Monday, May 31, 2021

To Die For, fiction by Larry Thacker

Part I

        “Jerald always did like it real hot, but there ain’t no food hot enough to stop his damn heart, I don’t care if they were the ‘hottest wings in West Virginia,’ which I doubt they are.” 
        Mabel was talking like she was trying to be quiet, but loud enough to be heard. It was one of those things. Emmy and Mabel were standing in the parking lot of Freddy the Wing Man’s Hottest Wings in West Virginia out by the hand-painted sign that said so. 
        They’d just finished the all-day drive from down in southeast Kentucky.
        Mabel sniffed. 
        “You smell that?” 
        Emmy sniffed. 
        “No,” Mabel said, quieter now. “I smell a rat.” 
        They strolled into Freddy’s as if they owned the place, just like they’d talked about doing on the way up. Confidence, that’s what Emmy said they needed to show when they got to wherever they were headed. The Google map hadn’t said they were headed that far back into BFE, but hours and hours later, here they were, smack dab in the middle of it.  
        “Pick a table, any table, and sit, just like our names were engraved on it,” Emmy laughed. But she was quite serious about the job at hand. 
        “That’s what we’ll do,” Mabel agreed. 
        “And we’ll order without looking at the menu,” Emmy continued, pretty happy with her plan. 
        Mabel wasn’t so sure about that level of confidence. 
        “What if they don’t have what we order? We’d look stupid. We’ll have to say we thought we were somewhere else.” 
        Yes. Emmy agreed. 
        “On-line menu?” 
        “You’re so smart,” Emmy told her sister.
        Sure enough, Freddy’s had a website, albeit one a fifth-grader probably designed, but a website nonetheless. Typical fare. Pulled pork barbeque. Brisket sandwich. Homemade french-fries. Soup beans. Corn bread. Hushpuppies. Cheeseburgers. “Hottest wings in West Virginia.” Regular and boneless. Etc.
        “And a large order of a bunch of damn liars, I betcha,” Emmy sneered. 
        “Yep. Shoot. I’m hungry now,” Mabel said, staring at the menu as her stomach growled. 
        “Hey now, I hear that,” Emmy shot back, “we can’t enjoy a meal here, remember? They killed Jerald. Probably.” 
        Mabel huffed. “Well, maybe he did have a massive heart attack from this place’s hot-ass food. He was on cholesterol medicine, wasn’t he?” 
        “That and who knows what else.” 
        They strolled in like they ate there every day. They picked a booth right in the middle of things so they could watch the whole place coming and going. The entrance. The restrooms. The bar. The kitchen window and swinging door. The register. Where the waitresses hung out. All three of them, by the back door they had cracked open so they could smoke. The joint stank in that good way, all built-up with that incense of cheeseburgers, ancient grease, burnt in cigarette fumes, vinegar, and barbeque smoke from the drum cooker out back. A slick film covered the laminated menus like morning dew. Sweat trailed the inside corners of the windowpanes. It was a tacky dump, but comfortable enough. 

        “Which one you think he hit on first,?” Mabel asked Emmy, glancing at the three waitresses by the door, a blonde, a redhead, and a brunette. 
        “All of them, eventually. He wouldn’t discriminate.” 
        The redhead tossed half a smoke out the door with a bothered smirk and walked their way. 
        “Hey, y’all.”
        This was Carrie. 
        “My name’s Carrie, I’ll take care of y’all, know what you wanna drink?”
        She gave her opening in one long statement without taking a breath. 
        “Only got Pepsi products.” 
        “What I meant, honey.” 
        “You do got water, without lemon?” 
        They were off to a good start. 
        Another girl, Sandy, the blonde, took care of them after that. She was a little older. Seemed a little less easily shaken up. 
        “Y’all ladies know what cha want?”
        They didn’t look at the menus. Hadn’t looked at them. 
        “Brisket sandwich,” Emmy said. “Fries. Half the salt.” 
        “Pulled pork. No bun. Onion rings,” Mabel said. “Side salad. Honey mustard.” 
        Sandy didn’t write anything down. She walked over to the bar and yelled back their order. “One slab, drop some fancy fries, pull the hog without the bread, drop some crybabies, toss the lettuce!” 

