Pandemic Files

Animals

Rick ran his fingers through his slick-backed hair with a sigh. Sitting across from him, Nola focused on the throbbing vein in Rick’s left temple, pulsing like a leech beneath his skin. She turned her head slightly away, her eyes remaining on his face.  A shiver ran through her and she tensed against it, rubbing her shoulders and wincing at the bruise on her right arm, hidden beneath her sweater.

Rick’s eyes settled on her again and Nola sat up straight, her feet barely touching the ground.

“Nola,” Rick said, shaking his head slowly, almost imperceptibly. “I’m not hearing any enthusiasm, Nole. You’re not acting like you want this.”

A young blonde waitress walked by and Rick followed her ass with his eyes. Nola frowned.

“We’ve hit a dozen of these spots.” Rick continued, placing his elbows on the table. “All of them, you and me. I could’ve got Briggs on the jobs, or Mr. Brown. They wanted in too, you know how enthusiastic those two get. But I stuck with you. Even when you tried to back out, I still stuck with you, taught you.”

The tension in his voice was like an elastic band stretched to its breaking point. Nola’s hands began to shake and she clasped her fingers together, dropping her arms under the table.

“I would say it’s because I loved your daddy like he was my own,” Rick said, shifting in his seat. “But I didn’t. Hated the bastard, tell the truth. Was a little too affectionate with you for my taste.” He paused, reached over and pulled a sugar packet from the small container at the corner of the table. He flicked the packet once then started twirling it between his fingers. “You know the real reason why I kept you around though, don’t you, Nole?”

A sudden squeaking sound shifted Nola’s attention to the ceiling.  The bowl-shaped lamp above their table was dimmer than the others that hung around the restaurant. It extended a couple of feet above their heads from a long, thin fixture bolted to the ceiling. The lamp swayed gently back and forth, letting out a soft eek with each backswing.

“You know why, Nola?” Rick repeated, louder. “Because I don’t trust those assholes as much as I trust you. That’s why. You and me, we got a bond I don’t share with those knuckleheads. Love’s like—”

A chuckle suddenly escaped Nola’s throat like a loosed prisoner, out her lips before she could clamp them down. Her hand shot up to her mouth and she gave Rick a fearful glance, quickly dropping her eyes to her lap.

“What the fuck are you laughing at?” Rick growled, his face slowly turning red, his eyes shrinking to a beady glare.

Nola attempted to speak, to apologize, searching for a reason to explain it to herself. Nothing came to mind though, so she just stayed quiet.

“I’m getting tired of this bullshit, Nola,” Rick whispered.

Nola closed her eyes, bracing herself for impact, every muscle in her chest and abdomen and face tensing up. Whatever he did, she just hoped it wouldn’t draw any attention.

A moment later, an untouched Nola opened her eyes to find Rick surveying the restaurant pensively. His gaze settled near the front of the restaurant and the crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes softened. Nola turned to see a young hostess staring over at their table. At Rick. Smiling at him, actually.

Nola turned back to Rick, her eyes suddenly burning.

“Do you know her?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

“No,” Rick said simply, turning back to her. “I don’t understand what your problem is right now. You’ve never complained before.”

Nola’s shoulders slouched, her eyes falling to her lap again.

“Do you have a problem with all this?” he asked, motioning around the restaurant as if it were theirs to claim. “You have a problem with the clothes on your back? The fucking life you have right now?”

“No,” she said quietly.

“No?”

She tried to face him, but her chin felt magnetically drawn downward.

“No, Rick. I love it. All of it.”

“You damn well better,” he said with an emphatic nod. “Doesn’t suit you to be ungrateful. To take all this for granted. Your daddy couldn’t give you any of this shit, that’s for goddamn sure.” He chuckled and leaned across the table towards her. “All I’m asking for is your help to keep things as good as they’ve been, Nole. That’s all.”

Nola kept her head down.

