ISOLATION WARD: Snipe Crab Scuttle
It was a Quicktrip stocked with scissors. A block from her house. Jena had always paid at the pump, but tonight as she unscrewed her gascap she felt like a beer, so she went in. A scrawny man was at the register. A tattoo of thimbles in a chain circled his neck. “How much?” he said.
“Just a second. I’m getting something else.” She walked back to the fridges, running her fingers over gum then candy then tylenol. And stopped at the scissors. They weren’t just travel packs. A set with small curved tips; a box of playschool plastics; the all-purpose straight edge; and way at the back a couple of shears as large as her forearm.
She found her beer. As she went to the counter, the cashier walked past her with a customer, a woman with an inked blood-drop pattern on her throat. “Be right back, bitch,” he muttered.
She should have set the beer down and left. Swiped something on the way out. But she waited. She watched the bathroom hallway where they had gone. There were no lights from under any of the doors and none in the hall. Then there was a noise like scraping that turned after a moment into a guitar rasping. Static and a bass beat. Metal for a full five seconds. If she had been in her car and crushed the volume full, it couldn’t have been louder. Then silence. The two walked out again, the woman sitting on a stool in the dark, the cashier coming all the way back. “The customer’s always right, huh?” he said, sliding her card.
She went in the next morning to ask about him. “Who was working here last night?” she asked the cashier, who was turned away from her, stocking the cigarettes.
“Who wants to know?”
Jena put on her formal face. “I do.”
“All right. I’ll tell him. What’s your name?”
“No. I wanted to . . .” She trailed off as the cashier turned to face her. A smile of recognition. A blood-drop pattern at her throat.
“No worries. He’ll get the message.”
She bought a pair of binoculars. The Quicktrip was across from a motel. Lazy Jane’s. $39.99 a night. Free HBO.
A second-story room gave her a view of the cashier stand. Jena sat on the floor in the dark and nudged the binoculars through the curtains. He was just standing there, reading the paper. He had on jeans and a thin, long-sleeved shirt, untucked. All he looked like was what she called him, “You skinny little shit.”
By the end of her first night, she had named him. Snipe. The night had been a waste of forty bucks. He read the paper the whole time, running his hand over his bare scalp, scratching himself, squirming for an hour before walking down the hall to the bathroom. As the first light started to show, on a whim Jena trained her glasses on the paper and saw the gloss of a catalog folded into the classifieds. She was thinking she would need a stronger zoom when he turned the page to a full spread of a black handled double blade eased just slightly open for a snip.
On her third night watching, a couple walked in and bought a pair of scissors. Teenagers. They had come for candy and to try for beer, but Snipe turned out to be a hardliner. He shook his head and pointed at the fridges. “Wouldn’t have taken you for a killjoy,” Jena whispered. She watched the boy push his hand past his wrist down the back of the girl’s jeans, holding it there as Snipe totaled the candy and a magazine. The girl must have moaned or giggled. She was standing stoically enough, just a little sway in her hips, but Snipe stopped and looked at them. Then he said something. The boy jawed back at him. Snipe brought his hand to his chin and stood considering. Then he came out from behind the counter. The boy had freed both hands and was flexing, but Snipe walked past and waved the couple after him.
They didn’t go to the fridges. They went down the hall. It was ten minutes before they walked out again, Snipe leading them to the scissors and outlining the fine points of each pair, picking them up one at a time and handing them to the girl. Once he brought a small one up to the girl’s ear and leaned into her. She must have squealed. She jumped back, and the boy doubled over laughing. Snipe made some sort of final speech and then walked to the register to let them choose. The girl put a plastic pair on the counter. She had pale white skin that set off the bright green and the bare silver line of the blade. When the door closed after them, Snipe stepped down the scissors aisle, brushing a box of something off onto the floor, spinning suddenly into a mock roundhouse that did nothing but knock Jena onto her ass, laughing, “What kind of fuck-up are you, Snipe?” She lay on her back for several minutes; when she looked out again, he was kneeling and straightening, carefully, his wares.
