by: Kevin Sterne
An absurdist work of fiction where unlikely partnerships are forged, tensions rise, and an eccentric cast of characters find a measure of catharsis in each others’ lunacy…
When I was in my twenties, I worked seasonally and picked up odd jobs, then used any money I made to buy drugs. I used the drugs whenever I worked on my wood carvings or when I just wanted to try and have some profound, pseudo-religious experience. Work was always harder to find than drugs. Once I landed a gig finishing basements in a row of townhouses, but accidentally dropped a panel of sheetrock on the general contractor’s foot and figured it was best not to show up the next day. After that I worked for a moving company, but a box of bras and panties didn’t make it to the new house and for some reason I was blamed. Soon after, I was doing road construction when a woman was attacked by fire ants and I, again, took the fall.
One night I was taking my trash out to the alley when I met a man named Thomas inside my building’s dumpster. He told me he sold his finds on the Internet and asked me if I wanted in.
“I need someone to do my number crunching,” Thomas said, climbing out of the dumpster, “You look like a numbers guy. You look like you’re good with numbers.”
“I’m just taking out this trash,” I told him.
“Anything good in there?” Thomas grabbed the plastic bag from my hands and ripped into it like an addict. He had this quick-twitch energy about him that was sort of infectious. Thomas wore a goatee of sorts and sideburns that he paired with a ponytail. He said he kept the ponytail stiff with rubber bands that he got from the mail lady. Turns out Thomas lived two floors below me. He asked me if I wanted to look at some of his best finds.
I shrugged. “Sure why not.” I had nothing going on that night besides continuing to work on wood carving of an alley rat attacking a golden-doodle — part of my ‘Animals of Chicago’ series.
As we walked from the alley to our building, Thomas told me more about himself. He’d been in and out of bands for the past fifteen years, liked coke and playing guitar, and had been arrested for arson once, but had gotten off.
“They didn’t have enough to pin it on me. I never left a paper trail.”
“That’s good on you.”
“Always burn any type of paper trail.”
That sounded like sage advice so I offered some tidbits about myself: how the only good thing I’d ever found in the alley was a Land O’ Lakes ashtray I used for ashing my joints; that I did wood carvings and sold them at co-ops and art fairs; and that Aspen and Oak were the best for woodworking.
Thomas belched. “Good for burning too.”
His place was on the first floor of my building, but when we approached his front door, Thomas suddenly became very coy, barricading himself in front of it.
“Actually, I can’t let you see the inside of my abode right now. I’ll bring the stuff up to you,” he told me. He had these heavy yellow eyes that seemed to suggest they’d seen some shit that I wanted no part of.
I nodded and took a few steps back. “Take your time.”
My therapist — if I were still seeing her — would say the reason I let Thomas into my apartment, and my life, was because I was lonely and desperate for friendship. which isn’t entirely untrue.
Back in my apartment I pulled a Hamm’s from the fridge and lit the half joint on the Land O’ Lakes ashtray. I took a long drag, then doused the taste in my mouth with a sip of beer. I pulled a few woodworking picture books off my shelf, told myself I would thumb through them for inspiration later, and tossed them on the coffee table, hoping Thomas would notice and initiate a conversation about my art.
I didn’t need to pay a therapist seventy-five dollars per hour to tell me I was depressed. If I could self-medicate, then I could also self-diagnose. I took another drink of my Hamm’s and imagined my therapist telling me that wasn’t how it worked.
Thomas walked in carrying a thick, black garbage bag and proceeded to dump its contents onto my floor.
Out fell a small collection of Tibetan bowls, a plastic goose, and what looked like a neck brace. I picked up the neck brace, a white, padded construct with Velcro straps.
“Found that outside my girlfriend Andrea’s place,” Thomas said proudly. “We’ve been on and off lately.”
I turned the neck brace over in my hands. The inside had sweat stains. “Everything alright?”
“She’s salty because I peed in her bushes.”
“Well how’s her neck?”
