People react in different ways when fear and stress envelop them. Some crumble and fall. Others reach deep inside themselves and find the level of strength and courage needed to survive. In this story, I wanted to place a woman in mortal danger and see how she’d react.
I also experimented with a different method of revealing events of the past, or “backstory.” Rather than using the traditional flashback method, I used snippets of subconscious memory in short blasts. I call this technique “backflash.”
BJ Bourg published this story in his magazine, “Mouth Full of Bullets,” and it was nominated for the Derringer Awards.
That Night in Galveston
a Short Story
By Earl Staggs
Shortly after eight o’clock, Amanda Barnes pulled her Lincoln Navigator into the parking space behind her dress shop, shut off the ignition and grabbed her purse from the passenger seat. She usually arrived at nine-thirty, a half hour before the store opened and her employees came in, but she needed an early start today. The wedding was set for two o’clock, and she still had to make final adjustments to Lainie’s dress, then get to the hotel and make sure all the arrangements were in order for the reception.
When she opened the car door and stepped down, she heard a sound behind her and turned to look. A thin, disheveled man stepped out from behind a dumpster and came toward her. He walked with a crutch. His left leg ended above the knee with his pants leg wadded beneath it and tied with a piece of rope. In his right hand, he held a gun. He stopped three feet from her and stared.
“Who. . .who are you? What do you want?”
A sinister grin appeared, pulling the skin of his gaunt face tight, but he didn’t speak.
Amanda raised her purse. “Do you want money? I don’t have much, but take it.”
In a hoarse voice, he said, “I don’t want your goddamned money.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Don’t you remember me, Amanda?”
She studied what she could see through his scraggly beard. His badly scarred face seemed misshapen somehow. One side had a normal contour, but the other side looked almost flat. His eyes were sunken and red-rimmed, and his dark hair hung like twisted string beneath a ball cap with a faded emblem she didn’t recognize. “No, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember you.”
A quiet, guttural laugh came from deep in his throat. “Maybe you don’t want to remember because of what you did to me.”
Amanda’s pulse raced, panic spread over her. Could she get past him and run? Could she start the car and get away before he shot her?
“You must have the wrong person. Please, my. . .my daughter’s getting married today, and—“
He laughed louder this time. His blackened teeth showed. She smelled alcohol and rotted food on his breath.
“Oh, yeah, today is the big day. Your precious little girl is getting married to the richest boy in town. It’s in all the papers with pictures of you and your high society friends. Well, guess what, Amanda. You’re not going to make that wedding.”
“Please believe me. I don’t know who you are, and I never did anything to you. Take the money, take the car if you want it, and just go.”
“We’re going to take the car all right, you and me.” He raised the gun and pointed it at her. “Don’t try anything stupid like screaming or running.” He motioned toward the car with the gun barrel. “Get in.”
Amanda climbed in the driver’s seat and watched him shuffle around to the passenger side and struggle to get in her high SUV. With his weight on the crutch wedged under his left armpit, he hopped his right foot onto the step, then twisted around and sat down. After he pulled the stump of his left leg in, he closed the door and leaned his crutch against it.
For ten minutes, he spoke only to give directions. Turn left. Turn right. Go straight. Amanda was close to tears, gripping the wheel tightly to stop her trembling, desperately trying to make sense of what was happening. She sneaked glances at him in an effort to place him. Had she seen him or met him at some time? She’d come to Fort Worth twenty years ago when she was fifteen, three months before Lainie was born. With a baby to raise on her own, she worked day and night doing sewing and cleaning work to scrape by. After years of saving, she opened her dress shop and with taking care of Lainie and building her business, she’d met few people other than her clientele. Even if she’d had more time, under what circumstances would she know someone like him? It had to be a mistake. He must have mistaken her for someone else.
