Hermit crabs are a big seller at Buccaneer’s Bounty, one of those trashy beach souvenir shops with sloping, creaky floors, stale air, and paint colors off the grid of normal. Plastic oceans corked inside glass bottles tinged fluorescent green and orange. Mouths of shark water guns a disturbing shade of crimson, reminiscent of the sneers of haunted house clowns. Despite its shortcomings, Becca appreciates the place for what it is. An easy target for the art of shoplifting.
Buccaneer’s is a shoebox of a place. Merchandise lines four perimeter walls. On the back wall, owner operator Patty March displays trashy romance novels and gently used comic books on one side of the shop and on the other, bins of penny candy. Expendable stuff. If it takes a walk, it’s not going to kill her. Patty may not care about things like Atomic Fireballs, but Becca does. Life is short. Fireballs rule. Becca refuses to remove the candy from her tongue to give her mouth a break. That would be cheating. That would be letting herself down.
Becca is busy stuffing the pockets of her hoodie with Fireballs when a middle school aged boy joins her at the back of Buccaneer’s. He watches her for a few seconds before he selects one of the dog-eared comic books and begins flipping through it. Becca saw the boy staring at hermit crabs outside Buccaneer’s front doors when she arrived earlier. Today Only! 2 Crabs For $15.99! The boy seems too old for the whole hermit crab hysteria and anyway, hermit crabs are questionable as far as pets go. Doesn’t he know that? No living thing deserves to be imprisoned and dehydrated to death.
The boy glances toward the front of the shop where four younger boys stand in the checkout line holding wire cages of hermit crabs. Lucky kids clad in the latest from Vineyard Vines. Khaki shorts and polo shirts, collars turned upward, a smug whale logo riding on the coattails of Ralph Lauren. It’s obvious the boy in the back of the shop with Becca hasn’t gotten a lot in life he wanted. A hermit crab when he was younger isn’t the first and it won’t be the worst. For one thing, the boy is fat. What kid wants to be fat. A sitcom character nicknamed Pugsley or better yet, Sluggo. Becca dubs the boy “Sluggo.”
Sluggo is wearing jeans, as in long pants made of thick, impenetrable denim on an August day along the Delaware shoreline with a predicted high temperature of 99 degrees and 100 percent humidity. His black t-shirt is long and baggy, stretched out around the neck due to his habit of yanking it. Becca squints under the shop’s buzzing, fluorescent ceiling lights, concludes that the raised UFO on the back of Sluggo’s t-shirt glows in the dark. Nice touch there. Becca would wear that shirt. Five points for Sluggo and zero for the lucky kids. They won’t have anything special to offer when the lights go down.
Sluggo senses Becca staring at him and turns his body to face her. Becca doesn’t smile. Sluggo doesn’t need fake warmth or patronization from her. Becca looks toward the front of the shop at Patty March, her grey permed head, poodle grey, poodle curly. Patty is standing behind the wooden checkout counter inflating balloons for a young woman with a blonde ponytail sticking out of the back of a red baseball cap. That’s what’s holding things up for the lucky kids in line. Balloon inhalation.
Patty isn’t going to turn around any time soon, so Becca slips her hand into a pocket of her hoodie, grabs a prized piece of purloined candy, and tosses it across the shop to Sluggo. An overhand toss, nice and easy. Sluggo drops his comic book to snatch the candy out of the air, stuffs it into his jeans pocket in one fluid motion, an amphibian nabbing a fly with the sticky tip of its tongue. So much is destiny.
A flicker of a smile erupts across Sluggo’s sallow face. Becca feels victorious. An Atomic Fireball isn’t a hermit crab, but it is still an unexpected gift, albeit from a freak. That’s what people call Becca with her shaved head and eyebrows, her thick, silver nose ring, and her pet snake in the form of a tattoo that winds round and round her boney neck. It’s a grey snake with black diamonds running along the spine. The narrow head tucked beneath Becca’s chin, inked gold as egg yolk, is only visible if she tips her head back. Sometimes Becca’s pet licks her, tickles her, and she reaches up to scratch.
Sluggo retrieves the comic book from the floor and starts flipping through it again. Becca arches her neck backward, waits, then rights herself. Sluggo tries to drop his stare but he’s not fast enough. Nosey little bugger.
