A Night at the Food and Fuel

Bart has never allowed Jenny out of the house, but is it really a good idea? Will she have a blast? And, what about Bob?

A Night at the Food and Fuel
by Angela Rasch

Fight or Flight!

I had vowed to leave my apartment; my hand had just caressed the doorknob when a massive jolt shot through my shoulders, neck, and head. Psychologist say adrenalin-fired, anxiety attacks are a remnant of an era when our pre-historic ancestors had a choice of either running or defending themselves against a predator or enemy.

Face up to it, Jenny. It’s only adrenalin — so accept it. Relax and think of sprawling on a freshly-mowed lawn -- looking up at white, fluffy clouds. Let time pass so all that nasty chemical can work its way through. No biggie.

My fingers went to my wrist and counted as I watched fifteen seconds tick off on the wall clock next to the hall mirror. Twenty-one. Good God! My pulse is eighty-four. That’s what it is when I’m doing my Pilates.

You can do this. I had tried before at least a dozen times and never had the nerve to make it out my door. I’m going to do it tonight. It won’t kill me, and I need to do this, or I’ll simply die of frustration . . . and curiosity.

Once I had been completely elegant and chic, opened the door, and then almost stepped into the hall. The door to the apartment two doors down opened and my neighbor came out. I had quickly shut my door and sank to the floor in anger, shame, and total confusion. Can I help it if I like the safety and fearlessness of my apartment?

No matter what — I’m going out tonight. Even if one of my neighbors does pay attention to me, they will only see Jenny and wonder who that pretty girl is coming out of Bart’s apartment.

The phone rang, jarring me out of my internal argument.

“Hello,” I breathed, amazed how even that one word sounded exactly like the Jenny I was trying my best to be.

“Who is this?” a familiar and seemingly highly frustrated woman’s voice demanded. “Let me speak to Bart.”

Oh God, it’s Mom! Why did I use my Jenny voice? I love Mom dearly, but. . .she seems to always catch me when I’m absorbed in being. . .me. In many ways she’s the most important person in my life, and yet. . . . I forced myself to speak in a lower timbre. “Hello, Mom.”

“Who was that who answered the phone? That wasn’t Emily. Are you sneaking around behind Emily’s back?” Her tone reeked of disapproval.

She would really have a fit if she could see me. “No.” I could never be unfaithful to Emily. “That was my neighbor; she just stopped by . . . to borrow a jar of salsa.” I winced at how lame my lie had sounded.

“Salsa? Who borrows salsa? You’re so naíve. Is she pretty?”

I hope “she” is pretty.

“I’ll spell it out. She’s just trying to make friends with you? In a way I don’t blame you for looking for greener pastures. Emily is so controlling.”

“Em’s just looking out for me.”

Mom expressed her disgust for my unwillingness to stand on my own two feet by clicking her teeth. “I spoiled you rotten. Being the last of five kids has ruined you forever. -- Ask her to sit down and wait for a second while we talk . . . I only called to make sure you’ll come to dinner on Sunday.”

“She’s already gone and yes . . . I’ll be home for Sunday dinner just like I’ve been every other Sunday for the last six years, ever since I graduated from college.” Oh God! Did she hear my earring scrap against the phone? I should have taken it off before answering.

“Did you remember to pay your uncle for that tune-up he did on your VW?”

“Oh, I completely forgot. I’m always forgetting things like that. Will you see him this weekend?”

“Sure, Honey. I’ll pay him for you when I see him. That’s one more hug you’ll owe me on Sunday.”

Our conversation continued with her wanting to know what I was doing for Halloween. I made up a lie about a party and told her I was going as the Tinman from "The Wizard of Oz." I’m not used to lying. By the time we had hung up I was completely unsettled and almost ready to call off my big evening.

I paced, mentally slowing my body to lower my pulse. I shuddered involuntarily. I need to get everything under control or I’ll start sweating and ruin my outfit.

I checked myself in the mirror for the hundredth time. Everything looks just fine. I had mentally debated each and every part of my preparation. I had started getting ready as soon as I got home from my job as a loan officer in a small community bank. Each step toward a total transition had gone exactly as planned. Of course, I spent five to six nights a week in my apartment dressed en femme so making the change from boy to girl was not a big deal. No big deal except tonight I’m going out for the first time -- which is a HUGE, PETRIFYING DEAL.

I sighed and grabbed my black, soft-leather tote. I had removed the shoulder strap, preferring to carry it by its double handles. It was filled with my billfold and enough make-up to repair any conceivable disaster. Like an earthquake or a flood! It would be just my luck to get caught in some natural calamity on my first night out.

I pirouetted in my ebony, Fiona, four-inch heel boots. Wearing them had been my biggest decision. I’m only five six in my stocking feet so the boots wouldn’t make me appear too tall, but even though I had walked in them night after night in my living room I panicked when I thought of all the different surfaces and landmines I could come across in the real world.

Let’s go, Jenny.

I bit my lip, looked out from under my honey-blonde, shoulder-length wig at the awaiting world, and then cautiously ventured out into the hall.

So far so good.

I didn’t have to remind myself to take smaller steps, because the charcoal, tweed, pencil skirt I had selected made it impossible to stride like I would in a pair of pants. I love fashionable clothing. The hours I spend pouring through magazines to keep up on the latest styles are some of my happiest moments.

My aubergine, silk, poet blouse would look rather ridiculous with men’s trousers. I laughed a quiet sort of giggle -- instead of the rumbling chuckle I used to express my amusement at work.

