Kate Folk is from Iowa and now lives in San Francisco. Her stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, Colorado Review, Puerto del Sol, Tin House Flash Fridays, and elsewhere. She was a 2014 fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and has attended residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. Find her at www.katefolk.com or on Twitter @katefolk.
Rob and Terry and I stand ski-masked in the Sorensons’ kitchen. Rob idly snaps the cuff of his purple latex glove and says, “Jesus. Looks like somebody’s already robbed the place.”
He’s right; the house is a mess, which surprises me, because Sue Sorenson looked so neatly stitched together in her Facebook photos. In the kitchen sink sit three white bowls, the bottoms congealed with milk-bloated bran flakes. Cupboard doors are flung open. The hall closet is open too, scarves and hats thrown to the floor, as if someone had clawed through in the last panicked minutes. Their flight to Denver left ungodly early, Sue had complained on her Facebook wall.
Terry starts sorting through cabinets in the living room. He pulls out a ball of cords, the tangled umbilicals of electronics the Sorensons have lost interest in. Rob heads to the basement, where a surprising number of the Midwestern rich keep their most precious heirlooms and antiques in unlabeled cardboard boxes.
I go upstairs to the master bedroom, seeking jewelry. The men favor a quick and brutal style of searching, inspired by those movies where FBI agents come into a drug dealer’s house and rip it apart looking for the stash. I can’t bring myself to do that. I find it touching, the order people impose on their valuables. In the top left drawer of Sue’s heavy oak bureau, velvet boxes and silk-lined pouches nestle together. Among my finds are a rose pearl necklace that should fetch us five hundred; four white gold bangles inlaid with diamonds, two hundred each; a golden cat pendant with rubies for eyes, seven hundred at least. I put these things in a striped pillowcase I brought from home. I spare a pair of earrings that dangle with smoky glass teardrops—a worthless family keepsake.
I wander down the hall opening doors, seeing what bonuses I can pick up. A bathroom; a guest room admirably free of clutter, the closet hung with a single flowered dress. Finally I reach the room at the end of the hall. Its door is ajar. I nudge it wide.
I’m confronted with the broad back of the Sorensons’ only child, Alex, a chubby sixteen-year-old whose Facebook profile is locked down by advanced privacy settings. He’s wearing Bose headphones and playing Call of Duty on two enormous monitors that angle in toward each other like department store mirrors. Below the padded seat of his swivel chair, one socked foot taps the carpet. His other leg is sheathed in a red cast reaching up to his knee. A pair of crutches leans against his closet door. The room is filthy. Empty bottles of Mountain Dew line the windowsill. The white carpet is barely visible under a flotsam of clothing. The bed is unmade, the wastebasket overflowing with tissues. A pizza box yawns at the foot of the bed, cheese forming a crusty wheel in its center.
I run downstairs. Terry’s on his knees in the living room, swaddling the plasma TV in bubble wrap.
“The kid’s upstairs,” I say. “Broke his foot or something. Can’t ski.”
With his mask on, Terry’s all lips and blue eyes. He didn’t want me to join them in the first place. Rob, who I’ve known since high school, convinced him they could use me for my jewelry-appraising skills.
“Get Rob,” Terry says. “Time to go.”
We load our haul into the rental truck. Terry and Rob are carrying the plasma screen toward the front door when Alex wobbles into the foyer.
“What are you doing in my house?” he says. His tone is curious and gently scolding, as if we are children he’s discovered marking a wall with crayons.
It happens in a sulfurous burst, before I can stop it. Terry drops his end of the TV and puts Alex in a chokehold. The crutches clatter to the floor. Alex screams from the pressure on his injured foot. It’s a horrible sound. Quickly, as if I’ve always known how to do such things, I grab a knit cap from the floor in front of the hall closet and stuff it deep into Alex’s mouth.
Rob and Terry are coworkers at the Bennigan’s in the sprawling mall north of town. Rob’s a server; Terry’s a line cook. I thought Rob was joking, two years ago, when he told me they’d been burglarizing rich people’s homes. We were a little drunk, smoking cigarettes in the alley behind The Lark’s Head. I was miserable, still living with my dad and working part-time at Hobby Lobby. At that point I had never stolen anything, not even a pack of gum.
I met Terry that weekend, at Rob’s place. He was a tall man in his forties, wearing an oatmeal-colored thermal and faded black jeans. The three of us stood in the kitchen and Terry asked blunt questions about my childhood. The interaction seemed to bore him. While I talked he scraped a peeled orange with his thumbnail, building a soft mound of pith on the counter.
I allowed myself to be convinced. The people we steal from are rich and insured. Families come home from their ski and beach vacations and are a little deflated by the loss of their valuables, but what do they expect? This is the consequence of having things others don’t.
Alex has altered the terms of this equation. It’s late afternoon, the low sun cloaked in marrowy haze, as we drive away from the Sorensons’ house. Terry turns on the radio to cover the moans from the back of the box truck. We’re just outside Shueyville, twenty miles from home, but Terry mentioned earlier that he knows the area because his uncle used to own a dairy farm here.
