Thursday, February 14, 2019

News You Can Use

Hi all--

Just a couple quick notes. Issue 2 2018 contributors, we're making final headway on the print version. The learning curve proved to be a bit steep, and there's going to be a slight drop-off in print quality. Issue 1 was slam-bang amazing and I am still learning the ins and outs of Kindle Direct Publishing and the Creative Suite software I used to design the thing. Have patience, please. This will be followed closely by Issue 3, as it turns out, one issue right after the other in an attempt to catch up.

 In other news, I have hired an editorial intern, my son Rider, who I homeschool, and who will make initial screenings of manuscripts and help me prioritize. Rest assured, when I say I'm working with him, we're talking laptops  open at the same time and conversation happening as he learns the ins and outs of Submittable and editorial work in general in preparation for his future. I am still reading and rejecting or accepting every story that comes in. As submissions increase and he gets more experienced, I expect he'll move into more of an associate editor role, during which time I'll probably take on another associate editor with related experience so we have a committee of folks working on reading submissions so that I can concentrate on editing, which is why I do this, after all.

We have stories and reviews scheduled weekly through mid-June, and the story queue is empty except for two stories we just now got, so feel free to send more for us to read. I feel perpetually behind, but that's a healthy development as the journal gets more submissions and more notoriety. We still aim to respond in fewer than 30 days, so feel free to query us if your story has not been read in that time period. It likely got lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Some statistics for you. I estimate we accept about in 1 in 7 stories, so your chances are good with us. We publish a lot of material. We respond personally, maybe 30% of the time. I wish we could do more of that, but sometimes it's not possible and sometimes it feels as if we're pouring salt into the rejection wound, so we err on the side of saying nothing at all.

We are always looking for reviewers and books, so if you have something you want to pitch to me, please do. I'd like to stay small-press-focused, but the fact is there are only so many small presses and many of them seem unwilling to part with mobi copies--our preferred review format--of their newish books so we end up reviewing the people who've appeared in the journal (as we should) and not much else. So hit me up, especially if you have a reconsideration of a genre favorite or genre neglectee deserving of more attention (aren't we all?). And in the meantime, we'll try to stay on top of the indie scene, keep our ear to the ground and bring you more reviews than ever.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Man Whom Prosperity Harmed, fiction by S. Craig Renfroe Jr.

It was a miracle. God sent His angels down to align the flipped Honda just so that the fence post pierced it in the driver’s side door but punctured through right at my lap, making a kind of safety restraint for the next two flips instead of skewering me as it should have. The days spoilt in Sunday school credited me this. Russell, thrown from the car, must have bounced softly against the angels rescuing me because he bent over to gaze scratch-less at me hanging upside down.

“Well, damn,” I said.

Russell rent the door open, and a shuddering went through me as the fence post slid over my thighs, the tip grazing my belly as it curved out its retreating arc.

“So you ain’t even hurt?” I asked Russell.

“Not my first one of these.”

“I didn’t know car wrecks was one of those things you get better at with practice.”

“Everything gets better with practice.”

I hopped a little with my feet too newly used to the feel of the ground. I thought maybe the old truck over on the road had stopped to help us until I realized it crackled and leaked and remembered that it was the truck I had hit right before we flipped. We’d decided to drive windows down through some of the backwoods counties on the border of North and South Carolina—I might’ve been speeding. The truck’s driver’s side was busted up pretty good. The window had shattered in on the man who struggled with the crushed door and steering wheel that were all up in him.

“Call 911,” the man said. “I’m hurt bad.”

“We did already,” Russell said. I was sure we hadn’t. Russell had a poison in him, so did I, but only the kind I put into myself, where his was there all the time, a poison he produced.

“You came out of nowhere,” the man said.

“We came out of Sumerville,” I said.

“You were flying. You drive like mad sons of bitches. If not, I would’ve had plenty of time to pull out.”

“What is that road?” Russell asked.

“My driveway.”

“Long ass driveway. How much land you got there?”

“Over a hundred acres. I need help, boys.”

“What’s your name?” Russell asked. “So we can tell the police.”

“Melvin. Shit, you boys are on something, aren’t you?”

“A few things,” I said.

“No, nothing, no,” said Russell.

“Goddamn it,” Melvin said. “I’m hurt.” He had stopped trying to get loose.

