Six minutes to closing, almost midnight. I’m alone facing shelves at Price King. The place is shitty and dirty and small. We get like three customers a day. People looking for Pampers or a gallon of milk who haven’t heard of a Seven-Eleven. Big Bill, the owner, inherited this place from his dad. Bill hasn’t bothered to show up yet, and I’m just about to finish and clock out when a man walks in holding a gun–and a baby.
He doesn’t look much older than me, maybe in his early twenties, kind of bedraggled and wild-eyed in thick glasses, but it’s the baby that’s making it hard for me to breathe. The overhead lights dim, brighten, and stutter, like one of those old film reels. The man won’t make eye contact with me, but the baby’s staring.
My hand goes to the pocket of my apron, but I already know my phone’s dead. My dad, who’s probably asleep right now on the recliner in the family room, would be so disappointed in me–his now only child–for carrying an uncharged phone.
The man says, “Please. I need your help.”
Super polite were it not for the firearm.
“I’d be happy to help, sir, if you’ll just holster that gun–here, let me hold your baby for you.”
“I need it out,” he says. “I don’t feel safe.”
I hear you, dude.
The baby has two teeth on top and two on bottom, and he’s drooling. Teething. I step closer, reaching my arms out.
The man swings his hip, the one the baby’s straddling, away from me. The baby throws his arms up and giggles. I get a mental picture of the baby without a head.
“This isn’t my baby,” he says.
“My dad’ll be here any minute,” I lie. My dad’s not coming. He and my mother and I have been rolling off in all directions like billiard balls the last two years.
“Look,” he says, “I need some stuff. I need you to push a cart and I’ll fill it up.”
The baby’s trying to grab hold of the gun, and the man dangles it in front of his face and pulls it away, a game of keep-away. The baby looks so much like my little brother, Cal.
“Much easier if I hold the baby while you shop.”
The man stares.
“I’m good with babies.” Another lie.
I’m looking hard into the man’s eyes. They’re dark and huge and wet. His arm holding the gun grows slack. He lowers it to his side. Again, I reach for the baby.
“Nope,” he raises the gun and points it at my face.
My arms and legs have gone numb. I’m watching the barrel of the gun flick and dance in the man’s trembling hand. Where the hell is Big Bill? If this were a decent store, there’d be security cameras, some way to alert the cops, a non-inebriated manager on the premises. My parents have no idea how much time I spend alone here.
The baby reaches, hooks his fist around the bow of the man’s glasses, sends them clattering. Growling, the man crouches, sets the gun and the baby on the floor, to retrieve them.
High five, baby.
Cal drowned because of me, because I left him in the tub for one second. I see him, slippery as an otter, as Mom pulled his body out of the water and laid him on the floor, clamped her mouth over his.
Now. Rushing in, I swing my leg and kick the gun away as hard as I can. I reach into my apron pocket and throw my cell phone in the other direction. The man scrambles around, blind and confused. I scoop up the baby and run. Behind me, the gun goes off and to my left, a head of cauliflower explodes. He shoots again and the music system that hasn’t worked in months kicks on.
According to the police report, the man shot himself in the head, right there in aisle ten, the bullet passing through his brain and into one of the flickering overhead lights, as I was running with the baby pressed hard to my chest, as the baby screamed over some Merle Haggard sounding shit blasting from the speakers, as Big Bill came running in, a little drunk, freaking from the gunshot, confused as hell to see me holding a baby.
I remember sitting on the curb outside Price King. Lights flashing like a carnival. Big Bill talking to a police officer. Someone had thrown a blanket over me and the baby. And someone with coffee breath was leaning in, tugging, asking me to let go. I saw my dad’s car with the doors wide open. They ran to me in their pajamas. They pulled me to my feet.
This story originally appeared in Elm Leaves Journal and in RIFT, a collection by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan.
Leonora Desar, Pidgeonholes’ fiction editor, has written an essay exploring the craft of Fish’s piece, along with writing prompts inspired by its brilliance.
Kathy Fish’s short stories, flash fiction, and prose poems have recently appeared in Ploughshares, Washington Square Review, Waxwing Magazine, Copper Nickel, the Norton Reader, and Best Small Fictions. Her fifth collection, Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018, is now in its 2nd print run with Matter Press. She is a recipient of the Copper Nickel Editor’s Prize and a 2020 Ragdale Foundation Fellowship. Her highly sought after Fast Flash© workshops, begun in 2015, have resulted in numerous publications and awards for the hundreds of writers who have taken part. She publishes a free monthly newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction, which includes craft articles and writing prompts. She is currently seeking representation for her craft book of the same name.
Photography by: Tobias