by Wendy Maxon
Sara used to love the pastel seascape she’d painted on her curbside mailbox, but today its red plastic flag beckoned like a crooked finger commanding her to open. She felt sick knowing what awaited her inside: reminders that she risked losing the house and everything in it. She could avoid the mail and retreat indoors, barricading herself under the tattered blankets on the futon. But the longer she stalled, the likelier they’d take both the house and her, cuffed, with a gun jammed to her temple. Sara pulled the mailbox handle, but by now the piece of shit was so overstuffed, the door was stuck. She grimaced in disgust and bashed her forearm against the top.
The door broke off and clattered to the ground.
She blanched; the pile of pink and yellow envelopes hunched like a sniper in a crawl space. The NOTICE TO VACATE nauseated her even more than the FINAL. She hadn’t sold a painting in months, and her safety net had vanished along with thirteen pounds from her already-small frame. She didn’t need to open the bloated envelopes to guess how few the days she had left were.
When her phone rang, she groaned. Hal was coming, bringing leftovers from some fancy restaurant, which she loathed wanting but was too hungry to reject. Of the two of them, she’d always been the gutsier twin. But he’d get the last laugh today if he saw her exposed mailbox. He’d brandish each repo notice one by one, unable to suppress that million-dollar grin. She couldn’t risk him seeing them.
Her forearm was sore from smashing the aluminum, but she was too durable to let injuries get her down. She’d spent years roughhousing on playgrounds and eight months firing clay at the Denver Arts Institute. She knew scars. She emptied the mailbox, ignoring the word VACATE stamped on the top envelope. Clutching the stack to her chest so tightly her gold chain dug into her neck, she dumped scores of letters in the trash, unread.
“Slept in?” Hal greeted her at her door, holding a to-go box in one hand while he untangled his blond bangs with the other. “I’ve been awake since five. After that much steak, I needed to lift, bad. Glad you’re taking this away.”
She didn’t look at him—just led him through the entryway while her hallway lamp dimmed and flickered. “Thanks. Not everyone can afford the gym.”
He followed her into the walk-in closet she’d painted blue and converted into a studio. She bristled; supplies were one thing, but having Hal in her safe space while she was creating felt weird, and she had looked forward to crafting this piece all week. He blocked too much of the light.
Hal pointed to a canvas layered with blue puddles. “I thought you gave up on the ocean series because they didn’t sell?”
Sara snatched a threadbare blanket from the futon and draped it over the canvas so he couldn’t see. After graduation, she’d been so successful, selling three watercolors and working her butt off to broker that fourth. Long nights, bottomless coffee, and minimal spending had earned her enough for the down payment on the house⸺her sanctuary. When she signed the final paperwork, she felt free, but not complete. She was still a twin, no matter how strained their relationship. Her remaining profit from her fourth sale hadn’t been much, but she’d stuffed it into an envelope and gifted it to Hal as a payment toward his law school loan. He’d hugged her, graduated, and bought a place ten times nicer.
Turning away from him, Sara collected several tubes of paint and squeezed small amounts into the plastic cups beside the large, blank canvas on the floor. She gathered her blonde curls into a ponytail, squatted, and dunked her hands in the yellow paint. Pressing her stained palms onto the backdrop, she swiped lacquer from one side of the canvas to the other, hues transforming into eggs, flowers, dunes, and billowing sails. Her pendant⸺a long, gold pillar bar⸺dangled from its chain, cutting lines and contours into the paint. Occasionally Sara dipped the inverted pendant into cups of red semigloss. Acetone fumes burned her throat when the charm dripped scarlet globules from edge to edge.
While Sara zigzagged across her canvas, the overhead light sputtered.
“You should get someone to look at your wiring,” Hal said.
“I’ll be fine.” She would, she told herself, as long as she could steer clear of the hellhole they had grown up in. Sara stood back up. The pendant left a red lash against her sleeve.
Hal pointed to her necklace. “I can’t believe you’re still wearing that.”
He’d given it to her two years before, in the hospital parking lot. That awful day.
“Was this from you? I don’t remember.” But of course she did.