He waved his hand in the air to let me know her neck was of no importance and picked up my joint from the ashtray. “You mind?”
“Have at it.”
“Me gusta.” Thomas took a hit from the joint. “See, everyone who knows me knows not to mess with me when I’ve had a lot of Miller Lite and ice.”
I didn’t really know him so I couldn’t say otherwise.
“Those boxwoods got what they deserved.”
We passed the majority of the evening finishing off my thirty pack of Hamm’s. Thomas had eighteen of the remaining twenty cans and I quickly learned Thomas had a real talent for drinking. Whether those boxwoods were justly urinated upon was still up in the air.
Towards the end of the night Thomas slapped me on hard on the back. “What do you think of this loot?” he asked, “That neck brace could be worth a lot to someone desperate to get out of work or a family function.”
I considered this while looking over Thomas’ haul again. Overall it wasn’t very impressive, but Thomas said he paid his rent off dumpster diving. My car parked out front had two flat tires and four parking tickets stuck under the windshield and I had recently responded to a Craigslist post to clean grease traps for chain restaurants like Applebee’s. Thomas had just drank all my Hamm’s with vim and vigor. It sounded like he had something a lot better than what I had going on. I felt myself wanting whatever that was.
“I’m in,” I said with forced enthusiasm.
“You won’t regret it.” Thomas extended his hand “I’m a good guy.”
I shook his hand. His grip was strong.
For the first few weeks, our partnership went well. Thomas would show up to my apartment at odd hours of the night, smelling like trash, and dump his finds on my area rug. Then he’d raid my fridge while I entered the merchandise into a spreadsheet. We worked side by side. I’d post and track the listings, handle the mailings, and oversee all the payments. Thomas would usually eat my food and regale me with tales about his dumpster diving.
“About a week ago,” he said one evening while biting into a stick of pepperoni, “this homeless man tried to jump my bones and I fought him off with the business end of a rake.”
He waved the pepperoni stick in the air in a violent stabbing motion.
“Thought that was the last of him, but then I ran into him tonight. So I picked up this rat and —”
Thomas mimed throwing what looked like a wicked knuckleball and added sound effects, a whooshing noise, the slap of a rat meeting a face, and a high-pitched scream. I couldn’t figure out who the scream belonged to: man or rodent. “I have a feeling I won’t be seeing him anymore,” Thomas said without blinking, “Or that rat.”
Garbage picking sounded like a total Wild West adventure. At any moment, Thomas could be waist deep in someone’s month-old spaghetti dinner and might have to brandish a can of WD-40 and lighter to spray fire at a pack of gnarly alley rats or a rival picker who had foolishly wondered into his territory. I had no sympathy for people dumb enough to cross a man as crazy as Thomas. It wasn’t hard to imagine him jumping out of a refrigerator box and flinging restaurant grease on some dope who’d lost his way.
“It takes a special kind of person to get up every day and be on the front lines,” Thomas reiterated.
While Thomas went on about his line of work, Hans, the guy that lived directly above me, started working loudly on his bomb shelter in his apartment. Hans was this Swiss widower who had recently become convinced World War Three was imminent.
“All over Swiss news,” he cautioned me a few nights earlier.
Hans and I had struck up a sort of friendship over the years. When I first moved in, Hans had given me a food processor endorsed by his dead wife, Mary Pat, who had been a legendary Olympic bodybuilder. I now let Hans bum my VCR to watch Mary Pat’s fitness videos and relive old memories. Hans had promised me free stay in the shelter in the event of nuclear war so long as I didn’t tell the landlord. So I had kept quiet even with all the noise.
I didn’t really mind the banging he made from pounding nails into frame. He was building the shelter in sections before burying it in the ground, which he explained to me made it stronger and more impervious to an H-bomb. I couldn’t help but admire the Swiss craftsmanship at work. But it seemed to bother Thomas.
“How the hell do you live with that racket?” Thomas jumped up off the couch, spilling a bowl of Top Ramen on my rug.
