Valentine’s Day at the Shooting Range
By Evan Katy
The young man behind the counter had brown shaggy hair, a curl in his lip, and shrewd green eyes which saw through my false bravado.
“It’s called the Mosquito,” he said.
I held the powerful looking handgun, utterly confused as to why it would be named after something so small. I was also thankful I hadn’t been teaching long enough for Erik-the-shooting-range-clerk to be a former student. Samantha Rialto, middle school music teacher, visits firing range and breaks Guinness record for amount of sweat on a forehead.
“I doubt that’s a record you can compete for.” Maxie leaned over my shoulder and pointed at one of the guns hanging with all of the others on the wall. “Hand me that one, Erik.”
He turned and considered her choice. “You shot that one last week.”
Erik nodded. “Yup. Sure you don’t want to try the HK USP? I had it shipped in special for you.”
“Next week,” she said. “I don’t want to freak Sam out. Just hand me the Glock.”
I set the Sig Sauer, aka the Mosquito, onto the glass counter. “Maxie, I’m not sure I can do this.”
“You’ve shot a gun before, Sam.”
Erik handed a dark black handgun to Maxie and reached under the glass to pull out a small package of bright yellow ear plugs. “No charge for these during happy hour, ladies. Valentine’s Day special.”
It was five o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. More specifically, February the fourteenth. It had been three days since my almost boyfriend Ben had called from Maryland and two weeks since Maxie’s true love had been tragically gunned down by a mentally unstable porn distributor. We hadn’t been looking forward to what we were now calling the commercial advancement of pathos and platitudes.
Earlier today Maxie arrived at my office wearing a bright red, low-cut t-shirt that read “Love Sucks.”
She sat in my chair and watched me as I packed up. “I’m bringing a picture of your ex-husband to stick to the target. I drew a mustache and devil horns on Harry’s face. If you hit him in the head I’ll buy you dinner.”
“That sounds healthy.” I lifted up a stack of music order forms exposing a small white envelope. It was addressed to me in Harry’s handwriting and had been in my in-box this morning. I hadn’t opened it yet. I quickly set the stack of paper back down. If Maxie knew my ex-husband sent me a note, she would come unglued and suggest we conduct live target practice instead of just plugging holes into a photo.
Erik picked up a box of ammunition and shook it, bringing me back to the present. “Grab your ear protection and come with me,” he said.
We followed his casual cockiness through the store and passed several large men in hunting attire. They appeared to be considering a selection of rifles. One of them was pretending to shoot birds out of the sky. The tallest one nodded at us as we passed. “Last few days of white goose season.”
“Of course,” I said. “Uh, happy hunting?”
The man gave me a strange look and I hurried after Maxie.
Erik paused just outside of a steel blue door.
Maxie was already putting in the ear plugs. She covered them with black industrial ear muffs. “Put them both on Sam. It will be loud.”
“Right.” I pushed the small rubber piece into my ear and it promptly popped out and fell to the floor.
“Squeeze it to warm it up a bit, then squish it before you put it in,” Maxie said as she put on clear safety glasses.
“Squeeze and squish, right.” I manipulated the small plugs. “You look amazing, by the way.”
Maxie tucked her blonde bangs behind her ears. “Wait till you see me with a gun in my hands.”
“She’s smokin’,” Erik said.
I rolled my eyes. Erik was evidently Maxie’s rebound boy. “He’s a little young,” I whispered to her as we walked through the door. And then I screamed as a loud thud scorched right through the ear protection. “Holy crap! I forgot how loud it is.”
Erik pointed at one of the stations. “Stand there.” He set the gun down on a small ledge and attached the target with Harry’s face to clips hanging from a wire. “And I’m twenty-three.”
I stared at him.
“You were shouting.” He held a button down and the target zoomed off into the shadowy end of the range. He picked up the Mosquito. “Hold the gun like this. Aim with these two sights. Pull the trigger in a smooth motion. Don’t hesitate. If you pull and the round isn’t discharged, set the weapon down like this.” He laid it carefully on the ledge using two hands. “I’ll take care of it.”
The first shot wasn’t bad. It felt good. But the second and third were more serious. On the fourth I hit Harry’s face.
There had been many times during my pathetic marriage when I contemplated hurting Harry. Ideas I had considered included starching his underwear, adding laxative to his coffee, and burning his Guns & Ammo magazines on the grill.
But the way the bullet tore the paper, near Harry’s right eye, made me think of the night he had killed Peterson’s partner. How he’d sliced the young officer’s jugular with the jagged end of a broken beer bottle. How I’d been home, nursing a bruise, thankful for a few hours of peace.
“What are you doing?” Maxie asked, turning away from her target. “Why are you sitting down? Did the round stick?”
I had collapsed onto a folding chair set against the wall and was watching Erik inspect the Mosquito.
“It’s clean,” he said. “You’re good.”
Maxie sat down next to me. “It’s just a target, Sam.”
“I know that.” I stared at my shaky hands. Each thud from the guns on the other side of the indoor range felt too loud, too real.
“Knowing how to use one of these things is important. The first step—”
“Max, I get it. I need to know how to protect myself. I agree with you. I’ve been to a range before. I’m not sure what my problem is.”
Erik turned a folding chair around and sat across from us. “How long since you’ve shot a gun?”
“It’s been a while.” A vision surfaced of Harry’s smiling face, the small scar below his right eye…his wink. It was our second date. I’d shown him my target and he’d been impressed.
