiful legs. They used to turn heads, those legs. You pretended not to notice but I knew. You make your way down the street. Continue reading

A Time for Every Matter

A short story by

John P. Asling

 

This is Grace’s moment.

Just step into the aisle. Make your way up to the front of the church. To the microphone standing erect beside that man framed in the colour photograph. That man perched on a pedestal. That man smiling down on the incense-shrouded congregation. That man dwarfed by the looming wooden cross.

It is the first moment of silence in the hour filled with precious words sung by the royally garbed women’s choir, spilled with tears of grief, solemnly pronounced by the ageing pastor before the grey suits, black dresses, bowed heads.

Like ‘hero’, ‘courage’.

Clutching a scribbled note in her blood-red painted nails, Grace turns toward the aisle. She’s a bloke away from stepping from her usual seat in the back pew and she hesitates, hoping he will discreetly let her past. In that moment, Bible words read by the dead man’s brother echo in her soul.

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ 

For everything? Every matter? There is no season for what he did to me. No season and no reason.

*

Everett and Grace were paired for the night at the homeless shelter in the basement of their church not far from the city centre. This was the first time they had worked so closely together, though she knew him from church. He talked to her a little about his children.

‘Thanks for taking care of the girls. They love you looking after them. You’re so good with them,’ he said one Sunday.

She didn’t offer much in reply, partly because she was shy, but she was also somehow wary. If you asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.

‘It’s okay, they’re very well-behaved, those girls.’

Everett and Grace worked side-by-side, blowing up mattresses, putting on the thin fitted sheets, threadbare blankets, bleached pillow slips. How uncomfortable those narrow beds looked to Grace crowded into that basement meeting room, but at least it was warm inside. Outside it was a bone-chilling January. Everett and Grace made tea and set it on the communal table and kept the supply of broken biscuits donated by the factory replenished. The men and women booked for the night – twenty-five – were hungry and thirsty when they first arrived from around the borough. Some of the ‘guests’- the shelter leader insisted on calling them that – perused the box of used clothes Everett and Grace had set out, trying on woolly hats and jumpers. 

Grace was always surprised they never looked like the homeless people she saw on the street near the station. They didn’t look to be much worse off than her. And that scared her. Was this her next stop now that she had been let go at the nail salon, her rent overdue? Everett explained that the borough had ‘screened’ the people using their church shelter because it was run by volunteers. ‘We do this out of our best Christian instincts, but of course we aren’t trained.’

Everett and Grace warmed the lasagnes baked by the church ladies group, prepared the garlic bread the men’s group made, set the tables, prepared the tea and filled the water jugs. Then they took a break.

‘The demographics are changing,’ he said, adding milk to his mug of tea. And to hers. She just watched. He was up on the refugee situation because he is an elder and spoke often to the minister. Grace listened, blowing softly on her steaming tea.

These ‘guests’ were mostly Eastern Europeans and North Africans working in restaurants or doing day labour. One was a tall man with a thin moustache who grew up not far from where Grace’s father was born. Grace heard him talking to one of the locals who got tired of sleeping in his car and came to the shelter for the first time.

‘I can’t go back to my country. I’m a dead man if I go back there. No way, I’m going back there. But God, it’s cold here now. I sure could use that hot sun on my back,’ the African said.

The other man laughed a moment then caught himself. ‘You’ll be alright here. It’ll come good.’

Grace was wiping tables nearby, took it in, especially the part about her father’s country in Africa, but kept her thoughts to herself.

Two volunteers were missing from the overnight roster and Grace said she would stay on, not having to get up for work in the morning. She’d get breakfast, cut down on expenses, every little bit counts. She was thinking that way more and more since losing her job.

Everett said he was available too.

‘Keep the team together,’ he laughed easily but his eyes were stern. She had noticed that over the years since Everett joined the church from the other side of the city. She knew him from his greetings at the church door, his speeches at meetings and the time he preached on ‘charity’ when the pastor was on leave. Some Sunday mornings she worked in the nursery where his two youngsters were an island of serenity in an ocean of manic children.