        The food was out quickly. Bella, the brunette, was up. Sandy was nowhere to be found. 
        “Enjoy, y’all. Just yell if you need anything.” 

        They took the place in as they ate. 
        “You think he was at the bar when it happened?” Emmy wondered.
        “Probably. That way he could talk with the girls as they worked.” 
        “Bet he liked the brunette.” 

        Bella came walking back. 
        “Good Lord, Emmy whispered, “It’s like that same woman but a little older every time.” 
        “Bet they’re sisters,” Mabel agreed. 

        “How ‘bout some dessert? Got any room left?”  
        She slid the ticket on the table between the girls. 
        “Nothin else?” 
        “Actually,” Mabel blurted out, shooting Emmy the look, “we’d like to know just exactly how our brother, Jerald, died.” 
        Bella was stunned. 
        “What now?”
        “Our brother. Jerald. Died in this very restaurant a month ago. I guess from eating your’all’s hottest wings in By God West Virginia.”
        Sweet sarcasm dripped from Mabel’s voice like pulled pork after-breath.  

        Bella blinked. 
        “Sandy, honey, you and Carrie wanna come over for a second?”  
        Emmy figured Mabel had screwed up. Too soon, she thought. They were in trouble, whatever that might look like. The other two bebopped over. 
        “These two ladies say they’re that fella’s sisters, the one that died doing Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen. Remember, girls?” 
        “Oh?” they both said, more curious than territorial. 
        “We’re real sorry about your brother,” Carrie offered. The others nodded. 
        Mabel just wouldn’t quit.
        “Yeah, thanks. So, what the hell is a Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen?” 
        “Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen?” Carrie asked. 
        “The hottest fifteen wings in West Virginia?” asked Sandy.
        “AKA, fifteen minutes in hot chicken hell?” asked Bella. 
        “I reckon all that, yeah,” replied Mabel, beginning to lose patience. 
        “Oh, it’s famous. That’s the Wall of Wing Wonders over yonder,” Carrie offered, pointing toward the corner near the dead jukebox. “Jerald was a-trying to get on that, plus get a free t-shirt, when, uh, the thing happened. Freddy said we should give it to him anyway, so Jerald ended up being number twenty-eighth, post-humanly.” 
        “You mean, posthumously?” Mabel corrected. 
        “What’s that?’ 
        Sandy was apologetic. “We called Rex at the paper about a news photo, about Jerald going for the record and all, about the time he was half through the pile, but by the time he got here all he managed was a shot of the ambulance in the parking lot. So that’s all we’ve got for him right now, photo wise.”  
        Bella asked sheepishly, “Y’all wouldn’t happen to have a photo of him, would you? For the wall?”
        Emmy was beginning to wonder if these girls were kin. 
        “You sisters or something,” Mabel asked.
        “I was wondering the same thing,” Emmy said. 
        “Naw, but we act like it when we ain’t arguing over men or something else stupid,”            Sandy laughed. “That’s Freddy, back there a-cookin. He’s the owner, but I guess you knew that figuring his name’s on the building and all.”
        “And the hottest wings belong to him, too, right?” Emmy said. 
        “He’s proud. Ain’t cha, Freddy Jo?” Carrie yelled back.
        The man in the back, slapping around pans and making things sizzle, glanced out to them and nodded. 
        “He ain’t much for words. He likes to express himself through his culinary adventures,” Bella offered. 
Emmy asked, “Any you all kin to him?”
One responded, “Probably. Never checked.” 