A startled cat screamed, not more than fifteen feet away from me, and I jumped. My hand went to my throat like I had seen hundreds of actresses do in movies when they were shocked. I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled before starting to walk down the hall again. I’d love to have a cat, but they’re such a big commitment.

My car was parked in the communal garage one floor down, out the back door, and across an open courtyard. When I opened the back door I spotted a small group of people sitting around the sand volleyball pit drinking beer. They probably had just finished playing. Two of the men, I believe their names are Scott and Rich, looked intently at me, and I almost stumbled.

Just keep walking. If they call your name, don’t acknowledge them. Just pretend you’re someone else.

You are someone else! You’re Jenny. Bart would be scared, but Jenny is confident and ready for a night on the town.

I smiled broadly. I’m outside. I’m going out for the evening . . . and I’m happy.

Nobody yelled. I glanced back at Scott and Rich and noted that their attention had gone back to the girls with them. I felt relief . . . and a bit of competitive disappointment. I’m prettier than those girls!

I opened my car door, sat, and then brought my legs around into the car, like I had practiced on my kitchen chair. Looking in my rearview mirror I marveled at how lovely my eyes looked. It had taken me months to become proficient with all the pencils and brushes needed to make doe-eyes, but it had been worth it. Funny, for a moment I didn’t want to be noticed, when what I really, really would like is for people to admire my beauty; that’s why I had to go out.

My lips parted and my tongue licked at my watermelon gloss. I grinned, thinking how I had wanted to wear my reddest red, but had gone sensible with a subtle shade.

My car hummed contently while I went through the familiar motions of backing out of my assigned parking spot, and then pulling onto McKnight Road, which passed by our building.

The Channel Five weatherman had predicted showers and gusty winds for Halloween Eve. Thankfully he had been wrong and it was a tranquil evening. As I slowed to a stop at a red light I looked out at a crisp, clear night that could only be described in one word. “Perfect,” I said out loud in as sweet an alto voice as I could manage while catching my reflection in the side mirror.

“Think about your driving,” I cautioned myself. “The last thing you need is to get pulled over for speeding.” If the worst happens, I’ll just tell the officer I’m on my way to a Halloween party. Hopefully that’ll work.

I was going to the Cabooze in St. Paul. Their normal Whiskey and Western Wednesday fare featured a local rockin’ country group. I’d heard them twice before and found their music to be well worth the $15 cover charge. I needed the prospect of fun after three days of nine-to-five rut. I should find something better to do with my life.

Even though it now seemed like my desire to experience life as a woman outside my home had abruptly overwhelmed my normal wisdom, it hadn’t been a rash decision. In fact I had been planning for tonight for nearly six months. I’d gone over what I would wear, make-up, wig, and accessories a thousand times to make sure everything would afford me the maximum opportunity to pass. Every time I had been to the Cabooze I had paid detailed attention to the women, noting exactly how they looked and acted.

It was my intent to give Jenny a night on the town to enjoy herself after a lifetime of seclusion.

Every car that passed me seemed to contain at least one curious male who gave me a look of interest. Several looked as if they were sneering after they had seen me. Each incident had been fleeting so I couldn’t say for sure, but an icy chill shot up and down my spine. Don’t be silly, nothing bad is going to happen to you. This is St. Paul — not New York.

For over a month I had spent nearly every night in my apartment honing my skills with consummate “final” dress rehearsals. On two separate occasions, about a week apart, there had been persistent knocking at my door while I cowered in my bedroom, quaking in my skirt and heels until whoever it had been had gone away.

Once I accidentally left the living room drapes open and it appeared that Sue from across the way had been staring at me, but she didn’t say anything to me the next time we saw each other at the complex swimming pool, so I had been lucky.

Even though I had been petrified by those close calls, I continued to be Jenny as often as possible. You might say I’m obsessed, but I know my dressing simply allows me to be true to my nature.

I was so practiced at becoming Jenny that I had found myself ready a full half-hour before I had to be -- to get to the Cabooze in time to be assured of a seat for the nine o’clock show.

“Gum,” I said glancing in my car’s rear-view mirror to check what I knew was flawless make-up. When filling my purse I had forgotten to include gum, and I just had to have it. I’ve got plenty of time to stop. I drew in a deep breath, luxuriating in the exotic fragrance of the classic Prada parfum that I had chosen.

I pulled off Snelling Avenue at a small convenience store to purchase breath-freshening gum. “I’m not out to meet anyone,” I announced to myself, “but I want to be comfortable.” My relationship with Emily was everything I wanted it to be, even though I knew I could never tell her about Jenny.

The last day of October night was frosty and already black. Lights from displays in the Food and Fuel invited me to eat more than I needed while playing the State run lotto. “No thank you,” I silently whispered. I had dieted myself into a size twelve and would consider a candy bar only at gunpoint. Besides, I never gambled -- believing I should avoid risk — and certainly not pay good money to add chance to my life.

It was the kind of convenience store that had started out as one of the major franchises, and then suffered through neglect to the point that it had become a stand-alone venture.

The click of my heels on the concrete apron that surrounded the gas pumps caused an anxious grin. I had conquered the world of four-inch perches and loved the way they made me feel and look . . . but out in the real world I felt inept.

Everything seemed new. Not that bright and shiny new that makes you want to be a world-class consumer, but that inadequate feeling you get when you take everything out of the box and realize its “simple” assembly would tax every bit of your patience and ability . . . and just might not ever happen.

