Monday, May 21, 2018

Doubt Thou the Stars are Fire, by S.A. Cosby

“What you want to drink? A rum and Coke? Vodka and cranberry? Them mumblemouth motherfuckers down at the club be drinking that pink Ciroc but I know that ain’t your thing. Is it?” Amir asked. I shook my head.

“You got some Jack Daniels I’ll have some of that.” I said.

“Hey Shanda, get Chess a Jack and Coke.” He yelled into the kitchen.

“Just the Jack.” I said. Amir nodded.

“Hey just the Jack. Tell you what, just bring the whole fucking bottle.” He yelled. Shanda didn’t respond but I was sure she heard him. A few seconds later she came sauntering out of the kitchen and handed me a heavy cut-crystal glass filled to the brim with whiskey , two lonely ice cubes dropped in there for decoration. Then she sat a mostly full fifth of Jack Daniels and a red Solo cup on the glass coffee table between me and Amir. She didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at her. When she walked away I stared at my drink like it was my ninth-grade algebra homework. Amir poured himself a shot.

“Five years, Chess. Man, we lucked out on that shit didn’t we? “Amir said. He took his cup to the head.

“You really lucked out. You only got a year.” I said. Amir nodded slowly. He was almost able to pull off that look of solemnity he was going for.

“Hey man, you didn’t get the needle. Manslaughter ain’t bad. And now you out. It’s been what three weeks? It’s like you never left,” he said. I killed half my drink with one gulp. I had to keep my mouth occupied. I wonder if he noticed how tight I was gripping the glass? The whiskey burned like the devil was pissing down my throat.

“And now you the man.” I wheezed after the liquor hit my belly. Amir looked around his living room. He stared at the leather living room suite and the deep pile cafĂ© latte carpet. His eyes peered through the French doors that led to the patio. I watched him take in the BMW and the Mercedes sitting in his driveway. He tried to hide it, but I saw him glance toward the kitchen. Towards Shanda.

“I’m doing all right,” he said finally. I took a smaller sip of my drink.

“So Boonie said you wanted to talk to me. “

Amir sat forward, and I leaned back. Force of habit. If someone leans into you on the inside they either want to shank you or fuck you. Either way they looking to put something hard inside you.

“Hey man, I just wanted us to clear the air about the way things went down, “he said. I sipped my drink again.

“Nothing to clear up. Your lawyer was better than mine that’s all.” I lied. Amir tossed his head back. His long dreads spilled across the back of the couch.

“Why did that motherfucker fight back man? We’d done that Craigslist escort thing a hundred times and nobody ever even blinked. Then that big son of a bitch wants to try and crack our skulls open.”

“At the trial they said he was on meth and coke, “ I said.

“That nigga broke my jaw in three places. He was on some Incredible Hulk type shit.” Amir said. I didn’t respond. I had played that night over in my head enough when I was inside. It had been on a continuous loop the entire time I’d been in Mecklenburg State Prison. Me and Amir bursting out of the hotel room closet like thug life personified. The big naked white guy punching Shanda in the mouth. Amir getting tossed against the wall like a bag of trash. Me hitting the big guy on the back of the head with the lamp. The withering silence that fell over the room as we realized the guy was dead.

End Scene.

“It was some crazy shit,” I said.

“Look man I appreciate you not snitching.” Amir said. I took another big gulp of my drink. The empty glass mocked me.

“Better bite your tongue off next time he says something like that. I’m all out of ideas.” I imagined it saying. I rinsed the Jack around in my mouth. I didn’t snitch because in the week between beating that guy to death in the Relax Inn and the cops nabbing us we had come up with a pretty good plan. We’d just tell the cops we were partying with the dude and a fight broke out and things got out of hand. If we all stuck to the story we would have probably all gotten off with depraved indifference.

But we didn’t all stick to the story did we?

I finally swallowed the whiskey. My mouth was numb. The flesh on the insides of my cheeks felt loose and gelatinous. Gelatinous. It’s strange the words you pick up when you have time to read a dictionary from cover to cover.

“We were boys.” I said. I tried to keep my tone nice and even.

The few people who came to see me filled me in on Amir’s rise to the middle of the Richmond drug game. After he did his year he’d gotten up with Shanda. Her lawyer had kept her out of jail. She was right by his side as transitioned from being a stick-up kid to selling Special K to the club kids. Parlayed that into dealing designer drugs to hipster douchebags at the three local colleges. He’d built his shit solid enough to make some paper but fluid enough to escape the attention of Johnny Law.

“Chess you know me and Shanda that didn’t start till I got out. We was never doing nothing behind you back. It just happened.” he said.

“Hey, Amir, do me a favor. Don’t tell me that shit okay? Nothing just happens. You didn’t just look up one day and notice her fat ass all right? Don’t play me like that man. Y’all together now and that’s all it is. I get that. But don’t tell me it just happened.” I said.

Shanda came out the kitchen and went through the French doors. She had put on a leather jacket to go out into the cold February air. I watched her put a cigarette to her lips. The flame from the lighter gave her butter-pecan complexion an incandescent glow. She’d cut her hair short. When I’d gone in it had hung down to her ass. Cascading down her back like a waterfall made of shadows. That was the Shanda I knew. That was the Shanda I loved. That was the Shanda who wrote me twice a month for five years. The Shanda who dangled a carrot in front of me that kept me going in Mecklenburg.

