Thursday, September 1, 2011
Fiction:For Lack of a Blackbird
"I need you to run down to the crossroads and pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread."
Sandy stared at her older sister as if she'd sprouted an extra eyeball. Perhaps she didn't understand the magnitude of what she was asking. Perhaps she had forgotten about the robbery. How could she possibly have forgotten about the robbery?
Yeah yeah yeah. Penny understood, but she was getting tired of being the only one willing to run errands around this place. Mama couldn't do it. She was mostly bed-ridden, and when she was out of bed, she was confined to a wheelchair.
Mama never left the house anymore, not even to go to church. One of the church ladies, Ella Hamlin, faithfully came by on Sunday afternoons to pray with Mama. Then, if Mama had the energy, they would play cards and gossip sinfully. The rest of the week, Sandy and Penny spent most of their free time tending to Mama's aches and pains. Sandy thought she exaggerated her woes, but she would never say so aloud. After all, if it hadn't been for Mama, Sandy wouldn't be alive.
"It won't hurt you to go to the store, Sandra Francis Powell," Penny snapped. "Just suck it up and get the damn food!" She wadded seven dollars into Sandy's palm and pushed her toward the front door.
Sandy bitched under her breath as she slid behind the wheel of the Cutlass. It was the kind of car that, when sitting at a red light, the driver would need to keep one foot firmly on the brake pedal and the other foot tapping the accelerator just to be sure it didn't die in the middle of the intersection. Thankfully, there were no traffic lights on the mile and a half of barbed-wire-lined dirt road between Mama's house and Tom's Country Store.
She thought about bypassing Tom's and driving all the way into town. It was only twelve miles. If she sped, she could make it back in half an hour. One look at the dashboard told her she'd better stick to Penny's plan. The Cutlass was quite a gas guzzler. She'd better not risk it. Penny hadn't given her any extra cash.
Three cars were parked in front of Tom's. Sandy recognized two of them. One belonged to Marcia Hardy's mom. One belonged to the old guy who lived just down the road with his dogs. She had never known his name, but he always waved to her as she drove by his house. His dogs like to chase the Cutlass as it kicked up a trail of dust in its wake.
She'd never seen the man in the third car before. He was just sitting and staring at the storefront. Sandy wondered if he was waiting for his wife to come out. She'd probably gone in after something embarrassing, like tampons. Men were such idiots.
She sat for a few minutes staring back at an ordinary brown cow in the pasture beside the store. It appeared to be speaking to her, though Sandy was (almost) sure it was just chewing on some delicious grass. Somebody had tagged one ear with a bright green plastic tag. Humans could be so cruel.
Her fingers shook when she released the steering wheel, so she gripped it again, trying to calm herself. "This is stupid," she told herself. Four years had gone by since the robbery. She should have worked through this fear by now. Besides, Daddy was safely locked away in Huntsville. They were never going to let him out of there.
She checked the sky for ominous signs of impending doom. No dark cloud crept across the sun. No black bird perched atop any nearby poles forewarning certain death. No bells tolled. She released the steering wheel once more, and although she was still shaky, she pulled her hands away and reached for the door handle. Every little step seemed to take super-human effort. She pushed the creaky door wide open and turned her entire body before stepping out of the car.
The cow in the pasture watched all this. It jerked its head up and snorted. Strings of snot shot from its nostrils. Sandy stepped onto the lot and faced the cow. "Shut up, you heifer," she told the cow. She glared at it for a second and then added, "I think you lost an earring." She slammed the car door and moved toward the front door of the country store.
She paused there. She had to take a deep breath because this was the closest she'd been to entering this store in four years. Memories started slamming into her, but she persevered. She was strong. She could do this. The past was the past. How many times had Penny told her to come here and do this? Just face it. Just do it. Just go for it.
She grasped the handle and pulled. Marcia Hardy was coming out of the store with her little brother Andrew.
"Hey, Sandy," Marcia greeted her warily. "What're you up to?" She shifted the grocery bag in her arms and placed a protective hand on her brother's head. Sandy got that. If she had a little brother, she might decide to protect him from someone who came from a family like hers.
"Milk, bread," Sandy mumbled as she passed them by. Marcia nodded and headed for the door with her arm wrapped around Andrew's shoulders. Smart girl, Sandy would think later on.
"Sandy Powell, did you come out here to see me?" Alton Burkett purred from behind the counter. Sandy rolled her eyes. She'd gone on a few hayrides with the boy, and now he thought he could whisper in her ear any time he pleased. He kept telling the guys at school that she was his girl. He was a royal pain in the ass.
"You wish, Alton. I came for milk and bread. Where do you keep it?" He pointed them out, and she moved to the back of the store. She passed the old neighbor guy on her way to the bread. He smiled and waved, and for the first time, Sandy noticed his double hearing aids.
She was still focused on those hearing aids when the first shots tore through the air. She could hear Alton screaming incoherently, but she was also hearing another voice that was only in her mind. The voice from four years before. Her father telling everyone to "Get down! Get Down! Give me that money!"
"Daddy?" she wasn't sure if that came from the sixteen-year-old that she now was or the twelve-year-old who had lived through it the first time, but it got his attention. He rounded the corner and aimed the shotgun. Neighbor Guy was blissfully unaware that he was being gunned down until he fell on top of Sandy.
She knew it was her neighbor who was lying motionless on top of her, but in her mind's eye, she felt her mother's weight on her, just as before. The blood seemed to be everywhere, just as before, and just as before, the gunman was more interested in the cash register than he was in the little girl lying helpless on Aisle Four. She heard the shuffling sounds of dollar bills making their way into some sort of bag. Sandy laid motionless, watching him in the convex mirror cleverly placed in the upper rear corner of the shop to discourage theft. She watched him disappear into the bright, sunny afternoon. The sign on the door swung back and forth daring her to "Have a Nice Day."
Sandy slid herself away from Neighbor Guy. He was dead. Those hearing aids were useless to him now. She saw Alton staring into the Great Beyond from the other side of the register. She half-nodded to the cow as she crawled back into the Cutlass and turned the engine over.
She didn't remember about the milk and bread until she slipped into her back door and made her way upstairs to the shower.
Penny popped her head into the bathroom just as Sandy was turning off the water.
"Well? Didn't I tell you it wouldn't hurt you to go to the damned store?" she harped.
"Yes, you were right, Penny," Sandy sighed and reached for a towel. She thought about Neighbor Guy and Alton lying motionless on the country store floor. She thought about her mother struggling to push a wheelchair across a dirt lawn, and she thought about her father rotting away in prison for his deviant behavior. She held her hands in front of her face and noticed that the shaking had finally stopped. "It didn't hurt a bit."