For the next few nights, she stayed away. Made dinner. Watched TV. She didn’t go out or talk to friends and was startled when her phone rang one night just before bed.
“Jena? Hi, it’s Allie.”
“Oh, hi Allie. How’s it going?”
“Fine . . . Hey, do you mind if I stop by? I’m over here at the Quicktrip getting gas.”
So that night it was the pair of them watching him, passing the binoculars back and forth, until Allie pulled the curtain closed and said, “I’m going over.”
“Allie. He’s some kind of psycho.”
“No, I’m doing it. He looks bored.”
And before either of them could argue one side or the other, Jena was watching Allie out on the Quicktrip sidewalk in the dark. She waved and started for the door. Then she stopped, took off her jacket, and reached behind her with both hands. They came back out with her bra, which she held up quickly, laughing, and then balled into the jacket, stashing them both behind some plastic crates. Standing, she waved again, a little wave from her waist like a code word. Then she walked to the door and in.
Snipe looked up but went back to his paper. Allie ranged down the scissors aisle. She had her hair up. She played with stray black hairs on the back of her neck as she picked up one scissors and then another with her other hand. She handled them carelessly, put them back upside down or at angles overlapping. She dropped one and faced the counter as she bent to pick it up. Snipe was watching now, rubbing his scalp with one hand, fingering a pen with the other. Allie asked him something or called him over, and he walked slowly around the paper stands and down the aisle to her. They were only a foot apart as Allie held one of the large shears between them. Only her lips were moving. Snipe stood still, just looking at her. Then he took the scissors from her and put it back. Arranged the rest of them. When he was done, he held one hand out, gesturing down the hall like a concert hall attendant. The other was on the small of her back.
“No, Allie. You’d better not.”
But she was walking with him. Into the shadows and out of sight.
It was fifteen minutes later when he walked out alone. He came to the front door and looked around. Then he looked directly across the street and pointed up at her.
“Oh God. Oh shit.” Jena jumped back from the window. “What’s he doing?” She screamed. She thought of Allie. “Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! What’s he doing?”
She ran out of the room. She saw him walking quickly across the street. She ran to the stairs and to her car in back. There was an exit at the back of the lot. She fishtailed out into the street, tires screeching as loud as she was.
Then she realized she couldn’t go home. She called the cops from a payphone outside a Walmart in Holbin, twenty miles from home.
“You think he may have killed her, ma’am?”
“Yes. Or he has her tied up or something.”
“How do you know? You said it was down the hall by the bathrooms?”
“Yes. It’s where he goes with customers.”
“When he has special customers. People who don’t just want gas. He takes them down that hallway.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Please. Can you just check? I know he’s done something to her.”
“Ma’am. We need more to go on. Do you know this man?”
“Have you ever spoken with him?”
“Once. He called me a bitch.”
“Profanity is not a punishable crime, ma’am.”
“No no no. I was just standing there. Trying to buy something. There’s something wrong with him. He’s a weird little—”
“Sorry, ma’am. I suggest you stop by at your friend’s house in the morning. She was probably in the bathroom.”
He would be at her place over Allie’s. Jena parked across the street from Allie’s narrow two-story on one of the hills overlooking the river. It was three in the morning. The lights from the bridge showed a barge pushing north against the dark, heavy water.
She opened her door just as a light went on behind Allie’s curtains. Jena jerked her door back shut and slid down under the steering wheel. She put the binoculars to her eyes. “What are you looking for, you sicko?”
It wasn’t him. A shadow brushed up close to the curtains. It was a woman. She sat down and rested her head back against the window. Ten minutes later, she hadn’t moved. She was waiting. Jena sat up and started the car. She drove to grocery store payphone three blocks away and dialed Allie’s number. On the fifth ring, a woman’s voice answered, “Hello . . . Jena?”
“What did you do to her?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“What did your sicko boyfriend do?”