“I treat you good.” he said, almost questioningly. “Alright, at least. Right?”

Nola focused on her stomach, flat and pale beneath her Rolling Stones t-shirt.  She brushed her thumb across the half-inch of exposed skin at her waist and was suddenly lost in memories, flashes of pain and free-flowing blood piercing her mind; out of sync with no sound, like a horribly-edited film.

Nola moved her hand up until her palm was resting flatly against her stomach. Rick noticed, recognition sparking in his eyes. He lowered his chin and bared his teeth a little.

“I told you to forget about that shit,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“I told you,” he repeated, his jaw clenched. “It was for your own good.”

“I know, I—I’m sorry, Rick.”

“No!” Rick slammed his fist down on the table and Nola jumped. “You obviously don’t fucking understand. Shit like that, like, what—babies?” He shook his head. “They ain’t nothing but trouble in our line of work.”

A burning pain hit Nola right then, as suddenly as a heart attack, rising like a hunger in her soul and engulfing her chest. She hadn’t felt the emotion in some time and, as such, was unsure what it was at first. Even when she figured it out, she still didn’t know exactly what to do with it.

But it was anger alright. Red hot and fiery.

“I’m sorry, Rick,” she said through gritted teeth. “It’s just…hard. To forget.”

Rick brought his hands together, clasping them on the table. Nola kept her head down, feeling the burn of his stare in her scalp.

“Try harder,” he said darkly, cracking his knuckles. “For your own good, best try harder.”

Her anger subsided as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by the ever-present fear. She raised her head to apologize again when something caught the corner of her eye. Glancing to her left, she saw an elderly couple seated at the table next to them, less than ten feet away. The lady closest to Nola had her spoon dipped in a steaming bowl of tomato soup, and by the looks of it had paused to listen in on Nola and Rick’s conversation. Nola’s face instantly transformed from passive to enraged, eyebrows dipping, nose flaring. Her hands flew up from under the table as she turned to fully face the eavesdropping woman.

“Is there a problem?” she yelled. The old woman quickly averted her eyes and Nola fixed her defiant stare on the man. He was older as well, though not as old as the woman. Mid-fifties at the most, and oddly familiar. His face was clean-shaven, free of wrinkles with the exception of a line or two in each cheek. A shock of hair, longish and shaggy, seemed to sprout from his head, coming down just above his neck in jagged gray and white streaks, like millions of tiny electrical extensions protruding from his brain. He wore a crimson-colored shirt, buttoned nearly to the top, with an open black vest over it. His hands sat on the table clenched together and his eyes did not waver. Nola’s brief moment of courage subsided and she turned back to Rick, clasping her hands on top of the table.

Tapping his fingers together, Rick’s eyes remained on her, as if he hadn’t even noticed the outburst.

“Nola,” Rick sighed. His voice was softer now as he reached across the table to wrap his large hands around hers. She jumped at first and Rick studied her intently for a second. Anytime he had her in his grasp she immediately felt small, swallowed, minuscule. It had been a mostly pleasant feeling in the beginning years, one she only felt when she was with Rick, one that was most intense on those occasional moments when the hold was tender.

His fingers softened around hers and began to knead the flesh at the base of her palms. Nola felt all the fear and the tiny bits of remaining anger slowly leave her body. After a moment she squeezed his hand softly, studying the interlocked maze of fingers.

“I need this, Nole,” he said. “We need this, and I need to know you’re with me. One hundred percent.”

“I am, babe,” she whispered.

“Are you sure?”

Nola hesitated and Rick’s hands tensed.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “Yes. I’m just…”

“Just what, Nola?”

Nola basked in the warmth of his hands and stared into his eyes. She tried to remove any hostility from her voice as she spoke, pleading with herself not to break the pleasant lull of the moment by saying anything in the wrong way.