We all went quiet then out of respect or forgetting our lines. Or maybe I sat down. Or I went back over to the car to pee so it wouldn’t bother Melvin. I do remember that the radio was still on in the car to a talk show and the man kept using the word “irradiation.”

When I got back or I stood up or I started paying attention again, Melvin was saying, “My parents, they died in a wreck.”

“That shit’s ironic,” Russell said.

“Their boy dying that way.” Melvin coughed up wet. “Their boy.”

“He’s talking about himself when he says ‘boy,’ ain’t he?” I said.

“Their only boy?” Russell asked.

“Their only boy,” Melvin confirmed. “Where is that ambulance?”

“It’ll be along directly.”

“I hope I make it. But I miss them.”

“You live over there all alone?”

He nodded a cough.

“Want us to call your other family?”

“Got none. Their only boy. I haven’t made them any grandkids.”

“That’s all for the better,” Russell said. “Jesus told us to leave off with family. You didn’t see him making any more of us. It’s God’s desire that we just stop.”

“Is that a siren?” Melvin asked. There was no siren.

I had the thought that we would leave or should leave, but Russell said we should stick around like Samaritans. And I ain’t proud, but I got a bit bored.

“Why you didn’t have any kid?” I asked him to pass the time.

He stared up as if my voice had come from on high instead of right next to him. “I had it too easy. If that makes sense.” He coughed some then but went on and recovered. “Too easy to do what I wanted to do. So I did that.”

“Know exactly what you mean,” Russell said, though I wouldn’t have called his life easy.

“I should have made them grandkids.”

“Did you have room for them?” Russell asked. “Big house back there? Well off the road?”

“This road don’t get much traffic, does it?” I asked.

Melvin didn’t offer any answers.

“Pretty isolated still,” Russell said.


“That’s rare these days.”

“Hell, they got condos in Sumerville now.”

“Boys. I’m hurting.”

Melvin kept talking and begging and questioning and doubting and generally living till Russell pinched his nose and sealed his mouth with the palm of his hand. Melvin struggled some but gave in pretty quickly. At least I think so.

Russell had me help him push the pickup back up the driveway. It was hard too, with one of the tires rubbing against something, no matter how we bent the metal bunched there. Took us most of the day, but we had it well up the drive and away from the road. It felt good to work like that, the pressure in the muscles, the exertion. And where we stopped was a hill from which you could see Melvin’s acres, pastures left to grow and woods bounding the abandoned fields.

We walked all over that land. Explorers. There was a pond brown and near empty that squirmed with the fish that were doomed there. There was a shitload of trees, big ones with bunches of mistletoe and gnarled lumps like cancers on their limbs and trunks. There was a creek dried from the tearless sky. It was there that we found a huge rock that had been worked on, chiseled with compartments and troughs and spouts.

“Who you think done this?” I asked.


“Yeah. Indians. Or prehistoric people.”

“Prehistoric peoples,” Russell said, but it sounded better when he said it. “That’s what we are.” He took his clothes off, which wasn’t that unusual. He was a surprisingly small man but without shame. “No. We’re posthistoric people. They were the first, and we will be the last.”

I always thought Russell should have been a preacher, but he said it didn’t matter because he didn’t pay tax no ways.

I know you probably want to know what we did with the truck, with the man who had it too easy, with our own car crashed. But all honesty, I can’t recall. It must have resolved itself all alright. Memory’s a real nightmare that way, the things you do and the things you don’t. I have to hold a line sometimes, else I’ll tumble making assumptions about them things I don’t remember based on the things that I do.

Russell just took over Melvin’s land. He squatted in an outbuilding for months. At some point he moved on into the house, and the structure went feral like its inhabitant. The gutters drooped and some of the ends fell to the ground with other end still attached, as if the house were trying to use them to hold itself up. The mail that continued to come, like a meaningless promise, clogged the front hall where Russell discarded it once shucked seeking checks. The electricity went off, and the water followed suit.

I went out there regularly to help. I had watched my uncles build houses, so how hard could it be? Saws and thick red and black pencils and nails held in the mouth like chew and the dusted knees of men who knell. But no matter our intentions, the place grew dilapidated, and its disrepair deepened like the blackening spots on apples.