A low laugh. “Randy? No. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s available.”
“Now that’s not fair. He’s a little small. Really good hands, though.”
“Where’s Allie? What did you do?”
“What do you think he did? Gave her a good time.”
“I’ll call the cops.”
“I’m sure you already did, Jena.”
Jena suddenly yelled into the phone. It forced up from her chest, a wordless current in her throat. Everything was going black.
“There there. It’s all right. Here’s what you do. Randy has a nice therapist he’s been going to. You give her a call and get some pills. Take a nice long nap. Leave town. Go to hell.”
“No. God is no part of this at all.”
Then Jena was quiet. Something dropped out of her and took all her words with it. She held the phone the way one holds a broken TV remote or windshield wiper blade before throwing it away.
“So it’s the silent treatment. That’s fine too. This is goodbye. I guess we’ll see you or we won’t.”
Jena put the phone back and then sat then lay down on the asphalt. At the base of the phone stand, someone had carved If you can read this, you’re worse off than you think.
For the next week, the wordlessness stayed with her. She paid for a room across the river down in St. Louis, nodding her head, using her hands, signing her name. No words. She stayed in the dark and didn’t eat. She slept on the floor with her head on a flannel shirt she’d found in her car. The sun rose and set, but the curtains were so heavy it was difficult to tell. Or maybe she was sleeping through the days. Then one night a week or so later, she heard a man’s voice outside her window. “Get in there, bitch. What are you doing? Move.”
Jena didn’t think. The motel had stocked the rooms with forty-year-old, heavy as brick alarm clocks. She unplugged hers, carried it to the door, unlatched the door and opened it. The man turned to look at her. He had a short blade out. With both arms, Jena swung at him with the clock. The man staggered backwards, tripped, and caught his head on a stone planter. Jena walked forward until the man’s head was at her feet; then she raised the clock up to her eyes and heaved it down at him. The woman with him had started running when she’d opened the door. Jena went back into her room, grabbed her things, shrugged on her flannel shirt, and drove without stopping back to Lazy Jane’s.
Snipe was with a customer. An old man in a worn Steelers jacket. He pushed his change over the counter with fingers that shook. Snipe said something. The old man shook his head. Snipe stood up straight and said it again. Then he pointed at the door. The old man shuffled away, opened the door, and went to his car. He got into driver’s seat but didn’t move. Jena watched him wondering what to do. “You’re the one, oldtimer,” Jena said, getting up from the floor and walking out into the night.
When she made it to the corner of the Quicktrip, the old man was still in his car, but he was turned to his door, working up the will to open it. Then he did. He drew himself up slowly to a stoop and shuffled back into the store. Jena crept to the edge of the first window panel. When Snipe saw the old man, he pointed out the door again and walked forward to block the man’s way into the store. There was another exchange, and then Snipe took the man’s arm and pulled him back toward the hallway. Snipe was looking straight ahead, his dark eyes large for his skin-tight skull. He didn’t see her, but the old man’s droopy eyelids lifted as he looked at her. He turned his head as he walked by, keeping his eyes on her. Jena smiled. Then he was gone.
She looked down the hall from the door before she pushed it open all the way. It was dark and empty. She made to follow them, but when she was at the fridges, she moved to her right and walked over to the scissors. A new black handled shears, the one from Snipe’s catalog, was being featured in front. Jena unbuttoned the cuff of her shirt and slid the shears in against her wrist until the front of the blade was in her palm. Then she found a smaller scissors, a regular sewing pair, to use as a backup.
There were three hallway doors, the men’s and women’s bathrooms and a door between them with childish block handwriting, Maitenance. Jena put her ear to the middle door and gave a slight twist to the round doorknob. It was locked. She could hear only scuffling punctuated every few seconds with a feeble or gagged protest. Then Snipe spoke up, “Don’t worry. You’ve got a good ten minutes still. We’ll be having a guest tonight.”