I usually played music or put in my noiseless ear plugs. I offered Thomas some from a little jar. He swatted the jar out of my hand. “The hell with those.”
He took up my broom and pounded it up at the ceiling. “Knock it off up there you damn Polock.”
“He’s Swiss,” I explained. “He doesn’t really understand.”
“You’re supposed to build a bomb shelter outside,” Thomas shouted over the sound of hammering.
“He says he’s moving it outside when it’s warmer.”
Thomas couldn’t wait for summer. He produced a box of matches from his pocket and broke for my door. “I’m going to burn that thing to the ground.”
Once Thomas had his mind set on something, there was no talking him back. I raced behind him up the hallway stairs, but by the time I arrived at Hans’s door, Thomas had already kicked it in.
Hans, wearing only a leather tool belt and Birkenstocks, was swinging a hammer wildly through the air, pounding a nail into what looked like a Swedish sauna with a step ladder built in.
Thomas rushed in with a fistful of flaming matches and charged at Hans and the sauna. Hans turned the hammer at Thomas.
“Nein, nein, nein!” Hans said as he deadened Thomas in the chest with the hammer.
Thomas rolled onto the floor with a thud. The matches, still in his outstretched hand, made contact with a stack of Mary Pat’s fitness tapes near the wall. I quickly put out the fire with my shoe, before the flames could escalate. It was the one useful thing I’d managed to do in what felt like a long time.
“Are you insane?” Hans asked Thomas.
Thomas climbed to his feet. “Where do you get off making all this noise?”
Hans pointed to a dart board with a picture of the President tacked on it. “The nukes are coming. We are doomed.”
“Don’t believe everything you see on TV,” Thomas said.
I took the workout tape that had almost been burned and popped it into the VHS. On the TV a bronzed and brawny woman in a stars and stripes leotard deadlifted a white Ford Bronco. The three of us stared in awe as Mary Pat hoisted the vehicle with ease and grace.
“This is all I have left of her.”
Thomas seemed to look at the stack of tapes, then shrugged his shoulders, turned and went back downstairs.
“And the Bronco,” Hans added.
I remember in February we had this weird swathe of fifty degree days so Hans, taking advantage of the opportunity, paid me to dig the hole for the bomb shelter. According to Swiss news, a ten-ton nuclear warhead could come barreling out of the heavens at any moment. I spent hours shoveling dirt into a bucket and then dumping the dirt in the alley. I suppose this was a microcosm of my mental state at this time: if the end of the world was looming, I was content spending my last days digging a hole in the ground. It was slow work, but Hans paid me decently and made me smoothies with one of his dead wife’s blenders.
This was also around the time Thomas started powerlifting in the garage. He’d bought steroids from a guy in the back alley of a CrossFit gym and had me help him inject them a few times per week.
“I feel like I’ve lost a step,” he said as he dropped his pants and I plunged a needle into his bare ass. “I want to be able to fend off an attacker who comes at me with a hammer.”
Thomas flexed and I could see veins as thick as electrical cords running down both arms.
“And I know Andrea won’t be able to resists these delts.”
He jumped and grabbed the cross beam of the garage and launched into a set of pull ups, counting out loud. The entire garage shook as Thomas lifted and lowered his bulging body like a yo-yo.
Hans called for me outside. I left Thomas to his ironman routine and found Hans standing over the edge of the hole, looking down into the abyss.
“Such a big hole,” he yelled with pleasure into the darkness. “Big fucking hole.”
I pissed away the afternoon carrying buckets of dirt to the alley until Hans decided the pit was deep and wide enough for the bomb shelter. I was then charged with carrying the bomb shelter’s sixteen massive sections down three flights of stairs and lowering them over the edge of the pit to Hans below. He’d built notches so the sections fit together like folding hands, without any need for hammering, drilling, or glue. The floor, the walls, then the roof — all fit together like pieces of an elaborate 3D puzzle.
