Jeff didn’t want to look up at the flat-screen hanging over the Slushee machine, but he’d always had a hard time not looking when a television was on. Didn’t seem to matter what was on it. It was one of the many, many reasons his first wife Barb had screamed at him before she’d jumped in her hatchback and scurried off to live with her new boyfriend in Clearwater.
Title fanfare gave way to a woman who was attractive in that TV way, which is to say so perfectly polished and manicured anything even approaching a personality had been weeded out and burned. She was standing in the middle of a neutral set with some kind of screen behind her.
“Welcome to Profiles in Super, where we highlight a different superhero across the country every week with exclusive interviews, ride-alongs, and surprises. I’m your host, Kimber Tweed. This week we’re traveling all the way out to the sunniest state, and also the most isolated. That’s right, we’re headed to Hawai’i, famous for beautiful hula dancers, tough Iron Men, fast surfers, and this week’s superhero, Honolulu’s own King Iz.”
The video cut away to what Jeff would swear was the same damn montage of Hawai’i shows had been playing since the eighties. Actually, the more he watched, the more he was convinced there were clips from Magnum, PI in there.
Sunniest state. Pfffft, Jeff thought. First they take the southernmost point from us, now they take that? Ain’t they happy enough living in a paradise instead of this swampy, gator infested shitho-
Something cold and wet poured down Jeff’s hand and he bit down to keep from yelling. He’d forgotten about the Slushee he had been filling up and now there was blue sugar-ice all over his hand and wrist.
“Fuck,” he said to himself mildly. He reached for the napkin case with his clean hand and pulled out about thirty of the thin, brown fuckers. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Everything okay over there, Jeff?” Ricky called from behind the front counter.
“Yeah, man, I’m just singing a chorus of ‘fucks’ because I enjoy it.”
“You make work for me, I’ll kick your ass, old man.”
Jeff tossed a handful of the napkins and tried to shove the clean ones back in the stupid little metal box. “Old man,” he muttered to himself.
Just because Ricky was barely out of high school, that didn’t make him an old man. He was middle aged and proud of it, God damn it. When he was Ricky’s age there were days he didn’t think he’d make it past thirty, so every year past that had been a gift. Nine beautiful, exhausting, tedious gifts.
Ricky knew Jeff’s name, and Jeff Ricky’s, a little because Jeff was in this particular Gulp ‘n’ Go practically every day, and mostly because Two Oranges, Florida was the absolute last bit of civilization before everything sank into the Everglades. Everybody in Two Oranges knew everybody else, except for tourists of course, of which there were both too many and not enough.
Tourists were most of Jeff’s problems and also the only way he paid rent on his trailer. He’d spent most of the day boating around what felt like the entire Gulf of Mexico so a couple of English pricks could catch some marlin. Eh, they kept saying they weren’t English. Scottish. Ed-en-bur-ra. Whatever. As far as Jeff was concerned, if your entire country could fit in a National Park arguing about where you lived in it was just farting into the wind to make a fucking point.
Wherever these pricks were from, they were definitely pricks. Rich assholes with more money than they knew what to do with. Money had gotten them those expensive water-proof watches, the Bentley they had driven-up, and the two trophy wives half their age waiting for them at the Salty Mermaid. Money hadn’t gotten them looks, or manners, and it wouldn’t get them marlin. They were already sunburned so bad Jeff could see the skin cancer starting on their fat noses and gin-blossomed cheeks, and they had been getting redder and redder in the face while Jeff and his boss, incidentally named Marlin, tried to explain that as far as the fish went, they were out of season.
“It’s January,” Jeff had said, gripping his thumb in his fist as hard as he could. A trick he’d learned to keep from upchucking, but something that also worked to keep from hitting idiots. “We’re going to search all day and probably find nothing. If you want marlin you should come back at the end of spring.”
But all the tourists had done was let more and more nonsense syllables fall out of their mouths, along with a lot of spit, until finally Marlin had told him to just take them already and get them the fuck out of his boathouse.
Six hours of sun and spray and soccer chants later, no big fish. Just two angry-ass lobster blobs screaming that they wouldn’t pay. Thankfully, Marlin had a sawed-off tucked behind the counter for that exact sort of situation.