Emmy asked the obvious question. 
“So, where’d it happen? Where’d old Jerald bite the dust? Or the hot wing, rather.”
All three of the women turned at once, but in three different directions before Sandy spoke up and pointed to the bar area. “Second to last on the right.”  
Bella said, “He was a character. Telling jokes and stories. Flirting.” 
“Yep, that’s our Jer,” Emmy said. 
Mabel added, “Jerald ran the roads. Nobody knows why he was this far up into West Virginia anyway. He retired from the mines early, so he didn’t have anywhere to be. He’d go out driving and not come back for a week. He called us from Vegas once, saying he’d onewon five-thousand dollars and wasn’t coming back ‘til he was broke.” 
Carrie laughed and said, “Yep, sounds like him,” but shut up real fast when she got side-eye from Bella who then offered, “We didn’t know him that well, of course, but he seemed like the adventurous sort, yes.”  

The side door, where the women smoked, creaked open. A girl, in her twenties, peeked in. The women noticed. 
“Hold on, honey,” Bella told her with a wave of the hand.  
“Freddy, you got lunch ready for Rachel?”
Freddy clanged around another minute and called out, “Order up!” sliding several to go boxes up on the pickup window. 
“Who’s that,” Mabel asked, nodding at the waiting girl. 
“Oh, that’s just a girl from down the street picking up an order. She’s shy,” Carrie said.  

But this girl was more worried looking than shy, Emmy thought. She raised a brow to her sister, a hint that they ought to pay attention to the girl. At this point, everything was important. Bella was handing over the boxes of food to the girl. She didn’t pay. They whispered at each other at the door. The girl shot Emmy and Mabel a quick glance, as if Bella had mentioned the customers. 

Mabel was already laying down thirty dollars. “That’s for the tip, too, y’all. We’re heading out. C’mon Em.” 
        Mabel was already standing up. “Appreciate y’all.” 
        “Why’d you rush us out like that?” Emmy wanted to know.  
        Mabel had Emmy’s hand, leading her across the parking lot. “Get in,” her sister ordered. 
        Mabel had the car started, in drive, and was pulling out before Emmy could get buckled. “Hush for a minute,” Mabel ordered, straining to see across the lot and past the restaurant up an alley. She pulled out quickly but quietly, out of the lot and into the alley. 
There she was, the girl from the side doorway, carrying three stacked Styrofoam to-go boxes. Her jet black hair was back in a ponytail showing off naked shoulders from a tight red tube top showing skin from her ribs to her low slung blue jean cut off shorts.
        “What’s that look like to you, sister,” Mabel asked, keeping back so the girl didn’t notice them. 
        Emmy laughed. “A hooker getting takeout,” she joked. 
        “Exactly,” Mabel said. 
        Emmy quit her laughing. “You serious?” 

        The girl kept on then made a right down a dirt lane. She apparently didn’t live “down the road” as much as she did out back.
        Mabel parked and they watched. 
        The set of three tiny trailers she was headed for were practically in the backyard of the restaurant. The trailers were singlewides from back in the seventies. Hardly any room in between. Lots of dirt patches, not much grass. A girl stuck her head out the door of the first one and yelled. The girl reached up and handed her some lunch. Another girl popped her head out from another trailer. Same thing. 
        Emmy offered, “Maybe she’s just the cute little delivery girl?”
        The girl then made her way to the last trailer and let herself in. 
        “Guess not,” Mabel said.   

        Emmy, always willing to offer the benefit of the doubt and never rushing to judgement too quickly, said, “You don’t think that’s what it might be, do you?”
        Mabel, the oldest of the two, usually the most cynical, and usually the first in line to call things like she saw them, said, “Yep. Them there’s some tramp trailers. I bet they glow bright red at night.” 
        “Really?” Emmy asked, definitely the most gullible of the two. 
        “I betcha. And they’re probably on springs.” 