And inevitably when I’d visit, we would lose days. Russell could talk, and he could talk me into all manner of wickedness, but I can’t claim unwilling. These were the days I was waging a war on myself, my body the battlefield for some stupid skirmish between my vanity and the world that wouldn’t submit. I would ruin myself out spite before they could say I had tried and had not been enough. Russell gave me enough. But eventually, I would fight my way through a line of giants shining in the light of a flaming sword to find myself in a gas station eating Moon Pies one after another letting the wrappers fall on the floor. No one ever made me feel like myself like he did until I met you.

When I tell you this, I am three years sober. I am holding your hand because you have just told me that our baby still baking is a boy. I can’t stop confessing all my happy sins those nights and days when everything, even the pain, especially the pain, caused me a kind of religious joy. I keep confessing long since you have stopped returning the pressure of my grip, the fingers of your other hand pulled tight with the palm covering your bellybutton. Let’s consider the name “Melvin” is all I ask.

S. Craig Renfroe Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At (Main Street Rag Publishing Company). Currently, he is an associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte. Also, his work has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Puerto del Sol, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PANK, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @SCraigRenfroeJr.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, reviewed by E.F. Sweetman

Bad Boy Boogie
Thomas Pluck
Down & Out Books
352 pages
Reviewed for TOUGH by E.F. Sweetman

If dark crime thrillers of persecution, personal justice, and payback are your thing, Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie has them all, and more in this wild story of an ex-con’s return to his small hometown. When Jay Desmarteax comes back to Nutley, New Jersey to restart his life after serving 25 years for killing ruthless high school bully, Joey Bello, he finds that his folks have disappeared, his old friends want him gone, and his enemies want him dead.

Nutley is a small town outside of Newark, and is also, in Jay’s words,“a place to grow up, rich or poor. Parks to roam, ponds and streams to fish in, a pizzeria in every neighborhood…but a little too proud, a little unfriendly to outsiders….”

It is a narrow-minded place with close-minded people; full of secrets, and layers of corruption simmering just beneath the calm and ordered surface. The cruel aspect of being an outsider carries a lifetime sentence from which you can never really recover. What is more unjust, his best friends who remained in Nutley, end up with the same small-town mentality. They see Jay as a reminder of a past they want to forget.

The town and its people did not want him when he was a kid, and is not happy to see him back from his stint in Rahway State prison. His taxi home is intercepted by the Chief of Police with this message. “You never belonged here. We’d like to go back to living like you never existed. You’re a stain we scrubbed out of the mattress.”

Although Jay knows he should drive south, start a new life, and pick up the trail of his adoptive parents, Mama Angeline and Papa Andre, the chief’s warning is anything but a deterrent. Jay has served his time, he is back, and he does not care what anyone thinks. “I just want to find my folks, but now I’m curious why everyone wants me gone so bad. Feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know the punch line.”

In the true spirit of crime thrillers, when Jay Desmarteaux finds he is dealing with shady small-town politics, and a legal system that has become as corrupt as crime itself, he is unable to follow the advice of his old mentor, Okie Kinkaid: “the best revenge [is] living well”.

In returning to Nutley, Jay is rendered cynical by an unending cycle of violence and deceit. The rejection releases Jay’s tremendous grudge against the people and the town who left him to carry the entire blame for a crime he did not commit alone. Instead of retreat, Jay’s fight back begins with returning to his childhood home. Ultimately he is going to find his parents, but he wants answers first.

“Walking through his old house now inhabited by strangers felt like the impossible reality of a dream. The carpets replaced with polished hardwood, paneling torn out for bright pastel paint. Here and there the house he knew shined through...He padded upstairs to the master bedroom. (Papa) Andre had built a platform bed with a sunburst maple headboard, and the new owners either appreciated its massive beauty, or couldn’t be bothered dismantling it. Jay pressed the panel by the headboard. The wood eased in, then popped open to reveal a hideaway. Jay blinked at what lay inside the cubby. Two of the few things Jay had been forbidden to touch. The tomahawk Andre had taken home from Vietnam, and the combat knife with the finger grooves cut in the handle... Jay hefted the Lagana war hatchet’s worn hickory handle with reverence, his reflection warped in the hand-hammered blade, the edge scratched from field sharpening. A worm turned in his stomach, as if he could smell his parents’ fear. They had left everything…. He gripped its smooth wooden handle like he was squeezing Papa Andre’s hand.”

