by Michael Kingswood
Betty sniffed back tears and wiped the back of her right hand across the bottom of her nose. It had gone runny from crying so hard.
She squinted into the early evening darkness, her left hand flexing on the scarred and fading brown leather that wrapped the steering wheel of her Camry, and tried to concentrate on driving. But she couldn’t get the fight out of her mind.
“Shut up, bitch!” and then the slap. Reeling backward as David stared hatred and disgust at her that the slap only confirmed. Fleeing from his apartment, though he did not follow. Stumbling down the stairs of his complex, tears making her vision blurry and sobs making her breathing difficult.
Then the frantic, near suicidal drive away.
She was twenty minutes further on now, and only just beginning to feel like she was getting herself back together. Slowly.
Ahead of her, a traffic light turned red, and she slowed to a stop.
Where was she?
When she had flown away from David’s apartment complex, Betty had not paid any attention to where she was going, or even the traffic around her. Now she leaned forward, peering through her windshield, and could not recognize the area at all.
She was not in the suburbs any more, that was for sure. The buildings were closer together, cramped in. Mostly brick-faced, and there were neon business signs advertising a tavern, a his and hers barber shop, a thrift store. The cars parked on either side of the four-lane street were older than the part of town she was used to, and she could see small groups of people sitting on the porch steps of some of the buildings, just hanging out and talking.
Definitely not her neighborhood. And from the look of things, not all that great a neighborhood at all.
Still, she recognized the cross street at the intersection. Turn right here, and she should get back to highway in a few blocks. And then, in another twenty minutes or so, home.
Betty made the turn, and wiped at her nose again. She needed more tissues.
And she needed to get away from the depressing music on her Camry’s radio. She hadn’t even registered it consciously before now, but it was on a Top 40 station, and the singer was wailing out a ballad begging his girl to come back to him.
She punched the radio off before she burst into tears again, and drove on.
Ahead, the neighborhood continued pretty much as before, but she spied a sign coming up on the right. Abe’s Liquor Store.
She didn’t just need tissues. She needed a drink. Badly.
Betty was able to find a spot about fifty yards from the store, and took a couple minutes to parallel park her Camry between an old black Ford Explorer and a yellow Miata. She put the car into park and sat there for a moment, and looked herself in the mirror.
She was a mess. Her eyes were red and puffy, her mascara running. Her black hair, which she had carefully put up before going to meet David earlier, was mussed, strands pulled out from her barrettes.
She looked exactly what she was: a woman having a totally crappy evening.
Betty considered starting the car back up and just getting the hell out of there. But screw it. This wasn’t her neighborhood; no one would know her to gossip about how messed up she was in the morning.
So she got out, smoothed the white skirt she was wearing, centered her green blouse more evenly on her shoulders, and strode up the street to the liquor store’s door.
The sidewalk was cracked in a few places, the parking meters on the side of the street the old kind that only took coins and had those big twisty knobs to send the coins down into their containers; no debit cards or ApplePay for these. The liquor store itself had a long window at the front with posters of various beers and liquors posted up, and the front door was aluminum framed glass, with the standard broad paddle pull-to-open handle.
A bell rang over Betty’s head when she stepped inside, and she immediately was struck by a musky incense from a lit burner behind the counter, which stood off to her left. It was wood-topped, and had the usual racks of last-minute purchase items on the customer side. The guy manning the register was in his thirties and Arabic-looking, with close-cropped black hair and a short beard. His off-white t-shirt had the store’s name on the left breast.
When she walked in, the cashier looked her over quickly and nodded greeting when she met his eyes, then he went back to tending to his current customer, an elderly black woman in a white and blue polka-dotted dress and wide, gold-rimmed spectacles.
Turning away from the two of them, Betty saw three aisles filled with liquors and wines of all kinds, and at the back a full wall of refrigerated storage for beverages that needed to be ice-cold right now.
She walked to the second aisle, which looked to be more wine than anything else, and stepped past a tweed-jacketed white guy who looked to be in his fifties, with mostly grey hair and bright blue eyes. He shuffled to the side to let her pass with a smile and a polite, “Good evening.”
It wasn’t until she was three paces past him that his words registered, and she looked back to reply, but he was already queueing up behind the black woman.
Betty shook her head, upbraiding herself for being rude, and shivered, only just now noticing how low the store had the air conditioning set.
Just get the wine, silly goose. You don’t know these people, and they won’t care what you did or didn’t say ten minutes from now.
