It was a mistake to say it, “We were never here.” The first time he did, Dayton had only been talking to himself. While Brock was upstairs ransacking the house, he remained in the basement, watching over the old woman who owned the place and whom they had tied to a chair. At that point, Dayton thought his only job was to do as he’d been told and “keep the lady of the house quiet.”
“We were never here,” he muttered, before backing into a tower of paint cans that came crashing to the ground. Some thundered like steel drums as they meandered across the concrete floor.
Moments later, Brock appeared at the top of the stairs, calling down from the threshold of a bright-yellow kitchen, “What the fuck, Dayton?”
“We’re good,” he said, returning to the woman and allowing Brock to see him train his gun on her.
Her face came up into the light. When she resisted, Brock had hit her—to quiet her until they could get her tied. Strands of silver hair arched over a bruised left cheek. Her arms were bound behind the chair, but she was so slight that tying her had been difficult, and it took longer than Brock would have liked. Even now it seemed to Dayton that if she were to try to stand, the ropes would fall to the floor like in a magic trick.
“I won’t say a word,” the lady moaned. “I wouldn’t know what to say . . . because you were never here.” Why had Brock used his name? thought Dayton. He was supposed to know what he was doing. “I live alone,” she said. “I always have.”
“Shut up,” Dayton said. “My job’s to keep you quiet, one way or another.” But this sounded dumb, and he regretted saying it—that last part about “one way or another.” It wasn’t some movie or an episode of The Blacklist. If it was, nobody would say “one way or another.” If it was, they wouldn’t be robbing a house in the suburbs. They’d be tropics-bound on a private jet with a satchel stuffed with diamonds or a briefcase full of certificates to be exchanged for cash. If it was, there would be no evidence of a crime. It would be like—
“You were never here!” the woman said again, but now with gusto.
“Let’s roll!” Brock yelled down from the kitchen.
“Dayton!” she proclaimed. “That’s my grandson’s name!”
“What?” Brock said, hurrying down. “What did she say?”
“Yes! I’m a grandmother!”
“Oh, hell no!” Brock said, reaching for his gun. “How does she know your name?”
“How do you think!”
“You gotta shoot her,” Brock said. “If she knows your name, she might as well know mine.”
“No!” said the woman.
“Shoot her! We ain’t leavin’ until you do, and the car’s already been out there an hour.” Only when Dayton had chambered a round did Brock turn and bound back up the stairs.
“We were never here,” Dayton said, but this time he was speaking directly to her. By the time he put the gun to her head and she was saying it back, he knew he’d at invited the idea, at least, that this could end in a way other than with her dead on the floor.
Leaning into her ropes, the woman gushed, “You were never here!” When she said it, each syllable rang with the full-throated gratitude of an alleluia chorus. “You were never here!” she swore again, her blue eyes burning like pilot lights, and Dayton fired a single shot into one corner of the basement.
Brock drove, and in twenty minutes they had left Ohio, where there is a statewide database of pawnshops, and entered Indiana, where there is not. It was the kind of knowledge that had made Dayton think Brock knew what he was doing.
“I ain’t sold stuff in Indiana before,” Brock said.
“Well, not of late.”
Dayton feared Brock only slightly more than he needed him. What started in high school as a friendship of circumstance had become, five years on, a partnership of convenience. “I don’t see why we couldn’t have sold stuff first,” Dayton said, “and then come here to pawn the rest.” It was hours since he’d last used, and his vision was blurry. His skin itched and his bones ached.
“It’s better this way,” Brock said, “and whuddya think we’d get on the street for a butterfly brooch?”
“Is it gold?”
“How do you know it’s pure gold?” Dayton had never robbed a house with Brock before, but he had seen him argue with pawnshop owners plenty of times over what was or wasn’t gold. “If it’s pure gold,” Dayton said, “I think we’d get a lot.” A tremor ran up his spine. A wave of sadness shook him. “This ain’t no way to be,” he said, pressing the tips of his fingers into the skin around both eyes.
