I’m going to get brutalized for this.
Everyone knows the mob gave one of their main men, Carey, the nickname “Cat” because he loves cats, big and small. His big cats make it fun for him to hunt down anyone that wronged him, including their families. Lucky for me, I have no family, no car, and I’m a long way from home.
But I did pickpocket Carey the Cat tonight, in the restroom of a nice restaurant while he stood over a urinal. A smooth, long necklace case hung out of his back pocket. I aimed in the urinal next to him with one hand while hiding the case in my hoodie with the other. It’s a shame, too, because he seemed to be in a really good mood, humming to himself the entire time. As soon as I left the restroom, leaving the restaurant felt like walking the Oregon Trail. When I was finally out of there, I traded up my hoodie and jeans for a green coach jacked and brown joggers.
Pickpocketing is nothing new to me, but this time feels different. I never stole from someone who I know can kill me, which is probably why I’m on edge. I don’t go back to the hotel I was staying in or try to hitchhike out of town. I don’t even ask for someone’s phone to call an Uber. Instead, I’m walking aimlessly, without stopping. The necklace case ditched in a dumpster somewhere, my hands stay in my pockets, my fingers tangled in the cold chain links a 14K yellow gold diamond necklace, with a swirling design surrounding a centered diamond. It’s something I’d give to a special girl, if I had one. I bet Carey was planning to do the same thing.
I’m tired as hell. All my wandering and I haven’t eaten in over 24 hours. I walk down the dark road, past little shops and fast-food joints that won’t open for another while. No phone or watch to my name, so I don’t know the time, but everyone must still be asleep if I don’t see them in their cars.
Ah, I hear one now, driving from behind me. I look back, and the headlights are blinding; the engine in deafening in all this quiet. When it catches up to me the car parks. The driver peaks his head above the car roof.
“Hey, buddy, you look a little lost there.” It’s some old guy, probably in his 60’s, but his voice is high-pitched and chipper. “Me and the misses were just on our way to the bakery, but we’d be happy to give you a lift.”
I feel like death, so I take him off on his offer and get in the back seat of this guy’s car. He asks me where I’m headed, but I tell him that I was running away from people who wanted to hurt me.
“Well, say no more, buddy,” he says with a smile. “You can lay low at our house for a spell. It’s no trouble at all.”
He makes a U-turn in the middle of the road to drive me back to his home. So I’m sitting here, thinking that these idiots are gonna let me into their house, not knowing who I was and what I’m willing to do to take advantage of the situation.
The guy introduces himself as Todd, and his wife, Marsha, who is sitting in the passenger’s seat. I lie and tell them my name is Roderick. Marsha turns to her hip to give me a proper introduction. She’s deaf, apparently. She signs to me, but I don’t know sign language. When she talks, it sounds like Mickey Mouse having a stroke. I think she’s telling me her name, though. We shake hands, and she maintains eye contact for what seems longer than necessary.
“Now you know he can’t understand the gibberish that comes out of your mouth, honey,” says Todd, leaning a little to his wife and talking louder than normal. “Anyhow, you’re going to love our little home, Rodrick. A quiet home in a quiet neighborhood. No one will ever thing to look for you there, no sir. So when you get there I want you to make yourself comfy, you hear?”
My fatigue hits me like a truck as I’m sitting in this car. We make it to their house, and as soon as we enter, I make myself comfy like Todd told me to. I collapse on their living room couch without so much as a thank you.
I wake up to what I guess is morning. There’s a brown, knitted blanket over me, but I don’t remember where it came from. I sit up on a blue couch barely long enough to support my body with a stiff neck and upper back. I check my pocket and the necklace is still there. There’s a black coffee table in front of me with warm coffee and two slices of bread. No butter, no jam. Just toasted bread. Weird, but, assuming they’re for me, I consume all of it.
When I get up I cut through the small living room into the little kitchen separated by a counter connected to the wall. I’m still hungry, but all they have in their fridge is more bread. Loafs of different shades, shapes and thickness pack the fridge, wrapped in plastic wrap. In the pantry sits slices of bread and breadsticks in mason jars, as well as extra flour bags and jars of yeast. I still don’t see butter or jam. I don’t even see any meat or cheese, or even mayo. Just. Bread.
“I see you found our little treasure trove there, Rodrick,” says Todd. His sudden appearance startles me. “Boy, we just love, love, love bread.”
“Shouldn’t you be eating more than just bread? Where’s your fruits? Your veggies? Your meats?”
