Like the agonizing drip of a faulty faucet, they file into the church of my youth. They wear black clothing and looks of pity. There are many of them and they mean nothing to me.
I sit far away from the others, perched in the pew like a crooked angel on top of a spruce tree, uncomfortable and temporary. The austere wooden seat is familiar from the Christmases and Easters I spent here, the two days of the year my mother thought it important to be Christian. Two too many, if you ask me.
I turn my head periodically, looking for you. Any minute you will glide in behind the shuffling masses, a glint of worth among worthlessness. You will genuflect with solemn eyes of low-tide blue, a calm sea after a hurricane. You will take your seat with the others here, I tell myself. You will come.
The priest asks the congregation to stand and greet one another. Words of condolence and looks of empathy are exchanged in hushed tones and understated gestures. They are meaningless.
The ceiling is chiseled and intricate: an icon of a woman holding a child is etched into the harrowing dome above our heads. The space is vast and hollow, yet overflowing with your absence.
“Let’s do a hate circle.”
“Okay. What’s a hate circle?”
“You go around in a circle and just say things you hate. It’s like therapy.”
“But there’s only two of us.”
“Okay, then let’s do a hate back-and-forth.”
She smiles coyly, clearly intrigued.
“Alright you go first,” she says, blowing smoke playfully into my ear.
“Okay. I hate gnomes. They’re so fucking creepy, ya know? They have no point other than to creep people out.” She laughs loudly enough to confirm that she has reached intoxication. Excellent. “You go,” I grin at her, my fingers dancing eagerly along the in-seam of her jeans.
“Uh,” her eyes make empty circles around the room.
“I hate Dr. Pepper. Because like you look at it and you think it’s coke but then it’s just this gross medicine-y shit.”
“Piper,” I frown at her long enough to see her get caught in my eyes. “What do you really hate? Say anything you want. Let’s make this real.”
She falters, afraid that she’s upset me. She readjusts her seating, straining to appear taller, worthier.
“Alright. I hate being told what to do.”
“Everyone. Mom. Stepdad. Teachers. It’s just like, never-ending.” I sigh and hang my head. “What?”
“It doesn’t have to be that way. You know that right?” I’m using my older, wiser, aloof tone of voice that makes her feel like she’s missing something.
“Yeah no, I-I know that.”
“Then why do you take so much shit, Pipe? Moving out of my house was the best decision I’ve ever made. I never have to do a thing that I don’t want to do. I’m constantly doing me, all the time. No one to answer to. No obligations. Nothing. Just me, myself, and some quality music.” I gesture around my bachelor pad, presenting her my kingdom. The Airborne Toxic Event blaring out of my newly clutched iHome provides that perfect backdrop of tragic beauty; enough, I believe, to incite a rebellion. “Isn’t it sweet?”
“It’s incredible.” Her envy is almost palpable. With one faultless finger, I begin to trace the nape of her neck, bringing her eyes to meet mine. They are sunken-in and bursting with blood-red veins. In comparison to the crisp, piercing blue of my own eyes, they are muddled, lost. They are ordinary.
“Why deny yourself this kind of life?” I whisper, my lips stroking her heavily pierced ear as I speak. She shrugs, giggly yet skeptical. “Look at your mom. Tired all the time, working her ass off to come home to four kids she can’t even keep track of and a husband who would rather make love to a Twinkie. Do you think she’s happy?” She doesn’t answer. “Do you?”
“You’re different than her, Pipe. You don’t deserve a boring, fruitless life like hers. You could have everything you want, without having to work a day in your life. You could have everything that I have.” I interlace her fingers with my own, demonstrating our connection, making her and I one entity, a force to be reckoned with. She smiles, devious and love-struck. “I want to share what I have with someone, Piper. I want a companion in all aspects of my life, and I want that person to be you.” I plant a soft kiss on her cheek with confident finality, a wax seal on a deportation letter.
“I love you,” she whispers before pummeling me backwards into a kiss.
She’s crouching behind the bush of the 7-11, frozen and grey like a gargoyle. She’s watching my every move with fervent intensity, awaiting my signal. I give it: a slight cock of the neck to the right, twice in succession. I’m going in.
I lift myself out of the car and stride into the convenience store with grace that only I possess. I survey the target with my peripherals while browsing an aisle of Starkist Tuna: Male. Indian. Beard. Mid to late 40’s.
I wander to the back of the store so the shelves will shield my gaze as I survey the corners above me, searching for a camera. There. Without so much as a flinch, I pull my 10 mm pistol out of the gauze that kept it attached under my jeans and shoot the damn thing to smithereens.
“HEY! WHO’S BACK THERE! HEY!” I charge the front of the store quickly enough to see the owner lunge for a bat he apparently keeps under his desk.
“Shut. Up. Drop the bat.” I command him calmly and he complies. I’m holding the pistol right between his eyes. That sweet, soft spot that he can’t see but he can feel.
“P-please, don’t do this, please. You can have anything you want just don’t shoot, please.” He’s already crying. The corners of my mouth turn upward into a smile. Even though I have the ability to end his life with the slightest motion of a finger, I know he is thinking about how stunning that smile is. I own him now. He’s my bitch.