        They drove back around a little before sundown. Parked where they had a good view and hunkered down. 
        Eventually the door of the middle trailer creaked open. A man stumbled down the two concrete steps to the gravel and dirt. A girl in a black silk housecoat waved him off. He meandered over and went to knocking on the third trailer’s aluminum door. He yelled for someone. No one answered. He sat in a sun lounger at the head of the trailer, looking like he’d drift off. 
        Another man eventually exited the third trailer. The girl they’d followed earlier came out with him and walked him down. They both looked at the man, now asleep in the lounger.
        They shook him by the shoulder. He stirred and got up. They all talked for a minute before the two men walked down the dirt lane and away from the little trailer park. They were both a little drunk. 
        “They either just got done visiting with their girlfriends or they’ve been spending a little payday cash,” Mabel whispered. 
        Emmy replied, “It is the first of the month, ain’t it?” 

        They positioned themselves up the alley the next day and waited on the girl, hoping to catch her if she came around again for lunch. Maybe that was the routine, they hoped. That she picked up lunch everyday for the others. 
        Sure enough, like clockwork, the girl exited her trailer and strolled out to the alley and toward them. She was a pretty girl. Yep, mid-twenties? Long black hair that could use washing. Strong jaw. Dark eyes. Curves you could see from down any road. 
        They looked away as she got closer. She was on her phone. 
        “Time for lunch, I guess,” Emmy whispered.   
        “Hey, they need their strength, right? They burn the calories, I bet.” 

        Mabel and Emmy had helped themselves to two sun loungers in front of the girl’s place by the time she returned. She’d noticed them as she turned the corner carrying lunch, so after stopping off at the first trailer the girl wasn’t alone. Another girl was with her now and they were headed their way. 
        Mabel and Emmy stood. 
        “Do we need to call Freddy back here?” the delivery girl asked with some attitude. 
        Mabel shot Emmy a look. That might have answered a lot of questions right there.            Mabel spoke up. “I don’t reckon Freddy’s got anything to do with why we’re back here.”
        “Y’all wives or something?” the new girl from the first trailer asked, also with attitude. 
        “Naw, Melissa,” the first girl said, “these are that fella that died’s sisters, come to investigate.” She said investigate sarcastically. 
        So people were talking? 
        “I didn’t realize we were causing a problem?” Emmy offered. 
        “Don’t reckon I see anything that could cause a problem,” the second girl said, with more attitude. 
        Mabel and Emmy were out of their depth.  
        “Listen,” Mabel said, trying another angle, “we’re only here to figure out what happened with our brother.”
        The second girl said, “Oh, he’s the one that had the heart attack up in the restaurant a while back?” 
        “That’s what we were told, yes,” Mabel answered. “We’re his sisters. I’m Mabel, this is Emily.” 
        “Rachel,” the delivery girl said.
        “Melissa,” the second girl said.
        “You remember anything other than him having a heart attack,” Mabel asked. 
        “Other than that, we ain’t got nothing to tell you about it,” Melissa claimed. “We weren’t even around when it happened, ain’t that right, Rach?
        Melissa liked to do most of the talking. 
        “We went up when the ambulance came.” 
        “Surprised you could get off from work,” Mabel let slip. 
        They all went quiet. 
        “I don’t reckon you know us good enough to talk about how we make a living,” Melissa snapped. 
        “Y’all sure were making a living last night, huh?” Emmy laughed. 
        “Y’all ain’t got escorts where you’re from?” Melissa sniped.
        Mabel chimed in, “Where you escorting to, your living room to your bedroom?” 
        “…all the way to the bank…up high,” Melissa yelled offering a high-five to Rachel, trying to do the funny. 

        “That didn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Emmy said, once they were in the car. 
        “We know more than we did. Freddy knows about what they’re doing back here. He’s probably their pimp. BBQ by day, pimp daddy by night.”
        Mabel was pulling out when something banged on a backdoor window. It startled them and they yelled out. “What the hell!”
        It was Rachel clamoring to get in the car. “Go,” Rachel whispered loudly, ducking out of sight. “I hope she didn’t see me take off after y’all.” 
        After putting a few quick miles between them and the restaurant, they pulled over.            Mabel and Emmy turned to Rachel. “Talk,” Mabel ordered. 

