So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, you can find the full list here.
Karma's Only a Bitch if You Are
By Danielle Davis
Shea walked quickly down the dry good aisle. She kept one eye on the cashier at the counter and one on Bobby as he paralleled her. At the end of the aisle, he moved to cover the door and she took three large strides to the cashier's counter. In the front pouch of her hoodie, she formed her hand into the shape of a gun, like when she'd play shoot out games as a kid.
"Hands where I can see 'em and open the register." Her voice was steady, thank God. And if the kid behind the counter noticed her voice wobble a bit, he didn't show it. His hands immediately raised to either side of his head as he gazed at her with luminous, shocked eyes.
She stared at him for a moment, then jerked her hand inside the pocket. "Did I stutter? I said move!" The boy jerked like he'd been electrocuted and fumbled with the small key resting in the register's locked bottom drawer.
So far so good. She glanced over at Bobby, to see if he noticed how well this was going. But he was busy peering out of the convenience store doors. She nodded to herself. Of course, good, yes. That was his job. Now she just had to keep to hers and this thing would go off smoothly.
Close the deal, Shea Lee.
She growled at the cashier as his shaking fingers dropped the key and his eyes darted fearfully up to hers. "Tonight, jerkwad! If you want to make it home to your mom's basement, you'd better get me my money."
"I'm trying!" he squealed as he bent to retrieve it from the floor. He sounded terrified. Good. That would make this more likely to work the way they'd planned it.
She gave Bobby another glance, but he hadn't seen how assertive she'd been. It brought a frown to her face. Surely he could spare one frigging glance, couldn't he? This was probably turning out to be the easiest robbery they'd pulled all--
The boy behind the counter emerged. Shea had just enough time to register the gleam of determination in his eyes before the bat in his hands arced through the air onto her hoodie pocket. Pain exploded in her hand and she shrieked.
Bobby wheeled around as the kid drew back the bat for another swing. His lips were pulled back in a grimace of concentration. Then the gun in Bobby's hand screamed like a cannon—one, two—and the kid jerked. His mouth relaxed into a small O of surprise, then the bat slipped from his grip and clattered to the ground. A moment later, his body clattered down with it.
Shea stood frozen with her injured hand cradled against her stomach. It had all happened so fast. One minute it was working and the next it wasn't. She stared at the counter as if the kid might pop back up again like the villain in an'80s horror flick.
"C'mon, Shea! We gotta get outta here!" Bobby's voice was low and urgent as he tugged at her sleeve.
"But...the money?" Her words were hard to get out. Why did she sound like she was drunk? And why was it so hard to get her thoughts in order?
"Screw the money!" Bobby's eyes darted in frantic jerks the way horses did when they were scared. "We just killed a guy! I guaran-damn-tee you someone heard that shot. We need to be gone when the police get here."
Shea shook her head, trying to collect her thoughts. Leave? But they just got here. She looked back to the register. The money was right there.
A gasp sounded from behind the counter, making them both jump.
"Man!" Bobby whined. "He's not dead!" He pulled at her sleeve hard enough to drag her forward a few steps.
"We need to get now!"
"But he might need help," Shea said. That seemed like the right thing to do. They couldn't just leave him there.
She took a step towards the counter, thinking they could call an ambulance anonymously. But Bobby's hand clamped around her upper arm. It made her yelp, but Bobby ignored it. He dragged her to the door, stuffing his pistol into the waistband of his pants with the other hand. He shouldered open the door and flung her out into the darkness of the empty lot.
Bobby didn't speak to her. He just started running. And like her feet had so many times before, she followed. Together they disappeared into the night.
The man behind the bar shook his head sadly. One stubby finger pushed his half-moon spectacles a little higher on his nose as he turned to the tally board--a tall chalkboard that took up the entire wall behind the bar itself. The board was marked with a myriad of even lines and names blocked off for each. He began to climb the sliding ladder attached to the front and climbed until he found her name.
Behind him, the bar noise swelled and dipped like waves on the water. It was especially packed tonight. Several feet down from him, another old man on an identical ladder climbed carefully down. The walls were endless and the tally keepers were spaced every ten feet or so to cover it.
The man pulled a piece of white chalk from the apron around his waist. With a hand that trembled with age, he reached up and made a single mark next to her name. It was one out of a long set of similar marks. All the rows had them, though some had more or less.
She had made a bad decision and it had cost a man his life.
He peered at the tallies next to her name. It wasn't long now. Not that she knew that... He hoped she'd learn what she needed to before time was up.