“Don’t worry, I plan on taking everything.” Without breaking eye contact with him, I motion Piper into the store. “Don’t look at her. Look at me.”
She skittishly scrambles around to the cash register, reminding me of an antelope I saw on the Discover Channel a long time ago.
“Christian, It’s locked! I-I can’t get to the money!”
“Open it. Don’t look away from me. Just open it.” The man unlocks the cash register without unlocking our gaze. “Good boy.” Piper piles the cash into the duffle bag and leaves immediately for the car, just as I taught her. When she’s gone, I politely ask for a pair of scissors and cut his phone cord. I ask for his cellphone as well, and I put a bullet through it. Should buy us enough time to get away clean.
When I return to the car, her face is alert, yet drained of color. She is holding the duffle bag to her nose like an oxygen mask.
“Oh my God, that was unbelievable! There’s like so much cash in here, seriously! Holy shit, that was crazy. We need to count–”
“You said my name.” My grip on the steering wheel is tight enough to pop it off.
“YOU SAID MY GODDAMN NAME PIPER! HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GET AWAY CLEAN IF YOU TELL OUR VICTIMS MY NAME?” My spittle hits the windshield and my muscles tense into a suit of armor.
“I-I’m sorry! I didn’t even think about it! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!” She’s sobbing. God. Now I have to fix this. I crack my neck to each side and loosen my grip. I pull into the parking lot of an elementary school.
“Hey, shh. It’s okay. I didn’t mean it. I just get scared sometimes, but you were great, really.” I cup my hand around her ruddy, unremarkable cheek. “You’re a natural, Pipe.” I allow her a smile.
“R-really? I’m so sorry.”
“Shh. It’s over now. It’s okay. You’ll do better next time.”
“See that house? The one with the white pillars, right there.”
She cranes her neck out of the car window, allowing her Tiffany’s necklace to dangle over her elaborate fur vest. It’s one I haven’t seen before, but nowadays she’s always wearing things I haven’t seen.
“Yeah. It’s nice as shit. Wanna rip it off?” She says this in a tone so casual, as though she had asked if I wanted a piece of gum.
“I have a better idea.”
“I know the family that lives there. I see them walking around this neighborhood on Saturday mornings. The man isn’t too big, and the woman’s pretty hot.” She hits me playfully and I ignore her. “And they have two little boys. One’s a newborn; they push him around in a stroller.”
“So. How much dough do you think Mommy and Daddy would give to get their little baby back if say, I don’t know, he were to go missing?”
“You’re not suggesting we kidnap him…”
“Listen. Piper. We can’t keep skipping around from town to town holding up Wal-Mart’s and running away with petty cash. We’re too good at what we do. We have to go bigger or we’re just gonna plateau. Do you understand?”
“I mean I guess but–”
“If you’re too scared that’s fine. I’m sure I could find someone else to give me a hand.”
“No. No I wanna do it. I wanna help you.”
“Good. Now, first, I’m gonna need a favor.”
“Jesus, you’re stepdad is so fucking fat.” I pull my arms through the brown suit jacket, feeling massive gaps between the material and the tight muscles of my abdomen.
“Well we can’t all have perfectly chiseled bodies like you.”
“Stop. You’re as perfect as can be,” I lie before giving her a quick kiss, like a reflex. Her sandy, lusterless hair is tied back in a bun and she’s wearing a business suit that she stole from her mother upon my request. She’s supposed to look like a professional, but she still looks like a McDonald’s cashier playing dress up. I straighten my tie and run a quick hand through my thick mahogany hair, grinning. Even in this shoddy suit I could pass as the McDonald’s C.E.O.
We approach the door of the mansion, under the pretenses that I would do the talking. We have clipboards in hand and fake smiles plastered on us like Barbie and Ken. I knock.
“Hello! It’s Mrs. Walters, correct?”
“Yes…” the woman replies. She is wearing a crimson valor jumpsuit and her hair is in a messy bun, which she immediately starts to adjust when she sees me smile.
“ We’re here with Shelton County Realty and we were wondering if it would be possible for us to take a look at your brilliant home.”
“Well, I mean we aren’t looking to sell…”
“As you shouldn’t with a home like this! We were more interested in getting some ideas of the architecture inside, so as to replicate some aspects of it in homes that are currently being built. I know that sounds a little odd, but you know what they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery!” I wink at her, sealing the deal.
“Of course! Come in!” She keeps her eyes on me while clumsily stepping out of the doorway. I feel the heat of Piper’s glare.
The place is magnificent. The kitchen counters are made of glimmering marble, the family room has an expansive ceiling, and the mahogany staircase seems to extend indefinitely. There are so many gadgets and expensive pieces set out for decoration that I have to keep my hands in my pockets or else I’d give us away. It’s a conman’s playground in here.
“We were particularly interested in looking at the upper floor, if you would be so kind as to show us into some bedrooms?”
“Sure. But you’ll have to be quiet, my son is sleeping upstairs in his nursery.”
“How adorable!” I grin at her and a smoldering redness flushes over her evenly tanned complexion. Piper grins curtly.
