Marlene always knew that when Ernie took out his teeth and set them on the bar, there would be trouble. And tonight was one of those nights. But Ernie was getting long in the tooth, his seventy-first birthday only weeks away, and Marlene worried if he lost another fight, his old bones might not mend so easily. Besides, he wasn’t fully recovered from the surgery. He was on blood thinners for clots in his legs, and he was drinking; something his doctor had strictly forbid.
Maybe it was the full moon, or maybe it was the dangerous look in that drunken college kid’s eyes that turned her heart cold, or the five beers and half dozen shots of JD Ernie had thrown back on an empty stomach. Or maybe it was just Ernie tempting fate one too many times, trying to prove something she couldn’t begin to understand. But something told her this time it was going to be bad. It was going to be very, very bad.
A dead expression past over Ernie’s weathered mug. Once he got that look on his face he was deaf to her and everyone else. Instinctively she tried anyway. She tried to reign in that runaway train he’d hopped on.
“Ernie? Ernie!” She stood up, positioning herself between her husband and the table where the loud-mouthed, fast-food enriched, college kid on a bender sat chatting up some young thing. This wouldn’t be Marlene’s first time playing referee. In fact she’d been doing it for nearly forty years. She had the scars to prove it.
“What the fuck you say to me, punk?” Ernie crowed above the band slaughtering an Aerosmith song.
“Piss off old man.” The kid waved a puffy hand at him.
Ernie reached out past Marlene and took a swipe at the kid’s ball cap, knocking it off his head. Slimy black hair tumbled out like an octopus that had died on top of his head. It released a stench not much better.
“You need to back the fuck off,” the kid said, sneering, bulbous head teetering. He pulled his cap back on. The kid turned away, giving Ernie his back, dismissing him like he was nothing more than a fly buzzing around his face. This was the wrong thing to do. The kid had grossly underestimated Ernie’s madness; a man who’d done two tours in Vietnam, and worked as a warden in one of the country’s toughest prisons. Ernie lusted after trouble like a pit-bull trained in the art of killing. Drunk, old, and sick didn’t slow Ernie down. Not for one second.
Marlene placed her hands on her husband’s chest, trying uselessly to hold him back. She could feel his ribs jutting out underneath his shirt. He’d lost so much weight. Nothing but skin and bones now compared to what he used to be.
“Let’s go home, Ernie. It’s late. Let’s just go home,” she urged, pushing him toward the door. She grabbed her purse from the bar. And Ernie’s teeth. They still owed a bar tab. No matter, she’d come back tomorrow and settle up. Wouldn’t be the first time. The owner knew them well enough to know they were good for it. Besides the bartender was back in the kitchen anyway.
“Get the fuck off me woman. Come on cocksucker! I’ll bust your head like a fucking melon,” Ernie slurred, flapping his arms, his eyes wild, piercing. He reached an arm past her again. With an open hand he swatted the kid right on the mouth, just as he was about to sip his beer. The kid slammed his bottle on the table, scowling. Foam gushed out and splattered across the table.
Marlene shoved Ernie as hard as she could past the bar and out through the back door. Ernie was really drunk which is the only reason she was able to move him at all. That’s what worried her too. That he was too drunk and unsteady on his feet. He was still weak from the surgery. One punch would probably do him in. God, why didn’t they just stay home tonight and watch Dexter? She wouldn’t be having to scrape his skinny ass off the floor later.
The young kid was right on their heels, snarling and actually salivating at the mouth. Little fucker was barely old enough to drink and here he was coming after an old man he out weighed by at least a hundred pounds and stood a good six inches taller. What the hell was wrong with kids these days? Couldn’t he tell Ernie was just a stupid old man who’d had one too many? A beating wasn’t in order.
The downpour outside drenched them in an instant. Marlene shivered and dragged her husband by his shirtsleeve toward their car. With her free hand she searched her purse for the keys. The door behind them banged open and the sound of the band rushed out.
“Running away old man? You fucking coward! Piece of shit!” The big kid yelled from where he stood filling the doorway. He spat on the ground.
That was the worst thing he could have said. Calling Ernie a coward like that. If there was anything Ernie was not, that was a coward. He’d been a strong and proud man all his life. But now retirement seemed to have derailed him, rocked him to the core, sapped his self esteem. And then his illness. He’d lost himself somehow. She’d tried to get him interested in new things; bowling, gardening, taking walks in the woods. She got them memberships to a gym, hired a personal trainer to try and get Ernie healthy again. She’d even gone as far as getting him involved in her sewing, asking him to lay out and cut the fabric for the little flower girl dresses she made. Sewing kept her busy in her retirement, and brought in extra money. She was hoping, ineffectually, that it might help Ernie too. Ernie wanted none of it. Ernie wanted only to drink himself into oblivion. Brain rot via mass quantities of alcohol. Retirement could do that to you. Retirement combined with cancer could do even more damage.
Ernie pulled free from her grip and hurled himself back across the gravel parking lot. Marlene yelled and rushed toward him, her hand still in her purse, fumbling for the car keys.
In a flurry of fists and grunts and swearing, the two men collided. Marlene was pushed aside with an elbow to the gut. She watched in horror as her husband’s head was thrust back with a fist to the jaw, his face slick with rain. Another fist caught him on the side of the head. He went down. Fell like a tree. Marlene screamed as she scrambled toward him, trying to protect him from more harm. The young guy was on top of him in an instant, standing over him as the cold rain pelted down. He grabbed a fist full of Ernie’s shirt, raising him off the ground. He cocked an arm ready to slam his knuckles into Ernie’s face again. That’s when Marlene’s fingers felt the scissors at the bottom of her purse. She’d always carried a pair with her. It was one of those things seamstresses do.
Streetlights flashed over their silver surface as she pulled them out of her purse. The kid’s fist connected with Ernie’s face just as she stuck the scissors deep into the kid’s side. His soft flesh gave way easily. He let out a sound like a wounded dog. She stuck him again, hard in the side and then in the kidneys as he turned to get away. Marlene pulled at Ernie, yelling at him to get up. She watched the kid take a couple of wobbly steps and then fall sideways, crashing into a dumpster, smacking his head, slumping down. His ball cap fell off and tumbled away from him, falling into a puddle, floating.
Marlene pulled her husband to his knees, got him to his feet. Screaming at him the whole time. “Suck it up soldier! Move it! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
He slung an arm over her shoulder and she half carried, half dragged him to their car. She pushed him into the passenger seat where he puked on the floor and spit up blood, hacking like a man drowning. Marlene started the car, put it in reverse, her heart slamming against her ribs. Nobody had even opened the back door of the bar to see what had happened. She looked at the kid slumped next to the dumpster. He wasn’t moving. For a moment she thought about helping him, calling for an ambulance.
Then she thought, fuckem’, and hit the gas.
New thriller by Julia Madeleine, NO ONE TO HEAR YOU SCREAM, coming June 2011. Visit Julia’s website for updates http://juliamadeleine.com/