Becca knows more about Sluggo than he thinks she does. While she was locking her bike into the rack outside Buccaneer’s, she noticed the rust bucket he must have travelled inside to be at the same place at the same time on the same planet as Becca today. A long- dead uncle of Becca’s drove an Oldsmobile 88 too, but his had been in pristine condition. Shiny black like a polished, much-loved hearse. The car waiting outside for Sluggo cries out for a paint job. Maroon paint faded tan with a pinkish cast, a hue that belongs on a set of ass cheeks, not a car. Through the grimy backseat windows, shut tight to prevent fallout, crumpled clothes, one, beat up, black Converse sneaker, crushed box of Captain Crunch, camouflage backpack, stringless tennis racket, McDonald’s Egg McMuffin wrapper and, peeking out from the middle of all that junk, an orange traffic cone.
Slumped behind the steering wheel, a half dead lady taking a nap. Stringy grey hair, puffy eyes, head rolled awkwardly to one side, mouth open, no teeth in sight. No pinkish tone to her skin. That old bag out there is a yellow person. Maybe she lives in that car. Maybe Sluggo lives in that car with her. Maybe she is Sluggo’s grandmother, the only family member who wanted him. Age old story. Drug addicted daughter turned mother turning a grandmother back into a mother.
Another customer enters Buccaneer’s. The tall man is wearing a white cowboy hat sprouting a silly peacock feather. He pauses in front of the checkout counter, gives Patty a respectful nod, then looks up toward the ceiling at a swaying pirate skeleton sporting a black eyepatch, one gold tooth, peg leg, and a cutlass glued to his finger bones. Here comes the recording that plays for every new arrival. Becca grimaces. Welcome aboard, Matey! Shiver me timbers! Hand over all your pieces of eight, your gold doubloons, or walk the plank!
The man shakes his head, turns, and walks toward a display case of crusty, stale fudge on the other side of the shop. Becca suspects Buccaneer’s doesn’t sell real fudge. Buccaneer’s fudge is a fake, a stand-in, a margarine instead of butter sort of thing. The light in the fudge display case has been burning out for decades. It dims, brightens, dims, brightens, the swinging lightbulb in an asylum hallway. The man pauses, tips his hat down to examine the trays of crap for a long time. Becca loses interest and looks away.
Sluggo has made his way over to Becca. He may be fat, but he moves as quietly as a cat. Becca is pissed. She was chill with Sluggo as long as Sluggo remained on the other side of the shop. Now, his rank, dirty teeth breath pollute her personal space and his grotesque, froggy eyes are locked on her. This is not going to work. Becca places enormous value on the sanctity of her personal space. She feels her snake quiver, repulsed, ready to strike.
“You better back the fuck up or prepare to be poisoned,” Becca hisses, tipping her chin back to reveal a darting, black arrow serpent tongue.
This threat usually works with kids Sluggo’s age. Eyes flare. Thoughts spark inside pea-sized brains. This girl is batshit. This girl is crazy. When Becca swallows nice and slow to allow her pet to pulse with desire for a taste of them, they usually stop gawking and scram. But not Sluggo. Not this annoying kid. Sluggo blinks once at Becca’s snake and snorts dismissively.
“You shouldn’t steal stuff,” he whispers.
Becca narrows her dark eyes. There is a bead of sweat blossoming above Sluggo’s lips.
“Who says, some almighty God of yours? Shut up and get lost,” she spews.
To his credit, Sluggo does take one step backward.
“If you put everything back, I won’t tell on you,” he answers.
“One word and I’ll beat the shit out of you. Get lost.”
“Does your little worm have a name?”
Becca reaches out and grabs Sluggo’s ear like her father used to do to her when she was a little girl and there was still a father in her life. Her snake, whose secret name is Persephone, hisses low and guttural as Becca twists hot flesh into a corkscrew. Though Sluggo’s knees buckle and his eyes brim, his blubbery lips morph into an infuriating grin which he widens preparing, possibly, to call for help. Becca lets go.
Arrogant little prick. She can’t afford to get into any more trouble. She was suspended from high school for fighting twice last year and this summer no one will hire her. She’s put Aunt May through enough. Aunt May was nice enough to take her in all those years ago when Becca had nowhere else to go, and she is always giving Becca a second, a third and a fourth chance.
Suddenly, from the front of the shop, a missile ascends. A careening, whining balloon has escaped the nozzle of the hydrogen cannister. Becca and Sluggo watch as the runaway makes the most of its short life before diving to its death in the middle of the shop.
