HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
We Will Abide by Whatever Comes
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more – Proverbs 31:6-7
Roland Crow’s grandmother calls him Ronnie. Ronnie has small eyes and low ears. His mother is not around. She has struggled some, off and on, even before Ronnie was born.
Ronnie stole a bike and he got caught. Some white guy, fifty years old and with big, hairy forearms like Popeye grabbed Ronnie and slung him to the ground.
–Why did you steal that bike? he asks Ronnie, his voice surprisingly soft and low. His kids are there too, standing, watching.
–I didn’t steal anything, Ronnie says, and starts to cry.
Popeye puts his foot on Ronnie’s ribs and both hands on Ronnie’s wrist and pulls Ronnie’s arm right out of the socket. Ronnie screams, a high and keening scream, thinner than a car’s horn, weaker than a siren. You can hear the ligaments pop. Popeye pulls and pulls, sweat dripping from his forehead. He bends Ronnie’s elbow backward across his knee then presses it down hard and you can hear those ligaments pop too. They pop with the sound of truck tires moving across gravel on a hot day. Ronnie is so very thin. He passes out. No more keening. Popeye drags him over to the curb and puts Ronnie’s head on it. You know what he is thinking. His kids, some other kids from the neighbourhood, some other neighbours, and some people just walking by stand and watch. Some of the kids have their cell phones out, filming the whole thing.
–Do it. Someone says this, then others take it up: Do it, do it, do it.
–No one likes a thief.
A woman stops him.
–Don’t do it, she says, putting her hand on one of his jacked-up forearms, wet with sweat from where he had wiped his brow. Don’t do it. The police are here now. Let them do their job.
Sure enough, the police are there. Who called them? They put handcuffs on Ronnie, only they call him Roland. They know Roland. He wakes up in the car but doesn’t say anything, or cry like he was. He just sits and waits. His face is covered in dirt and tracked from his tears. He is small for his age. He has bad teeth. They take him to the hospital in handcuffs.
I think it was that woman’s bike he tried to steal. Hers or one of her kids. I think it was her that called the cops.
Ronnie’s Grandma gets the call and cabs it to the hospital. The cops are there. They tell her they have charged Ronnie with the theft of the bike.
–How do you know he did it? she asks. It couldn’t have been someone else?
The cops don’t answer her.
–How do you know? She asks again, louder this time.
Other people are waiting in Emergency and they look away and roll their eyes. They think there is going to be a scene.
A male nurse leads Ronnie out. Ronnie looks bad; his arm is in a sling. He doesn’t cry though.
–What happened? How come there is a footprint on his shirt? she asks.
The cop raises an eyebrow.
–He stole a bike. The people who saw him steal the bike chased him. He fell off the bike. When he fell off the bike, he put his arm out to brace against the fall and that’s when he dislocated his shoulder and hyperextended his elbow. This is what the Cop says. This is all the cop says. When Ronnie’s Grandmother starts to tell him that couldn’t be what hurt Ronnie he just turns his back on her.
The nurse starts to tell Ronnie’s Grandmother about Ronnie’s injuries, his dislocations, the sling and his medications.
–I want to see the Doctor, she says.
–This is Emergency, the nurse says. They are busy. I can tell you everything you need to know.
–How did that footprint get on his shirt?
He tells her about the injuries, and that they want Ronnie to go see his Doctor tomorrow to be referred to an orthopedic surgeon if necessary.
–He doesn’t have a Doctor, she says. We don’t have a Doctor. Can we come back here?
The nurse tells her to go to a walk-in clinic. See anyone.
–Does he have anything for pain? she asks. Something he can take with him to get him through the next few days?
The nurse tells her that no, they didn’t give him anything to take home. They try not to do that. She should get him some ibuprofen if he’s uncomfortable.
–We haven’t got anything like that, she says.
She looks at Ronnie. Whatever she can get him, it won’t be enough. He’s never been strong and now she sees his one arm is longer than the other, and his injured shoulder sits lower than the other, even with the sling. In his dirty t-shirt with the footprint in road dust on it, his eyes look even smaller and his ears even lower.