“Oh, you’re talking nonsense, buddy,” he says as he pours himself a glass of tap water. “You know the old saying, such-and-such is the next best thing since slice bread? Well, they all give you cancer as far as I’m aware of. But not slice bread, no sir. In fact, the only thing better than slice bread is the whole cotton-picking loaf.”
Setting the glass of water aside, he digs into his fridge and gets out a loaf of pumpernickel. Todd discards the plastic wrap and proceeds to eat it as is, only using the water to wash it down. He tells me that Marsha is out managing their bakery shop while he takes care of me. He gives me a quick layout of the house, a small three-bedroom place without an upstairs. The one hallway leads to the three bedrooms and a bathroom at its end.
As it turns out, the knitted blanket I slept under is in the shape of a bread slice. The walls in the living room are oil painting of—you guessed it—bread, but the bread’s either on the beach, or in a marshland, or surrounded by falling autumn leaves. The bedroom where the married couple sleeps in is also curious, with rows shelves attached to the walls to house little figurines of bread-shaped characters, as well as people holding or eating bread.
One of the bedrooms is locked. That’s all the information Todd discloses about it, which is okay with me. The last bedroom has been fashioned into a guest bedroom, and it is the most un-bread part of the entire house. Just a room with a bed, a TV, a drawer for storing extra close, and an empty closet. Not a trace of bread anywhere here. However, above the head of the bed is a rather large, framed photo of a chubby guy with a bowl cut and bifocals, holding a cat.
“That’s my big brother, Jebediah,” Todd tells me. “Poor, poor Jebediah. We lost him too soon.”
“What happened to him?”
“He drove into a tree while running from a policeman who caught him selling opioids. Launched right through the windshield and everything.” He sniffles a little. “He didn’t want to run the bakery. So instead he went to college to become an English teacher. But those darn institutions are too expensive. So in the end all he did was eat KFC and sell drugs.” He pauses, biting his knuckles to help hold tears back. “He is a constant reminder to anyone who enters this room that dedicating your life to something wholesome and positive will keep you healthy and happy.”
It’s after 6pm. Marsha is back home. She flutters her eyes as she waves at me. Her and Todd exchange sign language talk and prepare for dinner. Todd invites me to join them, of course, but I spent most the afternoon eating banana break, so I’m not hungry. I told them I would resign to the guest bedroom, but as they dine on sourdough I steal the car keys Marsha left on the nightstand of their bedroom. I stare at the large photo of poor Jebediah—thinking how I would never commemorate such a screwup of a brother if I had one—and sneak out of the window.
There’s no doubt in my mind: they were going to fatten me up with bread and eat me. That’s how they get the rest of their nutrients, by taking vitamins and eating strangers they let stay with them. The freaks they are. They must have a giant freezer in their garage or something, full of dismembered humans. The bread is all a coverup.
I take their car and exit the driveway. It’s a neat, quiet-looking neighborhood they live in, with some houses as small as theirs, other houses a bit larger. Now is my chance to pawn off Carey the Cat’s expensive necklace, skip town, and ditch this car—which will probably be reported as stolen soon. I decide to turn on the radio as I’m driving. The traffic correspondent of whatever station this is talks about the main highway being blocked off by an eighteen-wheeler on its side. Other exits are being obstructed by cops on the hunt for some fugitive. Give me a break.
I make it to the local pawn shop. There are two guys wearing black turtlenecks stare me down, but they look like they lift more meatball subs than weights.
“Hey, Charlie Griffin, my main guy!” says Grayson, the moley-old pawnbroker. He’s never this friendly to me. And why is he saying my full name? I give him the stink eye as I approach his counter. “Bet you got something real good for me today, huh?” He wears his shit-eating grin behind chewing tobacco. Glancing around me, I notice two more guys in black turtlenecks searching through the junk in this place.
“Just swinging by to see how you’re doing, sunshine.”
“Sweet of you, Griffin. Really, ya pullin’ my heartstrings.” He rubs his wrinkly hands together. “Now show me the goods. You’re always good for it, pal.”
I shake my head and wave goodbye. Those guys in turtlenecks look mafia. I’ve seen them around bad parts of town, but I’ve never had the misfortune of spotting more than two in one day. I decide to drive to the motel I’ve been staying in the past couple of months. I need a place to think, plan my next move. I make it there, but before I even park, I see another guy wearing a black turtleneck. He’s more buff than the others, and he’s walking around the place with a tiger on a leash. A freaking tiger!
“Ooooooowwweeeee!” I hear someone yelling from outside the car. “That’s a big motherfucking cat there, boy!”
Nope. I’m not staying here. I turn the car around and speed off. Now I know Carey the Cat’s on to me. I’ll kill Grayson for this.