“I’m not surprised. You threw up the whole way home.”
Her belly twinged, as it still did on occasion. “It’s just a paintbrush now. No big deal. I didn’t need your trinkets or your pity.”
“But that guy was such an asshole, right? Leaving you there to go get baby back ribs.”
Sara’s heart pounded as fast as it had the day Joe dropped her off at that outpatient clinic, insisting that he needed a McRib and wouldn’t be long. Or maybe as fast as it had four weeks prior, when she sat on the toilet holding the purple stick with the plus sign, head swirling, scared but also ecstatic because she could finally have a child to love her. One who would know what her sculptures meant because he or she had been their inspiration all along. But then she remembered her dwindling bank account, and the video game console Joe spent hours on each day. And his malicious laugh. And the deep, fist-shaped dent in the door of his food truck, which he swore wasn’t his fault. When the truck’s noxious jingle rang outside Sara’s apartment, she felt cool porcelain beneath her and lukewarm tears pool above her cheeks. Her split second of possibility vanished. She grabbed her cell phone to schedule the abortion.
“You didn’t have to help me.”
“You’re my sister! You were scared and sick and had been through hell. I never told Mom and Dad about the pregnancy, either, because I knew you couldn’t bear to hear that you’d screwed up again. Even if it was true.” Her ears and face burned. “You’re lucky you’ve got talent. Guess you can make a painting, just not a baby. Or a sale.”
Muting the ringer on the phone might prevent a startled jolt, but it couldn’t ward off the constant sinking feeling. It also couldn’t detain the repo agent, who arrived that afternoon wearing a sterile, blue dress shirt and a dead smile that disappeared when he delivered his ultimatum: $18,000 by Sunday, or they’d seize it all.
After the repo guy left, Sara choked back hot tears and wandered to the garage, surveying the multicolored tubs and glaring at her reflection in the epoxy-coated floor. She’d finally done it. After a whole life spent bankrupting her family (the younger twin, the extra mouth to feed), she’d fled them only to bankrupt herself.
Sara spotted a spider web in the corner and ran for the Clorox. The orange scent of the cleanser was almost strong enough to block out the memory of that time her mother forced her to sleep outside next to a pregnant black widow. Inside, Angela had paced the kitchen, screeching about Ellis, her father, and his spending, and some terrible thing the IRS had found out. Meanwhile, Sara lay immobile in the planter, terrified the spider’s bulbous stomach would burst and send hundreds of children scuttling over her face and arms. She only vomited once, the jet of bile soaking her shirt and barely missing the spider. The next day, Sara dragged herself inside, red-eyed and dehydrated, fingering the wet patch on her collar. Ellis ignored her, but Angela marched back outside and bashed the black widow with a rusty shovel, exterminating each baby with abandon.
If Sara didn’t do something immediately to save her house, she’d be back in the dirt with the other pests.
The idea hit her like a sledgehammer. Art alone might not save her house, but a steep ransom for the golden boy would. That kind of money would cover six months of back mortgage and bills, plus enough to host an exhibit that could generate enough sales to eliminate her credit card debt.
But could she do this?
As young kids, she and Hal had been inseparable. They banded together, playing superheroes in their parents’ restaurant and chasing fireflies at the reservoir. But everything changed on their final trip, when Ellis snuck off with another woman, and Angela unleashed her wrath. She deserted Sara at the rental house and dragged Hal around for hours in search of her husband. When all three returned, Hal glared at Sara. “You should have been with me,” he said, his voice like gravel. He ignored Sara’s pleas for an explanation and ripped her sandcastle drawing in two. He’d tormented her ever since.
Nevertheless, she wasn't suited for cruelty. And Hal had improved lately; his insults, while callous, hadn't made her cry as often. She mulled the consequences, but then her eyes drifted to her paintings. If she were ejected from her safe place, her soul would die. She couldn’t create. And if she couldn't paint or sculpt, then she’d be nothing. Just like Hal had said.
On the armrest of the futon, Sara’s gold pendant simmered in a shallow lid filled with paint thinner, emitting acrid fumes that burned her nose. She could make a painting, but not a sale. She couldn’t make it as a mother, either. But she was an artist. Of all the people in the world, she could construct one hell of a ransom note.