Upon entering the small store I rapidly assessed just how much danger I had brought on myself. Only two people . . . a run-of-the-mill attendant behind the counter and a customer with his back to me by the cooler where all the bottles of water are racked for sale. He had just taken out his cell phone and looked about ready to make a call.

My eyes fell on the magazines next to the front counter. Something secure. My unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the rich and famous caused me to salivate at the cover pictures of everyone who mattered. I was just about to scan a story that promised to tell me all I needed to do to drive my man wild when I noticed a look of concern on the face of the young attendant, whose expensive haircut, fine-linen Dunhill shirt, and general demeanor seemed out-of-step with his seedy surroundings.

I concentrated on what the other customer was saying into his phone. He looked like the kind of guy who spent hours grooming his twenty or so hairs.

“. . . now you’re getting it. There’s a robbery in progress at the Food N’ Fuel on Snelling just off Van Buren.” He snapped his phone shut.

Robbery? I stiffened. Almost immediately I heard a siren, but it was impossible to know how far away it was. . .or if it was coming to our rescue.

The attendant seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, but then a look of resignation crossed over his face. “Please,” he said to the other customer who had moved to the counter. “I don’t know what your game is, but I was just about ready to leave and we don’t have much cash. Not enough for you to. . . .”

“Shut up, asshole.” His voice sounded distant and crazed, like someone who had been treated badly and wanted to do something about it. He wore a yellow windbreaker that had been stained on the elbow of the left sleeve by something evilly-green. “What are you staring at, bitch?”

I looked into his pock-marked cheeks. Not many mugs like that in my neighborhood, or at the bank. It’s the kind of face that screams “bad credit” — especially when combined with his off-the-rack Wal-Mart clothing. He probably sells steel siding.

He shifted his body around toward me and showed me what the counterman had already seen. He was cradling something jungle-green with his two hands. “Uh huh,” he said proudly. “It’s a hand grenade. It’s the real thing, alright. It’ll blow a hole in this building and everyone in it if I don’t keep the spoon in place.” A strangely-crooked index finger pointed defiantly to the spot where the safety pin had been removed.

If he doesn’t hold on tight to that lever-thing, it will go off. I gasped. It looks authentic and powerful. “Don’t do anything. . . .” I stopped myself before I said “stupid,” wanting to know more about him before I. . . .

“Does this shithole have a backdoor?” He snapped his head away from me toward the man at the counter, who I realized was older and better-looking than I had originally noted.

“It’s fitted with an alarm,” the man said evenly. “If anyone goes out that door after six an alarm goes off at our security company and the police are notified. Of course, you’ve already taken care of that. Do you really think it was a good idea to call them?” The counterman stopped, looking more confident than I felt.

He must think we can survive this mess. I can still hear that siren, but it doesn’t sound any closer.

“I say no harm/no foul,” he continued.” You put away that grenade and we’ll pretend it never happen. Heck — I’ll even give you the thirty bucks or so that’s in the cash register. But, we’ve got to hurry because. . . .”

“Fuck you,” he snarled. “Fucking police. Fuck the fuzz. They’re nothing but a bunch of . . . copsuckers.” He laughed menacingly.

He’s drunk. I counted the steps to the front door. If he let’s go of that grenade I’ll have about ten seconds to get away.

“One point two five seconds,” the robber said disdainfully, as if he had read my mind. “The fuse on this grenade has a delay of 1.25 seconds. It’s set for maxi-fucking-mum fragmentation. Once I leave up on this here spoon, even if you have the reaction time of an Olympic sprinter you’re going to get an unhealthy load of twisted-steel shrapnel blown up your ass.”

He could be lying. He could also be more afraid of dying than I am. I glanced at my hands and balled them into fists to stop their shaking. It’s not likely he’s more frightened than I am. I’m going to cry. I’ve never cried with mascara on before. My eyes swung wildly around the store, looking in vain for a place where I would be safe from a blast. What will I. . . .

“We don’t have much money in the till,” the counterman said again. He kept staring at the cash register and shaking his head slightly as if it were a foreign object.

“Fuck all the whining about the cash, shithead.” He slammed an unwrapped Twinkie on the counter causing the plastic covering to break and the white gook in it to splatter all over a display of Bic cigarette lighters. The robber pointed to the counterman’s nametag. “Is your name really Robert?”

“Bob,” the counterman said, after checking his nametag. “My name’s Bob, but the corporate people said we have to have the name exactly like what’s on our social security card.”

“Sounds like your employer’s like them pricks at Outland Mortgage who’s foreclosed on my ma’s home.” He closed his eyes for a second as if someone had hit him in the back of his head. After they flipped open he turned toward me. “Cutesy women make me want to puke. Have you ever had to work a day in your life, or have a little-bitty problem someone else didn’t fix for you; or do you get by just wavin’ that tight little ass of yours in men’s faces?”

I blinked, stunned by the thousand conflicting thoughts fighting their way through my brain.

“You should see your eyes.” He laughed again like a deranged escapee from a mental hospital. “They’re as big as the head of my dick. Your mouth — that ‘o’ your mouth is formin’ gives me an idea.”

I slammed my lips together. “I. . . .” I fought back a tear.

He swung back toward the counter and brandished his grenade.

His nails have been bitten to the quick.

“I gotta call Jake, again,” he said. “We’ll get us an audience of them boys in blue and then we’ll have some fireworks.”

