Fahrenheit Press, 2016

Mara stared at the phone. The smooth black screen stared back at her. She checked her watch again stupidly. Some part of her was still waiting for Ali to come through the door.  

She shoved away from the table, clutching her things. Stay calm. She got up and walked shakily to the cash register with her check in one hand and half-open backpack in the other.


“You gonna live?” the sallow teenager at the cash register said.


“What?” she snapped, then remembered he always said that. “Yeah, fine, everything's great.” She grabbed her backpack and hurried out the door into the blank sunlight of the parking lot.

The only cars in the lot were a couple of trucks and an old sedan whose color straddled the unappealing line between gray and green. Mara stared across the road at Belladonna’s. At night the club’s neon sign turned the building a deep pink, but now it was just a block of white stone with an empty parking lot trailing off into the woods. She needed to get home and get Ali’s video. But then, Ali was in trouble; Mara needed to help her. How? She had no idea. Ali always had an idea, even if it was the wrong one.


She reached into her backpack for her keys and froze. Her brain sputtered and whirred, trying to make sense of the brief glimpse she’d gotten of the ugly gray-green sedan.


There was a man behind the wheel. He was watching her.


Her face grew hot, then cold, and then numb. Ali’s words echoed in her mind: Belladonna's got guys all over.

She pretended to flip her hair out of her face, sweeping her gaze past the sedan. The man was leaning forward, his hands fixed on the steering wheel, but he wasn't looking at her; he was staring past her around the corner of the diner. She had seen him somewhere before, but where? Mara racked her overloaded brain and in a flash it came to her.


The photo album Ali had brought to breakfast last week. He was one of the guys hanging around behind Belladonna’s club.


The drug dealer with the watchful eyes.


Mara backed up, scrambling to get away before the man saw her. She turned the corner and started to run.

And ran face-first into someone. She heard a wheezing cry and something fell to the ground with a crash and tinkling of glass. A sharp, sour smell rose into the air.  


She sprang back and goggled at a young man clutching an empty, balled-up display case. The contents of the case lay on the ground in a puddle of fruity-smelling fluid and broken glass.  


“I - I - I'm so sorry,” Mara said. “I wasn't watching where I was going. My fault.”


The man blinked at her. He was tall and bony, with wild-looking blond hair. His black suit was nice-looking but rumpled, like he had just learned to dress himself.


“My own apologies, please,” he said with great enthusiasm. He pronounced apologies with an h at the beginning. “Tsk-tsk, look what I do,” he said, pointing to a few splashes on Mara’s blouse. He produced a handkerchief and flapped at her like a cook putting out a grease fire.


“I'm fine,” Mara said. “Really, I'm okay.” She pointed at the foul-smelling puddle. “Most of it missed me, whatever it is. What is it?”


The man bent down to look for intact bottles, finding none. He straightened up. “It is the most premium imitation designer collection of smell.” He tapped his chest. “I sell.” His accent reminded her of the two villains from Rocky and Bullwinkle. She couldn't remember their names now, and forced herself to stop thinking about it before she started laughing.


“Oh.” Mara looked down at the shards of glass. “And I smashed all your samples, didn't I?”


“Yes, yes, samples!” He nodded. “I sell.” He produced a foldout brochure showing pictures of curvy, poisonous-looking bottles. “You see.” He poked the brochure at her. “Is all the most class brands - is Calvin Klein, is Christian Dior, is Jessica Simpson. You pay little money, you smell like rich. I go inside restaurant, but maybe you my first customer?”

Mara glanced over her shoulder. No one was coming. If she could get past this guy to her car, she could still get home without being noticed.

The man was lifting an optimistic eyebrow at her and offering the brochure. “For you I discount on already low, low price?”

“That’s nice of you,” she said. “But I'm afraid I really need to get going. I’m in a bit of a rush.”

He made a silly sad face. “But I think...” He indicated the mess on the ground. “Since I have no more sample? You help?”


She paused. “I'm so sorry. I wish I could help, but I really have to go.” She shifted from foot to foot. “So, um, good luck. Bye. Sorry.” She started to move past him.  


“Oh...” The man drew in his breath. When she turned back to him, he was staring into her backpack. She kept forgetting to zip it up. “You go to school.” He pointed to her backpack and looked at her with a hopeful smile. “Introduction to Organic Chemistry.”