“Maybe when you get out.”

She ended all her letters like that. All one hundred and twenty of them.

“I got a job for you.” Amir said. The jocularity in his voice had dried up like ditchwater in the middle of July.

“What kind of job?”

Amir stood up and went into his den. I heard him rifling through a drawer then shut it hard.

When he came back out he had one of those big brown envelopes in his hand. The kind you mail documents in.

“Got some fellas outta DC coming into town tonight. They bringing me a package. Some of that good shit them Beckys over at VCU like. I can’t go get it tonight, so I was gonna get you to pick it up for me.” He said. Amir tossed the envelope on the coffee table. I stared at the envelope. I glanced out the patio window. Shanda was finishing her smoke.

The last letter I had received from her had been written in code. Nonsensical words and phrases that only held meaning for us. You know, the way lovers speak. She’d told me Amir beat on her. That he treated her like property. That she’d taken out a five hundred-thousand-dollar insurance policy on him. That maybe when I got out we could be together if he was out of the picture.

I stood up. I took the envelope off the table.

“I guess I’m working for you now huh?” I said. Amir frowned.

“Man don’t say it like that. I owe you, Chess. You do this for me and I’ll take care of you. It’s the least I can do. You just pick up the package and bring it back here tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?” A sheepish smile crawled across Amir’s face.

“Yeah man. We going out tonight.” He said.

It dawned on me what today was. I didn’t keep track of holidays inside. Not Christmas. Not Thanksgiving. Least of all Valentine’s Day.

Images flooded my mind that made me sick to my stomach. Amir and Shanda at some semi-fancy restaurant ordering what he thought was a good bottle of wine. Amir and Shanda riding the elevator to the top floor of the Marriott to fuck in the same two positions they did at home every three weeks. Amir laying on top of her sweating and grunting like a dying harbor seal.

That’s when I knew I was going to do it.

I held out my right hand while holding the envelope in my left.Amir grabbed it and pumped it up and down twice. His grip was almost comically delicate. He’d gotten soft.

I dropped the envelope and sucker-punched him. I planted my feet and threw my hips into it. I felt a shock thrum its way up my arm as my fist connected with his cheek bone. Amir dropped to one knee. He was blinking hard and a thin stream of blood and drool poured out his mouth. I grabbed him by his dreads and dragged him to his feet.

“Five years motherfucker! How many times you fuck her in five years? A hundred? A thousand? After you sold me out.” I screamed. I drove his head into the glass coffee table. It cracked but didn’t break. A series of fractures raced toward its edge. I slammed his head into the table again. This time it did shatter. Glass shards rained down on his lush pile carpet. I let go of him and he crumpled to the floor.

I grabbed the Jack Daniels bottle from the wreckage of the coffee table. I gripped it by the neck and raised it above my head.

“We was boys!” I howled. I slammed the bottle into the back of his skull. It made a dull thwack!

“We was ride or die!” I said. Thwack!

“She was my girl!” I said. Thwack Thwack Thwack! When I finally dropped the bottle, it was covered in blood and Amir didn’t have a face anymore. Shanda came in from the patio and closed the door behind her.

“You were supposed to wait until tonight. Come back and break in. that’s why I talked him into getting you to do the pick-up. So you could get the lay of the house.” She said. Her honey-coated voice melted over me. Even now with blood splattered across my face it made me shiver from the inside out.

“I…couldn’t… I couldn’t let him touch you one more night. It’s okay. We can make this work. Go get a blanket. We can take him out through the patio. Drop him off near the train tracks.” I said. Shanda didn’t speak. She headed down the hallway. I wiped my face. My hand came away red.

I heard Shanda come back into the living room. She wasn’t carrying a blanket. She had a small nickel-plated .32. For a brief moment I told myself I didn’t understand.

“Shanda…what are you doing?” I said even though I knew exactly what the fuck she was doing.

“You’re right. We can still make it work.” She said. The first shot got me in the shoulder. The hole it made in the sleeve of my t-shirt was the size of an aspirin. I stared at it, waiting for the blood to flow. I turned back to Shanda. We locked eyes.

I started for her and she shot me again. My legs disappeared from under me. I fell forward on to the remains of the coffee table.

It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt except that millisecond between seeing the gun in Shanda’s hand and her pulling the trigger. I heard her talking on her cell to a 911 operator. She was explaining how her ex had broken in and beaten her husband to death and she the poor frightened waif that she was had been forced to shoot her ex. As the darkness began to overtake me I wondered how she would explain the letters in my back pocket. All 120 of them. I’d carried them with me everywhere since I’d gotten out. Some of them even had little hearts drawn in the margins.

Ain’t love grand?


  1. Beautiful twist on a classic noir tale. Great work!

    1. Thanks! It's an honor to receive a compliment from someone I respect so much

  2. Love the smooth buildup, the twist at the end and the voice that portended doom right from the start.

  3. Great story - simmering tension right from the beginning, and a nasty about face. Well done!