The Joint closed at 10:00p.m. and afterward there was cleaning. Kelley didn’t mind the cleaning as much as the other two managers. With the chairs upturned on the tables, the grills turned off, and the register change counted away, the place had an energetic peace about it, like an amusement park after hours. She took her time running her broom beneath the tables, sliding plastic straws, grains of salt, and shoe dirt out from their hiding places, lining the boom with the tile grout and working, square by square, from the front door to the back cooking area.
Kelley sighed, swept everything into her dustpan and then dropped the load in the trash can. She briefly debated whether to mop or take the trash to the dumpster first. She got as far as opening the janitor closet in the back, rolled out the bucket and mop before her hair changed her mind. It was hot. She twisted the deep brown mass back into a knot and decided even air beside a dumpster would be a nice break.
“Come on,” she said to the large gray can.
She tugged the handle and she tried not to hate her life.
The glowing red of the K of K-Mart behind her, the flash of headlights on the boulevard in front of her, and the flickering of The Joint’s own sign cut through the dark, while still casting shadows in all directions. The parking lot was empty except for her truck, parked by the rear entrance, “Employees Only,”—which she left open so she would have to pull her keys out again.
Before the truck, she’d owned a BMW. Her birthday/graduation gift when she’d turned eighteen. She had the car for exactly seven months, two weeks, and four days before she wrecked it. The BMW hadn’t gone alone. It had taken out a Honda Civic, Kelley’s best
friend Amanda, and—with Amanda—Kelley.
She blinked against the flickering light, looking pointedly away from her truck. Better to focus on the task at hand. She opened the fenced gate to the dumpster and tried really hard not to be pissed at the mound of garbage that had not originated in the Joint. She tried to tell herself to be reasonable about the armchair sticking out the top. Strange things happen when a Hamburger Joint becomes your only concern. Kelley, in the few months she had worked here, had become familiar with the pulse of this small corner of the world. It was hers. The change drawer must balance. The floors were clean. The grease trap flushed. And the dumpsters the Joint paid for were not dumping grounds for everyone. She stopped outside the dumpster fence and set the big gray trashcan outside the enclosure.
Kelley rolled up her short sleeves. “All right, you son of a bitch,” she said to the armchair. “You are coming out of there now.”
She ran at the dented blue bin, using the momentum to yank herself up and over the side. Years of track and field, abandoned right after the accident, didn’t let her down. She cleared the side and landed half-on and half-in-front of the chair, which was a defective mini-recliner. The back gave out and pushed her. She hit the side of the dumpster with her shoulder. Small shards of pain radiated up her neck, the only physical damage from the accident. Something sticky gummed at her shoulder. Kelley refused to look, preferring to focus all of her new frustration, as well as a good chunk of her old, on the unsuspecting chair.
She kicked it as she walked to stand behind the chair. Her feet sank into mounds of black garbage bags. Distinct coffee ground smells emanated from one; the java place down the parking lot had run out of room in their own dumpster again. “You’re next,” she told the offending bag as she bent down and grasped the base of the recliner. She was lucky, because the suddenness of her landing, and her scramble to get her balance, had somehow pushed the chair further back. The angle where it rested on the newest trash meant she could reasonably lift the thing and tilt it over the front edge. The bags were difficult to stand on, but Kelley got her feet under her after slipping a few times. Her sneakers found something soft, but solid, and she planted right there. Bending and lifting with her legs, ignoring the sting in her neck, she pushed. The recliner tipped and hit the asphalt.
Beneath her feet, the shadow she stood on—something didn’t look right. Bag after bag piled on top on one another. The plastic gave off a faint gleam, the barest hint of a reflection. But the material beneath her was dull. Kelley bounced her weight a little, but it didn’t crinkle or give like the other trash.
Kelley knelt. Reaching down and touching the thing shouldn’t have bothered her—after all, what was one more thing? But she hesitated anyway because it didn’t feel like a couch or a bag. It was still soft, had some give, but she couldn’t identify it. She put her weight back on her heels and knelt lower. Kelley swallowed and stuck her hand down. Flannel. A flannel shirt. The material bunch up under her fingers as she grasped it. The she felt something more substantial. Something under the material. A shoulder.