Hal hadn’t seen her enter behind him, but the foyer inside his condo reeked of the chloroform wafting from the damp, blue washcloth in her gloved right hand. She didn’t want to hurt Hal, but this was scary. Clutching the washcloth, she tiptoed a few feet behind him, maneuvering past Hal’s art deco wallpaper and inching quietly across his black-and-white checkerboard rug. She prayed he wouldn’t turn. The .38 in her front pocket⸺the only thing of value Joe had left behind⸺mashed against her thigh.
Hal stopped. He twisted his neck and sniffed. “Who’s there?”
Sara charged, going in for a rear bear hug and seizing Hal’s waist. Mustering her strength, she rammed her left fist against his stomach and held fast. Hal inhaled sharply. She whipped her right arm around his body, smashing the washcloth hard against his cheekbone. But with Hal’s broad shoulders and ferocious twisting, she couldn’t reach his mouth.
Hal jerked his elbow back to get her hand off his face, then clamped his left arm onto hers. Fuck! She dodged his flailing elbow and used her other arm to knock the washcloth into Hal’s bared teeth. He yelped and twisted, unable to break free. But even though she pressed on the washcloth for what felt like an eternity, he kept moving. Unless she did something more, she was as good as dead.
To Sara’s horror, Hal lurched forward like a zombie, lugging her body. He squeezed Sara’s arm, brutally crushing her wrist. Her pain erupted into panic. She had to get the gun, but with her left arm trapped and her right hand grinding the washcloth into his nose, she couldn’t reach it. Hal bucked forward and flung his head back, bashing the top of Sara’s forehead. She yowled. Dark spots clouded her eyes, and the room spun. She scanned her peripheral vision for anything that might help her free herself. The lamp.
Stretching her unbound arm, Sara grabbed the brass lamp on Hal’s entry table and yanked the plug loose. With her heart thudding, she swung it overhead and slammed it against the back of his skull. He collapsed. Sara dropped the lamp at her side and confirmed that Hal’s chest still rose and fell. She stuffed the washcloth into his mouth in case he squirmed.
Had she hurt him? She never wanted to hurt him.
Hadn’t he hurt her?
She didn’t have time for guilt. Avoiding neighbors, she scurried to her car to retrieve the folding hand truck.
Even though the capture hadn’t gone smoothly, and she’d pulled three muscles lugging Hal into her garage, Sara persevered. She’d tied him to the folding chair, waved more chloroform beneath his nose, and jerked his restraints tight. To keep him warm, she’d tied a knitted scarf around his forehead and ears and wrapped an army blanket around his shoulders. He was her brother, after all. She didn’t want him to freeze to death.
To calm herself, she returned upstairs and added flourishes to her artwork. After twenty minutes, with gun in hand, she checked on Hal to make sure he was asleep and alive. His snores ricocheted off the concrete floor. With his ruddy nose and cheeks peeking out, he looked disheveled but still indestructible.
Tucking the gun into her waistband, Sara headed to her bedroom. It was time to send the first ransom note. She kneeled on her yoga ball and fired up her archaic laptop to check the dozens of email addresses she’d registered. She chose one and let loose on the keyboard.
Dear Law Offices of James and Carter,
We’ve kidnapped your employee, Hal Taskin. Don’t call the police, or Hal will lose another three fingers (see attached). Go to the alley near Third and Staver. Place $18,000 in unmarked bills in the trash bins in the next six hours, or Hal’s blood will be on your hands (see attached).
Sara stood, grabbed the Polaroid camera, and snapped a photo of a nearby canvas. Stabbed into the surface were three papier-mâché fingers mimicking Hal’s hairy digits. She didn’t go crude too often, but she had to admit the fakes were some of her best work. She hit SEND and crafted note number two.
We have your boyfriend. Drop $18,000 in the trash bins in the alley near Third and Staver. You’ve got six hours, or you’ll never see Hal’s cock again. The papier-mâché figure attached was really some of Sara’s best work.