Grace wondered why Everett wouldn’t want to get home to his wife and two small girls with bows in their hair. Grace had looked after them in the church nursery again last week. They played together with Barbie dolls and didn’t need any fuss from the carers. She guessed he just wanted to help out. He had that kind of reputation at the church.

It was a long night at the shelter. The aroma of the vegetarian lasagne eventually gave way to the stench of men’s feet, body odours. The three women in their curtained-off corner hid under their blankets. Just before lights-out an older man with shaking hands began cussing out the youngster next to him for shifting his mattress too close. Everett went to calm them down. The leader had to step between the two labourers wearing coloured ball caps trying to use the same plug for their phones. Grace finished cleaning the kitchen. Things quieted down by midnight.

Grace looked through her emails on her smart phone, then closed her eyes, just resting. Everett read a book in the dimly lit hallway, stayed awake all night. The leader read her Bible.   

In the morning Everett offered to drive Grace home. She usually walked but agreed when the shock of frigid air hit her as they left the shelter at six o’clock. Frost enveloped Everett’s sleek red car but it started immediately. He reached very carefully across her to help with the tangled seat belt.

‘There, that’s better, Grace. The children get them messed up,’ he laughed. Those eyes. Grace nodded, thinking of the pretty bows and the Barbie dolls.

‘Those girls are lovely,’ she offered, too tired for much talk.

‘The joy of my life,’ he responded. ‘They love it when you take care of them.’

They drove in silence towards Grace’s cramped flat but Everett suddenly steered the humming red sports car down an alley, stopped abruptly, and locked the doors. Grace’s heart nearly stopped. Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t speak. This time Everett’s reach was sudden, brutal. She smelled his foul breath, felt her clothes ripped from her body. She gritted her teeth, managing to spit out, one word, ‘No.’ He was deaf to her. The touch of him, the sound of him, the rocking of the car. Grace thought she would die, wished she had died.

Back in her flat, Grace let the hot water of the shower mix with her wailing tears. She stayed under for a long time, thinking. I am no longer a woman, just a piece of dead meat. Because of that man. Everett. He has eaten me up, tossed me aside like a carcass. She tried to pray but somehow God had died when that man, that Everett forced himself on her.

‘Where is the pastor’s loving God now?’ Grace collapsed onto her bed, falling into a morbid sleep. 

Grace stayed in her bed for days, ignoring her buzzing phone, not eating, not answering the door, not caring about anything, anybody. Like she was dying. That man, that Everett, he did this.

Then she got up, pulled her curtains. Fuck him. I ain’t letting him kill me.

*

‘It’s not your fault just because you got in that posh car with that Everett,’ Grace’s friend Frankie fumed a week later. ‘You gotta say something. You gotta go to the police. You gotta tell.’

Grace knew Frankie never trusted Everett, his young wife, perfect kids. She’d say, ‘What’s the matter with women his own age? There’s something about that man, Grace. You see it too.’

Grace never responded to Frankie on this.

*

Frankie sent Grace a text early one Saturday morning a few weeks later saying Everett had been stabbed to death. Grace felt like her heart stopped beating. Again.

She went online and read about it herself, sitting up in her frigid flat as the groan of morning traffic started growing on the street below. ‘Jesus,’ she whispered. ‘That man, that Everett. Dead.’

 

‘A 45-year-old man was stabbed to death early this morning as he attempted to stop a gang fight outside an after-hours club. Everett Winston, a broker, was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 4 a.m. A Met spokesman said the investigation was ongoing. However, one woman, who refused to give her name, hailed Mr. Winston as a “hero”. ‘He told them all just stop fighting. He put his body on the line, took a blade.’ The Met said while they were still gathering information, it appeared the slain man’s “courage” prevented major bloodshed. Mr. Winston leaves a wife and twin three-year-old daughters.’

Frankie phoned Grace a few minutes later. ‘Hero? What’s that Everett doing down there at that hour? I’m sorry ‘bout those two little kids but what’s that man doing there with all those bling girls and those gangsters?’

