The Day the Borrowmans Killed
The whole town was there to watch the Borrowmans kill each other, each making bets on who would win. They'd been saying for years the two would be the end of each other—the lovers always at each other's throats. They lined the streets with multi-colored banners and stood shoulder to shoulder along the central block of Main Street. The little girls spun pinwheels, their hair ribbons flying out behind them, and the little boys chased after them with firecrackers and lighters they'd stolen from their older brothers. It was almost August and already the sun was hot and high even though it was still morning; the old men sweated and the old women fanned themselves.
Andy Pickett came with the Cronies, as they were known—two vibrant old ladies who seemed to have been old forever. One had once been the color of toffee, the other of rosy cream, but age had worn them nearly the same papery gray. They made up for the dullness of age in their extravagance, often dressing as though from a girl's dress-up box. The day the Borrowmans were meant to kill each other, the Cronies wore large, feathery Edwardian hats and dramatic fur-lined Vivian Leigh dressing robes over sparkling flappers dresses that exposed their river-veined calves tapering into fat feet wedged into bright red pumps. Nedra used her Victorian parasol like a cane, pointing it at this or that as they walked, and Darlene waved and smiled and blew kisses to everyone like a royal celebrity. Andy Pickett strutted between them; he was all of ten and was often made fun of by the other boys his age for spending so much time with the Cronies, but he didn't mind. Any time he went to help them, they slipped him a dollar. And just as often as not, they forgot and gave him another one. Darlene was the most forgetful and Nedra never asked her if she'd paid Andy. Nedra would ask Andy directly and before he could say yes or no, she'd say "Of course Darlene wouldn't remember," and slip him a dollar anyway.
Once or twice he'd made five whole dollars for doing nothing more than taking their trash out to the end of their long driveway or watering their houseplants or moving their dead cat that had crawled into an air vent to spend its final hours. Actually, for that one, Andy got fifteen dollars and a kaleidoscope, which they all agreed was only fair. Sometimes seeing any cat still made him gag.
Mr. Linden pulled chairs from his café and set them on the sidewalk for the old Cronies, and everyone gave them space to see and wave at all who passed by. The sheriff and his two deputies felt important in their beige button-ups and batons hanging at their sides. They felt they were keeping order, walking by with chins up and shoulders back.
Andy's sister Magda was also there, leaning and bending over Mason Williams's red convertible in an outfit that caused almost as much fanfare as the Cronies'. "Where is that girl's mother?" Every mother said. "Look at those shorts, those tiny shorts. And that top. She might as well be wearing a bikini. She looks like a pinup!" And their teenage daughters agreed. Although, secretly, they all wished they were Magda Pickett with her high, tight waist and pert bottom, carelessly lounging on the hood of Mason Williams's car, chewing her gum and blowing bubbles from between her cherry red lips. Mother Pickett was away on business. And Mr. Pickett was elsewhere on his own sort of business.
They had a long history of violence between them, the Borrowmans. In the second grade, Kevin had pushed Katrina from the top of the tall slide and she broke her arm, so she kicked him the face and broke his nose. Three years later, when he cut off one of her pigtails, she stabbed him in the thigh with the scissors. Scenes like this repeated themselves through the years, and when they were old enough, they made-up no less violently, and loudly, covering each other in bite marks and scratches and rug burns.
Any time one of them was injured, it was widely assumed it was at the hand of the other. But that wasn't always the case. Once, when Katrina fell down the stairs and broke her ankle, it was Kevin who carried her to the car and into the hospital. "I fell down the stairs," she told the nurses.
"You don't have to lie to us, honey," they said. "We know who you are."
And when Kevin got his hand caught in machinery that dislocated all the fingers in his left hand, everyone assumed it was Katrina, just like when she'd twisted his arm so hard she'd dislocated his shoulder. They'd nursed each other with genuine tenderness in those times.
Apart, they were docile. He was sweet with every other man, woman and child, never pushed them or punched them or cut off their hair. And Katrina was calm and reserved. They were trusted to babysit and dog sit and water plants for friends and acquaintances, they delivered soup to the sick, visited the old Cronies.
Together, they were like dynamite and torch. For all the sweetness they could show, they matched it in vehemence to each other, scrapping in the street, in the store, the bar, at home. Every now and then, the sheriff and his cohorts would lock them down for the night, only to let them go the next morning, the two holding hands on the way out.
They'd once had dreams bigger than themselves, dreams of oceans and pyramids, and polar bears. They'd spent hours and days lying in bed, freshly coupled, painting pictures of undiscovered civilizations and gleaming treasure.
"We'll build orphanages," Katrina would say, "We'll rescue baby whales."
"We'll build ships," Kevin would say, "We'll feed villages with golden crops."
But as their peers had grown away, they stayed. They stayed, tied to excuses neither quite believed. "Tomorrow," they'd said, "Tomorrow we'll go." But they never did.