What Jay is really seeking is revenge. An antihero with a rough and jaded attitude, he has been used, terribly abused, abandoned, scapegoated, and cast aside. He was handed a life sentence for murder, and lost 25 years because his friends remained silent at his trial, all for “Joey Bello, a no-good rapist son of a bitch who needed killing.”

Pluck’s smooth writing style cuts to the bone, and he has created in Jay Desmarteaux a larger than life, a saw-toothed, scored-earth, sometimes humorous, sometimes lewd defender of street justice accountability. When a friend tries to talk him of taking revenge with reminding Jay that “you can’t fight those kind of people. It’s like banging your head against the wall. Only feels good when you stop.” Jay’s response is, ‘I got a pretty hard head’… and rapped his knuckles on his skull.”

Bad Boy Boogie deals with dark and disturbing matters, but it carries an equally satisfying amount of justice, because stories of revenge are fulfilling. The impulse to strike back against corruption and cruelty is wired deep-we can’t help but glorify an avenger who answers brutality with Jay’s level of ferocity, especially on issues of child abuse. His retribution is swift and thorough, and feels valid. Pluck’s tough-guy action is balanced with unexpected humor.

“‘They fixin’ to kill me Chrissie?’ The tremble in his eyes said enough. Jay threw his body into a liver punch, follow it by two more. Chris dry-heaved, face bent to the steering wheel. Jay stomped the accelerator and jerked the wheel toward the Benz. Oscar and Paul snapped their heads up as the truck veered their way. Paul waddled like Costello…Oscar did a funny little dance, stuck in place until the truck crumpled the Benz like tinfoil and punched it and him into the waves.”

Jay’s non-linear back story provides glimpses of his childhood that give disturbing insights into what has driven Jay to this high-octane level of retribution.“The taut clothesline ran from his swollen purple ankle to the leg of the sofa. The boy huddled under the sofa’s stained yellow arm. There he didn’t have to look at her. He dug at the knot with the carrot peeler. Crusted with blood. He had to get free before the Gator man came. Water dripped in the sink and tortured his dry throat. There was a warm glass of flat Coke on the other side of the sofa but he couldn’t reach. Not without crawling on top of the Witch.”

Bad Boy Boogie’s title is a tribute to the band AC/DC. “Back in Black”, “Problem Child”, “Live Wire”, “TNT”, and “Highway to Hell” title each section. In a guest post for Pulp Curry, Pluck wrote, “My favorite AC/DC songs work like noir tales.” And like the band’s lyrics, Bad Boy Boogie is on point; humorous, rowdy, loaded with working-class antagonism and pride. Pluck employs the same raw ideology in his story as AC/DC applies to their music.

This is not the last we will see of Jay Desmarteaux. Jay gets around. Pluck calls him “the walking Cajun shitstorm” who has appeared in several short stories, and will return in a follow-up novel where he will search rural Louisiana for his parents.

E.F. Sweetman is a writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in MicrochondriaFunDead's horror anthology, and Switchblade Magazine, as well as upcoming issues of Broadswords and Blasters, and Econo Clash Review. She reviews noir, crime and thriller novels for both TOUGH and SPINE. Follow her on Twitter @EFSweetman.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Night Shift Noir, fiction by Kimmy Dee

Listen, I didn’t take this gig to be a hero. The training videos were pretty specific about this sort of shit. I think one was even called “Night Shift: Don’t Be a Hero.” Yet here I am, slithering through the curdled grime coating the floor of the dairy cooler clutching a loaded pistol, prepared to pump a bad guy full of lead.

And the gun being pink doesn’t make it any less goddamned heroic.

Trust me, I would have much rather followed the official Super Thrift Discount Mart robbery protocol, C.H.O.A.D.: Calmly and Happily Obey All Demands. No heroes meant no corpses, which meant less paperwork. And less paperwork meant fewer lawsuits, which corporate viewed as a bigger threat than some bullshit petty theft. Cash was safe-dropped every hour, and every inch of the store was covered by surveillance cameras. They weren’t actually recording anything most of the time, but wannabe criminals didn’t need to know that. The bottom line is it’s simply not worth it for either a minimum wage cashier or an amateur-hour outlaw to risk life and limb over the measly contents of the Lane 8 cash drawer.