The last note was addressed to Ellis and Angela:
Dear Angela and Ellis Taskin,
Your son can’t save you now. You need to save him. Your darling boy is bleeding, and only two bullets are left in the gun⸺one for each eye. Stash $18,000 in the Third Avenue alley trash bins in six hours, and maybe you’ll see him again. We can’t guarantee he’ll see you.
The photograph showed a stuffed dummy with a paper bag over its head, doused with red paint. Sara clicked SEND. Her stomach fell. She huddled, arms poised across the keyboard like set mousetraps, and waited.
Three hours? What was taking everyone so long? In the garage, Sara laid the gun on a workbench and checked the chloroform bottle with shaking hands. It was almost empty.
An hour later, her inbox contained four messages. One from the cable company demanding she bring in past-due paperwork or face legal retribution, three that she’d been waiting for. Sara inhaled and clicked.
Office of Steven James, Esq.
We regret that we cannot honor your request. Hal Taskin no longer works at James and Carter, LLC and was terminated on January 13.
Bile rose in Sara’s throat. Sara skipped to the next email.
Hal? We haven’t seen each other in three weeks. He hasn’t gotten it up in three months or looked at anything but his wallet in three years. Delia.
She clicked the third.
We can’t pay $18,000 or anything else. We’ve lost all our money. Please don’t hurt our boy.
Sara burst into tears. She’d rather die than lose the house. If nobody would pay, she’d get the money another way.
A ping! in her inbox made her shriek. She had opened accounts on various machines across town, but there was only so much she could do before they tracked her here. Worse, someone might have contacted the police. She had to get Hal out of that chair and into her car. Was it too late to shove his unconscious body through his front door and pretend nothing had happened? She rose to grab the gun on the
She’d left it in the garage.
Sara tore downstairs and flung open the garage door. Hal sat alert, blinking through eyes swollen like puffed rice. The scarf had slipped to his neck like a slackened noose. He craned his neck, looked at her, and seethed.
She’d left the gun on the bench behind Hal. He didn’t appear to have seen it.
“You bitch,” he said, his eyes boring into her. “You almost killed me.”
“I won’t kill you.” She inched toward the gun.
Hal winced and squeezed his right eye shut. “Don’t tell me this is for money.”
“Shut up. You knew I needed help. I starve, and you watch the shit show and eat popcorn.”
The .38 lay only a short distance from her now. Securing chloroform was out of the question, but if she kept him rambling, she could grab it and restrain him.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sara said. “Because when Mom went ballistic, guess who got hit.”
“Holding me captive is your solution?” Hal struggled against the ropes. “Nothing worse than a self-pitying, vicious bitch.”
Sara rubbed her scar with so much fury she struck blood. “You saw it all happen! Why didn’t you do something?”
“I couldn’t. You bitch about your family, but you’re the one destroying it. That’s why you killed your baby, right?”
She stopped. Everything slowed but her heartbeat. “You don’t think I wanted it? I agonized over any possible way.”
“Some people shouldn’t have babies.”
“Mom shouldn’t have.” Sara’s voice became a growl. “If she hadn’t had twins, she wouldn’t have stuck a knife in my thigh. Remember when she made me chop onions? She handed an eight-year-old a knife and said ‘Do something of value for once.’ Then the tax guy came and…” Sara went mute. Angela’s eyes had grown stone-cold when she grabbed the knife from Sara’s small hand. She hoisted it high and thrust the blade into Sara’s leg. Throbs of pain coursed through Sara, shooting through every bone in her small body. She thought she would die. But the worst was yet to come.
“She stranded me in the ER, you know.” Aching and encased in gauze, Sara had lain under a drape in that gleaming white hospital room. When the nurses grilled her about what happened, she didn’t say a word to anyone except herself.
Mommy’s close to loving you, but if you talk, she’ll leave forever.
She couldn’t tell the nurses what had happened, no matter how often they asked. She couldn’t get Angela in trouble.
“I waited for you to come get me, Hal. Nobody could find you. I wailed your name.”
Hal recoiled. “You wailed for me? You don’t know what happened next?”
“What do you mean?”
