Short fiction

By Bob Sanchez

No good would come from disturbing this old house, I thought, applying my crowbar to an ancient oak plank. Still, there could be money squirreled away somewhere in this mess. Rusty nails creaked and snapped; the board popped up to expose a shallow dirt cellar crawling with centipedes and roaches.

Nellie Westhaver had lived here alone, at first pitied and then ignored by the townsfolk for the shiftless husband who had held lots of odd jobs and fast women until he and some mini-skirted trash named Luann disappeared for good and good riddance, probably on the Greyhound to Boston. He’d left his rattletrap Buick behind, but Nellie didn’t drive.

I’d recently spent ten years’ worth of medium security in Walpole and didn’t have a dime left to my name. Crazy Nellie had been my next-door neighbor, the type who never answers the door, fills every room with newspapers going back to Genesis, and lets you know she’s dead when she starts to smell. The house dated back to Revolutionary times, with its low ceilings and stone fireplaces in every room and not a single wall or doorway plumb or true. Not having many job prospects as an ex-con, I decided to see if the old bat had hidden any cash.
The stench had finally told her fate last week—masked EMTs carried her body out feet first on a stretcher, and police closed and padlocked the door. Already I hear Seven-Eleven wants to buy the lot.

Evidently, someone had made half an effort to tame the terrible odor, but the place still smelled like air freshener overpowered by death. Rot gnawed at the wood while mold spores and silence filled the air. Old Look magazines and Lowell Sun newspapers sat in dusty stacks. A small TV with rabbit ears looked like it hadn’t been used since Lawrence Welk died. At the window, a fly struggled in a spider web as a daddy-longlegs sidled up to suck out its juices. I knew how the fly felt, an inmate at the mercy of a sadistic prison guard.

Home improvement for this house would have to start with a match, but I’d never torch it because I’d be the number one suspect. This was the first place I’d ever broken into, the first place I’d ever been arrested, back in my juvie days when Nellie and Ashton still held backyard cookouts and enjoyed sipping martinis and electrocuting moths with their luminescent bug zappers.

Nellie’s bed smelled about right for her having died in it. I felt in the stained pillows and covers for hidden cash, knowing perfectly well some cop would already have checked all those obvious places and pocketed the prize. Cabinets and closets and dressers turned up the usual jetsam floating in a sea of dust bunnies as Nellie sailed on to her next life.

I pushed the queen-sized bed aside to rummage through the tattered cardboard boxes underneath and found old letters and bills, a broken telephone, stained Melamine plates, nothing even fit for a yard sale. If this house had anything less than ten years old or worth more than five dollars, I’d have been shocked. Frustrated, I kicked a box. There was no point in looking any more—but wait, this was odd. Several floor boards looked lighter and newer than the rest: pine surrounded by oak, galvanized nails bent but not rusted, hammer-head impressions in the soft wood suggesting slapdash carpentry.

Eagerly I pried another board and looked into the darkness. Some godforsaken life form squeaked and scurried away. I turned my flashlight on a pea-green Army blanket, and a thousand miserable bugs scattered in all directions. Only a fool would disturb that filthy piece of trash, but I was a plain and simple fool.

I went to a closet and found a wire coat hanger that I used to fashion a hook. I tried to catch one edge of the blanket, but the hanger slipped out of my hands and out of reach. Disgusted, I lay on the floor and reached down to pull away the blanket.

A sudden visit from the police couldn’t have brought me closer to cardiac arrest. I didn’t care anymore about money.

A pair of skeletons in rotted clothing lay one on top of the other. A hatchet rested inside the skull it had shattered down the middle. Toadstools grew out of both eye sockets—but there was nothing here that needed eyes.



By Bob Sanchez

George knew the world was coming apart at the seams. Only by furious effort had the world avoided the Y2K debacle, with its attendant threat of planetary lockjaw. Citizens would have been shot dead for their bottled water, their gasoline, their triple-A batteries and their clean underwear.

 “I’ve had it with you, George.” Lila was trying to tell him something. He examined an unopened roll of duct tape, wondering if the stuff had an expiration date. Maybe he’d better buy a fresh supply, just in case.
Okay, he thought, we dodged the millennial bullet only to take one in the heart with nine-eleven. We have Columbine shootings, no-fly lists, outsourced jobs and insourced illegals, corporate meltdowns, ozone holes, and Americans up to their asses in IEDs in Iraq. Now that Pacific Rim runt has Nagasaki-sized nukes he’ll be selling to terrorists to finance restocking his liquor cabinet and his porn collection.

 Lila grabbed the package out of his hand. “This isn’t going to keep out sarin, anthrax, or radioactive isotopes.”
“You’re red in the face,” George said. “Are you sick?”
“Only of living in a bomb shelter, surrounded by” —she waved an arm in a sweeping motion—“sterile gauze and chlorine tablets. And a year’s supply of Charmin!”
“Because if you’re sick, you should sleep on the cot tonight.” He took back the duct tape and opened the package. “Maybe I didn’t seal the windows properly.”
“We don’t need to live like this! We are not a terrorist target—we’re a hundred miles from the nearest city!”
“But downwind,” he said quietly.
For the first time, he noticed that she had her winter coat on and that she had packed a suitcase.“I’m leaving you,” she said.
“Right now?”

 “Now isn’t soon enough, but yes.”

 “But you’re safe here.”

 “I don’t care. I’m sick of being safe. I’ll risk sorry.”
George took Lila’s hand, and for a fleeting moment her expression softened. Then he placed the roll of duct tape into her hand. “At least take this,” he said.
He thought nothing of it when her jaw dropped at the sight of his gift.

 Or when she gripped it tightly in her fist.

 Or when she cocked her arm like a World Series fastballer.

 So he didn’t blink when her arm whipped forward. The hard, black roll followed a short, swift trajectory from her fingertips to his temple. George had always suspected that his life would end in a flash of blinding light.

 And so it did.