[Originally Published in Prick of the Spindle Volume 2.1 (Spring 2008)]
Rick sighed and ran his fingers through his slick black hair, closing his eyes and grumbling under his breath. Nola watched from across the table, focusing on the throbbing vein in his left temple, pulsing like a leech beneath his skin. She tried to look away, turning her head slightly, but her eyes remained on his face as she sat back in her chair and shivered. The restaurant was unpleasantly cold, and the temperature seemed to be dropping.
Nola rubbed her shoulders and winced as her hand brushed over a bruise hidden beneath the right arm of her sweater. Slowly crossing her legs beneath the table, she squeezed her thighs together. Rick raised his head and Nola quickly leaned forward, staring anxiously up into his deep eyes. Rick’s forehead creased broodingly.
“Nola,” he started, opening his eyes slowly. “I’m not hearing any enthusiasm, Nole. You’re not acting like you want this.”
He cocked his head to the side, displaying his rugged profile as he glanced at a passing waitress’s ass. Nola frowned.
“We’ve hit a dozen of these spots.” Rick continued, looking back at Nola and leaning in further. “All of them, just you and me. I could’ve got Memphis on the jobs, or Mr. Brown. They wanted it too. They both showed enthusiasm. But I stuck with you. Even when you tried to back out, I still stuck with you, coaxed you, taught you.”
Nola heard the tension in his voice tighten, like an elastic band stretched to just about its breaking point, and her hands began to shake. She clasped her fingers together and quickly dropped her arms under the table.
“I would say it’s because I loved your daddy like he was my own. But I didn’t. Hated the bastard, tell the truth. Was a little too—” He snickered and readjusted himself in the seat. “—Affectionate with you for my taste. You know the real reason why I kept you around, Nole?” he asked.
A squeak above their heads 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 in the ceiling tile. The lamp swayed gently back and forth, letting out a soft eek with each backswing.
“You know why, Nola?” Rick repeated louder. “I don’t trust those assholes as much as I trust you. That’s why. You and me, we got a bond I can’t share with them knuckleheads. Love’s like-”
A chuckle escaped Nola and she quickly stifled it, her hand shooting up to her mouth.
“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 for the uncharacteristic outburst, searching for a reason to explain it to her own self. Nothing came though, so she just stayed quiet, avoiding Rick’s eyes.
“I’m getting tired of this bullshit, Nola,” Rick said with an exasperated, heaving breath.
He had touched the brink and Nola closed her eyes, bracing herself for impact. She sat waiting and hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much or draw too much attention. She’d hate to have to explain to somebody that it was for her own good.
When she looked up moments later, untouched, Rick was surveying the restaurant pensively. His eyes settled near the front and a small smirk touched the corners of his lips. Nola raised an eyebrow and turned to see a young hostess staring at them. At Rick. Smiling, actually. Nola shook her head and turned to Rick, immediately feeling the intensity of his eyes.
“You’ve never complained before,” he whispered viciously.
She paused, unsure what he was referring to.
“About what?” she murmured.
“What do you mean ‘about what’?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly.
“Do you have a problem with all this?” he asked, motioning around the restaurant as if it were theirs to claim, as if it were a kingdom that he, as monarch, offered to Nola in exchange for her allegiance. “You have a problem with the clothes on your back? The fucking life you have now?”
“No,” she said quietly.
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.” He paused and Nola waited patiently. “Your daddy couldn’t give you any of this shit. That’s for goddamn sure.” He chuckled and leaned towards her. “All I’m asking for is your help to keep things the way they are, Nole. That’s all.”
Nola kept her head down.
“I treat you good.” he said, almost questioningly. “Alright, at least. Right?”
Nola’s eyes dropped further to her stomach and she was suddenly lost in memories, flashes of pain and free-flowing blood piercing through her mind, out of sync and out of order like a horribly edited film. A moment later, recognition sparked in Rick’s eyes and anger reentered his voice.
“I told you to forget about that shit.”
“I told you,” he repeated, his jaw clenched. “It was for your own good.”
“I understand. I’m sorry, Rick.”
