By Gay Degani.
November. 92 degrees. Brush fires gut the Inland Empire, char the Western Valley, suffocate the Southland. An unyielding ash filters onto the asphalt of the high school’s outdoor court where a lanky teen-age girl dribbles a basketball between the hoops. She fakes left, right, shoots.
Breathing hard, she watches the ball circle the rusty rim. Waits for physics to do its part. Sweat burns her eyes, drenches her t-shirt, her back.
In or out?
Out. She shakes her head in disgust, and even though her chest heaves from effort, she finally feels the press of anger loosen.
Her mother’s usual hassle, dissing sports as a waste of time. The minute Jess palmed the ball this morning, her mother tried to grab it from her. Like a 46-year-old woman could go one-on-one with the AHS Owls best point-guard ever. Jess shouldered past her and out into the day.
Now, when she tugs open the grimy glass door of the Quik-Mart and shivers into the air-conditioning, she almost turns back into the smoky heat, but the man behind the counter wags a finger and hollers, “No ball in here.” She wiggles her tongue at him and bounces the ball around a stack of 24-pack Budweiser toward the Icee machine.
Behind her, the clerk’s voice rises note by note in his native tongue. She places the ball on the stainless steel shelf and snaps up the mega-sized plastic cup. She peeks over her shoulder. Two men form a dark cloud around the counter. At least the clerk’s not mad at her. She turns and pulls the Cherry flavor lever. Her t-shirt clings to her like an ice blanket.
Someone barks an order. Startled, Jess whips around. A man with a pocked nose and scraggly hair blocks the entrance. Ashes dust his jacketed shoulders. A jacket? Keys dangle from the front door lock, something metallic lifts to his chest. A gun.
Angry shouts from the other two men penetrate the aisles of Oreos, potato chips, and magazines. An Icee stream freezes her hand as it overflows the cup, but she can’t move, can’t take her eyes off the guy with the gun.
She feels the morning fire in her lungs and struggles not to cough. She hears the shallow breathing of two people she can’t see, the snap-snap of the cash register’s metal latches. Her hand shakes, and the full 56-ounce cup of Icee slips free, hits the linoleum with a loud POP.
The man at the door jerks toward the noise. Toward Jess, panic twisting his face. He raises his gun as he moves, squeezes the trigger.
She sees a flash, but hears no sound.
As the bullet crosses the distance between Jess and the man, her mind shouts, I’m only seventeen. Then she remembers her mother falling onto the couch this morning, her shirt hitched up, exposing the folds of her aging skin, the edge of her pink bra.
Jess ducks, shifts, and the bullet screams by, shattering the windowpane beside her. Hot air rushes in.
The man lunges. She slams the basketball at his legs. He trips. The other man stumbles over the cartons toward her, but she breaks right, then left, and whirls through the broken window and into the heavy day, hammering the asphalt, heading home.
She glances back. The men pile out of the store and into a waiting pick-up truck. She turns and runs harder, flying over the rocky front yard of a condominium, through the carport, and down another street. She breathes in great gulps and doesn’t ease up until she reaches the high school where she played basketball this morning.
Blood trickles from her hand – she must’ve scraped against the jagged glass – but she feels nothing except the fear she won’t make it home. Won’t see her mother again. Won’t be able to tell her she’s sorry.
She leans over, one hand on each knee, and tries to breathe, but there’s the truck, light blue with a dented fender bearing down on her, its engine loud and fierce. She pivots and plunges across the school’s grassy quad.
The sudden shade of California oaks rushes over her. For a moment the school protects her from sight but ahead at the corner the truck slows down. She sprints into the teachers’ parking lot, stooping behind thick plumes of pampas grass. The smoky sun bakes the faculty parking lot, and as dizziness shimmers through her, she trips forward onto the gravelly blacktop.
Her body gives up steam. Grit presses into her cheek, her forehead. She closes her eyes, then opens them. Beyond her bloody hand weeds push up between cracks in the pavement, scraggly grass, dandelions with serrated leaves, tiny veined, dark green against light. Like her own pale wrist. But not like it. No veins visible. Only red.
She hears the distant shouts of children, the chink of basketball against metal hoop. The truck gone from the lane, she pulls herself first to her knees, then to her feet. She can’t shake her queasiness but trudges along, heavy eyed, ash swirling around her.
She sees her mother balanced on the edge of her bed, fingers tracing names on her back, Jess guessing who. Cinderella, Madame Curie, Laura Maria Caterina Bassi, and once in a while, even Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker. She feels her mother’s kiss on her cheek.
Smiling, she turns the corner onto her street. The house is small, its stucco painted a light green, the trim slightly darker. Leggy roses bloom in terracotta pots on the brick steps and along the railing. Her mother stands on the porch, arms open. Jess trots through the fallen cinders and into her embrace.
At that same moment, in the terrified silence of the Quik-Mart, the bullet continues to travel between the robber and the young girl. Her head jerks on impact, surprise freezing her face, her hand touching red before she crumbles dead onto the linoleum floor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband and sixteen-year-old lab. She’s been published in mystery anthologies, print journals, and on-line.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 24th, 2009.