He parked his truck in front of the Kum & Go in the shadow of the I-80 overpass. There was a station wagon in the lot. He waited. He stared through the signs on the window. Fresh Pizza? It’s Time! Two kids made the door chime as they walked out with oversized sodas. They got in the station wagon and the station wagon drove away.
His little girl was going to turn thirteen in two days and she was going to celebrate at home, not in St. Anthony’s, Room 722. He missed twelve, missed eleven. He was going to be there for thirteen. He could do this. For her. He could do this for her and it would be okay and she would be happy.
The semis on 80 rumbled above as he stood next to his truck and adjusted his ball cap and sunglasses. The door chimed as he went inside with a gun tucked under his shirt, between his belt and the small of his back. The clerk glanced over the shoulders of a man and woman paying for their coffee and donuts. The man walked to the back of the store and stared at his reflection in the glass door of a cooler filled with flavored water. The sunglasses were too big for his face. He pushed them closer to his face, moved them further toward the end of his nose. Like a kid playing dress up, he thought.
He heard the door chime again as the couple left. Chips, pretzels, and honey-roasted peanuts. He grabbed a package of beef jerky and took it to the checkout. The clerk stood with his back to him, arranging cigarettes on a shelf.
312 miles to Omaha. He doesn’t want to stop until he gets there, but the stuff in his guts moves one step closer to the exit and his asshole isn’t made of metal. He shifts, trying to keep things where they are. Music would help distract him, but the radio is muffled static.
He wriggles a finger in each ear to see if that will help with the ringing. He feels a tickle and brushes underneath his collar. The way he shakes his hand, it’s like he was expecting to find a flower but grabbed an insect. He rolls down his window and sticks his hand out, he spreads his fingers and flicks his wrist but he can’t shake it. He knows what it is and wonders what it was: Maybe thoughts of running down a narrow alley? Or the feel of gravel digging into hands and knees after a fall?
He threw the jerky on the counter. One moment, please, the clerk said.
The clerk put the last carton in place. He was taller than the man thought he’d be. The man looked back over his shoulder. Still alone. He pulled the gun and aimed for the center of the clerk’s back, but his hands were shaking. The gun was a dog on a leash and the clerk was a squirrel.
237 miles to Omaha. Flashing lights behind him, way back but closing fast. He can’t hear sirens for the ringing in his ears, but the lights ride up in the rear view, and there go his guts again, they’ve pushed the button, called the elevator. He pulls onto the shoulder. The whole cab smells of blood.
He kills the engine, puts both hands on the wheel. He’ll surrender without a word; just get him to a fucking toilet. The cop passes. A blinking, rapid ghost.
Down a slight hill, in a field off to the right, he sees an owl fly out the window of an empty barn. The owl flies across the road in front of him and lands on top of a utility pole. The man looks at the owl. The owl looks at the man and cocks its head, puffs its feathers to make itself look bigger.
The clerk turned around and saw the gun, didn’t jerk, didn’t yell. He put his palms on the counter and looked straight into the gun.
Open the register.
The clerk looked down at him, through him, down into his beating heart.
The man held the gun tighter, pointed it straighter, as if that would prove that he meant what he said.
Look, man, don’t try to be a hero.
I am not trying to be a hero, my friend. What is it that you are trying to be?
I don’t want no troub –
The clerk cocked his head a notch to the right.
Then why are you pointing a gun at me?
I just came for the money, man.
You cannot have the money.
Shoot him in the arm? In the leg?
I’m gonna count to three and then you’re gonna open the register.
Counting until three will not make a difference. You should put the gun away and go home.
Not without the money.
The man fired into the ceiling, knocking his hat askew and his glasses crooked. He jabbed the gun towards the clerk as he straightened the glasses and hat.
Is this the best you can do?
What did you say?
Is this the best you can do? For money, is this the best you can do?