–If it gets too bad bring him back in here and we’ll give him something, the nurse says.
Ronnie’s Grandmother knows it won’t be enough, and that another thirty–dollar cab ride is out of the question too.
No one looks at them now. People are going in to see the Doctors with their own migraines or cuts that go down to tendon and bone, their own bruises and blood. Ronnie and his Grandmother walk out to their cab. On the ride home Ronnie says his arm hurts and he starts to cry. His grandmother holds the hand of his uninjured arm and says nothing.
They get home and the cab driver says, Thirty Dollars.
Back home Ronnie’s Grandmother gets him Kool–Aid and lots of ice.
–You have to quit stealing, she says.
Ronnie swears at her and tells her that he didn’t steal anything. He tells her that she is old and that she is a cunt.
–You don’t want to live in a home again do you? she asks.
Ronnie says nothing. It’s true. He lived in a home for a while. He had been bad to his little half–sister, Michelle. He had been caught with one hand over her mouth and the other inside her My Little Pony panties, holding her down on the floor of her room. She was blue for lack of breath when they had taken his hand off of her mouth, and she could not breathe straightaway. When at last she did, with a gasp much larger than her tiny body, she had started to cry immediately. He lived away from them then, and spent six months in the home. When Ronnie’s mom was able to she came and took little Michelle away, and when Ronnie was out of the home he was able to move back in with his grandmother.
–You don’t want to be in the home again do you? Grandma asked.
Ronnie’s shoulder feels worse than his elbow, and he cries again, and forgets what he has said to her. His Grandmother gets him some more Kool–Aid, and some more ice.
Ronnie didn’t mind the home. Not at all.
His arm was just hurting now. All of it.
The next day Ronnie’s arm hurt worse than it did the day before. He asked his grandmother to take him to the hospital so that they could help him.
–We can’t go right away, she said, your mother is coming over.
Ronnie went to sit on the front step and wait for her.
His mother came and Ronnie was so happy to see her he forgot about his arm.
–Love you, Mom, he said, and hugged her with his one good arm.
–Love you too, Ronnie, she said.
She had her struggles, true, but here, on the step, she loved him too.
–Where is Michelle? he asked.
–With friends, she said, slowly and carefully.
–Oh. Well tell her I said hi.
Ronnie will never understand some things.
She went in to talk to her mother. What to do about Ronnie? The two mothers sit in the old woman’s kitchen. Technically, Ronnie is an adult this time, they know, and they can only wonder what will happen. He can’t go back to the home; it was for children under eighteen. They won’t send him there. Maybe he’ll have to go to actual prison now. That won’t be good. Ronnie will get hurt there. Maybe they will let him stay with his grandmother and hope he remembers not to steal. That would be the best. Perhaps it’s just best to wait and see, they say, each to the other, back and forth a few times, and abide by what comes. This much is true: no one is coming to help. No one can fix Ronnie. They agree on that. He has no impulse control.
Ronnie’s grandmother asks if her daughter has enough money for the cab ride back to emergency to get something for Ronnie tomorrow, something for his arm, something to tide him through the next couple of days. Twenty dollars is all she has, but Ronnie’s grandmother has that and a little more. She can call a cab.
–Tomorrow will be worse for Ronnie than today, she says. Things always hurt worse a day or two after they happen.
The two women walk out together but Ronnie’s gone, he’s not on the step anymore.
–Ronnie, the grandmother calls.
–Roland Crow, his mother says.
Ronnie’s mother goes to the street and Ronnie’s grandmother goes to the alley. They keep calling and walking and his grandmother finds him first, sees him walking two blocks away, pushing a bike with his good hand on the handlebars, smiling his big smile so big it looks like he’s laughing, and his eyes new–button shiny like they were polished and sewn on.
STEVE PASSEY is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection “Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock” (Tortoise Books, August 2017) and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction. His fiction and poetry have appeared in more than forty publication worldwide, both print and electronic.