by Amelia Kibbie
It was summer in Iowa, and Caroline needed a gun.
Caroline was not her real name. North Carolina was the state where she landed after leaving, and she needed a new name, something Americans could pronounce, a name not roughened, jagged with accents and mysterious symbols hovering over the letters.
When people asked her where she was from, Caroline just said, “Russia.” As if that even came close to explaining it.
North Carolina became Kentucky became Iowa. Now it was summer, and it was very hot, so hot that the little pond outside of her apartment complex dried up. It was a small, uninspiring man-made pond, but it reminded her of a pond beyond the village, one that her sister had once told her was magic.
Caroline and Robert soaked their clothes in sweat every day as they hauled vacuums and buckets up and down stairs. “Oh Lord, it’s hot,” Robert said as he quivered before the portico of each dwelling they’d been hired to clean, mopping his brow with his broad, hairless arm, the skin sagging beneath his bicep, jiggling. The summer yawned before them. There was no relief.
Today was Tuesday. Robert entered the security code for the condo building. “Third floor,” he complained. Caroline shouldered her long, stained duffle bag, stuffed with rags and spray bottles, and used the other arm to heft the vacuum.
The condo still smelled like morning coffee. “I can’t believe she’s still drinking coffee,” Robert remarked after setting down the mop and bucket with a groan. “You’re not supposed to drink that stuff when you’re pregnant.” Caroline nodded as if she were listening. Robert scrutinized the homes they cleaned, and formed his theories about the owners’ lives like he was a crime investigator on one of those shows.
He picked up a coffee mug out of the sink and tsked, pointing to a rim of lipstick stain, gloating in his discovery of evidence.
Caroline cleaned. She did not see. But Robert liked to talk, and he was kind to her, so she listened. The couple who resided in this condo were hunters. Three mounted deer heads crowded the walls of the living room, their sightless eyes staring in three different directions. A flimsy glass and wood gun cabinet loomed in the spare bedroom, stuffed so full of weaponry that some of the shotguns were simply leaned up against the side of it. This, next to a car seat, and a wall half painted yellow.
Caroline waited until Robert knelt to scrub the shower. She stole into the baby’s room and slid a 12 gauge shotgun into her bag, and a box of rounds that sat on a nearby shelf. After it was done, and she knew Robert didn’t know, she touched the ring with the black stone she kept on a chain around her neck. It was the only thing she still had from before America.
Now she was ready for Shelby to come tonight.
A little over a year ago, Robert’s car had broken down. Caroline agreed to pick him up. She had gotten lost, ending up in a trailer park. While studying the house numbers, she’d accidentally side-swiped a small blue sedan, knocking the mirror clean off.
Caroline froze, her mind TV static. She sat in the car, breathing and idling. Then came the shouts.
She saw, in her mirror, a group of men, rough-looking men in tee-shirts with the arms cut off, and ripped jeans, storming up the street toward her, their bodies oozing aggression. “Hey!” one of them shouted. “Hey, get out of the car!”
Caroline took a breath. Flashes came to her from before, the men in the night, the shouts from the village. Her hand snaked up to the gray-streaked bun of coarse hair at the back of her head, and touched the jeweled pin affixed in it. She kept it sharpened to a point. It was thick and dangerous and she was never without it tucked in its secret hiding place.
Before she could pull it free, the passenger’s side door opened, and a woman plopped into the seat. She was young, maybe, it was hard to tell. Her hair was straw blonde and she stank of cigarettes. “Drive!” she ordered.
Caroline drove. They left the trailer park and got back out on the main highway. “Pull over here,” the woman ordered, and Caroline eased the car onto the shoulder.
“That was close,” the woman said, running her hands over her thick, dimpled legs. “Those guys would have killed you, no doubt. I just saved your life!”
The woman was Shelby, and she seemed very kind. She said the car Caroline had hit belonged to her aunt Crystal, and she would make everything right. She would call Caroline with an estimate of the damage. No need to go through insurance, or contact the authorities. Caroline was grateful. She asked God to bless this woman.
Shelby asked for a thousand dollars. Caroline paid in cash. That was not the end of it. Shelby came back. She said her Aunt was upset. She needed money to keep the neighborhood men away. They didn’t like foreigners. Winter became sweltering summer, and every day, the pond outside of Caroline’s apartment building died in increments. After a while, Shelby stopped coming up with excuses and merely showed up for her payments.
Two days after the pond was nothing but scorched, cracked mud, Caroline tried to say no. Shame burned in her, a hollow bed of ashes in her chest. But it was too late to say no. “You don’t want me to call immigration, do you?” Shelby said in the friendly, sing-song way she always spoke. “You don’t want to have to go back to wherever you came from, right?”
Caroline thought of the bodies in the streets, of the screaming, a village pocked and cratered like the surface of the moon. The fires. She stared into Shelby’s watery blue eyes and knew she had never seen such things. Her fingers itched to pull the stiletto free from her hair and bury it in one of those blue eyes.
“I don’t have the money,” said Caroline.
“But you will,” said Shelby. “I’ll be by Friday night, okay?”
Caroline backed into her parking space on Friday after work, and looked at the shadow of the man-made pond, strewn with scummy garbage. A little brown duck stood at the edge, staring at the crater as if she didn’t believe what she saw.
Caroline let herself in, ate a can of beans for supper, and packed, putting two suitcases in her trunk. Then she loaded the gun and waited, sweat beading at her temples and tickling her neck.
That night, there was a storm. The thunder boomed artillery, and the lightning lit the shadows like the blaze of a barrel in the dark. The rain fell, and the pond filled – not all the way, no, that would be a miracle, but enough so that the brown duck could swim in a little circle.
Just after dawn, Caroline got into her car wearing the black stone ring on her finger, where it could see the light, and drove away.