In a rush, Kelley scrambled back, landing on the coffee bag. She saw a tangle of hair. Maybe light brown? Gently, as if scared of making the girl uncomfortable, Kelley lifted the hair away and saw a face. In the bits of light drifting over the dumpster’s edge, her skin was bluish-pale, smooth. Her eyes might have been blue. Kelley couldn’t tell the color but she saw the traces of veins in the whites of the girl’s eyes. Her mouth, her chapped lips, didn’t move. A thick red line circled her thin neck, dried bits of blood. But all Kelley saw, all she could look at, was the trail of freckles across the girl’s nose.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she said. She cleared the side of the dumpster in one motion. When her butt hit the asphalt she didn’t even feel it.
“That was the strangest thing I think I’ve ever seen,” said a voice behind her, just past the enclosure’s gate.
Kelley startled. Two people stood just outside the fenced area, beside her own gray trashcan. Both were dressed in K-Mart business casual. Kelley knew the older, rounder man: Walt, the manager. She didn’t recognize the skinny teenager beside him, so she glanced at his nametag: Ben. Both carried garbage bags and Ben had his free hand on the handle of a much larger trash can. Walt seemed concerned behind his Buddy Holly glasses, but whether from witnessing Kelley dead-jump out of a dumpster or because he’d been busted dropping garbage outside of his own designated dumpster, Kelley neither knew nor cared.
“Police,” Kelley gasped.
Walt looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Now, I know we startled you, but do you really think we need to involve the police?”
She ignored him and hurried toward the Joint. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Walt and Ben exchanged mildly alarmed glances. Walt followed her, dropping his garbage bag. “Our dumpster’s full! Nick said we could use yours!”
Kelley, now inside the Joint’s kitchen paused a moment to look back at him. She picked up the cordless, the only phone in the place. Everyone else used their cells but Kelley had lost hers with the BMW and hadn’t replaced it. There had been no one she wanted to call anyway. Until this moment. She dialed 911 and let Walt stammer away in the background.
He stopped when Kelley told the dispatch she’d found a body in the dumpster. After that, he was quiet as she explained the situation. Yes, she was in a safe place. Yes, she was not alone. The dispatch assured her the police were on their way. After finishing with 911, she called Nick, the restaurant manager to break the news. He said he was on his way too. Then she hung up and looked at Walt. He looked back at her, sheepish now.
“Sorry, Kelley. But you could’ve said something.”
“How about: Go dump your stuff in your own trash?”
Walt shook his head. “I don’t think we should leave you alone. We’ll at least wait until the cops come. It’ll save them some time interviewing anyway. It’s just me and Ben. Everyone else went home a while ago.” He smiled, a half-hearted I-don’t-really-want-to-stay-but-what-am-I-gonna-do kind of smile.
She looked away from him and glanced around the kitchen area. Everything was in place for the next day. Nick would have to live with unmopped floors. She sighed, touched her back pocket to make sure her wallet was there, then touched her front pocket for her keys. Everything in place, she jangled the keys in front of Walt’s nose.
“Let’s go. We’ll wait for them out back. I’ll lock up.”
She set the alarm code and followed Walt out the back door. It banged closed behind them.
A little after one o’clock, she got home. The cops had interviewed Walt, Ben, and her for over an hour. Then she’d had to explain it all to Nick. Then she’d sat in her truck and watched as they pulled the girl out. The girl’s face was mercifully covered—first by the messy brown hair, and then been by the dark plastic of the coroner’s bag.
Kelley threw her keys down on the kitchen counter and absently petted Dougray Scott, a stray tabby who’d wormed his way into her apartment a couple months earlier. His bowl was empty so she filled it. The motions of normalcy didn’t help her. All she saw was the girl. Like Amanda after she was hauled out of the wreckage of Kelley’s car. Kelley had watched form the driver’s seat, pinned in place by the dashboard, as they pulled Amanda out during the rescue effort. If it could be called a rescue effort. After all, Amanda hadn’t made it. Only Kelley.