“Now . . . none of that,” he said. “You did what you had to. You did good!” The sun was low enough that Brock raised the driver-side visor. “Shootin’ someone. It ain’t easy.”
“So, what all’d we get?” Dayton asked, his eyes still hidden in the other visor’s shadow.
“You did shoot her, right?”
“I mean, besides a butterfly brooch?”
With that, Brock turned to face him. “You did shoot her, right?”
“It’s a common name,” Dayton insisted. But Brock was having none of it. He had turned the car around, and in no time they were back at the intersection of Woodland Avenue and New City Road, a block from the house they’d robbed. There were things Dayton wanted to say but didn’t—like how the woman had told him she lived alone and wouldn’t call the police; like how she had said, with conviction, that they were never there. “It’s a common name,” he said again.
“Common or not,” Brock said, “it’s one she won’t soon forget. Since it’s her grandson’s.”He brought out his gun but held it low, checking for rounds before concealing it again within his jacket.
“I don’t see why we had to come back.”
“We came back so I can watch you shoot her,” Brock said. “If you don’t, I got half a mind to shoot you.”
But before either of them could exit the car, a dark Impala rolled through the intersection. Close behind it was a marked police cruiser, lights flashing. Both vehicles stopped more or less in front of the old woman’s house. “There ya go!” Brock said, sounding as satisfied as if he had just shot the woman himself. “I hope you’re happy. I hope you’re happy now that we’ll be goin’ to jail!”
“If so,” Dayton said, “at least it won’t be for killin’ nobody.” For several minutes he pondered what it might mean that he was a first-time offender. Dayton recalled how sympathy is often afforded to addicts. Calculating rewards for good behavior, the benefits of free health care, and the advantages of earning a GED, before he knew it he was picturing himself out of prison, clean, and living in the tropics.
“Wait a minute,” Brock said.
With the cruiser’s lights now off, both cars pulled away, and for the driver of the Impala, Dayton concluded, it must have been his lucky day to have gotten away with a warning after rolling through a stop sign at an unfamiliar intersection.
The sun had set, and the two approached the house as they had before, from behind, and then across a fenced yard and in through the kitchen. Dayton switched on a light, which the woman must have seen from beneath the door or perhaps it was that she heard the sound of someone coming for her. “Harold!” she screamed. “Harold! We been robbed! Call the police!”
“Shut her up!” Brock said, following Dayton into the basement.
The woman was not where Dayton had left her. While they were away she had hopped her chair to an interior wall beneath a shoddily constructed shelf of tools, some of which now lay at her feet. On the ground were a screwdriver, a roll of packing tape, some pencils, and a large wrench that seemed to have caught her on the head. A sight in grave need of repair, the woman was slumped low, as one would be, spent after the longest of days. She appeared either not to know who they were or not to want to know. “Harold?” she murmured.
“You told me you lived alone,” Dayton said. “You said you always had.” He put his gun on her, and the woman gazed back from eyes that looked like they wanted to shut but could not.
Then, in an instant, Dayton thought to turn the gun on Brock—to drop him where he stood. He imagined just such a feeling, to deliver the old lady’s salvation twice in one day but this time in high, Hollywood fashion. No sooner had he begun to enjoy the idea than a shot rang out from behind him, and then another, before the woman teetered and collapsed, dragging the chair with her, sideways over onto the basement floor.
Lyle Roebuck is native of St. Simons Island, Georgia. He lives in Chicago, Illinois and Florence, Italy. His fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, The Roanoke Review, Straylight Magazine, Redivider, A Torn Page, The Santa Ana River Review, The Timberline Review, The Arlington Literary Journal, HoosierLit, Phantom Drift, and Split Lip Magazine. His book, Phantom Sounds–Stories, was published by Big Table Publishing (Boston, MA) in August 2018. His debut novel, Easter Monday, is forthcoming in 2021. For more visit lyleroebuck.com.