This is a short story written by my friend Lannie “Merlandese” Neely III. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. His stories are great.
Jaden and Eyebrow are robbing a convenience store. Jaden stands tall in confidence only, a raisin next to the grapefruit that is Eyebrow’s truck-ish frame. But Jaden has the gun, so he has the control.
Across the green counter Mrs. Tamashi glowers, her face pinched tight all over save for the sag of flesh below her left cheek where she once had a cancerous mole removed. She robotically bags their milk, then the chocolate milk mix, then a box of Hearty Wheats (off-brand, of course), and finally the assortment of junk candies and potato chips they collected moments before revealing the shaft of metal.
“C’mon. Just a pack of Golden Bats,” Jaden huffs. “Look, I’m reasonable and I know ya got ‘em, ‘kay? Mah says you sell ‘em and she ain’t had a puff of a Golden Bat in years. It’d be doin’ her a favor.”
“I’m all out,” Mrs. Tamashi says, her eyes attached to the hole of the gun, a small mouth with a hidden, deadly tongue.
Eyebrow raises his titular eyebrow. He says nothing, but his folded arms tighten, an anaconda of muscles and black jacket.
Jaden nudges his elbow against the beef wall of his younger brother. “Ya hear that, Eyebrow? We got people all along the Five Drives tellin’ us that Tamashi’s is the only dirt pile in the city that sells Japanese cigs and she says it ain’t true.”
“I sell them.” The plastic bag rolls awkwardly as Mrs. Tamashi pushes it across the green. “But suddenly I’m all out.”
“Suddenly!” Jaden throws his hands in the air. “Ya hear that, Eyebrow?” Eyebrow eyebrows in response. “Fine, this is all, then. Only cuz you’re a sweet ol’ lady. Thanks for nothin’.”
Mrs. Tamashi opens the register with a reluctant PRRRING.
“Whoa, now, we ain’t said we want none of that money. We’re reasonable.”
Mrs. Tamashi frowns. “You don’t… rob me?”
Jaden chuckles in satisfaction. He likes this part, the part where he’s a film director who, now filming a scene through the lens of his pistol, can control who does what and who says what with what inflection, or when they all take a break so he can shovel cheap crackers into his pockets and mess around with the intern or secretary—or whatever directors have—on a faded sofa in the trailer labeled DIR. JADEN SUENAGA in the back lot. He wishes he had the hat they have. That preppy little rich boy director hat. “We’re robbin’ ya, for sure.”
Mrs. Tamashi swirls her finger over the five-dollar notes. “Money?”
“Ya don’t get it, we just want the stuff in the bag. We ain’t gonna destroy your business.” Jaden winks at Eyebrow, his gun still on Mrs. Tamashi. “We’re from the ol’ Nippon too. Or at least, Mah is, bless her. Which is why we want those Golden Bats.”
“I’m all out.”
“We heard ya, but I think you’re stubborn. Still, we don’t wanna see another healthy Japanese business fall, so we’ll take what’s in the bag and that’s it.”
“Just want what’s… in the bag?” Mrs. Tamashi pauses, then slams her palms on the counter. “Just buy, then!”
“If we had money,” Jaden laughs, still winking at Eyebrow like it was his single audience member at a one-man show, “why would we go and do a stupid thing like risk gettin’ arrested for armed robbery, eh? We can’t afford this stuff. Obviously. You think of that?”
“I think of lot of things.” She pulls her arms to her chest and looks up at the security television. The two young robbers are dressed head-to-toe in black, even their faces, obscured in Hollywood-inspired ski masks but with the unmistakable smile of Japanese heritage in their eyes. She also features prominently in this film, but only her back: a black-and-white extra that gets one scene and only shows up again at the end of the adventure to remind the audience how far things have come.
“I think you’re nice boys,” she says, her voice warming into a smile that her face cannot. “Reasonable boys. You love your mother, the elderly, your home country. You take this money.” She gestures to the open register.
“We told ya, we just want what’s in the bag and the Golden Bats, ya olden… bat.” He nudges Eyebrow for an approving snicker that never comes. “We don’t want the money. We don’t wanna ruin this place.”