“Can she go?” Bob asked as if he hadn’t heard that we're about to die. “As long as you don’t seem to care who knows you’re here, can she just leave? I can turn off the outside lights, and then you and I can wait alone for the police to come kill you, if that’s how you want to play it.”

Come kill him? That’s it. He’s trying to use the police to commit suicide. Wow! What would I ever do if Bob wasn’t here and I had to deal with all this on my own?

“No-o-o,” the thief said slowly, having given Bob’s suggestion some consideration. “It’s better if she stays. . .but you turn off them lights. That’s a good idea. Turn them lights off and put up the closed sign.”

He punched three numbers into his phone which I assumed were 911. “Hey! Like I already told ya -- the Food and Fuel on Snelling is being robbed. The bad-ass doing it has taken hostages.” He hung up, and then ground his teeth for several seconds.

I bit my lip, after which my tongue searched in vain for a drop of moisture in my parched mouth. If he asks me to speak again I don’t know if I can get out any words. I longed for one of the bottles of liquid in the glass case, even though its doors were heavily smudged with germ-filled grunge. This place should give complimentary hand sanitizers to every customer when they walk in the door. What’s taking the police so long?

I flinched when Bob flicked a switch behind the counter and the lights around us in the store went out. He quickly turned them back on and kept trying until the front area around the two pumps had been cast into total darkness. I stared out at my red VW Rabbit and wished to be in it -- far away from my imminent demise.

A large display of Halloween candy that probably wouldn’t be sold reminded me what day it was and . . . how I was dressed. Oh God! Even if I somehow don’t get blown to bits the police are going to figure out I’m not really a female and the newspapers are going to have a field day. I might even be the lead story on the 10 o’clock news. Shit! Emily will find out . . . and my parents . . . and my homophobic jerk of a boss.

“What’s your name?” Bob asked our captor, as calmly as if he was about to pop open a beer and watch a Twins’ game.

“What’s it to ya?” He bit the end off the wrapper around a Slim Jim and chomped off about two inches of “mechanically separated chicken.” His left eye pulsed at a rate that went miles beyond a facial tic.

I peered into his face wondering what awful fate had made him my most significant person. He’s on something. Maybe meth. My God, he doesn’t have a chin. His face just blends right into his neck.

Bob smiled.

Smiled?

“Look, buddy. Whatever it is that’s got you pissed off at the world . . . it isn’t going to get any worse if you tell me your first name, or whatever. I know you want to die and the last thing I’d ever want to do is get in the way of that happening, but there’s a right . . . and wrong way to go about things.”

“What do you know about death? All you’ve ever done is sell tampons and chocolate to bitches on the rag. Is that it sweetie? Did you come in here to get a stopper for your bloody love hole?”

I turned away and felt my face grow hot.

“So. . . ” Bob asked, “what do most people call you?”

He sneered. “Most people call me . . . looking for money I owes them.”

That really cracked him up.

He shoved the rest of the Slim Jim into his mouth.

I’ve never before seen anyone eat a Slim Jim in two bites. Ugh.

“Theesh namesh ish. . . .” He paused and swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple looked to be the size of a walnut.

Thank goodness I don’t have much of an Adam’s apple; my throat is actually quite nice.

“Dalton. Them that’s know me call me Dalton. It was my granddad’s middle name. Samual Dalton Thornbrook. My dad was such an asshole. He could’ve called me Samuel and people would know me by Sam — which is a good name, but shit — no — he had to call me Dalton. What are people going to call me? Dalt? It’s the shits.”

I nodded. Someone called him Dalton instead of Sam and now I’m so scared I want to puke because he’s a mess and probably . . . wants . . . to die.

The first responding cruiser finally screeched to a halt at the edge of the parking lot with its lights glaring on us through the window. It was joined by four more in quick fashion. Several small children dressed in Halloween costumes were shepherded out of harm’s way behind barriers the police had taken from the trunks of their cars.

Their arrival should make me feel better, but the pulsating lights and the anxious shouts as they take their positions just add to my terror.

“Bob!” Dalton screamed to be heard over the sirens. “You go poke your head out the door and tell them police to shut off their fucking lights and to cut the noise. And. . .Bob.” He screwed his mouth around “Bob” to cruelly mock anyone given a name that didn’t make its bearer psychotic. “If’n you jump out that door I’ll leave up on this little pineapple’s spoon and this here young cunt and me will go off into the heavens together -- appearing like Swiss cheese in front of St. Peter.”

My knees folded, but I caught my balance and managed to stay upright. Like he’s going anywhere near heaven.

“Don’t worry, Dalton,” Bob said, clearly undaunted. “I’ll get them to turn off their lights, and then come right back in.”

John Wayne had said that courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway — not that I admire the highly judgmental John Wayne all that much.

Bob strolled to the front door like he wasn’t making a decision between saving himself and watching me being pulverized. When he got there he peered out and somehow communicated enough to get them to turn off their lights. Then he calmly came back to us.

He’s acting like he’s in control, even with a nut holding his life in the palm of his hand.

The phone behind the counter rang. Despite all my efforts to control myself -- my bladder failed just enough to dampen my panties in front.

“Answer that, twat.”

I forced my feet to quit anchoring me to one spot, and then worked my way behind the counter. “Hello.” My voice had cracked saying even that.

“Who is this?” Whoever was calling sounded like they meant business.

My mind spun. “Jenny,” I said in a small voice that spoke to my current state.

