When the two men in unicorn suits walk into the Exxon, Irma Jean wants to laugh but doesn’t. She’s learned never to laugh at anything in this job. People take offense so easily, is what it is. Even their own jokes, sometimes, they don’t really want you to laugh at. Her granddaughter, Charli, calls it a test. “They’re just yanking your chain,” she says whenever Irma Jean complains about the customers. “Ignore ‘em, piss ‘em off a little.” Charli’s usually giggling and lighting up as she talks, imagining and enjoying all that discomfort, while Irma Jean squirms at the thought of making strangers mad.
But these unicorn men, these strange Disney knockoffs who smell like rubber and weed, it’s so hot outside they could be a mirage. Irma Jean glances out the side window and watches lights sliding by as a few cars pass down the road. This piece of Baltimore may be on the edge of going up, but not many people stop for gas here on York Road at this time of night.
The tall unicorn points at the shelf behind her where, up against the streaked glass windows, a couple racks of cigarettes are perched. He asks, in the flat drawl of a bored, middle-aged man, for tobacco and rolling papers. The white fabric covering his mouth barely moves, and his gaze is steady from black beads of eyes. Those eyes, she doesn’t want to turn her back to them even before the other, shorter unicorn brandishes the crowbar. He palms it like he knows how to handle it, and all Irma Jean can think is, she wishes she was paid enough to fight off a guy with a weapon. She knows how she would disarm him if she weren’t 65 with a fat, gouty ankle. The secret when you’re fighting something long like that is to get in close, is all. Then he has to hit himself to hit you. She learned that from her first husband, the cop. He taught her lots of things, but she remembers the fighting best.
He’s waiting, the tall one, for an answer, so she shrugs and shuffles to the side. “Why don’t you just come back here and take what you want? It’ll be faster.” So he edges by, leaving a polite amount of personal space, and she understands that if she moves away, he won’t touch her. His broad, furry back blocks her from seeing what he’s taking, but the other unicorn hoots, “Yeah, bro!” Irma Jean can’t imagine that there’s anything on that shelf worth getting excited over, but then, as her second husband liked to point out when he was dreaming of all that success that never came for them, her imagination doesn’t go far.
“I’m gonna need you to open that register now, ma’am.” The tall unicorn inclines his head as if it’s a request. His gold horn wobbles and sparkles. Maybe he needs help adjusting his costume, like her Tommy used to when trick-or-treating because she always had to buy the cheapest version of what he really wanted. It still twists her heart up to think about it, Tommy in something falling apart or in the wrong size two years in a row, happy before the teasing started. So much of him in Charli, right down to her vices, which Irma Jean knows she should’ve seen coming. She should have gotten it right, the second time.
She shuffles over, and the tall unicorn steps out of the way, wanders back around the front to steal other things while he waits for her to grant access to the money. Irma Jean unlocks the register, then chokes on her own saliva: Ray forgot to empty it after his shift. It’s completely stuffed, and even if it was a slow weekday, that means three hundred, easy. She was willing to let it go when she thought it was maybe eighty bucks, but this is too much, she can’t have these human stuffed animals take this much from her. Insult to injury, that’s what it would be, with no raise for the past two years and her constant need for funds, thanks to Charli. It wouldn’t be fair handing these two guys all of this when they’re just screwing around, not even serious. They’re just stuffing their literal pillowcases with bags of chips and candy bars and beef jerky, stealing like kids while waiting patiently for her to open the till. And her, a goddamn crack shot, as her first husband bragged and her second admitted. If she can just find the gun stashed on the back of the shelf under the register, that’ll make her decision for her. She can run them off. She’s going to get screamed at for losing all the cash anyway, though this is exactly why, as Ray always says, it needs to go in the safe at the end of the day if he can’t get it to the bank. They’ve been robbed before, of course, but not when she was here. And it was always straight-up armed robbery by folks you knew would shoot you in the head, or so Ray claimed. That’s why he always moves the money: those other times, he only had amounts in the drawer that he was willing to lose, and that meant not much.
The unicorn men are paying no attention to her now, because what’s she but an old white lady, small and chubby, moving slow, no threat to anyone. So Irma Jean puts a look on her face, the one that Charli always tells her is so pathetic, no one can be that sad, and she leans forward like she’s really hurting, resting herself on the counter by the register, and her fingers scrabble around like a rodent as she reaches one arm in for the gun, and after a few breathless seconds, her fingers touch metal. She pauses and makes herself think about where the camera is: positioned behind the counter and up high enough that as long as she stays back several steps from the register, it won’t be clear what she’s doing. She pulls the gun out, catching it for a petrified split second on the edge of the counter, then balances it and feels the weight in her hands, and aims it at the closer, taller unicorn. He’s so distracted that it’s even a few more seconds before he realizes anything has happened. Then she watches the edge of his jaw arc downward through the fabric, while the shorter unicorn recoils with the crowbar, almost cradling it to his chest. “What the actual fuck,” he says, his wonder childlike and almost endearing.