This guy. Who the fuck? The best he could do? He thought of his daughter and her failing lungs, the nights in the hospital, the night his wife walked away, the pipes that burst last winter, the father that can’t feed himself, the job he had for fifteen years, the last specialty knife he packaged to be shipped away, the interviews since then, the bundle of nos. Yes, motherfucker. This is the best he could do. What the hell did this guy know? How long had this guy been here? This guy here meant one less job, but fuck it, he was here doing what he needed to do…
What do you care?
My friend, you are not made for this.
The clerk’s eyes were fixed like stones in his face, so certain. The clerk was right; the man’s mouth was dry and he wasn’t breathing. The safety was off, the hammer was back, but he couldn’t pull the trigger.
One more ruffle and the owl flies away. The man sees the screen on his phone light up. His ex-wife, probably wondering where he is, why he hasn’t picked his daughter up yet. He imagines something more serious, cries of where are you, troubled breathing and his daughter’s gasping mouth, but he can’t help now. He lets the call go to voicemail then turns the phone off.
As he does, he smears the screen with the stuff still stuck to his hand. Was it grief for someone who went missing on a walk to get a newspaper, a woman crying at the kitchen table? Cold breakfast on the plate and the smell of eggs lingering inside and clean laundry hanging outside and a wife pouring four cups of tea and a hand cramping around the receiver and the wish that the receiver was the throat of the police officer on the other end, the shine of the frantic spit spattered on the mouthpiece?
219 miles to Omaha. Rest area. He walks toward the bathroom with clenched steps, distracting himself by counting the cars in the parking lot – one, two, three – when a boy bursts through the rest area doors and smacks into him. Pieces of grey and black from his sleeve stick to the front of the boy’s shirt: the taste of figs, a brother’s face, the smell of an airport.
The boy steps back and holds his arms wide, away from his shirt. The man runs past him. The boy will tell someone, but the man needs to do what he needs to do.
The door chimed. The man flinched. The clerk lunged across the counter and grabbed the gun, pulled the man to the supply side of the counter. The man landed on top of the clerk, heard a crack, felt it in his knee. All hands were on the gun. The clerk tried to bite his face. The man arched and looked away, the clerk spit on his cheek. He kicked his leg, trying to get leverage so he could drive his knee into the clerk’s crotch, but his boot couldn’t get traction, it drew a scramble of black streaks on the tile.
The clerk’s hands were as hard as the gun; the man’s hands were losing their grip. The man held his breath; the clerk breathed deep and steady as he twisted the gun and with it the man’s fing –
He undoes his belt and pulls down his pants but before he makes it to sitting he sprays liquid shit on the wall behind him, on the pipes of the toilet, on the handle that flushes. Shit runs down the back of his thighs into the jeans and underwear gathered at his knees. He grabs handfuls of toilet paper and wipes his legs. He can’t sit because the toilet seat is covered with foul clots of shit and chunks of undigested lettuce and tomatoes. He squats and cleans out his asshole as best he can. The smell gags him. He doesn’t even try to clean the toilet or walls. He takes his jacket off and his hat and sunglasses and rolls them into a bundle and takes the bundle to the trashcan in the corner and stuffs them and a memory of riding to a safe house down among the fast food wrappers and snot-filled tissues.
He keeps his head bent as he moves down the sidewalk. The ringing in his ears has diminished so he can hear the boy’s voice from across the parking lot.
That’s him daddy, that’s the man. He gets in the truck and slams the door. The boy’s father walks towards the truck, shouting something, but he backs it up and pulls away. He looks in the rear view and sees the man making a phone call. He smells like shit. Dribbles of shit in his pants. Bits and pieces of the clerk are in the patch of chest hair above the buttons of his shirt. There are pieces down the back of his neck, more in the hairs that grow over his wrist. Pieces in his ear, in his hair, in his eyebrows, caught in his teeth, dissolving down the back of his throat, the sound of a child’s laughter and a promise to his wife.
217 miles to Omaha, to an old girlfriend who wouldn’t ask questions. A warm shower. A cold beer. A bed with clean, dry sheets. He’ll call his daughter on her birthday, and make plans to celebrate when he gets back home.
Matt Lang has been published in Our Stories, Atticus Review, Burrow Press, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.