Daniel C. Bartlett
Among the young guys working
Market Pantry back then, there was fierce competition for Esme’s attention. To
say she seemed from an exotic place isn’t enough. She was from another plane
altogether. Her lithe figure, hair so blonde it was almost white, an unplaceable
foreign accent. There was something delicate and precious about her. Something
that made you ache to protect her. Any of us would have killed for her.
Which is exactly what happened.
She must have made a deal
the manager to let us carry her groceries to her house. She lived around the
block, two streets behind the store.
She apologized the first
time I bagged
and carried her milk, soup cans, bread, and eggs. “I’m sorry for walking
slowly,” she said. “This is my brief escape. Frank doesn’t like me to go
anywhere. Frank’s my … husband. He can’t get out much at all. Work injury.” She
leaned close and whispered, “That’s not the only thing he can’t do much
anymore. It makes him mean.”
As I reeled to mentally
all that, she asked about me. I told her I was working to pay my way through
college. She was maybe five years older than I was. But she seemed far beyond
that. I was drawn in instantly.
here?” she asked.
“Frank brought me
here. He has
connections here. I don’t know a soul.”
She didn’t tell me
where she was
from. I wasn’t sure if I should ask. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.
When we got to the end of
driveway she paused, took in a long breath. As though steeling herself. Then I
followed her to the front porch where she had me set down her groceries.
“I better get them
she said. “I’m sorry I can’t give you a tip. Frank checks the receipts and
counts the change.”
I’d been so captivated
that I was
disturbed by the mention of a tip. That seemed to corrupt the connection I
The next time I saw Esme,
checked out in Lance’s lane. Brash, cocky, gym-pumped-muscled Lance. He bagged
her groceries, then followed her out, sculpted arms hefting her bags. Lance,
with his self-assured grin, was the type to view her as a trophy. Something to
I spent the rest of the
simmering in vague frustration. I knew it was jealousy and there was no valid
reason for it. I had no claim to her.
I found myself watching
holding my breath, hoping she’d pick my lane.
Sometimes I carried her
groceries home. Sometimes another bagger did. I got the impression it wasn’t
random. She chose her company for each trip. She often stood looking at the
lanes, waving other customers ahead of her, then giving a slight smile and stepping
into her chosen line. We all wanted to be the one who escorted her home.
Like fools we all thought
be her savior.
One trip I saw her husband,
smoking a cigarette on the driveway. He looked like a guy who’d once been
powerful but whose muscles had softened to flab. Broad nose and forehead.
Unshaven shadow darkening his face. He leaned heavily on a thick cane.
Esme slowed her already
pace as we approached. He watched us. Took a drag on his cigarette. Then tossed
it into the yard and walked away, back toward the house. His cane knock-knock-knocked
against the concrete, somehow both menacing and dismissive.
Esme said, and
honest-to-God shivered. “It’s got a knife blade inside it. He likes to sheath
and unsheathe it again and again. He smiles at the sound of the blade sliding open.
I think one day he’ll use it on me.”
She touched her hand to
It was perfectly casual yet somehow also intimate. Nothing was promised.
Nothing offered. But I’d have been willing right then and there to kill.
“You better stop here,”
said. She had me set her groceries there on the driveway. “I’ll make a few
trips for these.”
I started to protest, but
pleading tone she whispered, “Please. Don’t make it worse. Frank will….” She trailed
off, touched a shaking hand to her eye. “One day I’ll get free of him.”
The last time I saw her,
wore huge sunglasses that covered her face. She kept settling and resettling
them. As though making sure they continued to hide her face.
She stood considering those
impulse items near the checkout lanes. She looked toward my lane. Then to
Lance’s. I saw him notice her sunglasses too. Saw him tighten his fingers into
a fist. His usual smirk was a tight line. I swear she looked toward me with a
sad smile like saying goodbye, then stepped into Lance’s lane.
As he lifted her bags and
followed her out, I saw her place a hand on the hard curve of his bicep beneath
his red uniform shirt.
All I know for certain is
she not chosen Lance that day, it might have been me in his place. Had she protected
me when I thought I’d be her protector?
The assault was brutal.
stabbed Frank with the blade hidden in that cane, then beat him with the cane
itself, leaving him lying half-in and half-out of the front door. Esme left
town not long after that. I never saw her again. I heard she inherited a
sizeable sum, including a massive life insurance payout. She was long gone by
the time Lance was convicted of murder.
Years later, I still wonder
happened that day. Maybe Esme manipulated Lance into doing her dirty work.
Maybe Frank instigated something. Or maybe Lance simply lost it.
it’s that easy for us to be
turned into killers, what hope is there in this world?
C. Bartlett’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such
as Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine (formerly Mystery
Weekly), descant, Iron Horse Literary Review, Chiron
Review, and Crab Creek Review. He is also currently
working with agent Jacques de Spoelberch to place a mystery novel series with a
publisher. He currently teaches writing and literature at Lamar University in