My cell phone vibrated in my pocket and I jumped up.
“That will be Agent Parker,” Maxie said.
I looked at the display, then answered it, holding it up to my protected ear. “Hello?” I couldn’t hear anything. “Ben? Crap.” I yanked off the headset, but the plugs were still in. I put the speaker to my mouth. “Hold on.”
“You’re shouting again,” Erik said. “I’ll clean things up. You can take your call in the shop.”
I pushed through the blue door, ripping the plugs out of my ears.
“Where the hell are you?” Ben asked when I could finally hear him.
I took a deep breath. It was so good to hear his voice I didn’t care that he sounded annoyed. “Petey’s.”
“The range? Why?”
“My first self-defense class with Maxie.”
“Leave it to Maxie to start your instruction with a gun.”
I set the headset and plugs down on the counter where we had begun the lesson and walked toward the front of the store, passing the hunters again. “Sounds like you would have begun with something else.”
He chuckled. “I can think of a few other things.”
“Where have you been? It’s been three days since you’ve called.”
“Three days? Really? I guess I lost track of time. I haven’t been sleeping much.” He paused and I envisioned him stretching his muscular arms above his head, black FBI t-shirt tight across his chest…
I tripped on a ridge of carpet.
“And I would have started with hand to hand combat,” Ben continued. “You should know how to take someone down with a kick to the groin. We could have practiced on one of the Toms.”
“That’s cruel.” I pushed through the glass door and headed for a small bench in front of a nearby deli.
“Sorry I haven’t called.”
“I don’t expect you to call every day.” Even though I really did and if he hadn’t called today I was planning on drowning my sorrows in a marathon of Barbara Streisand movies, starting with The Way We Were…or Yentl.
I plopped down on the bench.
“You’re sighing,” he said.
“I was sitting down. It’s just the breath inside of me coming out through my mouth. Not so much a sigh as an exhalation of air. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Did I say something was wrong with you?”
I closed my eyes and pressed my temples. I imagined how Ben would look if he were here…expression full of concern, smoky grey eyes dark. “I’m fine.”
“All right, but it’s not such a big deal in the scheme of things. And if I tell you—”
“You have to promise not to freak out.”
There was silence on the other end of the line.
“Sam, I need you to tell me what it is. Knowing you the way I do, and considering the training I’m currently receiving, my imagination is conjuring up kidnapping and torture scenarios.”
“Harry wrote me a letter. He sent it to the school.”
“He did what?” Ben took a deep breath. “What did it say?”
“I haven’t opened it.”
There was another long pause. “Why did he write you?”
“The only thing I can think of is that he sent it for Valentine’s Day.”
“Valentine’s—wait…oh, God, Sam. I’m sorry. I meant to send you flowers.”
Petey, the owner of the shooting range, exited the deli behind me, loudly calling out good-byes to the people inside the restaurant.
“I don’t need flowers, Ben.”
“I still should have sent them.”
Petey sat down on the bench, knees creaking audibly. “How are you, Samantha?” His voice was loud, a byproduct of years at the range.
“Who’s that?” Ben asked.
“Petey.” I smiled at the old man, one of my father’s oldest friends. “Ben, I should go.”
“Are you going to open Harry’s letter?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t even told Maxie about it. I’m afraid she’ll hurt him.”
“She might,” Ben said. “When you open it, call me.”
“I’ll call you later.”
“And, Sam, I wish I was there to take you out for Valentine’s Day.”
“Our first date?”
“One of the things I plan on remedying when I come home.”
We said our good-byes and I set the phone down in my lap. He wanted to send me flowers. He wanted to take me out on a date. He wanted me to call him when I opened Harry’s letter.
Why had my ex-husband written me? What could I have possibly done that would have encouraged that?
Petey was picking his teeth with a toothpick. “Sounds like you have boy trouble. You should bring him by here. Let me talk to him.”
“That fella on the phone. Sounded like he was telling you what to do. I know people, you know. I could have him taken out.”
“You sound like Skipper.”
“Bah, Turnbuckle.” Petey spat on the ground. “That two-bit shyster owes me money.”
“Sam!” Maxie shouted as she exited the shop.
I stood up from the bench.
“I know this woman,” Petey said, pointing at Maxie with his toothpick. “She’s here every Tuesday. Glows brighter than a welding torch after she’s shot a few rounds.”
Maxie walked up to us. Her cheeks were flushed and her blonde hair was floating up and around, as if she’d stuck her fingers in a light socket. “I’m famished. Feel like steak. Rare. Let’s go.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, and Mrs. Cochran called. She’s got a place for us to look at. Said something about a double wide and a swamp cooler.”
“A mobile home?”
“I have no idea, but I’m telling you right now I will not live in a trailer park.”
“Remember what I said, Samantha,” Petey said as I stood up. “Your father and I go way back. Wasn’t happy with that Harry fellow. Feel like I should meet the next guy you’re considering so I can check him out. See if he’s good enough for you.”
“Are you talking about Parker?” Maxie asked. “That man is solid. Too solid. Geesh, it’s hot for February, isn’t it?” She fanned herself with her hand. “Problem is proximity. But that will change soon. Ben’s coming home, right? He’s not going to fall in love with Maryland and stay there…”
I ignored her and hugged Petey. “Thank you.”
“Say hi to your dad for me.”
“I will.” I turned to Maxie. “You look spacey. I’ll drive.”
Maxie nodded. “Probably a good idea. I feel faint. I shouldn’t be thinking about Parker the way I am.”