“Like a Swiss clock,” Hans corrected me as he lifted a cuckoo clock onto a nail, part of a variety of homely furnishings and additions to the shelter.
The bomb shelter was more impressive than any woodworking I’d ever done, and I must admit I was inspired in that moment to tackle my own art.
“Not art,” Hans said, giving the nearest wall a swift kick to test its structural integrity. “Survival. Life versus death.”
Overall, I was just grateful to have work. Business with Thomas had been stagnant of late. Recently, his alley finds weren’t generating much action on the online auction sites and he seemed much more concerned with fighting off would-be competitors.
I took this to be a product of Thomas’s severe mood swings. They were more volatile than I had anticipated. I thought steroids might have a calming effect on his demeanor, like when you give stimulant drugs to a kid with ADHD; maybe he’d become somewhat docile, like a cow. Things started to get strange when Thomas slung a cooler of ice on my counter and showed me a what was definitely a man’s index finger.
“This was a warning to him and everyone else,” Thomas said, holding the finger in front of me. “Don’t ever get between me and an Internet router.”
To Thomas’s credit, I had managed to sell the Internet router. But the other items — a swatch of carpet covered with what looked like blood stains, a pack of latex gloves, and a hammer — these were proving difficult to move.
“I’m out there waging war for a fair stake in this loot. There are so many threats. And you’re complaining? You’re not holding up your end of the bargain.”
Thomas was doing pushups in my living room while I stacked cinder blocks on his back.
“I bring you the stuff. You sell it. It’s that simple.”
“I can’t sell just one basketball sneaker. I need the other one too.”
“That guy only had one leg. Not my problem. You need to get creative. Hit up amputee message boards. Find someone who wants one Air Jordan.”
I was worried about paying rent and hadn’t eaten anything with natural ingredients in three weeks. My stomach felt both bloated and empty all the time because everything I ate came in a box. At least Thomas was happy outside of our dealings.He had Andre and his workout routine to keep him happy. Maybe it was the mood swings from the steroids, but he just seemed happier. I watched him bend the twisted handle bars of a bicycle back into their normal position.
Thomas smiled a big shit eating grin. “Write that this bike survived a hit and run.”
One night I was counting inventory in my living room when I found a stack of Mary Pat’s fitness videos hidden behind the couch. I was two hits from a joint into the evening and upon discovering the video’s felt a jolt of anxiety overtake me. I shuffled through a mental rolodex of questions and potential answers regarding the tapes. Did Hans forget them here? (Unlikely, they were the only remaining keepsakes of his dead wife.) Did I sleep walk and steal them from his place? (Hans told me once that he never slept. He would have caught me.) What about Thomas’s role in this? Had he stolen them and naively expected me to put them for bid online? I sighed.
I seemingly had two options. At some point I could confront Thomas about what he was doing, or I could avoid conflict all together, cut off contact, and slowly distance myself. This was the cowardly approach but the one that made me most comfortable. Then there was this: If he had stolen from Hans, who else had he stolen from?
Above me dust flaked off the ceiling as Hans’s subwoofer vibrated on the floor above. It was hard to discern exactly what music he was listening to, with the treble and bass turned full dial to create one singular wall of sound, but I was almost certain it was Polka, something from the motherland.
Somehow, a third possibility presented itself. I scooped the tapes into the crook of my arm and made for the door. I would return the tapes to Hans and deny to Thomas that I’d ever seen them. I threw open the door and stepped into the hall. So occupied by this new possibility was I that I didn’t notice Thomas standing there until I ran squarely into him. I literally bounced off his rock-hard torso.
I tried shifting the tapes behind my back.
“What are these?” he asked, snatching the tapes out of my hand with ease.
I read somewhere that people do shitty things because they once had shitty things done to them. Was Thomas stealing to mask some sort of unresolved inner demon? Had someone stolen something important from him when he was younger? Had he never been loved? Or maybe it wasn’t any of these things. What if, when he was younger, a swing set fell on his head ala John Wayne Gacy? What if stealing was only the beginning what would become a roid-infused murderous rampage through Chicago’s northwest side?