        “I knew Jerald. I knew your brother,” Rachel said, lowly. 
        “What do you mean, knew him? Like the one time he was here eating wings?” Mabel asked. 
        “Before…you know what happened?” Emmy followed up. 
        “Yes…long before that.” Rachel said, blushing. 
        It struck the girls that this woman knew, knew their brother. 
        “You mean biblically, knew?” Mabel asked, feeling a little squeamish. 
        “I don’t know if he was religious or not, but what I’m trying to say is, that Jerald…was a regular.” 
        “Oh, shit.”
        “Oh, shit.” 
        So, this was one of old Jerald’s stopping off spots, huh? Apparently, everyone here, the waitresses, Freddy, the “girls out back,” even some of the regulars at the restaurant, knew him by name. Some even called him “Jer” for short. 

        “Let me ask you this. Straight up, sweetheart. Did a bunch of hot wings really kill Jerald?” Mabel asked. “We don’t think a few wings could have done that. That’s why we came up all this way.” 
        Rachel paused. 
        “No. I guess he really did have a heart attack. But he could eat Freddy’s wings all day long. It wasn’t the wings that killed him.” 
        Emmy asked, “Well, what did, honey?”
        Rachel was tearing up. “I did.”
        “I killed your brother. I’m so sorry!” 
        “What do you mean, you killed Jerald?” 
        “Well, he could usually take it!” Rachel sobbed. 
        “Oh, shit.” 
        “You fucked Jerald to death?” 
        “He blacked out right at the end.”
        “Hope you got yours at least.”
        The girl blushed a deeper red. “Yeah. He was a very giving lover.” 
        “TMI,” Emmy yelled, “I shouldn’t have brought it up!” 
        On the day in question, Jerald had actually downed a “Fiery Fifteen” for about the tenth time during all his visits, so there wasn’t much fanfare. He’d outdone everyone on the Wall of Wing Wonders so many times, he’d been crowned “King Wing.” 
        “More like Cock of the Walk when he was around,” Rachel said. “He liked everyone to know he was a confident guy. He hardly let me leave his side. He’d pay for my company as much as anything else.” 
        “I could see Jerald doing all that,” Mabel offered. 
        “I loved seeing him pull in. He kept saying he’d take me with him, get me outta all this, but he’d up and be gone and I’d only end up hoping for next time maybe.” 
        “You poor thing,” Emmy said, patting her on the shoulder.  
        “That Jerald,” Mabel said, shaking her head.   

        Rachel and Jerald had retired “out back” for some celebrating. An hour later and Jerald was gone. 
        “I didn’t know what to do. I just ran and told Freddy. He sent the girls back, the waitresses. Freddy closed up. Me and the girls carried him back to the restaurant and we tried to figure out what to say.” 
Mabel was a little miffed at this. “Why not the truth?”
“And get us all in trouble. It’s hard enough staying in business as it is.”
        “And it was all believable, I guess? We fell for it.”
        “After I’d took a big bite of a hot wing and kissed him on the lips for the last time it was. He reeked of sauce then and I thought I was gonna be sick. I hate spicy food.”
        “How dedicated,” Mabel mumbled. 
        “But hell, the coroner’s a regular, too, so it wasn’t no big deal to fudge the paperwork to say it happened in the restaurant.” 
“Poor Jer,” Emmy said. 
“Yeah. Poor Jer. I kinda loved him,” Rachel muttered. 
        Mabel and Emmy exchanged a look. They were both on the same page with this one. 
        “Go get your stuff packed up. We’ll be back in an hour,” Mabel said. “One hour. No more, no less.” 
        Rachel didn’t argue. She knew she was done with this place, one way or the other, by talking to them about Jerald.    

