Combustible

[I ran across this old, very short story of mine the other day and thought I’d post it here.]

 

Whatever happens next I will not be able to control. That was the first thought that entered my mind when I glimpsed the gun. Strange how your mind sharpens during conflict at the same time your body refuses to budge. I stood still and watched. At least I seem to remember not moving, not changing my position at all. My mind was clicking, though. I knew that at some point my body would have to catch up. —

 

It had started as such a nice day. I came down to breakfast wearing a new tie. I kissed my wife and wiped a smear of grape jelly from my son’s chin. The coffee was hot, the bacon was crisp.

“No rain today, I think,” my wife said. “Will you be home early? I picked up some steaks. We could grill out. First time this spring.”

“I’ll do my best, babe. You know how things go sometimes,” I said.

“Well, call me. I can always stick them in the broiler,” she said.

I drove into the city with the April sun full in the windshield, a back light to the dirt streaks left by neglected wiper blades. Seemed like a typical day. I greeted my co-workers and snagged the coffee cup from my desk as I made my way to the nearly empty pot in the corner of the room. I had a lot of paperwork. It kept me inside all morning. Things were pretty quiet for a Friday.

By noon it was surprisingly warm. The windows didn’t open, and the air conditioning hadn’t been turned on yet in the old building. Air conditioning wasn’t such a big issue when I was younger. That’s what the older guys say. “When I was a kid,” it usually goes, “we didn’t have air conditioning in school, in our cars, nothing. Don’t know how we survived.” Surviving—applies to other things besides air conditioning. —

 

I didn’t move, but my eyes were taking everything in–two guys with guns, four people in the store, one clerk behind the counter. And me.

They hadn’t made a move yet. They didn’t know I saw the guns. Well, I only saw the skinny guy’s gun, but I could tell the fat guy had one, too. They were waiting for something, maybe courage. The clerk was oblivious, sacking up bread and cold cuts for the old lady in front of me as I stood there holding my charcoal lighter fluid and beer. I wasn’t sure if I  should get his attention or not. Who knew how he would react? We didn’t need a panic at the moment. —

 

Lunch had been a panic. I had driven across town and stopped near one of my favorite delis. There were patrol cars parked on the street, lots of them. I spent half an hour talking to a couple of the police officers about a dead guy. The story was he shot some lady and then turned the gun on himself. I never got to go in the deli. That’s the job, though–one thing after another. I bounced around all over the city, probably made five stops that afternoon. Each one seemed to be in a shabbier neighborhood than the last. It was late afternoon when I finally was able to pull away and head home. I only had to stop and get the lighter fluid to ignite the charcoal for the grill. —

 

Ignite. That’s what was getting ready to happen. The only thing lacking was a spark. The skinny guy looked nervous. His eyes never stopped jerking back and forth. The heavy guy hung back. He almost looked sleepy. But the sweat rolling down into his eyes gave the lie to his expression.

Two ways you can deal with fire, stomp it out or smother it. That’s after it ignites. How do you keep it from starting in the first place? You have to remove the fuel, or the oxygen or the heat, right? Boy Scout stuff. My body was catching up with my brain.

The little old lady nearly bumped into me as she turned and passed by, cradling her bag like a fullback breaking through a tackle.  I smiled at the clerk as I stepped up. “Hi, how are ya?” I said a little too loudly. “You know I have to say, I travel all over selling security systems to stores like this, and I’m impressed. Your security cameras are top of the line. Tied right into the police station, I bet.” The clerk half smiled and half frowned at me. I caught the skinny guy’s reaction out of the corner of my eye. His eyes bounced like ricocheting pin balls now, taking in every corner of the ceiling. The fat guy woke up and started backing toward the door. Skinny followed him out. I walked to the plate glass window and took down the license plate number as they jumped into the back seat of a waiting car.

“What the heck you talking about, Mike?” I heard the clerk ask me. “You ain’t a cop anymore?”

“Still a cop, Sammie,” I said over my shoulder as the men drove off. “Hang on to my stuff a minute, will ya? I have to make a call.”

——-

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