These two pricks had probably taken a couple of years off his life. But they’d also sent him home with enough money for a Slushee, a couple of roller dogs, a six pack, a handful of scratchers, and maybe even a Redbox. That sounded like a wash to Jeff.
With another glance at the television (apparently King Iz in Honolulu had superhearing, and could hear calls for help from the other side of the city), Jeff took his Slushee and headed for the hot case.
“You keep eating like that, you’re going to die,” Ricky said, watching him pick a couple of dogs out of the rollers with his fingers.
“Promise? Ah, shit.”
One of the dogs slipped out of his fingers and rolled away, picking up lint as it went.
“Fucking butterfingers today, my guy.”
“Don’t you fucking mop in here?”
“You’re paying for that roller dog.”
Jeff bent down to pick up the runaway dog. The very second he decided he didn’t want to pick up the floor meat with his bare hands, the front door to the Gulp ‘n’ Go opened with a jingle and a bang.
“Open the register and give me the money! I’m not messing around here, do it!”
Jeff rose enough to be able to see over the snack cake shelf. Ricky, behind the counter, hands up and eyes wide and frozen to his spot like the AC had blown out. In front of him was someone Jeff had never seen before. Not a resident of Two Oranges. Not a tourist either. Whiter than him. Scragglier hair than him. An all-around worse version of him, to be honest. Jeff had never been a guns guy, so he didn’t know what he had pointed at Ricky. Except that it was a gun. And it was pointed directly at Ricky’s face.
“Are you fucking deaf?” The worse version of Jeff screamed. He pointed the gun at the ceiling and fired, raining plaster down on the two of them and making Ricky scream. “Open the God-damned register!”
It was one thing to rob a convenience store. Hell, some people might think that was the point of these things. Money easier than the bank. But to actually fire a gun? Fuck, to actually load the thing? Jeff had robbed a few in his time and most of the time he just made a finger gun in his pocket.
He was going to say what kind of turd robs a convenience store with a loaded gun. Talk him down. But talking had never been one of Jeff’s strong suits and he didn’t realize that Worse Jeff didn’t even know he was there.
Worse Jeff spun hard on his heels and fired directly into Jeff’s chest.
Ricky screamed again. Worse Jeff stared at him. Gunsmoke turned the room hazy and made it smell like farts.
Jeff looked down at his chest. At the hole in his t-shirt. He pulled the shirt away from him by the bottom to get a better look at it.
“Fuck. This was one of my favorite shirts.”
Underneath the shirt, Jeff’s chest did not have a hole in it. It was fine. Well, as fine as it ever got.
“God shitting damn it.”
“Don’t say it.”
“You’re a su-”
Jeff punched him in the jaw. Worse Jeff had become so entranced by the hole in Jeff’s shirt and the lack of hole in Jeff’s chest that he never saw it coming. He only wanted the moron to shut up. Well, he did shut up. As he collapsed onto the ground.
“Ah, shit,” Jeff muttered.
Behind the counter, Ricky was still standing with his arms up. Frozen. Not because of Worse Jeff, though. Because of Jeff. Because of what Jeff had done. Because of the hole in his shirt, and not in his chest.
“Ricky. Ricky? You in there, Ricky?”
“No. No, I’m not. Do you see a leotard? A suit with spangles? You ever seen my face on a t-shirt?”
Ricky shook his head, his hands finally coming down. “No. No, but-”
“I’m not, and I’m not going to be, neither. We’re going to be keeping this between ourselves, okay? Ricky, I need you to nod your head.”
Ricky did as he was told.
“You’re going to be cool about this?”
Ricky nodded again.
Jeff gathered his Slushee and some fresh rollers, forgoing the six pack and scratchers and movie. He had to force Ricky to take the cash, stepping over the turd still knocked out on the ground.
“Call Muncie,” Jeff said. “Tell him…tell him he slipped in Slushee. But you don’t tell him I was here, you got it? Be cool.”
Ricky nodded wordlessly again, and Jeff left out the front with the distinct feeling that Ricky was not going to be cool.