‘Looks like he was some kind of hero, Frankie.’

‘You know better than that, Grace. It’s like that Hollywood guy. They never who they say they are.’

‘Maybe none of us are, Frankie.’

‘Don’t talk shit to me.’

‘I just don’t know.’

*

The bloke looks over at Grace like he knows what’s on her mind. Was he Everett’s friend?  There’s nobody at the ‘open mic’ and the pastor is asking if anyone else has anything to add about ‘Brother Everett, who laid down his life for others’. There’s been plenty of folks talking about all the good things Everett had done at the church, leading that building committee last year, donating money for Syria. Grace makes herself skinny so she won’t be touching the bloke beside her as she moves closer to the aisle. He doesn’t move but Grace gets by. The pastor is talking about what the newspapers have been saying about Everett but Grace still hears those Bible words spoken by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to be born and a time to die.’

Shit, when’s my time to be born, my time to live?

*

Grace never told Frankie about the envelope. Frankie would have shrieked like the time her father hit her for smoking weed. She’s loud about protecting her rights. That just scares Grace.

She had stopped helping at the shelter after Everett attacked her. She told the shelter leader she needed to spend more time looking for work after losing her job. Grace had done Frankie’s nails and then Frankie flashed her silver sparkled fingers at the mall and told their friends Grace needed business. Grace set up shop in her squat kitchen and a few of the girls came over the next week and got their nails painted. She charged them a few quid, helped her get groceries. But she knew she had to find another job.

Then the envelope arrived.

‘Sorry for what happened the other night. I possibly misread the situation. Hope this ends the matter.’

‘This’ was £100 in twenties. Grace looked at it spread out like a fan as it fell from the envelope. Misread? Fuck. The matter? The rape.

She took the envelope to church next Sunday, sat in her back row, eyeing Everett and the pretty wife in their pew. When elders came for the Offering she put the envelope with the £100 in the basket. The note was there too.

Grace met Frankie after church for coffee at the cheap café beside the station. Frankie grabbed her best friend’s cold hand across the table at the back where they always sat.

‘You gone to the police yet? Grace, you can’t keep this all to yourself.’

Grace took a sip of her coffee, dabbed her unpainted lips with the napkin.

‘No police, Frankie. I got other plans. Maybe I forgive him.’

‘Well, maybe I’m gonna’ talk to his pretty wife, then.’

‘No, you ain’t.’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘No, Frankie, this is my battle.’

That was before Everett became a hero.

*

Grace thinks the pastor is going to close down that open mic before she gets to the front of the church. Grace moves toward that stiff microphone, thinks about those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to mourn and a time to dance.’

I’m not mourning and I am not dancing. I am moving up there.

*

After coffee in the café, Grace ignored Frankie’s phone calls for a few days. She didn’t tell her about the envelope and she didn’t tell her about going to the ‘Memorial for a Hero’ at the church. Frankie’s folks would be there so she would know about it but Frankie mostly does the opposite of them, like staying out late and avoiding church. Grace used to be like that. Since her father died from drinking and her mother moved to America with that Warner, she’s got no one to protest against. Except now there’s Everett. Fuck him. What’s he done to me?

Grace dressed for church like it was Sunday, sat down at her kitchen table and took her notepad, ripped out a few sheets and started scratching out all the words that had been bouncing around inside her head. Her whole body shook like she was on some carnival ride while she wrote. Then she headed out the door to church.

*

Grace’s short legs are moving quickly towards the front of the church and she is almost there. The pastor doesn’t want her up here. His drag dog face is telling her that. The choir of sweet-scented ladies are glaring down at her. The big cross is judging her. She hears those words again, ‘hero’, ’courage’ and but can’t fit them alongside Everett’s – ‘Keep the team together’. She can see the fan of twenties on her kitchen table. Grace hears those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to keep silence and a time to speak.’

Grace’s time of silence is over.

‘The Good Book says…’ SLQ

 

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John P. Asling is a writer and editor living in Blackheath, London, and has published poetry and fiction in Canada and the United Kingdom.

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