“They thought I stabbed you! I was eight. You said you got stabbed and called my name. Do you know what it’s like to be taken to police headquarters when you’re eight? When the cops shove you in a chair and harass you for hours? The accusation haunted me for decades!”
“I was scared shitless, Sara.” Hal narrowed his eyes. “Like usual, you weren’t paying attention. Why didn’t you ever fucking help me?”
“She wouldn’t leave me alone! I was in her clutches day and night, and if I didn’t… ‘We need mortgage money, Hal. Daddy’s with another woman, so I need you, Hal. Don’t tell your sister, Hal.’ All that why-didn’t-you-fight-for-me crap. You think you were the only one suffering?”
Sara’s legs shook. “She abandoned me and left me for dead.”
“You abandoned me. You think you’re any less cruel than Angela? Thank God you didn’t have that kid.”
Sara stormed to the bench and snatched the revolver. She whirled on her heel and cracked Hal in the mouth with the butt of the gun, then pointed the .38 at his forehead. It was all she had left. “Your wallet.”
“Are you kidding?” Hal burst into hysterics. “I closed my account last week.”
“Get the money from Mom.”
“I can’t.” Sweat snaked down his temples. “Everyone was right about that Taskin twin. ‘What a colossal disappointment.’”
She steadied her aim. “Shut up!”
“I was talking about me!”
“You?” She loosened her hold without sinking the barrel. “Bullshit, golden boy.”
“Golden chickenshit is more like it.” Hal spat blood. “I’m broke. Are you happy? Our whole family is.” He plumbed his bloody tooth with his tongue. “They haven’t talked to me in a month.”
A buzz sounded from the overhead bulb. “Why?”
“I took money,” Hal said quietly. “Not from the main register, but the one in back. Just a little, but they found out. Every week. Fifteen years.”
Their bank visits. Hal’s firing, his impotence, the failing restaurant.
“Oh, Hal.” Sara brightened, lowering the gun. “You really are a Taskin.”
A wraith-like reflection stared back at Sara from the bathroom mirror. Dark circles huddled beneath her dilated eyes. Could she salvage anything from this, or was her life ruined beyond repair? Hal always said he would be there for her, but only she could transform herself into her own hero, right?
Find your imagination, something inside her implored.
She knew what she had to do. On her way downstairs, she stopped at the supply closet.
“You're back,” Hal said.
She carried a pair of scissors and a handheld camera along with the gun. Sara flicked on the camera’s red light. Brushing away glue bottles and cloth scraps, she set the camera and revolver on a shelf facing Hal. The dangling bulb above him hummed.
“This is it, Hal. My gift to you.”
“Hold still.” She walked behind him, scissors high, never shifting her gaze from the camera lens. She readied the scissors, then sliced the rope.
Hall squeezed his hands and rolled his shoulders. “You’re freeing me?”
“I need to let you go.” She stepped into the light, beaming at the camera. “You’re my brother. Go home. You’re not the real enemy here.” She stepped out of the camera’s field of view and rummaged through paint cans and supplies, selecting four brushes, a jar of gold paint, another of black, and three pots of red.
Hal’s expression softened. “You’re crazy.”
“I know.” She strolled back into frame, holding a cup of paint and an oversized square of sketch paper. “I can’t go back. Time to deal with the real enemy.”
“Let’s just go. No more stupid plans. Just stop here and g⸺”
“Watch this, Hal!” She dipped her pendant into the gold and painted coins falling from an enormous sun, then plunged it into black and scrawled letters across the paper. Before the steady red light of the camera, words came to life:
Mom and Dad:
Scars don’t lie. We know what you did to your children, and now the world will learn who you really are. You owe us everything, but we’ll take $18,000. Sell the restaurant. Leave the money in a trash bag in the alley off Third, or we’ll reveal all.
Your united front.
Hal winced. “Don’t do this. It’s illegal.”
“This is so right!” Her voice rang strong despite its breathiness. She yanked the crinkling paper from the ground and slammed it on the chair in triumph.
“Sara, we can just leave. Don’t risk your future for them.”
She beckoned wildly while the light flicked. “Look around. I’m going to lose everything. I need this.”