Mrs. Tamashi meets his eye. “But I do.”
Jaden cocks his head. “Do… what?”
“I want to ruin this place.”
“Calm down, batty.” He reaches for the bag of groceries with his free hand, preparing to end this game of direc—
Mrs. Tamashi smashes her hand over his. Eyebrow jumps back a whole step. It’s possible the milk carton has ruptured.
“I make you a deal. You burn this place to the ground, you get all the money in the machine.”
“But we don’t—”
“My husband built this place. It goes nowhere, it’s killing me. I want to swim on the beach and die like a dolphin.” She imagines that final jump from the shore, a fruity cocktail in hand, her skin melting into the waves and her skeleton sinking with all the grace of a falcon diving for prey. “Destroy this place.”
Jaden’s gun-arm starts to limp. Is this woman nuts? He glances at the closed door, the night sky hidden behind the bright lights of the gas pumps.
“I have insurance.” Her bones are calm now. The gun is like a fourth member of the ensemble, drunk before rehearsal. “More insurance than should have. If you light the fire, I will be very grateful.” She bows in a traditional manner that neither of the boys know how to return, so they don’t.
“Okay,” Jaden relents. “We can start somethin’ up before we head out.” He grabs a loose lighter from a lighter box and hands it to Eyebrow. Eyebrow turns it over in his palm as if it were his first time seeing one (it wasn’t) and then thumbs the sparkwheel as if it was too hard for him to understand (it was). Jaden groans, then snatches the lighter back, igniting it with a one-handed “ta-da” and placing the little flame beneath the cardboard backing of a pair of safety scissors.
Mrs. Tamashi slaps the lighter away and glares. “This will never work if you are stupid,” she seethes, pointing a finger to her skull. She has a plan. She issues a clear, distinct outline on how the boys are to glide, dip, and sachet their way through the store, each assembling the necessary ingredients to the firework display of this mercantile coffin while maintaining the illusion that Mrs. Tamashi was, herself, a victim of arsonous circumstance. They are then to leave, money and all, free as they wish. Mrs. Tamashi would remain, the insurance paying for a one-way trip to Bora Bora where hopefully her husband would die of sun exposure and leave her alone to live out her few remaining years as a land-bound mermaid.
After a moment of UGHs and UMs and ancient Japanese stares, Eyebrow lifts his eyebrow and gets to work stacking paper towels and magazines in the center aisle of the cramped convenience store. Jaden makes sure the front door is locked.
None of this is how she outlined it. They are intentionally disobedient, their actions born of good intention and yet fertilized with simplemindedness. Mrs. Tamashi reminds Jaden to stay near the counter to appease the security cameras. She keeps her hands comfortably raised except to light herself a cigarette.
Eyebrow looks at Jaden, twitching his forehead caterpillars in Morse code. “He needs a light,” Jaden says to Mrs. Tamashi.
She tosses him a lighter. “You will need more than that,” she reminds them. “Only paper? Doesn’t work! I can cool paper down with extinguisher. You need alcohol!” She gestures her cigarette to the chest-high aisle of wine and spirits. “Break bottles first, then light it all!”
Eyebrow grabs a wine bottle and strikes it against the linoleum. It bounces. Jaden rubs his covered forehead. “It’s cheap wine, Dumbo,” he says. “Plastic shit. Grab a real wine.”
“Bring me that Pinyo,” Mrs. Tamashi demands, now completely in charge of the operation. She slides it into a brown paper sheath and sets it next to the to-go bag of milk and cereal and snacks. “This is for your mother. She will love it.”
Reinvigorated by her kindness, Jaden uses the butt of his gun to smash several wine bottles to the floor. One Cabernet. One Pinot Grigio. One Merlot. All from this year. On the last strike, a shard of glass shoots over Jaden’s shoulder and cuts Eyebrow’s right eyebrow, his favorite eyebrow. That titular eyebrow.
