She finally saw a gun up close.
And it was such a relief.
The three-hour drive to and from the beach always required a stop—sciatica—just to walk it out, shake it a little, get things back into place.
A rest stop, a parking lot, the side of the road.
Tiny towns of less than a thousand people dot the spine of central Delaware.
She stopped in a deserted parking lot and was about to stretch when she saw the gun so close she could smell it. The metal and the ridges around the barrel were so clear she could see where a bullet made its mark.
She felt like a fraud, writing about these things she’d never seen, never held. And now a gift.
The quarantine had shut her down; she was unable to finish anything and get it right. It always surprised her how many books and movies were written where guns and knives make star appearances. Shots and deaths of all sorts played center stage, yet the author likely had never seen anybody die, other than an odd grandparent in an antiseptic hospital room.
Following Chekhov’s refrain that if a pistol is visible in Act I, it better go off in Act III. For her, it was sitting in a drawer unable to catch.
So when he pulled it from his jacket, she was focused on its size, how it fit into his hand, the marks, how dirty it was.
“Give me your purse,” he said.
“You need a nurse?” she asked. A coronavirus mask over his face made him hard to understand.
“Purse, your purse,” he said, lifting a cheap imitation surgical mask.
“Not my purse, please,” she said.
“Just your money,” he said.
Normally there would be a wad of twenties in her leather wallet, but she stopped carrying cash a few months earlier.
“I have nothing,” she said.
She could feel him looking at her Mercedes, her purse with a fancy logo, her bone-white sneakers.
“I mean, I don’t carry cash anymore,” she said. “You know, the pandemic.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a handful of credit cards, receipts, tissues, wipes, and stray tampons (her daughter’s).
“Gimme a credit card,” he said.
“What?” she asked, pulling it out with her thumb.
“No, not the American Express,” he said.
“What are you going to do with it?” she asked, reaching for a Visa card, her forehead crinkling with questions.
Her heart slowed and the conversation took on a tone of a customer and vendor who didn’t accept cash.
“Don’t report it” were his last words before he ran off.
“But you’re not me,” she said, unaware of how stolen credit cards work.
She looked at the empty parking lot and was struck by the quiet. There was nobody as if all the stores closed at that moment. She couldn’t wait to get home.
“How was the drive?” her husband asked when she walked in from the garage. He was leaning over the sink with a full peach dripping from his hands.
“Fine,” she said, hurrying into her den.
She logged into her online banking. But in the two hours since the crime, the credit card was unused.
Since she did the bills, there was no one to notice the extra odd charges that might follow.
But why didn’t she just cancel it, she wondered.
The following morning she logged in again to witness the crime. She was looking for a television; wasn’t it always a television or some big electronics? A car maybe, video games, something outlandish that she would never buy. Something to trip the credit card company so they might call and she could lie to them, and her husband, and say she hadn’t noticed the missing card; maybe she’d left it at a store and someone swiped it.
She would need a story for why she didn’t notice the missing card.
“So they took just this one credit card?” her husband, the stickler, might ask.
According to her online banking account, the most recent charge was the gas station from just before she left. Wait, there was a new charge. Forty-nine dollars and eighty-five cents at a place she’d never heard of with the words Fried Chicken in the name.
She searched and found it, just a few miles from the parking lot where she was robbed.
She looked at the menu online. Everything was so reasonably priced. She tried to figure out what he might have ordered to rack up almost fifty dollars.
It looked like dinner.
She spent hours on the restaurant website looking at the pictures. Who was this guy and who did he eat with? She examined the photos taken by other diners; she couldn’t imagine this is what people bought with stolen credit cards. A bucket of chicken, biscuits, and iced tea?
That night she couldn’t sleep. She thought about this young man who waved a loaded pistol in her face so he could buy dinner.
She spent the following day in one of her most productive writing jags in months. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
Later she went back to her bank account, and there were more orders, and she couldn’t wait to live them. But she was disappointed by the ordinariness of it all.
The thief spent less than twenty-five dollars at a Walgreens? The kind of order her college-age child might make and she wouldn’t even notice.
She called the credit card company and asked for details on the order, claiming she didn’t remember going. The operator read through the items: toilet paper and toothpaste, compression socks and aspirin.
Again she did nothing.
This became her ritual. Each day as she sipped her morning coffee with a dash of sugar-free vanilla, but before her writing, she would check the orders, look up the stores where he was shopping, analyze the purchases, and try desperately to draw conclusions about what she was paying for.
It moved from a crime to a partnership. Where they ate, what they ordered, and how they lived.
One morning two weeks into this crime spree, she froze. The orders were traveling. A gas station in Delaware, a McDonald’s in Washington, DC. He was coming after her. He found out where she lived and now for some reason he was coming for more, maybe for cash. He must have assumed that anyone who didn’t cancel a credit card and was willing to pay for someone else’s life had so much extra money that surely there was more.
And what would her defense be when this man showed up at her front door?
He’d been using her credit card for weeks. What to say when the police, or her husband, inevitably ask: “Didn’t you see the unrecognized charges?” “Why didn’t you cancel the card?” “Why didn’t you call the credit card company?”
“How rich are you?”
She sat at the computer, staring at the blue screen in fear, then looking out the window as a neighbor filled up their aboveground pool. It had become all the rage in these neighborhoods during the pandemic.
“Trash,” she said under her breath.
