Darkness fell outside DeMichael’s window, his curtains rippling with the final exhalations of a humid summer day. With a sigh, he jammed his copy of NBA 2K12 into his Xbox wishing, his mother could afford a gaming system that wasn’t nearly as old as he was. Feet propped on his dresser, he lounged on his bed clicking up the commands to start the game and fantasizing about unwrapping an Xbox One at his upcoming twelfth birthday part.
“DeMichael.” His mother called from the kitchen. “DeMichael Ray, get in here right now.”
DeMichael peeled himself from the sweaty dampness of his sheets and sauntered into the hall. The home he and his mother shared was one of eight on the third floor of Tamarack Village apartments. Each cramped two bedroom equipped with similarly scratched appliances, each identical to its neighbor down to the threadbare tan carpets, paper thin walls, and legion of roaches who rallied with a vengeance each time they were poisoned, trapped, or sprayed. Stepping into a dining room, more a definition of floor covering than space, he leaned on the counter and looked to his mom.
“Watch’ya need, Mama?”
DeMichael’s mother towered over the stove her round features shrouded in rising steam and the sharp-edged shadows painted by the kitchen’s anemic yellow bulb. Engaged in her elaborate dance of cooking, she swayed to the clatter of pans, twirled from spice cabinet to fridge as her partner simmered in meaty richness before her.
“I need ya ta run on down ta the store an’ get me some butter an’ eggs,” she said. “I can’t finish without em’.”
DeMichael’s eyes sprang to the open balcony door, his heart quickening to the thrumming beat beyond. Outside, lay a sea of adventure; the darkness filled with danger and pleasures beyond boyish imagining. Many of his less well parented friends were out on the quad even now. He could hear their boisterous cries as they raced between the buildings shouting out their exuberance to the cooling night air.
His mother clicked off the burners and crossed her arms eying him as if she could read his thoughts. “An’ don’t even think ‘bout takin’ more’n twenty minutes ta get there an’ back. I know ‘xactly what kinda sinfulness take place ‘round here. Specially after dark.”
She lifted her cigarette from the ashtray where it lay unspooling its fine gray filament and fitted it to her lips.
“They ain’t nothing good goin’ on out there.” She leveled her finger at DeMichael and scowled. “But by the same token, you gonna be in the fifth grade this comin’ fall. It’s high time ya started helpin’ out.”
The cigarette’s cherry glow flared like a bright angry eye as she considered. “Maybe, you too young after all,” she said finally. Her eyes darted to the kitchen table, then she leaned over and peered into the living room. “Where’s my purse? Maybe I outta call your auntie Shirl. Have her come an’ watch ya while I run over there myself.”
DeMichael couldn’t stand the thought of Shirley coming to watch him. He wasn’t a baby, after all. Besides, his Aunt stank of missed showers and magnolia perfume.
“Mama, I can do it. I can.” He looked up with bright eager eyes. “I can make it in fifteen minutes, you just watch.”
“Wellll.” She pursed her lips and cocked a brow. “I suppose. Now where’s that purse?”
DeMichael raced into her bedroom, snagged her fat leather handbag from the doorknob and thudded back down the hall.
Purse in hand, his mother turned away as she retrieved her wallet, her distrust of the world so firmly ingrained she was unable to ignore it even in this intimate moment. When she turned back around, she held out a ten-dollar bill.
“Now this here’s plenty for butter an’ eggs.” With a playful grin, she pulled the cash away from his grasping fingers. “An’ you can spend a couple dollar on somethin’ for yourself.”
DeMichael snatched the bill and jammed it in his pocket wondering what delicacies might be had for two bucks.
As he backed towards the door, his mother called, “An’ don’t you dare talk ta none of them boys in the lot. You go straight on ta the store an’ hurry right back.”
“I will, Mama,” he said, and slammed the door behind him.
DeMichael sped to the stairs at the end of the hall holding his breath against the stale urine stink of the second-floor landing and catapulting himself the final dozen steps to the first floor. His sneakers smacked the carpeted floor with a satisfying and rubbery phlat. Then taking a deep breath, he ground open the front door and stepped into the welcoming embrace of a steamy Oklahoma night.
Beneath the sodium flare of security lights, he discovered a world cocooned in a veiled and sensual glamour. Half a dozen people chatted from lawn chairs at the back of a maroon Charger, the trunk lid thrown wide as a Pandora’s box as it spilled forth its refrain of soulful rhythms. At the grassy end of the complex, the shadows of children flitted to and fro among the rusted silhouettes of slides and swings their calls and laughter rising and falling like cresting waves. Above it all hovered the aroma of frying burgers, barbecued baloney, and the rich smoky fog of smoldering grills.
