“Where’s the safe?”
The woman braced a huge boot against my front door as I opened it. Smoke from inside sucked outward, haloing her face, which looked elephantine in the harsh porchlight. Her tattooed arm jabbed a taser toward me and clicked its button. Frozen, I stared at the sizzling blue line, heavy lidded, forehead scrunched.
How did she know about the safe?
No one knew about the safe.
Wait. I’d told Justin about it. That must have been what, an hour ago, two? We’d met up for our Friday night “toke talk” at the edge of the Annie’s Diner parking lot. Then we’d gone inside, grabbed our usual booth by the window, and ordered from Meg, who never liked us on account of, we only ordered cheap stuff, and liked to linger. Coffee. Waffles. Chocolate sundaes.
But I didn’t mention it inside...
Actually. No, we had definitely talked about it. At length.
“See the trailer for that new bank heist movie where the guy picks the lock on that huge safe with nothing but a pocket knife?”
I concentrated on making a perfect pond of syrup on my plate. “Saw it. Not realistic though, I tried getting into my safe with all kinds of tools. Didn’t work.”
“Dude,” Justin’s fork hovered above his waffle. “You have a safe?”
“Huh?” I looked up. Crap. “Oh. Yeah. It’s not really mine though. It was Grandpa’s. Then Dad’s.”
“I mean, technically—”
“Yeah, I guess technically, it’s mine.”
Justin absolutely beamed intrigue. “Well what the fuck is in your safe, man?”
I shouldn’t have responded. Shoulda kept my dumb trap shut. But I could tell Justin was impressed, which made me feel like a badass. Plus, I was higher than Sputnik. So I spilled.
They’d had to crane-lift the washing machine-sized steel safe into the house during construction. That was in the early 70s, a few years after Grandpa and Grandma were married, and Dad was a toddler. It was built straight into the now-guest room wall, hidden behind various floral wall hangings. After Grandma died in 1989, Grandpa covered up the safe with an ugly tiger face blanket, secured using a bunch of mismatched thumbtacks. A heavy bed had been wedged against it for my entire life.
“Ok, but what is in it?” Justin pressed.
“That’s the thing,” I said as I swam a forkful of waffle through the syrup, “I don’t know. He never told or showed anyone. Not Grandma, not Dad, definitely not me.”
“You’ve gotta have some idea though?”
“We gave a few, let’s say, educated guesses.”
Guess #1: Valuable stolen goods
Grandpa liked to swipe stuff. It was a problem. We’d go to church; he’d come home with the collection plate. Bills stuffed into his pants, shirt, and jacket pockets; scrunched Kleenex to deaden the jingle of change.
At Annie’s Diner back when I was a kid, the waitresses would shoot him a grimace at the door. They got sick of replacing the silverware, and eventually started keeping plasticware on hand exclusively for us.
Days he tired of watching TV or mowing the lawn one-handed while downing a can of Coors with the other, he’d take his ‘81 El Camino for a drive. On the way out, he’d often grab his tool box from the garage, tucking it into a tarp he kept wedged under a cinderblock in the cargo bed. If anyone asked where he was off to, he’d say, “Shopping.” One time he came back from “shopping” with nothing but a pretty fantastic description of some kind of Crown Jewels exhibit at the museum up in the city.
Dad and I figured that the thousand-odd pound safe likely did not contain tin collection plates or cheap diner silverware.
I gazed dully at the woman’s taser arm. It looked familiar. I don’t often notice arms unless they’re flying toward me with a fist, but I knew I’d seen her frenzied web of dragons, butterflies, and anime characters before. Digging through brain fog, an image flashed like an old-timey camera. Large elbow and forearm, just to the right of Justin’s skeleton shoulders, in the next booth. A mountainous silhouette facing away from me. She’d been gazing out at the parking lot, chomping fries between her nutcracker jaws.
I gave it a ninety-five percent chance she’d heard the whole story.
“Hey! You deaf?” the woman shoved me inside. “Take me to the safe. Now.”
