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Low (Low #1)
Mary Elizabeth

THERE WAS A choice to make.

Keep a roof over my mother and little sister’s head for another month, or fill the refrigerator with food. White-skinned in a mostly black neighborhood, bordered by LA’s shadiest gangbangers and junkies, living on the streets of Inglewood isn’t something I’m willing to risk for my girls. They’re hardly protected from drive-bys and police beatings in the piece of shit house we rent in “Gangland” as it is.

With a half-gallon of watered-down milk, some frozen burritos, and a few packs of Ramen noodles left, Mom and Gillian won’t starve in the week before the food stamp card rebalances. Turning over every dime I’ve made mowing lawns and trimming hedges in the last month to an impatient landlord was a simple decision.

But I’m hungry, and I don’t want an icy bean and cheese burrito.

“Take the hood off.”

The bell above the liquor mart swing door jingles as I pass under it. Dimly lit by the grimy florescent lights above, the air’s thick with the scent of lavender incense and stale tobacco. The clerk behind the counter is an older man with dark-brown skin and black hair. He eyes me suspiciously from under his bushy eyebrows.

I do as he requests and push back my hood, exposing my entire face and a crown of heat-sticky wavy blond hair.

“Sorry,” I mumble, keeping my head down to avoid eye contact.

The bottoms of my worn shoes stick to the tacky linoleum floor. A fly buzzes past my sunburnt ear, sending chills down my arm. I swat at the hovering insect as a bead of sweat drips down the back of my overheated neck.

“What are you looking for?” the store clerk asks in a thick Mexican accent. A TV on his side of the counter blares some sports game; he turns it down.

“Nothing, man,” I say as I walk down a food aisle.

“We close in two minutes. Hurry and get what you need.” The volume rises again.

Bullshit, I think to myself. It’s summertime, not much past eight o’clock in South Central. This joint will be open all night to serve the whores and hustlers who occupy every corner down Manchester.

Even crooks get thirsty.

Before I can give the prick behind the counter much thought, the yeasty scent from the few loaves of bread on the shelf attacks my empty stomach. My mouth fills with thick saliva as my gut tightens painfully, reminding me it’s been too long since I’ve had a meal. With a hand that shakes, I reach out and squeeze a loaf of wheat bread, swallowing dense spit.

The ninety-nine cents shit my mom buys from the discount grocery store is never this soft and doughy. That brand of bread is always stale and crumbles before my lips touch it; the slices are small and taste like wood.

But this kind, carved thick and golden-brown, is easy under my fingertips, even beneath the plastic wrapping. It takes me back to when times weren’t so tough and having a loaf of fucking bread in the breadbox didn’t feel like a luxury—before my dad was locked up, and before my mom threw her back out at work and had to go on permanent disability.

Before I had to drop out of high school to take care of my family.

Trying not to make a sound, I lift the loaf from the shelf and shove it under my oversized hoodie and continue to walk as if nothing’s out of the ordinary. Desperation makes me do some despicable things, and although I’ve stolen more times than I care to think about, my heartbeat still jumps and pumps adrenaline-juiced blood through my veins, dosing me with a temporary, untouchable high.

I wipe sweat from the top of my lip, using the back of my hand before I reach out for a decent jar of peanut butter and slip it up my sleeve. Having what I came here for, I stick my hands into my front pockets and scrutinize my surroundings as if I can’t find what I’m looking for.

“Where are the bike tubes?” I call out, turning out of the aisle.

I come face-to-face with the store employee. He has a dirty, white cordless phone in his hand and stands a head shorter than me, but there is no fear in his experienced stare … only anger.

“You didn’t come on a bike,” he says.

The smirk that decorates my face is forced, but the nonchalant shrug I give this man is practiced and easy.

“It’s out there,” I lie, trying to stride past him. At the same time, my right hand brushes against the metal weapon in my pocket. “I had to walk it. Has a flat.”

Habit slips my digits into the four-fingered armor my dad left behind, clutching the brass grip in my clammy palm.

“I saw you,” the man raises his voice. “I saw you steal.”

Staying cool, I shake my head. “I didn’t take anything, man. I just need a tube for my bike.”

Instead of budging past him, I turn around and walk the perimeter of the dingy store, past boxes of wine, endcaps of cheap vodka, and coolers full of malt liquor. My hand’s secured safely around my means of protection, but I need to get out of here before I’m pushed to use it.

“Under your sweater,” the man calls out.

The sound from his sandals, following me on the sticky floor, echoes behind me. Five feet from the door, I turn around as he reaches out and grabs the sleeve of my hoodie. The jar of Jiffy drops from my possession.

I hold my hands up and surrender. “Look, I’ll pay you tomorr—”

“I called the cops,” he interrupts, shaking out the rest of me. The loaf of bread I want so badly joins the peanut butter at my feet.

“You don’t have to do that,” I say, jerking back and forth as the brazen store clerk pats me down. “I’m sorry. I was hungry, but I’ll pay you double when I get some cash.”

“No,” he says loudly. He shows me the grimy phone. “The police are on their way.”

Momentarily defeated, I close my eyes and picture sharp golden eyes framed by dark eyebrows staring back at me. Her long blonde hair falls past her slender shoulders, and my girl’s lips are curved up—how they usually are when we’re together.

The idea of being away from her hurts more than hunger, so when I open my eyes and see the short store employee point at me accusingly, threatening to steal my freedom for lifting his four dollar loaf of bread, I knuckle up.

Brass glistens in the light.

“Let me go,” I say. Sweat drips down my temple. “I won’t come back if you let me go.”

My accuser wants his jaw intact because he steps to the side, and for a moment, I think I’m free to go home, pleased to eat chicken-flavored noodles. But right before I exit the store into the city of lost angels, the clerk grabs my left arm, and impulsively, I swing around with my right fist.

Brass knuckles split skin and crack bone on impact. Deep ruby red explodes across his face and drips down his chin.

The noise he makes is inhuman.

As the man drops the phone to free his hands and cover his wounded profile, I square up, full of selfish damage and vile desperation.

The blameless cries out while blood seeps between his brown fingers covering his eye.

“I can’t see!” he shouts manically. His pain ricochets off the stained walls. “I can’t see!”

Seizing the opportunity, I run.

I don’t make it two blocks before red and blue lights brighten the street, and I’m surrounded at gunpoint. With nowhere to go, I drop to my knees and raise my hands above my head.

As cool steel handcuffs bind my wrists together, the only person I think of is my girl.

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