“For Maeve” by Cam Gray
I exit the corner store, a flimsy plastic bag filled with off-brand cheese puffs and a six-pack tucked in the crook of my elbow. Nothing out of place, we’ve been buying beer here since we first got fake IDs. The blue neon light washes over the dark parking lot, a peeling Toyota pickup with a for-sale sign still squatting in the far corner. Weeds twist up around the tires, tickle the low underbelly that has probably been butchered for parts. The same graffitied dumpster and the same patches of glittering broken glass.
Maeve sits on the farthest stretch of curb, her bare toes illuminated by the circle of dull orange emitting from the nearest streetlight. A suspended glow of red marks where her mouth must be in the darkness. I cross the parking lot, shaking off the hood of my sweatshirt as I near our spot. Warm summer air sticks to my face.
“That’s nasty.” I nod to her bare feet as I sit down beside her. With a hiss, I pop the tab of a beer can.
She rolls her eyes but stuffs her feet back into her shoes anyway. The cigarette, poised between her fingers, finds its way to me. She watches me as I close my eyes—inhale, hold, exhale. Something twists between my shoulders, and I force it off, focusing on my breath. She offers a throaty sound of apology, but I don’t look at her. She speaks anyway. “I didn’t know he’d have a gun.”
“Of course you didn’t,” I say, and she flinches, pulling the cigarette back. With crossed arms, she takes another drag.
“It’s not fair.” She taps the ash to the ground between her legs. Red embers turn to black. “He was never home this early. Never.”
I finish off my beer in an audible swallow, open a new one. My hand relaxes against the sweating aluminum. She extends the cigarette to me once again, but I jerk my head away.
“She said she’d left him.” Another inhale, she holds the smoke in her mouth. As she exhales, the fumes curl between us. She looks up to the dark sky, sniffling. “Never any stars, huh?”
I can tell her shoulders are shaking as she turns towards me, so this time, when her hand nears my mouth, I take the cigarette between my lips, looking to her as I do. Wide green eyes soften, and she laughs, “Fucking light pollution, huh?”
I blow away from her, out into the stale night air, not quite ready to laugh at all. “Yeah. I hate this city.”
“But I’m in this city.” Her lips twist into a smile as she nudges me with her elbow. Lashes flutter across high, wet cheeks. Strange, but the memory of the woman on her knees, blood smeared over her palms, rises in my throat. It presses against my skull, tightens in my forehead. I take another sip of my beer, and it threatens to come back up.
“She’s probably called the cops,” I say.
“We did her a fucking favor.” Maeve sets her mouth, grinds the cigarette against the asphalt and throws it.
“I don’t want to risk it.” I open my hands. They’re small. They’ve always been small.
“I’m her kid for Christ’s sake.” She fishes in her pocket for another cigarette, tapping the box absently against her palm. “He was a monster and he deserved it.” I face her fully, wrapping my arms around my knees. She watches me, pink worked into her cheeks.
All those late nights, crying Maeve, bruised Maeve, begging Maeve. Blanket forts in bunk beds and plans to run away. Maeve the clever one in school, Maeve with a temper. Maeve who threw spaghetti at the boys who called me names.
Maeve drinking me under the table, and Maeve telling me how to kiss, and Maeve knowing the best places to get high.
Anything for Maeve, always for Maeve. For Maeve, we’d take a little back. She needed inside that safe, they’d never have even noticed. It was just meant to be a little.
And yet, the feeling of the gun—the chill of cold metal, the weight of it all, the recoil in my shoulders as the bullet screamed through the air—it suffocates me. I reach out for Maeve’s newly lit cigarette, and she hesitates before passing it. Our fingers brush. I pull once, twice.
I clear my throat, work against the knot swelled there. “We shouldn’t have,” I say. My face burns. I hand the cigarette back. She watches its end, twirling with an echo of smoke.
“I know.” She looks to me, and our faces are close. I wonder if I’ve finally done it. If I’ve finally done enough. Silence stretches. The same round eyes I’ve known for years, the same freckles.
And then, a siren cuts through. A wash of red and blue pours over the ground as two police cars swerve into the deserted lot. For a moment, the old Toyota is alive with color, dusty windows like stars. We stand at once, no words exchanged. We turn on our heels, but she is faster, disappearing behind the dumpster, jumping the fence. Perhaps she realizes it too late. Or perhaps she thinks I chickened out, turned myself in. Perhaps she even saw me, maybe she peeked around the corner one last time, only to find me tripping over a plastic bag filled with forgotten cheese puffs, a beer can crunching beneath panicked fingers.
Whether she turned around or not, she is long gone by the time the police officer commands that I raise my hands in the air and lower down to my knees, a lit cigarette smoldering in the asphalt beside me. When he asks if there was a girl with me, I say no, Officer, no. As the heavy handcuffs click into place around my wrists, I consider fighting back—kicking or screaming or spitting—but I’m not Maeve. I’m not the clever one or the one with a temper. I’ve never once thrown spaghetti. All I did was kill a man. All I did was kill a man for Maeve.