by Zachary Kellian
He brought the crowbar up to the splintered windowsill, slipped the beveled claw underneath, white paint peeling all around like a dying birch tree. He reared back, ready to leverage his weight against the crowbar, but Jim caught him by the shoulder.
Look, he said and pointed. The frame was wide-open, devoid of any glass.
Grey turned to his friend, their astonished eyes met, as wide as the holes in their ski masks.
No way, Grey muttered.
They hauled themselves up through the open window and squeezed through its decrepit frame, two breached births in reverse.
Grey was the first in, his boots hit the linoleum floor of the kitchen. A soft thud, the caked mud on his soles acting as a silencer. Jim followed. Neither moved. Frozen stiff in the dark, waiting, for what, they didn’t know. The sound of an alarm? The racking of a shotgun? They had expected something. Something more than the eerie stillness in the kitchen and the soft crooning of an Orville Peck song from a radio, deeper within the house.
Jim gave his friend a shrug, waited a beat, and began flinging open drawers like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep. Grey had to strong arm him away from the counter.
Gotta check if anyone’s home first, he whispered in Jim’s ear, his mask muffling his voice and stifling his nostrils with the sour fear on his own breath.
Jim knew he was right, and told him so with a swift, Fuck you.
They had to play this one different. B&Es were nothing new to the pair. Hitting up homes peopled by those with nothing much to lose was an easy score. The less you had, the less likely you were to defend it. But this home was different. Its residents had a lot to lose and the will to fight for it.
Spread out, Grey ordered. You take the first door up the hall, I’ll take the second.
You the big shit now, huh? Jim never took well to authority. But he had to know this was Grey’s lead. This score had been all Grey’s idea and, after all, it was his cousin they were robbing.
The occupants of the home were here, somewhere in the flickering dark, down a hallway of ice-blue light: ’Big’ Leeland and his girlfriend, ‘Sweet’ Rhiannon. A year prior, Rhiannon had won the hillbilly lottery. Her grandfather had died, leaving behind the leftovers from his failed cancer treatment: a generous inheritance of opiates and barbiturates. Grey’s cousin Leeland moved in with her shortly after that. The man knew opportunity when he saw it and the two had been getting high and selling the remainders for weeks now.
As Grey and Jim moved down the hall, they kept their eyes alert for shoeboxes, duffels, tied-up grocery bags; anything that might store the plethora of greenies, hydros, and oranges they imagined overflowed in this house like pirate treasure.
The first two rooms were empty. A storage closet sheltering only dusty shelves and a bathroom where the grout ran black with mold.
A fog horn from a garbage scowl out on the Ohio River rang out like some bellowing horror. Grey could feel the deep thrum of the horn churn the acid in his stomach. The pair went rigid in the hall, waiting for the demonic bleat to fade away as the barge passed under the Silver Memorial Bridge.
Grey thought about Big Leeland, a former scourge on the football field and in the high school hallways, a brute who would bully anyone, even his own kin. A strange match for Sweet Rhiannon, the quiet girl who attended SPED classes away from the rest of the school. A gentle soul whose sights were set on fame, a dream her grandfather hadn’t the heart to douse as he drove her across the river on weekends. One failed singing competition after another. It was well-known to all: the poor girl couldn’t carry a tune.
At least she had a dream of her own. Who else could say that? Grey’s parents had dictated all his dreams. Get into a good Bible college, they’d preached, and grow fat on church potlucks for the rest of your days. He couldn’t afford dreams of his own. This score would change all of that.
The fog horn’s tremor faded, Grey focused on the task at hand, and they moved into the living room.
Big Leeland was there, his massive linebacker frame taking up the whole arm chair, his head slumped forward, arms slack at his sides, probably heavy in a percs-induced coma. The room in strobe from the blue-tinged light from the muted television.
Jim nudged Grey with a hard elbow and gestured to the motionless man.
See, his body-language said, nothing to worry about.
But Grey was worried, and the strain in his face shown through the ski mask. He took a step toward his cousin’s chair, knelt, and removed his mask. His blonde hair shone neon in the light from the television.
In the gloom, he could see the right side of Leeland’s face, crusted with what looked like dried coffee grounds, but from the mushy hole just visible in the dim dance of light, Grey knew it was a gunshot wound. There was no rise and fall to his cousin’s chest, just the memory of a ghostly foghorn and Orville Peck’s sliding guitar as the singer continued to cry about lost cowboy love.
Who done it? Jim asked, aloud.
Himself, Grey replied.
He picked up the Browning pistol beside the chair, chambered with a .22 round magazine, perfect for hunting squirrels; an awful way to die. Leeland had been lucky the small caliber bullet had made it halfway through his thick skull.
Jim was behind him. You probably shouldn’t have touched that gun, he said. His silhouette blotted out the glow from the TV. Behind him, some plastic televangelist pointed to a phone number on the screen.
Don’t matter, Grey replied and turned the television off. Religion had no place here.
They would call the cops after they found the stash, report it as a suicide, a grieving cousin free of suspicion.
What about Sweet Rhiannon? Jim asked.
What about her?
She home? She know about this?
They looked at each other, then up at the ceiling where the bedroom lay. Grey shucked the pistol to the ground and began a slow march up the stairs, heedless of the noise his dirty boots were making on the hollow floor planks.
The couple had taken over Rihannon’s grandfather’s bedroom, where an old, banana-yellow, Panasonic toot-a-loop radio continued the back-to-back Orville Peck hits. The late-night DJ at WBYG-99.5, asleep at his desk, letting a full album play and filling the bedroom with the strands of melancholy Country.
The bedside lamp was on. Flea-market watercolors adorned the walls: regal sailing ships, pastel waterfowl, proud in-land steamers. The dresser was still topped with the personal effects of an old man: tie clips, Old Spice aftershave, and wristwatches unwound for a year. The only personal touch was on the nightstand: a gold-painted participation trophy from the Columbus Vocal Talent Show.
Grey switched on the overhead light. There was a body beneath the bedspread. Sweet Rhiannon. Her legs peeked out from underneath the sheets, they were the color of bleached porcelain. Bloodstains on the covers, dried into near perfect circles.
Shit, he did her too? Jim had to rest his head on the doorjamb.
Grey just turned around and headed back down the stairs.
What about the percs? We’ve got it easy now!
He ignored his friend and proceeded out the front door. Fog all around. His skin tingled in the wet particles of the river-borne brume. Another horn sounded. In the open air, away from the coffin confines of the house, it sounded sweet and pure. A trumpet, beckoning him away.
Jim joined him on the porch. His mask now off, his beard sprung with static.
You okay, man?
Grey watched the early morning mists create eddies in the tall Johnsongrass and wondered what the point of it all was.
Jim tugged at his sleeve. You don’t want to see if there’s any drugs left?
He knew there was no point. The drugs had run out. The cash had, too. They’d gotten in easy, through the open window of a house that had nothing left to defend.