This story is by Joslyn Chase and was a runner-up in our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Joslyn Chase’s most recent novel, Death of a Muse, is a murder mystery about a cat and a damaged artist, both wrestling death. What Leads A Man To Murder, her collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com. Joslyn loves traveling, teaching, and playing the piano.
We could have turned back, called it a lark, burned our masks and gloves and returned to life as usual. We could have gone back to the swamp-scented collection of rusted-out husks grandly referred to as Wilkes’ Trailer Park, walked past the landscaping of weed-filled flowerbeds flanked by nine shades of dog turd and mounted the cement-block steps of home sweet home. Pluto, to the decrepit Airfloat Navigator that looked like a canned ham from the Easter his granddad was born, and me, to the corrugated Fleetwood flanked by five decomposing Chevys, not a one of them in operating condition.
We could have gone back to work at old man Metzger’s nursery, shoveling gravel and six varieties of manure, each guaranteed to singe the nose hairs off a rhino. We could have caught up on the gossip, snide jokes, and nasal bickering tossed around by Betsy and Selma in the pig-hole they call the employee’s lounge. We could have gone back to collecting our Friday paychecks, enough for a week’s supply of Ramen noodles and five nights at Andy’s rundown neighborhood bar.
We could have left before any real damage done, and I was considering just that, getting ready to grab Pluto by the back of his collar and drag him out of there, already thinking how we’d laugh about this moment in years to come while tossing back beers and smirking at women. We could have turned back.
Then Pluto shot Gert Franklin and it all went to hell.
It was a stupid thing to do, and never part of the plan, but Pluto was a stupid guy and I was earning no genius points partnering with him on this. A convenience store? We both watched enough TV to know that was a dumb idea, but in the analysis it seemed easier than a bank or anything else we could think of. Except, of course, an empty house.
But Pluto was tired of that action, claimed there’s no excitement in it and precious little profit from the low-rent shacks we hit up. Those with cheap windows and no security alarms. He wanted to step it up, go for a bigger payout, and he wouldn’t lay off until I agreed. He always was like a dog with a bone, and when you mix the appetite of a Doberman with the brains of a beagle, trouble can only come of it. He’d dragged me into more messes than a hound has fleas.
It started out okay. Two a.m. on a Thursday night and the place was quiet. We parked out in the gloom so Harvey Franklin, behind the counter, wouldn’t see the car. We could see him real good, though. The lights in there were bright enough to beam down a spaceship. We’d have to move fast because if anyone ventured past, we’d be putting on a show.
The smell of rubber and baby powder filled the car as we snapped on the latex gloves and donned our masks. I’d thought plain, black ski masks would best serve, but Pluto insisted on classic Richard Nixon. As I pulled mine from the package, a pang of dread hit me.
“Did you order these online?”
Pluto was already wearing his, and he turned our former president’s leering grin on me.
“Do I look like an idiot to you?” His voice sounded funny, muffled behind the mask. “I drove to the Denton Walmart last year and picked up a case of these for a buck apiece the day after Halloween. Paid cash. Been saving them for something special.”
“How sweet. I hope you’re not expecting a ring or anything.”
“Shaddup and get your mask on.”
“Let’s not do this, Pluto. How ‘bout we just go home and grab some shut-eye.”
“Before reporting to Metzger for another day of shoveling pig poop?”
“It’s not like we can retire on what’s in that cash register. We’ll be lucky to clear a thousand bucks.”
“I know, but this is the start of something beautiful. We pull this off and we can take it on the road, hit towns at random with no pattern the cops can follow. Sleep in hotels with clean sheets and eat hot meals that don’t consist of franks and beans. Man up, Ted.”
He was already out the door, and I followed, right to the counter before Harvey had time to push any buttons. I threw him a bag and he knew what to do with it, but his hands shook so bad it took him forever to get it open and start scooping in the cash. Meanwhile, Pluto made his rounds through the aisles, ensuring there were no customers laying low.
The smell of bad coffee permeated the air, turning my stomach and curdling the vanilla milkshake I had for dinner. I noticed my own hand was none too steady and I cursed the old man, jabbing the gun to spur him on. As he stuffed the last of the notes into the sack, a tinkling crash behind me made us both jump and I nearly pulled the trigger in reflex.
I kept my gun trained on Harvey, but turned my head toward the refreshment counter, looking past the rotating wieners to where Pluto stood over a shattered jar of pickled eggs. The eggs bounced and rolled, one wobbling over to rest against my sneaker.
“What the hell…?”
Pluto, like a kid caught in the cookie jar, held the lid out as if it deserved the blame.
“I’m sorry, Ted. Someone didn’t fasten the lid tight.”
Fantastic. I ground my teeth together, hoping the angry glare from my Richard Nixon sockets would pull him into line. We had to split, and fast, but before we could so much as turn around, a door behind the counter burst open and all three hundred pounds of Gert Franklin walked out.
“What’dja break, Harvey? I swear—”
She saw my gun and set to shrieking loud enough to wake babies in China. Her eyes swelled up in her head, and I had a wild thought they might pop out and roll on the floor with the pickled eggs. Her red mouth hung open, emitting sound like a siren, then there was a thunderous bang, followed by silence. I looked away, not wanting to see, not wanting to believe the fiasco my Thursday night had become, but found myself watching Gert slump to the floor in a CCTV screen mounted to the ceiling.
Felony murder and life in prison. That’s what looked back at me out of that screen. Because Pluto lost his nerve and shot a woman during an armed robbery. Because Pluto spilled my name, along with a jar of hard-boiled bouncing eggs. Because Pluto got tired of robbing two-bit houses and took to hassling me without let up, constantly pointing out the miseries of daily life and offering hare-brained schemes to elude them.
Because of Pluto.
No, let’s be honest. He wasn’t holding a gun to my head. I was just as sick of moving manure and cashing my measly paychecks as he was. This was down to me, and I had two choices, as I saw it. I could put my gun down and my hands up. Help old man Harvey stanch the bleeding and hope the wound wasn’t fatal. Distance myself from the shooting as much as possible and throw myself on the mercy of the court.
Or we could get the hell out of there.
“I didn’t mean to, Ted.” Pluto’d pulled the mask from his face and moved in jerky, little circles, waving the gun to emphasize his words. “She just wouldn’t shut up. I panicked.”
Harvey knelt at his wife’s side, cradling her head, his eyes rheumy with shock. Gert Franklin lay still, arms crossed over her breast where they’d released after their first frenzied clutching. They would clutch no more.
“Let’s move!” I shouted, grabbing the bag of cash. In the distance, I heard the faint wail of a police siren. Pluto stopped circling and his jaw dropped open, trembling like a baby on the verge of a crying rant.
“Why couldn’t she just stop screaming, man? I didn’t want to shoot her.”
He started blubbering and I could see he wasn’t capable of moving fast. His senses were dulled as he struggled to process what he’d done. The sirens grew louder. I was going to prison because of his stupidity, because of his hackneyed vision of what a life of crime could bring to a couple of lowlife dung dealers.
Doors One and Two were closed to me now, out of my reach forever. I looked at the gun in my hand and thought: it’s me or Pluto. I lifted the gun and fired, watching the hole in Pluto’s forehead bloom like a spring rosebud. I felt a brief moment of release before tension wrapped my throat like a winter scarf.
Best choice? Maybe not, but I’d get twenty to life to mull it over.