I feared I would be his first victim. What would they tell my mother when they delivered what was left of me in a shoe box? “Here is everything would could find after Thomas lit your son on fire like a Buddhist monk.” My mom, a divorced and retired ER nurse, who had seen her share of tragedies both personally and professionally — would wonder where had she gone wrong in advising her son. She would look for answers and surely find my therapist, who’d waive the patient/client confidentiality clause upon news of my murder, and would be quick to say I had stopped paying for appointments and the reason I’d let Thomas into my life was out of a need to fill a void, a deep hole. “Your son, though he lived in a big city like Chicago, full of literally millions of people, felt terribly alone. This arsonist-murderer took advantage of your sons vulnerabilities. There is nothing either of us could have done differently. Ultimately it was up to him to make the effective changes in his life.” My mom would cry because she would feel helpless, and helplessness is often a feeling that makes one want to cry.
The thought of my mom crying made me feel like crying. But I didn’t. I was able to fight the urge as Thomas took stock of the weight of the tapes in his hands.
“We should give these back,” Thomas, to my amazement, said.
I was both relieved and immediately suspicious of him, but decided to see where this would go. I followed him up the stairs to Hans’s apartment.
“What’s all that damn noise?” Thomas asked, “What is he doing?”
Thomas pounded his fist hard on the door.
“He’s probably bored,” I said.
It was clear whatever Hans was listening to was so loud he couldn’t hear Thomas knocking. I suggested we just leave the tapes in front of the door.
“You really trust the clowns in this building to not take these? I’m going to put them in his damn hands.”
Thomas pounded harder on the door. When Hans didn’t answer, Thomas threw his shoulder into the door, shaking the entire frame.
In short order, he was going to break the door down, which I guess was what he wanted.
The door crashed to the ground and Thomas went down with it, barreling into Han’s living room.
The Polka music was so loud it sounded like it was happening inside my head.
“Nein. Nein. Nein. Not again.” Hans ran out of his bathroom, a towel wrapped around his head and another draped around his waist. Apparently he was taking a shower.
“We’ve been knocking —”
Hans shook his head, and pointed to the air and the penetrating noise. “What?”
“Can you turn it down?” I shouted.
“The Polka. Can you turn it —”
Thomas found the stereo, the music stopped and a much needed clearing opened within my mind.
“I want to hear the sounds of my homeland while I bathe.”
“Here,” Thomas thrust the tapes into Han’s arms. “I took these and now I’m returning them.”
Hans took the tapes with a look of suspicion. He looked at me as if searching for answers. It felt like there was a hole in my head the size of the one I’d dug in the backyard. I had nothing in way of answers to offer Hans and hoped my blank expression conveyed this.
“You took my dead wife’s videos.”
“I took your dead wife’s videos and now I’m giving them back. I’m an Indian giver. Sue me.”
I couldn’t properly read this situation with Thomas being as slippery as a greased burglar through a window sill and Hans aloof yet categorically set in his ways. I couldn’t tell if Hans, half naked and dripping bathwater onto his floor, believed Thomas or not. I gazed at the growing puddle, fearful that Thomas was somehow manipulating this universe in a way I was incapable of understanding. But Hans accepted the tapes, Thomas apologized for the door, and then we left.
I expected Thomas to explain himself in the hallway, to unravel some secret of his agenda. The hole in my head needed to be filled with an answer. But he simply stopped at my door and threw his hand on my shoulder and dug his fingers into my shoulder blade and told me to “sleep tight.”
There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep, and I had nothing like a good night’s sleep that night. I accepted that Thomas was playing mind games of some sort and decided I would not let it get to me. I figured the best thing for me in that moment was to focus on the positives. I had a roof over my head. I had a job. I had managed to sell a diving suit with a massive shark bite in it with a clever description and a stretch of the truth — “Shark proof diving suit. Able to fend off shark attack up to 3,000 leagues” — and used the money to get the two flat tires on my car fixed. Aside from Thomas’s irrational control over my life, things were looking up.