The whites were halfway down the aisle on the left, and Betty made a beeline for them. Reds were well and fine, but whites were so much more drinkable, and right then she needed something crisp and fruity, not something rich and deep.
She scanned the four levels of shelves quickly, stopping in surprise when a particular bottle sprang out at her. Yellow and white and red and orange and brown polygons all intertwined to make a regular pattern that seemed to draw the eye into its center. Alongside the pattern, the name: Coeur Sauvage, 2017 Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.
Betty remembered that particular bottle from a lunch out with four friends a month ago. Sally had revealed she was marrying Paul, and the five of them had splurged on more wine than they should have. But the Coeur stood out in her mind as being the best of the bottles they’d had.
She wet her lips in anticipation of the semi-sweet, slightly tangy flavor, and the warm buzz of relaxation the wine would bring.
That would do nicely.
Snatching the bottle up, Betty turned and headed toward the counter, where the tweed-jacketed guy was still waiting behind the old lady.
She was just finishing up when Betty got in line behind, hefting a paper bag that clinked from the sound of multiple bottles tapping together.
“Thank you,” she said to the cashier and moved to the door.
The bell overtop the door rang before she got there, and a tall broad-shouldered man with long brown hair half stepped in. Then, seeing the elderly woman coming his way, he stepped back out and held the door open for her.
The woman said, “Thank you, young man,” and he smiled, nodded, and replied, “Of course, ma’am.”
Once the old woman was past, he stepped back inside, and Betty got a better look at him. Late 20s probably. Wearing a brown leather jacket a couple shades darker than his hair, and jeans that looked like he’d had them for a while, doing actual work. Those worn parts were not fashion statements from a preppy clothing store.
He had dark, intelligent eyes and a bold nose. Square jaw. Nice looking fellow. His eyes met hers as he began moving toward the first aisle, and he smiled ever so slightly as they flicked quickly up and down her body.
Betty resolutely looked away from him, toward the cashier, who was just beginning to ring up tweed jacket’s trio of wine bottles. She was in no mood for men, especially good looking men right –
The door swung open and the sound of the bell carried, along with the old woman’s voice raised in a cry of alarm.
Betty looked left toward the door in time to see first one man, then a second, storm in. They were both dressed in long black pants and long-sleeved black t-shirts. They wore black gloves and black ski masks.
And they were both carrying silvery guns.
“Hands up!” shouted the first of the men, brandishing his gun—it was a revolver, Betty could see now—toward the cashier, who backed up behind his counter, hands raised.
He turned the gun toward tweed man and Betty, flicking it back and forth between then, and a shiver of fear went down her spine.
She complied, as did tweed man.
The robber had a rolled-up cloth bag in his left hand, which he hurled toward the cashier. “Fill it!”
The cashier caught the bag and moved to comply, moving slowly and deliberately. Past the first robber, his partner was standing closer to the door, his gun on the handsome leather jacket guy. Leather jacket guy was standing ominously still, his hands raised, but his body was relaxed, like this was no big deal at all. His eyes were wary, but calm.
Betty tried to find some of that calm herself, but instead found only outrage. This was so, so…
She burst out. “You’re robbing a liquor store? Seriously?? How cliche can you – ?”
The lead robber turned on her, and the barrel of his revolver pointed straight at her face. The silvery circle seemed to widen as she looked at it, the darkness inside the hole of the barrel opening up to suck her inside, and her bowels went to ice.
She was going to die. He was going to pull the trigger, and she was going to die. She could see the fingers holding his gun flex slightly, tensing for the killing movement.
Instead, he said, “Shut up, bitch.” He shot her with his eyes, then turned his attention—and his gun—back to the cashier.
Shut up bitch.
The words rang in her ears, but she didn’t hear the robber saying them. It was David again. Rage and disgust and hatred and disdain all mixed together in his tone, and eyes that smacked almost as hard as his hand had.
David, not the robber, and Betty’s terror turned to a red-hot rage that flared up within her. How dare he?
She had the wine bottle in her hands. She moved without thinking, reversing her grip on it so she was holding it by the neck. Then, with a cry that carried all the rage, humiliation, and hurt she had been nursing the last half hour, she bound forward, raised the bottle high, and brought it down onto the robber’s head.
It didn’t shatter.
She thought it should have, but instead it struck with a dull, squishy thud and a jarring impact that ran up her arm to her shoulder before stabbing into her neck.
The robber dropped to the floor instantly, his body going limp. His gun made a metallic clink as it bounced once and landed on the floor tiles at Betty’s feet.
