Break A Leg

Submitted into Contest #123 in response to: Start your story looking down from a stage.... view prompt

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Drama Romance

Break a leg, they say. Theater people do love their jovial irony. But when Erin Eberhardt crumpled onto the stage during the first act of Our Town, the audience’s collective gasp told her she’d done exactly that. In the breathless beat that followed, her eyes whipped over the crowd to confirm what — or rather, who — had distracted her. But that spot was empty now, and as the theater erupted into horrified chaos, she slipped into the sweet oblivion of shock.


#


While Erin ran the gas pump at her father’s full-serve Texaco, Silvio Franco swept into her world like the derechos that bookmarked the summers of her Oklahoma childhood. Through the rear window of his father’s S-Class, Silvio’s olive eyes — like one of those sultry storms — raged through Erin’s mind, leveling her structures, drenching her aquifers, and enlarging her dreams beyond the Muskogee County limits.


She thought she’d never love again, after that infinite glimpse. So when those same smiling eyes rose over the top of her high school math book that very fall, she was certain that their love was fated. And for a time, it seemed, she was right. They shared everything that school-age lovers could, given the constraints of their young, and very different, lives.


But one midnight in springtime, as she held Silvio’s hand in the moonlight, the world that for six months had seemed so limitless, closed back in around her. She struggled to meet the intensity of his gaze that night, as if it shone too bright, like the high-beams of a tailgating semi.


“What is it?” she managed to ask, fearing the answer.


“I think you will not like, cara mia, what I have to say.”


Her next words tasted foreign as they fell from her lips: “You’re leaving me.”


It was not a question. His silence was the confirmation.


#


A different silence now coalesced in Erin’s thoughts, punctuated by a rhythmic beeping.


“Water,” she rasped. Her throat felt like sandpaper.


“Oh, you’re awake,” said a voice. Erin slotted open an eye in a bright room, and saw a nurse in scrubs, restocking drawers. “Let me get you some ice chips, sweetheart.”


Erin sucked on the ice, which might as well have been ambrosia. “What’s going on?”


“Fractured tib-fib,” said the nurse. “You wrecked your ankle pretty good. Any idea what happened up on that stage?”


The stage. It was coming back to her. The community theater troupe. That man in the front row. “I thought I saw someone,” Erin said. “Someone I used to know. I - I got distracted and missed my mark.”


“You poor dear,” said the nurse, straightening Erin’s blanket. “Well, lucky for you, Tommy was in the front row. He’s an EMT. He got you splinted up and brought you here in his own truck. Wouldn’t leave the room until the doctors promised him you’d be fine.”


Erin scanned the reels of her memory but came up blank. “Tommy?”


“That’d be me,” said a very familiar voice from the doorway. The bedside pulse monitor accelerated. Standing at the foot of her bed was the man she’d seen from the stage.


“S — Silvio?”


The man’s pupils dilated. “You must have me mixed up with someone else, darlin’.” Silvio’s voice was unmistakable, but the down-home dialect was all wrong. Then again, dialects can be faked. So Erin focused — as much as she could through the morphine fog — on the man’s eyes. Even separated by two decades, it was as though she’d looked upon them only yesterday. What were the chances that two men shared the exact eyes that ravaged her teenage heart all those years ago?


“Well — Tommy,” said Erin. “I hear I have you to thank for a speedy triage.”


“Think nothin’ of it. Right place, right time, is all. Just glad you’re pullin’ through.” He rocked on his heels a bit. “You’re in good hands with Carla here,” he said, winking at the nurse — who blushed bright red.


“You’re too modest,” said Erin. “When I get out of here I insist you let me take you to dinner as a thank-you.”


Perspiration beaded on the man’s brow. His eyes flitted towards Carla before he said, “Now who could argue with that?”


Carla slammed a cupboard — a bit too firmly? — and breezed from the room.


The man turned towards the door. “Guess I’ll be seein’ ya.” And then he, too, was gone.


Erin’s ankle throbbed, but it paled next to the throbbing of her heart. She could hardly believe her eyes. Was this some drug-induced hallucination? It could only be Silvio. And yet, it couldn’t possibly be Silvio.


Silvio Franco was dead.


#


Erin approached Sonia Franco on shaky legs. The woman was resplendent, even in black, while Erin felt as gray as her rumpled pantsuit.


“Mrs. Franco, I’m so sorry for your loss.”


It was clear that Silvio had inherited his mother’s eyes. Sonia gave Erin a blank stare before recognition sparked behind those large, olive orbs. “You’re that Oklahoma girl, aren’t you?”


Was that all she was? That Oklahoma girl?