The next morning I came home from the grocery store to find Thomas at my kitchen table, a stack of money in front of him like in the movies. “Check this out.” He tossed the bundle of money at me.
“I found a new gig. No more dumpster diving.”
I thumbed through the stack of bills, ones and fives and tens and twenties, maybe a couple thousand dollars total. It was the most money I’d ever seen in my life.
“How’d you get this?”
“I held up a Starbucks.”
I felt the stack of money falling out of my hands and onto the floor.
“It’s amazing how compliant a minimum wage barista will become when you tell them you have 50 pounds of TNT strapped to your person.”
“No. I’m not.” Thomas stared at me with unblinking eyes and his waxy ponytail gleamed in the kitchen light. “Well, maybe a little. We’re all a little crazy, right?”
I told him I wanted nothing to do with his robberies. “You’re on your own. I’ll go back to finding jobs on Craigslist.” I wasn’t sure where this confidence was coming from. The hole in my head was filling itself in with gritty confidence.
“Are you sure? It’s good money.”
“I think so.”
“Okay. If that’s what you want. But you’re already implicated you know. Your fingerprints are all over that money.”
Was that enough to do me in? I pondered. It wasn’t. The hole in my head filled itself in even more. Hundreds of people had probably touched this money over time. Could the FBI really get a usable print off a twenty dollar bill that statistically contained ten percent feces?
Thomas told me to think about his offer. “Go for a walk. Get some fresh air.”
There’s no such thing as fresh air in this city, I thought. I walked outside but didn’t get a chance to think.
“You still hanging around that A-hole?” Andrea was standing on her porch smoking like a chimney. She sounded like someone who’d smoked two to three packs per day since she was five years old, which didn’t seem to be that much of a stretch of the imagination.
“Yes and no.”
Andrea spit on her porch and then coughed over the railing. She took a drag from her cigarette.
“What the hell do you mean yes or no? Gimme a straight fucking answer?”
I shrugged and turned out my palm because I had no fucking clue. Andrea had a special gift for making me want to dig a hole and then fall down into it.
Already she was fumbling with another cigarette, but seemed to have trouble with the lighter.
“Come here and help me with this.”
I contemplated getting into my car and driving as far as I could on half a tank of gas, which would probably be to my mom’s place in Des Moines, but found myself making my way up the walkway to her porch. I noticed the row of boxwoods and the lone browning bush in the middle of the knee high hedge.
“It’s the nerve endings.” She said motioning to her right side while giving me the lighter.
“Neck to my fingers is all effed.”
Andrea was taut and wiry with plump cheek bones, beady brown eyes, and close cropped hair that ranged from chestnut to dark chocolate depending on how perky she was feeling that month.
I held the lighter up to her cigarette, an American Spirit Blue which she told me once was non-addictive when I was drunk and tried to bum one. “Fuck no,” she’d said.
“These are like two cigarettes in one,” and I’d settled for half of one she had already smoked, her lipstick smudged on the filter.
She exhaled a cloud of dense smoke into my face.
“Anyways, guess what the fuck happened to me the other night.”
I didn’t have the opportunity to guess.
“I’m standing out here on the porch minding my own business not bothering anyone and that fucker Thomas comes up behind me and whacks me over the head with a coffee mug — my favorite one, the one shaped like those heads on Easter Island. You know?”
“I’ve never been.”
“You know them. You’d know them if you saw them.” She stopped to look at her shaking hand in the light off her porch. “Point is, he knocked off my neck brace and I can’t find it.”
“I’ve seen it.”
“You just said you haven’t seen —.”
“No, the neck brace. Thomas has it.”
“Thomas has it?”
She sighed and looked out at her boxwoods, mentally connecting the red yarn and pushpins and photographs on the FBI investigator wall in her mind.
“Can you help me again?”
