The Last Line

Jackson walked the streets where he’d grown up. He’d been gone a long time. When he’d returned, he expected to find everything different. Sadly, very little had changed. Even the penny Jimmy Smitts had pushed into wet concrete back when the city had spent a rare dime on that part of town to give the sidewalks a facelift was still there. Now, the sidewalks were cracked and uneven. Some parts were nothing more than patches of dirt, but the penny remained.

The other kids in the neighborhood had made Jackson’s life hell back then. Jimmy was the only exception. Jimmy wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t a bully either, not like the rest of them. Jimmy usually just did his own thing, but he’d gone missing when he was fourteen. At the time, Jackson had assumed Jimmy had just wised up and finally run away from the wrong side of town to make a name for himself somewhere. But now, Jackson didn’t even dare hazard a guess as to where the closest thing he had to a friend in his youth had ended up, probably nowhere good.

Jackson turned the corner of Pine Avenue and Sycamore Street. He never understood why they used trees for street names instead of numbers, it only served to complicate things and get people lost. Lost is something no one wants to be on the wrong side of the tracks. He looked through the window of McKinley’s barber shop and saw a few familiar faces. Old man McKinley was long gone, but it appeared his grandson, an unfriendly acquaintance from Jackson’s youth, had taken over the family business. Jackson didn’t bother going inside. Instead, he walked on.

For several minutes he walked slowly past the tightly packed houses. It was a wonder they hadn’t all gone up in flames when Vincent Daniels blew himself up building a pipe bomb to celebrate Independence Day.

Jackson stopped in front of the house that he’d grown up in. He’d thought it was run down then, but now it was downright decrepit. The entire structure was cocked so far to the left that a strong gust of wind from the right direction could probably blow it over. He took in the sight of his old home and sighed.

He was twelve when Jimmy disappeared. Inspired, he’d packed a bag and split in the middle of the night less than two weeks later. It wasn’t until he hit twenty-five that he started considering returning to explain why he’d left to his mother. Now that he was there, he didn’t know if he could go through with it.

He swallowed the desire to keep walking and stepped through the opening in the rusted chain link fence where the off kilter gate used to hang. A few steps up the walk he spotted the gate lying on the unkempt lawn–mostly weeds, really–between the fence and the house.

The stairs groaned under his weight as he climbed to the porch. He stood before the door and hesitated with his hand raised. The knot in his stomach clenched so tight the he nearly doubled over. He took a deep breath and slammed his balled fist against the broken storm door–three times in quick succession. No turning back.

A woman, nearly as time and weather worn as the house opened the door. Her eyes narrowed.

“Hi, Ma,” Jackson said.

“You should have stayed away,” she replied, but opened the door and nodded for him to enter. “You was right to leave. This place is poison. It’ll kill anyone stupid enough to stay,” she added as she walked back the hall to the kitchen.

“I was hoping it might have changed,” he said, following her.

“Yeah, well, get used to disappointment if you plan on staying.” She sat at the table and took a sip of her tea.

He sat across from her and tried to smile. She looked like hell, and he felt responsible. “I’m not staying, Ma. Just felt I owed you an explanation is all.”

She shook her head. “No need to explain. Running away from this God forsaken place was the best decision you ever made.”

“Maybe you should leave too,” he suggested.

“This is my home, Jackson. For better or worse, this is where I’m staying. It was nice to see you though. Good to know you’re still breathing.” She swallowed another sip of tea. “I believe you know the way out.”

Jackson stood up and turned for the hallway. Just before he took a step he looked back. “For what it’s worth: I’m sorry, Ma, for putting you through that.”

“Dead or runned away, either way you was better off than living through the hell those boys you hung around with put you through. Nothing to apologize for, boy.” She gripped her teacup with both hands. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to drink my tea before it gets cold.”

Jackson nodded. “Goodbye, Ma.” He let himself out and headed back around the corner of Sycamore and Pine.

The familiar bell on the door of McKinley’s barber shop chimed after he rounded the corner. A voice rose behind him. “Hey, Jackson, is that you, man?”

He didn’t respond, lacking the desire to talk to Danny McKinley, though he probably goes by Dan now.

“Yeah, that’s right, keep walking, pussy,” the voice chided.

Jackson just shook his head and kept walking. He made his way back to the penny–the only thing worth saving in his old neighborhood–and pried it from the cracked concrete with the screwdriver he’d had in his pocket. He left the screwdriver on the ground and slipped the penny in his pocket in the screwdriver’s place, after kissing it for luck.

When he’d finished, he headed back to his rusted, white, windowless van. The key slipped into the lock on the back, and he pulled on the handle. The rusted hinges whined in protest, but the door opened. He climbed into the back and sat on the bench he’d built from scavenged scraps of lumber. After pulling the angry door closed, he turned on the overhead light and slid the bench up to the small table on the other side of the van. For a moment he stared at himself in the jagged shard of mirror taped to the wall with duct tape.

After allowing Danny’s insult to sink in, he nodded and opened the makeup case on the table. First, he applied white over his entire face. Next, he created a huge, crooked smile and diamonds over his eyes with black paint. For the final touch, he added a single teardrop on his left cheek. A grin crept up his face as he stared at the demented clown looking back at him. He couldn’t help but laugh at the hideous creature.

He lit a cigarette and took a long drag before slipping the lighter into his pocket with the penny–just in case he ended up needing it–and shouldering the bag on the hook beside the table. He didn’t bother turning the overhead light off. He wouldn’t be coming back. With a heavy kick, the door flew open, and he hopped out into the afternoon sun.

His laughter flooded the street as he picked up where Vincent had left off all those years ago. It was time to celebrate. By the time the police showed up he’d gone through the entire bag of pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails–six of each–lighting all but one with the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had to resort to the lighter in his pocket for the final one.

He was still laughing, and sucking down a fresh cigarette, when the officers shot him.

The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable.

This story was written for The Short Story and Flash Fiction Society’s Short Story Contest #6.

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