Mara shifted her backpack away from him and started to zip it closed. “Yes,” she said. “It’s... I'm actually not a student anymore, it’s for… I tutor undergrads. They always have trouble with Orgo.” Her face blazed again. Shut up, you idiot. Shut up, get in your car and go home.  


The man's face split in a wide smile. “School very important. Is why parents bring me to America. They work so many job so I can go to school. But then they have accident in the car. Ba-BOOSH!” He slammed his fist into his palm and Mara jumped. “No school for me!” He pointed at the empty sample case. “But is okay. I sell. I work hard now, and later I go to school.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Just like you.”


Mara looked at his rumpled hair and saggy suit and gaudy rhinestone-studded boots. She stifled a sigh and did a quick mental count of the cash in her wallet. She could spring for a bottle of the cheapest stuff he had, and get out of here. Then she’d give it to Ali. If Ali ever came home.


“I’ll take a bottle, maybe,” she said.


The man gasped in delight and clapped his hands. “Oh, thank you! You will not regret.”


Mara was already regretting. “Okay. Just… let's hurry. I really need to get going.” She glanced at her watch.

“Yes, right away.” He lifted his hand to her elbow a gesture of old-world chivalry. “I have in my car. The finest selection. You smell like the million bucks.” He gestured toward a shiny black SUV.


Mara tensed. A starving perfume salesman with a Cadillac? She looked at him. He gave her a goofy grin.

“You know what,” she said, “I'm not really sure I can spare the –”


“But you promise,” he said, still smiling. “You want to help, no? For my school?”


“Yes, but I don't think...” She looked down and realized he wasn't holding her elbow anymore, he was grasping it tightly, holding her in place. “Let go of me,” she said.


He looked at her and his eyes turned blank. He pulled her toward the car and now there was something else in his eyes, humor maybe, but not the funny kind.


She jerked away from him and her heart reared up and started pounding. Red streaks crossed her vision until the world was covered with malevolent reaching vines. When she broke free he grabbed at her from behind and she did the only thing she could think of, reached back and swung her backpack around as hard as she could. Papers burst into the air. The hulk of the chemistry book sailed out and caught the man full in the face.

He staggered backward, snarling and cursing. For an instant everything was still and then for the second time that morning, Mara turned and ran.


And again plowed face-first into a person. She stepped back and looked up into a pair of dark eyes.

The drug dealer in the gray-green sedan.


He steadied her lightly, then glanced over her shoulder at the perfume salesman. “Everything all right here?” he said.

Mara opened her mouth but nothing came out. She stood still, taking in sharp, flowery-smelling lungfuls of air.

“Butt out, jerkoff. This doesn't concern you,” the alleged perfume salesman said. Mara gaped at him. Barely a trace of an accent now, standing there with one hand on his hip, the other on his injured face, blond hair in spikes around his head. He looked like an annoyed Statue of Liberty.


The drug dealer cocked his head to one side. “Is that right?” he said. He nodded at Mara, keeping his eyes on the man. “This happens to be my girlfriend, and you just had your paws all over her.” He turned to Mara. “You all right, babe?”


Mara made the barest of nods. She wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to this relationship.

“Was this guy bothering you?”

Something about the caveman earnestness of this line made her stifle a laugh. She’d never been anywhere near a situation that called for it.

“I was just trying to sell her some perfume, man,” Mr. Liberty said. “And then she turns around and bops me with that book.” He touched the reddish cut on his temple. “You ought to be asking me if I'm all right.”

The drug dealer glanced at the weaponized textbook lying open, face-down on the ground. He looked at Mara and his eyes sparkled. He was wearing jeans, motorcycle boots and the same dark jacket Mara remembered from the photo, but with one small difference. Underneath the jacket, at his hip, was the unmistakable shape of a gun.

Mara gulped, realized she was staring, and bent down to pick up her book. She scanned the ground for anything else her backpack might have ejected in the heat of battle.


“We'd better get going,” the drug dealer said to her. “You don't want to be late for chemistry.” He threw a challenging look at the other man, who glared back at him but didn’t move. Mara could see his dark eyes flickering between the drug dealer’s face and the gun on his hip.


“It’s okay,” the drug dealer said quietly, looking at Mara. “Traffic's going to get bad soon, but if we leave right now, you'll be all right.” He glanced at the other man, then looked at her again. “Trust me.” 

Mara took a breath and followed him out to the main parking lot. There was no sound from behind her.