“No!” Rick slammed his fist into the table and Nola jumped. “You don’t fucking understand. Shit like that, like kids, 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 was unsure what it was at first. Even when she figured it out, she still didn’t know exactly how to deal with it.
Anger, red hot and fiery.
“I’m sorry, Rick,” she said, teeth gritted. “It’s just… hard. To forget.”
Rick paused and brought his hands together. Nola kept her head down but could still feel the power of his eyes.
“Try harder,” he said darkly, gently cracking his knuckles. “For your own sake.”
Her anger subsided as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by the ever-present fear. She avoided his eyes again as something caught her attention. An elderly couple sat at the table next to them, less than ten feet to Nola’s left. The lady closest to Nola, her spoon dipped in a steaming bowl of tomato soup, had seemingly paused to listen in on Nola and Rick’s conversation. Nola’s face instantly transformed, her eyebrows sinking closer to her eyes, her nose flaring. In an instant, shifting from passive to enraged, her hands flew up from under the table as she braced herself and turned in her seat to fully face the other woman.
“Is there a problem?” she asked. The old woman quickly averted her eyes and Nola fixed her defiant stare on the man. He was older as well, though not so much so. 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. His head held a shock of hair, longish and shaggy, 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 a black vest partially closed over it. His hands sat on the table clenched together and his eyes did not waver. Nola’s brief courage quickly subsided and she looked away, turned back to Rick, clasping her hands once again and placing them on her lap.
Tapping his finger on the table, Rick’s eyes remained on her, as if he hadn’t 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 raised his eyebrows for a second. When he had her in his grasp, his fists swallowing hers, she immediately felt small, almost miniscule. It was a pleasant feeling, one she only felt when she was with Rick, when he occasionally held her tenderly. It had been a while and she could slowly feel all the fear and the tiny bits of remaining anger leave her body. She squeezed his hand softly and studied 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.”
“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 this in the wrong way.
“I just…” she said. Her voice was too deep. She cleared her throat and spoke in nearly a whisper. “You can’t work, I know, with the felony 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 jumped and reflexively brought her arms to her chest. “You take care of us. 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 and 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. We gotta be on the same page though.”
“Quick and easy,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “Like taking candy… like trick or treating.”
Nola followed Rick’s gaze up to the Halloween decorations strewn across the restaurant like orange and black webs from some enormous and monstrous spiders. She shivered once again as the streamers swung in unison with the still swaying lamp. In the window behind Rick’s head, a flickering jack-o-lantern leered in at them.
“I hate trick or treaters,” she said, closing her eyes.
“Me too. It’ll be like taking candy from them.” Rick readjusted himself in the seat, leaning forward. “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 was a rhetorical question. Rick obviously thought otherwise and waited for her to answer.
“Y-yes,” she stuttered. “But… for what?”
“Your test, Nole. Of loyalty.” A devilish smirk crossed his face. “Right here. Right now.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Nola said, confused. “I don’t under-”
“I’ve been casing this joint all week,” he said gleefully. “These bastards won’t know what hit ‘em. Especially with you, a woman. They ain’t expecting it. All you gotta do is stand up.” He paused, shrugged. “And do it.”
Nola’s eyes widened and she started to shake her head slowly.
“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, the three bouts of anger in the same night. She couldn’t remember the last time she had experienced even one, and she didn’t think she’d ever gotten mad at Rick before tonight.
Nola swallowed thickly and grinded her teeth.
“Stand up and make the announcement,” Rick said, squinting towards the front checkout counter.
“Rick,” Nola said softly, closing her eyes, squeezing them and clenching her fists.
“Watch the doors,” Rick said. “Grab everybody’s wallet and jewelry. I’ll get the register first, the safe, then we—”
The word exploded from her, rising from her stomach to her throat and out before she could smother it. Rick jumped, startled, as her hand covered her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified.
“What the fuck, Nola?” Rick yelled.
To her left, she barely caught the old woman’s gray eyes again as they moved away quickly. Nola’s eyes fluttered back to Rick as the voice whispered in her ear, distant at first.
Go on, Nola.