The scientist gazed impassively at the cluster of rats inside the box. The throng of silver and black bodies moved like a wave as they scuttled around the platform of their enclosure. He leaned a little farther and peered into the other side of the box, where another cluster of rats milled around a similar enclosure. On that side, some wandered around the bottom while others inspected the plastic ramp that extended up to the height of the other rats' platform. Where the ramp met the platform was a plastic wall with a hinge door.
The scientist nodded to his companion. The other scientist opened the lid of the side with the ramp and poured cold water into it until it rose an inch along the sides of the enclosure.
Loud squeals punctuated the arrival of the water as they all bolted for the ramp. But it was only wide enough to
allow one at a time, so they formed a cycle of pushing their way up only to be knocked back into the water by another behind them.
The first scientist peered into the dry side. There, the rats began to move about quicker, but none of them seemed anxious. He noted this on his clipboard.
However, he did notice the one white rat, the one chosen specifically to balance the control group: in previous experiments, that rat had been in the wet group. She had experienced the same procedure of getting wet, frantically communicating her distress and trying to get away, until one of the dry rats had opened the door for her, allowing her to enter the dry space. This time around, though she was on the dry side, she began to experience similar levels of anxiety once her wet counterparts began making more noise.
Both scientists leaned forward for a closer look. What would she do? Would she remember what had been done for her? Per their earlier hypothesis, they hoped so.
It turned out to be correct. The white rat darted toward the door and took the small metal tab of a handle between her teeth. She used her teeth to pull the door open enough to work her nimble paws through, and then the door opened wide enough to allow her first water-logged companion through. The scientists watched with interest as she repeated the measure until there were enough rats on the dry side that the door wouldn't open. But even then she kept trying every so often.
These observations were noted on the clipboard.
A tally went up on the chalkboard. The man on the ladder added it with a small smile. Altruism was a beautiful thing to behold. It was one of his favorites. He glanced at his watch, consulting the several small dials that clicked and ticked together under the glass. It wasn't like a normal watch—instead of showing multiple timezones, like many of the humans had, this one showed time lines. In this instance, the five different dials showed different timelines of creatures along the worldly spectrum. It only held five dials because that was all each tally marker was able to keep track of.
He glanced back up at her row. Not long now. But then, rats didn't live particularly long. Especially ones in her line of work.
Later that day, a woman walked through the door. She wore the same hoodie she'd worn in the convenience store robbery, but her hair was shorter now and dyed a platinum blonde. One of her hands was bandaged in dirty white gauze. Her eyes darted around the bar, taking in the assortment of people, ladders, tally markers. The endless rows on the chalkboard. The way most of the occupants were so engrossed in conversation they didn't see her enter.
But the tally marker did.
"Hi, girl!" he called. He was halfway up the ladder and took a his hand off to wave at her. She glanced over her shoulder, thinking he was motioning to someone else, then raised her eyes in surprise.
Me? she mouthed, pointing to herself. When he smiled and nodded vigorously, she frowned. He waved her over and gestured to an empty wooden stool perched in front of the bar. As she wove her way through the throng, eyes still darting like a trapped animal's, he finished marking the tallies.
He checked his watch. She was early.
He frowned. He would have to get that fixed soon. That sort of error quickly led to others, in his experience.
With a grunt, he eased himself back down the ladder. His hips were hurting him today, and he wondered how long he'd be at this before they failed completely. He supposed only time would tell, really.
When he turned back to the girl, she was sitting in the chair with her hands clasped on the bar in front of her.
"Can I get you a drink, girl?" he asked. His voice wavered slightly but it was kindly. She smiled despite her obvious nerves.
"Sure, I guess." Her eyes darted down the endless line of the bar. "But I, ah...I'm not exactly sure where I am?" She attempted a smile that was more of a grimace. The shadows beneath her eyes made her look skeletal.
"You're here with me," the man grinned. "Having a drink. What'll it be?"
"Right, but..." Her voice trailed away, confused, and she glanced down the bar again. "But I don't know you, either, see?" She looked so lost. It broke his heart.
"Oh, I'm nobody important." He gave her another warm smile and then began retrieving the settings for tea from underneath the bar. "I'm just a grumpy old man," he continued. "Don't worry, you won't be here long."
He couldn't tell if she sounded hopeful or worried. He shook his head and concentrated on pouring steaming water into her tea cup. It was a quaint thing. Bone china colored a light turquoise with a small vine of roses decorating the rim.
He leaned forward and whispered to her in a confidential tone. "We're waiting on someone, you see." She nodded, looking mystified. When he placed the teabag in front of her, she began mechanically dunking it into the tea cup. Inwardly he chuckled over the fact that she didn’t even check to see what kind of tea he'd given her. Poor thing.