Jena crept away from the door and looked for a place to hide. The cashier’s island was mostly open, and Snipe had locked the front door and put up a “Closed” sign, so she couldn’t wait for the car outside. She would have to hope Snipe’s blood-drop partner would stop at the scissors. Jena crouched behind a life-size cutout of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the front of the next aisle back, pulled her sleeved blade forward to get a full grip at the base, and waited.
The lock turned and the front door opened. Jena could see her through a slit in the cutout. She turned calmly to lock the door again and walked to the register, where she rummaged for something for a few moments before giving up with, “Shit, Snipe. I don’t like the new ones.” Then she started over to the new ones.
Jena went for her throat. She lunged up at those delicate ink drops just as they came in sight at the turn of the aisle, sidestepping the cutout and giving herself no chance to miss. She didn’t. There was only a quiet pop from cartilage in her windpipe and a gurgle and wheeze. As the body fell, Jena let the scissors go and caught at the shoulders as well as she could. Enough to muffle the sound. The floor, like Jena, was covered by now with blood. Jena turned her back to the body, fell speechless to her knees, and rested her forehead on the cold floor.
Beside her on the floor were a set of keys. She walked to the front door and tried one after another until it opened. She propped it open with a six-pack of soda so that Snipe would think that whoever had done the killing had left. She left the shears in the body where they were and went for another of the largest pair. When she got back to the door, Snipe was pacing and muttering. Then he said, “What the hell,” and the old men let out a muffled scream. Jena reached for the doorknob with no plan in mind but stopped herself and looked behind her for something hard. There was an odd grouping of ornamental rocks, reds and oranges, a dusty brown, in a makeshift pile by the window. She put her sewing scissors in her back pocket and picked up one of the rocks. The old man’s screams were rattling her, but she took her time walking past the middle door to the men’s bathroom, easing it open and slipping part way in. Then she hefted the rock and threw it at pyramid of green and yellow, porcelain gnomes Snipe had stocked at the bottom of the end of the front aisle. They toppled and shattered on the floor, and Jena pulled her door quietly shut.
“Shit, Kera! What are you doing out there?”
There was a thump as the old man screamed again. “Shut up, old man. Kera! What’s going on? Get in here.”
Then the door opened. “Kera? What the hell, bitch! What’d you do to my gnomes?”
Jena could hear his footsteps. The door opened toward the back of the hallway, so she could nudge it a crack and see him kneeled over the porcelain shards, sweeping them into a pile with his hands. Then he stood, looked out the front window, and walked up toward the register. Jena slid out into the hall, opened the middle door, and stepped into the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
A couple of heavy lamps with cloth lampshades and red-tinted bulbs sat on two boxes set in the middle of the room. In between them, on the floor, the old man was sitting curled up in a large cardboard box. His hands and feet were tied, and his head was covered with a paper bag that was stained on top and in front. He was trying to lie on his side on the bottom of the box, and he was sobbing. The room was full of boxes, some closed and labeled near the back and others open and stacked in rows. When she heard Snipe’s shout at finding Kera, she crept behind one of the boxes up against the front of the room. She quickly carved a pair of little holes in the front and back of the box so she could see from where she waited.
It was ten or fifteen minutes later when he opened the door. “It’s not your night, old man. There’s a spook out there somewhere that’s got me riled. I might be shaky in finishing this.”
He bent over the box’s opening, and the man screamed again. “I know. I know,” Snipe said. “It’s not my best work.”
Jena slid out from behind her box and walked forward a couple of silent steps. Then she said, “Hey. Snipe.”
She didn’t have the shears up her sleeve. She brought them down with both hands from behind her head. They went in at his open mouth. He fell to the floor and rolled wildly in circles then in a crazed imitation of a crab scuttling for a rock. He had dropped a hammer and a jeweler’s chisel next to the old man’s box. She picked up the hammer and walked over to where he was lying, back-arched and screaming, in the corner. She thought she would have something to say to him, but there was only the same wordlessness and dark. She raised the hammer and brought it down on him.