When she stopped for a red light, an instinct told her she had to get out of the car. She made a quick grab for the door handle, but before she could open it, he had a tight grip on her other arm. He jabbed his gun into her ribs.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
“Please, whoever you are, I don’t know you. I don’t know who you think I am or what you think I did to you, but you’re wrong. I’ve never–”
He jabbed the gun into her ribs again, harder this time. “Oh, you know me, all right, and you know what you did to me, you and your friends. Don’t tell me you forgot that night in Galveston at the pier.”
When the light changed and she drove forward, Amanda’s mind swirled back in time to a night she had erased from her life. Vague, blurry images fought to surface.
Darkness. . .waves crashing against a pier. . .sounds of an amusement park in the distance. . .someone down on all fours. . .screaming. . .begging. . .
“Oh, my God. Are you that. . .that drug dealer?”
“There you go. I knew you’d remember me. You thought I was dead, didn’t you? As you can see, I’m still alive. What’s left of me, anyway.” He tapped his shortened left leg with the butt of his gun. “See what you did?”
Amanda glanced quickly. More images swam in her dazed mind.
Three men standing over him. . .yelling. . .kicking. . .swinging something. . .
“They couldn’t save my left leg, and they did a lousy job putting my face back together.” He slapped the top of his head with his free hand. “I also have a metal plate in my head, but I can’t show you that.” He chuckled at his joke.
“Please, I hardly remember anything that happened that night.”
“Well, I remember you, Amanda, and the way you beat me with that lead pipe.”
“I remember a fight, but it’s all a blur. It must have been the drugs. I’d never taken drugs before.” A name suddenly came into her mind. Gordie.
Another man holding her head. . .Gordie forcing pills in her mouth. . .filling her mouth with liquor. . .holding it closed until she swallowed. . .
“I only remember bits and pieces. You and Gordie were arguing about. . .about drugs and. . .and money, and then everybody was fighting.“
“Turn right at the next corner.”
Amanda made the turn into an old warehouse district. She searched each building for someone who might help her but saw no one. Not even a car or truck in sight. She remembered reading the city planned to raze the whole area.
“There was a fight, all right. You and your boyfriends wanted the drugs, but you didn’t want to pay me. How is old Gordie, by the way?”
Gordie, the big one. . .ugly, strong…his horrible smell. . .on top of her. . .pounding into her.
“I don’t know. I only met those guys that day. They offered me a ride. They left me the next day, and I never saw them again. They made me drink and made me swallow some pills and then they – “
“Turn in there.” He pointed to one of the buildings.
Amanda drove through the wide opening of the dilapidated warehouse and into the dark interior. Remembering what Gordie and the others did to her in their van triggered another buried memory, this one from before she ran away from home to Galveston.
A thick, burly man entering her bedroom. . . holding a finger to his lips to say, “Don’t wake your mother. We don’t want her to know our secret.”. . unable to breathe under his weight. . .biting her lip to keep from crying out from the pain he caused her inside. . .
She maneuvered the car around scattered boards, bricks and other debris toward another opening at the far end. She saw the Trinity river just outside and part of downtown Fort Worth on the other side.
When they were both out of the car, he made her walk in front of him to a corner of the building. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the semi-darkness. In the corner, a pile of rags lay vaguely in the shape of a mattress behind a card table with only three of its original legs. Two concrete blocks stacked end to end served as the fourth leg. Another stack of concrete blocks sat at one end of the table where a chair might have been. She thought about running back to her car. With his crutch, he’d never catch her, but he had the gun, and she had no doubt he’d shoot her. The open doorway at this end of the warehouse was even farther away than her car.
She stopped beside the table with him two steps behind.
“Welcome to my humble home,” he said. “Not what you’re used to, I’m sure, but it’s all I have. I’ll bet you live in a mansion, you and your husband and your daughter. What does your husband do?”
“I don’t have a husband.” Amanda looked around. On the table lay a scattering of empty cans. Tuna, beans, creamed corn. She spotted a rusty screwdriver with half its wooden handle gone. A makeshift can opener, she thought. If she could get her hands on that. . .
He moved past her to the other end of the table. “No husband, huh? Well, now ain’t that too bad. I’m not married either. Not many women interested in a man with this face and only one leg. I figured you for a rich husband, what with your fancy car and your own store and all.”