“The hard liquor,” Mrs. Tamashi yells without sympathy. “Don’t be stupid! Wine won’t light like campfire! Break vodka, break whiskey!” One of her hands is hovering like a wounded hostage swan while the other points here and there, up and down, directing the large boy this way and the small boy to stand still. Finally she screams between pinched lips, “Point the gun at me!”
Jaden, who had tucked the pistol into his black jeans, slowly points the gun in Mrs. Tamashi’s general direction.
Mrs. Tamashi goes stiff, her arms at full height, a perfect statue of a hostage except her sunken face which vibrates with motherly impatience. She sidles to the camera wires and yanks! The televisions turn to fuzz. Jaden lifts his sweaty mask and asks, “Whaddya do that for?”
With one fluid motion Mrs. Tamashi dips behind the green counter, withdraws a loaded shotgun, and aims it at the soft spot between Jayden’s left eye and right eye. She’s the director now.
“Calm down, ya old bat, we just—”
Mrs. Tamashi cocks the rifle, the age-old indication that shit has just gotten real. Jaden drops his weapon and they both lift their arms skyward. “Now push it over.”
Jaden swallows. He looks at Eyebrow. They look at each other. Eyebrow’s dark mask is somehow darker with the mix of wine droplets and blood dripping over his eyelid and down, beneath the thick fabric, to his wide nose. They have no plan. No alternatives. Jaden pushes the gun over with his foot, as ordered.
“Not the gun!” She fans her metal limb from the peacock assortment of liquor to their feet. “Push the shelf! Break the bottles!” She puffs the amber cigarette as if to show how easy it all is.
Eyebrow clumsily pulls the shelf towards his stomach, causing him to fall backwards on the shelf of toiletries and cookies, which in turn dominos through all seven miniature aisles and causes cracks in the air like fat thunder. He pulls his legs free of the mess, but their job isn’t done. Mrs. Tamashi launches the box of lighters. They bloom outward overhead and slide through the liquid after landing. She forces Jaden onto his hands and knees. He crawls, his palms intoxicated with liquor shrapnel, frantically seeking out something that can cast fire.
“Found it!” Jaden shreaks.
“Light it,” Mrs. Tamashi demands.
But Jaden doesn’t know what to light. His thumb is burning as he holds the igniter, flame on high, outstretched to jumbled racks. Transparent paper towels, metalized propylene snack bags, and plastic-wrapped gummies all float down the slowly expanding lake of ethanol. Before he can figure out what to light, his jacket sleeve bursts into flame. He jerks, his shoulder leaning into Lake Ethanol and catchi—
The floor is lava. Eyebrow is free now. He rushes to the door and, finding it locked, starts ramming it with his shoulder.
Jaden discards his newly roasted jacket and manages to pass through the flames without his soaked legs shooting him off like a rocket into space. Mrs. Tamashi throws him the bag of groceries which he instinctively catches. The paper towels and magazines are now a bonfire looking for friends. It reaches out to the other supplies.
Eyebrow, through bulk alone, crashes through the thick glass and tumbles headlong into the lit night. Jaden tumbles backward and prepares to dash through the fresh opening, but stops when he hears a gunshot over his head. He ducks, whimpers. The heat is closer to his heels than heat should ever be allowed to reasonably approach.
“Take this for your mother,” Mrs. Tamashi yells over the din, and tosses him the Pinyo. Again, he instinctively catches it in his arms, but barely. “She will love it!” Her rifle is down now, but she’s still sucking a cigarette as if gazing upon a whole world of untouched greenery, a new land full of promise and potential and fruity cocktails.
Jaden doesn’t hesitate a second longer. He topples through the broken glass and trails after Eyebrow who is already starting their car, the door wide open. He hops in and tosses the bag of groceries, which now seems so meaningless, into the back seat, and urges Eyebrow to “get goin’ dammit” with rapid pats of his glassy palm.
Black smoke fills the little glass box in the rearview mirror.
It’s only when Eyebrow starts laughing, hours later, their car deep into the city, that Jaden reviews his memory in a fresh light. The fire, the chaos, and Mrs. Tamashi… in control from the beginning, a rifle in her hands and a Golden Bat in her lips. They never had a chance. He doesn’t understand how it happened that way, but he laughs along.