And Kelley used this life-gift to pet Dougray Scott some more. Then she used it to go to the bathroom. She showered. She brushed her teeth because the living should not accept cavities. Then she washed her face, tried to ignore the smatter of freckles on her cheekbones. Freckles like the dead girl. But Kelley was not dead. She scrubbed at her cheeks as if she could erase the reminder. Skin raw, she brushed her hair, pulled it into a neat, low ponytail. Not loose and tangled like the dead girl. But Amanda’s hair had been in a ponytail. Haunted by a stranger; haunted by her best friend. Another face.
Sleep didn’t come for her.
As dawn broke through the blinds, striping the walls with gray light, she flopped onto the couch and turned the t.v. on. It was 5:00a.m. The morning news was just starting. Kelley pulled a dark purple fleece blanket around her. The living room was colder than the bedroom. She also knew what the top story would be, and it made her shiver.
Images started flashing on the screen. Kelley felt like she was back in the parking lot with the cops. Yellow crime scene tape cordoned off the Joint’s parking lot, but it wasn’t enough of a barrier to stop the brilliant camera lights from illuminating the scene behind the reporter. Kelley saw herself, looking haggard in her rolled-up sleeves and wildly knotted hair.
She rubbed at her puffy eyes and tried to focus on what the reporter was saying.
“This scene is becoming all too familiar for the local police force. Called to a public dumpster—”
“It’s not public,” Kelley muttered.
“—to discover the victim of a murder. In this case, seventeen year old Olivia Kinney—”
Olivia, her name was Olivia.
“This is the third such crime in as many months for the city…”
Kelley clutched the blanket tighter around her shoulders. She would turn into a purple mummy if she wrapped it any tighter. But the reporter’s words made her cold. Three. Three other girls, who could have been anyone, who could have been Amanda—Kelley shook her head. No, Amanda was already dead. Kelley had killed her. Laughing, showing off her new car, she hadn’t checked her blind spot on the freeway. She’d cut into the other lane to get around a too-slow car. Another car had been in her blind spot and she hadn’t checked. She hadn’t checked. She hadn’t looked. Both cars spun out into the median. The BMW rolled three times and each time Amanda’s side had led, getting crushed further and further into the frame.
The phone rang. Nick. He would still be there.
Her eyes still puffy with unshed tears, she went over to the phone in the kitchen—the apartment was so small it took her all of three strides to get there.
“I know I didn’t get to the mopping,” she answered, trying to keep it light.
Nick’s chuckle told her he couldn’t care less. Still he said, “Well, it looks like an army marched through here. Grimy footprints all over the tiles.”
“It’s okay, whenever they catch this guy, they can add it to his tab.”
“You good to come in today?” The concern in his voice was touching. Kelley looked around her apartment. Dougray Scott scratched at the leg of the coffee table. Her counters were empty. No messages flashed on her answering machine. Work would be a welcome distraction—keeping her mind off of girls dead before their time.
“No. I’ll be there. Three o’clock.”
He cleared his throat and there was a beat of silence.
“Really, I’ll be okay,” she reassured him. The only problem she anticipated was an influx of the ‘curious’—the people who showed up whenever a tragedy occurred and tried to insert themselves into the situation, or sat back and spoke loudly about how everyone had everything wrong. She’d dealt with both types of people in the aftermath of the accident. Amanda’s death had drawn news attention. Follow ups about the responsibility, or lack thereof, of young drivers. The phone calls had caused her parents to change their phone number, and then ask that Kelley get her own place. They presented it to her as a way to prove herself but her father, Paul, a lawyer had successfully defended her in court, but couldn’t forgive her at home.
Kelley dropped out of college and found a job at the first place that would hire her.
She hung up before Nick could say good-bye. He would have a lot to do this morning. Reporters would bug him—it was sort of the equivalent of interviewing residents after a tornado: Get the scoop from the Burger Joint owner! Kelley shook her head and pulled down a box of Cheerios. She was out of milk. Kelley spooned the dry stuff into her mouth and the phone rang again.
Swallowing her cereal, she picked up the receiver again.
“Kelley? Are you okay?” Her mother didn’t wait for the ‘hello.’
“Yeah, Mom. Did you see the news?”
