David Macpherson is a retired internal medicine physician living on a small farm in western Pennsylvania. He retired in 2016 as a Professor of Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh and as a Chief Medical Officer for the Veterans Health Administration serving as the lead physician in a mid-Atlantic region. He is proud to have focused his medical efforts on US veterans. He is married and has two adult children who serve as part of his network of reviewers who critique and help to improve his writing. Most of the time, his family’s thoughts on his writing are correct, but not always. Dr. Macpherson’s interest in writing fiction dates to the mid 1970’s. During his medical career, he accumulated near thousands of excuses why not to sit and write fiction. Since retirement, almost all of these excuses have vanished and he has drafted more than fifteen short stories and several flash fiction pieces under consideration. In addition to numerous scientific publications, he has published two nonfiction pieces online in the Pittsburgh Quarterly. His publication of “Grab and Run” in Scarlet Leaf Review is his first fiction publication.
Grab and Run
Crystal wasn’t the most experienced Wal-Mart cashier but after a year, she had seen a few things. She witnessed two grab and runs. When a customer’s credit card was declined, most would pull out cash or just leave in angry embarrassment. But twice, they sprinted out of the store with the item. The first time, the thief—Crystal couldn’t decide whether thief was too harsh a label—was a sullen, tough-looking man in his forties. He stole a hunting vest. Crystal started guessing who might bolt when a card was declined. Not the frail woman buying cat litter—too proud. Not the mother with toddlers in tow buying pastel children clothes—too slow. On the third card rejection, she guessed right—a woman looking to be in her thirties, a hoodie covering most of her face, smelling of cigarettes and buying only tampons. She didn’t run but kind of walked and skipped out with her head down, clutching the tampons by her side.
Crystal knew the security cameras hidden in the black bubbles on the ceiling captured their faces. On her break, she asked Mitch, the manager, what happened to these people. Mitch sometimes sat with employees on their breaks. He had a doughy face and kind eyes that looked like he might try to convince you to be a Mormon. But he never had brought up religion.
“We report grab and runs to the police.”
“So, they get caught?”
“I don’t think the police work too hard to catch them. It’s small potatoes. Honestly, I feel sorry for some of these people.”
“Yeah. I shouldn’t say this but I didn’t report her. First time I didn’t report someone. Just too pitiful.” Mitch looked at her like he made a mistake with his confession. “Oh, I will if she does it again—let me know if you see her.”
At the end of her shift, Crystal picked up the toys, kitchen gadgets, and other items abandoned by the customers in her checkout line. She could have left them. It wasn’t the cashier’s job to keep the impulse shelves neat. The abandoned stuff wasn’t expensive. But, she didn’t blame them for this litter. They would have had to leave the line to return it. Even if they left the line, they wouldn’t return the item to its proper home. They would stuff it where it might take weeks to be discovered. Good to return the item to the proper shelf, to its family, giving it another chance at a successful purchase and home, after its time away.
In the sweltering Texas August heat of the parking lot after work, Sarah, the cashier Crystal talked to most, reminded her of the upcoming Labor Day party.
Crystal had attended last year’s party at a local dance hall two months after she started work. She had sat most of the night wondering if any man would approach, like a middle school dance. And none did. Sarah’s stories the next day about who hooked up after the party, intended to be titillating, disgusted her.
“I don’t think so. There’s a church event that same night.” Crystal never went to church but it was a handy excuse.
Sarah raised her perfect eyebrows. “Too bad. You never know.”
Crystal did know. Since graduation three years ago, she had put on fifty pounds—not that she hadn’t tried to shed the weight. She had lost ten pounds on two different diets. But, the full-length mirror in her bedroom reflected little difference when she was lightest – any reasonable person would still label her fat.
In high school, she wasn’t small but she wasn’t fat either. She had played softball, burning enough calories to keep the weight off. And at night, her parents rarely offered food that comforted her. When she moved to her own apartment, she couldn’t stop gorging each night: chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter crackers, and Swedish fish, along with a broad variety of sugared cereals. Some nights she ate an entire box, adding too much milk requiring more cereal followed by more milk until she emptied the crumbs into her fading “Beauty and the Beast” bowl.
