Flash Fiction Challenge - Sophie Littlefield
By Sophie Littlefield
Sparks drifted up into the night as the homeless tribe gathered around the burn barrel seeking a little bit of warmth. Ever cautious, their eyes flickered between the flames and the man pacing the sidewalk across the street, trying to decide if he was friend or foe. Their survival depended on knowing the difference. Laughter rumbled around the barrel when one of the men made mention that the twitchy stranger looked like Alice's white rabbit, peering at his watch like he was late for the Hatter's party.
Only Kendall stayed silent. Damn them, they’d laugh at anything. It wasn’t for nothing he’d left Santa Cruz: no one listened. Even Gretchen with her lanolin-smelling neck, her fistfuls of hair brittle in his hands - fucking her was like fucking a series of women, none of them paying any attention to him, all of them thinking of something else, so that his own tortured memories danced across her slack and chilly breasts, across her old wool coat laid open beneath them.
Still, maybe leaving Santa Cruz had been a mistake. It was warm enough, most nights, and the hippies just as likely to clap your shoulder like you had the answers, as turn away. But Kendall wasn’t any kind of hippie, nor sympathizer.
He was restless, and he had the money for the ticket. Christmas present from the one brother who still took his calls. Santa Cruz to South Lake Tahoe – him and the ski bunnies, he thought, a light-hearted crew. Only it wasn’t. It was other worn and wasted faces, and no one giving him a second glance as they lurched down the aisle of the bus.
South Lake Tahoe was where he’d come in 1995, a celebratory weekend, skittish but intact from the first Iraq. He had a GWOT Expeditionary Medal in a box in his duffle, and a ringing in his ears. Him and Corvus, though, they did okay, they had good times. Embrace the suck, that’s what Corvus said the day he died. Ironic, right? Gave Kendall a thumbs-up and that shit-eating grin and then he’s face-down in the sand ten feet away and Kendall never knowing who fired only it was one of their own.
They interviewed everyone separate and they wouldn’t tell, weeks went by and they wouldn’t say, and everyone reassigned by then. It wasn’t one of those you saw on the news. And Corvus with no family and a girlfriend who was already shacked up with someone else. No one to mind he was gone.
Only Kendall figured it for Toad. Thomas “Toad” Welles, manager of an Ace in southern Arkansas. Toad who wore aftershave even under the battle rattle, Toad who rubbed his fingers together all day long, the sign for money, scratch, for gimme some – Corvus said give him a break, Corvus said it was just a nervous habit. Corvus: we all got to fuckin get by, man.
Kendall hated it all the same. But he kept quiet. Corvus had that effect on him, making him calm, making him not mind the shit so much.
He found Toad in San Francisco. It wasn’t hard, it just took a while, Kendall biding his time, keeping an eye out. Kendall wasn’t sure why Toad had been sitting at the dim far end of that particular bar, didn’t wonder until later. Didn’t doubt until later. Maybe it hadn’t been Toad. The blood that ran over his fingers was real. The bubbles at his lips were real.
But maybe it hadn’t been Toad.
Because now he saw that across the street, through the wafting smoke from the burn barrel – there was Toad, with that squared-off chin of his, those too-far-apart eyes.
South Lake Tahoe not what he remembered. Now it was bitchy housewives and corporate types in rented SUVs and four-story condos. And this crew, not much: a sorry group kept docile in the cleared lot behind the post office, no one there at night to run them off. Kendall had been thinking of leaving, hitting the road again, the central valley, Sacramento maybe.
But look – there was Toad! The real Toad! He could see it now, how wrong he’d been; that other guy had been a little too wide, a little too smooth – the real Toad was lean and twitchy. Just like this guy. Looking at his watch, looking up, looking at his watch – and there, there, there it was, the thumb and finger working away even with gloves on, that gimme some.
I’ll give you some, I’ll give you plenty, Kendall thought as he made his way around the barrel, dipping his hand into the heat, welcoming the burn. No one paying attention. Just laughing, just talking and saying nothing, the way they did, all day long all night long. Just nothing.
At the curb he hesitated. It was Toad, wasn’t it? The hair – a little long, and cut across straight like that; was that how Toad would wear it? But yes – yes. The finger and thumb. The gimme some.
Kendall moved with intent, with stealth, fingers closing on the blade. It was too bad about the other guy, the one in San Francisco. But he’d probably done something too. Something bad, something he needed to make up for. Most people had.
BIO: Sophie Littlefield's short fiction has appeared on Darkest Before the Dawn, Thuglit, Pulp Pusher, YellowMama and elsewhere. Her first novel, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, will be out from Thomas Dunne in August, 2009. www.sophielittlefield.com