As the esteemed night shift manager I was fond of doing as little work as possible, and not exchanging gunfire with drug-crazed criminals fit my slacker motif pretty fucking well.

But then I met Faith.

She started on night shift three weeks ago to the day. I walked into the upstairs break room and she was crouched down, rifling through the cabinet where the packets of diarrhea-inducing sludge the STD Mart passed off as complimentary coffee for employees were stashed. Her bleached blonde hair was loosely piled atop her head; a few stray curls tickled her neck. Tight khaki pants clung to an ass that was too perfect for this world, the outline of her thong visible underneath the thin fabric. Her company-issued collared shirt had ridden up a little, revealing a tribal pattern tattoo across the milky flesh of her lower back.

I sat at a table and pretended to play with my phone while I stared. She bounced on the balls of her feet as she sifted through the contents of the cupboard, and as I watched her thighs and bottom rise and fall I realized my own tan slacks were growing uncomfortably tight.

Eventually she gave up her search and slammed the cupboard, and as she stood and turned toward me my breath caught in my throat. Not because of some lame-ass love at first sight crap, although she was certainly pretty; I just tend to choke on my own spit from time to time. Smooth, I know.

“Don’t they keep any decaf in this shithole?” Her lips shone with pink gloss. Otherwise she wore very little makeup. The small splotches of acne scarring her cheeks were the only proof that she was human. Even the frumpy STD Mart uniform couldn’t mask her curves.

“Does it mean anything?” I said between coughs. I was still a little choked up from my recent brush with death via my own saliva.

She stared at me like I’d just asked if I could tend the rabbits.

“The tattoo. On your back.” I forced my eyes back to my phone.

“Yeah, it means I was an idiot when I was sixteen,” she said, plopping her flawless bottom onto the chair across from me.

Over the course of our shared fifteen minute break I learned that Faith was a whopping nineteen years old now, but the intensity raging behind her blue eyes told me that she knew a hell of a lot more about the world than I did, despite my five additional years on the planet. She was new to town and lived with her boyfriend, and she didn’t seem overly thrilled about either.

The next afternoon I stopped and bought a large decaf coffee for Faith on my way into work, and that buck ninety-nine bought me a world of shit that I hadn’t quite bargained for.


Love can make you do crazy things.

I pressed my face against the cold door of the milk case and peered out at the store through streaked glass. There was no sign of the masked gunman that had herded us in here a few minutes earlier, and no sign of Faith. The hum of the refrigeration unit and the panicked mumbling of my moronic coworkers made it impossible to hear what was happening in the store.

My heart was pounding; I had to act soon.

I clicked off the safety.

The gun belonged to Faith, and so did I.

A week ago we’d been chilling in the cash office during Faith’s break, which had become our nightly routine--I liked to hide out and pretend to do paperwork, and Faith seemed to prefer flirting with me over spending her half an hour of freedom in the bleach-scented squalor of the STD Mart break room--when the firearm slipped out of her purse.

I squealed and jumped back in my chair when the weapon hit the tile. It wasn’t my most manly moment.

“Relax, Riley. I always keep the safety on.” Faith bent forward to scoop up the gun, her fingers fiddling with the grip longer than necessary, allowing me ample time to compose myself and still sneak a peek down her shirt.

She caught me looking and smiled, then leaned over a little farther.

“Why do you even have that?” I said, my voice cracking. “I mean, I don’t think STD Mart policy…”

“Protection,” she said, shoving the gun back into her bag.

I felt like a creep because I couldn’t tear my mind away from her cleavage, and the small tattoo I’d glimpsed on her left breast--one half of a heart that looped into the infinity symbol. While she mused on the dangers of being a woman in the modern world, I wondered where else she was hiding ink.

“Hey, do you like to shoot?” Her eyes lit up again, and I knew I’d do absolutely anything to make her happy.

She led me through the dimly lit maze of pallets in the stockroom like a seasoned STD Mart pro, stooping down to scoop up some bottles and cans from the damaged goods bin. Once both of our arms were full I followed her through the back door by the deserted docks, where she carefully spaced our scratched and dented loot along the top of a dumpster. Then she dragged me back toward the building and handed me the gun.