“Hey, Lil’ D.”
DeMicael turned to see his friend, Jayden, disengage himself from the shadows and saunter over.
“Whatcha doin’?” Jayden’s eyes lifted to the third-floor balcony where DeMichael’s mother leaned over watching them. “Your mom finally let’cha out?”
DeMichael shrugged. “Finally? Hell, she let me out all the time.” He tossed his mother a wave and looked back to Jayden. “Hey, I’m goin’ ta ol’ man Narang’s. Ya wanna come?”
At Jayden’s nod of approval, the two fell into step, swimming between swells of music flowing from open windows or the cars dotting the lot.
“So whatcha goin’ to the store for?” Jayden asked.
“I gotta get butter an’ eggs for dinner.”
They navigated the separating darkness of a weed strewn field, the Gas-N-Go’s distant golden lights shimmering with a lighthouse’s beguiling appeal.
“I can’t go in” Jayden said, pulling up short on the sidewalk outside the store.
“Why not?” Fearing Jayden might have spotted some of the neighborhood bullies, DeMichael rose to his tiptoes and peered through the dusty windows at the bright aisles within. Other than old man Narang’s nephew, there was no one in sight.
“There ain’t no one there,” DeMichael said. “You afraid ah goin’ in?”
“I ain’t afraid ah nothin’.” Jayden squared his shoulders. “It’s just that old man Narang caught me stealin’ candy last month.” His shoulders sank as he kicked at a cup rotting quietly beside the curb. “Said I couldn’t come back til school starts. Even took my picture an’ taped it to the wall behind the counter.”
He looked to DeMichael and shrugged. “So if I go in, we’ll probably both get kicked out.”
“Then gimme some money, an’ I’ll get ya something,” DeMicael said.
Jayden inside outed his pockets. “I ain’t got none.” He offered DeMichael a buck toothed grin. “But’cha could steal us somethin’. If ya wasn’t scared.”
DeMichael considered his friends suggestion. As he did, a voice in his head spoke against it with a strangely Mama-like tone.
“Naw, I can’t steal nothin’. What happens if I get banned like you? Then next time Mama sends me to the store, I’ll have ta walk all the way ta Walmart.” He shook his head and rubbed sagely at his chin. “No, it ain’t worth the risk.”
“But your mom don’t never send you out,” Jayden protested. “Leastwise, I ain’t never seen ya.”
“Pffft,” DeMichael puffed out his disdain. “Just ‘cause you ain’t seen me, don’t mean I ain’t done it.” He turned and waved back to the complex, the buttery glow of a dozen dozen windows darkling in the night.
“Why I been sneakin’ ‘cross that field and buyin’ stuff for my mom since I was nine,” he lied. “The only thing ya gotta watch out for is the pervs. Stay close to the cars and move fast an’ low. That’s how ya don’t get seen”
Jayden pursed his lips and nodded in appreciation. “Really? You do this a lot?”
“All the time.”
DeMichael dug into his pocket fingering the papery thickness of the bill, torn between an offer of generosity towards his friend and the selfish desire to keep whatever goodies two dollars could buy.
“If I have any change,” he said at last, “I’ll get us somethin’. ‘Kay?”
Pushing through the brassy jingle at the door, DeMichael’s skin prickled at the sudden coolness inside the Gas-N-Go. The clerk glanced up from a magazine balanced on his lap and brushed the dark bangs from his eyes. He was a pleasant looking man with youthful mocha shin and bright lopsided smile.
“Welcome to the Gas-N-Go,” he said mechanically before his eyed dropped once more to the page.
DeMichael wandered the aisles relishing the power of his responsibility and the exotic, foreign aromas, a spicy mix of incense and the hungry smell of curry laden meals. He eventually discovered the butter and eggs showcased behind a misty glass curtain at the back of the store. The refrigerator buzzed noisily as he cracked open the door and retrieved the butter and eggs. He let the door swing closed with a solid magnetic snick.
Looking to the window, he spotted Jayden peering in. His friend motioned to the candy aisle; his nose pressed to the glass. Strolling over, DeMichael set down the eggs and examined the selection with all the consideration of a connoisseur seated before his meal. Lifting first a Hershey’s bar then a Payday, Jayden rejected each with a shake of the head.
When DeMichael raised a Snickers, Jayden was gone. At the same instant, the bell at the front door chimed.
“Open the register an’ gimme all the cash,” a voice growled.
DeMichael dropped behind the shelves. His heart hammered.
“Please. Don’t shoot.” The clerk said.
There was the rustling sound of the clerk’s magazine hitting the floor, the frantic plastic tap of the register keys.
