Friday, 8 January 2010
AT THE NORMAL CAFE - part 2 - VICTIMS By Chris Allinotte
Dwayne looked up to see if Bev was looking at him. She didn’t have a problem with the fact he poured a large helping of whiskey into each cup of coffee she poured for him, not really, but it would provoke another of her “just sayin’” lectures about how much he was drinking these days. He didn’t have time for that today. Being a thirteen-year regular had its benefits and free pie was the least of them. The downside was it gave Bev a free pass into his business. Right now though, he just wanted to sit here and get quietly loaded. Looking around the place, he wouldn’t get much in the way of argument. There was just the dirty looking guy at the counter, Lenny Andrini by the window, who was another regular, and a handful of others. He wished for something better on TV though; anything to take his mind off Mavis’ basement.
Ironic, that’s what it was. Dwayne, the one person Mavis Godridge had hated in the world. Trucker Dwayne, who wasn’t good enough for her Ellen, was the one stuck in her sweltering little house making piles marked “keep”, “toss” and “Goodwill”. There’d be no complaints from Mavis, as she was a month in the ground now, almost to the day.
Ironic too, that a woman who’d taken up death as a hobby should be so ill organized when her own time came.
In recent years, Mavis had started attending a funeral every weekend. She went without fail, whether she knew the person or not. “Some of them don’t have anyone Ellen,” she’d said. “It isn’t fitting to be buried without someone there to mark it.” Little gestures like that made Dwayne admit the old harpy wasn’t all bad – she just hated HIM.
Not ironic, but pure batshit crazy, was the fact his mother-in-law had been stealing from the dead.
The morning had been sent tossing out a horde of rubber bands, aluminum foil, and newspapers. Had Mavis died but two months earlier, he wouldn’t have had to separate this crap for the garbage. Instead, he dutifully sorted, and imagined Mavis laughing at him.
After lunch, also spent here at “the Normal”, he’d returned to tackle the basement.
The smell was different down there. All the pot-pourri in the world couldn’t hide the musty, earthy smell of cellar. Built sometime before the 1890’s, Mavis’ house still had the original hard- packed dirt floor. Shallow shelves the colour of driftwood ran beside the staircase, full of preserved peaches and those god-awful pickles Mavis made, the memory of which made Dwayne pucker.
He sensed something deeply awry as soon as he saw the shoeboxes. By that point in the day, Dwayne had a very good, albeit unwilling, sense of Mavis’ clothing inventory, which included no less than three black “funeral” dresses. He knew how many pairs of shoes he’d thrown into the giveaway pile, and this was way too many boxes. They were neatly stacked along the cinderblock wall, away from the furnace in a row about five feet long. Piled three high in places, there were easily over seventy boxes here. From the stairs, Dwayne could see the single unifying feature of all the boxes was the perfectly rectangular piece of paper scotch-taped to the top of each box.
He moved a dirty shovel that had fallen across the stairs, and picked up the closest box. It was matte gray and advertised a size seven black leather pump. Something small and metallic-sounding shifted as he lifted it closer. The square of newsprint on top confirmed the feeling of dread he’d had since entering the cellar. The obituary read, “Sheldon, Mitchell, 1936-2008, beloved of …” He took a deep breath, and opened the box. Inside was a large gold ring, with a heavy oval ruby set on top. The engraving confirmed, it was a school ring, from the University of Illinois, class of sixty-two.
Holy shit. Dwayne played this thought on a continuous loop for the next fifteen minutes, as he opened box after box. Each contained a memento that could only have come from the person who was mourned in newsprint on the outside of the box. Some had pictures, some had none; which was preferrable. There was something so wrong about handling these items already, but it was infinitely worse when they seemed to be watching you. When he got to the box marked, “Jacobs, Lori May, 2005-2008, and he heard the tinkling from inside that could only have been a toy doll, he decided then and there that he’d had enough.
Stopping only long enough to pick up his now-nearly-empty fifth of whiskey, he’d come to the diner and started drinking.