She rammed my back with the pointy electrode end of the taser. Trembling and dreading the click and sizzle, I moved with hands raised down the wall into the guest room.
Everything was too fast. I was a crash test dummy speeding toward impact, and doing nada to stop it. Despite the fact that this woman had probably a buck in weight and a good foot in height on me, I should at least be trying to fight back, right?
But no. Just gonna go along with it like a little chicken shit.
Grandpa would have fought back. In fact, he had.
Dad told me in the days after the funeral that Grandpa, a Vietnam vet, had once interrupted an intruder trying to pick the lock on his safe. How the fellow knew to look for the safe at all is open to speculation. I figure it was along the lines of how I’d gotten myself into the current predicament: a few too many cans of Coors, rather than ganja.
Grandpa had done what was necessary. He’d fought to defend his property. Possibly to the death, though that was never proven. Dad remembered hearing a loud and vicious struggle. In the end, the man had disappeared, the cops never came, and the subject was immediately verboten.
And here I am in almost the same exact position, just praying I don’t piss myself.
In the guestroom, I was hurled facedown on the old brown carpet, which blazed a rug burn from jaw to forehead. Before I could get up, the woman flipped me over and sat on my chest.. In one fluid movement, she slithered off her nylon belt, seized my wrists, coiled the length tightly several times, and buckled it. Then she unfurled to her full height, placed a booted sasquatch foot on my neck, and retrieved the taser from her back pocket.
“Alright, waffle boy. Here are the rules. You will not speak, you will not move, you will not breathe, unless instructed. Do you understand?”
“Ok then. Safe.”
I jerked my head toward the tiger blanket. She bulldozed the bed toward the window with the side of her leg. For a second, the woman just stood glaring at the covering.
“Christ, that’s ugly.”
Grasping a handful of the fabric, she yanked it down, sending tacks flying at us both like shrapnel. The safe appeared exactly as I remembered it. Gray paint, silver lever handle, and large keyhole.
“Where’s the key?”
Eyes bulging, I shook my head, trying not to speak.
“Do not bullshit me, waffles!” she sprang forward like a viper and tased me on the thigh. I gurgle-shrieked like a little boy as my muscles convulsed in an all-over charley horse. A horde of bees buzzed beneath my skin, and my brain rattled like a peanut in a jar.
The greasy hulk behind Justin got up as we were finishing our waffles. A few bills had been wedged beneath her coffee mug. Cold burnt French fry ends sat dispersed among ketchup streaks on the plate. In my periphery, I saw her exit through the glass doors and amble into the murkiness of the parking lot. Before vanishing, she had looked back and for a half second, and I took in that doughy pachyderm face.
“Stolen treasure. Crazy,” Justin chuckled, wiping syrup from his chin and licking his fingers. “Well you guys ain’t exactly livin’ it up like royalty, are you? So what else do you think could be in there?”
“Touché. The second idea is a little, uhh, darker.”
Guess #2: Bad Vietnam shit
From what I’d heard, Grandpa had been one of the few young guys desperate to set foot in Saigon. Even volunteered before his number came up. Having come of age in the smallest, flattest, dullest Midwestern outer-outer suburb imaginable, he was going out of his skull with boredom. Even his little hobby of filching for fun was no longer doing it for him, as he watched soldiers shooting stuff up on TV, like his idol, John Wayne.
So he went. And when he returned, it was with nine fingers, a rusty machete he’d picked up somewhere, and a canvas duffle full of something bulky, as my dad told it. It had all been kept in a secure storage facility outside town, and went into the safe after the house was completed.
Aside from tangible mementoes, Grandpa had also returned from Vietnam with a new personal philosophy of eat or be eaten. He lectured Dad, and later me, all the time about the importance of having the cajones to do what was necessary “when the time comes.” What he meant by that wasn’t entirely clear, but I’d always wondered if I indeed was in possession of said cajones.
“Y’all want your sundaes now,” Meg said, not really asking, as she drifted past on her way to clear the vacated booth.
“You know the drill,” Justin winked.