Erin had followed the exploits of the Franco family like an obsessive biographer. After Oklahoma, the Francos had ended up in New Jersey, and engraved their name in the underworld of Edison township. Silvio’s father, Giovanni, had garnered notoriety as a ruthless Don, and Silvio as one of his captains. Erin did her best to ignore the allegations of brutality that encircled the love of her life, so far away — both in miles and in means.


She’d never forget the day when the story broke of Silvio’s death. Acting on information from a CI, the FBI had busted Giovanni Franco and most of his captains on multiple counts of racketeering and conspiracy. In the fracas of the arrest, the FBI alleged, Silvio Franco had been mortally wounded.


The part of her soul she’d dedicated to Silvio’s life deflated that day. Reduced to a shell, she’d woven her way across the back roads of the country by her thumbs, to this New Jersey cemetery where Silvio would spend eternity.


Distant thunder drummed, and the sky began to spit cold rain. Shivering from both the weather and Mrs. Franco’s cold glare, she realized she hadn’t set a single life’s goal for herself, since the day she pumped gas for Silvio’s father ten years before. As far as she was concerned, Sonia Franco was right. At that moment, she was nothing but ‘that Oklahoma girl.’


But that was going to change.


#


“So,” said Erin, as Tommy wheeled her towards his pickup truck, “where are we going?”


“Heck, I ain’t picky,” said Tommy. “You choose.”


Their hands joined as he helped her into the passenger seat, and it felt like coming home. “Well,” said Erin, catching Tommy’s eyes, “I love good Italian.”


Tommy swallowed. “I — I could go for Italian.”


The wheelchair rattled around in the truck bed as they rumbled towards Marietti’s, stealing glances at each other.


“So,” said Erin, “how long you been an EMT?”


“About ten years now, give or take.”


“And what did you do before that?”


Tommy narrowed his eyes. “This and that.”


“Ooh. Mysterious.”


“And how do you make a livin’ when you’re not breakin’ your leg in community theater?”


“Oh, I get by,” said Erin, with a smirk.


“Now who’s bein’ mysterious?”


Lightning flickered like paparazzi cameras on the underside of gathering clouds, illuminating the downtown skyline. “Hope you brought an umbrella. I can’t get this thing wet.” Erin motioned to her cast.


“Well, we could just get take-out and eat here in the truck.”


“Like we used to do back in Fort Gibson?”


Tommy could barely suppress his smile. “You still confusin’ me with that Silvio feller?”


“I don’t know. You still confusing yourself with that Tommy feller?”


Tommy yanked the truck to the side of the road and stomped the brake. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on the steering wheel.


“Look, Erin,” he said, “I know what you’re thinkin’, but the truth is, it don’t matter who you think I am, or who I say I am, or who either of us wishes I was. It don’t change the fact that Silvio Franco died ten years ago, and that really is all I can say about that. So you just gotta let it go. Understand?”


“OK, Tommy.” Erin put her hand on Tommy’s arm. “But while I’m understanding all that, there’s something you should understand, too. You see, it makes no difference what you had to do for your father all those years, or what name you put on your ID, or what silly dialect you put on your lips. I know that the man sitting next to me is the boy I gave myself to, heart and soul, twenty years ago, that I never stopped loving. I don’t know how you faked your death, Silvio Franco, and I don’t care. Seeing you again has filled up a part of me that I’ve been struggling to fill for more than half my life.”


Tommy lifted his head and looked at Erin with wet eyes, and they embraced while the storm doused the truck. “Ah, cara mia,” he said, “I never stopped loving you, too.” He kissed her as if trying to supply the twenty years of passion they’d missed. When their breath demanded, they sat, nose-to-nose, staring at each other, smiling.


“This is nice,” said Erin, “but I still am actually quite hungry. That hospital food was terrible.”


#


A month after Silvio’s funeral, Sonia Franco — of all people — showed up on Erin’s doorstep in Muskogee, looking and smelling like a fifteen hundred mile road trip. The tear-dissolved mascara around her eye sockets reminded Erin of a raccoon, as she threw herself into Erin’s arms.


“I don’t know what to do with myself,” she said through fresh tears. “Giovanni is locked away. Silvio is in the ground. The puttanas I thought of as friends have turned their backs on me. I — I have nobody. You were the only person to speak to me with caring on that cursed day, and I was so awful to you. Mi dispiace, cara donna. Mi dispiace molto.”


And the most unlikely of friendships emerged. Mrs. Franco had no shortage of money, and delighted in playing patron to Erin’s creative endeavors — including her recent forays into community theater. Conversely, Erin became Sonia’s most trusted confidante. With Erin’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Franco family, she’d been taken into the family fold — albeit a family comprised of only two dejected women.