Everything seemed to stop.
There was blood on the end of the bottle. She could see it in front of her eyes. She looked down and saw a trickle of blood flowing from the area of the man’s head where she had struck him; the material of his ski mask was already soaked, and a little pool was beginning to form around his head on the floor.
His face was turned toward her, and she could see one of his eyes open wide, but glazed and unseeing. His jaw was slack.
Had she killed him? She hadn’t meant to kill him. Hadn’t meant to –
Sudden movement from off to the left drew Betty’s attention away from the fallen man.
The second robber turned toward her, and leather jacket man sprang on him. The two men were wrestling, fighting over the gun.
Leather jacket man was taller, but the robber was well-muscled beneath his shirt, and Betty could tell leather jacket man had made a mistake. He’d over-extended, and was off balance even as the robber began pulling away from him.
He was going to fall, and the robber would win out. He would win out, and still have the gun. And when that happened, handsome leather jacket man would be dead. Maybe they all would be.
Betty cast about, and her eyes came to the first robber’s revolver, lying at her feet.
She dropped the wine bottle and snatched up the gun. She’d never even held a gun, let alone fired one, and it was heavy in her hands. The knurled grip bit into her palm, and it seemed she shouldn’t be able to lift it, so ominous did it feel.
She straightened and raised her eyes back to the conflict between the two men just in time to see leather jacket man land on his back on the floor. The robber moved quickly, placing his shoe onto the center of leather jacket man’s chest.
He was bringing the gun around and down to point at his face –
“Stop!” Betty cried out, and she heard the quaver in her own voice. “Let him go.”
Her hands were shaking, but she had the revolver pointed at the robber. She saw him stop, then look back at her. He straightened, and held his free hand out toward her, open and palm out in a gesture that was probably meant to be calming.
“Bitch, don’t – ”
The gun went off. She hadn’t meant to fire. Hadn’t realized she was squeezing the trigger under the gun bucked in her hands and the muzzle flash brightened in her eyes and the thunder of the bullet firing smashed her ears. They immediately began ringing.
Behind the robber was a shelf of vodka bottles. One immediately behind his head and just to the right shattered, and she realized she’d missed him.
Less than ten feet away, and she’d missed completely.
Part of her felt relief, because she didn’t actually want to shoot him. The other part felt disgust, that she couldn’t even manage to hit something that close.
The robber freaked. He jumped up half a foot and landed with his hands high in the air.
“Jesus,” he said, and let his own pistol drop. “Jesus, don’t – ”
His eyes flicked toward the door, as though he was thinking about running.
Then he was on the floor, face smacking onto the tiles. Leather jacket man made some kind of scissor move with his legs that swept the robbers’ legs out from under him, and then he was on top of the man, knee in the small of his back as he levered the man’s arm up into a lock that had him squirming in pain. Both from the strain in his limb and from his nose, which was bleeding and looked to be broken.
Betty still had the revolver in her hands, but they were shaking more. Uncontrollably.
Fresh tears were streaming down her face, she realized, and her breathing was coming in quick heaves. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and sweat was making her blouse cling to her body.
But she couldn’t let go of the gun.
A pair of hands closed around hers and she gave a little jerk. Then she realized it was tweed jacket man. He was speaking gently into her ear, and applying light pressure on her hands to move them downward.
“It’s ok, miss. It’s over. You can put the gun down now. It’s over.”
He said it in a low, drawling tone, almost the tone a parent would use when saying a lullaby to a child. At first she resisted lowering the gun. Then, all at once, her reserve—what reserve she had left—broke and she dropped it completely.
She sagged against tweed jacket man, sobbing, and he lowered her to the ground, leaning her back against the counter.
“Cops are on the way,” she heard the cashier said from above and over her shoulder.
Tweed jacket man nodded, but remained where he was, squatting in front of her. “Do you need anything?”
She said the first thing that came to her mind. “Beer.”
Tweed jacket man looked up past her toward the cashier. She could hear the shrug in his voice. “Give her a beer.”
Tweed jacket man stood and hurried over to the refrigerated doors at the back of the store. She had seen earlier they held everything from cans of water that only claimed to be beer from their labels to good crafted ales. Right then, she’d take anything.
She looked away, back toward where leather jacket man had the robber in submission. He really was a nice looking fellow. Well built, too.
Leather jacket man looked up from the robber and met her eyes. He smiled again, more openly this time, and nodded at her.
Right then, she decided to get his phone number, and to hell with David.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s stories were published and are available here: