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"Intruders" by Edward Hagelstein

Germit Honely lopes out of jail into the sun, ready to leave the place in his rear-view for good this time. He side-eyes the squat brick buildings and fences topped with barbed wire as they slide behind, then continues down the road past a small patch of pine woods without another glance.

At the intersection he turns toward town. The unaccustomed sun is bearing down hard; Germit slows his pace.

The road is four-laned and busy. Vehicles whoosh unnervingly close. A figure in front of him by the length of a football field is strolling along the same sidewalk and gawping around at nothing, like a tourist. Germit glances back and there’s another loser shuffling along behind him. The three of them out-processing at the same time today. Three dipshits on the way to nowhere clutching clear plastic garbage bags – the mark of the inmate.

Germit’s bag holds a pair of flip-flops, two pairs of boxer shorts, five formerly white tube socks, an unread bible, a toothbrush and a dead cell phone, minus the charger. He thinks about ditching the bag but doesn’t want to cram his pockets with the stuff, even if he is wearing cargo shorts.

In his cell, he had a copy of Ashleigh, Bashfully, a romance novel which he hadn’t read, but liked the cover due to Ashleigh’s ample cleavage. It had come from the jail library, really a bunch of donated paperbacks dumped on a table in an interview room. He’d stuffed it under his mattress before he left, for the next guy to enjoy.

Another intersection, a bigger highway, and a McDonald’s on the corner. He’s worked up a sweat now and would like a Coke, despite the decimation it will do to his already suspect teeth. Something he learned from a magazine article.

A problem is that he has the same amount of money he went into jail with. None. Zero

dollars. Zero cents. He’s thinking he can go in and ask for a cup of water. Sometimes they’ll do that for you. And maybe find a big cup someone left around and fill it with Coke and ice. It would help his walk on this sweltering day. The jail was always too cold inside and he didn’t go outside long enough to realize summer was truly here. Now he’s finding out. The shirt is stuck to his back with sweat.

When he worked at the car wash he always had some change in his pockets. Despite the fact they never split the money from the tip box fairly at the end of the day. Germit suspected the car wash lifers had the system rigged so they’d get a bigger percentage. And since he only worked there a few weeks he got the shitty end of the tip stick.

But he had his own system. He made a few dollars of his own each day pocketing the spare change he found in the cup holders, under the mats, under the seat, in those little nooks that took the place of ashtrays in the newer cars. When someone complained he would say the vacuum guys must have sucked it up. Until some sneaky customer had one of those dash cams facing into, not out of, the car.

It was a shitty job anyway.

He crosses the parking lot and is about to enter when a security guard, an old bulky guy in a gray uniform with a wide black leather belt cinching in his gut, steps outside and gives him the eye. Like he’s been watching Germit approach from inside, noted the clear bag, and came out into the heat to warn him off. Heading off jailbird trouble at the pass. Germit alters his angle slightly, and without making eye contact, continues through the parking lot like he was just passing through, cutting the corner on his way to somewhere better. Maybe Arby’s.

Once he’s off McDonald’s property and can’t feel the eyes of security on his back, Germit waits for traffic to ebb and runs across the road, a little awkwardly because he hasn’t run in a while. On the other side he cuts back to the direction he intended to take, towards town. The McDonald’s detour threw him off track.

Tandy is standing in her front yard cooling down after a six mile run. She’s finished the water from the bottle she’d set on the porch before she left and is taking the opportunity to survey the plant bed. It needs weeding and maybe more. She’s never planted a garden; this one came with the house. With a little research she can figure out what to do with it; what to plant, what to weed out.

How to adjust to normality? Do normal things is one suggestion. A garden is about as normal as it gets. She’s about to go inside to shower when there’s a voice behind her.

She knows without turning it’s the kid she passed a half mile back. Walking apparently

aimlessly, clutching a plastic bag, sweating like her.

“Hey,” he says, almost gently. Not aggressive. She turns. He’s standing in the street. Not too close, like he knows to keep his distance.

“You got a charger?”

She glances back at her truck in the driveway, about to say something smart like she doesn’t drive muscle cars but he’s digging in his bag and emerges with a phone. Cracked glass face, seen better days.

“Not for that type. No.”