“Jenny — is anyone in there hurt?” The man on the other end of the line seemed to be strong and anxious about our well-being.

“No,” I squeaked. “Not yet.”

“Tell him about this.”

I turned toward my captor’s insistent voice.

He held the grenade so close I could smell its metallic odor.

I closed my eyes, but its image was etched in my brain. “He’s got a really big grenade and he’s got it set so that if he lets go of it it’s going to go off. He said it’ll explode just a second after he lets go.” My voice had gone past alto to soprano and on into the area of someone on helium.

Dalton grabbed the phone from me. “Listen-up ass-wipe. I got nothing to live for -- so don’t you needle-dick morons do anything to piss me off.” He switched the phone to his other hand while keeping a grip on the grenade. “All I want is to go out in style. You fuckers can decide if that means with, or without, Jenny and Bob.” He started to hang up, but evidently thought better of it. “Hey dickhead,” he cackled into the phone, “your mom’s the best piece of ass I ever had.” Apparently super-pleased with himself, he then hung up.

“Oh fuck!” He sank to the floor in a sitting position. “You two need to get down over here where I can watch the both of you. I just told them it’s just you two and me in here. They know what Bob looks like and even a bunch of dumbshits can figure out which one of us is Jenny. When they get bored waiting, they might just decide to have one of their sharpshooters blow my head off and take the chance Jenny was lying or just plain ol’ wrong about the grenade. I’m not quite ready to be shot.”

The silence that followed was dotted by the scrapping sound of men running on pavement and cars coming to a halt much too fast. From where I stood I could see that several fire-trucks and at least one ambulance had joined the fray. I gulped when I realized why the ambulance was there.

“Are you okay?”

I turned and found Bob standing next to me.

He touched my arm . . . and I fell into him longing to be held and protected. His arms encircled me.

Tears gushed out my eyes. We eased down to the floor -- together.

“Ain’t that touching,” Dalton muttered. “Tell me something, Bob. If’n Jenny was a fat-ass and ugly as a wart, would you be so gosh-darn worried about her? What’s the deal Bob? Are you already planning how you’ll get in a little Halloween fucking later on tonight?”

I squirmed and put a respectable distance between Bob and me. Although . . . strangely . . . the idea of sex with Bob seemed somehow comforting and normal given the hopelessness of our situation. I couldn’t look Bob in the eye, and for the first time noted his expensive wingtips.

“What is it you want?” Bob asked. “This store doesn’t take in enough money so that it’s worth stealing and you brought the police down on yourself. Are you really trying to get the dicks to off you? What’s your game?”

Dalton swept a box of Tic-Tacs off the shelf behind him -- causing their plastic cases to break open and little white cylinders to roll all over the floor. “What’s my game?” he barked. “What’s my fucking game?”

My brain left my body and observed what was happening from somewhere several feet above me.

Dalton brandished his steel fireball. “Does this look like some sort of game to you, hotshot?” He shoved the grenade about an inch away from Bob’s nose.

For a second I thought Bob would move with the quickness of a cobra and take the grenade from Dalton -- rendering him nothing but a bad-breathed, nasty man who had made a horrible mistake.

But Bob moved only his mouth — gently turning up the corners to look almost cheerful. “Take it easy, Dalton.” He slowly raised his hand and gently pushed the grenade away from his face. “If we all know what you want, we can all pull on our oars in the same direction.”

“Like you give a shit about anyone,” Dalton said derisively. “One look at you and all I see is someone who’s totally in love with himself.”

Bob didn’t show any reaction to what Dalton had said.

“You know what you can do with your oars, Bob?” Dalton asked. “You can sitck’em where the sun don’t shine." He picked up a large can of pork and beans from the shelf next to him and threw it at the window. A sheet of glass exploded and crashed to the floor sending shards all over the place where they mixed with Tic-Tac debris. Luckily, the three of us were shielded and didn’t get hit.

The eerie silence after the glass hit the floor washed over my whimpering. My shoulders ached from the tension, and my chest throbbed in reaction to the ceaseless pounding of my heart.

“Bob,” Dalton said as quietly as if he was chatting with his neighbor over the backyard fence about the weather, “you’re a bossy son-of-a-bitch.”

Oh God. For some reason he hates Bob and that makes him even more likely to pull the pin on that thing and kill all of us.

“What makes you think I’m ‘bossy’?” Bob asked casually.

It felt as if a trap door opened in the pit of my stomach as I assessed how close I was to death.

Dalton barked out a cruel laugh. “Shit man. I’ve spent one whole crappy life under the thumbs of cocksuckers like you. I know bossy, out-of-touch bastards . . . and you’re one. I’ll prove it.”

He thought for a moment, and then his face squeezed into a sardonic grin. “If you’re truly a dude and not some arrogant, bossy prick, you’ll know what the ‘hood means when it talks about a grenade.”

Bob shook his head slowly. “I know, but I’m not sure Jenny needs to hear us talk about things like that.”

“Not sure? Or, are ya bluffin’.”

I don’t want Dalton to lose respect for Bob and then suddenly decide none of the three of us deserve to live. “Bob — please — tell Dalton the street definition of ‘grenade’.”

“Are you sure?” Bob asked

I nodded. What could be so bad?

“Okay. A grenade is what they call that one ugly girl who hangs with a group of babes.”