Becca returns her gaze to Sluggo.
“Get lost,” she repeats.
“I’m telling,” Sluggo says.
He turns and takes a few steps toward the front of the shop where the lucky kids with the cages of hermit crabs are staring over at the man with the white cowboy hat and the silly peacock feather. Patty is looking at the man too. The woman with the ponytail and the red baseball cap has left the shop. The man with the cowboy hat is behind the fudge counter where customers are never supposed to be, where customers are not allowed to be, where Patty stands to cut, weigh, and box the so-called confection.
Becca watches the man’s back bend forward. His arms reach into the display case where he proceeds to hack off a chunk of fudge with Patty’s slender, silver knife. The knife blade glints as he sets it back on top of the case. He tips his head back to drop fudge into his mouth. There is the top of his white hat, the entire silly peacock feather, the bridge of his nose. The man pauses to chew and swallow before righting his body, then he sidesteps, bends toward the next tray.
“Sir?” Patty’s voice, high pitched and authoritative from her position behind the register. “You have to pay for the fudge. What are you doing? Please stop eating the fudge.”
Becca glances at Sluggo who has paused a few feet in front of her. He is rubbing his ear, whimpering. A thin line of blood trails down the side of his neck. Did she rupture his ear drum?
“Sir? Excuse me, sir. Sir?” Patty continues. “What are you doing? You cannot sample the fudge. It is for purchase ONLY.”
“The hell I can’t!” The man in the white cowboy hat with the silly peacock feather roars into the tomblike silence.
“Fuck,” Becca mumbles.
Sluggo sucks in some air, turns back toward Becca. His eyes have widened. The blood is coming from the side of his mouth, not his reddened ear. He opens his mouth to show Becca what is left of the Fireball. A glistening, alabaster pea. He ate the candy she tossed to him after all.
Becca checks on things at the front of the shop again. Patty has moved to join the man behind the fudge case. They are standing face to face. The man lifts his arm, black suede jacket, fringe dangling from the elbow. There is a hand at the end of the jacket’s sleeve. The hand balls up slow motion and shapes itself into a fist, a fist that the man draws to his side like an arrow in a bow and hurls towards Patty’s grey-haired head.
Patty’s thin body sails though the air like a crash test dummy. She lands against the side of the checkout counter on the other side of the shop and slumps down. Her head hinges forward, lolls on her chest, stops. Patty’s body, the shape of it now, reminds Becca of the sleeping Santa Clause candle Aunt May displays on the fireplace mantle every December.
The lucky kids at the front of the shop drop cages of hermit crabs. Metal clangs on linoleum. Lucky piglets squeal and make a run for the front door. They escape. Always the lucky ones. Becca spots Sluggo’s grandmother’s car in the parking lot just before the front door swings shut.
The man slides the fist he just used to strike Patty down back into his jacket pocket, the fist that could have killed Patty, that might have killed her considering the force at which her body slammed into the side of the wooden checkout counter. The man’s fist has disappeared into the pocket of a black suede jacket, a jacket with fringes that dangles from the elbow. Will the man’s fist turn back into a hand now that it is back inside the pocket of his jacket?
Behind. Behind. What is behind. Becca tries to think. The back of the shop is behind. A solid wall of candy and comics. All the walls inside Buccaneer’s are solid except for the front wall. Only the front wall has windows. Only the front of the shop has a door. There is no other door.
As it turns out, the man’s fist did turn back into a hand inside his jacket pocket, a pocket that functioned like a magician’s trick pocket, because when the man’s hand appears again, the hand has its fingers wrapped around a gun.
Everyone knows the shape of a gun. This is a handgun that the man has. Becca doesn’t know anything about guns, types of guns, handguns, but she can see that this man has a handgun because the gun he has brought with him into the shop fits inside his hand. A gun no longer resting, waiting, hiding inside the man’s magic jacket pocket. Drawn guns don’t rest or wait. They are done hiding. They are preparing to do something. To make their mark on the world. To change things. Becca feels very little surprise. No shock. Did she dream this would happen? Is this a dream?
Patty stirs. Groans. Patty is coming around. She is not dead after all. She is tossing her chin back and forth on her chest, rhythmically, the way Aunt May rolls balls of bread dough back and forth over pools of flour. Where is Aunt May. She is not here. She is safe at home.