Three hours later, he was pleasantly buzzed, the memories of the day were taking on a soft focus, and he was starting to feel okay again, except the five cups of coffee he’d drunk to smuggle booze into his stomach were making their presence known.
He got up and made his way to the men’s room, past one of the only other occupied tables, where a sad looking woman with short blonde hair was staring into her coffee.
His next thought was cut off as he was thrown back into one of the booths along the wall. He felt as if he’d been punched in the shoulder, hard.
The pain was enormous. Even through the alchohol soaked haze, he felt as if he’d been slammed in the shoulder with a pipe-wrench. He collapsed into the nearest booth. Presumably the shooter thought he’d killed Dwayne, as no second shot came.
It was the stranger from the front counter. The dirty-looking guy in the long coat was screaming now. “Shut up! Shut up all of you! Quit LAUGHING!”
Dwayne kept his head low. It was next to impossible to think of anything but his shoulder. Blood was starting to spread like a red oil-slick on his shirt, and he could smell the seared-skin smell of the wound. Suddenly, he was fighting with his stomach not to dump all the carefully ministered alcohol into the cracked vinyl booth next to him. He forced himself to exhale through mostly closed lips. A long rattling sigh would likely get him killed. Two more deep breaths and he was almost back to calm. Worse, he felt sobriety threatening to creep back in. He wanted desperately to stay numb right now.
There had to be a way out of this. He though briefly of the large-bladed lockknife he kept handy, both as a tool, and a deterrent for punks who wanted to get cute after closing time. He dismissed the idea immediately; as to literally bring a knife to a gunfight would be tantamount to doing jumping jacks while yelling, “Shoot me!”
So, no knife. His cellphone then. The heavy yellow and black handset was in his left hip pocket. There was no way he was getting it out with his injured arm. He took a few quiet panting breaths, and rolled over on the seat, gritting his teeth against the flash of pain. The nutcase fired again. The report was deafening, and made the crash of breaking glass that came after barely significant.
That was the mirror behind the counter. Dwayne knew it was true as soon as the thought came. He had his right thumb and forefinger tucked into the left pocket now, and was prospecting past keys and a roll of antacid to the heavy plastic brick that was his phone. He eased it out slowly.
It was fortunate, he thought, that the guy was so keyed up, so tweaked, he wasn’t really aiming at anything, just firing wildly.
Got close enough to get me though, he thought, grimacing again at the pain. Okay, phone’s out. Now what? He couldn’t very well start yelling at the cops to for-god’s-sake-come now. In fact, come to think on it, there was no way 911 could trace his location on a cell.
The world swam out of focus as his shoulder throbbed again. He slammed his head back against the booth, willing himself to stay awake, stay with it. There was another crash of the gun, and the picture window in front exploded. No more people hit … yet.
While the explosion was still echoing, he hit send.
He mumbled “Police” when he heard the voice pick up.
The psycho was still screaming. He pulled the phone as close to his lips as possible.
“Normal Café. Shooting everyone. Hurry.” It was all he could manage, all he dared.
There was a brief calm. He thought he could hear the shooter panting from his exertions. He fumbled with the phone to close it, and his shoulder sent another bolt of pain lancing through his skull. His muscles twitched, and the phone went skittering out of his grasp to land on the floor, where the fiddly back plate popped off and the battery fell out. It lay like a dead thing on the tile under the flickering fluorescent tubes.
Dwayne gasped, and the sudden deep breath made his head swim. Combined with the pain, the world went gray, and he knew this time he was going out.
He thought, “I hope the cops heard me.” And then, as grey became black he wondered what Mavis would have taken from him.
Copyright 2009 Chris Allinotte
Chris Allinotte is a Toronto based writer. His work has been published on the web at such great sites as MicroHorror, Flashes in the Dark, the Oddville Press, and more. For more details about Chris' writing, check out his blog at http://chrisallinotte.blogspot.com/