Hal reached out and clutched her hand. “I love you.” Emotion flooded Sara’s face, until he squeezed her fingers. “But I can’t. This is insane.”
“Please. I can’t go back to that life. I can’t have them win.” Panic mounted in her voice. She broke from his hold and ran to the shelf, grabbing the gun and pointing it straight at Hal. “You have to help me!” Her voice reached a searing pitch.
Hal knocked the barrel away and slammed Sara’s other shoulder into the chair. She screamed when she tumbled but kept her hold of the gun. With a loud cry, she twisted and pointed it to his chest. Squeezed her eyes shut. Pulled back on the trigger.
“No!” Hal slammed his foot against the chair. Sara flew backwards. Her head cracked against the ground, and her arm holding the .38 flung above her head. Hal snatched the painted ransom note from the chair and smashed the page against Sara’s face, then yanked the chain and long pendant from her neck and slammed it through the paper. It pierced her clavicle. An arc of red burst from her body.
“Goddamnit,” Hal sputtered, springing for the door.
The blood on the paper amplified the thick pool slowly creeping beneath her. Sara lay completely still. The words who you really are rested above her chin.
The light on the camera blinked.
Sunbeams streamed through Hal’s kitchen window. He stood in his gym shorts before the stove, an egg in each hand. He still had to shower before his interview with the news reporter, but he was starving.
His cell phone rang. Hal cradled it in the crook of his neck.
He smiled. “How’s it going?”
She sounded calm. “It’s weird here. Warm. The air smells like salt. The neighbors gave me oranges.”
Hearing her laugh widened his grin. “I finished the montages. Fifty pages. Only two silhouettes that look like fish. A couple have your arms.”
“Oh yeah?” He tightened his fists so his biceps popped. “Veins like mountains, these things.” His lacerations were healing, slowly, but a few scarlet lines from the rope burns still lingered. That was okay. He was thinking of getting tatted there anyway, a few months from now when the kidnapping story would blow over, and he wouldn’t have to show his gashes on TV anymore. A small tattoo⸺nothing so big it would keep him from getting another job at a law firm, but maybe an ocean wave, or one of Sara’s creations.
“I’m so happy with the newest one. You’ll love it.”
He knew he would. She only had a year or so left to lay low, and then “Samantha Prichard” could publish her book of paintings. “Describe it.”
“It’s called Sunburst. Yellow becoming red becoming blue, woven into fireflies. Took a full week.”
“Like at the reservoir. I told you they ignited and reappeared somewhere else as bursts of light. You chose the ones you wanted me to make reappear.” Her voice softened. “I got your envelope last week. Thank you.”
He had overstuffed it. “Hey, I promise I'll make you sound brilliant when I talk to Channel Seven today. Gifted and deranged.” He grinned. “Your death film’s on fire right now. Something that convincing had to go viral. The news interviews are earning us a ton.”
“Our film. Promise me during the interview you'll really get into the thud.”
“Sure. I can't shine like you on camera, though. You’re the one with the imagination. Bleeding out on the ground like a rockstar.”
“And you’re the loyal one.” She got serious. “How’s your head?”
He had sported his own welt, a real one, on the back of his skull for a while, but it was nothing good hair products couldn’t cover up. “No worries, Sara. I’m fine.”
“You’re way too nice, given everything I—” She paused. He didn’t need her to continue. “And my scar?”
The most important part. “Yes. I'll tell the truth about Angela.” He heard her exhale. “Your book sounds amazing, Sam. I can't wait to read it.”
“Our book. And I can't wait either. The salt air here helps me feel like myself.”
“Yeah.” For the first time in twenty years, his headaches were gone. “Okay, I gotta get ready. Check behind the bins in your alleyway for the envelope next Sunday.”
On the kitchen wall, bathed in light, a fly buzzed past.
Wendy Maxon is a teacher in California who has published stories in Jersey Devil Press, Tales from The Moonlit Path,City. River. Tree, and The Writing Disorder. In June 2020 she received her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert. She appreciates satire and cultural subversion and loves to design wacky school field trips.