In town, the crowd waited. They ate hot dogs and burgers from the Boy Scouts' awning and checked their watches. "Are they coming or not?" they said. "Just like them to make us wait." They said that about everyone: Just like Dolly to make us wait like this. Just like the Plimptons to make us wait.
The sun peaked, pulling shadows tight. Teens went in and out of the soda fountain, carrying glass Coke bottles with red and white straws, strings of licorice and lollipops. Kids ran out with their chins and fingers dripping in ice cream. The mothers sat in Linden's café with tea cups and coffee mugs and gossip. The fathers ate pie at Linden's counter and passed around brown bottles in Haderlie's bar. The bar generally didn't open until after four, but the Haderlie brothers made an exception on this day.
The McDaniel boys snatched a lighter from one of the younger boys and sneaked behind the gas station, pulling dope from their pockets. They weren't all McDaniel boys. Two of them weren't related at all, but three of them were grandsons of Hugh McDaniel, who'd had six sons who each had several sons of their own—too many boys and not enough space for them all, so they ran through the town like a plague. McDaniel boys were everywhere, no one could keep track.
"I heard she used to be hot once," Matty McDaniel said of Katrina Borrowman.
"She definitely used to be hot once," said Johnny McDaniel. He was the oldest of the bunch, and, therefore, the closest in age to Katrina—though that still put them a decade apart. She'd babysat him once when he was thirteen, though Johnny would say she was really just there to watch the little kids because there were too many of them to watch on his own overnight, and he had important things to do. The most important thing was thinking of her and her tiny shorts in the next room while he hid under his covers with his pants pulled off his hips.
"What happened?" Lucas Jenkins said.
"This town, man," said Johnny, "This town is what happened."
The town hummed in the summer sun. The men tapped their beer bottles, and the women glanced at their watches. They craned their necks, listening for the unmistakable shrieks of the Borrowmans, only to hear nothing but their own sharp chatter. The Cronies had fallen asleep and Magda Pickett was bored. When she told Mason Williams she was done and ready to go, Andy Pickett was sent up to the Borrowmans' house.
Kevin Borrowman gambled and whored, though only when he had the money for it. And he only had the money for it when he won. And when he didn’t, he went back home to Katrina. He usually kept his losses in check, never costing them the rent, even if it meant they had to eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for a week or two. Only once he'd given away all their money, and that resulted in her twisting his arm out of its socket.
So Kevin gambled and Katrina Borrowman stole things and burned them. It was easiest to steal things from the Picketts, because the parents were away so often. Katrina used to babysit them. When they got older, the kids assumed she'd stopped by to check in on them and hang out. Katrina always came away with something under jacket or jammed in her pockets. She had a whole box dedicated to the things she'd taken from the Picketts: single earrings, rings, necklaces, ties, picture frames, pens, molded soap. She'd stolen something from almost every house in town.
She only stole from the Cronies once, and it was the worst. Their house was dizzying—a place filled to the gills with antique trinkets covered in years of dust, tea pots, thimbles, newspapers, books, dead plants, throw pillows. She'd pocketed the first thing she got her hands on and got home to find it was just a giant dust bunny. It wasn't a total loss though, since she used the clump to burn down the old shack at the back of the Phillipses' property. Mr. Phillips knew it was her, but just said "It's been needing to come down for years." It had been empty. Katrina had made sure before she set it alight.
She felt the guiltiest about the Phillipses and the Cronies—given that they had taken such good care of her after her father died and her mother went to prison. The Cronies had given her a place to sleep and dream, and the Phillipses had given her a friend. Their daughter Marie had been Katrina's closest friend. She grew up and became a bush doctor, healing villages in faraway places, and Katrina stayed and married at nineteen.
Kevin's parents were already old when he was young. A surprise they had not accounted for in middle age, they took to Kevin graciously but forgot that children could not—and should not—go some places. They traveled from casino to casino and cruise ship to cruise ship, at first with Kevin until someone told them not to. Then Kevin also spent his time with the Cronies and the McDaniels and just about everyone else in town.
Now the elder Borrowmans sent postcards of red deserts and backlit palm trees. Sometimes (once a year) they sent themselves, complete with leather-tanned skin and trailing suitcases of trinkets: boxy collared shirts flowering with ostentatious colors, straw hats, nesting dolls, paper shoes. Katrina must have had half a dozen coconut shell bras and twice as many dancing hula girls. The elder Borrowmans usually stayed a week, a month, claiming the house was in good order and in good hands before they set off for the next big win, determined to get them all before death.
Andy Pickett peered through each window of the Borrowman home. It was small, tucked in a thicket of trees halfway up a steep hill. Every room was dark and shaded but neat and orderly. The bed in the room was made, the quilt tucked square and the pillows plumped and propped to perfection. The dishes in the kitchen were clean, the throw pillows on the sofa angled just-so. The only thing out of place was a blue and white speckled vase sitting on the dining table.