Instantly disoriented, Nola looked around, startled. The voice was in her head and, at the same time, not. It sounded like the one that she always heard in there, the voice she associated with her thoughts, the voice that had the same inflections and tone as the one she directed at Rick and any of the few other people she spoke to regularly. The intimate voice of familiarity. But, it wasn’t hers. It was deeper, more manly, and the thought had no basis, no reason. The words themselves were so ominous that Nola could do nothing but sit still for a moment, waiting for it to return and imagining what it must feel like to know you’re going insane and not be able to do anything about it.
Nobody will ever know.
She jumped at the sound. Rick gaped at her, silent, and Nola searched the room for a source. The old woman to her right kept her eyes on her soup. The man across from her, however, had fastened an intent look on Nola. Returning the stare, Nola felt a gradual tightening in her chest. It grew like a tumorous breath in her lung, much different then the burning anger which had momentarily disappeared, eradicated by the sight of the man’s eyes. Blue and gray melted together near his dark pupils and flickered with a light that had no source in the dim atmosphere of the restaurant, as if the man’s soul itself were on fire. And as Nola watched, his lips curled back in a sinister sneer, revealing a set of unnaturally white teeth.
Nola looked away quickly, back to Rick, his face still shocked. Her heart pounded in her chest and ears, her sweaty palms planted on the edge of the table.
Another glance at the old man showed nothing but an empty seat.
“Nola?” Rick said.
Nola focused on Rick and everything wavered for a moment. His face, the restaurant, the jack-o-lantern behind his head, all shimmered and became cloudy. Putting a hand to her forehead, she stood slowly, gently backing away from the table. Rick watched her rise, his face still passive but his eyes burning.
“Nola,” he said. “Sit down.”
“I have to use the restroom.”
“You can do that after.”
“I really need to go,” she said, putting a hand just below her belly for added effect.
Rick sighed exaggeratedly and sat back in his chair, pouting like a spoiled child.
“Hurry up,” he said, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “And don’t think we’re not going to discuss this at home later.”
Nola swallowed thickly, feeling queasy. She held her stomach, grimaced as she turned, and froze in place.
Behind her and Rick’s table sat a family at a round booth. Two young boys smiled and kicked their legs happily as they smeared spaghetti across their faces. The mother and father—oblivious to their children’s lack of table manners—were engaged in what seemed to be an argument. The entire family paid no attention to her or the escalating situation with Rick. As if for emphasis, the father rolled his eyes in Nola’s direction as his wife chastised him.
Nola stood in awe, not of the mother or the father but of the messy children and their companion. Dark red, glistening sauce covered the bottom halves of their faces, giving their open mouths and teeth an eerie shine, and Nola imagined twin pit bulls feeding on bloody scraps. In between them, the leering smile frightened her even more than it had moments earlier. The old man sat rigid, hands still clasped together.
“Nola?” Rick hissed.
Nola jumped and turned as Rick shot a threatening glare at her. She peeked back at the family, wondering what the now empty spot between the two children meant for her. The children’s faces had lost the wicked quality, as had the entire scene.
“Forget it,” Rick said adamantly. “Fuck the bathroom. Nola, sit the fuck down.”
Nola tried to speak through a closed throat, plopping down in the chair exhaustedly. 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 at the front door, to her far left, as two men dressed in business attire exited the restaurant. “That’s our money walking out right there.”
Nola’s breathing had accelerated. Her hands swam around her lap, touching her knee, her thigh, the top of her jeans and the small bulge beneath the waist. She felt the pull of change suddenly. Change in herself, change in others, change in something. She didn’t know exactly what was going on, and she wanted desperately to ask Rick what she should do. The voice sang in her brain, repeating a mantra of words that had begun to sound unintelligible.
“Nola?” Rick hissed.
“Rick, I…” Nola said quickly. “…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 that 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 Rick himself usually hit her: hard, fast, and painful. She knew she’d remember the darkness in Rick’s eyes, the feel of the air as it grew heavier and colder in her lungs as she struggled to breathe. The sound of the restaurant’s patron chatter would haunt her for years to come. She knew this even as her still shaky hand reached under her sweater, under the waist of her sweat pants, towards the bulge: a slightly aged .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda tucked tight against her warm skin. It had been her father’s, his bow and six arrows as he had called it. Take from the rich and give to the poor.
She 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 quickly, startling her.