He looks up the street a little, then back at her. “Another one of those?” He nods at her empty water bottle. “It’s pretty hot.”

She debates being rude and saying no, but it seems uncalled for. He’s not really young, early twenties. Skinny, undernourished. Like one of those kids who miss a lot a school and always seem to be just getting over head lice.

When she comes out of the house with two bottles he’s sitting on her steps. She knows she shouldn’t be buying plastic but can’t bring herself to trust tap water yet.

She hands him one and sits down, a step above and not too close.

“You lived here long?” he asks after gulping half the water.

“About four months.”

He finishes the rest quickly.

“Do you live around here?”

“I did,” he says. “My Aunt still does.” He nods up the street. “I’m gonna go see her and try to stay there for a while.”

That’s when she guesses he’s come from the county jail. The bag that’s obviously not from a store. His pale skin. A passive demeanor she associates with certain prisoners. It’s about a two mile walk but she knows where the jail is.

“What’s your name?” he asks, looking back at her for the first time.

She tells him without correcting when he mishears.

“I knew a girl named Candy in third grade,” he says. “Maybe fourth.”

“Wasn’t me,” Tandy says.

He examines her as if he doesn’t believe her, not getting the straight-faced joke.

“I’m about thirty years older than you,” exaggerating a bit. She hopes the age difference will convince him she’s not rape-worthy, if that’s his intent. She doesn’t think so, but you can never tell for sure.

He looks around, like he’s wondering why he’s sitting here talking to this older woman.

“Hey, can I use your bathroom?”

Tandy thinks again about saying no, but decides to err on the side of trust. She’s spent time in close quarters with a lot worse than this kid. Her father would advise against taking unnecessary chances, that sometimes no is a good choice, but his voice is fading with time.

She leads him inside and he stops in the hall to look at the framed photos on the wall. The ones she doesn’t want in the bedroom or the living room. Small groups of men and women in dusty camo and rough weather gear posing in front of squat structures with snow-capped mountains looming behind. She simultaneously holds the faces in her mind and pushes them away.

“Were you in the Army?”

“More of a civilian advisor,” she says. It still pains a deep part of her to look at the photos, but when she moved into this house she felt the need to put them up. To not forget.

“Most of those people are gone now,” she says.

He doesn’t seem to understand.

“I knew a guy that went to Iraq as a cook for some big company. Made a ton of money. He came back and blew it on meth and a motorcycle.”

“This was Afghanistan. Excuse me for a moment,” she says and moves into the bathroom. She locks the door, stands at the sink, and looks at her face in the mirror.

If she hadn’t disappeared inside to send an e-mail announcing that their day-late and potentially Grade AAA+ source had arrived she would have been one of the dead in the photo. The dusty red Subaru finally eased through the barricades and she ducked through the door to spread the good news when the explosion pushed her to the floor.

She washes her face and realizes she left a stranger alone in her house. A criminal. When she steps into the kitchen one hand is in her purse and the other grips one of her new kitchen knives. One of the big ones. The knife drawer is half open.

He looks at her like a kid caught, terror mixed with defiance on his face. Then he raises the knife.

Tandy steadies her breathing. She stands ten feet away and wills her mind to swing into the present. It takes a second. This can be dealt with. She has faced rage-fueled people. This is not one of them.

“What’s your name?” she says.

“What?” he says, doing some adjusting of his own, not as adept.

“Your name.”

“Germit,” he says, confused. He looks at his hands, one still in the purse, the other with the knife, like he’s wondering how that happened.

Jesus, she thinks. Germit. What a handle. He’d barely have a chance in life. She’d bet a

retirement check the neighborhood kids called him Germ growing up.

On the base they used to bet on anything. Which gate guards would actually show up for work that day. When the fresh eggs would run out. Which high value target would be found first.

The payoff was in cups of coffee. You lost, and over the next days you brought the winner however many cups of coffee you had wagered. The coffee was free in any case. The wager was in the serving, the care it took to make it to their specifications and deliver the coffee to your colleague.

Tandy would bet right now that Germit has never tasted a good Irish whiskey, or any Irish whiskey. She feels the need for action, and taking advantage of his confusion, takes a chance and moves away from him to the little overpriced bar cart she found in an antique store up the road.