Andy stretched his neck in all the windows and left. He met the McDaniel boys, bored and out of dope, sauntering up Borrowman hill. "No one's there," said Andy.
"That can't be true," said Matty McDaniel.
"People can't just disappear," Johnny added.
"They can, they can!" said Lucas Jenkins.
"We're disappearing right now," said Benny McDaniel.
Andy Pickett rolled his eyes and turned around and led them back up the hill to see for themselves. While he contented himself outside the windows, the McDaniels took it upon themselves to enter the house. The door was unlocked, after all. Andy waited outside and the older boys tromped over the shining wood floors, opening and closing doors—including the refrigerator.
"Cheese," said Benny McDaniel, holding up a block of yellow cheddar.
"The kid was right," said Matty. "There's no one here." He stood in the bedroom doorway, recalling the time he'd peered through the window and watched a nude Katrina twist her wet hair in a towel.
Johnny rummaged through the dresser drawers, searching for Kevin's stash. He had, on more than one occasion, done the same thing and found a joint or two to "borrow" while Kevin was out. Finding nothing, Johnny and Matty joined their cousin at the fridge and pointed at a cellophane-wrapped chunk of meat on an ivy-patterned plate. "A roast," Johnny said.
"We can't eat a dead man's food!" shouted Lucas Jenkins.
"We can't eat it in his house," Johnny whispered and tucked the roast under his shirt. Benny cradled and stroked his cheese, and Matty led them all back out.
"I told you there's no one here," Andy said, and they all followed him back down the hill. Sheriff Wilson and Scout Master Plimpton met them halfway down. "No one's there," Andy repeated, and the McDaniels parroted after him. But the old men insisted on seeing for themselves, so up they all went again.
Plimpton opened the door like it was his own, and they trampled in behind him, leaving dusty tracks over the floorboards, running their fingers over the mantle and the couch cushions, along the walls and picture frames.
"Well I'll be damned," said the sheriff to the empty living room.
Mr. Plimpton opened the refrigerator again, exclaiming at the lack of roast. "She did a mean roast," he said.
"She did a mean," Johnny nodded along, patting the lumpen shape beneath his shirt.
Sheriff Wilson called down to the station and soon Borrowman Hill was crawling with townspeople, searching the leaves and underbrush for two battered bodies that were never there.
The Borrowmans, in actuality, were very much alive. And gone. Katrina had boarded a bus headed for San Diego, and Kevin had hitched a ride headed toward Mexico. He'd come home earlier in the week, expecting a fight because he'd come home in the dark hours of the morning. If he was winning, he didn't come home until the next morning with flowers and chocolate and a promise of a night out. When he lost, he was home before the sun was up.
She'd been ready and waiting, an old vase in hand, ready to scream about his losses, about the clap-riddled whores he'd sunk his dick into. She was ready. But when he stumbled in, it was déjà vu; the same scene played over again, and she saw it going on and on until they both got old and wrinkled and couldn't anymore
She'd set the vase down and sat at the kitchen table. Kevin, surprised, sat with her. "We're going to kill each other," she said. "We're going to kill each other, or we're going to get old and boring."
He'd taken her hand in his and understood. "We've got to kill each other, or grow gray and bored."
The clock in the kitchen ticked, water dripped from the faucet, an owl whoo-whooed outside. His hand was rough and warm on hers, her hand delicate and dry in his. They touched the threads of graying hair shimmering at their temples, thumbed the soft wrinkles crinkling at their edges. "We've aged each other a hundred years," they said.
They made love, the kind that says "goodbye forever," then they put a notice in the paper: THE BORROWMANS ARE GOING TO KILL EACH OTHER. END OF THE WEEK. They packed their bags and set out earlier than the sun and the garbage men and went their separate ways. She'd go back to being Katrina Mallard, and he'd become someone else entirely. She'd go to the ocean and keep going until she got to another. And he'd go to the tundra, the isolated islands of the sea.
"Maybe they've already gotten it over with," the mothers said, fingering their grocery lists. "They went up into a cave and did each other in."
"Shame," said the fathers, tipping back the dregs of their drinks. "It would have been a good show." They threw their dollar bills on the counter. Wives looped their arms through husbands' elbows and they all returned home to the houses with windows open to passers-by.
The fathers sat heavily on couches, the mothers tucked phones in the crooks of their necks to gossip. Little boys in pajamas counted shining rocks into shoeboxes and little girls in nightgowns brushed shimmering plastic hair. The Cronies tipped chipped teacups to their lips amidst their dusty memorabilia, reminiscing children that had long since left childhood.
The lights went down and all was quiet.
Shay Galloway studied creative writing at Utah State University and received her Bachelor’s degree in 2012. She received her MFA from Roosevelt University in 2017. Her work has appeared in Origami Journal, Adanna, The Write Launch and The Lindenwood Review.