Some men liked big women but they were tiny or overweight like her. Her ideal man would be tall, and muscular, with a great singing voice. But becoming attractive enough for her to be a fitting partner to such a fantasy was just too much work.
Each morning on her fifteen-minute drive to work, she passed the interstate entrance toward Albuquerque. She imagined fleeing. South to Mexico? She knew little Spanish and the drug war casualties dominated the front pages—too scary. East to Dallas? Dallas people wore Niemen Marcus outfits as they bought healthy energy bars. She would never fit in. North to Denver? Denver might be a fun place but she had heard it was expensive. It stayed on her list.
As a child, she learned that the euphoria of vacation anticipation never matched the reality. Her father had little opportunity or ability to generate income—Crystal never was sure which—and no sense of direction, so never took to the road. Vacation was local, one night in a Motel 6 on the outskirts of town after a day at Happy Village, the local amusement park. At the free breakfast the next morning, her yearly family vacation near complete after a day and a half, Crystal watched the girls her age dressed in Disney apparel, giggling on their way to some magical place Crystal would never see.
On a clear cool morning in October, the entrance ramp pulled at her more than most days. On a whim, she swerved across two lanes to enter the ramp heading west—a dangerous move. No cars honked. No damage done. As she moved up the ramp, the open land of west Texas glowed in the morning sun. She had joined her friends in complaining about the dull landscape but today, the openness pulled at her. She pushed her 2003 Cavalier to seventy-five, the posted limit, and the fastest she had ever driven it. The roar of the wind from the open windows, like freedom rushing toward her, plus a kind wave from a trucker with a breakfast sandwich in his hand encouraged her.
The car didn’t explode though the wind might have obscured a mechanical sound she couldn’t afford to fix. She turned back at the exit for the town of Vega and got to work an hour late. Mitch accepted her excuse, car trouble, without question—she never had been late before. She started saving for a bigger trip.
Over lunch, Crystal made the mistake of telling Sarah, who took over any idea. Thin, pretty, just like the girls from high school, Sarah moved to Amarillo only recently.
Sarah ate her usual small cup of low fat yogurt. “So when is our road trip, big girl?”
The big girl name had become tiresome to Crystal. “Not for awhile. Got to save some money first.”
“Just use a card.”
Crystal’s credit card applications so far had been rejected. “My card’s maxed out.”
“Nah.” Crystal added more salt to her fries. “Hey, I saw that sign up sheet for softball. Wanna join?”
“Nah, I’m not much good at sports.”
“I was pretty good in high school.” Crystal told her favorite story. “Broke a girl’s leg once.”
It happened in practice. She bowled Jenny Andrews over at second base when Crystal was in her sophomore year. Jenny, a senior had ignored her the most—a real bitch. Crystal saw Jenny’s bare leg in front of the bag and slid through as hard as she could. To this day, she could still feel the satisfying, base note “thunk” of the bone breaking.
Sarah stared at her and held her plastic spoon still in the air. “That’s horrible”
“Yeah.” Crystal smiled.
Sarah never brought the trip up again and started sitting with the other cashiers on break. Crystal had lost a few friends before like this—girls who once would talk to her just stopped without a fair reason. She hoped Sarah might play second base some day. She changed her image of two girls on a trip. Now the passenger seat would hold only snacks and maps, not a girl made of yogurt.
A month later, the tampon thief was back in Crystal’s line. Crystal stiffened—she didn’t fear the woman, only her uncertainty about what to do. She couldn’t call Mitch—he was off that day. The assistant store manager was a jerk and wouldn’t do anything.
The woman looked even thinner than before, maybe anorexic. She wore Keds and pants with an elastic waist for pregnant women, but didn’t look it. Her upper body swam in a gray green coat several sizes too big. She set two packs of gum on the counter and pulled out a five-dollar bill. Good, no credit card craziness today. As Crystal returned her change, plastic wrapping glinted from in an inside pocket of the woman’s coat. Not tampons. Toothpaste?
“Is this all?” Crystal said. It didn’t come out the way she wanted. It sounded like she was accusing her.
Crystal’s mother had taught her to look people in the eye. This woman’s sunken eyes hid behind old sliding makeup. But, this close, Crystal recognized her. “Carlie?”