“Want a drink?” she says, holding up an unopened bottle of Bushmills, the only spirit her father kept in his house.

Germit looks at her like his mind is somewhere else, like running out the door with her wallet. But he shifts into the present and sees what’s in front of him.

“What is it?” he says.

Bingo. That would have been a ten-cup wager, two days’ worth. She’s already removed two heavy Waterford glasses from the second shelf of the cart. She twists the cap and feels the snap of the seal breaking, letting him see her movements, and pours about three shots into each glass. No ice or water. She takes one and eases into a chair without turning her back on him.

“Good whiskey,” she says. She takes a sip without trying to sell it further and concentrates on not letting her hand shake.

After some time he sidles to the cart, curious about the arrangement. A bit of luxury he hasn’t experienced before. He takes the glass and sits awkwardly on the sofa opposite her. She’s not going to mention the purse, still on the kitchen counter, or the knife, now lying next to his leg. Like it didn’t happen. There’s no reason to trigger his guilt or shame or whatever it is he’s burdened with.

He’s takes a sip and makes a scrunchy face at the burn. She sips, but not as much as she lets on, to encourage him. Get him a little loose. That could go either way of course. He takes a bigger sip, getting used to it now, and looks at her. Maybe she should have added water to make it more palatable, but it seems to be going down okay.

“This isn’t bad after the first one,” he says.

She fake sips, holding the glass with both hands.

“Listen, Candy,” he says, a coming-clean moment. “I just got out of jail. It’s my second time as an adult. I tend to screw up a lot.”

She sips for real this time, to avoid pointing out that he’s done it again.

“I just did six months for grabbing a tourist’s purse downtown,” he says. “I snatched it and ran. The lady’s husband was behind me calling me a little shit and yelling that he was going to kill me. I looked back at him and when I turned around again there was a police horse blocking the sidewalk and I ran face-first into it. The public defender told me I was lucky to get six months and luckier I didn’t get stomped.”

She watches Germit and lets him talk.

“My mom was in rehab. They got one of my Aunts to come to my sentencing and tell the judge that I hadn’t been right in the head since I was born.”

He drinks a little more, the glass almost empty now, and she thinks he’s closed his eyes for a second. She could run for the door but considers another course, keeping her hands around the glass so he won’t notice how much is left.

“Are you hungry?” she says when the gap between words gets too long. “I’m starving after that run.”

“I didn’t eat breakfast,” he says. “I was too nervous about getting out.”

And I’m nervous about the opposite, she thinks. The knife is still next to his leg.

“You want a pizza?”

He’s a little loose now, some chow would be good. “Sure. Meat lovers.”

Her phone is on the table where she left it before the run. She puts the glass down, partially

concealed by a candle. She presses 911 and waits for the answer.

“Hey,” he says, watching her. “You didn’t hit enough numbers.”

“Speed-dial,” she says. “I call them all the time.” She can’t remember the last time she

ordered a pizza. Five years? Six?

The dispatcher answers and after a pause is quick on the uptake as she asks for a pizza and gives the address.

Are you in trouble? “Yes.”

Is it someone you know? “No.”

Are they in your house now? “Yes.”

Is it one person? “Yes.”

“Candy,” Germit says. “Why all the questions?”

“She’s going through the toppings. Do you want pepperoni?”

“Just get the meat lovers. All of it,” he says. “And ask if they have any job openings.”

Candy is kinda cool, Germit thinks. A soft touch. Like an aunt. Maybe she’ll let him stay here for a while. She has enough room. He could cut the grass or something. Of course he’d have to smooth over any bad feelings she has about the knife. He doesn’t know why he even pulled it out of the drawer. One of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. He thought he was going to rob her but after a drink or two he doesn’t feel like it. She’ll understand. She seems like one of those teachers who know to let things roll of their backs, like if you call them a twat because they fail you, then next year act like it never happened when you’re sitting in eleventh grade English Lit again and you’re nineteen years old. True story.

He thinks he hears her mention the word knife but he must have nodded off for a second and can’t be sure. He didn’t sleep much last night because he was getting out today and kept having dreams about the guards refusing to release him for some bullshit reason no one ever would explain. She puts the phone on the chair next to her and tells him they’ll be here with the pizza in a few minutes.

