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All content copyright 2010 by Chelsea Biondolillo. Seriously.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Which sounds better: "Third place" or "Second runner-up?"

This year I entered the NYC Midnight short story competition. The contest works like this: at midnight on January 13th everyone who signed up was assigned a heat number, and each heat was assigned a different genre / subject. Writers had 8 days to write and submit a story (2500 words or less) and synopsis in their genre / subject; mine was "Horror / Pawnshop." Here's my submission...


A down-on-his-luck gambler commits a terrible crime to get back in the black, but instead of gaining a fortune he finds himself losing everything. Is he being tormented by guilt or something worse?

Elisa will save me. I just have to get to her. We are supposed to meet at the corner of Jefferson and 11th and she's bringing the money. For once, I'll do the right thing and get that damn ring out of hock. My steps become faster as I catch sight of Gino's Deli.

And then, like a terrible dream I can't wake from, I see Zoya's familiar back, her faded house-dress and blue headscarf turning the corner up ahead, just out of reach.

“No! Stop her!” I scream like a madman and start running. “Please, stop!” My legs give out after a short sprint and I stumble as Elisa rounds the opposite corner, across the street. She hears me scream and sees me fall. My beautiful sister, my savior, rushes into the street. To help me. Then, I see the sedan—it's midnight blue—leap through the red light and I understand what is about to happen. The seconds stretch into an eternity. I am too far away to push my sister out of the way; there is no time to yell. Instead, I watch mutely as the right bumper makes contact with her hip. For a moment the car obscures my view, and then I see her pirouetting away, her neck strained crookedly as her head tries to keep up with the force of her moving body. Her hair swirls around like she is underwater. The car speeds away and it's over. My sister is lying in the street. Cars are swerving around her. She's still, I can tell from here.

People shout and run to her, as I lurch forward. I want to cradle her, tell her I'm sorry. She shouldn't have been here at all, it's all my fault.

“Did you see the plates?”

“I'm calling the cops.”

“Who is she?”

“Don't touch her. Don't anybody touch her.”

They crowd around her brokeness. One of her arms is pinned underneath her. As I claw through the murmuring onlookers, I can see a yellow envelope sticking out of her purse, just a few inches away. She was saving that money for something, but she brought it for me because I begged her. There is blood around her slack mouth. I want to rock her in my arms and ask her what she was saving it for. I want to do this, but instead I reach for the envelope. It's the only way to end this nightmare. To stop all this dying. To redeem myself.

“Hey, asshole, what do you think you're doing?”

“Stop him!”

“He's trying to steal her purse....”

Their rough hands and accusing voices reach for me. My arm is twisted behind my back as I am pushed away hard. My sweet Elisa! I back away from the crowd. I open my mouth to explain but I have no words left in me.

I turn and run toward 13th street, toward the pawn shop. I don't know how I am going to do it, but I have to get the ring back.


Elisa's money would have been enough. I called earlier and told her everything and nothing, and she agreed to bring me her little bit of savings.

“I stole something, El. It was wrong, and I want to make it right.” She heard my confession, silent on the other end of the line. “The thing is, I pawned it. OK? So, I need two hundred bucks to get it out of hock. And the owner, well the owner really misses it, so it's kind of an emergency.” Kind of was the biggest understatement of the year, but I couldn't tell her everything.

Instead, I let her scold me. She sighed. I am what I am, and she knows it. Knew it.

“Paulie, I've been saving my tips up. I think I might have $200... I wanted to—”

“That's great, El. Great! Can you bring it downtown right now? Please? It is really important, OK Elisa?” I cut her off. I didn't even let her tell me.

“Yeah, I'll bring it. I'll come by Gino's in an hour.” Even with only half a story she was giving me everything. Part of me wanted to tell her, but even her indulgence had its limit. I was too afraid to push it.


At least I could have told her it was my landlady's ring.