I took her keys, shaking my head.
“And just so you know,” Maxie continued. “This trip to the range wasn’t successful. I can see now we’ll have to start with something more basic.”
“Hand to hand combat?”
BLOCK & TACKLE
BLOCK & TACKLE
by Evan Katy
I closed my eyes against the bright blue sky, ignored the screeching of angry seagulls, and focused my mind on Ben Parker. My usual fantasy: I’m at school, the campus empty except for a horde of bad guys surrounding me like a testosterone fueled fog. Ben strides through them, no concern for his own well-being, wearing black cargos, Kevlar vest, gun strapped to his thigh, and a backwards baseball cap on his head.
“Well, if it isn’t Samantha Rialto,” he says, putting on his sunglasses.
“How did you get here so fast?” I ask.
He unhooks his gun from its holster. The muscles in his arms flex as he chambers a round. I stop breathing briefly.
“I’m never late to an appointment with a damsel in distress.” He kisses me, then turns and shoots bad guys with inspired accuracy.
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” I whisper, not caring if he hears.
“Stop squirming,” Skipper hissed in my ear, dissipating the Ben mirage.
I opened my eyes. The world was bright blue again. “This is all your fault,” I said.
“Maybe, but you’re making it worse.”
Roger “Skipper” Turnbuckle, a sometime private investigator, was the reason I was lying on an uncomfortable boat deck underneath a swinging mass of cabled steel.
“I’m not moving,” I said through gritted teeth.
But I was about to die. We were in rough water just beyond the rock wall lip of the Ventura Marina. The boat was a two-story semi-yacht built in 1950. The more we rocked, the worse the swinging became.
I’d been unlucky enough to be standing underneath the block and tackle assembly when it made a sound like a braying donkey and broke loose. Skipper body slammed me to the deck and probably saved my life, but since I’d hit both my funny bones on the way down and my arms felt like they were on fire I wasn’t about to thank him.
“This never happens,” Skipper said.
“Stop saying that!”
Yesterday morning, Maxie Peters, my best friend, pounded on my parent’s front door (where I’d been living since my house was destroyed by an insane astrophysicist). She accepted a slice of bacon from my mother, then made me run a three-mile loop.
Hours later, after Beginning Band and before I had time to take a bite of my sandwich, she burst into my office at Oak Valley Middle School.
“What are you doing?” she asked, throwing her purse on the chair.
I looked at the delicious combination of lettuce, bread and meatloaf. “My mom made it.”
“She’s smothering you.” Maxie took the sandwich out of my hand. “Get up.”
“Give me back my lunch.”
“After you’ve run around the track.” She took a bite. “This is good. You’d better hurry.”
“Eight laps,” she yelled as I ran out.
When I got back there was half a sandwich on my desk along with a note and a carrot. The note said, “Eat the vegetable. Thank me later.”
After school, she was waiting for me near my Jeep, a smug grin on her face.
“My muscles hurt just looking at you,” I said.
“We’re going to train with Luddy,” she said. “Follow me.”
I didn’t need to ask who Luddy was. She’d spoken about the former Marine before – “big shoulders, bald head, scar on one cheek from a shard of steel (gift of the Iraq war) and a voice like a German Shepard on a blood hunt.” Luddy wasn’t her drill Sargent, but they’d become friends on a flight back from one of her tours, bonding over a shared appreciation of horror films.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?” I asked.
“Don’t whine.” Maxie put on her sunglasses, tossed back her blonde hair, then turned on her booted heel. “And don’t lose me!” she shot back as she got in her Mustang.
I cracked open the rusted door of my Jeep. My cell phone blared out the James Bond theme. I pulled it out of my pocket too fast, fingers not quite secure, and it went flying, smacking the driver’s side window and clattering to the ground. There was a high-pitched squeal and the glass began to slide down, coming to a stop a few inches above the rim.
I picked up the phone. “Ben?”
“God, I miss you,” he said, his voice loud, the background noise even louder – a mix of rock music and machinery.
Ben Parker was my ex-husband’s former partner on the police force. Last month he accepted a promotion to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was training in Maryland.
At least, that’s where I thought he was.
“Where are you?” I tried rolling the window back up, but the handle spun, uselessly.
“We are going out when I get back,” he said. “Scratch that, we’re going to spend an evening at my place watching movies. Long movies with noble soundtracks. Like Lord of the Rings or Dances with Wolves.”
I turned the key in the ignition and slammed the door shut. The glass squeaked down another inch. “You’ve been drinking.”
“Yes I have. But I miss you all the same.”
“I believe you.”
“I even miss the Toms.”
The Toms were detectives Ben used to work with – Tom Harrison and Tom Miner. One was large, the other small, but both were ridiculous.
“You cannot possibly miss the Toms. Now I know you’re not fine.”
The buzzing grew louder.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m enjoying a twenty-four hour furlough, but all I can think about is your wavy hair, quirky smile—”
Ben sighed. “I love your skin, you know. It’s so…soft—OUCH!”
“I miss you, Sam.”
“You said that.”
“I mean it. I’ve never missed anyone before. Even when I was little, when I would spend weeks with my grandparents. I never once was homesick. But I’m homesick now…because of you. I just wanted to tell you.”
Maxie laid on her horn. She was waiting on the street, just outside of the parking lot.
“I miss you, too,” I said.
“Bye, baby, I’ve got to go—SHIT! Get that thing away from me!”
The line ended abruptly.