“You should really quit. My dad died from smoking.”
“Jesus. Can’t you just let me have my one thing.”
Again, I held the lighter up and she breathed in the flame.
I found myself in my room carving a block of oak. I had no formal plan. I knew I wanted to make something but didn’t know what. As the saying goes, I was just “seeing where the wood took me.” Admittedly, I was lacking in creative inspiration and my time spent carving had progressively felt more a chore than a labor of love. I’d abandoned my ‘Animals of Chicago’ series because no one had bought any of the twelve blocks in the series. Currently, they were arranged in neat stacks on my coffee table. If no one bought my art — rather, if no one cared what I was doing — I pondered why I should feel inspired to create it.
I’d considered using my carvings to upsell the dumpster diving merchandise: “buy one blood stained area rug and get one carving of a pidgeon attacking a man’s shoe for free,” but had ultimately decided against this through some misguided sense of hope that an art collector would one Sunday afternoon wonder into the VFW and buy the whole lot, inspect them in the light, remark at the detail of each cut, then view them from a macro perspective.
“They tell a story,” the collector would say, “like the stations of the cross.”
I’d do my best impression of the humble artist, hiding elation over the fact that someone other than me had discovered the narrative within the blocks: the birth and death of the alley rat set to a progressively gentrifying landscape of Chicago’s northwest side. How the rat’s plight is misunderstood, the creature oft regarded as a nuisance, despite man’s ongoing eradication of its habit, and forced exile to dumpsters and sewer wells. There’d be profound oohing and murmur, as if taking in my carvings was akin to devouring a savory cut of steak.
The art collector would become a comely and buxom woman about my age. “How’d you achieve such detail?” she’d ask, leaning over my folding table, the top of her shirt exposed to me as she peered over my works.
“Well madame, wood carving is almost all thumbs.”
She’d look at me with doe-like eyes with the watery secrets of the universe.
“Tell me everything.”
“Thumbs do all the work: pushing the knife hand, guiding the knife hand; there’s very little wrist. The big digit gives the most control.”
“You must have strong hands, what else can you do with them?”
Before either of us could learn exactly what my hands could do, Andrea’s form and figure overtook my fantasy. I was pulled from my daydream to the unmistakable noise of a door being knocked off its hinges and the throating call of Andrea. Apparently she’d come to Thomas’s to retrieve her neck brace.
I raced downstairs, simultaneously rearranging my half erect penis in my pants, because this was something I did not want to miss.
I arrived to find Thomas, shirtless, standing guarded behind the counter, and Andrea — channeling some newfound superhuman strength — practically ready to jump over it. There was a small collection of magazines, a razor blade, and a glue stick before him.
This was my first time in Thomas’s apartment, a single room entirely barren. There was no furniture of any kind except a cot propped on cinder blocks with a single mustard yellow sheet overlaid on top. In the corner by a window was a wire rack with three t-shirts, two pairs of pants, one jacket, and one pair of shoes. There were boots by the door, nothing on the walls — not even a magnet on the fridge — and I could see the dusty outlines where the previous tenants had kept photos, all lit by a single bulb dangling like an eye socket from the ceiling. It was unsettlingly lifeless.
“Gimme it back,” Andrea yelled, jabbing her finger at the air between them. “Gimme it back right fucking now.”
“Give you what back? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Thomas cowered behind the counter, then seemed to noticed me enter the room.
“You. Thank god. Did you consider my offer? Actually — doesn’t matter. I started a new venture.”
That’s when I noticed the circular Starbucks sign leaning against the fridge.
“I’m holding their Lady Starbuck for ransom.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just let Thomas continue.
“No one would ever suspect my returning to the scene of the crime. That’s crazy — just crazy enough, though. A robbery and a burglary? They’ll have to bring in two separate police units. They’ll contaminate both crime scenes.”
“You’re fucking insane,” Andrea said.
Thomas ran the glue stick over a sheet of paper, and attached one of his letters from the magazine to complete a string of words making up the first line of the ransom note.