“So,” she says, her voice unnaturally loud. “I’ll let you have the ones and fives, I’m so nice. I keep the rest.” She releases the safety, makes sure they see her do it, but she’s not going to shoot them, not unless they rush her. The whole point, she wants to explain, is just for her to get something, too. She used to think it would be her turn someday, to be comfortable if not well-off, to be calm, to be happy. But lately, since Charli’s been home, she’s come to understand: you can’t wait. You only get what you want when you take it. So she supposes she has something in common with these unicorns after all. And they have to understand, she doesn’t want to shoot them, so they have to leave her the choice. Irma Jean’s breathing gets raspy, and her hands start cramping. Is that a pain shooting up her left arm? If only she could put the gun down temporarily, wipe her damp palms.
“Shit shit shit!” the short one yelps, taking a half step back. “Why didn’t we bring a damn gun?”
“Because Dex fucking took it,” says the tall one. He sounds so defeated that Irma Jean’s maternal instinct almost kicks in. But that hasn’t done her any good in years. There’s no one left to lavish it on, no one who deserves it. When she thinks of family now, all she’s got left is Charli and her complaints about the rundown state of a house she doesn’t own and can’t contribute to, about the Dollar Store food Irma Jean buys, even about the Glade scented candles she uses to brighten things up. Maybe she can get Charli something truly nice with some of this money, just pay down a bit of the girl’s debt and then blow the rest. Set her on the right path at last through retail therapy. Well, that idea’s no crazier than that rehab, that one she’d have to sell her house to afford for two lousy weeks.
Irma Jean keeps herself between the open register and the camera, lets the tall unicorn empty out half the till. She tells them they have 60 seconds before she calls the cops and wishes she could see enough of their faces to give a good description, but all she can tell is they’re both white. She keeps the gun steady on them while with the other hand she stuffs her waistband full of the tens and twenties in small movements. It feels like it’s taking forever, and the bills are sticking to her sweaty stomach, and then one of them mutters something to the other and the short one jerks his arm her way, and she swears her finger slips. She shoots him.
His scream is instantaneous and shrill, the same cry as that rabbit teenage Tommy once ran over with the mower and then crouched next to, face spotted red and petrified as he tried and failed to save it. Her face probably looks the same now. Never before has she made a mistake firing a gun. What is wrong with her, which is exactly what the taller unicorn is yelling at her, what’s wrong with you, what the fuck, why’d you do that, you crazy bitch, what the fuck? There’s blood coming from somewhere in the leg of the suit, the red streaked on white like those mints in the take-a-penny tray. Then the unicorn men are out the door, which squeaks open and shut behind them as they move into the night, two pale shapes, one shouting and one moaning, ghosts leaning on each other as they disappear. It sounds all wrong, the squeal of tires that momentarily follows their exit, implausible.
Irma Jean stands still a while, then finally, carefully sets the gun on the counter. The whooshing sound she’s listening to is surely her own breath. She wonders why she hasn’t heard a single siren and realizes it’s because she hasn’t even called the police. They’re taking their time getting there because no one asked them to show up. So she goes outside to smoke first, avoiding the drips of blood that mark a path to the door, stepping into the heat that’s been waiting to swallow her up. Christ, she hopes the cigarette will calm her nerves. After a few drags, her hands are steadier, but when she calls, does she even report the robbery and the shooting? She has no idea what she’s said as soon as she’s hung up. Well, she’ll find out when they get here. In the meantime, stepping back inside but out of camera range by the newsstand, she pulls the bills out of her waistband, folding and tucking them into small groups that she then slides under the thick band of her bra. She tucks her shirt back in after.
The wailing in the distance sounds like it’s reaching her through water; maybe it’s not even heading her way. Irma Jean looks out into the dark, empty streets for the blue and red flashing lights to approach. It’s time to pull it together, like she always does when no one else can, her special, questionable talent. After all, it was an accident, and Charli needs her. She lies for Charli, not herself. She knows how to tell this story to the cops. A robbery gone slightly wrong, no one’s going to get too worked up over that. It’s not like anyone’s dead. It’s just another of the world’s ordinary little tragedies.
Katie DePasquale enjoys telling a good story and making sure it’s correctly punctuated. Her writing has appeared in publications including Milk Candy Review, GASHER Journal, The Worcester Review, and Tin House, and is forthcoming in Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts. A Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction, she has an M.A. in writing and publishing from Emerson College and works as a freelance writer and editor. Find her online at katiedepasquale.com.