“I just—” she said. Her voice was too deep. She cleared her throat and spoke in a higher pitch. “It’s just that you can’t work, I know, with your record and all. But…I can, babe. Just let me get a job, baby. I’ll take c—”

“No woman of mine’s gonna be working in no goddamn bullshit slave job!” Rick exploded, yanking his hands away. Nola flinched and brought her arms to her chest. “You take care of us,” Rick yelled. “Take care of me goddammit.” Bits of spittle flew from his mouth and landed on the table.

A multitude of eyes turned in their direction and Nola’s face reddened. Rick paused with his eyes closed, breathing slowly, evenly, running his fingers through his shining hair once again.

“You and I, we don’t need jobs.” He opened his eyes and poked his finger at the table. “These are our jobs. Right here. This is our livelihood, but it can only be that way if we are both on the same page.”

“Rick—”

“Quick and easy,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “Like taking cand—like trick or treating.”

Nola followed Rick’s gaze upwards, to the Halloween decorations strewn across the restaurant like monstrous spider webs. She shivered once again as the streamers swung in unison with the still swaying lamp. At the front of the restaurant, in the window facing the back of Rick’s head, a flickering jack-o-lantern leered in at them.

“I hate trick or treating,” she said, closing her eyes. “And Halloween.”

“Me too. It’ll be like taking candy from them though, so.” Rick shrugged, readjusting himself in the seat. “I need to know you’re with me, Nola. This next one’s big. Bigger than the others.”

Nola nodded slowly.

“I told you to be ready tonight,” he said. He paused and Nola waited. “I did, right?”

Nola nodded again.

“Are you ready?”

Nola felt it a rhetorical question. Rick obviously thought otherwise, tapping his finger against the table impatiently.

“Yes,” she said finally. “But ready for what?”

“Your test, Nole.” A devilish grin crossed Rick’s face. “Right here. Right now.”

“I’m sorry,” Nola said, shaking her head in confusion. “I don’t under-”

“I’ve been casing the place all week,” he said gleefully. “These bastards won’t know what hit ‘em. Especially with you? A chick looks like you? They ain’t expecting it. All you gotta do is stand up.” He held his arms out, looked around the room “And do it.”

Nola’s eyes widened and she started to shake her head.

“Rick—”

“I don’t want to hear it, Nola.”

Nola closed her mouth and felt the burn in her chest return with added ferocity. It set a precedent, multiple bouts of anger in the same night. She couldn’t remember the last time she had experienced even one so intense.

Nola swallowed thickly, her teeth grinding together.

“Stand up and make the announcement,” Rick said, squinting towards the front checkout counter.

“Rick,” Nola said softly, clenching her fists.

“Watch the doors,” Rick said. “Grab wallets and jewelry, I’ll get the register first, the safe in the back after then we can—”

“Rick!”

The word exploded from her.

Rick jumped, startled.

“What the fuck, Nola?” he barked.

Nola felt the old woman’s eyes again to her left and was about to look over when a voice suddenly whispered in her ear, distant at first.

Go ahead, Nola.

Instantly disoriented, Nola spun around looking for the source. Nobody was behind her so she faced Rick again, confused. The voice had seemed to come from inside her head and, at the same time, not. In fact, it had sounded like the voice that she always heard in there, the voice she associated with her thoughts, the voice that had the same inflections and tones as the one she directed at Rick and any of the few other people she spoke to regularly. The intimate voice of familiarity.

But, at the same time, the voice hadn’t been hers. There had been a certain air to it, a masked depth, as if a man had been using a voice filter to make his sound like hers. The thought had no basis in logical reasoning. And the words themselves had been so ominous that Nola could do nothing but sit still for a moment, waiting for it to return and imagining this is what it feels like to know you’re going insane and not be able to do anything about it. Rick was saying something in front of her, and she was trying to focus on him and forget about the voice when it came again.

Nobody will ever know.

This time Nola simply frowned at the sound, cocking her head to the side a bit.

Rick gaped at her. “Are you listening to me?”