“Come on, motherfucker, I ain’t got all day.”
The sound of a struggle. A grunting intake of breath. A gunshot crack stabbed DeMichael’s ears. Without realizing it, DeMichael found himself on his feet. Fear brought a watery looseness to his joints as he leaned out and peered down the aisle.
The clerk lay on the floor. A man crouched above him. Drawn by his movement, the man’s eyes lifted and collided with DeMichael’s. An electric jolt surged down his spine and locked his feet to the floor.
The sound of distant sirens.
The man’s eyes darted to the window. To DeMichael. The window. With a final glance to the body at his feet, the robber fled.
On quivering legs, DeMichael plodded to the counter. The young man, who only moments before, had acknowledged him with a smile, looked up at DeMichael with dim half-lidded eyes.
“Hey, Mister. You…you okay?”
The clerk stared up in silent judgment. Why did this happen, DeMichael? Why didn’t you help?
Flashing red and blue lights spangled the glass.
If there was one thing DeMichael had learned in his short life in the hood, it was to not be around when the police arrived.
Dashing out the side door, he rushed across the parking lot and into the field. He was halted by a friendly voice calling from the gloom.
“Hey, D! D, over here.”
A shadow sprouted from the grassy darkness and waved him over. It was Jayden.
“D, what happened?” He grabbed DeMichael’s shoulder and pressed him into the brush just as a police spotlight swept the field. “I saw that guy go in,” Jayden said, “Then heard the shot.”
“He killed em’.” DeMichael felt emotion well in his eyes. He brushed it away with a wrist. “I saw him, Jayden. I saw who done it.”
“It was Peanut,” Jayden said softly. “I recognized him when he walked in.” He patted his friend on the shoulder. “Just pray he didn’t see ya.”
DeMichael’s guts knotted as more cops streaked into the lot. In minutes, half a dozen cars were there, the yellow crime scene tape spooled from front doors to the gas pumps and back again. It formed a perimeter at which a curious and jocular crowd had already formed.
“I gotta tell em’,” DeMichael said. He marched into the light and pushed his way to the front of the crowd. Jayden was at his side.
“D, you can’t do it,” Jayden whispered.
“Cause if Peanut finds out you snitched, he’ll kill ya. They’ll shoot up your house bruh.” He laid a hand on DeMichael’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s just go home an’ forget this ever happened.”
Then the killer will get away, DeMichael thought. That man would have died for nothin’.
A silver minivan screeched into the lot, and old man Narang and two disheveled women tumbled out. They were halted at the tape by a plump cop who led the weeping family to the far side of the Gas-N-Go.
DeMichael’s sense of right and wrong was tossed on a sea of indecision. He feared the killer might hurt him. An even greater fear of what might happen to his mom. Jayden’s grip dug painfully into DeMichael’s arm.
“There he is,” Jayden hissed. “Peanut’s here.”
Lifting his eyes, DeMichael searched the crowd. The killer stood beside a fat grinning woman in dreadlocks and a too tight skirt. Peanut’s eyes locked with DeMichael’s. An officer edged up to the crowd a notepad in hand.
“Did anyone see what happened?” she asked. “Any cars or suspicious people?”
Peanut’s eyes never left DeMichael’s as he rotated his head in a slow, ‘No’. Then he raised a finger to his lips in a sign for silence… and smiled.
DeMichael ran. Sprinting across the field and now empty lots, he pounded up the stairs and into his mother’s arms.
“Lordy, boy, where ya been?” She looked down on him with angry fearful eyes. “Don’t you know there was a shootin’? I been worried sick.” Her expression softened as tears streamed down DeMichael’s cheeks. She stepped back and studied him, noting the stick of butter and candy bar fisted in his hand.
“Oh, son, what did you see?”
With gentle pressure, she eased his fingers free, the butter’s waxy paper dented and soft beneath his grip. She pulled him into her arms and held him.
“Don’t you worry, you’re safe now,” she crooned. “Ain’t no one gonna hurt my baby.”
In the earthy warmth of his mother’s embrace, DeMichael wept, not just for the young clerk but at the brutality of his world and the recognized truth behind his mother’s comforting lies.
other’s comforting lies.
Jeff Dossey is an ex-police officer and current software developer living in the wilds of central Oklahoma. Besides winning Oklahoma Writer’s Federation best new horror of 2018 and 2019 with his novels, Neverland, and Shattered, he also received multiple honorable mentions in L.R Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest. Jeff’s short stories can be found in magazines such as The Literary Hatchet, Tales to Terrify, Shotgun Honey, and Mystery Weekly as well as several popular anthologies.