“Either of you are welcome to help me with this.”
I wanted no active role in this scene.
“Sure I’ll help you.” Andrea took the Lady Starbuck sign, lifted it high over her head and brought it down onto Thomas’s head. He went down with surprising, cartoonish ease, however Andrea was determined to keep him down. She raised the Lady Starbuck sign again, at that point just a shattered mass of loosely-connected glass, and took out the light bulb above, then slung it down onto Thomas’s limp body. The room was plunged into darkness.
There descended upon the apartment a powerful, dark silence, like being buried under dirt, or like the time I told my mother I was quitting my job to become an artist of wood carving.
A match was struck and light returned to the room.
“Don’t worry, he’s still alive.” Andrea took the razor blade off the counter and sliced Thomas’s ponytail. Thomas was splayed out on the linoleum like an injured marathon runner. She tossed me the pony tail and I tried to catch it, but was too shocked or uncoordinated or both to properly fit my hands around it. It fell on the linoleum floor. His hair was fucked.
Andrea found in one of the cabinets the stack of stolen money, her neck brace, and a mug shaped like those heads on Easter Island. She fit the neck brace back on her neck.
“Doctor said not to take this off for five weeks.”
“My fingerprints are all over that money.” I stuttered. “I’ll be implicated in all his crimes.”
Andrea brought a lit match to the stack of bills. “Never leave a paper trail.” She tossed the flaming money on the counter and it caught Thomas’s ransom note and the stack of magazines. We watched the flames accelerate for what felt like a long time and soon the flame had evolved into a fire and the fire into a blaze without either of us acting upon it. At some point we both looked at each other and come to a non-verbal realization that the fire had gotten out of hand.
Andrea and I made it outside with Thomas’s lifeless body propped up between us. We made it as far as the sidewalk and dropped him in the soggy grass.
“I’m going to watch this from my porch. See you later.”
Before I could object, Andrea was gone and I was left alone with Thomas’s limp body, a huge gash in his temple from where Lady Starbuck had collided with him.
The structure I once called home was rapidly being overtaken by flames. For some reason I thought of my wood carvings, imagined them burning into smoldering ash, and for some reason I didn’t feel sad. The hole in my head seemed to no longer be a hole, but a former hole now filled entirely with dirt.
“It’s happening!” Hans was standing in the backyard, pointing at the flames shooting up the building. “It is the end times!”
Somewhere in the distance I could hear the wailing of a fire engine’s siren. I wasn’t sure if their arrival was a good thing or bad thing. On the ground, Thomas was starting to come to.
“You took a nasty hit to the head.”“Get in!” Hans was already climbing into the bomb shelter.
“What?” I helped Thomas rise to his feet.
“Hans wants us to get in his bomb shelter,” I said, already leading him to Hans who was half inside the shelter, visible only from the waist up, popping out of the ground like a gopher. I don’t know why I was thinking so clearly in the middle of this chaos, and upon reflection I guess I really wasn’t. I kept seeing Hans ahead of me, the distance between him and me and Thomas not getting smaller. I thought of his wife, the body builder I had never met. I thought of the tapes and the blenders — his only memories of his only love. Whereas Thomas was a man who had nothing and took from others, Hans was a man who cherished the few things he had.
As all three of us met at the opening of the bomb shelter. I felt something like a familial connection, or a brotherly bond that would only ever exist in that moment.
Thomas’s chopped ponytail weighed heavily in my pocket. I felt in myself a sense of purpose and the need to act and preserve this memory.
For a split second I thought I saw an opening in the flames, right by the back stairs. That was all I needed.
Kevin Sterne is a writer and journalist based in Chicago. He’s the author of I’ve Done Worse (Long Day Press), creator of LeFawn Magazine, and collaborator in the Test Artist Collective. His fiction has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Jokes Review, Five2one, and others. Kevin went to community college and works in landscaping. You can follow him at kevinsternewrites.com.