Note: This was my entry to NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge 2018. The challenge has three rounds and the first round’s challenge was to write a 2,500 word (max) story in 8 days. About 4,000 writers are divided up into 125 heats. Each heat is provided a genre, topic, and character. For my heat, heat 67, the genre was drama, topic was bootlegging, and the character was a boxing promoter. I think it’s a pretty good story, and I’m fortunate to be moving onto round 2 with 625 other writers. Enjoy!
Fingers and Toes
Gramma pulled the trigger and my ears exploded. The tall man fell to the floor.
“Back off or I’ll shoot your ass!” she scolded.
The man furrowed his brow and looked up at her from the floor.
“Winona, you already shot me?”
Standing behind Gramma, I was thinking the same thing. I could see the man writhing in pain. Blood seeped from his torso out across the floor. He dressed well. Must be a cop or a hustler, I thought. He was about my size. Clothes were hard to come by when you’re six-foot four at fourteen.
“That was my warning shot,” Gramma said, with a spot of vinegar in her sass.
“What?” he said.
“That’s right. I warned you first. You kept coming, and now this is the shot that’s going to kill you. And nobody can say I didn’t give you fair warnin’.”
Gramma raised the rifle, fired a second round into the ceiling, and blasted away the thin layer of tar and wood that served as our roof. Splinters and dust landed in my hair and on my shoulders. I looked up to see how much patchwork would be needed to keep out the rain. Through the gaping hole I saw the stars; a sliver of debris floated down into my eye.
“Grab his pistol,” Gramma ordered.
My right eye watered and I struggled to keep it open, but I stepped around her and retrieved the man’s Colt revolver. I scrambled behind Gramma and noticed my hands were red and sticky.
“Can I keep his suit?” I asked.
“Hell no. You ain’t dressin’ like that fool. All that comes of clothes like that is trouble.”
“Is he one of those goons from Hermann?” I asked.
We lived in the hills outside Edgar Springs, Missouruh. Before Prohibition, German immigrants in Hermann, a little town to the north, provided wine for St. Louis and K.C. Prohibition ate into their profits, but the Germans managed just fine with legal sales for medicinal and religious purposes.
Gramma’s whiskey and shine was highly sought after by the speakeasies in K.C. and St. Louis. The Germans and others wanted to partner or push her out of Missouruh. Gramma kept our location a secret. This property wouldn’t warrant a second look; a rundown, three-room shack with an outhouse and a shoddy barn situated off an old dirt road.
We delivered Gramma’s booze to Rolla. I would load up and drive the wagon. Gramma carried her shotgun and kept a close eye on the trees surrounding the road. If we left before dawn, we would be home by dusk.
Just outside of Rolla, we turned off the dirt road at a farm to deliver the booze. I never knew whose farm it was; in fact, I never saw a single person, other than Gramma, in all the years we used drive to Rolla. She mentioned the name Topper Jim once, which sparked my interest in the man.
Whoever owned the place had the biggest barn I have ever seen. The inside of that barn felt grander than all the churches I’ve seen in books–three floors high with hay stacked everywhere. The hay in that barn had a better roof over its head than we had at our shack.
I would lead the horses out to graze. Never made any sense that I had to take the horses out of the barn, when all the hay a horse could want was in that barn, but I did as Gramma said. If she had to explain anything twice, she would take it out of your hide ten-fold.
Gramma stayed with the wagon. An hour later, after the booze had been offloaded, she would signal me and we would head home. Her satchel bulged with cash and coins.
“He ain’t from Hermann,” she replied. “His clothes are too fancy. More like K.C.”
Gramma pulled two shells from her satchel and reloaded. The satchels contents were the Bible and as many shotgun rounds as she could carry.
“Carry him back to his car and then move it back near the bees,” she said. Gramma was a beekeeper by necessity; honey was a crucial ingredient to her shine. The other was apples. Her mash was powerful–potent and tasty. I tried it once and decided that it was like getting drunk on apple pie. Gramma caught me passed out near the bees. She brought me to my senses with a single shotgun blast in the air, and admonished me to never dip into our inventory. I haven’t touched a drop since.
I grabbed the man by the feet and started out the front door.
“You listen to me,” she said, “this doesn’t have anything to do with you. They’re after me.”
“Because I set fire to Topper Jim’s field.”
If you believe Prohibition created the Mafia, Topper Jim was Missouruh’s Don Corleone. Known for his work as a boxing promoter, Topper Jim promoted fights in back alleys and warehouses. You wouldn’t read about Topper’s fights in the papers, but most people knew of them. He made his name with a series of fights he referred to as divorce court, and he only promoted matches where the wife stood a chance.
I didn’t know it then, but Gramma had been one of the women featured in the first divorce court. When I was older, Topper told me she whupped my grandfather. Humiliated him. He left and never returned. My mama never met her daddy, just like I never met mine. And now, mama was gone. Flu got her in 1918. I was four and I don’t remember too much about her, except she was pretty. Gramma reckoned boxing had ruined her life. And she wasn’t about to let me ruin mine.
Gramma had two rules. Go to school. Stay out of the inventory. Gramma would rant at me when I did poorly at school.