Three years ahead of Crystal in high school, Carlie had been a senior when Crystal was a freshman. Crystal had envied her lithe body, pretty face and self-confidence—definitely in the cool crowd. The only chink in Carlie’s statue as a goddess was she wasn’t very smart. She never wanted to break Carlie’s leg but she was one of girls who paid her no attention. Until today, Crystal never knew what happened to Carlie—from the looks of her, nothing good.
“How ya doing?” Crystal thought she asked with too much enthusiasm.
Carlie pulled her coat together. “Okay. Do I know you?”
“Oh, sorry. Crystal Berlinger. From high school. I was a freshman when you were a senior.”
Carlie had no clue who she was. And, about to shoplift, she wasn’t going to catch up on old times.
“Well, can’t chat now. There’s a line,” Crystal said. “There’s always a line.” She giggled like a schoolgirl. The senior girls always seemed superior, even years later, and no matter what happened to them.
The lines on Carlie’s face relaxed. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem. Maybe we can hang out sometime.”
Six months later in April, Crystal was walking out to the parking lot after her shift and ran into Carlie as she got out of a beat-up, blue pickup truck. She had parked in the spot for pregnant women. Probably too lazy to walk but as she got closer, Carlie she was showing. Her face was fuller.
“Hi, Crystal.” she said. “I was hoping to see you.”
“You’re pregnant! Congratulations!”
“Who’s the dad?” Crystal regretted the question—too nosy.
“Well, you know. Just a guy. Not in the picture now. But it’s okay. You on your break?”
“No, going home. My shift’s over.”
A flicker of disappointment crossed Carlie’s face. She recovered. “Oh, I thought I might see you at the check out. Some day we can catch up on old times.” She walked toward the store entrance.
WTF? Old times? If she tried this shit again, she would turn her in.
By September, she had a week of vacation and $1000 in her savings account and had landed a card with $1000 in credit. Her plan was to drive to Albuquerque then on to Los Angeles with two days at Disneyland and then the rest of California. She had taken a few short trips on her days off as much as a hundred miles west just into New Mexico. The sense of hopefulness and wonder what might be over the next hill exhilarated her each time and the car continued to hold up.
Beyond just getting away for a while, Crystal imagined finding something much better and never coming back. Though she hadn’t formed a clear picture of this new place, the trip gave her a chance—like winning the lottery or finding a man who could love her. Her perfect man had evolved from a sweet hunk to a Clyde Barrow type—handsome, muscular, and bad. She would be his Bonnie holding up banks and stores across the Southwest. They would start with her Wal-Mart, Crystal pulling out her Beretta to the astonished eyes of a pretty cashier.
She had bought a small purse, bright red vinyl with a gold strap, for the trip. It wasn’t her style but was on the discount shelf for $10. Normally, she didn’t carry a purse—too easy to leave somewhere. For the trip, she needed something to hold the extra stuff she wanted with her at all times—wallet, pepper spray, Tic Tacs, tissues, gum, and phone.
After her shift ended at 8:00 PM, she started out, planning to reach Albuquerque in the early morning. She drove into the rust rose sunset, happily nervous at her first adventure, singing aloud with her headphones playing Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw”.
She reached Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where she had planned her first stop, at 10:30 PM. Despite the cheese crackers she ate in the car, she was ravenous because she had missed dinner. The town offered only a few late night dining choices. She imagined a stack of pancakes with a side of sausage. Or maybe a big breakfast burrito.
A trucker hunched over at the counter at the Old Route 66 diner. Two men and a woman sat in a booth in the far corner. Crystal chose a booth near the door. She glanced up from the menu and saw that it was Carlie in the corner booth. What the hell? She planned a getaway and on her first stop, old times stared back at her.
Carlie was thin again. Crystal wondered who had the baby. Carlie gave her a reluctant wave. Crystal didn’t want to speak with her but had no other choice.
She grabbed her purse and walked to their booth. “Wow, amazing seeing you here.”
“Yeah,” Carlie said. Her eyes skittered. “This is…we’re on our way to Albuquerque.” She fidgeted with her hair.
