SOMETHING THAT WAS BEAUTIFUL
Joy Turner is in a relationship.
Joy Turner is at Boyd's Corner Gas & Convenience with Chester Boyd.
Joy Turner says: jus chillin wt my man, yall ;)
-posted at 10:42 p.m.
You are Chester Boyd. You are a 44-year-old divorced father of two who is sleeping with a girl the same age as your younger daughter. Joy Turner is that girl, and she is also your employee, and you knew you shouldn't have done it, but you did it anyway and it was good. It's about time you had a little fun, and that's exactly what she is, fun and eager and so very, very limber. For weeks you've been enthralled by her taut yet supple body, enthralled enough to be completely ambushed by the capricious machinations of her hormone-saturated, dingbat mind, and now like a light speed STD, her compulsive status updates are bouncing from friend list to friend list, informing everyone within six degrees of social network separation that you, Chester Boyd, are banging jailbait.
Rick Turner shows up in the dooryard thirteen minutes later, by which time you have ejected Joy and most of her clothing from your apartment above the store. Rick is a drinking problem dressed up and walking around like a human. He embodies everything you hated about this hick town when you fled to college half a lifetime ago. He is the King of Feckless Losers. He's never given a shit where his daughter is or what she's doing until now, but his honor is besmirched and he's come charging in to defend her with. . .oh, how wonderful, the man is swinging an axe. An axe.
If you can keep the police out of this, it may go no further than a nasty rumor, but your options are limited. Rick isn't the type to be easily talked down, and pretty soon he's going to get tired of screaming for you to come out and he'll chop his way in here. Your father kept a double-barreled shotgun under the counter—"to run off miscreants," he'd always say—but you moved it when you started running the store so he could finally sit down and die. Was that really just last year? It seems like forever since you found the old thing propped against the day safe; you'd known about it your whole life, and yet it startled you to see it there. Timeworn memories of ringing ears and your arm gone numb below the shoulder had bubbled thickly to the surface; echoes of your old man boasting about the hair trigger he'd had made special by a gunsmith. You'd handled it like explosive roadkill when you moved it to—where the hell did you put it?
Your old man. . .you're just like him, really. He was married to the store; you were married to your desk. It was a good desk, at the end, or at least it was an expensive desk with a nice corner office to match. You'd always thought the guy in that office had it made, sitting there enjoying the view while delegating all the hard work to his lackeys. Only when you became that guy did you realize that he was the one doing the hard stuff and giving his underlings tasks they were unlikely to screw up, but you'd broken your back to get there, and you'd sooner torch your Lexus than admit to yourself that it wasn't what you wanted. You'd heard the watercooler legends when you first started as an intern; once in a while somebody would quit with no explanation, stand up and walk out and send some movers to empty their office. Sometimes the best traders just crack, people would say, even though it usually turned out that they'd been poached by another firm. They can't take the pressure, and they just disappear and are never heard from again. You had scoffed and voiced your own belief that if they couldn't take the pressure then they obviously weren't the best. You were a rising star; you knew you were the best, and you proved it, at the cost of your marriage and your health and eventually your sanity when it finally turned out that you couldn't take the pressure, and you got up and left and sent some movers to clear out your office. Your father's heart attack a week later was the perfect excuse: You hadn't cracked at all; you were being the dutiful son, going back home to tend an ailing parent and rescue the family business. The night before you left, your ex phoned to inform you that she wouldn't allow your daughters to visit because she didn't want them exposed to "that pathetic hellhole you came from." So you'd finally told her off, suggesting in graphic terms the sort of action she could perform upon herself, immediately wishing you'd done it years before. With that you washed your hands of it all, moved back home, and took over the store; and the first thing you'd done was install a modern security system with cameras and an alarm, and you'd stuck that stupid shotgun in the upstairs hall closet—aha!
By the time you get to it, Rick has started bashing at the store entry with his axe. Just before the steel doors give way and the alarm bursts into the still summer night, you remember that the system will trigger an automatic alert to the police. Now there will be cops and questions, questions you won't even ask yourself because you don't want to answer them. Holding the long-barreled gun carefully away from your body, you lunge for the upstairs control panel and punch in the code, but you are too late to cancel the alert and can only mute the shrieking alarm.