Amanda faced him across the table. “What do you want from me?”
He leaned his crutch against the table and eased down onto the concrete blocks. When he looked up at her, she saw rage in his eyes.
“What do I want from you?” He was shouting now. His vicious anger twisted his face even more. “How about giving me my face and my leg back? Or maybe you can take the metal plate out of my head so I don’t have headaches all the time. If you can do that, maybe I can have a big car and a store with my name on it like you do.”
Amanda thought about the screwdriver. If she could grab it. . . But it lay closer to him than to her. If she reached for it, he’d shoot her. She had to keep him talking. She had to think of something.
“You can still have those things. I’m not rich, but I could come up with enough money to give you a start.”
He tilted his head and sneered. “Well, aren’t you the generous one? You mean you’d set me up in business like I was before?”
“No, not that. You were selling drugs. That’s illegal and dangerous. It was only a matter of time before you wound up in jail or –“
“No!” He slammed his palm on the table. The screwdriver rolled against an empty tuna can. “You’re wrong. I had a good business going, and I was smart. I could be rich now like you with a big house and expensive cars. Where was all that generosity the night you and your friends tried to beat me to death?”
Gordie standing over her. . .pulling her to her feet…forcing a pipe into her hand…“Hit him, you little bitch, or I’ll hit you with it”. . .
“It’s not too late to start over again. I can help you get a job. There are lots of things a disabled person can do.”
“Disabled?” He spit the word back at her. “What a nice word. How about crippled? How about disfigured? You can keep your charity, Amanda. You can’t buy me off for what you did.”
Remembering what she’d done that night made her stomach churn. She fought back a wave of nausea. She hadn’t realized she was crying but heard it in her voice and felt wetness on her cheeks. “It’s. . it’s not charity. I want to help you. I remember what they were doing to you. I tried to get away, but Gordie made me stay. I was too sick from the drugs and the liquor to fight him. He gave me a pipe and made me hit you. I’m sorry, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no choice.”
“Oh, you had a choice. You could have helped me. You could have sent help back for me. I laid under that pier all night and half the next day before someone came along and saw me. But no, you didn’t want to help me. All you wanted was the drugs, just like your boyfriends did. That’s how you people are. You take what you want and don’t care who you hurt.”
Amanda rubbed her face with both hands to wipe away the tears. “They weren’t my boyfriends. They gave me a ride, that’s all. You have to believe me. They beat me, too. The next day, after they got all they wanted from me, they left me the same way they left you.”
He sneered again. “Now ain’t that a sad story. You want me to feel sorry for you? Pity you? Well, you can forget that. Look at you. You’re got a pretty face, you’ve got two legs, you’ve got money.”
He was shouting again, and Amanda saw and felt more rage and anger in his face and in his voice than she’d ever thought possible.
He waved the gun in a wide arc. “Look what I’ve got, goddamnit! Look at me and what you left me with! I’ve waited a long time for this day. You don’t know how sweet it was to pick up a paper and see your face again. You tried to forget me, but I never forgot you. I’ll find the others, too, and when I do. . . . ”
He leaned over and reached down to the floor. When his hand came up, he held a metal pipe . With his anger still holding his face in a mask of fury, he laid the gun on the table, reached for his crutch and used it to raise himself to a standing position, holding the pipe in his right hand.
When she saw the pipe, Amanda knew what he was going to do, and she knew nothing she could say would stop him. She was beyond fear and crying now. She reached within herself and found a place she’d discovered years ago, a place she’d gone to every night after her stepfather left her bedroom, the place she’d gone to after Gordie and his friends beat and raped her over and over again and tossed her in a ditch beside the road. It was the place she’d gone to the night she was all alone and gave birth to her daughter in an alley behind a grocery store. In that place deep within, she found the will and the strength to do what she had to do to survive when there was no one to help.
There was no one to help her now.