“That’s right,” Dalton said, clearly disappointed that he didn’t know more than Bob. He put his face right next to mine. “Ya see, those foxes won’t screw anyone until they’re sure there homely-ass friend is getting hers. Someone has to fuck her — get it? Someone has to jump on the grenade and save everyone else.”

I shuddered at his crassness, while he roared with delight.

The phone rang.

“Answer that, Jenny,” Dalton demanded. “Cunts are good for two things: answerin’ phones and peter-dunkin’.”

“Hello,” I said, trying desperately to hold back a sob.

“Jenny,” the same voice said that I had talked to before, “is everything okay in there.”

Okay? I’m in a very small building with a whack-job and a hand grenade.
“Uh huh, everything’s okay. . .considering.”

“Don’t worry, Jenny. One of the officers out here recognized the perp who’s terrorizing you. He’s a small-time crook, a chronic petty criminal; it’s highly unlikely that he would ever kill anyone. Our guess is he’s just looking for a little excitement and wants to get jailed for the upcoming winter.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s our best estimate. Jenny, is there anything he wants that we can start negotiating . . . .”

Dalton took the phone from me and spoke into it. “On second thought your mom was a lousy fuck.” He hung up again. “What did he say to you?”

Should I tell him? “He just wanted to know if there was anything he could get for us.”

“Like hell. You were on for too long for that to be all. What . . . did . . . he . . . say?”

With each word be pounded the floor next to him with his hand. Each time his palm came up you could see he had imbedded glass into it and it was bleeding, but he didn’t seem to feel it.

O - - - kay. “He said you have a record of petty crime.”

“Petty crime!” he shouted. “They’re not taking me serious. Is that it? Did he tell you that I’m not capable of murder?”

I thought for a second, and then nodded.

He flew into a rage. “I’ll show them.”

“Please. . . .” I begged.

“Don’t them assholes know I’m connected.”

“Connected?” Bob asked. “Do you know people in organized crime?”

Men are such little boys about the mob. It’s like they think the world is exactly like “The Godfather.”

“Sure,” Dalton bragged. “I know some guys who have killed two, maybe three people, but those cops ain’t giving me any credentials. Bob, is there a fucking knife behind that counter?”

Bob seemed confused by the question. “A knife? I. . .ah. . .I’m not sure.”

“Well look, ya moron.”

Bob carefully moved to the counter avoiding the glass so that he wasn’t cut.

After a short search Bob held up a boxcutter. “Will this do?”

“Damn straight; bring it here. I’ll show them.”

Bob started back toward us when Dalton stopped him. “Just slide that cutter over to me. You’re not the type of guy I want next to me with something sharp. Come over here doll-face.”

I picked my way through the glass to a spot next to him. He’s going to scar my face!

“Take this here and slice off the little finger of my left hand.”

I backed away from him. The way he said that you’d think he had asked me to pass the salt. I gazed at him peacefully until the full horror of what he had asked me to do hit me. “I — I — I - I can’t.” My stomach rolled.

“You can. Shit anyone can. You’ll have to work a bit to get through the bone, but you can do it.”

I shook my head and sniffed. “Go ahead and blow us up if that’s what you want.”

“No,” Bob said just barely above a whisper. “Dalton, are you sure cutting off your finger is what you want?”

“Yep --- it is. Sometimes you have to say ‘What the fuck.’ You know what I mean, Bob?”

Bob nodded. “You’re going to have to trust me. I’m going to break your finger so that all Jenny has to do is slice through a little muscle and skin.”

I closed my eyes and hugged myself. Are they both crazy?

“Okay,” Dalton said. “I’m holdin’ unto this here bomb thing with my right hand. If you try anything funny, I’ll drop it like a hot tater.”

I opened my eyes and watched in horror while Bob stepped on Dalton’s left hand and yanked straight back on his smallest finger. The sound that came from Dalton’s hand was like what you hear when you snap a Popsicle stick.

Dalton grunted, but otherwise didn’t even flinch. “Okay sugar tits. . .your turn. Be quick about it, or I’ll see how big a crater this thing can make.”

He slid the boxcutter to me, and I saw that the piece of steel extended from it was a razor blade.

Oddly, it seemed like most of the feeling in my hand had gone away. I managed to hold the cold piece of metal tightly but wasn’t at all sure I could actually. . . .

“Cut it, you worthless vag-gina. For once in your life do something worthwhile that doesn’t involve sticking your high heels in the air.”

I took hold of his finger, which had already swelled to twice its normal size and gently placed the blade against. My hand was wobbling a bit, but with grim determination I steadied it. I turned my head so as not to watch what I was doing and applied pressure. The amount of gristle involved surprised me because I had to saw at it. I just couldn’t force myself to look at what I was doing.

“There,” Dalton said after the finger came loose, “that hardly even hurt, even with your extempore-cutting.”

Amazingly, I smiled, but when I looked down his hand was gushing blood. I tried to stifle a shriek but couldn’t. My purse fell from under my arm where it had been pinned; its contents tumbled out in a heap on the floor. I should put everything back in it, but I know my fingers can’t possibly pick up the small stuff.

Bob somehow guided my tear-filled face into his shoulder. “Dalton, you should let me pack that hand for you with some gauze. There’s bound to be some first-aid stuff on the shelfs.”

“Fuck you, Bob, you know-it-all asshole. I’ve seen much more blood than you ever will.” He stood.

I turned around and watched him go behind the counter and find a small, brown, paper bag. He casually picked up the digit I had cut off with two of the remaining fingers on his damaged hand, stuck it in the bag he held in his teeth, and then handed it all to Bob. In the process the bag had become a bloody mess, as had the floor around us. Most of the left leg of his trousers was saturated with his blood.

