One Desperate Moment
By John Kenyon
Sam opened the door just wide enough to slip inside but not enough to engage the bell, then moved quietly to the fourth and last aisle to the assortment of crackers, power bars, and nuts stocked here. Larry told him once that anyone wanting this healthy stuff was willing to go out of their way to get it, and that’s why it was in the back.
It also was the only spot in the store where the security cameras couldn’t reach. Larry had shown him one day when things were slow, had walked up and down the aisles while Sam sat on the stool behind the counter watching the screen. Larry did it to amuse Sam, but the boy also made mental notes. Once Larry hit that last aisle, all but his head was hidden. Sam knew he only came up to Larry’s belt buckle, shorter than the other boys in class, so he was invisible back there.
His Mom never questioned his two a.m. exits. He returned bearing gifts and nothing was said. He had to wait that long because that was when Larry was sure to be asleep. He denied it, but Sam knew if Mr. Chatterjee ever watched the tape of the camera pointed at the register, he’d see Larry zonked out when nobody was around. Even if he did nap, Larry would say, he did so with a gun under the counter. He would pull it out quick and say, "bang!" No one will get the draw on me, he’d say.
Sam figured it was good to bring Mom healthy food. She had been looking so sick lately. She was pale, with dark bags under her eyes. She rarely slept soundly; just nodded off while propped up on her futon. He knew she would complain no matter what he brought back. She would open everything, take a couple of bites, then disappear into the bathroom. He would eat what was left, then fall asleep, curled in the corner on the overturned dog bed mattress, his winter coat pulled tight around his shoulders until the sun slicing through the tattered blinds told him it was time for school.
He grabbed four things -- one of each on the bottom shelf -- and repositioned what was left so Larry wouldn’t notice something missing, then slipped back the way he’d come. He kept his hooded head low as he shuffled past the drink coolers toward the door. The bell chimed as he went out. Sam saw that as a favor to Larry, waking his friend so he'd be ready for the next customer.
The walk was the same distance at night as it was in the day -- Sam had counted the sidewalk blocks and found it to be eighty-seven every time -- but it felt longer as he skittered from one circle of light to the next under the street lamps. Coming home from school, he’d always stop and chat with Mr. Chatterjee. Older kids from the junior high and high school up the block were only allowed in two at a time because Mr. Chatterjee knew he would have a hard time keeping an eye on more than that. He told Sam a first grader was too young for such rules, and always waved him in no matter who else was in the store.
He felt bad stealing from Larry and Mr. Chatterjee, but he kept careful track of what he took, writing the numbers on a scrap of cardboard he kept in his desk at school, and planned to pay it back when Mom wasn’t sick anymore and could get a job. She had worked in a restaurant for a while, but the boss didn’t like her and wasn’t fair and told her not to come back. Sam knew how that felt. Some of the kids at school were the same way. They called him scrawny and made fun of him because he didn’t wear the right shoes or because his pants were dirty.
His Mom got really sick right after she lost her job, and would only go out when she needed medicine. Sometimes friends brought her medicine and visited with her for a while in the bedroom. Sam had a hard time keeping track of them, and Mom didn’t ever remember to introduce them. He used to ask where his dad was, and why he wouldn’t help. He thought his dad’s name was the sound of a laugh, because that’s the only answer Mom gave to that question. Finally, he quit asking.
Sometimes he wished Larry was his dad. Larry told him about stuff, though Sam didn’t always understand. Larry had plenty to say about girls, but then he’d always say, oh yeah, you’re only seven. I forget that sometimes.
Sam hoped his Mom would be up when he got home. Every once in a while she was happy and had energy. He liked it best when she would dance. She would put on one of the albums they bought at Goodwill, play them on that big blue record player she had borrowed from a school once. The Tom Petty record was her favorite. She would laugh through “American Girl,” though sometimes she would cry when he sang about something so close being so far out of reach.
"Did I tell you I saw him once?" she would say. "It was at the arena. Some college boy dragged me to see the opening band. That might have been the night when…" She always stopped there and he never figured out what she meant.
He climbed the steps -- there were forty of those -- and reached their apartment. The door was open a crack, so he pushed it the rest of the way open with his foot and walked in.
“Mom?” he called quietly. One of her friends must have been by and forgotten to close the door.
He heard a scuffle from the bedroom, then a crash.
“Mom?” he said, a little louder this time.
“I want money! You can't screw your way out of this one!” It was a man, a voice he didn’t recognize.