Nola turned and searched the room once again for the source of the voice. The old woman to her left kept her eyes on her soup. The man across from her, however, still sat there looking directly at Nola. Returning the stare, Nola felt a gradual tightening in her chest. It grew like a tumorous breath in her lung, exacerbated by the sight of the man’s eyes. Blue and gray melted together near his dark pupils, flickering with a heat that seemed to have no source in the dim atmosphere of the restaurant, as if the man’s soul itself were on fire.

As Nola watched him, his lips curled back in a sinister sneer, revealing a set of unnaturally white teeth. He winked at her, a quick, nonchalant expression, and the voice in her head spoke for a third time.

Nobody.

Nola looked away quickly, back to Rick, his face still displaying shock. Her heart pounded in her chest and ears, her sweaty palms planted on the edge of the table.

Nola glanced to her left again and was met with a side-eyed stare from the old, gray-haired woman.

The old man, however, was gone, nothing but an empty seat in his place.

“Nola?” Rick said.

Nola looked at Rick and everything wavered for a moment, his face, the restaurant, the jack-o-lantern behind his head all shimmering and becoming almost cloudy. Putting a hand to her forehead, Nola stood slowly, pushing her chair back and stepping away from the table. Rick watched her rise as if she were a fish inexplicably walking out of the ocean.

“You gonna do it?” he said.

“I have to pee.”

“You can do that after.”

“I really need to go,” she said, putting a hand just below her belly for added effect.

Rick groaned and sat back in his chair, visibly pouting.

“Hurry up,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. “And don’t think we’re not going to talk about this bullshit later.”

Nola swallowed thickly, feeling queasy. She turned to face the back of the restaurant and suddenly froze in place.

Behind her and Rick’s table sat a family at a round booth. Two young boys kicked at each other as they smeared spaghetti across their faces. The mother and father—oblivious to their children’s lack of table manners—were engaged in what was very obviously an undercover argument. The entire family seemed to be paying no attention to Nola or her escalating situation with Rick. As if for emphasis, the father rolled his eyes in Nola’s direction as his wife chastised him.

Nola stood staring at the family in awe, not of the mother or the father but of the messy children, more particularly the fifth guest sitting with them.

Dark red, glistening sauce covered the bottom halves of the kids’ faces, giving their open mouths and teeth an eerie shine, like twin pit bulls feeding on bloody scraps. And right in between them sat the blue-eyed old man who had just been at the table with the old lady. He sat with his hands still clasped together, a leering grin pasted on his face. The voice came in louder now, sounding much less like her own.

Now, Nola.

“Nola?” Rick hissed.

Nola jumped and faced him. He shot her a threatening glare and nodded his head towards the bathroom.

“Get on with it,” he said.

Nola glanced back at the family in the booth and when she saw that the two children were now sitting without a companion—eating rather daintily now, with no spaghetti sauce on their faces—she wondered what it all meant for her.

“Forget it,” Rick said suddenly. “Fuck the bathroom, Nola, sit the fuck down.”

Nola tried to speak through a closed throat, plopping down in the chair instead. Rick shook his head.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I—” she said, pausing and staring at her hands. “I don’t know.”

“Get over it, whatever it is. Now. We need to do this shit before anybody else leaves.” He glanced back at the front of the restaurant as two men dressed in business attire opened the double-door entrance and left. “That’s our money walking out right there.”

Nola’s breathing accelerated, her hands swimming around her lap, touching her knee, her thigh, the top of her jeans and the small bulge beneath the waist. It was right then she felt a shift in her equilibrium, a nominal adjustment to the tide of her psyche. In no way was it a feeling she could articulate, and in that initial moment Nola wanted nothing more than to desperately ask Rick what she should do. The voice began singing in her brain then, repeating a mantra of words that sounded unintelligible after awhile.

Nobody…go…Nola… knows…

Go…Nola…knows…Nobody…

Knows…nobody..Nola…go…

Now.