Patty begins to lift her head. Becca bites her tongue on purpose. Stay lifeless, Patty. Even if you aren’t dead, play dead. Be smart, Patty. Be dead. Be fake dead, Patty.
A man with a white cowboy hat with a silly peacock feather raises a handgun that he has in one of his hands and points it at the shape of Patty, a nice old lady who owns and operates a shop called Buccaneer’s Bounty. Patty is slumped against a checkout counter at the front of the shop and in front of Becca, a few steps to her left, there is a fat boy, Sluggo, who gags. A swallow of foamy red spit drips and slides over his protruding belly. Becca can smell the piss his thick jeans have soaked up.
“Don’t do that!” Sluggo shouts to the man pointing a gun at a lady slumped on the floor with her back against a checkout counter inside some kind of gift shop.
Becca’s heart jabs her. She is a statue with thoughts. Even Persephone has turned to stone.
Just before the police burst through the front door, several 911 calls are placed from the latest version of iPhones owned by some lucky kids who had been inside the shop. They are able to get some words out, to report that a man in a white hat attacked a woman inside a shop, punched her, decked her, is how they put it, young boys who ran past an old woman asleep in the driver’s seat of a beat-up car in the parking lot, an old woman who is in fact Sluggo’s grandmother, though she doesn’t live in that car and neither does he. They live together in a single wide that should be condemned. Not much better than a car, but definitely better than that car. The old woman, Sluggo’s grandmother, continues to sleep as flashing blue lights come flying down the road toward Buccaneer’s.
Just before the police burst through the front door, a man in a white cowboy hat with a silly peacock feather shifts his attention away from the shop clerk, turns and points a black hole, which is really the end of a handgun shaft, a handgun the man is holding in his hand, toward two people at the back of a trashy souvenir shop on a blazing hot August day along the Delaware shoreline. One is a fat kid, a loser of a kid, a got-nothing-going-for-him-and-likely-never-will kind of a kid and the other a teenaged girl, an emo type who probably writes about committing suicide in her journal. The man squints his eyes. Becca hears herself gasp.
The bullet inside the man’s gun is raring to go, to fly free, because why, exactly, does a person buy a gun and keep it so close, meaning inside their jacket pocket, if not to set those sleek, restless little killers free. The man’s gun is a handgun, presumably a loaded handgun, a metal object that was once inside the magic pocket of his black suede jacket, a pocket that turned the man’s fist back into a hand that could grip this gun.
Just as the police burst through the front door of Buccaneer’s Bounty, just as a man in a white cowboy hat sprouting a silly peacock commands the muscles in the pointer finger of his right hand to move, to depress a trigger, to fire a gun, Sluggo steps in front of Becca, Ms. Becca Marie Dupree, who will grow up after the events of this day to become an advocate for those who need it most, to dedicate her life to the legal representation of children in cases of neglect and abuse, to change the world for the better in the way one person can.
Sluggo, Mr. Jack Templeton, steps in front of Becca Dupree, throws his arms out wide, forms a cross, Jack, Jack Templeton, an unlucky boy born to a mother who worshipped achieving waste hood and never motherhood, grandson to a grandmother who did only slightly better by the boy than his mother did, a boy who never knew his father, who wanted to become an astronaut and explore outer space, who held out faith for the benevolence of celestial aliens who would surely be kinder than his own kind, a boy who didn’t believe in the idea of a God any more than Becca Dupree for how could God make sense in a world like this one.
When the gun is fired, when there is a flash and a BANG that shatters the quiet like a freight train, like a bomb, like a sound that can deafen, just as the police burst through the front door and tackle a man wearing a white cowboy hat sprouting a silly peacock feather holding a gun, a handgun, the boy at the back of the shop, Jack Templeton, steps in front of Becca Dupree, willingly, void of hesitation, and in the last seconds of his conscious thought, as his body is falling backward, backward, Jack feels arms reach around his body to receive him, and something else, something Becca feels too, a sensation she finally feels shocked to feel, the tickle of a slithering snake, Persephone by name, who sloughs off Becca’s chin, leaps in truth, and slides down Jack’s chest to his belly button to complete the circle of Becca’s arms around Jack’s body, Jack Templeton, who dies that day but not alone, no, not alone. The boy dies inside a sacred circle of serpent scale and human flesh that allows Becca Dupree to hold Jack Templeton in a true and warm embrace she never imagined she could create all by herself.
Cover art: “Spoon Honey” by Jen Soong