“I swear to you, Erin,” said the matriarch one Sunday over a vat of simmering marinara, “if I ever find out who ratted on Giovanni” — she held up both fists — “I will take their life from them with these very hands. If it is the last thing I do, this I swear to you.”


“And I will be right behind you to make sure of it, carissima,” said Erin.


#


Under an autumn moon, Erin and Tommy were swaddled in a quilt in the pickup bed.


Erin drew circles in Tommy’s chest hair. “Have you ever thought about reaching out to your mother?”


Tommy’s sucked teeth gave her the answer.


“You know I don’t like to pry,” she said. “But if you’re hiding from the feds, I don’t see why you keep her in the dark. Surely you can trust her, of all people. She must miss you something terrible, Tommy.” Of course, she knew this to be true, but she wasn’t sure how Tommy would react to her relationship with Sonia. A subject for another day.


Tommy closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone this, but ….”


There was a stretched silence before Erin prompted him to go on.


“I was the informant,” he said, and Erin gasped.


“The things Papà made me do, you would not believe. These things haunted me. I could no longer bear it. When Special Agent Hollister caught me alone on the docks one day with a shipment of guns, he proposed for me a way out of the life. And you know there is only one way.”


Erin’s jaw dropped open. “You’re in witness protection.”


Tommy nodded. “It is a risk even to be seen with you — with anyone from my past. I’m supposed to report any such encounters, which would mean disappearing again to some other place, to again be some other man. I am tired, cara mia. Tired of running.”


The world’s axis tipped a few more degrees as Erin processed Tommy’s confession. The roiling in her stomach felt like cresting hills at high speed. Tommy — Silvio — was the centerpiece of her world, but Sonia Franco had become the mantel on which it sat. She couldn’t bear to imagine her life without that beautiful man. But didn’t she owe it to Sonia to expose this informant that had ruined her? Surely Sonia’s vengeance wouldn’t extend to her own progeny.


“You are so silent,” said Tommy. “Do you have nothing to say?”


“You do have a gift for throwing my life into chaos, you know.”


“If you do not want to be with me, I would understand. It is a low life, that of an informant — especially on one’s own family. But you see now why I cannot tell my mother that I still live. It is not the authorities I am hiding from.”


“I think maybe you’d better take me home, Tommy,” said Erin.


Tommy nodded, and they dressed with detached efficiency.


Rolling down an unlit, two-lane highway outside of town, the couple sat in silence. Erin watched the leafless, moonlit trees drift past, willing her tears into submission until she was safely home alone.


“Oh, no,” said Tommy.


Ahead, at the fringe of their headlights, a dark vehicle perpendicular to the road blocked both lanes. Men in black suits stood with arms crossed at either end. Tommy rolled to a stop a good hundred meters away.


“Anyone you recognize?” asked Erin.


“This type of roadblock is familiar to me,” said Tommy. “From my time with Papà. You will see they are behind us now, too.”


Erin spun just as bright floodlights doused the cab of Tommy’s truck. “How did they know where to find you?”


As if on cue, Tommy’s mobile buzzed on the dashboard. He swiped to answer the call. “Carla, this isn’t the best time to ….”


“Shut your mouth, Tommy Miller!” Venom laced Carla’s every word. “Or should I say, Silvio Franco?”


Erin's and Tommy’s eyes bugged out.


“Yeah, the jig is up, signor. Those men are Bonomo soldiers. Ring any bells?”


“Carla, what have you done?” His voice was grave. Erin remembered well the New Jersey history of the bloody feud between the Francos and the Bonomos.


“Three years, Tommy,” said Carla, “I’ve been dropping every signal known to womankind to get you to look my way, and just when I think I catch your eye, you go and shack up with that old Okie cripple. Well, screw you, Tommy, or Silvio, or whatever the hell your name is!”


“But — how did you ….?”


“There’s a microphone under your seat, you snake! I’ve heard every conversation between you and that Jezebel since the day she was discharged. Every conversation. Every sloppy kiss. Every other nasty little thing y’all did, too!”


“But Carla, these men will surely kill me. All of this because I did not reciprocate your feelings?”


“If I can’t have you,” said Carla, “no one can.”


The line disconnected, and the two men before them began walking towards them with long pistols drawn.


“Silvio, what are we going to do?”


“You are going to step out of this vehicle with your hands behind your head. No harm will come to you.”


“What? I can’t just stand there while they execute you!”


“Nothing can stop that now.” Silvio pressed his lips against Erin’s fingers.


“This is ridiculous!” said Erin. “Don’t you have a weapon or something in here?” She rummaged under the seat, withdrawing only the listening device that Carla had planted. She chucked it onto the asphalt with a huff.