Sam heard the smack of a hand against flesh, then a cry of pain from his Mom. He ran across the apartment, the power bars falling from his hands. He pushed open the door and saw a man straddling his Mom, his hands around her throat.
“Leave her alone!” Sam yelled. He stepped forward, fearless, and started hitting and pushing. The man took one hand off her neck and backhanded Sam, sending him sprawling the short distance to the wall. He smacked against it and dropped to the floor, blood trickling from his lip.
This was enough of an opening for Sam’s mom, who reached up and tried to gouge the man’s eye. He roared and rolled off of her and the bed.
“You stupid whore!” he shouted. He kicked at Sam, still prone on the floor, then stormed out of the room.
"Get out!" his mom shouted.
Sam, who had been curled in a ball wasn’t hurt by the kicks. He heard the apartment door slam. He got up and ran to the front room and turned the deadbolt. He then sprinted back into the bedroom.
“Mom!” he wailed. “Are you OK? Why was he hurting you?”
She winced as she pulled herself upright against the wall where the headboard should be. She tried to smile, but it was more a grimace. He saw her clothes were torn and there was a red spot on her cheek that seemed to be swelling.
“I’m all right, Sammy baby,” she said. “My friend and I, we just had a misunderstanding. An argument. We have those sometimes, right?” She reached to tousle his hair, but he shied from her touch.
“We don’t hurt each other,” he said.
“You're right,” she said. “Not like that we don’t.”
“I got us some food, mama,” he said, his voice taking on traces of baby talk.
“Now don’t you go doing that,” she said. “You’re my big boy. I’ll have none of that.”
He knew she’d want to hug him, so he moved in close. Instead, she stuck a hand under his chin and lifted it up.
Why don’t you bring me what you got and we’ll have us a little dinner, OK?”
He went out to retrieve the power bars. The man must have stepped on one as he ran out, so Sam left the squished one in the living room and brought the other three in. His Mom looked at the wrappers, then opened a green one. She never asked where these late-night supplies came from, and Sam never volunteered the information. She took a bite and chewed for a bit, but then scrunched up her face like she’d smelled something bad. She got up to spit it in the toilet, but as she bent over the bowl, she clutched at her stomach and wretched. Other than the bite of power bar, there was only a little spit and bile, and it dribbled down her chin and onto the ratty comforter wrapped around her.
“Sammy,” she said, leaning back against the wall again. A sheen of sweat coated her forehead, and she looked more pale than before. “Mommy needs something to drink. You think you could go visit your friend down at the store and get something?”
“Good,” she said, working her grimace into a tight smile. “How about a nice bottle of wine. Those are the green bottles with the red drink in ’em, OK? There's a little money in my purse, but don't take it all.” He nodded again, then leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
He walked out into the hall and closed the door behind him, careful to set the deadbolt with his key and then check to make sure it was locked. He went back down, counting all forty steps, and then back to Mr. Chatterjee’s store, counting the eighty-seven sidewalk blocks. As he got closer, he slowed and looked through the windows. Larry was awake now, talking with someone at the counter. Larry pointed to the back of the store. As the man turned to walk back, Sam saw it was the one who had hurt his Mom.
His first thought was to turn and run home, but Larry saw him and waved at him to come inside. Sam shook his head no, but Larry again waved his arm to beckon him. Sam walked slowly toward the door, his eyes seeking out the man. He was at the back, peering inside an open beer cooler.
Sam opened the door and ran to the counter.
“Hey, little man,” Larry said. “What are you doing up this time of night? Does your mom know you’re out?”
He wanted to tell Larry everything -- about Mom, about how the man hurt her -- but there wasn’t time. The man was coming back up to the counter with some beer.
Sam ran up and pushed the man's legs, hitting and kicking him.
“What the hell?” the man said, looking down. “Hey, it’s you! Didn’t you get enough the first time?”
He swung the six-pack at Sam’s head, but the boy instinctively ducked it. Then he hit the man where his mom said to when they talked about stranger danger. The man let out a yelp and shoved Sam.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Larry yelled from behind the counter. “Leave the boy alone!”
Sam went to hit the man again. The man swung the six-pack and this time Sam was ready. He leaned into it, then staggered and slammed into the candy rack. Chocolate bars rained down on him as he fell.
Sam heard a click and looked up. The man’s foot was swinging toward his head. Just before it connected, Sam heard an explosion and the man dropped to the floor next to him, blood spreading from a gaping hole in his chest. Sam was still. He looked up at the ceiling and noticed the tiles for the first time. He counted, one, two, three. When he was finished, he would get the bottle of wine.