Disappear by Numbers
by Rachel Ann Brickner
- Blood ran across the half-moon of the dog’s neck, the blade sunk halfway through flesh just deep enough for the knife to stand straight through the hide as if being held by an invisible hand. How the little heart must have beat in the chaos. Did the dog suffer? That’s what the detective wanted to know. And how could such suffering be measured?
- Al spent the days cleaning fish tanks. For a year, he’d been drowning in scum.
- Since he was a boy, he’d had a problem with stealing. Wanting was Al’s affliction. He couldn’t remember a time in which he wasn’t as thirsty as an abandoned dog. Panting.
- When Al decided to rob the pet store, he bought a notebook. He wrote down every employee’s routine. He watched the store after hours from a faraway spot in the shopping center’s parking lot, binoculars in hand. Al surveyed. Al wrote. Al waited.
- There was a job at a pizza shop, the post office, and now the pet store. He’d stolen at every one, and he waited to be caught. Al was never caught. He was that good.
- Al covered himself completely in black in case there were any cameras he missed. In the footage, no one would be able to identify him. He knew the staff would know it was him when he never came back. But he’d worry about that later. In a few hours, he’d be gone.
- The store glowed neon from the fish-tank-lined walls. Dogs barked. Kittens cried. He could smell hamster and rabbit shit as soon as he walked in. Kathleen had never been good at her job. The small knife in his pocket, he only brought it out of habit. Getting the money would be easy. But Al loved the idea of a challenge, so he always prepared for the worst. It was as simple as opening the office door and kneeling in front of the safe, his gloved hand on the dial. A click. A smile. Money in the bag. The dream of escape.
- The night of the robbery, Al wasn’t nervous, only excited so he could get back to Florida. So he could tell Dani how sorry he was for leaving her. He would have enough money for gas and a ring. He’d made calculations in his notebook, added up the numbers again and again, after watching carefully each day at how many customers paid in cash. He’d made a good guess of how much the store sold per day. It would be enough for the kind of ring Dani deserved. A thin gold band. A tiny diamond as bright as her. The rest would work out like it always had. It would. It would. His calculations never failed him before.
- There was a sound. The whoosh of the automatic sliding doors opening. “Hello babies,” the man cooed. “I’m back.” Al stayed still. He’d think of what to do next. Think. Think.
- Al was still thinking as the sound of footsteps grew closer, his ears attuned to the jangling of keys and boots smacking tile. The janitor should have been gone an hour before. Al checked his notebook, pulled the knife from his pocket, firmed his grip.
- “Ho!” The janitor yelled. “What’re you doing here, man?” He was tall, thin, and dark skinned with attentive, kind eyes. Al held the bag in one hand, pointed the knife with the other. “Be quiet,” Al whispered. “Don’t scream.” “Okay, man,” the janitor said. He held his hands up and out away from his head, inching backwards toward the wall. “I won’t say a thing, man. You got my word. I won’t say nothing to no one.” The janitor cried.
- Al had never had to run before and he was sloppy. The janitor lied. He screamed and chased him. He was one of those men who cared about his job. He was one of those men whose job made him feel like he meant something in a world that didn’t really give a damn about him. This was the only way Al could make sense of the janitor chasing him.
- Al and the janitor crashed into cages. Animals howled and whimpered. Some broke free. The cages were cheap. Al saw tiny legs and paws, beady eyes in the dark. He sliced open the side of the janitor’s forearm before he ran free again, before he turned and tripped, the knife in his hand running straight through an opening in a cage, into the dog’s flesh.
- Crying as he ran. Crying as he drove away. But Al was fine. That’s what made Al so sad.
- He’d been driving for days. In Florida, the flatness made Al feel nauseous, like the world had no end. Sometimes he found himself disappearing in the neverending yellow highway lines, feeling himself further in time than he’d ever been. Still, he stared ahead, looking back only when his eyes went too blurry, when for a moment, he was blind.
Rachel Ann Brickner is a writer and multimedia storyteller from Pittsburgh. Her fiction has previously appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Joyland, PANK, and elsewhere. Currently, she’s at work on her first novel and several projects about debt. You can see more of her work at rachelannbrickner.com.