“Nola!” Rick hissed.

“Rick, I—I still have to pee.”

“Goddammit!” Rick yelled, a glistening drop of spit appearing at the corner of his mouth. A shadow crossed his face and Nola knew then that she would remember this particular moment forever. It hit her much as the fear always hit her, as the anger had hit her that day, as every other realization and emotion and thought and even Rick himself usually hit her: hard, fast, and painful. She knew that she’d forever remember the darkness in Rick’s eyes, the feel of the air as it grew heavier and colder in her lungs, the sound of the restaurant’s background chatter. She knew she would remember it all, knew this even as her still shaky hand reached under her sweater, under the waist of her jeans to grip the bulge of a slightly aged .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda, tucked tight against her warm skin.

The gun had been her father’s, his bow and six arrows as he’d called it.

Take from the rich and give to the poor.

Nola gripped it firmly in her right hand, fingering the trigger hidden under the table.

Rick leaned in, reaching over and grabbing Nola’s free hand, startling her.

“Nola,” Rick said, squeezing painfully. “Nole. Babe.”

“Yes, Rick,” she said softly.

“I’m going to do this,” Rick said. He lowered his voice more. “We’re going to do this. I’m going to get up, you’re going to follow me, and you’re going to help. I swear by God you’ll help me…” He tightened his grip even more. “…if it kills you.”

A heavy tear fell down her cheek and Nola was frozen by its presence. She hadn’t cried in front of Rick in years. He didn’t like the display, he said. She braced herself as another tear followed the first, but he remained oblivious. Even as she brought her right arm out into the open, clutching the warmed steel of the revolver, his expression still took a moment to register the development.

Nola pointed the gun directly at Rick’s face, the barrel less than an inch from his forehead. A steadiness took over her hand and arm, one that didn’t match up with the rest of her body. Her chest convulsed with small, quick heaves, her vision blurring with more tears. Her legs shook under the table and her bottom lip quivered.

But her hand remained steady, like a robotic extension detached from her nervous system.

The light above their heads glinted off the dull steel of the handgun, reflecting in Rick’s wide eyes, sweat springing up on his forehead. He leaned back in his chair slowly, raising his hands in front of him and wiggling his fingers before placing his palms flat on the table. A strange silence fell over the restaurant.

Rick snickered suddenly, as if the gun were a toy, a bad joke that Nola had made with good intentions.

“Really, Nole?”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice shook, cracking at the end like brittle paper.

Rick chuckled again, his eyes wilder than ever, flitting from the gun to her and back. Nola couldn’t handle the sight for too long. She’d seen it before in him, that same feral emotion, right before he pushed her face first down that flight of stairs last year. Rick guardedly surveyed the restaurant. “Put that thing away before somebody sees it and I might just forget this ever happened.”

Now, Nola.

“I can’t,” she whispered. Above her head the tempo of the swinging lamp quickened, almost matching the beat of her racing heart. “I can’t do—”Animals

“What?” Rick snapped. “Can’t do what, Nola? Can’t not be fucking dramatic for once in your shitty goddamn life?”

Nola slowly raised her head, the tears on her cheeks drying. The lamp above her let out one last eeeek then stopped. Nola felt her heart slow down, her palm no longer damp against the butt of the gun.

“I just can’t,” she said. The words came out crisper and clearer than she’d ever heard herself say anything.

Rick paused, looking from the gun to Nola and back, indecisive. Nola blinked just long enough for him to jerk towards her. With her gun arm braced against the table, the barrel seemed much longer to her than it had before. As he approached, her eyes opened and met his for just a second. Rick’s were light brown, almost hazel, with soft specks of green. There were faint lines on the puffy, aged skin around them, lines she could remember tracing tenderly with her fingers so many nights ago. Time froze on that memory and his face. Nola’s own eyes softened at the sight.