I gripped the steering wheel. The wind was cold, blowing in through the open window. The last man to call me “baby” was my ex-husband. I wondered if I could get Ben to call me something else.
The west side of Oak Valley was devoted to industry, but most business folk located their commercial operations over the hill in Los Angeles County where the taxes were half as much and the population tripled. Those who remained in Oak Valley could afford it and appreciated the seclusion.
This meant that there were no helpful signs or markers on any of the buildings. I followed Maxie as she wound her Mustang through the nearly empty roads. We turned right on a street marked only with the letter “G” and then into the parking lot of a beige, one story, windowless structure.
I found a spot for the Jeep, and then willed myself to walk to the front of the building.
“Did you bring your work out clothes?” Maxie asked.
“Did you tell me we were coming here?”
She nodded. “I reminded you on Wednesday.”
“I must have forgotten.”
“You have selective hearing.”
“Let’s just get this over with.”
She stopped me with a hand to my chest. “Ben called, didn’t he?”
“How can you know that?”
“I can see it in your face. What did he say?”
I had to swallow before I could answer her. “That he misses me.”
Maxie looked dubious. “Is that it?”
“We had two minutes to talk before you laid on your horn.”
She dropped her hand. “Leave it to you to look miserable after a phone call from a sexy man who misses you.”
“He called me ‘baby.’”
“A term of endearment.”
“Oh,” Maxie said.
My ex-husband was a cheater, a liar, and a brute. Anything that reminded me of him was worthy of a moment’s silence. Maxie didn’t say anything else, just pulled the door open and gestured for me to enter before her.
The gym interior was bright, modern. The air was thick with sweat and heavy breathing. Exercise equipment crowded every inch of wall space and people swarmed over them like ants, clanging weights and grunting. In the dead center were two, well lit and padded squares. A dozen tiny kids in white tunics practiced karate on one. The other stood empty.
Luddy met us near the door and crushed my hand as he shook it. “Maxie said you were cute. She lied.” He towered over me, a bullish grin on his face. “You’re the prettiest thing to come in here in days.”
“I heard that, Luddy,” a woman said from a machine nearby. She continued to push on the weighted bars, never taking her eyes off of me.
Luddy leaned forward. “My wife, Coco. She’s the jealous type.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, removing my hand, then flexing my fingers to get the feeling back. “Maxie’s told me a lot about you, too.”
“She didn’t tell me enough about you.” His voice rumbled through my body. “Did you know your eyes are the color of a prairie storm?”
“No flirting,” Maxie said. “I warned you. Her boyfriend’s a cop.”
“Parker is not my boyfriend,” I said.
“Might as well be.”
“And he’s not a cop,” I added.
Luddy’s right eyebrow shot up. “I have a chance, then.”
“A chance to go to hell,” Coco yelled.
Luddy laughed loudly, then clapped his hands together. “Okay. Maxie wants you to learn some basic self-defense moves. Are you ready?”
“Not really, no.”
“She’s fine,” Maxie said.
“The lockers are over there.” He pointed to a wall decorated with posters of sweaty people. Across the top in bold red lettering: “CHANGE YOUR ATTITUTE…OR YOUR CLOTHES.”
“Can’t I just stay in these?” I asked.
Luddy laughed. “Funny.”
Maxie sighed and took my arm. “You’re ridiculous. Come with me. I have a pair of yoga shorts in my locker.”
After we changed, we met Luddy on the empty pad and he led us in a series of stretches. Every few seconds he would issue an instruction, then demonstrate. Maxie and I kept a few feet between us. I breathed deeply, enjoying the slow, rhythmic moves. Cluttered thoughts and self-doubt were swept away.
So what if Ben had called me “baby.” Harry didn’t own the term.
But thinking about Harry’s sweet talk made me think of the letter he’d written me. Ben hadn’t mentioned it (for which I was grateful) and I still hadn’t told Maxie about it. I also had not opened it or thrown it away. Did that mean something?
“You’re frowning, Samantha,” Luddy said. “Relax. Feel the stretch. Think only of your breathing.”
“Think only of my breathing. Got it.”
The mat smelled like dirty feet. Did they clean these things on a regular basis?
“Stand up,” Luddy instructed.
I stood, but my body protested. Maxie bounced on the mat like a boxer before a match, shaking her arms and flexing her fingers. I tried to mimic her, but just as I was getting into a rhythm, Luddy reached out and wrapped his arm around my throat. He pulled me against him. I was barely conscious of moving. My hands instinctively went to the tiny space between his arm and my chin.
“Don’t look up,” Luddy said. “Go limp.”
I dropped my hands, but couldn’t quite relax. “This feels unnatural,” I squeaked out. “Isn’t it easier to choke me this way? I think I’m about to…pass…out…” I tried to take a deep breath and couldn’t.
“First lesson,” Luddy said. “Always pull in the opposite direction your instincts tell you to. Your attacker will be prepared for you to fight by pushing up and pulling at his arm. Don’t do that. Instead, sag a bit. He’ll question himself for a split second. In that heartbeat you react by reaching up and jamming him hard in the eyeball or planting your heel into his foot. Got it?”
I gave him a thumbs up. I couldn’t speak.
He let me go, and I staggered away. Maxie grabbed my arm, steadying me.
We practiced disarming next. I pointed out that I’d have to get very close to my attacker to pull off the moves he was demonstrating.
“My ultimate plan, if I ever have to face a man with a gun again, is to run the other way,” I said.