Two days ago, I had stumbled home after midnight. Thursdays were for poker, and I had been running bad for a couple of weeks. I already owed the house a few hundred dollars and now another night of bad luck with the dealer and my debt had doubled. I was feeling low. As I passed Zoya's apartment, my eye caught a brighter-than usual light coming from underneath and along the jamb where her door was slightly ajar.

“Zoya? Are you in there?” I stage-whispered. There was no answer. I listened for any shuffling or wheezing but her rooms echoed back stillness. I stuck a boot toe in between the door and the jamb and nudged it open a bit more. The smells of her life: licorice tea, borscht, and wood polish swirled into the hallway.

My eyes strained through the glare into the narrow slice of her apartment. The light was coming from a small lamp lying on the floor. The shade had slid off its base and the bare bulb was washing the front door in a yellow glare like a spotlight. Beyond the light, the single large room that served as her living and dining room was dark. As my eyes adjusted, I could see her stockinged feet sticking out from around the couch.

“Zoya!” I spat the word into the room gruffly, in case whoever had knocked the lamp over was still there. “Get up!” She didn't move. I wedged my shoulder into the widened doorway, careful not to touch the knob with any part of my hands.

There was an empty space on the low cupboard across from her body where she had kept a small black and white television. I looked over to the kitchen island where her old radio had been, but it too was gone. They must have beaten her for having nothing worth stealing.

I crossed the room and crouched near her shoulder. She was in a yellow house-dress; it had little blue and green flowers all over it. She seemed always to be wearing the same shapeless thing, and I had once teased her for owning a closet full of them.

“Can you hear me?” She couldn't. There was an unnatural dent in her navy blue headscarf and the fabric was stained darkly. As I leaned forward, I could see a small pool of blood around her head like a halo. She looked like one of the saints in her gold-leafed icons—an angry saint, still wearing the scowl life had etched into her face.

That's when I saw the ring. It had rolled under the couch, probably knocked right off of her skinny knuckle when they clocked her. Zoya's grand ruby ring.

I wondered for all of a minute what a rock like that might be worth. Enough to get me out of the red with the poker house. The cops would assume whoever stole the TV got the ring, if anyone noticed it missing at all, and Zoya in no position to care... I had to reach over her to grab it. Once I had it, I wasted no time cutting out of there. I flipped the light back off, pulled the door shut with my foot, and took the back stairs to my apartment two at a time.


The next morning I split early, before any cops could show. I walked to a different neighborhood where her ring wouldn't look familiar to anyone. There, I found a small pawn shop that had a lot of jewelry in the window, but the lousy pawnbroker only offered me $150. I told him it had belonged to my grandmother and was worth thousands. He said it was a really nice fake. I cursed under my breath but took the money.

Over on the east side, I knew a place that held illegal bare knuckle fights. Tonight's defender was undefeated. Still convinced that this small windfall could clear my debt, I made a bet on the match to double my money.

I didn't want to go home, so I walked around the city for a few hours. Once, I thought I saw Zoya sitting in a coffee shop. Her same yellow dress and blue scarf perched at the crowded counter. By the time I pushed my way through the lunch crowd, she was gone. I just stood there, turning around slowly, looking back at the stares of the diners. I tasted licorice and felt all of the small hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.

I decided the nerves were on account of hunger. The money was burning in my pocket; I found myself craving steak. There's a great Italian restaurant near my apartment, so I trekked back that way.

I must have looked terrible because the waitress asked me if I was alright.

“Yeah, I'm fine, I'm starving. Bring me a steak, willya?” Her eyes narrowed distrustfully—just like Zoya's every time I asked for an extension on the rent—but she put in the order.

I like my steak rare, and this place always gets it just right. When it came out, the meat was crisp around the edges, but bled a bit when I cut into it. Right away, my mood improved. I still had the hint of licorice in the back of my throat as I stuffed a big piece in my mouth. Almost immediately I spat it back out onto my plate.