Rick is inside the store now; you can hear him trashing the place, smashing glass and scattering merchandise and screaming the whole time. Insurance will pay for the damages, but it won't save you from being maimed by an axe-wielding, vengeful drunk. You gingerly descend the staircase and close the bolt on the door that connects to the stockroom. He's in there now, but he can't possibly have heard you over his own incessant holler. You stand there for a moment, bewildered by the sheer absurdity of the situation, so only when he's right on the other side of the door does it occur to you that the gun might not be loaded. You hold it up awkwardly in the dim stairwell, trying to remember which of the levers on the top makes it break open on its hinge, and your finger isn't even on the trigger when Rick's first axe blow shakes the old hardwood door and the gun goes off—
—and after a prolonged, oppressive nothingness, you become acutely aware of your heartbeat, feeling your pulse race in every part of your body. You realize that you've been holding your breath, so you let it out and inhale a big double lungful of sharp, acrid smoke. Other senses wander back; your watering eyes focus on the door in front of you, which now features a splintered hole at about chest height. It's a much smaller hole than you would have expected, only just wider than your thumb. You study it with the detached curiosity of the truly dumbfounded until the dull whine in your ears recedes and what you initially took for deafness turns out to be silence.
You slide back the bolt. You turn the knob. The door is pushed in a few inches, and suddenly you understand the term "dead weight." You open it the rest of the way and stare at the body slumped on the floor. There's a small puddle of blood seeping out from underneath one shoulder, and a little bit smeared on the door. It looks black in the crimson strobe of the security lights. Soon a flicker of blue will be joining in, and then more and more until they turn off the red light altogether and the entire store will be bathed in a chaos of electric blue. Now there will be cops and reporters and lawyers and so many unanswerable questions. The Manhattan news affiliates will pick up the story, and everyone you've ever known will hear about it. Amanda's hyena of a lawyer will have your visitation rights revoked in a heartbeat, but that won't really matter since the bitch will already have poisoned the girls against you. Still, they will suffer the ignominy of their father's sins, for weeks or months in public and privately for the rest of their lives. You envision the headlines: "Former top trader charged with statutory rape and homicide," the Times will coldly denounce, below the fold in the B-section; the Post will go with something scandalous like "‘Burnout Broker' slays father of teenage mistress."
You sit down heavily on the staircase, your head spinning as your carefully constructed paradigm of normalcy unravels. No more dutiful son and hardworking father; now you are that guy who just cracked one day. No more gentle and compassionate December to Joy's fresh and vibrant May; now you're a murderer and a child molester. Even if they let you off on self-defense, you'll still be a sex offender, wearer of that big invisible scarlet S for all time. That's as good as a death sentence in a small town; you'll be a living ghost, despised by some and disregarded by the rest. But Joy will suffer worst of all; she'll be branded a slut and a whore and all kinds of other nasty names that will forever obliterate something that was beautiful. It's not like you lecherously lured her in and seduced her; Joy came to you looking for work, and you handed her an apron and a broom. You never even told her what to do; she simply started cleaning and didn't stop until the place shined. Then she pulled out her cell phone and started clicking away, and suddenly the store had its own Web presence and a growing network of followers, and the kids were hanging out there, and the money was flowing in. Just like that, she made your dreary existence so much brighter, and an easy friendship formed; then came attraction and then contact, and when you introduced her to the notion that sex could be about much more than what the man wanted, the relationship became a kind of art, a great expression of trust and admiration between a man and woman.
But people won't accept that. They won't even try to understand it; they'll judge your actions based on something so stupid as an arbitrarily selected age limit, and they'll condemn as a crime something that was perfect and innocent and could have matured into love if that silly little twit hadn't gone and ruined it! Why did she do that? It could have worked; but now you'll go to prison after a long, painful trial, and she'll be passed from one abusive jerk to another and go on to create a whole new subspecies of daddy issues for some lucky psychiatrist to discover and publish.
It would be better for everyone if you just end it quickly. There's still another cartridge in the gun, and by now you've worked out the function of all the little levers. As the first wavering strains of police sirens sound in the distance, you stand the cumbersome weapon upright on the floor with the twin muzzle under your chin. You clamp it between your knees and reach down near your ankle, gently feeling for the trigger. . .there it is! You wrap a thumb over it and pause; you pause, and you think it over one last time, and yes, it still makes sense. This way is best, but killing yourself is a hard thing to do. Your mouth is dry and sticky, and when you swallow, your Adam's apple rubs against the cold steel barrels.
You press down.
There is a loud metallic snap, and small bits of shrapnel ricochet around the stairwell. The trigger goes slack under your thumb and drops halfway out of its little slot. Your father's ancient duck gun is now useless, and the police will arrive in moments. Now it is hopeless. Now, things will go hard for everyone.
You submit peacefully when they come for you. They cuff your hands and lead you gently into that sea of stabbing blue spears, and at the edge of the darkness, you see the 21st-century lynch mob, patrons and neighbors with cell phones held high, instantly condemning you to burn for all eternity in Internet Hell.
Anders Benson lives in the mountains of western Maine with his wife and their menagerie of pets. He has a wide array of interests and enjoys practicing long-range marksmanship and reading about history and theoretical physics. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bacopa Literary Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Existere, Gemini Magazine, Helix Literary Magazine, Picayune Magazine, Soundings East, and Spork.