As the woman leads us up the stairs, I take the opportunity to rub the chloroform onto my palm.
“Is there any room in particular-“ As she’s about to turn around I wrap my left arm around her neck, keeping her tight in a headlock while simultaneously cupping my right hand over her mouth and nose, forcing her to breathe in the drug. She struggles for a moment or so, but she is weak. When her eyes roll backwards, I set her down gently on the floor like a rag-doll.
“Alright, let’s find this nursery.” Piper looks disoriented. She doesn’t move. “Now is not the time to show weakness! Let’s find the goddamn nursery!”
“Right… okay.” She nods and stumbles down the hall. “Here! It’s right here.”
Her voice is coming from three doors over and I rush to her side. The walls of the room are pale blue and there’s a tiny human sleeping in a wooden crib, swaddled in a clearly homemade blanket embroidered with smiling ducks.
“Pick it up.” She gathers the child into her arms so naturally that it appears she could be his mother.
“Are you bad guys?” A tiny voice squeaks from behind us. There is a small boy, no more than six years old, standing in the doorway of the nursery wearing a Spiderman t-shirt and holding a portable telephone in his hands. Fucking fucker. I forgot about the brother. Piper gasps and I want to slap her.
“No, buddy, we aren’t bad guys. We are just here to uh, babysit your little bro!” I crouch down to his level, trying my best to look friendly and harmless.
“Cause if you’re bad guys Mommy says I have to press 911 on the telephone.”
“No champ, you don’t have to press 911. We’re the good guys. You can just give the phone to me.” I stretch my hand out to him but he doesn’t budge. He just looks back at me critically. “Give me the phone, little man.”
“No. I think you’re bad.”
“Come on, give the phone to me.” I lunge to grab it from him but he backs away into the hallway, catching a glimpse of his incapacitated mother lying on the floor.
“Don’t worry, she’s just sleeping–”
“MOMMY NO!” The kid immediately rushes all the way down the stairs and heads towards the front door.
“NO! STAY HERE YOU LITTLE FUCK,” I scream at him but he doesn’t slow down. His grubby little paw is already turning the doorknob. Instinctively, I grab the pistol from my ankle and shoot him two times in the back. The gun is hot and fuming as I look down at my shaking hand, realizing what I’ve done.
Piper is screaming. The infant is crying. “SHUT UP. SHUT UP SHUT UP.” I grab the infant out of her arms and set him back in his crib. I push my forearm against Piper’s neck and pin her against the wall. “This is what’s gonna happen, OK?” She nods, tears streaming down her horribly plain face. “You’re gonna take the baby. You’re gonna get in the car and you’re gonna drive far away. You’re gonna leave the baby somewhere. It doesn’t matter where. I’m gonna stay here and get rid of the kid. Then you’re gonna come back for me. Understand?” She says nothing. She won’t look into my eyes. “Do you understand me?” I push harder against her neck, driving her skull into the stonewall.
“How can you kill an innocent child? All of this, for what? For money?” She struggles to get the words out because the pressure of my arm is closing her esophagus. I pull my arm away, allowing her worthless body to collapse on the floor.
“It’s what I do for a living.”
I wash my hands in the ivory sink. Red stains swirl around in the basin before disappearing down the drain, an untraceable memory. The body is safe, buried beneath a white wooden gazebo in the backyard that looks much too pure to excavate.
Piper should be back to get me soon. I stuff my pockets with the smallest and most expensive-looking items I see around me before taking a quick look in the mirror. My hair has that rugged “hard day’s work” look and my eyes pierce the glass, as blue as ever. God, even I have a hard time looking away.
I suddenly realize how empty my ankle feels at this moment. Shit, where’s the pistol? I retrace my steps throughout the enormous house, but I swear it isn’t anywhere. I can’t leave the weapon here; it’s as good as a life sentence. But I can’t stay either; I imagine the father will be coming home from work within the hour.
I step outside and see Piper and the car. I knew she would listen. I’ll reward her with a passionate kiss and a shopping spree and all will be forgiven. She can’t stay mad at me. Nobody can.
I open the car door and my ears flood with the sound of a crying baby. He is lying on his back in the passenger seat, wildly swatting the air around him with all four of his limbs. Piper’s plain head is resting against the steering wheel, my pistol resting loosely in her pallid, lifeless hand.
The priest drones on about forgiveness. Another life, a second coming. I wonder if there’s such a thing. I wonder if you’re coming.
My stepfather gives the eulogy and it is all a lie. I was not a loving, caring, hardworking girl. I was a degenerate. I was what you made me. Even now, in a church full of people that cared enough to come, I am still waiting for you. No one else will ever be enough.
But I know you’re not coming.
I stand and go to the altar. There is no gasp, no reaction at all. With one last backwards glance, I open the casket and slide in.
“And it staaaaaarts sometime around midnight, at least that’s when you lose yourself for a minute or twoooo,” I tap my foot as the music blares from the speakers and the air of a new town tears through my windows.
“Uncle Chet’s Convenience Stop, 3 Miles, Exit 42-A” I read aloud off of the green sign ahead of me. Excellent.
Header photograph: By DXR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons