Welcome to another edition of Fiction Friday!
Craig Penser held the weight of his screw ups on his shoulders the way a firefighter carries a limp woman down a flight of smoke-filled stairs—with focus, determination, and the underlying desire to let go of his burden. He didn’t droop though. Never knowing when he could put down his load, he just kept on walking. That’s what my father said the day he walked right into our restaurant. The day everything changed.
“Put her down, Daniel.” Craig’s voice boomed in the room. Silencing us all.
“Back off, Penser.”
“Daniel. Let it go. Put her down.”
“Mind your own damn business.”
The men stared at each other—Daniel holding my sister up against the side of the restaurant, two hands on her shoulders, pushing her up into the siding so hard her feet barely touched the ground, venom in his eyes. Craig’s eyes were cool, even. The sun glinted off his aviators as he removed them from his face. He wasn’t scared of Daniel. Not a bit. He was probably the only person in the whole town that wasn’t afraid of Daniel. Why would he be? Craig was bad. Everyone knew he was bad. He didn’t try to be, maybe he didn’t even want to be. He just was. My mother used to say it was like a curse with some people—trouble followed them, and they didn’t know how to tell trouble to just pack on up and head the other way.
Craig was a different kind of bad than Daniel though. Daniel was a loose cannon, said Dad, he drank too much and he didn’t know how to let the VLTs just sit idle. The days he got piss drunk and piss poor there was no telling what he’d do. Dad said Lenora was stupid for ever hooking up with Daniel. ‘And stupid is what stupid does,’ Lenora would shout back, causing Dad to just shake his head and say, ‘exactly.’
Everyone in the restaurant was on edge, waiting, but not in an obvious way. No one wanted to look directly at the scene even before Craig walked into the building. Now that he was there, his presence taking up the room, people kept their eyes averted. “Daniel.” Craig’s voice was strong, even, just like his eyes. “Let Lenora down.”
“She’s my woman and I’ll-”
Everyone knew Daniel carried a knife on him. He loved the way it bulged in his pants pocket, a constant reminder he wasn’t one to be messed with. He took it out and polished it sometimes, or used it to pick food out of his teeth. I hated the way he did it—so greasy, so … I couldn’t put a word on it at the time, but it was low, dirty and low. We weren’t uppity people or anything. We ran a dingy restaurant with a dingy gas bar attached, in a dingy town, but I still knew we were better than him. Too bad Lenora didn’t. Daniel used to sit in our living room with his cigarette and his dirty jeans and his long greasy hair and flip the knife back and forth, letting the metal glisten in the firelight. That was a long time ago of course. Before my nephew and before my parents even knew about Daniel and Lenora. My father said if he’d known about those days Danny Jr. would have never existed—not that Dad didn’t love Danny, but he thought you couldn’t miss what you’d never known.
Craig took two steps closer to Daniel. Seeing the two so close like that was striking—Where Daniel was thin and lanky, Craig was wide and solid. Not fat. Just solid. His hair barely shot up an inch above his scalp and his face was always clean shaven. My guess was Daniel hadn’t shaved in a week, not that he really needed to. Just like so much else in his life, puberty hadn’t seemed to bother with Daniel.
There were similarities between the men though-the propensity for violence. Or so I’d heard. I’d never actually seen anything to justify Craig’s notorious reputation besides the gun that was always in its holster. He didn’t flash it around. It wasn’t a hunting gun like most of the men. It was what my friends called a street gun, like the cops carried, but Craig was no officer. I tried to make out if he had his gun on him now, but it was impossible to tell underneath that big leather jacket.
I didn’t actually know why Craig was bad. It was easy to tell with Daniel, anyone could see it with one look at him, and he was always doing something like this to remind you. With Craig it was just this general knowledge. He’d been locked up. Twice. As a youth for something involving a dog. Then as an adult for five years … Something involving a baby and drugs, which I could never quite figure out. What could a baby possible have to do with drugs? The uncertainty of it all made him even more terrifying. It could have been anything. Anything. The particulars didn’t matter though, not really. What mattered was he was bad, someone to stay away from, and I wasn’t stupid. Not like Lenora. He’d smiled at me a few times over the years, tried to say hello. I crossed the street whenever Craig Penser was walking down the road. I wasn’t stupid.
“This doesn’t involve you.” Daniel’s voice was creaky, desperate, the bravado I was used to hearing in his words seemed thinner.
“Who says it does? Maybe I just want to eat my dinner in peace.”
Daniel laughed at this.
“That’s a great idea,” said my mother, surfacing from the kitchen where she spent ten hours a day slaving in the heat. Her hair was mussed and sweaty underneath her cap, her face was gaunt and tired. She seemed almost more exhausted than frightened. It wasn’t likely Daniel would hurt Lenora in any serious way. He’d cracked her rib once, but usually he gave nothing more than bruises. Nothing she couldn’t recover from. Probably Lenora didn’t want to let Danny Jr. go with Daniel or was raging at him for not paying child support. The difficulties of long division had been demanding my attention when Lenora’s scream broke my concentration, so I had no idea what prompted today’s episode. She wasn’t even supposed to be in the restaurant. It was her afternoon to man the full service pumps.