“All these dumb fools running around who can’t read. You fail those classes in school and I’ll whip you fierce. And don’t just bother learning how to count on your fingers and toes. Fingers and toes aren’t good enough. Memorize numbers. Do them in your head at night. It’ll drive you crazy. This world is about numbers, and if you can’t count; others will do the counting for you.”
I listened, mainly because Gramma was all I had. When she felt generous, she would show me her ledger filled with inventory and transactions. Through her I developed a crude understanding of accounting. And the need to understand numbers became clear. I had to improve my math beyond fingers and toes.
We didn’t have many belongings. She could fit all her personal items in her satchel. The less you have, the less you have to leave behind, she would say.
“You burned his fields?” I asked. “Now what are we going to do?”
She raised her right eyebrow up higher than I had ever seen it go.
“I’ll move the car,” I said.
“That’s a good idea, Caleb,” she replied. “Is that pistol loaded?”
I checked the cylinder: fully loaded. “Yes,” I said.
“If you shoot Topper Jim, don’t miss. Shoot twice, three times if you have to. He’s been shot before, and he don’t seem to mind bullets.”
I nodded and pulled the man off the porch; his head pounded on each step with a solid thud. Gramma cleaned up the blood. I fished through his pockets and found his keys. I left the body and ran down the path leading up to our shack. His car sat by the side of the road. After a few woeful attempts I had the car running. I nosed the throttle on the steering wheel up and pulled the car off the road onto the wagon ruts leading up to the shack.
Gramma’s friend, Jake, a carpenter who dabbled in wagon repair, taught me how to start and operate a Model-T. His lessons on braking were lost on me, and as I fumbled with the pedals, I ran over the dead man with his own car. The jolt bounced me off my seat and nearly through the front windshield. The second jolt as the rear wheel caromed over the body threw me into the passenger seat.
I was nearly to the barn before I managed to stop the car. I could hear the horses whinnying from inside the barn. If they only knew how close they had been to a collision.
I ran back to the house.
“Not ready to drive just yet,” Gramma said with a snicker.
I grabbed the man by the feet and drug him down to the car. A few minutes later, I was on my way towards the back of our property. Along the way, I practiced my braking. If I hit the beehives, I would be Gramma’s next victim. Whoever designed these cars was a dwarf; my feet tripped over themselves trying to apply the proper doses of clutch and brake. I throttled down fifty yards from the bees and coasted to a stop. The sound of the car stirred the bees, and by the time I hauled the body out of the car and into the woods, the bees had swarmed into a frenzy. I decided to forego stripping the man and keeping his clothes. I began running back to the shack when I heard a gunshot: Gramma’s shotgun. I stopped. The bees were all around me, and I waved them away. I grabbed the revolver in my pants and sprinted up the hill.
The horses were stirred up. I peeked around the barn at the shack. The moonlight cast its light across our property and made everything look as drab and gray as our shack.
I stepped out from behind the barn and ran up to the shack.
“Stop if you want her to live,” a voice yelled from the darkness. I stopped running and looked at the shack. Two figures stood on the porch. Topper Jim stood behind Gramma.
“Drop the gun!” Topper yelled.
I dropped the gun. Gramma was all I had. I knew if she and I did get out of this mess, she was going to beat me good for giving myself up. But that’s the only choice I had. If Topper had shot me at that moment, I would have died on the spot thinking of my Gramma slapping me across the face for surrendering.
Topper instructed me to raise my hands, turn around and walk backwards towards the house. I followed his instructions.
“Run, Caleb!” Gramma ordered. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Topper.
“Keep walking,” Topper said.
I heard footsteps running at me. I turned my head and saw a second man running at me. Just as he was about to tackle me, I walloped him with a roundhouse. I felt my knuckle dig into his jawbone and every joint in my right arm pop when my punch connected. The man fell flat on his face.
Topper began laughing and released his grip on Gramma.
“Hot damn, son,” he said. “Do you know who you just knocked out?”
I had heard the name. Lefty was a local legend, known for his reach. I turned towards Topper and Gramma. Gramma’s dress was covered in blood.
“What did you do to her?” I yelled and charged Topper.
He raised his pistol and I stopped.
“I like your spirit,” he chuckled. I had never been this close to Topper Jim, but in the moonlight he was the ugliest man I had ever seen.
“You’re a good hand. Pretty sure I could use ya.”
“Fuck you, Topper,” Gramma said. “He ain’t going to work for you.”
Topper laughed and inquired as to what I was going to do with my life once Gramma was gone.
“She’s not going anywhere, anytime soon,” I replied.
“Look closely, Caleb. She’s dying right before your eyes.”
I stepped closer. Topper kept the pistol pointed directly at my forehead.
“You’re a physical giant, young man,” he said. “You and I working together could make a lot of money.”
And with that, Topper Jim turned and fired at Gramma. The shot knocked her to the ground and she slumped over. I charged him and he turned the pistol at me.
What happened next haunts me to this day. Gramma sat up and grabbed her shotgun. She aimed at both of us and fired both barrels. Topper’s legs and torso were peppered with shot, and I lost my right hand. One thing was for sure; I would never box for Topper Jim