“And get shot in the back,” Maxie said. “Wonderful strategy.”
“I’m rethinking it,” I said from the floor, where Luddy had thrown me. “I’m going to have to see a chiropractor.”
We practiced until I could extend my arms and use them to wipe Luddy’s hands down to my left, pulling him forward just enough so I could get the tips of my fingers on his gun…before he yanked away and pretend-shot me in the foot.
“Be fierce,” Luddy said.
“You’re bigger than me.”
“Size means nothing in this situation. It’s all about who has the edge, and the person with the edge is the one using surprise to create a predicable reaction in their opponent.”
I blinked at him. “You’re like Yoda, but with more words.”
Next move: kneeing a groin.
“I’m not going to stand here so you can clip me,” Luddy said, after I demonstrated how I’d already mastered this move.
He taught me how to bat his hands away and jump back as he approached. I learned to twist my body, set one foot down hard on the ground and use the momentum to bring the other knee up. I hit him hard twice, and he didn’t even flinch.
“I’m wearing a cup,” he said.
“It should still hurt,” I panted.
Maxie smiled proudly from the edge of the mat. “I told you she could learn.”
By the end of the session, every muscle in my body ached. Each step toward the door was accompanied by a groan or a swear word – sometimes both. I tried to save the more creative language for the safety of my Jeep, but a few escaped before I left the building.
“I’ll see you next week,” Luddy said. “It’ll hurt pretty bad for a few days, but by Monday you’ll feel like a million bucks.”
“Thanks for ruining my weekend,” I muttered to Maxie, as we finally escaped to the fresh air.
“You weren’t going to do anything this afternoon anyway,” she said.
A seagull perched on the side of the boat, staring down at me with one beady, unblinking eye.
Skipper hissed in my ear. “Stay still. Hicks will grab the block before it disconnects completely.”
And kills us.
“I’m not making it move, Skipper.” I stared at the giant hook dangling above my head. “We’re on the ocean. The ocean moves; the boat moves; we move. Simple physics.”
“Almost got it,” Hicks yelled from the stern.
This morning, I rolled out of bed and crawled to my parent’s living room. I contemplated climbing the two feet to the couch cushions, but decided against it. Instead, I lay on the floor and focused on the television remote, willing it to jump from the coffee table into my hands.
My mother walked in with a breakfast tray. “I can’t remember which one of these foods helps with sore muscles, so I made them all.” She hovered above me. “I’ve got eggs, bacon, a banana, some hash browns and a little oatmeal.”
“That sounds wonderful. I might need you to feed me, ‘cause I’m pretty sure I can’t lift my arms.”
“Of course,” she said and set the tray down. “Maxie really ought to take it easier on you, knowing what you’ve been through.”
“For God’s sake, Eleanor.” My dad strode into the room. He used to be the Chief of Police for Oak Valley and still looked the part – except now, instead of a uniform he was wearing his usual polo shirt and chinos. “Samantha’s getting into shape. Don’t cut her any slack.” He hit my feet with his newspaper. “You need to move. Stretch. Do something.”
“I’m going to lie here and watch television.”
“And eat,” Mom added.
“And eat.” I tried to nod, but it hurt. “It’s Saturday, I have nothing to do, nowhere to go.” My almost-boyfriend misses me, but he’s three thousand miles away. Poor, poor pitiful me.
“The lawn needs mowing,” Dad said.
“It’s February, and it’s been raining,” I pointed out.
“At least get off the floor,” he said.
“The floor is soft.” I moved my head slightly and felt stabbing pains in my neck. “Did you guys get new carpeting? I don’t remember it being this comfortable when I was little.”
There was a loud knock at the front door, followed by another, and then pounding. My dad stalked up to it. He didn’t even check the peephole, just ripped the door open.
“Chief,” a familiar voice said.
“Turnbuckle,” Dad growled. “Is there a reason you’re standing on my porch?”
I pushed myself up to a standing position, groaning. Had I forgotten an appointment with Skipper? I mentally reviewed my calendar, relieved to see “lie on floor and groan” in big bold letters.
“We’re late,” Skipper said when I hobbled into view. He was dressed for a Sunday stroll – white button-down shirt, jeans and boat shoes. He scratched his bearded chin and glanced nervously at my father.
Dad’s eagle eyes were locked on Skipper. “I thought you had nothing to do today, Sam.”
Skipper raised his eyebrows twice. Something was up. “I’ll see you at Sister’s in ten.”
It took me fifteen minutes to get dressed. I had to stop and cry after I put on my pants.
“What’s up with Skipper?” Dad asked, leaning on my doorframe.
“The usual…I think.” I picked up a hairbrush. “OUCH!” I put my arm back down. I’d only been able to reach halfway up.
“Skipper’s usual gives me indigestion,” Dad said.
“It’s okay, Dad. Really.”
He frowned, considering his options. Then let out a heavy sigh. “I’ll be at the golf course if you need me.”
Skipper was waiting outside of Sister’s Café. “I ordered you a tea.” He pushed a thick paper cup into my hands. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
“Business,” he said. “And you’re driving.”
I took a sip of the tea. It was hot. “Why aren’t we going in your car? This is your idea.”
“I’m not allowed to get behind a wheel for a few weeks.”
He turned away without saying any more, and I followed him to my Jeep.
Once we were on the freeway, I drank my tea and let the heater warm my feet. The mechanism to raise the glass hadn’t repaired itself magically over night and the air from the open window was freezing my entire left side.