“Bob, take this bag and toss it out where the police can get it.”

Bob did as he was told. On the way back he shook his head. “You might want me to take a look at that. I’m a third-year med student. I’ve sewed-up worse in the ER.” He stopped and started to put my things in my purse.

When he spotted my wallet, which was clearly a man’s billfold, he slowed. It had fallen open with my picture I.D. facing up at him. He looked at it and seemed to be checking me — out of the corner of his eye. A second or two passed before he continued to put everything back into my tote.

“I’m in my rotation at the University Med School,” Bob continued . . . talking to Dalton. “I work this job to help out my uncle, who owns this place. I only come in once a week. I’m working with the transgendered unit this semester, but I still can stop a wound from bleeding a person to death.”

When he said “transgendered” he didn’t look toward me, but he knows.

“The bleeding ain’t that bad,” Dalton argued, “maybe ceptin’ for a pussy. Are you a pussy, Bob?”

Bob laughed. “Okay . . . it probably is too red to be an arterial wound, anyways.”

Bob’s becoming a doctor, but I always thought blood from an artery was bright red. I must have slipped and cut the artery in his wrist when I. . . . I winced when I thought about what I’d done.

He handed me my purse and squeezed my hand.

He’s obviously figured out my sex and is letting me know he’s okay with it. I’m much less frightened than I was.

“I’m fine,” Dalton said, but he suddenly looked tired sliding down and sitting in a crumple with blood steadily draining out of his hand. “I’m so damned thirsty. God, all I wanted to do today was get arrested. And look at me. What a fuck up. Shit, I been booked a hundred times by the Jakes and never once had to cut off a finger to have it happen.”

Bob bobbed his head. “Start young?”

“You betcha. I was in ‘juve’ at twelve. Jails the only place where I fit in. Everywheres else I’m a fuck up.” He pulled off his jacket to expose a short-sleeved dress shirt.

“That’s so sad,” I said, feeling a lot less afraid of him and more empathetic. The skin at his elbows looks spotted.

“Once my rap sheet had grown to be longer than my arm I couldn’t get legit work anymore.” He wheezed as if it was becoming harder for him to get air — and started a shallow, hurried breathing pattern.

“It’s like everyone . . . rushes to criticize me . . . and there ain’t nothin’ . . . I can do about it . . . accept get in more trouble.”

He’s not that different from me. “I know what you mean. I feel like a square peg in a round hole in most social situations, but I would do anything to have more closeness in my life and can’t have one without going through the other, except it doesn’t ever seem to work out.”

“Fuck ya. Life’s a bitch.”

I ignored his rebuke. “I’m so worried about embarrassing myself that I find it easier to just stay home. But it’s so lonely.” The last I had barely whispered, but everyone heard.

Dalton’s eyes rolled up into his head and his chin hit his chest.

I watched with horror as his right hand relaxed and the grenade slid out. The spoon remained stuck between his thumb and forefinger.

It’s armed!

The grenade rolled noisily toward me over broken glass and white breath pills, but I could -- not -- move.

Suddenly Bob grabbed me and turned me so that I would be shielded from the carnage by his body.

An eternity passed while I waited for my world to end.

“It’s a dud,” Bob announced after what seemed like an hour had gone by. He stood, and then helped me to my feet.

We called to the police who quickly came in and took over the scene.

Four EMTs worked on Dalton simultaneously. Obviously he was still alive, but barely. After they checked his airways for obstructions they stopped the flow of blood. Then they started an IV, wrapped him in thermal blankets, and elevated his feet. Within three minutes they had him in an ambulance and on his way to an ER.

“We can’t contact the storeowner,” one of the uniformed officers said to Bob. “Do you have a number?”

Bob seemed puzzled. “I don’t know him,” he said after several seconds. “I just started last week. All I know is the guy who hired me, and his name is Carl. I don’t even know his last name.”

Huh? I looked at Bob, but he was staring at the officer and didn’t notice.

He had taken a roll of paper towels from the shelf and shared them with me to wipe Dalton’s blood from our arms, hands, and clothing.

“Look, my name is Bob Carlson,” he stated to the policeman, “and this is Jenny Brandt.

Brandt - that's not my. . .? Oh I get it. He’s going to try to cover for me.

“Jenny’s my girlfriend. We live at 640 Marshall and our phone number is 651-489-1743. Here’s the deal. I’m a med student and I’m pretty sure Jenny could use some attention. If you take her to the ER downtown it’ll be an hour before anyone can even take her temperature. If I take her over to my hospital in Minneapolis she’ll get first-rate attention. Okay. But, I need to get her there quickly.”

The police nodded knowingly. “You’re the doc.” He looked at his notepad. “I got your name and phone number and if there’s anything else we need I guess we can reach you here at the store.”

It’s working. Bob’s got it fixed so we can sneak away without the media making me into a freak show.

“Give me the keys to the car,” Bob said to me while shaking hands with the officer and thanking him. He took the wheel of my VW and slowly pulled away.

“Why didn’t you tell the police that your uncle owns the store?”

“Huh?” Bob looked at me. I thought I saw something strange flicker across his face. “He has a heart condition, and I wanted to tell him what happened in person. Are you really transgendered?”

I nodded, and then realized he was driving and watching the road. “I was born in the body of a man, but I’m pretty sure I’m a woman. At least I think I am.”

