The Spanish Lesson by Kieran Shea

The Wonder Mart is the last stop outside of what passes for a town around here before the whole world opens up and turns green with endless soybean fields, and I mean I wouldn’t even have stopped if I hadn’t been overcome with a panicked notion that all those fields stretched out ahead of us were like a green ocean and we were putting to sea in a crappy, little ‘98 Honda Civic. Never seen anything like it, I’m telling you. The vastness. Colors so defined they kind of take your breath away. I’m born and bred back east. Grew up around boats and salt water. Believe me, you don’t put to sea unless your tanks are full so yeah, I pull over.

Inside the place is the kind of banal box you’d expect along a rural interstate. Grimy, harsh aluminum features, scorched pots of coffee with shake creamers and too many sugar packets, hot dogs slowly being pruned to death on rollers. There’s a motor oil display with a full blown standup cutout of some NASCAR douchebag doing his fist on hips master of the universe pose. Above the entrance there’s a wall clock with a novelty eyeball stuck dead on the hands’ axis, watching all, 10:43 a.m.

Jeanie is still in the restroom around the side of the building and has no idea of what’s going down. She said she had wicked cramps last night from something we ate at a Cracker Barrel back in eastern Ohio but it could be the other thing. Hell if I know. She hasn’t been herself since we got word from her sister and started driving west because we couldn’t afford a flight. Jeanie made up her mind a long time ago to leave Nebraska and heading back across the flats for her mother’s final weeks because the old bat procrastinated on seeing a doctor has Jeanie on edge. She couldn’t explain it to me so I stopped asking. Going home made her feel like she’s failed somehow.

If everybody is cool maybe Jeanie would come back with that restroom key attached to that ridiculous chunk of wood and it’ll all be over except for hanging around for some local sheriff or state trooper to show up and take our statements. See, I’ve been the victim of a violent crime before, and I know survival requires singular focus. The dude looks pretty serious to me. And that canon he’s got is a motherfucker. The morbidly obese clerk sobs and shivers and does exactly what she’s told, emptying the cash into a white plastic carryout bag like she’s sorting laundry. Clerk is an older lady, maybe fifties. Hair bobbed like George Washington and skin like ash.

Sweat leaks down my sides. As much as you think you might, you don’t bust out laughing when someone bald-headed linebacker points a hand gun in your face and says reach for the sky. Prison ink and firepower puts off whatever Woody from Toy Story joke you have in mind. Violence tightens everything. The world runs cold. Hold-up dude is all in black. Black engineer boots, black tee, black jeans kind of gone brown with dust.

Out of the corner of my eye I notice Jeanie take the corner as he reaches around my waist to take my wallet. His back is to her. Jeanie’s big red-framed sunglasses are on and her brown hair whips in the hot breeze and she stops shy of the door when she sees the barrel jammed up under my chin. God bless her, she doesn’t scream but creeps back around the corner out of sight. I close my eyelids and try to send her a telepathic message. Don’t just call the cops, get the plates, baby. Get the plates.

“That all you got?” he asks.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re going to withdraw some cash. Now.”

He spins me and I get a shove. Hand on the back of my neck, barrel pressing in against my kidney. If he fires I’m thinking how my spine will be chopped in two.

In the back of the store near the wall cooler is a stout ATM machine. Over my shoulder I’m handed back my wallet and I slip out my bank card trembling and feed the card into the hungry slot. The light washing in from outside makes the orange letters on the ATM screen hard to read and I accidentally press the cue for español. My gut clenches, frosts over.

“I got to start again.”


“I pressed the wrong button.”

“I speak Spanish. Press the button on the right. That one. Put in your number. Por favor tecless su número confidencial. Your number.”


“Yeah, now. Do it. Good. Now press the one that says continuar.”

I do as I’m told and it takes a lifetime for the next prompt to show.

“Retiro en efectivo.”

“Press it.”

“I only got, like, a couple a hundred in my account just so you know.”

“Press it.”

The screen blinks and another prompt appears:
¿Requiere más tiempo?

The hand on the back of my neck tightens.

“You fucking with me, asshole?”

I crane my head, “No!”

“Are you fucking with me?”

He forces my face down at the screen and splits my forehead. I’m about plead no again when a thundercrack snaps the air and everything in front of me flashes a vivid raspberry red. I think I’m dead but I’m dragged to the floor by weight. The heavy weight rolls off my back to my right and I hear a moist smack. I roll left and scoot back in a mad crab scramble. Half of the holdup guy’s head is still attached to his twitching body three feet away. His remaining eye bores past me, the look of a disappointed child.

The screaming begins. The clerk. The shotgun lowered is tight against her quaking breasts up the aisle and I smear an arm across my face.

I find my feet just as the ATM ejects my card.

Kieran Shea lives outside of Annapolis, Maryland. His short fiction has appeared previously in Plots with Guns, Thuglit, WordRiot, Pulp Pusher, Dogmatika and other lesser known rags like Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.


Bryon Quertermous said...

Yeah, this is the bar I'm setting for all future stories. Bring it big, kick my ass. Nice one, mate

Paul D Brazill said...

What a beaut!

Glenn Gray said...

Great tension, Kieran. Nice slow grind. Well done...

Anonymous said...

Started quiet, lovely description, I'm sucked into pastoral vistas and then the ratchet starts. Usual inside views of the great American 7/11. He's got the upper hand/the bottom hand depending on who you're looking at.
Great race to the final. Outside to the machine. Shit, Spanish. Trying to get it done. The focus narrowing and narrowing until it pinpoints and then BLAM! Things . . . change.
Lotsa action narrowing to a pure crystal point. Very Cool!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Does this guy ever write a bad story? Every word seems plucked from the heavens.

Bruce Harris said...

Hey Bryon, if this is the bar you are setting, we're all in for a lot of trouble. Terrific story, Kieran. This is writing! Felt like I was reading a classic from Black Mask.