A single gunshot punctured the tension, making both Erin and Silvio jump. They looked at themselves, then at each other — but neither had been struck. Up ahead, one of the two men in suits lay in a heap on the road.


Before their next breath, a hail of gunshots shattered the night, dropping the second man, and extinguishing the headlights of the vehicle behind them.


“What the hell is going on?” asked Erin.


“Mamma mia,” said Silvio.


Erin peeked above the dash. There in the smoking cone of light stood Sonia Franco, holding an Uzi in each hand.


“If anyone is going to kill Giovanni’s rat, it will be me.” She leveled both weapons at Silvio, and he gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and clamped shut his eyes. Then the weapons to clattered onto the pavement as she held out open arms. “But it will not be today.”


Silvio dashed from the truck and embraced his mother in the swirling gunsmoke. Erin sat with her hands against her cheeks, paralyzed with confusion.


#


At dawn, the trio ate steak and eggs in a roadside diner at the Illinois state line.


Sonia said, “As soon as that dimwit Carla posted on Matteo Bonomo’s Facebook wall that you were alive, I knew you were the rat.” Silvio grimaced as she wrenched the skin of his cheek.


“Forgive me, mamma,” said Silvio. “It was selfish of me.”


Sonia patted his red cheek. “It is for the best, tesoro mio. If you had not done this, I would never have come to know the lovely Erin Eberhardt. What a joy she has been in my life.”


“It is a shame,” Silvio said to Erin, “that I did not get to see the entire play, with such a talented actor. You had me fooled.”


Erin blushed. “I’ll save my acting for the stage, from now on.”


December 06, 2021 00:19

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14 comments

Cookie Carla🍪
14:55 Dec 13, 2021

Hi Jon!! I came after stalking Francis and your comments😁 You give some good advice and feedback on stories. Could you possibly read my story "Day 99" and tell me what you think?

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Michelle Colpo
02:49 Dec 12, 2021

Your story kept me on the edge of my seat! Your style of writing is beautiful, and I felt connected with your characters. I love how the story rounded out, it’s amazing everything you so intricately placed with so few characters allowed in the prompt. I look forward to reading more of your work!

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Jon Casper
16:40 Dec 12, 2021

Thank you Michelle! I really appreciate the compliments. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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Bruce Friedman
13:56 Dec 09, 2021

Jon, what a wonderful, rich, and complex story. I can't believe how much you packed into it. I was struggling to keep up.

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Jon Casper
23:03 Dec 09, 2021

Hi Bruce! I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the story. Thanks for reading and for the wonderful compliments!

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Francis Daisy
11:46 Dec 09, 2021

Lots of action, dialogue, beautiful language...wow! Great writing from a great writer. This could evolve into a longer story, maybe a book?

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Jon Casper
22:53 Dec 09, 2021

Hi Francis! I'm flattered by your comment. It's one of many seeds that may one day be novel-worthy. I'm still working up the courage to attempt one! Thank you do much for the kind words.

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Francis Daisy
03:34 Dec 10, 2021

Anytime, you make it easy with your talent!

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Alex Sultan
22:22 Dec 08, 2021

Hey Jon, I'm glad to see another story from you. I think this is really good - you have some really strong lines in it that caught my attention. 'Lightning flickered like paparazzi cameras ' 'The world’s axis tipped a few more degrees as Erin processed Tommy’s confession.' These are just two examples, since there are a lot of phrases you nailed in this. I genuinely think this is really good! My favourite part was the beginning. I found myself hooked easily with the flow of it. It's a well-polished story, I only caught one mistake: Of cou...

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Jon Casper
23:01 Dec 08, 2021

Hey Alex- I'm so glad you enjoyed the story! I appreciate the kind words. I'm pretty chuffed that you only found one mistake! :) I added that missing comma. Those darn prepositional phrases get me every time. Thanks for much for reading and commenting. Much appreciated!

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Kevin Marlow
01:45 Dec 08, 2021

Wonderful tale, all the elements, intrigue, deceit, mystery and a satisfying resolution. Nicely done.

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Jon Casper
10:25 Dec 08, 2021

Thanks Kevin -- I appreciate the kind words!

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21:52 Dec 07, 2021

Nice story, and glad you're back. Not got time to do full crit but honestly didn't spot much to comment on apart from use of the word splatter, which didn't feel quite dramatic enough for the rest of that line. This was a good story, interesting outcome for all characters, nice dialogue and use of voices.

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Jon Casper
23:28 Dec 07, 2021

Hi Katharine - glad you read it and liked it. Let me take a look at the splatter and see what I can do with that. I do agree it's the wrong word there. :)

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