The gun bucked violently in her hand, and a high-pitched ring sprang immediately into her ears like a siren. A fine red mist gently covered her face as Rick’s outstretched hand exploded and his head snapped first back then forward again. His chin fell to his chest and she watched the light in his eyes quickly fade, the green specks withering away like a dying flashlight. She held his gaze until there was nothing there and gravity brought his body down into a slump, his forehead coming to rest on the table with a soft, wet thud.

It was only then that Nola shook herself and turned to face the restaurant.

Silent screams crowded her vision. The old lady next to her had received a generous piece of Rick’s middle finger in her bowl of tomato soup, standing straight up with the finger nail pointed in her direction. She stood on rickety knees and backed into a wall behind her, one blood-stained hand held up to her wide open mouth.

Nola stood slowly.

The family of four behind her was in a panic. The mother grabbed both her crying children and crushed them to her bosom, dragging them away. The father stood between them and Nola like a well-paid bodyguard, a mixture of fear and protective anger transforming his face into a nightmare as they followed the wall around the room to the front of the restaurant. The other customers started quickly migrating to the front door, opposite Nola. Within moments she found herself alone, casting deep, swaying shadows across the scuffed linoleum floor beneath the dim lamp, which had resumed its steady squeak.

Nola’s right arm felt suddenly, impossibly heavy.

When she looked down, her gun was dripping, the steel darkened with Rick’s blood. Nola turned to look back at his body, staring at the ragged hole in the back of his head, the size of a baseball. Facing the front of the restaurant again, she watched everybody huddled together like hostages. No sooner had the thought occurred to her, red and blue lights flashed in the windows.

Nola wiped the gun across the sleeve of her sweater, leaving glistening streaks of red across the tan cotton fabric.

The nosy elderly lady who had sat next to Nola now cowered behind a young man, wiping her tears with the hem of her dress. The family of four stood hugging in a corner, the father enfolding his wife and two sons like a bird protecting its young. Everybody stared at Nola with a mixture of hate and fear.

All except one.

In the corner, in front of the window that overlooked the street, those fiery blue-gray eyes and open mouth faced her, silently laughing in her direction with arms crossed. Nola knew now where she’d seen them before. Her father’s eyes had been blue as well, powerfully so. She remembered saying something about them once, asking him why his eyes looked like the daytime sky in winter. And like a piece of ice floating up from the bottom of a deep cup, she suddenly remembered what her father had said, lying in bed next to her with a hand on her bare leg.

Nobody knows, Nola. Nobody will ever know. Because—

Because what? Nola couldn’t quite remember the last part.

The old man’s smile grew wider.

Nola’s chest tightened again and she looked down at the table where Rick lay face down. A stream of blood had made its way to the edge and—as she watched—it broke the threshold and dripped to the floor. A crimson waterfall, majestic and full of purpose, like a migrating herd.

Like the answer to the question.

Because what?

Nobody will ever know because

…we’re all just animals, following the pack.

Nola raised her gun without looking at it.

The restaurant door burst open and a stream of police officers swarmed in, guns drawn. Her eyes flashed to the old man, whose sneer had nearly consumed the bottom half of his face. He nodded and Nola turned to an approaching officer, raising the gun to her right temple. Her lips parted and she smiled, the first genuine smile she’d felt in what seemed like forever.

Nola coughed softly as the young police officer lowered his gun and held up a hand, opening his mouth to speak. Nola cut him off.

“I know,” she said. The officer cocked his head to the side and she nodded. “I know.”

When Nola pulled the trigger, she felt her thoughts fly away, escaping her mind with a rush of displaced air and gunpowder, like a bird loosed from a cage. She fell back on top of the table, coming to rest by Rick’s side, one of her hands falling on top of his, and for just a split second she the undamaged part of her brain registered the fading warmth of his skin. Nola smiled up at the ceiling as her body settled into a permanent stillness, and the light in her eyes faded very, very slowly.

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