“What is wrong with you that you can’t drive?” I asked.
“Mind your own business.” Skipper stared out his window.
“How did you get to Sister’s? And my parent’s house?”
He was silent.
“You didn’t walk. Someone must have driven you. Why they couldn’t also drive you to the marina?”
He tapped my dashboard. “Are you holding this entire Jeep together with duct tape?”
“Maybe, but at least I have a car and can drive.”
“This isn’t a car. It’s a pogo stick with wheels.”
I’d needed a replacement automobile after falling bomb debris had crushed mine. Dad offered to help me find one. He’d worked out a deal that he felt proud of, and I was grateful. Thus, the rusted orange Jeep with half a top, torn seats and exposed wiring.
Skipper ran his hands down his pant legs. “Can’t you drive this piece of crap any faster?”
“I could,” I said. “But I drive slow when I’m apprehensive. And right now I’m extremely apprehensive. You haven’t told me why we’re going to the marina, you’re jumpy, irritable and not a load of fun to be around, plus I’m about to get frostbite, so I’m thinking you should just deal with it. We’ll get there, when we get there.”
Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot for the Ventura Marina. I followed Skipper’s furtive, lurching self down the floating dock ramp and past a string of boats. Most of them were silent and empty, but some were occupied. Two children and a dog stood at the back of one, staring at us as if we were the strangest things they’d seen all day – a bearded, muttering old man and a limping, groaning woman with hair sticking up like she’d stuck her finger in a light socket.
We turned right and worked our way down a narrow ramp between rows of watercraft. Skipper kept a sure pace; never once looking back to make sure I was following. We turned left at the end of the row and entered an area of larger boats. It was quieter here, two-story monstrosities towering over us.
A man with bushy white hair and fair skin stood in the walkway. I almost didn’t see him. He was wearing tan shorts and a red shirt with a USC Trojan emblem. He blended into the busy mural painted on the boat behind him.
Skipper stopped and they shook hands. The boat was covered with cartoon portraits of a crowd of spectators and athletes.
“This is Hicks,” Skipper said. “He’s got a problem, and he’d like your help.”
Hicks took my hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Samantha Rialto,” I said. “And I don’t mean to be rude, but I have no idea what Skipper is talking about. I’m not a cop or a private investigator, just a teacher – a music teacher – so I’m probably not going to be able to help you.”
Hicks smiled. His teeth were white. “I need to learn how to play the piano, and Skipper here tells me you’re the best.”
I had not expected that.
Hicks cleared his throat and patted his chest. “Sorry to pull you out on a Saturday, but it’s my mother’s ninetieth birthday tomorrow, and she always wanted me to be able to play the piano. I’d forgotten all about it until yesterday in the hospital, when she mentioned it had been her fondest wish…and I’d never granted it.”
I glanced at Skipper. He wasn’t looking at me.
“You want to learn to play the piano?” I asked, mainly to make sure he could repeat it with a straight face and I wasn’t on hidden camera. It was not inconceivable that Skipper would try to earn extra cash with a reality show.
“Moon River.” Hicks coughed again, holding up his hand as if to offer his apologies. “Sorry. Too many cigarettes.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t need to be great, just passable.”
I blinked at him.
He gestured to his boat – upper deck fully enclosed with tinted windows. “The piano is all set up.”
“You have a piano on your boat?”
“I bought one of those portable electric jobs yesterday. Skip helped me set it up.”
I turned to Skipper. “What has he got on you?”
Skipper laughed, uncomfortable. “I have no idea what you’re referring to. Hicks and I are good friends.”
Hicks smiled. “Skipper owes me a great deal. I have elected to have him pay me back gradually.”
“You can do that?” I asked.
Skipper’s good friend, who he owed an incredible amount for an unspecified deed, spent the next four hours sitting on a bar stool in front of a two-foot long, electronic keyboard. Fortunately, Hicks was a fast learner, and while he couldn’t read notes, he intuitively understood finger placement and was able to memorize which keys to press when. Plus, he had a wicked sense of humor.
“I was the USC basketball coach for fifteen years,” Hicks said. “If you didn’t laugh, you cried, and I’m an ugly crier. Played a game after my dog died once and some asshole videotaped me crying on the sidelines. You Tubed it. Unfortunately, we were playing Stanford and we were losing, so, of course, they made me out to be some pansy who couldn’t take a loss.” He chuckled, heartily, then paused to cough. “I used it to my advantage in the Tournament that year – you know March Madness?”
“Those shitheads were busy prancing about, making a big fuss over Hicks the Crying Coach. So we snuck in and spanked ‘em. HA!”
Skipper had been lying on a couch, his face in the sun. “We should take this rowboat out for a spin.”
“Do you have time, Samantha?” Hicks asked.
“I do,” I said. “Sounds like fun.”
And that’s when it all went terribly wrong.
Hicks was red in the face, but finally in control of the wildly swinging arm.
“I’ve got it!” he shouted. “Just need to tighten up these ropes. Not sure how they got loose in the first place.”
Skipper pushed himself up. “Where is your rum?”
I lay still. The sun felt wonderful. And now that I had averted certain doom, I was exhausted.
Skipper’s bearded face blocked the sunlight.
“LOOK OUT!” Hicks yelled.
There was a sickening THUNK. Skipper’s face was replaced by the swinging block and tackle. Arms and legs went flying as he was picked up and thrown over the side of the boat. There was another loud groaning sound as the entire assembly broke loose and followed Skipper into the sea.