I turned it over in my hands, examining it from all angles. I had shot a rifle a couple of times at camp when I was a kid, but I’d never even touched a handgun. It was lighter than I’d expected.

“It kicks a little if you’re not used to it.” Faith reached over to guide my hands on the gun while I adjusted my stance. Her chest brushed against my arm as she showed me how to click off the safety, and the shiver that ran through me had fuck-all to do with the deadly weapon in my hands. “Go ahead, try it.”

I squinted toward the bottles and squeezed the trigger, and if the weight of the weapon and Faith’s warm breath on my neck had caused me to downplay the brutal power of the hot pink pistol, the boom that echoed off the empty semi-trailers was an earsplitting reminder.

I stumbled backward more from the noise than the recoil, and Faith threw her head back in laughter. All the bottles remained intact.

“You shot high. Try again,” Faith said.

We spent our next several breaks out on the docks, shooting at busted up groceries. Faith was a much better shot than me, but I caught on. I was sure the local cops would eventually swoop in and surround the place, but they never did.

And I couldn’t just sit here and hope the lazy fucks would show up now.

I nudged the dairy case’s door open and tried to squirm out stealthily. After belly-flopping against the epoxy floor with the gun over my head like an armed trout for a few moments I finally managed to kick free of my pasteurized prison, and leapt to my feet. Displaced milk cartons rolled across the aisle.

I glanced around quickly, afraid that my thrashing may have drawn the robber’s attention, but all was quiet on the dairy front. Of course it was; the burglar would be focused on breaking into the cash office.

The cash office where Faith was waiting—alone, unsuspecting, and unarmed. Waiting for me.

Earlier this evening, after our lunch break shooting session, Faith had followed me back to the cash office. There was something different about her demeanor. Her eyes, normally fearless, were focused on the floor.

“I want to leave Steve,” she finally blurted. “I took this job so I could save up enough money to get away.”

I lowered myself into the room’s lone janky office chair. Faith normally sat on the countertop that lined one wall, where each shift manager organized cash, coupons, and other assorted supermarket swag, but she remained standing. Her hips swayed slightly as she swung her purse from side to side.

“Are you okay?” I said. I swallowed down the spit that was nefariously threatening my windpipe.

“Never better,” she said.

And then she was on top of me.

She flung her legs over the arms of the chair, somehow not sending both of us crashing to the floor. Before I could register what was happening her lips smashed into mine, our teeth colliding painfully until we both made the necessary adjustments. As we kissed I ran my hands through her hair, which was every bit as soft as I thought it would be, then down her back, finally resting them on the hips that had dominated my fantasies. She straddled me closer, and something dug sharply into my thigh.

Faith’s gun. It was still in my pocket.

She hopped back to her feet, wiping the gooey mixture of our shared saliva from her face onto the back of her hand.

“Is that a gun in your pocket, Riley, or are you just happy to see me?” She grinned and I stood, albeit a little more delicately that she had, and wrapped my arms around her. I never wanted to let go.

“Both,” I said, kissing her again.

She kissed me back deeply for a moment, then pushed away.

“I have to get back to work,” she said. “My manager is a real hard ass.”

She grabbed her purse and reached for the door, then turned back and kissed me again.

“You know,” she pulled the front of her shirt down, running her fingertips across her cleavage. “I have another break at midnight. Let’s continue this then.”

“It’s only a fifteen minute break,” I said.

“Then we’d better make the most of it.” Her hand flitted along the front of my pants.

“What will we do for the other ten minutes?” My voice was barely a squeal.

Faith smiled, tightening her grip as she leaned closer. “Don’t do any of the safe drops tonight. I want to do it on the counter, on top of all the money,” she whispered, giving my earlobe a nibble.

“Do you know how unsanitary that is?” I said. “Studies have shown that cash is practically covered in fecal matter. That’s particles of poop, Faith!”

She kissed my cheek and turned to leave, and I knew I’d happily swim through a sea of raw sewage just to feel her pressed against me again.

“Oh, and Riley?” she had paused in the doorway. “Keep the gun on you until breaktime. The bulge turns me on.”

“Oh I’ll give you a bulge,” I said to the closing door, hating myself immediately for saying something so stupid.