“Are you eating? You looked too skinny. You looked like you’d been working too hard.”
Kelley glanced down at her cereal. “Yes. I’m eating right now.” She took a spoonful and crunched down so her mom could hear. “I looked a little rough because I had to pull an armchair out of the Joint’s dumpster.”
“You were inside a dumpster?”
“I’m fine. I’ve showered. I’m eating. I can take care of myself.” She wondered how many lies she could tell her mother.
“Okay.” Kelley tried to ignore the twinge of doubt she heard in her mother’s voice. “Well, I’ll have my phone on me all day if you need me.”
“Love you, Mom.”
“Love you, sweetie.”
She leaned against the countertop. It felt cool against her forehead, smooth. She missed her best friend.
Amanda had been cute: with a pixie-pert nose and a huge dimple in her cheek. The Shirley Temple kind. She never tanned. Kelley remembered Amanda singing along to some American Idol pop star, her mouth open and belting an impossible note. Then, inevitably, she remembered Amanda’s hair glittering with non-shatter glass, infinite tiny bruises on her skin, a tiny trickle of blood from the pixie-pert nose. Amanda’s temple, the soft indentation larger, softer, concave, making her auburn hair drape lower across her face. Amanda didn’t move. Her eyes were closed, the fan of her eyelashes casting tiny shadows across the slope of her white cheeks.
The simplicity of the Joint’s menu made speed its primary draw. People could come in and get out within two minutes.
It was as busy as Kelley anticipated. Nick was behind the register when she arrived and he waved her over to handle the drive-thru without saying hello. Jeff and Anne ran the food—Jeff on burgers, Anne on fries. Speed was something Nick prided himself on. The crew, not being sociable in general, were likewise motivated to keep food moving and customers in-and-out.
“It’s been like this all day,” Anne said, throwing a greasy to-go bag into Kelley’s hand. “Nick said I’m closing with you.”
Kelley opened her mouth to protest but her headset beeped and she said “Welcome to the Joint. What can we make for you today?” instead.
The afternoon flew by. Nick and Jeff bailed around 5:00, leaving her the swing-shift paperwork. But the crowd had thinned out and there were enough burgers on the grill to feed an army. Anne manned both the front register and the drive-thru while Kelley switched out the drawers and did the paperwork.
The back office was more like a closet. Normally Kelley didn’t close the door because it was too stifling. Today was not a normal day, she decided. After the late lunch rush, she was tired. She dropped the cash drawer on the tiny counter that sat above the safe harder than she meant to. Coins rattled in their plastic cups. She glanced quickly to see if any pennies had jumped to the nickels or anything. Then Kelley turned to shut the door she didn’t normally shut, her shoulders slumping under the weight of the day. She watched the base of the door swing slowly across the tile floor and saw the footprints Nick had mentioned during their morning phone call. The mop bucket sat empty where she left it last night: outside the janitor closet. Nick hadn’t had time to finish up either. She promised herself she’d do a thorough job tonight, since she had Anne.
Kelley was secretly relieved to have Anne with her. Anne was five-foot-flat and did the work of a lumberjack. Tonight would go fast.
The counting was quick and painless. Everything balanced. Her thoughts cleared as she moved through the minutiae of the routine. For the first time since finding the girl—Olivia—in the dumpster, neither the girl’s face nor Amanda’s entered her thoughts.
Finished, she threw everything into the safe, slammed the door, and headed back into the world.
As she walked out she bumped into the mop again. She ignored it and went out to the cooking area. She re-did her ponytail and surveyed the floor. There really were a lot of footprints. She didn’t remember there being quite so many last night. The bulk of them appeared in the four-foot square space between the back office entrance and the janitor’s closet. A line of goosebumps appeared on her exposed arms, but Kelley couldn’t have said why.
Feeling a little ridiculous, she leaned down and took a closer look at the footprints.
The grime was dry and caked, the way her work shoes—everyone wore sneakers—sometimes dried on the entryway to her apartment. It didn’t take long to gunk up the floor permanently. These prints would probably require Anne and Kelley both scrubbing on their hands and knees tonight. She closed her eyes against it and headed back to the cash register.