Hicks and I rushed to the side of the boat.
“SKIPPER!!” I searched for him in the froth of the rapidly sinking wood and cable.
Skipper burst above the waves, flapping his hands on the water.
“HOLD ON, SKIP!” Hicks threw a float ring to him. “GRAB IT! GRAB IT!”
Skipper looked dazed. His fingers inched toward the bobbing float, finally catching hold.
“He’s got it!” I turned to Hicks. “Now what?”
Hicks threw down another rope and Skipper held onto that, too. Inch by inch, we pulled him toward the base of the boat, then ran down the steps and drug him on board.
Skipper sprawled on the deck like a beached whale, sputtering water, a large purplish bruise forming on the side of his head. We hovered over him.
He raised one arm up and pointed at Hicks. “We’re even.”
A Stunning Afternoon
A Stunning Afternoon
by Evan Katy
To get to my parent’s house you have to drive past the high school and St. Peter’s Catholic Church, make a left at the gas station, and travel into the neighborhood known as The Enclave. An empty guardhouse sits on a narrow island. Despite being regularly painted an alarming shade of lime green, it has remained abandoned, never realizing its full potential.
Late one summer, my father nailed a sign on the door: Out to lunch – Proceed at your own risk – Bunch of suspicious old people past this point. A month later someone added: Roaming bands of Chihuahuas. Hide your lettuce. Then last month Maxie wrote in big bold letters: FERAL SNAILS. STEEL-TOED BOOTS REQUIRED AFTER SUNDOWN.
My father texted me at lunch: The equipment has arrived. Come home as soon as school is over. It was the longest text he’d ever sent, and since it included punctuation and capital letters it meant that the last few nights hadn’t been a waste of effort and training on my part. The retired police chief of Oak Valley could still learn new tricks.
Maxie’s Mustang was at the curb. I pulled my Jeep in behind it and climbed out, dreading what was to come. I heard a whoop from the general direction of my parent’s backyard and walked even slower, dragging my reluctant feet down the stone walkway and up the patio steps.
My mother was in the kitchen. She was kneading something, both of her hands deep in a large stainless steel bowl.
“Making bread, Mom?”
“AHHHH!” She clutched her chest, fingers covered in red clumps. “Samantha, you frightened me.”
There was another loud whoop from the backyard.
“I don’t like this,” Mom muttered and put her shaky hands under the faucet. “I’m going to have to change my shirt. Can you turn this on?”
I turned the water on and snuck a peak in the bowl. “Meatloaf?”
“Your father’s favorite. I wanted to get it in the oven earlier, but Maxie showed up and sidetracked me.”
She didn’t have to say any more. Maxie had a way of storming into the house and taking over. She was especially fond of the normalcy my parents represented since she had nothing like it growing up. My father and mother knew this and worked overtime to give her what she craved. Unconditional love at its finest.
“Maxie said that you guys saw another house, but didn’t like it,” Mom said. She took a silver ladle out of a drawer and stabbed the contents of the bowl with it.
I pulled out a barstool and sat down. “It was more of a townhome than a house, and it was right next to Lost Hope, or whatever the old people’s home is called.”
“Whatever. The walls were paper-thin and the kitchen window faced the nursing home’s cafeteria. An old man holding a desert cup flashed us.” I shuddered. “It wasn’t good.”
“SAM! GET OUT HERE!” Maxie yelled from the backyard.
I groaned. “I don’t want to go out there.”
“What did he flash?” Mom asked, still pounding at the meat.
“His front, back, pretty much everything.”
“Maxie looked longer than I did. Olivia just screamed. Mrs. Cochran yelled out something about Jesus and yanked down on the shade. But she pulled too hard and the entire housing clattered to the floor. We then spent the next few minutes fixing it, because we couldn’t leave the place looking like we’d vandalized it.”
“Of course not,” Mom said.
“Right, but that allowed flasher geezer to parade around for a while longer. An orderly tried to stop him, but he must have been slippery, because no one could get their hands on him. Someone finally had the sense to throw a blanket over his head and knock him to the ground.”
Mom’s spoon clattered to the counter. “You don’t have to do this, dear,” she said.
“I know I don’t,” I said and sighed as I stood. “Get that in the oven. I’ll be hungry when this is all over.”
Maxie was poised, arms extended, holding what looked like a tiny gun. She was aiming at a bizarre, orange-wigged dummy that had been propped up against one of the trees.
My father stood next to her, patiently watching, arms crossed.
There was a small click and two prongs shot out of the Taser, sailed the short distance to clown man’s torso, and dug in. Maxie dropped the Taser, threw her hands over her head, and bounced around in a circle like she’d just been awarded the heavyweight championship.
“I didn’t jump that time, Frank,” she said.
My dad nodded proudly. “Your turn, Sam.” He said it without looking in my direction. He had the ability to sense whenever anyone was in a ten-meter vicinity. The only person who was ever able to sneak up on him was my mom, which is astonishing since she makes noise constantly, even when she sleeps. I think my father has trained himself to ignore her. His inability to sense her presence is his karmic punishment.
“Why do I need to practice?” I protested. “It’s obvious how it’s done. Point and shoot. I got it.” I turned to go back into the house and bumped into a tall man wearing a police uniform who was exiting the French doors.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, then caught a better look at my face. “Sam? Is that you?”
“Sergeant Doyle,” I said, giving him a hug. “It’s good to see you. Are you here to learn how to use a Taser too?”