Part II 

        An hour was too long. They knew that as soon as they drove down the road a piece, parked and had waited fifteen minutes. 
        “This is too much time, ain’t it?” Emmy said. “Yep, I think so,” Mabel agreed, “anyone can pack to get the hell outta dodge in twenty minutes or less.” “Why didn’t we think of that?” Emmy asked, “Let’s go back, she might be done.” 
        They went back and cruised by the restaurant and down the alley and on through to the dead end. No sign of Rachel. They came back out slowly. No sign. Up to the intersection along the restaurant and the main road. Nothing. They took a slow drive across the restaurant lot. 

        Emmy saw her first. Rachel was alone at a booth. The door sign was flipped to closed. Odd since it was lunchtime. No one was in the restaurant but the three waitresses. They were leaning against the bar. Freddy was standing amongst them talking. 
        “Oh, shit,” Emmy said. 
        “Oh, shit’s right,” Mabel said. 

        They parked. Everyone inside noticed them. Rachel didn’t look up. 
        “What do we do?” Mabel wondered. 
        “Think she’s caught?” Emmy asked. 
        After a minute, Mabel turned off the car, unlatched her seatbelt, and said, “Let’s get some lunch.” 

        Freddy watched them like a hawk, all the way from their car to the front door. 
        Bella met them, unlatched the locked, and barely opened the door. 
        Mabel said, “Y’all forgot to turn your sign! Thought we’d grab lunch again! You are open, right?” 
        Bella looked back to Freddy. He was still watching them. 
        “Y’all sure you wanna come in right now? Really sure?” 
        They nodded. Bella let them in. 
        No one said a word. No one made a move. 
        Mabel said, “Hey, y’all, we’re back.” 
        Freddy tongued his cheek. “Yep.” 
        They got closer to Rachel. They acted like they didn’t know her. She didn’t look up. 
        Something in the air caught in Emmy’s throat and made her choke a little, almost tearing up. 
        “Whew! That’s strong, whatever that is,” she said, as they took a seat at the same table they’d been at the day before. 
        “Must be Rachel’s lunch there,” Freddy mumbled. It was the most they’d heard him say. 
        They looked around, trying to guess who Rachel was, then noticed the only “customer” and the huge platter of darkly sauced wings sitting on the table in front of the girl. 
        “Lord, that’s not Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen, is it?” Emmy wondered out loud.
        Freddy and the waitresses laughed. “The very ones,” Freddy said, walking over and clicking the front doors locked. Freddy was a big, round man. Six-foot. Bald. His chef’s apron hardly covered him. The worn-out lettering said: Kiss the Cook (or else). He wore cut-off jean shorts and high-top sneakers. A stained black t-shirt. His beard was patchy. Hardly the look of a pimp. 
        He strutted back to them and Rachel. 
        “Seems our little Rachel here,” he continued, “decided to retire from a-whorin, ain’t that right, Rachel?” 
        Rachel didn’t look up. 
        “Ain’t that right!” he screamed. 
        Everyone jumped. Mabel and Emmy. The waitressed. Rachel gripped the table. Who knows how long she’d been there. 
        So Freddy was the pimp.
        “The problem is, they don’t clock out ‘til I say so,” he said. “Sexin’s just about 24 hours a day, as far as I’m concerned.”
        Tears streamed down Rachel’s cheeks. Probably from the fumes in her face as much as her being scared to death.  
        “Yep, ladies, she was apparently about to fly the coop for good. Thanks goodness Melissa back there caught her packin.” 
        Mabel spoke up. “What’s this got to do with us, Freddy.? We’re just here for some lunch. We don’t need to know your business.” 
        “You’re right. You don’t. But I need some witnesses, you see,” Freddy said. “I’m willing for little miss better than us to catch her ride with whoever was helping her out, on one very strict condition.” 
        “Well, we’re curious now,” Mabel said, “aren’t we Em?” 
        “Wings. She’s got to earn her ticket out of here by eating that there plate of wings.” 
        All the waitresses giggled their asses off at that. 
        “And if I do say so myself, those are some spicy masterpieces of my culinary prowess.”
        He looked at Rachel. 
        “Unfortunately, poor little Rachel there’s not a big fan of hot food. I got a feeling she’ll be staying with us.” 
        That was it. Rachel’d had enough. She pounded both fists on the table, rattling the silverware and coffee creamer, and shot Freddy the Pimp the God awfullest hateful look. 
        Freddy said, “Looks like somebody’s ready for lunch.” 