And she came face to face with the detective who interviewed her last night—Miller, or Mitchell, or Mills.
“How’re you doing, Miss Lowry?”
Apparently he had no problem with names.
“Fine, detective,” she answered, hoping her lack of memory didn’t show.
“Millard.” He smiled. “Hal Millard. This is my partner, Detective Jeremy Crowe.” He gestured behind him, where another police officer stood by the front entrance, looking out the front windows into the glare of the setting sun.
She judged Millard’s age somewhere in his late forties to early fifties. He had a tight crew cut, like a Marine. His lack of facial hair emphasized his softening jaw. He ignored his partner, who wandered from window to window—painted with 99cent specials and sunbeams, which Nick thought brightened the place up.
“I need to talk to you about what you saw last night.”
Kelley’s confusion must have shown on her face.
“I don’t want to worry you, but we’ve found an abandoned car in the K-Mart parking lot. According to the manager—”
“Walt?” she asked.
“Yes, Walter Maizeland. According to him, there was a car parked in his lot last night that has not moved.”
She gestured for the detective to follow her to the end of the counter. His serious expression worried her and she didn’t want Anne to become concerned.
“Do you think you found out who did it?” she asked. Her stomach dropped out from under her. She swallowed to gain some composure.
Millard didn’t answer her directly. Instead, he handed her a blown-up copy of a driver’s license. The picture showed a guy with light brown hair and blue eyes. His teeth had the perfection only years of orthodontia could produce. The name: Robert Garret. Height 5’9”. Weight 175.
“We just showed this to your co-worker,” he said, indicating Anne who was talking into her headset. “Did you see him last night? Was he a customer?”
She looked close. She glanced at her current customers, as if they would jog her memory—four teenagers at one table and one regular, Ralph, who always ordered extra mayo and sat for at least three hours. She tried to picture the guy in the photo standing in line or sitting a table. Finally she shook her head. He wasn’t familiar.
“Maybe this morning?” Millard asked.
She looked up. “You think he would have come this morning?”
Millard nodded. “For his car.”
Something nagged at her, “But how did he leave last night without his car?”
“Probably the bus line. The bus stop is just outside here. You sure you haven’t seen him?”
Kelley knew he was lying. He didn’t think this Garret guy had taken a bus. The bus only ran through 9:00p.m. She’d found the body at 10:00p.m. Why dump a body and leave your car? Wouldn’t that be how you got away?
Unless—she started connecting pieces—you were Robert Garret looking for the perfect dumping area; a dumpster already cluttered with armchairs appears ideal; you just dump the body (Olivia, her name is Olivia), cover it with the junk already in the area and leave. But in the middle of carrying out your plan, out of the Joint comes someone else: Kelley. You have to stay hidden. Maybe you manage to get between the back of the dumpster and the rear of the small concrete enclosure—but that’s a space you can’t leave without being seen by Kelley or Walt or Ben, who show up pretty quickly. So you have to stay hidden, until you can make your getaway.
Meaning he was very close last night.
Millard’s expression was blank, but underneath his poker-faced exterior, she sensed he wasn’t as calm as he presented.
“No, I really haven’t seen him.” And Kelley wished she could tell the cop anything else. She wished she’d seen Garret walking into the K-Mart this afternoon. She wished Garret had ordered a burger from the value menu an hour ago. She wished she knew where he was so she could stop herself from immediately seeing him everywhere.
He nodded. Folded the photo away. Tucked it into his notebook. “We’re going to have a couple units stationed around the parking lots. He’s probably long gone, even on foot. But if you notice anything odd, and I mean anything, call this number or signal the cops outside, okay? You’re not closing by yourself?”
With a small wave of her hand, Kelley indicated Anne. Millard took a deep breath. “We’ll be around, okay?”
She got Millard and his partner a cup of stale coffee. They lifted their Styrofoam cups in a brief salute then exited. She watched their shadows disappear and reappear as they passed under the parking lot lights. The sun was down now. They headed to the coffee shop. At least they’d get a decent cup to keep them awake. She wanted them awake.