Meg lifted one side of her mouth in acknowledgement.
“Thanks, Meg,” I added apologetically. The waitress ignored me and stacked ceramic and metal into a clattering pile.
Still gasping and spasming, I managed to squeak, “There’s no key! He hid it. Lost it. I dunno!”
The woman leaned over me, considering this.
I wasn’t making it up. I hadn’t laid eyes on the key since I was in grade school, when Grandpa used to wear it on a string like a necklace. Toward the end, he’d ramped up his proclivity toward randomly hiding shit, like a squirrel. Junk mail piled on shelves in the closet of his room, adjacent to the safe. Toothpaste tubes wedged beneath frozen burritos in the freezer. Tripped mouse traps from the attic (perished contents included) stuffed under the couch until we’d followed our noses to extract them.
After Grandpa passed, Dad and I had scoured the entire house testing for loose floor boards, shaking out all the books and vinyl record sleeves, searching for cracks in the wood, like in the movies. Nothing. For all we knew, the thing might be sitting at the bottom of a lake or buried in a field somewhere.
“Fine,” the woman shrugged. “That’s just fiiiine.” Digging into a pocket of her baggy jeans, she withdrew a jack knife and flicked it open.
A high-pitched whine filled the room. I realized it’d come from me.
“Hell yes,” Justin said as Meg placed two chocolate sundaes on the table. We each picked up our spoons and dove in. “Alright, what’s the third guess?”
“I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”
“No way, man, we’ve come too far. What else do you think Grandpa Rambo might have been stashing in there? State secrets? Machine guns?”
I raised my eyebrow.
Justin laughed. “What? Am I close?”
“I dunno…bomb stuff?”
I scooped up a ridiculous heap of ice cream, and just looked at him.
Guess #3: Something explosive
Grandpa enjoyed blowing shit up. There’s no gentler way to say it. He, my dad, and I would sometimes go out to the middle of nowhere as the sun was close to setting, and load up my little squeaky-wheeled red wagon full of sacks of chicken feed (they sprayed magnificently), firecrackers, and homemade bombs. We’d spend hours detonating it all. Laughing, drinking (Coke for me, Coors for them), practically levitating with glee. Sometimes Grandpa would tell us stories about bombing stuff during the war, like how an entire hill could become like a geyser of dirt with the right technique.
Here’s the thing: Once, he seemed to imply he had kept a few grenades. As in, present tense, still had them. Was he drunk when he said this? Absolutely. But…what if it was true, and he’d kept grenades in this fire-proof safe all these years? And what might happen if grenade pins rusted to the point of breaking, if disturbed?
The woman knelt before the safe, stuck the knife’s point into the lock and began to jiggle it. Gently at first, but then more forcefully.
I swallowed hard and felt sweat over my whole body. “H-hey. Please, stop.”
She turned and scowled at me. “Taser?”
“No! No taser! Lady, I just don’t know what’s in there.”
“You told your little buddy it was jewels or some shit.”
“I don’t know—I mean, maybe! But it might be something real bad.”
“What did I say, waffle boy?” the woman growled. “I said keep your goddamn mouth—”
As she said this, she drove her full weight into the knife.
There was a metallic click. The woman let out a whoop and pulled open the heavy door. As the guest room’s overhead light illuminated the safe’s interior, I watched as her demeanor changed and her whoop morphed into a bellow. Like a slingshot, she propelled herself backwards and away, crashing into the wide closet doors.
Inside the safe, I could make out a bulky canvas duffle bag. A rusted machete. And a human head wrapped in plastic. It was surprisingly intact. Enormous sideburns. Handlebar mustache. Longish hair fringing a bald spot. Eyes with lids askew, partially open.
Without thinking, I lurched toward the safe and seized the machete in my bound hands, and located the necessary cajones.
Kirsten Smith (she/her) is an author, playwright, photographer, and travel addict who works and lives with her pushy cat in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Esoterica Magazine, on KQED, and more. Check her out on Instagram @the_wallflower_wanderer, and Twitter @Kirsten_Wanders.