Small towns are full of mysteries and how Daniel hadn’t ended up killing Lenora in one of his drunken rages yet was one of them. The bigger mystery though, the one that had everyone in the building pretending not to pay attention, was why Craig cared.
“Back off Penser, this isn’t your business.” Daniel whipped his knife out, the light glinting off of it onto my sister’s bare throat.
“Hold on now,” my mother’s voice broke through the hot hazy air. “Calm, son. Calm.”
“I’m not your son,” Daniel leered at Mom, his voice squeaky and almost comical. “You’ve made that clear enough.” A little bubble of spit foamed at his mouth.
“There’s nothing a little conversation can’t fix,” said Mom, walking toward her daughter, her arms in the air as if at gun point. I stood then sat then stood again. I’d seen Daniel jokingly hold his knife on some of his buddies, once on this jerk from a neighbouring town, but never on Lenora.
“Yeah, well,” Daniel’s hand shook, “maybe I’m tired of talkin.” His eyes darted back and forth between Mom and Craig. Lenora’s eyes stared at the ceiling. She didn’t blink. She didn’t say a word or move a muscle and I thought—He could kill her. He really could, and she knows it. The world seemed paused. No one said a word. It felt as if the whole restaurant full of people was holding it’s breath, like the restaurant itself was. Not even the curtains fluttered. And then everything came to life again with the dingle of chimes above the door, the squeal of Danny Jr. squirming out of his sitter’s arms, running toward his parents, and Daniel releasing his hold on Lenora to lunge for Danny Jr. Daniel’s eyes darted with an insane frenzy as he reached out, screaming, “If I can’t have him, neither can—” In the same moment Craig’s gun flew out of its hidden holster and into his outstretched hand Mom’s body flung toward Craig, sending his arm and the shot flying toward the ceiling fan. There was a bang louder than seemed possible and the sound of a bullet ricocheting that ended in an even louder explosion of flames from the kitchen. In the same moment Danny Jr. shot from his father’s grasp and into his favourite hiding spot behind the counter. I froze as the room erupted with people battling to escape. “Danny!” I shouted, seeing Lenora and Mom run in the opposite direction. They hadn’t sen him. “Danny!” I shouted again, but they couldn’t hear me. He couldn’t hear me, or was too frightened to follow my voice. My mother’s arms wrapped around mine, drawing me out as Lenora continued to look under tables. “The kitchen!” My voice felt hoarse and desperate in my throat as the flames chased toward us. Daniel was long gone and some other man grabbed a screaming and kicking Lenora, dragging her out of the building. I was only eleven then, not strong enough to escape my my mother’s arms. “It’s gone, honey,” Mom yelled over the roar. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“No, the—” through the open door I saw him then, Craig Penser holding a broken chair-back in front of his face as he made his way into the source of the flames. He disappeared in the smoke as I watched paralysed, drawn further and further away from the flames that chased us out. I was pulled across the gas station lot, across the highway, across the huge parking lot and into the shade of our town’s only big box store. When the flames escaped the building …
The explosion was monumental. The kitchen’s blow up rendered minuscule in its wake. It lit the sky with a boom that deafened my ears. The smoke shot up for what seemed like miles. The crowd stood amazed. Mom, Lenora, and I stood as if we were being blown up into the sky with it—our life was anyway. And Danny’s too, I thought … but I was the only one who knew that. Looking at her red rimmed eyes, I couldn’t tell Lenora. Once the initial blast subsided she continued combing the crowds, running back and forth as the too slow firetrucks announced their presence.
We sunk to the dirt as the hoses tried to calm the flames. It seemed a show though. The only hope was to douse the neighbouring area to keep the fire from spreading. Everything we had was already gone. Lenora hiccoughed and choked. At last she looked at me. “His cubby? Did he go … that’s why you were fighting to—”
I nodded and her mouth shut. She stared at me, and I watched her gaze travel to the ruin that hid her son. I knew I’d never be a child again.
My mother grasped me then, as a woman standing behind us screamed. From around the building next to ours a figure pushed it’s way through the smoke—a bundle in its arms. Craig Penser walked in a way I’d never seen him walk before, hunched and anything but confident. The leather of his coat merged with what I could only imagine was burnt flesh. One side of his previously smooth face was darkened and blistered. His steps led to Lenora, her arms outspread to receive the bundle that, when dropped in her arms, smiled into her face and breathed the word, “Mommy.”
Craig fell to the ground then. A team of paramedics already on site rushed to his side while another started to assess Danny Jr. I kept my eyes on Craig though, heard his groan as they lifted him to the stretcher, saw his smile when the woman assessing Danny Jr. told Lenora her boy was going to be okay, watched his eyes close for the last time.
My mother stood beside me, her hand on my shoulder. “I guess bad isn’t all bad,” she whispered. “I guess maybe I didn’t know …” Her voice trailed off and I looked up at her for a moment, crushed by the way she said the words so simply after warning me for years about the mysterious evils of Craig Penser. The ambulance doors closed and the vehicle pulled away. Lenora stepped into the second vehicle, her hand held tightly to Danny’s. I brought my eyes back to the vehicle carrying Craig away, glued them there until all I could see was empty road. I knew I’d just lost my childhood. I knew we’d lost the restaurant, the gas station—that those could be rebuilt. Only years later did I realize I’d lost something else that day too—Blind trust in other’s words. It was the one good thing.
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