A few hours later, Anne turned off the first grill. Last night all Kelley wanted was a slow, easy close. Tonight, bearing the weight of the cops’ news and her own lack of sleep, all she wanted was a get-home-two-minutes-after-lock-up close.
“I’m going to wipe down the empties,” she told Anne, who nodded but looked at her closely.
“Are you okay, Kelley? They show you that guy’s picture too?”
Kelley shrugged. Anne already knew the answer to the second question. She was just fishing.
“Yeah, they showed me.” She started water into one of the sinks and waited for it warm up. Anne hovered by her elbow, leaning against the edge of the sink, shaking her head like she couldn’t believe it. Kelley looked at her, her hand still under the running water.
Anne’s eyes were full-on Kelley. She had huge brown eyes, too big for her face. Her eyebrows arched upward into her fringy brown bangs, questioning Kelley. In earnest. With worry. All of which made Anne’s eyes seem even bigger and made her seem younger in general. She had to be about sixteen. Her chin was too pointy, but her cheeks were still slightly rounded—in a couple years, the cheekbones would push through the tiny layer of baby fat that remained. Anne would be all angles and lines and huge eyes.
Kelley scalded her testing finger. She jerked her hand out from under the tap.
“You okay?” Anne asked again, with different concern and worry in her voice.
Kelley nodded and switched the cold tap on too. “Yeah, I’m fine. The cops were fine. We’re all fine. It’s okay.” Kelley stopped herself. She would babble if she didn’t stop herself. She took a deep breath. “I’m just really tired from last night. Let’s just get this place cleaned up and get outta here quick.”
Anne tore at the now-cool grill with a vengeance and Kelley hit all the empty tables—which encouraged Ralph, their last customer, to leave. She turned the ‘CLOSED’ sign ten minutes before 10:00. Nick would get over it. She told Anne to turn off the second grill. She swept, counted down the night drawers.
She locked the front door and paused to look out into the parking lot. She jumped when Anne flicked the lights off from the back door, leaving only the working lights on in the main dining area, where she stood. That way no one would think they were open.
“I’m taking the trash!” Anne called.
“’Kay,” Kelley called back. They were almost done.
Kelley leaned her forehead against the cool glass. Her reflection was as clear as a mirror in the darkness of the window. She looked pale. Her eyes like holes, as black as the window and the night beyond the glass.
She heard the back door open, like last night. She’d left the back door open. Kelley blinked at the glass, the holes of her eyes disappearing and reappearing. She’d left the back door open. When she took out the trash. In the mirror-like window she glanced behind her, at the door, which hung open, offering a full view of the dumpster. It was a straight shot from the dumpster to the back door.
And the guy, the guy who’d left his car after dumping the girl—Olivia, her name was Olivia—had needed someplace to hide, someplace quick, someplace he wouldn’t be seen. She shook her head. She had come back in, Walt had been with her, no one had been there. Kelley looked into the dark glass, looked into her own eyes.
The footprints hadn’t been there last night.
The cops had been outside all night, processing the scene. Nick had come in early. The restaurant had been slammed all day.
Kelley looked at herself, at the pale, ghostly face in the window. Her pale skin, the color of paper, hung alone in the dark. She caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye, a shadow. Kelley saw herself, her face, hanging in space, and she saw the person moving behind the counter, quickly, not wanting to be seen, and she knew that the darkness outside had come in.
Her hand was still on the lock. Without thinking, she clicked it open and pushed the door open, ready to run. The welcome bell tinked happily.
The guy behind the counter froze and so did Kelley. She looked in the window-mirror. It was the man from the license picture, Garret. The normality of his appearance—he could have blended into any situation except this one—was broken by his hair, which stuck out in all directions. After hiding for a full day in the janitor’s closet he had the glassy appearance of someone who’d spent too much time in front of the television.
Across the parking lot the police were supposedly watching and waiting. She could run out, around the store, grab Anne, and go get them. She was fast. She could do it.
Then she heard the rumble of an empty trash can as it rolled along the asphalt.
Garret grabbed Anne and had something around her neck—a belt—before Kelley even processed Anne had re-entered the building. In the greenish work lights Kelley could see the belt around Anne’s throat was thin, leather, and dark. Garret’s knuckles were white against it. Anne couldn’t get her fingers between the belt and her throat, she scratched at it so hard she pulled strips of skin off her own neck. Her face was a grayish-red.
“In,” Garret said.
Kelley hesitated. She could run. She could get out. The glass was cool against her hand where she held the door open. The air outside was warm. Kelley looked at the keys in the front door.
When Amanda died, Kelley had been pressed against the driver’s side window. The keys dangled from the ignition. She had reached over and turned the engine off. She wasn’t sure why. Then she hung there, upside down, with blood rushing to her head, half-unconscious as the paramedics pulled her friend from the car. Amanda was so quiet. She was gone. And all Kelley thought was I killed her. Because she hadn’t looked in her blind spot. She hadn’t signaled. She hadn’t thought. She just sat there.
Her own face confronted her in the window. The hollow eyes, the pale skin. A ghost. She heard Anne struggling behind her. Kelley saw Anne’s too-huge eyes, her heart shaped face, in her own reflection. The empty black holes staring at her filled with Anne’s brown eyes. One more face to keep her awake at night.
“Let her go.”
Garret was stumbling, dragging Anne behind him. He wasn’t getting far, moving strangely. He probably had a cramp, or his foot was asleep, or something equally uncomfortable after being cornered in the closet. Anne drooped against him. She still moved, slapping weakly at the belt.
Kelley didn’t consciously think about pressing her advantage, but she understood she had to move now.
She ran down the main aisle and jumped for the counter. This move had been performed a hundred times with Nick and Jeff—such was the entertainment on slow nights. After clearing the side of dumpster last night, and after having done this a few times, she should have had no problem. But it was dark. She started a hurdle, but adjusted so she would land on the counter because she realized she wouldn’t clear the whole thing. Leading with her right leg, she let her hip take the brunt of her landing, coming in sideways. But she forgot about the register and slammed straight into it. Kelley lost her balance and she and the register tumbled off the counter. A jolt went from her hip to her neck. The crash was practically deafening after the strained silence.
Kelley felt his pause more than saw it. He and Anne were right beside her. She jumped from the floor and flung herself into both of them. In the real world, with everything being equal, the awkward tackle should not have worked. But he had at least one numb foot and Anne’s weight, slight though it was, had him off-balance. They all fell. Kelley kicked at the tumble of feet around her and groped for Anne’s neck. The belt was dug in, slippery with blood. She yanked at the loop, loosening it. There was a reassuring suck of air, but Anne didn’t wake up.
Then something narrow and hard slammed into her head. Bright flashes burst out of the dark. Before she could recover, the hard, narrow thing pressed into her windpipe. A broom handle. He jerked up on it, forcing her to her feet and cutting off her air.
“You’re an idiot,” he said in her ear. His voice sounded loud, booming, but he wasn’t yelling. He was exposed, but anger seemed to get the better of any thought of escape. “But what’s another dumb bitch?”
Kelley managed to get her hands on the broom handle, right next to his. He was sweaty. His chest pressed into her back. He smelled like the janitor’s closet, stale and vaguely of ammonia. She pushed against the handle. He pushed her forward, toward the counter. She knew what he was thinking. He would have better leverage if he sandwiched her between him and the counter. She would have no wiggle room.
She lifted her legs, letting the momentum of his push carry her feet to the shelf below the counter. The sudden shift in her weight caused him to stumble into her, forcing her forward. She bunched her knees to take the impact, felt his weight fall into her, and then she jumped back against him.
Her spring caught him in the chest and sent him backwards. He didn’t let go of the broom handle, so when he fell back, Kelley went with him. Straight into the grills. It took a good hour for the grills to cool completely. They landed. His back took the brunt of the hit. And she felt the bang all the way through her body. His grip gave out, just for a second, but it was enough. She ducked under the handle, twisting to face him as she did. Before he could regain his balance, she pulled his shoulder and turned him face-first into the grill. It sizzled. He screamed when his cheek hit the hot surface. He pushed back against her, hard. She held him down with everything she had. He placed his hands on the grill to push away—they sizzled too—and screamed again. But he managed to push her back.