When he took a step toward her, Amanda lunged against the table and pushed hard. The edge of the table hit him in the stomach. He stumbled backward, lost his balance and fell. The table capsized and everything on it skittered across the floor. She spotted the rusty screwdriver rolling between him and her and dove toward it. She landed on her stomach and grabbed it, but felt a grip on her ankle at the same instant. She looked back. He lay stretched out on the floor behind her, holding her ankle in one hand, clawing at her with the other. She raised her hand high in the air and swung it down with all her strength, stabbing the screwdriver deep into his forearm.
He yelled out in pain and rolled away from her, clutching the screwdriver, trying to pull it out of his arm.
“You bitch! I’ll kill you!”
With the scream of a wounded animal, he yanked the screwdriver from his arm and threw it to the side.
Amanda scooted backward, but he crawled after her on his hands and one knee, dragging his useless left leg behind him. His breath came in short gasps, making a grunting sound with each movement.
Her hand bumped something hard on the floor. She glanced down. His gun. It slid away from her, but she reached over for it. By the time she had it in her grip, he collided with her, knocking her flat on her back. He lunged on top of her and grabbed her hand holding the gun with one hand and her throat with the other. He squeezed hard. She couldn’t breathe.
With every ounce of strength she had, she threw her knee into his groin. His grip on her hand eased enough that she pulled it free and swung the gun hard against the side of his head. He grabbed his head with both hands. She pushed him to one side and rolled out from under him.
Amanda stood up, gasping for air, and pointed the gun at him. He lay on his back, holding his head and groaning. Blood flowed from his arm and down the side of his head. They stared at each other for several seconds. He lowered his hands, and his sneer slowly returned.
“What’re you going to do, Amanda, kill me? Finish what you started twenty years ago? You would’ve done me a big favor if you’d done it then. I wouldn’t be living like this. But we both know you won’t do it now, don’t we?”
Amanda’s throat still hurt. She struggled to speak. “I don’t want to kill you. I just want you to leave me alone.” She began backing toward her car. “I’ll tell the police about you. They’ll make you stay away from me.”
“You think that’ll stop me? Go ahead. Tell them about me. I’ll tell them about you. I’ll tell everybody what you did to me. Would your society friends like you then? Maybe I’ll pay a visit to your daughter. Yeah, I’ll visit your daughter and her big shot husband and tell them all about you. It’s not over, Amanda. It’ll never be over until you pay for what you did to me.”
Amanda leaned against her car and thought about Lainie. She thought about her stepfather and what he did to her, about what Gordie and his friends did. They took her, used her, and hurt her. She’d worked hard all these years to make sure none of that touched Lainie. Now, a pitiful remnant of a human being bleeding on the floor of an empty warehouse was going to ruin it all.
She turned and walked back toward him. “You asked me about my husband. I could never have a husband. I could never let another man touch me after what they did to me. In our own way, you and I were both crippled that night in Galveston. I was luckier than you. Two months after Gordie and his friends threw me out on the side of the road, I discovered I was pregnant. When Lainie came into my life, I had something I’d never had before. I had someone to love, someone who loved me and didn’t just use me. I had a reason to leave the past behind and make a decent life. Not for me, for her. It doesn’t matter what happens to you and me. We’re damaged goods. Nothing matters now except the life she has ahead of her. I’m not going to let what happened to us ruin it for her.”
Amanda raised the gun and pointed it at his heart. “I’m going to do you that favor now.”
When she squeezed the trigger, the sound raced through the empty warehouse like rolling thunder. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, he lay still as if frozen, his eyes open in a lifeless stare. His mouth formed a silent scream.
Amanda walked to the open door of the warehouse and threw the gun out over the river. The small splash it made seemed too insignificant for something that had just ended a life. She walked back to her car. No one had seen her come here and, with luck, no one would see her leave. No one would ever know she’d been here.
As she drove away, she stayed in that place of strength and thought only of what she had to do. She had to finish Lainie’s dress, and she had to make sure the wedding and reception plans were all set. Today was Lainie’s wedding day, and she had to make sure it was perfect.
Nothing else mattered.