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We Got a Winner

Paying bills is a hustle. 

In the Gutter, it helps to be in the wrong place at the right time. 

We Got a Winner by Stanton McCaffery

James walked to the liquor store – not for booze, but for the scratch-offs his wife asked him to get. He was thinking about Amadeus, the eighties movie. He thought that if a guy like Mozart died poor and was dumped in an unmarked hole there was no chance for him, an unemployed office monkey. He might as well start digging his grave now.

He walked down the street with his head down and his hands in his pockets. The fingers of his right hand were through the holes of his brass knuckles. They were the one thing he bought for himself with his severance check, figured since he’d be spending more time around the neighborhood he should make some sort of investment in self-defense. Over the years he didn’t exactly make friends with his neighbors. A bunch of low-life drug dealers is what he thought of them – and he told them as much. They’d be seeing more of him now so he figured it wouldn’t hurt to add some power to his punch. 

The liquor store’s floor was covered in a fine layer of dirt and the air smelled of stale beer and puke. James called the place The Stab and Grab, didn’t know the real name. The sign outside just read: Liquors. The clientele were mostly kids just old enough to legally purchase alcohol and guys that drank mouthwash when they ran out of the good stuff. James had once been in a place where they told you that you could sample the wine, had a list on the wall telling you what kind of drink went best with whatever kind of food. This was not that kind of place.

He eyed the hard brown stuff and thought about how much he would have to drink in order to never wake up again. The nice bottles with the high prices all had an inch of grime on them that matched the grime on the floor. He went to the counter and pointed at the scratch-offs his wife told him to get, got one more for himself. The guy at the register that smelled like pot and looked like he hadn’t showered in a week rang him up and told him to have a good night.

Next to the front door of the liquor store was a bush-lined curb that James sat on. Somebody pulled in to the lot blasting music. The only thing James could hear was the bass and the sound of the car vibrating. The guy that hopped out had a black tank top, jeans that looked like they’d been attacked by a bedazzler, and a faux-hawk. James rolled his eyes. He rolled them again when the dude came out a few minutes later with a six pack of wine-coolers.

Under the neon lights of the store, James took out a penny from his pocket and the scratch-off he’d picked out for himself. The thing was covered in dollar signs and gold coins and watermelons. He wasn’t sure what the watermelons were about, but whatever. He scratched off all the little grey spots and wiped the sparkly silver crud off his jeans. All the spots were filled with zeros. “Of course,” he said, as he flung the thing into the bush behind him.

When he stood up to go, he tripped over his own feet and fell back into the bush. Before he could lift himself out, he looked up and saw a white van with tinted windows fly into the lot. Somebody with a ski mask came out, a black handgun in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. James stayed in the bush and held his breath until he heard the automatic doors open and the guy go inside. He stayed in the bush but took out his brass knuckles and put them on, not sure what his next move would be. There was screaming inside. It was just one voice. Probably belonged to the robber, he thought.

For a second, a scenario played out in his head where he would sneak into the store and punch the guy in the back of the head, smash his face into the counter, grab the gun, and empty the clip. Then he would say something like Bruce Willis said in one of those Die Hard movies: "Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!" But no, he didn’t do that, he didn’t even get out of the bush.

Then he heard more screaming and two gun shots. He closed his eyes tight and told himself to think fast. When he heard the automatic doors open, he stuck out his foot and caught the guy in the shin, tripping him and sending him on his face onto the pavement. The gun went under the van and the brown bag spilled out cash. James got to his feet and beat the back of the guy’s head with his brass knuckles. 

He pulled his phone out and was about to call the police when he looked back at the money on the ground. They’d be able to keep the fridge full for at least a little while with all that. It would sure make his wife happy. He bent down and picked up the bag, grabbed the bills that had fallen out. There was five-thousand dollars in all. It wouldn’t solve all their problems, but it’d keep them at bay for a little. 

When he got back home and walked in the front door with the bag in his hand, he shouted to his wife: “We got a winner!”

Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science and manages communications for a United Nations agency. His stories have been featured in Acidic Fiction, Heater Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, andBetween Worlds. He is currently working on his first novel.