Faith returned to the STD Mart floor, and I followed once I could will my erection to stand down. The next couple of hours were the longest of my life. I made my normal rounds to collect cash, but left it stacked on the counter instead of dropping it into the safe. I was the only one on the shift with a key to the office, and other than maybe wrinkling it up a bit, no harm would come to the supermarket’s precious money. Well, except maybe soiling it with some more bodily fluids, but I was trying really hard not to think about what nastiness was already swimming on those bills.

At five minutes until twelve I was leaning against the customer service counter jotting down cigarette inventory, when Faith brushed up against me. I pretended to be surprised, as if I hadn’t been watching every excruciating minute tick by since her last break.

“Can I have the key?” she said softly. “I want to go in and get ready for you. Give me five minutes, then knock. Okay?”

I handed over the key without saying a word. I could barely breathe, let alone speak.

Faith disappeared into the cash office, and I scribbled down the last few carton counts with my mind running wild.

But then all hell broke loose.

Shouting at the bank of cash registers snapped me back to attention. Standing between the store entrance and the checkout lanes was a large man in a ski mask, wildly swinging a shotgun.

“Everyone listen up! Do what I say, and no one gets hurt!”

I nearly passed out as the blood that had been rushing to an entirely different region of my body suddenly flooded my brain. The cashiers whimpered as they cowered in their stations.

“Who’s in charge here?”

I considered ducking behind the counter, but my scared subordinates pointed me out so quickly I didn’t even have time to crumple.

The robber stomped over to the counter. He was at least six feet tall, clad head to toe in black, with a black backpack over his shoulder.

“Make an announcement. Tell the customers to get the fuck out of the store. Now!” He shoved me in the chest with the shotgun.

I picked up the service counter phone and pressed the intercom button.

“Attention STD Mart shoppers,” my voice cracked. “Umm…”

The thief yanked the phone out of my hands.

“If you don’t want to die tonight, you should get the fuck out of here now!”

The few customers pilfering around at the late hour booked it for the door, most of them taking their shopping baskets with them. One particularly stoned-looking young man grabbed a few extra candy bars on his way out.

Once the last stragglers had vacated, the robber emptied the contents of each cash drawer into his backpack, then led us to the cooler and barricaded us inside. I crouched down to catch my frosty breath, and that’s when the familiar stab in my leg reminded me of the gun.


I looked around at the panicked faces of my employees, but she wasn’t among them. Of course she wasn’t; she was in the cash office, probably scared shitless... and possibly even naked.

I had to save her.

After escaping the cooler I stalked back to the front of the store, rounding the corner to the cash registers in time to see the thief emerge from the cash office, his loaded backpack slung over the arm that held the shotgun casually at his side, his other arm around Faith’s shoulder.

At least she was dressed.

She saw me first. She planted her feet and the assailant looked up, his eyes locking on me and the pink handgun.

He threw Faith to the floor and raised the shotgun.

“Shoot him now, Riley!” Faith screamed.

The robber turned toward her as though surprised, and that gave me the split second I needed to pull off the hero thing. I aimed for his thigh, and squeezed the trigger.

I shot high.

His neck exploded with a sickening splash. The shotgun bounced off the floor first, then the backpack, followed finally by the spongy thud of the man himself. A bloody stew quickly swirled and spread underneath him, and his chest convulsed as he tried to slurp air into his desecrated throat.

As the intruder gurgled to his death I did what every good hero would do--dropped to my knees and vomited until there was not a drop of anything left inside of me, and then passed out for a minute.

Eventually sirens wailed outside, and a moment later the police waddled in. One particularly round officer mumbled something into his radio about an ambulance.

I sat up as two paramedics rushed to the body of the bad guy, and although he had stopped struggling several minutes ago, I guess they were still required to try. One slit open his shirt, while the other felt around for a pulse.

On the left side of the criminal’s exposed chest was a crude tattoo--one half of a heart that looped into the infinity symbol.

The other half.

My head swam as I stared at the chaos surrounding me. Blood, guns, police. . . but no sign of the backpack.

And no sign of Faith.

Kimmy Dee lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and can typically be found hiding under a pile of cats. Her essay collection, Pussy Planet and Other Endearing Tales, is available through Amazon. Kimmy's short stories have been published by Pulp Metal Magazine, The Dirty Pool, and in the anthology Crappy Shorts: Deuces Wild. Her work has also been featured on and on