        Rachel grabbed a wing and shoved the whole thing in her mouth, gripped the end a little harder and pulled, de-sleeving the meat from the bone in one slick movement. She never lost eye contact with Freddy, even when her eyes completely filled with tears. She chewed three times and swallowed. She closed her eyes. She might have been praying. 
She picked up number two. Same thing. 
        Then came the hiccups. The runny nose. The labored breathing. This was only number three. 
        “Oh, my God,” Rachel coughed. 
        “No milk. No ice cream,” Freddy ordered. “Maybe some water. Tap.” 
        “Dick,” Mabel muttered.  
        Numbers four, five, and six. She could hardly breathe, let along speak, but she managed a gravely, painful version of her voice. “My lips are numb. My nose. It’s in my eyes.” She’s chew and swallow, chew and swallow. 
        “Don’t take all day, honey,” Freddy poked, “your ride might show up!” 
        Numbers seven and eight. Gone. Sweat was in her eyes. 
        “I don’t think she’ll do it,” Freddy jested. “I think she’s getting sick.” 
        Rachel cleaned wing number nine, licked her middle finger and waved it at him. His eyes got big as soup bowls. 
        “I think she’s got her second wind, Freddy Jo,” Bella said loud enough for everyone to hear. Rachel managed a grimaced smile. 
        Ten and eleven almost made her puke. Twelve helped keep them down. Thirteen brought the hiccups back.    
        Carrie started rooting her on. Freddy didn’t like that. 
        “Might remember which side your Texas toast’s buttered on, baby,” he snarled. 
        Bella joined in, keeping an eye on Freddy. “C’mon, honey. No use getting this far and giving in. Two more.” 
        Rachel belched. 
        “Whoa! I’m having flashbacks to ole Jerald!” 
        Mabel turned to the pimp. “What’d you say?” 
        “Well, I guess we’re getting to know each other a lot better by now, huh? I was just thinking how your brother used to slam down those wings like they weren’t nuthin. I guess the girls weren’t really up front with y’all yesterday, were ya, girls?” He looked to Carrie, Sandy, and Bella. “Course they were only doing what I told them to. Yeah, Jer used to swing around all the time, didn’t he, Rachel, baby?” 
        Rachel was hardly paying attention, pounding her fists on the booth table and gasping.  
        “He was the best of the best when then came to hot stuff…” 
        Number fourteen went down, but barely. Her neck and ears were flushed red, like the heat was trying to escape from everywhere. 
        “But it wasn’t that kind of hot stuff that done him in, was it?” 
        He was staring a hole through Mabel and Emmy. Rachel gave out a little growl. 
        Rachel was giving that last hot wing the evil eye as well. Holding it in front of her face, poised, but not ready. Determined. Faint. 
        Freddy strutted over, bent down right in her face. 
        “Last one. Mmmmm. Smells like you got maced. Looks like it, too. Ya know, why don’t you quit. That’n there might be the one that makes you bad sick. We’ve had plenty got the ER after just a few.”
        She bit it, taking her time. Freddy looked around, at all the girls. He huffed and laughed, went dead in the face. She stripped it clean with a lippy smack. 
        “Do what you want. But did you actually think you got to break our deal just because you ate a few shittin wings?” 
        He was proud of coming off so cleverly. He stared and smirked. Straightened up tall and turned to walk off.  