I start to speak, and Terry shushes me. “I’ll take care of this,” he whispers.
We stop at an abandoned farmhouse. I hold the front door open while Terry and Rob carry Alex inside. The house has been gutted. The wood floor is stained in black patches, the shadows of fires set by squatters. Sallow daylight filters through newspapered windows. I watch from the porch while the men tie Alex to a chair.
Back in the truck, Rob says, “Why couldn’t we have just tied him up in his own house?”
“He’ll freeze in there,” I add.
“Oh, boo hoo,” Terry says. “I didn’t tie the ropes tight. He’ll be home in a few hours. Anyway, he’s got lots of blubber to keep him warm.”
I watch the snow-blanketed fields clip by, hills undulating like the backs of partly-submerged animals. I think about Alex’s swollen foot, how Rob and Terry had to support his weight up the steps of the farmhouse. They carried him roughly, but with a certain tenderness, as if he were their injured teammate.
Terry drops me off at my apartment. I drive straight to my dad’s house to make him dinner and clean whatever he’ll allow me to. I push the front door against the weight of boxes piled in the foyer. When I was a kid, my dad owned a consignment shop, which was where I learned to gauge the value of jewelry at a glance. The store never turned much of a profit, even before my dad started bringing things home with him. He now claims he’s going to start an eBay store.
My dad’s sitting in his La-Z-Boy in the living room, polishing silver candlesticks with a cloth.
“Hey,” he says. “What’s new?”
I pick my way through the boxes, lean down to kiss his cheek.
“Not much, Daddo,” I say.
I wedge into the narrow space beside his chair. Whenever I’m back in this house, I feel like I can’t breathe. Since my mom left, it has only gotten worse.
When I was sixteen, my mom’s hair started falling out. Honey-brown strands tinseled the carpet, coiled their way into our food and formed delicate nests on the cushions. My mom claimed the hair loss was her body’s declaration that she couldn’t spend another day in this house, where the evidence of my dad’s failure choked every room and hallway. It was the justification she needed to move back in with her parents, in Houston. I still think she pulled the hairs out herself.
It was supposed to be a temporary thing, but soon after she moved home, my mom attended a church BBQ, where she met a silver-haired plastic surgeon named Chuck. She divorced my dad, married Chuck and moved into his suburban mansion. Whenever I visited, I was obliged to babysit my stepbrothers, twin blonde boys whose grasping fingers were always busy with handheld gadgets. My mom’s hair grew back, and she began dying it platinum blonde.
I lean against the side of my dad’s chair. We watch the six o’clock news. I know it’s too soon for there to be coverage of the Sorenson burglary and Alex’s disappearance, but a part of me coils, waiting for it. I imagine Alex slowly working his limbs from the rope’s grip. I imagine him crawling along the road’s icy margin, his palms and knees bloodied by gravel.
When Wheel of Fortune starts, I go to the kitchen to make spaghetti. There’s no counter space, and the stovetop is covered with Mason jars, so I cut tomatoes in the sink. My hands are still pale and pinched from the latex gloves. My upper lip itches; the ski mask always leaves a tingling rash.
I hand my dad his plate and he digs in, his eyes still on the TV.
“Where’d you get the Mason jars, Dad?”
“Picked those up at Goodwill for a nickel apiece,” he says, without a trace of embarrassment.
“What will you do with them?” I say robotically. I’ve fought him on this a thousand times.
“Oh, you never know when they’ll come in handy,” he says.
We finish our spaghetti in silence, watching Vanna tap the rectangles of correctly-guessed letters. I lost interest in this show when they switched from turning letters to this touch-screen bullshit.
I wash our dishes and spread them to dry on the last open patch of kitchen floor.
In my apartment on Burlington, the walls are bare, the drawers more empty than full. I own a twin bed, a bookshelf with exactly fifty books, a narrow dresser, a lamp, a table, two straight-backed chairs, one set of silverware, one bowl, one coffee mug. I hold onto nothing. I allow objects to pass through me as if I’m made of water.
The air in my apartment feels curdled, a heat that catches in my throat. I put on sweatpants and a black t-shirt, make myself a cup of tea, then lie in bed with my laptop and scour the Shueyville news sites.
I call Rob. “I’m feeling weird,” I say.
“Should I come over?” Rob says. His voice is timid, but hope swells the edges. We used to sleep together, on and off, sometimes in sprees of three or four nights. I haven’t wanted to since we started robbing houses. It would feel tacky, like I’d imbued our criminal act with an aura of doomed romance. Like the whole thing turned me on.
“I just wanted to talk about what happened today,” I say. “I can’t stop thinking about that kid.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Rob says. “Terry knows what he’s doing.”
Rob is anxious to get off the phone once he knows I’m not interested in sex. After we hang up, I lie awake for a long time. I remember how the wind had rattled the bones of the house. I remember the hoarse pitch of Alex’s voice as he begged us not to leave him. A thread of saliva stretched from his mouth to the front of his thin white t-shirt. The last thing I saw before Terry eased the door shut was Alex’s uninjured foot, stiff in its grimy sock, soundlessly thumping the floorboards.