He smiled. Owen Doyle had worked with my father for so long, I tended to forget that he was ten years younger. He was fit, carried himself sprightly, and had stated more than once that retiring wasn’t an option.
“I’m here to rescue Herman,” he said in his low baritone.
He pointed toward the dummy Maxie had just impaled. “That.”
“You’re going to love this, Sam,” Maxie said as she walked up to us.
“That is a lie,” I replied.
Dad greeted Doyle with a warm handshake. “You said I could have him for the day.”
“I hear you, Chief, but my end of the day and your end of the day are different things now.”
Dad smiled broadly then turned and put a bright blue box in my hand. “Open it, Sam.” He was using the authoritative voice that made criminals handcuff themselves and hop willingly into the back of police cars.
I stood my ground. “Nothing good will come of this.”
“You sound like your mother.”
“Come on, open it,” Maxie cajoled. “Your dad bought me one too.”
“Why? You’re dangerous without a weapon,” I told her.
“Please? I promise, you’ll love it.”
“Fine.” The box was cardboard and had the logo KRP on it. “Is this the logo for kryptonite?” I asked, peeling at the bottom seal. “'Cause you never know. It might be my weakness.”
“Stop stalling,” Maxie said.
Inside was what looked like a squatty flashlight.
I looked up. “What is it?”
Dad grabbed the box back. “It’s a stun gun.”
“He also got us a Taser,” Maxie said, grinning.
Doyle chuckled. “A two-for-the-price-of-one deal at Petey’s?”
“They were running a special,” my father responded. “Let’s test this out, ladies, before Doyle ruins all the fun and takes back Herman.”
“Why do you call it Herman?” I asked.
“HERMAN’s an acronym,” Doyle said. “But hell if I know what it stands for. They told us when we first got it, but no one remembers. Herman is just easier.”
Dad gestured for us to move closer to the bizarre dummy. “It’s a high tech test dummy. It has pressure sensors and makes realistic sounds, although I disabled that feature, because who wants to hear a criminal groan.”
“I’d rather hear them cry,” Maxie said.
Doyle laughed again.
“You’re all heartless.” I took the stun gun back from my dad. It fit neatly into my palm. “You know,” I said, wishing I wasn’t saying it out loud, yet powerless to stop myself. “This could easily be mistaken for another kind of item.”
“What?” Dad asked absently as he picked up something from the ground next to the dummy.
Maxie laughed. “No one is going to think you carry around a sex toy, Sam. But if you’re worried we could always sticker it with a label. ‘For pain, not pleasure.’ Or, better yet—”
“Please, stop talking,” I said.
“Are you two done?” Dad looked pained. “Get over here.” He snapped a blue cartridge into the thing he was holding and held it out to me. “Shoot.”
I set the stun gun down on the ground and took the Taser gingerly.
“Hold it like you mean it, Sam,” he said.
I stared at Herman. “Who gave the dummy an orange wig?”
“I did,” Dad said. “He needed personality.”
“Where did you get the wig?”
“Your mother was Lucille Ball for Halloween.”
“She was? How come I didn’t know this?”
“Shoot the dummy, Sam!” Maxie ordered.
I inhaled sharply and pressed the small button. Then screamed when the two prongs deployed. They sprang wildly, one spearing a rosebush, the other the grass.
I turned around to see all three of them laughing. Maxie mimicked my flailing arms, but she was laughing so hard she was doing a poor job.
Sergeant Doyle wiped a tear. “You’ll have to keep your eyes open to aim properly.”
Dad snapped in another cartridge. “Again. And no screaming this time. The neighbors will think I’m murdering you.”
The second time was no better than the first.
“I only bought three training cartridges for each of you,” Dad said. “Didn’t think you’d need more.”
“I’m sure Petey will give you couple more, on the house,” Doyle said.
“I don’t need any more,” I announced. I grabbed the Taser angrily, turned, and shot. The third set of prongs hit Herman in the dead center…of his crotch.
“Jesus, Sam,” Doyle said. “Remind me not to make you angry.”
Dad and Maxie were laughing so hard they were both silent.
“Is everyone okay?” my mom asked, coming out of the house.
I picked up the stun gun. “How does this work?” I pressed the red button. “Am I supposed to feel something?”
The stun gun was making a small humming sound, but wasn’t clicking or shooting sparks like I’d imagined. I touched my hand to the end.
And experienced a horrible jolt. Lightening and razors raced up my arm.
“HOLY SHIT MOTHER OF—”
I dropped the stun gun and fell down hard on the grass nursing my hand.
“That’s…how you do it,” Dad sputtered.
“Sam?” my mother called out as she ran up to me.
I hugged my hand to my chest. “I might need an ice pack.”
“Are you all right, Frank?” Mom asked. “Your face is red.”
Maxie let out a “Hoooooo.” She took a deep breath.
“I just stunned myself,” I told them all.
Doyle reached down, grabbed me under my arms, and pulled me up. “Well, inadvertently you managed to complete the test that we put all new recruits through.”
“What, torturing yourself?” I asked. “Don’t let go, please. I’m not sure my legs will support me.”
“Are you all done?” Mom asked, but it was more of an order than a question.
Dad nodded. “We are.”
Doyle guided me over to Maxie who was still laughing. He then threw Herman over his shoulder, handing Dad the wig. “It was nice to see you all.”
“Take care, Owen,” Mom said.
I stared at the space Herman had been. “I don’t want any of you to speak of what happened here.”
“I already texted Olivia,” Maxie said.