“Thanks Candy. That’s real nice of you,” he says. “Sorry about the knife and all. It’s just that nothing seems to be going my way for the last year or so and sometimes I don’t know what to do.”

She let the snake into the henhouse. Not a fox, the other, the one in the Subaru was a fox. Sneaky and lethal. This is like a baby snake, dangerous in its cluelessness.

“You’ll feel better after they get here,” she says. She’s staring outside now, must be hungrier than him.

“What are you looking at?”

She turns to Germit as if she’s forgotten he’s here. The look on her face is so blank for a second that it almost scares him. He’s seen that expression on the guys you avoided in jail.

“What did you say you did over in Iraq?”

She doesn’t answer. She’ll remain Candy who worked in Iraq to him.

Suddenly, she’s hungry for real. It seems crazy, but she’s starving. A serious hankering for something familiar. Improbably, there’s a restaurant downtown run by Afghans. She’s been there twice.

“I’m going to order something else,” she says and picks up the phone without worrying about his reaction. Germit doesn’t move and just listens as she orders a Chapli Kabab, gives her address, and puts the phone down. He seems unconcerned.

He’s watching her. “What were you talking? Iraqi? I’ve heard enough Spanish to know it wasn’t that.” Not accusing. He seems to have placed some trust in Tandy now, either due to the whiskey, his nature, or a combination of the two. She almost feels bad about calling the police now. Almost.

“What? I just ordered food,” she says.

“Yeah, in not English.”

She’d switched languages without conscious effort. That was a first. A stress reaction. “Pashto, she says. “Sorry.”

“You must be hungry,” he says. “Pizza and whatever else you just ordered.”

“The pizza’s for you,” Tandy says, and looks out the window for a minute.

“Here they are,” she says brightly. “I’ll go pay,” and she’s up and out the door before he can say her purse is on the counter and still has the money he didn’t take. He gets up, knife and drink forgotten, stumbles a bit and reaches for the purse to bring it to her when two cops slide in the door with their pistols trained on his chest and a mean look in their eyes. He drops the purse and gets on the floor like they tell him. Resisting is not his thing. Another shitty day. He wants to cry.

“You could have helped me Candy,” he says loudly, accompanied by flying spittle as he’s

being led out the door with his hands cuffed behind his back.

The cop standing next to her cocks his head at the Candy and checks his notepad.

“It’s Tandy. He wanted to hear Candy,” she says. “So that’s what he heard.”

“It’s a way of life with these guys,” the officer says. “Hear what they want and ignore the

rest.” He’s appraising her now, almost visibly wondering about the seeming coolness with which she handled the situation. For occupation she’d merely answered retired.

“You didn’t have to turn me in,” Germit yells while being escorted across the front yard. “I’m sorry,” before the back door of the cruiser closes on him.

Tandy and the officer trade a look. She hands him the clear plastic bag. “This is his.”

“That’s convenient,” he says. “They won’t have to give him another.”

She watches as the officer’s attention turns to a car pulling up. “You expecting someone?” he says.

“I almost forgot.” She walks into the house and comes back with her wallet, found on the floor. She goes to the car, hands over a twenty, exchanges thanks with the driver, and returns to the officer with a take-out bag.

“Did you order that before?” he asks.

Tandy displays something related to embarrassment. “During.” She smiles for the first time.

He shakes his head and looses a burst of a laugh. “That’s a new one.”

The officer looks at her as he’s leaving. “I suppose you know this could have turned out a lot worse if you hadn’t kept your head,” he says, with a ghost of a smile.

“Yes,” is all she says. She wants to eat before it gets cold.

Germit slumps on the hard back seat of the patrol car. The cop turns his head slightly. “Looks like you picked the wrong house today brother. That woman took you down without lifting a finger.”

“Candy’s a badass,” Germit says. “I think we could’ve been kinda friends if I hadn’t fucked it up.”

Tandy lay on the cold gritty floor for what was probably a few seconds, ears ringing, dirt dusting down around her, instantly knowing that it was the end of so much. She pushed herself up to her knees to crawl outside and see what she could do.

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