“Nola,” he said. He suddenly chuckled, squeezing her hand painfully. “Nole. Babe,” he said, softer.
Rick tried to catch her eye and, for once, she successfully avoided it.
“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 one, but he remained oblivious. Even as she brought her concealed arm out into the open, still clutching the warmed steel of the revolver, his face still took a moment to register.
She pointed it directly at his face, the barrel less than an inch from his forehead.
She felt a steadiness in her hand and arm that didn’t match up with the rest of her body. Her chest convulsed with small, quick heaves as a few more tears fell. Her legs shook under the table and her bottom lip quivered. But her hand remained steady, like a robotic extension incapable of emotion, detached from her nervous system. The light above their heads glinted off the dull steel of the handgun, reflecting in Rick’s wide eyes as sweat sprang up on his forehead. He sat back slowly, raising his hands in front of him, wiggling his fingers before placing his palms flat on the table. A strange silence fell over the restaurant.
Rick snickered uneasily, as if the gun were a toy, a bad joke that Nola had made with good intentions.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice shook, cracking at the end like brittle paper.
“Nola.” He chuckled again, though his eyes were 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’d pushed her face first down a flight of stairs. Rick guardedly surveyed the restaurant. “Put that thing away, before somebody sees it, and I might just forget this ever happened.”
“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—”
“What?” Rick snapped. “Can’t do what, Nola? Can’t not be fucking dramatic for once in your shitty life?”
She slowly raised her head, the tears on her cheeks disappearing almost as quickly as they had come. One last eeeek came from above before all sound ceased. Nola felt her heart slow down, her damp palms quickly drying against the warm butt of the gun.
“I. Just. Can’t,” she said. The words came out crisp and clear, and Nola’s body finally matched the steadiness of her arm.
Rick paused, looking from the gun to Nola and back, indecisive. Nola blinked just long enough for him to jerk towards her and reach for the Magnum. Her gun hand 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 a moment. 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. The gun bucked violently in her hand as she pulled the trigger and a ringing sound sprung into her ears.
A fine red mist gently covered her face as Rick’s outstretched hand exploded and his head snapped back, then forward again. His chin fell to his chest and she watched as the light in his eyes gradually faded, the green specks withering away like a dying flashlight. She held his gaze in hers as the hazel turned a dull, dark brown and gravity brought his body down into a slump, his forehead coming to rest on the table with a soft, wet thud. Nola shook herself and turned.
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 up 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. The other customers had all migrated to the front of the restaurant, opposite Nola. She suddenly found herself alone, casting deep, swaying shadows across the scuffed linoleum floor beneath the dim lamp, which had resumed its steady squeak.
Her gun was dripping, the steel darkened with Rick’s blood. Nola turned towards the body, reached over and gently closed his eyes before turning back to the front of the restaurant where everybody stood huddled together like a group of 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 and wiped her tears with a handkerchief. The family of arguing parents and messy children huddled together in a corner hugging each other, the father enfolding his wife and two kids like a bird protecting its young. Everybody stared at Nola hatefully and fearfully. 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 icicles. She remembered what her father had said too, lying in bed next to her with a hand on her bare leg.
Nobody knows, Nola. Nobody will ever know. Except
Except what? Nola couldn’t quite remember the last part.
The old man’s smile grew wider.
Nola’s chest tightened again and she turned away, breaking the old man’s hold and focusing on Rick once more. A stream of blood had made its way to the edge of the table and—as she watched—it broke the threshold and fell to the floor. A crimson waterfall, majestic and full of purpose. And the answer to the riddle.
Nobody would ever know except…those who’d passed on.
She glanced at her gun, and slowly raised it.
The restaurant door opened 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, lifting the gun up to her right temple. Her lips parted and she smiled, the first genuine smile she’d had in what seemed to be forever.
Nola coughed softly as the young police officer lowered his gun and held up a hand.
“I know,” Nola said quietly. The officer cocked his head and she nodded. “I know,” she repeated.
Nola pulled the trigger and felt her thoughts fly away, escaping her mind with a rush of displaced air and gunpowder. As she fell back on top of Rick, coming to rest by his side on the table, one of Nola’s hands fell on top of his, her smile never wavering.