A small white rat waddled along the bartop toward them, sniffing at each glass and stein it passed as if looking for something. Its whiskers twitched. Occasionally a loud outburst from one of the other patrons would make it jump, but it continued its path more or less steadily to them.
"Ah, there you are!" the tally man exclaimed. He glanced at his watch and scowled. "Fifty-two seconds off," he growled to himself.
The girl froze when she caught sight of the rat. Only her eyes moved as the rat stepped up to her tea saucer, sniffing. When she didn't move, the rat hopped onto it and sat up on its haunches to place its tiny clawed feet delicately on the rim of the cup. Closing its eyes, it inhaled briefly, taking in the scent of the hot liquid. Its whiskers twitched happily.
It opened its eyes and blinked up at the girl, who returned the gaze with wide-eyed wariness. "There's...uh, there's a...a..." She glanced up at the tally man and pointed quickly at the rat.
He smiled. "Of course, dear. This is who we were waiting on."
"Who?" she echoed. The rat turned its shiny dark eyes to regard the man.
"Yes, who. Ladies, meet your future." He held his arms wide to indicate both of them.
The girl and rat glanced at each other again, then back to him.
"I think I need to go," the girl muttered, sliding off her stool.
"Wait! Not like that! You can't leave that way." The tally man regarded her with a grave expression. "You'll be able to go back, but not like you are."
The first hint of anger crept into the girl's voice. "What do you mean 'like you are'? I'll leave whenever and however I feel, thank you!"
But the man shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. You two have reached the end of yourselves. Like this, I mean." He gestured to the rows of tallies behind him. "You two have learned some extraordinary things." He looked down to direct his words at the rat. "My dear, you have shown a wonderful capacity for learning and compassion. For a number of reasons, you have surpassed your contemporaries. You have earned many positive marks. But there is still more to learn, and some things you just can't learn as a rat."
He looked up at the girl. "Shea, you, unfortunately, have also learned some things, yes? Some good, but others not so good?"
She found herself nodding. A sadness welled inside her that she couldn't quite name.
"You, too, have some things left to learn. But you either did not or could not learn them as a human. So many positive marks. But so many negative, too."
She nodded again, though she had no idea what he meant about the marks. His words made sense, though. However abstract they seemed.
"So now what?" The sound of her voice surprised her. She hadn't meant to ask the question, but it had burst forth anyway, barely loud enough to be heard over the din of the room.
The man grinned, looking back and forth between her and the rat. "Now you go forth on different planes!" He looked very pleased with himself.
"Wait a second," a small voice spoke up. The girl moved closer to the bar to hear. "What if I don't want to be a human?"
She realized the voice belonged to the rat.
"You shouldn't feel bad," the man said. "It's a most wonderful thing to be human!"
"So then...I'd be the rat?" the girl asked. She glared at the animal on the bar. "I don't want to be a rat!"
"Oh, c'mon. You're an adventurous girl! Think of it as a new chapter of your life! A fresh start."
"No! I'm leaving." But she remained rooted to her stop, staring with fearful eyes at the man.
He wished they didn't make it so hard on themselves. "I'm afraid you don't get that choice, dear." The man's eyes were sorrowful but also steely. She could tell he wouldn't be changing his mind. "You had an opportunity to learn some very important lessons as a human. While you learned many of them, you squandered others. This is the best way for you to learn them."
"But what if I don't want to learn them?" the girl shrieked.
The rat gave an anxious squeak. "I don't want to be her! Look at her—she's a mess!"
The girl stabbed her finger at the air. "Don't you dare, you diseased bag of bones. Don't you dare call me a mess! I'm just having a tough go of it at the moment and--"
"And you're not doing anything productive to get yourself out," the rat finished in its tiny voice. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here."
"She's not as bad as she looks," the man said in a considering voice. "She's got many good qualities. And you would, of course, be bringing your own to the table as well. Just give it a chance."
The rat sighed. "Fine. If that's what has to happen...?" It looked back up at the man. The question was evident in its body language. The man nodded his head.
"No!" the girl yelled. "No, that is not what's going to happen! That is not! I refuse to let you turn me into a--"
"I'm sorry, my dear," the man said softly. "It's not your choice anymore." He snapped his fingers. The click was practically silent as the bar noise swallowed it.
The tea was cold by the time he got around to clearing it from the counter. He glanced at his watch, then up at the chalkboard. Around him, the noise of the bar faded in and out, sometimes punctuated by random shouts of laughter, the clink of glasses. It was a beautiful place to exist, he thought. Surrounded by such life.
He needed to add a few more tallies. His age-gnarled hands gripped the worn rungs of the ladder and he pushed himself slowly upward.
There was so much to learn. And so much time to do it in.