My sister followed a trip to the morgue to identify my remains with a visit to the liquor store and a pawnshop. I mirrored her shuffle through the aisles, directing her with a whisper toward her favorite malt beverage and the gun she had talked about buying but never got around to. Guess today she found her reason. Four hundred dollars and a concealed carry permit check later, she loaded her car with an unmatched pair of Colt 45s: The first, the lightest, sweated through the brown paper bag resting between her legs; the second, its chrome barrel winked at her from the dashboard.
On the radio, our boy Elvis sang about the cruel nature of the postal service. I joined in, but Sis couldn’t hear me over the quiet sobs rattling in her chest.
We stepped out onto the eastern shore of Kill Devil Hills, just as the sun scratched its last rays across our backs. A building the size and shape of a small barn swayed on warped stilts in the surf. Lights burned in the curtained front windows. I asked Sis if she wanted to stand in the water one last time. She said nothing to the ghost trying and failing to hold her hand.
The old man who owned the shop opened the door on the fifth knock. He had in his left palm a steaming plate of spaghetti and a green linen napkin tucked into the front of his shirt. Fortunate for the shirt, not so much his pants. “The sign on the stairs below says I’m closed Tuesday through Friday, and all hours but breakfast hours the rest of the week. What? Your parents didn’t teach you any manners?” He slurped a couple of saucy noodles, further dirtying his already messy chin.
Thumbing away the mascara running black beneath her eyes, my sister showed the old man the shiny six-shooter. “My brother’s gone.”
He leaned in to give her a sniff, sighed. “Apparently so is the beer part of my payment. At least you brought the non-negotiable pistol portion, though, so that’s good. I’ll tell you what, darlin: Sometimes life is fair, and sometimes it’s fair to me, and right now it’s neither. But come on in.”
Sis stayed put. “His arms were broken in three places, and someone Sharpied NO MORE BETS on his forehead.”
“‘Dr. Phil’ starts in thirty, so let’s go or let’s not go. Either way, I won’t hang around here forever to let the AC out. You hear it hummin. Don’t pretend like you don’t.”
“He has a face like my face.” Quieter now, so much so that the slow lap of the Atlantic nearly drowned her words, she said, “He had a face like my face. They caved it in with a club.” She touched her cheek with trembling fingers. “That’s the only thing our parents ever gave us: each other. I don’t have anything anymore. Isn’t that pathetic?”
I found my feet more interesting than the frown on the old man’s face, certainly better than the faint shakes touching my twin from her toes on up. Muted talking between the old man and Sis, but all I could think about was sitting in her apartment a month prior, my head in my hands, asking to empty her waitress coffers for a cool two grand, promising to never hit the dog track again after settling my debts. A week ago I broke my promise. That afternoon I won a seven-day stretch decaying in a ditch someplace by losing the wrong man’s money.
The screen door banged shut. I looked up to see the old man with his arm draped around Sis’s shoulders, passing by a number of sleeper sofas, potted fichus plants, and a stereo with syrupy trance music dripping through the speakers. He pointed with his spaghetti plate at a whiteboard posted on a refrigerator. The sign read:
NEED A BEER, TAKE A BEER
NEED TWO, GET A JOB!!!
Watching my sister retrieve for the old man a Sam Adams IPA from a healthy stock of other IPAs, knowing damn well these hands of mine would never again do the same for her, snipped the final few threads of substance holding me together. My feet left the porch, and I floated as thinly as the wind through the chicken wire covering the door. I moved without punch, taking an eternity to reach the old man and Sis at the rear of the shotgun-style shop. They stood next to a plain metal table.
The old man said, “You understand this is a one-time deal? That if you find yourself at my doorstep again, you might as well keep goin and march your behind straight into the ocean? I’ve seen it happen, darlin, many, many times.” He swallowed the last of his drink.
“People like you choose their better halves, people like me and my brother don’t.”
“People like me? I had a wife, darlin, had three kids. And one day a group of teenage boys decided I shouldn’t, so they told my family and a whole movie theatre’s worth of people adios with bulk ammo they bought from the Internet. Then boom. Just like that, I’m takin my meals at the TV solo ever since. I mean, why else would I learn how to melt down guns so people can’t use ‘em on nobody, not even themselves? Why else would I have to know how to use these?” He pulled from his pocket a slip of black fabric, unfolded it to reveal a micro set of tools: a silver hammer, three silver screwdrivers, a pair of silver pliers.
“Why do you think I can’t remember their faces without a picture?” he said. “Their names without re-reading the cards they wrote, the sounds of their voices at all? Because the heart is where your memories live, and those memories die once you’re fixed. It happens to everyone. It’ll happen to you too, unless you leave, because nothin is what you pick, when you pick to come see me.”
She went dark for a long while. The lone sounds to occupy the silence were the soft churn of the ocean and the old man finishing the dinner he for once didn’t have to eat by himself. “It’s not the same. I can’t ever forget him.”
My sis could’ve easily said, “Never forgive him,” and that would have been all right, perhaps appropriate, given that I brought her to this house of erasure.
“I guess that makes you the lucky one,” he said. “Drop the rest of your payment off at the fittin room.” Before he turned around, I noticed his eyes were dull with regret.
Sis went to touch him on the shoulder, to apologize, but he shrugged her off. I followed her to a set of maroon curtains marked PRIVATE, whispering to her this was the right decision, that I would have had to do the same had the roles been reversed. By the curtains was a single hospital johnny hung from a hook. Beside that sat a ragged wooden crate. It read: RECYLING, and was crammed with firearms and their discarded purposes. Here she dumped the Colt.
She cried while she changed.
When Sis rejoined the old man, he waved for her to lie on the metal table. She flinched at the chill. “Will this hurt?” she said.
“Of course. Healing always does.”
The old man pressed his thumb to her inner elbow, and an instant later she began to snore. He unpinned two buttons on the front of the johnny, pulled back the flap, revealing her bare chest. This time he touched his thumb to her sternum, holding it there until her summer-colored skin faded to absolute translucency and smoothness, as if it were made of glass. White letters told him to BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.
This was where the broken heart repairman tapped his tiny hammer.
This was how I came to disappear.
David Starnes is a North Carolina State graduate (Go Pack!), with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. A programmer by trade, he’ll readily admit to the number of eye drops necessary for all the time he spends at the computer. He lives in Cary, NC, with his wife, his son, and two Westies. He also has flash fiction pieces published at Literary Orphans and The Writing Disorder.
Artist: Sherstin Schwartz, “Pink Dandelion”