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Hero

Hero is a term that gets bandied about too often these days. 

In the Gutter, a Hero is a man who'll answer the door when opportunity knocks. 

Hero by Martin Penn-Woods



Todd sat in his Impala in the strip mall parking lot, snorting crank. He glanced around. He looked at the front door of Rick's Steak Palace. He was trying to work up the nerve.

Double or nothing, Willie said to Mike as he pulled the grease trap out of the griddle. It was more of a statement than a question. You're gonna be into me for forty, Mike warned. Willie followed Mike through the kitchen, trying not to spill the grease. Mike pushed open the back door. They walked over to the black 55-gallon steel drum next to the Dumpster.

— Kurt rested on a milk crate inside the walk-in cooler and smoked weed out of a Granny Smith apple he found on a shelf. Kurt hadn't made a sandwich for anyone except himself since he started two weeks ago. But his old man was best friends with Rick and it was just a stupid summer job, so fuck it.

— Todd pulled his dollar-store ski mask down over his face. It was too small for his kickball head. He grabbed the Glock off the seat and hopped out of the car. Todd was amped.

— Brad the night manager was on the toilet. If it wasn't the gout, it was his Irritable Bowel Syndrome flaring up again. Brad read the USA Today sports section and daydreamed about the Preakness on Saturday. He was gonna party hearty in the infield and see some serious titties. Long as his colon cooperated.

— Mike slid the lid off the drum, releasing the stink Kraken. It was filled two-thirds of the way with a rancid, frothy stew of ribeye grease, fryer oil, burnt gristle and onions, some other rank shit. Willie dumped in the contents of the grease trap, then set the trap on the ground. Call it, Mike said, flicking a quarter in the air. Tails, Willie said. It was heads. Fuck, Willie said. Willie gripped the sides of the drum, dangled his head over the hideous stench and inhaled deeply.

— Frank, the last customer of the night, slowly chewed his cheesesteak in a booth in the back. He regretted not getting mayo on it because he was afraid they'd make fun of him. He looked up through the shop's glass front and saw a guy in a ski mask running up to the door. Frank dropped his cheesesteak in his red plastic basket. He slid down on the seat and froze.


— Todd burst through the front door, gun raised. He didn't see anyone. Todd ran up to the register. He bashed the keys of the register with the handle of the gun until it finally popped open. He yanked the cash out of the till.

Holy shit, Mike laughed as Willie, gagging, pulled his head up, stepped back and gulped in the night air. Your turn, Willie gasped. Mike assumed the position over the drum and drew the stink into his lungs. Mike's eyes watered. He stood back up, smiling. Jesus fucking Christ, Willie said, shaking his head. Ain't nothin', Mike said. You're up.

Brad wiped his ass and kept reading the paper.

— Todd stuffed the money in his pocket. Too easy, he thought. Todd grinned. He grabbed a cup from next to the register and went over to the soda machine. He scanned the machine for Dr. Pepper. They only had Mr. Pibb. Todd scowled.

— Frank tried not to breathe. He let out a loud fart that rippled across the seat of the booth and echoed in the room like a thunderclap. He couldn’t help it.

— Todd wheeled around and looked into Frank's frightened eyes. He darted over to the booth and pointed the gun in Frank's face. Then Todd had a thought. It seemed like the most sensible thought that had ever leapfrogged to the front of his meth-toasted brain. I got the money, I don't need a murder rap, he thought. Todd grinned again. He lowered the gun. He turned and ran for the front door.

— Willie put his head over the top of the drum and inhaled again. His shoulders lurched forward. He puked. The half-digested crab fries Willie ate an hour earlier splashed into the stew. Mike punched the air with a victory fist. Forty bucks, motherfucker, pay up!

Todd slipped on a patch of freshly mopped tile. Brad forgot to put up the yellow caution sign when he scurried into the bathroom. The gun went off. The bullet ripped into Todd's thigh. He howled and fell to the floor. He dropped the Glock. It went skittering across the slick floor. Blood shot out from the wound. He must have hit an artery. Todd pulled himself along the floor, smearing blood all over the tile.

— Brad, his pants around his ankles, pulled the bathroom door open a crack. He peeked into the dining room.

— Mike turned around and looked through the open back door into the kitchen. He couldn't see shit. Willie wiped vomit off his chin.

— Frank shimmied out of the booth and slippity slid over to the gun. He'd never seen a pistol in real life before, just in the movies and TV. He picked it up. It was plastic. He was surprised. It was lighter than he thought it would be. He held the gun with both hands, like TV cops did. He pointed it at Todd. It felt weird. Todd was almost to the door. Frank followed him. He curled his finger around the trigger. Frank didn't realize how sensitive triggers can be. The gun fired. The slug slammed into Todd's head. The ski mask held in some of Todd's brains and skull.

— Kurt stayed inside the cooler, high as fuck.

— Frank smiled a dumb, confused smile. It was the same smile he had on his face in the picture that ran on the front page of the local paper the next day. The headline said, ”Hero saves four in restaurant robbery nightmare.” He cut the article out for his grandma. Rick said Frank could have free cheesesteaks for life. 

Martin Penn-Woods is not a hitman, a crime boss, a corrupt detective, a meth-head, a drug runner, a sadistic prison guard, a heist-master, or an avenging hooker (at least as far as you know), but he sure likes writing about such folks. He's worked as a journalist, a library clerk, and the best damn professional sandwich maker that's ever walked the earth. His stories have appeared in various corners of the Internet and several fine print publications, most of which are now defunct. He hopes to live as long and as well as Harry Dean Stanton. Follow him (MPW, not HDS) on Twitter @martinpennwoods.