        Freddy kept a plastic spray bottle of oil and pure Capsaicin extract to mist his wings with a final Scoville punch. Anything not to have to give away too many t-shirts. Around the ninth wing, when everyone but Freddy had recognized Rachel’s determinedness, how sitting there chewing on those hell bites was the most any of them had ever stood up to that POS Freddy, was when Sandy had snuck into back and grabbed that bottle when no one was looking. She knew how strong its contents were. Even Freddy had told them, “If anyone gives you problems, hit them with a few shots of this. They’ll wish it was only police mace. I carry this in the woods in case I run up on a bear.”  

        As he turned, as Rachel swallowed down her last bite of the challenge, Sandy hit him in the face with his Capsaicin spray. Who knows how many Scoville units were in a single trigger pull of that bottle. Why bother counting after ten-million. 
        No one had ever seen anyone’s eyes swell shut in real time before. His did. As fast as he could holler and stumble around and grab out for wherever the assault was coming, his eyes were swollen shut like an MMA fighter had taken him out back for a few minutes of well deserved attention. 
        Mabel and Emmy stepped to Rachel. Rachel was dizzy, but got up and stood with them. The waitresses stepped back from Freddy’s flailing. He screamed curses and sounds they’d never heard in their lives. If he started calming down, Sandy hit him with another squirt. He’d yell and go on like he was dying. Bella grabbed the bottle. There was plenty in it. She hit him once. Again. Right in the nose and mouth. He was bent over. A foot-long string of saliva dripped off his lips. Now Carrie had the bottle. She got him in both ears. His skin was on fire. 
        The air in the restaurant was getting a little hard to breathe by now. The girls fought the urge to rub their eyes but resisted.  
        Emmy started to grab for it, but Mabel stopped her. 
        “We came to find out what happened to Jerald, honey. We found out. That’s enough for us. You go ahead, baby.” 
        It was Rachel’s turn. She gripped the bottle with both hands, like a pistol. Looked at Freddy, clawing at his skin and eyes. Spitting. She got him in the face, then the neck. He was more or less blind by now. Unless he accidentally got hold of one of them, he was helpless. 
        He’d taken off his apron in the back. Rachel adjusted the spray to jet and aimed for his crotch. It splattered. Soaked through his jean shorts. 
        It took a moment, but it saturated in enough to hit skin. He grabbed his crotch and scratched. Squeezed. Grimaced. Screamed, “I’m gonna kill every one of you.” Then he pissed his shorts. 
        Rachel’s aim was getting better. She got him dead in the mouth like a bullseye, back of the throat. He choked harder than ever. Cussed harder than ever. Even prayed, maybe for the first time in a long time. He was faint, on the verge of blacking out. His screams had turned to whimpers.   

        The girls quietly made their way to the front door. Bella had a key. She locked up, made sure the sign was turned to closed. 
        They left him there. Blind. Agonized. On the floor and alone in his restaurant. 

        Carrie, Sandy, and Bella were glad to be done with Freddy. Done with West Virginia’s hottest wings. Done with watching him pimp, feeling only a degree away from doing the same for him if things didn’t work out waitressing. 
        “Can’t say I’ll miss this place,” she said to the waitresses as she gave them hugs. 
        “Can’t say we’ll blame you,” Bella laughed. “You got room for three more?” 

        Rachel left with Mabel and Emmy. 
        As she got in the back seat she said, “Sorry I’m late.” 

Larry D. Thacker is a Kentuckian writer, artist, and educator hailing from Johnson City, Tennessee. His stories can be found in past issues of Still: The JournalPikeville Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Feed, Vandalia JournalGrotesque Quarterly, and Story and Grit. His books of fiction include the short story collection, Working it Off in Labor County, from West Virginia University Press, and the forthcoming short story collections, Every Day, Monsters, from Unsolicited Press, co-written with C.M. Chapman, and Labor Days, Labor Nights: More Stories, from Bottom Dog Press.

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