Terry comes over in the morning and hands me an envelope. I part the flap and glance at the slim stack of twenties inside. It can’t be more than three hundred dollars--utterly insufficient, considering what it required.
“Coffee?” I say. It’s a perfunctory offer, and I’m surprised when he says yes. Terry sits at the table, his chair inches from the end of my bed. I feel him staring at my back while I remove last night’s teabag from the mug, wash the mug, heat water for his coffee.
I set the coffee in front of him without bothering to ask if he wants milk. I sit and say, “What do you think happened to Alex?”
“The fat kid? I’m sure he’s home by now.”
“It hasn’t been in the news.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be in the news around here, would it?”
“I’ve been checking the Shueyville sites.”
“He’s fine. Forget him.”
My gaze drifts toward the window and Terry says, “Hey. Did you hear what I said? Don’t do anything stupid.”
I look at Terry’s big, smooth hands, the furrows of his veins.
“I won’t,” I say. “What’s done is done.”
“Good,” Terry says. He leaves without touching his coffee.
Around three, a mix of freezing rain and snow begins to sluice down. I get in my car and drive north on 380.
It’s a half hour to Shueyville, then another twenty minutes of aimless driving on minimum maintenance roads. I’m forced to drive slowly through a screen of wet, heavy snow. By the time I find the farmhouse, the sky is black. The house leers before me, a white hull on a bare hump of earth. I pause with my hand on the knob. I fear seeing the corpse of Alex stiffened in the chair, his lips tinged blue. I’d stalled all day, cleaning bathroom grout and reorganizing my bookshelf by color.
But the chair stands empty, ropes slack around it like a shed skin. I exhale slowly and fill my lungs with air.
I drive back toward the highway. Ahead, a figure limps along the shoulder. I slow and try to pass him, but when he hears the crunch of gravel under my tires he walks into the center of the road, waving his arms like a castaway signaling a plane.
Alex wrenches the passenger door open. The car heaves under his sudden weight. His breaths come loud and ragged, his dumpling-pale skin blotched red by the cold.
“What happened to you?” I say, doing my best to hit the right notes.
Alex tells me the story I already know. His body vibrates, his teeth chattering; I turn the heat to full blast, and we have to yell to be heard.
“I’ll take you to the hospital,” I say. “You’re going to be fine.” I glance down at his foot. The skin of his toes is a necrotic purple, the flesh swelling inside the cast like a wet loaf of bread. The big toenail is black as a hoof.
“Those fucking animals,” Alex says. “I said I wouldn’t tell anyone, and I wouldn’t have.”
I’m annoyed by his whiny tone. I think of my stepbrothers, the twins. They had regarded me with pale-eyed contempt, until one weekend my mom and Chuck went out of town and I allowed them to starve. I wrapped the refrigerator in chains, bungeed the cabinet doors. I sat guard in the kitchen, reading my mom’s romance novels and Chuck’s Promise Keepers book. At midnight, after they’d given up on whining and lain quiet for several hours on the living room floor, I called the twins over like dogs and allowed them to take Ritz crackers, one at a time, from the flat of my hand.
“You’re lucky they didn’t kill you,” I say.
Alex is quiet. Then he says, “Why were you driving out here, anyway?”
“I live up the road,” I say.
I feel Alex really looking at me for the first time. I imagine he’s replaying the scene. Three people kidnapped him, and one was a woman. The heater roars, and neither of us speaks. Then Alex spasms with pain. He moans; his foot must be thawing, the nerves flickering back on.
“Please hurry,” he says. “It feels like there’s knives of fire in there.”
I turn left at the highway, toward Shueyville. The blurry snow wads have hardened to sleet, needling my car’s thin roof. Up ahead, I spot the yellow-orange square of a Shell station sign.
“I’m gonna get us some hot chocolate,” I say. “Then we’ll go straight to the hospital.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Alex says. “Do you see my foot?”
“Your foot can wait,” I say. “It’s gone this long.”
“Dumb bitch,” Alex murmurs. I ignore him, pull into the station and park in the rear. I bring the keys with me. I stand among the shelves of energy bars, chips, bags of trail mix. I take out my phone and scroll to Terry’s number. My fingertip hovers over the letters of his name.
“It’s me,” I say when he answers. “I’ve made a mistake.”
It’s from here that my life will ravel: in the bright shelter of a gas station, the icy sky sloughing off pieces of itself, waiting for what Terry will tell me to do.
“ This story began as a piece of flash fiction about a teenage girl who hides in a pantry when a team of burglars breaks into her house. The character was totally passive, waiting to be found and either killed or spared. Her passivity made her boring, and thus the story was boring, too. So I wrote a new story with the protagonist as perpetrator instead of victim. I love this unnamed narrator, who faces a crossroads in ‘Shueyville.’ With every seemingly minor choice, she becomes more fully herself. ”