Kelley tripped over something. Anne. She tripped over Anne. Then she hit the countertop and a rain of plastic fell with her to the floor. The phone. She grabbed for it at the same time Garret lurched over to her. The parking lot lights shone in through the open back door and she saw his burnt face. His left eye was blistered shut. Between the burns and dark inside and the dim light flickering outside, he was disoriented. Kelley dialed.
Garret tripped over Anne too, falling into Kelley. The impact knocked the cordless receiver out of her hand. It skittered across the floor and stopped by Anne’s inert body. Their struggle, oddly silent except for grunting and his screams when he hit the grill, was interrupted when the operator’s voice crackled out of the phone, “What is your emergency?”
He punched Kelley across the temple before she could yell out. She’d forgotten how to use her voice anyway. Now the world, dazzled, spun away from her. Like being back in the BMW, turning over again, and again. He hit her again. She felt a tooth shift in her upper jaw. In the car she had felt nothing, no pain while her best friend died. He hit her, back handed this time, across her eye. Her head, blazing with yellow and orange dots behind her eyes, jerked to the side and she saw Anne. Her huge eyes still closed. But her bow-shaped mouth was open, letting air in through her bruised throat.
He clamped his hands around Kelley’s neck. For a moment Kelley was more surprised than scared. Her body realized before her mind that no air was coming. The yellow and orange spots—like looking at the back of your closed eyelids on a summer day—grew larger, and her eyes were open. Anne’s face faded away, though Kelley knew she was still looking at her. Kelley’s eyes teared and her throat hurt. It wasn’t pressure. It was pain. Her stomach—she felt like she was going to vomit. Her hands were around his, trying to pull at his thumbs. She scratched herself. Through the glimmery flashes she caught a glimpse of his face, the blisters around his eyes. She reached out her hand and poked her finger into the largest blister, the one that closed over his eye, and she mashed it, felt it pop, and then pulled on the loose skin.
Air flooded back in and the horrible pain in her throat lessened. He’d hurt something though. She heard the wheezing as she tried to breathe.
“A unit is in the vicinity, they are on their way. Stay calm.”
The bastard on top of her looked at her, and she looked back at him. And she was calm. He held his battered eye, bleeding and leaking blister water. He would come back at her in a second, she saw it. But she could take care of herself.
They moved at the same time.
The base of the phone was still beside her. She reached out, twisted her upper body as far as it would go, and wrapped her fingers around the phone base. His fingers were around her neck again. She swung the base against the injured side of his face, letting her body untwist itself, giving more force to the blow. It was a little off, but still got his temple. A ringing sound came from the base.
He yelled in pain. She brought the base back and then down again, with less force but more precision, right into his bleeding, watery eye. Garret scrambled backward, crab style. She followed him, standing, getting the leverage, lifting the base again. And she brought it down on the same injured temple, slammed through his raised fingers. And she lifted it up and brought it down again. No hand raised to deflect her second blow. Garret lay on the floor, still.
She saw shadows move behind her.
She whirled and lifted the base over her head. But it was Millard, gun raised, flashlight pointed at her.
“Miss Lowry,” he said, keeping his voice calm and low. “It’s okay.” He lowered his weapon and dropped the beam away from her face.
Kelley blinked, adjusting her eyes from the glare-and-lower of the flashlight. In the redirected stream of light, she saw Millard’s partner, Crowe, kneeling next to Anne. The girl tried to work her mouth, but Garret had hurt her far worse than Kelley. The voice wouldn’t work. Anne mover her jaw, pointy chin and all, at Crowe’s direction. Anne blinked. She followed Crowe’s finger with her eyes: open, deep, and brown—red with popped blood vessels. Strands of brown hair stuck to her sweaty cheek. Her face was gray, bruised. Kelley could see every vein in her eyes. Anne glanced up at her, questioning, worried, but moving. Kelley thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jenny Maloney is a Colorado writer living the good life: husband, 2.5 kids, a dog, a cat, and a pen. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, The Medulla Review, Skive, and others. She’s a regular performer and contributor to Unbound, Colorado Springs’ only live magazine, and an ensemble member at the Springs Ensemble Theatre.