It takes me a little while, but as best as my memory serves me, I make my way to the one place where I might still be safe: Todd and Marsha’s. It’s after 10pm. I almost forget that I snuck out through the window, so I should probably sneak back in the same way. There’s a loud pounding noise as soon as I’m inside the house. I exit the guest bedroom, only to be met with the sight of a knife-wielding woman trying to kick the bathroom door down. By the grace of God she doesn’t notice me.
“Get out here, Jared!” she cries repeatedly to some variation in between spartan kicks.
Todd and Marsha, who are standing at the end of the little hall, wave me over.
“You’re not going to believe this, buddy,” says Todd, “but while you were taking your nap, the Mrs. and I heard screaming from across the street. We saw this Jared fellow running for his life. We couldn’t let the poor fellow get killed, I said, so I hollered for him to come inside. A couple of minutes later, we heard the doorbell, and this woman with the knife asked us if a fellow fitting Jared’s description just ran in the house. We said yeah. Marsha made a good point, saying that the fellow might have it coming. So we let the lady in, too. Well, as soon as the fellow saw this lady, he locked himself in the bathroom. She’s been trying to break the door down for the past ten minutes now. Good golly, she’s not letting up.”
“Why didn’t you call the police?”
Todd gives me this dumbfounded look. “But, Rodrick, they would go to jail. That wouldn’t be very nice.”
Honestly, I wouldn’t want the cops here. But I don’t want any murderous energy around me right now. At the risk of my health, I approach the woman from behind and offer her all the money in my wallet—roughly $400 in cash—for her to go home. The look on her face teeters between taking my offer and slicing my throat. Fortunately, she takes the money.
“You’ll have to see your kids at some point, you cheating bastard!” she cries before leaving.
Jared exits the bathroom after about thirty minutes. He’s bleeding from the shoulder, but he’s holding a blood-soaked slice of French bread to his cheek. He mumbles something about not needing his kids before stumbling away.
I keep telling myself how I have to keep a low profile. Its morning, but Todd and Marsha drove to their bakery before the crack of dawn. How are they not sick of eating bread? It boggles my mind. Every fiber of my being wants to find a stick of butter. Should I ask one of the neighbors to borrow one? How do I know every person on this street isn’t crazy? How do I know someone in a black turtleneck isn’t steaking out this house right now, waiting for me to come out? I just want butter. I just want some butter for all this dry, flavorless bread.
I let the necklace dangle from my hand, the diamond twinkling before my eyes. And I feel a grin pushing my cheeks up. This expensive piece of jewelry is even more valuable now knowing bigshot gangsters are hunting for it.
I tell Todd how grateful I am for the hospitality when he and Marsha return, before begging him to buy me some butter, or mayo, or hummus. He laughs at me, not wishing to “taint the soul of the bread.”
It’s after midnight. I cannot sleep. Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of how I got here, or the uncertainty of what will happen to me, that keeps me awake. There’s a knock at the door. I call for whoever it is to enter. I see Marsha with the moonlight shining through the window. She’s wearing a bathrobe. She’s deaf, so she’s not big on talking, yet she pulls me for out of the bed by my shoulder, then guides me by my hand. I’m shirtless, yet I’m wearing gray stretchy pants that Todd loaned me.
She leads me out of the guest bedroom and into the previously locked room. Well, I guess this is where they’ll kill me and store my body in their secret freezer as a future meal. Instead, there’s a mattress (no sheets or pillows, just a lonely mattress) covered in rose pedals sitting in the middle of the floor. There’s no furniture in the room, but bundles of lit candles stood at the other three corners of the room. Marsha enters further into the room until she’s standing in front of the mattress, facing me. She removes the robe and lets it fall to the floor around her feet.
She’s wearing a red, lace, three-piece lingerie outfit. The straps of her bra and thong sink into her wrinkled, chubby flesh. She stares at me with seduction in her eyes as I stand dumbfounded before her. Marsha signs as she says something that sounds an awful lot like “hache-e-veve.”
I hear the creak of a door opening to my left. It’s Todd, peaking his head out of the closet.
“It’s okay,” he says, his voice lowered to a groveling sound. He keeps eye contact with me as his head retreats into the closet, keeping the door ajar.
Not this. I want no part of this at all. I don’t even want to think about what this is. I walk back into the guest bedroom, grab a t-shirt, my wallet, shoes, and the necklace, and walk out of the house without another word.
I need nothing more than to walk off what I just saw. Yet once I made it to the sidewalk, I hear a growl, loud and startling. I turn my head, and before I can react, there’s a vicious tiger on top of me.