“So am I. Just starting out on a trip for a few weeks.” Maybe too much information, but too soon to end this awkward conversation. “How’s your baby? Got any pictures?”
Carlie hesitated. “That’s who we’re going to see.”
The thin-faced man across from Carlie cracked a quick wry smile.
“I don’t have pictures on me—they’re in the truck. She’s real cute though.”
“What’s her name?”
“After your mom, right?”
The server interrupted, offering more coffee.
Crystal backed away. “Well, I’m famished and still have to order. Maybe I’ll see you around in Albuquerque.” She waved at the two men. “Nice to meet you.” Though, no introductions had been made. “Take care.”
Crystal returned to her booth and sat facing away from them. She didn’t want to see them—they were ruining the mood. She ordered and finished her meal and coffee as quickly as she could.
Crystal had to pee but they hadn’t left yet. She passed them on the way to the restroom. Their food plates cleared, they sat silently sipping coffee. Carlie waved a tiny nervous hand as Crystal passed. Crystal smiled.
When she came out of the bathroom, they were gone. Crystal sat down to have more coffee and remembered her purse. It wasn’t in the booth. She looked under the table—only an old napkin. About to panic, her hands shook. Had she brought it to the bathroom? She couldn’t remember. She searched the stall. Nothing.
“God damn it.” She slammed the door of the stall. “They stole it.”
She stared at the toilet. She hadn’t paid her check yet and didn’t even have enough gas to get back to Amarillo. She would not let them take her vacation from her. Her body trembled with rage, growing, boiling and requiring release from something she had held inside for years—release generated by more than breaking a leg.
She peeked out of the bathroom. The server was waiting on a new arrival with her back to her. The ceiling had no security cameras. Crystal jogged out the door to her car. Small potatoes theft—the police wouldn’t pursue her.
She pushed the Cavalier to all it had, about eighty-five, as she reentered the interstate. Carlie might have been lying about going to Albuquerque but Crystal didn’t think so. She drove for ten minutes, the countryside black on a moonless night. No cars ahead and only one set of headlights came from the opposite direction since she had started out again. What could she do if she caught them? Push them off the road? Not likely with her tiny car. Try to pepper spray them? No, that’s in her purse too. She settled on just getting a license plate number to give to the police. Not Bonnie and Clyde stuff but still a story worth telling.
A layer of dust dimmed the blue pickup’s taillights. The Cavalier overtook the truck faster than Crystal thought. She was surprised they drove so slowly—probably thought she wouldn’t chase them so why hurry. Dismissed. Again. Fuck them.
She planned to get the license number, then swing alongside and give them the finger. But she clipped their left rear bumper as she swung out to pass. Not really intentional. But she wanted to get close. She hit her brakes hard staying behind them. The pickup fishtailed and whoever drove overcorrected. For a second the truck skidded perpendicular to the interstate then rolled. It rolled three times, like an Olympic vaulter, before landing upright.
Crystal stopped about twenty-five yards behind the truck that now faced her. Should she try to help this bitch, who stole her money? She didn’t know first aide. Couldn’t call 911—she didn’t have a phone—it was in her purse.
No headlights in either direction. She turned off the engine and the cars lights. No reason for flashers.
In her hand, she carried the sleek black flashlight she had bought for the trip. As she walked the road, the smell of burnt rubber and radiator fluid filled her nose. The guy who smiled at the diner lay face down along the side of the road, still as death. The other man and Carlie bunched together against the passenger door. Part of the man’s head was missing. He made no sound or movement. Carlie groaned, her right arm at a weird angle. Her eyes were closed. Like a Halloween party, blood covered half her face.
Crystal found her purse alongside another leather purse on the floor. Her card and all her cash were there. She found Carlie’s wallet in the other purse. Her license photo showed her white-teethed smile from high school face. The wallet held six $20 bills and some crumpled receipts. She took four $20’s and left the rest.
As she walked back to her car, she watched the hills for headlights. Lights would force her to run. But the night stayed dark.
As Crystal pulled around the pieces of the truck scattered on the highway, she flipped Carlie off. She turned on her headlights. In her rear view mirror, tiny headlights blinked over the hill a few miles back. Once she got up to seventy-five, she pressed the play button on her phone. “Indian Outlaw” started again.