“Dirt!” I choked the word loud enough for everyone to hear. The waitress rushed over.

“What's the matter?”

“It tastes just like dirt!”

“Dirt?” She could see the same buttery cut that I did.

I tried a smaller bite. I chewed for a moment before spitting it into my napkin. I felt dizzy. “It tastes like... dirt. Are you trying to poison me?” I tried a tentative bite of broccoli, but it had the same dusty taste. “What have you done to the food?” I yelled loud enough to bring the cook out of the kitchen.

“He says the food tastes dirty.” She rolled her eyes when she said it, shrugging in my direction.

And then I realized what I tasted. “Beets.”

“What?” It was his turn to not understand.

“It tastes like beets! All of it. I didn't want beets. I wanted a steak.”

“Listen pal, there's no beets on your plate; there's no beets in the kitchen. Everyone else is enjoying their food. You gonna enjoy yours too, or you gonna cause trouble?”

“Trouble? If you mean will I eat this beet-infested crap, then no!” My stomach was turning. I took huge gulps of water, but all I could taste were beets and licorice.

“OK, nut-job. Get up.” He grabbed my collar and dragged me from the booth. I started to struggle against him, but he yanked me out to the sidewalk. “You aren't going to rip me off, you understand?” He grabbed my wallet and had it open in a flash.

“You can't rob me! I'll call the police. I'll call the health department!” He had two twenties in his hand. He tossed me back my wallet.

“I'm not robbing you. That's $20 for the steak, ten for your hardworking waitress and another ten for being a pain in my ass. Now get the fuck out of here before I call the cops.”

What could I do? I left.


The boxing match was equally disastrous. By then, dread had overtaken me and I was hardly surprised. My guy, Leo, was against the ropes the whole first round. The dark gym was full of screaming voices, waving bills. Each punch from his opponent sprayed a different part of the crowd with blood from Leo's eyebrow, cheek, lip. Just as they rang the second round bell, Leo looked my way. His eyes widened, and he froze. I didn't want to, but I followed his gaze over my shoulder. There she was, walking out the back door into the night. That damn yellow dress. I heard the crack of connection and swung my head around as Leo fell to the sawdust floor. The winner stood over him, his left knuckles pouring blood. I ran toward the door to catch her, but I yanked it open onto an empty alley.

Back over my shoulder, I heard his manager shouting “Hey, Leo. Get up. C'mon, guy!”

“Is he dead?!”

“Settle me later. I don't wanna be here when the cops show!”

“He's not breathing. Everybody out!” The crowd bustled behind me. I ran into the alley; out of money, out of options.

All night I walked through the city, afraid to sleep. I have never believed in curses but I saw her everywhere. She was on the last #12 bus that sped past me on Charleston. She was in the back row, glaring into her lap, but that scarf is unmistakable. Later, in a fourth floor window, as the curtain closed I caught sight of her shoulder freckled with blue and green flowers.

By morning I knew I had to return that ring. I didn't know how exactly. Take it to her grave, maybe? Maybe she had a kid somewhere I could give it to, who knows. That's when I called Elisa.


Now, she's dead, too. I consider robbing a bodega, but I don't even have a gun. All that's left is to head back to the pawn shop and plead my case. If that doesn't work, I'm prepared to fight.

I should have known better.

By the time I get back across town, she's there, crossing the street. Please, I pray like I haven't in years as I race into the small shop.

“My ring.” I gasp as I lean against the counter for support.

“You mean your grandmother's ring? I just gave it back to her.”

“No. No, it's impossible. Please, you have to give it to me.”

“I told you, she was just here. If you hurry, I'm sure you can catch her. I'm sorry. She had the pawn ticket...”

I reach for my wallet, but I already know that I won't find any ticket there. Just like I know that if I run out into the street, she will be just up ahead, maybe a block away, maybe less. But I will never catch up to her, I will never escape.

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