He grunted.

“Where are we going,” I asked after a few moments, when I noted that we weren’t driving toward Minneapolis.

“I thought we’d get a cup of coffee and try to put some of what’s happened behind us. You look okay; are you feeling fine?”

I felt like my arms and concluded they were still safely attached. “You know what? I’m okay. That was quite a night, but I’m okay. What do you suppose caused Dalton to do what he did?”

“He had it right. He’s a fuck-up,” Bob said, surprising me with his language, “an amateur fuck-up. The world seems to be filled with them.”

I looked around and realized we had pulled into a secluded area by White Bear Lake, on the eastern side of St. Paul.

I had fished there with my uncle before we both had figured out I didn’t have any talent for manly things. After I had crossed our fishing lines one too many times he’d playfully suggested I try knitting. What he didn’t know was my mom had already taught me now to knit . . . and I loved it.

Bob stopped the car and asked me to get out with him so we could take a moment to collect our thoughts.

Bob wants to get romantic, and I’m not opposed to the idea. I had felt good in his arms and would love to feel like that again. How can I not be attracted to someone as heroic as him?

We were standing next to each other looking up at what had become a starlit night. Instead of making a move on me, he started to chat. I couldn’t tell if he was actually talking to me or thinking out loud.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Three days ago I got up in Chi-town and it was just another day. . .you know what I mean?”

Chicago? I nodded amicably.

“I was told to come up here to see a joker named Bob . . . about what he was doing with our money. Some guys are like that. He had a sweet deal and thought he could make it even better by selling our stuff for a tad more and keeping the difference for himself. Guys get funny ideas. I was to come up here and lean on him.”

Lean? Why would a med student have to lean on anyone?

“I got here early and cased the store so nothing would go wrong, even though I wasn’t going to ice the guy. Hell, I wasn’t even carrying a Glock. I never do a hit without a Glock, it’s like my signature. I’m 17 and 0 with one of those. I’ve never even been picked up for questioning.”

Ohhhh! I slowly inched away from him.

“You see my line of work is simple. You do your job and get away from the scene as fast as you can. That’s rule number one. But, things just didn’t go right. That asshole Bob didn’t take well to my lecture about becoming a straight-up dude. He got smart with me and pulled this big, honking switchblade from in back of the counter. Everyone should know better than to defy me. If everyone would just behave I wouldn’t have to be so demanding. Before I knew it, I was defending myself from his hostile attack.”

I nodded sympathetically, as if he had just told me he had been shortchanged by the sandwich artist at Subway’s.

“Nobody but a circus clown tries to use a knife to off someone. It’s very inefficient. I grabbed his arm and used a counter-move to stick him with his own blade. When I went to leave a car pulled in outside the store. Dalton got out and started pumping gas into his ancient, rusted-out Lincoln. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose Dalton was looking things over before he would start his little fiasco so he could get arrested for the winter. I didn’t want things to escalate so I stuffed the body in the back in the freezer, locked the door to the freezer, and quickly wiped down the store before he came in.”

I closed my eyes as I put two and two together and saw that I was going to become his nineteenth victim.

“I figured out that you’re a man under that skirt when I saw your picture in your billfold. I also figured I could use that to get away from the police before they searched the store, found the body, and started taking DNA samples. I was pretty sure they’d find some of my DNA under Bob’s fingernails.” He showed me some small claw marks on his right hand.

I bit my lip. “But you saved me from the hand grenade.”

“Not really. When Dalton stuck that thing in my face I got a good look at it and knew it wasn’t real. I’m a bit of a hobbyist when it comes to weapons and have about four dozen grenades in my collection.”

Who collects grenades? “You. . .you’re becoming a doctor?”

“Nope. . .once a contractor, always a contractor.”

The man I knew only as Bob pulled a knife from his pocket and exposed its large blade. “I normally leave the weapon at the scene so as not to take the chance of getting nabbed with it in my possession. My Glocks are untraceable. But since it was my first time having done a knife job, I thought I’d keep it. Time to tie up one more loose end. I didn’t bring a Glock to this party, so I’ll have to use this sticker. It’ll be much quicker than that hack job you did on poor ol’ Dalton’s hand.”

This is too much. I consciously struck a helpless pose. During my high school years, Mom had forced me to take self-defense courses to ward off the bullies. I had learned enough marshal arts to protect myself from even the largest jerk in my class.

When Bob moved in on me I deflected his thrust and maneuvered the knife into his waist. At the same time I managed to trip him so that he fell awkwardly -- landing on the six-inch blade and driving it deep into his stomach. He looked startled, and then his eyes went blank.

“I guess that makes you a clown,” I said, looking down at his collapsed body.

Seconds later, after checking for a non-existent pulse, I found my purse and pulled out my cell phone. “I’ll tell the police I was going to a bar for Halloween and this is all a costume.” I peered in the side mirror at my make-up, which had suffered through my ordeal. For the next five minutes I repaired my face until I once again looked the way I always wanted to. . . .

But — they’re going to place me at the other murder site. I need to tell the whole truth.

“Exactly,” I said contentedly, feeling at peace for the first time in hours. “After what I’ve been through tonight I’m not going to let a little thing like explaining who I am to the world bother me. I’ll find a job where I can be Jenny; Mom and Emily will just have to deal with it.”

I dialed 911. “Hello. This is Jenny. I need to report a murder. I’m in the woods north of White Bear Lake at. . . .”

The End.



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