But why was he coming after her? He was getting away with it. She was letting him and now he was going to literally bite the hand that fed him.
But he must have wondered as well. When was this sword coming down on him?
Maybe he worried every time he went into a store that it would be the last time. The police would be there waiting for him, and they were gonna kill him like all the others. Maybe the card would get rejected on a website, and one day, guns drawn, they would show up at his door instead of a brown corrugated box?
Every hour she checked online. Sometimes twice an hour, like tracking a package from stop to stop. But then the orders bypassed her, moving south from Delaware to a sub shop in Roanoke, a rib shack in Knoxville, and gas stations in between. But what consistently struck her was the moderation of the things he bought and the things he didn’t buy. There were no thousand-dollar meals, no binge buying.
At her desk, unable to finish the story she was writing, she’d Google the names and places and watch where he stayed and what he did. Maybe he was afraid that a big wasteful purchase would ring some bells and force her to cancel the card and decline the purchases. But didn’t he know it was fear that drove her too? She wouldn’t have canceled that card, he knew where she lived, he had all her details.
Ellen asked herself was it fear or fascination or simple voyeurism?
She rationalized that it was okay to get a little insight for a story she might write, a look inside his life. “I mean, I’m paying for it.”
But he didn’t show up at her door, and the orders just stopped.
For days she was stuck, sitting at her computer in silence. The dogs milled about, her husband in his office, the house empty, the kids hadn’t called in a week. She knew so little about their lives anymore, but so much about this man, and now he’d gone dark.
In real life too many of her questions were answered with one word or a description that her family assumed would pacify her, but didn’t. She needed more. She needed to know not just that her son had a date, but who was it with, where did they go, what did they eat, the color of the tablecloth?
By now nobody in her family wanted to end up a character in her books and so she got nothing.
Her coffee got cold.
Her mood turned dark. No food, no dinner, no gas, no motel?
Where were they? Did they find another source of income? Did something happen in Knoxville?
Did he rob someone else? Why would he leave her when he had this source and it was working? She wanted to call somebody, trace the card, find out where they were. But she had no connection. It only went one way. His shopping was her breadcrumbs. And although it was her money, he held the crust.
“What’s with you?” her husband asked.
“Nothing,” she said without looking up from her computer.
He paused for a moment and then left the room.
After a week without a purchase, she searched the newspapers in Knoxville and then the nearby towns, watching the local news, looking for a familiar face. Was there a death, a car accident, a family who died from a gas leak?
She was tempted to cancel the card.
Maybe that would smoke him out.
If he’s not gonna use it, then I’m gonna cancel it and then he’ll see.
As a writer, she would spend her pre-pandemic days in coffee houses and restaurants like the writers of old who watched people at night and then wrote about them during the day. Then quarantine hit, and her usual places were locked up, and her husband and children clammed up.
She needed to watch the world to make up the stories from the snippets they told. But in quarantine, she had no way in. Even if she went out, there was nobody, and so she sat at home and tried to imagine, and nothing came. Until she saw the gun.
Now she’d learned enough from the scraps of carryout, the daily sundry purchases to outline her stories.
After five months of quarantine, she was back in, and now he was trying to take it away. She needed to see how the story ended.
The weather turned and they were done with the beach for the season.
She made an excuse to go back.
She left in the morning and drove with uncommon speed toward the mall parking lot where she had been robbed.
She parked at the far end of the lot and waited.
The sun rose to the middle of the sky, and she went into the 7-Eleven to get a large coffee. She dumped the coffee outside the car and used it as her bathroom.
The hours passed and she worried whether he was in Knoxville or DC or at her front door.
As the sky darkened she sat upright and watched as he crossed the empty lot.
She pulled the car toward him, too quickly for an unfamiliar parking lot in the dark, until her left front tire rolled up on the parking block, stopping the car, the sound of scraping metal stunning him.
The wheel was elevated as she flung open the door, her feet dangling above the ground. She made the jump and ran toward him.
“You, you there, wait,” she yelled, the young man now bathed in her headlights.
He looked around as if he were about to run.
“Why aren’t you using it?” she asked.
He looked at her with a look between fear and wonder.
“You stopped using my card,” she said.
The man looked around the desolate parking lot.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“You stole my credit card,” she said. “I gave you my card and then I was worried.”
“That something happened to you,” she said.
“In Knoxville,” she said.
“I canceled it,” he said.
“You what?” she asked.
“I didn’t need it,” he said.
“But,” she started.
“I got my old job back,” he said.
“Oh, you did,” she said, feeling deflated and foolish. “You’re not a thief?”
“I was out of work,” he said.
“But you had a gun.”
“It wasn’t real,” he said.
Lights flashed and sirens rang as a single car pulled toward them. A young police officer emerged, his hand on his holster.
“It’s fine, Officer,” she blurted.
“What’s going on here,” he asked, approaching the elevated car.
“I hit this barrier,” she said, “and this man ran out to help me.”
“Do you need a tow?” the police officer asked.
“I think I might,” she said.
“We’ll get you fixed right quick,” the officer said, tugging at his phone.
“Thank you,” she said to the thief, who said nothing and hurried away toward the alley behind the mall.
“So what happened here?” the officer asked.
“Just an old woman missing something that’s right in front of her,” she said.
“We’re seeing a lot of that, ma’am,” the police officer said.
— “Chargeback” appeared previously in Doubly Mad.